Government Communications - Communications Committee Contents


Openness not secrecy

49.  The first of the Review's seven principles, "openness not secrecy"[41], is of fundamental importance. This is the key to improving Government communications. If all Government departments and Ministers fully embraced this principle, many of the problems identified during this inquiry would be substantially reduced.

50.  Evidence we received suggested that the Government has made some improvement in its efforts to be more open in the provision of information, particularly in making more information available directly to the public through the internet (see paragraph 115). However, in other areas there is still progress to be made by the Government to ensure it adheres to the principle of openness, not secrecy. We are particularly concerned about the way in which governments sometimes choose to make announcements.

Making announcements

51.  In their evidence to us, some journalists were critical of what they said were Government statements being selectively trailed in advance of the official announcement, as well as policies being announced prior to Parliament being informed.

52.  We are particularly concerned about the selective trailing of announcements. The evidence we received from journalists suggested that 'friendly' journalists are sometimes told the content of Government announcements before they are made formally. An obvious reason for doing this is to secure favourable and prominent coverage for a Government policy in return for exclusivity.

53.  Jackie Ashley, (Guardian columnist); Steve Richards, (Independent columnist); Benedict Brogan, (Daily Mail Political Editor); and Nigel Hawkes (Health Editor, The Times) all agreed that selective trailing is not a new phenomenon but is more common now (QQ 153, 251, 255). Nigel Hawkes told us that "everything is trailed … usually to journalists who are more likely to take a favourable view" (Q 153). Nicholas Jones, a journalist and member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, agreed. He suggested:

54.  Nigel Hawkes argued that selective trailing is unfair, as it advantages certain media outlets over others. He also said that:

    "certain things will get trailed in advance, sometimes on the understanding that you will not make any phone calls to stand them up or to get criticism of them. The stories appear and they are slightly half-baked stories: when the actual report appears, the appetite for writing about it has gone. Very often big announcements will be made, they will be so extensively trailed that by the time the report actually appears I cannot persuade my news desk it is of the slightest importance. 'We knew all that already, did we not?' That leads to bad reporting" (Q 154).

55.  A closely associated issue is the making of announcements through the media that should properly have been made first to Parliament. Again, this may make it easier for Government to secure positive coverage of their policies. Nick Robinson, Chief Political Editor at the BBC, suggested that the nature of the modern media is also responsible. There can be huge pressure on the Government to respond to breaking stories immediately rather than wait until Parliament is sitting. Referring to one case where the Home Secretary announced a new Government policy on knife crime directly to the media, he explained that:

    "despite the genuine desire of Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister to do things in Parliament first, the pressure to give something to the papers … to fill the time between the headlines on knife crime and the announcement on Tuesday, meant that it was not said to Parliament first, it was not said formally, it was not said by the departmental press team … So all of those things stem from the political pressure that Number 10 feels under, under any administration, to have things to say when they are in trouble" (Q 130).

56.  The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Rt Hon. Liam Byrne MP, told us that all substantial announcements should be made to Parliament first with no pre-briefs (Q 568). We agree with this aim but doubt whether it is always fulfilled. We witnessed one example in the course of this inquiry. In October 2008, the Pensions Bill was being considered by the House of Lords. The Government had previously resisted a backbench amendment to make it easier for women to buy back years to improve their basic pension. The Daily Mail was particularly critical of the Government's refusal to act. Then, on 24 October, the Daily Mail carried an exclusive story splashed on its front page which announced that the Government had reconsidered its policy and would table its own amendment that day. The article included direct quotes from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Rt Hon. James Purnell MP. The announcement was made first on an exclusive basis to a newspaper that was likely to give it a positive reception.

57.  The Ministerial Code states: "When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament."[42] This is an important principle. Members of Parliament are the democratically elected representatives of the people and they have been elected to Parliament in order to scrutinise the Executive on behalf of their constituents.

