HL Deb 27 July 1988 vol 500 cc329-38

7.57 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness) rose to move, That the draft code laid before the House on 30th June be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, Section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986 provides for the Secretary of State to issue codes of recommended practice as regards the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity and such other related matters.

The 1986 Act requires that before issuing a code the Secretary of State shall consult the local authority associations and any local authority with which consultation appears desirable. Extensive consultation has taken place over the past two years with the local authority associations and a number of other bodies concerned. During these consultations no fewer than five drafts of the code have been considered in detail. This demonstrates both the extent to which we have endeavoured to take local government with us on the drafting of the code and our willingness, where appropriate, to make amendments designed to allay their concerns. I would not claim that the local authority associations now welcome the code with open arms, but as a result of these consultations and the amendments that have been made there are now few areas of disagreement about the content of the code.

The 1986 Act provides also that a draft of the code shall be laid before each House of Parliament for approval. The draft that we are debating today has been approved in another place. The introduction to the code explains its status and scope. We have considered at length in this House during the passage of both the 1986 and the 1988 Local Government Acts the appropriate status of this code. As a result, Section 4 of the 1986 Act was amended by Section 27 of the 1988 Act to require local authorities to have regard to the provisions of the code in coming to any decision on publicity. This does not mean that the code is a series of rules and regulations which local authorities must adhere to in all cases. On the contrary, it sets out principles of good practice to act as a benchmark against which authorities must judge their publicity proposals. In each case they will need to consider whether the publicity that they propose to issue is in keeping with the principles set out in the code. If it is not, they will need to consider whether special circumstances exist which justify departure from the code.

Paragraph 5 of the introduction to the code explains that it is not concerned with the statutory ban on party political publicity, but rather with all publicity which local authorities are empowered to issue. Of course observant of the principles of good practice set out in the code would ensure that a local authority did not contravene that prohibition.

The introduction to the code also acknowledges the vital role that local authority publicity has to play in the interests of ensuring local accountability. It welcomes good, effective publicity, aimed at improving public awareness of a council's activities. It explains that the purpose of the code is to set out principles of good practice which will ensure that local authority publicity decisions are properly made.

A final point that I would draw attention to in the introduction to the code is paragraph 8. This paragraph, together with paragraph 43 of the code itself, explains that it will not effect the ability of local authorities to assist charities and voluntary organisations which need to issue publicity as part of their work. Local authorities are, however, called upon in giving such assistance to take into account the principles contained in the code. To the extent appropriate, local authorities should incorporate the relevant principles in any published guidance for applicants for grants and make observance of that guidance a condition of the grant. Where appropriate, local authorities should monitor the observance of the guidance.The extent to which any such monitoring is necessary must remain a matter for the local authority concerned. But in the Government's view prior vetting of all publicity by assisted voluntary organisations would be unnecessary.

The main body of the code is divided into nine sections. These deal in turn with the subject matter of local authority publicity—its cost, content, style and dissemination; particular considerations to be taken into account with general advertising and recruitment advertising; publicity about members of the authority; the timing of publicity; and assistance given to others for publicity. I do not propose to give a detailed summary of each of these sections. I am sure that noble Lords interested will have familiarised themselves with them. Taken together, the principles of good practice set out in the code provide an essential and comprehensive yardstick against which local authorities should judge their publicity proposals. We intend that, as soon as parliamentary approval is forthcoming, the code will be brought into effect by issuing it under cover of a circular to local authorities. I have no hesitation therefore in commending it to the House.

Moved, That the draft code laid before the House on 30th June be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Caithness.)

8.3 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for bringing the code before your Lordships' House. Let me say at the outset that, in accordance with convention, we shall not oppose a code which has been approved by the other place. I notice that the Minister in his speech glossed over the fact that the amendment to the 1986 Act which was made by the 1988 Act was an amendment to the decision reached by this House that such a code should not be obligatory on local authorities. The words "have regard to the code" as a condition in the 1988 Act were imposed by the Government against the judgment of this House when it considered the 1986 Act.

The Minister is correct in saying that the code has, in going through all its drafts to the present sixth version, dealt in detail with some of the drafting points which caused disagreement between the local authority associations and the Government. He is also right in saying that the associations take the view that the final version does not have many of the defects which were present in earlier versions, although their opposition to it concerns a number of specific aspects of the code as well as the principle on which the code is based. However, I wish to deal with the principle first. That is the most important aspect of the code.

In imposing the code the Government are saying in effect that local authorities cannot be treated with the same degree of freedom and allowed to have the same responsibility as the Government assume for their own publicity actions. I am aware that in this country local authorities are the creatures of government. However, that does not mean that in every respect local authorities ought to be treated as inferior to government departments and agencies.

