GDS leads audit of GOV.UK content after MPs flag ‘racist language’ in departmental documents

Cabinet Office unit had been tasked with combing through government’s website to identify and help departments remove offensive language, after ‘racial slurs’ were found comment in several documents and comments

The Government Digital Service is working with departments to remove “offending content”, after MPs flagged the use of “racist language” in some departmental guidance, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin has said.

In a letter to parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, Quin said GDS had “conducted a search of content published to GOV.UK to identify and evaluate instances of discriminatory language”.

“GDS will work closely with the relevant publishing departments to ensure the expeditious removal or revision of offending content,” he said.

The search was ordered after the committee wrote to equalities minister Kemi Badenoch in July about the use of “racial slurs” in Department of Work and Pensions guidance used by doctors to assess benefit.

Slurs had also been published – and had not been deleted – in the comments section of the Civil Service Blog website. In all cases, the nature of the slurs or other offending language was not revealed.

“I understand that the documents have now been withdrawn. I would be grateful if you could confirm that these documents or comments have been withdrawn from use across the whole of the United Kingdom,” committee chair Caroline Nokes wrote. “Furthermore, I would be grateful if you could set out what your department is doing to ensure that there are no further racist, prejudiced or discriminatory terms being used in government documents, including those used by third parties in work on behalf of the government, and the government’s website.”

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Quin’s reply to the committee has not been published, but in a response to a parliamentary question from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas earlier in July, he had said the Cabinet Office would write to permanent secretaries reminding them about existing guidance on how to write about race and ethnicity “and asking them to ensure that it is easily accessible to all employees within their department and associated organisations”.

He said the concerns related to language in two documents dating back to 2006 and 2012, and a 2015 comment on GOV.UK.

“The 2006 document was written by an external contractor for use by their own staff, the 2012 document used the language within a quote from a non-civil service scientific paper published in 1990. Both documents are no longer in use and the comment has been removed from the web page,” he said.

“We do not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist or any similarly unacceptable language in any form, including in government documents or on our web pages,” Quin said.

In a second letter last month, Nokes welcomed Quin’s assurance that the documents in question were no longer being used.

However, she said she had been “disappointed to learn that further documents were discovered to contain racist language”.

And she added: “In your letter, you did not address how the government was going to assure itself that there are no further documents currently in use that contain racist or discriminatory language. Given the discovery of further documents, I would be grateful to know what you are doing to review all government documents, and those produced by bodies delivering services on behalf of or associated with the government’s work. If you are not planning to undertake a review, I would be grateful to know the threshold at which the government would decide that a review is necessary.”

In his reply to the second letter, Quin expressed his “appreciation” to the committee for bringing their concerns to ministers’ attention.

“Rest assured, we are committed to addressing this matter swiftly,” he added.

PublicTechnology staff

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