CAMPAIGNS: Govt delivers Budget facts to the media - Government

With the National Health Service in dire need of extra funds, it was an open secret that this year's Budget would be the first since 1997 that made no bones about its intention to raise levels of direct taxation.

In the end, the extra funds will come through a one-pence hike in National Insurance contributions, with the Government keeping its fingers crossed that the necessary improvements will be evident by the time of the next general election.

The task of co-ordinating all press enquiries fell to the Treasury which, unsurprisingly - considering how many Budgets it has seen - has considerable experience as to what to expect.

However, because of the well-publicised and long-expected tax rise, Budget 2002 was always going to generate even more interest than previous ones.

Objectives

To meet the media's and City's requirements for information. To ensure that spokespeople were readily available for print and broadcast media.

Strategy and Plan

The Treasury's press office - a head of communications and deputy, six press officers, and between four and five support staff - drove the communications process throughout the Budget.

The department has a series of carefully-controlled arrangements that are implemented to provide information and spokespeople for the media.

A lot of preparatory work was done in the lead-up to the Budget, especially following the pre-Budget report in November.

Before Budget Day on 17 April, 2,000 copies of packs that included the Chancellor's speech and accompanying documents explaining the various elements of the Budget were produced.

On Budget Day, 200 of these were sent to political journalists, while 108 were sent to broadcast and newswire media. This enabled the media to follow Gordon Brown's speech as he made it. Once he had finished, the Treasury make the information packs available to other media. Within minutes of Brown being seated, 300 packs had been collected from the Treasury. Two-hundred and seventy-eight copies were also picked up by, or sent to, the regional press.

COI Communications was responsible for distributing the packs to non-media, mainly City institutions, of which 480 copies were made available.

The Treasury also sent out highlights of the Budget to important figures in industry via fax and e-mail.

The Treasury's website (www.hm-treasury.gov.uk), provided media and the public with information and downloadable documents covering all elements of the Budget, including Brown's speech.

It was important to provide spokespeople for the media and financial institutions.

The Treasury's press office was responsible for this and accordingly co-ordinated the availability of spokespeople with the needs of relevant parties. On the evening of the Budget, minister Andrew Smith was made available for interview. He appeared on programmes including Channel 4 News and the BBC's Newsnight.

The following day, ministers were made available for Budget breakfasts in the City, and Brown gave interviews throughout the day.

Following the intense few days surrounding Budget 2002, the Treasury had to continue to deal with residual media enquiries.

Subsequently, on Wednesday 24 April, the Treasury delivered details of the Government's Finance Bill.

Measurement and Evaluation

The response to this year's Budget saw a significant rise in the number of enquiries compared to last year's.

Treasury deputy head of communications Steve Bird says that last year's quieter response was mainly due to the fact that it was the first Budget following Labour's re-election.

All national and regional media covered the event. Coverage in the press was inevitably mixed in tone, though most made the point that this was Gordon Brown's first tax-and-spend Budget - 'a classic piece of old Labour redistribution' (The Guardian) - since Tony Blair became prime minister.

However, many commentators said that the results of increased Government spend would have to be evident by the next election. There was also the inevitable speculation that Budget 2002 would enable Brown to edge closer to Number 10.

The website experienced a high number of hits during the course of the Budget. To date, four million hits have been recorded, 306,000 pages viewed and nearly 33,500 visitors have downloaded documents since 17 April. The average time each user spent on the site was 18 minutes.

There were 198 requests for information by e-mail.

One-thousand copies of the Finance Bill were sold by the Treasury on their first day of availability, generating £15,000.

Results

The small press office team at the Treasury worked intensive hours and successfully provided information and spokespeople for media and the City.

GuardianUnlimited politics editor Julian Glover felt the Budget was able to sell itself, but notes that on the day the Treasury press office was difficult to contact.

FT economics editor Ed Crooks concurs, saying that at 1pm the answer-machine was switched on. Both, though, did admit that the Treasury was efficient in supplying the facts and figures needed.

While the media's reaction to Brown's speech was mixed, most admitted that Budget 2002 represented a gamble for the Government, one that could reap enormous benefits or cause hefty damage.

It is still too early to say whether this was truly the moment New Labour, and more importantly the country as a whole, broke with the perceived political wisdom that tax rises were a vote loser.

But the early signs are that the gamble Brown and his team at the Treasury took, could well pay off.

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