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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that I will have to ask the hon. Gentleman to take that up with the Secretary of State at a more appropriate time because the matter is not included in the Bill.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk also talked about full consultation on hours and
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whether four weeks' paid holiday would be additional to eight bank holiday days. We shall consult carefully on that and on whether we should phase the introduction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) made a good speech. She and the hon. Members for Angus (Mr. Weir) and for North Norfolk talked about extending the right to request. If we look at what is happening in British workplaces, we see that the fact that parents of children under six and disabled children under 18 have the right to request flexible working means that employers, in complying with those requests, are seeing the benefit of flexible working in general. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) pointed out, if employers were not doing that before, they are now saying, particularly in small businesses, that they ought to make flexible working available to all their staff because they see the benefits.
We need to examine the matter further; we said in our election manifesto that we would do so. We should recognise that the whole culture in the workplace is shifting, and it will shift even further when the age discrimination legislation comes in later this year and people have the right to request to work after 65.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who reminded us how far we have come since 1997. I thank the hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), for Angus and for Wellingborough for their considered responses. This has been a tremendous scrutiny process.
Finally, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South and for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). I am lucky indeed to have two such talented Ministers in my team. The praise that they have received from both sides of the House is testament to their skill. With that, I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to raise, at perhaps greater length than I might have had, the issues of parish councils. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said in the previous debate, it is very rare that we have the opportunity in this place to talk about what are, certainly in England, the basic building blocks of our democratic system, so it is appropriate to take that opportunity.
The parish council is an extremely venerable institution. It arguably dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, although in its more recent appearance it dates from Gladstone's Local Government Act 1894. A criticism sometimes made of the structures in this country compared with other countries is that we are under-parished. We have relatively fewer community councils at that lowest local level than similar countries in Europe or elsewhere. I have to say that from the perspective of my constituency, it does not seem that way. As Members may know, I have a large rural constituency, and every year I do a tour of my villages. There are more than 120 of them, and I normally visit at least 100 of them each summer during my tour. There are more than 100 parish councils; I think that the figure is 101, but it is a little difficult to be precise because we have at least one detached part of a parish council that lies in another constituency, so the calculation becomes more complex.
I applied for the debate specifically in response to criticisms expressed to me by a couple of villages: Cranmore and Leigh-on-Mendip. I have noted, since securing the debate and in earlier discussions, that very similar points come up in discussion with a variety of parish councils. They vary widely in their size, of course, and in their function, ranging from the smallest, with relatively little in the way of a local role or budget, to quite sizeable town councils. Frome is the biggest town council in my constituency, but others are actively engaged in running local facilities and take an interest in the development of their town or village. Those that have been engaged in the market towns initiative are able to unlock significant funding to accomplish some of their objectives.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When the hon. Gentleman went on his travels around his constituencyI do not know whether he went on horseback or in a caravandid he discover that the smaller parish councils in particular were having ever more onerous regulations, such as the code of conduct, imposed on them? Are not they also, however, having their powers reduced and are they not being listened to less and less?
I shall come to some aspects of the hon. Gentleman's question later. I have not attempted the journey on horseback yet, although it would be an appealing prospect to do so in the steps of William Cobbett, who undertook some of his rural rides in my constituency. He went to Frome, which he described as the "Manchester of the south". Perhaps its industrial past was rather different from its more bucolic present.
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A characteristic of all parish councils is the depth of local knowledge that they contain. The parish councillors are a repository of local knowledge, and because they live within a relatively small community and often make it their business to talk to their neighbours to ensure that they are well advised, they also have a strongly consultative role in their community. I should like to pay tribute to the men and women who volunteer to be our parish councillors. It is often a thankless taskit is certainly unremuneratedbut without them, our democratic system would be very much worse. I pay tribute not only to the elected councillors but to the parish clerks, who are becoming increasingly professional in their abilities and the roles that they perform. They do us a great service right across the country.
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I echo my hon. Friend's tribute to the work of the parish councillors. I am concerned, however, at the extent to which we do not always see full slates of candidates when parish council elections are called. It is sometimes difficult even to convene a parish council because of the shortage of candidates. People often complain that they are not listened to, and so wonder what is the point. Planning is a particular case in point. The parish councillors of Barton Turf in my constituency have expressed their concern that they feel that they are not listened to in the planning process. Will my hon. Friend be seeking to find answers to such problems in this debate?
When I visit the parish councillors in my constituency, not only on my summer tour but all year round, I know that they will be able to point to the issues in their community that I need to take up on their behalf. They will know about the road problems, for example, some of which they might have been wrestling with for a long time. They will know about the lack of affordable housing, and about how the problem could be rectified. They will have talked to the children and young people in their community, and will know about the lack of recreational facilities. They will also know about the lack of public transport. That is a particular problem in my Somerset constituency, where the bus timetables sometimes show one bus per week rather than an hourly or more frequent service. The parish councillors will know what a restricting effect that can have on people without their own transport, especially younger people who do not have the capacity to drive and who might not have the opportunity to be driven everywhere by their parents.
What are the concerns that I hear about the role of parish councils? Picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), one of the concerns is a general feeling that there has been a significant increase in the regulation through the code of conduct and through the Standards Board, and that some of that is not relevant to the role and responsibilities of a parish council. I do not entirely accept that argument. I recognise that there are standards that we should expect parish councillors, like any other elected
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members, to uphold, but there is a point beyond which it is unhelpful and counterproductive to require constant reiteration of those standards.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk pointed out the lack of competition for places. The fact that so few parish councils have competitive elections is a significant worry. I do not know what the answer is. I do know that not only does it sometimes cause considerable concern to councils that do not have the requisite number of councillors the day after polling day because not enough people put themselves forward, but it calls into question their identity as councillorsthe respect with which they should be treated if they are not genuinely the product of a democratic process, other than nomination. We should be concerned about that.
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