OPINION: Local politicians should talk politics

It will need the combined thoughts of both our profession’s representative bodies if the now-ageing Publicity Code is to be relevant in the 21st century.

Treacher: FCIPR, Chairman CIPR Local Government Group
Treacher: FCIPR, Chairman CIPR Local Government Group

That sums up the theme of three speakers at the CIPR (Local Government Group) conference held in Liverpool last week.

‘What Publicity Code?’ some of you will be thinking.

The code that Mrs Thatcher introduced in the 1980s to stop councils attacking central government policy – or to be more precise – to stop them attacking her and her ministers with what was called ‘propaganda on the rates’.

The legislation was hurried, flawed and had about as much mature consideration as a ban on dangerous dogs. However, it is the law. It is also news to a growing number of local government PROs.

It was agreed that the CIPR and LG Communications get together to review how fit for purpose the code is; recommend any changes and then either lobby for a change or ensure everybody in our business understands it.

Jayne Surman, chair of LG Communications hit the nail on the head by explaining that those councils that allow officers within departments to be part-time PROs probably have no idea of the code’s existence. David Russell of East Lothian highlighted the changes in central, devolved and local government since it was introduced. The third speaker, Rhian Davies-Moore from Neath Port Talbot gave case studies which demonstrated the additional burden placed on PROs trying to uphold the current law.

The view from the floor ranged from support so long as the code was modernised (it was written before websites or email) to outright abolition. One excellent point was that the it should be used to strengthen the call for more centralised communication units to ensure compliance.

I believe that taking the politics out of local government publicity has weakened democracy. If we want communities to decide which political parties they want to run their councils, councillors should be free to express themselves unhindered by rules written two decades ago. I suspect a link between this type of restriction and a decline in turn out at local elections.

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