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The second amendment is about what happens after a community governance review recommends that a parish should be abolished either in whole or in part so that it would be a non-parish area. In other words, after the community governance review, the present parish government would be abolished. That may not happen very often and it may not be very likely, but I know of at least two instances where, I believe, had the district councils had the ability to abolish the only existing parishes within their district

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they might well have done so. They regarded the parish as being, frankly, a damn nuisance. They refused to parish any of the rest of the district and were continually at war with that parish. Whether that was right or wrong, and whose fault it was in each case, is a matter of opinion. However, if they had had the opportunity to carry out a community governance review and had had the final say, the future of that parish would have been at risk. If a level of government exists and is being abolished altogether, there ought to be a right to a parish poll, not least because parish meetings and polls are an established part of the system of parish governance.

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I am proposing that if a community governance review would result in the abolition of a parished area, either all or part of a parish, and a parish meeting is convened to discuss it and passes a resolution, or if a third of the electors—which is quite high, even in a small place—demand that a parish poll is held and it is held, the abolition would not take place. When we discussed this in Committee, the Minister said that it was a matter of the Government’s proposals for devolution to councils, and that the district councils should therefore have the final say. The problem is that that is a misreading of devolution. Devolution is not just a matter of giving more powers to one particular tier or level in a system of government, but of looking at the system as a whole. There ought to be at least some safeguards against people at one tier, the district tier, of the system taking action against a lower tier, the parish tier—which could be arbitrary or unreasonable but they would legally have the power to do so—without some safeguards to at least constrain them. We have safeguards in Parliament. Between us, we can abolish local authorities if we want to, but only after a whole series of debates, arguments and so on. Devolution needs to go not just to the district, but below and beyond the district to parishes, to at least give people in those areas some guarantee that the districts are not going to make unreasonable decisions.

I am not suggesting that the wording I have put forward is ideal, but that some safeguards ought to be put into the system. This is put forward again in an attempt to make the Government’s new proposals for community governance and community governance reviews sensible and practical, and to avoid the sort of unnecessary and unseemly rows at local level which will occur if people think that actions are being taken that are not fair, and against which they have no means of redress at all. I beg to move.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for the manner in which he has moved his amendment, which would remove Clause 100(3). Amendment No. 163B relates to decisions, as the noble Lord said, to abolish a parish, and requires parish polls to be used in certain circumstances.

We had similar amendments tabled in Committee and I am afraid to say that the Government’s position has not changed; I have “Resist. Resist. Resist.” all over my brief. Clause 100(3) provides that a review

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must recommend that parishes with 150 or fewer local government electors should not have a parish council. The noble Lord’s Amendment No. 163A would allow a principal council, as part of a community governance review, to recommend that small parishes with electorates of 150 or fewer have a parish council.

As I stated in Committee, Clause 100(3) has been included in the Bill as we recognise that sometimes there is difficulty in small parishes in getting sufficient numbers of people to stand for election to the parish council. We believe that it is more appropriate in these areas that the parish is represented by a parish meeting. As I stated in Committee, this provision does not apply to an existing parish of the same size which already has a parish council. So any existing parish falling within this category can continue to have a parish council.

We do not believe that Amendment No. 163A is required as we consider that the Bill’s provisions will help to resolve existing problems with small parish councils being unable to find sufficient members. We also resist Amendment No. 163B, which inserts a new clause after Clause 100. We have been clear throughout the Bill’s progress that Part 4 is about devolving power from central to local government and communities.

The Bill requires principal councils to consult, to take account of representations, and now to make known the outcome of their decisions for putting in place any community governance arrangements. We believe that provision has been strengthened in the course of the Bill. The Bill contains adequate processes and mechanisms to ensure that the views of local people are taken into account. We have also been clear that we do not expect to see parishes abolished—the noble Lord has referred to that—except in those circumstances where the area of the abolished parish is to be included in a new or revised parish area.

A principal council will only be able to recommend the abolition of a parish where it believes that this will meet the criteria set out in Clause 99(4)—to reflect

It will not be able to abolish a parish just because it does not like it. The noble Lord gave an example of how he felt that might be in the mind of the principal council. We believe that it would not be possible to abolish a parish just because there has been internal tension. Principal councils will need to consider local opinion, including that of parish councillors and local electors.

The noble Lord’s amendments seek to extend the involvement of local electors through parish meetings having a say in determining the outcome of any review through a motion on recommendations made or through a poll.

