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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con):
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-Super-Mare (John Penrose). My constituency abuts Blackpool, but unfortunately Blackpool's donkeys perhaps do not quite have the energy to reach my constituency. They can reflect on that point in their hour off. My hon. Friend made a notable maiden speech, speaking without notes but with passion and knowledge about his constituency. He referred to issues such as drugs, planning, housing and transport, all of which will resonate around the House, and told us of his concerns for his elderly constituents, particularly in the context of their pensions and council taxagain issues that were raised with us during the election. I welcome him to the House and congratulate him on his maiden speech.
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I hope that, before I turn to the Bill under discussion, I may refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). I enjoyed her maiden contribution. I say that because, for some years, I lived in Chipping Barnet. May I add one other date to her list of enviable anniversaries26 May 1979 is a special day because my eldest son Edmund, who is now a doctor, was born on that day in the Victoria maternity hospital. Sadly, it is no longer there, but it has been replaced by a modern hospital.
I shall never forget, some months before Edmund was born, arriving at the hospital with my wife. We were worried whether she was pregnant or not. I said to the nurse there, "I know you deal with the end result, but we are worried about where we get started." We were directed to the family planning clinic down the road.
I was Sydney Chapman's Conservative political centre chairman. I worked very hard for him. He taught me one wonderful political bit of diplomacy. It was manifested when Edmund received a letter from Sydney congratulating him on arriving in the world and on his excellent choice of parents. I have followed the example in that letter with as many young entrants to my constituency as possible. I pass that on to my hon. Friend for her benefit. I could go through many of the other excellent maiden speeches that we have heard, but I will get on with my remarks about the Bill.
The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) did an excellent job in chairing the sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that examined the Bill. I had the privilege as Chairman of the parent Committee to sit on it and to work with him through the Bill. The pre-legislative scrutiny has been much praised by Ministers. I thank them for their observations, but that scrutiny came at a rather late stage within the Committee's more comprehensive inquiry into the delivery of rural services.
It was interesting why we decided that that was a proper area to look at. We wanted to know what the real barriers were in the United Kingdom to the delivery of all those vital services, whether they be transport, health, broadband, new industry or whatever. Co-incidentally, the Government then decided to publish their draft Bill in the context of their rural strategy and invited the Committee at a fairly late stage to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny.
Inevitably, our ability to go into all the aspects of the Bill in real depth was curtailed by the time scale afforded to us and the oncoming rush of the general election. However, before Easter the Committee that was chaired by the hon. Gentleman produced its report.
I gained the impression that in its draft stage the Bill was still a work in progress. There were a lot of rough edges. There were no definitive answers to the question of the information technology systems that will be required to deliver the Bill. I note that in the Government's reply to the Committee's report, there are many references to non-executive directors on the management board for DEFRA having some knowledge about change management and IT, but no significant milestones have been published on that central element, which will be vital if the new agency is to deliver the many services more efficiently, as it claims it will.
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I hope that the Minister, either in his winding-up speech or perhaps in a written statement to the House, may be able to put on record how all the problems of developing a brand new IT system for the new agency will be solved in the extremely tight time scale for the IT change programme under which we are working. In the Government's reply, they talk about the new agency being up and running by 2007. Effectively, we have a year and a half roughly to make certain that all the systems that need to be in place will be up and running.One Member who spoke earlier in the debate commented on the Rural Payments Agency. We know already of the problems that DEFRA is having in delivering that service. The same people who are to deliver on the new IT system are involved with the electronic IT innovations system in DEFRA at present, so there are some practical issues to look at.
Looking back at the evidence that the Committee took on the draft Bill, I was much taken by the contribution of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who was briefly in the Chamber earlier. It illustrates an interesting point about independence. The evidence that I am about to quote comes from Dr. Andy Brown, chief executive of English Nature. The hon. Gentleman put questions in his own unique way. He said:
"With New Labour, every strategy has to be joined up, in the same way as every opportunity has to be exciting. Do you seriously believe that Defra does have a joined-up strategy for managing our land and our natural resources, as far as you can see?"
"what I have not seen yet is something that pulls it all together in terms of land use and what we actually mean by sustainable land use and management, and that is an area where I think there is more work to be done."
If that is the view of the practitioners, one has to ask some questions. For example, was what happened as a result of Lord Haskins's work a consideration of how to save money by integrating various functions and then worrying about exactly what one would do after the infrastructure of the new agency was in place? That is why I say there is an element of work to do.
There were some interesting things in the rural strategy document of 2004, including a heavy concentration on the development of the rural economy and the provision of services, and there were lots of photographs of initiatives in different parts of the country that were specific to the needs of rural communities, together with wider issuesfor example the availability of broadband.
