Clause 55

Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:15 pm on 20th February 2007.

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Appointed councillors

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I beg to move amendment No. 121, in clause 55, page 41, line 15, leave out subsection (4).

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 122, in clause 55, page 41, line 17, at end add—

‘(2) No person appointed by virtue of this section may vote in any matter coming before the council to which that person has been appointed.’.

No. 123, in clause 55, page 41, leave out lines 26 and 27.

No. 115, in clause 55, page 41, line 30, at end insert—

‘(g) the degree of representation of the wider community’.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The purpose of the first three amendments, all tabled by me and my hon. Friends, is to get rid of the proposed appointed parish councillors. There are many proposals in the Bill relating to parish councils that we strongly agree with and welcome. Bearing in mind some of the harsher things that I have had to say earlier today, let me say straight away that I believe the Government are approaching the parishes issue appropriately and we shall support them, on the whole. However, we believe that in respect of the provision of appointed councillors they have stepped off the path.

It should be remembered that parish councils already have the capacity to co-opt. They may co-opt to fill  vacancies, and they frequently do. Indeed, the people they co-opt to vacancies would, in many cases, conform to the intentions here. However, they are co-opted if there are not enough candidates to contest an election, never mind to have one, and if vacancies remain afterwards. We think that parish councils ought to retain that democratic element and that those who serve on them should do so as a result of an electoral process, and not following an entirely separate appointment. Amendment No. 121 simply reads: “leave out subsection (4)”, which relates to appointed councillors, because we believe that the intention is mistaken. Amendment No. 122 would provide that any such appointed person could not vote on any matter before the council. In other words, they would be non-voting members of the parish council.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the distinction between a co-opted councillor and an appointed one?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Co-option is a power that parish councillors have already, provided that there is an unfilled vacancy on the council. It is a second-best situation, so to speak, in order to make up the numbers to the total of the council’s representation. The Government’s proposal is perhaps for the Minister to explain, but I understand from the clause and explanatory notes that they believe a wider range of people might serve on parish councils as a result. But, that might be said of Parliament and of principal councils. I wonder whether the Government think that in order to get a wider range of people into Parliament it would be a good idea just to appoint them. Actually, I suspect they do think that that is rather a good idea. If parish councils are to be, say, residents associations or some sort of sounding boards, that is fine as we need all sorts of representatives. However, if they are to be democratic institutions, they should comprise those who have stood for election and been voted in, regardless of whether or not they are community leaders.

On a separate and rather important practical point, the selection of appointees will be in the hands of parish councillors whose views on whom should be selected might vary quite a lot from those of the Minister. We therefore believe we should retain parish councils as democratic institutions and not—as was suggested in a sedentary comment—turn them into a version of the House of Lords where the great and the good are added to those who can be bothered to get elected. In very many parish communities, if people know that they have two means of getting on to the parish council—going through the hassle of standing and getting elected or sitting back, waiting and getting appointed—the number of people offering themselves for election will not increase. The process proposed by the Government will undermine the democratic nature of parish councils and I hope very much that the Minister will accept the amendments.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Armstrong, Minister of State (Cabinet)), Cabinet Office 7:30 pm, 20th February 2007

Amendment No. 115 is essentially a probing amendment to tease out the circumstances in which councillors can be appointed. I would like some reassurance from the Minister that the clause will not  simply provide a mechanism for those with the largest and most organised voices in a community to get undue representation on parish councils, which in the future might have considerably greater powers than they do now. The Minister will be aware that some people who work with the most vulnerable, excluded and disadvantaged groups can easily be overlooked because they do not seek credit for themselves. They are exactly the sort of people who would make excellent appointees.

Given the hour, I shall not labour the point, but I simply ask the Minister whether regulations would ensure that a balance of community representation is maintained and encouraged when appointments are made.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

That may be a champagne moment.

The clause that hon. Members seek to amend will allow parish councils to appoint councillors in addition to the normal quota of elected councillors as supplemental councillors co-opted to fill vacancies in the office of elected parish councillor. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford asked what the difference is. I shall come to that in a moment, but there will be no difference in the council’s role.

