HL Deb 31 March 1994 vol 553 cc1234-74

1.25 p.m.

Lord Marlesford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government why they are contemplating the merger of the Countryside Commission and English Nature.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, there are three reasons why I am glad to have the chance to ask the Government this Question. First, I shall seek to show that the functions of English Nature and the Countryside Commission are of crucial importance to the future of rural England and therefore to this nation. Secondly, I suspect that most of us are somewhat unclear as to exactly how or why the subject of the merger of those two bodies has arisen at this moment. I know that my noble friend who will reply is anxious to enlighten us. Thirdly, the debate gives the House the chance to put to the Government some of the points that they may wish—I am tempted to say they ought—to take into account in arriving at any decision.

I am so glad, although not in the least surprised, that so many noble Lords are present on this last day of term. I am certain that the Government recognise that this subject, as much as any that I can think of, is not only a special source of concern in your Lordships' House but one of which noble Lords have considerable and deep experience.

Perhaps I may start by drawing attention to how remarkably little we have been told about how the matter has arisen. In a Written Answer in another place, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said on 27th January this year, I therefore propose, as part of the process of ensuring the Rio commitments will be fully and effectively implemented, to give early consideration to bringing together [in one body] the institutional arrangements for the delivery of nature and landscape conservation and the public's appreciation and enjoyment of the countryside in England". —[Official Report, Commons, 27/1/94; col. 342.] We are all aware that English Nature has been in existence for less than four years, having been created in 1990 by the Environmental Protection Act from part of the Nature Conservancy Council which had been formed in 1949. The reason for that initial change was that the old NCC—I emphasise the "old NCC"—had, by its behaviour at that time, made itself unacceptable to the Scots. It had therefore been nationalised and for consequential, but political, reasons similar arrangements were made in Wales. The Countryside Commission in England also dates back to 1949. It lost its responsibility for Wales in the 1990 reorganisation. It never had a responsibility for Scotland.

The two organisations are roughly the same size, with a budget this year of £44 million for the Countryside Commission and £38 million for English Nature. But for reasons that I shall explain, the staffs are very different. The Countryside Commission employs some 300 people and English Nature some 700.

We have been told that last month a study group into the merger was set up by the DoE with representatives of both bodies. That is to report to the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, Mr. Robert Atkins, by the end of June and then to the Secretary of State for the Environment by the end of July. I gather that some administrative action which would facilitate a merger has already been taken. For example, the appointment of the chairman of the Countryside Commission expires next month, and has been renewed for only one year until next April.

My understanding is that the reason for this somewhat breathless timetable is that the Secretary of State would like legislative proposals to be with parliamentary draftsmen by the end of July for legislation to be put forward in the Queen's Speech this autumn. Despite this apparent pre-emption of the conclusions, I hope that your Lordships will agree that there are two important, though in a sense administrative, questions to be asked before we come to the merits of the proposal. First, is this a study as to whether there should be a merger, or is it only a study as to how a merger should be carried out?

Secondly, may we have a clear assurance from the Minister that the full text of the report of the working group, together with the evidence which is submitted to it, will be published? I understand that the group has already received 200 responses, which perhaps indicates the perceived and the actual importance of the issue. I should say that one of the responses is from CPRE, of which I am currently the chairman.

Some of us have seen a number of the responses and my own impression so far is that they certainly do not support the Government's initiative in the matter. I am not asking for publication merely because I am as enthusiastic an advocate of open government as I know is the Secretary of State for the Environment; but I ask for it so that Parliament will be able to consider any legislative proposals which may emerge from the evidence. It will presumably be much more cost effective in that scarce factor, parliamentary time, for Parliament not to have to start to gather the evidence for itself. I am sure that the Government's business managers do not need me to suggest that such legislation could be controversial and not at all on party lines.

Before I put forward a few of the policy considerations, perhaps I may suggest one framework within which the Government's proposal could be considered. I am thinking of the fundamental function of quangos. I believe that, apart from hiving off administrative operations—and in that the quango has in general been succeeded by the agency—the main benefit of a quango is to enable Ministers to tap sources of outside advice on policy issues for which they would otherwise have to rely on their civil servants. For that to be effective, they have to find individuals who have the experience, the interest, the wisdom and perhaps above all the time to serve. In most cases, any remuneration offered is very nominal, and service on a quango remains an important element of public service from busy people who can and do improve the quality of government.

In many cases, time is a crucial constraint. I therefore believe that it is desirable for the function and purpose of any quango to be focused as precisely as possible so as to keep to a manageable volume the paper to be read and to provide adequate time for meetings to discuss the items on the agenda. It is also important that all members of the governing body of any quango have adequate breadth of experience. That means, in my opinion, ideally—and I speak from personal experience as a member of the Countryside Commission for 12 years until 1992 and of the Rural Development Commission for eight years until last year —the membership of the governing body should be in the range of eight to 12 members. At present, both the bodies come within that sort of range, the Countryside Commission has currently eight commissioners and the Council of English Nature, 14.

If the remit of a quango is too wide, the membership will either not cover it fully or there will be too many members. In either case, I believe that there will be a reduction in the value of advice which Ministers receive or an undue reliance on the staffs who may, quite unintentionally, usurp the role of appointed members. Staffs are appointed for their expertise and professionalism, and certainly the staffs of the bodies on which I served were of the highest quality. But they are not appointed to act as quasi civil servants advising Ministers. Large tools are not necessarily sharper or more cost-effective than small tools.

Nor is it desirable for quangos to be given a remit which conceals fundamental, avoidable and perfectly healthy conflicts which, in a democracy, should be resolved at the political level of government. To take an example from outside the precise field we are debating, it is not for the Department of Transport to expect to resolve all environmental conflicts which may arise in the planning of a new road. Nor even is it for the Secretary of State for Transport to do so on his own. It is for the Secretaries of State for Transport and the Environment to do it jointly, and if necessary, the Cabinet itself.

To take a more homely example, bats in churches, it is the duty of English Nature to protect and promote the welfare of bats. It is for English Heritage to watch over the fabric of our historic churches. To me, that would be a reason not to merge those two bodies. Indeed, I am told that in certain parts of Devon the bats have won and the worshippers no longer go to the churches because they smell so bad.

It is for the Countryside Commission to promote the quiet enjoyment of the countryside. It may in this be under two conflicting pressures: the legitimate desire of English Nature to restrict public access in certain cases and the role of the Sports Council to encourage leisure activities which may be noisy and intrusive.

Of course, we can all sympathise with the attraction—superficial though it is—especially from the point of view of the consumer, of saying that one quango is better than two. We are all aware that farmers and land managers are often bewildered by the multiplicity of sources from which they can get advice and financial assistance. To simplify is one of the arguments put forward for unitary authorities in local government. But it is not an overriding one, as I feel the debate in your Lordships' House yesterday perhaps demonstrated.

I turn briefly to some specific implications of this proposed marriage. First, we should take account of the differences in style and temperament of the partners. It is well known that English Nature, is well respected for its rigorous science base and discipline. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, who is the chairman of English Nature, is a most distinguished scientist. It is extremely lucky to have him. My noble friend, I know, much regrets that he is not able to be with us today, but he is, I understand, at this moment on his way to Borneo where he is launching his new book on tropical rain forests. I was almost brought up with him. His father was my godfather; he is a close neighbour and one of my oldest friends. I have never had any doubt of our intellectual relativities, as one of my early memories—I think I was nine years old —was being admonished by my grandmother for reading some disreputable comic. She said: "Really, Mark, Gathorne reads The Times".

Unlike the Countryside Commission, English Nature has considerable executive responsibilities in directly managing land for nature conservation, much of it in the form of national nature reserves. That, of course, totally legitimately explains why its staff is double that of the Countryside Commission.

The Countryside Commission is a more entrepreneurial organisation; indeed it is sometimes almost piratical in nature. It has seldom been reticent in proposing radical new solutions in its statutory role as the Government's watchdog over England's rural beauty. This has on occasion caused friction, for example, with the Ministry of Agriculture, as Mr. Gummer may well remember, which has occasionally seen its own sovereignty threatened. But I believe and hope that Mr. Gummer would be the first to pay tribute to its role in inventing, through the Halvergate Marshes experiment in Norfolk in the early 1980s when the noble Lord, Lord Barber of Tewkesbury, was at the start of his outstanding decade as chairman of the commission, what has subsequently evolved into the highly successful system of environmentally sensitive areas. ESAs have now spread through the European Union and I believe are a much more positive way of diverting CAP funds to environmental benefit than is the bureaucratic horror of the set-aside system.

Finally, my Lords, I must refer to a matter which is emerging to a distressing degree: the costs in staff morale, management time, distraction from the real jobs in hand and, on the basis of any reorganisation I have seen, the probable net added cost of tinkering with organisations which are doing as good a job as they can at the moment. I do not believe, as some have suggested, that the merger was Treasury inspired. But we can be sure that the Treasury will demand its pound of flesh if there is any question of additional costs from the transition. That cost could only be paid for at the expense of the English countryside.

In this respect I must refer, with their agreement, to the views of two noble Lords who particularly regret they are not able to be here today. The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, with the experience of a former chairman of the National Trust, fears that English Nature will dominate if there is a merger and believes that the Countryside Commission's role will suffer. He would like the study to be postponed for at least two years. My noble friend, Lord Buxton, a founder member of the Countryside Commission and twice a member of the NCC, fears that the Government may be rushing headlong into yet another reorganisation without heeding the danger that to seek to combine two such very different bodies could reduce the effectiveness of both.

I believe that on all sides of both Houses of Parliament there is a determination that Britain should do its bit to further the aims of Rio. Both here and overseas we have much experience to offer and much success. The countryside has survived here a great deal better than it has in many other countries in Europe. I do not believe that organisational fiddling is a valuable contribution to Rio objectives when the forests of the Amazon are burning.

There are already many urgent pieces of environmental legislation which have been subjected to detailed scrutiny and on which there is wide agreement—but for which, sadly, there is all too little parliamentary time. We have just been discussing such an instance in the National Parks Bill of my noble friend Lord Norrie. It would be sad indeed if a great deal of that scarce time had to be devoted to ill-considered, rushed and perhaps quite unnecessary legislation to force into wedlock two bodies which can and do coexist in productive and mutual respect and which, as Mr. Gummer himself said, on the very day he announced his desire to merge them, have provided a first class service to the nation within their separate areas of responsibility". My Lords, the burden of proof rests with the Government. We await eagerly the views of my noble friend the Minister.

1.43 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, the Science and Technology Committee, of which I was at that time a member, reported on the break up of the old Nature Conservancy Council four years ago in 1990. In its report it said: Amalgamation of the Countryside Commission and the NCC in England would be logical. Consultation should be undertaken before any action [is taken] in the context of the promised White Paper on the Environment". As I said, that was in 1990.

