HL Deb 04 March 1997 vol 578 cc1-44GC

Tuesday, 4th March 1997.

The Committee met at half-past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Viscount of Oxfuird) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Viscount of Oxfuird)

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Grand Committee. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause, noble Lords will speak standing, all noble Lords are free to attend and participate, and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard. But the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in this Committee. Any issues on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should also explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. This Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 1: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause— NON-DOMESTIC RATING: RELIEF FOR URBAN SETTLEMENTS (". Schedule (Non-domestic rating: relief for urban settlements) shall have effect.").

The noble Lord said: I beg leave to move Amendment No. 1 and would like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 10 and 12. This is an important part of the Bill. The amendments are concerned with a number of related matters to do with the definition of rural settlements and rural areas, the possibility of extending discretionary relief outside rural settlements and other matters such as extending the mandatory rate relief provisions to general stores and post offices outside rural areas.

Amendment No. 1 is a paving amendment, so it is not of any substance. Perhaps I should start with Amendment No. 3, which is a probing amendment, as so many of my amendments are intended to be. It is based upon the DoE consultation paper which said that the DoE had identified all the parishes in which there are rural settlements of 3000 people or less, using data from the Rural Development Commission. The DoE had also identified rural settlements of 3,000 or less which exist outside rural parishes. It was intended to use this data, I understand, to define rural areas. I wonder whether that is still the intention, and I also wonder which metropolitan districts contain what might be defined as rural areas. For example, are there any London boroughs which contain areas which might come into this category, and will it be for the billing authority to decide what is a rural settlement? Those are very specific questions about that amendment. I would now like to move on to Amendment No. 4.

Amendment No. 4 is also concerned with the definition of a rural area. The Bill places a duty upon billing authorities to maintain a list of rural settlements located in rural areas, designated by the Secretary of State. However, the Bill says nothing about how rural areas and rural settlements are to be defined. This, again, is a probing amendment to allow discussion as to how such a definition might be arrived at.

Amendment No. 10 is concerned with extending discretionary relief outside rural settlements. The point here is that Schedule 1 also introduces other provisions extending discretionary relief to hereditaments in rural settlements which the local authority determines are used for purposes of benefit to the local community. The rural settlement constraint can be overcome by simply inserting a new condition for the granting of discretionary relief. So the purpose of the amendment would be to extend the benefits of this part of the Bill outside specifically defined rural settlements.

Amendment No. 12 would extend the mandatory rate relief provisions to general stores and post offices outside the rural areas. Such stores and post offices face very similar difficulties to those in defined rural areas. For example, one might find a housing estate on the edge of a small country town where the distances that the inhabitants would have to travel to the centre of the town were prohibitive. Indeed, in all other respects, the future of such stores or post offices would be subject to the same threats as to those in small and isolated villages. The intention here is therefore to enable the benefits of the Bill to be extended to such stores and post offices. The arguments are very similar for these amendments as for the main part of the Bill relating to small villages with the populations as stated. However, it would be a benefit to some of the areas I have described if the Bill were to be extended in this particular way. Those are the main arguments. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He has identified a number of very interesting and important points which would extend the benefits of the Bill. My amendment in this group, Amendment No. 2, is concerned with stability. I believe that the whole of the Committee would accept that it is important for any small business to have as great a degree of stability as can reasonably be achieved and my concern in this amendment is that the stores in question, within a settlement of 3,000, should not be faced with the prospect of being outside that settlement simply because of a small fluctuation in numbers of population locally in the very near future. My amendment seeks to allow for a two-year view, if I may put it that way, so that once a store obtains the benefit of the provisions the owner knows that the benefit will last for at least two years.

In supporting small shops and small businesses generally, it is right to seek that kind of arrangement. In another place the Minister said (I quote from Standing Committee B on 21st November, col. 38): The important point is that people should know where they stand and that they should not be faced with unexpected decisions which would be difficult to cope with". He went on to say, in dealing with an amendment which was rejected in another place: Once a rural settlement list comes into play, it will apply for the whole of the financial year, irrespective of any changes in the community. Businesses will be certain of continuity during the year. We want an annual review of the list so that people have a good early warning of any changes". That is an annual review to give good early warning. An arrangement which allows the ratepayer to see beyond the end of one year has much to commend it.

3.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for having explained his series of amendments to this part of this Bill. They would allow local authorities to give both mandatory and discretionary rate relief to businesses within urban areas, as he pointed out, as well as those in rural areas.

The Bill is designed specifically to help rural communities. We all know that because of the changed patterns of shopping, shops in these kinds of communities find it difficult to remain viable, and the comparative isolation of these communities can spell disaster for the elderly and those who have no access to a car if their local store is forced to close. The problem of the village shop, therefore, is essentially one of numbers, and the rate relief scheme is designed to provide assistance in these circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is concerned as to how a rural area will be defined. The rural areas in England have been defined in housing legislation and we are minded to accept those definitions for the village shop scheme. However, we will consider this and consult again during the summer to make quite sure that we have the correct definition.

The noble Lord was also concerned that some small shops ought to be covered which are, I think he said, outside small towns to which people in the country would go, and if they were to suffer then the people in the country would also suffer. We have to draw a line somewhere and once a shop comes in a town it is of essence an urban shop. The shopping systems in the towns are different and the nature of shops in towns are different. Urban shops are often isolated; they can be on blighted estates; they can be trading against a background of vandalism and crime and the social problems of an urban community. I know that might not apply to the particular shops which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, had in mind at the edge of a town, but because the underlying causes are different, the solutions must also be different as between the urban shops and the rural shops. The rate relief scheme would be of little assistance in helping those urban shops to remain open because of the nature of the conditions in which they trade. We are, therefore, addressing the problems of these shops through other schemes, such as the single regeneration budget, of which there will shortly be some 500 schemes throughout the country. These are aimed at some of the specific economic problems of urban areas and they can, therefore, be of far greater assistance to them.

What we are trying to do here is a fairly simple thing. We are trying to put available resources where they will do the most good. Our proposals for a rate relief scheme for rural businesses do that. That is the reason we ought to limit it to the rural areas.

With regard to Wales and Scotland, there is no similar housing legislation, and my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland are discussing with local authorities the best ways in which to define a rural area.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also asked about how local authorities would identify rural settlements. We have consulted the local authorities and they do not find any difficulty in defining rural settlements. They will have to identify the boundaries of the settlements and that will probably be on a map. For all those reasons, I hope the noble Lord will consider that it would be better to retain the proposals as they are in the Bill. They are there specifically to help those shops in rural communities which are facing considerable difficulties.

The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, although on similar lines, is different in so far as it would entitle businesses to continue their rate relief for a year after their settlement would otherwise have been removed from the rural settlement list because, for instance, the size of the village had grown to over 3,000 people. The intention is to provide ratepayers with certainty as to their future bills. But, if I may say so, the amendment of the noble Baroness is not necessary for this reason.

Once a rural settlement list comes into effect it will apply for the whole of a financial year, irrespective of any change in the size of the community during that year. Ratepayers will know, therefore, that the rate relief which they will enjoy will continue to be available for the whole of that year. The local authority will be under a duty to review the list during the course of the year and, if any changes are needed, they will have to draw up a new list for the following financial year and that list will have to be made available for inspection from 1st January. Ratepayers, under those circumstances, will therefore have three months' notice of any withdrawal of the rate relief.

Indeed, in reality they are likely to be aware of the possibility of rate relief being withdrawn long before that happens, because they will know, for example, that their village, which may be close to a population of 3,000, is likely to go over the limit because they will know of any new housing developments which may be under consideration or under construction. The removal of the settlement from the list is, therefore, likely to come as no surprise and, if it were to be removed, they would have three months' knowledge of the fact that that was going to happen.

Again, it is better for the Bill to remain as it is, which is perfectly clear. Where a shop under certain circumstances is entitled to a rate relief, the entitlement to that rate relief would be for the whole year. They will know in advance that they will be entitled to that for the year. It is only when the circumstances change that they will certainly know three months in advance, and probably a good deal more in advance. I hope the noble Baroness will agree that the Bill in that respect is best left as it is.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for the helpful comments he has made regarding some of my amendments. May I press him a little about the point that I made concerning small shops at the edge of country towns, where he was less helpful than on the other amendments? Perhaps I did not make myself clear the first time I spoke.

I have seen small country towns with council housing at the edge where there may be an isolated shop or post office. The distance for the people living near that shop or post office to any other shop or post office may be as great, and the journey may take as long, as for people in the village-type community to which the Bill is principally addressed.

The question is whether we are not left with something of an anomaly. The Minister talked about regeneration grants and such like. I wonder whether such grants would be available in the instance about which I am talking. For all practical purposes the difficulties faced by such an isolated post office or shop and the service that that post office or shop provides to local people are identical to the situation for the shops in small villages to which the Bill refers.

We are talking about a small extension to the scope of the Bill in order to prevent such small shops dying for the same reason that village shops are dying. The position is so close that, whether a rural area has a small village in it or whether it is a small country town with similar conditions adjacent, is a technical distinction only and the spirit of the Bill would be met by including the other sorts of shops to which I have referred.

Lord Mottistone

I intervene to say that I sympathise greatly with what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said. As we do not have to vote, I am happy to be able to support him wholly in the principle of what he is saying.

A town that is only six miles away from where I live is very spread out and one could say that part of the town, which is nominally a town by any other means, is like a village. But its closest point is 500 yards from where the town really starts.

It is a terribly complicated matter, and I would like to leave it with my noble friend, in the same way as he has promised to look at the definitions of villages and urban areas. There are so many variations—one can think of them all the time—and it will be extremely difficult for the shopkeepers who are on the edges of relatively small towns and who find that they are not being treated as well as the people who are in more obviously genuine villages.

I am delighted that the Bill goes as far as it does, but it will be frightfully difficult to be fair about the border areas.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I find that the grouping is a little confusing. There is a danger of conducting two completely different debates. Therefore, although I regard the reply of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to my noble friend Lady Hamwee as being not very satisfactory and I would like to take it further, I propose to do that by moving Amendment No. 2 when we come to it, rather than mixing it up with this other debate, although I entirely support, as does my noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.

Earl Ferrers

I quite understand the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, wishing to move Amendment No. 2 separately. He is entirely entitled to do that. I see his reason for that because, although the amendments are grouped, they address rather different subject matters. My regret is that he did not find my reply to his noble friend Lady Hamwee very helpful. It was supposed to be enormously helpful. I thought it was very convincing. I have convinced myself, but I shall have to try my best to convince the noble Baroness a little more.

To come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I see what he is getting at. I referred to urban areas because the effect of his amendment would have been to cover urban areas too. I see that he wants to cover those shops at the edge of towns. It is perfectly possible that rural areas can be in metropolitan councils, and they could therefore be covered if the definition were right, but of course they are not in urban areas.

