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24 Oct 2007 : Column 357

John Healey: The Government amendments in this group have all been made in response to concerns that were raised in debate in the other place or they have been tabled to make sensible technical or drafting changes. As a package, I believe that they will strengthen the Bill and will make some of its provisions clearer.

I shall mention just two or three of the main proposals. The amendments to clause 77 have been tabled to ensure that existing groups of parishes are able, if they choose, to adopt alternative styles. An “alternative style” for a parish means a community neighbourhood or a village. All parishes should be able to adopt an alternative style if that is what a parish council or a parish meeting decides is in the best interests of their area. The amendments ensure that that can be the case.

The redrafted clauses 85, 86 and 87 have been included in the Bill so that it is clear in what circumstances a council is under a duty, or when it has the power, to conduct a review. Where local people petition for a review in their area, and no such review is under way, or has been conducted or completed in the previous two years, the principal council is under a duty to conduct a review for the petition area. In debate, general concerns were raised about the fact that in those circumstances, a principal council could choose to ignore the recommendation of a community governance review; it could simply not give effect to the recommendation. Of course, if we are to devolve those functions and the power to make those decisions to local authorities, they must be free to decide not to adopt the review’s recommendations, just as a Secretary of State is.

We noted those concerns and amended clause 98 so that a local authority is under a duty to give reasons for the decisions that it takes. The amendment strengthens the Bill, and helps to ensure that the conduct of the review and the decisions that are taken as a result of it are open and transparent. The remaining amendments tidy up or clarify the provisions in part 4. Taken together with the amendment that I have just outlined, they strengthen the purpose and provisions of the Bill, and I commend them to the House.

Alistair Burt: Before I comment on the group generally, I should like to throw out one or two questions, just to give the Minister the maximum time in which to consider them. First, where there is a group of parishes, and one parish wishes to retain the title of parish council, but the others in the group want a change, what determines the naming? Is it simply the will of the majority of the group? If one parish really wants to retain the title of parish council, does it have a veto? I would be interested to know the answer. Secondly, in the other place, on 5 July, at column 1183, volume 693 of the Official Report, my noble Friend Lord Hanningfield asked whether the Secretary of State could get involved in the issue of the number of people who sit on a parish council. I am not sure, technically, whether that should be dealt with under the group of amendments that we are considering, but I do not know the answer to the question, and I am interested to hear whether there was an answer.

In general, the group of amendments responds to the concerns raised about parish councils. It is clear that
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Members in both Houses feel a great deal of affection for such councils. Those of us who have parish councils in our constituencies know how much we depend on them to provide a tremendous amount of local information, and to do a lot of the routine work that we want done in a community. We are obliged to our hard-working parish council clerks, who do so much to ensure that rural areas run so effectively. We welcome the fact that the changes were made in response to some of the concerns that were raised. There is still some concern about how a system of appointed councillors will work, and about the distinctions between appointed and co-opted councillors.

It is now clear that parishes with 150 or fewer electors will not simply be abolished and fall by the wayside, which is good, but to return to a question asked earlier this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), there is concern about the future security of parish councils. They may be left only with legal redress if they face dissolution, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that it was not unknown for local scores to be settled through that process. I would like an assurance from the Minister that when he comes back to the Dispatch Box in a couple of years, there will not have been a culling of parish councils. I would like an assurance that he does not wish for that to happen, and that it is not the Government’s intention to have a series of tidying-ups, or to allow principal councils to go on that sort of spree. I do not think that that is the intention of the House, and it is certainly not the intention of the other place. Having expressed those concerns, I should add that in general the amendments that we are considering are a response to concerns, and the Opposition are content with them.

Andrew Stunell: We, too, welcome many of the amendments. In particular, it is right that principal councils should be required to give an account of any decision to reject a local governance proposal. The Minister is right to have resisted the siren voices that would have imposed on them a duty to accept those. I congratulate him, for once, on striking the right balance.

I am a strong supporter of parish councils, although I have only one in my constituency, a newly created urban parish which, I am happy to report, has its charter mark and is doing a great deal of good, but is entirely untypical of parish councils as Members would expect to find them. The council, like me, is astonished by other proposals in this group, including that providing for not only co-opted councillors, but appointed councillors. It is a matter of regret to me that we do not have the opportunity to debate that fully. I give notice to the Minister that we believe directly appointed councillors to be a profoundly unsatisfactory addition to the local government menagerie. We await the orders limiting their powers and responsibilities. That addition is a fundamental flaw in otherwise sensible and helpful provisions.

