My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
"organisms and types of habitat . . . of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity".
When we consider biodiversity or ecosystems, it is hard to see that any one part is unnecessary and therefore not of principal importance. For example, the small organism at the bottom of the food chain, which may not in the opinion of the Secretary of State be of principal importance, still plays its part. Meanwhile the animal at the top of the food chain, sometimes ourselves or perhaps the big raptors or cats and similar types of creature, depends on the chain holding all the way through. So where this clause refers to "principal importance", I believe it is simply wrong, because everything must be considered to be of equal importance in creating the food chain and contributing to the ecosystem.
I take by way of example what it takes to create a fertile soil in woodland. The soil is created by the action of small insects such as ants breaking down leaf matter. Does the Secretary of State consider ants in woodland to be of principal importance? So the word "principal" as it is used in this clause demonstrates that the Government are not thinking correctly about the lists they intend to draw up. On habitats, surely we have lists of principal importance in the SSSIs and in all the European designations of habitats that are already in place. I wonder whether the energy and expense put into drawing up further lists is energy and expense well used.
In conclusion, I return to a matter that we have discussed previously in Committee. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is to suffer a drastic across-the-board cut for exactly this type of work—maintaining lists and building databases. As I understand it, that is exactly the sort of record-keeping that the Government are now proposing to introduce in Clause 41, except that, in the past, the work recognised the wholeness of the ecosystem and the wholeness of biodiversity. Work was done to build very broad databases and in-depth studies were carried out on particular species. This clause, as drafted, takes away that ability and makes us concentrate solely on points that the Secretary of State regards as of "principal importance". I believe that that is entirely the wrong way of thinking. I shall be interested to hear the Minister explain why there is such wording in the Bill. I beg to move.
I have much sympathy with this amendment. The clause as drafted is a typical example of the Government over-gilding their legislation. As a young, novice farmer I well remember the introduction of hormone weedkillers. They were introduced to kill extremely common, pernicious weeds which grew then in all cereal crops. Those weeds were also hosts to many insects which were the main food for a variety of wild animals. The English partridge, in particular, comes to mind. Effectively, within five years of the introduction of hormone weedkillers, it disappeared in this country.
We cannot foretell the future, but what is sure is that none of the weeds killed by those hormone weedkillers would ever have appeared on a list of "principal importance" as put forward in this clause. They were just extremely common, pernicious weeds. The fact is that technology moved on and we found a way of ridding our fields of a particularly difficult problem in relation to agricultural production, a side effect of which was that a bird that had previously been common across most of the countryside effectively disappeared. The word "principal" is, in my view, completely superfluous. The noble Baroness is right to table the amendment and I believe the Government need to consider the position very carefully.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. I am not sure that I fully support the principle of the amendment. If the word "principal" is removed, there is then the question of what is or is not included and so lists will be never ending. I realise that the Government have a problem here.
Clause 41 states that,
Will the research work mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, at Monks Wood and at other centres be included in the contribution that is made before the Secretary of State makes a decision? If the Secretary of State does not like the recommendations that come from those two places, will they be totally ignored?
Another question concerns these wonderful centres that the Government are no longer willing to fund. My honourable friend Peter Ainsworth and another colleague visited Monks Wood recently and were shown the valuable work that is undertaken there. When Natural England is set up as an independent body, will it be possible for it to give money to Monks Wood and the other centres that Defra is proposing to close?
Clause 41 replaces and reflects what is in subsections (2) to (5) of Section 75 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and places a duty on the Secretary of State to publish, review and revise lists of living organisms and types of habitat in England that in her opinion are of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity. The amendment seeks to extend those lists to include all living organisms and habitats that are of importance to the conservation of biodiversity. If we are to conserve and protect our biodiversity effectively, it is vital that we direct action to the habitats and species that need help most. The Government are committed to having regard to all biodiversity as outlined in Clause 40, and we will continue to take that commitment seriously. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, recognised, we also need to be able to target total action, including the issues of the food chain for endangered species, specifically on those species and habitats that are a particular priority for conservation of biodiversity. We are also committed to halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010.
We must target action. For that reason we published a list of species and habitats that are of principal importance under Section 74 of the CROW Act and focused attention on those species and habitats as a result. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will recognise, that has contributed to the successes of many species and habitats such as those for the bittern, the field cricket, otters and cereal field Martians—sorry, cereal field margins—and the English partridge. I apologise; I do not think we are protecting Martians at the moment. We continue to take action to benefit those widespread species and habitats for which targeted action is not sufficient. A new planning policy statement on biodiversity and geological conservation, a new policy on ancient and native woodland and a substantial increase in investment in water and wetland management for wildlife are part of the third annual stocktake of progress. We will continue to build on that.
I do not wish to enter the debate on the future of CEH, which has been brought up before. I should like to write to noble Lords on that matter at this stage. The priority species and habitats are those identified as of principal importance in the list whose publication is required by the Bill. The amendment would still require lists of important living organisms and habitats to be published, so I am not quite clear what the noble Baroness is seeking to achieve. We prefer to specify that they comprise those organisms and habitats that are of principal importance to the conservation of biodiversity, but take fully into account the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and both noble Baronesses, that, with regard to some species, that may include the whole food chain, because it is obviously impossible to protect a particular creature if you are going to kill off all its natural food. The Secretary of State must have regard to the advice she is given about this. I hope I have covered all the points. On the CEH, I shall to write to the noble Baroness.
The Minister has given a very good explanation of the reasons for government action to try to improve biodiversity. What we are arguing about here is the use of a particular word in a particular clause in a particular way. The truth is that we really do not know, in intimate detail, enough about what makes biodiversity work. There are a whole host of relationships wrapped up in it, which could be argued to be competitive or symbiotic. The truth is that it is a combination of such relationships. The use here of the word "principal" implies that one can be selective within that. Of course there are things that can be done to improve biodiversity; essentially, this is a programme of restoring areas of uncultivated bits of ground, which have not been interfered with.
The difficulty with this whole area is the interference introduced by man. We are not doing specific things with specific species; we are providing opportunities for nature to take over again, in a limited way, in particular areas. This may take the form of field margins, or what I would call "bug strips" across the middle of very large fields. These are areas where we are permitting nature to take over again. What happens in those areas will be nothing to do with the Secretary of State or indeed any official of Defra. It will be a matter of good fortune as nature claws its way back into the countryside. You can do that without this sort of wording. That is the problem I have with the clause.
I listened with great interest to what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, and I have a great deal of sympathy with it. However, I think the idea that nature itself is simply going to come good, without man's interference, is perhaps a little optimistic. I speak in my capacity as president of the Game Conservancy Trust, which has probably done more than any other organisation to restore habitats, not just for game birds, but for a whole range of other species. Indeed, the beetle banks and conservation headlands derive from the work of the Game Conservancy Trust. I acknowledge that nature plays a big part, but it is the interface between man and nature, and prescribed management systems, that have led to the success we are having at the moment with the restoration of wild flowers, weeds and insects generating the sort of biodiversity response we want. I am simply saying that it is not down to nature alone: it is the interface between man and nature.
