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Parish Councils

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, does the Minister think—

Noble Lords: Order!

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness did not even think that it was worth waiting for the Answer that I was going to give!

The Government have no intention of abolishing parish councils in England and community councils in Wales. As the tier of authority closest to local people, we regard those councils as essential to the structure of local government. Our proposals for those councils are intended to enhance their role and better equip them to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, does the Minister think that people will give their time as unpaid parish councillors when the Government's new rules force them to put on permanent public display for all to see every detail of their income, what shares they have, what property they own, who employs them, what union they belong to and full details of any gift over the value of £25 that they receive, even those from relatives? Is it right that in a free country they should be ordered to inform against their colleagues? Does he hope that with those fearsome rules in place, people will not volunteer to do that job and that parish councils will wither on the vine?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the account that the noble Baroness gave of the code of conduct on what is required to be registered bears no relation to what the regulations say. They require the parish councillor to register his job, who employs him and anyone who has made a contribution to his election expenses. If he has an interest in a corporate body in the parish, he has to give details about that; if he has a contract with the parish council, he has to give details about that; if he has land in the parish, he has to identify where it is; and he has to state whether he has any land on which he is a tenant or any premises for which he has a licence in the parish.

That is totally different from the situation to which the noble Baroness referred. We had a three-month consultation period on the draft code of conduct. The bodies representing parish councils—that is, the National Association of Local Councils and the Association of Larger Local Councils—were fully consulted and were supportive of the proposal. Some

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parish councils have budgets of around £1 million. If there is, for example, a contract between the parish councillor and the parish, it is right that that should be disclosed. This is not the intrusive document that the noble Baroness suggested; it is a sensible document that is in line with other councils.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I rejoice in the noble and learned Lord's statement that the Government will leave parish councils in their present position, but will he bear in mind the fact that county councils often seem to be very remote to people living in parishes and that their planning decisions are often offensive? Will he therefore change the Government's mind about giving parish councils the opportunity, if there have been objectors, of a right of appeal?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Lord takes every opportunity to raise the prospect of a right of appeal in planning. As I have always said, if one gives third parties rights of appeal, one would create a system that would become lawyer and precedent driven. On the two previous occasions on which the noble Lord has raised this matter, I referred him to the experience in Queensland, Australia, where a third party right of appeal was introduced but it had to be abolished because local authorities did not have freedom in relation to making decisions about planning authorities. The right course is to ensure that parish councils and town councils are involved at the earliest possible stage in relation to planning applications because their voice is very important in that process.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, do the Government have any plans to change the way in which parish polls operate? Does the Minister agree that that is a very good way of involving the local community in the political process? If there are any changes, they should enhance that process, not make it more difficult for people to take part in local democracy.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not aware of any proposed changes in relation to parish polls. Engaging the parish in every democratic process is incredibly important.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, I must declare an interest as the president of the Essex Association of Local Councils. What the Minister said sounds excellent but has he considered that the local farmer who owns land might also be chairman of the football club? Interests involving local farming and the football club would affect his attendance at a parish council meeting. What appears right from Whitehall does not appear right from a parish council.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords—

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, again, the other side is not waiting for the response.

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The requirements of disclosure, which are set out in the code of conduct, require the parish councillor in effect to disclose only what his or her job is and what his or her interests in the parish are. That seems to be sensible. If the parish councillor has farmland in the area or owns the local football club, it is right that that should be disclosed.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, not wishing to take over the Minister's job just yet, I apologise for trying to intervene earlier.

Concerns have been expressed about parish councils and county councils—the intention is to remove their involvement in the planning process; that is partly what my noble friend Lord Renton said. In view of that and the recent instructions that were, I understand, given by the Prime Minister that regional government, if it comes about, must involve the reduction of one tier—either county or district—would the Minister say that the Government are truly in support of democratically elected local government?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we are truly in support of democratically elected local government.

I should correct the answer that I gave about polls. As part of our initiative resulting from the rural White Paper to strengthen local democracy at parish level, we will review the operation of parish polls, including the threshold of the number of voters required to request a poll in large parish and town councils. Any change to the current requirements would require primary legislation. My officials will shortly begin the preparation of a paper. We will consult interested parties on how the parish poll provisions should be reformed. On the one hand, that will provide certainty and prevent abuse and, on the other hand, it will allow local people to have a real say on local issues that really matter. I apologise for my earlier answer.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, while I agree that my noble friend slightly overstated some aspects—I should declare an interest as the chairman of a parish council—is the noble and learned Lord aware that he understated almost as much as my noble friend overstated some of the provisions of the document, which I have studied extremely carefully? In many respects, it is "OTT". It is not well drafted, it is intimidating and provocative and it is not going to encourage people to give basic service at the grassroots of democracy. Will he at least have another look at it?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the summary that I gave came from paragraph 12 of the document. The noble Lord did not descend to any particular in which I had mis-stated what it said. I am therefore not able to deal with his question. All that I can do is to refer him to the representative bodies—namely, the National Association of Local Councils and the Association of Larger Local Councils—which were supportive of the proposal.

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2.39 p.m.

Lord Dearing asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether in their reported talks with the Dutch group TPG their interest lay in the sale of all or part of their shareholding in Consignia or in a partnership between the two concerns.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, Consignia's discussions with TPG were about exploring whether a merger of its postal activities with the Dutch group would be commercially beneficial to the company. It was not however possible to reach common ground. If the merger had gone ahead, it was likely to have involved an exchange of the share capital in Consignia plc by Consignia Holdings plc for shares in the merged entity.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is it part of the Government's policy for Britain to emerge with a British-led major enterprise in the competitive postal market that is now emerging in Europe? Does he agree that a natural candidate from Britain for that position is the Post Office, alias Consignia?

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