The whole purpose of the Bill is to try to help rural communities. My noble friend Lord Mottistone said that where he lives the town is spread out and is like a little village, and it is therefore relatively straggly. That may be so, but, as he said, the town is spread out, and the purpose of this is to help the villages and not to help the towns. By definition, if my noble friend's way were to hold sway, he would actually be helping a town. Even if we were prepared to do that, for a variety of reasons, one has to remember that small towns are likely to have more than one general store and more than one post office. The criterion is that the legislation helps only the last general store or the last post office. It is likely that expanding towns have more than one shop and one post office.

Returning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, he is trying to help those other people in rural areas who have to travel to the edge of the town to get to their post office or shop. We are trying to help the integration of that village itself, not, which is a perfectly laudable argument, trying to help people who have to travel to a post office. We are trying to encourage the village itself to remain as a corporate entity. That is why it would be better not to try to extend the legislation so that it covered shops at the edges of towns.

Lord Dubs

I suppose one cannot have everything in a Bill of this kind. I have listened to what the Minister has to say and I thank him for his explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 [Relief from non-domestic rates for general stores etc. in rural settlements: England and Wales]:

4 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley moved Amendment No. 2: Page 19, line 17, at end insert ("or on the last 31st December before the beginning of the year immediately preceding the chargeable financial year in question,").

The noble Lord said: The noble Earl has given an answer to this point, but it is not tremendously helpful and the amendment falls into a different category from that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. What little he might hear relates to genuinely rural villages but with the population limit just about on the borderline. We are talking, therefore, about stores which, because they have been given rate relief at one moment, are genuinely the kind of shops that we are trying to help in order to support the kind of communities that we are trying to help.

No one can deny that there has to be a cut-off point and that there has to be a level of population where the relief no longer applies, and that there has to be a time limit. It seems to me, however, that, having once given a shop or post office this kind of rate relief, it is very important that it should be able to continue its work for at least some time, secure in the knowledge that it has this guaranteed position. Obviously, when facts change sufficiently that it deserves to lose that relief it should have a considerable time in which to adapt. If the worst comes to the worst, of course, it is time to get out of the business and hope that someone else will come in, but that is not the object of the exercise: the object of the exercise is that these shops should continue, and for that they need some security.

My noble friend and I wonder whether there would be scope for some kind of amendment whereby they would be given longer if they were within a certain range of the population limit. We are not necessarily talking about big new populations and big new housing estates being built in the area. That may be one of the things that happens, but the population may also increase through the number of children that people have. There may be a perfectly natural, and not very fast, expansion of that kind.

It would be helpful if the noble Earl could look at the possibility of giving this kind of small business, which is, by definition, one we want to encourage, which is not obviously thriving and which needs this kind of encouragement, a rather greater leeway. It would be helpful if he could look at this again before the next stage of the Bill.

Baroness Hamwee

I am most grateful to my noble friend for developing the argument. He is entirely right. The development of a village that I had in mind was a human development, not by way of building. I entirely appreciate that, if a village is to change its character substantially by means of a group of extra houses, for instance, on the edge, of course the shopkeeper will be aware of that and will see the houses going up. My concern is to assist the business, and through the business the viability of the settlement, by maintaining that stability to which my noble friend has referred.

I would be more than happy to develop this by means of a slightly different amendment, which, for instance, put a top limit on the population number in the second year such as 3,300. That is rather picking a figure out of the air, but I mention it to see whether I can tempt the Minister to make any further comment at this stage.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Baroness is always good at trying to cajole one into moving a little bit further down the road, and I always listen to her with interest. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, made a number of valuable points. However, what we are coming down to is where one draws the line. One can always draw the line in a different place, and I am quite surprised that, having recommended a figure of 3,000, somebody has not said, "We ought to have 4,000, or 2,500", or whatever it is. You have to draw the line somewhere and the line is drawn at 3,000.

Of course, one can say if the population is 2,998 and somebody has three children, then the settlement goes over the top of the 3,000 level and gets excluded. However, that will not happen, because authorities can take a common sense point of view. They do not have to scan the births and deaths registers to see exactly how many people are in a village. The purpose is to reflect, for instance, housing developments and so forth. If there were a housing development taking place near a village people would know that: there would be more people, there would be more trade, so that could be argued to help the business.

The noble Baroness asked whether she could tempt me by suggesting that there should be an upper limit of, say, 3,300. But, again, that is moving the line. If a village which had been under 3,000 and received the rate relief was allowed to continue the rate relief when it reached 3,300, it might be unfair to the next village which had a population of 3,100 and therefore had been excluded from the start.

I see what the noble Baroness, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, want to do, which is to give some kind of continuity for these places. In fact, they will get continuity. The examples which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord give are likely to happen only in very rare and exceptional cases. The fact is that they will get this relief as long as they qualify by being a particular small area, and provided that it is the only shop and the only post office in the village.

The situation is quite difficult. One is inclined to say, "They had it once and therefore they ought to have it for the next year, too", when the next year they do not qualify and others who likewise do not qualify also do not get the rate relief. I shall consider the points which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have made, but I do not think there is an easy way of changing the position without being unfair to other people and without altering the entire system. The line is drawn at 3,000 people. Once you move that line you must move it for every area.

Baroness Hamwee

My noble friend will respond in a moment but I should like to pursue the point about the steps that the authority has to take in assessing the numbers. I should know this. It probably appears on the face of the Bill and I cannot find it. But if the Government issue guidance as to the steps to be taken this needs to be clarified. The words in Schedule 1 are: appear to the authority to have had a population of not more than 3,000". One can imagine there might be references to the district auditor and other types of challenge to an authority by disgruntled ratepayers who feel that the rate burden spread across those who are not getting relief might not have been there if the authority had been more careful in counting heads. I would like to know that there is not room for making too much mischief in the system.

Earl Ferrers

I do not think there will be too much mischief made about this. The noble Baroness is quite right in what she says. New Section 42A(3)(b) states: appear to the authority to have had a population of not more than 3.000". The authority is not meant to be obliged to go on a head count and say, "Mrs Smith has just had a baby and therefore that makes a difference". It is what appears to the authority to be the number. Most local authorities know what their villages consist of and where the boundaries are. We will consult with the local authorities as to how they would best go about doing this. If they say, "Quite honestly, we would like some guidance on this", we shall consider giving them guidance. But it is unlikely to be a matter over which great mischief and trouble will be made.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I would like to thank the noble Earl for the points which he made in reply to the arguments I put forward. I still have a slight problem in that I am not entirely certain, if we do as we are suggesting, to whom it would be unfair. It would not be unfair to another shop in the same area, because there is, by definition, no other shop in the area. If it is a question of being unfair in terms of global resources, that does not apply either, because each of these situations is being looked at on its own.

We have to lay down what is, I would say in no pejorative sense, a bureaucratic limit—a straightforward limit. We also have to look with humanity at an organic situation, where there is a shop which is the life-blood of a community which is on the edge of succeeding or not succeeding. Rules must be made. But I would have thought we ought to be able to offer more leeway in the time given to adjust. I am heartened by the fact that the noble Earl says, without any commitment, that he will look at the points we have made, and we ourselves will look at the matter again. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 not moved.]

4.15 p.m.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 5: Page 20, line 26, leave out from ("amount") to ("and") in line 27 and insert ("determined by the billing authority,").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 5 which is linked to Amendment No. 11, which is a consequential amendment. In the debate a few moments ago the Minister said it was necessary to draw the line somewhere. As regards this amendment the issue is not whether a line should be drawn but who should draw it; that is to say, in relation to rateable value thresholds. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State is given powers to prescribe the rateable value thresholds for hereditaments eligible for mandatory and discretionary relief. The point of this amendment would be to give that power to billing authorities; namely, the main local authority in the area.

The argument is simply that by having across the country a flat rateable value threshold we lose flexibility. There may be some areas for which it might be on the low side and others for which it might be on the high side. It is difficult for the Secretary of State to get it right by setting one level across the whole country. If, however, the power were to be given to local authorities—not parish councils but the main local authority in the area—they could make a more sensitive decision as regards the appropriateness of applying the benefits of the Bill to a particular shop, post office or whatever.

Local authorities know their areas and can be sensitive to needs, to local conditions, to the viability of the local shop, and so on. For the Secretary of State to set a level across the whole country might mean that some shops that deserve support will simply fail to get it.

The fairness depends somewhat on rateable values in particular areas. They can be higher in some parts of the country than in others, although the need for support might be the same across these areas. The same level of rateable value threshold might require an adjustment to meet the needs of certain shops, or they might be missed out, whereas the local authority at the local level knows what the situation is and might be best able to make the judgment.

Earl Ferrers

The intention is that this scheme should be directed towards small businesses within the community. It is these which our research has shown suffer disproportionately from the non-domestic business rates. In order to qualify for mandatory rate relief the general store or post office must have a rateable value below a certain threshold. In the Bill we suggest that the threshold should be prescribed by the Secretary of State by order.

We have previously indicated that the threshold for mandatory relief is likely to be set at about £5,000, and the overwhelming majority of those who responded to our earlier consultation document felt that was about the right figure. Schedule 1 also allows the Secretary of State to prescribe a rateable value threshold by order for the discretionary scheme and this allows relief to be aimed at smaller businesses. It would not, though, be appropriate to set the same threshold as the one enjoyed by the mandatory scheme. Whereas the mandatory relief is aimed at a small general store and a post office only, we want to be able to give local authorities more flexibility with the discretionary scheme so that they can help other small shops and other businesses in general.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has already indicated that he is minded to set a higher threshold for discretionary relief and a figure of £10,000 was mooted in the consultation paper and that appears to command fairly widespread support. The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, provide, as he has explained, that the thresholds should be determined by each billing authority. I can well understand his concern that there ought to be regional thresholds to recognise the fact that the rateable values differ from region to region. We are of the view, however—and I believe the consultation bore this out—that the thresholds we have proposed would catch most, if not all, of the small businesses within villages, and setting a uniform rateable value threshold across the county will by definition help more small shops and general stores in areas of lower rateable value, because a higher proportion will fall within the mandatory threshold. It is our intention to consult with local authorities again before we finally set the thresholds. If, on closer examination, it appears necessary to set different thresholds for different regions, then we will do that. There are already powers in the Local Government Finance Act 1988 which allow this to be done.

However, I must say that I would be reluctant to go down the path of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, though I can see the reason why he put forward his amendment. If we are going to allow rateable value thresholds to be determined by each individual billing authority, this would raise the prospect that adjoining councils could set different thresholds with the result that businesses in villages, which might be only a mile or two away from each other, could be treated differently. I do not know that that would be a good thing to do.

As we have consulted on this, as the thresholds which have been proposed seem to command fairly widespread support and as we intend to consult again before we make the order, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will think that it would be better for the Secretary of State to do that, and that it should apply uniformly, rather than have each billing authority setting its own individual levels.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister again for giving a detailed response to the arguments I put forward in supporting this amendment. He talked about treating all shops in the same way. Of course, the problem is that I could use that argument in favour of my approach as much as the Minister can to support his. One might find two similar shops. One of them happens to have a rateable value which lifts it above the threshold, and the other is below the threshold. So the two shops would in effect be treated differently, though the intention would be to treat them the same. It is, therefore, quite difficult to be fair and treat shops equivalently.

