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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
European Standing Committee Debates

Soil Protection



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Janet Dean
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Flynn, Paul (Newport, West) (Lab)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hogg, Mr. Douglas (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
Lepper, David (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Shaw, Jonathan ( Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs )
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Emily Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)

European Standing Committee

Monday 23 July 2007

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Soil Protection

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I am delighted to have the opportunity to explain to the Committee the background and nature of the European Commission’s proposal for a soil framework directive. The origin of the proposals lies in the sixth environmental action programme, which was agreed by the European Council and European Parliament in 2002, and provided a strategic framework for the Commission’s environmental policy up to 2012.
To address the four environmental priority areas, the Commission produced seven so-called thematic strategies, one of which was on soils, which led to its paper, “Towards a Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection”. After lengthy internal discussions and internet consultation with selected specialist stakeholders, the Commission finally adopted a definitive thematic strategy for soil protection last September, accompanied by the present proposal for a soil framework directive.
The legislative proposals mark a significant departure from the plans outlined in the 2002 communication, which spoke only of a measure aimed at soil monitoring. The proposed directive is broad in scope: its overall objective is to provide a European framework for action under which member states will identify threats to soil quality and resources and be required to address any problems arising from within their borders. The proposals aim to deliver a thematic strategy for soil protection in Europe, establish common principles for the protection and sustainable use of soils, prevent threats to soils, mitigate the effects of those threats, preserve soil function within the context of sustainable use and restore degraded and contaminated soils to approved levels of functionality.
The Commission’s principal rationale for Community legislation rests on the need to protect soils from degradation to ensure that they deliver their known ecosystems, services and function. The Commission recognises that aspects of soil protection are addressed in a range of other policies, but believes that there is a need for a more systematic, targeted approach, aimed specifically at soil protection, to avoid the risk of gaps in coverage. It has several specific justifications for Community action: any failure to protect soil will undermine sustainability and long-term competitiveness in Europe; different national soil protection regimes impose different obligations on economic operators, thus creating an unbalanced situation regarding their fixed costs; soil degradation in one member state can have trans-boundary consequences, and the damage must be addressed at source to prevent the cost of restoring soils falling on another member state.
European action to prevent or reduce soil contamination will complement the strict EU measures and controls that are already in place to ensure food and feed safety. There are five main elements to the directive. First, there are measures to address the impact and policies likely to exacerbate or reduce soil degradation processes, obliging member states to identify, describe and assess the impact of those policies and make their findings public. Secondly, there are measures to address soil erosion, loss of organic matter, compaction, salinisation and landslides, which oblige member states to identify areas at risk of degradation and use the results of the risk assessment to develop a programme of measures to minimise the risk of identified threats.
Thirdly, there are measures to address soil contamination that will oblige member states to test measures to limit the introduction of dangerous substances into the soil that give rise to significant risk to human health or the environment, and to identify all contaminated sites—those that give rise to significant risk to human health or the environment—within a prescribed timetable, using a procedure laid down in the directive. Member states will also be obliged to draw up a national remediation strategy, setting out the timetable and priorities: to ensure that all contaminated sites are remediated; to establish funding mechanisms to ensure remediation of contaminated sites where the responsible party cannot be found or made to pay; and to require buyers or sellers of potentially polluted sites to provide soil status reports describing the condition of the land at the time of sale.
The fourth key element involves introducing measures to limit soil sealing, obliging member states to take appropriate steps to minimise it and mitigate its effects using construction techniques and products allowing the maintenance of as many soil functions as possible. Finally, the proposed directive will require member states to take steps to raise awareness of the need to protect soil and report back to the Commission. It will also provide for information exchange with other states and with stakeholders about various aspects of the directive.
The Commission’s impact assessment provides a quantitative assessment of soil degradation in terms of the amount of soil eroded in what were then the 25 member states, how much soil matter is being lost and how much in the territory is subject to contamination, sealing, salinisation, landslides and compaction. The costs of such degradation are estimated at €38 billion annually, or £25.7 billion, but it is recognised that that analysis does not take into account the contribution of existing policies to overcome degradation.
