Skip to main content

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [HL]

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Clause 14 : Agreements between the Secretary of State and the MMO

Amendment 64

Moved by

64: Clause 14, page 8, line 23, leave out paragraph (a)

I wish to move Amendment 64, which stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Taylor. This is a simple probing amendment to raise a concern about any possible territorial conflict in this clause. I had a quick exchange with the Minister at an earlier stage on the negotiations under the CFP. It would be reassuring to hear again what he was able to tell me in a more or less off-the-cuff answer, but it was, presumably, exactly the right answer.

The Explanatory Notes for this part of the Bill suggest that the Marine Management Organisation might be authorised to perform marine functions under the common fisheries policy. Does the Minister have a clear view of what functions can neatly be given to the MMO and are not likely to cause any confusion with the devolved settlements? Are there others which will require to be exercised over the whole of the designated fishery zone of the United Kingdom? Are any marine functions likely to be retained in the devolved area? Does the Minister anticipate that any possible confusions can be avoided? I beg to move.

I am grateful to the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, for the way in which he moved the amendment, although I am not sure that I can answer all his questions quite as specifically as he might hope. I want to emphasise that Clause 14 enables the Secretary of State to authorise the MMO to perform any of his marine functions. This authorisation can be in relation to the UK marine area or parts of that area. The authorisation can apply generally or in specific cases.

The amendment would—I understand from the noble Duke’s speech that this is a probing amendment—remove the provision that the authorisation given to the MMO to perform these marine functions could relate to all or part of the UK marine area. This would restrict the flexibility we seek for the Secretary of State to make appropriate authorisations. It is important that we retain the flexibility to respond as necessary as there may be circumstances where we would want to specify in which part of the marine area the MMO is to exercise the relevant function, or there may be existing bodies in certain areas—which certainly, it goes without saying, would include devolved powers—carrying out functions, and the Secretary of State would not wish for the MMO to duplicate the arrangements already in place. I hope that that reassures the noble Duke in some respects.

Perhaps it would assist if we were clear what sorts of functions will be included in the types of agreements that we envisage. This would include work currently undertaken by the Marine and Fisheries Agency under the common fisheries policy—the licensing of fisheries vessels, the managing of fisheries quotas, the managing of fleet capacity and the managing of European grants schemes—or under EU regulations which are directly applicable in the United Kingdom. In the future, the MMO may need to take on new functions, such as a role of competent authority under the marine strategy framework directive, which we anticipate to have significant implications for the United Kingdom, and future marine regulations and directives which emanate from Brussels.

I would emphasise this point by way of reassurance: such a system was set up under Part 8 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 and it works well. This clause seeks to provide a means by which Ministers can delegate these future marine functions to the MMO where appropriate. The amendment would, of course, significantly restrict our options in responding to future needs, which we cannot, at present, identify in all cases. I hope, therefore, that the noble Duke will feel that he has been sufficiently reassured to be able to withdraw his amendment.

Could the Minister reconfirm a previous point; namely, that the MMO will not be asked to enter into the negotiations under the common fisheries policy?

That is not the function of the MMO. Existing responsibilities lie where they do. We will see the Secretary of State exercising delegation only where it is entirely appropriate. He certainly would not want to do so where existing arrangements work satisfactorily.

I thank the Minister. That is reassuring from the Scottish point of view because there is a very delicate arrangement over these negotiations at all times. I am grateful to the Minister for such a fairly comprehensive list. We want to consider all that he has said and see how it applies in all the different areas. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 64 withdrawn.

Clause 14 agreed.

Clause 15 : Agreement between the MMO and eligible bodies

Amendment 64A

Moved by

64A: Clause 15, page 9, line 6, after “MMO” insert “(or vice versa)”

The two amendments in this group cover the relationship between the MMO and eligible bodies. The first amendment is intended to probe whether the MMO will always be on the front foot. I suggest that the words “vice versa” would give the other eligible bodies the chance to enter into an agreement with the MMO. In other words, they might be proactive. The Bill as drafted suggests that the MMO is always the proactive body, leaving the other eligible bodies in the position of reacting to it. I would like the Minister to comment on whether he envisages an equal relationship between these various agencies, bodies and organisations, or whether the MMO will always be in the more proactive position, as Clause 15 suggests.

