[Relevant document: The Special Report from the Committee on the Broads Authority Bill, HC 961, Session 2006-07.]
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Before I begin, I want to pay a compliment to the Members who have turned up to discuss the issue this afternoon—particularly my colleagues from Norfolk who have been in the forefront during discussions on the issue, and members of the Select Committee that met to make the Bill much tighter and sharper than it was on Second Reading. I pay an individual compliment to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who sadly missed Second Reading owing to tragic circumstances. It is grand to see him in the Chamber today, and I hope that he will have the opportunity to extend his interest in the Bill.
The prime purpose of the Bill is public safety on the waterways of the broads, not only for people from Norfolk and Suffolk who use the broads but for people from across the world, the UK and Europe. The broads are a popular tourist resort, with many boats dodging about during the summer. We are rather concerned about public safety on the waterways. There has been agreement between the Broads Authority and three national boating organisations on the Bill’s provisions. I shall say more about that later.
Two specific issues arose from the Select Committee on the Bill, which was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). I thank him for the efforts that were put in. The authority has incorporated as much as possible from the legal agreements with the boating organisations in the Bill. If people have looked at the Bill, they will have seen how it has changed since Second Reading.
Following the Committee’s comments on direct elections, I am told that the Broads Authority will consider the principle in its meeting on Friday, after we have heard what the Minister has to say this afternoon. The authority believes that direct elections are a matter for the Government and are not appropriate for the Bill.
I did indeed chair the Committee, which included the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). There were not extensive concerns from across the spectrum at all, but the key concern that we heard from the people from whom we took evidence was about the accountability and representative nature of the Broads Authority. It was important that our comments to the House covered the suggestion that that concern should be remedied through direct election, such as that which we see in the national park authorities and elsewhere. I hope that what is proposed and what the Minister requires will be adequate to meet the concerns that we heard over the days in which we took evidence. That is very important. I found most of the rest of the Bill to be worth while and understandable.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about taking the issue on and about how it will be handled. It not only reflects on the Broads Authority but has implications for other waterways authorities.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman used this opportunity to give his view on direct elections. It was extremely helpful to hear the comments of the Chairman of the Committee, but does the hon. Gentleman support the principle, too?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. The matter has been resolved in Scotland, so it seems to me that there are lessons to be learned there. He and I have had discussions with the Broads Authority, and I believe that the door was beginning to open on this issue. We both said in public, and to the local newspaper, that it would be a good idea to try to find ways forward, as direct elections would allow the many people who want to play a part in the broads to go through an electoral process. There is a public mood for that to happen, and I think it should be encouraged. I hope that the Broads Authority will respond positively on Friday, and that the Minister will give the proposal all the backing that he can.
Some of the issues that arose on Second Reading have been handled in the appropriate way, through open debate. I think that there is much more to come, but I repeat that the House must understand that no provision for direct elections can be put on the face of the Bill. The Bill has implications for other areas of the country, and new legislation may be needed if we want direct elections in other places. If that is the decision of the individuals concerned, I shall give it my support.
Of course, promoting a private Bill was not chosen lightly as a course of action. After many years of discussion with Government officials, it became clear that that was the only route open to the authority if various important matters of safety were to be addressed. With many of the proposals, the authority is following a path already paved by British Waterways and the Environment Agency, and it acknowledges the help and advice that those organisations have given.
It is worth putting it on the record that the authority is also grateful to successive Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) and for South Dorset (Jim Knight)—the latter is now Minister for Schools and Learners—and the present Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw).
The Bill includes a number of general provisions designed to improve safety on the broads’ waterways, and to ensure that they are managed effectively in the interests of all users. The need for additional powers has been highlighted by the requirements of the port marine safety code and by specific incidents. The principle underlying them was accepted on Second Reading and in Committee, and I do not intend to repeat the argument here.
The agreements with the national boating organisations have also raised some issues. For the past two years the Broads Authority has been working hard with the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation and the Inland Waterways Association to develop and refine the Bill. It has reached agreements with them over the Bill’s provisions, and they can be seen in schedule 1.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire mentioned two specific issues arising from the Committee stage. Evidence and arguments from the Broads Authority were considered in July 2007, and four petitioners and their agents were heard at that sitting. The Committee also received a report from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A full discussion of the relevant issues was held, and the Committee concluded that the Bill should be allowed to proceed, with some amendments. The Broads Authority put forward a number of amendments to deal with concerns raised during the consultation process, while other amendments were designed to meet recommendations from the Secretary of State that included questions about how membership of the Broads Authority came about.
The status of the legal agreements was raised on Second Reading. As is often the case with private Bills, the Broads Authority entered into agreements with interested parties about the operation of certain provisions in the Bill. Following concerns expressed by the Committee, the authority and the national boating bodies gave further consideration to those agreements, with a view to incorporating certain of their provisions in the Bill. In that regard, I invite hon. Members to look at schedule 1, where they will see that words such as “independent”, “scrutiny” and so on have been added.
A number of the provisions in the agreements were already covered in the Bill, either specifically or in general terms. It has been agreed that most of the remainder should be included in the Bill, and the amendments made at consideration stage secure that.
I believe that parish council representation should be included in the direct elections, and parish councillors have lobbied all the Norfolk MPs for that. Parish councils have a serious interest in the broads, and given the important work that their members do, they would like to participate in some way if there are to be direct elections.
The authority has 21 members, to take account of the national and local interests and to reflect its duties and responsibilities. Ten are appointed by the Secretary of State, nine by the eight local authorities in the area, and two by the authority from its statutory navigation committee. The local authority members are councillors, who have been elected locally; that is an important link with the local community, but that is not to say that the link could not be furthered and improved. The Bill includes no proposals to change overall membership, but as I pointed out, there may be additions to, or adaptations of, that membership.
Hon. Members will probably recall that the issue of direct elections and parish council representation on the Broads Authority was raised on Second Reading. The report of the Committee on the Broads Authority Bill stated that
“the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 set out in its framework for the constitution of a National Park that a minimum of 20 per cent of members of the National Park Authority were to be elected in a poll by those on the local government electoral register within the Park area. A similar model should be considered for the Broads Authority.
As the Authority has sought to extend its powers, we believe that the Government should now consider the constitution of the Authority.”
We will hear about that shortly. The report continued:
“We are not minded to amend the Bill to include such provisions”.
The hon. Gentleman is explaining matters succinctly. He has done a great deal of work on the Bill, and I am grateful to him for that. However, does he agree with me that we still have not resolved the issue of parish council representation? What more does he think should be done to make sure that the issue is addressed with real clarity?
