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‘(1A) Before giving consent under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall consult with such persons as appear to be affected by any proposals by Natural England to make charges for its services.’.
Seldom does legislation come before the House that does not give the Government the power to charge people for various services or other things that they may wish to dispense. That is despite the fact that the final regulatory impact assessment said about the provision:
“It is not intended that Natural England will impose any additional direct costs or regulatory burdens on small businesses. It should reduce costs and burdens by offering more effective and simpler relationships with land managers”.
However, clause 11 states that
“Natural England may, with the consent of the Secretary of State, make such charges for its services as appear to it to be reasonable.”
My amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult land managers and other people with an interest in the services that might be provided by Natural England. Until now, I understood that English Nature would provide free advice to land managers who might wish to enter into an agreement to protect SSSIs or some other natural conservation area. The suggestion here is that there will be a departure from that practice and that Natural England may start charging for those services. It would be just if the Minister assured us that he will consider the idea that before such charges are made, the Secretary of State should consult those people liable to pay them.
Clause 11 gives Natural England, with the Secretary of State’s consent, powers to charge for its services. That carries forward similar powers that currently apply to English Nature and to the Countryside Agency in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Countryside Act 1968. Indeed, there are some things that they already charge for. English Nature, for example, might publish a leaflet or pamphlet relating to a reserve that it might charge for. We should bear in mind that we are thinking about that sort of scenario as much as we are thinking about scenarios where neither body currently charges.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is absolutely right to be concerned that before any future charge is levied by Natural England a thorough impact analysis, including not only the appropriateness of a charge but also the level at which it is set, should be carried out. At present, neither of the general charging powers for commercial services that apply to English Nature and the Countryside Agency requires the Secretary of State’s approval before charges are made. The Bill already moves that process forward and contains a more robust safeguard than is currently in place to ensure that any charges will be fair, proportionate and reasonable.
In essence, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we should view this in the following way. The accountability is between Natural England and the Secretary of State and we have put the requirement for the Secretary of State’s approval in the Bill to ensure that that accountability is clear and is maintained. The delivery body, which makes the charge, is Natural England. Therefore, it is appropriate for Natural England to carry out the consultation, rather than the Secretary of State, which is the other way round from the proposal in the amendment. It would be better for Natural England to carry out the consultation and to be accountable to the Secretary of State for that as well as the charge, which is why we have set the process up in that way.
It is not a matter of regulatory burdens but charging for services, and the two bodies already do that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will rest assured that before the Secretary of State’s approval is given Natural England will need to explain the detailed background to DEFRA in some detail. I hope that he agrees that it is unnecessary for there to be a requirement on the Secretary of State also to consult people—it would create an extra burden for them if they have to be consulted twice—who may wish to benefit from a new commercial service each time before such charges are introduced on a normal cost-recovery basis.
I have listened to the explanation from the Minister and I accept that it would be more appropriate for the consultation to be carried out by Natural England than by the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister could reflect on making it a requirement in the Bill that, before charging, Natural England should consult those people who would be liable to meet those charges.
When I thought about the clause, I was thinking not only about those commercial services, but about whether, for example, any future charge would be applied for some of the licences that are currently issued at no charge. Before any such move or order could be made, we would certainly expect Natural England to consult widely. That would be implicit in the way that Natural England would go about its business as an enabler and as a partner organisation. We are going back to some of the points made during the argument and discussion on clause 2 relating to powers. The style—the modus operandi—of Natural England should be partnership and inclusion, and therefore should involve consultation, rather than vice versa. As I have said, I will reflect on everything and I will reflect on this issue as well. If I feel that there is a need to insist on consultation, I will, but I suspect that I will still say that that is implicit in our trust in the new body that we are setting up.