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Schedule 1 - Natural England

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 21st June 2005.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:00 am, 21st June 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 51, in schedule 1, page 41, leave out lines 10 and 11.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 54, in schedule 1, page 44, line 2, leave out paragraph 22.

No. 49, in clause 13, page 6, line 3, leave out from ‘acquire’ to end and insert

‘only such property as is necessary for the administration of Natural England and dispose of such property or other property acquired on the dissolution of predecessor bodies;’.

No. 56, in schedule 2, page 45, leave out lines 8 and 9.

No. 55, in clause 23, page 8, line 15, at end insert

‘used for the purposes of administration’.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The amendments largely hang together, although amendment No. 49 is slightly different. Again, they are probing amendments. Having studied my phraseology when preparing my speaking notes, I realise that there are some faults, but the probing nature of the amendments stands. I hope that the Minister will explain a little more precisely how he thinks Natural England will operate and the precise meaning of some of the terms in schedule 1.

I shall deal first with amendment No. 51; amendment No. 56 is virtually the same but refers to the Commission for Rural Communities. In schedule 1, there appears to be a statement that Natural England will not be able to claim Crown immunity and should not be regarded as an agent or servant of the Crown except as far as nature reserves are concerned, subject to paragraph 22 of schedule 1. I find that somewhat odd. Amendment No. 51 would delete the words

“Natural England’s property is not to be regarded as property of, or held on behalf of, the Crown.”

Perhaps the Minister will tell me on whose behalf it is being held. If I am correct that “the Crown” is the phrase used to describe the state, the people or the   Government, who is Natural England holding the property on behalf of if not the Crown? Exactly the same point applies to amendment No. 56 for the Commission for Rural Communities.

Amendment No. 54 would delete paragraph 22. I do not necessarily want to delete all of it, but I would like to challenge the Minister to explain the Government’s position on nature reserves. My understanding is that Natural England will take over English Nature’s property portfolio, which includes some 17,000 hectares of national nature reserves which it owns and another 31,000 hectares that it leases. There will of course be other property, but I am particularly concerned about nature reserves.

There are many other ownership arrangements of national nature reserves. They are certainly not all vested in English Nature, nor should they be. My colleagues and I are unashamed advocates of the private ownership of such sites. That is a valuable way forward, and I would not want Natural England to see its role as being to acquire large swathes of the English countryside and turn them into nature reserves. I have a fundamental opposition to the concept of oases of conservation in the countryside.

Natural England’s function, like that of its predecessors, should be to promulgate pro-environment practices across the whole countryside, so that we improve the landscape and conserve the environment and wildlife, rather than just create oases. I hope that the Minister will confirm that Natural England will not be going out there to expand massively its ownership of national nature reserves.

We return, however, to the exception in paragraph 2 of schedule 1, which says:

“Subject to paragraph 22 (nature reserves), Natural England” will not receive Crown immunity. Implicit in that is the notion that somehow, on a nature reserve that Natural England owns, it will have Crown immunity. That implies that it will be able to breach, for example, the wildlife protection measures or the site of special scientific interest measures contained elsewhere in the Bill. I strongly suspect that the Government do not mean that, but that is my layman’s reading of the Bill.

It would be absurd if the very body set up to conserve and protect the natural environment were not required to comply with the same legislation as everybody else, especially as it is also the enforcement body for everybody else, as we shall discuss later. I am sure that the Government do not intend that. The purpose of the amendments is to get the Minister to explain what Natural England will do as regards national and other nature reserves.

Amendment No. 49 is distinct and reflects my hope that Natural England will not go out and acquire great swathes of countryside, inevitably using taxpayers’ money. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) referred to what is happening in Scotland; I know that you, Mr. Forth, would want neither the debate to turn to what is happening in Scotland nor to support what is happening in   Scotland. However, there is concern that public money is being used to buy up large swathes of Scotland and I would be concerned if that happened again.

Amendment No. 49 would restrict the power of Natural England to purchasing property purely for the purpose of administration. Although I want Natural England to be involved in management agreements, I would hope that that could be done by agreement with existing landowners, rather than by using large sums of taxpayers’ money to buy up great swathes of the countryside. Natural England should concentrate on encouraging good practice across the whole countryside.

Amendment No. 55 is similar, but even more important in respect of the Commission for Rural Communities. In your inordinate wisdom, Mr. Forth, you have grouped the amendments in such a way that I need now to refer to the commission—albeit obliquely, because we have not reached that part of the Bill. I note that the Liberal Democrat amendments to that part of the Bill will be discussed later.

As was said on Second Reading, we are concerned about the concept of having a Commission for Rural Communities. I am anxious to ensure that it, too, restricts its operations in the property market to those buildings necessary for administration. If we are to have a commission—I suspect that we will, regardless of our views or those of the Liberal Democrats—we need to ensure that its property dealings relate directly to its administrative needs. That is the purpose of amendment No. 55. I see an analogy with British Waterways, which has gone into property dealing per se rather than into making transactions that relate directly to the future of our waterways. I would not wish to see the Commission for Rural Communities going down that road. The amendment therefore seeks to restrict its property purchasing practices.

