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May: Culture of Spin within Government

Speech made in House of Commons debate on Conduct of Jo Moore

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Thank you Mr Speaker and I would like to move the motion standing in my name and that of my Right Honourable and Honourable friends.

Mr Speaker I am sure we will all remember the events of September 11th for the rest of our lives.

Just as past generations have defined themselves by what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated so a whole generation of people will define themselves by what they were doing when they saw the events of September 11th.

Up and down the country people watched their televisions in disbelief and wondered if what they saw could actually be happening.

Let me refresh the memory of Honourable Members on those events.

At 1:45 in the afternoon British time a plane travelling from Boston to Los Angeles, carrying 92 people, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

Fifteen minutes later, at 2:00 British time a second plane, carrying 64 people, hit the south tower.

At 2:30 British time a third plane, carrying 65 people, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington - and workers at companies such as Cantor Fitzgerald based in the World Trade Centre phoned their loved ones and left messages telling them they were about to die.

Between 2:30 and 3:00 British time, major Government buildings in Washington were evacuated in anticipation of a further strike.

Eyewitnesses and those watching on television saw bodies falling from the upper floors of the World Trade Centre.

Between 3 and 3.30pm British time both towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed.

At 3.30p.m the Prime Minister abandoned his speech to the TUC in Brighton.

I'm sure that Members on all sides of the House shared with me the sense of utter disbelief as we watched those horrifying scenes.

The world stood transfixed, unable to comprehend the horror that was unfolding before our very eyes.

And yet in the midst of all of this, at 2:55, Ms Jo Moore, special adviser to the Secretary of State, his appointee, sent an e-mail to her departmental colleagues saying, 'It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?'

To think that someone's immediate reaction was to see what was happening in New York and Washington, not as a human tragedy but as a political PR opportunity, which Ministers should make the most of, is almost beyond understanding.

The events of that day marked a change in the way we viewed our own position in the world.

But they also marked the day when the culture of this Government's news management stepped beyond the acceptable and became the disreputable.

This motion today is not one that we have moved lightly.

But it is a sad commentary on the attitudes and approach of this Government and on the culture of spin nurtured by this Government that Ministers' actions have brought us to this debate today.

And I am not alone in feeling this way:

- Speaking of the email sent by Jo Moore, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the Hon Member for Cannock Chase said 'The question is whether what happened is consistent with any notion of public service that I or anybody else has. I thought at the time it wasn't and I haven't changed my mind now'. Her actions were 'incompatible with public service'.

- The Hon Member for Hornchurch said 'the behaviour she's displayed, it flies in the face of any public service ethos that I have ever heard of and it flies in the face of everything the Labour Party ever stood for.'

- The Prime Minister said in this House on 17 October Hansard column 1165 'I do not defend in any shape or form what Jo Moore said, which was horrible, wrong and stupid'.

Given those comments and the sense of outrage that has been felt across this House and outside Parliament I find it incomprehensible that Ms Moore is still in her post.

It reflects not only a lack of understanding on her part, but also a sorry lack of judgement on the part of the Secretary of State.

But in relation to the Secretary of State's position there are a number of questions that still need to be answered.

My hon friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale wrote to the Secretary of State on 12 October asking him to state publicly whether Jo Moore still had his firm support, give an assurance that no-one acted on the advice in the e-mail, and say whether or not he had spoken to Ms Moore before she sent the e-mail.

So far he has not replied.

So I invite the Secretary of State not just for his own sake but to restore some faith in government to take this opportunity to respond to the following questions:

- Where was the Secretary of State on the 11th September?

- Did the Secretary of State speak to Jo Moore on the 11th September; and, if so, at what time?

- Did the Secretary of State speak to any one else in his office about the e-mail from Jo Moore on 11th September?

- How did the Secretary of State learn of the existence and the content of the e-mail and who told him?

Now of course it has been pointed out that the member of staff in question was disciplined, but again on this there are a number of outstanding questions surrounding the procedure that was followed.

The Secretary of State needs to answer these in order to allay concerns in this House and elsewhere.

It would appear that having initially not taken any action, when the story of the email broke on 8 October, the Secretary of State disciplined Ms Moore personally.

The normal procedure is for the Permanent Secretary to discipline civil servants and special advisers, yet in this case the rebuke by the Permanent Secretary seems only to have been made after some delay, and only then because journalists were claiming that the Secretary of State had broken the rules on disciplinary action.

This is a case in which the Secretary of State said that she had done wrong. The PM said that her action was horrible. But one in which ministers were determined from the outset that she should not lose her job.

Just what does it take for a spin doctor to lose their job in this Government?

- Why did the Secretary of State take it upon himself to protect her job before the Permanent Secretary had any chance to investigate?

- Doesn't all this show that the Secretary of State has indulged in grubby politics even as he sought to respond to Jo Moore's disgraceful email?

- And is it not the case that he clings to Jo Moore because he knows that if she goes, he is next in line?

Later still of course we had Ms Moore's apology.

It took a week, it contained no direct apology to the families of those involved in the horrific events of September 11th, rather she seemed most concerned to apologise to the Government and Ministers.

And then there was the manner of her apology.

Any interview with a special adviser should be authorized - we do not know who did that nor do we know why Sky News was chosen initially as the sole recipient of the apology.

And for many of us the most telling aspect was not the apology but the look on her face when she turned away from the cameras.

She spun her way in and she has tried to spin her way out.

