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As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said, my colleagues raised the issue of invasive non-native species in Committee and I raised it privately with the Minister before the Bill was produced. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to try to close the stable door, although I should be keener if they had tried to catch some of the horses that escaped before they undertook that move. That is my concern.
The Government have expressed worry about the matter over many years. Indeed, my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), reminded me that the Government made a pledge, or at least something akin to a pledge, during the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, that they would deal with non-native invasive species, but we have not heard much about that since then. We are looking for progress, but we have not yet seen it.
In Committee, the Minister made a point that I hope he will be able to pick up. He said that his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), intended to establish
"a programme board to oversee the implementation of non-native species policy across Government. The Department has allocated funds for the purpose and I expect the board to meet for the first time in the late summer."[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 June 2005; c. 213.]
I presume that the board has met and that we can hear about its achievements so far. We want the Government to put into action what they believe, as we dothat non-native invasive species need to be dealt with.
The matter is urgent. For example, Japanese knotweed is not only deeply invasive and spreading rapidly but, as the Minister knows, when it is flailed it spreads even more quickly. People do not know that and many highways authorities are merrily causing Japanese knotweed to spread across the country. It is important to deal with species that are already present, but I see no action from the Government to do that, so I hope that the Minister can say something tonight to give us confidence that the issue will be dealt with once and for all.
As the amendments have a common purpose, I shall address them together. I share the desire
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expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House to deal effectively with non-native invasive species. However, the amendments would result in considerable changes both to provisions in the Bill and to those already set out in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
New clause 8 would deal with one of the problems caused by invasive non-native species to secure restoration of habitat to its former condition where damage has been caused by the release of a non-native species. Amendment No. 15 would restrict application and we have already heard what new clauses 6 and 9 would do.
The amendments are almost identical to a package of amendments that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) introduced in Committee and then withdrew. My response is similar. I am of the opinion that a comprehensive package of legislation on policy on non-native species is necessary. We consulted on some of the essential elements and have received a range of constructive responses, which we shall need to consider and develop over the coming months, but as a matter of urgency. However, it would be wrong to rush into legislation simply because an apparently convenient vehicle presents itself. We have to assess overall needs properly and take full account of implications and concerns, including resource needs. Equally, it would be wrong to think that we are not taking seriously the problems caused by non-native species. I assure the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that we recently established the programme board, which is responsible for ensuring that action across Government and their agencies is joined up effectively.
Norman Baker: The Minister does not want to use this vehicle, which he regards as convenient, because it may not be the right one. I understand that as a principle, but the trouble is that another vehicle may not come along for some time. He may reach conclusions in the spring, but the Bill will have been passed and we shall wait a long time for another DEFRA Bill that can deal with the issue. That is the urgency.
Jim Knight: I understand the urgency but, equally, we must get things right. The first meeting of the programme board was held on 12 September, and it was attended by senior policy officials representing a range of Government agencies. I look forward to working with them on this issue. We have also published on our website a report of the risk assessment research and we are actively engaged in ensuring that it is rigorously tested by peer review to enable us to identify at an early stage new species that are likely to become problematic.
As regards some of the species mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), the EU recently confirmed that it is offering funding to help to support a programme of work to help to eradicate the ruddy duck from the UK. I can confirm to the House that DEFRA will provide the match funding and that the programme to deal with the species will proceed. This programme of work has been developed on the basis of extensive research and a cost-benefit analysis, unlike the case for some of the other species listed in the new clause.
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For example, I know that Japanese knotweed is of great concern, and DEFRA is co-funding a five-year research project led by Cornwall county council into a natural method of control. I have to advise Liberal Democrat Members that removing Japanese knotweed from the UK using conventional methods would cost £1.56 million, a disproportionate amount of public expenditure. In fact, I believe that the real figure is £1.56 billion. Happily, I am sufficiently awake to correct even my own notes. We should not overlook the enhanced capacity of Natural England to manage non-native species in a co-ordinated way.
I take seriously the problems caused by grey squirrels, and I am considering the issue. The Forestry Commission is doing good work to protect red squirrels and one can come to Brownsea island in my constituency to see them there.
There are a number of other measures arising from the consultation on the review of the 1981 Act that we will want to take forward, using primary or secondary legislation as appropriate. I can make that commitment to the hon. Member for Lewes. This measure should be part of that further work.
I hope that hon. Members will regard that as an indication that we are making progress and not as simply an attempt to shelve this important subject. I ask them to withdraw the motion and support us when we introduce the legislation to which I have just referred.
Mr. Paice: Again, I did not really expect the Minister to change the stance that he took in Committee. He clearly understands the import of what the new clauses and amendments are trying to achieve and far be it for me to suggest that a more complicated set of arrangements is desirable. We want to simplify government, not complicate it.
There are real issues, however. I am pleased to hear what the Minister said about the ruddy duck, and I am pleased that I gave him the opportunity to make that announcement to the House. I am not sure that it would have justified a full statement at 3.30 pm, but he has made the announcement on Report and I am glad that we gave him the chance to do so.
I was also interested in the Minister's comments on the grey squirrel. There is a real problem. Even though I know that the red squirrel has a small nucleus on Brownsea islandlong may that continueI would like to see it spread beyond there, but he is aware that there are not many other such nuclei. There is one in Thetford forest, but most of the rest are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) or perhaps in Cumbria.
The Minister referred to the EU's role in respect of the ruddy duck, but I am sure that he is aware that there is also an EU squirrel initiative. There is widespread concern in many countries in Europe about the damage that the grey squirrel causes and I hope that he will use his role as the Minister responsible for biodiversity to look into the issue more carefully and into the help that the EU can give us to reduce the damage that the grey squirrel causes.
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