Infamous memo on expenses baffles specialists

Labour email furore: Councils
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Indy Politics

As the devastating impact of the world's worst terrorist attack unfolded on television screens in the press office at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on 11 September, the mind of the ministry's chief "spin doctor" turned to councillors' expenses.

Within an hour of the second hijacked aircraft hitting the World Trade Centre in New York, Jo Moore sent an e-mail to senior colleagues. "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?" it read.

Clearly Ms Moore was trawling for embarrassing information that the Government needed to publish but with the minimum of attention.

But her chosen example of councillors' expenses still baffles even the specialist journalists on the Local Government Chronicle. The press release was sent out less than an hour before the Chronicle's deadline the day after the attacks so that journalists had little time to make inquiries.

Chris Mahony, who was news editor for the weekly magazine that day, believes the only sensitive information explicit in the release was a reference to councillors' pension entitlements.

While the Government initially opposed a Liberal Democrat idea that all councillors might be entitled to pensions, ministers changed their minds while a local government Bill was going through Parliament.

However the release makes it clear that the Government had performed yet another U-turn and that only members of a council's executive and the chairmen of key committees should be able to apply for pension rights.

Far more sensitive is the idea that senior councillors should be paid salaries, rather than relatively small allowances as at present, but there is no reference to that issue in the release.

Mr Mahony said: "To be thinking of such things at such a time shows that these people's minds are even weirder than we thought."

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