Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 24th March 2011|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates
Draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, in a room that is more than a little familiar to a number of us who have served on the Localism Bill Committee? I suppose it is nice to be back. I hope that our deliberations will not take as long as those on the Bill—[ Interruption. ] I hear the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire, saying that he hopes so profoundly too, and as such, I will do my best.
The draft code will do that, provided that it is approved in this House and in the other place, by replacing the existing publicity codes, the first of which was introduced in 1988 and subsequently revised in 2001. That deals with some unfair practices—I shall stress the unfairness as I go along—and touches on the rules on the use of lobbyists by local authorities.
Before going into the content, it is perhaps worth while to say something about the nature of the code and the process that we have followed in drawing up the draft, which involved the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. It held a short inquiry on the draft code, and I note that the Chair of that Committee is in his place today. The Local Government Act 1986 dealt with the question of local authority publicity, provided a code of recommended practice on publicity and required local authorities to have regard to such codes. Importantly, that means that the code is a statutory document, and councils are obliged to consider it when making decisions about publicity.
It is a code, not an order or a set of regulations, so it does not contain binding requirements. However, because of the obligation to have regard to it, if a council is to not be challenged successfully in the courts or by its auditor on a departure from the code, that departure may be made only if there are reasoned and rational grounds. That is the importance of the status of the document and the reason for drafting the code in that way. That has been the nature of the rules on local authority publicity since 1986, and Governments of all parties have been content to operate in that regime.
The principle underpinning the 1986 Act and the 2001 revision was a belief that good and effective communication between a local authority and its communities is key to developing local understanding and local democracy. Members who have served in local authorities will recognise the value of that and that the majority of local authorities communicate effectively with their citizens in a proportionate and fair manner. It is important that local authorities use local publicity, not just to keep their communities informed of the services they provide, but to encourage greater civic participation. All those things have to be done with a sense of balance and proportionality.
Publicity can be a sensitive matter because of the associated costs that come from the public purse, in an environment where there is competition for the use of local authority resources, and because of the impact that publicity can have. That is why it is essential that decisions on local authority publicity are properly made. The purpose of the code is to seek to achieve that. The Select Committee accepted the principle behind the existence of a code, which has been pretty much accepted across the piece since 1986.
With the revised code we are seeking to set out clear principles of good practice and to ensure that public funds are properly used in that regard. We set out a consultation on our proposals at the end of last September. That ended on 10 November. We received some 350 responses, and we considered all of those before finalising the text. The Select Committee held a short inquiry into the proposals. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government gave evidence to the Select Committee before it published its report. I am obliged to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), and his colleagues for that report, which we considered carefully before finalising our proposals.
The draft code is a significant re-presentation of the existing codes. It will, in effect, replace in a single a code the two documents that currently apply to different tiers of local government. The code as revised in 2001 applies to principal councils—the full range from unitary authorities through to district councils, county councils and London boroughs—and the original 1988 Act applies to parish councils. That is the distinction—principal as opposed to local councils—for these purposes.
“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”.
There are two substantive changes. First, there is now a specific reference to the frequency, content and appearance of local authority newsletters, newssheets and other similar publications. That addresses the problem of unfair competition by taxpayer-funded local authority newspapers, which can have a detrimental effect on commercial local newspapers. Although local publicity is important—as I conceded earlier in my remarks—so is a free and healthy local press. It is worth remembering that localism does not stop with the council and its
I appreciate that the Select Committee—I know the Chair is going to speak later—queried whether it is necessary to take the steps that we have taken and suggested that it was not localist. For the reasons I have set out and with every respect to the Select Committee, I do not believe that criticism is justified.
First, there have been consistent representations from the newspaper industry and from individuals about certain local authorities creating unfair competition. That matters for democracy. A free press is important, and if there is a threat to that, I do not think it is adequate to say, “Well, look, let’s get some more evidence. Let’s put it off and have a long-term review.” We should revise the code now because it is part of the broad definition of localism.
