1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Cabinet Office about its ‘Get ready for Brexit’ public information campaign, carried out in preparation for the UK’s planned exit from the European Union on 31 October 2019.
2.On 1 September 2019, the government launched the ‘Get ready for Brexit’ public information campaign. The campaign objective was to ensure that everyone was prepared for leaving the EU on 31 October—regardless of the negotiation outcome. The campaign was stopped on 28 October when the government and EU agreed an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU to 31 January 2020, the date the UK left the EU. The overall campaign was led by the Cabinet Office. The executive director of government communications was the senior responsible owner, supported by other civil servants from the Cabinet Office, the Department for Exiting the European Union and other departments.
3.The campaign comprised two main components: termed the ‘air’ and ‘ground’ campaigns.
4.The overall campaign budget was £100 million, including £56.7 million for the air campaign and £26.2 million for the ground campaign. The remaining £17.1 million was for activity to support both campaigns and included £3 million for central staffing and £11 million for developing GOV.UK. By the end of October, at the point at which the campaign was stopped, £46 million had been spent against an expected spend at that point of £53 million. The campaign followed a previous communications campaign run by the government in advance of 29 March 2019, the initial expected date of departure from the EU. This earlier campaign started in December 2018 and, by the end of April 2019, had cost the centre of government £15.2 million.
5.At the end of the current transition period, new trade arrangements will come into force. There are likely to be significant changes presenting further challenges for businesses. It is essential that businesses, in particular smaller businesses, have time to prepare and that they receive clear information as far as possible in advance of changes taking effect. This Committee has heard before that lateness of preparation has been a common weakness in government planning.
6.By July 2019 a number of departments were reporting an urgent need to communicate with target audiences about the action they might need to take ahead of 31 October 2019. Officials prepared options for a campaign during the last week of July, including the option for a campaign on a significantly larger and more intensive scale than that run ahead of 29 March. On 31 July 2019 the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced new funding for no-deal preparations, which included £100 million for a communications campaign. Usually government information campaigns are planned over many months, for example, the Cabinet Office’s own guidance expects government TV campaigns to be worked-up five months before launch. The air campaign was launched within six weeks of the start of the planning stage.
7.When asked why detailed planning of the campaign had not started earlier, the Cabinet Office pointed to having learned lessons from the campaign prior to March 2019, and was aware that the campaign for the October deadline would have to be a “much more impressive campaign at scale”. It also referenced the change in Prime Minister and said that it had not been able to start the work of designing a campaign until it was clear on what Government and new Ministers in the Cabinet Office wanted and when.
8.On the matter of lead-in time required before the end of the current transition period, the Cabinet Office said that the situation would be different to the position the UK faced at the end of October last year. It stressed that government communications with traders could now speak to there being a border to deal with, whatever kind of agreement is reached.
9.The Cabinet Office said that there was ‘a fair amount’ of communication with business going on about what to do, led by HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. But the big public information campaign had not yet started. The messages to be delivered by a campaign would depend on the outcome of negotiations and the precise relationship with the EU post-transition. Ministers would decide when to start a campaign. When asked how much notice it would need to run an effective campaign, the Cabinet Office said it would be good to know “as early as possible”.
10.In oral evidence Cabinet Office officials were asked whether they had any concerns about running a publicly funded campaign on an issue of significant public controversy. They replied that they were satisfied that the campaign met the essential criteria of propriety, regularity and feasibility, and that the question of Value For Money had been “the closest to discuss”.
11.The campaign objective was to ensure that everyone was prepared for leaving the EU on 31 October 2019—raising awareness of the commitment to leave on that date (air campaign) and getting those that needed to, to take action (ground campaign). The Cabinet Office identified 26 priority actions for citizens and businesses to take, which it sought to address through the ground campaign; four for UK residents, three for UK residents in the EU, four for EU citizens, 12 for businesses, and three for recipients of EU funds. For example, for businesses exporting to the EU the actions include the need to register for an economic operators registration and identification (EORI) number, and for UK nationals who want to drive in the EU to register for an International Driving Permit.
12.The Cabinet Office used its own cross-government campaign planning guide, known as OASIS, to help develop the campaign. The Cabinet Office developed ‘OASIS’ bids for ground campaign funding but these bids did not consistently apply the OASIS principles. Of the 26 priority actions, 11 were not mentioned in the bids and, of the remaining 15, only two set out objectives (OASIS principle 1) and a plan for scoring and evaluating whether they were achieved (OASIS principle 5).
13.The Cabinet Office acknowledged that “because this was done at pace, there was not much up-front articulation of exactly the metrics that we were trying to get to.” As well as the pace at which it was working, the Cabinet Office drew attention to the complexity of the campaign as having made things difficult. While accepting that it had not done the normal baselining and targeting for each metric, the Cabinet Office said it would be doing so next time. It also claimed that, by the end of the campaign, all 26 priority actions had been measured, albeit that it had not provided the evidence of that to us in advance of our evidence session or before that to the National Audit Office during its audit.