58.  In Parliament, substantial announcements should be made orally by the relevant Minister. (Statements made in the House of Commons may be repeated in the House of Lords.) Other announcements may be made by written statement to both Houses or in the course of debate or passage of a Bill.[43]

59.  When an announcement is made to Parliament, the information is put in the public domain in an open and transparent manner. All journalists and members of the public have access to that information at the same time and the opportunity of opposition parties and backbenchers to question the Government means that policy is scrutinised from different perspectives as soon as it is announced. The release of information through a statement to Parliament is fully in line with the Phillis principle of "openness, not secrecy".

60.  Recently, some departments have published prior press releases in order to maximise press coverage of the parliamentary statement. Sian Jarvis, Director General of Communications at the Department of Health, told us that it was common and accepted practice to "put out information" in advance about the major themes of a statement in order to be on "the front foot" in promoting government policy. She argued that this was "entirely appropriate" (Q 361). Whether it is appropriate or not depends on the facts of the individual case. What is clear, however, is that in employing this practice the Government risks breaking its own rules (see paragraph 57) on making announcements to Parliament. Government departments must be very careful not to pre-empt Parliament.

61.  In October 2000, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon. Michael Martin MP, made it clear that the content of ministerial statements should not be trailed before they are made to Parliament:

    "I must make it clear that if Ministers were to release information to the press before the House was informed of major policy developments I would regard that as an unacceptable discourtesy to the House. If that occurred, I would expect the Minister concerned to apologise to the House … I expect Ministers to take measures to ensure that other authorities, who are privy to confidential information, protect it until the House has been informed."[44]

62.  We appreciate that in the case of market sensitive information, or certain EU-wide announcements, it may not be practical or possible to inform Parliament first. In such cases, we recommend the Government should commit to return to Parliament at the earliest opportunity in order to give an account of developments.

63.  We also readily acknowledge that both selective trailing and announcements that pre-empt Parliament can raise difficult issues of judgment. It is not always black and white. Journalists themselves compete for "exclusive" stories and some of these will result from "leaks" rather than briefings. Specialist correspondents who know their area can often make an informed guess of which way Government policy is developing. A Minister may make a remark at a lunch with political correspondents that fills in a gap in the journalist's knowledge. Steve Richards observed that "information will get out in all its different forms whatever structure is put in place" (Q 217).

64.  It is important, however, that neither selective trailing nor a willingness to pre-empt Parliament should ever become part of any Government's communication strategy. It is vital that Ministers of any administration should understand clearly the standards expected of them. To help achieve this, we make two recommendations.

65.  First, we recommend that the Prime Minister draw all Ministers' attention to the guidance in the Ministerial Code that the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament. Ministers should be reminded that trailing the content of announcements is incompatible with the Ministerial Code and the guidance of the Speaker of the House of Commons. This should be repeated at the start of every new Parliament.

66.  Second, the Prime Minister should also issue clear instructions to all Ministers, and their staff, that new information should always be provided on a fair and equal basis to all interested journalists. This instruction, too, should be repeated at the start of every new Parliament.

The Lobby

67.  Another barrier to openness is the Lobby system. The Phillis Review suggested that there was "an 'inner circle' of reporters who have good access, but a disenfranchised majority who do not."[45] In 2008, the Lobby had 176 members, with the BBC alone having 30. The Review recommended reform of the Lobby, including televising briefings.[46] In his evidence to us Sir Robert said that the Review's recommendations about televising Lobby briefings had not been adopted because there was "no enthusiasm at all … in relation to media briefings in the role of the Lobby" (Q 22).

68.  Benedict Brogan, current Chairman of the Lobby, said that, previously, the Lobby had been "closed", "secretive and quasi Masonic" (Q 211). He suggested that the modern Lobby is not like this. Howell James, former Permanent Secretary, Government Communications, agreed. He told us that the Lobby had opened up slightly in recent years, with summaries (but not verbatim transcripts) of briefings available on the internet. He questioned, however, whether there was any appetite for televising the briefings (Q 80).

69.  Other witnesses supported broadcasting the Lobby. They included the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), which told us:

    "Recent reforms to the Lobby system have been useful, but have not addressed the central issue—which is the concept that there is some kind of 'magic circle' of privileged journalists who are granted special access to the thinking of ministers. The current system encourages an unhealthy closeness between government and a small elite group of journalists, and the kind of anonymous briefing which exacerbates the cynicism with which the general public views the political system and politicians themselves. Briefings should be open and transmitted live along similar lines to White House press conferences, where the spokesperson (a professional communicator) can choose to respond to questions" (pp 163-4).

70.  Nicholas Jones told us: "Despite its acceptance of the Phillis recommendations, the government made only a half-hearted attempt to persuade Lobby correspondents to accept on-camera briefings and it was no surprise that the Lobby voted to maintain the status quo, anxious to defend at all cost the un-attributable and anonymous briefings which have become the lifeblood of modern political journalism." He went on to state: "On-camera briefings would introduce a sense of discipline … Greater certainty about the government line would also assist departments and agencies" (p 170).

71.  Benedict Brogan said that he would have no particular objection to televising Lobby briefings but wondered whether any real benefits would derive from such action (Q 212). Jackie Ashley said that she "would love to see it on camera. I would not spend my time going there because as a columnist it is not a good use of your time, but I would love to be able to just turn on my computer and click in every day and see what is going on" (Q 213).

72.  However, some witnesses had concerns about a particular aspect of broadcasting Lobby briefings. Benedict Brogan argued that the reason the briefings were not televised was that "civil servants are perhaps reluctant to become faces on television" (Q 211). Howell James was "nervous" (Q 81) about televised briefings, and questioned whether it would be an "appropriate role for a civil servant to appear on television every day". He suggested that, if such briefings were televised, alternatively the Government could consider creating a Minister for Communication to lead the briefings (Q 80).

73.  Civil servants conducting public briefings is not unprecedented. For example, during the Falklands War, a Ministry of Defence civil servant, Ian McDonald, provided press briefings that were broadcast on television and radio. More recently, prominent civil servants such as Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer, and Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser 2000-07, have both conducted media interviews on screen discussing Government policy.

74.  The morning Lobby briefing is already open to all journalists, and although the afternoon meeting is not, this is at least in part because of security and space considerations (it is held in Parliament). Summaries of both briefings are available on the Number 10 website and quotes are attributable to the Prime Minister's Spokesperson. We see no reason, therefore, why the Prime Minister's Spokesperson should not continue to speak at the Lobby briefings if they were broadcast. He would not need to change the nature of what he said: the briefings would continue as they are. Broadcasting them will make them more transparent and open. The Lobby would be more open if briefings were broadcast. This would also help dispel any continuing myths about the Lobby and the sense of secrecy it still engenders.

75.  We see no good reason for not broadcasting the daily Lobby briefings but we note that no progress has been made to break the log-jam. Broadcasting such briefings would give the public and all parts of the media confidence that they are not being excluded from an "inner circle", and would give them information to which they are entitled. We therefore propose that, as a first step, the morning briefing, which is already open to all journalists, should be live on the Number 10 website. If television or radio broadcasters wished to use clips from that footage they could do so.

76.  In the Government response to the Phillis Review, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Rt Hon. Douglas Alexander MP, stated: "The Government remains committed to the principle, reflected in the Ministerial Code, that when the House is sitting announcements of Government policy should, in the first instance, be made in Parliament."[47] From what we have said it is clear that we have no intention of challenging this principle, but the point is that these briefings already take place and should not include pre-announcements. (See Appendix 5 for a summary of a lobby briefing). We are proposing nothing new in that respect. All that televising the briefings would do is make them available to a larger audience.

77.  Historically, the Leader of the House of Commons gave a weekly Lobby briefing after Business Questions. This no longer happens. Adam Boulton, Political Editor, Sky News, explained:

    "One of the longstanding conventions of the lobby has been that the Leader of the House had a weekly lobby briefing which was the main point of direct contact between the Government and the lobby. That was something that fell into abeyance but was brought back by Jack Straw. Harriet Harman, although we sought her out, discontinued it. I think that is a real shame and damages Parliament, not least because it was concentrated around business and what was going on" (Q 139).