I set out this example in the code. There is nothing wrong with a local authority producing material that gives information on its services and its activities. Most local authorities do that, and it is fair, reasonable and proportionate. It is keeping the public informed about what the council does for them. There is a question about frequency, and in the code we are saying that the frequency should not exceed quarterly. That is what the vast majority of local authorities that responded to the LGA’s survey found to be the optimum period. So it is a period that works.
Secondly, there is a difference—we have seen it in some very striking examples—between setting out what is information about local services and activities, and creating something that, to all intents and purposes, could be mistaken for a local paper. We need to consider whether a publication’s presentation, journalistic style and content go well beyond that. We could look at some of the supplements that come with the national papers and see something telling us about the wonders of investing in a far-flung, ex-Soviet republic. The words “advertising supplement” are usually in small print on the top but, unfortunately, that is not to be found in some of the publications. I will place in the Library three examples in that regard.
It is not necessary to have something that is couched in such highly political terms as the recent edition of Lambeth Life to inform Lambeth voters of the council’s activities, and it is not necessary to produce a 44-page fortnightly newspaper to inform the voters and residents of Tower Hamlets of the work done by that local authority. A recent issue of that paper consisted of a television guide, a report on “Comic strip capers down at the Wick,” a series of commercial advertisements and some of the sporting news. That is all admirable and interesting, but it is clearly in direct competition with precisely the sort of product that the local newspaper is seeking to produce. That is where it strays over the boundary. It is legitimate that there should be constraints on that, because public money is being used to produce, in effect, a TV guide and other entertainment features that are directly taking potential business away from the local papers.
John Mann: I did not quite catch whether the Minister had included this week’s publication from Nottinghamshire county council, which is a rather blue edition that entirely promotes the case for the cuts that it is making.
Robert Neill: The code applies to all local authorities regardless of political complexion. I am sure that by referring to blue the hon. Gentleman meant of a political variety—knowing the leader of Nottinghamshire county council I cannot think it would be otherwise. Of course, in fairness, the code has to be even-handed. That is what it is designed to be. However, it is also not justified to use public money to produce a fortnightly lifestyle magazine such as The Newham Mag, which I will place a copy of in the Library. Although that publication has some information, it also includes a considerable amount of commercial advertising, entertainment listings, a kids’ corner and a “Colour-me-in Word Fit” puzzle. I am sure Mayor Wales would be the first to wish to promote that, but I am not sure it is necessarily a good use of public money.
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North) (Lab): The Minister used the term “in fairness” a paragraph or two back. In fairness, were his civil servants able to provide him with examples from Conservative-run authorities of what he is alleging is an abuse?
Robert Neill: The honest truth is that I did my own research into the matter, rather than using public resources. As I said to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, I readily concede that the code applies to local authorities of all persuasions and all must adhere to it in their dealings.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Minister has made a very strong case in respect of the councils that he has mentioned. Clearly, those publications go way beyond what anybody would think is appropriate for a local council. However, does he agree that the vast majority of local councils do not go down that route? I want to put on the record that I have reservations. For the vast majority of local councils, this code of conduct will not have any significant effects on their work. It is primarily aimed at those abuses he has outlined.
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend’s point is a fair one. I hope that I had hinted at it, but I am happy to restate again that the Local Government Association’s research found that the vast majority of local authorities publish quarterly or less often, and all the evidence suggests that the majority of local councils certainly do not produce directly and blatantly competitive material. I am happy to agree with him on that.
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that, first, this will not have any practical effect on good and genuine communications in the vast majority of local authorities —my respect for local government is too high for me to want to do that. Secondly, I can also confirm that, because the particular cases where breaches occur are often serious and deleterious in their impact on an independent press, it is appropriate to take the steps that we have. The proposal is proportionate, and we do not make it lightly, but in cases of egregious abuse, it is appropriate to act. It is in that spirit that we bring forward the proposals.
John Mann: I thank the Minister for generously giving way again. Will the code also cover the underhand tactics of health authorities trying to promote cuts in their services? The proposed downgrading of Bassetlaw hospital has full-page adverts paid for by the public sector in local authority publications in full co-operation with the cutting health authority. Will that kind of misinformation also be covered?
