The Big Question: Why is the Government spending so much public money on spin?

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Indy Politics

Why are we asking this question now?

In the late 1980s, a fresh-faced Labour frontbencher called Tony Blair scored his first big hit by drawing attention to the huge growth in spending on advertising by the Thatcher government. Now the wheel has turned full circle.

Yesterday the Tories claimed spending on communications has rocketed from £111m to £322m since Mr Blair became Prime Minister in 1997. The Opposition blamed the rise on the recruitment of an army of civil service press and public relations officers, claiming their ranks had risen from just over to 1,815 under Labour, with a further 1,444 working in quangos and agencies funded by taxpayers. Labour disputed the figures, insisting that the Tories were "not comparing like with like". The Cabinet Office insisted there are about only 400 officials in Whitehall who speak to the media on a daily basis. It said the vast majority of the 3,200 communications staff work in areas such as public information campaigns (on issues such as smoking, road safety and crime prevention) websites and internal communications.

How many press officers does the Government need?

The Cabinet Office argues that numbers have grown because of the changing media. It says: "The Government has a duty to communicate with the public and to respond to new technology and other means of communication including web, e-mailing and text messaging. The world of communications has changed dramatically over the past decade. The phenomenon of web, explosion in 24/7 multichannel media and investment in staff and stakeholder communications make comparisons with 1997 largely meaningless."

Labour pointed out that the Tories' "research" was based on the so-called "white book" produced twice a year by COI Communications, which lists the press and PR officers in each government department and is an essential tool for journalists. "Each time the IPO directory is published someone goes through the figures and comes up with a story about a rise in government communications staff numbers. It is easy to get the numbers wrong," the Cabinet Office said. "The IPO directory covers people in all sorts of government departments, agencies and non-government organisations such as Royal Mail and BBC."

What do these officials do and why do they cost so much?

Their duties range from issuing press releases, organising ministerial press conferences and briefings, to explaining the Government's policies to the media and promoting them to the public through paid-for advertising and marketing. Officials say the threefold rise in the communications budget is misleading. For example, more than £150m - almost half the total - was spent on advertising last year. Under Whitehall rules, government advertising must be factual rather than promote the policies of the governing party. Although the advertising budget has increased since 1997, officials say the trend in real terms is broadly stable because media inflation has risen faster than the retail price index. Labour accepts the number of frontline press officers has risen from about 300 to 400, but insists the Tory figures include administrative staff who are not press officers. "It is an exercise in duplicity," said one Labour source.

Do these figures include the political advisers?

No. The number of special advisers - also known as "spin doctors" - to ministers has doubled to 77 since 1997. They are allowed to carry out party political tasks, while Whitehall press officers can publicise the policies of the Government without crossing the line into party politics. Critics accuse Labour of politicising the civil service, pointing to a cull of the directors of information in most Whitehall departments after the change of government in 1997. Two special advisers - Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street director of communications, and Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff - were granted special powers to give orders to civil servants.

Has the role of Whitehall press officers changed?

Ministers admit they have demanded a sharper, quicker machine. In opposition, Labour built a slick party PR operation under the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, which "spun" positive stories, was quick to rebut hostile ones and mounted successful attacks on the Tory government.

On coming to power, ministers regarded the civil-service machine more penny-farthing than Rolls-Royce. They were appalled to discover that some departments did not provide round-the-clock service - for example, by monitoring the first editions of the next day's newspapers. So they claim they have made the Whitehall machine more professional and efficient.

What do the Tories say and would they be any different?

Oliver Heald, the shadow Cabinet Office secretary, says, "Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and their army of quangocrats have bankrolled a bloated army of spin doctors, politicising the civil service and creating a corrosive culture of spin in Whitehall."

The Tories sense that "spin" has become a millstone around the neck of the Blair government, just as John Major's administration was tarnished by "sleaze". They say the new figures prove Labour has wasted money on "the wages of spin" rather than improving public services.

Oliver Letwin, the Tories' policy chief, suggests his party would try to turn the tide because the £200m a year rise in the communications budget was "a lot of money". However, he accepted that "governments need to communicate".

Promises made by opposition parties that might weaken their performance as a government are not always kept when they win power. As Tony Blair revealed in the 1980s, the Tories were quite capable of spending millions of pounds of public money to promote their privatisation programme. One day, perhaps, Prime Minister David Cameron will have yesterday's Tory attack thrown back at him.

Has the government PR machine spiralled out of control?

Yes...

* There is no need for Whitehall departments to have 1,444 press office and public relations staff

* There was a big increase in the Whitehall communications budget in the run-up to the 2001 and 2005 general elections

* Some of the communications should be paid for by the Labour Party rather than taxpayers

No...

* The rise in the number of press officers is much smaller than the Tories claim

* The Government needs more staff to cope with the demands of a 24/7 media world, including new outlets such as the internet

* Any government has a duty to promote its services and benefits, in order that the public will be made aware of them

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