Campbell 'is in control of government advertising'

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, has been criticised by a former cabinet secretary for taking unprecedented control of Government information and advertising.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster spoke out after it was revealed that Mr Campbell had taken up the powers in a little-publicised move last month.

A five-yearly review of the Central Office of Information concluded that its chief executive, Carol Fisher, should report directly to Mr Campbell when co-ordinating all government publicity campaigns.

Ms Fisher took on the new role of chief adviser on marketing communications and information campaigns to strengthen the planning of advertising campaigns by different Whitehall departments, the Cabinet Office said.

The Government is the biggest advertiser in Britain, with spending soaring by 70 per cent to £192m in 2000-01. The advertising budget rose from £105m in 1998-99 and £113m in 1999-2000.

In a special report by BBC's Panorama tomorrow, Lord Armstrong will say that Ms Fisher's new link to Mr Campbell "will lead to the suspicion, which may be quite unjust, that political considerations are entering closely into what she's accounting for".

Tim Collins, the shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said yesterday the Tories were so worried about the revelation about Mr Campbell that they would table amendments to the forthcoming Civil Service Bill to make the practice illegal.

"This is the ultimate example of Tony Blair's obsession both with cronyism and spin," Mr Collins told The Independent. "For an unelected Labour Party hack to be put in charge of the largest advertising budget in the UK is a gross violation of the traditional principles of independence for the civil service and strict neutrality for government advertising."

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the change had been made in an effort to improve the co-ordination of advertising campaigns. "Previously, there was no co-ordination at a higher level or an earlier level about running campaigns to the best effect. There was also an issue of strategy. Connecting some campaigns might offer better value for money," he said.

The programme also reveals figures showing that more than half of the entire government advertising budget in 2000-01 was spent in the last three months of the year, just before the general election. A record figure for a single month, £49m, was spent in March 2001.

Lord Armstrong said: "I'm unhappy because there are very strict rules about election expenses and this could be a way in which ... the party in government could be spending more on purposes related to the campaign than the law allows ... and if I'm the Opposition I think I would be asking a good many questions about it."

Sir Michael Partridge, a former permanent secretary in the Department of Social Security, also tells the programme that one election campaign advertisement was "an improper use of taxpayers' money".

The advertisement encouraged lone parents to visit a government adviser for help in finding work. It did not mention a policy change being introduced from April 2001 which would compel lone parents to visit an adviser or have their benefits cut. Sir Michael says: "I would have had doubts about whether it was a proper form of words to be paid for by the taxpayer. It seemed to me to be crossing the line."

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