Robert Neill: Publications by health authorities are not covered by the code, because the Local Government Act 1986 does not apply to health authorities. That is not to say that abuse and imbalance from other public bodies at a cost to the public purse should not be examined, but I am simply saying that the legislative framework of the local government code does not extend beyond local councils, as defined in the 1986 Act. I would criticise misleading and unfair publicity by other public bodies. Indeed, I have had something to say in the past about some publications by health authorities in my part of the world, but we are dealing with a particular legislative framework.
John Mann: The Minister has been generous, but this drives a coach and horses through his principles. If other bodies can pay for inserts that have a particular typeface and paper style, as if part of a local authority magazine, but which they paid for—as, for example, the Doncaster and Bassetlaw primary care trusts chose to do—a local authority can use other means and describe it as advertising. The general public see it as a council propaganda sheet, which is promoting changes erroneously and inaccurately against the public interest.
Robert Neill: First, in terms of frequency, the proposal would apply to a repeated use of such advertisements. If the publication that the advert is placed in should not appear more often than quarterly, it limits the repeat impact of such material. Secondly, there is nothing to stop the public raising any issues of appropriateness with those responsible for the independent audit of the health authority, as they could with the local authority. Those are important considerations.
If the material is within the council’s publication, as opposed to something that it does separately, the code covers it. Therefore, it covers things done by third parties for the local authority’s publication. If they do it separately, it is not covered, but if the local authority has published it and used the public purse, it would be. It would depend slightly on the factored degree, but that is how it is caught. I hope that deals adequately with the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I hope that has also dealt with the thinking behind the council newspaper element of the proposals. We contend that the proposals are not anti-localist. They are consistent with localism, because of that broad definition of localism and the other elements of a free and vibrant community, including the press and other organs. There is considerable detail, for example on websites, to ensure that modern forms of communication
The second substantive change relates to the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Under the draft code, local authorities should not retain lobbyists with the intention of publishing any material designed to influence public officials, Members of Parliament, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on an issue. The simple point is that it is a waste of public money—it is not a proper use of it—for local authorities, which are public bodies, to hire political lobbyists from commercial organisations to contact Ministers and Members of this House to seek to persuade them of a particular view, when in reality they already have rights of access. As hon. Members know, the door of the Department is open to people who wish to make representations, and local authorities have the right to approach their constituency Member of Parliament, who will, I know, diligently raise any matters with Ministers. There are channels of communication that are properly open and available. It is not appropriate that a third party makes a profit, in effect, from the public purse by making an approach that could be made directly. That is why we think that that goes beyond what is acceptable.
It is certainly not intended to limit the local council from approaching and seeking to make a case to Ministers or Members of the House. The local government spending review is a good example. My fellow departmental Ministers and I received a considerable number of delegations of councillors and chief officers from local authorities seeking to make a point about the spending settlement’s impact on their authorities. We were happy to meet them and listen to them with our officials. That is the exact way in which it should be done. That is legitimate lobbying—lobbying with a small L. It is not the commercial lobbying that the code seeks to deal with. That is an important safeguard and distinction.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): This is one of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government that received a positive response from the Government. It is important that the Minister put it on the record that this is not intended to prevent local authorities from employing a specialist firm to help them prepare a case on a specialist matter to be made to the Government. Indeed, they may go with them to meet Ministers in an advisory capacity. Nor is it intended to prevent them from employing a lobbying firm to give them advice, as long as the firm does not do the stupid thing of ringing ministerial offices or MPs to make an appointment, which, I agree, would be a complete waste of money.
Robert Neill: I am glad to say that we are pretty much at one on that. I can imagine a scenario in which some necessary technical expertise would be properly hired by a local authority to make its case about an element of funding or some other aspect of policy. It is certainly not intended that that should be caught. The distinction relates to the sort of scenario described by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, who referred to Nottinghamshire county council. I accept that point.
