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Amendment No. 204CH relates to the same drafting of the question as to whether an existing parish is to have a parish council. The amendment seeks to change that so that the council may make such a recommendation but is not required to do so. We do not believe that these amendments add anything to the Bill. If the council decides that no change to the parish name is required, it will simply make such a recommendation under the Bill. Equally, if the council decides that a parish with a council should retain that council, it will make that recommendation under the Bill. Surely it is preferable that those interested in the review are aware that a decision has been reached on any relevant issue so that they can, for example, retain the existing name rather than not address the issue in the review or the recommendations, as the amendment would allow.
Amendment No. 204CS is a probing amendment, which, again, we do not believe is required. I shall set out how Clause 98 details the steps that a principal council must take to publicise the outcome of any
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In relation to Amendment No. 204CV, it is important that guidance is issued to assist local authorities when conducting community governance reviews. Some authorities do not have recent experience of conducting these reviews. Issuing guidance will ensure that there will be some basic framework within which local authorities can carry out reviews for their area, and a combination of the legislation and guidance will provide that framework.
Obviously, it is more appropriate for the Electoral Commission than the Secretary of State to issue guidance on electoral arrangements. However, it is currently our intention that this guidance will be combined with guidance issued by the Secretary of State on non-electoral matters. I hope that that meets the noble Lords concerns about the extent of the Electoral Commissions role.
Finally, Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR would require principal councils to consider their electoral areas, district wards and county divisions when deciding whether the parish should be divided into wards. If the amendments were accepted and a principal council decided to divide a parish into wards, it would have to have regard to the boundaries of the electoral areas when setting parish ward boundaries. We believe that it is questionable whether the amendment is needed, as we would expect local authorities to have regard to district, ward and county division boundaries. However, we will happily take that away for further consideration. We will look again at Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR and seek the views of the Electoral Commission on them. Therefore, in view of that undertaking, we request that the noble Lord does not press this group of amendments.
Lord Greaves: I am very grateful for a great deal of what the Minister has said, some of which is very useful clarification. I am grateful for her willingness to look again at Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR, which are about the importance of having regard to the existing electoral boundaries. One can always say that people will do something because it is common sense or because one would expect them to do it, and although various criteria are set out in the Bill, the existing district electoral boundaries seem to me to be of at least equal importance to those in the Bill. That is the argument for putting them in. If they are not in the Bill and there is a debate about which should prevailas there often is with electoral boundariesthey might be thought to be less important. I am grateful
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It is fairly clear that if the district council sets up a parish review, or if one is set up in response to a parish petition, which is the circumstance in which there is more likely to be a conflict, then having carried it out, the district council could simply vote to ignore it and do nothing. Perhaps that matter should be resolved electorally and politically at a local level. However, we must be clear that that is possible and that in some circumstances it will probably happenmost things that are possible eventually happen somewhere or other at some timeand will cause problems. I do not suggest that the Secretary of State should, at this stage, gallop in and resolve the matter because it is probably one for local determination. I am grateful to the Minister and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
This was discussed to some extent when we were talking about London. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, suggested that London did not want parishes and did not need them. An argument put forward was that there are lots of other neighbourhood, community and even, occasionally, village organisations which do that job perfectly well.
This is an interesting matter, and I ask the Government what it will mean in practice. I refer to the helpful document that the Minister sent round to us all, the statement of intent on statutory guidance. It suggests that,
I have no objection to that as an overall strategy on parishes. One problem of everything that gets done nowadays is that, in some areas at least, people suffer from consultation and participation overload. As a result, it is not done as effectively as it should be. I could provide some examples, which I will not, from my own backyard. Year after year, people are asked by different people in different organisations about the same things and give the same answers when they actually want some solutions and answers to those things, not more surveys. This is also true if there is a proliferation of organisations trying to compete with each other for participation in the community. It is a sensible thing to be looked at.
