Peers urge televising of lobby briefings

THE Prime Minister has been asked to ensure that his ministers and their special advisers abide by the ministerial mode and make major policy announcements first to Parliament rather than the media.

Graham Dines

THE Prime Minister has been asked to ensure that his ministers and their special advisers abide by the ministerial mode and make major policy announcements first to Parliament rather than the media.

The House of Lords communication committee has also recommend that the morning Lobby briefing in the Garden Room of 10 Downing Street should be televised.

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

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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. The peers say say:

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“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 communications committee says 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 says 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 looked at the Westminster Lobby system, which it dubs 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 peers 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.

Lord Fowler, the committee's chairman, 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. “

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