My Lords, I have one amendment in this group, Amendment 170A, to which I shall speak in a minute. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, on his extraordinarily good presentation of the issues that lie behind his amendments. Like other members of the Liberal Democrats here I fully support them. I also thank the Minister and his colleagues, as well as the Bill team, for the amount of time and commitment that they have given to discussions-certainly with us and, I think, right around the House-on this and other issues, in order to try to find a compromise and a way forward that satisfies the wish of the Government to dismantle the national bureaucracy of the Standards Board for England. We all want that to happen without compromising the fundamental principles behind standards in public life in local government that the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has ably set forward.
My amendment, which I shall speak to briefly, is about parish and town councils. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will follow up to talk about them also. I have not seen any statistics but all the anecdotal evidence from areas with a lot of parish and town councils is that standards problems at that level of local government take up a remarkably large proportion of the time of, and the cases that come to, local standards committees. The reasons are obvious: a lot of parish councils are only small, they have clerks who are very much part-time and they simply do not have the expertise or, very often, the authority to deal with what are sometimes leading local personalities who do not take kindly to being told what to do and how to do it. Whatever the reason-and I do not think that it is through a lack of willingness by parish councils to deal with this problem and to cope with it; the issue is their ability or competence to do so-they take up a lot of time and a high proportion of the time of standards committees. The proposals as put forward by the Government simply do not seem to recognise this, because they suggest that parish and town councils can simply look after their own standards regime and their own standards system as a freestanding authority. Unfortunately the truth is that this will simply lead to a collapse of any proper standards system in a large proportion of these councils. It may be that large town councils will, in many cases, be able to cope-and some others will cope-but there will be a serious problem.
My amendment simply suggests-and it is designed to fit into the Bill as it exists at the moment, unamended-that whatever system there is within a district or unitary authority should also apply to the town and parish councils within that area, which is the present system. That may not be the best way to solve the town and parish council problem, but a solution has to be found before the Bill leaves this House. I understand that the Minister will promise more discussions on parish councils, in particular, before Third Reading and if that is the case, I do not want to say anything more today, but it has to be sorted out and a solution found which will work in all town and parish councils, which vary from quite large town councils of, perhaps, 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 people right down to little parishes of 200 or 300 electors. I have nothing more to say about that; I look forward to discussions that the Minister is going to offer us at the end of this debate.