The text of Mr Major’s comments during the Government Publicity Cost debate, made on 16th May 1989 in the House of Commons.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) I beg to move, That this House deplores the soaring cost of the Government’s publicity machine; and calls for an end to its deployment for party political purposes.
Mr. Speaker I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
Mr. Dobson There is widespread and growing concern about the scale, propriety and timing of much Government publicity and advertising. It is an issue that goes to the heart of the relationship between political parties, the people, public servants and the state. In 1985 the Government acknowledged that in their evidence to the Widdicombe inquiry when they said: The unregulated use by any public authority of highly developed media techniques, particularly for persuasive purposes with a strong political undertone, is perceived as a dangerous trend in a democratic society. At the time the Government were talking about local authorities. Since that statement, spending on Government publicity has soared. The regulations laid down to minimise the party political content in Government publicity have been partly ignored and secretly relaxed. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between Government publicity and Tory propaganda, in terms both of the content and of the personnel and agencies producing it.
Since that statement was made, without the benefit of statute, industries owned by the public have run privatisation advertising campaigns co-ordinated with those of Government Departments and the Tory party. The only good feature of that is the growing public revulsion against some of the more patronising claptrap that they see on television. People believe that this has gone too far. In particular, they object to the £30 million of their money that is being spent on advertising by the water industry which has a monopoly product that none of us can do without. As The Economist asked last week: Who benefits from the campaign? The ten authorities’ tied customers will not get cleaner or cheaper water, merely bigger bills. The authorities themselves can hardly increase their sales or market share. Indeed, after the dry winter, some of them might be glad to be asked to supply less, not more, water. That advertising appears to have been counter productive because after the milk float water advertisement, some people thought that privatised water would be sold by the bottle. That may turn out to be right.
Spending on Government publicity has continued to soar, and that fact cannot be disputed. Publicity spending by public bodies controlled by the Government will this year total well over £220 million. That is a lot of money. To give only one example, it would pay for building four big new district hospitals. Instead of that, it is all going on paper and television.
About £120 million of that massive sum will be spent by Government Departments, and the rest by the armed forces, Government agencies and the water and electricity industries. The £120 million spending by Government Departments is a sixfold increase on the £20 million publicity spending by Government Departments in 1979. No wonder the taxpayers are beginning to think that it has all gone too far.
In 1987, according to The Daily Telegraph, the Government overtook Unilever as Britain’s biggest spender on advertising. Strange to think that a Government who proclaim that they want to roll back the frontiers of the state insist that their propaganda rolls into the front room of every family in the land. The Government now spend so much on TV advertising that they get a special discount rate from the TV companies.
In March of this year, the top five spenders on advertising were B and Q, £3.6 million; Renault, £2.2 million; the Department of Trade and Industry, £2.1 million; Midland bank, £2.1 million; and the water industry, £1.98 million. The Government Departments that spend most taxpayers’ money on publicity include the Department of Employment, with £17 million, and the Department of Social Security, with £16 million.
The Department of Social Security should spend money on publicity in an effort to raise the appalling take-up level of some benefits. It is trying to spend money now to increase the take-up that its incompetent advertising in the past failed to raise.
This year, though, the star spender is the Department of Health, the spending of which is set to soar from about £10 million to about £19 million, an increase of 87 per cent. At the same time, the Department has given the National Health Service just 5 per cent. to cope with inflation. Yet the Secretary of State for Health has had the gall to go around the country complaining about the money that doctors are spending to campaign against the NHS review. The doctors have one singular merit that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not have: they are spending their own money.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) I could not understand from what the hon. Gentleman said whether he welcomed the increase in expenditure on advertising by the Department of Social Services.
Mr. Dobson There is no Department of Social Services in national Government. There is a Department of Social Security, which has misspent money on pathetic, rather trendy advertising that did not work. It is now halving to spend more money. It would be better, of course, if we saved the money now spent on advertising and gave people benefits which were easy to take up and were not dependent on advertising to get them taken up in the first place.
The other big spender is the Department of Trade and Industry, headed by Lord Young, who is supposed to be the apostle of Government advertising. I suppose that that is because, being in the House of Lords, he is sure that, however much is spent on Government advertising, none of it will go on his election expenses. Wherever he goes, Government publicity expenditure soars. As the amendment refers to value for money, I suggest that the Government look closely at spending by the Department of Trade and Industry, because it is clear from the figures that the more that Department spends on advertising, the worse our balance of trade gets.
It is not just the scale of the publicity machine that has changed; it has become much more party political. So much so that in 1988 The Daily Telegraph, describing what had happened in election year 1987, referred to what it called the Government’s lavish publicity campaigns on such issues as job training and health education … little more than an expensive vote-catching exercise. You will note, Mr. Speaker, that the expense was borne by the taxpayer; the vote catching was to the benefit of the Tory party.
But it is not just that the old regulatory arrangements are being ignored; they have been relaxed, and they have been relaxed furtively and in some cases secretly.
The director of the Central Office of Information used to be the head of profession for Government information officers, the person to whom civil servants in information departments could turn if they had doubts about the propriety of what they were being asked to do. Earlier this year that role was handed over to Mr. Bernard Ingham, of whose relationship with professional propriety I shall say no more than that it was amply demonstrated in the Westland affair.
Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household) What does the hon. Gentleman know about it?
Mr. Dobson The non-silent Whip the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) asks what I know about it. I read it in the report of the Defence Select Committee, on which there is a majority of his hon. Friends.
Until recently the Central Office of Information had what was called a central role in advising on the propriety of Government publicity. In a change made early last year the Central Office of Information lost that central role in advising on propriety and it was handed over to, of all people, the Cabinet Office, the organisation which gave the world the phrase “economical with the truth”. The change was kept secret from the Treasury Select Committee, which was then looking into the Central Office of Information. It was not even disclosed in the Treasury response to the Select Committee report when it was published in February this year.
Finally, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, we now understand, has been given a special role as a ministerial point of reference on publicity matters. He will advise on propriety. This would clearly be a difficult role for any Minister to fulfil. Obviously, it could not be carried out by anyone who was vindictive, petty minded or highly partisan. Instead, such a role, as we all realise, would require someone with breadth of vision and a willingness to respect the points of view and sensitivities of political opponents; a person capable of distinguishing between the interests of his party and the interests of the country as a whole. In other words, someone who likes mixing it could not possibly properly carry out that job. Hon. Members will be able to judge from his speech today the extent to which the present Chief Secretary meets these not particularly demanding criteria.
Time after time Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have referred to the conventions published in 1985, but it took a series of questions before the Prime Minister eventually revealed two weeks ago that the conventions had been reviewed at the beginning of last year. Nobody had been told about that – at least, no one outside Government information offices. Notwithstanding those recent changes, the Government conventions on publicity are still supposed to apply to advertising and press notices and other similar material. Section 4(ii) reads: Content, tone and presentation should not be party political. The treatment should be as objective as possible, should not be personalised, should avoid political slogans and should not directly attack the policies and opinions of Opposition parties or groups. Those conventions were designed to protect the taxpayer and the public and to protect the integrity of public officials who may be asked from time to time to carry out party political tasks in the name of their ministerial masters or mistresses.
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) Relaxed though the hon. Gentleman considers those regulations to be, does he think that those relaxed limitations should be applied to local government?
Mr. Dobson As the hon. Gentleman ought to know, the unrelaxed regulations are applied by law to local government and it was the suggestion of the Treasury Select Committee that they should be applied by law to central Government as well.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) Does my hon. Friend agree that double standards operate among Conservative Members? Is he aware that not long ago the Strathclyde local authority in Scotland distributed cards to every household so that people would know of their entitlement to social security benefits? The Government criticised it for doing so, but now we can see how they operate double standards.
Mr. Dobson My hon. Friend is spot on, as ever. Having double standards is almost the least of the criticisms that I would make of some Conservative Members. Whenever local authorities throughout the country – mainly Labour, but not exclusively – attempt to increase the take-up of benefits by people who are badly off, they are criticised by a Government who themselves have incompetently spent millions of pounds on advertising while achieving some of the lowest take-up levels in the history of the social security system.
In 1981, when a Conservative Government were in power, the Central Office of Information published a document on the role of Government information officers marked “For official use.” I do not know whether the House of Commons counts as official use but I shall still make use of that document. It states: If a Minister includes in a speech an attack on his political opponents, it would be improper for the Department to issue it as an official text or use the COI news distribution service to distribute it to Fleet Street. Such action would open the Minister and his Department to the charge of using taxpayers’ money to further party political attacks. In this case the political attack would have to be omitted from an official handout, otherwise the text must be issued by the party’s publicity machine. No mention is made of which party. It is rather like something from the Soviet Union in referring to the party. Official documents mean only one party – the Tory party.
Those rules are being broken. Civil servants complain that they are forced to expound half truths, produce dodgy material, and to leak in the Government’s interests. We are back to No. 10 Downing street. If civil servants wish to complain about being pressurised, they can always go to No. 10 Downing street and see Mr. Ingham, the head of profession, and see what sort of change they get. Everyone knows that the rules are not observed.
Another recent example was a press release issued by the Department of Employment in September 1988 containing an attack by the Secretary of State for Employment both on the Leader of the Opposition and on the shadow Employment Secretary by name, in clear breach of the rules I have quoted.
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) Why was it not stopped?
Mr. Dobson Such practices are not stopped but are being encouraged.
More blatant than that example was the concerted effort by the Department of the Environment’s press office earlier this month to back up the poll tax leaflet campaign. The Department faxed syndicated articles to at least 15 local newspapers purporting to he written by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) – and for all I know, he did write them. Those articles had a standard content but incorporated local variations. Those sent to Nottingham newspapers contained an attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Those sent to Leicester included an attack on the chairman of Leicester city council’s finance committee. The fax sent to the Leicester Mercury clearly came from the Department of the Environment’s press office and was signed by Nick Gammage. Again, that was done in clear breach of the published conventions.
