Motion to Approve
My Lords, today we are considering the draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, which is largely a simplification and re-presentation of the codes which are currently in place.
It is a simplification in that if the draft is approved by this House, it will replace in a single code the two documents that currently apply to different tiers of local government in England. One such document, which was issued in 1988, applies to parish councils and suchlike bodies. The other such document is a code which is identical but includes revisions made in 2001. This latter document applies to principal councils—that is, to unitary, county and district councils, and to London boroughs.
The draft code is also a significant re-presentation, since a matter which is in the current documents is now grouped around seven principles. These principles are not new, but the draft code improves their presentation and clarifies them. I shall say more on this later.
Finally, the draft code also makes two changes of substance. The first of these is designed to fulfil a mandate from the general election manifestos of both the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties—now a coalition commitment—
“to impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers”.
The second change seeks to toughen up the rules on the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Before saying more about the detail, I would like to say something about the nature of the publicity code and the processes that have been followed in drawing up the draft before the House today.
In 1986 the Government enacted legislation, the Local Government Act 1986. That legislation tackled the whole question of local authority publicity. It provided for a code of recommended practice on publicity and required local authorities to have regard to such a code. The code is therefore a statutory document, so councils are obliged to consider it when taking decisions about their publicity. It is a code, though, not regulations or an order, so it does not contain binding requirements. There is an obligation to have regard to it. This means that if a council is not to be challenged successfully in the courts or by its auditor for any departure from the code, there must be reasoned and rational grounds supporting such a departure.
That is the nature of the rules on local authority publicity that have been in place since the 1986 Act. The Merits Committee has questioned just how effective such rules, based in a statutory code, can be. The evidence is that over the years successive Governments have seen these rules as appropriate and effective. There is no reason why this should be different in future with the latest revisions.
Underpinning the 1986 legislation and the codes made under it, including the revisions made in 2001, is the firm belief that good, effective communication between a local authority and its communities is key to developing the understanding necessary for a healthy local democracy. Local authorities should use local publicity, not just to keep their communities informed of the services that they provide but to encourage greater civic participation. Councils up and down the country do this and it is right that they should.
However, publicity can be a sensitive matter because of the costs associated with it and the impact that it can have. That is why it is essential that decisions about local authority publicity are properly made. The purpose of the publicity code is to ensure that this will be the case.
At the end of last September we launched our consultation on proposed revisions to the publicity code. The consultation ended on 10 November. We received over 350 responses, all of which were carefully considered before finalising the text of the draft. At the end of last year the Communities and Local Government Committee held an inquiry into our proposals to revise the publicity code. That committee concluded that it was right to have a code to regulate the production of local authority publicity and went on to make a number of recommendations.
We carefully considered the Select Committee’s conclusions and recommendations before laying the draft code before Parliament on 11 February. In parallel with that, we also published the Government’s response to both the consultation and the Select Committee’s report.
I turn to the draft code. Its content, as I have said, is grouped around seven principles. These are that local authority publicity is to be lawful, cost-effective, objective, even-handed and appropriate, is to have regard to equality and diversity and is to be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity—that is, during periods before elections or referendums.
In addition there are, as I made clear earlier, two substantive changes. The first is that there is now specific reference to the maximum frequency, content and appearance of local authority newsletters, news sheets or similar publications. That is to address the problem of unfair competition by taxpayer-funded local authority newspapers. Such competition can have a detrimental effect on commercial local newspapers. Local authority publicity is important but the freedom of the press is also important in providing information to the public to hold their local authority to account. It is equally important that the readers of a newspaper can readily tell whether what they are reading is part of the independent press or a publication by the council about the council and setting out the council’s message.
In its report the Merits Committee has echoed the views of the Select Committee, which suggested that the evidence of this unfair competition is slight, and has questioned why the draft code should specify a maximum frequency for publication. The Government’s position is that there is a good case for action to be taken and that the action achieved through the draft code is right. There have been consistent representations from those who should know—the newspaper industry itself—that there is an issue with certain local authority newspapers creating unfair competition. That matters. An independent press holding councils to account is an essential element of any effective local democracy. If the freedom of the press is or feels threatened, then that is not something about which we should simply agree to look at in the long term, to seek more statistical evidence about or to review in the light of further experience. It is something on which we should act now, in support of genuine localism.
The fact that the action that we are taking chimes with the practice of the great majority of councils already should give confidence that what we are doing is right. The Local Government Association’s research shows that the great majority of local authorities publish newsletters quarterly or less frequently. As a result of the consultation, the draft code suggests that parish councils can have monthly newsletters and other such publications, reflecting that in a parish such communication is often part of local community life and does not cut across the local independent press in any way. What the draft code underscores is already the practice of the majority of councils, but not all.
