Select Committee on Public Administration Sixth Report


APPENDIX 8

Memorandum submitted by Colin Seymour-Ure, Professor of Government, University of Kent at Canterbury

DOWNING STREET PRESS OFFICE

  The Prime Minister's press secretary had so much influence that he "seemed to have the status almost of a minister". That sounds like a reference to Alastair Campbell. But in fact it was a newspaper comment about Francis Williams, the first postwar incumbent and the first ever to have the secretaryship as a substantial job. He was an inspired Attlee appointment in 1945, given the task of interpreting to the press the unexpected landslide Labour Government. Williams had been editor of the Labour Daily Herald from 1937 to 1940 and he was a senior official in the Ministry of Information during the war. "Most of the cabinet were old friends of mine", say his memoirs.[1] He enjoyed the confidence too of the Lobby correspondents, who were then a smaller, longer serving, more tightly knit and older group than now. Williams took the post for two years and was judged a great success. When he resigned the press gave him a tobacco jar made of stone from the bombed House of Commons.

  In the Blair Administration's first year Downing Street news operations have attracted more publicity than ever before. Francis Williams' example may help to put them in perspective. For how far is the publicity due principally to a change of government in an era of electronic exposure inconceivable fifty years ago? How far, on the other hand, do the Government's arrangements raise new issues of public interest? This paper explores some of the factors affecting the answers to those questions.

THE DOWNING STREET PRESS SECRETARY: WHO IS RIGHT FOR THE JOB?

1. Choices for the Prime Minister

  An incoming Prime Minister confronts several choices. Does he or she want a civil servant, or a journalist? If a civil servant is a generalist/policy specialist better, or an information officer? If a journalist, should it be a print or broadcast specialist; a lobby correspondent or some other specialist; a partisan or a non-partisan? The prime minister might also take a view about how long the secretary should stay.

2. Prime Ministers' Choices: the Record

  Table 1 shows what Prime Ministers have done since Attlee. With exceptions on both sides, Labour prime ministers have chosen journalists and Conservatives have preferred civil servants. As a former political journalist, therefore, Alastair Campbell conforms to type. Attlee chose a journalist-turned-civil-servant to succeed Francis Williams. Harold Wilson first appointed Trevor Lloyd-Hughes, Lobby correspondent of his local daily, the Liverpool Daily Post; and then Joe Haines, who had eleven years' experience in the lobby, latterly with the pre-tabloid Sun. James Callaghan, however, took with him to Downing Street the information officer he was working with as Foreign Secretary.


TABLE 1
Prime Ministers' Press Secretaries, 1945-1998

Prime Minister
(month/year of taking office)
Press Secretary
(month/year of taking office)
Preceding experience

Clement Attlee (July 1945)Francis Williams (July 1945) Journalist/wartime civil servant
Philip Jordan (December 1947) Journalist/civil servant
Reginald Bacon (June 1951) Journalist/civil servant
Winston Churchill (October 1951)Fife Clark (early 1952) Journalist/civil servant
Anthony Eden (April 1955)William Clark (October 1955) Journalist (diplomatic)
Alfred Richardson (November 1956) Journalist/civil servant
Harold Macmillan (January 1957)Harold Evans (February 1957) Journalist/civil servant
Alec Douglas-Home (October 1963)John Groves (October 1963) Journalist/civil servant
Harold Wilson (October 1964)Trevor Lloyd-Hughes (October 1964) Journalist (political)
Joe Haines (June 1969) Journalist (political)
Edward Heath (June 1970)Donald Maitland (June 1970) Civil servant (FCO)
Robin Haydon (April 1973) Civil servant (FCO)
Harold Wilson (March 1974)Joe Haines (March 1974) Journalist (political)
James Callaghan (April 1976)Tom McCaffrey (April 1976) Civil servant
Margaret Thatcher (May 1979)Henry James (May 1979) Journalist/civil servant
Bernard Ingham (November 1979) Journalist/civil servant
John Major (November 1990)Gus O'Donnell (November 1990) Civil servant (Treasury)
Chris Meyer (October 1993) Civil servant (FCO)
Jonathan Haslam (February 1996) Civil servant
Tony Blair (May 1997)Alastair Campbell (May 1997) Journalist (political)


  Like Campbell, Williams and Haines had solid Labour credentials. But Lloyd-Hughes tended, as Wilson's aide Marcia Williams put it, "to shrink from any part of the work of the government which could in any way be regarded as political".[2] This was so unsatisfactory, as Marcia Williams implies, that Wilson appointed a separate "parliamentary press liaison officer", paid for from party funds and not located in the press office, to do the party political press work. This was Gerald Kaufman, at that time working for the New Statesman.

