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Clause 12 - Power to bring criminal proceedings

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 21st June 2005.

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

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

A few minutes ago, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw referred to ambiguity. Nobody could pretend that subsection (1) is ambiguous. It is quite clear and blunt:

Natural England may institute criminal proceedings.”

I want to take the opportunity of the stand part debate to probe the Minister on exactly what that means in practice. On the face of it, it is an extremely wide, bald power. He said just now that, as he said earlier, Natural England is a legal person. Subsection (1) implies that it can start prosecuting people for anything under the sun. He may want to reflect on whether that is right or whether there should not be something in the Bill that relates the provision to Natural England’s general purposes and to the protection of wildlife, the countryside, the landscape and the environment. The subsection reads as though the proceedings could almost relate to someone being drunk and disorderly on the streets of London. I therefore question whether the statement should be quite as all-embracing as it is at present.

I raise this issue purely as a matter of inquiry. I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts; perhaps he could take the issue away and consider whether the statement needs to be quite as open as it really is, or whether it should be limited somehow to the purposes of Natural England in clause 2.

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 hon. Gentleman said that the provision could be used for anything under the sun, but it is implicit, as with everything that follows on from the reference to its purpose, that the actions of Natural England would be confined to things that come within its purpose. There is a parallel with the Environment Agency. The Environment Act 1995 confirms that the agency can institute criminal proceedings in England and Wales. The provision is very straightforward and, read in isolation, it seems open-ended and as though it might allow the agency to prosecute people for anything under the sun. However, it is governed by the purpose of the agency as set out in that legislation. It does not go around prosecuting people for antisocial behaviour unless it is   in respect of those aspects of the protection of the environment that it is responsible for. The clause provides certainty.

We have talked about ambiguity. In fact, the clause removes some ambiguity in existing legislation, in respect of English Nature and the Countryside Agency’s prosecution powers across their enforcement duties—for example, in relation to byelaws—which are not clearly expressed in legislation. We have used this opportunity to clarify the powers in respect of byelaws. I reassure the Committee that there is no intention for Natural England to become an enforcement body that goes wider than the constituent bodies that make it up.

I confess that the clause caused some confusion when the Bill was published, which is perhaps reflected in the comments that we have heard. Some stakeholders erroneously thought that it represented a wide extension of the predecessor bodies’ enforcement powers. There is no intention for those to go any wider. In some cases, in the existing legislation there are elements of ambiguity about whether the constituent bodies have enforcement powers. We have removed that ambiguity here.

As I said, Natural England will inherit the regulatory powers of the constituent bodies. I shall give some examples: English Nature’s various enforcement and regulatory functions in relation to SSSIs, nature reserves and some wildlife enforcements; the Countryside Agency’s relatively few enforcement powers, in relation to byelaw making and management agreements; and the Rural Development Service’s role in wildlife licensing and in direct enforcement, mainly monitoring and inspection activities on the ground. Those are the sorts of things we are talking about. We are not talking about going any further than that.

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

The Minister will be aware that in the past quite significant damage has been done to SSSIs, but there have been virtually no prosecutions. Is the new integrated agency intended to be more robust in these situations, so that we do not see significant deterioration to SSSIs? The damage is quite deliberate on most occasions.

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)

As we have discussed, we are giving Natural England the enforcement powers, and they are clearly and unambiguously stated in the Bill. We also have a public service agreement target of bringing 95 per cent. of SSSIs up to standard by 2010. If we are going to achieve that, then we need to make sure that the public out there believe that Natural England will use its enforcement powers if people are damaging SSSIs unnecessarily and without proper permission. I would hope that the new body will be robust. Certainly it will be strengthened by bringing the various bodies and enforcement powers together, so that expertise can be concentrated and, perhaps, economies of scale achieved in enforcement. On that basis I hope that the hon. Gentleman is happy.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Mention is made of cases being brought in the magistrates court. I wondered if the Minister envisaged Natural England participating in a   case with the European Commission in the European Court of Justice where the British Government are in infringement of European environmental legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.