Sixth Standing Committee on
Tuesday 19 March 2002
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 3576).
This is the second time today that parish councils have come up for debate. We had a useful debate on several issues relating to the code of conduct in Westminster Hall this morning. The order is regarded by those involved in parish councils as a direct attack on their integrity and on the way in which they go about their business and their responsibilities.
The order is a four-pronged attack on people who stand for parish councils and who, in the main, serve willingly as an independent voice at that level of local government. The Government's paper on parish councils and quality control, which was published late last year, will set tight controls on what parish councils can and cannot do. They will be obliged to meet fairly rigid, centrally set targets. That mirrors the Government's role in producing crude, comprehensive performance assessments and public service agreements throughout other tiers of local government.
The Government are imposing a blueprint of rigid conformity on parish councils, which is the wrong approach to take. Councils should automatically enjoy freedom and not have to earn it. We describe that as earned autonomy. These days, local councils do not have autonomy and freedom unless councillors jump through the hoops that are prescribed by central Government.
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): I am curious to know what the hon. Gentleman makes of the provisions that were introduced in 1996. Many parish councils complained that they were onerous and were along the lines described by the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Moss: We are here not to debate what happened back in 1996, but to talk about the extremely draconian measures that are due to be implemented this yearon 26 May to be exact. We do not have a great deal of time to get the Government to rethink the order and at least to consult properly the people involved in parish council work--which they have so far not done--so that a sensible way forward can be found.
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Our second criticism is about the Government's new performance grading. That has been linked to what the Countryside Agencya Government quangodid when considering performance categories for parish councils. It came up with the categories of vibrant, active, barely active and sleeping. The Minister for Rural Affairs has admitted that 27 per cent. of parishes were vibrant; 38 per cent. were active, 26 per cent. were barely active and 9 per cent. were sleeping.
The real problem is that the grading was undertaken secretly. It was not done openly. Local communities were not even consulted. Such action was taken over a short time when rural communities were suffering terribly from the foot and mouth epidemic. It is not clear what it set out to achieve, and the Government have certainly not made it any clearer by their subsequent statements.
In response to a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the Minister for Rural Affairs suggested that
''it is juvenile and irresponsible to suggest that the Countryside Agency is 'secretly' measuring the effectiveness of parish councils''.
Yet the same Minister admitted in answers to parliamentary questions that the list had not previously been published, that consultation was not held directly with individual communities, and thatthis is another nail in the coffinthe individual parish scores were not intended to be published. Therefore, either that leaked out, or the Government were unclear about their objectives and published it forgetting that they had intended all along to keep it under wraps.
The best value regime, which is being introduced to some parish councils at the appropriate level, is at best a very bureaucratic system. The local government White Paper concedes that the cost of audit and best value will be as high as £30,000 per year per parish councilthat was quoted on page 136 of the document, I thinkand that parish councils, on average, could face increases in audit costs of at least 9 per cent. We believe that best value is a flawed and bureaucratic system, and even the Labour party in Wales recognises that. The Welsh Assembly's Labour Finance Minister, Edwina Hart, conceded:
''Best Value inspection hasn't really worked . . . Local authorities have been fed up with the bureaucracy and the fact that they have reports telling them that they cannot improve when the whole purpose of Best Value is to improve''.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Does my hon. Friend realise the sheer fury which some of us feelespecially those of us who are affected by floodingas he makes his powerful case? During the flooding, parish councillors did a wonderful job. They gave of their time for free: they ran soup kitchens, and in one area they organised the clearing of river banks before the statutory agencies were able to deal with the problem. The idea of them being bogged down in all this blasted paper work is an affront.
Mr. Moss: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. The importance of parish councils is often overlooked, but the people at that lowest, local level can often see
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and deal with things more quickly than people at other levels of local government, and my hon. Friend gave a useful example of that.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): There are six parish councils in my area, two of which are entirely dominated by the Conservative party. None of them have raised any objections to any of the matters that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Does he think that that is because they see such things more clearly, or is it because they are asleep?
