Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

– in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 15 March 2006.

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Report received.

Clause 1 [Constitution]:

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, having listened to a serious debate on what should happen to legislation, we now return to the detail of the wording of this—

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

My Lords, I wonder whether noble Lords who wish to speak to one another could do so outside. We are unable to hear the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I shall move a little closer to the microphone, which might help.

Having dealt with high principles, the future of the House and a few other things in a debate that descended somewhat from my perspective, we now return to the detail of a Bill. In this group of amendments, we come to what we should be doing when we draft legislation. I am talking about the use of the English language and precision in the meaning of Bills.

Part 1 of the Bill is entitled:

"Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities".

That could be read all sorts of ways. It is very imprecise and it could be positively misleading. It could perfectly properly be saying that Natural England is a function of the Commission for Rural Communities, but that is not what the Bill is about at all. One has to read the script following on from that title to find out what this is about. I therefore have a problem with the use of this brand-name title for Natural England.

I know that the Minister will say that the predecessor organisations have chosen the name. They are perfectly entitled to have their say, but we are not dictating what they should call themselves but, in effect, we are writing their birth certificate. I have a birth certificate and, from time to time, I am called on to produce it to prove who I am, say, in a legal matter or sometimes in matters concerned with the Government. Nothing that appears on my birth certificate includes anything that I am normally called. That may seem to be a mystery, but it is no less a fact. I am called "Bill" by most of my close colleagues and that name does not appear on my birth certificate, and I am called "Lord Dixon-Smith" on more formal occasions and that does not appear on my birth certificate, but everyone knows perfectly well who I am.

The title "Natural England" is not a natural title; Natural England is not a natural body. It is a wholly artificial creation; it is a government agency. For the life of me, I cannot see why we do not call it that. Of course, if subsequently it decides that it wants to be called by some abbreviated name, that is perfectly all right and it can do that. Here we are dealing with legislation which should be both precise and clear. That is precisely what Part 1 of the Bill is not. I am sorry that it takes a group of 90 amendments to rectify the situation. Once again, I give my thanks to the Public Bill Office for its help in deciding all the places the Bill has to be amended so that it should appear before us in proper English, in a manner that can be understood.

When we discussed this matter in Committee, I put forward two different titles. This time I have put forward only one title. We should be consistent in what we are doing. I think Natural England should be called "Commission for Natural England". That would precisely describe what it is, an entirely human organisation, an entirely human creation, a government agency, or whatever one chooses to call it. "Commission for Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities" would be a consistent and understandable title for Part 1 of the Bill. In my view,

"Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities", is certainly very unclear and not an appropriate title to appear in legislation. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, I support my noble friend in his comments. I did so in Committee and do so again on Report.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

My Lords, we debated this matter in Committee. It would be a shame, when the Bill becomes an Act, if we sent this extremely important body into the world with a risible title. As I said in Committee—these are true stories—I mentioned this name to someone, who said that it sounded like a brand of yoghurt. The other day, I tried it on someone else, who said that it sounded like a health farm. The letter that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, read out said it all; if we have the Commission for Rural Communities, why on earth can we not have the commission for natural England?

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 Lords, we thought long about the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and by other noble Lords in Committee, about the name of the new body, but we still believe that the name Natural England and its strapline, "For people, places and nature", best sum up what this agency is to be about—conserving and enhancing for us all to enjoy, now and in the future, the national treasure that is England's natural environment.

I remind the House that the name was proposed by the chairman of the three predecessor organisations—namely, the Countryside Agency, English Nature, and the Rural Development Service—following consultation with the staff of these organisations and their partners, and it has their support. That final point may be of some importance at a time of what will be substantial change for all those working in those organisations. It is the name they are now used to. There are no established rules about whether the names of non-departmental public bodies should include the word commission, agency, council or executive. Although there is a tendency for commissions to be mainly advisory bodies rather than executive bodies, even this simple distinction has not been applied consistently.

We favour the simplicity of Natural England for two reasons. First, the many customers and organisations with which it deals will shorten its title to Natural England. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, conceded that. Whatever formal name it is given in statute, there is a good argument for aligning its legal title with the name by which it is known. Secondly, it will help people to position it in relation to two important sister organisations—English Heritage and Sport England. On that pragmatic basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

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

My Lords, am I correct that the Minister said that the name was consulted on only within the department and the predecessor organisations, and that there was no outside consultation?

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 Lords, I said that the consultation was with the staff of the organisations and their partners—those organisations being the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service. I went on to say that it had the support of the staff as well as the chairman.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, it seems that we have a difficulty. The Minister has said that there are two case precedents where people have used this sort of abbreviated title, but I still rather fancy that it is bad use of the English language and bad use of legislation, and I would prefer not to see it there. I am not sure that we can take the argument any further. There is only one way of resolving the matter; either I withdraw my amendment or I press it to a vote. If I withdraw it, I might feel inclined to bring it back at Third Reading after further discussions. I think perhaps that I will do that. The noble Baroness is looking concerned, so maybe I could not do that. If I cannot do that, perhaps the best thing to do would be to get it out of the way. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 76; Not-Contents, 215.

Division number 2 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

Aye: 74 Members of the House of Lords

No: 213 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

[Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 not moved.]

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

My Lords, this amendment deals again with the Rural Development Service. In Committee, the Minister stated:

"A large part of the Rural Development Service's functions, including the delivery of the agri-environment schemes . . . will be the responsibility of Natural England".—[Hansard, 24/1/06; col. 1101.]

He also said that it was neither legally necessary nor appropriate to mention that fact in the Bill. At that time, we agreed to disagree with him.

Our main reason for bringing this issue back on Report is because of the doubts surrounding the funding of Natural England. The money that goes out of the door in the form of agri-environment scheme funding is presumably not in question. It will be what it will be, and will be made available either via Defra or directly from the Treasury. We do not know. Perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to disabuse me if I have got it wrong.

The money that enables Natural England to administer the schemes is, however, a rather different matter. If there is no reference to the transfer of responsibilities, will the necessary funding be made available at the same level as when the task was part of the RDS? Or will there be discussions about how many staff are needed and which computer hardware or software is required? Or will they all be transferred? How much will be devoted to the accountancy systems which are, presumably, fairly sophisticated?

It seems fairly well accepted that the Government are trying to cut back on expenditure wherever possible. Part of that is simply reducing the funding that they allow for certain items—national parks, for example, as we discussed in Committee—and shifting responsibility for the delivery away from government to, for instance, local authorities. An example of the latter is the Chancellor's promise of free local transport for the over-60s, which has resulted in some councils having to consider raising council tax by up to 2 per cent. We should not like to see the delivery of agri-environment schemes compromised by lack of funds.

I refer to the Minister's letter to me of 29 January, as it underlines my concern. It says:

"Following the Curry Commission recommendations, the Government has made clear its desire to shift resources by modulating . . . funds from Pillar 1 subsidies to Pillar 2. The UK has been at the forefront of voluntary modulation for several years. It is true that modulation will have an effect on the amount of subsidy that farmers receive but our industry has remained amongst the most competitive and sustainable in the EU. The agreement reached also provides for the possibility to allow transfers of up to 20% of Pillar 1 funds to Pillar 2. There is a provision in the agreement which allows Member States to choose whether or not to co-finance transferred funds, adding incentive to transfer funds to rural development".

