Mayoral Press Releases need hazard warning

Darren Johnson represents the Green Party on the London Assembly
London Assembly Member Darren Johnson warns that Mayoral press releases risk confusing both media and highlights recent examples of statements he claims are designed to be “deliberately misleading by omission”.

It’s true that politicians do occasionally get things wrong in press releases, but the Mayor seems to be regularly and deliberately misleading by omission. I know that the more experienced London journalists are aware of this, but I thought it might be worthwhile exercise to list a few of the more recent examples.

The media did a wonderful job of correction in response to a Mayoral PR of 14th February announcing that there would be 1,300 electric charging points by the end of 2013.

This appears to be the same 1,300 charging points from which the Mayor achieved very positive coverage for when he announced last February that they would be built over the subsequent next twelve months – something which clearly hasn’t happened.

The Mayor also claimed on 25th Feb last year that he had ‘confirmation’ that the money would ‘significantly speed up our existing plans’, enabling a total of 7,500 charging points to be delivered by early 2013.

This ‘confirmed’ funding now appears to have evaporated. That earlier press release also stated that the Mayor would be helping to make London the electric car capital of Europe by installing 25,000 charging points by 2015, a previously solid Mayoral target which has quietly disappeared from his latest offering.

The Mayor claims in his press release of 17th February that has “secured” £34m for work on homelessness. It appears to be a good news story about a huge cash boost, but in fact it is simply a change of control over a modestly enlarged budget for charities.

The £8.45m the Mayor will get to dole out this coming year is only about a million more than is currently handed out by the Government. It’s also not secure in any sense for future years; the Government is free to cut his grant.

Unsurprisingly, the Mayor doesn’t draw attention to the huge cuts the sector is suffering from local authorities and London Councils, with many day centres, support lines and other services likely to close. Londoners would be forgiven for thinking the future is rosy for rough sleeping work having read the Mayor’s press release, when the opposite is the case.

A third press release on the 17th drew a similar response from Barking and Dagenham council, whose cabinet member for finance said “the Mayor has got some nerve” in falsely claiming credit for an upbeat half-truth about funding to do up council homes. They weren’t the only London Borough to point out that the not-so-secure funding was far less than needed.

Next, came a TfL press release on the 17th February which announced £4m new money for biking boroughs. It sounds positive and it is a belated recognition by the Mayor that the only hope he has of achieving a million new cycle journeys a day is by ring fencing funding specifically for local cycling projects.

What the press release fails to mention (but I’m told by two journalists) is that the £4m spread between 13 boroughs, is actually over a three year period. So it averages at little over a £100,000 per year, barely enough for a few cycle racks.

Finally, I come onto the high profile issue of police numbers. On the 10th February, the Mayor announced that he was using reserves to increase police numbers by unfreezing recruitment. Yet, the figures in the 2011-12 budget papers show a loss of 581 police officers, 790 PCSOs, 210 traffic wardens and 212 police staff compared to the original 2010-11 budget. So which is true?

The key point is the difference between the number of officers or staff budgeted for and the actual number of people employed at any point. Regular turnover means that in any large organisation, there are bound to be several hundred vacancies at any point. So the number of people in post is always lower than the number of posts and a recruitment freeze makes that gap even larger.

The figures in the Met Police budget are clear and compare like with like. The budget shows a reduction in funding of over 500 police officer posts, from around 33,000 down to 32,500 in 2011-12. However, the figures in the Mayor’s statement to the London Assembly don’t compare like with like. They take budgeted officer numbers for next year and compare them with the actual numbers currently employed in the Met (which is the far lower figure). This gives the appearance of a gain on last year.

If you watch the webcast at 2:05:46 the Mayor says “if you look at the actual numbers we will have an increase not only on when I became mayor of more than 1000 but you will actually have an increase on the current numbers”

“33,091 is a notional figure it does not represent the current number of officers out there..”

He fails to mention that his 32,510 is also a ‘notional’ figure

Taken individually, these press releases and statements from the last fortnight are no big deal. Taken together, they could be viewed as a systematic attempt to confuse the media and hence the public. Many would argue that it is part of the political game and no big deal, but it does matter if we want an informed electorate and a rational debate about the solutions to London’s many challenges.