An order under this Part may not, except by virtue of section (Power to remove or reduce burdens)(8), (Power to promote regulatory principles)(5) or (Power to implement Law Commission recommendations)(5), make provision to amend or repeal any Northern Ireland legislation.'. [Hilary Armstrong.]
Mr. Heath: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you could help us. The last group of amendments for consideration today, which we did not have an opportunity to debate at all, included some very important amendments on the constitutional arrangements, particularly the application to the Scotland Act 1998 and the way in which the Bill interacts with Scottish affairs in the Scottish Parliament. Is there any opportunity to discuss those matters tomorrow, given that we have a further day on Report and that under todays timetable we have had no debate whatever of those subjects?
That the draft Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 24th April, be approved .[Mr. Roy.]
That the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure and Pastoral (Amendment) Measure, which were laid before this House on 16th February, be referred to a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. [Mr. Roy.]
That Mr Geoffrey Hoon and Liz Blackman be discharged from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and Mr Jack Straw and Paddy Tipping be added .[Mr. Roy.]
That Peter Luff be discharged from the Administration Committee and Mr Greg Knight be added.[ Rosemary McKenna, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I wish to present a petition from Mrs. Elizabeth Lowrey that has been signed by more than 900 residents of Washington in Tyne and Wear and is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). It concerns changes to the Encompass health care practice, which offers an innovative and dynamic approach to health care in Washington, and states:
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Secretary of State for Health to urge the Sunderland Teaching Primary Care Trust to recognise the current benefits of allowing the existing team to achieve full independent status and continue to provide primary medical care for the community.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue of particular concern to my constituentI shall shortly explain his circumstancesthat extends to a much wider constituency of opinion. Many people both inside and outside the House think that the time to take action to try to remedy some of the difficulties in the case is overdue.
I am grateful to the Minister for Local Government for agreeing to reply to our debate on the model code of conduct for councillors. I accept that it would be inappropriate for him to refer to the specific case of Councillor Alex Riley, but I am grateful that he will deal with the wider issues. It might be helpful if I describe the circumstances of Councillor Rileys case. For some time, he has chaired the parish council in the village of Longstanton, which is several miles north-west of Cambridge.
As a result of the last regional structure plan and the subsequent county structure plan, a large new town is to be built to the north of Longstanton and Oakington comprising 8,000 to 10,000 homessubsequently, the local development framework settled on 8,000 homes. That large development is very close to Longstanton, and it will envelop parts of the village. It extends to the north, west and east of the village, and in the original plans it was no more than the distance of a football field from some points of the village.
As chairman of the parish council, Alex Riley was closely and actively involved in the debate about the structure plans. When it became clear that active planning on the local development framework would begin, he decided to stand for election to represent Longstanton on those issues. In June 2004, he was elected with 70 per cent. of the vote in Longstanton as an independent councillorthe House will observe that this is not a party political matter. From June 2004, he sought to represent the villages views on a range of issues in the local development framework before an outline planning application was made. However, the ethical standards officer alleged that 15 breaches of the code of conduct took place in the space of just five months. I accept that the Minister will not want to comment, but the hearing of that case took place today. It concluded that Councillor Riley was responsible for breaches of the code of conduct but a penalty was not imposed, apart from the fact that he was instructed to receive training in the code. That is ironic, given that he has become insufferably familiar with it to the point of contempt. None the less, in my viewI do not propose to speak for anyone elsethose were technical breaches of the code. That is one of the main reasons no penalty has been applied.
The issue is the extent to which councillors legitimately sent to their council chamber by constituents are able to represent those constituents. The Local Government Act 2000 set out an ethical framework for councillors, including in section 30 a model code of conduct, which South Cambridgeshire district council adopted in 2002. The code identifies
two interestsfirst, personal interests, which can be defined as anything that might be held to affect a councillors well-being or financial position, or that of their relatives or friends, to a greater extent than it would affect the local population generally. Secondly, there are prejudicial interestsinterests that are so significant that a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts would reasonably regard those interests as likely to prejudice the councillors judgment of the public interest.
