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LATEST: Allegations over Watson smears were investigated

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Updated: The head of the civil service has confirmed that he “fully investigated” the smearing of a senior civil servant by a ‘source’ at the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG).

Shadow communities secretary Caroline Flint (pictured below) wrote to cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell in March, after negative remarks about Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson appeared in The Times last year.

Her letter asked: “Have you or DCLG launched any internal investigation into the identity of the source? Has any internal disciplinary action been taken?”

Sir Gus responded: “I agree with you about the seriousness of the allegations made which were fully investigated at the time.”

His letter, dated 10 May, continued: “For reasons which I am sure you will appreciate … it would not be appropriate for me to comment on whether or not any disciplinary action was taken.”

However, as revealed by LGC last month, DCLG has already confirmed that no disciplinary action has been takenover the matter.

According to a report in PR Week in February, Sir Gus was so alarmed at briefing about Jenny Watson that he wrote a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister urging him to restrain aides.

The unprecedented move came after potentially defamatory comments attributed by the Times to a DCLG ‘source’ were made in a briefing to the Times newspaper last September following the non-renewal of Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson’s place on the Audit Commission board.

Speaking to LGC this week, DCLG special adviser Giles Kenningham said the identity of the source of the remarks about Ms Watson was not known. “It was a source not an official spokesman,” he said.

The negative briefing to the Times ran counter to DCLG’s own internal advice, circulated in an email sent by Mr Westlake (pictured below) on 16 August, which stated that decisions not to reappoint directors should be communicated in a “pro-active, responsible manner” and was “no reflection on their performance”.

Last November in Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said his government would not employ “smear” tactics.

A Labour source said: “This letter raises a number of questions, which we will be pursuing further. As far as we are concerned, this is not the end of the matter.”

Click to read Caroline Flint’s letter and Sir Gus O’Donnell’s response

This story was updated on 16 May 2011

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