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Wednesday, 1 November, 2000, 20:31 GMT
Blair blocks Powell scrutiny
Number 10
Controversy over Blair's chief of staff at Number 10
Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened to prevent MPs cross-examining Jonathan Powell, his controversial Downing Street chief of staff, it has been disclosed.

A bid by the House of Commons Administration Committee to summon Mr Powell so that MPs could scrutinise his role in Number 10 failed after discussion between Mr Blair and Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson.

The convention is that the Civil Service can give evidence on behalf of the government. The concept of examining people on what their job is a novel one

Sir Richard Wilson
Sir Richard, a top civil servant, said the decision had been taken because it was inappropriate for political appointee Mr Powell to give evidence.

He told the committee: "The invitation you sent was in terms of cross-examining Jonathan Powell about himself and what he did,"

"The convention is that the Civil Service can give evidence on behalf of the government. The concept of examining people on what their job is is a novel one."

Sir Richard said that it was "felt better" that he appeared instead.

Different invitation for Campbell

Questioned by the committee's chairman, Tony Wright, as to why an appearance by Mr Blair's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, had been sanctioned, despite the fact that he too was a political appointee, the cabinet secretary said Mr Campbell's invitation had been "framed differently".

Mr Blair himself has also refused to appear before the committee - a decision that Sir Richard defended on the grounds that there was a long-standing convention that prime ministers did not appear before select committees.

Mr Blair had "very few executive functions" as they were vested in secretaries of state, Sir Richard said.

"The prime minister's powers are primarily ones of appointment and also chairing committees.

"If you started examining prime ministers in detail on the work of government, you start undermining secretaries of state who have direct responsibility," Sir Richard argued.

Alastair Campbell
Campbell was scrutinised
He was also questioned over press reports that Mr Campbell was already working on Labour's general election campaign, which is widely thought to be planned for May 2001.

Sir Richard denied the suggestions saying it would be wrong for public funds to be utilised to finance party political activity.

He also said that talks between the then Tory MP Shaun Woodward and Mr Campbell which led to Mr Woodward's defection to the Labour Party were held during the prime minister's spokesman's own time.

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