Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 8th February 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 14 [Grants]:

On Question, Whether Clause 14 shall stand part of the Bill?

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

This clause says:

"(1) The Secretary of State may make grants to Natural England of such amounts as the Secretary of State thinks fit.

(2) A grant under this section may be made subject to such conditions as the Secretary of State thinks fit".

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

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 Should we make Natural England so reliant on grants, which could be withdrawn at any time or be made subject to conditions with which that body was not at all happy?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

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 3:30 pm, 8th February 2006

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

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

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

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

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

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

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

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

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I thank the Minister for his reply. As he says, this way of funding bodies has been custom and practice for some time. It draws out a certain issue about where exactly the line of independence is. I have continued to question where it is with the Food Standards Agency in the Department of Health and so on. It at least merits having an eye kept on it.

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Guidance]:

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

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

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

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

Clause 15(4) reads:

"The Secretary of State must publish any guidance given under this section".

The amendment would alter the wording to:

"The Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament any guidance given under this section".

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

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

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

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

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

These three amendments relate to the power of the Secretary of State to give Natural England guidance. The Secretary of State needs this power to help to ensure that Natural England continues to focus on achieving government outcomes over time and to allow her to give guidance on how its purposes are to be achieved. This is a necessary provision for a body which will deliver such a large amount of the Government's policies and which will be the source of the Government's expertise in key areas. At the risk of repeating myself, I can say that the power to give guidance is a standard provision for most large non-departmental public bodies—for example, the Environment Agency.

As the noble Viscount has just reminded us, guidance from the Secretary of State will be published, which means that the process will be open and transparent. Guidance will be on topics such as Natural England's role in relation to regional planning and associated matters, as referred to specifically in the Bill at Clause 15(1). I shall have a little more to say about regional planning in a moment. The guidance will be discursive, by which I mean that it will resemble an essay rather than a statutory instrument. Although Natural England must have regard to the guidance, it will not be bound by it.

Following pre-legislative scrutiny by, and at the suggestion of, the EFRA Committee, subsections (3) and (6) were inserted to make Clause 15 clearer. Subsection (5) was added on Report in another place to add extra certainty about how such guidance can be varied or revoked.

Amendments Nos. 206 and 215 would effectively make this guidance the subject of an order before Parliament. As I indicated earlier, the guidance will include topics such as Natural England's role in regional planning. We do not think it appropriate to make such guidance subject to parliamentary procedure. The priority has to be that a wide range of stakeholders understand English Nature's role in such matters. That is why we emphasise publication and think that that is the right approach.

I turn to the issue of why regional planning processes are not specifically referred to in the Bill—for example, regional spatial strategies. A list of regional planning processes within subsection (1) would be relatively inflexible and could become out of date quickly. That addresses the concerns of the EFRA Committee and clarifies the importance that we place on Natural England's engagement at regional level. Will the regional planning board bodies have to listen to Natural England? The clause cannot be used to place a duty on other public bodies to listen to Natural England. The Select Committee report made it clear that it did not think that any person had a right to be heard at a public examination.

Clause 4 gives Natural England very robust powers to ask other public bodies for an explanation if it believes that its advice has not been acted on. Any public body is at risk of judicial review through the courts if a party feels that Natural England is acting unlawfully.

On Amendment No. 216, to which the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, spoke, I am advised that a strict requirement of "contemporaneously" could provide practical difficulties. As a matter of protocol we expect Natural England to have a copy of the final guidance as issued by the Secretary of State a short time before it is published to the world at large, so that Natural England has the opportunity to respond to press inquiries. If the guidance is published on the web, it would need to be uploaded on to a server. If the guidance is published in paper form, someone has to produce the paper copies and make them available. Even if these arrangements could be put into effect very speedily, it is unlikely that publication could be genuinely contemporaneous. I hope that the noble Duke does not think that I am making a petty point; it is "contemporaneously" that is the problem.

It is our intention that the guidance will be circulated to interested parties and published on the website as soon as practicably possible. It is already implicit in Clause 15 that by publishing guidance we want to be open and transparent. Because of the concern expressed by the noble Duke, we shall consider his amendment to see whether we can insert a phrase that indicates dispatch in publishing the guidance without creating the practical difficulties that I have tried to describe.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland 3:45 pm, 8th February 2006

I thank the Minister for that reassurance. We could see a problem if we suggested so many days, or something like that, which would make the provision too tight. It would be most helpful if the Government could produce suitable wording.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I thank the Minister for his reply, and noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I am glad that the Government will give some further thought to these issues, and will come back in response to the noble Duke at least. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 207 to 214 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendments Nos. 215 and 216 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 217 to 224 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 [Directions]:

On Question, Whether Clause 16 shall stand part of the Bill?

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

In opposing the Question that Clause 16 stand part of the Bill, I wish to find out how the power to give Natural England directions will be used. The existing literature on directions—in Craies on Legislation 2004, for example, states:

"Acts frequently require or allow a Minister to give directions, generally in respect of some administrative matter. So long as there is a duty to comply with the direction it can be seen as a form of subordinate legislation. Generally the duty to comply will be express, but, particularly where the direction is given to a public body that is susceptible to the administrative law process of judicial review, it may be appropriate for the duty to comply to be left to be implied".

Clause 16(1) reads:

"The Secretary of State may give Natural England general or specific directions as to the exercise of its functions".

I draw attention to "general", as it is related to "functions". This does not sound like administrative matters.

On Second Reading, the Minister said, in his reply to the debate:

"Natural England will be no less independent than its predecessor bodies".—[Hansard, 7/11/05; col. 470.]

Yet I can find no directions clause in, for example, either the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which is in any way comparable to Clause 16. Presumably, however the clause is implemented, it is not intended to reduce—nor will it have the effect of reducing—Natural England's independence. What, then, is it for?

There is a clue in the Defra memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee's sixth report, which states on page 40, paragraph 81:

"Clause 16 (directions to the Natural England) Power conferred on: Secretary of State Power exercisable by: Direction Parliamentary procedure: None".

I suppose that directions have hitherto been meant to deal only with administrative matters. If they have done more, or are intended to, surely there would be a parliamentary procedure at least equivalent to that applied to statutory instruments. No Secretary of State would wish to deny Parliament access to policy change.

However, Defra goes on to say:

"These . . . powers of direction contained in the bill are drafted in similar mode so that they must all be in writing and published in a way that the person giving the directions thinks is suitable . . . All directions may either be of general or specific nature. It is considered by the department to . . . have these direction making powers in circumstances where a body with significant responsibilities is not acting in a way that is consistent with the purposes for which it is established".

That could be interpreted as meaning that a Bill is laid before your Lordships' House, debated on Second Reading, Clauses 3 to 10 are debated in detail in Committee and on Report and yet, once enacted, the Secretary of State can introduce detailed rules of the game without reference to Parliament—new and unexpected rules, perhaps.

Am I right to conclude that Clause 16 goes wider than any similar clause in predecessor Acts? What is the Government's policy on directions, and how will it be applied to Natural England? Will the House be able to consider, before Report, a draft of the directions which the Secretary of State intends to make?

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, eloquently puts some of the reservations I have been expressing throughout this section of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, for having raised this subject. Clause 16 does not go any wider than existing powers of this kind. As with most NDPBs which deliver the democratically elected government's policies, the Secretary of State needs to be able to give Natural England directions, because they provide a bottom line to ensure that the Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for the NDPB—so that no Secretary of State can say, "I would have stopped this or that NDPB doing that, but I couldn't". It is difficult to give the Committee practical examples because we are not aware of any situation where English Nature or the Countryside Agency has been directed to act in a certain manner despite the powers to direct these organisations in relation to many of their existing functions. Also covered could be actions that might expose the board to legal challenge, perhaps in a public health emergency.

This clause is not an effort to undermine Natural England's independence. As the noble Viscount hinted, the Environment Agency, English Nature and the Countryside Agency are all subject to directions and none of them lacks independence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young—the chief executive of the Environment Agency—attested on the first day in Committee.

Powers for the Secretary of State to give directions are normal throughout Whitehall and are essential for accountability. I hope that the noble Viscount approves of the requirement that we have included for any directions to be published to ensure openness and transparency. The parliamentary briefing from the confederation of the three organisations that will come together to make up Natural England stated:

"As a non Departmental Public Body we accept the need to account to government in fulfilling our statutory duties as set down by Parliament. We therefore accept also the powers for Government to guide and, in the last resort, direct Natural England".

It welcomed,

"the reassurance given in Clauses 15 and/or 16 by the requirements to consult, the transparency of publication and the specificity of the obligation set out therein".

Those are important words. The reassurances are, if anything, greater than those that currently apply to English Nature and the Countryside Agency, which have never been accused of lacking independence and have a strong track record of influential policy advice.

The fears expressed by the noble Viscount this afternoon do not have credence because these directions are in line with the directions given to other such bodies.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

I think I am right in saying that my noble friend, who has clearly done extensive research on these matters, said that a similar clause does not appear in the Wildlife and Countryside Act or the CROW Act. While I appreciate the Minister's reassurances, he has not quite answered the question of why Clause 16 has been introduced into the Bill in the first place.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

I think that is because those Bills do not include organisations that need direction from the Secretary of State.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I suspect that this answer will not give much satisfaction to the noble Viscount or the noble Earl. My advice is that the effects of Clause 16 are to be found in other Acts. The list of non-departmental public bodies subject to directions from the Secretary of State include the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee, English Nature—although some of its activities are exempt—and the Countryside Agency, as well as the trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Environment Agency, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Home Grown Cereals Authority and the Meat and Livestock Commission. The advice I have received is that the Bill is not different. Of course, if I am wrong about that, the noble Viscount will let me know.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative 4:00 pm, 8th February 2006

I am grateful to the Minister for his interpretation of the situation. As noble Lords will have noticed, I have three more stand part objections later in the Committee proceedings. So at this stage I would just like to follow up my three questions very shortly. I asked whether this clause was wider than a similar clause in the predecessor Acts to the Bill because of the statement that the position of the successor bodies, Natural England and the others in this Bill, is similar to that of their predecessors. So, it is the rules of the game of their predecessors which are of particular interest to me, for better or for worse.

I asked another question. The Minister essentially replied that directions are a weapon of last resort. In a subsequent debate I shall touch on unreasonableness, which is the test of whether you have to move in and give directions of last resort. If that is the situation then that is one thing. However, I also asked whether any draft directions were intended, which would come into effect either immediately after the Bill is enacted or shortly thereafter. As the clause is so widely drawn, I believe that it would be right for the House to see any draft directions and to debate them at a later stage.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I will do my best to answer those questions. I have already said that the clause is no wider than similar clauses in other legislation. We see directions very much as a last resort—that was the example I attempted to give. There are no draft directions of any kind. I hope I have answered the direct questions that the noble Viscount has just repeated to me.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Commission for Rural Communities]:

Photo of Lord Boston of Faversham Lord Boston of Faversham Crossbench

The Question is that Clause 17 stand part of the Bill. In view of the groupings, I should at this stage point out to the Committee that if Amendment No. 225 is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 226 to 231 inclusive.

On Question, Whether Clause 17 shall stand part of the Bill?

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

It is with some excitement that we move to Chapter 2. I am sure the Minister will agree that we have long awaited this moment. Chapter 2 deals with the creation of the Commission for Rural Communities. The purpose of my opposing the clause is to explore in greater depth than we were able to at Second Reading the need for the Commission for Rural Communities and to enable some debate about that need.

I still contend that when the Government initially thought of the Bill in response to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, the intention was not to create another layer of quangos. The Minister replied to that point at Second Reading. Indeed, other noble Lords spoke and expressed the very evident need for rural areas to have somebody to represent them. I absolutely would not disagree with that. Last Thursday we had a very interesting debate about the needs of rural areas to which the Minister gave a full reply. However, I question whether we need yet another quango to represent those areas.

I remind the Committee that in England there are nearly 5,000 locally appointed bodies and 50,000 appointees, which is approximately three times the number of elected local councillors. The Committee will recollect that I am quite exercised about the fact that there are democratically elected local councillors, MPs who represent rural areas—in most cases, very ably—and an entire democratic layer of people who should be representing the needs of those areas.

The purpose of the Commission for Rural Communities, as set out in Clause 18(1)(a), is to raise,

"awareness among relevant persons and the public of rural needs".

But I would point out that, first, we have elected people who can do that and, secondly, when Defra was set up from a reborn MAFF, if you like, the very change of name to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested that it would be the champion of rural affairs and the body that undertook rural-proofing and so on. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, mentioned in his report that he imagined that Defra would undertake rural-proofing. The Government may be taking an easy way out by creating an independent body. If rural-proofing does not work, they can say, "The body was not really doing its work". If it does, they can say, "How well we have done in creating a body that does that work so well". Either way, the Government win, but democracy loses out.

The Minister will no doubt say that there is provision here for checking the performance of the other bodies that are supposed to be delivering rural regeneration and so on. There are already plenty of bodies checking performance. There is the Audit Commission, which audits all sorts of things. We even have the Performance and Innovation Unit, which from time to time produces excellent reports on a number of subjects. There is no reason that it could not report on that every so often. This is yet another body that duplicates some work already being done.

The Bill is more retrospective than most, in that the Commission for Rural Communities already exists. It is sending out communications—indeed, its chairman has been round to lobby me on why it should exist—but we have not yet passed the Bill. I do not speak against Dr Burgess, who is doing a tremendous job already lobbying for rural areas, but it is curious to have something in existence that has not yet been agreed through the democratic process.

When the matter was discussed in another place, that argument was strongly advanced by the Select Committee. The government side did not take that view, but we enjoyed the support of the Conservatives. Mr James Paice said:

"We share the view that the CRC is a wholly unnecessary body that will almost certainly be ineffective in achieving the Government's objectives"—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 23/6/05; col. 97.]

That puts it as concisely as I can.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

The noble Baroness mentioned the Select Committee. I think that she meant the Standing Committee on the Bill. The Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also commented on that. I shall discuss that in due course. I think that she means the committee considering the Bill in the Commons.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

That is a very useful correction and I am grateful to the Minister for that.

So there is a question whether we need the Commission for Rural Communities at all. There is its cost—we have all seen the regulatory impact assessment. Of course, the merging of some Countryside Agency functions with rural development agencies and Natural England will save some money. But a cost will be attached to the Commission for Rural Communities continuing which absolutely has to be justified. The claims are that the programme should pay for itself within three years of completion in 2007.

