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Mr. Chaytor: That is not what I said. In fact, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis: the problem with the CAP is that the resources have been wrongly directed, not the degree of regulation associated with it.

Mr. Green: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made that clarification.

There is much to be discussed in the detail, but all hon. Members clearly agree that the need for action is urgent. We have heard this morning about the various species that have been made extinct already, or are in danger. The doomsday list of the World Wide Fund for Nature is alarming, as the hon. Member for South Swindon noted. She mentioned some of the species in danger, but the WWF has warned that the high brown fritillary butterfly and the pipistrelle bat may be extinct by 2007, and that even the skylark may have vanished by 2009. Clearly, those would be large-scale ecological disasters.

Therefore, as long as he sticks to what is sensible and gets on with it, the Minister has a chance to lead a wide consensus among all the parties, including even landowners and the many environmental non-governmental organisations. If he does that, Conservative Members will seek to give him a fair wind when the legislation is introduced.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale): I thank the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) for his kind remarks and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on using her parliamentary time to obtain a debate on such an important issue, especially at this historic time. She is a worthy champion on the issue, as she is on a number of others.

That is not surprising as my hon. Friend's constituency is fortunate to include several nationally important nature conservation sites, including three geological sites of special scientific interest at Great quarry, Okus quarry and Old Town railway cutting, and a further four biological SSSIs at Coate water, Burderop wood, Clouts wood and the Coombes, Hinton Parva. Included within those sites are open water, woodland bird communities and chalk grassland. They all contribute to the overall value of the national SSSI series and to protecting our natural heritage for our children and grandchildren.

The Government share the view of many of the hon. Members who have spoken that the UK's nature conservation heritage should be given effective protection. Indeed, I welcome the opportunity that is provided by the debate to reaffirm the commitments in the Labour party's manifesto to affording better protection to wildlife, and the priority that the Government are giving to implementing those manifesto commitments.

At this point, I should like to answer queries that several hon. Members have raised that may not be answered in my brief. That is important because it is always an easy option just to go on and not to give replies to specific queries in a debate.

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My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon raised incentives for management. I confirm that the Government propose to move from a compensatory scheme of payments to landowners to positive agreements. Even now, in advance of any changes in legislation, a substantial number of payments for support action are under way, rather than cash compensation payments.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) never misses an opportunity to raise questions on the area that he represents. I repeat my assurances to him that, within the present consultation, there is no thought within Government for any changes that would affect the status of the verderers. I say it every time. To his credit, he always raises a range of issues on the New forest. On that particular one, I reconfirm our position.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) mentioned widely dispersed bird species, which pose a particular difficulty for boundary definition. We are committed to effective and full implementation of obligations under the birds and habitats directives. My Department is discussing with English Nature the best way in which to protect such wide-ranging species. I will write to him to give further information on the matter, and try to get an answer to the point that he raised on restoration.

The hon. Member also asked me to acknowledge the tide of support for early-day motion 11. There is no doubt that that can and, indeed, should be done from the Government side of the Chamber. We are aware of the support and greatly impressed by it. It is very large--one of the largest gatherings of support on an issue since the last election. The Government are reassured by the level of interest and the swell of opinion on the need for legislation. We are aware of that and keep it in mind in all our considerations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster raised the question of peat working on SSSIs. [Interruption.] Sorry--my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). We support moves to encourage alternatives to the use of peat. Where sites have Natura 2000 status, there will be obligations to review extant planning permissions. We are considering the options for other sites. All the issues that she raised in respect of that will be considered.

The Government's approach to wildlife conservation must blend a strong statutory framework for the protection of species and their habitats with positive measures through biodiversity action plans and environmental education. In that respect, we have encouraged a participative approach to conservation through partnerships between the public and private sectors and involvement of voluntary conservation organisations and the public. We believe that each element is important in ensuring that we protect and enhance the value of our countryside.

I take first the protection of habitats. We continue to make good progress in implementing Natura 2000, the network of special sites that are recognised at European level. The United Kingdom has now classified 200 sites as special protection areas for their ornithological interest under the birds directive, and submitted 340 sites as candidate special areas of conservation to the European Commission under the habitats directive, giving recognition and enhanced protection to the cream of our nature conservation heritage.

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The UK Government are committed to full implementation of the requirements of the habitats directive. Our SAC list has been selected through a rigorous and iterative scientific process, which has applied the directive's criteria consistently throughout the UK. What is more, there has been full consultation on all the proposals, which, in a number of cases, incorporated changes in the light of comments from the voluntary conservation movement and other consultees. I acknowledge criticisms of our list, but those have been based on unscientific comparisons and misunderstandings of the directive's requirements.

