Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: This will be the very last time.

Paddy Tipping: The Secretary of State rightly stressed the importance of legislation on rights of way and
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1014
vehicles. My understanding is that part 6 will not come in until a commencement order has been made. Can she give us an indication—if not now, in the wind-up—of what date she has in mind?

Margaret Beckett: I am not sure that we can, but if we can, we will. I understand that the issue gives rise to strong feelings.

The Bill reconstitutes the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council as an independent body supported by both DEFRA and the Scottish Executive in Scotland. It separates the council from British Waterways and gives it new, wider terms of reference so that it can advise the Government, navigation authorities and other interested persons about all waterway uses.

Part 8 contains a range of measures that aim both to modernise delivery at present and to secure organisational flexibilities for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) raised the issue of voluntary bodies. Chapter 1 enables Ministers to delegate specific functions to delivery bodies and introduces a parallel provision to allow them flexibility to enter agreements. That is intended to ensure that policies and services can be delivered by whoever is best placed to do so—that may be a voluntary organisation—and as close to the customer as possible. It will also allow us to adapt delivery arrangements to respond rapidly to new challenges in the future. However, in response to concerns raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny, we have included a new provision to restrict the types of function that can be delegated to other bodies, so that inspection and enforcement functions cannot be delegated to private bodies.

Chapter 2 gives Ministers the power to establish new boards for the purpose of helping to develop and promote agricultural and related industries, or to abolish certain existing levy bodies. That will enable Ministers to implement the findings of the current review of levy boards, which enjoys strong industry support, without further delay. We will consult widely on the findings of that review and take all industry viewpoints into account, before deciding exactly how to implement them.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Margaret Beckett: I apologise to my hon. Friend but I am almost at the end of my speech.

As the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) had some fun during a previous debate by reading out a list of the many bodies that relate to our Department, I feel confident that he will be happy to support the provisions in the Bill that may reduce their number.

Finally, the Bill allows land drainage bodies to take the environmental effects of drainage works into account. Currently, they do not integrate such considerations in the decision-making process.

Our rural strategy, together with the rural manifesto, sets out a vision of thriving rural communities, tackling rural social exclusion wherever it occurs and developing and maintaining a rich, diverse natural environment.
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1015
The Bill contains an ambitious, but, I hope, not too controversial, programme of change and reform that should bring real and practical benefits for this and future generations. It should radically transform our ability to deliver rural and environmental services at present, and to respond quickly to the challenges of the future. It should mean that rural people will have a stronger voice and rural businesses will find it easier to access support. Our natural environment, in all parts of England, will be better conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of all—now and in future generations.

The Bill has been warmly welcomed by the organisations that will be most affected by it and I am happy to commend it to the House.

4.55 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Let me begin with the good news: we can welcome many parts of the Bill. First, the provisions in part 6 that relate to byways open to all traffic are welcome. However, by contrast to the plea from Labour Back Benchers, we would like to tease out a concern in Committee about the fact that the forthcoming announcement of those measures has stimulated a large number of applications by those who are concerned with increasing access for off-roaders and trail bikes. That issue stretches from my constituency to that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin).

In fact, a rudimentary check by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is the shadow Minister, suggests that more than 200 such applications are in process around the country, and extrapolating from my local knowledge, I expect that there may be many more in the pipeline between now and the commencement date. I doubt whether it is the Government's intention—certainly, we would not wish it to be the case—that those applications should have a smooth passage simply because people have been stirred into action by the Bill. I hope that we can find some means to resolve that with the Minister in Committee.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): During the general election campaign, a trail rider in my constituency brought my attention to an article in one of the trail riding magazines—I understand that it has a circulation of about 100,000—that advised its readers to vote Conservative if trail bikers wished to stop this onslaught
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1016
against their sport. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could advise the House whether the editor of that magazine was wrong in his assessment that voting Conservative would be a vote for trail riders' rights to be expanded across the countryside.

Mr. Letwin: I am afraid that the editor of that magazine was wrong if that was his view. For a long while, we have taken the view that such controls are needed. Of course, the essential issue is that there is no reason why the existence of a horse-drawn carriage in 1600 on a track that is now virtually unusable should establish a right for those in four-wheel-drive vehicles today if such a right would be grossly environmentally insensitive. There is consensus on that, probably between all parties in the House, and the question is whether the precise drafting of the Bill captures that well enough to deal with the interim situation that has been created by the announcement.

Mr. McLoughlin : Not only is there consensus, but I said in my election address that something needed to be done about the issue. The national parks have been mentioned, but the issue needs to be addressed, particularly in areas such as Foolow, Eyam and Teddington, which have had tremendous problems over the past few months, given the growth in the notoriety of those sites. There is great concern that the problem will be compounded because the Secretary of State has given such a long lead-in period, and I hope that it is one of the things that is considered carefully in Committee.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is exactly the point that I am making. I hope that we can achieve some sort of rubric that at least allows local authorities to consider in the interim the environmental effects of a BOAT—byways open to all traffic—application. Of course, the law is structured in such a way that such things cannot be considered. There is an immediate transition from the legal fact of the previous use as a carriageway into permission—something on which I hope we can reach agreement on the need for change.

