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There is a range of views out there about the authority and the Bill. My constituency contains a significant part of the broads area and the area covered by the Broads Authority. There are some, including
some of my constituents, who feel strongly about the Bill. It is easy to dismiss people who have strong views; I dubbed them the awkward squad and I think they are now using the label as a badge of honour, but they have legitimate concerns and they should be taken seriously and listened to.
David Taylor: May I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Committee took the concerns seriously? We went through the evidence in as detailed a fashion as we could. We certainly did not recognise anyone from what he described as the awkward squad when we took evidence over the days of our sittings. We tried to do that in a thorough, professional and sensitive way.
I shall deal with the issue of direct elections, but first I want to go through some of the continuing concerns. I should be grateful if, in his contribution, the Minister responded to some of the issues. He may want to follow that up with a letter, to amplify those points. I shall repeat as accurately as I can the concerns that have been expressed to me.
On the boat safety scheme, the argument that is put to me is that byelaws are already in place and the Bill is not needed. Byelaws may be slower to implement, it is suggested, but they force the unelected and otherwise unaccountable Broads Authority to enter into public consultation. That is the perspective of the people who have raised their concerns with me. On insurance, they say that compulsory insurance does not need to be introduced via a private Bill. Procedures for submission of current insurance at the time of vessel registration should be sufficient.
General and special directions are a topic that has engendered a considerable amount of debate. It revolves around the extent to which traditional freedoms are constrained by regulation and executive power. It is argued that the directions in the Bill are onerous and costly to implement. It is likely that the authority will fund the entire additional expenditure from the navigation account or toll income, thus further reducing the amount available for waterways maintenance, particularly of those parts of the system in need of dredging.
Built into the constitution of the Broads Authority are three pillarsthe three duties of the authority to protect navigational interests, to pursue conservation and to promote tourism. There is inevitably friction between those three interests, and it is self-evidently the job of the authority to manage those tensions and to seek to ensure that they are given proper balance, but it is almost built into the structure of the organisation that there will be suspicions and battles to fight over those competing interests. The particular concern is that if it costs more money, navigation may lose out as a result.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con):
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, I should say that I was interested in his perception that less money might be spent on the dredging of the waterways. That could
have flooding implications; I know that he is worried about coastal flooding. Will he elaborate on his point before he moves on?
Norman Lamb: It is incredibly important that we maintain the resources necessary to continue the dredging work. There are real concerns among navigators, not so much about the flooding issuealthough I take the hon. Ladys pointbut about the fact that dredging work for navigation purposes could be diminished. The issue comes back to the point that the authority must balance the three interests, but must not neglect any of them. The concern expressed is that navigation could be neglected if we are not careful.
Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): To take the issue a step further, I should say that I understand that the people who use the broads would supply up to 30 per cent. of the total budget of the Broads Authority. The danger is that if not enough money is spent on keeping the broads clear of silt, there will be fewer navigable broads and therefore probably less income because fewer people would use them in the end. The Broads Authority might well be forced into increasing the amount of silt dredging in certain parts of the broads.
I turn now to general directions. There is concern about what consultation means and whether public bodies listen to the outcomes of consultations. The point made to me is that the authority might operate the process properly, but in the end it can ignore the result of the consultation and do exactly what it originally wanted anyway. The issue comes down to trust in the authority and whether the navigators believe that their interests are being properly pursued. It is felt that there is a loss of public freedom because of unnecessarily increased control. Specific reference is made to general direction 4.6, which, it is said, allows revocation of or change to any general direction. I am told that that is an unacceptable and inappropriate additional power.
I have been informed that the special directions restrict or prevent the free movement, anchorage or mooring of vessels. That affects the rights of the master of a vessel, the right to navigate the current extent of the navigation area, yacht racing in windy conditions and the rights, granted by the Magna Carta to all common men, to free navigation and fishing on tidal waters. Furthermore, it is said that the Bill allows a navigation officerit may not be the particular navigation officer, but the one who happens to be on duty on any particular occasionto revoke or amend a special direction at any time for any reason without justification or consultation. Again, the concern is about the potential abuse of the power that the Bill could provide.
