Cabinet `giving secret advice on millennium'

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The Independent Online

Arts Correspondent

Cabinet ministers are being privately consulted about projects to celebrate the millennium, despite the Government's promise that these will be chosen by the independent Millennium Commission.

A copy of a confidential letter from Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage, to all members of the Cabinet has been obtained by the Independent. The remarkably frank letter says all Cabinet ministers will be consulted about shortlisted projects "and their order of priority".

It reveals that the Cabinet committee which agreed the structure of the commission also agreed that ministers' views would be sought. Mr Dorrell, though, adds: "The Millennium Commission is, as you know, independent in selecting projects to fund. It is of course important that the Government should not appear to be undermining this independence in any way."

And in one extraordinary passage, he advises ministers on words to use to avoid answering parliamentary questions on what advice Cabinet colleagues may have given him.

A standard reply might be: "Decisions on the selection of projects for funding are entirely a matter for the Millennium Commissioners who are independent of government. It would not therefore be appropriate for me to comment publicly on the merits of particular applications or on the decisions taken by the commissioners."

Chris Smith, Labour's heritage spokesman, said last night: "This seems to be a formula specifically to mislead. It shows yet again the tendency of ministers in this government to hide the truth from MPs and their constituents."

Mr Smith said of the main content of the letter: "He is proposing a mechanism to do precisely what the Millennium Commission was not meant to do. And if he is giving Cabinet ministers opportunities to comment on projects, why is he not also giving those opportunities to the Opposition and constituency MPs?"

The Millennium Commission is chaired by Mr Dorrell and also includes one other Cabinet minister, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. But the commission is independent and the politicians are outnumbered by seven others.

But in his letter, marked "Restricted-Policy", Mr Dorrell tries to justify his decision to consult Cabinet colleagues by stressing that he wears two hats. He says: "Your views will be sought by me acting in my capacity as one of the Government members of the commission, stepping outside my role of Millennium Commission chairman." He adds: "After shortlisting I will seek colleagues' views on the qualitative aspects of applications for major projects. All members of the Cabinet will have an opportunity to comment."

The Labour Party's nominee on the commission, the former chairman of the English Tourist Board, Michael Montague, said last night: "If this is true, I regard it as improper. We are an independent commission appointed by the Queen."

Two other commission members contacted by the Independent yesterday declined to comment publicly, but expressed surprise at the letter.