It is suggested that the costs of implementing the directive in the EU will be about £1.36 million. The background to the proposals is outlined in the explanatory memorandum of 17 October 2006, submitted by Lord Rooker, who was then lead Minister with responsibility for soil. It was followed by the supplementary explanatory memorandum of 8 May this year, which covered the submission of the initial UK regulatory impact assessment and led to this debate.
Particular concern has been expressed about the over-prescriptiveness of some of the Commission’s proposed measures, particularly those dealing with contamination and soil sealing. There has been disquiet about the Commission’s inability to quantify potential benefits and the imprecision of its cost estimates, especially when compared with our own regulatory impact assessment.
I emphasise that our assessment remains provisional, but because of the continuing lack of clarity in the Commission’s explanations and the proposed requirements, and the associated difficulty of obtaining reliable information from the sectors potentially affected by the likely costs, our initial analysis has led us to conclude that the Commission’s proposed measures would be disproportionately expensive to implement and would cause difficulties due to considerable overlap with other EU legislation. Significant changes are needed to deliver net positive benefits nationally from a UK perspective.
The RIA also draws attention to the shortcomings of the Commission’s impact assessment in not providing a convincing rationale for Community intervention. In ignoring the benefits being delivered by current EU measures as well as overestimating those that could be delivered by the proposed directive, particularly through its provisions on soil sealing and dealing with contaminated sites, the draft directive is not consistent with the Commission’s own principles of better regulation and is likely to lead to considerable administrative burdens for little environmental benefit.
As far as our negotiating position is concerned, there is still not a great deal to report. Progress under the German presidency was slow and did not move beyond the exploratory stage, during which our concerns were echoed by several other member states. The Portuguese presidency wants to accelerate discussions and to achieve political agreement on the proposals at the December 2007 Environmental Council. To facilitate that, it has organised a number of working groups—three in July alone—to try to resolve member states’ concerns. It intends to draw up a presidency text during the summer for discussion at the two further working groups in September. The European Parliament has yet to complete first reading, now not expected until autumn. A plenary vote is scheduled for November.
I emphasise that whatever our misgivings about the directive, the UK Government fully support the Commission in seeking to improve soil protection in the EU. Protecting soil and its functions is a key pillar of the natural environmental policy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and that policy in turn forms an integral part of our climate change agenda. We will, therefore, continue to seek improvements in the directive to ensure that any new obligations are evidence-based, proportionate, cost-effective and fully consistent with the principles of better regulation and subsidiarity.
The Chairman: We have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister, which, I remind Members, should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all Members to ask several questions.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I, too, suspect that we will have plenty of time, Mrs. Dean. I thank the Minister for his opening statement and welcome him to the Committee. I assume that he is now the lead Minister for soil, if Lord Rooker is no longer, although I hope that the Minister has higher aspirations.
In the Minister’s conclusions, he referred to the Government’s position, and of course we support what he said about DEFRA’s role in protecting soil, but I am unclear from his statement about the Government’s specific view on European competence. Before we consider in detail the right approach—options 1 to 4 and so on—I would be grateful if he told us whether the Government accept EU Commission competence on issues such as soil.
Jonathan Shaw: We accept that there is a need to improve soil across the European Community, but believe that there are huge variations between the levels of advancement in this country and those elsewhere. We have a history of developing green belt land and of building on contaminated land, so I think that we are in a good position to lead the debate. We believe that the Commission should be involved, but that there should not be any overlap. At the moment, it has not taken full account of our existing legislation, but I am informed that the proposals are covered by article 175 of the European Community treaty and by the sixth environmental action programme. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I, too, welcome the Minister to his new and elevated role as lead Minister for soil? We hear often about turf wars within Government; I do not know whether this was the result of a turf war.
Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): It is a dirty business.
Mr. Carmichael: Indeed.
My concern is similar to that of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire: under the relevant treaties, of course, the Commission might have competency, but the last word of the Minister’s statement was “subsidiarity”, which takes the debate to another level. Is he satisfied that in applying the principles of subsidiarity, it is appropriate for the Commission to be taking the lead on this?