The Government's response to the recommendation was that, the substantial differences in circumstances in England, compared to those in Scotland and Wales, and the consequently different problems and pressures affecting the English countryside and nature conservation in England, justify a different solution. In the Government's view, the interests of preserving the English countryside and promoting its enjoyment for recreation, and the conservation of our natural heritage would be best served by retaining two separate organisations each with its distinct remit". We are justified in asking, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has just asked, what has changed the Government's view. At the time that report came out I was in favour of the amalgamation. It seemed logical in the terms of the issues that we were looking at. But four years have passed. For the last three of those years, the two organisations have gone their separate ways, set up their organisation and developed their own approach to their responsibilities.

It has been a difficult time for the staff. They are only just coming to terms with the situation and beginning to make a real contribution in some cases. I have to say that both bodies have kept their responsibilities well. But it has been a trying time for the staff. Before we set out on yet another upheaval, we really need to know why we are doing it.

I am very concerned at the small amount of time that has been allowed for consultation. The proposals were issued on 14th February, and responses were required by 28th March. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, gave us the Government's programme thereafter. I agree with the noble Lord that it looks very much as if we are being asked to find reasons why the Government should do what they have already decided to do, and that this has not been a real consultation.

We must look at how the combined agencies have worked in Wales and Scotland; that is not irrelevant. There are allegations of imbalance between landscape and amenity and nature conservation. Evidence to prove or disprove that source of anxiety must be sought. I have to admit that most of the evidence is anecdotal. That is a job for the Government. They must come forward with evidence as to how the combined organisations have worked and whether therefore we should follow that road. On the face of it there is no proven advantage in merger to either of the interests involved. And in some cases it has worked to the detriment of both.

It would seem that the merger has worked in Wales slightly better than it has in Scotland—largely because of the personalities involved. But that is not a healthy basis for an organisation. It should be able to function irrespective of the personalities of the leaders.

I can give noble Lords some reasons why we should not agree at this time to merger. We await the creation of the new environmental agency which will have a profound effect on the whole aspect of environmental care in the country. We have still to decide what action will be necessary to implement agreements made at the Earth Summit. A committee of your Lordships' House has just started work on that very subject. And we still await the outcome of the forest review—if we are ever to be given that.

If the Government are determined to go ahead with the merger, it is absolutely essential that they should not simply spatchcock together the two existing organisations. It would be far better to start a new body with a new remit. It probably sounds brutal to my friends in both organisations, but it seems important that the new body should have a new chairman, and a new chief executive who is not necessarily internal but chosen in open competition. To install any of the present incumbents, however excellent, would be to create a suspicion of bias among those who are fearful of it. Staff, as well as those outside, would look upon those appointments with some interest and would hope that this line will not be followed.

How will the international arena be affected by the proposed merger? The statutory agencies have not yet regained the status of the old Nature Conservancy Council, which was held in high esteem and spoke with authority on international matters for the whole of Great Britain. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee fulfils that role as best it can. It has had some success. But it is sadly hampered by its dependence on the goodwill of the country agencies, which, I have to say, is in some cases strictly limited. If the Government go ahead with the merger, it would perhaps provide a final opportunity to strengthen the role of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. That would be absolutely essential in this scenario, so that it could fulfil the role of cross-border and international adviser to government direct, instead of having to filter all its activities through disparate and sometimes unhelpful channels. It would also be useful for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to have the responsibility for auditing the state of nature conservation in the United Kingdom for national and international purposes and to set specific targets where necessary for individual threatened species and habitats. If the merger goes ahead it will be even more essential that the role of the JNCC is more clearly defined and strengthened.

Let me say a final word on behalf of the Countryside Commission. The work that it has done on access to the countryside and on conservation—it is often overlooked that the Countryside Commission has a strong conservation role which it takes very seriously—is so valuable that the Government should think many times before it allows that commission to be overrun (if that is the right word) by the superior numbers which would come into the organisation from the conservation side.

I am a staunch conservationist, as many noble Lords will know. However, I am also very concerned that access to the countryside should be maintained. The more crowded the countryside becomes, the more important it is that we take seriously that particular aspect of the work of the Countryside Commission. I beg the Government not to make up their mind on the basis of such a hasty consultation but to consult much more widely if need be and delay another year. What is the hurry? If they feel that they have to go ahead with this measure, surely they can take more advice than they have received in the past six weeks.

1.52 p.m.

Lord Barber of Tewkesbury

My Lords, with many speakers to follow me I shall be brief. However, I shall not flinch from covering one or two of the points which my personal friends, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, have made.

The onlooker is supposed to see most of the game. However, in the rather curious matter of the proposed merging of these two bodies, it is extraordinarily difficult—I say that quite sincerely—for those who have no direct practical acquaintance with those public agencies to be able to gauge all the essential elements in coming to conclusions. Without that knowledge, one tends to be in the same situation as most of us have been at various staff colleges in our time—for myself Sunningdale and Ashridge —where theoretical planning exercises are conducted with large amounts of white paper and many blackboards.

That is why I congratulate most warmly the Secretary of State for the Environment on establishing a steering group composed of officials who have a current day-to-day working understanding of the two agencies. It will do a proper job of assessing the pros and cons and, in my confident view, will arrive inescapably at the point where it is clear that a merger is far too costly, far too disruptive and far too counter-productive. It will report accordingly to its political masters that it is a clear non-runner with scarcely a tittle of hard evidence to support the proposition—a duck lying dead in the water, perhaps even a duck, belly upward in the water.

The group will listen to many and disparate voices, a large number of which will be on the side of a merger. How could it be otherwise? Interested public opinion will see good housekeeping merit in any reduction in the quango list. So will all those who are hostile to non-selected bodies. Many farmers and landowners may well be influenced by the endearing prospect of filling up one aid form instead of two —although a letter I received this morning from the National Farmers Union suggests that it is beginning to see some problems arising from the merger, which I think it embraced rather warmly early on. Some environmentalists will see, perhaps a little myopically, strength stemming from a large, centralised organisation. That group saddens me, for I have been privileged to work with many of them in the fields of farmland conservation and birds over the past 30 years. I believe that those people cling to what they see as the indivisibility of wildlife, landscape and countryside, without appreciating that administratively things have been changing rapidly.

I should like to offer three pregnant elements for review. My personal friend the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has covered one or two. The first is an analysis of the validity of the arguments presented to support merger. The second concerns the differing recruitment, working practices, management styles and overall cultures of the two organisations. Thirdly, there is the debit side of the balance sheet consequent upon joining together.

First, it seems to be argued by those in favour that a single body would assist the delivery of wildlife, landscape, access and recreation objectives, and in particular the sustainable development strategy and biodiversity action plan incubated at the 1992 Rio conference. I and many others have turned ourselves into something akin to blinded well camels in reading all the material available without being able to identify any clear association between merging and delivering more effectively the Rio and other policies. If Rio is a main trigger for coming together, as I believe it is alleged to be, surely we need a clearer, better and more overt link before condemning those two bodies to appalling upheaval.

The Scottish and Welsh experience has been prayed in aid, as we have heard. It is worthwhile making the point that the situation in Scotland, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, pointed out, was a rather odd one at the time when all this was happening. I hope that when the assessors receive the consultants' report in due time they will remember that England was and is different. The Government said so. It is worth spelling out precisely what was more recently clearly stated in this House by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in response to a point that I raised in the countryside debate on 16th June, some nine months ago. It is worth dwelling on what was said: The Government explained in their White Paper This Common Inheritance that the greater size and complexity of agencies in England would make an effective merger more difficult to achieve than in Scotland and Wales. Moreover, the more sparsely populated areas of Scotland and Wales lend themselves more readily to an integrated approach. In England the relatively intense pressures make it more appropriate, for the time being at least, to retain separate organisations, collaborating with each other where necessary.—[Official Report, 16/6/93; col. 1653.] So what has changed in those nine months—not only in the character of the argument but, as we have heard, in the ability to find parliamentary time?

I have also looked so far as I can at Scotland and Wales. I know very little about Scotland but quite a little about Wales. I find it very difficult to find anyone deeply involved in the day-to-day operation who can show, prove and believe that a more efficient policy delivery in these new clothes has taken place.

The second element is the differing styles, practices and cultures of the commission and English Nature. I repeat the point that it is rather difficult for those people who have not been involved to understand the quite separate character of the two agencies. It is easy to dismiss summarily such differences as being of small account. But English Nature has a narrowish, science-based remit and recruitment—it is important to emphasise recruitment—with over 60 per cent. of its funding tied to sites and species.

The commission's staff is recruited from much wider fields. It is more freewheeling and is ideas and partnership driven. It has cut corners to promote a stream of innovative ideas in recent years. It gets into trouble for doing so. But it has delivered. It has also had a strong emphasis on gearing by funding schemes with partner participation. Such strong individual cultures do not blend readily. Moreover, is it conceivable—the point has already been made, but I make it again deliberately—that with English Nature's 700-strong staff against the commission's 200 staff, the latter's objectives, with the best will in the world on everyone's part, can be delivered with the same thrust in a combined group? I must ask whether funds will not inevitably be sucked into the more demanding statutory needs of English Nature sites.

I am advised that in the commercial and industrial worlds, and indeed in government too, there is a trend towards splitting up rather than joining together. There are apparently two new hideous terms—"down sizing" and "empowerment"—of which ICI/Zeneca, the splintered British Rail privatisation proposals and the concentrating into core functions of commercial groups are everyday examples. What are the arguments, in those circumstances, to consider shepherding 1,000 plus public servants into one large agency? And assuming, for the purposes of argument, that the marriage takes place, where do we go from there? What other body would it be appropriate to place on the takeover transfer list? Or, indeed, should the question be asked as to whether, instead of a minor review of the two, a major review over a wider field is what should be taking place?

The third element is the debit side of the balance sheet to set against whatever economies and efficiencies can be proved. Will the upheavals really be justified? The price is considerable—years of resources having to be used in essential non-productive massaging of a cobbled together body into a working machine; demoralised staff; and staff movements on a wide and costly scale. There will be total upheaval at the top. Presumably a chairman will be sought who has a wide spectrum of interest, and senior staff posts will need to be advertised. All of that will be necessary for a new body. And all the while there will be profound dislocation and disturbance to the existing flows of policy delivery now being competently undertaken.

I am nearing the conclusion of what I wish to say but I have two further brief points. At the time of the break-up of NCC and the creation of English Nature, the commission at one stage referred to the "converging" of the policies of the two bodies. It was used during my stewardship and it is a word for which I must take responsibility. But it is an incorrect word. The commission did not envisage an eventual single identity but was noting at the time an improved liaison and understanding in certain policy fields which led to the current good, distinct and complementary working relationships.

The second point is an old one. In 1949 we may well have made a mistake when we established separate systems for nature conservation and countryside management and recreation. Forty-five years on, with each system having strongly developed its own style, it is surely and manifestly too late to make a costly and disruptive change.

