New Clause 5 - Parish meetings: parish polls

Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 21st November 2013.

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‘(1) In Part 3 of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 (procedure in parish meetings), paragraph 18 is amended as follows.

(2) Omit sub-paragraphs (4) to (6).

(3) At the end insert—

“(7) A poll may be demanded before the conclusion of a parish meeting on any question arising at the meeting, subject to regulations made under sub-paragraph (8).

(8) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about polls consequent on parish meetings, in particular about—

(a) the questions arising at a meeting on which a poll may be demanded,

(b) the circumstances in which a poll may or must be taken (including provision as to the number of local government electors who must demand a poll for a poll to be taken), and

(c) the conduct of a poll.

(9) Regulations under sub-paragraph (8)(c) may apply any electoral enactment (with or without modifications) to polls consequent on parish meetings.

(10) In sub-paragraph (9) “electoral enactment” means an enactment which relates to elections or referendums.

For that purpose, “enactment” includes an enactment contained in subordinate legislation as defined in section 21(1) of the Interpretation Act 1978.

(11) A statutory instrument containing regulations under sub-paragraph (8) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

(4) In section 243 of that Act (computation of time and timing of elections, etc)—

(a) in subsection (2) for “rules under paragraph 18 or” substitute “regulations under paragraph 18 or rules under paragraph 34”,

(b) in subsection (4) before “rules” (in both places it occurs) insert “regulations or”, and

(c) in subsection (5) before “rules” (in both places it occurs) insert “regulations or”.’.—(Brandon Lewis.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

The purpose of the new clause and the amendment is to add provisions for the modernisation of parish polls. I want to put it on the record that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Corby for allowing us to widen the scope of the Bill to debate this amendment, which I hope he will support. We have had conversations outside the Committee, and I hope that there will be cross-party support for the provisions.

I do not wish to keep the Committee long, but I want to put a few things on the record. We seek to include these provisions in the Bill in response to amendments tabled in the other place by the Earl of Lytton, president of the National Association of Local Councils, who expressed concerns that the parish polling process is out of date and allows a

“vexatious pursuit of various hobby-horses”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. GC259.]

with “enormous financial consequences” for parish and town councils.

The amendment will give powers to the Secretary of State to make provisions about the number of electors needed to trigger a poll, and to define the subject matter on which a poll may be held. Currently, a poll may be demanded on any question arising from a parish meeting. A poll may be held either if the chairman of the parish meeting consents or if a poll is demanded by no fewer than 10, or one third, of the electors present at the meeting, whichever is less. Once a poll is triggered, it is carried out by a district council, and the costs are met by the parish.

Parish polls are an important democratic tool and we wish to preserve them. They are a useful way of gauging local public opinion on matters that are important to local people. However, we recognise that they currently operate in an archaic way, which creates barriers to participation. For example, at the moment voting hours are only between 4 pm and 9 pm, and there is no provision for either postal or proxy voting. Individuals can abuse the rules surrounding the trigger and the subject matter by holding polls unrelated to their local area, at substantial expense to the taxpayer.

New clause 5 will enable the Secretary of State to set out in regulations detailed provisions to modernise the arrangements that govern parish polls. The new clause specifies that regulations may cover the arrangements for the conduct of a poll, the subject matter on which a poll may be held and the circumstances in which a poll may or must be taken. The Government intend to create regulations to extend the hours during which a vote may be cast, and bring the rules up to date by allowing, for example, postal voting. In line with the Earl of Lytton’s proposed amendments, we also intend to more tightly define what constitutes a legitimate topic for a poll. We will address concerns about the threshold for triggering a poll by, for example, specifying the number of local government electors who must demand a poll for one to be required.

The Government intend to consult widely on the content of the regulations, which will be subject to the negative procedure. We intend to launch a scoping exercise early next year, followed by a formal public consultation. We hope to collaborate with and learn from the wealth of knowledge that the Earl of Lytton and the National Association of Local Councils clearly have on this subject. I appreciate the conversations I have already had with NALC.

