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Mr. Butcher : I am grateful to have the leave of the House to respond to the many powerful points made during the debate. It is almost customary for Ministers to begin their reply with the words "We have had an interesting and informative debate." Those words would not properly describe this debate because--I choose my words advisedly--it has been remarkable and possibly historic.
Column 700We began by agreeing on our objectives. I listened carefully to every contribution. I set out in the hope that there would be broad agreement about our tactical position and I believe that we have agreed on the tactics to fulfil our objectives. The House has endorsed the framework of the 10-point plan. There is all-party agreement that the plan is the correct way to bring about a reduction in demand and to take forward the education programmes in our schools, youth services and community services.
I speak about consensus carefully because some hon. Members raised their fears about alcohol companies being involved in marketing campaigns against abuse, and I shall take that into consideration. Some hon. Members rightly emphasised the problems of alcohol and of smoking. Few of the matters that they raised could not be accommodated in the framework of the 10-point plan.
I warmly thank the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) for his comments. Incidentally, I, too, was involved in the "Rhythm and Booze" campaign. My experience was slightly different from his. I found it a powerful combination of broadcasting and "narrow-casting". The responses to the broadcasts were dealt with on a one-to-one basis, using workshops and phone-ins where individual inquiries could be dealt with. I commend that effective methodology which has also been used in other programmes.
Some hon. Members raised the question of money. The £7 million now available is, to use a jargon of the City, highly leveraged. It can buy the awareness of hundreds of thousands of people, if it is used correctly. We shall be training the trainers, they will be training more trainers and trained people will be going into the classrooms. Already some 100,000 are aware of part, if not all, of the story. We have more than 400,000 teachers and tens of thousands of youth workers. I believe that we can get the message to nearly everyone if we spend the money appropriately, and bring in the organisations--some of them voluntary--that have been mentioned today.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central rightly said that we should distinguish between campaigning with a capital C--which can occasionally be counter- productive--and delivering the message in a localised, personalised, specific, sophisticated and subtle way. The necessary judgments and assessments must be made by the workers in the community : if we laid down what they should be saying and in what circumstances, it could not work.
I am delighted that the House has endorsed the umbrella message--many others underlie it--which can be expressed as, "Stay healthy, stay in control." Having analysed all the comments made to me over the past few months, I squeezed the message into as few words as possible.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central hoped that personal and social education, and health education generally, would not be squeezed out of the curriculum by the coming reforms, and others have expressed the same hope. The hon. Gentleman will know that the science curriculum already contains health messages : we accept the idea of cross-curricular messages.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) made some telling points about the hidden curriculum. A certain ethos will emerge from any lesson : that hidden curriculum is part of teachers' daily professional lives. We need not tell teachers that they should be serious about health education ; all that they
Column 701need are the necessary skills and materials. Many are already delivering the necessary messages in different ways, and my hon. Friend is right to commend their professionalism in that regard. Let me reassure the hon. Member for Leeds, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) that nicotine and tobacco are very much part of the work of the drug education co-ordinators. In the not-too- distant future, they are to become known as health education co-ordinators. About three months ago I broadened their remit to include AIDS, alcohol, tobacco and solvent abuse. After all, a chain of activities can start with an experiment with soft drugs at a party and then--in a small proportion of cases--proceed to hard drugs and intravenous injection, and thence to AIDS. I wanted to reflect the interrelationship of a variety of health and substance abuse problems.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The change of title will be helpful. Will the Minister tell us two things? For how long is that funding guaranteed? Originally, it was until 1990. Will it be secured beyond that? Secondly, is thought being given to the fact that, as prevention of drug and alcohol abuse is not a part of the national curriculum, its importance may be reduced in the eyes of pupils? We may need to put it back into the curriculum to give it that importance.
