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My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
In my humble opinion this is one of the most important amendments that we have tabled to the Bill as it deals with the whole question of the conflict that could arise when Natural England makes decisions. Although the list of aims under the clause is not ranked, as was explained in earlier sittings, we feel that the wording,
"promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity", is considerably weightier and more pointed than,
"contributing in other ways to".
With no clarity over what the ultimate duty of Natural England might be in a situation of conflict, the pressure exerted by third parties and their supporters—especially if the commercial opportunity is great—could be considerable. Natural England needs to be given teeth and direction to help it meet the challenges that it will face as a major environmental body—something to which the Minister referred at an earlier stage.
We think that it is correct to give greater weight to the first aim. The purpose of this amendment is simply to ensure that no one can be in the slightest doubt about what the pecking order is. For example, a proposal to site an information centre and café on the limestone pavement of Whernside would, I hope, be stillborn. However, an application to build it near the summit of Helvellyn might be accepted more readily although it would still pose a threat to the environment. I bring to the Committee's attention the conflict surrounding the proposals to build Horkesley Park—supposedly an interactive John Constable experience—in the Stour Valley. That proposal is likely to attract some 760,000 people to this part of an area of outstanding natural beauty, which has the highest level of landscape protection available. But at the same time the proposal could be seen as offering open air recreation. The developers could claim that Natural England's list of inclusive statutory purposes would not allow it to advise against policies or proposals which might seriously damage the natural environment if the contribution to other aspects of sustainable development were great. Potentially there is a major conflict but, as the Bill stands, Natural England will have no teeth to address it. Not only will it not have the teeth to resist outside pressure, its direction could be compromised by unresolvable disagreement between board members. What is more, if major decisions are inconsistent, or seriously damaging to the environment, Natural England's reputation and credibility with stakeholders and the public could be seriously damaged.
The amendment is not intended to prioritise natural environment objectives over and above any others and in all circumstances; it would be an emergency brake mechanism that could be used in cases of irreconcilable conflict. I must emphasise that it would not form part of Natural England's motivation but would ensure that it could be a trenchant champion of the natural environment. If the situations I have described do not persuade the Committee, I turn to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, which recommended that provision be made in the Bill to address,
"those exceptional circumstances where there is an irreconcilable conflict, to make clear that the aim of conserving and enhancing the natural environment takes precedence over other purposes. We therefore recommend, for the avoidance of doubt, Clause 2(2)(b) be amended to include reference to the 'protection' of the English landscape".
The Government's response, quoted in the Select Committee's report, misses the point. The Government state that,
"it would be inappropriate to automatically give primacy to biodiversity and landscape over access and recreation in rural and urban environments in general".
The document continues:
"There is no call for 'automatic' primacy for biodiversity and landscape in terms of funding or policy priority. What is required, and this view is widely shared, is a need for a clear priority for biodiversity or landscape where conflicts arise with some forms of recreation which are damaging to biodiversity or landscape and people's enjoyment of these things".
So it is not just we on these Benches who are claiming that.
I refer the Committee to the announcement only this week of the swingeing cut of £1 million that casts a shadow over Wordsworth country, and to the statement that the Lake District faces the biggest ever reduction in services; park authorities warn Ministers over the cash crisis. If Natural England will not fight its corner on behalf of some of those areas, we are not doing the right thing in setting it up in the way that the Bill proposes.
In Standing Committee A, the Minister, Jim Knight, said that applying the Sandford principle to regional development agencies would be difficult, and that the Government want the RDAs to take the lead in the economy but with due regard to sustainable development. That adds more weight the other way. If the RDAs' real purpose is to take the lead regarding sustainable development—which I believe it is—surely that is all the more reason why Natural England should act as a counterbalance to that.
On Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in winding up the debate that he wanted:
"Natural England to be a trenchant champion of the environment. I hope that noble Lords will find it reassuring that the Sandford principle will continue to apply in national parks and that in nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest the strong presumption that biodiversity considerations take precedence will continue".—[Hansard, 7/11/05; col. 472.]
That is fine as far as it goes but what happens to the areas outside that? I mentioned places where people wanted to set up new recreation areas that will bring a lot more people to areas which perhaps cannot cope with that.
This is a very important amendment. The Minister in another place was not persuaded by it but I hope that even if the noble Lord, Lord Bach, cannot support me today, he will at least take the measure away and think about it, as Natural England is being put in a position where it will have to take some very difficult decisions. As I said, the regional development agencies have a different primacy. Therefore, it is even more important that Natural England should take the Sandford principle on board. I beg to move.
I did not intend to speak to this amendment but I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said that it was not intended to give automatic primacy to the environment. The brief from the Campaign to Protect Rural England states:
"The proposal for a conflict resolution mechanism does not mean that natural environment objectives should take automatic precedence . . . The supporters of a conflict resolution mechanism have no intention to change the purpose of Natural England as the Government has described it".
Then I read the amendment and I wonder whether it is correctly drafted to meet the objectives that the noble Baroness mentioned, as it states clearly:
"In the event of a conflict arising between any of the aims included in the general purpose, Natural England shall give priority to the aim in subsection (2)(a) and (b) over any other paragraph in subsection (2)".
As the CPRE tells us, that primacy is not intended, so I wonder whether the drafting of the amendment would achieve what the noble Baroness requires.
I listened with great interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. I have great sympathy with the intentions behind the amendment and I think that, if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, was—unusually—playing with semantics rather than listening carefully to the purpose of the amendment. As a chair of a national park committee—
I take the noble Lord's point, but there is an important principle at stake, which I think that he, with his reputation of defending the interests of the countryside, will take seriously.
As I was about to say, I was brought up on the Sandford principle. I recall that, when it was introduced, I was a county councillor and a vice-chairman of a national park committee. I have long been a proponent of the principle, because it seems to me critical in rural areas that there is somebody to stand up for this particular interest. If Natural England is not going to have that responsibility, no organisation—no other government adviser or government agency—will have it. As has been explained, most of the other partners and participants in the discussion about what should happen in rural areas have other responsibilities and priorities. If Natural England does not have this as a mainstream responsibility, no one will.
Of course there is specific legislation that deals with national parks, AONBs and SSSIs, but the countryside generally will not have a champion unless Natural England performs that task. In that context, surely we should take very seriously the advice of the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place, which I remind the Minister has a government majority on it. The committee was very specific on this issue and I think that we should listen carefully to it.
I understand the anxieties expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about the precise wording, but I believe that, if we are not clear about the purpose of Natural England, that organisation will start its life with one hand tied behind its back and the countryside will suffer as a result.
I support the intervention made by my noble friend Lord Carter. I have a great deal of sympathy with the intention behind the amendment and with the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, moved it. However, I think that its wording requires more attention.
It seems to me—I made this point the other day—that we want to promote nature conservation, to protect biodiversity and to conserve and enhance the landscape not as ends in themselves, but so that we can enrich the lives of an increasing number and an increasingly wide cross-section of people in our society. To introduce, through the way in which the amendment is worded, the concept that access to the countryside is not also of over-riding importance is unfortunate. If one were to begin to break down the wording in the Bill as it stands, one might make more progress. For example, it is arguable that,
"promoting access to the countryside", should not be lumped together in the same paragraph as "encouraging open-air recreation"—perhaps they are not quite the same point. If one were arguing that,
"promoting access to the countryside and open spaces", was also still of paramount importance to Natural England, that would carry more weight. However, I am worried that, as the amendment is drafted, this business of encouraging and enabling people to enjoy what is there and to be enriched by it could be put at a disadvantage. Therefore, I urge those behind the amendment to go away and think again and perhaps to come back with more appropriate wording.
The noble Baroness referred to the Lake District National Park and the consequences of financial arrangements for the future. As president of the Friends of the Lake District, I am obviously as concerned about the matter as anybody; I am perturbed by what could follow from this financial decision. However, I believe that it is incumbent on all of us who carry direct or indirect responsibility for these affairs to make sure that our arrangements are in such good order that the best possible use can be made of the money that is made available. I also note that any reduction in forward funding is in the context of considerably increased funding over recent years. We have to keep these issues in perspective.
I draw the attention of the noble Baroness to the very example that she quoted as an indication of the consequences for people who are trying to encourage access and enjoyment. That is what the national park authority is about. What is worrying are the consequences for its ability to fulfil that purpose if any financial cuts are to be made. Therefore, I suggest that she did not present a very good argument to back up the otherwise commendable objective that I think is at the centre of her preoccupation. I believe that—and I am sorry to put it like this—the amendment has not been well drafted. I suggest that, if the principle is to be furthered, those behind the amendment might go away and think again about what they are trying to say.
I am a bit disturbed by the doctrine that we should preserve the countryside merely so that we, as human beings, can enjoy it. We need to be concerned about conserving and preserving our landscapes for their own sake. To take it to the ultimate limit, there would be no countryside to enjoy if we had not preserved it. I think that the substance of the amendment is right: where there is a conflict of interest between access to the countryside and preservation of the countryside, preservation of the countryside must come first. Therefore, in principle, I support the amendment.
I think that the amendment is essential. A good civil servant is good at weighing up all the alternatives and both sides of an argument equally; he is not there to take political decisions. It is therefore essential that the Civil Service and the people who implement the Bill have a clear guide to the political objectives and to the political contrasts that may arise. It is for Parliament, not a civil servant, to decide what should happen where there is a conflict.
It is important that, in looking at the amendment, we recognise that "priority" does not mean "paramount", as some people seem to be reading it. The amendment sets an order of importance among the various paragraphs. It does not say that paragraphs (a) and (b) will always rule and are completely paramount; it just says that, when you are weighing things in the balance—or when two alternatives seem to be hanging in the balance—there will be a priority and an order of precedence. That is very sensible.
Outside the SSSIs, where sensitive plants and birds may have protection, we may have ground-nesting birds, such as English partridges or skylarks; we may also have rare plants and all sorts of things that happen to be not particularly common in various areas. Pressure from public access could damage those irretrievably and some of them could be lost. We have to be careful that we are not going to condemn more species to extinction by not setting a priority order among these things. I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate when he says that we are conserving the environment for its own sake, not just for future generations.
I declare an interest as chairman of the South Downs Joint Committee, which is a getting-together of the Sussex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty and the East Hampshire area of outstanding natural beauty in a committee that is formed by the local authorities together with the Countryside Agency. I have listened with great care to what the noble Baroness said in moving the amendment, and I appreciate the difficulty of having priorities among the objectives of Natural England. However, it is worth considering that it is not about the access priority, which others have spoken to, but about the last priority:
"Contributing in other ways to social and economic well-being through the management of the natural environment".
It is significant that later in the Bill, in Clause 58, the restraint on spending money on economic and social well-being is removed. It always was that it should be done,
"without incurring significant expenditure in doing so".
The fact that this is being removed must be given some significance. In my judgment, therefore, there is every reason why the board and management of this new and very important body will be conscious that their predecessors were restrained financially on how much they could commit to social and economic well-being, and that that restraint has now been lifted—and why? I am of the opinion that to keep the balance and the essential importance of the first two priorities, it is only reasonable to give every favourable consideration to the amendment.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment and enabling the debate, because this is perhaps one of the most difficult issues in the Bill. It is certainly the down side of having an integrated agency, because when it was simply English Nature it was much easier to see exactly where the clear duty would lie. However, it is not the only agency to face the issue; I declare an interest as vice-president of the Council for National Parks.
There are many occasions when a conflict can arise. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the very difficult decision that was taken in Wales by the Pembrokeshire National Park over the Bluestone development, which caused enormous rifts in all sorts of ways within the national park community, within the local authority and within the wider community that had interests in the countryside. There were many arguments on both sides about the detrimental effect on the landscape, the right of people to enjoy some sort of access at affordable prices to that area and the enormous economic benefits that the local authority felt that it might bring to the area. It was a difficult decision, and following the arguments through their various stages is a good example of where some things are extremely difficult to resolve. At the end of the day, the resolution probably needs to take place in a democratic forum rather than in the forum of an agency.