I remind noble Lords that when the Government listened to the many voices from rural areas about the critical situation affecting affordable housing and then sought solutions, they did not turn to the Countryside Agency or to the new Commission for Rural Communities. They created yet another commission, which is chaired by Elinor Goodman. I am sure that her report will be very worth while, but that is an extremely good example of the Government's ability to create and fund a commission study when there is a need to address a particular subject in rural areas and to conduct a very concentrated study on something that those elected in rural areas, be they MPs or councillors, have highlighted as pressing.

I contend that there is no need for another very general quango that may itself commission yet other commissions. All this undermines the basic idea of democracy.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

This is an interesting debate on the amendments in the group led by the clause stand part debate. I added my name to Amendments Nos. 225, 242, 247 and 255, so it will be helpful if we can deal with all the matters attached to the concept of the CRC. This chapter is of course about the functions of the CRC. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked, do we need it at all?

I was struck just recently by an excellent briefing from the Countryside Alliance, which I am sure other noble Lords received, which set out a whole range of policy recommendations. I shall quote one or two of them:

"Rural areas should be assessed on their own terms and public investment/funding allocation should make due allowance for rural sparcity. The countryside is a different place to the towns, and it should not be assumed that what is a suitable type and level of investment for the towns is also right for rural areas. SSA spending in rural areas must be raised to the national average. There should be no competition between rural and urban areas for funding—both urban and rural areas need adequate funding, not one at the expense of the other".

As I say, there are a large number of policy recommendations on those lines. I just wonder who, in the absence of the CRC, will be making the case across government for the arguments which we all understand and that have been put so well by the Countryside Alliance. It is unrealistic to expect the local authorities or the other organisations that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned to be able to do this. She also mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I remind the House that I quoted at Second Reading what the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, said about the concept of the CRC in his evidence to the EFRA Select Committee at col. 51 on 9 November 2004, as it is worth remembering:

"I was quite happy to see the policy advisory responsibility of the Countryside Agency continue. The argument was whether that was done through a revised Countryside Agency or through the Rural Affairs Forum. On balance, I think the Government was probably right to go for the Countryside Agency because I think it is more structured to give the sort of policy advice that is necessary".

The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, clearly accepted the concept of the CRC, so to quote him in aid of the argument on the other side is perhaps a shade misleading. The noble Baroness also mentioned Mr James Paice, who said:

"There is obviously going to be a Commission for Rural Communities".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 23/6/05; col. 117.]

So it seems that the Official Opposition accept the idea.

I mentioned the Standing Committee, and I could not help noticing in the debate on the CRC that Mr Colin Breed, who I believe is the Liberal Democrat spokesman, spoke extremely strongly in the morning against the concept of the CRC. Sadly, he was not present in the afternoon when the vote was taken on the clause stand part; he had an important constituency engagement, apparently.

Perhaps I may repeat the questions I put at Second Reading. Who will do the rural-proofing and rural advocacy, have a direct line to the Prime Minister, and provide the information now provided by the Countryside Agency and its successor body? I asked those questions deliberately, but they were not answered by the noble Baroness when she wound up the debate for her party or by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. It would be helpful if those who oppose the concept of the CRC could state clearly and in terms who is to do the rural-proofing and advocacy, have a direct line to the Prime Minister—a factor mentioned in later amendments—and provide the excellent information now available from the agencies.

The idea that local authorities can do this is, let us say, to have a romantic view of the role of those bodies. Who in a local authority has a direct line to the Prime Minister? Has the LGA been asked? Moreover, which of the 20 organisations that have briefed us on the Bill actually supports abandoning the concept of the CRC? So far as I am aware, every body supports the proposals in the Bill. What message will those parties which support the abolition of the CRC send to the rural community if the CRC is successfully removed by this Committee?

The noble Baroness mentioned Defra. Who is to rural-proof Defra? She looks surprised but, much as I hate to say it, if she has any idea of what happens in government she will know of the interdepartmental horsetrading that goes on when policy is being described. You need someone with a direct line to the Prime Minister who is able to go over the head of departments and say, "This is the line that must be followed". That was done extremely ably by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, during his chairmanship of the Countryside Agency.

I understand that the Question whether a clause should stand part of the Bill provides an opportunity for us to have a general debate. I am sure we can then take a general decision on Report. But the arguments for the abolition of the CRC will have to be put much more strongly and cogently than has been the case so far.

Photo of The Bishop of Exeter The Bishop of Exeter Bishop 4:15 pm, 8th February 2006

Yesterday it was my privilege to introduce in the Church of England's General Synod a report on the future of the rural Church and its contribution to rural life. In the debate that followed, speaker after speaker drew on their own experience to call the attention of the synod to the hidden nature of many of the problems and challenges facing our rural communities. Rural poverty, social exclusion and restriction of choice—especially for women, young people and the very old—may be found in small isolated pockets and thus hardly show up on the radar of the larger scheme of things, yet they are deeply real to those for whom they are the experience of their daily lives. Many of those people, especially in the remoter and more sparsely populated areas of rural England are, as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Norwich put it, invisible citizens.

The creation of the CRC, as I understand it, is partly designed to ensure that these invisible citizens are made visible and their voices, so often drowned out by metropolitan noise, are heard. It seems perverse, therefore, to oppose the creation of a national body with such an important remit. Of course there are regional differences, but rural disadvantage, rural poverty and rural needs must be viewed from a national perspective, and national solutions must be found and championed.

Many of those who spoke in the synod debate yesterday voiced the need for a strong and independent rural advocate, backed by a body properly equipped for the task and able to provide robust rural-proofing of that wide range of government activity that shapes for good or ill the lives of rural people and their communities. Who, for example, will seek effective rural-proofing of the Government's choice agenda, when for many in rural areas it is precisely the lack and impossibility of choice that lies at the heart of impoverishment and social exclusion and is a restriction on effective community development? I make the point in no spirit of contention, but merely as a statement of real need.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, knows, I have listened very carefully to the arguments of those who say that issues of this kind are best dealt with at the local level, but I am afraid that it is a vain hope and entirely unrealistic. Some of the bodies suggested as those able to fulfil a local role, like the RDAs, themselves need rural-proofing, and in any case the RDAs still have to prove their capacity to bring about rural regeneration.

I here declare an interest as chair of the Devon Strategic Partnership. Together with all my fellow chairs across the south-west, I have deep concerns about RDAs as the sole or principal conduits of rural delivery or channels of rural advocacy. They do not have the membership, experience or remit sufficient to be effective in these roles. Similarly, the regional rural forums, as important as they are, exist for a different purpose—a purpose best served by a strong and independent national body structured to give strategic coherence to their articulated needs. I want to make a plea: obviously that the CRC should exist, but also that it should be a powerful and independent voice on behalf of rural communities.

But I have another plea. The Churches of this country, and the Church of England in particular, have the most widespread rural network of any organisation. Our churches do not exist to provide visual candy for rural brochures produced by RDAs or regional government offices; they exist because they play a profound role in rural society. I could give many examples of nursery groups operating in village churches, after-school clubs and hospital car services—there are countless examples of the way in which the Churches, including Church schools, contribute profoundly and willingly to rural living. They are major stakeholders and contribute so much to the social capital so vital to a strong and sustainable rural life.

I look for a broad-based Commission for Rural Communities representative of the key stakeholders in rural life. I also look for a reassurance that the Government and bodies such as the CRC, when set up, will listen to the voices of all those organisations which constitute civil society—among them the voluntary sector and the rural Church—when strategies are devised. Again I speak from my own experience of partnership working and local area agreements when I say how easily and frequently the representatives of the voluntary and community sectors, and of the private and business sectors, are driven from the table when representatives of local and national government are there in too large numbers.

The concluding speech on this Bill in the other place ended with this rhetorical flourish:

"The context of the Bill is the vision of rural England . . . at whose heart is the pursuit of sustainable development, so that social, economic and environmental issues are taken into account in the shaping of policy".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/10/05; col. 257.]

It is a vision, but it will come to fruition only if the voices of the rural communities and those who work for them, including the Churches, are really heard.

The General Synod yesterday passed a motion calling on the Church of England to reassess the adequacy of its own support at a national level for the future of rural England. I hope that this Committee will do no less. The Commission for Rural Communities, properly constituted, can be a good opportunity to ensure that that happens. Let us have it; let it flourish; let it stand as part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

This is a large group of amendments which go to the kernel of the Bill, so I apologise in advance for the length of my intervention. I have four amendments to speak to in the group—and I shall come to those—but first I wish to deal with the stand part debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. In doing so, I shall speak to all the other amendments in the group that she has tabled in regard to Part 2.

I believe most strongly that we need the CRC. The problems of rural life still go unnoticed and unheeded by a large number of policy makers, whether they be in Whitehall—including Defra, perhaps—certainly the RDAs and even county halls. In several local authorities which have an urban kernel and a doughnut of rural area around them, a great deal of policy making is focused on the urban centre and the rural doughnut gets ignored. It is important to have rural-proofing and an eye must be kept on some of the county halls—the local authorities in general—as well.

Secondly, there is huge ignorance about the countryside, especially the problems of deprivation, the need for businesses and the lack of thought given to both the rural young and rural old. We need to keep driving up standards of delivery. These are national not local standards of rural delivery, involving the police, the ambulance service, social services, business links, the skills agenda, and so on. A body that is looking at the delivery of services to rural areas will be more important now, as I said on Second Reading, with all the change taking place in the police force, the Department of Health and education. The tendency is that the police, business links and other services should be regionalised—in other words, that they should get further and further away from the man in the country lane, if not the man in the street. It is important to have an organisation standing up for those people.

Rather than calling for the abandonment of the proposals for the CRC, I say we strengthen its remit and its ability to be effective. I hope that the amendments, which I shall come to shortly, will achieve that. There is no doubt that the rural social agenda needs a strong voice in today's national and regional politics and I have yet to hear of a better suggestion than the CRC. We need a national body. It cannot be Defra—it has to be independent, with the ability to criticise all parts of government. No civil servant from Defra will put his career on the line by criticising other departments. It just will not happen in the Civil Service. We need an independent voice that can be a critical friend of government but which can do the authoritative research on a national basis and then use it on a national scale to goad and prod all levels of government. If you care about the lives of the poor, the young, the old and the deprived people in rural England, you need a CRC.

Being quite new here, and a learner driver when it comes to Bill amendments, I realise that I probably do not have the wording of Amendment No. 225 quite right. Nevertheless, I believe that the principles still hold good. It is crucial that the voice of the countryside—or rural England, in this case—is heard loud and clear throughout all levels of government. I have been trying to achieve this for the whole of my political career, the past 20 or so years.

The major breakthrough in this agenda was when we managed to get the concept of rural-proofing introduced into the rural White Paper in November 2000. If one is trying to raise the quality of life in rural areas, one should probably start at the Department of Health or perhaps the Department for Education and Skills; it was not in those days MAFF and it is not necessarily Defra now. I never cease to be amazed at the level of ignorance about rural living among most officials outside Defra and sometimes, I am afraid, within it. In my time, I came across a whole range of unrecognised issues. For instance, there is the problem of kids at school not being able to take part in sport, drama or music because there is not a second car in their family and they have to get the school bus back home at 3.30 because the family car—every family, virtually, has to have one—has been taken to work. DCMS officials were unaware that any promotion of sports had to take this into consideration in the countryside.

There is the problem of rural youngsters who cannot take part in training or get a job because they have no transport. That would be dealt with very simply by a Wheels to Work scheme but I cannot get the DWP to pick up on that idea, even now. What about rural businesses, which struggle to get recognition of their needs? I was asked by one DTI official, "What does manufacturing have to do with the countryside?". "Actually, there are more manufacturing businesses per head in the countryside than in the towns; did you not know that?", I asked. "Oh, no," was the reply.

There is also the problem of how rural participants will take part in the proceedings of magistrates courts when those courts get fewer and more inaccessible. I once jokingly remarked that stealing a car might be the only option. All those are examples not only of ignorance but of lack of thought about rural issues, the main problem being a lack of recognition that the countryside is not just a picture postcard existence, but that real deprivation exists and solutions to it are inevitably different from those used in the towns.

I do not want to go into all the rural social problems, but there is no doubt that in order to get central, regional and even local government to make the effort to take account of the rural dimension, there has to be someone with clout. That clout must come from someone at the very top of government who can break down doors and demand responses from the top of Whitehall departments to the RDAs, local authorities and leaders of government agencies whose staff, one hopes, are working on the ground in rural areas but all too often restricting their efforts to the towns.

As I said, the clout or authority for this advocate for rural life has to come from the top. With no disrespect to our current Defra Secretary of State, other Whitehall departments, Ministers and other Secretaries of State tend to resent interference in their way of doing things from merely another department. But if that authority came from Downing Street they would have to wake up and listen. Some officials involved in these changes have been reluctant to accept the need for a rural advocate. Such a person might create waves, which the Sir Humphreys of this world might abhor. But that is precisely what is needed—now more than ever before. Defra might be worried that a rural advocate with authority emanating from Downing Street rather than from its own Secretary of State might even feel empowered to criticise Defra. With the Government dictating change and with all the delivery organisations, it is vital that we have a rural advocate in there behind the scenes—very often, it is best to achieve things by working behind the scenes—fighting the rural corner.

The Commission for Rural Communities will be doing the research and will have the expertise to make a national case for people living in rural areas, covering all aspects of rural life—health, education, transport and so forth. It must also have a secret weapon with the strength or clout to get in there and make a difference—an Exocet, as it were. It must have the Government's, not just Defra's, rural advocate at its head.

I apologise for going on, but this grouping is very long and I now turn to my Amendments Nos. 242, 247 and 255, which relate to rural-proofing. I realise that to many people the phrase in the current Clause 18(1) about the general purposes of the CRC being to promote,

"awareness among relevant persons and the public of rural needs", might be synonymous with rural-proofing, but it most definitely is not. As we have described in our Amendment No. 247,

"'rural proofing' means the systematic", which I emphasise,

"assessment of rural needs and circumstances in order that they may be taken into account . . . in policy development and", more importantly, in the implementation of policy.