Mr. Butcher : There is no danger of the importance of this message not being put across in schools, and that is what matters. How formally we include it in the curriculum is less important than commitment to it, and we are close to getting an agreement that the message must be got through. It can be got across within existing subjects, such as science, that are formally written into the curriculum. There could be separate lessons, but I am not entirely sure that that is the best way, although that already happens in personal and social education. There is room outside the core curriculum if schools want to use that time, but I think that this combination of options will give the teaching profession the flexibility it requires and, more important, the tools to get the message across. I have here on the Table a box of information on drug abuse such as is available to teachers.
This is not a crash programme, but a long, drawn-out operation. It is almost an underground, continuous guerrilla war as opposed to a frontal war. For that reason, I have secured funding for three years, starting in 1990. That is my signal to the co-ordinators that they are in a long-term effort. I hope that that has encouraged them to think that there is no danger of their contracts being terminated by local education authorities after one year. I am now telling local education authorities that we are giving support for three years. Funding will obviously be reviewed on a rolling basis, but our signal to the world at large is, "This is not a short-term campaign"--it is much more than that.
Mr. Fatchett : I go along with the notion that ths issue should be discussed on a cross-curricula basis. that is the most positive and effective way in which to deal with it. If the issues are taken separately, there is a danger of glamorising them and of the message not getting across.
I was not objecting to the cross-curricula approach. I wanted to make sure that it was embedded in the development of the national curriculum. That is important and is the most effective way of dealing with the problems.
Mr. Butcher : There is no difference between us on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) was not able to stay for the winding-up speech for reasons I entirely understand, so I record my intention to write to him about the confiscation of drug barons' money. I am sure that my colleagues at the Home Office will be advised of his comments. Drug pushers and drug barons are vermin, in the strict meaning of the word. They are the lowest of the low. I do not think that anyone in the country would stand in the way of a Government who came down heavily on those people and used the panoply of measures available to the state and to this Chamber to deal with them. Certainly no teacher would disagree with that statement.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is absolutely right that alcohol is a greater danger as a substance of abuse, by a factor of 10 to 1. During the past few years, we have all looked at the problem of what was dubbed the lager lout and the yob mentality. I agree with the hon. Lady --I, too, am worried about the way in which excessive drinking seems to exacerbate the yob mentality. The statistics on convictions for drunkenness are frightening. In 1987, more than 35,000 people were convicted of aggravated drunkenness, which essentially means being drunk and disorderly, and 6,500 were convicted of drunkenness. In addition some 40,000 people were much the worse for drink and received cautions. That comes to over 80,000 cases of public intoxication. What sort of example does that set our young people? Schools try, through personal and social education to inculcate into young people important values about respect for others and responsibility for one's own actions. They are not helped by that sort of behaviour from so-called adults or media coverage of such behaviour. Schools cannot do it all. I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under- Lyme that we need localised campaigns and a personal approach with experts on the spot. They should be given the freedom to pursue the problems with the appropriate backing from the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) made a broad variety of perceptive points. As he is the chairman of the all-party group, we would expect no less from him. He has helped many of us by bringing forward ideas for the future.
Now that we have had this debate and have agreed on our objectives and the tactics to be used, we are legitimately entitled to take the initiative in Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes mentioned various European bodies with which we can deal. In terms of demand reduction we have a number of ideas that we could fruitfully share with our European colleagues through the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. I am happy to initiate that process by making our paperwork available to the European network and inviting fellow Ministers within the European Community who are dealing with similar programmes to send their policy documents back to me. My hon. Friend has hit on an important point. If he is looking for a powerful response to what he said, I can tell him that I will take that initiative. Let us hope that it bears fruit.
I pay tribute yet again to the drug education co-ordinators who are soon to be known as health education co-ordinators. I should also like to pay tribute to the Life education centres. They have impressed many hon. Members and I welcomed the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes about the work of those
Column 703centres. I met representatives from the organisation recently and I am sure that they have an important part to play in promoting healthy attitudes among young people. I know that they work closely with schools and the drug education co-ordinators. They have been successful in persuading the private sector to devote resources to their work. Local education authorities will, if they choose, be able to spend part of the £7 million that they will be receiving next year to make use of the centres in their schools.
