Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001

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Dr. Palmer: To be precise, how many parish councillors have told the hon. Gentleman that they would not have stood had the code of conduct already existed?

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Mr. Moss: I have not had a large number of individual councillors writing to me, but I have heard from councils.

Dr. Palmer: A small number?

Mr. Moss: A number. They have also written to colleagues, and the letters will increase. Labour Members do not realise just how much this has irritated and angered people in parish councils. They are writing to say that after a lifetime of service they are no longer prepared to serve if they are subject to these draconian measures, and that they will not stand again.

The Government have not thought some questions through. If people resign before the deadline of 28 days after 26 May, will councils suddenly become inoperable because they do not have the required number of councillors? What happens if a council becomes inquorate, and do the Government have plans to do anything about that? What will happen at the next election when people are no longer prepared to stand because of these draconian measures? Will people simply become elected without competition, and where will that leave democracy? Without thinking it through, somebody somewhere has said that codes of conduct that were devised for counties and districts are such a wonderful idea that they should be applied to parish councils. Ministers have not been on top of the job either.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): My hon. Friend may be giving a generous interpretation to the motives behind these measures. The Government have thought things through: there is no doubt that they would like to see the end of many parish councils. This is part of a concerted campaign to undermine parish councils in rural areas.

Mr. Moss: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. [Interruption.] Labour Members are scoffing , but only a few years ago the Minister for the Environment called for parish councils to be replaced by neighbourhood forums. Later that same year, Labour suggested that the composition of parish councils should include appointed officials, not voted representatives, who were to be called neighbourhood managers. The Government have backtracked on that, but it is clear that they have no interest in elected representatives for parish councils. They are in favour of appointed representatives. We have a clear indication that the order will put more pressure on that level local govt, and that the Government will not be worried if parish councils cease to operate as they have previously.

The Government have not made any attempt—perhaps the Minister will do so this afternoon—to justify why such draconian legislation is thought to be necessary. Where is the evidence of gross malpractice at parish council level? There is none. The budgets that many of them have to run are tiny.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): I find this line of argument, and the use of strong language such as ''draconian'', somewhat surprising. I am probably the

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only hon. Member in the Room who has completed a register of interest of a local authority member—as a member of Suffolk county council—and I have to say that it took me all of 10 minutes. I do not see this measure as significantly different from that. The underwriting principle is about being seen to be absolutely proper in decision making and in the execution of business. It is entirely appropriate to declare interests, so I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's criticism of paragraph 7 and its specificity on the definition of a ''relative''. He seemed to be suggesting that we leave that paragraph vague and open to argument, doubt and confusion, rather than get on with being seen to be clean.

Mr. Moss: I shall answer the hon. Gentleman by quoting from two letters from parish councils. One is from Cransley parish council in the Kettering area, and says:

    ''The Councillors of Cransley Parish Council are disappointed, outraged and upset that this situation is being imposed upon them. Their integrity is being questioned as though large amounts of money are involved in Parish Council work. This edict is just one more rushed and ill thought out legislation with no thought as to the consequence of its imposition and will cause a major break down of Parish Councils by May of this year if nothing is done.''

The hon. Gentleman says that I use strong language, but that is evidence from the grass roots of how people view the imposition of the code of conduct. [Interruption.] The Minister is muttering in his cups, so I shall read from another letter, which is from Odiham parish council in Hampshire. It says:

    ''At a recent meeting of Odiham Parish Council a majority of the Councillors expressed concern regarding the adoption of certain requirements contained in the above order.''

That is the order before us today. The letter continues:

    ''I must inform you that the Council is minded not to adopt the code voluntarily . . . The requirements for declaration of employment and personal investment will ultimately inhibit candidates from coming forward for election as Parish Councillors.''

Given those two examples, I do not think that my language is too strong. There is genuine grassroots resentment at the measure. People resent the feeling that the state is peering over their shoulders, does not trust them and thinks that they are up to no good. They turn up to four or five meetings a year out the goodness of their hearts, and out of a sense of duty and a sense of service, to contribute something to their local communities.

Many parish councils handle tiny budgets, and the decisions for which they have responsibility are almost negligible. They have no real power to make decisions on such items as planning, which are taken at district or county level. Why are the Government doing this? What is the point and the objective? What do they hope to achieve by imposing this code of conduct? Furthermore, why did they think it right and proper to slip the measure through under the negative resolution procedure in the hope that no one would raise it and it would not be debated? The Minister has some serious questions to answer this afternoon. We shall vote against the order.

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4.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I thought that we were discussing the Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2001, but if the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks are anything to go by, we are apparently discussing the end of western civilisation as we know it. Several canards have been doing the rounds about parish councils, about the Government's intentions towards them in general and about this order in particular, which is perhaps the focus of some general misapprehension. I welcome the opportunity afforded by the debate to set out the Government's position. In so doing, I shall attempt to correct several wholly misleading comments that have been made about the order and about parish councils in general.

Mr. Moss: Is the Minister implying that I have misled the Committee in any way?

