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Vetting Social Media Accounts

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what policies they have in place for vetting the social media accounts of speakers invited to address Civil Service events, and cancelling invitations where past postings are critical of His Majesty’s Government; and what assessment they have made of the compatibility of any such policies with their commitment to free speech.

My Lords, the Government are not in the business of limiting free speech. It is the Conservative Party that has consistently defended free speech against attacks from across the political divide. The only guidance we have produced is for cross-departmental diversity networks, to ensure that they conduct checks on external speakers before inviting them to participate in Civil Service events. The guidance helps to maintain impartiality, given that these events take place in Civil Service workplaces and workspaces. For anything beyond that, it is for departments to set their own approach.

My Lords, I find that a little difficult to accept, because we have slowly begun to hear about who has been cancelled. A chemical weapons expert was cancelled from a chemical weapons conference because of some social media tweets he made two or three years before on other aspects of government domestic policy. If we are going to cancel experts from expert conferences—experts on medical research, digital research or whatever—the Government are going to lose a lot, and not just freedom of speech. The Minister in the Cabinet Office said in the Commons that it is concerned only with

“speakers linked to abhorrent organisations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/5/23; col. 421.]

The chemical weapons expert, whom I have met, is an active Liberal Democrat and an Anglican: I do not know whether the Government regard those as abhorrent organisations. Does the Minister accept that it may now be time to have a free-speech champion in Whitehall along the lines the Government insist on having for universities?

I like to think that we are free speech champions. Unfortunately, the matter the noble Lord raises is now the subject of ongoing legal correspondence, which means it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage.

My Lords, I have read the document concerned—Due Diligence and Impartiality Supporting and Protecting our Diversity Networks—the guidance and the forms that have to be filled in. I wonder whether many Members of the party opposite who have spoken in this House would be eligible to be invited to events under that guidance. The Minister said that this applies only to cross-departmental events and not to departmental ones. Does the guidance apply only when civil servants meet civil servants from other departments on courses? Does it not apply for meetings and events within a department? More helpfully, can she tell us how many speakers have been blocked and how many invitations have been withdrawn?

The guidance is for cross-government diversity networks. Obviously, there are individual diversity networks in different departments that have existed for some years, and which are helpful and provide support to staff. There may have been a misunderstanding here. This guidance is for such networks; we do not collect individual numbers or monitor what speakers individual diversity networks invite. This guidance was produced in 2021; the Cabinet Office had a review by a senior official in February and it seemed to be working reasonably well.

Is my noble friend aware that in at least one department, disturbing stories are emerging of civil servants being told that they are not allowed to agree with JK Rowling and such things as that? Civil servants are there to carry out government policy, whichever side the Government come from. Can we not ensure that there is genuine freedom of thought and speech in every Civil Service department?

I very much agree with my noble friend; we need to do exactly that. Civil servants need the ability to listen to different points of view and to serve the Government, whatever their political persuasion, to the best of their ability and in a way that maintains political impartiality. I think that is agreed ground across the House.

My Lords, how can the Minister have had a review in her department if it does not keep the data required to do that review?

The HR people group within the Cabinet Office produces different guidance on different things. It has a network in which people regularly discuss how things are operating. The guidance I referred to was considered as part of that process in February. It is available in the Library of the House, if noble Lords want to look at it, as the noble Baroness has obviously done. It is a good thing that it is publicly available.

My Lords, the House will know that I am a little slow on certain things, particularly things such as “cross-departmental diversity networks”, which is a strange phrase. Let me ask a simple question. Is it not a fact that all freedoms require counterbalancing responsibilities if they are to mean anything, particularly in the Civil Service, which has an overriding responsibility to act impartially as part of a government system headed by an elected Government? Does my noble friend agree that a balance is absolutely necessary in this? As my noble friend Lord Cormack pointed out, is it not timely for the Civil Service to be reminded of that fundamental responsibility?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. The balance between free speech and Civil Service impartiality is exactly what we are trying to strike.

My Lords, I am slightly confused. I am no expert on this issue, but am I right in interpreting the noble Baroness as saying that the guidelines in the Library apply only to cross-departmental diversity networks, that diversity network events in a single department are not subject to these guidelines and that a department could decide not to follow them for its internal activities?

The guidelines apply to cross-government diversity networks and they should follow the guidelines, although, obviously, there can be local interpretation.

My Lords, the cancel culture to which my noble friend referred in his original Question is just one illustration of the Government’s distaste for challenge and dissent. Other examples are the attempts to stop some workers expressing their views by industrial action, and the outrageous sanctioning of peaceful protest. Why are the Government so scared of citizens expressing their critical opinions?

We certainly are not. I think the noble Lord does not understand what we are trying to do. In the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, the Prime Minister recently stressed the importance of freedom of speech, and we have taken action through it in universities because challenge, debate and free speech are a vital part of British life and the British constitution.

My Lords, I am confused by all the references to the diversity network. My understanding from at least two of those who have been cancelled in this way was that they were invited, in their capacity as experts, to expert conferences. The chemical weapons expert was invited to speak again to a Ministry of Defence-led conference on chemical weapons at which, on the previous occasion, he had spoken alongside a Chinese Communist official who was also a chemical weapons expert. Importantly, the relevance of their views on domestic politics to their expertise is low and should not be a reason for cancelling them. If we are going to go down that road, the Government will be denying themselves a great deal of expertise which is valuable for policy development. Is that the direction in which we may be going?

Of course we need expertise in policy development—I am as keen on that as the noble Lord—but the guidance was developed by the Government People Group for the specific use of the cross-government diversity networks. I cannot comment further for the reasons I outlined at the beginning of the debate, although I believe the Ministry of Defence is looking into the circumstances of one of the cases the noble Lord mentioned, and I will keep him updated when I am able to do so.

My Lords, I share the bemusement of other noble Lords. Why are diversity networks being singled out for Government censorship, and how on earth does it compromise Civil Service independence for grown-up professional people to be subjected to a range of even controversial views?

The guidance was developed because of certain things that were happening, notably to remove the risk of extremist views being engaged in some of these diversity networks; it was a particular issue relating to that. If the noble Baroness reads the guidance, she will see that it is measured and tries to ensure that debate and good engagement by the diversity networks continues, but that they are not used as a sort of campaigning platform for nefarious organisations such as terrorists.