As I said, parish councillors are very important, and they should be part of the equation that is considered by the Broads Authority. There are questions to do with parish councils, including whether they cover the whole area of the broads and how much of the broads is in each parish. That is not perhaps as important as having people on the authority who are devoted, enthusiastic, keen, determined, knowledgeable and interested in spending many hours helping to develop the broads.
Before someone asks me whether the broads will be flooded by some agency or other, let me add that I think that the broads will be there for at least 50 years. That commitment was made in a debate yesterday. The broads will not be salinated or deliberately flooded. Of course, we have no idea what climate change will do to them; we cannot greatly control that, but we will make attempts to do so.
We have to think about how we will organise the waterways in the next 50 years. We do not believe that the place to do that is in the Bill. We had discussions on the issue, but the advice that we were given was that some other formal regulatory pathway would have to be used to put that into the equation. That is not an excuse to do nothing; I believe that the sincere intention is to try to use a mechanism, as soon as possible, to ensure that that happens in the broads and in other areas, with the Norfolk broads blazing a trail. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is well placed to consider those issues with the Broads Authority, and to bring forward the necessary legislation.
It falls to DEFRA to consider the issue of direct elections and the related matter of parish council representation on the authority. The authority will be considering the principle on Friday. The members will want to take into account the views of the House and, in particular, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I mentioned the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire; we agree with the Committee that the Bill is not the place in which to seek to make changes to the membership of the authority, but that is certainly an issue to be considered.
I hope that the Bill will successfully complete Third Reading and move on to the other place. Its proposals affect the rights of navigation and would improve safety on the broads, to the benefit of all those who use the waterways. The objective of public safety is a legitimate ground for qualifying what might otherwise be an unhindered public right. Consider, for example, the measures that Parliament introduced for the protection of motorists. It made the wearing of seat belts compulsory—it was predicted that that would be a failure, but it has been an amazing success—and it gave local authorities the ability to regulate the way in which roads are used. So there are parallels setting out how to make effective changes and improve the safety of people who use facilities. Many of the provisions in the Bill are well precedented elsewhere. The authority believes that it has the correct balance, and the Bill incorporates the necessary measure of protection for the private individual. Of course, there will be individuals who do not agree, but in general many people seem to think that the measure should be in place. Like the seat belt regulations, I think that the measure will become part and parcel of people’s way of life; it will be part of the way in which they use the broads.
Before the Bill was deposited, the authority spent a year on preparatory work, and on consultation and discussion with DEFRA, national and local boating organisations and other key stakeholders. Discussions with national boating bodies have continued, and resulted in many of the changes that have been made as the Bill has progressed. If we are honest, we know from experience that things evolve and change: the spirit is there, as long as public safety is foremost in those equations and considerations.
There was widespread consultation, and changes were made by the authority to meet the concerns that were raised. No petitions were received from any organisation in the House but, importantly, there were four private petitioners. All the issues pursued by boating organisations have been addressed. The authority has secured agreement with the main boating organisations on the Bill’s provisions. It is important to introduce the Bill—the summer is a-coming, and boats will be scurrying around the broads—and we should push the legislation through, although I expect that it will be held up in another place.
My hon. Friend referred to four petitions against the Bill which triggered the witness statements that were given to our Committee. The firm impression that I gained from the petitioners was that they had lodged technical petitions, because they wanted to air their concerns and seek reassurances. As far as I recall, there was no fundamental, dyed-in-the-wool opposition to the Bill’s provisions.
I concur with my hon. Friend, and agree that that is true. At the same time, however, those petitions were taken seriously by his Committee, and they are certainly taken seriously by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and me. In fact, we met some of the petitioners, with the Broads Authority in tow, and we discussed the issues. We are always keen to hear what they have to say. As I said, in a year or two years, other changes and differences may arise in that environment that require extra legislation. Who knows what will happen? We need a Bill in place so that we can adapt it for the safety of the people who use the waters.
Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are strong views out there about the legislation and the authority. The important thing is how the powers are used by the authority once they have been introduced—that is the test. Does he agree that it is important to rebuild trust between the authority and people who have voiced concerns?
Yes, I am 100 per cent. for trust, confidence-building and making sure that there is firm representation so that if people have a grudge or gripe, they can go to the Broads Authority with their complaint and have it taken seriously and something can be done about it. The spirit of the Bill, and the way in which it has been talked up and discussed, will allow that to happen. When it was introduced, such measures might not have been quite as up front as they are now, but I hope that if we get the Bill through, and if it completes its passage through the other place in the next few months, we will have a new spirit on the broads, and people will be able to enjoy that lively part of the world. It is in everyone’s interests to make sure that we agree to Third Reading today.
I beg to move,
That the Bill be read a third time upon this day six months.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). Along with the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), I have tabled a blocking motion, having learned about parliamentary procedure as the Bill has progressed through the House. I do not know whether this is entirely the case for the hon. Member for South Norfolk, but I tabled that motion because I wanted to secure an opportunity to discuss direct elections and directly elected representation—the issue that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) helpfully raised in his role as Chairman of the Select Committee examining the Bill. The blocking motion has ensured, too, that the Bill has received another airing in the House, which is a good thing. It is important legislation for Norfolk and the Norfolk broads, so it is right that it should receive proper parliamentary scrutiny. It is right, too, that people out there who are concerned about the Bill have their case made. Part of my contribution today will be to highlight some of the continuing concerns. As the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire pointed out, those concerns are not likely to stop the Bill in its tracks, but the authority will have to address them in its implementation of the Bill and in the exercise of its powers, in order to rebuild trust.
There is a range of views out there about the authority and the Bill. My constituency contains a significant part of the broads area and the area covered by the Broads Authority. There are some, including some of my constituents, who feel strongly about the Bill. It is easy to dismiss people who have strong views; I dubbed them “the awkward squad” and I think they are now using the label as a badge of honour, but they have legitimate concerns and they should be taken seriously and listened to.
May I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Committee took the concerns seriously? We went through the evidence in as detailed a fashion as we could. We certainly did not recognise anyone from what he described as “the awkward squad” when we took evidence over the days of our sittings. We tried to do that in a thorough, professional and sensitive way.
I entirely agree, and I have no criticism of the work of the Committee.
I shall deal with the issue of direct elections, but first I want to go through some of the continuing concerns. I should be grateful if, in his contribution, the Minister responded to some of the issues. He may want to follow that up with a letter, to amplify those points. I shall repeat as accurately as I can the concerns that have been expressed to me.