I agree with almost everything that every noble Lord has said in this short debate. I think we are into a question of semantics, in the context of focusing attention on a particular area, and whether we have the right wording to achieve the end.
Will the Minister say in writing—which I think she suggested that she would do—whether there is a methodology for measuring biodiversity used by Defra, if so what it is, and whether we can have a look at it? As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, biodiversity operates at many different levels—at a national level, in a piece of ground of 1.5 hectares or even in a garden. Without some methodology for measuring what is happening, I am not sure that we shall get very far with biodiversity.
I thank Members of the Committee who have spoken. This has been an illuminating debate, as was the Minister's reply. I thank especially the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for his contribution. The Minister referred to habitats most under threat and to those that need targeted action. However, that is not mentioned in the clause, which includes the words, "principal importance". Although the Minister says that this is a question of semantics, in the light of the threat to the CEH it is extremely important to get the emphasis right in the clause. If the Government are narrowing the area of work, the Committee will want to concentrate on that. I await with great interest the Minister's letter about the CEH. I hope that it will reach us before Report.
The intention is not to narrow down but to continue to focus work in the areas of priority—not to change to a further diminution but to ensure that we continue to build on the success of focused action plans.
I shall bear that reassurance and the comment of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, in mind. I shall read the Minister's reply and consider whether, in the light of the information that Defra currently amasses, I want to return to the matter on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 282:
Page 16, line 22, at beginning insert "Having obtained a search warrant from a court,"
In moving Amendment No. 282 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 288.
Clause 43 makes it crystal clear that pesticides declared by the Secretary of State to be harmful to wildlife will not necessarily be illegal in any other context. Hence an inspector entering premises in search of those pesticides will, in effect, be saying, "I believe these prescribed substances are within these premises and I believe they are being used against wildlife".
Under the terms of Clause 43 it will not be legal for an inspector to enter premises in search of these prescribed substances unless he believes they are being used illegally. There is a world of difference between an inspector entering, say, a farm and demanding to search a barn because he is seeking illegal pesticides, for instance, alfa chlorose—and a barn would be quite a good place to find some if any were present in the area—and that same inspector entering the farm and demanding access to all the land and buildings because he believes that certain pesticides are present and are or have been used against wildlife. In effect the burden of proof will not be possession, it will be usage. The purpose of the search is necessarily linked to the usage charge. We believe that in those circumstances possession of a search warrant is a minimum requirement.
In another place my honourable friend James Paice raised the question of a six-month delay in implementation to deal with publicity. How do the Government propose to publicise the changes that this clause will make to the keeping of particular pesticides, not just by gamekeepers but by members of the general public? As this Bill stands, under Amendment No. 288 the Secretary of State may list pesticides which are harmful to wildlife, and that no one may have in their possession until he can prove that he has it in connection with one or more specified purposes. Any person authorised by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales is to be classed as an inspector and will have the right to enter any premises, which means the same as all premises, to seek out listed pesticides.
We have seen many Defra Bills, but I cannot recall one where the definition of "premises" did not exclude private dwellings. In fact, Schedule 5 to this very Bill—on page 58, which deals with group 1 offences, and on page 59, which deals with group 2 offences—contains the words:
"Nothing in this section confers power to enter a dwelling", and,
"paragraph (c) does not confer any power to enter a dwelling".
This exclusion should extend in the Bill to the definition of premises for the purposes of Clause 44.
"If it is a door to a dwelling, they must have a warrant from a justice of the peace, but if it is a gate to premises, such as to land or to a shed, they can go in and inspect".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 28/6/05; col. 187.]
As the Minister stated that in Committee, I am surprised that the Bill as it stands does not clarify the situation for private dwellings.
When opening the debate on Clause 48 in another place, my honourable friend Jim Paice said:
"I make it absolutely clear that the Opposition condemn anybody who uses poison to kill birds of any species . . . It is already an offence to set poison for a bird and has been for 24 years".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 28/6/05; col. 162.]
The Minister will not be surprised when I express our concerns that Clause 43 as it stands reverses the burden of proof. In this instance, a person is guilty of an offence if he has in his possession a pesticide containing an ingredient that is prescribed for the purposes of this section. The onus is clearly on the individual to prove that he had just cause to have this particular pesticide and to justify its intended use.
We are grateful to the Minister for the other government amendments in this group, Amendments Nos. 283 to 285. They are a welcome response to some of the concerns expressed in another place and by outside organisations. However, we still feel that, at the very least, a search warrant should be sought before entering premises is undertaken. I beg to move.
Before speaking to Amendment No. 285A, which is in this group, I should like to say to the Minister that I have withdrawn Amendments Nos. 281, 286, 287 and 289. I did so because we were satisfied and grateful for Amendment No. 283, which the Minister has introduced. I should like to add that I entirely endorse what my noble friend has just said about this clause. There are real difficulties here that the Government will have to address.
My Amendment No. 285A deals with the very wide-ranging new powers that the Bill gives to pesticide inspectors. It is important—indeed, essential—that the inspectors carry out their duties with great diligence and proper consideration. The National Farmers Union—and I declare an interest as a member of that body—rightly pointed out in its brief:
"We are concerned that the person who legitimately has a prescribed pesticide may be treated unfairly and penalised."
Therefore, it is essential that,
"the interests of legitimate users of pesticides are respected".
That point is extremely well made. Amendment No. 285A would ensure that such an inspector must have regard to any relevant code of practice. I welcome government Amendment No. 283 and the subsequent amendments, but they do not go far enough; it would be extremely helpful if the code of practice could be adhered to in the Bill.
I shall raise one other issue. Given that the Government have stated in the Explanatory Notes that they intend to publicise the pesticides that are to be included on the precluded list, could that list be circulated to the relevant representative organisations and notices placed in the appropriate press in addition to it being made available on the Defra website? I ask the noble Lord to consider that, as it would be extremely helpful.
We concur with some of the concerns raised, and we look forward to hearing from the Government.
"A person is guilty of an offence if he has in his possession a pesticide containing an ingredient that is prescribed for the purposes of this section by an order made by the Secretary of State".
Do the Government mean "prescribed" as in what a doctor does when he prescribes medicine for you, or do they mean "proscribed"—which I think is what it ought to be—which is when you forbid the use of something?
Up until a moment ago I thought that I had the answer to this group of amendments, but the last contribution by the noble Lady has slightly shaken me. Perhaps I will come back to that in due course, but I have a nasty feeling that she is right.
I shall first deal with this important group of amendments. Clause 44, which deals with the powers available to inspectors when investigating the possession offence in Clause 43—which is important—appears to have caused a fair amount of concern throughout its passage through Parliament, as the noble Duke mentioned, much of which we believe to be based on comparisons between this offence under Clause 43 and welfare offences under Defra's Animal Welfare Bill. Such comparisons are flawed and are not comparing like with like. However, the Government have recognised the overall strength of feeling on this matter, and we have tabled three amendments in an endeavour to go as far as we believe sensible to enshrine safeguards. I will speak to those amendments in a moment, but I will first address the three related non-government amendments to this clause, Amendments Nos. 282, 285A and 288.
