Our tax money is not for the creation of party spin

Inside Whitehall: The Coalition intends to spend £50m more on communications this year than it planned last year

 

Share

The line which exists between politics and civil service impartiality has always been a thin one. And nowhere is the line thinner than in Government communications.

Every year Whitehall spends more than a quarter of a billion pounds of our money telling us what they’re doing on our behalf – the equivalent of £10 from everyone who pays income tax.

Ensuring that such vast sums are spent wisely and do not cross the line of being nakedly party political is vital – and no more so than in a year leading up to a General Election.

But yesterday the civil service slipped out a document which raises serious questions about just how neutrally that money will be spent over the next few months.

Called the Government Communications Strategy it reads in places as though it has been dictated word for word by the Conservative’s chief election strategist Lynton Crosby.

Take this passage: “In 2014/15 we will bring together communicators to explain how government reforms are creating a fairer society for hardworking families, and rewarding those who aspire to work hard and get on.”

Or this: “The cross-government economy campaign will focus on the government’s long-term economic plan: reducing the deficit; cutting taxes; jobs, enterprise and infrastructure.”

The small print of the document reveals that the Government expects to spend £50 million more during this election year on communications than it said it would spend last year.

The Cabinet Office claims this is because they underestimated last year’s spend. But those figures have yet to be audited and given the budget cuts elsewhere in Whitehall are being squeezed it is hardly a convincing or reassuring explanation.

It looks, at face value, like the Coalition is preparing a tax-payer funded multi-million pound PR blitz to improve their electoral prospects next May.

Then there is the coordinating author of the strategy Alex Aiken, the executive director of government communications.

Mr Aiken is a civil servant (not a political special advisor) employed by the Government to promote the Government and not Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.

But he does have a strong Conservative pedigree. In 1995 he was the party’s chief press officer, in 1997 its head of news and then in 1999 he ran its campaigns unit. He then went to work for the Conservative controlled Westminster Council where he was until being appointed last year as the Government’s communication chief.

A number of senior figures in Whitehall privately question whether his position would be tenable if there is a change of power in 2015.

Now some might argue, and not unreasonably, that it is hard for civil servants to differentiate between promoting the agenda of a Government (which is run by politicians) and being party political.

But it is not impossible. For a start it is not the job of civil servants to parrot such clichéd catch phrases as “hardworking families” and “long-term economic plan” in official Government communications. Politicians themselves do quite enough of that as it is.

The job of Government communications is to explain what Government policies mean for families, businesses and individuals on a department by department basis. They should be factual rather the rhetorical; considered rather than campaigning.

Michael Dugher, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister who is in charge of the party’s communications, says he is concerned that the strategy suggests that ministers are using public funds to spread partisan messages.

And although Labour did very similar things when they were in office he has a point. We, as voters, should not be prepared to accept the Government of the day pushing the limits of what is permissible under the civil service code of conduct to maximise advantage in the run up to an election.

Not least because, as this Government never tires of telling us, it is wasteful public sector spending.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Manager - SAS - Data Warehouse - Banking

£350 - £365 per day: Orgtel: Manager, SAS, Data Warehouse, Banking, Bristol - ...

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Internal Project Manager - Business Analyst, Financial Services

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: One of the best known and most pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
There are now half a million self-service checkouts in operation across Britain's leading supermarkets  

What's the point of paying for service if you then have to do the work yourself?

Jane Merrick
 

Our limited generosity is being wasted on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Tom Peck
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment