Proposed Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-38)

Richard Kemp, Jules Pipe and John Findlay

6 December 2010

Q1   Chair: Good afternoon. We will make a start on this one-session inquiry into the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity. For the sake of our records, please say who you are and the organisations that you represent.

Jules Pipe: My name is Jules Pipe and I am the directly elected Mayor of Hackney and also Chair of London Councils. Before I became Mayor of Hackney, I started my career in local newspapers and ended it in newspapers as a production journalist on two national broadsheet newspapers.

Richard Kemp: I am Councillor Richard Kemp from Liverpool and I am Vice-Chair of the Local Government Association.

John Findlay: I am John Findlay, Chief Executive of the National Association of Local Councils, which represents the 8,500 parish and town councils in England.

Q2   Chair: You are most welcome. I understand that Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Deputy Chair of the LGA, was due to be here but he has sustained an injury.

Richard Kemp: He has a trapped nerve. I thought he had nerves of steel but apparently not.

Q3   Chair: Richard, you are here in his place. Let me start off with a very difficult question. Do you think that the code as currently drafted, which will require local authorities to behave in certain ways with regard to their publicity, goes somewhat against the Government's localist agenda?

Richard Kemp: How do I follow such an introduction, Chair? It would be almost exactly the same as I would have said myself. 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. Most councillors have a major desire to communicate effectively with our constituents in our wards, our neighbourhoods and across the council area as a whole. We do that on radio and television; we email; we have websites; we blog, as do our councils. We even tweet sometimes. Of course, we use the local press. We all have a symbiotic relationship with our local press, but the latter does not reach all the parts we need to reach as a local authority. Therefore, sometimes we do things ourselves.

Q4   Chair: If you are all in agreement you do not have to add anything.

Jules Pipe: I am in absolute agreement. Local council publications have been described as town hall Pravdas, but in scope this diktat is worthy of North Korea. Essentially, I think everyone can agree with much of the code. There is one key sentence in it that is most objectionable and is quite North Korean in scope. I refer to the sentence in the middle of paragraph 28 that dictates that councils can only communicate on a large scale with its residents four times a year. That is the key problem for councils. That one sentence suggests that CLG Ministers do not recognise the need or value of local councils and their partners, hospitals, PCTs and voluntary and community sector organisations, which also use the same publications. It is clear that those Ministers do not value or recognise the need or necessity of that communication.

John Findlay: I would broadly agree, although I qualify it slightly by saying that we very much support the principles set out in the code. Nobody could really question them. I think the problem arises in terms of application and scope. To be absolutely honest, I think the scope of the proposal is very much aimed at principal authorities. We as parish and town councils in particular have a problem with the application of some of its provisions to our sector. I certainly agree that we need to ensure that the localism and big society agenda is carried forward and is not constrained in any way by these proposals. I am worried to some extent that the proposals could restrict on a practical level the achievement of the big society agenda particularly on relatively minor things about the frequency of publication. Many of our councils put out a monthly newsletter. Some do it more often; they may do a weekly website as a piece of information. We would not want to see that restricted by a central direction.

Q5   Stephen Gilbert: We have begun to touch on something that I would like to explore a little further. You say that many local authorities put out publications maybe once a month and in some cases more than that. The proposal in the code is that that goes down to four times a year. Can you explain why you do not feel that quarterly communication would be sufficient to keep your electorates informed?

Jules Pipe: There are two very good reasons. One is the need to communicate and the second one is value for money. If the Committee bears with me for just a moment, I would like to read a couple of sentences that I think encapsulate the need to communicate. It quotes Matthew Engel, who wrote recently in the Financial Times. He in turn quoted Peregrine Worsthorne. Peregrine Worsthorne once posed the question: "Which part of a newspaper was more truthful: the news stories or the adverts?" He answered his own question by saying: "In adverts for airlines, planes always land safely; in news stories they crash. Adverts show happy families sitting round the fire; in news stories the house burns down. Most planes do not crash; most houses do not burn down, ergo adverts are more accurate."

