An engineer who has called for stricter regulation of fracking was subjected to a public campaign to discredit him, a disciplinary investigation by his professional body has noted.
Mike Hill, who lives less than five miles from Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire, was recently cleared by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) for the second time of multiple allegations of improper conduct.
He has been accused of a total of 80+ separate examples of bringing the IET into disrepute in two complaints just over two years apart.
But after two 18+-month investigations, the IET has cleared him twice on all counts.
Earlier this year, the IET ruled that no action should be taken against Mr Hill on the second set of complaints because they had no merit and/or there was no case to answer.
An independent special investigator appointed by the IET said in his report:
“It is clear that there exists a public campaign to discredit MH [Mike Hill], much of which appears unpleasant and biased.”
Mr Hill described the two complaints as “Kafka-esque”. He said the investigations had cost thousands of pounds in legal fees. His health and business had suffered as a result.
Mr Hill heard about the first complaints against him in April 2015. They were made by two people and concerned descriptions of Mr Hill and his work, as well as statements he made in public meetings in Ryedale and Canterbury.
The IET rejected all the complaints in September 2016. It said:
“The Disciplinary Board concluded that the allegations against you have not been substantiated and that accordingly the complaints against you be dismissed.”
Less than a year later, in July 2017, one of the original complainants made a second set of allegations.
They centred on a lecture given by Mr Hill at a public debate in Lytham on 27 June 2017. They relied on an unverified and incomplete amateur video for all but one complaint.
Some of the issues involved in the two sets of complaints were similar.
According to documents seen by DrillOrDrop, the second complaint alleged that Mr Hill breached the IET’s rules by, among other things: exaggerating his role in the shale gas debate; exaggerating that he was an expert adviser to various organisations; and over-stating his position about advice given to institutions and public bodies. These allegations were all dismissed.
The inquiry also rejected allegations that Mr Hill had attempted to injure the prospects of Cuadrilla’s business and made false or misleading statements about the health and economic impacts of fracking. The complainant claimed that Mr Hill had breached eight of the IET’s rules and two of its bylaws.
This time, the IET appointed a barrister as an independent special investigator to review the complaint. Of the 37 individual allegations in the second batch, he concluded that Mr Hill made no misleading or inaccurate statements.
Seven of the issues had been raised or partially raised – and dismissed – in the previous investigation, he said.
The special investigator said repeatedly in his report there was no evidence that Mr Hill had been factually incorrect or intended to mislead or cause harm. He described some of the allegations as speculative or having little substance.
He rejected the complaint that Mr Hill was not entitled to describe himself as a chartered engineer or that he breached IET rules by taking part in the Lytham public debate.
The IET’s in-house investigator, who signed off the IET’s handling of the complaints, concluded that the special investigator had:
“conducted a very thorough investigation and reviewed a considerable amount of documentary evidence. It is not considered that there is any other information to be drawn to the attention of the PIP [Preliminary investigation Panel].”
Dom Pickersgill, the IET’s general counsel, wrote to Mr Hill on 11 February:
“As regards the 5 issues the PIP asked to be investigated, the PIP has concluded that no further action be taken, on the basis that none of them had merit or a case to answer.
“Similarly, as regards each individual complaint, the PIP concluded that no further action be taken, on the basis that none of them had merit or a case to answer.”
Complaints follow calls for tougher regulation
The meetings that formed the basis of the first set of complaint both happened in 2014. But Mr Hill said he was first told about the complaint process by the IET on 1 April 2015. This was soon after he had announced he was a candidate in the general election to campaign for stricter regulation of fracking.
In the days before Mr Hill heard about the first complaint, there had been criticisms of him in the media.
On 26 March 2015, a senior official at the then Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) wrote to Mr Hill alleging he had exaggerated his status by describing himself as an advisor. On 27 March 2015, the political blog, Guido Fawkes, accused Mr Hill of claiming to be an expert advisor.
On 30 March 2015, the health charity, Medact, published a report on the effects of fracking, including contributions from Mr Hill. The following day, The Times published an article headlined ‘Expert’ report on fracking risks was written by activist. It said Mr Hill had “previously been accused of misrepresenting himself by claiming to have advised DECC and the European Union on fracking”. It quoted an unnamed “DECC source” who said:
“Mr Hill has rather over-promoted himself. Filling in a consultation [form] doesn’t make him an adviser”.