I have tabled Amendment 65A because I would like the Minister’s reassurance that the Environment Agency will remain the competent authority for the water framework directive. This is because of the issue of water quality in estuaries and just off the coast. This is obviously the jurisdiction of the MMO but, as the Bill is drafted, it is the jurisdiction of the MMO up to the highest high tide inland, which could be 16 or 20 miles inland. I want to know that the EA will remain the competent body because the water in those places is so affected by what happens on land that the run-off from land into rivers, estuaries and the sea should obviously stay within the competence of the Environment Agency. I would not like there to be any confusion on that. Even when it affects something that either the MMO or IFCAs may have responsibility for, it should be unequivocally the agency that remains responsible for water quality.

I give one example that might be useful. I recently visited IGER in North Wyke, where some interesting work was being done on water quality, as affected by cattle dung on fields and the small organisms in it which then run off into freshwater—such as streams and rivers—and go downriver into the area where shellfish are raised. Obviously shellfish will not be under the EA’s jurisdiction but the water quality should be. The effect that could be implemented by farming those fields differently, perhaps by creating bigger borders between the river bank and the farmed area of the field, will make a difference. It is, in some ways, quite a leap of imagination for people to think that practising a different agricultural regime 20 miles inland will affect shellfish beds, but that is the case.

Much work is already under way in this area. We have had previous debates on the water framework directive, one of which I memorably introduced. There was so little interest that there were, I think, three speakers altogether. I am not expecting a lot more interest today, but water quality and the way in which the water framework directive enables this country to up its game are important issue. As I have explained through the shellfish example, the knock-on effects are enormous, both environmentally and economically—and, indeed, socially, as anyone who bathes in estuary areas or off the coast can tell you. It is an important issue.

I look forward to the time when our water everywhere is of excellent quality. That is the reason I have raised the issue. I beg to move.

I have a few words to say on the amendment because I welcome it. I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, has brought forward an amendment which would enable an eligible body to allow the MMO to carry out any of its functions. If the functions are statutory, this would appear to be entirely rational. We also welcome the idea of the MMO working closely together with eligible bodies which have been defined in the Bill. The range of expertise contained in the selection of bodies would be of considerable help to each of the bodies. The Government have set great stock by bodies working together within a framework of understanding and co-operation. This would appear to be another area where this should be encouraged.

We should also—although perhaps more guardedly—welcome the noble Baroness’s Amendment 65A and its focus on the water framework directive. The importance of the amendment lies in its desire to avoid ambiguity. Clarity can only be a good thing. Nevertheless we will be interested in the Minister’s reply as we are keen to learn what he thinks of the amendment.

I apologise to the noble Lord if it seemed that I was trying to pre-empt his contribution to the debate, particularly on the second amendment. It was because I thought I had a reply which would be satisfactory to both the noble Baroness and the whole Committee. I include the noble Lord, with his usual intelligence, as being appreciative of the reply.

On Amendment 65A, the Environment Agency is the officially designated competent authority for the practical implementation of the water framework directive in England and Wales and there is nothing in the Bill that would change that, nor is there any need in this Bill to confirm it.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, is not in his place because, although I appreciate that the Environment Agency will be the competent body for the water framework directive, if the decision on the individual project mentioned by the noble Lord—the Severn barrage—was made by the Infrastructure Planning Commission as a result of it being an electricity generation installation of greater than 100 megawatts, we know that that would have a huge impact on water quality, on the water framework directive and on the ability of this country to deliver the objectives of the water framework directive. So although I am absolutely sure the noble Lord was in all good faith assuring us that the Environment Agency would be the competent authority for the water framework directive, nevertheless there are things within the remit of the Infrastructure Planning Commission that will have big impacts on water quality and will prevent the Environment Agency ensuring that this country fulfils the requirements of the water framework directive.

I hear the noble Baroness’s anxiety on this point and we all know with what authority she speaks. I am not suggesting for one moment that the Environment Agency has an easy role in fulfilling the ambition I was seeking to share with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. She introduced her amendment by saying that she was concerned about water quality, and so we all should be. I wanted to indicate that the Bill will not interfere with the Environment Agency’s responsibilities or powers in those terms. As for the putative clash between members of the Davies family in your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness will have to postpone that position until another day when the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, is present to challenge me.

