Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab):
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great successes of the Countryside Agency has been the development of the
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rural-proofing of Government policies to ensure that they are fit for purpose in rural areas or otherwise differentiated to meet the special circumstances there? Will she give an assurance that, under the commission, that success in rural-proofing will continue?
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): As the Secretary of State is to deal with that point will she also take on board pieces of legislation, such as the Government's recent licensing laws, that have had the most adverse effect on the ability to hold functions in village halls? Does rural-proofing extend across all Departments? If so, what changes will she make to ensure that it works in future?
Margaret Beckett: I have heard the concerns that the hon. Lady has expressed. It was my impression that much of the anxiety was ill conceived. I speak from memory, but I do not think that the legislation is yet in force, so it is hard to see how it can have had a disadvantageous effect. Of course, I take her point seriously and I assure her, as I assured my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), that as it is absolutely the Government's intention that the new commission should maintain that watchdog role on behalf of rural communities, while we will try to ensure that there are not the disadvantageous effects that she described. If there are, I am sure that the commission will say so, and forthrightly.
The Government have already been pressing ahead with a radical transformation of rural funding to streamline the more than 100 schemes that Lord Haskins identified into just three core funds. Each Government office in the regions is brokering a draft regional rural delivery framework that will seek to set out regional priorities and partnership arrangements.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Secretary of State outlined in her opening remarks the tightness of the timetable that she wishes to follow, subject to the House's approval of this Bill but, in her reply to the Select Committee's report on the simplification of rural funding schemes, she says:
Margaret Beckett: I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman that information at the moment. If we have it available to us, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), will include it in his winding-up remarks. Otherwise I undertake to write to the right hon. Gentleman, who might have another role in these matters in the not-too-distant future.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab):
On the priorities for the rural aspects of the Bill and the
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partnerships that my right hon. Friend will look to build, what priority will be given to biodiversity and nature conservation in urban areas, especially those with sites of special scientific interest and local nature reserves? The Bill rightly places great emphasis on rural communities, but we should ensure that we do not lose sight of what is important in urban areas.
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right and I take her point entirely. It is because the Bill makes different arrangements for rural areas, as well as setting up natural England, that it places great emphasis on those areas, and no doubt our debates will also concentrate on them. However, I can give her the absolute assurance that it is the Government's intention that the new agency, natural England, should have clear responsibilities for biodiversity across the country, in rural, urban and coastal areas. That is well understood by those who will be part of the natural England agency, should the Bill become law.
The role of the commission for rural communities in monitoring independently how well Government policies are delivering the right outcomeswhich my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly called rural-proofingis crucial. That is why we have included in the Bill a new provision requiring the commission to report publicly on the outcome of that monitoring and rural-proofing. That should ensure maximum transparency in its activities and underline its credibility as an independent watchdog.
As a consequence of setting up natural England and the commission for rural communities, the Bill will reconstitute the Joint Nature Conservation Committee as a UK-wide organisation, formally extending its remit to Northern Ireland.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Before the Secretary of State leaves the commission for rural communities, I was delighted to see that, in clause 20, the Bill provides for research. How will it be funded and how will it link with the research councils and the Government's research policy?
Margaret Beckett: We principally envisage that the commission will be able to draw on work by the research councils. Within its budget, it may have scope to do some analysis, examination and research of its own. The Department has funded research and will continue to find ways to do so, not least to provide evidence of, and a database on, what is happening in rural communities. The lack of such a database was a severe handicap in trying to implement the rural White Paper.
Tom Levitt: The commission will presumably look for partners in seeking to pursue its agenda. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the potential of the voluntary sector in assisting to deliver those policy objectives and can she assure me that, wherever there are appropriate and willing partners in the voluntary sector, that will be encouraged? Will she also acknowledge that the voluntary sector in rural areas suffers from issues of economy of scale, like other organisations that work in those areas, and that that issue would have to be addressed in any such partnerships?
My hon. Friend makes another important point. It is very much the Government's hope and intention that it will be possible to involve the
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voluntary sector and we may be able to explore that point in Committee. One reason for seeking to provide flexibility in the Bill for setting up such partnerships is to reflect the diversity and variety of potential partners, whether they be voluntary or other organisations, and to ensure that people can work in ways that best suit the tasks that they seek to perform. The means will vary from one area to another and we hope to allow for precisely that.
I mentioned the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The Bill will strengthen the breadth of scientific expertise on the committee by increasing the number of independent members from three to five. The Bill will also introduce measures to strengthen wildlife and habitat protection and to mainstream biodiversity considerations into public policy and decision making, because it provides that every public authority must have regard to the purpose of conserving biological diversity in the exercise of its functions. That duty should help to ensure that biodiversity becomes a natural part of policy making.
The Bill will introduce a package of amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 aimed at improving protection for native animal and plant species and a new provision on the possession of pesticides, designed to help prevent their abuse to kill wild birds and other wild animals. Those measures, too, have been the subject of wide consultation.
The Bill will introduce new enforcement provisions to help ensure compliance with wildlife protection legislation to help redress some of the current imbalance of interests in wildlife enforcement. It also creates two new offences to assist in managing and protecting our sites of special scientific interest. One will enforce an existing duty on public authorities and the other, we hope, will help further to deter intentional or reckless damage.
The broads, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are recognised as both our finest landscapes and as leaders in sustainable land management. The Bill contains a number of provisions that stem from the review of English national park authorities that was published in July 2002 and the subsequent review of the Broads Authority to ensure that the statutory framework is sufficiently clear to enable them to operate efficiently and flexibly.
The Bill places some important limits on establishing rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles by limiting vehicular rights that can be recorded on local authorities' definitive maps and statements of public rights of way in England and Wales. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) raised that issue and I understand that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. We have taken into account more than 14,000 responses to our 2003 consultation document and believe that the provisions in the Bill strike the right balance between the needs of all users of the countryside and the protection of our landscape and wildlife.