For example, spending on advertising at the Department of Social Security has increased by 311% from 1997 until the present day – a rise in cash terms from £4.5m to £18.3m.
At the Home Office, the departmental advertising budget grew 289% from £5.8m to £22.6m. It was a similar spending story in other departments.
The Department for Education and Employment recorded a 141.2% increase in money spent on advertising and at the Cabinet Office the budget rose by 70%.
At the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, advertising expenditure has moved from #8m to #14m over the last four years, an increase of almost 92%.
At the same time spending on services rose by just 1.1% although the sums involved were much greater. The DETR currently spends £46.3bn on services as opposed to £45.7bn when Labour came to power.
Across all government departments and agencies spending on advertising in the current financial year stands at £188m. Even a government spokeswoman admitted this seemed a ‘huge amount’.
But, is it a lot, even when compared to the private sector? Well, yes seems the only answer.
In 2000, multinational Proctor & Gamble spent over £122m on advertising in the UK, while BT spent almost #108m and Renault £70m.
Other big spenders included McDonalds, £42m, One2One, £35m and Ondigital, who spent over £29m. If the government is matching the money spent on advertising by some of the private sector’s biggest players, it shows just how important getting the message across is to ministers.
When the government came to power in May 1997, the central government advertising bill stood at #69m. The following year it dipped to £59m but since then has been growing impressively. In 1998/99, the bill almost doubled to £105m. For 1999/2000, it rose yet further, standing at £112m.
This growth in spending, especially for such an image sensitive government, has left ministers open to a charge of misusing public funds.
‘This is a government using public money to promote private party propaganda,’ says opposition MP, Liberal Democrat Don Foster.
Foster has, through a series of parliamentary questions in the past few months, been able to get figures on the different amounts spent by each department.
Other politicians have also been asking questions. James Clappison, the Conservative front bench spokesman on Treasury affairs, has used the House of Commons to find out about advertising costs incurred by the Home Office.
Andrew Lansley, shadow cabinet office minister and former civil servant, has also been investigating this growing industry.
In an election year, a charge of government money being used for propaganda is certain to have extra resonance. But is the government doing anything wrong?
There is no law to break as such, but guidelines exist as to how the government should go about publicising their work.
There are four rules the government should observe. These are that all advertising or publicity ‘should be relevant to government responsibilities’.
It should be ‘objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical’.
It ‘should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being party political’, and, finally, it should be ‘economic … having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds’.
The Government Information and Communication Services oversees government publicity. Mike Granatt, head of GICS, is responsible for deciding whether or not the each piece of publicity represents value for money and is the most effective way at getting the message across.
‘There is no ceiling (on spending),’ says Peter Burke, director of publicity at the DTI. ‘We have to be able to justify it, ministers have to justify the level of expenditure.’
Ministers would deny they are doing anything wrong and that the money is being spent on initiatives that need publicising as they affect millions of people.
During the current administration this would include the introduction of the national minimum wage, advertising for new armed forces’ recruits, getting the UK ‘online for business’ and road safety campaigns.
Charles Skinner, head of marketing and corporate communications at the DETR, says issues such as these can in no way be seen as government propaganda.
‘The overall government spend is there to explain or inform to the public round about three hundred sets of issues across the whole of government.
‘Where is the propaganda in explaining to people to drive safely or protect themselves from drink driving. That is in the interest of the public. The same applies to environmental issues,’ he says.
Issues that the DTI spent its money on promoting since 1996/97 include areas as diverse as firework safety, import and export licence announcements and working time regulations.
Total spend from 1996/97 to January this year by the DTI was almost £5m.
The largest share of this, just over £2m, was used on press advertisements.
One of the largest publicity campaigns centered on the introduction of the national minimum wage. But did it do any good?
‘Relatively successful’ is the assessment of Jeff Masters, a policy officer with the Low Pay Unit.
He believes many were aware of the scheme and there was some success in targeting advertising.
He also questions the priority given to the minimum wage when compared to other employment regulations such as the right to parental leave and paid leave. ‘I don’t think there was the same political capital invested in it (right to parental leave/ paid leave) because it was not a home-grown policy,’ he says.
He thinks the government erred on ‘managing expectations’ when promoting the working family tax credit, claiming it did not explain the benefits that could be lost as well as money that was gained. This led to disappointment.
‘To my mind they inflated expectations. People were better off but not as well off. People ended up disappointed not happy,’ he says.
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