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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. 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.
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.
Column 193Nor 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. 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. 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. 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 --
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. 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. 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.
Column 196The 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.
Column 197The 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.
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
Column 198and 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 responsibilies 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.
Column 1995.29 pm
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : The Minister presented his case today with a grace and charm that few hon. Members can rival. He is more confident at the Dispatch Box than he is when he answers questions to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, of which I am a member. I remember him telling me two years ago that he had had a hard life, with no education and that he was ignorant on complicated matters such as economics. Having heard him today, nor does he seem to know how to bring the Government's publicity machine under control.
The Minister said a lot about water, but, if he will allow me, I shall make that my last point. My first point is that many years ago Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, wrote a prophetic book on the Government's attitudes on expenditure and publicity. The book was called "Mysticism and Logic". In it Bertrand Russell said : "Better the world should perish than that I or any other human being should believe a lie that is the religion of thought in whose scorching flames the dross of the world is being burnt away." Today's debate is about the Government's rejection of Russell's rationalist creed.
Much later Gerald Kersh, in a book called "Night and the City", caught the flavour of the Government's unacceptable treatment of and expenditure on propaganda and publicity when he said :
"The habitual liar always imagines that his lie rings true. No miracle of belief can equal the childlike faith in the credulity of the people who listen to him : and so it comes to pass that he fools nobody as completely as he fools himself."
Which Minister, I ask myself, will step forward today and admit to being Kersh's habitual liar? If truth prevails, there will be a positive stampede from the Government Benches.
As I look at the huge and burgeoning amount of money spent on publicity by the Government, I am reminded of Swift's aphorism that "All political parties die of swallowing their own lies." But, of course, I try to be fair minded. I try to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. God knows, I try. But every time that I pick up a Government leaflet or see a television advertisement on a controversial issue, my mind turns first to she who is in charge at Downing street, and then to Somerset Maugham, who said of the constant wife :
"She's too crafty a woman to invent a new lie when an old one will do."
Then, as images of the villain of the piece--the Secretary of State for the Environment--whom people have tried to exonerate today, I am reminded of Harry S. Truman who, in an ugly mood, said of Richard Nixon :
"I don't think the son-of-a-bitch knows the difference between truth and lying."
We are told that the Secretary of State has been exonerated by the courts today. As a barrister, my advice to Greenwich would be that it should appeal. With the greatest respect, I say to m'luds that they have forgotten Robert Louis Stevenson's perceptive aphorism : "The cruellest lies are often told in silence."
It is basically the omissions from that pamphlet to which m'luds have not properly directed themselves today and to which I imagine the Court of Appeal will direct itself shortly if Greenwich has the money to appeal.
I want to intervene briefly, but let me give one example of what I consider to be expenditure on publicity that has
Column 200got completely out of hand. It relates to the Government and the water industry. We all know that the same Minister is involved. I was in my car today--a Vauxhall Cavalier--coming in from Hackney, when I saw a little crowd in Kingsland road looking at a poster that was 50 ft high and about 105 ft across about water privatisation. I thought that I would make some inquiries today and find out exactly how that poster got up there and how the Government, or the water industry, or both, or the Conservative party, or all three of them, justify its existence. I shall not say now what is in it ; I shall keep that for the moment.
I do not want to give away confidences, but I understand that the water industry employed an advertising agency which gave the job to two of its crack whizzkids, people with the finest intellects in the land, whom I shall call Jeremy and Nigel because all whizzkids in the advertising industry are Jeremies or Nigels. Jeremy and Nigel met together and they had with them the Cabinet Office guidelines. Jeremy was sitting over the table with his head in his hands looking pig sick. He was trying to think what advertisement he could do for the privatisation of the water industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) quoted the annexe of those guidelines, but paragraph 2 says that the advertisement must be relevant to Government responsibility, objective and explanatory and should be produced and distributed in an economic and relevant way having regard to the need to justify the cost as expenditure of public funds.
