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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I shall make a brief intervention of a rather paradoxical nature. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and I both spoke in the debate on the rural economy on Thursday last week. Although I have rural connections, I was for many years an inner city London MP.
I remember vividly the Committee stage in the House of Commons on the Greater London Authority Bill. I say that because we were dealing with the problems of London as a microcosm of great cities throughout the country on the issue of a strategic authority. The Committee consisted of 29 Members of Parliament. The Minister's PPS was a Member for Aberdeen, and the Tory Whip had been the chairman of a West Midlands regional authority. The other 27 Members were all London Members, and they therefore spoke with considerable authority both for the centre of the city and the suburbs. What struck me about that Committee stage with that degree of expert opinion was the number of issuesdespite the fact that London had had a strategic authority from 1889 to 1986 and therefore was not unfamiliar with the issuesthat individual members brought up where circumstances overlapped, in rather the way that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was describing.
On each occasion the Minister, Mr Raynsford, assisted by Miss Glenda Jackson, would quietly turn down the issues that we brought up out of our own experience where the various tectonic plates met. Then in the later stage in the House of Commons, and certainly much more in the House of Lords, the Government accepted a whole series of amendments that we had moved in the Commons. Civil servants from different departments, having been sent away to investigate whether there was anything in what we had said, clearly reported to Ministers that there was. Therefore, I am highly sympathetic to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that you must have some means by which government departments across Whitehall are asked to look at rural issues in a unique way.
Lord Nickson: I hesitate to speak because I was not able to be present or take part at Second Reading. I will be extremely brief. I strongly support the amendments, from my personal experience. I am also hesitant because my experience is mostly in Scotland and therefore does not apply to this Bill. I was chairman of the Countryside Commission for
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Scotland and later chairman of the Scottish Development Agency, now Scottish Enterprise, so that I had, as it were, at one time one foot in the country and another in industry in the cities. Later still, I chaired a body that had direct access to the Prime Minister, and I totally support the fact that that access and that independence are fundamental. The issues facing the countryside in England and in Scotland at the moment are so great that this commission, with the independence proposed, is absolutely vital. I support the amendment.
Lord Cameron of Dillington: The noble Lord, Lord Renton, asked me what the CRC would add compared with the Countryside Agency. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned and as was referred to in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, we dealt with the delivery of functions as well as having advisory functions, and those delivery functions will no longer be applicable. So the CRC will be much more focused. He then spoke about farmers in the countryside and the difference that it would make to them. I am afraid that farmers represent less than 5 per cent of the rural population and less than 1 per cent of the whole population, so it is the other 95 per cent of the rural population in which we are mostly interested in terms of the CRC. That is not to say that farmers are not important in their own right.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned that the CRC may have problems in dealing with the environment across the board. The Countryside Agency currently produces a state-of-the-countryside report, which includes a chapter on the environment. It merely draws in information, which will probably come from Natural England as much as anywhere else, and produces it in a comprehensive form. The purpose of the amendment that relates to that is that it should be a presentation to Parliament as opposed to the general public.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, also mentioned that the CRC would work in partnership with the local authorities. That is true. When I chaired the Countryside Agency, I was perpetually strengthening the hand of the Rural Commission of the LGA and worked very closely with it, so that is absolutely correct.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I did not mention my other amendments in this group during
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my speech on whether the clause should stand part, partly because my remarks follow on from what has just been said.
Amendment No. 252 suggests that the CRC should be in at the development stage of policy and not just the monitoring and implementing stages, which would be rather shutting the door after the horse had bolted. So, although I do not yet want to admit that the CRC will exist, if it is to exist, it should be in at the policy development stage, ensuring that consultation happens.
In Amendments Nos. 246 and 248, I simply suggest that specifying "social and economic" needs draws the brief too tightly. For example, I would ask the right reverend Prelate about including the word "spiritual", or perhaps he considers that that is encompassed in "social". But, if the CRC is to exist, I should prefer it to be drawn as widely as possible.
