CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/GOVERNMENT ADVERTISING - Government adspend policy shows history repeating itself. Governments always gain from maximising adspend and Labour is no different

In the late 80s, an eager young member of the Labour Opposition's

front bench team made his mark by attacking the Thatcher government when

its advertising budget rocketed to more than £100 million a year.

Today the boot is on the other foot because the rising Labour star in

question was Tony Blair and his Government has now emulated the Tories

by pushing the budget up to a record £192 million.



Labour ministers deny that they are breaching the long-standing

Whitehall rules that prevent the Government using taxpayers' money for

party political campaigns. They insist that civil servants in COI

Communications, the Cabinet Office and individual departments would not

allow ministers to cross the line between information and

propaganda.



The figures, however, suggest the lines are becoming blurred. According

to ACNeilsen MMS, the media monitoring service, the Government spent

£62.8 million on advertising in the first three months of this

year, making it the country's biggest spender by far. At the time, it

was an open secret that Blair planned to call an election on 3 May, so

it seems a remarkable coincidence that so much of the Government's fire

was concentrated in the pre-election period.



"The Government's policies and programmes directly affect the lives of

millions of people so it has a duty to explain and a right to be heard,"

a Cabinet Office spokesman said.



"Advertising or other paid means of communication are only used when

communication is an essential part of implementing policy or programmes.

There are strict rules to ensure they are in no way party

political."



The Government insists there were special factors behind the 70 per cent

rise from £113.4 million in the previous 12 months to £192.4

million in the financial year ending in March. During its first two

years in power, the Blair administration stuck to the Tories' spending

plans, and spent only £59 million on ads in its first 12

months.



However, the Cabinet Office argues that subsequent large increases in

public spending, including substantial rises in the number of nurses,

doctors and police, have led to a surge in high-profile recruitment.

"The Census campaign also took place this year, a major campaign which

only takes place once every ten years," the Cabinet Office spokesman

added.



Charles Clarke, the chairman of the Labour Party, conceded that under

Labour, there was "a trend towards more active government to try to

influence people's behaviour" but insisted "there is no suggestion that

it was related to the election".



It is true that the departments in the front line of Blair's battle to

improve public services were among those showing the biggest rises in

their adspend. At Education and Employment, the budget went up from

£20.4 million to £36.9 million; at the Home Office from

£9.4 million to £28.4 million; and at Health from £17.9 million to £26.2 million.



But there were also big rises in the departments responsible for

pensions, benefits and flagship schemes such as the Working Families Tax

Credit.



At Social Security, the budget rose from £8.1 million to £20.9 million and at the Inland Revenue from £15 million to £21.1 million. The Tories claim that these campaigns often fall into the

category of showing that the Government is "doing something" rather than

merely telling people about their rights.



Privately, some civil servants believe the Blair Government has moved

the goalposts on advertising as part of its wider policy of giving

communications a higher profile. When Labour came to power in 1997, the

rusty Whitehall communications machine was slow to provide it with the

efficient service that Millbank had delivered during its years in

opposition. "It is not about asking people to do party political tasks,"

one Labour source said. "It's about having a professional civil

service."



However, some Whitehall officials believe that Labour has overstepped

the mark. They believe, for example, that a TV campaign this spring by

the Department of Trade and Industry, telling workers about new rights

to paid holiday leave, should have been outlawed under the Cabinet

Office rules.



These accept that the government of the day may derive a spin-off

benefit from advertising but state that this should not be the primary

purpose of the campaign.



Labour's case may be weakened by a falling-off of government ads since

the election, which has added to the financial problems at Carlton and

Granada. David Willetts, the Tory spokesman on social security, said:

"Taxpayers are not only funding the BBC through the licence fee, they

are now funding ITV through this huge rise in government

advertising."



The increase in spend is not the only angle for an attack on the

Government's advertising record. There is also the question of

effectiveness. The Tories are demanding that public spending watchdogs

launch an inquiry into the ad budget hike. They believe that such a

probe would show that several multimillion-pound campaigns have had

little impact.



Although there may be an investigation, Labour is unlikely to lose much

sleep over it. The rules are sufficiently opaque to allow Labour to make

a case for its campaigns, just as the Tories did when Blair demanded an

inquiry back in the 80s. At the end of the day, the Government calls the

shots.



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