However, Natural England will have to resolve some difficult issues. I acknowledge that the Select Committee in another place was clear in its endorsement of the Sandford principle. I was interested in the fact that when he was replying on that, the Minister, Jim Knight, said:
"I would like to give further thought to whether, in a non-statutory form, the guiding principles by which Natural England will be governed should be published or made available to the Committee".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 21/5/05; col. 51.]
I have not had sight of any such guiding principles that the Minister mentioned. I wonder whether they have been drafted or published, or whether there is any intention to do so before the Bill proceeds any further through the House, because it would be extremely helpful to those of us who are deciding what to do about this matter.
I support the sentiment of the amendment if not its exact terms; it could do with a little additional clarity. I speak from my background as the president of a wildlife trust, as president of the British Trust for Ornithology and the vice president of the RSPB.
The five basic elements of Natural England's general purpose as laid out in Clause 2(2) are very important. Noble Lords will recall the slightly bad tempered debate that we had last time in Committee; there was some loose talk in the Lobby afterwards that we should perhaps just abandon Clause 2(2), since it would remove many of the amendments that had up until then been put forward, because of the disagreements about the fine grain of its wording. It is an important elaboration of the role of Natural England. Indeed, with one of my other hats on as chief executive of the Environment Agency, I would be extremely grieved if it disappeared, since it would then be creating a body that appeared to have very similar purposes to the Environment Agency. The five elements of the elaboration are important, and in most cases I suspect that they will not come into direct conflict. One of the important roles of Natural England will be to find cunning ways to deliver on all the objectives in an integrated way.
There is no doubt that conflict can occur; I say that as a former chairman of English Nature. On many occasions we were faced with propositions where we had to make extremely difficult decisions about balancing the much more limited purposes of English Nature for biodiversity and conservation in the face of real pressure for economic development, increased access and increased recreational development. Considerable work has been done in the past few years on the research base and the evidence of the impacts on wildlife and landscape of access and recreational development. I draw the Minister's attention to some examples that were given in the briefing from the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The RSPB has collated all the research on issues where there is a conflict between access and birds, and the British Ornithologists' Union held an extremely important and definitive conference last year on disturbance and its impact on bird population trends. The report on that conference will shortly be published, and I will provide the Minister with my references, because that publication will demonstrate that in some circumstances recreation has a real impact on conservation.
It is not only what I would call quiet access. Natural England will also come under pressure from all quarters for increased recreational and economic development, particularly as the drying-up of other sources of income in the countryside increases the need for landowners to diversify. There will also be pressure for recreational facilities to back up the increased housing development that we will see in the countryside. We will see holiday developments and golf courses and developments of the Jeremy Clarkson style, if I may designate them like that, such as jet skis and war games. The pressure will be pervasive, and we must seek to ensure that the sorts of tourism and leisure developments that depend heavily on the abundance of wildlife and the natural beauty of the area do not in fact undermine that very wildlife and that very beauty in seeking to deliver social and economic benefits.
I hesitate to give examples, because in many cases I have been involved in them. There are two where I was only on the periphery and mercifully they are outside England and Wales. The funicular up the Cairngorm was a highly unnecessary development, which is a blot on the landscape. There is also the much lamented visitor centre in the Burren in Ireland which, at the end of the day as a result of a European edict, was quite rightly demolished, having been built inappropriately in a highly sensitive area.
I was quite taken aback by the Natural England partnership briefing for our Committee stage. It tried to assure us that the open access provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 have not resulted in irreconcilable conflict with biodiversity. I gently challenge that position; it is too early to judge the real impact of further open access. Indeed, that open access in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was to wide open spaces; to mountain and moorland, upland and downland. The research evidence is indicating that linear access in restricted areas—such as along riverbanks or coasts—disturbs wildlife the most.
I am not saying that it is universal. There are many rivers and coastal areas that can be opened up to access, but in those sensitive areas where the concentration of people, wildlife, plants and animals in narrow strips is of particular importance, biodiversity really must be predominant. So, pressure on Natural England further to expand open access provisions will, from time to time and on rare occasions, result in more significant and irreconcilable conflicts between its purposes.
I take the points of the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Judd, that the amendment possibly needs a little tightening up and clarification. Personally, I would add the words "significant and irreconcilable" to demonstrate that we are talking only of extreme occasions. But on those occasions, Natural England needs a clear steer from Government, to support it in doing the right thing when facing that sort of pressure and significant or irreconcilable conflicts between elements of its purposes.
The Minister may well say, as he did at Second Reading, that adequate assurances have already been given that Natural England will be a trenchant champion for the environment. There have also been assurances, as already mentioned, in another place that biodiversity and landscape will take priority in national parks, SSSIs and nature reserves. I welcome those assurances but, as has already been said, there are elements of biodiversity and landscape outside protected areas that nevertheless need to be considered.
I am sure that the Minister will also say that it is self-evident from Clause 2(1), on general purpose, that conservation of the natural environment is pre-eminent. If that is indeed self-evident from the Bill, and already sufficiently clear in his view, I would welcome the Minister saying so on the record tonight. That would mean he was supporting the view that—if your Lordships will pardon the technical term—if push comes to shove, biodiversity and landscape will take priority in those rare instances where increased access, recreation or economic development cannot be accommodated without significant and irreconcilable risk to them.
That signal from Government is vital to help Natural England deal with the pressure that it will face. If that is not to be in the Bill, we need clear assurances on the record from the Minister—and, I believe, we also need to incorporate this provision in the ministerial guidance to be given to Natural England. I will give way to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, if he insists. However, I am about to finish; perhaps the noble Lord would like to wait.
Perhaps I may clarify one point. We are obviously agreed that there is great purpose behind the amendment. It needs to be examined seriously—there is no difference between us on that—and there seems to be some agreement that it could be better expressed. However, the noble Baroness has just suggested that economic development and biodiversity might, for example, be in irreconcilable conflict. That is where we get into the quagmire. I would argue that the vital importance of people being able to regenerate themselves in a completely different setting from their urban existence—and to enjoy the richness of the countryside—could be in conflict with economic development. When we start making those comparisons, we immediately begin to see the complexities. I am therefore inclined to think that whichever amendment is put forward, it would have to be strongly argued because the Government have tried to get everything in the Bill, and thus to say, "Right; Natural England now has the responsibility to get the right balance".
I thank the noble Lord, but that really inclines me to believe that there is a need for a conflict resolution provision, because I believe that it is important for people to experience the joy of biodiversity and landscape. It is equally important to recognise that it is in no one's interests if, in enjoying them, we inadvertently diminish or destroy them. I would like the Minister to see his way to putting this strong steer, which I seek, into the guidance given to Natural England. If we destroy our biodiversity and landscape, then once they are gone, they are gone. I support the views of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough.
I was going to say that the varied views which might have been voiced around the Chamber tonight are, in themselves, an example of why Natural England needs a strongish steer. Alas, we have not had quite such a variety of views as I expected. I have heard pretty strong support all around the Chamber for something to be done here; I was hoping that economic developers and people wanting paintball games across the country would be rising in their masses in the Chamber, so that I could demonstrate how much pressure there might be. Alas, they have stayed doggo so far. Nevertheless, I hope that we can urge the Minister to give that steer in some fashion or other.
Before the noble Baroness's remarks are too distant, perhaps I may say that she has drawn out some examples of where conflicts might arise between biodiversity and access. However, as no one has yet mentioned the issue of climate change, I should like to lay a different example before the Committee. It was brought to my attention by CPRE's strong objection to polytunnels in inappropriate places.
I am sure that there are places where polytunnels are inappropriate when erected in large numbers. Nevertheless, they also enable food to be grown nearer the places where it is consumed, to extend the growing season and, by using geothermal energy, to do that in an environmentally friendly way. The other option is to ship in much of the salad crop from southern Spain, an area which has problems with its own water. That consumes air miles and is a good example of where there will be definite conflict; that is between having either a landscape sullied by polytunnels or a possibly greater but invisible ill for the landscape—given the effects from everything I mentioned that would contribute to climate change—because of the lack of ability to grow what will be consumed in this country. We will also have to consider that sort of conflict.
I want to speak as a farmer for a moment. In a sense, the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—and, to a certain extent, those of the right reverend Prelate, if he will forgive me—lead into mine.
We really need to demystify the countryside. Yes, it is glorious; no one appreciates landscapes more than I. However, in my early days of being in county hall four days a week, some non-agricultural friends often used to ask me how I managed to run a farm and yet spend all of my time away from it, doing other things. For a number of years, I used glibly to answer that while I looked after the farm for 10 minutes a day—and that that was all it required of my time—the good Lord had it for 23 hours and 50 minutes. I got away with that for a long time. Everybody accepted that it could probably be done; the truth was that there was growing inefficiency in the system, but that is neither here nor there.
However, one day one of my more intelligent friends asked a question that stopped me dead in my tracks. He said, "Yes, Bill, I understand what you're saying, but have you considered what your farm produced when the good Lord had it for 24 hours a day?". You need to stop and think about that—but not very hard. There is a reality there and we need to recognise that the countryside is a totally artificial creation. It has been driven by economics. Latterly, in the past 30, 40 or 50 years, it has been driven hard by government policy and we have arrived at the present situation.
If there is something mystical regarding the countryside that I might call divine inspiration, it is divine inspiration that brings about this sort of debate, where we sit down and look at the whys and wherefores of what we are doing. At present, the reality is that policy is driving us back towards the countryside that we used to know; we want to retain our biodiversity and everything else. That is fine, but as I have already said in this Committee, other factors are at work in what we are doing that will be tremendously destructive if we are not exceedingly careful.
Such matters are not taken into account in this debate, but are the inspiration that lies behind my noble friend's amendment, and I understand why she has moved it. We need to be realistic about the countryside. It is not a divine creation. It is a creation of man in combination with nature. If there were inspiration, it perhaps came to man divinely—if we were lucky. I hope that that can continue, but we need a judgment.
I have great sympathy with my noble friend Lady Byford's amendment. Whether correctly drafted or not, such an amendment is needed. Do we really need to go down this route? The briefing from English Nature says that there certainly are areas that have been given exclusion; 44 SSSIs out of over 1,000 qualify for access and little over 1 per cent of SSSIs have been given partial exemption—I presume, for breeding seasons. That will come as a great relief to those, such as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who rightly argue for not limiting open public access. We are not talking about a large area, but a very small area. That is important.
Clarity is needed in this area. The countryside has an ever-increasing population. We are increasingly pushing the habitat of our wildlife on a daily basis. We often read in the press of wildlife whose numbers or varieties are diminishing through problems that we cannot understand. There is irreconcilable conflict in sensitive areas and fragile habitats.
In my experience at home, public access was allowed across an area containing ponds and lakes and waterfowl in that area ceased to breed. There are now few waterfowl living there. That case was like the examples we are arguing about and it resulted in human beings winning over wildlife. I am anxious to ensure that in future we come second to wildlife in the pecking order.
There has been a fascinating interchange of views and I am swaying in various directions. It is clear that the board of Natural England will have to be a Solomon in its work. Much depends on the drafting. Here I am at one with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. We are talking about irreconcilable conflicts. My memory is not good and I do not remember whether the Sandford principle was incorporated into the national parks legislation in 1995—but I have always seen that as an irreconcilable conflict. Some conflicts are small and the SSSI issue is different from landscape issues.
I am therefore not entirely at one with my noble friend Lord Judd. He is president of Friends of the Lake District and I am a mere vice-president; and we are both vice-presidents, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, of the Council for National Parks. So I am torn. On the whole, I favour Sandford here, particularly as the Bill includes subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b)—the first two purposes—but that can be applied only when the chips are down.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, mentioned the Cairngorm funicular, which is a classic case where wild landscape has been destroyed. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, mentioned the bluestones, a classic example of destroying a very sensitive part of a national park. They were massive developments, but many are not massive, so while we need to think more about the drafting, I favour something along the lines of the amendment.
