Depressing findings from focus group

THE Labour government is untrustworthy, the Tories are weak, and the Liberal Democrats invisible. That's the depressing verdict on the state of the nation's political parties as we start the build-up to the annual conference season.

THE Labour government is untrustworthy, the Tories are weak, and the Liberal Democrats invisible. That's the depressing verdict on the state of the nation's political parties as we start the build-up to the annual conference season.

A Financial Times focus group also concluded that Tony Blair's perceived failure to deliver on public services and tax was a longer term blow to the electorate's trust than either the war on Iraq or the Hutton Inquiry.

It will be interesting to see what the state of public opinion is after Lord Hutton delivers his verdict into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly.

Where does the buck stop? The Prime Minister as head of government should take the ultimate responsibility for the actions of both the civil service and his ministers.

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That ought to mean his resignation if Hutton decides Dr Kelly was driven to suicide by the actions of any or all of the following: the Ministry of Defence, 10 Downing Street, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon or Mr Blair himself.

After yesterday's extraordinary evidence to the inquiry that intelligence experts believe the Iraq arms dossier was "over egged," the findings of Hutton could make uncomfortable reading for Mr Blair.

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Meanwhile, the appalling culture of spin, which has so tarnished the reputation of the Prime Minister, has been ostensibly banished with the resignation of Alastair Campbell. A top civil servant with Permanent Secretary rank is to be put in charge of the Government's overall communications strategy. A new post of senior official spokesman for the Prime Minister will also be created, who will be deputy to the Permanent Secretary based in the Cabinet Office.

A Prime Minister's new director of communications, David Hill, responsible to Tony Blair, will head the political Downing Street communications operation, working with Cabinet ministers and their special advisers. But crucially he will be robbed of the powers granted to his predecessor.

The move means a restoration of the clear division between political spin and straightforward presentation of the Government and its policy initiatives.

At his televised news conference yesterday, Mr Blair said: "I hope we would all agree, in a world of 24-hour-a-day, seven days a week media, government has to have a communications operation. We made changes – I think they will strengthen our ability to communicate in a proper and legitimate way."

He said this was an integral part of convincing the public of progress on the domestic agenda. It was important to "engage with people" and explain why these domestic reforms were taking place.

Opposition parties are sceptical. Shadow work and pensions secretary David Willetts said the Prime Minister was at the heart of the culture of spin. "These problems in the way he governs are so profound that we will have them so long as he remains Prime Minister."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Menzies Campbell said: "It is not what No 10 says but what No 10 does which will be the true measure of its repentance. The culture of media manipulation goes as long way down in this Government."

WEST Suffolk Conservative MP Richard Spring has thanked Health Secretary Dr John Reid for introducing a payment scheme for people infected with Hepatitis C from blood transfusions.

Mr Spring has been campaigning for a number of years, and raised the matter in an adjournment debate in October last year, following concerns over two constituents Dominique Porche and Angela Woodley, who contracted the disease as a result of transfusions.

In a letter to Dr Reid, the MP says: "I can only hope and pray that the very distressing state of affairs will now be addressed and compassionate payments will be given to both Mr Porche and Mrs Woodley."

PISTOLS at dawn in the European Parliament at Strasbourg this week. Labour's East Euro MP Richard Howitt accused the Liberal Democrats of delivering a slap in the face to disabled people and their organisations. The Lib Dems voted to remove priority access to funding and consultation for organisations representing disabled people which are run for and by disabled people themselves.

"Against the stated wishes of the main British and pan-European disability organisations, this would remove disabled people's organisations priority right to funding and consultation by the United Nations and governments around the world, in responding to a new draft UN Convention on disability," claims Mr Howitt.

Utter nonsense, retorts the region's Lib Dem MEP Andrew Duff. "We voted to include not only disabled people and disabled people's organisations but also organisations representing disabled people. Richard Howitt is being mightily disingenuous, indeed rather silly, in claiming Liberals are traitors to the cause of UN disability rights.

"In the developing world there are very few organisations run by disabled people and many more organisations representing disabled people. In many cases, particularly in the field of mental health, disabled people need advocates to speak for them."

EASTERN Region Euro MP Robert Sturdy, Conservative rural affairs spokesman, will be one of 20 MEPs at next week's World Trade Organisation talks in Cancun, Mexico, which aims to solve the problems of the world's poor.

Four issues are on the agenda at the four-day bash that begins on Sunday – agricultural subsidies, cutting tariffs, cheap drugs for the poorest countries and opening up services. Mr Sturdy is going because he sits on the EU's Agriculture Committee which recently thrashed out Common Agricultural Policy reforms in a bid to move away from subsidies and encourage free trade.

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