HC Deb 23 July 1973 vol 860 cc1349-55

Notwithstanding anything said, written or done between the announcement of the intention to replace the former Nature Conservancy with a new Nature Conservancy Council and the establishing of the proposed new Council, no property owned by, or rights vested in, the former Nature Conservancy, shall be deemed as having been disposed of, given away, or put into the possession of any other person or body until arrangements for disposal have been agreed by the proposed new Council when it has been formed.—[Mr. Oakes.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

A few moments ago, the Minister spoke of what he, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) and the whole House want, namely, co-operation between equals. This clause seeks to make it possible for there to be cooperation between equals.

In the past, many things have been said and written by the NERC with no Nature Conservancy Council in existence. There cannot be co-operation between equals when there is an existing body which wants some of the resources and another body equally entitled to claim for those resources which does not exist.

The clause seeks to delay any allocation of the resources and to undo any statements made in the past in a mood of over-enthusiasm, as the Minister euphemistically described it. It provides that resources shall not be allocated until the new council is in existence, able to fight for itself, able to make its own requirements, able to put in objections, and so on.

The clause is mainly the inspiration of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell. If he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he can give the House specific instances which probably should go to the new Nature Conservancy Council. I do not seek in my speech to deal with specific allocations of resources.

The Minister says that he believes in co-operation between equals. I ask him to let at least two equals exist before this kind of allocation is made. If that is not done, the new Nature Conservancy Council will come into existence and find itself presented with a fail accompli.

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Lawson

I think that I might not push this matter so far as my hon Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) does. For my part, I would not seek to reopen everything and try to insist that allocations which appear to have been made—I am thinking particularly of research stations —should all be put back in the melting pot. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) will agree with me there. But, in our judgment, in the bargaining—to call it that—which took place, one side appeared to be substantially weaker than the other.

There remain, however, two important items which, so far as I know, have not yet been allocated. I refer, first, to the biological record centre. This is not a research centre; it is a centre which accumulates, sorts, classifies and gives out detailed information. It is used by a wide range of bodies, bird watchers and the rest, and it is a necessary part of an organisation one of whose functions will be the giving of advice and the dissemination of knowledge and understanding of conservation matters. The biological record centre is a central organ in the purposes and functions of the new Nature Conservancy Council, and to take it away and vest it in what is essentially a research organisation would be a strange allocation indeed.

In all friendliness to the Minister, therefore, I put it to him that this is an item which could not be settled when the scales were so heavily weighted against one side in the earlier bargaining. It was described as a grey area yet to be settled, and I hope that it will not be settled, unless settled in the way I am asking for, before the new council comes into existence.

The other item is the Nature Conservancy library, housed in different parts of the country. This also must be a part of the new Nature Conservancy Council.

If the allocation for which I am asking is made, I am sure that the new council and its staff will feel that their side has emerged reasonably well and they are not put in a crippling position. It has been my fear all along that what would emerge from these changes would be a crippled Nature Conservancy Council, a council which would not be able to do the effective job that we want it to do.

If the new council has those two parts, I think the other parts will be seen as all right and the work can happily proceed.

I believe that the NERC and the new council can make an ideal partnership, but if one or other of those two parts is denied, there will be a certain grudge carried forward into the future. I do not want there to be any such grudge. If the Minister says tonight that the matter can be settled now and they will definitely be with the Nature Conservancy Council, we shall cheer. We cannot cheer very loudly with such small numbers present, but cheer we shall none the less. If he cannot say that, at the very least let him say that it will not be settled until the new council is soundly established.

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) argued that he wanted these matters held over until the new council came into existence because there was no one on that side of the bargain with whom we could consult as there was no council in existence at that stage. That is not quite true, because we consulted the Nature Conservancy Committee—it is true that the committee is not yet the council itself—we consulted the staff most concerned, and we consulted the NERC. These matters of property and the question of staffing the premises—the several premises concerned—have been fully discussed.

The new clause would take one right back to pre-1965 and imply that we should not touch any of the property that was brought in by the Nature Conservancy when it became the Nature Conservancy Committee of the NERC. In my opinion, rubbing out and starting over again would not be very profitable. Ever since the White Paper in July 1972, Cmnd. 5046, it has been clear to everybody that the laboratories would remain with NERC, whereas all the nature reserves, the regional offices and so on, would pass to the new NCC. That would leave such laboratories as Monks Wood, Merlewood, Furzebrook, Norwich and Banchory with NERC.

To deal with the specific items mentioned by the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson), the Biological Record Centre is at Monks Wood and all the main operations there will be in the hands of the NERC if the present intentions are carried through. Those intentions were made clear in July 1972. They have been presented to all concerned in consultation papers since, and there have been very few objections. In fact, what I hear from the staff is that they would like to be able to feel that everything is settled, as set out in the consultation papers, without any more changes being made at this stage. They want to get on with the job and be certain of their position.

Mr. Lawson

The right hon. Gentleman may not know that I received a letter, which I have sent to his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, from Dr. F. H. Perring who is in charge of the Biological Record Centre. He says that he and his staff support that centre being part of the Nature Conservancy Council. There must be no doubt in that connection.

Mr. Page

I indicated that certain individuals had objected, and Dr. Perring is one. There is only a small staff at the Biological Research Centre. It is essentially a computer and data collecting centre. The data is used for the Nature Conservancy Committee, which will become the council in future, but the centre is expanding its work considerably into various other fields and into fields that will not be within the jurisdiction of the NCC. It is desired to expand this data collection service to cover considerable areas of research quite outside the sphere of the NCC, and I think that we were therefore right in leaving it with the NERC. The council will have full use of the computer and data collection services whenever it so requires.

The library is still being considered by a working party whose report, I hope, we shall receive within a short time. That matter, therefore, is not fully decided as yet.

May I now state the order in which matters will proceed after the Bill receives Royal Assent. As soon as possible, my right hon. and learned Friend will appoint the council, and that will obviously take place before any order is laid transferring property. This means that the council will have an opportunity of expressing its opinion about the orders that the Secretary of State will lay concerning property, and to some extent concerning functions, although most of those are clear from the Bill itself. It may be that it will also be necessary to make some orders for the protection of staff rights, but I do not envisage that at the moment.

I think that that may well be dealt with by means of correspondence. But the council will be appointed long before the orders are laid so that it will be possible for it to comment on their content.

It would be wrong for me, however, not to make quite clear what the Secretary of State's intentions are at the present time. They are that the laboratories should remain with the NERC, and that the Biological Record Centre, because it lies within the Monks Wood laboratory premises and because it is hoped to expand its work beyond the sphere of the Nature Conservancy Council, should also remain with the NERC. I do not express any opinion on the library at the moment because I await the report of the working party. On the basis of events taking place in that order, this clause is unnecessary.

Mr. Oakes

I must say at the outset that I quite accept that the wording might well take the position back to pre-1965. That was not our intention. Our intention was to take the position back to before the White Paper.

I am somewhat disappointed, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) will also he disappointed, at what the Minister said about the Biological Record Centre. I hope that the Secretary of State will not make up his mind on this small but important issue until the new Nature Conservancy Council is in existence.

I am considerably encouraged by the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has made it very clear that the council will have been created long before any orders allocating the property are laid, to use the Minister's words. That gives those of us on this side very considerable encouragement. In fact, it goes a great way towards implementing the spirit of the clause. But I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think again about the Biological Record Centre, and in particular to consider the validity of the argument that the library should go to the council. I hope he will ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to listen very carefully to what the council says about the allocation of resources.

Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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