I shall look carefully at the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) about Schools Outreach and ACET. His account of his experiences in the United States was fascinating and terrifying. We should be constructively terrified--if that is the correct use of the term- -about what could happen under worse circumstances if we do nothing. We should use that constructive tension in the House and in Whitehall to positive good effect. I detect the correct atmosphere in which to release that tension in positive, helpful and perceptive policies.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) also endorsed the Life education centres. I hope that I have satisfied him on the question of the curriculum. I shall write to him about the timetable. He kept asking me about that and all I can say is that it will be dealt with as soon as possible.
I thank all hon. Members for their observations. The use of the word "historic" may in this case not be an exaggeration.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
That, at the sitting on Monday 24th July, the Motion in the name of the Prime Minister for the Adjournment of the House may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the expiration of the time for opposed business ; and shall lapse three hours after it has been made, if not previously disposed of.
That, at the sitting on Wednesday 26th July, notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1)(b) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), Mr. Speaker shall put any Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motions relating to Social Security not more than three hours after the first such Motion has been entered upon. That, in respect of the Extradition Bill [ Lords ] and the Continental Shelf Bill [ Lords ], notices of amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a Second time.-- [Mr. Sackville.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Sackville.]
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : I listened with interest to the previous debate, and I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment who has arrived hot-foot from her Department. There is no greater contrast between the issues in the previous debate, which dealt with the agonies caused to humankind, and the subject we are about to debate--wildlife and nature conservation in Great Britain. It is the first time that the hon. Lady has had the opportunity to debate the matter in the House and to put forward the Government's view, so I am grateful for the opportunity of the debate, albeit it late on a Friday afternoon.
It offers us the chance to take stock of wildlife conservation in Britain and to examine the impact of a sustained period of Conservative government on Britain's record. It is a matter of great public issue, and the huge membership of organisations such as the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds shows the extent to which people's interest is easily translated into positive commitment.
As someone with a lifelong interest in the natural world and the natural history of these islands, I had become used to the bipartisan approach which characterised British policy on wildlife conservation in the pre- Thatcher era. While personally I would always put more emphasis on wildlife conservation, that would not have signified a political difference between our respective parties.
I regret that the battle to protect the fraction of remaining wildlife habitat is a cause for political differences between the Government and the Opposition. The Government have signalled their departure from the historical bipartisanship, and in administering their new treatment the patient will also be the victim. The economic dogma that has been forced on so many other parts of British life is now threatening even what remains of our indigenous wildlife. Natural history is a particularly sensitive guinea pig, for damage inflicted on ecosystems often can never be rectified.
I shall say a few words about why the issue is important. We could legitimately talk about the right of species other than homo sapiens to continued existence on this planet, and I am sure that the Minister would have a valid contribution to that debate. However, a more accessible case for nature conservation involves the benefit that homo sapiens can derive from nature. I am delighted that my own Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Battersea, (Mr. Bowis), is here, listening intently, but in case I sound like a Thatcherite I should make it clear that I mean the benefit derived from observation rather than exploitation of the natural world.
The value of a varied and rich natural environment is impossible to quantify, but anyone who has walked the moors above Llanbrynmair, watched bearded reedlings on the Norfolk Broads or seen a peregrine stoop on to its prey will have experienced the value and delight of the natural world. It enriches and humbles those who observe it, and, as with any asset, its value increases with scarcity. We have reached a point where the remaining natural habitat in most of Britain is, by virtue of that scarcity, worthy of protection in all but the most exceptional cases.
Column 705I shall not feel able to explain the actions of my generation to those yet to come if we do not cease the onslaught we have unleashed on most species and habitats in this country. The importance of the study of nature rests not only with its inherent interest but with the effect that an understanding of nature can have on the tolerance and maturity of young people. That study requires the raw material to be widely available.
I should like to put on record particular victims of that onslaught that have been denied protection by the Government. This will necessarily be highly selective because the litany of important sites and habitats that have been destroyed with the connivance, or at least through the inaction, of the Government would more than fill the time available in this debate.
