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Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. The idea of disenfranchising hereditary Peers has been on the table for some time. I am on record as welcoming the leader of my party offering to give me back my rights to vote and stand for Parliament. I hope that that right might also be extended to our colleagues who are life Peers.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, seems to have forgotten that he had that right and could have divested himself of his peerage when he first inherited it if he wished. He evidently decided not to do so and preferred to be a Member of the House of Lords rather than chance his arm, and probably lose it, trying to become a Member of the House of Commons. However, let us leave that subject because it is a slight diversion.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: It certainly is.

Earl Ferrers: The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, cannot complain if his party leader makes provocative remarks and then someone objects to them.

The Government are in favour of parishes. I can assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester that the Government do not, as he put it, intend to stonewall on the creation of new parishes. I do not know where he got that idea, but I can assure him that it is an incorrect assessment. We have not stonewalled and do not intend to.

It is curious that Worcestershire is so well represented today by the right reverend Prelate and my noble friends Lord Sandys and Lady Macleod. I wonder what goes on in Worcestershire that does not happen elsewhere. We welcome the broad intention of my noble friend's Bill to give local people a louder voice in calling for a new parish to be established. That is something which is missing in existing legislation.

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The Local Government Act 1992 removed the provisions which were in the 1972 Act permitting districts to instigate parish reviews. Instead, the 1992 Act gave the Local Government Commission the duty of carrying out reviews when it was directed to do so by the Secretary of State. That system has not worked well.

Lord Mottistone: Hurray! It is splendid to hear my noble friend stating, as a Minister, that the system has not worked well. It has worked terribly badly.

Earl Ferrers: To have such support from behind me is enormously gratifying. I wish that my noble friend had said "Hurray" when I made my observations about the future composition of the House of Lords. He preferred to keep quiet. However, I have at least one supporter; that is good.

To reintroduce the old 1972 provisions would not be satisfactory. They did not make adequate provision for those cases where districts failed to instigate reviews. I am bound to tell my noble friend Lord Sandys that we find a fundamental difficulty in the way the Bill is drafted. It affects both parts of the new schedule which the Bill would insert into the Local Government Act 1972.

We have no blueprint for the composition and size of parishes. There is no reason why they should not develop differently in different areas, if that is what people want. It is, though, the Government's view that parishes should not be so large that they dominate the district in which they are located. That is a recipe for confusion and a likely cause of dispute. It particularly applies to charter trustee towns, of which my noble friend, as High Steward of Kidderminster, has direct and deep experience. Several of the charter trustee towns are more than half the size of their respective districts.

Fixed and immovable procedures are also undesirable. They can be misused. It is possible to imagine circumstances in which the creation of a parish is not desired for its own sake but simply because the possible creation of such a parish can be a useful ploy in a wider dispute.

The process of obtaining signatures for a petition is not always beyond criticism. A petition can, of course, be the result of a careful explanation of the proposal to each individual and it can be the result of detailed consideration. But we can all think of cases in which the opposite would be true. I am also apprehensive, in a general way, about what might be called "a war of petitions" whereby one petition can be given to the commission saying: "We want this." Another petition can be presented to the commission saying, "We don't want that" and the commission would then have to act as an undignified referee. That is not the most enlightened way of considering changes to local government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested that Her Majesty's Government might have views on the way in which the feelings of potential parishes were conveyed. She hit the nail on the head. We have several views on it. We need to construct a better process which, as the noble Baroness said, will create a role for the

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districts not to obstruct but to assist. As she rightly said, consultation must be inclusive not exclusive. There must be a process which will allow the Secretary of State to have his own discretion in decisions, seeking advice from the Local Government Commission if he wishes to do so.

The Secretary of State would, of course, be obliged to use this discretion reasonably. I think that he has already demonstrated that that can be done under the existing procedures for creating parishes. For example, he has accepted the case for creating a number of sizeable parishes in former charter trustee areas which were created following the 1974 reorganisation.

In order to assist potential petitioners, we propose to revise the guidance on the size of new parishes which is contained in a circular drawn up in 1977. In particular, we are considering whether we should give more weight to the relationship between a potential parish area and the district in which it exists, rather than simply setting an absolute upper limit on what should be the size of parishes.

I hope that my noble friend will be good enough to take these comments in the spirit in which they are made. I believe that it would be good to allow for popular opinion to initiate a process leading to a new parish council, but the method of initiation proposed in the Bill is inadequate. I hope that my noble friend will consider the suggestions which I have made and will be able to reflect on the matter.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. His suggestions to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, are very positive and helpful. If the noble Lord wishes to seek the assistance of officials in his department, might such help be available to him?

Earl Ferrers: Yes, my Lords, I am entirely at my noble friend's disposal. We like the idea of the creation of parishes, but the Bill as presently drafted excludes the Secretary of State in a way that would be undesirable and would enable parishes to follow their own momentum. If my noble friend wishes to seek any help, I shall be more than happy to give it to him.

That said, I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, thought that I was being helpful. It took him the whole of my speech to realise that, but I was actually trying to be helpful. I hope that my noble friend will choose to consider those points for his Bill.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Sandys: My Lords, I greatly appreciate all the contributions to this debate. My noble friend Lord Mottistone put his finger on the heart of the matter; namely, that support must spring from the grass roots.

We are concerned with a disparity of representation. It should be emphasised to my noble friend the Minister that there are thought to be over 35.5 million subjects of Her Majesty who are not enfranchised at the local level. I am advised that that figure is correct. I am further advised that it covers the whole of England.

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I shall have to take advice in seeking a correct response to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as to whether only 30 parishes were created in recent years, and the status of London. The noble Baroness will know, as I do, that the Redcliffe-Maud report excluded London entirely. But the government of London has subsequently changed. Therefore there may well be an enabling procedure whereby parishes may be created in London. I do not know at the present time.

Turning to the difficulties that are presented and the very receptive manner in which my noble friend the Minister replied, it would be extraordinarily valuable if

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we could establish an opportunity to discuss the content of the Bill, recognising that there are limits to which the Government may seek to go at this present stage, but that they may be persuaded by argument and proposal at a later stage.

I thank all who participated in the debate. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

        House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past nine o'clock.

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