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Column 252covers the point. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that the Government, nature conservation agencies and local authorities will heed that fundamental requirement in all their actions relating to the directive.
I apologise to the House for that rather long, technical tirade. The regulations are highly technical. They will have a fundamental and long- lasting effect in the conservation of flora and fauna. I welcome that most wholeheartedly. Equally, I ask the Minister to give clarification on the 10 points that I have raised this evening. 8.8 pm
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : Can the Minister tell us exactly how the exclusions will work ? We all welcome the codification of the regulations in so far as they bring up to date the European habitats directive, although they are a month late and there are errors in their production, and so on. However, in at least one respect, they weaken the existing nature conservation provisions because of the ease of exclusion. I do not wish to appear to be spoiling the party tonight, but these are important issues as regards exactly how the exclusions will work.
I am extremely puzzled as to how the regulations are meant to apply and whether one can wriggle out of the protection measures through what one might call Henry VIII powers. In other words, if the Secretary of State decides that, in spite of the protection that has been conferred, he wants a development to take place--such as Twyford down or the Cardiff bay barrage--he can then just say that he has decided that there are reasons of an overriding public interest nature for developing. He can thereby reduce or eliminate altogether the nature conservation interest in a marsh, fen or hill, or in a wetland as was the case in the barrage that I mentioned.
The problem is that we always imagine, when we pass legislation of this type, that it confers real protection. It looks like a bulky document of 70 or 80 pages, it seems to repeat the words "nature conservation interest" and it appears to legislate to protect that interest. However, when one looks at the details, one sees that it is remarkably easy to wriggle out of the obligations if the Secretary of State feels like it. At other times, it seems easy when the European Commission feels like it.
It is difficult for us to accept that this is a wonderful piece of legislation when there are overriding Henry VIII powers to say that the nature conservation interest is secondary in a particular site to the socio -economic or other interests. Who decides whether it is really an overriding interest ? Is it the Secretary of State or the European Commission ? It is not clear at all.
Regulation 24(6) shows the major weakness of the habitats directive compared with the wild birds directive. It states :
"Where the site concerned hosts a priority natural habitat type or a priority species the reasons referred to in paragraph (5) must be either . . . reasons relating to human health, public safety or beneficial consequences of primary importance to the environment". That was the element that was there before, via the wild birds directive. However, the new element is introduced in the statement that other reasons may be considered
"which in the opinion of the European Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest."
How do we know what the European Commission will judge as being imperative reasons of overriding public interest ? What are the criteria that it will use ? Will it be jobs, or simply an opinion, which will have to be
Column 253considered before it is decided that a project is overriding ? Must it be a direct employer, such as a new steelworks or a chemical plant where so many thousands will be employed ? Will it be a piece of infrastructure such as a road, or a cosmetic piece of infrastructure such as the barrage on the Usk or at Cardiff bay, although they are not direct employers ?
How do we decide what is really an overriding interest ? What is to guide the European Commission ? We do not know. In certain cases, it appears to be the European Commission that decides--other areas of exclusion are mentioned in regulation 48--while in regulation 49, it appears to be the Secretary of State.
The document states that the Commission will have the last word in deciding whether to override the provisions of the legislation, so the protection will, all of a sudden, disappear. It says : "the competent authority may agree to the plan or project notwithstanding a negative assessment of the implications for the site"
That is negative in nature conservation terms. It continues that that may take place if there are
"other reasons which in the opinion of the European Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest".
However, the document continues :
"The Secretary of State may thereupon, if he thinks fit, seek the opinion of the Commission ; and if he does so, he shall upon receiving the Commission's opinion transmit it to the authority." Who has the last word ? Is it the Secretary of State or the European Commission, and on what do they base it ? They must receive advice from the local authority nature conservation body. How do they weigh it ? Do they simply say that they like a particular economic or social project and decide that it overrides the nature conservation interest ? That is a key area where the legislation weakens the nature conservation protection that is available today.
