Ministers are taking action against 11 councils to defend the independent free press by using new laws endorsed by Parliament to clamp down on frequent town hall freesheets.
Legal action could be taken in a matter of weeks if 11 councils fail to stop or justify actions considered not to be in compliance with the local government Publicity Code.
The Code sets out a range of provisions on the frequency, content and appearance of taxpayer-funded news-sheets. This includes limiting publication to prevent competition with local newspapers.
Action is being taken against Tower Hamlets Council in East London over the frequency of its weekly municipal newspaper East End Life, and also highlighting provisions in the Code on lawfulness of council publicity.
The government is also taking action against the London Boroughs of Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Newham and Waltham Forest, as well as Luton, Medway and North Somerset councils over the frequency of their municipal newspapers.
Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins said:
Frequent town hall freesheets are not only a waste of taxpayers’ money but they undermine the free press. Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public.
Councillors and political parties are free to campaign and put out political literature but they should not do so using taxpayers’ money.
This is the eleventh hour for 11 councils who we consider are clearly flouting the Publicity Code. They have all now been given written notice that we are prepared to take further action, should it be necessary, against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.
Formal notice letters giving detailed explanations of concerns about non-compliance have been sent to 11 councils. They are the first step on the road to any legal action by the Secretary of State to require compliance with the Publicity Code, using his powers introduced by the Local Audit and Accountability Act.
The councils now have a fortnight to show why a legal direction, the Secretary of State may choose to issue, is not necessary. Any council that does not follow any subsequent legal direction could end up facing a court order requiring compliance.
Parliament gave the Secretary of State powers to issue directions requiring councils to comply with the provisions of the Publicity Code after ongoing concerns that a small number of local authorities were not complying with the provisions in the 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 recommended code of practice on local authority publicity applies to all decisions by local authorities relating to council publicity such as leaflet campaigns and the publication of council newspapers and news-sheets. It recommends 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 Government Act 1986, as amended 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.
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. The Secretary of State may not issue a direction before the 14-day representation-making period has elapsed.
If the direction is not complied with, a person having appropriate interest (such as a Council Tax payer, 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.
On appropriate publicity the Code states that:
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.