Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft has ordered the removal of a controversial video dismissing people providing legal representation for asylum seekers as “activist lawyers” from the department’s Twitter account.
Rycroft said the phrase “should not have been used on an official government channel”. He added that he had made it clear to staff in his own department and across the wider civil service that the 21-second clip, created to show the Home Office’s work to remove migrants with no right to remain in the UK, should not be used again.
Legal experts had condemned the department over the social media post, which hit out at EU rules and claimed they were being exploited by lawyers representing migrants. It said current return regulations — presently set at an EU level — are “rigid and open to abuse allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns”.
Law Society president Simon Davis warned the row risked undermining the UK’s reputation around the world.
“Attacks on the integrity of the legal profession undermine the rule of law,” he said in a statement.
“Solicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by parliament. To describe lawyers who are upholding the law as ‘activist lawyers’ is misleading and dangerous.“
Amanda Pinto, chair of the Bar Council, warned that the “irresponsible, misleading communications” could be “extremely damaging to our society”.
And she said: “Legal professionals who apply the law and follow parliament’s express intention, are not ‘activists’.
“They are merely doing their jobs, enabling people to exercise their statutory rights and defend themselves against those in power. Without those lawyers, our system would crumble.“
Rycroft’s admission that the post was unacceptable came in a reply to King’s College economics professor Jonathan Portes, who contacted the Home Office to complain.
Rycroft said: "I agree the phrase you quote should not have been used on an official government channel.”
He added: "I have made clear to the team this post should not be used again from Home Office accounts or anywhere else by civil servants."
Portes had argued that the video was inconsistent with Government Communication Service guidelines stating official messages should “be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical”.
They should also be “sensitive to tone and guard against perceived attacks on particular interests, organisations or individuals”.
The Home Office confirmed to the BBC that the response to Portes, which was shared on Twitter, was accurate and that it would not be sharing the video elsewhere.
The argument about “activist lawyers” echoes that used by No. 10 Downing Street in recent weeks.
Boris Johnson has argued that the European Union's Dublin regulations – which are designed to identify which member states are responsible for considering a person's request for asylum – make it “very difficult” to remove failed asylum seekers once they arrive on British shores.
He has vowed to draw up a new system once the UK leaves the European Union, although no details have so far been published.
A No. 10 spokesperson said at the time: “It’s something which can be abused by those migrants and their lawyers to frustrate the returns of those who have no right to be here.”
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is deputy editor of CSW's sister title Politics Home, where a version of this story first appeared