Government plans to seize profits from officials' books

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The Government plans to seize the profits from books written by former civil servants and political advisers to deter officials from publishing their memoirs.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, has asked the Treasury Solicitors, the Government's legal advisers, to draw up proposals to ensure the copyright on information gathered by officials during their work lies with the Government.

To enforce the clampdown, he plans to rewrite the individual contracts of officials and tighten up the Whitehall code of conduct. The move follows the controversy over the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the US, whose book, DC Confidential, included embarrassing criticism of ministers, including Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Sir Gus said: "One reason why I am looking at the civil service code is to ensure that what is confidential remains confidential ... We would be in a terrible state either if we shy away from giving the best advice or if ministers don't ask for it because they think any conversations would be recorded later."

He has asked the Treasury Solicitors for an urgent report but admitted:"It is turning out to be quite complex." The material gathered by officials during their work could be made subject to Crown copyright, allowing the Government to recoup the profits from any books. "That's exactly what they [the Treasury solicitors] are looking at," Sir Gus said.

Whitehall legal experts doubt that the provision could be made retrospectively for officials who have left the Government - including Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street director of strategy and communications, whose eagerly awaited memoirs are expected to earn him a seven-figure sum.

Sir Christopher came under fire from MPs when he appeared last week before the Commons Public Administration Select Committee. Lord Turnbull of Enfield, Sir Gus's predecessor as cabinet secretary, saidDC Confidential had done lasting damage to the relationship between ministers and their officials. Sir Christopher told the MPs the Cabinet Office had said the Government had "no comment" to make about the book, which he interpreted as a green light to publish it.