Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): The Local Government Act 1894 established parish councils for villages of more than 300 people. That Act followed a series of substantial late Victorian local government reforms. During the 108 years since then, parish councils and their urban equivalent of town councils have become established in every corner of the country. They have evolved over that time, but to their credit they have retained their distinctive character.
Effective local councils represent some of the best practice in good governance. First, they are part of the communities that they serve, which ensures accountability. Secondly, they are focused on the provision of local services and amenities, which is what people want. Thirdly, they are often independent of Whitehall and the political party machines. Fourthly, and perhaps most important, they are diverse: they genuinely reflect the different urban and rural communities for which they are responsible.
I am fortunate that in my constituency of Hertford and Stortford and the area covered by the East Hertfordshire district council we have some excellent parish and town councils. The four town councils represent from 8,000 people to about 31,000 people. The parish councils are similarly varied. Some represent one single village; others represent a series of villages and hamlets. All of them, however, share a common sense of public service and, in good times and bad, they have striven to do their best for their communities.
I take this opportunity to record my thanks to the hundreds of men and women who, down the years, have served as councillors, clerks or staff, and for the wonderful public service that they have provided. In a quiet mannerdare I say it, in a barely active way, but none the less effectivelyparish and town councils have helped to shape the character of their communities. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will join me in extending their thanks for that public service. Indeed, as the very future of public service is in question, we should pay tribute to those who have given so freely of their time and talents.
The role and organisation of local councils are now changing. During the past two years, the Government have published a series of consultation papers and statutory documents on how our parish and town councils should operate. Those plans include changes in their powers, funding and organisationand even on how councillors should conduct themselves. Taken together, those changes represent a significant redefinition of the role of the local council. That is why
I shall consider three aspects of the Government's plans. The first is the funding system known as quality councils; the next is the management system termed best value; the last is the code of conduct for councillors. Each aspect may seem minorthey may even sound dullbut together they represent a major change in how local councils will work, and therefore in how our local communities will develop.
I shall begin with quality councils. Initially, they sound great, do they not? Who could possibly object to encouraging higher standards among local councils? Yet when one examines the scheme in practice, one realises that the main means of promoting the higher standards that the Government propose is the hypothecation of funding. Local councils would therefore be forced to comply with Whitehall rules to be eligible for funds. The Government have remorselessly practised that classic Whitehall tactic in almost every aspect of our public services. The result has been less local decision making and more power vested in Whitehall.
That is not the way to encourage people to become involved in our local communities, because it sends the message that Whitehall knows best, and Ministers do not trust local people to make the right decisions for their communities. That is clear from the way in which the Government fund education, health and our police services, which are losing good people who feel that Ministers do not trust them to take decisions. The same will happen in our parish and town councils if the Minister pursues the policy that he has in mind.
The second of the Government's plans relates to the system known as best value. For those who are unfamiliar with it, I should explain that the best value management system is intended to raise performance standards throughI hope that hon. Members will excuse the ridiculous management jargoncontinuous performance, performance planning and service reviews. Like many management consultancy fads, it turns a simple common-sense idea into complex bureaucratic language that all too often sounds like gibberish.
If such management waffle is bad enough in large multinationals, it is even worse when it is imposed on small local councils. That is not simply my view, but that of many of the respondents in the study that the Government recently published. The study was conducted by the Institute of Local Government Studies through the university of Birmingham. It examined 41 councils involved in the best value programme and took a detailed look at the first year. It stated:
That summarises the way in which the system has gone mad. I hope that the Minister will explain what lessons the Government have learned from the study on a system that, far from providing best value, seems to have little or no value in the eyes of those asked to implement it.
The Government's plans to impose a code of conduct on local councillors are shortly to be debated elsewhere in the House. The code seems remarkably prescriptive. It introduces a register of parish councillors' interests that will include their employment, business and property. It will require them to register any gift or hospitality worth more than £25, so presumably raffle prizes at the local fete will be somewhat restricted. It also contains a requirement to disclose any personal interest, or interest of their spouse or relatives, and to withdraw from the room if those interests are discussed.
Everyone in the House seeks the highest standards of behaviour in public life, but those measures are clumsy and draconian when applied to local councillors. They are disproportionate to the budget involved, and fail to distinguish between major and minor breaches. Also, they could not work as drafted in many small parishes. If someone in a small community is asked to declare his interests and those of his spouse and all his family, I can envisage some parish councils having no one left in the room to discuss the issues. That is the silly nature of the proposal.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the biggest problems with the code of conduct is that it is mandatory? It was originally envisaged that local councillors would have discretion as to which elements of the code of conduct they wanted to adopt locally for their own circumstances.
Mr. Prisk : My hon. Friend is right. He has underlined the critical point, which is that under this Government, the days of discretion and variety are gone. The system is all about compulsion and imposition, and that is one of its weaknesses.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that the plethora of reorganisation is causing a problem, in that many people are asking why they should bother giving up their time to serve the community and take all the hassle of being parish councillors? Indeed, is that not what the Government set out to bring about? I think that the Minister for the Environment recently asked what role parish councillors had. Under this Government, they have no role, and the code is an attempt to see them off.
