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


The draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity issued for consultation in September 2010 is intended to give effect to the Coalition Agreement commitment "to impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers." Ministers have variously described these newssheets as "council Pravdas" used for "propaganda on the rates".

Local authorities themselves, on the other hand, point out that they are required to account to local residents for how they take decisions and how they spend council tax revenues; and that they have a duty to communicate effectively enough with local residents that they have adequate awareness of how to access and use local services. They complain that the proposed Code, as currently drafted, will compromise their ability to do so. Of particular concern is the provision of the Code which would restrict local authorities to a maximum of four issues of a newssheet per year, which is designed to prevent such publications competing unfairly with local independent newspapers.

We found that there is little hard evidence to support the view of the commercial newspaper industry that council publications are, to any significant extent, competing unfairly with independent newspapers at present, though there is concern that such competition may escalate in future. We endorse the recommendation of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the last Parliament that the Government commission an independent inquiry to assess competition in the local media market and quantify the impact of council publications on commercial entities operating in their locale.

The Code contains provisions which are intended to prevent local authorities from publishing newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content; restricting them to material that is directly related to the business, service or amenities of the authority concerned or other local service providers; and requiring them to be clearly marked as published by a local authority.

We believe that, if properly enforced, the provisions in the proposed Code relating to cost effectiveness, content and appearance are sufficient to deal with the excesses of certain council papers, which are in any case confined to only a very few examples. We consider that a local authority's needs to communicate information to residents would usually be satisfied by no more than quarterly publication, in line with the principle of cost effectiveness contained within the Code. We have doubts, however, about the need to specify a maximum frequency of publication within the Code, especially in the context of the Government's professed commitment to greater 'localism' .

We recommend that the Government review the publication requirements for statutory notices, with a view to making them more cost-effective and better able to take advantage of new means of publication such as the Internet.

We also consider the provision of the proposed Code which sets out to prevent local authorities from hiring 'lobbyists'. We are persuaded that the issue of the use of public money on political lobbying is an important one which central government needs to address. However, we are not persuaded that a code of practice on local authority publicity is the correct tool by which to apply constraints upon such activity. We recommend instead that the Government should work with stakeholders to develop guidance on the use of lobbyists sufficient to enable close adherence to best practice and detailed attention to cost effectiveness by all councils.

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Prepared 14 February 2011