Baroness Byford: I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. Because we are working slightly in reverse and some of us have not had a chance to move our amendments yet, it may be as well to reflect a little on some of the contributions that have been made and how I see them applying to our amendments, but I will speak directly to my amendments as well.
In speaking to her opposition to the Question whether the clause should stand part, the noble Baroness rightly said that in Committee in another place my two colleagues voted with the Liberal Democrats against the setting up of the Commission for Rural Communities. I think that they were extremely concerned about whether the commission would be yet another high-level talking shop. From some of the comments that have been expressed this afternoon, I suspect that, if we are honest, that is a view we all share, and I should like to come back to it.
I declare my interests, which are totally opposite to those of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I call myself a country lass. I live in the village in which I was bornsadly, in some ways it has become a big village. It does not really matter where we come from; we are all keenly aware of the needs of rural communities. I also remind noble Lords of my family farming interest in Suffolk and of my association with the RSIN, the RABI, the RASE, the Addington Fund and, not proudly but certainly not least, my work and involvement with the Church. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter rightly touched on the role that Churches have to play in our communities. When going round rural areas one notices enormous changes, such as the loss of shops, pubs and post offices, but the one thing that tends still to be therefortunatelyis the church of whatever denomination. That is enormously important.
"We have steadily questioned the creation of the Commission for Rural Communities, not that we do not believe or know that there is a need for a rural advocate, because indeed there is, but because . . . this is yet another high-level body responsible for talking".[Official Report, 7/11/05; col. 402.].
Since then we have had a chance to talk to many Peers and people outside, and we wish to support the establishment of the Commission for Rural Communities. But, in doing so, we want to make sure that it is much stronger than the Government had in mind in the first place. While some noble Lords will be pleased to hear me say that, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to it as a watchdog. When will it bark and when will it bite? We need both to go with it.
We have reached an important part of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, rightly raised the interesting concept of the Government's reaction to the need for having better affordable housing in country areas; they did not use the present system that they could have used, but set up a special commission to look at affordable housing. Once the body exists, will that be the end of extra bodies being set up to do the work that this new body should do if it works in the way that we anticipate?
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, explained clearly his commitment to the rural commission and how he was a former rural advocatea distinguished one, if I may say so. Even he would admit that there were things that he wanted to achieve that he could not achieve. The reports from various departments on rural-proofing, in particular, show that the levels achieved were not satisfactory. The question for the new commission is how to improve things. The figures are there to see. The Minister is new to his role in Defra, but that department's record is nothing to be proud of either, which is worrying.
I am pleased to support the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and to ask how to strengthen the Bill, not just to ensure that the door of No. 10 is open or that people will nod and say, "We hear you". We realise that there is a problem in the countryside and that in many cases it is a hidden problem. There is affluenceI do not mean that in an over-the-top sense, but there is some wealth in the countryside. There is no doubt about that, but, sadly, at the other end, there is extreme poverty, which is often hidden. That is made all the more difficult because people are remote and have no one to turn to. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said that we should name and shame, and yes we should. But what more can the commission do? I think that it should be able to do more.
I am sorry that I was unable to be here to take part in the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Renton yesterday, when he rightly raised the issue of the future and the pressure on farming and farming communities. Natural England will have the responsibility for making these payments, but will the Commission for Rural Communities have an overriding role in trying to get that body to better understand and carry more clout about how some of those payments may be made in future? I can see the two bodies not necessarily rowing in the same way. That is an important issue. My noble friend Lord Renton said that there was extreme pressure on farmers and the farming community. He is quite right. I foresee this going on probably for three or four years.
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Interestingly, the ARC-Addington Fund has had more applications within the first few months of this year than since the foot and mouth outbreak. There is a real concern out there.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter mentioned the role of the Churches. I was delighted to see yesterday that the Synod was 100 per cent behind the role that rural churches can play and which some of them have already adoptedsome have small post offices in them. There are real ways in which churches could be used more fully. I am delighted to support that.
