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My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, in particular, set out most clearly what the purposes and functions of the Bill and the Broads Authority are. I believe he said that there are three purposes: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the broads; to enhance the enjoyment of the broads; and to protect the interests of navigation on the broads. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk on securing yesterdays
excellent Adjournment debate in order to discuss what an amenity the broads are, and what enjoyment they provide nationally; we are not just talking about the community of Norfolk and Suffolkpredominately Norfolkbut the larger community. Those things could be put at risk.
The Bill will update the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, giving the Broads Authority various new powers. The Bill will combine the navigation and general accounts into one. It will enable the authority to do, among other things, the following: to apply effectively the national boat safety scheme to reduce the risk of fire and explosion; to introduce compulsory third-party insurance for boats in its area; to license hire boats; to give the Haddiscoe Cut a public right of navigation; to make possible the transfer of responsibility for the navigation on Breydon Water from the Great Yarmouth port authority; to make a voluntary agreement to manage water skiing and to distinguish between water skiing and wakeboarding so they can be managed separately; to control pollution from boats; to remove the requirement for a separate Norwich navigation officer; and to widen the range of bodies involved in the appointment of members to the authority by the Secretary of State. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk said, real safety issues are involved.
Perhaps this is an opportune moment to record my interest in this matter. I always try to attend boat shows whenever possible. Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to the Southampton boat show, and over the past year or two I have been fortunate enough to attend the London boat show. It is magnificent to see some of the vessels that ply the broads and the impact that boat building has on the whole of East Anglia. As I represented Essex North East and Essex North and Suffolk South in the European Parliament for 10 years, I regularly visited some of the boat builders, who contribute hugely to the local economy. We should not lose sight of that fact.
This is a good opportunity not only to congratulate the sponsor of the Bill, who moved the Third Reading eloquently, but to have regard to a number of the issues that have been raised and were objected to earlier. I pay tribute to colleagues who served on the Committee on the Broads Authority Bill, not only the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire, whom I mentioned, but my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who has become quite an expert in these matters, and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). As a number of hon. Members have said, we should recognise that many of the concerns have been translated into amendments that have been incorporated into the Bill.
All hon. Members who have spoken mentioned democratic accountability. I represent only a small section of the North Yorkshire Moors national park, so I am not a great authority on it, butas the hon. Member for North Norfolk saidon some occasions those who serve in the public interest in that regard plough a lonely furrow.
The special report concluded that while the Bill should be allowed to proceed, several caveats were raised in Committee and were set out in the report. The promoter of the Bill tabled several amendments, and the one that is outstanding relates to the lack of
democratic accountability. In paragraph 10, the Committee concluded forcefully that, in its view
the Broads Authority and local people would benefit from the provision for direct elections to the Authority with a view to ensuring that the principle of direct representation of local community interests should be guaranteed. This would ensure that the Authority could be held to account and that there was a democratic means of moderating the powers enacted within the Bill.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk also recorded his view that the public will have no truck with bodies that do not have some form of electoral representation and democratic accountability. We cannot emphasise that forcefully enough.
My main question for the Minister, with regard to paragraphs 10 and 11 of the special report and having heard the views expressed so eloquently today, is whether he will give the House an assurance that the Government are minded to table an amendment in the other place at an early stage to address that omission from the Bill. We have heard about that omission from the sponsor and from other hon. Members in this debate. The sponsorthe hon. Member for Norwich, Northsaid that a compromise appears to have been reached on the model in Scotland. Is that the model that the Minister will follow?
We wish to give the Bill a fair wind today, but we respect the caveats that were raised by the Committee. We take heed of those issues that have been raised today, and we should have regard to the fact that the broads have a unique place in the affections of the British, as well as in the local economy. Does the Minister believe that all three functionsthe general and special directions to vessels, the insurance questions and the appeals procedureare all set out clearly in the Bill? Is he satisfied that there is a balance between the three functions I mentioned earlierto conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the broads, to enhance the enjoyment of the broads, and to protect the interests of navigation?
One final issue concerns the licensing of rescue boats. While the Committee was agreeable to that being removed from the Bill, for the reasons of safety that several hon. Members have mentioned, could the Minister put our minds at rest about whether that issue will be considered in the other place?
