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Parish Councils

8. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): What steps he is taking to cut the costs of auditing the accounts of parish councils. [99014]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): Although audit fees are a matter for the independent Audit Commission, the Government are aware of the impact that they can have on small parish councils. The commission is currently

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piloting two exercises to see whether the cost of audits of parish councils can be reduced while the necessary level of assurance is maintained.

Mr. Boswell: Does the Minister feel any sympathy for the parish clerk of Aston le Walls who has written to me to state that the parish council's audit fee for 1998 was only just under £500, plus value added tax? She is not the only one of my constituents in that position. The parish has a population of 350 persons, and a total precept of only about £3,500, so is not the audit cost totally out of line? Revenue must be safeguarded, but will the Minister urgently examine ways to introduce the necessary flexibility and a much cheaper audit process?

Ms Hughes: The figures that the hon. Gentleman gives are completely out of line: a precept of £3,500 is below the threshold of £5,000, and the average bill last year for a parish council of that size was £160. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will write to me to confirm the figures that he gave, and I shall certainly look into the matter, as the cost that he quoted bears no resemblance to last year's average. However, I remind him that the regulations establishing the current fee structure were introduced by the previous Conservative Government. As I said, the Audit Commission is conducting studies to determine whether appointing local auditors would bring down costs even further, especially for small parish councils.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and am pleased to hear of the review. As a sitting parish councillor and an accountant, I have visited nearly all 25 parish councils in North-West Leicestershire. The impact of the audit fee is a common issue to be raised. Will she urge the Audit commission to look even more closely at the effect on the smaller community--typically with a population of fewer than 1,000--to find out whether there are ways in which the audit fee can be capped relative to precept as a proportion, or in relation to the volume of transactions? The commission is grappling with an important and difficult problem.

Ms Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know of his work on parish councils and his commitment. A scheme exists already under which small parish councils can effectively roll three annual reviews into an audit. It is a triennial scheme and the councils can have an audit once every three years, thereby cutting their overheads substantially. I hear what my hon. Friend says. The Audit Commission is considering ways in which it can bring costs down, possibly by appointing local auditors and provided that the necessary levels of assurance can be guaranteed. I know that my hon. Friend will agree, however, that although we want to reduce the costs and burdens on parish councils, it is nevertheless important that they are subject to an independent audit, which is important for the protection of public money and for the protection of councillors, so that they are seen to be accounting properly for that money.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The Minister seeks to reassure parish councils. Will she acknowledge that her right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who is regrettably missing his second out of three departmental Question Times, although for reasons that I understand

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today, originally put much fear into the parish council movement by saying that the Government were thinking of abolishing such councils? Will the hon. Lady confirm that that idea was just an embarrassing mistake? Furthermore, can she tell us when we will see the rural White Paper, so that we can see in black and white what further attacks the Government are planning on hard-working parish councils?

Ms Hughes: We have no plans to abolish parish councils. The rural White Paper will be produced next summer.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I thank my hon. Friend for her answer and register an interest. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) I am a member of a town council and I spend many hours toiling over its problems. As the Vice-President of the National Association of Local Councils, can I ask my hon. Friend whether she will continue to discuss with the association this very issue? As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said, it is by far the most important issue that small parish councils raise. I am sure that if we can find a solution to the problem, we will continue to have healthy local councils in many areas.

Ms Hughes: Yes, I do hear what my hon. Friend has said. To put the matter in context, given the large number of parish councils in the country, the Audit Commission has received 75 complaints this year about the level of fees, in particular from small councils. It is not a problem of enormous significance, but I accept that it affects small councils disproportionately. We await with interest the results of the Audit Commission's exercise and will talk to it about how it can implement its findings to the best possible effect for small parish councils.

Rural Rail Services

9. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What his policy is on supporting rural rail services. [99015]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): We are determined to improve the railways so that they can offer an alternative to the car, not least in rural areas. The new rail passenger partnership scheme will provide additional funding for new or enhanced local and regional rail services that cannot be justified on financial grounds alone.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but is he aware that the often inadequate service in the west country misses out enormous parts of the rural areas of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall? Is he also aware that the rail service could provide a much fuller contribution to rural public transport? That would require stations to be opened, reopened and refurbished. Who is to pay for that--Railtrack, the rail companies, the local authorities or central Government?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman will recall that it will be a duty of the new Strategic Rail Authority to promote and develop the rail system. We certainly expect it to pursue that task where rural rail services are concerned.

