Ministers have budgeted more than £930m on buying advertising space in an effort to sell government policies in the lead-up to the next election, new analysis has revealed.
The amount is almost double the normal advertising budget for government over the previous four years, although a significant amount more was spent on Covid-related advertising, according to data compiled by Labour.
It comes amid reports over the weekend that Liz Truss was preparing to launch an advertising campaign to highlight her £150bn intervention to freeze energy bills at an average of £2,500, after reportedly telling colleagues the government had not received any political credit for the intervention, which was clouded by the tax-cut row.
While most of the spend would have been agreed under Boris Johnson’s administration, the vast sums came as departments received warnings from the Treasury that they must make efficiency savings and work within existing budgets set by last year’s spending review, despite inflation.
Departments do not have to fulfil the maximum spend on advertising, but past spending records show only the Ministry of Defence spent substantially less than the maximum value of its contract from 2018-22.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, called the planned increase “absolutely obscene at any time, let alone in the middle of a cost of living crisis”, and pointed out that “this is just the cost of buying the ad space, it doesn’t even include the vast sums that will be spent on producing adverts as well”.
Two key departments involved in the growth plan drawn up by Truss and the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, will get significantly increased media-buying budgets. At the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, budgets will increase almost fourfold from £9.65m to £36m. Spending at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will rise by up to 361.5%, from £4.7m to £21.6m.
The largest share of the increased budget will go to the Department of Health and Social Care, with up to £251m earmarked for spending on advertising space. The department spent £37m on non-Covid ad buying in the past four years.
That spend does not include NHS England or blood and transplant services, or separate contracts signed for public health campaigns on issues such as obesity and smoking.
The Cabinet Office, which coordinated the huge programme of government advertising during the pandemic, spent £102m buying ad space for other non-Covid campaigns between 2018 and 2022. The maximum value of its new contract is £182m up to the end of 2025.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport budget will get the biggest relative increase of all, going up more than 1,200%, from £700,000 to £9.6m. The Treasury and the Foreign Office are yet to publish the value of their media-buying contracts, but both had low spends over previous years.
According to the contract signed by the Department for Transport, the list of media channels it wishes to access ranges from traditional outlets such as TV, radio, print media and billboards to newer methods of reaching audiences, including website banner ads, experiential marketing, emails and text messages.
Labour said that public information campaigns were vital but that the increase in spending was extraordinary.
“We all know government advertising can perform a vital role, from drink-driving and fire safety campaigns to the recruitment of teachers and nurses, but struggling families across the country will not understand why the Whitehall budget for ad space is set to double over the next three years,” Rayner said.
A government spokesperson said the Cabinet Office, DWP, HMRC and DLUHC had all come in under budget in previous years. “It is misleading to characterise the figures as planned advertising spend. They reflect the maximum threshold for buying media space, with several departments spending less than the projected threshold over the past four years.
“Departments have learned lessons from crises such as Covid 19 and the war in Ukraine to build substantial contingency into their contracts so that we can act swiftly and deliver timely public information when necessary. We keep spending under continuous review to ensure we deliver value for money for the taxpayer.”
A Labour source said the government could not claim both that they did not expect to spend the maximum values set out in the new contracts, but then say maximum values were built in to allow them to respond to unexpected events.