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NOTTINGHAM TAKES ACTION TO DEAL WITH DA'S CONCERNS OVER PUBLICITY

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Press release from the Audit Commission followed by statement from the local authority....
Press release from the Audit Commission followed by statement from the local authority.

DISTRICT AUDITOR CRITICAL OF NOTTINGHAM CITY OVER COUNCILLOR PUBLICITY

The district auditor has criticised Nottingham City Council over some of the content of its free newspaper, the Nottingham Arrow, and over the press releases it issues. By giving too much prominence to individual councillors in publishing this material, the council has spent public money unlawfully on what amounts to political publicity. The material includes quotes from individual members in the Arrow and some press releases and photographs of members accompanying articles in the Arrow.

The investigation started following an objection to the council's accounts made by councillor Michael Cowan. As a result, the district auditor has reviewed press releases and the content of the Nottingham Arrow for the particular year, and concluded that 5% of the content of the Arrow and 20% of press releases were unlawful. This equates to a total expenditure of£13,000.

District auditor John Gregory said:

'The council incurred unlawful expenditure of£13,000 in the year. This is not a huge sum in itself, but there is a very important principle at stake here, which is that public money should not be used in a way which could be construed as trying to gain political advantage. I must make clear, however, that I'm not accusing any councillors of setting out to do this. What has happened is that council officers weren't sufficiently aware of the restrictions on publicity and as a result some material was published which should not have been.

'This is a difficult area of law for all councils and there is still some disagreement between the council and me around the way the law is applied. But what matters now is that the council takes my recommendations on board and makes sure that its procedures stop further public money being used in this way.'

The district auditor has made his recommendations within the annual audit and inspection letter issued to the council. The council is required to consider his recommendations in public and make a formal response to them.

A press release from Nottingham City Council follows.

ANNUAL AUDIT LETTER - OBJECTION TO THE ACCOUNTS 1999/2000

The district auditor in his annual audit letter has recommended some changes to the city council's practice in relation to publicity.

The recommendations and annual audit letter will be considered by council on 7 March.

Since the objection was made a number of actions have been taken to ensure that officers responsible for producing press releases and the Arrow, the council's civic newspaper, have regard for the code of conduct on local government publicity. These included briefings and circulation of guidance documents, development of written editorial policies for publications and working protocols for handling media relations.

Gordon Mitchell, chief executive, said:

'Our approach to publicity has not been significantly different from similar councils up and down the country. Councillors elected to positions of responsibility for key portfolios such as education or social services are often expected by the media to represent the council as a whole and as such they have been quoted in press releases and council publications.

'Councillors are encouraged and expected to provide community leadership, making it even more important the lead councillors are visible to the public and thereby accountable. We will over the coming weeks be seeking to involve the district auditor in discussions to draw up an agreed protocol that clearly sets out when councillors should be quoted and featured in materials produced by the council as the law is not clear in this respect.'

The annual audit letter also comments on the council's performance over the past year. In particular it notes improvements in major services with more than half of key performance indicators showing improvement in 2003/04. 56% of core service performance indicators showed an improvement on the previous year. 49% are now in the top two quartiles compared to 44% in 2002/03.

The district auditor also identifies actions needed by the council which include the need to maintain its focus on strengthened partnership working, performance management and core services. The need to strengthen procedures for the production of performance indicators, annual accounts and compilation of grant claims.

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