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Public Bodies (Abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities) Order 2012

Volume 739: debated on Monday 23 July 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that is has considered the Public Bodies (Abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities) Order 2012.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 3rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to debate the draft order, which is made under the Public Bodies Act 2011. It reflects oneof the outcomes of the Government’s programme of reform for public bodies. The order will abolish the Commission for Rural Communities—the CRC—and finalise the consolidation of rural policy functions within Defra.

I take this opportunity to thank the commission, Dr Stuart Burgess and his team of commissioners for their commitment to the well-being of rural communities. I also thank them for the constructive way in which they have continued to work in liaison with Defra’s rural communities policy unit. I would expect no less of Dr Burgess, who I know, and for whom I have the highest regard.

The rationale for this reform was articulated during the passage of the Public Bodies Act, in which we sought powers to abolish the CRC. We consulted widely, as required by the Act, on both the new rural policy functions within Defra and the abolition of the CRC. Of the 41 responses received, 12 individuals and organisations supported abolition, 12 respondents were opposed and 17 did not expressly support or oppose abolition.

We firmly believe this reform to be necessary. Placing rural interests at the heart of government, led and championed by Defra Ministers, will allow us to shape and influence policy across Whitehall at an early stage. The abolition of the CRC is not a decision that the Government have taken simply to reduce costs or to reduce attention to rural issues. It is a decision that will remove duplication, improve effectiveness and enable resources to be more effectively deployed.

Although not the primary driver, there will, of course, be financial savings to be made as a result of this reform. These are considerable: net savings of £17 million over the period of this CSR. This is a Government, from the Prime Minister down, with strong rural credentials. We have clear and bold ambitions for our rural areas. The abolition of the CRC paves the way for Defra’s Ministers to bring forward new, more effective, approaches to ensuring rural needs and opportunities are properly understood before decisions are made.

On 1 April 2011, the rural communities policy unit—the RCPU—a centre of rural expertise, was created in Defra. The RCPU is designed to engage more effectively, and at an earlier stage, in the development of policy across government. For example, it is brigaded alongside the team working on and delivering the RDPE, which is Defra’s key funding stream for the rural economy.

Noble Lords will be aware that in consideration of the order, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee recommended that the rural statement should set out not only government-wide policy intentions but robust structures for incorporating stakeholder input into policy development and implementation. We agree with and support this recommendation fully. The rural statement will underline our commitment to rural England. It reflects our vision for successful rural businesses and thriving rural communities, and is based around three key priorities. The first is economic growth: we want rural businesses to make a sustainable contribution to national growth. The second is rural engagement: we want to engage directly with rural communities so that they can see that the Government are on their side. The last is quality of life: we want rural people to have fair access to public services and to be actively engaged in shaping the places in which they live.

We accept and recognise that a two-way communication with rural stakeholders and communities is crucial to developing better policies and delivering more effective outcomes. As our Explanatory Memorandum highlighted, we want to continue to engage proactively and positively with partners, including local government networks, civil society organisations and business groups. Defra Ministers, for example, established the new rural and farming networks as a conduit to give key rural representatives and stakeholders a voice in Whitehall on behalf of their localities. Similarly, the RCPU has regular engagement with the Rural Coalition. This engagement has ensured that advice from experienced practitioners has fed in to changes in the planning system, housing and the economy. Through this regular engagement, Defra Ministers and policy officials across government are able to have present-time dialogue with those who represent the concerns and interests of rural communities. We encourage this dialogue to be as open and as frank as possible, as we see it as a mechanism for delivering good policy.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also recommended that the rural statement should provide specific details of the steps that the Government intend to take to deliver independent scrutiny of rural-proofing. Again, we agree with the broad thrust of this recommendation. Defra supports rural-proofing by providing advice, guidance and support to policy officials across government. Alongside this commitment, we will publish new rural-proofing guidance materials in September. The rural statement will outline our commitment to commissioning an external review of the impact of the new rural-proofing package, to be undertaken in summer 2013.

Importantly, Defra Ministers will also be accountable to Parliament for the way that they fulfil their role as Rural Champions. Noble Lords will be aware that the EFRA Select Committee is currently undertaking its inquiry into rural communities. It is focusing on the role of the RCPU, rural grants and funding and rural-proofing—all part of government policy. My ministerial colleagues and I welcome the attention that this is placing on both the role of the RCPU and our efforts to ensure that all government departments are giving adequate attention to rural-proofing their policy and decision-making. This is an important opportunity to demonstrate both our commitment and our actions toward supporting the interests of those living and working in rural areas.

This is a good reform heralding a new and exciting era for our rural communities. I firmly believe that this is the right way forward, and that this order, and the new arrangements we have put in place with the RCPU, will deliver the right outcomes for rural communities. To this end, I commend the draft order to the Grand Committee.

