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Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


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Private Business

Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

[Relevant document: The Special Report from the Committee on the Broads Authority Bill, HC 961, Session 2006-07.]

Order for Third Reading read.

4.56 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Before I begin, I want to pay a compliment to the Members who have turned up to discuss the issue this afternoon—particularly my colleagues from Norfolk who have been in the forefront during discussions on the issue, and members of the Select Committee that met to make the Bill much tighter and sharper than it was on Second Reading. I pay an individual compliment to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who sadly missed Second Reading owing to tragic circumstances. It is grand to see him in the Chamber today, and I hope that he will have the opportunity to extend his interest in the Bill.

The prime purpose of the Bill is public safety on the waterways of the broads, not only for people from Norfolk and Suffolk who use the broads but for people from across the world, the UK and Europe. The broads are a popular tourist resort, with many boats dodging about during the summer. We are rather concerned about public safety on the waterways. There has been agreement between the Broads Authority and three national boating organisations on the Bill’s provisions. I shall say more about that later.

Two specific issues arose from the Select Committee on the Bill, which was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). I thank him for the efforts that were put in. The authority has incorporated as much as possible from the legal agreements with the boating organisations in the Bill. If people have looked at the Bill, they will have seen how it has changed since Second Reading.

Following the Committee’s comments on direct elections, I am told that the Broads Authority will consider the principle in its meeting on Friday, after we have heard what the Minister has to say this afternoon. The authority believes that direct elections are a matter for the Government and are not appropriate for the Bill.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I did indeed chair the Committee, which included the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). There were not extensive concerns from across the spectrum at all, but the key concern that we heard from the people from whom we took evidence was about the accountability and representative nature of the Broads Authority. It was important that our comments to the House covered the suggestion that that concern should be remedied through direct election, such as that which we see in the national park authorities and elsewhere. I hope that what is proposed and what the Minister
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requires will be adequate to meet the concerns that we heard over the days in which we took evidence. That is very important. I found most of the rest of the Bill to be worth while and understandable.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about taking the issue on and about how it will be handled. It not only reflects on the Broads Authority but has implications for other waterways authorities.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman used this opportunity to give his view on direct elections. It was extremely helpful to hear the comments of the Chairman of the Committee, but does the hon. Gentleman support the principle, too?

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. The matter has been resolved in Scotland, so it seems to me that there are lessons to be learned there. He and I have had discussions with the Broads Authority, and I believe that the door was beginning to open on this issue. We both said in public, and to the local newspaper, that it would be a good idea to try to find ways forward, as direct elections would allow the many people who want to play a part in the broads to go through an electoral process. There is a public mood for that to happen, and I think it should be encouraged. I hope that the Broads Authority will respond positively on Friday, and that the Minister will give the proposal all the backing that he can.

Some of the issues that arose on Second Reading have been handled in the appropriate way, through open debate. I think that there is much more to come, but I repeat that the House must understand that no provision for direct elections can be put on the face of the Bill. The Bill has implications for other areas of the country, and new legislation may be needed if we want direct elections in other places. If that is the decision of the individuals concerned, I shall give it my support.

Of course, promoting a private Bill was not chosen lightly as a course of action. After many years of discussion with Government officials, it became clear that that was the only route open to the authority if various important matters of safety were to be addressed. With many of the proposals, the authority is following a path already paved by British Waterways and the Environment Agency, and it acknowledges the help and advice that those organisations have given.

It is worth putting it on the record that the authority is also grateful to successive Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) and for South Dorset (Jim Knight)—the latter is now Minister for Schools and Learners—and the present Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw).

The Bill includes a number of general provisions designed to improve safety on the broads’ waterways, and to ensure that they are managed effectively in the interests of all users. The need for additional powers
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has been highlighted by the requirements of the port marine safety code and by specific incidents. The principle underlying them was accepted on Second Reading and in Committee, and I do not intend to repeat the argument here.

