|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Grist : I hope that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside is pleased with that. I am staggered by the opposition of Labour Members, who have so misunderstood and misrepresented the aims and purposes of our proposals. I have twice been in hospital this year, and my wife and younger son have also been in hospital, all of us as patients of the NHS. I cannot speak highly enough of the care, skill and dedication of our health staff. It is to give them more fulfilling careers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) pointed out, and to give even better treatment to their customers--us, as patients--that I commend these proposals to the House. I look forward to the Committee debates, in which they will be examined in detail and when the public will learn precisely what is in the legislation instead of listening to the rubbish that they have heard from Labour Members, their trade union friends, the British Medical Association and many others.
[It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.]
Debate to be resumed upon Monday 11 December.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.). That the Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act 1979 (Repeal of Section 31) Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 2098), dated 14th November 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th November, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102 (Standing Committees on European Community Documents). That this House take note of European Community Document No. 8680/89 relating to pigmeat prices ; and supports the Government's intention to negotiate measures which take account of the interests of consumers and pigmeat producers in the United Kingdom.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]
Question agreed to.
Roads (South London)
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West) : The petition that I present is signed by a vast number of people from all over London, particularly from south London, many of them from the borough of Croydon, which you and I, Mr. Speaker, have the honour to represent. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir W. Clark) is here tonight, as I would expect, given his association with this matter. The petition contains over 10,000 signatures. Greenlink of Croydon and Mr. Delamore are closely involved. It urges the Secretary of State for Transport not to proceed with his plans for major new roads, which would be so damaging to the environment and the interests and welfare of residents not only of Croydon but of London and south London in particular. It says :
Wherefore your petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Transport to recognise the great concern caused to the community in Streatham by the major road-building options contained in the South London Assessment Study and by other major roadbuilding proposed or planned for South London, in particular the East London River Crossing ; and that the manner of recognition should be as follows :-
(1) He should dismiss all options in the London Assessment Studies which propose major building.
(2) He should cancel the plan to build the East London River Crossing.
It also suggests that he should promote investment in a major improvement of the public transport infrastructure.
It ends :
And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray &c. To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : I asked for this debate because I am greatly concerned about the Government's policy for the nature conservation movement and I am glad to note that my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who speak for the Labour party on Welsh and Scottish matters, are here for this debate. I know that they share my concern.
There is a mood of great uncertainty within the nature conservation movement, as the traditional financial grants from the Government, via the Nature Conservancy Council, are awarded on an annual basis rather than, as they used to be, on a three-year rolling programme. This reflects the uncertainty over the fate of the NCC, and the most immediate effect is to lower staff morale. A further serious concern of these bodies is the haemorrhage of personnel that they have suffered since the end of the community programme. According to the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, since the change from the community programme to employment training, the number of trainees working for naturalist trusts has declined from 2,300 to 600, and the number of trusts participating from 37 to 30. The implications for conservation work on the ground are obvious.
However, much the biggest concern of the voluntary conservation organisations is the dark shadow that has been cast over nature conservation in Great Britain by the intended dismemberment of the Nature Conservancy Council.
The Conservative party's desperate wish to increase its support in Scotland is behind the ambush, for that is what it was, with even the chairman of the NCC, the body that is responsible for assisting the voluntary movement, deliberately kept in ignorance.
The Tory party's centralising policies have made it deeply unpopular in some areas of the United Kingdom. Thinking that that unpopularity would be mitigated in Scotland if it masqueraded as the party of devolution, the Government have dreamt up a scheme which achieves two of their objectives at once. By dismembering the NCC and weakening conservation, they can encourage their remaining supporters in Scotland, who have forestry and land-owning interests. Simultaneously, they have wasted the genuine opportunity that exists in the Principality for closer co-operation between the NCC and the Countryside Commission by tossing Wales into the melting pot with Scotland and dressing it up as devolution.
The hostility of some vested and landed interests in Scotland to the NCC is well known. Mr. Ian Prestt, the director general of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Europe's largest voluntary conservation movement, with more than 600,000 members, said : "What they want is a body which does not stand up for conservation and cannot press the conservation case".