Mr. Prisk : As always, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. As a new Member, I might want to give Ministers the benefit of the doubt, but more experienced colleagues clearly understand the issues better than I do. There is a danger that what my hon. Friend described will be the result. I hope that the Minister will categorically state that it is neither the intention nor the wish of the Government to see that take place.
These examples of the Government's plans highlight how they seem to have chosen what my hon. Friends agree is a centralising and bureaucratic agenda that will curtail local freedom and destroy the diversity that makes our parish and town councils distinctive. That is the wrong approach. Instead of meddling in management systems, the Government should be improving local services. Instead of imposing a bureaucratic code of conduct, they should be tackling known offenders, and instead of enforcing conformityas my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has pointed outthey should be celebrating the diversity of our towns and parishes.
In the last 108 years, parish and town councils have become the foundation of many local communities. I hope that the Minister recognises that many of his initiatives have lost their way. It is time to give back to councils the freedom to build for the future and the confidence that that will engender.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) has done the House a service in calling for this debate. The more I look into the matter, the more fired up I get, and the more I have listened to my hon. Friend and thought about the Government's underhand surreptitious policy, the more angry I have become. I think that that is true of my hon. Friends as well.
It is a tragedy that the Government are sneakily trampling on the decency and traditions of organisations that do an enormous amount of good in the communities that they serve. The Government call for "community" and "voluntarism" and other aspects of good citizenship, yet they are destroying all that, and undermining much of the quality of life that weparticularly those of us who represent rural constituenciesvalue highly.
I have more than 100 parish councils in my constituency. Some of them have lovely, former Viking namesThorpes, Byes and Little by the Rivers, and so on. These little organisations serve the genuine needs of people who live there, without the hassleuntil nowand supervision of an overregulated governmental system. They are enormously valuable to the people on their doorsteps. After 10 years, I like to think that I know every corner of the 500 square miles of my constituency. However, the other day I discovered one that I had not realised existeda hamlet of about 15 houses at the end of a cul de sac. It has a vibrant parish council that looks after the mundane things that most bother the residents about the community in which they livethe views that they see every day, the paths that they use and the fields in which they have always walked their dogs.
Parish councils, by their very nature, are variedas my hon. Friend has said. They are diverse. They have value because they do not fit into the straitjacket of some theoretical governmental pattern. They have evolved to suit the needs of their communities. They can be tiddly or big, busy or dormant, and they can suddenly rise up and get angry when they need to because an issue affects them. They do not have to harass the Minister actively every day about this or that policy or consultation document. They are simply there to respond, when
Let us consider what parish councils do. They have no executive authority and cannot set a budget, decide where a house is to be built, move a road or build a building. All that they can do is express an opinion, and act as a pressure valve for locals who want to express their opinion, who tend to get especially hot under the collar about planning matters. The most that they can do is to stick a tiny precepta fiver or a tenneron the borough or district council budget to fund things of particular concern to small communities, which have gained popular consent and approval. That money might go towards a flagpole on a village green, or to restore the wagon wash or an ancient wall that has crumbled over the past 50 years. It might be put towards repairing the local churchthey lychgate, or a wall, for example. At any rate, it will go towards something that exercises the feelings and views of those who live in the parish.
What are those councils doing at the moment? Most are organising jubilee celebrations. They will probably not have a precept for that, because all the money coming into the celebrations will be voluntary, but the focal point for the expression of community enjoyment and party organisationputting up the bunting and the lights at Christmas, for exampleremains the parish.
Mr. Prisk : Not only is the Minister apparently uninterested in what my hon. Friend is saying, but it is appalling that not a single Liberal Democrat Back Bencher is in this Chamber today. They claim to have an interest in local matters, but where are they? I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my concern.
Let me address another issue to which, this time, the Minister might pay some attention, which has affected my constituents and may have affected those of other hon. Members. I am talking about flooding, which has bedevilled so many local communities over the past three or four years. Surprising instances of flooding have occurred: suddenly springs start bubbling up through the tarmac, and a plain is flooded that has not been awash with water for decades.
Parish councils are the source of knowledge and understanding about the direct effects of water flows in their immediate vicinity. They are where the wisdom lies. Some old farmer who has been cutting the daisiesrather than pushing up the daisiesfor decades, knows where the water goes and can explain to people imported into the planning authority the effects of different types of building.
Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend has hit on an important point. In Ashford in the Water, which is in my constituency and which suffered flooding last year, the main point of contact for people was a parish councillor, with whom the Environment Agency also corresponded. The parish council provided a useful contact point.
Mr. Duncan : My hon. Friend is right. The combination of the diligence of a local Member of Parliament and the activity of a local parish will ensure that Ashford in the Water is not for ever Ashford under Water.
Parish councils provide valuable information and act both on things that might ruin the lives of people in the parish and on simple things. At this time of year, one walks into a village and sees the daffodils blooming under an oak. They did not come to be there because of some district council or Member of Parliament, but through the activity of a parish council, which cobbled together a few quid to make the village a lovelier place in which to reside.
My point is that all that work is at risk of being destroyed. What fires me upand clearly fires up my hon. Friends toois the Government's underhand policy of completely destroying the historic and useful activities of parish councils. Let us start with this putrid, stinky, disgusting little document, in which some civil servant has arbitrarily categorised every parish council in the land on the basis of no decent quality information whatever. The terminology of categorisation is designed to deride. Parish councils are described as "inactive", "dormant", "barely active" or, just occasionally, "vibrant".