Jonathan Shaw: I think that I made it clear in my opening remarks that the Government remain concerned. Our preliminary analysis of the proposed directive is that it is over-prescriptive, and does not, for example, allow for existing and effective national systems, particularly for contaminated land. That is a key principle. Do we have our own planning system? We have a planning White Paper, which is very relevant to the recent debate in the Chamber on flooding, during which many Members mentioned building on flood plains. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded that we have given the Environment Agency more powers to provide advice to local authorities. We can have a debate about that.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): One of the consequences of the compaction of soil is that rainwater does not soak into the soil, but runs off the surface at a quicker rate than previously. One of the reasons why soil has become compacted in upland areas, particularly in areas such as Plynlimon, which is in the catchment area for the river Severn, is that they are overstocked by farmers with livestock, particularly sheep. What can we do about that?
Jonathan Shaw: I shall take on board my hon. Friend’s point about whether farmers are overstocking. That is clearly a matter for this country to resolve and we do not need the Commission to advise us on it. Soil is very important, as my hon. Friend says, because of what it does to provide essential drainage. There is also an issue of cross-compliance. If we have a directive, it will need to comply with other directives with regard to the grants and so on that are available for farmers. I shall take on board my hon. Friend’s comment. If he has evidence of what he says, will he please write to me?
Mr. Paice: The Minister might want to point out to the hon. Member for Newport, West that since the decoupling of subsidies there is now greater concern about understocking rather than overstocking on the hills.
The Minister answered my point about the Government’s attitude to EU competence, but in his opening remarks he referred to the fact that not only the British Government, but a number of other Governments, have expressed some concern. If that is the case, why do not the Government work with those others and stop this nonsense in its tracks? We can debate the issues of soil management later; we are now questioning the principle of whether there should be yet another framework directive. The Minister said in his opening remarks that the Government thought that such a directive was at least premature, if not totally unnecessary. The problem is that once the ball starts rolling in Europe, it cannot be stopped. Surely the sooner the framework is stopped altogether, if there is a sufficient body of opinion elsewhere, the sooner we can get on and address the real issues to which he rightly refers.
Mr. Carmichael: I should like to follow on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Newport, West. It strikes me that by using the modulation provisions arising from the single farm payment, the Government can already do a great deal to improve the environmental impact of agriculture. What does the Minister think a directive such as this would add to the provisions, powers and facilities that the Government already have?
Jonathan Shaw: Is the hon. Gentleman asking about how we think the directive will help us?
Mr. Carmichael: I am asking about what it will add.
Jonathan Shaw: We think that we are in a good position to make the directive proportionate. We do not think that the directive, as it stands at the moment, would add anything to what we seek to achieve. Our initial regulatory impact assessment provides an analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposed directive; it is only one step towards developing a more detailed assessment. We need to understand more about what the European Community hopes to achieve from it. The directive sets out a framework, which it says is systematic, that requires all areas to be identified, for example. A complete inventory of all risk areas would be required. That would be an enormous task—the Government have done a lot on brownfield sites as it is.
There are also issues of contaminated land and soil sealing. Issues of best practice are being considered, such as whether any materials used for sealing could allow the best penetration of water possible. We have to use concrete and soil sealing products; the question is about what the best practice is. As I say, we believe that we are in a good position to shape the debate and make the Commission understand how we have developed practices, given that we have built on contaminated land, especially during the past 20 years. I am thinking of developments in the Thames Gateway and so on.
Paul Flynn: Does the Minister think that the document takes into account the profound changes that are taking place to our climate? We have heard today that the flooding in some places in this country is the worst since the 17th century. This year, southern Europe’s climate has been more akin to that of parts of north Africa. As the weather is likely to go on being unpredictable, is he concerned that the document might be based on the farming practices and the use of soil of the past, rather than on the likely new and alternative uses of the future?
Jonathan Shaw: We should certainly push for stronger measures on soil protection, given climate change. However, we are playing a prominent role in respect of climate change. Soil is important; it holds a great deal of carbon, especially in peat bogs. The farming community wishes to work hard with the Government to reduce the amount of carbon that it emits. We must use the lessons that we have learned by working with all stakeholders. The Government certainly intend to hold a consultation with stakeholders on the directive, which will be starting almost immediately. We hope that those points will be fed into the system.
Mr. Paice: If the Government are about to develop a consultation, they seem to be accepting that the directive will happen. Will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with his colleagues in the European Parliament? He said that the Parliament had not undertaken the measure’s first reading yet, but I understand that its agriculture and rural development committee has started to debate it. The committee itself has said that the measure is premature, that the Commission is jumping the gun, and that the directive would create parallel legislation. Has the Minister had any discussions with his colleagues in the European Parliament about the amendment that would reject it all together?
