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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 18:54 GMT 19:54 UK
Lobby system to be scrapped
Number 10 Downing Street
The semi-secret lobby has been going since 1884
The Westminster lobby system in which an exclusive coterie of journalists is briefed by a Number 10 spokesman is to be scrapped, Downing Street has announced.

In future reporters will be given the government's line on the story of the day at US-style news conferences.


We have got to be less buttoned-up, far more open, far less worried about what you guys are going to write

Downing Street
Until now lobby journalists - all in possession of a special "lobby" pass - have gathered in a room in the bowels of the prime minister's official London residence for a morning meeting.

Then in the afternoon a Number 10 spokesman is invited to Parliament by lobby journalists - something that is expected to continue.

Critics of the system have pointed to the fact that this excludes other specialist journalists, such as education correspondents, when their field is at the top of the day's political agenda.

BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr said the idea is to get rid of the "private cartel" of lobby journalists and replace it with a system already familiar in countries such as the US.

Commons leader Robin Cook said the move should be welcomed by everyone who believed in "parliamentary democracy".

"I think it absolutely right that ministers who may be speaking to Parliament should have an opportunity to speak to the Lobby and also to members of the specialist and regional press who would be interested," he said.

Downing Street suggested that a change in the way communications were handled could focus the attention of an increasingly politics-weary public back on Parliament.

"The prime minister and indeed other ministers, on this whole issue of public debate, apathy - call it what you want - think this is something we have got to give serious thought to," a spokesman said.

'Gimmickry'

At a hurriedly called meeting at Number 10, senior correspondents were told by a Downing Street spokesman: "We have got to be less buttoned-up, far more open, far less worried about what you guys are going to write."

But Sir Bernard Ingham, Tory ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary, dismissed the announcement as "a load of nonsense" and "gimmickry".


This is a further bit of manipulation

Sir Bernard Ingham
Former Downing Street press secretary

"First of all, the government can't scrap the lobby system," he said.

"The government doesn't own the lobby - the lobby is an independent group."

The lobby is a means by which the Sergeant at Arms controls access to the Members' Lobby in the House of Commons, he said.

"So they can't get rid of the lobby and I don't think that they intend to.

"I think that they are having a very rough time with the media at the moment, for obvious reasons.

"They aren't achieving anything and they are thought to be all spin and no substance and all manipulation. This is a further bit of manipulation."

Mum's the word

Since 1884, the Westminster lobby has held regular meetings on and off the record with spokesmen from Downing Street and ministers.

The lobby is the name given to a small group of parliamentary journalists who enjoy privileged access to certain parts of Parliament.

One of the main privileges is the right to enter the Members' Lobby at Westminster in order to interview MPs.

Information passed to journalists in these circumstances is often given on the understanding that the source will not be revealed.

Critics say the system makes it easier for the government to get away with putting a misleading slant on embarrassing stories or to make unfounded attacks on its enemies.

Televised

The move was welcomed by the Liberal Democrats but they said people should be sceptical that the government was really offering to be more open.

The Conservatives called the decision "cynical", accusing Labour of trying to "neuter the media".

It is understood that the government intends to hold one briefing a day which could be given either by a press spokesman, a civil servant from a relevant department, or a minister.

It is likely that conferences given by ministers could be televised.

Downing Street says the purpose is to allow specialist journalists from other fields such as health and education to ask questions about government policy.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Guto Harri
"Seasoned correspondents are inevitably suspicious"
See also:

02 May 02 | UK Politics
Another twist to the spin?
14 Jun 00 | UK Politics
New press chief at Number 10
02 May 02 | UK Politics
'Farewell' to a semi-secret clique
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