But of course the email sent by Jo Moore on 11 September is not the only example we have of this culture of spin in Government - this canker of this culture of spin that lies at the heart of government.

There are other examples from the DTLR.

Ms Moore herself was involved in trying to persuade a junior civil servant to leak information to journalists aimed at discrediting Bob Kiley the London Transport Commissioner while he and the Secretary of State were involved in a dispute over the future of London Underground.

That she did so was confirmed yesterday in a written answer at Hansard, col 94. Surely this is contrary to the code of conduct for special advisers yet no action was taken against her.

Action was taken but instead of reprimanding his special adviser, the Secretary of State's involvement was aimed at the Department's Director of Information Alun Evans who had protested on behalf of his member of staff.

5 days later the Director of Information was moved to another post.

The question is did he leave the Department voluntarily. Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to answer that today.

I understand that the posts of Director of Information and Head of News in the Department are vacant and appointments are due to be made in the next few weeks.

It would help to restore a degree of confidence among staff in the Department if the Secretary of State would today state categorically that Ms Moore will have no role whatsoever, will not be consulted or invited to comment, on those appointments.

The Secretary of State must answer these questions if he is to clear up some of the confusion that surrounds these events.

Because the Secretary of State has something of a record when it comes to press officers.

While he was a minister at the then Department for Education and Employment, in 1997, Jonathan Haslam resigned, reportedly after a row with the Right Honourable gentleman who had asked him to issue a press release criticising the record of the previous government.

The charge against the Secretary of State is that he has perpetuated the culture of spin at the heart of government by his connivance in the politicisation of press officers.

He must also, however, answer the accusation that, whilst the Government outwardly professed to be as disgusted as the rest of us, they appear internally to have followed Ms Moore's advice.

Because in the immediate aftermath of the events of the 11th September a number of 'bad news' stories were indeed released.

We all know that the, now infamous, councillor's expenses story was indeed released the following day.

According to press reports the Rt Hon Member for Greenwich and Woolwich insists that that the announcement in question was cleared for publication on September 10th.

Yet, press reports also suggest that the release was, unusually, sent to the Local Government chronicle only an hour before their press deadline.

Chris Mahony, News Editor of the Local Government chronicle puts it very well when he says "To be thinking of such things at such a time shows that these people's minds are even weirder than we thought."

But September 12th also saw a release on pensions for councillors and the release of new planning guidance for the West Country, which will force the construction of 200,000 more buildings on green fields, irrespective of local wishes.

On the 14th September the Government published exam results, which showed that standards in Maths amongst 11 year olds were actually getting worse.

The 4th October saw the announcement of the cancellation of the proposed Picketts Lock athletics stadium, jeopardising the chances of our hosting the 2005 world athletics championships.

And of course we have seen over the past few days yet more examples of the problem of spin.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had to come to the House yesterday to defend herself against allegations of spin after issuing a significant press release on errors made in tests on sheep brains for evidence of BSE had been released to the press late one night with no press conference.

But perhaps even more significant was the personal apology given yesterday in another place by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald who had to apologise to the House.

Not only for the fact that he had given an unclear answer to the House leading their lordships to believe that the number of special advisers had only gone up under Labour from 78 to 81 when in fact the number has increased from 38 under the last Conservative Government to 81, but he also had to apologise for the fact that his officials tried to persuade Hansard to change the written record.

And now of course following the notorious email, the Government has had to appoint a city PR firm to do its spinning rather than Ms Moore - more taxpayers money being spent on the government's image.

[…]

But it is not only Opposition and Government MPs who have expressed their disgust at the attitude of Ms Moore and of Ministers in defending her - as any perusal of the letters pages of the newspapers since the event will confirm.

… This issue goes beyond the actions of one government spin doctor.

It is not just about what Ministers have referred to as a single mistake.

It goes to the very heart of the approach this Government takes to the electorate and to Parliamentary democracy.

It typifies a culture of spin that says whatever the issue spin matters more than substance.

Little wonder that there is an attitude of cynicism to politics and politicians among the general public when they hear of actions such as this which tell them that the Government is more interested in losing a few announcements than it is in the feelings of people whose loved ones had died in the horrific tragedies of September 11th.

And it strikes at the heart of a relationship that has underpinned and strengthened our governments over the centuries that essential relationship between the non-political civil servants, working hard with dedication whoever is in government and the politicians they serve.

I wonder what decent hard-working civil servants think when they see Jo Moore keeping her job.

This culture of spin brings government and politicians into disrepute. It tarnishes Parliament.

These are indeed bad news stories.

But in this whole sorry saga we have a bigger one.

It is a bad news story that at a time when all thoughts should have been focused on support for our friends in the US, people will read in their newspapers that politicians were intent on pulling the wool over their eyes.

It is a bad news story because, at a time when people needed clear leadership, straightforward talk and honesty from all in government - they had the sense that they were being deceived.

It is a bad news story because at time that brought out the best in so many people, they heard that, in some of their politicians, it had brought out the worst.

When our armed forces are risking their lives half way around the world, when we are seeking to rally public opinion during the difficult times that may lie ahead, the Government has a particular responsibility to place its conduct beyond reproach.

In the matter of Jo Moore it has failed in that duty.

Despite all of the available evidence, against the advice of senior members opposite and contrary to the better judgement of some members of its own Cabinet, the Government has decided to retain its confidence in her.

In the process it has inflicted unnecessary damage on our national life.

By her actions, Ms Moore has demeaned the whole notion of public service. By its failure to act against her, this Government has debased both politics and itself.

I beg to move the motion.

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