Civil Servants (Social Networks)
Oral Answers to Questions — Duchy of Lancaster
11:30 am

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David Anderson (PPS (Bill Rammell, Minister of State), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; Blaydon, Labour)

What progress has been made on providing guidance to civil servants on social networking and blogging in the course of their official duties.

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Tom Watson (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office; West Bromwich East, Labour)

No sector of society is immune from the explosion in the use of social media communication tools. In our response to the report "The Power of Information", the Cabinet Office has today issued a simple set of principles that will help to guide civil servants to speak with an authoritative voice with online communities. I will ensure that the guidelines are placed in the Library. Our next challenge for the power of information taskforce is to develop more detailed guidelines to encourage civil servants to take the first steps to engage with online social networks.

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David Anderson (PPS (Bill Rammell, Minister of State), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; Blaydon, Labour)

The Minister will surely agree that the youth culture of today has moved on somewhat from the days when he and I thought that we were going to be Britain's answer to "The Blues Brothers"— [ Laughter. ] It is true. Will he give an assurance that this is not just about giving people guidelines but ensuring that he has among his staff civil servants who are not just technically but culturally aware of the needs of young people, who use this medium more and more?

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Tom Watson (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office; West Bromwich East, Labour)

My hon. Friend has given away our guilty secret about "The Blues Brothers". I am not going to go there.

There are an incredibly large number of digital pioneers across the civil service—young people who may be junior in status—and one of my jobs is to try to join them all up so that they can enlighten their older counterparts in more senior positions.

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Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative)

Does the guidance to which the Minister refers extend to giving civil servants advice on sending sensitive material to Ministers, and do Ministers have responsibility for checking what they receive?

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Tom Watson (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office; West Bromwich East, Labour)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the guidelines cover civil servants and that no top secret documents will be placed on Facebook.

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Gordon Prentice (Pendle, Labour)

Have any civil servants been reprimanded or disciplined for blogging?

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Tom Watson (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office; West Bromwich East, Labour)

Not for blogging per se, but civil servants must of course adhere to the civil service code online as well as offline.

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Susan Kramer (Cabinet Office; Richmond Park, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister will be well aware that an early alert that senior civil servants were wandering home with key documents without authorisation appeared on the blog "Civil Serf". Will he confirm that in his guidelines he will not kneecap whistleblowers? Will he give us an assurance that the civil service will not sign up to the national staff dismissal register, which would allow the organisation to blacklist people on the mere suspicion that their conduct might not be attractive?

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Tom Watson (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office; West Bromwich East, Labour)

Let me assure the hon. Lady that the challenge for the power of information taskforce is to get our civil servants to engage in online communities in an appropriate manner. Clearly, one of the things that underpins our hard-working public servants is the notion of common sense, and I hope that they will apply that in their online activities as much as their offline activities.

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Greg Clark (Shadow Minister, Cabinet Office; Tunbridge Wells, Conservative)

There is no point in issuing new guidance to civil servants when even Ministers do not follow the existing guidance. In a week when confidential information has been left on trains and on laptops, is the Minister aware that he is responsible not only for creating the rules but enforcing them? When will he stop blaming officials and start laying down the law to his fellow Ministers?

Photo of Tom Watson

Tom Watson (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office; West Bromwich East, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman well knows that the theft of the laptop from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is the subject of a police investigation, but a crime was committed; the laptop was stolen from an alarmed office. He is also aware that there are a number of reviews, and a lot of work has been done across government on information insurance. Underpinning that is the notion that we need enhanced transparency, increased monitoring, improved guidance and better, possibly mandatory, training.