Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

– in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Votes in this debate

House again in Committee.

Clause 27 [Continuing powers to make transfer schemes]:

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 8:26 pm, 8th February 2006

had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 261:

Page 9, line 21, after "may" insert ", by order made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament,"

[Amendment No. 261 not moved.]

Clause 27 agreed to.

Clause 28 agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Transfer schemes]:

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

We are concerned here with transfer schemes in the schedules. This paragraph reads as though, using its provisions, a Minister or someone acting on his behalf may ride roughshod over the normal legal protection afforded to the owner of property, rights and liabilities. I have in mind the last will and testament of any person who has a right to dispose of his belongings in the manner he chooses, provided he does so in accordance with the legal rules.

Would this legislation allow the Secretary of State to acquire something it would otherwise not be possible to? For example, would it allow things held on behalf of the public by, say, a county council to be annexed by a government department or a regional development agency? Would it allow the Government, in pursuit of governmental targets, to move assets between non-governmental bodies? What are the safeguards that will ensure that this paragraph cannot be used to deprive individuals or sections of society of their property or rights at some time in the future, when other pressures and other moods may prevail? I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

Schedule 3 allows the Secretary of State to make transfer schemes to provide for the transfer of property, rights or liabilities that would not otherwise be capable of being transferred or assigned. This is essential to facilitate the smooth transfer of property currently held by English Nature and the Countryside Agency when they cease to exist. In some cases the terms on which the property rights or interests are held prevent alienation or transfer to third parties. This would apply to transfers to Natural England, the Commission for Rural Communities or a Minister of the Crown.

The transfer schemes envisaged by the Bill are intended to overcome this difficulty. They will ensure a smooth transition to the new bodies and avoid any uncertainties over the rights and liabilities associated with their property on the dissolution of English Nature and the Countryside Agency. It is also important that the Secretary of State is able to certify the changes that have taken place and that this amounts to conclusive evidence of the changes specified.

We would be in no position to deny individuals in this regard. We can move assets that are named NDPBs. As this is a complex area I will expand on it in writing but I think that the noble Baroness's fears, while understandable, are groundless. As I say, I shall write on the fine detail of the law but I give her an assurance and hope that she feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am very grateful to the Minister for offering to write to me. This is a slightly technical area. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 29 agreed to.

Clause 30 [Interpretation]:

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

With this amendment we seek clarification from the Government. In this part, public authorities have a right to request advice from Natural England and a duty to inform it if that advice is not taken. They are to receive messages from the commission and will be monitored on how they implement their policies in a rural context.

The definition of "statutory undertaker" is contained in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That Act may be modified or amended by any piece of legislation. Such alteration might affect the definition of "statutory undertaker" in certain contexts. Would all such changes automatically bring the new definition into the context of this Bill? Were providers of electronic networks and cable television to be included for some other purpose, would they also be included for this? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

A technical matter will be of interest to the Committee in this regard. The noble Baroness referred to amendments made to Acts by other Bills. Along with others I have for years campaigned for a website, Statutes in Force, to enable you to get up-to-date Acts with all their amendments noted, whether those amendments were made by regulations or whatever. I am pleased to say that, following correspondence with the Law Commission, this will be available from the spring this year. I believe that all amendments going back to 1991 will be included. I understand that you will be able to call up an Act of Parliament and see all the amendments that have been made to it. They will be incorporated in the Act and you can read it without having to do the scissors and paste job that we have all done for years. That may help to assuage some of the noble Baroness's fears.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I thank my noble friend Lord Carter. I say to the noble Baroness that we do not wish to create a different approach whereby Natural England can advise some public bodies but not others, as the amendment envisages. Statutory undertakers, which include the water industry, are important bodies that can affect the natural environment in both good ways and bad. It is important that Natural England is able to deal with statutory undertakers on the same footing as others, and where necessary provide advice. All our public bodies should—and, I hope, would—wish to play a full part in delivering our vision for the natural environment. The wording we have used is also consistent with the definition of "public bodies" in other legislation. The definition applies to this Bill only. Definitions in other legislation will not affect what is in this Bill as it stands. I hope that I have reassured the noble Baroness but it is one of those areas where she may welcome clarification in writing.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his comments. The website will make a difference. At the moment the only way one can tackle this matter is by consulting Butterworths and that takes time. I am grateful to him for indicating that the new facility will be available to all noble Lords as from spring this year.

The noble Baroness may wish to return to my next point at a later stage. I highlighted two extra providers—the electronic networks, which are springing up everywhere and which I presume fall within the framework of statutory undertakers, and cable TV. One would not necessarily think of them as statutory undertakers but I assume that even the newest and most modern ones are regarded as such. I am grateful for the noble Baroness's comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 agreed to.

Clause 31 agreed to.

Schedule 4 [Joint Nature Conservation Committee]:

[Amendments Nos. 264 and 265 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

moved Amendment No. 266:

Page 54, line 17, at end insert—

"( ) One member shall be appointed for two years, two members for three years and two members for four years.

( ) The Secretary of State may re-appoint existing members, but no member shall serve longer than ten years."

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My noble friend the Duke of Montrose inadvertently touched on this amendment while speaking to another group of amendments, for which I apologise. With it, we were trying to ensure that the whole board was not appointed at one stage, for example, and then leave at another stage and be reappointed. I listened reasonably carefully to what the Minister said when she included it in response to another amendment. I would be grateful if she would respond to it a bit more fully now; I do not know whether she still has the brief. The most important thing is that the commission works well and that there is consistency throughout. When one is setting up a new body, whatever it might be, there will presumably be people joining it who have been former members of the Countryside Agency or English Nature whose term of office may well be coming up to a particular stage; if the appointments are for five years, say, they may have served three years, or some may have served one year.

I shall follow up the previous discussions on this. Will those who have, say, served four years be considered automatically for reappointment first, or is it just open to everyone? Secondly, although they are currently appointed to their positions, will they have to go through a reapplication to be considered as board members of the CRC? I hope that it is the latter, because however good they are they are joining a new body which is bringing in new responsibilities for them on a wider brief. Therefore, I hope that it is a full consultation on the usual way in which public appointments are made. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

This amendment relates to the appointment of members to the joint committee and is designed to impose specific terms on appointment to it and a maximum of 10 years for any appointee. It is a probing amendment.

