New guidelines were passed by parliament last night which state local authorities should publish a maximum of four council-produced newspapers a year.

The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity - of which there is no legal obligation for councils to follow - was originally put forward in September by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, to crack down on the "wasteful" use of council resources.

An inquiry by the Communities and Local Government Committee, which made a number of recommendations, followed a consultation on the new guidelines which received over 350 responses, including from newspapers, councils and industry groups. The draft revised code was put before parliament in February.

Competition from council newspapers "can have a detrimental effect on commercial local newspapers," Baroness Hanham said, introducing the code to the House of Lords last night.

"Local authority publicity is important but the freedom of the press is also important in providing information to the public to hold their local authority to account.

"It is equally important that the readers of a newspaper can readily tell whether what they are reading is part of the independent press or a publication by the council about the council and setting out the council's message," she said.

The code of practice also seeks to toughen up the rules on the use of lobbyists by local authorities which is a "waste of public money", Baroness Hanham said.

"If a council wants to make a point to a minister or its member of parliament, then all it needs to do is address them directly,"

Councils are not legally obliged to follow the revised code but do have "an obligation to have regard to it," Baroness Hanham said. "If a council is not to be challenged successfully in the courts or by its auditor for any departure from the code, there must be reasoned and rational grounds supporting such a departure," she added.

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