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Madam Speaker: Order. Just a moment. I am very tolerant today, but the hon. Gentleman is trying me a little. He must come to his point of order and what I can do about it and not rehearse what is in the report.

Mr. Miller: I appreciate that, Madam Speaker, and sympathise with your difficulties. Given that the report describes MAFF as "cavalier and blinkered" and we have been told that some of its actions--we have been told this only informally--are to be addressed, would not it be appropriate for a Minister to come to the House to tell us what action he intends to take to address those criticisms as a matter of urgency? The public are deeply concerned about the matter.

Madam Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that, regardless of what he thinks is important--no doubt the issue is important--if a Minister had intended to make a statement, it would have said so on the annunciator screen by 1 o'clock. I call Mr. Banks.

Mr. Tony Banks: Thank you, Madam Speaker. We shall all miss the wise counsels of that wonderful old thespian, my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds). Have you received a request for a statement from a Foreign Office Minister about the Portuguese police's disgraceful and brutal treatment of Manchester United supporters in Oporto last night? No one would defend riotous behaviour, but by all accounts, Manchester United supporters were set upon in the most appalling way. All British citizens, regardless of whether they are football supporters travelling abroad, are entitled to protection. Is there any way in which we can get a Minister to the House, so that we know that some form of inquiry and protection for our citizens abroad is being put in place?

Madam Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that Ministers do not request to make a statement;

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they tell me that they are going to make a statement. I have not been informed by any Minister that a statement is being made on that matter today.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I rise not to express my disappointment at the fact that Question 2 of Prime Minister's questions, which I tabled, was not reached, but in respect of the debate on Standing Orders. Although I understand the reason why you have not selected the amendment--I am one of the signatories to it--does the way in which the motions are set out on the Order Paper mean that we shall have the opportunity of debating the main points? The Standing Orders that are being amended have not been debated, and a number of motions refer to an order of 19 March.

Madam Speaker: The House agreed yesterday that there should be no debate on those Standing Orders.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that among the Bills on today's Order Paper is the Holocaust Denial Bill, which had its First Reading on 29 January, its Second Reading without opposition on 28 February and went through Committee unamended on 12 March? Given that there has been widespread support on both sides of the House for the Bill, could you persuade the Government, even at this late stage, to ensure that it gets on to the statute book before the end of this Parliament?

Madam Speaker: I should like to think that I have some powers of persuasion, but I fear that, in relation to the Government, I have no persuasive powers at all.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that

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you have commented on a matter that was raised today as if it were unresolved? Sir Gordon Downey has written to make it absolutely clear that, as far as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition's office is concerned, there is no question of it being a matter of dispute. He states in his letter, which I think you have already raised in response to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw):


    "I shall be advising the Committee that in my view there is no case to answer."

Surely that should not be linked with Sir Gordon Downey's great regret that his report has not been published and cannot be published during the election campaign, as the report makes clear.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I point out that I have subsequently written to Sir Gordon Downey, and my understanding is that the investigation into the Leader of the Opposition's office over the £2 million of blind funds is still under way, still an open issue and can be raised during the election campaign as a very valid question about the Leader of the Opposition?

Madam Speaker: It is not a matter for me if the matter has been referred. I note the point made by the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell). I have seen some correspondence in relation to that myself.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (SCOTLAND) BILL [MONEY] (No. 2)

Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Resolved,


20 Mar 1997 : Column 1081

Orders of the Day

Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 1

Imprisonment for life on further conviction for certain offences


Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 16, leave out from ("opinion") to ("may") in line 19 and insert
("that it would be in the interests of justice for it to pass a sentence other than the sentence which that subsection would require it to pass, it")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.--[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 6 and 31.

3.49 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): The amendments should not pass unremarked, because they represent a substantial climbdown by the Government from the wholly unreasonable position that they had previously adopted. Had the Government earlier displayed the same flexibility as they have been driven to demonstrate in the past few days, we might have had a much more constructive discussion about the best way to reform the law of Scotland.

The amendments that were accepted in the House of Lords have substantially restored the discretion of the judiciary on sentences for serious crimes. Perhaps more significantly, the Government have allowed an independent tribunal for Scotland to deal with miscarriages of justice. The Government rejected such a tribunal wholly and completely, notwithstanding the

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1082

powerful and trenchant terms of the Sutherland report. At the meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee in Ayr last year, the Secretary of State for Scotland suggested dismissively that such a body for Scotland was unnecessary. Proud though we may be of the law in Scotland, we cannot assume its infallibility. In the past, the cases of Patrick Meehan and of Preece, among others, have shown that the legal system has been inadequate to deal with cases in which justice has not been properly done.

