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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

UK Government vetting social media of potential candidates for public bodies

The case of a drugs expert, who has been denied appointment to a policy panel, has highlighted a new vetting trend for candidates seeking to serve on public bodies.

The Guardian reports that a government minister vetoed the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, the director of Release, the UK’s centre on drugs and drug laws, to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which makes drug policy recommendations to government, after vetting found she had criticised the Home Office and called for drug policy reform.

They say that an online search by the ACMD secretariat found that Eastwood had described a Home Office policy position as “utter BS” and claimed it was “just making s**t up” in a tweet. And documents released under a subject access request also revealed that candidates for public bodies now have their social media profiles scrutinised by ministers, including posts regarding the “PM/government”, Windrush, Brexit and anything “diversity-related”:

Although it was recognised that her “contribution could enrich the group”, there was concern that she “may use the appointment as an inappropriate lobbying opportunity”.

It was suggested that Eastwood’s “clear views on drugs liberalisation” might impede her ability to be “impartial, and provide unbiased views”. When asked for comment, the Home Office claimed that the decision was made “on the basis of expertise”.

Vetting candidates for such appointments has been tightened following Toby Young’s brief time at the Office for Students after he came under scrutiny for a number of offensive tweets.

In a subsequent report, the Commissioner for Public Appointments highlighted a “possible lack of due diligence by the recruiting department” and there are now checks on “relevant social media content”.

Obviously, it is a matter for ministers who they have advising them, but these latest revelations do beg the question of why anybody would want to staff expert panels with yes-people, when good policy depends on robust debate, taking into account all points of view?

Government should not be an echo chamber. Minister need to access expert opinion on all sides of an argument before taking decisions. To do otherwise just leaves us with a partisan mess, much like Brexit really.

On the plus side, having now reviewed my own social media, I now know not to waste my time applying for public appointments.
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