[Relevant Documents: Seventh Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2012-13, Pollinators and Pesticides, HC 668, and the Government response, HC 631, the Second Report fromthe Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2014-15, National Pollinator Strategy, HC 213, and the Government response, HC 698]
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the National Pollinator Strategy.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to speak in the presence of the Government Whip, my hon. Friend John Penrose, who is a beekeeper. He did so much work in the previous Parliament to represent not only his constituents but the nation’s honey bees. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this topic for today’s debate and to my colleagues for joining me here this afternoon.
This debate provides a timely opportunity to recognise the Government’s commitment to protecting and improving the well-being of our pollinators and to debate the draft national pollinator strategy, as there has been such a positive engagement from people right across the UK. I am talking about people who care passionately about nature and our vital farming and food industries. It is also a good opportunity to debate the inquiry undertaken by the Environmental Audit Committee on the draft strategy and the Government’s response, which was published today.
There is absolutely no doubt of the need for a national pollinator strategy. Pollination services carried out by approximately 1,500 insect species are critical for both eco-system function and crop production, because they facilitate biodiversity. The insects include bumble bees, honey bees, solitary bees, hoverflies, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and wasps, and the services they provide are estimated to be worth between £430 million and £603 million a year to UK agriculture.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for bringing this matter to the House. This year, the climate has been good and the bee population, which is important, has risen. What we need to focus on is having bee-friendly crops not only around fields but along the railway lines and elsewhere. We must take a proactive role in growing more crops, so that there is more food for bees, which will allow their colonies to grow. The climate has been good this year, but we cannot guarantee that every year.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Without the services of these pollinators, who depend on the sorts of measures my hon. Friend has mentioned, we would see a decline in the variety and availability of nutritious food in the UK, or we would have to introduce expensive mechanical or hand-pollination methods, which would drive up food prices in our country.
The hon. Lady makes the important point about the role of pollinators in agriculture, and yet we have some difficulty in getting a figure on that. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says in an article that it is worth between £186 million and £567 million, and yet a few inches down the page it says that the services are potentially worth only £500 million.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point about the evidence base, and that is a key part of the draft national pollinator strategy. I will come on to the importance of ensuring that we are very much an evidence-based policy-making body.
There is a mounting evidence base to show that a huge range of threats is leading to overall declines in the number of pollinators, but with no single factor accounting for those losses. There are numerous factors involved, with habitat loss and intensification of land use probably at the top of the list. Pests, disease, the use of agri-chemicals, invasive species and changes to the weather are all factors as well. Those factors affect different species, wild and managed, to different degrees and in different ways. According to the excellent Library briefing prepared for this debate, there is evidence that the losses in wild pollinator and wild insect-pollinated plant diversity might be slowing. But the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has produced a useful note that provides more detail for Members and for members of the public who are following this debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for bringing this debate to the Floor of the House. Does she agree that bees and our other pollinators are an absolutely essential prerequisite for biodiversity and our eco-system? They are important in many and varied ways, especially with regard to food prices. If we have problems with our pollinators for whatever reason—there are myriad different reasons—it will eventually affect food prices.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point because a great many of our crops rely on pollination. In some countries, especially America, where pollinators have been wiped out from whole sectors of agriculture, more expensive hand pollination is being introduced. Only last week I saw that UK universities are undertaking research to invent mechanical replicas of bees. Such is the threat to bees, which are the most effective of our pollinators, that we are having to invest in finding ways of replacing them. Although I welcome such research and innovation, it is far more important that we do everything we can to protect and enhance the wonderful natural resource that we have in our pollinators.
There is clearly a groundswell of concern from a wide range of people and organisations throughout the UK, including beekeepers, scientists, the women’s institute and Friends of the Earth, as well as children and families, thanks to Disney’s “Bee Movie”, and the work of the broadcasters Bill Turnbull and Martha Kearney. That culminated in a bee summit organised by Friends of the Earth in June 2013.
Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its report “Bees and other pollinators: their value and health in England” in which it outlined its plans for an urgent review of policy and evidence to inform the development of a national pollinator strategy. To inform the strategy’s development, DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, established the independent pollinators expert advisory group, chaired by Professor Charles Godfray, to review published evidence on the status of pollinators and pollination services, to identify gaps in research and to give advice on the development and design of experiments at the landscape scale. The group’s work was published in March, along with the draft national pollinator strategy.
What I like about the draft national pollinator strategy is that it is just that—an ambitious and joined-up strategy. It recognises that the challenge we face requires not only Government action, but action from everyone. Following widespread stakeholder involvement, it takes a comprehensive approach to providing a national framework for local action by all people and organisations that can make a positive difference, from people at home to planners and land managers.
I welcome the three focused areas of the strategy, the first of which is evidence gathering on pollinator status and the impacts of environmental pressures. In national biology week, it is good that Parliament is putting science at the heart of the development of an important national strategy. The strategy also proposes “12 evidence actions” to provide a sound base for future policies to support pollinators, including by developing a sustainable monitoring programme for pollinators. DEFRA has already commissioned a two-year research project to develop and test a programme to monitor pollinators.
Secondly, the strategy proposes “18 priority actions” for the Government and others to implement from 2014, which reflect current evidence and in some cases build on and expand existing initiatives to refocus on the essential needs of pollinators. Those actions cover the management of farmland, towns, cities and public land, pest and disease risks, engaging the public, sharing knowledge, and improving the understanding of the status of pollinators and the services that they provide.
The strategy’s third aspect is a commitment to its review in 2019. It is proposed that as additional evidence becomes available the strategy should be reviewed and updated. From 2016, there will be new evidence from the monitoring programme and other evidence projects, as well as experience from implementing the strategy itself.
I support the emphasis on promoting local joined-up working. Last week, I chaired the first Cornwall bee summit, sponsored and enabled by Tregothnan, which has a deep commitment to honey bees and their health. The summit was a great opportunity for people who are already making such a positive difference to share their experience and identify what more needs to be done in Cornwall: from members of the WI to parish councillors; from landowners and the National Farmers Union to beekeepers at Tregothnan and throughout Cornwall; and from leading academic Juliet Osborne, who is from Exeter university and based in my constituency, Richard Soffe of Duchy college and Cornwall council’s ecologist, Natasha Collings, to representatives of organisations that work day and night to help our pollinators, including the Gaia Trust and the B4 project, and larger groups such as Friends of the Earth and Buglife. If people are interested, they can watch a summary of the bee summit online.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of conservation volunteer groups, which do so much to nurture flower meadows in a way that is so important for the bee and insect population? In particular, I would like to pay tribute to the Old Down and Beggarwood wildlife group in my constituency.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to volunteers the length and breadth of our country who are doing so much to protect and enhance natural habitats, for pollinators and for a wide variety of species.
I would like to share with colleagues some of the feedback from the bee summit and ask the Minister to consider incorporating the following points into the final strategy. I am very appreciate of the fact that DEFRA’s bee policy lead, Richard Watkins, came to the bee summit—he is also here today—and I pay tribute to the work he has done. He will be able to give the Minister a full briefing on the summit.
