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Public Bodies (Abolition of Environment Protection Advisory Committees) Order 2012

Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Public Bodies (Abolition of Environment Protection Advisory Committees) Order 2012.

Relevant document: 4th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee; 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, in moving the Motion, I shall speak also to the subsequent statutory instrument, to which we may speak if your Lordships wish. The two orders have been considered in conjunction with one another during scrutiny; hence I think it would be most helpful to refer to them together.

The orders are to be made under the Public Bodies Act 2011. They will abolish the six regional and local fisheries advisory committees in England and the six environmental protection advisory committees in England and pave the way for more flexible, non-statutory engagement arrangements that can evolve and respond to the needs and delivery of environmental objectives.

Both sets of committees have provided valuable advice to the Environment Agency, and it will continue to need such advice. I thank all those who have been so engaged. However, we believe that a non-statutory approach to engagement could provide greater flexibility at a more local, catchment-based level. That will enable civil society and local communities to provide advice directly to the Environment Agency and to be involved and empowered to take the lead, where appropriate, on delivering environmental outcomes rather than continue the current focus on just providing advice.

As set out in the explanatory documents, in developing the successor arrangements, each of the Environment Agency’s six operating regions in England has produced an engagement model, with input from existing committees and through discussion with local partners. A broad range of interactions is proposed. The regional engagement models show the relationship between the various fora—from national strategy through to local action and delivery. The models are region-specific and flexible. They will evolve over time, based on continual review by the groups involved against environmental priorities, which may vary one from another. This will ensure that the models for engagement are the right ones, involving the right individuals and groups at the right time. The explanatory documents showcased studies on engagement approaches that are being piloted to ensure that we get the arrangements right in future. We also consulted widely on the future engagement arrangements, as required by the Act, and we have reported on the consultation.

In its consideration of the orders, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee concluded in its fourth report of the 2012-13 Session that it was content to clear these draft public bodies orders within the 40-day affirmative procedure. However, it had two recommendations. The first suggested that,

“the Government re-consider the need for formal monitoring and evaluation of the successor arrangements which are put in place to enable interested parties to be engaged in the delivery of the Environment Agency’s objectives”.

I assure the Committee that my department and the Environment Agency have agreed a formal review of successor arrangements within two years of the committees being abolished. Ahead of that review, the Environment Agency will undertake stakeholder engagement to allow local, regional and national customers and stakeholders to comment on how the engagement approaches, as described in the regional models, have been embedded. Based on the views of stakeholders and customers, the focus of the review will be to ensure that the right engagement happens in the right place to achieve this local, regional and national buy-in, while adapting to local needs and priorities. The review will be an important reassurance that the regional models reflect the needs of stakeholders and customers in delivering environmental outcomes.

The second recommendation suggested that,

“without delay after abolition of the … Committees, Government and the Environment Agency put in place, and publicise, regular meetings with key regional stakeholders to strengthen the process of monitoring and evaluation”.

The scrutiny committee was concerned that, if approved, the orders would remove a statutory obligation on the agency to carry out consultation.

The Environment Agency’s remit, as set out in the management statement and statutory Section 4 guidance, published in accordance with the Environment Act 1995, makes it clear that the Environment Agency must work closely with a wide range of partners in the public, local community, private and civil society sectors. The statutory guidance and remit provide a clear requirement to engage and consult widely, which the Environment Agency already delivers on a regional level through, for example, the river basin liaison panels, local enterprise partnerships and various fishery forums.

With regard to publicising meetings and events with key stakeholders, the Environment Agency has developed and made good use of social media. It is anticipated that social media, along with traditional forms of communication, will be extensively used to advertise meetings and events linked to local engagement models.

I hope that noble Lords can see that we are ready for change. The committees have made a valuable contribution but we believe that the proposed arrangements will provide more flexible local, community and civil society engagement for both advice and delivery, and that this approach will have the ability to evolve to meet the challenges ahead. I commend the draft orders to the House.

My Lords, the orders stem from the proposals in the Public Bodies Act, on which we had some extensive and interesting discussions— coincidentally, with the same Minister, and he did a sterling job on that Bill. We are now discussing just two groups of bodies: the regional and local fisheries advisory committees and the environment protection advisory committees.

