Gordon Brown is responsible for Damian McBride’s conduct claims peer

May 8, 2009 at 3:48 pm Leave a comment

A Conservative peer has said that the Prime Minister is responsible for the conduct of his special advisers.

Last month Damian McBride resigned from a senior Downing St post after it emerged he had discussed smear tactics that might be used against leading Tory MPs.

Lord Fowler, a former Cabinet minister, yesterday presented the Report of the Communications Committee on Government Communications.

He told peers that in “almost 40 years in Parliament, I cannot remember a time when politicians and Parliament itself were held in lower esteem than they are today.”

“The impression of sleaze is added to immeasurably when the Prime Minister’s own special adviser conspires to reveal untruths about the personal lives of political opponents and uses public money to do so,” he said.

Lord Fowler said the government was complacent about advisers.

“We said we believe that it is of key importance that Ministers made clear at all times that special advisers must follow the guidance available and stay within the limits set down.

“The Government’s response was complacent. They said:

“The Civil Service Code also applies to special advisers and this makes clear that they always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom they have dealings”

“The Government were saying not that special advisers should act in this way but that they always did act in this way. Their response was dated 2 April.

“A few days later on 11 April, this explanation was effectively blown out of the water by the case of Damian McBride, a special adviser to the Prime Minister—a very senior special adviser at that— misusing public funds to try personally to smear political opponents.

“If ever a special adviser was guilty of dragging politics into the gutter it was Mr McBride.

“It marked a new low in British politics and raised the question why a man like this was ever employed inside the Government, let alone at No.10.

“Let us be clear where responsibility for special advisers lies. Again, I quote from the Government’s response to our report. They say that the Ministerial Code makes it clear that the appointing Ministers are responsible for the management and conduct of their special advisers.

“So, if those words mean anything, it is that the Prime Minister is responsible for his special advisers and other Ministers are responsible for theirs.

“Being responsible does not just mean saying that when something goes wrong, “I take full responsibility and I have sacked him”, it means making it clear to special advisers from the start what they are expected to do and what under no circumstances they can do. That is what taking responsibility means.”

Lord Fowler said that codes of conduct were not enough.

“Ministers must recognise that they are responsible and accountable for the conduct of their special advisers and they must do their utmost to avoid any abuse by them.”

Lord Fowler said the committee, which he chairs, recommended that the Prime Minister should draw to all Ministers’ attention the guidance in the Ministerial Code that the most important announcements of government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament.

“The House will note that we recommended that the Prime Minister should make this clear. The Government’s response was, again, deeply complacent.

“They said that our recommendation simply reflected the current position. When Parliament is in Session, they said, the most important announcements of government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament.”

Gordon Brown’s infamous appearance on YouTube was revisited.

“The Government therefore proclaim themselves totally satisfied, and yet three weeks after that response, where does the Prime Minister choose to make his statement on MPs’ allowances, the abuse of which had rightly caused grave public concern?

“He did not make it in Parliament where he could be questioned and where by definition it was most relevant and, I would argue, most appropriate.

“He did not even make it to the Lobby, where he could be questioned. He made it as a deliberate act of policy to YouTube where there was no opportunity for questions.

“Quite rightly, the policy eventually came to grief.

“The Prime Minister was not exactly in Oscar-winning form, but the graveyard humour over his performance should not disguise one fundamental point.

“By any measure, it was probably the most extraordinary bypass of Parliament that any of us can remember.”

Labour peer Lord Parekh asked if journalists were part of the problem.

“In his evidence to the committee, Sir Robert Phillis said that the central problem, the focus of his report, was not just “press management or spin” but rather the question of trust—the,

“breakdown of trust between politicians, the media and the general public”,

and the consequent disillusionment and disengagement from the democratic process,” he said.

“I would have liked the Select Committee to concentrate on that important question and suggest what we might do about the breakdown of trust between those three agencies.

“Democracy, we all know, requires enlightened public opinion. Enlightened public opinion in turn depends on the public having access to accurate facts and to unbiased analysis.

“For both, the public depend on politicians in general and on the media. If those two groups of people, politicians and the media, are known to resort to lies, or to mischievous and self-serving spin, the public have no basis on which to form their opinion and to make reasonable demands.

“Politicians and journalists are among the most distrusted groups. A reasonable degree of scepticism is obviously necessary, but total cynicism and mistrust spell disaster for a democratic system.

“Journalists start with the assumption that all politicians are liars; and politicians for their part start with the assumption that journalists have their own agenda—which often is true—that they are feral beasts, as Tony Blair once called them, and that they are out to trip up the politicians, to take their remarks out of context and blow them out of proportion.

“Both groups therefore approach each other with mutual contempt and suspicion, and what we hear and see on the radio and television is each trying to avoid being caught by the other.”

For the government, Lord Davies of Oldham, said it was inevitable that “substantial public resources” are involved in the Government’s communicating with the community.

“It is not about politics but about government,” he said.

“It is about administration; it is about ensuring that our people are informed about how their lives can be enhanced, developed and protected.

“On the other side of the argument, inevitably, is the nature of government communication when it gets into more controversial areas, the most controversial of which arises when, from time to time, in these myriad activities carried out by a very large number of people, mistakes are made.

“Damian McBride’s mistake was a significant act by an individual that was completely outwith any government objective and any standards to which the Government subscribe, and it led to his removal from his position. These things will happen from time to time in the complex operation of government.

“I hope that the House will recognise that it is right that the committee should identify errors where they occur.

“I hope on the other hand that the committee will appreciate that the Government’s response to the report is positive.

“We are grateful to it for having taken on another stage the crucial issue of successful communication. The Government responded constructively because we are based on firm principles of effective communication, which I know are shared by the whole committee.”


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