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Column 217Yorkshire Television and the other commercial companies. This time, the reply was even more sophisticated. The Minister of State, Department of Employment, replied :
"Information on TV advertising expenditure in the form requested is not held by my Department, nor is it available centrally through the Central office of Information and can only be supplied at disproportionate cost. It is also commercially confidential."--[ Official Report, 15 May 1989 ; Vol. 153, c. 51. ]
The Department hit me with both barrels with that one. I am surprised that the Department did not say also that it is a matter of national security.
It is an abuse of ministerial power not to answer a simple question with an answer that can be obtained by anyone owning a video recorder. However, one answer did slip through the net. It came, surprisingly enough, from the Department of Trade and Industry, which responded in rather more detail. It could not have been part of the conspiracy. Although the DTI would not spell out the names of the independent TV companies with which it places advertising, it did reveal that its total expenditure on television advertising in 1984-85 was £32,000 ; 1985-86 and 1987-87, amazingly, nil ; 1987-88, £4.6 million ; and 1988-89, the absolutely staggering figure of £13.2 million.
As right hon. and hon. Members know from their own appearances on television, people often say, "I thought that you were good"--or bad, as the case may be--"but I cannot remember a word that you said." Television is simply to do with changing the public's mood, which is what has been attempted in the Government's constant advertising recently. If the Government's sixfold increase in television advertising was part of an overall mission to inform, I would have greater respect for it.
The truth is that in just the same way as the Government increased the slick packaging of their policies, they run away from examination of those policies in any forum in which their worth can be challenged. The Prime Minister has a perfect opportunity to spell out Government policy in this House any time that she wants, and receive massive publicity when she does so. However, she shows a marked reluctance to come anywhere near the place. Between 1979 and 1983, she spoke in the House 20 times, or an average of once every two and a half months. Between 1983 and 1987 she spoke 10 times, or once every five months. Since the 1987 general election she has spoken twice, or just once a year. That was once a year too often for my sensitivity, but such an attendance record is a barely acceptable minimum. We know that the last thing that the Prime Minister wants is television coverage of her performance reading her notes at the Dispatch Box.
A measure of the increase in the Government's spending on advertising illustrates that they are trying to sell an increasingly shoddy package in an increasingly glossy envelope. Even the advertising industry admits that. The copy of "Campaign" to which I referred earlier quotes the industry's view of the Government : "Too often the products being advertised have been found wanting." That is a commentary on the Government's products. The Government find it impossible to distinguish between the national interest and party interests, and, more disgracefully, find it almost impossible to distinguish between the national interest and the survival of one individual in Downing street, and that is even more
Column 218dangerous. Our central proposition has been unchallenged by the Government and I urge my hon. Friends to vote for it.
The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce) : The Opposition's motion focuses on two main points--first, that the cost of Government publicity has increased and, secondly, that some of that publicity is becoming increasingly party political. On both counts I strongly recommend that the House should reject the motion. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that the Opposition and the Government should treat such a motion extremely seriously. I noticed that throughout the debate only a smattering of Opposition Members have been present. If they really treated the motion seriously, they would have taken the trouble to attend the debate. That almost answers their case. As for the rest, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has given clearly the reasons why we reject the motion.
First, on the matter of costs, my right hon. Friend made it clear that in the past 10 years or so publicity costs have increased within tightly drawn up rules and regulations which are available to the public. But I must emphasise strongly that the Government have a duty to inform the public, and people want to be better informed. The public are entitled to be better informed. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) made that point extremely strongly. I suggest that an informed democracy is a stronger democracy, and that the Opposition, who hope and aspire one day to be in government, should hold the same opinion.
The Opposition's second point was that much of the advertising is party political. The conventions are properly and fully laid down in detail, and that was never the case when a Labour Government were last in office. They are in the Library for the House to see. It is forbidden that any publicity of that nature should be party political. Throughout the debate, the Opposition have failed to produce any evidence of any abuse whatsoever. That is in marked contrast to the tendentious propaganda that Labour councils have distributed around the country in the past year.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hallam, for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) made those points extremely effectively.
