October 23 2014 Latest news:
by Paul Wright
Monday, January 20, 2014
Camden Council’s leader has delivered a stark message to residents warning the council could soon find itself becoming the “propaganda arm” of the Tory-led government.
Cllr Sarah Hayward, who has been in charge of the Labour council for almost two years, made the comments as a controversial new bill – spearheaded by communities secretary Eric Pickles – continued its passage through Parliament, soon to afford central government a swathe of new “censorship” powers.
The Local Audit and Accountability Bill – now in its final stages – instils a code of conduct designed to ensure “objectivity” is achieved in council communications.
Mr Pickles claims the measures are needed to stop local authorities from using public money to spread their own political messages via council newspapers and magazines.
But critics say the measures are tantamount to censorship.
“The new powers effectively give Mr Pickles a veto on what any town hall across the country puts out to its residents,” claims Cllr Hayward.
“We’re going to have to seriously consider how we are able to communicate to residents now – and my concern is we won’t be able to state facts that government disagrees with.
“This is going to directly affect people in Camden in a number of ways as he has effectively gagged us.
“Talking about High Speed 2 rail will be particularly troublesome as it is the biggest issue we’ll be facing over the coming period.
“This is a project presenting huge disruptions and it will be very difficult to communicate – as Mr Pickles will want – in a positive way to the people of Camden.
“Informing people of benefit cuts and cuts to local services will also become problematic.
“The new rules have the potential to make the situation a complete horror show.
“If we’re not careful, our councils will just become a propaganda arm for central government.”
The leader of Barnet’s Conservative-led council has also criticised the proposals.
“I understand why Mr Pickles might be concerned but these proposals are a very blunt instrument when existing measures are sufficient,” said Cllr Richard Cornelius.
“We always take great care not to be political in our communications but we still need to get messages across to the public.”
With the lexicon of “bedroom tax”, “benefit cuts” and even “council gagging” potentially at risk from a bureaucratic censor in Whitehall, references to an Orwellian “Newspeak” has not been lost on opponents.
The Local Government Association has branded the move a “threat to democracy”.
Suspicion is also high over Mr Pickles’ manoeuvring as the new “censor-in-chief”.
Already opposition Labour ministers say they have uncovered evidence of Mr Pickles’ department putting out pro-government communications that they “suggest” councils use to inform their residents about issues.
But local government minister Brandon Lewis said the measures were about cutting “unnecessary” spending on “town hall pravdas”.
He added: “We are looking at putting the publicity code on a statutory basis to address this corrosive abuse of taxpayers’ money.”