I thank the Minister for his impassioned plea. During the first part of our discussions of the Bill in relation to setting up Natural England, we broadly welcomed the bringing together of different bodies and look forward to that new body working well for the interests of people in rural areas, although we would have preferred some changes.
I hope, however, that the Minister will forgive me for thinking that, in many respects, there is a certain amount of déjà vu in what he has just said for those of us who sat through the setting up of the Countryside Agency. I was just wondering whether some of his speech was a dusting down of one of the speeches made by Ministers during that process—the impassioned plea about rural-proofing and such. Of course, we have experienced the Countryside Agency, and Lord Haskins has said that it ought to be abolished. In concert with many other voices, I hope to explain why we believe that the setting up of yet another unelected quango is the last thing that rural communities need.
I would like to indulge the Committee’s time by going back in history a little—not too far—to when we had really strong local authorities, the Rural Development Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They were not perfect in many ways, and this is not a nostalgic look back to buses trundling through country lanes, cottage hospitals and chocolate-box views of village life. However, for all its faults and despite a significant amount of underfunding, that arrangement worked tolerably well.
Since then, the Countryside Agency has been set up, and it has not lasted too many years. It was set up in an effort to address some of the rural issues that were coming to the fore and where the strain was beginning to show. It was set up with all the right aims—they were laudable—and was headed by someone who understood rural issues and who was given the specific task of being the rural advocate. It would be true to say that when he finally stepped down, those of us who were there when we gave his farewell speech detected a certain amount of disappointment in his ability really to be the advocate that he had hoped to be. The Government’s intentions were laudable, but there was a difference between their words and the actions that they took to ensure that rural-proofing and rural advocacy took place.
So, under pressure following problems relating to MAFF and particularly foot and mouth disease, the Government decided after the 2001 election not to introduce a department for rural affairs, which was advocated by my party and me, as a discrete operation. Much to the surprise of many people in the civil service, they decided to create the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is a large Department and it took quite some time to settle down to all the aspects—the environment, food and rural affairs—of its role. However, when it started to get into its stride, it became clear that it was stepping on the toes of the Countryside Agency. The Minister will recall the Select Committee’s report on the roles and responsibilities of the Countryside Agency and DEFRA. It became increasingly clear that there was duplication. Rural advocacy seems to have been sidelined and the real issues, relating to what was happening in rural life, were not being adequately addressed. It became clear that, in some respects, there was even a competitive situation.
It was clear to the Select Committee that the duplication and competition between the Countryside Agency and DEFRA could not continue, so Lord Haskins was invited to undertake his report, which makes it clear that the Countryside Agency should be abolished. He did not say that it should be partially abolished; he said that it should be completely abolished. He said that it was not necessary. DEFRA could undertake its responsibilities.
In rural areas, other unelected quangos may be given certain responsibilities, as the Minister has indicated. In fact, he has just outlined many of those responsibilities, which are apparently now going to the CRC: research, advice, help and information. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government offices, which were set up a considerable time ago, should now be abolished as well. They are also a duplicate, unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy and they add nothing to the progress that we could make in rural areas. They compete against regional development agencies, which were set up as unelected quangos to advise, support and give all this wonderful information to local authorities and to the Government.
We are proposing a combination of local government offices, regional development agencies and the CRC, all of which have a competing interest in pursuing the causes of rural life that affect those who live in rural communities, all of which have their own bureaucracies and agendas, and all of which compete to a certain extent for the ear of the Government and Government money to produce their pet projects. We now have a sufficient number of unelected quangos. DEFRA sits on the top of all that and local authorities have been relegated to the third or fourth division.
Despite all that the Minister has just said, even now it is not clear exactly how this body will succeed where the others, in particular the Countryside Agency, have lamentably failed. This body’s powers will be extremely limited and, as he pointed out, its resources will not be great. Its sanctions over Government policy are almost non-existent, yet he describes it as a strong, independent voice. I suspect that it will be a voice crying in the wilderness, as was the case with its predecessors.
I hope that we can look back on the statements from the CRC, and that this body will be strong and independent of the Government. What is quite clear is that our local authorities are strong and independent of the Government. I said earlier that Lord Haskins has made his position quite clear: when Natural England was established, there would remain no need for the Countryside Agency. We see no need for this rump of the Countryside Agency to be renamed the CRC, and thus it should be abolished and its funding and responsibilities directed to the already elected local authorities. As elected bodies, they will provide a far better, stronger and more independent voice, working closely with the rural communities that they already serve.