By Jonathan Oliver
Mail on Sunday – 20 March 2005
Alan Milburn was last night accused of blocking an inquiry into the cost to taxpayers of his role as Labour's Election supremo. The Mail on Sunday has learned that Mr Milburn has refused a demand by the National Audit Office to reveal how much his Cabinet position costs the public purse.
The snub to the spending watchdog provoked fury from the Tories, who accused Mr Milburn of abusing the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
The former Health Secretary was brought back to the Cabinet last year by Tony Blair to mastermind Labour's increasingly dirty, negative Election campaign. But despite his role being heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, he has few Government duties.
Mr Milburn is paid £130,347 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a courtesy title given by Mr Blair with minimal fixed responsibilities. But some estimates have put Mr Milburn's cost to the taxpayer at £400,000. In addition to his salary and pension, he receives a ministerial car and driver as well as a near tennis court-sized Whitehall office. He employs two special advisers whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer and has an unknown number of civil servants working exclusively for him.
Last year, Tory MP Julian Lewis asked the National Audit Office to investigate in a bid to force the Government to reveal the true cost of Mr Milburn. The inquiry was taken up by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General. But now Mr Milburn's office has responded to Sir John by refusing to disclose any figures until after the expected May Election.
It said any figures produced before the financial year ends would 'necessarily be unrobust'. In a letter to Dr Lewis passed to the Mail on Sunday, Sir John barely concealed his frustration. He wrote:
'As to whether the Department could provide information on the expenditure incurred to date on a month-by-month basis, in the view of the Cabinet Office such an action would properly be a decision for management and one that they have decided not to take.'
It is understood some Whitehall mandarins share Tory concern about Mr Milburn being paid for party political activities from the public purse. Even some in the Labour Party are questioning whether he should keep his job.
There have been whispered calls for him to stand aside after he authorised campaign posters attacking the Tories which quickly backfired. One poster, casting Michael Howard as Fagin, was branded anti-Semitic, while the latest, accusing the Tories of planning £35 billion cuts, was widely ridiculed.
The Conservatives yesterday said they would continue their campaign to force the Government to reveal full details of Mr Milburn's costs. Dr Lewis said:
'Hell will freeze over before this shady bunch condescend to tell us how much of our money has been spent on Labour's Election chief.'
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said:
‘As stated, we are committed to publishing the figures in the annual report’.
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'MILBURN’S BANANA REPUBLIC'
Cocky Alan Milburn is supposed to be a Minister and uses taxpayer-funded officials and premises to help him in his task. Yet it is clear he is really a political commissar whose job is mainly pro-Labour propaganda.
When the Tories, justifiably, asked the National Audit Office to investigate this strange use of public resources, the reply from the Milburn bunker was ‘None of your business’. But it is public business, and there could be no better illustration of the disease that has infected our formerly fair and honest parliamentary system. The governing party's power is so unchallengeable that the State's own auditors can be brushed aside while trying to conduct a legitimate inquiry.
If Mr Milburn gets away with this, then we will be several steps closer to becoming a banana republic.