The agreements with the national boating organisations have also raised some issues. For the past two years the Broads Authority has been working hard with the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation and the Inland Waterways Association to develop and refine the Bill. It has reached agreements with them over the Bill’s provisions, and they can be seen in schedule 1.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire mentioned two specific issues arising from the Committee stage. Evidence and arguments from the Broads Authority were considered in July 2007, and four petitioners and their agents were heard at that sitting. The Committee also received a report from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A full discussion of the relevant issues was held, and the Committee concluded that the Bill should be allowed to proceed, with some amendments. The Broads Authority put forward a number of amendments to deal with concerns raised during the consultation process, while other amendments were designed to meet recommendations from the Secretary of State that included questions about how membership of the Broads Authority came about.

The status of the legal agreements was raised on Second Reading. As is often the case with private Bills, the Broads Authority entered into agreements with interested parties about the operation of certain provisions in the Bill. Following concerns expressed by the Committee, the authority and the national boating bodies gave further consideration to those agreements, with a view to incorporating certain of their provisions in the Bill. In that regard, I invite hon. Members to look at schedule 1, where they will see that words such as “independent”, “scrutiny” and so on have been added.

A number of the provisions in the agreements were already covered in the Bill, either specifically or in general terms. It has been agreed that most of the remainder should be included in the Bill, and the amendments made at consideration stage secure that.

I believe that parish council representation should be included in the direct elections, and parish councillors have lobbied all the Norfolk MPs for that. Parish councils have a serious interest in the broads, and given the important work that their members do, they would like to participate in some way if there are to be direct elections.

The authority has 21 members, to take account of the national and local interests and to reflect its duties and responsibilities. Ten are appointed by the Secretary of State, nine by the eight local authorities in the area, and two by the authority from its statutory navigation committee. The local authority members are councillors, who have been elected locally; that is an important link with the local community, but that is not to say that the link could not be furthered and improved. The Bill includes no proposals to change overall membership, but as I pointed out, there may be additions to, or adaptations of, that membership.

Hon. Members will probably recall that the issue of direct elections and parish council representation on
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the Broads Authority was raised on Second Reading. The report of the Committee on the Broads Authority Bill stated that

We will hear about that shortly. The report continued:

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is explaining matters succinctly. He has done a great deal of work on the Bill, and I am grateful to him for that. However, does he agree with me that we still have not resolved the issue of parish council representation? What more does he think should be done to make sure that the issue is addressed with real clarity?

Dr. Gibson: As I said, parish councillors are very important, and they should be part of the equation that is considered by the Broads Authority. There are questions to do with parish councils, including whether they cover the whole area of the broads and how much of the broads is in each parish. That is not perhaps as important as having people on the authority who are devoted, enthusiastic, keen, determined, knowledgeable and interested in spending many hours helping to develop the broads.

Before someone asks me whether the broads will be flooded by some agency or other, let me add that I think that the broads will be there for at least 50 years. That commitment was made in a debate yesterday. The broads will not be salinated or deliberately flooded. Of course, we have no idea what climate change will do to them; we cannot greatly control that, but we will make attempts to do so.

We have to think about how we will organise the waterways in the next 50 years. We do not believe that the place to do that is in the Bill. We had discussions on the issue, but the advice that we were given was that some other formal regulatory pathway would have to be used to put that into the equation. That is not an excuse to do nothing; I believe that the sincere intention is to try to use a mechanism, as soon as possible, to ensure that that happens in the broads and in other areas, with the Norfolk broads blazing a trail. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is well placed to consider those issues with the Broads Authority, and to bring forward the necessary legislation.

It falls to DEFRA to consider the issue of direct elections and the related matter of parish council representation on the authority. The authority will be considering the principle on Friday. The members will want to take into account the views of the House and, in particular, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I mentioned the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire; we agree with the Committee that the
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Bill is not the place in which to seek to make changes to the membership of the authority, but that is certainly an issue to be considered.