We should not delude ourselves and say that this is a great piece of legislation that in all cases strengthens the nature conservation interest. In certain areas, it puts Henry VIII powers in the hands of the Secretary of State and the collective college of cardinals of the European Commission. Those powers are not necessarily in the hands of the Environment Commissioners, because they are a mixed bag and the present one is certainly not interested in the environment at all. They appear to have the last word and they can say that a project of a socio-economic character that they judge to be of overriding public interest is more important than the inherent nature conservation interest in the site. The site will then go for economic development. Perhaps there are good reasons for doing that, but we must know in the legislation how they are to judge it.
In areas such as south Wales, that is of enormous controversy at the moment. That is because of the way in which the Cardiff bay barrage was handled, the way the Usk barrage proposal is supposed to be handled and the disaster that has already occurred at Tawe barrage. The last has been in place for only two years, but the National Rivers Authority has found serious de-oxygenation and a loss of the ability of migratory fish--the great glory of the Welsh river environment--to find gaps in the fish pass.
Very rare migratory species such as the allis shad and the twaite shad, which were mentioned by hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth), have a serious difficulty for fish in not being good swimmers. A
Column 254couple of lengths of the baths and they are knackered, one might say. That is a considerable problem for a fish, particularly when it is having to surmount a fish pass. That also applies to salmon, which are extremely strong swimmers. However, there has been a drop in the ability of salmon to move up the estuary to their spawning grounds at the Tawe barrage.
There are also problems for sea trout which, although they are not a protected species, have to surpass a barrage such as Tawe and the proposed barrages on the Taff Ely and the Usk. They might have to surmount such a barrage up to 12 times in their life cycle, while a salmon may have to do so only two or three times. That is a serious problem, and the conservation interest in such an area can be overridden on the say-so of the Secretary of State without his having to publish the correspondence.
I have been pressing the Secretary of State for a long time to publish his correspondence with the Environment Commissioners on how Ministers came to their decisions on the Cardiff bay barrage and how those decisions fitted in with the wild birds directive or the habitats directive. However, I cannot get it. Ministers say that the correspondence is confidential. If so, that is a Henry VIII power. The Secretary of State just decides that he feels like it, and does not have to prove that there is an overriding or socio-economic case for doing so. That may then eliminate the nature conservation interest.
The Secretary of State may just say that he wants to override the nature conservation interests, and he has the power to do it. He does not have to come to the House to explain and he does not have to publish his correspondence with the European Commissioner. I ask the Minister seriously to consider how to expose to public view the reasoning behind the overrides or exclusions in areas where the decision weakens the nature conservation protection. Will he at least place in the Library the exchanges of correspondence which he has with the Environment Commissioner ? We would then know why he was doing something, and whether there was or was not an objection from the European Commission and from nature conservation bodies. It would be of enormous benefit to the House if the Minister promised to publish any correspondence of the type that he has not been willing to publish on the Cardiff bay barrage. We would know whether there was any reasoning behind a decision, or whether it was a brutal use of Henry VIII powers of the kind which the spirit of the regulations is completely against.
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : I am pleased to make a brief contribution to this important debate. As one would expect of someone who was raised on a dairy farm in Devon and who now represents a seat that is flanked to the west by Cornwall, to the north by the delights of Dartmoor, to the south by Plymouth Sound and to the east by the rolling pastures of the South Hams, I have a deep and abiding love of the countryside. I recognise that there are real threats to the wild fauna and flora which must to be protected.
I welcome the important measure which we are debating this evening as an important further plank in the Government's attempts to introduce that protection. I also welcome the fact that the measure is balanced. Surely balance must be the watchword in all environmental issues
Column 255--the balance between competing interests and between the need to develop economically, to farm and to enjoy the countryside and the vital need to preserve our natural heritage, because once it is gone, it is gone for ever.
I welcome the Government's proposals for consulting widely on the regulations. Surely it is important to take into account the views of farmers, landowners and groups that regularly use our countryside, on such an important measure.