2.2 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, this may be the last day of term, as my noble friend Lord Marlesford said, but he certainly made sure that some of the boys and girls at any rate will not be running away to pack their bags too early, and we wait with bated breath for what my noble friend the Minister will say at the end of the debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Marlesford for introducing this important subject in his usual way, with an extremely masterful speech of his own.

Unlike some noble Lords who may be speaking today, I am not totally averse to the idea of the review being carried out, but I welcome most strongly the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Marlesford that the results must be made public. We must be allowed to see what has been said and how the Government arrived at their conclusions. The basis of why there should be a review is that the general public is totally unaware of the difference between the two organisations. When I was first appointed as a countryside commissioner, several people—I am not talking about the great urban masses who obviously would have little interest in what either the Countryside Commission or English Nature were doing, but some of my friends and acquaintances who were farmers and landowners—said to me "You are one of those so-and-so's" (I shall not use their adjective) "who are putting SSSIs on everyone". When I said that I was not they were totally bemused. At the end of my time on the Countryside Commission I said that, far from being one of those, I was one of the goodies who offered all the choices available under countryside stewardship.

There is no public awareness of what the two bodies do. But as my noble friend Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Barber of Tewkesbury, said, they are both unlike each other in so many ways. My noble friend went into great detail on that. But the two biggest examples of the differences in the way they work are the numbers of staff employed by each agency and the Countryside Commission is characterised in the way that it uses experimental powers for deliberate siting, new approaches to policy and practice and what my noble friend calls its entrepreneurial attitude. I do not believe that anybody could honestly say that English Nature was entrepreneurial. Indeed, it is not right that in its remit it should be. I am not in any way criticising English Nature or boosting the Countryside Commission; they both do excellent jobs in their own specific ways. But one of the outstanding examples of success of the Countryside Commission, as I have already mentioned, is that of countryside stewardship. One hopes that a new body, if there is to be one, will continue to be run in that way.

I am sure that it is essential for any new body to be a totally new body and not a sort of coming together in some unholy mishmash of the two existing organisations—a point made strongly by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. That would be a disaster. The new organisation must have as its remit both consideration and enhancement of the natural and cultural aspects of the countryside and, equally important, enjoyment of the countryside through informal, open-air recreation. Neither of those important aims must take place at the expense of the other. It must be a joint effort.

That will not be easy—in fact, it will be extremely difficult and it will also be expensive. I hope that the Government, if they do go down that road, will take those facts on board. If it becomes a merger rather than the selling up of a new body, it could provide a nice cheap easy way out for the Government. But that would be disastrous. It would give me enormous encouragement if, when my noble friend replies to the debate, he can give an assurance that this is not a Treasuryled exercise; that it is not a means of trying to save money for the Government. That assurance would come as some consolation, at least to me.

Therefore, in a way I look forward to the result of the review; I certainly look forward to what my noble friend will say. But I warn him that if he goes down the path of some new environmental agency, difficulties and costs will lie ahead.

2.7 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, the proposal that the Countryside Commission and English Nature should be merged is of considerable importance to the National Trust. I speak, as your Lordships will probably know, as chairman of that organisation. We have close and excellent relations with both organisations. We compare notes regularly at all levels and look to them for advice and I like to think that they find our experience useful. We are, after all, in the same business.

We are the biggest land managers in the country. For example, two years ago we signed a formal statement of intent with English Nature which recognises our joint interests. Furthermore, we protect and manage 356 SSSIs in England covering 113,000 acres. We are probably the biggest recipients of grants from each organisation. I recall how supportive they both were and, for that matter also, particularly the Department of the Environment in one of our major recent acquisitions. I refer to Orford Ness. That was a case of a very successful and close partnership over a long period.

In view of the significance to the National Trust of these proposals we decided to consult our committee members who have detailed experience in this field. We received 19 responses. One was strongly in favour; seven accepted the proposals in principle but with specific and significant reservations which I shall come to; and five were downright hostile.

Our first and overwhelming concern is that unless great care is taken—this point has been made by every speaker so far —a crude merger would effectively be a takeover by English Nature. I say that with not the slightest disrespect for English Nature but because, as has been said by so many speakers already, it has more than twice as many staff; and staff totally different in background. Moreover, I am told that this disparity is likely to increase significantly in the future. We have a real concern that the Countryside Commission would be swamped. There is a further factor in that the pressures emanating from Brussels directives and from the Rio Declarations give rise currently perhaps to a tendency to emphasise the scientific aspects of nature conservation at the expense of the wider countryside interests.

It would be only fair to remark at this point that English Nature itself has changed significantly under the guidance of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. I am sorry that he is promoting a book in Borneo but I suspect that he is doing it on behalf of one of my other former interests, the Royal Geographical Society. So I think he has an excuse. English Nature operates in a much more "user friendly" way than it did only a few years ago. It certainly has a greater understanding of the importance of access and the needs of the wider community. For example, it is beginning to take a serious interest in educational matters. All that is for the good. However, we should like to have from the Government a much better idea of how this proposal fits into their overall strategy for the environment: and the countryside. One might ask, rhetorically, how does the Rural Development Commission fit into this scheme of things? After all it too is centrally concerned with the rural economy. Then there is the National Rivers Authority, the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture and so on. What is the Government's thinking? What is the scheme of things? Why now? Those points have already been made, and I make them too. The recent White Papers do not help me in this regard.

It has argued by some—the point has been made by previous speakers in order, as it were, to dismiss it—that there could be important economies of scale. It is riot obvious what those are. In my experience these "bigger is better" proposals often end in tears. They result in diseconomies and in more overheads—as in Parkinson's Law —rather than greater economies. The reorganisation of local government in the 1970s is surely a classic warning. Nor should the costs and disruption of merger be ignored.

Then, too, the point is widely made that the two organisations are very different in character. Failure to take into account the nature of these differences and how they arise would almost certainly lead to a less effective delivery of countryside services in a merged organisation. I believe that there are two main strands. For example, English Nature has a rather sharply defined remit. By contrast, the Countryside Commission's remit is broader, more flexible and, in its words, seeks, a sustainable, multi-purpose countryside—beautiful, environmentally healthy, diverse, accessible and thriving". It is concerned with land use and husbandry but also with amenity—access, footpaths and bridleways.

Then, perhaps reflecting the legislative history, English Nature functions on the basis of statutory duties exercised through objective scientific criteria. This gives English Nature its sharp focus, but rather narrower outlook; its preponderant interest in designated areas. In contrast, the Countryside Commission operates much more by the selective exercise of powers. I believe that we would all agree that its great strength has been its initiatives and that point has already been made. Reference has been made to the countryside stewardship scheme which has been of tremendous value to us in the National Trust. Neither should we forget that it was under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Barber that the Countryside Commission launched the idea of environmentally sensitive areas which are now being so successfully carried forward by the Ministry of Agriculture. Be that as it may, the difference between statutory duties and permissive powers has a significant effect on how each organisation functions.

It will therefore be particularly important that the respective strengths and characteristics of each organisation are fully reflected in a merged organisation. That will not be easy. As we all know, the greatest difficulty in reorganisation or in any merger is dealing with differences of character and culture.

In that connection I have one further point which is against the argument that a single voice for the countryside would be a more effective voice. I believe that "the single voice" argument is simplistic and that there is virtue in a plurality of voices. My reason is that the triple objectives of sustainable farming, of nature conservation, and of access, are frequently in conflict. We have a great deal of experience of that in the National Trust. On the wider stage, I believe it is healthy; that it is in the public interest, in resolving this conflict, that it is not internalised. Finding the right balance is not easy—we know about that in the trust only too well—and the respective interests of each wing need to be debated and subjected to the political process. I say "political" with a small "p".

I should perhaps add in parenthesis that both organisations in the past few years have shown an ability and a willingness to work closely together and to launch together major initiatives. The Rural Action Programme is a good example. This is a healthy development but it does not follow from that that the merger of two utterly different bodies is desirable.

I have dealt with some half-dozen of the many points that have emerged from our own consultation. I should like to make one further suggestion—and I would be very surprised if the working group is not already following this up. It is a point which has been touched on by previous speakers. There have been three comparable mergers in recent years, albeit of much smaller entities. We should learn from their experiences. The first is SNH, but since I have no personal knowledge of how that is progressing I say no more about it. The second is the Countryside Council for Wales. I believe it is working well although getting to that desirable state turned out to be a much bigger challenge than originally envisaged. As I said, it is a much smaller organisation. I also note that in the Welsh case both the chairman and the chief executive came from outside and both were exceptionally able and experienced people.

The third example is Northern Ireland, which has not been mentioned so far. I am told on good authority that there have been problems there arising from the sort of issues that I have mentioned.

I have gone on quite long enough and I fear that I have been somewhat negative. I very strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that the report of the working group should be published. That remark was endorsed by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton. That is quite essential if the Government are going to have any credibility at all.

I conclude by setting down what I believe to be the four necessary conditions for a successful merger. The first condition is one of principle. The benefits of a merger will only be secure if the basis is that of a merger of equals. Let me be more explicit. I see the essential basis of a merger as being, as it were, a tripod of three equal legs which reflect the three main objectives of the two organisations: of sustainable husbandry and the preservation of landscape values; of nature conservation and biodiversity; and of the needs of amenity, of access, of footpaths, bridleways and recreation. Those are the three limbs on the tripod. The mandate must reflect that tripod.

Also, if it is to be securely based a further three conditions will need to be satisfied. First, in respect of each leg there should be equal emphasis on both duties and powers. Secondly, the internal structure of the new organisation must be so established that it reflects the parity and importance of each leg. Thirdly, the success of the new organisation in its formative years will depend crucially on who is appointed as chairman and who as chief executive. They will need to be strong, experienced, and independent.

In reflecting on this it seems to me that there may be lessons to learn from the way in which the Government have recently tackled the relationship between the research councils. Here, too, there were powerful voices calling for a single research council. In the event, it was concluded that the right solution was to retain the separate councils but—and this is the relevant point—with a new post, the Director General of the Research Councils, created on top of them. The most effective solution in this case might be a director general for the countryside who would oversee and ensure proper co-ordination of the work; not just of English Nature and the Countryside Commission but also of the relevant activities of the Rural Development Commission, the NRA, the Forestry Commission and MAFF. In most respects it would seem to resolve most of the problems I have been discussing, and it would be a positive step towards Rio.

Your Lordships will see that we are far from enthusiastic about the new proposals. The present arrangements, as far as we are concerned, are working well. No doubt they can be improved—there is always room for improvement—but to us it seems to be a case of, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"

2.20 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I start by echoing other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Marlesford for instigating this timely debate. I take the opportunity also to thank my noble friend the Minister for considering the proposal. Again, it is timely that he does so. It is also right that he is giving plenty of time and opportunity for the debate which is so essential. It is probably fair to say that we do not want to see a repeat of what happened when we had the split of English Nature and the various countryside agencies the last time that we had a major piece of legislation on this matter. Although it was legislation of which I was very much in favour, nevertheless I do not think that it was conducted in quite the way that it should have been. I hope that if we are to have change this time there will be full opportunity for debate and consultation.