I do not mind my parish council being slightly inactive or only half vibrant; what I want to know is that it will represent my interests as a resident efficiently and honestly when necessary. So if it is dormant but can rise when the need provokes it, that does not mean that it is less good as a parish council. This entire documentthis vague and arbitrary, although supposedly specific, listingis deeply offensive and insulting to many people. What would happen if I were to categorise Labour Members of Parliament as dormant, inactive, vibrant, or even thick? I could draw up a comprehensive list, based on far better information than we find in this document about our English parishes.
I want to take up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford about declarations of interest. One can argue that people who make executive decisions should declare their interests, whether those decisions are about planning, whether they enable people to put money in their pockets or whether their decisions may be misunderstood
Mr. Duncan : In Doncaster, as my hon. Friend says, there is a track record of that sort of thingbut not in parish councils, because they do not have executive authority. They are glorified, but none the less helpful and valuable, residents associationsa useful but harmless safety valve for the expression and channelling
Thirdly, I want to say something about audit costs. We now have the absurd situation in which the little "residents association" parish council must submit audited accounts to the district auditor. In one case in Clipsham and Stretton, in eastern Rutland, the Audit Commission billed the council £250 for submitting the accounts, but the total balance in the accounts was £238.20. This ridiculous Government are telling parish councils that they must submit their audited accounts, but they do not need auditing. Does the parochial church council belfry account or kerbstone account need auditing? Cannot a local accountant just tick the box to certify that the accounts, set out on one page, are honest? Expenditure on daffodils, £5.50; cash in hand, £128; donation to the bell tower, £50. Do such accounts need auditing? They do not. The Minister is shaking his head, so we look forward to hearing him confirm that people who serve on parish councils will not be required to declare their interests, that no audit fees will be imposed to clobber parish councils, and that they will be left alone.
The Government's agenda, working from a socialist theoretical point of view, is to ensure that all the organs of government are tidily structured under one pattern of thought, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford said, Conservative Members value the diversityand almost the inexplicabilityof parish council structures. Whether they are tiddly or big, active or inactive, does not matter; they are a force for good.
I am suspicious that as the agenda for bigger and more regional government is pushed forward, and it is argued that anyone who has anything to do with public service must put their assets on the line for all to see, the people who will be destroyed are those who do their duty, as a public service, by serving local communities on parish councils. The hidden agenda of the Minister and his Government is to destroy the parish council as we know it. That is a crime. The parish council is of value, and is a force for good. Can the Minister confirm that it will be left alone to do what it has always done as well as it has always done it?
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): It is a great pleasure to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to speak on a rural issue for the second time in less than 24 hours. I do not want to cause offence to my friends in the hunting world, but this is probably a more important long-term issue than that which we were debating on the Floor of the House yesterday.
I ask the Minister to take the matter seriously. He has heard a characteristically passionate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). I share his anger because what he
One problem is that the Government do not understand parishesthat is not a criticism, but an observation. We have a necessarily urban policy-making elite in the civil service, and an urban-dominated Government. Such a Government should be careful about rushing into policy judgments on rural institutions that are not represented at policy-making or ministerial level.
Parish councils are strange and diverse animals; they are the small platoons about which Edmund Burke wrote, and they comprise the fabric of our community. I rely heavily on them for advice on a range of issues. I make it my point to write to the chairmen and clerks on a regular basis, and I listen carefully to what they say. When I am invited to take a role in a planning decision, I will do so only if the parish council confirms that it would be right for me to become involved. I visit parish councils as regularly as I can, and I celebrate their diversitythey are an extraordinary range of organisations. When my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said that the Government were trying to fit them into a neat policy frameworka series of boxeshe hit the nail on the head. I am a charitable soul so I am inclined to believe that they are doing that out of ignorance, not malice, but perhaps I am too charitable.
If one did characterise parish councils, one could take four levels: the micro parish council, which is typically a parish meeting; the standard village parish council; the large village parish council; and the town council. I shall quote a letter from Abberton parish meeting that I received a couple of weeks ago. I have sent a copy to the Minister, who may not have received it yet. It is a response to the Countryside Agency's survey of parishes. The Minister will say that that survey was not of parish councils, but of parishes. However, parish councils see the survey as a measure of their effectiveness, and the vibrancy of parish councils is one of the indicators through contested elections. Therefore, although the Minister's legalistic defence may hold good in court on a point of law, it is not common sense. Parishes in my constituency are up in arms about the agency's analysis.
He goes on to describe the small, 999-acre hamlet of Abberton, which has not greatly changed over the past 40 to 50 years. He paints a picture of its two farms, which employ only seven people, two of whom travel in daily. He says that the parish meeting is called when required, and most recently that was to debate speed limits in the villagean important issue in several rural communities. He says that those at the meeting objected to the urbanisation implied in the speed limit system that the county council wanted to impose.