I hope that the Bill will successfully complete Third Reading and move on to the other place. Its proposals affect the rights of navigation and would improve safety on the broads, to the benefit of all those who use the waterways. The objective of public safety is a legitimate ground for qualifying what might otherwise be an unhindered public right. Consider, for example, the measures that Parliament introduced for the protection of motorists. It made the wearing of seat belts compulsory—it was predicted that that would be a failure, but it has been an amazing success—and it gave local authorities the ability to regulate the way in which roads are used. So there are parallels setting out how to make effective changes and improve the safety of people who use facilities. Many of the provisions in the Bill are well precedented elsewhere. The authority believes that it has the correct balance, and the Bill incorporates the necessary measure of protection for the private individual. Of course, there will be individuals who do not agree, but in general many people seem to think that the measure should be in place. Like the seat belt regulations, I think that the measure will become part and parcel of people’s way of life; it will be part of the way in which they use the broads.

Before the Bill was deposited, the authority spent a year on preparatory work, and on consultation and discussion with DEFRA, national and local boating organisations and other key stakeholders. Discussions with national boating bodies have continued, and resulted in many of the changes that have been made as the Bill has progressed. If we are honest, we know from experience that things evolve and change: the spirit is there, as long as public safety is foremost in those equations and considerations.

There was widespread consultation, and changes were made by the authority to meet the concerns that were raised. No petitions were received from any organisation in the House but, importantly, there were four private petitioners. All the issues pursued by boating organisations have been addressed. The authority has secured agreement with the main boating organisations on the Bill’s provisions. It is important to introduce the Bill—the summer is a-coming, and boats will be scurrying around the broads—and we should push the legislation through, although I expect that it will be held up in another place.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend referred to four petitions against the Bill which triggered the witness statements that were given to our Committee. The firm impression that I gained from the petitioners was that they had lodged technical petitions, because they wanted to air their concerns and seek reassurances. As far as I recall, there was no fundamental, dyed-in-the-wool opposition to the Bill’s provisions.

Dr. Gibson: I concur with my hon. Friend, and agree that that is true. At the same time, however, those petitions were taken seriously by his Committee, and they are certainly taken seriously by the hon. Member
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for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and me. In fact, we met some of the petitioners, with the Broads Authority in tow, and we discussed the issues. We are always keen to hear what they have to say. As I said, in a year or two years, other changes and differences may arise in that environment that require extra legislation. Who knows what will happen? We need a Bill in place so that we can adapt it for the safety of the people who use the waters.

Norman Lamb: Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are strong views out there about the legislation and the authority. The important thing is how the powers are used by the authority once they have been introduced—that is the test. Does he agree that it is important to rebuild trust between the authority and people who have voiced concerns?

Dr. Gibson: Yes, I am 100 per cent. for trust, confidence-building and making sure that there is firm representation so that if people have a grudge or gripe, they can go to the Broads Authority with their complaint and have it taken seriously and something can be done about it. The spirit of the Bill, and the way in which it has been talked up and discussed, will allow that to happen. When it was introduced, such measures might not have been quite as up front as they are now, but I hope that if we get the Bill through, and if it completes its passage through the other place in the next few months, we will have a new spirit on the broads, and people will be able to enjoy that lively part of the world. It is in everyone’s interests to make sure that we agree to Third Reading today.

5.13 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I beg to move,

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). Along with the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), I have tabled a blocking motion, having learned about parliamentary procedure as the Bill has progressed through the House. I do not know whether this is entirely the case for the hon. Member for South Norfolk, but I tabled that motion because I wanted to secure an opportunity to discuss direct elections and directly elected representation—the issue that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) helpfully raised in his role as Chairman of the Select Committee examining the Bill. The blocking motion has ensured, too, that the Bill has received another airing in the House, which is a good thing. It is important legislation for Norfolk and the Norfolk broads, so it is right that it should receive proper parliamentary scrutiny. It is right, too, that people out there who are concerned about the Bill have their case made. Part of my contribution today will be to highlight some of the continuing concerns. As the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire pointed out, those concerns are not likely to stop the Bill in its tracks, but the authority will have to address them in its implementation of the Bill and in the exercise of its powers, in order to rebuild trust.

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