I am really asking how top-heavy the statutory guidance will be. Again, it seems that once you have looked at what is on the ground and whether you want new parish councils or notor whether you ought to abolish themit ought to be up to people in the area to work out their own arrangements. It does not seem to be in any way suitable for detailed rules and regulations. That will just cause problems. The barrack-room lawyers in the community, and perhaps on the council, will have a field day analysing the statutory guidance and saying yes and all the rest of it. We want an absolutely light touch hereperhaps just a statement of intent that this must be looked at and considered, but certainly no detailed rules, regulations and statutory guidance. I look forward to the Ministers response to those genuine concerns and beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: My noble friend has raised an extremely important point. What he did not refer to, but which I would like to add in to the mix of questions, is what is meant by community representation and engagement. Some people might say that the whole of London is a community. Others might say that a community is those within walking distance of a particular supermarket. Others might say, You support Chelsea, I support West Ham: we are in different communities. There are many types of community. The guidance ought to make it quite clear that what local people think of as their variety of communities, not just one community, is for local consideration. Certainly, guidance should not attempt to define the term in the way drawn attention to by my noble friend.
Baroness Crawley: Again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. As the Committee will know, we are developing the guidance with a group of stakeholders. They will be taking great notice of this afternoons discussion in Committee. As both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have said, we want this to be as flexible, light and user-friendly as possible, ensuring that we still have the practical outcomes we are looking for. The guidance is being developed and note will be taken of this discussion.
We think it is highly desirable that principal councils should consider the wider picture of community governance in undertaking their reviews. Clause 95(5) makes such considerations a requirement, and Amendment No. 204CJ removes that requirement. If the amendment were to be agreedI understand that
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On the other hand, we wish to make sure that communities are as cohesive and engaged as possible and that people have as much influence over what happens in their neighbourhood as possible. Many local authorities have introduced innovative mechanisms to achieve that. For example, there are area forums in many places, and many communities have their own initiatives and have established powerful and effective organisations that make a huge contribution to the promotion of well-being in their area. It seems to us that it would be natural and sensible for authorities, when conducting a community governance review, to have overt regard to the arrangements that are already in place, many of which are very good. Indeed, we think they should be required to do so. We see nothing to be gained by the removal of subsection (5) and much to be lost in terms of achieving the best outcomes. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
Lord Greaves: I am again grateful, though a little more tentatively than I was on the previous amendment. A lot of issues here seem unresolved. Indeed, the Minister said that people are looking at the guidance at the moment. Can she tell us when it might be ready and whether the guidance relating to parish councils generally or this specifically might be ready, in a draft form at least, before we come back from our summer holidays and renew discussions on Report? It might save the House a lot of time if we could see the guidance first because our concerns might be allayed. Indeed, we might think that things are being done exactly right.
I have one further concern. There may well be organisations or structures within the community that are working well and involve quite a lot of people in a very constructive way. However, even if that is the case, there may well be circumstances where it is worth while taking the further step of going to an elected parish council that is qualitatively different from almost all the other organisations in the community, because it is a democratically elected body that has the status of a local authority and all the rights set out in the statutes. In Pendle, where I live, the experience is that in 1974 five urban districts lost their councils. After a few years, non-statutory neighbourhood councils were set up in each of the five districts. Fairly quickly, they all came to the view, and there was a general view locally, that they wanted to become statutory parish
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Baroness Crawley: I would be happy to. We expect the guidance to be ready by the autumn, so we hope that we are talking about only a number of months. I absolutely agree with the noble Lords last point, that the statutory route could well be the route that will be taken despite there being healthy non-statutory activity in that area. That will be very much taken into account when looking at the overall picture of what would work even better than the non-statutory arrangements already in place.
Lord Greaves: We are coming back in October. I regard October as being in the autumn. Any later than October is winter, certainly where I live. I am mindful of what people have written about autumn and gathering swallows, twittering in the skies and so on. Perhaps people could twitter as quickly as possible and gather their thoughts together. If we can have the guidance before Report on a lot of things in the Bill, it will help the Government a great deal when we get to that stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: This is a more important and substantive matter. It relates to the interaction of the direct democracy part of parishes, which is the only part of local government where these recommendations exist in a statutory form, and the other processes set out in the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for telling me in reply to a Question for Written Answer that there are about 10,000 parishes and that approximately 8,900 have councils and 1,100 have only meetings. That was about the only detail she could give in reply to a fairly detailed Question on the number of parish meetings, the size of parish councils and so on. Interestingly, this information is not kept at central level for this parish level of government. Perhaps that is understandable as people forget about parishes.
