Politics: Fears of Labour purge as press officers quit Whitehall

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The Independent Online
John Major's former press secretary, Jonathan Haslam, yesterday became the seventh senior Whitehall press officer to resign or move post. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports on why a third of government information chiefs are packing their bags.

Jonathan Haslam was doing his own "spin-doctoring" yesterday, handing out press releases to journalists at Westminster announcing that he was resigning as head of information at the Department of Education and Employment.

Mr Haslam, 45, who survived the flak directed at Downing Street for five years under John Major, is the seventh senior Government information officer to leave since the general election in May.

Last night he denied reports that he had quit after a row with Stephen Byers, the education minister, for refusing to include a "political" paragraph in a press release from the department.

The contentious sentence, in a release on parental choice, supposedly attacked the "hollow" claims of the previous administration.

Both Downing Street and Mr Byers also denied the report, which claimed the minister had been rebuked for trying to break the Civil Service code of impartiality.

However, the departure of a third of government information chiefs heightened suspicions that a Whitehall cull is being carried out by Mr Haslam's successor at No 10, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's chief press secretary, and Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio.

Mr Haslam, who is to become director of corporate affairs at the London Metal Exchange, denied he was being pushed.

"I have had a fantastic job opportunity put before me and an offer which allows me to develop my career. I have been very lucky in that I have worked in eight government departments, travelled the world and I did the best job in town.

"I had an extremely good job in DFEE and extremely warm relationship with David Blunkett [Secretary of State]." Mr Haslam said he remained loyal to Mr Major but had never been asked about his politics, or been asked to carry out a political role within the Government since Labour came to power. "There was no row," he added.

His departure follows six other information chiefs who are leaving, seeking early retirement or are being redeployed. They are: Jill Rutter (Treasury); Andy Wood (Northern Ireland), Gill Samuel (Defence), Steve Reardon (Social Security), Liz Drummond (Scotland) and Jean Caines (Trade and Industry).

The moves by such senior press officers have sparked reports of personality clashes with ministers, and rows over the handling of "bad news" or government announcements.

It coincided yesterday with a union meeting of 47 middle-ranking Whitehall press officers who aired grievances about low morale and fears about the "politicisation" of the civil service. Bill Brett, general secretary of the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists will next week tell Mr Campbell and senior officials the civil servants want to put a stop to "being rubbished" and "slagged off" by ministers' special advisers, who have more leeway to act as "spin doctors".

The concern has arisen over a drive by Mr Campbell and Mr Mandelson to overhaul and modernise the whole Government information machine to match the slick operation they ran while Labour was in Opposition.

The civil servants privately admitted that they were in need of being updated. Mr Brett said: "The view of the members was that it is a Rolls- Royce service - just maybe a clapped out Rolls-Royce. That is because it has been considerably downsized in the past decade."

But it has also raised anxiety that they are in danger of crossing the grey line between providing factual information as civil servants and defending the Government as party "spin doctors".