I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
‘(4) A direction can only be made by the Secretary of State if—
(a) evidence of a breach of a code has been published and sent 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 148, in clause 38, page 24, leave out from line 37 to line 21 on page 25.
It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Mr Weir. I am sorry you were not able to hear about my local authority’s excellent publication, the Nene Valley News. I spoke about the value that local people place on it. They consider it to be
“invaluable to East Northants villages”,
according to a Conservative councillor on East Northants district council. I am always keen to represent all areas of my constituency and all shades of opinion. I do so today because there is a cross-party consensus in my constituency that local newspapers play a vital role.
Before we adjourned, I quoted Mr Derrick Sims, who talked about the value of Nene Valley News to charities in the area. He said:
“It does seem strange that a government that espouses the merits of local government should remove its main means of communication with its people.”
Mr Jonathan Spencer has told me that he advertises his business in the Nene Valley News, which provides him with a range of customers. He said:
“This is an essential piece of information...the like of which cannot be matched by any alternative method I have seen so far...The sellable news in East Northants is entirely different to that in the imaginary world Pickles inhabits.”
That is my constituent’s language—he is, of course, referring to the Secretary of State. Mr Spencer says:
“They function, where they exist, hand in hand.”
By that, he means sellable news, in his language, and publications such as the Nene Valley News that he is familiar with and advertises in. He goes on:
“The publicised argument from Pickles reads well for his audience of newspaper publishers but doesn’t sit well in reality...The Nene Valley News is an innocent publication full of local information and advice...On my commercial level, I advertise in the publication and it generates the majority of my business. I understand that many of the advertisers have the same response. There is no other outlet that offers the same coverage of customers. So much for Tory support of small business.”
I have said to the Minister—I hope he takes the point—that many of the people who feel so concerned about this are naturally inclined to support him and the Conservative party. I am sure that that picture is mirrored all around the country, particularly in rural areas and the more sparsely populated areas, where such publications are the only source of news.
I have also highlighted evidence from organisations such as the National Union of Journalists and the Local Government Association, which claims that, far from threatening local newspapers, local government actually supports local newspapers in many areas of the country. It does so not only through partnership working, but by jointly promoting features through local papers around town centres, and encouraging local competitions such as local awards and so on in which local newspapers participate—they often sell advertising space in connection with them.
For example, in my area, we have the Spirit of Corby, but there are awards all across Northamptonshire. I am sure they take place all around the country. There are business awards among the business community. A local authority might work with the local chamber of commerce or other local business partnerships. Local authorities work with the local paper to promote good practices and to sell advertising space. Local authorities frequently work with the local newspaper to encourage participation in, and attendance at, community events such as carnivals, and to enable the local paper to sell advertising space.
The planning authority frequently brings forward developments, certainly in an area such as mine that is very open to having new housing in the area, and often works in partnership with the local authority. We had the controversial “North Londonshire” campaign. Opinions vary, but that was a local authority and local media partnership from which the local paper benefited significantly.
There are particular examples, such as eastendlife, of which the Minister will no doubt remind us.
The hon. Gentleman referred to eastend life. He will be aware that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government reported a couple of years ago on the code of practice on local authority publicity. It referred to the excesses of certain council papers and specifically to that publication. How would he deal with the excesses of certain local council papers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I served with him on that Committee. He always approaches such matters thoughtfully and constructively, as on this occasion—he is inviting me to comment on a significant failing on the part of Government. It may be that the same charge can be levelled at previous Governments, but I am not aware of the previous Government having concerns on which they did not act. What we have here is that after three years in power, the current Government say that they have such significant concerns that they will legislate, and yet there is no evidence that they sought to take action. That is the substance of the parliamentary questions I tabled in October, to which I have referred.
The hon. Gentleman invites me to say what action I would take. Were I in the Minister’s chair in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and had those concerns been brought to my attention, I would have investigated them and followed the evidence. I would invite the council to respond to me on those concerns and I would enforce the publicity code. The failure of the Government to enforce the publicity code when there has been an evident breach is regrettable. More concerning is their failure even to begin a course of communication with the local authority when they identified a breach—that is incredibly disappointing.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Communities and Local Government Committee looked at the issue and recommended action, but it did not support, and would not now support, the draconian measures in the Bill, because they go too far. What is not in dispute between Opposition Members and the Government and the hon. Gentleman is the fact that there is a publicity code. It was signed up to by all parties. It was developed in this place after considerable thought and consultation. We support the publicity code. Our argument is that when there is a breach of the code, a different course of action would be more appropriate than the draconian and undemocratic legislation the Government have introduced.
Before the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, I was speaking about the Nene Valley News. I want to share some of its key content and ask the Minister or other hon. Members to tell me what they find offensive. It promotes the way the Rockingham Forest Trust, which manages Stanwick lakes—one of my and my family’s favourite places to spend time at the weekends—has won heritage funding. Of course, that is part of promoting an important local facility. All such facilities are viable only if they are well used, so, given that there is no other local newspaper, promoting the lakes through the Nene Valley News is important.
The Nene Valley News mentions how the authorities are clamping down on illegal scrap metal dealers. It promotes the activities of the council in clamping down and quotes the Conservative chair of the licensing committee. I am sure the Minister will want to support the action of Councillor Glenn Harwood MBE. Such work is particularly important in our rural communities and small towns, where metal theft is a huge issue. Local people want to know what action they can take and how they can report things to the licensing committee.
Nene Valley News gives telephone numbers for a wide range of organisations, including national bodies, such as Childline, and local organisations, such as contraception advisory centres, the Nene gym—helping to tackle obesity in my area—the Samaritans, the Rockingham Forest housing association and all the local town councils.
I am wondering why I am not going to some of those events. The problem is not that kind of information in that kind of newspaper, but when Lambeth council, for example, uses public funds to castigate the Government and pass the buck on cuts to services in Lambeth. That was clearly a misuse of public funds. Does the shadow Minister agree? Does he therefore accept that the Government are carrying out a pledge to prevent such misuse in the future?
Regretfully, the hon. Gentleman only points out the motivation behind the clause, which is entirely political and entirely subjective about a local authority’s ability to campaign. I will turn to that in a moment, and I am keen to share with the Committee the legal advice that the LGA received, which it has shared with me.
The hon. Gentleman says that he welcomes publications such as the Nene Valley News, or bits of it. I am sure he would welcome all of it. I am happy to tell him what else is in it—I am sure he is waiting with bated breath. However, the fact is that that publication will cease to exist. That is the whole point. He is right to welcome the paper. The Conservative councillors on East Northamptonshire council and local voters know that the paper is a lifeline, and I know that without it there will be huge local consequences. The measure is the very opposite of the big society, and indeed of the localism the Government have talked about. It is an incredibly damaging measure. It has petty political purposes, but will have a damaging effect on our communities and on real people’s lives around this country.
Bearing in mind the hon. Gentleman’s comment earlier that there is cross-party support for the code, which was brought in some years ago and is not changing, could he point out what in the code stops a publication in a way that he is not happy with? He has just said that he is happy with the very code we are discussing.
Clearly, the point is that the code is advisory. The previous Government did not take action in relation to the code because they considered that, in so far as local authorities were asked to have regard to the code, they did so. Local authorities also made judgments about what was appropriate to local circumstances and the local area. Councils up and down the country produced different types of publications with different frequency.
In discussion with the Minister and his officials prior to the commencement of the sitting, I said that, if the measure was about enforcing compliance with the code, why not simply say in the provisions that local authorities must comply with the code of publicity? I would not have supported that, because I do not think it necessary, but that would have turned the code from something to which local authorities must have regard to something with which they must comply, with all the legal force behind it. The answer was that local authorities might have a good reason for doing what they do. Is that not precisely the point?
Any sensible Minister, when confronted with the Nene Valley News and told why it is appropriate to the local area, would support the local authority to continue publishing it, yet, because of the how the Government intend to interpret and enforce the code, the authority will have to cease publication. The paper encourages people to ask their councillor or MP if they advertise local surgeries, including my own local surgery. As Members of Parliament, we all know how important those surgeries are. I am concerned that people will not know about my surgeries at Irthlingborough children’s centre, at Raunds library, at Thrapston library and at the courthouse in Oundle, which I hold regularly so as to meet the needs of the same communities served by the Nene Valley News, because that publication will no longer be available to local people.
The paper talks about the changes to the local council tax support scheme, which we know are a real problem for many people because of the way in which the council tax benefit cut has been passed down to local authorities, particularly impacting on the poorest people in our communities. It advises people on how to stay safe on bonfire night—as a pet owner, I welcome the advice on how to keep my pets safe. The paper talks about the council committee meetings. It advertised the Nene Valley scouts 46th annual firework display. I very much hope that many people went along to support that in response to the advert in the Nene Valley News.
The paper does something that I am sure is as dear to the Minister’s heart as it is to my own. The Government tend grossly to exaggerate benefit fraud in this country, but we all know that a tiny minority of people commit that fraud. Is it not welcome that the Nene Valley News wants to stamp out benefit fraud? This morning, I heard the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs again recommit himself to the now incredible idea that the Government will be the greenest ever, but the Nene Valley News might have helped them by encouraging people to go green this Halloween, which I think was a very good idea.
The matter will be dear to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, because she is very keen to work with local authorities around the country, and especially the Labour councils that are leading good practice to promote neighbourhood planning. She will be pleased to see that neighbourhood planning is in full swing in our area, and that people are encouraged to participate. There is other information in Nene Valley News, for example on how you can secure your home. There are adverts promoting local businesses, such as through the service directory. Those very small businesses are provided with very affordable advertising when there is no other local newspaper, and those business people are very worried. Denford Construction, Marigolds Clean ‘n’ Mow, Hunt plumbing and heating—I gave the Minister a quote a moment ago that I hope he took seriously—highlight the Government’s inconsistency. Their stated commitment is to support small businesses, but they are taking away their principal means of advertising for local custom.
I am sure that you, Mr Weir, have heard enough about the Nene Valley News, but I end with this section, headed “Life after Nene Valley News”. They are running a local consultation about what will happen next. The article states:
“Legislation is being introduced which prevents East Northamptonshire Council from publishing a newspaper on a fortnightly basis because it is deemed to be unfair competition for the local press”.
We have noted that there is no local paper in this area and that the measure is clearly absurd, but the local electorate must be told.
“We expect the legislation to become effective from 31 March 2014”.