Then Jeremy turned to paragraph 5 and he thought, "Oh my God, what am I going to do?" That paragraph says that Government publicity should always be objective and should be directed at informing the public even where it also has the objective of influencing the behaviour of individuals and particular groups. Jeremy did not know how he was to inform the public. What was he to inform them of about the Water Bill? He had in front of him a series of tables on the test discount rate and the real discount rate in the water industry ; diagrams of sewage works and chemical formulas for purifying water. He had everything, but, as he said to Nigel, "There's no buzz in this, Nigel." A good advertisement needs buzz and it needs information. Then--I have not yet said what is in the advertisement--a flicker came into Jeremy's eye, a smile came across his face, and he started to jump up and down excitedly. He said, "I've got it. I've done it. It's brilliant. It's super." He hugged Nigel and there were tears streaming down his face because that is the way that genius works in the advertising world. It was extraordinary. He said, "We'll tell the public that water comes from rain". And so it is that in Kingsland road and in every borough in the land we can look up and see these posters. This is not a joke. Those posters have nothing other than a picture of a cloud. The whole thing is one picture of a cloud and underneath it says, "This is the beginning of our production line." Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, our money, is being spent on telling the public that water comes from rain--can anyone believe the perceptive abilities, the limits of human intellect?--and that rain comes from clouds. Surely that is the grossest example of waste in the history of the world. I defy the Minister to tell us what that is about when he replies.
I have one last brief point which refers to the letters that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has written to the Treasury and Civil Service Select
Column 201Committee about the fact that we were grotesquely misled. Civil servants from the Central Office of Information gave evidence to the Select Committee and referred to the 1985 guidelines. They made no mention of the fact that new and more extensive guidelines were published in 1988 concerned with all kinds of new advertising which opened up a hornet's nest of questions which would have embarrassed the Government. The Government's response also referred to the 1985 guidelines and made no mention of the fact that those guidelines were no longer in force but had been replaced by the 1988 guidelines. I want to be fair. I do not think that that was a cock-up or a cover-up ; I think that it was a nasty conspiracy on the part of the Executive to deceive Parliament. We shall call those Ministers and civil servants to account, bring them back in Committee, and challenge them in the Lobby tonight.
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) : I know that Conservative Members will stand up one by one during the debate and bitterly criticise the Opposition's attitude and their calling of this debate. They would be wrong to do so. Conservative Members should welcome the Opposition calling this debate. They should certainly welcome their new-found vigilance on behalf of the taxpayer. It is right that Opposition Members should be vigilant on behalf of the taxpayer, although there are few of them here to support their Front Bench spokesmen. However, it is a shame that the Opposition's vigilance slips a bit on local authority spending. I can see the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen twitching at the very thought that the subject of local government's high spending on publicity will be raised. I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will not rule me out of order if I mention the fact that the Department of the Environment decided to issue this leaflet partly to counter the smears and misinformation about the community charge that were being put out by local government. Strictly in that context, I shall point out that, over the past couple of years, Derbyshire county council has spent huge, almost unaccountable sums of money on criticising the Government about the community charge.
So-called free newspapers contain headlines such as "Your privacy invaded-- poll tax threat". That sort of expensive misinformation has not been considered a suitable subject for the Opposition's new-found vigilance over the spending of public money on so-called political publicity. On one occasion, when Derbyshire county council spent more than £1 million on a television publicity campaign, the county council's leader said that that was a "mere pin-prick."
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Is not the difference that the national Government virtually tell the newspapers what to print and do not need to buy adverts for their policy, whereas Labour councils, which are in an overwhelming minority and face a predominantly Tory press, even in the regional newspapers, not to mention the national newspapers, have no option but to buy advertising?
Mr. Oppenheim : I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised that point. In our county of Derbyshire, much of the local press toes the council's party line. I and many other people in Derbyshire believe that one reason for that is
Column 202that certain newspapers in Derbyshire receive huge sums in advertising revenue from the county council, which encourages them to toe the line of the council's ruling group.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the rules on publicity which bind local government are far less strenuous, tight and onerous than the Treasury and Civil Service rules which bind the Government. That is why it would have been especially appropriate if Opposition Members had raised the subject, and were as vigilant about local government's spending on publicity as they are about the Government's spending. I would hazard a guess that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has not received a single representation about local government spending from the Opposition. I fully agree with the Opposition's vigilance on the spending of public money on publicity. However, I cannot agree on one point. They have persisted in mixing the spending of public money on the promoting of privatisation issues with more general spending to inform the public about the Government's policies and legislation. The money spent on privatisation issues has been recouped many times over. Opposition Members would have been the first to criticise the Government if they had not spent money on promoting those issues and, as a result, had not gained the best possible price for those issues for the taxpayer.