The second substantive change is about the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Under the draft code, local authorities should not retain lobbyists with the intention of publishing any material designed to influence public officials, Members of Parliament, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on any issue. The reason is that it is a waste of public money for local authorities to hire political lobbyists to contact Ministers and Members of this House. If a council wants to make a point to a Minister or its Member of Parliament, then all it needs to do is address them directly.
A code of publicity, with these two changes, and the streamlined and clarified presentation of the draft before us will be of benefit to councils, local taxpayers and communities across the country in ensuring that councils promote themselves in a fair and uncompetitive way. It will stop waste and unnecessary spending, and will bring about consistency between authorities in understanding the actions that they can take to promote themselves and their message. I beg to move.
My Lords, your Lordships will be familiar with the old saw about an ambassador being a good man sent abroad to lie for his country. From my short time in this House, it seems to me that a Minister in this House is a good Peer sent to this place to defend the indefensible. I congratulate the Minister on the customary charm and thoroughness with which she has moved the adoption of the publicity code.
The Secretary of State often reminds us that in his younger days he read Marx before he joined the Conservative Party; indeed, in a debate in the other place on Monday he referred, albeit not approvingly, to Lenin and Stalin. The Secretary of State’s brand of localism seems to come very close to Stalin’s democratic centralism, in as much as it seems to amount to a situation in which councils can do anything they like so long as the Secretary of State approves of it.
As the Minister has said, there has long been a code of practice on publicity. The consolidation and simplification elements are absolutely acceptable, while the seven principles are perfectly correct and welcomed by all in local government. The other points, though, particularly the restrictions on publicity and the number of publications, like so many other policies enunciated by the Department for Communities and Local Government, really reflect the Secretary of State’s own obsessions. We have had a series of pronouncements around waste collection, chief executive pay, the roles of mayors and chief executives being combined and compulsory referendums, all reflecting the Secretary of State’s somewhat unique view of the world and his determination to enforce that view upon local government in general. He seems to suffer from a political variant of that rather distressing condition, OCD, in his case the letters perhaps standing for obsessive compulsion disorder. He seems to wish to compel everyone to reflect and act on his obsessions.
The ostensible reason for the restriction of publication of communications to four a year is to protect the local press so that it can hold councils to account—a function that it certainly ought to exercise and ought to be encouraged to exercise. One might find this somewhat ironic from a Government who, if they have not bent over backwards to accommodate the Murdoch dynasty’s extension of its influence over the media, have at any rate inclined in that direction, but let us leave that aside.
I have been a member of Newcastle City Council for 44 years, 24 of those as either chairman or leader of the council. In the early days it was certainly true that the local media held the city council to account. They regularly attended meetings of all kinds and were regularly in touch with leading members of the council. Several journalists in the north-east went on to achieve national prominence, which reflected the quality of their work. However, over time—I ceased being leader of the council in 1994—the degree to which council affairs were covered dropped remarkably. Indeed, at one point I challenged the local press to do more, asking why it was not covering council activities more. In summary, the reply was, effectively, “It doesn’t sell newspapers”. The press had conducted a survey that found it was not something that sold newspapers. I understand that a commercial decision was therefore taken to cut back. Whereas for many years I would receive a telephone call from the municipal correspondent of the local press every day, by the time my term finished such calls were much less frequent. They have become less so since. Latterly, although there is some coverage of council meetings, there is virtually no coverage of the scrutiny committees—the very committees that one might have thought a local press looking to hold a council to account would attend and report, but they do not do so.
The Government complain that there is unfair competition because some councils incorporate adverts in their publications. Around one-third do not; others do. However, many of these adverts are there for the fulfilment of statutory requirements—statutory planning notices, for example. Councils will sometimes use their own newspapers as a medium for these notices because it is a more cost-effective way of publishing them. They reach every citizen, whereas local newspapers do not, and it is often cheaper to do that. In any case, is this not consistent with the oft-proclaimed belief of the Government—perhaps of all of us—in the virtues of value for money and, in the case of the Government in particular, of competition and the market?
The noble Baroness touched on the question of evidence. What is the evidence that newspapers are suffering as a result of this competition? The Select Committee stated in paragraph 44 of its report:
“Very scant evidence has been presented to this inquiry, and to previous inquiries, which would sustain the claim that local authority publications have contributed significantly to the decline of local newspaper advertising … or sales … There is no evidence of a widespread problem of unfair competition”.
