Local Authority Publicity

Schedule 15 – in the House of Commons at 12:26 am on 20th July 1988.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 12:26 am, 20th July 1988

I beg to move, That the draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, which was laid before this House on 30th June 1988, be approved. Section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986 provides for the Secretary of State to issue 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. Local authorities are required by section 4, as amended by section 27 of the Local Government Act 1988, to have regard to the provisions of any such code in coming to any decision on publicity.

The 1986 Act requires that before issuing a code the Secretary of State shall consult local authority associations and any local authority with which consultation appears desirable. It provides also that a draft of the code shall be laid before each House of Parliament for approval.

Full and extensive consultation has taken place over the past two years with the local authority associations and a number of other bodies concerned. Those consultations, which have included meetings between Ministers and members of associations, have considered in detail a succession of drafts of the code. This history of consultation has demonstrated the extent to which we have endeavoured to take local authorities with us on the drafting of the code and our willingness, where appropriate, to make amendments designed to allay their concerns.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

After all the consultations, have any of the local authority associations been persuaded that the code should exist at all?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The local authority associations have had relatively few quibbles about the contents of the code in its latest draft, but it is right to say that local authorities wish to carry on spending money on publicity without any restraint. That is a regrettable state of affairs.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Will the Minister confirm that the associations of local authorities represent all parties? It is the united view of all parties in local government that there should be no code from the Government, and that they should be allowed to keep their own house in order, without the Government, whether Conservative, Labour, Liberal or other party, yet again interfering.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make a speech during the debate if he wants to do so. Many people in local government consider that, because of the irresponsible actions of a relatively small minority of councils, we must take some action against excesses. The Government are determined to ensure that there is responsible behaviour in local government in the same way as we have for national government with a code of recommended practice for publicity.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

The Minister brings national government into the debate. What does local government think about the excesses of Mr. Ingham and his cohort of 140 press officers?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to deploy his arguments later. There is no doubt that there has been a lot of abuse of budgets, especially by some Labour-controlled local authorities.

Photo of Mr Barry Field Mr Barry Field , Isle of Wight

My hon. Friend will recall that when the clause was amended in Committee, I made representations to him about the subsidy that a number of Left-wing authorities were providing for literature. They were subsidising a monopoly which favoured the co-operative movement. The London Labour party receives a substantial subsidy every year from the co-operative movement. There is no mention in the code of conduct of the practices to which I drew my hon. Friend's attention. Unlike the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I believe that the representations have by no means been unanimously against the code. There is considerable concern about these practices, and this code does nothing to prevent them.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. That is enough of an intervention.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The fact that my hon. Friend thinks that the code does not go far enough. and some Opposition Members believe that it goes too far, is perhaps a sign that we have got it about right.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I shall give way once more. Having regard to the hour, it is only fair that I should be reasonably brief so that others can participate if they wish, and if they do not we can all go home.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

Why do the Government always talk about the cost of political publicity, when at any time of the day I can watch television publicity on the privatisation of the steel industry, the sale of council houses and so on, and no one questions it? Why should local authorities not defend their services and tell the people exactly what is happening?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The Government lay down conventions on publicity and advertising for themselves. Local authorities should comply with similar conventions on their publicity and advertising. That is all we are asking. We are being perfectly reasonable about it.

The introduction to the code explains its status and scope. I draw particular attention to paragraph 5. This explains that the code is concerned, not with the statutory ban on party political publicity, but rather with all publicity that local authorities are empowered to issue. It remains self-evident that observance of the principles of good practice set out in the code would ensure that a local authority did not contravene that prohibition.

The code is not a series of rules and regulations to which local authorities must adhere in all cases. On the contrary, the code sets out principles of good practice to act as a benchmark against which authorities must judge their publicity proposals. In each case they will need to consider whether the publicity that they propose to issue is in keeping with the principles set out in the code. If it is not, they will need to consider whether special circumstances exist which justify departure from the code.

The introduction to the code also acknowledges the vital role that local authority publicity has to play in the interests of ensuring local accountability. It welcomes good, effective publicity, aimed at improving public awareness of a council's activities. It explains that the purpose of the code is to set out principles of good practice which will ensure that local authority publicity decisions are properly made.

I draw attention to paragraph 8 in the introduction to the code. This paragraph, together with paragraph 43, explains that the code will not affect the ability of local authorities to assist charities and voluntary organisations which need to issue publicity as part of their task. Local authorities are, however, called upon, in giving such assistance, to take into account the principles contained in the code. To the extent appropriate, local authorities should incorporate the relevant principles in any published guidance for applicants for grants, and make observance of that guidance a condition of the grant. Where appropriate, local authorities should monitor the observance of the guidance. The extent to which any such monitoring is necessary must remain a matter for the local authority concerned, but, in the Government's view, prior vetting of all publicity by assisted voluntary organisations would be unnecessary.

The main body of the code is divided into nine sections. They deal with the following: the subject matter of local authority publicity; its cost, content, style and dissemination; particular considerations to be taken into account with general advertising and recruitment advertising; publicity about members of the authority; the timing of publicity and assistance given to others for publicity.

I shall not take up the time of the House by giving a detailed summary of each of those sections. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members who are interested will have familiarised themselves with them. However, some provisions merit particular mention, because history has proved that some authorities—I stress "some"—have failed to observe the accepted conventions which traditionally have governed publicity issued at public expense.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The hon. Gentleman must wait for examples. He will probably hear plenty during the debate.

