HL Deb 07 February 1996 vol 569 cc313-28

8.22 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I should declare an interest as the High Steward of Kidderminster, an office which has no remuneration but, nevertheless, involves an interest in one context which of course is the Charter Trustee Towns with which the Bill is concerned.

The hour is late. We have had two substantial debates, and so I am sure it will be the wish of your Lordships to have as speedy, satisfactory, and well-informed a debate as we are now focusing no longer on the scene abroad but on England.

This short Bill, which consists of only two clauses and a citation, is, potentially at least, a means of improving the quality of democratic local government which is threatened by the proliferation of ever larger unitary authorities. I shall open my brief remarks with a philosophical prologue: if the first duty of government is to govern, coupled with it is a second duty to seek to reconcile the range of conflicting interests. It is here that we should review the context of the reform of local government for quite a long period.

To achieve some perspective, perhaps I may invite noble Lords to retrace the events of local government reform back to May 1966 when the late Lord Redcliffe-Maud was appointed chairman of the Royal Commission. In October of that year, the County Councils' Association submitted its written evidence which contained the following proposal: A local authority should not be so large that its members lose the sense of participation in community affairs; in other words, the concept of democracy must continue to be one of the primary considerations in the examination of local government organisation and the closest possible links must be preserved between the electorate and the authority".

I read that in 1966 when I was both a parish councillor and a Member of your Lordships' House. I re-read it the other day when I returned to the archives to see how things stood. That sentence encapsulates better than almost anything I could find what this is about.

The commission readily acknowledge the need for local councils. In the short version of the report (Cmnd. 4039) it tells us: Our first firm conclusion was that any new pattern of democratic government must include elected 'local councils', not to provide services, but to promote and watch over the particular interests of communities in city, town, and village throughout England".

The main report (Cmnd. 4040) went further. At paragraph 320 it continued: The local council, elected for each town and parish, and charged with responsibility for making known the views and interests of its people, will be an essential link between the public and the main authority. The authority must consult the local council on any matter of importance to the council's area, as some county councils now consult district and parish councils. There must he consultation not only on the preparation of development plans and major proposals for new development, where it should be axiomatic that no decision is ever made until the local council's views have been considered".

Having reported so fully and emphatically on the need for local councils in the reformed structure of local government in 1969, there was a curious turn of events. Those familiar with the history of what took place will remember a series of events. Perhaps I may pass the signposts swiftly and indicate what they were. There was of course the Derek Senior minority report— an important document— to the Redcliffe-Maud Commission. There was the Baines Committee appointed by the Secretary of State to examine the minority report and the main report. There was the Secretary of State's own compromise known as the Walker compromise which led to the Local Government Bill 1972 which later became the Act.

Section 246 of that Act established one of the most anomalous of bodies— a body to which in the town of Kidderminster I belong— the Charter Trustee Towns. Where the area of a city or borough did not become a parish, it became instead a body corporate by the name of Charter Trustees of the city or town, as the case may be. Noble Lords will appreciate that charter trustees have no local government functions. Their sole purpose is annually to elect a mayor and deputy mayor. They exist within the context of the appointment of the mayoralty and the upholding of civic traditions. In many cases such mayoralties have ancient foundations, having been established for over 700 years.

There are 22 charter trustee bodies which were set up in 1974, and three such towns are now constituted as new parishes following the recent local government review. On the whole—I stress this—requests for such representation have been refused. A classic example is Salisbury.

Often the absence of a parish council contrasts with a neighbouring parished community in a different local government district. Such comparisons perpetuate an anomalous principle and deny equality of representation. Thirty-six metropolitan districts are all unparished. Non-metropolitan areas include such celebrated and well-known towns as the city of Plymouth, with a population of 252,000; the city of Bristol, with a population of 374,000; and the city of Derby, with a population of 217,000. That bears heavily on the argument behind the Bill. All are large ancient boroughs and towns of considerable foundation and history and proud, long traditions which are seeking parishing or parish representation.

The Bill has two aims. The first is to provide a fair, democratic and accountable way for unparished urban communities to gain parity with their rural neighbours, or their urban neighbours on the other side of the boundary, through an open system of petitioning for the creation of a new parish. It would require at least 10 per cent. of the local government electors of the proposed parish to present a petition to the Local Government Commission asking for a new parish to be created. Conversely, those opposing such a move would have to provide a counter-petition signed by an identical number of local government electors. If the petition asking for a new parish were not opposed, the Secretary of State for the Environment would have to constitute the new parish within a year.