The attitudes of Opposition Members have also changed sharply since 1977, when they were forced by the International Monetary Fund to sell part of their stake in British Petroleum. The then Labour Government spent millions of pounds, at today's prices, promoting their forced share sale of part of their stake in British Petroleum. I ask any Opposition Member : was that Labour Government wrong to spend money on promoting the privatisation of their stake in British Petroleum in 1977? If that Labour Government were not wrong to spend the money then, why are this Government wrong to do so now? It boils down to the fact that Opposition Members do not mind one little bit if public money is spent, as long as it is spent in propagating their point of view. However, they object vigorously, vehemently and strenuously when the Government spend money promoting information to the public about their policies and legislation. I do not criticise them for that, nor do I think it hypocritical ; it is merely the stuff of politics. At the same time, it is not a matter that Conservative Members have to take seriously.
I welcome the Opposition's new-found vigilance and the calling of this debate today. The Opposition have shot themselves badly in the foot by drawing attention, not only to their double standards, but to the millions of pounds spent by Labour councils in promoting Labour policies.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : I disagree with what the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) said about the disciplines imposed on local authorities as opposed to the Government. Government Ministers, unlike local authorities, are not surcharged if they overstep the law. One wonders if anyone might have been disciplined for the £500,000 campaign that was mounted at the end of last year to rehabilitate the egg, following some disastrous words uttered by the then Under-Secretary of State for Health. The hon. Lady might
Column 203have thought twice before opening her mouth if she thought she would be surcharged for the public expenditure consequences of her mutterings.
When I intervened in the speech of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury he thought that he had scored a bull point in return when he talked about the Labour Government. However, I was not a member of that Government. He talked about two issues : the devolution referendum, which took place six months after the Lib-Lab pact, and the European referendum which took place two years before the Lib-Lab pact. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has already mentioned, in both those cases, both sides were given the chance to put their argument. There is no suggestion from Conservative Members that public funds will be made available to allow people up and down the country to put forward their arguments about why the poll tax is not good. In the previous cases, there was an element of fairness.
In the few moments that I have had, I have thought back, and I suspect that the last major publicity campaign mounted by a Liberal Government was that with the poster showing the face of Lord Kitchener, with the message "Your Country Needs You". I suspect that that was good value for money because we still remember Lord Kitchener. Who, in 70 years' time, will remember Sid? Given the straitened circumstances of that time, perhaps the Minister will exonerate the last Liberal Government in the way in which he has exonerated the last Labour Government.
In the past 10 years there has been a sixfold increase in the amount of money spent on Government advertising, which, by any stretch of the imagination, is a significant development. Four years ago, the Government were in tenth place in terms of general advertising spending. They are now in first place, ahead of Unilever. That has been at a time when the Government have embarked on a crusade against public expenditure.
I recall the words of Mr. Robert Harris, a journalist, who, of one of the privatisation issues, said :
"People are being forced to pay for adverts they do not notice in order to buy shares they do not want in an industry they already own."
He could have added that they had been asked to do so with their own money. As the Government regularly tell us, it is not the Government's money but the money of the people and the taxpayers that is being used.
At the same time, there has been a whiff of hypocrisy. I shall not stray into the subject of local government, but you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have no doubt heard the comments, which are a good example of the kettle calling the pot black.
We have heard other examples of hypocrisy. The Secretary of State for Health launched an attack on the British Medical Association for trying to spell out to patients what the Government's proposals mean. It is hypocrisy for him to attack it when the mere launch of the White Paper involved more than £1 million. It involved a relay with his face being flashed up on screens across the country, a specially produced video and a video designed specifically for Scotland that featured the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). I am told that nurses were flown in from various islands to Kirkwall in my constituency to see this. Afterwards, some of them said that they had never
Column 204seen anything more like a Conservative party political broadcast ; it was counter-productive, too, as the nurses also told me that it was the best recruiting advertisement for the opposition parties that they had seen in a long time. It failed to hit its target. Increasingly glossy brochures have also been mentioned. I have here a White Paper. Once, they were really white. The Beveridge White Paper sold tens of thousands of copies, printed on ordinary white paper. Now they are all glossy and contain photographs--there is inevitably one of the Secretary of State for Scotland at the front. I remember the day when "Scottish Enterprise" was announced. I was sitting here with my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who noticed a rather nice picture of his brother's flat in the document. He did not know what relevance it had to "Enterprise Scotland", and five months later we are none the wiser. It was just another example of Government money being spent on glossy publicity.