78.  Benedict Brogan said it was to his "deep regret" that this practice had been discontinued (Q 208). Previously, this briefing ensured direct contact between the Lobby and Ministers each week and also helped raise the profile of parliamentary business. We recommend that the Leader of the House of Commons should reinstate a weekly briefing on parliamentary business.

Open access to press conferences

79.  A related concern is open access to Government press conferences. In his written evidence William Horsley, Chairman of the Association of European Journalists (UK), argued: "If the government accepts the Phillis recommendations, ministers should take responsibility for ensuring that press officers allow open access to press conferences, and wherever possible to background briefings as well" (p 168).

80.  We received evidence of one case where a journalist was excluded from a press conference at the Department of Health. Mr Tony Collins, Executive Editor of Computer Weekly, told us about a time in 2005 when the department had held a press conference about an NHS information technology project:

Mr Collins was told that he could not attend because the matter would not be of interest to him but he believes that "they did not want me to ask informed questions" (Q 146).

81.  Sian Jarvis defended the Department of Health's actions in this case. She said that the event was a "bespoke briefing" rather than a press conference and that: "Sometimes we want to bring a group of journalists up to speed on a particular subject and in this case we identified that the health lobby did not have as much information about the national programme for IT ... We did not invite the trade press—Tony Collins is part of the trade press—because they had so much information about it" (Q 347).

82.  Whatever the details of this case, we are concerned that there should never be a perception that access to press conferences or briefings is dependent on the kind of coverage a journalist is likely to give. This perception can only fuel the breakdown in trust between the media and the Government. We recommend that all Government press conferences should be as open as possible and that all major press conferences should be live on the internet so that they are open for anyone to listen to.

The roles of civil servants and special advisers


83.  The Phillis Review recommended that one of the seven principles underpinning all Government communications should be reinforcement "of the Civil Service's political neutrality, rather than a blurring of government and party communications."[48] In his evidence to us, Sir Robert stated: "The professional Civil Service communicator must remain impartial, and it was one of the bulwarks of what we said in our report, that this division had to be clear" (Q 16).

84.  In its written evidence, the Cabinet Office stated:

    "All government communications activity is subject to strict propriety guidance, which, along with the Civil Service Code, defines how civil servants can properly and effectively present government policies and programmes. The following basic criteria have been applied to government communications by successive administrations. The communication:
  • should be relevant to government responsibilities;
  • should be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical;
  • should not be—or liable to be—misrepresented as being party political; and
  • should be conducted in an economic and appropriate way and should be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds" (p 120).


85.  Special advisers are temporary civil servants appointed by Ministers (with the written agreement of the Prime Minister). While they must adhere to the Civil Service Code, they are exempt from the stipulation to behave with impartiality and objectivity.[49] The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers states:

    "Special advisers are employed to help Ministers on matters where the work of Government and the work of the Government Party overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved. They are an additional resource for the Minister providing assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available to a Minister from the permanent Civil Service."[50]

86.  The Code attaches further conditions because of special advisers' political status. For example, although they may represent Ministers' views on Government policy to the media, the relevant political party must handle briefing on purely party political matters. The Code also establishes that all contacts with the news media should be authorised by the appointing Minister and conducted in accordance with the Guidance on Government Communications.[51]

87.  We note that, since 1995, the number of special advisers employed by the Government has risen from 38 to 73—a 92 per cent increase. According to the Rt Hon. Liam Byrne MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, 13 of the Government's special advisers deal primarily with the media, including two media specialists at Number 10 (Q 561). We believe that it is extremely important that special advisers adhere to the same rules as civil servants, with respect to selective trailing and pre-announcements. For example, the Government's own propriety guidance for its own communications staff clearly states: "Any announcement of a new policy must always respect the primacy of Parliament. If a minister announces a new policy outside the House, they risk being reprimanded by the Speaker."[52] Ministers appoint their own special advisers and only they have the power to remove them. Ministers therefore have a special responsibility to ensure this occurs.

