I would tell you, but I'm a gentleman

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The Independent Online
o GENTLEMEN'S clubs are not really my style. Maybe it's down to a character defect. That was the view of an old adversary of mine, one of those responsible for denying Britain's contribution to acid rain. Once, when I introduced him to my wife, he turned to her and said, quite seriously: "Your husband, madam, is no gentleman." (This was, I'd thought, the sort of thing only heard in melodramas, and it quite made my day.)

Anyway, last week I was invited to one of the posher clubs for a dinner put on for a big, controversial firm to tell guests from government, business and the media how much it was improving. There was much disavowal of the past, much talk of "transparency" and "accountability". It went swimmingly enough until someone questioned one of the firm's main operations.

Suddenly we were back in the past, up against walls of words, barrages of factoids, assertions rather than argument, and an assumption that we were too "emotional" to understand. It would be nice, in the spirit of "transparency", to pass on the name of the firm, who represented it, who the other guests were, and what was said. But, though nothing confidential seemed to be revealed, the dinner was held under "Chatham House Rules", stopping me from disclosing any of this. So I can't tell you. It wouldn't be gentlemanly.

o I THINK I can say that the firm is much coddled by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), because its officials protect so many. But some of these civil servants seem to be overstepping the mark.

Sad though it is to say in the week that Humphrey the cat retires from No 10, his namesake is not that prevalent in Whitehall. Officials, though never averse to a bit of manipulation, usually do what they are told if a minister firmly lays down the line. Most rather like it that way. But there are exceptions, especially, it seems, at the DTI. Evidence is accumulating across Whitehall of their attempts to overrule and - as one senior source put it - "misrepresent" ministerial policy. John Gummer has been talking around town of how, as environment secretary, he would make agreements with DTI ministers only to have them unpicked by their officials afterwards (though he failed to return my calls to expand on this).

Senior sources at John Prescott's super ministry say this sort of thing is still going on. And after Clare Short and Trade and Industry Secretary, Margaret Beckett, reached amicable agreement on ditching the Aid and Trade Provision slush fund, it was DTI officials that tried to muddy the waters.

Now it seems they are planning to try to stop the Government making its planned cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, if next month's climate summit in Kyoto fails to agree on them, even though both the PM and his deputy have promised to go ahead anyway and, a poll last week suggests, over two-thirds of firms support them. As the man asked: "Who rules Britain?"

o REMEMBER phthalates? They're the suspected "gender-bender" and cancer- causing chemicals whose levels in baby milk caused a furore last year. The row subsided amid frantic government news management, but the chemicals have not gone away.

Now they've turned up in soft toys and babies' teething rings. Austria plans to ban toys containing them next year. Denmark has published a strategy for phasing them out. The Netherlands has urged retailers to take them off the market and the Belgian retail federation has asked its members not to sell teethers and rattles containing phthalates. You ask about Britain? Worry not. The DTI says there is no cause for concern ...

o BUT then we've long been cavalier about exposing our children to pollution. For years councils in the areas of Scotland with the highest levels of lead in water - one reason for the brains of one in ten of Britain's children being damaged by the toxic metal - did nothing. As one senior medic sighed: "The first symptom of lead poisoning appears to be complete indifference to its effects."

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