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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz