Pickles pushes publicity codePrint publication
Readers of our Local Government Review may recall that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, consulted on proposals to give more statutory force to the Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity. These were enacted in the Local Audit and Accountability Act on 30 March 2014, which added new sections 4A and 4B to the Local Government Act 1986 giving the Secretary of State the right to make an Order requiring all local authorities to comply with some or all of the Code, or enabling him to issue a Direction to a particular local authority requiring them to comply with all the Code or one or more specific provisions of it.
Mr Pickles seems to have a particular bee in his bonnet about councils that are issuing newssheets to their residents more frequently than quarterly. He did not waste any time once he had his new powers, and first issued letters to a number of local authorities that he understood were issuing more frequent newsletters, warning them of his new powers. He has now gone further and written to 11 local authorities (seven Labour, three Conservative and one – Tower Hamlets – no overall control) giving them notice that he intends to issue a Direction that they comply with paragraph 28 of the Code, which says “Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, newssheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly”.
The authorities in question are all issuing some form of printed newsletter to their residents, with a frequency ranging from weekly to every two months. According to the letters, publishing local authority newssheets more frequently than quarterly goes against the Government’s overriding policy of “maintaining an environment as conducive as possible to the flourishing of an independent and politically free local media”.
It is interesting to read the responses from those councils who had been issued with a direction notice previously. Before making a Direction, the Secretary of State has to allow the council 14 days to make representations. Almost all the councils said that reducing their publications to quarterly would have a significant adverse effect on their ability to communicate effectively with protected groups, therefore putting them in breach of their public sector equality duty. The Government’s stock response to this is that whilst that may be the case, “it is open to a council having such protected groups to effectively communicate with them about the services and other matters which are the responsibility of the council without publishing newssheets more frequently than quarterly” and “even if there is an adverse impact the Secretary of State’s provisional view is that the proposed Direction would be justified because of the Government’s overriding policy of maintaining across the whole country an environment that is conducive as possible to the flourishing of the independent and politically free local media”. In essence, the message seems to be “other councils manage with quarterly publications so why can’t you?”
A sledgehammer to crack a nut?
In the original consultation on the new Publicity Code back in 2011, some local authorities raised the concern that restricting council publications to quarterly was a too extreme reaction to a very small problem. So what is the problem? Looking at the policy background to the new Publicity Code, the issue behind it all seems to be transparency and localism, as the public need to know what their local authority is doing if they are to hold it to account. That seems fair enough, but it then goes on to say that “council newspapers, issued frequently and designed to resemble a local newspaper can mislead members of the public reading them that they are local newspapers covering council events and give communities a biased view of the activities of the council” (emphasis added). And there lies the nub. Despite the fact that the rest of the Code obliges all council publicity to be objective, even-handed and appropriate, it seems that it will never be assumed to be as objective as the local press. So whilst it’s not totally banned, it should, according to the Government, be restricted to four times a year at the most.
So what about value for money, when a frequent, short council newssheet is shown to be the most cost-effective way of reaching all residents? Cost effectiveness is one of the seven principles of local authority publicity in the Code. What about the duty to publish statutory notices? The original consultation on the revised Code estimated that it would cost local authorities £1.3 million per year more to publish these in local independent newspapers but argued that this would be offset by a £2.9 million per year saving in printing costs by publishing council newssheets less frequently. What about those councils that can show that there has been no adverse effect on the local independent newspapers? How else can councils reach those parts of the population such as the elderly who may not have access to the internet, without bombarding them with leaflets? These are all issues that have been raised by councils and will no doubt be raised again in response to this latest flurry of Directions notices.
What happens next?
It is interesting that Mr Pickles has chosen to single out individual councils and issue them with Direction notices, rather than issue an Order that all councils must comply with paragraph 28 of the Code. This may be because the majority of councils are complying with the quarterly publication requirement. Each Direction will require the council in question to comply with paragraph 28 of the Code (or in Tower Hamlets’ case, also paragraph 5, regarding not advertising on TV or radio) “as soon as practicable and in any event by no later than 1 January 2015”. The councils have 14 days from 25 September to consider the letter and respond. If the Secretary of State does decide to issue a Direction, he can obtain a court order that requires the council in question to comply with it. Failure to do so is a contempt of court.
Click here to view the collection of letters on the gov.uk website.