Jonathan Shaw: I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman accurately about whether there has been discussion at an official level, but I have not had any such discussions to date. I shall certainly take on board what he has said, write to him, and advise him and the Committee on that point.
Mr. Carmichael: The Minister referred briefly to the substantial and significant contribution that blanket bog can make to carbon capture. My concern is that the directive is a substantial sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. One element of that small nut might be people who live in areas where peat is readily available for domestic consumption. Will the Minister assure me that should the proposal be implemented, such people, who are responsible for a tiny proportion of the peat that is removed, will not be regulated out of an otherwise very important—almost cultural—activity?
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. If we were to use the sustainability test, it would apply to the hon. Gentleman’s example. We must ensure that our peat bogs do their job and that people use them in the way that he describes. We do not want disproportionate requirements that would impact hugely on people’s lifestyles, but we must balance that with protection of the environment. We have been sceptical throughout because we feel that the proposal is over-prescriptive and does not take into account of a range of issues. I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Jonathan Shaw: I should want to predict neither an outcome nor failure at this stage. We will continue to work with our partners. As I have mentioned, we already have a strong alliance. We think that option 1A—no, perhaps not. I shall perhaps come to this when the handwriting is clearer to me.
I cannot say at this stage that we will use a veto, but we will seek to improve the directive by working with our partners because that is the way to proceed now. Issuing such a statement is unlikely to create the type of atmosphere in which we can persuade others of the right course. We believe that we are on that course through our experience.
Mr. Carmichael: I am delighted that the Minister appreciates the importance of peat cutting. As one who represents and was born and brought up in a constituency that still practises it, I must say that it ticks a lot of Government boxes: it makes a contribution towards addressing the issue of fuel poverty; it helps to create a healthy lifestyle; and it reduces obesity. The Minister should be enrolling his colleagues in government to protect it.
On the impact assessment, the Government’s view is that the Commission underestimates the cost of implementation. I understand that they are to carry out their own assessment in that regard. Is there any indication of the scale of the underestimate? When can we expect the results of the Government’s study?
Jonathan Shaw: We are undertaking that assessment. It will give an analysis of the costs and benefits provided by the directive. We are in only the first step of developing a more detailed assessment of the implications of the proposals. Officials are working closely with stakeholders and we will be producing a more detailed cost-benefit assessment of the proposed directive. We are getting on with that work. At this stage, I am not able to say when it will be published or when we might have it, although I shall ensure that it is brought to the hon. Gentleman’s attention.
Mr. Carmichael: I understand that the delay to which the Minister referred was caused in part by the proposal for the production of a “soil status” report every time a piece of land was sold. Will he give an assurance that that is now dead in the water? Given the contaminated land register in this country and, in particular, the Government’s recent experience with home information packs, there would be little to be gained from the implementation of such a scheme.
Paul Flynn: Will the Minister give us an idea of whether any practical, beneficial measures will be implemented to solve the contamination of soils by farming over the past 100 years? I am particularly thinking about the nitrates that will probably remain in the soil for centuries contaminating aquifers. Other methods have been implemented in recent years whereby contaminating materials have been used to increase farm production. Will he push for a move towards organic farming and a reduction in the use of chemicals on soil?
Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend will be aware of the nitrates directive, which has been around for quite some time. In implementing that directive, we need to work with the farming community to ensure that there are further reductions in the amount of chemicals used on our land, which the farming community will want to see as well. We need to tackle that issue in the near future.
Motion made, and Question proposed ,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents Nos. 13401/06 and Addenda 1 and 2, Commission Communication Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection, and 13388/06, Draft Directive establishing a framework for the protection of soil and amending Directive 2004/35/EC; and supports the Government’s aim of ensuring that any new EU obligations in respect of the protection of soils and their functions are evidence-based, proportionate and cost effective and take full account of the principles of subsidiarity and better regulation, particularly in respect of Member States’ existing national legislation.—[Jonathan Shaw.]
