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Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

8.26 pm

House again in Committee.

Clause 27 [Continuing powers to make transfer schemes]:

Baroness Byford had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 261:

The noble Baroness said: I apologise. For some reason, my Amendment No. 261 is not in my hands.

[Amendment No. 261 not moved.]

Clause 27 agreed to.

Clause 28 agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Transfer schemes]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 262:

The noble Baroness said: We are concerned here with transfer schemes in the schedules. This paragraph reads as though, using its provisions, a Minister or someone acting on his behalf may ride roughshod over the normal legal protection afforded to the owner of property, rights and liabilities. I have in mind the last will and testament of any person who has a right to dispose of his belongings in the manner he chooses, provided he does so in accordance with the legal rules.

Would this legislation allow the Secretary of State to acquire something it would otherwise not be possible to? For example, would it allow things held on behalf of the public by, say, a county council to be annexed by a government department or a regional development agency? Would it allow the Government, in pursuit of governmental targets, to move assets between non-governmental bodies? What are the safeguards that will ensure that this paragraph cannot be used to deprive individuals or sections of society of their property or rights at some time in the future, when other pressures and other moods may prevail? I beg to move.
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8.30 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised an interesting point.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Schedule 3 allows the Secretary of State to make transfer schemes to provide for the transfer of property, rights or liabilities that would not otherwise be capable of being transferred or assigned. This is essential to facilitate the smooth transfer of property currently held by English Nature and the Countryside Agency when they cease to exist. In some cases the terms on which the property rights or interests are held prevent alienation or transfer to third parties. This would apply to transfers to Natural England, the Commission for Rural Communities or a Minister of the Crown.

The transfer schemes envisaged by the Bill are intended to overcome this difficulty. They will ensure a smooth transition to the new bodies and avoid any uncertainties over the rights and liabilities associated with their property on the dissolution of English Nature and the Countryside Agency. It is also important that the Secretary of State is able to certify the changes that have taken place and that this amounts to conclusive evidence of the changes specified.

We would be in no position to deny individuals in this regard. We can move assets that are named NDPBs. As this is a complex area I will expand on it in writing but I think that the noble Baroness's fears, while understandable, are groundless. As I say, I shall write on the fine detail of the law but I give her an assurance and hope that she feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Byford: I am very grateful to the Minister for offering to write to me. This is a slightly technical area. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 29 agreed to.

Clause 30 [Interpretation]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 263:

The noble Baroness said: With this amendment we seek clarification from the Government. In this part, public authorities have a right to request advice from Natural England and a duty to inform it if that advice is not taken. They are to receive messages from the commission and will be monitored on how they implement their policies in a rural context.

The definition of "statutory undertaker" is contained in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That Act may be modified or amended by any piece of legislation. Such alteration might affect the definition of "statutory undertaker" in certain contexts. Would all such changes automatically bring the new definition into the context of this Bill? Were
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providers of electronic networks and cable television to be included for some other purpose, would they also be included for this? I beg to move.

Lord Carter: A technical matter will be of interest to the Committee in this regard. The noble Baroness referred to amendments made to Acts by other Bills. Along with others I have for years campaigned for a website, Statutes in Force, to enable you to get up-to-date Acts with all their amendments noted, whether those amendments were made by regulations or whatever. I am pleased to say that, following correspondence with the Law Commission, this will be available from the spring this year. I believe that all amendments going back to 1991 will be included. I understand that you will be able to call up an Act of Parliament and see all the amendments that have been made to it. They will be incorporated in the Act and you can read it without having to do the scissors and paste job that we have all done for years. That may help to assuage some of the noble Baroness's fears.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I thank my noble friend Lord Carter. I say to the noble Baroness that we do not wish to create a different approach whereby Natural England can advise some public bodies but not others, as the amendment envisages. Statutory undertakers, which include the water industry, are important bodies that can affect the natural environment in both good ways and bad. It is important that Natural England is able to deal with statutory undertakers on the same footing as others, and where necessary provide advice. All our public bodies should—and, I hope, would—wish to play a full part in delivering our vision for the natural environment. The wording we have used is also consistent with the definition of "public bodies" in other legislation. The definition applies to this Bill only. Definitions in other legislation will not affect what is in this Bill as it stands. I hope that I have reassured the noble Baroness but it is one of those areas where she may welcome clarification in writing.

Baroness Byford: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his comments. The website will make a difference. At the moment the only way one can tackle this matter is by consulting Butterworths and that takes time. I am grateful to him for indicating that the new facility will be available to all noble Lords as from spring this year.

The noble Baroness may wish to return to my next point at a later stage. I highlighted two extra providers—the electronic networks, which are springing up everywhere and which I presume fall within the framework of statutory undertakers, and cable TV. One would not necessarily think of them as statutory undertakers but I assume that even the newest and most modern ones are regarded as such. I am grateful for the noble Baroness's comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 agreed to.
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Clause 31 agreed to.

Schedule 4 [Joint Nature Conservation Committee]:

[Amendments Nos. 264 and 265 not moved.]

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 266:

"( ) One member shall be appointed for two years, two members for three years and two members for four years.
( ) The Secretary of State may re-appoint existing members, but no member shall serve longer than ten years."

The noble Baroness said: My noble friend the Duke of Montrose inadvertently touched on this amendment while speaking to another group of amendments, for which I apologise. With it, we were trying to ensure that the whole board was not appointed at one stage, for example, and then leave at another stage and be reappointed. I listened reasonably carefully to what the Minister said when she included it in response to another amendment. I would be grateful if she would respond to it a bit more fully now; I do not know whether she still has the brief. The most important thing is that the commission works well and that there is consistency throughout. When one is setting up a new body, whatever it might be, there will presumably be people joining it who have been former members of the Countryside Agency or English Nature whose term of office may well be coming up to a particular stage; if the appointments are for five years, say, they may have served three years, or some may have served one year.

I shall follow up the previous discussions on this. Will those who have, say, served four years be considered automatically for reappointment first, or is it just open to everyone? Secondly, although they are currently appointed to their positions, will they have to go through a reapplication to be considered as board members of the CRC? I hope that it is the latter, because however good they are they are joining a new body which is bringing in new responsibilities for them on a wider brief. Therefore, I hope that it is a full consultation on the usual way in which public appointments are made. I beg to move.

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