If local authorities had been asked to agree to the convention which was drawn up by the Cabinet Office for government publicity, there might have been less dispute about the matter. That convention was referred to by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place only last week. He said: The Government lay down conventions on publicity and advertising for themselves". [Official Report, Commons, 20/7/88; col. 1225.] I have looked up those conventions and I have the first two pages of the note prepared by the Cabinet Office for the Standing Committee on 1st May 1985. The conventions are extremely straightforward. They are nothing like the seven pages of the present code. That note says, first, that the: subject matter should be relevant to Government responsibilities". I shall read the parts which are underlined as being the essence of the case. It says, secondly, that: content, tone and presentation should not be 'party political'. The treatment should be as objective as possible, should not be personalised, should avoid political slogans and should not directly attack (though it may implicitly respond to) the policies and opinions of opposition parties or groups". If I thought that local authorities were being given the freedom which the Government apparently have implicitly to respond to the policies and opinions of opposition parties or groups, I should be a good deal happier to know that local authorities were being treated on the same terms as government departments and agencies. That is not the case. Section 2 of the 1986 Act provides a complete ban on party political publicity, with which I agree. However, if local authorities should be prohibited from responding, implicitly or otherwise, to the policies and opinions of opposition parties or groups, then so should central government.

The amount of money being spent by central government in the promotion of their policies, to which some of us vehemently object, is a thousand times more than the amount of money being spent by local authorities on publicity, political or otherwise. In that respect, the Government are behaving in a totally unbalanced way and in a way which does not reflect creditably on their record as a partner with local government in assuring the good government of this country.

The third point of the note of the Cabinet Office is relatively uncontroversial. It reads: distribution of unsolicited material should be carefully controlled". Much of that is reflected in the local authority code. We do not disagree with it. The final point is that the costs should be justifiable. The note says: The Government are accountable to Parliament for the use they make of public funds for publicity, as for any other purpose. The Accounting Officer for the Vote concerned has a particular responsibility to the Public Accounts Committee". Once again, we agree that comparable powers exist for the district auditors. We believe that they should have those powers over local authority publicity as they do over other local authority expenditure.

If the code was confined to those elements and if local government was treated in the same way as central government, we would have much less objection than we do to the way the code has been drawn up. However, we have a combination of elements in the code which are merely patronising. They are teaching local authorities how to wipe their own noses. They are repeating things which everybody knows about value for money, and when to use media advertising and when to use other forms of publicity. All of those elements could well have been left out had there been a sensible discussion between grown up people.

In the code there is a combination of that kind of patronising, quite irrelevant and unnecessary paragraph with other aspects which are just plain wrong. For example, paragraph 4(iii) says that: in areas where central government, another tier of local government, or another public authority have the primary service or policy responsibility, local authorities should issue publicity only on matters that are directly relevant to their own functions". That sounds all very well but it neglects the fact that local authorities have the duty to be the voice of their communities. They are concerned when other authorities close hospitals in their areas because they have to make provision for the public health services when hospitals are closed. They are involved when transport services are cut in their areas because they arc concerned with the mobility of the people who live there. There are many other examples of cases in which it is entirely proper for a local authority to comment on and to publicise changes in the services provided by other people—by central government, by private industry or by anybody else. To neglect the responsibilities of local authorities to be the voice of their community is to neglect one very major function in the work of local authorities which the Government ought to appreciate and welcome.

I shall not weary the House with the other detailed objections concerning the code. However, to summarise, it ought not to have the force that it has; it ought not to be as detailed as it is; it ought to have been a voluntary code which was readily available from the local authority associations of all parties; and it certainly ought not to be presented to Parliament in the detail in which we are now having to consider it and be the responsibility of Parliament.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset that I believe this code to be a profound mistake. It is undesirable because it represents yet another heavy-handed intervention in the affairs of local government.

As we all know, and as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has reminded us, although the local authority associations prefer the present draft to the version of five drafts earlier they do not like it. That is the view of all the political parties represented in local authority associations, including the friends of the noble Earl. On the other hand, Conservative councillors have had to become accustomed to having their views ignored by their friends in the Government. The code represents another example of that approach.

When the Government tell the House that there have been a number of glaring examples of local authorities misbehaving and producing party political propaganda at the ratepayers' expense, they are entirely right. I have drawn attention to a number of such episodes myself. Five years ago I pointed out to the noble Earl's predecessor—the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, who was then Minister of State in the noble Earl's department—that we had evidence that the local authority in Islington intended to use a drafting error in a small government Bill then going through Parliament to spend £100,000 of public money on a Left-wing broadsheet. We said so in the Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, and I went to see the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. We produced evidence from the solicitor's department of Islington Borough Council that the council proposed to do just that. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, told us that nothing could be done. The Government had to have their Bill on time and he was entirely opposed to introducing any amendment at that stage.

