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Clause 97 - Commencement

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 5th July 2005.

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Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 156 and 157.

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 amendments make two small adjustments to relevant Department names and add one new important subsection to the commencement clause. Amendment No. 155 was tabled at the request of the Northern Ireland Administration, and simply changes the Department in Northern Ireland to be consulted by the Secretary of State when commencing the measures in part 2 reconstituting the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Similarly, amendment No. 156 requires the Secretary of State to consult the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of the Environment before commencing provisions in schedules 11 and 12 that affect Northern Ireland only.

I mentioned amendment No. 157 when we discussed the rights-of-way provisions. This additional measure covers regional commencement, allowing the Secretary of State to commence the rights-of-way provisions earlier in some areas. That approach follows a precedent in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. On that basis, I urge hon. Members to accept the amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 156, in clause 97, page 40, line 10, after 'Development', insert

'and the Department of the Environment'.

No. 157, in clause 97, page 40, line 13, at end insert—

'( ) An order under this section may make different provision for different purposes or different areas.'.—[Jim Knight.]

Clause 97, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 98 and 99 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

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 take this opportunity to say a few words as the Committee concludes. I must admit that when I walked into our first sitting a few weeks ago, I was rather nervous about tackling for the first time the task of being the Minister on a Standing Committee. I believe that this was also Mrs. Anderson's first experience of chairing a Committee, and I congratulate her on the excellent job that she did. I trust that you will pass that on, Mr. Forth.

I thank you too, Mr. Forth, for the expert way in which you have overseen our proceedings. Earlier, you used the phrase ''a fairly relaxed fashion''; you have steered an able course between relaxation and sticking to order, for which I thank you on behalf of the Committee.

I thank all members of the Committee. I have been impressed by their expertise and their passion for the important subject of protecting our environment and rural communities. I am grateful for the constructive approach that they all took, as a result of which the Bill has been thoroughly scrutinised. We have got to the end of the programme, which does not always happen. We have disagreed on some points, and our discussions on others have led me genuinely to reconsider; I hope that the Committee appreciates that. I shall write to Members today on a small number of issues, and shall continue to reflect on others, on which I shall come back to all Committee members either during the Bill's proceedings or in writing.

We had some interesting discussions about the rural idyll that is Sheffield. I do not think that a sitting has gone by without some discussion of Sheffield. Aside from the fact that Natural England's headquarters will be there, Sheffield is a good example of an area in which the Bill's provisions will have a significant effect. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) pointed out that it is only a 15-minute journey from central Sheffield to what we would call the countryside. Natural England will be a major player in the countryside, but its role in city fringes, urban green spaces and, indeed, protecting biodiversity in people's gardens through advice and education will be equally important. Sheffield is on the edge of the Peak District national park, and some say that it is the greenest city in the country. We have had fun with it, and it has been an enjoyable feature of our proceedings that will remain with me.

We had a long and detailed debate about Natural England, and I am immensely grateful for the detailed attention that Committee members have given to its provisions. That was perhaps best exemplified by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is sadly not in his place at the moment. I will remember for some time his insightful but disarmingly simple questioning about the terms ''methods'', ''concepts'' and ''techniques''. I wrote to him this morning to clarify what those terms meant and why it was useful to retain them in the Bill.

As the Committee has gone about its work, it has used a rigorous method and applied some interesting   debating techniques. The concepts that have informed the debate have generally been sound. At one point, my hon. Friend rose to make what he called a ''pedantic point''. I can assure the Committee that the careful scrutiny that he has given the Bill has been gratefully received and was extremely useful. It has given me much to mull over during the recess.

We unanimously agreed on the importance of getting Natural England's purpose right to reflect its challenging remit, meet the aspiration that it will be more than the sum of its parts and ensure that, through its environmental work, it can maximise its contribution to sustainable development. We have heard impassioned arguments about making the body more explicitly environmental. We have heard thoughts about how Natural England's progress might refer to the relationships that it will have with rural communities, business and farming, and about how its contribution to sustainable development could best be expressed. We also considered in depth the important issue of the body's future independence.

All those discussions were carried out constructively, and I want personally to thank the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who have led for their respective parties. They have done an excellent job in scrutinising the Bill's detail, and I thank them for that.

The Bill is important to the Government. I have been encouraged by the broad welcome that it has been given in Committee and in the many parliamentary briefings provided by non-governmental organisations, which I am sure all Committee members have appreciated. I thank those organisations for their involvement in the process and for ensuring that the Committee has been well informed by stakeholders. I am excited that my first Bill as a Minister will leave a lasting legacy for present and future generations: a conserved and enhanced natural environment for all; a strong advocate for rural communities, in particular the most disadvantaged; and a vision that has the pursuit of sustainable development as its heart.

I look forward to my next Bill, which I think will be the Commons Bill, and I look forward to Committee members leaping forward with enthusiasm to take part in its scrutiny. Perhaps we may even be blessed with your good chairmanship, Mr. Forth.

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

Mr. Forth, may I add my thanks to those of the Minister to you and Mrs. Anderson? I am conscious that you believe strongly in proper Committee scrutiny of legislation, and I hope that you feel that we have made a reasonable fist of it from this side of the Committee. I am conscious that it is only thirteen minutes past 12 o'clock, and I am not sure that I can continue this scrutiny through until 1 o'clock, much as I am sure that you would like us to. I will sit down shortly and let the Liberals try, as they will probably be more successful.