Perhaps I may pursue one other point the Minister made. He talked about having gone through a phase of consultation, and he also said that there would be further consultation. I wonder if he could say a little more about how the consultation is getting on. Are we likely to know what the results of the consultation will be, given that the way in which the Secretary of State is going to use his powers seems to me to depend upon how the consultations will influence him?

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord is of course perfectly right that you can use these arguments in all ways. You will never find two shops of a different nature and of a different size necessarily being strictly comparable, whatever you do. That is why we feel it is better to have the scheme as it is outlined in the Bill.

We did consult the local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, might care to bear in mind that they were content with the thresholds which we proposed, and they felt that this was about right. He asked how the consultations are going. They are not actually going at the moment, because, so to speak, they have gone before we put the Bill before Parliament. Once the Bill is law, if your Lordships agree to that, then of course we will consult again on the detail before the secondary legislation bringing the mandatory and discretionary figures is laid before Parliament by order.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank the Minister again, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 6: Page 20, line 30, leave out from ("office") to end of line 32.

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 6 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 8 with which it is linked. These two amendments concern the definition of a general store and post office.

To qualify for mandatory relief a hereditament must be used as a qualifying general store or post office, or must satisfy conditions prescribed by the Secretary of State by order. These powers would be rather wide, and would give the Secretary of State a great deal of influence in terms of how many shops qualified. The amendment deletes the prescriptive power and enables us to have some discussion about how the Secretary of State might wish to use his powers.

Amendment No. 8 is also concerned with definition. A general store is defined as a trade or business consisting wholly or mainly of the sale by retail of both food for human consumption and general household goods. This is likely to be a contentious definition. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance. I appreciate that in many villages it is relatively easy to identify a general store or a post office, but it may not always be straightforward. In the Standing Committee in the other place the Minister, Mr Curry, said: It may be as difficult to define a general store as it is to define an elephant, but we all know what it is when we see one".

I suppose that is true, but it may not help us very much because some people may have a different sense of what an elephant is from others. It leaves it somewhat vague, and it may be helpful if we could have a better understanding as to how it is proposed to arrive at these definitions. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

If we were to accept Amendment No. 6, we would remove a very important power from the Bill. The Bill provides mandatory relief to the last general store or post office in a village. These shops stand alone in their importance to the community and this is why the Bill treats them as a special case. However, we would be short-sighted if we legislated just for today. At some time in the future some other category of rural business may be equally deserving and, if that were the case, then the power which this amendment seeks to remove would allow us to add that category of business to the mandatory relief scheme through secondary legislation.

The Bill provides that an order which is made under this power would have to be approved by both Houses. It is only right that such a step should be required to have the positive approval of Parliament, after proper opportunity for debate, and the Bill ensures that this is done. If we remove the power, then these amendments would simply delay the ability of the Government of the day to take any action to safeguard rural businesses, by requiring new primary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, knows how difficult that is to achieve. It would delay the possibility of businesses being helped, and that would not be in the interests of rural settlements. That is why I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will agree on reflection that his amendment would slow the process of helping the villages down, rather than expediting it.

Amendment No. 8 is different in so far as a general store is defined in the Bill as a retail trade or business consisting, as he reminded us, wholly or mainly of the sale of both food for human consumption (excluding confectionery) and general household goods. We have tried not to make the definition more prescriptive than this because we do not want to stifle the diversity which is essential to the viability of rural shops. On the other hand, we do not want the definition to be so wide that virtually any retail business can claim to fall within it. By linking food for human consumption with general household goods, we felt that we had captured the essential nature of the village shop or store.

We have consulted widely on the rate relief scheme and included in the consultation was the definition of a general store. As a result of that consultation there was widespread support for our proposals. Amendment No. 8 requires the Secretary of State to issue guidance for interpreting the definition that would have to be followed by billing authorities. We discussed the practical aspects of implementing these provisions with the local authority associations. They concluded that guidance on this matter and the drawing up of rural settlement lists might be helpful. However, they did not see any need to put that guidance on a statutory footing in the way envisaged by the noble Lord's amendment. We are talking further to the local authority associations about the precise points they would like to see covered in guidance and we shall publish such guidance well in advance of the provisions coming into force.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will realise that his anxieties will be met by the guidance we will produce, but I suggest that it will not be necessary to put it on the face of the Bill.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Lord responds to that, I wonder whether I could check that I understood the Minister correctly. Is he saying in reference to subsection (6B)(c)(ii) on page 20 that the Secretary of State cannot take out of qualification for the purposes of the Bill a general store or post office? In other words, does the secondary legislation allow the Secretary of State to add to the categories but not to reduce them?

Earl Ferrers

The noble Baroness, as usual, is bang on the point. The Secretary of State can add but he cannot reduce.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister. I welcome his undertaking on behalf of the Secretary of State about the issue of guidance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 7: Page 20, line 41, leave out from ("there") to end of line 44.

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 7 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 9 to which it is linked. These two amendments concern removing the only shop and only post office conditions; in other words, that the provisions of the Bill should not simply apply to a shop that is merely the type of shop described or that is only a post office.

It seems to me that there are many instances where a post office combines with a village shop and the two represent one viable unit, although, alas, all too often it is ceasing to be a viable unit. If there is a case for supporting a village shop where there is just one or supporting a post office where there is one, why is there not an equally powerful case for supporting a shop which combines the functions of a village shop and post office? In many instances, this has been what shop keepers have been obliged to do in order to survive. They have relied upon the turnover of a post office business to help them with the shop business as neither of them alone would be sufficient to provide an adequate living.

I suggest that this sole store condition gives rise, or could give rise, to anomalies and unfairness. Removing it would surely be an improvement on the present position. I suppose one way forward in order to avoid there being an unnecessary increase in costs would be to play about with the rateable value eligibility to thresholds, although I would not be too keen on that. But there might be ways of enabling a combined village shop and post office to benefit from the provisions of the Bill which I understand it does not now do. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

I can give the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, a little satisfaction and contentment, even if I start off by saying that he has it wrong. He was concerned that a small post office can get a relief and a small shop can get a relief, but a shop which combines both a store and a post office cannot get relief. In fact it can. If it is the last post office in the village and it has a store attached to it, it will be able to get relief. If there was a post office and a store in the village and there was another store in the village which did not have a post office attached to it, that other store would not get the rate relief because there would be two stores in the village. But the first one would get rate relief because it would be the only post office, even though at the same time it did sell goods.

Lord Dubs

I am just trying to think through the implications of what the Minister said. One possible difficulty is that one could see that a shop and a post office might be combined where they are small and are within one set of shop premises, but there might be situations where there is a slight separation between them, and indeed they might be rated differently. They might have separate rateable values, in which case I suppose they would not apply. I suppose it depends on whether the rateable value is for one business or for each of the businesses. I can see some difficulties about this.

I hope I did not cause any confusion by not being sufficiently clear when I first spoke, but there is a difficulty in the only shop and only post office condition. The Minister has explained what would be the case where there was a store in the village and where there was a second post office and store, but he has not quite explained to me what would happen if there were different rateable values for adjacent shops which effectively were one but which in technical terms might be seen as two separate ones. Would they get the benefit or would they not?

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was courteous enough to say that he hoped he did not muddle me when he made his first speech. I did not consider he did so at all; he was as clear as a bell. He only muddled me when he made his second speech. The noble Lord is worried that if there are two shops standing next to each other and one is a post office and one is a store, and they are contiguous and are rated differently, they may not both be able to qualify. They will both qualify provided that they are within the threshold. If one of them is outside the threshold then of course it will not qualify. If the business is run as one then the rateable value will be the rateable value of the business as a whole. I do not think there is any difficulty there unless it be in the noble Lord's mind, or lest it be that I have not quite understood the noble Lord's concern. I shall read again what he has said to make sure that I have given him the answer to the question which he asked.

The real point is that either a post office or a village store, if it is the only one in the village and if it comes within the threshold, can be entitled to rate relief. If one organization does those two jobs then that will qualify for rate relief provided that it is the only post office. If there were as well another shop then that other shop would not qualify because it is a second shop in the village.

Lord Mottistone

Do I understand, therefore, that if there are two small shops and a post office and they are all separate businesses, neither of the two small shops or general stores can get rate relief, just because there are two of them?

Earl Ferrers

My noble friend is absolutely right, because the whole purpose of this part of the Bill is that it refers only to the last shop in the village, and if there are two stores, there is not one last shop because there are two last shops.

Lord Mottistone

It depends in which direction you are looking.

Earl Ferrers

But there is either one store in the village or there are two stores, and if there are two stores neither gets rate relief; if there is one store then it will get rate relief.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I understand the logic of that. I understand the purpose of the provision, and I agree with it. Listening to the noble Earl's response earlier on, it suddenly occurred to me that post offices have taken on little bits of extra business, which is usually how they come to be a post office and store. It may be the other way round, but it may happen that way, with the post office taking on extra businesses. That post office may not be providing a good service as a store; it may merely have taken on a few extra things which it thinks are worth while. If that means that a store for a village of, say, 2,500 people which is providing a full service does not get the relief, is that not a rather hard case?

This is important. I have not yet found anywhere in the Bill a definition of what is meant by a "store". Is it there? Does it answer the question I am putting—that a post office which offers just a few extra things like stationery, for instance, but is not a full store would not then get the rating relief for a store, although it might get it as a post office?

Earl Ferrers

I wonder whether I can help the noble Lord. He asks, if the post office is just a post office selling one or two other things, will that be acceptable, for mandatory relief? The answer is that it would be acceptable, because it would be acceptable by virtue of being a post office. When he asks what is the definition of a general store—

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I understand that it will be acceptable because it is a post office. But what I am interested in is whether a shop in the village which stocks a full range of articles, as opposed to just the few things which the post office stocks, is by that disqualified from rating relief?

Earl Ferrers

The definition of a general store is in Schedule 1 on page 20, in subsection (6c). I see what the noble Lord is getting at. If there is a genuine store in the village selling everything, that ought to qualify, but if the post office happens to sell a couple of toothpaste tubes as well, he asks whether that would ditch the store. The answer is that it would not ditch the store, but it would depend on the amount and quantity of what it was selling. If its job is primarily that of being a post office, then it would not prevent the other store from getting rate relief. But that is quite an important point. Perhaps I could reflect on the matter and write to the noble Lord.

There is one other point I should have made. We have been talking about what is mandatory relief. But the local authorities will have discretionary relief for premises with a rateable value of up to £10,000 for which they can give relief if they feel that that is desirable. That may cover many of the anomalies which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has in mind. It enables them to give this relief if they think it is desirable, but it will not be one that they have to give.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for his answers, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 8 to 11 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clauses 2, 3, 6, 4, 7 and 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Reviews of parishes by local authorities]:

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 13: Page 5, line 4, leave out from beginning to first ("the") in line 5 and insert ("It shall be the duty of a district council, or a unitary county council, to keep under review").

The noble Lord said: Noble Lords will know from Second Reading that I am advised on all the amendments by the National Association of Local Councils, and I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, its president, with us.

