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The Earl of Arran: My Lords, I wish to support my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton. It is absolutely vital that the new RDAs do not lose sight of the valuable work already in progress in rural areas. The risk is that the RDAs will try to start with a clean sheet and spend three years re-inventing the wheel. There is also the risk that some of the work in progress will fall between the two stools of the RDA and the Countryside Commission and that time will be wasted in deciding who is responsible for what. For example, the RDC's support for rural volunteer bodies, which is key to overcoming social and economic exclusion, is also key to enabling the rural community to adjust to change with a sense of purpose which comes from a local ownership of issues faced.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I too praise the work of the Rural Development Commission. It has been extremely good. I am glad to see in the development guidance so much use made of its indicators, although I disagree with one particular area. I look forward with much optimism to the Regional Development Agency allowing us to address issues that are not defined by rural development areas. This has hampered the Rural Development Commission's work considerably because, up until now, we have had geographical boundaries, drawn up by the use of imperfect indicators, which have cut very arbitrarily across areas which suffer considerable social exclusion.
For that reason, the move that we are now making is likely to produce a much easier working environment for the voluntary organisations. It was no fault of the Rural Development Commission that it was unable to offer the sort of service it would have liked to the volunteer organisations. Those organisations worked across broad geographical areas whereas the development area was, in many cases, smaller and did not cover the same geographical boundaries. We are moving into something that will produce a far more cohesive pattern.
The powers in Clause 35 of the Bill include powers for the Secretary of State to transfer functions of the rural Development Commission to other public bodies or to confer on another public body all or part of a function of the Commission. The order to be made under Clause 35 to put this into effect--and the transfer scheme made in accordance with it--will transfer functions, staff and funds of the Rural Development Commission to the new countryside agency. This will enable it to support the rural voluntary sector and the rural community councils.
As in the case of all the RDCs' live contracts, it will also transfer to the new agency the contractual liability to support funding of the RCCs. I hope that the noble Lord will be comforted to know that this has recently been renewed under a service level agreement. This relates to a specific question which the noble Lord put to me and I hope that that will please him. This renewal of financial support for the RCCs has been notified formally to each one of them. I hope that this goes some way to meet the requirements of the amendments which the noble Lord seeks to put on the face of the Bill.
The Government are committed to a partnership approach with the rural voluntary sector, and I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, about the importance of the voluntary sector. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that in many areas it is not only the sustaining of the voluntary sector to meet the needs of rural communities but a more comprehensive approach in helping to develop a voluntary sector where none exists now.
We are committed to a partnership approach with this sector and believe that it is right for the agency to decide in due course how to build on this. The setting up of the new agency offers a valuable opportunity to enhance its role by thinking afresh and imaginatively as to how government policy can be carried out in rural areas. The RDC and the Countryside Commission are paving the way for this with their recently published draft prospectus. It is extremely important to recognise that the countryside agencies merger is intended to build on the strengths of the existing organisation, to sustain and develop that which is good and to ensure that the new body is able to carry forward the undoubtedly valuable work that has been done. An extensive consultation process has just been launched and the new countryside agency will listen to the views of interested parties about its future work and the way in which it carries out its role. The Government are confident that consultees will be emphasising the role of the rural voluntary sector, just as noble Lords have in this debate. We are committed to ensuring that their voice is heard before the new agency is established.
We therefore believe that we should be cautious about putting requirements on the face of the Bill which could unduly restrict the new agency, especially as it will need to work towards the true integration of the RDC and the Countryside Commission functions. Noble Lords, who
The draft prospectus for the new agency makes clear the significance of the agency's national advisory role and countrywide work and the need to maintain effective links with all rural agencies and organisations in order to support its work. We recognise that the RCCs have a central role in the RDC's programme for village halls and are also active in rural transport and rural housing. As was said in the debate, the RCCs provide a valuable role in supporting the commission's national advisory role. They work hard in tackling rural problems and are appreciated by local people. As I have said, the arrangements to be made under the Clause 35 order will fulfil the requirement that the noble Lord's amendments would put on the face of the Bill. The Government have absolutely no intention of directing the termination of funding to the RCCs. Such a step would be contrary to government policy. It would not be appropriate to put on the face of the Bill the details of single examples of activities which support the functions of the new countryside agency, or how it should fund particular activities or organisations.
The noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, asked about the future funding of Action with Communities in Rural England. Given that it provides services to the RDC, this will continue with the new service level agreements and RDC funds to ACRE are to be continued under these arrangements.
The new countryside agency will need to ensure that it reflects changing circumstances, including an enhanced role in advising regional development agencies on rural needs. The rural community councils, voluntary bodies in rural areas and many other interested bodies have a part to play in helping to shape the new countryside agency's remit. The Government and the new countryside agency are committed to listening to all their views as this is an important part of the process.
In conclusion, I should like to mention the rural guidance on which work is still in progress. It refers to the range of issues that have been touched on by noble Lords in the debate: the need to be successful in tackling the problems of rural regeneration and the deprivation that exists in rural areas; the need to encourage co-operation and integration between different organisations and sectors; and the need to take account of the often poor level of basic public services, such as transport in rural areas, and to deliver programmes in ways which encourage take-up by those who are most in need of them. The RDAs could build on existing strategies and programmes for the rural development areas designed by the RDC for the targeting of the rural regeneration programme.
I have tried to answer all the points that were raised. Should there be any outstanding questions, I should be only too happy to answer them between now and the next stage of the Bill. In the light of all that I have said, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Monk Bretton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness most sincerely for that thorough reply and I thank those noble Lords who have spoken to the amendment. I was grateful for their support. I am still disappointed that it is proposed that I should withdraw the amendment. The amendment makes a very definite statement which I felt the Government would be pleased to have on the face of the Bill. But there we are. If they feel they can do without it, I am quite surprised. I agree with my noble friend Lord Stanley that we should put these matters on the face of Bills.
I am glad that the noble Baroness agrees with much of what I said about the way in which rural community councils function, the Rural Development Commission has functioned and the importance of keeping that going. I very much trust that the Minister will bend all efforts to ensure that the future is as successful or better. I expect that that might be quite a task--there are difficulties ahead--and I hope that it does not become too steamy. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.