Bill allowing filming of council meetings and banning 'town hall Pravdas' clears first Commons hurdle - Press Gazette

Bill allowing filming of council meetings and banning 'town hall Pravdas' clears first Commons hurdle

Plans to force local authorities to allow bloggers and journalists in to meetings and to film as well as tweet have cleared their first hurdle in the House of Commons.

The proposals are in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which will also stop councils publishing free newspapers which compete unfairly with local newspapers.

Under the proposals, ministers will have the power to intervene when they think a local authority's publication is too political.

Councils are already covered by a code of conduct on what they are allowed to publish online and in print. It probits councils above parish level publishing newspaper and magazine more frequently that quarterly.

But Tower Hamlets and Greenwich councils in London are among those to defy the new guidelines.

If passed the new Bill will give the Government power to intervene if it thinks a council's publicity campaign is too political.

There will also be tighter rules to stop parish and town councils being hijacked by a small group of councillors with their own personal agendas.

The legislation received an unopposed second reading and will now go in to committee stage.

Outlining the Bill at second reading, Communities Minister Brandon Lewis said: "There have been some exaggerated claims that it will lead to central government clamping down, for instance on things like HS2. This is a nonsense – councillors are quite free to campaign on behalf of their constituents. If any challenge is balanced and factually accurate, it will not contravene the code.

"If anything the publicity code defends council communications from political interference and propaganda pushing.

"We have no intention of monitoring communications or censoring them but it is right for the Government to act when concerns are expressed that local authorities are in breach of a code that has been approved by Parliament.

"It is certainly right to act when authorities use taxpayers' money to fund publicity for political purposes."

The former communities minister Bob Neill said many councils were using public money to protest about Government cuts when they could be spending the cash on frontline services instead.

The Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst said: "If you want to get information across, which I accept has to happen, then you might do the same as my own council, the London borough of Bromley, which rather than going to the cost of running its own newspaper, about four times a year puts a four-page wrap-up around the front of one of our local papers.

"It's well designed, it's got professional journalistic input into it, but it goes simply around the front of the free sheet which gets delivered to anybody anyway – and I suggest that is the sort of cost effective and politically proportionate means of getting genuine information across which does not offend against the code."

The Bill, which has already cleared the House of Lords, was criticised by shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn, who said it gave the Government too much power over the local council publications.

He said: "The charge has been levied – quite wrongly – that politicians are trying to control what appears in the press, and yet here we have a clause that really would give a politician the power to control what is written, how often and in what way."

The Bill will abolish the Audit Commission, while at the same time giving councils the power to appoint their own auditors – a move Labour said would make local authorities less transparent.