However, the letter goes on clearly to state:

"No decision has yet been taken about whether the Government will match-fund additional transfers from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2. It is clear that the decision reached will have an effect on the amount of funds needed to transfer to deliver rural development, including the agri-environment programme".

That is why I have returned to the matter today. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, we on these Benches have concerns such as those expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Funding is an issue. We are aware that Defra is under extreme pressure in terms of funding. One of the reasons I was unable to support the previous amendments was my fear that a lot of expense in reprinting letter headings and so on would be entailed. Funding is an issue. This is an interesting question.

Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for missing the earlier stages of the Bill, which was a great disappointment to me. I declare an interest as the Minister who oversaw the Wildlife and Countryside Act and who was responsible for rural affairs in this country. I support the amendment because the Government seem to be obsessed with commissions, committees and agencies. The more that can be spelt out clearly, the easier it will be for those who live and work in the countryside. It is an absolute headache to discover which authority to go to, particularly where local councils are involved. The amendment gives us an opportunity to spell out exactly where certain sums of money will be placed. Any form of clarification in this world that has now become so complex is an advantage to those who try to earn a living in the countryside, which I assure noble Lords is a jolly difficult undertaking at the moment. I support the amendment.

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

My Lords, this amendment seeks to clarify the position of the Rural Development Service. It is not a separate legal entity from Defra. It is neither legally necessary nor appropriate to mention that in the Bill. It is, however, appropriate to provide that clarification in the Explanatory Notes and I have already given assurances that we will seek to do so.

The noble Baroness was right that the RDAs will take responsibility for socio-economic funding, as we made clear in the Rural Strategy 2004, though this will be effected by means of the RDAs' own powers and changes to secondary legislation, which do not need to be mentioned in the Bill. So the EU rural development regulation schemes that are run by the RDS, such as vocational training, processing and marketing grants and rural enterprise grants, will in future be administered by the RDAs.

The large part of the RDS functions, including the delivery of agri-environment schemes, will be the responsibility of Natural England, as the noble Baroness recognised. Chapter 1 of Part 8, which relates to powers to enter into delegation agreements, provides a mechanism to delegate RDS functions. We expect to use those powers for some of the RDS functions. Others will be managed by changes to secondary legislation or using Natural England's own powers conferred by the Bill, such as the power to enter into management agreements that is established by Clause 7.

It is a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Monro, back in his place. We missed him at earlier stages of the Bill. I accept fully his point about the difficulties facing those who seek to earn a living in agriculture and the countryside. It is our intention in this Bill to make the system easier for people to understand. With regard to agri-environment, it is difficult to say anything more about funding. The agri-environment budgets for 2007 are still being discussed with the EU. It is much too soon to make decisions on items such as match funding while that is going on.

For the constituent bodies of Natural England, the Government intend that the outcome sought and the level of programme funding for 2005-06 to 2007-08 will be set out in their approved corporate plans. This year's programme funding for those constituent bodies will be £246 million. Future budgets will be set by the Secretary of State as part of corporate planning rounds.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative 6:00, 15 March 2006

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I think she was saying that the budget for the Countryside Agency in the year ahead would be £246 million. Can she remind us what the budget for that agency was in the present year, which is nearly past?

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

My Lords, I hope that inspiration might come to me in answering that question. It is possible that I shall get help; I do seek to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, if possible.

Returning to the future, Natural England's budget will be set by the Secretary of State while its future services, programmes and priorities will be a matter for its board, when established, in consultation with Ministers as part of the corporate planning round. I am delighted to be able to tell the noble Lord now that £65 million is currently the approximate Countryside Agency budget. I have no absolutely detailed figures, but it is in that region. With these reassurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

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

My Lords, while I thank the Minister for her response, I believe she would accept that I am still quite concerned for the long term. In her reply, she mentioned that some responsibility would go down to the RDAs and that some things would be done through secondary legislation. Can she share with the House what sort of things would come in secondary legislation? If not, I should be grateful if she could come back to me on that between now and Third Reading.

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

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Baroness.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I too should like to welcome my noble friend Lord Monro back to the House. We have missed him and I am delighted that he is here to take part today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Schedule 1 [Natural England]:

[Amendments Nos. 7 to 45 not moved.]

Clause 2 [General purpose]:

[Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

moved Amendment No. 48:

Page 2, line 9, at end insert—

"( ) action in the countryside to assist the containment of global warming,"

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, the Bill is clear that the purposes of Natural England are all to do with conservation, protection and preservation. That is absolutely fine, so far as it goes. It means that Natural England, with the Bill as presently drafted, is concerned with the past. My amendment seeks to make part of its functions

"to assist the containment of global warming".

Global warming is the present; its more pernicious effects are the future. So, in a sense this little amendment—so simple and plain—brings the past and future together for once. It is here and now that they meet. If we consider global warming, the news is consistently bad. We have just heard that global atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased to its highest level ever. Well, we knew that it was going up, so every year will be the highest; more disconcerting is that it is now also rising at its most rapid annual rate ever.

The polar ice-caps are breaking up and melting; they are not reforming in winter as they used to. In countries like Switzerland, the glaciers are retreating. At the weekend, I asked someone who lives in Switzerland how the glaciers were being affected. He said that a track that he used to go up 25 years ago to visit a bar that used to be on the edge of the ice is now 40 feet above it. The track itself is dangerous as a result. If you miss your footing there is a 40-foot fall. We have recently had reports of increasing acidification in the oceans due to carbon dioxide absorption. That will damage the reproduction of shellfish, plankton and corals; more importantly, if they are unable to make their shells—which lock up carbon in the form of calcium carbonate—then we restrict the sea's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. As I have said, the problem of global warming is consistently worsening.

Many things can be done. When I last introduced this amendment, I suggested the word "development" to assist the containment of global warming in the countryside. That did not find favour, so this time I have used the word "action", which describes nothing in particular yet could be vital in one particular respect. An interesting research paper was published in Science in 2004, entitled Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. One of the writers' options was forest management; they suggested the planting of large areas of forests in temperate areas. Another was agricultural soils management. Those are both existing technologies; as things which occur in the countryside, they are actions which Natural England could perfectly well participate in and promote.

I make no apology for bringing forward this amendment. It is important that we get global warming under control for, if we do not, we have no certainty of being able to preserve anything in our present countryside. Two possibilities are being talked about. One is that the Gulf Stream—which produces the equivalent energy around our islands of 30,000 power stations providing heat for us—will cease to flow. If it does, ours becomes more akin to a Nordic climate. The alternative is that warming continues without that effect; if that happens, then we go to a more Mediterranean kind of climate. In both eventualities the continuation of the countryside, as we know it, will not be happening. Natural England will then have an impossible task.