Amendment No. 282 seeks to restrict the powers of entry available to inspectors when they are investigating the offence of possessing a proscribed pesticide—the Clause 43 offence—by requiring them to have obtained a warrant from a justice of the peace. Let me make it absolutely clear that inspectors acting under this clause do not have powers of entry into private dwellings without first having obtained a warrant from a justice of the peace. By virtue of Clause 44(4), paragraph 7 of Schedule 2 to the Food and Environment Protection Act—I admit that is not the easiest reference in the world—that applies to inspectors enforcing this offence as it does to inspectors operating under Part 3 of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. Paragraph 7 states:
"An officer may only enter a dwelling for the purpose of performing his functions . . . if a justice has issued a warrant authorising him to enter and search that dwelling".
It goes on to list the circumstances in which a justice may issue such a warrant; namely, where an inspector has reasonable grounds for believing that there is present in the dwelling anything to which his functions relate and either it is not practicable to communicate with any person entitled to grant entry to the dwelling, or such a person has unreasonably refused entry, or such a person is unlikely to grant it unless a warrant is produced, or the purpose of entry may be frustrated or seriously prejudiced unless an officer arriving at the dwelling cannot obtain immediate access to it.
It would in our view be inappropriate to seek to restrict inspectors' powers of inspection to an even greater degree by requiring them to obtain a warrant before they can enter any premises. "Dwelling houses", yes of course; but we think that "any premises" goes too far. Pesticide inspectors carrying out enforcement activities under their existing powers under the FEPA are already allowed entry to land—other than private dwellings—without the need for a warrant. The purpose of the current power is to check that storage and use of pesticides are in compliance with Defra's Pesticides Safety Directorate approvals. Therefore, we fail to see why this offence should be treated any differently from other pesticides offences in this regard.
Amendment No. 285A seeks to introduce a provision for inspectors to have regard to any relevant codes of practice issued by the Secretary of State when exercising their powers. I have thought long and hard about what could possibly justify the power that we were going to take upon ourselves in regard to that. The noble Earl is, in my view, absolutely right. As the wording of his amendment may not be perfect, I invite him to withdraw his amendment today and we will come back on Report with, we hope, agreed wording. He seems to have a good point when he says that, if there is a code of practice, which there is, inspectors should have regard to it. I hope he will accept that we agree with his commonsensical attitude to that.
We will meet this point again a little later on. I will take the same attitude to it then as I do now.
Amendment No. 288 would amend the entry powers available to inspectors via a different route from that taken by Amendment No. 282. It does so by amending the definition of "premises" in Clause 45. At present, the definition reads:
"'Premises' include land (including buildings), movable structures, vehicles, vessels, aircraft and other means of transport".
The amendment would add the caveat that "premises" excludes private dwellings. The legal effect would be to exclude the power to enter dwellings altogether, even under warrant. Noble Lords will appreciate that I have already made it clear that, in relation to this offence, an inspector should not be able to enter a person's home without having obtained a warrant from a court, and there are quite extensive constraints on the circumstances in which an inspector can obtain such a warrant. I think that the Committee will agree that that is right and proper.
The intention behind Amendment No. 288 might, however, be to go further than I have already stated. Its legal effect would be to exclude the right to enter private dwellings altogether—that is, with or without a warrant. I am sure that that is not what is intended, as a wrongdoer would only have to keep pesticides in his house in order to escape detection. No one wants that to be the case for a moment, but we believe that that would be the effect of Amendment No. 288.
Clause 44 as it stands contains sufficient safeguards to make this amendment unnecessary. I appreciate the positive motive behind the amendment, but its actual effect would go further than it would be appropriate to accept. However, we are sympathetic to the concerns expressed by noble Lords about the rights of the individual who might face investigation for a pesticide possession offence. As we said in another place, inspectors' powers would be looked at carefully over the Recess. That further consideration has now resulted in the introduction of the three government amendments referred to. These amendments clarify the powers available to inspectors who are investigating pesticide possession offences under Clause 43. They introduce a condition of reasonable suspicion, remove a power to require a statement of truth, and clarify the rights of the person in the event that a substance is seized from the premises. The amendments ensure an appropriate balance between the powers of the inspectors and an individual's civil rights.
Amendment No. 283 seeks to rule out from the Bill the possibility of speculative visits. A great deal of effort has been expended in finding a form of words which achieves the right balance between protecting the individual's rights and not constraining inspectors to such a degree that they could not enter unless they believed that a prescribed pesticide would be found on a particular premises. For example, we do not want to prevent inspectors entering where a poisoned bait has been found at or near several properties where pesticides are likely to be used, and it was not certain on which of those properties the pesticide would be found.
With the amendment, subsection (1) would read:
"An inspector may . . . enter any premises if he has reasonable grounds to suspect that he may find there evidence that an offence is being committed under section 43".
An inspector could therefore be challenged to justify his grounds for suspicion. It should also be borne in mind that any inspectors who investigate a suspected pesticide offence will be operating according to a publicly available code of practice, setting out how inspectors should conduct themselves, and giving details of how to complain should anyone be unhappy with the inspection. I hope that Amendment No. 283, together with a code of practice along the lines of the draft which I am told has recently been lodged in the Library, will go some way towards reassuring Members of the Committee who are anxious about the possibility that landowners may be subject to harassment or unwarranted random visits.
We have looked closely at the powers available to an inspector once he is on the premises. All the powers in Schedule 2 to FEPA have been scrutinised carefully to see whether any parts could be disapplied with respect to the Clause 43 pesticides offence. As a result of that further scrutiny, Amendment No. 284 removes the ability to require a statement of truth when questioning people about substances found on their premises. I accept that this power is not required, bearing in mind the power to require information already in Clause 44(1)(b). In addition, our existing pesticide inspectors, who act under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, have commented that in practice the power to require statements of truth is not commonly used. It was therefore decided that this power could usefully be removed.
Amendment No. 285 introduces three new subsections which clarify the rights of the person in the event that a substance is seized from his premises as evidence of an offence under Clause 43, by setting out the procedure relating to its retention. This will ensure that property rights are not eroded by the investigation process. A person may make a claim to have the seized substance returned by, for example, providing evidence that he has a defence under Clause 43(3).
The time frame set out in these subsections would allow for a substance to be tested to ascertain whether it contains a proscribed pesticide. If prosecution proceedings are subsequently pursued, the substance may be retained for up to 28 days after the court has determined the outcome. If proceedings are not pursued and a claim for the substances' return is not received, they may be retained for up to 28 days after the time for bringing such proceedings has expired, and then destroyed or otherwise disposed of. Of course we appreciate the concerns over individual rights that lie behind all the non-government amendments in the group but, as a result of the further changes that we are endeavouring to introduce today, these concerns should by and large be allayed. I am grateful to the noble Earl for his thanks. In due course, I shall move the government amendments.
I was asked about the time scale generally by the noble Duke, in terms of the list of pesticides to be prescribed. I am advised that "prescribed" is the right expression. The noble Viscount, who sits in his place on the Cross Benches with much experience, nods his head; I am delighted to have to tell the noble Lady that, on this occasion, she is wrong. I thought that she was right for a moment, I have to say.
