Going viral: the BEIS Twitter account
Stourbridge MP Margot James has confirmed that a £250,000 advertising splash on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels was ordered by her Government department in the weeks before Prime Minister Theresa May’s General Election announcement.
Official figures requested by an opposition MP show that of the near-£700,000 of taxpayers’ money spent on promoting Government business policy through social media by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) since January 2016, almost 40 per cent went in March and April this year.
The BEIS’s rolling social media campaign for the period featured specially made commercials, animations and other graphic messages to promote Government programmes and policies. They included details of the activities and views of departmental Ministers including Ms James and several that urged viewers to register to vote.
The figures reveal that a total 18-month social media advertising bill of £693,027 was run up by the BEIS and its predecessors, with a spike of £267,035 spent in the eight weeks up to and including PM Theresa May’s ‘surprise’ election call on April 18.
The previous highest monthly spend of £132,073 was in March 2016, just after the announcement of the Brexit referendum for June last year.
Ms James, BEIS Minister for small businesses, asserted in her reply to MP Deidre Brock that the advertising ‘supports the government’s priorities and helps deliver its programmes’, including awareness of the national minimum and living wage and apprenticeship schemes. She cited Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Twitter as social channels.
The Stourbridge MP acknowledged that the figures for the campaigns do not include agency fees, commission or VAT. Advertising industry fee averages of between five and 25 per cent mean the total bill for April and May social media promotions by BEIS could be as high as £330,000.
Strict rules govern political party spending for election campaigns with the threat of heavy fines and prison terms for offending MPs and their agents. But there are no similar restrictions or controls on Government spending on advertising, where substantial increases over recent years have raised concerns and objections.
The growth in taxpayer-funded Government advertising has continued during the same Parliamentary periods in which the Government launched a legal crackdown on political campaigning by groups and organisations outside the circle of established political parties.
In September 2013, Ms James voted for the Lobbying Transparency Act – new legislation on political lobbying that restricts non-Party political bodies such as charities and campaign groups from speaking out on ‘political’ issues in the six months before elections. The amount of their supporters’ donations that they can spend on campaigning is also strictly limited, with substantial penalties for ‘offenders’.
The Act – also dubbed the Gagging Law by opponents – has caught out a number of high profile charities and popular movements following a ruling by the Electoral Commission that the ‘snap’ General Election called by Mrs May is retrospectively covered by the legislation.
They have been told they must declare any activity in the past six months that may be deemed political in order to ensure compliance with new spending limits or face possible action, prosecution and sanctions. In April this year, environmental campaign movement Greenpeace was fined £30,000 for refusing to register under the Act.
Margot James is a former political lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry who, since she was elected in 2010, has been active in Parliament in supporting legislation to control lobbying and campaigning by non-party political groups and on the shaping of the Government’s controversial NHS reforms.