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Clause 9 - Information services etc.

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 Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

It is a great pleasure, Ms Anderson, to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship.

I should like to ask the Minister a question about the clause. It seems to me that Natural England will have great powers. It will accumulate a lot of personal information about people—about their ownership of land, or tenancy agreements, or leaseholds—and perhaps even more information about their businesses when it reaches management agreements on things such as SSSIs.

Does the clause cover that information? I can foresee a situation in which an individual might not want to enter into an agreement with Natural England if information about their private life and private business—their ownership of land, or leasehold or tenancy—was going to be made public, because that might in some way hamper their business activities or the carrying out of the business they wish to operate in terms of land management. Is there any confidentiality in this, or is it just absolute, so that any information may be provided by Natural England?

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) 5:00 pm, 21st June 2005

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I had regarded this as a relatively straightforward clause that gives Natural England powers to publish and assist in the publication of information, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will of course be subject to both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and data protection legislation. I am not an expert in either of those legislative areas, but my recollection—it is only that—is that protections are afforded to individuals around the sorts of circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers. They would apply in respect of the information gathered by natural England as much as they would to any other body subject to those two areas of legislation.

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

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) raises an interesting point, and I want to make the following point to the Minister. He refers to the Freedom of Information Act and data protection legislation. However, he may not be aware—I expect that he is, as I am sure that he boned up on all the relevant things that took place before he took up his post—that in the spring there was quite a kerfuffle when all the payments made to farmers under the previous support system were published under the Freedom of Information Act. What many farmers felt about that supports the point that the hon. Gentleman has made; they felt that that was their private business. Natural England is going to be making management agreements and it will be responsible for a variety of stewardship schemes. It will have responsibility for handing out public money in return for various activities, and I think it would be useful to know well in advance—on the occasion I have just mentioned, farmers got only a week’s notice—if information is going to be published and therefore made public about, for example, farmers, landowners or whomever getting £x for a particular activity, or lack or activity. There is a key issue here that the Minister should look at, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point it out.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

That was precisely the point that I was going to make about information on the payments made to farmers. It is not just a case of people being embarrassed when it is generally known in the pub how much they are getting from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is the fact that landlords would often have a figure written on a piece of paper, and that would be the opening bid in rent negotiations. That has happened in my part of north Yorkshire, and it puts the tenant in a difficult negotiating position to know that the landlord knows how much the cheque from DEFRA will be for, and basically says, “Well, give me that as the rent, and you can have whatever you make otherwise.” That is worrying, quite aside from the embarrassment that a couple of very large landowners were subject to when those sums were published.

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)

Clearly, an interesting point has been raised; these Committee sittings are learning experiences for all of us. In essence, what I am saying is that the Rural Development Service is being brought   into a new body called Natural England and it brings with it many of the rules and regulations by which it is currently governed. If there are problems associated with them, it may be possible for me to study them and see whether they can be addressed. In doing so, I will obviously have to balance accountability for public money with the ability of Members of the House and others to be able to scrutinise how the money is spent and, equally important, who has received it. I have listened carefully to what has been said. If I find a magic third way of resolving the problem, I will let hon. Members know.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.