Ministers forced to halt checks on MPs

Click to follow
Indy Politics

The Government was forced yesterday to scrap the controversial practice under which civil servants investigate the background and motives of MPs before their parliamentary questions are answered.

Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, ordered his department's guidance on answering written questions to be withdrawn after The Independent disclosed that officials had been told to check whether MPs were "friendly".

His action failed to quell the criticism from opposition MPs that the Government had extended "spin" to Parliament and breached Whitehall rules by ordering neutral officials to act in a party political way.

Other departments are using similar techniques when they draw up their replies to questions tabled by MPs. The guidance for Treasury officials, written in March, states: "It is legitimate to exploit the parliamentary process to obtain good publicity for the Government's policies and record, and to point to flaws in alternative policies."

When some departments compile briefings for Downing Street before Tony Blair answers Prime Minister's Questions, civil servants are told to include "supportive comments from members of the Opposition" and "killer facts" such as comparisons with "the previous administration".

The Liberal Democrats said they would ask Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, to investigate the guidelines used by Whitehall departments. They also complained to the Speaker and the anti-sleaze Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Andrew Stunell, the Liberal Democrats' Chief Whip, said: "The Government must now review all guidance to civil servants in every department. How can Parliament hold the Government to account if it constantly filters information on the basis of party affiliation?"

There has also been anger at the revelation that profiles of MPs have been kept by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on work and pensions, has demanded to see the personal files kept on him and any internal e-mails about him. He has compiled a dossier of examples when Labour MPs were given more detailed replies to identical questions he asked.

Tony Blair's spokesman said: "Andrew Smith has seen the guidance and has asked that it be reviewed. He believes that the phrase 'friendly' is not appropriate and should be removed."

Sources at the DWP insisted that Mr Smith and Alistair Darling, his predecessor, had not seen the guidelines, which had been drawn up by "relatively junior civil servants". A DWP spokeswoman denied that it held secret files on MPs, saying the department's library had only standard reference books.

Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat spokesman on House of Commons matters, said the guidelines for DWP civil servants were in direct conflict with previous statements by the Speaker and the code of conduct for ministers.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, said he had "no responsibility" for such matters but added: "Of course, I expect ministers to give proper replies."

David Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said giving different answers to different MPs was "a fundamental breach of parliamentary accountability" and said the ministers "should be ashamed of themselves".

Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman, attacked the media last night for "pious and hypocritical" criticism of the Government over spin. Writing in The Times, he said the e-mail about burying bad news on 11 September and the e-mail seeking information about the Paddington rail crash survivors were a mistake, but criticism had been "exaggerated".