The first thing that I can say may be considered to be a typical niggle coming from me, but I find some of the language used in these reports a bit over the top and I wonder what it all means. I think that I know what it means, because I look at the detail, but I still do not like the language. For example, page 4 of the explanatory document for the environment protection advisory committees order—the same language is used in the other one, too—states:

“Localism and Big Society agendas require the Environment Agency to more directly engage with civil society, the public and business. A non-statutory approach would provide greater flexibility”—

I understand that—

“and remove statutory constraints which would enable civil society and local communities to be empowered to take the lead where appropriate”.

I have to say that I find this language difficult to understand. I would be interested if somebody had to write an examination answer on what it means. I have spent a great deal of time, including struggling with the 450 pages of the Localism Bill, trying to understand what localism and the big society agendas really are and I am still struggling. I understand a lot of the detailed stuff which comes out allegedly as part of these agendas, but what it all means as an overall strategy is still a mystery hidden in the fogs of some of the upper echelons of the Government. However, the details here are much easier to understand.

We welcome the increased emphasis on catchment areas, which have always been difficult for public authorities to deal with, because they very rarely coincide with administrative and local authority boundaries. They are difficult to deal with, but, if you are dealing with flooding, the catchments are the most important of all.

The documents make it clear that the measures are not a matter of saving money or part of the cuts, and that the amounts being saved will come from, for example, the salaries of chairs of the bodies. I understand that existing staff resources will be redeployed to make sure the new non-statutory, flexible arrangements are fit for particular purposes. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that that is the case and that this is not a cost-cutting exercise? Page 7 of the first of the explanatory documents states:

“There are no overall savings from the abolition in economic terms”.

It then states that,

“it is expected that there will be a zero net cost /benefit associated with abolition”.

I am not quite sure why it says that, because I thought that cost/benefit analyses took into account non-economic terms as well, but never mind: if it is not a cost-saving measure and a matter of doing things better, that is okay.

The Minister referred to the recommendations of the scrutiny committee. I was not sure whether he was saying that the two-year review will take place. Perhaps he can clarify that or whether other arrangements will be made to make sure that monitoring and reviewing take place. On the recommendation that there should be regular meetings with the “key regional stakeholders”—I say that biting my tongue and making the words come out of my mouth—was the Minister saying that those meetings will take place or that they are not necessary because they will form part of the new arrangements anyway?

Finally, the Minister said that they will make use of social media. I think I know what social media are, but I am not sure that everyone tweeting each other all the time is the way to do this. Is he talking about more conventional websites and forums, rather than the frantic arrangements that one finds on things such as Twitter and Facebook, which seem to me not the media that should be used in this context? Perhaps I am out of date.

My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as a shortly-to-be-retiring—I regret—member of the board of the Environment Agency. In that context, I thank the Minister very much for his remarks about the performance of the agency staff during the great difficulty of having four or five serious flood instances in different parts of the country at more or less the same time, which is, thank God, a pretty unusual event. I think that the agency delivered.

I also need to inform the Minister that to some extent I am here to represent my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury, who is chair of the Environment Agency and who apologises for not being here today. Much of what I say reflects his views although, as I am retiring from the board, I can also make my own remarks.

I welcome the changes. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has already referred to the rather lengthy proceedings that the Minister had to undergo in his previous capacity during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, which he no doubt recalls without great nostalgia. The order concerns the sole part of the Bill to which I did not object. That is because, in this instance, a statutory structure is not necessarily the best way to carry out partnership, share information and mobilise members outside the agency. It is important that the work of the advisory committees is recognised. The people who have served on them have given stalwart service and have tried to represent the interests involved in delivering environmental and fishery outcomes but also to feed back information from the agency to those bodies.

However, there are probably better and certainly more flexible ways to do that which are more nimble and able to move with the times. I have some slight sympathy with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of the more advanced forms of social media— I am not entirely in front of the curve myself on that—but, in this area, the social media used in their broadest sense are a useful means of communication about flooding but also in more day-to-day environmental problems in mobilising those who are interested from public agencies, private citizens and organisations. The response time for using social media is much faster than with more traditional methods of communication.

When Defra consulted on that, there was not a huge number of responses. Of those who responded, those for and against were more or less in balance. There was a distinct negative balance in the north-west—as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will be pleased to hear. That is not necessarily because they are more stroppy in the north-west. The agency has therefore taken steps to address the situation in the north-west, including a proactive use of social media. I think that it is true to say that most organisations in the north-west are now satisfied that the new forms of consultation will be an adequate replacement.