I should first declare an interest. I have the honour to be on the council of English Nature. In addition, I have benefited considerably in my capacity as a landowner both from the work of English Nature through the SSSI designations, of which I am very much in favour, and through the countryside stewardship scheme. Therefore, I can say both from a practical point of view and from what I have observed elsewhere that both organisations deserve considerable congratulations on what they have achieved.

I take issue with my noble friend Lord Swinton on one point. He accused English Nature of lacking entrepreneurial flair. I cannot remember his exact words, but that is what he implied. Under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, English Nature has adopted a very determined and entrepreneurial way of doing things. I give as one example the wildlife enhancement scheme. That has gone a long way towards redressing the difficulties of profits foregone, about which I know many of your Lordships were not very happy. It is an imaginative, entrepreneurial scheme which will, I think, save English Nature and the Government a great deal of money, as well as being very positive and helpful in terms of nature conservation.

The nature conservation resource and the countryside in general have undoubtedly benefited from the operations of both organisations. There is no question or doubt—I know that everyone is only too well aware of this—hut that the rural landscapes, the communities which live therein and, indeed, the wildlife which benefits from that management will face ever-increasing challenges and that changes will continue. "1947 and all that" is now irrelevant. It is part of the past. I cannot see agriculture being able to retain its existing profile both in terms of land utilisation and employment. It is clear that we need to have in place structures and mechanisms able to cope with the problems, of which there will be many, and with the opportunities, which I believe will be considerable.

I believe firmly that English Nature and the Countryside Commission will have increasingly important roles to play. Equally, I appreciate that I am perhaps in a minority so far in the debate in believing that they will be much more effective and acceptable if they are harnessed together—but harnessed together in a powerful and expansive agency with a new and effective brief, one that is designed to cope with the enhancement of the landscape, nature conservation, public appreciation and public enjoyment.

I have said many times in the House, as well as outside, that I believe that there are too many agencies trying to delivery many of the same objectives in the countryside. That often leads to confusion for those on the receiving end and a waste of resources by those who are trying to deliver Having said that, my enthusiasm for a single agency is not based purely on the concept of trying to save money. Far from it! It is based on the need for a wider and more holistic approach. Indeed, I acknowledge fully that there is likely to have to be an increase in funding—certainly in the early stages—to ensure an effective transition, if indeed that transition takes place.

I acknowledge also that it could be some time before any financial savings in real terms are to be found. I believe that that will happen, but I add that caveat, because I believe that it is an important one. I have often heard the idea of a merger being described as a takeover—a takeover of the Countryside Commission by English Nature. I should not want to see that. If it is to happen, it would have to be a genuine partnership.

Clearly, the scientific research arm of English Nature is highly specialist and will remain essential, not just as a means of delivering an effective nature conservation strategy, but in monitoring ecological change. From that, we must not lose sight of the fact that English Nature has learnt a great deal about managing land and people in the same way that the Countryside Commission does. So I would not want your Lordships to think that we are an isolated white-coated body of scientists with no practical experience of the countryside. Nothing could be further Cairn the truth. But if one considers the other objectives of both organisations, it is difficult to see why they could not realistically be run as one. For example, if one looks at the items listed in the Countryside Commission's budget for 1993–94 one sees that there are grants at £30 million; the countryside stewardship scheme at £7.5 million; and rights of way, groundwork, conservation action, task force, trees and so on. All those are countryside enhancement projects which could easily be merged into English Nature's wider brief.

The Countryside Commission says: Our programmes and policies are designed to secure a sustainable, multi-purpose countryside and help people enjoy it and understand the threats to it". The point surely is that we need to understand that threat to habitats and wildlife besides—not in isolation! They are all an integral part of our national heritage.

I wrote to the chairman of SNH, Magnus Magnusson, merely to discover how things were going in Scotland. One of the points he made was: We think we have demonstrated that the Remits of the two Agencies are totally compatible. There is a profound relationship between habitats and landscape—habitats in good health mean a landscape in good health". Furthermore, I question whether the Government's admirable objectives on sustainability and biodiversity are really achievable without a joint agency. And, of course, another advantage of a merger would be that sustainable development could be incorporated into the new statutory objectives of such an agency. I am sure that your Lordships would welcome that.

Perhaps I may touch on the controversial problem of access, which has been raised by a number of noble Lords. Some people believe that access will be sacrificed at the expense of other objectives. I believe that there is a real danger of ill-prepared access initiatives leading to a degradation of nature conservation unless great care is taken. I equally believe that access decisions cannot be suitably made unless proper environmental assessment is made, based on thorough research, with an appreciation of the welfare of those who live and work in the areas concerned. That can be done effectively only by pooling the considerable experiences of both agencies.

I quote again from the letter I received from Mr. Magnusson. Specifically as regards access, he stated: These tensions exist"— There is no denying that— but the fact that both aspects are represented within SNH by statute has led to well-informed and constructive discussion within the organisation—particularly as they relate to specific circumstances at the local level". That is a most important point. This is integration at work and is infinitely preferable to having two agencies taking different stances". I could not agree more.

Finally, I have one real concern which I know has been identified and which I would wish to see firmly safeguarded if the merger takes place. I refer to the wider countryside. Imperative though the designation of specialist sites is, I believe it essential that they are not given greater priority at the expense of the wider countryside. Any new brief would have to safeguard against that.

I do not suggest for one moment that a merger would be easy. I fully appreciate that much work would be involved in developing a new structure and training procedure, which would be imperative. I take on board also the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, about the disruption that has already occurred in English Nature. I have seen that at first hand and I take the opportunity of paying tribute to the people who have experienced it. They have come out of it so well and effectively but I realise that there could be a problem. I believe that it is a problem worth having because there will be overriding long-term benefits to the countryside. Great skill and patience will be required. However, having seen at close hand the ability to cope that has been shown I have no doubt that the scheme will work well and I urge my right honourable friend the Minister to give it every opportunity.

2.33 p.m.

Lord Carver

My Lords, my interest in this Question stems not from my extensive experience of the difficulties of amalgamating different regiments but from my chairmanship of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee. Four years ago it reported on the effect on its science base of the Government's proposal to split up the Nature Conservancy Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has referred to that report. Those proposals in their original form were not only ill thought out but had not been thought out at all. They were substantially modified while we were studying the matter and in the light of our report. Most of our recommendations were accepted.

Two important recommendations were not accepted: first, that the Countryside Commission and English Nature, as the rump of the Nature Conservancy Council left in England was called, should be merged; and secondly, that the remit of the joint committee which was set up to co-ordinate the three separate country agencies should extend to countryside and landscape conservation, as well as to nature conservation, which would bring England into line with Scotland and Wales.

The report argued that there are compelling arguments for bringing nature conservation close together with countryside conservation; that is, the responsibilities which the Countryside Commission exercises under the countryside Acts. Although I admit that the two interests are sometimes opposed, they are closely interrelated, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has just mentioned. They need much of the same data, scientific base and expertise, and they tend to concentrate attention on the same landscapes.

Nature conservation has been moving on from interest in individual flora and fauna or narrow habitats to a more synoptic interest in groups of species, wider ecosystems and the relationship between wildlife and the whole environment. The principle of sustainable development is to be preferred, in the long term, to a form of nature conservation based on fossilising simple sites and defending them against all-comers, which could be described as an attempt to halt evolution.

Our report considered that the separation between nature conservation and countryside conservation is out-dated, as the Government themselves recognised, by merging them in Scotland and Wales in order—to use their own words at the time: to allow a more comprehensive approach to pursuing the special inheritances of wildlife and natural beauty in those two countries". It was totally illogical to amalgamate the two in Scotland and Wales and to perpetuate the division in England. We rejected not only the argument raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, but also the main argument produced by the Government at the time that the greater urbanisation of England made it inappropriate. We recognised that it would not be a simple matter and that it should not be initiated until English Nature had had time to settle down. That it has certainly now done under the leadership of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook.

It appears that those who oppose a merger do so from opposite but similar anxieties. We have heard the arguments this afternoon. One side fears that the interests of landowners, farmers and recreational bodies will dilute the purity of the scientifically based attempt to conserve every form of animal, vegetable and mineral element of nature: there are those who believe that the mergers in Scotland and Wales have had that result. The other side fears the opposite: that the demands of the nature conservationists will impose excessive restrictions on the use of, or access to, land for other purposes, particularly by a proliferation of the demand to establish new or larger sites of special scientific interest and similar areas, like RAMSAR sites. That was the complaint that largely provoked, certainly with regard to Scotland, the split up of the old Nature Conservancy Council.

Some people believe that you get the right answers to controversial problems by a process of confrontation—the principle of the market place. I accept that that may be so in some areas. However, I am convinced that in this field, co-operation and co-ordination is a better way of supporting the important principle of sustainable development. Therefore, I support the proposal in principle to merge English Nature with the Countryside Commission and I hope that that will be the outcome of the Government's study.

On the other hand, I am entirely sympathetic with the view put forward that we must not just shove together the two organisations as they are today but we must create a new organisation which is seen to be different. Perhaps I may quote the Army's experience in that regard. We should never repeat what happened in the 1920s when we created regiments by preserving the old ones. When the 15th and 19th Hussars were amalgamated in 1922, it was said that the officers of the two regiments dined at opposite ends of the mess table for the next 10 years. Since then, we have been more sensible and have given new regiments new names.

That moves me on to the next question of the effect of that on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which is a curious organisation that is really a servant of the separate countryside agencies. If you are to bring about a merger or a new organisation which incorporates conservation, it seems to me to be both inevitable and right that the Joint Nature Conservation Committee should be given wider interests and a wider remit—and not so much wider powers—to consider matters regarding countryside conservation. Perhaps a development in some way of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, regarding a director general could somehow be connected with the JNCC.

However, what must not happen is that the Government should see it as an opportunity to reduce the resources that they devote to countryside and nature conservation, and particularly those devoted to the maintenance of a United Kingdom-wide scientific base, especially in research and in the development and maintenance of data banks. The latter depend very heavily on the voluntary work of non-governmental organisations, most of which are organised on a UK-wide basis and not split up, for political reasons, on a country basis. Unlike what happened in the previous split up of the Nature Conservancy Council, I hope that those organisations are more fully consulted on the matter than just being requested to send in their views with only a month's notice which, I understand, is the situation at present. When the noble Earl replies, I hope that he will assure the House that it is not the Government's intention to regard such a merger—if it takes place—as merely an economy exercise.

2.42 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I have had many opportunities to see the work of the Countryside Commission at first hand through my work as a Vice President of the Council for National Parks and through my presidency of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV).

I am fully aware of the importance of the eight national parks in England, including the Broads: they give protection to our finest countryside and offer pleasure to millions—there are 77 million visits to them each year. The commission helps ensure that the interests of national parks are properly represented in wider government policy; for example, in planning policy guidance. The commission has specific statutory duties to advise the Secretary of State on appointments to national park committees. It advises on the funding needs of the parks and it reviews new areas for designation.

