Clause 39 — Code of practice on local authority publicity

Mental Health Outcomes (Measurement) – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 17th December 2013.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 161
    A majority of MPs voted against a proposal to only allow the Secretary of State to issue a direction to a local council relating to compliance with the code of practice on local authority publicity where evidence of a breach of a code has been sent to the authority and, if the authority has replied, that a report from the Secretary of State in light of that reply has been published.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 3:30 pm, 17th December 2013

I beg to move amendment 14, page 26, line 11, leave out

‘one or more specified local authorities’ and insert ‘a local authority’.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 15, page 26, line 25, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘(4) A direction can only be made by the Secretary of State if—

(a) evidence of a breach of a code has been published by the Secretary of State to the local authority;

(b) a local authority, on receipt of a letter from the Secretary of State notifying them of evidence which purports to demonstrate a breach of the code has made a response to the Secretary of State within 28 days; and

(c) upon receiving any response the Secretary of State has published a report detailing his conclusions.’.

Amendment 16, page 27, leave out lines 1 to 29.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Clause 39, to which the three amendments relate, includes provisions on local authority publicity that the Opposition strongly believe, and have consistently argued, are unnecessary undemocratic and wholly disproportionate. The amendment, and the clause itself, cover all council publicity; from newspapers to posters and even social media. We are gravely concerned that the Secretary of State is, in effect, through clause 39 making himself the censor-in-chief of local government communications.

Much attention has been paid to the Government’s gagging law, which attempts to silence civil society. It is less widely known that, through clause 39, the Government are trying to silence elected local councils. These new powers make the Secretary of State censor-in-chief of local government at the same time as evidence is emerging that his Department is encouraging councils to print pro-Government propaganda through the circulation of the very loaded pro-Government suggestive press releases that we have seen appear around the country.

Clause 39 will give the Secretary of State the power to dictate when and how councils can publish communications to local citizens. Of even more concern to us is the fact that the Secretary of State is taking a power of censorship to direct what issues and information councils can talk about and even what language and phraseology they can use. Ministers have made it clear that their intention is to prevent councils from sharing information or commenting on the impact of Government policy if they disapprove of the message.

In Committee, the examples given by the Minister and his Back Benchers included not allowing elected leaders of a local authority to publish a comment on the effect of central Government funding changes—so furious are the Government that councils are letting their residents know the scale of the cuts they are facing. Under these new powers, the Secretary of State could force councils to use pro-government terminology such as the benign-sounding “spare room subsidy” rather than the “bedroom tax”, which betrays how unpopular and unfair the policy is to many of the poorest and most vulnerable people—including many disabled people—in our communities. Legal advice to the Local Government Association says that these censorship laws would prevent councils from publishing information on issues such as HS2 or health service reconfigurations.

The Government argue that the power is needed because local authorities are breaching the current voluntary code on local authority publicity. Yet they have managed to find only one example of a breach; Tower Hamlets’ publication “East End Life”, which seems to the Opposition clearly to flout the code. It is absolutely shocking that the Government have failed to take any action, using the powers they already have, in more than three years since they became aware of the level of concern, including that reported by Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets. We agree with the Secretary of State that that publication is a problem, but we ask again why the Government have taken no action—no action at all. In fact, the Minister attempted to explain to me in an answer to a parliamentary question that it is because the Secretary of State has not done anything that he now believes that he needs to give himself these dictatorial powers. It is so extraordinary that one might assume that if councils knew the full extent of these plans, they would resist them.

Through several freedom of information requests, I discovered that the Department has not communicated with local authorities about the plans since May 2010. No councils have answered letters or e-mails in respect of their local publications on this subject. This is all being done behind local authorities’ backs.

At the same time as the Secretary of State is censoring councils and preventing them from saying things he does not like, he is seeking to use them as a propaganda arm of the central state. I have discovered that, through these press releases, the Government are seeking to trumpet their policies when it suits them to use councils in that way at the same time as they seek to silence them when council communications are inconvenient. The Secretary of State preaches localism rhetoric, but the truth is—we know this, and local government knows it, too—that he does not really like local democracy. Starved of funds and subject to diktats even on issues like when to collect the bins, local authorities are now subject to censorship. It is clear that the Secretary of State’s warnings of cigar-chomping commies looking to take over government were remarkably prescient.

Annette Brooke, who I see in her place, described these censorship laws as

“a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.—[Hansard, 28 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 704.]

Liberal Democrat-run Cambridge city council says that the clause is “disproportionate and unnecessary”. It says it is

“quite at odds with the principles of localism”.

I asked the Secretary of State in a parliamentary question of 16 December to publish or place in the Library all the responses his Department received to the consultation it ran on local media. The Minister replied:

“I have placed in the Library of the House, a copy of the Government’s response to the consultation on ‘Protecting the Independent Press…’ which outlines the divergent views of councils and representatives of independent newspapers.”—[Hansard, 16 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 444W.]