An issue arises when a general public affairs company is in receipt of funding. I think that Nottingham city council spent about £110,000 on a public affairs company
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the second time, Mr Turner. Our view is that this is an unnecessary sledgehammer to deal with an issue that is not of great public concern. Local authority publications do not pose any realistic competition to local newspapers. There is no genuine evidence to substantiate that they do. If we look at the decline in circulation of local newspapers, it is not fair or reasonable to point the finger at municipal publications. The reason for the decline is much more deep-seated. It is the rise of new media—the internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and so on through which people communicate their message—that is the bigger reason for the decline. Indeed, in my experience, most local newspapers put their content, completely free of charge, on the net, so that people can access the news produced by their local paper without paying a cover price for it. The decline in circulation is more to do with those factors than the municipal publications provided by local authorities around the country.
I am pleased that the Minister has acknowledged and supports the need for local authorities to communicate with their communities. I think he said that it was “key” for a local authority to communicate with its communities. From my period of serving on the Local Government Association and being loosely involved with its reputations campaign, it seems to me that municipal publications are vital to ensure that the local electorate are aware of the services provided by the authority, and to highlight local concerns and how local people might respond to them.
Chris Williamson: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point; I would not necessarily have done it when I was the leader of Derby city council, but that is a matter for local determination. The point to bear in mind is that it is important that the communications produced by local authorities are engaging and encourage people to pick them up and read them. In a local authority that includes the TV listings, a judgment may have been made that that is a way of ensuring that people use the publication. If they look at the TV listings, they might also flick through and find out about services provided by the authority. It is down to local judgment whether that is the right approach, but I see the sense in doing it. It would be a waste of money if a local authority produced a publication that was very dull and unengaging, and that people were very unlikely to read. What would be the point of that? The key is to produce an attractive publication that is engaging and does what it is supposed to do, which is to communicate information about the area and about local authority services.
The Minister did not mention it directly, but he alluded to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw made about publications being used to engender party political support. However, legislation is already on the statute book that prevents local authority publications garnering support for any political party. As that legislation exists, the code is unnecessary—if the Minister’s intention is to address that point—because the issue does not arise.
In responding to the hon. Member for Colchester, I made a point about local determination. We have heard a lot from the Government about localism and the right of local communities and authorities to determine what is right for the area that they represent. I can do no better than to quote the words of the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the Local Government Association in his evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee.
“It is surely hypocritical for a Government to say that its priorities are localism, localism, localism, and then try to define in a whole number of ways, including this one, precisely how we should carry out our business.”
Another point worth considering is that local authorities are under extreme financial pressure. They have been singled out for the single biggest cut of all public service sectors. Over a 4-year period the Department for Communities and Local Government will see a reduction approaching 68% in real terms. When local authorities are having to make very difficult decisions about their budgets, and if this proposal goes through it will cost them more, how can that possibly be justified? For example, one colleague in local government, the mayor of Hackney, told the Select Committee that the cost of placing this year’s statutory notices in local newspapers would be in the order of £543,000, compared with £448,000 for putting them in his fortnightly council newsletter.
A perhaps unintended consequence of the Minister’s proposal will be that hard-pressed local authorities such as Hackney will find themselves in even more financially straitened circumstances. That will be a direct consequence of this proposal. If we are serious about localism and genuinely believe in the ballot box, surely this is a matter that should be decided by the local electorate in the areas where municipal newsletters are distributed? If the local electorate believe that it is a waste of money, and that local authorities are producing more newsletters than required, they have the perfect solution through the ballot box. Why do a Government who claim to support “localism, localism, localism” feel that it is appropriate to intervene in this way? It does not make sense.
I was interested in the Minister’s response to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East asked about lobbyists, and I am grateful for
We have no difficulties with the seven principles in the proposal as such; it is about the detail. It is not appropriate for the Government to meddle with the frequency with which local authorities distribute their newsletters. Nor is it appropriate for the Government to meddle in local authorities’ use of lobbyists, although I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification of that point. It seems that the Government are not meddling overmuch in that regard. From what the Minister says, it seems that it would still be acceptable for local authorities to get expert support in certain circumstances, perhaps to make a case for their area having a greater share of resources to bring in new inward investment. It is important that local authorities are able to acquire expertise that may not exist in their work force, to ensure that they can make the best possible case for their local area.