Again, it is a typical cautious Whitehall approach. Creating "awareness among relevant persons" is all very well, but do not create waves. That is tantamount to saying, "Do not make a difference". What is needed is for the CRC to be able to go to a department. Let us take the Home Office, which in my day tended to be one that needed telling—I am sure that is different now and I apologise in advance if I am being unfair to it. But you need to be able to say to a department, "Have you got the systems in place to properly monitor the effects of all your policies and initiatives in rural areas—not just one or two policies, which you as an official who might live in London might think could be relevant to the countryside, but all your policies, because, believe me, they are pretty well all relevant? Who is checking the effects of what your police reforms will mean for rural communities? Who will check on asylum centres?", which might easily be put in rural areas. What effect might they have as a drain on local medical or educational services if they are placed in rural areas? You need to say, "That initiative that you have got going fighting the drug culture among the young—what are you doing to make it reach out to the rural young? Do you not know that in some rural communities there are more drugs per head of population among the young than in some of the worst London boroughs?", et cetera, et cetera.

It is all very well to create awareness among these solid citizens in Whitehall—and again I apologise to the Home Office for using it as an example, as this could apply to any of the departments—but ultimately the CRC must have the ability to provoke action and to name and shame a department, an RDA or a government agency in a report to Parliament. That is why our final amendment in this group, Amendment No. 255, inserts as Clause 19(d) a provision about,

"monitoring and making reports to Parliament on rural-proofing".

Noble Lords might have gathered, not only from my Second Reading speech but from what I have said today, that I am passionate about the need for the CRC, but I admit to a small degree of sympathy with some of the voices from the opposite Benches that are in effect saying, "Where's the beef?". Is the CRC going to make a difference? I would not like to say that our amendments necessarily constitute the hamburger between the white flour of the Government's buns, but my hope is that they will at least give the CRC some crunch.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative 4:30 pm, 8th February 2006

I remind Members of the Committee of the interests that I declared last week, in our debate on Wednesday, as chairman of the South Downs Joint Committee, which is a bringing together of the Countryside Agency locally, the Sussex Downs AONB and the East Hampshire AONB.

I have listened very carefully to the passionate remarks in favour of the CRC made by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who speaks with a great deal of experience, having been chairman of the Countryside Agency. I find myself with something of a paradox when thinking about the debate that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has initiated. Of course, there is the instinct in me that, when the disappearance of the Countryside Agency was announced—that is, its merging with English Nature and the Rural Development Service of Defra—I assumed that there would be just one new body. That was very much the purpose behind the report prepared by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—and I am sorry that he cannot be with us today. But what confused and amazed him was the number of different sources within Defra that put subsidy and money into the countryside. I think that he said there were something like 80 different ways in which a farmer or rural community might get money from Defra, either directly or through the Countryside Agency. He thought, rightly, that this was nonsense and far too complex. He made the comment, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, will remember, that in some cases the Countryside Agency spent more money on administering the grant to the rural community than the value of the grant itself.

There must be an instinct in some of us who have the privilege of living in the countryside, and to some extent working in it, of wondering whether the CRC is necessary. Would it not be better to merge its functions with Natural England? Would that not save some government money, which could go to the farming community instead? Let us imagine that I went round some of the small farmers in the lucky part of England where I live, who are so worried at the moment about low cereal prices; about what is going to happen when their single farm payment is reduced, as it is likely to be over the next seven years; and about whether, to go back to the point that we discussed at Question Time yesterday, there is going to be enough money from Pillar 2 of the CAP for all the green farming initiatives that they are being encouraged to take up. If I told them not to worry, because the Government are starting a Commission for Rural Communities, whose purpose is to do just the things that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has described—to rural-proof and create awareness among relevant persons in the public of rural needs—they would laugh. They would say, "Big deal. What on earth is that going to do for us? We want to know what price we are going to get for our crop in two or three years' time. We want to know what the CRC is going to do for us, if the CAP is reformed"—as we are all pressing for—"when we are totally dependent on the EU subsidy that we get to be profitable". We have to face that fact.

There is a danger at the moment—and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has a rather charming tendency towards this—of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. That would actually be very good green farming policy, if one could do it. Life ahead for farmers is difficult, and will get worse before it gets better. There has to be a total rethink among small farmers in this country over what they will grow, how they will market it, and how at the end of the day they will make a profit that might keep their family in the farm rather than going off to do something else. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who was a devoted chairman of the Countryside Agency, and worked hard on it, what he thinks this new body will do that the Countryside Agency did not. Why will the new body be better?

That is the argument against. On the other hand, there is the definite thought that, as the right reverend Prelate put it—more eloquently than I am doing—we live on a very small island. Those who live in rural areas are very close to those in urban centres, but the needs of rural communities, particularly of the rural disadvantaged, are very different because of rural isolation and changes in demography, apart from the monetary facts I have just cited. At the same time we fully understand now how the quality of life of those who live in urban areas and the state of the economy are so dependent on the quality of the countryside and the communities nearby. There is a tremendous inter-mix between the two.

I must not go on. This debate is not Second Reading; it is specifically about leaving out a clause. I would be interested, when the noble Lord, Lord Bach, answers, to have his views briefly on the points that have been made, and particularly on what the new CRC's budget will be. How much money will it have, and how much will it spend? Is it not at least questionable that that money could be better spent in a more direct way in helping, for example, the farming community?

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

If we are to have a CRC, it must be totally independent. That is the key. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, was right to point out that the commission's advocacy role was compromised by its more high profile responsibility as a service provider. In some ways, that answers the question raised by my noble friend Lord Renton.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has raised some fundamental and important issues through her amendment. Having given this matter considerable thought, however, I am very much in favour of the formation of the CRC. I understand the points she makes. Of course it is the responsibility of local democratically elected bodies, whether they be in Parliament or in local government, to ensure that rural areas are properly serviced. But the crucial role of the CRC will be in making statistics available to those elected bodies; plus the fact that the desired role of the chairman is to ensure that the information is made available to the Government at top level, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has expressed, is essential.

I do not believe that I misrepresent the right reverend Prelate when I say that he cast doubt on the ability of the RDAs to carry out their rural dimensions as effectively as we would like. I think that that is happening in practice. It is another good reason why we need this independent voice. The reason I feel so strongly about this is that the countryside is going through such a fundamental change. There will be enormous social implications for the revolution taking place; it is therefore essential that we have an independent body to draw attention to these changes and to advise the Government on what needs to be done.

Amendment No. 255, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, proposes that the CRC should have equal regard to the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. I shall be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say about this but I suspect that ambition may be somewhat optimistic and that in practice the CRC will find itself concentrating pretty exclusively on the economic and social responsibilities, of which there are plenty, as I have already implied. I wonder whether it can be all things to all three pillars, for want of a better expression. As I say, I shall be interested to hear the Minister's view. After all, the new body, Natural England, will have the primary role of promoting the environmental dimension of the countryside. The fact that the Government appear so reluctant to give Natural England a duty to have regard to the social and economic side of life makes those dimensions of the CRC's position that much more important.

However, I am entirely behind the sentiment of all these amendments. I suspect that they are unnecessary and that they are principally probing amendments to try to get the Minister to give assurances that all we want out of the CRC will be provided. However, I would be interested to hear whether he feels that it could and should have an environmental dimension or whether it should concentrate primarily on the economic and social aspects of the countryside.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Labour 4:45 pm, 8th February 2006

I support Amendments Nos. 242 and 255 and underline the arguments already made that Clause 17 should stand part of the Bill. The problems of our rural areas are underlined almost daily in your Lordships' House with questions on subjects ranging from the common agricultural policy to rural development such as rural broadband, rural housing and the environment. There is most definitely a need for an independent rural advocate, the CRC—whose position would carry huge weight across Whitehall in the centre and the regional development agencies—with strategic responsibilities, as proposed in Amendment No. 255, regarding the three pillars,

"the social, economic and environmental state of rural England".

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

I hope that my noble friend will consider that Amendment No. 244 helps the Government by putting some muscle behind the extremely admirable intention of their proposal.

I will not bore the Committee by repeating my interests, as I have expressed them before, but I shall spell out a rather different interest that I think I should declare. I am completely the product of an urban existence, but 12 years ago I was one of those who made their home extremely happily in a very rural area. One of the hidden problems that we are dealing with all the time in policy-making in this area is the increasing number of highly articulate, sophisticated, professional people living in the countryside interpreting the needs of the countryside from an urban background. It is essential for the CRC to exist to understand the people and the communities who are rooted in the countryside and what their needs are.

I make two points to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. First, I agree with her about the importance of local government. That is a traditionally Liberal point of view but it is an objective which I share. If we take democracy seriously, local government is tremendously important. I do not see the two bodies as competing. If the CRC works well, it will strengthen the role of local government through understanding what local authorities in rural areas are trying to do, understanding their problems, bringing those together and speaking out.

Secondly, since I have made my home in the countryside I have been repeatedly struck by how we sometimes look at housing, health, employment and transport as specific issues in their own right. They interplay with each other, and it seems to me that the CRC in doing its job will be able to bring those different elements together and make strong representations to government about the holistic need of the countryside. That is also a good Liberal principle, and I hope that the noble Baroness might take it seriously. There should be a holistic approach rather than a segmented one. I ask the noble Baroness to think again about her idea of having a whole host of specific individual commissions or specialist committees reporting on particular issues. That would not help; it would complicate the task rather than help to overcome the difficulties.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

I shall make a brief intervention of a rather paradoxical nature. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and I both spoke in the debate on the rural economy on Thursday last week. Although I have rural connections, I was for many years an inner city London MP.

I remember vividly the Committee stage in the House of Commons on the Greater London Authority Bill. I say that because we were dealing with the problems of London as a microcosm of great cities throughout the country on the issue of a strategic authority. The Committee consisted of 29 Members of Parliament. The Minister's PPS was a Member for Aberdeen, and the Tory Whip had been the chairman of a West Midlands regional authority. The other 27 Members were all London Members, and they therefore spoke with considerable authority both for the centre of the city and the suburbs. What struck me about that Committee stage with that degree of expert opinion was the number of issues—despite the fact that London had had a strategic authority from 1889 to 1986 and therefore was not unfamiliar with the issues—that individual members brought up where circumstances overlapped, in rather the way that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was describing.

On each occasion the Minister, Mr Raynsford, assisted by Miss Glenda Jackson, would quietly turn down the issues that we brought up out of our own experience where the various tectonic plates met. Then in the later stage in the House of Commons, and certainly much more in the House of Lords, the Government accepted a whole series of amendments that we had moved in the Commons. Civil servants from different departments, having been sent away to investigate whether there was anything in what we had said, clearly reported to Ministers that there was. Therefore, I am highly sympathetic to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that you must have some means by which government departments across Whitehall are asked to look at rural issues in a unique way.

Photo of Lord Nickson Lord Nickson Crossbench

I hesitate to speak because I was not able to be present or take part at Second Reading. I will be extremely brief. I strongly support the amendments, from my personal experience. I am also hesitant because my experience is mostly in Scotland and therefore does not apply to this Bill. I was chairman of the Countryside Commission for Scotland and later chairman of the Scottish Development Agency, now Scottish Enterprise, so that I had, as it were, at one time one foot in the country and another in industry in the cities. Later still, I chaired a body that had direct access to the Prime Minister, and I totally support the fact that that access and that independence are fundamental. The issues facing the countryside in England and in Scotland at the moment are so great that this commission, with the independence proposed, is absolutely vital. I support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

I feel that I should respond to certain questions put to me. I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

Noble Lords:

Order.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

I have instructions in front of me that say that I am allowed to speak.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

We are in Committee. It is perfectly in order.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, asked me what the CRC would add compared with the Countryside Agency. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned and as was referred to in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, we dealt with the delivery of functions as well as having advisory functions, and those delivery functions will no longer be applicable. So the CRC will be much more focused. He then spoke about farmers in the countryside and the difference that it would make to them. I am afraid that farmers represent less than 5 per cent of the rural population and less than 1 per cent of the whole population, so it is the other 95 per cent of the rural population in which we are mostly interested in terms of the CRC. That is not to say that farmers are not important in their own right.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned that the CRC may have problems in dealing with the environment across the board. The Countryside Agency currently produces a state-of-the-countryside report, which includes a chapter on the environment. It merely draws in information, which will probably come from Natural England as much as anywhere else, and produces it in a comprehensive form. The purpose of the amendment that relates to that is that it should be a presentation to Parliament as opposed to the general public.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, also mentioned that the CRC would work in partnership with the local authorities. That is true. When I chaired the Countryside Agency, I was perpetually strengthening the hand of the Rural Commission of the LGA and worked very closely with it, so that is absolutely correct.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I did not mention my other amendments in this group during my speech on whether the clause should stand part, partly because my remarks follow on from what has just been said.

Amendment No. 252 suggests that the CRC should be in at the development stage of policy and not just the monitoring and implementing stages, which would be rather shutting the door after the horse had bolted. So, although I do not yet want to admit that the CRC will exist, if it is to exist, it should be in at the policy development stage, ensuring that consultation happens.

In Amendments Nos. 246 and 248, I simply suggest that specifying "social and economic" needs draws the brief too tightly. For example, I would ask the right reverend Prelate about including the word "spiritual", or perhaps he considers that that is encompassed in "social". But, if the CRC is to exist, I should prefer it to be drawn as widely as possible.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. Because we are working slightly in reverse and some of us have not had a chance to move our amendments yet, it may be as well to reflect a little on some of the contributions that have been made and how I see them applying to our amendments, but I will speak directly to my amendments as well.

In speaking to her opposition to the Question whether the clause should stand part, the noble Baroness rightly said that in Committee in another place my two colleagues voted with the Liberal Democrats against the setting up of the Commission for Rural Communities. I think that they were extremely concerned about whether the commission would be yet another high-level talking shop. From some of the comments that have been expressed this afternoon, I suspect that, if we are honest, that is a view we all share, and I should like to come back to it.

I declare my interests, which are totally opposite to those of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I call myself a country lass. I live in the village in which I was born—sadly, in some ways it has become a big village. It does not really matter where we come from; we are all keenly aware of the needs of rural communities. I also remind noble Lords of my family farming interest in Suffolk and of my association with the RSIN, the RABI, the RASE, the Addington Fund and, not proudly but certainly not least, my work and involvement with the Church. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter rightly touched on the role that Churches have to play in our communities. When going round rural areas one notices enormous changes, such as the loss of shops, pubs and post offices, but the one thing that tends still to be there—fortunately—is the church of whatever denomination. That is enormously important.

