Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I will give an example of how it would make a specific difference.
8 Feb 2006 : Column 762
When the Improvement and Development Agency or the Audit Commission come to inspect a local authority, they are primarily inspecting the things it has a statutory duty to do. Biodiversity is therefore always much further down the list. For the local authority to raise it up the list, knowing full well that that will count against it for the inspection, means that biodiversity is not something that a local authority can reasonably concentrate on.

Lord Bach: I am grateful, but the whole argument about local authorities is hypothetical because we have not yet changed the law.

I notice that I was immediately interrupted, quite properly, when I dared to mention local authorities. However, no one got on their feet so quickly when I mentioned the example of the fire service, which is a public authority. It would have to change its habits and customs if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, went through. I suppose I have rather invited the interruption that is now going to happen.

Baroness Byford: It is this Government who are proposing to alter totally how local government works. For example, the Minister has mentioned the fire service, but I could mention the police service. Many of us in this Chamber are apprehensive about some of the proposals for merging police forces. Those who live in rural areas, in particular, worry that the infrequency with which they see people on patrol in their areas—you can understand why, because priorities have to be taken—is indicative of the Government adding to local authorities' difficulties. In addition, the Government put extra burdens on local authorities and do not fund them accordingly.

Lord Bach: We were talking about biodiversity, as I understood it, not the police force. I was giving the fire service as an example. What would be the benefit of putting this obligation on the fire service?

The Countess of Mar: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I have listened very carefully to what has been said, and I recognise that it is late at night—I am normally one for saying we should go to bed at 10 pm. What duties is the fire service involved with that are different from a local authority, which has highways and all sorts of recreation grounds and things to care for? The fire service may have a garden around the fire station, but what other responsibilities does it have that would encompass this?

"Having regard to" and "considering" can be just paper exercises. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, mentioned the Audit Commission. As long as it is written on paper, that is all right—you have done it. I know this as a food producer. You can just go on and ignore it after that.

Lord Bach: I understand what the noble Countess, Lady Mar, says. But my comment was that it may not be appropriate to expect a fire authority to be involved in the promotion of biodiversity issues. It would be
8 Feb 2006 : Column 763
appropriate if this amendment was carried. I do not think the implications of that have necessarily been sufficiently thought through.

We want to allow flexibility in the provision, so that public bodies can implement their biodiversity programmes as appropriate. We do not want to force them to do something inappropriate, which is why the expression "have regard to" in the clause is appropriate and apt.

10.15 pm

Earl Peel: I remind the Minister that when we were addressing the general purposes of Natural England in an earlier clause, I moved an amendment to the effect that Natural England should have regard to the economic and social well-being of those who live and work in rural areas. I remember very well that the Minister asked how one makes a judgment on whether the obligation of "having regard" has been adhered to. I reverse that and ask the Minister how, under the Bill, he would judge whether a public authority has had regard to the issues? Exactly the same argument applies.

Lord Bach: It is possible to measure whether a public body has had regard to biodiversity from its decisions and the policies that it adopts.

Lord Dixon-Smith: We could continue this argument for a long time. If it is inappropriate, as the Minister has said, it is clearly pointless to have regard to even if a nominal duty is laid because of the breadth of the definition of what a public body or authority is. We are on dangerous ground and there is no satisfactory resolution to this in either the form of words that the Minister is proposing or, possibly, in the words of this amendment. We ought to go away and think about this. The Minister is finding himself defending the indefensible and it may be that we are attacking the unassailable. We could waste a great deal of time. The evening is passing and this is not going to help anybody.

Lord Bach: I think it is the latter, rather than the former, but I am entitled to that opinion. I am sure that we will return to this important issue. I have already thanked the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for having raised it. It is interesting that this is considered to be the difficult choice—the one that is found in the amendment—as opposed to trying to look at the practicalities of the issue so far as public authorities are concerned.

I shall turn to Amendment No. 279 and make some things absolutely clear. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology's parent organisation is the National Environment Research Council, abbreviated, like the name of the Bill, to NERC. The council has put forward proposals to restructure the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Under the new proposals outlined in the council's statement of intent, four sites—Bangor, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Wallingford— would become the focus of the CEH's work. Four
8 Feb 2006 : Column 764
other sites—at Banchory, Dorset, Monks Wood and Oxford—would close. The CEH administrative headquarters would move from Swindon to Wallingford.

NERC's review was informed by the CEH business plan, which focused on the need for a more sustainable future and a thorough review of CEH science by the research council's science and innovation strategy board. I remind noble Lords that NERC's plans for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are currently out for consultation until the middle of February and therefore no decisions have yet been made. It will be for the NERC to consider all the evidence and the views on the potential impact of the proposals. There is currently wide consultation with stakeholders and staff on how the proposals can best contribute on a sustainable basis. That consultation will help the research council fully to evaluate the proposals. The proposed closure of specific sites does not imply that the research or monitoring carried out at those sites will be discontinued. I understand that NERC will take due account of all the evidence and views expressed in consultation on the potential impact of the proposals.

So far as savings are concerned, it is not a matter, certainly at this stage, for government; it is for the research council. Anyone who suggests that decisions have been taken is mistaken.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I would like to clarify a matter with the Minister. In the first instance, clearly it is a decision for NERC. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, a question, to which he replied:

If the Government are the primary funding body, surely they have a fundamental role in saying what that government-provided money should be used for. My submission is that the Government should not be saying that this is a decision for NERC, but that they should be taking a more active interest in what appears to be going to fall by the wayside if these cuts are carried through.

Lord Bach: These things must be done properly. The research councils are given a degree of independence, even if their funding comes largely from government. It is for them to make their decisions. Otherwise, what is the point of having research councils? So, let things happen one thing at a time. Let the consultation period end and let the research council meet and decide what it intends to do. Of course the Government have an interest in it—the noble Baroness is absolutely right—but to lay into the Government at this stage is slightly premature.

I should deal with the noble Baroness's Amendment No. 279 before I finally sit down and let people go home. Clause 40(3) provides that the conservation of biodiversity should include,

8 Feb 2006 : Column 765

It is drafted in this way to clarify that the conservation of biodiversity should not be restricted to preserving our wildlife and habitats; it can also include restoring them or increasing their population or area. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of what conservation of biodiversity should include.

The amendment seeks to broaden this definition of conservation to include ensuring resources are provided to gather sufficient knowledge to maintain a basis on which to achieve these objectives of restoration and enhancement. Of course we support the principle that efforts to restore enhanced populations and habitats should be based on sound science. Indeed, using sound science responsibly is one of the five guiding principles of the sustainable development strategy, to which we are committed.

We think that the amendment is unnecessarily prescriptive. It may not be appropriate for many types of public authority to provide resources for the collection of scientific knowledge and data. It is difficult to define what resources may be needed to gather sufficient scientific knowledge. This could potentially place an unwieldy resource burden on public bodies. It is on that basis that I ask the noble Baroness not to move that amendment when we reach it.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page