Labour under fire for bypassing COI

The government is facing allegations from the chairman of an influential parliamentary committee that it bypassed COI Communications in the run-up to the last general election. The result was a significant overspend on politically sensitive marketing.

Re-igniting the row over New Labour's use of taxpayers' money for publicity campaigns, Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP who chairs the Committee of Public Accounts, is accusing Whitehall departments of failing to obtain approval for marketing activity in the run-up to the 2001 election.

Following research conducted for Leigh by the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, he said it appeared that strict rules governing the propriety of campaign spending in the run-up to the election had been followed.

But in a statement issued through the NAO exclusively to Marketing, Leigh said: "Worryingly, departments did not always obtain campaign approval from the COI before committing too much expenditure. The COI does not have formal powers to block inappropriate campaigns, and some (COI) staff were not fully aware of the guidance on propriety." The NAO research did not look at value for money.

Leigh's comments will reopen the allegations levelled in last year's BBC Panorama documentary that campaigns for nursing recruitment, benefit fraud and the New Deal for Lone Parents were politically motivated.

Its research showed that the government spent £49m on advertising in March 2001, a record for a single month.

Leigh could now open a formal investigation into the issues raised. His comments come as the Advisory Committee on Advertising continues its audit of the Department for Transport's breakaway from the COI.

A separate review, chaired by Guardian Media Group chief executive Bob Phillis, is also under way into government communications.

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