HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc210-1
22. Mr. Jacques Arnold

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his policy on the spending of money by councils on propaganda. [17927]

Mr. Curry

I am against it.

Mr. Arnold

Is my hon. Friend aware that, immediately after the Lib-Lab pact took over Kent county council, it diverted £100,000 of the education funding to a propaganda campaign against grant-maintained schools in the county? Is he further aware that, when I asked it how much that had cost to date, because we are two years on, it refused to divulge that figure, which may now be as high as £250,000? Does he not think that that money would be far better spent on the education of our children?

Mr. Curry

There is a real problem with the ability of district auditors in particular to keep an effective check on local authority expenditure. The rules are quite clear on what local authorities can spend money in terms of information and propaganda. The trouble is that it depends on citizens bringing a complaint to the district auditor, and then the investigation takes place retroactively. That causes some difficulties, and it would be worth while, seeing, without in any way compromising the independence of the auditors, how we could give local people a more effective survey of the way in which the local authority spends money in their name.

Mr. Skinner

Does not the Government spend a lot of money on propaganda as well? A question costs about £100 to answer, and if the Minister studies the Order Paper for any given week, he will find that, as more than 50 Tory Members of Parliament ask planted questions, more than £5,000 is being spent by the Government to give out information on their own behalf.

Mr. Curry

In that case, it is rather curious that, whenever we answer an Opposition question by saying that it would cost a disproportionate amount to answer, Opposition Members get very indignant.

Mr. McLoughlin

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is no standard spending assessment for local authority information departments and therefore that any money that local authorities spend on propaganda, or, indeed, information officers or press officers, is spent at the cost of the resources to other services? If county councils have that as their priority, their priority is not providing front-line services.

Mr. Curry

My hon. Friend is right. We think that it is quite right that local authorities should inform their electorates of what they are doing. That is a perfectly proper activity. Indeed, if the information is not given, it is difficult to assess the performance. We wish local people to be able to assess the performance of local authorities. We have done a great deal to place before people more evidence of performance, but at the end of the day we must depend on the good sense and integrity of local authorities to draw a sensible line between what really is information to the electorate and what is nothing less than propaganda. As I said in a previous answer, I' am not yet satisfied that that line is drawn sharply or clearly enough.