The frequency of the distribution of newsletters must be a matter for local councils and the local electorate who vote for them, particularly because hard-pressed councils such as Hackney might have to find another £100,000 to satisfy the terms of the decision if it goes through. That would be a genuine waste of public money. The measure is a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it is not necessary and I urge the Minister to think again.
Bob Russell: It is probably just the excesses of a few local authorities that have provoked the proposals. After reading them, I think that the Colchester Courier—the Colchester borough council publication—will not be adversely affected, if it is affected at all. It is complementary to the local media and not in competition with it, whereas the examples that the Minister has brought to our attention are local newspapers in all but name.
I advise Members of my local newspaper background; indeed, I also have a local government background. I worked on local newspapers and for a time I was the editor of a local newspaper. In those days, the vast majority of the community bought the local newspaper. In fact, we carried house adverts that boasted of the fact that we sold more newspapers than there were households in the community—100% penetration. The figure is only about 30% now, if that.
Local councils have a duty to get their messages across to their community, but not to provide alternative newspapers. That is the important point. As an aside, may I ask the Minister if he would comment on Suffolk county council spending in excess of £1,000 so that the chief executive could have glamour photographs taken to distribute? In case people get too excited, I should add that the chief executive is a female.
I am grateful to the spokesman for the Opposition for quoting Councillor Richard Kemp, as I wanted to do so too. Councillor Kemp is absolutely right; it should not
However, I question whether central Government should tell local councils what their publications should look like. That is a matter for local decision, provided that councils do not stray into the party political arena. If they want to use photographs or a certain typeface, that should be at local discretion. I can inform colleagues that a wonderful newspaper called the Colchester Star comes out from time to time, in which the hon. Member for Colchester is portrayed as a good guy—that the newspaper is published by Colchester Liberal Democrats is just one of those extraordinary coincidences. However, we are talking about a local council promoting its leader or leaders in a party-politically biased way. It is one thing for a political party to put out its own literature, but it is another thing for a local council to put out a party-political piece of literature. Unfortunately, a handful of local authorities appear to have strayed into that area, which is why we are in Committee today.
I will be supporting the draft code, but I urge the Minister to reflect, as the year unfolds, on whether the powers we are discussing will become necessary. We must trust our local councillors, those of all political persuasions and none. I am concerned that, while parameters are necessary, they should be elastic rather than a stranglehold.
John Mann: I object to this puny proposal, perhaps for entirely the opposite reasons to those of the Opposition spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North, who is concerned about the draft code going too far—it goes nowhere at all. The proposals include nothing to stop the appalling practice of Nottinghamshire’s Conservative county council which does not advertise anything in the local press, so supporting free enterprise, the freedom of the press and local newspapers, but instead puts it all inside its own in-house publications. That does not mean a shift in how the general public see things.
We are rather over-governed in this country, with MEPs, MPs and, in my area, county councillors, district councillors and parish councillors. I have parish newsletters, sometimes done by the church, which are excellent. I advertise in them and give them good information and factual stories to run, which they like to put in. They are well read and well received by the local community. They are excellent, and the taxpayer pays nothing.
Then we have district council publicity. We have a district council, now run by the Conservatives for some time, although no one seems to know who runs it. No one reads its publicity, because when the free newspaper arrives, Bassetlaw News, it goes straight in the recycling bin. We also have Nottinghamshire County News, which
The question is not whether councillors are stupid enough, on the rates, to waste money on propaganda that no one reads, conning themselves, as the Tory leader of Bassetlaw council is conning himself at the moment, that someone reads such stuff. The question is about the public information that Tory Nottinghamshire county council is not putting in the public domain, in newspapers which the public actually read to see what is happening and to look for jobs or at planning issues. For example, no one knows that the incinerators were passed, because they were advertised inside internal publications. Everyone is saying to me, “Well, what’s this? Where’s this come from?” I say, “I don’t know, what incinerator?” They tell me that there is one about to be built. I go and check, and I cannot find anything in the public domain. I have to challenge the authority then to force it to backdate the proposal and go through all the processes again, wasting more public money. That is what happens when the Tories are in charge of Nottinghamshire county council. To be fair, I suspect that should other parties have control, or when they did in the past, they would love the fact that they could have their photograph in propaganda that nobody ever read.