Because the Minister would not provide the information, I took the trouble of making a freedom of information request to local authorities themselves about their responses to the consultation on the publicity code. I then discovered that it was not only Cambridge city council that said it disagreed with the clause. Watford borough council, led by the widely respected elected local mayor, Dorothy Thornhill—she is not of my party, but she is someone I have worked with who has a good reputation around local government—says:

“These changes are a threat to local democracy. They could inhibit local elected members from representing their residents. Placing the ultimate decision-making powers in the hands of a Secretary of State is contrary to the localist agenda of the Government, and it is heavy-handed.”

It is not just Liberal Democrat councils either, because Conservative councils, too, are opposed. North Yorkshire county council says in its response:

“The proposed legislation is disproportionate”.

Tory-run North Somerset says:

“With regard to the proposed restrictions on the publication of council newspapers, we object strongly.”

Baroness Eaton said in the other place:

“This clause is unnecessary as there is no evidence that council publications are competing unfairly with local newspapers…the proposed measures in the Bill centralise powers to the Secretary of State and allow central government to interfere with matters that should rightly be decided at local level”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 902.]

Lord Tope, commenting on the lack of evidence to support the proposals on local authority publicity said:

“All we have had from the Government is rather silly and misleading statements from the Secretary of State about ‘town hall Pravdas’”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 898.]

The Local Government Association, a cross-party but Conservative-led body, says:

“The powers are too wide ranging and do not allow councils any local discretion about how to engage with their residents. This is unnecessary and could allow the Secretary of State to interfere with the work of an elected council.”

The National Association of Local Councils, which has no political axe to grind, says these powers are “anti-localist”, fly in the face of localism and are

“a threat to local democratic accountability”.

Finally, let me cite the very considered words of Sir Andrew Stunell, the former Local Government Minister in the coalition Government. In Committee he said:

“Every Bill has high spots and not-so-high spots, and Clause 39 is one of those not-so-high spots.”––[Official Report, Local Audit and Accountability Public Bill Committee, 19 November 2013; c. 301.]

I have had the pleasure of working with the right hon. Gentleman in a previous role so I know that that is a typically understated remark from him. He then went on to challenge the Minister for assurances about the proportionality of any intervention, and the ability of councils to make representations with regard to how they are exercising discretion. However, far from giving reassurances, the Minister—and many of his hon. Friends, some of whom I see in the Chamber today—made us more rather than less concerned. Their political motivation was absolutely clear: they were frankly shameless about revealing that clause 39 was about silencing councils if they communicated with citizens about anything that the Government did not like.

The Secretary of State claims that the clause is needed to protect the press from unfair competition from advertising, but the recommended code of practice for local authority publicity contains no provisions relating to advertising. It is clear that the Secretary of State’s argument is a diversion from the real aim of censoring councils and their locally elected councillors. The National Union of Journalists disagrees with the Government’s contention that local authority publications are damaging to the press. Its general secretary has said that there is “no case at all” for the current Secretary of State

“and future Secretaries of State to be given extra statutory powers to decide when” and how local authorities can communicate, adding:

“We do not believe that this element of guidance reflects the needs of many communities”.

The Minister will no doubt tell us that the Government ran a consultation in April 2013. That consultation was a classic example of things that cause the public at times to be very sceptical abut public sector consultations. It was, in fact, very much a “nonsultation”. Its outcome was so evidently predetermined, even by the loaded title “Protecting the independent press from unfair competition” and by the way in which it was launched. The Government, as if to confirm that impression—as if they had no regard to whether the public, or indeed local authorities, would consider that they had given any proper thought to the consultation—published their response within two days of the end of the consultation.

We have challenged the Government to give practical examples. As I have said, we acknowledged the issue about Tower Hamlets, on which they should have acted. Baroness Hannam said in the House of Lords that she had evidence involving other local authorities, yet she said—extraordinarily—that it would not be “helpful” to identity them. Asked to give examples, she said:

“I shall not say which local authorities…are breaching the code. I have them. I could do it, but I think it is…not helpful.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 604.]

In Committee, the Minister said:

“the fact is that there are examples out there.”––[Official Report, Local Audit and Accountability Public Bill Committee, 19 November 2013; c. 304.]

He then vaguely referred to four councils—Plymouth, Lambeth, High Peak and Nottingham, all of them Labour-run—which had had the temerity to inform the public of the unfair scale of the cuts imposed on them by central Government. Can Ministers not see that the kind of censorship that they are seeking to impose through clause 39 is not democratic, not British, and not worthy of the values that our Parliament should uphold? The motivation is petty, but the consequences will be very serious indeed.

