David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

My colleague James Coe has already been over the content of Michelle Donelan’s weekend letter to UKRI in some detail.

What I’ve done here is summarise what legislation says about the way in which a secretary of state is meant to relate to UKRI in terms of issuing guidance and requiring action, with an eye on the content of the missive from DSIT.

Donelan has concerns about the social media activity of two members of the Research England advisory group on equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) – members of which were announced on Thursday. Her concerns about two messages on X (formerly Twitter) are couched in these terms:

  • Public bodies, or those representing them, “cannot be seen to take political positions, let alone promote extremist ideologies”
  • The “political impartiality” of our scientific funding system is vital
  • Individuals “appear to have contravened the Nolan principles of public life”

And she asks UKRI to:

  • Take “swift action” regarding possible contraventions of the Nolan principles
  • Immediately close the group and undertake an urgent investigation (to note that this is expressed as her “preference”)
  • Contact her on these issues by the end of the next working day (Monday 30 October)

Finally, she closes by promising to write to UKRI in coming weeks about ways she feels it has been going “above and beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements” in the coming weeks.

What the act says

Both UKRI and Research England were established in the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) – the relevant sections are in Part 3 and Schedule 9 of the act.

As we have come to expect from HERA, the Secretary of State (which, in the tradition of legislative writing in Westminster, means any Secretary of State) gets a lot of powers expressed in vague terms to direct, shape, and influence the work of the organisation.

Can Michelle Donelan direct UKRI to do anything?

Donelan’s letter does not constitute a “direction” under the terms set out in section 102 – indeed she is forbidden in paragraph three from giving directions to Research England involving the “criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff.” Although it could be argued that this refers only to the question of funding allocations it is clear from section 97 that it includes “such functions of UKRI as UKRI may determine for the purpose of giving financial support.” And this definitely includes EDI work. The EDI group as constituted would advise UKRI on the commitments enshrined in its EDI Strategy to:

use our funding and our strategies, plans, policies, and processes to support the diversity of people, talent and ideas needed for world-leading research and innovation.

And it would support Research England in developing an EDI action plan that hangs under both the wider UKRI EDI Strategy and the Research England Strategic Delivery Plan.

The latter again makes it clear that the advice of the Research England EDI advisory group relates to funding; I would highlight in particular a commitment to:

embed equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) considerations throughout our policy activity and funding delivery, including taking a strategic approach to review the contribution our programmes make to EDI in the sector

There is also a commitment for Research England to develop an EDI action plan for 2024-25, a function that has been passed on to the EDI advisory group.

Plans and approvals

As responsible Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan will not have played a part in requiring or approving Research England plans. However, she will have requested and approved the overarching UKRI Strategy – which enshrines “diversity” of one of four “principles for change.”

It’s also worth noting that the Research England Strategic Delivery Plan sets the parameters within which it makes decisions on funding, as set out in section 100 of HERA.

Section 103 of HERA requires the Secretary of State, when giving directions to UKRI regarding funding, to have regard to three matters: the Haldane principle (“the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals, such as a peer review process”), the balanced funding principle (“the principle that it is necessary to ensure that a reasonable balance is achieved in the allocation of funding” as between councils or between the functions of Research England), and any previous advice given by the Secretary of State.

The latter could reasonably be expected to include the approval of a strategic plan. It seems Donelan has de facto approved the creation of the advisory group and the associated EDI work packages already.

Does Donelan get a say on appointees?

The Secretary of State has a defined role in appointing UKRI board members (Section 2), and also gets to appoint the chair and one other member of each research council. She can remove chairs and any member of the board or councils from their role, but only on three grounds:

  • Missing more than six months of meetings without permission
  • “Inability or unfitness” to carry out the functions of office
  • She just really wants to (“such other grounds as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”)

UKRI can also remove one of their appointees under similar grounds. It also has the right to appoint an executive (that’s regular employees) as it considers appropriate – though the Secretary of State gets a say on pay and conditions of employment. She doesn’t, as far as I can see, get a say on the hiring and firing of any other appointees.

The legislation is also clear that UKRI can go nuts creating committees, and sub-committees without recourse to the Secretary of State – and these can include people who are not members of UKRI, council members, or employees.

Why would it do so? Well, it is allowed to delegate any functions to members, employees, councils, council sub-committees, or indeed general committees – this means it can bring in the appropriate expertise to do the stuff it needs to do. And it is allowed to seek advice from relevant experts. It is emphatically not a means of hiding work from the Secretary of State – she, or a representative is entitled to turn up at any meeting and take part in the discussion (but not decision making), or to request documents.

If there’s a problem with a committee member does that invalidate the work of the committee?

No. Section 12 is clear that:

The validity of any proceedings of UKRI, or of any Council, Council sub-committee or general committee, or of the Executive Committee or any Executive sub-committee, is not affected by a vacancy or a defective appointment.

What other guidance can the Secretary of State offer UKRI?

Section 105 allows the Secretary of State to ask for information and advice about UKRI functions, and how they are delivered. This probably covers the letter itself, and section 104 makes it clear that UKRI needs to “have regard to” guidance given by the Secretary of State in using resources in the most efficient, effective, and economic way.