Amendment No. 13 seeks to return to the arrangements for review of parishes by local authorities in the 1972 Act. Since the 1992 Act, parish reviews can only be undertaken by the Local Government Commission at the instigation of the Secretary of State, leading to an unnecessary bottleneck for certain areas such as, for example, East Cowes in the Isle of Wight, where the majority of the local people wish to establish a parish council, and under the 1972 Act rules would by now have had one, but this has had to be held up because of the 1992 change.

Provisions in the Bill, as amended, would return to the district and unitary county councils power to conduct parish reviews and also to allow local petitions to trigger parish reviews. The amendment is based on similar wording in Section 49(8) of the 1972 Act, which was repealed by the 1992 Act. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale)

In recording the proposal of Amendment No. 13, I should inform the Committee that, if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 14 or 15.

Lord Feversham

I would very much like to support the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, as he drew the Committee's attention to the fact that I have an interest to declare in that I am President of the National Association of Local Councils.

At Second Reading, which unfortunately I was unable to attend, the Minister advanced some arguments on this topic, and he may advance them again today; I do not know.

It seems to me that most of those who argue against having a statutory obligation to carry out parish council reviews seem to wear rose-coloured spectacles. There is a sort of fairy world in which hitherto councils who have had statutory obligations have not necessarily carried them out very enthusiastically. Remove the obligation, I presume it is hoped, and immediately the countryside will be fizzing with districts wanting to carry out these reviews. This may be very creative thinking and it may lead to a fairyland, but I am a little dubious about it and, as a parish councillor, I would be happier if there was a statutory obligation in the Bill.

There was a rather mysterious occurrence when I first came here in that I saw that Amendment No. 15 was in fact grouped with this amendment and has disappeared from the grouping. That is a type of amendment that deals with spasmodic obligation, and there will be one every eight years. However, we cannot talk about it with the present amendment because it has moved away.

I certainly support the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and I hope that we can move closer to having a statutory obligation.

Lord Sandys

I wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. I am advised by the Association of Charter Trustees and Charter Town Councils. It seems to me that this clause is one of the most important parts of the Bill, and it is amazing that this should be a permissive power and not a mandatory one. For that reason I support the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, most strongly. If the Bill remains as it stands, we have a clear description in what the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, said.

Earl Ferrers

I understand why my noble friend Lord Mottistone and the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, would like to see a statutory obligation to carry out reviews put in the Bill, but I believe that we have to be careful about this. The amendment in the name of my noble friend would place a duty on every district and unitary county council that they must undertake parish reviews from time to time.

That would be a fairly harsh step to take, because if we were to impose such a duty it would in many cases be a waste of time. It would make a lot of extra work when it may not be necessary, because every single such council would have to do that. But many districts will only have to undertake reviews if something exceptional occurs and there is a fairly major change. That might, for example, be when there has been a major population change.

Not only that: the imposition of a duty would not guarantee that those councils which were reluctant to carry out reviews would do so properly. If there is a reluctance on the part of a district council or a unitary county council to create a new parish, the obligation of carrying out a review could result in one being carried out technically but with a conclusion to which the council comes being that to which it wished to come. The Bill allows for other means of initiating reviews.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I am afraid I must interrupt the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. There being a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will stand adjourned for 10 minutes and reassemble at 5.2 p.m.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 4.52 to 5.2 p.m.]

Earl Ferrers

I would not wish to labour the Committee with hearing again what I said before. In summary, I said that if we accept this amendment we would place an obligation on each council to carry out a review every so often, irrespective of whether that review was necessary. I also said that it would not necessarily achieve the desired effect because if councils are reluctant to carry out reviews they might do this so as to ensure that the result of the review—which would technically be carried out—would be one at which they might wish to arrive in the first place.

The Bill allows for other means of initiating reviews. The Secretary of State can direct the Local Government Commission to undertake a parish review and local electors can petition for a new parish. The Secretary of State will be able to implement a proposal for a parish presented in the form of a petition as long as it contains the signatures of at least 10 per cent. of the electors for the area of the proposed parish, or 250 such signatures, whichever is the greater. Bringing either of these options into play will be a much more effective way of securing a proper review than the duty which the amendments propose. These would cover every council, whether that was necessary or not. Thus the concerns of my noble friend and of the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, are covered by the procedures which are available to parishes and to people to require a review if they so wish.

Lord Feversham

In that case, I wonder whether I might ask about the petitioning process. I may misunderstand the situation, but, so far as I can see, in the Bill it only applies to the creation of new parishes in areas which are unparished wholly or partly. The petitioning route cannot be used to seek alterations to existing parish boundaries, to warding and so on. That concerns me, and I wonder whether this petitioning route will be as successful in answering all the problems as the noble Earl suggests. I wonder if he can help me on that.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord is correct about that. The trouble, we have found in the past, lies mostly with the districts which did not want to have the parishes in the first place. Once they had the parishes, there was no problem. That is why the Bill is directed at that end.

Lord Mottistone

I note what my noble friend has said and will certainly have a good look at this. The fact of the matter is that, broadly speaking, in the Isle of Wight, for example—I do not know about England—the situation for creating new parishes was much better under the 1972 Act than it has been since we have had the 1992 Act. When parishioners wanted parish councils established, we were able to do that quite simply by going through the procedures which then applied.

I shall reflect on what my noble friend the Minister has said. However, one of our districts—we had two districts but now have a unitary authority and so that no longer applies—was keen on parishes, and is now completely emparished. The other one was more reluctant; I put it no stronger than that. Obviously there may be a way of modifying the position so that we retain the best of the 1972 Act procedure without making it more difficult in the sense of what my noble friend said about reluctant districts.

I will take this away and hope to put something together for Report stage which gets round the problem as we see it now. I called the present procedure a bottleneck. On the one hand the Minister and his department are too busy, and on the other, the Local Government Commission is too busy. As they have to be involved in the 1992 set-up, matters do not progress nearly as smoothly as they used to.

Earl Ferrers

My noble friend Lord Mottistone is always kind enough to bring to your Lordship's attention the peculiarities of the Isle of Wight, which seem to be considerable. He is quite right in that the procedure sometimes has not worked as well and as conveniently as it might have done. We have tried to pull together the best of the old regime with the new part which allows people to petition. In his example he has two councils, one of which is quite happily emparished, so as to get everything, and the other which, as he put it, is reluctant to parish.

It is precisely for those reasons that we have this system whereby if people want to be emparished, provided 10 per cent. of the people apply and 10 per cent. of the people signify that that is what they want, that is bound to go to the district council, or unitary authority, for its comments and it has to pass that on to the Secretary of State for his decision. He will take into account the requests made by the parishioners and the views of the district council or unitary authority. Therefore, the views and wishes of the parishioners or potential parishioners should be met.

I hope that that will satisfy my noble friend, but I suggest he considers the matter and if he wishes to contact me between now and Report stage, he may do so.

Lord Mottistone

I thank my noble friend. This petitioning business did progress, but became stuck with the Secretary of State.

Earl Ferrers

I am sure there was a very good reason why it was stuck, but I am bound to say I am not familiar with it.

Lord Mottistone

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 14 Page 5, line 4, at beginning insert ("A London borough council,").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 14 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 19. All these amendments deal with the proposal that there should be the possibility for parishes in London. The thrust of Part II of the Bill, as I read it, is that where there is a demand for a parish that demand should be translated into action. London is, in my view, doubly disadvantaged. It has no government at the strategic level other than central government. It does not have its own strategic government, nor at the very local level does it have parishes or community councils.

I appreciate that there is a move, a fairly slow move but nevertheless a move, towards neighbourhood groups or authorities—"authority" suggesting that they have more power than they do—but a more localised delivery of service and a more localised method of discussing matters of concern to Londoners. Those neighbourhoods are dependent upon the borough council setting them up and, inevitably, the role of the non-elected members or advisers is very limited. The decisions are in the hands of those who are elected at borough level. With these amendments I am seeking, in a manner which is not inconsistent with the growth of neighbourhood councils, to allow Londoners to make use of statutory procedures to bring in their own parish councils.

During the Committee stage in another place the argument against similar amendments put by my honourable friend, the Member for Newbury, was that there seemed to be no demand in London for parishes. If there is no demand then no demand will be expressed and the statutory provisions would lie there but no group would implement them and no particular harm will be done. The point was made that when there were parishes, urban parishes which were abolished by the London Government Act 1963, these acted only as rating areas. It does not seem to me to be an effective argument to say that when there were parishes they had no powers and, therefore, there should not be parishes now with some powers. My amendments are intended to enable the creation of parishes, not to impose them, and I feel that they are entirely in line with the thrust of this part of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Feversham

I strongly support these amendments. For a long time I believed that people in urban areas were considerably disadvantaged by not having parish councils. A few years ago there was an experiment to set up community councils in Birmingham which came to grief, unfortunately, but I remember shortly after that seeing a letter, I think from the department to the Prime Minister of the day, whoever she was at that stage I cannot remember, which said that unfortunately the Birmingham experiment had failed and apparently there were no identifiable communities in Birmingham.

That is the sort of argument that is usually advanced when it is suggested there should be parish councils in urban areas, and it is absolute tosh. I would dearly love to see parish councils in urban areas and these amendments are very progressive amendments.

Lord Sandys

I should like to support this amendment to the extent that I was very glad that during the course of the Second Reading of the Bill I introduced last year the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised the question of London. It is a matter of great interest. We may wait for decades for another London government Bill because of the magnitude of the concerns that have been expressed, and therefore the opportunity of bringing this forward in this Bill seems to me entirely appropriate.

5.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have spoken have said they are keen to see parishes available in the Greater London area where this is desirable, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that if there is a demand for a parish then action should be taken.

We start off by saying "What is a parish?". A parish is traditionally an identifiable and specific area which you tend to find in the country and do not find in metropolitan cities. The issue in Greater London is not dissimilar to that which exists in the other metropolitan counties; those of Tyne & Wear, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands. There are 230 or so parishes in those counties which are on the rural fringes of the cities, and they are there because of their involvement in rural life. But there has never been any demand for parishes in the middle of those metropolitan centres. There is a legal provision for parishes to be created there, but nobody has asked for them. Neither has there been any demand for parishes to be created in London where there is no legal basis for them. Even the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has not said there is a demand for one. All she has suggested is that we put the machinery in place so that if somebody says, "I want to have a parish in the middle of Victoria", there is a method by which that can be considered.

I do not believe we are in the business of putting on the statute book provisions which are not likely to be required and provisions for which there has been no demand, and provisions for which when placed in other places there has also been no demand. What I would say to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, is that I understand the theoretical position which they put forward that some inner cities ought to have parishes. However, I feel it is impractical and would suggest that one merely has to look around, say for the sake of argument at Kensington and Chelsea, or Westminster, or Victoria, and say, "Where on earth would you start with your parishes?". What would be the identifying factor that makes Victoria a parish and does not make Kensington or Westminster a parish? There is no demand for it. Parishes are essentially rural areas and it would be wrong to put on the statute book something which is very unlikely to be required.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I have lived in London for the past 30 years, since the appalling piece of legislation was passed which put all the boroughs together in vast mega-boroughs. I lived in the Borough of Camden when I lived in Hampstead; I lived in Kew when I lived in the Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames; and I now live in the Borough of Lambeth as I live in Clapham. In each of those areas I have been governed by a local government unit which is far too big and which gives far too little opportunity for the development of local feeling.