This has been a constructive Committee, and I congratulate the Minister on his first Bill and on the fact that he has handled it extremely competently—I do not mean to sound patronising—and without any   aggression or confrontation. He has clearly been in charge of his brief, and I am sure that it will be the first Bill in a successful ministerial career.

That brings me to thanking the outside bodies, as the Minister did. He has not yet found—although he will do so in due course—that, in opposition, one is reliant on outside bodies for help and advice in dealing with legislation and suggesting amendments. I express my thanks to all the organisations that have supported the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats in challenging the Government, as is our job.

When I first joined the House, it was conventional to thank also the Doorkeepers and, particularly, the police for keeping the peace in Committee. I repeat those thanks, although the world seems to have changed a bit. There is slightly less aggression now than there was in my early days, when the role of the police was perhaps far more significant, and the former Opposition were dividing Committees far more regularly.

I thank also the hon. Member for Sherwood not just for his role as Chairman of the Sub-Committee that undertook the valuable scrutiny that I have mentioned, but for his constructive approach to the Bill in Committee. This Committee would have been the poorer without his membership, and I am grateful to him.

The Minister has listened, and I am grateful to him. He has not accepted any of our amendments per se, but that is standard practice, and he has accepted some of the points that we have put forward. He referred to Natural England and to the issues that were raised in that debate. I do not renege on the Opposition's position in principle, nevertheless Natural England will come into being, and we want it to be successful, and we shall do everything in our power to achieve that. I hope that the Minister will reflect further on the issues in clause 2 about its responsibilities. They are the subject of widespread debate, and, as he has said, it has not all been consensual debate. There is disagreement about the environment, sustainable development and other matters.

I hope also that the Minister will reflect on the appointments to Natural England that he will need to make. It will be terribly important to ensure that whomever he appoints to the chairmanship and to the post of chief executive carry with them the credibility that is necessary throughout the panoply. I do not mean to denigrate, but it would be a mistake to appoint anybody who has the baggage associated with one or other of the countryside special interest groups. Someone with broad acceptability is necessary to get the organisation off the ground and, in many ways, the same comments apply to the Commission for Rural Communities.

In the debate on pesticides poisoning birds, the Minister agreed to return with thoughts about preventing fishing trips by inspectors, and I am grateful to him for that. There are also concerns about the part of the Bill that deals with the year-  round protection of birds nests. I am grateful that he put some points on the record.

By far the most controversial aspect of the Bill between the Minister and the rest of the Committee was the issue about motorised vehicles on rights of way, and about when the order would commence to prevent the addition to the definitive map of the applications that, as the Minister now agrees, have been sent in since the issue was flagged up. Having reflected on the matter since last week, he has to accept the clear view of the Committee and of the House on Second Reading that the year he proposed was far too long away. He must find a way to stop the surge of applications from changing the definitive map.

I am quite certain that as the Bill returns to the Floor of the House and progresses to the other place, there will be other changes. I have flagged up in Committee a number of areas in which I suspect that they will occur. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in another place will remain sympathetic to the general approach that he has kindly reflected on, and that we have taken in Committee, trying genuinely to improve the Bill and to make it more appropriate to our shared purposes. I am happy to wish the Bill well and to support its conclusion at this stage.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 12:15 pm, 5th July 2005

May I briefly echo the words of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, and say how much I enjoyed this Committee? I do not think that it is often said that one enjoys such an experience, but it has been enjoyable and the pace was right. This important Bill benefited considerably from pre-legislative scrutiny and I am sure that such scrutiny will become more of a feature because it helps the whole process and helps us to concentrate on areas where there is a difference of opinion. The Bill is largely uncontentious and, in many areas, there is broad agreement in the House, except perhaps in some details.

We had one major objection: to the creation of the Commission for Rural Communities. We still believe that some local authority powers should be restored and that local authorities should be given new powers and the opportunities and resources to administer them. I like to believe that we won the argument but lost the vote. Time will tell whether the CRC works. It is important that, when new bodies are set up, they are evaluated, and I assure the Committee that the CRC will be evaluated to ensure that it lives up to the Minister's hopes and expectations.

I add my formal thanks to our Chairpersons, Mr. Forth and Mrs. Anderson, whose knowledge and experience assisted us. I also thank the Minister who performed very well and assisted our consideration. I wish him well with the Bill and in his future career. No doubt he will have a period of reflection, although he does not have much to reflect on, and I hope that some of the issues that we have discussed will be finely tuned on Report so that they are more in line with the broad thrust of what we all want to happen.

I hope that the Bill passes through all its stages because not only our generation, but generations to come will be affected in the way in which we manage our countryside and land use on our small island,   which is becoming more crowded than some of us would like. It is important that land, and the birds and animals with which we share it, as well as biodiversity are properly considered when dealing with land use, land planning and the way in which we look after the environment generally. I wish the Bill well.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Before I put the final question to the Committee, I thank all members of the Committee for conducting our proceedings so pleasantly and knowledgeably. That has added greatly to our deliberations. I add my appreciation to the Minister for the assured way in which he guided us through the   Bill—his first Bill but not, I am sure, his last. We are all grateful for that.

I thank Hansard for keeping up with us and, most of all, I thank the Committee Clerks. All Chairmen rely on them heavily and I probably more than most. They keep us on the straight and narrow and keep me relatively honest. For that I am very grateful.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock.