Stormont spending on PR photography has increased by almost 200% in the space of just four years, it can be revealed.
he bill for publicity shots increased from around £30,842 to £91,172 over this period.
The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) — headed up by the DUP’s Edwin Poots — accounted for almost a quarter of the entire bill for all nine Stormont departments last year .
It should be noted that the Department of Economy supplied figures by calendar year, while the rest supplied figures by financial year — but the upward trend across the board is clear.
Figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph via a series of Freedom of Information Act questions reveal the scale of this spending, which, ultimately, the taxpayer foots the bill for.
DAERA had the highest total bill covering 2018/19 to 2021/22 at £47,387, followed by The Executive Office (TEO) at £32,950 and the Department of Health (DoH), which spent £26,051 over this period.
The DoH said that much of the spend in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial years was photography associated with Covid communications, which included publicising details about the vaccination programme and important public health messages.
The Department for Communities spent £22,057 between 2018/19 and 2021/22 and the Department of Finance (DoF) spent £19,816.
Gordon Lyons’ Department for the Economy (DfE) had a photography expenditure of £17,531 from the calendar years 2018 to 2021, inclusive, and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) spent £14,762. The Department of Education (DoE) forked out £10,260 for PR photos and the Department of Justice (DoJ), £8,724.
Several departments reported big increases in expenditure on PR photography over the course of the pandemic.
DAERA, for instance, spent £25,774 in 2021/22, compared to £8,714 the previous year — a rise of 196%. Similarly, TEO spent £15,368 in 2021/22, compared to £8,334 the previous year (an 84% rise).
The DfI had a PR photography bill of £8,606 in the last financial year, and £2,099 in 2020/21 (a 310% increase). The DoJ spent £285 in this area in 2020/21 and £3,190 in 2021/22 — an increase of more than 1,000%.
TEO said photography services are an essential component of ministerial and Executive communications, and “it is only to be expected that these costs will be higher in the years when ministers were in office”.
The DoJ said that during 2020/21, the spending was low due to the pandemic, when facilities were limited to key staff.
The DoF said its 2021/22 spend “included the minister meeting businesses, government suppliers and the community and voluntary groups to highlight Covid support available and engage with them as part of their recovery from the pandemic,” relating to more than 75 assignments.
DfE said its spending on PR photography fluctuates year-on-year.
“In 2021, as Northern Ireland gradually started to emerge from the pandemic, the department had numerous key messages which it had to communicate, reinforced by photography, to stakeholders and the wider public, including the reopening of facilities, the high street voucher scheme and support grant schemes in response to the economic impact of Covid,” DfE said. “This is in addition to the day to day work of the department, coupled with an increased number of events as we emerged from the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for DAERA, the biggest spender, said: “Photography is an essential part of Government and Ministerial communications and it is a service the media rely on. DAERA has a diverse and busy portfolio with responsibility for food, farming, environmental, fisheries, forestry and sustainable policy and the development of the rural sector across the whole of Northern Ireland.
“Following Covid-19, the Department had a considerable backlog of engagements with a large number of stakeholders on a wide range of issues affecting their sectors and it is often necessary to visit rural locations throughout Northern Ireland. This means that we require photographers for extended periods of time. Obviously there were fewer engagements in the previous year due to the Covid restrictions.”
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll hit out at the figures.
“Stormont spending over £91,000 on PR photography shows the lengths that the Executive parties have to go to spin that they are tangibly delivering for communities here,” he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister said that the “indefensible” figures would be shocking at any time, but when the “dysfunctional” Assembly is not operating and given that the Executive collapsed back in February, they are particularly “eyebrow-raising”.
“With people across the country having to tighten their belts and many struggling to make ends meet, these figures will be galling. Ministers really do need to get things in perspective,” he said. “How on earth can Minister Poots justify a spend of the best part of £26,000 on photographers in 2021-22? It’s inexcusable.”
John O’Connell, chief executive of the pressure group the TaxPayers’ Alliance, added: “Taxpayers expect public bodies to focus on delivering key public services, not vanity projects.”