The DCLG is once again at loggerheads with some local authorities over their lack of compliance with the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
The publicity code was issued on 31 March 2011 (see Legal update, Code of practice on local authority publicity published), and requires local authorities to be objective and even-handed in any publicity they send out. In particular, the code states that:
- Local authorities should not publish newsletters or newssheets that look like commercial newspapers.
- Where newssheets are published they should only be published on a quarterly basis.
- Any local authority publicity should identify itself as such on the front page of the publication.
In April 2013, amid concerns that local authorities were not complying with these provisions, and thereby endangering the local independent press by posing unfair competition to it, the DCLG consulted on proposals to give the Secretary of State powers to require local authorities to comply with the code (see Legal update, Consultation published on new powers to require compliance with the local authority publicity code).
Section 39 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 duly inserted a new section 4A into the Local Government Act 1986, granting the Secretary of State this power to require compliance with the code and, on 25 March 2014, the DCLG wrote to all local authority chief executives in England explaining how the Secretary of State proposed to exercise his new power (see Legal update, DCLG explains power to direct compliance with the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity). In April 2014, letters, followed by formal notices of intention to serve a direction under Section 4A, were sent to five local authorities.
On 21 August 2014, council leaders and chief executives from another seven local authorities have received letters from Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins, warning that they are understood not to be in compliance with the code (see DCLG: Code of practice on local authority publicity: letters (21 August 2014)). The recipient authorities are all accused of issuing publications more frequently than quarterly.
The letters ask the local authorities in question to comply with the code and to let the Minister know within ten working days (that is by 5 September 2014) how they intend to proceed. They remind the recipients that an authority can be directed to comply with the rules set out in the code, and they warn that the Communities Secretary would be minded to issue a formal notice of a intention to serve a proposed direction under section 4A if he considers that there is a risk that, in future, a council will not be complying with the code. Ultimately, non-complying councils could be required by court order to comply.
The wording of the latest letters, and the fact that they have been published online, suggest that the DCLG intends to enforce compliance with the code vigorously, and to be seen to be doing so. The department is obviously intent on cracking down on too much local authority publicity. Whether this is motivated more by the DCLG’s concern for the vitality of the independent local press or a concern that public money is being misused for political purposes is a moot point. Certainly, any local authorities considering issuing publications that could be construed as being overly party political, or simply as being too frequent, should take great care that they comply with the code. If they do not, they should now know that the the Secretary of State intends to use his new powers to the fullest extent.