The regulations give effect, in United Kingdom law, to the European Union natural habitats directive of 1992. As one who feels that many issues are best dealt with by national Governments and not at a European level, and that subsidiarity is such an important notion, I should be the first to admit that measures to protect the environment from destruction and waste, and anti-pollution measures, are the exceptions. They are best dealt with at European level.
It is important that the measure is being introduced on a Europe-wide basis, not merely to protect the countryside and fauna and flora throughout Europe, but to ensure that there is, as far as possible, that famous level playing field for industry and taxpayers in each European country.
One of the many matters on which I join forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who spoke so creditably, is the need for an assurance from the Minister for the Environment and Countryside that similar measures will be enforced effectively throughout Europe. We know that our civil servants will vigorously enforce these protective measures. Can we have an assurance that the measures will be enforced adequately in Greece, Portugal and other European countries, so that a level playing field is introduced ?
Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh) : My hon. Friend has a reputation for a strong interest in this issue. On applying the rules throughout the Community, clearly Britain has a more concentrated industrial area and less land mass is available for conservation areas than in France or Spain, for example. Is it not important that EC directives are applied fairly according to the geographical circumstances of member states ?
I congratulate the Government on their record on environmental issues. Our Prime Minister took such a strong lead at the Rio conference two years ago. The truth is that many people talk about the environment, but we are the party that introduces environment protection measures. We understand that, to be successful, environment protection must be balanced and must take into account the interests of land users and other groups.
The measure aims to promote biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats, wild flora and fauna, and it is very welcome. I have some specific questions, however, which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with, either in his reply or at some other stage. Schedule 2 of the regulations contains a list of protected species of animal, for example, the bat and the dormouse. That is extremely sensible. I anticipate pressure, however, in years to come to increase the list of protected species, for example, to include foxes and deer.
I want my hon. Friend's assurance that those who want to ban hunting in this country will not be able to use the
Column 256measure to introduce, through the back door, legislation on which the people have firmly closed the front door. The best guardians of the countryside are people who enjoy the countryside and country and field sports. People who participate in hunting are a fine example. So often those who purport to care about animals forget to take nature as it really is. Nature is cruel.
The wildcat is one of the species protected in schedule 2. My family lives just outside Plympton in Devon and we are the proud owners of two cats, one of which might be described as a wildcat. Since we moved house recently, the cat regularly brings into the house mice, voles and rabbits and eats them before our very eyes. Nature is cruel and people who want to ban hunting should recognise that fact. I want an assurance that schedule 2 of the regulations cannot be used to ban hunting through the back door.
What will happen if protected species become pests to landowners, farmers and householders ? Bats are in the list of protected species. We have bats in the roof of our house and we are stuck with them. Should those bats become a nuisance to us and to our neighbours, what advice can my hon. Friend the Minister give ? I hope that the Government have thought the matter through. [Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. Hon. Members may have differing views from the hon. Member who has the Floor, but it is a part of the tradition of the House that those who are expressing their views are given a fair hearing, however unpopular those views might be with others.
Mr. Tony Banks : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Do you have the power that is given to Madam Speaker under the Mental Health Acts to section a Member, as it is quite clear that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) has gone completely loopy ?
Mr. Streeter : As one who has listened to the speeches of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in the past two years, I must point out that people who live in glasshouses should not throw stones.
I have another question for my hon. Friend the Minister. What will happen if protected species of flora become a pest to landowners ? The species of ragwort that is fatal to horses is greatly threatened in some areas. What will happen if it becomes protected, yet its existence is a real nuisance to wildlife ?
On compliance costs, I mentioned the importance of balance. The regulations take into account the fact that they will have an impact on businesses. For environment protection to be sustainable, it must be affordable. On regulations 11 and 12, what proposals do the Government have for compensating businesses, should the regulations have an unfavourable impact on them ?
