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29 Mar 2006 : Column 935

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

Question agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so as quickly and quietly as possible?

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I draw the House's attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendment No. 19. If the House agrees to the Lords amendment, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 2

General Purpose

Lords amendment: No 1.

5.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2, 3, 6, 19, 34 and 64.

Jim Knight: Before I speak to the first group of amendments, I would like to thank peers in the other place, particularly Baronesses Byford and Miller and my colleague, Lord Bach, for their hard work on the Bill since it left the House. They have continued to take a constructive and collaborative approach during the Bill's passage and it has been significantly improved through their scrutiny and hard work.

I am happy to accept all the Lords amendments today, as they were all Government amendments, and I look forward to Royal Assent shortly. That will pave the way for establishing Natural England later this year, with the benefits that that will bring, ending a period of uncertainty for the staff in the affected organisations.
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Amendment No. 1 responds to issues raised in the other place and makes it clear that Natural England may work with local communities, both urban and rural, to secure social and economic benefits through management of the natural environment. Amendments Nos. 2 and 34 remove the powers of the Secretary of State to enable Natural England to use compulsory purchase powers to acquire land for experimental schemes as currently available to the Countryside Agency. We are convinced that this power and the similar power in clause 94 are not needed. Amendment No. 3 clarifies the circumstances in which it would be permissible for Natural England, with the consent of the Secretary of State, to charge for providing advice.

The other place debated at length the role that the Commission for Rural Communities should play in rural proofing, ending up with amendment No. 6 to clause 19(c). This makes explicit the CRC's role in monitoring progress against the Government's rural proofing commitment.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Minister mentioned that the compulsory purchase powers did not need to be included in the Bill. Is that because he can access those powers through other legislation, or because he does not envisage compulsory purchase by the agency involved?

Jim Knight: The powers have never been used by the Countryside Agency. We have been convinced that it is not necessary for Natural England to take them forward.

Amendment No. 19 and the consequential amendments Nos. 34 and 64 add national park authorities to the list of authorities eligible for financial support under the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's so-called Bellwin scheme for emergency assistance. Amendments No. 34 and 64, which is a minor consequential repeal of a word in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, will remove this anomaly, in effect restoring the pre-1997 position in respect of the Bellwin scheme.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I endorse the Minister's remarks about the work done in the other place. That is a first class example of the value of the other House, and the knowledge and diligence that peers apply to our legislative process. The Bill is considerably improved since it left this place, largely through the power of persuasion, rather than votes in the other place. That is good.

I am delighted that, as the Minister said, virtually every amendment that we are considering is a Government amendment. I am also delighted that almost all of them were tabled in response to arguments advanced by my noble Friends, and in many cases by my colleagues and me when the Bill was before this House. Perhaps with slightly less power of persuasion, or dare I say less power behind us, we were less successful here than in the other place, but I am grateful that the Minister and his noble Friend have agreed with them.

Amendment No. 1 is an example of the point that I made a moment ago. I argued strongly in Committee for Natural England to work closely with local businesses and communities. I am grateful to the Minister for
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conceding the point. Amendment No. 1 is a sensible step forward. On compulsory purchase, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), whom I am pleased to see in his place, argued that it was not necessary. The Minister resisted, but I am delighted that he has conceded the point.

I will not go through all the amendments. Suffice to say that we believe that they are sensible changes to the legislation. Some of them are extremely minor and need not detain the House.

We remain of the view that Natural England, which is a very large new organisation, has a lot to do to prove its merit, and many concerns have been expressed in this House and the other place about different aspects of it. An amendment has not been tabled on the issue of conflict. The Sandford principle was widely debated in both Houses, and we have discussed it with the Minister. I wish that such an amendment had been tabled, but I recognise reality when I face it and understand that such an amendment would not have been successful. Nevertheless Natural England has a vital role to play, and I think it fair to say that we will all watch it closely, because, bar a nod and a wink from Buckingham palace, the provision will become law once this group of amendments is agreed, which will allow Natural England to go ahead according to its original timetable. We are taking a major step forward by agreeing this group of amendments.

On the Commission for Rural Communities, to which the Minister also referred in his opening remarks, our concern is whether that organisation really will have the ability to rural proof. Again, we will watch with interest to see how it develops over the first year or two and whether it has the authority to hold the Government to account and to challenge any Department on whether it is really delivering a service that is powerful enough and important enough for our rural communities. The role of the Commission for Rural Communities will be central, and we shall watch it carefully.

I am happy to agree with the Minister on the importance of the amendments. I am also happy to agree with the Lords on those amendments, not least because most of them include proposals that we introduced in this place.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Liberal Democrat Members also support the amendments—consensus is clearly breaking out—and I join the Minister and the    hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in stating that the Lords have done an excellent job.

Lords amendment No. 1 is particularly welcome, because it brings consultation with local communities into the general purpose of the Bill. We would have liked climate change to have been included, too, but we understand that the commitment to consultation is worthwhile. Similarly, we agree on the issue of the elimination of compulsory purchase.

As we said on Second Reading and on Report, the provision on cross-departmental rural proofing is a welcome addition. I echo the view expressed on those occasions and by my noble Friends in the Lords that the abolition of Post Office card accounts by the Department for Work and Pensions is a classic example of a failure to rural proof policy, and the provision may
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help to rectify such errors. We certainly want the commission for rural communities to perform that role across the spectrum of legislation that may affect rural communities. The licensing laws provide another obvious such example, because they may require small shops that trade the occasional bottle of sherry as a convenience for elderly villagers to acquire a department to fill in new paperwork, so that is another example in which a little bit of rural proofing might have come in handy.

In general, we feel comfortable about the amendments, and we propose to support them.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.

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