No one can deny the onslaught of political propaganda in some areas. I have in mind material such as publicity whose cost is wholly disproportionate to its purpose and which benefits relatively few people. That is dealt with in paragraphs 6 and 10 of the draft code.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

I have a particular problem in one of the local authorities in my constituency, Middlesbrough borough council. Every month it brings out a little magazine called 'Middlesbrough News". This month, the first two pages of "Middlesbrough News" carry a long article and a glamorous photograph of the Labour leader of the council holding a huge petition against the poll tax which he proposes to take to No. 10 Downing street. The article says that Middlesbrough borough council is opposed to the introduction of the poll tax for 95 reasons. It is the most blatant piece of political propaganda. How will the code——

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

It is an intervention, and the point of it is to ask how the code of practice will affect such publications.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I refer my hon. Friend to paragraphs 11 to 19 of the code, which set out matters relating to style and content. Paragraph 13, in particular, deals with publicity being used to comment on or respond to the policies and proposals of the Government. I hope that a debate will develop in different local authorities, and that if authorities put forward proposals that contravene the code they will be hauled over the coals locally and be given adverse publicity because they have behaved unreasonably. That is exactly what would happen to the Government if they were in breach of their conventions on publicity.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

How will the code stop Sheffield issuing a newspaper called the "City of Sheffield News" at a cost of £100,000 to the ratepayers? In effect, it is a broadsheet issued on behalf of the Labour party and consists of articles knocking the Government. How will the code stop that?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The code will not stop all council newspapers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Some of my hon. Friends are disappointed about that. In parts of the country there are some quite good, informative, factual, objective council newspapers, many of which are produced by Conservative-controlled authorities. I know what my hon. Friend has to put up with in Sheffield, and I hope that Sheffield city council, like other city councils, will comply with the code of practice.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The code deals with publicity on political or otherwise sensitive matters, which is highly subjective, often inaccurate and relies on slogans to make its point. A partisan political attack on the views of others is not an adequate means of disseminating information; nor is it a justifiable use of ratepayers' money.

Photo of Mr Spencer Batiste Mr Spencer Batiste , Elmet

In view of the comment from a sedentary position of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) that he will never obey this code of practice in Sheffield, will my hon. Friend say whether a council that disregards this guidance will be liable to surcharge?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

It will be for the district auditor to take into account this code and whether the council decides either to comply with or to be in breach of it. The mere fact that a council does not comply with every part of the code will not automatically result in a surcharge. That will depend on whether it behaves reasonably and approaches the matter in a sensible way.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

Sheffield city council and other local authorities have always abided by the law.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) says, "Rubbish!" I am saying that if there is a bad law, one challenges it. If one does not do so, there is dictatorship.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

Sheffield city council is notorious for over-spending and irresponsibility. Often, it has not been slow to pull the wool over the eyes of its local citizenry by presenting biased comments, particularly in relation to Government legislation. It has tried desperately to get around Government legislation, particularly that relating to compulsory competitive tendering, and so on.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am answering the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie). I shall give way to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) in a moment.

The hon. Member for Heeley may or may not be influential in Sheffield city council. I suggest that he, as a Member of the House, ought to impress on his local council the desirability of complying with the law.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Will the Minister move away from his obsession with attacking councils that are trying to maintain a decent level of service for the people whom they were elected to represent, and turn his attention to Westminster city council and its gift of several million pounds to property developers in London, and examine the case for bringing surcharges and criminal charges against Westminster officers and councillors for their sale of cemeteries?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

That matter has precious little to do with the subject of this debate. I speak from recollection, but I believe that Islington's district auditor had much to say about the behaviour of certain Islington councillors. It is right to say that district auditors do not hold party political views, but act on behalf of ratepayers in any district council area, be it under Conservative or Labour control.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Will the Minister note that the Islington district auditor is pursuing the councillors there because they were against rate capping and were trying to protect services for the people of Islington? There is no suggestion of any Islington councillors selling public property at low prices to property speculators. In Westminster, we are having to deal with a wholly different form of corruption in local government. That is what the Minister should be examining—not pursuing councillors who are attempting to protect services for the poorest people in many of the poorest boroughs of this country.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

It is typical of the hon. Gentleman that he wants one law for his friends in Islington and a different law for everybody else. Publicity distributed unsolicited to vulnerable sections of the community and containing inaccurate and scaremongering claims and allegations—for example, on the social services reforms—is covered by paragraph 22 of the draft code.

Taken together, the principle of good practice set out in the code provides an essential and comprehensive yardstick against which local authorities should judge their publicity proposals. We intend that as soon as parliamentary approval is forthcoming the code will be brought into effect by issuing it under cover of a circular to local authorities.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

I have read carefully through the code of recommended practice, but I cannot find anywhere guidance in respect of town meetings. Last Thursday, I and the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) addressed a town meeting in Lewisham on the subject of the community charge. Part of the way through, the Labour mayor, who was chairing the meeting, refused me permission to reply to points put by the hon. Member for Deptford. I was on the platform at the invitation of the Conservative group. The meeting then broke up in disorder. Is it intended that town meetings, if they are to be held, should be held on a balanced basis, with a neutral chairman, and not at the expense of ratepayers' money as Labour party meetings?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

The code does not deal with the point made by my hon. Friend. As he will know, the wider issue of the conduct of local authorities was looked into by the Widdicombe committee. The Widdicombe report has been issued and the Government will shortly make their response to it. The point made by my hon. Friend is just another example of the irresponsible and biased way in which some Labour councillors behave.

So that some of my hon. Friends will have an opportunity to give the House some examples of the abuses that have been taking place, I shall stop now and commend the code to the House.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton 12:45 am, 20th July 1988

The hour may be late but the business is important because the code of recommended practice submitted by the Minister prompts some key points that should be considered. The code will apply to publicity by local authorities which is legal but which is not appropriate or desirable in the view of the Ministers. Therefore, we are again giving additional powers to the Ministers if they feel that local authorities are not acting in accordance with the code.

The Minister said that he is prepared to allow others to submit examples but he has failed to produce a single example of publicity that the code will affect and has dismissed examples given by others.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with what has happened recently. The latest edition of Labour Party News, the official Labour party publication mailed to all members of the party, includes an advertisement for Manchester city council which says that the council is countering the effects of mass unemployment and working to develop a common front on issues such as the job training scheme. The cost of that half page advertisement, according to the published rates of Labour Party News, would be £500 plus £75 value added tax. That is the sort of subsidy going from the ratepayers to the Labour party which the code will outlaw.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

That is not covered by the code. That advertisement could be put in any newspaper and it would be legal. What is wrong with advertising in a circular that goes around the areas? The Minister is clutching at straws because of the challenge that has been thrown out.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

I want to draw attention to the fact that the draft code has been rewritten six times because the Conservative party has not had an opportunity to get the matter right. It has taken six attempts to bring the code before the House.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

The code is jointly opposed by all local authority associations, irrespective of party. The Government have chosen to ignore a voluntary code agreed by local government as a whole, although the Minister has suggested that there is a voluntary code for central Government. Why can there not be a voluntary code for local government? That is one of the questions that the Minister has to address.