Finally, I remember a picture from my childhood--my school playground, where a thistle had grown through the tarmac. Perhaps it was a symbolic representation of how, ultimately, nature cannot be suppressed. It is better to conserve and preserve before nature is under threat ; it is better to get the balance between economic development and the protection of natural habitats right in the first place. The regulations are an important step along that road, and I support them.
Column 2578.29 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I shall not follow the speech of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter). If his speech was an argument for balance, I am against it. The debate tonight is much more urgent and necessary than he suggests. He implied that we are having the debate thanks to the wonderful British Government. That is not so. We are having it thanks to the European Union. Its directive requires us to have a debate to introduce regulations to implement it.
The key question underlying the debate and the regulations is whether they will make any difference. Some of us are extremely sceptical about that.
Mr. Hughes : I am always sceptical about the Government's determination to deliver such a policy. The evidence commissioned by the Government and produced by officials leads us to believe that habitats, species and biodiversity are under extreme risk and in danger.
Throughout most of the earth's history, the rate of extinction has been in the order of one to 10 species per year. In the next 30 years, we risk losing between 150,000 and 300,000 species per year. The debate is about what part Britain should play in looking after our bit of the environment. People could produce litanies about the amount of woodland, marshland, wetland and heathland that has been lost.
Clear statistics exist on how some of the most common species of familiar birds like the robin are much more at risk than they used to be. Last year, the mouse-eared bat became extinct in the United Kingdom--the first mammal to be declared extinct since the wolf in the 1740s. I spent a night in wonderment in Pembrokeshire looking at horseshoe bats, the population of which is down to probably 1 per cent. of its population at the beginning of the century.
Most significantly, the Government should follow their own evidence on this matter. Let us consider the countryside and habitats as opposed to species. At the end of last year, the
Government-commissioned countryside survey of 1990 was published. The broadsheet newspapers carried the following headlines :
"Decade of decline for wildlife".
"£3m survey reveals decline of this green and pleasant land". "Hedgerows in steep decline, department's survey shows". In The Daily Telegraph the headline read :
"Landscape census reveals depth of rural destruction". Whether considering hedges, arable fields, weeds, pastures, meadowland, moorland or plant life, the survey showed that there had been significant reductions almost entirely across the board. The important point is that the countryside survey covered the period since the implementation of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That, therefore, suggests that the legislation, which the regulations are meant to replicate, has done little to protect the habitats of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : Will the hon. Gentleman note schedule 4 on page 58 of the order which contains a list of nine plants ? The hon. Gentleman may recall that, in 1974-75, I took through the House the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act, a private member's Bill. Schedule 2 of that measure listed 21
Column 258species and it was consolidated into the 1991 Act. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in inviting the Minister to tell us what has happened to the 19 species that were listed in the 1975 Act and to establish how many of those species have become extinct in the British Isles ?
The warning note is being sounded not only by Opposition Members and people with a particular interest in species. The last paragraph of the editorial in The Times last autumn following the countryside survey puts the argument as well as anyone :
"This big island is still too small to have room for savannahs or Saharas, or any more concrete or docklands jungles, or much more motorway. In its pointilliste variety, the countryside survey is a reminder of diversity, the natural British virtue. And a useful warning of the pressures that threaten it. The natives will not forgive their master if they ignore the Domesday warning." If the Government are true to the convention which they signed at Rio de Janeiro and which, on environment day this year, they ratified--which we welcomed--if they are true to the goal of that convention, if their policy, as published in their documents, is to conserve and enhance biological diversity in the United Kingdom, they should seek to protect all species. They should not, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton argued, go for a balance whereby it is all right to lose some of them. We must keep the bio-diversity of Britain.
I should like to ask some questions and to request some answers. First, what additional protection do the regulations give to protected species that wildlife and countryside legislation does not already give ? Secondly, in relation to both land-based habitats and marine habitats, is not it right that, because of the huge amount of consultation--to which I do not object--a huge compromise will be built in as a result of the regulations ?