The Opposition are doing our best to prevent that, but the legislation may well be effective from that date if the Government do not listen to sense today. The article states:
“We’re aware that Nene Valley News has a wide readership and is valued by local residents and businesses so we will be developing a new Communications Strategy which will focus on” the communication gaps in the area as much as possible.
We all know that whatever happens in future will not replace the Nene Valley News. It asks people to complete a local survey on how the council can best communicate. For example, it wants to know whether people read the Northamptonshire Telegraph, although readership is very low in that area. It wants to know what radio stations or other sources of news people might follow, or whether people would get information from the council website. I commend them. I try to work constructively with East Northamptonshire district council, including its Conservative leader Steve North. We work closely together on important initiatives such as Rushden Lakes to regenerate our area. I share the council’s regret at the demise of Nene Valley News and commend it on taking steps to keep its local public informed, but we all know that there is going to be a huge gap and we greatly regret it.
The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned past allegations of breaches of the code on council campaigning. They are serious and worrying, but his point relates to our concern that this is an undemocratic measure by the Secretary of State. The legal advice that the Local Government Association has received and passed to me includes the view that the measure could be a limitation on local campaigning.
I shall say a little about that and share the legal advice. The draconian powers that the Bill will give the Secretary of State are contrary to the principles of subsidiarity in this country, which we are signed up to as a signatory to the European charter on local self-government. An important principle of subsidiarity is that government should take place at the lowest possible level: that is, closest to the community.
More than that, we hope the Government will recognise that the measure is contrary to the spirit of localism—I certainly subscribe to that, and I know the Minister would like to see himself as a localist. Communication is at the centre of a vibrant local democracy, and going too far in regulating it would threaten democracy in this country. It is already undermined by the excessive centralisation that has built up over many decades and that the Government have said they wish to reverse.
Paragraph 15 of the code arguably already places stringent restrictions on local authorities from voicing opinions on matters of substance and importance to the local electorate. There are legal restrictions on local authorities from campaigning, but we do not challenge them in the context of the Bill and hope they are proportionate. However, the measure goes too far in saying that local authorities cannot campaign on behalf of their local communities and cannot communicate locally with the public about vital policy issues that might have an impact on people in the area.
Paragraph 15 of the code states:
“Local authorities should ensure that publicity relating to policies and proposals from central government is balanced and factually accurate. Such publicity may set out the local authority’s views and reasons for holding those views, but should avoid anything likely to be perceived by readers as constituting a political statement, or being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy” .
To decide the limits on the kind of commentary that a local authority might engage in is always going to be a subjective matter of interpretation. For example, could the consultation in the Nene Valley News on the implication of the Government’s legislation be seen in some way to be provocative or political, in that it highlights the detrimental impact of the Government’s legislation? I would argue that that consultation is intended to be helpful to the local community.
My hon. Friend is making such a powerful case that it will be interesting to see how the Minister deals with some of the issues he has raised.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be profoundly anti-localist not to allow local people, through a publication such as Nene Valley News, to make their opinions known not only about the value of the newspaper, but about what they get out of the current legislation and how they think they will be negatively affected by the proposed change? It seems extraordinary that the Government would wish to do that.
Regretfully, I agree with my hon. Friend. It is extraordinary, and it is damaging our community. I wonder whether, in turn, my hon. Friend agrees with me about an article in Around Ealing. It asks:
“Are you prepared? Did you know the Government is changing the amount of benefit some people can claim? These wide-ranging alterations will affect people in work, as well those who are not.”
The article sets out, for example, the implications of the bedroom tax, which will have a significant impact on many local residents, and advises people what telephone number they may use to seek help or advice about those implications. It advises that it may be possible to downsize to a property with a more appropriate number of bedrooms, but of course the point is that there are few such properties available.
In providing what I think is a helpful commentary to local people about the impact of Government legislation, the council could be said by the Secretary of State to be overstepping the mark and saying something political. However, in my view, that is a matter for local judgment, rather than for an overbearing Secretary of State who does not like a local authority publicising the detrimental impact of his policies on local residents. That seems to be what the proposal is all about; it is all about preventing the public from getting a full grasp of some of the consequences of this Government’s often damaging policies on people in our local communities.
The publication, though, might find favour with the Secretary of State, because he would love to see a small child carrying a bin as part of the local “recycling first” policy; we know that the right hon. Gentleman likes nothing more than bins. The publication may therefore avoid his red pen when he starts to censor our local council publications around the country.
The legal advice to the Local Government Association states:
“If we take the example of HS2, a central Government project of immense significance to the authorities affected by it (some who are strongly in favour and some who are strongly against), it is conceivable that the Secretary of State could use his direction-making powers to require specifically named councils who oppose the scheme in principle to refrain from making any adverse comment about the scheme in their publicity, on the basis that it is”— quoting from paragraph 15 of the code—
“‘likely to be perceived by readers as…being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy’.”
The advice continues:
“How can that possibly sit with the fact that as a matter of principle those same authorities can challenge the process behind HS2 in the courts—as they have done—and petition Parliament against the hybrid bill for HS2—which they surely will do? Why should the authorities concerned not be able to make their opposition known or provide a commentary on the scheme by means of publicity, and provide information to their local residents about why the authorities are opposed to it, and explaining to their local residents how they can oppose it too? Even though primary legislation specifically provides that a council can petition against the HS2 Bill (see…the Local Government Act 1972), there is a real possibility that using the direction-making powers in particular, the Government could seek to prevent the authority from communicating its views to its own residents.
The step change from merely ‘having regard’ to the policy to being required to comply with it does not sit well in an example like this. If a local authority is so directly affected by a controversial central Government proposal like this, then it should have the discretion that it has with the ‘have regard’ provision to enable it to consider the code, and”— this is the critical point—
“take a view as to whether the matter is of such importance to its residents that the code should not be complied with to the letter.”
We come to a point of interpretation. I, as a localist and a democrat, would rather see the balance of interpretation being with local authorities in the first instance. They should decide whether a commentary is in the interest of their communities. If the Secretary of State has a concern, based on an evidential process and a proportionate response, he should raise it with the local authority. He should not seek these powers, which would give all the authority to interpret the code to him and none to local authorities.
It is not unknown for central Government to request or require local authorities to publicise central Government policy. If an authority is asked to do so on a contentious area of public policy, it may have to refuse for fear of breaching paragraph 15 of the code. Examples may include the implementation of universal credit, or changes arising from NHS reform. In the Ealing publication, for example, there is an article about local plans for the reconfiguration of hospital services in north London. It would clearly have to take a view about that, because it could be subject to a challenge from the Secretary of State.
We come to a problem about local government finances. Local authorities may have to interpret the law prudently, as unfortunately they sometimes do with planning. Local authorities sometimes take the precautionary view that they will not oppose a planning application because the costs of legal action and appeal are so high, even if the majority of local residents have good reasons to oppose it. There will be a significant legal burden on local authorities if legal action is taken against them for their interpretation of their ability to comment on or to publicise news and information that emanates from central Government, yet the central Government may require them to publicise policies and their impact on local communities.
I want to highlight a further consequence of the lack of clarity. The loose way in which the current code is drafted sits easily with the duty to have regard to it. For example, paragraph 28 of the code states:
“Local authorities should not publish or incur expenditure in commissioning in hard copy or on any website, newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content.”
Again, it is a matter of interpretation. When is something like a local newspaper, and when is it not? For example, is the publication of the chairman of the Conservative party in Welwyn Hatfield, Your Council Your Borough, which profiles the annual sports awards, like a local newspaper? As I have highlighted, often there is a complementary relationship between local publications and local authorities. However, that publication could be seen to be political because it promotes the activities of the council leadership. “What a year!” it says, with pictures of prominent local councillors. It contains a piece from the leader, which talks about decisions the local authority has made. Those policy decisions are, of course, political.
Often, the decisions that the leadership of a local authority make, especially at a time when it has diminishing resources, are controversial. They may be politically contentious in the council chamber. Yet is it not right that they can communicate with local people about the impact of those decisions? So is Your Council Your Boroughsomething that competes with a local newspaper, or is it something entirely different in quality? Is it not typical of the kind of local publications that will be negatively impacted by the Bill? I ask the Minister that question quite seriously. I am sure that he has looked at these publications; I have looked at a wide range of them, such as East Hampshire’s publication, Partners, andeastend lifeis different. Had I been the Minister for Local Government, I would have been in touch with it to say that it is inappropriate and contrary to the code, and asked it to change course. If necessary, I would have followed that with legal action.
Of course, a local authority should have regard to the legal force of a code, but the long-held principle in this country is that courts of law should make judgments based on reasonableness. Could eastend life be said to have been reasonably produced based on a proper consideration of the requirements of paragraph 28 of the code not to compete with commercial publications? I think that any reasonable court of law would judge that it walks like a local newspaper, it talks like a local newspaper and it quacks like a local newspaper, so action should have been taken, and it is the Government’s failure not to have done so.
There is no definition in the code of newsletter or news sheet, so it would be entirely for the Secretary of State to decide whether a publication contravened paragraph 28. We do not know whether the Secretary of State intends to set out any further clarification of the code, but we know that the Bill will allow him to introduce new codes, which could be pushed through using the Government’s parliamentary majority. They would be unlike the previous code, which was based on a consensual approach in the House, bearing in mind the balance in our democracy between Government’s power to have a say about prudent use of local resources and the right of local democratically elected people to make those judgments in their own area.
The legal evidence from the Local Government Association raises a set of issues, which I hope that the Minister has had an opportunity to consider. It looks, for example, at the implications of the Secretary of State’s power to make orders as he sees fit. We are deeply concerned about the nature of the legislation, and we will oppose it. We oppose the entire clause, but we have also tabled some brief amendments. I remind the Committee that the amendments are designed to remove the exceptional provision that the Secretary of State can take action whether or not he thinks the code has been complied with, because that is clearly not appropriate. Surely, Government Members can use their good sense on this occasion. They may want to keep in the Whip’s good books, and some will not want to compromise future careers or preferment by staging a rebellion today, but they must recognise that the provision is completely inappropriate and wrong, and they will have to account for it to their own local authorities. Perhaps the nature of some authorities means that they have never published anything significant that would be impacted by the legislation, but I am sure that there will be Government Members who will greatly regret, as I will, the demise of publications such as Partners, Welwyn Hatfield Life and Nene Valley News, most of which will not survive the Government’s changes.