I echo the comments that this has been a fascinating debate with a huge amount of expertise from noble Lords. We are all grateful for what they have said. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that this is an important part of the Bill. It is at this stage, in a sense, neither here nor there whether or not her amendment is properly drafted. It sets up the debate that occurred in another place and is occurring here. I am sure that a lot of people are listening to what we say.
I start by saying, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, forecast, that we expect Natural England to be a strong—I shall not use the word "trenchant" just because she used it—champion of the natural environment. This new NDPB is being established to ensure that the precious resource of our natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for present and future generations. No one reading the purpose can be in any doubt that Natural England is an environmental organisation. It is about managing and enhancing places and nature and encouraging people to enjoy and benefit from them.
Natural England will make decisions in the context of sustainable development. Through its environmental work, Natural England will contribute to sustainable development by actively seeking economic and social benefits for present and future generations. Sustainable development cannot be delivered by social, economic or environmental work alone. To that end, we hope and expect Natural England not to work in isolation, but together, often in close partnership, with existing bodies.
Natural England will be one of the Government's main sources of expertise and advice on managing the natural environment, operating within a sustainable development context. The regional development agencies take a lead on economic issues, also within the context of sustainable development. I would not want to see a conflict resolution clause applied to the RDAs so that in their decision-making the environment always lost out to economic considerations—and I am sure noble Lords would not want that, either.
For the record, it would be interesting to have an example of where an RDA had, to date, made a decision that did not see economic interest winning out very strongly over environmental issues.
As I understand it, no conflict resolution clause applies to RDAs; they make up their own minds. It is important that they should do so, bearing in mind the various issues that are set out in Clause 2 as far as Natural England is concerned. It has been suggested that RDAs give primacy to economic development, so Natural England should give primacy to the environment. Both take their decisions—or ought to—within the context of sustainable development, and we believe that helping people to enjoy the natural environment is an inextricable part of its conservation and enhancement. Bringing the two together in Natural England will help achieve the right solutions to conflicts.
I do not think that the best solutions come out of adversarial debate between, for example, a public body with a total focus on protecting the environment and another with a total focus on economic development. That is why both the regional development agencies and Natural England are required to contribute to sustainable development. This reminds me of my promise to the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, to share a definition of "sustainability" with the House. John Locke, the great English philosopher at the end of the 17th century defined "sustainability." Of course, when he uses the word "man" he covers humankind. He said:
"Each man is entitled to the fruits of his labour, as long, and as much, and as good, is left for the next [man]".
Not a bad definition. Our definition is a little more prosaic. Our strategy for delivering a better quality of life through sustainable development was set out in the UK sustainable development strategy, launched in March last year and copies of which are available in the Library. It explains the actions required to ensure that the care of the environment is an integral part of policymaking from the start, rather than just dealing with the consequences of neglect further down the line. The UK Government and the devolved administrations agreed to the following purpose:
"The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations".
It is against that background, or both definitions, that I believe this amendment to be wrong, both in principle and in practice. It would not lead to better protection for our most treasured natural resources, and it is inconsistent with practice elsewhere in the public sector.
Why do I say that it is wrong in principle? Many of the proposals put forward for this Bill by noble Lords have aimed to secure the independence of Natural England. We support that concept, which is why we have created it as an executive, non-departmental public body. Natural England must have the freedom to engage in debate with interested organisations, customers and the public; then, in discussion with Ministers, to decide how it can best achieve its purpose. Frankly, that is the point of having a board of an independent NDPB. We do not believe that it should be told how to resolve any particular conflict. A conflict resolution clause would effectively be a legislative straitjacket. It would not give it teeth, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, suggested. It would mean extracting its teeth; it would have no teeth. It would have, effectively, no independence. It would erode its ability to make independent decisions on how best to achieve its purpose.
That is the principle. Let me give two examples of some of the problems a conflict resolution clause would create in practical application. First, how would it apply to urban green spaces? There are many areas of damaged and derelict land around our major towns and cities. Some have been designated as SSSIs, or local nature reserves, because of their wildlife variety. Priority should be given to biodiversity in these areas, which might, for example, lead to restrictions on public access. Other areas have less value for wildlife and here it may be judged—and judged is the crucial word—that access should have priority, even if the effect is detrimental to some plants and animals. This amendment would prevent Natural England taking part in any such project, despite its role as a leading national body on access to the natural environment. A project might well proceed under local authority or voluntary-body leadership, but Natural England would be excluded. We do not think that is right.
Secondly, how it would apply to a designed landscape, such as a Repton parkland? Many noble Lords will know much more about the great landscape architect, Repton, than I do. Restoring the historical importance of the landscape by, for example, clearing undergrowth, or dredging an ornamental lake, might be detrimental to some aspect of biodiversity. Natural England would be required, if this amendment became law, to give the highest priority, without question, to enhancing biodiversity.
I wonder whether we might tempt the noble Lord to take the view that the two circumstances he has just described would not, in fact, straitjacket Natural England because they would not be significant and irreconcilable. On a day-to-day basis any public body tasked in the way Natural England is will be making these balancing decisions. To take his example of a Repton landscape, I am sure that dredging the lake and clearing the rhododendrons would probably not be regarded as significant or irreconcilable, but were the veteran tree at the bottom of the view, which harbours probably some of the most important beetle collections in Britain, to be demolished, that might be an irreconcilable and significant issue. It is a question of degree. I wonder whether the noble Lord might feel that.
I am sure that the noble Baroness is right: it is a question of degree, but who is to decide if it is serious enough to be irreconcilable? It seems to me that Natural England, the independent body we are setting up should do so. It may be painful for it, but it should have the duty to decide when there are such conflicts, whether more extreme than the ones I have given by way of example, or ones which are truly irreconcilable. That is what we have to decide.
In addition to being wrong in practice, the amendment would not help to protect our most treasured natural resources, such as SSSIs, Natura 2000 sites, AONBs and national parks, because the purposes of national parks are laid down in Section 61 of the Environment Act 1995:
"(a) Conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the areas specified;
(b) Promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public".
The Act goes on to make clear that any relevant authority,
"if it appears that there is a conflict between those purposes shall attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area comprised in the national park".
That is what is known as the Sandford principle, taken from the reverend Lord Sandford's recommendations in 1974 that enjoyment of national parks,
"shall be in a manner, and by such means, as will leave their natural beauty unimpaired for the enjoyment of this and future generations".
Natural England will be bound, like all other relevant authorities, to give greater weight to conservation in these specially designated areas. No other similar NDPB has a conflict resolution clause. A glance at the founding legislation of other such bodies in this area prompts the question: what problem is this amendment seeking to solve? The Countryside Agency, which has statutory duties for conservation, access and rural economic development does not have a conflict resolution clause. The board of the Countryside Agency, which noble Lords will remember is one of the organisations that will form Natural England, has not suggested that problems with its current statutory responsibilities should be resolved in this Bill by giving Natural England a conflict resolution clause.
The Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage, which combine most of the functions being taken over by Natural England, do not have a conflict resolution clause. Nor does the Environment Agency, where it could be argued that there is great potential for conflict between environmental and economic objectives. In short, we want Natural England to be more than the sum of its parts. It will bring with it the Countryside Agency's expertise in promoting positive access management and administering legal restrictions on access where necessary; English Nature's expertise of advising on nature conservation restrictions and enforcement of byelaws on national nature reserves; and the Rural Development Service's excellent track record, expertise and experience in administering the environmental stewardship schemes. We want Natural England to draw these together, sharing good practice and ideas and integrating delivery.
Instances of irreconcilable conflict between access and conservation are rare in practice—and I believe that is the consensus around the House. English Nature's recent figures about access on Sites of Special Scientific Interest exemplify this point. More than 55 per cent of SSSIs are on open access land. These are our most valuable nature conservation and earth heritage sites. Yet, even here, in areas already recognised in legislation for their importance to nature conservation, irreconcilable conflicts are extremely rare. There are no SSSIs in access land in England where preventing access to protect flora and fauna all year round has so far been necessary. To date, only 0.3 per cent of SSSI access land is subject to partial access exclusion all year round, and only 1.06 per cent of SSSI access land has so far required a seasonal exclusion.
Similarly, in the Peak District National Park—one of our most visited national parks—there has been access in place under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 since last September, but there have as yet been no major conflicts between access and conservation.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I think what he says is largely right but, certainly in the Peak District, I can confirm that there has been great difficulty with dogs. Unfortunately, people have not been abiding by the byelaws. Dogs have been allowed to run pretty well free on too many occasions. There are all sorts of statistics on this which I do not have to hand, but I assure the Minister that the dog issue has been creating a great deal of difficulty in the Peak District National Park.
I am probably rightly corrected by the noble Earl, Lord Peel. I am not saying that there have not been issues with dogs. The question is how we resolve those issues. That is done, it seems to me, by good management rather than some statutory clause in an Act.
I am clear that it would be wrong for us not to continue to trust in this wealth of expertise, and instead provide Natural England with an inflexible decision-making framework from the outset. I am also clear, as was set out in the rural strategy, that Natural England is being established to take an integrated approach to nature conservation, biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation in the context of sustainable development.
Before I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to withdraw her amendment, I shall mention a couple of things. The noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, referred to statutory guidance. I accept, in principle, that guidance on dealing with conflicts between objectives could be dealt with in the statutory guidance in a way which might satisfy concerns. Discussions with the Natural England confederation over the statutory guidance are at an early stage, and I will undertake to put conflict resolution on the agenda. I am prepared to look into it, but I make it absolutely clear that a black and white form of conflict resolution clause, such as that expressed in this amendment, would be no more appropriate to us in statutory guidance than it is in the Bill.
I am puzzled by the remarks of Mr Jim Knight in the other place, who implied that there would be such guidance. It is some time since the other place debated this, but that is what had led me to believe that such guidance would be available for us to look at.
I do not think that there is any disagreement between what the Minister said in another place and what I am saying tonight. There is certainly not intended to be. I am choosing my words with some care on this issue.
The confederation which will form Natural England is discussing a draft strategy with stakeholders, which was provided to Standing Committee A in another place. I will ensure that it is given to noble Lords if they would like to see it. Naturally, the confederation cannot take this process far until the board of Natural England has been appointed. It will be for it then to consult on how it will approach difficult decisions on priorities.
I have a number of answers to some of the points made by noble Lords, but I think I have spoken for quite long enough and set out—I hope clearly—the Government's position on this important issue. On that basis, I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to withdraw her amendment.
I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate—I was going to say "short debate", but it has been a full one. I think some 12 noble Lords have expressed their views. Whether they agree with my amendment, or think it is technically incorrect or could be improved, I am still grateful for their views.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, was not the Minister when we took the CROW Bill through, but his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is sitting at the back of the Chamber, and will remember well our discussions on the challenges and difficulties of encompassing and encouraging more people to the countryside while protecting it and the wildlife that they come to see, particularly in certain seasons.
I smile slightly because I was recalling only the other day that I had quite a bit of pressure at one stage of the CROW Bill from one of the wildlife groups, which shall remain nameless. It said that it thought that I was not interested in getting the CROW Bill through. Obviously, the first part, being on the question of access—or the "right to roam", as it was then called—took a lot of discussion. I tried to persuade it that if we did not get the first part right, the very things it wanted to see, encourage and enjoy would be jeopardised. When the CROW Act was finally passed, one of the first groups to write to me was that one, saying that it was experiencing the problems we had debated, which it had not realised that we could have tightened up.
I, too, had the question of dogs, raised by my noble friend Lord Peel, brought to my attention—I was going to say "my ear bent"—when I was on holiday in the Brecon Beacons only last September. When people, in their lack of understanding—rather than ignorance—walk through areas where they had not been able to go before and let dogs slip off the lead, it is quite likely that sheep, let alone any other wildlife, will be disturbed. Flocks will be intertwined. So my noble friend is quite right that there are issues there.
