HL Deb 09 July 1957 vol 204 cc872-81

5.50 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I must begin by declaring an interest in this matter, because I am Vice-President of the National Association of Parish Councils. In that connection, may I say that I am glad to see here this afternoon the noble and learned Lord who is President of that body? Parish councils comprise bodies of an infinite and strikingly marked variety. I mention for the interest of your Lordships that in area the largest parish in England and Wales, that of Stanhope, in County Durham, is larger than the smallest county; that in population there are several parishes, of which the largest, I believe, is Watford, in Hertfordshire, which are larger than two counties in England and Wales; whilst in rateable value there are also several parishes which are larger than at least one county. At the other end of the scale, there are also some striking figures. There is a parish of only eleven acres, namely, Chester Castle; there is a parish with a population which is sometimes nought, though not always so, I understand—that of Claverton, also in the County of Chester.

Upon these varied authorities this Bill seeks to confer some modest additional powers, and I invite the agreement of your Lordships to the conferment of these powers. They are, by any standard, of a local nature. I am the first person who would agree that there are some services which demand a large area of administration, but, on the other hand, I would assert, with confidence, that there are some other services which require for their efficient administration a very local and limited interest. For example, whilst I would never suggest that every village should have its own police force, I would suggest that every village might be allowed to have its own clock and decide whether it is to pay for it or not. As has frequently been said by many persons, local government must not only be government; it should be local if possible.

Part I of this Bill seeks to confer these additional powers to improve the amenities of our villages, I am going to draw attention to Clause 5 first, because all the clauses which precede it are subject to that clause. Clause 5 lays down that if these improvements are made not on a road, then the consent of both the owner and occupier of the land concerned must first be obtained. If the improvements are carried out on a road which is not a highway or on a public path, a like consent must be obtained. If the improvements are neither on a road nor on a road which is not a highway nor on a path, then the clause gives what I think will be a useful table of the necessary consents. It lays down in every case the body from whom consent must be obtained before any of the preceding clauses are operative. There is also the statement in Clause 5 that "consent must not be unreasonably withheld" and there is provision in subsection (3) for arbitration.

I should like to go through these, clauses, I hope very quickly. Clause I gives power to provide seats and shelters in roads. Parishes have already the power to provide certain seats and shelters but not, curiously enough, on roads. Furthermore, they have no power to maintain the seats which they have. Therefore, though they may be given a seat, the seat must be allowed under the present law to fall to bits, so far as I understand it, because there is no power to repair and maintain it. This clause does away with the old Act of Parliament entitled the Public Improvements Act, 1860, which becomes redundant if this Bill is passed, and is repealed by this Bill. I ought to explain why it has been found desirable to repeal this Act by this Bill and also the Lighting and Watching Act, 1833. The reasons are, briefly, that both those Acts are not only very old but are also highly inconvenient to work. For example, one of them applies only to parishes which have more than 500 people, and many do not. Also, a two-thirds majority is required instead of a simple majority which is more in keeping with modern needs. So that that Act is repealed and there is a new power to provide and maintain seats and shelters on roads as well as in other places.

Clause 2 gives to a parish the power to provide a public clock. That will be a concurrent power with that held by rural district councils, who already have the power. It is to be noticed that rural district councils do not often exercise this power, presumably because they do not want to pay out of the rates of the whole district for a clock in a single village. Clause 3 is a relatively important one. It repeals the old Lighting and Watching Act, 1833, and substitutes for it new powers for the parish councils to light roads. Again the old Act has been very awkward to work and for that reason was not adopted so often as it should have been, though I am informed that 1,780 parishes now have adopted the Act and are operating it. It is laid down in the clause that where the old Act is now being operated there shall be no hiatus. The powers will be transferred to the council under the new Act, if it is passed, so that there shall be no break in the continuity and lighting. They are continued by subsection (2). There is a proviso to subsection (3) which prevents overlapping with rural district councils who also have concurrent powers to light roads.

Subsection (6) continues a system which operated under the old Act by which part only of a parish could be supplied with lights and these could be paid for by part only of the parish. That often gets rid of the opposition from rural districts which have no lights and who object to paying for lights in the local village. Subsection (8) lays it down that expenses under this section will be outside the rate limits. Here, again, the old Act is followed. Your Lordships will be aware that at present there is a limit to the expenditure of parish councils—a 4d. rate without the consent of anybody else, an 8d. rate with the consent of the parish meeting and more than an 8d. rate with the consent of the Minister. For this purpose, and one or two others which are mentioned later, the expenditure is outside the limits and not to be calculated under them.