  On the Conservative side, Winston Churchill disliked the whole business of press relations. he tried at first to do without a press secretary altogether. Then he kept the post at arm's length, without even an office at Number Ten. His appointee, Fife Clark, was another of the common breed, stretching down to Bernard Ingham, of journalist-turned-civil-servant. He became a distinguished head of the Central Office of Information. Eden, uniquely among Conservatives, appointed a working journalist—William Clark, diplomatic correspondent of the Observer and, to this day, the only press secretary with significant experience of political television, of which he was a pioneer. Clark, whose politics were Observer pink, resigned at the height of the Suez crisis. Eden's successors have all chosen civil servants, but not of the same kind. Five were journalists who became information officers. At least one of these, John Groves (Alec Douglas-Home), had worked as a lobby correspondent. Ingham had been a labour correspondent with the Guardian, and he had moved on from information work shortly before Mrs Thatcher appointed him press secretary. Ted Heath's two secretaries both came from the FCO. Donald Maitland was summoned from his post as ambassador in Tripoli. Heath had worked with him on the abortive EEC entry negotiations in 1963 and sounded him out before the 1970 General Election. Maitland's successor Robin Haydon came from the post of High Commissioner in Malawi.

  There was an echo of these appointments in John Major's choice of Chris Meyer to be press secretary in 1993. Like the other two, Meyer had been head of the FCO News Department—a post generally held by a career diplomat not an information officer. From Downing Street he duly progressed to ambassador. Gus O'Donnell, Meyer's predecessor, was a policy specialist too, but in the Treasury, where he was head of the information division when John Major was Chancellor. He moved across seamlessly to Downing Street with John Major. With his last appointment Major returned to the information officer tradition, promoting Chris Meyer's one-time deputy, Jonathan Haslam.

  In those appointments, as will be clear even from a summary, the neat choices posted at the start were blurred in practice by considerations such as prior acquaintance and the unexpectedness with which Prime Ministers found themselves in office. Before Blair, and ignoring the uninterested Churchill, only Attlee, Wilson, Heath and Thatcher were in much of a position to "plan" for a press secretary. (Even then, Mrs Thatcher took six months to settle on Bernard Ingham.) The other Prime Ministers took office between elections. Understandably, they tended either to keep the press secretary who was already working with them or else, like Douglas-Home, to promote someone already at Downing Street. What is also unique about Alastair Campbell is that he has worked very closely with his Prime Minister in opposition, rather than having to build a relationship in government. Joe Haines was in the same position in 1974, having worked with Wilson continuously since the final year of his first premiership.

3. Civil Servants and partisans

  The press secretaries appointed from outside have all become temporary civil servants. How has this been squared with partisanship? Francis Williams had already become a civil servant during the war and he similarly continued as such in Downing Street. Besides, Attlee did not want a party zealot so much as someone "in broad sympathy" with Labour aims. Williams squared the circle very effectively. Eden was content that William Clark, the next such appointee, was not a Conservative. Again, he expected "broad sympathy"—which he would probably have got, but for Suez. Some of Eden's colleagues felt differently. Central Office pressed the case for half Clark's plainly viewed as a lbotomy. Wilson initially solved the problem by having one square (Lloyd-Hughes) and one circle (Kaufman). In his second term (1974-76), when this arrangement had lapsed, Haines' overt partisanship may not have sat comfortably with traditional Civil Service non-partisanship. But his appointment was comparatively brief.

4. Partisanship and Tenure

  With Bernard Ingham the problem was the other way round: he was a civil servant sometimes behaving allegedly like a partisan. Here the difficulty was surely Ingham's exceptional tenure. Only Harold Evans, who stayed throughout the seven years of Macmillan's premiership (and was rewarded with a baronetcy, against Ingham's knighthood) has come anywhere near Ingham's eleven years in office. Most have served three years or less. None of the civil servants, apart from Ingham, has had his non-partisanship called in question. Long tenure seems almost bound to be seen to put it under strain.

