Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


APPENDIX 44

Memorandum by the Society of County and Unitary Public Relations Officers

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Society (SCUPRO) represents the communications function of each of the county, unitary, and metropolitan authorities, through their senior communications professionals. As such it articulates significant expertise and experience in the delivery of local government communications and information and in the development of best practice in consultation and participation techniques and programmes. SCUPRO members are playing key roles in delivering the new agenda for modern local government. It welcomes many of the ambitions and proposals of the Bill but has concerns that the future delivery of communications aimed at making local government accessible, understandable and relevant will be compromised by a current lack of clarity in how legislation and regulation will operate in this area.

  2.  SCUPRO wants to draw this Select Committee's attention to these issues and offers to work with government and other interested parties to arrive at solutions to such difficulties.

KEY ISSUES

  3.  Currently the Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity is the yardstick against which communications activity is tested. Introduced in 1988 it has been open to different interpretations in certain of its elements but has at its core the principle of impartiality. The draft Bill's proposals for new political management structures mean that not only would the code become substantially irrelevant but that a replacement or similar would need to be established to deal with new issues.

  4.  A key example of this is the creation of Executive and Overview/Scrutiny functions. Both of these could claim to have a legitimate responsibility to inform the public, stakeholders and others of their views on policy and operational matters. The present code, in practice, excludes opposition views from being presented in local authority material as they are clearly identified with a political party. It is reasonable to expect, however, that the Overview/Scrutiny Committee could have opposition majorities or, even if this wasn't the case, still want to publicise their activities and reports examining council policy, practice or executive decisions. The current code does not seem to allow this but there is also the question of, if it were permissible, would this mean two distinct sets of communications personnel? It is hard to imagine smaller authorities being able to resource such a situation. Even for larger authorities it implies additional costs.

  5.  A similar set of issues arises in the case of an Elected Mayor. The possibility of the Mayor being of a different political party to the majority of the Executive poses difficulties for the communications function in an authority. There is potential for conflicting messages, confusion and a consequent undermining of the standing of local government and of government's stated commitment of reinvigorating democracy.

  6.  The code makes frequent reference to local authorities only issuing publicity on "matters that are directly relevant to their own functions". It is recognised that modern local authorities will have to act as community leader and champion, challenging other public and private service providers on behalf of citizens. This inevitably means that councils must communicate on issues not directly related to local government and it is hoped that this would be addressed in any future code or regulations.

  7.  Conversely, local authorities are increasingly working in partnership with other organisations. It is suggested that there is merit in exploring whether any future code could apply to other locally delivered public sector bodies such as Police, Fire and Health. There is logic in applying the same principles to organisations working as partners.

  8.  There are other aspects of the draft Bill that, whilst not necessarily affected by any Code of Practice, do require consideration from a communications perspective. For instance, it proposes that a binding referendum can introduce a directly elected mayor and the use of referenda is envisaged as being of greater importance than previously. This raises issues for the communications/information functions and activities of local authorities eg:

    —  Will the council be able to campaign for/against a particular option?

    —  What information will the local authority be able to provide to ensure informed debate?

    —  Will campaign groups be able to make use of council publications and media?

  9.  The managing of the relationship between local councils and the media is an important aspect of facilitating a community's knowledge of local government's activities. We are concerned that, contrary to existing practice with committee papers, Executive papers will not be available until after meetings. This is likely to lead to an atmosphere of suspicion and an increased likelihood of "leaks". Evidence from central government suggests that this undermines the credibility and standing of an organisation and would not be in the interests of accountable and transparent local government.

SUMMARY

  10.  In summary, SCUPRO wishes to see local government prosper and develop, and to be recognised as a vital part of the everyday and democratic life of this country. It believes that the principles behind the draft Bill will contribute significantly to this and welcomes the emphasis on good communication that is in the proposed legislation. However, considerable thought must be given as to how the communications implications of the Bill and ensuing regulations can be addressed. Government and others have stressed the role of good communications in the debate on modernising local government. The impact of communications was recognised by the previous government when it introduced a Code of Practice in 1988. It is essential that there is adequate thought given to the proposed new local government environment expectations of, and standards and processes for, communications and information. SCUPRO asks this Committee to consider this and repeats its offer to join in constructive discussion to arrive at a positive way forward.

June 1999





 
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Prepared 11 August 1999