Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

(1) The Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/3576) shall cease to have effect.
(2) This section shall come into effect on the day on which this Act is passed."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we now return to an amendment that we first debated on Report. We do so because, as that debate showed, at stake are some interesting issues which we believe require further consideration. I should hope that we would all agree that parish councillors do an enormous amount of good work for their communities, often for little recognition or reward. They do this because they are public-minded citizens with a real sense of community who wish to make a positive impact on their localities. The bottom line is that we need more people like that. We want to encourage people to become parish councillors and not frighten them off.

As it currently stands, the parish councils' code of conduct requires all parish councillors to register interests, including their property, their employment and their business interests. It also requires them to register the interests of their spouses and relatives. Registering an interest is different from declaring an interest. It involves making a written and public statement of interest up front and in advance regardless of the likelihood of those interests ever having any bearing on any issues ever discussed or likely to be discussed within a parish council.

Parish councillors are not parliamentarians dealing with major issues of state; they are for the most part responsible for important but very strictly local issues. A comprehensive register of interests is ridiculous over-regulation. That is why we object to it. Perhaps the Minister will tell us that parish councils are seething hotbeds of corruption and fraud doing major damage to the economy and infrastructure of this nation. On Report, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, quoted some examples of misconduct. No one would minimise the seriousness of any form of misconduct in public life, and I unreservedly support him in condemning those activities. However, if I remember the figures correctly, after investigation, 83 councillors were subjected to a period of disqualification. That means that, in a 12-month period, of approximately 20,000 parish councillors, less than half of one per cent were found guilty of any, and sometimes minor, misconduct. I may have the numbers slightly wrong, but I think that the point is clear. That is the scale of magnitude of wrong-doing with which we are dealing.

No one disputes at all the need for probity in public life. The question is whether noble Lords believe in the concept of balance. Should we regulate to eliminate the possibility of any risk under any circumstances and in every situation? Or should we try to make regulation proportionate to the risks involved? I favour the latter option, first, because there are costs involved in regulation, and those costs must be balanced against the level of risk against which they seek to offer protection. Secondly, all regulation potentially has the capacity to damage the institution or body regulated. In the case of parish councils, that is an outcome that we should all deplore.

10 Sept 2003 : Column 360

In May 2002, the University of Aberystwyth published an ESRC report on community governance in England and Wales. That report found that nearly 40 per cent of parish councils did not have enough councillors to fill their seats and that the situation had been in decline for more than a decade. However, the report concluded:

    "It has been suggested to us that one factor behind the lack of candidates is that being a parish councillor is seen as an onerous task with little reward, and the introduction of the new code of conduct may prove a further disincentive".

For the most part parish councillors are giving up their time for free to address very local issues. They do so because they are committed to the community ethic. We need to encourage more people to take that view. What the Government have done through the introduction of this code has had the opposite effect. It has made a bad situation worse and threatens to undermine one of the oldest institutions of government in this country. I hope that the Minister will consider this amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, we made our position very clear at other stages of the Bill. We on these Benches believe that if one puts oneself forward in any way for public office, one opens oneself to public scrutiny. I have listened to the arguments time and again, such as the fact that it may be a small council and councillors are not paid. With respect, I do not think that that is relevant. The important thing is that one is speaking and making decisions on behalf of others. All we are asking is that people use their common sense and declare where they are coming from and what possible interests they might have in the matter they are discussing.

Earlier this week, this House again addressed the issue of what one should declare as an interest. I think that a certain amount of common sense comes into this. I have briefly reread the requirements. A lot of fuss has been made about this, but I am clear that if someone wants to make decisions in public service on behalf of others, then the public have the right to know exactly where that person is coming from and what their interests are. If people are not prepared to do that, then it seems to me that they are not really very community-minded.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, having served in the past on a parish council, for about 20 years, in one small Somerset village, I strongly support the amendment. In moving it, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, drew the key distinction between registration and declaration of interests. I hope that the Government listen to all his other arguments.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, essentially the new clause seeks to remove parish councils from the ethical framework of behaviour that was established in the Local Government Act 2000. I am astonished that at Third Reading the matter is on the Order Paper. It seeks to remove parish councils from the model codes of conduct that followed that legislation by simply revoking the code that currently applies. I agree that