I urge the Minister to put at the top of his to-do list the need to integrate pest and pollinator management on farms and to ensure that there is support to enable farmers to do that in the forthcoming changes to CAP payments. Once he has tackled that, there is an urgent need to ensure that all farmers and land managers have access to education about the pollinator strategy and new ways of managing pest control and their crops.
When we consider research on the management of honey bees, there needs to be a clear understanding that the needs of native honey bees will be different from those of their imported cousins, because many of our commercial beekeepers rely on imported bees. However, the native honey bees are very much part of the solution, particularly when looking at how to tackle well-known diseases that pose a threat to our managed bee colonies, such as the varroa mite. I point the Minister to the excellent work of Rodger Dewhurst of the Cornwall Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Group to encourage the breeding and use of the native Cornish black bees.
May I ask my hon. Friend, who knows lots more about this than I do, whether there is a risk that the imported bees will attack and kill off our native bees, just as the grey squirrels have done to our red squirrels? Have we got a real problem from abroad?
My hon. Friend, perhaps without realising it, has hit on an important point, and one that was discussed at length at the bee summit. Importing bees may well have health implications for our native species. One of the things that I will ask the Minister to consider today is conducting research into the relationship between imported farm bees and wild pollinators. It is a serious matter. There are also food security issues, because sadly we have seen some new problems arising in continental Europe, such as a new disease that is being introduced to hives by a type of beetle. Although DEFRA has that under control and we do not believe that it poses a huge threat to our bee hives at the moment, the introduction of disease is always a threat when importing bees. That was one of the findings of our summit, and it is on the list of things I will ask the Minister to consider. Also on that list is the need to ensure that we focus not only on honey bees, vital though they are, but on pollinators that are more difficult to monitor, such as bumble bees, which play an important part in pollination.
Is not it worth reinforcing the point that people who are concerned about this do not have to wait for some grand Government plan but can play a part themselves by planting pollen-rich flowers in their gardens?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. People need some guidance, because different types of bees need different types of plants in the garden and at different times of the year. One of the roles that DEFRA will have to play in implementing the strategy is to give clear advice on the sorts of flowers and plants that gardeners all over the country could plant to help their native pollinators.
As in so many policy areas, it is very important that good guidance is put in place for local authorities so that local solutions can be found, especially in the planning process so that planners can build in good habitats for pollinator well-being. Environmental impact statements are required for other species, so why not pollinators too?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech and on securing this debate. Does she agree that there is also a strong role to be played by local authorities in committing themselves to not mowing council-owned land before August and encouraging flower banks? Likewise, the Ministry of Defence owns vast amounts of land across the country that is very poorly managed in relation to biodiversity. An enormous amount could be done right now—not, perhaps, in understanding the collapse of these colonies and the decline of pollinators, but in helping existing pollinators to flourish.
I completely agree. Again, DEFRA guidance could really help councils and landowners, right now, to manage their grassland, in particular, but also to plan their planting, recognising that different native bees need different foraging areas and different plants around the country. At a time when many local councils are looking to make cost savings, reducing the amount of money they spend on grass-cutting and leaving some land available to go wild for foragers would not only save the taxpayer money but save a vital habitat for our pollinators.
Raising public awareness of the bee is very important. I thank people such as Jacqueline Davey of the International Bee Research Association, who goes into Cornish schools raising awareness of the importance of our pollinators. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes and Friends of the Earth have shown through their campaigns how much support there is for honey bees and pollinators, and we need to harness that energy and support.
I recognise that the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry delayed the publication of the national pollinator strategy. I urge the Government to reflect on the points raised in this debate and the contributions made by people all around the UK on the draft strategy, and to publish the final strategy so that we can all join together and make a determined effort to protect and enhance the well-being of our national treasure, the pollinator.
Order. I suggest that Members speak for about eight minutes in order to get everybody in.
I congratulate Sarah Newton on obtaining this debate. It comes at a very important point, following the conclusion of the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiries on neonicotinoids and pesticides and on the draft pollinator strategy, and action that might be forthcoming as a result of that and of the two-year EU moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids that has got under way. I, too, urge a rapid passage towards a final national pollinator strategy, which is urgently required. I want to reflect on one or two things that ought to be rather more emphasised in that strategy, particularly those that arise from the work that the EAC has done on the matter.
I join the hon. Lady in emphasising that we are talking about pollinators, not just about domestic bees, or even wild bees, although it has been important that a lot of the campaigning on these matters has related to Members and other people in public positions standing next to people dressed in large bee outfits.
As somebody who has done the bee photograph twice, I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman means. Does he agree that the essence of our Environmental Audit Committee report is that there is a strong case for protecting bees and that our work should inform a proper national plan?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman has anticipated what I was going to say. I hope he was not one of the people wearing a bee outfit who stood next to me; I think he probably stood next to somebody else in a bee outfit.
The “Bee Cause” campaign and various others have done well to concentrate on the threats that pollinators face, but we should reflect not just on bees, both domestic and wild, but on pollinators across the board. As the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth has said, they are, collectively, such an important element in the national health of our crops and fruits, and they interact with the natural environment in a whole range of other ways. We do not understand wild pollinators to the extent that we should; indeed, our EAC inquiry found that the general research is very ragged. We need to obtain a deeper understanding, particularly of pollinators in the wild. I hope the Department will take cognisance of that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the relationship between the evidence produced by those who manufacture insecticides and those who commission it from a more green point of view is one of considerable mistrust? Would it not be a good thing if they could get together and agree on the outcome of their research? Perhaps then we could make more progress.
I agree that the research commissioned by companies that have an interest in the outcome, particularly in field trials, can cause considerable mistrust. The research does not need to be done entirely independently, but the process does need to be clear and transparent. The companies should put their hands on the table and follow standards and protocols that can be supervised by external bodies. There is also a question mark in my mind as to whether the Department itself is awaiting a perfect piece of research, as it were, to inform its future findings. The Committee has concluded that there is no such thing as a perfect piece of research in “natural conditions,” because they have already been compromised. We should apply a probability principle to work that has already been done and then add properly peer-reviewed and supervised additional research to it. That might be much better than adopting the tentative but alarming position—which I think still pervades this debate—of simply considering how the research might inform us for the future.
On the point about over-reliance on industry data, which we might call contaminated data, a piece was recently written in The Times by Lord Ridley. He claimed that the neonicotinoid ban means that 50% of oil seed rape crops have been devastated, because they have not been protected. However, figures released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs only a few days ago show that the loss of yield is about 1.35%, which is well within the bounds of ordinary seasonal and annual fluctuations. That very clearly illustrates the danger of relying too much on industry data. Lord Ridley takes the industry or big business line on almost every issue, but I think we should be very cautious about attaching too much importance—
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the extent to which we need a better overview of the policy implications of the various elements in the research. I want to concentrate briefly on that point.
I remain concerned about not just the Environmental Audit Committee’s original inquiry and the Government response to it, but the latest Government response, which was published just two or three days ago, to the Committee’s second inquiry. The response is apparently very tentative about how far the Department is bound by the two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, and about whether the Department will consider simply reintroducing the use of neonicotinoids at the end of the moratorium.
