Press release

Eric Pickles takes action to defend the independent free press

Five councils have a fortnight to explain Publicity Code breaches before the Secretary of State issues legal directions.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Town Hall

Five councils have been given a fortnight to explain why steps should not be taken to stop their “propaganda on the rates”, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced today (17 April 2014).

Formal letters have been sent to 5 London boroughs triggering the first legal steps the Secretary of State can now take to require compliance with the Publicity Code for local authorities, under the new Local Audit and Accountability Act.

The code sets a range of provisions in relation to local authority publicity including the frequency, content and appearance of taxpayer-funded news-sheets. This includes limiting publication to prevent competition with local newspapers, obliging councils to be cost effective and objective in any publicity material they publish.

Parliament passed the new Act after ongoing concerns that a small number of local authorities were breaching the publicity code, originally introduced under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Strengthening these provisions was in the Coalition Agreement published in 2010, reflecting policy commitments made by both coalition parties before the general election.

The action is been taken against the municipal newspapers of Greenwich Time, Hackney Today, the Newham mag, Waltham Forest News and (Tower Hamlets’) East End Life. The councils now have a fortnight to show why a direction is not necessary. Any council that does not follow the legal direction could end up facing a court order requiring compliance.

This is part of a series of measures to protect local democracy and enhance local scrutiny. The new provisions of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 have been used to initiate an investigation into the probity of the controversial mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. New powers will also shortly enhance the rights of the press and public to report council meetings using digital and social media, following cases where members of the public have been threatened with arrest for reporting council meetings.

These measures build on the Localism Act 2011 which protected councillors’ free speech by changing the law on ‘predetermination’ which was being used to prevent councillors from campaigning on local issues and by scrapping a quango that was being used to bully councillors who blew the whistle on waste and corruption. The new rules today do not affect party political campaigning using private funds.

Mr Pickles said:

It is scandalous that bloggers have been handcuffed for tweeting from council meetings, while propaganda on the rates drives the free press out of business. Only Putin would be proud of a record like that.

Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ not only waste taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech.

I have given written notice to councils most clearly breaching the Publicity Code, noting that Parliament has passed new laws to tackle this abuse. We are prepared to take further action against any council that undermines local democracy - whatever the political colour.

We have changed the law to protect the free speech of councillors. If councillors and political parties want to campaign and put out political literature, they are very welcome to do so, and it’s an important part of our democratic process. But they should be using their own money, rather than taxpayers.

Further information

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.

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. The process for issuing a direction is for the Secretary of State to first give notice in writing to the authority of the proposed direction so the authorities can make any relevant representations. After that 14 day period has elapsed, the Secretary of State may then issue the direction. 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.

Having regard to the information available to him the Secretary of State intends to direct the councils written to today to comply by no later than 1 May 2014 with the specified provisions of the recommended code of practice on local authority publicity issued under section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986 on 31 March 2011 which was approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.

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.

The following table set out which councils have been written to and for what reason:

Local authority Required compliance Alleged form of non-compliance
The Royal Borough of Greenwich Comply with all provisions in the Code by 1 May Not objective, not even-handed, ‘Greenwich Time’ is published 50 times a year
The London Borough of Hackney Comply with the Code’s provisions on frequency of publication by 1 May ‘Hackney Today’ is published fortnightly
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets Council Comply with all provisions in the Code by 1 May Not objective, not even-handed, ‘East End life’ is published weekly
Newham Council Comply with all provisions in the Code by 1 May Not even–handed, ‘the Newham mag’ is published fortnightly
The London Borough of Waltham Forest Comply with all provisions in the Code by 1 May Not even-handed, ‘Waltham Forest News’ is published fortnightly

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Published 17 April 2014