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Hugh Robertson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me; I really must get on because I want to deal with a range of issues. I will happily answer any question that he may have if he writes to me.

Concern has been expressed about the agri-environment schemes. I understand that issue, but there is no evidence to show that it is putting people off those schemes. We will keep those schemes and the effect that they may have on other schemes under careful review. We are committing ourselves to a major review of the schemes in the light of the recommendation by the commission on farming and food that we should consider restructuring the way in which agri-environment schemes are applied. There is a great deal of sense in that recommendation and, although the construction of such schemes will be challenging, I am more than willing to address seriously the commission's recommendation.

We also intend to renew schemes for those who have entered into countryside stewardship schemes, and who may now be worried that, because of the regulations, we will not be interested in renewing the scheme. That is not our intention. We intend there to be a long-term investment in the countryside, and a long-term partnership with landowners and farmers. We will, of course, renew such schemes.

We cannot give a general undertaking to disregard the environmental impact assessment procedures if land is taken out of an agri-environment scheme. First, some of the land may have fallen within the scope of the EIA whether it was in the scheme or not. Secondly, there may have been a great deal of public investment to help to

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create environmental enhancements. It is not unreasonable that an assessment should be carried out when changes are proposed for the management of that land.

On set-aside, I can confirm that the directive does not define key terms such as "uncultivated". We do not intend to include generally within the scope of the EIA directive land that has been set aside for a period from arable cropping. I wanted to give that reassurance.

In relation to appeal procedures, we want to be flexible about the type of procedure to be used in each case. The appellant will always have the right to be heard at a hearing or a local inquiry, and the Secretary of State's powers to determine an appeal can be delegated to an independent appointed person. That is provided for in the regulations. We believe that the provisions are fair, and, as with all aspects of the regime, they will be reviewed to see how they operate in practice. I expect the delegated procedure to be used in many cases in reference to an independent person.

On awareness of the new procedures, I mentioned that we have sent an explanatory leaflet to all registered agricultural holdings in England and more detailed guidelines are freely available. A dedicated helpline is operating for telephone inquiries.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I seek clarification from the Minister. I think I heard him say that an appeal could be heard by an independently appointed person. However, page 13 of the guidance says:

Surely, if that person is appointed by the Secretary of State, they are not independently appointed.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman will find that that is the terminology. Those who decide appeals, throughout the range of appeals within DEFRA, are all appointed by the Secretary of State in that respect. However, the bodies are independent, and the appeal would be independent and accountable to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman need not get too concerned about that—the appeal would be heard properly and professionally, and I do not see a problem with that. However, to return to the point, a review will take place in 18 months, and if people are not satisfied with the appeals procedure, and they feel that it needs to be changed, we shall consider that.

Some of the arguments are reminiscent of those used in relation to the Hedgerows Bill which the hon. Gentleman promoted. As he will know, I dealt with that Bill as an Opposition Member, and I fully supported it. It is a case of, "Now the regulations are in, they are nowhere near as difficult as people thought they were going to be." Farmers and landowners have learned to operate within the rules, and the rules have been made as flexible and realistic as possible to achieve the balance that people have talked about.

On land prices, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is right. There is no sign that land prices have fallen; indeed, the opposite is the case. Some farming organisations have speculated that the measures that we are considering might devalue land. However, I do not believe that, because we are now entering a new era in which production subsidies will inevitably be scaled down. We cannot say for how long the arable area payments will exist. Much of the value of land is

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underpinned by such things as its IACS—integrated administration and control—value, for example. As those subsidies are scaled down, more and more money will go into agri-environment schemes; more environmental schemes will be available. Thus, we have land which in the long term will devalue in the sense of the subsidies that it attracts, and land which under countryside stewardship schemes will maintain its value by attracting maintenance and support payments. I believe—I speak personally rather than on any analysis—that the long-term value of land that has environmental value will be higher than that currently underpinned by subsidies, which is unsustainable. Although we shall have to see, I do not believe that the measures will have a long-term effect on the value of land.

The introduction of the regulations for uncultivated land and semi-natural areas plays a vital part in the agenda for sustainable development, which is very much at the heart of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We attach central importance to it and I believe that the approach commands wide public support. I appreciate that just about everyone who has spoken in the debate supports the principles of the regulations, although not unreasonably has questions about the details. I believe that we can resolve the issues that have been raised reasonably and proportionately, and make the regulations work with the minimum of inconvenience to farmers and landowners.