In seeking parliamentary approval for the draft code of practice the Government are attempting to complete the ring of restrictions placed on local authorities and their publicity since the Widdicombe report in 1985. Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986, which is now strengthened by the Local Government Act 1988, outlaws "political publicity" on what local authority associations believe to be an excessively broad definition of what constitutes political publicity. Section 3 places restrictions on local authorities' use of existing powers to issue publicity. In writing into statute a code of practice on the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity, the Government rejected Widdicombe's recommendation that such matters should be left to self-regulation by local government for local government.

The Minister should tell us why the Government have rejected Widdicombe's recommendation that local authorities should be self-regulating. The Widdicom.be report stated: We believe that tone and presentation is important, but it would undoubtedly be best if it were the subject of self-regulation, which is what the Minister has suggested should apply for central Government. The report also stated: it would be best, in our view, if this could be done by self-regulation within local government, or through the agency of the local authority Associations". All the local authority associations—the Association of' Metropolitan Authorities; the Association of County Councils; the Association of District Councils; the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; the London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities—have worked together on this issue from the start. They have shown that there is unanimity in local government about the principle of self-regulation and that they can produce and get widespread agreement for a voluntary code of practice.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

A draft of the voluntary code of practice was produced and received widespread approval and endorsement from many authorities and from the professional. bodies involved. Authorities expressing support in principle for the voluntary code included the full spectrum of political views and all types of local authorities, from Liverpool to the Corporation of the City of London. There was a wide area of agreement on the practice of self-regulation.

In passing the Local Government Act 1988, Parliament has now decided that the code should be statutory. There has been a long history of discussions at official and ministerial level about the code of practice, and between the local authority associations, the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office. The Minister has referred to the consultations that have taken place. There have been three meetings on the code of practice with the Ministers responsible for local government. On each occasion—this is a measure of the importance which the Department of the Environment has attached to those meetings—different Ministers attended. In other words, there was no consistency from the Department of the Environment in the meetings that it held with the local authority association.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Following the last meeting on 8 June, only two changes of substance have been made to the draft code that was published in November 1987.

The further restrictions on local authority publicity should be contrasted with the growth in scale and degree of controversy of much central Government advertising.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

There are those who think—[HON. MEMBERS: "Give way]—that that has strayed well beyond the guidelines of the Cabinet Office—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. I want to hear what is being said. There is too much noise from both sides of the House. [Interruption.] Order. I said that there is too much noise from both sides of the House. We want to hear what is being said. Mr. O'Brien.

Photo of Mr Spencer Batiste Mr Spencer Batiste , Elmet

On a point of order, My Deputy Speaker. Is it not a convention of the House that Front Bench spokesmen give way a reasonable number of times? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary allowed Opposition Members to intervene in his speech. Is it not provocative and an abuse of the procedures of the House that the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) should plough through a written speech without giving way?

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

That is a matter for the hon. Member who has the Floor at the time. It is difficult to hear what is being said in this short debate, and I hope that the remainder of the debate will be heard in silence.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

If the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) wishes to contribute to the debate, he has only to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should attend Mr. Deputy Speaker's office for some instruction on the code of practice that applies in the House. He is obviously not aware of it.

In the introduction to the code, the section on why there should be a code was largely redrafted in the course of a series of meetings with local authority associations. It now gives a more positive picture of the importance of good and effective publicity by local authorities. It recognises especially the political nature of local government. The fourth paragraph makes that point——

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Note should be taken of the following section of the fourth paragraph of the introduction. I make the point for the benefit of Conservative Members who have little interest in local government. The principles take account of the fact that some local authority publicity will deal with issues that are controversial because of particular local circumstances, or because of a difference of view between political parties locally or nationally. The principles do not prohibit the publication of information on politically sensitive or controversial issues, nor stifle public debate. That is the claim.Those two sentences are lifted from the local authority association's initial proposals for a code. But does the code measure up to the claim——

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

Will my hon. Friend expose the hypocrisy of Conservative Members? The Government have used massive resources in planting television programmes and putting over their policies. This has not been acceptable to the masses. Local authorities have been deprived of their traditional right to inform the public of their benefits and rights. That right is one of the best traditions of local government.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Conservative Members have asked me to give way, and I gave way to my hon. Friend, who made a valuable contribution to the debate. He has made it clear that local government publicity is for the benefit of the local electorate.

It is claimed in paragraph 5 that the code is not concerned with the interpretation of section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986. That section seeks to prohibit party political publicity. The code will, in the view of the local authority associations——

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

—extend the prohibitions of the Act in practice. It should be remembered that the code is concerned with all the other publicity which a local authority may publish.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I sit on the Opposition Benches, will the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) allow me to intervene?

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

The hon. Gentleman would not qualify to sit on the Opposition Benches.

It should be remembered that the code is concerned with all other publicity that a local authority may publish, including legal publicity. In practice, it will operate to prohibit such publicity.

Paragraph 4 of the code of recommended practice contains restrictive provisions. The Act provides that local authorities may publish information relating to their function. Paragraph 4(iii) says: local authorities should issue publicity only on matters that are directly relevant to their own functions.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) is patient, I will give way.

In discussions with officials, the associations were told that the intention is to control publicity that is legal under the Act but not appropriate in the view of Ministers.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam , Blaydon

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is in order for the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) to read a newspaper in the Chamber? I think that it is not.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) is seeking to intervene. I think that he will do so in a moment.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Will the restriction on publicity mean that a proposal by British Rail to close a railway station or line, a proposal by the Post Office to close a village post office or a proposal by a regional health authority to close a hospital will be prohibited under the code? We have been discussing the final stages of the poll tax Bill. Will local authorities be able to publish information about how the poll tax will affect the people they represent? The restriction under the code will prevent people being made aware of how the poll tax will affect the disabled, the chronically sick and the poor.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I thought that my time would never come.

I have here the City of Sheffield News, which costs £100,000 to publish. According to my hon. Friend the Minister, this legislation does not prevent it being published. The top of page 3 mentions the community charge. The bottom of the page states: The Beginner's Guide to the Poll Tax (illustrated) is available from the communications unit at the Town Hall" in Sheffield. Such articles bring local government into disrepute and are the reason for this code of practice.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

The hon. Member makes the point that I was seeking to make. Will publicity giving information to the people of Sheffield be prevented by the code of practice? Sheffield council wishes to advise its ratepayers and council house tenants about what is happening in Sheffield. I assume that the Minister will say that the Government do not intend to stop local authorities issuing information in such circumstances. The inclusion of paragraph 4 (iii) means that local authorities will be inhibited from doing so, especially when there is not unanimity in a local authority.

