News

23.06.14

Councillors should ignore ‘Stalinist’ ban on media contact – Pickles

New guidance from the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) that tries to ban parish councillors from speaking to journalists without prior permission from officials has been castigated in the strongest terms by the government. 

NALC has written to 9,000 parish and town councils urging them to adopt the guidelines into their constitutions, meaning councillors who refuse to comply could be disciplined.

The guidance states:

  • All journalists must contact the council clerk and may not contact councillors directly.
  • Any contact by councillors with journalists requires the council’s prior written consent.
  • Councillors cannot provide verbal or written statements to the media as a councillor without the written consent.
  • Councillors are not permitted to use the title ‘councillor’ if giving comments in a private capacity.

It does add, though, that council business may be reported by the press without prior warning to the authority. But it adds “it is sensible for a council to have a policy to regulate its proactive or reactive communications with the media”.

Communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles, however, has called for the immediate withdrawal of the guidance.

He said: “Freedom of speech is a vital part of local democracy. Councillors must be able to challenge waste and inefficiency, and should not have to get permission from state officials to speak to the press.

“I am concerned that this Stalinist guidance will have a chilling effect on public life. I am making clear its contents are utterly opposed by the government and it should be withdrawn immediately.”

NALC chair Ken Browse rejected the accusation of “Stalinism”.

He said: “We want our 9,000 parish councils to have more dealings with the media. Councils are doing a brilliant job improving their area and we want the media to report that.

“Our 200-page book, ‘Local Councils Explained’, helps councils navigate their way through endless red tape, bureaucracy and arcane laws created by successive governments. It does not bar councillors from speaking to the media, but explains the legal framework that governs them.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

Graham Hurry   23/06/2014 at 13:10

As a Clerk I am pleased that my Councillors have introduced their own media policy and by and large keep to it. They are happy that if they are contacted they either pass it on to me or contact the Chairman or I for advice. Unfortunately we have had a case where the reporter contacted a former Councillor (and Chairman) who did not make his position clear and was only too happy to give his own views. I don't think that the Secretary of State is correct he has got all hot and bothered and his glasses have steamed up and he cannot see clearly.

Sal   23/06/2014 at 13:23

a) your headline is misleading - it is guidance NOT a "ban" b) I do not think that Mr Pickles / Central Government has the faintest idea about how Parish Councils actually work within the communities they represent. The distinction in this case is between a person speaking as a private individual versus the same person speaking as a Councillor i.e. presenting the views of the whole Parish Council. In the 1st case it is essential that it is clear that the person is not speaking as a Councillor. In the second case the person can only speak for the Parish Council if other councillors have agreed on the position to be taken by the council. One councillor speaking for the whole council without prior agreement can (and has) caused great problems both within the council and within the community represented. As a Clerk I therefore totally agree the guidance from NALC and I am sure that my councillors will also agree, given the damage caused to the Parish Council in the past.

Michael Heaslip   23/06/2014 at 13:47

If I speak or write to the media for the Council as a body corporate I am a representative of said Council and can do so only with the approval of the Council. I will sign myself as for the Council. If I speak or write to the media as a ward councillor I am a representative of the people who elected me and I am accountable to no-one else and need no-one else's permission to speak or write. I will describe or sign myself as "Councillor for X ward". The distinction is fundamental to representative democracy. NALC appear to have got this wrong.

P Clerk   23/06/2014 at 13:59

Michael Heaslip is a Borough Councillor. Mr Pickles' comments are about Town and Parish Councils. A different tier of local government often confused but quite different.

Michael Heaslip   23/06/2014 at 14:20

I am also a Town Councillor: a member for St John's Ward on Workington Town Council (and listed as such on the Town Council website). But as it happens, the comments I made are equally applicable to any tier. So please do your homework fully, and don't jump to conclusions before rushing in to comment, P Clerk.

Timh   23/06/2014 at 14:26

Sal, why is 'speaking as a councillor' the same as 'presenting the views of the whole parish council'? Why can district/borough/county/unitary level councillors be trusted to speak for themselves, but parish councillors can't?

Adam   23/06/2014 at 14:43

I’m a former reporter on a local paper and talked to parish/town councillors all the time, and had a good relationship with many of them. If I wanted the town council’s ‘corporate’ position I’d speak to the clerk or the leader of the council. Anyone else I’d treat as a councillor representing their residents, just as I would with borough councillors etc. I think readers understand when councillors are giving an opinion, versus the stated policy of their council. Yes this is guidance not a straightforward ban, but if councillors were to face any kind of punishment or disciplinary procedure for speaking to journalists, then the effect will be similar. I think it infantilises councillors and suggests a level of mistrust of the general public that I find quite startling. If I had to rely for my stories on just the ‘official’ statements that came out of the town council I covered, there would be many, many issues that my readers would never find out about. I could read agendas and minutes and attend meetings (for now, but who knows whether that democratic right will remain forever), but many stories of real public interest arose because of a conversation with a parish councillor. A parish council isn’t a business with a chief executive deciding who can speak to whom. This is public money being spent, and councillors are elected officials, not functionaries who should have to clear everything they do with ‘the boss’.

