Memo shows Heseltine wanted civil servants to find supporters

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Civil servants were asked by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, to round up Conservative sympathisers in the public services.

A leaked Cabinet Office memo, dated 19 August but leaked yesterday, makes it clear that the initiative was set up by Mr Heseltine in July and approved by the Prime Minister.

Responding to press reports that Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, had blocked the use of officials to recruit "cheerleaders" for the Tories, which would have breached civil service rules, Mr Heseltine said: "The moment I was aware, on my return from holiday in September, that a proposal could be open to such a suggestion, I issued instructions that no such practice was acceptable."

But the memo says that in July Mr Heseltine "proposed that departments should identify service providers who could be vigorous proponents of Government policies". Their names could be made known to the media, "to facilitate balanced reporting of developments".

The plan to find teachers, doctors and public service workers or leaders was to be overseen by the Cabinet committee, known as EDCP and chaired by Mr Heseltine, responsible for "co-ordinating and presenting" government policy.

The memo was a round robin from an official in Mr Heseltine's Cabinet Office to all departments: "To enable EDCP to take an overview, I should be grateful if recipients of this letter could let [name blacked out] here have their departments' plans for action to set up panels of people supporting the Government's policies, by 24 September."

It was circulated to ministers' private secretaries, rather than to their political advisers, apparently in breach of the 1975 civil service code. Civil servants are not allowed to work on party political matters.

Giles Radice, the Labour chairman of the cross-party Public Service Committee, who drew up the code, said: "I am pleased to see Sir Robin is defending the conventions enshrined in the code, but it is disturbing to see that government ministers seem to be trying to flout it." He said he would ask the committee to summon Mr Heseltine to give evidence.

The Deputy Prime Minister told BBC radio: "Robin Butler's note to me made it clear his view, with which I totally agreed, that departments in carrying out this responsibility should use their political special advisers." Asked why the memo had passed between civil servants, he said: "The important thing is to be sure we don't use civil servants for this purpose."

He accused Labour of waging a "dirty tricks" campaign against him, and attacked Baroness Symons, a newly-appointed Labour life peer and former head of the First Division Association of senior civil servants. Sir Robin told her of his ruling in a letter on Friday. "Within hours of Robin Butler having made clear that the position was satisfactory, this particular story was leaked," said Mr Heseltine.

Earlier, Lady Symons told the BBC: "I'm not concerned with the party politics of this at all. I'm concerned with civil service political neutrality being protected." She said particular care to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate uses of civil servants must be taken in the run-up to elections.