Key Points:

Prime Minister Helen Clark is standing firmly behind Environment Minister David Benson-Pope over the Madeleine Setchell case.

In the face of intense National Party criticism, she said today the minister was not involved in the controversial phone call from his office to the Ministry of the Environment, and she believed he had told her the truth about the matter.

Ms Setchell was appointed communications manager in the ministry, but she held the job for only three days.

A senior advisor in Mr Benson-Pope's office, Steve Hurring, called the chief executive of the ministry to ask about Ms Setchell's relationship with Kevin Taylor, National Party leader John Key's chief press secretary.

Ms Setchell had revealed when she applied for the job that Mr Taylor was her partner, but as a result of the phone call ministry chief executive Hugh Logan removed her from it and offered her an alternative position which she declined.

National has described Mr Logan's action as "a politically motivated sacking" and wants Miss Clark to sack Mr Benson-Pope.

But she said at her weekly press conference today she was not going to.

"Mr Hurring made the phone call to the chief executive. That call was not made with Mr Benson-Pope's knowledge, and obviously not at his direction," she said.

"My personal view is that it wasn't wise to make the call.

"But if I'm asked to make the leap to whether a minister should be sacked because a staff member made a call he didn't know about, the answer is obviously no."

National has also accused Mr Benson-Pope of misleading the media, because he said last Wednesday he did not know any details of the case.

It was revealed on Friday that Mr Logan had briefed him about it.

But Miss Clark said all Mr Logan told him was that the State Services Commission was involved in the issue.

"I believe he has told the truth about it. The reality is he had no details.

"At this time he still has no details."

Mr Hurring has not commented on his part in the controversy, and has not responded to NZPA's phone calls.

Miss Clark said he was going to be talked to.

"Mr Hurring will be counselled on interactions which are appropriate and interactions which are inappropriate with departments."

Mr Key accused Miss Clark of "declaring war on public service neutrality".

He considers there has been political interference, which is forbidden.

"This is proof positive that Labour sees the public service as an extension of its political operation," he said.

"Helen Clark has officially abandoned the long-standing convention of a neutral public service."

Mr Key said he wanted to know what Mr Hurring said to Mr Logan, and whether Mr Benson-Pope had any discussion about the call with Mr Hurring.

Mr Key and other National MPs will raise those questions when Parliament sits tomorrow.

- NZPA