Government scraps plans to allow for removal of public notices from newspapers

PROPOSED legislation freeing local authorities of the obligation to place public notices in newspapers has been scrapped.

The Scottish Government has decided it no longer intends proceeding to a vote by MSPs with a plan that would have allowed local authorities the discretion to place public notices – say for applications to open a pub or about road closures – solely on the internet.

While the proposal would have given local authorities the opportunity to save millions of pounds in advertising costs it would also have deprived local newspapers of much-needed revenue and denied people without internet access their right to view such notices.

A MSPs’ debate about the subject, in January, revealed widespread concern about the proposed legislation, resulting in a 76-48 vote in favour of a motion by Labour MSP, Pauline McNeill, condemning the idea.

Says the Scottish Government, today, in a statement: “Legislation enabling councils to use online advertising as an alternative to publishing notices in newspapers will not be progressed. If implemented the proposal, first presented by government in 2006, would have allowed local authorities to use a new public information notices portal, save millions of pounds to reinvest in frontline services and enhance local information services.

“During an eight-week consultation, Ministers listened to the views of councils, the public, MSPs and the newspaper industry, and have now decided not to proceed with the legislation as the proposals would have had insufficient parliamentary support.

“Ministers are now calling on those who opposed the proposed legislation to engage positively on the issue and recognise that Parliament must take a more constructive stance to assist.

“The Scottish Government will continue to develop the on-line advertising portal for the public sector.”

John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, is quoted, as saying: “The UK Government is imposing the first cut in Scotland’s budget since devolution next year and further reductions in spending are inevitable in years to come. Facing that increasingly challenging financial environment, Scotland’s councils identified a need to cut spending on public notices, which currently cost around £6 million a year. The purpose of this legislation, which government began work on in 2006, was to give councils the option of using a more effective way of improving communication with the public and deliver increased value for money.

“However, we consulted fully and widely on the issue and it is absolutely right that we have listened and considered our response carefully. As a minority Government it is incumbent on us to build consensus and in this case that has not been possible. Given the strength of views expressed, we have decided not to proceed with the legislation.

“Those who called on us to withdraw this legislation have singularly failed to say how they would cut spending on adverts – given the financial pressures as a result of the Westminster-imposed spending cuts – and enable that money to be directed to real local priorities. That remains a clear objective for the Government and an agenda we will continue to take forward.

“We recognise this decision will be disappointing to councils, who wanted us to take action to help them at a time of spending constraints. We will continue working in partnership with local government and the wider public sector to support the use of the on-line portal to supplement newspaper adverts, and help realise the additional benefits offered by the portal to its users.

“But those who have opposed this move must recognise they have a duty to take a constructive role in creating the means by which local authorities can make economies in the future.

“We will also continue to liaise closely with the newspaper industry to ensure it has a sustainable and successful future.”

Says The Scottish Tories’ Ted Brocklebank: “I am delighted that the campaign on behalf of Scottish newspapers, first launched by the Scottish Conservatives and then adopted by other opposition parties, has convinced the Government not to go ahead with its ill-conceived proposals to use online advertising as the sole alternative to publishing public information notices in the press.

“Given that the UK Government and all three opposition parties in Scotland opposed the scheme it was only a matter of time before the SNP Government would be forced to see sense. Scottish Conservatives will continue to fight on behalf of the local newspaper industry.

“It has been estimated that newspaper income across Scotland could have dropped by £10 million if public notices had been transferred to the internet. While Scottish Conservatives know we must press ahead with savings in public spending, we remain strong supporters of the local newspaper industry.”

Said Councillor Michael Cook, strategic human resource management spokesperson at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities: “Scottish local government is committed to giving the best possible service and information to the public we are democratically elected to serve and will press ahead with this portal.

“There were two main objectives in the proposal we were asking to be progressed. Firstly, an enhancement of service to allow us to better inform our communities by way of placing public information notices on a portal. Our second objective was to allow us to save up to £4 million pound a year from a £6 million spend by not placing public notices in newspapers with this substantial saving being reinvested in acute frontline services such as education and care for the elderly at a time when this is particularly needed.

“As I say, the portal will still go ahead and we will build the evidence base which will provide an inarguable case for the future introduction of legislation to allow councils to make and reinvest these savings.”

Meanwhile, CoSLA president, Councillor Pat Watters, added: “The government have been forced to abandon a change to legislation due to some elements of the press, purely through protectionism and self-interest, creating a spurious impression that those without access to a computer would be in some way disadvantaged – this is simply untrue.

“As a result of this decision, councils will be forced to place advertisements that nobody reads in newspapers with plummeting readerships at a cost of £6 million pounds a year at a time when public sector budgets have never been under such pressure. This decision is like a council deciding to teach our children with slates and chalk when the rest of the world has moved on to new technology.

“I have no objection if the Government, whether in Westminster or Holyrood, wants to subsidise the newspaper industry to the tune of £6 million pounds a year but this subsidy should come directly from their funds not from ours.”

Said Jim Raeburn, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society: “This decision recognises the will of the Scottish Parliament as expressed in a decisive vote – 76-48 – in a recent debate. It was gratifying that all four opposition parties made clear that taking public notices out of newspapers would undermine a fundamental part of the democratic process.

“The real reason, and only reason, for this proposal was to save money with little regard for the public’s right to know. I have to question the Scottish Government’s justification for saying it will continue to spend taxpayers’ money in developing the online advertising portal for the public sector.”