An obvious place to start is the Flow country of Caithness and Sutherland. No one with an interest in conservation in Britain can be unfamiliar with the battles between conservationists and accountants over this area. On what side have the Government come down in that test case? A recent report by the Highland regional council on the potential for further afforestation of the Flow country reached conclusions entirely at odds with the Government's specialist advisory agency, the Nature Conservancy Council. The Secretary of State for Scotland acknowledged that divergence of view when responding to the Highland regional council's report by saying, "It is proper to record that the proposed strategy does not totally remove the potential for conflict between conservation and forestry."
That was the understatement of the year. The report of the Highland regional council recommends further planting of 40,000 hectares, much of which is on land of incomparable value for landscape and wildlife purposes. The Nature Conservancy Council wants no further planting. In this thorny dispute, the Government acted by accepting the Highland regional council's recommendation that
"consultation with the NCC should in future take place only where tree planting is proposed on existing or potential SSSIs." In other words, landscape of the value of Caithness and Sutherland, with its aesthetic beauty and value as a wildlife habitat, is to be denied any protection unless it has been categorised as a site of special scientific interest.
The Government reacted to that potential for conflict, which they recognised, by capitulating to the commercial forestry interests and overruling the concerns of their conservation advisers. The result will be afforestation approval such as that announced on 19 January, under which a further 1,400 acres will be planted, and the most recent announcement on 12 July that another 800 acres will be destroyed for ever.
Another highly sensitive area is what little remains of Dorset heathland, which is home to the marsh gentian, smooth snake, sand lizard, hobby and Dartford warbler. A little over 20 years ago, 100, 000 acres of that wildlife-rich habitat remained. Today, 14,000 acres of scattered fragments remain. That total will be further reduced by the Department of the Environment's recent decision on the crucial planning decision at Canford heath. The inadequate measures under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 mean that what is left, even after the Secretary of State's depradations, is being devalued by deliberate mismanagement.
A further site of major importance is the lowland raised peat bog on the Shropshire-Clwyd border. The majority of that area is under threat from peat extraction. Fens,
Column 706whixall and bettesfield mosses support the large heath butterfly, raft spider and bog bush cricket. But because of planning consent for exploitation of the vital feature of this area, it may not support those or any other important species for very long.
In my native Wales, the Cardiff bay barrage threatens the vital feeding grounds of thousands of wading birds, in a site of special scientific interest unique for its accessibility for the general public--all because developers desire a view over water, however polluted, rather than the rich estuarine mud that is so valuable to wildlife.
Other important sites threatened by the inadequate protection offered by the Government are Oxleas wood in Greenwich, the Cambrian mountains, mid- Kent's area of outstanding natural beauty and West Mersea meadow in Essex. Species as well as sites are under pressure. In the Somerset levels, snipe populations have declined by 68 per cent. over the past 10 years. Nationally, hen harriers are down to 450 breeding pairs ; the corncrake population has declined to 750 calling birds ; stone curlews have declined from 1,000 pairs in the 1930s to 160 pairs today. In respect of all those species, Britain has national and international responsibilities.
It is against this background that we must view the direction in which the Government have signalled they intend to go. That is not a background of maintaining the status quo or even of a gradual decline. It involves a wholesale onslaught unleashed at a time when there is less than ever to protect.
It is most unfortunate that I am obliged to refer to the record of the present Secretary of State for the Environment. The right hon. Gentleman has recently been referred to by distinguished observers as "an ecological hooligan" whose record is "nothing short of a disaster". Those references are unnecessarily restrained. The appointment of this environmental Genghis Khan to oversee the management of our remaining natural assets was a kick in the teeth to all who care about the environment and those with an interest in the countryside and wildlife in particular.
The natural world can breath a sigh of relief that the staggering double standards of the originator of the NIMBY syndrome are to be directed elsewhere in the very near future. However, we will still have the legacy of his period in office to contend with. I fear that we must consider the steps that the Government have taken to combat the threats that I outlined earlier.