At Second Reading, as noble Lords will remember if they look back at col. 402, I said:

"We have steadily questioned the creation of the Commission for Rural Communities, not that we do not believe or know that there is a need for a rural advocate, because indeed there is, but because . . . this is yet another high-level body responsible for talking".—[Hansard, 7/11/05; col. 402.].

Since then we have had a chance to talk to many Peers and people outside, and we wish to support the establishment of the Commission for Rural Communities. But, in doing so, we want to make sure that it is much stronger than the Government had in mind in the first place. While some noble Lords will be pleased to hear me say that, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to it as a watchdog. When will it bark and when will it bite? We need both to go with it.

We have reached an important part of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, rightly raised the interesting concept of the Government's reaction to the need for having better affordable housing in country areas; they did not use the present system that they could have used, but set up a special commission to look at affordable housing. Once the body exists, will that be the end of extra bodies being set up to do the work that this new body should do if it works in the way that we anticipate?

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, explained clearly his commitment to the rural commission and how he was a former rural advocate—a distinguished one, if I may say so. Even he would admit that there were things that he wanted to achieve that he could not achieve. The reports from various departments on rural-proofing, in particular, show that the levels achieved were not satisfactory. The question for the new commission is how to improve things. The figures are there to see. The Minister is new to his role in Defra, but that department's record is nothing to be proud of either, which is worrying.

I am pleased to support the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and to ask how to strengthen the Bill, not just to ensure that the door of No. 10 is open or that people will nod and say, "We hear you". We realise that there is a problem in the countryside and that in many cases it is a hidden problem. There is affluence—I do not mean that in an over-the-top sense, but there is some wealth in the countryside. There is no doubt about that, but, sadly, at the other end, there is extreme poverty, which is often hidden. That is made all the more difficult because people are remote and have no one to turn to. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said that we should name and shame, and yes we should. But what more can the commission do? I think that it should be able to do more.

I am sorry that I was unable to be here to take part in the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Renton yesterday, when he rightly raised the issue of the future and the pressure on farming and farming communities. Natural England will have the responsibility for making these payments, but will the Commission for Rural Communities have an overriding role in trying to get that body to better understand and carry more clout about how some of those payments may be made in future? I can see the two bodies not necessarily rowing in the same way. That is an important issue. My noble friend Lord Renton said that there was extreme pressure on farmers and the farming community. He is quite right. I foresee this going on probably for three or four years. Interestingly, the ARC-Addington Fund has had more applications within the first few months of this year than since the foot and mouth outbreak. There is a real concern out there.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter mentioned the role of the Churches. I was delighted to see yesterday that the Synod was 100 per cent behind the role that rural churches can play and which some of them have already adopted—some have small post offices in them. There are real ways in which churches could be used more fully. I am delighted to support that.

My real role, however, is to speak to my amendments. In responding to the amendments of others, I hope that I will not have to do it again except to hear what the Minister has to say. On Amendment No. 245, the inclusion in the Bill of the words "social and economic" implies that other words are excluded. The word "economic" covers issues such as rural post offices and the threat to end the Post Office card accounts system—which is due to happen in 2008 and could well make greater difficulties for people living in rural areas—agricultural diversification, tourism and other ways in which people living in rural areas earn their living. Does it cover things like the cost of obtaining an identity card, which cannot then be used—with pensions, for example—as all communications have to be over the phone because there is often no transport available to the post office? There are many questions over the words "social and economic".

My understanding is that "social" is also slightly difficult to define in this context. Will it cover, for example, the provision of schooling? There is, for instance, an assumption that, for too many school places, rural children will be required to travel many miles through rural villages to go into the towns. Would it not be sensible, and maybe less costly, to think of bussing some of those town children out to village schools, to ensure that village schools are able to continue? Will the rural commission's voice be heard in that discussion?

How about healthcare? Will the rural commission influence the organisation of prescription renewal services, which are causing considerable difficulties in some areas? Will the rural commission have a voice in representing constituents who find that the shake-up of the PCTs condemns them to attending outpatient departments in hospitals to which there are no direct transport links? Is it the Government's intention that the rural commission be heard in all these circumstances? The removal of the "social and economic" qualification makes sense and would obviate the possibility of lengthy squabbles over what is, and is not, included in the definition.

Amendments Nos. 243, 244, 250 and 253 address the same issue: questioning the Government on the purposes of the CRC. The first description of the CRC's general purpose, Clause 18(1), states that it will have a statutory duty to meet,

"rural needs in ways that contribute to sustainable development".

It goes on, and "rural needs" comes up again and again; it seems to be the main defining motivation for the CRC. But how will those rural needs be defined? If the only definition of "rural needs" is the description in Clause 18(3)—

"the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas"—

I wonder if that is sufficient.

We can clearly see from this that the CRC is meant to be a body that will, in some ways, be complementary to Natural England, which will have regard to the environment—that was touched on earlier. For now, the definition of "persons in rural areas" leaves me—and I suggest others—somewhat flummoxed. There are people who live full time in rural areas, such as farmers, gamekeepers, foresters, agricultural labourers, people who keep pubs, and shopkeepers. The list goes on and it is extensive and varied. However, there is a strong distinction between people who live in rural areas and people who visit rural areas. While I would in no way wish to discourage visitors to rural areas—because, very often, rural areas are totally dependent on visitors to survive—we wonder whether the intention in the Bill, as it is laid, is to refer to people who are in rural areas rather than to people who are living and working in them.

Amendment No. 253 does not touch on the matter of definitions specifically, but it asks a question that my honourable friends in another place raised: how critical will the CRC be of itself when it puts together a report about the way in which policies are adopted? It is all very well for it to state that it is meeting certain aspects of the policy, but there is no obligation on it to report the extent of success or failure. I am not suggesting that the CRC should continually be looking over its shoulder, but it should be very critical of its brief and how it achieves it.

Amendment No. 251 is a probing amendment. Clause 22 allows the Commission for Rural Communities to charge for its services and Clause 21 specifies that it may publish and supply information. However, Clause 19 concerns aspects of the CRC's duties that many of us consider to be the only plausible reason for its existence. It must be a champion for the countryside. It must spend time, effort and money working with organisations that exist to protect, preserve and present the value of the countryside, the landscape and the rural way of life. Above all, it must represent rural values to government; it must inform and help decision-makers with the steps to be taken to ensure the continuation of those values. To do that, we believe that the Commission for Rural Communities has to have open access to decision-makers and opinion-formers. It is our belief that it will not achieve that if it is constrained to charge for services, as is suggested in the Bill.

Like other noble Lords, I am not surprised that so many noble Lords want to speak in this debate because, if we want the Commission for Rural Communities to fulfil an important role, we must get it right.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy) 5:00 pm, 8th February 2006

I thank all Members of the Committee who have spoken. This has been as good a debate as one could have expected on this subject, which is at the heart of the Bill as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said. Whatever view noble Lords took on the issue, we are all extremely grateful for what they have had to say. There have been intelligent and sensible arguments from noble Lords who know what they are talking about.

I am delighted that the preponderance of views was in favour of the establishment of the CRC. That is the Government's policy and we want to see it happen. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for putting her party's views on this issue. She may think that I am about to criticise her party for having changed its mind, but that is the very last thing that I am going to do. Her party has come to a sensible view after much reflection and thought. Indeed, I take her point about wanting a stronger CRC. I thank her for her support for the CRC.

I was particularly struck, as I think we all were, by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Exeter. He spoke with great knowledge and experience. Indeed, I may accuse him of having had a trial run yesterday at the Synod. I do not know whether the response he gets today will be better or worse than the one he got in Church House yesterday, but I thank him very much for what he had to say. His diocese is of course very rural in many parts.

I shall be as brief as I can. I am very grateful—I think I owe some thanks to my noble friend Lord Carter for this—that all noble Lords have agreed to this vast grouping, as opposed to having a debate just on Clause 17 and then debates on a whole series of individual amendments. I think we have saved the Committee some time. Before I start, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, because without her opposition to clause stand part, we would not have had the debate in this way.

Clause 17 establishes the Commission for Rural Communities as an independent non-departmental public body. Its general purposes and functions are set out in subsequent clauses. We have amendments to those clauses. The body's statutory status will enable it to perform its role independently and impartially. The clause also introduces Schedule 2, which sets out the constitution of the CRC, including provisions about its status, its membership, its chief executive and other employees, pay and pensions, procedure and accounts and annual reports. Indeed, the group of amendments dealing with some of those issues immediately follows this debate.

Noble Lords will have noticed that these arrangements are almost identical to those for Natural England, which are set out in Schedule 1. We believe that the CRC will be a strong, independent, rural advocate, adviser and watchdog to help ensure that the Government's policies make a real difference to people in rural areas. It will pay special attention to tackling social disadvantage, of which we have heard much from all sides this afternoon, and to rural areas which experience economic underperformance. It will not be the Countryside Agency by another name; far from it. The CRC will be a much smaller body and, crucially, without delivery functions. It will focus exclusively on issues affecting rural communities, rather than on the broad landscape, conservation and community remit of the Countryside Agency. Of course rural-proofing will be at the heart of the CRC's role and will help Defra and government generally to ensure that all government polices are rural-proofed.

The process by which the potential impact of policy and decision-making on rural areas is evaluated taking the needs of those who live and work in the countryside into account is not a bad definition of rural-proofing. The purpose is to make sure that the needs of rural areas are not sidelined in the thickets of Whitehall, and, indeed, that they are reflected at the heart of all policy making. The CRC will also promote rural-proofing across the wider public sector—for example, in the RDAs and in local government. It will report annually to the Secretary of State on how the policies of government departments and government offices of the regions have been rural-proofed.

So, in that way alone, the CRC will play a vital role in ensuring that other bodies' policies truly address the needs of rural communities. Arguments on the other side suggest that the CRC's powers and responsibilities should belong to local authorities. Indubitably, local authorities play a vital role in rural service provision. We have sought to enhance that—for example, by setting up rural delivery pathfinders in each region, led by local authorities, to focus on innovative ways of delivering services. But the CRC, in acting as an advocate for rural communities, will seek to establish a national position that, frankly, would by definition be beyond that of any individual local authority, however outstanding.

The CRC, unlike local authorities, will have a single-minded focus on and expertise in rural matters. Unlike local authorities, the CRC will not be encumbered or distracted by delivery roles, which is part of the role of the local authority, which means that it will be free to provide a powerful and impartial challenge to central, regional and local government. The arguments against local authorities trying to do what the CRC will do are, I hope, clear, but, notwithstanding that, the CRC will need to keep in close touch with local government and vice versa.

There are those who would argue that the Government are ignoring the report of my noble friend Lord Haskins through the fact of setting up the CRC. In his November 2003 report on rural delivery, he recommended that the functions of the Countryside Agency should be transferred to appropriate specialist organisations. We claim that we have acted on that. We have passed policy development and lead responsibility for rural-proofing to Defra. We have passed the resources formerly devoted to the Countryside Agency for social and economic programmes to the regional development agencies. I listened with interest to the warning from the right reverend Prelate about that. We have given government offices for the regions the lead in supporting the rural voluntary and community sector. We are passing the Countryside Agency's environmental, landscape, access and recreational programmes to the new integrated agency, which is Natural England.

In other words, all the Countryside Agency's functions are being transferred, just as my noble friend recommended. In meeting those recommendations, however, we have recognised the need for a much smaller body to advise on issues of policy as it affects rural people. To cite the Secretary of State's response to the Haskins report:

"There will be a continued need for a much smaller organisation, with a new, well focused role providing independent policy advice to Government from a national perspective on issues affecting people in rural communities, and analysing and reporting on best practice in the delivery of the Government's rural policies. We also need to build on experience so far on rural proofing and embedding rural objectives in all relevant aspects of government policy".

Those words explain the basic thinking behind the need for that organisation.

I bring the point about the Haskins review to a close by reminding the Committee of the quotation mentioned by my noble friend Lord Carter when Lord Haskins spoke to the EFRA Committee on 9 November 2004. The revised Countryside Agency is, of course, the CRC, which is that same smaller, more focused body referred to by the Secretary of State in her response, which I just cited. Establishing the CRC to take and build on the agency's advisory, advocacy and watchdog functions is a positive measure that will address the needs of rural communities and people who live and work in them.

However, we were rightly reminded that it is easy to praise the idea of the CRC; the real test is how effective it is. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, was important in that regard. He accused me of occasionally making silk out of sows' ears.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

A silk purse out of a sow's ear. I took that as a compliment and return it to him on this occasion, because he put the case against the CRC as well as it can be put, but no better than that.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

I thank the Minister for his most kind comments. I hope that he will answer this before he moves on, but I just remind him that I asked him what he expected the budget of the Commission for Rural Communities to be. I think that he told us last week that the probable budget for Natural England will be about £300 million a year. Does he have a figure for the CRC?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me of his question. He will not be surprised to hear that discussion on the scale of the budget for the tasks envisaged will have to form part of the normal planning process, which will take place between the commission and Defra. The budget will be commensurate with the duties placed on it. The CRC in its shadow form this year has a budget of £7.8 million. The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that that is likely to rise in the next number of years as the CRC gets to work, but frankly budget figures for the future have not yet been recognised.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Perhaps, following my noble friend's question, the Minister will tell us whether the Government have determined its location in a lagging rural community.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I think that we have cut down the possible locations for the CRC to a fairly small number, but I am not in a position to tell the Committee that one particular location has yet been decided on. So I cannot answer the noble Baroness's question.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

That, too, will affect the cost, because the figure that was given to my noble friend probably does not include where the venue will eventually be.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

Of course that will affect the cost. That is why I did not try to tell the noble Lord what the costs are; they will depend on which particular location is chosen. The location has not yet been chosen.

The noble Lord asked why we did not simply merge the CRC with Natural England. That question is worthy of a response. We believe it would prevent us achieving the very conditions for establishing the CRC that are essential for its success. The rationale for having the body focus on economic and social rural disadvantage was set out in the 2004 rural strategy, which built on the rural advocate established by the 2000 White Paper and which the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the Countryside Agency successfully undertook.

