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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing the debate. He ended as he began, by quoting from "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" I am not sure whether he was, or is, much of a hippie, but I recall his work as mayor of Colchester in the local wild flower meadow campaign and I am told that, given his equal love of darts, he is known in some of Colchester's pubs as Bob "The Flower Power" Russell. We must draw our own conclusions.

This is my first appearance at the Dispatch Box as a Minister. I am pleased that it is so early in the Session and that it is in my capacity as Minister with responsibility for biodiversity that I respond to this debate. It is an opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who did a fantastic job as an advocate for rural areas and the countryside. I am sure that he will be missed at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as much as he is welcomed at the Department of Trade and Industry.

The future of wild flowers is very important and the hon. Gentleman is right to be as concerned as he is. Protecting natural resources such as flower species is important in its own right but it also matters to our constituents as part of the need to improve our quality of life. Twenty-first century life is full of pressures just to get by. Dealing with those stresses and strains makes relaxation and recreation of increasing importance to the Government and that informs our emphasis on enhancing biodiversity. Wild flowers are very much part of that wider story.

Another part of my new portfolio is rural affairs. Those of us who live in rural England and the many others who visit it want to enjoy our beautiful landscape, the birds, the animals and the other plants as well as the wild flowers. That appreciation adds hugely to our quality of life and to our rural economy. I was reading this week that a project in Cornwall to protect the chough, a symbol of that county, has generated extra visitors worth over £100,000 to the economy of Cornwall, so this is not just about biodiversity. There is a much wider agenda, which I will pursue during my tenure of this ministerial position. Biodiversity generally, and wild flowers specifically, are crucial and worthy of debate in this House.

The debate is informed by the new red data list for vascular plants that was launched last week and that, for the first time, provides, as the hon. Gentleman said, a thorough assessment of the whole of the British flora, not just species that were considered nationally rare or scarce. I pay tribute to the many people who worked so hard to compile that authoritative and useful report. Up to that point, DEFRA and its partners principally focused attention on rare and scarce species in the absence of the more complete picture that we now have, which has been to good effect.

When one analyses the past week's media coverage of the report, it is easy to regard it as a doomsday scenario. We must not be complacent. There is plenty of work to do, but some rare species that appeared in previous versions of the red data list are no longer included
 
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because, while still rare, they now have stable populations. Often, they are looked after in national nature reserves or wildlife trust reserves, as the hon. Gentleman said. Examples include goldilocks aster, string sedge and dwarf spike-rush. Cowslips have also returned to the chalk downland in Berkshire. I am sure that we all celebrate the progress on those species and that we will continue to want to conserve the species whose populations have now stabilised.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the report shows that a high proportion—80 per cent.—of our flora is not under threat, but it highlights that 345 British vascular plants are under threat, while a further 98 are "near threatened". This is the first time that an analysis has been carried out of the entire British flora, so it is perhaps not surprising that a large number of new species have been added to the red list. There are familiar examples of decline. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the corn buttercup on more than one occasion. It is one of many arable plants affected by changing farming practices. The use of herbicides, field margins and shifting to autumn-sown crops are some of the practices implicated. The field gentian has been declining in uplands due to overgrazing. If you were to look at a copy of the report, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would see that the illustration on the front is of the field gentian. The green-winged orchid has suffered from the loss of lowland meadows and the frogbit is disappearing due to the draining of marshland for arable use, so we have challenges to face and we are not complacent.

We have a three-pronged approach to help reverse any further decline and improve the abundance of our rarer plants: first, robust legal protection that is regularly reviewed; secondly, the promotion of different farming methods to encourage the abundance of wildflowers; and, thirdly, the continuation of our crucial work to enhance biodiversity generally through the action plan process.

Taking those in turn, the main legislative tool is the protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Schedule 8 contains a list of plants the status of which is of most conservation concern and which are therefore given the greatest legal protection against intentional picking, uprooting, destruction or sale. This includes plants such as lady's slipper, red helleborine and fringed gentian, each of which is described as "critically endangered" on the new red data list.

Every five years, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee reviews the plant species listed in schedule 8 and then advises the Government and the devolved Administrations. The last such review took place in 2001, when the JNCC recommended that no plant species should be added to or removed from schedule 8. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we shall carefully consider the findings of the next review, which is due next year, and update the legislation as necessary, particularly in the light of the work that we are discussing this evening.

We are also introducing two additional relevant pieces of legislation in this Queen's Speech. The hon. Gentleman referred to the natural environment and rural communities Bill, which will be introduced soon
 
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and establishes Natural England to preserve and enhance the natural environment while enabling access for social and economic benefit. He asked when it would be established. We are saying in the Bill that it will be by January 2007. I am sure that we would like to bring that forward slightly if we can, but that is the deadline that we are setting ourselves. The Bill also includes provisions to prevent the infiltration of non-native species from overseas into the UK, which is directly relevant to wild flowers, especially in the light of the concerns over the European bluebell. Natural England will be an active voice in the planning process, which I hope will give some reassurance, although I am sure that it will not completely reassure the hon. Gentleman or allay all his concerns about housing development.

