Paddy Tipping: The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. If I can find my copy of the Bill, I will refer him to the appropriate clause, which makes it clear that the Secretary of State will have to consult natural England and the Environment Agency before guidance is given.
Natural England will be a public body, spending public money, and it is important that the Secretary of State should have a right to be able to set down some guidance. At the same time, however, I accept the essential point that the right hon. Gentleman made that natural England should be as independent as English Nature was. The Secretary of State was right to remind us that, when English Nature was set up, there were similar complaints and concerns. However, that body has proved itself adequate and totally independent. All hon. Members want that independence for natural England, and I believe that that is what it will deliver.
Mr. Letwin: If the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard in due course, he will see that I very carefully used the term "directions", not "guidance". For the edification of those on the Liberal Benches, clause 15 deals with guidance and clause 16 deals with directions. There is a procedure for consultation under guidance, there is no such procedure under directions. The only thing that the Secretary of State needs to do in regard to directions is to publish them. That is a lacuna. If the hon. Gentleman is now an ally, at least in seeking to modify the direction power to that extent, that is good news.
Paddy Tipping: The right hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points; they were also made by the Select Committee. Natural England needs to be totally independent, and it needs to have the confidence of the people living and working in the countryside. I suspect that those of us who are lucky, or unlucky, enough to serve on the Bill's Standing Committee will have some good discussions on this issue. It is of paramount importance that natural England maintains the independence that English Nature has had in the past.
Mr. Jack: The hon. Gentleman did an excellent job in chairing the sub-Committee that considered this legislation. Does he agree that independence really means the willingness to speak one's mind, irrespective of the consequences, if one is in a position of responsibility? Does he also agree that many of the personnel from English Nature who appeared before the Select Committee gave a robust and critical appraisal of this legislation? They are the same people who will transfer to natural England.
Of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, the former Chairman of the Select Committee, that it is important that natural England is as independent as English Nature. Let me remind him of the background. He will remember that when these proposals were announced, there was criticism that English Nature was being disestablished because it had written reports that criticised the Government's approach to genetically modified crops. That was completely wrong. But it is absolutely clear that the staff who work for the new natural England, and the board of natural England, should be totally independent and in a position to criticise the Government. I agree with the right hon. Member for West Dorset when he rightly says that the relationship between natural England and the Environment Agency needs further clarification. Again, that is an issue on which not only is the Secretary of State to issue guidance and direction but on which a good deal of careful work needs to be done by the new
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body, natural England, and the Environment Agency. That is paramount in the implementation of the water framework directive, which will have a real influence on our landscape and environment. Unless there is a clear understanding between natural England and the Environment Agency of their roles, there is a danger that problems could occur. Again, the Minister would do well to consider that issue during scrutiny of the Bill.
I need to remind Ministers that the Countryside Agency included a rural advocate section, part of which was the body that rural-proofed Government policy. That has been criticised in the past, but I remind Members of the work that has been done on maintaining small schools and extending broadband across rural areas, rural transport initiatives, and maintaining, with difficulty, rural post offices. Those have been successes. There is a strong case for a body such as the commission for rural communities that acts as a watchdog and that, again, is not frightened to criticise the Government. I am delighted that the Government, following the publication of their response to the Select Committee's report, made it clear that the chairperson of the commission will also be the Government's rural advocate, who has traditionally had direct access to the Prime Minister. It is important that the body is independent and is not afraid to criticise the Government and other public authoritiesit must be a body with real teeth, which is not afraid of the consequences of doing so. Part of the guidance that we might consider is enshrining that in legislation.
I am more concerned about the third leg of the delivery mechanismthe rural development agencies. It is absolutely right that rural development agencies should, in principle, take responsibility for economic development in rural areas. Their experience and history so far, however, has been patchy.
Paddy Tipping: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that correction. There are some excellent regional development agencies, such as Advantage West Midlands. I had the privilege to visit the East of England Development Agency, which is at the forefront of working in rural areas. There is real concern, however, that regional development agencies have historically had an urban base, and that the needs of, say, big urban conurbations outweigh those of rural areas. We must ensure that regional development agencies follow through the tasks and guidance with the resources that the Government have made available. That is a potential problem and weakness, which must be monitored carefully.
Ultimately, a whole range of partners and bodies will still work in rural areas. I am concerned about co-ordination, which, again, was an issue raised in evidence to the Select Committee. Natural England will have powers and resources. The Environment Agency will be doing other things. The RDAs will be doing other things. The commission for rural communities will be focusing on other things. It is important that there is co-
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ordination across the piece, across the regions and across the neighbourhoods. The Secretary of State mentioned that the Government offices would have a role and that regional rural delivery frameworks would need to be set up. It is essential, if we are trying to build rural communities, enhance the environment and lift the landscape, that local needs inform policy. I am not sanguine at the moment that we have the right co-ordination body in our vision. There is a good deal of further work to be done on that issue.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): As a Welsh Member, it ill behoves me perhaps to comment on the creation of natural England, but during the recent election I talked to a lot of regional wildlife recorders in my constituency. They certainly welcomed the proposals that will affect Wales in the Bill. I pick up on my hon. Friend's comment about rural communities. Often, the local wildlife recorders will be the drivers behind local biodiversity issues, and they will be critical to making this Bill a success. All the local wildlife recorders to whom I talked welcomed the provision to extend the duty under section 74 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to conserve and enhance biodiversity to all public bodies. They repeatedly seeI take up the comment that was made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) about local authorities being a major force in moving that forwardlocal authorities put under pressure when planning applications are before them to ignore the biodiversity issues, rather than to enhance them.
Paddy Tipping: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I want to build on her comments about local authorities. I am slightly surprised that, in the Bill as it stands, the role of local authorities receives scant attention. She rightly says that, under clause 40 and others, new biodiversity responsibilities are to be placed upon all public authorities, including local authorities. We must ensure that local authorities are key deliverers and part of the package of deliverers to maintain and to enhance the environment. Again, I have been interested to look at some of the pathfinder schemes to see how local authorities have been involved in that way.
I want to make one final point about the direction of the Bill. Again, I pick up on some of the points that have been made by the Opposition. This is a hard change programme. In effect, existing organisations need to keep running while new organisations are built and put in their place. I was interested in the Secretary of State's comment that the timetable would be brought forward to October 2006. I say mildly to my ministerial friend who is now sitting on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), that that change process will have to be monitored very carefully. Like the right hon. Member for West Dorset, I am not sanguine about the savings that allegedly can be made out of the change process. It is right that we should try to reduce the number of bodies, but the costs of the change may outweigh the savings that are talked about.
Let me give one example. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made the point, as did the right hon. Member for West Dorset, about the three methods of
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payment. The Secretary of State talked about bringing us more information on how far the discussions had got on that matter. That is an essential element. We need to make progress on it more quickly. We need to monitor change management very stringently.