Our other amendments are designed to create a sense of proportion. Amendment 147 would specify that the Secretary of State should be in receipt of evidence of a breach before he takes action, rather than speculatively taking action because he spotted something that he found offensive while he was on the bus coming across Lambeth bridge. I am sure that members of Lambeth council will find it difficult to stomach when they see the Secretary of State using the Government’s huge communications budget to promote the Government’s rationale for the swingeing cuts that the council faces. In the same way, I am sure that the Secretary of State finds the council’s pointing up the consequences of his policies difficult to bear, but that is a democracy, and I want to live in that kind of country, not in a Putinesque regime in which the Secretary of State can ban something just because he does not like it.
We are proposing a basic test of evidence and a right for local councils to respond to the evidence and set out their reasons, so that the Secretary of State, in exercising such a highly subjective power, will at least be required to consider why a local authority has published an extra copy of its newspaper. When I discussed the matter with the Minister’s officials, I was told that if a town or city were hosting the Tour de France, for example, it might want to publish an additional copy of its newspaper to promote the event. In my area, the equivalent of Tour de France in Durham, Sheffield or the Minister’s part of the world might be the local conker festival. It is all about what is important in a particular area or community: what has economic value; what has value in terms of local democracy; and the vibrancy of a local community. Those are not matters for the Secretary of State to determine, but for local authorities to determine. That is why a simple test of evidence is the right way forward, if indeed we have to bear the clause at all.
I hope that members of the Committee have thought about the implications for our democracy. A very important principle is at stake. I hope that the Minister will commit to take this away and review the clause, with a view to bringing forward more proportionate, sensible proposals on Report. I hope he is finally listening to the wealth of evidence that he has had, including the commentary from his noble Friends in the other place and, indeed, on Second Reading in the Commons, which shows that the measure is considered to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I do not intend to delay the Committee for long on clause 38. It is an important clause and we need to consider how it will operate in practice and its implications. We need to do the right thing for our residents, council tax payers and local authorities across the country.
The hon. Member for Corby began his speech this morning by referring to a little list. I think it was a reference to the famous conference speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). I too have a little list that was e-mailed to me from one of my constituents who lives in Staffordshire, but pays business rates in Derbyshire. It is a little list of the publications of Derbyshire county council. Members of the Committee might be interested to know that those venerable publications include Derbyshire First, Your Derbyshire,b_line magazine, Derbyshire Gold, Reach,Safer Derbyshire, Derbyshire Governor, Derbyshire Business First, and Derbyshire’s Workforce magazine. All those publications are produced by Derbyshire county council and paid for by Derbyshire council tax payers. The Committee might think that that is all perfectly fine. They are a set of publications that Rupert Murdoch himself would be proud of.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman has anticipated this intervention and will give us a stunning and compelling reply, but clearly it would have been incredibly difficult for Anne Western, the Labour leader of Derbyshire county council, to have established such a broad range of publications in her brief time in power. They are obviously the responsibility of the previous administration, which is perhaps being reviewed right now by our colleagues in Derbyshire.
I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Gentleman raises the case of Councillor Anne Western, because it is to her that I wish to speak. The resident who e-mailed me made specific reference to Councillor Western and sent me a copy of October’s edition of Your Derbyshire, a fantastic glossy publication paid for by council tax payers. I want to refer to paragraph 15 of the code, which states:
“Local authorities should ensure that publicity relating to policies and proposals from central government is balanced and factually accurate. Such publicity may set out the local authority’s views and reasons for holding those views, but should avoid anything likely to be perceived by readers as constituting a political statement, or being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy.”
So I will refer to a full-page spread by Councillor Western, in which she said:
“The county council is under pressure too. Following news of £127 million worth of cuts to its funding over the next five years, the county council suffered another body-blow over the summer when the coalition Government suggested a further £30 million cut was in the pipeline.”
It goes on:
“The Government needs to know the devastating effects the cuts it’s imposing will have on our communities.”
The point I am refuting is that the publication accords with what is laid out in paragraph 15 of the code, which clearly states:
“Local authorities should ensure that publicity relating to policies and proposals from central government is balanced and factually accurate. Such publicity may set out the local authority’s views… but should avoid anything likely to be perceived by readers as constituting a political statement.”
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the councillor’s comment is a political statement?
As I already alluded to, I have no problem with making the details of the financial settlement of Derbyshire county council or any other county council available to the public, because it is obviously something that the public have a right to know about. I do, however, have a problem with party politics on the ratepayer, which is exactly what we are witnessing in this publication and what the Government are seeking to stop with the clause. It cannot be refuted that the councillor’s comment is a party political statement. Taxpayer money is being used to make party political points on the behalf of the Labour party in Derbyshire.
I would just like to confirm what my hon. Friend says; as a council tax payer and resident of Derbyshire, I also object to my council tax being used to produce political leaflets that are passed out as the views of the county council.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Burton. Indeed, he said himself that the information was factually accurate. If he believes so strongly that the councillor’s comment is a political statement, will he tell the Committee whether action has been taken under the current code?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has raised that. I hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns and will consider whether this publication, from October this year, which obviously flouts the rules and uses council tax payers’ money to make political statements, should be measured against the code and whether action should be taken.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman what action he has taken? He could have written to the monitoring officer or the chief executive. I will make a freedom of information request to find out what action has been taken by local Members of Parliament in respect of what they perceive to be a breach of the code.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Given that I received this information today, I will be doing exactly that. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has prompted me to do that and I will be delighted to copy him into the correspondence should he so wish.
I am wondering whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing that it is wrong for councils to express a view on the behalf of the people whom they represent on issues that affect such people. I draw his attention to comments from the Conservative leader of the LGA, Sir Merrick Cockell, that relate to this particular clause. He describes the clause as “a mistake” and says that he fears the Government may
“restrict councils from campaigning on important issues such as HS2 or hospital closures if they so wish.”
Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with the Conservative leader of the LGA?
I am a strong supporter of Sir Merrick, and I agree with many things that he says, but I refer the hon. Gentleman back to paragraph 15 of the code, the terms of which are clear. It cannot be said on the one hand that the Government’s proposals are unnecessary, because there is a code that can be used to protect the public and the council tax payer, and then on the other that, when there is a flagrant breach, as there has been by the Labour-run Derbyshire county council—
The hon. Member for High Peak made the position clear: Conservative Members are objecting to Labour council leaders articulating the impact of Tory cuts on their local areas. That seems to be the only objection that we have heard so far. That is not a breach. The fact is that in May Labour was elected with an overwhelming landslide majority in Derbyshire and it has inherited a terrible budget situation with unprecedented funding cuts. Councillor Western is merely setting out what the impact is, and let us be clear that the impact is a body blow to Derbyshire. That is not party political. She is merely setting out what the impact will be on council tax payers in her area. Surely they are entitled to know that.
Of course I understand why the hon. Gentleman would need to defend his county council leader when she is using public funds in such an egregious way. I completely understand that, but I again refer him to the code. Comments should be “balanced and factually accurate” and,
“should avoid being perceived by readers as constituting a political statement”.
How on earth can the phrase:
“The Government needs to know the devastating effects the cuts it’s imposing will have on our communities” not be perceived as a political statement? The fact that the hon. Gentleman is trying to defend such a breach of the code shows that the Government’s approach is absolutely right. I refer again to the same publication, which says:
“Cuts of this size will damage your services over the next five years. We don’t want to see that happen”.
This is party political posturing on taxpayers and the rates. As much as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central may shake his head, the people in Derbyshire who foot the bill for that deserve better. They deserve a code and they deserve a Government who prevent the use of council tax payers’ money in this way. I ask the Minister to look at that breach of the code, and to confirm today that the Government proposals will stop politicians in the town hall using council tax payers’ money to campaign on the rates in such an egregious way.
Obviously, I rise in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, who I think has put forward an irrefutable case. I am entirely unconvinced by the contribution of the hon. Member for Burton, because he was giving his opinion and parading it as if it were fact. He can report his concerns to the monitoring officer, and we will see whether the comments made by Councillor Western are deemed to be party political. I do not believe that they are in any way, shape or form.
I absolutely believe that it is the right of council leaders and elected council members in different local authorities to express, through their publications, the impact of decisions on the people they represent. Why should they not be able to do that? There is a code of practice within which they need to operate, and if the Government have a problem with councils breaching—in their view—the code, remedies are available. However, from what we understand it seems that there has been no effort made by the Government on a single case to articulate any concerns about a breach or a possible breach of the code of practice.
It must be said that this is a very nasty clause, which places the Secretary of State as the censor in chief in our country. I wonder what kind of country we are becoming. What kind of democracy do we want to live in? The clause has been brought before the Houses of Parliament in all seriousness. Is this Committee expected to swallow it and think that in some way this represents democracy? It seems to me to be the very antithesis of democracy.
I am reminded of the 1980s, when a previous Conservative Government sought to attack Derbyshire county council, a local authority with which they disagreed at the time, and to use legislation to clamp down on the council. It was probably the publications in Derbyshire at the time that led to the 1986 legislation, which I will come on to in a while.
I wonder what the Government are frightened of. Why are they so scared of local authorities expressing opinions and information to their electors about decisions affecting their local areas? Intervene on me: why are Conservative Members frightened of that? Surely information should be imparted freely throughout the local authority area. All the local authority is doing is informing the public, who have a right to know. Much of it is incredibly innocuous stuff. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby went to great lengths to explain the sort of information that is incorporated in many council publications, which members of the public should receive. Very often, in many parts of the country, no alternative is available to get that information across to local residents.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could clarify whether he still supports the voluntary code and the terms within it.
The code is something that we support, yes. It is supported across local government. That seems to be a fairly straightforward and obvious point, and I am happy to get it on the record. Working within that code is perfectly proper and the document from Derbyshire that was referred to was within that code. We shall see whether the hon. Member for Burton refers it to the monitoring officer; there will be an investigation and a view will be given. I suspect that it will come down in support of Councillor Western and against the hon. Gentleman.
Let us be clear: 79% of council publications reach 90% and more of their local electorate. That is a pretty impressive penetration rate—only 1% of local papers achieve that kind of penetration. As we have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, there are many local authority areas in this country where there is no alternative local newspaper to provide information and news to residents, so the only source of local news and information is through the council publication. What we see here is an attempt by the Government to close off that opportunity to provide the information.