The issue rightly raised by noble Lords who were not in favour of my amendment was that it might not be worded correctly, or whatever else. I am more than willing to take it back and think about it. I shall read everybody's contributions with interest, because they have been extremely helpful, whether they were in favour of it or not.
I would like to say, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that I am very anxious that people should visit the countryside. The contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, highlights even more why, on this occasion, a conflict clause is needed. In the old days, and certainly when we took through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, we were talking about access for people to walk and enjoy, whereas nowadays a lot of the applications coming through are for what I would call active participation in the countryside. That is a real issue that we will develop more.
I have young grandchildren and a young family. When they go on holiday they like to be active—not in the sense, perhaps, of walking on the moors, but they would like to be active, either doing water sports or in Centre Parcs, where there are more active things for them to do than purely to walk and enjoy. Certainly, the amendment is not there to preserve and keep the countryside from growing. The countryside must grow; I have no doubt about that. My real concern in tabling the amendment is that I believe that Natural England must be a champion for that, and I think the Minister has kindly suggested that he agrees. It is a question of how we ensure that. It is not for everyday dealings, but for those few times when the board will be asked to judge and decide how you balance these two opposing interests.
I am enormously grateful, as I said earlier, to everybody who has spoken. It would take another half-hour to go through all the contributions. I do not propose to do that, but it is not because I do not appreciate the contributions made. At this stage, I am grateful that the noble Lord will perhaps think about some guidance, or at least have discussions within the department on it. I suspect that I shall return to the issue, but I would very much like to read carefully the contributions that everybody has made. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 125 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 128, 131 and 132. If noble Lords who tabled the other amendments in the group would forgive me, I would like to speak only to Amendment No. 125, listen to what they have to say about their amendments and perhaps come back to the Minister when he responds to them.
Amendment No. 125 requires the new agency to keep under review its raison d'être and review it at least annually. This is a probing amendment to try and establish the intended nuances in the use of this phrase. One may keep under review by insisting that the subject to be reviewed is brought into every discussion it reaches when the body has to make a firm conclusion. It could be, "Right, gentlemen, we have decided that and we are all satisfied that nothing about the decision conflicts with our remit", and so on.
Legislation sometimes lays down that there should be a review session every so often. For example, all school exclusions of longer than five days have to be reviewed annually by the governing body, mainly to ensure consistency and fairness. It is possible that an injunction to keep under review could be honoured more in the breach by relegating it to a periodic paper, to be discussed only if anyone raised an objection to something in it. Such an approach would tend to ignore omissions and might easily overlook matters that had occurred in early weeks and months of the period it covered.
We feel that the Bill should be more specific concerning the frequency of that required review, and we would prefer the words that demand a formal report at least in the form of a board minute. That review should be at least annually. I beg to move.
I shall speak briefly to Amendment No. 125. On page 47 there is a great list of things which Natural England has to do every year. A point that should be added is that that can become discretionary—that is, people can include in their annual report what they choose to put in it, rather than covering all the matters that are of importance. The value of the amendment is that it suggests that any report made should cover the whole waterfront and not be too selective.
In Amendment No. 128 I am away from weighty philosophical matters. It may be that the Minister will be able to relax and say, "Thank goodness, we are down to practicalities". That leaves me to hope that he will have no problem in agreeing to my amendment. It intends to bring the relationship between Natural England and interested bodies into a better balance. Clause 3(2) currently reads:
"When reviewing any matter, Natural England must consult such bodies as appear to it to have an interest in the matter".
The wording is slightly different in the Explanatory Notes, which say that Natural England,
"consults bodies that it considers to have an interest".
If the amendment were approved, the subsection would read:
"When reviewing any matter, Natural England must consult such bodies as have an interest in the matter".
It is clear that the Bill, when enacted primarily as an enabling measure, will give rise to many declarations of interest, some of which are unpredictable and some of which can be controversial. For example, gardens are not much mentioned, yet the Royal Horticultural Society undoubtedly has an interest. No doubt Natural England would be willing to talk to the Royal Horticultural Society, but what about the horticultural development and research association or the Centre for Alternative Technology? Both have an interest in biodiversity and conservation.
As drafted, the clause gives Natural England what amounts to a veto. Its officials will be busy people and would be able to say, "Well, with regret, we did not consider at the time that you had an interest". Any such conclusion would be subjective and difficult to challenge. As amended, Natural England would need to give due attention and weight to representations made to it, rather than being able to decide with whom it communicates. No doubt Natural England would be strong enough to safeguard its own position. Therefore, it does not need this right to decide unilaterally. This right is also undemocratic.
"commission or support (by financial means or otherwise) research into any such matter".
The amendment probes whether Natural England should take account of existing bodies. It holds the purse strings for a lot of research that can take place into biodiversity and other issues. I am interested to know whether it will take account of existing bodies that have done a terrific job, and their research—for example, the county records office, funded by Defra, and the wildlife trusts, which continually research into all sorts of things; I should declare that I am a member of both Somerset and Devon Wildlife Trusts—and not simply take what may often be the quicker and easier route of going straight to consultants.
Of course, universities now play an interesting part. As so much of their finance comes from independent consultancies, without the Minister saying clearly what is meant by the clause, there is a danger that Natural England could not take account of the bodies that have been in the business for a long time and commission research left, right and centre, to the detriment of the bodies that I mentioned—there are a number of others that I will not take the time of the Committee by mentioning now. By whom does the Minister imagine that the research may be carried out?
In speaking to my Amendment No. 132, I should first like to apologise to the House because, in my enthusiasm last week, I forgot to repeat my interests—for the purposes of this Committee, they are as a farmer, landowner, rural businessman and chair of the Somerset Strategic Partnership.
Amendment No. 132 is merely a mechanism to draw attention to the need to have acceptable common standards established by the JNCC, as proposed by the Bill. We have nothing against the clause but would like to be reassured on the rigour by which those standards are judged by the JNCC. They must be based on published, acceptable, scientific data. They should be based on sound peer-reviewed science.
Furthermore, it would be preferable if they could be tested for practicality with some form of on-the-ground consultation. For instance, to take a fairly obvious example, there is no point promoting standards of management of heather moorland that undermines grouse shooting, when it is the shooting management that creates the habitat in the first place—that is the raison d'etre of the habitat; no shooting, no habitat. I should be grateful for some reassurance from the Minister on that point.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for having introduced Amendment No. 132. I appreciate the principal objectives behind the common standards as a means of assessing and monitoring the condition of designated sites. Some such mechanism is advisable if the statutory agencies are to carry out their functions effectively. However, from my experience in such matters, which is based entirely in the uplands, the system appears far from satisfactory.
One of the fundamental difficulties rests in the lack of consultation between JNCC, Natural England as it will be, or English Nature as it has been, and land managers. We seem to have foisted on us what I can describe only as rather arbitrary condition assessments. All those who are responsible for the management of such sites have their views not entirely ignored but certainly pushed to one side. The lack of appreciation of practical management is the real problem. The most common complaint is that the term "favourable condition" too often relates to what I may describe as a past point in the ecological development of the site. That often seems to have little bearing on the purpose for which it is being used at the moment. That seems quite unrealistic, especially when such an objective is unlikely to be met with a realistic timescale and a site has historically been managed in ways inconsistent with the JNCC's objectives. I am bound to say that some of the criticism that I have read makes me wonder why the site was designated in the first place.
In attempts to try to enhance some species that may have been present at some moment in the deep and distant past, such as some rare bryophyte, some current conservation gains could be lost that depend on the present management structure. In the uplands, the guidance suggests that favourable conditions should be assessed by reference to their original historic state. We could be talking about the Ice Age. Sometimes, I cannot see the point. There must be a more realistic approach to how those condition assessments are carried out. Furthermore, it is clear from comments that I have read and conversations that I have had that there is dispute—the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, referred to this—about many of the conditional assessments for the lack of clear science, which should be a prerequisite for any material change in the management structure of the site.
I cite an independent ecologist who, quite recently, when commenting on the condition assessment of an area on the North York Moors National Park, said:
"The way that results are reported can cause misunderstanding and damage relationships between moorland managers and conservation agencies. Many managers are proud of their moors and believe that they have been managed well for conservation, as well as for commercial purposes. It would be much better if the results could be presented in a more accurate light, which reflects the degree of failure, e.g. eight out of 10, rather than just 'fail'".
She has a very good point. That is particularly important when vegetation condition may be a legacy of circumstances outwith the manager's control—for example, past air pollution or a severe wildfire created inadvertently by a visitor several decades ago.
This is clearly just a probing amendment. I hope that the Minister will appreciate the real concerns expressed by managers of upland SSSIs. As I said, I can speak only for uplands SSSIs, but I am sure that similar situations occur in other parts of the country. I hope that we can try to instigate a more realistic approach to the assessment criteria, with greater co-operation and dialogue from the beginning. It is important for JNCC, English Nature and the Government to appreciate that the manager has just as much to offer as a scientist and should be consulted more often. I know that the Minister will agree with me. As the noble Lord said, we must make sure that we apply rigorous science in these conditions.
Amendment No. 128 is important. It should not just be up to what the people operating internally in the agency feel that they should pick. There should be a duty to consult with everyone concerned—not just with the people that they feel like. Everything that has been said about Amendment No. 132 has made me realise its importance. The danger is that the agency becomes a law unto itself. We must be careful about that. We could use many examples, although I cannot lay my hands on any at the moment, where such powers have been abused in the past.
It may be helpful if I briefly set out the rationale behind Clause 3. Natural England will be a key source of independent expert advice to government on environmental matters and a statutory consultee on many planning processes. To carry out that role, it is vital that Natural England remains up-to-date in matters relating to its general purpose. The requirement to consult others will help foster a culture of partnership working, ensuring that the expertise of other public bodies, such as the Environment Agency, and specialist non-governmental authority bodies, is used effectively and duplication avoided.
Clause 3 also gives Natural England powers to carry out, to commission and to support research in matters relating to its general purpose. This power is clearly required for Natural England to develop and test new approaches or techniques aimed at helping to ensure that our natural environment is managed, conserved and enhanced. The term "research" is to be taken in its widest sense. Clause 30 defines research to include inquiries and investigations, and therefore empowers Natural England to carry out surveys and monitoring.
The three amendments raise different but related issues, so I will address them one by one. Amendment No. 125 would require the Natural England board to carry out at least an annual review of all matters relating to its general purpose. I understand the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, but ask her to consider the view that it would be best if the Natural England board were given responsibility to decide when reviews are needed. In some cases, it may want and need to review matters relating to its general purpose more frequently than annually, and in other cases less frequently. I know that the noble Baroness would not want the board to have to carry out unnecessary work to meet a legal duty, and I hope on that basis that she will withdraw this amendment.
Amendment No. 131 would require Natural England to take existing bodies into account before commissioning or supporting research into matters relating to its general purpose. We are not opposed in principle to the intention behind the amendment, but this proposal deals with matters more appropriate to Natural England's corporate plan and management statement. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that discussions are already well advanced for jointly managing parts of Defra's and Natural England's research programmes. From my experience through involvement with the College of Agriculture and Horticulture in Lancashire and the University of Central Lancashire, I am well aware of the valuable contribution, to which the noble Baroness referred, of university departments, among others. With that reassurance, I hope that she will not press the amendment.
Amendment No. 132 would remove Natural England's requirement to have regard to the JNCC's common standards on research into nature conservation. Natural England should, in common with its sister bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have regard to UK common standards established by the JNCC. I have listened to the noble Earls, Lord Peel and Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and I understand that there may be concerns about the lack of opportunity for review and comment on these standards before they are adopted and about the science underlying them. I particularly took note of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, about the need for proper consultation with land managers in areas with particular issues.
The work of the JNCC in this area is subject to review by the individual bodies represented on the committee, and I understand that that also happens at a working level as standards are being prepared. In some cases, independent input is sought from outside the statutory conservation community. Additionally, the committee's papers are publicly available and its meeting is open to the public. Common standards are required on a wide range of topics, and it would not be appropriate for legislation to set out in detail how the JNCC should prepare them. Having said that, I understand the concerns and the strength of feeling of the three speakers about the amendment. I undertake to pass on all their comments about the need for wider consultation to the JNCC chairman and to suggest that his committee gives further consideration to the points that have been made today. I hope that will help noble Lords who have expressed their concerns about the matter.