Number of special advisers employed by the Government

Financial Year

Source: Cabinet Office written evidence, p 133.

88.  We believe it is of key importance that Ministers make clear at all times that special advisers must follow the guidance available and stay within the limits set down. As well as sending the guidance to all new special advisers, we believe it is imperative that the guidance is brought to the attention of all new Ministers.

Structure of departmental communications

89.  During our inquiry, it became clear that some Government departments have a better reputation than others for the way in which they communicate. This was also the case when the Phillis Review was taking place. The Review noted that "more needs to be done to increase the professionalism and effectiveness of communication within individual government departments and agencies. The implementation of the Mountfield recommendations has been patchy."[53]

90.  In evidence to us, Sir Robert said that one of the problems at the time of his Review was that communications was seen as a second-class role by the civil service and therefore it did not always attract the top people (Q 14). The Review stated: "The standards for entry should be at least as rigorous as those in other areas of the Civil Service. We want communications staff to become what they already are in theory—part of the mainstream Civil Service."[54]

91.  In addition, the Phillis Review advocated greater movement of career civil servants between policy and delivery jobs and communications jobs: "Two-way traffic should be commonplace, both as a means of spreading communication skills through the wider Civil Service and as a way of breaking down the 'them and us' attitude that we have witnessed." It states:

    "All policy officials identified as having the potential to reach the very top levels of the Civil Service (SASC level) should have appropriate communications knowledge or experience. Those entering the senior levels of the Civil Service should be able to demonstrate good understanding of the wider role of communications within government and where they have successfully applied those skills in previous jobs."[55]

92.  However, despite the leadership of the Permanent Secretary, Government Communications, and some significant progress made in developing training and development programmes for communications professionals, it is clear there are still some departments that fail to attract top staff to communications posts. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) told us:

    "In some, particularly the outward-facing and delivery departments, communications has been re-positioned and resourced as an important function with an increasing number of Communications Directors taking on more senior roles. However, there are still a number of departments that neither position and resource communications appropriately nor do they appreciate the contribution that communications can make. In this respect the civil service has fallen behind best practice in industry, where the director of communications almost invariably has a seat at the top table" (p 161).

93.  CIPR also characterised civil service performance as patchy, due largely to a de-centralised professional structure, disparities in budgets and the varying commitment of senior officials and Ministers (p 160).

94.  We also took evidence from the senior communications officials of three large Government departments—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Health. Ian Hargreaves, Strategic Communications Director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told us: "The ideal person joining the Foreign Office Press Office is somebody who has a combination of good knowledge of the Foreign Office by having done a number of postings in the Office combined with some hands-on experience of doing communications work, perhaps in an overseas mission working on the press side" (Q 390).

95.  In contrast, Sian Jarvis explained that it is less common for the Department of Health press office to have staff with significant experience of policy work: "They are mostly professional press officers" (Q 391). She went on to explain that the department does sometimes have fast-stream civil servants with policy experience to do "stints" in the press office, but these rarely last more than six months (Q 393).

96.  Attracting high-calibre staff to communications positions helps ensure that communications is seen as an important role in all departments. The departments that have high-flying staff in their communications offices are better equipped to deal with complex press enquiries. Many of the journalists who gave evidence to us spoke of their frustration in dealing with press officers who were not qualified to discuss policy.

97.  Adam Boulton told us that departmental press offices are "much punier and more insignificant than they were once" (Q 116). He added that in contrast special advisers are now more influential in Government communications, but this had not always produced a good outcome. He said that there had been "a number of instances where the Government have ended up getting into trouble because … the briefing has been done by the special adviser, who frankly did not know what they were talking about and in any case was trying to put a political spin on it" (Q 128).