“We do not believe that this element of guidance reflects the needs of many communities, nor the practicalities of providing prompt, accurate advice and information to communities. For example, 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”.
I want to comment on the hon. Gentleman’s point about where there is no other newspaper; the hon. Member for Corby referred to the Nene Valley News and there being no other newspaper. In Derby North, in my constituency and in many others across the country there are newspapers struggling for copy, advertising and support. For instance, the Derby Telegraph provides a fantastic service. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Derby Telegraph should have to put up with this unfair competition?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has made that point. Let me be clear and quote the Derby Telegraph, which does not consider the publication of the local council newspaper in Derby as any threat whatever. Indeed, it benefits from the publication of that newspaper, because it publishes it and prints it, so it is getting an income stream, as well as advertising revenue, from the local authority. Far from the Derby Telegraph suggesting that this is a threat, it welcomes it and benefits from it. I do not accept the hon. Member for Burton’s point.
There is no evidence to suggest that the code of practice for local authorities—the voluntary code—is being breached at the moment. If there were some evidence of widespread abuse, there might be some justification, but even then I would be a little anxious and nervous about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, there is no evidence, so I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.
Again, there is a great deal of cross-party consensus—not in this room, but certainly outside it—on these unnecessary provisions. Is my hon. Friend aware of the comments made by Baroness Eaton, a well respected former Conservative leader of Bradford council? She said:
“This clause is unnecessary as there is no evidence that council publications are competing unfairly with local newspapers and, by the Government’s own admission, very few councils are breaking the existing recommendations.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 2013; Vol. 745, c. 903.]
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am familiar with the noble Baroness’s comment; I may even have quoted her on Second Reading. It is clear that there is cross-party support, if not in this sitting, then in the wider reaches of the other place. Certainly, outside Parliament there is widespread cross-party support for the position that we are taking.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby has already mentioned that the LGA, which it has to be said is a Conservative-led organisation, supports our amendments in their entirety. He said that that is pretty much unprecedented. I have been around the LGA for some time. Despite my youthful appearance, I was a councillor some 20-odd years ago and served on the LGA. I do not recall its being so forthright in its support for what might be argued is a partisan amendment. We are living in unprecedented times. There is cross-party support—if not in this room, then in the wider world.
The proposition being advanced by the Government has Orwellian implications. The Secretary of State is setting himself up as Big Brother. Rather than being the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—I have made the point in the past and this provision just reinforces it—he is the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Truth. Perhaps we should rename the Department “the Ministry of Truth”, which would be a more appropriate name if the clause is unamended.
To get us back to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Corby, will the hon. Gentleman clarify which, if any, sections of the code he disagrees with? If he does not disagree with any of the code, will he explain why he does not want it to be fully enforceable?
It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We have already made the point that there is no problem with the voluntary code and that the LGA does not have a problem with it. The clause would put so much power in the hands of the Secretary of State and one wonders where he or a future Secretary of State will go with that power. It is unjustified. Why legislate when there is no evidence to justify the legislation? That leaves me suspicious and leads to suspicions in the minds of people from all parties—outside this place, if not in this room.
My hon. Friend talks about suspicions. Does he agree that the hon. Member for Burton’s contribution to the debate reveals why we are right to be so concerned about what the Government’s real intentions are? It is about wanting to silence opposition in this country, as they have done with the gagging law.
I have read comments by Andrew Lewer, the former Conservative leader of Derbyshire council, in the publication —helpfully, all past copies of the publications are online—and he makes similar references to the impact of Government on his local area as elected leader of the local council. It is incredibly worrying. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I absolutely agree. The more interventions I hear from the hon. Member for Burton, the more alarmed and concerned I become. I hope that sense will prevail in the end, because this is a very worrying trend. Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut!
Powers are already available under section 4(1) of the Local Government Act 1986, a piece of legislation precipitated in part by previous attacks on Derbyshire county council, led at the time by Councillor David Bookbinder. As we know, “publicity” is defined in that legislation, having regard to the contents of the publicity code and section 6 of the Act, as
“any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public”.
I say again that powers are available. There is no real evidence of widespread, if any, abuse, and as far as I am aware, the Government and Ministers have not attempted to take any action. If they are so concerned, why have they not written to local authorities? Why have they not even considered judicial review? My hon. Friend the Member for Corby referred in his contribution to his parliamentary question:
“what communication he has had with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets about adherence to the Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity.”
Answer came there none.
My hon. Friend asked another parliamentary question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, how many local authorities he or Ministers in his Department have written to with regard to their observance of the Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity.”
Answer came there none.
What is going on here? There are remedies available, but the Government are not using them. They have not even taken the trouble to write to local authorities, which, if we believe what Government Members are saying, are in breach of the code and being party political at every turn. The truth of the matter is that there is no evidence of that. Even the example cited by the hon. Member for Burton and backed up by the hon. Member for High Peak is, in my view, nowhere near a breach in any event. The best that they can do is to point to one: Derbyshire county council. That is all we have heard today.
I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman wants me to respond to that, or whether it was a serious intervention. Is he happy for it to appear in Hansard—that he is concerned about the Labour leader of a borough council brandishing a pen with “Labour” on it? As though anybody would be able to read that it said “Labour”, unless it was a giant pen! Was he signing a giant cheque with a giant pen?
To be honest, I noticed it, and so did several residents. They said to me, “Why should they have a party political emblem in a council-produced magazine?” I agree, but the point that we are trying to make is that it typifies how things can be placed. They call it product placement, and it was banned on television—“EastEnders” would have Kellogg’s corn flakes on the breakfast table and so on. We could go on about this; I am sure that there are many other examples up and down the country.
My goodness me, if they are as strong as that, I give up. Is that the best we can do? I am almost speechless. We have heard an alleged breach of the code in some comments from a leader of Derbyshire county council setting out the impact of the Government cuts on the residents of Derbyshire.
The only other example is that in a photograph in a newsletter from High Peak borough council, the Labour leader had a pen with “Labour” written on it. That was a breach, so we are passing legislation to prevent leaders of councils appearing in photographs brandishing pens with “Labour” on them. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can see it, but I have a pen here that says “League Against Cruel Sports”. Can he read it? That would be about the size of the image seen. Honestly, I find this utterly ridiculous.
I repeat that if councils, whatever— [ Interruption. ] Labour Members obviously find it all very hilarious, but I make the point that it was not just me who noticed it and said, “Hmm.” Constituents came to me and said, “That isn’t right.” If Labour Members think that what my constituents bring to me is worthy of ridicule, that is fine—that is their prerogative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to the Lambeth council poster on the cuts, and that poster was outside my flat in Lambeth. There are various examples. In isolation, people might think that the pen thing is funny, but when my constituents come to me, I do not particularly like to laugh at what they tell me.
Fine. People may articulate their concerns to the hon. Gentleman, and they are perfectly at liberty to do so, but is the pen really a breach of the code? Does it merit legislation? As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby has pointed out, we could argue that the Labour leader at the time, by using a Labour pen, was saving the council tax payer money by not using a pen funded by the council tax payer, so perhaps he should be congratulated.
I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman should say, “Don’t be so silly, go away.” What I am suggesting is that he should not elevate that to the point where he uses it to justify introducing legislation. I talked about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but, goodness me, this is much more than a sledgehammer; it is one of those piledrivers that was used to build the London Shard. It is unbelievable that his trivial example could be invoked as justification for introducing legislation.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend, like me, is not particularly concerned that Councillor Irene Dean, a member of Welwyn Hatfield borough council, is wearing a blue shirt in a picture and that Councillor Sara Johnston, a Conservative, is wearing a blue dress. There are many images of local authority members. In East Hampshire district council’s Partners magazine, they are wearing badges. The measure is clearly intended to stop the display of any political or campaigning emblems, because the Government are trying to stamp out even charitable and third-party emblems. Does he agree that the measure will result in officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government using microscopes to check whether any such badges or emblems—or even the offending pens—carry anything that could be construed to be in any way political?
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point that goes to the heart of the ridiculousness of the measures that the Government are seeking to introduce. One wonders where it will all end. They are letting a genie out of the bottle that will have unwelcome and potentially unforeseen consequences.
The hon. Gentleman is enjoying a bit of knockabout, but I want to take him back to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government inquiry into local government publications. I draw his attention to the report’s conclusion:
“While there is…a case for individual politicians and parties to state their position on particular issues, this should be at their own expense.”
Does he not agree with that sentiment and, therefore, that illustrations such as that provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton should not be included in local authority publications?
I have already made my position clear. I do not believe that the words attributed to Councillor Western are in any way, shape or form a breach. If the hon. Member for Burton wants to report that to the monitoring officer, no doubt an inquiry will be forthcoming and we will find out what the monitoring officer thinks about Councillor Western’s comments.
We all accept the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. Is the hon. Gentleman not demonstrating why it is important for the code to be in legislation? He is trying to hide behind the code being a voluntary code and the enforceability of that. If he supports the code being a voluntary code, why does he not think it should have some teeth and be enforceable?
It has teeth. It is already universally accepted across local government. Local government already signs up to the voluntary code. As I have said, we have not heard widespread examples of abuse. We have heard of one from the hon. Member for Stroud and we have heard about the pen, but that is about it. There is not the evidence available.
In the context of comments made by hon. Members on the Government Benches, my hon. Friend might reflect on the extraordinary powers the Secretary of State is giving himself to intervene, to exercise editorial authority over council publications
“whether or not the Secretary of State thinks that the authority is complying with the code”.
The powers being sought are nothing to do with code compliance; they are everything to do with sucking power to the centre.
That is very much so. It speaks to the party political nature of the clause. We have heard about two council leaders. One made some comments and another held a pen. That is all we have heard. The individual who is being really party political—this goes to the heart of what is proposed—is the Secretary of State, who will have powers to intervene, even if there is no evidence of a breach of the code or abuse. It is clear and set out in the Bill. Why should the Secretary of State have such powers? He is seeking to use them in a partisan way to intervene against councillors in local authorities that he does not like, such as the leader of Derbyshire county council and the leaders in Nottingham. As local elections come next year and beyond, there will probably be more Labour local authorities. This provision would give the Secretary of State the power to intervene against political opponents he does not like, even though they are acting perfectly lawfully and within the code of practice.
The hon. Gentleman has asked a perfectly reasonable question, so let us answer it. According to a parliamentary answer from the Minister, 10% of local government publications breach the code. That includes the example of Lambeth council, which I have already mentioned and my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak reiterated. Lambeth council said that the Government had cut its money so it was forced to cut services. That is blatantly political.