I have also been told that the Bill gives power to the Broads Authority to appoint a navigation officer without specifying the qualifications needed to discharge his or her duties properly. It also provides the power for any authorised person to declare any vessel unsafe without specifying the qualifications that that
person must hold. There are also concerns about the powers in relation to adjacent waters: to be effective, the Bill must clearly define adjacent waters, but that is not attempted. There is no such definition in the Bill; it is down to the interpretation of officers.
I am told that the Bill sets out to transfer responsibility for Breydon Water to the Broads Authority without provision for additional funds. There is a potential liability for substantial and ongoing maintenance costs, but the authority freely admits that today it does not have the funds for essential maintenance within its existing area.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North referred to the agreement, which appears already to be in place and stipulates the circumstances in which and processes by which the navigation committee will be consulted by the authority. People are concerned about that. They say that the Broads Authority should be adhering to it, but at its first opportunity has failed to do so. Under the agreement, the proposal to change the navigation committee appointments system should have been referred to the committee, but it was not. Again, that comes down to the question of trust between the two sides. The navigation committee wants to ensure that there is a clear continuing statutory duty to consult it. During the Bills evolution, the original section of the legislation that places a duty to consult the navigation committee has been removed. When the Minister winds up, I want to be absolutely sure that a clear duty to consult remains in the Bill.
On the amendments put forward by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there is concern about the merging of the navigation account with the general account. People say, with some justification, that that removes transparency of accounting for toll payers funds and leaves several important points undefined, such as the year-end surplus or deficit in the navigation part of the merged account. Transparency on the use of funds, particularly toll payers funds, is very important. People also say that changes imposed by DEFRA mean that the additional national park grant funding can no longer be directly applied to maintenance of navigation, which is unacceptable.
People say, in summary, that the Bill changes the remit of the Broads Authority from a management role to one of controlling and restricting navigation. They also refer to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988. That is similar to the National Parks Acts, but in addition to their two primary purposes, it includes a thirdto protect the interests of navigation without, as with the National Parks Acts Sandford principle, a mechanism for conflict resolution across all three equal responsibilities. Toll payers object to the Bill because it provides the means for an unscrupulous future Broads Authoritythey do not make that charge against the current authorityto resolve conflict by use of general and special directions to the detriment of the right to navigate: in other words, Sandford by stealth.
Norman Lamb: I think the hon. Gentleman knows the sort of numbers we are talking about following the meeting that we held with the Broads Authority. As I said earlier, there is a range of views on the Bill. There is a body of people he knows of, and they are represented in several of our constituencies, including those of two of the Conservative Members present. A number of people care passionately about this, have ultimately good motives and have the right to have their concerns heard.
One assumes that the Bill will become law, and it then becomes a question of the Broads Authority proving that it was wrong in its concernsthat the powers will not be abused, that they will be used properly and proportionately, and that there is an opportunity to rebuild trust between the two sides. That is why I called the meeting, and I was grateful to the chairman and chief executive of the Broads Authority for agreeing to it. It is in everyones interests, including the objectors and petitioners, that we get to a point where trust is re-established and they feel, despite the tensions that will always exist, that the Broads Authority is doing its work properly in protecting the interests of the navigation community. One of the things that could go a substantial way to rebuilding trust is the holding of direct elections. That would create a sense of accountability for the organisation, and I shall go on to address that issue.
I want to build a shared national consensus for a programme of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power.
I completely agree with that sentiment, and we could start by addressing the powers of quangos. Those bodies are ultimately not accountable to the public whom they serve. The Bill provides us with the opportunity to promote the idea of establishing greater accountability for organisations that are currently unelected and ultimately not answerable to the people whom they directly serve.
That issue was first raised on Second Reading, and reference was made to the Scottish experience. Two national parks were established in Scotland with direct democratic representation from the start. Interestingly, they appear to be working very well. The wheels have not come off, there has not been a revolution and there appears to be a reasonable degree of interest and participation. In a report to the Broads Authority Board, at its meeting on Friday, the chief executive referred to the Scottish experience. He said that the practical arrangements for the elections appear to have worked well. Turnout in one of the two national parks was 60 per cent., and in the other it was 40 per cent., which was still above the turnout in local elections in many parts of the country. In my experience, people do care about the parks that cover their areas, particularly in Norfolk, although we must be clear that the Norfolk broads are not formally a national park.