I will give one particular example which shows that the noble Earl's argument that there are no identifiable areas is not so. It is also true of Hampstead and Clapham, but in Kew it is absolutely true. There is a thing which has been called in literature "the Kew peninsular", which is bounded on one side by the river and Kew Gardens and on the other two sides by major roads which for once edge an area rather than cutting straight through it. The village of Kew is a parish in any real sense of the term. I am not saying that there is any great demand for it at the moment—one of the reasons is that we have very good local council and therefore there is not much feeling of being neglected. However, it is not true to say that there are no identifiable areas. It certainly is true that the units of local government that we have at the moment are far too big. I hope that this amendment will at least be looked at again.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for the support I have received on this amendment. My noble friend Lord Beaumont has encapsulated the point which I was going to make. He says there is no demand, but patently, as a Londoner, he demands it, and as a Londoner I demand it. I know, too, that my noble friend Lord Tope will demand it if he is able to be in the House at the Report stage of this Bill. I mentioned on Second Reading that he was responsible for bringing forward a Private Member's Bill some 22 years ago in another place. Two of the Minister's right honourable friends were sponsors of that Bill at that time.

I find it interesting that the Minister talks in terms of an identifiable area. If you talk to a group of people, they know what group they belong to. It is their demands—to the extent that there are demands and, of course, those are variable—which I am seeking to promote. The Government are not normally very coy about bringing forward extra legislation or legislative provisions, and so I take that response with a pinch of salt. This is a matter that I shall return to at a later stage and on that basis I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 15: Page 5, line 4, after ("may") insert ("at any time and shall, not less than once in every eight years,").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 15 takes us back to the debate about district councils' and unitary councils' review of the introduction of parishes. I was surprised at the de-grouping of this amendment from Amendment No. 13, but it does give us a second bite at the cherry.

In proposing that each council should be able whenever it wished to conduct a review, but should have a minimum obligation to do so, I was approaching the issue addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and those who supported his amendment with the same concerns and simply from a slightly different direction. I believe that there should be a statutory obligation; certainly not one which is so cumbersome that it distracts from other duties, nor one which is treated in a rather off-hand fashion. If it were to be an annual review, it would become a matter of routine and would not be considered in any great depth.

I understand that the guidance note proposes that there should be consultation on the creation of new parishes every 10 years. I believe that a good deal less than 10 years would be correct, but in order to concentrate on the obligation to review rather than the time limit I have put in a very unambitious proposal of every eight years. Whatever period the guidance note suggests, that is not a statutory obligation, and it is that obligation which it would be helpful to have on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is in a very forceful mood this afternoon. She wants to put all sorts of things on the statute book even though it may not be necessary. She says that she wants to ensure that the eight years is put on the statute book.

The amendment is not dissimilar to the amendment that my noble friend Lord Mottistone moved earlier and which we have discussed. It would place a duty on every district and unitary county council to undertake parish reviews, and the amendment would oblige them to do so every eight years.

The same arguments apply to the noble Baroness's amendment as I ventured to portray to your Lordships over the amendment of my noble friend Lord Mottistone, but to an even greater extent. It is not the duty to carry out a review that matters; it is the outcome of that review. If a district council supports parishing in its area there is no need for a duty to be imposed upon it to carry out a review. If the district council is opposed to parishing, forcing it carry out a review may well be a waste of time for the reasons that I gave during our debate on the earlier amendment.

What the proposals in the Bill do is to address that problem more directly. We provide for petitions to be put forward which do not require the agreement of a district council. That enables the district council to give its views but the petitions can be put forward to the Secretary of State. I believe that that is a more practical way of doing it to get over the problem that the noble Baroness puts forward, to ensure that those people who are not parished properly but who want parishes should be able to have their views considered. I believe that that is the right way of doing it.

There are district areas which are fully parished and it would be absurd to oblige them to be reviewed every eight years. The only result of that would be that the parish boundaries might change. There are, of course, some districts that have areas which are unparished and those areas have the provisions in the Bill addressed specifically for them.

I hope that the noble Baroness will see that her concerns are covered in the Bill, and, I believe, covered in a way that is better than the one she proposes.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for that reply, which was not unexpected. I shall be interested to see whether the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, can find a way of progressing his approach to the issue at the next stage. I dare say there will be some common ground between us. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Procedure on a review]:

[Amendment No. 16 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Petitions for new parishes]:

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 18: Page 7, line 3, leave out ("three") and insert ("six").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 18 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 20, 21 and 22.

Amendments Nos. 18 and 20 are concerned with petitions for the establishment of new parish councils. They deal particularly with extending the period of time that a local authority would have to consider and give its recommendations on such petitions. They change especially the two periods: the first from three to six months and the second from six to nine months.

These are essentially probing amendments. They are designed to seek assurances from the Government that due consideration has been given to the processes through which local authorities must go when considering a petition. The Bill, as drafted, places a duty on principal councils to send a petition to the Secretary of State within three months of receiving it, together with their views. Amendment No. 18 relaxes that requirement to six months. The argument is that three months is a fairly short period in which to form a view on such a petition. Amendment No. 20 would allow a council nine instead of six months to make its recommendations on matters relating to the petition following its decision on electoral arrangements and boundary changes.

We want neither to give local authorities so much time that the impetus for setting up a parish council simply goes away or people feel frustrated and disappointed, nor to impose upon them such tight time limits that it is difficult for them to arrive at a proper and balanced view about what is intended in the petition. The purpose of these amendments is simply to give local authorities a little more time without giving them so much time as to frustrate the purpose of those putting the petition forward.

Before forming a view, the principal council would in any case wish to consult fully and gather the necessary information on which to make its comments on the proposal. It would need to indicate whether it agreed with the proposals contained in the petition and summarise any information which it had about opinions held by local governments elected in the areas concerned. It might have to pass through a committee process. Given the timetables of local authority committees, that itself could require a minimum of two months. We are suggesting a somewhat longer period so that these petitions can be dealt with sensibly and properly.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 deal with a slightly different point. They deal with the Secretary of State's power to modify recommendations on parish reviews. The Bill as drafted allows the Secretary of State the freedom to make modifications to any proposal to establish a parish council without having to consult the bodies involved in processing that proposal. I wonder whether such a procedure is in keeping with the concept of local democracy. It would in effect allow the Secretary of State to make orders modifying recommendations made to him by local authorities, by the Local Government Commission or by local public petition without the benefit of the views of the other local authorities or the Local Government Commission; in other words, the Secretary of State could change the proposals, and that modification would not be the subject of any consultation.

The Secretary of State's powers to modify could, I submit, be something that might be contested, and local authority associations feel that, if the Secretary of State consulted local authorities before modifying recommendations from parish councils, it would be far less likely that they would feel the need legally to contest the exercise of his powers.

These are sensible suggestions, and I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for explaining these amendments and for saying also that they are probing amendments to try to find out what the Government have in mind. I will do my best to give him the answers and hope to satisfy him, which is always a pleasurable pastime.

What the noble Lord wishes to do in these amendments is to extend the period which is available for district or unitary councils to consider any petitions which they may receive. We are anxious to ensure that any proposals for new parishes which are brought forward in the form of petitions should be dealt with as expeditiously as possible, whether that is by the district council or by the unitary county council. That is obviously desirable because one wishes to get any uncertainty over as quickly as one reasonably can.

When we had our consultations on the proposals, the view was expressed to us that three months was too short a period for councils to research the issues and the local views involved. That is a similar view to the first two amendments which the noble Lord has put forward.

I would only emphasise that we are not expecting these councils to do a great deal of research about a petition for a parish. Most councils worth their salt will know more or less straightaway whether any case for a new parish which is proposed in a petition has serious flaws. They will not need to embark on lengthy investigations, so it should not take too long for an authority to decide whether it agrees with a proposal.

In a similar way, if there is a groundswell of local opinion against a parish, the district or unitary county council will be aware of it. Our draft guidance about parish reviews indicates that local opinion on the proposal might well come from correspondence which is already on file, from surveys, from other petitions, or from the views which have been expressed direct to councillors. None of this information should take more than three months to collate.

If the Secretary of State feels that he has insufficient information to enable him to exercise his judgment about a petition, he can refer the matter to the Local Government Commission for consideration. It is at that point that further investigations might be carried out—not while the petition is with the district or unitary county council.

With regard to Amendments Nos. 21 and 22, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will forgive me for saying that he seems inadvertently and uncharacteristically to have gone over the top a little. The amendments seek that any modifications which the Secretary of State might make to the proposal should go back to the district council and to the Local Government Commission, if it has been involved. The Secretary of State will have neither the intention to change significantly the nature of recommendations or proposals, nor the power to do so. He is, however, clearly bound to consult the local authorities on a draft order.

I will give the Committee a view of what happened a short while ago. It is worth bearing in mind that when the Secretary of State decided to create the new parishes which had been recommended in the recent structural review of the shire counties in England, the Secretary of State was not required to consult on any modification which he might have made in those recommendations. He used the powers of modification which had been given to him under the Local Government Act 1992 in a very limited way to change the detail of the proposal.

If I were to give the Committee an example, it would be the area which was proposed by the Local Government Commission for the new Leigh-on-Sea parish in Essex which was modified to exclude half a dozen houses. Had that modification not been made, electors living in those houses would, on the same day, have been in the absurd position of having to go to one polling station to vote for their parish councillor and to a different polling station to vote for their district councillor. Therefore, it seemed correct and reasonable to modify the proposals to avoid that.

I should also point out that, before an order is made to implement any recommendations or any proposals which the Secretary of State may have received, the relevant local authorities and other interested bodies are as a matter of course consulted on a draft. This is for the very simple reason that the Secretary of State would not wish to put before Parliament an order which turned out to contain some absurd peculiarity. This consultation is undertaken, whether or not it is intended to modify the proposals. That is obviously sensible, and it does help prevent errors being made.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will agree that the timescales for submissions of petitions are reasonable, and that they do not require amendment. I hope he will feel that I have satisfied him on his concerns. There is a regime in place to take account of people's concerns. Where there are major concerns, that could go back to the Local Government Commission and it would be at that point that the detail and research might have to be carried out. However, the chances of that happening are fairly slender.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Lord responds to that, I feel the Minister glosses over the timescales that apply in local authorities. They are often much too long, but three months is quite short for an authority which may not have a meeting itself until towards the end of the period, and may feel that it is its own role to make certain investigations and perhaps to gather in views of those in other areas, not within the area that is supposed to be parished, but perhaps neighbouring on it. I support any proposal that allows the district authorities to have a major role in the progression of a petition. It is to the benefit of the community and a group of communities if the discussions can be held locally rather than the Local Government Commission, as some kind of kindly, or not so kindly, uncle, taking a greater role within what might be sorted out in the immediate family.