Mr. Taylor explains that planning applications are circulated by hand to interested parties. When problems arise such as the flooding of the highwaymy hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton made a powerful point about the role of parish councils and floodingdirect contact is made by the parish council, there is no need to call a meeting, and matters are sorted out. He talks about the church, St. Edburga's, where the monthly service is all that it can manage. Members of the parish go to the neighbouring parish of Bishampton to take part in drama and choir activities. Those people are pretty vibrant, even if the parish meeting is not particularly so. A local choir comes to practice in the church, it is true, and there is an occasional bus service to Pershore and Stratford, although that causes some concern in the village because it apparently damages the kerbs. There was a bonfire in 2000 for the millennium and that will happen again for the Queen's golden jubilee.
At the other end of the scale of villages is Broadway parish council, to which I shall return later in my remarks, and large town councils such as Evesham and Droitwich, each with a population of more than 20,000. Those are wildly different organisations, and to apply the same set of rules, whatever those are, to all those different types of organisation is a fundamental policy error. The Minister denies that he is doing so, but that is what the parishes see daily in the letters that they receive from the Government.
Mr. Luff : I have had a very detailed letter from the Minister and his colleague at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Minister for Rural Affairs, about that process. Reading between the lines, it is quite clear that they admit that it was deeply flawed. The Minister for Rural Affairs told me how many parishes in my constituency responded: only 22 out of 56. I have to say that of the 22 that he said responded, most do not remember responding and most do not remember having received a survey in the first place. I suspect that that was because the Government used an out-of-date list of parish council clerksa real problem. The survey came at the height of the foot and mouth disease crisis, when the parishes in rural England were up to their necks, dealing with a whole range of problems. They did not have time for another Government survey. That was a barmy time to do that exercise.
The Minister for Rural Affairs, in a letter to me, highlighted three parish councils that had not responded, as if that was a criticism of them: Bishampton and Throckmorton, Hill and Moor and Wyre Piddle. The reason that they did not respond was that the Government had dumped on them a major foot and mouth disease burial site without any consultation with those parishes whatsoever. When I discovered belatedly that that was happening, at my suggestion they were invited to the press conference to have the details revealed. That is the attitude of the present Government to parish councilsthey just do not feature in the Government's thinking.
The Minister says that the Government are not treating all parish councils in the same way, but I have a letter in my hand from Nicky Holland, the clerk to Abbots Morton parish council. That is one of those small village parish councils, bigger than a parish meeting but smaller than the council of a large village like Broadwaya typical parish council. She says:
How can that be? The work load described there has come about because the council is being forced to respond to Government initiatives at a level that just does not concern parish councils. The Minister is probably being briefed by his officials, and I understand that. I have every sympathy for himhe does not understand parish councils and does not have them in his constituencybut I urge him to look at the reality and not the fine words that he gets from his officials. I urge him to open his eyes to the reality of what is going on.
I have already mentioned the Government's failure to consult parish councils at times of great crisis. I re-emphasise their failure to consult parish councils. Failing to consult Pinvin parish council at the time of foot and mouth disease when imposing a burial site in my constituency was a monstrous breach of their duty. Parish councils want to be consulted. Why have they not yet been given the power, for example, to be statutory objectors to the grant of operator licences to heavy goods vehicle companies? In the vale of Evesham, in south-east Worcestershire in my constituency, there is a huge problem with heavy goods vehicles. Yet when an operator licence is applied for and the parish council seeks to make its view known to the licensing authorities, it is not allowed to do so because it is not a statutory objector or consultee. Only an individualnot a parish councilwho is adversely affected may express a view.
I raised the matter with the Government, probably two years ago, and was told that they would take steps to correct it. They have not yet done so. They find time to put all kinds of impositions on parish councils but not to give them what they want. I plead with the Minister to reconsider the role of parish councils in the HGV licensing process. They desperately want and need the power and would really appreciate having it.
We have talked about the Countryside Agency's analysis of parish councils, and I explained why the Government would defend it. However, it is wrong to defend it. It has caused huge offence. I write to my parish councils regularly, and I seek to be honest and straightforward with them. They are not party political animals. If the Minister thinks that members of parish councils are all Conservatives, he is wrong. Despite the absence of the Liberal Democrats today in Westminster Hall, they are a powerful force on many parish councils, as are Labour activists. Parish councils are not party-based organisations, and I try to deal with them in a non-partisan way, as one must. Their anger about the survey should not be understated.
I have a letter from Evesham town council, which shares the deep concerns about the issue. Very kindly, it sent me a copy of the March 2002 edition of a publication that I had not seen before, Clerks and Councils Direct, which is probably targeted at the larger councils. An article with the headline "Sleepy tag is 'grave insult'" explains the survey and indicates that councils know what it is all about and have not misunderstood it, as the Minister might think. It says:
"say the labels are nothing more than an insult because of the countless hours they spend working to improve their communities."
Deputy council leader Alan Grey said that the town council offered a variety of services, including recreational facilities, parks, a golf club and large sports complex, and play groups."
I accept that the exercise was trivial. I was told in a parliamentary answer that it was conducted in only two days, which is amazing, considering that there are 6,000 parish councils in it. However, the Minister must understand that, though trivial, it matters, because it has crystallised the concerns that have developed among parish councils during the past three or four years about the Government's attitude to them.
I am not often upset by letters from Ministers, because they are not often very robust. They are written by the same civil servants who brief Ministers, and they always try to avoid being too confrontational. However, I received an extraordinary letter from the Minister for Rural Affairs. It was written about three weeks after I issued a press release. To get a letter from a Minister in any Department, let alone DEFRA, within three weeks of a press release is surprising. I wait three months for parliamentary answers and three or four months for letters from DEFRA, which is one of the worst Departments in Whitehall for responding to parliamentary questions.