Two specific recent successes of the commission in relation to national parks are: first, the setting up of the Broads Authority under its own tailor-made legislation in 1988; and, secondly, the setting up of the independent Edwards panel in 1989, which led to the widely supported report, Fit for the Future, and the, possibility of legislation on which we have been able to make progress today.

More generally, the commission has played a vital role over the years in giving priority to landscape and recreation issues. The qualities of the natural beauty of the landscape and enjoyment have benefited through the commission ensuring that they are given proper weight in countryside debates and policy decisions. The fact that tensions can exist between nature conservation on the one hand and landscape and recreation on the other, is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that there have been two bodies responsible for those different areas has meant that not only have such tensions been publicly aired, but also that they have been given equal status. That has been of benefit to the countryside as a whole.

As to the possibility of a merger, I am not opposed in principle, but I am reserving judgment on the current proposals until it can be demonstrated that they would deliver real benefits. It is of crucial importance that the remit of any new body is based on an holistic approach to the countryside, which includes maintaining and enhancing scenic beauty, enjoyment, wildlife, land-forms, natural systems, the cultural heritage, national parks and the marine environment.

The successful partnership approach of the Countryside Commission should continue and be built on by any new body. That approach has enabled a wide variety of organisations to become involved in countryside matters and to bring their own resources with them, greatly increasing the effectiveness and value for money of the Countryside Commission.

The innovative and experimental powers of the commission must be maintained. The new body should be able to promote, encourage and implement as well as to regulate and advise. Where appropriate, certain schemes or functions should be delegated to other bodies to manage, such as the national park authorities.

The issue of funding is vital to the future of any new body. Funding should at least match the sum of the existing provisions, and the full transition costs should be met separately.

I am concerned that some of the public debate which involves the Countryside Commission and English Nature each expressing its own distinctive view might become internalised. It will be essential for the policies and strategies of any new body to be the subject of full consultation.

If a merger proceeds, the need for primary legislation will give the Government the opportunity—which they should take—to legislate for other countryside measures for which they have a commitment, including national parks and hedgerows. The opportunity could also be taken to transfer responsibility for the national park supplementary grant from the Department of the Environment to the new body.

All mergers are disruptive. This merger could threaten the existing programmes of both the Countryside Commission and English Nature. There will have to be convincing evidence that the benefits to both organisations outweigh the costs.

Finally, I am anxious to see a new organisation retain the Countryside Commission's strong commitment to involving and working in partnership with volunteers and voluntary groups. Volunteers are needed more than ever if we are to look after the environment with the skill and sensitivity that it needs.

Overall, the commission supported 127,000 volunteer days of practical conservation work by the BTCV and more than 100 other voluntary organisations directly, and a further 1,500 affiliated groups indirectly. That work included habitats being both protected and improved, footpaths repaired both in wild country and closer to home, and trees planted. I am proud to say that the BTCV has planted its two millionth tree since the storms of 1987.

The value of the work done extends far beyond the results on the ground, in two ways. First, it lies in the opportunity it gives to 60,000 volunteers in the BTCV alone to do something themselves to improve the environment for us and for wildlife. The Government have recognised in the sustainable development strategy and the biodiversity action plan the crucial role voluntary action has to play.

Secondly, support from the commission to voluntary bodies, which amounted to £1.8 million last year, is often used to draw in commercial sponsorship. Esso has supported BTCV and the commission in the community footpaths award scheme. Its support enables local groups to buy tools and materials that they could not otherwise obtain, and encourages local groups to take on such ambitious schemes as clearing and improving the entire footpath network of one parish. One hundred groups entered for an award last year. It was won by the Friends of Sefton Coast, who will be given the £1,000 prize in May.

Nuclear Electric has sponsored a school's award scheme in the Mersey and Red Rose Community Forest Area in partnership with BTCV and the Commission.

I stress that many of the projects supported benefit wildlife. The commission is already able, and does, include projects which benefit habitats and wildlife as well as projects which promote access to the countryside or create or improve landscape features in its work.

Proposals for a new organisation to take over from the Countryside Commission and English Nature must meet all those criteria to command support.

2.48 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, we must all be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for raising this Question at this time when it is clearly very much on our minds.

One finds out very quickly in this House how enormously difficult it is for desirable pieces of legislation to be included in the legislative programme. That is particularly so in the environmental field. We know that measures have been promised by the Government in relation to common land, hedgerows, the implementation of the Habitats and Species Directive, the national parks (for example, to set up a national park in the New Forest), and so on. It seems on the face of it odd, to bring forth a proposal which would clearly require legislation when so much is stuck in the pipeline. In that context I should like to make a suggestion. It is that perhaps the Government might like to consider discussing environmental legislative priorities with the non-governmental organisations. They could easily do that through the Wildlife and Countryside Link. That would be welcomed. They could then find out the priorities of the conservation organisations.

So far as I know, no one is pressing for the merger. That is not to say that it may not be a good thing. We have two excellent bodies operating, as we have been told, in very different ways. I am greatly impressed by the work of both. The Countryside Commission seems to me to have had a series of imaginative initiatives under the direction of my noble friend Lord Barber and now Sir John Johnson. It was they who first thought up and devised the concept of environmentally sensitive areas, which has been one of the great success stories in the environmental field. I welcome what they are doing about the national forest, community forests, countryside stewardship and improving rights of way.

Under the very capable chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, English Nature has made its mark and shown enormous vigour and determination in dealing with special sites and species, especially endangered species, and in giving advice to the Government. It is working increasingly in the wider countryside. There may well be a case for merging the functions in a new body. Indeed, that case was put effectively by the noble Earl, Lord Peel. Four years ago I was a co-opted member of the committee chaired by my noble and gallant friend Lord Carver which recommended that the Countryside Commission and what has become English Nature should be merged. There is an increasing overlap between the functions of the two bodies. I am glad to say that they are now working closely together.

However, circumstances are now rather different from four years ago. As has been pointed out by a number of speakers, there is a considerable downside to carrying out such a merger. For a period of several years there is enormous disruption. I have had a good deal to do with the National Rivers Authority in Wales. I am impressed by the immense amount of time that officers in the NRA and those of us associated in an advisory capacity with it have to spend considering the future merger which is to bring about the environment agency. That time has to be taken from looking after the rivers. That disruption occurs before a merger takes place. Obviously after a merger there is a lengthy period of settling down. It involves a real cost.

It is unsettling for staff to have a merger hanging over them which may affect their employment and distracts them from their proper responsibilities. That is an important factor.

The experience of the merger in Scotland and Wales has been referred to. I note that when the present proposal was announced, the noble Earl said in answer to a Written Question on 31st January that: The Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage have rapidly established themselves as effective deliverers of these aspects of our environmental policies". — [Official Report, 31.1.94; WA 87.] To some extent that is true, but I do not think that we can yet say whether or not putting together the two functions in Scotland and Wales has been a good thing. The jury is still out on that and there are widespread doubts among non-governmental organisations as to whether there has been added value, as one might say, in putting the two functions together. Nor can one say that every aspect of the two organisations is working smoothly. I live in Wales and on the whole the Countryside Council for Wales is doing an excellent job. It has made a promising start.

However, to give one example, the Ramblers organisation claims that the creation of Scottish Natural Heritage has been a "disaster" for public access to the Scottish countryside. It states: SNH has obstructed the progress that was being made by the Countryside Commission for Scotland towards better legislation and other action to improve footpaths and freedom of access in Scotland". I do not know whether that claim is justified, but it suggests that we should not take it as read that the experience in Scotland and Wales has been wholly satisfactory.

I understand that the Government have set up a consultancy to consider the experience in the two countries. Wildlife and Countryside Link, of which I have the honour to be chairman, had a meeting with officials of the Department of the Environment on 22nd March. At that meeting they told us that the Government had commissioned consultants, to assess the lessons to be learnt from the experience of SNH and CCW". They said that the report would be sent to the agencies before a decision would be made on whether to publish it. I think that it is important that in due course it should be published so that your Lordships and others can study it and see what lessons can be drawn from it.

There is sometimes a genuine conflict between access and conservation, and we discussed that in the report of my noble and gallant friend Lord Carver. It is an open question whether it is best that the problem should be resolved within one agency or two.

Some speakers have referred to the implications of the proposed merger for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. I think that is important. The remit of the JNCC at present does not cover access or landscape evaluation, although those are within the responsibilities of the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage and would clearly be within the scope of the responsibilities of any merged organisation in England.

I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that that aspect ought to be considered and we should consider the implications. At the moment we are faced with something of a torrent of mergers and reorganisations. The Forestry Commission is being examined and there are the plans for the environment agency. English Nature itself is in the throes of a substantial reorganisation which is to come into effect next month. All that distracts staff from their real role.

Despite the Government's claim in their original announcement that the merger would be part of the process of ensuring that the Rio commitments would be fully and effectively implemented, it is not altogether easy to see what the merger in itself has to do with the Rio commitments. In fact I think rather the reverse is the case. There is a risk that the merger may delay implementation of the agreements made at the Earth Summit in Rio. It may also delay implementation of the important habitats and species directive.

I believe that if we are to have a reorganisation it should be a wider one. Here I agree with my noble friend Lord Barber. It should embrace the. role of the JNCC and its relationship with the country agencies. From all that I hear, the arrangement for it to be funded by the country agencies through a ring-fenced arrangement is not working all that well. I have tended all along to believe that the JNCC should have its own budget to enable it to concentrate on its key role of ensuring common standards throughout the United Kingdom, dealing with international problems, and taking a strategic overview of nature conservation and in due course, I would hope, countryside matters in the United Kingdom.

So far as the views of the non-governmental agencies are concerned, on the whole those which are concerned with the countryside are strongly opposed to the suggested merger. The wildlife bodies are more cautious. They have less objection, but on the other hand they think that the proposals may be premature. Those bodies that deal with the countryside tend to perceive the proposal as, in effect, the abolition of the Countryside Commission and the tacking on of its responsibilities to English Nature. That is something that they would very strongly oppose. They are also worried about the weakening of work on public rights of way.

Although I would not object to a merger at some stage, I believe that there is a strong case for delaying any plans for reorganisation. I was encouraged to learn from the meeting that we had with the DoE that any decision not to go ahead with a merger would not preclude setting up new working relationships between English Nature and the Countryside Commission. That may be desirable. Anything that we can do to get the two bodies to work even more closely together would be a good thing.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has looked at this matter very carefully. Its view is that the review should be postponed pending the outcome of the review of the forestry industry; the implementation of agreements made at the Rio Earth Summit; the implementation of the European habitats and species directive; the creation of a new environment agency; and a full review of the functions and remit of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. I am inclined to think that that is the right way to approach the matter. I hope that the Government will consider that view very carefully.