Government press officers have also been pressured into what I can accurately describe as lying about statements made by my right hon. and hon. Friends and by me. On one occasion a radio reporter quite properly rang the then DHSS press office in my presence for its comments on a report that I issued. The press officer to whom the reporter spoke lied about the figures in my report. When I took the matter up with the Department’s head of information, she sought to justify her colleague’s lie, and no apology was forthcoming.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) My hon. Friend highlights significant abuses of Government power. Had they been perpetrated by a local authority, there would be demands for its councillors to be surcharged. Can my hon. Friend say what recourse the taxpayer has to get back from Ministers some of the money that they are clearly squandering on abusive and offensive practices?
Mr. Dobson The taxpayer has no redress in such matters because the Government have no statutory authority to carry out any advertising; as far as I understand, they do it under their prerogative powers. There are no statutory restraints on what they do, but they have imposed statutory restraints on everyone else who might be involved in publicity.
One recent publicity campaign cost a lot of money – more than was originally intended – broke the conventions and blurred the distinctions between the Government, the Tory party and its public relations advisers. As for value for money, which I understand is the main interest of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, it was a washout. I am talking about the launch of the National Health Service review, which was more unpopular after it was launched than it had been when it was just a leak.
The campaign had no statutory backing and was scheduled to cost £1 million. It actually cost £1.4 million – a 40 per cent. overspend. Unless the parliamentary answers on the matter are misleading, the vast bulk of the money was paid to one agency. I understand that in the trade, if an agency bids to do something for £1 million and spends £1.4 million, the extra £400,000 is paid by the agency and does not come out of the funds of those for whom it is carrying out the work. But that did not apply here. The money was spent on eight tele-conferences totalling £440,000, six road shows costing £179,000, communication packs at £302,000 and videos at £174,000.
The rules say that publicity campaigns should not be personalised, but it has to be said that that campaign was heavily personalised around the Secretary of State. For example, copies of NHS Management Bulletin No. 19 were sent to all GPs. The envelopes containing the bulletin were marked in the way usually reserved by the Department of Health for letters notifying GPs of vital clinical matters such as outbreaks of infectious diseases or warnings about contaminated batches of vaccine. It may be appropriate that there was some warning, because the envelopes contained a document emblazoned with no fewer than five pictures of the Secretary of State. His name was mentioned 10 times on the first page and more than 30 times in total. However, it is a serious matter when, for the sake of trying to make sure that every doctor opened his or her bit of propaganda, the Government devalued the franking that they normally reserve for matters which are important to doctors and patients. If the Secretary of State wants to know why the doctors are so offended by what has been going on, that is one reason.
But we should consider who mounted the campaign for the Government. That substantial contract was given to a little-known company, NML Presentations Ltd. The company’s accounts show that it declared no dividend in 1986 or 1987. It made a loss in 1987, but its report said 1 hat the directors expected it to be profitable in 1988. The net value of its assets excluding motor vehicles was just £7,286. On the face of it, that outfit does not seem to have very much going for it, certainly not enough to justify getting a £1 million contract that the Government considered very important. But it did have one vital asset – it had close connections with the Tory party. Its ultimate holding company was Lowe Howard Spink and Bell plc – the Bell in question being Tim Bell, who masterminded the Tory general election campaign. It is a pity that he did not do that as badly as this campaign; if he had, we would all be better off.
Many of the problems that Government Departments, some decent Ministers and a lot of decent civil servants face spring from what appears to be an increasing inability on the part of the Prime Minister to distinguish between the interests of the Tory party and the interests of the country. The motto seems to be that what is good for the Tory party is good for the country, and vice versa.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) Does my hon. Friend agree that it is one of the supreme ironies of history that at the same time as the Tory Benches are praising President Gorbachev for trying to separate the party from the state, they are doing exactly the opposite in Britain? Did my hon. Friend ever think that the day would come when any political party in Britain would take lessons from the Soviet Union and would bring in corrupt practices using taxpayers’ money?
Mr. Dobson I recall as a student having to learn about the government of various overseas states. I found it difficult to unravel the relationship between the Communist party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Government because such a close, interwoven relationship had not occurred in western democracies. My hon. Friend is right. Perhaps it is not just Mr. Gorbachev who is learning something when he comes here; the Prime Minister seems to have been learning quite a bit about how to run the state when she goes there.
The confusion between the interests of the Tory party and the state leads one to think of the one-party state which is a threat to our democracy, as the Government have said. The curious, interwoven relationship is best exemplified by the interchanges of publicity advisers between the Government, the Tory party and those industries scheduled to be privatised. As my hon. Friend the Member for –
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) The hon. Member should not lose his place.
Mr. Dobson I have not lost my place. I hesitated because I was trying to remember the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). As my hon. Friend pointed out, Mr. Brendan Bruce used to be a senior executive of D’Arcy Masius Benton and Bowles, known as DMB and B, the agency that had the contract for the present softening-up round of the water campaign. He was recently appointed director of communications at Conservative Central Office, we understand, to mastermind the party’s media coverage in the run-up to the next election. DMB and B, which was responsible for the Tory party political broadcast on the Health Service – that does not say a lot for it – and for the current phase of the Department of Trade and Industry 1992 campaign – that does not say a lot for it, either – is engaged simultaneously in a bid to get the contract for the Conservative party election campaign.