One of the main battlegrounds between those interests and conservationists has been the Flow country of Caithness and Sutherland. Here the Government sold the pass when they accepted the report of the Highland regional council and agreed that a further 100,000 hectares
Column 572of prime land should be afforested. The NCC was opposed to any further afforestation but it was overruled and, to add insult to injury, the Secretary of State for Scotland decided to change the rules. In future, the NCC was to be allowed to give its opinion on afforestation only where sites of special scientific interest would be affected.
But that was not enough for the landowners of Scotland. According to the publication Forestry and British Timber, September 1989, a new organisation was needed which would
"sweep away the dross created by indiscriminate conservation." In meeting that demand the Secretary of State for Wales and for Scotland have committed the Government to a political gamble, hoping to increase the measly 16 per cent. of parliamentary seats which they currently hold in those two countries. The stakes are a mitigation of the Government's deep unpopularity in Wales and Scotland on the upside, versus further damage to the Government's bogus green credentials on the downside.
That is how I see the situation, but just in case the Minister does not share my analysis--unlikely, but just in case--let us look at some reactions of the experts to the Government's proposals. We could not do better than to start with the views of a man who has given his professional life to nature conservation and who rose through the ranks to become chief scientist at the NCC--Derek Ratcliffe. He was singled out by the chairman of the NCC in his annual address a couple of weeks ago when he said :
"his contribution to the conservation of Britain's wildlife, in particular its birdlife, is almost unparalleled and should not be allowed to go unnoticed."
Dr. Ratcliffe's distinguished work as a naturalist and scientist is combined with a level of respect and popularity within conservation circles such as to make his views indispensable to any informed discussion of nature conservation, statutory or voluntary. Writing in The Times on 15 July, he said :
"The Government's proposals to dismember the NCC and amalgamate its functions with those of the countryside commissions in Scotland and Wales are a potential disaster for nature conservation in Britain." He went on to say :
"Just when growing awareness of the global scale of environmental problems demands increasing integration of conservation policies internationally, Nicholas Ridley takes the pervesely backwards step of pulling apart the national official agency for nature conservation."
Another important figure in the NCC until recently was Lord Buxton. In resigning from the NCC council after 40 years of involvement in nature conservation, he said :
"I am unable to go along with purely political decisions which in a UK environmental context look trivial and opportunistic. Nor, as a Conservative supporter, do I believe that the proposals will gain anything with the electorate north of the border, whereas they may do serious damage to the party's conservation standing throughout the rest of the United Kingdom."
To those distinguished voices can be added those of senior figures in the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Wildlife Link, Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Scottish Wildlife Trust Ltd., the Fauna
Column 573and Flora Preservation Society and the Marine Conservation Society. I could go on and on. The views of those and other organisations represent as complete a rejection of the Government's plans as could possibly be found.
Faced with that, the Government brought out in Scotland what they described as a consultation paper. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why they did not do likewise in Wales. If the Government are concerned to support the voluntary nature conservation bodies in Scotland and Wales--to encourage them, to nurture their work and to improve their morale and increase their enthusiasm--why did they not see fit to consult them?
The groups to which the document was sent were hand-picked, and it might therefore have been expected to be well received. The Secretary of State for Scotland claims that 98, or over 60 per cent., of the responses were in favour. Of course, with such an exercise, it is possible to fix the desired figures in advance with a fair degree of accuracy. The Secretary of State might have obtained 100 per cent. support if he had sent his consultation document only to foresters and their accountants.