There is something relevant there to local authority publications. In local papers generally libraries only shut, nurseries are only under threat and bins go unemptied, but the reality is that services open, expand and change all the time. Libraries open; nurseries introduce new services; bin rounds change as more is collected through recycling. I have spent the past five years moving £62 million worth of money from back-room office and efficiency savings into the frontline, improving, changing and expanding services while keeping the council tax frozen for five years. Residents needed to be informed about all those changes to services and that could not be done just once a quarter. Distributing an additional leaflet to houses every time an individual service changed for a particular area would be far too expensive. Local newspapers won't and can't be expected to carry that volume of information to local residents. My local newspaper, which is no longer based in the borough—it is two local authorities away in distance out in Essex—now sells only 8,000 copies a week. They do not even qualify for ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) audited circulation, and that compares with the 100,000 copies that we publish.

I think there is something relevant in that to the Government's agenda as well because the big society was mentioned. All sorts of Governments, Labour, Tory or coalition, always want to use local Government as an administrative arm for delivering their agenda. Whether by exhortation or by nudging, they want to get their message out. Therefore, when Andrew Lansley wants to do something on obesity or anti-smoking—all those kinds of things—it will be done through the local NHS. Those messages get out through local authority publications, not via the local press.

I have one other quick point on value for money. We are one of the authorities that puts its statutory notices in its own newspaper. I have brought copies of one for the Committee. The gross cost of putting a year's worth of statutory notices in our local paper according to its rate card—this organisation does not discount its rate card for local authorities, because we have checked—would be £543,000. The gross costs of producing 25 copies of our newspaper this year—I am not trying to do any clever accounting by taking off any income from adverts or anything—is £448,000. Therefore, if we are forced to abandon our approach—you have to publish every two weeks for it to qualify under the law to be able to run statutory notices—we will have to find several hundred thousand pounds' worth of additional savings from other services so we can pay the local newspaper to carry those rather than publish them in our own newspaper. Therefore, certainly for us, the value for money argument is absolutely clear: it will cost us several hundred thousand pounds more if this code is implemented as is.

Richard Kemp: I would add a couple of things to that. First, we have to listen to what our constituents say. Probably what your constituents say as well is, "We don't know what's going on. You don't inform us enough. Why don't you tell us what you're doing?" We try to do that in a whole variety of ways, but the fact is that even the free news-sheets do not go out to more than a third of my city. If we are not telling people, no one will tell them; certainly people do not read the local papers more.

Second, if you want to establish a title and an understanding by local people that that is something to read, you do it regularly enough so that they recognise it and want to read it. You will do this, Steve, with something called a Focus newsletter. Labour have Labour Rose; I cannot remember what the Conservatives used. But we use consistent messaging so that people say, "Oh, that's the stuff about local news for my ward." If that were done four times a year, no one would recognise it, so there would be no continuity and it would be bad value for money, in addition to the reasons Jules has given you.

John Findlay: I suspect our context is slightly different because we are much smaller and very local. Our task is to get the message out, as my colleagues say, to all our constituents, but we are talking here of neighbourhoods, villages, small towns, medium-sized market towns and so on. It is therefore much easier for us to get the message out to local people at very low cost, so we do not face quite the same problems. I am sure we provide value for money.


If you talk to people on the street about their perception, what they like and what interests them is what is local. Even someone like me who takes a great interest in these things will read things at county or district level with interest, but I know that most of the people where I live want to know what is happening in their locality—who has made an application for a supermarket in a particular area and so on? These things will be covered by my colleagues. But the most important thing is to make sure that what do informs and engages, and that is best done at the most local level.

Q6   Stephen Gilbert: I have two quick follow-ons, one specifically to Mr Pipe. Accepting your point that the truth in a newspaper is somewhere between the editorial and the advertising, if I flicked through Hackney Today I am not sure I would find one story that is critical of the borough. It might give the impression that nobody has ever made a complaint to Hackney Council and all services are working fine. Do you think that reflects the reality of residents' lives in Hackney?