The amendment is clearly probing, and the noble Baroness has listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and I have said. I was hoping merely that she would give the appropriate authorities the chance to consider it and to develop a more streamlined, effective and user-friendly system that would please us all, so I am extremely grateful for what she has said.
I thank the noble Earl. On Amendment No. 128 in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, if a body has a particular interest, it must make itself known to Natural England to get its name on the circulation list. It is certainly not the intention for Natural England to have a veto against bodies that can express an interest and be involved in circulation about issues. On the other hand, it is not possible for Natural England to put on a circulation list every body that has anything to do with matters within Natural England's purpose. However, I hope that the noble Viscount is reassured that no restriction is intended by the use of the words,
"as appear to it to have an interest".
That is to give Natural England the power to stop the circulation list. It would not then be used to exclude people from the process. I hope on the basis of that reassurance that the noble Viscount will not feel the need to press his amendment.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. However, I still have some reservations about this. It is a difficult subject that raises many questions. Several noble Lords have discussed for over an hour whether there should be priorities, the conflicts, and how to reach difficult judgments. That position will persist. Given that we are being promised a strong, independent non-departmental public body, I really do not see why it needs the protection of being able to decide who has an interest. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but officials in non-departmental public bodies are good at drawing attention to and using the words set out in Acts of Parliament, and they do not need this protection. It is not just a question of a body being on the list; rather it is one of someone thinking outside the box and coming up with ideas. However, if they cannot get to Natural England, those ideas may never be heard.
I feel strongly that we need to return to the nature of the relationships between Natural England and the people with an interest in the subjects covered by Clause 2. For the time being, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
I am sorry, but the amendment has not been moved because it is not the first in the group. I hope that the noble Viscount will consider carefully the words I used, because I sought to make it absolutely clear that this does not empower Natural England in any way to exclude people from the list of consultees. However, it is important to understand the range of matters which Natural England may review. If Natural England reviewed exclusively issues such as the value of wildlife on a patch of land or the case for designating a national park, that would be one thing. But it may wish to consider the impact of climate change on England's landscapes. In those broader areas it would be extremely onerous on Natural England if it were required to identify all the bodies with an interest in such an issue.
The noble Viscount also said that not much mention is made of gardens. Perhaps I may put on the record that gardens and some other urban green spaces are included in Natural England's purpose. Garden biodiversity is extremely important in terms, for example, of bird populations. Like me, the noble Viscount may be an early riser and listen to the "Today" programme. He will know that thousands of people join in studies of our bird population as part of a national programme. I am sure he will agree that if part of Natural England's work is to look at the bird population, consulting every household taking part in studies of that kind would be far too onerous. However, the groups and organisations involved in this work could require Natural England to consult them wherever they deemed it appropriate.
I thank the Minister for her courteous response. I have listened carefully to what she has said. She suggested that the amendment may mean that Natural England could not review certain purposes more often. However, it is clear that the amendment does not say that. It specifies that matters should be kept under review not less than annually. In our short periods of debate on the Bill we have spent a considerable time debating the whole question of the general purpose clause. I have to say that I am very disappointed with the Minister's answer and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
[Amendments Nos. 126 and 127 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
[Amendment No. 128 not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 129 and 130 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
[Amendments Nos. 131 and 132 not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 133 and 134 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Clause 3 agreed to.
Clause 4 [Advice]:
Amendment No. 135 would apply to Clause 4 which concerns the bodies to which Natural England should give advice. In this clause there are a number of references to public authorities; for example, local authorities and so on. One omission that my amendment aims to correct is the Government and Ministers. My amendment, which may be more than a probing amendment, seeks to discover how much teeth Natural England is supposed to have with regard to the Government and whether Ministers should pay due regard to advice given to them by Natural England.
Defra is likely to have a very close relationship with Natural England. I do not expect there to be any particular problem. After all, Defra is its sponsoring body. However, we should look at other government departments, such as the ODPM, the DTI, the Department for Transport and the MoD, which has a particularly good record of paying attention to biodiversity matters. On several occasions I have had the great pleasure of looking at some of the projects which it is undertaking. There is no doubt that government departments and Ministers need to pay attention and should have a statutory obligation, like all other agencies and public authorities in Britain, to take regard of the advice of Natural England. Without that, the hours that we have spent debating the statutory purpose will count for very little. It is the decisions of government departments that often literally change the face of Britain in many ways. For that reason alone, this amendment is very important.
It is also important to hear from the Government the exact demarcation—I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is not in her place—between Natural England and the Environment Agency with regard to the advice that is given on things natural. The Environment Agency has a very big part to play, albeit a more regulatory part very often. Natural England's role is to do research, to give advice, and so on. However, when considering estuaries and migrating fish, the role of the Environment Agency moves out of the regulatory and into far more of the research and advice-giving area. It is far from clear to me exactly what the demarcation between the two bodies will be. I believe that there may be in existence a memorandum of agreement between English Nature and the Environment Agency. I would be interested to know whether that will carry over into Natural England. If it is, will it carry over in exactly the form that it is in now or will it be adapted to take account of the much wider remit of Natural England?
We referred to the marine Bill on the second day in Committee. The Government have said that they are preparing a marine Bill. I hope that the provisions of this Bill will be applicable to that Bill and that it will not need redrawing in great detail when we come to it. I do not expect that we will get this Bill perfect, but, as the Government have committed themselves to the marine Bill and know that it is coming in the near future, we should take account of that fact. With that in mind, and as we move into the marine area, the Environment Agency has responsibilities that one might expect to sit with Natural England.
For those two reasons, I very much want to hear what the Minister has to say on how the Government expect the advice of Natural England to be converted into having some teeth when it comes to the effect on other government departments. I beg to move.
As we seem to be addressing "advice", two of our amendments are grouped with Amendment No. 135. My amendments are to Clause 4. On Amendment No. 138, I should like to determine whether this really relates to Clause 4. The explanation I have here is that Clause 11 confers on Natural England the right to charge for its services, and specifies things done under—I quote from the Bill here—Section 4. This shows my inexperience in things, but I believe that the terms are interchangeable. Can the Minister clarify that? If it is really intended to refer to subsection(4) of Clause 11, that is to do with licences. The word "give" is defined as bestow, impart, yield, grant and gift. The point of this amendment is to discover whether Clause 11 refers to the fact that it applies only in Clause 4(4)(a), or whether the use of the word "give" here is inappropriate. "Provide" or "supply" allow for the making of a charge and would be clearer in this context.
Amendment No. 149 follows quite closely on the previous one about giving advice, but how do the Government imagine that Natural England will charge for advice that has been given unsought? Is this a situation where somebody might receive a bill for being told by Natural England that his plan to grub up a field of 50-year-old apple trees would be acceptable only if he first obtained a quantity of viable root-stock, so that the variety would not be lost; or would he be charged if he had sought its advice on how best to manage the operation? If somebody went ahead and did it without seeking the advice or consent of Natural England, might they then be charged for being told that they should not have done so?
Before I address these three amendments to Clause 4, it would be useful briefly to set out what Clause 4 does. One of Natural England's major roles will be as a key independent adviser to government, public authorities, its stakeholders and its customers. Ministers and the Government would fall under the definition of public authorities given in Clause 30, which I hope reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. It will inherit the positions of English Nature and the Countryside Agency as statutory consultee in planning and other processes, and will be expected proactively to contribute to regional plans—I notice that the noble Earl, Lord Peel, is not in his place—such as the regional spatial strategies, which we will discuss in more depth when we move on to Clause 15.
Clause 4 reflects the Government's expectation that Natural England will provide public bodies with advice on request. Clause 4 also gives Natural England powers to advise any person either on request or on its own initiative. In order for Natural England to become the powerful and determined environmental advocate envisaged in the rural strategy, Natural England will also have the power to ask public authorities for a written statement should it believe that its advice has been sought but not acted on.
Amendment No. 138 seeks to leave out "give" and insert "provide". Having listened carefully to the noble Duke, I am not sure why this is considered necessary. Both words appear to be synonymous. There are examples of both usages throughout the Bill. On that basis, I am happy to accept the amendment in principle but would like to ensure that there is at least consistency within different clauses, and will undertake to ensure that appropriate amendments are tabled at a later stage.
I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. The distinction we have put between "give" and "provide" is that there seems to be a need that Natural England should be able to make charges. We felt that if "give" was the word used it might make it slightly anomalous.
I am not sure the noble Duke is not reading more into the giving of advice. We do not envisage in any way that Natural England will charge for unsolicited advice.
Amendment No. 135 seeks to make it explicit that Natural England should advise the Government and that the Government should have regard to that advice. I am sympathetic to the rationale behind this amendment but I am not sure that this change would add anything of practical significance. Natural England's purpose makes it clear that the body is one of the Government's experts on natural environment matters and one of the principal means of delivering the Government's programmes. This clause already goes one step further. Ministers, as I said to the noble Baroness, are among the public authorities to which it applies, including the requirement that an explanation must be provided for any advice sought from Natural England which is rejected. We do not think it necessary to say more about Natural England's advisory role towards Government.
I was also asked about the marine Bill. We do not want to say more at this stage about the situation in the marine area. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, knows, we are considering what changes are needed, if any, and we will consult shortly.
Having said what I did about the public authorities, I do have some concerns about the precise working of this amendment. I cannot make any promises, but will consider the general aim of the amendment before Report in order to see whether the existing clause can be bolstered or made more explicit.
Amendment No. 149 seeks to remove Natural England's power to give advice of its own volition. We think it essential that this function remains on the face of the Bill. Natural England's advice will often be challenging. If it is to be the powerful champion that I think all sides of the Committee are seeking, it must promote its views both to those who want to receive advice and, often, to those who do not wish to do so.
I was asked about memorandums of agreement. Partnership working was one of the main themes of the rural strategy, and the Forestry Commission and Environment Agency were identified as key partners for Natural England. Rather than setting the relationship between the three bodies in stone in the legislation, a more flexible approach will be taken. Partnership arrangements covering respective roles and responsibilities and how these will operate in practice will be set out in agreements between those bodies; for example, work is already under way on a three-way memorandum of understanding between them. This flexibility is important, as it will enable the three bodies to adjust how they work together in the future, learning from experience and taking account of new challenges and tasks. The memorandum is being drawn up at this stage.
It would be remiss of me, in asking noble Lords not to press these amendments on the basis of what I have said, not to agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, about the valuable work often done by the MoD on land for which it is responsible in the field of biodiversity.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 136 and 137 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
[Amendment No. 138 not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 139 to 148 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
[Amendment No. 149 not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 150 to 155 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Clause 4 agreed to.
Clause 5 agreed to.
Clause 6 [Financial and other assistance]:
This small amendment arises from Clause 6 which enables Natural England to give financial and other assistance to any person who appears to further its general purpose. The amendment seeks to discover whether Natural England would be expected to publish an annual account of any recipient of that financial assistance. It is a public body. It will be funded by and large with public money. If it provides financial assistance to any persons that should also be public knowledge. I beg to move.
The amendment has slight echoes of our request to have a review. As it might fulfil some of the role of the rejected proposal, I support the noble Baroness.
As is currently the case with English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service, Natural England needs to have powers to give grants to customers, the most obvious example being farmers who are part of the environmental stewardship scheme.
Clause 6 is not limited to financial grants alone. Natural England will be able to provide assistance to customers and stakeholders in the form of grants, equipment and goods. This, together with the advisory powers in Clause 4, and powers to provide training in Clause 10, will leave Natural England, we believe, well placed to deliver its purpose through others with the freedom to provide assistance through the most appropriate means for any given situation.