It is not surprising that it should say that. Less than 1 per cent of councils publish a weekly newsletter. Less than 3 per cent publish one fortnightly. Thirty-six per cent publish a quarterly newsletter. A council with which the noble Baroness is very familiar—the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea—publishes six newsletters a year of 16 full-colour pages, which are full of information. That is perfectly correct. It would be constrained from doing so by the terms of this order. The Merits Committee said:
“The House may wish to seek a better explanation”—
from the Department for Communities and Local Government—
“of what evidence leads them to conclude that there is currently unfair competition and why … four issues a year represents the right balance between the … need to give information to local residents and the interests of commercial newspapers”.
It was interesting that the Select Committee heard from the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, one Jeremy Dear. He said that 68 per cent of editors believed that there was less coverage of council functions than there was when he was a working journalist. He said:
“The vast majority of the stories”
in his day
“were from council meetings and council coverage. It is just not the case that there are people dedicated to doing that. Despite the best efforts of newspaper companies and journalists, they simply do not have the staff any more to be able to cover it … You see the correlation between that decline and the expansion of a whole number of different council publications”.
There are significant reasons for the decline of the local press. One of the early ones was perhaps the development of local commercial radio, itself funded by advertising. The second is the widespread use of the internet. The third—again, ironically, your Lordships might think—is the existence of free newspapers, sometimes published by the very local press that is apparently pressing the Government to impose these restrictions. Many of us take home our free copy of the Evening Standard as we leave your Lordships’ House. In the north-east, Trinity Mirror publishes a free so-called newspaper; it consists mainly of advertising. These, I submit, are much more likely to be responsible for the decline of the local press than are local council publications.
Councils often join up with the National Health Service, the police and others to provide information. Many councils reckon that this is a more cost-effective way of conveying that information. For example, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Portsmouth not only publishes its own newspaper, which reaches all 85,000 households in Portsmouth, but spends £970,000 advertising in the local press. Many councils continue to advertise. However, the local press in Portsmouth reaches only 30,000 of those 85,000 houses. If the council wants to reach everyone, it has little option but to distribute its newsletter more widely. Around £40 million is spent nationally on advertising planning notices alone in the paid-for press.
The code proscribes, as the Minister has pointed out, the engagement of lobbyists to influence public officials or government. I would be sceptical about the value of employing lobbyists, but it does not seem necessary for the Government to proscribe their use if a democratically elected council chooses to use that resource. Nor is it necessary for them to prohibit the production of stands or displays at party conferences to influence members or political parties—something which, frankly, I would like to see a little more of from certain political parties at present. On lobbying, it should be noted that the Select Committee suggested that a code of practice should be developed. The Government have rejected that outright.
The Select Committee concluded that it was,
“concerned that some of the changes … run counter to ‘localist’ principles and have potentially negative implications for local democracy”.
That goes to the heart of the matter before us tonight. Decisions on these issues should be made by elected councillors answerable to their electorate. It is interesting that the Minister rightly points out that the legislation requires councils to have regard to the code, which is essentially unenforceable, although a district auditor may make a report on a complaint by an aggrieved resident or, presumably, an aggrieved local newspaper in this case.
Like the Minister, I hope that councils will have regard to the code and that they will make their decisions on the basis of their judgment of the local circumstances, and not simply defer to the prejudices of the Secretary of State. They should also, perhaps, consider the following statement:
“If the Department for Communities and Local Government was truly committed to localism it would not be introducing draconian rules dictating to councils how often they are allowed to share information with residents. It is extremely disappointing that ministers have failed to make any significant amendments to the code following consultation, and appear to have ignored the advice of their own MPs. Newsletters delivered to people’s homes have consistently proved to be the cheapest way for councils to directly communicate with residents and keep people informed about local services. The Communities and Local Government select committee found there was scant evidence of council publications competing unfairly with local newspapers. Most are distributed between four and six times a year and pose no threat to the local press, on whom the growth of the internet has had a far greater impact. It is extraordinary that Government ministers have chosen to ignore this and take such a heavy-handed approach. Not only are these rules completely unnecessary, but they have the potential to harm local democracy and drive up the amount of money councils will have to spend on advertising to fulfil their legal requirements. We strongly agreed with the Communities Secretary when he said in one of his first speeches that no-one working in local government signed up to be told what to do for the rest of their lives by Whitehall”.
Those words were not my words; they were the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, the chair of the Local Government Association and long-standing associate and colleague of the Secretary of State. She was the leader of Bradford council in her day, after the Secretary of State had departed to higher, perhaps greater, things.