Those definitions are not at issue. Individually, Councillor Riley and all the other residents of Longstanton have personal and, in almost all cases, a prejudicial interest in relation to these matters. Planning decisions must, of course, be made in the public interest, but local residents have a legitimate expectation that that public interest includes and fully takes account of their views as the people most affected by a planning decision. We must ensure that that interest is properly and accurately reflected.
There is confusion in South Cambridge district council about how the code of conduct should be applied. Without going into detail, it was clear in 2004 that Councillor Riley received conflicting advice about what his personal and prejudicial interests should mean in relation to his participation in the councils discussions. In October 2005 South Cambridgeshire district council took counsels opinion. That was necessitated by the fact that the council was coming on to examine the local development framework and an outline planning application from Gallagher, which is the promoter of the large scheme. The Minister need not declare an interest, but English Partnerships, which is part of the Department, owns much of the land on which the town is to be built.
Counsels opinion pointed out how the district council should, in accordance with the current law, deal with the councillor. First, a councillor with a prejudicial interest would be required to withdraw whenever a meeting was held. A meeting, for these purposes, included any meeting of the authoritynot just meetings that formed part of any decision-making process, but informal meetings, briefing meetings or any meeting whatsoever. Secondly, the further requirement that under the code councillors should not seek improperly to influence a matter should be interpreted to include lobbying or making any written representations to members.
The code allows dispensations, but counsels advice to the district council was clear. The standards committee of the council could not use those dispensations to avoid adherence to the code. Counsel instanced some of the very limited circumstances to which dispensations might be applied.
When counsel was advising the planning authority about what Councillor Riley could do, he came up with three options. The first was that Councillor Riley should no longer be regarded as the route through which representations could be made by villagers, so representations could be made direct to the planning director. The second was that villagers should use another councillor who had no disqualifying interest. The third option was that Councillor Riley should resign. He would then be able to make representations as chairman of the parish council or as a private citizen.
It is curious that the use of another councillor has been the route through which the district council has proceeded. The necessity for Councillor Riley not to apply improper influence has even extended to the point where he is not allowed to discuss matters in his village with the councillor who has been nominated to be the route through which such representations are to be made. Another councillor on the parish council has been so nominated and the deadening hand of the code seems almost to be extending to the point where Councillor Riley cannot even talk to Councillor Grace, who subsequently talks to Councillor Kindersley, who is the councillor through whom their representations might come. Such is the effect of the way in which the model code has been interpreted.
The Board shares your view that the current rules can be over-restrictive...and may exclude members from discussing certain matters which their community would expect them to be addressing or even, in certain cases, where they have been elected to represent specific views. Given the changing role of most councillors, the code needs to be seen to be supporting such local advocacy and the democratic right of a community to be represented when key matters which affect that community are under discussion.
The Board has also further recommended that the Government should also give local authorities broader powers to grant exemptions to members with prejudicial interests who nevertheless are speaking on behalf of their constituents.
The board went on to make recommendations to Ministers that flowed from exactly the same points that were made in their letter to me. The Committee on Standards in Public Life separately has made its own recommendations to Government, and I shall quote one of them. It said:
In planning decisions the ability of elected members to represent constituents interests where they have personal and prejudicial interests has been unnecessarily diminished. This should be changed to give any elected member the right to speak (but not vote) for their constituents at a planning committee meeting or any other quasi-regulatory meeting.
I wrote, of course, to the Minister. He responded helpfully in January, to making it clear that the Standards Boards had made the recommendations, which he was minded to accept. I suppose that I could have rested on that and not exposed the issue to further gaze in the House, but I wanted to use this opportunity to say that I think that the current situation is untenable. In the case of South Cambridgeshire district council, there has been the benefit of counsels opinion. It is not an arbitrary opinion. We have arrived at the point where, not seeking improper influence, Councillor Riley can barely speak to any of his fellow councillors without it being thought to be an improper influence. He cannot even go to informal meetings, briefing meetings or information meetings in the same way as members of the public attend to ascertain what is happening. He cannot ask questions and he cannot make representations.
