Government communications report

26 January 2009

The House of Lords Communications Committee have today called on Gordon Brown to ensure Ministers and their special advisers abide by the Ministerial Code and make major policy announcements first to Parliament rather than the media.

The Committee also recommend that the morning ‘Lobby briefing’ in Downing Street should be televised.

Further findings are that the number of special advisers in Government departments has increased by 92 per cent since 1995, and that the number of Government press officers has increased by 73 per cent in the past 10 years.

The Committee says:

"One of the most important tasks of government is to provide clear, truthful and factual information to citizens. The accurate and impartial communication of information about government policies, activities and services is critical to the democratic process."

The Committee’s report Government Communications looks at how fully the Government has delivered on its commitment to improve Government communications following the 2004 Phillis Review and whether they have lived up to the Review’s aim that their communications should be based on the principle of ‘openness not secrecy’.

The Committee calls for the Prime Minister to take responsibility in ensuring that Ministers do not ‘trail’ announcements to friendly media ahead of official statements to Parliament. They say:

"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."

The Committee say that the Ministerial Code clearly states that important announcements of Government policy should be made first to Parliament. When an announcement is made in this way information is given in an open and transparent manner and journalists and members of the public have access to the information at the same time and opposition parties and back benchers have the first opportunity to question the Government.

The report also examines the role of special advisers. The Committee say that as special advisors are appointed directly by Ministers, and can be removed only by them, it is Ministers responsibility to ensure they abide by the Civil Service Code and do not pre-empt official policy announcements with pre-briefings to selected journalists. The Committee recommend that Ministers and special advisers be reminded of the Government’s code of conduct for special advisers which includes stipulations for them to respect the primacy of Parliament.

The Committee also consider the Westminster Lobby system. They call the system a ‘barrier to openness’ that contributes to a sense that there is an inner circle of reporters who get access to government information denied to other journalists. The Committee recommend that the morning Lobby briefings held in Downing Street should be transmitted live on the Number 10 website with footage made available to broadcasters. They say that the Prime Minister’s Spokesman should continue to give the briefings. The report says that broadcasting morning Lobby briefings would help dispel continuing myths about the Lobby and the sense of secrecy that surrounds it.

The Committee criticise the lack of financial figures on the scale of the Government’s communications efforts. They say that, like the Phillis Review, their work was made harder by ‘the lack of readily available statistics’. The Cabinet Office maintains that it is ‘very difficult to specify’ what are communications civil servants. But, when asked, a sample of three departments – health, defence and foreign affairs – were able to provide figures. The Department of Health now spends over £100m a year on communications.

The report also recommends that where possible the careers of high flying civil servants should include a period of service in departmental press offices or communications generally.

Lord Fowler, Chairman of the Committee, said:

"It is vital that when important announcements are made they are made first to Parliament. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister he said it was his aim to put Parliament back at the centre of political life. However his Premiership has not ended the trend for Ministers and Government departments to make their policy announcements outside Parliament first.

It is important that this is stopped. There should be no question of Ministers giving policy decisions in advance to favoured journalists or newspapers. Gordon Brown should now remind his Ministers of the requirements in the Ministerial Code.

The public are also entitled to know far more accurately than at present the value for money they are receiving from the Government’s communication organisation. There is a lack of basic information here, which the Phillis Review five years ago also highlighted. Without such information it is impossible to judge whether the taxpayer, who funds Government communication and information, is getting a fair return for his money."

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