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Schedule 2 - Commission for Rural Communities

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:15 pm on 23rd June 2005.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:15 pm, 23rd June 2005

I beg to move amendment

No. 57, in schedule 2, page 45, line 13, leave out

‘less than 8 nor more than 15’ and insert ‘more than 8’.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Labour, Rossendale and Darwen

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 58, in schedule 2, page 45, line 14, at end insert—

‘(1A)At least half the total number of members must have served as an elected member of a public authority or as a Member of Parliament within four years prior to first appointment.’.

No. 59, in schedule 2, page 45, line 31, at end insert—

‘5AEach member shall be appointed for a term of four years.’.

No. 60, in schedule 2, page 46, line 6, at end insert

‘after the first term of office, but no member shall be eligible for reappointment having served two full terms.’.

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

There is obviously going to be a Commission for Rural Communities, so we now turn our attention to one or two small but important, aspects of trying to get that right. The four amendments all relate to the commission’s board.

Amendment No. 57 deals with the size of the board. The Minister—and the Secretary of State on Second Reading—spoke about the CRC being a small organisation that will not have a large number of staff and will not cost a vast amount of taxpayers’ money. Therefore, why is it necessary to have so many people on the board? My recollection is that there could be as many as 15. I am proposing that we reduce the board size to eight. The larger any organisation is the more unmanageable it becomes. Anyone who has tried to chair a meeting knows full well that the more people there are, the more difficult it is. For a small organisation that is trying to do the job that the Minister has set out, eight members is perfectly reasonable. I therefore commend the amendment to the Committee and mention in passing that the difference between eight and 15 is fairly massive. I am not necessarily wed to eight, but I do not think that there should be such huge variation.

Amendment No. 58 returns to the issue of accountability, which colleagues and I referred to in the previous debate. The wording of the amendment is slightly tortuous and, I suspect, entirely novel. Nevertheless, it seeks to address the point that, although we cannot introduce direct accountability because of how the Government are setting up the commission, it would be a significant step forward if the people on the board knew what it was like to be a representative of rural communities. That is why we are proposing that at least half of the board should have recent experience of having been elected either to a council or to this House—they could not be a sitting Member of this House, but could be an ex-Member. That would add the element of board members knowing what it is to be elected.

There will be many occasions when hon. Members from all parts of the House of Commons will reflect on the different attitudes and pressures of and on elected representatives, who know what it is to be elected. We have all heard it said, or said it ourselves, that it is all very well for him or her, but they have never been elected to anything in their life. That is an important point. Even if we are not building direct accountability into the organisation, the people who serve on the board, or at least a majority of them, should have served in recent times as an elected member and therefore understand the discipline of accountability. I suspect that that is a novel approach, but I hope that the theory, at least, commends itself to the Minister. Again, I do not pretend to have got the drafting entirely right.

Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 are effectively a repetition of amendments that I tabled in respect of Natural England. They would include in schedule 2 proposals for members to be appointed for a term of four years and a maximum of two terms, to keep a constant flow of new blood to the board, while accepting at the outset that it would need to be staggered to avoid an “all-in, all-out” situation. The importance of the proposals is clear. I made the case as well as I could for Natural England and I will not bother to repeat it, especially as it failed to achieve its desired intent at that stage.

The four amendments would go some way towards improving the standard of the board, making it a manageable size, and not excessive compared to the size of the organisation seeking to run it, and bringing on to the board people with some understanding of what it is like to be accountable to the people whom they serve.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Whip, Whips

I intervene briefly to support my hon. Friend’s amendments, especially the proposal that some members of the board should have directly elected experience. Everyone should vote for an amendment that would give Members of Parliament or former Members of Parliament an extra job, particularly after the next election when one or two may be looking for activities to make up for not being in the House of Commons.

On a more serious note, it is important that the Commission for Rural Communities will have the ability, in some manner, to get its fingers into local   government and other existing organisations. I opposed the commission initially because it would add another tier of local bureaucracy to a very crowded area.

I have much sympathy with what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said about local government, and it is worth considering the situation in Northumberland. The county is about a third of the size of Birmingham. Its population is about 306,000, yet it is governed by a county council and six district councils, a national park and the rural development agency. The population is becoming seriously over-governed.

The CRC will be another player in the field, albeit a slightly hands-off one. Certainly, some of the policies and the initiatives of the organisation will impact on the many local groups. The consequence of having members of that commission with direct local government experience and the requirement to face the electorate would be valuable, although I would prefer it if members had local government experience rather than parliamentary experience. They would understand the realities of standing for election. Often, the commissioners will have sensible ideas that are unmarketable politically, and that is the problem. That is why it is necessary to have someone on the board to whom local authority councillors can make representation who understands the difficulties that they may face on the ground in dealing with some of the issues that they may come across. I support my hon. Friend.

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) 1:30 pm, 23rd June 2005

These paragraphs of the schedule set out the membership of the commission and the terms of office of its members. As has been hinted at, the arrangements are identical to those for Natural England, which are set out in schedule 1.

The drafting has been amended to reflect many of the points raised during pre-legislative scrutiny, thus making the independence of the commission clearer. In considering the amendments, it is important for the Committee to appreciate how we have responded to the pre-legislative scrutiny. Minimum and maximum numbers of board members are now specified to give a range of eight to 15 members, in line with the Environment Agency. Those numbers are variable by order, in line with English Nature’s current arrangement.