Is the Department prepared at the very least to make time available for researchers to come up with much more definitive conclusions before it lifts the moratorium? I would prefer—there are caveats on the research, but it seems to me that overwhelming evidence for this is already available—for the Department, rather than considering what to do about neonicotinoids at the end of the moratorium, to go further than that and say, “That is it, as far as neonicotinoids are concerned. What we need to do for the substantial element of the national pollinator strategy is to get much clearer and better definitions of integrated pest management.”
In such a way, we could move from neonicotinoids to other forms of pest management that are more appropriate for the overall health of our pollinator population in the longer term. I must say that I am disappointed that the Government response lacks a definition of an integrated pest management scheme. For the final strategy, I urge the Minister to look again at a much better, more understandable and clearer definition of how integrated pest management might continue following the moratorium, so that we can move to a much more organic, less pesticide-intensive and certainly more modern ways of ensuring that our pollinators are protected as far as possible.
I am delighted that Sarah Newton secured this debate, to which I am a co-signatory. This is an opportune moment to talk again about the national pollinator strategy and what we do in this country about pollinators, and to pick up on the issues that are still to be resolved in the development of the strategy.
I make no secret of the fact that I have been interested in this subject for a long time. I asked questions in the House eight or nine years ago about what the then Government proposed to do about bee health. They did nothing for some time, but then they did do something. I give them credit for putting money into research towards the end of their period in office.
This country can be very proud of the National Bee Unit and the work that it does. I am delighted by its work, because it underpins some of our efforts. Having said that, although I was not the Minister responsible for bee health when I was in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—that responsibility was held by my noble Friend Lord de Mauley—I looked closely at the information that was presented and was conscious of the huge gaps in our research base on this subject. That is the case not just in relation to the domestic honey bee, as it were, on which we at least have a large body of observation data from beekeepers, who know what their charges are doing, but particularly in relation to wild bees, such as the bumblebee or Bombus species, and other wild pollinators. We do not know how they integrate with the environment, what contribution they make or the state of their population health. Unless we have base figures, we have no understanding of what is happening.
What we do know is that the health of pollinators and the strength of the population are affected by a large number of factors. I suspect that climate is the biggest factor, but it is certainly not the only one. I suspect that weather played a big part in the recovery of some bee populations this year. Simply by observation, I have noticed that the bumblebee population in my garden has been substantially better this year than in previous years. There are also various diseases and infestations. The varroa mite is still a significant problem and there are many other conditions of which we need to be aware.
A major factor is whether there are sufficient suitable habitats for pollinators. That is not helped by intensive agriculture. The more effective crop management we have, the more we need other land to be available for pollinators. We must provide that balance. I am not against good crop yields—they are essential if we are to feed ourselves—but if they are to be sustainable, we need other elements to be in place. That might mean sacrificing land to provide pollinator habitats. Another factor, which Dr Whitehead spoke about, is the effect of various pesticides and other dressings on crops. I will return to that in a moment.
We have a lot to celebrate. I am pleased to have pushed hard for a national pollinator strategy, because it is so important. I congratulate my colleagues in the Department for pushing it forward and look forward to the day when it is finally in place. There are a number of factors that I would like the Minister to consider.
The first factor is research. We need to commission research in the right places. We must carry out research in combination with those overseas who are looking at the same issue, although perhaps in slightly different habitats, in order to understand what is going on. The key is to have a base figure for populations from which we can extrapolate future population health. We need to consider issues that relate to specific species. We need a strong scientific base in order to do that. The Department must therefore have the ability to commission research or to ensure that others do so. It might be done at the European level or elsewhere, but let us make sure that it happens.
The second factor is the recruitment of the army of citizen scientists into the process. We saw how effective that was when dealing with ash dieback last year, and how useful it was to have people who would go out and look at what was happening. It is interesting that ash dieback has now been carried by the wind to north-west England, yet not a single newspaper or parliamentarian has a word to say about that, although it was the biggest crisis ever only a year ago. However, that information helped us to provide the best response we could, even if it was incomplete—again because of the lack of knowledge —so we must use that.
The third area—this is probably the biggest point I want to leave with the Minister—is that the Government’s one major lever to improve the health of our pollinator population is to use pillar two of the common agricultural policy in an effective way to give positive encouragement to land that ought to be available for pollinators, and to the sort of growth on land that would encourage them. I have still not seen the final outcome, but when I was Agriculture Minister I pressed hard for the key element of pillar two in the future to be direct support for pollinators and to ensure that good behaviour is rewarded. We need to see headlands and land that is not available for main crops being used effectively, and the so-called ecological focus areas should provide a useful addition to the ecology of an area, rather than being rather arbitrary and token.
At the moment, taking advice on which 5% of land should be an ecological focus area is voluntary. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be slightly firmer guidance about which areas could be used as ecological focus areas, so that we get the best from them?
I am genuinely in two minds about that. I agree that the advice must be there, and that farm and wildlife advisory groups are probably the best apparatus for doing that, along with Natural England and other agencies. However, when I was a Minister, I visited Dartmoor—not a million miles from the hon. Lady’s constituency—and spoke to farmers there. They took a different view on how they used what were then the high-level stewardship schemes, and had a less prescriptive approach. They spoke more about outcomes and what they were trying to achieve, and they let farmers use their own land skills to achieve those outcomes. That was successful, and made me think that perhaps we are sometimes too prescriptive, rather than under-prescriptive, in what we do. Yes, we need advice, but I think we sometimes underestimate the ability and willingness of good farmers to do the right thing for their local environment. They would like to do that if they are given the encouragement and scope, so let us see what we can do in terms of design.
Mention was made earlier—I think it was Zac Goldsmith—of the importance of other Departments playing their part. DEFRA cannot do this on its own, and I would like local authorities to be much more attuned to what they can do to encourage pollinators, even if that is only ensuring that the local park contains pollinator-friendly plants, as that would make a difference.
I will conclude with perhaps the most contentious issue: pesticides. Pesticides are a hazard to insects—that is obvious; they would not be pesticides if they were not. The difficult question that the Government, chemical companies and agriculturalists have to answer all the time is whether that hazard, along with the level of exposure, is a real risk to the pollinator population. That was the difficulty we had with neonicotinoids: there was no evidence to suggest that the hazard that undoubtedly existed and could be demonstrated in sub-lethal quantities in a test tube or laboratory, represented a risk in field conditions, because no work had been done on that. I hope that work has now been done to substantiate that properly one way or another, because such a lacuna in information is unsupportable when it comes to making a competent and coherent decision. The other risk is that banning neonicotinoids encourages the use of pyrethroids and organophosphates, which we certainly do not want to promote, as they are significantly worse options not just for pollinators but for every other living creature in the vicinity.
Before I sit down I will just mention one point. Hon. Members may not know that next year we have the Milan Expo. The UK’s contribution will be based on the life of the honey bee. I am very proud that our Government and our country recognise the importance of the honey bee, so much so that that is our window to the world.
