Minister accused of poll rules breach over terror announcement

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Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was accused of breaching election rules today by making a major anti-terrorism announcement during the run-up to local polls.

Ministers and government departments are supposed to observe a period of silence - or "purdah" - in the weeks before a vote.

The system is designed to prevent the party which is in power from having an unfair advantage during an election campaign.

But Ms Smith today announced 300 new police officers, community support officers and back-room staff will be moved to new duties combating radicalisation.

Conservative shadow communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles reported Ms Smith and other Labour ministers to the Cabinet Secretary for breach of Whitehall election rules.

A Tory spokesman said: "The announcement by the Home Office on police staff... breaks both the convention and official rules that official Civil Service resources should not be used to attempt to influence elections in the three weeks up to elections."

Mr Pickles said: "It is clear that Labour ministers have intentionally broken Cabinet Office rules in an attempt to create a political smokescreen.

"They are trying to hide the fact that police authorities across the country are now axing the number of police officers, whilst hiking the police levy on council tax bills."

Electors go the polls in some English and Welsh councils, as well as the London Mayor and Assembly, on 1 May.

Purdah officially began on 10 April for Whitehall departments, and as far back as 20 March for the Mayoral elections.

It comes two weeks after Tories levelled similar accusations at Prime Minister Gordon Brown for promoting his party's law and order policy on the day the Home Office ran £150,000 of adverts on neighbourhood policing in national newspapers.

Mr Pickles said: "This latest incident follows the abuse of the Government advertising budget by the Home Office.

"I fear that this is growing evidence of the politicisation of the Civil Service under Labour, as ministers desperately try to salvage a sinking election campaign."

A Tory spokesman added: "The issue of police officers is of particular political sensitivity, given police authorities across the country are now cutting the number of police officers and hiking the police levy on council tax bills by way above inflation.

"Conservatives are accusing ministers of trying to grab headlines and mislead the public, as the Labour Party panics over their local elections and London Mayoral prospects."