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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: This clause says:

The purpose of opposing the clause is to explore how independent the clause renders Natural England.

3.30 pm

On the previous Committee sitting we said that Natural England was very important; certainly the Liberal Democrats accept that it is. We also said that it should be able to give advice to which Ministers across government must pay due regard. I tabled the relevant amendment to that effect, and the Government have not yet fully accepted the case for it, although I live in hope that they will reconsider. Irrespective of whether they do so, there is still the question of the independence of Natural England if it is reliant on handouts from the Secretary of State. What happens if future Ministers are not happy with the advice that Natural England gives? I accept that that is not the case with present Ministers, but we are drafting legislation for the future, and a future Minister may hold views that we could not even envisage at present. Should we make Natural England so reliant on grants, which could be withdrawn at any time or be made subject to conditions with which that body was not at all happy? I submit that that renders Natural England far from independent.

Baroness Byford: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. In earlier debates I asked a range of questions on how Natural England would be financed. The Minister has kindly given me some estimates. I asked whether any finance might be provided by the national lottery. If that is the case, I do not think that it is a very good way to run an important non-departmental public body such as Natural England. I would be grateful if the Minister would define a little more clearly how he sees the financial side of this important new non-departmental public body working. As the noble Baroness said, if the Government did not like the tack that Natural England were taking in the future, they could then withdraw or lessen the grant to make its job more difficult.

In earlier debates we discussed the likely reduction of money allocated to the Rural Development Service. As we know, that money is in jeopardy. The relevant reduction ranges from some 18 per cent to 40 per cent.
 
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If that sizeable reduction occurs, how will Natural England finance itself to do the very job that we are requesting it to do? I support the noble Baroness's raising of this issue again today. I await the Minister's response with interest.

Lord Bach: I am afraid that I do not have very much to say on this issue except to remind the Committee that the clause gives the Secretary of State powers to fund Natural England and place conditions on its funding. That is an entirely standard provision, found in some form in the founding legislation of all non-departmental public bodies, which allows them to be funded through departments; that is to say, via the Secretary of State. Of course, I understand what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, is saying about the dangers inherent in government funding of an independent organisation, but that is what happens, and has happened for years, to some very independent and robust bodies. There is no reason to believe for a moment that Natural England will be any different from those. In our view the clause's deletion would make a nonsense of funding of Natural England. Indeed, it would make a complete nonsense of the funding of any NDPB. That is why it is in the Bill and why it is an important clause.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to a letter that I had written to her and to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, with copies to all other noble Lords. I hope that it has arrived by this afternoon. In that letter was a proper discussion of Natural England's budget. I was asked what proportion of funding would be provided by Defra and what it might be required to seek from other sources such as the lottery. I can look at the current year's budgets of the bodies that will form Natural England. In round terms, that income represents £17 million, or about 5 per cent of the total expenditure of £360 million. I have not counted EU co-funding of the agri-environment programme or the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund as income, as I do not think that type of income is of concern to the noble Baroness. Much the larger source of income has been the lottery. Over the next two years, income is projected to drop to around £10 million unless it is supplemented with sums not yet awarded.

We had much discussion about the financing of Natural England during the first three days in Committee. I repeat that we need the clause because we are setting up an NDPB; the noble Baroness need not worry about its independence.

Baroness Byford: I am grateful to the noble Lord. I ask him again to tell the Committee whether currently English Nature and the relevant part of the Countryside Agency are funded in this manner. Obviously, the Rural Development Service is slightly different because it is part of the department, and I do not include it.

Lord Bach: Yes, they are. The noble Baroness is right about the Rural Development Service, which is a core part of Defra. The others are financed in that way.
 
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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for his reply. As he says, this way of funding bodies has been custom and practice for some time. It draws out a certain issue about where exactly the line of independence is. I have continued to question where it is with the Food Standards Agency in the Department of Health and so on. It at least merits having an eye kept on it.

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Guidance]:

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 206:

The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment to enable a debate on exactly when it is appropriate for the Secretary of State to give guidance on the functions of Natural England, particularly those that relate to regional planning and associated matters. The independence of Natural England in regional planning is a sensitive issue; it is probably the most sensitive issue. My amendment is to enable us to discuss how there would be any input from elected Members, MPs, your Lordships' House and other representatives about the sort of guidance that the Secretary of State may choose, from time to time, to give Natural England about the functions that enable it to make observations on planning and associated matters. I beg to move.

Viscount Eccles: I very much support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. It is possibly a more complete way of achieving what I have set out in my amendment, which follows. In my amendment, I question the policy towards the relationship between the Secretary of State and Parliament, as did the noble Baroness.

Clause 15(4) reads:

The amendment would alter the wording to:

It is entirely usual to give the Secretary of State a duty to keep Parliament fully informed on matters of significance. The proposed duty "must publish" is subjective. The Secretary of State could decide what to publicise and to whom—a much less satisfactory option than the duty to inform Parliament—not that that duty would in any way preclude publicity—quite the contrary. The full text of any guidance would be available for the publication of comment by any interested party, including both the Secretary of State and Natural England. The amendment therefore improves the balance of the relationship between the executive and the legislature and increases the likelihood of well informed publicity.

The Duke of Montrose: Our Amendment No. 216 is grouped with this amendment. Here, I dare say we are touching on the whole sphere of open and joined-up government. Those who volunteer in public service,
 
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such as school governors, county or district councillors and many others, will be aware of the thousands of hours spent cancelling and rearranging meetings because of delays in publishing consultations, regulations and guidelines. For example, I have heard how on school boards frequently the local officers hold meetings to alert governors to changes which are on the way and which will affect, for example, the budgeting process. There is then a lengthy hiatus before the details are available. Obviously discussions are held well in advance and the government officials are clear about what has to be achieved. The hold-up seems to be in moving the details from Whitehall to the coalface.

Guidance on how Natural England is to deal with regional planning matters and others of its duties—for example, compulsory purchases for experimental schemes—will be most influential and will affect many people. It is important that the Secretary of State should have a clear need to prioritise this part of his department's duties and ensure that his staff concentrate on the mundane aspects of legislation as well as the more interesting, groundbreaking ones.


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