We came back to the House and put down an amendment. The Government Whips were used to vote down that amendment, which was an extraordinary procedure. It may well be that the noble Earl was one of those who trooped cheerfully through the Lobby in favour of the original form of words in that Bill which, I repeat, it was absolutely clear from evidence that I presented to the Minster would be misused.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, agreed with us. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, agreed with us. To do the Labour Party justice, five of its members came into the Lobby with us, despite the fact that Islington was a Labour-controlled authority.

What happened? The council produced its broadsheet, which was a fairly crude piece of party political propaganda, and the broadsheet went bankrupt. It cost the ratepayers of Islington £100,000.

The Government are quite keen on surcharges when councillors are involved. I wonder whether they feel it appropriate in cases of that sort that Ministers in the Department of the Environment should be surcharged themselves for such an episode of gross irresponsibility. There has not even been an apology from the noble Earl's department and I am quite sure that one will not be forthcoming this evening.

This example indicates that when talking about blatant political propaganda it is probably wise for the noble Earl to examine some of the episodes which have been debated in this House on a number of occasions over the past five years and on which the government response was highly unsatisfactory.

In the circumstances of the Islington case, and as a result of a number of other episodes of a similar character—although Islington was undoubtedly the worst—I agreed with Widdicombe that there should be a clear, explicit, statutory prohibition of publicity for party political purposes. Indeed, I believe that on a previous occasion the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said the same. I think that that is entirely right. But of course the code we are discussing this evening goes far further than that.

Perhaps I may give an illustration of what will happen as a result of the code. A district council decides that it wants to oppose a new road scheme. It believes that the scheme will do grievous environmental damage to its community. The council may decide that it wants to hold a number of public meetings to discuss the matter and express its views to the local community. It may well be, and often is, that all the political parties represented on the local authority will take exactly the same view. It will therefore not be a matter of party political dispute.

However, if one turns to paragraph 19 of the code, the last sentence says: local authorities, like other public authorities, should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns whose primary purpose is to persuade the public to hold a particular view on a question of policy". What conceivable advantage to the public interest is derived from a form of words of that kind which will prevent perfectly well-meaning local authorities from taking a view on an issue of high public importance to their local communities and holding the kind of meeting which in a normal democracy would be entirely appropriate? It seems to me a thoroughly daft idea. However, unhappily, it represents the Government's blunderbuss approach to the whole question of local government publicity.

On the other hand, it has to be said that despite the Government's enthusiasm for legislating against their political opponents in local government, they apply very different standards to their own conduct. There was the interesting incident last year in which a leaked memorandum was published in the Guardian emanating from the Department of the Enviroment in which Mr. William Waldegrave's special adviser, Mr. Patrick Rock said: As you know, you will be presenting the keys to the 10,000th Wandsworth tenant to buy his home. The date for this has been brought forward so that favourable publicity can be generated before a vital byelection". There was then the usual hunt for the mole in the Department of the Environment, which had the predictable result.

The memorandum described how the ceremony would be brought forward because there was to be this local authority by-election on 19th November which had great significance for the political control of Wandsworth Borough Council. That therefore is the position of Ministers in the Department of the Environment and their advisers: let us use public resources to receive favourable publicity for a Conservative candidate in a local authority byelection.

What does paragraph 43 of the code say about local authorities which are tempted into similar paths of unrighteousness? It reads: Particular care should be taken when publicity is issued immediately prior to an election or by-election affecting the authority's area to ensure that this could not be perceived as seeking to influence public opinion, or to promote the public image of a particular candidate, or group of candidates". Which of the two arguments of the Government would they like us to take seriously? Would they like us to regard their position as that of paragraph 43 of their code or would they prefer the advice given by Mr. Rock to Mr. Waldegrave, which of course, was acted upon and which undoubtedly assured favourable publicity for a council candidate in a by-election at the behest of the leader of that council, Mr. Paul Beresford? I am sure that the noble Earl will be eager to tell us which of those two approaches he favours.

Finally I turn to paragraph 39 of the code: The functions of a local authority are discharged by the council corporately. It is therefore inappropriate for public resources to be used to publicise individual councillors". I think that it would be very difficult for any reasonable person to disagree with the sentiments expressed in that sentence. In the following paragraphs 40 to 42 there follows a list of exceptions—committee chairmen when they wish to speak about a particular development, and so on.

One question in particular arises because I think that it is a mistake, if I may say so from these Benches, to suggest that all wickedness is entirely the creation of Labour councillors in London. I turn to the interesting case of Lady Porter, who is the Conservative Leader of Westminster City Council. Let us assume that she is asked—as I am sure that she will be asked on many future occasions—to meet the press at a council press conference in order to discuss the strange affair of the sale of those cemeteries for a few coppers. All noble Lords will recall Lady Porter's surprise that that exciting new notion of privatisation did not receive the wholehearted and enthusiastic support of the local community, of the relations of those who were buried there and of the Dutch Government, some of whose nationals who had been killed in the war were also buried there.