Section 106 makes it explicit that UKRI can “arrange for studies” that are “designed to improve the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness” of activities for which it gives financial support. This would appear to include the work of the Research England EDI advisory group.

Section 108 clarifies that, if the Secretary of State requests it, that UKRI can represent the government in international relations relating to “any field of activity connected to its functions.”

What about Nolan and impartiality?

As luck would have it, the original advertisement for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Expert Advisory Group is available to view. It looks to be a deliberately light touch process commensurate with a £170 day rate for what looks to be two meetings a year (the first one was on 20 July, and it seems Michelle Donelan didn’t make it).

That said, if you are doing anything official involving an arms-length government body you do need to behave yourself, and – as the UKRI code of conduct reminds us – the venerable Nolan principles are as good a guide as any. As a reminder:

  • Selflessness – you’re in it for the public interest,
  • Integrity – you’re not under any obligation that may influence your work, and you declare interests.
  • Objectivity – You’re impartial and fair in decision making, without discrimination or bias.
  • Accountability – You are subject to public scrutiny
  • Openness – You need to be transparent and clear about your work, and not hide stuff
  • Honesty – You tell the truth
  • Leadership – You promote and exemplify these principles, and call it out when others fall from these standards.

Now, it’s not clear which of the Nolan principles Michelle had in mind when she was writing her letter. Possibly the expression of political opinions may fall under “objectivity”, or if she felt members were directly under the influence of an international organisation perhaps “integrity”? In both these cases, the requirements are based on the impact on a persons’ work. It’s possible she was thinking of the code of conduct for the Office for Students board, which states:

Board members should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial in their OfS role. They should not occupy paid party political posts or hold particularly sensitive or high profile unpaid roles in a political party. They should abstain from all controversial political activity.

The UKRI code of conduct – the rules appointees would likely have signed up to – is actually a little more easy-going:

In general, employees are free to take part in political activities. Participation in any political activity must only be undertaken in a personal capacity and employees should avoid becoming involved in political controversy on matters affecting UKRI.

It is lamentably quiet on how to act if a think tank decides to pounce on you and the Secretary of State weighs in.

In summary

So, what we see from the text of the legislation is that there is nothing stopping Donelan from raising concerns about any aspect of UKRI’s work, and nothing to stop her writing letters of guidance. It’s clear that she does not have the ability to direct UKRI’s activity in this case – something the letter itself as good as admits.

It’s not clear which, if any, of the Nolan principles – or which part of the UKRI code of conduct – that members of the EDI advisory group are accused of breaking. If advisors are to be dismissed this is a matter for UKRI, and it would adhere to the letter of the rules and guidelines given to members on appointment. As far as we can tell, this is the material in the code of conduct only.

There is, however, a question mark over the way she has raised questions about an established and uncontroversial strand of (EDI) work she has already approved as a part of the usual strategic planning process. Her distaste for EDI is something that can and should feature in discussions around strategic planning with senior UKRI leaders, but once a plan is agreed then really people should be left with getting on and delivering it. Here, she’s stepping decidedly away from the conventions that underpin relationships between ministers and arms length bodies.

2 responses to “Can the Secretary of State tell UKRI what to do?

  1. As a layperson, I find it extremely helpful to have these rules laid out clearly and comprehensively. I’m very grateful to David for the work he has done here in demystifying the principles and regulations involved.

    It is unclear whether Ms Donelan is a credulous dupe who sincerely believes Policy Exchange’s laughable smears, or she is a mendacious operative cynically exploiting them. Either way, the mix of indignant bluster, wilful misrepresentation and imprecise terminology in her missive comes across as very carefully calibrated in light of the above. They’re the words of a person aware of the limits of their power and seeking to apply maximum leverage without overstepping them.

    This sort of behaviour is now endemic in the far-right of the Tory party, such that we are routinely forced to consider not only what they are legally empowered to do, but the practical effects of what they did regardless of its legitimacy.

    In this case, UKRI’s responses are circumscribed by their inability to challenge misrepresentations issued forth by a secretary of state. Ms Donelan, on the other hand, is unlikely to see any consequences for undermining the proper functioning and credibility of an organisation she oversees, nor for all-but-directly marking out blameless academics as targets for harassment on social media.

    The wider reputational damage caused by UKRI’s necessarily anodyne response will outlast the current administration, and in that we may be seeing the true goal behind what would otherwise amount to nothing more than the politely-worded and wildly hypocritical tantrum of a resolute bigot.

  2. I think A Concerned Constituent, above, makes a lot of valid points.

    It’s very helpful to have the parameters laid out like this by David Kernohan, and from them it seems like:

    a) the Minister has over-reached,
    b) UKRI have over-reacted, and in a manner that seriously undermines its credibility with the constituency it is supposed to be supporting,
    c) there are genuine questions to ask of the Minister, in Parliament, about the sequencing of her complaint to UKRI and the extent to which it is based on privileged access provided by government to Policy Exchange, or happenstance.

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