  The present government has reportedly squared the circle by giving Alastair Campbell a contract which imposes normal civil service regulations "except to those aspects which relate to impartiality and objectivity"[3]. In the light of past experience, this seems eminently realistic.

WHAT SHOULD BE PRESS SECRETARY'S JOB DESCRIPTION?

  There is no logical point at which a Prime Minister could not argue that more resources for media relations might increase the chances of achieving his or her goals. So how big should the press secretary's job be? Since Francis Williams' time, the job has become institutionalised, specialised and diversified. It now includes four parts: Spokesman (or woman), adviser on media relations, intermediary (or agent) with the news media, and manager.

  As Spokesman, the secretary briefs journalists in groups and singly—a role which enables him to block contact as well as to facilitate it and which makes him, as a corollary, a key person in the communication of information to the Prime Minister from the media. As Adviser, secretaries have helped with everything from writing speeches and grooming the prime minister for TV performances, to strategy about media use. As Intermediary the secretary deals with (sometimes in a burly sense of the term) Journalists and media executives about stories, interviews and logistics (including foreign travel). As manager the secretary runs an office with about a dozen staff and liaises with the departmental information services to ensure the Government speaks with one voice.

  Different secretaries have concentrated on different aspects, but those tasks define the scope of the job. They make the press secretary a classic man (never yet a woman, in Britain) in the middle. Unless he enjoys the confidence of the Prime Minister, he is useless to his media clientele; and unless he has the confidence of the media, he is useless to the prime minister. His primary duty is to the Prime Minister; yet he cannot fulfil it properly without a commitment also to the different, and potentially clashing, goals of the media. If he gets the balance wrong, he is doomed. Thus William Clark's effectiveness rapidly faded during the Suez crises, as the lobby realised he was becoming distanced from Eden. In contrast Haines' closeness to Wilson seems to have placed the traditional system of Lobby briefings under strain in 1974-76, and they were abandoned until James Callaghan took office.

PROBLEMS AND ISSUES

  Several controversial issues about the press secretary have recurred over the years.

1. Partisanship

  Most of the issues involve partisanship in some way. The pros and cons are clear. A partisan secretary can openly share the Prime Minister's values; will be more credible as his or her surrogate when briefing journalists; will have extra authority in his intermediary role and in co-ordinating information services. He need not keep clear of party conferences, party speeches and other routine party activities. The pretence can be abandoned that party and non-party work in Downing Street public relations can be constantly kept apart. So can the spurious belief that advice on the presentation of a course of action can be kept separate from advice on its substance. Non-partisan appointees can indeed become effective surrogates—none more so than Bernard Ingham. Yet this was precisely one of the grounds on which he was eventually accused of partisanship.

  A partisan secretary, on the other hand, may find it hard to avoid getting caught up in Cabinet or Parliamentary Party rows. His very loyalty to his boss may threaten his credibility, if he parrots a party line, makes knee-jerk reactions to events, or persists in comments too much at odds with plausible versions of the truth. Tough partisanship works fine in the good times; an element of detachment may help when things go badly. Journalists seem to value such detachment, and Civil Service appointees can provide it not least because their career base outside the Prime Minister's entourage gives them some protection.

  Another complaint about partisan secretaries is that they may behave as though they are Ministers—a recent allegation against Campbell which echoed criticisms of Ingham. Lastly, a partisan secretary, compared with a civil servant, will lack the advantage of knowing the Whitehall machine and has been likely, in the past, to be less effective at co-ordinating the departmental information services.

  Where the balance of advantage lies will depend on other aspects of the way news operations are run.

2. Relations with the Lobby Journalists

  The press secretary's twice-daily briefings of the Lobby journalists have provided a structure and rhythm to the office's work ever since Francis Williams' time. In its heyday (until the early 1970s, say), the Lobby was a uniquely privileged, well paid discreet group of journalists, many of whom stayed 20 years or more in the job. There was a small "inner" Lobby of national and provincial dailies and news agencies, working to a 24-hour cycle, who were briefed collectively (but not only collectively). The "outer lobby" consisted in Sunday and weekly papers, various editors and foreigners and literally one or two broadcasters. The outer Lobby were denied access to the daily briefings; many had "one day a week" tickets just for access to the House of Commons lobby itself. The Lobby membership list was kept secret. The system had started to crumble long before the 1970s, with admission to the daily briefings conceded to provincial evening papers, then to Sundays, then to broadcasters; and with "alternates" permitted (i.e., substitute attenders, not additional ones).

