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During our discussions in Committee on parish councils, I got the impression that the Government do not really understand annual parish meetings. They are not just public meetings called by parish councils. They are an integral part of local government at parish level and have specific powers, including receiving information from the parish council, receiving accounts and so on.
Even if the Government, or legislation, allow appointment to a council, it should be subject to the minimal democratic endorsement of the parish meeting which has to take place each year. It is a statutory meeting consisting of local government electors in the parish who turn up at the meeting. Clearly, if a parish were to make a highly controversial appointment, it is likely that a lot of people would turn up to discuss it. Most annual parish meetings are not controversial and are not well attended, but occasionally they are. If someone wants to build a bypass through a village, 200 people could attend the annual parish meeting. That is how it works. Because the annual meeting exists as part of the system, the whole process of appointing someone to an elected position or a position which would otherwise be elected is unusual, to put it mildly. It should be subject to that minimal democratic authorisation. I beg to move.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his amendments. I endorse his underlining of the importance of the annual parish meeting. As a former councillor, I understand the importance of that. We are sympathetic to what appear to us to be the underlying principles of the noble Lords amendments. In Committee, I gave a number of assurances about our intentions for the regulations. In particular, I said that we have it in mind to limit the term of any appointment to one year, to which the noble Lord has referred. Appointments will have to be reconfirmed at the annual parish meeting of the parish council and will automatically end at an ordinary election. The first new provision suggested by Amendment No. 145A is broadly consistent with that. We have no difficulty in accepting the idea that reappointments should not go on ad infinitum. However, there are some technical issues with the amendment to do with timing and there is a certain amount of ambiguity which would be best addressed in regulations for which this clause provides. Given the assurance that we accept the general thrust of these amendments and that we will consider the extent to which we can include them in regulations, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am rather more pleased to withdraw this amendment than some of my previous amendments. Obviously, one reason to table the amendments was to invite the Minister to make the kind of statement that she has now made, which is very welcome. I look forward to seeing the regulations, as, I am sure, do all noble Lords. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 146 also deals with appointed parish councillors. I welcome the assurances which have just been given by the noble Baroness to my noble friend Lord Greaves. When scrutinising legislation, it is always a problem when so much is left to subsequent regulation. It means that we have to take everything on trust, but it makes it essential that we go into the detail of these matters at this stage in order to feel comfortable about going ahead.
My amendment is much more straightforward. I should like to do away with this provision altogether. I am still unable to see what an appointed parish councillor will be able to do that a co-opted member cannot. The principle of co-option is widespread, particularly where you cannot find enough people to stand for a parish council. But it is well understood and people know what they are getting. It is not entirely clear why this whole new category of appointed members is required.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, outlined the Governments intentions. She said that there would be a body of non-elected councillors who would be appointed and co-optedthey would be one categoryand that elected councillors would
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Can the noble Baroness confirm beyond doubt that appointed members will be within the scope of the standards regime and the ethical code of conduct? What advantage might an appointed member have over a co-opted member? If they are subject to the standards regime, they will have to declare interests in all sorts of things and probably not take part in the business. If the whole point of appointing them is to bring in some specialist expertise or because they represent a group and they then cannot do that because they are barred by the code of conduct, it would be a bit of a nonsense.
We have to take parish councils very seriously. The Vicar of Dibley is a splendid programme, but it gives the impression that parish councils are funny little bodies populated by odd characters. The Vicar of Dibley is about a parochial church council and not a parish council: it is not the same thing. People do not understand that their parish council is a tier of government and that larger parish councils spend many hundreds of thousands of pounds and set a precept. Therefore, we have to take their provisions seriously in so far as they are a properly constituted tier of local government. We should not treat too lightly this proposal to do away with the democratic process and to appoint people.
My big fear is that we are seeing the thin end of the wedge and that some years down the road we will be in your Lordships' House debating a proposal to appoint councillors to principal authorities. That frightens me even more and is one of the reasons why I am very keen to understand more about why the Government see this as necessary. I beg to move.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I hope that I shall be able to give the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, the assurances she is looking for. We talked about this issue to some extent in Committee. One group who may perhaps see themselves as appointed councillors would be young people between the ages of 16 and 18. They would not come within the normal range of co-opted councillors, but could be appointed because they may have views on affordable housing in rural areas or suggestions about making the social life of their community more exciting. That is one group which may come under the umbrella of appointed councillors. It would also cover those who would not automatically think of themselves as people with a local government role, but whom the community and the council see as having a valuable contribution to make, even if only for a short period of time. In Committee I gave the noble Baroness the assurance that appointed councillors would be subject to the code of conduct, and I am happy to repeat it.