Paragraph 4 refers only to public authorities of various types. Presumably it would not apply to publicity by British Telecom, British Gas or other services in local authority areas.

The code should not attempt to inhibit local authorities' legitimate role as the voice of the communities they serve. Paragraph 4 provides reasons enough for Parliament not to approve the code. I draw Conservative Members' attention to it.

Although patronising, paragraphs 5 to 10 are now acceptable to local authorities, but they perhaps provide an opportunity to contrast the modest extent and cost of local authority publicity advertising with the massive expansion of central Government advertising, particularly on matters of political controversy, on the most expensive medium—television. Hon. Members must have witnessed the expense to which the Government have gone in the sale of public utilities and the amount they have spent to prevail on their supporters to buy them. The same will happen again with the privatisation of water.

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley

The hon. Gentleman has just said that the Government are trying to prevail on their supporters to buy shares in public utilities. Will he explain why the chief Labour whip on Derbyshire county council bought two lots of British Telecom shares?

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman asks whoever it was who bought the shares. I cannot explain that. But I say that the real purpose behind the sale of national assets is to line the pockets of Conservative Members' supporters.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Like paragraph 15, paragraph 19 has been amended following meetings with the Minister. It now acknowledges that publicity campaigns about the authority's policies in relation to that function and the reasons for them can be appropriate.

As for dissemination, the Government have not responded to the points made by local authority associations that positive reference should be made in paragraph 21 to the particular needs of ethnic minority communities whose first language is not English, and that material should be provided in other languages as appropriate to the communities served by local authorities——

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you ask the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) to stop reading the newspaper?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The reading of a newspaper is welcome only if it is relevant to the debate. I am referring to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick). The reading of a newspaper in the Chamber is not welcome unless the hon. Gentleman expects to speak and refer to it.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike).

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

Does my hon. Friend realise that when I and my hon. Friends have written to the Minister and his colleagues about the poll tax legislation they have usually sent us back not one but four or five copies of their booklet about it? I now have 227 spare copies on my desk. And most of the contents are untrue, anyway.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

I hope that the Minister has taken note of that.

The Minister said that it was not desirable to include a positive suggestion for good practice such as the one I mentioned for assisting ethnic minority groups. What then is the purpose of a code of practice—merely to inhibit the presentation of information?

In the context of recruitment advertising, the Widdicombe committee accepted that people might be employed by councils as political assistants to politicians. The most cost-effective way to recruit staff such as that suggested by Widdicombe is through party political publications. A blanket prohibition on the use of party political publications for recruitment and advertising is not desirable.

Paragraphs 39 to 42 of the report suggest a simple provision. It is that local authorities should not issue publicity that simply reports the views of individual members or their activities except when they are acting in an official capacity. That is how I sum up those four paragraphs. The future ability of council press officers to deal professionally with press and other media people who, quite understandably, are constantly seeking statements and quotes from identifiable people—in this case councillors—must be contrasted with the freedom of central Government press officers, especially in No. 10 and in Government Departments, to personalise even the most political, controversial statements by Ministers. There must be some parity between local and central government on this issue. Against that background I ask the House to reject the order.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South 1:11 am, 20th July 1988

I came to the debate expecting to hear some encouraging news from the Government. I have read the guidance notes with which we have been provided and find them the most wet and inadequate guidelines that I have ever seen. I listened to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) who opposes the guidelines and who spoke at enormous length. I have searched to find out why he opposes them but can find no extra powers or sanctions. It is made clear in the first paragraph of the notes that they are only for guidance. That means that a local authority could happily carry on doing the things that I think all my hon. Friends have complained about.

When we look through the code of practice we see that some types of advertising are intrusive and we are told that advertising should be cost effective. That does not tell us much that we do not already know. Let us have a look at what is happening in Cleveland. Today, Cleveland county council appointed Vincent Hanna to operate its public relations. It already has a large public relations department which is inadequate to the task of whitewashing the county in the light of the Butler-Sloss inquiry. It will not tackle the real issues raised in the learned judge's report, but will seek to do a nice cover-up job and get Mr. Bishop and the other members of the social services department out with a nice clean bill of health. The council has had to go outside the county to get a nice glitzy outfit from London to come to Cleveland to manage our PR because it is not prepared to address the real issues.

Let us look at the other complaints by my hon. Friends about local authority publicity. A book list has been provided for lesbians by Lambeth borough council so that lesbians will have a guide to good reading. What has that to do with the ratepayers of Lambeth or anywhere else? Why should such a list be provided by a local authority? In the code of practice I found one point about not promoting immorality. That is weak and, as I have said, the code of practice is only for guidance.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Can my hon. Friend tell me what sanctions are available to people who feel that somehow a council has gone wrong? To whom do such people appeal and what sanctions and fines, if any, can be imposed?

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

We have enacted some legislation banning party political propaganda, but it does not cover the range of subjects about which local authorities can promote their political views.

Each month "Middlesbrough News" pumps out Labour party propaganda and its distributors make sure that it goes through every door in the city. That paper also ensures that every piece of Government legislation, which is designed to benefit Middlesbrough, such as the inner urban programme and the urban development corporation, is carefully disguised as an achievement of the Labour council. There is no redress against such action.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Government have already passed legislation to ensure that it is illegal for certain literature to influence support for political parties. The hon. Gentleman cannot complain about such literature when the remedy lies with him or someone else who can make a complaint to the courts. If that complaint were upheld, the hon. Gentleman's arguments would be more credible.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

It depends whether the literature is specifically party political, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware from some of the publications that are pushed out in Bermondsey that that is not always the case.

I asked my hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions and I shall conclude by asking one of the Opposition. Would they object if the Government started to take half-page advertisements in "Conservative Newsline"?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington 1:16 am, 20th July 1988

I speak with rather more information and experience than some hon. Members as I was a Lambeth council press officer. I believe that it would help our debate if hon. Members were more honest, because there is no doubt that the intention of the code is to stop and block some of the successful, and legal, publicity campaigns that Labour authorities have run in the past. One such campaign was that run by the Greater London council about what its abolition would mean. The code means to stop such campaigns.