My real role, however, is to speak to my amendments. In responding to the amendments of others, I hope that I will not have to do it again except to hear what the Minister has to say. On Amendment No. 245, the inclusion in the Bill of the words "social and economic" implies that other words are excluded. The word "economic" covers issues such as rural post offices and the threat to end the Post Office card accounts systemwhich is due to happen in 2008 and could well make greater difficulties for people living in rural areasagricultural diversification, tourism and other ways in which people living in rural areas earn their living. Does it cover things like the cost of obtaining an identity card, which cannot then be usedwith pensions, for exampleas all communications have to be over the phone because there is often no transport available to the post office? There are many questions over the words "social and economic".
My understanding is that "social" is also slightly difficult to define in this context. Will it cover, for example, the provision of schooling? There is, for instance, an assumption that, for too many school places, rural children will be required to travel many miles through rural villages to go into the towns. Would it not be sensible, and maybe less costly, to think of bussing some of those town children out to village schools, to ensure that village schools are able to continue? Will the rural commission's voice be heard in that discussion?
How about healthcare? Will the rural commission influence the organisation of prescription renewal services, which are causing considerable difficulties in some areas? Will the rural commission have a voice in representing constituents who find that the shake-up of the PCTs condemns them to attending outpatient departments in hospitals to which there are no direct transport links? Is it the Government's intention that the rural commission be heard in all these circumstances? The removal of the "social and economic" qualification makes sense and would obviate the possibility of lengthy squabbles over what is, and is not, included in the definition.
Amendments Nos. 243, 244, 250 and 253 address the same issue: questioning the Government on the purposes of the CRC. The first description of the CRC's general purpose, Clause 18(1), states that it will have a statutory duty to meet,
It goes on, and "rural needs" comes up again and again; it seems to be the main defining motivation for the CRC. But how will those rural needs be defined? If the only definition of "rural needs" is the description in Clause 18(3)
We can clearly see from this that the CRC is meant to be a body that will, in some ways, be complementary to Natural England, which will have regard to the environmentthat was touched on earlier. For now, the definition of "persons in rural areas" leaves meand I suggest otherssomewhat flummoxed. There are people who live full time in rural areas, such as farmers, gamekeepers, foresters, agricultural labourers, people who keep pubs, and shopkeepers. The list goes on and it is extensive and varied. However, there is a strong distinction between people who live in rural areas and people who visit rural areas. While I would in no way wish to discourage visitors to rural areasbecause, very often, rural areas are totally dependent on visitors to survivewe wonder whether the intention in the Bill, as it is laid, is to refer to people who are in rural areas rather than to people who are living and working in them.
Amendment No. 253 does not touch on the matter of definitions specifically, but it asks a question that my honourable friends in another place raised: how critical will the CRC be of itself when it puts together a report about the way in which policies are adopted? It is all very well for it to state that it is meeting certain aspects of the policy, but there is no obligation on it to report the extent of success or failure. I am not suggesting that the CRC should continually be looking over its shoulder, but it should be very critical of its brief and how it achieves it.
Amendment No. 251 is a probing amendment. Clause 22 allows the Commission for Rural Communities to charge for its services and Clause 21 specifies that it may publish and supply information. However, Clause 19 concerns aspects of the CRC's duties that many of us consider to be the only plausible reason for its existence. It must be a champion for the countryside. It must spend time, effort and money working with organisations that exist to protect, preserve and present the value of the countryside, the landscape and the rural way of life. Above all, it must represent rural values to government; it must inform and help decision-makers with the steps to be taken to ensure the continuation of those values. To do that, we believe that the Commission for Rural Communities has to have open access to decision-makers and opinion-formers. It is our belief that it will not achieve that if it is constrained to charge for services, as is suggested in the Bill.
Like other noble Lords, I am not surprised that so many noble Lords want to speak in this debate because, if we want the Commission for Rural Communities to fulfil an important role, we must get it right.
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