By Benedict Brogan, Whitehall Editor
Daily Mail – 28 December 2004
Alan Milburn could be summoned by MPs to explain why his job as Labour's election supremo is being funded by the taxpayer. The former health secretary was brought back into the Cabinet in September, but has no obvious public duties and his main role is to write the party's manifesto.
The Tories yesterday called on three Commons watchdogs to investigate what they say is an abuse of the ministerial code of conduct. They want the Cabinet Office to provide a breakdown of Mr Milburn's costs before the next general election, which is expected in May. However, the Government is refusing to provide such information until after the election.
Mr Milburn was recalled to the Cabinet by his close ally Tony Blair in September, 15 months after he quit frontline politics to "spend more time with his family". He was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster a courtesy title with no fixed responsibilities with a Cabinet minister's salary of £130,347, a Whitehall office and car. But Tory MPs complain his role is almost purely party political and he spends most of his time devising Labour's election strategy.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Julian Lewis has written to Sir John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office, to seek his assistance in making details of Mr Milburn's costs public. He has also written to Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, and Commons Public Administration Committee chairman Tony Wright. They could decide to summon Mr Milburn to give evidence.
Mr Lewis said:
"They have raided the public purse to give a Cabinet salary to a man who is primarily concerned with running Labour's election campaign.
"When you factor in the ministerial car and driver, the special advisers and the private office staff, the total cost is colossal. It could be up to £400,000. This is an abuse of public money."
Mr Milburn's use of a Cabinet job for his work as Labour's election mastermind has angered MPs and senior civil servants. Whitehall chiefs have complained privately that Mr Blair is stepping "perilously close to the edge of propriety" by putting Mr Milburn on the Government payroll.
* * *
Something is smelling distinctly unsavoury in Downing Street.
Alan Milburn was recalled to the Cabinet to mastermind Labour's election strategy. The convention used to be that the salaries of wholly politically partisan ministers are paid for by their parties.
Not under New Labour. Mr Milburn gets his £130,347 salary, ministerial car and offices courtesy of the taxpayer. And now it becomes almost surreal. The very Government which is introducing the Freedom of Information Act won't even tell us the total cost of Mr Milburn.
The Tories, who estimate it could be as high as £400,000, have rightly asked the Commons watchdogs to examine whether this is an abuse of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
Will this force a change of policy? From this shamelessly venal Government?
Don't hold your breath.