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Mr. Drew: As always, my hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge of this matter. Having chaired the sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, he will know that I raised concerns about schedule 7 and the way in which the different bodies and boards were all subsumed within it. There was discussion about the Agricultural Wages Board being included but, pleasingly, the Government did not go down that road. Does he agree that we must keep that board separate from the new legislation, as it is an important body that needs to be treated in its own right?

Paddy Tipping: I agree that the Agricultural Wages Board is an important body, and I shall make a point on schedule 7, which concerns levy boards. This is enabling legislation and there is widespread agreement that change is necessary, if not inevitable, but when the work is done, the solutions may not be consensual. It is important that the House, Members and outside bodies play an important role in scrutinising whatever comes out of the process. The Bill is right to provide a peg for change—I have no worries about that—but I do worry that the result may not be adequately scrutinised.

Part 6 of the Bill has been mentioned and there is a need again to update rights of way legislation. I am keen for an early commencement date for part 6, for the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman. It is crazy that people can ride four-wheelers, quad bikes or trail bikes down tracks that were designed for coaches and horses. We must change that situation, and the Bill does just that.

I look forward to the Minister telling me what the commencement date will be but I am told that the reason why a long commencement date is envisaged is that the Government have received legal advice that there are human rights implications. People from Eakering in Nottinghamshire have written to me to say that they have been out with their wheelchairs and pushchairs and have been run down by trail bikes and quad bikes; they know that there are human rights implications. We need action quickly. The Government have not so far published their legal advice and I understand the constraints upon them. But perhaps the Minister will give an undertaking this evening to explain what advice he has received and, at the very least, put a summary of it in the Library.

Mr. Letwin: I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is difficult to imagine how Human Rights Act considerations could possibly necessitate provisions that mean that local authorities may not take into account environmental effects, which is why I suggested that that might be a route through during the interim period.

Paddy Tipping: I am pretty sure that the right hon. Gentleman made a plea that we look at this in Committee and I am sure that we will. There have been 14,000 representations on this issue and we need to get
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on with it. It is a festering sore that will get worse, not better. At the end of the Bill's scrutiny, I hope that we have a better set of proposals to deal with the problem.

As I have made clear, the Bill is not perfect, but it is a useful step forward and recognises that there have been difficulties in rural areas. There is no point in pretending that the farming sector or rural communities have not faced difficulties. But we must ensure that we do what we have always done on this small island—perceived that the countryside will only live if it is prepared to adapt and change. That is why I welcome the new institutions. I know that they have been criticised but I believe that they are policy instruments that can help us to drive through the change that is so needed to enhance our environment and lift our landscape. I look forward to further discussion of the Bill.

5.55 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I welcome the fact that the first Second Reading debate of this Parliament is of an environment Bill and I look forward to many more such opportunities during this Parliament.

When I looked at the Bill with my colleagues, we took the view that, by and large, it was a move in the right direction and contained more good than bad. It was an improvement on the present arrangements and although there were issues to be sorted out, we felt that the Bill was worthy of support on Second Reading. Our conclusion is that we should support the Government if there is a Division later this evening.

I listened with interest, as I always do, to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) in his analysis of the Bill and I agree with much of what he said. He listed those sections that were beneficial and moved matters forward, and he was right in that analysis. He then majored on one or two areas about which he had significant concerns. Those concerns are legitimate and he was right to raise them, but I find it difficult to understand why they are of such magnitude that they justify voting against Second Reading. Those concerns appear to be based on clauses 16 to 25 and the issues of the independence of natural England, in particular, from the Secretary of State and of giving directions.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw the distinction between guidance and directions, and there is a difference in the way in which the Government deal with those matters. It would be advantageous if there were to be consultation on directions, as there is proposed to be on guidance. I hope that an amendment to that effect will be successful in Committee.

However, I do not see the deep conspiracy in the Government's intentions towards natural England that was seen by the right hon. Gentleman. It is normal for the Government to give directions to arm's length bodies of different departments. Indeed, the difference here is that they are in the Bill; we will know what the directions are. If those directions are an attempt to muzzle natural England and are clearly in response to an effective body that is doing its job as we would expect, that will become apparent and the Government will be discredited as a consequence. I would prefer that there were no directions, but if we are to have them, it is better that they are out in the open, rather than behind the scenes.
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The great difficulty is that the Government's current power to lean on its agencies inevitably exists in any case. It is there through the budget process, the appointment of members and a number of different matters. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to accept that when he suggested that the change in the Environment Agency's position from that set out by Baroness Young to the one represented today was as a consequence of Government pressure. That, however, is under the present regime, where we do not have these matters in legislation but where apparent pressure is being exerted to force an agency to change its view. How much better, in a sense, if that were out in the open.