Mr. Tim Bell, who has already been involved in these sordid matters, and who is a long-time image builder of the Prime Minister and the Conservative party, is now employed as a public relations adviser to Thames Water, the most profitable of the water authorities. Perhaps the Chief Secretary, when looking at getting value for public money, could tell us whether it was Mr. Tim Bell who suggested to Thames Water that it should spend some of my money as a Thames Water user to pay for a water privatisation advertisement in the booklet “Thatcher – the first 10 years” obtainable from the Tory Central Office at £1.95. I do not think that there has ever been a closer relationship between party and Government than that, even in the Soviet Union. The appointment of Mr. Bruce may eventually fulfil the headline in The Times in August 1987: Propaganda role for Tory headquarters”. That rather startled some of us who wondered what else would happen while the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) was chairman of the Tory party. [HON. MEMBERS: “Winning elections.”] Are Conservative Members suggesting that they had a propaganda role at the time, or that they did not? I think that that press briefing – clearly from the Tory party to The Times – suggested that the Government would have to take over the propaganda role that it had ceded substantially to the public sector and the public purse in the run-up to the 1987 general election.
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) rose –
Mr. Dobson I do not think that I should give way to someone to whom one of the Whips has run up and said, “Please intervene on Mr. Dobson’s speech”, or words to that effect.
That brings me to the question of the timing of some of this spending. During general elections, by convention, all Government advertising is suspended, in the words of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, to avoid any risk of controversy about the use of public money for electoral purposes”.
Mr. Gow I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I think that he will want to adjust this part of his speech to take account of the judgement of the High Court, delivered this afternoon, in which both judges found in favour of the Government and against the London borough of Greenwich. Furthermore, an order of costs was made against the borough. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, who referred to the matter earlier, will now adapt his remarks to take account of his new-found friends the judges in the High Court.
Mr. Dobson I was aware of the outcome of the case of Greenwich v the Department of the Environment before the debate began. The fact is that, as every Conservative Member knows, it is extremely difficult for anyone to succeed in an action against a Government Department, even over a breach of statute and even with the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) in charge of the Department. When what is being questioned is expenditure carried out under the royal prerogative, the chances of success in the courts are fairly poor, and they were always poor in this case.
Let me point out to Conservative Members that the judge in the initial hearing said that he believed that aspects of the leaflet were capable of misleading people.
Mr. Harry Greenway If, as the hon. Gentleman predicted, the money of taxpayers and ratepayers of the London borough of Greenwich was so grossly wasted, why did the borough bring the action in the first place?
Mr. Dobson I did not suggest for a moment that the action of Greenwich council was a waste of time, effort or money. What the council did was observe and then seek legal advice on the basis that aspects of the leaflet were inadequate, and that one important aspect was mentioned in the Welsh leaflet but not in the English leaflet. The borough succeeded in the courts initially; now it has failed. The odds are against success in any court case against a Government who are relying on prerogative powers, as Conservative Members know. But there is always a chance, and it was wholly proper and reasonable for Greenwich council to do what it did.
Dr. Reid Does my hon. Friend recall the judgment by Judge McCowan some years ago, when he decreed that the interests of the state were synonymous with and identical to the interests of the Government of the day – a view also held, apparently, on the Conservative Benches? Does my hon. Friend recall that, when that judgment was put to a jury of 12 good men and true, they threw it out of court and released Clive Ponting?
Mr. Dobson It seemed to me at the time that any judge who, in advising a jury, came to the conclusion that the interests of the state coincided with the interests of those who, for the time being, were in government was getting on to rather dodgy ground. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, however, the common sense of the Old Bailey jury overrode the rather peculiar and absolutist advice of the judge. [Interruption]. I have now got as far as provoking the ultimate Trappist, the Government Chief Whip. He has asked me whether I was pleased with the judge’s judgment. The judge made no judgment in that case: it was the jury who made the judgment. What was wrong was the judge’s advice to the jury.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. David Waddington) I was talking about the current case.
Mr. Dobson If the Chief Whip wants to ask me about this case he should understand, as a lawyer, that more than one judge has been involved. It was reasonable for me to assume that he was talking about the case involving only one judge.
I can sum up my response to what has happened in court today by saying that it was perfectly reasonable for Greenwich council to challenge the Government, and most people in this country will be glad that it did so. Greenwich knew, however, as we all know, that the chances of success in an action involving the prerogative powers are not very good.
Let me repeat what I said earlier, as it was shouted down before. During general elections, by convention, all Government advertising is suspended, in the words of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, to avoid any risk of controversy about the use of public money for electoral purposes. I have been in touch with the IBA to find out whether it proposes to stop the Government and public bodies from advertising on television during the forthcoming European elections. The IBA tells me that that is a matter for the Government rather than for it.
The convention that Government advertising stops during a general election is, of course, only a convention; it has no statutory authority, just as there is no statutory authority for the general conventions on Government advertising. Nor, for that matter, is there any statutory authority for the Government to advertise in the first place. The Government acted to restrict by law the use of publicity by local councils, and we believe that whatever restrictions are applied by law to local councils should be applied by law to Government Departments. We now call on the Government to cease their advertising and publicity throughout the period of the European election campaign, following precedents set in previous general elections. If the Government refuse to do that, we call on the IBA – in observance of its own code of advertising standards and practice, which states that no advertisement may be directed towards any political end – to prevent the showing of privatisation and other Government advertising during the European elections, because we are convinced that it is impossible to look on any such advertising as not being directed to a political end.
