The government’s draft rules on publicity have been described as “draconian” and “extremely disappointing” by the chair of the Local Government Association.
A new Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published today sets out guidance on council newspapers, the use of lobbyists and the tone of advertisements.
The non-enforceable guidance states that council magazines should not be published more than quarterly, that councils should not hire lobbyists to influence central government or hire stands at party political conferences, and that advertisements should be “balanced and factually accurate”.
LGA chair Dame Margaret Eaton, right, said it was “extremely disappointing that ministers have failed to make any significant amendments to the code following consultation”.
Since the government published its first draft code in November, and following ministerial criticism of Lambeth LBC posters about funding cuts, the latest draft code has been amended to warn that adverts should avoid “being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy” as well as being balanced and factually accurate.
However, Dame Eaton criticised the government’s decision not to revise the sections on council newspapers following protests that it was “heavy-handed” and ran counter to the localism agenda.
“If the Department for Communities & Local Government was truly committed to localism it would not be introducing draconian rules dictating to councils how often they are allowed to share information with residents,” she said.
The LGA chair was particularly critical of the government’s decision not to consider a report from the communities and local government select committee, which said there was little evidence that council papers competed unfairly with commercial newspapers, as part of the consultation process.
She said ministers “appear to have ignored the advice of their own MPs” and added: “It is extraordinary that government ministers have chosen to ignore this and take such a heavy-handed approach. Not only are these rules completely unnecessary, but they have the potential to harm local democracy and drive up the amount of money councils will have to spend on advertising to fulfil their legal requirements.”
She added: “We strongly agreed with the communities secretary when he said in one of his first speeches that no-one working in local government signed up to be told what to do for the rest of their lives by Whitehall.”
Select committee chairman Clive Betts (Lab) also described the latest code as “disappointing” and said the government had also failed to respond adequately to two other key issues raised by his committee on rules on lobbyists and statutory notices.
DCLG’s response to the consultation feedback, which included submissions from the Newspaper Society calling for the rules to be tougher, states that “a key element of localism is giving the public the information that they need to hold their council to account. This requires that information comes not just from the local authority, but also form independent sources.”
In response to the select committee’s suggestion that there was no evidence of unfair competition, the government said it did not intend to seek further support for its argument.
“In the government’s judgement, there is an issue with local authority newspapers constituting unfair competition to local newspapers and the government is taking action to address this now rather than delaying to conduct further statistical exercises,” the document states.
In a statement, communities secretary Eric Pickles, left, added “the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss” and he called on councils to “focus taxpayers’ money to where it should be spent - protecting frontline services”.