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

5  Lobbyists

67.  Apart from the provision relating to the frequency with which local authorities may publish newssheets, the other provision of the proposed Code which has attracted significant adverse comment from local authorities was that relating to lobbyists. Clause 26 of the proposed code seeks to prohibit the use of 'private specialists, contractors or consultants ("lobbyists") commissioned with the intention to publish any material designed to influence public officials, MPs, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on any issue'. Clause 27 adds that 'Local authorities should not incur expenditure to have stands or displays at conferences of political parties to issue publicity designed to influence members of political parties to take a particular view on any issue'.

68.  Although recognising the force of the argument that councils should not be asking third parties to speak to Ministers for them, the local authority representative organisations described the provision on lobbyists as unnecessary and inappropriate. The LGA's response to the consultation said:

Clearly it would be inappropriate for councils to spend money on lobbyists when their in-house communications staff could do a similar job, and all authorities should demonstrate that the use of external providers passes a value for money test. Bringing in expertise to work on a specific project—e.g. to campaign for local transport improvements—can result in significant economic benefits for an area, and is often cheaper than employing staff directly.

London Councils' response, after noting the requirement to publish all items of expenditure over £500 online, commented

[...] local authorities and the communities they represent often have a direct interest in informing the development of national policy-making, and ensuring the workability of parliamentary legislation. There are therefore certain occasions when it is entirely appropriate for councils to inform their dialogue with government and other decision makers, and we do not believe that councils should be prevented from hiring external expertise or resources to support this work. The Department would not seek to ban local authorities from contracting out cleaning or catering services to the private sector if this were demonstrably more cost-effective for residents; it is unclear why such a distinction should be made for services which communicate policy. Indeed, for some councils these services would arguably be better suited to external contract, given their close correlation to time-defined political cycles.

69.  The Minister's argument in response to our questioning on this issue essentially rested on two points: first, approaching Ministers through lobbyists was ineffective, if not actively counterproductive; and second, without central intervention there was a risk of an "arms race" where if one authority hired specialists to promote its case for, for example, inward investment or regeneration expenditure, others would feel compelled to do likewise.[82] He also argued that expenditure on lobbyists had "got out of control", suggesting that the amount of money being spent on lobbyists had "grown very dramatically".[83] This contrasted with the view of Cllr Kemp, representing the Local Government Association, that "this is not done very often […] We can see from the Government's own figures […] that this is another sledgehammer to crack a nut."[84]

70.  John Findlay for the NALC questioned whether the use of lobbyists should be addressed at all in a code about local authority publicity, suggesting that "it might be better addressed in a separate setting".[85] Cllr Kemp, answering the same point, described the code as "not […] coherent" and "cobbled together".

71.  The Secretary of State felt it necessary specifically to justify the inclusion of this provision in the code in the introduction to the consultation document. The Code is being promulgated under section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986, which grants power to do so in the following terms:

The Secretary of State may issue one or more codes of recommended practice as regards the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity, and such other related matters as he thinks appropriate, for the guidance of local authorities in determining whether to incur expenditure on publicity.

"Publicity" is defined as "any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public" (section 6(4)). The consultation document says

The provision relating to the prohibition on the use of lobbyists appears in the proposed Code as a consideration that the use of lobbyists is related to the use of publicity, in that it is one of the methods by which authorities might spend taxpayers' money to influence people one way or another in relation to political issues. It is therefore within the general ambit of the code of practice.[86]

We find this argument unconvincing.

72.  Similarly unconvincing were the Minister's answers when pressed on what constituted a "lobbyist". Small local authorities in particular may on occasion need to buy in information and advice about complicated issues on which they need to engage with Government. This provision of the Code would appear to risk preventing them from doing so, because it is not clear what is and is not caught by the terms 'private specialists, contractors or consultants'. The Minister argued that "this is like having a conversation about the difference between a doctor and dentist. Everyone understands the difference between them."[87] We are not, however, convinced that the distinction is so easily drawn. Any specialist brought in by a local authority to advise on a particular technical issue might be invited by that authority to produce material 'designed to influence public officials, MPs, political parties or the Government to take a particular view' on the issue concerned; and we do not consider that it would necessarily be poor value for money for them to do so.

73.  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. It is far from clear that the powers under which the Secretary of State may promulgate the code are sufficient to bring this issue with its remit; such a measure may therefore prove ineffective.

74.  Nonetheless, we agree with the Minister that the hiring of political lobbyists by local authority to contact Ministers and Members of Parliament is a waste of public money. We recommend that different arrangements be made to address the use of political lobbyists by local authorities in a manner that employs the new register of political lobbyists created by the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) in response to the recommendations made by the Public Administration Select Committee in the last Parliament.[88]

75.  We recommend that the Government work with representative organisations for all tiers of local government, with UKPAC and with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Local Public Services Group to develop a Code of Practice for local authorities on the use of lobbyists. Such a Code should ensure close adherence to best practice and detailed attention to cost effectiveness by all councils.

76.  We also consider that any future code of practice addressing the use of 'lobbyists' will need to clarify more precisely than current proposals where the use of consultants to give appropriate short term expert advice (or the employment of short term contractors to fill key technical or professional vacancies) will remain a legitimate course of action for a local authority. This code should also specify that the cost of hiring any such expertise be published, clearly identified, so that councillors and local electors can make a clear choice about whether such expenditure represents good value for money.

82   Qq 119-134. Back

83   Q123 Back

84   Q30 Back

85   Q33 Back

86   Condoc, para 12. Back

87   Q134 Back

88 Back

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Prepared 14 February 2011