3.4 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Marlesford has put a powerful case for "leaving well alone". Noble Lords on all sides who have spoken so far are agreed that if matters are not to be left alone, then the merger should be very, very carefully put together.

The Countryside Commission and English Nature are two quite complementary bodies. Their objectives have been developed separately. Unless some useful means of any merger could be agreed between them, it would be a mistake if any such change were to be imposed upon them. Two heads are better than one. Certainly, no shotgun marriage should be arranged, especially if the Treasury is holding the shotgun.

Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to use this debate as a vehicle for a slightly sectional interest which no doubt they will immediately understand. It has of course to do with organic farming. In return, I promise to be short.

ESAs are a fundamental part of the objectives of both those great organisations. I should like to refer to the opportunities that are available to organic farmers, which are far from wild farming, in environmentally sensitive areas. They provide additional conservation for wildlife and plant species. As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, may confirm, the RSPB has recently conducted a review of organic farms where bird life has been shown to be in a much better state, with more birds per yard and hedge, etc. In addition, the ESAs have £63 million via the Government's Organic Aid Scheme for use in various ways. I understand that organic farmers who are in those areas will be eligible for ESA support in addition to the support which they can receive from the Organic Aid Scheme itself, which is only £1 million.

I should like to use the opportunity to ask both the Countryside Commission and English Nature whether they can do something to support those organic farms which are within their territories. Perhaps they will take a lead from the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who unfortunately is not in the Chamber, whose National Trust organisation has done a great deal to help. Mr. Young, the rural affairs adviser of the National Trust, has just mentioned in the National Trust brochure that the trust has now five tenant farmers currently practising organic farming with Soil Association approval. That is an advance. It may be a small one but we are grateful for it. I should be very glad if other organisations were to follow suit.

Farmers have always been careful of the land which they hold in trust for future generations of their countrymen. Some, perhaps, have been more careful than others. The former are largely beginning to support environmental subsidies to replace the products used in land treatment by the intensive farmer.

The Royal Agricultural Society is in favour of developing a twin-track approach in which there would be a continuation of intensive farming in such areas where it is necessary to produce food for the nation, and a second-track approach in more marginal lands where less intensive farming methods are more environmentally acceptable. Those should receive alternative and additional support.

The bells are tolling for the CAP. There can be no doubt about that. The ridiculous farce of set-aside can only point to that fact. There is a farmer who received £63,000 this year for setting aside his whole farm. His total return was £63,000 over 357 acres. Such conditions cannot continue. The logical result of the demise of the CAP is that there shall be some return to the original farming methods which were in hand some 50 to 60 years ago and which were purely organic. Those farm systems will need to be developed. The whole farm system is promoted by the Soil Association and accepted by the Royal Agricultural Society as well as other people. It involves the principle of directly paying farmers for the pursuit of integrated agriculture and environmental objectives, and. is now widely accepted by them. However, the exact mechanisms for achieving that system and their practical implementation have not yet been developed. We must do it in co-operation with the Countryside Commission, English Nature and other bodies, as well as MAFF.

The successful implementation of that approach will depend first on whether we can develop management agreement prescriptions which will result in the achievement of the objective of further CAP reform; and, secondly, on whether those schemes can be successfully operated in practice. The existing whole farm management system points the way. It is the organic community which is leading the field in that direction, and I commend their efforts to your Lordships' attention.

3.10 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton

My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity of discussing this matter this afternoon and thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for giving us the opportunity to do so. We are of course dealing with agencies which protect nature and the countryside for its own sake, and it is important to keep sight of that. In that context, I must declare an interest at first hand. I farm within the Exmoor National Park, and 20 per cent. of the farm is within a countryside stewardship scheme and 17.5 per cent.—I am not sure if the figure is significant —is part of a huge North Exmoor site of special scientific interest which dates from 1992.

My views are essentially my own. I am not speaking on behalf of any other person or body. But there are three themes to be considered within the countryside —the protection of species, habitats and landscapes; provision of public enjoyment and recreation (within which must be included the principle of private amenity and enjoyment for those who live and work in the countryside); and the production of food and fibre.

English Nature falls very much into the first category. With respect to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, I must say that my relationships with that body have not been particularly happy ones. Starting from a valid scientific base, the approach to designation appears to be an extremely blunt instrument. So far it has resulted in what I can only describe as a fair measure of scientific absolutism dressed up as administrative expediency. It appears to me to be ring-fenced in its own narrow terms of reference. So far as I can see all that has been created without any effective right of challenge or independent appeal and English Nature effectively sits as judge and jury in its own court. Its powers have significantly affected the land users. In my case I think particularly of five acres of improved pasture that was included, despite my protestations, within a site of special scientific interest. But there was no obligation to reimburse me for the costs that were passed on to me in that initial designation and discussion process, nor does there appear to be any obligation to take account of the management and economic activities at that stage in place which created great uncertainty and caused me significant cost in terms of time if for no other reason.

There is a sense of unease among landowners that they are being told what they can do on a property for which they have custody for their lives, by people with theoretical skills and, I am afraid to say, all too often with little practical knowledge beyond the laboratory and field survey conditions. Therefore the process, as exemplified by my own case, does lasting damage to relationships—and I cannot be any more kindly than that. It certainly affects the willingness to make net inward investment towards environmental goals for the future. But those views are my own. However, I fear that my experiences are far from unique. Sustainable husbandry requires commitment and involvement from the steward of the land, and if that commitment is alienated then nothing goes forward.

By comparison, the Countryside Commission is something of a hybrid. Again I am involved with that organisation. Apart from the designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty and other similar areas considered important for protection —I should also take slight issue on that in that they are also designated on a non-recourse basis—it has taken a new step forward in leading from the front through the voluntary principle. It set out to create a market for environmental land management and it makes possible activities that would be totally uneconomic, either directly or through local authorities.

In my case the commission has shown great flexibility. That is possibly because its staff are drawn from land use and management backgrounds and I cannot speak too highly of the people that I come across on the ground. There is an encouragement for the provision of public access on a proper economic footing that does not prejudice for the long term landowners' interests. It has demonstrated to me a pragmatism in its approach to the competing interests of nature conservation, access and local socio-economic circumstances. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, that stewardship is an outstanding role model. Therefore, my vote goes to the Countryside Commission on the basis of 10 out of 10 for effort.

Unfortunately, we have a plethora of many different designations at all levels in the countryside. It seems that everyone from Whitehall to the village hall wants to get an iron in this conservation fire. This has produced a great deal of uncertainty and I am concerned about that. When the Minister comes to reply I wonder whether he would have regard to the comments made earlier this week by his right honourable friend the. Secretary of State for Wales. I shall paraphrase what he said. He was referring to a review of environmental restrictions in Wales. He said that to some people green policies meant an impenetrable habitat of jargon, designations and regulations. I go on to quote from the Independent of 29th March: For them, he said, 'success is measured by the number of SSSIs established, the number of European Special Areas, the work under the various directives and the memos written on biodiversity'". To that I say "Hear, hear", as I feel very strongly that that is what is happening here.

Any review needs to knock sense into a situation which leads to disagreements between different bodies and leaves landowners bemused and not a little angry that public money is being used to finance some sort of bureaucratic muddle in the name of conservation. That has to cease. Any new body must be in control of that all the way through from top to bottom. But it is not for me to say whether a merger would be a good thing. As others have said, it cannot be done in haste or without a great deal of consultation, both external and internal. Scientific analysis and advice must remain an identifiably separate and core role in the question of nature conservation, whether or not it is part of a larger entity. We do not need scientists to play at being land managers—it is outside their brief.

If it is seen as appropriate to consolidate the role of countryside protection and management we need a new organisation altogether, not just a merger of two existing ones. I relate to what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, had to say about that. I would go further arid say that. I am convinced that the rebaking of the cake using the same ingredients will result in us having much of what we have had so far without any chance of moving forward. If farmers and landowners are expected to deliver environmental goods they have to be treated as partners and not as rural serfs to be lorded over. Partnership involves sharing costs and risks, creating markets and looking at new opportunities. It has to produce real income to pay real bills and not be reliant on a moral imposition of a charitable donation. We are talking about genuine financial investment. Neither body focuses on that particularly clearly. I very much relate to the principles of co-operation and co-ordination mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver. We are in a man-managed environment on an island with 52 million people. The countryside and nature conservation interests do not exist in some vacuous state. They have been created because it was economically sensible and feasible for them to occur.

Any new authority, whether a merged one or a revitalised version of the two separate authorities, must look primarily to the voluntary principle with compulsion as a last resort. We need to integrate management and conservation as an overall policy objective, even if there is a subdivision lower down. There needs to be adequate funding for research and development and works on the ground. There needs to be proper provision of information and advice. We need to distinguish between those who are required to commit capital resources and those who simply want to stand on the touch line and tell the rest of us what to do. It is an important decision.

The strategy that is to be developed needs to be durable for the long term so that things done today—and on which people place reliance—are not turned on their heads after a few years. The agencies concerned must be free of what might be called "the short-term political fix". They must have flexibility and staying power in the long term. When all is said and done, none of us owns the countryside anymore than we own or control nature herself. It is question of investment, long-term commitment and the acceptance of risk and responsibility. All of these matters need to be considered clearly and fully before any final decision is made.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I must start by declaring an interest as a member of the Countryside Commission. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the proposition that, so far as is possible, both landscape and the flora and fauna that it contains must be preserved for the benefit of future generations. The Question that we have rightly been considering this afternoon is whether this aim will better be served by one organisation or by two.

I listened with great interest to my noble friend Lord Peel, a member of the council of English Nature. I myself have been immensely heartened to hear today of the importance that noble Lords place on the work that the Countryside Commission does. The commission has welcomed the study initiated by Her Majesty's Government and, of course, it is right that we should look at this issue following their reports on sustainability and biodiversity.

To me, the three vital points are these. The countryside conservation and recreation responsibilities of the commission are important and must not be lost or diluted in any way in the legislation setting up a new organisation. The commission's programmes of work on community forests, areas of outstanding natural beauty, recreation and rights of way and countryside management, give good value for money and we look for them to be continued at at least their present level. The commission's style of working in partnership with local authorities and voluntary groups, and its ability to experiment with new ideas, have served the countryside well and should be retained in any new organisation. I hope to hear my noble friend Lord Arran sharing these concerns.

I should like to conclude with a word of foreboding that has been expressed more than once in this afternoon's debate. If the new body is to be capable of doing the two jobs that it has to do properly, it will not save the Treasury a great deal of money. If the new body is to save the Treasury a great deal of money, it will not be capable of doing properly the two jobs that it has to do.

3.22 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I speak briefly in the gap because I am sorry to say that I failed to get my name down by six o'clock which I should have done yesterday. I join those voices which are extremely suspicious of the Government's motives in bringing forward the proposed merger at this moment. I know that many of us said four years ago, "Why should these two bodies be merged in Scotland and in Wales and not in England?". But quite a lot has happened in those four years and the motives of the Government in bringing forward the idea at this time seem very strange.