Amendment No. 156 would require Natural England to publish details of all those—and there could be many—who receive financial or other assistance from Natural England. On reflection, we believe that this requirement would be unduly onerous and could potentially require much effort to cover some relatively insignificant financial assistance which could be given to large numbers of people.
There are already legislative mechanisms in place under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 to ensure that where reasonable requests are made for this type of information then, subject to a few narrowly construed exceptions, information is made available. Amendment No. 156 would appear to be aimed primarily at payments made to persons in connection with matters relating to the environment. It would be covered, therefore, under the heading of environmental information and, subject to very limited exceptions, be disclosed under the 2004 regulations.
On the basis of the reassurance I have attempted to give, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
I thank the noble Duke for his support. I am slightly surprised at the Minister's reply. While I accept that information on assistance of a small nature might be too onerous to collect, larger grants of more than £5,000 or £10,000 would be a matter of public interest. For example, have they been distributed on a reasonably equitable regional basis or have they been concentrated in only one region? Many questions might arise. One could say that it is equally onerous to have to go through some freedom of information process to find such basic information. Perhaps the Minister could reflect on whether larger grants might fall under some kind of requirement. I recognise that this is not the stage at which to press such an amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
In moving Amendment No. 159, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 162. Both amendments deal with management agreements. Amendment No. 159 is a probing amendment, and I have three questions for the Minister.
As the Bill stands, Natural England is not being asked to think hard about the kind of management agreements that it enters into. The only assessment that it will be required to make by law will be whether a management agreement,
"appears to it to further its general purpose".
At first sight, that seems relatively harmless, if not terribly effective. However, the Committee will note that Clause 7(2)(f) states that a management agreement may,
"contain incidental and consequential provision".
If noble Lords then turn to Natural England's incidental powers in Clause 13, they will see that they include power to,
"acquire or dispose of property [and] borrow money".
Will the Minister give the Committee guidance on whether, although Natural England is being given extensive incidental powers, its attitude in exercising them is expected to be comparatively relaxed?
Secondly, surely if Natural England will have the power to impose restrictions on landowners and managers by entering into management agreements, it should have solid reasons for doing so, not only that it should not be required to tell the recipient under which of its various equally ranked purposes it reckons that it is necessary to do so. Thirdly, will a landowner have a great deal of choice on whether to enter into a management agreement? That is slightly different from the issues that we shall discuss on Clause 8 and compulsory purchase orders, but it will be important none the less.
Amendment No. 162 would leave out subsection (3) of Clause 7. Our concern is that the subsection will mean that if a farmer enters into a management agreement with Natural England, he might be unable to terminate it in the event that he chose to sell his farm. Here again we appear to be dealing with powers brought forward from previous legislation that, we feel, it is right to question.
Even more difficult might be the situation where the owner or farmer unfortunately dies relatively young, leaving a widow and children not old enough to take the farm on. In those circumstances, a management agreement might prove an obstacle to the family achieving the best possible price, should they wish to sell and cease to run the farm. On the other hand, the existence of a management agreement might prove to be an asset in selling the property, but that cannot be known at the moment. There do not appear to be specific references to regulation, guidelines or codes of practice governing the agreements. Moreover, there is nothing in Clause 7 that binds Natural England to a particular code of conduct.
Finally, there is nothing to indicate how an agreement may be ended if it proves unsatisfactory to either party. The Minister will wish us to understand that such matters will be dealt with in the normal course of reaching an agreement, but perhaps he can tell us what the current situation is. In the absence of any provision to that effect, we feel that subsection (3) should be removed. I beg to move.
We have similar suspicions to those mentioned by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. Management agreements are a good way forward and comprise a system that has been used time and again by English Nature. However, there is no doubt that land management is changing fast. For example, we have just moved from one system of farm payments to another. There is no doubt that there is a wish to bring all our SSSIs up to a much more favourable condition more quickly. Natural England will be absolutely out to prove itself—I very much hope that it does—in a fairly short time, so I imagine that it will be keen on making and keeping the management agreements. That is why it is particularly important that we get them right.
Amendment No. 160 would ensure that all the agreements should be,
"subject to an appropriate code of practice drawn up by the Secretary of State".
English Nature assures me that there is already such a code and that therefore the amendment is unnecessary, which is no doubt what the Minister will say. However, that code was drawn up for the much narrower purposes of English Nature. We have established this evening that Natural England will have some much wider purposes; even if Clause 2 ends up being amended slightly, Natural England's purposes will still go much wider than English Nature's. Therefore, I cannot believe that a code of practice drawn up for English Nature will be suitable in its entirety for Natural England, which will address some very different issues.
Amendment No. 161 would delete paragraph (f). That paragraph, which the noble Duke also did not like, is so wide that it could provide for management agreements to be made for absolutely anything. At this stage, the amendment to delete it is a probing amendment, but of course I reserve the right to view the paragraph with even more disfavour if the Minister does not give a fairly rigorous reply.
"with any person who has an interest in land", if influencing the way in which the land is managed would further Natural England's general purpose. Of course, management agreements are an essential and supportive tool used to secure a wide range of objectives. They are a real mark of partnership with landowners and occupiers. In the other place, responding to a specific concern, my honourable friend the Minister for Rural Affairs gave a reassurance that the wording of this clause did not mean that those who entered into such agreements with Natural England—for example, the landowner—could bind other interests in the land by its terms and against their will—for example, those holding shooting rights or common rights.
Another concern has been expressed—not in the debate today—that the use of the word "impose" in relation to obligations and restrictions is contrary to the spirit of partnerships and represents an imposition of Natural England's will. That is not so. "Impose" is the word used in relation to obligations and restrictions in the various existing management agreement powers available to English Nature and the Countryside Agency in the relevant legislation. It is a familiar and long-standing term, and nothing is changed. To answer the noble Duke's third question—I will come to the first two in due course—I should tell him that agreements are entered into voluntarily and any obligations or restrictions imposed by the agreement are accepted as part of the bargain. Therefore, a landowner has a choice whether to enter into a management agreement, and agreements can be reached only by mutual consent.
Clause 7 harmonises the previous position, whereby Natural England's constituent bodies had different powers, suited to their particular purposes, for entering into management agreements with land managers. That broad power covers the whole of Natural England's purpose and so simplifies the current position by effectively integrating the existing powers. Apart from agreements and schemes wholly within Natural England's design and remit, it is also possible that certain co-funded agri-environment agreements could be administered directly by Natural England under the power.
Amendment No. 159 implies the removal from Natural England of the decision on whether a particular negotiated management agreement will further its own general purpose. The issue is left somewhat open and could invite challenge by others whose motives might serve neither the interests of Natural England nor the prospective agreement holder. The prospective holder, with the assistance of any advisers, is perfectly capable of deciding whether to make the commitment. If other persons were to intervene in a debate, resources would be wasted, agreements would be delayed and nothing would be usefully gained.
The noble Duke's first point, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was also exercised, was about the expression "incidental powers". Clause 7(2)(f) states:
"Contain incidental and consequential provision".
The incidental powers in Clause 7 are different to the incidental powers in Clause 13 referred to by the noble Duke. Those in Clause 7 are incidental only to the management agreement requirements themselves. There is no question of them involving borrowing money or the other items that are referred to in Clause 13, which we will debate in due course. It is a restricted use of that expression. His second question was on whether and why you must have solid reasons for management agreement. That is because the clause is an enabling power. The reasons for the management agreement will be set out elsewhere. One example is to receive an agri-environment payment.
Amendment No. 160 would require that the exercise of the management agreements power by Natural England would be dependent on there being a code of practice. I do not believe that the amendment is necessary, for reasons that I shall try to explain. Apart from agri-environment agreements, English Nature already has in the region of 2,700 existing management agreements in place with landowners and managers of SSSIs. Those will remain under their current terms but by virtue of other provisions in the Bill will in future be administered by Natural England under the general enabling power for agreements. They will therefore come within the authority of the provision on transfer and will continue as before with no impact for their holders as to the terms on which they were made.
Agri-environment schemes already have clear rules and procedures, and use of the existing SSSI and nature reserve management agreement powers by English Nature is governed by guidance issued by the Government in February 2001: the Guidelines on Management Agreement Payments and Other Related Matters issued under the various provisions, including Section 50 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Section 50 provides for guidance concerning SSSI and nature reserve management agreements, and by virtue of Schedule 11(94) that will in future cover use of the Clause 7 powers for those purposes. Coupled with the provisions at Clause 15 for the Secretary of State to give guidance to Natural England on the exercise of its functions, there is sufficient scope for advising or influencing the way in which Natural England will exercise its powers to enter into management agreements. We do not think that a further requirement for a code of practice would be helpful.
Amendment No. 161 would remove the provision for incidental and consequential provisions; I have attempted to cover that already. Amendment No. 162 would remove a critical provision from Clause 7. It is essential that agreements can be secured for the necessary duration if they are to produce the desired outcomes, some of which may take considerable time to emerge. That is particularly so where significant commitments are entered into and perhaps significant capital works are supported upfront with public funds. That is true for English Nature agreements and the co-funded agri-environment agreements, where the normal minimum term for such agreements, as stipulated by EU rules, is five years. The normal default position is that an agreement continues—the noble Duke asked about this—should the agreement holder relinquish his interests in the land to another. Clause 7(3) makes it abundantly clear that, unless the agreement says otherwise, it will be binding on successors to the interests of the original agreement holder. That is not new; the same principle is already enshrined in the management agreement provision in Section 39 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and experience of the past 25 years has given us no grounds to review that position.
Subsection (3) again provides that Natural England will have the same ability to enforce the terms of the agreement against the successors as it would have against the original agreement holder. Once that continuity is made clear, it is implicit that Natural England must also honour its obligations to the successors, who will have available to them any beneficial terms contained in the agreement that were available to the original agreement holder.
I have done my best to answer the important points made in this brief debate.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for going into that detail, as we raised a number of issues, and he has certainly tried to deal with quite a few. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for supporting the elements of my amendments that she spoke to.
It is interesting to realise that a code of practice is already in place and being used by English Nature. The only thing is that nothing draws people's attention to that fact other than our debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, made a sound point, for it is something that could be checked and slightly reviewed, because of the enlarged powers proposed for Natural England.
The Minister also made a useful point—again, not mentioned in the Bill—that the making of an agreement was actually subject to agreement. There is no particular power for Natural England to force the agreement. I will read what the Minister said more carefully in Hansard when it appears tomorrow.
The fact there is a default position of five years perhaps answers, in some ways, the question of the ongoing value of an asset when something untoward happens. It would be interesting if the Minister was prepared to see whether, when agreements were drawn up, some escape clause could be provided if the agreement happened to be for a longer time. That difficulty might need to be overcome, but in the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Clause 8(4) would give the Secretary of State the power to authorise Natural England to compulsorily acquire land for the purposes of implementing experimental schemes. Given the extensive powers afforded to the new body to enter into management agreements, it really seems somewhat excessive for compulsory purchase to be an option.
I apologise for interrupting the noble Earl so early in his speech. He thinks that it must be good news, and it is. We think that there is something in what he has said already, about compulsory purchase orders being a part of the Bill.
Experimental schemes are absolutely vital, as new delivery methods must be tried. However, as for allowing for compulsory purchase orders, even though they would be used very rarely indeed, I think I know which way the noble Earl's argument is going. I am not, of course, inviting him to sit down straight away; he must make his point. However, would he be so good as to bear in mind that we are inclined, if not to accept the amendment as it stands, to return with another view on Report regarding compulsory purchase orders?
I am grateful for that, as my noble friend will be. Does that also apply to the other amendments in this group?
I only wish that I had moved the amendment—I would have obtained the concession from the Government. In the reflections that the Minister will undertake, I am sure that he and his officials are thinking about whether "acquire" always means compulsory purchase, or whether it applies to leasehold land or other forms of occupation. In relation to Amendment No. 176, will the Crichel Down rules still apply? There is no need for the Minister to answer now.