On the boat safety scheme, the argument that is put to me is that byelaws are already in place and the Bill is not needed. Byelaws may be slower to implement, it is suggested, but they force the unelected and otherwise unaccountable Broads Authority to enter into public consultation. That is the perspective of the people who have raised their concerns with me. On insurance, they say that compulsory insurance does not need to be introduced via a private Bill. Procedures for submission of current insurance at the time of vessel registration should be sufficient.
General and special directions are a topic that has engendered a considerable amount of debate. It revolves around the extent to which traditional freedoms are constrained by regulation and executive power. It is argued that the directions in the Bill are onerous and costly to implement. It is likely that the authority will fund the entire additional expenditure from the navigation account or toll income, thus further reducing the amount available for waterways maintenance, particularly of those parts of the system in need of dredging.
Built into the constitution of the Broads Authority are three pillars—the three duties of the authority to protect navigational interests, to pursue conservation and to promote tourism. There is inevitably friction between those three interests, and it is self-evidently the job of the authority to manage those tensions and to seek to ensure that they are given proper balance, but it is almost built into the structure of the organisation that there will be suspicions and battles to fight over those competing interests. The particular concern is that if it costs more money, navigation may lose out as a result.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, I should say that I was interested in his perception that less money might be spent on the dredging of the waterways. That could have flooding implications; I know that he is worried about coastal flooding. Will he elaborate on his point before he moves on?
It is incredibly important that we maintain the resources necessary to continue the dredging work. There are real concerns among navigators, not so much about the flooding issue—although I take the hon. Lady’s point—but about the fact that dredging work for navigation purposes could be diminished. The issue comes back to the point that the authority must balance the three interests, but must not neglect any of them. The concern expressed is that navigation could be neglected if we are not careful.
To take the issue a step further, I should say that I understand that the people who use the broads would supply up to 30 per cent. of the total budget of the Broads Authority. The danger is that if not enough money is spent on keeping the broads clear of silt, there will be fewer navigable broads and therefore probably less income because fewer people would use them in the end. The Broads Authority might well be forced into increasing the amount of silt dredging in certain parts of the broads.
I am grateful for that intervention, which is well made. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s concern.
I turn now to general directions. There is concern about what consultation means and whether public bodies listen to the outcomes of consultations. The point made to me is that the authority might operate the process properly, but in the end it can ignore the result of the consultation and do exactly what it originally wanted anyway. The issue comes down to trust in the authority and whether the navigators believe that their interests are being properly pursued. It is felt that there is a loss of public freedom because of unnecessarily increased control. Specific reference is made to general direction 4.6, which, it is said, allows revocation of or change to any general direction. I am told that that is an unacceptable and inappropriate additional power.
I have been informed that the special directions restrict or prevent the free movement, anchorage or mooring of vessels. That affects the rights of the master of a vessel, the right to navigate the current extent of the navigation area, yacht racing in windy conditions and the rights, granted by the Magna Carta to all common men, to free navigation and fishing on tidal waters. Furthermore, it is said that the Bill allows a navigation officer—it may not be the particular navigation officer, but the one who happens to be on duty on any particular occasion—to “revoke or amend” a special direction at any time for any reason without justification or consultation. Again, the concern is about the potential abuse of the power that the Bill could provide.
I have also been told that the Bill gives power to the Broads Authority to appoint a navigation officer without specifying the qualifications needed to discharge his or her duties properly. It also provides the power for any “authorised person” to declare any vessel unsafe without specifying the qualifications that that person must hold. There are also concerns about the powers in relation to adjacent waters: to be effective, the Bill must clearly define “adjacent waters”, but that is not attempted. There is no such definition in the Bill; it is down to the interpretation of officers.
I am told that the Bill sets out to transfer responsibility for Breydon Water to the Broads Authority without provision for additional funds. There is a potential liability for substantial and ongoing maintenance costs, but the authority freely admits that today it does not have the funds for essential maintenance within its existing area.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North referred to the agreement, which appears already to be in place and stipulates the circumstances in which and processes by which the navigation committee will be consulted by the authority. People are concerned about that. They say that the Broads Authority should be adhering to it, but at its first opportunity has failed to do so. Under the agreement, the proposal to change the navigation committee appointments system should have been referred to the committee, but it was not. Again, that comes down to the question of trust between the two sides. The navigation committee wants to ensure that there is a clear continuing statutory duty to consult it. During the Bill’s evolution, the original section of the legislation that places a duty to consult the navigation committee has been removed. When the Minister winds up, I want to be absolutely sure that a clear duty to consult remains in the Bill.
On the amendments put forward by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there is concern about the merging of the navigation account with the general account. People say, with some justification, that that removes transparency of accounting for toll payers’ funds and leaves several important points undefined, such as the year-end surplus or deficit in the navigation part of the merged account. Transparency on the use of funds, particularly toll payers’ funds, is very important. People also say that changes imposed by DEFRA mean that the additional national park grant funding can no longer be directly applied to maintenance of navigation, which is unacceptable.
People say, in summary, that the Bill changes the remit of the Broads Authority from a management role to one of controlling and restricting navigation. They also refer to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988. That is similar to the National Parks Acts, but in addition to their two primary purposes, it includes a third—to protect the interests of navigation without, as with the National Parks Acts’ Sandford principle, a mechanism for conflict resolution across all three equal responsibilities. Toll payers object to the Bill because it provides the means for an unscrupulous future Broads Authority—they do not make that charge against the current authority—to resolve conflict by use of general and special directions to the detriment of the right to navigate: in other words, “Sandford by stealth”.
Those are the continuing concerns, and it is important that they are placed on the record.
I think the hon. Gentleman knows the sort of numbers we are talking about following the meeting that we held with the Broads Authority. As I said earlier, there is a range of views on the Bill. There is a body of people he knows of, and they are represented in several of our constituencies, including those of two of the Conservative Members present. A number of people care passionately about this, have ultimately good motives and have the right to have their concerns heard.
One assumes that the Bill will become law, and it then becomes a question of the Broads Authority proving that it was wrong in its concerns—that the powers will not be abused, that they will be used properly and proportionately, and that there is an opportunity to rebuild trust between the two sides. That is why I called the meeting, and I was grateful to the chairman and chief executive of the Broads Authority for agreeing to it. It is in everyone’s interests, including the objectors and petitioners, that we get to a point where trust is re-established and they feel, despite the tensions that will always exist, that the Broads Authority is doing its work properly in protecting the interests of the navigation community. One of the things that could go a substantial way to rebuilding trust is the holding of direct elections. That would create a sense of accountability for the organisation, and I shall go on to address that issue.
I begin by quoting the Prime Minister. When he became Prime Minister, he said:
“I want to build a shared national consensus for a programme of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power”.
