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

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Dr. Palmer: This debate is in something of a time warp, as though the ethical problems discovered under the Conservative Government had not existed. It is bizarre that the Opposition Members who have spoken so far have described the measure as draconian, and that it was regarded as so draconian that the Leader of the Opposition tabled a motion trying to block it. Before going into detail, I wish to clarify the correspondence to which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire referred. He said that he had not received many individual letters from parish councillors on the matter. Was it more than three? He remains silent. Was it more than one? Did he receive any letters at all? He remains silent.

The hon. Gentleman also said that he had received a number of letters from parish councils, and he quoted from two of them.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman has not been listening, or he had left the Room, but I read from two letters from parish councils. He was obviously asleep at the time.

Dr. Palmer: I was coming to the collective parish councils. The hon. Gentleman said that he had received a number of letters, but he read out two. Did he receive more than five letters? Did he receive three? We know of only two.

Two councils out of 8,400 have written to the hon. Gentleman, yet he considers the code to be draconian, so much so that he engages the activities of the Leader of the Opposition to oppose it. Which aspects of the order are draconian? Does he consider it draconian that a member of a council must not discriminate unlawfully? Does he consider it draconian that a member must not disclose confidential information? Does he consider draconian that a member may not improperly seek an advantage? Does he consider it draconian that a member must mention, with no further implication, that he has a personal interest? Does the hon. Gentleman consider it draconian that, if a member has a prejudicial interest that is likely to distort his view of an issue, he is not allowed to take part? Does he consider it draconian that members must register their financial interests as people do in other walks of life or that, if they are representing the parish council on official business, they must report a gift of more than £25?

The hon. Gentleman has made a generalised attack and we presume that the Leader of the Opposition supports such an attack. Unlike the hon. Member for Torbay, he has not said in any detail what he would change under the order. He merely attacked the principle that parish councillors should be required to meet basic standards. He has heard from two of the 8,400 councils. Apparently, he has heard zero from the

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80,000 parish councillors. I have received nothing from my parish councils and I suggest that the Opposition are wasting our time.

5.39 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): The charitable explanation for the order is that the Labour party does not understand parish and town councils. As it is essentially an urban party, it does not represent many constituencies that are parishes, and the Labour party is usually hostile to what it does not understand. However, I think that, certainly at ministerial level, it does understand what it is doing, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk who said, in an intervention, that this was part of a plan to undermine parish government. That point has been made in submissions to me by several parish and town councillors, both individually and collectively. They have spotted that this measure conforms to a pattern of regional government that they believe that the Government are pressing for.

It appears that it is the Government's agenda that we in the south-west should have a directly elected regional assembly. If that were to happen, they would have to withdraw another tier of government; otherwise everyone would be represented at six levels—at European Parliament level, at Westminster, and at regional, county, district and parish levels. When, in previous debates, the Minister has been challenged on which tier of government he wishes to withdraw, he has not answered the question.

Parish councillors believe that, by allowing the parish council to atrophy, the Government will be able to say that, because it had become moribund, it can safely be abolished. I represent a fully parish constituency, whose councils vary from those that represent the smallest village to comparatively large town councils, the biggest of which represents 16,000 people, and I have received many messages, calls and letters from individual parish councillors, and from the councils, objecting to these proposals. They see them as part of a pattern.

The councillors and council have received details of the regional planning that is suggested in the Green Paper published in December 2000, which would mean that many of their powers would be taken away to be decided at higher levels. They read that the Government wish to replace structure plans with things called regional spatial strategies. Therefore, regional assemblies will not devolve powers down from Westminster, which is the supposed case for establishing them; instead, they will suck powers upwards from parish, district and county level. Those councillors and councils are also concerned about Government proposals for so-called quality councils. They believe that that will be the way of introducing the much-derided and bureaucratic best value regime, and of forcing that on to parish and town councils.