I have two points. First, if compulsory purchase is to remain in the Bill, the landowner or whoever can sometimes appeal against it. That can be costly and, with the state of the rural economy at present, possibly unaffordable, so funnily enough one can be easily blackmailed. That should be borne in mind. I do not need answers, but I ask the Minister to consider these points.
Secondly, the National Trust was exempted from this provision and I could not see any justification for that, because it may be just as guilty as anyone else of not being co-operative. If there is to be a principle that land and property can be expropriated from someone in a non-communist environment, I do not see why it should not apply equally to charities, government bodies and private landowners.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 172 not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 173 and 174 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
[Amendments Nos. 175 and 176 not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 177 to 188 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Clause 8 agreed to.
Clause 9 agreed to.
Clause 10 [Consultancy services and training]:
I wonder whether I shall be as successful second time around. Perhaps that is expecting too much.
We are asking the Government to clarify their thinking on how Natural England will work in practice. The amendment seeks to establish whether Natural England will use outside expertise rather than provide in-house training. Local authorities are changing in response to government diktat the way that they supply services to schools, to social services and to other bodies that have hitherto been, in effect, customers.
The emphasis now is on operating as commissioners of services. Against that background, Natural England should also concentrate on commissioning training rather than providing it. Such a move has two distinct advantages, which I am sure will appeal to the Minister. First, the overheads are reduced. Natural England would not have to foot the bill for any shortfall in the taking-up of training programmes, whereas organisations such as Lantra or other bodies such as agricultural colleges will doubtless be prepared to develop, credit and deliver suitable courses. Secondly, by commissioning training, Natural England can monitor its delivery and review its effectiveness far more easily than if the organisation were carrying out both roles itself. It is a fairly short amendment; I beg to move.
I urge the noble Baroness to consider that she may be over-prescriptive—almost ideological— on this point, if I dare say so. Surely we want flexibility. The great thing about "provide" is that it does not exclude commissioning, whereas "commissioning" would exclude Natural England doing something itself if it felt it were the obvious thing to do. I do not think we want to say that it must be one thing or the other. We want what is best for the particular situation. Some training may be in-house; a lot may be commissioned. I think "provide" is a more inclusive term than "commission".
I must come to the noble Baroness's defence on tabling this amendment, because it goes back to some of the earlier comments we made, notwithstanding the strong feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on this issue. There is indeed quite a big question mark over exactly how public money is spent, whether in duplicating things that local authorities might be providing—as mentioned by the noble Baroness—or by having consultants come in to provide them, very often in a more expensive manner, albeit that it may be cheaper because one does not have to retain staff annually. Of course there are judgments to be made.
I think it is quite useful, for the record, to hear what the Government intend their agencies to do about consultants. We have seen in some areas of growth—regrettably, local authorities are one of them—very high expenditure on consultants. It is absolutely no coincidence that the Capitas of this world, for example, have their very own Private Eye column. When we look at some of the most profitable companies, they are very often those employing lots of consultants. I have no doubt that sometimes they do an excellent job, but they should not be doing a job to the exclusion of other agencies that are very capable of doing it, but simply lack the marketing skills to push themselves to Natural England. I support the spirit behind this amendment.
It seems to me that Natural England would need the maximum degree of flexibility in these issues. My question is quite simple. Going back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, does exclusively having "provide" in the Bill prohibit Natural England from commissioning? I do not think that it does.
I am in the happy position of being able to agree with virtually everything every noble Lord has said on this amendment. This amendment would prevent—in response to the noble Earl, Lord Peel—Natural England offering training directly, and require it to commission third parties. Natural England will always seek to achieve best value for money, and I am certain that this will often lead it to buy training and many other services from specialist bodies. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, referred to local authorities and their experience, and to universities and colleges of agriculture.
However, that will not always be the case. In order to further its purpose, Natural England needs to be able to use its expertise directly to help others to deliver. This clause allows, as my noble friend Lord Judd said, Natural England to run its own training courses when doing so is most cost-effective. This might be particularly appropriate, for example, in relation to the nature reserves it manages.
The existing word also sends the positive signal that Natural England will engage directly with customers and stakeholders to deliver its outcomes. I think, on the basis of the virtual unanimity around the House, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I am grateful for the support that I received from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. I am always glad to have the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. On this occasion, I do not necessarily agree with him, which is not surprising.
I know that we are looking to the future so I should not be pessimistic, but experience suggests that training has sometimes been offered in-house which is not as cost-effective. The Minister's response to me was that work would be commissioned or provided when doing so was cost-effective. Somebody, presumably Natural England, has to make a decision on that.
I certainly hope that the board of Natural England will think a bit about how it goes about its practical business in that way. Outside organisations could bring a wealth of additional experience to the concept of what the non-departmental body will achieve, which is very important, and I certainly do not wish to see them excluded. Although the Minister is shaking her head and saying that they are not—I accept that, because I always listen most carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and accept what he says—I do not think it amiss that we have had our very short discussion on it, so that both avenues might be kept open. All of us want to ensure two things: that it is cost-effective, and that the advice sought—or the training given—is of the highest quality.
When I asked Defra—I think within the last year—how many consultants or advisers it had within the department, it was unable, as a body, to tell me. That is a fairly sobering thought, which I hope Natural England will bear in mind when it is established. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
This is a probing amendment designed to discover the nature of the proposed experimental schemes and the probable areas of land likely to be affected. We should also like to know what type of land is likely to be acquired, and its location relative to other land owned by the same person. If Natural England will look around for small parcels of land—say, at the edges of woods, fields or ponds, or close to riverbanks—there will probably be no important problems at all. If, however, the requirement is for a few acres in the middle of a field or wood, the knock-on pressures on that landowner could be significant. The price to be paid under compulsory purchase legislation may be inadequate to compensate for the difficulties of the farming in the rest of that land. Is there any overwhelming reason why Natural England should not purchase land in the open marketplace, in the normal way? I beg to move.
With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, I am not sure that her remarks were addressed to Amendment No. 192. Rather, they may have been addressed to another amendment. I may be wrong about that.
We are all at cross-purposes, because Clause 11 gives Natural England powers to charge for its services. The Countryside Agency and English Nature, for instance, currently make some charges for publications, maps, and publicity and information requests. It is reasonable that the body should continue to ensure that taxpayers' money remains focused on core objectives and to charge for any consultancy services it provides to private bodies.
We appear to not be speaking to the same aspect of the same amendment.
I hope that I am at the right place at the right moment. I still think that I was on the last one, but it is much easier to sort it outside the Chamber. Clause 12 deals with the whole criminal proceedings.
It is not our fault. We have tried three times to get it put on. The Deputy Chairman was quite right to raise whether we had indicated our intention to oppose clause stand part. This is my third attempt to try to get it rectified. I am very grateful to the Deputy Chairman of Committees. It has been a difficult night. I am seeking to find out what range of criminal proceedings is intended and why it is considered necessary to empower a person without the normal legal qualifications to act for them.
My knowledge of court procedures and their effectiveness is limited. I am, however, aware that the employment tribunals allow non-legally qualified persons to act on behalf of those seeking the court's help. I am also aware that from time to time there are mutterings about the amount of time wasted by persons who are not familiar with the rules and their established interpretation. How much worse will this be in a court which deals with a wide range of law? Will the operation of this clause be confined to, for example, wildlife offences, or will it find non- legals enforcing management agreements, acting in compulsory purchase matters or pursuing persons and authorities for non-payment of charges? It is difficult to escape the implication that if the Government consider it worth while to place such a clause in the Bill, there must be an expectation that there will be a considerable number of prosecutions, perhaps in the future. I apologise to everybody: it is not our fault.
I too was confused, partly because my list of groupings does not have clause stand part, but my far more knowledgeable noble friend Lord Addington says that it does not actually need to be there to debate clause stand part. So, now I understand where we are coming from, I think that the noble Baroness raises some interesting issues about the powers of Natural England. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
If we were wrong about Amendment No. 192 I apologise to the noble Baroness. Certainly, I am slightly taken by surprise by a Clause 12 stand part debate, but the noble Baroness is absolutely entitled. Let me do my best with my surprise to answer what she said.
The clause provides certainty and removes any ambiguity in existing legislation where English Nature and the Countryside Agency's prosecution powers across their enforcement duties—for example, in relation to by-laws—are not clearly expressed in legislation. I want to make it clear that there is no intention for Natural England to become a wider enforcement body than the three existing bodies that will make up Natural England. By way of example, Natural England will be working with landowners and occupiers to encourage them to enter long-term agri-environment agreements that will help to protect and conserve our natural environment.
Breach of such agreements will primarily result in administrative penalties by way of reduction or loss of all annual payments. However, where there are serious breaches of legislation, we believe it is useful for Natural England to be able to bring such cases to the criminal courts. It is implicit that Natural England will be able to prosecute only in areas within its general purposes, as set out in Clause 2. Will it have more powers of enforcement? There is no intention for Natural England to become a wider enforcement body.
The reason for mentioning the power in the Bill at all is simply to clarify the position. Although the Schedule 5 substantive alterations to wildlife inspector powers within the enforcement provisions in the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the protection of badgers, deer, and seals Acts will in many instances involve entry and inspection by Natural England inspectors—I have no doubt that we will debate that in due course—there is no present intention to expand the number of wildlife inspectors above those currently employed by our regional development service. The additional powers of entry will primarily assist Natural England with the necessary routine checking of wildlife licence compliance. Criminal proceedings are used only as a last resort or where there has been a blatant abuse of wildlife legislation.
Where an offence is suspected to have been committed and further evidence is required to be taken with a view to possible prosecution, a Natural England inspector will normally expect to call on the assistance of special Defra-trained investigators experienced in collecting evidence for the purposes of criminal proceedings. Such Defra investigators may be authorised as wildlife inspectors for the sole purpose of investigating a suspected offence.
Will Natural England be seen as having a similar enforcement role to the Environment Agency? The simple answer is no. The noble Baroness asked about non-legally qualified persons pursuing criminal actions. I must tell her that it is not yet decided whether legally qualified persons will be employed by Natural England but, in any event, where a case is taken in the name of Natural England, it can still bring the case using outside prosecutors. I stress that there is no intention for Natural England to become a wider enforcement body.
I hope that that goes some way to answering the questions raised by the noble Baroness.
I am grateful to the Minister, especially as he was not expecting to respond to this debate, for which I again apologise. Perhaps I may draw his attention to a couple of other things. The more I read the Bill, the more I am alarmed by some of its far-reaching consequences. The more I cross-reference parts of the Bill to other parts, the more apprehensive I feel about some of the hidden effects. That is worth sharing with the Committee.
For example, we learn from Clause 54 that those who are responsible for wilfully damaging SSSIs may be liable to a fine of £20,000. But if we turn to Schedule 10, we find that someone who objects to being questioned by a levy board will be liable not only to the highest possible level of statutory fines but to a two-year prison sentence. So someone who is convicted of damaging an SSSI will have a lighter punishment than someone who refuses to "provide information" or produce documents "of a description so specified". He will be liable to a far higher penalty.
Even worse, to my mind, is the fact that if someone tries to prevent an officer entering his property, he is liable to the same heavy penalty. I suggest that the punishment will not fit the crime in some cases. As the Minister was not expecting me to speak to clause stand part, I should be grateful if, between now and Report, he would consider this further to see whether the Government accept that proportion has gone out of the window for some of the offences. That is why I was opposing clause stand part.
This is a simple, clarifying amendment that seeks to identify how exactly and to what extent Natural England will use its so-called incidental powers. I have been reassured in consultation that it is quite natural for a public body to have incidental powers, but I am slightly alarmed that under Clause 13 Natural England may,
"do anything that appears to it to be conducive or incidental to the discharge of its functions".
The clause continues:
"In particular, Natural England may . . . acquire or dispose of property", or "borrow money".
That seems to be a remarkably wide-ranging description of powers that are meant to be merely incidental. In my layman's reading of the clause, if Natural England decided that it wanted to carry out a biodiversity function on a farm, it would be perfectly able to do so under the clause, overriding the management agreements and constrictions that have already been heavily debated.