I want first to draw a sharp distinction between the official process of co-option and appointment as in the clause. All of us want parish councils to be the focal point of the communities that they serve, and to be as vital and effective in their role as they possibly can be. Some councils embrace that philosophy. If they could appoint people by virtue of their role in the community—for example, local teachers—they would be able to add to their effectiveness.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove was quite cynical about the great and the good. I believe that parish councils want to embrace a wider group of people than just the great and the good.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The little and the bad.

There may be doctors, business people, faith and community leaders, local youth workers; someone suggested the local carnival organiser. They are people who contribute to the life of the community, but perhaps by virtue of the work that they do are not eligible to stand for the council. The appointment of such people could greatly enhance the work of councils, and we want to give power to the councils to appoint them if they wish to. We do not want to require councils to do it, and we will not put any pressure on them to do so. The intention of the clause is simply to enable them to appoint if they believe that people in their area—in their community—can contribute to making the council more effective.

As long as there are tight limits on the scale of such appointments, we are somewhat less concerned about the notional dilution of the council’s democratic credentials. As we heard, co-option is already commonplace in councils. In some areas, contested elections are relatively  rare, particularly in smaller parishes. Co-option may be used to fill a vacancy; if there is no vacancy but somebody has a contribution to make to the life of the parish and to making the parish council more effective, the option is open to the council.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham asked about limits being imposed and the guidance that would be available. Although I cannot go as far as she would like, I can say that I recognise that limits are important. That is why we are seeking a regulation-making power. We want to ensure that the great majority of councillors are elected and that the council as a whole is democratically accountable.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I am not unsympathetic to the general point that the Minister is making about having the right people on parish councils, but I am a little concerned that the clause is somewhat bureaucratic. If parish councillors want to consult the right people in the parish to help them achieve something, they can easily ask. The clause creates a new procedure.

Will appointed councillors with no vote and no say also be subject to the Standards Board’s provisions and so on? Will we encourage people to get involved in this way? Surely an informal procedure to ensure that the right people are involved in the council would be better than what is proposed.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts some comments that I was about to make. I shall deal with his points now. First, appointed councillors will be covered by the same standards and requirements in respect of behaviour of councillors as any other councillors, because they will be full councillors. That is the difference. He says that the clause is too bureaucratic because councillors can just ask people for advice. We do not need legislation to ask anybody in the community for advice. If the council wishes to get advice, it can do so. What we are proposing is something different. People will be full councillors and able to vote on all issues other than the co-option or appointment of new members to the council. One of the differences is that the decision on the appointment of new additional councillors will be taken only by elected councillors, not co-optee councillors. I assure the Committee that the regulations proposed will deal with that imperative.

We will also work closely with the National Association of Local Councils and other key stakeholders as we develop the details of the regulations and guidance. As part of that work we need to consider the maximum ratio of appointed councillors to elected councillors that will be permitted. At this stage, a maximum ratio of 1:4 or 1:3 would be a sensible rule. We also need to consider how long councillors’ appointments should last.

The hon. Gentleman implicitly asked why people would not stand for election in the normal way. As I said at the beginning, there may be good reasons why people cannot stand for election. For example, it may be in someone’s conditions of employment that they cannot stand for election when, nevertheless, they may have a contribution to make. It may not be appropriate to someone’s profession that they stand for election: for example, a local doctor may feel that it is inappropriate  for him or her do so. Whatever the reason, such people may have the expertise, experience or commitment to their area and feel that they would be an asset to the council and be willing to serve.

Amendments Nos. 48 and 121 proposed by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove would wreck the measure. I understand that is where he is coming from, but we oppose those amendments. Amendment No. 122 would allow councils to appoint members but would then prevent those appointees from taking part in decisions that require a vote. I am worried about the hon. Gentleman because several times during proceedings he has described himself as being disappointed and I feel that I may be disappointing him again. As I said to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, we do not want appointed councillors simply to be advisers to the council: they are not observers to councils; they are there for councillors. Someone who cannot vote on any matter coming before the parish council cannot be said to be a councillor. As I have already pointed out, councils do not need legislation to allow them to take advice from people in the communities; they can do that already. We want the councillors who are brought in to have the same voting rights as elected councillors, with the exceptions that I have mentioned.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I draw the Under-Secretary’s attention to paragraph (3)(d) which says that the regulations will deal, among other things, with

“the right of persons appointed to participate in decision-making by the council (including voting)”.

