HC Deb 23 July 1973 vol 860 cc1345-9

Nothing in any part of this Bill concerning the commissioning or support of research as described in section 1(1)(a)(iii) or in the initiating and carrying out of research as described in section 1(4)(b) shall be construed as putting the Council under any obligation to have that research carried out by any particular research organisation but shall be left for judgment by the Council on how best and with whom that research should be carried out.—[Mr. Lawson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12.56 a.m.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

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

No doubt I shall be told immediately by the Minister for Local Government and Development that there is nothing in the Bill that can be construed in the way mentioned in the clause. But much has been said, both before the Bill came to the House and in Committee, that might lead some people to think that the intention was that the Nature Conservancy Council would have little or no choice as to whom it should turn for the commissioning of research.

The Minister has commended what he described as a letter from Professor Stewart, although, strictly speaking, it came from a group of professors and like excellent people, who described how they saw the new National Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. The organisation is not yet properly set up. In a description to the future staff of how the organisation's research would function, the document says: As outlined in the DOE documents, the NCC"— the Nature Conservancy Council— will need a modest Chief Scientists group supported by an advisory committee, possibly with ad hoc sub-committees, to provide its scientific advice for conservation policy and to determine its research requirements—to decide, in effect, how it is going to spend its commissioning money with NERC". I draw particular attention to those words.

In the document there is the figure of £300,000, but we hope that it will become much more. That was seen as the money that the council could use for research purposes. In the document, which is called a letter, that sum is visualised as not much more than a cross-entry, money to be paid to the council and then paid back to the Natural Environment Research Council for the research work it commissioned. It would be considerably helped by people from NERC to decide what form that work should take.

I do not say this because I have any animosity towards NERC. I have the greatest friendliness towards it, as I shall towards the new ecological organisation when it is set up. We all want to see the closest co-operation between the new Nature Conservancy Council, the NERC and whatever terrestrial research unit it may set up. It is a doubtful basis from which to expect co-operation if one party to the bargain feels from the start that it is being virtually compelled to take a given line. There must be co-operation between equals and no coercion. It must not be said that the money shall be spent in a certain way or by a particular organisation.

1.0 a.m.

The Minister no doubt will say that that is what is intended and that the council will utilise the facilities already provided. But it must be made clear that there is no compulsion. This must be done on the basis of what is judged to be best, and it is the judgment of the council that matters.

I hope and expect that there will be excellent co-operation in the future between equals. I hope that no party will be coerced or put under heavy pressure to behave in a certain way. The purpose of the clause is to ensure that the council is an independent body within the terms of its powers, functions and resources, able to exercise its judgment independently on the matters which are enunciated as its concern. I hope that the Minister will accept the clause and give us those assurances.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

I hope that the clause is in the nature of a probing clause, if there is such a thing.

The hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) and I share a certain concern not so much about what is in the Bill but about the interpretation to be placed on it. I hope that my right hon. Friend will put our minds at rest by assuring us that the initiation and carrying out of research by the Nature Conservancy Council will in no way be dominated or eroded by the Bill. The hon. Member for Motherwell put it well when he said that he was confident that there could be total cooperation between the council and the NERC. I am sure that is so. But there has been a certain amount of uncertainty on the point, which was not entirely cleared up in another place.

I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to put our minds at rest in assuring us that the research work of the new Nature Conservancy Council will be no less than before.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

The hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) was right to criticise certain over-enthusiasm in what was otherwise a good letter. The phrases he quoted were over-enthusiasm, and over-salesmanship by the National Environmental Research Council at that stage. He also rightly said that what we want to achieve is co-operation between equals. But perhaps he spoilt that a little by saying that therefore the Nature Conservancy Council's judgment should prevail. I am sure that what he meant was that there should be consultation and co-operation between the two but that there should be a freedom to the Nature Conservancy Council to decide the extent to which it should undertake or commission research.

The clause would seek to do two things. First, it would seek to give the council complete freedom as to the outside organisations which it would commission to carry out the research relevant to its functions of establishing, maintaining and managing nature reserves, and advising upon nature conservancy itself. But it is quite unnecessary and superfluous for as the Bill stands there are no restrictions on the freedom of choice of the council in this respect. Within the definition given of research in Clause 1(1)(a)(iii), and, of course within the money allotted to it under Clause 4 and the general policy directions under Clause 1(5), there is complete freedom to the council to decide who shall be commissioned to do the work.

Secondly, the clause would seek to give the council complete freedom as to the research which it will itself carry out—research directly related to its functions of establishing, maintaining and managing nature conservancy resources and which it is appropriate for it to carry out itself. But that again is unnecessary and superfluous. If the research comes within the definition in the Bill, within the money allotted to the council and within the general policy directions, there is no restriction on the council selecting that which it will do itself or what it will commission from some other body.

But I must be frank on the money aspect. In both cases the situation must necessarily be governed by the overall resources which can be allotted to the council. In Committee I referred to the role of the Secretary of State in the approval of the overall estimates of the council. In that context, the Secretary of State, in deciding on the amount of public funds which can properly be made available to the council, will have to take a view as to the level of resources which it is right to devote to such research.

The Secretary of State's power to give the council directions cannot be used in relation to individual projects because we have deliberately written into the Bill the proviso that the directions should be of a general character only, and even then I hasten to add that it would be most unusual for the power to be used. It would be used very rarely, if ever.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has stated the policy that he will adopt in exercising those functions of what might be called the purse strings and the policy directions. Nothing that I said in Committee or am saying tonight affects the force of my right hon. and learned Friend's assurance of his intentions and policy when answering a Question in the House, when he said: I intend that within the resources available to them from time to time the proposed council should themselves decide what research they should initiate and have carried out by their own staff and what research they should corn-mission or support. In the light of that assurance, I trust that the House will accept that the Bill gives the council proper freedom of choice in carrying out research which in the opinion of the council is relevant to any of its statutory functions.

Mr. Lawson

In the light of those assurances, which go a very long way to meet what I seek, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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