That sort of activity is within the code. We have agreed that the code is acceptable. The code would say that that practice was not acceptable, so we should agree that it is not acceptable. Now we have to find a way to ensure there is more compliance. That is the issue here: 10% of publications do not comply. It is therefore necessary to introduce clause 38 to make compliance and enforcement possible.
Order. Interventions should be brief. A lot of interventions in this debate are getting very long, so please let us have briefer interventions.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I am not sure it is valid. I note his reference to 10%. I think that is a fairly subjective view. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether he can confirm that. As far as I am aware, there have not been any examples of Ministers making representations to local authorities about breaches. We know that local government is resourceful but I am not sure they have developed alchemy yet. I am not sure that Lambeth pointing out that a big reduction in funding from central Government will have an impact on front-line services qualifies as a breach of the code.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument against the clause. Does he agree that interventions from Government Members seem to suggest that they do not want local communities to get factual information about the impact of Government cuts on their area? That is what they are trying to close down.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Going back to the previous intervention from the hon. Member for Stroud, he referred to 10% of local authorities breaching the code. I am not sure when he got that information, because when Baroness Hanham was challenged on the number of local authorities that had allegedly breached the code, she said:
“I shall not say which local authorities we already know are breaching the code. I have them. I could do it, but I think it is probably not helpful. I hope noble Lords will accept my assurance that at least a dozen are breaching them at the moment.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 604.]
That is not 10%, but just 12. As I pointed out this morning, I am just a lay person. I am not a lawyer or an accountant; I am a humble bricklayer. Even by my maths—I left school without any qualifications—12 does not constitute 10% of local authorities.
I have been looking at a very interesting website, “NS the voice of local media”. It represents all sorts of organisations and organs of the local media. That is where that information comes from. But in a parliamentary answer the 10% was explicitly stated by the Minister. There is a case to be answered here. It is no use just referring to our own personal experiences because we cannot know all of the situations across the whole of the country, but we can assume that the figure of 10% is broadly right.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I thought he said when he intervened earlier that it was a formal answer to a parliamentary question. It now seems that it is from an independent website. We can all go on the internet and find all sorts of things asserted. In an earlier debate I was called to order by the Chair for using an internet definition of a “close friend”. I am not sure the hon. Gentleman’s argument carries any weight. I can only refer to Baroness Hanham, who said that it was around 12, which is less than 1% of local authorities. My maths is not great and perhaps my hon. Friend can help me.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend but I cannot shed light on this element of the debate. Clearly there has not been any real evidence forthcoming from the Government, but that was an extraordinary statement. They claim to have the information and refuse to give it in the House of Lords.
The hon. Member for Stroud made an instructive comment and I wonder what my hon. Friend’s response to it might be. He said that we cannot always know what is happening in other areas and we cannot base our judgments entirely on what happens in our areas. The whole point of changing the code from an advisory one to one that is enforceable by the Secretary of State on his judgment is that he will take precisely the power to use his subjective opinion to stop councils from publishing things all around the country based entirely on what he thinks. That is what is wrong with the measure and what is anti-democratic.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is precisely what is wrong with it. There is no evidence whatever of widespread abuse. The localist Secretary of State, someone who allegedly believes in localism and the power of local people and the power of self-determination, is taking these unprecedented powers to himself. Not even Margaret Thatcher sought to take powers to that extent in the 1980s when the wholesale assault was launched on Derbyshire county council.
My hon. Friend talked about the impact of the clause and said that it will preclude local authorities from supporting local people in their campaigns on issues of local concern. I wonder what on earth a local authority or elected members are for if not to stand up for the local electors who put them there in the first place. Surely they should have the right and the power to stand up, facilitate and assist campaigns on matters of local concern. Anybody who claims to be a localist could not argue against that notion. Local elected members should be able to represent, stand up for and facilitate campaigns on issues of great concern to the electors who put them into office in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point strongly. If it were not for the fact that there are, of course, other means by which to do so, his would be a compelling argument. Does he agree that there is quite a difference between representing the existing concerns of an electorate and seeking to persuade that electorate of a position held by one portion of it, and that, in addressing those arguments, we ought to recognise the difference between the two?
The local code, I believe, makes that distinction already. I come back to the point that if there were examples of widespread abuse, there might be something to say for introducing the clause, but we have not heard of such examples. I do not know whether the hon. Member for High Peak has any examples further to a Labour leader holding a pen, but we have no examples to justify using a huge piledriver to crack a tiny nut. On that basis, until such time as he can come forward with examples to justify the legislation his Government proposes, he ought to support our amendment.
I wonder whether the hon. Member for Chippenham, who just intervened, was similarly concerned about the position of the Lib Dem-Tory Southwark council back in 2008 when it—legitimately—raised concerns about the Labour Government’s NHS policy and the closure of a local hospital on behalf of Southwark’s residents. Would he condemn that council for doing that and for making those views known in council publicity?
Obviously, that local authority was perfectly at liberty to articulate those concerns. I will come on to examples such as that in a moment or two, in which local authorities rightly use council publications to articulate the views and concerns of their residents.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Chippenham thinks that that was an abuse. I happen to think it was not. It certainly was not challenged as being abuse at the time. Surely it was a perfectly legitimate use of council tax payers’ resources, because the decision would have a direct impact on that local area. Surely it is reasonable in those circumstances for the democratically-elected community leaders to articulate those views.
It would be wrong if legislation were passed that makes it difficult—impossible, even—for local authorities to support their residents in campaigns. That is a good case in point from 2008, but a campaign could be on a range of other things, such as the location of an incinerator, the building of a new supermarket, the site of a new road or infrastructure projects such as HS2, which my hon. Friend the Member for Corby mentioned in his opening remarks. If a local authority is to mean anything, surely it ought to be articulating and representing the views of its residents. I know, however, that sometimes the Government of the day might not like to hear some of those views.
This afternoon, we have heard from Members that they objected to the words used by Councillor Western of Derbyshire county council. However, George Orwell said:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
It is pretty clear that Government Members in this Committee do not want to hear local authorities representing their communities and repeating back to them the impact of the unprecedented swingeing cuts that they are voting for and that are being imposed on local government up and down the country. To somehow say that it is wrong, that it is in breach of the code, that it is party political, or that it is anti-democratic to articulate to local residents that a funding reduction from central Government will impact on services to people on the ground, seems incredible. I find it astonishing that anybody could suggest that that was in some way wrong and unacceptable.
Government Members may not like to hear it, but it is important that local government members of whatever political persuasion have the ability to stand up and speak up for the local residents that put them where they are. Those in central Government might not like to hear the views and concerns of local people about the policies they are implementing at a national level, but surely local people have a right to speak up.
I hope to speak later in the debate, but I wanted to ask whether the hon. Gentleman thought it properly reflects the need for a balanced projection if a Lambeth council poster talks about the impact of cuts on residents without also disclosing on the same poster that that council has £84 million in the bank in reserves?
We dealt with that issue earlier on. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was here this morning—or was it another day? One day seems to merge into another when we are enjoying ourselves so much in this Committee. Anyway, we dealt with the issue of reserves and made the point that, because of the unprecedented swingeing cuts that are being imposed by the coalition Government—he served on the Front Bench when those decisions were taken—councils are keeping reserves in order to minimise the impact on front-line services. It is important that reserves are there to be used to minimise that impact, and he will well know that many of them will be earmarked.
I cannot comment on whether the figure he has given is correct—I take the right hon. Gentleman at his word—but it really does not justify these measures. In many ways, it is a separate point. If Lambeth council had included on its poster that it had some money in reserve, how would that be in any way relevant? Had it done that, would it have stopped the Government? Would it have precluded his support for the Bill? It is a spurious example and certainly does not justify using a piledriver to crack a miniature nut.
Two elements of the previous intervention are instructive, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend might comment on them. First, there is a consistency in any example given: what is clearly motivating the Government, and is behind this extraordinary, disproportionate and undemocratic clause, is that they have not liked, on occasion, a local community and its elected representatives speaking a bit of truth to power. In the example cited by the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove, had the local authority chosen to highlight its prudent planning of reserves, could not that have been seen as political posturing to highlight its record as a great Labour council making sensible decisions to build up reserves in the event of a difficult time ahead?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks it would have been less troublesome if Anne Western, at the same time as saying that it was a
“body-blow over the summer” that the county council was having to consider £30 million of extra cuts, had said, “But we’re increasing our reserves from £231 million to £241 million.” Does he think that that would have been a more accurate description?
The hon. Gentleman should make that point to his right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, because he brought up the issue of reserves. We have rehearsed that argument, and I am not sure that it is particularly helpful to go into detail about the whys and wherefores of local authority reserves, and the reasons why local authorities are building up their reserves to try and minimise the impact on local authority services that is a consequence of the unprecedented swingeing cuts that the Secretary of State is imposing.
Where on earth is the inspiration for all this stuff coming from? When we strip all the language and all the discussion we have had away, it is really an attack on free speech. We are talking about democratically elected local community leaders being prevented from speaking up for their electorate. If that is not an attack on free speech, I do not know what it is.
If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about freedom of speech, would he encourage magazines published by local authorities to have an independently edited letters page—[ Interruption ]—so that the ordinary council tax payer might have freedom of speech in those publications?
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby points out from a sedentary position that people could send those to a local paper. To be honest, I think that some local authorities already have such a page. I am not absolutely certain, but I am pretty sure that I have seen examples of that in local council publications, and I would not have a problem with that—it would be quite a good thing.
This policy is very much an attack on free speech. The hon. Member for Carlisle talked about the council chamber being the bastion of free speech in which views can be heard and exchanged. That is absolutely true but, as we all know, attendance at council meetings is regrettably not huge. The reportage of council meetings often leaves a lot to be desired because of the difficulties that many local newspapers and radio stations are experiencing. At council meetings in my early days on Derby city council, there was always a journalist from the local newspaper, a broadcast news reporter from Radio Derby and a broadcast news reporter from Ram FM, as I think it was at the time. Those three journalists were there for the entire meeting. By the time I resigned from Derby city council, we did not see any of them very often—not even the representative from the Derby Telegraph.