Conservative Members strike a moral attitude about spending public money for party political purposes, but we would take them more seriously if they spoke with similar vehemence about the way in which the Government have spent public money for such purposes. Consider the millions of pounds that were spent promoting the Telecom flotation and other privatisation ventures. The Scottish Office is just about to spend a huge amount on promoting Government activities in Scotland. We could point to the advertising campaign on the poll tax proposals.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

That is another example.

If all those examples do not amount to spending public money for party political purposes, I do not know what does. As my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) has said, all we ask for is parity between national and local practice in this matter. If it is well and good for the Scottish Office to promote its activities by using advertising agencies, why is it wrong for local authorities to follow a parallel practice?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government have deliberately given an awful lot of business to particular advertising agencies, which seem to have extremely close relationships with the Tory party, and taken work away from the well-qualified and experienced staff employed by the Central Office of Information? Does my hon. Friend agree that that might have happened because the professional standards of the COI were being undermined by the blatantly party-political nature of the Ministry of Defence advertisements, the 1992 Euro-market advertisements and the publicity that has been produced, at great expense, to con people into believing that there is genuine training for our young people when, in reality, such training is merely workfare?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. The Government nationally have spent millions of pounds of public money for party political purposes. There is nothing in this code to deal with that.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

Does the hon. Lady recognise the difference between the Government putting out information about legislation, about which, therefore, the public need information, and political campaigns designed to influence people's opinions, which is what the GLC sought to do when the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was in office? I draw her attention to page 258 of "If Voting Changed Anything They'd Abolish It", written by the hon. Gentleman, which states: We started working with CND and switched the Government funds we received for war preparations"— he means civil defence— into the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament. That is a clear sign of the misuse of public money to sway political opinion. That is not information.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Were not the millions of pounds of public money spent on advertising the Telecom flotation used to influence the country to become a nation of small shareholders for a clear political purpose? That was an unprecedented use of public money for privatisation. Some of the speeches and interventions of Conservative Members are sheer hypocrisy.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

Does the hon. Lady accept that in advertising the privatisation of British Telecom the Government had a duty to the taxpayers to get the best possible return for the sale of that asset?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The Government might have served taxpayers better not by spending millions of pounds with advertising agencies, but by promoting the shares in the normal way.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam , Blaydon

Does my hon. Friend accept that the advertising of British Telecom was in all senses against all the tenets and codes of the advertising industry and that all the consumers of BT have suffered? Does she agree that the propaganda put out by the Conservative Government in those advertisements had nothing to do with consumers and everything to do with the benefit of those who sought to make a capital gain from that advantage?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I have established that the speeches of Conservative Members are riddled with hypocrisy and that the Government set the record for spending public money for party political purposes.

A Government who have the confidence that their policies can take the cold light of fact should not be frightened of local authority publicity about their policies. If Conservative Members cannot win by fair means, they wish to win by foul. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) complained that people were not willing to listen to him at public meetings and asked the Minister for legislation to stop him being shouted down. The remedy is to make better, more effective and more compelling speeches. If the Government cannot win public debate, they seek to shackle their opponents, and this is an example of that.

Photo of Mr Spencer Batiste Mr Spencer Batiste , Elmet

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having the courage to give way—something which was conspicuously absent from her Front-Bench colleague.

Does the hon. Lady accept that, in principle, there should be restrictions, either in convention or in statute, on any sort of publicity by local authorities?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Yes, of course. As a local authority press officer, I worked under the terms of section 6 of the Local Government Act 1986, which is against any communication designed to affect public support for a political party. That is fair and that is the law. A great deal said by Conservative Members has been nonsense, because the law is already clear about prohibiting party political publicity. Every press release, every advertisement, and every note to editors that I put out when I worked for local authorities—all local authority press officers work in the same way—was cleared by lawyers to ensure that it did not fall foul of the law. The 1986 Act is clear and all local authorities scrupulously adhere to it.

We have a Government who, if they cannot win by fair and open means in debate, wish to win by foul. This code is partisan in origin, it will be partisan in interpretation, and it is only too clearly targeted not at abuses of press and publicity, but at the effective light that some Labour authorities have shed on the real effects of Tory policies. If Conservative Members were proud of those policies and felt that they could be defended, they would have nothing to fear from local authority publicity within the terms of the 1986 Act.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne 1:26 am, 20th July 1988

As I was in local government for 11 years before coming to the House, I deeply regret that this code of conduct has become necessary. It is yet another example of central Government being forced to act by the antics of a few. When that happens, the whole of local government suffers because the militant few in some councils are not prepared to abide by the traditional approaches that have served local government so well.

Opposition Members were earlier calling for examples, and I have some splendid news for them—I have quite a few. We must examine why the code has become necessary. The issues of great concern were dealt with in the Local Government Act 1986, which tackled blatant party political propaganda support of one particular party, on the rates. I shall highlight two further concerns. First, there is the misuse of public money—an unacceptable use of money for purposes which should not be allowed in local government—and, secondly, there is a waste of public money—spending too much or spending it badly. Together they undermine local democracy and divert money from essential services.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the code identifies nine different misuses of public money over and above the promotion of a political party, four of which especially worry me. The first is the spending of ratepayers' money to publicise an issue which has nothing to do with that local authority. I shall cite the example of Hackney, which has a 14-page booklet entitled, "Hackney Council and the Police—Fact and Fiction". Hackney is not a police authority, and the Metropolitan police has no links with Hackney borough council. An examination of the booklet shows that it has nothing much to do with the policing of Hackney, but it has everything to do with a campaign to politicise the Metropolitan police.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I must set the record straight. Hackney is a borough in which law and order is a matter of concern for all of its citizens, and the council has a locus in these matters, gives advice and information and has a police committee. To say that policing has nothing to do with Hackney is both a disgrace and arrant nonsense.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

I refer the hon. Lady to the law of the land. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, not the Hackney borough council, is the police authority.

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North

My hon. Friend is talking about how councils waste ratepayers' money by dealing with national issues. Norwich city council is always wasting ratepayers' money, and takes up council time by debating national issues that have nothing to do with local government. That is just another example to back up what my hon. Friend says.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

I am grateful for that example.