We are all looking forward—and I am quite sure that the Department of the Environment, which is very keen on value for money, likewise is looking forward—to reading the reports of the various inquiries that are now taking place into the curious matter of Lady Porter, the sale of the cemeteries and their repurchase.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am fascinated by what the noble Lord has said. I understood that the only inquiry that had been allowed by the City of Westminster was an internal inquiry. I did not know that there was to be an independent inquiry.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord can be reassured that various other matters are now being looked into. He will not be altogether surprised to hear that apparently some councillors in Westminster were not too enthusiastic about having too detailed an inquiry. However, I understand that continuing investigations are being carried out and I think that it is right that they should take place.

I hope that there is nothing in paragraphs 39 to 42 of the code to prevent Lady Porter's large team of public relations advisers—indeed, there are a remarkable number in the City of Westminster —from being able to organise council press conferences as soon as it becomes possible to do so following the various investigations that are taking place.

Finally, let me say this. I think that this code is a rather trivial document. In the long term it may not have the damaging effect on free speech in local government as was no doubt intended by some of those who were responsible for drafting it. I hope that its effect will at worst be marginal and that sooner or later this Government will stop nannying local government. Similarly, I hope that some of the more foolish local councils will stop conducting themselves in a way that only brings discredit on our system of local government and offers an opportunity for even greater intervention from Whitehall.

8.26 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I was grateful for some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Which things, my Lords?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I was just about to say. The consultation exercise that we have gone through was one of the things, and he said that there had been improvements, as indeed I said when I opened this debate—and at least the noble Lord was courteous.

We have heard the assertion made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that we are seeking to impose one set of rules for local authorities and quite another for central government. That is not true. Both central and local government have a duty to explain their proposals to those who are affected. There is no question of the code seeking to impose restrictions on local authorities that are more onerous than those observed by central government publicity.

Although it is difficult to make direct comparisons because of the fundamental differences in the constitutional position, we have ensured that the code is as consistent as possible with the longstanding conventions followed by central government. The spirit of the rules is similar in both cases and requires, for example, that in cases in which controversial subjects are given publicity, care is taken to concentrate on facts and explanation rather than on persuading the Leader to take a particular point of view on an issue of policy. Following that up, I would just say to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that some of the phrases quoted by the noble Lord are in fact in the code and I refer him to paragraph 13. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, went on to say that the code is patronising. The code is meant to cover all aspects of publicity and it would be wrong to be selective.

Both the noble Lords who spoke in this debate were concerned that the code would prevent publicity about proposals for schemes affecting their areas. There are no grounds for concern that the code will in any way inhibit local authorities' efforts to provide information about any proposals that will have a direct impact on their functions. Paragraph 19 of the code makes clear that publicity campaigns can provide an appropriate means of ensuring that the local community is properly informed about a matter relating to a function of the authority and about the authority's policies in relation to that function and the reasons for them.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I should like to say that it is important that public funds should not be used to mount campaigns whose primary purpose is to persuade the public to hold a particular view on a policy issue. Again, as regards the point that he raised about the road scheme, should a district council wish to oppose a road scheme and want public meetings to be held, the code will not stop that process.

Paragraph 19, to which I have referred, also states that a local authority can explain its policies and the reasons for it. If the reasons are good, they will be persuasive; if not, it should not try to use advertising techniques to sell its views.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, reminded the House of the code produced by the local authority associations. I remember that we had discussions on Clause 27 earlier this year on the Local Government Bill. I am aware that a draft code on publicity was prepared by officers in main associations in December of last year. In my view this served only to reinforce Parliament's decision to place responsibility for preparing the code with the Secretary of State.

At first sight, the association's draft code bore some resemblance to the Government's draft code. But I see little point in taking up time in the House tonight with a line by line critique of the document. Suffice it to say, although it appeared to cover some of the important matters included in the Government's draft, it excluded a number that we believe to be essential. More importantly, its provisions were written in such vague terms that I saw no prospect that local authorities would be pointed to good practice in any meaningful sense. That is the purpose of having the code in the first place.

Finally, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, dropped well below the normal standard that he sets himself. He quoted an event relating to a memorandum from a political adviser. That is not the usual standard of the noble Lord. That had nothing to do with publicity as defined for the purposes of the Act and the code. No DoE press notice was issued.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the noble Earl must try not to be pompous when embarrassing political disclosures are made from his own department. I was merely asking him to reconcile the approach disclosed in that memorandum, and the action taken thereafter by his colleague, Mr. Waldegrave, with the paragraph in the code which precludes local authorities from behaving in precisely the same manner.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I should hate the noble Lord to class me as being pompous. I was merely saying that he had dropped below his normal standards.

On Question, Motion agreed to.