As well as directly damaging the environment, the Government have a long record of opposing initiatives that would protect it. The most obvious cases are their opposition to the flora, fauna and habitats directive and their minimalist interpretation of the environmental impact assessment directive. The Government have altered the planning regulations and they scuppered the Hedgerows Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). In a recent parliamentary answer, the Minister said that the draft directive on flora, fauna and habitat was unacceptable to all EC member states. However, she did not say that Britain was uniquely hostile to that conservation measure at all the meetings in which it was discussed. To hide behind the minor reservations of others is deliberately misleading. Why does not the Minister have the courage to say that she ordered Britain's total opposition, and explain why? Why did Britain scupper that directive?
Column 707The environmental impact assessment directive is a similar case. Britain was not successful in denying all member states European action to safeguard the environment in relation to that directive. However, the interpretation of the directive at home has been as mean-spirited as it is legally possible for it to be.
Inaction has also spelt doom for thousands of miles of British hedgerows. The Government estimate that 500 miles of hedgerows are lost per year. Authoritative independent estimates put the loss at 4, 000 miles per annum- -an increase from a loss of 2,900 miles a few years ago. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, planning decisions
"have all too often given procedence to the developers' interests over environmental considerations even when sites of national or international importance are involved."
Perhaps it is appropriate that I should conclude my remarks by referring to the Nature Conservancy Council, the fragmentation of which is the Secretary of State's valedictory two-fingered gesture to the conservation movement in Britain. A word that is frequently used when discussing that piece of vandalism is "capitulation". It refers to the well-known hostility of vested and landed interests and of certain individuals and organisations representing them to the Nature Conservancy Council. They disliked the council because it prevented them from doing what they wanted to do--to damage the environment. Those voices were particularly heard in Scotland, and the Secretary of State has capitulated to them, making the NCC a victim of its own success, as one of its senior employees put it yesterday. By breaking up the one body which could take the national overview of particular conservation issues, the Government are damaging the cause of conservation in two main ways. It is well known that in certain environmental battles local interests have frequently been in the anti- conservationist corner. In holding the ring, the NCC, as a national body, was able to assess the significance of the environmental sacrifices from a national or international perspective. For instance, a particular wildlife habitat may be very little valued by those who live nearby, but be of enormous national significance and attract naturalists from far afield because of its importance as a reserve for an internationally threatened rare species. In such cases, a national organisation can weigh the local and national interest. A regional structure cannot do that. That is why the NCC is being fragmented.
A regional organisation is also unable to speak for the whole country, both in the kind of international forums and conventions which are increasingly important in wildlife conservation, and to the Government at home. Clearly, the Government do not want to hear what the Nature Conservancy Council has to say. Their ears have been closed for the past few years, but just because they are determined not to listen does not mean that there are not others who are glad of Britain's voice in international gatherings. That will now be extinguished.
According to its chairman, who was not consulted on its dismemberment, the Nature Conservancy Council decision makes little sense in respect of wildlife--presumably, one of the NCC's main concerns--in national, international or economic terms. He has pointed out :
Column 708"wildlife issues are no respecter of geographical or political boundaries and I am greatly concerned that complete separation will undermine the scientific capability of the NCC and prevent effective policy advice being provided to the Government."
The Government do not care. The director general of the Nature Conservancy Council has complained :
"This reorganisation throws the baby out with the bathwater". I can only echo the words of both men.
I hope that the proposal to privatise national nature reserves will be dropped at the same time as the madman who conceived it. A more naked piece of partisan dogma is hard to imagine. On top of a 5 per cent. cut in the NCC's budget this year, which has prevented it from buying several reserves of outstanding value, it has been ordered to prepare for sale 62 of the jewels in this country's wildlife crown, four of them imminently. Can the Minister give a commitment that this madcap idea will be ditched, or is it the intention to starve the NCC of funds, dismember it and force it to sell its priceless reserves, in line with the Government's doctrinaire approach to so many valuable public assets?