The second of the examples of misuse of money—

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

The hon. Gentleman has chosen a poor example, because the Home Secretary is constantly pushing police to have closer working relations with local authorities in London. In those circumstances, is it not highly appropriate that the London borough of Hackney, like any other borough, should have a police committee, should express its views on law and order and crime, and should advise its citizens accordingly?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said, because this booklet is basically a campaign to politicise the Metropolitan police.

The second example of the misuse of money about which I am concerned is the use of money for biased recruitment advertisements. Haringey placed advertisements for 11 policy officers who were to report to Labour chairmen of committees. The advertisements said that these policy officers would have to be keenly aware of your responsibilities to your chairs' views at meetings. That is blatantly politically biased.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

My hon. Friend may be aware that Mr. Steve King, a former leader of Haringey council, from 1985 to 1987, said: The Council's publicity section was strengthened and given a clear political brief. A Publicity Coordinating Committee was set up consisting, uniquely, of Councillors, Labour Party representatives, trade unions and the voluntary sector. That quote is from the Labour Briefing of 26 January 1987.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

I thank my hon. Friend for that example.

My third example of the misuse of council funds for publicity is of local authorities that choose to fund publicity for outside bodies that are not connected with the council. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) hinted at this earlier, and I can give a specific example. I have here a leaflet from the Hounslow co-operative funeral service, which sets out the funeral services that it offers and its prices, and on the back it invites one to fill out one's name and address to get its services. That leaflet is paid for, and the small print says so, by the ratepayers of Hounslow borough council. That is not a proper use of ratepayers' money.

My fourth example concerns moral standards. The code says clearly that publicity must not undermine moral standards. However, Lambeth borough council has produced a booklist of "Stories and Poems by and about Lesbian women", and has done so with ratepayers' money. The introduction says: The aim of this list is to introduce the general reader to some of the best Lesbian stories and poetry. I would contend that that is publicity aimed at undermining moral standards.

Photo of Mr Barry Field Mr Barry Field , Isle of Wight

Will my hon. Friend confirm that he was given the pamphlet and that he did not purchase it?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

I confirm that it was given away, at the ratepayers' expense, to those who go to the library. It is a library listing, encouraging people to borrow certain books.

I refer now to the waste of public money by spending too much of other people's money on what is quite legitimate publicity and by undertaking unnecessary publicity to disguise either a grant or a subsidy. There is time only to give a couple of examples at this late hour.

In terms of poor value for money, I accept that publicity is necessary, but I ask hon. Members to consider the situation in Ealing late last year. It was decided to take away a £2,000 contract to have posters put up in the borough. The council chose to spend £16,000 employing somebody who provided a van to do the self-same job. That is legitimate publicity with public money being wasted.

Another example of a disguised subsidy and waste of money occurred in Lewisham last year. The council decided to spend £16,000 advertising jobs in the News on Sunday. That newspaper subsequently failed. It was a rotten place to advertise. There were seven replies for 17 posts. It was perfectly clear that the £16,000 was nothing more than a subsidy and a wrong use of publicity money.

The code is regrettably necessary. Publicity is being used for unacceptable purposes, and other people's money is being wasted by local councillors. It is important to understand that the code is not a blanket ban, despite what we have heard from Opposition Members. It allows local government to publicise services and policies. Interestingly, and contrary to what we have heard from Opposition Members, it allows local authorities to publicise controversial matters. But it states that that sort of publicity must be objective, fair and, above all else, balanced.

Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that his points would carry greater weight if he had found time to mention the most corrupt element among present-day advertising, which is the blurring of the distinction between the state and the Conservative party? I refer to two separate examples. The first is British Steel advertising, which goes out of its way to praise the conduct of the Conservative Government, and the second is the point that in every single 1992 advertisement prominent people appeared as huge direct benefactors of the Conservative party.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

The point that I find absolutely fascinating is that virtually every Opposition intervention has sought to muddy the water by getting away from local government. We have heard no justification of what local government is doing.

Apart from the fact that we are not dealing with a blanket ban, when considering the code of conduct, it is important also to understand that the great majority of local authorities will be unaffected by it, because they have not done, and are not doing, anything to offend against it. The target of the code is clear. The antics of the lunatic few on the Left—those who use publicity to waste other people's money, those who use publicity to undermine values, those who use money to discredit their opponents—are a disgrace.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire , Spelthorne

No, I shall not give way. I wish to make one last point.

The militant few are wrecking local government. The publicity antics of the militant few must stop. They are an absolute scandal.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin , Gateshead East 1:38 am, 20th July 1988

The Government's proposed code of practice, which seeks to govern local authority advertising, is a fine example of double standards. Local authority advertising is to be strictly controlled. We must see this in conjunction with the 1986 Act and the other measures that the Government have taken to try to curb local authorities and their advertising. Local authority advertising is to be controlled at a time when national Government advertising has been allowed without any check or independent control over the propriety of such advertising.

Paragraph 3 of the code makes the point that expenditure on publicity by some local authorities has been significant. Local authority spending on advertising has not increased fourfold in the past four years, as has happened with Government advertising. In answer to a parliamentary question by me it was revealed that, although the Department of Trade and Industry had spent an average of just over £1 million a year in each of the five years between 1979–80 and 1986–87, that figure has shot up to nearly £8 million in 1987–88, and it continues to rise.

The Department of Trade and Industry—the "Department for Enterprise" as the glossy advertisements tell us—is spending £9·4 million on the single European market and £5·6 million on the enterprise initiative campaign. Every time we switch on our television sets we are assailed by the Government's advertisements. At the same time, they are seeking to curb local authority spending.

Photo of Mr Spencer Batiste Mr Spencer Batiste , Elmet

Does the hon. Lady accept that it is vital for the future of jobs and British industry that people are as aware as possible of the opportunities and challenges of 1992 and that the best way of achieving that is to advertise in the media, where it will have most impact? That is not party political.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin , Gateshead East

Not only the Labour party but a wide group believe that Government advertising has become much more party political.

The standards of Government advertising are inadequately controlled. The Minister referred to the Widdicombe conventions. They are nothing more than a voluntary code of practice on which the Government Department doing the advertising has the final word. There is nothing like the control over local authorities that the Government are seeking to introduce via this code.

