Dirty tricks turning voters off, sleaze watchdog warns

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BRITAIN'S CHIEF sleaze-buster has warned the Government "to tell the truth as it is" and not withhold information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has issued a broadside against dishonesty and spin, urging the Government to "be as open as possible".

As the "dirty tricks" row between Labour and the Conservatives became more heated yesterday, Sir Alistair - in an interview with The Independent - warned that voters were being turned off by their lack of trust in politicians and might stay away from the polls.

He attacked Tony Blair's style of government, warning that "the Prime Minister and Government are open to the charge they want to control everything". He said there has been a "strong public perception that spin was more important than substance".

Sir Alistair, who also sits on the board of the Freedom of Information watchdog, urged the Government to release background policy papers - including legal advice - to help win back public trust. "I am very anxious that the Government should respond positively to the Freedom of Information Act," he said.

His intervention came as the row over Labour's alleged use of the Freedom of Information Act to dig dirt on Michael Howard became more heated. Labour's election co-ordinator, Alan Milburn, issued a two-page statement denying Labour was running a negative campaign, while hinting that this election could be the nastiest yet.

Mr Milburn accused the Tories of playing "a game" after it emerged that Labour election strategists had made a series of Freedom of Information requests about Michael Howard. One was about a cousin jailed for drugs offences.

"It is to seek to render illegitimate totally legitimate campaigning," Mr Milburn said. "It is to seek to label our campaign as negative - which it is not - so that they can then justify what will be the most negative campaign ever seen in this country, directed very personally at the Prime Minister."

Mr Milburn denied that Alastair Campbell was involved in a decision to release information, under the new openness laws, about Britain's crash from the ERM on Black Wednesday, 1992. The ERM request was made by the Financial Times, but leaked to another paper.

The Tories have accused the Government of trying to manipulate the Act by agreeing to release the Black Wednesday papers, which would be embarrassing to the Conservatives, while refusing to answer Tory requests. Mr Campbell has recently taken up a senior role in Labour's election campaign team but Mr Milburn said he had "nothing to do with the Freedom of Information requests that have become the subject of a good deal of media comment".

Mr Milburn said Labour would "make no apology for reminding people of Mr Howard's role in the poll tax, the debacle of the ERM, mass unemployment, interest rates and inflation through the roof".

Yesterday Dr Liam Fox, the Conservative co-chairman, accused Labour of "pretty abusive politics", adding that Tony Blair's "holier than thou" image had been exposed as a facade by his party's dirty tricks.

Sir Alistair warned that voters would stay away from the polls unless politicians learned to communicate openly and honestly with the public. "I am certainly worried about that because one of the tests of the quality of our democracy is whether people care enough to turn out to vote for their favourite candidate or party," he said. "All of us who have any interest in civic society have got to be desperately worried about that."

Monday Interview, page 29