The noble Baroness is not in her place tonight, which I do not for a moment criticise. I warned her that I was going to be quoting her. She might feel somewhat conflicted, which I quite understand. I have no criticism at all of her. Indeed, I admire her for having the forthrightness and courage to speak on behalf of local government over this issue.
My Lords, the noble Lord’s fierce denunciation was backed by the serried ranks of his fellow Peers sitting tightly behind him. As my noble friend said, the changes in the rules on local authority publicity that affect council newspapers were a manifesto pledge, but I do not intend to argue it on that ground. I declare an interest as an ex-journalist. I am a life member of the National Union of Journalists. In my view, this debate raises something absolutely fundamental. The role of the regional and local press is to report independently on the news, to owe no obligation to any vested interest and not to take any line unquestioningly from officialdom. They need to be fair and above all they need to be independent in judgment. I do not claim for a moment that those values are always maintained, but I do claim that the regional and local press have a proud record in this country of exposing injustice and, at times, corruption. That is very much in the local public interest and should be maintained.
We deceive ourselves if we believe—slightly as the noble Lord suggested—that local councils, whether they are Labour or Conservative, have the same interest and join together in applauding the role of the free press. They want their policies to be supported, they often resent criticism, and they are not always particular in the means that they use to have their way. I give one example from my own experience in Birmingham, where I was the chairman of Midland Independent Newspapers. We published the Birmingham Evening Mail, apart from other newspapers. It was a management buyout and our policy was that the editor edited and the board simply did not get involved in editorial policy. Sadly, the Labour council objected to the reporting on local government issues and the leading articles of the editor, Ian Dowell. The result was that they withdrew all their public notice recruiting advertising from our evening paper, started their own local paper and handed out the print content to our commercial competitor. Let us recognise that not all councils recognise and appreciate the importance of free comment.
We should also recognise the development of local authority newspapers, to which my noble friend referred. These again have one main purpose, which is to promote the policies of the council in power. It has nothing to do with independent journalism. Their role is certainly not to investigate and inquire into what is going on in the local council. They would get into terrible trouble if they tried to do that. This is bad enough, but, by exploiting their local monopoly position, they attract to themselves advertising that is necessary for any independent newspaper to survive. Independent local newspapers are already impacted, but this simply puts the final nail in the coffin.
I give one example of what can happen from my own local council paper, the Hammersmith and Fulham News, which writes:
“YOUR H&F NEWS IS INSIDE THIS ADVERTISING FEATURE”.
The advertising feature—of a Thai restaurant—is spread over four pages. Inside, there are no fewer than 44 pages of houses and flats for sale by local estate agents. There is a full-page advertisement for the Metro Bank and other advertisements for double glazing and carpet companies. Perhaps this is an exception; I do not know. I hope that my local council will perhaps change its policy. The Kensington local paper—this might be the first time that we agree—actually pursues its policies in an extremely sensible manner. It does not take advertising or do these kinds of things.
Too often, councils try to take over the role of local independent newspapers but without the necessary qualification of independent judgment. They use their local monopoly power to take advertising when they cannot conceivably call that advertising council business. They certainly help to drive out of business genuine local papers and prevent new independent local papers developing. No one in their right mind would try to take on a monopoly advertiser in their own local area. Perhaps worst of all for me, an ex-journalist, they are training a new generation of public relations executives who take press releases and send them out. This country does not need more public relations people. We need a few good, honest reporters to report the news at both national and local level.
Frankly, I am amazed that the noble Lord is putting his opposition to this. I am totally amazed that he is speaking from the Front Bench on this. In the few minutes that I have been speaking, the crowds behind him have not welled up either. There seems to be a remarkable lack of enthusiasm on his own side for the case that he is putting. This is a fundamental issue. This House and this country should be about encouraging free and good local independent journalism. The council newspapers that we see at the moment are not examples of that. The Government are entirely right in the action that they have taken.
My Lords, first, I declare my interest as a member of Newcastle City Council. Our democracy is underpinned by four principles: the right to vote, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and a free press. In the context of having a free press, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Fowler. The Government should not be the publisher of newspapers and—for that reason—nor should local government. This is not what governments exist for.
The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity was introduced to prevent party political literature masquerading as official council newsletters. In my time, I saw enough of them to know that a code was necessary and that some limitations needed to be applied. I continued to support that position and the need for a code to exist. However, we should be aware that there are already restrictions in the existing code. The current one says that local authority publicity should seek to raise public awareness of the services provided by the council and the functions it performs, explaining to electors and council tax payers the reasons for particular policies and priorities and enabling them to have an informed say about issues affecting them.
