Spin-doctors to stay in shadows at briefings

By Rosemary Bennett, Deputy Political Editor

MINISTERS will have to take on the massed ranks of Fleet Street every day at Westminster’s lobby briefings in a dramatic demotion of the role of spin-doctors.
Tony Blair has decided that his official spokesmen should not become the public face of the Government when the daily briefings are televised this year, fearing that it would appear too presidential. Instead, ministers will put themselves forward to give the Government’s message and answer questions on the business of the day.

Mr Blair’s plans come in response to the independent review of government communications by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group.

In his report Mr Phillis recommended that ministers “play a bigger part in the daily briefings, particularly when their departments have announcements to make”. He said that ministers should take “a lead role” in the briefings, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman attending.

Mr Blair’s decision to accept these recommendations in full have not, however, met with universal approval in the Cabinet. Several ministers fear being “the victim of the day”, forced to answer questions not just on their own department’s affairs, but to comment in detail on the business of their colleagues.

The Prime Minister would be spared taking part in the daily briefings, although his monthly press conferences would continue. Downing Street’s enthusiasm for Mr Phillis’s recommendations on daily lobby briefings is in contrast to its cool response to his stinging criticism of the new Freedom of Information Act, due to come into effect next year.

The Phillis report criticises the Government for greatly watering down its original proposals, contained in the Freedom of Information White Paper, and rendering the final Bill ineffectual.

“There is a danger that the changes introduced between the White Paper and the Act have the potential to rob freedom of information of most of its benefits and, worse, accentuate some of the problems of trust and credibility that are at the root of the crisis of public confidence,” the report stated.

Before it became law, a series of exemptions was added that will allow ministers to veto at a stroke information being made available to the public. The report calls on ministers to promise not to use this veto and to replace so-called “class exemptions” on policy analysis with a “harm test”, placing the onus on officials to prove that releasing the information would pose a danger.

Downing Street made clear, however, that it would not yield to pressure on freedom of information. “The Freedom of Information Act is itself a major step towards openness,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman said. “That Act does not come into force until 2005. Therefore we do need to see how that operates and then consider how it operates in the light of Phillis and no doubt other thoughts expressed between now and 2005.”

The spokesman rejected a suggestion that this amounted to a failure to implement part of the Phillis report, saying that it was sensible to test the Act already due to come into force before considering further changes.

Downing Street also rejected the report’s suggestion that ministers should lose their right to 40 hours’ notice of national statistics before their release in which to consider their response.

The Phillis report recommends that the Government Information Service, which comprises all the press officers in Whitehall, be disbanded, with communications officials becoming fully integrated with other parts of the Civil Service. In many departments there is deep suspicion between policy officials and press officers, with policy experts fearing that their work is going to be used to “spin” a message.

In the future press officers will be involved in policy development at a much earlier stage, and not just brought in a few days before an initiative has to be publicised.

Downing Street has also accepted recommendations that ministers should no longer be involved in the recruitment of Civil Service press officers for their departments.