On the earlier Amendment 64A, I emphasise that the purpose of Clause 15 is to enable the MMO, with the approval of the Secretary of State, to make agreements with any bodies listed in Clause 16, authorising them to undertake functions on the MMO’s behalf. If they are doing that, then of course it is likely that the MMO—I am not quite sure of the precise phrase the noble Baroness used—will be the prime mover or initiator of the discussions, but that will be on the basis of co-operation and agreement. Those bodies include the Environment Agency, Natural England, local fisheries committees and the harbour authorities. This clause will enable the MMO to make arrangements for the most effective discharge of its functions, as those bodies may be better placed than it to carry out a function in a particular area. Nothing too malign should be read into the fact that the MMO may be taking the initiative.

Let me show an example where it would be entirely proper for the MMO to do so. Under this Bill, the MMO is taking over the issuing of licences under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. We have chosen this illustration with some care, as the noble Baroness will appreciate. While seals are primarily marine mammals, there are a few applications each year relating to seals in fresh waters. Since the MMO does not operate beyond the tidal reach, such applications will need to be dealt with by Natural England. That is the boundary issue we discussed on an earlier amendment.

The function will therefore need to be transferred to that body by the MMO using the flexible arrangements that we are seeking to create in Clause 15. The MMO would be the initiator, but I am sure the noble Baroness will recognise that as an entirely constructive way to use those powers. I hope that her probing amendment has called forth a response that satisfies her enough to withdraw it.

I thank the Minister for his clear and unequivocal response to Amendment 65A. On Amendment 64A, I will quote a different example from his seals, because I might return to this on Report. As we have discussed, the MMO has responsibility for tidal waters as far as high tide. If the freshwater mussel, for example, was living at the extremity of that high water reach and the MMO was doing something that required action to preserve that area, but Natural England wanted the MMO to act to preserve the freshwater mussel, it would be good for them to be able to initiate exactly the same agreement that the Minister quoted for seals. However, as the Bill is drafted it seems that only the MMO is initiating agreements. I can see where the Minister is coming from, but as the Bill leaves only the MMO being proactive, I might return to it on Report.

Just before the noble Baroness sits down, I understand that she is making an entirely valid point. To an extent, it countervails the position in my illustration regarding the seals—a pretty good one, I thought. Yet as far as her mussels are concerned, nothing stops Natural England making representations for the good of the environment and the protection of the mussels. The MMO has the ability to enter into an agreement in a memorandum of understanding or another contractual arrangement. By presenting an opportunity for the MMO to enter these agreements and take the initiative, we are creating a constructive power for it. We are not inhibiting the powers of others to make their case that effective action is necessary because they have identified an issue and it would be helpful if collaborative action took place. It would scarcely provide a basis for the co-operation and collaboration in the MMO’s functions, which is envisaged throughout the Bill, if it were not responsive when others identified other issues.

The Minister has eloquently made a case for accepting my amendment, which would simply insert “(or vice versa)”, because when the powers of Natural England, for example, were drawn up, the MMO was not even envisaged, so Natural England was not granted a reciprocal power. I hope that the Minister will consider the matter before Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 64A withdrawn.

Amendments 65 and 65A not moved.

Clause 15 agreed.

Clause 16 : Eligible bodies

Amendment 66

Moved by

66: Clause 16, page 9, line 35, leave out paragraph (b)

The amendment carries on the debate from where we were last time, because it is another interface-type debate, where powers need to be defined to effect good management of the marine environment. The amendment probes the role of Natural England and seeks clarification of what marine functions the Government think it appropriate for that body to handle as opposed to the MMO.

We heard about the MMO’s relationship with the Environment Agency in the previous debate. Yet again, there are areas of overlap. We have spoken a little already about the potential overlap between marine and coastal authorities. Examples of this abound when you consider the Environment Agency. Duties relating to freshwater fish stocks are, as the Explanatory Notes highlight, the responsibility of the Environment Agency. These are considerable areas of responsibility and authority, and there are many reasons why they should continue to be administered by that body. But the case is not so clear with Natural England, which is predominantly involved with conservation on the land. The Explanatory Notes can muster only the example of,

“a few applications each year relating to seals in freshwater”—

indeed, the Minister talked about seals—as an area that might properly be passed over. Is the Minister really of the opinion that consistency and co-ordination are best served by having the huge majority of licences relating to seals handled by the MMO and a few handled by Natural England? It would surely be much more efficient for the MMO to take on responsibility for those few freshwater licences.

The Bill appears to be structured in a way that rigorously defines and limits the MMO’s responsibilities while remaining deliberately vague, although “flexible” is the word preferred by the Benches opposite, when it comes to other organisations. As a result, Natural England seems to be taking the opportunity to engage in mission creep, extending its own remit into areas much better suited for the MMO. I beg to move.