Mr. Syms: I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). Parish councils generally work well. My experience when I was a rural county councillor was that they did a good job, although one or two were on the small side. I suspect
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that a principal council will, on the whole, proceed in a cautious way because there are strong loyalties to local parish councils in the villages that they represent.

I reiterate my slight concern that occasionally, particularly over matters to do with planning, when parishes are asked their view, local concerns are expressed and there might be a temptation to wind up organisations that cause a principal council grief. For most parish councils the legal route is not a realistic possibility. Generally, though, I think the arrangements will be fine. My experience shows that in areas where there is a growing town and new estates being built on the edge which tend to be built as rural parishes, the question arises at what point that becomes part of a town. I suspect that most petitions and opposition to most petitions will centre on those arrangements.

A town with which I was associated was Chippenham, which has grown on the M4. Large parts of the town were officially a rural area. Periodically, the boundaries were extended to take those houses in, but there is always the issue that the parish precept is rather higher in a town council than in a parish council. There will be competing concerns, but broadly the measure is right.

It is also right that if there is a petition to a principal council, reasons should be given why it should not undertake a review. That is a sensible way of proceeding. On that, the Minister has got it right.

John Healey: With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) for believing that for once, as he says, I got the balance right. I thank him for that.

I have been a long-standing and strong supporter of town and parish councils, but I cannot give the guarantees that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was urging on me. Decisions in future will be a matter for the principal authorities, not for Ministers. It is they, not Ministers, who will determine the number of parish councils in the future.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about names, all parishes within a particular group need to have the same style or the same name. It will be the grouped parish council which covers all the parishes that will make that decision in circumstances where there may be differences of opinion. I hope that those responses are helpful to Members on the points that they raised.

Mr. Beith: I am grateful to the Minister; I am sorry, but I was detained outside the Chamber for a moment. I just want to say that decisions about the creation of parish councils in unparished places are becoming urgent because of reorganisation—the fact that boroughs will be replaced by town councils. In that context, I hope that the Minister will manage to get off his desk the application for there to be a Berwick town council; it has been with the Department for some time. One of his predecessors had hoped to sign it off before leaving office, but that has not yet happened.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 108 to 138 agreed to.

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Clause 117

Orders under Part 1 of Local Government Act 2000: Wales

Lords amendment: No. 139.

5 pm

John Healey: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 140 to 142, 148 to 158, 165 to 174, 202 to 205, 207 to 209, 213, 230 to 237 and 247 to 251.

John Healey: This group brings together a number of relatively minor and consequential amendments from across the Bill. I commend them to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 140 to 142 agreed to.

Clause 123

Powers to require information from partner authorities

Lords amendment: No. 143.

John Healey: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 144 to 147, 214 and 246.

John Healey: The amendments relate to what is commonly called a community call for action and to a significant change that we have introduced to amendments from the other place. The changes affect section 19 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 and the new provisions on local government matters in the Bill are left just as they were when the Bill left this House.

The changes that the amendments make to the 2006 Act respond to the argument put consistently in Committee in this House and at various stages in the other House. Clause 121 is a straightforward measure that enables an elected councillor to bring a local government matter of local concern to a committee of colleagues so that they can discuss it and see whether a way forward can be suggested. Like clause 121, section 19 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 empowers the councillor to refer such a matter to an overview and scrutiny committee—in this case, a crime and disorder committee, which is also a provision of section 19 of that Act.

There are continuing concerns: first, about the onerous statutory duty that section 19 places on councillors to consider local crime and disorder matters put to them by local individuals and to respond in every case; and secondly, about the confusion that might be caused by having two models covering scrutiny of local matters. Having listened very carefully to the arguments, we have come to the conclusion that we should adjust the 2006 Act to accommodate the concerns that have been raised. We propose to take this step for two broad reasons: first, in recognition that the arguments that have been put to us have merit; and secondly, having set out a long-term view and vision in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” for
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taking further forward democratic and constitutional reforms. We will seek to take the empowerment of communities to influence local decision making to another stage as part of that work.