The second aim is to permit Charter Trustee cities and towns, which comprise 22 historic communities which have kept their mayors but which have no local government powers, through a petition submitted by at least 10 per cent. of the community's local government electors which asks that the city or town be made a parish. On that being done, and with the agreement of the Charter Trustee body, the Secretary of State would have to constitute a new parish.

The Bill does not seek to impose a parish council on the people of an unparished area against their will. It is a democratic and voluntary process which I believe to be important. Today many urban communities continue to be denied true local representation when areas a short distance away have or are being promised parish or town councils. The Bill sets out to remedy that situation.

In welcoming later speakers in the debate I wish to welcome in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester. I attended his enthronement as long ago as May 1982. I remember his address from the chancel steps of Worcester Cathedral in which he said to the large congregation, "Will you follow me to Dudley?". Dudley represents a substantial part of the urban fringe of his diocese to the north. That was not only an invitation but a challenge and a realisation of the importance of the urban part of his diocese. We look forward to his speech, in particular his intimate knowledge of the area in the north of his diocese and in the Midlands.

While the review continues under the auspices of the Boundary Commission, which is warmly welcomed, some progress is being made. I readily acknowledge that. I also wish to acknowledge the support given by those who have drafted the Bill so carefully and conscientiously. I greatly appreciate the letter which I received from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in regard to the background. A number of speakers are to follow me and I do not wish to delay them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Sandys.)

8.35 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for introducing the Bill. I support its Second Reading because I believe that my diocese of Worcester demonstrates in microcosm the need which in macrocosm is nationwide.

Kidderminster, an historic and industrial town, the place of the great Richard Baxter's ministry and the home of Roland Hill, the originator of the penny post, has only a Charter Mayor and Charter Trustees with solely ceremonial duties. There is not so much as a local council to decide upon or to activate the care of the town war memorial and many other local issues.

Nor is there any justice when nearby Stourport-on-Severn and Bewdley are parished and Kidderminster, which is three times as large with 57,000 people, is unparished. Halesowen including Cradley (population of 58,000) has no council but the nearby large village of Romsley has a council. Stourbridge, including Amblecote, Lye and Wollescote (population 56,000) are unparished and so also are Netherton, Brierley Hill, Coseley, Quarry Bank, Gornal, Wordsley, Kingswinford and Sedgley. I could go on, but time will not allow. Suffice it to say that 600,000 people living in the old county of Worcester, which is my diocese, are disenfranchised at the civil parish level.

I beg Her Majesty's Government not to stonewall local people who seek the creation of a parish. It cannot be right that historic cities and towns and other established urban communities continue to be denied truly local representation. Is it not true that that which is local is real? Do we not want a nation which is at ease with itself? Do we not want a nation where civic pride is restored and violence is removed from our streets? Does not the principle of subsidiarity imply that local issues are best addressed by local people in Norfolk, in Worcestershire or in the Black Country? We have now adapted to local government reforms. It is not likely that war will break out between parish councils and the new superior unitary authorities. That might have been true in 1977 but not now that we arc older and wiser. Furthermore, the best criterion for the parishing of a town is surely the expressed desire of its electorate.

I do not believe that we shall have the one nation that we desire if we go all out for centrism and neglect the freedom of local people to express themselves over local issues. I hope that the Bill will be sent on its way to the Committee stage. I believe that it is concerned with quintessential democracy. Perhaps I may quote a couple of sentences from the Redcliffe-Maud Report: Our conclusion that local councils must be part of the new system is unanimous. We do not see them as having statutory responsibility for any local government service: but we do see them as contributing a vital element to democratic local government".

I believe that the passage of this Bill is being watched by large numbers of people. It would strike a blow in favour of a participatory national policy and the involvement of many in the good order of their communities and, therefore, of the nation as a whole. I am glad to support the Second Reading of this Bill.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I too welcome this Bill and congratulate my noble friend Lord Sandys on introducing it. It is interesting that his approach and that of the right reverend Prelate is somewhat different from mine, but the Bill seems to satisfy both.

