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Clause 66 - Constitution of Council

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 5th July 2005.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:30 am, 5th July 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 85, in clause 66, page 26, line 15, at end insert

'and the National Assembly for Wales'.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

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

No. 86, in clause 66, page 26, line 20, at end insert—

'(5A) One of the members is to be appointed by the National Assembly for Wales after consulting the Secretary of State.

(5B) In making that appointment, the National Assembly for Wales must have regard to the desirability of appointing a person who appears to the National Assembly to have specialist knowledge of Wales.'.

No. 131, in clause 67, page 26, line 37, after 'Ministers', insert

'or the National Assembly for Wales'.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

Good morning, Mr. Forth. I am sure that the Committee is pleased to continue the scrutiny of this important legislation under your chairmanship.

The clause deals with the composition of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council and touches on the nature of devolution in this country. Amendment No. 85 would make it a requirement that when appointing the chairman of the council the Secretary of State must take advice and consult the Welsh Assembly.

When I moved an amendment to the schedule dealing with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, I said that the Secretary of State should consult with Scottish Ministers and the Welsh Assembly. When the Minister rejected that amendment—he has rejected amendments consistently during our consideration of the Bill—he said that it was unnecessary to mention Scottish Ministers because existing legislation covered that and that it was inappropriate to mention the Welsh Assembly in the Bill without mentioning Northern Ireland. I have made that mistake again in this amendment and I apologise to those who are considering the Bill from the point of view of Northern Ireland.

It is interesting to note that the clause refers to Scottish Ministers in connection with the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council. If existing legislation refers to consultation with Scottish   Ministers, why does that requirement appear in the Bill in connection with the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council when it did not need to appear in connection with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee? If that body is to represent the interests of all UK devolved nations—the chairman will be an important figure on the council—the Minister should consult with those devolved Governments and Assemblies.

I know that the Minister will tell me that he spends at least an hour on the telephone every morning with his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly and with Scottish Ministers, and I am sure that everyone here would agree that he has demonstrated in the Committee his commitment to devolution and involving everyone in these matters. However, Wales would take great comfort if that was in the Bill. We accept that the Minister is committed to these matters, but at another time after another election we might have Ministers who were not so committed to the limited devolution settlement that we enjoy at the moment. Will the Minister reflect on the fact that putting the requirement in the Bill would be an improvement for devolution in practice in this great nation of ours?

Amendment No. 86 would require one council member to be appointed by the Welsh Assembly in consultation with the Secretary of State. Wales has a great interest in inland waterways, given the number of canals that serve the country. They are not only important for recreation; they are historic monuments, reflecting the great involvement in Victorian times of the private sector in the transformation from dram roads to canals to railways. A lot of the infrastructure that was put in place then has been lost, and nowadays we regret that, because we appreciate its value.

From the perspective of both devolution and regionalisation, my party thinks that Wales should have a representative to look after the interests of its inland waterways—not just canals but rivers, and whether certain of them have navigable rights. I have been involved in the lower Wye valley, where there has been a lot of controversy as to whether that part of the river should be open to public navigation or whether access to it should be a right only of riparian owners.

So I have tabled the amendments in the hope that the Minister will reflect on them and agree that they provide a way forward that will allow the Council to exercise not only its powers but its judgment, making it a force for improvement of the inland waterways—not just in England, in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, but across the UK in an integrated and positive fashion.

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

Mr. Forth, may I add my welcome to you on your final appearance in this Committee. I can say that because, whatever happens this afternoon, you will not be here.

I want to add a word of support for the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), and to refer to amendment No. 131, tabled in my name, which follows the sequence of points that he has raised, and also suggests that the consultation with the Secretary of State and the Scottish Ministers on terms   of office and procedures mentioned in clause 67 should also include the National Assembly for Wales. It seems a straightforward and logical thing to include, and I am not sure why it was omitted. If the body is to cover England and Wales, then, as the hon. Gentleman said, we should ensure that the Welsh Assembly is properly consulted by the council. For that reason, I support the amendments.

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)

Good morning, Mr. Forth. It is good to see you back in the Chair. It would be helpful if I were to clarify the purposes of clauses 66 and 67 in order to put the amendments into context.

Clause 66 sets out the constitution of the new Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, and the arrangements for the appointment of its chair and members. Its key feature is to separate the council from British Waterways by removing the requirement for the Secretary of State and the Scottish Ministers to consult the chair of British Waterways about appointments to the council. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about the requirement for consultation with Scotland. Scotland and Wales are treated differently in legislation with regard to waterways policy, because it is a devolved matter in respect of Scotland but not in respect of Wales.

Clause 67 goes on to specify the terms under which the members of the new council will hold office, the procedure for the appointment of regional and other committees, and the arrangements under which the council will receive financial support. Again, the main effect of the clause is to remove British Waterways' direct involvement with the council by transferring responsibility.

The important point to note is that clauses 66 and 67 preserve the arrangements under which the chair and members are appointed and the regional and other committees are set up, as they were designed with devolution in mind. That is particularly relevant to the amendments, as they all relate to the relationship between the council and the National Assembly for Wales.

The amendments would place the National Assembly on more or less the same footing as the Scots in terms of appointments and consultation. The Secretary of State would need to consult the Assembly before appointing the chair and, after consulting the Secretary of State, the Assembly would be given the power to appoint a member with specialist knowledge of Wales. Furthermore, the council would need to consult the Assembly as well as Scottish Ministers before appointing any regional committee with the Secretary of State's approval.

I recognise that there may, at face value, seem to be a case for giving the Assembly the same powers as Scottish Ministers, and I pay tribute to the assiduous way in which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire scrutinises Welsh matters throughout the Committee's proceedings, but it would not be consistent with the devolution settlement if we were to agree to the amendments. As I said, unlike in Scotland, policy on inland waterways in Wales has not been   devolved to Wales, and as such it would not be appropriate for the Welsh Assembly to have a formal statutory role in the appointment of the chair and members of the council or of regional committees, but I do not want hon. Members to think that that means that we are not concerned about Wales.

As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has said, there is great interest in inland waterways in Wales, which I do not dispute. Although the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal is the only fully operational canal that is wholly in Wales—mostly in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—part of the Llangollen canal and the Montgomery canal are also in Wales, as are two or three rivers—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Wye, the Dee and the Severn—which are navigable to a certain extent.

We do not believe that it would be right to erode the devolution settlement, and believe that Welsh interests could be covered by less formal means. The existing council does have a member with specialist knowledge of Wales, and I understand that the arrangement has worked well. We will therefore ensure that Wales continues to be represented on the new council.

I am happy to give the undertaking that DEFRA officials will consult their Welsh counterparts before the chair is appointed, and to confirm that they will consult them about the member to represent Welsh interests. I do not, however, want to play around with the devolution settlement off the cuff here and now in the Bill, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I should point out, for the sake of transparency and to avoid doubt and confusion, that clause 66 refers throughout to ''chairman'', just in case anyone was worried about the Minister's use of another term.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I listened very carefully to the Minister's comments. No one doubts his commitment to the devolution settlement, and I am very pleased that he is positive about the way in which we have tried to scrutinise this important piece of legislation to ensure that Wales plays its full part in these matters. I understand his view that it might be contrary to the devolution settlement as it stands, but some of us want to take that settlement to the next stage, and some of the aspects of the Bill would not be consistent with an enhanced devolution settlement. The Minister and other hon. Members will understand that some of us want to proceed in that vein.

Given that the Minister has put on record his commitment to consultation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 67 to 69 ordered to stand part of the Bill.