I was going to make a long speech, but in view of the time left and all that has been said, I will condense the important points that arise—as Sarah Newton, whom I congratulate on securing the debate, said—from the work done by the Environmental Audit Committee, not just in one report, which is authoritative, but in the follow-up report on the national pollinator strategy.
Many members of the Committee are in the Chamber this afternoon—I apologise to the Minister for the fact that, due to personal reasons, I will not be here for the wind-up speeches—and we want him to take into account, before the Government finalise the national strategy, the authoritative work we have done, the evidence we have received and the detailed hearings we have had. We owe that to the many organisations and people who have engaged skilfully and diplomatically with the Government, from Friends of the Earth, to the National
Federation of Women’s Institutes, to Buglife, to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to get this national pollinator strategy. It would be unfortunate in the extreme if the detailed work, good will and campaigning that has been done all around the country to get the strategy fit for purpose was not taken into account as the Government prepare to finalise it and make it operational.
I endorse what the hon. Lady is saying. The report is very thorough. It has a huge amount of evidence from a wide range of experts and was properly considered by all members of the Select Committee. It is, if I may say so, as I am a member of the Committee, an example of excellent work by a Select Committee. I hope that the Minister takes heed of what he has heard not once but twice or even thrice.
I would say this, wouldn’t I, but the work record of the worker bees on the Environmental Audit Committee is second to none. It is worthy, perhaps, of a detailed meeting with the Minister before he finalises and signs off the national pollinator strategy.
We still have concerns, some of which I think are echoed by the organisations that contributed. We welcome the work that has been done so far by the Government. The fact that we have further reservations, conditions and asks does not mean that we do not welcome what has been done, but there are various areas where further work is needed.
We do not want to see the European Commission’s neonicotinoid ban undermined. We are aware that an application came through in the past 12 months that was withdrawn before the Government finally considered it, but it is important that the ban stays. That prompts the question: what happens at the point when the ban is reviewed? What will happen next? As Dr Whitehead rightly set out, the important issue is the research that will be done and the research that is set out in the draft strategy. We have major concerns relating to transparency and the independence of those doing the research. When my hon. Friends and I met in Brussels, we were surprised to hear from the Commission that some of this important research was being financed not with European money, which we felt would have given it a semblance of independence, but by the agrochemical companies. For that reason, safeguards have to be put in place.
I hope the Minister will address the point about independence, if not now, then later, as it was not thoroughly addressed in the response to our report, which we have tagged to, and made available for, this debate. We need continual scrutiny of how close DEFRA is to the companies carrying out the research. It is one thing to have funding; it is another to contribute to the design. We need a referee—some kind of overall body—to ensure that the research is not designed only by those with vested interests.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee for making an excellent speech. Are she and the Minister aware of the work of the AllTrials campaign by Sense about Science? In medical research, for example, one serious issue is around publication bias and whether we actually get to see all the research, not just that which gives favourable results.
The Chair of the Health Select Committee makes a valid point. It is about all aspects of research, as well as peer review; and it is about commercial confidentiality, which business says prevents much of what we want to see in the public domain from being examined so that it can shape and inform our work. The scrutiny and funding of research, now and over the coming years, must be properly addressed in the final version of the national pollinator strategy.
On the precautionary principle, the Government are using poetic licence in their interpretation of the UN’s Rio declaration and the work arising from it. As has been said, where there is not final scientific evidence, we should use the precautionary principle. This should not be trumped by economic issues; if protection is needed for habitats that cannot be protected any other way, there are times when we should follow the precautionary principle.
Bee decline is not just about neonicotinoids; as everyone else has pointed out, including Sarah Newton, whom I congratulate on the local initiative she has taken, this is about understanding how the work is done and how we can integrate the CAP work with the integrated pest management work. Friends of the Earth thinks that we could be much more ambitious and innovative in our farming methods and improving people’s understanding of how food is produced, if we could be less dependent on pesticides. That has to be worked at in the strategy.
The strategy needs also to set out the importance of public engagement. It is precisely because there has been so much public engagement that the strategy is now almost complete, and we owe it to everyone who has campaigned in their own communities to ensure that they are not alone in taking voluntary action. Where regulation, oversight and commitment are needed, it is important that the Government show that leadership. We concluded that we were strong on the voluntary side, but weaker on where the Government could be more forceful. That needs to be taken into account before the strategy is finally signed off, because the public engagement measures will break down if the feeling is that it is not backed up by Government.
There are other issues, which we did not mention in our report, that have been mentioned in this debate, including the role of the Department for Communities and Local Government. This is not just about farmland; it is about urban areas, green spaces, roadside verges, riverside areas and so on. It is about how we can encourage the habitat that will be needed to provide protection for the bees.
I am conscious of time, so I simply say to the Minister that, as much as this debate is about technical issues, of which we need forensic scrutiny and proper oversight, the fact that we are talking about bees and pollinators shows that it is about something much deeper: something that connects us all to wildlife and nature. We think of all the poets and the literature—I think of W. B. Yeats’ “bee-loud glade” in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, and so on. That whole aspect of nature connects us to our landscape. We need an understanding here in Parliament of all that is important, so I simply ask the Minister to ensure that the national strategy is much more fit for purpose and capable of being extended as time goes on and that we gain more from research. If that is the case, the work our Committee has done will have achieved some success.
I, too, pay tribute to Sarah Newton for securing this important debate. I know that many Members of Parliament have an interest in it, and I also congratulate the Select Committees involved on the work they have done.
When the consultation on the strategy was launched, it itemised five fairly simple ideas, which I still think are very strong as far as pollinators are concerned. The first was to grow more nectar and pollen-rich flowers—we have heard all about that—whether on field boundaries or by local authorities. The second was to let patches of land grow wild. As we travel around Britain, we see lots land that could be left uncultivated and do a good job for biodiversity. The third idea was to cut grass less frequently and perhaps not so early. That is another message for local authorities. Then there was not disturbing insect nests or hibernating insects and thinking carefully about whether to use a pesticide. I am sure that the strategy will go into more details, but those ideas sit at the foundation of our approach to this problem.
Much has been made of the contribution that pollinators make to agriculture, yet it has been difficult to get a figure or set of figures that anybody can agree upon. I am of the opinion that maintaining biodiversity and maintaining pollinators is a good thing in itself. My fear is that some figures might come forward showing that pollination does not play such a big part in agriculture, which might undermine our argument. In fact, I received a very good briefing from Friends of the Earth, which contained one sentence that I was very taken with:
“A scientific review of pollination services in 41 countries across Europe found that the UK only has a quarter of the honey bees it needs for pollination”.
That struck me as an extraordinarily disturbing figure, so I e-mailed Friends of the Earth last night. They came back with an answer that said, “Well, we don’t know how close we are to the tipping point,” but surely if we have only a quarter of the bees anyway—I am not quite sure about the other pollinators—that puts us in a very precarious position.
That compares with reports in yesterday’s papers that we have had the biggest bumper crop of apples that we have ever had. One thing for certain is that the apple crop needs pollination by insects.
