20 April 2011

Will Hammersmith council publish the legal opinion it used to gag a local families group?

We reported recently that almost the last action of H&F News (aka The Greenhalgh Pravda) was to drop an advertisement from a group of parents thanking families who had chosen to use our local primary schools. You can read the pulled advertisement here. It's from Parents' Alliance for Community Schools (PACS), which is trying to raise the profile of the borough's excellent primary schools.

We now gather that, because the advertisement gently criticised free schools, the council’s lawyers apparently argued it should be pulled, even though H&F News had already approved the draft and prepared the artwork.

According to the Chronicle, the council was frightened of falling foul of new rules on local authority publicity. A spokeswoman said, "We were concerned we would have been backing an anti-political organisation… It was only before we were about to go to press that our legal department raised this potential issue, and we were unable to run."

Putting aside any questions we may have about what on earth “anti-political” means (did the spokeswoman perhaps mean “too political”?), we wonder what H&F’s legal department actually advised, given that neither of the two relevant government documents - the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity nor the related Explanatory Memorandum - says anything about council publications not being allowed to carry views which disagree with the council.

Indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum says, "A healthy free press is important in providing information to the public to hold their local authority to account" (para 7.2). While H&F News was hardly a free press, the idea of holding the local authority to account – which the advertisement did – clearly gets the government’s thumbs-up.

Perhaps PACS could make a Freedom of Information request (here's how), asking to see the verbatim opinion given by the legal department on which the decision not to publish was based.

Even though H&F has officially been named one of the worst councils at responding to freedom of information requests, this may just be worth a go.

Or perhaps they could make a complaint to the Local Goverrnment Ombudsman (here's how).

1 comment:

Tracy said...

We just had a letter back from the Council as to the reason they could not print the advertisement. They cited Clause 15, saying that the advert, and the 'intention behind it', was possibly addressing an area of contention in public policy...and they needed to exercise caution because of the untested nature of the new Code...

Cough cough.