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley

The hon. Lady has been critical of Government advertising. What did she think of the BP advertisements which appeared in newspapers in 1978, when the Labour Government were busy selling their BP shares because they had to raise money to pay for their overspending?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin , Gateshead East

The hon. Gentleman seems to have had to go back some time to get that example. Such advertisements would not fill people with the repugnance that they feel at the advertisements on television for the social fund, whereby the Government have tried to con people into believing that the social fund gives people opportunities. We know that it makes people borrow at a time of great need and hardship.

It seems that the Government wish to be lord and master over their advertising and also to be lord and master over that of local authorities. The Government are especially keen to do that in those local authorities which, because of democratic elections, have a majority of Labour councillors. The Government's attitude is just part of the trend towards centralisation and authoritarianism. These measures should be strongly resisted, not just by the Opposition parties, but by ail who value freedom and the right of local authorities, democratically elected, to run their affairs within their field of competence. I hope that the opposition to the code and the proposals will be heard loudly inside and outside the House.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire 1:44 am, 20th July 1988

I must admit that when I read the code I had some reservations about some aspects of it. Having heard the Opposition's complaints about it, however, I now have no doubt that we should support it wholeheartedly.

Derbyshire county council provides us with some serious examples of bad practice in this matter. We often hear about what some of the loony Left authorities in London are doing, but we do not hear about what is happening in the rest of the country. Derbyshire county council issued a leaflet entitled "Reforming Schools—the True Facts Behind the Education Bill". It so happens that the leaflet, in the new Labour party colours, was distributed to children in every school throughout the country. I received letters from worried parents about this form of unsolicited propaganda peddling.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

No. A number of hon. Members want to speak.

One parent wrote: Why was the letter delivered to me through my seven year old daughter being given the letter and pamphlet at school without the same even being put in an envelope? Was it intended that the letter and pamphlet should be read by my daughter? Another parent wrote: Frankly, I was disgusted that my son, aged 5, was used to further the socialist ends of the County Council in bringing home this letter"—[Interruption.] I am rather surprised that the Opposition should find this so funny——

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear, even to someone as thick-skinned as me, that he does not propose to give way.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

If the Opposition were really interested in good local government practice, they would find this example offensive, as I do, but Opposition Members only laugh and shout about it. The parent wrote: Frankly, I was disgusted that my son, aged 5, was used to further the socialist ends of the County Council in bringing home this letter and leaflet, both of which give a very biased view of the possible effects of the Government's proposed legislation. The letter and leaflet are nothing short of propaganda, and I feel that it is totally unnecessary to use children in this way. I could quote other letters, but I shall not because of the lack of time.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on a leaflet issued by Wandsworth council, of which the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment was a leader? It was quoted on 10 December 1985 in Standing Committee A: '£5,000 Making your Dream Home Competition. Listed in the boxes below are six home improvement projects that council tenants can undertake if they buy their own homes under the "Right to Buy" scheme. Simply list the improvements in order of popularity by putting "1" against the project you consider to be the most popular, and then numbering down to the least important, at 6.'"—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 10 December 1985; c. 108.] Entrants were asked to send their replies to the "House Sales Contest". What would the hon. Gentleman say if a Labour council was offering £5,000 prizes for such projects? He knows full well that it is absolute nonsense.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

I have not seen the leaflet and I cannot, and do not intend to, comment on it.

I wish to draw to the Minister's attention something that the county council proposes to do in the near future. One of the things that worries me is that, while the code may lay down the lines along which county councils can spend, Derbyshire county council intends to give £50,000 next week to the National Council for Civil Liberties and we do not know what sort of campaign the NCCL will conduct or what sort of leaflets it will issue. We know, however, that 14 fact sheets have been proposed on topics ranging from police questioning to aspects of section 28 of the Local Government Act, the poll tax and equal opportunities.

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley

Does my hon. Friend include in his list of the misuses of ratepayers' money on publicity the investment of £305,000 made by Derbyshire county council from its pension fund in the failed Left-wing newspaper News on Sunday, the slogan of which was No tits but lots of balls"? Is that included in my hon. Friend's list of political spending?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

My hon. Friend knows as well as I do—and this has been confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—that a full day's debate would not give enough time, let alone one this short, to draw out some of the lunacies that we in Derbyshire county have to suffer. We certainly suffer the highest rates.

I am concerned that the code does not go far enough. It may be all right in the short term but we may have to return to it. There is something very wrong in the way that ratepayers' money has been used in the way that it has on many occasions, and without there being any proper recourse or opportunity for questioning it. I know that reference can be made to the district auditor, but on those occasions when I have done so I have been advised that the auditor is not allowed to decide on the political nature of any campaign. He can only rule on its financial aspects and on whether or not they comply with the law. It is difficult to make a case that a particular campaign is out and out political propaganda.

I have reservations about the code, but the way in which the Opposition are complaining about it must mean that the code contains something that is good. Local government needs to achieve a reputation for good conduct and service to the community—not party politics. We only hear about the party political aspects from many local authorities, and I am grateful that the House will be approving the code this evening.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:52 am, 20th July 1988

The premise that local authority publicity should be subject to some control is reasonable, and clearly it is right that local authorities should not abuse the opportunities that they have to make party political points. We have argued that in respect of two Bills over three or four years.

The question tonight is whether this code represents the right way forward. Although we are nearly at the end of this debate, several important points have not been made as clearly as they might. First, all local authority associations, having been consulted, are very clear that they can regulate these matters themselves, and they have asked that that be the case. If those associations—across all parties—believe that they do not need the Government to act, it is an arrogant assertion of responsibility to do so when the Government cannot prove that there is any explicit need.

Secondly, the House has not yet debated the Widdicombe report, nor have the Government made any response to it. The Widdicombe committee made it clear that self-regulation was the best way forward. It would have been better to have so ordered our affairs that we debated the basic principles on the basis of a report commissioned by the Government, rather than dealt with this code first.

Thirdly, the Minister has not made clear the status of the code, because it will not be enforceable in law. It is not something that one will be able to pray in aid in the courts and a breach of which will be deemed illegal. There is nothing illegal in the descriptions given in the code. It concerns itself with matters that are not "appropriate or desirable" in the view of Ministers, and is indicative only. Thus, it is clear that the code is neither fish nor fowl.

