Byers accused of ordering purge as exodus continues

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Stephen Byers' department continued to fall apart yesterday as two more senior press officers left their jobs.

Whitehall sources said the departures from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, were part of a "purge" ordered by Mr Byers, although an official spokeswoman said they left of their own accord.

The continuing haemorrhage of staff came after the suspension last Monday of Ian Jones, who was temporarily relieved of his post as head of news at the department following an inquiry into leaks.

The latest civil servants to go are David Prior, deputy to Mr Jones, and Michael Burrell, whose responsibilities included the rail industry and London Underground.

Mr Prior is leaving for the Cabinet Office and Mr Burrell for the Lord Chancellor's department. An official spokeswoman said their departures were not linked to inquiries over leaks.

It is understood, however, that both men – in common with virtually everyone else at a senior level in the department – are unhappy with the way the ministry has been led by Mr Byers and his former spin doctor, Jo Moore. Since June 2001, 10 members of the 16-strong department have left.

A senior Whitehall official said of the most recent departures: "This is clearly part of a clear-out. The problem is that anyone with experience of the rail industry has now gone. There is no memory to tap.

"Mottram [Sir Richard Morrtram, the department's Permanent Secretary] has got orders to clear the press office out. The latest two to go have been found jobs but they would still be in the department if it were not for the purge."

The first senior civil servant to be forced out under Mr Byers' stewardship was Alun Evans, who left his job as overall head of communications last summer.

Mr Evans had refused to allow one of his press officers to co-operate with a campaign, initiated by Ms Moore, against Bob Kiley, the London transport commissioner appointed by the Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Mr Evans argued that it was not the job of a civil servant to "rubbish" opponents of government policy.

On 11 September, Ms Moore sent out an infamous e-mail suggesting press officers use the occasion to "bury" bad news. More recently, Mr Byers initially refused to confirm Mr Jones's appointment as head of news. Mr Byers was known to have favoured the appointment of Ann Wallis, who is a friend of Ms Moore.

Then came the furore over the departure of Martin Sixsmith, head of the directorate who left after accusations that he leaked a story to a newspaper. Mr Byers claimed he had resigned although Mr Sixsmith denied it. Ms Moore was forced to quit at the same time.

A spokeswoman for the DTLR said: "It is true that two members of staff are transferring at their request to other GICS [Government Information and Communication Services] posts. This is not linked in any way to the leak inquiry which is closed and has nothing to do with disciplinary matters."

¿ The Government tried to avoid a potential row over "cronyism" last night by announcing it had abandoned plans to appoint a former spin doctor to the chairmanship of a powerful spending watchdog.

Lord Warner, a former senior adviser to Jack Straw, had been in line to become chairman of the influential Audit Commission, which is responsible for scrutinising the performance of local authorities and the NHS in England and Wales.

But a statement issued last night said Lord Warner would not be going to the commission.