Julie Lowe   23/06/2014 at 15:59

I must support the last writer. Councillors are not subject to edicts from the Chief Executives we are not a corporation. We speak for our constituents and hold our own political opinions. if these are out of kilter with the status quo so be it. This is England. Deal with it.

Rod   23/06/2014 at 17:44

The "enforcement" of this "guidance" is one of the reasons that a neighbouring Town Council has had a very difficult time over the last six months, eventually resulting in the suspension of the Clerk. It is been "unsympathetically" worded to reflect what the legal position is and if used other than to reflect the legal position, will lead to a deterioration of relations between media, councils and officers.

Peter Hogg   23/06/2014 at 19:00

Any individual should be able to express his views, Councillor or not. If the majority of Councillors don't agree then he will be voted down. If the public don't agree he will soon lose his position. If he is right in his belief then he must be given the chance to put his case and 'win' others over. NALC are out of line on this one

Roland Hewson   23/06/2014 at 21:03

Pickles is either an ass or whoever advises him is. The official statements from parish councils should come though a decision of the parish council and not from malcontent councillors with their own agendas--this is food and drink to the media! He had to sit between two cabinet ministers recently who did exactly that! I am retiring next month after 54 years in local govt and a parish clerk for 35 years in addition to my work at a higher tier authority. Pickles lives up to his name--the second nonsense in two weeks from him!

Mike Kendall   24/06/2014 at 10:53

I write as a new parish councillor, and a former director and monitoring officer of a city on the south coast and subsequently a county council in the south of England. Adam and those who have supported him, are absolutely right. The advice from NALC is inaccurate and ill-advised; have they heard of the right to free speech? The only restriction that can properly be imposed is on a councillor speaking or appearing to speak on behalf of the council; only in that situation can the consent of the council be required. There is nothing wrong with a councillor speaking to the press or other media, either on their own initiative or in response to an approach. Nor is there anything wrong with them using the title 'councillor'- commenting on or participating in debate about matters of local concern is part and parcel of a councillor acting in his or her official capacity.Provided the councillor makes it clear that they are not speaking on behalf of their council, there is no justification for any other restriction. The idea postulated by a couple of clerks in preceding correspondence that councils can only speak in a single official voice, is sad. The advice from NALC is ridiculous.

Tony Ganly   24/06/2014 at 11:44

I fully agree with Mike Kendall, Adam, Michael Heaslip and others who oppose the guidance of NALC on this subject. This attack on the democratic right of councillors to speak on behalf of those who elected them must be resisted.

Tony Greaves   25/06/2014 at 19:29

How interesting that the support for this nonsense seems to come from clerks. There seems to be a breed of parish and town council clerks (a minority fortunately) who think it is their job to run the show. And what about Councillors (at any level) issuing newsletters to residents? Or publishing a website? Or posting on Facebook (or even, heaven forfend, on Twitter)? Or, if a more old-fashioned Councillor writes a letter to the local paper on a matter connected with their Council, it is right that he/she reveals their position as a Councillor. It is not doing so that would be quite wrong. For once in his life Mr Pickles is dead right. A Councillor gets their status from their election by the people, not from some permission by some kind of boss on the Council. The one thing they must not do of course is claim to speak for the Council as a whole, if they are not doing that.

Keith Gilbert   15/07/2014 at 08:25

I've been a Town Councillor for 31 years and a District Councillor for 20 years. No one has ever, and will never, stop me talking to the press if i want to. Over the years i have had very good relationships with the various reporters we have had in our area. Along with others i think Eric Pickles is a clown, but he is right on this one. Who do NALC think they are representing here? Certainly not Councillors. This not the first bit of stupid "advice" my council has had from NALC, and i am coming to the opinion that maybe it is time to terminate our membership. If my council were to adopt this and enshrine it in our constitution then i would ignore it and maybe have my wrist slapped.

Clive English   06/09/2014 at 15:30

The comments from some clerks and others are frankly absurd. On the many parishes that are Party Political the NALC view will mean opposistion councillors having to get permission to do their job representing the public from their opponents. Hmm that will work well. I imagine this guidance would, however meet with full approval from officers and councillors in authorties with something to hide,or with a stalinist view of democracy. I bet Rotherham Council wished that the LGA's guidance mirrored NALC's'.