This is an opportunity for the Minister to tell the House and the country what the Government intend. I hope that she will take it in answering these questions frankly, honestly and fully and that she will give us more warning as a country than she and the Secretary of State for the Environment gave the chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council of his organisation's fate. I am afraid that I can only suspect the worst. I have become used to that in observing the Government's record on conservation, wildlife and the natural world. 2.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies). As he said modestly in his opening remarks, he has had a long-standing interest in our country's natural habitat. We are privileged to live in a country with such splendid flora and fauna. I endorse his remarks about the importance of that natural heritage to our young people. Many people do excellent work in opening the eyes of youngsters and in explaining and demonstrating all that is around us in the natural environment. We live in a country in which about 30 per cent. of our countryside is designated in one way or another-- as an area of outstanding natural beauty, as a site of special scientific interest, as part of one of our splendid 10 national parks or as part of the green belt, which has doubled since the Conservative party came to power.
Before talking more generally about some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, I should like to respond to his point about the Nature Conservancy Council. This is an opportune moment to explain some of the thinking on this matter and perhaps to reassure the hon. Gentleman and others who may have misunderstood the purpose behind the proposals.
Many of the hon. Gentleman's points reflect the remarkable increase in public interest and involvement in environmental issues. This is illustrated by the growth in the membership of voluntary bodies right across the spectrum, from Greenpeace to the National Trust. The Government welcome these developments, which are channelling so much energy into improving the
Column 709environment. They are increasingly being complemented by the greening of our major industries, and the new emphasis on conservation in agriculture.
The Government are also intervening firmly and decisively on the side of conservation--contrary to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It is worth recalling briefly how radically the legislative framework, and the role of bodies like the Nature Conservancy Council, have changed over the past two decades. The watershed was the Wildlife and Countryside Act passed in 1981. The Act created a protected network of habitats--sites of special scientific interest--designated by the NCC which now cover 7 per cent. of the land surface of Great Britain. It protects most species of wild birds, and over 200 other animals and plants, again with the active involvement and expertise of the NCC. It introduced marine nature reserves, widened the definition of national nature reserves and accelerated the trend towards management agreements with farmers and landowners to protect many of our key sites. The Countryside Commission for England and Wales, too, was given important new responsibilities by the Act, as well as a separate status as a grant-in-aid body.
The Government have enabled--
It being half-past Two o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put .
Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Sackville.]
Mrs. Bottomley : The Government have enabled both the NCC and the Countryside Commission to implement the provisions by substantially increasing their resources. Taken together, the grants for the two organisations now total £62.28 million, compared with £13.4 million in 1979-80, a rise in real terms of 134 per cent. That shows clearly the Government's commitment to our natural habitat.
The NCC, in particular, has been transformed by its expanded duties and resources. When the council was established in 1949 covering the whole of Great Britain, it was designed to be a small body, compared primarily with research. It had relatively few staff or executive responsibilities. In 1960, it had only about 200 staff spread across the whole of Great Britain. It would not have made sense then to establish separate bodies, or even under the Nature Conservancy Act 1973 which divided the NCC from the Natural Environment Research Council.
Today, the NCC has grown more than fivefold, and has more than 1, 100 staff. More important still, many of those staff have to carry out their duties--designating and monitoring SSSIs, negotiating management agreements and co-operating with other bodies, both statutory and voluntary--in areas of the country that have very different circumstances and needs. These are not simply academic or scientific tasks. SSSIs for example, can affect the livelihood both of individual owners and of the community of which they are part. Great sensitivity is required in applying such designations in a way that will obtain grassroots support, whether from farmers, foresters or conservationists. The Government firmly believe that it is only through the voluntary support of the whole community that successful conservation can be achieved. The right way to proceed is to work with the grain of those who live and work in the countryside and not to try to antagonise or alienate them unduly.
