Tories 'hijack' civil servants

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Labour has reacted with alarm to the Government's use of civil servants to check statements issued by the Tories and to liaise with Conservative Central Office during the general election.

The move is revealed in the 1997 general election guidance notes issued by the Cabinet Office, a document that traditionally closely guards the impartiality of the Civil Service.

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, demanded immediate assurances that the civil servants involved will not be used for party political purposes. The notes, drafted by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, state that the Prime Minister has set up an "Election Business Unit" in the Cabinet Office supervised by Lord Cranbourne, the Lord Privy Seal. During the election, Lord Cranbourne, a close ally and friend of Mr Major, is acting as his chief of staff.

The unit, according to the guidance notes, will "act as a channel of communication with Conservative Central Office" when it wants "to check with departments' statements to be made on the Conservative Party's behalf for factual accuracy and consistency with Government policy". It will advise "on any aspect of the handling of enquiries during the election period", and "provide any necessary coordination where enquiries raise issues which affect a number of departments".

Mr Prescott said: "It is highly unusual for the Government to be concerned about factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies in ministerial statements. It causes me concern that such a unit exists. We shall be watching it."

Once an election has been called, Whitehall is supposed to switch to a neutral posture and prepare for the advent of a government that might have one of a number of different political complexions.

The opposition argues that no similar unit was in place in recent general elections. "As far as we know, it is unprecedented," said one source.

A spokeswomen for the Cabinet Office said: "There is no question of civil servants in the unit being used for party political purposes. By convention, it is perfectly proper for the governing party to ensure that statements made on its behalf are factually correct and consistent with government policy."