It is much supported in principle by the Isle of Wight Council, the Isle of Wight Association of Parish and Town Councils and by the National Association of Local Councils. When I became president of the Isle of Wight Association of Parish and Town Councils about 15 years ago, the Isle of Wight was the most emparished county in England, and I think it probably still is, with the whole of one of its districts having parish and town councils and several such councils in the other district.

Until the passing of the 1992 Local Government Act, the creation of new parish councils was very simple if the community wanted it and the district council agreed. The executive powers given in Sections 9 to 12 of the 1972 Act are largely in the hands of the district with the Secretary of State having overseeing powers over the necessary order which would have to be laid. I have gathered as a vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils that that system has produced an excellent bottom layer of local government. Indeed, in my own experience, not only in the Isle of Wight but particularly there, I have nothing but praise for the parish and town councils. They do a wonderful job in feeding just that link between the next stage and the ordinary electors. Therefore, it is terribly important to realise that there is really no point in making it difficult to form parish councils when they are wanted by the local people.

However, from the point of view of the local people, the 1992 Act was, I suspect inadvertently, a disaster in relation to the expansion of parish councils. Sections 13 and 14(3)(f) and (g) and paragraphs 8, 9 and 10 of Schedule 3 of the 1992 Act took all the powers for establishing a new parish and town council away from the local people and gave them to the local government commission, thus imposing unexpected and inordinate delays. For example, in the Isle of Wight we have wished for some months— over a year really— to have no further delay in establishing a town council for East Cowes. That is wanted by the local people and supported by the Isle of Wight Council which, as a unitary authority, has replaced the county council and the two district councils. There is no need for delay except for the dead hand of the 1992 Act. Therefore, we greatly support the principle of this Bill. I hope that with any amendment which the Minister might care to ask to be added to it, and with subsequent government support, it can be speedily handled by this House and pressed on through another place without delay. I strongly support the Bill.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, in rising to support this Second Reading, perhaps I may explain something of my background and why I have reached some of my thinking about the situation and what some of the results might be.

I was very interested in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, who mentioned that Plymouth was unparished because, prior to 1832, it did not have a Member of Parliament. I am very proud that my ancestor, the father of the first Lord Monkswell, was the first MP for Plymouth.

Bringing the House a little more up to date, I can report also that in my youth my father was a member of the Halstead Urban District Council in Essex and for a short period was also a county councillor in Essex. Coming even closer to modern times, I served as a member of the Manchester City Council for five years until 1994. This House will appreciate that the modern metropolitan district council is very far removed from the size of a parish council.

My experience as a metropolitan district councillor suggested to me that there is grave problems in not having a tier of democracy below that. Manchester has something like half a million souls and stretches 15 miles in a north-south direction and two or three miles in an east-west direction. It was very easy for a decision that affected the local community in one part of the city to be made by people who did not know the local area. The lack of parish councils resulted in, I suspect, a significant number of wrong decisions being made.

I am a passionate believer in the need for what I would describe as a multi-layered democracy. The situation that we have seen over the past 15 years of eroding tiers of government, whether it he the metropolitan counties or the county councils in some areas of England, has been a very retrograde step. By passing the Second Reading of this Bill and getting the Bill on to the statute book, I hope that we might redress the balance.

Something that I particularly appreciate and endorse about the Bill is the fact that it enables change from the bottom up. It enables people in their own communities to come together to make a decision and they will have a democratic structure. That is at total variance with the way in which local government reorganisation has been conducted during the past 50 years. Following Royal Commissions and Cabinet decisions, local government has been determined from the centre. It is a very powerful argument in favour of this Bill that it enables building from the bottom upwards.

Perhaps I may look at some of the measures that parish council might take. I have made a list of practical steps that I used to be faced with as a councillor of a metropolitan district. Those decisions would be made by the town hall some distance both geographically and democratically from the point of effect of the local community; for example, the design of traffic calming schemes. It is quite interesting how those schemes can affect local people in their communities but if the decision is taken at the town hall many miles away that may interfere with the smooth running of the community. Perhaps I may mention also small planning applications, the management of local primary schools, the management of community centres. All those matters are very sensitive to the local community and decisions about them are best made at local level.