So, I make no apology for bringing back the amendment. As I said initially, the past and future have to meet somewhere. They are meeting here and now. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on this amendment. The Bill is called the natural environment Bill. We know that global warming is the biggest threat not only to our natural environment but to our very future. I do not wish to rehearse the arguments that the noble Lord so eloquently put as to why that needs to be addressed. I believe that Natural England as much, and probably more, than most agencies, needs to be in the forefront of addressing these issues, particularly with regard to adaptation.

My one small regret might be that we have not saved our voting energies. I have no idea whether the noble Lord will test the opinion of the House, but if we were to vote, we should have saved our energies for this amendment rather than the one on names. The issue that he raises is extremely important and I hope that the Government look kindly on including something in the Bill with reference to this important issue.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, I support my noble friend's amendment, in principle at any rate. He has given us a vivid description of the consequences of not coming to terms with the difficulties of global warming. I have no doubts on that matter at all. I have the honour sitting on Sub-Committee D under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. In a report that we produced on the EU Commission's trading scheme, we looked very carefully at the matter, and it became abundantly clear to us as the report proceeded that the problems of global warming are enormous. As my noble friend rightly said, the latest figures are frightening.

We all have a huge responsibility to deal with this issue. Whether the amendment gives a remit too far to Natural England within this Bill is a moot point—and, looking at the Minister, I am pretty convinced that that is what he is going to say. He may well have a point. But in principle I entirely support what my noble friend has said—and I think that the Minister would have to come forward with a very convincing argument not to support the amendment. But I shall listen carefully to what he has to say.

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

My Lords, I support my noble friend in his desire to have a wake-up call on the needs of not only conserving and preserving the countryside, but also looking at the effect that climate change will have on that very countryside.

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 49 to 52, which are in the group. Amendment No. 49 raises an issue again, but with a subtle difference. We believe that this amendment would improve greatly Natural England's natural purpose clause. The amendment would replace "conserve" with "protect". The difference between the two words is crucial; the word "protect" defines an active stance and, in the opinion of the CPRE standing council, it makes the legal difference by placing a duty on Natural England actively to protect the landscape. In contrast, the word "conserve" defines a more passive stance, whereby the status quo is kept intact without a really active engagement.

In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, stated that, although the word "protect" is used in reference to biodiversity, it would not be applicable to landscape. She went on to say that using the word "protecting" in relation to biodiversity would prevent any,

"claims that Natural England should support activities that may enhance biodiversity adversely".—[Hansard, 30/1/06; col. 118.]

She said that she had no intention of weakening that position. But she stated, too, that biodiversity and landscape were on an equal playing field and that one was not more important than the other. So it is not clear to me why they cannot be treated with the same terminology.

Further to this, in the Government's documents, the necessity is pointed out of using the word "protect". The Planning Policy Statement 7, published in 2004, in one of its key aims states:

"The Government's objectives for rural areas are to raise the quality of life and the environment in rural areas through the promotion of the continued protection of the open countryside for the benefit of all, with the highest level of protection for our most valued landscapes and environmental resources".

We believe that our amendment would ensure the future sustainability of the landscape but, in the light of that statement, it seems a sensible addition to the Bill that would join up the Government's aims in protecting the landscape across the board.

Referring again to the PPS7, and enlarging on it, as it is the Government's official planning policy, under their key principles on page 7, under 1(iv), they say that,

"the Government's overall aim is to protect the countryside for the sake of its intrinsic character and beauty, the diversity of its landscapes, heritage and wildlife, the wealth of its natural resources and so it may be enjoyed by all".

It therefore seems curious to us, and to the CPRE, that reference in the planning policy for local authorities should be stronger than that in Natural England's statutory duty, which I have to say I still find puzzling.

Our next two amendments seek to leave out "in other ways" in one case and, in the other, to leave out,

"contributing in other ways to", and to insert,

"supporting rural communities in furtherance of".

Paragraphs (a) and (d) of subsection (2) contain fairly robust aims. I am sure that we would agree exactly what, for example,

"conserving and enhancing the landscape", involves. "Protecting biodiversity" or "encouraging open-air recreation" are concepts that we can all comprehend, and some of your Lordships have great skills to ensure that those sorts of plans are implemented.

After that, "contributing in other ways" seems rather vague and wishy-washy and, I would have thought, difficult to justify. Our suggestion for improvement is twofold: either simply to leave out "in other ways" or to reiterate Natural England's affinity with the countryside by giving it a duty to support the work of rural communities in improving their social and economic well-being. I am sure that I am not the only one in this House who receives a constant and unrelenting stream of correspondence from people and organisations who consider that I can be of assistance in their efforts to improve social justice and the workings of the DWP, and the performance of a whole range of service providers, including the protection of our small post offices. It is quite clear that all is not well in our villages, small towns and in our countryside. Nor is it at all well, by any means, for there to be the continuing and growing problems of fly-tipping, litter and the flouting of planning laws, which obviously brings additional difficulties.

We had a long debate on the substance of Amendment No. 52 in Committee. I said then, and I shall say again, that this is perhaps one of the most important amendments—and it is a matter of balance. I was grateful for the wide range of support that I received from noble Lords when we dealt with the matter in Committee. Some noble Lords suggested that our amendment might be more effective if it had been slightly redrafted. Having gone through the record for those days, I have come back with a slightly different wording, which I hope will encourage noble Lords' continued support and perhaps gain support from others.

The amendment is quite clear now. It is only in the event of significant conflict that Natural England would have to prioritise its objectives relating to conservation and the environment. The Minister said in Committee:

"Instances of irreconcilable conflict between access and conservation are rare in practice".—[Hansard, 1/2/06; col. 258.]

That is the basis of introducing a conflict resolution provision—that it will be used only in those rare instances when Natural England and those other organisations are in a checkmate situation. The amendment is emphatically not about giving an environment conservation priority on a day-to-day basis—and I stress that—or in giving conservation automatic precedence or a greater funding priority. I am only too well aware that sustainable development is dependent not only on conserving the environment but on the social and economic factors as well.

Natural England will be one among many. It is far from the only organisation that will be involved in the process of the decision-making or in resolving conflicts of interest. I am sure that in 99.9 per cent of instances that irreconcilable conflict would associate only with proposals by third parties rather than within Natural England itself. Natural England might be involved as a consultee or a stakeholder in the case of development of a policy or management proposal. The Minister made the point in Committee that no other organisation with statutory duty for conservation had a conflict resolution clause. I suggest that no other organisation has been given such a broad remit.

The Minister mentioned the Environment Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Countryside Agency. When established, however, Natural England will be the sole statutory body for England charged with defending and enhancing the natural environment. It is concerned with all the issues that those agencies cover, and much more. It is precisely because of the contradictory nature of the definition that we believe this amendment is needed.

The EFRA Select Committee suggested that the conflict resolution and policy implementation would be the job of government offices for the regions, yet at present I understand that those offices do not have the capacity to take on this role. The Minister might clarify that for me. In the absence of that support, Natural England, as the Minister has stated, will be the major champion of the environment, and should have the teeth to implement it. Along those lines, the Minister also gave an indication in Committee that he would undertake to put conflict resolution on the agenda in discussions with the Natural England confederation about statutory guidance. For the interest of other noble Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, Jim Knight, who saw me on Monday this week, along with my honourable friend Jim Paice. He indicated that great thought had been given to this situation.

