Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The previous Secretary of State, Mr Miliband, has spoken of “double devolution”, while the White Paper referred to giving further choice, but I cannot see how introducing yet another layer of local government and organisation into London will benefit communities or generate healthier local opposition. A paper on the implications of introducing parish councils in London commissioned by the Association of London Government, before it became London Councils, expressed deep concern that the uptake of parish councils would be disparate and favour those communities which already possess a secure identity rather than aiding communities which could benefit from a more cohesive local identity. Local councils expressed further reservations that introducing parish councils in London could undermine service provision and put community cohesion at risk by being adopted in a patchwork manner. That paper explores whether parish councils could benefit London, highlighting some concerns among London boroughs about introducing these and potentially undermining the existing neighbourhood-based arrangements set up by many councils in the capital.

Broadly, the amendments would remove London councils from being considered as appropriate for parish councils. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: I was interested to note the noble Baroness’s choice of heading for the proposed new clause: “Exemption of London”. It exemplifies her view that parish councils would be some sort of evil imposition from which London should be spared. She will not be surprised to learn that we do not agree with her. My honourable friend in another place, the Member for Hazel Grove, in response to another speech, said:

Grit in oysters and all that, but irritants in the system are not necessarily a bad thing by any means. A number of borough councils in London have neighbourhood and area structures, and to allow for parishes would not be a vote of no confidence in those bodies. In fact, this is not anything more than a matter of choice.

11 July 2007 : Column 1454

I cannot count the number of times that my colleagues and I have campaigned on the “forgotten end” of the borough on the basis that the borough in which we were campaigning was a good deal bigger than its previous constituent parts. I should say that this was when we were in opposition. That struck a chord, and it is an important point. Let us keep the provision of choice, which is a theme of our debates. I do not seek exemption for London. The capital should have the benefit of a system which is available throughout the rest of the country.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I support my noble friend. I should point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that there may be areas where there are already quite highly developed systems of neighbourhood forums and so on, but they are not democratically accountable. It might be that in some areas the local people would prefer to have a direct say in who should be on these bodies, and having an elected parish council would help that. On this occasion, we are with the Government and would like to see this as an option in areas which wish to exercise it.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: It is a puzzle as to why the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, should move the amendment. She knows London far better than many of us and she must be aware that very often areas of London are quite distinct. The existing boroughs in London are the product of what were previously three separate councils—the one I know is Edmonton, Enfield and Southgate—and inside the boroughs there is a massive amount of opportunity, not need or desperation, to create and build upon local people having some say in matters.

Although I cannot detect a move towards it, I do not see why London should be excluded from the possibility of establishing parish councils. We have all got experience of quite distinct and powerful residents associations and local bodies, and if the council in Enfield or anywhere else wants to use the mechanisms available to create parishes, it should do so. We all know there are parishes within authorities but in a different form; the parish church and things of that kind. We know that communities very often stem from bygone days, but they are still there. People are proud of them and they want to maintain that local tradition. So I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, I am sorry, but we are all ganging up against you.

Lord Greaves: I am going to join the ganging-up. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, to pole position on this amendment. I hope she has an easier ride than some of her colleagues have had.

There is a wider issue here about the purpose and future of parish councils and whether or not the mechanism should apply to London. It is not only a London question but a big city one. Although under existing legislation it is possible to have parish councils in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and such places, I do not know of any big cities that have taken

11 July 2007 : Column 1455

to parish councils. Those metropolitan districts which have taken to them since they were able to hold parish reviews and create new parish councils tend to have created them in the smaller, free-standing towns around the cities.

This applies to smaller places, too. Burnley, for example, set up a parish council in Padiham which, despite the politics, has been a reasonable success. Bradford set up a parish council in Keighley, a town which suffered hugely from local government reorganisation in 1973-74. It had been a municipal borough, a free-standing place with a vibrant civic culture—a municipal culture, if you like—but it was deprived of this overnight and incorporated in Bradford. People were told they were now part of Bradford when everyone in Keighley knew perfectly well they were not. They have come to terms with being part of the metropolitan district, but that is different. Being deprived of its local municipal government was a disaster.

Two kinds of parish councils have developed over the years: one is the classic local village or rural parish council, what might be called the Ambridge parish council; and the other is the market town, the satellite town within a larger district, which might be called the Borchester Town Council example. The Borchester type has been extended to include bigger places. In my own town of Colne and Nelson, a parish review is pending—we hope the Government will agree to it— which would completely parish the borough. Twenty-five or 30 years, ago we would never have dreamt of having a parish council or a town council in Nelson; now it seems an obvious and logical thing to do.

