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22 May 2007 : Column 1186

Various requirements and thresholds are set out for a community governance petition, but I did wonder whether a petition would be time limited. Could a petition last three, four, five or six years, eventually reaching a point that triggers a response from the council? If so, that would be wrong. If someone is to gain a significant amount of support for a change in the parish arrangements, there should be a time frame within which they should have to raise the petition. Otherwise, someone could raise petitions over a much longer period.

If an authority is having to deal with a petition of 2,000 names, the council concerned should at least look into the number of names on it to establish before undertaking a community governance review whether they are fairly current. Presumably, under the clause, they would have to be local government electors, so to qualify, the petition should include an electoral number or an address against the names. Are we talking about the current electoral position? In other words, if someone wants to raise a petition for a community governance review, will they have to use the current year’s electoral register in order that people qualify?

The provisions are still not clear, so the Government should provide some reassurances about how petitions will be raised. If we are placing a duty on a local authority, which may involve a cost to that authority, it is perfectly proper that a petition should be raised quickly in the appropriate manner and responded to accordingly. The petition should be time limited. Two years is far too short a period for the council to respond. It should be rather longer; otherwise, vociferous groups could be rushing around to raise petitions in order to change arrangements, causing all sorts of difficulties for local authorities, which have a duty under the Bill to respond.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I declare an interest immediately as a town councillor of some 20 years’ standing, although I do not intend to talk about all my experiences. I want to put on record my congratulations to the Government on pressing forward with the advancement of parish and town councils. It is a long overdue change and I hope that urban areas in Britain will realise the benefits of truly local councils.

I want to raise one issue that has always concerned me, which I am still a bit unclear about, and I hope that the Minister will put me straight when she responds. Talking about a principal council implies that there is such a thing, but I am still unclear where the authority lies in three-tier arrangements, where there are parish and town councils and a county and a district council. It is not uncommon to have parish and town councils that are popular with another layer of government but unpopular with the third layer of government. In my county of Gloucestershire, the county council has always been reasonably favourable towards parish and town councils, but that sentiment has not always been shared by all district, city or, indeed, borough councils.

It is a nice notion that a petition will gain universal support among the hierarchy of those other councils, but I can envisage one layer encouraging a petition only for it to be shot down by another layer. I therefore hope that the Minister can clarify exactly what is meant when we talk about a principal council. Where there is
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conflict, the new clauses seem to clarify the situation, but will there be a clear outcome so that rather than seeing a battle within local government, we get what we all want: proper representation at the most appropriate level, which to my mind is the most local level.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I rise to speak to my new clause 63, which deals with the power to issue guarantees in respect of parish councils. I preface my remarks by echoing what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, as it is, indeed, welcome that the Government recognise the value of parish councils. I was lucky enough a little while ago to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject of parish councils and the Minister for Local Government replied to it, making clear his personal support for them. It was perhaps one of our more discursive Adjournment debates, lasting several hours, and it provided a very good opportunity to discuss the powers of parish councils.

My new clause deals with a much narrower issue. I raised the matter on 22 January on Second Reading of what is charmingly abbreviated in Hansard as the “Local Government in Health” Bill. I hope that we are talking about local government in health rather than otherwise. I raised a point that had been brought to my attention by the Somerset Association of Local Councils about the power to issue a guarantee. The Secretary of State, responding to my intervention, said:

I was rather pleased with that reply, as it sounded as if there was a possibility of making progress, but I have to say—I am not being over-critical of the Department—that I have not received any such correspondence from the Secretary of State or other Ministers since. According to my interlocutors in local councils, nor are the National Association of Local Councils or the Society of Local Council Clerks aware of having had such discussions since that intervention as we had hoped might take place on this specific issue.

I looked into the matter in more depth subsequently and noticed that a similar issue was discussed—though not in the same terms—in relation to local government legislation in the other place on 16 July 2003. Lord Hanningfield—not in my party, but a man I well know as leader of the Conservative group on the Association of County Councils when I was the leader of the Liberal Democrat group—raised a broadly similar issue in that debate. He was told in due course by the Minister that the matter was under review, and that active discussions would take place to find a solution. I am not waiting with bated breath for a response from the Government.

7.30 pm

I want briefly to say what new clause 63 is about. There is an anomaly at the moment, in that principal councils—however defined, as the hon. Member for Stroud said—have the power to enter into a guarantee. They may do so under the terms of the Local Government Act 2000 and their power to promote well-being. Clause 57 of the Bill provides parish councils with the power to
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promote well-being, but restricts that to quality councils, as defined by the Minister, rather than extending it to all parish councils.