I take great heart from the debate today, having seen in my own area how planning issues work in national parks. It is absolutely right that democracy should be seen to work. People should be seen to have a voice and a say. If they were to elect a proportion of those who serve on the Broads Authority, and if they did not like what they did, they could remove them when they were due for re-election. At the moment, that is not possible. If the Minister could explain to us where he and his Department think that they are going on that, we would make great progress.
I have enjoyed listening to the arguments, as I did not participate in previous proceedings. In its own way, the Bill is important. I completely understand the reasons for which my hon. Friends sought to object to the Bill. I understand not only that proceedings have been going on since the original Bill in 1988, but that people have been trying to move proceedings forward on this Bill since 2003. It is incumbent on us to make progress
today, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, but it is also incumbent on the Minister to set out how he will proceed, particularly on the question of direct elections to the authority.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the sponsor of the Bill, on how he put the arguments and presented the discussions, both in the House and outside it in the various communities in and around the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. I thank all hon. Members from both sides of the House, as it has been a measured debate in which people have expressed concerns on behalf of their constituents, as is right.
It is also important for us to appreciate the general nature of the broads and of national parks. The broads are part of the national parks family and every citizen in this nation has a stake in those wonderful areas. The work undertaken by many members of those authorities is appreciated. People work hard in the interest of those authorities, and they take their responsibilities seriously. We are grateful for their efforts.
I endorse the comments made by my predecessor on Second Reading. As the Minister responsible for the national parks and the broads, I confirm that the Government remain firmly supportive of the aims of the Broads Authority Bill. Let me emphasise the wider support given to the broads. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was able to announce a three-year funding settlement in 2008-09, which gave the Norfolk broads £4.304 million poundsa cash increase of 115 per cent. over the past 10 years. Our commitment is on the record. That amount will rise to £4.4 million by 2010-11 and further in the future. We will also provide special grants of £500,000 for 2008-09 and £400,000 for 2009-10 and 2010-11, which will specifically enable the authority to implement its sediment restoration strategy and restore the broads ecosystems. The authority has taken direct control of dredging the rivers and broads, a move that it is anticipated will enable it to achieve 25 per cent. more dredging than last year for the same amount of money. That is good news for toll payers and for taxpayers.
I am aware that the Bill has already been the subject not only of an earlier debate but of scrutiny by the Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is no longer in his seat, but all hon. Members have paid tribute to him and to the members of the Committee for the good service that they gave to the House through that process. It is not surprising that any changes to our most protected landscapes will invariably raise concerns, but I am delighted that we are in general agreement on both sides of the House. It is right, is it not, that we should raise concerns about such wonderful landscapes? Hon. Members have said that the Bill should be subject to scrutiny. I endorse those remarks.
The main aim of the Bill is to improve safety on the broads, through measures that include the licensing of hire craft, compulsory third-party insurance and
improvements to the way in which the Broads Authority operates. The introduction of the boat safety scheme is already ensuring that vessels are properly maintained. British Waterways and the Environment Agency already operate the scheme successfully, and I congratulate the Broads Authority on the measures that it has taken to bring the broads into line with the other major navigation authorities.
I am aware that some people consider that the Bills safety provisions could be dealt with through byelaws, but I do not agree. It would be impossible to use byelaws to introduce compulsory insurance, as it would be too cumbersome to amend them each time there was a change in standards.
I turn now to some of the questions raised in the debate, after which I shall deal with the subject of direct elections. The hon. Member for North Norfolk asked various questions about insurance, but I think that I answered them all earlier. The proposal to merge the general and navigation funds is a technical measure, and the Bill ensures that the Broads Authority will give a clear account of what has been spent on navigation and on other purposes.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk also asked about the duty of the Broads Authority to consult the navigation committee. In its latest form, the Bill does not remove that duty. He also asked about the right of free navigation. That was included in one of the petitions to the Committee, which considered that the powers were necessary. The hon. Gentleman was concerned that protecting the interests of navigation could result in Sandford by stealth, but it will not. The broads three purposes remain as set out in the 1988 Act, and this Bill does not change that.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk also asked about the boat safety scheme. As I said, it would be too cumbersome to use byelaws for that purpose, as the Department would have to approve each amendment to them. He asked about changes to the navigation revenue account, which now returns to what it was before 2005-06. Some dredging can be for purposes other than navigation.
