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Speakers at Government Events: Social Media History

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 11 May 2023

5. How many people his Department has identified as unsuitable for speaking at Government events based on their social media history. (904855)

The Cabinet Office has drawn up guidance to help protect civil service values. Taxpayers’ money should not unwittingly be used to pay for speakers linked to abhorrent organisations or individuals who promote hate or discriminatory beliefs, which could bring the civil service into disrepute. We do not hold a central record of speakers identified as unsuitable, but as the guidance has been described to me as “codified common sense”, I trust that the number will be very few.

Well, if the guidance is common sense, the Minister will have no problem with publishing it, will he? At the moment, there is Government guidance to ban people from speaking at Government events, but we have not seen it. We do not know who is on that list, and we do not even know if the people on the list have been told that they appear on it. That is more like North Korea, is it not?

I have nothing to hide. If the hon. Gentleman would like it published, I will publish it. It is internal guidance, and it therefore tends to be internal, but I will lay a copy in the Library. He is a sensible person and will appreciate that there are certain abhorrent organisations that we should not pay or give a platform to and cause embarrassment to our civil service or our country. But I will publish the guidance.

On 25 April, I put in a written parliamentary question asking the Minister to publish the guidance. He did not publish it in response to my question. I came here today convinced that I would have to make a freedom of information request to get that guidance. Why, having refused to publish the guidance in his answer to me on 3 May, is the Minister now saying that he will publish it? What is happening here? Why was he unwilling to publish the guidance in response to the normal parliamentary method of putting in a written question?

It may shock the hon. Lady, and I apologise, but I cannot recall her exact parliamentary question. I recall the parliamentary question of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), in which I believe he asked if it was my intention to publish the guidance. It was not our intention to publish it, but I have nothing to hide and am very happy to publish it. It is internal guidance; it will be adapted by different Departments. It is sensible to have guidance to ensure that civil servants know what they should be doing when invitations are issued to people who will be paid and given a platform in, and could cause embarrassment to, the civil service.

In the response to my written question last week, I was told that the due diligence and impartiality guidelines

“avoid invitations being issued to individuals and/or organisations that have provided adverse commentary on government policy, political decisions, approaches or individuals in government”,

in order to “retain impartiality” in the civil service. That is the opposite of what the Government are asking universities to do in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Why is there one rule for the Government and another rule for universities? How is it impartial to only allow civil servants to hear speakers who agree with the Government?

I appreciate that the hon. Lady has not had the opportunity to do so, and I look forward to her having that opportunity, but if she were to read on from the phrase that she quoted, which I assume appeared in the press, it refers to “adverse commentary” on Government policy

“that could undermine the Civil Service’s position on impartiality and create reputational damage.”

The guidance goes on to say that it is entirely possible for contrarian views—views critical of Government policy—to be shared with those who are at the point of policy formation. I want my civil servants to be fully informed of the arguments against Government policy. What is not appropriate is to have individuals paid and given a platform to create embarrassment for the civil service and potentially for the UK as a whole.