The amendments are a considerable improvement on the Government's original proposals. It is a great pity that they did not approach the matter in the constructive and consensual way that it deserves. I do not know whether the amendments will be described as driving a coach and horses through the Bill, but it is in a better state now than when it was first conceived. The Government could have had it in this condition if they had demonstrated any willingness to co-operate with the Opposition parties.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I draw your attention to Question 306 on today's Order Paper. I believe that a forged question has been put down in my name. I have discussed the matter with the Table Office, and the signature on the question looks like mine, but it is not. The terms of the question are not mine either. I take great exception to that. Perhaps it is an end-of-term prank, but if it is, I do not appreciate the joke. I suggest that we use all the forces of law and order that the Government have introduced recently and submit the question paper to DNA testing, to try to find out with whom the question originated.

Madam Speaker: I do not approve of end-of-term pranks. I shall do all I can to have investigations made, to see how this came about. You can be assured of that, Mr. Gallie.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 81 agreed to [some with Special Entry].

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1083

Hedgerows

Motion made, and Question proposed,


3.59 pm

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Unlike the Minister, I shall be taking the time of the House properly to debate these regulations, which are extremely important and do not deserve to be pushed through in this way in the late afternoon. On the importance of hedgerows to our landscape, I can do no better than quote from the briefing provided by the Wildlife Trust:


The Government promised as far back as 1990 to protect hedgerows. In 1992, they made it an election manifesto pledge. It is only now--at the eleventh hour of a dying Parliament--that they have fulfilled their promise. But they have done so pathetically.

The regulations are fundamentally flawed--a weak and timid attempt that will leave almost 80 per cent. of hedgerows unprotected. In the time it has taken this sorry Government to act on their promise, thousands of kilometres of hedgerows have been dug up and lost for ever. More than 10,800 km of hedgerow were removed between 1990 and 1993, and a further 67,500 km were classified as derelict. It is in that context that we must examine the regulations today.

We in the Labour party, like all wildlife and countryside non-governmental organisations, are amazed at the deficiencies of the regulations. They make no reference to the UK biodiversity action plan, which set targets for hedgerow conservation, as well as for several species dependent on hedgerows, such as the grey partridge and the song thrush.

Far from complementing the biodiversity action plan--as we would have expected--the regulations completely undermine it. It is an illustration of the gross inadequacy of the regulations that hedges which meet the action plan criteria set by the Government could still legally be removed under the regulations. In light of this, can the Minister--who is not prepared to speak on the regulations--tell us whether he thinks that the habitat action plan for ancient and/or species-rich hedgerows can now carry any credibility whatever in light of the regulations?

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Nor do the regulations make any reference to the habitats directive, even though article 10 of the directive seeks to encourage the protection and management of linear features such as hedgerows for their value to flora and fauna.

The original proposal of four weeks for local planning authorities to determine applications for removal was heavily criticised. The Government's response is to offer six weeks, but that is still hopelessly inadequate. Owners can apply to remove a hedge at any time of the year. As the Minister knows, few data are available on the wildlife and biodiversity of most hedgerows.

Thus it is completely impossible for a local authority to carry out a meaningful wildlife survey of a hedgerow during the winter months if asked to do so. If the owners apply in winter, as they may well do, and the necessary information is not available, local authorities will be unable to make any adequate assessment that takes the biodiversity into account and hedgerows with a significant biodiversity interest will continue to be lost.

Furthermore, local planning authorities must now take into account the reasons for the removal of a hedge. That requirement was not in the original proposals, and we can conclude that it has been inserted only because the Government have succumbed to some rather heavy lobbying. It is yet another example of their willingness to act in the interests of the few instead of the interests of the majority of ordinary people who value our natural heritage.

Does the Minister agree that farmers rarely remove hedges other than for economic reasons? How do the Government expect local planning authorities to make objective and consistent judgments on the economic and non-market benefits of hedgerows? Can he define a valid economic reason for removing an environmentally valuable hedgerow?

A look at the criteria for identifying important hedgerows reveals further fundamental failings. The criteria referred to species lists originating from the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the red data books. As the Minister must know, the Act is now 16 years old. We on the Opposition Benches are extremely puzzled as to why the regulations stipulate that only species lists published before the hedgerows legislation is implemented may be taken into account. That absurdity means that updated records and new sources of information, such as the lists compiled as part of the biodiversity action plan, will not be able to be used in the evaluation process, thus making a farce of that very process.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is particularly concerned that one effect will be the exclusion of many farmland birds, including some species--yet again--that the biodiversity action plan recognises as a high priority for conservation, such as the grey partridge and the song thrush. Surely that ridiculous failing has to be corrected, and would have been if it were not for the fact that the Government are intent on rushing the regulations through this afternoon despite the flaws within them.


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