As for subject matter, councils have a very wide range of statutory powers to produce and circulate publicity and to explain statutory matters to the general public, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, pointed out. Some of those powers relate specifically to the work of the council whereas others are discretionary, enabling the council to publicise matters which go beyond its primary responsibilities. However, in the context of localism, the drive to localism and the Localism Bill, it is very hard to see why councils should in future be restricted from pursuing a wider agenda in terms of public service provision in their localities. Indeed, councils should always seek to ensure that publicity is relevant to their functions and does not duplicate unnecessarily the publicity produced by other agencies, which of course includes newspapers.
It seems to me that the existing code is pretty reasonable, which begs the question of exactly why the changes are being introduced. Some of them we can agree with. I agree entirely with the view of my noble friend Lady Hanham on lobbyists. However, it is claimed that in recent years there has been a growth in the number and frequency of council newsletters and publications, and that 92 per cent of councils publish such newsletters. I think that that is a very good thing. I am very surprised that 8 per cent can deliver their statutory functions and not produce some kind of newsletter. In the context of localism, that is the direction of travel. If the general public do not like what is being said in these publications, they can vote out the councils at the ballot box.
I accept that some council publications have become like commercial newspapers, although I am not aware of them being issued weekly; but the vast majority of council publications are simply not like that. However, there is an issue around advertising and commercial newspapers, and concerns have been expressed about frequency of publication and content. Councils are constantly being encouraged to earn income. Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that councillors of all parties have encouraged council newsletters to accept advertising to pay for their distribution and other costs. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, reminded us, only 1 per cent of councils have a weekly publication; most print quarterly. At the moment, one-third have no advertising at all. Therefore, the jury is out on the evidence base for saying that council magazines pose a threat to the local newspaper industry. In principle, I believe that councils should not produce newspapers. However, given that £40 million is spent by local councils on planning notices, even if all councils opted for quarterly publication, it would make little practical difference to the situation. Therefore, I do not think that there is a great deal of difference between having four or six publications. I do not understand why it is deemed necessary to legislate in this way with this code.
I turn to what I think is an absurd proposal. The impact assessment contains various options, including an option to do nothing. It states:
“Option 1: Do nothing. This would mean that local authorities would be able to continue to produce free newspapers as frequently as once a week”.
In the current financial climate, I doubt that that would be practical. We should note that 99 per cent do not do so. The impact assessment says that local authorities would be able to,
“emulate the style of commercial newspapers”.
I accept absolutely the point made by my noble friend Lord Fowler in that regard. The document further states that local authorities would be able to,
“include material additional to facts about the council and its services such as crosswords, horoscopes and competitions that do not relate to the business of the authority”.
Is it really the job of the Government to stipulate in the code whether crosswords, horoscopes and competitions should or should not be published in a quarterly council newspaper? Surely the whole thrust of localism is that we should let councils get on with it.
As I say, I agree absolutely with the view expressed on lobbyists. I believe that that is correct, and I have not been happy when I have seen them being deployed—not in my own authority but elsewhere. However, I ask the Government to ensure that they follow the same practice as local councils are being asked to implement in this regard. Can we be reassured that the DCLG is not employing any lobbyists or PR companies elsewhere in the Government, given that local councils are to be banned from doing so?
I turn to “purdah” and the two rules that apply within this code, about which no proposals are coming forward. Local government went into purdah at the end of last week in connection with the local elections in England that will take place on the first Thursday of May. Central government have a purdah date, three weeks before the official polling date, of 14 April. I have never understood why central Government can make major announcements, say on project investment, only a few days before postal votes go out. That will occur this year in around the third week of April. That does not seem to be right. I propose that purdah should begin for all government agencies on the date of the publication of the notice of a poll, not on the publication of the notice of an election.
I and, I hope, my noble friends support this measure as it is contained in the coalition agreement, and it is right that we should do so. However, I hope that this matter will be carefully reviewed. No timescale is given in the impact assessment of when it will be reviewed but I do not think that it is the business of government to legislate on whether a newsletter should be published quarterly or bi-monthly. We are in very great danger of producing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
My Lords, as a former local councillor in Brentwood, Essex, and now as a director of a newspaper company, the Telegraph Media Group—I declare an interest accordingly—I appreciate that there are two sides to this issue. Weighing them both in the balance, I strongly support the proposed code of recommended practice because of the damaging impact of some local authority publicity on the local press. I do not need to dwell too much on this because I agree almost entirely with everything that my noble friend Lord Fowler said.