The concept of parish government has been extending into bigger places but, if London is going to have parishes, why not Birmingham, why not Manchester, why not Newcastle-upon-Tyne or wherever? A great deal of hard thought needs to be given to this. In this sense, I am with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, who is expressing concern that parish councils in places such as London will be different kinds of bodies from the parishes outside. That applies to Manchester, Leeds and Bradford. If we are going to have them, let us work it out properly and give people some really good models to consider; we do not want to set up botched parish councils.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Before the noble Lord sits down, did he say “Colne and Nelson”? I thought it was always Nelson and Colne.

Lord Greaves: There are many answers to that. The rugby union football club has always been called Colne and Nelson and has led the way in that respect.

Baroness Crawley: I am delighted to enter the debate at this point in the Bill and to reply to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, although I am not able to agree with it. We have been discussing local government credentials today and I have some good news and some bad news: the good news is that I have been a town and a district councillor; the bad news is that that was more than 25 years ago, so I hope the Committee will bear with me. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.

11 July 2007 : Column 1456

London is the only part of the country that is not able to have parishes or parish councils. Unlike elsewhere in England, local authorities cannot create parishes and local electors in the capital cannot petition for a parish. We can see no compelling reason for this anomaly being allowed to continue. We believe it is only fair that Londoners should have the same rights as the rest of England, if they so choose—we are not being prescriptive about this—to be represented by a parish council. This is why the Labour Party included in its manifesto for the 2005 general election its commitment to address this anomaly.

As with the rest of the country, parish councils would only be established in London where there was support for the idea. I believe the general thrust of the remarks of both the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, was that where there was support and local people wanted such parishes to be set up, they could be established through this legislation. In London, there will also be the same possibility as elsewhere to choose a style for the parish, perhaps better to reflect the local urban area, a style such as a community council or a neighbourhood council.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to urban areas. Experience in other parts of the UK, including urban areas, have shown that local people can benefit from parish councils by giving them a stronger voice in shaping local services where they live and the power to make decisions on local priorities.

7.30 pm

In the debates in another place concerns were raised that extremists may use parish councils as a vehicle to further their cause. However, there is no evidence to suggest that that is more likely in London than in other areas of the Midlands or the north. Under the current legislation, the Government have created a number of parish councils in urban areas where local people can petition for them, such as New Frankley in Birmingham—an area I know well—and Blakelaw and North Fenham in Newcastle-upon- Tyne—

Lord Graham of Edmonton: I know it well.

Baroness Crawley: Yes. There is a commonality in the issues that face people who live in urban areas across the country. The existence of these urban parishes disproves the notion that parish councils can represent only communities in rural areas.

We are clear that councils should be able to refuse to create a parish where they believe it would damage community relations or community cohesion, which I believe was a concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. Parish councils should not become destabilising influences in local communities in any part of the country. We intend to ensure that by the requirement in the Bill that councils must have regard to the identities and interests of the communities in their area and by issuing statutory guidance to councils which will include the need for them to have regard to community cohesion when making any decision about creating a parish.

11 July 2007 : Column 1457

In the White Paper, the Government made it clear that Londoners are denied the option to form parishes, unlike elsewhere in the country, and we intend, as I said, to address that anomaly. The Association of London Government, the previous title of London Councils, took part in the technical working group that we established in 2006 which ran for over a year and looked at the existing legislation. We have already started discussions with key stakeholders, including London Councils, about the development of guidance on the creation of parishes.

We heard from the noble Baroness that London already has a level of community governance and does not need parish councils. Again, London is not peculiar in this respect; area committees, area forums and community councils exist across the country alongside, and in place of, parish councils. It will be for the London boroughs themselves to decide what is appropriate. Why should they not have that option, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, asked? We support the establishment of area committees and other alternative forms of community representation. That is why another factor that councillors conducting community governance reviews must consider is the arrangements that are in place for the purposes of community representation or community engagement in the area under review. We have included that in the Bill in Clause 68(5). The review must look at alternative arrangements that are already there. If they are appropriate and effective, why change them?

Alternative forms of community governance already exist in some parts of London and work well. It is therefore not our intention to force parishes upon the people of London. If there is genuinely no desire for them from local authorities or local people, they will not be created. However, we wish to ensure that when devolving this power to local authorities we do not exclude boroughs in London. Once again we have returned to the issue of devolution. It is for local authorities and local people to decide if they want to establish parishes in their city. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hanham: There is not a great deal of support around the Committee for the amendment and I get the feeling that I am not on to a winner with this one today. But there are rational reasons why London should be exempt from these provisions: London has quite a substantial amount of government one way and another; the boroughs are largely not very big; and there are obviously lots of reflections within those boroughs of community governance, to which the Minister referred. We have had quite a long debate on this today and, as I say, I do not think that I will win. I have made the point: I do not think that it is appropriate for London. But in the absence of any support, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Andrews: I beg to move that the House do now resume and, in so doing, that the Committee does not start again before 8.35 pm.