Let me tell the House about the effect in my area. The Minister has suggested that a council publication in my constituency, the Nene Valley News, is competing unfairly with local papers. His ill-informed statements show why we should not trust the Government with these powers. The truth is that there is no newspaper for the Nene Valley News to compete with across much of east Northamptonshire—and now the only communications lifeline on which many people in the small towns and villages of my constituency can rely is being cut off. Those are people in areas with poor broadband access, and the demographic is such that, proportionally, there are fewer people in those areas than in some of the larger towns in the county who use social media widely, or even have access to the internet.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Three years ago, the Select Committee conducted an inquiry into the whole issue of local authority publications, and found absolutely no evidence of any impact on commercial newspapers. Indeed, one of our findings was that many local authority publications were published on the presses of commercial papers, thus providing them with important additional income.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, is right. I think that there is often a complementarity between the newspapers, news sheets and magazines published by councils and other local papers. There is often a considerable spin-off in the form of the relationship between the communications that councils promote through their papers about local events and community organisations, and how vibrant local newspapers are able to become in terms of, for example, the advertising revenue that they can create in relation to such community events and activities.

The Minister has claimed that the advertising in the Nene Valley News is the problem. First, it is not included in the code; secondly, I would gladly facilitate a meeting between the Minister and the local small businesses and traders who use the low-cost space in the Nene Valley News, and who are now extremely worried about how they will get business. I quoted one individual at length in Committee, but for brevity I shall merely say now that he concluded his remarks to me on this matter by saying, “Aren’t the Tories supposed to be a party that likes business?” He is very sceptical about the motivation for, and is concerned about the effect of, this crass, uninformed and undemocratic clause.

The clause will damage local democracy, because it will mean that local councils are not as able to inform and engage the public in their work. It will also damage community groups, scout organisations, local charitable organisations, small businesses and the food banks which, sadly, are needed in our communities, as they will not be able to publicise their activities through the local free sheet—through the local council. Many of my constituents have contacted me to tell me that they object to what the Government are doing. I hope that all hon. Members will want to support our sensible amendments, which are supported by the Local Government Association, and I urge the Minister to accept them. We have not sought to strike out clause 39 completely, although we question why it is necessary and argue that the Government should have taken action previously in relation to the code.

Amendment 14 seeks to make things more proportionate. Either the Secretary of State wants all councils to abide by the code or he wants to be selective. I am told that he wants to be selective, which makes me even more concerned. Amendment 15 seeks to delete the astonishing new subsection that sees the Secretary of State attempt to take editorial powers over all local government publications. The words in the Bill leap off the page, because it says he will take this power

“whether or not the Secretary of State thinks that the authority is complying with the code”.

The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish evidence of a breach of the code.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton 3:45 pm, 17th December 2013

I listened to much of what the hon. Gentleman said in Committee and followed his train of argument. Will he clarify whether he opposes the code itself or just its enforcement?

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not pick this up during our three Committee sittings on this clause, as we made it clear that we support the voluntary code. We have been able to agree on one example where there is clearly a question as to whether the code is being flouted, and it is a great shame that the Government have not sought fit to take any action in three years to enforce the code.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am going to make some progress, because the hon. Gentleman spoke extensively on these provisions in Committee and made us more, not less, concerned.

Amendment 15 seeks to delete the astonishing new subsection I mentioned, to extend the time that the authority has to respond to evidence of a breach of the code to 28 days from 14, and, crucially, to require the Secretary of State to publish a report detailing his conclusions, having considered the response from the authority. That seems to us to be a very reasonable amendment that enshrines an evidential basis for taking any action in relation to the code. Amendment 16 seeks to delete the whole of proposed new section 4B, as we feel it is overly proactive meddling from the Secretary of State. We will seek to press amendment 15 to a vote. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will consider it reasonable that if the Government must press ahead with these powers, there is at least a requirement for the process to be evidence-led, for councils to have the right to make representations and for the Secretary of State to publish his findings before any action is taken.

I end by asking the Minister, one more time, to try to persuade us that this approach is necessary by saying how he thinks that the Opposition, the cross-party, Conservative-led Local Government Association, Liberal Democrat-run and Tory-run councils all around the country, the National Association of Local Councils, the National Union of Journalists and my constituents in east Northamptonshire, who are so upset about the end of the Nene Valley News, are all wrong and he is right. Even if he still thinks he is right, can he explain, as someone who purports to be a localist, why it is right to impose central Government’s will? This clause is worthy of a crackpot dictatorship.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

This is barmy. It is absolutely crackers that we are spending parliamentary time on this matter. I receive Hillingdon People from my Conservative-controlled local authority. On virtually every page, there is a picture of a smiling Conservative councillor pointing at something, standing on something or expressing some view. Interspersed with the smiling photographs is genuine information about what is happening in the local community. People tell me that the newspaper is an ideal size for lining a hamster cage, so it serves some useful purpose in the local area.

