Thank you, and good morning, Mr. Forth.
The clause establishes the Commission for Rural Communities as an independent non-departmental body. Its general purpose and functions are set out in subsequent clauses. Statutory status will enable it to perform its role independently and impartially, and I suspect that during the debate on this clause we will return to the importance of independence and impartiality.
The clause also introduces schedule 2, which sets out the constitution of the commission, including provisions about its status, membership, chief executive and other employees, pay and pensions, procedure, accounts and annual reports. The arrangements are almost identical to those for Natural England as set out in schedule 1.
The commission will be a strong independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog to help to ensure that the Government’s policies make a real difference to people in rural areas. It will pay special attention to tackling social disadvantage and the problems of areas economic underperformance. Rural-proofing will be at the heart of the commission’s role and it will help the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government in general to ensure that policies at all levels of government—I think that we will return to this as well—are rural-proofed.
The commission was established on 9 March 2005 as a separate division within the Countryside Agency. Assuming that it will come into force, the Bill will turn it into an independent, free-standing non-departmental public body. We have said that it will not be based in London, and I can announce today that Natural England will locate its modest headquarters in Sheffield. A decision will be made at the end of the year about where the commission will be based, but it will be in a lagging rural area outside south-east England.
The combined effect of amendments Nos. 6 to 15 would be to remove from the Bill all the clauses that establish and empower the Commission for Rural Communities and the schedule setting out its constitution, which would prevent the commission from being established as a statutory body. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that I resist strongly those amendments, and I will ask the Committee to reject them. Amendments Nos. 16 to 21, 23 to 37 and 22 are a consequence of amendments Nos. 6 to 15 and would remove all references to the commission from the Bill. Given the catastrophic effect that the amendments would have, it is important that I give a more detailed justification of the need for the commission.
There is a real need for the commission. It will be the one national body to focus its attention on the economic and social issues in rural England, and it will act as an advocate, adviser and watchdog to keep the Government and other key delivery bodies, such as local councils and regional development agencies, on their toes. The commission needs to be independent of central, regional and local government, and it needs to be seen to be independent, so that it can act impartially, challenge all those bodies—public, private or voluntary—that deliver services in rural areas, and influence that delivery. That is best achieved by establishing the commission as a non-departmental public body under the Bill.
The commission will have a remit to raise awareness of the needs of rural England among public authorities and other bodies and to promote ways of meeting those needs that contribute to sustainable development. That is important, because, although the commission’s main focus will be on social and economic issues, it will recognise the crucial link between environmental and economic sustainability. A good environment is good for the rural economy, and vice versa.
The goal of putting sustainable development into practice by integrating environmental, social and economic objectives drives everything that DEFRA does, and that principle was restated in last year’s rural strategy. The Bill will give statutory underpinning to that agenda by requiring Natural England, the Commission for Rural Communities and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee all to seek to contribute to sustainable development through their functions. The regional development agencies have a similar duty under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.
In the commission’s advocacy role, it will provide an independent voice for rural people, communities and businesses and, by virtue of clause 18(4), it will have particular regard for
“persons suffering from social disadvantage” and
“areas suffering from economic under-performance.”
I find it surprising that the party that represents the most deprived county in England, Cornwall, should oppose giving those disadvantaged communities that it represents a powerful voice in Whitehall, in Bristol—where the South West of England Regional Development Agency is based—and in Cornwall itself.
Those remarks should address the points raised on the need to ensure the proper retention of viable local communities. The commission’s task will be to look thoroughly at the way all bodies connected with rural needs—public, private or voluntary—are developing and implementing policies to meet those needs. The commission will have a duty, under clause 19(c), to report on those.
I predict that hon. Members opposing the establishment of the commission will, in future—while still in opposition, their perennial place—not hesitate to quote back to Ministers in the House criticisms that will be voiced by the commission in its reports on the actions of government.
In its advisory role, the commission will provide independent information and advice to the Government and to other bodies with responsibility for policy development and service delivery on issues affecting people, communities and businesses in rural England. As part of that role, the commission will be able to undertake, commission or report research and evaluation. That will enable it to inform policy with robust evidence and objective advice and to promote innovative solutions to problems facing rural communities, including those in Cornwall.
The difference with the former Countryside Agency’s role is that the commission will not be distracted by being a service deliverer itself. It will not have to criticise itself. Haskins set out that priority in his original report. The commission will concentrate on advice, information and evaluation and on ensuring that those that provide rural services do so efficiently. The Government believe that making the distinction between policy and delivery will be fruitful for all concerned. Again, the evidence and advice produced will make the job of representing rural constituencies in the House easier. The commission will offer the evidence that we so often lack to demonstrate wider need in rural areas.
In its monitoring role, the commission will have a duty to monitor and report on the way that rural policy at all levels is implemented, and on the way in which policy is meeting the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas. The point about the linkages between a high-quality environment and a strong rural economy bears repeating. The commission will play a key role, through its particular powers and duties, in contributing to sustainable development. The fact that the commission will be an advisory and not a delivery body will enable it to take an impartial and broad view of service delivery and to obtain evidence of what does and does not work at national, regional and local level. The commission can use its powers to publish information on policy implementation and to share lessons learned, challenging government and other organisations responsible for service delivery at all levels to improve performance and to entrench best practice.
Rural-proofing will be at the heart of the commission’s role; its role will be at the heart of the overall effort on rural-proofing. The commission will help DEFRA and Government generally to ensure that all Government policies are rural-proofed. It will be able to advise on the issues that really matter in rural areas. That will be especially important given the commission’s particular role in addressing rural disadvantage across the board.
Before concluding, let me clarify what the commission is not. Some have suggested that if Natural England is the environmental lead and the regional development agencies the economic lead, then the Commission for Rural Communities must be the social lead. That is not so. The commission is not a delivery body and is not being resourced or empowered to perform that function. The function of a social lead is often best carried out by local authorities, as discussed on Tuesday.
To conclude, the commission will fulfil a role that no other single organisation can, as an influential advocate and watchdog for all rural people, businesses and communities, putting a particular focus on those suffering disadvantage and on rural areas that are underperforming economically. That includes a good part of my region and of regions represented by several hon. Members in this Committee. Are they really saying that that is not needed? Are they really saying that the urban majority in the House and many local authorities should be trusted consistently to make decisions that work for rural areas? Do they agree with me that rural England needs a champion, independent and resourced, to win battles for the countryside?