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House of Lords

Thursday, 13th June 2002.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Parish Councils: Code of Conduct

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What effects the introduction of the model code of conduct is having on parish councils.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the whole of our modernisation agenda is focused on improving the vitality and effectiveness of local government at every level. That includes the introduction of a new ethical framework, which will help to strengthen confidence in local government conduct. The parish code, which has been welcomed by the National Association of Local Councils, has now been adopted by thousands of parish councils up and down the country, thereby strengthening local government at the grass-roots level.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. However, he will be aware that many councillors have resigned as a result of the code. What will happen to an elected parish council member who has not yet finished his period of office and who refuses to sign the register of interests or to resign? How, and under what law, will he or she be removed?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, because they do not have to report to central government, I do not know how many parish councillors have resigned. Indeed, not even the new standards body would necessarily have the figures. However, by 10th June more than 4,000 parish councils—that is, about half the total—had informed the Standards Board that they had adopted the code.

Having read the code, I do not see any justification whatever for anyone to feel that they must resign because of the code. I do not have a great deal of experience in this matter, but the code does not differ greatly from those relating to other parts of local government. It affects people only in their official capacity. The nonsense that I heard in this House earlier in the year about people having to resign because of gifts from their families was absolute rubbish. The code makes it explicitly clear that people have to register only in their official capacity.

Councillors' families and spouses are affected only if they benefit to a greater extent than other council tax payers. I cannot see what is wrong with that. There is no justification for the concerns raised about the code.

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I understand that if councillors do not register within two months after 5th May, they cease to become parish councillors. That is the effect of the code.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, whatever his view of the code, will the Minister at least recognise that it has been appallingly received in the country and, at the very least, that it has been a lousy presentation exercise? I declare my interest as the chairman of a very small parish council of seven members. All of them, except for me, wanted to resign. I have lost one of the best of the seven councillors. Even the gift of a dozen of my wife's bantam eggs did not keep him. Will the Minister at least take steps to ascertain how many people have resigned and report that figure to the House?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall certainly make it my business to obtain the figure if it is possible to do so. However, let me make it clear that the 70,000 parish councillors in this country—that is, seven times the number of local government councillors—are the bedrock of our democracy. Nothing in the code in any way undermines their ability to operate in an official capacity. The concerns raised are totally unjustified. Perhaps the councillors in question misunderstood the code or received bad advice. I invite noble Lords to obtain a copy of the code from the Printed Paper Office; it is Statutory Instrument 3576. They will see that it is absolutely clear that there is no justification for the concerns. We would not seek to place an onerous burden on parish councillors or force them to resign in the way that is claimed. I do not believe that what has been said is in any way justified. However, I shall make it my business to try to obtain the figures.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, does the Minister agree that parish councillors should understand the code? Does he further agree that we should take seriously the matter of presentation and help to put across the message? I understand that the issue of declarations of interest and so on are aimed at achieving good, open, transparent and accountable government. Can the Minister assure the House that the intention of the code is not to punish or in any way constrain parish councillors but to achieve that end?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. Of course, the code is not new. It is mandatory. This is not a question of inventing the wheel; the code puts parish councillors on all fours with other parts of local government. As I said, numerically they comprise the biggest part of local government. In terms of local authorities, their number is far in excess of that of local government councillors. There may be a presentational point to put across, but this is a small code. It is explicit that the code affects councillors only in their official capacity. That is quite right.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, the noble Lord did not answer my noble friend's question. What will happen to a councillor who refuses to sign the code and refuses to resign?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is not a question of that. I cannot quote the exact chapter and verse of the legislation, but I shall make it my business to check that point. Authorities had until 5th May this year to adopt their own codes of conduct, consistent with the national models. Within two months of the adoption of a code of conduct by an authority, its members must make a written declaration to observe it. Failure to do so will mean that they cease to be councillors. That must be implied in the main legislation.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, will the Minister be kind enough to accept from me that this model code is new? It came about very recently, and its mandatory nature is new. I want to ask the Minister to pursue the matter of parish councillors. Does he consider that one reason that parish councillors are so upset is the fact that the new Standards Board to which parish councils will be responsible is the Standards Board of England; it is not a Standards Board of their local authority? Does the Minister consider that that is a sledgehammer trying to crack a nut, even if there are 70,000 nuts?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the answer is no, but I am new to this, and I shall check. I do not have any evidence, and have not seen any in the past 16 days, which leads me to believe that we are flooded—Eland House was flooded out this morning—with letters and representations from parish councillors about the onerous responsibility of reporting to the Standards Board. I shall check on that, but I have not seen evidence to that effect.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the questions from the Benches opposite bear a remarkable similarity to the debates on declarations of interest in your Lordships' House? What do all these parish councillors have to hide?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not think that parish councillors have anything to hide. A spurious argument has been put forward about aspects of the code. I repeat—because of what has been written and said and said in this House as well—that the code affects parish councillors only in relation to their official capacity; not their private capacity, their friendship capacity or their capacity as neighbours. It affects only their official capacity as elected parish councillors. Frankly, if parish councillors cannot tell the difference between the two, they have a problem being parish councillors.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am not a parish councillor but a local councillor. Is not the Minister aware that, although the code does not affect one's private life, the declaration of those interests is in the public arena?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are an open, transparent democracy, and that is the way it should be.

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Rural Communities: Housing and Services

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they will be taking following the publication of the Countryside Agency's State of the Countryside Report 2002.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the report of the Countryside Agency is an important compilation of data on the current state of the countryside. The report records an improvement over the past year in the availability of some services, but there are also some less encouraging trends, which our policies now need to address.

The new department, DEFRA, is actively pursuing the rural policy agenda set out in the rural White Paper to develop stronger rural communities, stronger rural economies and a better environment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Does he agree with the chairman of the Countryside Agency in his introduction to the report that parts of the report make pretty grim reading? Does he also accept that the part which makes the grimmest reading concerns the provision of social affordable housing? That is very much a government responsibility. The Government should have taken a lead years ago and failed to do so. How does the Minister expect there ever to be a thriving rural economy if, more and more, the countryside is becoming the preserve of the rich and the retired?

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