Ministers wary of Heseltine's electronic eye

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The Independent Online
NIC CICUTTI

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, is setting up a new electronic diary, controlled from his office, aimed at centralising information and announcements from all Government departments.

However, some of his ministerial colleagues are believed to be ready to hinder the move, due to start today, because they think it will simply lead to Mr Heseltine "cherry-picking" all favourable publicity for himself.

One instance where this is already believed to have happened was in August, when a favourable report on the state of the British economy was issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a club of rich nations.

The Government's reaction to the OECD report was fronted by Mr Heseltine,although the Treasury had already lined up its own ministers to discuss the contents with the media.

Treasury ministers were later said to have been "surprised" at Mr Heseltine's intervention. Other departments are said to have been similarly affected.

One Whitehall source said: "Heseltine has taken over as the person in charge of the Government's presentation of news. But he does not want to be known as the Minister for Banana Skins. Everything must go through him. [There is] a danger that he will cherry-pick."

On his appointment as right- hand man to the Prime Minister, Mr Heseltine made it clear that he was there to manage the Government's day-to-day affairs.

Since July, has required every minister to inform him in advance of speeches, policy initiatives and other media-related events they are organising. Because it was simply done on paper and by phone, compiling the diary has tended to be haphazard, with some events being missed off the list.

The new computer system, installed at a cost of pounds 80,000, links up every government department with Mr Heseltine's office. Each will be required to have one member of staff to input their department's activities.

A final meeting of all those involved, aimed at briefing them about their new responsibilities, took place earlier this week.

However, one official said: "If it looks like Michael Heseltine is taking over the presentational functions of their departments and leaving them with the bad news or things of no consequence, some people will be upset. It will then be easy for people to simply 'forget' to put things on the diary."

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman yesterday confirmed that a new computer diary would be on-line as from Monday: "It is a computerisation of procedures that already exist between different departments."

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