I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that the amendment is rather unhelpful and that I hope that he will reconsider it. The Bill matters a great deal to an awful lot of people in this country because of its emphasis on access. Natural England has responsibilities as the delivery agent for access in this context. Furthermore, because of its role, Natural England seems particularly well placed to bring together matters concerning conservation in the marine environment and conservation on land. My own view is that it could play a constructive part in certain partnerships in fulfilling these responsibilities and ensuring that the social qualitative dimensions of the Bill are well implemented.

If we are to give Natural England the fair weather it deserves in its initial years, it is a pity to start paring back on the part it can play at the beginning of its operations rather than encouraging it to fulfil its obligations wherever these may be appropriate. I am quite concerned about the implications of this amendment and have absolutely no doubts that the Government have got the drafting right. I just hope that the noble Lord will find it possible to look at this again and perhaps have discussions with Ministers but certainly consider withdrawing it.

I welcome my noble friend’s support in this important matter. I look forward to his future attendance at our debates on this Bill. He made a relevant point. I will come on to explain the Natural England role, but I want to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that he should not see this as mission creep. We see these arrangements as being sensible to ensure that the relationship between the various bodies is as effective as possible.

It is clear from all our debates in the two days of Committee that the MMO will need to work with a number of other organisations carrying out activities related to the marine area, including Natural England. The MMO and Natural England have different, albeit overlapping, remits. It will be important for them to co-operate in delivering their respective functions. The MMO will take advice from Natural England as a statutory nature conservation body in discharging its functions. For example, Natural England will provide input to marine and coastal access licensing decisions in the same way as it currently advises the Marine and Fisheries Agency. So there is no change essentially from the current position.

We think it likely that there will be a memorandum of understanding, with regular reviews, between the MMO and Natural England to formalise their working arrangements, as would be normal practice between two non-departmental public bodies in the same country. The MoU is likely to cover issues such as species licensing at the land/sea boundary, data-sharing between the two bodies, socioeconomic considerations for the selection of marine conservation zones and the management of those zones.

In addition, the MMO will take on some regulatory responsibilities that were formerly exercised by Natural England in the marine area. At the risk of repeating what my noble friend said, these include the power to grant licences in certain circumstances, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and to issue licences in the inshore region, under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c,) Regulations 1994, and in the offshore region, under the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats. &c,) Regulations 2007, which implement the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives, to which Clauses 9 and 10 refer.

As we have heard, another example is the licensing of seals under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. This function is currently exercised by Natural England but is being transferred to the MMO under this Bill, given that seals are marine animals and the majority of these licences are needed in the marine environment. On the few occasions each year where it is necessary to kill or take a seal in fresh waters because it has ventured inland and is causing problems or is injured or distressed, the MMO would look to Natural England to undertake this as the MMO does not operate beyond the tidal reach. Amendment 66 would not allow the MMO the flexibility to do that.

I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that this is essentially a tidying-up exercise; it is not mission creep. We expect the MMO to carry out its own functions, but there will be circumstances in which it makes more sense for functions to be carried out on its behalf, for example where the appropriate expertise is shared with other bodies or for reasons of limitation or geographical remit. Listing a body in Clause 16 makes it possible for the MMO to enter into agreements with that body, but I want to make it clear that such agreements will be made only when necessary and appropriate and with the Secretary of State’s approval, which is another safeguard against mission creep, if that were to come in evidence. I also want to make it clear that such agreements do not remove the responsibility of the MMO for the relevant functions. The MMO will remain accountable to the Secretary of State and to Parliament for the delivery of the functions, on which it will have to make an annual report to Parliament.

We see this as a sensible implementation of legislative provisions by the relevant delivery organisations working in collaborative partnership. We want to retain flexibility in this regard and we think that Natural England is clearly one body that it would be appropriate for the MMO to enter into agreement with to deliver functions on its behalf. The respective remits of the MMO and Natural England are very different. Natural England has a largely advisory role relating to nature conservation. While it plays an important role in nature conservation and will need to work very closely with the MMO on certain matters, there is absolutely no intention to transfer functions wholesale from the MMO to Natural England. The noble Lord said that this was a probing amendment and I hope that I have reassured him.