The NCC has grappled with the problems brought by its expanded role and it has many achievements to its
Column 710name, not least the establishment of the current SSSI network. I have visited the NCC in Peterborough and I have been most impressed with much of the excellent and high quality work it is undertaking. However, its three-tier structure is inevitably over- centralised and remote from those areas where the nature conservation effort takes place on the ground. Our proposals to create separate agencies in England, Scotland and Wales will remove one of the tiers and establish much clearer lines of accountability and responsibility. This in turn should improve the efficiency and sensitivity with which conservation functions are carried out and provide better opportunities to carry forward the cause of conservation in ways that command the support of the whole community.
I feel sure that the House will also agree that it is an anachronism for the Department of the Environment to be responsible for the appointment and funding of the NCC in Scotland and Wales. The Secretaries of State for those countries already exercise many responsibilities for conservation, including several new ones, such as the declaration of marine nature reserves and the making of nature conservation orders, bestowed on them by the 1981 Act.
It is only logical that they should be able to exercise those powers in partnership with agencies specifically attuned to the needs of Scotland and Wales. After all, that is how we organise other aspects of Government work involving the delegation of executive responsibilities to separate statutory bodies, such as the conservation of the built heritage. English Heritage does its job extremely effectively in England and separate, equally competent professional bodies offer similar advice and undertake a similar task in Wales and Scotland. I do not think that the hon. Member for Caerphilly or anyone else should regard the new arrangements for nature conservancy with suspicion or mistrust.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales have already made plain, they look forward to the opportunity to take a clearer responsibility for the conservation of those countries' precious and unique natural heritage. And it is not just the Secretaries of State. I note that the Western Mail carried a leader responding to the announcement that the Government proposed to merge the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission in Wales, and welcoming the fact that the decisions would not be placed fairly and squarely with the Secretary of State for Wales, to be made on the basis of advice given to him.
I should emphasise that the new bodies will have a similar constitution to those of the existing NCC and the Countryside Commission--that is to say, they will be separate grant-in-aid bodies with specific statutory functions. They will not, of course, be voluntary bodies like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or Friends of the Earth. But they will not be Government Departments either, and they will be expected to carry out their work under the supervision of their own chairmen and boards.
In Scotland and Wales, our proposals are also designed to secure integrated agencies, covering both wildlife and landscape conservation as well as informal recreation and access to the countryside. In adopting this approach in Scotland and Wales but not in England, we have taken account of several factors. First, there is a much higher density of population in England, and consequently even
Column 711greater pressure on land from many legitimate but often conflicting interests. The hon. Gentleman referred to some. It therefore makes sense to retain separate bodies--one to protect wildlife for its own sake, and the other to cover landscape, recreation and access issues.
Secondly, a much higher proportion of the land area of both Scotland and Wales is composed of natural, or semi-natural habitat, much of it already covered by formal designations and more appropriate to a strategic approach embracing all relevant interests. As the consultation document published by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland points out, there is a complex interaction between flora, fauna, scenery and human activity. In both Scotland and Wales this can best be covered by single agencies providing a one-door service to Government, farmers, conservationists and the wider public.
Mention has been made in respect of the Nature Conservancy Council and others of the need to preserve the scientific base of the NCC. Only yesterday I met representatives of Wildlife Link, an association of well- regarded organisations of high standard operating in the field, and one of their main concerns was the maintenance of the scientific base of the NCC.
The Government fully accept that the work of the three successor bodies must be underpinned by rigorous science, using the data and expertise that the council has built up over the past 40 years. We shall, therefore, ensure that provision is made for the Government to maintain a Great Britain overview an that each body has access to adequate scientific advice on a Great Britain basis where this is desirable.
We are ready to discuss how best this might be done. Options include in- house provisions or actions by outside bodies such as universities and research councils, arrangements for the pooling of data and expertise among the agencies and the use of common protocols and data protection techniques. It is important to recognise however that the science base is only one aspect of the NCC's activities and now takes proportionately less of its resources following the increase in the council's executive responsibilities, especially those for SSSIs. The NEC is not a research council and already commissions the majority of its original scientific work from other bodies such as the Natural Environment Research Council and universities.
