Ministers 'drip feed poison' against civil servants

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Indy Politics

The rown surrounding Stephen Byers reignited yesterday when the senior civil servants union accused ministers of releasing a "drip feed of poison" against Whitehall officials.

Jonathan Baume, the general secretary of the First Division Association launched an attack on "bullying" by Jo Moore, Mr Byers' former special adviser.

In a blow to Downing Street's hopes of drawing a line under the troubles, a Commons select committee is to summon the most senior civil servant involved in the Martin Sixsmith "resignation" affair.

The Public Administration Committee is expected to call Sir Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, to give evidence to an investigation into Government communications.

Sir Richard's appearance, which could prove highly damaging to Mr Byers, was called for yesterday by Mike Granatt, the head of the Government's communications service.

But it was Mr Baume's evidence to the MPs that was the most explosive, claiming Ms Moore "bullied and victimised" Whitehall press officers and officials while she was in her post.

Mr Baume said Ms Moore had "no grasp whatsoever of the concept of political impartiality in the civil service".

Crucially, he also blamed Mr Byers and Sir Richard for failing to crack down on Ms Moore earlier.

"It was a collective failure. A failure by the Secretary of State to recognise the damage his special adviser was doing to him and his department, to recognise how unacceptable her behaviour was," he told MPs.

"The civil service failed at senior levels to resolve the problem and, therefore, left more junior staff exposed and I suspect that was primarily a consequence of the unwillingness of senior managers to cause any embarrassment to a minister."

Mr Baume, who is representing Martin Sixsmith, the Director of Communications at the DTLR, in negotiations about his future, said the recent controversy had been "a very painful affair".

But he made a defence of the handful of civil servants who leaked information about Ms Moore, pointing out that they felt they had been left little option because they felt Sir Richard and Mr Byers would not stand up for them.

"The key to understanding recent events rests with one person, Jo Moore. I genuinely regret having to say this and I am only doing so to make sense of recent events," he said.

Most special advisers worked well with civil servants, but Ms Moore had been "a serious problem" ever since she arrived at the Department of Trade and Industry with Mr Byers following the departure of Peter Mandelson.

"Jo Moore was forceful and aggressive to the point where she bullied and victimised civil servants in both press and policy related areas. Her behaviour as described to me was an almost classic case of bullying. In both DTI and Transport, civil servants did not raise concerns through the normal procedures. They did not do so because they did not believe any action would be taken to tackle her behaviour."

Mr Baume said most of the problems in the DTLR began with the departure of Alun Evans, Mr Sixsmith's predecessor who was forced out after complaining about Ms Moore's attempts to get junior civil servants to "spin" against Bob Kiley, the Transport Commissioner for London.

"A small number of people did 'leak' in desperation because they believed the system was failing to protect them and they did not see why they should have to vote with their feet," he said.

Mr Baume said the problems caused by Ms Moore could only be tackled if a Civil Service Act was introduced to create statutory definitions of special advisers' roles, but stressed ministers had to make such legislation work.

"There must also be a political recognition that where problems arise in terms of the behaviour of either ministers or special advisers, these will be tackled and not brushed under the carpet," he said.

However, a friend of Ms Moore said last night: "This person he talks about bears absolutely no resemblance to the person I know. He is hardly an impartial witness because the FDA is acting for Sixsmith."

In the Commons, the Leader of the House, Robin Cook, apologised for having inadvertently misled MPs by claiming two weeks ago there had been no e-mail from Mr Sixsmith warning against trying to "bury" awkward news on the day on the Princess Margaret's funeral.

Nevertheless, one senior Labour backbench MP said of Mr Byers last night: "He's not out of the woods yet."

In earlier evidence to the committee, Mr Granatt, revealed that 40 special advisers now had contact with the press, an increase on the 11 previously admitted by officials.