Council comms clampdown defended by DCLG under-secretary Lewis

Brandon Lewis, the Tory MP co-ordinating stricter controls on council campaigning, has said they are necessary to combat "political propaganda".

Brandon Lewis: The changes will not affect most councils
Brandon Lewis: The changes will not affect most councils

This week the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which includes making the Publicity Code enforceable by the Government, began its passage through Parliament.

The move follows the introduction of the Publicity Code guidelines shortly after the creation of the coalition in 2010.

Lewis, Parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Department for Communities and Local Government and MP for Great Yarmouth, spoke out amid fears this could lead to a clampdown on legitimate campaigning.

He told PRWeek: "We’re not looking to go out and proactively monitor councils, but if people make a complaint and if there is use of taxpayers' money to fight inappropriate political campaigns it is right we fight that.

"By putting it on a statutory footing all it means is if a council is in breach the government can step in on that, whereas at the moment there’s no power to do anything about it."

Included in the code, which seeks to curb politicised campaigning, are rules on limiting council publications to four a year.

Since introducing the code when it came into power, the Government has clashed with local councils including Tower Hamlets and Lambeth over the issue, with DCLG minister Eric Pickles firing a warning shot across the bows of what he has termed town hall "Pravdas".

Concerns have been aired by many in local authority comms over the restrictions on publication. LGA director of comms David Holdstock claiming that councils were already spending an average of £105,000 a year to fulfil the legal requirement to advertise in privately owned newspapers.

Holdstock also said there were fears that "this won’t allow councils to campaign on behalf of their residents".

However, Lewis countered that legitimate campaigning on major issues that touched on wider political debate would not be affected.

And though acknowledging that local "newspapers need to change" to become financially sustainable, he stood by moves to limit council publications.

"There are a few councils around who are using their newsletters inappropriately and are using taxpayers money for political propaganda.

"We said when the Government came in that it was inappropriate for council weekly papers to compete with the newspaper industry, and if you’re running a weekly newspaper you’re using taxpayers' money with a commercial business."

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