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Lord Hardy of Wath: Like the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and my noble friend Lord Judd, I trust that the Government will take a helpful view and bring forward helpful proposals on Report. I make that point because this approach will determine whether the Bill is seen later this century as a landmark provision.

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There is a great deal to be said for the amendment and I do not want to detain the Committee for long. However, I must point out that it is a logical step in the ladder of conservation measures which Parliament has approved during the past 20 or 30 years. In 1976, I took legislation on the conservation of wild creatures and wild plants through the other place. That established a scientific basis for the protection of endangered species. The decision whether a species was to survive or not did not rest on a value judgment made by individuals but on the basis of scientific assessment by the then Nature Conservancy Council. The then government were extremely helpful in ensuring that that Private Member's Bill succeeded.

We then witnessed a bipartisan approach to some of the international efforts towards furthering the cause of conservation. I was fortunate to be rapporteur and chairman of the Council of Europe Committee which took action leading to the Berne Convention on Wildlife and Habitat. Both the then government and opposition were consistent in their approach to that instrument.

There have been numerous other such provisions during the past 10 years. The earlier measures were consolidated into the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which was regarded as being of great importance, but even that Act had loopholes. From time to time, Members on both sides in both Houses in Westminster took initiatives to try to block or remedy those provisions. I believe that on balance those responsible for the 1981 Act would rather that the loopholes had been avoided in the first place. I hope that that approach will apply to this measure and that in a couple of years we shall not regret that we did not go a little further.

I want to see the Bill regarded as a major piece of legislation which will ensure that the great decline in recent years in the variety and wealth of the British natural heritage is not only halted but reversed. That cannot happen unless the biodiversity programmes proceed. If they are to proceed effectively, those involved must accept that the Government will be consistent in their approach. One accepts that some costs will be involved, but I do not believe that anyone will suggest that they will be colossal.

The lives of many hundreds of thousands of people will be diminished if they do not have the opportunity to enjoy our natural heritage. It is under threat, but I hope that on Report the Government will ensure that people can plainly see that that threat is to be reduced and that the Bill will be regarded as of enormous historic importance.

Earl Peel: I, too, support my noble friend's amendment in principle. I begin by declaring an interest as president of the Game Conservancy Trust, which is joint lead agency for three biodiversity action species; the great partridge, the brown hare and the crayfish. It is an extraordinary mixture, but I shall not go into how it came about.

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There is no doubt that since the Government signed up to the Rio Convention on Biodiversity in 1992, Britain has had a new conservation agenda, in principle at least. But there is a world of difference between principle and reality.

The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, rightly referred to the 1981 Act. It is easy to look back with hindsight and say that mistakes were made here and there. Although the 1981 Act has, by and large, served us extremely well, it is now 20 years old and is beginning to show its inadequacies. There is a need to move away from what might be described as the single principle of protection and to embrace the greater responsibility--which it certainly is--of positive management, because that is real conservation. English Nature has begun to embrace that with its positive moves towards the wildlife enhancement scheme. That is a step in the right direction towards the whole concept of biodiversity.

If one turns to page 14 of the Countryside Agency's publication The state of the countryside 2000 one sees a graph which shows how various species have fared since the introduction of the 1981 Act. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to farmland birds. It is clear from the graph that since 1981 farmland birds have declined at an astonishing rate. This indicates that not only is the 1981 Act inadequate in some respects but, above all, that the protection of species or habitat per se is not enough. Positive management is required if we are to achieve the objectives of biodiversity. One basic problem is that the various agri-environment schemes, welcome though they are, must continually compete with the underlying inadequacies of the common agricultural policy. The provisions of biodiversity action plans with statutory backing will help everyone to focus their minds on the need for positive management to achieve the objectives.

I should like to put a question to the Minister. I do not suggest that the noble Lord is in a position to give a comprehensive answer tonight. One wonders about the clash between the biodiversity action plan and the common agricultural policy, and the extent to which the statutory backing of BAPs will help to motivate a fresh look at the whole way in which the CAP is administered. I appreciate only too well that that is a big undertaking.

