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Norman Baker : I am interested in the philosophical direction that the right hon. Gentleman is taking. I hope that he will concede that Government quangos are subject to considerable pressure, often from behind the scenes, from Government Departments that wish them to follow a particular line. They then produce a policy that appears to be independent, but is actually one that is advocated by the relevant Department. At least in clause 25 that is out in the open. We will know what the Government are arguing and we know what the response will be. Are there not some advantages to that approach?
The hon. Gentleman is ingenious.I suspect that our approach might recommend itself to him, given his party's predilection for local
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independence, autonomy, delegation and subsidiarity. Our view is that there is no need for such a quango; that it is difficult for such a quango, in practice, to represent anybody much; that it will not be independent in a full sense anyway, because it is funded in just the way in which the hon. Gentleman has described and open to the degree of pressure that we all know exists; and that it is even less worth having if it is subject to explicit direction, which I agree is honest but extremely powerful. It would be far better to rely on local authorities, Members of Parliament, Select Committees and so on to represent genuinely the interests of the countryside. We would then avoid the need for yet another quango. That is our position on part 1, chapter 2.
Mr. Drew : I think that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into an old trap, which some of us feel is a great danger, and that is to imply that rural Britain is one homogeneous entity. Instead, it is a very varied landscape, both natural and human. For the first time, through the CRC, we could ask the Government actively to involve themselves where communities ask for help and need that help. Is not that level of involvement an advantage?
Mr. Letwin: I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his premise, but his conclusion is entirely a non sequitur. He is right that rural Britain, like urban Britain and suburban Britain, is hugely diverse. It is impossible to imagine the man from Whitehall having the slightest sense of all the variations that provide protection. That is the very reason why powerful and eloquent advocates for particular parts of the country who know those areaspeople such as the hon. Gentlemanare employed by the taxpayer in this place to make representations: not to some intermediate body without power, which the CRC will be, nor to any other intermediate body, but direct to the fountainhead, the Secretary of State, sitting not 20 ft from the hon. Gentleman. That is a marvellous example of what can happen by way of genuine representation. Likewise, local authorities representing the many hundreds of parts of our kingdom, right down to parish councils, exist precisely to represent people living in a particular place at a particular time, to understand their concerns, and to raise them with the mandate that democratic legitimacy gives to those bodies. That is a better way to represent rural and other interests than creating a quango in Whitehall that is, in effect, under the close direction and supervision of the Secretary of State.
Part 1, chapter 1 deals with natural Englandthe critical element of the Bill. The same observation as I made about the CRC has to be made about natural England. The Secretary of State said today that natural England would be independent. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), observed in its recommendations on the new body that
At the same time as they produced the Bill, the Government published their response to the Select Committee's report, in which they stated, "The
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Government agrees." Just in case that could be taken to be a slip of the draftsman's pen, the Government say in paragraph 5a of their policy statement on the Bill that they will give "a strong independent status" to the commission and, in paragraph 5b, that natural England will be "independent of government". Alas, it is not the policy statements of Ministers, however well intentioned, or Ministers' responses to Select Committees that determines whether a body is independent: it is the law that does so.
[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), says that the directions will have to be published. That is splendid. We are all in favour of publication, because we want to know the extent to which the body will be under Ministers' control. However, publication will not make natural England independent.
In a previous post, I frequently argued about the independence of the judiciary with the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). The House would not be impressed if it were told that the independence of the judiciary consisted of the ability of the Home Secretary of the day to give directions to the judiciary about which persons were to be acquitted or convicted, what sentences were to be handed down, and so on. People are independent of Government when they are not subject to direction; they are not independent of Government when they are subject to direction. Natural England will not be independent; it will be an arm of DEFRA.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that people living in places such as the Norfolk broads want a body that is truly independent? They do not want scope for extra bureaucracy and Government meddling in the countryside. Does he also agree that the Government's track record on bringing various bodies together into one organisation is not a sound one? Only the other day, the Prime Minister said of the Financial Services Authority that it is now destroying wealth and damaging business.
Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend is right. He will recall from the recent months in which he and I worked together in the shadow economics team that we made the very comments that the Prime Minister has now made about the FSA, only to be met with shrieks of horror from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I am delighted to see that the Prime Minister now recognises the problems with the FSA.
However, I fear that the position with natural England is even worse than my hon. Friend imagines. Not only is it not independent, not only is it a composite of many things, and not only do we have some fears because of the track record, but it is a body with an astonishingly wide and conflicting set of remits. Let me go through what the Bill establishes as the roles of natural England. Ministers will
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recognise the description from the text of the Bill. In clauses 2 and 4, natural England is to be an adviser; in clause 3 a research body; in clause 6 a grant giver; in clause 7 a manager of land, indirectly, through contract; in clause 8 an experimenter; in clause 9 a provider of information; in clause 10 a consultant; in clause 11 a consultant even for commercial purposes; and in clause 12 a policeman and a prosecutor. That provides scope for immense confusion, rather than clarity.
Tom Levitt : Can the right hon. Gentleman point to ways in which English Nature, the Countryside Agency and others are in conflict now? Why does he assume that we are standing at the top of a slippery slope, down which we will inevitably go towards the anarchy and chaos that he describes? I do not recognise that at all. If we are to have a strong and independent guardian of rural areas, which the new agency is intended to be, the Government must give direction to ensure that it remains a strong and independent guardian of rural areas. My final thought, while I am on my feet, is that surely the right hon. Gentleman, in the spirit
Mr. Letwin: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a way, I am sorry that you did not allow the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) to continue. I suspect that he was about to fall into yet another difficulty. If he waits approximately a minute and a half, I shall give him a blissful example of the sort of confusion and disharmony that the Bill will generate, from the mouth of somebody whose evidence he will find it difficult to resist.
The Bill offers clarity about nothing and a lack of clarity and delineation of roles with respect to DEFRA, the Environment Agency, the commission for rural communities, the regional development agencies, local authorities, other environmental bodies and natural England.Let me give the example that the hon. Gentleman seeks. It concerns the relationship between natural England and the Environment Agency. There is a theoretical way in which one can express this, before I come to the quotations that I promised the hon. Gentleman. One can ask whether the Sandford principlethe principle of putting the environment firstreally applies to natural England. The answer on page 16 of the Government's response to the Select Committee is very interesting. There the Minister states that
I do not know what that means. I do not suppose that anyone listening to it was intended to know what it meant, but it leaves us with a clear question: does the Sandford principle apply to natural England? If it does, how will it avoid overlap with the Environment Agency? If it does not, how will it avoid conflict with the Environment Agency, unless of course the answer is that, through ministerial directive, DEFRA will constantly be holding the ring? In that case, what is the point of the bodies?
That is not just my view; it is brought out beautifully in one of the classic expositions of what goes wrong in government, despite good intentions, by no one other than Baroness Young, the chief executive of the
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Environment Agency, who was asked in the Select Committee a series of questions about the relationship between the two bodies. I shall read at some length the observations of Baroness Young, which deserve to be taken seriously. She said:
"are all to do with air, land and water, the primary role of the Environment Agency is the protection of air, land and water, and the new land management agency, the Integrated Agency, will have a clear role in air, land and water, but it must not be its primary role, its primary role is bio-diversity, landscape, access, recreation. Our primary role is air, land and water. We will work very closely together because without clean air, land or water they cannot have decent bio-diversity, access, landscape and recreation. We, likewise, have got a responsibility for things that the Integrated Agency delivers, in that we have to give them the building blocks of clean air, land and water. I hope that has not confused you completely."
That relationship will be very rich. If one has ever heard a senior bureaucratif I can describe Baroness Young in that wayidentifying a problem of overlap and confusion, that is it. Her exposition of the problem is beautiful.
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