10 Sept 2003 : Column 361

separate codes have been established for local authorities, police authorities, national park authorities, the Broads authorities and the parishes. They cover everybody. Why should there be an exemption for one group of people who have put themselves forward to serve on those bodies? That could not possibly be justified. We would almost be saying that any level of behaviour goes for that sector. That would be unacceptable to the public. It should be unacceptable to Parliament. Also, the public would not have a test by which to judge the behaviour of people whom they elect.

I accept that there are difficulties. Earlier this year I was hoping to vote for the first time in a town council myself, but there were only 10 candidates for 13 places, so there was no possibility of voting. I am not aware—I have not inquired—and I have seen no evidence that it was this code that was the cause of that. The public have the right to expect that all the people who are taking decisions on their behalf that may affect their daily lives observe the highest standards of conduct. I cannot see the problem about operating the code. All parish councils are statutory consultees on planning issues. Some parishes have budgets of tens of thousands of pounds. I appreciate that the variation in parishes and the size of their budgets is enormous. However, some are very large, but why should the small ones be exempt? They are making the same kind of decisions—true, for a smaller area—but there is no good argument that they should be exempted.

It is astonishing that when that legislation was before Parliament and I was elsewhere in the Government—this was not the key matter that I was dealing with—the National Association of Local Councils, which represents the parish councils, pressed for their inclusion within the new ethical regime. I have not read the debates so I do not know whether that was opposed in this place, but the idea that the parishes should be pulled out now, just as the code is starting to operate, is nonsense. Much of the new code is similar to the previous code that was put in place in 1990. I have not personally checked that, but that is my information.

The main difference is that the new code requires registration of interests and the standards board provides an effective means to enforce it. In some ways the introduction of the standards board should probably have solved all of the problems for people in public life. When allegations are made against them for all kinds of spurious reasons, the standards board is there as a back-stop to make sure that we have a proper independent judgment over the operation of the codes. I understand that half of the allegations so far sent to the standards board relate to parish councillors. I cast no aspersions about parish councillors on that matter—there are an enormous number of them compared to county councillors and district councillors. I do not know the precise figures.

10 Sept 2003 : Column 362

The effect of the amendment would repeal the current order. It does not repeal the power of the Secretary of State to introduce an order. If the amendment were pushed—I sincerely hope it is not—I hope that it will not be carried. If it were, I suspect the Secretary of State would introduce a new order the following day, because his powers to produce an order are not affected by the amendment. There might be an argument over the will of Parliament et cetera, saying that parishes should not be covered. The other place would smartly send the matter back here. It is true that there are people who do not like the idea of answering a few personal questions as a result of seeking public office. The balance has to be made by them. It is their personal judgment. That is why the overwhelming majority of people have accepted the code. I have no figures about the number of parish councillors who have been removed for refusing to sign—but it has to be a tiny percentage. It is the norm to sign up. To remove it for only one part of public life would send completely the wrong signals to the public. All of the other types of councils are covered, including the police authorities, the national park authorities and the Broads authorities. Why do we not have an amendment to exempt some of those bodies? Why just the parish councillors? We have had no explanation for that.

It is true that there have been a few noises, but people should not become the mouthpieces for a few noises. We are dealing with legislation. The proposal would send the wrong impression to the public that there was an ethical code of behaviour that people in public life were expected to operate, but with certain groups exempted. That cannot be justified. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, one cannot justify that across the garden fence or in the local shop one could say "it does not matter with our councillors. We do not have to know where they are coming from, what their interests are, irrespective of the decisions that they might be taking". I repeat that they are statutory consultees on planning applications. That is in some ways one of the most sensitive areas that people can deal with.

I find it difficult to believe that the Conservative Opposition is serious in this matter, because it would send wholly the wrong signals to the public in exempting parish councils from the ethical codes of behaviour. I hope that it is not pushed to a vote, and if it is I hope that it will be voted down.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page