The hon. Gentlemans argument has a number of attractive aspects, although I feel that we need fewer elections in this country rather than more. On the other hand, we will have unitary reorganisation in Norfolk whether we like it or not, and that may well result in fewer local authorities being voted for. Even
though we do not want that in my party, we may have to live with it, and it might, therefore, make sense in that context to ensure that the authority has directly elected members.
Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that what he describes may well prove to be an opportunity to address the issue properly. It may not be the only opportunity to do so, but it certainly is one of them.
I should also refer to the fact that the regional newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, was very clear about the matter in its opinion column. It said that I was absolutely right about public disquiet, and I am sure that Conservative Members will appreciate that
absolutely right about public disquiet over unelected quangos with members of the Broads Authority drawn from local authorities and by government appointment. This system though neat and cosy for those who oversee it does not greatly inspire confidence among local communities and user groups who may have little idea what (or who) is going on. And it is essential that the Broads Authority can demonstrate the broadest possible support...it would be very good indeed if as far as Englands most beautiful wild places were concerned the representative principle could be pioneered here in East Anglia.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Although it is laudable to undertake pilots, much democratic representation on national parks is already happening in Scotland. Following our proceedings in Committee, I was contacted by several people in Scotland who said that that was working well. In many ways, such an exercise would not be piloting something new but following best practice in other parts of the country, where it has been successful.
Norman Lamb: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has just arrived, but I had made the point about Scotland. However, I am grateful for the intervention and he is right to say that the experience appears to be positive. The critical issue from the authoritys point of view is that it has not caused problems in the administration of those national parks, but given local communities a direct say in it.
It is fair to point out that there are several different interests in a national park. One is a broad national interest. I fully accept the case for national nominees on a national park board or the Broads Authority board. That is legitimate. However, it is also legitimate for the communities in the area of a national park or the Broads Authority to have a direct say in the decision-making process. The interests that they want to promote may be parochial, but they should be considered as part of the overall mix in making decisions.
The problem exists in all national parks, where there is a conflict of interest between those on the national park authority who have a
business in the park and those who have a business outside the park, and may therefore have a vested interest in willing a business in the park to succeed or fail. Is the hon. Gentleman happy with the 20 per cent. figure? Does he believe that it is a step in the right direction? Is he happy to leave it to the House and the other place to decide whether to adopt the Scottish scenario? What has he concluded?
Miss McIntosh: I understand that one of the recommendations of the little Select Committee report of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is that 20 per cent. of the national park authority will be up for election.
Norman Lamb: I am afraid I am not in a position to respond to that. However, I believe that 20 per cent. of the boards of the national parks in Scotland is directly elected. I have an open mind about the exact percentage to be directly elected. I realise that the local communities are just part of the group of interests that should be properly represented in the democratic process. I have suggested that two or three members of the board should be directly elected, but of course that depends on the size of the board.
We note that the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 set out in its framework for the constitution of a National Park that a minimum of 20 per cent. of members of the National Park Authority were to be elected in a poll by those on the local government electoral register within the Park area.
Norman Lamb: Absolutely. We are talking about the same thing20 per cent. of the board of the two national parks in Scotland is directly elected. I would like something along those lines to be established in the Norfolk broads.
We have developed quite a consensus on the issue. It is interesting that the principle of direct elections is supported by both the promoter of the Bill and the Conservatives. Indeed, the principle of introducing direct representation on the board is supported throughout the House, and I am not aware of anyone opposing it when it was raised in Norfolk.
The Broads Authority board meets this Friday and will consider a paper from the chief executive that deals with the principle of direct elections, as I mentioned earlier. There is no specific recommendation to support the principle; rather, there is an open recommendation to consider the report. However, I hope that the board will send out a clear signal on Friday that it supports the principle of direct elections, which, above all else, it would be in its own interests to do. Doing so would be a demonstration of self-confidence rather than defensiveness and would remove from the board the slur that it is an unaccountable quango.
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