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Clause 25 - Directions

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:45 pm on 23rd 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)

We have had much debate about the directions that the Secretary of State could give Natural England, and the clause replicates the directions for the Commission for Rural Communities. However, one difference between Natural England and the CRC is that Natural England could actually do things. For instance, it could enter into management agreements and take much more explicit action in the countryside. The CRC, however, is a body for advocacy and advice. Subsection (4) states:

The Commission must comply with any directions given under this section.”

However, that is less appropriate for the commission than it is for Natural England.

I understand that the Secretary of State might wish to stop a body from becoming actively involved in an activity that was contrary to Government policy or that stood in contradiction to the work of another Department. However, if we do not give the commission the absolute right to decide what do—   which elements of rural activity to make reports on or take evidence on, or what recommendations to make on Government policy—we will do away with the very independence that the Minister has advocated. I ask him to reflect on that. Although I can understand that he might believe such arrangements to be suitable for Natural England, are they really appropriate for the Commission for Rural Communities?

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 makes an important point and it is appropriate that I should clarify it. On one level, we are doing no more than what is done with all non-departmental public bodies. I can rehearse all the arguments from before about Natural England and accountability, but the bottom-line assurance is that, ultimately, the Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament. Therefore, the clause is necessary.

The commission is an advisory, not a delivery, body, so it is unlikely that the power would ever be used. There is a similar power in relation to the Countryside Agency, and I can confirm that no directions have been issued to that body either. I can also clarify that we would not be in a position to direct the commission on what its findings should be or on what to advise Government, although we could ask it to look at something for us.

To give the hon. Gentleman an example, we are in the process of negotiating with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for the establishment of a task and finish group, as a commission to look at affordable rural housing, which we all know is a concern in rural England. I could have asked the fledgling Commission for Rural Communities to do that work for us. However, I have made the judgment that, while we are in the middle of organisational change for the commission, the formation of Natural England and everything else that is taking place in the context of the Bill, it would be more appropriate for a separate body to have completed the work by the time that the commission is formally established, so that the commission can then take the matter up for us.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps I can be a little more explicit about the avenue of thought that I was pursuing. What if the Commission for Rural Communities wanted to look into an aspect of rural life in which the Government felt they were failing? I would be concerned about the Secretary of State having the power to tell the commission, “No, you can’t look at that, because we’re very sensitive and we know we’ve failed.” I am not talking about this Government, but a Government in the future. That is the real concern that I have about that power. It is not the power of being able to tell the Commission to go and do something; it is the power of saying that it cannot look at something because the Government feel very sensitive about it.

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) 2:00 pm, 23rd June 2005

That is useful clarification, but I think that the fact that we have included in clause 25(2) that the

Secretary of State must publish any directions given under this section” means that if the commission were to announce that it was going to do a piece of work on, let us say again, affordable housing in rural areas, and the Secretary of State, by direction, said that it was not allowed to do so, that would be published and there would, understandably, be an outcry in the country, particularly in rural England, that the Secretary of State had constrained the commission from carrying out what everyone would consider to be useful work. I hope, on that basis, that the hon. Gentleman has the reassurance that he needs.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.