I know the Minister will come back on this, but for the sake of the House I will repeat what was said in the letter sent to me on 13 March on conflict resolution:

"In Committee debate on Natural England's purpose, (the Minister) promised to consider the inclusion of principles for dealing with conflict resolution in Statutory Guidance. We have done this"— they have given it consideration—

"and concluded that it would meet several of the concerns expressed by noble Lords, while preserving the flexibility and independence of Natural England's Board which we consider important".

The Minister should be able to respond to that at this stage.

The Minister, Jim Knight, went on to say:

"I would stress that the Bill requires draft statutory guidance to be consulted on very widely before being finalised", but he wanted to raise this issue with me. Subsequently the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has spoken to me, and I understand that circumstances have slightly altered. In fairness to him, and also to Jim Knight, I should make the House aware that I was made aware, at 3 o'clock today, that perhaps there is a change of heart. However, I hope that setting out why we think our amendment is important reflects the position we find ourselves in at this moment. I end up by having supported my noble friend in his amendment, and spoken to the other amendments standing in my name in this group.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Non-affiliated 6:15, 15 March 2006

My Lords, I stand to support Amendment No. 52. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the letter from Mr Jim Knight which was also copied to a number of us with an interest in this issue. The letter, dated 13 March, also kindly gave us a draft text of guidance that could have dealt with the issue of conflict resolution, and indeed was very much in line with the position I proposed in Committee, which I hoped the Minister was taking away. I was therefore pleased to see a copy of the letter, though I was a bit downcast when I learnt, round about 5.35 tonight, that the letter had been passed over and was no longer the Government's intention. I know a week is meant to be a long time in politics, but it appears that two days is now a pretty long time. I am confused about what the Government's position on conflict resolution will be. I understand that we are not to expect that guidance will be forthcoming on this issue and so I want to talk to the substantive issue of the amendment, which would not have been necessary if guidance had been promised.

I will use the briefing that many of your Lordships will have received from the Country Land and Business Association in relation to this amendment. The association gave an example where it thought it would be inappropriate for there to be guidance or anything on the face of the Bill saying that conservation and landscape should take precedence in extreme circumstances where there is no means of reconciling conflicts and they are of a serious nature. It took the strange example of a person running a tourist attraction in an SSSI who wanted to develop visitor facilities in the midst of the site, the construction of which would be detrimental to the provisions of the SSSI. The association went on to say that if the amendment were adopted, Natural England would have no possibility of allowing that development to go ahead. It said that there might be perfectly good grounds for allowing it to go ahead and that,

"A small scale development"— in the SSSI—

"creating a couple of jobs and bringing in a bit of money for the landowner which could be reinvested in the area, may well do more for achieving the general purpose than a refusal".

I remind your Lordships that SSSIs are a very small proportion of the land surface of this country. They are the jewels in the crown of nature conservation, the most priceless and irreplaceable parts of our natural heritage. This briefing was equivalent to saying that you might carve a bit out of a Vermeer or a Picasso so a few local artists would have some canvas to paint on to keep them from going to the wall. That is not quite what we are looking for as the steer for what the Minister at another time called the "trenchant champion" of the natural environment, but it is a good example of the sort of pressure Natural England will undoubtedly face on a daily basis, and shows why the Minister needs at least to give it guidance, if not to put a conflict resolution clause on the face of the Bill. I know he will say that he has already said, I think on Second Reading, that protected sites will of course take priority, but it is clear that there will continue to be debate about what takes priority when economic development and conservation and landscape are in conflict with each other.

I would have been extremely happy if the Minister had underpinned his wish that Natural England be a trenchant champion of the natural environment by giving it the sort of guidance that it was indicated to us on Monday would be given. Now that it will not be given, there is a real need for Amendment No. 52, and I hope the noble Baroness will divide the House on this.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My Lords, I too rise to talk about Amendment No. 52, and I am afraid I would like to oppose it. When we discussed this issue in Committee, I was totally agnostic on the subject. I was duly persuaded by the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and others who supported her. I was drifting along, waiting to be persuaded back into my state of agnosticism by the Minister's reply. However, it was the speech of my friend and fellow Cross-Bencher, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that suddenly tipped the balance for me. She mentioned that if a conflict clause had existed for the relevant body, it would have been impossible for the funicular railway to have been built up the Cairngorms.

That set me thinking. I love mountains, and I think there is nothing more uplifting than to stand at the top of a mountain to look down at the valleys or glens below. If I had to choose one mountain where the old, the infirm, the disabled and the very young should be able to have that uplifting experience, I would choose Cairngorm. In my view, Cairngorm Mountain is already environmentally prejudiced by the fact that it has skiers and mountaineers all over it in winter and—in the case of mountaineers—for most of the summer. It already has ski lifts and its slopes have been cosmetically altered, shall we say, for skiers. It already has road infrastructure; it already has a thumping great big car park halfway up the mountain; and it already has the Sheiling restaurant to give meals and shelter from rough weather to skiers, both winter and summer. Furthermore, there are thousands of jobs around Aviemore that depend on this particular very longstanding tourist attraction being open for as many days as possible in a year. When I say longstanding, I mean that I first went skiing there 48 years ago. I admit that the Cairngorm Mountain is indeed slightly environmentally worse off on account of the funicular. In the context of the hundreds of Munros in England and Scotland, however, it would seem fair to let this already slightly, or quite, environmentally damaged mountain suffer the fate of being chosen to allow as many people as possible to stand on the viewing platform and look down the slopes below.

Now, if my noble friend Lady Young and I were on the committee deciding whether to permit this funicular, I am sure we would have a very good discussion. I am equally sure that, with her diplomatic prowess and powers of persuasion, I would probably get handbagged and lose the debate. The point is that I do not believe it is any business of Parliament to predetermine that decision for us. There could be many hypothetical examples where there might be minor environmental downsides on a local scale which, with a conflict clause, could be used to achieve some fairly perverse decisions.

I strongly support the independence of Natural England and the CRC. But I believe that both we and government have to be bold and allow them to make their own decisions without trying to second-guess them in advance. That is why I do not believe that this conflict clause—even expressed in its new, moderated terms—is a very good idea.

Photo of Lord Chorley Lord Chorley Crossbench 6:30, 15 March 2006

My Lords, it is quite often the case that Cross-Benchers disagree with each other. I am not sure that I agree with my noble friend Lord Cameron on the Cairngorms, but he makes a point. I was quite happy with the noble Baroness's amendment when I saw it on the Marshalled List at the beginning of the week. It seemed to me that she had got it about right and that she had got the point about irreconcilability. Irreconcilability is the point. If you have something and you want something else, these things may be mutually incompatible. There is a question about the Cairngorms that one might argue on that front. But I thought that the noble Baroness had got it about right, including the magic word "irreconcilable". Then, this morning, I got a copy of the letter from Jim Knight to the noble Baroness and I thought there was something to be said for a bit of flexibility in what is a difficult issue. So I was most interested in what the Minister was going to say. Now I hear from others, who obviously know more than I do about what is going on, that the letter seems to have been withdrawn. Whether the noble Baroness will press her amendment to a Division tonight rather depends on what the Minister will say. It may make sense to press it not tonight but at Third Reading. It is not easy when you receive a letter in the morning and then find, by half past six in the afternoon, that it has apparently been withdrawn or that something else has happened.