It is difficult to correlate all these issues, which is why I support everyone who has said that we need a well co-ordinated approach to research. People in the agri-chemical industry must work openly and transparently along with others who are commissioning research.
Does my hon. Friend agree when I say—or at least assert—that if we get a proper plan that works for bees and is seen to be working for bees in this country, other countries will take it on as a code of good practice? That would be extraordinarily good for them as it would be for us.
I entirely agree. Co-ordination is needed not just within this country, but in other countries, to ensure that the research is productive and can be applied to encourage more pollinators.
Let me say a few words about the systemic neonicotinoids that have been banned in this country and across the EU for two years. I am not sure what figures are most accurate on the reduction in yield, but I do know that the flea beetle is a persistent offender, which can be detrimental to young crops, particularly to oilseed rape and other brassicas. It has been reported that farmers, rather than have just one application of this systemic neonicotinoid, are in fact spraying three or four times in order to safeguard the establishment of their crop. We believe that some of these sprays, such as the synthetic pyrethroids and the organo-phosphates, can be as damaging to pollinators as the neonicotinoids.
These issues are very complicated, so putting into practice any effective pollinator strategy is going to take money—and most of it is going to come out of the common agricultural policy—so that we encourage farmers to do such things as allowing field margins to remain uncultivated. Even more important is active management of those field margins to ensure that flowers and plants can be used by pollinators, but again that is going to cost quite a bit of money.
Let me raise with the Minister an issue I have raised a number of times before—the measly allocation of pillar two money for the United Kingdom. Normally, in most European countries, the ratio of pillar one money, which is the direct payments, to pillar two is 3:1; in Britain, it is 10:1. Our allocation of pillar two money for the next financial horizon is going to be only about £2.2 billion, which has to be spread between conservation and improving competition and marketing in the farming community and rural areas.
Is that pillar two money decided in Brussels? Do we have any influence on it? Can we do anything about it, or do we just have to sit and wait for a decision from Brussels?
It is decided in Brussels, but the real problem is that it is decided on a historical basis. We have had low allocations of pillar two money for many years. It is believed that if the allocation were made on an objective basis, such as according to the amount of agricultural land, the number of people involved in agriculture or the number of forests, we would have at least 100% more pillar two money. It is tied up with complex issues such as our rebate and the Fontainebleau agreement. When the CAP was renegotiated, I thought that all these figures would be based on objective factors rather than historical factors. However, we have ended up with a £2.2 billion allocation, while France has £8.8 billion and Germany £7.8 billion. It is no wonder that the farming unions are trying to resist modulation and the green non-governmental organisations are going for higher modulation. If the farming unions had co-operated with the green NGOs and gone for a bigger allocation of pillar two money, we should not have had all that argument.
I am not sure whether anything can be done—it seems that the figures have been agreed to—but I think that that was a real disaster, and one of the programmes that could suffer as a result of it is the pollinator strategy, which desperately needs money. I understand that the new environmental land management scheme that DEFRA is introducing can be used for such purposes, and I hope the Minister will ensure that it is.
Three more Members wish to speak. I must tell them that I intend the Front-Bench speeches to begin at 4.40 pm.
Let me add my voice to those of the Members who have already welcomed the introduction of a national pollinator strategy—although with a degree of impatience, given that we do not yet have the final version.
I had intended to focus for a while on pesticides and, in particular, on my concerns about lobbying by chemical companies and whether the Government accept the scientific risk assessments, but I think that my hon. Friend Joan Walley has more than done justice to that issue, and several other Members have mentioned it as well. In the limited time available, therefore, I shall concentrate on urban pollination, a subject that I do not think has been raised today.
Needless to say, Bristol is at the forefront of some of the work that is currently being done. Professor Jane Memmott of the university of Bristol has drawn attention to the “huge diversity of sites” that cities contain not just gardens, but meadows, nature reserves and parks. They may, in fact, offer a greater diversity and abundance of flowers that can be found in the countryside. Modern farming practices that promote crop monocultures often leave little room for wild flowers.
The “urban pollinators” project, led by Dr Katherine Baldock and Professor Jane Memmott at the university of Bristol in collaboration with three other UK universities, has been doing a great deal of research on just how important urban environments are. Let me quote a few statistics. Apparently, 50% of Germany’s entire bee fauna have been found in Berlin, 35% of British hoverfly species were sampled in a single Leicester garden, and honey bees produce more honey in urban Birmingham than in the surrounding countryside. The project is mapping and comparing pollinator habitats in cities, farms and nature reserves throughout the country. In Bristol, it has been working in partnership with the city council's “meadow Bristol” project to plant nectar and pollen-rich flower meadows in our public parks, school playing fields and road verges, turning them into a haven for pollinating insects among the bricks and concrete.
Let me first say how sorry I am to have missed the opening speeches, and not to have been able to make a speech myself. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene, because I can now make a point that I should have liked to make earlier. I think that golf courses throughout Britain, in both urban and rural areas, have a massive potential to deliver the results that the hon. Lady wants. Some are already starting to do so, but we need to ensure that that goes much further.
I do not play golf, but I have seen reports suggesting that it is the least environmentally beneficial sport because of its huge water footprint. If it can make some redress for that by planting plenty of wild flowers, it will at least be doing its bit.
Next year Bristol will be the European green capital, and in preparation for that we are doing some exciting work under the banner “Get Bristol Buzzing”. We have a “bee summit” coming up, which some Members might like to attend. The action group is leading a greater Bristol pollinator strategy, and we are examining ways of implementing it at local level. I pay particular tribute to the St George in Bloom group. A constituent of mine, Grenville Johnson, is a really inspiring man who has done a huge amount of work for the group, and it has just been announced that it is the winner of the Royal Horticultural Society’s South West in Bloom award 2014.
In my constituency, as in many other constituencies, this is the age of car ownership and many incredibly busy people are paving over their front gardens to give them parking spaces and going for the low maintenance option of decking-in their back gardens, as opposed to having grass and flowerbeds. Grenville is trying to reverse this trend a bit by encouraging people at least to have hanging baskets or window boxes. His street is an amazing display of bright colours hanging from the lampposts and on the grass verges. His group has been working with the residents association to create a community garden in an area of unadopted land. It has planted a wild flower meadow in St George park, and it is teaching local people basic things about gardening and how to pot plants. He has now applied for green capital funds to implement the local pollinator strategy. There are also initiatives such as providing free seeds and plants to anyone who enters the St George in Bloom competition and that will also help to attract pollinating insects.
Bristol zoo gardens is also doing very good work, and there are projects such as Incredible Edible Bristol. In some of Bristol’s public spaces, the flowerbeds do contain flowers, but things like cabbages and kale instead. Apparently we are allowed to help ourselves to them, but I have never dared do so just in case I have got that wrong.
