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Mr. Kevan Jones: Although I accept that advances have been made in welfare provision, will the Secretary of State make a commitment to respond urgently to the Defence Committee report on the training regime? The report raises many concerns and contains many
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recommendations, which are a matter of ongoing concern for families involved in events at Deepcut and others. An early response would help not only the Committee but young people, who should be confident if they join the armed services.

John Reid: I assure my hon. Friend that we will respond to that helpful document within the time frame.

In the course of this Parliament, we are also committed to modernising legislation on discipline in our armed forces. We will introduce an armed forces Bill to bring together all such measures in the armed forces, which is something that should have been done at some point in the past few decades.

I hope that we have raised the profile and importance of our veterans through the schemes and initiatives that we have introduced for them—no veterans units existed before I set one up in 1997.

Rather than spending my time reading papers at my desk, I have gone to the most important location in the armed services in the course of the past week, which is with the men and women who serve this country, and I pay tribute to them. Whether it is the men and women on HMS Illustrious, who are north of Scotland en route to other tasks after the ship's refurbishment, whether it is 101 Squadron, which is carrying out air transport and air refuelling, whether it is those who pilot our C-17s, whether it is those involved in pilot training at Brize Norton or whether it is our servicemen and women in the Gulf, my admiration for how they conduct tasks set by this Government and this Parliament is undiminished.

In drawing the debate to a close, it is right that we should focus on those people's exceptional contribution. They have served their country with courage and dedication over the past year, most obviously in the areas that we have mentioned in Iraq, but also in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in west Africa—in Sierra Leone—in Northern Ireland, in the Falkland Islands, in Cyprus, and in response to the south-east Asia tsunami. I am proud to be associated with them, and I thank the Government for the opportunity to be so again. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending them our thanks and best wishes for the future.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
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18 May 2005 : Column 259

Wild Flowers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

6.15 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the new Minister on his appointment and welcome him to the Dispatch Box for the first time. I hope that he enjoys his time as Minister. He has a very responsible position, and I have confidence that he will deliver; I certainly hope that he will do so in relation to what I shall propose tonight.

Where have all the flowers gone? In the case of Britain's wild flowers, one in five species is on the brink of extinction—345 out of a total of 1,756. That is an appalling indictment of those who have allowed this environmental doomsday to occur. The 20th century—the most destructive 100 years since man first walked on earth—was a disaster for our indigenous wild flowers, with more than 97 per cent. of the nation's wild flower meadows lost since 1945. As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, let us reflect that today Britain's wild flower landscape from that time has changed beyond all recognition. There are several reasons for that: the continuing urbanisation of the countryside; changes in agricultural practices, not just the use of chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers, although those are major causes; contradictory farming policy directives from successive Governments and from the European Union; and climate change.

Last week, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee published "The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain", which was the result of a two-year investigation by a working group comprising 10 of the UK's leading botanists and outlining the current dire position. That should not have come as a real surprise, for 20 years ago Nature Conservation in Britain reported that 97 per cent. of the nation's traditional wild flower meadows which existed in 1945 had been destroyed or degraded.

The position in my home county of Essex is even worse. According to the Essex phase 1 survey published in the early 1990s, 99 per cent. of the wild flower meadows had been destroyed or degraded. I shall turn later to what is happening in Essex, in order to report bad news involving the Government which will destroy some of the remaining 1 per cent., but also encouraging news from my home town of Colchester, where the borough council has reversed the trend and introduced wild flower areas.

First, however, the national picture. Those who researched and compiled the red data list come from English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Botanical Society of the British Isles, Plantlife, the Natural History museum, and the Royal    Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. They and the 1,000 volunteers—members of the Botanical Society of the British Isles—who undertook the two-year surveillance are to be commended for the quality of their research and to be thanked for drawing attention to the deteriorating situation.

Government have a responsibility to act, and to act quickly and positively, to halt the decline, and to take measures that will see not only token pockets of wild
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flowers but their widespread restoration as an integral feature of our landscape that past generations enjoyed and bequeathed to us. We have a responsibility to pass on our colourful natural heritage to future generations.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee tells me:

to use the committee's phrase—"near threatened." The committee states that a relatively large number of widespread and often well known species appear on the red list for the first time. They include plants that are the habitat of, for example, the skylark and house sparrow, which have undergone severe population decline.

One of the plants at risk of extinction is the corn buttercup, which is traditionally found in corn and bean fields throughout England. It is now limited to Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Essex, Surrey and Lincolnshire. There has been an 81 per cent. decline since 1987. The red data list concludes that it is "critically endangered".

Another wild flower at risk is the purple milk-vetch. It is still found in sand dunes along the east coast from Scotland to Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but it has disappeared from fertilised grass lands. That plant is listed as "endangered", while the night-flowering catchfly, which is found on arable land in Norfolk and Suffolk, is listed as "vulnerable to extinction". All have suffered huge decline in the past 20 years. The roll call of plants on the red list and detailed according to internationally recognised criteria are placed in categories of "critically endangered", "endangered" and "vulnerable to extinction". I presume that the Under-Secretary has the complete copy.

All who love our countryside want to hear today what action the Government will take in the light of the environmental doomsday account that has been brought to their attention. I welcome the following promise in the Gracious Speech:

But action is needed now, in advance of the legislation. Will the Under-Secretary state whether positive action will emerge from the review of the Government's biodiversity action plan, which, I understand, is to take place shortly?