Schedule 4 does not specify the lengths of any appointments. However, the joint committee is covered by the code issued by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and that will not change when it is reconstituted. I am assuming that the intention is to ensure a phased turnover of appointments. While I can see how that might work in theory, here we are setting up a new committee from scratch. The JNCC will be reconstituted and some existing appointments will carry over. Following best practice, appointments have been made so that they will not all come to an end at the same time, though however well we plan these things, premature resignations can frustrate our intentions. That is a good reason in itself to retain greater flexibility. It also covers those who are appointed from the UK conservation agencies and could conceivably impinge on appointments to those bodies.

The intention behind the amendment is at odds with the code itself, since an appointee who has served two full terms or 10 years is eligible to apply for appointment through open competition and can be appointed again if selected on merit through that competitive process. The JNCC, as I have said, is not a new body, so not all appointments will come up at the same time. Usually appointments are for three years—oh! I have inadvertently made an error in saying that the committee was setting up from scratch. In fact it is the opposite; it is continuing. I apologise to the Committee. I congratulate those who advise me for having let me know as quickly as they did.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister. I was having a chuckle to myself, because I was going back to the RCC when I should have been on the JNCC. Perhaps if we used the full names we would make sure that we were in the right place in the Bill at the right time. My noble friend referred to this point earlier, and we should bear it in mind. I apologise for the confusion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I hesitate to mention pensions again; it is perhaps one stage too far. We debated these amendments earlier, because they overlap with other parts of the Bill. The principle behind all the amendments that we have been debating is the same. Unless the Minister intends the word to mean something other than what is normally meant, I cannot agree that the board of Natural England should be empowered to pay a pension to any of its members.

Empowerment to pay pensions to existing members, however, implies that the boards will take over the responsibility from another pension provider. Thus someone joining the board who, while still relatively young, is entitled to a pension from, say, the police or the Armed Forces, might be covered by this part of the Bill. Or is the Minister contemplating the possibility that the board might attract applications from senior civil servants or even ex-politicians, who would be entitled to draw a pension while fulfilling their contract with Natural England? The idea that the board might take on the responsibility for paying the pension of someone from the private sector is extremely far-fetched—heaven forbid—but I suppose that, if the permission were there, it could happen.

It is interesting that this provision should be in place for the JNCC but not for either Natural England or the commission. That implies that JNCC employees will not be civil servants. Is that the case and, if so, why? I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip 8:45 pm, 8th February 2006

This provision enables payments and allowances, including pensions, to be made to persons appointed by the Secretary of State to the joint committee, and it enables staff pension schemes to be maintained. We addressed many of these issues when we debated a similar point relating to Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities, so I will be brief. Having said that, a range of issues has been raised in relation to pensions. I shall undertake to look at all of them and write to the noble Baroness, who mentioned most of them, and I shall ensure that every other noble Lord who has taken part in the debate has a copy.

Amendment No. 267 would remove the power in respect of pensions for appointees to the joint committee. In practice, only the JNCC chairman holds a pensionable appointment. The appointment itself may be pensionable and, in answer to another point, it does not relate to other pensions that the person may have. I am certain that, because of her questions, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will want me to expand on that.

It is normal practice when making appointments to an NDPB for Ministers to decide the terms of the appointment, the remuneration and other payments, including the costs of any pension. Paragraph 8 of Schedule 4, which the amendment seeks to alter, is part of the standard framework by which these arrangements are reflected in statute. If accepted, the amendment would mean that the current JNCC chairman could not, in future, be provided with a pension. Similarly, future appointments would have to be made on a non-pensionable basis, and that could either affect the calibre of potential applicants or require a substantial increase in their basic salary so that they could make their own pension provisions.

Amendment No. 269 would stop the JNCC continuing the current pension arrangements for the staff who are presently in its employment through its company limited by guarantee.

I am conscious that a lot of areas still need to be covered and I shall be only too happy to write to noble Lords, because pensions are a complex area when you are dealing with transfers.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

I shall make a point for when my noble friend writes to us all. We have used "pensions" interchangeably between meaning pension premiums and pensions that are paid after someone has retired. The Bill does not distinguish between the two; it just uses "pensions", which I presume—I am looking at the Box—means the same thing as pension premiums and retirement pensions. I am seeing nods. I think that that has led to some of the confusion, and it would be helpful if it could be spelt out. Obviously if you are receiving a salary and a pension is linked to the salary, you will be caught by the total amount of the pension premium and the tax allowances and so on. I refer back to the problem of board members, which we spoke about earlier. The remuneration that they would receive, even if they were paid a pension premium on top, would be very small indeed.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I place on record my gratitude to my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

No, a former audit clerk actually.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister. I assure her and other noble Lords that I will not mention pensions again in this sitting. It is an important issue and certainly some of our earlier discussions got slightly heated. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

In moving Amendment No. 268, it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I link it with Amendment No. 270. It would seem sensible to do so and will save a little time later because the two suggestions sit closely together.

This is a probing amendment. Does the first reference mean that if the JNCC decides that it needs someone to minute meetings, answer the telephone or welcome visitors, it will need the approval of the Secretary of State before doing so? I am sure that it does not, as clearly that would be ridiculous. Or does it mean that if the JNCC decides to appoint a small team to prepare the position papers for its meetings, the Secretary of State must approve the chosen candidates?

If the Bill can give Natural England and the commission the power to employ staff, surely it should extend the same courtesy to the JNCC, which is after all the body through which Natural England has to work to exercise some of its functions. It will presumably be open to investigation by the Audit Commission and pay the scales that have been approved by the Secretary of State. There should be no fear of unreasonable salaries.