Fred Gee   08/09/2014 at 12:52

our council of which I am a councillor has aproved the building of a waste transfer station within a few hundred metres of houses and I would be failing in my position as a ward councillor not to inform the people of our ward of the disaster of living near to this site. I was elected to represent the people of my ward and will continue to do so

Seán Holden   22/09/2014 at 23:20

The suggestion that an unelected official should somehow control public pronouncements of elected councillors is an upside down Soviet or Chinese-style version of representative democracy. Clerks are employed by councils. It is the council, made up of councillors, which is the boss. It is their job to oversee officialdom, not the other way round. As a borough and county councillor I am proud to see that when it comes to standing up for their people most of our individual councillors will in the end admit no boss but the electorate and ultimately answer to no one but them for their speech and actions.

Joan Mctigue   21/09/2015 at 11:53

Can anyone beat this for a "Stalinist approach"? All requests for work to be done and/or complaints in Middlesbrough Council cannot be sent direct to an officer, they have to be sent to a holding centre from whence they are looked at by other staff and then forwarded. I have been in the habit of copying in 2-3 dept managers at the same time - keeping them in the loop. Indeed one of them encouraged me to do so. As a result, I have been accused by exec directors here that I am "increasing their work load" and for the next 6 months, I cannot send any e-mails to either a fellow Cllr or an officer. They are all directed to one dept where they are opened, read by staff there and then forwarded at their discretion. Here is the best part - they told me to treat their sanction as confidential!

Kate   22/09/2015 at 09:25

Is that Omid Djalili in the background?

PSE   22/09/2015 at 09:30

Yes indeed. It's a library photo, here's the full caption: "Eric Pickles joined faith leaders and comedian Omid Djalili, who is of the Bahá’í Faith, at a special volunteering event held by members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the UK to launch the start of 'A Year of Service'."

Fiona W   05/11/2015 at 20:22

I have been a parish councillor and chaired my parish council some years ago. I think the proposal from NALC is utterly ridiculous. In my experience both parish councillors and the press were capable of distinguishing whether a councillor was speaking on behalf of the council (ie as chair or some other official capacity) or as a councillor representing their residents. It would be wrong for any organisation to try to stop an elected councillor from speaking freely to the press and that applies to all levels of local government. I don't know where this idea came from but it should be dropped immediately.

JOHN SCOTT   01/02/2016 at 13:26

As a Parish Councillor I totally concur with the Minister's comments. In our case, if the Parish Council is commenting on an issue to the Press then the comment is made by the Leader. However, if I am asked a question as an individual Parish Councillor then I will state the fact that this is my view as a Parish Councillor. However, if I am commenting as a private citlizen then I would state my name and not identify myself as a Parish Councillor.

Suecee   22/02/2016 at 13:06

The Parish/Town Clerks job is to keep the Council safe from harm and if these policies and procedures are not in place, how, can the Clerk ensure this happens. As for Mr Pickles, is this the same MP that introduced the non-existent rules through the Localism Act, abolishing the Standards Board and softening the Code of Conduct to such an extent that any Councillor can intimidate, bully and harass staff and other Councillors to their hearts content with a "and you'll do what" attitude. The amount of bullying and harassment suffered by Clerks is bordering on affecting their Human Rights. Hmm, lets see if I agree with anything else he suggests!

Graeme_R   28/07/2016 at 13:14

I think a lot of Parish Councils should consider whether it is actually worth paying to have NALC membership at all. It seems in my view to be a Quango that creates it's own qualifications, guidance and awards that are not of any worth in the real world and it also seems to believe that Clerks should make decisions and run Parish & Town Councils.. Whilst I agree a Cllr should make statements on behalf of the Council unless it is an agreed position, the idea that they need permission to say anything at all to the media from a clerk is ludicrous. And if this guidance were adopted, how would Cllrs be "disciplined" for going against it ?

Graeme_R   28/07/2016 at 13:18

"As a Clerk I am pleased that my Councillors have introduced their own media policy and by and large keep to it" Please note Mr Clerk, they are NOT YOUR cllrs! And the Chairman has no elevated powers or management responsibilities over any other Cllrs, other than calling EGM's and chairing full Council meetings.

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Tim G   25/08/2016 at 12:52

Are there any updates on this story, PSE? It's obviously of interest to readers, considering the amount of responses! I'd like to know if parish councils are still meant to be following this 'guidance', and if the current Communities Secretary has the same views as Mr Pickles

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E. Katz   07/12/2016 at 19:16

Having experienced the lack of transparency and machievellian manoeuvres of public office holders in the notorious Dorset area in which I live, I see the local press as the only ally in a David and Goliath situation. Residents are disgusted but powerless. We need the press to be able to speak directly with the people who supposedly represent us and report that in the local paper.

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