HL Deb 02 April 1968 vol 290 cc1189-95

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. May I begin by declaring an interest, in that I am the President of the National Association of Parish Councils? The purpose of this Bill is to remove an apparent ambiguity in the law. It is to enable a power to be exercised lawfully, without doubt, and without danger of the action of the county councils concerned (for it is county councils who exercise this power) being held to be ultra vires. I should like to emphasise that I am this afternoon dealing only with powers and not with duties. This power has in the past been used frequently by county councils, but the validity of the law concerned has been challenged by at least one large county council in this country, and therefore it becomes a matter of some importance.

There is, I think, wide agreement among impartial and disinterested people that the number of parishes now is too great, and that they are, therefore, too small. The remedy is that they should either be amalgamated, which can be done under Section 141 of the Act of 1933—and that is the Act I am talking about—or, better still, be grouped under the same Act. The reason why grouping is better, in the opinion of most people, is that it creates less opposition in the parishes concerned, because, in turn, the identity of those parishes is not lost. They keep their own parish meetings, while at the same time they share one parish council common to them all and thereby gain the advantages of a larger and more powerful authority than existed before. It could be said, I suppose, that a group of parish councils is a federation of parishes. I am one of those people who think that every rural parish should have a council. There are a deplorable number of parishes which at present do not have a council, mainly because they are too small. Except in a general review, which can take place under Section 141 of the Act, grouping can only be voluntary. It cannot be done by the county council unless the consent of the parish meeting concerned is first obtained.

How is this to be achieved? May I try to answer that question by reading shortly from Section 45(1) of the 1933 Act? The subsection says: The parish meeting of a rural parish may apply to the county council for an order grouping the parish with some neighbouring parish or parishes…under a common parish council, and the county council may thereupon make an order. Then it goes on to provide tint no parish may be grouped without the consent of the parish meeting of that parish. So far, so good. But then we come to Section 43(2) of the same Act, which says: If a rural parish has not a separate parish council the county council shall establish a parish council for that parish if the population of the parish is 300 or upwards. The important word there, in my judgment, is the word "separate". What is meant by "a separate parish council"? Here I think is the apparent conflict in the law between Section 43(2) and Section 45(1), and the question arises: Is a parish which is grouped with one or more others a separate parish council? I am inclined to think it is not, but that is the problem which we are trying to solve.

May I help the House, if I can, by quoting an exact example of what has actually occurred? I could name these two parishes, but to save any possible embarrassment I will not unless I am asked to. They are not very far from London. Parish "A" has 500 people with a parish council. Parish "B" has a population of 129 with no parish council because it is too small to have one. The question is this: Can those two parishes be grouped together under the Act? The county council concerned, whose duty it is to do it, says, "No; that is something we cannot do." Incidentally, a number of other county councils have done, just that thing already. Hence Clause 2 of this Bill, which is quite frankly retrospective legislation, is inserted to try to ensure that no penalties accrue to those councils which have done this very thing already in ignorance of the ambiguity in the law. The strange, anomalous position is that, while if that county council is right these two parishes cannot be grouped, under Section 141 they could be compelled to amalgamate, which is much more than they want; they do not want it at all and nobody wants it. They could be compelled to do that if the county council wished it, but they cannot voluntarily group themselves together with everybody's consent, which, as the mathematicians say, is absurd.

Your Lordships may think that this is a trivial matter, but it is not quite so much a trivial matter because there are nearly 3,400 parishes in England and Wales with a population of fewer than 300, which is the magic figure that entitles them to a parish council. This Bill will, I hope, rectify the situation and put beyond doubt what can be and what cannot be done. I should like to repeat that it does not compel anybody to do anything. It only enables county councils to do what they have done already, and what I hope can lawfully be done in future—something which is sensible and something which is desired by all. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I rise very briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, and this small Bill which he has introduced. Unlike him, I have no current personal interest in the matter to declare, though it is true that the first public office to which I was ever elected was to the parish council of the village of Cumnor. I have ever since those days, particularly when I was the responsible Minister, maintained a high regard for parish councils and their work, and I think that the interest of the genuine local community, the village or the group of associated villages, needs to be safeguarded, whatever reconstruction or reorganisation of local government we may have in hand.

I was not aware that this difficulty had arisen over the interpretation of the 1933 Act. I did not realise that one county council was claiming that there was some contradiction in it. I had not therefore supposed, until I saw this Bill, that there was need for fresh legislation. But if in fact that need has been proved—and I think your Lordships will all accept that in this field it is desirable that the law should be clear and unambiguous—I trust that the Government will welcome this Bill and that it will receive a rapid passage into law.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, the position, so far as the Government know, is precisely as set out by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr. There is very little parish regrouping going on in the country at the moment, but there is some, and all those counties, other than the county of Essex, to which I believe the noble Lord referred, which have been regrouping parishes in recent years have been doing so in spite of the apparent ambiguity in the present law, and have not been challenged on it. It is for that reason that one cannot say with any certainty that there is an ambiguity. I am advised that the situation is ambiguous, whether or not there is an ambiguity in the law. If there is one, it is a very small one. Even so, however small the ambiguity is, assuming one exists—and we do not have to make up our minds whether there is one or not—what we know is that one county regards the position as sufficiently ambiguous to prevent them from going ahead on this basis with the existing law; and that in itself would of course be a reason to wish this Bill to be passed.