We need to recognise also that without giving parish councils the ability to spend what may be small sums of money, the community, through its democracy, will not have the mechanism to do what a community should be able to do. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, mentioned the maintenance of a war memorial. That is the sort of action that should be taken by the local community coming together through democracy to look after what is important to it. From these Benches, I warmly welcome the Bill and heartily hope that it will receive a Second Reading.

8.50 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, the hour is late, and I shall not keep your Lordships long. As a fellow member of Worcestershire from which my noble friend Lord Sandys and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester come, I wish to associate myself with the Bill. Not only is the measure important now, hut, according to the Sunday press, it may be even more important in the future. Reference has not been made to a Sunday newspaper article which stated that in the year 2016 there may be 27 large new towns within England. If one has large new towns, one has to have people to govern them and to organise at grass roots level. Parishes will be there to do just that.

The Bill has been widely welcomed by those who believe, as I do, in democratic local government. Worcestershire is one of the better counties for parishes. Perhaps I may say that it is one of the luckier counties. There are only 10,200 parishes in England at present. I hope that more will be created as a result of asking the Secretary of State to authorise them.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and I had the pleasure of meeting many years ago Lord Redcliffe-Maud, that wise counsellor who produced that excellent report. He said many wise things. Most of us will have read the report and I shall not go into it in detail. He emphasised the point that the local people should not only be elected but represented. Their voices should be heard on the higher district councils, county councils, or whatever those bodies will be called in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, enumerated some of the jobs which voluntary people organise in their parishes. I rang my local office in Buckinghamshire. In my parish we are given £2,500 per year by the district council. People work quite hard, voluntarily, within the precept that has been allowed. They help with the roads or with the police. They try to organise the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme— sometimes they are successful— which in the countryside can sometimes be invaluable. More importantly, they are asked by the district council for advice on local planning. Local planning can be absolutely disastrous and managed badly by people from afar.

I shall say no more except that, unfortunately, today the voluntary organisation in the parish had a sad duty. The pond was iced over and the parish council was asked to see where the local foxes had eaten all the ducks.

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in welcoming the Bill. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for introducing it. I declare an interest as a member of a London borough council but not, sadly, as a parish councillor. I believe that one reason for the subject of politics being in such low esteem is its remoteness from those to whom it should be closest. I may not be the only Member in this Chamber tonight who has been involved in more than one election campaign where campaigning has been based on such slogans as, "We shall stop this area being regarded as the forgotten part of the borough." It is possible to run large election campaigns in many places, all claiming, with some success, but also with some truth, that they are forgotten parts of the borough.

It is a truism—I have come across it on many occasions—that people generally like the services their local councils provide. They approve of them and have things to say about them. However, they dislike the authority that delivers those services. They do not know the names of their councillors. They do not understand their councillors' roles. A message on my answerphone today was from someone who clearly considered that I should be on duty at eleven o'clock in the morning taking calls about local problems. There is an expectation that councillors will be readily available. Indeed we should be, but it is not always possible.

People do not always vote. The turnout in local elections is variable. I come from an area where the voting figure is over 60 per cent. However, all noble Lords will know of examples where the figure is much lower. I believe that local people do not identify with the local authority, as the right reverend Prelate said. We talk about being involved in our communities. Communities do not come in standard sizes or as standard packages. Indeed, many of us may be members of more than one community at any one time. Certainly, the more local the representation the better able is the authority to act in its most important role— that of community leader.

In England we have the largest local authorities in Europe. Before the local government review, districts and metropolitan areas had to review the need for parishes every 10 years. That gave an opportunity for communities to have their views recognised. I understand that the boundary commission, albeit somewhat slowly, quite often tended to approve proposed new parishes. However, under the Local Government Commission controls there is no duty to review except at the time of the review of the principal councils. Perhaps the Minister, or the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, can confirm that whereas about 50 or 70 new parish councils were created each year under the old process there have been only 30 in the past three years.

Some matters of detail in the Bill deserve scrutiny in the sense of, I hope, helpful criticism at later stages. I refer to the mechanisms for consultation; the comparative proportions; and the two figures of 10 per cent. If there were 70 per cent. in favour—I pluck a figure from the air—should the 10 per cent. be treated in the same way as with 10 per cent. in favour?