  In the old system a small elite, who knew each other and the ways of Westminster intimately, virtually monopolised the reporting of Parliamentary politics and government business. In return for not revealing their sources, they were given advance and otherwise sensitive information (including of Dunkirk and D-Day). The fictions of collective cabinet responsibility and individual Ministerial responsibility were thus reconciled with the realities of personality and party differences. Downing Street dominated government news; the Lobby dominated political journalism.

  Since then, the composition of the Lobby and its relation to other parts of the media's coverage of government have changed out of recognition. Regardless of whether the quality of coverage is "dumbing down", it is provided today by a far wider range of specialists and of media. The Lobby is still central, composed of political "generalists"; but Downing Street's media clientele is widely dispersed. It has been increasingly plain since the start of the Thatcher administration that the press secretary could no longer realistically regard his briefings as off the record. The 1997 Cabinet Office Working Group on the GIS recognises this by recommending that they should henceforth be held on-the-record (Report, paragraph 25-29). This small move towards demystification should be welcomed.

  Beyond that lies the question of source anonymity. The dilution of the Lobby membership meant that the press secretary has had increasingly to regard his anonymity as a sham. Donald Maitland was ready to abandon it as long ago as the early 1970s, but the Lobby themselves opposed him. Bernard Ingham did not wish to be identified even as a "Downing Street source", but he was content with "a Government source"[4]. Alastair Campbell is evidently happy to be "the Prime Ministers' official spokesman" (Cab. Office Report, paragraph 27) but not to be identified by name. The reason given by the Cabinet Office report is that he might be built up "too much into a figure in his own right", if he were named. For the same reason the report rejects the idea that the briefings should be on camera. Both suggestions are acceptable as points of principle, but I wonder how long they can be sustained. If the briefings are sufficiently significant to be on the record and to remain a core part of press office routine, it is a paradox for the briefer to remain anonymous.

3. What Future for Lobby Briefings?

  Once officially on the record, Lobby briefings will have lost their original purpose of enabling the press secretary to say things privately which would have been untimely or impolitic on the record and attributed to him. But both sides need these exchanges just as much as in the past. Indeed the journalists arguably need them even more, insofar as Ministers are spending less time in the lobbies of the Commons itself. The collective briefings came into existence only in the early 1930s. Before that, there was no one to give a briefing.[5] Lobby journalism was a matter of individual sleuthing and of hunting in groups of two or three, with much surreptitious "swapping of blacks" (i.e., carbons).

  Downing Street's new openness paradoxically tips the emphasis back towards an earlier age. The exact patterns of substantial contact between the press secretary and his colleagues on the one hand, and journalists on the other, will become a little bit more opaque, rather than less. Indeed one or another "inner Lobby" of a few major players, meeting the press secretary privily and regularly, could presumably develop all over again. (To some extent this already happens, I believe, with briefings for Sunday and foreign correspondents.)

4. Prime Ministerial Press Conferences

  So long as the press secretary could brief unattributably, there was no need for a Prime Minister to hold press conferences. Indeed the lobby has a powerful vested interest in opposing it—and did so, strongly, when Heath's secretary Donald Maitland experimented with the idea.[6] The House of Commons, too, has traditionally disliked Prime Ministerial performances which distract public (and Prime Ministers') attention from the forum of the Commons itself. Commonwealth Prime Ministers, in Canada and Australia for example, have found that giving regular press conferences means meeting the press when you do not want to, as well as when you do.

  So there are plenty of arguments against press conferences. Nonetheless, once the Lobby meetings are on-the-record and the press secretary briefs about what the Prime Minister may be doing or thinking, it may become more difficult for the Prime Minister to avoid giving regular, if infrequent, press conferences himself—like his counterparts in the United States and those Commonwealth systems derived from Westminster. There will also be a case for him to meet the Lobby more often than most Prime Ministers did in the past.