Today, the Government have announced the commission report on the expansion of aviation, which includes the threat to my constituency from the third runway. I have been assured that there will be cross-party opposition on my council to the Government’s proposals. We will use Hillingdon People to explain the proposals that have been introduced. We have used it in the past to explain the proposals of all political parties. Undoubtedly, views will be expressed by councillors on a cross-party basis condemning the commission’s proposals and, almost certainly, the Government’s approach. Does that mean that we will then be hauled before the Secretary of State to be advised on the words that we can use about this matter and on the way in which Hillingdon People will be used?

The one good thing about local newspapers is that they reflect local opinion. There might be an overbalance of photographs of a certain party, but for all that they are a useful tool in mobilising local opinion around a local issue, and they are campaigning tools for a local authority in genuinely reflecting the views of the local populace who elected them.

My local council has certainly consulted local people and supported local meetings to ensure that people can express their views on the extension of Heathrow. It has then reflected those views in Hillingdon People, and launched campaigns on the basis of what local people have said. At my last public meeting on this matter, a campaign called “Back Heathrow” was spuriously launched by the aviation industry to support Heathrow airport expansion. It was completely funded by Heathrow airport and run by its public relations agency. People then said to me that Hillingdon People should be used to put out accurate information, rather than the spurious propaganda that the airport was putting out. I am anxious that my local authority, which will go on the stomp on this issue, may be debarred from using Hillingdon People to explain what its views are and to campaign against the expansion of Heathrow airport.

I would be grateful to the Minister if we heard his views. By the looks of it, he will now be the editor-in-chief of Hillingdon People, so I would welcome his views now before we put a foot wrong. Is it in order, under this Bill, for Hillingdon council to use Hillingdon People to campaign against Heathrow expansion and to disseminate information that will be opposed to the commission’s views and what seems to be the emerging view about a third runway at Heathrow?

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

I rise to speak against this Orwellian clause and in favour of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Andy Sawford. He is absolutely right to say that the Government are seeking to put the Secretary of State in the position of censor-in-chief. We live in the United Kingdom. I thought that the Government believed in freedom of speech and the free press, but it turns out that that is not the case when it comes to publications produced by local authorities. It is clear that the Secretary of State is setting himself up as some sort of Orwellian big brother figure. If the clause goes through, the Department for Communities and Local Government should be renamed the ministry of truth. It is all right for the DCLG to issue draft press releases praising the Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, as long as local government is praising the policies of central Government that is okay, but if it has the temerity to point out that in some way what the Government are doing might have a negative impact on the communities that they represent, then woe betide them; that is not acceptable. When the Secretary of State seeks to take that kind of power to himself, we have to ask what kind of country we want to live in. This is completely wrong. Just look at the document—it could be a Tory hand-out. It has even suggested the headline that the local authorities might like to put on their press releases. It reads, “Pickles praises troubled families programme”—so, big up the Secretary of State, but, whatever you do, do not say anything that could be interpreted as negative.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby pointed out that there is absolutely no evidence suggesting widespread abuse of the voluntary code. Indeed, we would be hard-pressed to find any example, let alone widespread examples, so this provision is completely over the top. We have talked about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it is more like using a pile-driver to crack a minuscule nut. There is no example of any abuse. It is clear, therefore, that the Secretary of State is seeking to set himself up as the censor-in-chief.

In Committee, I challenged Government Members to come up with some examples of the abuses that merit this heavy-handed legislative response. The first out of the traps was Andrew Bingham, who came up with the ludicrous assertion that legislation is merited to stop a photograph of the Labour leader of his local borough council appearing in the council newspaper with a Labour party pen. A pen with the Labour logo on it was an abuse that merited legislation—talk about crackers, as my hon. Friend John McDonnell said. It is unbelievable. We are talking about legislation to stop local authorities publishing their council newspapers, giving information to the local community about matters affecting them, and it is suggested that the Secretary of State should be put in charge because a Labour leader appeared in a council newspaper holding a pen with a Labour logo on it.

The hon. Member for High Peak must have scrutinised that photograph with a magnifying glass to be able to see the logo, let alone to suggest that it would influence people. He dug himself an even bigger hole by comparing it with product placement, which is banned on the television. He said that we do not see packets of cornflakes on the table in “EastEnders”. Crackers really does not cover it.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry

The hon. Gentleman is making some cogent points. If that photograph had appeared on a Member of Parliament’s website paid for by IPSA, IPSA would have banned it. I am not sure whether that helps or hinders his argument, but someone else would want to ban that logo placement.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

With the greatest of respect, I think the hon. Gentleman is talking through his hat. I am not sure that IPSA would ban it. Is he telling me in all seriousness that that would happen if a Labour politician appeared on their website and happened to be holding a pen with a Labour logo on it? People would not be able to see it; it is ridiculous. In the Committee sitting, I had a pen with “League Against Cruel Sports” emblazoned on it. I held it up and challenged the hon. Member for High Peak to read what it said on the pen, because the scale would have been about the same as in the photograph in the borough newspaper. He could not see it; of course he could not. Chris Heaton-Harris mentions IPSA, but that compounds the ludicrousness of the Government’s case. When the hon. Member for High Peak made the point, he was unable to read the logo on my “League Against Cruel Sports” pen and, in the same way, without a magnifying glass he would not have been able to see that the Labour leader had the temerity to hold a pen with the Labour logo on it.

The next out of the traps was the Minister, who referred to a poster. A poster in Lambeth was a bit critical of the Government—we can’t be having posters. The poster was, I think, on a bus stop—so far, therefore, a pen and a bus stop merit legislation.

The final Government Member out of the traps, as I recall, was Andrew Griffiths, who quoted Councillor Western, the Labour leader of Derbyshire county council. She had the temerity to point out that the cuts being imposed by central Government would have “a devastating impact” on our communities. Well, that is a statement of fact. It seems that Members on the Government Benches do not want statements of fact if they are in any way, shape or form marginally critical of what the Government are doing, even though they are accurate. This really is Orwellian and merits references to the ministry of truth. I sincerely hope that any Government Member who believes in fairness, free speech and the freedom of the press will support my hon. Friend’s amendment.

I conclude by reinforcing the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), to which my hon. Friend the Member for Corby may have alluded as well—the fact that local council newspapers are in no way a threat to the local newspaper industry. I know from personal experience at a local level that Derby city council uses a local newspaper to print and publish its council news-sheet, so far from damaging the local newspaper industry it is having a beneficial impact.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 4:00 pm, 17th December 2013

I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists group in Parliament. There needs to be a discussion between Departments. We are working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and will hold a seminar in the new year to discuss how we ensure that all Government Departments can assist in the development and support of the local press. A Member on the Government Benches suggested publishing local material in the local media or on a wrap-around basis, which would support the print industry and the local press.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

Indeed. There is a happy partnership between many local authorities and the newspaper in their local area. It is a significant overstatement of the truth to suggest that local authorities producing their newspaper are in any way responsible for the decline in the local newspaper industry. Many other factors, not least access to online information, are responsible for the decline. What the Government seek to do will not arrest that decline and might make matters worse. The truth is that, where there is a partnership with the local newspaper serving the local authority area, limiting the number of times the council can produce information through its newsletters will diminish the local newspaper’s income stream. Far from assisting local newspapers, the Government will add to their decline. I hope the Minister will reflect on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to his connection with the NUJ. Let me quote the National Union of Journalists’ response to what the Government propose. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, in many areas where there is no local newspaper, local people rely on the council publication for useful information and would regret the Government decision to limit the council’s ability to produce that for them. The NUJ says:

“In areas where there are no, or limited local newspapers, then sharing planning details, service changes and details of consultations on a quarterly basis is insufficient”.

It is clear that there is no evidence to support what the Government want to do. The amendment—this is pretty unprecedented, in my experience—is supported by the Local Government Association, a Conservative-led body. It is very rare for the LGA to come out and support an Opposition amendment. It is also supported by the National Association of Local Councils, the National Union of Journalists and members of the general public. It is hard to find anybody who has a good word to say about this Orwellian clause, save for a handful of hard-line Conservatives on the Government Benches.

I implore the Minister, if he has any semblance of concern for the feelings of the public or the wishes of the Tory-led Local Government Association, and if indeed he genuinely believes in a free press and freedom of speech, to support amendment 14, because that would be in the interests of freedom of speech and of the general public, ensuring that they have the information they need about services and other activities in their local area provided by the council. I hope that he will reflect on that and support the amendment.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

I rise to support amendments 14 to 16. Nothing is more likely to get the blood rising in the body of a journalist, even one who has not worked in mainstream journalism for half a lifetime, than the idea that someone wants to interfere in the message they are trying to deliver to their readers. That was my reaction when I first heard about the Secretary of State’s ambition to become editor-in-chief of all council publications, from city authority newspapers to parish council newsletters.

I spent many a happy year working as a journalist in the local and regional media and then in the communications industry for a blue-chip company. I never experienced any real interference, and certainly nothing like the level that the Secretary of State wants. Likewise, in my 20 years as a councillor, first for Cleveland county council and then for Stockton-on-Tees borough council, I never saw the abuse of power through publications of which the Secretary of State appears to be so terrified. It will therefore come as no surprise that, as a former journalist and councillor, I have particular concerns about clause 39, which gives the Secretary of State the power to direct local authorities to comply with a specific code of conduct relating to their publicity materials.

If the Bill passes in its current form, as other Members have said, the Secretary of State will be appointing himself editor-in-chief of Local Government Inc. and assigning himself carte blanche to intervene, irrespective of whether he believes a local authority is complying with the code of practice. So that we are clear about the extent and reach of the proposed powers, I will explain that clause 39 would apply to all local authority publicity material, including newspapers, such as the quarterly Stockton News in my constituency which is delivered to so many residents across the borough to keep them informed about services and what is going on in the local authority area. It would apply to posters advertising the many events, schemes and projects that local authorities promote for the benefit of their citizens. It would also apply to the social media updates that local authorities provide to ensure that residents have up-to-date information.

As an aside, I would be fascinated to know how the Secretary of State plans to monitor the thousands of communications emanating from councils across the country every day. Does he have plans for an army of Twitter monitors, Facebook spies and online assessors to ensure that there can be no challenge to his authority? Of course not, so perhaps the Minister can explain just how that brave new world will be policed.

The powers proposed in clause 39 are entirely disproportionate and represent a stubbornly heavy-handed response, as the Government have identified only one example of a local authority apparently abusing its position. Even in that instance, as other Members have said, the local authority involved has denied the accusation of contravening the Government’s current code of recommended practice. I agree that any political bias would be unacceptable in local authority publicity, and the code of conduct requires objectivity, even-handedness and appropriateness. That much is beyond contention. It was with that in mind that we encouraged the Government to take action in cases where possible breaches are identified in order to ensure neutrality and fairness. However, as my hon. Friend Andy Sawford has said, the Government have not even written to the local authority in question about the publication. I must therefore question whether the Secretary of State truly believes that a breach has been committed.

It is also worth repeating that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, through a series of freedom of information requests it has been established that, since coming to power in May 2010, the Government have not contacted a single local authority to express concern about potential breaches of the code. Perhaps they can tell us how many they expect to contact in the future under the new proposals. Assuming that the Government are implementing the current code of practice in full, we must take it from that that few councils, if any, are breaking existing recommendations. All of that begs the following question: why fix something that is not broken?

When we bear these factors in mind, the context of the Secretary of State’s attempted power-grab politics becomes abundantly clear. With the lobbying Bill currently seeking to limit the campaigning that third sector and voluntary organisations are able to undertake, it appears that the unpopularity of the Government’s policies has begun to sink in. Is the Secretary of State really heading up a damage-limitation mission to control how local authorities communicate the politically toxic effects of the Government’s policies to their local communities merely by explaining the changes and cuts that they need to make?

We know from copies of the template press releases that the Department has issued to local authorities’ press teams that they encourage bias as they frame Government policy in what could only be described as positive terms. Does this mean that the Secretary of State will have to punish one of his own Conservative-led councils for being politically biased for printing material from his own Department? This illustrates the absurdity of his proposals and reveals an outrageous double standard, if ever there was one.

Clause 39 not only grants to the Secretary of State the ability to determine when and how local authorities can publish communications to local residents but assigns to him the ability to dictate the issues and information that they can communicate as well—perhaps an ideal set of circumstances that would put him on a par with the Rupert Murdochs of this world. Why does he not just ban all the newspapers, ban all the publicity and ban all the posters? It would have the same effect. If that were not extreme enough, he is similarly assigned the ability to control the language and phraseology that local authorities will be permitted to use. Perhaps the Government will manage to rid the public of the bedroom tax after all, but changing the words will not change the devastating effects that his policies are having on some of our most needy people.

I am sure that the significance of this move, coming as it does so soon after the intense debates that have been had on the topic of press regulation and the need to remove the risk of political interference and maintain the sanctity of free speech, will not be wasted on Members on both sides of the House. I am minded to ask the Secretary of State whether, were he to assume these new powers, his reformulated role would be compliant with the spirit of the royal charter in providing the public with better protection from press abuses while upholding the freedom of expression that is so central to our democracy. Surely those provisions should apply to him as well. A new term has been coined for him this afternoon: the censor-in-chief—which is certainly what he will be with these powers.

In short, such wide-ranging powers will disfranchise local authorities, removing any semblance of their discretion over communications with residents. Let us not forget that local authorities have a responsibility to represent those residents and to provide services for them, and that transparency and accountability are fundamental cornerstones of that duty. Were an authority unable to protect the interests of its residents, it would unquestionably be failing in its duties.

