Whitehall receives new rules on bias in policy research

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

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

The clampdown comes amid growing concern among opposition parties that Labour has appointed focus groups in order to justify its policies rather than to develop them. Focus groups were first set up for Tony Blair in opposition by Labour's pollster, Philip Gould.

New Government guidelines issued last week and seen by The Independent 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.

"Public expenditure must not be used for party political purposes ... Particular care should be taken during election campaigns," the new guidance says. It adds that no focus groups or opinion surveys should be set up until the departments concerned have ensured they are necessary and will provide the best possible value for money.

The Conservatives' vice-chairman, Tim Collins, said his party would pursue the issue in Parliament 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 in power.

The bulk of spending on focus groups 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.

Several other departments also spent substantial sums. The Lord Chancellor's department spent £5,920 on a law-and-order survey, while the Scottish Office spent £14,000 on groups to develop a public information campaign on the Scottish Parliament. The Home Office spent £7,500 finding out about public attitudes to CS gas.

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