Welsh Government abstains in vote to remove legal requirement for newspaper council tax notices

Plans to remove a legal requirement for council tax notices to be printed in local newspapers were abandoned at the 11th hour.

The Welsh Government abstained in a crunch vote on clause 20 of the local government bill, which has sparked a backlash from the newspaper industry.

Wales’ six daily newspapers joined forces this week, all running front-page stories urging Welsh ministers to “stop this attack on news in our nation”.

Peter Fox proposed the amendment to remove clause 20, which has been criticised by the National Union of Journalists, Society of Editors and the Older People’s Commissioner.

The Conservative stressed that people rely on the publication of notices in newspapers as he warned that online notices are not always accessible to everyone.

‘Retrograde step’

Mr Fox, who represents Monmouth, applauded Rebecca Evans – Wales’ finance minister – for engaging with the opposition on the issue and pausing the proposal.

The former Monmouthshire council leader, who is now the Tories’ shadow local government secretary, welcomed space for a deeper discussion on the wider issues.

Peredur Owen Griffiths echoed Mr Fox’s thoughts on engagement, describing discussions with the Welsh Government as productive.

Plaid Cymru’s shadow local government secretary backed the amendment after a time ran out to table an alternative amendment, with a five-year transition period.

He warned clause 20 would have been a retrograde step in terms of rights to access information, such as for those who are digitally excluded.

‘Vital’

Mr Owen Griffiths added: “We also believe it would deprive local journalism of a vital source of revenue at a time when such media sources are under sustained financial pressure.

“Wales is particularly poorly served by its media environment, caused in part by the retreat of local journalism from our communities in recent years.

“This provision of the bill would undoubtedly compound the issue which brings with it broader detrimental implications for the democratic health of our nation.”

Mr Owen Griffiths, who represents South Wales East, stressed the vital role of journalism in enriching and empowering civil society.

Citing discussions with Richard Gurner, editor of Caerphilly Observer in his constituency, Hefin David called for an honest discussion about how Wales subsidises hyperlocal journalism.

“Really, in future, this isn’t going to be the way to do it,” Dr David told the chamber.

‘Unreadable’

Jenny Rathbone agreed with the principle of ensuring that local newspapers continue but she pointed out that council tax notices are sent directly to people’s homes anyway.

The Labour MS for Cardiff Central warned that many notices are “unreadable” with text so small that older people, who are more avid readers of papers, often cannot read.

Lee Waters, the former frontbencher who represents Llanelli, told the Senedd subsidising “impenetrable” adverts is not the best way to support journalism.

Alun Davies pointed out that the Gwent Gazette on his patch now has a circulation of 393 as he criticised spending on adverts “read by virtually nobody”.

Mike Hedges disagreed with his Labour colleagues, saying “There’s a lot of elderly people who rely on printed media in order to get their information.”

‘Star of the show’

Rebecca Evans, who had previously urged members to resist attempts to remove clause 20, recognised the strength of feeling, saying ministers would abstain in the vote.

The finance minister pointed out that the requirement was put in place in 1992 as she warned that newspapers have been left behind by technology over the past 30 years.

Ms Evans described clause 20 as the “surprise star of the show” in relation to a complex and wide-ranging bill on reforming local government finance.

She stressed the Welsh Government has no intention to remove requirements for other public notices to be published in local newspapers.

Ms Evans, who has been a fixture in the Welsh Government for almost precisely a decade, criticised claims that removing the requirement would make newspapers unsustainable.

‘Listening’

But she said: “In the spirit of listening to colleagues … stakeholders and respecting those conversations we will be abstaining in the vote on this particular amendment.”

Five members of the Labour’s Senedd group signed a statement of opinion, tabled by Swansea East MS Mike Hedges, supporting council public notices in newspapers.

Senedd members backed Mr Fox’s amendment, 24-2, with 23 abstentions following the stage-three debate on July 9.

The bill now moves onto the fourth and final stage of the Senedd’s legislative process, with a vote of the whole Senedd on the amended text pencilled in for July 16.

With Labour and Plaid Cymru’s support, and no legal challenge expected, the bill is likely to be agreed next week before moving on to receive royal assent.

 

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