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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Prescott's language dilemma
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
Mr Prescott in action in the Commons
Civil servants have been told to draft answers for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott which are "easily spoken aloud", it has emerged.

The move is an attempt to stop Mr Prescott and junior ministers in his Cabinet Office from making embarrassing mistakes or being tongue tied in the Commons.

They twist the answers to suit the best reflection of government policy that they can put on it

Andrew Stunell
Liberal Democrat MP

Advice to civil servants tells them: "The answer should be punchy and easily spoken aloud. Short sentences are best."

The linguistic assistance was uncovered by Liberal Democrat chief whip Andrew Stunell during a five-month-long investigation into the way government departments answer parliamentary questions.

Mr Stunell, who was sent the guidance by Mr Prescott's department by accident, told The Mirror: "This is amazing. John Prescott is supposed to be second in command of the country."

'Obtain good publicity'

Mr Prescott was voted the public figure who most mangles the English language by 100 writers, actors and broadcasters, including Jilly Cooper and Sue Lawley in a survey in 1999 to mark the fourth edition of the Collins Concise Dictionary.

One picked Mr Prescott after hearing him talk about "the sceptre of unemployment stalking the north east".

On another occasion Mr Prescott pledged to "build on" Labour's legacy of creating green belts.

A passionate public speaker, Mr Prescott's most famous speech was to Labour's 1993 conference, a tour de force in which he successfully swung a suspicious party to back John Smith's plans for one-member-one-vote to select parliamentary candidates.

But once delivered, it was rendered almost incomprehensible by transcription. All those who witnessed the speech itself, however, knew exactly what he was saying.

More unfortunate was when, in 2000, standing in for Tony Blair to make a Commons statement on Nato action in Yugoslavia, he repeatedly - and variously - stumbled over the pronounciation of "Milosevic".

Departmental guidelines

The Liberal Democrat MP discovered that the internal guidelines of government departments show how civil servants are expected to deal with the hundreds of questions posed by MPs each day.

Civil servants in the Department for Education and Skills are told about responses to parliamentary questions in private: "These should enable the minister to be in charge of the issue, rather than on the defensive, incorporating short, focused, effective rebuttals and possible criticisms."

The Treasury's internal guidelines stress: "It is legitimate to exploit the parliamentary process to obtain good publicity for the government's policies and record and to point to flaws in alternative policies."

Andrew Stunell, Liberal Democrat MP
Stunell: Political advisers put spin on answers

The Treasury's internal advice, relating to special advisers, states: "Officials should not prepare briefing which is partisan in the political sense.

"The special advisers are best placed to do that and to add a party political gloss to material prepared by officials."

Mr Stunell accused the government of "twisting the answers" to MPs' questions.

"There is a very elaborate system for every question that every member of parliament puts - they are shown to the political advisers and the right spin put on," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'Loaded questions'

"They look to see whether the MP's got what you might call, 'a track record' and they twist the answers to suit the best reflection of government policy that they can put on it.

"And on occasions, if the question is too hard, they actually substitute another question from a friendly MP and answer that one instead.

"There is a whole super-structure of changing questions round."

Mr Stunell argued that while MPs were not allowed to ask "loaded questions", "the government can twist the answers and load the answers".

He accused the Treasury of being "at it in spades" in response to questions about email logs relating to Matthew Taylor, his party's treasury spokesman.

He said civil servants and special adviser speculated about "what he was up to... and therefore how they should answer the question which is quite clearly designed to shut off any awkward revelations of what might be going on".

'Open as possible'

Mr Stunell said Labour's commitment to freedom of information had been "turned down" since coming to power.

The MP said he planned to raise his findings at the Commons' Committee of Public Administration and the Committee of Standards and Privileges.

Meanwhile, the government says it is entitled to respond to questions with political rebuttal. It also believes special advisers and not civil servants are the right people to do this.

Members of the government are encouraged, in the ministerial code of conduct, to be "as open as possible with Parliament and the public".

The Cabinet Office urges civil servants not to leave out details "merely because disclosure could lead to political embarrassment".

See also:

23 Mar 01 | UK Politics
MPs told to answer claims directly
28 Nov 01 | UK Politics
No rebuke for 'evasive' ministers
28 Nov 00 | Talking Politics
John Prescott: Liability or asset?
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