I want to put three points to the Minister. I know he has limited time to reply, but I hope he will try to address them. It will obviously be extremely challenging for local authorities, non-governmental organisations and others to take the national pollinator strategy on and implement it given their work loads and financial constraints, so will he say a little about how he can ensure the visions and aims of the strategy can be achieved and maintained in the long term? The role of the planning authorities was briefly mentioned. It is important that planners and developers consider the needs of pollinators. Thirdly, does DEFRA plan to have a long-term monitoring scheme so we can judge how pollinators respond to the changes introduced under this strategy and so we can see what does and does not work, and perhaps regularly review it so that we do the things that do work?
I am very pleased to have a chance to contribute to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and
Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing it. I also pay tribute to Joan Walley. As Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, she has been a pivotal figure on the issue of pollinators and pesticides and a driving force in enabling the Committee to consider these matters.
I welcome the national pollinator strategy, and I am very pleased that the Government have set forward their vision and ambition, but they need to take some of their existing measures further.
The strategy is important for several reasons. It is a tacit acknowledgement that over 20 species of bee have died in the past 100 years or so, and since 1985 the number of honey bees in this country has declined by almost half. When my hon. Friend Richard Benyon was the Minister, I asked about the cost of replacing bees with hand pollination. I was grateful that the Government came back with an answer: the university of Reading undertook some research and concluded it would be £1.8 billion—a cost that would fall on consumers.
In addition, the Government have acknowledged that 84% of plant reproduction and 76% of food crop production in Europe depends on pollination by bees. It is clearly, therefore, a very important issue for this country.
I am pleased the Government are concerned about the bee decline. Bees are not only important for food production; they are also important for biodiversity and for their intrinsic value to many of our constituents. A point was made about Friends of the Earth and people having their picture taken next to a bee, and many people in my constituency—in a suburban seat in London—have e-mailed me to tell me how concerned they are about the decline in the bee population.
The NPS also acknowledges that this is not just about bees but about all pollinators—hoverflies, butterflies, moths, beetles—and carrion and flesh flies, which play an important role on many of our country roads in respect of animals that are knocked down. Even mammals such as bats, which are specialised pollinators in their own right, play a role.
The Government also acknowledge that many of us have a role to play. My hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith mentioned local authorities. When I was a cabinet member in and deputy leader of Barnet council, I introduced the policy of bringing the countryside into the city. There were parts of Sunny Hill park that I told contractors not to cut. We took that approach for the simple reason that it would attract hoverflies, butterflies and all the other pollinators that would encourage pollination within Hendon and other parts of my constituency.
The NPS also acknowledges the role of research and review, and commits to more studies to understand the economic and social value of pollinators. I am keen for the Government continue to do that work. My hon. Friend Sarah Newton mentioned the review of the NPS in 2019, but I wish to draw the House’s attention to the 2013 decision to ban neonicotinoids in Europe. The Government were not keen on that at the time. They said that they would continue to interpret that principle on the basis of both economic and environmental considerations. I hope that they do that and do not override some decisions on the basis of a reliance on commercial rather than scientific research. I do not want the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to abrogate its capacity to deliver on its environmental protection obligations, so I hope that that part of the strategy will continue to be followed.
I wish to mention four areas I would like the Government and the Minister to consider. As has been said, various changes have led to a reduction in pollinators, including the presence of invasive species, climate change, and biodiversity and habitat loss. We can, however, have an immediate effect in one area—planning. I would like the Department for Communities and Local Government to put greater emphasis on taking pollinators into account in its planning guidance. One of the main causes of the decline in pollinators relates to their ability to find food and shelter. There is a lot of poorly planned development in different parts of the country by local authorities and developers that causes further decline, and I want the situation turned around. I am aware that the plan includes some measures to deliver a step change in land management, but I want the Government to give us further clarity on that to illustrate how planning and development can affect habitats that pollinators need and how the current system can better plan for them.
I would also like the Government to consider agriculture itself. I would like to see them assisting farmers to cultivate pollinators. More than 70% of the land in this country is devoted to farming, and what happens on farm land is pivotal to whether bees and pollinators survive and revive. Farmers do what they can—I acknowledge that they do great things to provide pollinators—but I would like to hear what the Government intend to do to provide assistance. The draft NPS is too reliant on voluntary farming measures. Given the historically low take-up of these voluntary measures and low level of adoption of pollinator-specific actions in agri-environment schemes, the Government could go a lot further. Roger Williams mentioned making CAP reform work for nature, and it would also lay the foundation for the pest management regime.
The Environmental Audit Committee highlighted the integrated pest management scheme. The draft NPS does include measures to promote the pest management scheme to reduce the risks to bees of pesticide use, but it needs to be clearer about what is additional to the existing action and how that will be targeted to help bees. The definition of the IPM in the draft NPS does not refer to reducing pesticide use, yet the EU rules require that priority is to be given to non-chemical methods of pest control. We need a clear ambition to minimise over-dependence on pesticides. If we do not undertake that, the conditions for pollinators are unlikely to change. The IPM can help the UK to move to pesticides being used less, in a smarter, more targeted way, and as a last resort and not as a matter of course. So, again, farmers need more assistance in their approaches to pesticides, particularly in respect of crop pest resistance to insecticides and the NPS overall.
I wish to finish by discussing community partnerships. We all know that many groups and civil organisations are keen to work with the NPS, but I do not want the
Government to rely too heavily on voluntary initiatives or outside bodies that have limited accountability lines and then not be able to put across their vision and deliver the aspirational intentions of the NPS. I believe that we can protect our bees and we have an opportunity to do so, but we need to do it in a way that transforms how our communities respond and react to their local environments.
I am also a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and, like Dr Offord, I pay tribute to the Chair of that Committee for the way in which she has led us and managed to get unanimous support on an issue that can often be quite controversial.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned most of the points that I was going to make in my speech, so I can be very brief. First, let me endorse what he said about the need for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to be able to rely not just on industry-funded research but on independent peer reviewed research. Companies must do research and it must be taken into account, but clearly it cannot be the major source on which the Government rely. The Government clearly need to move further in that regard.
The important issue of what changes in the agricultural support mechanism at the European level can be brought about was raised by Roger Williams. There is concern that not enough is being done under the strategy to reach out to the majority of farmers who need to be reached if this strategy is going to be put into effect. With regard to changes, possibly to European funding arrangements, some of that is devolved in practice. However, it is also an area in which Europe-wide policy needs to be changed, and that will have an impact on the devolved Administrations and on the administration of agricultural support as well. I am interested to know what the Minister has to say in that regard.
I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that a report or a strategy does not really show how we will achieve the objective of reducing pesticide use. Again, the Government need to do more on that, and I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Finally, I should like the Minister to answer a mystery that I have been trying to work out for a while. When the Environmental Audit Committee visited Brussels a couple of years ago, we were asked by a Commission official about why the UK had stopped seeking funding from the Commission for research on bee health issues. Apparently, the UK Government had not sought further funding, even though it was actually available from the Commission. I asked a number of parliamentary questions on the matter, and it seemed that the UK’s funding had indeed been reduced. There were different views as to why among scientific experts at DEFRA who gave evidence at one Committee. I would be interested to hear from the Minister on the matter. Will he tell us, as a pro-European Member of the Government, whether the UK has stopped asking for funding from the Commission, when it has been available to deal with issues such as bee health? I am sure that he agrees that such an issue needs to be addressed not just within the UK, but at a European level. I am sure that even Members who are not pro-Europe would not want to turn down European money if it were available. I would be grateful to the Minister if he gave us an update on what is happening, and whether there is the possibility of the UK getting more funding from the European Commission on this important issue of bee health.