The Secretary of State may prescribe pesticides only if she is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do so in the interests of protecting wild birds or wild animals from harm. However, no pesticides will be banned by the Bill itself. When it is enacted, a power will be provided for the Secretary of State to make an order when the prescribed pesticide ingredients will be listed. A full consultation will be carried out before any pesticide ingredient is listed on any order, and it is likely to be nine to 12 months before it comes into place. I think the noble Duke was particularly interested in that.
It is not considered appropriate to ban the possession of all pesticides for obvious reasons. Given the wide-reaching penalties available for that offence, it would be disproportionate to widen the offence in that way. It is important that there is evidence to support the prescription of any pesticide ingredient. I think that that answers the question posed by the noble Duke.
I thank the Minister for his efforts to answer so many of our wide-ranging questions. So much happens today that many of the issues are grouped together in amendments. We are all particularly grateful that the Minister has agreed to accept the general sense of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Peel on a code of practice. We are also grateful for the government amendments moved by the Minister.
I wonder whether a few words on the face of the Bill would make the question of entry to a private dwelling clearer. I suppose one could say that the public should be aware that if anybody knocks on their door demanding entrance, they could ask to be shown a warrant. I do not know whether people are necessarily geared up on that, or whether the inspector might say, "I am not here under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act; I am quoting from the schedule of the Food and Environment Protection Act". It gets a bit complicated.
Another thing that interested me from what the Minister said is that the inspector could turn up and say, "I am checking up on the storage and use of pesticides in your premises", not on whether anybody has poisoned anything locally. There is a government guideline on the storage and use of pesticides that is open to inspection. I should declare an interest as a farmer; I store herbicides. It is possible that my wife might store pesticides for the garden. I suppose I should take the blame for that, but it is always difficult to know whether every little pot and jar has been cleared.
I am glad that we got to the bottom of the question of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, which had us considerably worried. I thank the Minister for what he has said, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendments Nos. 283 to 285:
Page 16, line 23, leave out "for the purpose of ascertaining whether" and insert "if he has reasonable grounds to suspect that he may find there evidence that"
Page 16, line 38, after "powers)" insert "other than paragraph 2A(1)(b) of that Schedule"
Page 16, line 39, at end insert—
"(5) Subsections (6) and (7) apply where an inspector seizes a substance under subsection (1)(c).
(6) The inspector must give to a person on the premises, or affix conspicuously to some object on the premises, a notice stating—
(a) what he has seized and the ground for seizing it, and
(b) the address for service for any claim for the return of the substance.
(7) The inspector—
(a) may retain the substance for so long as is reasonably necessary for the purposes of any investigation or proceedings in respect of an offence under section 43;
(b) subject to any order for forfeiture under section 43(5) or any claim made within the relevant period by a person entitled to the return of the substance, may retain the substance or, after the relevant period, destroy or otherwise dispose of it.
(8) "The relevant period" means the period ending 28 days after—
(a) any proceedings in respect of an offence under section 43 are finally determined, or
(b) if no such proceedings are brought, the time for bringing such proceedings expires."
On Question, amendments agreed to.
[Amendment No. 285A not moved.]
[Amendments Nos. 286 and 287 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Clause 44, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 45 [Interpretation]:
[Amendment No. 288 not moved.]
[Amendment No. 289 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Clause 45 agreed to.
Clause 46 [Protection for nests of certain birds which re-use their nests]:
The amendment attempts to define the meaning of the word "nest" in this part of the Bill, which refers to the 1981 Act. The birds included in the Bill that reuse their nests are the golden and white-tailed eagle and osprey. The Government have the power to extend the list, and could cover such ground-nesting birds as hen harriers or merlins. Such birds tend to return to the same area to nest, but do not necessarily use the same specific nest site. The same applies to the golden eagle. I know of one golden eagle nest in Scotland, where the birds nested for three or four years. Sometimes there is a build-up of parasites in the nest and the birds might move to another site, but it may possibly come back to the original nest site.
I can see a situation possibly arising where relatively large tracts of heather moorland—I declare an interest as somebody who owns and manages heather moorland in the north of England—could become permanently protected under the Bill, thus prohibiting large areas of heather from being burnt because of the protection of nests in that area. In reality, however, if a previous nest has been burnt out or ceased to exist for whatever reason, birds such as merlins and hen harriers will, like most other ground-nesting species, happily readjust and find a nest site nearby. It is important not to be over-restrictive, given the importance of heather burning as a key ingredient of good moor management. The amendment simply tries to bring a reasonable time limit to the restriction. I beg to move.
I speak to Amendment No. 291, which is grouped with this amendment. It simply adds the swallow to the list of birds which may well reuse their nests—or sites, in which category the swallow would be regarded under this legislation.
I have chosen the swallow in particular because, in Forts Orchard in Chilthorne Domer where I used to live, there was a pair of newly constructed houses. Both houses had swallows' nests constructed on them within a year of being built, which I thought a tremendous triumph—not least for the swallows, which were quite brave. The people in the right-hand house were delighted with the swallows moving in and, despite the swallow droppings all down the front, continued to be delighted to have such a wonderful species choosing to live on their house. The people in the left-hand house, however, felt quite differently about the swallow droppings. Despite the swallows making every effort to lay eggs and hatch their young, the occupants continued to knock down the nests as fast as they were built.
The swallow is in severe decline, for whatever reason. Perhaps the Minister will have some more information on this from her officials, as my amendment refers particularly to swallows. Going back to what we were saying about biodiversity, any bird—particularly a bird in decline—which reuses its nest in the UK should be worthy of protection. My amendment simply aims to probe the Government as to which birds are protected, which are not and why that is.
My Lords, it is important to have some guidance from the Government on the point at which a nest becomes an "ex-nest", as it were. The briefing we received, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, pointed out, says:
"The amendment seeks to address the issue of the length of time a nest can be unoccupied and still remain a nest".
The briefing goes on:
"There is no clear point at which the distinction between a nest and an ex-nest can readily be made".
When I read this, I was irresistibly reminded of the "dead parrot" sketch in "Monty Python". One can hear the occupier saying, "This nest is dead, it is kaput, it is finished, it is no longer with us". The inspector would turn around and say, "The nest is not dead; it is just unused and might be resurrected". It is extremely important, if the "five years" is correct, that the Minister spells out exactly when a nest becomes an ex-nest.
I support my noble friend's amendment. In another place there was some discussion about whether a nest was being used as a nest or whether it was no longer used as a nest and could be used again. I believe that my honourable friend Jim Paice originally suggested three years for that. We have had, as I am sure have other noble Lords, briefings from various organisations on this. The RSPB suggested that a five-year limit would be appropriate. It is not as simple as one might think on the face of it, because it is clearly an offence already for anybody to disturb a prescribed nest and take the eggs or the young ones from it. That provision exists, but it is possible for birds to move to another nest within the close vicinity and maybe vacate that nest for a time and to return to it afterwards.