Jules Pipe: It is not meant to be reflective of the generality of life in Hackney; that is the job of the local newspaper and the many websites and blogsites that there are. There are numerous magazines in Hackney, such as N16, which is distributed free throughout just for the Stoke Newington area. There are many websites and blogsites that are independent and therefore critical of the things that the council does. Therefore, there are all these other avenues. If we try to pass that off as an independent publication—because it clearly says on the front "Produced by the Council"—we would have a hard job convincing anyone. If we added a few critical letters that would not do the job either, because it would not have any credibility. Therefore, it does not pretend to be an independent publication.

Q7   Stephen Gilbert: My point is that it is no more an accurate reflection than the advertising/editorial balance that you talked about earlier. To move on, you talked about the other available avenues. You referred to blogs and websites in Hackney and obviously local newspapers as well. In this day and age, why aren't websites sufficient to promote these kinds of services and engage with people in a much more cost-effective way?

Jules Pipe: I put this directly to the Secretary of State, because it would take away 50% of the argument that I am making today. The rest of the argument about the need to communicate still stands, but the financial argument would be removed at a stroke. I put this to the Secretary of State, but he thought there needed to be a period of grace to allow local newspapers to adjust because it is inevitable that, if we did have to put this information on a website alone, no council would pay its local newspaper the hundreds of thousands of pounds it would cost to publish it. I would agree with your point.

Richard Kemp: I suspect that in 10 years' time this might be a very different argument. There are still lots of old people like me around who like to read a newspaper. I do blog and go on the website, but I like to pick up a paper and read it. Interestingly enough, last year I was a member of a Home Office working group that commissioned some research on the most effective way to communicate with people. Louise Casey announced it to all and sundry. The best thing to do, apparently, is to put it on a piece of paper and stick it through someone's letterbox. I thought, "Well, that's my last 42 years vindicated, isn't it?" That is the Government's own research; that is how you communicate in the most cost-effective way.

Jules Pipe: And there is a huge digital divide in communities like my own that would mean that is the most effective way to communicate.

John Findlay: There is also the simple human reaction: to go onto a website to look at something requires a proactive step on the part of the individual, whereas if something comes through the door, we all pick it up and have a quick look at it, even if not for very long. Clearly, website access and so on will develop further. We are particularly interested in some of the ideas that have been developing, for example Rory Stewart's idea about having local community TV, so that when you switch on your TV to watch your favourite programme there is also immediate access to what is going on in your neighbourhood, village or town. That is something you can quickly look at. You might catch the news headlines before you go to the main programme. That may be a longer way forward. The problem with the proposals before us is that they are not broad enough to address those sorts of issues.

Q8   Clive Efford: How do the rules on content and frequency contained in the code affect the cost-effectiveness of your publications?

Jules Pipe: It wouldn't at all other than in terms of the frequency. We need the fortnightly frequency to be able to carry the statutory notices unless all the laws related to planning are changed. But we do not do sports reports, TV listings or have property or motoring sections; we do not take classified adverts, paid for advertorials, or four-page wrap-arounds around the outside of things. We do not do any of that. Our advertising space is more expensive than that of a local newspaper. To go back to your question about commercial competition with local newspapers, I do not see us being in competition with them at all. Some local authority publications do cross that line and that is a matter for them to justify, but sitting here I do not seek to justify that. I am sitting here trying to justify a publication that tries to get information across to residents. I come back to an earlier point. Yes, it does not say "on the one hand or on the other", but there are other people saying "the other". We are saying just what the council does and what it offers, and also what is offered by our partners: the voluntary sector; health; police and the rest.