Earl Ferrers

Perhaps I may reply to that point because it is an important one. I agree with the noble Baroness that three months might be on the tight side if the local authority knew nothing about this at all, but that is unrealistic. When somebody wants to petition for a parish, it is unbelievable to think that the local council will know nothing about it, and suddenly, out of the blue, rather like a scimitar at a council meeting will come this proposal which will shake everyone rigid because they have heard nothing about it before.

The fact is that those in the area will know what is going on and it will not come as a surprise. A certain amount of homework is bound to be done by the local authority before the proposal ever reaches the authority. In that respect, I believe that three months is reasonable, but I agree with the noble Baroness that it would be very short if in fact people knew nothing about it at all. However, I do not believe that that is likely to happen.

Lord Dubs

Perhaps I may comment, first, on Amendments Nos. 21 and 22, and then say a little about the last discussion on Amendments Nos. 18 and 20.

As regards Amendments Nos. 21 and 22, if I summarise the Minister, he said that I have gone over the top, but the Secretary of State is bound to consult so these amendments are unnecessary. I take that as an assurance that the Secretary of State will consult. I certainly know that the next Secretary of State will consult, but the noble Earl has also given me an assurance that the present one will, so that is fine. The Minister looks worried at what I have said.

5.45 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord need not worry at all, because when I am the next Secretary of State I shall consult.

Lord Dubs

I do not know whether the Minister is a betting man, but I am quite happy to do something that I do not normally do which is to have a bet on that. In personal terms, I am not against it; in political terms, I would be unhappy about that.

If I may turn to Amendments Nos. 18 and 20, I was thinking about what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was saying. She is currently a senior councillor in the London Borough of Richmond and has a great deal of experience in these matters. Some years ago, I served as a councillor on Westminster City Council. Listening to her and thinking back to my experience, it is sometimes quite difficult for local authorities to make decisions as quickly as the Minister suggests.

If everything is straightforward, of course the local authority ought to know that a petition is on its way. It ought to be prepared and ought to be familiar with the areas to be covered. Occasionally, however, other situations might occur. For example, a district council might have received two different petitions at the same time from adjacent areas, such that there was some overlap between what one petition wanted and what the other one wanted. That would take quite a bit of time to unscramble. It might not happen very often but I can see a situation where there might be some need to go in for some consultation on the part of the district council to make sure that the petitions were all four square with each other and avoided an overlap.

I can see situations where the timetable might be a little bit tight, particularly if petitions arrived at the beginning of the summer when council committees do not sit. They would then effectively have a shorter period of time and the timescale might not allow two cycles of committee meetings if a particular council committee wanted to consider it at one of its meetings and wanted more information before making a decision. There would be a further delay of three months, or whatever the council committee cycle is, and they could run out of time.

In the normal course of events that would very seldom happen but there might in exceptional cases be some difficulty. That was the point of the two amendments. I wonder whether the Minister has any sympathy for the argument that Baroness Hamwee and I are putting forward on this.

Earl Ferrers

I always have sympathy for the arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, puts forward because he does so usually, not always, with very good reasons behind them. He has a point over this and I must say that I had not thought before of the peculiar position where you may get two petitions being put forward at the same time which would conflict with each other. In that case, it would be reasonable for a local authority to say to the Secretary of State that it had only this short length of time in which to consider these petitions which are difficult because they overlap. The local authority would give its initial views but ask the Secretary of State not to make up his mind too soon because it would like a little bit longer to add to those views.

There would be nothing to stop local authorities doing that and no Secretary of State, even in the purest chance of the Secretary of State coming from a different party from the glorious one of which he is a representative at the moment, would ever say, "I am going to go ahead. You have not answered quickly enough. Therefore, I shall disregard any views that you might put forward in the future". That is not likely to happen. The fact is that the Secretary of State will not want to make orders which are unworkable or inappropriate. In those kinds of conditions I should have thought that he would be content to have submissions put to him after the initial ones had been made.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, finds the most bizarre example. The chances of that happening are fairly slender. I think also that it would be a pity to extend the consultation for six months in all cases simply because it would mean that in the majority of cases there would be an unnecessary wait when in fact the matter could be resolved more quickly. My guess is that the three months' period would be the better one to retain.

Baroness Hamwee

We find ourselves moving towards the position which allows supplemental views to be given to the Secretary of State and to be taken into account. I am not yet persuaded that that is the best way to deal with the matter. Perhaps the Minister will look at the drafting of Clause 12 which refers to his considering the views sent under Clause 11. As Clause 11 has in it the time limit, it may be necessary to look at the wording of the Bill to ensure that the Secretary of State can consider those further views.

Earl Ferrers

I shall certainly consider that point because it is an important one. I think the answer I have given is correct—that the local authority will have a certain specified time in which to give its views. If the matter was so complicated that it said, "These are our initial views, but we would like a little longer", no Secretary of State would ever say, "You have had long enough, I'm going to make the order", because the Secretary of State has to act reasonably. But I will certainly check the matter and look at it in more detail, as both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, have put that point to me.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister. He has indicated that there are ways in which the Secretary of State could be flexible, and therefore local authorities would have a little more scope than they might have if one interpreted the Bill in its most rigid form. On that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

  • Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
  • Clause 11 agreed to.
  • Clause 12 [Views of local authority about the petition]:
  • [Amendments Nos. 19 and 20 not moved.]
  • Clause 12 agreed to.
  • Clause 13 agreed to.
  • Clause 14 [Implementation by Secretary of State]:
  • [Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 not moved.]
  • Clause 14 agreed to.
  • Clauses 15 to 20 agreed to.
  • Clause 21 [Consultation with parish councils]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 23: Page 12, line 28, at beginning insert— ("(A1) Subsections (1) to (6) shall only apply to the area of a county or district council where the Secretary of State so notifies that council, subject to the requirement that he may not so notify that council if—

  1. (a) it has in place an agreed process of consultation with parish councils within its area; or
  2. (b) he has not received a written request from a parish council within its area.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 23 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 25, 27, 29 and 33. Amendment No. 23 concerns consultation with parish councils. The amendment would make it clear on the face of the Bill that the Secretary of State's power to designate subjects on which councils must consult is a reserve power. Designation would only come into force when it had been shown that voluntary arrangements either did not exist, or do not work. Paragraph 7 of the Guidance on Consultation prescribes subject matters for consultation which fall into two categories. The first is one where issues are very much matters to which people living in the immediate area have an obvious input, and which are fairly uncomplicated and uncontroversial; for example, the siting of a bus stop, planning permission or leisure facilities. On the whole, these matters are probably the subject of statutory consultation anyway, even without the Bill.

The matters listed in the second group are more controversial. There are matters upon which the principal authority has a duty to decide and needs to take into account the effect of a housing strategy, for instance, on the entire district. While it is good practice to involve as many people as possible in consultation on such issues, it must be up to the principal authority to decide how best to handle this to avoid unnecessary conflict between competing communities. The subject matters should not be prescribed too much.

The Bill as drafted gives the Secretary of State the power to prescribe the subjects on which a local authority must consult with parish councils within its area. This is probably an undue centralisation of power to the Secretary of State, and might cut across local agreements between local authorities and parish councils. The Guidance on Consultation states that the Secretary of State's power is a reserve power, and that guidance is based, I understand, on the model of the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994, though it is different in some respects. Paragraph 5 of the guidance is the important paragraph, which makes it quite clear that it is a reserve power and it really weakens the legislation.

Amendments Nos. 25, 27 and 29 concern the parish councils with which consultation should take place. It is possible that more than one parish council might be affected. The Bill as drafted would require a local authority to consult all parish councils within its area, even where the proposal affects only a part of the authority's area or, say, only one parish council. The guidance does not define an area in which consultation should take place. Let me give an example. Let us take the proposals relating to a school which has a catchment area which does not include the whole of the authority. The parish council outside the area affected will still have to be consulted. I suggest that that would be somewhat illogical if those parish councils are outside the area and their jurisdiction has no effect at all on the catchment area of the school. It would mean that the local council would have to go through an unduly bureaucratic process of consultation with some of the parish councils in the area which might have no interest at all in the subject. I would have thought it would be easier to say that the consultation should be only with those parish councils which are relevant to the particular point at issue.

I now turn to Amendment No. 33. This replaces an existing clause and would introduce a voluntary rather than a compulsory system to regulate consultation between parish councils and local authorities. The Government seem to favour the compulsory approach, but my understanding is that local authority associations see that the consultative relations between different tiers of local authorities should be a matter for local determination and agreement rather than of central control and imposition. It would be wrong in principle therefore for central government to seek to impose the way in which consultation takes place as it appears on the face of the Bill.

Local authority associations also believe that a compulsory system would be wrong in practice. A proper consultative relationship, with consultation a feature of it, depends on local agreement and local good will, and it would be difficult to achieve that good will by forcing it to happen. There are many examples of locally agreed charters and other agreements between parish councils and local authorities based on a voluntary approach and voluntary agreement. The local authority associations fully accept that this is an area in which the Secretary of State might wish to promote best practice. The associations strongly support continued improvement in voluntary consultation arrangements between parish councils and local authorities. The proposed new clause goes a long way to securing this common objective. I beg to move.

Lord Feversham

I have no problems with this little raft of amendments, Nos. 25, 27 and 29, which seem to make a great deal of sense. I am a little worried about Amendments Nos. 23 and 33, not least with Amendment No. 23 because it provides that: the Secretary of State so notifies that council, subject to the requirement that he may not so notify that council". That is the kind of language I always feel pulls an amendment down. I wonder whether Amendments Nos. 23 and 33 are necessary. I do not feel that the parish council would feel that they were necessary, and as a parish councillor I do not feel they add a great deal to the Bill. The Association of Parish and Town Councils is not a member of the local authority association mentioned by the noble Lord, so I am rather suspicious of those two amendments, but would support him in Amendments Nos. 25, 27 and 29.

Lord Dubs

I thank the noble Lord for his support for three of the amendments. I am embarrassed that he has drawn attention to what is appalling English in one of the amendments. I have had a little private campaign against bad English coming from government departments and will have to plead guilty in public to the same offence, which is something I had hoped not to have to do. I take that point; it is appalling drafting and I can only plead that I was given help with the drafting. I should have been more strict with the wording before putting it down. I await the Minister's response.

6 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

I do like to hear the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, apologising in public. Some of us have to do that from time to time, and usually over something rather more draconian than the English language. Winston Churchill once said that periodically one has to make a meal of one's own words, and he added: "It's not an unwholesome diet either!". I take the noble Lord's apology in the way in which it was made.

The provisions on parish councils and parish consultation had a pretty good run in another place. Some views were in support of a less prescriptive approach and some went the other way. I thought it might help your Lordships if I were to try to outline the way in which we see this coming about.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the voluntary approach is much the best way of achieving improved consultation between principal authorities and parish councils. Successive consultations on this matter have shown that many principal authorities already have voluntary agreements in place to consult parish councils.

However, our consultations also showed that some principal councils are not consulting parish councils despite requests for them to do so. We took the view that while legislative provision is required, it would be unnecessarily prescriptive as well as running the risk of upsetting existing voluntary agreements to set out in legislation the content of consultation agreements. What we intend to do, therefore, is to issue guidance which will make it clear that principal authorities are expected to establish voluntary consultation agreements with parish councils on certain specific matters. In addition, there will be a list of subjects upon which consultation should take place when the parish council requests it.