I have two other points that I would like to contribute to the debate. The first is on safety. Nests are built in trees. Trees grow old, fall down or need their branches lopping. I am sure the noble Lord would not wish trees to remain unsafe and, as the Bill stands, I understand that it would not be possible for what I call "normal" health and safety precautions to be taken; the same would apply if somebody wanted to re-site a nest so that the general public could view it, which has been done already in one part of the country. It seems nonsense for the Bill to restrict that.
My third point is on land management, particularly for land managers. I highlight the difficulty with bracken clearance. The noble Baroness will remember very well—she has responded to me—our debates on the difficulty of controlling bracken, particularly in the light of the fact that nowadays we are more worried about under-grazing than we were in the past, and that there will be more bracken which will get stronger and older and become a much more serious problem.
"there appears to be uncertainty about whether bracken is carcinogenic and yet my understanding is that it is carcinogenic in three parts . . . the fronds, the spores and the roots.
There is then the issue of animals eating it and again it is known that it is poisonous to cattle and sheep and whereas, as I understand it, very young shoots do little damage, the mature plant is quite toxic".
The question was discussed in another place, although I have opened it slightly further. It is a point we would like the Baroness to clarify when she responds. We do not want to condone anybody wrecking nests. There is no question of that, but we want greater clarification. I support my noble friend.
I will deal first with the last points of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. I can work only on the basis of somebody who is not personally able to establish whether it is true that bracken causes cancer or has damaging properties in relation to people or animals. I would be grateful if any correspondence could be directed to me so that I can get the department to look at it; I wrote to those who took part in the debate at Starred Questions on that subject. I would very happily look at any further evidence.
These two amendments relate to Clause 46, which seeks to extend the protection afforded to nests of birds which reuse their nests. Amendment No. 291 seeks to add four species to the new Schedule ZA1, which lists those birds whose nests may not be taken, damaged or destroyed at any time during the year. Amendment No. 290 seeks to limit this protection to a maximum of five years.
If I can take the second amendment first, the additional species proposed for inclusion are the red-billed chough, peregrine falcon, barn owl, and swallow. All of these species are amber listed, according to the list of birds of conservation concern produced by statutory conservation agencies and the RSPB. I too would like to place on the record thanks for the information provided by the RSPB and others with a close interest. Amber listing means that the birds have unfavourable conservation status within Europe. However, there are signs that their populations within the UK are slowly increasing. Three of the species were proposed for addition to the schedule during Commons Committee and Report stages, with a further two that have now been dropped, I presume because they did not meet the basic criteria; that is, they do not reuse the same nest site each year.
The new amendment proposes the addition of the swallow species, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred, among others. While it is true that the chough, peregrine falcon and barn owl return to the same nest, and will use it if available, the fact of the matter is that if it has been damaged or destroyed, they will build a new nest nearby just as readily.
As colleagues explained during the Commons stages, these are important species and deserve to be protected, which is why it is an offence to disturb them during the breeding season. However, we do not feel that it appropriate to protect their nests all year round. That would lead to thousands of sites needing to be monitored, which is unrealistic. The swallow, on the other hand—as the noble Baroness pointed out—is slightly different. It returns to the same site each year but these sites may become less suitable if the old nests are not cleared. Old nests may be reused, if they can be rebuilt and used again; however, most are built anew each year. If the old nests cannot be cleared to make room for the new, it will become increasingly difficult for the birds to construct new nests, particularly when faced with an adjoining property where the people living there are not so happy to have the swallows as external tenants.
Clause 46 seeks to protect those very rare species that reuse their nests, and whose populations would be severely threatened if even one of the nests were destroyed outside the breeding season. That is why their nests are being readily monitored by conservation organisations. The same cannot be said of the species proposed in this amendment for addition.
Amendment No. 290 is identical to an amendment tabled in the Commons, which was withdrawn. We have no new arguments against it. We still believe it is misguided and will serve no useful purpose. As the 1981 Act stands, nests are protected only while they are in use or are being built. That means that as soon as the young chicks fledge and fly off, anyone can destroy the nest, for any reason or purpose. When the birds return the following year, the nest has gone, and their breeding success may be put at risk. Amendment No. 290 seeks to limit the protection to a period of five years from when the nest was reconstructed or last used.
Some birds—for example, eagles—can use several nests and may return to a nest even though it looks as if it has been abandoned for some time.It is important to remember that it is possible to apply for a licence under Section 16 of the 1981 Act, if there are good reasons for removing a nest which appears to be abandoned. Each application can thus be considered on its merits, balancing the likelihood of the birds' return and the impact of removing the nest with the benefits of doing so. It may prove possible to obtain a licence even before five years have passed. I do not consider the necessity of applying for a licence in such cases overly bureaucratic, because the listed birds are rare within England and Wales. Their rarity, their ecological importance, and their habit of reusing nests, are precisely why they are listed on the schedule.
There is also a practical difficulty in accepting the amendment—or, indeed, any amendment that seeks to restrict the protection to a particular period. How is it possible for an enforcement authority to know for how long a nest has been abandoned? How do we know when to start counting? Not all nests of birds listed by the new offence are observed all year round in order to obtain that information.
The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 has avoided that problem by using the term, "habitually used", but what may be habit for one species may be different for another. As I said, eagles may appear to have abandoned a nest for several years. The decision must rest on the balance between the purpose—for example, public health—and the likely impact on the breeding success of the protected species. The abandonment or otherwise of the nest is an important but not the only factor.
The noble Earl asked whether only birds listed in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can be listed in Schedule ZA1. Any species of bird that reuses its nest year after year can be so listed. The provision has been worded to apply to specific species that use their nests year after year and it is not envisaged that it would apply to species that return to a specific area but build new nests each year. I hope that the noble Earl is satisfied by that distinction. There are licensing grounds for public health and safety to remove a nest. The licensing provisions in Section 16 will apply to that new offence, as they apply to other offences in Section 1. Nests protected under those provisions will be protected in perpetuity. However, the licensing provisions of Section 16 will apply, so that licences can be sought for listed purposes for nests, once abandoned. Where Natural England or the Countryside Council for Wales is of the opinion that an area that is important for rare birds is of special interest, it will notify the area as a SSSI, bringing with it all the protection that follows.
As long as normal operation on the land surrounding a nest does not cause damage or destruction to a nest, it will not constitute an offence. However, an offence could arise from the disturbance of birds. If it can be proved that bracken is killing cattle and sheep, the owners of the animals can seek a licence to remove it.
I have given a long, detailed answer because I know that many Members of the Committee have a detailed interest in the matter. I hope that my range of reassurances will satisfy them and that the noble Earl will withdraw the amendment.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for giving such a comprehensive reply. I am bound to say that I still think that there is a degree of muddled thinking in all this, but I take some heart from the fact that she said that the restrictions would not apply to birds that returned to the same area if they do not occupy precisely the same nest sites. However, possible difficulties may arise on those lines in future, depending on whether the Government are of a mind to extend the restrictions. I realise that, at the moment, we are talking about only three specific species of birds but, as I said in moving the amendment, the list may be extended to include ground-nesting birds, where there really could be difficulties.