So, I have a dilemma. The draft code does not do what it should do, which is to ensure that public information is properly put across. Instead, it puts in some arbitrary limits. I heard what was said about the health trust, but this is the biggest scandal. Here we have a Tory-Liberal coalition cutting hospitals, trying to get rid of accident and emergency and maternity wards. Using taxpayers’ money, hospital foundation trusts, such as the Doncaster and Bassetlaw foundation trust, are attacking good MPs like me, anonymously, for the truth we have told and using taxpayers’ money to do it through council propaganda—that is what is going on. I am sure that the Minister has read it, though to be fair it would be difficult, as I said earlier, for him to get hold of these newsletters and newspapers because they are binned so quickly. However, I am sure that somewhere in county hall and in Bassetlaw district there will be one copy left that I will be able to provide.
The problem, of course, is the Minister. He cannot get his head round it. The newspaper industry—they love these publications. Johnstone Press prints these things, which is why they look like newspapers. Now, the Minister must have got his head around that. They look like newspapers because they are printed cheaply by the newspaper industry—by the same people. The Johnstone Press produces the Worksop Guardian—a very good newspaper with a very good column in it that is well worth reading and available on the internet—the Mansfield and Ashfield Chad and other great publications, but it also prints the diatribe on the rates that nobody reads.
The Minister has not quite got this legislation anywhere near where he wants it to be. What we need is to stop bodies doing this kind of thing. We need to stop the pretence that we get on health cuts, which are being put across as if they are council information and public information. It would be dangerous if anyone ever read it, which they do not, because they bin it.
The Government are trying to get rid of unnecessary regulation—that is what the Chancellor said—but they have immediately come in with some unnecessary regulation today. The Minister had better have a word with the Chancellor to see whether this one will be “cleared”. This is the cycle that they get into when they bring forward unthought-out, unreconstructed attempts at creating a few headlines before the local elections.
I would like to see some proper clarity to stop these health bodies, which are misleading the public in their attempts to persuade them—using taxpayers’ money—that cuts are in their favour,. That is what the Minister and the Government should be concerned about, but of course they love these cuts, because they are behind them. They are not going to stop that kind of propaganda on the rates. I hope that the Minister—having had a word with the Chancellor to see if he can get clearance for this new regulation that he has introduced, and which the Chancellor says we are not going to have any more of—will go and have a look at the rubbish put out by Nottinghamshire county council and Bassetlaw district council, one of which will not be Conservative-run by early May, to ensure that they are not doing anything improper by putting across the cuts that they are making and trying to pretend to the general public that is what they want.
This job-cutting Government were given the opportunity to create a brand new enterprise park—let us call it an enterprise zone—in the town of Worksop only three weeks ago, but they backed a moribund Tory council and stopped the creation of 1,000 jobs at the Vesuvius site, saying that such a zone would not be in the interests of the general public. The council has used its publications—I have kept copies—to put forward its case against the enterprise zone. So effective were those publications so that one person was in favour of stopping the creation of those 1,000 jobs, whereas I was able to get 12,500 in favour of creating them. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East is right to say that the electorate should determine the question and, on 5 May, they will determine the future of this rotten council. I can assure the Minister of that. He would be welcome to observe the results that night, and I hope that he remembers this discussion when he has to comment on them.
That example demonstrates the fallacy of propaganda on the rates—a Tory council proposing a useless policy that nobody agrees with and nobody reads because the leaflets are immediately recycled. The Minister should apply his mind to stopping these health bodies using such propaganda to put across Tory and Liberal cuts, because the public do not want them.
Mr Betts: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Mr Turner. I am not a member of the Committee, but I attend as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, which held an inquiry on the proposed
I stand by the Committee’s reports, but I instinctively come at this issue from a localist perspective. From the debate today it is clear that there is more than one interpretation of localism. Indeed, the Minister gave a very interesting and inventive interpretation, although I have to say that I was not totally convinced by it. Even if I disagree with something that a local council does—and I look at some of the publications and think that I would be rather upset if they were being published in my constituency—my general instinct, as a Member of Parliament or, hopefully, a Minister, is that that is no reason to legislate to stop it. That is the fundamental issue of localism. Ministers and MPs can have views, but we should not try to enforce them on a local authority.