I stress that one of the reasons for the Widdicombe inquiry which led to the 1986 Local Government Act was the abuse by a large number of Labour authorities using party political propaganda. That led to the Widdicombe proposals and the 1986 Act which tightened the rules. If I did not think that you might rule me out of order, Mr. Speaker, I should have drawn attention to some of the unbelievable examples of the propaganda put out by Labour councils. I had such an experience concerning libraries in Derbyshire, where the Labour leader, who has the unusual name of Mr. Bookbinder, put out some propaganda on behalf of the council which was totally and utterly tendentious and misleading.
I shall move on to answer one or two of the specific points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Linlithgow raised a number of issues. He asked whether there were a large number of resignations among information officers. There is no clear evidence of a large number of resignations. Indeed, the resignation rate today is lower than it was in the period 1976- 82. Three senior information officers have recently left the service, but the rate of turnover and the rate of resignation is not high. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
Without being drawn into issues that are well beyond the terms of the motion, I shall respond once again to the implication that some civil servants--the hon. Member for Linlithgow mentioned Mr. Powell and Mr. Ingham--are corrupt officials. That must be utterly rejected. Let us take Mr. Ingham as an example. Mr. Ingham served for many years as press officer to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). He also worked in the press office of Barbara Castle. If he can do that and then serve my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he must be a man of the utmost impartiality and the highest calibre.
Mr. Luce : Reference has been made to the conventions. The House knows that the various conventions that are set out and have been revised and supplemented are extremely thorough. They are available to the House and they set out quite clearly the parameters and the guidelines for Government publicity. There is no evidence that there has been any abuse.
The Opposition cannot have it both ways. They continually say that they want more information from the Government. They always want the Government to reveal more. When we have more publicity to reveal more information, they turn round and criticise us.
Mr. A. J. Balfour once said that democracy is Government by explanation. The Government have a positive duty to inform the nation, and to do so within very clear rules. We have clear rules on costs. We must have proper value for money and the expenditure on publicity must be within departmental budgets. We have clear rules on propriety. It is stated quite clearly that there must be no publicity which is party political.
If we examine the publicity that the Government put out and that we have been discussing today, are the Opposition really saying that it is not right to inform the public about the benefits to be derived from the single market in 1992? Are they seriously saying that it is not right that people should be informed about employment and training opportunities? Are they seriously saying that it is not right that we should put out information about crime prevention, about AIDS and about health? Are they really saying that it is not right that we should put out information about benefits, pensions and other public information about road safety or about expenditure on recruitment to the services, or, taking education as an
Column 220example, the new rules for school governors? The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) recently pointed out that he thought that the Government should spend more money, not less, on such publicity. The charge that we are wrongly spending money is absolutely refuted. It has been pointed out that in the 1970s the Labour Government, supported by the Liberal party, spent money on advertising about issues that were politically controversial--counter-inflation policies, selective price controls, devolution and the European referendum. Those were politically controversial matters but this Government in no way disputes their right to publicise them.
The tactic of the Opposition is hypocritical. They should get their own house in order first. Of course, the abuse by Labour councils led to the Widdicombe inquiry and to the 1986 Act.
On propriety, the conventions are clear, thorough and detailed. More than ever before on any aspect of the guidelines for Government publicity, there are clearly laid out parameters ; for example, the activity should not be party political. Ministers are accountable to the House, to Select Committees and to the Public Accounts Committee for their own publicity. The Government set the highest possible standards.
The real problem for Her Majesty's Opposition is not one of cost or of propriety ; it is the message itself. They do not like Government policies but they know that the public broadly support the Government. They know that the message is succeeding. That is what the debate is really about. They do not like it. That is why they initiated such a spurious debate. I therefore ask the House to reject the Opposition motion.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :--
The House divided : Ayes 204, Noes 287.
Division No. 201] [7.01 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)