14.We questioned whether the percentage of people who had looked or started to look for information to prepare—broadly unchanged at 34% despite the campaign—indicated success. The Cabinet Office noted that political uncertainty and strong opinions about the UK exiting the EU on 31 October 2019 had acted as a ‘drag-weight’ on the campaign’s impact. The Cabinet Office pointed to other indicators that showed the campaign was successful. For example: 42 million page views of GOV.UK; 73% campaign awareness; 65% of UK nationals in the EU checking the validity of their passport by the end of the campaign; 105,000 EORI applications; and applications to the EU settlement scheme increasing by 1 million over the course of the campaign. Passport renewal applications during the campaign were around a quarter higher than business-as-usual forecasts, and the number of international driving permits issued each week peaked at 15,658 in mid-October, compared to 8,451 five weeks earlier. However, the Cabinet Office had not set out what increases were likely to be needed. While reiterating the challenges of working at such pace on this campaign, the Cabinet Office accepted that it had been lighter on targets than it would have liked because it lacked baseline data, and that it could have done better.
15.HM Treasury requires departments to prepare a full business case and to seek its approval for all programmes and projects above £5 million. The Cabinet Office’s business case was approved by its Investment and Portfolio Committee on 13 August, given ministerial approval on 23 August, and by HM Treasury on 27 August. The business case noted that the £100 million budget had already been agreed by the Cabinet.
16.The business case prepared by the Cabinet Office had presented four options: a ‘do nothing’ option, judged not to be feasible given the lack of preparedness; a £15 million campaign similar to the pre-March 2019 campaign; an up to £60 million campaign with more extensive actions to raise mass awareness; and an up to £100 million campaign which was the preferred and chosen option. The £100 million option was judged to have the potential to reach 99.9% of the population, on average 65 times via the air campaign. It was the only one to propose extensive targeted on-the-ground activity, such as business preparedness roadshows and other stakeholder events. The majority of the preferred £100 million option would still be for the air campaign to promote awareness, although the Cabinet Office had identified in the business case that it was the ground campaign that would get people to act. The business case did not attempt to quantify the potential impact of increased spending on the air campaign in prompting public action and therefore did not assess the additional value to be derived.
17.The Cabinet Office told us that it knew it had to increase awareness compared to the March campaign, which had hit 99% of the population 15, 16 or 17 times each but which had not been enough. The £60 million option was to get the increased awareness by getting to people more times in more of their circumstances. The £100 million option was the one that included the ‘ground campaign’—the targeted audience activity that the Cabinet Office thought would change behaviour. It also commented that it had ‘down-weighted’ the campaign significantly, with agreement from Ministers, after 7 October—carrying on because it was still possible that the UK would leave on 31 October without a deal, but recognising that this was less likely. The Cabinet Office added that it had stopped on 28 October—a little earlier than expected but not a lot. It suggested that, had the UK left the EU on 31 October, there would have been massive activity at the last minute, and that this would have resulted in the behavioural change that the campaign had been intended to drive.
18.Given the increased scale of the campaign compared to the one run ahead of March 2019, and the choice of the most expensive business case option, and the extra money in that option to be spent on driving behavioural change, we asked whether the Permanent Secretary had at any stage thought about doing an Accounting Officer assessment or seeking a Ministerial Direction. He said that he had not because the first three components of an accounting officer assessment—regularity, propriety, and feasibility—were clear. “It was a legal thing to do. It was aligned with the Cabinet Office’s purpose and we were following the instructions of a Government. I believed that it was a feasible thing to do, I thought it was quite stretching, but I believed that it was feasible, and indeed that is what transpired.” He added that his area of concern was the value for money and that, given the amount of money, he had wanted more assurance on that. To which end he had asked for, among other things an assurance panel to be set up. The EU Exit Campaign Assurance Panel was convened in August 2019 to provide professional oversight and challenge to the campaign.
1 C&AG’s Report, EU Exit: the Get ready for Brexit campaign, Session 2019–20, HC 22, 28 January 2020
2 C&AG’s Report, paras 3, 5
3 C&AG’s Report, para 4
4 C&AG’s Report, paras 6, 1.13
5 C&AG’s Report, para 1.4
6 Q 53
7 C&AG’s Report, para 10
8 Q 55
9 Qq 53, 81
10 Q 23
11 Qq 83, 84
12 Q 32
13 C&AG’s Report, paras 3, 4, Figure 3
14 C&AG’s Report, paras 2.14. 2.15, Figure 7 - “Objectives should be achievable, measurable – expressed numerically where possible, focused on outcomes not outputs and related to changing attitudes and/or behaviour. … You should monitor inputs, outputs, outtakes and outcomes throughout your campaign and evaluate once it is complete.”
15 Q 21
16 Qq 22, 45
17 Qq 40, 41; C&AG’s Report, para 3.9
18 Qq 21, 46
19 C&AG’s Report, para 3.12
20 Qq 43, 73
21 C&AG’s Report, para 2.16
22 C&AG’s Report, paras 2.17, Figure 9
23 C&AG’s Report, para 9
24 Q 56
25 Q 37
26 Q 61
27 Q 63
28 C&AG’s Report para 1.19, Figure 5
Published: 3 June 2020