HL Deb 15 February 1999 vol 597 cc530-2

7.25 p.m.

Lord Whitty rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 27th January be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to achieve a number of things. First, it seeks to create the new countryside agency by renaming the Countryside Commission the "Countryside Agency"; secondly, to transfer the Rural Development Commission functions to the countryside agency; thirdly, to provide for appropriate Rural Development Commission property, rights and liabilities to be transferred to the countryside agency; and, fourthly, to enable the Countryside and Urban Regeneration Agency (known as English Partnerships) to provide specialised services, particularly information technology systems, in support of the RDAs.

This order is part of the process of implementing certain provisions of the RDA Act. In particular, it will put into effect the decision to create the countryside agency from the merger of the Countryside Commission with the parts of the Rural Development Commission which are not being transferred to the regional development agencies.

Rural regeneration, currently carried out by the Rural Development Commission, will be an integral part of the RDAs' remit. The comprehensive spending review covering countryside and rural policy concluded that bringing together the remaining work of the RDC and the Countryside Commission would consolidate their work and create a powerful new champion for rural England. The merger was announced by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 27th March last year during the passage of the RDA Bill.

The combined experience and expertise of the Countryside Commission and Rural Development Commission in the new countryside agency will provide a national source of research and advice about countryside and rural issues. Its coverage will be social, economic and environmental and it will promote and help others to develop policies and programmes to overcome rural disadvantage.

In my opening I should perhaps mention one other matter for the record. It relates to the treatment of the staff at the various agencies. The staff transferring to all the new agencies will do so on their existing terms and conditions, with no detriment to any of their employment rights and with continuity of employment. As is usual in such cases staff will be offered broadly comparable pension provision, in this case through membership of the principle civil service pension scheme—a scheme with identical provision to that operated by the RDC. The transfers involved have been worked out by a series of steps. The trade unions have been consulted throughout and plans to overcome the mismatch of jobs have been pursued. A number of staff opted to take on new responsibilities and others took redundancy. However, most posts will be filled by this process.

This order will be of great benefit to the development of our countryside and rural policies. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 27th January be approved. [7th Report from the Joint Committee].— (Lord Whitty.)

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, as a former member of the Development Commission I welcome amalgamation with the Countryside Commission. I am sure that the new body will do extremely well for the countryside. However, we should not let this moment go without pointing out that the Development Commission is Britain's oldest quango. It was founded in 1909 by Lloyd George and it contained the road board which had the wonderful idea of spending on the roads all the money taken from motorists in road tax. Unfortunately, that money was raided by Winston Churchill, and such hypothecation no longer happens, but many of us wish that it did. I think one ought to make the point that the commission has been doing a good job for a long time and I am glad that the staff will be properly looked after.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, has said. I would like to join him in paying tribute to the work of the RDC over the years and the Countryside Commission. The longevity of the RDC and the various purposes to which the RDC has been put over most of this century indicate the value of the work delivered by its personnel and its leadership. I wish to be associated with a tribute to those achievements. However, I believe that the new structure will be more effective in the present changed circumstances, as the noble Lord recognises.

On Question, Motion agreed to.