In other words, the Minister’s own Bill envisages circumstances in which that right to vote might be circumscribed by the regulations. What is her objection to putting that in the Bill?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The regulations that we are talking about apply to very minor cases. The example I gave was that it would be completely wrong for an appointed member of a council to take part in a vote to appoint another member. That is very limited and the hon. Gentleman is looking at a far wider picture than that envisaged in the regulations. Why would people want to come forward—for example, a youth worker or somebody working in the community—and spend time engaging with and being part of a council if, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, they were not allowed to vote and take part in proceedings? I should confirm that people appointed would be subject to the Standards Board code of conduct for councillors and would be expected to behave in accordance with that.

Amendment No. 123 would prevent the Secretary of State from regulating the right of persons appointed to councils to participate in decision making. That was the effect the hon. Gentleman was looking for, but I have given reasons why that should be the case. We want to take the opportunity to look at the proper limits that there should be on those councillors.

Amendment No. 115 seeks to empower the Secretary of State to regulate the appointment of councillors and their subsequent holding of office by making provision about the degree of representation in the wider community. This amendment is rather different and I  have some sympathy with the objectives that have been set out. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said it was a probing amendment, and unfortunately if it is put to the vote, I must ask the Committee to vote against it. However, it makes a constructive suggestion and one that I hope parishes will take on board. My hon. Friend gave clear reasons why she has concerns, but one of the reasons I must ask the Committee to reject the amendment is because it offers no definition of the wider community. We take it to be a reference to the democratic make-up of the parish in which the appointment was made, but it is quite vague and could be a recipe for trouble later on. For that reason, we have to resist the amendment.

There are, however, more fundamental reasons why we have to resist, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand. She wants to allow the Secretary of State somehow to put the onus on parish councils to correct failures of the democratic process by delivering a set of councillors that better reflects the make-up of the community from which they are drawn. For example, there might not be enough women councillors, or an older council might need youth representation. The council’s make-up might have a different balance from that of the community as a whole.

The purpose of the measures is to be fairly permissive to councils and to give parish councils the flexibility that might be helpful to them, but we are reluctant to set any expectation that the Secretary of State will interfere by regulation to correct some perceived failure of the democratic process. That is not our purpose, and we do not think that it is achievable in practice. I accept my hon. Friend’s comments about the loudest voice being heard. We want parish councils to be able to look around their communities for expertise that could be of use. Often, those voices are not heard or are not the loudest, but such people have a role to play in the community.

These are modest measures intended to assist councils. We want to allow parish councils to appoint additional members, but not on a scale that would be seen by right-minded people seriously to undermine the democratic process. We must ask whether allowing appointments of one or just a few extra councillors is a suitable basis on which to adjust the make-up of parish councils to reflect the communities they serve. We think that it is very difficult and probably wrong to try to achieve that in such a way. In our view, it would be better to trust the good judgment of parish councils to ascertain which people will be an asset and serve the community best. The measures will give them some room to manoeuvre, and the intention is clear.

The measures will be a useful step forward. We think that they will not damage local democracy but indeed enhance it, and I hope that hon. Members will therefore not press their amendments. Otherwise, I shall ask the Committee to join with me in rejecting them.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The Under-Secretary made a flying start this morning, but as she predicted, it has ended in disappointment. She said some interesting things. She seems to have a model of how parish councils operate. I am pleased to see that the Department has such a positive picture of them, but there are 26,000 parish councils, which have highly variable performance, and  something like 90 per cent. of the Standards Board’s work concerns disputes with or between parish councils. I was not reassured by her comment that the appointed members would be exactly the same as other councillors and subject, as they are, to the Standards Board. That does not fill me with a positive feeling about the proposal.

The Under-Secretary says that she does not want to see any restriction on appointments, except in the most minor way to prevent councillors from appointing their friends, which is sensible. However, to rule out the possibility that such appointees might have an agenda of their own that goes beyond their role as, say, youth worker or doctor or vicar, and might see their primary route to the parish council as being through the electoral system seems to be a disappointing discounting of the value of democracy in parishes. I shall not ask the Committee to vote on the amendment, but I do make it clear that I believe the clause to be completely misconceived. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 1.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.