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

My Lords, perhaps I could make a general point. When we have a group of amendments, Members are expected to speak only once prior to the Minister speaking. I know that at least two noble Lords have got caught in this trap, having spoken earlier to this group of amendments. Perhaps we could be flexible in this group and rather strict beyond this group.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, with the leave of the House, having spoken to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, perhaps I could now speak to Amendments Nos. 50 and 52—in the name of my noble friend Lady Byford in the case of Amendment No. 50, and the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in the case of Amendment No. 52.

Before doing so—it was an error on my part—I should have declared an interest when I last spoke. I own land in the north of England. Briefly, I have great sympathy for Amendment No. 50 and would support it. However, in exactly the same way that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has just expressed it, I have difficulty with Amendment No. 52. This new body, Natural England, will have to decide how best to carry out its responsibilities under the general purposes clause of the Bill. Clearly, Natural England's brief is principally one of promoting nature conservation. I believe that that is absolutely right and proper. I think it is very important that, notwithstanding Amendment. No. 50, Clause 2(2)(e) includes the opportunity for Natural England to contribute in other ways,

"to social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment".

That will require a delicate balance. Indeed, I supported an amendment in Committee in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, which would have substituted Clause 2(2)(e) with a somewhat stronger socio-economic remit. We felt that there is a danger that some rural economic activities could be unnecessarily compromised by the general purposes clause.

I think I am right in saying that my noble friend Lady Byford supported this amendment. That being the case, it is perhaps a little surprising that she has moved this conflict resolution amendment which would virtually destroy any degree of latitude or compromise in Natural England's operations. I fully understand and appreciate the sentiment behind the amendment, but sustainable development is not always about conservation of the natural environment in isolation. Economic and social issues are often intertwined and cannot be regarded in isolation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, made reference to the example of the Country Land and Business Association. I think that her analogy, on that occasion, was probably reasonably accurate. If, for example, you had a large upland SSSI on which a farmer or a land manager wanted to insert a track that might enhance the actual management of that area with benefits to the nature conservation value of the site, then, under my noble friend's amendment, I do not think that Natural England would have any option but to say no. So this choice, this delicate balance, which is so vital to the success of Natural England, cannot be compromised. I appreciate that my noble friend's amendment will deal only with what she described as "significant cases", but we have all seen it in practice. At a local level, small decisions can suddenly become increasingly significant. So I hope that my noble friend will not press her amendment. I have had the pleasure of working with her very closely on rural matters for many years and I do not think I have ever had a real disagreement with her. However, on this occasion, I am bound to say that if she were to press her amendment, I would have no option but to vote against it.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Labour

My Lords, I also speak against Amendment No. 52. Following the line of thought of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, Natural England must be allowed to build its own reputation. It must be allowed to look at every instance on its own merits and decide accordingly. Under the Bill, Natural England is obligated to decide how best to achieve its general purpose, taking into account all the issues. On many occasions, it will naturally take the view that nature conservation is the most appropriate way forward. There is no reason why that should always be the case. That is why it is important that no resolution is put forward that mandates how it should decide each case. I have great difficulty also trying to understand how it will be decided what is irreconcilable on any occasion.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, for digging me out of the hole I had got into by speaking only to the first amendment.

My name is attached to Amendment No. 50 because, especially for the most deeply rural communities, there will be many occasions on which that power and duty of Natural England's needs to be strengthened. Because of their remoteness, they will have a lot more to do with Natural England; we have frequently rehearsed the issues of sparsity, and I will not do so now. The sort of wording in Amendment No. 50 is important for the agency.

I move on to Amendment No. 52. I have to admit that I have tussled hard with the issue, and listened carefully in Committee to the arguments. I have a lot of sympathy with the "jewels in our crown" argument of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. However, I arrive at the difficulty that some areas have an awful lot of jewels—they tend to be concentrated into some areas. That is fantastic for those areas, but it means that the chances for any social and economic development will be massively reduced. There is no perfect answer to that. It is virtually a free-vote issue, if it comes to a vote. It is not an issue on which one can align oneself except by one's own best judgment; I certainly do not see it as party political. On it, we should leave Natural England the freedom to assess every case on its merits. I am sure that every difficult case will be difficult to assess, and the quality of Natural England's board will very much be reflected by its ability to tussle with such difficult issues. I do not believe that we can legislate on the matter, much as we might like to safeguard the environmental future of our countryside and environment. Therefore, I will not be able to support Amendment No. 52.

Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench

My Lords, I also oppose Amendment No. 52. I was not present in Committee when we debated a similar amendment, but I made my feelings clear at an earlier stage in Committee when I said that I opposed any effort to write the Sandford principle into the Bill. It is most important that we retain a balance between the different interests, which conflict from time to time. We must also remember that the remit of Natural England covers urban areas as well as the countryside; that would make the amendment more difficult to work with. Things have been slanted slightly in favour of environmental issues as a result of the habitats directive already; that will have to be taken into account by Natural England.

I have been intrigued to see that a number of noble Lords who have spoken seem to have changed their mind since Committee. I do not know whether that is because of what the Minister said on that occasion, but I have not changed my mind—I still very much oppose Amendment No. 52. My noble friend Lord Erroll, who was here a moment ago, got called away to host a reception but would also have spoken against Amendment No. 52.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 6:45, 15 March 2006

My Lords, perhaps surprisingly, I would like to give a word of encouragement to the noble Baroness for her amendment. I get worried when I hear people beginning to talk about the need to retain a balance. That sounds to me like the beginning of the end. Retaining a balance really means, "Come on, let's be reasonable. There are all these economic and other considerations, and we've got to give them serious attention". My experience suggests that there is never a shortage of advocacy for the immediate material economic arguments. If somebody has an economic, profit-making enterprise at hand, they will be forceful and use every device at their disposal to make sure that their case is heard. Therefore, anything that can be done to underline that the intention of the Bill is to keep within our territory this rare qualitative dimension to our life—it is so essential for the psychological and physical well-being of our people—should be there in specific language.

However, I am not sure whether it would be appropriate to vote on the amendment tonight. The wording of the Bill is pretty explicit. The Minister seems to be demonstrating that the Government want to give very clear guidance to Natural England about the responsibilities in the future, so I shall listen with great interest to what he says.

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I have not had the opportunity to speak very much on the Bill, for reasons that are probably well known, but I would like to address Amendments Nos. 48, 50 and 52—briefly, as a lot has been said already about them.

Amendment No. 52 is about resolving "irreconcilable conflict" and the "greater weight" being,

"given to those relating to the conservation of the natural environment".