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) My hon. Friend should refer to the six-week run-up to the local government election campaign, when £8 million was spent on advertising the privatisation of the water industry, which was a major issue in the elections. If the Government are prepared to spend that kind of money to promote themselves for local government, how much will be spent to paper up the cracks between the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and the Prime Minister over European issues?
Mr. Dobson I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about water advertising. However, it so irritates people that it is probably counter productive for the water industry and for the Government.
In the longer term, the Government should give statutory force to the conventions governing Government publicity. In the meantime, they should change their behaviour and ensure that the existing conventions are enforced. They should reinstate the Central Office of Information as the centre of advice on propriety. They should publish full details of all publicity campaigns that they intend to mount. The contracts for Government publicity campaigns should be awarded only on the basis of open and competitive tenders. Above all, the Government should stop using taxpayers’ money to promote party interests. Finally, they should direct the water and electricity industries to desist from their profligate and preposterous campaigns.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) What about Greenwich?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) Order. If the hon. Lady wants to make an intervention, perhaps she will say so.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman The hon. Gentleman referred to taxpayers’ money. Taxpayers contribute money to the borough of Greenwich, which spent money on a fruitless exercise.
Mr. Dobson Greenwich council is perfectly entitled to bring legal actions within the statutes, just as Governments are entitled to appeal against judgments – although it was not an appeal in this case. If we were to suggest that public authorities could not bring legal actions, we would apply that not only to local authorities, but to Governments. However, we are saying, in short, that publicity at public expense has gone too far and it is about time it stopped.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Major) I beg to move, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: recognises the responsibility of Government to provide advice and information to the public; and commends the Government’s firm adherence to the long standing conventions governing propriety and value for money. Let me make it clear to the House at the outset that I reject without qualification the criticisms made this afternoon by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). The worst thing that I can say, having heard his speech, is that the speech was worthy of him. In recent weeks, the hon. Gentleman has been engaged in what one can only call a campaign of misinformation and misrepresentation on a scale that merits parliamentary rebuttal. I am pleased, therefore, that he has at last brought his campaign to the House, so that it can be examined – pleased, but a little surprised that the Opposition regard this subject as more important than defence, when they have a brand-new review about which they want to talk. To express a concern about political propaganda and then to seek to avoid discussing their defence policy seems very odd.
I am surprised, too, that this artificial debate is more important than parading their new tax and public spending policies about which they have been boasting, or explaining their new policy of “activity funding” for the National Health Service, which caused such mirth in the House last week. If misleading propaganda concerns them, they might have brought those matters before the House, rather than the trivial conspiracy theories the hon. Gentleman has described.
This debate was clearly timed to coincide with the court case brought by Greenwich council over the community charge leaflet issued by the Department of the Environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has already told the House, judgment has been delivered this afternoon. I understand that both judges gave unqualified support to the Government. The Government have always believed that the leaflet was clear, concise and accurate and we are pleased by the vindication of our position in the High Court. It is highly desirable that the public should have early information about the community charge and we are anxious to resume distribution of the leaflet. However, despite the fact that we are now entirely free to do so, as a result of the court’s decision, we have given an undertaking not to resume distribution before tomorrow, during which time Greenwich council will consider whether to appeal. If it does appeal, we shall not resume distribution until the Court of Appeal has decided the case, provided that the appeal can be heard within the next few days. I am pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is here with us this afternoon while the House is informed that he and his Department have acted wholly properly.
It has long been accepted by successive Governments that they have a responsibility to ensure that members of the public are properly and fully informed about their rights, entitlements, responsibilities and duties. One way of achieving that has been to use publicity and advertising in the press, on television and through leaflets. That responsibility has led to campaigns on matters such as crime prevention and benefit entitlements, which have run throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The hon. Gentleman seemed to oppose the advertising of benefit entitlement, although I recall many of his hon. Friends suggesting that the campaign might have been extended. There is nothing new about such campaigns and I trust that they are not a matter of contention today – indeed, we are often asked to increase them.
Mr. Harry Greenway Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of the leaflet, will he accept that it is urgent for delivery to be resumed as soon as possible as an honest means of countering the highly mendacious leaflets about the community charge put out by many Labour authorities at huge cost to taxpayers and ratepayers?
Mr. Tony Banks Which ones?
Mr. Greenway Greenwich and Ealing in particular.
Madam Deputy Speaker Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that the motion and the amendment relate not to local authorities, but to the Government’s publicity machine and cash.
Mr. Major I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will not read the long list of Labour local authorities that have provided misleading information about the community charge. However, I accept without qualification what my hon. Friend had to say.
Dr. Reid Will the Chief Secretary accept that no Opposition Member is opposed to supplying information, especially on benefits, although I am surprised that he should cite that example? As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) pointed out earlier, when Strathclyde regional council issued information on benefits, the Government were the first to criticise.
Can the Chief Secretary tell us what information or useful function is provided by the large billboard hoardings we see throughout the country advertising the employment training scheme? Can he tell us why every firm used in the advertisements is also a huge financial benefactor to the Conservative party?