In the end, the regulations will enhance the value of our countryside and the protection of important habitats, and be of value and assistance to those who are the guardians of the countryside—those who work the land and who I am sure share our desire to ensure that it is managed in a proper, sustainable way for future generations. The measure will protect the value of the landscape and the biodiversity of our countryside.

5.32 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: This has been an extremely useful and helpful debate. Hon. Members have raised a number of points that are important to those on whom the regulations will bear. The Minister's concluding remarks will be read with great care by people who manage the land and by environmentalists. One lesson that we are all learning is that the interests of those two sets of people are becoming more and more intertwined. I sincerely hope that the regulations will help to advance that process and not stand in its way.

I am delighted that the regulations will be reviewed so thoroughly after 18 months. I thank my hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate, which has been a constructive afternoon's work. I am grateful to the Minister for the several assurances that he has given.

Mr. Morley: As I did not answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, I want to take the opportunity to emphasise that the review will of course be open to all interested parties, including conservation organisations and the Wildlife Trust, as well of course as farming and landowners organisations.

Mr. Ainsworth: The Minister has more velvet gloves in his pocket than I originally imagined.

Question put and negatived.

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Line of Route

5.33 pm

Mrs. Marion Roe (Chairman of the Administration Committee): I beg to move,

This is the fourth time, and perhaps the last for the time being, that I have come before the House to present a report of the Administration Committee on the summer opening of the Line of Route. I should like to begin by expressing my thanks and those of the Committee to all those staff of both Houses of Parliament whose hard work contributed to the success of the 2001 opening. The efforts of the visitor manager, the Serjeant at Arms, the director of catering services, the director of finance and administration, and their respective staffs, the security force and the blue badge guides are very much appreciated. I also thank my colleagues on the Administration Committee for their contributions to the report, which was agreed unanimously, and the Leader of the House for making time available for this debate.

On the report, hon. Members will have noted my Committee's two main conclusions: that the 2001 opening was a great success and that, as a result, the summer opening of the Line of Route should be made permanent. As it outlines, Line of Route tours were offered to the public between Monday 6 August and Saturday 29 September 2001, with the exception of Friday 14 September when hon. Members returned to debate the terrorist outrages in the United States. Some 86,284 visitors toured the Line of Route over that period, an increase of 110 per cent. over visitor numbers in the summer of 2000. A further 12,500 people visited Westminster hall and Portcullis House free of charge during the London open house weekend.

The business plan for the 2001 opening specified a challenging target of 85,000 visitors. That the number of visitors exceeded that, despite the problems dogging the tourism industry last summer, is a sign of how well the tours were received. In fact, sampling of visitor response cards and comments in the visitors' book showed that 95 per cent. of those responding said that the tours had greatly exceeded their expectations.

My Committee considered a selection of comments from the visitors' book and I can confirm that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many stressing the importance of the summer opening continuing. Received wisdom in the tourism industry suggests that each satisfied visitor may recommend the visit to 10 others, creating a vast potential demand for the Line of Route. If, however, we are to sustain a high level of visitors, it is crucial that the marketing operation begins as soon as possible, which is why I am so grateful for this early debate.

As the summer opening has run successfully for two summers, we recommend that it be placed on a permanent footing. It would send out the wrong signal about Parliament's accessibility and desire to engage the public were we to decide not to continue with the immensely popular tours. Such a decision would not be understood.

We are not implying that all possible lessons have been learned over the past two years, but if the summer opening is made permanent, it will create a stable and certain basis

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on which officials of both Houses can best plan and carry out the summer opening. For example, criticisms of the summer opening were mainly about ticketing arrangements which, as any hon. Member who wandered through Westminster Hall this summer will have noticed, were less than ideal. In the context of a permanent summer opening, House officials will be able to review options for the permanent siting of a ticket office, which will address the problems observed this summer. Of course, my Committee will expect to be kept fully informed of the deliberations and plans of officials.

