New rules for ministers will curb 'spin' tactics

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is to rewrite the code of conduct for ministers to stop spin doctors leaking government announcements before they are released to MPs.

The anti-sleaze code, which also governs ministers' dealings with Parliament, will be changed to make clear that announcements should be made to MPs before the media.

The Government's response to a report by the Commons Public Administration Committee says: "It is an important principle that when the House is sitting, announcements of government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament." At present the ministerial code merely asks ministers "to bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements of government policy should be made, in the first instance, to Parliament".

The new rules follow rebukes from the Speaker, Michael Martin, who has criticised ministers for announcing policy changes and initiatives on radio in advance of official statements in the Commons. Ministers have also been repeatedly attacked by Opposition MPs for leaking important announcements to guarantee favourable publicity.

Tony Wright, chairman of the Public Administration Committee, welcomed the Government's concession. "The clear signal to ministers is that Parliament's rights must be respected; a heartening move towards that re-establishment of a proper balance between executive and legislature.

"This will certainly have implications for the way that government makes its announcements, and for the current proposals on parliamentary reform," he said.

The Government's memorandum does not say when the change will be made. But Mr Wright called on ministers to take immediate action to clamp down on leaks as a "step towards tackling public cynicism about politics".

Tim Collins, the shadow Cabinet Office Minister, said: "This change in the Government's stance, if not merely rhetorical, will involve a massive change in the entire culture of spin and media manipulation, which has been at the heart of this administration since 1997.

"I trust that this change will be implemented immediately and we will be seeking early parliamentary proof of this profound change of heart."

Despite the concession, ministers rejected the committee's recommendation that a special select committee should be allowed to examine the Prime Minister. Mr Wright said: "The special kind of detailed scrutiny provided by select committees is an important democratic safeguard, and it was never logical that the Prime Minister should be exempted from it.

"With the post-election growth of offices working directly to the Prime Minister, the case for exemption looks weaker than ever."

¿ Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, called for an end to "party political mud wrestling" yesterday to try to reinvigorate interest in politics.

Speaking in advance of the publication of proposals for Commons reform tomorrow Mr Cook said: "Whenever the public tunes into Parliament they tend to be presented with an institution wallowing in the kind of party political mud wrestling which turns voters off in droves.

"If the Commons wants to earn respect, it needs to adopt business practices which reveal a chamber more concerned with the public interest and less motivated by party advantage."