Government Communications - Communications Committee Contents


Events that led to the Phillis Review

7.  In his evidence, Sir Robert explained that "the Labour opposition before the election was very, very effective in its news management, and on taking power I think the view was that much of the old [Government Information Service] system was not well equipped in the skills of news and media management … as the Labour opposition had been before they took power" (Q 8).

8.  In the two years following the 1997 election, 17 of the 19 departmental Heads of Information left office (Q 534), and a number of political special advisers (see paragraph 85 for further background) were appointed to work in communications.

9.  In September 1997, the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin (now Lord) Butler appointed Sir Robin Mountfield to review the Government Information Service (GIS). The Mountfield Report was published in November 1997. It identified a number of weaknesses with the existing system, including wide variation in the practice and effectiveness of press offices across departments. In some instances, there had been a breakdown in effective co-ordination between civil service press officers and special advisers briefing the media. There had also been accusations of pre-emptive briefing by one department against another, and criticism from some senior journalists of the loss of impartial and press office service providing a function of record[1]. Most of the report's recommendations were adopted (see paragraph 35).

10.  However, despite clearer guidance to both civil servants and special advisers on their respective functions and duties, further problems arose. Most notable were the high-profile events in 2001-02 within the then Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which led to the resignation of both the special adviser, Jo Moore, and the Director of Communications, Martin Sixsmith.

11.  In July 2002, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee conducted an investigation of the incident and made a number of recommendations intended to stop any such problems arising in the future. One of the main recommendations was for a "radical external review of Government communications" to "examine not only the effectiveness of the Government Information and Communication Service, but also the roles played by other civil servants and special advisers who have a responsibility for communications".[2] The Government accepted this recommendation.

The Phillis Review's terms of reference and principles

12.  The Government subsequently appointed Sir Robert Phillis to chair the Review, which began work in February 2003. Its terms of reference were to:

13.  The Review's main recommendations are reproduced at Appendix 6. It published an interim report in August 2003 and a final report in January 2004. The final report suggested seven main principles should underpin all Government communications. They were:

  • Openness, not secrecy.
  • More direct, unmediated[4] communications with the public.
  • Genuine engagement with the public as part of policy formation and delivery, not communication as an afterthought.
  • Positive presentation of government policies and achievements, not misleading spin.
  • Use of all relevant channels of communication, not excessive emphasis on national press and broadcasters.
  • Co-ordinated communication of issues that cut across departments, not conflicting or duplicated departmental messages.
  • Reinforcement of the civil service's political neutrality, rather than a blurring of government and party communications.[5]

14.  It is important to keep these principles in mind as they underpin all the Review's recommendations. It is against these principles that our inquiry has sought to examine the present effectiveness of Government communications.

What the Phillis Review found


15.  Sir Robert told us that the "major theme that dominated" (Q 20) the final report was a "three-way breakdown in trust between government and politicians, the media and the general public".[6] The Review suggested that this breakdown had led to increasing disillusion among parts of society, particularly the young and certain ethnic groups and concluded that the "traditional culture of secrecy in British government has not helped this breakdown".[7] The main focus of the recommendations was therefore to help restore "trust in, and the credibility of, government communications".[8]

16.  The Review's recommendations were aimed at the Government, but we did ask Sir Robert what reciprocal responsibility rested with the media. He explained that although "the media was not a specific part of our brief and review … we felt that both government and the media and the press should ask themselves what their responsibilities were in the reporting of accurate, credible, timely and truthful information during the process" (Q 13). We agree.


17.  The fundamental problem the Review identified related to the structure of Government communications. The influence of the Government Information and Communications Service (GICS), which had replaced GIS, was minimal. It was not involved in policy formulation in individual departments, or the process of co-ordinating information between departments (QQ 8, 14). It had no formal role in departments' recruitment or development of communications staff.[9] The Review concluded in its interim report that GICS had "neither the authority nor the capability to enforce standards in communications".[10]

18.  Membership of GICS was voluntary, and, according to Howell James CBE, who was a member of the Phillis Review, it was very hard to identify the criteria for membership (Q 45).

