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Government Information Officers

Volume 374: debated on Wednesday 6 October 1976

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2.42 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many public relations officers are currently employed by Government Departments and how the number compares with numbers similarly employed in October 1964.

My Lords, there were 1,473 members of the Information Officer Group in post throughout the United Kingdom on 1st April 1976 compared with 992 in January 1964.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. May I ask him why it has been necessary over these 12 years to increase the number of public relations officers by something like 30 per cent?

My Lords, most of the duties imposed upon these officers have been the result of the legislation of successive Governments.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that the essence of public relations work is selection and, therefore, very often distortion? Would the noble Lord, therefore, say that this increase has been made necessary so that truth, like everything else, should be economised?

My Lords, I cannot accept that. I do not believe that the very honourable men and women who are engaged in this work wish to distort. I speak as a former Departmental Minister. My information officers in the Ministry of Agriculture gave great service to the farming community on technical matters, matters of information, films, et cetera. I think that a slander of that kind is very wrong.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that, while this remark was not intended as a slander—noble Lords know that I never utter slander in this House but that sometimes I pull people's legs—the fact of the matter is that ever since Mr. Healey spoke during the Election of inflation running at the rate of 8½ per cent. the Government's credibility has declined and that that is why public relations officers are needed on this scale?

My Lords, I cannot accept that. If the noble Lord looks at the matter impartially and objectively he will recognise that all Governments have had a staff of information officers whose job is not to protect Ministers but to help the public to understand what is happening.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that one function, although not the main function, of public relations officers is to prevent distortion by the Press of Government announcements and communications? It may be unwitting distortion and sometimes it may be biased distortion. However, this is one of the problems that every Government have to face in attempting to obviate this distortion, and the public relations officers perform a very useful function in that respect.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I hope noble Lords will accept that the staff who work in the Central Office of Information and devote their time to overseas information services provide our posts abroad with up-to-date information and do a valuable job from the point of view of the country.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his defence of the Central Office of Information, with which I gladly concur. It is important that we should reserve our criticism, not for the operations of the Central Office of Information but for excessive operations. Would not the noble Lord agree that the real trouble is that Ministerial Statements and Answers at Question Time are not always quite so informative as we could wish?

My Lords, does my noble friend think that the activities of these public relations officers lead to more open Government than otherwise we would have?

Yes, my Lords. If one examines carefully and in detail the work that these officers are engaged upon—I have a list here of their duties with which I do not wish to weary the House, but they cover such activities as advertising campaigns, exhibitions, publications, photography, films, television, the promotion of British industry—one sees that they help people throughout a whole range of activities and that the work they do is of great benefit.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that if we had less legislation we should need fewer public relations officers?

My Lords, that may well be. On the other hand, Parliament in general is responsible for imposing duties, whatever the Government of the day.

My Lords, would the noble Lord bear in mind that for eight out of the last 12 years there has been a Socialist Government and that there is every sign that bureaucracy grows whenever there is a Socialist Government in power?

My Lords, there were increases in bureaucracy during Conservative Administrations. Bureaucracy is not peculiar to any Party.