I thank the Minister for that reply, the nature of which shows that this has been an important discussion. I am reassured that the Minister sees the role of the MMO as central, even if it is engaged in the activities of Natural England in both an advisory and a practical way. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whose intervention I welcome because it has made it a real discussion on this important area. We should not underestimate the huge opportunities that exist for Natural England on the mainland. It has no shortage of things that it can be doing.

Natural England can speak for itself, but we have to speak for the MMO because it is not there yet and we need to make sure that it is properly enshrined in the legislation. If we want it to be a proper and effective conservation body, we have to make sure that the conservation role is central to its activities. We must not let it get sidelined from this area of activities. It needs a balance in its skill base and its science. We have heard a lot about science today but I think that the MMO is going to have to be very much a science-based organisation. A lot is going to rest on Memoranda of Understanding throughout the Bill. We know in reality that Parliament will not be discussing those Memoranda of Understanding, but I hope that we will at any rate have the opportunity of scrutinising the outcomes properly.

I am sorry to intervene, but the accountability of the Marine Management Organisation to the Secretary of State is clear. I do not suggest that this is the only way in which it is monitored, but the annual report that has to be laid before Parliament will of course be one way in which parliamentarians will be able to observe the progress of the MMO and its relationship with the various organisations that it will have to deal with.

I thank the Minister for drawing attention to the central role of the Secretary of State, who will have responsibilities with, for example, Natural England, the Environment Agency and the MMO. Given the nature of the debate and the response of the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 66 withdrawn.

Moved by

67: Clause 16, page 10, line 1, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

“(3) The Secretary of State may not exercise the power conferred by subsection (2)(a) unless satisfied that—

(a) at least one of the purposes or functions of the body, or bodies of the description, to be added to the list is, or is related to or connected with, a marine function;(b) the body, or bodies of the description, to be added to the list has the necessary skills and experience to perform a relevant marine function.”

This group includes a couple of amendments by the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Tyler. I tabled this amendment because we feel it is vital that, if the MMO is allowed to authorise an eligible body to perform one of its functions, there is some assurance that this task is being carried out by a body with the appropriate knowledge and expertise. I am happy to note that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has raised the same issue with his excellent Amendments 68 and 69, which agree wholly with ours. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to the Chamber after his duties in Grand Committee.

Clause 15 allows the MMO to delegate any of its functions to an eligible body,

“with the approval of the Secretary of State”.

As we are well aware, the power of delegation is very significant and it is very important that any delegated task is not compromised. This amendment would ensure that the “eligible bodies” are required not only to have connection to marine functions but also, as the Wildlife and Countryside Link argues, to have adequate marine representation, sufficient knowledge and understanding of marine areas, and the appropriate knowledge to deal with the tasks that they have been given. Does the Minister agree that these are sensible provisos?

Furthermore, Clause 16(2) allows the Secretary of State to amend the list of eligible bodies, allowing delegation to a potentially wide range of institutions. Bearing this in mind, does the Minister also agree that it is even more important that there are some limits on who could be added to this list? Such limits will only help improve the exercise of marine functions.

Does the Minister acknowledge that this amendment better ensures that delegated functions and duties are carried out to a high standard? Does he also agree that it would be more beneficial to know that “eligible bodies” were eligible because of their appropriate knowledge and skills, not just a vague connection to a marine function? Does he agree that the MMO should have a duty to ensure that any delegated functions are carried out by an appropriate authority, a duty which we would like to see in the Bill? I beg to move.

As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, Tyler and Taylor are speaking on this amendment with one voice. We produced slightly different versions but the amendments are effectively identical. They seek to do something very simple and specific but worthwhile: ensuring that the MMO satisfies itself that any eligible body to which it is seeking to give appropriate responsibilities has the appropriate skills and experience to ensure that that function is carried out properly. It is very straightforward.

Similar quality control may be needed in Clause 53, on delegation of marine planning functions to unspecified public bodies. The same principle applies. At this stage, however, all we are trying to do is to ensure that the Government fully recognise the need for this requirement to be placed on the MMO.

I briefly intervene in this, so far, short debate to ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that, if a function is delegated, the organisation to which the function is delegated shares the objectives of the MMO. The core of the earlier debates that we have had about the objective emphasised the importance of biodiversity and the ecosystem methodology that the MMO will apply to confront the various issues that it will have to, when it is an established institution. Can we be confident that the same objectives will be applied by the organisations to which these powers are, potentially, delegated?

