Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

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Jim Knight: These paragraphs of the schedule set out the membership of the commission and the terms of office of its members. As has been hinted at, the arrangements are identical to those for Natural England, which are set out in schedule 1.

The drafting has been amended to reflect many of the points raised during pre-legislative scrutiny, thus making the independence of the commission clearer. In considering the amendments, it is important for the Committee to appreciate how we have responded to the pre-legislative scrutiny. Minimum and maximum numbers of board members are now specified to give a range of eight to 15 members, in line with the Environment Agency. Those numbers are variable by order, in line with English Nature’s current arrangement.

Paragraph 3(3) was also introduced, placing a duty on the Secretary of State to

    “have regard to the desirability of appointing a person to the board who has experience of, and has shown some capacity in, some matter relevant to”

the commission’s functions. That addresses the points raised this morning by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire about whether the commission might be set up to include a bunch of people who have no interest or experience whatever in anything to do with rural England. However, there is no power for the chairman to appoint board members, which the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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recommended, as that would be against the code of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and would raise serious issues of ministerial accountability to Parliament.

The amendments seek to limit the flexibility that the Secretary of State will have. Amendment No. 57 would limit the number of members who could be appointed to eight. Amendment No. 58 would require that at least half of the membership of the commission be made up of former elected members of a public authority or former elected Members of this House. Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 would require that each member should be appointed for a term of four years, and for not more than two terms, respectively. As I shall explain, some of the proposed amendments do not accord with the OCPA code of practice.

To be effective, the commission needs a good mix of members with diverse backgrounds across a spectrum of relevant skills and expertise, and needs to hear from rural areas in different parts of the country, because, as we heard this morning, there are different issues in different areas of rurality. To impose an upper limit of eight would constrain the flexibility needed to achieve that effectiveness. We are a Committee of 16 members, and I note how effectively you, Mrs. Anderson, and Mr. Forth are able to control and organise us. I am sure that the chair of the commission would be equally capable of managing a commission of up to 15 members, which is, of course, one fewer than on this Committee.

Mr. Atkinson: There is a difference between a parliamentary Committee, on which most of the Government Members are forced to remain silent, and a general committee on which people have a great desire to talk for ever.

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman should also consider the fact that Government Members tend to turn up for Committees, unlike Opposition Members. Certainly, a committee of up to 15 is perfectly manageable, as shown by the experience with English Nature and the Environment Agency.

John Mann: Will the Minister clarify whether, in relation to the make-up of the board, the definition of rural communities will include the kind of communities in the Sheffield area about which we heard, and will incorporate the many mining communities across the country?

Jim Knight: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. It is important that the commission should have a duty to consider rural disadvantage and that the expertise of its members is sufficient to understand the needs of former mining villages and rural areas on the edge of cities, which can sometimes be forgotten.

The overriding principle of public appointments is that selection should be based on merit, so it would be unfortunate to restrict in the manner proposed our ability to secure the services of those best qualified to serve on the commission. I do not suggest that there would not be plenty of suitable candidates of merit among ex-Members of this House, but the stipulations
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are strange and, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, novel. I would argue that packing the commission with ex-politicians also risks bringing party politics into it. We are seeking to ensure that it is independent and, dare I say it, above politics so that it can be the powerful independent voice that we seek.

The accountability route is clear. Ultimately, the commission needs to feel accountable to rural communities, and I accept the suggestion by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) that it must satisfy rural communities, and not just itself, that they have a champion. It will ultimately be accountable to them, although it will be formally held accountable through Parliament.

Flexibility is necessary in the term of appointment of members to ensure that the commission is balanced and that the membership turns over in an orderly manner, so that not all the members leave at the same time. I accept what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said about how he would address that, but appointments are subject to the rules set out by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, as I made clear on Tuesday, and they are normally restricted to two terms. I shall not rehearse the arguments that I used then to explain why the OCPA code of practice should be applied and why the hon. Gentleman’s amendments are contrary to it. With that, I urge him to withdraw the amendment and to agree to the schedule.

Mr. Paice: I cannot say that the Minister’s comments are a huge surprise—I think that I could have written them myself, although probably not delivered them with such panache. Nevertheless, I am slightly sorry that he has taken the view that he has. The idea of having 15 people on the board of an organisation that will, at least allegedly, be small, lean and purely advisory, is stretching a point. It is a little odd.

On my proposals for formally elected people, the Minister asserted that he did not want party politics to enter into things, so I hesitate to suggest that they tend to creep into lots of things anyway. I referred to ex-politicians, and as a Minister in a Government who have filled the other end of this building with ex-politicians who never seem to follow the party Whip, he will know that politicians cannot always be relied on to follow the party line, so I am not sure that he is right. I also cannot help reflecting on the fact that it is good enough for the Prime Minister of France never to have been elected to anything in his life. All that I am suggesting is that members of the commission should once have been elected to something, somewhere.