The principles of even-handedness and objectivity laid down in the code would be sufficient on their own to exclude party propaganda and stories designed to put the point of view of one individual or group. I just wish we had stopped there—and that is broadly a criticism of the previous Government as well, who had a much more detailed code of practice. I am therefore not making a party point, but I am stressing the localist agenda.
If I may put my Chair’s hat on, I first thank the Government for the way in which they have approached this. The Select Committee decided to have an inquiry and it was sensible of the Government to agree to share the evidence they received with us, rather than us having to have a separate call for evidence, which would in most cases have been a duplication. Given the time it took to hold that brief inquiry and get our report together, the Minister agreed to postpone slightly the publication of the Government’s conclusions so that they could take our comments on board—if not in their entirety—and respond to them before the final version of the code was produced. I thank the Government for that approach, which was the proper process for Governments and Select Committees to follow in acting together and exchanging information.
It is the change in people’s approach to newspapers that is the cause. Young people do not buy them as much as older people did, so the demographics are changing, and use of the internet has also increased. That is what is changing sales and advertising potential for local newspapers. That is happening across the country, whether councils have publications or not.
I did not agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, but he made one point that was absolutely correct. If we look at the damage to
The Select Committee found—going along with the drift of what has been policy over many years—that there should be a code of practice. It recognised that a small number of newspapers gave general concern—and they were newspapers. The Government are minded in the code to say that local authority publications should not look like newspapers and should restrict their content to local authority activities. If such publications do that, if they state clearly that they are from the local authority, and if they look at cost-effectiveness, why is it necessary to say that a local authority cannot publish five times a year? It seems complete overkill. A local authority might publish four publications, with its last being in January. If something big came up that it needed to explain or communicate to its electorate in February or March, it would be prohibited from doing so. The Select Committee thinks that in that measure, the Government take a step too far.
I have raised the matter of lobbyists with the Minister, and I think we have got there, but I want to be certain. It seems that the Government are concerned about activity rather than organisations. However, an organisation can be labelled as a lobbyist firm, but it might have some specialists from whom a council might want to seek advice on a particular issue. That process would not involve the firm picking up the phones and arranging meetings with Ministers or MPs, but it might help the local authority to put a case together. I hope such situations will not be prevented, but from what the Minister has said, they will not be. Essentially, the measure is about local authorities not employing people to do the up-front work of making the contacts and setting up the meetings. They must not try to do those aspects of lobbying as opposed to providing information. Information could be provided by firms, and such firms might be labelled as lobbyists even though they might not be doing purely lobbyist activities. I would like clarification on that matter.
Finally, we might find something that we can agree on completely. I am disappointed that we have not had a slightly more positive response from the Government about the publication of statutory notices. The Select Committee agreed unanimously on those—indeed we have written back to the Government following their response. Statutory notices are a very expensive issue for many local authorities. Some authorities told us that the cost of publishing a fortnightly newspaper was cheaper than paying for statutory notices, so we should ask ourselves whether they are cost-effective. Who reads them? They are published in commercial newspapers and may be a source of revenue for them. In terms of value for money for local authorities, however, who reads about the road closures and the planning notices? We must find a better way to do it.
The Select Committee received a response from the Government. All we asked was that statutory notices be reviewed; we did not say that they should be abolished or that there was another way of doing it, we simply wanted a review to find out whether statutory notices
Perhaps the Minister and I might end up on a point of agreement. Will the Government at least say, without committing to abolishing statutory notices, that they will institute a review to see whether a real saving could be made in expenditure to hard-pressed local authorities at this difficult time?
Robert Neill: This has been a useful and interesting debate. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed. They have raised important points, which I shall seek to do justice to. I hope that I can do so succinctly and in the same careful spirit within which they were raised.
