Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Tom Levitt: I repeat—briefly, so that I can make a second point, Madam Deputy Speaker—that such confusion is not inevitable. The problem does not arise under the present system, so why on earth should it happen when English Nature and the Countryside Agency are integrated?

When the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Treasury spokesperson, he was wedded to the James report and the James principle. Would not the James commission applaud the proposal to bring those bodies together?

Mr. Letwin: I am about to address the hon. Gentleman's second point, which he will have cause to regret making, too.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, almost everyone involved in the countryside today will tell him that confusion and conflicts have arisen and that various bodies and people, including local authorities and farmers, have been affected. That is not only my view, but the Government's view, which is why the Government say that they will bring those bodies together. The problem is that they will be left with a different set of confusions between natural England, the Environment Agency and, while we are at it, regional development agencies and local authorities.

Norman Baker : I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's recitation of Baroness Young's comments. Will he square those comments with the Environment Agency briefing that has been sent to all hon. Members? It states:

It seems that the concern may have dissipated.
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1023

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman has produced the most marvellous example of the effect of the power of direction. The Secretary of State does not need to direct the Environment Agency. When the chief executive of the Environment Agency gives evidence to the Select Committee, she says what she thinks. When the Environment Agency writes something down and sends it to MPs, however, it is conscious of the power of direction, which is the problem that we are currently addressing.

Mr. Jack : Perhaps my right hon. Friend's assiduous reading of the Select Committee evidence did not include the supplementary memorandum submitted by the centre for rural economy at the university of Newcastle, which points out that the Environment Agency was not originally included in Lord Haskins's first examination of rural delivery.

Mr. Letwin: Because my right hon. Friend and I have discussed these matters—he sent me to the Library to read the reports—I have come across that contribution. I was about to mention that a problem has arisen from the failure to do what the James review made clear needed to be done, which relates to the intervention by the hon. Member for High Peak.

The original intention was seriously to examine all the bodies involved and to try to come up with a simpler, less confusing architecture. I attribute that motive to the Secretary of State and her then Ministers, who, interestingly, had in mind an image that was shared between the providers of evidence to the Select Committee, the James review and, while we are it, Lord Haskins, who wrote an admirable report that I studied about a year ago.

DEFRA is involved in delivery—so are the Rural Payments Agency, natural England, RDAs and local authorities. Natural England and the Environment Agency are involved as policemen and prosecutors, as are some other bodies—the inspectorates. Natural England, the Environment Agency and the commission for rural communities are all engaged in advocacy, but under direction. Who is doing what? At the end of all this, no ordinary person could possibly really know.

I fear that this pea soup is reflected in the costings, which are instructive. In the regulatory impact assessment, we find under the notes on clauses—as, indeed, we find in the Government's response to the Select Committee—the Government admit that this simplification measure has very considerable one-off costs, which they assess, if I have understood it correctly, at between £32 million and £45 million over the period 2004–05 to 2008–09. That is in paragraph 11 of the RIA. Yet the annual savings are to be only £11.3 million by 2007–08 and are forecast to reach only £21 million by 2009–10. It does not take long to calculate on the back of an envelope that, during the lifetime of this Parliament, the total effect of these measures will be to save roughly zero. That assumes, moreover, that the one-off costs are not greater than anticipated, which would be a unique occurrence in Government. That is not a partisan point—as far as I am aware, nobody in any Administration has ever managed to reorganise a Department with savings as great, or costs as little, as they hoped.
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1024

We have before us a marvellous example of Sir Humphrey at work. There are Ministers and advisers with good aims—to simplify, to reduce excessive staffing, to clarify roles, and to give more independence in delivery and advocacy. And what has Sir Humphrey achieved? It is a system that complicates, saves little or nothing, confuses roles further and has one salient effect, which Sir Humphrey will celebrate—the extension of the powers of the Department. I do not doubt the good intentions, but I cannot possibly ask my hon. Friends to sponsor those results; that is why we tabled our reasoned amendment.

5.27 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): It is interesting to reflect that we have just come through a general election campaign in which the criticism was made, especially by environmental non-governmental organisations, that green issues had been given little priority. I welcome the fact that the first Bill to be given its Second Reading in this new Parliament is one that is precisely about environmental issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has worked assiduously to ensure that this Bill gets an early Second Reading, and I compliment her, her team, and many of the officials in her Department, who worked extremely hard to bring this proposal forward.

The proposals have been widely welcomed. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) was positive about many aspects of the Bill, although he was critical of others; perhaps I will echo some of those views later. He was destructive about the two new agencies—the commission for rural communities and natural England. I would modestly remind him that the powers of those two bodies are already possessed by English Nature and the Countryside Agency. As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said, it has been entirely possible over recent years to deal with the dilemmas and conflicts that arise. The notion behind the Bill—that of DEFRA as an advocate and policy-maker with delivery bodies underneath it—is correct. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that one cannot entirely distinguish between policy and service delivery, as the two are linked and need to work together.

Only a few months ago, the Opposition opposed the Second Reading of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, and lived to regret that decision. I hope that in Committee we can consider many of the right hon. Gentleman's points, and improve the Bill. The Bill has already been improved—it has been subject to widespread consultation and scrutiny—but I believe that it can be improved even further.

I want to reflect on the right hon. Gentleman's manifesto, issued at the very recent general election. It said:

That is a profound statement, but the right hon. Gentleman's contribution today, in relation to the two new agencies, was profoundly destructive. He gave no prescription for the way forward, and no indication of the kind of institutions that he would like to preserve and enhance our environment. I look forward to the winding-up speeches, when the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) may do that. I also
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1025
look forward to the Committee stage, because I think it important for those who propose reasoned amendments also to make reasoned suggestions for a better way forward.

I was always interested in the comments that the right hon. Gentleman made as shadow Chancellor. I hope that he will do as much for rural communities as he did for his party's well being in the economy, and I believe that in time he will regret his destructive attitude.

The Bill has been criticised for concentrating on institutional arrangements rather than having a vision of the countryside. We should bear in mind that it springs from a range of other measures, such as the rural strategy, the research on the future of food and farming that was referred to earlier, the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy—a Government achievement that has not received the recognition it deserves—and the work of Lord Haskins. The creation of DEFRA, a body just four years old, also requires thought about the structures we need in order to deliver in the countryside.

I am interested in natural England, which I think will be an important and powerful body in the countryside. It will face tensions and potential conflict. Clause 2, which deals with general purpose, sets out what natural England will do. It lists five policies that it needs to deliver. The right hon. Gentleman was right to point out that tension and confusion exist, but he should also recognise the importance of setting clause 2 against the guidance given by the Secretary of State.

I see conflicts between some of the proposals for natural England. There are, for instance, the notions of maintaining and enhancing biodiversity and of promoting access and recreation. Some have argued—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned this—that the Sandford principle must be paramount. I feel that we should reflect on that. We have a countryside that needs to live and work and change. The countryside has always lived and worked and changed; what is important is the timetable for change, and the management of change. I suspect the conflicts set out in clause 2 are not as real as some would have us believe. With good consultation, good land management and a thoughtful approach, hard cases will be few and far between. I agree with the Select Committee that if biodiversity and conservation are threatened, those interests must be paramount. However, we also need to be clear that the countryside provides a landscape, a background and a fabric for people to visit. There would be no point in having a living, working countryside if people could not have access to it.

It is vital that natural England should be truly independent. I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about the guidance set out by the Secretary of State. He will see, however, that the Bill provides for the guidance to be subject to consultation before it is introduced.

Next Section IndexHome Page