I am puzzled, because I cannot understand how this can be described as an attack on free speech when the code itself is very clear. We all appear to agree about its objectives and purposes, and it includes a description of what councils should be allowed to do: communicate about local government activity. Where the code draws the line is on making overt political points, and surely we would want compliance with that. Clause 38 simply does that; it does not extend or strengthen the code, but simply enforces it.
I am at risk of repeating myself, but I would have more sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention if he could cite some examples of abuses that are going on. We have not seen any. We have had a pen, a bus shelter, and some comments from the leader of Derbyshire county council, and apparently the bus shelter misdemeanour would have been ameliorated if there had been some reference to Lambeth’s reserves. There are no examples of any real abuses, and I stand by my point that the proposal is an attack on free speech, because it gives unfettered power to the Secretary of State.
I wonder where the Secretary of State is getting his inspiration from. Is it from Iran, perhaps, with an attack on free speech? Perhaps it is a Putinesque former Soviet Union, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Corby referred. Perhaps it is North Korea, and the Secretary of State wants to be the supreme leader of local government. Rather than being known by his name, he might prefer to be “Kim Jong Pickles”. We will see him flanked by military people and viewing operations through his binoculars, perhaps with a curious hairstyle.
I despair as to what on earth the Government are doing. They claim to be localist and say that they want to devolve power and free the people, but they are, at the same time, controlling them with an iron fist. It really is coming back to the point about Big Brother and the ministry of truth.
I shall conclude with a quote from Oscar Wilde:
“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
Governments Members are in real danger, as a bare minimum, of making asses of themselves. We want to save them from that ignominy. I say to Government Members, “Please support our amendment. Don’t make asses of yourselves. Stand up for the localist principles that you all claim to believe in.” If they genuinely believe in those principles and in free speech, they cannot possibly support the clause.
My hon. Friend set out an irrefutable argument that was backed up by fact and by the views of ordinary members of the public—from various parts of the country as well as his constituency—who have grave reservations about what the Government are doing. As has been pointed out, that could have political ramifications. All credit to him for magnanimously trying to help his political opponent by preventing him from making an ass of himself when he confronts my hon. Friend in the general election in 2015.
The clause is a retrograde and dangerous step, so I hope that Government Members will think carefully before they allow it on to the statute book.
I will not detain the Committee too long. We spent more than two hours discussing the clause, which I think is totally disproportionate to its relevance to the Bill as a whole. I certainly support what is proposed in clause 38 and we need a little balance to what has been said over the past hour or two.
The shadow Minister said that he regretted the potential demise of various council newssheets. We have heard a whole litany of contributions from people who claim that they are a lifeline in their community. I would welcome their demise, to be perfectly honest, because to a great extent they are taxpayer-funded propaganda.
In my part of the world, we have two particularly valuable local newspapers, the Grimsby Telegraph and the Cleethorpes Chronicle, both of which cover local politics, although not quite to same extent as 20 years ago, as the hon. Member for Derby North pointed out.
Does my hon. Friend agree that local independent media are the vehicle for real scrutiny and for challenging power? They will hold people to account, not newspapers paid for by local government.
I am afraid so; it was 26 years of service.
“I think these types of publications produced by councils and public bodies benefit no one except those employed in” their
“printing and distribution”.
It attributed that comment to a Councillor Martin Vickers. I do not know what happened to him, but I am sure he is doing something equally worth while nowadays.
It is important that we support the viability of our local newspapers. The debate to which I referred was about a proposal that North East Lincolnshire council’s newspaper should publish all public notices and recruitment advertising, which would naturally have been a major blow to the local newspapers that carried that advertising. Understandably, we all speak in support of our local newspapers and want them to remain viable. If we allow council newspapers to expand to take on recruitment advertising and public notices, their viability will inevitably be brought into question.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It was the theme of the Newspaper Society when it said that this sort of publication
“competes unfairly with independent newspapers for readers and advertising revenues.”
That is what local newspapers think, so does he agree that this measure is a useful one to defend the local press?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I fully support this measured proposal.
It might be useful if I set out one or two examples of the public’s thoughts that are the opposite of what the shadow Minister cited. During that 2009 debate, the then rector of Grimsby, Rev. Michael Hunter, said:
“Talk of the council, the largest employer in North East Lincolnshire, transferring its advertising to an in-house publication and withdrawing a significant funding stream from its local newspaper will surely threaten its existence. Whether we love the Telegraph or not, this is an alarming development for those of us who treasure the freedom of the press and the part it plays in community cohesion.”
I know that the hon. Gentleman is making his points sincerely and has concern for local media, but what would he say to Baroness Eaton, who has at least as distinguished a role in local government as a Conservative councillor as he does—she is the former leader of Bradford council—when she says that
“there is scant evidence of council publications competing unfairly with local newspapers”.
Baroness Eaton had a far more esteemed role in local government than I ever played, but on this issue I disagree with her. I am talking about the potential extension of such newspapers into areas that have traditionally been very much the province of local newspapers and into a funding scheme, as I mentioned a moment ago, that those local papers are heavily reliant upon.
“This decision disadvantages many of my constituents who live in parts of North East Lincolnshire—particularly those living in Immingham and the surrounding areas.
I believe this means the council is being negligent regarding its statutory duties to publicise and consult residents in relation to, for example, planning applications.”
I hope I did not interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s quote—he was in full flow—but I want to say two things. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, the hon. Gentleman makes his point sincerely, and we may simply have a different view about the role and value of local newspapers, but on the point about advertising, what occurs to me is that there has been a lively debate locally about whether it is appropriate for there to be the advertising; clearly a judgment has been reached, but I hope that it is appropriate to the local circumstances. If it were not, however, and the hon. Gentleman thought that it was a breach of the code, he could take action by writing to the monitoring officer or, subsequently, referring it to the Secretary of State. The point is whether this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and not whether there might be different judgments around the country about how appropriate advertising might be. In my area, small, local classifieds were judged to be appropriate, but that might not be so in his area.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but one that I disagree with, because as I have already stated, I support the code as proposed—I do not accept that it is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
“This decision restricts the reach of recruitment and informational advertising, which should be a broad, wide and as deep as possible.”
From the debate at the time, many areas of north-east Lincolnshire clearly did not receive the North East Lincolnshire council newspaper, in particular out in the rural areas.
Again, I hope that I have not stopped the hon. Gentleman in full flow. When he has finished with the point that he was just making, will he explain the problem that he is seeking to remedy with this legislation? As far as I can see, there have been no breaches of the code of practice—or perhaps he can tell me how many there have been.
Off the top of my head, of course I am unable to tell the hon. Gentleman how many breaches there have been—but I do not see the relevance of his comment to the points that I am seeking to make.
My point is that the viability of our local newspapers is heavily dependent on various funding streams. If we allow taxpayer-funded council publications to extend their range, that viability would be lost. Only today at lunchtime, I attended the reception organised by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, which was held on the Terrace. Its representatives pointed out to me how reliant those independent retailers are on footfall through their shops—on people going to buy their local newspaper. The test for a council newspaper must surely be whether, if people had to pay for it directly, rather than indirectly through their taxes, they would actually stop at a newsagent and buy one. I suspect that the answer is no.
I shall speak briefly to the amendments. I ask the Minister to accept them as being fair, given all that has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Corby and for Derby North and in interventions from other hon. Friends.
Amendment 147 is simply asking the Secretary of State to set out his evidence that there has been a breach of the code. As has already been said, the Opposition agree with the publicity code. The amendment would also allow a reasonable amount of time for a response: 14 days is a very short time and I cannot see any problem with allowing 28 days for a response from a local authority. The fact of the matter is that the clause will give the Secretary of State sweeping powers when there is no evidence that the code has been breached. That is what is causing such widespread concern, and is particularly concerning for the Local Government Association.
Last year, when North Tyneside council was still under Tory control, the amount spent on the council publication that was put out quarterly was £62,500. It worked out at about 70p per copy with delivery, and 97,000 households received the publication. It is still going out, and it covers a wide expanse of topics, ranging from where people can get help if they are concerned about their children’s weight, to support for people coping with domestic abuse, the council’s budget timetable—that is crucial—listening events being held by the mayor and an NHS spread about how to prepare for winter. Some of the things covered in such publications may not be picked up by the local press.
Another important point is that those sorts of publications cover the whole borough. We have a good local paper, the News Guardian¸ but that goes to only three of the 10 wards in my area. It can also be bought, but only in some of our newsagents. People like to read that paper: I once told the editor it was the weekly bible for residents of north Tyneside. But newspapers cannot have the same objectivity as is required of press officers who work on behalf of the whole council in putting out council publications. The job of newspaper editors is to sell newspapers and make people want to read them. Newspapers therefore have to contain some sensationalism, whether that is making a story sound worse than it is or just trying to perk up the facts a bit to get people’s attention.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting point about political bias that might pertain to some newspapers, a point that I do not think has been made previously in our debate. Does she agree that local newspapers really cannot put over the detail of council services or issues in the way that a council publication might need to?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is what I am trying to say in a nutshell. I cannot emphasise this point enough: newsagents and newspapers need to sell papers to make profit. It is sad, but people today do not simply want to read the facts: they want those facts to be skewed in some way.
People view council publications in a completely different way from how they view newspapers. For most people, council publications are a source of information about what is happening in their council and how to contact various people. Not everyone has access to the internet—that is something that I raise constantly, locally, because I fear that people could lose out—and council publications are a way for people to get information about the services they can access and the people they can contact, in a readable form that they can leave around their house and refer back to whenever necessary.
The hon. Lady speaks persuasively about the objectivity with which council officers, as public employees, might go about producing communications. Does she therefore take the view that it would be appropriate for them to be free to do that without the editorial influence of elected politicians denying them the ability to be as objective as possible in what they publish?
That is quite an important point. The National Union of Journalists has shown its concern about the clause and feels that the integrity and professionalism of their press officers working in local government needs to be protected. It believes that the clause will override that protection. At present, there is recourse for anyone who feels pressurised into putting forward a political slant, because they can get support from their union. We have already been assured—I hope it will be always be the case—that the press office is there both to defend the whole council and to get accurate news out about what the council is doing. Whoever is in power may change, but press officers, as anyone who has been involved in councils will know, tend to remain the same, but they must show no bias at all.
I want finally to implore the Minister to consider that the amendments are simply about fairness.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting argument, but is she genuinely saying that a council newspaper, written by paid council officers with the tacit authority of council leaders, is more unbiased and more independent than the free press of a local newspaper?
