Labour consulted on millennium too, says Dorrell

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The Independent Online

Arts Correspondent

The supposed independence of the Millennium Commission was further undermined yesterday when the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Stephen Dorrell, accused a fellow member of the commission of consulting the Labour Party front bench.

Mr Dorrell was defending his decision, revealed in the Independent yesterday, to consult Cabinet colleagues about projects for the millennium without the knowledge of his fellow commissioners.

Mr Dorrell chairs the commission and fellow Cabinet minister, Michael Heseltine, is a member. But it is an independent body whose members are appointed by the Queen.

It was founded on the premise that projects to mark the millennium should be chosen by a body independent of the government. But Mr Dorrell has written to Cabinet colleagues telling them he would consult them on the quality and priority of projects.

The Labour Party nominee on the commission, Michael Montague, said it was meant to be independent and Mr Dorrell's action was "improper", adding: "It would be equally improper of me to consult the Opposition."

However, Mr Dorrell told the Independent yesterday: "Michael has himself said in commission meetings that he has taken soundings from his side. And I think the commission is better informed because of that. I'm not sure what he objects to."

Mr Montague was not available for comment last night.

When Mr Dorrell was asked yesterday whether commission colleagues knew he was consulting Cabinet colleagues, he joked: "Well, they do now."

He added: "Surely, one of the advantages of having two government ministers on the commission is that they can bring to the deliberations some knowledge of what is going on in government. We need to know what other schemes are being planned in areas where there are millennium applications. That is why I sent the letter to Cabinet colleagues.

"If John Gummer as minister for London is against a particular project in London I will listen carefully to what he has to say. But it is the nine commissioners who will make the decision.

"And I am an independent commissioner. I am there as an individual. I'm not bound by collective Cabinet responsibility."

Mr Dorrell also defended the passage in his letter to Cabinet colleagues giving them a formula to answer parliamentary questions and not reveal to the public what advice they had given him. He excused this yesterday by saying: "There's a difficulty about one minister advising another in public and that advice not being accepted. The public like to be used to ministers speaking with one voice."

Mr Dorrell confirmed yesterday that the millennium festival would begin on 1 January 2000, to fall into line with the rest of the world's celebrations.