Throughout the entire process of developing the new match test, Steve Owen and I followed a simple principle, which was that we'd always tell the truth. This was directly linked to our aim for the new test, which originally was to reduce flame retardants. Once we discovered that the current match test mostly doesn't work in practice, our parallel aim was to put it right (which the new test would still do).
This meant that, unlike liars, we didn't have to remember what we'd said before in case we contradicted ourselves, which was useful when we undertook a run of around 40 workshops and events to talk to stakeholders about the new test. We also learnt new things as we went and incorporated those into the new test.
We came across people who did contradict themselves, however. It was difficult to know whether or not they were aware of this. But the root of it lay, I suspect, in the fact that lying dulls perception. Lying is by its very nature a closing-off process. You don't want to let anyone or anything in because they might discover that you're lying. But you can't do that and be perceptive because the very nature of perceiving is to be open to the world and to other people.
By the same token, telling the truth means your perceptions are open; which means you are more likely to be able to detect accurately whether or not others are lying.
Here's one example, an exchange between Steve and someone I'll call Sam Adler. It took place in summer 2015, at a stakeholder workshop held at BEIS to discuss the new match test and other revisions to the FFRs. By now, the new test had been delayed, of course, and my managers were essentially looking for ways that this workshop could either continue the delays or come up with a skin-saving way for them to finally going ahead with the changes. In the event, it did neither.
One of the many ironies of the situation was that we'd circulated to everyone before the meeting a copy of the specifications for the new test. And my managers seemed to be entirely unaware that it was exactly the same as the specs we'd put out in August the previous year. The very same specs which my managers told the Minister and subsequently the rest of the world needed more work.
In a coffee break, Steve and I found ourselves talking to Sam Adler. We knew him well from previous meetings, a couple of which he'd actually chaired. He was (and still is) a prominent person in the fire safety sector. He'd also been at the meeting a few months earlier with Jo Swinson where he'd lied to her. One lie was him saying that the FFRs were saving 3000 lives a year when the actual figure (which itself can now be challenged) was around 54. Then he lied by telling her that not enough work had been done on the new match test. This, bearing in mind that, as said, he'd chaired meetings at which Steve had provided much hard evidence for the massive amount of work done on the new test.
Why did he lie? Well, let's just say he's someone who's very positive about flame retardants in products, tending to equate them with fire safety. And let's just also say the flame retardant industry has very deep pockets. Let's also say that he works closely with someone else (also at the Swinson meeting) employed by the fire services who is also paid by the flame retardant industry (although he keeps rather quiet about that).
People get away with lying because they're rarely challenged. I've mentioned elsewhere on my blog that at that meeting of stakeholders and Jo Swinson, Steve and I were told we couldn't speak. Odd, considering we were the two experts on the new test and that's what the discussion was about.
Steve said to Adler: "I saw you on television."
He was referring to a BBC programme on the flammability of children's fancy dress outfits. A celebrity's child had been burned very badly when her outfit caught fire on a candle. The flammability of such products is covered by the EU Toys Directive which doesn't really provide much protection against fire. On the programme, Adler held up a fancy dress outfit and set light to it. Needless to say, it burned very quickly. He then said that the UK's Nightwear Safety Regulations should be updated to include fancy dress outfits. I was also responsible for the Nightwear Regs. Like furniture, they're UK-only and tougher than what pertains in the rest of the world. The kind of fancy dress outfit he set light to was made of highly flammable polyester. There is only one way to stop that kind of material from burning fast and nasty.
Add flame retardants.
A few months later, Adler turned up as a guest to the meeting at British Standards where the fancy dress issue was being discussed. He asked to speak and begun by saying, "I'm not here today to push for more flame retardants in clothing . . . "
Steve continued: "I didn't realise you were a flammability expert."
Adler looked wary, as well he might, for he wasn't.
"Well, I was asked to go on the programme," he said.
"Tell you what," said Steve, calmly. "Why don't you come up to my lab and I'll teach you about flammability, before you go on TV again talking about things you don't understand."
Adler's face actually turned purple, like in a cartoon. He was clearly unused to being challenged. Yet he couldn't really say anything. After all, there was an undeclared motive hanging in the air: if he wasn't a flammability expert what was he doing on TV advising on how flammability laws should be toughened?
Steve wasn't finished. "A few months ago Terry and me had to stay silent while you told the Minister that more work had to be done on the new match test before the law is changed. But on TV you said the nightwear law should be changed right away when no work at all has been done on it."
The purple deepened. Steve wasn't asking a question and Adler didn't answer. All he could do was exit as fast as possible.
The thing is, if he really was a flammability expert Steve would have spoken to him as one and they would have both increased their knowledge of the subject. Instead, he closed off because he was caught out, and in doing so curtailed any chance of increasing his perception.
Which made me think about the fact that I've always been able to go home after such an event and talk openly and honestly about it with my partner, and my friends. And they challenge me if they think I'm wrong. But what would Adler say to his wife after this event? Well, I don't suppose it would be the truth. Chances are he's in the habit of not really saying anything, other than met so-and-so, had a nice lunch, etc. She probably doesn't ask him anyway, sensing that what will come back won't be open and honest. Thereby, once again curtailing a chance to increase perception.
Another thing is, Steve's offer was genuine: Alder could have gone to his lab and learnt a lot about flammability. But he didn't accept because, of course, he'd already set himself up as an expert.
I believe that telling the truth leads to greater self-perception, which in turn leads to change. But change is the last thing people like Adler want. They want to hold on to their status and to keep mixing with powerful and wealthy industry and government people. Therefore, perception is something they just have to live without. And for most of the time, it doesn't matter because they're often mixing with people who are also not telling the truth or with good-hearted people who assume that like them they have the public's back.
Here's an up to date example of the lying-lack-of-perception cycle. The current lead official on the Furniture Regulations at BEIS has been in post for over a year now. She replaced the last person from the previous team (who all did a runner when the Sunday Times asked some awkward questions about the delays to the new match test) at about the time BEIS issued its consultation on amending the match test (plus some other suggested changes to the Regulations). A year on and BEIS has still not even issued a government response to the consultation.
When questioned about the delay, this person or someone in her team, says the following:
- These are complex regulations, lots of different stakeholder views.
- We're still considering the consultation responses.
- Very important we get it right, in line with our objectives.
- Public safety is a priority.
For the past few months, they've been volunteering another comment (even when the subject is not mentioned by the enquirer):
- In light of the terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower, we must ensure the public is protected.
This last statement is in my view borderline evil. This person has been in post for a year, and these Regulations are her primary job. She is paid around £45/50K per year from public money. There is no excuse for her not to know the following:
- The current match test mostly doesn't work.
- Therefore the public is at great risk from flammable furniture.
- BEIS had the means to put the test right in 2014 but has failed to act.
- The failure of the match test and the attendant flame retardants that don't work contributed considerably to deaths and poisonings in the Tower.
Either way, she is lying. If she does know the above then she is lying about the fact she is contributing to extra fires and deaths, presumably in order to protect her career. If she doesn't know, then that is another form of lying--by omission; by, for example, not reading BEIS's own technical documents so that she will know the truth, or and not communicating with stakeholders who do know. Keeping her head down; avoiding contact; hoping she can move on before having to deal with it.
Since most people don't like to lie outright, I suspect she has gone this no-perception route; made sure she doesn't know the truth, so therefore can't lie about it (except that kind of omission is a lie in my book).
What an utterly disgusting way to live a life. Being in a position to put right a matter that is actually killing people. Instead, switching off perception and taking the public's money.