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The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I support the amendment and also what my noble friend has just said. When it comes to the smallest unit, one is looking at parish meetings. It may be possible for the Minister to inform the House whether parish meetings are automatically exempt. In my experience the smaller the unit the less possible it is for local people to absorb not only this regulation, but all the other regulations that are coming through.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this issue is interesting. I recall it being raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, some while ago in a parliamentary Question. At that point I had a grain of sympathy for her position. I attended parish meetings when I was growing up. My mother took an interest in our local parish council and should really have been made a parish councillor. But there we are. I could see the point.
Ultimately, I hold very firmly to the view we have taken. For many of the reasons alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, we believe very strongly in the importance of parish and town councils. Equally, we believe that those who serve as parish and town councillors should observe the highest standards of conduct. That is probably a view shared by all Members of your Lordships' House; I should be very surprised if it was not.
The parish code sets out the expected standards and gives, we believe, reassurance to local people that their councillors are behaving correctly, as they would expect any other councillor to behave actually.
When we took office, there were some 8,700 parish and town councils in England. They varied widely in many ways. It must also be remembered that some are representative of small villages and hamlets, perhaps of fewer than 100 people. Others, like my own Great Bentley, have a population of 2,500. Others are larger still and can represent large towns, perhaps with as many as 70,000 residents. For that reason their budgets vary. The smallest might have a budget of a few hundred pounds; the largest might have one of perhaps more than £1 million. They operate local services; they maintain footpaths; they maintain street lighting; they look after playgrounds and play equipment; and they run community halls. Some run markets. There are some famous markets. Oswestry is one that is run by a local town council. They generate
One of the most important jobs of the councils is to enable that small unit of local governance to make comments on important planning matters. Planning at local level is sometimes a very vexed issue. I doubt whether there are many Members of your Lordships' House who have not at some time had a view on a particular planning matter and become caught up in the crossfire on the debate. These issues can be very controversial.
Since 1997 over 80 new parishes have been created across England. In line with our recommendations in the rural White Paper, Our countryside: the future, a fair deal for rural England, all parishes have been given further powers and responsibilities. These include powers to provide community transport, to introduce traffic calming and to undertake basic crime prevention measures within the terms of the Local Government and Rating Act 1997.
With those increased powers comes a need for increased responsibility and openness. The code of conduct for parish councillors was put in place only after extensive consultation. The overwhelming majority of the 700 plus responses to the consultation supported the registration proposals. Even among these parish representatives who responded, a majority felt that the registration requirements were reasonable, clear and workable.
I accept that sometimes the language of Government is less transparent than we would like. It can feel excessive and bureaucratic. But it is worth remembering that the bodies representing parish councilsthe National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and the Association of Larger Local Councillors (ALLC)were supportive of the proposal that parish councils should be subject to the same registration requirements as principal councils. They deserve to be taken seriously. I understand the concerns that these additional duties and powers may deter some local people from making that important decision to stand for election to local parishes. But I believe that in the main, in the large majority of parish councils, members have accepted the code and have not found it an excessive burden.
We have done some interesting research on the pattern of complaints and allegations about local members. Between April 2002 and the end of June this year, there were 3,689 allegations of misconduct to the Standards Board. Of those, some 54 per cent related to parish councils. In total, some 1,491 allegations have been sent for investigation. Of those 60 per cent related to parish councils. After investigation the most serious cases were referred to the Adjudication Panel for England. One hundred and thirty-five cases involving parish councils were referred to that panel. Of those, 121 related to a failure to register interests. The penalties are clear. Councillors can face a period of disqualification. Sixty-eight councillors were disqualified for a year, 15 were disqualified or suspended for a shorter period and three received no sanction.
The sorts of cases being heard are also interesting. I have a number of examples of which I shall give a couple because they are important. There was one member of a town council who sexually harassed and criticised the parish clerk in letters and comments to that council. It was considered that the member had failed to treat the parish clerk with respect and brought his office or authority into disrepute. Who can argue against that being properly investigated so that we uphold standards? It is unarguable that that should be properly investigated.
There was another case involving the member of a parish council who failed to disclose a prejudicial interest and withdraw from relevant meetings when decisions were made on land adjacent to his house. Those decisions would have had an effect on the value of his property. The member had previously expressed the strongly-held view that the land should not be used for a particular purpose. In the member's mind, the decision that he was involved with, ensured that the land in question could never be used for that purpose. There is a distinct conflict of interest relating to land and property values. The other cases that I have are very similar. We find the argument against the application of the code to parish councils less than compelling because serious conflicts of interest arise.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, raised the question about declaring interests. The code allows councillors to declare a personal interest, remain in the chamber and speak and vote. But they have to declare that personal interest which is right and proper. I do not find the case against the operation of the code compelling. I understand some of the concerns raised by its imposition on parish councils. Those councils have an important job to do. They consider important matters and they can make important comments on major planning decisions. Some parish council members overstep the mark from time to time. It is right that the code of conduct should apply to them so that the highest standards of probity operate even at the lowest level of local government. I hope that having heard that explanation, the Benches opposite will withdraw their amendment.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer. I repeat what I said earlier. We have the most local form of local government. We have thousands and thousands of parish councillors. I am a county councillor and the patch that I represent has 12 parish councils. I attend quite a lot of them. They debated this code of conduct. They went along with it after a lot of discussion and unhappiness but accepted it as the law of the land.
The Minister's reply was far too simple. Everyone wants probity. Anyone should declare any interest in planning issues, and 99.9 per cent of people in local government have done that, whether at parish, district, county or metropolitan level. Obviously one gets the odd person who does not obey the law, whether in local government or any other field. This legislation is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I was involved with Hilary Armstrong, the then Minister for Local Government when this legislation was talked about. I
The Minister quoted a lot of ammunition from the Standards Board. Most parish council complaints concerned four-letter words. Therefore the Standards Board has sat for hours and hours at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds just because people complained about name-calling. The cases he quoted were serious, but I repeat that we do not need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. As my noble friend Lady Hanham said, we do not suggest that there should be nothing at all for parish councils. We suggest removing the onerous conditions of the Standards Board and replacing them with something more simple for parish councils. We will reflect on what the Minister has said, but for today I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, Clause 117 confirms the right of a local authority to conduct an advisory poll. The provision creates an express power removing doubt about the freedom of local authorities to hold advisory polls. We want councils to have maximum flexibility in who is polled and how the poll is conducted. We have carefully considered the points made during Grand Committee following the amendment proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock requiring local authorities to have regard to guidance about making local polls accessible to local people. We have tabled the amendment in order to provide for the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales in Wales to be able to issue guidance, to which local authorities must have regard, on facilitating participation by disabled people in a local poll.
I hope that this amendment meets with the approval of the Liberal Democrat Benches. I found it rather difficult to defend the position that we had previously. I am much happier with the position we have now reached as I am sure other noble Lords will be. I am grateful to them for the work that they did in bringing forward their original amendment. I hope that this one satisfies the points about which they were concerned. I beg to move.
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