If parts of the Queen's Speech sounded similar to a party political broadcast, it's because they were. The monarch spoke of her government's "long-term plan" (a conscious echo of the Tories' "long-term economic plan") to build "a stronger economy and a fairer society" (the Lib Dems' slogan of choice). In response, Labour's Michael Dugher has written to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood demanding an investigation into whether "government communications are inappropriately using Conservative Party messages". The party points out that the government's 2014-15 budget for external communications activities has increased to just under £290m and says it essential to ensure that public funds are not being spent on party political campaigns a year out from an election.
Labour, however, appears to have made no objection to the use of "a stronger economy and a fairer society" (presumably choosing to concentrate its fire on the Tories.)
The Conservative Party's key campaign slogan was line one of the Queen's Speech.
The year before the election the Government are increasing spending on communications and seem to be using the levers of power to push Conservative Party propaganda.
I have called for an investigation in to the party political use of government communications to ensure we uphold the integrity and impartiality of the civil service and prevent public funds from being misused.
With families feeling the squeeze in their living standards the public must have confidence that the machinery of government is not being manipulated for partisan gain.
Here's his letter to Heywood in full.
Letter from Michael Dugher to Jeremy Heywood
I am writing to express concerns that taxpayers' money is being routinely used to promote the Conservative Party’s messages.
The Civil Service have made promotion of the Government’s “long term economic plan” a priority, devoting taxpayers’ money and considerable civil service resource to the cause. This is confirmed by the recently published (13 May 2014) ‘Government Communications Plan 2014/15’.
The ‘Government Communications Plan 2014/15’ states that, “The cross-government economy campaign will focus on the government’s long-term economic plan”. The Government Communication Service describes the Communications Plan as “a cross-government view of our priorities.” Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communication, confirmed that civil servants will be using this report to shape their priorities in the year to come.
The Government's Communications Plan for 2014-15 also announces that the Government's budget for external communications activities has increased by 22% to just under £290 million.
The scope of Government communications using the term “long term economic plan” is now extensive. For example:
- This week's Queen's Speech set out the Government's legislative programme for the year ahead. The term 'long-term economic plan' is used three times in accompanying official briefing papers and Her Majesty's address even used the term "long-term plan".
- In April this year, the Prime Minister wrote to small businesses informing them of the impact of changes to National Insurance at a cost of £430,000 in public funds. This official Government letter used the phrase, "We came in to Government with a long term economic plan".
- On 7 January this year, the Government produced an official policy paper policy setting out “the government’s long term economic plan”. Details of this are promoted prominently on government website.
These are only three examples. Similar wording is habitually used in official communications, with the Civil Service, Ministers and No10 regularly using this language in publicly-funded outlets. I would be happy to provide further examples.
It is, of course, the role of the Civil Service to communicate official government information to the public. However, it is vital that this work is clearly confined to non-party political activity. It would be completely inappropriate for the work of the Civil Service to be manipulated to support party political messaging. The Civil Service Code itself states that civil servants must not "use official resources for party political purposes". I believe there are serious questions to be asked as to whether the Code is currently being upheld.
The phrase “long term economic plan” is now being mirrored exactly, and regularly, by the Conservative Party. They are using this phrase in a clearly partly political manner in speeches, press releases, in ‘social media’, on campaign literature and in Conservative Party Political Broadcasts.
One example of how the Conservative Party is campaigning using “long-term economic plan”, can be found on their website, here: http://www.conservatives.com/Plan.aspx. You will note that this is repeated directly as government policy on the Gov.uk site: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-governments-long-term-economic-plan/the-governments-long-term-economic-plan
Again, I would be happy to provide further examples.
I believe the Conservative Party’s actions may be in direct contravention of rules surrounding the need for distinction between government and party political messaging. I therefore ask that you investigate urgently whether official government resources are being used to promote Conservative Party communications.
In particular, I hope you will be able to answer the following questions:
- Do you consider the slogan 'long-term economic plan' or 'long-term plan' to be government brands? If so, do you think it is appropriate for it to be used in the Conservative Party's political and campaign communications materials?
- What measures have been taken to ensure that none of the £290 million earmarked for external communications this year will be used to promote a political party's message?
- What processes have you put in place to ensure that public resources are used only for impartial and official government business?
- What processes have you put in place to ensure the Conservative Party will not seek to use official government messaging for party political ends? What communication has been had with the Conservative Party to ensure that this is the case?
In considering these questions, I would draw your attention to the fact that in 2009 the then Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude wrote to the then Cabinet Secretary seeking assurances that the work of civil servants was not being used inappropriately. He argued that "addressing this issue is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the work of the civil service". This statement is as true now as it was then.
It is essential that the public has clarity and confidence over the proper use of public funds and impartiality of the civil service and as such I look forward to your response.
In light of the obvious public interest in this matter I am releasing a copy of this letter to the media.
Michael Dugher MP
Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office