Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

In the early 1980s, many of us were angry at the mismanagement of aid, particularly in the context of disasters, resulting in frustration, wastage and harm to those we most wanted to help. The noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, perhaps uniquely among us, used his discontent constructively. He joined the enemy and worked ceaselessly to alter policy and action in the field of development assistance. Having worked with the UN during the boat people crisis in the late 1970s, he founded and edited the influential Economist Development Report. He then became the lead partner in an international communications consultancy, and in 1994 joined the World Bank as vice-president for external affairs, which included responsibility for relations with the UN.

The next decade was one of meteoric rise. The noble Lord was administrator for the UNDP, chair of the UN development group, with the mandate to co-ordinate all the UN agency development programmes—a task that I can only imagine was fraught with interagency difficulties—and one of the key architects of the millennium development goals adopted by the UN in December 2000. It goes on. In

11 July 2007 : Column 1475

2005 he was appointed Chef de Cabinet to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and a year later succeeded to the post of deputy Secretary-General, his term of office coming to an end when Kofi Annan completed his final term at the end of 2006.

I have to say that the noble Lord is still a young man. He brings with him remarkable experience from which we will all benefit. I thank him for his maiden speech and congratulate him warmly on his triple appointments as Minister, life Peer and privy counsellor, and I am certain that the House looks forward to working with him.

Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

8.38 pm

House again in Committee.

Clause 77 [Parishes: alternative styles]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 195:

The noble Lord said: We are now firmly into discussion on Part 4, about parishes. I beg your Lordships’ pardon; somebody re-sorted my papers while I was having dinner and caused a certain amount of disarray in the camp.

The amendment and Clause 77 are about the Government’s proposals for alternative styles for parish councils. The purpose of this probing amendment is to ask one or two questions. The proposed styles that the Government suggest parishes should be able to adopt should they wish are “community council”, “neighbourhood council” or “village council”, according to the nature of the community or communities they serve. This seems quite a good idea. The Minister is opening her mouth and gazing at me as though I have lost my marbles. I assure her that I have had nothing more exciting to consume in the past hour than I can get in the Home Room.

There is no reason whatever why councils should not be able to do this, but there are one or two potential problems. First, why does it take two and a half pages of primary legislation to introduce such a simple change? The Local Government Act 1972 gives councils a similar right to call themselves a town council instead of a parish council. That is done in a couple of paragraphs. This is a symptom of the disease of modern legislation, which I blame on computers, because you can just churn pages out whereas in the old days they actually had to be typed out again. But the insistence that the chairman of a new community-styled council should be “chairman of the community council” and so on is, particularly for parish councils, far too detailed and symptomatic of a modern bureaucratic disease.

The second question is more fundamental: the potential for confusion if there is a plethora of different names for parish councils. On one hand, the Government are saying that they want people to understand the system better. When we talk about electoral systems, they want a uniformity of the system so that people understand

11 July 2007 : Column 1476

it better; but if you have a range of names within the same area—one council calling itself a village council, another calling itself a community council and another calling itself a parish council, with a couple of town councils and two or three neighbourhood councils in the towns—there is a real chance that people will not understand that these are actually all parish councils. The Government ought to give serious thought to retaining the word “parish” in the title of these councils. The terms “parish” and “parish council” are understood. It would be far better if these other names were used in addition to the term “parish”, with such titles as “Trawden Forest Community Parish Council” or the “Foulridge Village Parish Council”. It would be slightly more cumbersome, but there is otherwise a real chance that such bodies will be confused with other organisations and that people simply will not understand that these are parish councils, and that a parish council is a parish council is a parish council and they all have the same powers whatever their name. I beg to move.

Baroness Crawley: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his amendment. He has also stated his intention to oppose Clause 77. First, if I explain what subsections (4) and (5) of new Section 17A of the Local Government Act 1972 do, that should clarify why the noble Lord’s amendment is not needed. He feels that we do not need to go to such lengths to explain the change to an alternative style. I shall explain: this is the technical bit.

Subsection (4) provides that where a reorganisation order contains provision for a parish to have an alternative style, that provision will no longer be effective if a resolution is later passed for the parish to have a different alternative style or to cease to have an alternative style. The effect of subsection (5) is that where a reorganisation order provides for a parish to have or to cease to have an alternative style, any prior resolution under new Section 12A will have effect subject to the provision made in the order. These subsections are technical provisions to clarify the circumstances in which a resolution concerned with alternative styles is to take precedence over an order which contains different provision about such matters and vice versa. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw Amendment No. 195.

