Government Information

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 13th January 1999.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:35 pm, 13th January 1999

I beg to move, That this House deplores the extent to which politically-partisan presentation, spin-doctoring, unattributed briefing and the pursuit of personal rivalries between Ministers have become characteristics of the presentation of government information; believes that clearer guidelines need to be established in this field; affirms that the public interest is in having far greater access to the information used by Government in making decisions which affect people's lives; and calls upon the Government to introduce its draft Freedom of Information Bill as a matter of the highest priority to enable early consideration, to present such a Bill later this Session which can be carried over into the next Session of Parliament, and to ensure that the Bill fully reflects the proposals set out in the White Paper, Your Right To Know. This is the second of three debates introduced by Liberal Democrats today. This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) introduced the debate on the crisis in the health service. This debate will be followed by a debate about Britain's leadership position in Europe.

Christmas is supposed to be a season of good will, but not for this Government. After the holiday, Westminster was strewn with political corpses on the scale of a gangster movie or a performance of "Macbeth". The main victims came from the ranks of those who are or have been responsible for purveying Government information. The battle had largely been about their activities.

The regime of partisan press briefing and press management that was at the centre of those events came into being after a series of high-profile departures of more traditional civil service press officers. One of them created the "Tumbrel Club" to describe the departed civil service press officers. Senior press officers from the Treasury, Department of Social Security, Ministry of Defence, Scottish Office, the Overseas Development Agency and the Northern Ireland Office all went as the new Government devised a new type of press operation.

In a telling piece of evidence to the Public Administration Committee, Steve Reardon, one of the casualties, said: The ostensible reason for my being required to leave my post was the need for a change of style"— a phrase, he added, that I constructed at the behest of the Department to account for my going. Perhaps some changes were needed. Perhaps better central co-ordination was required. Perhaps a sharper round-the-clock operation was needed. The bulk of the civil service press staff remain in place under new leadership. Are the new people at the top not doing a good job? In some respects they are, but the problems have proved very serious indeed. I refer particularly to their enthusiasm for unattributed briefing and spinning. Their very anonymity is often a deception on the public. Statements are made that are not open to challenge. No one knows whether they have any authenticity or credibility.

An extremely effective letter appeared in The Independent on Tuesday. It referred—interestingly, from my point of view—to a claim that had appeared in The Independent that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary are to join forces in an attempt to prevent Mr. Blair calling a referendum on electoral reform before the next election. The writer of the letter, Mr. Michael Kay, stated: I scoured the rest of the story for quotes from these three 'heavy-hitters'. Not a word. Andrew Grice quotes 'a source close to Mr. Brown'. Later in the story Colin Brown in Cape Town quotes 'one Blair aide'.Who are these invisible people who must not be named? Mr. Kay went on: These incognito sources are the very spin doctors so reviled in your editorials.…Reveal your sources. Some of your readers might find it intriguing to evaluate the quality of your material. Or is it none of our business? That is a fair and strong point, made by a member of the public in that correspondence.