The quick answer is that if the organisation to which a delegation is proposed does not have objectives consistent with the overall objective of the MMO or with a marine policy statement, such a delegation should not take place. One has to be clear, too, that in the end it is the MMO that is accountable to the Secretary of State and, through him or her, to Parliament, for ensuring that these functions are carried out properly.

I have listened with great interest. It is always difficult to draw the balance between micromanagement, on one hand, and wishing to ensure that the bodies that we legislate for do the right thing, on the other. I wonder whether noble Lords are not going down the micromanagement route a little too far. Of course, I understand—and the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, underpinned the point—the desire to ensure that the body to which a delegation is made carries the job out effectively and, of course, within the principles that govern the MMO. However, the bodies listed in Clause 16 are those that carry out marine functions, or will do so as a result of the Bill, with which the MMO will need to co-operate. They include the Environment Agency, Natural England, the sea fisheries committees as a transitional measure, and harbour authorities, all of which have recognised expertise and authority in their respective fields. Inshore fisheries and conservation authorities are also on the list, as they will replace the fisheries committees when the Bill is enacted.

Another safeguard to which I referred in the previous group is that the MMO can enter into agreements only with the approval of the Secretary of State. The agreement for others to deliver MMO functions on its behalf does not remove its responsibility for those functions. There are also restrictions in the Bill on the type of body that can be added to the list in Clause 16. They require that the Secretary of State is satisfied that at least one purpose or function of the body concerned must be a marine function. I find it difficult to envisage circumstances in which the MMO would enter into agreement with organisations that did not have the expertise to undertake the relevant functions, or which the Secretary of State would condone on that basis.

Some noble Lords seem quite content to give the MMO a veto on planning consents, placing it higher in the hierarchy than the IPC. On the other hand, they are not prepared to trust it in relation to these delegations. In this case, we should surely be able to trust the MMO, given the construct of the Bill.

I thank the Minister for that response. The amendment does not focus on the list to which the Minister referred or on the general power of the Secretary of State to add people to that list, but on the third section of the clause, which concerns the Secretary of State’s role. The amendment focuses not on the MMO but on the Secretary of State, ensuring that he performs that function and does not add to the list anyone who does not have a proper marine function.

In the circumstances I am not happy with the Minister’s reply and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

Amendments 68 and 69 not moved.

Clause 16 agreed.

Clauses 17 to 19 agreed.

Clause 20 : Agreements with local authorities

Amendment 69A

Moved by

69A: Clause 20, page 12, line 3, leave out subsection (4)

In Clause 20 the Bill talks about what sort of agreements can be made with local authorities. A minute ago the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was talking about not micromanaging. By including subsection (4), the Government are really trying to micromanage what local authorities can and cannot do. Subsection (4), which I would like to amend, talks about the fact that joint committees, between two or more local authorities, may not have the powers that the Bill might otherwise provide.

I remember how much the Government do not like joint committees between two or more local authorities, because we talked about it extensively in the Local Government Act 2000. They have many reasons why they do not like this arrangement. They prefer the direct executive arrangement and think that that is more accountable. Nevertheless the flexibility still exists to allow smaller councils to have committees and joint committees. There can be no reason why that should not happen, particularly when estuary areas often form the division between two local authority areas. Rivers were often the boundary between different areas, and council boundaries were often along lines drawn by geography. There are often different local authorities on each side of a river. In practical terms, having joint committees makes absolute sense. It will be interesting to hear why the Minister believes that that is not acceptable if local authorities themselves can come up at a local level with a good arrangement whereby they have a joint committee.

Surely it is fiddling in micromanagement to say exactly what should be decided at a local level. The heading for Chapter 3, which is where this clause lies, actually says:

““Flexible administrative arrangements involving the MMO”.

Subsection (4) is not very flexible, even if local authorities should come together to say that this is what should happen on their two joint sides of a river and they would like to have a joint committee with these powers. The Government would exclude that. Perhaps the Minister has a watertight reason for leaving subsection (4) in. I cannot imagine what it might be. I await an answer. I beg to move.

We support this amendment, which was very ably put by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. We support the great effects of flexibility and cannot understand why the Government rejected joint committees of two or more local authorities. Perhaps the Minister can explain the reasons behind this blanket rejection. Surely if the circumstances are applicable, it must be correct to allow functions to be carried out by, or to be delegated to those who may be part of, a joint committee of two or more local authorities, as was so ably expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation.