In an ideal world the Government would, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, suggested, welcome this Bill and do what they could to ensure it was passed. But, my Lords, our democracy is not ideal; it is a congested and over-crowded democracy in the field of legislation, and that imposes the duty on the Government of considering which of the small, desirable measures which are brought before Parliament should be given priority treatment in the queue to get into law. In this context we have to measure not only the intrinsic desirability of a given measure which is proposed, but also the way it relates in time to major reforms in the same field which may be coming forward; and we are expecting, as the House knows very well, the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government later this year. Nobody knows what the Royal Commission will say about parish councils. It will no doubt say something about them. It may have something to say about the way they should be set up or amalgamated or run together, and by whom and under what conditions. But it is clear that parish councils also are in the melting pot with this examination, and it is not very many months hence when we shall know what the recommendations will be.

Because of that, and because of the intrinsic smallness of the reform proposed, the Government do not feel that this is a measure for which it would be justifiable to lay out all the procedural red carpets in Parliament so as to smooth its passage. This House, of course, is entirely master of itself as regards what Bills it finds time to take through, and the sponsor of any Bill is entirely his own master in deciding whether to proceed with it in this House. But it would be wrong of me to leave the House and the noble Lord under any impression that there is very much hope of time being found for this Bill in the House of Commons under any procedure during this Session. The same may not be true during next Session. I cannot say. It will depend on the Royal Commission's Report and the attitude the Government adopt to that Report. The field then is open. It might then appear to all parties concerned to be more necessary to get this Bill through during the time before the Royal Commission's recommendations as a whole could be adopted or modified or otherwise dealt with, whatever decisions were taken upon them.

That is all I have to say to your Lordships this afternoon. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, will be considering whether, on the one hand, he wishes to proceed with this Bill now and to secure it a Second Reading this afternoon, so that it will go through Committee and Third Reading in this House and will then, I must say, in all probability come to a dead halt; or whether, on the other hand, he would prefer to withdraw it, and perhaps to be in touch with my right honourable friend or me in the autumn, when the Royal Commission's Report has been received and when we could together re-assess the situation in the light of that Report.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, may I take the occasion to say that I hope the Government will not neglect the importance of parish councils? Mr. "Nye" Bevan did a great deal for them in the Local Government Act which he introduced. He gave them additional powers, with limits, and I think it was his wish and his intention, if he had had the opportunity, that those limits should in the course of time be enlarged. The fact of the matter is that in this country there were parts of the countryside, including many villages, which depended on a squirearchy that is now hopelessly out of date, and in my view it is up to a Labour Government to see that in their place the parish council has the necessary powers, and that where the unit is too small, as in the case which the noble Lord is putting forward, there shall be a joint council. It has been necessary in the past to rescue the county councils from some acts of doubtful legality. The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, will remember that this was first done in connection with cattle grids, which some of the county councils in the West had been putting down, without any authority whatever, and which had to be legalised.

I refer to this matter particularly because I have Scottish connections, and unfortunately there are no parish councils in Scotland. One can see the reason for this state of affairs, but it is a great pity, and one misses them sadly in connection with such matters as the provision of village halls, where parish councils have done a great deal in England and there is no one to take their place in Scotland. Therefore I hope that when we come to the reorganisation of local government the Government will not think that parish councils do not matter because they are so small and their powers are, comparatively, so trifling. I believe that they matter a great deal, although I have not much use for parish meetings, which are open to other objections.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to comment on the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison. Of course the Government believe in parish councils in broad terms, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, will agree with me if I remind the House that this is not a Bill which in any way would safeguard parish councils, increase their powers or prevent their reduction, because there is no need for such a Bill. It is simply to remove the doubts of one county council about the proper procedure for running two or more parish councils together.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, of the two alternatives which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, put before the House for the progress of this Bill I prefer the latter, and I ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading this afternoon, whatever its fate may be in the future. The reason I do that is because I have never been impressed by the argument which I hear widely used, not only in this House but still more so in the countryside at large, that one should hold up a decision on a matter pending the Report of a Royal Commission. If people do not like something which you propose, they say: "Let us do nothing because there is a Royal Commission sitting"—or has been appointed, or is just about to be appointed, or is now reporting—"and of course we must wait for its Report". I do not follow that argument and I do not concur in it.

Perhaps I am fortified in saying that by the fact that I was a member of a Royal Commission, and it happened to be on local government. It sat thirty-two years ago, and since then not a line of its Report has been implemented. So, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, I am not impressed by that argument, which I think can be too frequently used. If the current Royal Commission to which he has referred does report in the autumn, and the Government immediately put that Report into effect and immediately pass legislation to carry out its recommendations, nobody will be better pleased than I; but I am afraid that I am not willing to wait and see what happens about it. Therefore, I ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading this afternoon.

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