Neither point, however, is hugely important, and we may return to them in this place or in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made:No. 96, in schedule 2, page 47, line 30, leave out

    ‘As soon as possible after the end of’

and insert ‘For’.

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No. 97, in schedule 2, page 47, line 34, at end insert

    ‘within such period as the Secretary of State directs’.

No. 98, in schedule 2, page 47, line 35, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

No. 99, in schedule 2, page 48, line 3, leave out

    ‘As soon as possible after the end of’

and insert ‘For’.

No. 100, in schedule 2, page 48, line 7, at end insert

    ‘within such period as the Secretary of State directs’.

No, 101, in schedule 2, page 48, line 11, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

      ‘(b) send a copy of the certified statement and of his report to the Secretary of State as soon as possible.’.

No. 102, in schedule 2, page 48, line 12, at end insert—

    ‘23A The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a document consisting of—

      (a) a copy of the report sent under paragraph 22(1), and

      (b) a copy of the statement and report sent under paragraph 23(4).’.—[Jim Knight.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 18

Commission’s general purpose

Mr. Paice: I beg to move amendment No. 112, in clause 18, page 7, line 17, leave out ‘and economic’ and insert ’, economic and environmental’.

I shall not keep the Committee long, because our intention is perfectly self-explanatory. We seek to amend the commission’s general purpose to ensure that it has a responsibility for the environment. Some Members might feel that we have just done all that with Natural England, but earlier in today’s debate, the Minister said that social issues were mainly the responsibility of local authorities; he used that argument to rebuff the case that we made earlier. Despite that, however, social issues are clearly and rightly going to be part of the commission’s responsibilities. We therefore need to ensure that it understands the gamut of rural needs. That is not to suggest that it will somehow supplant Natural England or seek to interfere, but it will reflect on rural needs in its activities.

For the purposes of this chapter, “rural needs” means

    “the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas in England.”

I think that environmental needs should be added to that definition. In rural England, one cannot separate people from the environment. Arguably, of course, the environment is always around all of us, but there is a particular aspect to rural areas in which people are part of the natural environment. One cannot separate those aspects, which is why the commission should consider all three elements as being rural needs.

In some ways, the amendment would reduce potential conflict between the commission and Natural England because without it, the commission could advocate something for social and economic reasons, but then Natural England could say, “Hang on, look at the environmental impact,” to which the commission could say, “To hell with the
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environmental impact; it is not part of our remit.” I suggest that the commission should understand the environmental aspect of things when proposing some sort of development. The environment is part of sustainable development; indeed, it is central to it. That is the nub of my argument.

Jim Knight: The Bill makes it clear that the commission’s primary focus will be on social and economic needs, but in championing people it needs to ensure that relationships between people, businesses, communities and their environment are enhanced, not weakened. Therefore, it must promote ways of meeting the needs of rural people and areas that contribute to sustainable development. Clause 18(1)(b) concerns

    “meeting rural needs in ways that contribute to sustainable development.”

So that consideration is there.

In many ways, the argument about whether we should accept the amendment is about whether it should be implicit or explicit that the commission should be mindful of the environment in the context of sustainable development. One could cut it both ways. We chose to state it implicitly in subsection (1)(b), whereas the Opposition suggest that it should be explicit. I am relatively relaxed on this, but there are several bodies that are concerned with the environment and that take the environmental lead, such as the Sustainable Development Commission, and I am nervous about creating too much duplication of duties, so I prefer that the commission should focus particularly on the social and economic needs of people in rural areas.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is right to say that one cannot separate people from the environment. Where the environment affects people, the commission will certainly have a role. It will not be responsible for pursuing environmental goals directly, but will need to play a role in encouraging others to consider such issues in the round in developing sustainable solutions for rural communities. As hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said, a high-quality rural environment and a vibrant rural economy go hand in hand. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister. He has covered most of the points and has had the grace to suggest that there is not much between his position and mine, except that I want to make the need to consider the environment more explicit. His comments are now clearly on the record as part and parcel of the purposes of the commission, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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1.45 pm

Mr. Atkinson: I want briefly to probe the Minister on the general purpose of the clause and the balance that the commission will strike in dealing with persons suffering from social disadvantage and areas suffering from economic underperformance.

The hon. Member for Sherwood touched earlier on the fact that there is a considerable drift from the town to the countryside. Some of the problems in the countryside are caused not simply by industrial decline, as in the mining villages, but, in a sense, by increasing prosperity. A lot of commuters and others move into rural communities, leaving a rump of country folk—for want of a better word—who often suffer disadvantages. They are the ones who rely on the diminishing bus service and the village shop that is closing down, while the new people probably do not patronise them so much. There are also all the other problems of the changing countryside, and hon. Members will be fully aware of them. However, the rural development agencies and others are concentrating on the mining communities, although they are clearly rural communities, and there are a considerable number of them in the north-east of England. Everyone is very much aware of the coalfield communities, and a considerable amount of work is being done in them.