This group of amendments deals with two separate issues. The first is about nature reserves and what they are for, and whether it will be Natural England’s policy to continue buying them. I hope that it will not as I would rather that it entered into agreements with existing owners and managers. Related to that is the question of Crown immunity for anything done by Natural England on its nature reserves. The other issue is the distinct question of the purchase of property relating to administration. That is the reason for the two slightly different variations in this group of amendments.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity) 11:15 am, 21st June 2005

As the hon. Gentleman made clear, amendments. Nos. 51, 54 and 56 deal mainly with the position of Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities with respect to Crown immunity. He started by asking a straightforward, sensible question: for whom does Natural England hold property if not the Crown? It holds the property for itself as a body corporate. In some ways, I was confused when I first read these helpful amendments; I needed intellectually to grasp the notion that Natural England is a body corporate—we need to consider its relationship to Crown immunity—but that the   property owned by Natural England as the body corporate has a separate relationship to Crown immunity. It will help to keep that point in mind when considering the amendments.

Lines 10 and 11 of schedule 1 and lines 8 and 9 of schedule 2 make it clear that the property of Natural England and of the Commission for Rural Communities does not benefit from Crown immunity. That is perfectly normal for non-departmental public bodies of this kind. Because of the difference between Crown immunity for the body corporate and that for its property, the amendment would make all Natural England’s property subject to Crown immunity, but I shall deal with the point that I think the hon. Gentleman was trying to make.

Quite simply, giving nature reserves Crown immunity would continue the current arrangement of protecting such sites from compulsory purchase orders, such as those that would allow road-building schemes. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has said much about the importance of beauty in the environment. We certainly agree that nature reserves tend generally to be more beautiful than roads. In essence, we are trying to protect our nature reserves—for instance, from CPOs to build roads. There are other implications in respect of Crown immunity that people might want to discuss, but in essence the Bill maintains the status quo. At the heart is protection from CPOs.

Amendments Nos. 49 and 55 deal with the subsections that give Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities powers to take action that will help them to exercise their functions. In debating this issue, we shall have the first of many debates in which we try to balance the independence that we want for Natural England and the commission to perform their functions with sufficient flexibility to allow them to do so independently.

The Committee will be probing and debating whether we narrow everything down and remove that flexibility, as these amendments would do, for instance, by saying that someone is allowed to have property only for administrative purposes and for offices. The amendments do not foresee any circumstances in which the bodies might want to do something different, and would not give them the flexibility to anticipate what might happen in the future.

The powers in the clauses are standard: they apply to all statutory public bodies. Such a body, in any event, would have to seek ministerial approval for capital acquisitions and the disposal of assets. Amendment No. 49 goes further than amendment No. 55. Clause 13(2) gives a list of examples of conducive and incidental powers that are standard for any non-departmental statutory public body. I know that later on we shall debate the amendment in respect of conducive and incidental powers.

Amendment No. 49 would modify the list to allow Natural England to acquire property only for administrative purposes—for example, office blocks—and not for the pursuit of its purposes. I hope that the   Committee understands that this has the potential to restrict significantly how Natural England is able to further its purposes, such as the example given in clause 2(2)(c) of securing the provision and improvement of facilities in connection with the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment. For example, Natural England might want to have an interpretation centre in connection with one of its nature reserves. That is not an administrative function and it would not require an office block. It would be too restrictive on the ability of Natural England to further its educative purpose if we did not allow it to acquire such property.

I should also like to reassure hon. Members that, because Natural England must behave in a reasonable manner in all that it does, they need not be concerned that it will aim to become a large estate holding body. I know that that is a key concern of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. The Countryside Agency currently holds property only for administrative purposes. However, as with the commission, I do not want to put a straitjacket on it with regard to what may happen in the exercising of its functions. I confess that it is difficult to anticipate how a watchdog might need to acquire or dispose of property, but I do not want to put that straitjacket on it at this stage in a way exceptional to that for the other similar statutory bodies that we have already set up.

English Nature holds or leases 218 national nature reserves. Its policy is to purchase or lease land only when it is manifestly the most effective way of securing public benefits. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, we expect Natural England to continue this policy and, crucially, its budget will be set accordingly. It is unnecessary to restrict the power in the manner proposed in the amendment. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I confess that the issue of compulsory purchase had escaped me, and I entirely understand and support the Minister’s desire that nature reserves should be exempt from compulsory purchase.

The Minister did not touch on something else that I am concerned about: the other possibilities of Crown immunity to which I referred in my opening remarks. Although Crown immunity is there because of CPOs, it is not restricted to them. My concern is that the bodies could claim Crown immunity on grounds that seriously undermine what they are doing. The SSSI protection and wildlife protection legislation that is found later in the Bill and that exists in much other legislation might even—to be absurd—allow hunting to be permitted on a national nature reserve. I am not suggesting that it would, but why should they have Crown immunity over everything when it should be possible to exempt them from compulsory purchase orders without giving them blanket immunity?

