FARM minister William Waldegrave has been accused of abusing his power and taxpayers money by holding Tory Party policy meetings at MAFF offices in London.
Labour shadow farm minister Dr Gavin Strang wrote to Mr Waldegrave on Monday complaining about the use of the offices and the use of MAFF official stationery.
According to leaked confidential papers, 19 people have been invited by the minister to join the new agricultural policy group.
Its objective is to "generate vote winning ideas" for the next Tory manifesto "well before the next general election".
It emphasises that the group should be political and should focus on ideas that will give advantage to the Conservative Party.
Dr Strang described the activity as "a disgraceful abuse of ministerial power and taxpayers money". He said the minister had failed to uphold the clear distinction between Party and government activity and called on him to make a public apology.
Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat farm spokesman, also wrote to the minister calling for an immediate assurance that all MAFF staff and facilities would be firmly excluded from the exercise.
MAFF sources did not deny that the policy group had met at the ministrys Whitehall Place office. They pointed out that with MAFFs four ministers present it was just common sense and it was at no extra cost to taxpayers. It was not only more convenient but would have been even better value for taxpayers had ministers had to be summoned back in an emergency from a meeting elsewhere.
The policy groups meetings were not held exclusively at the MAFF office and no civil servants had been involved in the meetings. They were organised by the ministers special political adviser, whose stationery had been used.
Although paid for out of the public purse, ministers special advisers are not career civil servants. They tackle political tasks for ministers that civil servants may not handle.
Answering a Commons question last month, the Prime Minister said similar Tory meetings held at the health department and organised and serviced by a special adviser had not incurred additional costs to taxpayers and no civil servants had been involved.