Noble Lords are anticipating my reply rather more enthusiastically than I am. I am all too well aware that I am surrounded by people with expertise in local authorities. I confess that my only ambitious attempt to join a local authority resulted in my achieving 17 votes and thereafter I lost all such ambition. Therefore, I tread this particular path with some difficulty.

I merely wish to raise a minor point with the Committee. I assume that this is a probing amendment but if it is not—I thought that the previous amendment was probing until we went to a Division—I wish to point out one thing about it; namely, it would have absolutely no practical effect if it were agreed. It would remove part of the provision whereby a local authority exercising the power of a harbour authority may use various usual powers of internal delegation—whether full council or executive, as applicable—to perform a particular function, as specified in regulations made under Section 13 of the Local Government Act 2000.

Clause 20(3) makes it clear that the persons to whom functions may be delegated are a,

“committee, sub-committee, member, officer or employee of the local authority”.

Deleting subsection (4) would not change that.

I have been arguing about “trivial local government matters”, as some would say, all afternoon, so I shall continue now. If what the Minister says is correct, why is this clause in the Bill anyway if including or not including it makes no difference?

I was coming to that. In my comments about local authorities, I was not suggesting for one moment that there was anything trivial about this situation; nor did I think that the noble Lord’s long absence from the Chamber while he was engaged elsewhere was due to trivial matters—far from it. However, I am seeking to defend the position in the Bill. I stress that that wording is in the Bill because we wish to emphasise that we are talking about one authority, which is a harbour authority. The noble Baroness introduced the concept of estuary authorities, which I do not deny are very important, but they are not harbour authorities and therefore do not relate to the situation that we seek to confront here.

As we discussed earlier, Clause 15 enables the MMO, with the approval of the Secretary of State, to make agreements with the eligible bodies listed in Clause 16 to carry out functions on the MMO’s behalf. I hasten to add the obvious point that we are creating the MMO to carry out its own functions; we expect it largely to carry them out and there is no intention of transferring functions wholesale to others. The point of the Bill is to create the MMO with the powers that it needs. However, as we indicated in earlier debates, there will be occasions when, for reasons of resources, expertise or geographical remit, another body is better placed to perform a function on the MMO’s behalf. We seek to create a degree of flexibility, and the list of bodies includes harbour authorities.

Clause 20 makes additional provision in relation to any agreement with a harbour authority where that harbour authority is also a local authority. Under the Local Government Act 2000 and subordinate legislation, each function of a principal local authority—and, by heavens, I appreciate that I may be in great danger of seeking to teach several noble Lords how to suck eggs, when they have deep expertise in this area—is administered either directly by the full council or through executive arrangements, depending on the function. The full council or executive—as applicable—of that authority may use various usual powers of delegation, for example to its committees or to the officers of that authority, to perform the function.

Subsection (4) states that:

“‘Committee’ does not include a joint committee of two or more local authorities”.

It refers to a committee of the harbour authority. Clause 20 allows delegation only to committees of the same authority. I emphasise that although Clause 15 gives the MMO the ability to enter into agreements with the bodies listed in Clause 16, it may do so only with the approval of the Secretary of State. The fact that a body is included in the list in Clause 16 does not mean that the MMO will inevitably delegate functions to it. I hasten to add that the purpose of the clause is to deal with the issue of the harbour authority and its proper right of delegation, not to raise the issue which the noble Baroness raised about more than one authority being involved, because that is not the power which is envisaged; nor does the deletion of subsection (4) materially affect that position.

I do not pretend that that is good news for the noble Baroness, because I understand the representations that she is seeking to make, but that is what the Bill says. The Government are defending not only the policy underpinning the Bill but the actual lines in the Bill and what they mean in the Bill—which, after all, is what the noble Baroness is seeking to amend. I am sure that she will want to withdraw her amendment.

At this point I miss my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who, as the Minister knows, is not able to be here because she is not at all well. She will be much more able than I am to draft something on Report to explore the issue. If two local authorities need and want to work together in a relationship with the MMO on, as the Bill envisages, a single harbour authority, then that should be possible. The Bill should not decide local matters such as whether one local authority can be a harbour authority or whether two local authorities can join together in a harbour authority and have such a relationship with the MMO. Surely that should be a local decision and not one for the Government to lay down in statute.

I am grateful for the support of the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, who, from his great expertise, I know understands exactly what I am driving at. Between his expertise and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, we will be able to come up with something far more satisfactory on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 69A withdrawn.

Clause 20 agreed.

Clauses 21 and 22 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.49 pm.