I am a little surprised that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) did not mention his own amendments in this group. I had expected him at least to refer to them, so that I would be able to support them. Those proposals would extend the power to promote well-being to all parish councils, rather than just to the chosen few that have passed the test applied by the Secretary of State. The absence of such a measure creates a difficulty. If a parish council did not have the power to promote well-being, on which it would rely in order to enter into a guarantee, it would become subject to the court judgments made in respect of guarantees made before the 2000 Act, particularly London borough of Sutton v. Morgan Grenfell, which was based on the Credit Suisse case against Allerdale borough council in 1994. Both cases found that a guarantee given by a local authority was unenforceable in the absence of the power given in the 2000 Act. That is why I have tabled my new clause. Without the power to issue a guarantee, a parish council cannot participate in the joint arrangements that now often involve a company that is limited by guarantee. It cannot be a full participatory member of such arrangements.

Parish councils take many forms in this country, ranging from the very small ones with small budgets, which are unlikely to enter into such agreements, to the substantial town councils or even city councils. I can think of two examples in Somerset: Frome town council is a substantial council with considerable assets and a reasonable-sized budget, and Wells city council, which has all the trappings of city government but is still a parish council because Wells is a very small city in the context of this country. They are unable to enter into the kind of arrangements that other councils have.

My new clause would do three things in respect of the ability to issue a guarantee. It would enable a parish council to enter into

in other words, to enter into one of the associations of councils—perhaps a regeneration body, or a citizens advice bureau consortium or other non-governmental organisation consortium—that are now often incorporated as companies limited by guarantee. It would enable it to do that as an equal partner—a voting partner—which it clearly ought to be able to do if it is providing funding to the partnership or another body.

The new clause would also regularise the position of associations of local authorities, removing the strange position of having an unincorporated body of incorporated councils. That anomaly needs to be corrected. The third effect would be to enable parish councils to give the kind of small guarantees that are clearly in the interest of the local area. Examples include the underwriting of a small event such as the village fete, or of a body such as the cricket club or other sporting club within the parish council area. Those are small guarantees involving limited liability for the parish, but at the moment parish councils cannot legally enter into any such guarantee arrangements, because to do so would be ultra vires.

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In anticipating the concerns that the Minister might have about these proposals, I have also incorporated a qualification that the Secretary of State may limit the maximum sum to be guaranteed. Indeed, if the measure were accepted, I envisage different limits for different sizes of council, based either on the council’s budget or on a sum per elector in the council area. I share the possible concern of the Minister that there might be occasions on which a small council might hopelessly overreach itself in giving financial guarantees and find itself in significant difficulties. Although I trust parish councils to make appropriate financial decisions, I would have no problem with limiting those guarantees.

It is now time to correct this anomaly and to ensure that all parish councils—not just those that pass the threshold test that the Minister has in mind—have the power to enter into guarantee arrangements. My colleague in local government in Somerset, Mr. Peter Lacey of the Somerset Association of Local Councils, followed his comments to me on this proposal with a personal observation, which I hope he will not mind my sharing with the House. He said:

As I want Peter to be able to retire satisfied that he has done his bit and that I have done mine on behalf of the membership in Somerset, may I ask the Minister to accept my new clause now? If she cannot do that, I do not propose to divide the House on the issue, because it is not the sort of material on which we should be dividing the House, but will she at least give me an assurance that there will be genuine progress on the matter, and that a new clause or an amendment will be tabled in another place to correct this minor yet important anomaly for the parish councils of this country?

Robert Neill: We discussed the question of parish councils in London in some detail in Committee. Without repeating those arguments, I want to stress that the misgivings expressed by the representative body of the London boroughs, London Councils, still remain. We understand the devolutionary sentiment that, in principle, lies behind the measures, but it remains an issue that there does not appear to be any significant demand in London for parish councils. The proposal runs the risk of offending the tradition and turbulence tests set by the Minister for Local Government. If either of those tests were applied, we would not be going down this route in London.

I have also endeavoured to answer the Pratt’s Bottom question, and made a point of visiting that part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). The general consensus there was that the principal concerns about a parish council were whether it would cost any more, and whether Ken Livingstone would have anything to do with it. Such prospects did not elicit an enthusiastic response. I do not think that any evidence has been forthcoming apart from what we heard earlier in regard to a great upsurge in the demand for parish councils.

My colleagues and I were grateful for the Government’s acceptance of the need to ensure that community cohesion was an important consideration in the decision to set up parish councils, especially in the London context, for reasons that we all know and
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on which I do not need to elaborate. I hope that I can be assured that the petition provisions in the new clauses will not undermine that. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said about the need for safeguards against abuse of the right to petition—such as people keeping them going for a long time—and the need to ensure that petitions are genuinely up to date and representative.

There are those who might, in London, seek to establish parish councils for reasons that would not advance community cohesion. We think the Government were right to include safeguards for purposes of community cohesion, and some of the safeguards suggested by my hon. Friend in respect of the way in which petitions are conducted may be particularly relevant in that context.

