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

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Mr. Moss: The Minister is reeling off a host of comments that sound like the imposition of the thought police—reports, committees, this, that. Is he suggesting that the codes of conduct need to be applied at parish council level, where hardly any money is involved and no decisions are taken that have any bearing on what goes on in the district or county?

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Dr. Whitehead: What I find puzzling, and what I am trying to explain to the Committee, is that if the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is correct that the new code should not be applied to parish councils, presumably he would argue that the previous code, which was introduced by a Conservative Government, should be disapplied. That code, which applied to the parish councillor, said, among other things:

    ''The law makes specific provision requiring you to disclose both direct and indirect pecuniary interests (including those of a spouse with whom you are living) which you may have in any matter coming before the council, a committee or a sub-committee. It prohibits you from speaking or voting on that matter. Your council's standing orders may also require you to withdraw from the meeting while the matter is discussed. You must also by law declare certain pecuniary interests in the statutory register kept for this purpose. These requirements must be scrupulously observed at all times.''

What a draconian measure; stifling the life of councillors at local parish level.

Mr. Moss: Those of us who have served on local councils—I have served on three tiers of local govt—all accepted a code of conduct and the need to declare an interest where that was demonstrable. That is not a problem. We accept it and are happy with the code of conduct. Where the Government have made an error of judgment is in imposing this particular statutory instrument on parish councils. The point of the argument is not that codes of conduct are not necessary, but that this code draconian and unnecessary at this level.

Dr. Whitehead: Again, we come to the heart of the problem. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to appreciate that the code has not arrived from a clear blue sky and descended on parish councils that have hitherto lived in a garden of Eden of complete non-regulation and no codes of conduct. The introduction to the 1990 code, from which I have just read an impenetrable section and which seems to be against all that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire believes should apply to parish councils, says:

    ''The code applies to all members of, in England, county councils, district councils, London borough councils, the Common Council of the City of London, the Council of the Isles of Scilly and parish and town councils''.

That code of conduct requires detailed declarations, disclosure of pecuniary and other interests and much more, and covers a number of pages. Presumably, the hon. Gentleman wishes that it had never been applied, would like to have it disapplied, and wants to apologise to parish councils on behalf of the Conservative Government who made the order, presumably with his support, that applied to parish councillors those draconian measures of which he now wishes to relieve them.

The new model code of conduct does not come from nowhere; unlike the previous code, it was the subject of extensive consultation. Copies of the draft code were sent to all parish councils and their representative bodies, and they were given 12 weeks in which to comment. It is worth recalling that the majority of parishes that responded, and both major representative bodies—the National Association of

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Local Councils and the Association of Larger Local Councils—supported the provisions that are now in the code.

Mr. Moss: Would the Minister tell the Committee how many of the 8,000 parish councils responded to that consultation?

Dr. Whitehead: As I said, there was a 12 week response time, and a number of people responded. Some of them did so through their representative bodies. I suggest that the number of responses was substantially greater than the two letters that the hon. Gentleman read out a moment ago.

There are three main parts to the code. Part 1covers general provisions; part 2 covers personal interests; and part 3 covers registration. The general provisions in part 1 are largely the same as those in the existing national code. They impose requirements on parish councils that most people would regard as unremarkable. They provide that councils should not seek personal gain from the decisions that they take on behalf of the public; should treat other people with respect and within the limits of the law; and should be open about the reasons for their decisions.

The requirement for council members to declare conflicts of interest is in part 2 of the new code, and replaces existing requirements in the old national code, which Lord Nolan found impenetrable. I read out a section of the old code, and I am not surprised that he found it impenetrable. We have changed the nature of the test to make it easier for members to declare interests—we are not requiring them suddenly to declare interests now that they did not have to declare previously. The code also helps them to decide whether or not they need to declare an interest, and if they declare an interest, whether they should withdraw from a debate.

However, the underlying principle is the same as ever: when the matter under discussion touches on the personal interests of a member, he or she should declare that fact and, in certain situations, take no part in the discussion. It is not good enough simply to say that certain parish councils fall below the radar level of the requirement to declare an interest when public money is being considered. As I understand it, members of all parish councils have hitherto accepted that requirement without much comment. It is surprising that a massive outburst of outrage should suddenly occur simply because the existing code is being clarified. Two thirds of the code is substantially the same as the old code, but simplified and clarified.

That leads me to the major area of concern—the third part of the new code, which requires members of parish councils to register particular interests. That is the main distinction between the old and the new arrangements. Parish members will now be required to place in a public register certain facts about their financial and personal situation. It is important to understand why we have registration requirements. There can be little argument that those in public service should serve the public interest rather than their own personal interests. The registration of

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financial interests has applied to principal councils since the regulations on members' interests were introduced in 1992.

When it reported in 1997, Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life recognised that the

    ''register is an important supplement to a declaration of interest, because it is a standing document, which can be consulted when or before an issue arises, and enables others to take a view on whether a conflict of interest may exist.''

When we consulted on the new code of conduct last February, we asked whether the registration requirements should be extended to parish councils. Although some parish councils were concerned, the majority of those that responded, including the representative bodies—I have mentioned the National Association of Local Councils and the Association of Larger Local Councils—felt that the proposed registration requirements for parishes were reasonable, clear and workable. However, the Opposition argue that the registration requirements are too intrusive and heavy-handed for councillors who volunteer their services, or that they are inappropriate given the scale of parish functions. I cannot agree. Parish councillors are part of a democratically elected tier of local government. They are, and should be, accountable to the local people of the area, who have the right to expect the same standards of conduct from their local parish councillors as they expect from other elected representatives.

It is true that some parish councils have very few duties to provide services to their communities, but they have wide discretionary powers at their disposal. It is up to individual parishes how and to what degree they choose to exercise those powers. Some parishes use their powers extensively to deliver a wide range of local services, which vary from running village halls and community centres to providing community buses, supporting the elderly and providing facilities for the young. Parishes may also provide information points that offer advice on jobs, housing and access to other agencies' information services. They may grant aid to a variety of local bodies. Parishes have the ability to raise a precept on their electors, and some have budgets of up to £1 million a year. Parish councils can—and some do—exercise wide functions and control sizeable budgets.

The Government are encouraging parishes to become more active through the quality parish councils initiative. We want to see quality parish councils working closely with their principal authorities and giving their communities a better deal on local services and a stronger voice in the decisions that affect people's lives. There is no suggestion that the quality parish councils initiative will be imposed on parish councils; they may apply to take part in the initiative--that is another canard shot.

Mr. Moss: The Minister was talking earlier about the differences between this code of conduct and that which pertained previously. He referred to the register of members' interests. He did not mention paragraph 6, which says:

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    ''A member must, if he becomes aware of any conduct of another member which he reasonably believes involves a failure to comply with the authority's code of conduct, make a written allegation to that effect to the Standards Board for England as soon as it is practicable for him to do so.''

That is a major addition. Will the Minister confirm whether a member who does not do that will be guilty of an offence?

 
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