Richard Kemp: We have a regular need to communicate. Increasingly, that will make us do even more "advertising" in our community. For example, a Bill was published last week that gives us more power over licensing, which means we have to communicate with people more regularly. The Decentralisation and Localism Bill means we will have to communicate more regularly over planning issues. If we do not have regular budgeted newsletters that are cost-effective in terms of delivery and production, we will spend a lot more money on irregular communications, which will cost more to print and organise than a regular stream of productions in which we can deal with the big issues and can simply localise to meet the needs of neighbourhoods, communities and wards. This will cost local councils money in a variety of ways.

Q9   Clive Efford: You say that your advertising space is more expensive than that of commercial newspapers. Is that a matter of choice? What forces that price?

Jules Pipe: It is just the price that people are willing to pay for the greater coverage. I can give a good example. In the copy that I handed around there is a half-page advert from the local community college. It will become one of the new university technical colleges. Its deputy head of marketing says: "We like to advertise our adult courses in Hackney Today as we get a good response rate, better than when we advertised those same ASL courses in the Hackney Gazette. The fact that it does go door to door means that people are more likely to browse through it and, therefore, see the adverts, whereas people who purposely pay for the newspaper tend to focus on the news side." That is the person who wants to place the ads, who is willing to pay the £807 for a half-page as opposed to the Hackney Gazette cost, which was £475. In fact, they do both; they put that advert in both the Hackney Gazette and Hackney Today, but they feel that the reach to every household is more useful to them as a local community college.

Q10   Clive Efford: Is yours the only freely distributed door-to-door newspaper?

Jules Pipe: It is the only one that covers the whole borough. There are other magazines and newspapers delivered free through doors in the borough, but they do not cover the entire borough.

Q11   Clive Efford: So, the fees you charge are a commercial decision based on coverage?

Jules Pipe: It is what it will bear. The key thing is that often the charge is that local authorities undercut local newspapers with their rates for classified ads, which we do not take, and display ads, and put them out of business. My point is that the charge is almost twice the rate of the local newspaper, so in no way can it be said that we are somehow undercutting or commercially damaging the local newspaper.

Q12   Clive Efford: You said that the cost of statutory notices would be over half a million a year if you were forced to cease publication fortnightly. What other subsidies are there that you are allowed to provide by making savings in producing your own newspaper?

Jules Pipe: Being able to put all the different service changes that I have outlined in one single publication, at a known cost for 36 pages a fortnight, rather than doing it by individual newsletters, means huge savings. I confess I do not have the figures. It would be hard to guesstimate how many newsletters would be required; it would be quite a job in itself to work out every different publication you would have to produce instead of that. It would have to look very much like a leaflet so we did not fall foul of the new code. But I would have thought the cost would run to hundreds of thousands. I believe someone made a rough estimate that it would probably cost about £1 million instead of the £440,000 to do it in a single newspaper.

Q13   Clive Efford: What sort of surveys do you do of local people to determine whether they are happy with it?

Jules Pipe: We do readership surveys once a year. For example, the copy before you has something in it about London and Hackney in bloom. Yes, the council is heavily involved in that, so it is a legitimate story to include in it, but that kind of story also gets added just to make it attractive to read. Obviously, you want to encourage people to read it. We do make sure that it is an attractive read for people and that is why we do readership surveys rather than just publish it in black and white and make it look something like a copy of The Times from the 1890s. One of the key things to come out of those surveys, and also came out in an independently done survey commissioned by Ipsos MORI a couple of years ago, is that people regard this as the main way in which they get their local information. Also key was the fact that in the MORI survey people were asked about their preferred method of receiving information. They listed things like leaflets, local newspapers, the web and everything. A paper produced regularly by the local authority put through the door was far and away the most popular choice, even more than door-to-door leaflets, which surprised me. One might have guessed that a leaflet about an individual subject might be their preference, but it was not; their preference was for a general newspaper.

Q14   Clive Efford: Mr Findlay, how do you believe the content and frequency rules imposed by the code will affect the ability of local authorities to promote and support the expansion of the big society?