Many of those councillors and councils have also have been insulted by the Countryside Agency survey. The most ludicrous example which came to my attention was when the councillors for Wells in Somerset spotted that, in the view of the Countryside

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Agency, Wells council was ''barely active''. It is one of the most energetic of all the town councils in the south-west. All council by-elections are vigorously contested, usually on a party political basis, and the parish has a wide variety of civic groups. It is indicative of the ignorance that exists at Government level that one of their unelected quangos should conduct an incomplete survey that describes Wells in that way. When the council's full-time clerk wrote to the Minister to complain, he received an unhelpful and evasive reply, which blamed everything on the press by saying that it was so unfair that The Times—I think that was the newspaper in question—got hold of the survey, and had had the temerity to publish it.

With regard to evasive replies, the Minister was asked how many parish councils replied to the consultation exercise, and he refused to answer. He has a row of officials, so he must know the answer to that, but he will not give that information to the Committee. That is eloquent testimony. From all our experience, it is obvious that consultation exercises are often overlooked. Many parish councillors perform their duties part-time and do not bother with Government bumf until it becomes pressing and important. They rely on the good sense of Ministers and the Government to understand what happens at the parish level. That is why the order has gone through the consultation process without alarm bells ringing as early as they should.

My main objection to the model code of conduct is that the Government assume that all people in parish councils, and those who aspire to office, are as sleazy as their Ministers. They are applying their standards to everybody else. That completely misjudges the role and character of parish council government. The councillors are publicly spirited people who do that work part-time for no pay and, often, no remuneration at all. They are amazed that they must now comply with a code that, in some respects, goes beyond that with which Members of Parliament must comply. I say in passing that the rules of registration of the House did not prevent the sleaze scandals that led to the resignation of Ministers over recent years, and, in some cases, their suspension from membership of the House. Therefore, it is a myth that passing the order into law would solve the few problems that exist.

Mr. Sanders: I cannot, but can the hon. Gentleman think of examples over the past decade of the conviction of a parish council? I cannot think of a single case.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The degree of corruption at parish level is tiny, and certainly in most of the parishes that I represent, it is known if people get on to the parish councils for the wrong reason. There are examples of such people being ejected from office at subsequent elections. That self-governing nature is the strength of town and parish council government. Of course, bureaucratic man—who is writ large in the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer)—thinks that it is everyone else's job to fill out forms and comply

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with Government regulations and rules. However, are we not trying to devolve power and responsibility down to the lowest possible level?

Existing codes of conduct have stood the test of time. Many people powerfully resent the imposition of the new rules. Many parish councillors will not resign over the measure, but they will quietly not stand again. We know that it is difficult enough to persuade people to stand as councillors for all tiers of local government—that problem should worry the Government. The measure will give an impetus to feelings of resignation and lead to people saying, ''Why should I bother? They think we're all corrupt and sleazy.'' That will diminish the value and activity of parish councils.

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he said? He said that existing codes of conduct have stood the test of time. Does he think that any code of conduct—regardless of its content—that is currently operated by a parish council should be regarded as satisfactory as part of the devolution of decision making to the lowest level?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Gentleman heard me say that the existing rules have stood the test of time. If they are opaque in some respect and could be amended and improved, let us do that. However, it is beyond dispute that the model rules that we are examining this afternoon go far beyond what was contemplated before. I agree with the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who criticised the subjective wording in the section on prejudicial interests, which will provide a charter for every barrack-room lawyer. If it is inherited from an existing code, let us consider and change it. We might include it in guidance, but to write it into rules that must be obeyed, may be tested and come before a regulator, a standards board or the courts sends completely the wrong message.

I have several specific questions to ask. The general obligations in the schedule are largely vacuous and unnecessary. Paragraph 2 states:

    ''A member must . . . promote equality by not discriminating unlawfully against any person''.

Why do we need a code of conduct to tell councillors that they must not do anything unlawful?

Why, too, must we tell councillors to ''treat others with respect''? Does that include showing respect for visiting Ministers? If the hon. Member for Broxtowe went to many of the parish councils that have written to me, I could not guarantee that he would be treated with respect, as he does not seem to have much respect for them. If they made known their views in the blunt, west country tradition with which I am familiar, they would be in breach of the general obligation.

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