98.  Nigel Hawkes agreed, saying "you would not these days ring departmental press officers to find out what is going on" (Q 151). Frank Gardner, BBC Security Correspondent, suggested the Ministry of Defence has a mixed record in this area:

    "Generally I find that there is an enormous difference between speaking to serving officers who have recently been on operations, who are now manning a desk at the MoD, and civilians who, frankly, do not know nearly as much and will often be reading from a prepared script which has very much the stamp of central government on it; not quite spin but 'This is the official line and we're sticking to it' … the MoD have come on in leaps and bounds in the last two years; they are making more of an effort to talk intelligently to us and treat us as grownups, but they still have a way to go" (Q 161).

99.  In contrast Tim Marshall, Foreign Affairs Editor at Sky News, held the FCO up as a shining example of best practice: "I am a bit of a patsy perhaps but I do think the FCO is possibly the best press department in Government" (Q 165). He went on to explain:

    "I am able, on a daily basis, to talk through why HMG went down that line on the Zimbabwe vote recently, why they do this, what would have happened if they had done that and they are happy to talk through that and that really informs you as a so-called specialist to be able to get the context. I do not know of any other department which does that. They have a piece of paper in front of them which has the line and they will read it to you and if you try to ask a question about it, it says "Computer says no" and they will read it to you again. The FCO by far and away does exactly what was recommended in Phillis and I am ashamed to say that I am a fan" (Q 166).

100.  The importance of attracting high-quality staff to civil service communications jobs is paramount. If the media are expected to cover Government announcements accurately, journalists must have access to officials who are able to discuss policies rather than simply parrot press releases. We note that, as part of the Professional Skills for Government programme, communications is recognised as a core skill for all senior civil servants. The departments with the best records on communications are those in which many high-flying career civil servants spend time in communications roles.

101.  We therefore recommend that where possible the careers of such civil servants should include a period of service in departmental press offices or communications generally. The Permanent Secretary, Government Communications (in line with his existing responsibility to develop professional standards and spread best practice) should oversee the implementation of this reform, in consultation with the Permanent Secretaries of each department.

Greater emphasis on the regional and local media

102.  An important recommendation of the Phillis Review was that the Government should improve its communications in the regions partly by nurturing its relationship with the regional and local media.

103.  The Government explained that a regional press office service has been part of the COI since 2005 and that in early 2008 the service was significantly restructured "to reduce financial losses and to provide a more integrated service with public relations to support Government campaigns, enabling COI to provide a full mix of marketing communications required by departments." The Cabinet Office also stated: "Many departments now have dedicated regional press officers who work closely with regional media on issues of importance to the local area" (pp 125-6).

104.  However, in evidence to us, Sir Robert felt there was still progress to be made in this area: "we did urge about the importance of shifting investment away from London and national communications operations into regional—the investment actually made in the communications function outside London … I suspect [that] has not happened quite as fully as we might have hoped" (Q 23). Other witnesses agreed. The CIPR stated: "There is in the view of our advisors still work to be done to improve regional communications to connect local people to national agenda issues. Generally communications are initiated, driven and controlled by the centre" (p 162). The Newspaper Society said: "Regional press editors, political editors and Lobby correspondents continue to note the 'never-ending problem of recognition of the regional press' within government press offices whose focus tends to be on achieving broadcast media coverage" (p 179).

105.  Chris Fisher, Political Editor of the Eastern Daily Press, went so far as to say that there had been no improvement in communication with the regional media since 2004:

106.  However, others believed that there was now more information available for the regional media, even if its quality was still poor. David Ottewell, the Chief Correspondent of the Manchester Evening News, told us:

    "My view would be that the quantity of information we get has certainly improved since the review, but … the quality, as far as we are concerned, is often too low and I think that is based on, and I am sure this is something we will talk about a lot, a fundamental misunderstanding sometimes of the requirements and the nature of the regional press" (Q 263).