In my own area, which is the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, the Environment Agency has developed from a situation a few years ago where it was not seen as the most user-friendly organisation to having much more constructive relationships with organisations involved in these fields. For example, people will know that fishermen are not necessarily the easiest people to engage with, particularly if one is from a public body, but the relationship between the agency and the organisations involved in fisheries in the south-west has become very positive on the salmon, trout and coarse fishing side. We have for some time had a fisheries forum. That will be built upon and the relationships at different, more local levels will replace the rather centralised operation of the advisory committees. The situation is similar with the rivers and the river trusts in the area. Indeed, I am aware that in some areas the river trusts are taking on some responsibilities from the agency.

The abolished committees, while they were useful, are likely to be replaced by something more positive that will deliver the environmental outcomes that we all seek, whether it is on the electronic consultation and social media side or, possibly more importantly, the overall engagement. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, also objects to some of the conceptual terms in there, which I do not entirely dissent from. However, there is a degree of empowerment here. Bodies on the ground are taking responsibility in keeping the agency informed and being guided by the agency in dealing with incidents. For example, on rivers where there are not major flooding incidents, it takes first-line responsibility. That is quite important.

My Lords, I wish to make it clear that it is not the process that I object to, it is the words used to describe it.

My Lords, I probably share that view. However, the reality is that it allows more people to be engaged and to take responsibility. To that extent, I share the objectives of the Government. The only note of caution I introduce is that the processes of engagement, empowerment and partnership—all abstract terms but in day-to-day terms they mean talking to people a lot more and in a lot more detail and probably for longer than sending out signals from the centre—are time-consuming and therefore staff resources-consuming and, to some extent, money-consuming.

In other words, the big society—if one was to call it that—is not costless. In some ways, it may be more costly than more centrally directed activities and institutionalised responsibilities. At the worst end under the old system, a member of staff might well worry about the advisory committee a month before it is due to meet and write appropriate papers and probably get a decent outcome. However, this requires a year-long engagement with the bodies that are represented on those committees. So, from the point of view of agency staff resources, this does not really save money. I know its primary aim is not to save money but to come up with a better system but, nevertheless, the Explanatory Note suggests that some of the formal money will be saved. It will not be saved. It will be deployed in a more effective way and there will be, if anything, more pressure on staff than under the old system. Subject to that caveat and the fact that we will at some point review these proceedings and changes to see if they are working, I support the Minister in these orders.

My Lords, I, too, support the orders. As ever, it is a delight to come back to public bodies orders and to reminisce about some of the Minister’s finest moments in the main Chamber working on that Bill. I am sure that he will recall better than I that when these bodies were discussed, my noble friend Lord Grantchester broadly welcomed the move to rationalise the system. At the heart of this is ensuring that stakeholders around fishing are properly engaged. That means not just the professional people and businesses that are dependent upon fishing and angling but the more than 6 million people who over the past two years have indulged in some form of freshwater fishing. This is an important issue for a large number of people.

My questions concern the two key areas. I pay tribute to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, whose fourth report of Session I found extremely helpful in getting my head around these orders. I start with the issue of accountability, which, as the Minister said, is the main issue about which the committee had concerns. He reminded us that its recommendation was for the Government to reconsider the need for formal monitoring and evaluation of the successor arrangements, and I welcome what he said about reviews. This is a “big society” approach, replacing a fairly complex set of statutory bodies—regional quangos, if you like—with a different form of engagement with civil society in local communities.

There is a concern that, in the absence of a formal set of structures, there will be reduced accountability, and I am sure that the review will focus on making sure that that has worked well. I would be grateful for a little more detail about how the review might work; who it might be led by, whether that person will be independent of Defra and whether the report will be published and the process transparent so that we can properly scrutinise it here in Parliament. Answers to those sorts of questions now or later would be very helpful in giving us, and the limited numbers who responded to the consultation on these orders, some comfort around the welcome announcement that the Minister made regarding the review and the positive response that he has given to the Committee, which I very much welcome.

On effectiveness, the Explanatory Memorandum talks about the need for effective local stakeholder engagement and partnership. It is clear that the money currently being spent on these sets of bodies—£225,000 and £192,000 respectively—is being reinvested in that engagement. I would be interested to know a little more about how that money might be spent. Perhaps unlike the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I am quite an enthusiast for communication through social media. Indeed, in the recent flooding incident, one of the things that was quite striking was that these days the telephone is a far less reliable form of communication because most of us no longer just have a telephone that plugs into the wall and is powered off the little bit of power that comes out of the phone line; most of us have wireless phones that depend on mains power. If you are going through a flood, for example, you turn off that mains power and then your phone does not work. One of the advantages of using social media is that for many of us they are run off our smartphones or mobiles. It is difficult for any agency to keep up with the changes that people make to their mobile phone numbers, but engaging with apps, Twitter and even Facebook seems to be quite an effective way of adding a bit of resilience as technology changes.

