Officials will reportedly be asked to look over five years of posts to check there is no ‘potentially problematic material’
Civil servants in the Cabinet Office now must do background checks on speakers before inviting them to talk to officials in the department, under rules introduced this week.
Stricter checks have been introduced for outsiders at learning and development events following instances where the media has later revealed visiting speakers had posted unsavoury comments on social media, Cabinet Office insiders said.
The guidance asks officials to go back through up to five years of social media comments, looking for “potentially problematic or controversial material that may contravene civil service values”, before inviting a speaker in, according to a story in the Financial Times.
Officials are told to look out for criticism of “government officials or policy”; anything that suggests “a strong political partiality”; and any behaviour that might bring the civil service into disrepute.
Similar guidance was introduced for civil service networks – which include the Civil Service LGBT+ Network and the Civil Service Race Forum – at the start of this year.
There was previously no vetting process for speakers who came into the Cabinet Office for learning and development events.
Colleagues of government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg told the FT the practice was “very sensible”, pointing to ” far too many examples recently where essentially extremist speakers have been invited to speak to civil servants and staff networks”.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has criticised the rules as a “draconian excuse to block critics of government policy from even setting foot in Whitehall buildings”.
But Cabinet Office insiders said the rules are mainly about checking for “dodgy” comments, including antisemitism. Those who come across as very partisan to a particular political party may not be invited but there is nothing in the guidance that says someone critical of the government should automatically be excluded, they added.
The Cabinet Office was caught up in controversy in November when the Jewish Chronicle revealed that an anti-racism trainer who ran an inclusivity workshop at a network event at the department in 2019 had made comments on Twitter wishing death and mutilation on Zionists.
A month before, Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal was disinvited from giving a lecture at the Home Office because of comments she had made on Twitter about home secretary Priti Patel’s family background.
In a 2013 tweet, Gopal said the home secretary was a “reminder that many Asians in British Africa had ferociously anti-black attitudes and were used by colonial administrations to keep black populations in their place. An attitude she brings to government”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This guidance was introduced to ensure there is a proper process for inviting speakers to talk to civil servants in the Cabinet Office, as the public rightly expects. We take a zero-tolerance approach to discriminatory behaviour and this process will help prevent anyone with a history of such comments from being invited. All guidance we issue is in line with the principle of impartiality, as set out in the civil service code.”
The Cabinet Office also said it is right that speakers are vetted to check if the content they provide is likely to be “fit for purpose, value for money and in line with civil service expectations values”.