107.  One of the complaints of regional journalists was that press releases for the regional and local media are rarely more than copies of national press releases with a few local statistics added on. If so, it clearly does not realise Phillis' ambition that each region should do more than "regurgitate" Whitehall press releases.[56] David Ottewell said:

    "there is a sense that what we are often getting from the government information service is a sort of attempt at a regional spin on something we will have already seen nationally and which will already have come out nationally perhaps or a fairly half-hearted attempt to regionalise something which is not necessarily the most up-to-date or interesting news" (Q 264).

108.  Mr Fisher agreed: "Their press releases often try to regionalise national announcements with a sort of barrage of statistics … and those statistics are of extremely limited value. The figures need to be broken down to a much better local level" (Q 275).

109.  One way to engage the regional and local media more effectively would be to add more than local statistics to national press releases and to guide journalists through the local implications of an announcement. David Ottewell suggested that regional press officers should explain how a policy "impacts on a particular region in a certain way. I am sure there are creative ways of finding a genuinely regional line or message and that is what we need" (Q 266).

110.  Another complaint about Government communications is that regional press teams were not proactive in their relationships with the local media. Mr Fisher said: "I have spoken to my paper's news editor, Paul Durrant, and I was rather shocked to discover that he gets a phone call about only once every three weeks from the people at Cambridge actually flagging something up and usually communication is done by means of the website" (Q 286).

111.  Bob Ledwidge, Editor of Regional Political Programmes at the BBC, suggested that the Government press teams did not really understand the role or needs of the local and regional media. He said that there was a need for more "media literacy amongst some of the press office teams in Whitehall departments and elsewhere" (Q 265). David Ottewell said: "At the top of my wish-list, and it is perhaps not practical or feasible, would be one person, a sort of cross-departmental head of communications for my region based in my region who understood my region and was both confident and well-informed enough to instantly brief on a range of subjects" (Q 280).

112.  Another way of engaging the local and regional media is for Ministers themselves to be more available for interview and comment on the local aspects of stories. This was a point the Phillis Review made: "The importance of senior Ministers trying to redress their remoteness from the people they serve by more direct communication outside London cannot be overstated. 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."[57] The advent of regional Ministers provides a new opportunity to increase meaningful ministerial contact with the regional and local media. However, Ministers' regions often do not correspond to traditional and well established local and regional identities and locations, such as those used by local and regional media themselves.

113.  It is clear from the evidence we received that the government media machine is still very much focused on national press and broadcast coverage. The Prime Minister's Spokesperson, Michael Ellam, said that the Government could and should do more to help people understand how national policies will impact on their local areas. We believe that the Government should take steps to improve how it works with the regional and local media.

114.  We therefore recommend that the Chief Executive of the Central Office of Information should take the lead in improving standards. Special attention should be paid to the training and guidance available to regional press officers to ensure that they have a better understanding of regional and local media. They should tailor regional press releases; become more pro-active in their engagement with the local and regional media; and make more senior officials and Ministers available for interviews about the local impact of polices.

Online communication

115.  We welcome the progress the Government has made in improving online provision of Government information. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations told us: "Directgov and Business Link are good examples of single points of access to government information and services for individuals and businesses" (p 164). Citizens' Advice said: "Directgov is, on the whole, a very good source of government information for the public and we admire its plain English style and its ease of use. It is an improvement on the previous arrangement of multiple sites" (p 97).

116.  However, our witnesses also had criticisms of Directgov. Citizens' Advice noted that the site often links to local authority sites for information about an issue such as housing benefit. It is concerned about this as the quality of local authority sites varies greatly (p 100).

117.  There is also concern that improvements made to the online provision of information have been at the expense of more traditional information sources such as leaflets and phone lines. Citizens' Advice told us: "In recent years the Government has switched from providing public information in the form of leaflets, letters and other written communications to providing information on the internet or by electronic communication" (p 97).