If the voluntary approach does not work, the Secretary of State can use his powers in this clause to designate matters on which principal authorities must consult parish councils. That can be done in one of two ways. Under the first, principal authorities would be required to consult all parish councils in their area; under the second, they would be required to consult only those parish councils which had given written notice that they wished to be consulted on a particular matter. The Secretary of State will also have the power to apply those two provisions flexibly.

The Bill will enable the Secretary of State to designate lists for different purposes. One list might set out matters on which all parishes in a principal authority may have an interest and the other might set out matters which may be of interest to some parish councils but not to others.

The amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would effectively remove the Secretary of State's ability to put matters into the first list; that is the list on which all parish councils should be consulted. I would expect that there would be few matters that would go into that list. But we feel that we should keep that option. There may be a matter—for example, the provision of a district-wide service which is not included in the existing voluntary consultation agreements—on which all parishes should be given the opportunity to comment.

Amendment No. 33, which the noble Lord has proposed, would be quite unacceptable. The noble Lord, Lord Feversham, did not say that it would he unacceptable but he did not think that he could quite go along with it. I would go a little further than that and say that it would be unacceptable because it would in fact remove entirely the Secretary of State's power to set up a statutory scheme at all. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that it is much better for this to be done on a voluntary basis, but we have to have statutory powers to require principal authorities to consult parish councils if it is clear that the guidance on voluntary consultations simply is not being followed.

I hope that I have said enough to reassure your Lordships that we do not intend to apply the powers in the Bill in a draconian way, but I believe that we need to have the provisions of the Bill in order to ensure that the voluntary system will work. I hope that your Lordships will agree that it is desirable for those reasons.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for that. I should have said at the outset that Amendments Nos. 23 and 33 were probing amendments to get the Government's response and I am grateful that I have now had that.

I should like to ask the Minister about Amendments Nos. 25, 27 and 29, which deal with consultation only with relevant parish councils to avoid a district council having to consult parish councils in its area but not affected by a particular proposal. Has the Minister any thoughts on that? These possibly carry more force in themselves than being merely probing amendments.

Earl Ferrers

The amendments would allow the principal authority to decide upon what areas are affected. The difficulty comes if the parish councils do not agree. Some might think that they are affected even though the principal authority does not. That is why we feel it is best to leave the arrangements as they are in the Bill. It makes it fairly clear that the arrangements should be made on a voluntary basis. If they are not, then of course we would have to take the necessary steps.

The difficulty comes when one side thinks that they ought to be consulted and the other side feels that they ought not.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate there is a difficulty and there may be instances when, if the amendments were to be in the Bill, the parish council would say that it should have been consulted and the district council would have said it saw no reason to consult it because it was not affected. So I appreciate that there are difficulties. On the other hand there may be bureaucracy in doing it the other way, which the amendments were intended to avoid.

However, I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 24: Page 12, line 31, after ("councils") insert ("and the chairmen of parish meetings").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 24 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 26, 28 and 30 to 32. The amendments seek to extend consultations by superior local authorities to parish meetings for parishes which have no councils.

As I am sure my noble friend the Minister is aware, there are about 1,500 parishes in England without councils, all with very small electorates. I should add that there are even more parishes which join with others to form the total area of a parish council. The parish of Mottistone in the Isle of Wight, for example, forms part of the wider Brighstone Parish Council area and does not have or seek to have a separate parish meeting at any time. I hope that my noble friend will have some sympathy towards the amendment, even if the wording could be improved. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

My noble friend has explained that these amendments seek to ensure that the parish meetings of parishes which have no councils should be included in the consultation process. I am all in favour of the consultation process being as easy as possible for both parties. That is very important. District councils and unitary county councils are themselves often constrained to completing consultation by a particular date. If a parish meeting is required to meet only twice a year—although it may do so more frequently—it means that in many instances consulting the parish chairman would be exactly that. It would only be the chairman who could be consulted, not the whole meeting. The views of the parish meeting itself would not be represented.

Of course, if an issue arose which the parish chairman felt justified a meeting, it would be possible for him to convene one. But one wonders how often that is likely to take place in a small rural parish. I do not see the likelihood of meetings like that being necessary, which justifies the extra administration which would be associated with a duty to consult the parish chairman. I would like to emphasise that we do not wish to disregard parish meetings. Our draft guidance on consultation provisions suggests that county and district councils may well want to consider special arrangements whereby they can consult parish meetings. Indeed it also mentions the need for special arrangements for communities where there is no parish at all.

We feel that parish meetings are best served by a voluntary approach to consultation; after all a parish meeting is not a local authority in legal terms, it is just a collection of local people from an area. It may be the case that the parish meeting is very serious about wishing to be consulted on a regular basis, and local circumstances may be such that issues of importance to it might arise frequently. For those parish meetings the obvious answer would be that they should consider becoming a parish council and having that form of status. I hope my noble friend would feel that the reasons for not consulting parish chairmen as such are sufficiently strong not to include them in the Bill. It would complicate the matter a good deal and might well result in the views of the parish itself not being taken into account but only the views of the chairman, however eminent and well intentioned those views may be.

Lord Mottistone

I take the points that my noble friend has made. The trouble is that with all these little areas, parish meetings to my mind are only needed because parish councils have not been established. I must confess, having worked with them now for 20 years, that a parish council is so necessary out in the rural areas that we ought to have them everywhere. However, I see the point that my noble friend is making. I am not so frightened of the chairmen of parish meetings as perhaps he implied he is, because they soon get sharp treatment from the rest of the meeting members if they do the wrong thing. We are talking only about very small communities. However, I take what he said and will give thought to it. I may come back on Report, but at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 25 to 33 not moved.]

Clause 21 agreed to.

Clauses 22 to 25 agreed to.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 34: Before Clause 26, insert the following new clause— POWERS OF PARISH AND COMMUNITY COUNCILS

  1. (" .—(1) Parish councils and community councils may apply to exercise a power not otherwise available to them, in accordance with the provisions of this section.
  2. (2) If at any time the majority of parish or community councils in the area of a county or unitary council determine that they wish to exercise such a power they shall, after consultation with the county or unitary council and in the case of a council within the area of a district council, the district council, apply to the Secretary of State.
  3. (3) For the purposes of this section a majority of councils means councils in whose areas in aggregate there are registered the majority of electors registered in the county or unitary council.
  4. CWH37
  5. (4) Following such consultation as he thinks fit the Secretary of State may by order provide that such a power may be exercised by each applying council.
  6. (5) The Secretary of State may by regulation make any incidental, consequential, transitional or supplementary provision he thinks necessary or expedient for the purposes or in consequence of any such orders made by him under this section or for giving full effect to such orders.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment deals with the question of powers generally for parish councils. My party would like to see a power of general competence for local government. The amendment does not seek that, though it is a small way along the road to that. I admit that fact freely but hope that it will not be regarded as too threatening, either by the Government or indeed by parish councils. I make that second point because the Minister in another place said that there was not an enormous demand for vast new powers. That followed his comment at col. 1130 of Hansard of 23rd January. If I were to recommend to the House that we vote for a new clause 1, there would be a corporate heart attack among parish councillors. They constantly tell us they want to be consulted and listened to more effectively.… We must be prudent, so that we give them realistic and sensible powers that are relevant to local circumstances".

It would not be appropriate for me to comment at length on what I regard as a rather top-down, perhaps even patronising, approach, but I am seeking to allow parish councils to pursue the possibility of exercising powers which they think they might helpfully exercise. In other words, this would not be dumping on them a whole new raft of powers which would make them take fright.

This proposed new clause would allow parish and community councils, having identified powers which are missing, to apply to exercise those powers. It would not enable a parish council which simply took it into its head that it would be quite nice to exercise some new power to do so by itself, but only if a majority of councils agreed. And it is implicit that they would be in consultation with one another and I have made it explicit that they would consult their superior council. If a majority, defined in the way I have sought to define it, comes to a view that they should be able to exercise a power which is not available to them, they could go to the Secretary of State and ask to be able to exercise that power.

The Committee will know that I am not an enthusiast for leaving a huge amount of power in the hands of the Secretary of State to stop things happening, but this might be a useful way of developing the proposal. It should allow the Government the comfort of knowing that matters could not become rapidly out of hand, because there is intended to be a structure to this. I have suggested that, after the consultation locally, the majority of councils might approach the Secretary of State and he would pursue consultations and then be able, by order, to allow that power to the councils which apply to him.

Although I accept that the detail of this amendment begs a good many questions, I hope the general thrust of it will appeal to the Committee and that it might be something on which we could build. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said earlier this afternoon that, since we are not likely to have this sort of Bill for a little while again, it would be a pity to allow the opportunity to extend the powers of parish and community councils, in a way which would be very welcome, to pass. I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Feversham

This seems to me a very progressive amendment from the noble Baroness, and it certainly appeals to me. Parish councils would not feel that they were having powers dropped on them. The great advantage of these "soft shoe shuffles" towards general competence is that they allow the parish council to take up powers it feels able to pursue. This is very important when you have parish councils of so many different sizes and so many different rateable values. There are one or two cathedral cities, for example, which are parishes and could probably carry out quite a number of activities on their own. I certainly welcome this amendment and hope that the Government, even at this very late stage in the Bill, will find some attraction in it.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord, Lord Feversham, described this as a progressive amendment. However, it is not the simple modest amendment which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested. It is a critical blockbuster of an amendment, in fact, because the clause which she has proposed comes close to providing parishes with a power of general competence, subject to the agreement only of the Secretary of State.

Your Lordships will remember that the subject of general competence was one which was addressed by the House of Lords Select Committee on Central/Local Government Relations. In reply to that, the Government are now reviewing the scope for action within Section 137 of the Local Government Act. They are considering whether a more general power of local competence would be practical and advisable and, if so, what this power should be. In addition, the Environment Select Committee of another place recommended in its report on the rural White Paper that the Government should review the limits to parish spending under Section 137 of the 1972 Act.

Under this power, parishes can spend up to £3.50 per local government elector on anything which brings direct benefit to the area of their parish and for which the parish has no other specific power. We have recently commissioned research to explore the extent to which parishes do, in fact, use their Section 137 power, what they use it for and whether there is a case for a change to the financial limit.

The noble Baroness's amendment would have us pre-empt the outcome of those deliberations, which would be a pity. It would, in addition, saddle us with a system which I am sure the Committee would not welcome.

It would give the Secretary of State carte blanche to give extra powers to a tier of local government by simply making orders. It would be a Henry VIII clause to beat all other Henry VIII clauses. It would enable a future Secretary of State, who might takes his responsibilities rather more cavalierly than the present incumbent—the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, shakes his head; I cannot think who he thinks I am thinking of—to give almost any power which one cares to mention to parish councils, subject only to making an order.

I suggest that it would be better for the Committee to await the outcome of our deliberations before embarking on a proposal of such a radical nature as the noble Baroness suggests. The noble Lord, Lord Feversham, calls it progressive. It is progressive, but far too progressive for me.