The noble Lord was kind enough to refer to my scepticism. Does he agree that for rapid dissemination of information—for example, that flooding is likely, has started or whatever—social media such as Twitter come into their own and are brilliant, but that for more considered consultation, people putting forward their views and so on, slightly less frenetic forms of social media that are not clogged up with 95% dross are a better way of doing it?

I certainly agree that if you need to get information out very rapidly, media such as Twitter are helpful, but in an emergency, cell broadcasting is the most effective because you can get to every mobile phone within a cell area. I think that the Environment Agency is looking at how that might be used.

I was going on to address the other point made about more sustained, ongoing stakeholder engagement. It is notable to look at how the really large commercial interests, the large retailers, are using Facebook, for example, to create massive communities of people around Facebook pages, particularly in the United States. Twitter is as good as the people you want to follow. If you choose to follow people who post only dross, you will get a lot of dross, but if you choose to unfollow the dross, you will get what you want. It is entirely up to you.

Without being distracted by the use of social media in these things, the more serious issue is to try to understand a little more from the Minister about how it might work. Will the money be spent on apps, webinars and tweet-meets? In particular, what proportion and how much will be spent on staff against this difficult fiscal environment and the pressure to reduce staffing costs? Will Defra monitor the staffing arrangements to ensure that there are enough people on the ground? Here, I might have common cause with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We cannot solely rely on technology because some people find it difficult to engage with technology or, surprising as it may seem, do not even want to. Often, the technology can create the noise and the interest, and bring people together, but you still need people on the ground to engage with people and with that technology.

If the Minister can give me some answers about how the review would work and how this money will be reinvested, I will be delighted. Suffice to say that I do not want to oppose the orders. I am happy to let a more catchment-based and more community-based approach operate and see how it is reviewed.

My Lords, again, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and for the welcome that they have given these two draft orders. I think that there is an understanding that this represents a new way of working and doing things better. It is not about saving money; it is about engagement and providing the opportunity for fuller participation. If my noble friend Lord Greaves found the section on civil and big society vexing in its use of language, I recommend to noble Lords that they read the Explanatory Memorandum. Although it has a rather stiff and starchy front, which they all have, when you get into it, it is full of useful recommendations.

I know that my noble friend clearly got beyond page 4 and got well into the subject, as I would have expected him to have done. It is a very useful document, which gives a lot of illustrations which will help to reassure noble Lords about what is involved. It is about getting people involved and facilitating engagement.

It also is about a new way of working on catchment areas. I saw a map of European catchment areas the other day and it is remarkable how catchments for the United Kingdom are so much more appropriate because we have such a variety of river basins, whereas some larger countries in Europe, such as Germany, have relatively few but substantial rivers. We have a large number of rivers and it is quite right that we deal with them on the basis of catchments.

I can reassure noble Lords that there will be a review after two years. We will review progress jointly with the Environment Agency against the high-level principles. Ahead of the review, we will engage with stakeholders to allow them and local and national customers to comment on how everything has gone. Through that process, we hope to inform the Environment Agency how the policy is going forward.

There was a certain amount of jesting about social media. I probably come half way between the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and my noble friend Lord Greaves. I am certainly less familiar than the noble Lord with Twitter and such things. The Explanatory Memorandum contains examples of how social media are already being used. I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, to pages 42 to 45 for examples of what has already been developed. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, mentioned the engagement that has already occurred in the north-west. At, anglers had a two-hour online question-and-answer session with the Environment Agency’s fisheries and biodiversity team. Those are the sort of things which I see justifying the use of social media as means of engagement. I think that all noble Lords will recognise that, over time, their use will become much more customary and a part of the formal pattern of things.

My noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, wanted to examine where the money would be used. No savings are being made here, but some money will be able to be redirected. That will be used to support the new England and Wales Fisheries Group. This group will monitor further changes needed for the regional models to be able to engage the right people at the right time. The money will go back into the kitty. It is anticipated that some further resources may be needed to support engagement. For example, the Environment Agency in the south-west has committed funding to provide a local angling development board and an angling development officer. Those are useful examples of the recreational opportunities which such engagement will provide.

I hope that the further reassurances that I have given will ease the way towards the next and final stage of the process, which started some 21 months ago. To this end, I commend the two orders to the Committee.

Motion agreed.