118.  Such a shift in emphasis is of concern because, despite the Government's intention over time to make broadband available to all, not everyone as yet has access to the internet. Nor is everyone able to use it. Indeed, it is often the most vulnerable citizens, most in need of Government help, who are least likely to be able to access and use the internet. Citizens' Advice particularly highlighted the problems for the elderly and those from the poorest backgrounds. They explained that:

119.  In 2006, Sir David Varney, then Chairman of HM Revenue and Customs, was asked by the Chancellor to advise him on the opportunities for transforming the delivery of public services. According to Citizens' Advice, the Varney report found that a multiplicity of different helplines led to confusion and problems in accessing information (p 98).

120.  Citizens' Advice also supported the aim of simplifying phone access to government information and services, but pointed out that, like internet services, telephone services are not accessible to all. They said that there:

    "are other people for whom the phone is simply not the most suitable or appropriate method that they would choose to deal with government, or any service provider. This is true of many people with mental health problems, people with physical and in particular hearing and speaking disabilities. Telephones may often be inappropriate for people in hospital or for prisoners who may face very high call costs and for other people who have no access to landlines or have to rely on expensive pay as you go mobiles" (p 98).

121.  We recommend that Government information should always be available and accessible to as many people as possible. In particular, the Government must be clear about its target audiences in communicating information and use the most appropriate method.

Working with the voluntary sector

122.  There is considerable scope for the Government and the voluntary sector to work together to improve the provision of information about public services and policies. In 2007-08, Citizens' Advice helped 1.9 million people with 5.5 million new problems on issues such as debt, benefits, housing, employment and consumer matters (1.5 million of these problems concerned benefits). Its public information website ( has 7.3 million visitors a year (p 95). Citizens' Advice said that the fact that so many people rely on them to provide and explain information suggests that Government services in this area are not in themselves sufficient (Q 436).

123.  Citizens' Advice highlighted particular ways in which the Government could help them improve services. These included:

  • Providing Citizens' Advice with drafts of new Codes etc before they are published and giving clear notice of their expected publication date. This would enable Citizens' Advice to make sure the information was in their system and their advisers were knowledgeable about the changes before people started asking for information about them.
  • Being responsive to requests by Citizens' Advice to check their material (Citizens' Advice report huge variations between departments to requests for support to enable them to get accurate information out to bureaux in time).
  • Advising Citizens' Advice when all/any government leaflets are revised and reissued and alerting them when government websites are amended.
  • Bringing the UK Statute Law Data Base ( fully up-to-date with revised legislation.
  • Drawing on Citizens' Advice's expertise by consulting at an early stage on whether an information campaign makes sense, and when it might be best to run it.

124.  We can see only benefits from a closer working relationship between Government communications departments and recognised voluntary sector organisations involved in information provision. We therefore recommend that Government departments should consult the voluntary sector about appropriate delivery mechanisms at an early stage when planning new information campaigns or revising old guidance.

125.  We recommend that the Office of the Third Sector and the GCN, both of which are based in the Cabinet Office, should develop guidance for all departments on working with and consulting voluntary-sector organisations, in order to ensure the public can get help in accessing reliable, up-to-date information from well-informed sources. There is a similar case to be made for the importance of local government and other stakeholder consultations being held at an early stage.

41   Ibid., pg 12. Back

42   Ministerial Code, Cabinet Office, July 2007, paragraph 9.1, p 19. Back

43   Written ministerial statements are a procedure introduced in 2004 that we welcome, as they make the process of written Government announcements to Parliament much more open and transparent; HC Deb 13 February 2001 col 160. Back

44   HC Deb 30 October 2000 col 513. Back

45   Phillis Review, p.10. Back

46   Ibid., p. 26. Back

47 Back

48   Phillis Review, p 2. Back

49   Civil Service Order in Council 1995, Article 3. Back

50   Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, paragraph 2, p.1. The Code was first published in 1997; the current version is dated November 2007. Back

51   Ibid., paragraphs 10, 11, p 3. Back

52   Propriety Guidance, Cabinet Office, p 7. Back

53   Phillis Review, p 15. Back

54   Ibid., p 19. Back

55   Ibid., p. 21. Back

56   Ibid., p. 18. Back

57   Ibid., p. 19. Back

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