It is perfectly proper for the Government to take account of matters other than the interests of the science directorate of the NCC in deciding the appropriate organisational model for the functions of nature conservation in this country. We are confident that the concerns expressed by the chairman of the NCC, to whom I pay tribute for his distinguished contribution over the years, and others can be readily accommodated within the organisational arrangements that we intend to make. We believe that, when stripped of emotion and political hyperbole, these concerns boil down to a fairly narrow compass which, although important in themselves, do not undermine the Government's case for the reorganisation of these bodies. It is certainly not a concern about costs and the formulation of policy at national and international level. On costs, the Government would wholly reject any suggestion that the real motive of the proposals is
Column 712somehow to cut spending on conservation. Our aim is to improve the delivery of conservation services in all three countries, while maintaining the scientific integrity that underpins many of the NCC's activities. We will also take account of short-term costs, such as those incurred by staff relocation, in deciding what level of resources to recommend to the House in the next public expenditure White Paper.
On national and international policy, there seems to be a widespread but mistaken belief that, because wildlife crosses political boundaries, the machinery of Government must do likewise. It is of greater importance to ensure that the agencies are effectively protecting wildlife at grassroots level in local communities and in co-operation with voluntary bodies such as the country trusts. When advice is needed at the national and international level, we shall make arrangements to ensure that the new agencies are able to provide it, and that the Government are able to act on it, whether in Brussels or in the various international wildlife conventions to which the United Kingdom is party, whether the Ramsar or Berne conventions. It is important to remember that the Government, not individual Departments, decide whether to ratify international conventions and agreements on behalf of the entire United Kingdom. Consistency will also be maintained between the criteria used for designating sites of national or international importance in each of the three countries.
It is understandable that the Great Britain headquarters of the NCC finds it difficult at the moment to accept that there is a better way to organise the council's work. However, there is clearly a strong current of favourable opinion in Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, it was noticeable that the chairman of the Scottish Wildlife Trust Ltd. and the convener of the Scottish Landowners Federation wrote in considered and positive terms to The Scotsman last week. The chairman of the trust believes that the measures
"could turn out to be the most effective and imaginative in our generation".
The Government intend to prove him right.
The hon. Gentleman referred also to concern about habitat damage and other issues.
Mr. Ron Davies : An Adjournment debate is an opportunity to pursue a matter, but I will be brief. Does the Minister understand that the Government's direct refusal to consult with the bodies that are involved-- the Nature Conservancy Council, the Countryside Commission, regional interests, or Wildlife Link and the constituent parts of that body--was bound to cause a great deal of anger and suspicion? There is precious little use in her complimenting individuals when she withheld from the opportunity for prior consultation. If she values them, why on earth did she not consult them before she took the decision?
I recognise that there is some merit in merging the NCC and the Countryside Commission in Scotland and Wales, but there are two major concerns. The Minister has not spelt out how she intends to ensure that national and international value is given to parochial arguments. For example, in the case of SSSIs in Cardiff bay, how can we ensure that the international perspective is maintained? Will she please make it clear that, when Britain speaks in
Column 713international forums, there will be a unified voice and that we will not have a fragmented approach to matters of international importance?
Mrs. Bottomley : I am pleased to respond to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. For some time, there have been discussions with the NCC about the right way of proceeding and the appropriate form that its structure should take. It is also the case that my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside, has written to Wildlife Link in response to correspondence, making it clear that concerns and views about the way to proceed would be welcomed. The decision has been taken about the structure. Many of the hon. Gentleman's points are concerned with the manner in which the work will be undertaken and the importance of conserving an ability to speak on behalf of the United Kingdom as a whole. It is clear that on many occasions, when the United Kingdom Government must take a view, they are working with a co-ordinated view between Departments. We do not anticipate that that will cause difficulties, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's concerns are properly taken into account when we finalise the arrangements. Discussions are going on with those who work at the NCC and elsewhere about the most appropriate way to respond.
The hon. Gentleman referred to habitat damage. It is important that our system of SSSIs, which is now approaching 5,500, and the other designations in the countryside, are given value. I would like to do justice in