§ 2.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Scott of Needham Market asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they have any plans to include on regional assemblies stakeholder representatives within the remit of the Standards Board for England.
§ The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)
My Lords, the Government have no plans to extend the remit of the Standards Board for England to include regional assembly stakeholder representatives. Regional assemblies are not statutory bodies, but bodies that have been designated to undertake certain activities. Each assembly is, however, expected to adhere to the highest standards of propriety and to produce a code of conduct for all local authority and stakeholder members, based on the model code of conduct for local government published by the Standards Board.
§ Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he explain why members of those regional assemblies, which have statutory planning powers when they form part of the 5 regional planning bodies, are not subject to the Standards Board? They are organisations that decide the location of tens of thousands of houses, while parish councillors, who have limited powers, have the full might of the Standards Board bearing down on them
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, roughly a third of regional assemblies consist of non—local authority representatives. As I have just explained, they are all covered by a code of conduct which is modelled on the Standards Board's code of conduct. So it is not as if they are put there without any checks and balances. Most are elected by their representative organisations. One of the regional assemblies that I was considering this morning has no fewer than 15 groups that constitute its unelected, non local authority members. So we would claim that they are covered. If there are any complaints or difficulties regarding any area, please tell us about them. But they are covered by a code of conduct that is modelled on that published by the Standards Board. They are voluntary, not statutory, bodies and are there because they have been asked to perform certain functions; but, after all, they are voluntary bodies.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to parish councils. Is the Minister aware that in 2003–04, 25 per cent of all complaints to the national Standards Board for England were against parish and town councils? Is he further aware that two-fifths of all the seats and wards in parish and town councils are not filled? Would he accept that this partly relates to the threat of the Standards Board, and should he not consider abolishing that board?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, with due respect, I should say that this does not have much to do with regional assemblies, although parish councils are represented on some regional assemblies—not all, but certainly on the East of England assembly, because it is a representative body. I remember that this issue was raised when I joined your Lordships House. Parish councillors can resign. They do not have to tell the Standards Board why they have resigned. We have not collected, or been made aware of, massive evidence of the wholesale resignations that we were told to expect—particularly given the substantial number of members that exist in some 8,000 parish councils. The vast majority have conformed. I fully accept that many places are not contested, and that is to be regretted. That is partly due to the decline in participation in elections, which the Government are seeking to address. We will shortly be coming forward with proposals to make it more exciting to be in local government.
§ Lord Bradshaw
My Lords, first, I should declare an interest in that I have been investigated by the Standards Board on two occasions. How many cases has the Minister uncovered where corrupt practice has been revea led and how much of that work is simply bureaucracy, which is burdensome for all those upon whom it falls?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, the correct answer to the question put to me by the noble Lord is none". I have 6 not uncovered any cases that he described and, frankly, I have not come with massive amounts of evidence. Contrary to public belief, the odd bad apple that receives a lot of publicity is a very odd bad apple indeed. It taints the tens of thousands of our fellow citizens who give service to local government and community activities, but it is rooted out when it is discovered. We have various means of checking on it and that is what audit and scrutiny are all about.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, did I hear the noble Lord correctly just now when he said that the Government had proposals for making life as a member of a local authority more exciting? I should very much like to know whether that was a promise or a threat.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, this month the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will publish its five-year plan and what, in the jargon, are known technically as "daughter documents", some of which relate to leadership, local government and other matters. I think that they are very exciting.