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11 May 2011

No 10: Names on letters to the public are invented

Downing Street forced to admit that names and signatures used on letters to members of the public ar

By Tom Kavanagh

What began as a routine exchange between the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, Sir Gerald Kaufman, and the Prime Minister’s Office has ended with the revelation that the names and signatures that appear on letters to members of the public emanating from Downing Street are entirely fabricated.

Kaufman had written to the Prime Minister on 26 April on behalf of a constituent, and the former shadow foreign secretary subsequently received a response signed by a Mrs E Adams. When he called the Prime Minister’s Office asking to speak to her, he was told that Mrs Adams “does not speak on the telephone”. Unsatisfied, Kaufman persisted and was then put on to somebody describing themselves as the “head of the correspondence unit”, who told the MP that “Mrs Adams did not exist but was a computer-generated name – and presumably also a computer-generated bogus signature as well”.

Sir Gerald stressed that this represents a breach of protocol, as previous prime ministers had always responded personally to his written correspondence. “What extraordinary events are taking place in 10 Downing Street whereby they send letters from somebody who doesn’t exist and expect one to accept this?” he wondered out loud.

The MP raised the issue as a point of order in the House of Commons, prompting Downing Street to offer an explanation. No 10 said that false names had been used in correspondence since 2005, following an incident in which a representative of the department that handles the prime minister’s letters from MPs and the public, the Direct Communications Unit, was threatened at her home address after being traced.

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Consequently, using the real names of members of staff on official letters was “deemed to pose an unacceptable and unnecessary risk to their safety”. After the issue was raised in the House, Downing Street said it would explore alternatives, but affirmed that “our priority is the security of our staff”.