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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas