Local authority chiefs are under fire from the Government over a “stalinist” attempt to stop councillors speaking to journalists without permission.
They are urging parish and town councils to instruct councillors they need to obtain written approval before contacting the press or responding to reporters’ questions.
The controversial guidance has been sent out by the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), which represents around 9,000 parish, town and community councils in England and Wales.
Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, last night demanded the withdrawal of a policy which would effectively impose a gag on nearly 100,000 councillors.
Under the NALC’s “media policy”, authorities are recommended to:
- Tell journalists they cannot contact councillors without permission from the council clerk
- Instruct councillors they need “prior written consent” before agreeing to a media interview
- Warn councillors they cannot express personal opinions other than “the views they hold in their official capacity”
The councils, which represent the first tier of local Government, are being asked to adopt the guidelines into their constitution, meaning councillors who refuse to comply could be disciplined.
The NALC tells them 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.”
Several authorities are understood to have already adopted the guidelines.
Mr Pickles wrote to the NALC last night to call for the guidelines, which he condemned as “completely inappropriate”, to be scrapped.
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 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a chilling effect on public life.I am making clear its contents are utterly opposed by the Government and it should be withdrawn immediately. We should be championing the independent free press, not trying to suppress it.”
Ken Browse, the NALC’s chairman, said it 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.”