My Lords, this afternoon we are discussing another public bodies order from Defra. To date these discussions have been friendly affairs, much in keeping with the amicable way in which the Minister dealt with the dodgy primary legislation as it went through your Lordships’ House. I fear that our deliberations today might be slightly less consensual. As we heard, the Commission for Rural Communities was established by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, following the review led by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I was the Bill Minister for the NERC Act and therefore would describe myself as something of a midwife for the CRC.

That does not mean that I oppose the order outright, but it does mean that there are important questions for the Minister to answer. They happen to be the same questions that I asked when the Public Bodies Bill was going through the parliamentary process. As ever, I am grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, on this occasion for its third report of this Session. Its conclusion is the one that I came to last year and that I know is shared by many in the House. The committee correctly applied the three tests of effectiveness, economy and efficiency, and accountability. As is the way with these orders, it is right that I should do the same.

The Government argue that it is more effective to bring officials in-house, rather than have them at arm’s length, so they will have earlier and greater involvement in the development of policies and programmes across Whitehall. I am afraid that in my experience Defra is not central to the Government’s thinking until there is a crisis, and that rural policy in turn is on the margins of Defra’s thinking. The clue is in the name. It thinks about the environment, then food and farming, and finally rural affairs. There is no sign that this has changed. We witnessed the inability of the department to secure a legislative slot in this Session for the much-needed water Bill. That is the reality of the marginalisation of Defra. To argue otherwise is naive in the extreme.

As the Minister said, the Government are looking to save £17 million over the CSR period by this change to their rural policy function. That is the real reason for this change: economy. I do not argue that savings are there to be made, although it is worth noting that the CRC cost around £600,000 in the past financial year. It is worth diverting some of the remaining cost of the rural policy function to support the continuation of a rural policy adviser who is independent of government.

My main objection to the move is on the ground of accountability. The Government argue that these changes will enable Defra’s Ministers to be held accountable by Parliament for the exercise of rural policy functions. However, we should look at how Parliament is currently being treated. Over the weekend, dairy farmers blockaded milk processing plants to draw attention to the exploitative pricing that is making milk production uneconomic. Two supermarkets have already responded by raising the prices they pay to farmers. The farmers clearly believed that parliamentary methods were not being listened to—and was it any wonder?

Today it was reported that Jim Paice, the Agriculture Minister who does not know the price of milk, had raised the possibility that an adjudicator would be created to oversee a voluntary code for the dairy supply chain. This is exactly what my noble friend Lord Grantchester suggested last week when he moved an amendment to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. Coalition Peers were whipped to oppose it—and duly defeated the very proposal that is now coming from the Agriculture Minister. Just one week later, threatened by angry farmers, Defra’s policy is churning, thanks to direct action rather than parliamentary pressure.

This follows a succession of protests that bounced Defra. Its proposals to sell off the nation’s forests were met with huge protests and it backed down. The same happened with national nature reserves and changes to reduce environmental protection in planning law. There was the case of wild animals in circuses. Over Easter Defra suggested allowing the shooting of buzzards—a native species—to protect pheasants, which are a non-native species bred to be shot. Unsurprisingly, that was laughed out of the court of public opinion within days. In these cases, we made what noise we could in your Lordships’ House or in the other place, but it was clear that Ministers were more accountable to 38 Degrees, the National Trust and Farmers for Action than to this Parliament—so much for accountability.

The lack of long-term strategic thinking that bedevils Defra is at the heart of the issue. At the same time, rural England feels the effects of policies and cuts from other government departments. For example, it emerged this month that the rate of young people not in education, employment or training is rising faster in rural areas than in urban ones—and that rural councils, which tend to have older and less deprived populations, receive lower grant allocations, spend less on social care, charge more for home care and allocate lower personal budgets than local authorities serving younger, more urban and more deprived populations. New research finds that social tenants in rural areas will be more likely than those in urban areas to have to move house as a consequence of reductions in housing benefit, yet there are fewer smaller dwellings for them to move into. I know these things thanks to the July newsletter from the Commission for Rural Communities. Its reports often make uncomfortable reading across Whitehall. The independence from government of these reports increases accountability. That is why a letter to today’s Daily Telegraph is signed by the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Wakefield, Norwich and Exeter, the Duchess of Rutland, the High Sheriff of Cornwall, me and other parliamentarians, including my noble friend Lord Grantchester.

As the letter says, there has been an independent voice to government since 1909. It goes on:

“In the current economic circumstances it is more important than ever that the voices of rural communities are not lost and that an independent adviser—distinct from the range of rural pressure groups—exists to speak up for rural interests”.

That is all we ask—not for the expensive retention of the CRC, but for the retention of what has served us well for more than a century, an independent rural champion. What do the Government propose instead? The independent voice will be provided by Defra’s very own Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Benyon, he of the buzzards U-turn. Rural England’s new champion will be inside the tent but, unusually, on this occasion pointing inwards.

The lack of commitment is demonstrated by the facts that Mr Benyon has not delivered the new rural-proofing guidance promised even today on the Defra website for this spring, and that he has failed to deliver a rural statement, referred to by the Minister, by spring 2012, which was also promised today on the Defra website. That is serious for this Committee. Can the Minister tell us in his wind-up what happened to it? Are we going to get it in September, along with rural-proofing toolkit, six months late?

As he says, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee specifically recommends that the rural statement sets out robust structures for incorporating stakeholder input into policy development and implementation. The Minister responded to that by referring to the explanatory document which has already been scrutinised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It then wanted more information, which we do not have, to scrutinise this order.

I ask again what I asked the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in column 765 in March last year. Why not give us an independent rural voice that tells us by appointment, with the authority of the Prime Minister, what is really happening and tells us the truth regardless of fear of or favour from the Government? It worked for Lloyd George, for Churchill and for Thatcher. Is it really too much to ask?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this, and his team for providing the explanatory document about the different ways in which consultation will take place with rural groups such as the Rural and Farming Network, ECO and its sub-groups, the Rural Coalition, local economic partnerships, the Rural Service Network and the LEADER exchange group. I know that LEADER is an initiative to do with the delivery of the Rural Development Programme for England, but the word made me think. These groups, or leaders of groups, such as farmers, businessmen and local councils, are all stakeholders—to use the Minister’s word—in the countryside.

Who is going to represent the deprived of rural England—those who sometimes go with only one meal a day because they know that they have to spend their money on a car to get to their valuable work, or to have any of form of life there? Who is going to speak up for the countryside’s young, who cannot get a job because they have not got the transport to get to one and cannot get the transport to get to a job because they have not got a job to pay for the transport? Who is going to speak up for the unemployed, the unhoused and others?

The Minister will know that I am in a slightly difficult position. I have been asked by Richard Benyon, the Defra Minister in the Commons, to pool together a group of Peers to help rural-proof the government department’s policies in each individual case, but I still have not quite grasped who is going to do or commission the critical and independent research that will penetrate the normal attitude of most departments to the countryside, which is ambivalent at best. Actually, their attitude ranges from ambivalence to total ignorance and they need spurring on.

Most of us in this Room have argued our best on several occasions for some representation at arm’s length from Government, as stated by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, of those rural voices that are not normally heard. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on the question of the independent, fearless research that is often critical of the Government, and which departments are, frankly, unable, to carry out. I hope that he can also reassure me on my point about who will represent the voice of the rural deprived.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his statement and his desire to ensure that the commission’s functions are properly fulfilled within Defra. I say from the outset that I am not opposing the decision to abolish the CRC. However, it is now clear—indeed, it was clear to many of us at the time—that in the desire to have a large bonfire of the quangos, decisions were taken without a clear plan for properly addressing the consequences. I am pleased that Defra has a plan, but I would like to be reassured that the functions of the CRC will be properly resourced and carried out by Defra. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, the CRC did some very helpful and useful research into issues like rural poverty and changes in demographics in the countryside that will be essential in helping design policies that impact on the countryside.

It is essential, as has been said, that government policies have a degree of rural-proofing. Without an independent commission, I suggest that it will be difficult for the department to fulfil this function without trying in the process to defend government policies in doing so. It is difficult for a department to be, if I might use the phrase, both gamekeeper and poacher. The role of the rural advocate, as the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Cameron, said, has been extremely useful in highlighting many vital rural issues. Dr Burgess has been a very effective and active advocate, as was his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, before him. It has already been stressed that the element of independence that has been so valuable is being lost. The role of the rural advocate should be reconsidered.

However, I welcome the Minister’s assertion that ensuring growth within rural areas is critical to the Government and is being recognised. I have always believed that it is impossible to draw a line between rural and urban in any case; one is dependent on the other, and government policies need to reflect that. Without the vital independence of a rural advocate, though, it really is difficult to know where any challenge is going to come from.

I add my thanks to those of noble Lords before me who thanked the Minister for his opening remarks, and I welcome the order. The debates to date seem to have been around how successful the new arrangements will be in delivering the vital roles that the CRC has performed in the past in its roles of adviser, watchdog and advocate. I do not want to revisit those but I shall ask a few questions that I hope the Minister will touch on.

The first question is around the issue of adviser and watchdog. It is clear that rural community policy units are being set up to be centres of rural expertise, and that is to be welcomed. However, it is also clear that they will have to have to have a firm external focus, otherwise they will end up talking to many of the usual suspects. I would welcome a list of organisations that they will be engaging with but, having taken the opportunity to look at the Defra website today, I struggled miserably to find anything about the objectives and activities of this important new unit. If I were an activist in a local community who wanted to find out what was going on—if I had any initiatives that I wanted to share or discuss with the Government—I would have no concept of what their activities or programmes of work were. I therefore ask the Minister if the public interface of that unit could be looked at, particularly the website.

