Cabinet Office to change guidance used to block experts critical of government from speaking to civil servants

Ministers should get "serious" and ask independent body to review impartiality advice, academic argues
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By Tevye Markson

25 Jul 2023

The Cabinet Office will review guidance which has seen public speakers who have criticised government policy banned from civil service events, the government has announced.

The current guidance will also be suspended following legal action launched by a chemical warfare expert who was disinvited from a Defence Science and Technology Laboratory event after a social media trawl found he had made comments critical of government “officials or policy”.

In a written statement to parliament, Jeremy Quin, the minister for the Cabinet Office, said: "It has become apparent that the issued guidance may have been adapted for utilisation in areas for which purpose it was not intended and may also be at risk of being misinterpreted by implementing bodies outside of the Cabinet Office.

"It is important that we protect civil service impartiality but not in a way that could result in adverse unintended consequences. I am equally committed to protecting free speech and I have considered the way in which the guidance has been implemented.

"For that reason I have decided to withdraw the current guidance, review it and reissue it in the early autumn having ensured that the guidance strikes the right balance in the way it supports our civil service colleagues in protecting the service’s impartiality."

Two sets of guidance have been withdrawn while the review is carried out: one for civil service diversity networks and the other for Cabinet Office officials putting on learning and development events. 

The diversity network "due diligence and impartiality" guidance says “external parties that hold extremist viewpoints are not appropriate for network events”. It also says networks and their members “must complete such checks to avoid any invitations being issued to individuals and/or organisations that have provided adverse commentary on government policy, political decisions, approaches or individuals in government that could undermine our position on impartiality and create reputational damage”.

The guidance for Cabinet Officials has not been published publicly but the department has previously said it was introduced to “ensure there is a proper process for inviting speakers to talk to civil servants in the Cabinet Office”.

Quin said the guidance was developed to help avoid civil servants issuing invitations to individuals or organisations who have “expressed or supported extremist views”, which “might lead to the impartiality of the civil service being called into question or its reputation otherwise brought into disrepute”.

Weapons expert Dan Kaszeta started a judicial review process after he was banned from the International Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference earlier this year, arguing it was direct discrimination on grounds of belief, and a violation of his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and right to freedom of expression. 

Kaszeta's is not a lone case. Colin Talbot, emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester and a research associate at the University of Cambridge, said such misuse of the guidance has clearly been “at some scale”. 

Other cases include a computer science expert being blocked from addressing Ministry of Justice staff over "anti-government" and "anti-monarchy" tweets and the Home Office banning a speaker who criticised former home secretary Priti Patel. Talbot said he knows of 11 people who have been banned, adding that there could be hundreds more who have been blocked without knowing.

Talbot said using the guidance to ban people who have criticised government policy is “potentially so damaging” because “if you don't listen to external advice and expertise, or at least consider it before you reject it, you're going to run into all sorts of problems with policy”.

The professor of government also questioned the review process.

If the government is “serious” about the review it should get a neutral body to create the guidance, such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life or the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, rather than "Cabinet Office ministers deciding what the guidelines should be”, Talbot said.

He also suggested cases where officials are unsure whether speakers should be barred should be referred to the propriety and ethics unit in the Cabinet Office.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “As the public would expect, civil service events must reflect the civil service’s impartiality. That’s why guidance was issued to those organising diversity network events, to ensure that external speakers did not damage that impartiality.   

“The government is committed to protecting free speech whilst maintaining civil service impartiality. We are reviewing the guidance and have temporarily withdrawn it to prevent any misinterpretation of the rules.”


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