Dr. Whitehead: If the hon. Gentleman listened with any care, he would know that I said that a number of canards had been floating about, and that I would be happy to correct several wholly misleading comments that had been made about parish councils. I did not include the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks in that statement, although I felt that some of his points were not entirely accurate.

In Westminster Hall this morning, we debated the future of parish councils in general. In that debate, several claims were made, including one repeated this afternoon by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), which was that the Government had a hidden agenda to do away with parish councils.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): It is not hidden now.

Dr. Whitehead: I assure hon. Members that there is no hidden agenda and no intention to do away with parish councils. As I said this morning, the contrary is the case. The Government see the role of parish councils as increasingly important in local government, through their work in specific communities.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): On the assumption that parish councils are important, what would the Minister say if parish councillors were to resign? How important would a parish council be without parish councillors?

Dr. Whitehead: If the hon. Gentleman is patient, he will hear me talk about whether specific parish councillors might resign. If parish councillors decided to resign for whatever reason, that would not undermine fundamentally the importance of the organisation of which they had been part. The importance of such councils is underlined by the fact that 88 new parish councils have been created since the Government took office in 1997, and consideration of a further 22 is in the pipeline.

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As I also said this morning, the Government provide substantial additional funding and support for the development of parish councils and for particular concerns, such as transport issues, that several parish councils have raised with us on which they want to take action. All the evidence is precisely contrary to the wild allegations made by some hon. Members and by interests in some quarters about the future of parishes.

Mr. Duncan: Will the Minister explain his understanding and definition of a parish meeting? Would the order also apply to such a meeting?

Dr. Whitehead: My understanding is that the order refers to parish councils, which are constituted bodies on which elected members sit and which may dispose of funds raised from local council tax payers to do something for the area.

In other quarters, there has been concern about the Countryside Commission's paper on vibrancy indicators, which was produced as a result of the rural White Paper to consider the discharge of such indicators in rural communities. An attempt was made to decide on a baseline for that. Again, there is no subtext or secret agenda to get rid of parish councils.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said that best value constitutes a further imposition on parishes, although he accepted that it would not affect all parishes. In fact, the best value regime applies to 41 out of some 8,400 parishes--those 41 parishes have a turnover of more than £500,000. That is hardly an imposition across the entire structure of parish councils.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that, if people were required to declare their interests, it might put an end to the parish council. We were told, for example, that in some parish councils all members are related to each other and to all members of the community that they serve. Even if that were the case, it is not true that a declaration of a personal interest would cause a meeting to stop. Paragraph 8 of the order makes it quite clear that anyone who attends a meeting of the authority and has a personal interest must disclose it, but that is all that happens.

The next paragraph states that if a personal interest could be directly prejudicial to the decision-making process, the person should withdraw. I should have thought that everyone would agree with that principle, as it is a good principle that pertains to local government and to the dealings of hon. Members in this House. It is a straightforward method of ensuring that decisions are made properly and are seen to be made properly, and a welcome device to protect the reputation and interests of those who undertake decision-making on behalf of the community.

The final canard has been widely trailed. Indeed, I noticed an article in The Sunday Telegraph of 20 January that suggested that members of parish councils would have to declare whether they had had a good lunch and had bought their spouse a good bottle of claret. That is utter nonsense. In paragraph 1(1), the model code of conduct states:

    ''A member must observe the authority's code of conduct whenever he—

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    (a) conducts the business of the authority;

    (b) conducts the business of the office to which he has been elected or appointed; or

    (c) acts as a representative of the authority''.

Those are the circumstances under which the code applies. It does not apply to someone who takes his or her partner out to dinner when they are not on parish council business.

The most startling canard of all is the suggestion that the requirement for councillors, including parish councillors, to observe a code of conduct is new. On 10 April 1990, the Conservative party published a national code of conduct that applied to all local government. It stated clearly that it applied to parish and town council meetings as well as to local government generally. That code of conduct was criticised by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, then chaired by Lord Nolan, which led to the present Government's decision to introduce the new ethical framework for local government.

I shall remind the Committee what Lord Nolan said about the previous code. The third report into standards in public life stated that

    ''the national code is admitted by all''—

that is, the national code introduced by the Conservative Government that applies to parish councils--

    ''to be a complicated document on which the advice of an experienced officer is usually necessary''.

That might put some people off standing for local councils. The report added that

    ''the regime it imposes for handling conflicts of interest is impenetrable; the penalties for non-compliance are inconsistent, sometimes statutory, sometimes not''.

In response to those criticisms, we established a new ethical framework for local government, as part of the Local Government Act 2000. That requires all relevant authorities to adopt codes of conduct consistent with national models produced by Government. Once such codes have been adopted, complaints that councils have breached them will be investigated by a new independent body, the Standards Board for England, which has the power to refer cases to another new body, the adjudication panel. The panel will convene tribunals to hear cases and, if appropriate, will be able to suspend or disqualify individuals who are judged to have breached codes of conduct. That framework for dealing with conduct issues in local government was widely welcomed, and received broad cross-party support when the Bill was before the House. The model code of conduct was the subject of extensive consultation before the order was laid before Parliament, contrary to claims made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. Copies of the draft codes were sent to all parish councils.

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