Thursday, 10 October 2013

Concerns for campaigning: The Local Authority Publicity Code

Reflecting concerns about the Lobbying Bill making its way to the Lords
Futures Forum: Concerns for campaigning: Lobbying Bill crucial stage: reports
there are concerns that another piece of legislation quietly making its way through Parliament would make it more difficult for Local Government to comment or campaign on issues.
This is a report just out this week:

Councils could be stifled from commenting on government policy, lawyers warn

Monday, 07 October 2013 11:25
Placing the Local Authority Publicity Code into legislation could lead to councils being banned from campaigning on behalf of their residents on key issues, according to legal advice obtained by the Local Government Association.
According to the LGA’s legal advice, from Sharpe Pritchard, clause 38 will have the effect of altering the way in which the code can be enforced by the government and (for the first time) by third parties.
The law firm gave a number of examples of the consequences of the Government’s proposals.
On the possible stifling of authorities’ powers to comment on central government policy, it cited HS2 as a project of “immense significance to the authorities affected by it (some who are strongly in favour and some who are strongly against)”.
Sharpe Pritchard said: “It is conceivable that the Secretary of State could use his direction making powers to require specifically named councils who oppose the scheme in principle to refrain from making any adverse comment about the scheme in their publicity, on the basis that it is [per paragraph 15 of the current code of practice] ‘likely to be perceived by readers as…...being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy'."
The law firm continued: “How can that possibly sit with the fact that as a matter of principle those same authorities can challenge the process behind HS2 in the courts – as they have done – and petition Parliament against the hybrid bill for HS2 – which they surely will do.
“Why should the authorities concerned not be able to make their opposition known or provide a commentary on the scheme by means of publicity, and provide information to their local residents about why the authorities are opposed to it, and explaining to their local residents how they can oppose it too? Even though primary legislation specifically provides that a council can petition against the HS2 Bill (see section 239 of the Local Government Act 1972), there is a real possibility that using the direction making powers in particular, the government could seek to prevent the authority from communicating its views to its own residents.”
Sir Merrick Cockell, LGA Chairman, said: “Councils have a legitimate, local, democratic mandate. They have a proud history of campaigning on behalf of their residents who rightly look to them to unite communities and stand up for their best interests. That might often be inconvenient for central government, but a community being able to fight for or against unpopular or controversial proposals affecting their area is a key part of democracy.
“This independent legal advice also confirms our fears that a government could hand power to one individual in Whitehall to restrict councils from campaigning on important issues such as HS2 or hospital closures if they so wish.”
Sir Merrick added: “To simply make it easier for government to ignore the views of communities is unacceptable, sets a dangerous precedent and will mean local areas and residents will suffer as a result.
“The Government needs to see sense and withdraw these ill-thought out proposals. Councils must retain the ability to communicate its views to its residents and not be stifled from commenting on central government policy.”

Local Government Lawyer - Councils could be stifled from commenting on government policy, lawyers warn

Thanks to: Claire Wright - Your Independent East Devon District Councillor for Ottery Rural

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