In response to the hon. Member for Derby North, I think there is a difference. I do not accept the characterisation of this as a sledgehammer. There is perhaps a difference of view, but I stand by the Government view that localism can and should properly be defined as including more than the institutions and organs of the council. As for partisan support, of course, there are rules that deal with partisan matters. However, the vice that is complained of here, goes beyond that which is merely partisan in terms of electoral rules and other regulations. It is the steady promotion of a particular view; more to the point, the potential squeezing out of an alternative source of information and challenge. That is the difficulty with which we are dealing. That is why, for example, the use of the TV listings as a sort of loss leader to attract people away from other independent publications is a greater vice than just the amount of pages it is printed on.
When the hon. Gentleman talks about costs, we need to look at the costs in terms of statutory notices. I will come back to that in a moment, because the matter was raised not just of the cost of the statutory notice, but the total costs of publication, production and distribution of the papers. One has to compare like with like. In that regard, it is worth noting that the impact assessment gives a best estimate in terms of its overall picture of the analysis of costs of about £28.8 million and benefits of about £51.5 million. Overall, we anticipate savings from this proposal. The estimated total savings to local authorities on the cost of producing newspapers is put at about £2.9 million a year. Those may not be significant sums in the overall scheme of local government expenditure, but they are significant if it is a local newspaper, which is against competition from that source, and is perhaps in a difficult and marginal situation.
That independent challenge is important, as that is the means by which one can assist the elector to pass judgment on the council at the ballot box. That is the important point to bear in mind here. That was taken up by the hon. Member for Colchester, who made a very fair point. I accept that there is a difference between parameters and a complete free-for-all. It is not the Government’s intention to go beyond the wording of
In response to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, I cannot believe that anyone would mistake him for an anonymous source. He has a certain uniqueness about him. We may not agree—he comes from a different angle from the rest of his party—but he is not entirely unfamiliar with that situation. In the age of modern technology, if people want both information and entertainment, we could produce a DVD of the hon. Gentleman’s speech and circulate it, but it will probably need an imprint on it, just to ensure that it did not fall foul of his hon. Friend the shadow Minister’s concerns about partisan matters. One point the hon. Gentleman raised is the value of parish newsletters, and that is why we have excluded parish newsletters from the restrictions on frequency and circulation. They do not compete with a commercial newspaper, so we have adopted a different approach, which we think is fair and proportionate.
In response to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, I am grateful for his comments about the way we have sought to appreciate it. The test is not whether I like it or not, or any other Minister or hon. Member likes it or not. It is whether or not the conduct has a deleterious effect on someone else. That is the vice we seek to deal with here; that is where the unfair competition has a deleterious effect on the newspapers in that area. That is why we seek to do it.
I hope that I have clarified the position on lobbyists. I can make it abundantly clear for the hon. Gentleman that, under the revised code, local authorities should not retain lobbyists with the intention of using them to publish any material designed to influence public officials to take a particular view on any issue. I confirm, as I said before, that it is acceptable to retain experts to give professional advice on technical issues; the code is against the retention of lobbyists for political ends. It is that common-sense distinction that we are keen to promote.
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and valid point, and I am grateful to him for reminding me about that issue. It is fair to say that in the internet age, everyone, including the commercial newspapers themselves, should expect that over time there will be less state advertising, as information is often syndicated online for free. We have asked the Newspaper Society how it can work with commercial newspapers to make statutory advertising more effective. There are some examples of good practice in the field. However, in a digital age, it is reasonable to ask whether local authorities should for ever be compelled to place advertisements in local papers. The issue is not entirely straightforward, and it is one where we want to proceed carefully.
Mr Betts: Proceeding carefully does not exclude having a review to which everyone can contribute. Can the Minister not go that little step further and say, “Yes, there will be a review”? It seems to be an issue on which there are many views, not least from local councils themselves.
Robert Neill: Having asked the Newspaper Society to come up with a response, it would be courteous to wait for it to do so before taking the next step, but this is not something that the Government intend to ignore in the long term. Having dealt with the points raised by hon. Members, I commend the draft code to the Committee.
The Committee divided: Ayes
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 24th March 2011|