Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the governance and operation of parish councils in England; and for connected purposes.
I am bringing in this Bill to make a fundamental point— that, as we devolve power down to local communities, we should ensure that the councils to which we are giving more power are run in a good way. Throughout all of public life, we should ensure that elected representatives adhere to the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Those principles need to be at the heart of all governance and, indeed, of parish councils.
I declare my own involvement in local councils. I was a district councillor and twice a parish councillor before coming to this place. I have helped to produce a neighbourhood plan and sat on various parish council committees. As a councillor and now via feedback as a Member of Parliament I have seen how parishes should work. I am passionate about the principle that decisions should be made as locally and as properly as possible. Indeed, as Hamble-le-Rice Parish Council is showing—it is to agree the first stages of a neighbourhood plan—good parishes can make a real difference, with committed people coming together in the best interests of their area. I also fully support those calling for Eastleigh to have a town council to give it a separate voice in the face of hostile development through Eastleigh Borough Council’s missing local plan. I completely support the Government’s great devolution programme, which empowers communities.
I will speak today about the most local form of government: parish councils. There is a patchwork of 9,000 parish councils across England, each offering the closest form of representation in our democracy. Serving on these parishes are 80,000 councillors—some elected, some unopposed and some co-opted. However, a strong part of ensuring that localism and the devolution agenda really work for people is ensuring that councils and councillors are ready to receive these new powers.
We need to ensure that parish councils are truly representative. Representatives should come forward to offer a mix of talent and experience—they should have varied backgrounds. However, the party politicisation of parishes in many areas sadly and brutally undermines that situation. This Bill would seek to reverse that. Multi-hatting, whereby a councillor sits on a number of different councils, is not in itself a bad thing. Vertical multi-hatting, where a councillor is a parish and a district councillor, or a parish and a county councillor, helps to foster good communication between councils. However, I draw the attention of the House to the growing negative version of this, which I call horizontal multi-hatting. This is when an individual sits on multiple parish councils.
A borough councillor in my constituency sits on Bursledon Parish Council and West End Parish Council. The seat that this individual is taking up could have been filled by someone who genuinely wanted to contribute to their community, rather than purely to be a political placeholder—somebody who is not just seeking to qualify simply by being within three miles of one or two boundaries. In such instances, it really is a case of keeping seats cold, rather than keeping them warm. Or is it just a question of spying on the other camp? There should be a restriction on this kind of horizontal multi-hatting so that people can get involved with community representation and political parties cannot simply block others from taking part in the community.
The Bill also highlights the concerning weakness of safeguarding in parish councils. A parish council often has a single member of staff in the form of a part-time clerk. Parish councillors are often heavily involved in the local community and the many organisations they work within. They are the lifeblood of the parish council. Two problems can arise from that. First, a proper and effective safeguarding policy is difficult to maintain with limited staff time and an often rather informal approach to governance. Secondly, and very seriously, in instances brought to my attention in my constituency and elsewhere, parish councillors have used their position to bypass safeguarding policies. I have heard reports that parish councillors are using their position within their communities, and their status as a councillor, in order to get inappropriate access to community places such as local schools and community buildings.
When we discuss these matters it is important to balance the real need for good safeguarding with the right to stand in a local election. I believe that this balance can be rightly struck by requiring all council candidates to be DBS—Disclosure and Barring Service—checked as a first step to being nominated for an election. We also need to ensure that best practice for safeguarding is instilled right down to our parish councils and right across the country. That will include effective tracking and logging of potential interactions between councillors while performing their duties, such as surgeries, particularly where vulnerable members of society will be approaching people for assistance by virtue of their councillor status. This will of course mean more focus on training for parish councillors.
As we push power downwards to local communities, we must also provide those communities with access to outstanding training for their local representatives. During discussions with the area branch of the National Association of Local Councils it has given me wonderful examples of effective and comprehensive parish council training packages, which can and must be implemented. I was particularly pleased to see the example set by Hampshire NALC, under the brilliant Colin Mercer, a councillor in Botley, who is ensuring that exactly this kind of work is done for our new councillors. NALC has provided me with a copy of its handbook, which it says is the most requested publication that it writes. The handbook points the way towards a national training standard for our parish councillors. At a time when we are giving more power, more responsibility and more discretion to parish councils, we need to fully understand their new role in localism and the devolution agenda.
I am sure that colleagues will sympathise with the feeling of having been elected and then suddenly told to just get on with it. That is clearly not good enough. The people making the decisions on planning for finance, for project management, for procurement, for key contracts, and for the challenging and complex issues that keep a vibrant community alive must be in the best possible position to decide on the outcomes. We need to look at a more effective system of oversight for our parish councils to give them confidence in good decision making.
I want to make it absolutely clear that in my experience as a parish councillor and as an MP, the vast majority of parishes are doing a fantastic job of representing their community and working hard within it. However, in the tiny minority of cases where things go wrong, we need to make sure that someone is there to properly scrutinise and learn lessons. Whether it is through expanding the remit of the ombudsman, bringing in a clear and stronger code of conduct review, or, again, standards boards, we need to be able to tackle this issue.
Fundamentally, my experience and my political outlook mean that I firmly believe in giving more power to local communities. While we debate here in this grand Chamber and even grander building, it is worth remembering that people across the country, this evening and throughout the week, will be putting on their coats and walking up to their local village hall, sitting regularly in their community spaces wanting to make their communities and local areas a little bit better. I believe that these measures will assist those councillors and make our parishes work better so that they can continue to serve their residents fully and even more confidently.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mims Davies, Scott Mann, William Wragg, Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan, John Howell, Amanda Solloway, Antoinette Sandbach and Lucy Allan present the Bill.
Mims Davies accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May and to be printed (Bill 168).