Then there was the White Paper on the ending of the dock labour scheme. I make no bones about it : our party supports the Government on that, but to introduce a White Paper at great cost on one day and then bring in a Bill the next begs the question of what is being done with public money.
I turn next to the ministerial presentations on the inner cities initiative and on the Government response to the Settle-Carlisle line. Those glossy presentations were made at press conferences, not in the House, and should have been delivered at the Dispatch Box, from which the Ministers would have had to answer questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is another abuse of publicly funded Government PR work--
Mr. Ashton : Has the hon. Gentleman forgotten the wining and dining that takes place when Ministers meet the press off the record? That is what the Secretary of State for Transport did over an expensive lunch ; he gave the press a story and frantically denied it two days later. It happened again when the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the press a briefing that was recorded on tape and then denied that the tape had been switched on. That is a mammoth waste of public money to impart a message that does not get across.
Mr. Wallace : I share the hon. Gentleman's view, but I suggest that the lunch to which he referred was paid for by the journalists, not the Secretary of State for Transport. Whether they got value for their money is another matter.
Of course, we accept that there is a serious dividing line between genuine advice and information and what might be described as propaganda. Information advertising campaigns to bring to public attention the fact that smoking can damage people's health are, we would all agree, legitimate, as are advertising campaigns to encourage the take-up of social security benefits. I encouraged the Minister of State at the Scottish Office to advertise the availability of and opportunities under the agriculture development programme in my constituency after the storms which greatly damaged agriculture there. The Government said that there was no special scheme, but they were willing to promote the programme that already existed to help farmers. That was legitimate.
The Chief Secretary mentioned the sums spent on energy conservation, but I notice that the Department of Energy's budget for advertising has shrunk. The
Column 205Government are cutting back on promoting energy conservation at a time when they claim to be concerned about the greenhouse effect. However, through their agencies, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and the Atomic Energy Authority, the Government are promoting day trips to Windscale, or Sellafield. That is another PR trick--when Windscale became unpopular, they changed the name to Sellafield, just as the poll tax has been changed to the community charge. All this is part of the Government's use of slick PR.
The conventions that have already been referred to state : "Public funds may not, however, be used to finance publicity for party political purposes ; this rule governs not only decisions about what is and what is not to be published, but also the content, style and distribution of what is published."
The contents should include not only the truth, but the whole truth. I am not surprised that the judges decided the Greenwich case today as they did, but it cannot be denied that, even if there was no abuse of spending which, in their view, merited an injunction, the whole truth was not told.
As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I have witnessed in the past year the sending out of the registration forms. One aspect which especially alienated people was the statement on the forms that a person who was designated a responsible person was not liable for anyone else's poll tax. The form omitted the fact that a spouse in the house could be jointly liable for the tax. The leaflet that was the subject of the Greenwich case will misinform people in the same way.
The original GP's contract was sent out containing helpful diagrams showing what would happen to a GP's pay, especially in rural areas. The contract said that a GP with a list of 1,000 would receve an increase in pay. It was less clear that he would also suffer a drop of £10,000 in basic pay, which he would have to make up with special payments. The contract did not say, either, that the examples of special payments in the diagrams related to doctors with lists of well over 2,000. Such misinformation strays over the dividing line of legitimacy.
At present, there is a campaign in Scotland by the Scottish Office to encourage parents to stand for school boards. A lady in my constituency wrote to say :
"I have just watched a government advert for school boards. At one point it says Every parent can stand for election and every parent can vote'. I think I can vote but I have been led to believe I do not have the right to stand for my son's school board.
Whalsay only has the one primary school and I teach in it, therefore I believe I do not have the same rights as my friend up the road whose son will start at the same time as my son."
She is right--she does not have the same rights, but the Government advertising does not make that clear, and the letter that I sent the Minister asking him to clarify and explain remains unanswered. Objections have been raised to advertising the privatisation of water. I am told that there is now more advertising of water than of any other product--more than of Pepsi-Cola or Nescafe . The problem is that Parliament has not yet approved the privatisation plans. They may well be Government policies but they have not been put into operation and the Bill has not completed its passage through both Houses. That is an abuse of public money.
The guidelines mention not only content but style, which I should like to examine in the context of the Department of Employment's promotion of "Action for