I am saying that it would be equally unbiased in most circumstances, but the local press do sometimes have to get people annoyed enough to write into their letters page and to react to what has been said through provoking, rather than informing. Doing that is part of the job of the newspaper and the press.
I ask the Minister to consider what we are asking for with these amendments. The LGA supports them because the powers are unnecessary and could allow a Secretary of State to interfere with the work of an elected council when it is following the publicity code. Amendments 146, 147 and 148 more closely define these powers.
I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate, and I think the Bill is excellent. Every Bill has high spots and not-so-high spots, and clause 38 is one of those not-so-high spots. The Minister does have some questions to answer, and he may want to refer to the words of Baroness Eaton and Lord Tope in the other place. The Minister has been exposed to the debate today in particular by the hon. Member for Corby, who made an interesting and sometimes powerful case, but probably used one egg too many in the mix, and by the hon. Member for Derby North, who probably used a whole crate of eggs too many in what he had to say.
I will not give way at the moment, but I will find an excuse to give way later on.
The nature of the debate today has disguised the fact that there is more common ground than first appears. As I understood the hon. Member for Corby to be saying, he accepts that the code is a necessary requirement in the current context of local democracy in England. He further accepts that there have been some transgressions, and he specifically mentioned Tower Hamlets. That, of course, is not a contentious transgression to mention in this room. As we all know, its maverick mayor runs Tower Hamlets, therefore none of us has to take any responsibility. However, we heard that whenever anywhere was mentioned where somebody might have to take responsibility, those examples were rejected.
Leaving that aside, it is common ground that there is something of a problem, although the scale of it may be debated. The question is, what do we do about it? It is common ground among those on the Government Benches that what is proposed is not an attempt to make the code something different from what it is now, but simply to make it enforceable and enforced. It is also common ground on these Benches that its aim is not to prevent councils from informing their electorate and constituents about what is going on, the availability of public services and about forthcoming events such as planning applications and so on. So let us not have a debate about some points of view that people do not hold, and let us try to have one about the ground we are trying to map out for ourselves on the real issue.
The core point is not who is or is not in power, nor who speaks truth to power and who is happy to listen, because it depends where you are on the political pyramid who the power force is. Some of us have spent a lot of our time in minority—sometimes very deep minority—opposition and not in power at all. Therefore, the ruling party of a council, whether Conservative, Labour or, I dare say in some places Liberal Democrat, pumping out material which in all conscience should have been put out by the relevant political party and not by the council, is a grievous thing to see. We need to recognise that this happens.
We have had a few examples. I tried to mention Lambeth. The figure for Lambeth’s reserves is £84 million. This may or may not be true, but it was submitted by Lambeth council itself to DCLG, so let us hope so. If the council is complaining that it has no money to carry on and maintain services, it seems to me relevant to disclose that it actually has got £84 million in the bank. It is relevant, just as it is relevant if those who engage in political dialogue are going to put out a Labour party leaflet in Lambeth. They can put whatever they like in it, just as if the Liberal Democrats put out a leaflet and so on. It is common ground that the code is okay and that some local authorities do not always comply with it, but plenty do.
My own local authority of Stockport is an example. The Stockport Review goes out, I think, every two months. We have a paid-for local paper and a free paper which goes to virtually every household. These hold the local government to account. Council meetings were mentioned. I am not aware of any civic newspaper that records debates from councils. The local press is still the one that will give the opposition point of view, if at all, rather than both sides of the argument in the civic paper.
That is excellent. I do not know whether the local council produces a newspaper or newsletter—I am sure that it is absolutely within the scope of the code—but I would also be pretty certain that it does not record the speech of the leader of the opposition in the key council debates. We need to understand that these documents do different things and it is important that we do not confuse ourselves about that.
I want to bring to the Committee what one might describe as a completely counter-intuitive example. Tower Hamlets has been mentioned. I suspect that I am the only person in the Chamber who has been to Tower Hamlets, actually met representatives of every political party on the council and been implored to intervene and take away the rights of the EDL to march in Tower Hamlets. It was not a power that I had, but I listened to their representations and spoke to those who might have a view and be able to influence the decision. In the event, of course, it was a march that looked likely to disrupt social cohesion in that authority and looked likely to have severe social consequences. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner took a decision that it would be right for him to ban that march, but the relevant point is that the publication that has been traduced, even by the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, was a major weapon in defusing the tension and problems in that community at that time. It was used explicitly by Tower Hamlets council—on that occasion, at least, it was with all-party support, although I cannot speak for other editions—to tackle mounting community tensions. It is perceived there to have been successful.
I know the right hon. Gentleman is trying to keep his remarks brief so that the Committee can make progress, but my objection to eastend life is that it is competing with a local paper and that local paper clearly considers it to be a direct competitor. The nature of its advertising, including that for electronic products on its front page, is what someone would expect to see in a newspaper. I would not want to see that area without a paper or some kind of communication, but that is the effect of the clause he intends to support.
One should not speak too soon in these debates, but as the hon. Gentleman has so stoutly defended the Nene Valley News, which is, in every feature, a local newspaper, I do not know exactly what his point is. My point is not that the Tower Hamlets publication is brilliant or that it should not be controlled or that it should not be subject to the code or that enforcement action should not be taken. My point is about what the authority would do if the Secretary of State introduced a measure that Tower Hamlets should not have more than five publications a year—or whatever number he might decide—and there was an EDL march at the end of the year when the authority had run out of editions.
What effect will the clause have on the operations of local authorities? They will still be able to have newspapers and newsletters, up to a certain point, and they will have to comply with a code, and we know what the code says. Will the Minister say something clearly about the proportionality of any intervention that arises from the clause and something about the process? The hon. Member for North Tyneside asked whether there would be some way in which a council could make representations to ensure that legitimate events were covered or to ensure that sensible frequencies, depending on the nature of the communities, were still permitted and so on.
I know what gets said, because I have sat in the Minister’s chair and I have had the briefs passed to me. Of course, the Secretary of State will always have to act reasonably and common sense will always be used, but how will common sense affect the Nene Valley Newsand the news in Tower Hamlets? It is the practicalities of how it will work that legitimately concern our colleagues in local government.
We have had a wide and, compared with consideration of the rest of the Bill, lengthy debate—I appreciate that and have no problem with it—on this issue. I will talk more generally on some of the points raised by hon. Members before turning specifically to the amendments. As the hon. Member for Corby said this morning, we have effectively dealt with the clause stand part debate by having a full debate on the amendments, and Members have had a wide discussion.
The hon. Gentleman made the point this morning that one of the benefits of this type of scrutiny is that what Ministers say is on the record to give guidance to those who may follow in our footsteps in years to come. I am happy to deal with issues, such as those that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove outlined, about how the measure will work in practice.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove made a very clear and precise point in his opening remarks. One thing that we have hopefully clarified—I appreciate that I had to ask the hon. Member for Derby North a couple of times—is that there is no dispute about the code itself. Opposition Members have said that they are happy with the voluntary code and its wording. I appreciate that some Members have spent considerable time—a good couple of hours—arguing against some of what is in the code, but they say that they support the code itself.
The issue that we are considering, then, is how the code is implemented. I am sure that Opposition Members are not trying to argue that although they support the code, they do not want anybody to have to abide by it. That would be farcical. Therefore, it is about ensuring that the code is appreciated. We heard a half-hour-long explanation this morning of what is no doubt a fine publication in terms of its content, the Nene Valley News. I am much more acquainted with it now than I was at 11 o’clock this morning. We can all undoubtedly point to good newspapers in our constituencies. In Great Yarmouth, we have the fantastic Great Yarmouth Mercury weekly, and daily we have the Eastern Daily Press, which provides great challenge and robustness to all politicians in our region, as does the Great Yarmouth Mercury.
We must bear in mind what the clause aims to deal with. It is right to understand that there is a process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, when he went to Tower Hamlets to deal with the situation there involving the English Defence League, had to get information out to the community. That is exactly the kind of reasonable action that the code would not affect in any way. For a number of reasons, I will talk in detail about the amendments in a few moments.
Let us not pretend that there are not examples of what could be perceived as breaches of the code; I will return to that in more detail in a moment. Some Opposition Members have tried to argue that the examples given by my hon. Friends are not breaches of the code, but the fact is that there are examples out there. They might involve arguable breaches, such as the one in Derbyshire county council referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton. His argument is that that council leader did not use political balance and made a clear political statement. They might involve councils such as Plymouth putting out what could be seen as politically inflammatory correspondence about Government cuts to benefits on the cover of every single envelope that it sends out. They might involve the Lambeth posters mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, or Nottingham city council’s use of a campaign on its website that is seemingly identical to one on the Nottingham Labour party website; it uses a political argument about the spare room subsidy and refers to exactly the same matters and images as the Labour party website.
Those are the sorts of thing that people might argue are breaches of the publicity code in terms of paragraph 15, as has been mentioned, but they are not the only point of the clause. I will come to that in a moment.
To be absolutely clear, is the Minister seriously saying that the leader of a local authority cannot comment in quotation marks on the implications of the national local government funding settlement, and that he would consider that to be a breach of the code? If that is what he is saying, we ought to be absolutely clear about it.
The hon. Gentleman does not like the fact that Government Members give examples of what they think might be breaches, such as—
I suggest he goes and looks at the Nottingham Labour party website and then at the Nottingham city council website. He might see a startling similarity between the campaigns that they are running. There will be taxpayers out there wondering why it is appropriate to use taxpayer money to fund a campaign—it is tied to a petition, “No to the bedroom tax”—that is identical in logo and content, or they may look at Plymouth and wonder whether what it has done represents an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money.
The point is that it is not about the Government going out there. The Department does not monitor local authority publicity. However, to deal with a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, if a member of the public or a councillor comes to us with a concern, we should look into it. There is an important gap between a Department going out looking for such things and dealing with the issues raised with it. It may be because Tower Hamlets is publishing something, or Greenwich, East Northamptonshire—we mentioned the Nene Valley News—Hackney, Newham, Waltham Forest, Luton, North Somerset, Taunton Deane, Brent or Ealing.