The other legislation in the Queen's Speech of relevance is the common land Bill, which will be important in enhancing sites of special scientific interest. More than half of common land is made up of SSSIs, but over 40 per cent. of those are not up to adequate standards. If we are to meet our target of bringing 95 per cent. of SSSIs up to a proper standard by 2010, we must take action in respect of common land, and the Bill will allow those sites to be more easily managed, and thereby prevent the overgrazing that has caused so much damage to species such as the field gentian.

The second prong is the use of the agri-environment schemes. The environmental stewardship scheme was launched on 3 March 2005. It is a new agri-environment scheme that funds farmers and other land managers in England who deliver effective environmental management on their land. The scheme builds on the success of the countryside stewardship and environmentally sensitive area schemes. One key objective is to conserve wildlife, which includes wild flowers. Specific options under the new scheme require land managers to carry out careful management that will encourage the increase in wild flower species. For example, there is an opportunity to manage field margins more sympathetically and thereby improve the prospects for flowers such as the corn buttercup.

Agri-environment schemes, including environmental stewardship, protect and enhance landscapes. Prescriptions for careful management are drawn up in consultation with partners, including English Nature and the Countryside Agency—soon to be Natural England. Land managers receive annual payments over 10 years to comply with stringent management conditions, such as limiting grazing or stopping ploughing or the use of fertiliser, fungicides or pesticides. That, as the hon. Gentleman knows, will encourage a welcome increase in wild flowers in the countryside.

With the introduction of the entry level environmental stewardship scheme, worth £150 million a year, we aim to cover the majority of English farmland and we shall be able to tackle countrywide problems such as the loss of these wild flowers. It is precisely because of the need to join up the thinking around these payments to farmers with natural resource protection that Natural England is being formed out of English Nature, the Countryside Agency and elements of the rural development service.

I hope that we can also prevent SSSIs from becoming isolated fragments of conversation by using those incentives. Those in agriculture do much to shape our landscape—we have much to thank farmers for in the
 
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beautiful landscape that we all enjoy—but I hope that the use of those incentives and schemes will ensure that the protection and enhancement of our environment, including wild flowers, can continue outside the pockets of SSSIs, nature reserves and so on.

The third prong is the biodiversity action plan process. The UK biodiversity action plan was published in January 1994, in response to article 6 of the convention on biological diversity. It helps to co-ordinate work nationally and locally, by identifying priorities for action and setting biological targets for the recovery of habitats and species, including wildflowers.

Maintaining and enhancing habitats, species and ecosystems are the key elements of our work on biodiversity. Last month, the Government announced funding worth nearly £2 million in the form of grants for 30 biodiversity projects across the country. The money, which comes from the DEFRA's environmental action fund, will support projects that play an important role in highlighting and integrating biodiversity into all walks of life.

Since 1995, a total of 436 UK priority species and habitat action plans and about 150 local biodiversity action plans have been published. Among the species action plans are many for endangered wild flowers, including a grouped plan for eyebrights—one of the species mentioned in the recent red data list. However, we do not live in a static world. Existing habitat and species action plans and associated targets were based on the best information available at the time.

To respond to new information such as that contained in the new red data list, new conservation opportunities and changing threats to species and habitats, it is important to report regularly and assess the lists periodically. We have agreed therefore to a full review of the UK biodiversity action plan this year. Of course, we will take full account of the new, complete red data list in that review. We will gather as much quantitative data as possible and will prepare revised candidate priority lists based on scientific criteria.
 
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To an extent, the 436 priority species and 150 local biodiversity action plans involved make a strategic approach difficult, and we must do some strategic work, looking across the whole spread, to determine how we assess the priorities. So, as a second stage, we will look at the feasibility and appropriateness of taking conservation action. We aim to publish a provisional list of priorities in March 2006, for wider consultation with not only hon. Members who take such a great interest in these issues, such as the hon. Member for Colchester, but with partner agencies, wildlife trusts and local activists throughout the country, who are so passionate about this important issue. The final stage will be to consider feedback and identify a suite of conservation implementation measures using a collective approach to all species and habitats. The intention is to complete this process before the end of 2006.

I am delighted that we have had this opportunity to debate this important issue, which lies at the heart of my responsibility for biodiversity. I have not been able to cover some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked to give him full satisfaction, but I will endeavour to write to him and place the answers to those questions in the Library, as he requested. However, there is much to do as we look forward, and we are developing the tools in government to do it.

The red data list, along with other research, gives a more accurate picture of the problems and challenges that we face. The natural environment and rural communities Bill will give us the delivery agency to act properly. With legislation, the agri-environment schemes and the biodiversity action plans, Natural England will have the levers that it needs to continue to make good progress. We should not duck the problem or be complacent about its scale but we should be optimistic that, by working together and in partnership and using those tools and levers, we can make good progress as we look forward into the future.

Question put and agreed to.




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