I completely agree with that sentiment, and we could start by addressing the powers of quangos. Those bodies are ultimately not accountable to the public whom they serve. The Bill provides us with the opportunity to promote the idea of establishing greater accountability for organisations that are currently unelected and ultimately not answerable to the people whom they directly serve.
That issue was first raised on Second Reading, and reference was made to the Scottish experience. Two national parks were established in Scotland with direct democratic representation from the start. Interestingly, they appear to be working very well. The wheels have not come off, there has not been a revolution and there appears to be a reasonable degree of interest and participation. In a report to the Broads Authority Board, at its meeting on Friday, the chief executive referred to the Scottish experience. He said that the practical arrangements for the elections appear to have worked well. Turnout in one of the two national parks was 60 per cent., and in the other it was 40 per cent., which was still above the turnout in local elections in many parts of the country. In my experience, people do care about the parks that cover their areas, particularly in Norfolk, although we must be clear that the Norfolk broads are not formally a national park.
The hon. Gentleman’s argument has a number of attractive aspects, although I feel that we need fewer elections in this country rather than more. On the other hand, we will have unitary reorganisation in Norfolk whether we like it or not, and that may well result in fewer local authorities being voted for. Even though we do not want that in my party, we may have to live with it, and it might, therefore, make sense in that context to ensure that the authority has directly elected members.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that what he describes may well prove to be an opportunity to address the issue properly. It may not be the only opportunity to do so, but it certainly is one of them.
I should also refer to the fact that the regional newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, was very clear about the matter in its opinion column. It said that I was absolutely right about public disquiet, and I am sure that Conservative Members will appreciate that—
If I could have a little less abuse from the promoter of the Bill, it would be helpful.
The editorial said that I was
“absolutely right about public disquiet over unelected quangos with members of the Broads Authority drawn from local authorities and by government appointment. This system though neat and cosy for those who oversee it does not greatly inspire confidence among local communities and user groups who may have little idea what (or who) is going on. And it is essential that the Broads Authority can demonstrate the broadest possible support…it would be very good indeed if as far as England’s most beautiful wild places were concerned the representative principle could be pioneered here in East Anglia.”
I hope that the Under-Secretary takes on board the wise words of the Eastern Daily Press.
Although it is laudable to undertake pilots, much democratic representation on national parks is already happening in Scotland. Following our proceedings in Committee, I was contacted by several people in Scotland who said that that was working well. In many ways, such an exercise would not be piloting something new but following best practice in other parts of the country, where it has been successful.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has just arrived, but I had made the point about Scotland. However, I am grateful for the intervention and he is right to say that the experience appears to be positive. The critical issue from the authority’s point of view is that it has not caused problems in the administration of those national parks, but given local communities a direct say in it.
It is fair to point out that there are several different interests in a national park. One is a broad national interest. I fully accept the case for national nominees on a national park board or the Broads Authority board. That is legitimate. However, it is also legitimate for the communities in the area of a national park or the Broads Authority to have a direct say in the decision-making process. The interests that they want to promote may be parochial, but they should be considered as part of the overall mix in making decisions.
The problem exists in all national parks, where there is a conflict of interest between those on the national park authority who have a business in the park and those who have a business outside the park, and may therefore have a vested interest in willing a business in the park to succeed or fail. Is the hon. Gentleman happy with the 20 per cent. figure? Does he believe that it is a step in the right direction? Is he happy to leave it to the House and the other place to decide whether to adopt the Scottish scenario? What has he concluded?
I am afraid I am not in a position to respond to that. However, I believe that 20 per cent. of the boards of the national parks in Scotland is directly elected. I have an open mind about the exact percentage to be directly elected. I realise that the local communities are just part of the group of interests that should be properly represented in the democratic process. I have suggested that two or three members of the board should be directly elected, but of course that depends on the size of the board.
For hon. Members’ information, paragraph 11 of the special report, which the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire and others drafted, states:
“We note that the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 set out in its framework for the constitution of a National Park that a minimum of 20 per cent. of members of the National Park Authority were to be elected in a poll by those on the local government electoral register within the Park area.”
I am simply asking whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with that recommendation.
Absolutely. We are talking about the same thing—20 per cent. of the board of the two national parks in Scotland is directly elected. I would like something along those lines to be established in the Norfolk broads.
We have developed quite a consensus on the issue. It is interesting that the principle of direct elections is supported by both the promoter of the Bill and the Conservatives. Indeed, the principle of introducing direct representation on the board is supported throughout the House, and I am not aware of anyone opposing it when it was raised in Norfolk.
The Broads Authority board meets this Friday and will consider a paper from the chief executive that deals with the principle of direct elections, as I mentioned earlier. There is no specific recommendation to support the principle; rather, there is an open recommendation to consider the report. However, I hope that the board will send out a clear signal on Friday that it supports the principle of direct elections, which, above all else, it would be in its own interests to do. Doing so would be a demonstration of self-confidence rather than defensiveness and would remove from the board the slur that it is an unaccountable quango.
The Minister has an opportunity today to indicate whether he supports the principle. I suspect that we might risk entering into a long-winded consultation with all the other national parks before any decision is taken. I urge the Minister to consider whether it is worth experimenting in England. We have an ideal opportunity to do so through the Broads Authority, which can be distinguished from the national parks, because it is not in fact a national park. We can try the principle of direct democratic representation on the Broads Authority and see what lessons are learned in a few years’ time. At that stage it might be appropriate to extend the principle to other national parks. They might choose to proceed earlier than that. If they did so, I would be delighted. However, I do not want inertia on the part of other national parks to delay the opportunity to develop an important principle.
How can we achieve that? The first option, which I favour, is to achieve it through the Bill. I am told that it is impossible to amend the Bill at this stage to introduce direct elections. If that is the case, regrettably I must accept that. However, I should also like to ensure that the idea does not disappear into the long grass, never to be seen again. I want the principle to be pursued.
There are two other options that I should like the Minister to consider and respond to. First, is it possible by way of an order, rather than primary legislation, to introduce a principle whereby a proportion of the Secretary of State’s nominees would be elected by local people and would then become the appointees of the Secretary of State? Could we use the existing mechanism to introduce direct elections? The attraction of that option is that it could be done much more speedily than having to wait for primary legislation.
The other option is that which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) put forward in his intervention, whereby we use the opportunity of local government reorganisation, which we are told is likely to be imposed on Norfolk in a couple of years’ time, to introduce direct elections. Local government reorganisation would inevitably result in a change to the make-up of the Broads Authority board, because there will be fewer local authorities, and would therefore be an ideal moment. That would create a massive challenge for the Government, because it would require two Departments to work together, but I am sure that the challenge can be met and the opportunity seized.