I do not dissent form the view of hon. Members around the Chamber that we want natural England to be an independent and effective body, but a relationship with the Government is inevitable and proper. There is bound to be a relationship in terms of the budget and it is better that that be out in the open for scrutiny, rather than behind the scenes, as has so often been the case with quangos. I do not share the fundamental objection to those clauses, and they are open to amendment to try to deal with some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made.

In terms of independence, time will tell, but a range of bodies have broadly welcomed the proposals on natural England, and that has been influential in terms of our approach to the Bill. We took into account representations from the Wildlife Trusts, the Environment Agency, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Farmers Union and English Nature, all of which broadly welcomed the creation of natural England. Liberal Democrat Members who support that proposal are more in line with those bodies that understand the issues than are Conservative Members, particularly the right hon. Member for West Dorset. Indeed, we Liberal Democrats claim to speak for the countryside more than the Conservatives on this and many other issues—[Interruption.] On everything, as my colleagues point out—well, on nearly everything: I shall leave a gap in case a claim could be made for them on one or two issues.

As with any new body, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I remember the National Rivers Authority, which was an effective body under the Conservative Government. Indeed, it was too effective, and was abolished by Nicholas Ridley, if I recall correctly. The Environment Agency was then established in its place. It was seen at the time and was clearly designed as an attempt to muzzle the effectiveness of the NRA. As it turned out, the Environment Agency was pretty effective, so if the Conservatives had that objective for the organisation, they clearly failed in that particular case.

If a variety of functions are transferred to natural England, it will have more clout and be in a better position to stand up for natural countryside issues than even English Nature, which has done a good job, has been. The proof will come when we see how it deals with key issues of importance to the country—I mean the country in both senses of the word. English Nature has a good track record on many issues—for example, in opposing road schemes, as with the Hastings bypass; in standing up against GM crops and the damage that they would inflict on biodiversity; and in opposing Cliffe airport in Kent. I would expect natural England to
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follow the same line, and there is no reason to believe that it would do otherwise. If the Government started to issue directions to say "Thou shalt not complain about GM crops" or "Thou shalt not oppose road schemes", it would become apparent to many people, and the Government would lose heavily in respect of presentation as a consequence, but I do not believe that that will happen.

Frankly, the right hon. Member for West Dorset raised this issue as an Aunt Sally, which needs to be knocked down. He knows that I usually have considerable time for him, but I hope that he is not falling into the trap of the previous incumbent of his role. In my short time as Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, I have faced a bewildering succession of Conservative Front Benchers—I have lost track of exactly how many. I hope that the newest incumbent stays for rather longer than his predecessor, but they have all fallen into the trap of opposing for the sake of opposition, as has the Conservative party more widely. The Conservatives opposed the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill and they were forced to change their minds on both Iraq and ID cards. Once again, they seem to be adopting positions in order to justify short-term political gain.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats take a principled position on this matter—assessing the Bill on its merits and supporting it on Second Reading, subject to the caveat that we shall table some amendments in Committee, which will be designed to improve the Bill. We will then look at what emerges on Third Reading and decide whether to support the Bill on the basis of what it looks like at that stage. That seems a far more sensible and constructive approach towards the Bill than we have heard from Conservative Members this afternoon.

Having dealt with the new agency's independence, I shall move on to other issues. The establishment of the so-called commission for rural communities is an important aspect of the Bill and I have to confess to having some sympathy with the Conservative position on it. It is a "guns" rather than a "teeth" body, and it is not clear how effective it will be in championing the interests of the rural communities that it is supposed to represent. Some of the Countryside Agency's powers have been stripped away from it, so it is becoming a very small player in this scene. It seems to me not much more than a shibboleth or a token body, which is there solely to enable the Government of the day to say that they care about and listen to rural communities as evidenced by the establishment of the body. Frankly, in the form proposed in the Bill, it is scarcely worth having. It is neither one thing nor the other; it is neither fish nor fowl. It possesses neither the real teeth nor the powers that it needs to achieve anything worthwhile. Without such powers, it may as well not be there at all. There is the further democratic argument that such powers as it will be allowed could be delivered more properly by local authorities, which, after all, represent people and are accountable to them. Serious questions need to be asked about why the proposed body is justified and whether money could be saved by abolishing it.

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