8.45 pm

I shall now address the reasons why the Government believe that this clause should stand part of the Bill. The Government recognise that in some areas the term “parish” may discourage communities setting up or becoming involved with parish councils in their area. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, feels that if we took away the term “parish” completely, it would lead to confusion. I hope that, if this change works, local people will be engaged quite closely with what was their parish council and will become very knowledgeable about it, what it does, what it enables them to do and how it is styled. The other reason for the possibility of changing the name from “parish” is that, for some people, the term could be confused with an ecclesiastical parish. Therefore, the new provisions make it possible for a parish or group of parishes to use one of a number of modern styles or

11 July 2007 : Column 1477

names that local people may feel reflect more properly the area where they live so that there would be no confusion with an ecclesiastical parish. It is important to note that it will be for parish councils or parish meetings to decide what style best fits their area. It is part of the process of devolution that we have been talking about throughout the Bill; people’s choices become greater. One can sometimes see that as leading to more confusion, but the positive side is that people want more choice, will put up with a little confusion and will get to know what that choice means to them fairly quickly, I would imagine.

The parish council or the parish meeting may resolve under new Section 12A for the parish to have an alternative style. The alternative styles are set out in new Section 17A of the 1972 Act; they are: a “community”, a “neighbourhood” or a “village”. Where a parish is given an alternative style, the clause also requires the parish trustees, the parish meeting, the parish council, its chairman, vice-chairman and councillors to be referred to by that style for consistency. For example, where a parish is given the style “neighbourhood”, any council of that parish will become a neighbourhood council and any chairman of that council will become a chairman of the neighbourhood council. New Section 11A enables a principal council, where a group of parishes is being formed in its area, to provide by order for the group to be known as a “group of communities”, a “group of neighbourhoods” or a “group of villages” and also makes other relevant provisions.

To conclude, we find it hard to see a compelling reason why allowing local councils to decide to be called something other than a parish so as better to reflect their area could be perceived as a bad thing. I hope that I have met the concern about more choice meaning more confusion.

Lord Greaves: I am grateful for that explanation. It was almost as long as the three and a half pages the clause takes up in the Bill. It is an important issue. Two substantive points have been raised. First, whatever these bodies are called, there will have to be a generic name for them. What will the generic name be? It seems to me that whatever individual parishes and local councils are called in future, the generic name will be “parish council” because that is what exists at the moment in most places.

If parish councils are set up in Lewisham, Kensington or Richmond in London they may have a different name, such as “neighbourhood”, in which case they will become known as “neighbourhood councils”. That may well be the case, but generally they will be known as parish councils because that is what they are at the moment, even if some of them change their name as the Minister suggested. There is a problem here.

Secondly, there is the ecclesiastical point. There is no doubt that there is some confusion about that and it is not going to go away. Civil parish councils being able to change their names will not change that, although it might increase the confusion. In general, I am in favour of the provision.

11 July 2007 : Column 1478

Baroness Crawley: Before the noble Lord sits down, I reiterate that of course legally a parish will be defined as a parish. Therefore, if the noble Lord is looking for a generic name, its legal name will be a parish.

Lord Greaves: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 77 agreed to.

Clause 78 [Appointed councillors]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 196:

The noble Lord said: The purpose of Amendments Nos. 196 and 197A, which are grouped together, is to explore the relationship between councillors who can vote and become elected as chairmen of the parish council—or vice-chairmen of the parish council, which the Government do not seem to be coping with—or vote in the election for the chairman and the vice-chairman of the council. Will that include appointed councillors in both cases?

Secondly, do the Government recognise that currently some parish councillors are not elected by the public but are co-opted? They are co-opted because perhaps at public elections there are not as many candidates as places, or because when a vacancy arises the procedures necessary to call a by-election are not put in place. I think that 10 electors have to make a requisition to call a by-election and if that does not happen within the specified period, the parish council is able to co-opt a member.

In the terminology of the Bill, does the term “elected” include those members who are co-opted under the provisions of the existing legislation, or would they be regarded as appointed members in line with the new legislation? The purpose of moving the amendments is to ask these questions, and, I hope, to get answers to them. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I have some concerns and queries about this provision. As a former county councillor from a rural area, I have worked with parish councils for many years. Processes of co-option are pretty much understood by everyone. I am not clear about what the appointment of councillors as opposed to their co-option seeks to achieve. What will be the difference in status on a parish council between someone who has been co-opted and someone who has been appointed?

I also wish briefly to mention the report of the sub-committee of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Select Committee of which I am a member. It raised some concerns about the use of the negative procedure to put flesh on the bones of this provision, and that the sort of detail my noble friend Lord Greaves was asking about is to be left to regulation under the negative procedure. I know that there has been a reply to those concerns from government. I want only to put that issue on the table

11 July 2007 : Column 1479

because I know that the Minister will want to respond to the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the fullness of time—probably when we get to Report. The committee was concerned about the need for clarity on the status of appointed members—whether they can vote, whether they can vote for the chair, indeed, whether they could be the chair. All those things could have a significant impact on how a parish council is run.

We come back to the point made earlier by my noble friend: that people tend to think of parish councils as being little village bodies that do not do all that much. I represented 16 parishes in my county division. Three parishes had an annual parish meeting and that was the end of the matter, but the area also included Needham Market town council, which was very active and set quite a large precept. Matters of appointment, co-option and election are very important in larger parish councils, especially in view of the power that we will discuss later, in which it is proposed to give parish councils the general duty of well-being. If they are to do more, the status of their members needs to be properly understood.