19.  The weakness of GICS resulted in a lack of co-ordination in the event of crises or policies that involved several departments. The Review found "duplication of effort, contradictory messages and a damagingly slow response to crises".[11] Sir Robert described the lack of co-ordination during the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 as "extraordinary" (Q 31). These "structural and systems weaknesses" made GICS "no longer fit for purpose".[12]

20.  The Review's identification of this fundamental problem resulted in a recommendation in the interim report that the Government replace GICS with "a more powerful, authoritative centre"[13] that used "a wider definition of communications professionals encompassing all those involved in communication activity". This new centre was to be led by a new post of Permanent Secretary, Government Communications.[14]

21.  The Review suggested that the new Permanent Secretary, Government Communications should have responsibility for appraising departments' communications performance, in order to encourage consistency, transparency and high standards. His functions would also include setting standards in recruitment and instigating a development programme in order to improve skills[15], and co-ordination of cross-government communications activity.[16]


22.  Sir Robert told us that the weaknesses of Government communications had led to the incoming administration in 1997 trying to take greater central control. One way it sought to do this was to expand the number and role of special advisers skilled in handling the media (Q 8). He suggested that the approach of many of the special advisers working in communications was to favour an "inner circle" of reporters that led to "a sense of exclusion" among the rest of the media (QQ 13, 18). Sir Robert told us that this increased the adversarial relationship between the Government and the media, which resulted in a "tendency to challenge every piece of government information from whatever source" (Q 13). This tendency was exacerbated by the timing of the publication of Government statistics and facts, which Sir Robert believed were sometimes "used to reinforce a political point" (Q 19). This "use of information as a political weapon" had "contributed to the atmosphere of mutual suspicion between the government and the national media".[17]

23.  To address the particular issue of the use of statistics, the Review recommended that "core central government statistical information should be automatically, routinely and systematically made available, with schedules published in advance and strictly observed"; and proposed "a new statute to define a clear remit for the National Statistician and the Statistics Commission"[18], which would underline their independence from political interference.[19]

24.  In 1997, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications and Strategy, Alistair Campbell, had been given the power to direct civil servants. This arrangement made Sir Robert "very uncomfortable" (Q 29).

25.  The Review also found that, in some departments, special advisers' relationships with Civil Servants, and their respective roles and responsibilities, were not always clear. Such relationships had the potential to create confusion over the point at which advocacy compromised impartiality.[20]

26.  The Review therefore recommended that the new Permanent Secretary, Government Communications should develop clear guidelines to cover all staff involved in communications, including special advisers[21], with new rules to cover the conduct of special advisers and boundaries with the civil service[22]. It also recommended that complaint procedures should be introduced for civil servants experiencing difficulties as a result of the demands of special advisers.[23]

27.  With particular reference to the arrangements at Number 10, the Review recommended that shorter-term media handling and cross-government crisis co-ordination should be shared between two posts—first, a politically appointed Director of Communication, and second, the Prime Minister's Senior Official Spokesperson, a civil service appointment, with management responsibility for Number 10's communications civil servants to fall to the civil service appointment.[24] The executive powers given in 1997 to Alistair Campbell in his role as Director of Communications and Strategy should not apply to the successor appointment at Number 10.


28.  A further area that the Review examined was the Lobby system. The 'Lobby' is the name given to a group of parliamentary journalists who enjoy privileged access to briefings and to certain parts of Parliament. The chief privilege is the right to enter Members' Lobby (adjacent to the Commons Chamber)[25] in order to interview MPs. The other main privilege is access to Lobby briefings given twice daily by the Prime Minister's Spokesperson. One is held in the Treasury at 11am, hosted by Number 10 and now open to all journalists. The other is held in the Palace of Westminster at 3.45pm, hosted by the Lobby itself and restricted to journalists with Lobby passes. (See Appendix 4 for the current number of Lobby passholders for each news organisation and Appendix 5 for an example of a summary of a Lobby briefing.)