Other scrutineers, however, have come up with figures very different from his 60 per cent. claim. According to the NCC trade unions' interpretation, only 14 per cent. of responses were unequivocally supportive ; 45 per cent. were equivocal, 39 per cent. opposed and only 2 per cent. indeterminate. I will take their assessment rather than that of the Secretary of State, of whose claim Scottish Friends of the Earth said :
"Only a statement which clearly recognises the fact that the Scottish Office has not won approval for their proposal to split the NCC would have been credible. Anything else is bald deceit". Talking of bald deceit, something close to that was practised by the Secretary of State for the Environment when he put out a press briefing to the effect that the Leader of the Opposition supported the break-up of the NCC. That referred to an acknowledgement sent by my right hon. Friend's constituency secretary to the Welsh committee of the Countryside Commission, thanking it for sending a copy of its annual review, which contained a passage welcoming the proposal to establish a countryside council for Wales. Unbelievably, that was presented to the press as my right hon. Friend's welcoming the break-up of the NCC.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) has made no secret of the fact that, as a Welsh Member of Parliament, he is in favour of strengthening nature conservation in Wales. No one who is serious about that goal believes that breaking up the NCC is the way to achieve it, and that is why the Opposition's line--in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment--is, "Don't dismember the NCC."
My hon. Friend's view is also that of the voluntary conservation organisations, which share my assessment of the political dimension that I outlined earlier. Their concerns stem from the apprehension that the proposal is politically inspired and intended to weaken conservation. Obviously, splitting the NCC will direct its limited resources into duplicating administrative services, and will lead to a reduction in conservation work on the ground by both the voluntary bodies and the NCC.
More seriously, nature conservation in a small island such as Britain needs to be seen from a national or, better
Column 574still, an international perspective. It is becoming universally recognised that, when it comes to issues of the environment, country borders count for nothing. The Department of the Environment recognises that : it was the Department that said, in its March 1989 document "Environment in Trust" :
"The environment knows no boundaries. Many issues go beyond the borders of individual countries".
According to the director general of the RSPB,
"A GB approach is absolutely essential. Our islands share so much in common that political boundaries are really irrelevant when considering habitats and species. Of more relevance are the coasts, lowlands and uplands, and a measure of each is found in each country. The SSSI system takes full account of this GB approach. The fact that Scotland has large areas of peatland could lead a Scottish-based body to set priorities which do not take into account the truly international significance of the peatlands. Thus for parochial reasons, a few SSSIs would suffice ; what then for the great majority of the Flow Country?"
At the heart of the matter are the responsibilities that the whole of Britain has for our remaining wildlife heritage. When seen from a Great Britain perspective, relatively little remains, so a high premium is put on what is left. When seen from a purely Welsh or Scottish perspective, a much higher proportion of the wildlife assets remain, so sites will tend to be treated as less valuable. That is inevitable, if the country agency is only, as the Government acknowledge, responsive to that country's needs.
The environment is one particular area where devolution of powers is entirely inappropriate, for two reasons. First, the highly complex interrelation of environmental factors pays absolutely no respect whatever to our artificial political boundaries. Secondly, if we possess a dwindling asset which benefits all of us, in Britain and the wider world, it is ridiculous to assess its value only from the perspective of those lucky enough to live alongside. It belongs to all of us, not just those few.
It is precisely because it is natural--or God-given, to the religiously inclined--that we should all have a say in determining its fate. Therefore, the decisions that affect our common heritage must be made at a high level, following common principles. Natural and environmental assets are unique. Therefore, they are uniquely unsuited to devolution. I stress that, in case it be thought that I am against devolution in general.
Even with a unified science base--or a genuinely independent co-ordinating committee, which is a million miles from the farcical body suggested by the Government--there are worrying portents for conservation action. The unified science base is not an end in itself, except in so far as it avoids duplication of effort and maintains consistent standards. It is only a means to objective assessment of scientific value. That is but the first step in the NCC's function, and a first step in the process of nurturing the voluntary bodies that do so much to identify the critical sites.
Equally important is the way in which that science is interpreted, the policy determined, and conservation action then taken. If the whole process is devolved, a divergence of results between the bodies of different countries is inevitable. The country with the poorest track record on conservation will have even greater scope to weaken conservation action on the ground. The Scottish establishment at least gets what it wants.