Mr. Major It must be clear even to the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of those advertisements was to bring the scheme to the attention of those who might benefit from it. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that advertising.
Some elements of advertising have long been accepted and are not parti pris or contentious and nor are many other large areas of publicity. The Government have a clear responsibility to promote health education and safety campaigns and the extensive AIDS campaign is an example of that. Energy conservation and training programmes are further examples of the Government’s responsible use of publicity, both to inform and influence behaviour. Other examples of more general information campaigns are those on road safety, Government recruitment and the statutory advertising that all Governments are obliged to carry out.
The misinformation we have heard in recent weeks has been of two kinds. First, there have been comments about the propriety of expenditure and, secondly, about its cost.
Mr. Dobson If energy conservation is so important, why has spending on publicity by the Department of Energy – excluding expenditure on privatisation – been reduced?
Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman cannot play it both ways. He cannot on one hand complain about levels of expenditure and on the other hand ask for more. However, he has drawn attention to a point that needs to be clearly understood. The advertising in which the Government are engaged is legitimate, proper, necessary and serves a good and useful purpose.
Mr. Tony Banks Will the Chief Secretary give way?
Mr. Major I will give way a little later.
I want to turn to the matter of propriety, because the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras made some contentious comments about it. He told the House that the conventions on Government publicity had been secretly relaxed. I must tell him that they have not been, nor will they be. The basic conventions applied by successive Governments for many years have remained in place and their operation has been tightened up. The conventions have a clear purpose – to ensure that public funds are not used to finance publicity for improper or party political purposes. We are firmly committed to those conventions and observe them strictly on all occasions.
Nor do Ministers act without professional, independent advice from the Civil Service on propriety. Until July 1988, advice on propriety was the responsibility of the Central Office of Information. That responsibility was removed from the COI solely because of the changing nature of the COI’s business relationship with Departments. The more contractual basis on which COI now operates made it inappropriate for it to act as an authoritative and final source of advice on propriety. The responsibility for this advice was therefore transferred to the Cabinet Office, which has traditionally been the source of advice in Government on other questions of propriety.
That has been the case for many years under many Governments. The responsibility is not located where the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras suggested. The responsibility is located in the machinery of Government division, within the Office of the Minister for the Civil Service, under the ultimate direction of the Cabinet Secretary, the head of the Home Civil Service. That is where the responsibility lies.
The established conventions governing Government publicity remain unchanged, and publicity campaigns must continue to meet important tests. First, they must deal with a subject for which the Government are responsible and on which they need to communicate with the public. Secondly, they must provide good value for money. Thirdly, they must not be open to question that the primary purpose, or principal incidental purpose, of a campaign is party political advantage.
The primary responsibility for ensuring that the conventions on propriety are observed, and that value for money is being achieved, rests with Ministers and their Departments. All Governments have accepted that. In the light of the strengthened guidance we have given, most issues under the conventions will in practice be sorted out in Departments, or between them and the COI. There will be a residual category of cases, not many, on which Departments look either to the Cabinet Office or to the Treasury.
As the hon. Gentleman trailed, at ministerial level I have been asked to act as a point of reference on Government publicity matters, and am responsible for the adjudication of conflicting departmental approaches to the presentation of Government publicity. My services in that respect are seldom required but, if and when they are, I look to the machinery of Government division for advice on propriety, and to my Treasury officials on value for money. I should make it clear to Opposition Members that when I have been asked to make a ruling I have not hesitated to turn down a proposal which seemed possibly inconsistent with the guidelines. I or my successors with that responsibility will no doubt continue to do so if it seems appropriate.
Several Hon. Members rose –
Mr. Major I give way to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) Before we leave the question of propriety, does the Chief Secretary believe that his predecessor, Sir Leon Brittan – [Interruption]. I am asking a factual question. Does the Chief Secretary believe Sir Leon Brittan when he said that approval was given by Mr. Powell and Mr. Ingham for the improper disclosure of a Law Officer’s letter? Does the Chief Secretary believe Sir Leon?
Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman raises this matter repeatedly but it is not within this debate and I have no intention of getting involved in that debate.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) Although the right hon. Gentleman was not the Chief Secretary at the time, he may recall that shortly before the last general election the Ministry of Defence issued a video and a publicity pack that not only argued why Britain should have an independent deterrent, but stated why it should be Trident as opposed to any other possible deterrent. Clearly that was politically contentious, no matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter were. What was the need for that information to be imparted to members of the public?
Mr. Major If the hon. Gentleman wants to run that sort of argument, I shall ask why, in the past, his party supported the publicity produced by Labour Governments on, for example, a new deal in Europe, on devolution – which is hardly uncontentious – and on the attack on inflation – “A Policy for Survival”. The hon. Gentleman has wholly misunderstood the conventions and he is wholly and entirely wrong.
Mr. Tony Banks The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) is not a member of the Labour party.
Mr. Major In early 1988 – [Interruption]. Hon. Members may shout “Don’t bring in the Labour party,” but I do not need to bring in the Labour party and nor will the electorate for many years – if ever.
Mr. Banks I realise that the Minister is getting a bit hysterical, but I did not say, “Don’t bring in the Labour party,” I said that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland who was accused of being a member of the Labour party has never been a member of the Labour party.
