Councils could be banned from using 'bedroom tax' phrase in move to veto contentious language

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles could be given power to put a blue pencil through any language with which he disagrees, critics claim

Deputy Political Editor

Councils could be banned from using the phrase “bedroom tax” under moves to give Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, the power to veto contentious language in local authority newsletters, leaflets and online publicity, critics claimed on Wednesday night.

Town halls joined forces with Labour to condemn plans to turn Mr Pickles into Whitehall’s “censor-in-chief” by stopping them from criticising Government policy.

They protested that the new powers could also prevent Tory councils from attacking the Coalition’s support for the HS2 rail link between London and Birmingham or from criticising any future decision to expand Heathrow airport.

Their anger centres on measures in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is about to become law, to require council publications to comply with a new code of conduct. It is designed to prevent left-wing councils from using taxpayer-funded freesheets to convey critical messages.

But the moves, which could also apply to websites and Facebook pages, are so widely-drawn that they could give Mr Pickles the power to put a blue pencil through any language with which he disagrees, critics claimed.

The term “bedroom tax” could fall foul of the legislation, with councils obliged to use the phrase “spare room subsidy” to describe cuts to housing benefit to tenants in social housing who are deemed to have a spare room.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils, said the moves posed a “real threat to local democracy”, potentially preventing councils from campaigning on HS2, cuts to services and hospital closures.

Its chairman, Sir Merrick Cockell, a Conservative, said: “The Government needs to see sense and withdraw these ill-thought out proposals.

“Councils must retain the ability to communicate its views to its residents and not be stifled from commenting on central government policy.”

The Bill will require English councils to comply with a code of conduct requiring objectivity and even-handedness in their communications.

The LGA said it had received independent legal advice that the legislation could prevent it from campaigning on issues that concerned local residents if they flew in the face of Government policy.

Andy Sawford, the shadow Local Government Minister, condemned the moves as “draconian, undemocratic and sweeping” and said ministers had not produced evidence that they were necessary.

He said ministers could interpret them to dictate the language of local authority publications, citing the example of the so-called bedroom tax. He claimed town halls could even be required to describe “cuts” as “efficiencies”.

Mr Sawford told the Independent: “Councils are having to implement the bedroom tax and to communicate that to the public. People know what you mean when you talk about the bedroom tax.”

The plans have also come under fire from council leaders and Liberal Democrat backbenchers, while the National Union of Journalists has raised questions over their justification.

Brandon Lewis, the Local Government Minister, said the measures were aimed at protecting the “good, local independent press” and ensuring taxpayers’ money is used effectively and “not wasted on town hall Pravdas”. Heavily political material should be paid for by the parties rather than local residents, he said.

Mr Brandon added: “Local authority publicity can be expensive and it can be controversial so it is important that local authorities get it right when they produce publicity.”

Ministers have accused some councils, including Tower Hamlets and Hackney, of flouting a voluntary code of practice over what is acceptable in local authority publications.

They say their intention is to enshrine that code in law, although the Bill potentially leaves it open for Mr Pickles to draw up his own guidelines of what language is acceptable.

What’s in a name? Labelling the tax

The Government’s insistence on referring to the “bedroom tax” as the “spare room subsidy” will revive uncomfortable memories for older Conservative MPs.

The Thatcher Government’s ill-fated scheme for  a flat-rate tax on householders to replace the rates  was officially called the “community charge”.

But it rapidly became universally known as the “poll tax” and Baroness Thatcher even inadvertently used the phrase in the Commons.

The words “poll tax” referred to  a centuries-old practice of basing taxation via the census rather than income under which “the duke paid the same as a dustman”.

Less than a year after its introduction Mrs Thatcher had been forced from office.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?