The rural strategy explained the need for a small refocused organisation to provide strong and impartial advice to government on economic and social issues affecting rural communities, but it needed to be divorced from any delivery functions—no one has really denied that that is important—that could distract it from impartially monitoring the delivery of services in rural areas and from being an advocate for rural people. Indeed, one of the roles of the CRC will be to monitor the delivery performance of Natural England itself. We believe that it can do that better as a separate and independent body.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

I do not want to pursue the matter any further at the moment, but once it has been decided where the CRC is to be, as my noble friend on the Front Bench asked, and once it is set up, will it be possible for the Minister to write and tell us what the likely budget figure is for the first full year?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

It certainly will be, and I shall make sure that that is done at the earliest possible opportunity.

I shall now deal with the amendments as briefly as I can. Amendment No. 225, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, among others, seeks to make statutory the role of rural advocate by combining it formally with the position of chairman of the CRC board. Let me begin by clarifying that the current chairman of the Countryside Agency and the rural advocate are, as is well known to the Committee, already the same person—Dr Stuart Burgess—who has been referred to in the debate. Dr Burgess was appointed chairman by the Secretary of State and subsequently designated rural advocate by the Prime Minister in 2004.

The arrangement derives from the 2000 rural White Paper, which announced the creation of the role of rural advocate to,

"argue the case on countryside issues and for rural people at the highest levels in Government and outside".

The role was to be a designation, not an appointment. Although it has seemed eminently sensible to us to link it to the chairman post—the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, if he will forgive me saying so, was the first person to whom the designation was given—we believe this is better done by custom and practice than by force of law.

The report on our draft Bill, published in March last year, by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in another place emphasised that this role is vital and welcomed our assurance that it was likely that the chairman of the CRC would be designated the rural advocate. In our response we stated that the CRC would provide substantial back-up to the rural advocate in what will undoubtedly be a pretty challenging role. We do not believe it necessary to add the designation to the specification for the chairman in Schedule 2, in that, unlike with the Countryside Agency, the concept of rural advocacy is built into the general purposes and powers of the CRC in Clauses 18 and 19 of this Bill.

The ability of the rural advocate to carry out his responsibilities has not been restricted by not having statutory backing. He already enjoys access to the Government and to Parliament, to the whole range of local, regional and national bodies concerned with rural affairs, and obviously to rural people themselves. Access to the Prime Minister is built into the description of the chairman's role. At present we are not convinced that the chairman of the CRC should be given any special functions over and above the wide remit and functions already set out in Chapter 2. That is our response at this stage to the noble Lord's amendment.

I shall take Amendments Nos. 241, 251 and 252 together. This group seeks to alter how the purpose and roles of the CRC are described in Clauses 18 and 19. Amendment No. 241 would formalise the CRC's monitoring role in a way which is not spelt out elsewhere in the Bill. It would raise the CRC's information and advisory roles to a more prominent position as one of two elements of its general purpose. Crucially, it would also remove the requirement for the CRC to promote sustainability in meeting rural needs. Sustainable rural communities are of course one of our main aims, as well as one of the main aims of the CRC and other bodies concerned with rural communities.

The amended Clause 18(1)(a), mentioned in Amendment No. 241, would not add anything genuinely new to the commission's purpose. Ensuring that government policies do not disadvantage persons living in rural areas is already embedded in all the CRC's monitoring and watchdog work. The revision to Clause 18(1)(b) similarly would not add anything substantially new as information collection and publication is already thoroughly embedded in the advisory function of the CRC and, we think, covered adequately in Clauses 19(b) and 20.

Amendment No. 251, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, would remove the CRC's advisory role. She told us that this is a probing amendment. The CRC will be a key source of independent expert advice to government and to other public, private and voluntary bodies on the social and economic needs of people and communities in rural areas. It has already demonstrated some of the ways in which it will exercise this function, through its thematic study on rural disadvantage and its report, the State of the Countryside 2005. The CRC's continuation of this role will be of great value to all those concerned with the facts about rural needs.

I turn to Amendment No. 252, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. My answer to her is this: at that stage it would be too late for the CRC to monitor and report on the development of policies which would have already been adopted by relevant persons. However, I think her response to me would be that while the wording of her amendment may not be absolutely appropriate, the CRC should be looking at the development of policies as much as anything else. I shall take that back.

Amendment No. 242 seeks to widen the commission's general purpose to include promoting awareness of rural-proofing, a definition of which would be added to Clause 18. Amendment No. 247 seeks to widen the commission's general purpose to include promoting awareness of rural-proofing, a definition of which, again, would be added to Clause 18. Amendment No. 255 seeks to impose a duty to monitor and to report to Parliament directly on rural-proofing, not through the Secretary of State as at present. This reporting duty would extend to,

"the social, economic and environmental state of rural England".

We do not think the amendments are necessary. The second amendment would place on the CRC a further burden of responsibility and formally require it to do something already at the heart of its role and work. Defra already supports the commission with funds to monitor and report annually on rural-proofing activities across all levels of government. Similarly, the CRC is already funded by Defra to produce an annual state-of-the-countryside report, about which we have heard. It covers, to use the wording in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron,

"the social, economic and environmental state of rural England".

The existing wording will empower the commission to continue to carry out these functions. That is why we do not consider the amendments necessary, although, of course, we appreciate the positive motives behind them.

Let me deal next with Amendments Nos. 243, 244, 250, 253 and 254 together. We do not believe there is an obvious purpose to these amendments. Amendments Nos. 243, 244, 250 and 254 would redefine the focus of the CRC's work from "rural needs" to,

"the needs of the inhabitants of rural communities".

We are not sure that that would bring any significant benefits. Clause 18(3) contains an adequate definition of "rural needs" as,

"the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas of England", which the amendments would not change or omit.

Amendment No. 253 seeks to alter the wording of Clause 19(c). Again, we do not think it adds anything. By implication, where the commission reports on the way in which policies adopted by relevant persons have been implemented, such a report would highlight both the good and the bad. The use of the word "extent" in this clause would also render the extra words "or not meeting" superfluous.

As to Amendments Nos. 245, 246 and 248, the role of the commission will be to focus on the social and economic needs of rural communities, focusing primarily on the disadvantaged. However, in championing those affected by social disadvantage or in areas of economic underperformance, it will enhance not weaken the relationship between rural communities and their environment.

In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, I can assure the Committee that the CRC will not be looking at social and economic needs in isolation from environmental needs. It will raise awareness of the relationships between farmers and land managers and their neighbouring rural communities, including social dependencies.

The Bill requires the commission, Natural England and the Joint Conservation Committee all to contribute to sustainable development through the functions they each perform. The CRC is tasked with promoting sustainable ways of meeting the needs of rural people and rural areas on the basis that anything that is not sustainable is, frankly, not in their interests.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative 5:30 pm, 8th February 2006

Perhaps I may seek an explanation from the Minister on what he said about the CRC's environmental role. Clearly it is important that the CRC should look at the relationships between those working on the land and their economic destinies, so to speak, but am I right in assuming that the CRC will not look at the purely environmental aspects of land management? It will look at it from a socio-economic dimension, I assume.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

Indeed it will. The CRC will look at it also within the context of sustainable development. I think the noble Earl agrees that sustainable development is sometimes described as a stool with three legs, of which one is the environmental leg. So the CRC will not be able to put the environment to one side when considering what has and has not been done properly in relation to rural areas.

While the commission will not be responsible for pursuing these environmental goals directly, it will need to encourage others to consider such issues in a holistic approach to developing sustainable solutions. Everyone is agreed on the dependency between a high-quality rural environment and a vibrant rural economy.

I have spoken for quite long enough. However, I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, wants to intervene.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As this is the Committee stage, it is quite appropriate to come back.

The Minister does not like the wording of our amendment on the rural needs of the inhabitants of rural communities, and I accept that. However, I hope that he has taken on board our reason for tabling it. The Bill refers to the rural needs of relevant persons. That could include someone who lives in the city but whose rural needs are different from those of people living and working there. I see the noble Baroness shaking her head and looking slightly puzzled. Perhaps the Minister and his team could look at that provision again; as it stands, it is about adequate, but that is all I would give it. I hope that between now and Report this provision could be looked at again. If the commission is,

"representing rural needs to relevant persons", those needs will be different, as I was trying to say in the amendment.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

We would argue that the term "relevant persons" of course includes all those who live in the country but may also include those who do not live in the country but work there. There are probably more people than we sometimes acknowledge who live in towns and cities and go to work in the country. They must be included under any commission that is worth its while. But we will of course look at this again.

I have finished my remarks and again thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this outstanding debate.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

This has been a very informative and interesting debate, and I thank all those who have spoken. I especially thank the noble Lords, Lord Renton of Mount Harry and Lord Judd, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for recognising that there is a paradox and that there are some fundamental issues about how we regard representation, and so on.

I somewhat regret not repeating the speech I made on Thursday in introducing the rural economy debate, and touching much more on the lack of housing, low seasonal wages, the irrelevance of the Government's choice agenda when it comes to rural schools, and so on. I thought that to save time I would not repeat it. But in not speaking on those issues at length, I fear that I laid myself open to two things. I have been misunderstood by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter. I share his views on the RDAs, and hope that he will support my Amendments Nos. 254 and 255 when we come to them. RDAs are among the most unaccountable bodies dealing with rural areas—we agree on that.

If I had repeated my speech, I would also have avoided being, if I may say so gently, patronised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. He believes that my view is romantic.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I wonder if I might assist the noble Baroness. I have just noticed that she referred to Amendments Nos. 254 and 255, which are grouped with this. Therefore, the debate on them and reference to them would normally come in the general debate because they are in the group.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am sorry if I got the wrong amendment numbers. I am referring to my amendments dealing with the RDAs.

I must continue refuting some of what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said. I should also like to touch on the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, not when he was speaking to his own amendment—with which I have much sympathy—but when he referred to the need for the CRC.

It might be romantic to imagine that elected representatives could represent the needs of rural areas alone, although I do not share that view. But it is also romantic, given the history—starting way back with the Rural Development Commission and going through the Countryside Agency—to imagine that this quango will change things such as the funding for pillar 2 touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in his Question yesterday, the real funding for sparse areas of rural England, whether the Government will recognise the cost of sparsity, and whether they will be able to change things such as the abolition of the Post Office card account, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred.

It will be tremendous if it does all the things mentioned, but we have seen years when even direct access to the Prime Minister has meant little change in rural areas. Indeed, I submit that we have seen the closure of rural post offices, fewer police in rural areas—I could go on, but I do not need to because all noble Lords in this Chamber know the problems very well. The problems stay the same or get worse; they do not improve as a result of quangos.

I recognise that I have lost this argument. I therefore look forward to debating the membership of the CRC, which is another critical issue. I accept that it will exist. In closing this debate, I must say that I am sorry to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that she cannot support my stance on this, given that her leader, David Cameron, launched his democracy task force yesterday. The timing is unfortunate in that she cannot support my amendment today. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about what the CRC will look like.

Clause 17 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Commission for Rural Communities]:

[Amendment No. 225 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 5:45 pm, 8th February 2006

moved Amendment No. 226:

Page 48, line 12, leave out "appointed by the Secretary of State" and insert "elected by Commission members"

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

We now move to the make-up of the Commission for Rural Communities. The aim of this group of amendments, of which mine are Amendments Nos. 226, 228, 231, 233 and 234, is to explore whether the Commission for Rural Communities should be an organisation that grows from the bottom up or one that is imposed from the top down. At the moment, each region has a rural affairs forum. Each forum is formed from the many bodies that send representatives to it, and I have no doubt that those representatives are elected. Some time ago, the Government themselves looked at the role of the regional rural affairs forums and concluded that,

"we believe a stronger relationship is needed with each region individually, if Ministers are to understand the differences as well as similarities across rural England. The Government will therefore build even closer links between the Regional Rural Affairs Forums and Ministers from relevant departments, with quarterly meetings with the Chairs of the Forums–including meeting in the regions".

How often do those meetings happen and are they productive?

Each regional rural affairs forum has a chair, and, assuming that the Government's wish has come true, they meet with Ministers. Those chairs must be well in touch with their regions and with what is happening in central government. I therefore submit that the chairs of those forums are particularly well placed to be the regional representatives on the Commission for Rural Communities.

Why do we need another parallel body given that the Commission for Rural Communities intends to draw each of its members from each of the regions, so that they are represented? That seems a high degree of duplication. If the chairs of the regional rural forums were members of the Commission for Rural Communities, it would give a feed up from the bottom to the national body. It would also give much more coherence to the Government's wish for Ministers to meet those representing the regions and to have rural proofing carried out. Given the job descriptions of CRC members, it would not be unduly onerous for one person to fulfil the role of both the regional rural forum chair and a commission member, as so much of the work would involve looking at the same issues.

The other amendments in this group envisage that it should be for commission members to choose their chair from among their number. That would enhance the independence of the commission, bearing in mind all the eloquent speeches made in favour of the fact that this person would have a direct line to the Prime Minister, would be very influential with Ministers, and so on. At the same time, there is a slight paradox in that they are appointed essentially by a Minister—even given the Nolan rules.

That is a secondary point. The real point is that I should like the CRC, if we are to have it, to grow up from the grass roots through the regions into a national body and not one imposed from the top that then effectively floats around the regions, largely duplicating what the rural affairs forums already do regionally. I would be very interested to know what other Members of the Committee feel on this issue. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Exeter The Bishop of Exeter Bishop

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, through Amendment No. 228, raises an interesting and important point. With the demise of the National Rural Affairs Forum, the regional rural forums are increasingly important. They have the capacity to bring together in the regions precisely that wide coalition of voices about which I was speaking earlier. Clearly there must be some engagement between them and the new CRC, and mechanisms to achieve that are well worth exploring.

I am sorry to disagree with the noble Baroness again, especially when we share a commitment to dealing with so many of the real rural issues together in the south-west, but I believe that she has chosen the wrong way forward. I believe that for three reasons. First, the chairmanship of a regional rural forum and the membership of an effective CRC are likely to require rather different skills sets. Secondly, there is likely to be a difference in the time commitment required. Many of the existing regional rural forum chairs would simply not be able to give the time commitment required to a robust and independent body without detriment either to that body or to the forum or to the very fields in which they have responsibilities that give them their standing and credibility.

Thirdly, I believe that very different appointment processes are likely to be required. It is entirely right that the chair of a regional rural forum should be appointed by local representative means. However, if the CRC is to be robust and independent, if it is not to be that high-level talking shop that none of us wants, and if it is to have bite as well as bark, it will require a compact membership of real weight and experience and containing an appropriate balance of skills. That is likely to be best achieved through processes that are open and transparent, such as those offered through the Nolan procedures, which is why I support the thrust of Amendment No. 229.