The Government still intend to rely on voluntary arrangements. Although there will be more marine protection under the regulations, all sorts of organisations with separate interests will temper the potential benefit of the regulations. The sea fisheries committee, National Rivers Authority, harbour authorities, local authorities and nature conservation agencies may conspire to mitigate and to reduce the effect of the regulations.
Thirdly, is it not the case that, after all the consultation, and although I accept the Government's undertaking that they will produce the list, as they are meant to, by 1995, they will produce a minimalist rather than a maximalist set of regulations, which do the minimum that is necessary to comply with the European directive ? That has never reflected the urgency of the matter.
Fourthly, the present law is toothless and flawed. It was not I who used those words, but the Law Lords in the High Court in a major case last year. One said that, because the Wildlife and Countryside Act applied only to owners and occupiers,
"a stranger who enters the land for a few weeks solely to do some work on it does not fall into that category."
Therefore, the legislation is insufficient to penalise the fly tipper. Why will not the Minister come to the House with specific proposals that will allow him to say that, as a result, sites will be much more adequately protected ?
Lastly, is it not the case that the only way to make sure that the regulations are effective is to ensure that all countryside and conservation schemes have one simple
Column 259objective : protection and enhancement of current habitats. We are sceptical and we are right to be so. We do not believe that, by the time the Government get around to doing things, many of the remaining habitats will be left to be protected.
I am sorry that some hon. Members took up much time without raising serious issues, despite the fact that many Labour Members wished to speak. I say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) that those of us who object to people inflicting pain on animals for fun accept that there is cruelty in the wild, but when the hon. Member for Sutton thinks that it is normal behaviour to come into the House with a live vole and devour it in front of us, we shall accept that it is normal for people to inflict pain on animals.
The Minister will not be able to reply in detail to all the points that have been made in the debate, but I hope that he will take my points on board along with the other relevant points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).
We want to see more monitoring, and my hon. Friend mentioned the need to ensure adequate funds for monitoring. We are concerned that monitoring is being cut. I wrote to the Department about cuts in the contract of the British Trust for Ornithology with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Those cuts will mean that work on integrated population management monitoring will be deferred for 12 months, that work on woodland and farmland habitats will be cut to six months and that posts designated for recovery processing will be reduced by 20 per cent. These cuts will affect next year's wetland bird survey. The British Trust for Ornithology is an extremely cost-effective organisation that provides much reliable scientific data by amateur input, and I am surprised that the Joint Nature Conservation Committee has made the cuts. I cannot blame the Minister, as it is a cut within the total budget, not a budget cut, but I hope that he will look at this matter carefully because proper monitoring will not be possible without proper scientific research.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) : Does my hon. Friend share my concern that SSSIs are not necessarily offering protection ? My hon. Friend knows well the Thorne and Hatfield moors in my constituency, which have not been protected despite their SSSI status. If the Government make Thorne moors a special area of conservation, will he join me in hoping that it will offer more protection than it has had previously ?
Mr. Morley : My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is well known for his campaigning for Thorne moors, which are a fine example of raised peat bog. I hope that the Minister takes that into account.
We are a bit sceptical about the Government's record on hedgerow protection. Linear habitat has been mentioned, and the Government made the introduction of a hedgerows Bill a manifesto commitment. We do not think that leaving
Column 260it to a private Member's Bill, with all the difficulties associated with it, meets their manifesto commitment or shows proper concern and priority for habitat protection.
We must draw attention to resources. About £3 billion goes into agriculture, about 4 per cent. of which is committed to the habitat directive and 1 per cent. to the agri-environment package. We have no idea how species such as otters, dormice, native pinewoods, orchids and rich grasslands will be protected--an issue of concern to the wildlife trusts.
The concern about monitoring is shared by organisations such as the National Farmers Union, which made points about consultation and made further sensible points about the need for proper resources to conduct monitoring.
