Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Do as I say not as I do, Eric Pickles wants to stop councils criticising central government

Eric Pickles far from being the champion of localism as per his rhetoric is increasing central government's control over local government. After 3 years of trying to micro manage council policies, controlling what services they provide by slashing funding, he now wants to control what they say too. Enforcing rules onto local government that he himself flouts again and again. Enforcing standards that take from local government the right to criticism or even have anything but the most sterile of opinions on central government policy.


Tucked into the Local Audit and Accountability Bill is a new Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity, which vests in him the right to monitor and veto Council's press releases. In particular it allows him and his successors the right to enforce the following:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/5670/1878324.pdf
And the following:


Consider section 16 above and the points about objectivity and influencing public opinion and section 15 above and the last sentence in particular:

"...should avoid anything likely to be perceived by readers as constituting a political statement, or being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy."

So sterile statements, can't make a political point. The following are contained in press releases from Eric Pickles:

"councils are hoarding billions in their piggy banks some are pleading poverty and raising Council Tax."

Councils amassing secret stockpiles of taxpayer money says Local Government Secretary


"This £635 million municipal parking profit shows why we need to review and rein in unfair town hall parking rules... But councils aren’t listening, and local shops and hard-working families are suffering as a result... parking is not a tax or cash cow for town hall officers."


Note the web address for both, despite the subjective, childish and tabloid-esque terms this is not a blog or a Conservative website but gov.uk, offical government website, constituting a clear political opinion destined to sway public opinion. If a local authority did this, it would be against the code and if the bill passes Eric Pickles would be within his rights to censure this. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Are council parking charges fair? are large reserves necessary? Perhaps, perhaps not, these are debates we should be having, like everything in a democracy public scrutiny and accountability is essential. But strict rules about publicity can't just apply to one area of government it needs to apply across the board. If Eric Pickles can take time off from actually doing his job to criticise local authorities, to make political points using taxpayer funded channels, then so local authorities should have the same right. It has to apply across the board.

Interestingly I looked and couldn't find a code for central government publicity, they appear to have no regulation and red tape censuring what they can and can't publish and lack anybody above them to enforce transgressions. For localism to flourish Pickles needs to butt out of local affairs, he needs to stop trying to micro manage areas outside of his control. If he's looking for work to do, how about formulating a code for central government publicity and a truly independent monitor to ensure both central government and local authorities.