The second reference appears to negate the first. If Great Britain conservation bodies have to pay the salaries of the JNCC staff, they will be fairly concerned that no one is employed who is not absolutely necessary, thus rendering the Secretary of State's approval superfluous. If Natural England and the UK conservation bodies can be funded from the centre, why cannot the JNCC be funded in the same way? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

It is very important that the JNCC should have its own employees and budget. That was stated in a recent review. Prior to that it was subbed by the Great Britain conservation bodies such as English Nature, SNH and the CCW. The JNCC is a body that must represent biodiversity and conservation interests on behalf of Britain internationally. It is important that it is an independent body and can take a different line because it has a slightly different remit from the other British conservation bodies that I mentioned. It is important that it has its own budget and staff, and can carry out its role independently.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I shall deal with both Amendments Nos. 268 and 270. There is a historical background to Amendment No. 268. The provision relates to employment of staff by the joint committee and the requirement for the Secretary of State's approval for the employment of staff. The joint committee was unable to employ its own staff until 1 April 2005 when a regulatory reform order gave it that power. Schedule 4 as drafted consolidates the provisions of the order into the Bill, using its wording. As I said, the provision is taken from the regulatory reform order.

However, the JNCC already employs staff, albeit through its company limited by guarantee, which noble Lords will know enables staff to be employed without members of the joint committee being exposed to unlimited personal liability, and any necessary approval has been given. The provision as drafted is not there to enable the Secretary of State to stop the JNCC employing staff or changing the numbers of staff employed.

The JNCC delivers two specific areas of work. First, it co-ordinates at a UK level certain functions of the conservation agencies. It is appropriate to combine those tasks. Secondly, it advises government on international matters, and again, it is appropriate that government should meet those costs. Approval has been given for the JNCC to employ its own staff.

Amendment No. 270 is another Regulatory Reform (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) Order 2005 issue. The rationale for this provision in the original order was that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 required all funding to be made via the country conservation agencies. The JNCC could not seek direct funding for work that it undertakes on a UK-wide basis or on matters where there is no specific individual or collective responsibility. There are a number of strategic nature conservation services that the JNCC undertakes on behalf of the Government on UK-wide matters of that sort. It is generally recognised that the JNCC is best placed to advise on those and take them forward.

The provision of an enabling power for the Secretary of State to fund the JNCC directly allows for greater transparency in its funding, reduces administration as payments are not routed via the country agencies, and is supported by the JNCC itself and our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who look to us to bear the costs of the JNCC's work on reserved matters. That is why paragraph 15(1) of Schedule 4 is worded as it is.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister and also to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for his comments. Clearly, events have overtaken what I had not read into the Bill, as explained by the Minister. I will look at what he has said. At this stage, I beg leave to withdrawn the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 269 to 271 not moved.]

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clause 32 agreed to.

Clause 33 [Purpose of functions under this Part]:

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

moved Amendment No. 272:

Page 11, line 20, after "conversation," insert—

"( ) increasing biodiversity,"

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 273. This is an important section of the Bill, considering biodiversity.

Amendment No. 272 follows on from earlier amendments where I drew attention to the first of English Nature's duties under the general purpose clause—it seems a long time since we were talking about that. The first duty couples promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity. On page 11, Natural England, as one of the UK conservation bodies, is charged with exercising its conservation functions through the JNCC wherever those functions raise issues, or touch on the interests, of the rest of the UK or overseas. If Natural England has a duty that couples conservation with protecting biodiversity, we wonder why the JNCC does not also have a responsibility to use its cross-border influences in promoting biodiversity alongside conserving nature.

In Amendment No. 273 we seek to strengthen what is already in the Bill. The use of the word "understanding" in this context is interesting. It may represent something deep, possibly lasting and affective, as in "John and Mary have an understanding". It can, however, represent something quite vague and wishy-washy, as in "it is my understanding that", which is open to—indeed, invites—criticism and contradiction.

In the context of the responsibilities of the JNCC, fostering the "understanding" of nature conservation is not capable of assessment, evaluation or even monitoring. How does one prove or demonstrate that the level of understanding has deepened, or that the amount of it has widened? If, however, one has to foster the practice, then one will show solid results, or lack thereof. The JNCC should be more than a talking shop, or even a communication node. It should be a body working to ensure progress across a number of fronts. It can only be judged if the standards it has set are capable of oversight and a degree of measurement. This is an important amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 9:00 pm, 8th February 2006

Amendment No. 272 refers to "conversation", which is slightly confusing and why we are all falling over it so much. It also refers to "increasing biodiversity". We certainly support this amendment. It takes us back to the debate that we had on the general purposes of Natural England, when some of us felt that nature conservation is a perhaps even passive activity. We spent a lot of time on the meaning of conservation and so on. I heard the Minister's helpful definition, but it still seems to us that increasing biodiversity is a more active role and would therefore be more helpful.

I shall listen to the Minister's reply on Amendment No. 273 with careful attention. Does Clause 33(1)(b) refer only to the JNCC—in which case I would understand why it refers only to the "understanding of nature conservation", as that is more the JNCC's role? However, it also refers to the UK conservation bodies which include bodies charged with far wider purposes. There is a difficulty because those bodies should be fostering exactly the sort of things that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has spoken about. My understanding is that the JNCC would have the one role and the conservation bodies would have the more practical role of fostering the "practice" role, as the noble Baroness's amendment puts it. Two different roles are being talked about in Clause 33 and that leads to confusion.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I have to admit that initially we found that Amendment No. 272 had some merits, but on further reflection we felt that it was a reformulation of Clause 33(1)(a) using a different form of words. The form of words that has been included within the Bill in Clause 33 is there to provide consistency and continuity with the existing framework in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which first established the joint committee. It is implicit within Clause 33(1)(a) that the JNCC is about biodiversity and that it will be promoting biodiversity as part of its core work. Therefore, we do not believe that the amendment would add significantly something that would otherwise be lacking.

Amendment No. 273 would restrict the JNCC's role in the area of increasing understanding of nature conservation to circumstances where there was a practical, hands-on application to what it was doing. We believe that our phrasing has a wider remit and should be retained because the JNCC should be able to provide advice which has a more general application. For example, that has been beneficial in work in our overseas territories to increase understanding of endangered species.

