Officials warned on use of focus groups

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Government departments have been ordered to keep party politics out of focus group polling, which has cost taxpayers millions of pounds since the general election.

Government departments have been ordered to keep party politics out of focus group polling, which has cost taxpayers millions of pounds since the general election.

The order comes amid growing concern that Labour has appointed focus groups to justify its policies rather than simply develop them. Focus groups were first set up for Tony Blair in opposition by Philip Gould, who used them to gauge public opinion.

New guidelines warn that, while it is "perfectly proper" to conduct such research into areas of political controversy, civil servants must ensure they cannot be accused of bias.

The guidance says: "Public expenditure must not be used for party political purposes. Publishing results - or at least making them publicly available - will also provide a defence against accusations that the research is party-politically motivated. Particular care should be taken during election campaigns."

It adds that no focus groups or opinion surveys should be set up until the departments concerned have ensured they are fully necessary and will provide best possible value for money.

The Conservatives' senior vice-chairman, Tim Collins, said his party would pursue the issue through parliamentary questions to find out how much had been spent and on what.

"Yet again, we find that the Government is wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on matters that have nothing whatsoever to do with improving public services, and which may have had a party political benefit to the Labour Party," he said.

According to parliamentary written answers, the Government spent more than £2m on focus groups and opinion polls in its first year. Most spending appeared to have been undertaken by arts-related quangoes. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport said its non-departmental public bodies and agencies had spent £530,000 on focus groups and £1.4m on other forms of market research in Labour's first year.

The Lord Chancellor's Department spent £5,920 on a survey of attitudes on law and order. The Scottish Office spent £14,000 on groups to develop a Scottish Parliament information campaign. The Home Office spent £7,500 researchingattitudes on the use of CS gas.

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