In case the Minister were to think that it is just the entire voluntary conservation movement and the Labour
Column 575party that are opposed to the plans for the NCC, I should like to give the views of those who actually work for the organisation--those of whom the NCC chairman said in presenting his annual report : "The country is lucky to have such a dedicated and hard-working body of people as the staff of the Nature Conservancy Council. With them, dedication is a way of life. The best thank you we can give them is not to let them down."
I have heard that six of their number in Scotland, and six in Wales--12 out of 1,100--support the Government's proposals. Those figures may not be quite right, but what is beyond doubt is that the overwhelming majority are bitterly opposed. Sir William Wilkinson, in his last term as chairman of the NCC, has the support of those dedicated individuals, as they have publicly made clear. He in turn does not want to let them down. He will be forced to do so if the Government persist in their tragically misguided purpose. I appeal to the Minister to heed the advice contained in a recent Conservative Bow Group pamphlet which said :
"This change is, with respect, a serious mistake In splitting up the NCC, the Government will be weakening (possibly deliberately) the official conservation agencies. To split up the NCC, as proposed by the Government, would require primary legislation. The Government should not proceed with this, either in the Green Bill or in the Planning Bill".
On this issue, I am happy to let that Conservative pamphlet have the last word.
If the Minister is sincere in his commitment to support the voluntary bodies I have mentioned which are concerned with saving the things that are precious in our natural heritage, and ensuring its protection, then he must announce that he will give them support. The most important way in which he can demonstrate that is by showing that the Government have had a rethink on this matter, which is central to nature conservation.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) for securing a debate on Government support for Britain's voluntary nature conservancy movement. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great interest in the countryside over the years, and I acknowledge his commitment, although I disagree with much of what he has said this evening.
In the minutes remaining, I shall respond to the points the hon. Gentleman raised about the Nature Conservancy Council, but first, I wish to consider the important role that voluntary organisations play. Generations of people have expressed a love of our natural heritage and, for many years, the voluntary bodies have acted as a catalyst to heighten public awareness and to convert concern into practical activity. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which the hon. Member mentioned, is celebrating its centenary year.
The voluntary sector has shown that it can educate the public about many issues and harness the necessary resources, enthusiasm and commitment for nature conservation. That has been in line with the Government's philosophy, which is to encourage and enable people to
Column 576help themselves. For those reasons, we are firmly committed to continue to support voluntary organisations.
I shall show that that support is substantial. It is channelled into many areas through Government agencies such as the Nature Conservancy Council, which runs its own grant programmes. It is also supported directly through the special grants programmes of Government Departments, including my own, and through participation in business sponsorship schemes, which we strongly support. As one might expect, the NCC, which is funded by my Department, is the chief donor of grants for nature conservation. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the council may give a grant for any purpose
"which, in their opinion, is conducive to nature conservation". Since the Government took office, they have increased the council's grant in aid, in real terms, by more than 160 per cent. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly is saying that that is too little, then he must be ashamed of the level of funding achieved when his own party was last in office.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Next year, the council will have some £4 million more to spend than this year, which is an increase above the rate of inflation. During the next three years we aim to increase funding of the NCC by 21 per cent. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a substantial sum, bearing in mind that further money will be available for the reorganisation of the NCC that we are contemplating.
The increase in funding next year will enable the council to increase the already significant amount it gives in grants. It is proposing to increase the funds allocated by almost 50 per cent., from £1.85 million this year to £2.7 million next year.
In general, it is for the NCC to decide how the funds should be allocated, but I understand that in recent years about 80 per cent. of the grants have gone to voluntary organisations.
The hon. Member expressed concern about the effect of our plans to restructure the NCC. He suggested that that would drastically alter the council's activities. I emphasise that there are no proposals to change its functions or powers. It will be an administrative and structural change only, and the new agencies will inherit, among other things, the council's grant-giving capacity.
The hon. Member suggested that there is almost universal hostility to these proposals in Wales. I do not think that that is the case. Indeed, we have had support from unexpected quarters. The hon. Member will know that we have a letter dated 5 November from the office of the Leader of the Opposition, saying that the right hon. Gentleman "welcomes the proposal to establish a Countryside Council for Wales."