One is struck by the special nature of rural Britain. It is unique at any point. The needs of individual communities are what those people who live there want.
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All of that has suddenly been welded on to an agency that will have as one of its central functions the job of English Naturethat of preserving the natural environment. However, the evidence from the university of Newcastle, to which I referred the Secretary of State, showed that there had not been a properly developed strategy with any kind of decent objective analysis as to precisely what the new agency was going to be about.
As we had no final White Paper between the pre-legislative scrutiny and the appearance of the Bill, we have seen nothing to pull together the many and various views that have been put forwardfor example, the conflict between the integrated agency's economic functions and its responsibility for dealing with rural deprivation and its environmental objectives in dealing with and protecting the natural environment, the major province of English Nature.
In that context, one thing that worries me is that we have not seen many case studies on how the new agency would operate in a real-world environment. As part of my preparation for the Select Committee, I had the pleasure of visiting English Nature's site of special scientific interest on the other side of the River Ribble near my constituency in Southport, where I discussed some of the real and practical problems of how we look after our SSSIs. Nothing in the Bill addresses the central issue of the lack of resources. The new agency may be able to enter into management agreements, but if the resources are not there, our SSSIs will not be brought up to the kind of standards that are required if areas of outstanding natural beauty and importance are truly to be preserved. That task lies at the heart of what the new agency is going to do.
I welcome the Under-Secretary to the Dispatch Box and I know that he has a genuine interest in these matters. For brevity's sake, I invite him to look at the evidence given by the university of Newcastle on the gaps in the current rural strategy. Newcastle had the opportunity to be objective and could see some of the failings of the new agency.
The Government produced a reply to the Select Committee report. It was somewhat late in the day, but better late than never. I have touched on the issue of the IT systems in terms of the Government reply, but I wish to mention to one or two other points that came out of it.
I asked the Secretary of State if there was any timetable for how the trick was going to be pulled off of reducing 100 rural funding schemes down to, effectively, three. There was a sort of shuffling of feet and a gracious acknowledgement that that was a challenge and a problem. One knows that the permanent secretary at DEFRA is on dodgy ground when giving evidence because he always turns to the Committee and says, "This is a challenging target." This one is indeed challenging.
The Secretary of State neatly glossed over the work of the new agency in relation not just to the regional development agencies, but to the other local structures. In rejecting Lord Haskins's original proposals, the Secretary of State effectively said that local authorities would be plugged into the delivery of rural services, rural improvements and protecting the environment via a relationship with spatial strategies to be organised by Government offices. But there was no map or linkage for
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how that mechanism would plug into the new agency and equally there is no mechanism or map for how that plugs into the work of the Environment Agency.
There are questions about the water framework directive and catchment areas, which, in the area of the Ribble, will become increasingly important in terms of developing a strategy for the natural environment of that remarkable ecosystem. One asks how that new arrangement fits in; the answer is, "Not very easily", and a lot of work will need to be done if the genuinely integrated agency now called natural England is to work properly. One of the tasks in Committee should be to tease out how some of those relationships will work in practice. Otherwise, I see a serious disconnect in the way that the new body is designed to operate.
That is particularly relevant to local authorities, as it is clear from the DEFRA rural strategy of 2004 that local authorities have played a crucial role, as identified by hon. Members in the debate, in the identification of local need. They have also responded, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) said, to what local people are saying. Without the resources to help local authorities replicate some of the excellent work of the Countryside Agency in developing innovative ways of providing rural services and developing rural economies, some of the aspirations of the new agency simply will not happen. At the moment, I am prepared to give the new agency the benefit of the doubt, but notwithstanding comments about its independence, the Government have much work to do to provide focus and purpose for its operation.
Finally, I want to comment on two further issues. I am wary of the reorganisation strategy that the Bill gives the Government powers to undertake, particularly in respect of the Horticultural Development Council. Such bodies are special and, in the case of the HDC, it is the only way that small growers can get certain types of research undertaken for them. The idea of simply welding things together on the ground of some loose thematic is not necessarily the best servant of improving the operation of those development councils. I am glad that widespread consultation, which is so important, will take place.
The Bill has had much welded into it, but one item is missing. I am surprised that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to use the Bill as a legislative vehicle to solve, once and for all, the legal framework for the future of the new Covent Garden Market Authority. The Select Committee undertook at least three reports. Whatever will be at the heart of the new solution for London's wholesale markets, it requires a legislative framework to be put in place that will once and for all enable DEFRA to stop operating a London wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market, together with other activities, on that site. Even at this late stage, if there is some framework legislation that would at least give DEFRA whatever powers it needs to move, once it has solved the future of the new Covent Garden market site, I would urge the Department to take the opportunity of bolting it into the Bill.
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