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

I ask the hon. Gentleman to recall the notion that, as with all public bodies, Natural England would have to act reasonably and within its purposes.   I suggest that using Crown immunity to escape damage to the SSSIs that it looks after would not be reasonable or within its purposes.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister. We shall come back to the issue of reasonableness in a later amendment, but we shall have to beg to differ on the point.

I want to extract from the Government a little more of their thinking. I am concerned that they do not want to put any constraints on either body, particularly the Commission for Rural Communities. Given that their purposes are quite limited, I cannot see why they should need the power to buy property other than for administration purposes. However, it is not a big issue, and I do not want to force it at this stage. In light of the Minister’s comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 52, in schedule 1, page 41, line 33, at end insert—

‘5AEach member shall be appointed for a term of four years.’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 53, in schedule 1, page 42, line 15, at end insert

‘after the first term of office, but no member shall be eligible for reappointment having served two full terms.’.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

This is another group of relatively minor amendments. However, they are important and self-explanatory and do not need much introduction. On reading schedule 1, I was concerned about the composition of the board. The Select Committee itself referred to its concern about the widespread power of the Secretary of State to nominate members of Natural England, and whether that conflicted with its independence. These amendments address a slightly different aspect. They are simply about how long people are appointed to the board and how long they can serve. It is important to lay down the term of office, and there is nothing in schedule 1 to determine that. I have suggested four years, which I think is a reasonable period.

The second amendment simply says that members should not be able to serve more than two terms of office, because such bodies need to be regularly renewed. I am sure that the Minister will be sympathetic to the idea of regularly appointing new blood on to such boards. I specifically included in amendment No. 53 the term “two full terms”, because obviously, there may be occasions when somebody is appointed to replace somebody who has resigned mid-term. They would be allowed to do two further terms in their own right so, in theory, they could do almost 12 years. The key point is to put into the schedule the issue of how long people can serve on the board. I have also addressed the same issue with the Commission for Rural Communities. The provision is self-explanatory, and I should be grateful if the Minister could explain why it is not in the schedule.

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

Schedule 1 contains provisions for appointments to the board of Natural England. In line with the flexible and future-proofed approach taken with the Bill, we have not included provisions for maximum terms of appointment for board members, or included limits on the number of times that any member can be re-appointed, as the hon. Gentleman has noted. That is in part to ensure flexibility within the appointments process—I referred to flexibility earlier—and to guard against succession planning problems. The board of Natural England will be regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and hope that hon. Members will find the rules, which I shall sketch out in a moment, reassuring.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to probe, and clearly there is an advantage to his approach of ensuring that the board is frequently refreshed with new members. The disadvantages concern loss of skills and experience and succession planning, which is sometimes overcome by staggering the periods of appointments.

The rules of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments state that all appointments will be made by open and fair competition and that appointees can serve only two terms, although OCPA does not regulate the length of the terms and a third term can be awarded in exceptional circumstances, again following an open competition. In addition, no board member may serve longer than a total of 10 years in the same post. The OCPA rules help to ensure that boards do not become stale and that new members are regularly appointed, while allowing departmental flexibility to handle unforeseen resignations or events. The rules therefore provide the safeguards in the appointment process that I suspect hon. Members are concerned about. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 90 to 102.

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

The purpose of the amendments is to provide for a combined annual report and accounts for Natural England to be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State, and for a similar requirement for the Commission for Rural Communities. It is a Treasury requirement to adopt that method of laying the accounts before the House as best practice. It is more efficient than previous practice, which was to lay the report and accounts before the House separately, the report being dealt with by the Secretary of State and the accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

When, under the amendments, the Comptroller and Auditor General has completed his audit of the annual accounts, he will send the accounts, which will include his audit report, to the Secretary of State. The accounts will then be combined with the annual report and laid before the House as one document by the Secretary of State.

The amendments also provide for the Secretary of State to give direction to Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities on the timetable for producing the accounts. That will facilitate a Treasury requirement for establishing faster timetables for the production and presentation of public sector accounts.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 90, in schedule 1, page 44, line 14, at end insert

‘within such period as the Secretary of State directs’.

No. 91, in schedule 1, page 44, line 15, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

No. 92, in schedule 1, page 44, line 23, leave out

‘As soon as possible after the end of’

and insert ‘For’.

No. 93, in schedule 1, page 44, line 27, at end insert

‘within such period as the Secretary of State directs’.

No. 94, in schedule 1, page 44, line 31, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

‘(b)send a copy of the certified statement and of his report to the Secretary of State as soon as possible.’.

No. 95, in schedule 1, page 44, line 32, at end insert—

‘24AThe Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a document consisting of—

(a)a copy of the report sent under paragraph 23(1), and

(b)a copy of the statement and report sent under paragraph 24(4).’.—[Jim Knight.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.