We trust local government to act effectively and efficiently when taking decisions on whether a parish should be abolished. As noble Lords are aware, parish polls already exist—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, explained this—and have done so since the Local Government Act 1972. However, the amendments proposed would fundamentally change the role of

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parish polls. The result of any parish poll, as the noble Lord will know, is not binding. Therefore the principal council is not under any duty to act on it. The proposed amendment would make the parish poll result, in terms of the abolition of a parish, binding. We do not believe that this fundamental change to the way parish polls operate should be made.

While it is appropriate for local electors to have their say about community governance arrangements, and of course they should be properly consulted on any changes, we consider that it would be wrong to fetter the principal councils’ decisions by making them subject to the outcome of parish meeting polls. The Government believe that by allowing parish meeting polls to determine when a parish should be abolished we will be undermining the newly devolved power from the principal council. Local electors and stakeholders should be consulted properly about community governance arrangements, and their views should be fully taken into account.

In conclusion, ultimately we believe that the principal council should take decisions on these matters. We do not wish to, on the one hand, devolve to principal councils, while, on the other, saying that they do not have the ability to implement the recommendations that they believe are appropriate having conducted a full community governance review. We are also keen to encourage contested elections and believe that parish councils in an area with fewer than 150 electors would face difficulties in having contested elections for the minimum of five parish council seats. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's remarks; some were actually quite helpful in the longer scale of things—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Greaves: Not all of them, my Lords, but some of them. On the question of the size of parish councils, the threshold issue, the Minister has again relied on the argument that it is sometimes difficult to get people to stand. It is sometimes difficult to get people to stand for parish councils that have 3,000 or 4,000 electors. There are also sometimes intensely contested elections between people for much smaller councils. My argument is that the local circumstances should determine matters, not a blanket number.

However, the Minister said that no existing councils can be abolished. Perhaps she could clarify that in writing. What happens if there is a community governance review that results in continued parish government in an area, but on different boundaries? For example, if there is a parish and an expanding small town and it is sensible to include part of the parish in the small town, the existing parish might continue—perhaps there is a village and scattered farms and housing around it—but on different boundaries. Because of the circumstances, it might fall below the threshold of 150—from, say, 200 to 140. Does that count as a new parish or the existing parish continuing?

That is a technical matter. It might never happen, but if you do not think these things out you get into trouble in due course.



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Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I do not think that it would count as a new parish, but if I am wrong I will write to the noble Lord on that matter.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, if there were an active parish council in a place, it would be a shame to close it down just because the boundaries had changed.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, my note, says, “Wouldn’t be a new parish. Wouldn’t have to abolish”.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am most grateful. That will lead me to withdraw my amendment, but before I do I will just comment on the second amendment. The Minister said that the Government were not about undermining the powers of principal councils. I thought that double devolution was all about undermining the powers of principal councils. Well, “undermining” may be the wrong word; perhaps “assisting them to exercise those powers through community institutions from below”, or something like that, might be more appropriate. I fear that I cannot put it into new Labour words. Even so, if we are serious about double devolution we must accept that often powers must go down.

In relation to the second amendment, the Minister said, “We do not expect to see the death of parishes”. Under my reading of the Bill, I do not see how we can prevent local authorities abolishing parishes, but the fact that the Minister has said it here may help some poor parish in its judicial review if it finds itself in that position, so that was a helpful comment.

What will the Government do if local authorities start abolishing parishes unreasonably? There is no right of appeal. There is no veto by means of polls, as I am suggesting. The only recourse would be judicial review. A small parish may well think that it is better to curl up and die than to impose the council tax increase that the cost of judicial review might involve. If the Minister could write to explain what she meant by saying, “We do not expect to see the death of parishes”, that would be extremely helpful. She said that they would not be able to abolish a parish just because they did not like it. That is great news, but it does not seem to be what the legislation says. Some information about that would be extremely helpful. In the mean time I am fairly happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 163B not moved.]

9 pm

Clause 102 [Publicising outcome]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 164 to 168:

(a) publish—(i) that decision, and(ii) the council’s reasons for making that decision; and

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(b) take such steps as the council considers sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the review are informed of that decision and those reasons.”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 169:

“Appeals(a) holding a public local inquiry under subsection (3), and(b) recommending the constitution of a parish or parish council under subsection (4),

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am pleased to have been here for the earlier debates on this important issue. Being ignorant of the minutiae of parish council life, I have been fascinated by the number of instances that can occur or have occurred that I would never have dreamt of. It helps to make my case. There is a body called the Association for Neighbourhood Democracy, which I am sure is well known to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which is campaigning for the creation of parish councils in the unparished urban areas of England.