The Minister for Rural Affairs accused me of sending out a Conservative central office handout, which is simply not true. The document was entirely my own workevery single word of it. The Minister accused me of saying things that I had not said, and concluded:
We are not using parish councils as political footballs but are desperately trying to stand up for their interests against an uncomprehending Government. Instead, we are using the Government and, to an extent, the Countryside Agency as political footballs.
I find the Minister's remarks deeply offensive and wrong. I have written a four-page letter to him in response, which I hope that he will personally read. I hope that he will apologise, but somehow I doubt it.
Parish and town councils are not adequately consulted. They have been insulted by the Countryside Agency and the Government and are being forced into a straitjacket through the quality initiative about which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford spoke so eloquently. I have asked all the parish councils in my constituency to show me their responses to the quality initiative. One or two of them are not particularly concerned about it, but the vast majority of them are profoundly worried. They regard the measure as a further encroachment on their traditions and on what they have been good at for so long. That spirit informs their responses. I urge the Minister to read them carefully and not rely on large national organisations for advice. He will be surprised by what he finds.
The Minister explained in a letter that the duty to declare £25 gifts would apply only to those given during the course of parish council duties. That is not what the code says or how we interpret it. I repeat the warning that I made in a recent letter to him. There are often local disputes in parishes; people may not get on well. They are not always happy places. Parish council politics can be pretty brutal; those who listen to "The Archers" know that. By the way, the Minister may wish to know that that programme is set in my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith).
There are often petty rivalries and jealousies at local level. I will not name names, although I am tempted to; but I can think of one or two rivalries in which the code will be a very powerful tool for vexatious constituents. People will take entirely spurious complaints to a new national body. The complaints will receive massive publicity in local newspapers but will then be dismissed at great cost to those involved. Such action will cause great stress to individuals who were falsely accused. The Minister will be ill-guided if he pursues the provisions under the code of conduct.
The Minister seems to consider that the code is reasonable and that, under the Nolan rules, matters should be transparent. As has been made clear, the budgets of parish councils are typically piddling or non-existent. I accept that it is regrettable and wrong for someone to make a fiver out of the odd grass-cutting contract that is handed out, but does that justify such provisions? The communities would find out about such matters pretty damn quickly. Such networks do not need formalisation; they are informal. There have been cases of fraud, such as the one in my constituency in which a parish clerk ran off with a lot of money. I accept that some powers of control are needed, but in those circumstances public bodies had bent over backwards to lend her money without checking whether her applications were legitimate. The proposed audit requirements will not change that behaviour because it was how the money got there in the first place that should have been examined.
(a) body to which he has been appointed or nominated by the authority as its representative".
The Minister may think that none of that matters, but it does. The regulations are the straw that broke the camel's back. In the past few weeks, more and more parish council chairmen have said to me, "We're thinking of giving up." The first has now decided to do so. I have a letter from Salwarpe parish council. I appreciate that Salwarpe parish council might not seem very important to Whitehall, but it matters a lot to the people of Salwarpe and the surrounding area. In a formal letter to the monitoring officer at Wychavon district council, the parish council chairman says:
Salwarpe Parish Council accordingly passed a resolution unanimously at its meeting on 11th March that it does not intend to adopt the new code of conduct that comes into effect on the 5th May. In the circumstances it follows that no individual councillor will have given the written undertaking that is required by the deadline of two months after this date. We have received also three months notice of the resignation of our Parish Clerk."
The Minister hears anger from us; that is because we feel angry for those parish councils. I urge him to think again. He is not getting an accurate picture of events on the ground. More parish councils will go, as Salwarpe has done, unless he changes his mind this afternoon in Committee. I beg him to withdraw the statutory instrument.
Hon. Friends who have joined in the debate have put pressure on the Minister. I speak to him in the spirit of friendship; we have both spent much of our political life in Southampton. When I was a Local Government Minister, I represented Southampton, Itchen, which is a wholly urban constituency. I now represent a constituency that is largely parished and also has some town councils. I admit that when I was doing the Minister's job I had no understanding of what parish and town councils and their councillors contributed to our national life. The fact that he has come here with his brief does not mean that he understands the impact that the regulations that he is imposing will have on ordinary people who are doing their best for their community.
I have always taken the view that those in parish and town councils are the unsung heroes of local government, because they work voluntarily and know that they must raise every penny that they spend through their parish precept. They have absolute accountabilityan accountability that does not extend to other areas of local government, in which it is distorted by the grant mechanism and by the lump sum awards given by various tiers of central Government. Local town and parish councillors know that there will be tight scrutiny of every pound that they spend. The consequence is that only the most responsible people and volunteers participate in town councils.
With almost a slip of the tongue, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) dealt with residents associations. Some town and parish councils will ask, "Why should we bother to be a town and parish council? Why don't we set ourselves up as a residents association? If we do, we shall be relieved of any requirement to conform to the code of conduct." That might be a consequence of the implementation of the code of conduct.