The second part of the Bill that we can welcome is part 3. It deals with biodiversity and wildlife and several of my hon. Friends and Labour Members have already mentioned that. It is clear that the duty on public authorities to conserve biodiversity, which appears in clause 40, is a good one. However, we will want in Committee to consider the effect on local authorities of the lists that the Secretary of State is empowered by the Bill to draw up so as to ensure that local authorities do not find themselves with an undue and unbearable duty to implement lists of actions prepared by her.

Clause 43 has been mentioned in questions to the Secretary of State, and we recognise that the offence of using pesticide to poison wildlife should exist. However, we will want in Committee to consider carefully the test of intent. The case I have in mind is that of a farmer who has a perfectly legitimate and lawful pesticide and who maintains that he or she is about to use it in order to do proper things with pesticides on the farm, but where the authority believes that there is an intent to use it for another purpose. What will be the test in such a case? We clearly need to ensure that, in our correct and
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1017
consensual ardour to prevent effects on biodiversity, we do not end up with an assault on civil rights and civil liberties.

Clauses 46 to 50 contain the protections for wildlife, including those against invasive non-native species that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I am delighted to see those provisions. As he pointed out, they are a valuable part of the Bill but, again, we will want to look at the details in Committee.

Finally in this category, I want to mention part 4 and the protections for sites of special scientific interest. Again, we welcome the offence of recklessly and/or intentionally destroying SSSIs and the idea of court restoration orders. However, we have doubts about the provision for a penalty to be placed on public authorities. To have a criminal offence for a public authority may not be unprecedented—it may apply in the case of the manager of a nuclear power station in certain circumstances—but it is very unusual. We will want in Committee to consider exactly how the provision will work and whether it can be sustained in its present form.

Beyond those parts of the Bill that we welcome, there are at least three parts that we do not think are particularly controversial. The first relates to the joint nature conservation committee covered in part 2, but we will want to consider its scope in Committee. Part 5 refers to the national parks and the broads and, when we consider them in Committee, we shall certainly want to take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire. Part 7 on inland waterways also looks relatively uncontentious.

Chapters 2 and 3 of part 8 are contentious in point of process rather than substance. Ironically and perhaps suitably, chapter 2 is essentially a Henry VIII clause—in fact, it contains a whole succession of such clauses. We have no concern about the general idea of the Government continuing their current review to its conclusion and restructuring the levy boards. There is wide agreement in the industry on the need for restructuring, but we have concerns about the use of such a wide power to change primary legislation. We recognise that there is an affirmative order provision in the Bill, but we will want in Committee to look very carefully at whether it is sufficiently constrained and whether, in practice rather than in form, the House will have an opportunity to debate sufficiently what emerges. Perhaps we shall receive ministerial undertakings in Committee that will satisfy us and help to ensure that the provision is properly scrutinised.

In the same vein, clause 89 in chapter 3 of part 8 deals with financial powers, and we will want to look carefully at the scope of those powers. As I read the Bill—I may have missed a subtle point of drafting—it gives the Secretary of State powers that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not yet fully understood. Someone in the Treasury might not have been as eagle eyed as they might have been, because I think that the Secretary of State would be able to do something that this Secretary of State would not wish to do—subsidise any number of nuclear power stations. However, the Secretary of State would also be able to do something that this Secretary of State might wish to do—subsidise any number of people complaining about nuclear power stations. In fact, the Secretary of State could do both, the powers are so widely
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1018
drawn. Broadly, anything that the Secretary of State takes into her head to do—which could be described as anything to do with the environment, which is really almost anything when one comes to think of it—she could pay for, subject to the Treasury providing her with some funds. We shall want to examine the clause carefully to ensure that it is not over-widely drawn.

Having said that there are parts of the Bill that we welcome—parts of it that are uncontroversial and other parts that are questionable only in terms of process—I fear that we have big problems with one part. That is why we have tabled a reasoned amendment. I refer to part 1, which is the largest and most important part. I shall deal first with chapter 2, which establishes clearly, as the Secretary of State said, a commission for rural communities. It is pretty clear in the Bill, in policy statements and in previous ministerial statements what the commission is meant to do. There is no complaint about that. Clause 18 provides that

and to promote meeting rural needs. It defines relevant persons as a "public authority". It provides that the commission

namely, to public authorities.

So far, so good, it might be said, except when we come to clause 25, which makes it clear in subsection (1) that the

As if that were not sufficient, subsection (4) states:

Either the commission is an independent rural advocate or it is not. If it is not an independent rural advocate, what is it for? If it can be given directions by the Secretary of State without limit, and if it must comply with those directions without qualification, it is not an independent rural advocate. Indeed, the Secretary of State might just as well appoint one of her officials, one of her Ministers or herself as the independent rural advocate. It is an advocate that will have to do exactly whatever the Secretary of State tells it to do. What is the point of spending public money on having an independent rural advocate that is not remotely independent?

Next Section IndexHome Page