However, since the Minister has graciously given way, will he tell me what recourse the taxpayer has if he believes that money has been spent on something that is essentially party political advertising? In local government such people can go to the district auditor, so what is the machinery that allows the taxpayer to make a formal complaint? Finally – I know that the Minister will never give way to me again – why do all these Government publications have to include a picture of the Minister concerned?
Mr. Major On the central point in the hon. Gentleman’s question, the recourse is the recourse that we are exercising this afternoon – the fact that Ministers are answerable to this House and to Members of Parliament. That is the central recourse and that is the distinction between central and local government –
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) rose –
Mr. Major I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later if he can contain himself for a moment.
On the first of the three points to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred in his intervention, I was referring to the period of the Lib-Lab pact, and on his third point, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends are highly photogenic, it seems entirely reasonable that their photographs should be on such publications.
Mr. Grocott Which does the Minister think is the most effective sanction – having to appear before this House in a debate or being bankrupted by surcharges?
Mr. Major If one appears before the House in such a debate or, in case of need, before the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service and other Committees of the House, that is a significant sanction that cannot be beaten anywhere. It is a sanction that no Member of the House would overlook at any stage or would treat lightly.
In early 1988, the Government reviewed the arrangements needed to ensure the compliance of Government publicity campaigns with the accepted conventions, as well as the role of the COI in those matters which I have already mentioned.
The review confirmed that the conventions had stood the test of time well, and led to strengthened and tighter guidance to Departments. This covered the interpretation and operation of the conventions such as the use of public relations consultants and direct marketing, and the need for professionalism, both of presentation, and in making sure that publicity expenditure provided value for money. This covers aims, the means used, the cost proposed, and proper measurement of the results. The guidance was widely circulated to heads of Departments and Ministers and is available in the Library.
The reality, therefore, is that the principles of propriety and value for money on which we operate are unchanged and fully observed – I repeat to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that the principles are unchanged and fully observed – notwithstanding the general background of rapidly developing publicity techniques and the fact that the Government need to compete for attention with a vast array of messages from others. We have also clarified and tightened up the operation of these conventions and set new machinery in place to ensure compliance, both in terms of propriety and value for money. Nothing that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has pointed to or can point to can shake that fact.
Mr. Dobson Why did it take the passage of 14 months and some questions from me before the fact that the review had taken place was disclosed and the document published?
Mr. Major There was nothing whatsoever secret about the review, which was predominantly about the internal workings of the COI and other bodies. The moment that the matter was raised, the documents were made fully available. Although I accept that in retrospect it might have been better if the Government had unilaterally produced them before the hon. Gentleman asked his question, the reality is that the moment the question was asked, the information was made available. However, it was essentially an internal review, predominantly about the role of Government Departments rather than necessarily about the conventions which remain unchanged.
As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras mentioned the codes of conduct for local authorities under the Local Government Act 1986, he should put that in proper perspective. Indeed, if the rules and conventions that govern central Government operations had been observed as closely and honourably in local government, there would have been no need for the Widdicombe report and the subsequent legislation, but they were not observed.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras mentioned publicity by local government on benefit entitlement. The reality is that Widdicombe was needed to correct abuse of the ratepayers by local authorities – predominately Labour – on a monumental scale. Quite apart from extravagance and inefficiencies, many Labour local authorities had also badly misused public money for advertising. Lambeth council spent thousands of pounds of ratepayers’ money on anti-Government propaganda, and Haringey council ran an advertisement out of ratepayers’ money that said that it would campaign for the next Labour Government to repeal all privatisation laws. The next Labour Government, mark you! So it was not even campaigning against Government policy. It was using ratepayers’ money to campaign against Labour policy.
Madam Deputy Speaker Order. I must remind the Chief Secretary and other hon. Members that I have already put down a marker that the debate concerns the Government publicity organisation machine and does not refer to local government.
Mr. Major Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall obey that injunction. I am happy to concede to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that I obey it reluctantly in essence, because the amount of information, which indicates clearly the way in which Labour local authorities have behaved in recent years, is massive and deeply embarrassing for them. However, in any event, there is plainly no need for statutory control of Government publicity, because Ministers are firmly committed to the conventions, which have been fully published so that the House can always call on Ministers to justify their actions. That discipline cannot be applied to local government, and that is why legislation was necessary to deal with local authority abuses.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras made much of the increase in expenditure since 1979. But he is neither making sensible comparisons over time nor dealing with the merits of the expenditure. In cash terms, of course, he is right. Expenditure on behalf of Departments by the COI has moved from £35.4 million in 1978–79 to £151.6 million, including flotations, in 1988–89. There are good reasons for that increase. The elements that must be taken into account include general inflation over the period, the introduction of VAT on press advertising, and an even more substantial rise in the cost of buying time on television and radio and space in newspapers and magazines. For television, for example, which is increasingly important in effectively communicating to the public, that increase is estimated at up to two and a half times the general rate of inflation. In addition, there is included in those figures the new item of flotation advertising in pursuit of privatisations.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and some of his hon. Friends have referred to the water authorities’ current campaign as being “propaganda for privatisation”. That attack is nonsense, and the water authorities have made clear that it is nonsense. We should be clear, too. The water authorities, like other nationalised industries, must make their own commercial judgment about corporate advertising within overall levels of finance set by Government. The present corporate campaign is run by the water authorities, and they pay for it.