Clause 4 gives power to provide parking places for cycles and motor cycles, but not for cars. There are already, it is thought, adequate powers in other authorities for dealing with motor cars. Under subsection (1) these places can be part of a road; and under subsection (2) they may be on recreation grounds, open spaces and physical training lands which are already in the possession of the Council. But if those lands are taken for this purpose, then there is a limit to the size which may be used; it is not to be more than one-eighth of the whole area, or 800 square feet, whichever is the less. That does not sound very much, but I think your Lordships will agree that some limit must be placed on the appropriation of land for this purpose. In subsection (4) there is provision for the proper notice, and in subsection (5) for appeal to the magistrates' court in case of any dispute. Clause 6 gives parish councils power to contribute to the doing of the powers under this Bill by other persons. In other words, if a parish for any reason does not want to operate this part of the Bill itself, it may, by arrangement, contribute towards the doing of the work by some other local authority. Your Lordships will remember that the word "person" in this context includes local authorities. In subsection (3) there is a useful power to combine with any other parish, or more than one, in working this Part of the Bill.

I pass now to Part II of the Bill, and to Clause 8. Under the present law it is frequently necessary for parish councils to obtain the consent of the county council to many things that they do. In future, to a considerable extent that necessity will be removed. It has been found, in practice, that it occupies a great deal of correspondence and time; rarely, if ever, is the consent refused—it is almost automatically given—and it is thought that in some cases specified here in subsection (2) it could now be done away with. Clause 9 gives a useful power, which is enjoyed now by all local authorities, to insure the members of the local authority and parish council against accident. It is not a question of "servants" here, but "its own members". Clause 10 gives a power to contribute towards burial ground.

Clause 11 is of some interest, and may be of some importance. It makes it mandatory for the trustees of parochial charities, other than ecclesiastical charities, to submit a copy of their accounts to the parish council. There is now a provision under which the chairman of a parish meeting can demand these accounts but apparently a parish council cannot; and your Lordships will appreciate that it is more difficult for a chairman of a parish meeting to enforce his claim in the case of dispute than it would be if the whole council had a claim and it was not met. So this clause gives to the council a power to have before them the accounts of those charities. Clause 12 is of some importance. It increases the maximum number of members of a parish council from 15 to 21. If one bears in mind the size of some of these councils—and I would mention again that there are several of over 20,000 people—I think it will be conceded that 21 is not an unreasonable maximum number. I would just point out that not only is it a maximum, and therefore cannot really be abused, but it still remains at the discretion of the county council to fix the number. The clause really only widens the discretion of the county council: instead of any number up to 15, it will in future be any number up to 21; but the county council has the last word. So that a small parish with an exaggerated idea of its own importance cannot by a stroke of the pen or a resolution increase its own numbers.

Clause 13 is a financial one. I did not find it very easy to apprehend, at first sight, but it deals with the complicated subject of block grants I remember being told years ago that there were only three people in England who understood what block grants were all about. Your Lordships may wonder why Scotland is mentioned here, in view of the fact that this Bill does not apply to Scotland. I am told that the answer is that if the block grant for England and Wales is altered, it may involve a consequential alteration in the block grant for Scotland, which, being interpreted, means, I think, that if England gets more, Scotland may get less. So it is necessary to mention Scotland here.

Clause 14 deals with the question of groups of parishes Under the present Local Government Act it is possible for numbers of small parishes to group themselves together and to exercise the powers of a single parish This clause makes it quite clear that the powers conferred additionally by this Bill can be exercised by a group, just as by one parish. Clause 15 and the First Schedule set out, I hope quite clearly, all the items of expenditure which are to be left outside the rate limits, which I have already mentioned to your Lordships. If this Bill is passed, in future there should be no doubt in anyone's mind which items do nor count for those rate limits and which do.

I hope I have said enough to explain the clauses of this Bill. It is not a long Bill though some of the clauses are not as simple as they may appear at first sight. The Bill does not apply to Scotland. May I, with all respect to my Scottish friends, say that in this matter of parish councils Scotland is still in the wilderness? I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Teviot is not here, because I know he had a devastating answer prepared to that, if I said it. With those words, I commend the Bill to the House and beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Merthyr.)

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be exceedingly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, for the clear, careful and comprehensive way in which he has explained what might otherwise be a somewhat unintelligible Bill to those of us who have not the good fortune to be, or to have been, members of parish councils. The noble Lord has explained that this Bill confers modest additional powers of a local character on parish councils. I feel that many of us do not perhaps attach sufficient importance to the work that is being done by the parish councils. They are, of course, in the true sense of the word, "local" authorities—at least, I was going to say that until the noble Lord explained that there were some parish councils with a population of 20,000, larger than some counties. But I imagine that those are exceptions, and that the ordinary parish council is one which is truly local in character, where ordinary men and women have the opportunity of serving the interests of the immediate locality.