On a more substantive point—and this may be regarded as heretical in present company—I am not convinced of the role of a rural advocate. As someone who has spent most of her life in the voluntary sector, in conservation and rural affairs, I think that it is an impossible job. I say that for three reasons. First, there is no single constituency for the rural areas. They include the uplands, the mining communities of Nottingham, deprived areas in Cornwall and, where I come from in Surrey, fairly wealthy communities with tiny pockets of deprivation. However, there is no one area and no one constituency.

Secondly, as my noble friend Lord Curry touched on, there is no separate set of issues for rural communities that do not affect urban areas. They are the same issues—two sides of one coin—but because of the geography of rural communities and the scarcity of population you need different solutions. There is no separate constituency, there are no separate issues and there is no single voice. As someone who fought the anti-hunting campaign and proposals for wind farms, there is no one rural voice on many of the controversial issues. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, will bear witness that when we had those debates there was pressure for the rural advocate to get involved. It was decided, very wisely, to sidestep the issues because of their polarity. Do not tell me that a rural advocate will come in and solve all the problems. I admire the letter in the Telegraph and the support that it has received from fellow Peers. As I say, it might be heretical, but I do not believe that a rural advocate is a silver bullet that will solve the problem. I can see the attraction but the approach that the Government are taking, whereby Ministers are accountable before Parliament, should at least be given the benefit of the doubt.

I have a small issue, also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, about who will actually speak up for the disadvantaged communities in our rural areas. That is where both previous incumbents of the role of rural advocate, on that single issue, have made a real impact. That is what we need to focus on—what we want the rural advocate to be doing. What are the single issues on which we feel that an extra voice is really needed? I look back to what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said in the debate in the House on 23 March last year. He said that if an independent advocate was needed again, the Government would of course be prepared to look at the matter if the change proved not to be as effective as they believed it would be. I believe that these changes have the potential to deliver, but there may be single issues in rural communities where we need a stronger extra voice. I hope that the Government will remain open to that idea.

My Lords, this has been a good debate, albeit a little feistier than some of the debates that we usually have within the teams that we represent. However, in some ways I am pleased that we have been able to air some of these issues. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, had a bit of fun running through Defra’s ambit and its policies, and what he perceives as being our deficiencies. However, he cannot deny that this is a Government in which those of us at Defra firmly believe that we are seeking to address issues on behalf of rural communities. “Rural affairs” may come at the end of our title, but it is not belittled by the fact that it is the last of the three key subject areas in which the department is engaged.

All noble Lords were articulating much the same issue, and it has been helpful to hear the concerns of noble Lords who have played a full part in the evolution of our rural policy. I sensed behind much of their contributions a certain insecurity about whether having only a single individual pressing the case for rural communities was the best way forward. My noble friend Lady Parminter doubted that fundamentally and I sensed the same in other contributions, because noble Lords have all been there and know it from experience.

We live in a world where independent contributions to policy formation are never missing; they are a constant presence in government. There are the external pressures and expertise of formalised bodies such as NGOs that seek always to impress their role on government. Bodies such as the CLA or the NFU on the one hand, or Unite on behalf of agricultural workers on the other, express their views. This extends across the environmental field and the fields of industry and water, where groups of individuals give advice that is independent in the sense that it is not internal to Government.

When people talk about how marvellous things were and how reports were superb in indicating rural poverty and the difficulties that many rural communities had, I say: what good did that do rural communities under the previous Government? The information was available, but were the issues addressed? I say no. The key is for the department to recognise that rural communities face particular challenges and that, unless Ministers are focused on addressing them, no independent external information provided to the department will bring effective government action to address the issues.

We have had a very useful debate. I took on board the notion of independent research and evaluation of evidence. I will take that back and write to noble Lords, explaining how Defra uses evidence, particularly the social evidence to which a number of noble Lords drew attention. Defra is the custodian of the well-being of rural communities and there are within rural communities, as I know myself, large numbers of people who do not have access to the sort of public services that we want.

I hope to noble Lords will take what I am saying as being a sincere evaluation. The key is having Ministers who recognise the issues and are prepared to argue them within the department, and with other departments, to ensure that they are addressed. That will be far more effective than hiving them off and thinking that by doing so we have taken action to address them.

I am pleased to have had a sound-off, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Knight. I, too, feel better for having been able to explain why I believe that we are doing the right thing. If we cannot persuade the Government to address the cares of rural communities, we in Defra will have failed. I do not intend to fail. I commend the order to the Grand Committee.

Motion agreed.