Given the Government’s agenda for the national planning policy framework, the plans before us appear to undermine their express goal of empowerment for local residents and fly in the face of their professed localism agenda. Members need not just take my word for it. Baroness Eaton, the former Conservative leader of Bradford council, has described as “regrettable” the proposal in the Bill that will

“centralise powers to the Secretary of State and allow central government to interfere with matters that should rightly be decided at a local level.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 902.]

Ministers have already made clear their intention to prevent local authorities from sharing information or commenting on the impact of Government policy if they disapprove of the message. That would inevitably have the effect of gagging local authorities in contentious policy areas. To give an illustrative example, a piece in Stockton News entitled “Challenging Times”, published earlier this year to inform residents of upcoming service changes, would be unlikely to make it past the Secretary of State’s red pen unscathed, referring as it does to

“a time of unprecedented reductions in Government funding to the Borough as a result of the Government’s austerity measures.”

The Secretary of State might not like the fact that Stockton borough council’s funding will have fallen by 40% between 2010 and 2016, but that is precisely what it is—a fact. We are talking about facts—political, maybe, but not politicised. That is crucial to the argument for upholding the freedom of speech. I should also make the point that, as far as Stockton News is concerned, no politicians, with the exception of the civic mayor, ever write or comment in it. The publication does not even quote them or publish pictures of them.

Local authorities often work with residents, community groups and MPs to promote the best interests of residents in matters such as the siting of local health provisions and national infrastructure developments. If the Government’s proposals pass, the Secretary of State could use clause 39 to block such collaboration, ultimately to the detriment of residents.

Let us not forget that local authorities are already required by statute, in the shape of the Local Government Act 2000, to have regard to the contents of the publicity code, and should the Secretary of State have reason to believe that a local authority has failed to comply with a statutory obligation, he is able to intervene by seeking judicial review. The Secretary of State has failed to detail why he deems current provision to be inadequate or to explain why he has yet to apply any of the current powers. Instead he has argued that clause 39 is needed to protect the local press from unfair competition for advertising, but he has not told us how the situation is unfair.

Time and again, the Secretary of State overlooks some essential points, not least that the recommended code of practice has no provisions relating specifically to advertising, other than to specify lawfulness. This suggests to me that this particular argument is but a distraction from the underlying aim to censor local authorities and their elected councillors.

The nonsense of the suggestion is best borne out by the Communities and Local Government Committee report, which declared—others have already alluded to this—that there is no evidence that council publications are competing unfairly with local newspapers. Indeed, far from unfair competition, the obligation on local authorities to publish statutory notices actually results in local authorities paying the commercial newspaper industry some £26 million a year. Taking into account total spend, including general advertising, local authorities spend nearly £44 million a year with the commercial newspaper industry, which blows the Secretary of State’s argument out of the water.

As I have made clear, I can see no reason to move away from the current code of recommended practice to an unnecessarily heavy-handed, regulated system entrenched in legislation. We simply cannot hand full editorial control—because that is what this will mean—to one person for his own political motives. For that reason, I support amendments 14 to 16.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government 4:15 pm, 17th December 2013

First, let me be clear that good communication between a local authority and the public is important. Let me also be clear that what clause 39 delivers is a manifesto pledge by both coalition parties. Local authority publicity can be expensive and it can be controversial, so it is important that local authorities get it right.

In Committee I outlined our intentions and explained exactly what the clause seeks to achieve. We should be conscious of the fact that localism is about empowering local people to be able to challenge and see, transparently, what their local authority is doing. This is about true localism and making sure that we are also able to do our bit to defend the independent local press.

The code of recommended practice on local authority publicity ensures that publicity is, among other things, cost-effective, objective, even-handed and appropriate, and Labour Members have agreed in principle with the voluntary code. It ensures that taxpayers’ money is not wasted on issuing inappropriate publicity or publicity that political parties themselves should be issuing, rather than a local council using taxpayers’ money to do it. The code has been in place since 2011. It was debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Minister is right to say that the code seeks to prevent using money on things that are politicised, but does he not see that his argument is not consistent with a Department that is sending out puff pieces about its Secretary of State for local authorities to issue?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I suspect that deep down inside, the hon. Gentleman—we almost became hon. Friends in Committee—probably realises that there is a world of difference between a template press release sent to independent local journalists and a municipal taxpayer-funded newspaper that takes away the competition of a local independent press. None of the provisions in the Bill makes any changes to the publicity code.

Let me give a very clear example of how the process might work for a local authority publishing a weekly newspaper—such as Nene Valley News, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—in direct competition to the local independent press that is so important in holding councils to account. Under the provisions, the Secretary of State, after advising the local authority that he intends to do so and giving it time to make any representations it wishes—such as that there is no other local paper—may, if he thinks fit, issue a direction requiring that the local authority comply with some or all of the code, but particularly, let us say, the part advising local authorities that council newsletters should be issued no more than quarterly. If the Secretary of State considers that a group of local authorities, or even all local authorities in England, should be required to follow the guidance in the code, he must of course make an order, which would need to be debated and agreed by both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

Will the Minister tell us the name of one newspaper group that has approached the Department to claim that local authority publications are undermining and threatening its business?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard for the reports of our proceedings in Committee, where we outlined the evidence—including from the Newspaper Society, which complained about exactly that issue—particularly, as was noted, in relation to Tower Hamlets.