In summary, the Bill contains important elements that should go on to the statute book. No doubt it will proceed to the House of Lords today, where it should be scrutinised. It is important that those who oppose it have the opportunity to continue their case, but let us use this opportunity to progress the case for direct representation.
Would a move towards direct elections provide an opportunity to streamline the board? I understand that the board is larger than those of other national parks, but that might not be the case. It has been suggested to me that a new board could be made up of 15 people, with seven being appointed nationally by the Secretary of State. The rest of the board could be made up of three representatives from local authorities, three directly elected representatives—one of those local representatives should, perhaps, be a direct representative of the parish councils within the area, because they have a stake—and two representatives of the navigation interest. That is one possible model. I do not particularly favour it, but it should be considered. We want a board that is workable and of a reasonable size, but we want the mix to be right. There should be local democratic representation, and other relevant interests should be represented.
It has been good to debate these issues further, and I very much hope that the Minister will give a clear signal that he supports the principle of direct elections to the board.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has covered these matters in exhaustive, not to say exhausting, detail, so I shall try to be brief. I placed a blocking motion on the Order Paper because, like him, I thought that these issues should be aired. Matters that are important to our constituents should not simply go through the House on the nod.
I feel at best lukewarm about the Bill, partly because of the local government review, which has been mentioned. If restructuring is being considered, which it is—I hope that that does not happen, and I do not believe that it is inevitable—there is a strong argument that we should just wait to see what happens and incorporate the Bill into that. The authority’s composition is obviously going to change at some point, and Parliament will need to return to this issue either through that local government legislation or through other means, such as a specific piece of extra legislation, so there is an argument for waiting until then.
The Committee has done good and thorough work on the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on that. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on promoting the Bill as he has done. I shall not oppose its Third Reading, and I think that the House should allow it to proceed. However, it is important that we allow the views of those who oppose it to be aired and placed on the record, not least so that if those views, however alarmist or lurid they might seem, should later prove to have been justified, there will be something to refer back to. If necessary, we could revisit the issue with new legislation.
It is worth stressing the point about national parks, because several hon. Members have talked about national parks as though the broads area were one, but it is not—as the hon. Member for North Norfolk correctly pointed out. There is a reason for that, which is clear from looking at the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and Lord Sandford’s review of national parks in the early 1970s. National parks have two basic purposes: conservation of the natural environment and providing the public with access to those areas. If there is a conflict between those aims—or, I should say, if it is not possible by skilful management to reconcile them—conservation should come first. However, the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 makes it clear that there are three purposes for the authority:
“conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads…promoting the enjoyment of the Broads by the public…and protecting the interests of navigation.”
So, from the Act’s inception, it has always been agreed that protecting the interests of navigation was an explicit statutory principle that, because of the Sandford principles, excluded the possibility of the Broads Authority being a national park.
The central fear underlying the concerns that have been expressed to us and to the Committee by petitioners, is that, as a result of the Bill, navigation could be compromised and could end up taking a back seat to conservation and wildlife, when in fact the ever-present need to balance all these factors is precisely why the broads are not a national park.
The navigation committee has an extremely important role to play, and I fear that the Broads Authority has not exactly covered itself in glory by the way in which it has proposed changes to the committee’s membership. In fact, it is fair to say that the Broads Authority was a little careless, to put it kindly, to have acted in such a way that it now finds that many navigators do not trust it. I know that the authority has gone some way towards allaying the navigators’ concerns. The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation and the Inland Waterways Association.
However, the hon. Gentleman did not mention the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association or the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club—and for good reason. Although discussions took place with the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association, it has expressed certain fears since the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire met. I should like to quote one of the petitioners, Mr. Philip Ollier, the executive secretary of the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association. In an e-mail this year, he wrote:
“In September 2007, the Broads Authority Chief Executive brought forward proposals to alter the way appointments are made to the Navigation Committee”.
It is worth noting that that was written in September, after the Committee of the House had considered the Bill. Mr. Ollier goes on to say:
“Previously eight places on the committee were allocated to persons nominated by bodies representing the various navigation interests.”
The charge made is that
“The process will be open to manipulation by the BA Executive and follows similar changes that have been implemented to reduce the representation of navigation interests on the Broads Authority itself. Given the changes to the composition of the Navigation Committee, the assurances obtained in the negotiations about the Bill start to look less reliable.”
A constituent of mine, Mr. Graham Trimmer from Poringland, has expressed his fears in even more colourful terms. Referring to the issue of public safety, he said:
“the Chairman of the Broads Authority appears to suggest…that the Bill is only about public safety. This is a smokescreen, since adequate byelaws were enacted and came into force in April last year, allowing for the enforcement of a comprehensive boat safety scheme.”
I have spoken to some of the people in my constituency who own boats, and some of them have told me that they would not be able to get a licence from the Broads Authority had they not already been through the process of getting a boat safety certificate.
These are examples of people’s concerns about the Bill. I fear that the way in which the authority has conducted itself—even to the extent of supposedly entering into legal agreements with the concerned bodies—has, in the words of the Committee, created a legal ambiguity, and perhaps created more problems than it has solved. When I first heard about the legal agreements that were being entered into, I wondered how it was possible to enter into such an agreement with a third party in relation to a Bill that had not yet been passed. I wondered what possible effect those agreements could have in law, in terms of the subsequent powers of the authority, given that the Bill had not yet been passed. Indeed, the Committee appears to agree about that. Paragraph 9 of its report to the House states:
“It is our view that such agreements would not have any legal effect as they could not be seen to fetter the discretion given to the Authority in the legislation once the Bill was enacted.”
I will not dwell on the issue of direct elections, as it has already been referred to, save to comment that it is a sensible principle to explore. Where an authority has planning powers, as this one does, it seems quite wrong that there should be no directly elected input if a way can be found to achieve that.
I fear that the authority’s approach has not enabled the House to give it the warm cross-party endorsement that it might otherwise have had, and serious concerns among our constituents remain. That said, there will be further opportunities in the other place. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk said, the ultimate test will be the behaviour of the authority in interpreting and using its powers in the years ahead. If the fears of the navigators prove justified, we will know soon enough, and we will have the opportunity to do something about it in due course.
I will try to keep my comments brief. The Bill was blocked last year by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and myself—not to destroy it, but to enable the fears of some of our constituents to be aired on the Floor of the House. Many of the issues have already been well presented by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who steered the Bill through the Commons, and by other colleagues. I shall not go over all the detail again.