Amendment 136 will amend the long title of the Bill to reflect the widening of its scope, which will allow new clause 5 to be added. These new measures will ensure that parish polls provide a legitimate method for local communities to have a voice on issues that directly relate to parish matters. They will increase participation by updating the archaic arrangements for the conducting of polls.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I welcome again the way in which the Government have introduced new clause 5. At times the Government are criticised when new clauses are introduced very late in the scrutiny process, but in this case they are beyond such criticism because they have introduced a new clause in response to the House of Lords. They should therefore be congratulated on listening to the debate and the powerful argument made on the subject by the Earl of Lytton in the other place.

I am reassured to know that the National Association of Local Councils supports the changes to parish polls, which are very much about modernising practice. The Minister highlighted some excellent examples of the clear need to modernise practice. On a personal level I have long been committed to town and parish councils. I have many in my area—there are four market towns where the town councils play an incredibly important role, as indeed they do in many of the villages across east Northamptonshire. I know that they will welcome this modernisation of practice.

I must not miss the opportunity to urge the Minister to look further at some areas of modernisation in the conduct of parish councils, which I have raised with him in parliamentary questions. For example, I have asked about parish councils’ current inability to publish their agendas and minutes online because of concerns about outdated laws. I urge the Minister to look at such issues at the earliest opportunity.

Since this is the last time I will speak in the Committee, I thank you, Mr Weir, for your chairmanship of our proceedings. You have kept us on track, but you have done so in a kind and flexible way in order to allow us to give full consideration to all the clauses of this important Bill. I would also like to thank Sir Edward Leigh, who has also chaired some of our proceedings.

I thank the staff of the Public Bill Office, who have been incredibly helpful in translating our thoughts and intentions about amendments and our requests for clarifications about the wording and meaning of the Bill with their incredible expertise. I also thank them for their openness to meeting with us, talking with us and guiding us at all times of all hours. We are very grateful for that. I have really appreciated the work that they have done with my researcher, and I know that all Members feel similarly.

I thank the Minister and his officials for the work they have done, including between Committee sittings, when at times they have written to Members to provide further information. I had one such letter from the Minister today, which was very helpful in clarifying matters debated earlier in Committee. I must say to the Minister that although there are clear points of difference, some of which the Opposition will press on Third Reading, there are also areas where we have found considerable agreement. Where we have not, I have appreciated how the Minister has sought to provide clarification and reassurance on some of the issues raised and has, indeed, given a little ground at times in understanding where the Opposition are coming from. I hope that in that spirit we might see some further improvement of the Bill on Third Reading.

I would like to draw my remarks to a close by thanking in particular my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee, all of whom have spoken and participated at various stages. I am incredibly grateful to them. This  has been the first time I have led on a Bill for the Opposition, so their expertise and support has been extremely welcome. I want to say that on the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, although we have at times had real disagreement and occasional moments of tetchiness, we have also had some humour in the course of debating a very important Bill. I thank all Members of the Committee for that.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s support for the changes we are making to parish polls. I was going raise a point of order, but as we have reached the end of the Committee stage, if you will allow me, Mr Weir, I will take the opportunity, like the hon. Gentleman, to express my thanks to the people who have facilitated our proceedings, namely the Doorkeepers, Hansard and the parliamentary Clerks, who enabled us to go through this process.

I would also like to express my thanks to both of our Chairs—yourself, Mr Weir, and Sir Edward Leigh—who have robustly steered this Committee over some rather technical ground. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has been a very limited amount of tetchiness and, obviously, a great deal of good-hearted, good-natured and, at times, enjoyable discussion. It is important that we have had the chance for that.

I appreciate Members from all parties for taking the opportunity to make their expert contributions to the debate. I have been particularly blessed to have a fantastic team on the Government Benches, and I really appreciate the time and effort they have put in.

I am pleased that we have made good time with the Bill. All its provisions have received good, detailed, serious and well-debated consideration—very much what the Bill deserves. For that I would like to thank the usual channels for all the excellent work that has been done in allocating time, which has even allowed us to finish some sittings early over the past couple of weeks.

With that, I would like to thank everybody on my team again for all the support we have had. I think that we have done the Bill justice.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 5 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.