I congratulate Sarah Newton on securing this important debate. She spoke with eminent good sense and with what I would characterise as quiet passion. Other Members who have contributed to this debate have made really telling points. I am talking about my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), and for Hendon (Dr Offord) and my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz. It has been an excellent debate.
When I was a child, my mother used to pay me half a crown to wash her car each week—you, Mr Speaker, will probably remember it as 12 and a half pence, as half a crown is probably before your time. I used to wash every bit of the car, except for one particular piece at the front, which was about 1 foot square. I kept that as a before and after shot to show my mother what a good job I had done, and I chose that particular spot at the front of the car because it was always covered in thousands of dead insects.
Order. Either the hon. Gentleman’s mother was a notably frugal custodian of the family purse, or, alternatively, the hon. Gentleman is some years older than me. Possibly, the House might conclude, that both of those statements are true.
My mother was certainly very frugal, but she did need her car washing every week, and it was, every week, covered in dead insects. Sadly, the cars are no longer covered in thousands of dead insects. We have cleaner cars today, but the insects are gone.
The hon. Gentleman is indicating only how much older he is than I am, and also perhaps that he had more of a penchant for things that my mother certainly would not have allowed me. I was not in any way allowed half a gallon of Somerset cider; half a pint of carrot juice was more like it.
As the insects have disappeared, so have the birds. As the insects continue to disappear, so will the yield from our crops.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will know my penchant for whistling around the place, emulating those very birds he wants to return.
The impact on our crops of the insects continuing to disappear has been calculated at more than £600 million a year. Some insecticides that farmers use to increase yield kill not only the insects that destroy the crops, but those that pollinate them. I would welcome a pollinator strategy from the Government—we have a draft strategy—if it understood that the decline in the ecosystem services that pollinators provide cannot be dealt with unless that is done on an ecosystem-wide basis.
Popular though the campaign may be, this is not just all about the bees, as Members have said. Yes, colony collapse disorder is serious and, yes, the varroa mite is a problem, as are the acarine mite and nosema apis, and fungal diseases such as chalkbrood and stonebrood, but the fundamental problems that have resulted in the decline of pollinators across the board are much more plain and simple. Since the 1930s, 97% of our wild flower meadows have been lost. If one of the fundamental habitats providing a food source to pollinators is taken away, is it any wonder that we see a decline in butterflies, moths, beetles and other pollinators?
I congratulate the whole NGO coalition, especially Buglife and Friends of the Earth, on campaigning extensively for a national pollinator strategy. The NGOs understand this, as does the Environmental Audit Committee in its excellent report. They have spoken clearly about how changes in land management over the past century represent one of the major causes of pollinator loss. The Government should do more than pay them lip service, as they did in their response to the Select Committee’s report. Many of the groups have a larger membership than all the political parties represented in the Chamber put together, and their bee campaigns have involved hundreds of thousands of people devoting their time for our natural environment. That is marvellous, so the Government need to respond positively.
The Government have the power to halt the decline of our natural environment. Delivering a pollinator strategy is a critical part of that, so we should ask what this Government’s record has been. They opposed the European ban on neonicotinoids and supported efforts to undermine it. They said that a ban could cripple the economy, thus ignoring the direct value of pollination services to UK farmers and the natural environment. That was proof, if anyone still needed it, that for this Government the environment and the economy are always seen as being in conflict, although they are not. The Government’s decision to withdraw from a pan-European research project on honey bee decline was further evidence of their allergy to sound science.
They failed to include pollinator-specific measures in their so-called greening of agricultural subsidy in the CAP.
There seems to be a dangerous idea—clung to by some in the Government—that they have to sacrifice our environment and well-being for the sake of achieving short-term economic growth. In fact, economists now tell us that economic growth depends upon natural capital. This Government have acted with absolute consistency against the science and failed to adopt a fully ecosystem-based way of working that displays the true value of the natural capital upon which all growth depends. There are three key decisions that they could have taken: the decision to adopt a science-based policy on insecticides; the decision to acquire new evidence on pollinator decline; and the decision to create space for nature in precisely the way that John Lawton set out in his report.
We need to embrace a new, restorative approach that rebuilds nature and creates a more resilient natural environment for the benefit of wildlife and ourselves. We need coherent ecological networks if we are to conserve wildlife and landscapes that have become fragmented as a result of human activity. An ecological network must be comprehensive enough to hold a suite of high-quality sites that collectively contain the diversity and amount of habitat needed to support species. There must be ecological connections between those sites to enable species—or, in the case of plants, their genes—to move.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise for being unable to attend the debate from the start because of other duties. When I was Secretary of State, we established “Making space for nature”, and I went with John Lawton to parts of the west midlands to create those important areas. The question is one of joining up to get the landscape scale, and I agree about that, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a clear view of what has been achieved thus far.
I respect the right hon. Lady, and she will know that I have always tried to give credit where it is due in the Department. I have given credit to her, in particular, for the way she advanced the natural capital approach. However, I think that there are severe lacunas in the Department’s approach and that we need a much more joined-up approach, in relation to implementing an ecosystem-based way of working in the Department and to joining up across Government. I am sure that is a problem she has faced many times in trying to persuade colleagues across Government. Dr Offord talked about the importance of planning, for example, and I am sure that the right hon. Lady will have had her own run-ins with DCLG. I hope that she does not feel that the criticisms I am making are unfair.
The Lawton report summarised the step change that the previous Labour Government made in 2006 when we moved to an ecosystem-based approach, which was essential to mainstreaming our conservation priorities across Government. Sir John’s report spoke about the role of insects in the following way. It states that they are
“the little things that make the world work… vital components of natural food chains (as food for larger organisms and as pollinators for example) and many deliver other vital ecosystem services… It would be unwise to assume we can do without them. Basically, what we are doing is unravelling the fabric of nature. These are local examples on one small part of the planet, of the growing, global ‘biodiversity crisis’.”
In their response to the Environment Audit Committee, the Government basically set out a voluntarist approach that asked the House to trust them. They now have a draft of a pollinator strategy. There is an election coming and people want to be seen to be doing something positive. The 2015 general election is unprecedented. For the first time, people will be able to judge all the major parties on what they have recently achieved in government as well as on what they promise in their manifestos. I am confident that there will be a triumph of experience over hope—what Labour actually achieved in government against what the Conservatives and Lib Dems promised and then failed to deliver.
In 2010, the country did not vote for continuity, except in one thing: Labour’s approach to our environment. The coalition said that it was signed up to Labour’s Climate Change Act 2008. The Tories and the Liberal Democrats committed themselves to delivering on the Lawton report and the national ecosystems assessment that we commissioned on the back of it. They even said that they were committed to the Pitt review that Labour had commissioned after the 2007 floods. Well, we saw last winter what had happened to that.
