Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

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Mr. Chaytor: Surely the point is that under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 there is a need to prove reasonable cause for suspicion. That is the key phrase, because it is highly unlikely that any police force would use any new powers in a cavalier way. I would have thought that pressures on the police to target their resources are such that they will use them only if there is reasonable cause for suspicion. Surely that is the necessary constraint that should put the Minister’s mind at rest.

Jim Knight: I will return to that point at the end of my remarks, because there remain other issues worthy of consideration. There are also human rights issues, which I might need to consider. There is also a real need to ensure consistency of enforcement powers across legislation.

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To some extent, there are alternative remedies. We are dedicated to the effective enforcement of wildlife legislation, as we have been saying today. Nevertheless, there is a real need to focus resources sensibly. Appropriate offences are listed in the 1981 Act, with appropriate penalties per offence, including a custodial sentence that we hope will act as a deterrent to those considering committing a crime. Where offences have been committed, we will pursue prosecutions with vigour. The amendments to schedule 6 will assist effective investigation and enforcement.

Individuals must apply for a licence to move certain European protected species. That would cover, for example, moving bats from a disused barn that is about to converted into a dwelling.

Tree preservation orders may be applied to trees that have an amenity value. Wildlife habitat may be taken into account when designating an order, which can be issued at very short notice. The relevant inspectors already have the necessary powers to gain access to land to assess any application, so if, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has constituents who are concerned about bats in trees, and if they suspect that an offence might be committed against bats in a tree, they have the power to use a tree preservation order to protect those bats. Similarly, all hedgerows more than 20 m in length that are not part of a garden are also already protected. Anyone proposing to remove a hedgerow must apply to the local authority for permission to do so.

To some extent, therefore, we have other remedies for some of the important problems raised by my hon. Friends. However, the amendment raises timing issues about wildlife offences, as my hon. Friend the. Member for Bury, North said, such as what powers the police should have to enter land on which an offence has been or is likely to be committed. Those are difficult issues, and they call for a judgment to be made about the protection of wildlife on the one hand, and landowners’ rights on the other. I am not in a position right now to make a judgment about how that balance should be struck.

I have promised to give due consideration to the subject raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, and I have also promised to take action on non-native invasive species for the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, so it would seem churlish not to promise my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw and my other hon. Friends that we will consider the matter with colleagues and return on Report or at a later stage to tell them whether we can take this important issue a little further. On that basis, I urge my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment.

John Mann: The Minister responds with his usual eloquence and charm, although that does not necessarily seduce the members of the Committee into automatically presuming that legislation will follow. I hear what he says, and I hope that he will put some proper consideration into the development issue, because a developer who actually puts in a planning application is not the developer who is likely to start disturbing or destroying wildlife habitat intentionally.
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In examples from my constituency over the past four years, it has been precisely the developer who is thinking of putting in a planning application, but realises that he or she may have a significant problem, who “accidentally” removes said trees before anyone is aware that the meadows or pasture lands that they have lived next to—in some cases for 60 or 70 years—are all going to disappear, to be followed by a planning application that often takes great pleasure in saying that the site is now far more suitable because of the loss of habitat. It seems that increased police powers would be of assistance when people suspect that such activity is about to take place. In that context, and looking forward to ministerial intervention, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

Clauses 53 and 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 55

Notices and signs relating to SSSIs

6.45 pm

Mr. Paice: I beg to move amendment No. 130, in clause 55, page 21, line 7, at end insert—

    ‘after consultation with every occupier of that land’.

The amendment is another one that does not require much explanation. It is straightforward and simple. Needless to say, we support clause 54, which we just ordered to stand part of the Bill, and which changes some of the legislation on the protection of SSSIs. As an aside, I note that the Government have introduced the use of the word “recklessly” in clause 54. That was part of the genesis of the earlier amendment, and the Minister should bear that in mind in his further reflections.

Clause 55, which we are debating, adds to clause 54 provisions covering notices and signs. It simply says that Natural England, the new organisation, will be able to put up signs. I am suggesting in the amendment that Natural England should consult the people who own or occupy the land before putting up those signs. I am not saying that it should not be allowed to put up the signs, or that the occupiers should have a veto, but it is reasonable that the occupiers should always be consulted.

I have tried to touch on the reason for that in other debates. It is straightforward. There is a lot of apprehension in the countryside about what Natural England will be like and about what powers it will have. People’s experience of the current arrangements is not always good. Occupiers of land can be sensitive to what is done on land in which they have an interest. If Natural England is to have good relationships with occupiers of land, it is essential that occupiers know what is being done. Even if it has the power to erect notices, I suggest that Natural England should always
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consult occupiers before erecting notices. It would help the credibility of the system if that were stipulated in the Bill.

