Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001

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Mr. Flook: My hon. Friend mentions an important point. The Trull parish council newsletter uses the word ''codswallop'' in relation to the proposals. That is a good west country word—does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the word that best describes this statutory instrument?

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is taking a risk, as that is a very disrespectful term to use about the Government. Indeed, I think that he should be careful not to circulate that too widely, because the person on Trull parish council who wrote that might be in breach of the general obligations.

I turn to the personal interest section, and the definition of ''a friend''. We read that a member

    ''must regard himself as having a personal interest . . . if the matter relates to . . . the . . . financial position of himself, a relative or a friend''.

''Friend'' is not defined, however. We all have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of acquaintances in a continuous spectrum, from people whom we hardly know to close friends. At what point does someone become a friend and, therefore, covered by part 2 of the code?

In addition, what does the document mean by ''partner''? We read here that ''relative'' is to include ''partner'', which is defined as

    ''a member of a couple who live together.''

Does that mean that two spinsters living together under the same roof are partners? Do they have to be of different sexes? What is the definition of ''living together''? Such definitions leave an open door for every mischief-maker who wants to create problems for parish councils in controversial matters.

Finally, I return to the point that was raised about part 3 of the code, and the section relating to gifts in particular. I agree with the hon. Member for Torbay that £25 is a bizarrely small sum, especially when that ''gift or hospitality'' can relate in such a general way to matters that might fall within the purview of parish council business. For example, parish councils often run sports fields or allotments. Is it seriously suggested that a parish councillor receiving a gift from a member of a cricket team at Christmas will have to register it, in case matters relating to the pitch, or renewal of contracts to the benefit of the team should come before the parish council in subsequent years? If not, we need further clarification. Parish councillors regard this measure as draconian and a grotesque overreaction to the possibility of corruption at parish level.

By all means, let us keep the existing codes of conduct up to date, but the extension in the model code is disproportionate to the problem and will lead to the weakening and possibly even the death in some parts of the country of parish council government as we have known it.

5.55 pm

Mr. Flook: I shall be brief, so that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk can get a word in edgeways.

I referred briefly to the Trull parish council newsletter, a copy of which I have before me. Trull parish council is incandescent and ''codswallop'' is just one of the words that it used. In fact, it asks whether all Ministers are ''absolutely bonkers''. It has a precept of only £7,000. At last night's meeting, several parish councillors wished to tender their resignations, and it was because a local Conservative district councillor

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suggested that it would only play into the Government's hands that they were prevented from doing so.

Even if Labour Members fail to understand it, the order will lead to resignations, so perhaps they should take a little more note of those people who have written to Conservative Members and others whose constituencies contain parish councils—the hon. Member for Broxtowe mentioned that there were six in his, but there are many more in the constituencies of several Conservative Members. Perhaps none of them have written to the Minister, but he should take note of those Conservative Members who have received representations on the issue.

5.56 pm

Mr. Bellingham: I shall be brief because I expect that the Minister needs two minutes to reply.

I wholly endorse what my hon. Friends have said, as well as the speech of the hon. Member for Torbay, who made some good points. The Government completely misunderstand what makes parish councils tick. People give their time freely and voluntarily, and work extremely hard for no reward. There is also a sense of camaraderie in most parish councils. In addition, they command the trust and respect of the community. They do not ask for expenses. They do not ask to go on extra committees or boards. They simply ask to be respected. One of the most important points overlooked by the Minister is that, in most parishes, there will always be a few barrack-room lawyers who come up with wholly vexatious complaints about how councillors behave. The code will be a charter for vexatious complaints.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that there will be a mass of resignations, because slowly and surely, genuine, decent parish councillors will decide that it is not worth the effort and will not stand again. That will lead to the withering of parish councils, which is why I will vote against the order.

5.58 pm

Dr. Whitehead: I have about one and a half minutes in which to respond.

There were more than 700 responses to the consultation exercise and the new model code of conduct, including some from parish council representatives. The majority of those who responded said that the registration requirements were reasonable, clear and workable. Since then, we have received 43 letters to Ministers and 60 letters from members of the public about the parish council code of conduct. All except five of the letters to Ministers and nine of the letters from the public were received following the completely spurious article about hospitality in The Sunday Telegraph on 20 January. All those letters have been replied to. We have been made aware of one resignation from a parish council as a result of the new code.

I stress that parish councils are an important tier of local government. In common with other authorities, those who are elected or appointed to parish councils

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to represent the interests of their communities should be accountable for their actions, and those to whom they are accountable have the right to expect high standards of conduct. The new code of conduct and its declaration and registration requirements will safeguard the standards of conduct that will be expected of parishes and will ensure that parish councillors, in common with other local authority members, who are also subject to a £25 limit on gifts and hospitality received during the course of their activities, are accountable for their actions in that capacity. I urge the Committee to agree the motion and affirm the validity of the order.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that only those Members in the Room who are on the list are able to vote now.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 5.

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Division No. 1]

Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Geraint
Drown, Julia
Mole, Chris
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Twigg, Derek
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Flook, Mr. Adrian
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Pugh, Dr. John
Sanders, Mr. Adrian

Question accordingly agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 3576).

        Committee rose at two minutes past Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Bellingham, Mr.
Brazier, Mr.
Davidson, Mr.
Davies, Geraint
Drown, Julia
Flook, Mr.
Mole, Chris
Moss, Mr.
Palmer, Dr.
Pugh, Dr.
Sanders, Mr.
Twigg, Derek
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr.
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Woolas, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

Duncan, Mr. Alan (Rutland and Melton)

Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells)

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