Mr. Davies : The Minister clearly did not listen to what I said. I referred to that letter and explained that it was from a secretary in the Leader of the Opposition's Office. The letter made it clear that that was a specific reference to the establishment of a new body for Wales. I also stated that the official policy of the Opposition, endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, was expressed by our shadow Secretary of State for the Environment. In brief, it is, "Don't dismember the NCC."
Column 577That is the official policy endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister will not try to take us down that diversion for the remainder of this debate.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I understand that there has been a change of policy on the Labour side. This may be another U-turn. The Countryside Council for Wales, which was referred to in that letter is clearly the type of structure that we are proposing to set up. The right hon. Member's initial reaction was favourable.
Others have supported our proposals. The Welsh nationalists do not necessarily reflect all Welsh opinion, but I noticed that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) said on 17 July : "we welcome the fact that the Government have established an independent conservation body for Wales which the previous Labour Government failed to do."--[ Official Report, 17 July 1989 ; Vol. 157, c. 9.]
The hon. Member for Caerphilly himself said on 21 July, in more grudging tones :
"I recognise that there is some merit in merging the NCC and the Countryside Commission in Scotland and Wales".--[ Official Report, 21 July 1989 ; Vol. 157, c. 710.]
I accept that he went on to express major anxieties about that, but his initial reaction was not unfavourable.
We have been, and still are, in discussion with the NCC about the proposals. I draw the hon. Member's attention to a press release issued by the council's distinguished chairman, Sir William Wilkinson, on 13 November, in which he said that there was virtual unanimity on four issues, the most important of which was the first. He said : "there was agreement that independent, properly resourced Country Agencies with full appropriate scientific back up would provide the required support for nature conservation in their Countries, each reporting to its Secretary of State."
He also called for the establishment of a co-ordinating committee with an independent chairman. We are still considering the suggestion of a chairman, but we entirely agree that a co-ordinating committee should be set up by statute. We agree that the new country bodies should have a strong scientific base--an issue the hon. Gentleman raised. We also agree that there should be appropriate arrangements for handling Great Britain and international issues on a co-operative basis between the new bodies. We shall meet that requirement fully. The legislation that we are proposing will establish a joint statutory committee to enable the three countries' councils to carry out their statutory joint functions--to provide advice on Great Britain and international issues,
Column 578as suggested by the hon. Member. We are proceeding with that because we think it right for conservation purposes. We need to modernise the nature conservancy structure. There is widespread support for that. We believe that we can increase the effectiveness of the council at grass-roots level by devolving responsibility to the countries. In addition, that will give improved accountability to Ministers in each of those countries.
In the few remaining minutes, I shall touch on other sources of grant. My Department has substantial special grant programmes which are of assistance to the voluntary organisations mentioned in this debate. We provide under these programmes direct funding to voluntary bodies. In the current financial year, my Department has allocated well over £700,000 to 35 voluntary organisations involved in protecting and enhancing the environment and in environmental education. In Wales, more than £130,000 has been allocated to 21 groups. It is not always possible to continue funding all groups at the same level for ever. We wish to include new groups from time to time. It is not right that all voluntary groups should consider that they have permanent funding from Government sources ; in some cases, that may undermine the voluntary spirit which we seek to foster. We have a good record, not only on maintaining but on increasing funding. The sums are not always large. Some go to modest projects, such as grants to the Irish sea study group which is co-ordinating scientific knowledge of the Irish sea. Other grants are much larger, such as the £68,000 for the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. Finally, business sponsorship is important. Our role is not just to give grants but to channel funds from other sources into the voluntary nature conservation movement. That is why we launched the concept of business sponsorship of conservation in 1983. That has been highly successful. Government support for the nature conservancy movement has been substantial. We have always recognised the enormous contribution to practical conservation on the ground made by the voluntary sector and we shall continue to do so.
I shall end as I began, by thanking Britain's voluntary nature conservation movement for its energy, commitment and hard work. It will be enhanced rather than damaged by our proposals to reorganise the NCC along country lines.
Question put and agreed to .
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock .
|Written Answers Section