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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 9 July, 2002, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
E-mails leave civil servants exposed
A series of internal e-mails have shown instances of civil servants plotting to conceal information about the government from MPs.

Using the Data Protection Act, the Liberal Democrats have obtained e-mails which demonstrate how some civil servants work to help their ministers avoid giving full answers to parliamentary questions.


I have gone for a narrow and pedantic interpretation of Taylor's question which makes the answer short and easy

Civil servant's e-mail
Officials at the education department and the Treasury were shown to be involved.

Lib Dem education spokesman Phil Willis said the e-mails showed an unacceptable "culture of obfuscation" within government.

Mr Willis said it was time for a Civil Service Act to regulate the activities of both special advisers and civil servants.

The e-mails obtained by the Lib Dems were between civil servants supposedly providing answers to questions tabled by Mr Willis and his colleague Treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor.

Jo Moore
Ms Moore wrote a notorious e-mail
One reads: "Taylor is at it again, I'm afraid."

Another example says Mr Taylor is "a tricky customer".

In a further communication a civil servant writes: "Willis has completely lost it, hasn't he? Let's hope he gets bored of all these PQs and keeps quiet or even goes home."

Another communication shows a civil servant trying to give as little away to a question as possible.

It reads: "I have gone for a narrow and pedantic interpretation of Taylor's question, which makes the answer short and easy."

Another says: "Fortunately, Phil Willis has asked his questions wrongly. We should be able to avoid answering them on that basis."

Contempt?

Mr Willis said that in one way the e-mails could be seen as a compliment "that the government takes us so seriously".

"But it's deeply worrying about the government's contempt for the parliamentary process," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I find it quite amazing that civil servants can advise ministers that they want to get rid of me so that questions can't be answered.

"It points to the need for something which the Labour Party - before it came into office - and the Liberal Democrats have been pressing for, which is a Civil Service Act.

"I think there is a need to lay down clear guidelines for civil servants and political advisers, so we don't get this deliberate manipulation and obfuscation, which clearly is the policy at the moment.

"We've always had this but the present government have made it into an art-form.

"Clearly the culture within this government of obfuscation and by-passing Parliament is something which is unacceptable in a democratic society."

Inquiry

The e-mails are set to be passed to the Committee on Standards in Public Life which is currently engaged in an inquiry into the activities of special advisers.

Lib Dem chief whip Andrew Stunnell - who will be handing over the e-mails - told Today: "[Civil servants] are now routinely expected to show all their answers to 'teacher' before they go out - that is the special adviser in the department.

"There is no doubt at all that the special advisers in particular are now in the thick of this and distorting the whole process.

"We have to remember that civil servants still have a duty to answer questions honestly and in a straightforward way."

Moore of the same?

The e-mails will be a source of embarrassment for the government which was until recently under fire for the Jo Moore affair.

Ms Moore, who was special adviser to the then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, sent an e-mail to colleagues suggesting that 11 September was a "good day to bury bad news".

In a statement the education department said: "We recognise that no-one in the department should be making comments about MPs or anyone else.

"We will be re-issuing guidance to all our staff to remind them of their responsibilities."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Gilligan
"MP's have long suspected that Whitehall sees them as a tedious nuisance"
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis
"The present government have actually made it into an artform"
See also:

31 May 02 | UK Politics
07 Jun 02 | UK Politics
18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
28 Jun 02 | UK Politics
07 Jun 02 | UK Politics
10 Jun 02 | UK Politics
14 Jun 02 | Technology

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