It is ironic that we are now 20 years on from the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Bill—I emphasise the term Suffolk—that was steered through the House by my predecessor, Richard Ryder, now Lord Ryder of Wensum. As a consequence of our previous debates, the first and now the second blocking motion, the work of the Committee and the Bill’s consideration in the other place, it is hoped that the relevant issues will be addressed. I remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the very nature of the Bill has changed. The original conception was to establish the broads as a national park, but that Bill had to be withdrawn for lots of reasons. One is that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 was legislation for navigation, so establishing the broads as a national park would cause all kinds of problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said.
The Norfolk and Suffolk broads are a hybrid. That is the key issue; in many respects, they are a one-off. I shall not deal with detailed issues of navigation, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk has already done so. We aired those issues widely in our debate of a year ago. I want to touch on another issue that was raised then and has been raised again today by the hon. Member for North Norfolk—the whole business of having some directly elected members on the board. I am not going to go into the different permutations of how it might be done. I am almost surprised that an alternative vote system was not proposed, but the key issue is a matter of principle. Ironically, it is more important today than it was when we debated it in April. It is crucial, because local people feel that they should be represented on a board and able to affect their communities, their livelihoods, and the nature of the broads itself, directly.
Many of us were in Westminster Hall yesterday morning to participate in a debate that I was fortunate enough to obtain on flood defences in Norfolk. One of the issues raised there was that various Government advisory boards could put forward proposals that would have a direct impact on communities in north and mid-Norfolk. Ultimately, actions over the next 50 years or beyond could change the very nature of the broads, but I am not going to go down that path in any more detail. However, the fact that local communities feel they do not have a say is of fundamental importance, and all Norfolk Members seized upon that.
Two Members raised another important point. The boundary committee is looking into unitary authority reorganisation in Norfolk. The hon. Member for North Norfolk and my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) suggested that as a consequence of the committee’s work there could very well be changes in the make-up of local government in Norfolk. Interestingly, paragraph 3.1 of the proposals that will go before the committee later this week says:
“Although the Broads Authority is not included in the review, clearly the likely reduction in the number of constituent local authorities will lead to a further change”.
The assumption that this will go through is a big assumption, not least because—this directly relates to the representation on the Broads Authority—there is no way in which the people of Norfolk can make their views clear about any possible reorganisation of local government in Norfolk. Consultations and stakeholders are mentioned, but there is no way in which the people can make their views clear. Whatever line one takes on whether there should be unitary authorities, it is unarguably the case that there has been no test of public opinion. That reinforces the view of many people in Norfolk that there should be directly elected representatives on the Broads Authority. I agree with the hon. Member for North Norfolk that all the advice we receive is that the Bill cannot be amended to provide for that. We know that the Minister will consider this issue, and, given that the Norfolk and Suffolk broads are a hybrid, I urge him to think of a way in which the natural concerns of Members and our constituents can be met.
Is there not an opportunity, however? The test will come on Friday when the Broads Forum meets to discuss this point. It will then have to be discussed in the other place, and this House could send a strong message to the other place that we have a watching brief on this particular point, and we hope that it will listen.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment—he, too, has a direct interest in this matter—and he is right. There is no doubt that several Members in the other place will take note of this, and will raise it. The Broads Authority has had to take note of our previous debates, and I hope it will also take note of the issues we have raised today.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that although it is true that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 does not allow for direct elections, there are—I am told—provisions within it whereby local authorities can change, which would take away the heat about unitary status?
Yes; as I have said, there are different permutations for doing that. One of the depressing aspects of the debate on this issue, dating back now over a year, is what appeared to be the reluctance of the Broads Authority to go down this path on the grounds that it would all be too difficult. That is key. The Broads Authority—and politicians in opposition and in government—ought to recognise the following point, in relation not only to this subject but to many others: the public are no longer prepared to have largely unelected bodies telling them what to do in matters that directly affect their local communities. They want direct representation on such bodies. I agree that we can look into how to achieve it, but that is the major point I want to put to the Minister. Although there are slight differences within the Norfolk political community about how to get there, we all agree upon that.
I recognise that the Bill will go through to the other place, and I hope that when the Minister winds up he will take note of what I have said and what colleagues have said, in the knowledge that when it reaches the other place, many of their lordships may display strong feelings about it.
It is both interesting and an honour to participate in this good and stimulating debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), on promoting the Bill, and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), although he is absent. Obviously, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has been the most affected by this matter, but I took some comfort from the clarity with which my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) explained some of the issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, in particular, set out most clearly what the purposes and functions of the Bill and the Broads Authority are. I believe he said that there are three purposes: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the broads; to enhance the enjoyment of the broads; and to protect the interests of navigation on the broads. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk on securing yesterday’s excellent Adjournment debate in order to discuss what an amenity the broads are, and what enjoyment they provide nationally; we are not just talking about the community of Norfolk and Suffolk—predominately Norfolk—but the larger community. Those things could be put at risk.
The Bill will update the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, giving the Broads Authority various new powers. The Bill will combine the navigation and general accounts into one. It will enable the authority to do, among other things, the following: to apply effectively the national boat safety scheme to reduce the risk of fire and explosion; to introduce compulsory third-party insurance for boats in its area; to license hire boats; to give the Haddiscoe Cut a public right of navigation; to make possible the transfer of responsibility for the navigation on Breydon Water from the Great Yarmouth port authority; to make a voluntary agreement to manage water skiing and to distinguish between water skiing and wakeboarding so they can be managed separately; to control pollution from boats; to remove the requirement for a separate Norwich navigation officer; and to widen the range of bodies involved in the appointment of members to the authority by the Secretary of State. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk said, real safety issues are involved.
Perhaps this is an opportune moment to record my interest in this matter. I always try to attend boat shows whenever possible. Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to the Southampton boat show, and over the past year or two I have been fortunate enough to attend the London boat show. It is magnificent to see some of the vessels that ply the broads and the impact that boat building has on the whole of East Anglia. As I represented Essex North East and Essex North and Suffolk South in the European Parliament for 10 years, I regularly visited some of the boat builders, who contribute hugely to the local economy. We should not lose sight of that fact.
This is a good opportunity not only to congratulate the sponsor of the Bill, who moved the Third Reading eloquently, but to have regard to a number of the issues that have been raised and were objected to earlier. I pay tribute to colleagues who served on the Committee on the Broads Authority Bill, not only the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire, whom I mentioned, but my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who has become quite an expert in these matters, and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). As a number of hon. Members have said, we should recognise that many of the concerns have been translated into amendments that have been incorporated into the Bill.
All hon. Members who have spoken mentioned democratic accountability. I represent only a small section of the North Yorkshire Moors national park, so I am not a great authority on it, but—as the hon. Member for North Norfolk said—on some occasions those who serve in the public interest in that regard plough a lonely furrow.