I remind your Lordships that parish councils were set up during a brief spell of Liberal government in the middle of the 1890s. They were extremely controversial. I have no doubt that a lot more people attended the discussions that took place in this House then, and that there were some very angry people who thought that having democratically elected parish councils would bring forward all sorts of anarchism, socialist revolution in the countryside and so on. I do not think that has happened with parish councils, but they are, nevertheless, very valuable.
The Local Government Act 1972 sets out that there will be a parish council if there are more than 200 electors. If there are between 150 and 200, there may be a parish council. If there are fewer than 150, there may be a parish council if the parish meeting
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We should remember that there are parish meetings everywhere. Every parish in the country has an annual parish meeting which all electors may attend, even where there is a parish council. That meeting can call a parish poll, which is a referendum in the parish involving local government electors. This inbuilt right to a parish poll is unique in our local government system. Parish meetings and parish polls therefore already exist as part of the system. There are not many parish polls, but people know about them and they are often very significant. The Bill is more flexible on parish councils in that there does not have to be a parish council in a newly created parish. Existing parishes will simply continue as they are, but a newly created or reorganised parish does not have to have a parish council unless there are more than 1,000 electors, and it will not have one if there are fewer than 150. Although the Bill is more flexible in not allowing a parish council, it is considerably less flexible in allowing small parishes to have a parish council. That is one issue behind this group of amendments.
I am trying through the amendments to restore the flexibility which the Government are removing, as well as to explore the relationships between parish meetings and parish polls and the system of creating, changing and abolishing parishes and putting to parish meetings and parish polls the decisionif that is what people want locallyto create a new parish if the area is very small or to abolish a parish.
Amendment No. 204CK would leave out the provision that the review must recommend that the proposed new parish should not have a council if it has 150 electors or fewer. The amendment would mean that such a recommendation could go to the electors in the parish itself. Amendment No. 204CM would mean that if the number proposed was under 150, the council would need the resolution of a parish meeting and confirmation in a parish poll if there were to be a parish council. That does not automatically mean that there would be a parish council; it means that a parish council could be created in very small parishes that might cover quite a large rural area and that might have a vibrant community, but only if a parish meeting says that it wants one and a parish poll votes in favour.
Amendment No. 204CN is about the abolition of parish councils, and would provide that a parish meeting would have to pass a resolution or may hold a poll in order to abolish a parish council. If it held a poll, the decision of that poll would prevail. This is fundamental and only fair. None of this would happen, however, if there was a general view that an existing parish council should be abolished. If, however, there were a dispute and a proposal to abolish the parish council, surely the existing institutions of the parish meeting and the existing institutions of the parish poll should be brought into play. That is a very important provision, because the abolition of a local authority, even if it is only a parish, is not a minor matter.
Amendment No. 204CP would apply the same provisions to changes in groups of parishes, although I do not press for this quite as strongly as I do in relation to abolition. The first half of the amendment
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The grouping issue is less important or vital here. Surely, the creation of parish councils, whether new small parishes can have one and the abolition of them are matters that should involve the existing statutory institutions of the parish meeting of everyone in the parish. In a small parish, a huge proportion of the people might turn up. A parish meeting vote, a parish poll, is an established and acceptable means of making decisions in rural areas. I beg to move.
Lord Hanningfield: If we are talking about devolution, we certainly support the idea put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that there should not be a minimum number of 150. If a small parish wants a parish council, it should be allowed to have one. I doubt whether Dibley has 150 people and, therefore, we would not have the television series, The Vicar of Dibley, which probably has done more to popularise parish councils than anything else. I hope that the Government will think again on that matter and will remove the minimum requirement of 150 because it is totally unnecessary.
Baroness Crawley: We may not have a meeting of minds on this. We understand the strength of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. However, we come at it from a slightly different view. In order to institute a new concept of devolution, there has to be certainty within that, which is why we would want the principal council to have that final certainty. Perhaps at the end of my remarks, I might have persuaded Members of the Committee of my view.
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