Angela E. Smith: I thank Members for their contributions. The tone of our discussion has reflected our discussions in Committee on this and other issues. I, too, was surprised that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) did not speak to his own amendments, but I shall be able to respond to what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said about his new clause.

The hon. Member for Poole was worried about the two years that must elapse before a petition can be presented again. He thought that the Government were being too generous, and that the period was not long enough. Much as I would like to take credit for that generosity, I must ascribe it to the hon. Gentleman’s own party. Our proposal reflects a provision in the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, introduced by the last Government, which also allowed a two-year period between petitions. We are applying the provision to community governance reviews in general.

The hon. Gentleman asked about limits in relation to signatures. Clause 60(3) states that

The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if it took six years to collect the signatures. I suspect that during that time it might be necessary to go back and start again, as many electors might have moved on and might no longer be on the electoral roll. The electoral roll will enable councils to ensure that a petition is valid.

Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked which would be the principal council. The principal council will be the council that currently makes recommendations to the Secretary of State, whether it is a district council, a metropolitan authority or a London borough. There will be no conflict, because county councils have no governance role and no say in the matter.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked about the power to promote well-being, which was raised in other amendments. I can tell him that we would have to reject the Conservative proposals to extend that power, because its application could be very broad. We do not seek to place constraints on parishes’ expenditure, but we believe that there must be safeguards to ensure that the power is not abused. Parish councils vary enormously in size, shape and general nature. The largest is Weston-super-Mare, which is larger than some of the smaller district councils. There will be a basis for
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eligibility, which we are discussing with the National Association of Local Councils and other stakeholders, including the Local Government Association. We intend to draw on the guidance provided by the quality parish scheme. If amendments Nos. 164 to 168 are pressed to a vote, we will reject them for those reasons.

In new clause 63, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has tried to deal with an issue that I know has concerned him for some time. I have some sympathy with what he said and I think that the issue needs clarification, but I would have to advise the House to reject the amendment if it were put to a vote—although the hon. Gentleman said that he was merely testing the water. I believe that there are defects in the drafting of the new clause. I also believe that we need to understand all the implications of the policy that it recommends, and any risks that it would pose to council tax payers in relation to parish precepts.

7.45 pm

The position is fairly complex. There has been some communication between parish clerks and the Department, but I should like to think further about the hon. Gentleman’s proposal. I realise that he was trying to be helpful in subsection (3), which acknowledges that the Secretary of State cannot issue an open guarantee. However, it merely requires councils to “have regard for” an order by the Secretary of State. It would not be possible to pass legislation on that basis.

We need to consider the hon. Gentleman’s proposal in some depth, particularly in the light of the proposed extension of the power to promote well-being. I cannot guarantee that our consideration will be completed before the Bill reaches the House of Lords, but he may wish to meet me to discuss the matter. I am rather concerned about Peter Lacey: the hon. Gentleman did not say how old he was. If he is 25, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the matter will definitely be resolved before he retires.

Mr. Heath: I think Peter Lacey would probably own up to being a little older than 25, but I am grateful for the tone of the Minister’s response. She proposes, in clause 57, to give the power to some parish councils. I understand why she might not wish to give plenipotentiary powers to all parish councils, but I think that it is worth considering whether a power, limited in whatever way within the budget of an individual council, can be constructed. I should be happy to meet the Minister, but it would be helpful if I could bring representatives of local government with me so that they could raise their concerns and, perhaps, provide answers to some of the concerns that she has expressed.

Angela E. Smith: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman suggests a meeting. It is important for the issues to be clarified, and I appreciate the tone of his comments as well.

I did not realise how much I had missed hearing about Pratt’s Bottom and Badgers Mount in Committee—but let me turn to amendments Nos. 169 and 170. All Members have made clear their views on the contribution parish councils make to the community. Parish councils enhance the democratic life of communities, and do a power of good in helping to make them better places in which to live and work where there is a demand for
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them. For many years there have been parish councils all over the country, except in London.

In the past, parish councils have always required the Secretary of State’s consent. The district council, or principal council, considers the matter and advises the Secretary of State, but it invariably ends up on my desk. I think it nonsensical for a Minister who has never been to an area—which may be very small—and may not even know where it is until he or she looks at a map, to decide whether the area should have a parish council. The devolutionary aspect of the Bill is that the Secretary of State’s consent is no longer required, but it is difficult to justify not extending those devolved rights to London: we do not think we can deny London the same rights as other areas.

I understand the concerns raised about such issues as community cohesion, and they have been taken on board. We are already holding discussions with London councils, the Local Government Association and others on the guidance that could be issued to local authorities. Community cohesion is important, and the whole reason for establishing parish councils is their ability to contribute to it. It was a meeting that I had with Councillor Cockell that produced the Government amendments on community governance review protection periods. We are listening to what is being said to us, and a working group including London councils, the NALC and a number of other bodies is examining the guidance with us.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 57

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