A further insult to town and parish councils came from the latest Green Paper on planning. The current edition of Local Council Reviewthe newspaper that is produced by, and for, local town and parish councillorssays that the Green Paper contains no reference to local councils' role in planning. However, we know that they play that valuable role. Such councils do not decide on planning cases, but they play an important consultative role. They can take the temperature of local opinion on planning, and refer that to the district council or county council that takes planning decisions. That role is fundamental to town and parish councils, but there is not a single line referring to it in the planning Green Paper. That is a further example of the Government's cavalier approach to people who operate in town and parish councils.
I ask the Minister to find out about the major contribution that town and parish councils make to the fabric of life in this country from his colleagues who have such councils in their areas. I give him a strong message to take from the debate: get your bureaucratic hands off our parish and town councils, and let them get on with the job that they are doing so well.
There are more than 15 parish councils and one major town council in my constituency. I do not understand the picture that has been portrayed. Since the Labour Government came to power in 1997, a parish council has been set up in Allerton Bywater, which is the village that I live in, and the neighbouring village of Kippax is in the process of setting up another one. I am sure that the Minister will give us statistics that show that the number of parish councils has increased since 1997.
I value working closely with parish councils, as do some Conservative Members. Recently, I worked with Clifford parish council to oppose an unsuitable development in that village, and I hope that it will prepare a village design statement. The neighbouring East Keswick parish council recently won a national award for its village design statement, and the people who put in the work, which was voluntary, are certainly well regarded by me.
There are two model parish councils in Swillington and Micklefield, which are in the neighbourhood of Allerton Bywater. I support their work in running a host of activities for elderly and young people at Christmas and throughout the year to ensure that a village community is preserved in the parishes.
I shall now discuss the declaration of interest. I have spoken to local parish councillors, and I checked the matter with Mike Auty, who is the chairman of Micklefield parish council and represents the small area of parish councils on the Yorkshire association. He said that he would have no problem with the declaration of interest, and that he would not oppose it. He is well versed in the way in which the legislation is being developed. What is the Minister's response to the contrasting statement by Gerald Wilkinson, a Wetherby town councillor, who said that he wanted the register of interests to be kept not in Wetherby but 12 miles away, in the centre of Leeds, to keep busybodies from looking at it? Councillor Wilkinson said:
It is laughable that someone in Wetherby who is interested in the status of Wetherby representatives must make a 24-mile round trip to Leeds for the necessary information. There is a paradoxif parishes are local, information should be gathered locally.
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) on securing this important debate. We have concentrated on parish councils. I will talk more about town councils, but I agree with much of what has been said about parish councils.
In the 1890s, the citizens of London alone elected 12,000 people to local boards, committees and councils. Today, approximately the same number serve on boards that oversee local services in London. However, little more than 1,900 of them are electedthe vast majority are appointed by central Government.
We seem to be moving away from local provision. In the 1940s, health care, electricity, gas and social security were nationalised. Today, education, housing and policing are becoming more centralised, and the people who make up the centralised bodies are generally given their positions by the Government of the day and are not elected by, or accountable to, the people affected by
There are approximately 70,000 councillors serving on England's 8,159 town and parish councils, and approximately 14 million people come under the auspices of those councils, which vary widely based on unique local circumstances. Although people may associate town and parish councils with small rural villages, the benefits of that grass-roots democratic network are enjoyed in many larger towns and suburbs. It should not stop there. Such councils encourage community involvement and are as relevant in larger cities as small towns.
The need for parish and town councils has become greater with the creation of unitary authorities, which represent wider areas with fewer councillors. They are increasingly unable to take into account the specialised characteristics and needs of communities under their governance, which is why we should extend the network of town and parish councils so that everyone has access to them. At the same time, the power of such councils must be augmented. Local bodies should not be so tightly bound by limitations in jurisdiction and expenditure, as some currently are and as the Government appear to be proposing with recent initiatives. Our view is to let the ballot box be the arbiter, using a proportional voting system, rather than the Secretary of State.
Parish and town councils have an important role to play in liaising with other groups, such as local authorities, voluntary organisations, community bodies, the highways authorities, the police and the health servicesin short, all the other agencies that deliver services to the citizens who live in the parishes and the areas that are covered by the town councils.
There are cases in which it would be more efficient for parishes to undertake some of the tasks that are currently carried out by higher-tier authorities. The goal should be to further the principle of subsidiarity, and to ensure that higher tiers of government undertake only the duties that the lower tiers cannotor do not wish tocarry out on their own. To achieve that goal, it is important to branch out and find new ways for parish and town councils to provide services for their communities; sometimes they will do so independently, and at other times they will do it in collaboration with voluntary organisations or local businesses, or in partnership with the higher authority.
Town and parish councils do not face capping and, generally, do not receive grants from the Government. Thus, they often have more freedom with regard to spending than do the local authorities above them, as the Government have less direct financial control over them. However, parish spending is considered to be part of the expenditure of the district council. That can result in a district council that is struggling financially pressurising the parish to cut back on its spending. Additionally, some parishes receive a grant from their district council, and that limits their independence.
There is also the issue of double rating. That occurs when the council tax collected by the district council is not properly abated to account for the tasks that are done by the parish or town council and paid for by the parish precept. The Liberal Democrats would like the parish to levy its own precept, as that would lead to greater control over what it is spent on. Of course, where parishes are taking on duties from other bodies, they should receive the appropriate reimbursement for their work directly from those bodies. We are aiming to achieve transparency.