My interest in this aspect of the Bill relates to extending the right to create parish councils in London. My long-time friend, Sir Richard Knowles, who was the leader of Birmingham City Council and who takes a passionate and involved interest in this area, wrote to me. Knowing Dick, this is not just a kite-flying exercise—this might happen or that might happen. I asked him, “What are the grounds on which you believe that a principal council could refuse or not recommend?” He replied, “We have experience where we live of valid submissions, in accordance with law, at the proper time and in due regard, that are not accepted”.

That set me thinking. If this Labour Government are deeply involved, as I believe they are, in taking democracy to the lowest levels, but at the lowest level

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the district council—the principal council—says no, they ought to be as perturbed as I am. There are good people who want to bring a bit more democracy to their little patch, which I would describe as the parish council. What valid reasons are there for being thwarted?

I would hesitate to ascribe such behaviour to principal councils in general. I live in Loughton, which is a town council. The principal council is Epping, and to the best of my knowledge they are both lively, democratic, non-Labour-controlled councils. They still have my regard because of the people and personalities. They are part of the local community.

Only a few people need to be involved. There should be minimum and maximum numbers and rules and regulations. I introduced this amendment because I would like to hear what the Government feel about a situation in which a group of people—whatever the number—want to exercise democracy under limitations and financial restrictions but despite their willingness to do that, they are being refused.

I have scribbled down in my notes the words “grass roots”. My amendment would protect and preserve the rights of the grass roots. If they have a point of view, one might say that they have got democratic opportunities, that there are locally elected councillors and all the rest of it. If we believe in taking democracy to the lowest level, there is a great cause.

The Association for Neighbourhood Democracy tells me that there is unwelcome scope here for a principal council to act capriciously and do nothing in consequence of a petition having been duly and lawfully raised. If a request for the creation of a parish council is refused, the aggrieved people should have the opportunity of asking the Secretary of State to intervene, despite the views put forward by the principal council, to the extent of calling on the principal council to indicate what happened when the adverse decision was taken and to give the factors which militated against the request. If the Secretary of State is not satisfied after a public local review created by him, it should be in his powers to,

Most importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has pointed out more than once, because of the limited finance available to people at the lowest possible level, they should not to have to bear the costs, which could be substantial from their point of view. The amendment states:

It is a reasonable amendment. I do not understand what argument the Minister could have against it, but I shall be interested to hear it. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I expect that the noble Baroness will marshal the same arguments that she used in Committee. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is not in his place, raised this issue. I am aware of the problem in shire districts where there is dominance by one large

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town and then a large rural hinterland. Quite often, the large town wishes to have a town council. The district is not so keen because it sees that it would act as an alternative power base. At the moment, the aspirations of the town are not being met and it has nowhere to go. There is a huge sense of frustration that, having been blocked by the district, there simply is no redress. This is a difficult issue.

In Committee, we discussed whether the county council would be the correct body to act as an arbitrator, but the point was made that that would set the county against the district and that possibly having the Secretary of State involved at this stage would put enough distance to depersonalise the issue. There is some merit in that. On the one hand, there is the argument that these are local issues and they should not be decided by the Secretary of State. On the other hand, the Bill is riddled with the interventions of the Secretary of State and our national law is full of controls by the Secretary of State. Asking him in rare circumstances to act as the arbiter of what should happen in a local area is one case where the Secretary of State’s intervention could be justified, so I am pleased to support the amendment.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton has been a good friend of this Bill. I regret it if my response disappoints him and I know that it will disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. The Government cannot accept this amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Oh no!

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, through the Bill we are making it easier to set up parish councils by devolving power from central to local government and communities, enabling principal councils, districts, unitaries and London boroughs to make decisions and put in place appropriate community governance arrangements, taking account of the views of local people. At present, principal councils have to make recommendations to the Secretary of State and to the Electoral Commission on parish reviews, which are subject to central decisions on whether their proposals should be accepted or rejected. We believe that in the future such decisions should be taken locally. Local decision-making would be undermined if the Secretary of State were able to override the decisions of the local authority. We have to trust local authorities to act reasonably and to make decisions that are in the best interests of their area. That is what devolution is all about, and to that extent I am regurgitating the points I made in Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said I would.


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