The noble Baroness has raised some important points but I hope that they might be explored in a rather different way.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 227, 229, 230 and 232. With the leave of the Committee, I will also address our Amendments Nos. 264 and 265, which are similar, dealing with another body contained in the Bill.

The principle of these amendments was debated earlier when we were considering Natural England. On the first day in Committee the Minister explained to us the processes that would be used in appointing the chairman of Natural England. Here we are dealing with the appointment of the chairman of the CRC. Will she confirm that appointments to all the bodies listed in the Bill will follow the same procedure?

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

I seem to have managed to insert Amendment No. 231A between the Liberal Front Bench and my own Front Bench. It states:

"In making appointments to the Commission, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of appointing at least one person who has considerable experience of, and has shown capacity in, the rural affairs of local authorities".

This follows on very well from the remarks just made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter. In his earlier speech on Clause 17, he produced a lovely phrase about the Commission for Rural Communities "turning invisible persons into visible persons". I so enjoyed that phrase that it gives me pleasure to repeat it.

When I hear that the chairman will be one of those people who has "direct access to the Prime Minister", as an ex-Chief Whip from the other place, I am never very convinced by that. Someone who has direct access to the Prime Minister is not really in the business of making invisible persons visible. For that reason I have put forward this amendment, which suggests that there should be one representative from the local authorities on the commission. As the Minister said in his previous speech, local authorities have a wealth of knowledge on this issue.

I would like to see a pathfinder project. From my own involvement with the South Downs Joint Committee, I know that Hampshire is putting itself forward to manage the pathfinder project in Hampshire, if it can, and thus, with a great deal of determination, to bring together under one local authority roof the needs of the countryside, not just of farmers, and then trying to match those needs with help from local authorities themselves, partners such as the RSPB and the Environment Agency, and EU money.

As we move forward with the CRC, it is important that this knowledge should not be lost, but should be used to the full. I therefore put down this amendment, which aims to provide a formal but modest supportive connection between local government and the new commission. As I have just said, local government has access to the evidence, skills and resources that could assist the commission in achieving its objectives. Through local democracy the ever-changing needs of rural communities are now monitored, and, through the same process, the public service responses can be championed. The job of the commission will be to advise the Government on the needs of the rural communities, and this proposed connection will provide local government with a continuing opportunity to make its wide knowledge available to the commission.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will consider this modest amendment favourably and I look forward very much to what she has to say.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 6:00 pm, 8th February 2006

I shall speak to all the amendments in the group in the order in which they appear on the Groupings List. Amendment No. 226 proposes that the CRC chairman should be elected by its board. I believe that all members of the CRC board should be chosen for their particular skills, whether they are academic researchers, farmers or people who own rural businesses, people with experience of rural deprivation, those with experience of young or old people living in rural areas and so on. The chairman is chosen because of his or her broad knowledge and experience and the ability to chair. In the light of our recent debate, he or she must have the confidence of the Secretary of State and, indeed, the backing of the Prime Minister. Therefore, I believe that the chair ought to be appointed rather than chosen by the board.

As regards Amendments Nos. 227 and 229, I totally agree that all members of the commission must be chosen following an open process and interview. Amendment No. 228 proposes that all regional rural forum chairmen should automatically be members of the commission. On reflection, I do not think that is the right way forward. The process of becoming a regional rural forum chair is pretty random. Sometimes it can be short term. I know of two cases of people taking on that position just for a year because no one else could be found. That would not be satisfactory. In many cases it is a Buggins' turn process. Someone may even be on a regional rural forum because no one else from an organisation volunteered. In such circumstances it would not be a case of an open process and interview. That is not the right way forward.

The other argument against such a process is that it may result in gaps in expertise on the CRC board or an unnecessary doubling up of expertise because it would be rather a random process. After all, regional rural forum chairs do get their say currently in the National Rural Affairs Forum. Representing the delegated interests of your regional rural forum is a slightly different job from the free thinking, politically aware skills that will be required for the CRC. There is a much better way of maintaining a small and effective CRC board; that is, by ensuring that a proper process of selection takes place which also takes provenance into account. My experience of the Countryside Agency was that it made certain that there was someone from every region, or someone who could at least represent the interests of that region, on its board. You can represent provenance as well as skills and expertise. As I say, it has been done before.

As regards Amendment No. 230, the chairman ought to be involved in the selection process of other board members. He or she has to meld that board into an effective force and knows best both the skills and weaknesses of existing members and hence what the gaps are. I suspect that the Secretary of State can insist on having his way in the matter but to my mind the chairman must have a fairly big say. I once came up against a Minister's wishes in that regard and I am glad to say that I won. As I say, it is important that the chair has a fairly big say in choosing the other board members. I do not understand the desire to remove paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 2, which concerns members having relevant experience or skills.

As regards Amendment No. 231, I am all in favour of not having too big a board but it seems sensible to leave provision in the Bill to change the numbers on the board without necessarily having primary legislation. However, I am not too fussed about that.

Amendment No. 231A, standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, refers to,

"the desirability of appointing at least one person who has . . . experience of . . . the rural affairs of local authorities".

I totally support the thinking behind that amendment. It is certainly desirable as the CRC will have to have a very good understanding of the way in which local authorities work and how to influence them. As was mentioned earlier, the CRC will also have to have a good working relationship with the rural commission of the LGA. It will have to have a very good understanding of the RDAs, academic research into social issues, rural deprivation, rural businesses, which obviously includes land management, and perhaps a good understanding of effective lobbying in Whitehall, which will probably be an important role, and perhaps even, in this day of spin, marketing skills—you never know. The needs of the board will inevitably undergo a change in emphasis as time goes on. While I totally agree that the local authority angle is a crucial need that must be filled, I am not certain that I would want to give it a priori attention by making it the only provision mentioned in the Bill with regard to appointments to the commission. However, as I say, I am sympathetic to the amendment.

Amendment No. 232 addresses the question of the Secretary of State appointing a deputy chair. Perhaps such a small body does not need a deputy chair. That would involve extra funding so perhaps the Secretary of State should make that decision. Amendments Nos. 233 and 234 propose that the CRC and not the Secretary of State should remove board members. There is something to be said for the decision to remove a board member being at one remove from the CRC. I believe that a nettle is more likely to be gripped that way. In those circumstances the chief executive officer would obviously have to consult with Defra and would have to ensure that all the relevant processes were correctly followed. However, I believe that the process becomes slightly less personal if the ultimate decision in such a matter is taken by the Secretary of State. In my view that could be a good thing.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

I support Amendment No. 231A in the name of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for what I acknowledge are paradoxical reasons. I was once the first headhunter in the United Kingdom. One of the principal responsibilities and obligations of a headhunter is to get the client to indicate precisely what specifications he is trying to fill, and, ideally, to give some indication of where the person might come from. The paradox arises because I have the greatest possible respect for those who were Chief Whips of the government party between 1979 and 1997, but I sometimes doubted whether they had thought in terms of specifications for particular jobs on which they made recommendations to the Prime Minister rather than thinking that the person was good in the House of Commons and would be relevant in the government. I give a single example. In the National Health Service there is a particular need for experience of achieving change in large-scale organisations. I never saw any significant sign that in selecting Ministers to serve in the Department of Health between 1979 and 1997, that consideration ever entered into the process at all. If it did, they were unsuccessful in responding to that specification.

I am enthusiastic about my noble friend's specifications on this occasion, in the same way that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was. They are specifications which could well be omitted from paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 2, which might be interpreted by an unkind critic of the drafting as "any decent rural experience will do". My noble friend's amendment simply says that the Secretary of State has to "have regard to". That is not a compulsory or mandatory specification, but I happen to think that the particular issue which he has identified is one which is immensely worth having on the face of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I could not possibly follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, down the road of the griefs and internal problems involved in promotions to government office in the period prior to 1997. That would be most unwise of me.

These amendments are designed to reduce some of the Secretary of State's powers in relation to the appointment of the CRC chairman and board. They do not take account of what we intend the CRC board to achieve and how we can best appoint the right people to the board to make a success of the CRC and properly address the needs of rural communities. On Amendment No. 226, for the CRC to be effective it will require a strong strategic steer. Therefore, it is essential that the board chairman has the necessary leadership skills to provide such a steer—as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron—in addition to the experience and expertise that all the board members will contribute. The appointment of the chairman needs to be made using different criteria from those used for board appointments, so it would not be appropriate to elect a chairman from among the board members.

On Amendments Nos. 231 and 230, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, together with the chairman, the board of the CRC should be appointed by the Secretary of State to ensure that between them they have the skills required to direct the commission in fulfilling its functions. That point was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter. On Amendment No. 230, surely the Secretary of State will need to consult the chairman about board appointments to help to ensure a fit between candidates' expertise and personal skills and those required by the CRC. The example given by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, bore out that need. The Secretary of State is required to follow the OCPA code of practice, so she will need to have regard to the criteria necessary to select people who will enable the board to function effectively.

Amendment No. 231A, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, touches on very similar themes. I make it absolutely clear that all appointments to all bodies covered by the Bill will be made according to the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments; the appointment of someone who happens to have local authority experience and fits the other criteria needed will not in any way be precluded by the process that is to be followed—that is important. The effect of this amendment would be that experience of the rural affairs of local authorities would become the only specified criterion for board member selection included in the Bill, beyond the general wording already included. If we were to include such a restrictive addition, we would need to consider adding similar criteria covering all the CRC's many other stakeholders to ensure that their interests were similarly represented on the CRC's board.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

The noble Baroness appears to be arguing that because one good idea might lead to other good ideas she should not accept the first good idea. I have been grateful for the support from others in the Committee in this short debate. I suggest that she and her colleagues think very seriously about this, because there is a wealth of information in the local authorities that the commission will want to make use of. If the amendment were acceptable, this would be a hallmark of the fact that the CRC is willing to co-operate to use that information and knowledge rather than walking away from it. For that reason, perhaps the Government Front Bench would have a further think about the proposal.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip 6:15 pm, 8th February 2006

I was about to declare a past interest as a member of local authorities for nearly 27 years, with 20 years as a member of Lancashire County Council. I am only too well aware of the point that is being raised and I could not do other than recognise it, looking at the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, with his long experience of Essex County Council. However, once you start with a little list, all those other stakeholders will demand that they are put in the Bill, too. I am seeking to make it absolutely plain that there is no preclusion of appointment of people with that local authority experience. Speaking purely personally, I can see that such experience would be one of the stronger factors that would be taken into account, but if that were the only criterion beyond the general wording it could become prescriptive or lead to a lengthening list. I am certain that other stakeholders would come forward.

Schedule 2, paragraph 3(3), on page 48, together with the OCPA code of practice, already requires that the Secretary of State has regard to the criteria necessary to select people who will enable the board to function effectively. It helps to ensure that board members will have demonstrated capacity in,

"some matter relevant to the exercise of the Commission's functions".

Given the CRC's public sector-wide remit, "some matter relevant" can be taken to include the rural affairs of local authorities, without specifically needing to say so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, spoke to Amendment No. 228, which would require the CRC board to consist solely of the chairmen of the regional rural affairs forums as ex officio members. While the CRC will work in close collaboration with the regional rural affairs forums, and there will be links between the CRC and the forums, the chairmen of the forums will not necessarily have the collective expertise and experience required by the CRC board—that point was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. The Secretary of State will be accountable to Parliament for the performance of the CRC, so it is right for her, rather than the chairman, to make the board appointments, using transparent selection procedures. At present, there is one RRAF chairman and one RRAF member on the Countryside Agency board—neither of them was recruited solely on that criterion, but clearly it enhanced their rural credentials. The chairs of the RRAFs meet Ministers quarterly, and I understand that the next meeting with the Minister, my honourable friend Jim Knight, is to be next week.

I was asked about the role of regional rural affairs forums. They have a secretariat provided by government offices, although the chair is a non-government person. Their members are usually rural stakeholders from around each region. They exist to help to rural-proof things at regional level, especially now that the Countryside Agency does not have its regional presence. They are seen as a primary means by which grass-roots customers of government services can give feedback to government to ensure that those services meet the needs of rural people and that they deliver practical benefits on the ground.

As touched on by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, the chairmen of the forums are volunteers. That is a different role from being appointed to a national statutory body, which could weaken the link that the chairmen and their forums have with their own grass roots. The Secretary of State will be accountable to Parliament for the performance of the CRC, so it is right for her rather than the chairman to make the board appointments, but ex officio appointments would not be in line with the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

I should be most grateful if the noble Baroness would give way for a second. As noble Lords can see, our amendments were focused on exploring just how much power the Secretary of State should have in the whole body. We have heard numerous powerful arguments about his involvement, including appointing all the members of the commission. But with regard to our Amendment No. 232, did the Minister notice that paragraph 4 of Schedule 2 states that the Secretary of State "may appoint" the deputy chairman? I wonder how strongly the Government feel about the appointment of a deputy chairman.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I shall come to Amendment No. 232 later if the noble Duke will be patient.

With regard to Amendment No. 231, although the proposed size of the CRC board is appropriate for the commission's functions and size in the foreseeable future, it would seem sensible to allow the Secretary of State the flexibility to adjust the number of board members at a later date. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, referred to that. Requiring the use of a statutory instrument for such a change will mean that it will be made only where it is essential for the CRC to continue effectively to fulfil its role.

I turn to Amendment No. 231 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and Amendment No. 232 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. For the board to be fully effective, it may be useful to appoint a deputy chairman to share the leadership responsibilities. I suggest that, because of the Secretary of State's accountability for the CRC, she should be involved in appointing someone who has the required skills. There are no plans to do so at present and it is a discretionary power.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 233 and 234 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. On the basis that the Secretary of State has approved the CRC board appointments, I would argue that it is only right that the Secretary of State should also have the powers to accept resignations from members and be able to remove members who are unable or unfit to carry out their duties, thus helping to ensure that the board continues to function effectively.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, also spoke to Amendments Nos. 264 and 265, so I assume that he is grouping them with these amendments. They relate to the appointment of members to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and are designed to require the Secretary of State to select the chairman and independent members of the joint committee following an open and fair competition regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

The noble Duke recognised that Schedule 4 does not specify the procedures which the Secretary of State should employ when appointing the chairman and independent members. That is because—I can give him this assurance—Ministers are already required to follow the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments when making appointments to non-departmental public bodies. The joint committee is covered by the code, and that will not change when it is reconstituted.

