Number 10 tightens grip on ministers

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An iron New Labour discipline is imposed on Ministers by Number 10 in new Whitehall rules published last night.

The old Questions of Procedure for Ministers published by John Major were relatively slack in the control they exerted over Ministers in their relationship with the media.

Tony Blair's office last night poured scorn on the amateurish nature of the Conservative Government's disciplinary machinery. Number 10, it was explained, was acting with the professionalism that should be expected of the New Labour machine

Under the old rules, for example, it was suggested that when Ministers were invited "by the broadcasting authorities" to give an interview on radio or television, "In the interest of effective co-ordination of the presentation of Government policies, Ministers should ensure that No 10 Press Office is informed of their intentions.

``This will enable them to use broadcasting opportunities to best advantage and to avoid duplication with colleagues."

The gentle and rather diffident nature of that suggestion has now been replaced by a blanket demand that includes all contacts between Ministers and all media contacts, including newspaper reporters - and all events, including lunch.

The new Ministerial Code: A Code of Conduct and Guidance on Procedures for Ministers says: "In order to ensure effective presentation of Government policy, all major interviews and media appearances, both print and broadcast, should be agreed with the No 10 Press office before any commitments are entered into.

"The policy content of all major speeches, press releases and new policy initiatives should be cleared in good time with the No 10 Private Office [of the Prime Minister]; the timing and form of announcements should be cleared with the No 10 Press Office."

The new code then adds, for good measure: "Each department should keep a record of media contacts by both Ministers and officials."

A Downing Street spokesman said last night that if a Minister was dealing with a trivial issue, like widgets, then it might not be necessary to refer the matter to No 10.

But if anything was going to appear in a national newspaper, then it should automatically be referred to Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's Press Secretary, or his staff, for clearance.

There were a number of other changes made in the rules, which have been extensively re-written - making comparison difficult - but adjustments include an uprating on the limit for gifts that Ministers can accept and retain, from pounds 125 to pounds 140.

The receipt of all gifts, in all cases, has to be reported to a Minister's departmental permanent secretary.

Ministers are also now being warned, explicitly, to maintain the secrecy of discussions in Cabinet committees, and a new code of conduct for the relationship between Ministers and Parliament is incorporated for the first time - along with the new warning: "Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister."

In a foreword, Mr Blair says: "I should like to reaffirm my strong personal commitment to restoring the bond of trust between the British people and their Government. We are here to serve and we must all serve honestly and in the interests of those who gave us our positions of trust."