Fourthly, last week the Municipal Journal, which is not a party political document, made it very clear in its editorial that the code's wording is a legal minefield. The most obvious example is breach of moral standards. Who is to define them? They are not defined in the code, and there is no indication as to how they will be defined, even if the code is generally enforceable.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who is not in his place, argued that it was wrong for a local authority—and he cited Hackney—to deal with matters that are not directly the council's responsibility. For example, the code will forbid local authorities along the Thames from having any say in whether or not helicopters or helipads will be allowed there, yet they would considerably affect the environment of people living by the Thames. The code would preclude local authorities with an active nuclear power station or one about to be built in their area from being able to comment or inform their constituents and ratepayers about it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

That is not correct. If the hon. Gentleman looks at paragraph 19 of the code he will see why.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Paragraph 4 says: In considering the subject areas in which publicity is to be issued, the following matters will be important … (iii) in areas where central government, another tier of local government, or another public authority have the primary service or policy responsibility, local authorities should issue publicity only on matters that are directly relevant to their own functions. The reality is that nuclear power, heliports, and so on, are not directly relevant to their own functions and would possibly fall outside the code.

My next point—this has been put clearly already—is that it is hypocritical of the Government to say that there will be one law for them but a different law for us. The Government are spending more and more on their own publicity, which is not impartial. The noble Lord Young launched an enterprise initiative. The launch cost £36,000 and the stage was set in blue. That was in support of Government policy. We live in an age where the Government believe that it is sufficient for them to be able to argue their case by spending as much as possible while local councils cannot do anything that the Government think is inappropriate.

Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that it is not just the extent of the Government's expenditure——

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted Business).

The House divided: Ayes 149, Noes 100.

Division No. 439][1.56 am
AYES
Aitken, JonathanCope, Rt Hon John
Alexander, RichardCran, James
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelDavies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Amos, AlanDavis, David (Boothferry)
Arbuthnot, JamesDay, Stephen
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Devlin, Tim
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)Dicks, Terry
Ashby, DavidDouglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Atkins, RobertDover, Den
Atkinson, DavidDurant, Tony
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Fallon, Michael
Baldry, TonyFarr, Sir John
Batiste, SpencerFavell, Tony
Bellingham, HenryFenner, Dame Peggy
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Blackburn, Dr John G.Fishburn, Dudley
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterForman, Nigel
Boscawen, Hon RobertForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Boswell, TimForth, Eric
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaFranks, Cecil
Bowis, JohnGale, Roger
Brazier, JulianGarel-Jones, Tristan
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterGill, Christopher
Burt, AlistairGoodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Butcher, JohnGorman, Mrs Teresa
Butterfill, JohnGrist, Ian
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Hawkins, Christopher
Carrington, MatthewHayes, Jerry
Cash, WilliamHoward, Michael
Channon, Rt Hon PaulHowarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Chapman, SydneyHunt, David (Wirral W)
Chope, ChristopherJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Kirkhope, Timothy
Knapman, RogerSayeed, Jonathan
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)Shaw, David (Dover)
Knowles, MichaelShaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Lang, IanShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lawrence, IvanSims, Roger
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lightbown, DavidSoames, Hon Nicholas
Lilley, PeterSquire, Robin
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Stanbrook, Ivor
Lord, MichaelStern, Michael
Luce, Rt Hon RichardStevens, Lewis
Lyell, Sir NicholasStewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Macfarlane, Sir NeilStewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Maclean, DavidStradling Thomas, Sir John
McLoughlin, PatrickSumberg, David
Malins, HumfreySummerson, Hugo
Mans, KeithTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Maples, JohnThompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Marshall, John (Hendon S)Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)Thorne, Neil
Maude, Hon FrancisThurnham, Peter
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinTracey, Richard
Miller, Sir HalTredinnick, David
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Twinn, Dr Ian
Monro, Sir HectorWaddington, Rt Hon David
Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)Waldegrave, Hon William
Moss, MalcolmWalden, George
Moynihan, Hon ColinWaller, Gary
Neale, GerrardWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Neubert, MichaelWatts, John
Nicholls, PatrickWells, Bowen
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Wheeler, John
Oppenheim, PhillipWhitney, Ray
Page, RichardWiddecombe, Ann
Paice, JamesWilshire, David
Patnick, IrvineWood, Timothy
Patten, Chris (Bath)Yeo, Tim
Pawsey, JamesYounger, Rt Hon George
Porter, David (Waveney)
Raison, Rt Hon TimothyTellers for the Ayes:
Redwood, JohnMr. Richard Ryder and Mr. Stephen Dorrell.
Riddick, Graham
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
NOES
Abbott, Ms DianeFyfe, Maria
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Galbraith, Sam
Barron, KevinGolding, Mrs Llin
Battle, JohnGraham, Thomas
Beckett, MargaretGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Hardy, Peter
Blair, TonyHenderson, Doug
Boyes, RolandHinchliffe, David
Bradley, KeithHogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Bray, Dr JeremyHolland, Stuart
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Home Robertson, John
Buckley, George J.Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Callaghan, JimHughes, Simon (Southwark)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Ingram, Adam
Clay, BobJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Clelland, DavidJones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Clwyd, Mrs AnnLamond, James
Cohen, HarryLofthouse, Geoffrey
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Loyden, Eddie
Corbyn, JeremyMcAllion, John
Cousins, JimMcAvoy, Thomas
Cryer, BobMcCartney, Ian
Cummings, JohnMcKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Dalyell, TamMcLeish, Henry
Darling, AlistairMcWilliam, John
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)Marek, Dr John
Dewar, DonaldMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Dixon, DonMeale, Alan
Dobson, FrankMichael, Alun
Doran, FrankMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Dunnachie, JimmyMillan, Rt Hon Bruce
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Morgan, Rhodri
Fisher, MarkMorley, Elliott
Flynn, PaulMullin, Chris
Foster, DerekMurphy, Paul
Nellist, DaveSoley, Clive
O'Brien, WilliamSpearing, Nigel
Pike, Peter L.Steinberg, Gerry
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)Strang, Gavin
Primarolo, DawnVaz, Keith
Quin, Ms JoyceWall, Pat
Redmond, MartinWalley, Joan
Reid, Dr JohnWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Robertson, GeorgeWareing, Robert N.
Rogers, AllanWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Rooker, JeffWilson, Brian
Ruddock, JoanWise, Mrs Audrey
Salmond, AlexWorthington, Tony
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Ken Eastham.
Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,That the draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, which was laid before this House on 30th June 1988, be approved.