Paragraph 3(3) was also introduced, placing a duty on the Secretary of State to

“have regard to the desirability of appointing a person to the board who has experience of, and has shown some capacity in, some matter relevant to” the commission’s functions. That addresses the points raised this morning by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire about whether the commission might be set up to include a bunch of people who have no interest or experience whatever in anything to do with rural England. However, there is no power for the chairman to appoint board members, which the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs   recommended, as that would be against the code of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and would raise serious issues of ministerial accountability to Parliament.

The amendments seek to limit the flexibility that the Secretary of State will have. Amendment No. 57 would limit the number of members who could be appointed to eight. Amendment No. 58 would require that at least half of the membership of the commission be made up of former elected members of a public authority or former elected Members of this House. Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 would require that each member should be appointed for a term of four years, and for not more than two terms, respectively. As I shall explain, some of the proposed amendments do not accord with the OCPA code of practice.

To be effective, the commission needs a good mix of members with diverse backgrounds across a spectrum of relevant skills and expertise, and needs to hear from rural areas in different parts of the country, because, as we heard this morning, there are different issues in different areas of rurality. To impose an upper limit of eight would constrain the flexibility needed to achieve that effectiveness. We are a Committee of 16 members, and I note how effectively you, Mrs. Anderson, and Mr. Forth are able to control and organise us. I am sure that the chair of the commission would be equally capable of managing a commission of up to 15 members, which is, of course, one fewer than on this Committee.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Whip, Whips

There is a difference between a parliamentary Committee, on which most of the Government Members are forced to remain silent, and a general committee on which people have a great desire to talk for ever.

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 should also consider the fact that Government Members tend to turn up for Committees, unlike Opposition Members. Certainly, a committee of up to 15 is perfectly manageable, as shown by the experience with English Nature and the Environment Agency.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Will the Minister clarify whether, in relation to the make-up of the board, the definition of rural communities will include the kind of communities in the Sheffield area about which we heard, and will incorporate the many mining communities across the country?

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 for my hon. Friend’s intervention. It is important that the commission should have a duty to consider rural disadvantage and that the expertise of its members is sufficient to understand the needs of former mining villages and rural areas on the edge of cities, which can sometimes be forgotten.

The overriding principle of public appointments is that selection should be based on merit, so it would be unfortunate to restrict in the manner proposed our ability to secure the services of those best qualified to serve on the commission. I do not suggest that there would not be plenty of suitable candidates of merit among ex-Members of this House, but the stipulations   are strange and, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, novel. I would argue that packing the commission with ex-politicians also risks bringing party politics into it. We are seeking to ensure that it is independent and, dare I say it, above politics so that it can be the powerful independent voice that we seek.

The accountability route is clear. Ultimately, the commission needs to feel accountable to rural communities, and I accept the suggestion by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) that it must satisfy rural communities, and not just itself, that they have a champion. It will ultimately be accountable to them, although it will be formally held accountable through Parliament.

Flexibility is necessary in the term of appointment of members to ensure that the commission is balanced and that the membership turns over in an orderly manner, so that not all the members leave at the same time. I accept what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said about how he would address that, but appointments are subject to the rules set out by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, as I made clear on Tuesday, and they are normally restricted to two terms. I shall not rehearse the arguments that I used then to explain why the OCPA code of practice should be applied and why the hon. Gentleman’s amendments are contrary to it. With that, I urge him to withdraw the amendment and to agree to the schedule.

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

I cannot say that the Minister’s comments are a huge surprise—I think that I could have written them myself, although probably not delivered them with such panache. Nevertheless, I am slightly sorry that he has taken the view that he has. The idea of having 15 people on the board of an organisation that will, at least allegedly, be small, lean and purely advisory, is stretching a point. It is a little odd.

On my proposals for formally elected people, the Minister asserted that he did not want party politics to enter into things, so I hesitate to suggest that they tend to creep into lots of things anyway. I referred to ex-politicians, and as a Minister in a Government who have filled the other end of this building with ex-politicians who never seem to follow the party Whip, he will know that politicians cannot always be relied on to follow the party line, so I am not sure that he is right. I also cannot help reflecting on the fact that it is good enough for the Prime Minister of France never to have been elected to anything in his life. All that I am suggesting is that members of the commission should once have been elected to something, somewhere.

Neither point, however, is hugely important, and we may return to them in this place or in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made:No. 96, in schedule 2, page 47, line 30, leave out

‘As soon as possible after the end of’

and insert ‘For’.

No. 97, in schedule 2, page 47, line 34, at end insert

‘within such period as the Secretary of State directs’.

No. 98, in schedule 2, page 47, line 35, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

No. 99, in schedule 2, page 48, line 3, leave out

‘As soon as possible after the end of’

and insert ‘For’.

No. 100, in schedule 2, page 48, line 7, at end insert

‘within such period as the Secretary of State directs’.

No, 101, in schedule 2, page 48, line 11, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

‘(b) send a copy of the certified statement and of his report to the Secretary of State as soon as possible.’.

No. 102, in schedule 2, page 48, line 12, at end insert—

‘23A The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a document consisting of—

(a) a copy of the report sent under paragraph 22(1), and

(b) a copy of the statement and report sent under paragraph 23(4).’.—[Jim Knight.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.