I am afraid that it is rather typical of this Government that they rush ahead into legislation without sufficient consultation. The Bills they bring forward have to be amended very considerably and often a year later there is another Bill to put right what was done in the last one which did not turn out to be correct. Again, here, the consultation period is very short indeed—about six weeks. That seems to me totally inadequate. I would not be at all surprised if the staff of both organisations are very worried about whether proper consideration will be given before legislation is brought forward by, as I understand, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, early in the next Session. I thank him very much for asking the Question today.

Why embark on this exercise when the promises of legislation which the Government have made already on hedgerows, national parks and common land to implement effectively the UK's obligations under the habitats' directive have not been kept? One distrusts the Government's protestations about their attitude to conservation when no action has been taken on so many issues. The Secretary of State said that the merger would be part of the process of ensuring that the 1992 Rio commitments are fully and effectively implemented. I do not think that that is necessarily so. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred to that.

Let English Nature get on with its proper task and prevent further damage to hedgerows, flower rich meadows, moorlands and other important wildlife habitats. The Government's own survey showed 78,000 miles of hedgerows removed in six years and a reduction of 14 per cent. in plant varieties in semi-improved grassland. Let English Nature concentrate on what it is supremely good at—its scientific work and conservation—where it has given proof of its ability.

I would like to praise the regional officers of English Nature. I have met a good many of them and they have seemed to me always extremely dedicated and of very high quality. I hope that if English Nature has to cut back on any of its spends, it will not cut back on its regional officers.

The Countryside Commission is doing an extremely good job. The noble Lord, Lord Denham, described some of the things which it is doing extremely well: rights of way, national trails and so on, and getting the local authorities to way-mark the trails. A great deal has been done. I am not at all surprised that the Ramblers Association and the Open Spaces Society are very enthusiastic that such work should continue. I understand their fears that a merger might possibly impede some of it.

I would like to say a word that the noble Lord, Lord Denham, did not say in his praise of the Countryside Commission—and that is its work for environmental education. It is doing a lot here, and that is absolutely admirable. It is giving grants of £300,000 a year to educational projects. Its support begins very early on in school playgrounds with assistance to the Learning Through Landscapes Trust. Each of the 12 community forests has an objective: providing opportunities for environmental education.

My plea to the Government at the moment is to leave well alone. Let each body go on with its individual and separate work which both are doing extremely well in the aftermath of difficult circumstances—I think particularly of English Nature following the break-up of the NCC which was extremely controversial. It had a difficult time. I add to the praise for the work being done by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. But my plea is to avoid unnecessary disturbance now and what I should have thought would inevitably be extra cost.

Many organisations involved with the countryside have expressed fears about what may happen. The Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society, the CPRE, the RSNC and the RSPB, all in their different ways and their different interests, are very anxious about what may happen. So I beg the Government to take their time and listen to what has been said today.

Earl Peel

My Lords, before the noble Baroness, Lady David, sits down, I wonder whether I could intervene. The noble Baroness referred to the fact that English Nature was involved with, I think she said, the restoration and management of hedgerows in the wider countryside. This is one of the real problems that English Nature faces. It is statutorily bound to the designated SSSIs arid the national nature reserves. One of the reasons I am so keen on a merger is that it would allow English Nature to be involved in the wider countryside in a way that it is not at the moment.

Baroness David

My Lords, I certainly stand corrected and apologise for my ignorance.

3.28 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, this important debate is the welcome response of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, to a suggestion by Mr. Gummer that somehow the merger of these two bodies might contribute to, taking forward the environmental commitments entered into at 1992 Rio Conference". My admiration for Mr. Gummer grows daily—not by leaps and bounds, but it does at least grow which is more than I can say for my admiration of all of Her Majesty's Ministers.

Yesterday I had the most unusual treat of hearing a Minister give a very funny, seemingly spontaneous and certainly committed, speech at a prizegiving. The Minister was Mr. Gurnmer, and the occasion was the giving of environmental awards at the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants —an admirable occasion, and a first class speech. True I thought that he was plain wrong in two of the most fundamental things that he said, just as I think that he is wrong on this initiative, but it was clear that his heart is in the right place. What he should perhaps be arranging is his priorities, because this initiative seems to be part of a reaction—whether ministerial or bureaucratic I cannot quite tell—that when confronted by a challenge one rearranges the furniture.

It is true that if one is on the Titanic there is very little else one can do except rearrange the furniture or possibly sing "Nearer my God to thee", but we hope that we are not on the Titanic. In which case, we have a job to do in saving the planet for itself and for human beings, and we should not be engaging in time and energy-wasting exercises.

Surely there are a number of things which must be higher on the Government's list than disturbing two admirable institutions, and upsetting both their work and their staff, in order to decide what needs to he done to mend something which shows no signs of being broken.

Legislation on national parks, treasure trove, hedgerows—noble Lord after noble Lord has gone through the list—to which the Government are committed awaits action and often has to be taken on, as we have seen this afternoon, by Private Members who are much to be commended for doing the rather thankless job that they have taken on, and which is something that the Government should be doing. That kind of legislation is often, as we have heard, subjected to the crippling, and sometimes fatal, difficulties standing in the way of Private Members' legislation, while the Government on the one hand bring us appalling Bills, which we rightly emasculate, and, on the other, fiddles with the furniture, as in the matter we are examining today. It will not do.

I do not wish to go to the heart of the matter of what kind of countryside we should like to see if there were to be a merger. These are two very different bodies. My heart and mind are split between them. l believe in the standards of the Countryside Commission and my emotions are with it, but my belief is that it is English Nature which has the most difficult and most important task to do at the moment in dealing with the environmental commitments entered into at the 1992 Rio conference. It is interesting that hardly any speaker has referred to that reason.

On the contrary, what the Government should be doing in this field, instead of rearranging the furniture, is to give English Nature a specific responsibility to set targets for the recovery of threatened species and declining habitats, and a specific duty to evaluate (preferably annually) the state of the natural environment. I was interested in what the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said about English Nature's frustration at being unable to deal with hedgerows in the general countryside.

It has been argued decisively by at least one body that the proposed review should be postponed for at least two years. If it is to go forward, and especially if the Government have not made up their mind as to what the review is to decide, there is a strong case for that. But there is an even stronger case for dropping the case tomorrow—a day universally recognised as one of repentance. That would be a most suitable day to do so.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, I cannot promise a joke of that dimension. I too owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for bringing forward today's debate. It is crucial to the future of rural England. Most noble Lords have opposed the proposed merger between these two quite disparate bodies. In principle, one might feel inclined to support any streamlining and consolidation of public institutions which can be achieved, perhaps with some reduction in administrative costs. These bodies might achieve a stronger public image and greater clarification. As was said by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, there is a lack of public knowledge about their respective roles.

Both bodies are concerned with conservation, the preservation of species and the landscape of England. As a combined authority, they might have greater influence in relation to other pressure groups, such as the roads lobby. As we know, large swathes of our countryside are being covered with tarmac and concrete. Separately they are comparatively weak bodies.

As a combined organisation, they might also provide a better central focus for national information about the environment and our countryside. For example, although English Nature is responsible for the designation and protection of SSSIs, curiously there is no central collation of information either about those which have been damaged or those which are threatened by the current roads programme. Such a deficiency of centralised information might be provided by a larger, more powerful organisation.

Although there are possible, apparently logical reasons for combining these two bodies, there are considerable reservations about the proposed review and the possible consequences. As my noble friend Lady Nicol said, little time has been given for consultation about a wide-ranging suggestion. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, there appears to have been a breathless rush for no apparent reason in order to push through a review with only six weeks for consultation. Among others, the noble Lords, Lords Barber and Lord Moran, and my noble friend Lady Nicol said that English Nature has only recently been established. Another upheaval and disruption hanging over the heads of both bodies can lead only to interruption in their valuable work in conservation and landscape.

There are further reservations that the suggestion might be an excuse for economies of scale in staff. English Nature employs 700 staff, many of whom are scientists involved in field work in the countryside. They are different from the 273 staff of the Countryside Commission, who are involved in a more entrepreneurial and innovative way, and who work in partnership with other bodies rather than in field work themselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Barber, pointed out that the organisations have different cultures. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, referred to the scheme as a possible takeover. The consequences might be that English Nature will become dominant, as the Secretary of State suggested, and therefore his commitment to species conservation, the Rio Summit and so forth would dominate within the new organisation. If that were so, considerable conflict would be created with the current responsibilities of the Countryside Commission. It has a responsibility more generally for the beauty of the landscape and access in particular by the public.

That is the area in respect of which we have received most lobbying. There is a fear that the maintenance of public rights of way, footpaths, public access and recreation in the countryside might be jeopardised if the concerns of English Nature for wildlife enhancement, species recovery and the protection of nearly 4,000 SSSIs should become the dominant focus of the new body.

Other noble Lords have referred to problems in Scotland within the newly combined bodies. Of course, they are denied by Magnus Magnusson. There was also a reference to problems in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, said that after such a short time, the jury must still be out as regards their effectiveness and efficiency and whether the combined bodies are able to deliver their very different responsibilities.

Quite clearly, the tensions between such disparate responsibilities of the two bodies could become increasingly acute. We have very high levels of unemployment in this country and probably for ever more we shall have large numbers of people who are unemployed or in part-time employment. That will create an increasing demand for leisure pursuits in the countryside. We also have commitments made in Rio to biodiversity and, under the habitat directive, we are committed to preserving the species that we have in this country. I believe that the disputes and tensions between the separate commitments and responsibilities will increase.

It is extremely important that those tensions and debates should be aired in the open, as they would be between two separate bodies. If there is a combined body, the problems, debates and tensions will not be aired in public and may well become muffled within the single organisation.

There are ways in which the two bodies currently work together on joint programmes. I hope that that relationship may be enhanced in the future on such matters as hedgerows, where the Countryside Commission clearly has a wider brief than English Nature, but the more hedgerows and things like beetle banks that we have, the more we shall enhance the preservation of species within our countryside. That is true also as regards the management of environmentally sensitive areas. It is extremely important that the two organisations work together closely from the two opposite ends of their responsibilities and in considering, for example, a common strategy for the use of set-aside land.

I cannot understand why the possible merger has been announced at this stage in advance of the creation of the environment agency, and while the future of the Forestry Commission is still in the balance. I understand that the report about the Forestry Commission is now with Ministers so that we can hope to see it soon.

We need a comprehensive and integrated strategy in relation to our countryside and the preservation of the species in it and as regards providing access and leisure pursuits for the public. A strategic approach to those problems cannot be achieved by the precipitate amalgamation of two such disparate bodies with their very different responsibilities. As my noble friend Lady Nicol, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and others have said, if we feel that we should have a single strategic body, it is far better that it should be a new body with a new remit. It should include responsibilities for, for example, forests and for the far too weak Joint Nature Conservation Committee which at present does not appear to be able to carry out the remit under the 1990 reorganisation.

