New Clause 22 — Review of Continued Existence of Commission for Rural Communities

Orders of the Day — Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 11th October 2005.

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'The Secretary of State shall, five years after the establishment of the Commission, conduct a review of it with a view to deciding whether its responsibilities should be transferred to the appropriate local authorities.'. —[Mr. Breed.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 3, in clause 19, page 7, line 29, after 'making', insert 'and publishing'.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The new clause seeks to readdress the situation that we spent some time considering in Committee. The Commission for Rural Communities is another example of the invasive species known as quango, the numbers of which we would very much like to reduce if not eradicate totally. I do not wish to go through all the arguments that we advanced in Committee, save to say that they all still stand up.

I am grateful to the Commission for Rural Communities for providing us with a very glossy document. One might have assumed that the commission had not yet been set up, given that we are still discussing the Bill, but the front cover of the document neatly states that the commission is currently a division of the Countryside Agency. I am grateful to the person who sent me the document because it demonstrates that there is no necessity for a CRC in the first place.

The document's foreword says:

"There has been an enthusiastic response from organisations across the country to our . . . major thematic study".

One could thus conclude that a huge number of responses was received. However, we then find out that only 60 responses by e-mail and post to this major survey were received from all the stakeholders—national and regional organisations, local authorities and interest and consumer groups—who were contacted. Such widespread support for the organisation demonstrates why we do not think that it is entirely necessary. Nearly a third of the responses were from local authorities, which we believe are the most relevant organisations to deal with the roles and responsibilities of the CRC, so only about 35 or 40 other organisations bothered to respond.

What were the commission's astonishing conclusions? It identified several policy initiatives that would benefit from examination—they may astound us all. It said that an important issue was access and service provision—well, we would not have thought that in rural areas. It found that planning and housing were a problem, which I suspect will be a revelation to every council in the country. It concluded that identifying and targeting dispersed rural disadvantage would benefit from examination, but I would be amazed if we did not all accept that. Apparently, funding is a real problem for rural areas.

If the CRC had any relevance at all, it would not have put the document in our hands at this time because it adequately demonstrates that the commission can undertake no role that could not be performed by local authorities. It is the rump of the Countryside Agency, and Lord Haskins pointed out in his report that the Countryside Agency was not required and could easily be abolished, with its roles and responsibilities divided between DEFRA and local authorities.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am sorry, but I want to give the Minister at least one minute to respond. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] I shall give way in a moment.

New clause 22 would give the commission five years, but I hope that such a provision will not be needed. I hope that the commission will fail completely and thus not last five years or that, in the unlikely event that it is an astounding success, we will not need to review the situation.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Environment)

I merely wanted to tell the hon. Gentleman that everything that he said was music to our ears.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I hope that hon. Members will support new clause 22.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

I am familiar with disappointing yellow documents, but the CRC is doing a fantastic job as a rural champion. Anyone who has read the state of the countryside report will know that important work is going on in terms of the evidence base. In particular, I pay tribute to the rural advocate, Stuart Burgess, who needs to continue his work. I find it astonishing that parties with reasonable representation in rural areas do not want an independent rural advocate for England.

I ask the House to reject the amendments. They do not add anything. There is a confusion in the mind of Mr. Breed, who seems to believe that the CRC is a delivery body. It is a watchdog, and it is important that a watchdog looks over rural and semi-rural local authorities to ensure that they act in the best interests of sparsely populated areas, such as the one that he represents.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 144, Noes 278.

Division number 52

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

It being after nine o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker proceeded to put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [6 June].