29.  The Review was concerned that there was a perception among journalists that an 'inner circle' received more information than other reporters. This was partly to do with the Lobby. The Review found that the Lobby system was "no longer working effectively for either the government or the media"[26], both of which had had "their credibility damaged by the impression that they are involved in a closed, secretive and opaque insider process".[27]

30.  The Review therefore recommended that "all major government media briefings should be on the record, live on television and radio and with full transcripts available promptly online", and that "Ministers should deliver announcements and briefings relevant to their department at the daily lobby briefings, which should also be televised, and respond to questions of the day on behalf of the government".[28]


31.  Although the term 'Government communications' embraces both media handling and direct communication with the public, the Review was concerned that the Government had concentrated its time and resources too much on the national media. This led to the Review's "central recommendation"—that "the role and scope of government communications" be redefined to mean a citizen-focussed "continuous dialogue with all interested parties"[29], based on the principle of "direct, unmediated communications to the public"[30]. The Review further recommended empowering the public through "Customer-driven online communication"—the presentation of Government information on the internet to reflect user need and perceptions.[31]

32.  In evidence, Sir Robert said that the public has more trust in information that is not mediated by journalists and that this was the driver behind the Review's recommendations (Q 20).


33.  The Review cautioned against the "excessive emphasis on national press and broadcasters", and urged, as a matter of principle, that the Government use "all relevant channels of communication".[32] It found that "much can be done to improve the relevance and appeal of communication from government by tailoring it to the different communities of the United Kingdom." Two advantages were cited for this "more localised approach"—the potential both to "harness the greater trust often placed in local media"; and to "engage" audiences directly affected by Government policy in a particular way in particular regions.[33]

34.  An important element of this new approach would be the value regional offices could add to the Government's message by providing information on local or regional impact—and communication of local views back to Whitehall. It was also suggested that the Government "should involve local and regional newspapers and regional radio and TV to a much greater extent".[34] In addition, it was suggested that more "frequent visits to the regions by Cabinet Ministers are important, particularly when there is a controversial live issue to address such as a major road or airport development."[35]

1   Report of the Working Group on the Government Information Service, Cabinet Office (Office of Public Service), November 1997, paragraph 4. Back

2   Public Administration Select Committee, 8th Report (2001-02): "These Unfortunate Events": Lessons of Recent Events at the former DTLR, (HC 303), paragraph 64, p 19. Back

3   An Independent Review of Government Communications, January 2004, p.1 ("the Phillis Review"). Back

4   By "unmediated", the Phillis Review seems to have meant not mediated by journalists. Back

5   Phillis Review, p. 2 Back

6   Ibid. Back

7   Ibid. Back

8   Ibid. Back

9   Ibid., p. 9. Back

10   Ibid., p.32. Back

11   Ibid. Back

12   Ibid., p. 3 Back

13   Ibid., p. 34 Back

14   Ibid., p.3. Back

15   Ibid., pp. 19, 21. Back

16   Ibid., p.13. Back

17   Ibid., p. 23. Back

18   Ibid., p. 4. Back

19   Ibid., p. 25. Back

20   Ibid., p. 32. Back

21   Ibid., p. 4. Back

22   Ibid., p. 21. Back

23   Ibid., p. 22. Back

24   Ibid., p. 14. Back

25   Only journalists with Lobby passes may enter Members' Lobby. Journalists with general parliamentary passes have access to other areas, including Portcullis House, where many meetings between journalists and MPs now take place. Back

26   Phillis Review, p. 4. Back

27   Ibid., p. 25. Back

28   Ibid., p. 4. Back

29   Ibid., p. 3. Back

30   Ibid., p. 2. Back

31   Ibid., p. 5. Back

32   Ibid., p. 2. Back

33   Ibid., p.18. Back

34   Ibid. Back

35   Ibid., p. 19. Back

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