There is a real possibility that the implementation of biodiversity action plans will be a painful process. It may well uncover the reality that the present conservation schemes do not address many of the issues and that more positive solutions need to be undertaken. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, said that there might be some financial implications. I believe that there will be very real financial implications. We look to the Minister to indicate how he sees this admirable objective being fully and properly financed.

I welcome the proposals behind the amendment which will provide a real challenge to both the public and private sector, but I do not believe that without a degree of statutory backing biodiversity will succeed.

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It is a matter of crossing our fingers and being realistic. We shall not achieve everything. I suspect that without reform of the CAP and real money a good deal of what we all hope for will not come about.

7.15 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne: In the early 1990s I chaired the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which had responsibility for advising governments on their response to the biodiversity convention to which not only the United Kingdom but the European Union are signatories. The biodiversity action plan regime was the product of discussions with a wide number of organisations that contributed to it. The success of biodiversity action plans has been due very much to partnerships between statutory nature conservation organisations, land managers, education, local authorities and other interests.

Whether this amendment will add value must depend ultimately on a greater number of biodiversity action plans being delivered and owned by those who seek to implement them. I support the amendment because I believe that on balance that will be the outcome. There is enormous amount of enthusiasm at grass roots for biodiversity action plans. The failure of the National Assembly for Wales to fund CCW adequately must be a grave discouragement to those local organisations which find themselves without the support they might have expected from CCW. However, when one gives new statutory responsibilities to the Department of the Environment, or the Secretary of State for Wales, there is always a danger that those powers will be passed down the line and impact in ways that are less than helpful on those on whose goodwill one entirely relies. That concern was expressed in another place. On balance, I am not too concerned. However, I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee of a willingness to recognise that biodiversity action plans, with or without statutory underpinning, will work only with the goodwill of all the stakeholders involved.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: I am heartened to hear the degree of support from all sides of the Committee for statutory underpinning of the process of conservation and action on biodiversity. That process has been going on for almost 10 years. It is the product of collaboration among many interests. That is one of its major benefits. One understands, however, why the Government may be unhappy about the amendment because of the degree of flexibility that may result. It would be unfortunate if only the range of species and targets currently described in the biodiversity action plan could be taken forward. I would be concerned if the intent, or the outcome, of the amendment focused attention only on government and not on partnership in the biodiversity action plan.

I would also be extremely concerned if some of the current actions were the only ones to have a statutory basis. The plan will take many years to implement and over time the appropriate range of actions to conserve particular species and habitats will alter. It is important to have an amendment that has a degree of

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flexibility but still gives the process of biodiversity action statutory underpinning. Therefore, if this amendment is not accepted I hope that the Government, persuaded by general support for the principle which has been demonstrated today, will table another amendment. I believe that such an amendment would need to contain a number of minimum criteria. First, it would need to place a duty on government to define species and habitat priorities, and targets for those priorities, based on analyses of conservation concern. Secondly, it would need to place a clear duty on the Secretary of State to take measures to conserve those species and habitats. The third criterion, referred to by many Members of the Committee--for me it is the bottom line--is to enshrine a duty on all government departments to secure or further the implementation of measures to meet biodiversity priorities.

One cannot overstate the importance of departments, other than the Department of the Environment, delivering some of the action for biodiversity which this Bill will not provide through special sites. About 40 per cent of the targets in the biodiversity action plan cannot be delivered through the measures to conserve special sites. Therefore, the role of MAFF, the National Assembly for Wales, the Treasury and the DTI--joined-up government (to use that dreadful expression)--is of fundamental importance. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the clear view that has been evinced in Committee that there needs to be a statutory underpinning for biodiversity action, and that the amendment will require all government departments to join in that action equally. I think that at Report stage, if we are not able to have that degree of assurance, the view of the House will have to be tested.

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