For the time being, in these amendments, we propose to clear the ground by focusing the so-called community call for action entirely on enabling elected councillors to act more effectively as advocates for their own communities. The main thrust of the amendments is to align the 2006 Act with the model set out on other local government matters in the Bill. It has been warmly and widely welcomed, certainly by the Local Government Association. While retaining the power given to a councillor to refer a local crime and disorder matter to the crime and disorder committee, we are dropping the duty placed on the councillor to respond individually, in every circumstance, to people who raise such matters with them. There is then no place for an appeal to the executive. Of course, everyone still expects councillors to be responsive—that is part of their duty, responsibility and job—but we are content at this stage not to make it a statutory duty to do so.

We have aligned the definitions, processes and procedures more closely. In doing so, we have made the revised procedure for crime and disorder matters available to county councillors, as well as to district councillors, in two-tier areas. We have also taken the opportunity to make it clear that local authorities, as well as the responsible authorities comprising the crime and disorder partnerships, are under a duty to consider, respond to, and have regard to crime and disorder committee reports.

I hope that the amendments will commend themselves to Members in all parts of the House.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): We very much welcome this change of stance by the Government. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he expressed it, and grateful to his noble colleague in another place for having listened and responded to the arguments.

As he knows, this argument has been raised by Conservative Members, among others, and I am grateful for the cross-party approach to it. I welcome it personally, having raised the issue myself in Committee. It shines very strongly in the light of my experience as a member of a police authority and the discussions that I have had with many colleagues in local government. It will be particularly welcomed in county areas. Having spoken to people who represent county divisions, I know that crime is as much a part of their caseload as it is for those of us who represent borough areas. Concern was expressed not only by people in local government, but by my own borough police commander, about the difficulty that the ordinary active and concerned citizen who wanted to be helpful would have if they had to try to deal with two separate systems when raising matters relating to crime. It is a sensible rationalisation.

I also welcome the Minister’s acceptance of the importance of strengthening the role of the local councillor, as well as that of the council as a corporate body. That was shadowed in London by the report of the cross-party commission on London governance that was referred to in the Committee proceedings, which reflected a view widely held throughout the
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country. If we are to make it worth while for people to take part and seek election to local office, the ability to deal with crime and related issues, often one of the largest items in any local councillor’s postbag—just as it is for Members of Parliament—is absolutely key. The fact that all councillors will be able to do that is a considerable advance and it will assist in the good practice that is already developing in a number of authorities. I have seen that process in my local authority, and the Minister and his colleagues will have seen it elsewhere.

We are now moving to a much closer degree of working in collaboration, involving the police and the rest of local services. As the Minister knows, the Metropolitan police has significantly devolved power and decision making to its borough command units, and that development is measured elsewhere in the country. Allowing the community call for action to be done through one system will enable a considerable democratic input into the development of the local area agreements and the partnerships, which we all accept as an appropriate way forward.

Against that background, I welcome the Government’s change of stance. We shall not gloat too much because we accept that it is born from a considered attention to the evidence. We are glad that the evidence has persuaded Ministers of the stance we originally took in this case.

Andrew Stunell: I am pleased that the Minister has returned with proposals via the other place that reflect the concerns expressed earlier in Committee. It seemed extraordinary that there were to be two completely different processes, not just separate, but different when in operation. It is very much to the credit of the Government that they have managed to get things together at this stage, so that we have an integrated process. I do not understand how we could have had two separate community initiatives when residents are baffled enough by how service delivery takes place. Too often, they are told, “No, that’s the health authority, not us”, or “That’s the bus company, not us”, and to have a further subdivision would have been very unhelpful. If a swing is broken in the playground, is that a matter for the parks, or a crime and disorder issue? Do people have to follow two different processes to get each authority to respond properly? I hope that we have achieved a process that is integrated and joined-up and which will produce a satisfactory response for residents in a short time.

I do not entirely echo the positive note made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about the way in which policing is devolved and integrated. His experience in the Metropolitan police authority may be superior to what some of us face out in the sticks. In my area, where there has been a reduction in policing levels in the past year, we are not quite so ebullient about progress. Nevertheless, if we have limited policing resources, they should be used efficiently and effectively, and the proposals certainly move in the right direction. We welcome the amendment, and we hope that it will produce the benefits that the Government expect.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 144 to 147 agreed to.

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Clause 184

Conduct that may be covered by code

Lords amendment: No. 159.

John Healey: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 160 to 164.

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