However, I have listened very carefully to what the noble Baroness said and, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 292:
After Clause 46, insert the following new clause—
(1) Amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (c. 69) as follows.
(2) In section 1 (protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs), in subsection (2)(a), after "any live or dead wild bird" insert "from any country of the world".
(3) In section 16 (power to grant licences), in subsection (1), paragraphs (d) to (g) are repealed."
I hope that our debate on this amendment will give us the opportunity to consider a much wider biodiversity than that of our own country. The intention behind my amendment is primarily to address the appalling situation faced by many countries that are the natural homes of such species as macaws and parrots. My amendment would ban the import of wild birds, by which I mean birds that are caught in the wild. It does not address the issue of birds that are bred in captivity and then imported, as that is a completely separate question. Perhaps I feel more strongly about this amendment than I do about any other amendment to the entire Bill. Throughout our debates on the Bill, we have talked about the importance of biodiversity and the Government creating Natural England to strengthen biodiversity in this country. Yet we continue to allow the import of wild birds, thereby devastating the biodiversity of other countries.
On the scale of devastation, about 1 million birds are legally imported into the EU every six months. Of that million, 28,500 exotic birds were imported into the UK in 2001—a year for which I have figures. By 2003, that number had grown to 83,000. These are really big figures. The temporary ban on the import of exotic birds since October 2005—a ban that was imposed because of avian flu and that is intended at the moment to last until this May on an EU-wide basis—has saved a vast number of birds from being imported. Not only are those birds caught in the wild in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica, but they are imported here and die in vast numbers on the way.
I am sure that the Minister will remember saying in our discussions on the Statements on avian flu and the investigation of the Pegasus Birds quarantine centre that the mortality rate in the black-headed caique population was notably high. In fact, it is 100 per cent, so it is not rare for birds caught in the wild to die. One in 10 might arrive alive, so not only are the jungles being devastated for the sake of this import trade, but most of the birds are dead when they arrive.
I shall not talk at all today about the illegal trade, as that is a different subject, except to say that continuing to allow the legal trade is providing a cover for the illegal trade. I remind the Minister that in the countries that have had a long-term ban on the import of caught wild birds—the United States has banned it for 14 years and Australia has banned it for 40 years—the illegal trade in wild birds has also dropped dramatically. I am sure that if the Minister took evidence from organisations in these countries such as BirdLife, which have experience of the effect of a total import ban, he would agree with me.
I felt strongly about the amendment when I tabled it, but feel even more strongly about it since last week, which I spent in Costa Rica talking to the people who are trying to protect these species. Less than 36 hours ago, I was watching the scarlet macaws flying back from their forest reserve into the mangrove swamps in the evening and saw the benefits that eco-tourism can bring to a country such as Costa Rica, which appreciates that benefit immensely. It is illegal there, as it is here, to catch any wild species at all. They appreciate that eco-tourism can bring vast benefits. Yet, everywhere, they still have posters and inspectors addressing the poaching of eggs and chicks from their nests and adult birds being caught. Why is that? It is because the EU still provides a ready market for these birds.
The Minister may say that the CITES convention addresses that issue. But an analysis, for example, of trade in grey parrots in Guinea conducted for CITES and IUCN found the species to be highly threatened by trade. The report recommended the suspension of all exports from Guinea, but the export quota remained unchanged. In many countries where CITES species are implicated, research has not been done into what is happening. We may comfort ourselves that CITES is providing control, but it is not.
The RSPB briefing, which I am sure that other noble Lords have received, says that,
"the UK imports . . . 90% of the world trade in Senegal parrots ( . . . 44,000 birds a year), but no scientific field surveys have ever been undertaken on this species. And CITES 'regulation' has done little to protect the African grey parrot, where over-exploitation . . . has led a population crash across the species range".
The situation is severe for the most exotic birds, but it is also severe for less exotic birds—small, green parakeets and so on—in the way that we discussed during the debate on the first amendment. In the countries from which these birds come, the whole chain of biodiversity is important.
It is of enormous regret to me that Lord Stratford is not here to take part in this debate. That is not only because I never had the opportunity to get to know him well, but also because he would have put the case far more eloquently than I am able to do. In November, he said:
"I believe that the current temporary ban on the import of wild birds should be made permanent. I do not see any reason why we should allow this trade to go on. It is unnecessary, abhorrent and entirely destructive. When you look at the statistics you realise how appalling they are. The European Union is the largest importer of wild caught birds in the world, responsible for 93 per cent of imports of threatened and endangered species".—[Hansard, 17/11/05; col. 1284.]
Lord Stratford put that strongly and eloquently.
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity that avian flu has given us to stop this abhorrent trade. I have not talked about the threat of importing wild birds in introducing disease, but I am of course very concerned about it. It is a primary threat to us, which is completely unnecessary when we can simply stop importing such birds. When we have debated the avian flu Statements, the Minister has said that migratory birds pose a greater threat. As we see at the moment, migratory birds often die en route or are too sick to migrate. Continuing to import wild birds is inexcusable in exposing our domestic poultry flocks to a threat.
"Between eight and 20 million exotic birds are trapped in the wild each year. Up to four out of five die before they even reach the pet shop. Labour is against their import into Britain, and supports calls for a European-wide ban on the import of wild-caught birds".
I believe that there is a precedent in taking a lead on this, whether in veterinary terms or those of biosecurity. Whatever terms are used, the Government should seek a way of making the temporary ban permanent in Britain not only because we are concerned about the health of our own poultry flocks, but also because if we can use an entire Bill to consider and debate the importance of biodiversity for our country, we should recognise its importance for other countries—many of which are doing an enormous amount to try to protect their own wildlife, only to be undermined by the EU and countries such as ours as we effectively buy out their biodiversity and their children's inheritance. I beg to move.
I declare an interest as vice-president of BirdLife International and of the RSPB. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on her passionate words against the wild bird trade and I share many of her views on the conservation arguments. The trade threatens many species, while welfare standards for the birds concerned are appalling. Indeed, it has been assessed that something in excess of 60 per cent die somewhere along the very long chain from being captured in the forests where they should be flying and being transported across the land and sea and through the air before they even reach our shores and are quarantined. A large number then die in quarantine itself. It is a wasteful trade.
For many years in my previous work with the RSPB and BirdLife International I tried hard to find a way to make this trade sustainable. I worked closely with many of the countries whose birds are taken for the European and global trade to find a means by which it could be made into a business that was both humane and could provide a living for the often poor populations living in the forests of the world. However, I have to say that we pretty much failed to find any way of establishing a sustainable trade. Many of the birds covered by the CITES regulation and about which information is available demonstrate that the taking of such birds is far from sustainable. The situation for those species not covered by the CITES regulation is completely unknown. We simply do not know what the taking of large numbers of such birds is doing to the populations within their own countries. Little evidence can be provided to support the notion that local populations should be able to make a living out of the taking of birds. Often the local trapper gets only a pittance. The money goes to the middle man and to those outside the country of origin of the bird.