I should explain a little further the fit between Natural England's functions as set out in Part 1—precisely the point which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made—and those that it must deliver jointly with its sister bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That fit is not precise. The noble Baroness's question is whether Clause 33 should not better reflect Natural England's functions. We agree with the sentiment that we should endeavour to make the functions of the various bodies match as closely as we can. However, we have to have regard to the interfaces that the JNCC will have with bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While this Bill could, with the prior consent of the Welsh Assembly, be used to amend the remit of the Countryside Council for Wales, it cannot make any changes to the general remits of Scottish National Heritage and the Council for Nature Conservation in Northern Ireland. All four bodies can only discharge functions through the JNCC that they already have as part of their own general remits.

I emphasise that this does not mean that the JNCC is king and can dictate what the others are able to do; it just means that we must look at the wider picture and the complex web of relationships, of which the JNCC is a part. My view is that, by sticking to the 1990 Act's terminology, which is how I started this reply, in Clause 33 we are minimising the potential for problems in the future. It will be implicit that the relationship that Natural England has with the JNCC will mirror exactly that which English Nature currently has with the JNCC on a day-to-day basis. That is the explanation of why we think that, while this may not be perfect, it is important to remember that Natural England is one of four institutions that make up that UK-wide body, the JNCC.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

I am sure that the noble Lord would agree with me that there is another dimension to this. Whereas the role of the JNCC is to try to establish standards that are helpful to the various countryside agencies in coming to terms with their responsibilities, there are clearly times when one of the countryside agencies will be the lead agency on a particular subject because it has more expertise on it than the JNCC does. I think that the point is well made that, whereas the JNCC has an important role to play, it is not always the dominant partner, because other agencies will sometimes have more experience in a particular field than it does.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Of course it will be for the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to decide what to do with her Amendment No. 272. The Minister referred to the fact that the wording was drawn from the 1990 Act. I was wondering whether some of the resistance to increasing the biodiversity terminology, which, as he admits, the Government were initially attracted to, comes from the fact that in 1990 nobody really talked of biodiversity—it was an unknown term. However, that is no reason why now in 2006 we should not include it.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

That is a very fair point. The real point behind what I had to say was that the four bodies that make up the JNCC have to work on a common basis. While we could get the Welsh Assembly, perhaps, to change the remit of its organisation, that is not possible apparently as far as Scottish Natural Heritage is concerned, which is why we resist the suggestion in Amendment No. 272.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The Minister's last response has made my resolve even firmer. This is a slightly unsatisfactory position to be in. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and I accept the comments made by my noble friend Lord Peel. Obviously we want to increase biodiversity, or to have an awareness of it—and the noble Baroness is right to suggest that back in 1990 it was not something that was talked about.

Do I take it from the Minister that he is content that England and Wales can do something, or try to improve things, but that Scotland can go its own sweet way anyway? It seems extraordinary that in one part of this UK-wide conservation body you cannot tighten up or improve on what you are trying to get the four parts to do. If that is so, I think that it is very sad and, I would have thought, slightly unsatisfactory.

On my second point, I will look at Amendment No. 273 again carefully. I think that noble Lords have suggested that the issue might be more relevant to Natural England itself rather than to where it is in this particular part of the Bill. I hope that I interpret what the Minister said correctly. I know that it is just after supper, but Amendment No. 272 has been laid for some time—the typo of using the word "conversation" instead of "conservation" was in the amendment before dinner, not just after. I looked at the amendment earlier this morning and said, "Whoops! This is not very good".

I thank the Minister for his response. I suspect that we may want to consider the issue a little further but, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 273 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

moved Amendment No. 274:

Page 11, line 25, leave out "the desirability of contributing" and insert "their commitment"

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 275, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, so I shall speak to Amendment No. 274 and then listen to what she has to say on her amendment.

My amendment would make a small but, we believe, important alteration to the functions of the UK conservation bodies and to the JNCC. The Bill states that, "in discharging their functions", UK conservation bodies must have,

"regard to . . . the desirability of contributing to sustainable development".

That is a very loose incentive; it is slightly casual. Our amendment would ensure that the conservation bodies have to have regard to their commitment to sustainable development. That would be in line with the promises made by Her Majesty's Government about sustainable development and it would resonate with the EU Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC. I am sure that the Committee is aware of the directive, which was adopted back in 1992. It states that,

"natural habitats are continuing to deteriorate and . . . it is necessary to take measures . . . in order to conserve them".

If the Government are committed to contributing to sustainable development, they must demonstrate that in the clearest terms. I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Ullswater Viscount Ullswater Conservative

I must advise the Committee that, if this amendment is agreed to, I shall be unable to call Amendment No. 275 because of pre-emption.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

We referred in passing to Amendment No. 275 when discussing the general purposes of Natural England. The Minister then explained that there was a difference between that and the role of the JNCC, which should have the primary scientific and environmental role, so that in this context "desirability" was a more reasonable word than "necessity". Having taken that to heart, I shall not move my amendment.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

I, too, think that the sustainable development clause for the JNCC needs strengthening. I do not really mind which wording the Minister takes. I once sat as a member of the JNCC, which was quite strange because I was a lay person among all the scientists. I listened to a lot of the scientific talk but did not understand a lot of it. I considered my role entirely as being to put the sustainable development argument. If I had not been there, I do not think that the JNCC as a body would ever have considered anything outside the straight biodiversity conservation remit that it felt that it had. So it is important in this day and age that it has a pretty strong push to take account of the sustainable development agenda. I do not think that the current wording of the Bill provides that.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour 9:15 pm, 8th February 2006

I, too, am puzzled by the use of the word "desirability", because the unspoken two words after it are "or otherwise". If one considers the desirability of something, it must be possible to decide that something is undesirable. I cannot believe that the JNCC would regard it as undesirable to contribute to sustainable development, so I wonder if that word is the right one.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

I shall try to explain. It is important to understand the primary role of the JNCC. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned, it has an advisory role on nature conservation. Of course, as with all our sponsored bodies, we want the JNCC to have a reference to sustainable development in its remit, but that reference must be consistent with the wider role of the body itself. We want the JNCC to give advice within the context of sustainable development rather than to be constrained by it or to have to moderate it to take account of wider issues. Many of those issues include balances that might need to be struck between conservation and other objectives, and will fall to the recipients of the advice from the body, including Ministers and, in some cases, Natural England itself.

It is worth emphasising that the JNCC is not an operational delivery body and thus has limited ability to contribute to the delivery of sustainable development at first hand. It is important that the JNCC can give objective advice based on good science, but it is also important to show how that advice might help to take sustainable development forward. We believe that that is what the current wording does.