While the National Association of Local Councils has some doubts about this clause, it has also expressed considerable enthusiasm for the idea of using it as a way of bringing young people into local government; that is, 16 to 18 year-olds. Using the measure for this purpose is an exciting innovation, and I am a little disappointed that the noble Baroness is not as excited about it as I am. After having expressed doubts in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that the suggestion was interesting and that noble Lords would certainly want to go away and think about it.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I may have to write to the noble Baroness about that. Obviously there is a rational reason why they would fall into this category, but I shall write to her with the answer.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, the Minister has invited me to give her the results of my thoughts. If you want 16 and 17 year-olds on parish councils, why not extend the qualification to be members and to stand for election to 16 and 17 year-olds? Surely that is the more democratic and less patronising way to do this.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, perhaps not for this Bill, but it is certainly another way of approaching the issue. While opposing the principle of the clause, in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, tabled amendments probing our intentions for the regulations that would flow from this clause, and I believe that we gave detailed assurances on the points he raised. I think I made it clear that obviously 16 year-olds cannot stand for election, while co-opted members can. At present we regard co-opted members as those able to stand for election. While I shall write to the noble Baroness, I see that as the main difference between co-option and appointment.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has expressed doubts about using the negative procedure for making regulations, and in particular recommended that any exercise of the power which permits a majority of parish members to be appointed or enables an appointed member to be treated as an elected member for the purpose of the chairmanship or vice-chairmanship should be subject to the affirmative procedure. The assurances I gave in Committee made it clear that we have no intention of allowing these circumstances to arise; that is, those about which the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee had doubts. We have here an opportunity to put new energy into the operation of the most local level of local government. It is not a major part of the Bill but we think it would be a useful step forward. It is an enabling measure which does not require parish councils to do anything they do not want to do. We have given clear assurances that the regulations will be framed so as to prevent misuse.
The fact that already a great many parish and town councillors are appointed by co-option, while many more are elected unopposed, means that on the purity of local government argument, quite frankly the pass has already been sold by the reality. As I have said, we already have a large number of co-opted and elected unopposed councillors. This measure will give parish councillors a little more freedom to ensure that they can be as effective as possible. It opens up possibilities for engaging young people, which the sector has warmly welcomed, and for engaging hard-to-reach groups, which the Commission for Racial Equality has welcomed. Regretfully, therefore, I continue to resist the amendment and commend the measure to noble Lords.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, will the Government be monitoring the use of these powers, should they become law? If I were to ask a question in a couple of years timeif we are all spared until then, as a House or otherwiseI wonder if I would be told that this information was not collected centrally or if there would be a sensible answer saying how many there were and under what circumstances they had been appointed.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I rise to give the noble Baroness a little more thinking time before she answers that question. Perhaps I may ask her about ethical standards and conduct, a point raised by my noble friend. The Local Government Act 2000, which introduced the new conduct regime, states in Section 41 that the Secretary of State may by order specify the principles which are to govern the conduct of members and co-opted members, so that the order is about the principles. A co-opted member is defined as someone who is a member of a committee or sub-committee, or represents the authority on a joint committee and is entitled to vote. It seems to me that an appointed member does not fall within that definition. Is it the use of what will be new Section 16A(3)(e) which allows for regulations as to the,
I may appear to be labouring the point, but if we are to have a new class of person, not only should we have an assurance that the standards regime will apply to them but we should understand how it does.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I have given an assurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the full standards regime will apply to appointed councillors. I will write to her with more detail on the chapter and verse of what the standards regime currently provides for co-opted and unopposed councillors.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to this short but important debate. The Government intend to introduce a new category of people into local governmentpeople who will have been appointed and not elected. I do not think we should lose sight of that; it is a very important departure from the principles of local democracy.
I was accused earlier of a counsel of despair and negative thinking. But the noble Baronesss assertion that because it is not always easy to find people to stand we should just give up and start appointing people really is a counsel of despair. If it extended to other tiers of government, it would be desperately worrying.
My noble friend Lord Greaves asked the Government how this will be monitored. The Government do not even know how many parish councils there are. I have been told this by the national association. There is not a list held of how many there are, where they are and what their names are. It has never been known. It is not only this Government who do not know; no Government have ever had this information. So if the Government do not know that, they are not going to know how these powers are being used. The proposal may be full of good intentions and considered a way of bringing in 16 and 17 year-olds, but it will be interesting to see how many of these young people are appointed. As far as I can see, other than that category, every other person who could be appointed to a council could be co-opted under current procedures.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, in asking my Question, I take particular pleasure in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, to his place on the Government Front Bench. The noble Lord is known to all of us as one of this countrys most distinguished surgeons. Indeed, accolades that pepper his biography bear witness to the extraordinary standing which he enjoys internationally in the field which he has made his own: minimally invasive surgery and, in particular, the development and use of surgical robots. The rich mix of his family roots, which extend from Armenia to Iraq and to Ireland, makes us appreciate how fortunate we are that his feet are now firmly planted in the soil of this country. At St Marys and at the Royal Marsden, where he currently practises, his contribution to the well-being of patients is pre-eminent, and I have no doubt whatever that his acceptance of the Prime Ministers invitation to serve in a ministerial capacity reflects his desire to make an equivalent contribution to the well-being of the NHS and the nation. May he prosper in that endeavour and may he continue to bring his own very wise perspective to the deliberations of Government.
The Question on the Order Paper is perhaps rather transparently a carrot to lure the noble Lord to this Chamber. Nevertheless, I hope he will agree that a debate on the subject is timely and useful. The report published in July on NHS services in London was very much the product of the noble Lords careful efforts, and he is to be congratulated on having tackled head-on some extremely difficult issues. The headlines which his report generated were all about the reconfiguration of health provision in London, and a major reconfiguration at that. But in order to understand those proposals, we need to see how the noble Lord got there. His starting point was, if I may venture to say, the right one, and indeed the only possible one; namely, the health needs of Londons population. Londons population is expanding; it is getting steadily older; it has an unusual ethnic mix; and its health problems are writ large in high rates of drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, TB and mental illness. London has some first-rate hospitals and healthcare facilities, but there are parts of the city where healthcare provision is, frankly, inadequate and health inequalities are stark. The east and north of London have sparser GP coverage and sometimes lower funding levels than other areas, yet they have a higher incidence of ill-health. The burden of immigrants in certain parts of the city accentuates many of these problems.
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