I thank the Minister for his helpful and thoughtful explanation. Will he reassure me on behalf of my constituent who is concerned, as a taxpayer, about the waste of his money that he will investigate the breach by Derbyshire county council in relation to its publication?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about exactly how the publicity code will work. It is not about the Government going out and looking for issues; it is about a resident, such as my hon. Friend’s constituent, who has a concern raising it. If that happens, it is quite right that the Department should look at it. The hon. Member for Corby will say that we can do that with a voluntary code—indeed, the Opposition seem to be saying that they would support a voluntary code because it would be a very nice code, but everybody could ignore it if they wanted to and no action should be taken—but in such circumstances, the only tool available to the Government would be judicial review, at the end of which a judge might say that because the code was voluntary, the Government could not take any action. The outcome could be a hugely expensive and lengthy judicial review that prevents the Government from dealing with a situation in which they feel that taxpayers’ money is being used unwisely. This is a cross-party matter. Councils such as Breckland—a Conservative council—Crawley, Enfield, Guildford, Portsmouth and even Redcar have changed how they publish, because their publications have been published more than the voluntary code outlines.
The Minister appears to be giving comfort to the hon. Member for Burton, but when pressed he does not seem to agree that a breach has been committed or that an investigation could be carried out. Clause 38 makes no provision for investigation. That is why, if the Government must press ahead with the proposal—we disagree with it, and we think it is unnecessary—they should at least accept our amendment to allow evidence to be considered and an investigation to be carried out. Surely, that is simply good practice and good governance—a fig leaf of democracy.
I will deal with that issue when I reach my detailed remarks on the amendments. Hon. Members have queried why the proposal is there, but I struggle to understand why; they seem to be saying that they agree with the voluntary code but they do not want it to work in practice. The TaxPayers Alliance has said that
“the independent press faces unfair competition from local authorities. Taxpayers’ money is used to produce publications that harm the ability of local newspapers, in particular, to properly scrutinise their councils”.
The Chartered Institute of Journalists says:
“There is no viable alternative to backing the Code with legislation. Many Local Authorities have continued to flout the guidelines”.
The Newspaper Society says:
“Council newspapers and increasingly their websites continue to compete with independent local newspapers for private and public sector advertising”.
The hon. Member for Corby outlined an example of that in eastend life a few moments ago. Archant owns the great bastion that is the Great Yarmouth Mercury, as well as the EDP and newspapers in Tower Hamlets. I spoke to an editor a couple of weeks ago who told me:
“In Tower Hamlets the council, one of the poorest in UK, has set aside a £4.1m budget for publicity. The authority’s Weekly newspaper East End Life contains articles whose primary purpose is to promote the elected mayor...Opposition parties have no access for publicity. Tower Hamlets also finances its quarterly What’s On Guide, by local advertising.”
That advertising might otherwise go into independent local press, which supports the point that taxpayers’ money should not be used to damage competition for local press. The Association of Convenience Stores stated that it is
“a long standing supporter of the Publicity Code of Practice and supports the recommendation in the consultation to put compliance with the code on a statutory basis” no doubt because it understands that its members, who sell the local newspapers that suffer at the expense of taxpayer-funded competition, struggle with the situation.
I will give the Committee a clear example of how the current system does not allow things to be dealt with logically. There was a complaint in Tower Hamlets about an advertisement featuring the mayor, which showed on five Bengali-language satellite and cable channels available in the borough. Ofcom investigated the complaint and concluded that the advertisement, showing the mayor associated with a house building programme in the borough, breached the Communications Act 2003, the UK code of broadcast advertising and the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity, because it constituted a political advertisement rather than a public service announcement. I know that we are in general agreement on some of the issues around Tower Hamlets. The reason why I mention the situation is that Ofcom has the power to fine the broadcaster but no power to take action against the advertiser, Tower Hamlets council. The Government’s only recourse is to go to the expense—and length—of a judicial review, which might in the end not be able to allow any recompense to local independent businesses or be able to deal with the problem directly.
I want to be clear about the issues of evidence. A whole range of council newspapers are published weekly or fortnightly at taxpayers’ expense in defiance of the publicity code, and we all agreed the wording of the code. They have taken paid advertising from businesses that would otherwise be advertising in local newspapers. They therefore deprive those papers of advertising revenue.
We have also had queries about some of the evidence. That was outlined, as I said a few moments ago, by the Newspaper Society. In the society’s view, the papers continue to compete with independent local newspapers. Because of the way in which the system works, the local council that is producing something to provide community information—the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove mentioned the experience with the EDL in Tower Hamlets—will be able to do that. Even if the Government were to contact that council, that is the point that it would make and that is the point that the Government would have to take into account. But bear in mind a complaint is made in the first instance by a member of the public or a councillor, because the Department does not go out monitoring local authority publicity.
When putting in place new legislation, it is right for the Government to plan for all eventualities, rather than simply revisit legislation down the line. Let us touch on the issue of giving direction even if an area is complying with the code. I will give an example of where that could be relevant. The provision ensures that, where taxpayers’ money is being wasted, the Secretary of State can act swiftly to prevent abuse, without being drawn into a lengthy process. It allows the Secretary of State to draw an authority’s attention to certain provisions in the code that are particularly important, or where he thinks there is a high risk of non-compliance.
For instance, the Secretary of State may issue an order to all authorities to draw their attention to an issue, when only some are not complying. Of course, any direction to a local authority already complying with the code would have no effect on that authority. The code of practice has been in place in its current form since 2011. As we have heard, there is widespread compliance, and indeed agreement with it. If we all agree with it, I struggle to understand why it should not be implemented.
Clause 38 provides, among other things, that the Secretary of State may direct an individual authority to comply with a particular part of the code. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have advanced arguments that back up exactly why that makes sense. It is a straightforward provision to tackle a straightforward problem. As drafted, the provision allows the Secretary of State to deal individually with more than one authority, if need be.
The provisions giving the Secretary of State the power to require groups of local authorities to comply require an order to be approved by Parliament. At best, the amendment to the provision that the Secretary of State may direct one or more specified authorities, does nothing. If the intention is to ensure that the Secretary of State must issue directions to local authorities on an individual basis, that is already the intention of the provision as drafted. At worst, the amendment could confuse what is otherwise a straightforward provision.
I turn to amendment 147. When putting in place new legislation, such as these very necessary provisions on the power to issue a direction requiring the local authority to comply with some or all of the code, it is sensible to provide for different eventualities. That is why new subsection (4) makes provision for the Secretary of State to give a local authority a direction, whether or not he thinks it is complying with the code.
Ensuring the ability to issue a direction is not exclusively linked to actual incidents of non-compliance with the code. If a local authority is complying with the code and has no intention of failing to comply, the direction has no effect on it. In addition, it will allow the Secretary of State to issue a direction to a local authority to draw its attention to an issue.
Amendment 147 would remove those quite sensible measures and put in place an over-bureaucratic process. That is all before the straightforward, sensible and proportionate process of making a direction begins—this is an important part of the process—which involves the Secretary of State rightly informing the local authority of his intention, and the local authority rightly being able to make representations before a final decision is made. It is important to put that on the record, as hon. Members have commented on that process.
It is unnecessary to gold plate the direction-making process and, crucially, it removes the Secretary of State’s ability to act to pre-empt the wasting of taxpayers’ money. Amendment 148 is undoubtedly necessary to make provision to ensure compliance with the code on recommended practice to ensure that, where taxpayers’ money is being wasted on local authority propaganda, the Secretary of State can act. In doing so, it is sensible to make provision for the Secretary of State to require compliance with the code not only on an individual basis, but by a number of local authorities.
I want to be clear about the process. The Secretary of State may issue a direction to an individual authority, but if he wishes to require compliance with some or all of the code by a group of authorities, say of a particular type, then he is required to make an order which is subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament. That was the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee following its consideration of the Bill. We were happy to amend the Bill in the House of Lords to give that recommendation effect.
The Minister has talked repeatedly about wasting taxpayers’ money. Of course, it is for local authorities to decide on local priorities and what is a good use of public money. I wonder whether this clause reveals the purpose behind clause 31(1)(f), which will allow the Secretary of State to take the power to direct
“the financial management of relevant authorities”.
Or does it reveal that the audit system that we have spent three and a half days debating will not be adequate to ensure the proper use of public money?
I am not quite sure that we will not be stretching ourselves somewhat if we link this issue back to the debate we had the other day. It is clear that we have all agreed that the voluntary code is the correct code. No one in this room has argued against the code itself. The clause will ensure that the code has effect. I am sure that Opposition Members are not arguing that we should have a code that everybody can ignore. All the clause will do is ensure that the code is applied so the Government can ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted on political propaganda or on unfair competition with the independent newspaper market. We all have examples of great bastions of the local independent press that we do not want to see threatened by unfair competition using taxpayers’ money. The clause does that in the right way. It will ensure that authorities have the right of reply. Ultimately, if a council feels that the Secretary of State has got it wrong, a judge will decide. Councils will always have the opportunity to make their case, but the clause also deals with the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove and others, and will ensure that local areas can make local points properly. That is why I resist the amendments.
I found that a very disappointing response, both because of the way in which the Minister interpreted the debate and chose to reflect it, and because of his refusal to give full consideration to our amendments, which he seems to have rejected out of hand. That is a shame, because his right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove expressed concerns about the clause, although he clearly took a different tack to Opposition Members—perhaps we would have different approaches to making an omelette. However, hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have expressed concerns about the proportionality of the clause.
The Minister said that we support the code, but there are a number of issues that he has not clarified. The clause specifically says “a code”, not “the code”. Therefore, given that the code will not be subject to primary legislation, we are giving the Secretary of State the power to enforce either the current code as it is, which has been the basis on which the Minister has responded, the current code with some revisions, or any new code that the Government choose to bring forward, to give effect to what is clearly a desire to censor local democracy and elected local leaders.
Although the hon. Gentleman says this is very clear, it is actually quite the opposite. He is still struggling to make his argument. He said that he agrees with the code, but he does not want to enforce it. It is nothing to do with local democracy. In fact, this Government, through the Localism Act 2011, has driven local democracy in a way that the previous Government did not allow.
I am disappointed. I thought the Minister was going to clarify the point about “a code”, but I think he was listening to the Whip at that point. If the Minister would do that, it would be very helpful.
I think we are due a vote in a minute. Obviously, we can come back after the vote to finish this debate in more detail if the hon. Gentleman wishes.
We will indeed have to finish this debate at some point. I have no pressing engagements, so it is a matter for the Committee whether we do it immediately after the vote or on Thursday morning. I think the agreement with the Whips is that we finish at about 4.30 pm or when the vote comes.