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Mr. Letwin: I echo the Minister's thanks on behalf of the Opposition. I thank him for the constructive spirit in which he has approached the Bill. I also thank our Liberal Democrat colleagues, and above all I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who has borne the heat of the day for the official Opposition.
What we have seen today represents the House at its best. As I said on Second Reading, we embarked on the Bill with severe reservations about the creation of Natural England without an adequate understanding of the relationship between it and the Environment Agency. While those doubts remain in our mindswe shall see whether they prove justified; I hope that they will notwe also approached the Bill with great concerns about some detailed points. Many were cleared up in Committee, which is indeed the work of Committees, but some remained. The principal ones related to byways open to all trafficBOATswhich we debated this evening.
The Minister has done a fine job in doing what Ministers are meant to do when Parliament, across parties, raises a set of serious, practical issues following inspection of a Bill. He has offered to amend the Bill. We shall obviously hold him to that. We shall see whether the Lords amendments are adequate to the task, and I assure him that if we think they are not, we shall produce our own. I have every confidence that their Lordships would then pass what they would need to pass to ensure that what the Minister seeks to achieve, and what we seek to achieve, is achieved. But it may well be that the Minister's own amendments will achieve those aimsI hope that they doand if so, I repeat my comment: Hallelujah!
Before I close, I want briefly to mention two very important amendments that we did not have time to debate this evening, despite the fact thatin keeping with the arcana of parliamentary procedurethey are labelled amendments Nos. 1 and 2. The first amendment deals with the need for Natural England to work with local organisations and businesses. I hope that the House of Lords will have time to investigate that issue in considerably greater depth, and to ensure that such co-operation takes place. But the more important amendment is amendment No. 2, which would ensure that
That is a point about which we feel very strongly. We continue to believe that there is a significant risk that a body known as Natural England will not focus exclusivelyor even with absolute priorityon the preservation of natural England. That would be not only an irony but to the great detriment of the preservation of our countryside.
The Minister will recognise that the point we are making in the amendment has a long genesis, and that many of the most serious, careful and powerful of this country's environmental lobby groups share our view that such a provision is needed in the Bill. I am sure that
Mr. Letwin: I was astonished as I proceeded, Madam Deputy Speaker, at the generosity of your attitude to my remarks. I of course accept your point, and I merely mention that this issue will come up in the other place, and that we shall see where we get to.
I am sure that this Bill is a better Bill as a result of the work of the House of Commons. I say at the end what I said at the beginning: that this has been a good example of a competent Minister working hard, listening to the House and responding constructively. I thank him for that.
Norman Baker: I am happy to concur with those remarks and I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who did the brunt of the work for my party in Committee. Even though I have been at some distance from the Bill, I recognise that it has improved, and it has improved because the Minister and his colleagues have been prepared to listen to reason and to amend it accordingly. He began that process before the Bill was even discussed on Second Reading by inviting me and others to discuss matters with him and to raise points of concern. He listened to those concerns, and it is clear that he has been prepared to move when presented with logical arguments.
That process continues today, and I say to the Minister genuinely that when a Minister is prepared to listen and to amend legislation, it is the sign of a strong Minister, not a weak one. Such behaviour is of great credit to him, and it reflects better on his Government and his party than does insisting that everything is all right and ruling all amendments out of court, as unfortunately happens with some other Bills and Ministers. Some of his colleagues would do well to reflect on the way in which he has conducted himself during this Bill's passage, because it has meant a better Bill, more respect for the House of Commons and more credit to his Government. I leave him with that tribute, and I hope that other Ministers will reflect on his style and see whether it can be rolled out elsewhere. In fact, I look forward to its being emulated by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) when we discuss the Bill on animal welfare shortly. [Interruption.] I am sure that our discussions will be easy, given good will.
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We have always been content with the Bill in principle, and the idea of creating Natural England is reasonably non-contentious. Issues have arisen, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) rightly said, and some remain. But the Bill is undoubtedly better now, and it is right to deal with issues such as native non-invasive species and pesticide abuse. The Minister has a blind spot about the rather pointless Commission for Rural Communities, but we will leave that to one side in the spirit of co-operation. We look forward to the Bill going into the Lords, where we will work constructively with both sides to try to ensure that further improvements are made. I am confident that with goodwill on all sides that will be achieved. I thank all those who have taken part in the process including other Lib Dem colleagues who participated and all the Clerks and officials.
Paddy Tipping: I had intended to make some short comments, but those who must be obeyed have suggested that I talk for rather longer than I had anticipated. The Minister will soon perceive that that is to be the case.
Paddy Tipping: I was hoping to offer the hon. Gentleman the opportunity of having a Minister to listen to his debate and respond to it. I am sure that the Minister's appearance is keenly awaited as we speak.
Paddy Tipping: Let me come directly to the points that I wished to make. The Bill has been improved in a number of ways. First, as the Minister said, it has had the benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny and the Government's rural delivery strategy. The Bill went before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the opportunity to tease out those issues in a pre-legislative Committee has proved extremely valuable. Interestingly, part 6the rights of way legislationwas not subject to such scrutiny; perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there.
Jim Knight: For fear of this becoming a love-in, let me take the opportunity of paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood for his extraordinary role and the stamp that he has put on the Bill, not only through the pre-legislative process, but on part 6, in which he has taken a leading role in Committee and this evening. I genuinely thank him for that.
Let me continue the love-in. The second way in which the Bill has been improved is by the Minister and his team of officials. There were good debates in Committee that ranged across the parties and there has been a lot of consensus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, it is a strong Minister who can make changes. I have been impressed
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with the willingness of the Minister to put his stamp on the Bill, to take further advice, to have discussions with officials and to bring forward new proposals. I am grateful to him for doing that and for meeting a range of outside organisations who clearly have seen the importance of the Bill and wanted to contribute to it. We ought to thank them for their contribution.
I also want to thank another group of people who have not been mentioned. The Bill changes the way in which the Government work in rural areas. I have a great deal of admiration for the staff at English Heritage, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service who have faced major changes and difficulties and have had to keep working while the organisations have been moving around them. We need to thank them. Natural England has a new base in Sheffield and I understand that interviews have taken place for its chairman. I do not think that an announcement has been made, but one is anticipated fairly soon. Although there are reservations about the new bodies, I am sure that we would all wish them well. What we all want across the House is to see a way of government working with rural communities that looks after and enhances the environment, creates economic development and brings about beneficial social change. Those are hard tasks to meet, but I believe that the Bill's infrastructure provides us with the opportunity to do just that.
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