Hon. Members can be assured that the Committee was adamant that the summer operation must operate within certain constraints. The Palace of Westminster is primarily a place of work and the summer opening must not interfere with that work or constrain the ability of either House to sit at any time. This summer's events, with the recall on 14 September, reinforced the importance of that criterion. Arrangements must not constrain the Parliamentary works programme; nor must they impinge on the current rights of Members to sponsor visits to the Palace or on the important work of the parliamentary education unit. Our report laid down a fourth criterion, which was of course implicit at the time of previous openings: that any arrangements for the summer opening must not impede the application of appropriately high levels of security within the parliamentary estate.

I now turn to the thorny issue of ticket pricing. I realise that views differ on both sides of the House. Members will recall that both trial summer openings operated to a planned deficit. The £3.50 ticket price reflected only the charge for the blue-badge guide; the rest of the operating costs were met by the merchandising operation and a net sum from the Votes of both Houses—limited to £232,000, with the Commons taking a 60 per cent. share. Effectively, through the House Votes, the United Kingdom taxpayer subsidised each visitor to the summer Line of Route. In 2000 the notional subsidy per head was £6.26; in 2001 that was reduced to £2.31, largely owing to increased ticket revenues and savings on overheads.

Of course there is always scope for greater efficiency, but the fact remains that should the agreed deficit approach be continued, the United Kingdom taxpayer will continue to subsidise summer visitors, at least half of whom are thought to be from overseas. For that reason my Committee recommends that visitors be charged a realistic rate for summer tours of the Palace—a price that would recoup the costs of the summer opening.

I make no apologies for repeating what was said in the Committee's report, as it is crucial.

That is in paragraph 23. Paragraph 24 states

I remind Members of the many opportunities our constituents have freely to view this place at work, and to engage with their Members of Parliament by listening to debates, attending meetings of Standing and Select Committees, meeting their constituency Members, participating in sponsored line-of-route tours, taking part

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in lobbies and participating in education-unit activities. Nothing in our proposal would impinge on any of those crucial rights. We propose the charging of a fair price for additional access—and a guided tour—when the House is not sitting, and an end to the subsidy of visitors and tourists by taxpayers.

We estimate that the charges would be £7 for adults and £3.50 for those receiving concessions. Carers and the under-fives would not be charged, and we envisage discounts for family groups. I invite Members to compare those charges with charges for similar attractions in London. For example, Buckingham palace charges £11.50 for adult admission, Westminster abbey charges £9, and St Paul's cathedral charges £7.50 for admission and a guided tour.

I hope Members will agree with me, and with my Committee, that our proposed charges for tours guided by professional blue-badge guides through this wonderful building still represent value for money. The ticket price will cover the cost of employing guides and of additional security, and additional staff costs. I am thinking of ticketing facilities and extra costs imposed on the parliamentary works directorates resulting from the summer opening.

Any revenue from merchandising could in future be ploughed back into improvements in the infrastructure and facilities of the Line of Route. As Members will see in the report, the merchandising operation in 2001 learned from that of the previous year and offered a reduced, but more popular, number of souvenir lines for sale. Although there was a net profit of £10,000, there is still scope for a higher spend per visitor. Accordingly, we have suggested that a new souvenir range addressing the wants of summer visitors be considered.

Hon. Members will no doubt ask themselves about the impact of any modernisation initiative. The Leader of the House has already helpfully stated that the recess this summer will follow its usual pattern, so the question does not arise for 2002. We rely a great deal on the flexibility of our officers and staff. I am confident that, should the pattern of the summer recess alter, it is possible for the summer opening to operate around it. The infrastructure of the summer Line of Route does not demand a long period of setting up or striking, as was shown when the House sat one day in September last summer. It would be possible to open the Palace to visitors in August and again in October.

My Committee expects to be kept fully informed of the plans of the Line of Route steering group to that end. As hon. Members will know, any decision on the operation of the Line of Route must be agreed by the House of Lords. Throughout our deliberations, we have kept the House of Lords Administration and Works Sub- Committee fully apprised of progress and our conclusions. I understand that that Committee awaits the decision of the House of Commons on the future of the Line of Route with interest.

I do not wish to detain the House further, but I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support the unanimous report of my Committee. Should it be approved, we can look forward to many more visitors enjoying the tours of the Palace and all its splendours, and finding out more about the work that we all do here. I commend the report to the House.

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5.47 pm

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