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.
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.
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 Africain Sierra Leonein 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.
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 extinction345 out of a total of 1,756. That is an appalling indictment of those who have allowed this environmental doomsday to occur. The 20th centurythe most destructive 100 years since man first walked on earthwas 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 volunteersmembers of the Botanical Society of the British Isleswho 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.
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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Many species of insects, especially butterflies and moths, depend on flower-rich grasslands. Results of other recent analysis are alarming with butterfly species, native birds and native plants declined by 71 per cent., 54 per cent. and 28 per cent. respectively in the last 20 years.
Plant after plant is becoming extinct as a result of changing farming methods, and as industry, housing, new roads, inappropriate management and planting schemes, gravel extraction, landfill and leisure activities all expanded to take up precious space."
I understand that the Bill that the Government plan to introduce will create a single organisationNatural Englandcombining 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?
"The findings mean that priorities for conserving Britain's wild flowers in future will need to be reordered, with more concern for commonplace plants in the fields of the wider countryside outside protected areasthe ones that are really at risk."
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 interestSSSIs. 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 198687. 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
"responsible for 430 hectares of Colchester Borough Council owned countryside open space land, that is land that is publicly accessible and possesses high landscape and wildlife value. The land consists of country parks, nature reserves and farmland."
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:
"Approximately 200 hectares of the land is 'conservation grassland'. Since the 1980s many larger sites have been converted from former arable by the Council, and sown with indigenous grasses and wild flowers. They are now looked after by programmes of grazing or hay cutting each year. This annual management is based around site management planning, citizen science, rangering, environmental education and community engagement. The original work has proved enduring and these sites are a much-loved part of Colchester's natural heritage. They are used by hundreds of thousands of visitors for informal recreation each year in addition to the formal educational use by many local schools and colleges. They have encouraged local people to take pride in Colchester and engendered protection of local greenspaces. Seven of the sites have been designated as Local Nature Reserves by the Council in recognition of their importance to local people and local wildlife. (Bull Meadow, Lexden Park, Lexden Springs, Hilly Fields, Lower Lodge Farm, Salary Brook and Wivenhoe Ferry Marsh.) They are a diverse group of sitesheath, marsh, wet grassland and neutral grassland. Collectively they support a wide range of local flora and fauna, many locally scarce."
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 networkthe SSSIsthere 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?
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.