5. How many Masters does the Downing Street Press Secretary serve?

  Ever since Attlee's formal letter appointed Francis Williams to act "on behalf of the government generally", there has been no doubt that the press secretary is not simply the Prime Minister's secretary. Except in Churchill's postwar administration, the secretary has always had an office in Number 10 and has been a Prime Ministerial appointment. Just as the Prime Minister is only "first among equals", so the press secretary works for the Cabinet as a whole. But just as "first among equals" is a logical impossibility, so the press secretary's position is in practice less clear cut. The Cabinet Office Working Group report refers to him formally as Chief Press Secretary, but then it slightly confuses the situation by suggestion that, when briefing, he should be referred to as "the Prime Minister's official spokesman" (Report, paragraph 27).

  How far serving the Government and serving the Prime Minister amount to the same thing depends on how far the Cabinet does behave as an entity. To the extent that it does not, it is inescapable that the secretary may become entangled in the competing leaks and rivalries. Civil service appointees may distance themselves from these (as may fairly be said, I believe, of John Major's Administration); although the rows will not necessarily have derived from party considerations. A Cabinet may simply take time to reach a collective view or may be seriously split on a question of policy. There will occasionally be messy resignations and controversial reconstructions. The secretary can never aspire to be an executive news source, but if he turns aside too many leading questions, he jeopardises his authority and his control of the news agenda. Alternatively, if he enters the fray with a will, he may be seen too uncompromisingly as the Prime Minister's man. The longer his incumbency, too, the more likely will he be identified with the Prime Minister.

  A new factor which will affect the secretary's standing is the appointment of political press secretaries to senior ministers such as the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Their loyalty, both to their boss and to the Downing Street secretary, is quite different from that of a Civil Service information officer.

6. How big a co-ordinating Role for the Press Secretary?

  Bernard Ingham doubled as Chief Press Secretary and head of the GIS for the last two years of Mrs Thatcher's Government. Earlier press secretaries had sometimes taken little interest in the weekly meetings of department heads of information and had in effect delegated co-ordination to the head of the GIS of their time. As Ingham plainly saw, this was surely a hazardous attitude for the 1990s. In an era of electronic glut and of a diverse, curious and disrespectful press (some of it expert in any given field), Downing Street must be active in managing the co-ordination of government information day to day, otherwise it risks losing the initiative and suffering from interdepartmental squabbles. The institution of a Strategic Communications Unit and an improved replacement for Cab-E-Net (outlined in the Cabinet Office report) are logical developments in the process of institutionalisation and professionalisation going back to 1945. Within the Government, moreover, they strengthen the hand of Downing Street, at a time when the Downing Street Secretary is matched by political press secretaries in other Departments. The longstanding rule that major Ministerial interviews and media appearances should be cleared in advance with Downing Street—a more sensitive instance of co-ordination—sounds odd in an electronic age. Although it has not always been easy to enforce, it remains in fact as logical as ever, so long as we have a Cabinet system.

7. Ministerial Back-up for the Press Secretary?

  The rule about clearing interviews sounds odd partly because Ministerial knuckles are rapped, when it is broken, by a bureaucrat not by a fellow minister. The stronger the case for central co-ordination of information work by Downing Street, both day to day and strategically, the weaker the case for leaving this in the hands of an appointed official. Yet this has almost been the British practice.

  Broadly speaking, British Prime Ministers have chosen between two extremes. One, exemplified by Francis Williams, Bernard Ingham, and perhaps Joe Haines, is to have a strong secretary capable of behaving somewhat Ministerially, in the sense that his closeness to the Prime Minister gives him exceptional authority. At the other extreme, there has been a Civil Service appointee to do nuts and bolts, with a Minister taking responsibility for the political side. Harold Macmillan was the pioneer of the latter arrangement. Harold Evans survived as press secretary so long yet so uncontroversially, precisely because Dr Charles Hill (who was responsible for appointing him) briefed journalists independently and took control of media strategy and departmental co-ordination. When Macmillan sacked one third of his Cabinet, including Hill, in July 1962, Bill Deedes was given the same job, sitting in the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. Michael Heseltine had comparable responsibilities as Deputy Prime Minister in John Major's Administration. In addition he chaired a daily cabinet committee (EDCP), bringing together officials from Downing Street, key departments, the party and the whips' office, to review communication issues.

