Home Office tightens measures to prevent ‘political’ social media posts

Written by Eleanor Langford on 11 September 2020 in News

Department installs ‘extra checks’ on civil servants’ tweets after reference to ‘activist lawyers’

Credit: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/PA Images

The Home Office’s permanent secretary has said new measures have been put in place to prevent “political” messages being shared on official accounts, after a tweet that made mention of "activist lawyers".

Matthew Rycroft told MPs on Wednesday that “additional layers of assurance” had been added to ensure no language was used on social media which is not “compatible with what civil servants should be using”.

It comes after the department received backlash for posting a video with a caption that stated the current rules on deporting asylum seekers are “open to abuse… allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns”.

The tweet was later amended, but home secretary Priti Patel reignited tensions by using the phrase “activist lawyers” in a separate tweet a week later.

Speaking to members of the Public Accounts Committee, Rycroft said he wanted to “pay tribute” to the department’s staff who were “grappling with complex fast-moving, and sometimes divisive issues” in their work.

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“On this occasion, they used in a video, which as you know came out from the Home Office Twitter account, using lines which were, in my view, political,” he added. “They’re absolutely fine for a minister or a special advisor or any other politician to use, but they weren't, in my view, compatible with what civil servants should be using.  So that was why, having been brought to my attention, I decided that it shouldn't be used from a Home Office account.”

When asked by Labour MP Yvette Cooper who approved the message, Rycroft added: “It had been produced by civil servants in the Home Office press office, but using lines which would have been created in part by special advisers”.

And, setting out the measures currently in place, he continued: “First of all, every civil servant needs to know what the civil service code says. They need to understand what it means for each of them in their own roles. Each line manager needs to check that everyone working for them has got that understanding. In relation to the press office, in particular, there are additional layers of assurance to check before anything goes out that no such inadvertent error is about to happen again.”

“And those checks are in places, but there's an extra level of checks which is now in place to ensure that it doesn't happen again.”

Responding to his comments, Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, said: "It's always been clear that (Dominic) Cummings has set his sights on politicising and ultimately undermining our world-renowned civil service. This case shows just how dangerous that would be.  It was right that this abhorrent Tweet was removed, but it should never have got that far.”

She added: "It's reassuring to hear new checks are in place. But there must be absolute clarity about what that really means in practice. We cannot tolerate a situation where inappropriate political content ends up being issued from official civil service channels. If Dominic Cummings wants to put out Tory propaganda attacking the rule of law, he should stick to 20,000-word blogposts on his own website, not corrupt the official Home Office Twitter account."

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.


About the author

Eleanor Langford is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @eleanormia.

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