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Clause 26 - Transfers on dissolution of English Nature and Countryside Agency

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 23rd June 2005.

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

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

So far the Committee has had the opportunity to talk about policy, but clauses 26 to 30 talk about practicalities: the transfer and the way in which the new bodies are to be set up. I want briefly to ask the Minister some questions about that. It is not an easy task and perhaps at the outset I should record my appreciation of the work that the staff of the agencies are doing. There is more than just one agency; there is an end-point when they will be unified in one agency, and they have to manage the process. They have, as we say, to move from the past to the future. Some movements are easier than others, and this one is quite difficult. There are some issues involved with that, and I want to ask the Minister about property.

All Government Departments are under pressure, through the Gershon review, to reduce spending. The Minister has told us that the two new bodies—Natural England and the CRC—are to be independent. Will he give me an assurance that the property in which the bodies will eventually reside will belong to the agencies themselves? There have been stories in the past that the properties might belong, for example, to DEFRA, and will be sub-let, and the new bodies will merely be tenants. My own view is that they are truly independent bodies, and it is important that they have control of their own property. I believe that substantial savings lie behind the Bill, and it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that the new bodies are to be property owners in their own right, and that they are independent and in control of their own destiny.

I want to return to an issue that was touched on on Second Reading, which is the IT systems that will lie behind the new bodies. One of the tasks that the Department is currently considering is the Rural Payments Agency, which is in the midst of real change,   with a new IT system being installed. It has had a chequered history, and is putting in a new IT system at the same time as the reasons for and methods of payments are changing. It moved to single payments and an entry system. That is not going to be easy. Natural England, in particular, is to be involved in those payment mechanisms. Can the Minister assure me that, within the timeframe that has been set out, the new IT system will be delivered on time, on cost and fit for purpose?

The Minister may not want to be absolutely definitive on that point at the moment, as I know that there are problems in this area, but I wanted to use this occasion to say that all reorganisation is difficult and that in this reorganisation strong management will be necessary because, as I said initially, it is important to keep the show on the road while developing new purposes and new organisations. That is not an easy task. I know that the Minister’s officials have been heavily involved in it. Good management is necessary and satisfactory outcomes will be important.

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)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to join him in paying tribute to the work of the staff of the various agencies and of the RDS, which we are talking about in the context of this clause. They have done and continue to do excellent work and I look forward to them doing equally good work in the new organisations of which they will be a part.

My hon. Friend asked specific and valid questions about property and the vexed issue of IT—of course I welcome those questions hugely. The Countryside Agency and English Nature hold freehold or leasehold interests in land in two distinct categories. The first is property held for the public benefit, such as national nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest, where the land has been acquired by the body. The second category is property such as administrative office buildings held to enable the body to carry out its functions.

The property in the first category and attendant rights and liabilities will be transferred from the Countryside Agency and English Nature to Natural England. I hope that that is clear. It is clear in the Bill that the commission and Natural England will have the power to buy, own and dispose of property.

Property in the second category is expected to be transferred to become part of the civil estate, held on behalf of the Department. The transfer will be from the Countryside Agency or English Nature to the Secretary of State. As a matter of detail, in practice the property will be held by the Secretary of State on behalf of DEFRA, but the legislation needs to provide only for transfers to a Minister of the Crown. That transfer of property will allow flexible estate management to meet rapidly changing business needs, and the better management of public sector property assets in the light of the recent Lyons and Gershon reviews. In future, the Department may want to transfer property with attendant rights and liabilities to Natural England and, if appropriate, the Commission for Rural Communities, or vice versa, according to business needs.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

I have entirely followed the process and I hope that we will reach that end stage, with the new bodies responsible for their own property, as quickly as possible.

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)

Certainly. As part of the Department’s response to the Gershon report, we have said that the estate properties will possibly be held and managed on a corporate basis for Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities. It is also worth saying that the estate’s footprint should reduce significantly from the 80 or so sites across the country occupied by the existing organisations, particularly in the light of the more flexible and customer-focused ways of working envisaged and the joining up with partner organisations across the DEFRA family and beyond. Over time, we expect the final estate figure to be in the order of 50 sites across the country, subject to the introduction of more flexible and customer-focused ways of working, to IT to support that reduction and to Natural England’s final business need.

There was a request for an assurance that the IT will be delivered on time and to budget. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) raised that point on Second Reading and I have written to him accordingly. If the Committee wishes, I will circulate that letter to members of the Committee—seeing nodding heads, I will do that. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that I am aware of the difficulties involved with IT, including those of the Rural Payments Agency, and my officials are considering the matter very carefully. We are not complacent, but it would be rash of me to make promises about the outcomes.

It is clearly our intention that the IT should be on-time, on-budget, effective and work well to allow staff to get on with the job they want to do, rather than wrestle with IT problems. That is our intention and I have a fair degree of confidence from the conversations I have had that the IT challenge in respect of setting up the new organisations is considerably simpler than the problems of the Rural Payments Agency: the establishment of single payment systems, the entry-level system and the consequent issues of digitisation of maps and so on. As far as I am aware, there are no digitised map issues attached to the formation of Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities.

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

Those bodies will be responsible for access, so presumably they are taking over the whole of the responsibility from the Countryside Agency for mapping all open country. Presumably, they have a huge mapping exercise to undertake. One would assume that they will use the same maps as the RPA rather than reinvent the wheel—even if it has been badly invented.

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)

Certainly there would be no intention to reinvent the wheel. The hon. Gentleman makes interesting points regarding rights of way and the relationship with registration, but the reassurance I am trying to give is that we are aware of the IT issues. The letter that went to the right hon. Member for Fylde was   also copied to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and the problems of the RPA are discussed in this letter. By way of reassurance, the rights of way maps are not new. The work on them is now under way and is now largely completed. Much has already been done and those maps can be transferred relatively easy. The hon. Gentleman is right that I should not mislead anyone about maps, but I was talking about the same sorts of problems and digitised maps that are currently an issue.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

That point has been raised with me in the context of the maps that delineate the open access land. Presumably copyright will stay with one of the bodies—perhaps Natural England—and because of the cost of obtaining the copyright, mapmakers will not be able to afford it. Therefore, people will not have quite so much information. The copyright for maps of open access land could be made available without charge to other mapmakers so that there would be a greater amount of information for people who wanted to make use of that land.

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)

I shall give some thought to the hon. Gentleman’s point. Suffice it to say, in respect of this clause, rights of way mapping will transfer as part of the transfer of functions from the Countryside Agency to Natural England. If there are issues related to the practice of the Countryside Agency or the future practice of Natural England, I will consider them and we can have a separate discussion.

I hope that I have given sufficient explanation of the transfers for the Committee to be content for the clause to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 27 and 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.