Will the Minister tell us how Natural England will be financed in the future? In earlier debates, we talked about start-up clauses and the costs and savings. Certainly, the review by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, was clear about two things: first, the body should reduce regulation; secondly, it should reduce costs. We have debated those costs, and the Minister has kindly written to me about them, but I am talking about future costs. Will Defra or other departments give grants so that Natural England can maintain the very nature of what it is supposed to be doing, or might Natural England look elsewhere for funding; for example, from the National Lottery?
Will the Minister comment on the article in Monday's edition of the Daily Telegraph, which said:
"'Green' farms face 40pc cut after EU deal by Blair"?
That suggests that there will be great pressure on money available through the Rural Development Service for the agri-environment agreements. If so, what will happen to the bodies and to the agreements that farmers and former bodies have had? I understand that money is likely to be obtained from the National Lottery, which slightly alarms me. I must question whether this is the right place for the funding of such a major new non-departmental public body, because on the whole the lottery is a one-off available funding source. If it will be competing with other bodies that might want to appeal to the lottery for grants, will it have the prime pull on that money, and if so, is that not likely to jeopardise other smaller bodies that want to appeal on their own behalf rather than through Natural England to gain extra grants. There is therefore quite a large question mark on the future funding of Natural England. I beg to move.
When I read Clause 13, my mind goes back—probably a good deal further than that of many noble Lords who sit in the House at this late hour—to another place in the late 1960s, when I spoke on behalf of the opposition and when the then Minister of Agriculture, Fred Peart, who was much admired by a great many of us and who became Leader of another place and then Leader of your Lordships' House, introduced legislation to set up rural development boards.
Those rural development boards from the 1960s also had a power to acquire and dispose of property. I recall that the organisation was set up in the north Pennines, with its headquarters in my old constituency of Appleby. One of the things it did was to acquire a very run-down estate owned by the trustees of a Member of your Lordships' House who is now deceased and whose name I shall not repeat. The board purchased that property with a view to setting up a project of great social and economic engineering in Nidderdale. At the time the project generated deep hostility because it was felt that it was not for a state organisation to acquire large swathes of country, whether in Nidderdale or elsewhere, in order to carry out the sort of social engineering which I think is implicit in Clause 2, covering Natural England's general purposes.
I have a good deal of sympathy with the amendment. Call it déjà vu if you like, but I am anxious about setting up an organisation with powers to acquire and dispose of property and to carry out social and economic well-being policies, as described in Clause 2. Can the Minister tell us what he thinks Natural England will do if it acquires or disposes of property? If he cannot do so tonight, perhaps between now and Report he can consider whether the example of the rural development board set up in the 1960s is being resuscitated today. It really was a disaster and the board was wound up in the early 1970s, largely because of its grandiose plans to acquire swathes of the countryside in order to carry out social and economic engineering exercises. I hope that we are not retracing that disastrous step which, thank God, was cut off at its stocking tops in the early days.
Perhaps I may develop briefly the wider concern about finance mentioned just now by my noble friend Lady Byford. If we compare Clause 14 covering grants with Clause 13 covering incidental powers, it is difficult to work out where the financial decision about money will be made. Clause 14 states simply that:
At the same time, as my noble friend on the Front Bench has just pointed out, Clause 13 sets out the specific possibilities for Natural England. She said also that perhaps those possibilities go a bit far.
Is there not an essential contradiction between Clauses 13 and 14? On the one hand, powers and functions are given to Natural England, but in the very next clause it is clear that decisions on the amount of money available are taken away and put in the hands of the Secretary of State. On that basis, how can the board of Natural England reasonably plan its finances over a three-year period? Add to that the factor brought in by my noble friend Lady Byford. The current thinking is that because of the relative decline in the CAP budget and the fact that single farm payments are more or less guaranteed for the next seven years, the amount of CAP money coming forward from Pillar 2 for agri-environmental schemes is likely to fall very substantially. Indeed, we know that some people already suggested a fall of 40 per cent in the money. I am glad to see that the Minister shakes his head: I hope that he is right. It is therefore hard to see, looking at Clauses 13 and 14 together against the background of a diminishing CAP budget in relation to Pillar 2, where the money is going to come from. It would be helpful to have some guidance from the Minister.
I rise to raise some questions. I too was reading the two clauses together, but a different question was raised in my mind from that in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. My worry would be that in Clause 14 the grant may be made subject to such conditions as the Secretary of State thinks fit, so Natural England may acquire the property subject to the money coming from the Secretary of State, who can impose any conditions that he likes, all of which might add up to the expression used earlier—social engineering. If we were conspiracy theorists or paranoid, that would be a worst-case scenario. The Minister needs to address our worries in that regard.
I have a slightly less paranoid worry that the power, the grants, and this way of spending public money will encourage public money to be spent as the easy way out where management agreements and so on may be difficult and onerous. I have in mind, for example, the contrast between national parks—which were mentioned earlier—where voluntary agreements with landowners can produce outstanding results satisfactorily and much more cheaply to the public purse; and the easier option where a national park has chosen to buy itself out of a problem. That way of addressing issues, for example, simply by spending public capital on buying land—as I would fear—we need to question. I am glad that the noble Baroness raised the issue.
There are two issues here: one arises out of the amendment which deals with the incidental powers in Clause 13; the other is an important issue around the future of rural development in this country, which the noble Baroness mentioned and on which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is a knowledge expert. I have to put it like that because he is asking me a Question about it in a week's time—next Tuesday to be exact.
If I do not go into huge detail on the point tonight, I hope that the Committee will forgive me. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is initiating a debate on rural affairs tomorrow, to which we are all looking forward greatly. I am also looking forward to answering the noble Lord's Question next Tuesday, but I will have a word to say about it. Let me deal with the first part: the incidental powers provision in Clause 13.
It is a standard provision for any non-departmental public body; for example, the Environment Agency has equivalent powers, but there is frequently some cause or confusion around those powers. That is what the noble Baroness is getting at. Let me try to spell out briefly what they are about. Without such powers in Clause 13, Natural England would be able to do anything incidental or conducive to carrying out its functions. However, there can be doubts about what is or is not incidental or what is or is not conducive to the functions of an NDPB, so this provision makes Natural England's incidental powers clear. We are not in the business of setting up a trading company, so in common with all public bodies Natural England would be able to use these powers only in situations where it is helpful to do so to carry out its functions. That is a significant and important safeguard.
The amendment would remove Natural England's express powers to acquire property and to borrow money. It might still be possible for Natural England to do those things as a matter of law, but it would not be in the Bill. We do not think that there is any danger in keeping those express powers. They are useful and will allow Natural England, for example, to take out a loan in order to buy land to provide study facilities. We do not see anything wrong with that. But Natural England would be able to borrow money or to buy land only—I stress, only—where the transaction is incidental or conducive to its own functions. In other words, these incidental powers are constrained by the scope of Natural England's functions.
I have said that these are the equivalent powers that are given to other NDPBs. They are therefore not the purpose of a non-departmental public body, but are incidental powers in order to be able to make such a public body function in an appropriate way in carrying out its responsibilities. That is the best answer that I can give the noble Lord today. He may want me to reflect more on his question and to answer him in writing, which of course I will do.
So we believe that Clause 13 strikes the right balance and will enable Natural England to carry out its functions properly and efficiently. The budget was agreed as part of the EU budget deal in December with a seven-year ceiling of €69.75 billion, which is roughly—I repeat, roughly—equivalent to current spending; that is, for the present financial perspective, which is 1999-2006. This one is for 2007–13. The new budget will include spending for Bulgaria and Romania plus the current 25 member states. The agreed budget also increases emphasis on new member states' rural development expenditure—at least, €33.1 billion.
However, the rural development budget for the EU 15 was cut in order to get a deal due to reluctance to further cuts in Pillar 1. Securing voluntary modulation was an important part of the budget agreement, certainly for the United Kingdom. Member states can voluntarily modulate up to 20 per cent of their Pillar 1 budget for use on Pillar 2 rural development expenditure. Unlike compulsory EU modulation, financing voluntary modulation does not have to be co-financed by member states before it is spent. It is a welcome flexibility to choose co-financing levels rather than to have to accept imposed levels. As the Committee will know, there is pressure from farming bodies against moves to increase modulation without co-financing.
A number of further details have to be worked out. The agreed EU budget still needs European Parliament endorsement and the allocation of main funding—that is to say, outside convergence regions for all member states to be proposed by the Commission in line with the rural development regulation. The amount left to be allocated to the EU 15 from ex-guarantee will be €18.91 billion. Compulsory EU modulation will add approximately €7 billion across the EU, all of which must be match-funded by member states.
That takes us to the article in the Daily Telegraph, which was referred to by the noble Baroness. While I encourage all Members of the Committee to look at that article, written by a most reputable journalist, I also encourage the Committee to read my letter, published in that newspaper today, which attempts to deal with some of the points on which we think that the article was wrong. My letter makes it clear that it is no secret that we wanted, as a country, to reduce mainstream CAP subsidy payments to provide funds for rural development. I believe the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, would heartily approve of this. The agreed EU budget for rural development spending is roughly the same as expenditure in the current period. It is not true that the deal will cause a 40 per cent cut, I argue, in payments for green farming in the UK. The key to funding the new environmental stewardship scheme in England was agreement in December to allow transfers of up to 20 per cent from CAP subsidies to fund such schemes. We believe that is a significant step forward in our strategy to shift CAP funds to environmentally sustainable farming.
It was also not true that only the first 5 per cent can be match-funded by government. Member states can choose the level of match funding that they allocate. Lastly, the article claimed that Defra Ministers have written a joint letter to the Prime Minister with the Environment Agency, RSPB and English Nature. Defra Ministers have not written such a letter. I could go on, but think that at this hour to say more about that settlement would mean that we have less to say when we come to debate these matters in due course.
The noble Baroness asked about future funding of Natural England. Natural England will receive the core of its funding from Defra. A large part will be for the agri-environment programme. We expect Natural England to seek appropriate sources of income from other areas, as the Countryside Agency and English Nature have done. That could include the lottery, sources of targeted EU finding and even commercial sponsorship. It is for the lottery distributors to decide their policies for giving awards, and it would not be right to prevent Natural England from receiving lottery grants. Natural England will have a total budget of over £300 million.
I hope I have gone some way to answering the points made in this debate.
The noble Lord has indeed gone part way to answering my questions, but has left some questions in the air. I am not going to press him at this stage. I thank my noble friend Lord Jopling for taking us down memory lane because it is important that, in planning for the future, we reflect on what worked in the past, and perhaps on where some of the disadvantages were. I do not know that the Minister has clarified or reduced his anxieties about it. My noble friend is shaking his head, and my head is going to shake in the same way. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Minister will no doubt resolve his anxieties as regards his particular question.
To return to the issue I raised on the long-term funding of Natural England, the Minister has suggested—I will have to read it carefully—that the main core funding will come from Defra. When he says "main core funding", is he talking about 50 per cent, 60 or 90 per cent? How much is actually committed at this stage from Defra or from other sources? How much of that money is going to be sought from other areas as the Minister has described? How much of the use of lottery and other moneys is actually desirable in the long-term interests of a non-departmental government body, and even further on those who might be applying to the lottery? Our concern is for organisations that work in the community which wish to seek lottery money. If they seek to cover or be involved in some of the aspects covered by Natural England, their moneys may not be forthcoming because the lottery could say that Natural England has applied for that particular purpose, and that it will distribute money as and when to causes it feels are worth while. Although I thank the Minister for his attempt in answering, we must return to this issue because it is unsatisfactory. If between now and Report he could let us know what degree of core funding is likely to come, that would be helpful. Perhaps a message is coming, so I will keep chatting for a minute. As I say, I am not at all happy that some proportion of that money will be sought from organisations such as the lottery that could grant money one year and not be in the position to grant it another. That does not give Natural England a good base financially. Perhaps the Minister has some news for me. No, I see that he does not. Then we will return to the issue later, but at this stage I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.