I do not think that anyone in this House would disagree with the proposition that a free and vibrant local press is the cornerstone of a properly functioning democracy. Local newspapers foster a sense of local and community spirit, scrutinise those in power, help ensure that taxpayers' money is being used efficiently, and, at a time of increasing secrecy in council decision-making, help shed some light on the workings of local government. The local press is the best example we have of localism in action. People respect and trust the regional press, which, we should not forget, employs 10,000 journalists across the UK—that is more reporters on the ground than any other medium in this country—to act independently in the public interest in a way that council publications never can. I appreciate, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, that there are pressures on the reporting of local government issues. However, independent research from Ofcom in 2009 found a general increase in high-quality local investigative journalism over the past five years. That is much more the image of the local press that I have as opposed to that reflected in some of the things that the noble Lord said.
However, as with national newspapers, such high-quality journalism—I believe that it is high-quality journalism—is expensive. Working in a newspaper company, I know that even in a benign commercial climate that places a considerable burden on publishers. However, it is infinitely more difficult during a period not just of economic downturn but of structural change within the industry, the combination of which has created a perfect economic storm for the regional press over the past few years. If we value a free local press, then we have to do everything we can to ensure that it operates on a level commercial playing field. It cannot do that if it is competing with local authority publications not just for readers—we should not forget the readers in this—but, crucially, for the advertising which funds it. Using taxpayers' money to compete for that increasingly scarce revenue—none of us should be in any doubt about how difficult the advertising market is—is unfair, anti-competitive and damaging to the local press. The more frequent the publication, the more advertising spend is drained from the private sector.
A recent survey by the Newspaper Society showed that nearly half the local authorities surveyed in London publish a newspaper or magazine on a monthly basis or even more frequently, with 90 per cent of those accepting advertising. Examples, as we have heard, include East End Life from Tower Hamlets and Greenwich Time, both of which in effect masquerade as local newspapers, which raises the added issue, as has been touched on, that local people can be misled into believing that what is in effect local authority propaganda is objective and independent journalism. It is not and never will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised the issue of crosswords and so forth. I looked at a copy of East End Life, a newspaper which, in an investigation in 2009, the Evening Standard showed to have twice the number of pages as the independent newspaper in that area, the East London Advertiser. It is not just crosswords; it has TV listings, news items and sports pages at the back—this is, in effect, a local newspaper in shape and in displaying classified adverts. That cannot be right. I am all in favour, as a former local councillor, of local authorities being able to communicate to the public the information they need, but they have that in the A to Z of local service; the occasional, objective council publications, which will not be stopped by the code; material in public libraries; a constructive dialogue with the local media, which is so important; and, of course, websites. In a digital age, there is no end of ways for a council to communicate with people.
I live in the London Borough of Islington. Its website tells me how to claim benefits, what books are in the library, what jobs I can apply for, how to get involved in the council and so on; it is all there. I believe that the code will help correct the balance. It is a simple solution which will not stop local authorities communicating professionally, objectively and cost-effectively with their electorates across a range of issues; but it will help stop some of the unfair competition with the local press, which is so dependent on advertising, and, in some extremes, help stop the public being misled into believing that a council publication is an independent newspaper, with all the profound implications that that has for local democracy. On every count I believe that the code is good; it is good for local taxpayers, good for local democracy and good for the independent local press which is a vital part of the civic fabric of our country.
My Lords, as the daughter of the proprietor of three local newspapers in Hampshire and Surrey, I grew up with the words “threats to local newspapers” ringing in my ears. In those days, in the 1960s, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, says, it was from commercial radio. The threats have been talked about ever since. The threats now are from websites. I do not believe that the younger generation listening to this debate would believe that the threat to local newspapers is actually coming from council newspapers. I do not recognise the world that the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, spoke of when he said that councils are increasingly secret. Actually, over the past 20 years, when I was involved as a councillor and latterly council leader in Somerset, councils opened up their meetings considerably; they were no longer held behind closed doors. We live in a world now of much greater openness. Indeed, a lot of future exposure is likely to come through the world of the Huffington Post and WikiLeaks, not through the traditional print media.
I do feel nostalgic for print and I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made the impassioned speech that he did. I hope that local newspapers continue to fight another day, but I am not certain that they will. Technology is moving so fast that that produced on paper is almost irrelevant. It saddens me that the Government have chosen this moment to renew a code in these terms. It extends a code that was already adequate to counter what my noble friend described so well as a situation from days gone by, when party political publications masqueraded as newspapers. That is not the case now. The code covered it, the code is complied with and councillors understand very well, as do council officials, what the code means.
