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My legal case against the Government’s blacklisting policy has achieved a partial victory for free speech, equality and transparency.
In written statements to the House of Commons and House of Lords, as well as in correspondence to my legal representatives, the Government has said that it is withdrawing two “due diligence” policies that could be perceived as being part of government blacklisting efforts.
The threat of judicial review of the Government’s actions has achieved a number of victories.
I received an admission that the Government had acted unlawfully. I then received a full apology from Dstl – the arm’s-length Ministry of Defence organisation that had un-invited me from a conference.
Neither were quite enough, so my legal team pushed harder. Without having to go in front of a judge or see the inside of a courtroom, the Government has made two additional concessions: it has admitted to abridging my right to freedom of expression; and – more importantly for the broader cause – the Cabinet Office has formally withdrawn two policies.
Despite this apparent victory, the whole situation has had, and continues to have, some troublesome implications. Retracting two of many such policies is a good first step but is, by no means, an end to the struggle. Concessions and admission by the Government reframe the argument but do not end it. A number of problems remain unaddressed.
The Problems Remaining
Firstly, I was not the only person wronged by such policies. We have identified at least 11 people. Given the secrecy of such policies – after all, it’s really not very efficient to tell people they’ve been blacklisted, the 11 victims are almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. It would be good to get additional transparency and find out just how widespread the damage is.
And the people who have been affected need apologies. It is a bit of an outrage that only I get an apology – the gateway to such seems open only to a white male with a solicitor, three barristers, and thousands in a crowd-funded war chest. That’s patently unfair and it would be unfair for me to walk away without others getting at least an apology.
There is a de facto fairness tax, and looking at my legal crowd-funding site as I write, the tax bill for an apology is having 278 supporters who have stumped up £8,753.
Another facet of this fractal outrage is the Government robbing itself of knowledge. Again, it is not just about me not being able to talk about getting rid of chemical weapons, as important as that might be. It’s about Dr Kate Devlin not sharing expertise about AI and robotics. It is about Ruth Swailes and education. It is about former or retired military officers, like Philip Ingram, being unable to assist the defence of the realm. There will be many more such examples before we are done with this exercise.
One feature of Whitehall’s civil service is that it is, by and large, comprised of keen generalists. It needs expert advice, assistance and opinion from time to time. Effective governance requires that the government of the day be able to tap external specialist expertise. By selectively barring experts from talking to government meetings and conferences, the Government is committing an act of self-harm. Taxpayers, and indeed rank-and-file civil servants, need to know the extent of this self-harm.
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Apologies are good and withdrawals of invidious polices are better. But in my case, and I suspect others, a broader climate is problematic.
How did we get to a political and organisational culture where this sort of thing is permissible? In my own case, the Government has admitted that the decision to bar me from a conference was done informally. Subject access requests show that the Ministry of Defence body that barred me did not even use the policies later cited as justification. It had merely heard of these policies. The mere existence of such policies elsewhere was, evidently, considered sufficient bureaucratic cover to bar me for unspecified criticism of the Government and/or its officials.
In this way, politicians in Westminster have created an environment in which working-level officials think it is alright to infringe upon the rights of private citizens. This, surely, is deeply wrong.
Data protection laws have allowed people like myself and Dr Devlin to ferret out information that the Government holds about us, by submitting subject access requests. The results have included internal communications about us, and have been revelatory.
A disturbing revelation in some of this material is the hyper-sensitivity to any sort of criticism by media outlets on the right of the political spectrum. To put it bluntly, there are government officials afraid of offending Guido Fawkes, a website with an audience that can be accurately described as significantly right-of-centre. Why is the Government allowing it to be the arbiter of who is and who is not acceptable? Surely this is not in the broader interests of the United Kingdom. Nobody wants a civil service so easily swayed by one voice that it constricts all other voices.
Where does this leave me and my legal team? Still digging.
We have won the first round and received an apology and an admission of wrongdoing. We won a second round and got some policies suspended. It is not time to stop. The policies are being “reviewed” and they will need scrutiny when re-issued. The full extent of the damage must be assayed.
I do not think we have seen the bottom of this scandal just yet. Watch this space.