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Code to curb local authority publicity cuts across commitment to localism say MPs
Some of the proposals to curb the publication of 'propaganda on the rates' by local authorities run counter to 'localist' principles and have potentially negative implications for local democracy says the Communities and Local Government Committee in the report of its inquiry into a draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
In their report on Local Authority Publicity, MPs call on the Government to commission an independent inquiry to quantify the competitive impact of council newspapers on the independent press; to review the publication rules that apply to statutory notices; and to develop a separate code of practice to govern the use of lobbyists by local councils.
Launching the report, Clive Betts, chair of CLG Committee said:
"There is a clear concern that some local authorities are using council tax payers' money to promote their local politicians and policies. It is appropriate that the proposed Code should prevent such activities being undertaken at taxpayers' expense.
However, we doubt that the proposed Code should specify a maximum frequency of publication, especially in the context of the Government’s professed commitment to greater 'localism'.
If properly enforced, we believe the provisions in the proposed Code relating to cost effectiveness, content and appearance are sufficient to deal with the excesses seen in the handful of council papers that have caused concern.
We also agree that the hiring of political lobbyists by local authority to contact Ministers and Members of Parliament is a waste of public money but we doubt that a code of practice on local authority publicity is the correct tool by which to apply constraints upon this activity."
The committee also concludes:
There is scant evidence to support the assertion that council publications are, to any significant extent, competing unfairly with independent papers published in their locale.
Isolated examples of unfair competition do exist and there is legitimate concern that such competition may escalate in future. However, the Government should commission an independent inquiry to assess competition in the local media market and quantify the impact that council publications have (or otherwise) on commercial entities operating in their locale, as per the recommendation made by the Culture Media and Sport Committee in the last Parliament.
The Code rightly contains tough rules that restrict the type of content permitted in council news sheets to material that is directly related to the business, service or amenities of the authority concerned or other local service providers. Likewise, the code specifies that town hall publications must in future be clearly marked as published by a local authority.
It is questionable however for the Code to specify a maximum frequency of publication (restricting local authorities to a maximum of four issues of a newssheet per year) especially in the context of the Government’s professed commitment to greater ‘localism’ .
Commenting on this particular provision, Clive Betts added,
"Most local authorities still find they do not need to communicate information to residents more often than quarterly – in line with the principle of cost effectiveness contained within the Code. In line with a commitment to local decision making it should also be left to every local authority to choose for themselves how often they publish an information sheet"
The Government should review the publication requirements for statutory notices, with a view to making them more cost-effective and better able to take advantage of new means of publication such as the Internet.
The Government should work with representative organisations for all tiers of local government, with UKPAC and with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Local Public Services Group to develop a Code of Practice for local authorities on the use of lobbyists. Such a Code should ensure close adherence to best practice and detailed attention to cost effectiveness by all councils.
Any future Code of Practice for local authorities on the use of lobbyists should clarify more precisely than current proposals where the use of consultants to give appropriate short term expert advice (or the employment of short term contractors to fill key technical or professional vacancies) will remain a legitimate course of action for a local authority.