We are asked whether this provision is, in effect, simply window dressing. No, it is not. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say that we are keen that all our sponsored bodies should have a clear sustainable development remit, but that that must be consistent with each body's wider role. Frankly, each body has little scope to take forward sustainable development through its own activities, apart from managing the green footprint of the organisation itself, but it can put advice to others in the context of sustainable development.

I shall give an example. The JNCC may be called on to advise on the potential nature conservation impacts of offshore wind farms. It is not for that organisation to form a view on the balance to be struck between activities that might harm wildlife on the one hand, but that might also have environmental and economic benefits on the other. It is right that the organisation can flag up those issues for those who need to decide which way to go. That is why we think that to give this body too up-front a role in the sustainable development field is out of kilter. We meant it when we referred to sustainable development in the clause, but that is as far as we take it.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am very disappointed with that response. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Cameron and Lord Carter, for intervening. The contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, reflects how important it is that a lay person should serve on such committees in order to put forward the practical side. It is easy to be carried away by what science can or cannot do and by where we might or might not be going. I have listened carefully to the Minister's words, but I am not satisfied. I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 274) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 20; Not-Contents, 50.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

Aye: 18 Members of the House of Lords

No: 48 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

[Amendment No. 275 not moved.]

Clause 33 agreed to.

Clauses 34 to 37 agreed to.

Clause 38 [Directions]:

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 9:29 pm, 8th February 2006

moved Amendment No. 276:

Page 13, line 12, after "may" insert ", by order made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament,"

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

This short amendment seeks clarification from the Government. Clause 34 is headed, "Functions of national or international significance". That should imply that the directions given by the Secretary of State to a body operating at arm's length from government will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and that is the reason for the amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

This is a small amendment but it disguises a very important point. The same point was made in Amendment No. 261, which none of us spoke to.

There is no doubt that the Secretary of State is gradually accruing more and more functions. This point is being examined by the committee of your Lordships' House that considers regulations. The more powers the Secretary of State has to amend Bills or carry out functions that are not scrutinised thereafter diminishes the democratic and scrutinising powers of this House. Although, as the noble Baroness says, this is a small amendment about a small matter, it is a very important point of principle which has been made before from both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches. I am sure that this will not be the last time it is made.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

I do not know whether the noble Baroness has looked at the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which is not slow to make proposals if a Bill contains inappropriate powers. It has not recommended any need for a statutory instrument in this part of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

Powers of direction are very much reserved powers, and we hope never to have to use them. But they are part and parcel of the safeguards that are built into the framework when setting up an NDPB. We referred earlier to the circumstances in which this power could be used.

The amendment challenges the concept that NDPBs are accountable to Ministers and, through them, to Parliament. It would allow Parliament to countermand instructions that the Secretary of State had issued. That cannot be right and would leave the joint committee not knowing what to do if a Prayer to Annul were tabled.

A more practical consideration is the delay that may be involved. If a direction is to have value in the circumstances we discussed earlier today, the joint committee must be given the direction as soon as the Secretary of State has decided to make it. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to international conventions. The Secretary of State is bound by those conventions to which we are a signatory and would not be able to act in any manner that would otherwise be deemed illegal. In addition, given the JNCC's status as a cross-border body, any statutory instrument would doubtless need to be considered by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that this proposal could lead to very damaging delay in a case where there was a need for urgent action.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. I rather assumed—although I may be assuming wrongly and she will probably correct me—that if such an emergency needed to be dealt with in a hurry there would be powers within the Government to deal with it. I had not seen my amendment as delaying anything or making it difficult if urgent action were needed. Certainly, as far as other areas of the Bill are concerned, we are increasingly worried about the powers being gained by the Secretary of State and that is why we tabled the amendment. However, there is clearly a difference of opinion and the hour is getting late. I will think about the matter further and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 38 agreed to.

Clause 39 agreed to.

Clause 40 [Duty to conserve biodiversity]:

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

moved Amendment No. 277:

Page 14, line 5, leave out from "functions," to end of line 7 and insert "further the conservation of biodiversity so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions"

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

We have had a preliminary canter around the course on an early amendment on an earlier evening, moved by my noble friend Lord Peel in connection with the UN convention. To mix the metaphor, that rolled the wicket for this amendment, but I should still do justice to the issue. This amendment is actively supported by the Wildlife and Countryside Link, a nature and conservation consortium which will be well known to many in your Lordships' House. It consists of 15 national organisations whose names I shall not read into the record in their entirety but which include the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the Council for National Parks as well as societies devoted to the conservation of individual species. They have 7 million members in all and manage 398,000 hectares of land.

One of the member organisations, which also specifically supports this amendment, is the Wildlife Trusts, the headquarters of the country wildlife trusts, with which I declared various interests at Second Reading. Both the umbrella organisations welcomed Clause 40, but wish it to go further and use the words "to further" to that end. Many public authorities take significant steps to conserve and enhance biodiversity, but the Bill limits their statutory duty towards conserving biodiversity to that familiar amulet against judicial review of "having regard to". I am engaged with similar amendments on the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill, but there the essential purpose of the Bill is directed elsewhere. Here, we are dealing with Natural England and thus need to send a stronger message than that of an amulet.

Much more could be done than that, in conserving biodiversity—and I mean actively conserving, enhancing and restoring biodiversity. We are looking for real achievement and not lip service. I offer a number of examples at national level. Public bodies own and manage a significant amount of land that can further biodiversity. For example, the Prison Service recognises the importance of biodiversity on its estate and has conducted surveys and produced its own biodiversity action plan with different partners including English Nature and the Wildlife Trusts. In Northern Ireland, in my direct experience although outside this Bill, prisons have rabbits in profusion within the grounds, although I acknowledge that the Maze lived up to its reputation by keeping them out.

I have alluded to the 2012 Olympic development in London, which has enormous potential to provide benefits for biodiversity with the regeneration of the land in that part of the capital. It is important that the Olympic Development Authority takes biodiversity seriously, not only in the run-up to 2012 but when looking to the future legacy. Regional development agencies can take significant account of biodiversity alongside economic development in planning for regeneration. In the Idle Valley in Nottinghamshire, the regional development agency sponsored feasibility work on a major rural regeneration project which involved significant gains for biodiversity.