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Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that the shadow strategic rail authority has to date received 31 bids for funding under the rail passenger partnership scheme, which should follow through into further improvements in rural rail services.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a direct result of the Government's policies, the reopening of rural rail links for passengers is being considered for the first time since 1964? In my constituency, there is a good chance that the Vale of Glamorgan railway line will be just such a service. That will not only provide transport for our commuters and relieve congestion on our roads, but provide direct access to Cardiff international airport and remove pressure from the InterCity line. When my hon. Friend next speaks to the Transport Secretary of the Welsh Assembly, will he tell him that the Assembly will have the full support of this House if it awards a passenger transport grant for that line?

Mr. Hill: Yes, we certainly will.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Does the Minister agree that the opportunities afforded to him by privatisation of the railways open up the possibility of developing the rural rail network? Will he correct the possible misinterpretation of remarks made by his predecessor in office, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)? She seemed to suggest that, in certain circumstances, rural railway lines could be replaced by buses. Will the Minister give the same commitment that we made, when the railways were privatised, that there will be no branch line closures?

Mr. Hill: Let me make it entirely clear that the remarks of my honourable and beloved predecessor on that matter were subject to gross misinterpretation. I emphasise that we have absolutely no plans to replace loss-making rural services with buses. I remind the hon. Gentleman that key services are contractually safeguarded through the passenger service requirements. In rural areas, where services are heavily dependent on subsidy, PSRs are closely based on the timetable that operated prior to privatisation. Discontinuation of services on branch lines can occur only after comprehensive closure procedures have been exhausted. Those powers have been used only rarely; I do not expect that to change.


10. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): What progress he has made in establishing regional Eurostar services north of London. [99016]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): The provision of Eurostar services north of London is currently the subject of an extensive review, the results of which we expect to receive shortly.

Mr. Kidney: When the decision whether to proceed is finally taken, will that decision be fully informed not only

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by the Government's excellent transport policies but by their equally excellent policies for regional economic development and social inclusion?

Mr. Mullin: The review has to take into account a wide range of factors, not least of which are the viability of the service and environmental, social and economic considerations. We expect to receive its report shortly.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What assessment has the hon. Gentleman made of the technological impediments to the operation of regional Eurostar services? Will he favour us by providing a copy of that assessment in the Library?

Mr. Mullin: When the report is available, all the technological aspects will also be dealt with, and the hon. Gentleman will be rewarded--he can spend many hours studying them.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Does the Minister agree that there is no finer example of what the previous Government left us than the north-south divide, and the fact that the Eurostar service does not run north of London? That is despite the promises made in the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 and despite the fact that millions of pounds of public money were put into the project. Does he also agree that if Eurostar is to run a service on the west coast main line, that line must be upgraded? Is he satisfied with the work that Railtrack is putting in? Does he agree that if it is to cost £4 billion to upgrade the west coast main line, that would be money well spent.

Mr. Mullin: I understand that agreement has been reached on upgrading the west coast main line; I am sure that that will happen in the near future. As a Member who represents a constituency that is almost as far north as that of my hon. Friend, I share his desire to see Eurostar running services to the north. However, that will depend on what the review determines; the service must be viable.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Does the Minister understand that we are chronically short of railway capacity in this country, thanks to the Labour Government's policies? Was it not a great Labour lie to say that public transport would get better under this Government, when we all know that it is getting worse and is not providing the alternative that many want?

When, therefore, will the Minister and the Secretary of State take decisions on Railtrack's ways of obtaining revenue? Why will they not allow more revenue to be given to Railtrack when they expand the network, and less for providing what is already being supplied? We have been waiting for a decision on that for months, but the Secretary of State will say absolutely nothing about it.

Would it not be common sense to spend the money that Railtrack does have on improvements to expand the capacity of the railway network instead of on taking over the Circle and District lines? We want new tracks; we do not want Railtrack to take on things that could be organised better with private money coming from different sources. The Government are short-changing the

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public; they are providing a bad service. It is high time that they woke up and brought in the money that is needed to do the job.

Mr. Mullin: I have to say that, even by the right hon. Gentleman's normal standards, that was an exceptionally cynical performance. Under the present Government, the number of trains is up by 1,000 a day. [Hon. Members: "Passengers?"] The number of passengers is up by about 14 per cent.

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