Parishes should actively promote community participation. All decisions should be taken at meetings that are open to the public, well advertised and held in an accessible meeting place. That is often the case with regard to the meetings of parish and town councils, and I do not see the harm in central Government's setting a guideline that says that that is how it should always be done. Citizens should have the opportunity to make representations directly to the council and any of its committees, and all meetings should include a period for public questions.
There is a need for a nationwide basic standard of service that is offered by all parish and town councils. However, too much Government prescription defeats the purpose of devolution, and it is important that parishes have the flexibility to tailor their services to local needs and wants. They also need the leeway to make innovations, to ensure that services are provided in the most appropriate and effective ways. Therefore, we are arguing for diversity with regard to local government: no single, clear model should be forced to suit all.
Some parish councils have been termed "sleeping". That has offended many councils, as the criteria for evaluation were crude, and no constructive suggestions for improvement were offered. It is important to ensure that parish and town councils are doing their jobs well and efficiently, but they should be accountable to the people that they represent: having the Government breathing down their necks is not conducive to making improvements in the way that they conduct their business.
Whether parish and town councils should be included within the best value regime is questionable, even where they have an annual budgeted income of over £500,000. We should also question whether they should be included within the new ethical framework, the main elements of which are now in place. That framework includes a code of conduct that all parish councillors must sign up to, and a new independent body, the standards board, which will investigate breaches of the code.
On the face of it, how could anyone object to that framework? However, subjecting parish councillors to standards that are higher than those that Members of Parliament are expected to meet is either going too far orsome hon. Members may hold this viewnot going far enough. I think that we are going too far with regard to parish and town councils.
The Liberal Democrats believe that parish government at its best is true grass-roots government and facilitates active participation by individuals from all sections of the community. It helps to articulate the needs and aspirations of that community, especially to
We believe that anything of concern to or that has an impact on the local community is the business of town and parish councils. They are the bedrock of our democracy and the foundation stone of civilised communities.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) on securing a vital debate, and all my colleagues on the powerful arguments that they deployed. It is unfortunate that the Minister will not have that much time to answer all the excellent points made. However, the debate is the first of two bites at the cherry, as the statutory instrument on codes of conduct will be dealt with in Committee this afternoon. The issue is much larger than the Government realise, and they may have totally miscalculated their policy on the relevant level of local government. The code of conduct is completely misguided, but I shall come to that later.
At the heart of the matter, the Government do not seem to understand and appreciate the importance and value to communities of the lowest tier of local government, which parish councils represent. Their heavy-handed approach to the issuetheir control freakery of wanting to micromanage everything from the centreoverlooks the public service that individuals are prepared to contribute to their local communities, unpaid. The Government do not seem to understand that politics is not an issue at that level. We are talking about the independent voices of individuals in a local community who are prepared to stand up, be counted and serve their community out of a sense of duty.
Labour's record on promoting the interests of parish councils is poor, and various forms of Government rhetoric have been used over the years. In 1999, they talked about neighbourhood forums replacing parish councils, and then went on to consider appointed officials and neighbourhood managers rather than voluntary representatives elected by local people. They backtracked on all that. Today, various pieces of legislation threaten parish councils, which have to cope with a barrage of Whitehall regulation, interference and increasing red tape.
We believe that that could be the first step of a Government hidden agenda to do away with parish councils altogether. It is important that the Minister answers that claim, which has been made by many Members today, certainly all those from the Opposition. We do not know what the Government intend to replace parish councils with, but the Minister should come clean and tell us their long-term agenda.
If the hidden agenda is not to bring about the demise of parish councils by putting pressure on them, how will the Government respond if parish councillors resign in huge numbers as a result of the imposition of the legislation? That would effectively render that tier of government useless. Are the Government prepared to face that? Letters from parish council chairmen and
We believe that the hoops through which parish councillors have to jump should be removed entirely. Councils should be given freedom automatically, rather than having to earn it, because earned autonomy is a bad concept. Only if they fail should their freedoms be curtailed.
Colleagues have mentioned the performance grading done by the Countryside Agency, which is a Government quango that will have done the work under the aegis of the Government. That demonstrates yet again their lack of openness on the issue. The Minister for Rural Affairs wrote to colleagues to say that
This afternoon, hon. Members will debate the statutory instrument that implements the code of conduct, and every aspect of the legislation is draconian. It introduces a register of parish councillors' interests, which should include details of their employment and their business and property dealings. Councillors are required to register any gift or hospitality worth more than just £25, disclose any personal interest or interest of their spouse or relatives and withdraw from any proceedings where such interests are discussed. It has been put to me that the interpretation of the code of conduct is such that parish councillors who work higher up in local government, particularly at district or county level, are told to leave the room and to take no part in debates pertaining to district and county responsibility. I am not sure whether that is true, and it would be helpful if the Minister said unequivocally that councillors will not be precluded from debating issues that relate to the other council tiers that they represent.
The code of conduct is seriously flawed and should, at the very least, be redrafted. We would expect extensive consultation with parish councils across England before that happened. The statutory instrument that implements the code is due to come into force on 27 May, six months after it was laid, so we are close to the date on which the code trips in. Twenty-eight days after that, all councillors must sign up to it. Like those of us in the shadow Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions team, the Minister has no doubt received letters that provide mounting evidence that many parish councillors are not prepared to do so.
