MPs question Pickles curbs on council-run newspapers

A committee of MPs has today poured cold water on proposals put forward by communities minister Eric Pickles to curb council-run newspapers and magazines.

The Commons Local Government Select Committee questioned a number of provisions put forward by Pickles to crackdown on ‘Town Hall Pravdas’which threaten the viability of independent local press.

Pickles outlined his intention to stop council taxpayers’ money being spent on “frivolous town hall propaganda papers” last year. However, MPs said today his proposals have ‘potentially negative implications for local democracy”.

Publishing a report this morning that examined the Government’s draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, the Committee called on the Government to commission an independent inquiry to quantify the impact of council papers on the independent press.

Despite isolated examples of unfair competition, MPs said, there was ‘scant evidence’that council publications are, to any significant extent, competing unfairly with independent papers.

The draft code rightly contained tough new rules restricting the content permitted in council title’s to material directly related to local public business, service or amenities, MPs said. Likewise, the code specifies that town hall publications must in future be clearly marked as published by a local authority.

However, MPs questioned if any new set of guidelines could specify a maximum frequency of publication of four issues per year.

In addition, the committee of MPs said the Government should review the publication rules that apply to statutory notices with a view to making them more cost-effective and better able to take advantage of new means of publication, such as the internet.

Government also needed to develop a separate code of practice to govern the use of lobbyists by local councils, the committee said, to clarify more precisely where use of consultants was a legitimate course of action.

Clive Betts, chair of CLG Committee said: “There is a clear concern that some local authorities are using council tax payers’ money to promote their local politicians and policies.

“It is appropriate that the proposed code should prevent such activities being undertaken at taxpayers’ expense.

“However, we doubt that the proposed code should specify a maximum frequency of publication, especially in the context of the Government’s professed commitment to greater ‘localism’.

“If properly enforced, we believe the provisions in the proposed code relating to cost effectiveness, content and appearance are sufficient to deal with the excesses seen in the handful of council papers that have caused concern.

“We also agree that the hiring of political lobbyists by local authority to contact Ministers and Members of Parliament is a waste of public money but we doubt that a code of practice on local authority publicity is the correct tool by which to apply constraints upon this activity.”

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