End the charade that surrounds the flow of government information

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The Independent Online

More claims and counterclaims in the latest instalment of Sixsmithgate, a byzantine saga of daily life in the Department for Transport. But buried deep inside the continuing brouhaha is a point far deeper than the future of the various cast members (all of whom, it should be said, emerge from this farce with their reputations tarnished).

As we pointed out yesterday, the real problem is that Whitehall has not been politicised enough. The existing arrangements – a few special advisers floating around departments with ill-defined, ambiguous jobs – are simply not good enough. Mr Byers's chaotic handling of the feuds prompted by his own behaviour has, inevitably, concentrated attention on the immediate issue of the Secretary of State himself and the clashes within the Department for Transport. But we need to take a step back and look at why Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith have been at loggerheads, and what can be done about it.

It is, of course, about far more than a mere personality clash. Mr Sixsmith, with his tattered stance of studied impartiality, would claim to be on the side of the angels. But why do we assume that this supposed impartiality is, of itself, a good thing? Are, for instance, United States government spokesmen and information managers less trustworthy than our own, because they are political appointees? Quite the opposite. Reporters and others who need access to information know precisely where they are coming from, and work within those parameters.

The British distinction is, more often than not, meaningless – one of those elegant fictions of which the British constitution is so full. The line can sometimes be so fine as to be barely worth drawing – which begs the question as to why we go through the charade of drawing it in the first place. Indeed, the Byers/Moore/Sixsmith affair has prompted some ridiculously pompous twaddle. Take the Prime Minister's Official Spokesmen – the jargon for Godric Smith and Tom Kelly, who succeeded Alastair Campbell. Both are neutral civil servants, unlike their predecessor. But their lack of a Labour Party membership card has made no noticeable difference to the nature of their lobby briefings. They are the Government's spokesmen, and it is their job, just as it was Mr Campbell's – and just as it was Sir Bernard Ingham's and every one of their predecessors – to present information on its behalf. The only real difference is that their tone is more genteel than in Mr Campbell's days.

Instead of going through this charade and pretending that the separation of government and party is always clear cut, it surely makes more sense – and is more realistic – to accept that all governments seek to present their case as convincingly as possible, and that supposedly impartial civil servants are, in speaking and briefing on behalf of any government, inevitably caught up in that process. But crossing that line, and accepting that the key information posts ought to be openly political, needs to be balanced by a stronger control by Parliament on the free, and impartial, flow of information itself. Whilst the spin put on it can be partisan, the information itself must be untouched by politics, and open to all.

An arrangement analogous to the National Audit Office makes most sense, to oversee the objective impartiality of statistics and information itself. The problems arise precisely when there is this blurring of spin and neutrality and it becomes impossible, in the real rather than the theoretical world, to separate them. And we end up with the ridiculous spectacle of civil servants having to issue their own, competing accounts of meetings which were only necessary in the first place because of the spurious distinctions being drawn.