  Prime Ministers who followed neither model were either in office a comparatively short time (Eden, Douglas-Home, Callaghan) or else they took the role of Minister of Media Relations themselves—the most savvy example (in his own view, anyway) being Harold Wilson. There is a good argument for adopting this strategy. Media relations, political marketing, public communication—however you choose to call it—is so central to the process of governing that a prime minister who does not keep it under fairly close supervision takes two risks. Either he pays it insufficient attention and loses the initiative; or else he delegates it to a colleague who thereby becomes a potential rival or the ally of a rival.

  The distinctive feature of the Blair arrangement is the co-existence of both a strong press secretary, very close to the Prime Minister, and a co-ordinating minister, Peter Mandelson. This is unprecedented. Mandelson chairs a similar daily meeting to the one chaired by Heseltine. The work of all the participants has implications for government communication. By bringing those people together daily as a group, the Blair Administration brings those implications into focus and gives them higher priority. It is difficult to see any future government working without some similar arrangement.

THE DOWNING STREET PRESS OFFICE: THE BLAIR MODEL

  In comparison with its predecessors, and so far as one can judge from outside, the Blair press office might be characterised as follows. More than almost any secretary of a first-term Prime Minister, the press secretary hit the ground running, having established a close relationship with Mr Blair in opposition. As an ex-Lobby journalist, Alastair Campbell is unusually well equipped to understand the needs, strengths and weaknesses of his media clientele; less so, to appreciate the susceptibilities of civil servants. His changes to Lobby briefings seem likely further to destabilise the Lobby system, perhaps with paradoxically regressive consequences.

  For a party resuming office after eighteen years, an openly partisan press secretary makes good sense. It enables him to be at the heart of the Prime Minister's entourage, to reflect the fact that the press secretary's job description has always been a bit fuzzy at the edges, and to contribute to almost any aspect of the prime minister's work without risk of offending constitutional niceties. His partisanship helps link Downing Street to the party organisation more effectively, perhaps, than either party has been linked before (though I wonder if that will last?). His partisanship recognises, implicitly, that in a TV age the press secretary cannot avoid becoming a familiar figure.

  Ministerial oversight of media relations is provided by the Minister without Portfolio and a daily co-ordinating committee. Structures and procedures are being developed to make communications work as active as possible throughout Whitehall, under Downing Street control.

  Overall, these arrangements amount to a further stage in the professionalisation of Downing Street news operations. they are the logical result of the ever greater intrusion of electronic media, in particular, into all aspects of the political process. Everywhere nowadays is potentially a place in or from which the Prime Minister may communicate publicly. His news operations must respond to that fact.

  Prime Ministers and media do not have identical interests. Hence relations between them tend not to be in equilibrium for long. These relations are a product of the periodic reactions of each side to changes in the other (new parliaments and Prime Ministers; new media technologies and moguls). The balance of advantage and satisfaction tips from side to side. Over a period of time, Prime Ministers come to see themselves as the victims of irresponsible, ill-intentioned or incompetent media; while media see themselves bludgeoned and manipulated by cynical news managers (spin doctors, in current parlance). Memoirs on either side are full of hand-wringing and carpet-biting.[7] We are currently in a phase when the balance has tipped strongly in the Prime Minister's favour. There is no reason to suppose it will stay there indefinitely. The question, rather, is how long before it tips back.

April 1998


1   Francis Williams, Nothing So Strange, London: Cassell, 1970, p.215. Back

2   Marcia Williams, Inside Number Ten, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972, p. 48. Back

3   Quoted in The Guardian, April 4 1998. Back

4   Bernard Ingham, Kill the Messenger, London: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 203-4.  Back

5   The new briefer was the rudimentary Downing Street press secretary, George Steward, who went to Number 10 from the Treasury during the 1931 financial crisis, to help Ramsay MacDonald, and stayed on for about ten years. Back

6   Heath held three stagey conferences in 1973, in the grand surroundings of Lancaster House. The lobby disliked being props for the TV cameras and having their penetrating questions answered on camera. Back

7   A journalistic survey of prime ministers' relations with newspapers up to the late 1970s was subtitled "The War between Fleet Street and Downing Street". James Margach, The Abuse of Power, London: W H Allen, 1978. For prime ministers and television, see, for example, Michael Cockerell, Live from Number Ten, London: Faber and Faber 1988. Back


 
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