Her complaint is that some of its members have been “sharing some extremist views on social media” regarding the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Academic freedom & free speech are totally sacrosanct. But Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation. This is outrageous from a public body. See my letter to @UKRI_News 👇🏻 pic.twitter.com/4qWEbmfdo7
— Michelle Donelan MP (@michelledonelan) October 28, 2023
Donelan singles out Dr Kamna Patel of UCL and Professor Kate Sang of Herriot Watt University for specific criticism. On Sang, Donelan writes:
I am outraged by the post by Professor Kate Sang, who stated that the UK’s crackdown on Hamas support in the UK was “disturbing.” Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to be expressing sympathy or support for them. I am staggered that this has occurred full stop, let alone that I have to write to you.”
The Express has written up the affair as follows:
It is worth noting that it is exceptionally unusual for a minister to single out individuals for criticism like this.
Sang has since locked her twitter account – however it seems the tweet in question is from October 8th where she tweeted “this is disturbing” above a Guardian article entitled Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK.
Sang’s tweet might well be described by some as clumsy, particularly when assessed 20 days on – but it’s not clear that she is expressing sympathy or support for Hamas. The tweet could equally be read as an implicit concern that Braverman is interfering in the independence of the police, or a concern at the way others are being accused of Hamas’ sympathy when expressing support for Palestine.
Sky News’ Trevor Phillips show dissected the intervention – you can find his interview with Donelan at about 9 mins in here.
In what can only be described as quite an extraordinary follow up, later in her letter Donelan not only suggests that some individuals appear to have contravened the Nolan principles – but that her preference is that the EDI advisory group should be immediately closed.
Then, in a shift that from the concerns of this specific case to the broader work of UKRI on EDI, Donelan writes:
I am concerned however, that in recent years UKRI has been going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements, with little evidence this materially advances equality of opportunity or eliminates discrimination.”
The intervention comes on the same day that Policy Exchange publishes a policy note on Palestine, which expresses concern that Patel retweeted a post that described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “apartheid and genocide”, and expresses concern that Sang had retweeted a post including the phrase “from the River to the Sea”.
It also highlights a post from Professor Dibyesh Anand, who it says has retweeted posts referring to “extremist Israeli settlers” carrying out “their own terrorist violence against Palestinians”. The Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange, Dr Paul Stott, said:
This is further evidence of the continued politicisation of the public sector in a way that privileges radical and contested views. It is legitimate for academics to express such views, but they cannot be allowed to predominate, especially on government bodies. It also casts further doubt on Research England’s controversial plans to politicise science funding, increasing the focus given to “people and culture” at the expense of scientific excellence.
It is a sign of the times that Research England selects individuals with such deeply politicised views to sit on an Expert Advisory Board for Equality. At a time when antisemitic attacks on Jewish people have increased by over 1000%, those tasked with upholding equality and diversity should be promoting unity, not division.
The Policy Exchange press release then completes the segue into wider issues of controversy surrounding EDI:
As well as the members who have expressed controversial views on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, other members of the board have promoted radical and politically contested theories such as “decolonising the curriculum” or gender ideology. The Chair, Dr Kamna Patel, has produced a Youtube video called “Blueprint for Decolonising: Dr Kamna Patel – Race and Space”, while Professor Ilaria Boncori is the author of an article called “Rethinking gender diversity: Transgender and gender nonconforming people and gender as constellation”. Professor Stacey Johnson has criticised the Government’s decision to ensure good value when promoting equality and diversity in the NHS.
Let’s put aside that the government is already undertaking an audit of all EDI spending in the Civil Service tied to the public sector productivity review. Let’s also ignore that we’re fifteen months on from the the Tickell Review into research bureaucracy without a substantive response.
Arguably, the fundamental problem is that conflating the opinions or even alleged sympathies of one member of one sub-committee with a wider systemic issue of EDI and public spending is that it cheapens the work on EDI – and distracts from the substantive issue of the membership of the sub-committee. It’s the inevitable end of a worldview where if you take a hammer to every cultural issue, everything looks like a nail.
To break down the substantive concerns, the first is whether sympathy or support for a proscribed organisation should be a disqualification from serving on a public body. Under the Terrorism Act 2000 it is an offence to “invite support for a proscribed organisation (the support invited need not be material support, such as the provision of money or other property, and can also include moral support or approval) (section 12(1)).” On Sky News Donelan suggested that while she does not think the law should be changed, there should be more done to prosecute protestors who break the law.
If Donelan truly believes that someone is breaking the Terrorism Act (which she has notably not accused Sang of doing) this should obviously be a matter for the police. Clearly, if someone is prosecuted under the Terrorism Act then it is unfeasible to believe they can serve on a government body.
What seems to be in contention is a perception of views being “extreme”. If Donelan believes this is not criminal but distasteful, grossly offensive or otherwise inappropriate then this is a freedom of speech issue – an issue on which Donelan herself last year said that:
It is sadly ironic, that humanity has never had greater access to a diverse range of opinions than we do today, yet we have to take action against people trying to limit that diversity. So let me take a moment to inform the intolerant few that their brief period of power is over.
I have no hesitation in saying that diversity of opinion is just as important as diversity of background. Freedom to disagree is just as important as freedom to agree.
Or on the Free Speech Bill regarding Holocaust denial where she noted:
Obviously it would depend on what they are saying, whether they were straying into racism or straying into hate crimes.
If the line is now that a Minister can either suggest an independent body should remove members due to offensive speech then this is both an enormous departure from both current sentiments on freedom of speech, and ministerial involvement in the work of UKRI.
For its own part UKRI has said it is immediately looking into the issue:
— UK Research and Innovation (@UKRI_News) October 28, 2023
The final issue is whether EDI initiatives are impactful. The direction of travel – whether it is REF, wider work by UKRI and the research council or wider funding decisions – is toward wider considerations of research cultures, people and issues of EDI.
The fundamental decision is whether this systematic choice is right – not whether a few initiatives do or do not work. I think anyone that has worked in research would struggle to argue that historically organisations have been “going beyond” on EDI issues.
It’s likely, given the deadlines that Donelan sets in the letter, that UKRI will issue a full response shortly. In it, we should hope it disentangles these issues and brings nuance and evidence where it has so far been lacking.