I am disappointed that our Government have chosen to micromanage in this way. When we talk of unfair competition in addressing this, it seems very strange. The rest of the time we talk about competition and a free market being healthy. I understand the difference, which is that it is taxpayers’ money producing a council newspaper, but the rest of the time councils are urged to be as commercially viable as possible. However, it is not that that offends me, it is the micromanagement. Are we really going to have a code that dictates content? The noble Lord quoted competitions. I can remember my own council newspaper running competitions along the lines of, “Get to know your local area. Can you recognise where this is?”, with a photo of the local area. The next time it was published it would talk about the projects that were going to happen there. That is a competition and it certainly should not be caught by the code.
Frequency is certainly not a matter for central government; it is a matter that the council will decide according to its finances and, indeed, according to its residents’ wishes. Councils have been urged for ages to take into account their residents’ wishes, and survey after survey that my council did always came back with a request from residents for more information in a more digestible form. The public are very happy with the appearance of newspapers; that is why newspapers have evolved as they have. There is nothing wrong with a local authority taking on what is a very popular appearance and publishing its material in that form. It is not by chance that a newspaper has evolved into the form it has; it is because that is the form that the public like.
Finally, I do not like lobbyists any better than anybody else, but we need to be careful about this in the code. A lobbyist might be taken to be a person who has particular expertise in publicising a fairly technical issue. In the 1990s I remember that quite specialist help was needed to deal with what we were forced to do then, housing stock transfer. Noble Lords will be able to think of other very specialist issues now; say, flood defence and managed retreat, which you need quite specialist people to talk about. Would you not be allowed to employ them in your newspaper to write an article? So there is even a question hanging over the question of lobbyists. I wish that the Government would think again and quietly drop this proposal.
My Lords, when looking at the two Motions before us this evening, I asked myself, what it is that most council tax payers want from their council? I believe that it is the provision of good or excellent services as cheaply as possible. Taxpayers want value for money; every pound spent wisely, especially in these straitened times. I should declare that I was a local councillor for a number of years. My district council, Breckland in Norfolk, is in the top quartile for performance—indeed, it has beacon status—and it still has the lowest council tax in the country; about £60 for a band D house. As a taxpayer, that is exactly where I want it to be: it is good value for money.
The code deals with two main issues; new or tougher rules for local authority newsletters and the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Dealing with the use of lobbyists first, I ask myself the question, as a council tax payer: do I want my council paying tens of thousands of pounds to an outside firm to lobby MPs, public officials, political parties and government Ministers? The answer is an emphatic no, for two reasons. First, councillors and officers of the council already have open-door access to their MPs, Ministers and public officials. Why on earth do councils, therefore, need to pay good money to lobbyists to do their job for them? This leads me to my second point: it is a waste of taxpayers’ money, money that would be better spent in improving or maintaining front-line services.
The other issue is that of newsletters. I listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and I have to say that I cannot understand the position he has taken. It does not seem logical to me. If the Minister had come to the Dispatch Box to say that all restrictions for local council publications were to be removed, I could perhaps understand the noble Lord’s position if he opposed that. Indeed, there might well be opposition from all around the House, and understandably so.
Imagine the outcome if there was this free-for-all. There would be editors’ comments, opinion pages, hand-picked letters, all peddling the politics and policies of that particular council. I, for one, would find that undesirable, as, I suspect, would the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, especially as his party controls only less than 15 per cent of councils in the country. He would rightly argue that the Conservatives would have an unfair advantage, because they currently control more than 50 per cent of councils. Some rules need to be laid down to ensure an even-handed approach.
The second issue is whether some local authorities create unfair competition for local commercial newspapers. I should stress that the vast majority of local councils publish no more than a quarterly newsletter, as has been mentioned, and the content is largely confined to making the electorate aware of the services provided by the authority, highlighting local concerns, and informing people how they might respond to them. That is perfectly right and proper. This code of conduct will not affect any of those authorities’ newsletters. Unfortunately, a small minority of councils go far beyond that, and feature TV guides, entertainment listings, puzzle pages, sporting news, commercial advertisements, and film and theatre reviews. This clearly strays into direct conflict with the commercial local newspaper industry.
For instance, Tower Hamlets Council’s newspaper employs nearly 50 per cent more staff than its commercial rival, the East London Advertiser, and it has almost double the number of pages. Think of the cost of production, which is probably hundreds of thousands of pounds, all paid for by the poor council tax payer. This money would be far better spent on front-line essential services. Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper costs the taxpayer more than £500,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, conveniently talks about localism. However, is it really localism to allow councils to produce their own newspapers that will not publish any criticism of themselves, are paid for by the council tax payer who has no say in the matter, and are in direct competition with the local commercial newspaper? Or is it a more healthy localism to have a flourishing independent local newspaper that finances itself, is able to comment on and criticise the activities of the council, and allows the electorate to comment through letters? I think that I know the right answer.
I welcome the provisions introduced by the Minister. Council newsletters should be just that—newsletters, not newspapers—and councils should not pay good money to lobbyists to do a job that councils are perfectly able to do themselves. In both instances, the money would be better spent on front-line services.
My Lords, I support the remarks of my noble friend Lord Shipley. Not for me is the rarefied and glamorous world of journalism of my noble friend Lord Fowler and his successful chairmanship of Midland Newspapers, but I am someone who spent a working career in the newspaper industry as a general manager in the nuts and bolts of the industry at a national and local level—including at the Portsmouth News, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which in my day also printed the local government newspaper.
The local press is vital for communities to speak to themselves and encourage local democratic accountability. I spent a career, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, mentioned, fending off advertisers who threatened to run their own newspapers when they were dissatisfied by some coverage in the papers. Market competition and economics normally determine the success of competitive ventures, and that is how it should be. I can understand the concerns of local newspapers, particularly if councils use taxpayers’ money, combined with their own advertising, to attract other advertising. However, it is difficult for councils to do this. Newspapers are complex products that have to be read to be effective. Local newspapers are one of the most trusted mediums in the media. Councils, frankly, are not very good at creating their own newspapers, and advertisers rarely want to be associated with their councils.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was correct to say that the real threat to local newspapers is from the web and from underinvestment in content. I accept that there should be some guidance and restraint on unfair competition, because local newspapers have to be protected. However, we also have to accept that in some areas there are no longer any viable local newspapers, apart from free sheets, and that is a problem. It is somewhat heavy handed to insist that councils can publish only quarterly publications. A monthly limit would have been fine, because premium advertisers basically want daily and weekly mediums to advertise in and are not really interested in monthly publications. Nor are the monthly publications a real threat to the free press.
We accept that daily and weekly newspapers are under pressure and need to be protected. They need to be safeguarded, not least to allow them to invest in journalism in their local areas. Please, let us limit this measure to unfair competition and not micromanage the sort of publicity material that local councils should put out in their areas—particularly in this age of localism.
My Lords, this short debate drew to a conclusion rather more quickly than I had anticipated. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in it, including the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for introducing his Motion in his usual calm way. It is nice to see that on the other side. We have sparred on many occasions, but we always do that, I hope, with considerable grace and good humour. Unfortunately, I do not believe a word of what he said in rejecting our Motion. As has been made clear by many speakers on this side, there remains unfair competition between local council communications and the local press. We have recognised that it is right and timely to review and simplify the code, while bringing forward two changes.
It is interesting that practically no one had anything to say against the provisions on lobbyists. We all understand that local authorities have, and should have, direct access to government. They can do that for themselves. One point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about specialist lobbyists on technical matters. They will not be prohibited by this, because sometimes cases have to be made on technical matters that cannot otherwise be dealt with.
Most of the opprobrium from the noble Lord, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, was regarding the number of publications. We believe that it is right at this stage, by reviewing the code, to suggest that councils should limit the number of publications they put out and that they limit the content. Local councils have a duty to inform their residents in a neutral and straightforward way about what they are doing. They do not have to do it every month or every week. They need to do it occasionally. The Local Government Association survey made it clear that the previous code has been pretty well respected in that regard, and we all recall that the 1986 code came about as a result of some arcane and peculiar practices by local government in what it put forth to the public.
The first issue is the restraint on local government on how often it should use the taxpayers’ money to produce publications to put out its views on what is happening. The second issue, which we have debated, is whether it is providing competition to the local press. If you cannot tell the difference between a local government publication that is putting out the local government view and a publication of the local press, something is seriously wrong. Local government is not and should not be acting as a local newspaper in any way at all. I agree with suggestions that local newspapers are less than they were and that they do not provide perhaps the scrutiny that they should, but it has ever been thus. Sometimes they appeared at council meetings and sometimes they did not. I go back nearly as far as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, so I am aware of what does happen. However, there is no reason to suggest that we should make it any more difficult for the local press than it is at the moment and that councils’ and taxpayers’ money should be spent on doing that.
I think that the case has been made by many of my noble friends as to why the way in which a minority of local councils deal with their publications should not be allowed to continue. The Government are convinced that this is the right moment to make these two changes to the code.
Some comments have been made about enforcement. As I said at the beginning of this debate, a code is a code. The local authorities have to decide whether they are going to live by the code but, if not, they can be subject to challenge by residents through the auditors. They also might have to consider whether the publicity for being challenged on this is worth the candle.