John Findlay: For our sector, town and parish councils, it is hugely important. We are already required under the provisions of the quality parish and town council arrangements to make quarterly communication with every household in the area. Many of our councils, in some areas most councils, do it far more frequently than that. It is really important to us. I accept that we are a different kettle of fish from my colleagues here. With the very local, close communities that I am talking about, it is important to have something not quarterly but something monthly, ideally weekly. If it were electronic, you could do a weekly bulletin to every household about what is going on. To repeat what I said before, people are interested in what is happening locally on their patch, whether it is events but also developments. If it is a planning question, we may see more of that in the forthcoming Decentralisation and Localism Bill, but all the things that are happening directly on their patch that affect them personally are terribly important. From our point of view, the most important thing to do is to have very regular contact with communities to explain what is going on. We are different from principal authorities in that respect. I am sure they would like to do some of the things I am talking about, but I am talking about something that is very local indeed and where people would be receptive to having that sort of information. To restrict that to quarterly news would be entirely inappropriate; it really needs to be monthly or, ideally, weekly.

Q15   Mark Pawsey: Perhaps I may return to the point raised earlier by Mr Pipe: the role of statutory notices. The code of conduct currently obliges local authorities to place these in newspapers and will continue to do so. The LGA argued that is about £40 million a year but it seems to me that if £548,000 is spent in Hackney then the national figure must be rather larger than that. Is that obligation an unfair burden on local authorities? Does it contradict localism and the attempts by local Government to get value for money, or, realising that the independent press is a useful alternative to the council view that is coming through from your newspapers, is it an effective and useful form of support to local newspapers that they would not otherwise have and might otherwise cause many of them to go out of business?

Jules Pipe: I would answer a simple "yes" to all of your questions apart from the last one, where I would question whether it is appropriate for public money to be used to support private enterprise in that way to keep local newspapers going. I would say, however, that we are in effect helping them to keep going because it is the local newspaper industry that prints our newspaper. We and about seven different local authorities have a contract with the same publisher who owns our local paid-for newspaper. They are the ones receiving the income to print it, but they are not getting the additional revenue for buying the advertising space. There is a help to the industry there, but perhaps not as much as it would like.

I would definitely dispute that such publications are the cause of the demise of local newspapers. If you go back 20 years, the Hackney Gazette sold about 20,000 to 22,000 copies. Its decline was at a much faster rate for the first 10 years than it has been in the most immediate 10 years, and the Hackney Today in this form has been going for less than 10 years. So, even before this publication, Hackney Gazette suffered its worst decline in sales. I think that is because there are alternatives; free things are put through the door; there are many websites and blogs. People choose to get their information in different ways now, and that is what dictates the decline in local and national newspapers. Look at what people are considering, like mini-Independents and smaller, more compact newspapers, and the online market for those newspapers. That is what changes things, not the publication of things like our paper.

Q16   Mark Pawsey: And the local newspaper is not currently receiving your statutory notice expenditure?

Jules Pipe: Not in Hackney.

Richard Kemp: But we must also seriously look at what a statutory notice is. If we take a statutory notice placed in the Daily Post in Liverpool, we will do something about a road closure. Frankly, we might as well stand on top of the Pier Head and chuck the money away, because how many of my constituents will see a road closure in the Daily Post or, for that matter, go through the classified ads to see the bit in the Liverpool Echo? We ought to be thinking very differently about how we communicate. The only people who are interested in a very small road closure are those who live in it and the two roads beyond. Why don't we send out a special leaflet to them? Well, we do but we then put in a statutory notice that no one reads.

We have to think about communications and how we do it effectively. This will become particularly important with the big society and the other changes. On the one hand the Government says it wants to communicate more; on the other hand it says it wants us to communicate less, unless it is on its terms. It does not add up. If you look at the other side of it and how much paid advertising from outside these newspapers have, with one exception, which is the one that produces weekly and has all the inserts to which Jules referred, the whole of our sector attracts £1.2 million worth of advertising. Anyone who seriously suggests that that will stop the decline in local newspapers is living in cloud cuckoo land.