As someone who has lived most of my life in rural areas—albeit remote rural areas—I think that, before one gives the amendment approval, one needs to think about the people and the sustainability of the communities. Young people there in particular may not have the opportunity of employment. I have seen instances where initiatives have been blighted and all hope for school-leavers in some communities has gone with the wind. I have a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. I happened to be working in Scotland at the time of the initiatives in the Cairngorms. They were very much a regeneration of that area, because of a great amount of people leaving it. The initiatives were a flagship commitment of the authorities in Scotland at that time.

We have an interesting situation at the moment with some of the older initiatives. For example, there was an appalling café on top of Snowden. I do not know whether I am allowed to mention it, but the Prince of Wales criticised it. He has not called it a carbuncle, but we are having to build a new café 100 years after the old one was built. No doubt the new one will not really be appropriate, but it should be a heck of a lot better.

I shall make a couple of points on the other amendments. I strongly support Amendment No. 48, which is on,

"action in the countryside to assist the containment of global warming".

That is terribly important. There are a lot of aspects that we do not have time to go into, but I shall speak about one. We will have to look in the future for drought-resistant varieties of crops. We can no longer use North Sea gas to produce nitrogen to produce crops. We will have to go into nitrogen-creating crops such as new varieties of clover, which will actually sustain drought problems and increase production in, and the viability and sustainability of, the countryside. We are cutting back on research and development at present. Is that wise? Some of our research stations are going to lose many of the staff working on such things at the moment. There needs to be a great deal of thought on that.

Amendment No. 50 is very important in supporting rural communities in furtherance of social and development objectives. We have to achieve in the countryside the viability and sustainability of our communities as well as of our environment. This series of amendments is extremely important. We can see that there is variable reaction to some of them— particularly Amendment No. 52—but I would have thought that most noble Lords could subscribe to Amendments Nos. 48 and 50.

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 Lords, we have had another excellent debate around the topic of Natural England's purposes. I take the view that each of these amendments is quite separate from another, dealing with different issues but on the common topic of Natural England's purpose. I am quite sure that they are not consequential on each other in any way.

Before I start addressing the matters that have been spoken about so well—it has been an example of the House of Lords at its best—we are all glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, back in his place. We missed him very much in Committee, although I have a feeling that he will make up for that during the rest of our hearings today and next week.

So that noble Lords know our view, I say straight away that, although we understand and sympathise with many of the points made today, we do not agree that they should be dealt with in the Bill—with one possible exception, which I will come to in due course.

As I said in Committee, Natural England's purpose has been carefully drafted to be broad and enabling and to give Natural England the flexibility and independence to champion the natural environment. At the same time, Natural England is given the responsibility to find ways of doing such things so that wherever possible its environmental work also contributes to social and economic goals and, therefore, to sustainable development.

Having said that, I have heard some powerful arguments since Committee, not least in today's debate, and the House may be pleased to hear that I am not going to be dogmatic in considering this clause. Let us look at the amendments in turn.

The effects of Amendment No. 48, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would be to make it clear that taking action in the countryside to assist in containing global warming was part of Natural England's general purpose. No one could be more forthright or eloquent on the subject of global warming than the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and for that the House owes him a debt.

That climate change is a vital issue is a given. Government expect Natural England, in common with all other public bodies, to play an active role in combating those effects. The issue, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, put it, is whether this would be a remit too far for Natural England.

However, climate change has a wide-ranging agenda and one in which, frankly, Natural England would not be the lead player. As a key element of the broader sustainable development agenda, climate change would be an important part of the context in which Natural England operates. There is no doubt that relevant action to mitigate climate change could fall within Natural England's general purpose, but it will approach it from the point of view of an organisation whose functions, powers and expertise lie in environmental management. The items listed in Clause 2, at subsections (2)(a) to (e), are a selection of the things contained within Natural England's general purpose. The list could be made very much longer, but that would not necessarily increase its value as a means of clarifying the role of Natural England. Our view is that this amendment falls into that category.

Amendment No. 49 is based upon the premise that the change of wording makes it stronger. I am afraid that I cannot accept that. Indeed, I believe that within the current wording Natural England could do all that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, suggests.

Since the 1940s, "conserve" has been applied to landscape and natural beauty, including wildlife. References in existing landscape legislation to "conserve" and "enhance" have not curtailed the ability of the Countryside Agency to take action to preserve and/or protect landscapes should that be required. A further point is that neither the agency nor its predecessor, the Countryside Commission, have indicated at any time that they have been restricted by the use of "conserve".

Amendment No. 50 would amend Clause 2(e) to make "rural communities" the focus of Natural England's efforts to promote,

"social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment".

I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that the Government are a passionate supporter of rural communities—the noble Baroness certainly is. That is why the Government are setting up the Commission for Rural Communities.

However, Natural England's interests are not confined to communities in rural areas. I believe that the rationale here, if not the wording, is something that we can look at further—to give added impetus to Natural England in its work with and for local communities, both rural and urban. If the noble Baroness will allow me, I am happy to take it away and, if I can find acceptable wording—discussing it with her before—then bring back a government amendment on Third Reading.

I was grateful to the noble Baroness for her explanation of Amendment No. 51. We were not sure of the rationale for the amendment, unless it was to make clear that Natural England could also promote social and economic well-being through the carrying out of the other strands of its general purpose. While Natural England can and will, in some cases, promote social and economic well-being through its other activities, we do not believe that the current form of wording—which would hence be less restrictive—would rule out a more innovative approach, if that were appropriate.

Amendment No. 52 is, as the noble Baroness said in her speech, very important. We covered conflict resolution in depth in Committee and I do not want to reiterate all the arguments. However, I must begin with an apology—which I do. As promised in Committee, we have considered whether it would be appropriate to guide Natural England on how to deal with conflicts between different aspects of its purpose in the statutory guidance which Clause 15 of the Bill allows the Secretary of State to give. In order to assist our discussions tonight, my honourable friend Jim Knight circulated on Monday an example of the way in which this might be done. He said at the end of his letter that it was as an example of how conflict resolution might be covered, not as a draft for approval.

To give noble Lords time to consider this, it was sent out, frankly, before we had completed our consideration of its merits. I have to tell the House that the conclusion of that consideration is that it would not be appropriate to cover conflict resolution in the statutory guidance. So, the note noble Lords received is no longer relevant to what I am about to say. I apologise for the inconvenience.

Let me start with the core of our response: Natural England will be—the word has been used before, and I say it again unashamedly—a trenchant champion of the natural environment. No one reading the purpose in Clause 2 can be in any doubt, I would argue, that Natural England is an environmental organisation. It is about managing and enhancing places and nature and about encouraging people to enjoy and benefit from them. It will make decisions in the context of sustainable development. Through its environmental work, Natural England will contribute to sustainable development by actively seeking economic and social benefits for present and future generations. Sustainable development cannot be delivered by social, economic or environmental work on its own.

We believe that Clause 2 and the Explanatory Notes—which I have just summarised—provide the right framework for the board of Natural England to decide how to address the diverse range of complex issues which will come to it for decision. As has been said in this debate, it will build its own reputation and it must be allowed to do that. It will be one of the Government's key advisers on managing the natural environment. We maintain the view that it would not be right to constrain the judgment of the board on the face of the Bill in the way proposed in Amendment No. 52; nor should it be exposed to the threat of judicial review on this ground for every decision that it takes.

I acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has significantly adjusted the amendment she brought forward in Committee to refer to "significant", "irreconcilable" conflicts. I promised to go away and give thought to whether conflict resolution in those very rare situations could be dealt with appropriately in the statutory guidance which the Secretary of State can give to Natural England under Clause 15. Our conclusion, after considerable thought, was that it would not.

We were looking for a form of words to include in statutory guidance that would, first, not unduly limit Natural England's independence; or, secondly, not encourage it to pay any less heed to the social and economic implications of its activities and thus not contribute as fully as it could to sustainable development; or, thirdly, put it at undue risk of judicial review. We were not able to do that to our satisfaction. I recognise that this is a matter of judgment, but that is our firm conclusion.

Returning to our overall aim, we are trying to strike the right balance—for once, I did not completely agree with what my noble friend Lord Judd said about balance—and it is the right thing to aim for. Of course he is right to say that those who put forward economic arguments for change in the countryside do so with great passion, but if I have learnt one thing in my few months in this job, it is that those who put forward an environmental argument do so with equal, if not sometimes greater, passion. So it is a question of striking the right balance between Natural England's independence to make its own judgments as an expert on the natural environment—something many noble Lords have stressed when discussing other provisions in the Bill—and establishing a clear framework within which it will operate, which is important to its many customers and stakeholders, as well as to Ministers and Parliament to whom it is ultimately accountable.

The combination of Clause 2, as drafted, and the Explanatory Notes to which I referred, does the job. On the basis of those arguments, and those that have been put forward during an excellent debate, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment and other noble Lords not to move theirs.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 7:00, 15 March 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his full response. I am well aware that we are at Report stage, but I wish to clarify matters with him, otherwise I might not be able to speak again when my amendments are reached—they will either be moved or not moved.

I hope that the Minister will understand—and I accept his apology because these past few hours have been a nightmare—if under those circumstances I need to reconsider the matter. I should make that clear, because if I do not say that to other noble Lords, they will not be aware of it, and when the time comes, the amendments will either be moved or not moved. I also thank the Minister for agreeing to reconsider Amendment No. 50 and bring back an amendment that, I hope, will deal with local communities. I am more than happy with that and am grateful to him. I am only too aware that the Bill deals with both urban and rural communities, and that is part of the dilemma that we face. Perhaps some of us who live in very rural areas get worried that the rurality will be swamped in the whole.

Just to be technically correct, I hope I have made it clear that while I accept the Minister's explanation, I will need to seek advice, because my colleagues in another place may return to the matter—but I cannot say that at this stage.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, the Minister said in his response said that this was a group of five separate amendments. Indeed, to a certain extent we have had five separate debates wrapped up within this single debate. That makes the position difficult, because under the conventions of the House what happens to the first amendment commits the rest.

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

My Lords, I should make it clear that when amendments in a group are so disparate, and when noble Lords have spoken both for and against different amendments within the group, it would not be wise to apply the outcome of the first amendment to all the amendments. We would end up with Members unable to vote—having voted in favour of the first amendment, they may wish to vote against on the second, for example.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness who has taken the words out of my mouth—I was going to suggest that for the convenience of the House we should treat this group in that way. That happens to make my task more simple, but I am somewhat hesitant in any event.

The Minister was right in saying that global warming is part of the context in which Natural England will work. However, there must be a point at which it is appropriate to start to force this subject into legislation and into the actions of all government departments. In his reply to me, the Minister gave us some hope. I am not sure that he clarified the matter sufficiently, but equally I am not sure that I am so dissatisfied with what he has said that I wish to press the amendment to a Division, particularly at this stage of the evening.

However, it is only fair to say that it is extremely likely that I will bring back the amendment yet again at Third Reading, because, whether we like it or not, this subject will drive everything. It will drive the country's economic programme, its energy policies, possibly its budgetary balance and its social programmes in the widest sense, until we get things under control. It is not just a question of this country doing that, it is the major international issue.

For this evening, the question is the point at which this subject intrudes, and has inevitably to be put, into the consideration of all public bodies. I am close to concluding that we have to do that, but I am prepared to defer the issue until Third Reading, only so that I can look at the Minister's precise words and consider their meaning. I am not sure that an implicit understanding is sufficient any longer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 49 to 52 not moved.]

Clause 3 [Review and research]:

[Amendments Nos. 53 and 54 not moved.]

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

moved Amendment No. 55:

Page 2, line 27, at end insert—

"( ) In exercising its functions under subsection (3), Natural England must have due regard to the purposes of the National Environment Research Council."

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

My Lords, the amendment takes us back to research into biodiversity—and other issues—which I raised in Committee. When we debated it, the Minister said that the National Environment Research Council's decisions on the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology were out for consultation until the middle of February and that,

"therefore no decisions have been made".—[Official Report, 8/2/06; col. 764.]

Now that they have been made—and I am sure that noble Lords will have received the very helpful letter of 13 March from Professor Alan Thorpe, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council—can the Minister say whether the Government are satisfied with the outcome? I do not think he will be surprised to learn that I still have severe reservations. Although there have been slightly fewer cuts and a very slight increase in funding, meaning that slightly less of the programme will be cut, I stand by many of the arguments I advanced in Committee. Such research is particularly critical at this time. As we face enormous pressures due to climate change and our understanding of the inter-relationship of these things leads us to conclude that more research is needed more urgently than ever, it is particularly unfortunate that such a cut has been proposed.

Other facts have come to light since we debated this in Committee; I have, naturally, carried out further research. It seems that the Select Committee on Science and Technology's fifth report stated that, following the settlement for science announced in the 2002 spending review, NERC's income from the science budget will increase from £219 million in 2002-03 to £350 million in 2005-06. The rationale behind this increase was to allow NERC to take the lead in science, the Earth's life support systems, climate change, and so on. Last year funding reached £314 million, but that is still well short of £350 million. Having committed to that budget in 2003, have the Government now decided to make cuts in it. If so, such a position is particularly unfortunate. A breakdown of the funding for the Natural Environment Research Council shows that £8.1 million comes from the UK private sector. I wonder how the UK private sector feels about the proposed cuts and what percentage of the programme that is being cut is indeed funded by the private sector?

Finally—and I was not as aware of this when we debated it in Committee—there is the responsibility line for the Natural Environment Research Council, which was set up under the Science and Technology Act 1965, I believe by Royal Charter. I only recently became aware of the difference between that sort of set up and the normal sort of quango we debate in your noble Lordships' House. Under the set up of the Natural Environment Research Council, Parliament is given a much wider overview of what is happening under the council. Indeed, the council's own website helpfully gives a diagram that shows Parliament sitting at the top, represented by the Secretary of State. The advertisement for the two vacancies on the Natural Environment Research Council, which appears on its website, helpfully says that the council is responsible to Parliament and other citizens.