Across the country, I have no doubt that this is not the only example. The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) raised an instance not dissimilar to it on
8 November last year. Throughout the country either councillors are unknowingly breaching the code, as Councillor Riley did in 2004, by speaking on matters where they have an interest, even if they know that they do not have to votemany cases they have no concept of the extent to which the moral code of conduct can be interpreted as constraining themor we have councillors throughout the country who are being excluded from discussion of the very issues that they know best and about which they have been elected to represent their constituents.
Councillor Riley and I do not expect that he should be able to vote on issues where he has a personal or prejudicial interest. He does expect to make a full declaration of interests. He expects also that his representations should be made only openly and transparently. He does not expect to undertake private lobbying or to participate in discussions after he has made his representations. He does, however, expect to have access to briefings, and to be able to ask questions and make representations in cases where his council colleagues will be making decisions. He said to me plainly that if he cannot persuade them of the merits of the argument, he will understand and accept that he has failed in his task. It is his responsibility to make the arguments.
The issue is not settled; Ministers need to make progress. The outline application for the Northstowe development, which encompasses Longstanton, has yet to be considered and determined. Circumstances such as Councillor Rileys will arise elsewhere in the country. It is important that changes to the code be made as a matter of urgency. If the code is not changed under the secondary legislation that local government legislation permits, this negation of democracy will carry on and, far from inspiring confidence in local government, the code of conducts application will bring local government into disrepute.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): Congratulations are due to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) on bringing to the Houses attention the case of his constituent, whose views have been represented. This case also raises wider issues of relevance to the hon. Gentlemans other constituents. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining my responsibilities in this regard; it is always helpful when that happens. I am conscious that whenever we debate parish matters, newspaper headlines reporting our deliberations do not scream off the presses. However, there are some 80,000 parish councils in the country, and in my experience it is wise to take these debates very seriously, because many councils rightly take a close interest in these proceedings. The issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised concerning the code of conduct apply not just to parish councillors, but to councillors across the board.
I am also grateful for the opportunity to discuss the rules of conduct for councillors in the context of the planning regime. These rules are set out in model codes of conduct for local authority membersincluding, of course, members of parish councilswith the aim of maintaining the highest standards of public conduct among local authority members. We consider it
important to promote such standards for parish councils, as for other tiers of local government.
As has been said, it is difficult for me to comment on individual circumstances, but where allegations impinge on an individual planning application, that application could be referred to the Secretary of State or to one of her inspectors on appeal. In those circumstances, I would not wish to say anything that might subsequently prejudice the quasi-judicial appeal process.
Actively promoting high standards of behaviour among local authority members is of course an important objective for any Government. Many men and women devote their time and energy to the service of their communities, and the overwhelming majority of people elected to serve as local authority members already observe the highest standards of conduct. But it is also important to get the balance rightan issue that I will discuss in a moment.
We cannot disguisenobody wishes tothe fact that failings occur from time to time, and given that tens of thousands of people are involved, that is going to be so. However, it is worth noting that instances of elected members falling short of the conduct expected of them are very rare indeed. Such misconduct not only harms the community that members are elected to serve; it can damage the wider reputation of local government and undermine the publics trust in, and confidence in, the system as a whole. I noted carefully the hon. Gentlemans reference to the pendulum perhaps swinging too far, as some might see it, and to that itself bringing the regime into disrepute. The need to maintain public trust is just as true for parish councils as it is for other tiers of government.
The planning system involves a considerable amount of discretion, and councillors on a planning committee may arrive at a decision based on a variety of considerations. However, the law defines that decision-making duty. Failure to act within the confines of these provisions may render the council open to legal challenge by means of judicial review. The role of an elected member on a local authority planning committee involves balancing the need to represent the interests of individual constituents and the community with the need to maintain an ethic of impartial decision making on what can be, and often are, highly controversial proposals.
In 1997, the Government committed themselves to reinvigorating local democracy, focusing on enabling councils to provide the local leadership that their communities need and to deliver the services they want. In order to tackle the need for a higher degree of public trust, we introduced a new framework under the Local Government Act 2000 to promote standards of ethical behaviour. We felt that the new framework must help to dispel public criticism about those in public life by demonstrating clearly that unethical behaviour is just as unacceptable to those who have been elected as it is to the communities that they represent.