Jules Pipe: To support what Richard has said, the back pages of our paper show the madness of exactly what he was talking about. There are three solid pages of notification of street closures, narrowings, yellow lines and everything that we are obliged by law to put in. No one is really interested in those. There are people who by postcode will check what is going on in planning to see what is happening locally. Also key is the one on licensing when people want to know what licences are coming up for review. I know many people who actively look for those, but not the three pages of traffic notices about yellow lines and change to timings of CPZs—controlled parking zones.

Q17   Mark Pawsey: How about recruitment advertising? Is all of your recruitment advertising through your own publication, or should you be casting your net wider and using the media?

Jules Pipe: We do.

Q18   Mark Pawsey: And how effective is your own publication in getting to your target audience?

Jules Pipe: There are a few jobs in our paper with the local authority, and sometimes other local providers like the PCT, that are likely to be able to be filled locally, and it would be desirable to fill them locally to encourage local employment, but obviously if it was of significant seniority it would be mad to fish only in the pool of our own borough, so, yes, they all go into the appropriate places. We tend not to do national newspapers but we do the professional journals, for example, that are most likely to be read by senior social workers or whatever.

Richard Kemp: One of the gems of wisdom we got from Mr Pickles earlier this year was that we should not advertise them at all; it should all just be on our website, thus ignoring the fact we need to have a professional reach outside. According to him, everything should go on the website. That would just rule out large numbers of people who do not have access to computers to get jobs with our councils.

John Findlay: I agree that people need to know about planning application lists—whether they are in the local newspaper or wherever—but it is the most dreadful way to do it. I am sure it is right, but nobody actually reads them.

Richard Kemps: Civic societies read them.

John Findlay: Yes, but the population at large don't. People need that information but they must be better ways to deliver that. At the end of the day, this really should not be a debate about what councils are doing and the extent to which it should be restricted. It should be an opportunity to rethink methods of engagement. It is not just about the council reporting things; it is about feedback as well. We need to have mechanisms that provide for dialogue and interchange between the community and their council at whatever level. That is crucially important.

Q19   Mark Pawsey: So, you are saying that the form of statutory notices needs to be looked at? The principle in many cases is sensible, but it is worded in a way that people do not understand it?

Richard Kemp: We waste a fortune on things that people do not read.

Q20   Mark Pawsey: But nevertheless it is useful, in your view?

Richard Kemp: Some are more useful than others. Again, it is useful to list them in a way that all the civic societies and professional societies get them, but, in terms of informing people down the street, they are probably useless. That comes back to the challenge to the newspaper industry. We engage with the newspaper industry; we all know that we provide them with stories; they provide us with cover. There is a relationship between politicians, councils and local newspapers, but they need to up their game. I talk to councillor after councillor and find that no one from the local paper comes to a full meeting of the council. Perhaps that is because of our lack of oratory, but there are really serious issues that they don't cover. They do not get the reach into all the places that need them. We need to consider how we use them, but they need to up their game and make better offers about the way they scrutinise us, because they could do a lot better than they do, and get out to the communities we need to talk to. If they were more positive, we would perhaps be more positive towards them.

Jules Pipe: I agree with everything Richard said, but even if they achieved that zenith, they still would not cover all the information that we really ought to get out there that many people find useful.

Q21   Bob Blackman: One of the assertions that would probably be made if the Secretary of State were sitting here posing these questions is that a large amount of advertising that goes into council publications from a wide range of public bodies, be it councils, statutory notices, elements of the council, the health service and so on, deprives local newspapers of, reportedly, £11 million a year in advertising revenue. How would you counter that?