The special report concluded that while the Bill should be allowed to proceed, several caveats were raised in Committee and were set out in the report. The promoter of the Bill tabled several amendments, and the one that is outstanding relates to the lack of democratic accountability. In paragraph 10, the Committee concluded forcefully that, in its view
“the Broads Authority and local people would benefit from the provision for direct elections to the Authority with a view to ensuring that the principle of direct representation of local community interests should be guaranteed. This would ensure that the Authority could be held to account and that there was a democratic means of moderating the powers enacted within the Bill.”
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk also recorded his view that the public will have no truck with bodies that do not have some form of electoral representation and democratic accountability. We cannot emphasise that forcefully enough.
My main question for the Minister, with regard to paragraphs 10 and 11 of the special report and having heard the views expressed so eloquently today, is whether he will give the House an assurance that the Government are minded to table an amendment in the other place at an early stage to address that omission from the Bill. We have heard about that omission from the sponsor and from other hon. Members in this debate. The sponsor—the hon. Member for Norwich, North—said that a compromise appears to have been reached on the model in Scotland. Is that the model that the Minister will follow?
We wish to give the Bill a fair wind today, but we respect the caveats that were raised by the Committee. We take heed of those issues that have been raised today, and we should have regard to the fact that the broads have a unique place in the affections of the British, as well as in the local economy. Does the Minister believe that all three functions—the general and special directions to vessels, the insurance questions and the appeals procedure—are all set out clearly in the Bill? Is he satisfied that there is a balance between the three functions I mentioned earlier—to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the broads, to enhance the enjoyment of the broads, and to protect the interests of navigation?
One final issue concerns the licensing of rescue boats. While the Committee was agreeable to that being removed from the Bill, for the reasons of safety that several hon. Members have mentioned, could the Minister put our minds at rest about whether that issue will be considered in the other place?
I take great heart from the debate today, having seen in my own area how planning issues work in national parks. It is absolutely right that democracy should be seen to work. People should be seen to have a voice and a say. If they were to elect a proportion of those who serve on the Broads Authority, and if they did not like what they did, they could remove them when they were due for re-election. At the moment, that is not possible. If the Minister could explain to us where he and his Department think that they are going on that, we would make great progress.
I have enjoyed listening to the arguments, as I did not participate in previous proceedings. In its own way, the Bill is important. I completely understand the reasons for which my hon. Friends sought to object to the Bill. I understand not only that proceedings have been going on since the original Bill in 1988, but that people have been trying to move proceedings forward on this Bill since 2003. It is incumbent on us to make progress today, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, but it is also incumbent on the Minister to set out how he will proceed, particularly on the question of direct elections to the authority.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the sponsor of the Bill, on how he put the arguments and presented the discussions, both in the House and outside it in the various communities in and around the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. I thank all hon. Members from both sides of the House, as it has been a measured debate in which people have expressed concerns on behalf of their constituents, as is right.
It is also important for us to appreciate the general nature of the broads and of national parks. The broads are part of the national parks family and every citizen in this nation has a stake in those wonderful areas. The work undertaken by many members of those authorities is appreciated. People work hard in the interest of those authorities, and they take their responsibilities seriously. We are grateful for their efforts.
I endorse the comments made by my predecessor on Second Reading. As the Minister responsible for the national parks and the broads, I confirm that the Government remain firmly supportive of the aims of the Broads Authority Bill. Let me emphasise the wider support given to the broads. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was able to announce a three-year funding settlement in 2008-09, which gave the Norfolk broads £4.304 million pounds—a cash increase of 115 per cent. over the past 10 years. Our commitment is on the record. That amount will rise to £4.4 million by 2010-11 and further in the future. We will also provide special grants of £500,000 for 2008-09 and £400,000 for 2009-10 and 2010-11, which will specifically enable the authority to implement its sediment restoration strategy and restore the broads’ ecosystems. The authority has taken direct control of dredging the rivers and broads, a move that it is anticipated will enable it to achieve 25 per cent. more dredging than last year for the same amount of money. That is good news for toll payers and for taxpayers.
I am aware that the Bill has already been the subject not only of an earlier debate but of scrutiny by the Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is no longer in his seat, but all hon. Members have paid tribute to him and to the members of the Committee for the good service that they gave to the House through that process. It is not surprising that any changes to our most protected landscapes will invariably raise concerns, but I am delighted that we are in general agreement on both sides of the House. It is right, is it not, that we should raise concerns about such wonderful landscapes? Hon. Members have said that the Bill should be subject to scrutiny. I endorse those remarks.
The main aim of the Bill is to improve safety on the broads, through measures that include the licensing of hire craft, compulsory third-party insurance and improvements to the way in which the Broads Authority operates. The introduction of the boat safety scheme is already ensuring that vessels are properly maintained. British Waterways and the Environment Agency already operate the scheme successfully, and I congratulate the Broads Authority on the measures that it has taken to bring the broads into line with the other major navigation authorities.
I am aware that some people consider that the Bill’s safety provisions could be dealt with through byelaws, but I do not agree. It would be impossible to use byelaws to introduce compulsory insurance, as it would be too cumbersome to amend them each time there was a change in standards.
I turn now to some of the questions raised in the debate, after which I shall deal with the subject of direct elections. The hon. Member for North Norfolk asked various questions about insurance, but I think that I answered them all earlier. The proposal to merge the general and navigation funds is a technical measure, and the Bill ensures that the Broads Authority will give a clear account of what has been spent on navigation and on other purposes.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk also asked about the duty of the Broads Authority to consult the navigation committee. In its latest form, the Bill does not remove that duty. He also asked about the right of free navigation. That was included in one of the petitions to the Committee, which considered that the powers were necessary. The hon. Gentleman was concerned that protecting the interests of navigation could result in Sandford by stealth, but it will not. The broads’ three purposes remain as set out in the 1988 Act, and this Bill does not change that.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk also asked about the boat safety scheme. As I said, it would be too cumbersome to use byelaws for that purpose, as the Department would have to approve each amendment to them. He asked about changes to the navigation revenue account, which now returns to what it was before 2005-06. Some dredging can be for purposes other than navigation.