I daresay that the Government will have something to say about the provision in the Bill regarding going straight from the result of the local process to the Secretary of State making an order thereby bypassing consideration by either this or the other place. Bearing in mind the convolutions experienced as a result of the local government review in which the commission made recommendations with which the Secretary of State did not necessarily agree I can see a good deal of sense in the Bill's proposals. However, I have no doubt that that is an issue upon which we shall have to spend time at a later stage. I say all that subject to what I very much believe; namely, that people should be represented as they choose. The noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, says there is no point in making the creation of parishes difficult. That goes absolutely to the heart of the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, talked about the "bottom up" approach. Again, that must be right.

The unsatisfactory nature of the current position is perhaps best exemplified by the position of charter trustees. To have recognised the desirability of carrying forward an historical local identity but only for ceremonial purposes seems almost to encapsulate the irony and the dilemma.

As a Londoner, I feel that I must mention it. I checked with a gentleman whom I believe to be one of the authors of the Bill. My understanding is that the legislation extends to London; perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, will be able to confirm that. London is woefully unparished. For the sake of completeness, I would not like it to be thought that having parishes lets the principal council off the hook. Quite independently, the principal council has obligations to consult and to ensure that it understands all views which come from every part of each community it represents and serves. Parishes play an enormous part in the democratic process. Democracy must be an inclusive, not exclusive, process. Obviously, accountability demands a system which encourages the participation of the electorate. I showed the Bill to a colleague whose comment was, "This is a good thing." We support the Bill.

9.2 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my credentials for participating in this evening's debate do not go back as far as those of my noble friend Lord Monkswell; nor, indeed, are they as up-to-date as those of current members of either parish or other councils. I suppose the furthest back that I can go is to say that I went to school in High Wycombe, which is one of the charter trustee towns. I believe that it had a borough council of its own, although it was probably an urban district council.

Since that time, I have been passionately in support of local democracy, which is what the Bill is about. I spent a number of years between 1963 and 1983 as a member of larger local authorities, ending up as a member of the largest of all; namely, the Greater London Council. But, in between times, I was very much involved in the neighbourhood council movement. My noble friend Lord Young of Dartington who founded the Association for Neighbourhood Councils carried out its first survey in my area of London— Hornsey— in 1970. He proved convincingly that, when one asks people where they live it transpires that they live in relatively small communities. Such communities can vary from less than 1,000 to a population of several thousand in London.

People in Hornsey, which has now been subsumed into Haringey, did not say that they lived in Hornsey or Haringey; they said that they lived in Muswell Hill, Highgate, Crouch End or wherever. At the time, it seemed to me to be rational that one should shape one's local government to fit what people thought was their community so that they could have an opportunity to devote themselves to that community. Therefore, when I was asked to be chairman of the Association for Neighbourhood Councils in 1974, I gladly took on that duty. I continued with it until 1980, arguing all the time that the urban parts of England were the only areas of Great Britain which were denied the opportunity to have parish councils.

Parish councils exist almost everywhere in rural areas in England. Of course, under subsequent legislation, Scotland and Wales will have their own community councils in addition to the more formal structure of local government. However, it is the towns and cities of England which are deprived of that opportunity and of all the advantages which have been so eloquently expressed by speakers in this evening's debate. We argued both with Labour and Conservative Governments on the issue. I have to say that there were satraps of large local government in the Labour Party just as strongly as in the Conservative Party. They behaved just as badly in denying the right of local people to put up any opposition to their own often very autocratic behaviour. So this is not a particularly party matter.

We did not succeed in getting any significant change to the very restrictive conditions under the parish review procedure after the Local Government Act 1972. As a result, in the period between the 1972 and 1992 Acts, the creation of parishes in urban parts of cities and towns of England was negligible. There was a procedure for it, but it was one that was so complicated, so much dependent on existing local government and, indeed, of overcoming the resistance of central government that it did not really work.

Following that, I introduced an urban parishes Bill in this House in 1984 which would have gone much further in its effect than the Bill that we are now considering. With the same sort of threshold of approval for a proposition to be put forward and a rather different threshold for objections to be presented, it would have provided for urban parishes in any part of the towns and cities of England where people wanted them. The present Bill is most severely restricted to the 22 charter towns. I believe that that is wise under the circumstances because the opposition of the Government in 1984 to our urban parishes Bill was quite severe at the outset, although I believe that it was tempered as the debate continued.