There is currently a queue of environmental legislation waiting for time in the parliamentary timetable; for example, the creation of the environment agency, and directives on hedgerows, habitats and species and common land. I ask the Minister in what order it is proposed that such legislation should come before Parliament. In order to have sensible discussion on those matters, we must realise that each of the measures is in some way dependent on another.

The future of English Nature and the Countryside Commission should be reviewed, together with the role of those other organisations and pieces of legislation, after the paving Bill establishing the environment agency has been published in the autumn. Now is not the time for a review or discussion about those important subjects.

3.44 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Marlesford for giving your Lordships' House, as many noble Lords have said, a timely opportunity to debate this matter. This afternoon's debate has provided the Government with advice and insights which will prove of significant help in considering the future of the Countryside Commission and English Nature.

I am sure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will be much relieved to know that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, believes that his heart is in the right place. However, I doubt that he will repent of the possibility of a merger.

The announcement made in another place at the end of January by my right honourable friend of a study into bringing together English Nature and the Countryside Commission can surely have come as a surprise to but a few. Our 1990 environment White Paper This Common Inheritance, in commenting on the creation of unified countryside and wildlife bodies for Scotland and Wales, made it clear that the position in England would be kept under review.

The Government noted at that time the force of some of the arguments for merger in England, particularly the closeness of the interrelationship between nature and countryside conservation; the need for common data and expertise; and the tendency for both bodies to concentrate their attention on similar issues. But, at the same time, we acknowledged the greater size and complexity of the English agencies and decided that it was not the right time to proceed with a merger.

A committee of your Lordships' House, under the chairmanship of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, looked into such matters in 1990.I noted with interest its conclusions on the strength of the case for merging the agencies in England. I also noted with interest the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Barber, on his evidence presented to that committee. He seemed to suggest that he had expressed himself unwisely. However, I believe that the points then made were apposite: they acknowledged the converging agenda with the then Nature Conservancy Council, but emphasised the vital need to respect the different traditions of the two bodies and the practical problems to be resolved if they were to be brought together. The Government fully accept that need; indeed, it is a telling point made by several speakers in today's debate.

However, I believe that those issues have moved on some way since our 1990 decision. My right honourable friend's announcement rightly stressed the importance of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The Government launched the UK's Sustainable Development Strategy and Biodiversity Action Plan on 25th January as a demonstration of our commitment to carry forward effectively the very wide responsibilities that we accepted at Rio. A central theme of those responsibilities is an all-embracing approach to our environmental policies. We must manage our natural resources in a way which takes account of all the demands imposed upon them, and makes the best choices not only for today but for coming generations.

Reconciling economic development and environmental protection is central to the principles of sustainability, as is the need to ensure that decisions throughout society are taken with proper regard to their environmental impact. Both the Countryside Commission and English Nature have recently issued their own statements on sustainability which illustrate the significance of those matters for the way in which their work is developing.

A convergence in the activities and approaches of the Countryside Commission and English Nature has been increasingly evident in recent years. Both are concerned with the importance of the wider countryside, rather than solely concentrating on those special areas for which they have responsibility. There are already a number of programmes in which both bodies are involved and many areas where they co-operate. No longer can the stereotype be sustained that nature conservation is the preserve of scientists wishing to deny the public access to their work, nor that recreation in the countryside is an entirely benign activity with no impact on the environment. Much has changed. There is a realisation that the benefits of nature conservation have to be demonstrated publicly and English Nature sees the educational approach as an important part of its role. The Countryside Commission meanwhile recognises the importance of conservation of species and habitats as an integral part of the landscape it seeks to nurture.

The Countryside Commission and English Nature represent two pioneering traditions in countryside and nature conservation going back over 40 years. Each has evolved and adapted to the challenges of five decades, but each has increasingly focused on the central issue of how threats to the natural heritage can be countered when the forces of economic development and growing prosperity seem so great. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding dedication and expertise which both bodies still so amply demonstrate today, and indeed, the dedication of those noble Lords here today who have also served on those bodies.

I can assure your Lordships that the Government have absolutely no intention of losing those qualities or seeing them watered down. Rather, we look to enhance the achievements of the two agencies through the mutual benefits of bringing together their individual traditions and experience. It is essential that we preserve the very best of both. Our premise, however, is that an increasing identity of purpose could be better delivered by a single organisation.

The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, emphasised the vital need for a new body to rest on a tripod of key purposes: landscape, nature conservation, public access and enjoyment. I would entirely agree with that approach. The Government are not looking to lose or down play anything which is central to the remit of both bodies.

I particularly want to stress that the Government's mind is not made up. Whether to merge or not, not how, that is the question. That is the point that I want to make to my noble friend Lord Marlesford. I do not underestimate the potential difficulties of bringing together bodies which have forged their own identities, loyalties and methods of working over more than 40 years. Of course there will be problems to be surmounted if a merger does proceed, but we shall be keen to ensure that impetus is not lost from the real work of nature and countryside conservation.

I have recently visited both Peterborough and Cheltenham to meet council members and commissioners and I am only too aware of the understandable concern that has been expressed about this proposal. Some may believe that nature conservation interests could be diluted by a merger, others that it could lead to a submergence of the role of the Countryside Commission. We appreciate those concerns, but we strongly feel that they can be overcome. There is, for example, a significant difference in the number of staff in the two bodies. That point was made by many noble Lords this afternoon. But the divergence is not reflected in the grant in aid they receive. Nor does it recognise the different traditions of working which the two bodies have established. The suggestion that the interests of English Nature would dominate in any merger is over-simplistic. The study we are conducting is looking at all aspects of the remits of the two current bodies, and indeed beyond them.

We are determined that any new body will not represent a simple bolting together—a point which was expressed very strongly by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver—but will be a new organisation in its own right with a forward looking remit, responsible for carrying forward all the responsibilities currently discharged by the Countryside Commission and English Nature which may be laid to it. The Government will naturally be concerned to see that any new body is led by a chairman and governing body capable of giving the leadership required in all aspects of the work. That was a point which was made with great care by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol.

Of course I am aware that by the nature of things there is bound to be concern for the future among the staffs of both sides. Indeed, nearly all noble Lords mentioned that this afternoon. My right honourable friend issued a statement when the announcement of the study was made confirming that resolving staffing concerns is a high priority for the study and promising a full opportunity for the staff to be consulted. That is already under way. Although detailed arrangements can only be made by those eventually charged with delivering the objectives of any new body, we have indicated that we will expect every effort to be made in the event of merger to employ the existing staff of English Nature and the Countryside Commission.

A number of your Lordships, including my noble friends Lord Peel, Lord Norrie, Lord Clanwilliam, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, have sought assurances on funding this afternoon. I am happy to give them that assurance, at least so far as concerns our intentions.

I also wish to stress that there is no secret cost-cutting agenda behind the exercise. This is a government proposal that is not driven by Her Majesty's Treasury. My noble friend Lord Swinton can take relief in that as also can my noble friend Lord Denham. The exercise is being carried out precisely because of the high priority that the Government attach to their environmental policies and the effectiveness with which those are delivered. Beyond that, as your Lordships will recognise, funding for the programmes of any new body must be subject to the same rules and procedures for public spending as are those of the two current bodies.

Some noble Lords have suggested that we should go wider and include within the scope of the study other bodies. I recognise the strength of those arguments but I do not believe that it would be sensible to widen substantially the remit of the body we are now considering. The Countryside Commission and English Nature have a core concern with the countryside and its natural heritage. We would nevertheless expect any new body to co-operate as fully as do the existing bodies with all those who share this concern.

The steering group which is undertaking the detailed work for the study is composed not only of officials from my department but also the chief executives and senior staff members from the Countryside Commission and English Nature. I am glad that both bodies have welcomed the study from the start, and are giving their full co-operation in the search for the right answers to our questions. The official level group is reporting to my right honourable friend through my right honourable friend the Minister for Environment and the Countryside who is keeping in close touch with the chairmen of English Nature and the Countryside Commission, my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and Sir John Johnson. Every effort is therefore being maintained to accommodate the views of the two bodies as the study progresses.

The Government are keen to take all views into account in the study. My department has sent consultation packages to more than 600 organisations and individuals with an interest in environment and the countryside. We are also taking a special interest in what we can learn from experience in Scotland and Wales. I can say to my noble friend Lord Marlesford, that we intend to place responses to the consultation exercise in the Library of your Lordships' House; and in announcing any decision I would expect my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to make full reference to the works of the steering group and its consultations.

I recognise that some may say that six months is too short a time to settle these matters. But we believe that we must also ensure that a period of uncertainty is kept to a minimum—a factor upon which I hope the noble Baroness, Lady David, will dwell. I wish to give an assurance that we shall seek to resolve these matters at the earliest opportunity.

My noble friend Lord Peel raised the question of access, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Nicol, and Lady Hilton. But access to the countryside is one of the most popular forms of recreation. This Government have always acknowledged that importance. However, they have also emphasised the importance of managed access if conservation interests are to be protected. The two existing bodies have already signed an agreement on access. There must be at least a presumption that embodying that agreement in a unified body would make it even more effective.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, raised the issue of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. We are already receiving a number of representations on the matter and will need to look carefully at the position of the JNCC in the context of any merged body.

My noble friend Lord Norrie quite rightly raised the question of volunteers and the contribution that they make to countryside work. Both the Countryside Commission and English Nature currently fund voluntary bodies and any merged body would need to continue and strengthen that relationship.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, emphasised the need to ensure that the views of the numerous non-governmental organisations with an interest are taken on board and we acknowledge their important role. Officials have already met representatives of Wildlife and Countryside Link, as the noble Lord indicated, to hear their preliminary views.

I think that this has been a most positive and constructive debate. Your Lordships have raised a number of important issues and I can guarantee that we shall take close account of all that has been said this afternoon. Indeed, we want to hear from all those who are stakeholders in the activities of the Countryside Commission and English Nature so that we can be sure to make the right decisions.

Many fears have been expressed about merging these two bodies. I can well understand them. But I want to conclude by emphasising the opportunities which the Government see in the merged body. This is not an exercise driven by the urge to save money, nor to lose any of the valuable heritage which both bodies can bring to a merger. Instead, we believe that it is the chance to go forward with a new body, combining the best of both its predecessors, but adding a new and forward-looking remit to take us into the next century.

Lord Moran

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps I may ask him whether I am right in understanding from what he said that the report of the consultants who are looking into Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales will be published in due course?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that is something we shall have to take into account nearer the time. However, if and when it happens, naturally I shall inform your Lordships and that will take place.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, before I move to adjourn the House, I hope that I am not out of order if on behalf of us all I wish a very Happy Easter to all the people who work here and perhaps I may include in those good wishes all noble Lords. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

House adjourned for the Easter Recess at two minutes past four o'clock until Monday, 11th April next.