Natura 2000 sites--together with sites listed under the Ramsar convention on the conservation of wetlands of international importance--are all sites of special scientific interest, all of which are designated for their national importance and constitute some of our most precious areas for wildlife, hosting rare or endangered species and providing habitats where they can flourish and--I hope--multiply. Although many are well managed and in good condition, and landowners and managers enjoy a constructive relationship with the conservation agencies, the Government agree with hon. Members who have expressed concern about special sites that have been damaged, or whose interest is declining as a result of both human activities and natural processes.

English Nature is already aiming to increase the percentage of sites in England that are being positively managed for conservation and to reduce the proportion that are in an unfavourable condition. The comprehensive proposals that we announced in last year's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper on SSSIs will also help to deliver real improvements in the immediate future and will substantially strengthen English Nature's hand as steward of the most valuable examples of our natural heritage. Those proposals covered a range of options and looked at ways in which enhanced protection could be delivered quickly without new legislation, as well as the case for legislative change.

The Government believe that it is important to foster the constructive relationship that has already been established with the owners of SSSIs, many of whom are sympathetic to conservation aims and work actively alongside statutory agencies to conserve the interest of their land. On SSSIs, the consultation paper emphasised the need for a variety of partnerships with owners and occupiers, with local communities and voluntary conservation organisations and with Government Departments, some of which are major landholders and custodians of our wildlife heritage. We accept the responsibility that that places on us. We will help and encourage others who similarly accept their responsibilities for the nation's wildlife.

The paper acknowledged--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. We now come to the next debate.

7 Jul 1999 : Column 966

Police Funding

11 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): May I say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how grateful I am to have secured this debate. I thank the Minister of State for visiting the National Missing Persons Helpline, of which I am a trustee. Those who work for the helpline very much enjoyed the visit and hope that something constructive will come out of it.

Since my election to Beckenham, the subject of police numbers and the link with police funding has come up constantly. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends and Labour Members also get a lot of complaints from people who say that they do not see enough police on the beat. Often, constituents do not link that subject with reduced crime figures or the sophisticated arguments about how intelligence-led policing is changing the nature of policing.

In Bromley, of which Beckenham is a part, we have an active police consultative committee and sector working parties, which constantly discuss police numbers and funding. In the annual report for last year, which was published in June, the committee chairman states:

His comments are backed up by Bromley division's own figures. Its manpower target strengths, to use the jargon, have gone from 497 police in the borough and the division--the two are co-terminus--in November 1994 to 440 this year. Civilianisation has not replaced the uniformed copper. In November 1994, there were 121 civilian staff. This year, the figure is down to 113, so the numbers of both groups have dropped.

Penge, which is in my constituency, has been identified by Bromley police in a much-admired document on crime and disorder, as a high-risk area. Last April, the inspector in charge told the Penge sector working party:

another area of my constituency--

    "with several having 2/3 council wards to patrol on foot."

As hon. Members know, in particular those who represent cities, that is a large area to cover. The inspector continued:

    "There are 3 high street patrols, in Penge, Beckenham and West Wickham."

Some people may think that leafy Bromley borough and Beckenham should reduce their police numbers to help in other parts of the Greater London area where crime levels are higher. However, the authentic voice of the Beckenham resident wrote to the Home Secretary and to me at the end of 1998. He pointed out that

    "there has been growing disquiet among members of the public concerning the near-absence of uniformed officers patrolling the streets on a routine basis. . . During the past two or three years there appears to have been a reduction in real terms".

7 Jul 1999 : Column 967

    He is absolutely right. Figures provided by the Metropolitan police show that, since 1995, that force has reduced from 27,945 to 26,563 this year. Indeed, when I was on the Metropolitan police parliamentary scheme along with two Labour Members, one of whom is here today, the story everywhere was the same and I am sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) will agree. The police are concerned about cuts in manpower, old equipment and buildings that need refurbishment.

The pattern is repeated nationally. It is happening not merely in Bromley or in the Met, but throughout the country. Just last week, on 30 June, a Home Office press release stated:

    "Numbers of police officers have fallen by 793 to 123,922 in the year ending March 1999--a reduction of less than 1 per cent."

The first sentence of that press release shows the Home Office's sensitivity about linking police funding with police numbers. That sentence reads:

    "The number of police officers has fallen despite increased police spending".

I can understand and appreciate why the Home Office is going to such lengths to decouple funding and police numbers. Linked with that issue is the reduction in crime. We all congratulate the police on reducing crime, but most of us would agree that other issues have contributed to that reduction. When employment is high, there tends to be a reduction in crime.

The Audit Commission has backed up the Home Office and I can understand where it is coming from. It says that some forces have higher clear-up rates and lower numbers of police relatively and/or smaller budgets--

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