The result is that all these years after Redcliffe-Maud, and more than a century after the last fundamental upheaval which created local government in this country, there are still large parts of England which do not have truly local government. For the reasons that have been expressed by every speaker— from the example given by my noble friend Lord Monkswell and the ducks mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod—we desperately need this ultimate proof of our belief in subsidiarity.

I hope that the Minister will not say in reply that there is the possibility of dealing with the problem under the provisions of the Local Government Commission, because the noble Baroness has shown how ineffective that machinery is. I hope that he will say that this is a measure which is restrictive in its application, reflects the needs and demands of local people and can only he implemented if there is a considerable groundswell of opinion in favour of local democracy. I hope that he will say that the Government will not object to the Bill passing through this House and will also find time for it in another place. In that event, we shall have made a small but real step towards local democracy.

9.9 p.m.

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

My Lords, my noble friend's Bill has the great merit of being a short one. That is a great advantage. Your Lordships almost to a man—and indeed also to a woman, although we must not he deflected by such niceties—have championed the virtues of the parish.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, has not changed from the times when I sat opposite him on home affairs matters when he used to say that he hoped that I would say this and that I would not say the other. He has done exactly the same today. I shall not tell him whether I intend to accede to what he wishes. He will have to wait to find out.

My noble friend's Bill has the virtue of reflecting the importance that the Government attach to parishes. That was explained in the rural White Paper. Today's debate has also been the vehicle for what must be a somewhat questionable record of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. He has spoken in every debate and on two of the four Questions today. He must be a veritable polymath. However, I understand and share a certain affinity and sympathy with him. If the proposals in the speech made this evening by the leader of his party were ever to come to fruition, both he and I, as hereditary Peers, would be vaporised. I can quite understand the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, wanting to make the best he can of the short time he thinks is available. However, the noble Lord need not worry too much because that little fantasy will not come to pass. Therefore, he will still he able to engage us with his speeches on almost every occasion of the day's business.

Following the local government review, the Government accepted the recommendations of the Local Government Commission for the creation of 32 new parishes. I see that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is informing his noble friend Lord Monkswell of what his leader said. The poor noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, did not know. I can tell him that the Labour Party intends to get rid of all hereditary Peers if it were ever to come to power. It will not; so we shall not be got rid of.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. The idea of disenfranchising hereditary Peers has been on the table for some time. I am on record as welcoming the leader of my party offering to give me back my rights to vote and stand for Parliament. I hope that that right might also be extended to our colleagues who are life Peers.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, seems to have forgotten that he had that right and could have divested himself of his peerage when he first inherited it if he wished. He evidently decided not to do so and preferred to be a Member of the House of Lords rather than chance his arm, and probably lose it, trying to become a Member of the House of Commons. However, let us leave that subject because it is a slight diversion.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

It certainly is.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, cannot complain if his party leader makes provocative remarks and then someone objects to them.

The Government are in favour of parishes. I can assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester that the Government do not, as he put it, intend to stonewall on the creation of new parishes. I do not know where he got that idea, but I can assure him that it is an incorrect assessment. We have not stonewalled and do not intend to.

It is curious that Worcestershire is so well represented today by the right reverend Prelate and my noble friends Lord Sandys and Lady Macleod. I wonder what goes on in Worcestershire that does not happen elsewhere. We welcome the broad intention of my noble friend's Bill to give local people a louder voice in calling for a new parish to be established. That is something which is missing in existing legislation.

The Local Government Act 1992 removed the provisions which were in the 1972 Act permitting districts to instigate parish reviews. Instead, the 1992 Act gave the Local Government Commission the duty of carrying out reviews when it was directed to do so by the Secretary of State. That system has not worked well.

Lord Mottistone

Hurray! It is splendid to hear my noble friend stating, as a Minister, that the system has not worked well. It has worked terribly badly.

Earl Ferrers

To have such support from behind me is enormously gratifying. I wish that my noble friend had said "Hurray" when I made my observations about the future composition of the House of Lords. He preferred to keep quiet. However, I have at least one supporter; that is good.