The water authorities have made clear that the purpose of their campaign is to improve consumer awareness of the industry and the industry’s image. Of course, it is true that, in planning it, the industry recognises that the circumstances in which it operates will change radically. It knows – subject to Parliament’s approval – that it will be privatised and that its efficiency and standards of service will come under close scrutiny by consumers. Of course, it knows that. But, irrespective of that, it knows that the environmental concerns of the public are growing, and that it will have to meet those concerns. It knows, too, that a great deal of attention has been focused on the water industry in recent months and a great deal of nonsense has been talked about it and the services that it provides – often by the Opposition. It is its judgment that the current campaign will go some way to improving customers’ knowledge of the industry and the Government share that view. The Opposition criticise the corporate campaign on entirely false grounds. The only reason that they do so is that they are opposed to the Government’s policy towards the water industry.
Mr. McCartney Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Major I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. This is a brief debate and I have given way on a number of occasions. I hope that on this occasion hon. Members will excuse me.
Opposition Members, of course, dislike denationalisation – as I prefer to call privatisation – as a principle. We understand that. They prefer state ownership with rigid control. We understand that, too. That is the nature of their philosophy. That is why they have been critical of the spending on flotation advertising that has accompanied privatisation. I cannot agree with them about that. Flotation advertising campaigns are designed to publicise a forthcoming offer for sale, and convey information about the availability of prospectuses and the application procedures. The Government believe that it is important that the opportunity to gain a direct and personal stake in the future of British industry is given to all investors, large and small alike. It must, therefore, be brought to everyone’s attention and not just to the attention of the large institutions, and those familiar with the markets. Indeed if it were not, the Opposition could rightly criticise us for that. But advertising on flotations is undertaken only after Parliament has approved the policy and in order to carry it out successfully.
It is also eminently justifiable expenditure. All costs incurred by Government in relation to a privatisation, including advertising costs, are netted off against the proceeds that advertising the sale brings in. Nor is the advertising excessive. The overall Government cost of those advertising campaigns has represented only a small percentage of those proceeds – 0.3 per cent. for British Telecom, 0.4 per cent. for British Gas, British Airports Authority and British Petroleum. They help the Government to get a good price for the sale and represent, therefore, a very good bargain for the taxpayer, and a popular one, too. More than 2 million people bought shares in British Telecom and around 5 million in British Gas, and the number of shareholders has tripled, largely due to the privatisation programme.
Of course, some justified publicity takes place in areas of political contention, as the hon. Member for Holborn 198 and St. Pancras said. That is not new or unique to the Government. What is new, and I hope will be unique, is the hon. Gentleman’s argument that, because he does not like the Government’s policies, publicity for them is wrong. Provided the conventions are observed, that is not so. But, if we take his line, we find that the 1974–79 Labour Government, with its Liberal support, must have had some difficulty with the conventions. I wonder on the hon. Gentleman’s argument whether their publicity on counter-inflation or selective price control would have passed a value for money test. I very much doubt it. Would their material on devolution for Scotland and Wales have got very far? I doubt it; that was hardly uncontentious then or now. The hon. Gentleman would have to argue that the European Economic Community referendum was done in order to get that Government out of a party political hole. That is the result of the hon. Gentleman’s logic when applied to his own party when in government. However, I do not take that view. I exonerate the Labour Government of impropriety. The better view is the one that we hold. They took their responsibilities for the conventions on Government publicity expenditure seriously and responsibly, just as we do, and they took advice, just as we do, on propriety. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.
Mr. Dobson The right hon. Gentleman should concede that, both in the case of the money spent on the European referendum campaign and on the national devolution referendum campaigns in Wales and Scotland, money was provided for both sides to put their cases. In the document published in 1981, the then Government justified the Labour Government’s expenditure on the counter-inflation campaign, because a very big majority of supporters of all the main political parties agreed with the points made in the advertisements. That does not apply to the contentious political advertising of this Government.
Mr. Major I think that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has missed the point of what I was saying, which was specifically to exonerate the then Labour Government from impropriety in those advertising campaigns. That is what I expressly said just a few moments ago. What I said was that, if the hon. Gentleman criticises us now, he should have condemned the last Labour Government even more roundly. If he does so, in the spirit of Robespierre-like purity I can tell him that he was wrong about them then just as he is wrong about us now.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras set out a number of criticisms. None is justified. All should be rejected. Our systems ensure that spending must come from within departmental budgets, and that it meets strict tests of value for money and cost-effectiveness. All publicity expenditure is also subject to the scrutiny of the House, of the Treasury Select Committee, and of the Comptroller General in the National Audit Office. We welcome that, and, of course, that scrutiny will continue.
In addition, the Government not only support the traditional principles of propriety and strictly observe them, but in recent months they have strengthened their operation and published the guidelines implementing them. The controls are rigorous and the propriety is absolute. The Opposition’s criticisms are baseless, they are shallow, and I invite my hon. Friends to reject them.