When something is as contentious as this, is there a mechanism that should be employed to refer the matter at least to the Select Committee in order to review the situation? It is surely very unusual that such a body of eminent scientists as have been very assiduous in writing to the press, in contacting us, and talking about this, speak with one voice, so concerned are they about cuts in the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology's programme. This is of central importance in NERC's work now, so they are frustrated at having been unable to change the direction of the decision taken. When the Royal Charter refers to Parliament being in prime position with regard to the research council, I wonder what that means, given that there is deep unhappiness over decisions taken. Where is Parliament's role in making its voice heard? I beg to move.

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 7:16, 15 March 2006

My Lords, I declare my interest, in that I am on a fundraising committee for an environmental research station in Scotland, which also receives funds under the Natural Environment Research Council's powers. It is very important that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, has raised this subject and it is good that we should see what can be done about this. The amendment states that:

"Natural England must have due regard to the purposes of the Natural Environment Research Council".

Presumably they must also have regard to the findings of the bodies that are brought out by the Natural Environment Research Council. In that case, we wish to support 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)

My Lords, I take it that this is really a probing amendment, in the sense that the noble Baroness wants to start a short debate—which she has done very successfully—on the Natural Environment Research Council and the decisions it has recently taken. I appreciate that there are strong feelings on this issue and I congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing this to the Floor of the House.

NERC is an independent body. Decisions of this kind are solely for its council, which is made up of many eminent scientists. The NERC council, as we were told, has published its response to comments made during the consultation that preceded its recent decision. That, and the responses of Defra and its agencies, are all in the public domain. I understand that the NERC council has confirmed its plans to restructure the CEH. It agreed that the original drivers for restructuring—namely, funding only the highest quality science, reducing the trend in external income and ensuring long-term financial sustainability—all remain.

However, after consideration of the various issues raised within what is described as the "stakeholder consultation" it has made some amendments to its original proposals. I understand that these changes will result in up to 40 of the 200 posts at risk in the business plan being saved. A plan to focus staff and research on four of the existing sites at Bangor, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Wallingford is unchanged. There are still plans to close the four research sites at Banchory, Dorset, Monkswood and Oxford. I also understand that to reduce any risk and ensure that critical work is not only maintained but enhanced, the NERC council has revised its funding allocation, adding £1.3 million to the original £15 million per year.

Defra, for its part, agrees with the importance of placing the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology on a secure financial footing for the future. We welcome NERC's reassurance that that existing contractual obligations will be fulfilled to the highest standards.

It is our intention, and the intention of Defra's agencies, to endeavour to work closely with NERC in the longer term to ensure that the research carried out following restructuring continues to be relevant to, and consistent with, Defra's priorities.

We also welcome the amendment of the restructuring proposals to strengthen biodiversity and climate change research areas. I was asked whether Natural England, once established, can provide financial support to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It is clear that Natural England will have broad powers to enter into agreements with, and fund, other bodies where it is in its interests to do so and where it will help its objectives. However, a decision on whether or not to do so in any particular instance will, of course, be a matter for the board of Natural England.

I cannot help the noble Baroness in relation to Parliament's role but, for my part, I cannot see any reason why the issue surrounding this decision cannot be raised in the normal way by any Member of another place or in this House, if that is what the Member wants to do. But, as I understand the legal position—I am repeating myself now—NERC is an independent body and the decisions that it reaches are solely for its own council. I do not think that I can help very much further.

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

My Lords, this is a DTI and not a Defra matter, and presumably discussions do take place between them. What overall responsibility to Parliament or to the DTI does NERC have in the first instance? Presumably there are rules which it must observe. If the Minister could follow that up with a letter, I should be very grateful.

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 Lords, I will do so, of course. I suspect that it has the same relationship with the DTI as other research councils have with that department. Defra has a relationship with it because it does work that we require to be done. However, I will write to the noble Baroness.

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

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for the encouragement, as I see it, to pursue some of these issues through a different mechanism. He is right that this will probably no longer be the mechanism through which to pursue them. I recognise that the £4.5 million for NERC that comes from Defra is only about 50 per cent of its funding and that £7 million of the funding comes from other sources and other departments.

There is a very real issue concerning both the external funding, which, as the noble Lord said, is diminishing, and the fact that half of the funding of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology comes from external sources. I do not think that the publicity that has taken place will be helping the case; nevertheless, it is something of which the council needs to be aware. I am fundamentally concerned about this issue. From what I can gather from its website and from historical research, the council seems to be responsible to Parliament, but at the moment I cannot understand what form that responsibility takes and I will pursue it through other, possibly more appropriate, means. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 56 not moved.]

Clause 4 [Advice]:

[Amendments Nos. 57 to 63 not moved.]

Clause 5 [Carrying out proposals etc.]:

[Amendment No. 64 not moved.]

Clause 6 [Financial and other assistance]:

[Amendment No. 65 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Management agreements]:

[Amendments Nos. 66 to 69 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Experimental schemes]:

[Amendments Nos. 70 and 71 not moved.]

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 Lords, we have moved to Amendment No. 72 with considerable rapidity. This government amendment would remove the power for the Secretary of State to authorise Natural England to use compulsory purchase powers to acquire land for experimental schemes. The inclusion of powers for the Secretary of State as a last resort to enable Natural England to do that would have carried forward existing powers that are currently available to the Countryside Agency.

However, in the light of the very persuasive concerns voiced during Committee in this House and the fact that the Countryside Agency's powers have never been used, we are now happy to remove the provisions contained in subsections (4) to (6) of Clause 8 and the consequential amendment in Clause 100. I beg to move.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister. Having moved an amendment in Committee to the same effect, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for having agreed to remove these subsections.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

My Lords, we could never see the need for this part of the clause, and we welcome the Government's recognition of that fact.

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

My Lords, we, too, welcome the fact that the Government have taken this matter on board. The subsection in Clause 100 about compulsorily acquiring Crown land appeared rather strange. You would think that the Crown could make up its own mind what it needed to do. We welcome the amendments.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 73 not moved.]

Clause 9 [Information services etc.]:

[Amendments Nos. 74 and 75 not moved.]

Clause 10 [Consultancy services and training]:

[Amendments Nos. 76 to 79 not moved.]

Clause 11 [Power to charge for services and licences]:

[Amendment No. 80 not moved.]

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

moved Amendment No. 81:

Page 5, line 17, leave out "4" and insert "4(1) or (4)(a)"

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

My Lords, this amendment addresses an issue raised in Committee by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. It seeks to clarify the circumstances in which it would be permissible for Natural England, with the consent of the Secretary of State, to charge for providing advice. The amendment excludes from any charging regime advice which Natural England offers without having received a request to provide such advice. In other words, the amendment restricts the power to charge for advice to cases where advice is sought. I trust that the amendment meets the original concerns expressed by the noble Duke. I beg to move

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

My Lords, once again, I thank the Minister for taking this attitude to this issue. Certainly it is nice that people can request advice. I suppose that they have to be prepared to pay for advice in these cases. That being so, I welcome the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 82 not moved.]

Clause 12 [Power to bring criminal proceedings]:

[Amendments Nos. 83 and 84 not moved.]

Clause 13 [Incidental powers]:

[Amendments Nos. 85 and 86 not moved.]

Clause 14 [Grants]:

[Amendment No. 87 not moved.]

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

My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 8.28 pm.

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