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

6  Conclusions

77.  We are satisfied that there is merit in producing a new code of practice on local authority publications. However, some of the changes proposed in the revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity are insufficiently supported by the evidence, and this has resulted in the production of a code which is inconsistent with the Government's declared commitment to localism. Its effect would be to deprive local authorities of the freedom to decide for themselves how to employ cost-effective publicity within a coherent communications strategy to inform residents about services and to engage stakeholders in challenging decision making.

78.  The Newspaper Society appears to have persuaded the Secretary of State that a small number of local authority 'Pravdas' competing with a local commercial newspaper for advertising heralds some kind of seismic shift that poses a significant threat to the commercial survival of their industry. As this inquiry has found, solid evidence about the scale of this impact in support of this assertion remains scant and offers insufficient justification for the constraints on local authorities proposed in the replacement code. Nonetheless, there is concern that if no action is taken then other local authorities will follow the lead taken by the relatively few councils which currently publish frequent newspapers.

79.  Council newssheets are not the most significant cause of the decline in the local independent press and do not represent the sort of threat to free speech implied by the use of terms such as "local authority Pravdas". We accept that, as our colleagues on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee found in their inquiry of last Session, there has been some abuse by a small number of local authorities producing publications which effectively pose as, and compete with, local commercial newspapers. The provisions of the proposed Code which seek to regulate the content and appearance of such publications will, if strictly enforced, in our judgement be adequate to address these isolated examples.

80.  If the Secretary of State continues to believe that publication of any local authority newssheet more frequently than quarterly poses a significant threat to the local press, a much stronger evidence base is required to justify the inclusion of any such restriction in the proposed Code. Although the evidence suggests that a quarterly, or less frequent, publication will usually be sufficient to meet a local authority's need to communicate with residents, we doubt that it is necessary to specify a maximum frequency of publication within the Code. Before setting any replacement for the existing codes before Parliament, we recommend that the Secretary of State follow through a recommendation made by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the last Parliament. That is, that he commission an independent review to assess competition in the local media market and quantify the impact of council publications on commercial entities operating in their locale. [89]

81.  When a new Code is in place it will be important to monitor its effectiveness in stamping out the worst excesses of "propaganda on the rates" . We recognise that it is important to evaluate over time whether the provisions in the code relating to content and appearance will prove sufficient to stem the creeping increase in the appearance of weekly or fortnightly 'Pravdas'. It remains open to Ministers to bring forward a revision to the code at a future date if the problem escalates and/or stronger quantified evidence suggests the issues of local competition are intensifying.

82.  In the meantime, elected representatives or any commercial newspaper concerned about a local authority 'Pravda' should pursue a more assertive enforcement strategy, employing methods available under the current codes, if they believe it essential to rein back the activities of any council currently publishing publicity material of a kind they believe may fall outside the requirements of the existing codes.

83.  At the same time, the local newspaper industry should be encouraged to continue to strengthen their local presence, to improve what they offer local communities through their independent scrutiny and reporting of local government.


84.  We agree with the Minister that hiring lobbyists in order to contact Ministers is not an appropriate use of council funds. We believe however that if hiring a lobbyist is as ineffective as the Minister claims, then local authorities will soon learn that lesson for themselves and stop doing so.

85.  We are not persuaded that a code of practice on publicity is the right place in which to address this issue. There is also scope for damaging confusion about what does and does not constitute a "lobbyist" under the Code. To prevent the excesses described by the Minister whilst allowing sufficient freedom to local authorities to hire in relevant specialist expertise when necessary, we suggest a better approach would entail work by the Government 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 new code of practice to more tightly govern the use of lobbyists by councils.

89   HC (2009-10) 43, para 75. Back

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Prepared 14 February 2011