In any case, the provisions which are already in the Bill are designed to meet the aspirations of parish councils. From the hundreds of responses to the rural White Paper which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State received, it is clear that what parish communities most want is the opportunity to express their views. They also want to be able to take a more active role in the provision of crime prevention and in community transport measures. I believe that that is what is required.

To take on the noble Baroness's amendment would be inappropriate for a Bill of this nature and would be untimely. It would pre-empt any outcome of the consideration and research which have been going on into this matter.

Baroness Hamwee

I am flattered to be called progressive and radical and to have produced a blockbuster of an amendment. Perhaps it is better than I thought it was. The Minister does not say when the review will be concluded. Perhaps he could tell the Committee when we might have some outcome on this. But I have to say I am not hugely convinced by his arguments. I would, of course, be convinced if I thought that there were any likelihood of some real, fundamental review, but what his arguments boil down to is not an answer to whether this particular tier of local government should have wider powers. However, I am not surprised because I know he and I have different views on that. Perhaps he will tell the Committee when we might expect the outcome of the review.

Earl Ferrers

I always find the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, particularly difficult to satisfy. I do my best, but she does take views which, as she says, are rather different to the ones that I take. So I suppose it is not surprising that I cannot always be in the agreeable position of feeling that she is content with what I have said.

With regard to when the result of the research is to be known, I am afraid I cannot tell her the answer to that. We have let the contract and at the moment I do not know quite how long the project will take. If I find that I am in a position to let the noble Baroness know I will do so, but I am afraid I cannot say at the moment.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the Minister for that. Perhaps I would be as unhappy as he would if we found what we agreed on. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 26 to 29 agreed to.

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 35: After Clause 29, insert the following new clause— APPLICATION FOR GRANTS BY PARISH AND COMMUNITY COUNCILS (" . In exercising any of the functions conferred on them by sections 26 to 29 of this Act—

  1. (a) a parish council shall be entitled to apply to the Rural Development Commission for a grant from the Rural Transport Development Fund on the same terms and conditions as apply to any other person or body (including any local authority), and
  2. (b) a community council shall be entitled to apply to the Secretary of State for a grant under the Rural Transport Innovation Grant scheme on the same terms and conditions as apply to any other person or body (including any local authority).").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 35, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 37. They are grouped with Amendments Nos. 36 and 38 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I shall wait to hear what he has to say about them. I believe, and the National Association of Local Councils believes, that there is a need for some mechanism for local councils to have access to central funds to carry out the duties conferred on them by statute. This especially applies to new duties, when it should not be necessary to have to rely solely on the precept raised from council tax payers in the parish. As my noble friend the Minister has told the Committee in relation to Amendment No. 34, under Section 137 of the 1972 Act a local council may spend in any one financial year up to £3.50 per elector on anything for which it has no express power, provided that the expenditure is for the direct benefit of the parish, or some or all of its inhabitants.

There is a good argument for widening this provision for a variety of services which it is appropriate for parish councils to provide. Amendments Nos. 35 and 37 are, however, specifically limited to the extra powers conferred on parish councils by Part III of the Bill. Having looked at an enormous list of the other services which parish councils can provide, in due course perhaps one might seek to expand this extra financial provision to those. However, at this point in the Bill I am really looking only for extra financial powers in relation to the items that are within the Bill.

Amendment No. 35 identifies the suggested mechanism for assisting such councils financially with regard to transport facilities described in Clauses 26 to 30, and Amendment No. 37 does the same for crime prevention facilities described in Clause 31. I beg to move.

Lord Dubs

I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 36 and 38, which are grouped with the amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, has just been speaking. There is a very welcome provision in the Bill, and that is that parish councils are given responsibilities as regards transport, traffic-calming measures and crime prevention.

As I understand it, there are no similar powers given to other local authorities in this country. Desirable as it is that parish councils should have these powers, it seems to me a pity that other local authorities do not also have powers to deal with traffic, traffic-calming measures and crime prevention. It is the intention of these two amendments to move a little bit down the path of linking the work of parish councils in relation to these powers with local authorities in their areas.

Let me speak to each of the amendments in turn. As regards Amendment No. 36, clearly the idea is that any community safety or crime prevention plans published by a local authority would be such that the parish council would be able to consider them and make its plans accordingly. I had hoped to put down some other amendments which would have taken a bit further my proposition about giving to other local authorities in the area powers relating to crime prevention and transport, but these were not in order so I was not able to put them down. I am limited to what appears here.

There is concern that local authorities, other than parish councils as planned here, do not have any specific powers of expenditure on crime prevention. That applies to counties, metropolitan authorities and district councils. All they can do is to incur expenditure under Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. A study carried out on behalf of local government associations in July 1996 found that 52 per cent. of authorities said that their inability to spend money on crime prevention was one of the three obstacles to having an effective crime prevention programme. They saw that as something which prevented them being as active in crime prevention measures as they would wish to be. I am hoping that there is some way in which one can move towards giving local authorities the same powers as parish councils. I agree that there are difficulties in relation to the Long Title of the Bill and the kind of amendment that might be permitted.

Amendment No. 38 will allow the subject of the wider efforts to address problems of transport and crime prevention and to provide the possibility of making a case for powers of expenditure for all local authorities. Local government generally in this country is committed to seeking to achieve both more sustainable patterns of transport use and successful local crime prevention schemes. While the Bill introduces the power for parish councils, it would be better if that power could be extended to other levels of local government. I am obviously constrained in how much I can argue this point because the amendments I have tabled do not go as far down that particular path as I would wish.

I conclude as I began by welcoming the particular crime prevention and transport and traffic-calming measures that are there for parish councils and put the case that I would like to see parish councils being able to link their efforts more with local authorities than they are now able to do.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Feversham

I would like to support all the amendments in this raft, perhaps naturally rather more fiercely than the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. On Second Reading a number of noble Lords mentioned that a little more power will devolve to parish councils sooner or later if this goes on, and if parish councils grow in their usefulness and activity in the community some thought about finance is going to have to be given. One cannot fudge the issue for too long. It may not be the right place in this Bill to take it up too strongly. I feel that if parish councils are to be developed one way or another, whether progressively or not, in the long run someone is going to have to think about finance.

There is a slight whinge that parish councillors have. They feel that they are slightly unfairly treated with regard to the business rate, as do all local authorities. Certainly parish councils have always felt rather badly.

There is a slight feeling among parish councils that they are not somehow quite on a level plain. As they have to do more and more things, as seen by the electors, some parishes, which no doubt are doing an excellent job, may seem to be spending a great deal more money than the parish next door or than an authority that is not parished. I am not sure that the present financial arrangements for parish councils quite solve that problem, and it has to be solved if one wants to make greater use of parish councils at the end of the day.

Having said that, I certainly support the noble Lord's amendment and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Earl Ferrers

Perhaps I could deal with the amendments of my noble friend Lord Mottistone first. I understand why he tabled the amendments, but I hope to reassure him that they are unnecessary. The scheme rules for the Rural Transport Development Fund already allow for parish councils in England to apply for grants under the fund on exactly the same terms as other bodies. Similarly, the rural transport innovation scheme can provide grants for community councils in Wales. These arrangements will not change as a result of the Bill.

In fact, there are a good number of examples where the Rural Transport Development Fund has been used to support schemes that have been put forward by parish councils. One is the provision of a community bus service in Pirbright in Surrey which benefited from a £14,000 grant, which was 50 per cent. of the start-up costs of the project. There is, therefore, no bar on parish or community councils putting together funding from their own precept, the Rural Transport Development Fund and other sources. In a similar way, on crime prevention there is no suggestion that parish councils will in any way miss out on any crime prevention schemes which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary may make.

Turning to the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I can understand his frustration that he cannot apply his amendments to a wider area because of the Long Title of the Bill which limits the contents of the Bill to parishes in England and community councils in Wales. But proper consultation is vital if we are to get the best from any crime prevention or community transport scheme: there must be proper consultation. There is no doubt that it will be sensible and good practice for parish and community councils, in exercising their new community transport or crime prevention powers, to take into account the policies of other local authorities and, where relevant, to consult with them and with other interested bodies, including neighbouring parish councils. Parish councils are bound to consult local people. I do not think, therefore, that it is necessary to require them to do so on the face of the Bill.

Local authorities, though, are not the only partners in crime prevention and community transport provision. The police, local people, local businesses and voluntary organisations also need to be involved. There is a danger that if we single out one body above all the others, these amendments could be misleading to parish and community councils.

I am sure that those councils that want to support crime prevention and community transport will take care to consult properly. I cannot see that there is any way in which anyone trying to introduce a crime prevention scheme or a bus service in a locality could not consult; it would be unthinkable. Clearly, the local authority is of major importance and parish and community councils will be anxious to work with it in a constructive way. Indeed, we will consider including advice on the kind of consultation which ought to be undertaken in any guidance which we may give to councils on their use of the new powers. However, I do not think it is either necessary or desirable to include the proposed form of words on the face of the Bill, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will agree that what is in the Bill addresses the consultation which is necessary and which is bound to happen in any event.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for his comments. I would like to think about what he said, because I still believe there is a problem about the effort that local government in this country generally can put into crime prevention and into transport and traffic calming measures. We could move further, because I see local authorities as being able, if they are given the full powers, to play a very important part in crime prevention. I therefore welcome the responsibility given to parish councils in the Bill. It would be helpful in local areas to give parish councils that type of new responsibility, and when the time comes I shall beg leave to withdraw my amendments or not move them.

Lord Mottistone

I thank my noble friend for his response. There is just one small question. When he was talking about Amendment No. 35 he said that already parish councils can call for funds from the Rural Transport Development Fund. He went on to mention that the precepts that they can draw upon under Section 137 of the 1972 Act and other sources. I just wondered what "other sources" he had in mind.

Having talked about the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, my noble friend moved on later to the question of financing the crime prevention activities, but he did not give much indication as to where that money was coming from. Unlike the Rural Transport Development Fund, there does not seem to be any particular fund which is available to call upon for the crime prevention activities in which local authorities might be interested.

Earl Ferrers

I had in mind when I referred to "other sources" that parishes do often have other sources of income. Sometimes they are left money in trust for various purposes for the parish, and those are the sort of things that can be put together to help to create these sources of money which are required.

Lord Mottistone

I am afraid that in my part of the world people are not that generous as to leave money to parishes.

Earl Ferrers

My noble friend obviously lives in the wrong part of the world. In my village there are two trusts which were left years ago for the purposes of the village and can be used in an appropriate way. But perhaps the people in Norfolk are more generous than people in the Isle of Wight.

Lord Mottistone

I suspect they are, and wealthier. I thank my noble friend for what he said, which gives me a line on the way the thinking is going. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 agreed to.

Clause 31 [Crime prevention]:

[Amendments Nos. 36 and 37 not moved.]

Clause 31 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]

Remaining schedules and clauses agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill)

This concludes the Committee's proceedings on the Bill.

The Committee adjourned at sixteen minutes before seven o'clock.