HC Deb 18 June 1973 vol 858 cc323-8
Mr. Russell Johnston

I beg to move Amendment No. 254, in page 27, line 23, leave out 'establishment' and insert 'election'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we are to take Amendment No. 253, in page 27, line 38, leave out 'elections' and insert: 'method of election, duration of tenure of office of elected members'.

Mr. Johnston

I, too, will be brief, because the hour is not conducive to lengthy speeches, nor indeed to their enjoyment, as one can judge from a glance at the Public Gallery.

The object of the amendment is, first, to emphasise that community councils be elected bodies and, secondly, to give the Secretary of State a definitive rule for method of election, duration of tenure of office of elected members". The substitution of "election" for "establishment" in line 24 is self-evident.

The second amendment is more significant. According to Clause 52(2), the local authority has a responsibility for preparing and giving public notice of a draft scheme of the community council. However, this does not include the question of the method of election, the duration of tenure of office, or for that matter the length of time for which the community council may hold office.

The scheme for the community council set out in subsection (2) requires the Secretary of State's approval in accordance with subsections (5) and (6). Only after the Secretary of State has approved the scheme, according to the Bill as drafted, does the question arise as to whether it is proceeded with and, if so, how it is proceeded with, and this is determined by the local authority itself according to subsection (7).

This is not a good system. It would be a bad thing. We all know the valuable work that village councils and village organisations do. They are wholly voluntary bodies. The danger with such voluntary bodies is that motivated people, to use the word which was bandied about between the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) and the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne), become involved and represent themselves as representing the community. This danger will exist if the Secretary of State does not involve himself directly in the method of election and indeed in the term for which the council may continue without having a further election.

Mr. Younger

I see the point that the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) is getting at, but I am not sure that I share his view that it is necessary to spell out in great detail the method of election, and so on, for a community council.

As to Amendment No. 254, "establishment" was chosen as a broad and comprehensive term to cover all aspects of the setting up of community councils in an area—not simply the elections, but the drafting of rules of procedure, delineation of areas, and any other action necessary.

If the hon. Gentleman is afraid that the use of the term might imply that a district or islands authority might try to meet its responsibility under the clause by, for example, setting up a "token" community body consisting of persons nominated by the authority instead of chosen locally, it should be emphasised that, since the whole idea of community council schemes is that there should be full public consultation at all stages, an attempt to circumvent the democratic process in this way would be unlikely to get very far.

Amendment No. 253 would require community council schemes to include details of electoral methods, and to specify the terms of office of elected members, rather than simply containing provisions on elections. This amendment, like others put forward by the hon. Members, would have the effect of making the provisions relating to community councils more detailed and specific, and it is doubtful whether such increased precision is either necessary or desirable. In particular, to require district councils to lay down in schemes how long community council elected members are to hold office appears an unnecessary requirement. It could quite well be that a particular period of office would suit one community council but not another and that the period should therefore be specified not in the scheme but in the constitution of each of the councils concerned. There must be the maximum scope for flexibility, as the Wheatley Commission emphasised: and therefore the provisions to be written into schemes should be reduced to the minimum.

Mr. Johnston

I am all for flexibility but presumably schemes produced in community councils as set out in the Bill will vary from place to place and if the schemes vary the methods of election may vary also. I do not see why one should be excluded and the other included.

Mr. Younger

The hon. Member's amendment inserts the words method of election, duration of tenure of office of elected members". That would mean that the method of election for example would have to be spelt out in general in the scheme. That might be highly unsuitable in some of the community councils within the district and most suitable for others and it seems to be something not to be specified too clearly because we want to allow the maximum difference. It by no means follows that a member of a community council will be elected in the same way or even elected at all. Some of them would want to be nominated.

Mr. Johnston

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Carmichael

I beg to move Amendment No. 73, in page 28, line 18 after 'form', insert: 'together with public notice of such a scheme as it applies to each proposed area, by exhibition in that area'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this Amendment it will be convenient also to discuss Amendment No. 74, in page 28, line 19, leave out: 'apply in writing to the local authority' and insert: 'attend a public meeting, at which a prescribed number of electors, which shall be not less than 30 shall be asked to sign a resolution'.

Mr. Carmichael

We have put down these amendments because we feel it is not enough just to leave it vaguely specified as "form". There should be an effort made to let the people in an area know that a scheme has been drawn up and that a community council is about to be set up. Therefore, there should be provision for notices to be given in the area. Will the Under-Secretary tell us what is included in the term "form"? We should like there to be an exhibition, perhaps in post offices, or community centres and even special exhibitions devised for the purpose, particularly in the early days of community councils. The provisions would strengthen the clause.

Amendment No. 74 would provide that instead of requesting people to apply in writing for the setting up of a community council a meeting should be called and at least 30 people attending the meeting must sign a resolution. This would be a better idea that vaguely asking people to write in. It would mean that some one would have to organise people into groups whereas in the first instance, at least, the initiative should come from the district council which is setting up the community councils, or which is taking part in organising the first community councils. It should call a local meeting at which people should be given the opportunity to sign a resolution. That is much more positive than merely asking people to write in.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Younger

I am glad to say that I can accept Amendment No. 73, on which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Woodside (Mr. Carmichael) made some good points.

I am less happy about Amendment No. 74, which lays down a more complex procedure than that set out in the Bill. Under the amendment a "prescribed number" of electors—presumably, though this is not specified, to be laid down by the district council—would be required to hold a "public meeting", which is not otherwise defined, at which a petition to the district council would be signed. One objection at least to this procedure is that the setting of a minimum number of electors, with no maximum, might make it possible for a district council to inhibit the formation of community councils in its area by setting what might be called the petition levels unreasonably high.

In addition, I think it unnecessary to spell out in statute details of this kind concerning the preparation of a petition. As hon. Members will be well aware, the preparation of a petition on a matter of general local concern, such as the formation of a community council, is something which local people are well capable of organising for themselves on a democratic basis, and I think it unnecessary to lay down the methods by which they should do this. In many cases, the petitioners will probably choose to hold a public meeting to establish the strength of local feeling; but sometimes—for example, in very remote rural areas—it may well be more convenient to circularise people by post rather than call them to a meeting over what may be long distances. It should be recognised that the mandatory holding of a meeting in the manner proposed could interfere with the freedom of local choice on which community councils must depend.

It is therefore better not to spell the matter out too clearly in the way suggested in the amendment. But I hope that it will be some consolation to the hon. Gentleman that I can accept Amendment No. 73.

Mr. Carmichael

It is obviously a consolation, but I ask the Minister to reconsider Amendment No. 74. He said that we are stipulating a set number of electors—not fewer than 30—but the Bill itself contains the words in subsection (7): Where not less than 30 electors apply". So far as I am aware, this is the first time in our discussions on community councils that the question of circularising people by post has arisen. When the Minister speaks of the possibility of circularising people in a remote area by post, is he thinking of circularising all electors in the area?

If the matter had come up at a more opportune hour I should have gone into it much more fully. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's statements on Amendment No. 74 quite match up with some of his statements in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

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