Mr. Moss: It is for the hon. Gentleman to tell his parish councils that he thinks that they are asleep. No doubt we will circulate a copy of the Hansard containing his statement. I do not know whether the councils in his area are asleep. We have had an increasingly large postbag on this subject, because it is dawning on parish councils, as their clerks come to grips with the order, that it is a draconian measure.
I was talking about the best value bureaucracy, which is another imposition and attack on parish councils. I appreciate that it is not an attack on all of them, as there is a threshold at which it kicks in, but it is an additional burden that parish councils will have to bear.
The final nail in the coffin is the code of conduct that is before us today. Its provisions are mandatory. We were initially led to believe that they would be discretionary, but the Government have seen fit to make them mandatory. They go far beyond any code of conduct that parish councils and councillors adhere to at present.
It is almost as if one size fits all. Parish councils range from the small council that covers a hamlet and that has only a few members to parish councils that have town council designation with perhaps a mayor, many councillors, a sizeable budget and populations of about 20,000 to 30,000 voters. The scale and size of parish councils vary enormously, yet they are all expected to jump through the hoop that is set out in the code of conduct.
The code provides for a register of parish councillors' interests, which includes their employment, business and any property that they own. It introduces the requirement to register any gift or hospitality received over the value of a measly £25. Councillors are required to disclose any personal interest and the interest of their spouse or relatives, and they must withdraw from the meeting room if such interests are discussed.
Paragraph 7 relates to the interests of relatives. The list is incredibly extensive; it is difficult to comprehend why the draftsmen had to go into such detail. Paragraph 7(2)(a) says that a
'''relative' means a spouse, partner, parent, parent-in-law, son, daughter, step-son, step-daughter, child of a partner, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, or the spouse or partner of any of the preceding persons''.
A small community is likely to be made up of all those people who are related in some way to a councillor who seeks office. The list is so prescriptive that councillors will not be able to participate in many of their council meetings.
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Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): In some tiny parish councils, almost all the people in the parish are related to one another. Even if they are not related to everyone else, a fair proportion of them will have a son, sibling, nephew or niece in the community. That would make decision-making at that level almost impossible.
Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing the point that I emphasised.
The order came into force on 27 November after the Government slipped it through under the negative resolution procedure. We discovered it and prayed against it, which is why we are having this debate. We are against the order. It is so flawed that we will vote against it. If the Government will not withdraw it, they should, at the very least, redraft it. They should consult with parish councils before they do that.
The code is excessive. It fails to distinguish between major and minor breaches, and its reach is too broad. It requires the registration of interests by all the listed people who are related to councillors, and it forces a national investigation of even minimal infringements by the Standards Board for England. Minimal infringements will be reported because paragraph 6 states that parish councillors have a duty to make written allegations about the actions of others. That is a recipe for disaster in the local community. There may be odd problems among neighbours or people in the same village, and the measure will give people the facility to make vexatious complaints against councillors and others in their community. Why is the measure so prescriptive? It beggars belief.
There is a need for a code of conduct, but it requires a much lighter touch. We believe that parish councils are overwhelmingly honest. Members of those councils think that the order is a direct attack on their integrity. The introduction of these strict rules may cause some councillors, if not many, to give up their voluntary work, and will discourage others from standing for election.
Smaller parish councils are not party political. Many people stand as independent candidates out of a sense of public duty to serve their community. They give up their time voluntarily. They will see the order as a direct attack on the sense of duty that they have exercised over many years. It has also been put to me that those who became parish councillors at the last election were elected on a completely different basis. Now, part way through their term, the goalposts have moved. They resent the way in which they are being regulated, and many have said that had the regulations been in place at the time of their election they would not have bothered to stand, and will certainly not stand next time. At best, the Government should allow that group to continue under the current regulations, and have the new code of conduct kick in at the next elections.