A good example of the introduction of planning conditions by local authorities to create appropriate biodiversity habitats is the Section 106 agreement introduced by Newbury District Council on the redevelopment of Greenham Common airbase. That resulted in a significant increase in the extent of lowland heathland, a priority habitat under the UK biodiversity action plan. Local authorities and other bodies can play a fuller part in furthering biodiversity conservation through the management of land holdings. For example, managing roadside verges for road safety and biodiversity or amenity grassland for recreation and biodiversity, by changing cutting regimes, can be cost-neutral or even save money while helping to enhance biodiversity.

I give an incidental example of a potential contradiction in legislation. The Scottish Parliament is to be congratulated on the inclusion of a clear duty on public bodies to,

"further the conservation of biodiversity", in the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. But biodiversity does not recognise national boundaries, and there are populations of the same UK biodiversity action plan species and areas of the same UK biodiversity action plan priority habitats in Scotland and England.

Some government departments and agencies, such as the Ministry of Defence, have reserved responsibilities; however, we understand that the MoD's land management in Scotland will come under the Scottish duty. The difference between the duty in the Scottish and English legislation could therefore result in inconsistent treatment of biodiversity. The MoD in England would be required to "have regard to" the conservation of an area of priority habitat, such as upland heathland, within its ownership, but it would have a duty to "further the conservation" of the same habitat in Scotland. Pressures on diversity in England are as intense, if not more so, than in Scotland. England's biodiversity therefore merits at least the same level of consideration and input from public authorities as it receives already in Scotland.

Finally, in terms of examples, in my own county of Wiltshire, local authorities could be working with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to identify land that could be protected and where it could be restored and enhanced to create interconnected areas of habitat. The wildlife trusts in the south-west have developed a robust methodology for identifying those key areas, called Rebuilding Biodiversity. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has played a central role in its development and adoption by other environmental bodies, including English Nature.

Local authorities could also look at land in its stewardship—I am thinking of local nature reserves, country parks, council estates and county farms—to see how they might improve their biodiversity. Local authorities could also work with nature conservation organisations to devise and fund monitoring on indicators for local development documents. That is a requirement of the new planning system for annual monitoring reports. Much of that information is not already recorded. Local authorities could also be contributing to biodiversity in their area by investing in the voluntary sector and working in partnership with it. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust receives money from Wiltshire County Council and Salisbury District Council for various activities. Both local authorities, for example, invest in the Biological Records Centre run by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The records are vital for local authorities to know where the rich wildlife sites are—and, indeed, used to be. I am not saying that there are no financial contributions to this work; both Salisbury District Council and Wiltshire County Council give money, and I admire those contributions. But the conservation of biodiversity could be furthered if the amendment were to be added to the Bill.

In conclusion, Working with the grain of nature: A biodiversity strategy for England acknowledged that if the Government are to meet their international biodiversity targets, including halting the loss of biodiversity in the EU by 2010, biodiversity must be mainstreamed into all their activities. The strategy recognised that if biodiversity is to be conserved effectively, the Government will need to go beyond site protection and implementation of action plans by the nature conservation agencies. Biodiversity conservation is something that all public authorities can and should play a part in. I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Ullswater Viscount Ullswater Conservative

I advise the Committee that if this amendment is agreed to, I would be unable to call Amendment No. 278.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 9:45 pm, 8th February 2006

I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, with great pleasure. I am happy that if this amendment were agreed to, we would not be able to pass Amendment No. 278, because I find the noble Lord's amendment much more satisfactory than my own. He has spoken eloquently of all the reasons why this public duty needs strengthening. I must declare an interest as a vice-president of Wildlife Link and a member of both Devon and Somerset Wildlife Trusts.

The noble Lord is right when he talks of the important role local authorities can play. In my experience, as he mentioned, they often have landholdings, county farms and country parks. They also play a critical role in development control. Often what is needed even more than resources is an attitude of mind that questions all the time: "If we changed this policy, if we did things differently, how would it improve things?". In my time as a Somerset county councillor, our partnership with Somerset Wildlife Trust was one of the joys of that job, and one of the strengths in helping to move forward much of our work on the wetter holdings we had, because of the strength of the trust's experience with wetlands. I should also mention the RSPB, who played a big role in developing a whole new way of working around land, water management and so on.

I support the noble Lord's Amendment No. 277, but I must speak to Amendment No. 279 at the same time; in particular, to paragraph (b). To interpret this a little more for noble Lords, my amendment talks of,

"ensuring resources to gather sufficient scientific knowledge to maintain a basis on which to achieve the objectives of paragraph (a)", which are:

"restoring or enhancing a population or habitat".

The purpose of this amendment is to enable a short debate on the sad news that the three elements of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are to be closed, and to find out what the Government's thinking is about that.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is run under the Natural Environment Research Council, which controls the funding and has decided to cut its budget in this particular direction. However, the buck stops with the Government, because the Government provide funding to the NERC, so they cannot simply say, "The NERC has made the decision in the best way it can as to where the cuts will fall". It is also a government responsibility. My amendment is intended to make it clear that it should be a government responsibility.

At a time of climate change, when what is happening to each individual species or habitat cannot be viewed as standalone, it has become evident that a database cutting across all that knowledge about individual populations, be they amphibians, butterflies, mammals or plants, goes to build an entire picture. That is why the collection of this information by such a body as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is so critical, because it brings together the leading research establishments and gathers that information together. Just when we are realising how critical it is to have the information which enables us not only to say, "This is what's happening as a result of climate change", but to learn how to adapt to climate change and how best to protect habitats and enable species to survive some of these changes, we need the best knowledge we can get. It is for that reason in particular that this seems such a strange time for the Government to allow these centres to close. I am glad to say that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats felt equally strongly about this matter and a strong statement was made on it by the Conservative MP, Mr Peter Ainsworth, and the Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Norman Baker.

