Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

There is much to be commended in Gordon Brown’s sweeping proposals for restoring trust in the process of government but when it comes to curbing the culture of spin which has become deeply ingrained in Whitehall and Westminster, meaningful commitments are few and far between.

At least Brown deserves personal credit for having kept his word and ensured that his most imaginative constitutional changes were not leaked in advance as tended to be the case with the contents of most of his Budgets in the ten years he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Advance trailing of announcements -- or in other words state-approved leaking -- is so institutionalised within government departments there needs to be root and branch revision of ministerial and civil service codes going far beyond anything which the new Prime Minister has so far suggested.

While the appointment of an independent adviser to investigate breaches of the ministerial code is to be welcomed, the focus is limited to the monitoring of their outside interests and their potential for lucrative employment on leaving office. No mention is made, for example, of the way ministers have systematically undermined Parliament in the Blair years by the advance leaking their own announcements and decisions to favoured journalists.

By indicating that as Prime Minister, he will retain the sole authority for deciding whether to institute investigations for misconduct, Brown has given a green light to ministers and their politically-appointed special advisers to go on releasing information on a selective and exclusive basis.

Similarly if the pledge to put the independence of the civil service on a statutory basis is to have real teeth, there would have to be a raft of new safeguards to prevent the continued manipulation of the flow of information from the state to the public.

Much was made by Brown of his withdrawal of the 1997 order in council which gave two of Tony Blair’s key aides, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, the power to give instructions to civil servants.

This had been well flagged up in advance and was acknowledged by many Blairites as having been a mistake, so making it legally binding that political advisers would not be allowed in future to "give orders to civil servants" is hardly a great surprise and merely a return to the status quo.

What is needed is clear statutory guidance that special advisers must not undermine Parliamentary accountability by leaking sensitive decisions before they have been announced to Parliament.

Precisely the same edict should apply to civil service information officers and again if the Prime Minister meant what he said he would insist that the Whitehall best practice guide for press officers was rewritten and no longer required the government’s communications staff to "grab the news agenda" by trailing announcements in advance of Parliamentary statements.

Admittedly Brown has moved to stop what was often the blatant massaging of government statistics by ordering that the pre-release of data from the Office of National Statistics should be reduced from up to five days as of now to a maximum of 24 hours.

Despite slashing the amount of time which government departments will get to scrutinise market-sensitive statistics, British ministers will continue to get access to such information far earlier than their main international counterparts.

Brown has made a start in delivering his promise to turn back from the spin of the Blair decade but the agenda announced so far is woefully inadequate because it contains no positive ideas for ensuring greater openness.

So much of what was outlined is merely cosmetic, such as the decision by the head of the new Downing Street communications team, Michael Ellam, to describe himself as the Prime Minister’s "spokesman" rather than "official spokesman", a term he apparently disliked.

What Ellam needs to do is to identify himself by name, finally ending the absurdity of attributing No.10’s reaction to a nameless official. That could be followed by a commitment to make sure that important news is announced first at lobby briefings or on the Downing Street website rather than through off-the-record conversations.

Only by insisting that special advisers and civil service information officers are required to provide all sections of the news media with the same information at the same time, will there be any chance of controlling the anonymous briefings and leaking which has been like a cancer eating away at the government’s credibility.