Baroness Hanham: Just one question has occurred to me. One problem for parish councils was the model code of conduct. We know that parish councils must respond to the code of conduct—we will discuss the code of conduct later in the Bill—but what about appointed parish councillors? Will they have to respond to that as well? If so, will they be informed of that before they are appointed? Anyway, what are they being appointed to and by whom?

Baroness Crawley: I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I assume that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is correct: that appointed councillors would have to abide by the code of conduct for elected councillors. I will write to her if that is not the case. Perhaps I could meet the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, in the debate on the next amendment, which fleshes out many of the concerns that she raised. Perhaps I can meet the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on the narrow point of the amendment—as he knows, two of his amendments relate to appointed councillors.

We seek through Clause 78(1) to (3) to highlight in a small way the significance of democratic elections. Parish councillors are currently either elected, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, or co-opted. The clause seeks to allow a third category: councillors who are appointed for a time by the elected and co-opted councillors. It was therefore appropriate that we should have another look at the rules governing who may chair a parish council. In particular, we had to consider whether an appointee should be able to take the chair.

We readily reached the conclusion that it would be wrong to allow that. Indeed, we concluded that the chair should be chosen from among those who had stood for election to that council. For that purpose, we therefore think it right to treat those who have not been elected as one category—I am obviously talking

11 July 2007 : Column 1480

about both co-opted and appointed councillors in that one category. I take on board what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said: that co-option has gone on for a time and is an established part of local democracy, if you like, but we believe that as we have the opportunity with the Bill, we should make the difference clearer between those who are elected and those who are not. We are therefore putting co-opted and appointed councils together in one category and elected councils in another. Obviously the noble Lord has another view, but, in the light of my explanation of this part of our debate on appointed councils, I would be grateful if he would consider withdrawing his amendment.

9 pm

Lord Greaves: I am grateful for that. I do not necessarily take another view. When I read the Bill, I did not understand where co-opted councillors would fit in and whether they were regarded as elected councillors or as appointed councillors. I now understand that the Bill proposes to change the existing system so that, even if a council has no new, appointed councillors, it will not be able to appoint a co-opted councillor to the chair of the parish council. I apologise for having strayed slightly into the next group of amendments when I spoke before, and will leave my remarks on that group for when we come to it. I now understand what the Bill means, and I am not necessarily against what it proposes. I will think about the matter. I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the position, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 197 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 197A not moved.]

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 197B:

“(c) after subsection (10) insert—“(11) An appointed councillor may not hold an office under this section.”.”

The noble Lord said: This is a more substantive group of amendments on the proposal to have appointed parish councillors. I make no apology for tabling a group of amendments that I hope will draw from the Government the reason why they think that a proposal to appoint a number of councillors over and above the agreed size of a particular parish council is a good idea. In doing so, I refer to what I said earlier about the great variety of parish councils and town councils at the moment, to which my noble friend referred. Some of them are quite small and modest and operate at small village level. Others are quite substantial and are usually in large towns. They have taken on quite considerable functions over the years, often in co-operation with the district council or perhaps county council, and have considerable budgets of several hundred thousand pounds or more. They are not quaint, rural meetings of the sort that may have been considered but a serious and

11 July 2007 : Column 1481

important part of the local government structure, particularly in places where there are large districts or unitary authorities, and they represent the town council in a very real sense as well as in a legal sense. They represent the elected element of the civic society and civic structure in the town. It is bizarre that we should reintroduce people who, to many of us, look like local aldermen who could simply be appointed and did not have to be elected. The Government must give us a pretty good explanation before we will accept that.

I talked before about Borchester. That might have been an association of mine because I had lunch today in the House with two members of the town council of Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, which is a substantial operation. They are both active councillors at county level, at district level and at town council level, and they both said that the town council gave them the most satisfaction as councillors. They go to town council meetings, which are the only places nowadays where there is a committee—the Government may hold their hands up in horror, but there is—there is an agenda with items that they discuss, and people put their hands up for propositions at the end. Decisions are taken and perhaps carried out within a few weeks or two or three months. You have the old-fashioned satisfaction of being a councillor, making decisions and seeing things happen in your town. That is the sort of thing that happens. I explained this proposal to the councillors, one of whom spontaneously said, “Well that is the old alderman”. We got rid of aldermen in 1974. I am not sure when they got rid of them in London, but it was 1974 in the rest of the country and perhaps a bit later in London. I do not think that we want them back. This seems to be a bizarre proposal.

The system of co-opting parish councillors, particularly in some of the more rural places, came about because it is often hard to get recruits to sit on the parish council. But that is co-opting up to the limit and filling the vacancies, which have been agreed. This proposal is to have extra people and it is not clear why. If the parish council, like any council, wants a committee to run a local amenity—the village green, village hall, local park or whatever—under the provisions of the Local Government Act it can already co-opt people to that committee to take part in discussions. It is not clear why this provision is needed. Therefore, I have put down these amendments.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page