Ministers to be questioned in secret

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MINISTERS ARE to be questioned behind closed doors at this year's Labour Party conference in Blackpool, in a move designed to keep left- right splits out of the public eye.

For the first time, the party is to hold private question-and-answer sessions for delegates on key policy areas.

Although details have not been finalised, Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health; Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary; Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, are likely to chair the meetings. Until now, all three main political parties have held their policy discussions in public at annual conferences.

But the traditional debates at which Labour Party members argued over motions and composites are to be removed from its conference agenda this year.

Instead, there will be public discussions on policy and "dialogue" documents - summaries of comments by members - produced by the party's leadership.

Although some delegates are bound to show their opposition by voting against entire documents, they will have no opportunity to amend them and they will certainly be passed.

There will also be emergency debates whose subject will be decided by ballot.

But in addition to these, questions will be answered in camera and away from the main conference hall on this year's four main areas for policy discussion - health, crime and justice, Europe and welfare reform. Policy commissions on these subjects are chaired by Mr Dobson, Mr Cook, Mr Brown and Mr Straw.

Much of the week in Blackpool will be taken up by set-piece presentations from every Cabinet minister, with the highlight being the Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech.

The party leadership is determined to prevent the public rows that have always dominated the headlines during the week of its October conference. During the Labour administration of the Seventies its conference was often opposed to government policy and caused great embarrassment to ministers.

The effect of the changes will be to drive public dissent more firmly outside the conference and into fringe meetings around the town.

Most of Labour's policy debate now goes on in private "forums" around the country. A small proportion of members are elected to a National Policy Forum, which debates proposals from commissions chaired by Cabinet ministers.

The proposals are passed by a Joint Policy Committee chaired by Mr Blair before being seen by members.

A party spokesman said yesterday that the old system led to sterile arguments over "pointless composites that nobody agrees about".

"What we are trying to do is to have a process which keeps everybody informed and to have a healthy debate," the spokesman said.

The new arrangements have caused anger among some sections of the party, not least because Labour has held a series of corporate seminars attended by representatives from most of the major lobbying companies as well as by firms such as McDonald's, United Utilities and Philip Morris.

At one such meeting recently, the party's head of business liaison, Tim Bush, told his audience: "We don't just seek the help of businesses in implementing our policies, we want the practical inputs from your experience in business.

"We need the ideas and solutions that can be generated from the corporate sector."

Matthew Taylor, the party's assistant general secretary, told them that Labour's traditional ways of doing things were "simply incompatible with what the public expects from a party in power". He added: "Our discussions at annual conference must not simply pander to the internal vested interests or political obsessions ... we're not just making policy for our party, we're making it for our community and our country."