5.6 pm
Mr. Paice: I do not intend to detain the Committee for long or to go into matters in great detail. I entirely support what the Minister has said about the importance of soil, its management and preservation, and enhancing its status. There is clear evidence in some parts of the country that soil has been degraded by various practices over the years. For example, there has been a reduction in humus content, which impedes drainage and soil’s capacity to hold water. It is important to put that right. His comments on contaminated land were extremely important. The soil erosion and diffuse pollution that come with it are, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, dealt with by cross-compliance, and are a clear part of the cross-compliance rules. I entirely support the Minister’s comments about the importance of soil and the advanced way in which this country has gone about trying to look after it and to put right things that have wrong. Contaminated land is clearly a critical aspect of that, so there should be no need for debate across the Committee about it.
The Minister said that there are huge variations across the European Union regarding the management of soil. That is true, but there are many variations across the EU in several other policy areas, and that does not necessarily mean that there has to be a European policy to deal with them. Coming from where I do in the political spectrum, I can make that point because I am not someone who is normally branded as a Eurosceptic. I worry about what is often described as Euro-creep: the tendency of the Commission to seek to get more and more involved in every little aspect of what ought to be decisions for national Governments and should be covered by subsidiarity, which was a word that the Minister used. This situation is a clear example. There might be treaty-designated competence, as the Minister said in response to my first question, and item 6 of the action programme might give it, but that does not necessarily mean that a soil framework directive is required. The Government have said—I believe that the Minister cited part of this statement—
“Our provisional conclusion is that, from a UK point of view, the current proposals risk being overly prescriptive, disproportionate and expensive...and that significant changes in the proposed Directive would be needed to deliver positive net benefits”.
The Government have also said that there is a general lack of evidence to support many of the key reasons given for Community legislation, which is going back half a stage to whether there is a need for such legislation in the first place. The Government should therefore adopt a robust position on this matter. I have experience of European negotiations and I understand that the Minister does not want to give away his whole negotiating stance with regard to an endgame, but the Government need to make it clear to the Commission that this is several steps too far in terms of overriding what should rightly be dealt with through subsidiarity. The points that he raised about cross-border issues in parts of Europe might well apply. I would argue that that could be dealt with bilaterally, or perhaps multilaterally, but without the whole EU having to become involved in such decisions.
I asked the Minister about the discussions at the European Parliament. Its agriculture and rural development committee is considering an amendment to which I have already referred. I understand that it has already received support from the Minister’s party, as well as mine, and from a number of member states. The amendment states:
“The proposal is in breach of the principle of subsidiarity and much too bureaucratic. Furthermore, existing European legislation has not been taken into consideration. A clear differentiation to other EU-law did not take place. For example, existing measures already approved by European law, might be illegal after entering into force of this directive. Furthermore, the directive foresees that the harmonisation of risk evaluation is carried out even without consulting the European Parliament.”
The amendment is clear and has, as I said, cross-party support and the support of MEPs from a number of member states. It makes clear the views that I have tried to put across in this Committee. This has nothing do with the importance of looking after our soil. The present Government and previous Governments have taken steps to deal with our own domestic problems and, as the Minister rightly said—I am not making partisan points—the question is why that should not be the practice right across Europe, without the need for the Commission to get involved, to become ever more bureaucratic, and, as he said, far more prescriptive.
There is probably not a lot that I need to add, except to say, “All power to the Minister’s elbow.” I hope that he will be as robust as he can and I ask his officials to be robust in their discussions. There must be very substantive change to the proposal if it is to become a framework, because we know that once there is a framework directive, it will be followed very soon by all the implementing directives and regulations. Earlier, I used an analogy: I said that once the ball has started rolling, it is very difficult to stop it. I know that this might be tough, particularly when the Government do not want to upset our friends and colleagues in Europe, but sometimes we need to make it clear that a measure will not be acceptable.
The looser the framework, the better. If we have to have one at all, it needs to be much more along the lines that the Minister described by allowing national Governments—in this case, the British Government and, to a certain extent, the Government for England—to continue to use the various systems, schemes, methods and experience that we have gained over many years. That is the position that we adopt. I will not oppose the motion, but I simply ask the Minister to heed what I have said.
5.13 pm
Mr. Carmichael: Unlike the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I am occasionally referred to as a Eurosceptic. Perhaps that just reflects the fact that what constitutes a Eurosceptic in my party is rather different from what constitutes one in his.
