Headlines: May 5th, 2004

Legal constraints on local government publicity need to be reformed according to the author of a new guide to the rules. Alan Pickstock, writer of “The Right Side of the Law” – produced by the Local Government Information Unit – also questions whether the present “suffocating climate” helps the campaign to combat apathy among voters.The latest edition, the first since September 2001, is seen as the authoritative guide to the legal constraints on local authority publicity. It aims to ensure councils can mount effective public relations campaigns to help in achieving objectives while staying within the law. It offers council staff who communicate with the public an awareness of the rules on local authority publicity.

The latest edition covers recent developments in the field, including the repeal Section 28 – the law that prevented the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities and issues around The Communications Act. Much of the book is concerned with the Local Government Act 1988 and the Code of Conduct on Local Government Publicity. The guide applies only to England as devolution means different arrangements now apply to local authorities in Wales and Scotland.

The guide also looks at wider issues in relation to the power of well being, other powers that can be used to support publicity, the use of websites, broadcasting, the rebuttal of racist information and the use of local authority premises for election meetings.

Alan Pickstock says the area of publicity can be a minefield for local authorities and their apprehension gets more intense during election periods when the rules are tighter. He says that, at worst, this has led to silence when councils needed to speak up.

“Councillors are encouraged to be campaigning community leaders and to work in the new scrutiny functions, but the current rules can frustrate their legitimate desire to promote their work to their electors. It is also doubtful whether such a suffocating climate for local political debate is conducive to the cause of combating voter apathy and improving election turnout,” he says.

Mr. Pickstock says there has to be carefully constructed legislation to prevent blatant party political propaganda and to protect the civil service role of officers but he believed the law in this area is an item of unfinished business in the local government modernisation agenda.