This is a wasteful and inhumane trade. While for 15 years we have tried hard to make it sustainable, we have been unable to do so. The opportunity now provided by the temporary ban imposed in Europe is one that I urge the Government to grasp with both hands. They should look in the face of the wild bird traders and see the practice as unnecessary. It is true that the European market drives the trade and that if there were no market for these birds, they would not be traded. Although there would be some illegal importation, it is far easier to catch illegal imports if no cover is provided by the legal trade.
Evidence from elsewhere in the world makes this clear. In an uncharacteristically brave move, in 1992 the United States Government virtually banned the trade in wild birds by placing strong sustainability criteria on any imports. The belief at the time was that that would simply drive the trade underground and there would be much more illegal importation, particularly across the Mexican and other borders with South America. However, that simply has not been the case. The market has dried up, and while there is a limited amount of illegal trading, it is very small by comparison with what there was previously. So for once we have a model from across the pond that we would do well to consider. I hope that we can persuade the Minister, if not with this amendment but certainly with the argument, to use this opportunity to ensure that both here and in Europe the need simply to bring a halt to this trade is accepted. It feels a little like the slave trade in the past. It is inhumane, wasteful and demeaning in the modern world.
We on these Benches have great sympathy with the amendment. We shall return to it in a similar vein when we come to my noble friend's Amendment No. 293A. We also received the very good briefing from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and we thank it for that. While outlining the great damage that is done to wild birds by the import trade, the society said how it did not oppose the keeping of birds in captivity or limited imports for conservation and research purposes. In the course of today's discussion, my noble friend Lady Byford has mentioned the visit of Peter Ainsworth to Monks Wood research centre. I draw to the Government's attention the comments he made that the failure to act would pose the question of whether wildlife is safe in Labour's hands. We are very grateful that the Minister proposes to return to some of these issues.
No one can fail to be impressed by the passion with which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, moved her amendment or the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, spoke in support of it. The strength of feeling on this issue was demonstrated also by the noble Duke in his few remarks. We understand the strength of feeling on this issue in Committee and beyond. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to my noble friend Lord Stratford, whom we all miss. I remember well the way in which he spoke on this issue some months ago in this House. The noble Baroness and I can both imagine how he would have put his case today—with great passion, strength and with much wit. I have no doubt on which side of the argument he would have stood if he had been here.
I should try to explain how we see Amendment No. 292. To some extent, it is linked to Amendment No. 293A, which will be moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in due course. The amendment increases protection for wild birds in trade and amends Section 1(2) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to ban the possession of live or dead wild birds from any country of the world. It has two parts: the first is to tighten up the circumstances under which it is permissible to possess wild birds and the second is to tighten up the circumstances under which wild birds may be killed, taken or possessed under the terms of a licence.
I shall take each part in turn. The current measure contained in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it an offence to possess any wild bird which has not been lawfully taken from the wild in Europe. The amendment attempts to extend that offence so that it applies to birds from any country in the world. The amendment is, however, a little confusing to us, as it depends on the word "lawfully" which is defined in the defence found in Section 1(3) and which relates to member state legislation implementing the birds directive. As it would not be an offence under this legislation to take a bird from the wild in, for example, Africa, the defence in Section 1(3) would apply and such a bird could be lawfully possessed in England and Wales. That is a detail. It is quite clear what the noble Baroness is arguing. Indeed, she said so clearly and explicitly that the intention behind her amendment is to stop the importation of wild birds.
I should remind the Committee that powers are already available under EU legislation to enable the Secretary of State to protect exotic species from the consequences of unsustainable trade. It is neither practicable nor desirable for the Government to attempt to regulate the capture and transportation of animals within territories that fall outside their jurisdiction. We believe that it is inappropriate to use domestic legislation, which is designed to protect European and native wildlife, to protect populations of wild birds in non-EU countries.
A general prohibition on trade would raise serious practical and legal difficulties for us given our obligations under the EU treaty and as members of the World Trade Organisation. And, of course, not all birds are threatened by trade. It could be argued that it is more appropriate to protect those species that are vulnerable than to introduce a measure that is applicable to all species. The international trade in some 1,700 bird species is already strictly regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, which has been referred to.
May I press the Minister on that last statement? If I remember correctly, of the 1,700 species of birds in trade under the CITES regulations, only a very small number have had studies done of the impact of the trade on their populations in their own countries. I cannot remember the exact technical term for such a study. There is very little information about what the trade is doing for the viability of the populations of the remainder of those species.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention. I will try to find the answer for her—if not today, then shortly. CITES is implemented within the EU and, we believe, provides a necessary mechanism for protecting species against over-exploitation through unsustainable trade. There is a general view that it is one of the most important and successful international instruments for protecting global biodiversity. We do not want to adopt measures that would undermine its effectiveness. It provides the mechanism through the significant trade process for ensuring that the trade in wild-taken species is sustainable, and we heard what my noble friend Lady Young said about the sustainability or otherwise of this trade. Action has been taken in the past against those countries that fail to trade sustainably by imposing trade bans or quotas, and we will continue to support such action in the future. The European Commission also uses its powers to make regulations to prohibit the import of species for which trade is considered unsustainable, and those are updated on a regular basis.
Subsection (3) of the noble Baroness's new clause repeals four of the permitted purposes for which licences can be issued on a selective basis to control or possess wild birds, provided that there is no alternative solution and that the number of birds covered by the licence is small. Without such licences it would be impossible to control pest species such as Canada geese, which threaten collections of rare wild birds; falconers could no longer practise their ancient art; and public exhibitions or competitions involving avicultural birds would no longer be held. All those activities are allowed by the EU legislation, the EC Wild Birds Directive, implemented by the 1981 Act. The annual reporting process, required under Article 9 of the directive, allows the Commission to keep a close eye on the scale of permitted activities.
The Minister's reply is very much predicated on what happens on an EU-wide basis, but here in Britain it is a criminal offence to try to catch and cage any bird, whether a robin, a kingfisher, a sparrow or a starling. I e-mailed Defra to test this theory out. I cannot catch a bird at all to put it in a cage. Is that the case in every EU country, or are there different rules governing different countries with regard to capturing their native bird populations? If so, how does that measure up to this approach?
I do not know the answer to the noble Baroness's perfectly proper question. If I may, I will write to her in the same letter that I will write to my noble friend Lady Young when I have found out what the answer is regarding other EU member states. The arguments that have been employed so powerfully today need to be answered in written form, and I will ensure that is done before the next stage of the Bill.
I was going on to say that I am satisfied that our licensing activities are set at an appropriate level—and by "our" I mean the UK—and that they are necessary to allow traditional practices to continue in a sustainable fashion. Seriously to curtail these pastimes would be inappropriate, especially as there has been no prior consultation until this stage. Let me remind the Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, already has, that there is a ban on importing all wild birds until
In the mean time, we are arranging a meeting with key stakeholders to gauge the likely impact of such a ban. I hope the noble Baroness will take some comfort from that. We therefore feel that it would be premature to introduce any stricter measures in relation to importing wild birds, pending the development of a wider EU position on this matter. I have done my best to answer, as sympathetically as I can, the points raised by the noble Baroness. There is obviously some movement in relation to the EU meeting I have just referred to. As the noble Baroness states, this is as much an EU issue as a UK issue.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am always concerned when I am congratulated on my passion, because that usually precedes an unfavourable reply. The Minister has talked about the Secretary of State being able to do something when there is an unsustainable trade. I believe the Minister needs to take away the message that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, very powerfully pointed out—I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution—this trade is, in essence, unsustainable: there is no such thing as a sustainable trade in wild birds. The noble Baroness spoke of the fact that Bird Life International had spent some time trying to make the trade sustainable, but could not find a way of doing so.
