Hackney Today ‘broke purdah rules’ says election law expert – but council defends ‘purely factual’ page

Questions: the councillors page from Hackney Today’s 30 April edition. Photograph: Hackney Today

Hackney Council might have broken publicity rules in the run up to the local elections, according to an expert on electoral law.

Oxford professor Bob Watt said the council is on “thin ice” over whether it broke purdah rules by publishing a list of sitting councillors, but not other candidates, in its freesheet Hackney Today in the days before the 3 May local elections.

The 30 April edition of Hackney Today includes a page with the names, wards and photographs of sitting councillors around an electoral map.

The page is a regular feature in the taxpayer-funded freesheet.

Hackney Council says the page is “purely factual” and “is not in breach of purdah rules”.

However, Professor Watt told the Hackney Citizen that the page could breach the Local Government Association’s Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity during purdah.

“It looks like the thinnest of thin ice to me”, he said. “The Code of Practice does allow for ‘factual information concerning candidates and wards’ to be published.

“This freesheet [page] is ‘factual information’ no doubt, but it is clearly incomplete, because it only lists incumbents.

“The intention behind the rule is clear. It should list all candidates in an ‘even-handed’ manner.”

Hackney Town Hall

Hackney Town Hall

He added: “My conclusion is that Hackney has broken the rules, but not so clearly and obviously as to make it actionable.”

Professor Watt worked on the election fraud petition which unseated Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman in 2015 and worked on upholding election law during the EU referendum in 2016.

When asked, Hackney Council rejected Prof Watt’s interpretation.

A spokesperson said: “The councillor information page in Hackney Today is purely factual and provides a list of incumbent elected members and their standard surgery details.

“The same information appears on the council’s website.

“Publication of this information is not in breach of purdah rules, which prohibits promotion of one political party over another, and relates to communications on matter of policy and contentious issues.”

This was backed up by a spokesperson for the Local Government Association, who when asked said: “We share the view from Hackney that it is not breaking purdah rules.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, when asked, said: “The advice is that as long as you’re balanced and provide even coverage on all councillors then you are free to run pieces on the councillors.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said: “The publicity code highlights in paragraphs 33-35 that councils need to take extreme care during periods of heightened sensitivity.”

The MHCLG has more than once ordered Hackney Council to cut its freesheet Hackney Today back to quarterly publication.