Motion of Regret
That this House regrets that the Government’s proposed amended Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity seeks to impose wide-ranging and unnecessary restrictions on what material democratically elected councils may publish for their citizens; and that this is in direct contradiction of Her Majesty’s Government’s proclaimed belief in localism.
My Lords, to adapt the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I rise from the serried rank of the Labour Opposition to join the noble Baroness in thanking all noble Lords who have participated in this debate—which of course will go unreported, as, alas, so many of the debates in your Lordships’ House are. It is a pleasure to be opposite the noble Baroness. As a young lawyer, I often had to appear before her father, a formidable county court registrar. I have to say that to appear before the noble Baroness is much easier and a much more pleasant experience.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, seemed to imply that local government did not wish to see an independent local press. That simply is not the case for much the greater part of local government, nor do local civic newspapers purport to provide independent journalism; that is not their function. Of course, local governments should not promote the politics of their council, as the noble Lord rightly said. In this connection, I am bound to quote from a recent publication by the royal borough—in fact its newspaper is called the Royal Borough. The leader of the council said:
“The Coalition Government, in its efforts to rectify the worst financial crisis since World War Two, is making significant reductions in public spending and I believe that it is right that this should happen and right that this borough should play its part in restoring public finances to balance”.
One might wonder whether that notion transgresses the policy that the noble Lord rightly advocates that councils should not promote their policies. Be that as it may, the position is much as defined by the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham. I will not, in passing, defend the activities of Hammersmith and Fulham Council in this respect or in any other, but the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, with his experience of the industry, rightly points out that the prospect of competition from civic newspapers or journals—or whatever they are called—that are published less frequently than daily or weekly, as the vast majority are, is quite unreal. With respect, we have heard nothing from noble Lords in today’s debate to provide the evidence on that, which the Select Committee pointed out was signally lacking.
The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, asked what council tax payers would want. Of course, it is right that council tax payers and residents of an area should have the final say in these matters. They should be the judges at the ballot box of what their council does, whether it involves council publications or any other local service. As I have indicated before, surely the correct approach to these matters is the one strongly advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on behalf of the Local Government Association. She and I are on different sides of the political fence, but she clearly represents the voice of local government. However, as we have already heard from both sides of the Chamber, since this code is not enforceable other than by complaint to the district auditor and since it is a code to which local authorities must have regard—and I absolutely endorse that—there is no particular advantage to be gained in pressing the Motion.
Motion not moved.