HC Deb 24 July 2000 vol 354 cc746-7
3. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

What the cost was to public funds of the recent expansion of his Department's Press Office. [130324]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

To date, approximately £82, 000 has been spent on recruitment advertising and an external consultant's report, which recommended that the press office be restructured and expanded by between eight and 10 press officers.

The external recruitment process is still under way and the new press officers have yet to take up their positions. This expansion has been caused primarily by increased external demands on the Home Office press office. Calls have risen from 100, 000 to 150, 000 in the past three years.

The estimated total cost of the new staff, once in place, will be up to £400, 000 per year, bringing total costs to £1.6 million per annum.

Mr. Gray

From 31 March 1997 to 31 March 2000 the number of police officers in the United Kingdom fell by 2, 740, but now we hear, with a straight face from the Home Secretary, that he intends to spend up to £1.5 million on increasing his press office. Is he not slightly embarrassed by this conclusive evidence that he thinks that spin doctoring is more important than anything else, and that he would rather have press officers than police officers?

Mr. Straw

That was a silly point. As the hon. Gentleman wants to intertwine the issue of police officers with the number of press officers, he knows very well that, for the first three years of this Administration, the police authorities had to follow budgets either set or proposed by the Conservative Government. The difference between us and the Opposition on police numbers is that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) promised an additional 500, 000 officers—[Laughter]—and secured only a reduction in numbers whereas, on 27 January 1997, we proposed giving police authorities money for additional police officers, which will now happen.

As for the issue of press officers, the only spinning in which I am ever involved is a spinning class at the House of Commons gymnasium every Monday morning. Indeed, I was there this morning. The increase in the number of press officers is entirely the result of the increased demand placed on the press office by journalists of all kinds and of the expansion in the number of media outlets.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the importance of those people has been demonstrated over the weekend by the story in the News of the World? Is it not right that we need press officers to make it clear that releasing names in the way the News of the World has done puts children at risk? I am pleased to say that Opposition Front Benchers agree with that. Perhaps we ought to send a strong message through the press offices that the News of the World's action, whether well intentioned or otherwise, is profoundly dangerous.

Mr. Straw

The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), made our position very clear, and I am glad to note that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald shares our concerns that, in these matters, the press should act above all on the advice of the police, who deal with the concerns of public safety.

Getting back to the issue of press officers, the simple truth is that the huge expansion in the number of media outlets and a considerable expansion in the work of the Home Office since 1997, especially in race relations, the constitution, family policy and the voluntary sector, has resulted in an increase in demands on the press office to which we are now responding.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

When the right hon. Gentleman sorts out the press office, will he get it to issue a cheap press release explaining the Home Office's plans for the future of the three dangerous, empty tower blocks on Marsham street for which his Department has responsibility?

Mr. Straw

We have already done that.