Kris Hopkins, Local Government Minister, has asked 7 councils (15 August 2014) to ensure that publication of their newsheets will in future be in line with the publicity rules designed to protect the free press.
The 7 councils, Enfield, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Luton, Medway, Mid Devon and North Somerset, have been asked to explain within the next 10 working days what they now plan to do.
Letters to each of the councils also remind them that a council may be directed to comply with some or all of the rules as set out in the Publicity Code, and that where the Secretary of State considers there is a risk that in future a council will not be complying with those rules, he will be minded, in accordance with law, to issue a written notice of a proposed direction. Any council that does not follow such a direction could end up facing a court order requiring compliance.
The Publicity Code sets a range of provisions in relation to local authority publicity including the frequency, content and appearance of taxpayer-funded newssheets. This includes limiting publication to prevent competition with local newspapers, obliging councils to be cost effective and objective in any publicity material they publish.
The purpose of the Publicity Code is to facilitate the creation of an environment which is as conducive as possible to the flourishing of the independent local media, an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy.
Kris Hopkins said:
It has been suggested that some councils might not be complying with the Publicity Code. Newsletters, newssheets or similar communications should not issue more frequently than quarterly.
The great majority of local authorities comply with the Publicity Code, which was designed to ensure the independent local media - a vital part in any local democracy - does not face unfair competition.
Councils should now take steps to ensure publication in the future will be in line with the Code’s provisions.
The recommended code of practice on local authority publicity applies to all decisions by local authorities relating to taxpayer-funded paid advertising and leaflet campaigns, publication of free newspapers and news-sheets and maintenance of websites - including the hosting of material which is created by third parties. It states that publicity by local authorities should:
- be lawful
- be cost effective
- be objective
- be even-handed
- be appropriate
- have regard to equality and diversity
- be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity
It does not inhibit publicity produced by political parties or councillors at their own expense.
On objectivity the code states that:
Local authorities should ensure that publicity relating to policies and proposals from central government is balanced and factually accurate. Such publicity may set out the local authority’s views and reasons for holding those views, but should avoid anything likely to be perceived by readers as constituting a political statement, or being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy.
On even-handedness the code states that:
Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner.
On appropriate publicity the code states that:
Local authorities should not publish or incur expenditure in commissioning in hard copy or on any website, newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content. Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, news-sheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly. Such communications should not include material other than information for the public about the business, services and amenities of the council or other local service providers.
Section 4A of the Local Government Act 1986 (inserted by the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) gives the Secretary of State the power to direct a local authority to comply with some, or all, of the provisions of the recommended code of practice on local authority publicity. This code applies to all local authorities in England. If the direction is not complied with, a person having appropriate interest (such as a council taxpayer, elector, or a councillor of the authority concerned, or the Secretary of State), may seek a court order requiring compliance with the direction. Non-compliance with a court order may be contempt of court.
Before issuing any such direction section 4A(5) of the 1988 Act requires the Secretary of State to give the council notice in writing of the proposed direction. The council then has a period of 14 days to make written representations to the Secretary of State. If after 10 working days of issuing the letters to the 7 councils the Secretary of State considers that there is a risk that in future any of those councils will not be complying with the Code, he will be minded to issue a written notice of a proposed direction to that council.
The following table set out which councils have been written to and for what reason:
||Alleged form of non-compliance
|The London Borough of Lambeth
||Up to and including July 2014, copies of ‘Lambeth Talk’ delivered every month. Next copy September 2014.
|The London Borough of Hillingdon
||Copies of ‘Hillingdon People’ delivered every 2 months.
|The London Borough of Enfield
||Copies of ‘Our Enfield’ delivered every 2 months.
||Copies of ‘Medway Matters’, delivered every 2 months.
|Luton Borough Council
||Copies of ‘Lutonline’ delivered every month.
||Copies of ‘Mid Devon Talk’ delivered every month.
|North Somerset Council
||Copies ‘North Somerset Life’ delivered every month.