11 July 2007 : Column 1458

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Afghanistan: Provincial Reconstruction Teams

7.35 pm

Baroness D'Souza asked Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made by provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am delighted that this debate is taking place and even more delighted that it will be the occasion for the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown.

Provincial reconstruction teams were set up in the aftermath of the US-led liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban in 2001.The idea was to bring stability and reconstruction to Afghanistan and the PRTs seemed an ideal model in the context of post civil-war Afghanistan. The first PRTs were operational by early 2003, each one consisting of about 60 to 100 soldiers plus, over time, Afghan advisers and representatives from various development agencies. The mix was a good one as was the intention of dealing with counterterrorism, security assistance, peace operations as well as training civil administrators and promoting the rule of law and economic development.

PRTs were a good thing in principle but sadly part of an overall flawed strategy for Afghanistan at that time. It was mistakenly believed that having liberated Afghanistan, peace building and reconstruction would be a relatively simple matter. And there was, too, a degree of naivety about the incentives for local warlords to abandon their power bases and adopt government rule. Afghanistan, as many noble Lords will know, is not a unified country, which is something of an understatement. Its topography and political history have combined to make it a decentralised nation with factions between ethnic and language groups, divisions between rural and more urbanised areas, and physical separations due to mountain ranges and the paucity of transport communications. In the post-Taliban world, the international community's aim has been to democratise, unify and develop the nation.

In some sense the PRTs were a mechanism to achieve security cheaply, but there were too few of them and too little oversight and co-ordination. It was perhaps significant that the PRTs were dreamt up at the same time as frantic preparations were taking place for the war in Iraq.

It has to be acknowledged from long experience that the rule of law and good governance are always but always the key factors in bringing about stability. As one colleague has pointed out, personal violence affects an individual far more than does a broken bridge. The PRTs were simply not geared to undertake this fundamental task and the lawlessness that prevailed needed and still needs a strong and widespread military presence.

11 July 2007 : Column 1459

Despite these structural flaws several PRTs from many nations began work and three basic objectives began to emerge: enhancing security, strengthening the reach of the Government in Kabul and facilitating reconstruction. In following these objectives confusion inevitably arose between the military and civilian components of the PRTs and their work and they were frequently criticised by NGOs; the latter believing that the PRTs had introduced unsustainable projects that lacked community input and the crucial ingredient of capacity building.

The savage toll that fighting is taking in the south of the country should not obscure the real advances that have occurred in other parts, particularly in the north, due in part to some of the PRT inputs. However, there are questions which should be asked about any continuous military presence outside the battle arena including: what is the mandate or changing mandate of the PRTs; how do they implement their mandate; how well do they do it; and, above all, are they meeting local needs and making a difference? Measuring impact, as we all know, is not an easy task but progress requires knowing what works and why.

Current conditions for most people in Afghanistan are of the greatest concern—poverty is deep and widespread, insecurity is growing, the level of violence in the country is at its highest since 2001 and progress on reconstruction is slow and fragile. Above all, most commentators now remark on the lack of public confidence in the central government and the belief that it can guarantee people’s safety. Lawlessness prevails in far too many provinces, and corruption and intimidation are rampant.

People witness the large foreign military presence, the billions of dollars of aid pouring in—it was recently estimated that between 2005 and 2007, the US provided almost $10 billion of aid—and at the same time people experience insecurity, continuing poverty, especially in rural areas, and the lack of progress in building both physical infrastructure and the institutions of democracy.

Lack of capacity is still seen as one of the biggest constraints and it is one of the peculiarities of aid that those regions that have achieved a degree of stability and have few narcotics receive less development assistance. Despite all that, Afghanistan is increasingly seen by the outside world as a security rather than a development challenge.

Priority needs in the next few years have been drawn up and largely agreed by a consortium of some 25 development agencies which have been working in Afghanistan for some decades. They can be summarised as follows: the provision of basic services in areas beyond the reach of the central government; building the capacity of local and central government to provide such services in the long term; holding the Afghan Government and donor agencies to account on the reconstruction process; and promoting human rights and democratic governance.

Traditionally, these activities are carried out by NGOs working with local civil society organisations. The NGO community believes very firmly that there should be a clear separation between military and

11 July 2007 : Column 1460

civilian activities and that to continue with present arrangements will compromise the space for effective civilian-led reconstruction. More specific criticisms concern the potential security risks to the local populations of any confusion between military and civilian operations, such as the military taking it upon themselves to dress in civilian clothes and use NGO resources including vehicles, office equipment and premises without permission. Equally, the NGOs wish to be clearly distinguished from the PRTs, which may bomb a village one day then ask to build a school in the same village the next day.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page