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House of Lords

Tuesday, 11th March 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Parish Councils

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What role they see for parish councils in the future.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the Government fully recognise the importance of parish councils as the tier of local government closest to local communities. We value their work in representing and serving those communities. The Government have created more than 100 new parishes since coming to power and are working with local councils to enhance the role that they can play through the quality parish and town council initiative.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, could I encourage the noble Lord to spread that admirable Answer among his colleagues? Does he agree that the only reward that parish councillors receive is the satisfaction of knowing that they are useful, which is not something that everyone has as a politician? Such people, being in short supply, should be encouraged and not beaten over the head.

It occurs to me that the Deputy Prime Minister, from whom this nonsense comes, might fancy himself as St George, with the dragon. The noble Lord would do the Deputy Prime Minister a service if he reminded him that St George was martyred in the 4th century, that he has been of diminishing importance in recent years and that the dragon that he slayed was probably as non-existent as corruption is on parish councils.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, we should remember that St George was beheaded after the trials of drinking from a poisoned chalice and being stretched on the wheel. That is not a fate—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, agrees—that should befall our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister.

I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, but on this matter he is quite wrong. It must be right that if one holds public office, even if it is unpaid, one must be accountable. All of the fuss relating to the position of the register of interests goes back to Nolan. This was not a government initiative; it was recommended in the third report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1997.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, could we come more up to date on this matter? Does the Minister recall that during the debate on 5th March on

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local government, I raised with some force the situation of people who are forced to reveal many details because of their position as parish councillors? Does he also recall that on that occasion I received no answer from the Minister but that he indicated that I might get one? Does the noble Lord have any knowledge that such an answer may shortly be coming my way?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I have no recollection of the question because I do not believe that I was the Minister at the Dispatch Box. However, I shall look into the matter and be in touch.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the criteria laid down by the Government to judge a quality parish council are process driven, dry and boring? They involve how many times a year a parish council meets or delivers a newsletter. Should they not involve outcomes that the community wants?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking that question. The whole quality parish and town council initiative is certainly not only process driven; it is a responsible attempt by government and parish councils to integrate parish councils into their local community and give them real and positive roles. On 18th March the National Association of Local Councils will run a quality parish council scheme seminar that will launch the whole process; we will then all be able to see what a valuable initiative this will be for parish councils.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, as a former member of the Nolan committee, I point out that it was our deepest wish at all times that any recommendations that we made were exercised with some common sense. Does the Minister recognise that part of the Government's problem is that they failed to recognise adequately that parish councils cover communities whose populations range from 30,000 to a couple of hundred? If they had the sense to apply some form of de minimis rule, they would have avoided many of the problems that they now have.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the fundamental issue is that if a person holds public office, whether even in a small or a large parish, he should be prepared to answer questions about his interests. If he is the local builder in a parish of 300, that important point should be placed on the register.

Lord Renton: My Lords, perhaps my noble friends will forgive me if I ask the Minister whether he will bear in mind that in planning matters parish councils have a closer and better knowledge of what will be needed in the future than any other body that might have a say. Therefore, will he do his best to ensure that, in any future planning legislation, parish councils are given a right of appeal?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful for that question and I agree with what the

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noble Lord said. I hope and anticipate that, as a result of the quality initiative that I mentioned earlier, planning will not become part of parish council activities but that there will be a greater degree of consultation than exists at present.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we are asking parish councils to maintain higher standards than those currently practised in the by-election for the vacancy which exists in the House of Lords? Is there not a case for demanding similar declarations of interest from candidates before they stand for such an election?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, amusing as that question may be, I believe that it goes far beyond the scope of the Question on the Order Paper.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords—

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we have not had an opportunity to hear from the Cross Benches. The Conservatives have asked three questions so far.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, did the noble Lord say that the present Government had created more parish councils or more parishes? If the latter, as they are connected with the Church, has consultation taken place and agreement been reached with the Church of England?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question but I shall write to the noble Lord.

Directors' Pay

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How effective present legislation is in restraining excessive increases in payments made to company chairmen and chief executives.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, directors' pay is largely a matter for companies and their shareholders. Last year, the Government brought in new legislation—the Directors' Remuneration Report Regulations 2002—which will improve transparency, shareholder accountability and linkage to performance for directors' pay. Those regulations apply to quoted companies with financial years ending on or after 31st December 2002. That means that shareholder votes at company annual general meetings on the new

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directors' remuneration reports will begin from April onwards. The Government will pay close attention to the operation and effect of the new regulations.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, judging from newspaper reports, present legislation and the regulations to which my noble friend referred do not appear to be very effective. Hardly a week goes by without our reading of big increases being awarded. Is my noble friend aware of the new disclosure rules on retirement benefits, including one of £10.1 million for a group chairman? Why do a Labour Government approve of such big increases for executives and approve of the difference between those and increases awarded to the general workforce?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, ultimately the payments made to directors must be the responsibility of the shareholders, whose money it is. As I said, the regulations came into effect only on 31st December 2002. Although I believe that they are probably having an effect already, we shall not see that effect until the commencement of the annual general meetings at which votes will take place on the remunerations as reported in the accounts. I believe that we should await the impact of those meetings.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive chairman of a small listed company. Would my noble friend care to give us a definition of the word "excessive", as used in the Question? Surely the proper Answer to the Question is that legislation could not conceivably be used to decide how best to obtain a fall in so-called "excessive" remuneration. How on earth could legislation achieve that?

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