When parish councillors stood for election two, three or four years ago, they did so under the terms that pertained at the time. For those in the middle of their period in office, the whole ball game has changed, and they strongly resent that. The Minister should, at the very least, say that the completely different regulations that pertained when some parish councillors were elected are to remain in force until new elections are held.
Overwhelmingly, we believe, parish councillors are well intentioned and honest, but the code of conduct implies that many have ulterior motives for involving themselves in council work. The implication of that for their integrity has angered many people; it could be the reason for a number of resignations as we approach 27 May.
Many important points have been raised on that issue, which strikes at the heart of democracy in local government. It should be debated on the Floor of the House, rather than for an hour and a half here and another hour and a half in Committee. The scandal is that the statutory instrument was intended for negative resolution. If we had not prayed against it, it would have sailed through without debate. That shows the insulting way in which the Government treat local government at all levelsin this instance, those who serve on parish councils.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I concur with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) that it is a shame that we have only a relatively short time for this debate and that I have little time in which to respond, because I would like to comment on a number of issues.
I thank the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) for initiating this important debate. Opposition Members made a number of interesting and important points about the current and future roles of parish and town councils, challenging the Government's attitude to them. Of course we have no hidden agenda. On the contrary, our policy is clear: town and parish councils are an essential part of the structure of local democracy, and they will continue to play a key role in many towns and villages.
Our rural White Paper, "Our Countryside: The FutureA Fair Deal for Rural England", set out how local councils can become equipped to take on a stronger role as representatives of all parts of their communities. It contained a number of significant new proposals, including the creation of quality parishes, which will involve principal authorities and dynamic parish councils working together better to meet the needs of their communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) drew attention to the increase in the number of parish councils. Since the Government came to power, 82 have been created and we are considering proposals
Further to indicate the Government's concern that parish and town councils should play a substantial role in local democracy, we are putting money into grants, training and support for themfor example, £15 million over three years in community services grants, £15 million over three years for parish transport fund grants of up to £10,000 towards the cost of local transport projects, £5 million over three years to help about 1,000 rural communities to prepare parish plans and £2 million to establish a national training and support strategy.
I must put to bed the canard that the Government have a secret agenda for parish councils. It is absolutely untrue that the Countryside Agency vibrancy indicators are to be used to stifle parishes or to downgrade them; the opposite is the case.
Mr. Prisk : The Minister said that the study was worth while. Does he not understand that undertaking it without consulting local communities insulted those communities? The nature of the process seems bizarre. Can he explain the purpose of a further study?
Dr. Whitehead : Yes. Community vibrancy is one of 15 headline indicators that were established to measure progress in implementing commitments made in the rural White Paper. That is why that indicator was included and why that research was undertaken. There are no implications for the future of parishes or suggestions that the Government have a hidden agenda in measuring developments in the role of parishes and setting other indicators of local vibrancy in rural areas.
Despite its being clear that parishes are diversethere are large parishes, small parishes and town councilsthis debate has been dogged by some hon. Members speaking as if all parishes are the same and of the sort described in the ridiculous speech of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). Of course, there are several large parish councils, but the suggestion that all parishes are being subjected to the best value regime is untrue.
There are 41 best value parishesthe largest town councilswith a turnover of £500,000. Parishes are not being subjected to the quality parish initiative, but they can take part if they wish. The aim is to help them to strengthen the work that they are doing. Indeed, benefits will accrue from quality parish status.
It is true that parishes are diverse and have a varied role to play in the life of our communities. Some do the sort of work that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton suggested; others are involved in a wider range of activities, so it is important to acknowledge their diversity.
With our agreement, the commission has put in hand amendments to its code of audit practice to implement that lighter-touch regime. Where changes to parish council conduct are necessary to implement the new regime, we will consider amendments to the Accounts and Audit Regulations 1996. We plan to consult extensively on proposals to amend those regulations later this year. That is in addition to the announcement that we made last October to increase from £5,000 to £50,000 the financial threshold above which parish councils are required to prepare income and expenditure accounts.
Hon. Members raised concerns about the model code of conductas the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said, we shall debate the matter further this afternoonbut several of those suggestions are wrong. Indeed, the suggestion in a recent article in The Sunday Telegraph that people should declare a good dinner with a good claret is quite erroneous. Clause 1 of the model code shows that the requirement for declarations relates to business carried out by the parish council.
Hon. Members are labouring under a misapprehension about registration. Members will have to declare interests relevant to any debate, but that will not preclude them from taking part in the debate, and is no different from the declaration by the last Conservative Government that requires pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests to be declared, and on occasions requires members to leave the chamber when things are being discussed.
Dr. Whitehead : I am referring to the chamber in the parish council, when things are being discussed that relate to the conduct of the parish council. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is incorrect in suggesting that members of other authorities will be required to leave the parish council meeting if certain business is discussed.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am afraid that time is up. We must now move to the next debate. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) has just made it for that debate, as he initiated it. Several hon. Members from various parties have said that they would like to participate, and if hon. Members are disciplined, I shall be able to call all those who want to speak.