Downing Street condemns leak of honours list

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THE LEAKING of a knighthood for Scottish National Party supporter Sean Connery in the New Year's Honours List was denounced last night as "reprehensible" by the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

Downing Street also hit out at the premature disclosure of two more awards for Sir John Birt and Richard Branson that opened the Prime Minister to renewed accusations of offering rewards to "Tony's cronies".

The Prime Minister's office said it was "very unfortunate and reprehensible" that there had been premature disclosure of a peerage for Sir John, the outgoing BBC director general, and a knighthood for Mr Branson, owner of the Virgin group.

The list was intended to be a closely guarded secret until it was published in the Official Gazette on New Year's Eve. Award-winners were sworn to keep the honour confidential until then.

"It is very unfortunate and pretty reprehensible if people are leaking names from the Honours List. People who receive honours are sworn to secrecy," the official spokesman said. He made it clear that he was not accusing the Scottish nationalists of leaking Mr Connery's award.

The knighthood for Mr Connery, 69, the actor famous as James Bond, amounts to a spectacular U-turn, but it will be widely welcomed for getting Downing Street off a hook of its own making. There was an outcry when Mr Connery was turned down two years ago. No reason was given but it was generally believed to be for his support for the SNP, which was threatening to defeat Labour in the elections for the Scottish Parliament. Labour's victory in the polls enabled Tony Blair to be magnanimous and to recognise Mr Connery's contribution to the film industry.

The Government has investigated 60 departmental leaks since the last general election, Tony Blair revealed in a parliamentary written reply. That compared with 70 in the last two full years of the Conservative administration.

The department with the most alleged leaks was the Home Office, with nine. The most high-profile was the premature publication of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report. The Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Office had seven leaks each, while there were investigations into five each at Defence and Social Security and one at the Foreign Office.