To reintroduce the old 1972 provisions would not be satisfactory. They did not make adequate provision for those cases where districts failed to instigate reviews. I am bound to tell my noble friend Lord Sandys that we find a fundamental difficulty in the way the Bill is drafted. It affects both parts of the new schedule which the Bill would insert into the Local Government Act 1972.

We have no blueprint for the composition and size of parishes. There is no reason why they should not develop differently in different areas, if that is what people want. It is, though, the Government's view that parishes should not be so large that they dominate the district in which they are located. That is a recipe for confusion and a likely cause of dispute. It particularly applies to charter trustee towns, of which my noble friend, as High Steward of Kidderminster, has direct and deep experience. Several of the charter trustee towns are more than half the size of their respective districts.

Fixed and immovable procedures are also undesirable. They can be misused. It is possible to imagine circumstances in which the creation of a parish is not desired for its own sake but simply because the possible creation of such a parish can be a useful ploy in a wider dispute.

The process of obtaining signatures for a petition is not always beyond criticism. A petition can, of course, be the result of a careful explanation of the proposal to each individual and it can be the result of detailed consideration. But we can all think of cases in which the opposite would be true. I am also apprehensive, in a general way, about what might be called "a war of petitions" whereby one petition can be given to the commission saying: "We want this." Another petition can be presented to the commission saying, "We don't want that" and the commission would then have to act as an undignified referee. That is not the most enlightened way of considering changes to local government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested that Her Majesty's Government might have views on the way in which the feelings of potential parishes were conveyed. She hit the nail on the head. We have several views on it. We need to construct a better process which, as the noble Baroness said, will create a role for the districts not to obstruct but to assist. As she rightly said, consultation must be inclusive not exclusive. There must be a process which will allow the Secretary of State to have his own discretion in decisions, seeking advice from the Local Government Commission if he wishes to do so.

The Secretary of State would, of course, be obliged to use this discretion reasonably. I think that he has already demonstrated that that can be done under the existing procedures for creating parishes. For example, he has accepted the case for creating a number of sizeable parishes in former charter trustee areas which were created following the 1974 reorganisation.

In order to assist potential petitioners, we propose to revise the guidance on the size of new parishes which is contained in a circular drawn up in 1977. In particular, we are considering whether we should give more weight to the relationship between a potential parish area and the district in which it exists, rather than simply setting an absolute upper limit on what should be the size of parishes.

I hope that my noble friend will be good enough to take these comments in the spirit in which they are made. I believe that it would be good to allow for popular opinion to initiate a process leading to a new parish council, but the method of initiation proposed in the Bill is inadequate. I hope that my noble friend will consider the suggestions which I have made and will be able to reflect on the matter.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. His suggestions to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, are very positive and helpful. If the noble Lord wishes to seek the assistance of officials in his department, might such help be available to him?

Earl Ferrers

Yes, my Lords, I am entirely at my noble friend's disposal. We like the idea of the creation of parishes, but the Bill as presently drafted excludes the Secretary of State in a way that would be undesirable and would enable parishes to follow their own momentum. If my noble friend wishes to seek any help, I shall be more than happy to give it to him.

That said, I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, thought that I was being helpful. It took him the whole of my speech to realise that, but I was actually trying to be helpful. I hope that my noble friend will choose to consider those points for his Bill.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I greatly appreciate all the contributions to this debate. My noble friend Lord Mottistone put his finger on the heart of the matter; namely, that support must spring from the grass roots.

We are concerned with a disparity of representation. It should be emphasised to my noble friend the Minister that there are thought to be over 35.5 million subjects of Her Majesty who are not enfranchised at the local level. I am advised that that figure is correct. I am further advised that it covers the whole of England.

I shall have to take advice in seeking a correct response to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as to whether only 30 parishes were created in recent years, and the status of London. The noble Baroness will know, as I do, that the Redcliffe-Maud report excluded London entirely. But the government of London has subsequently changed. Therefore there may well be an enabling procedure whereby parishes may be created in London. I do not know at the present time.

Turning to the difficulties that are presented and the very receptive manner in which my noble friend the Minister replied, it would be extraordinarily valuable if we could establish an opportunity to discuss the content of the Bill, recognising that there are limits to which the Government may seek to go at this present stage, but that they may be persuaded by argument and proposal at a later stage.

I thank all who participated in the debate. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past nine o'clock.