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Planning Appeals Bill

Mr. Nigel Evans, supported by Mr. Peter Atkinson, Mrs. Angela Browning, Dr. Julian Lewis, Miss Anne McIntosh, Mr. Andrew Robathan and Mr. Robert Syms, presented a Bill to remove the right of appeal to the Secretary of State against certain planning decisions: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed [Bill 29].

Company and Business Names (Chamber ofCommerce, etc.)

Mr. Andrew Lansley, supported by Mr. Michael Trend, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Richard Page, Mr. Nick Harvey, Mr. Robin Corbett, Ms Gisela Stuart, Mr. James Paice, Mr. Nick St. Aubyn and Mrs. Louise Ellman, presented a Bill to make provision concerning the approval of company or business names containing the expression "chamber of commerce" or any related expression; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed [Bill 30].

Fuel Poverty and Energy Conservation

Mr. John McAllion, supported by Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. David Chaytor, Ms Roseanna Cunningham, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. Clive Efford, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mrs. Linda Gilroy, Mr. David Lepper, Sir Robert Smith, Mr. Alan Simpson and Mr. Matthew Taylor, presented a Bill to require energy conservation authorities to draw up reports concerning fuel poverty and to designate officers with responsibility for energy conservation; and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 March, and to be printed [Bill 31].

13 Jan 1999 : Column 311

Opposition Day

[2nd Allotted Day]

Government Information

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.35 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I beg to move,

This is the second of three debates introduced by Liberal Democrats today. This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) introduced the debate on the crisis in the health service. This debate will be followed by a debate about Britain's leadership position in Europe.

Christmas is supposed to be a season of good will, but not for this Government. After the holiday, Westminster was strewn with political corpses on the scale of a gangster movie or a performance of "Macbeth". The main victims came from the ranks of those who are or have been responsible for purveying Government information. The battle had largely been about their activities.

The regime of partisan press briefing and press management that was at the centre of those events came into being after a series of high-profile departures of more traditional civil service press officers. One of them created the "Tumbrel Club" to describe the departed civil service press officers. Senior press officers from the Treasury, Department of Social Security, Ministry of Defence, Scottish Office, the Overseas Development Agency and the Northern Ireland Office all went as the new Government devised a new type of press operation.

In a telling piece of evidence to the Public Administration Committee, Steve Reardon, one of the casualties, said:

a phrase, he added, that

    "I constructed at the behest of the Department to account for my going."

Perhaps some changes were needed. Perhaps better central co-ordination was required. Perhaps a sharper round-the-clock operation was needed. The bulk of the civil service press staff remain in place under new leadership. Are the new people at the top not doing a good job? In some respects they are, but the problems have proved very serious indeed. I refer particularly to their enthusiasm for unattributed briefing and spinning. Their very anonymity is often a deception on the public.

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Statements are made that are not open to challenge. No one knows whether they have any authenticity or credibility.

An extremely effective letter appeared in The Independent on Tuesday. It referred--interestingly, from my point of view--to a claim that had appeared in The Independent that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary

The writer of the letter, Mr. Michael Kay, stated:

    "I scoured the rest of the story for quotes from these three 'heavy-hitters'. Not a word. Andrew Grice quotes 'a source close to Mr. Brown'. Later in the story Colin Brown in Cape Town quotes 'one Blair aide'.

    Who are these invisible people who must not be named?"

Mr. Kay went on:

    "These incognito sources are the very spin doctors so reviled in your editorials. . . Reveal your sources. Some of your readers might find it intriguing to evaluate the quality of your material. Or is it none of our business?"

That is a fair and strong point, made by a member of the public in that correspondence.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): I read Mr. Kay's letter. I took it as a criticism of Mr. Grice, the Lobby system and the way that newspapers use it, not as a criticism of Government press officers.

Mr. Beith: If the hon. Gentleman continues to listen, as he is doing, he will find that some of my criticisms spread over on to those who operate the system. It takes two to operate the system--those purveying the dubious information, and those who put it into the media.

A great deal of work is done by the Government press machine to convey to media--which are sometimes gullible and sometimes just not in a position to make a proper assessment--a false picture of events. That is especially true when things must be done in a rush. One of the worst examples that I have ever known in 25 years in this place was the press pack on the Scott report under the previous Government. Journalists had no time to read that seven-volume report. They relied initially, at least, on the Government summary, which dealt almost entirely with the charges that had not been proved, ignoring the ones that had. When Lord Justice Scott was asked about that when giving evidence to a Committee, he agreed that the picture presented by the Government summary was not an accurate summary of his report. It was systematically selective information to give a false picture. It was sanctioned by civil servants as well as by political advisers.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Does my right hon. Friend agree, on reflection, that the way in which the Scott report was handled provided eloquent confirmation of the contents of the report itself?

Mr. Beith: Indeed. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his recognition as a Privy Councillor in the new year's honours. I agree with his point.

Successive Governments have used similar techniques in public spending announcements, with press releases for Departments whose spending has been cut pretending that they have great new riches to spend on good causes.

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I cannot remember a Budget-time press release in which a Department says that it will spend less in future, and that it is a very good thing that that will be so.

The spin doctors achieve the same thing in a different way. They do so by selectively trailing speeches that will promise new initiatives and new spending, when journalists have no access to the actual figures or to any advice on them. The spin doctors get away with repeated recycling of the same money. The Home Secretary did it on Tuesday and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment does it regularly. By trailing stories selectively, the process is bypassed by which major public announcements are supposed to be subject to questioning in the House. You have shown your strong disapproval of that practice, Madam Speaker. The practice is at least in part designed to avoid scrutiny by ensuring that an announcement is taken as news at face value. The favourable message is clearly established in the broadcast bulletins well before it can be undermined by any inconvenient facts.

I say to those involved in the Government press machine that it is a mistake to assume that Ministers will always get a less favourable story if they submit themselves to scrutiny in the House. Look for example, at the press coverage of the Foreign Secretary being questioned by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), on Monday. As one of the sketch writers described the Opposition Front-Bench attack,

It is not necessarily in the Government's interests to go about things in this way and undermine a process that is good at ensuring that announcements that are all hyperbole and not substantial are challenged effectively and questioned and that someone who has a sound case to put gets a fair hearing.

The Government press team prefer not to take the risk of letting Ministers win the argument. It would rather get the retaliation in first.

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