Some concern has been expressed about the relationship between the Broads Authority and communities in the area. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was especially interested in that and, as he said, the true test will be how the Broads Authority is judged to have used that relationship. Important safeguards in that respect are in place: the Broads Authority is accountable to the Audit Commission and to the local government ombudsman, and the broads forum is another way of keeping it in touch with local user groups.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk began his discussion of direct elections by quoting a newspaper that agreed with him. Perhaps he issued a press release saying that the Eastern Daily Press agreed with him and the newspaper printed that, but it was interesting to hear a Liberal Democrat speaking in favour of a first-past-the-post system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will clarify whether he is in favour of that system for the Broads Authority. It is a very important point.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, although there is a danger of my going off on what is a hobbyhorse of mine. The principle is that a
direct election should be held for the Broads Authority, but how it is done is a subject for a separate discussion. I always favour a fair voting systemunlike those who belong to the other two main parties here.
Jonathan Shaw: There we are; that did not take a great deal of scratching beneath the surface, did it? So the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation to be used in elections to the Broads Authority. That is a perfectly honourable position to take, and it is consistent with his partys line. Some Members in my party support proportional representation, too. I do not, and I do not think that anyone in the Conservative party does. That shows that we will need to look at the issue and reach a conclusion.
James Duddridge: I think the Minister will find that I am not. This is interesting banter, but the use of proportional representation would imply that the voting will be partisan, and that is certainly not my impression. Is the Minister expecting parties to put up candidates for the elections? Surely that should not be encouraged, and I am not sure that that has been the experience north of the border.
Jonathan Shaw: We have opened a can of worms. I will come on to the detail, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that I have discussions with members of authorities from across the country. I would not know which political party they belonged to unless I asked them directly, because they put their park, or the broads, first. People put being an authority member first. I have never heard of party politics coming into the situation in relation to either the Broads Authority or one of the park authorities.
Norman Lamb: I completely agree with the point that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) made; one would expect the elections to be entirely non-party political. That has been the experience in Scotland. I would like a clear indication of whether the Minister supports the principle of direct elections to the authority.
Jonathan Shaw: I am coming to that point. In the case of the two national parks in Scotlandthe Cairngorms national park and the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national parka percentage of authority members are directly elected. That appears to work well. I do not want us to lose the opportunity to have that discussion. It has been suggested that such a scheme be piloted in the broads, but we know that the process has worked well in Scotland, so one could say that there has already been a pilot.
I want to look at the issue across the piece, because it is not only the Broads Authority that is affected. I want to understand the views of the other park authorities in England, and the views of the many people who have an interest in our national parks. The parks are not just local; they are national treasures. My constituents in Chatham have as much right to a say on how the parks are formed as someone who lives in the Lake district, for example.
Miss McIntosh: I hope that the Minister is not procrastinating. A simple way forward would be to have a short consultation, and for the results to be published. I do not want to pre-empt what he has to say, but I am sure that all the national parks would wish to be consulted, as he rightly says. Having sensed the mood of the House this afternoon, I detect that there is strong feeling. I think that hon. Members would like to know what will happen when the Bill leaves this place today.
Jonathan Shaw: As a number of hon. Members have said, the Bill is not the appropriate vehicle to change the constitution of the Broads Authority. As I have signalled, I want to look at this across the piece to take account of the other national parks in England. I will therefore issue a consultation on the future of the constitution and the composition of the Broads Authority and other park authorities in England. I will advise the House when I intend do so. There will not be long delays, and I hope that I can issue something over the summer period.
Mr. Keith Simpson: Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), I hope that that can be done reasonably quickly, because we have been debating the measure for over a year. I recognise that the Departments views have changed and moved, which I welcome, but will the Minister bear two things in mind? First, at the end of the day, the Norfolk broads are not a national park: they are a strange hybrid. I accept that, from his point of view, it might set a precedent, but I urge him to move as quickly as possible. Secondly, the broads are a national treasure, and his constituents have every right to be represented, but my constituents and those of other hon. Members from Norfolk have an extra right, because this directly affects them, their livelihoods and, indeed, their future. If there is a waitand we could end up discussing numbersmay I remind the Minister that we are not talking about such representation having anything more than a small minority on the board?
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The broads are a national treasure, and the people who live around them are affected, as are their livelihoods and businesses. The same applies to all the national parks. The Peak district has the largest population of any national park within its boundaries, and 20 million people visit the Lake district. I want to look at this in the broadest sense.
Jonathan Shaw: It was not a Freudian slip, or an attempt at a joke, but I am glad that it has amused the hon. Gentleman [ Interruption. ] He is a fine fellow. I visited his constituency, and he was a gracious host.
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