I am therefore anxious for an assurance from the Minister that the commission will not pick on one type of area and ignore the problems in other, more prosperous areas. I was thinking of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, which is not normally known for deprivation, but it does contain traditional country people who suffer such problems.

Jim Knight: I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments, because it is important to clarify that when I talk about social disadvantage, I am talking about it wherever it is found. His analysis is correct: at one level, we could say that social disadvantage is a wide side of difficulties that prevent people from participating in society. They include poverty, but also limiting factors such as lack of skills, unequal levels of health and well-being, inability to participate fully in local government and so on. We may find concentrations of those factors in what I referred to earlier as lagging areas, although there was a suggestion that areas might not want to think of themselves as lagging. Such areas are typically remote—there is a core-periphery relationship in all this analysis—and may often have seen a decline in traditional industries, such as fishing, mining and agriculture.

A huge number of people want to retire to my constituency of South Dorset, with its beautiful environment and wonderful quality of life. Many people want to purchase second homes and holiday homes there. In many ways, the prosperity that they personally and individually bring masks pockets of deprivation. I would certainly see one of the commission’s functions as producing the evidence and
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marshalling the arguments on addressing pockets of rural deprivation so that it can assist government at all levels to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19

Representation, advice and monitoring

Mr. Paice: I beg to move amendment No. 113, in clause 19, page 7, line 31, after ‘meeting’, insert ‘, or not meeting,’.

This is another brief amendment, and it is equally self-explanatory. We are talking about the commission representing rural needs, giving advice and monitoring and making reports about the way in which policies are adopted. I suspect that here, too, we shall be arguing about what is implicit and what is explicit, but I would like it made explicit in the Bill that the commission’s reports can also address the ways in which the policies of a Government, a local authority or an organisation do not meet rural needs. If we are to ensure that the commission is given the credibility that we all want it to have, everyone should understand its role. I rest my case. If we are going to ensure that it takes heed of rural communities and rural needs, we must also fully and explicitly understand that its function is to point out the problems as well as the positive things.

Saying that something is beginning to meet rural needs or is meeting 50 per cent. of rural needs is the reverse of the half full, half empty argument, but it would be better if the Bill clearly stated that the commission’s reports should address failures as well as positive things. I hope that the Minister will accede to this minor proposal to make something explicit in the Bill.

Jim Knight: Paragraph (c) establishes the monitoring function of the commission. It places a duty on the commission to monitor and report on the implementation of policies—that is, to assess the way in which policies are adopted by the Government and others are implemented—and the extent to which those policies meet rural needs.

The amendment is relatively harmless, and relatively unnecessary. By implication, when the commission reports on the way in which policies have been adopted by relevant persons, such a report would highlight the good and the bad. The use of the word “extent” would also render the extra words “or not meeting” superfluous. Policies could meet need to a greater or a lesser extent.

The amendment is therefore unnecessary. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it on that basis.

Mr. Paice: I had hoped that the Minister would at least have attempted to humour me on an amendment as minor as this. It is usual, during the passage of a Bill, for the Minister to accede to some completely minor amendment, just so that the Opposition have a feeling of success, even though it is purely token. This could have been the Minister’s opportunity to do that, and I
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could have left the Committee Room, issued all my press releases and really made a great deal of this, but he is flatly refusing to accede to two minor words—

Jim Knight: Three.

Mr. Paice: Sorry, yes.

Mr. Williams: The devil is in the third.

Mr. Paice: The devil is in the third word, but there we are. I am hopeful that, as the Minister is not going to humour me by accepting this amendment, he will accept a more significant amendment later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Williams: On a point of order, Mrs. Anderson. I have just noticed that my hon. Friends have tabled an amendment that withdraws the whole of clause 19, but it does not appear on the amendment paper, so do we take it with the clause stand part debate?

The Chairman: That amendment has not been selected.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With the leave of the Committee, I propose to take clauses 20 to 28 together.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): On a point of order, Mrs. Anderson. I wished to make a point about clause 26.

The Chairman: It might benefit the Committee if we take the clauses separately.

Clauses 20 to 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Williams: We have had much debate about the directions that the Secretary of State could give Natural England, and the clause replicates the directions for the Commission for Rural Communities. However, one difference between Natural England and the CRC is that Natural England could actually do things. For instance, it could enter into management agreements and take much more explicit action in the countryside. The CRC, however, is a body for advocacy and advice. Subsection (4) states:

    “The Commission must comply with any directions given under this section.”

However, that is less appropriate for the commission than it is for Natural England.

