Labour leaders plug in to the laptop line

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The Independent Online
Ministers are to be plugged into the government line 24 hours a day under the latest initiative designed to eliminate gaffes and keep them "on message".

Laptops capable of performing instant rebuttal at any distance from Westminster and any time of the day or night are being handed out at a cost of around pounds 66,000 per department.

The new system, invented by a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, is just the latest in a series of measures designed to ensure that both Labour MPs and ministers are always "on message".

Already, all government announcements must be cleared with Downing Street along with media interviews and even lunches. Next week the Chief Whip, Nick Brown, is to write to all MPs warning them of the dire consequences of breaking the rules.

Now a number of senior government figures will be able to receive briefings at the press of a button when they are facing difficult questions.

The system, known as Mint - for ministerial information network technology - is the brainchild of Joe McCrae, a self-confessed "computer anorak".

Advisers to a number of other senior ministers including Ann Taylor, Leader of the House, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, and Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio, have asked to be plugged into the system with their own laptops after a Whitehall demonstration by Mr McCrae.

The Tories are likely to scoff at ministers going "on line" on their mobile computers to answer questions, but Mr McCrae justifies the move to new technology by pointing to Labour's massive majority in the House of Commons. The election was won by Labour with the help of a high-powered rebuttal unit and a sophisticated computer system operated at Labour's Millbank media headquarters.

The "rebuttal" button will enable ministers to call up information on an issue to respond instantly to attacks on government policy, including the date of earlier criticism. "If ministers use the system properly, they should never be caught out," said Mr McCrae.

Mr McCrae said there would be no attempt to let ministers plug into the party information net at Millbank, but it will have similar features.

The computer program will also enable a minister at the press of a button to call up the answers to questions in the House of Commons on any subject, his or her past speeches on the issue, and any press releases from the government press department.

Officials are being given computer training this week on the system and ministers will be briefed when they return in September from holiday.

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