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Clause 8 - Experimental schemes

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 21st June 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Whip, Whips

I have a quick question for the Minister. Every time I see a newly created organisation that is not a Government Department, such as Natural England, being given the power of compulsory purchase, an alarm bell rings in my mind. I have always believed that such powers should not be granted to organisations such as Natural England, and I cannot envisage a situation in which it would want to apply for them. What is his view on that?

If such powers are granted, why should National Trust land be exempt? I am a member of the National Trust and would hate to see any of its land subjected to compulsory purchase, as I would hate to see that happen to anyone’s land, but I wonder why the trust is singled out for special treatment, although I realise that the National Trust Acts may be relevant. However, I should first like to know why compulsory purchase powers are needed. Perhaps the Minister will give examples of situations in which they might be used.

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

My thinking is along the same lines. My deeply suspicious nature makes me think that an experimental scheme might be one involving genetically modified crops that no landowner particularly wants to pursue for various reasons, and that such a scheme might be able to take place through compulsory purchase despite not being wanted by many people. Is that the sort of experimental scheme in the Minister’s mind? It may be helpful to have that point illuminated, or to hear examples of the sorts of experiments that might be the subject of what is, in many respects, a draconian power.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

I have a simple question. Will the Minister explain, in the context of subsection (2), the difference between a concept, a method and a technique?

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

I am always grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for his imaginative and interesting simple questions and I will return to that point once I have dealt with the matters raised by the hon. Members for Hexham and for South-East Cornwall.

The clause gives Natural England powers that already apply to the Countryside Agency in relation to experimental schemes, so in that respect we are not   doing anything new but merely transferring existing powers. Experimental schemes are most likely to comprise pilot studies designed to look at new ways of working to further Natural England’s purpose. As a key Government delivery body, it is vital that Natural England has the power to pilot new delivery methods and test them to ensure that they achieve their intended objectives and are efficient and effective from Natural England’s and a customer’s perspective. I point to the successful piloting of the countryside stewardship scheme by the Countryside Commission as a good earlier example of how that power can be used.

The powers in subsection (4) on compulsory purchase powers, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Hexham, also come from countryside legislation. They are very much reserve powers. They are not intended to be used as a matter of course and the Secretary of State’s approval would be needed. I stress that the Secretary of State would take a considerable amount of persuasion before compulsory purchase powers were ever used—indeed, they have never been used by the Countryside Agency. However, it is appropriate to retain the power for the new body to guard against circumstances such as a landowner asking for an unrealistic payment or holding a piece of land as ransom, or the owner of the land being untraceable.

The hon. Member for Hexham asked about the National Trust. National Trust land is held inalienably, meaning that it cannot be sold. As he suspected, that is provided for in existing legislation and we do not propose to interfere with that.

In respect of the interesting question by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw on methods, concepts and techniques, I seek to help him—I do not know whether I will entirely resolve the matter—by suggesting that methods are practical things that one might do, concepts are ideas that one might apply, and techniques have a practical application and perhaps bring the other two together. I hope that that is helpful.

John Mannrose—

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

My intervention, like my original question, is not intended to create mischief for the Minister. However, as we go through the Bill clause by clause, the language appears to be getting more flowery. Although that might be appropriate in the context of the Bill, there is a danger that we end up with legislation with words that are not precise. I suggest, perhaps more to my hon. Friend’s drafting officials than to him, that the application of a concept has to be either a method or a technique.

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

I am sure that, like me, the drafting officials will have noted the comments that have been made. I am responsible for those officials and very good they are too. We are seeking to give as wide a coverage as possible so that we do not inadvertently miss something out, hence the exhaustive use of language in the clause and possibly elsewhere in the   Bill. That returns to my stuck record about creating an independent body with as wide powers as we can sensibly give it to allow it to carry out the functions that we want it to.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

I wonder whether it would be helpful to look at the full sentence. One develops and tests a concept. I appreciate that techniques would be needed to test and develop those concepts, but one needs to have the capacity to develop concepts if one is doing anything experimental, which is exactly what the clause deals with.

For the Minister’s information, I, too, wondered what the acquisition of land referred to. I therefore spoke to environmental bodies in Wales, who informed me that the sort of things that could, for example, be used in such cases, would be sea defence issues, flood plains, and wetland area developments. Was that what he also had in mind?

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments, which are helpful. In the number of Committees that I have attended in my four years in the House, there tend to be moments when we have short debates about words, and this has been one of the more interesting ones. However, I hope that we have now explored the vocabulary sufficiently to be able to move on.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the research and work that she has done in preparation for attending the Committee, including talking to some local bodies. I am sure that the ideas and schemes that they have come up with and to which the provision might apply would be the kind of thing that we would want to give Natural England the room to explore, so that it could respond to the local requirements that she has found in her constituency. I hope that we have discussed the matter sufficiently for the Committee to support the inclusion of the clause in the Bill.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Whip, Whips

I apologise for intervening again on the Minister, but I remain unhappy about the compulsory powers that are contained in the clause. As the Minister said, the Countryside Agency has not used those powers in the past, so why do we need them now?

On the question of the National Trust, I want to say that it does give up land. In my constituency, it had to give up some land to allow a bypass to be built. The National Trust formally objected to the proposed route, but when the inspector in the public inquiry ruled that the route should go partly through land owned by the National Trust, it conceded the point in the interests of the community that was to be bypassed. I ask the Minister to undertake to re-examine the issue to ensure that those powers are not just being put in because Sir Humphrey would like them to be included—just in case they might be useful one day—and that they really are needed. Perhaps the Minister could review that matter before the Bill returns to the House on Report.

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 would say yes and no to the hon. Gentleman. Yes, I am happy to seek clarification for him about the National Trust. I suspect that there are legal reasons relating to how it was set up by Act of Parliament that would prevent us from easily applying compulsory purchase orders to it, but when I said that the land could not be sold, that may not have been accurate. I will seek advice on the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman and to other members of the Committee to clarify the position.

I will, of course, reflect on everything that is said in the Committee, but in respect of reflecting on whether we need this provision, I remain persuaded at present that the situation that I used as an example, in which the owner of land was untraceable, applies. Such situations may arise.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Whip, Whips

Those situations arise elsewhere, as the Minister will appreciate, and the normal way around them is simple purchase of a title insurance.

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)

Perhaps I will have to reflect on that matter, because the hon. Gentleman has gone into an area with which I am less familiar. I hope that we have now been able to discuss this matter enough to make progress, on the basis that if there are issues that he has raised that I need to write to him about or return to at a later stage, I will do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.