We should have liked pond protection to be included in the regulations, as the excellent document of the Council for the Protection of Rural England outlined. But, above all, we believe that the Wildlife and Countryside Act is not adequate. There are problems with protecting SSSIs and with compensation agreements. We would rather see the voluntary principle apply. We recognise that many landowners have an excellent record on habitat protection. One of my local farmers, Ted Harland, has done tremendous work on his farm to help the environment, and that needs to be recognised, but others have abused the compensation system and obtained millions from the taxpayer without doing much in terms of conservation or habitat protection. Some management agreements are worth more than if the Government had bought the land.
Those are the issues that need to be looked at. I hope that the Minister will give careful consideration to them.
Mr. Atkins : With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) spoke of problems with SSSIs. More than 6,000 SSSIs cover 8 per cent. of Great Britain. Some damage is sometimes inevitable, but in the vast majority of examples the damage is short term and such that the site can recover from it. In 1992-93, for example, there were only 153 cases of recorded damage, and all but a few are expected to recover completely. That represents a loss of 0.001 per cent.--11 hectares out of 858,000 hectares, whatever they are. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but, as I said, I shall do what I can to ensure that we get the information, although I understand that there are some difficulties about that.
I recently paid a visit to the Game Conservancy and was fascinated to learn about the work that it has been doing recently on the effects of set aside and how it can encourage farmers and landowners to reattract birds like the corn bunting, the grey partridge and others. If the hon. Member for Knowsley, North gets an opportunity to go to the Game Conservancy, I recommend that he does so. He will find that it exists not only for those who enjoy hunting but that it conducts much worthwhile work ; it is worth a visit.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned peat bogs--a subject dear to my heart. I have some in my constituency, but as a Minister in Northern Ireland I was instrumental in drawing up a document that went a long way to trying to save the remaining few peat bogs in Northern Ireland. As he will know, in the north-west and Lancashire there is a
Column 261substantial number of bogs and we are pleased that Fisons and English Nature have reached an agreement that will ensure their future.
The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and other hon. Members mentioned resources. We are as concerned as they are to ensure that resources are made available, although this must be considered in the context of the public expenditure round. We are proud of the fact that last year resources for agencies increased by 7.6 per cent. I cannot, with my Secretary of State sitting alongside me, guarantee that we shall be able to do the same again, but we intend to do so if we can.
A number of other important issues were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who I now forgive because I understand the reasons for his raising them, and I promise faithfully that I shall deal with them by writing to all hon. Members because time will not permit me to deal with them at length. My hon. Friend emphasised the importance of the owners and users of some of the areas concerned. I met wildfowlers on the Ribble marshes and know how much they have done to ensure growth of wildfowl in the area. That was admitted by English Nature.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) was entirely right about consultation. There are problems with bats in churches and they should not be underestimated. He will not find me in favour of the anti- hunting stance
It being one and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the motion , Mr Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [15 July] .
Question agreed to.
That the draft Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 13th July, be approved.
That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 7th July, be approved. As the House will know from debates in previous years, the draft regulations have a specific, straightforward purpose. They simply update the principal regulations, the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989. Essentially, they implement the annual uprating of the parental contribution tables, and thus set out the amounts parents must pay towards their child's assisted place at a participating independent school in the coming year. If approved, the amended regulations will come into force on 26 August 1994. I shall confine my remarks to the effect of this annual uprating. First, regulation 2 increases the allowance made for each dependent child, other than the assisted place holder, against parents' total relevant income when calculating their contribution to school fees. The allowance is raised from £1,125 to £1,140, in line with inflation, and will maintain the help for families with more than one child. Regulation 3 sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contributions to fees. Like the dependant's allowance, the bands have been uprated in line with the 1.4 per cent. movement in the retail prices index to October last year.
The income threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is correspondingly raised from £9,225 to £9,352 a year. There are corresponding increases in the thresholds for the higher income bands. The effect is that parents whose relevant income has risen in line with inflation will continue to contribute the same proportion of that income and, indeed, the same amount in real terms. I commend the regulations to the House.