I am sure that the Minister will say, “Of course Natural England will consult and talk to local people”—

Jim Knight indicated assent.

Mr. Paice: The Minister is nodding his head to confirm that, as I expected, I foresaw his response. Therefore, I suggest that there is no reason not to include such provision in the Bill because, as I said, what is in the Bill affects the credibility of, and how people perceive, the legislation. If it says in the Bill that something has to be done, people will feel slightly comforted. If the Government are going to consult anyway, as the Minister’s nodding suggests, I hope that he will agree to put words to that effect in the Bill, to ensure that people understand that they still have rights over their land and that Natural England are not riding roughshod over their interests. I am not suggesting that Natural England would do that, but we must accept that it is a possible perception. I am anxious to make sure that things operate smoothly.

Jim Knight: I fully appreciate the intention of the amendment, but I am going to ask the Committee to resist it, for reasons that I hope to make clear. The power to erect notices and signs is for use where there is justified need because of Natural England’s responsibilities for sites of special scientific interest. We would, naturally, expect Natural England to liaise with owners and occupiers, as a matter of common courtesy, before using such powers. Its use is far more likely to be beneficial to the interests of owners and occupiers, and complementary to their efforts to manage the land for its special interests, than it is to have any detrimental effect on their interests. In almost every case, I imagine that once consulted, owners will be happy and everything will be fine.

I will give a key example. As we stated in the regulatory impact assessment, the provision will be particularly helpful in addressing problems such as third-party damage at sites of special scientific interest. Earlier this month, English Nature issued a press release stating that reported incidents of criminal activity on SSSIs had doubled in the last year, with more than 70 per cent. of incidents caused by persons other than the owners and occupiers. Unlawful off-road driving, which we shall discuss, and moor burning, for example, must be as much of a concern to the owners and occupiers of the land as it is to English Nature and will be to Natural England. Use of signs and notices, either at Natural England’s instigation or at the request of owners and occupiers, to warn and deter such people would benefit everyone.

In England, 55 per cent. of common land is SSSI land, and Committee members will know that this week we have introduced the draft Commons Bill in the other place, which will address issues in respect of
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common land. However, some commons have hundreds of registered commoners and a requirement to conduct a formal consultation process with each and every one of them, even to erect only one or two signs at the point of entry to the SSSI, would be a significant administrative exercise completely disproportionate to any likely impact on the interests of the commoners.

Until we have implemented the Commons Bill—assuming that it passes all its stages in Parliament—it will still take some time to clarify all the registration of common land. As things stand, it will be difficult to know if we even have been able to contact all the commoners.

Mr. Williams: I was going to raise the issue of common land anyway. I may have misheard the Minister, but did he say that an SSSI may consist of many hundreds of commons? I would dispute that. The land may be grazed by hundreds of commoners—[Interruption.] We might debate that. I cannot think of anything worse than having the whole of the English countryside covered with signs from English Nature—or Natural England. Will Natural England have to get permission under the Law of Property Acts to erect a sign on a common—because anyone else would have to do that—or will it have Crown immunity in this instance?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman raises a fascinating question, and I am aware from preparatory work that I have done for the Commons Bill how complicated the law is on commons. I hope and anticipate that the measures in the Bill apply to common land as they would to anywhere, so that we can deal with some of the problems relating to SSSIs, given that 3 per cent. of
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SSSIs are on common land in England and 8 per cent. in Wales. It is important that we are able to take this modest action to protect them.

I strongly urge that Natural England should be left to continue English Nature’s practice of informal liaison with owners and occupiers of SSSIs as part of their normal relationship. I am sure that Natural England will give careful consideration to any persuasive representations about location or other issues concerning any signage proposals. There are circumstances in which a statutory requirement to consult every one of the occupiers of land could work against the wish that I am sure all Committee members have to see such problems as unlawful off-road driving dealt with. In such cases, we would want to be able to display a sign quickly and efficiently without having to go through a costly exercise. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Paice: I appreciate the Minister’s point. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham had made the point to me earlier, sotto voce, about the number of commoners who could be involved so I understand that. The key point that the Minister has put on record is that he would expect Natural England to consult wherever possible, and his statement will be held hostage for the future if that does not happen—but I am sure that it will, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Seven o’clock.

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