UK government rules that prevented Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons expert, from speaking at an international conference organised by the Ministry of Defence have been suspended following a legal challenge. Under the rules, speakers could be blacklisted if they had criticised the government on social media over the past five years.

Kaszeta, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, was invited to attend the international Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference in May by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), an agency linked to the Ministry of Defence. In April, he received an email from DSTL withdrawing the invitation. It said that a check on his social media had identified material that was critical of government officials and policy. It also revealed that government guidance required the vetting of social media accounts of potential speakers.

After a legal challenge, the government apologised in early July and now says it will review its guidance, some of which was never made public. Speaking in the House of Commons, Jeremy Quin MP, minister for the Cabinet Office, justified the use of such checks saying: ‘Taxpayers’ money should not unwittingly be used to pay for speakers linked to abhorrent organisations or individuals who promote hate or discriminatory beliefs, which could bring the civil service into disrepute … there are certain abhorrent organisations that we should not pay or give a platform to and cause embarrassment to our civil service or our country.’  He added that the guidance would be withdrawn, reviewed and reissued in the autumn.

Kaszeta had tweeted about UK policy on asylum and refugees, and was critical of the Partygate scandal that saw government official including the prime minister flouting Covid restrictions, as well as once tweeting ‘bloody Tories’.

‘This is a clear win,’ he says. However, he remains concerned at the lack of transparency. ‘These policies should not be secret. They are an invidious assault on democratic rights.’ Kaszeta adds that it appears that this practice may be continuing in some government departments. He says he’ll press on with his legal challenge in an attempt to reveal what is happening.

Tessa Gregory, Kaszeta’s lawyer, describes the Cabinet Office’s decision as complete vindication for her client who, she says, was unlawfully vetted. However, she adds that similar unpublished policies are still being applied. ‘There are widespread informal and formal practices emerging of government officials vetting individuals for previous criticism of the government. This undermines the impartiality of the civil service, it breaches data protection law and will lead to discrimination on the basis of political or philosophical beliefs contrary to the Human Rights Act and equality legislation.’

Tip of the iceberg

Kaszeta believes his case is the tip of the iceberg. ‘This isn’t over until we measure the extent of the damage. How much expertise and advice has been denied to government audiences?’ He believes there is a war on experts. ‘Government has created barriers to talk to specialists making a civil servant go through five years of tweets and posts. This is so wrong. Society faces complex issues and we need experts.’

‘Secret blacklists imposed at unaccountable, un-minuted meetings are redolent of Soviet-era eastern Europe,’ comments Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Edward Lucas, who first publicised Kaszeta’s case. ‘We have highlighted and overturned this threat to our freedom though a potent combination of media pressure, parliamentary questions and the threat of legal action. The government says it is concerned about threats to free speech from cancel culture and groupthink in banks, universities and elsewhere. Yet it was practising just what it denounces.’

Kate Devlin, an expert in artificial intelligence at King’s College London, was also blocked from attending a government conference in October because of criticism of government policy on social media. ‘Legal pressure has resulted in this guidance being withdrawn, but it should never have been in place. We are professionals and it is part of our job to know how to speak appropriately at events. It is particularly ironic that, during this same period, the government was bringing in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act – an act that monitors cases of no-platforming and is intended to protect academic staff, students and visitors who advocate controversial viewpoints.’ Devlin has not received an apology or any acknowledgement from the Ministry of Justice.

While Kaszeta got a ‘snarky email’ informing him he’d been uninvited from speaking at the DSTL conference, many people won’t know if or why they have been blacklisted. He recommends that anyone interested should put in a subject access request (SAR) asking government what personal information they have used or stored.

Ruth Swailes, an early years’ educational consultant, requested a SAR after the Department for Education (DfE) tried to block her from speaking at a government conference in March this year. The issue appeared to be that she ‘promoted’ a document giving non-statutory advice that the DfE deems to be in competition with its own document. ‘I’ve definitely been critical of the government,’ she says. ‘My SAR shows an email asking for some “digging on social media” about me. It concludes “can’t find anything specific that brings the department into disrepute” but mentions me “promoting” documents at speaking events and on Twitter which is not true. I think it’s because my face doesn’t fit, and I don’t toe the DfE line.’

Swailes says it’s hard to know if being called ‘unfit to speak’ has damaged her professional reputation but it has affected her wellbeing. ‘There were several sleepless nights worrying if these unfounded allegations would affect my work as a freelancer.’

She says she knows at least two other educational consultants who have been blacklisted. ‘A lot of people feel frightened and have withdrawn from social media,’ Swailes says. ’Apart from anything else, what a complete waste of civil servants’ time.’