Mr Hill refuted all these allegations made against him.
The second set of complaints was submitted to the IET in July 2017 but Mr Hill said the investigation was not activated until March 2018.
The activation followed Mr Hill’s participation in another public debate, this time in Pickering, North Yorkshire, near where Third Energy was awaiting approval to frack its KM8 well.
The Pickering debate, at which Mr Hill opposed the local MP, Kevin Hollinrake, overwhelmingly rejected the motion: This house believes that UK regulations make fracking safe.
Mr Hill argued that the Environment Agency had minimal experience of fracking and was reliant on residents to monitor sites. He concluded that UK regulation on fracking was “not robust” and the government’s arguments over regulation were “in tatters”. These statements were opposed by senior officials from the shale gas regulators, who attended the debate.
DrillOrDrop invited the person who made the two complaints to the IET to comment on the finding of the investigations. The complainant declined.
Financial and personal costs
The investigation and defence of the two sets of allegations have probably cost several hundred thousand pounds. Mr Hill said there had been costs to his health, personal life and business. He said:
“This second complaint was surprising and unwelcome.
“To be faced with all the same accusations (including whether I am a Chartered Engineer or not) put me right back into the very middle of a Kafka-esque situation.
“My health has suffered along with my business for a second time. Whilst I understand the need for complaints to be taken seriously, to put someone through this twice for many of the same allegations could be seen as unjustified.
“The past four years have been hugely stressful for me and my family. It has been much more difficult to speak out while the investigations took place.
“The case has cost me thousands of pounds in legal fees and I have spent hundreds of hours putting together the case to rebut the allegations.”
Mr Hill said he was writing to the IET to suggest ways in which it might be easier for engineers to speak out without fear of professional admonishment.
“Professional engineers should be confident that upholding the institute’s codes and byelaws and speaking out according to their consciences are not actions that are mutually exclusive. If we fear for public health and the environment, we ought to be able to speak freely.”
In his report, the special investigator said it was likely that Mr Hill was furthering one of the institution’s bylaws and rules by taking part in the Lytham debate:
“To sanction MH [Mike Hill] for the manner in which he contributed to the public debate would likely be contrary to the public interest as it would risk deterring members of the IET from seeking to further Rule 17.”
DrillOrDrop asked the IET to address the special investigator’s comments and Mr Hill’s concerns. A spokesperson for the IET said:
“The IET does not comment on matters concerning individual members. However it is a matter of public record (having been published in the December 2016 edition of Member News) that in September 2016 an IET disciplinary panel concluded, following a hearing, that Mr Hill had not breached the IET rules of conduct.
“The IET’s Rules of Conduct are regularly reviewed and approved by the Board of Trustees in order to ensure that they reflect Engineering Council guidance and the interests of our members. The IET’s disciplinary regulations, which were substantially revised and approved in 2017, provide for a robust and transparent process through which complaints about the conduct of members can be investigated and considered by volunteer members of the IET. The Rules of Conduct and the disciplinary regulations are both available on the IET website“.
“Politicising the argument and shutting down the opposition”
Mr Hill’s recent exoneration came as the shale gas industry lobbied for relaxation of the regulations on fracking-induced earth tremors.
The shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, has called for a review of the rules, known as the traffic light system.
She described the issue as “technical”.
But Mr Hill argued that the government and industry were seeking to promote a particular message with one-sided science:
“It is disingenuous to say you will leave the traffic light system to science.
“Any decision will be political. It will work in favour of those with power, rather than ordinary people living next to shale gas sites. To say it is not a political matter shows the willingness of those with power to mislead.
“The scientific view they promote and organise is one-sided and politically-manipulated.
“My experience is that opposing scientific argument is gagged, silenced and its credibility is challenged to an extent quite disproportionate to the individual’s comparative power.”
Mr Hill added:
“The danger of this approach is that it keeps the spotlight away from the engineering of the well itself, the possible damage to it and the potential contamination of air and the aquifer with a risk to public health. Along with others, I hope to keep redirecting the light back onto those scientific issues that others are happy to ignore.’’