Some concern has been expressed about the relationship between the Broads Authority and communities in the area. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was especially interested in that and, as he said, the true test will be how the Broads Authority is judged to have used that relationship. Important safeguards in that respect are in place: the Broads Authority is accountable to the Audit Commission and to the local government ombudsman, and the broads forum is another way of keeping it in touch with local user groups.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk began his discussion of direct elections by quoting a newspaper that agreed with him. Perhaps he issued a press release saying that the Eastern Daily Press agreed with him and the newspaper printed that, but it was interesting to hear a Liberal Democrat speaking in favour of a first-past-the-post system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will clarify whether he is in favour of that system for the Broads Authority. It is a very important point.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, although there is a danger of my going off on what is a hobbyhorse of mine. The principle is that a direct election should be held for the Broads Authority, but how it is done is a subject for a separate discussion. I always favour a fair voting system—unlike those who belong to the other two main parties here.
There we are; that did not take a great deal of scratching beneath the surface, did it? So the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation to be used in elections to the Broads Authority. That is a perfectly honourable position to take, and it is consistent with his party’s line. Some Members in my party support proportional representation, too. I do not, and I do not think that anyone in the Conservative party does. That shows that we will need to look at the issue and reach a conclusion.
I think the Minister will find that I am not. This is interesting banter, but the use of proportional representation would imply that the voting will be partisan, and that is certainly not my impression. Is the Minister expecting parties to put up candidates for the elections? Surely that should not be encouraged, and I am not sure that that has been the experience north of the border.
We have opened a can of worms. I will come on to the detail, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that I have discussions with members of authorities from across the country. I would not know which political party they belonged to unless I asked them directly, because they put their park, or the broads, first. People put being an authority member first. I have never heard of party politics coming into the situation in relation to either the Broads Authority or one of the park authorities.
I completely agree with the point that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) made; one would expect the elections to be entirely non-party political. That has been the experience in Scotland. I would like a clear indication of whether the Minister supports the principle of direct elections to the authority.
I am coming to that point. In the case of the two national parks in Scotland—the Cairngorms national park and the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park—a percentage of authority members are directly elected. That appears to work well. I do not want us to lose the opportunity to have that discussion. It has been suggested that such a scheme be piloted in the broads, but we know that the process has worked well in Scotland, so one could say that there has already been a pilot.
I want to look at the issue across the piece, because it is not only the Broads Authority that is affected. I want to understand the views of the other park authorities in England, and the views of the many people who have an interest in our national parks. The parks are not just local; they are national treasures. My constituents in Chatham have as much right to a say on how the parks are formed as someone who lives in the Lake district, for example.
I hope that the Minister is not procrastinating. A simple way forward would be to have a short consultation, and for the results to be published. I do not want to pre-empt what he has to say, but I am sure that all the national parks would wish to be consulted, as he rightly says. Having sensed the mood of the House this afternoon, I detect that there is strong feeling. I think that hon. Members would like to know what will happen when the Bill leaves this place today.
As a number of hon. Members have said, the Bill is not the appropriate vehicle to change the constitution of the Broads Authority. As I have signalled, I want to look at this across the piece to take account of the other national parks in England. I will therefore issue a consultation on the future of the constitution and the composition of the Broads Authority and other park authorities in England. I will advise the House when I intend do so. There will not be long delays, and I hope that I can issue something over the summer period.
Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), I hope that that can be done reasonably quickly, because we have been debating the measure for over a year. I recognise that the Department’s views have changed and moved, which I welcome, but will the Minister bear two things in mind? First, at the end of the day, the Norfolk broads are not a national park: they are a strange hybrid. I accept that, from his point of view, it might set a precedent, but I urge him to move as quickly as possible. Secondly, the broads are a national treasure, and his constituents have every right to be represented, but my constituents and those of other hon. Members from Norfolk have an extra right, because this directly affects them, their livelihoods and, indeed, their future. If there is a wait—and we could end up discussing numbers—may I remind the Minister that we are not talking about such representation having anything more than a small minority on the board?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The broads are a national treasure, and the people who live around them are affected, as are their livelihoods and businesses. The same applies to all the national parks. The Peak district has the largest population of any national park within its boundaries, and 20 million people visit the Lake district. I want to look at this in the broadest sense.
I am sorry to test the Minister’s patience. The news of the consultation is welcome, but will he consult on the proportion of representatives who will be up for election? There is a ballpark figure in the paragraph to which I referred of 20 per cent., but will he consult on whether it should be 20 per cent. or 30 per cent., and what the composition of the elected body should be?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. Will he look specifically at the possibility of using local government reorganisation in two years’ time as a mechanism? Primary legislation will be in place at that point. I appreciate that a different Department is involved, but it is an obvious opportunity to achieve reform, which would be very much welcomed in Norfolk.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot give him that commitment, but his comments are on the record and I am sure that my hon. Friends in the Department for Communities and Local Government will take note.
I hope I have provided hon. Members with some comfort. There will be a consultation. I am relaxed about the proposal. As hon. Members noted, similar projects have been successful in Scotland and I have had discussions with various members of the boards of national parks and the broads. We all treasure the broads and our national parks. We need to get the arrangements right, and as was pointed out, things change over time. It is important that we respond to the concerns and the accountability wishes of the people of this country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, the proposer of the Bill. It is a reasonable and proportionate Bill. I congratulate the authority. There has been extensive consultation and although not everyone agreed, great efforts were made over a considerable time. I hope that we have been able to address people’s concerns, particularly on the issue that has preoccupied the House most this afternoon—elections. I commend the Bill to the House.
Order. The hon. Gentleman needs the leave of the House to contribute again.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The only reason that I took up the Bill was that it involved safety issues. It is so important that we have legislation covering the safety of the public across the nation who use facilities such as football grounds, shopping centres or the broads.
During the debate on the Bill we have developed some good ideas, which are beginning to circulate. I am glad that support is coming through, and I have no hard feelings towards those who objected for so long. When they have had the chance, they have been quite positive about some aspects, and we should be grateful for that. One or two issues have been misunderstood and I hope they will be ironed out in the other place. For example, there has been agreement that navigation money from river tolls or broads tolls cannot be used other than for navigational purposes. Such matters need to be clarified.
Another important feature of the Bill is that an independent arbitrator can be set up, with an appeals process to deal with complaints such as those that we heard from hon. Members on the Opposition Benches.
I am pleased that there has been interaction. There is no doubt that when Norfolk people get together, things begin to happen. That is Norfolk soul, and we have seen evidence of that over the past year. Hopefully, the Bill will proceed quickly through the other place and we will maintain a broads facility that is second to none. When people use the facilities there, they will do so in safety and we will have none of the calamities and deaths that we have seen over the years.
I thank everybody who has participated—colleagues in all parts of the House and the Minister. I particularly thank the DEFRA officials who advised us on how to change some of the complicated provisions, and I am sure they will continue to do that.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Sitting suspended, pursuant to Order [29 April].
BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),
That, at this day’s sitting, consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
Question agreed to.