I do not think that it is a secret that I came rather late to this Committee—I was put on it only this afternoon. I give all credit to those who produced its membership list because my name has somehow appeared on it since I agreed to serve on the Committee at 3 o’clock—either that, or I have to have a rather difficult conversation with the Whips Office about when they tell me such things.
The debate has been immensely interesting. It strikes me that what we are discussing in microcosm is an issue that could be extrapolated across the EU as a whole. If the matter is to be the subject of legislation that is implemented in the appropriate way, that legislation will either be so broad that it is almost meaningless, or, if it is detailed, so prescriptive that it is inappropriate in some parts of the Union and inconsistent with the proper application of the principles of subsidiarity. On that basis, I question whether it is appropriate to have such a directive at all. Is there any point in bold, broad statements of policy that will have no practical application? Should we accept that some things are better left to be done either regionally or nationally? This seems to be a classic example of something that is better done at the very base—at a regional level. To try to get one size to fit all across the EU on such a matter is, frankly, nonsensical, and I welcome the realism of the Government’s position.
The amount of peat taken from peat banks for domestic use in constituencies such as mine and others in the highlands and islands is infinitesimal. I can see that there might be an argument to be made about the large-scale industrial extraction of peat, which is a legitimate concern that the Government are aware of and have acted on in the past. However, the law of unintended consequences concerns me once we start to legislate on such matters. The Minister referred to the nitrates directive, on which the Government have taken an active and leading role. I have some experience of the creation of nitrate vulnerable zones, on which we have taken a lead, albeit not always to the liking of the agricultural community, and certainly not always in a way that demonstrates the best understanding of modern farming needs and practices. However, the fact that we have undertaken that action gives the lie to the need for such directives.
Finally, as a former solicitor, I must say that soil status reports at the point of sale fill me with dread. When one buys or sells any heritable property these days, the list of reports that one is required to produce to satisfy the purchaser is lengthy and, on occasions, questionable. We have water reports and contaminated land reports and now, in England and Wales, home information packs are coming in. I do not understand what a soil status report will add to a purchaser’s knowledge of a standard, non-commercial property. It will add to the time taken conveyancing and, undoubtedly, to costs, but I fail to see what it will add to the purchaser’s knowledge or to the title. I am pleased that the Government are taking a realistic and practical approach and I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire: all power to the Minister’s elbow as he deals with this issue.
5.20 pm
Paul Flynn: I thank the Whips for nominating me for this Committee—I now realise that my parliamentary career has peaked this afternoon. Serving on the Committee has been an educational experience.
As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire rightly pointed out, overstocking is largely a thing of the past—there is no advantage to it now, given that farmers are paid on the basis of the land that they own, rather than the amount of food that they produce. However, in Wales, until very recently, about 200,000 payments were made for sheep that never arrived at market. One of the reasons for the slow build-up of flooding incidents in the Severn valley was attributed to the compaction of the land. If there are new uses of land—equestrian purposes, or purposes related to other animals, or to leisure centres—the same mistakes should not be made. The compaction of land in the high ground was certainly one of the factors, albeit not the main one, of course, behind the floods that have occurred.
I wish the directive well. It is a chance for us to look towards the land environment, to see the terrible way in which we have plundered it—including our soil—over recent years, and to turn to husbanding the land as we husband other parts of the environment.
5.22 pm
Jonathan Shaw: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that we abused our land in the past. However, we in this country have a good record on changing that. One sees some of the worst abuses on television programmes brought from the former Soviet Union. Land has been abused absolutely catastrophically.
As with many situations faced by politicians, we need to steer the right course. We do not want the directive to be over-prescriptive, but neither do we want to lose the opportunity to improve soil conditions throughout the Community. We do not make this stuff; it is a natural resource that underpins every aspect of human activity, and is key also to ecosystems, on which life depends. I have listened to hon. Members’ responses to the Government’s position and assure them that we will take a robust line. We see an opportunity here, but we must find the right course. To reiterate, we will ensure that we seek an outcome that is evidence-based, proportionate and fully consistent with the principles of better regulation and subsidiarity.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at twenty-five minutes past Five o’clock.
 
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