I hope that, having heard the strong feelings that have been expressed, the Minister will say that the Government are looking into the matter. This has been a very fortuitous discussion on public authorities' duty to conserve biodiversity. It is the Government's prime duty to conserve biodiversity. That duty must start with the Government as they are at the head of all public authorities. Therefore, they should set an example in this regard. I cannot accept that the Government will lay this duty on all local authorities but then renege on it themselves, as the withdrawal of the relevant funding seems to suggest.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

I say a few words in support of my noble friend's amendment. When he moved it he made reference to an earlier amendment that I moved which concerned a United Nations convention. However, I believe that my amendment was a little more specific than his as it dealt with the use of wildlife. None the less, having given the matter considerable thought, I believe that the points made by my noble friend are certainly worthy of consideration. It is a brave, bold amendment and I have no doubt at all that the Minister will resist it on the grounds that it would put onerous responsibilities on local authorities.

However, as my noble friend said, if the Government and everyone in this country are to pull together to meet biodiversity obligations, everyone has to be involved, and that includes local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was right to say that this is as much about an attitude of mind as anything else. The amendment would help people to focus on achieving what we all want. It would put a considerable onus on local authorities. It would probably put quite an onus on Natural England as regards the amount of advice that it would have to give. But we have reached a point where bravery is required if we are to achieve what we want—the enhancement of biodiversity in this country. On those grounds I support everything that my noble friend has said.

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I refer to paragraph (b) in Amendment No. 279, to which my noble friend Lady Miller spoke, and the cuts in environmental research. It is not just that research establishments are being closed down. I back her all the way on what she said about the two bodies which are due to close and the impact of that on biodiversity. Further, the environmental research councils have cut the budgets of other experimental bodies—for example, the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth, which covers the whole of the UK and not just Wales. It has an experimental farm in North Wycke in Devon. Its budget has been cut and there will be job losses. That institute is engaged in research on drought resistant grasslands. It is very important that its research on climate change and the need for diversity in our grasslands continues. The organisation engages in fundamental and applied research. I add those comments to show that it is clearly not the time to cut back on those research budgets.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I support and thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for tabling this very important amendment. I hope that the Minister will end the evening by accepting the amendment or saying that he will take it away and think about it. As I say, this is an enormously important amendment.

The Minister was not with us when, back in 2000, we took the Countryside and Rights of Way Act through, in which biodiversity was first mentioned and put in as an amendment, which the Government eventually accepted. It was a very bold step at that stage, and it was very necessary. In considering his response to the amendment, and the support that has been given to it around the House, I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the importance that we feel attaches to this. It is easy to say, "Yes, we have in mind that we might do something", and it becomes very wordy, but the addition of "further" is enormously important. My noble friend, in introducing the amendment, said that like many others of us he had received very good briefing from the Wildlife and Countryside Link groups, which have given their support to the amendment. My noble friend said that originally it would be cost neutral and that it might save money in some cases; he is right. He added that in certain circumstances there are to be costs; but there are costs in whatever we do. Certainly, the seasons are changing rapidly in this country. We seem to have drier spells for longer, and then we seem to have heavy rains. We have sunshine and then no sunshine. If that weather pattern continues, there will be even greater pressure on the biodiversity in this country.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister, particularly on the closure of those important research centres, which the noble Baroness referred to earlier. My honourable friend Peter Ainsworth, who I am sorry is not still with us in the Chamber, recognised the importance of those centres. When the Minister responds, will he tell us exactly what savings the Government think they will make by closing those centres? Where will the members of that skill base end up? Will they all be made redundant? That is as important as the closure of the buildings. Are they going to be reallocated to different areas? It is important for us to know that.

My noble friend Lord Peel said that the amendment is brave. We must not lose these opportunities when they come before us. We are not likely to have another Bill of this magnitude before the House for many, many years. When we look back to the CROW Bill, the fact that we did not recognise the need for a marine section was one thing that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and I were quite cross that we let slip by. It has been nearly six years since that Act was passed, and we have not addressed the marine side of the environment. Although a draft marine Act is planned, it may be some time before it comes before the House in the form of a proper Bill.

We have that opportunity now. I hope that the noble Lord will be persuaded by the arguments. I agree that the Government have their own international targets, and we should not shirk those. Sometimes in life one has to take on challenges that are not always comfortable. It is much easier to take the easy way out. I support the amendment, and I thank my noble friend for bringing it forward and explaining it so clearly to us tonight.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

Who can resist that trailer? I strongly endorse what the noble Baroness just said about the importance of the marine dimension. While I applaud the intention behind the amendment, I am not so sure that it is a strong amendment. It seems to me that it is too generalised. If we are really concerned about the root causes of the challenge to what is happening to biodiversity—we have heard climate change mentioned several times—the duty on all public authorities should be to combat global warming. Then we would be dealing with the origins of the problem rather than the symptoms. I am rather sad that the amendment deals with the consequences rather than the origins. I urge those who put it forward to go away and think about it and see whether they can bring back a stronger amendment at a later stage.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

I do not disagree with the noble Lord but I think that there are two separate issues, although I know that they are interrelated. Climate change is one thing but the positive enhancement of biodiversity is another. I see no reason why we should not address them both.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

It is fighting a losing battle—that is the problem.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I shall leave my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith to speak for himself but consistently throughout our debates he has raised the whole question of addressing the root cause.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 10:00 pm, 8th February 2006

My noble friend Lord Livsey reminds me—and I repeat it to the Committee—that, even if we were tempted by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, to include something about combating climate change, the fact is that climate change is already happening. Therefore, this is also an issue of combating the threats and adapting to them. The work carried out by the CEH, the Biological Records Centre and the UK Phenology Network was all about recording that change and trying to interpret what it means. That is why such work is so important. Even if we could stop climate change now, the effects would still be felt decades into the future. Therefore, it is critical that the Government consider this matter.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

For the peace of mind of the noble Lord who was just speaking, I have every intention of bringing the issue of global warming back to the Floor of the House again at a later stage of the Bill—in a form which I hope he will find possible to support.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

It is late at night to be having such a passionate argument, but this is an important issue and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for having raised it. I am going to disappoint the Committee tonight and I shall try to explain as briefly as I can why that is so.