Amendment 14 confuses the very clear and necessary provision that the Secretary of State may direct a local authority to comply with some or all of the publicity code. The amendment would achieve little in practice, as the Secretary of State may of course issue more than one individual direction. Amendment 15 would also be far from beneficial. It would add layers of complexity and bureaucracy to what should be a straightforward procedure to allow the Secretary of State rapidly to address incidences of the guidance in the code not being observed.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

No, I shall make a little progress. The hon. Gentleman was keen to make progress during his speech.

Any local authority that already—rightly—complies with the guidance in the code would be wholly unaffected by a direction. Amendment 15 would remove sensible, proportionate measures and put in place a gold-plated bureaucratic process that requires the publication of not one, but two reports by the Secretary of State, all while taxpayers’ money might continue to be wasted.

Amendment 16 seeks to remove the provisions to ensure that a group of local authorities, or all local authorities in England, comply with the guidance in the code. We have sensibly decided to make provision for the Secretary of State to require compliance with the code not only by an individual local authority, but by a number of them or even, if necessary, by all local authorities in England.

The Secretary of State can issue an individual direction to an authority, but to require a group of local authorities or even all local authorities in England to comply with the code the Secretary of State must make an order subject to the agreement of both Houses of Parliament. That was a recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and we were happy to amend the Bill to give effect to it. Amendment 16 would quite wrongly undo the power and the recommendation, leaving a ridiculous situation in which if the Secretary of State wanted to act to address widespread non-compliance by a group of councils, he might have to issue hundreds of individual directions. The amendment would also remove parliamentary scrutiny of the process.

We are obliged to make the provisions because although the vast majority of local authorities comply with the code, a very few do not; we accept that there are very few. It is to address that abuse of council resource and waste of taxpayers’ money that we have rightly decided to act. The provisions are important, proportionate and necessary.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

The Minister is making some sweeping comments. I would be interested to know whether he can tell us of one local authority that the Secretary of State has found it necessary to take action against under the existing code, which is adequate for the purpose that he is outlining? I think we already know the answer.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have done his homework and will realise that for the Government to take action under the voluntary code, there would have to be a long and expensive judicial review.

The provisions are the right way in which to move forward so that we can enforce the code effectively, efficiently and swiftly. It is slightly baffling that the Opposition claim that they have no problem with the voluntary code agreed by Parliament and support it, but do not want it to be enforced. That just does not make sense, has no credibility and does not add up. The provisions ensure that we can protect the good, local independent press, and that taxpayers’ money is used efficiently and effectively, and not wasted on town hall Pravdas. I encourage hon. Members to resist the amendments.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

What a shocking response. We will not press amendments 14 and 16, but we will press amendment 15 to the vote.

Amendment 15 would place a very simple expectation on the Secretary of State: that he would act on the receipt of evidence, that he would share that evidence with the local authority and that he would ask it to comment. As the Minister says, these matters should be subject to local discretion as well as to national direction. The Secretary of State would simply have to say, in taking enforcement action against a local authority, that he had found a breach of the code. It would be incredibly simple, straightforward and right to make that amendment if the Secretary of State feels that it is necessary to take these extraordinary powers, even though we do not.

The Minister’s response, as at each stage of the passage of the Bill, has made us far more concerned, not less, about the intention behind this very worrying and deeply anti-democratic clause.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 15, page 26, line 25, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘(4) A direction can only be made by the Secretary of State if—

(a) evidence of a breach of a code has been published by the Secretary of State to the local authority;

(b) a local authority, on receipt of a letter from the Secretary of State notifying them of evidence which purports to demonstrate a breach of the code has made a response to the Secretary of State within 28 days; and

(c) upon receiving any response the Secretary of State has published a report detailing his conclusions.’.—(Andy Sawford.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 226, Noes 287.

Division number 161 Local Audit and Accountability Bill — Clause 39 — Protocol for Issuing Direction Relating to Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity

A majority of MPs voted against a proposal to only allow the Secretary of State to issue a direction to a local council relating to compliance with the code of practice on local authority publicity where evidence of a breach of a code has been sent to the authority and, if the authority has replied, that a report from the Secretary of State in light of that reply has been published.

Aye: 226 MPs

No: 287 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 133 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We now come to the next group of amendments. Stephen Barclay is not here to move lead amendment 17. I call the Minister to move amendment 6.