I understand that the Secretary of State might wish to stop a body from becoming actively involved in an activity that was contrary to Government policy or that stood in contradiction to the work of another Department. However, if we do not give the commission the absolute right to decide what do—
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which elements of rural activity to make reports on or take evidence on, or what recommendations to make on Government policy—we will do away with the very independence that the Minister has advocated. I ask him to reflect on that. Although I can understand that he might believe such arrangements to be suitable for Natural England, are they really appropriate for the Commission for Rural Communities?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and it is appropriate that I should clarify it. On one level, we are doing no more than what is done with all non-departmental public bodies. I can rehearse all the arguments from before about Natural England and accountability, but the bottom-line assurance is that, ultimately, the Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament. Therefore, the clause is necessary.

The commission is an advisory, not a delivery, body, so it is unlikely that the power would ever be used. There is a similar power in relation to the Countryside Agency, and I can confirm that no directions have been issued to that body either. I can also clarify that we would not be in a position to direct the commission on what its findings should be or on what to advise Government, although we could ask it to look at something for us.

To give the hon. Gentleman an example, we are in the process of negotiating with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for the establishment of a task and finish group, as a commission to look at affordable rural housing, which we all know is a concern in rural England. I could have asked the fledgling Commission for Rural Communities to do that work for us. However, I have made the judgment that, while we are in the middle of organisational change for the commission, the formation of Natural England and everything else that is taking place in the context of the Bill, it would be more appropriate for a separate body to have completed the work by the time that the commission is formally established, so that the commission can then take the matter up for us.

Mr. Williams: Perhaps I can be a little more explicit about the avenue of thought that I was pursuing. What if the Commission for Rural Communities wanted to look into an aspect of rural life in which the Government felt they were failing? I would be concerned about the Secretary of State having the power to tell the commission, “No, you can’t look at that, because we’re very sensitive and we know we’ve failed.” I am not talking about this Government, but a Government in the future. That is the real concern that I have about that power. It is not the power of being able to tell the Commission to go and do something; it is the power of saying that it cannot look at something because the Government feel very sensitive about it.

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2 pm

Jim Knight: That is useful clarification, but I think that the fact that we have included in clause 25(2) that the

    “Secretary of State must publish any directions given under this section”

means that if the commission were to announce that it was going to do a piece of work on, let us say again, affordable housing in rural areas, and the Secretary of State, by direction, said that it was not allowed to do so, that would be published and there would, understandably, be an outcry in the country, particularly in rural England, that the Secretary of State had constrained the commission from carrying out what everyone would consider to be useful work. I hope, on that basis, that the hon. Gentleman has the reassurance that he needs.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26

Transfers on dissolution of English Nature and Countryside Agency

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Paddy Tipping: So far the Committee has had the opportunity to talk about policy, but clauses 26 to 30 talk about practicalities: the transfer and the way in which the new bodies are to be set up. I want briefly to ask the Minister some questions about that. It is not an easy task and perhaps at the outset I should record my appreciation of the work that the staff of the agencies are doing. There is more than just one agency; there is an end-point when they will be unified in one agency, and they have to manage the process. They have, as we say, to move from the past to the future. Some movements are easier than others, and this one is quite difficult. There are some issues involved with that, and I want to ask the Minister about property.

All Government Departments are under pressure, through the Gershon review, to reduce spending. The Minister has told us that the two new bodies—Natural England and the CRC—are to be independent. Will he give me an assurance that the property in which the bodies will eventually reside will belong to the agencies themselves? There have been stories in the past that the properties might belong, for example, to DEFRA, and will be sub-let, and the new bodies will merely be tenants. My own view is that they are truly independent bodies, and it is important that they have control of their own property. I believe that substantial savings lie behind the Bill, and it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that the new bodies are to be property owners in their own right, and that they are independent and in control of their own destiny.

I want to return to an issue that was touched on on Second Reading, which is the IT systems that will lie behind the new bodies. One of the tasks that the Department is currently considering is the Rural Payments Agency, which is in the midst of real change,
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with a new IT system being installed. It has had a chequered history, and is putting in a new IT system at the same time as the reasons for and methods of payments are changing. It moved to single payments and an entry system. That is not going to be easy. Natural England, in particular, is to be involved in those payment mechanisms. Can the Minister assure me that, within the timeframe that has been set out, the new IT system will be delivered on time, on cost and fit for purpose?

The Minister may not want to be absolutely definitive on that point at the moment, as I know that there are problems in this area, but I wanted to use this occasion to say that all reorganisation is difficult and that in this reorganisation strong management will be necessary because, as I said initially, it is important to keep the show on the road while developing new purposes and new organisations. That is not an easy task. I know that the Minister’s officials have been heavily involved in it. Good management is necessary and satisfactory outcomes will be important.

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