The Environmental Audit Committee has an in-built majority for the Government parties, but on the basis of its environmental scorecard it looked carefully at what this Government have done and gave them a red card on biodiversity. Under this Government, with a Lib Dem responsible for the natural environment, essential work to improve our natural environment has become “green crap”, and we have seen the extraordinary spectacle of a former Secretary of State trawling around the broadcast studios telling all and sundry that he does not believe in half the policies that, as a member of the Cabinet, he was previously responsible for delivering. Unfortunately, this Government’s record on the environment does not lead anyone to trust them. The report, “State of Nature”, and Wildlife and Countryside Link’s report, “Nature Check”, show that the decline in biodiversity is getting worse. That is how we should judge this Minister’s party when it promises to give us a legal target for biodiversity. The Minister must accept that his draft pollinator strategy is neither adequate nor deliverable.
The EAC’s report correctly criticised the Government’s reliance on industry-funded research and voluntary measures. In fact, what it said was damning. It talked of
“excessive reliance on the commercial (rather than scientific) research priorities”—
Order. I have no wish to interrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s eloquence or, indeed, the eloquence of his flow, but I feel cautiously optimistic that he is approaching his peroration.
I am certainly approaching my conclusion, Mr Speaker—thank you for your guidance.
The Committee talked of
“excessive reliance on the commercial (rather than scientific) research priorities” of the industry bodies and said that that was
“symptomatic of a loss of DEFRA’s capacity to deliver its environmental protection obligations”.
There is no point in DEFRA’s merely reviewing the research that the agro-chemicals industry decides it wants to carry out when that is not the research that the public need. DEFRA must set out the type of data it requires and the parameters of such research in order to safeguard the environment. A Labour Secretary of State in DEFRA would set out clearly the need to establish baseline data on the health of our pollinator population and use those data to target a series of measures to reverse the declines in our ecosystem services capacity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have been waiting patiently and listening to the many important contributions we have heard, including some of the earlier remarks by Barry Gardiner, although he then went off a bit into whatever had been prepared for him elsewhere.
I thank my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, a fellow Cornish MP, for giving us the chance to debate this subject. I welcome the opportunity to highlight what the Government have been doing to support our pollinators and our plans for the publication of the national pollinator strategy for England later in the autumn. I congratulate all the other hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I will return to some of their remarks in what little time I have before we allow my hon. Friend to conclude the debate. First, I will set out some of the actions that the Government have been taking.
All of us across the House know of the importance of bees and other pollinators. They are vital for our environment, for food production and for biodiversity, and the Government take very seriously any threat to them. Evidence suggests that many species of our pollinators are less abundant and widespread than they were in the 1950s. However, as we do not know exactly how many wild pollinators we have now, or how many we had in the past, it is difficult to be certain about the rates or the detailed causes of change. We do know that the threats that pollinators face are many, including, as others have said, habitat loss, disease, extreme weather, climate change, and the use of some pesticides. It is likely that a combination of threats could be affecting their diversity, with loss of habitat linked to intensification of agriculture and urbanisation a key factor. The Government therefore continue to take action on a range of fronts to protect pollinators.
In our strategy, “Biodiversity 2020”, we have set ourselves the challenging outcome of achieving an overall improvement in the status of our wildlife and preventing further human-induced extinctions of known threatened species. We have supported 12 nature improvement areas in becoming better places for wildlife by creating more and better connected habitats. Flower-rich grasslands are recognised as habitats of principal importance for conservation. “Biodiversity 2020” includes an aim to increase priority habitats by 200,000 hectares, and species-rich grasslands are included in that ambition. In addition, almost 100,000 hectares of grasslands, likely to support pollinators, are already protected as sites of special scientific interest.
We recognise that there will still be a need for targeted conservation action for our most threatened species: 17 species of bees, together with many other pollinators, are considered as priority species for conservation. Natural England’s species recovery programme is designed to help, with projects to support priority species such as the short-haired bumblebee.
Hon. Members have discussed the contribution we can make under the common agricultural policy and agro-environment schemes, which are key ways of securing benefits for pollinators. Options to encourage pollinators in current environmental stewardship agreements cover 60,000 hectares, including buffer strips, pollen and nectar mixtures, wild bird seed mixtures, hay meadows and wild flower areas, and the evidence that those actions attract pollinators is good. In the new scheme, to which we are putting the finishing touches, we aim to produce a more effective outcome for pollinators.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to support beekeepers through funding of the National Bee Unit, to which my hon. Friend Mr Heath, the former Minister, has referred. The unit provides free training in disease diagnosis and management, and supports beekeeping associations in their work to improve bee husbandry skills across the country.
Pesticides are tightly regulated under European Union rules. Possible harm to non-target species is a key part of the risk assessment required before those products are authorised, and those risk assessments and authorisation decisions are also the subject of regular review.
I had hoped to make many other points, but I may struggle to do so in the time available. I will attempt to respond to some of the points that were raised during the debate. I think that most of us agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth about the importance of evidence. Dr Whitehead said that we should get on with it because we know what the problems are. That is entirely true and we want to make sure that we invest the available resources in tackling the right causes in the most effective way possible, in order to support the recovery of some of these species and to protect them. We need to measure which species have problems and how serious they are so that we can inform our actions.
My hon. Friend also referred to imported bees and my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, who is no longer in his place, asked whether they are muscling out other bees. When bees are brought in on a commercial basis to help pollination, we encourage non-native species to be used in polytunnels and glass houses. In fact, 50% of the bumble bees that are brought in are of a native strain—similar bees are to be found in our own natural environment—even though they are produced overseas.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test spoke of his desire for the ban on neonicotinoids to be extended for ever. We have discussed evidence and the importance of making sure that we get it right. There is a ban in place and the Government are working along those lines, as is the industry. We take this very seriously, but we have to make sure that we keep the evidence under review.
Other hon. Members have mentioned problems regarding the voluntary nature of many of the interventions. It is absolutely right that we work with the industries, as well as local authorities, voluntary organisations and non-governmental organisations, that can help us gather evidence and make sure that we take action on planting and re-wilding some areas. I am sure hon. Members will receive urgent lobbying from the golf course sector in the light of some of today’s contributions.
My hon. Friend Roger Williams made a very good point. In order to implement a strategy and make a difference, we will need to work together, so we need to encourage the agricultural sector, NGOs, beekeepers, land managers and others who are active in their communities and their own homes to do so. If we work together, we can begin to deliver and turn around the potential decline in the vital pollinators in our natural environment.
I thank hon. Members for attending this debate and making such thoughtful contributions, particularly the members of the Environmental Audit Committee and its eminent Chair. The debate has been a very good illustration of the success of the reforms introduced during this Parliament. Select Committees play such an important role and the Backbench Business debates give us an opportunity to raise important issues on behalf of our constituents and improve Government policy.
What do we want? We want the national pollinator strategy. When do we want it? We want it now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the National Pollinator Strategy.