Richard Kemp: If we put all our money into those local papers, in my own city at least one third of the people would not see them at all. As a council we have a duty to communicate with all our citizens. In Liverpool the very poor areas do not get those newspapers because the advertising is not worth taking to them, and the very rich areas do not get them because the drives are too long to make delivery of the free newspapers worthwhile. We can put all that money in and still have to find other ways to communicate—in our case with at least one third of local people. Frankly, if you look at our free newspaper, it has so little news that it is more an advertising sheet than a newspaper anyway.

Q22   Bob Blackman: Taking the case of Liverpool, do you as a council and do the other public bodies advertise in the free newspapers?

Richard Kemp: Very little. We choose not to take that route, so we do our statutory advertising.

Q23   Bob Blackman: So, is it fair comment to say that, because you put this in your council publication, you are depriving those commercial newspapers of that advertising revenue?

Richard Kemp: No, because we wouldn't use them for that purpose, because they don't have the reach to get to people.

Q24   Bob Blackman: You would not advertise at all?

Richard Kemp: We produce a magazine, not a newspaper. It is full of information that would not be an interesting story, so it would not attract editorial. It might attract advertorial—that is what they call it—where we paid for advertising, but it still would not get the reach we do and it would be more expensive.

Q25   Bob Blackman: But presumably you could, perfectly reasonably, give it to a commercial organisation and say, "Here is the stuff we want in; here is the cost of it. You add to it what you wish," and they could put out a new free newspaper throughout the city.

Richard Kemp: They could choose to do that anyway. In our case it is the local free newspaper that delivers our newspaper, but we pay them to go into the areas they do not normally go to, so they could get a cheaper newspaper because they'd get part of the delivery cost covered if they did it with ours. They choose not to do so. Clearly, there are commercial reasons for that. I do not criticise them for making these commercial decisions, but we have a communications responsibility that is different from theirs. Their job is to sell newspapers, ours is to communicate with our citizens. Where we can work with them we do; where we cannot, we have to find alternative routes.

Q26   Bob Blackman: But clearly if that advertising was going into those newspapers, and parts of the advertising going in was that there was the reach into those areas, they would then have a commercial reason for doing so?

Richard Kemp: Again, you have to consider what the readability is of these so-called newspapers. The amount of attention they give to public service is remote. I check this regularly. For example, Merseymart for the past four elections—you might think that is a fairly important civic activity—has not even carried a list of the local candidates. If you want us to pay a lot of money, change their editorial and make sure there are lots of articles about local Government, we might as well say, "Oh, he does that. We might as well have a municipal newspaper," because we would have to take over their service which, frankly, is quite poor.

Jules Pipe: I would add to that.

Q27   Bob Blackman: I just want to ask one more thing. I think I am right in saying that relatively few local authorities publish a newspaper every fortnight.

Richard Kemp: I think there are seven.

Bob Blackman: So, relatively few do that.

Richard Kemp: One does it weekly and six do it every two weeks.

Q28   Bob Blackman: Perhaps I may ask this of you and Mr Findlay as well: if the reins came off completely and you could publish as often as you wanted, how often would councils publish such an organ, as it were?

Richard Kemp: That is what localism is all about, isn't it? The circumstances you have heard from Hackney are very different from those in Liverpool and those experienced by a town council. If you believe in localism and accept that there is a need and duty on councils to communicate, you must expect them to come up with a communications plan that is right for their area and will include their own publications, special leaflets, websites, blogsites and all the local existing media, paid and unpaid. Therefore, what you should be looking for is a competent communications plan with the public sector. Certainly, this argument has been looked at only in terms of councils. When I look at some of the really poor leaflets from other parts of the public sector that come through my door, I think we would do better for managing all the public sector together. But what is the communications plan between the public sector and our constituents? What you should do is look for the quality of that and not ask us to dictate what should happen in each council area.

Q29   Chair: I am conscious of the time, so we need to keep responses reasonably brief.

Jules Pipe: If the issue about statutory notices was lifted, then I would certainly review whether it was necessary to do it every two weeks, because then it would purely be about the issues raised earlier about whether it was frequent enough for people to recognise that that is the information source, but that would not necessarily have to be every two weeks.

