Let me make it clear at the outset that I have no interest today in debating the integrity initiative’s purpose of countering the very real threat of interference in western democracies and the spread of disinformation by the Russian state. If a debate needs to happen on how that objective is best pursued, it is best left for another day. The issue before us today is much more simple and fundamental: it is a cardinal rule of public life in our country that official resources should not be used for political purposes, a rule we saw symbolised this very morning when the Prime Minister delivered her statement outside Downing Street with the usual Government coat of arms removed from her lectern because of the political nature of her statement. There is, I am afraid, absolutely no doubt that the publicly funded integrity initiative has broken that rule repeatedly by using its Twitter accounts to disseminate articles attacking the integrity of Conservative and Labour officials, of Conservative peers and, repeatedly, of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
I greatly welcome the Minister’s statement on Monday, in which he totally condemned such behaviour by a publicly funded organisation, and said that not only must it stop, but that he wanted to know
“why on earth it happened in the first place”.
That is doubly important in this case, because the integrity initiative’s use of Twitter as a tool for disseminating information has not been a fringe activity, but is an integral part of its applications for Foreign Office funding over the past two years. Indeed, the budget for its agreed objectives of increasing reporting in the media and expanding the impact of its website and Twitter account amounted to £275,000 in this financial year. In the list of key deliverables it promised the Foreign Office this year, it stated explicitly that one of its instruments of delivery will be its
“600-plus Twitter followers, including influential players”.
In the light of all that, I hope that the Minister of State can answer some more questions to explain, as he put it, why on earth that misuse of public funds has taken place. First, were Foreign Office officials monitoring the integrity initiative’s social media output, given that it was an integral part of the activity for which it was being funded? If so, why did they not flag up concerns to him about the dissemination of personal attacks? If not, why was this misuse of public funds going unchecked? Secondly, does the funding agreement governing the integrity initiative make clear that its use of funds and its public statements must comply with Cabinet Office rules? Finally, if the Government intend to renew that funding for the next financial year, what arrangements and agreements will be put in place to ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again?