The Under-Secretary could make an immediate start by having words with the Deputy Prime Minister, whose office currently proposes the construction of something like 1,600 homes on several sensitive meadows, which the Government own, at Langdon Hills, Basildon. They contain rare plant species such as green-veined orchids, adder's-tongue fern and hay rattle. The meadows constitute a valuable complex that should not be destroyed, especially in the light of the red list's alarming report and the fact that Essex has already lost more wild flower meadows than the national percentage.

It is not my place to articulate the local arguments to save the area from development, but I mention this briefly as an example of the way in which the Government are aiding and abetting the destruction of yet more of our declining number of wild flower meadows. I shall not stray into the Stansted airport debate, but doubtless those who wish to save our wild flower meadows will examine that.
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To stick to Essex, I am grateful to Mr. Andrew May, conservation manager for the Essex Wildlife Trust—a fantastic organisation—who tells me:

Clearly, Essex needs to do much to retrieve the situation. I hope that the debate this evening will galvanise the county into action before it is too late.

I understand that the Bill that the Government plan to introduce will create a single organisation—Natural England—combining English Nature, parts of the Countryside Agency and most of the Rural Development Service. When does the Under-Secretary expect the new agency to be established? Will its remit include not only the protection of existing wild flower habitats but also, as part of its mission statement, the development of new areas of wild flower meadows and reserves?

Perhaps the Minister will reflect on the words of Dr. Trevor Dines of the wild flower conservation charity, Plantlife, who is one of the authors of the red data list survey. He said:

Dr. Chris Cheffings, the plants advisor to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, was quoted in an article in The Times by its countryside editor Valerie Elliott. She said:

Dr. Cheffings said that she found it shocking that so many species were on the red list.

Mr. Michael McCarthy, the environment editor of The Independent, wrote a by-lined article on 9 May, under the headline:

The article concluded:

In a second article by Mr. McCarthy, entitled

he said of the red list:

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Does the Minister concur with that conclusion?

There is a general recognition that, notwithstanding the major declines of the past 60 years, considerable efforts have been made to safeguard threatened species, thanks to the establishment of nature reserves and to the protection offered by sites of special scientific interest—SSSIs. The volunteers and various organisations engaged in such work are to be applauded for their valiant efforts. I should also like to add my appreciation of those enlightened farmers and landowners who value the importance of wild flowers and have taken steps not only to protect them but positively to encourage an increase in their numbers and the areas in which they can flourish.

I am most grateful to the many people who have provided background briefing for my contribution this evening, including Terri Tarpey, Jerry Heath and members of the Colchester natural history society. I am also grateful to Mr. Paul Vickers, the countryside sites manager for Colchester borough council. I am delighted to say that the council has implemented a policy of creating wild flower meadows and reserves for almost 20 years, as a direct result of a policy measure that I pushed for when I was mayor of Britain's oldest recorded town, Colchester, in 1986–87. I should like to quote the good news given by Mr. Vickers, which I suggest is an excellent example that many other local authorities should be encouraged to follow. He says that he is

I should like to make special mention of the High Woods and Cymbeline Meadows country parks, which are two success stories of the former Liberal Democrat council, of which I was once the leader. Mr. Vickers continues:

I should like to put some questions to the Minister. If he cannot answer them tonight, perhaps he could write to me later and place a copy of his reply in the Library.

Threatened status in the new red list is determined by evidence of decline, but many of our rarest species are found only in a handful of sites that conservationists have managed successfully over the last few decades. They have therefore not declined, and are now not classed as threatened, although their continued survival
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depends on direct conservation action. Can the Minister give an assurance that those species will not slip through the conservation net?

Agri-environmental schemes are often touted as effective mechanisms to protect and enhance biodiversity in the wider countryside. Such schemes, however, do not include enough monitoring of plant populations to ensure that they are having the desired effects. We are experimenting with our landscape, and we are effectively blindfolded. Can the Minister give an assurance that adequate funds and resources will be devoted to monitoring the botanical impact of agri-environmental schemes so that it can be properly assessed?

The Government's biodiversity action plan seeks to deliver conservation for all threatened species. Can the Minister give an assurance that all new additions to the red list will be included in an updated United Kingdom biodiversity action plan? Can the Minister give an assurance that adequate funds will be made available for conservation work?

The new red list includes many species classed as being threatened for the first time, and it may be appropriate to protect the sites where they are found. Can the Minister give an assurance that, despite the current emphasis in Government on securing favourable status for the existing protected-site network—the SSSIs—there is a programme of work to continue to identify new SSSIs?

Some wild plants receive statutory protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects species perceived to be at risk from collection. However, our wild plants face many more threats, such as habitat destruction. Given that many species in the new red list are still widespread but have declined significantly, does the legislation need to be widened and strengthened so that the habitats of those species are protected from destruction before it is too late?

I draw Members' attention to the forthcoming Chelsea flower show, and urge them to visit the Wildlife Trusts Lush Garden. The garden is described thus:

We can all picture the scene. The garden was designed by Giles Landscapes' design principal, Mr. Stephen Hall. The company is based in Welney, on the border between Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. This is something we can all look forward to.

I began by asking "Where have all the flowers gone?" I am grateful for the words of Pete Seeger, who went on to say:

I hope that the Minister will promise tonight that the Government will take positive measures to restore the wild flower meadows of Britain.
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6.33 pm

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