I start with Clause 40, which places a duty on all public bodies and statutory agencies to have regard to conserving biodiversity in the normal exercise of their functions. The definition of conservation in the Bill includes restoring and enhancing habitats and populations of living species. Amendment No. 277 would change that duty to require public bodies to further the conservation of biodiversity.

Noble Lords will know that there were interesting discussions on this topic during the Bill's passage through another place. As was said at Standing Committee there, the Government are comfortable that the existing words are strong enough to encourage public bodies to integrate biodiversity into their functions. The clause as it stands aims to enhance biodiversity conservation in England and Wales through improved integration into decision-making processes in the public sector.

Although the duty does not prejudge the outcomes for biodiversity, it should mean that decisions are more beneficial for the conservation of biodiversity than they might otherwise have been. As we are primarily trying to tackle instances where biodiversity loses out or is forgotten because it is simply not taken into account or considered, we believe that this duty is sufficient.

An example given at Standing Committee in another place looked at local authorities and planning applications. Currently 67 per cent of local authorities do not include questions on biodiversity within their planning applications. This new duty, as set out in the clause, would address that. In short, our view is that the duty to "have regard", as set out in the clause, is the most appropriate response.

I was asked why we are against strengthening this duty to "furthering", which appears in the amendment. We think that the provision as drafted strikes a balance between stakeholder views and provides for a duty that raises the profile of biodiversity and consolidates and clarifies existing statutory requirements without creating a new burden. With this duty—this is significant—we are trying to tackle instances where biodiversity is inadvertently damaged through not being considered in decision-making processes, and we are trying to cultivate a higher awareness of biodiversity so that positive outcomes are more likely. We have incorporated complete flexibility in delivery to stimulate innovation, so public bodies may go further if they want to. In those cases, they will realise the social, economic and environmental benefits that healthy diversity brings.

I was reminded of the Scottish experience. Thankfully it is not my place to comment on the practice of the devolved administrations. However, public bodies in this country and in Wales would be free to go beyond the duty,

"to have regard . . . to the purpose of conserving biodiversity".

In some cases, we know that they do so already. The Ministry of Defence, which I know reasonably well, and which was referred to in the debate, is an example. It is developing a biodiversity strategy across the UK defence estate. It is also MoD policy that all sites with a designated or protected species must have an MoD conservation group to advise on that nature conservation interest. If it is suggested that we are not doing a great deal for biodiversity, I would dispute that. We are doing a lot. That is an apt demonstration of how the duty to "have regard" delivers real benefits for biodiversity. There is no evidence—none has been put before us tonight—that the wording of the duty is not sufficient.

We are, in effect, being asked to tell public authorities that they have to promote biodiversity. We support and encourage the promotion of biodiversity. We expect the duty on public authorities to result in raised awareness of biodiversity issues. None the less, while it will be appropriate for some public bodies, such as local authorities, to be involved in biodiversity, it may not be appropriate for others. For example, it may not be appropriate to expect a fire authority to be involved in the promotion of biodiversity issues. The generic nature of the duty allows appropriate flexibility in delivery, and allows public bodies to implement it in the way most relevant to their functions and opportunities open to them. Adding the requirement to promote biodiversity will only add complexity to the duty and make it harder to define what a public authority has to do to comply.

I know that there is a lot of support for local authorities' role in this field, but strengthening the duty further, as proposed in the amendment, would raise difficult questions for local authorities. I wonder whether they have been fully considered. Under such a duty, a local authority could be faced with a decision between two projects: one that is good for biodiversity, but bad in other ways; and one that is neutral. Would the authority be obliged to approve the first project? Those are the kind of issues that the courts would have to consider.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I apologise for interrupting the Minister at this time of night. He has been good about giving us examples, but that is a completely hypothetical case. Knowing most local authority functions, as I do, it is hard to see what the writer of his brief had in mind.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I cannot resist this. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, referred to our mutual local government experience. All local government is a constant battle between conflicting interests. Nature conservation would simply be another interest to be taken into account, as public authorities already have to deal with and decide between conflicting interests. That is an entirely normal state, and the Minister—with the greatest deference—is, as far as I can see, simply raising a hare, for the sake of persuading us to chase it.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

How normal would that process be, if this amendment was carried and there was a legal requirement to further biodiversity? I, too, have a number of years of local authority experience, although never as exalted as in a county council, unlike my noble friend or the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. What difference would it make? It would mean that the biodiversity argument would win on every occasion—or most occasions. If it would not, what is wrong with the "have regard" in the present law?

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I will give an example of how it would make a specific difference. 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.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

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.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

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.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

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?

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

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.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

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 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.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative 10:15 pm, 8th February 2006

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.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

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.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

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 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.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

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:

"The Government provide funding to the . . . NERC . . . to support research and related postgraduate training in environmental sciences in the UK".—[Hansard, 18/1/06; col. WA108.]

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.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

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,

"restoring or enhancing a population or habitat".

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.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

The Minister made it clear that he was going to disappoint us. This is obviously not—I repeat not—the equivalent of the Latin American diplomat in the margins of whose speech appeared the words, "Weak point: shout". The Minister was robust in his reply. More significant, perhaps, was the mild problem that he seemed to be having controlling his papers. I did not say that the Government or public authorities are not doing anything about biodiversity. Indeed, I paid tribute to what is being done.

The Minister himself said that 67 per cent of local authorities do not at present have questions relating to biodiversity in their planning procedures. That is an index of present attitudes. The Minister implied that, under the Bill, everything that can be done will be done, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Judd, implied on the related subject of global warming that everything that can be done is not being done. As my noble friend Lord Peel generously implied, our task is to expand what mankind can do. Human groups change their behaviour when those leading them want them to change. The Minister must forgive us if we wonder whether the Government really want to change us.

I realise that it is late at night. The Minister is necessarily operating under greater fatigue than I am. Of course, I shall allow for that when I reread in the morning what he said this evening. I dare say that he will reread it, too. Any body under judicial review has simply to prove that, before taking action or making decisions, it thought about the words of the Bill. I am not myself a lawyer, but my brother is.

I close by saying that the issue seems to have caught the interest of the Committee without the Minister being able immediately to extinguish the fire. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 278 and 279 not moved.]

Clause 40 agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes past ten o'clock.