Of course, it is a good thing that more and more people should be brought into the field of local government, even if it is on parish councils. Since this Bill has been introduced, I have been astonished at the number of noble Lords who are themselves parish councillors, or even chairmen of parish councils The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has explained this Bill so carefully that there is really nothing further that needs explanation. All I wish to do is to say that we on this side of the House welcome this Bill very much and hope that it will become law at the earliest possible time, so conferring on the parish councils these modest additional powers.

6.11 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to keep your Lordships more than a few moments, but I should like, in the name of the Church, to extend a warm welcome to this Bill. As has been observed, the Bill may seem to be dealing with trivial matters—that is, I suppose, in some measure true. But those of us who know the countryside know that often what may seem a small matter to the generality of the citizens of this country is, in fact, a matter of considerable moment in the life of our rural village communities up and down the country.

In all this, I have specially in mind Clauses 2, 6 and 10. Clause 2 has to do with public clocks. As your Lordships will know, public clocks in most villages take the form of a clock in the tower of the parish church, and they have always been of the greatest possible service to the local community. Until now, church people have been responsible for the expense, which is sometimes considerable, for the upkeep and repair of such clocks. They will still be responsible, but we gratefully note that, under Clause 2, parish councils are given permission and power, if they so wish, to share in this expense. This clause will be widely welcomed by all concerned, not least by church people.

Similarly, this excellent little Bill is thinking not merely of the present generation but of past generations as well, for in Clause 10 there is reference to arrangements about burial grounds. Ninety years ago, the compulsory church writ was abolished. The result is that, since then, the cost of providing, maintaining and extending the local churchyard has fallen upon the church people of the parish, as represented in their parochial church councils. Under Clause 10, opportunity is provided for the whole community, as represented by the parish council, once more to share in this cost, though, of course, as your Lordships will have noted, that is permissive. I need not detain the House any further, but I did not want this useful Bill, if I may call it that, to go unwelcomed by the Church and, not least, by the church people.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join in the congratulations which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has made to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, for the extremely clear way in which he has explained the purpose of this Bill. My sole purpose in rising is that at the present time one so frequently finds that affairs, both local and public, are being made the purpose of larger bodies that one is pleased and gratified to find that some powers have been delegated to the lesser of our local authorities, the parish council. That is a good way of creating an interest in local affairs, and noble Lords on these Benches give our warm support to this Bill.

6.16 p.m.


My Lords, I have no hesitation in commending this Bill to your Lordships on behalf of the Government. I, too, should like to take the opportunity of congratulating my noble friend Lord Merthyr and the National Association of Parish Councils on their success in preparing and introducing a Bill which is so widely supported.

The proposals of the Bill, as your Lordships know, are modest, but I believe that they have been agreed by all parties and bodies likely to be affected. The importance of this Bill does not lie only in its contents. The work which has gone into the preparation of the Bill, and the general support it has attracted, are evidence of the steady and growing interest in parish affairs, which is in welcome contrast to the gloomy stories of apathy on local government matters which we so frequently hear on all sides. We are shortly to discuss once more the problems of local government reorganisation, as conditions have changed radically since the comprehensive review in the last quarter of the 19th Century.

The matters contained in this Bill are remote from the fields in which the fiercer controversies rage. The right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Ely drew particular attention to the subject of clocks. I think the parish of Grantchester is within his diocese. He may remember that the parish clock at Grantchester stood more or less permanently at ten minutes to three. I should hope that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, if he does not share my dislike of introducing further penal clauses into Bills, would consider some means of ensuring that, if a parish does maintain a clock, it shows the right time.

Your Lordships can also rest assured that this Bill will not cut across the moves which the Government have in mind in connection with local government finance and reorganisation. Nor, I am advised (and I have been specifically asked upon this point), is there any danger that its passing will in any way hamper the regular introduction of the Select Vestries Bill, with which proceedings in your Lordships' House customarily commence at the start of each Session. Parishes are among the smallest and also the most ancient of our institutions. In them, democratic government operates in closer touch with local residents than in any other local government unit. What is more, it functions without the assistance (if that is the right word) of radio and television propaganda, which is coming to play such a prominent part in political life elsewhere. This Bill is evidence, I think, that local government in our parishes is firmly founded, and on behalf of the Government I support cordially the Motion for its Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.