John Findlay: It is simply a matter of capacity. Our councils vary like any other sector. Some are very good and some are not very good at doing it. Those that are good at doing it, which we would encourage, would love to put something out every week or two weeks to inform. We are talking here about simple newsletters or maybe something on a website, e-bulletins and things like that, which could be done very frequently, but there are limits to capacity. I can only reiterate that the key here is about getting maximum information out to communities and then being able to respond to it.

Q30   David Heyes: The Government is looking to use this code of practice to impose a ban on the use of paid lobbyists by councils. Why do councils need to use paid lobbyists?

Richard Kemp: They might in specific circumstances. My council has never used a paid lobbyist, but if for example—I'm just thinking aloud—I were a council near Heathrow, I might have wanted to involve someone from the aircraft or airport industry who knows more about it than I would expect my staff to know. This is not done very often. We can see from the Government's own figures—I cannot remember now what they are—that this is another sledgehammer to crack a nut. Sometimes you might need very specialist knowledge for some things.

Jules Pipe: I totally agree with Richard. We have never used them ourselves, but I think that would be an example where it was legitimate.

Q31   David Heyes: Is that John Findlay's view?

John Findlay: Our councils do not use lobbyists; they cannot afford to use them. It is important to distinguish between lobbyists and specialists. Whether it is a small parish council or town council, if a new housing estate is proposed, they may well get somebody in to look at the transport, housing or retail shopping implications as part of the case, but that is a very different matter. When we talk here about lobbyists, we are talking about people who are commissioned to present a case on a paid basis for a public authority.

Q32   David Heyes: But is the suggested wording in the code of practice clear enough for you to be able to make that distinction when you make your decision?

John Findlay: Yes.

Q33   David Heyes: To push it further, is the code of practice the right place to seek this kind of control over lobbying?

John Findlay: If I may comment first, in principle I agree with it. I admit that the bit about lobbying in the proposed code sits uncomfortably. It is a valid issue but I am not sure it is about local authority publicity. It might be better addressed in a separate setting.

Q34   David Heyes: Do your colleagues have a view on that?

Richard Kemp: Lobbying is something councils do all the time. I am sure everyone who is or has been a Minister is accustomed to people saying that they are not given enough money and asking about this or that law. It is what we do. Frankly, this has been cobbled together. It was an idea about newspapers and it was thought that perhaps a few more things should be put in. This is not a coherent document. I find it very hard to take the document seriously, to be honest. I have tried to keep a straight face, particularly with the Chair's opening question.

Q35   Chair: Can you give any example at all of the existing code being enforced in any way?

Jules Pipe: That would require someone to complain to the district auditor and the latter intervening. No, I am not aware of an example where that has happened.

Richard Kemp: By and large, we do what is required by local circumstances. We get on with it. I have never seen a complaint come in.

Jules Pipe: The question I would ask of the Ministers behind this is: if we abide by all the rest of the points in the code of conduct, why is the restriction on frequency necessary?

Q36   Clive Efford: I am lucky to get in Greenwich Time once a year and it is published every week, so there is a restriction there that is a self-denying ordinance by my colleagues on the council. Are we talking about local newspapers or information sheets?

Jules Pipe: To my mind, they should be local information sheets. I do think they do effectively compete. Even if they carry all the rest of it, I do not think they are responsible for the demise of local newspapers. That aside, I do not think they should even look like they are doing so and carrying that extra information.

Q37   Chair: But Hackney Today does look a bit like a newspaper.

Jules Pipe: It is a newspaper in style; it is printed on newsprint admittedly, but it does not carry all those things you would expect to see in a local newspaper, from local sport to TV listings to classified ads. None of those things are in there and never have been.

Q38   Chair: So, it is the content rather than the appearance that you believe distinguishes it?

Jules Pipe: Yes; it is about content.

Chair: Thank you all very much indeed.

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