Amendment No. 266 is designed to impose specific terms on appointments to the joint committee and to impose a maximum of 10 years for any appointee. Schedule 4 does not specify the lengths of appointments. However, the joint committee is covered by the code issued by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and that will not change when it is reconstituted.

I am assuming that the intention is to ensure a phased turnover of appointments. I can see how that might work in theory were we setting up a new committee from scratch, but the JNCC will be reconstituted and some existing appointments will carry over. Following best practice, in the past appointments have been made so that they do not all come to an end at the same time but, however well we plan these things, premature resignations can frustrate our intentions. That is a good reason in itself to retain a greater degree of flexibility. It also covers those who are appointed from the UK conservation agencies and could conceivably impinge on appointments to those bodies.

I understand the intention behind the last amendment and support the underlying principle, but it is at odds with the code because an appointee who has served two full terms or 10 years is eligible to apply for appointment through open competition and he can be appointed again if selected on merit through that competitive process.

I hope that that is helpful. I was not expecting to speak to those amendments at this point. If I find that I have omitted anything that I should have included, I will of course write to the noble Duke and clarify it. For all the reasons that I have given, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will feel confident about withdrawing her amendment and that the other amendments spoken to will not be moved.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, meant to say "the noble Baroness, Lady Miller".

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Perhaps I may mention the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, with which I naturally have considerable sympathy. I believe that when we debated the rural development Bill, we asked for a member specifically with rural interests to be included. I think that I am right in saying that the Government resisted that for a while and then gave in to us, so I live in hope that the Minister will reflect on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, between now and Report.

Reflecting on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, in particular, I think that Defra has a bit of a job to do in strengthening the regional rural affairs forums. I accept that in some regions they are working well and that the chairs are very effective. However, reading between the lines of some of the contributions from noble Lords, it seems to me that, although they should be very effective bodies, all the stakeholders in the regions find that the members within those stakeholder bodies are fighting among themselves to be representatives on the regional rural affairs forums because they are powerful bodies that make a difference. If that is the case, I believe that Defra needs to see whether it should do something about it. I hope that the creation of the CRC will not mean that the regional rural affairs forums take very much second place and that Defra will not worry about them too much any more.

One question stays in my mind. What if the rural regional affairs forum comes up with one view of life—particularly life in its region—and the CRC comes up with another? Whose voice will be heard by Ministers, including the Prime Minister? That is still an unresolved issue. Between now and Report I shall reflect on what everyone has said but, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 227 to 231 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 231A:

Page 48, line 20, at end insert—

"(3A) In making appointments to the Commission, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of appointing at least one person who has considerable experience of, and has shown capacity in, the rural affairs of local authorities."

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

I listened very carefully to what the Minister said but I should also like to read it carefully. I have to say that at this stage I am not convinced by her arguments and I may well wish to return to the matter on Report. I do not want to repeat the arguments now and, on that basis, I shall not move the amendment tonight.

[Amendment No. 231A not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 232 to 234 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

We return yet again to pensions. I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me following our previous discussion and I shall explain why I wish to return to the subject.

I understand that board members of the commission will be appointed by the Secretary of State and may be paid,

"such remuneration and allowances as the Secretary of State may determine".

The commission must also pay towards the provision of pensions, gratuities and allowances. That provision will presumably take effect at the end of each member's service, or when he or she reaches pensionable age. Why is there a need to pay a pension to those who are still serving members? If there is, on what basis will it be calculated?

The Bill makes the same provision for the payment of pensions to the employees of the commission as it does to board members. It also sets the same proviso for the payments towards the future pension provision for employees. When we debated pensions in relation to Natural England, I was assured that the provision applied only to the board chairman and possibly the deputy chairman. I cannot accept that that is the case when in several places in the Bill the same provisions appear covering the whole board and sometimes the employees as well.

The letter that I received from the Minister states:

"Where a significant time commitment is required, it is often only feasible for such people to serve as board members if they are fairly remunerated for their services. An appropriate package may in these circumstances need to include pension arrangements. Such arrangements will, needless to say, only be made where they can demonstrate sound value for money. Typically, it will only be the chair, or deputy chair, of a board who falls into this category, but that may not always be the case.

"In establishing a new body, it is therefore standard practice to insert a clause taking powers to make pension arrangements for board members.

"In practice, the decision by the Secretary of State to approve pension arrangements for a board member will be a matter of discretion".

My question, following that response, has to be: when is that decided? Is it decided when the person is interviewed and being considered as a board member? Is it part of the remit of the Secretary of State or the interview panel to discuss it with the person putting himself forward as a board member? Or is it decided afterwards when a board member has been appointed? It is not clear.

The letter continues:

"A situation might arise when another Board member was invited to work for more than the usual 2–3 days/month and there should be discretion to consider the pension issue".

I am concerned about pensions and who is entitled to them. Will the existing pension of somebody who goes on to be a board member be taken up by the department, or is a pension to be part of the payment package? Perhaps the remuneration is considered not enough, which is why the pension scheme is being imposed. I am sorry to return to the issue, but I find it very perplexing. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

I am perplexed by the amendment. We want to ensure that the best possible people are on the board. My experience of organisations in which I have been involved suggests that there is a danger of limiting the availability of people to serve if the result of giving serious service over several days a week are financial penalties affecting their pension when they retire from their other work. Such a flexible provision is an extremely sensible and cautious arrangement to ensure that the list of available people on whom we can call to serve—invaluably, we hope—is as wide as possible.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

I have not disagreed with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, so far in our debates, but on this occasion I do. I strongly support my noble friend.

I had the privilege of serving on the council of English Nature for six years—two three-year appointments. We received a small salary, but there was no mention of a pension. A considerable number of people who served on that council were not particularly well off. I have made the point before that they did it because it was an honour and a privilege to serve on the council. That should be the overriding reason why people accept such appointments.

The job is not that onerous. We are talking only about several days a month. If it means reflecting that through an increase in salary, that is the way to go about it. Principally, I think that pensions should be restricted exclusively to the chairman, and possibly the deputy chairman. To extend it to members of councils or boards of such bodies is wrong, and I thoroughly support my noble friend.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

This is a serious issue. I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is saying, and that for reasons of equality, those who might otherwise not be able to afford to do so can take on such roles. That is worthy. However, when one looks at the website for government appointments, on which I congratulate the Government, one sees vast inequalities between the different appointments. Many appointees are paid nothing except travelling expenses; some are paid a substantial amount per year; and some much less. That does not always reflect the amount of time given to a particular role. When the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, previously raised this matter, we asked for a list of the remunerations that bodies received. Pensions equally fall into this category. This might be one of only two or three bodies; or 20 bodies might have pensions; or, we might be setting a precedent. These are interesting issues to which we have still not had answers.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

Perhaps I can offer personal experience. For a time I had a pensionable post in the public sector as deputy chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I was given a choice, which was either to stay in the government pension scheme or to accept a slightly larger remuneration and make my own pension arrangements. At the same time, the Treasury insisted that I did not give up any possibility of there being a widow's pension, so my noble kinsman can look forward to a small pension—may be not, but let us assume that things happen normally.

Pensions are enormously complicated, subject to a great deal of legislation. I thought that we were moving towards having as many people as possible making their own pension arrangements by money purchase out of a remuneration package that enabled them to do so. I urge on the Minister that the pension possibility is best administered by way of a remuneration package received on the understanding that the individual will make his own self-invested arrangements, rather than becoming a member of a government scheme, with all the administrative costs involved.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I fear that I had not noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, had sought certain information in some of her questions; for example, on the range of incomes. I apologise, and will write to noble Lords who have spoken on this.

The pension provisions are part of the standard arrangements for NDPBs, allowing the Secretary of State to require the CRC to pay pensions to its board members and staff. In practice, of the CRC board only the chairman and deputy chairman are likely to be pensionable appointments. The Cabinet Office requires ministerial governance of pensions, and it will be a condition of entry for the Civil Service pension scheme. Amounts would be calculated on a case-by-case basis.

I was asked whether pensions could go beyond the chair or deputy chair. If another person on the board takes on extra responsibility, such as a significant amount of work, several days a week over a prolonged period—perhaps chairing an audit committee—they could be considered. They would be appointed in liaison by the chair and the CEO, who works as the accounting officer. In turn, that would have to be overseen, under Cabinet Office rules, by the Secretary of State.

Chair appointments are pensionable in the case of a number of other bodies: the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency, English Nature and the JNCC. There is provision for a deputy chair position on the board of the Environment Agency, but there are no employer pension contributions as the time worked is less than two days a week. The deputy chair position on the board of English Nature is also pensionable, but the position is currently vacant. I understand that some of the other chairs also have pensionable vacancies.

I understand the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, about the possibility of separate personal arrangements being made. That will depend, to a degree, on the type of appointment and remuneration package that is in the public interest, as well as the interest of the individual concerned.

I am conscious that other questions have been asked, and will write as comprehensive a reply as I may. In answer to one of the important points of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, my understanding—and I will correct this if I am wrong—is that the question of other NDPBs was considered at the time that individual appointments were considered. To a great extent, it must be a personalised package because circumstances differ.

I agree, rather sadly, with the noble Earl, Lord Peel. I, too, had many friends and colleagues in local government who gave full-time service for many years and never had a pension of their own. I do not believe they should be so deeply out of pocket as a result of service to the community. I never met anybody who went into local government for the money; I met people who lost money by being in it. That was my experience.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

No one is suggesting that anybody should be out of pocket. However, if Members of your Lordships' House can be appointed to carry out important legislative duties without a salary or pension, it is not unreasonable to ask people to sit on the board of, say, the CRC or the council of Natural England, without receiving such remuneration.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

Forgive me; perhaps even we do not get a true cross-representation of society.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I cannot agree with the Minister's last comment.

When we touched upon the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I explained—and will explain again—that we should select the most able and willing person to do the job. Selection should not be made on whether a candidate can afford to do the job. As a former member of the Train Users' Consultative Committee many years ago—which then became the Rail Users' Consultative Committee—we certainly received only travel expenses. I was well aware that one or two people serving on that committee would perhaps have benefited from a bit of extra help; although I was not in the loop and I did not know.

I have tried to get two real issues across. Perhaps when the Minister has a chance to read Hansard they may become clearer. Board members—not including the chairman and deputy chairman, because their workload will be much busier—presumably will not bring a pension with them, because they are likely to be working people who may not have one. I am trying to establish whether the new system will pay them a pension, or contribute to a fund, which perhaps they do not have, if they are not of pensionable age.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip 6:45 pm, 8th February 2006

I try to help the noble Baroness; forgive me if I get it wrong. It is not envisaged that board members other than the chairman and deputy chairman would be in receipt of a pension. The time they devoted to the task would be very different. The only reservation is where somebody may take on a lengthy task, taking far more days in the week than the average board member.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The Minister and I are in agreement on that. I do not have any difficulty there. It still raises a question, however, on how we are making a pension payment to somebody who is, perhaps, not retired and does not have a pension—unless they have saved up for themselves. Or is it being added to their commercial—I use the word in its broadest sense—pension? I will need to come back to this.

An employee who is doing a great deal of work on a particular CRC project may have been seconded from another department. Will they be considered to be full-time within this new department? I am obviously not going to press the matter now, but there is a whole range of issues and I have tried, in my amendments, to suggest to the Minister that they have not been addressed.

Perhaps it would be sensible, because I do not wish to delay the House, to have further conversations on this issue between now and Report stage. I am not clear who is paying what. When somebody has been seconded to the new NDPB to do a specific job as an employee, will their pension payments be borne by this new department, or will they be borne by, say, Defra? I accept that it is confusing, but it is a wider issue, perhaps, than I have conveyed to the Minister tonight—although I have had a second go at doing so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

Once again, this is a repeat of some questions we asked about Natural England. In response, the first time around, the Minister promised to get us answers and a certain number were given in Hansard. However, the question on the appointments system remains. Under the proposed system, the board could well comprise over 50 per cent of the original members in 10 years' time. Will the present system still stand?

I shall not move Amendment No. 237. I beg to move Amendment No. 236.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

Amendment No. 236 would remove the Secretary of State's power to appoint the CRC's first chief executive. This clause is in the Bill simply so that the Secretary of State can make the first appointment of a CRC chief executive if it is desirable that she does so. This is perfectly standard NDPB governance which ensures that the Secretary of State could, if required, ensure that a chief executive is in place from the outset of the CRC. I note that the noble Duke did not speak to Amendment No. 237.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

I thank the Minister for her reply. Perhaps this is one way in which the Government are trying to overcome the fact that they have had to appoint more or less a shadow body already and it has only been the Secretary of State who has had power to appoint people. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 237 and 238 not moved.]

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

I remind the Committee that any body corporate is bound by a number of Acts that require it to meet financial, employment, competition and many other standards. In all cases, they render it liable to inspection by Revenue and Customs, the Health and Safety Executive, the Audit Commission and a host of other organisations. The response of the noble Baroness on Amendment No. 98 is at col. 1116 of Hansard for 24 January, but it did not answer the specific questions about the nature of the Secretary of State's inquiry; the type of person who will inspect and make copies; the explanations that will be sought and why; how often that intrusion will occur; whether the outcome will be made available to the chairman; and whether the Secretary of State will publicise the exercise, the reasons for it and the results. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I am rather surprised that the noble Duke has raised this matter because the accounts provision is a standard practice of NDPBs and gives the Government and the taxpayer a guaranteed level of accountability for the CRC. The noble Duke asked who would have the right to see the accounts. The commission will be obliged to make them publicly available. He also asked in what circumstances accounts could be sought. Internal Defra auditors are required to produce them annually or more often were there to be financial problems within the organisation, which is a rare occurrence. There has to be an annual internal audit for good governance practice. I hope that answers the noble Duke's questions.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

I thank the noble Baroness for her reply and her contention that this is a standard practice. Perhaps it is the nature of good governance, but it appears to be a belt and braces exercise in the normal way the Audit Commission and other bodies will be looking at it. Perhaps this provision is to provide powers for the department also to do its own exercise. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 18 [Commission's general purpose]:

[Amendments Nos. 241 to 248 not moved.]

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Representation, advice and monitoring]:

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 249:

Page 7, line 26, leave out paragraph (a).

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

This amendment relates to the matter we debated a little while ago about the CRC representing the needs of rural people. We had a full debate, so I do not think that there is anything to add at this stage.

[Amendment No. 249 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 250 to 255 not moved.]

Clause 19 agreed to.

Clause 20 agreed to.

Clause 21 [Information services etc.]:

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Amendment No. 256 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 257 and 258. They are concerned with the information provided by the commission. If the commission is to be established, it should publish documents and provide information, so Amendment No. 256 substitutes "shall" for "may" thereby putting a duty on the commission. That duty is not an alternative: the commission must publish documents, provide information and assist in the provision of information, because it will not always be in a position to publish itself. In our debates, we have accepted that there is a role for the commission and the provision of information is one of the critical roles that it can play. Apart from monitoring and criticising other organisations, it will gather information. If that information is not published and disseminated as widely as possible, it will be difficult for other organisations to know what the commission's requirements are. Furthermore, the general public has a right to as wide an awareness as possible. This clause could do with strengthening and that is what this amendment does. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

I hope that the noble Baroness will not find it patronising if I say that I agree with her. Since the commission is bound to publish these documents anyway, why does the Bill use "may" and not "shall"?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My reading of the clause is slightly different. I think that not stipulating what the CRC shall publish undermines the amendment. There is undoubtedly a need for publications, and statistics will change from year to year, so I am of a different opinion.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

We are expecting the CRC to be an independent body operating at arm's length from government. Therefore, we should not remove its discretion to decide what information it publishes or otherwise makes publicly available. The commission should be able to judge for itself whether it would be appropriate to publish documents or provide information on a case-by-case basis. That will allow it to draw attention to specific rural issues at appropriate times and to contribute effectively to wider debates on rural matters.

The CRC will, of course, be required to publish an annual report to the Secretary of State. Paragraph 22(1) of Schedule 2 makes provision for this. We also expect it to continue to publish an annual "state of the countryside" report. Under Clause 19(c), it already has a duty to report on its monitoring of the extent to which rural service delivery policies are meeting rural needs. In gathering evidence and providing advice on rural issues, the CRC will be subject to both the Freedom of Information Act and data which should ensure appropriate access to information for all interested parties.

My noble friend Lord Carter wickedly raised the issue of the difference between "may" and "shall". He has longer experience of parliamentary draftsmen than I do, and knows—as I do—that in the general world there are some differences, but that in the parliamentary draftsman's world there are major differences. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, with all those assurances about access to information, will feel able to make the parliamentary draftsman's life a happy one.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 7:00 pm, 8th February 2006

I feel very encouraged by the support of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I must have argued my case more strongly and cogently than I did on the last amendment, which he did not feel able to support. I did not hear any support from the Conservative Benches, which slightly surprised me, knowing how keen they are on information being made available. I feel not one bit reassured by the Minister, because I would not like the public to have always to rely on the Freedom of Information Act. Parliamentary draftsmen should be consistent. In this instance I will leave enough time for the Minister to reconsider—I hope—but I feel inclined to return to the matter on Report. If we are to have a commission, the Government have to provide as much information to those paying for it—the taxpayers, in rural areas especially—as possible. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 257 and 258 not moved.]

Clause 21 agreed to.

Clauses 22 to 24 agreed to.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

moved Amendment No. 259:

After Clause 24, insert the following new clause—

"GUIDANCE

The Secretary of State may give the Commission guidance as to the exercise of its functions."

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

We are now moving on to the powers of the Secretary of State. On page 6, the Bill contains a section governing the issue of guidance to Natural England. It also has a section on directions for Natural England. Does the exclusion of guidance from the rules governing the rural commission imply that it will be totally unfettered in the pursuit of its purpose? Do the Government consider that Chapter 2 is sufficient to ensure that the many parties with whom the commission will have to deal will be constrained to pay attention?

Guidance is a two-edged weapon. It compels the object of its strictures to consider it, but it has an effect on the relationships that that body has to form to meet its purposes. Do the Government consider that, without guidance, other departments, employer organisations, local authorities, property developers and the like will appreciate the necessity of working with the commission and take heed of its message? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I understand the nature of this probing amendment. Clause 24(2) gives the Secretary of State power to fund the CRC and to place conditions on such funding. The conditions can include a requirement for the commission to agree a management statement and financial memorandum between itself and the department. This is normal practice to ensure accountability and propriety, and how things currently work for the Countryside Agency. But because the CRC will not be a delivery body, unlike Natural England, it will be a strong independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog, ensuring that the Government's policies make a real difference to people in rural areas. That is one reason why the Bill does not require a guidance clause.

The second reason is that the CRC is an advisory, as opposed to a delivery, NDPB. In its challenge function, it has to be reliant on its impartiality and independence from government in order to carry out its remit. I should have thought that the noble Duke would be pleased that its independence is being strengthened by the fact that it does not have to have guidance in the clause—unlike Natural England, which, as he rightly pointed out, has a guidance clause.

If the Secretary of State were able to issue the body with guidance beyond the sort envisaged by Clause 24(2), or the new clause proposed in the amendment, this could be perceived as jeopardising the CRC's independence. If it is not thought to be as independent as it possibly can be, it is more likely to fail than succeed, to judge from what noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite have said.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I do not want to anticipate too much the noble Viscount's opposition to the Question that Clause 25 stand part, but what is the difference between guidance and directions?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

Directions are always essential in case an NDPB goes completely off the rails and does something absolutely absurd. If so, it needs ministerial directions to put it back on the rails. Guidance is in one sense less than directions, but we feel that it is not necessary for this independent body, the CRC. On balance, it is not appropriate for the Secretary of State to have the power to issue such guidance to the CRC. I hope that answers the questions the noble Duke posed.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

I also was puzzled why there was no guidance in this section. I think I understand why from my noble friend's answer. If the Secretary of State had the power to issue guidance and the CRC was proving rather an embarrassment to the department and the Government—for example, in its rural-proofing exercise or its rural advocacy—it could be given guidance, in a sense, to back off. I think I understand that not having the power to give guidance strengthens the independence of the body.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My noble friend has got that right. The difference is between "having regard to" guidance, which is what Natural England has to do if it receives guidance, and "having to comply with" directions, which of course is what any non-departmental public body has to do.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

I thank the Minister for offering his explanations. We on these Benches are very keen to support anything that offers more independence to this body, and shows that it has independence. It is a little difficult to see why not having to give guidance makes it more independent than being able to give it directions, but I understand what the noble Lord says about the reserved powers—that the Secretary of State must in the final analysis be able to give directions. In the mean time, we will consider what he has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 [Directions]:

On Question, Whether Clause 25 shall stand part of the Bill?

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

In speaking to Clause 25, I will add briefly to the points made on Clause 16. I remain uneasy about the powers given to the Secretary of State by these clauses. I will study the present position of English Nature and the Countryside Agency in the light of the Minister's assurance that there is to be no increase in powers.

Clause 25 is shorter than and as widely drawn as Clause 16. Following the Minister's reply on Clause 16, will he give the Committee an assurance that if and when directions are made they will either address administrative matters of limited significance or will be made, as he suggested just now, as a move of last resort to deal with manifestly unreasonable behaviour by the commission?

This latter point is well illustrated by Defra's memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which refers to paragraph 103 of Schedule 11 and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The final sentence of the memorandum reads:

"If the Secretary of State felt that her intervention was required because the Board was proposing to act unreasonably, then she could still exercise control by issuing directions to the Board".

I also ask the Minister to assure the House that, as with Natural England, no directions are at present contemplated and that, if there were to be, your Lordships' House would be informed before Report.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Also In Scotland Team), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Scotland

As the Committee can probably tell from our discussion on the previous amendment, we are of a similar frame of mind to my noble friend and will also consider the reply.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The noble Viscount raises some interesting questions. On the Minister's reply about guidance and directions, I simply ask who decides what is absurd. The commission may be doing something that the Minister regards as well beyond its brief but, if it believes that to be needed for rural areas, is it for the Minister to step in to say that what it is doing is absurd? We have severe reservations about the clause, especially given that we have had the words "strong independent voice" quoted to us more times since we started to debate the Bill than I can imagine. I question whether that voice can stay independent if it is given directions every time that it does something awkward, which may well be the case.

I am reassured that the noble Viscount says that he will review the provision against the Natural England requirements, and so on. Perhaps we shall come back to the matter on Report.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

The noble Viscount has made an important point and has given the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, a chance to come back at me on the issue. The noble Viscount asks whether this is a power of last resort or for administrative purposes. I plump very much for the last resort. It will not be used carelessly or in a cavalier fashion, but as a very last resort. It is a long-stop power that I understand is taken with all NDPBs.

There are three reasons for directions. The first is accountability of public funding if it goes completely awry. Secondly, they may be used for an NDPB—I do not mean the CRC but, for example, Natural England—where there is an enormous conflict of policy between that exercised by the board of the body and government policy. Thirdly, they may be used at the request of a board of a body on a highly political issue on which the board itself does not want to come down on one side or another, but seeks the direction of the Minister. Those are the three classic reasons for directions.

Let us return to the Commission for Rural Communities. There, the power is an absolute last resort. The noble Baroness asked me what would be absurd. Of course Ministers decide whether something is absurd, but can the Committee imagine the outcry if the Secretary of State decided to make a direction on something that the CRC had done that was in every reasonable person's view something with which the Government should not be intervening? The Secretary of State of any department—a political animal—would certainly not intervene in a body such as the CRC unless it was an absolutely extreme case. This is a back-up power that I would never expect to be used.

The noble Viscount asked whether there are any draft directions. There are none. If there were to be any before Report—I am pretty certain that there will not be—of course I would make sure that the House knew about them.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative 7:15 pm, 8th February 2006

I thank the Minister for how he replied to the questions that I put. The famous case on this matter dates from 1976. It was the Secretary of State for Education and Science v Tameside Borough Council. It may be of interest to the Committee to know that Lord Denning gave a judgment, as did Lord Scarman and Lord Lane. On either side, there were advocates named—I cannot get them quite in alphabetical order—as Bingham, Brittan, Lloyd, Caldecott, who is not a Member of your Lordships' House, and Woolf. It is an extremely distinguished case which turned on the question of the difference between being wrong and being unreasonable.

Clause 25 agreed to.

Clause 26 [Transfers on dissolution of English Nature and Countryside Agency]:

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Here we begin to deal with transfer schemes under Chapter 3. I want the Minister to explain the circumstance in which property rights and liabilities of either English Nature or the Countryside Agency would be transferred to a regional development agency. Will she also make clear whether that transfer may affect any rural development agency, only one, or more specific ones and whether it is in fact likely that English Nature property rights and liabilities will be transferred to the rural development agencies? Although the dissolution of English Nature and of the Countryside Agency is covered in the Bill, it is very vague and we want to be clearer what will go and where it will go. It would be helpful if the Minister would also clarify whether the rights and liabilities may include duties and responsibilities. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

Clause 26 provides for the transfer of property rights and liabilities, covering matters such as land staff, employment contracts, agreements and any outstanding liabilities arising from the dissolution of English Nature and the Countryside Agency. With that background, my understanding is that duties are included. I shall be corrected rather quickly if I am wrong.

The transfers will be achieved through transfer schemes made by the Secretary of State. They may be made to Natural England, the Commission for Rural Communities, RDAs or Ministers of the Crown. As part of the measures to redeploy staff displaced by the dissolution of English Nature and the Countryside Agency, staff in the affected organisations will be eligible to apply for new posts created in RDAs.

It will be important that the rights of any staff who secure jobs in RDAs can be transferred to their new employers. The transfer of staff will be carried out in such a way that staff are protected so they do not suffer detriment to their employment rights as a result of such a transfer. In the same way, RDAs may need to assume responsibility for liabilities in relation to the staff they employ that continue beyond the dissolution of English Nature and the Countryside Agency. This does not apply to duties; it is only about assets and liabilities, not about duties.

Although there is no proposal to transfer property or property rights and liabilities to RDAs, the facility to do so would be helpful should the need arise. It will be important that all property matters that continue after the dissolution of English Nature and the Countryside Agency can be comprehensively transferred to the appropriate body. The noble Baroness asked whether this related to any RDA. It does. It is not envisaged that Natural England property will go to RDAs and, as I said, it will not include duties and responsibilities.

I hope that I have answered the points that the noble Baroness made, and that she feels confident to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I thank the Minister for her response, but I am not confident. I understand that English Nature is currently in one unit in, I believe, Peterborough, and that the Countryside Agency is based down in Cheltenham. When I read the Bill, I was trying to bring to mind the reason why English Nature might be required to move to be part of an RDA. At this stage, I can see no reason why it should, so it seems unusual for this to be in the Bill. The Minister is looking perplexed.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I was less perplexed with the noble Baroness than with whether I could work out the answer.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful for that comment. Bits of the Countryside Agency may well be transferred, although again we are none the wiser about where the whole of English Nature and the part of the Countryside Agency that will go to the CRC will be based. As the Minister knows, we had debates about that earlier on. We also had fairly big debates about the cost-effectiveness of leaving them where they are when the idea was to draw them under one umbrella. We still do not know where the CRC itself will be placed, so I realise that there are outstanding issues.

This is really about the possibility built into the Bill that some of this property will be transferred to the rural development agencies. That is why I raise the matter with the Minister.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I fully understand the noble Baroness's concern that too little information is available. That is because the legislation setting up the new body is going through Parliament at the moment. I reassure her that there is no present intention whatever for English Nature to go to the RDAs. That is not envisaged. I think the difficulty is that until decisions are taken about which property is to be used, there is obviously the uncertainty to which the noble Baroness has rightly drawn attention, and that in drafting the legislation, it has to be comprehensively possible for transfers to be made, even though, as I said, there is no intention for English Nature to go to the RDAs.

I hope that more information will be available between now and Report, because I can understand the noble Baroness's frustration.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister for that suggestion, because the RDAs, as we debated earlier, are unaccountable bodies. It seems very strange for there to be the possibility that a body that is supposed to be independent will be put with another body which, so far as we are concerned, is undemocratic. However, I am grateful for the Minister's reassurance. I shall read what she has said, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

This may be a convenient moment at which to resume the House. May I suggest that the Committee not begin again before 8.25 pm? I therefore beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.