The Minister further talked about developing countries' traditional practices, but before the EU and this country were such a burgeoning market for this trade, there was no such tradition. That is why these countries have seen the populations of their most exotic and colourful birds plummet, in some cases to zero. If the Minister had been with me to hear the case made by the Friends of Karoo National Park, who are desperately trying to reintroduce just five pairs of scarlet macaws, where previously there had been hundreds within living memory, he would understand that there is no such thing as a sustainable wild bird trade.
I fully accept that my amendment is wrong in detail. It was merely meant to start the debate. I hope that those involved, such as the RSPB, will now help me to draft something far more appropriate. I would at this point like to pay tribute to the World Parrot Trust, which has been unstinting and energetic in drawing to everybody's attention the appalling situation that exists. I shall of course withdraw the amendment because I recognise its shortcomings.
I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. It would be helpful if, when my noble friend the Minister writes about this subject, he could indicate what vehicle the Government would use if they decided to introduce a ban. We are waiting now for the EU decision. Would that then have to be done through this Bill, another Bill, or through an order?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for that very helpful suggestion. As my question during the Minister's reply indicated, I think there are different approaches to wild birds in every EU country in any case. I shall withdraw the amendment at this stage, but I mean to return to this issue on Report.
moved Amendment No. 293:
Page 18, line 23, at end insert—
"(3) In section 14 of the 1981 Act (introduction of new species etc.), for subsection (1) substitute—
"(1) Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person releases or allows to escape into the wild any animal which—
(a) is a native animal, or
(b) is a non-native animal, or
(c) is included in Part I of Schedule 9, or
(d) is a hybrid of any animal included in Part I of Schedule 9, he shall be guilty of an offence."
(4) In section 27(1) of the 1981 Act (interpretation of Part I), at the appropriate place insert—
""native" means, in relation to any plant or animal, a plant or animal the presence of which in any part of Great Britain is or would be within the past or present natural distribution of the species or sub-species in which it is taxonomically classified;
"non-native" means in relation to any plant or animal, a plant or animal the presence of which in any part of Great Britain is or would be outside the past or present natural distribution of the species or sub-species in which it is taxonomically classified, where such natural distribution includes any part of Great Britain or otherwise; and directly results from or would directly result from any action of man; and includes any hybrid of any such plant or animal.""
This amendment deals with the need for regulation of species reintroductions. I am sure we all agree that reintroduction can be a valuable conservation tool where the possibility of a species recolonising part of its natural or historic range is otherwise low, and can bring considerable benefits for conservation, community involvement and rural economies.
Clause 47 gives legal protection to birds bred in captivity and released as part of a lawful reintroduction programme. That should close a loophole in the law. Currently it seems that almost any release is lawful. The purpose of the amendment is to provide a better definition of what constitutes a lawful reintroduction programme.
If the amendment or something like it were accepted, we would expect licences to reintroduce species to be granted in only a relatively few cases where there is an obvious and significant conservation benefit such as achieving the objectives of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and facilitating movement of organisms undergoing range change indirectly caused by human activity; for example, climate change.
The object of the amendment is straightforward. Having tabled it, I was approached with some urgency by the National Gamekeepers' Organisation, the CLA and the Game Conservancy Trust which pointed out that, as drafted, the amendment is unintentionally much too wide. I say that to save the Minister telling me that when she replies. As was pointed out by the National Gamekeepers' Organisation, the amendment appears to prohibit the release of all native and non-native animals, including birds and fish, unless such release is specifically licensed. As part of their job, thousands of gamekeepers release pheasants, partridges and duck to replenish wild stocks for shooting. They also release non-target animals and birds from live capture traps set to control other species.
It is clear that the amendment as drafted is unintentionally much too wide. However, it would be helpful if the Minister commented on its purpose rather than its drafting. As I say, its purpose is to provide a better definition of what constitutes the lawful reintroduction of species into the UK. At present it appears that almost any release can be classified as lawful, but that does not mean that all releases are beneficial to other native wildlife or represent the best use of conservation, time and resources. I beg to move.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for having spelt out the inadequacies of the amendment. Clearly, as drafted, it would have a serious impact not just on game birds but also on coarse fishing. Like the noble Lord I made inquiries in connection with the amendment. One of its by-products would be that one might require a licence to release sheep on to a hill. That would cause considerable difficulties and would not be a particularly attractive proposal, but I like the idea of requiring a licence to let dogs off leads and to let cats out at night. That could be a positive by-product of the amendment. I have real sympathy with what the noble Lord proposes and the amendment could be the basis for something worth while. However, as he pointed out, as presently drafted it would be totally impractical.
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for introducing the amendment. I do not want to go over the ground that he covered but I wish to ask the Minister some questions. Will the lawful reintroduction of species into this country cover, for example, wild boars which have unfortunately been let loose and are likely to become a problem in the part of the country where they have been released? What about wild mink that were reintroduced? I believe that consideration is being given to reintroducing wolves into parts of Scotland. I do not know whether the noble Lord's amendment covers those species but we need to consider the effect of introduced species on native species and the problems that they might cause.
If I remember correctly, the noble Lord's amendment also covers plant and plant life. I have perhaps moved to another amendment—if I have to I will wait. If it is to do with plants and reintroducing species, what will happen to the garden centres and the bulb growers who obviously trade internationally and use non-native species? At the moment, however, I should like to concentrate primarily on the animal side.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, is nodding his head and I am sure that he did not mean plant life to be involved in that way. Those of us who have come across the problems of Japanese knotweed and of the crabs crawling up the Thames Estuary just recently will know that there are indeed problems around that need to be addressed. But if the amendment is going to include plants then the noble Lord or the Government need to give consideration to what happens to the proper, lawful trade that goes on in the horticultural world because I am sure that he does not want in any way to make life more difficult for them, provided those plants are approved for entry into this country.
I rise briefly to speak to this amendment. In doing so I must declare that about 18 months ago my husband worked briefly for the organisation that was thinking of reintroducing wolves into Scotland. This amendment raises some interesting issues. I am particularly glad to see social and economic well-being included in the amendment. The reintroduction of the wolf—I believe that this amendment does cover Scotland—would have required fencing off quite vast tracts. The impact on the surrounding sheep farmers besides and on the biodiversity of the area should undoubtedly be considered, quite apart from the questions of access, which are quite rightly Scottish. If this amendment does cover Scotland, there is obviously the issue of devolved matters and so on. The amendment raises some interesting issues and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
I have the strangest sensation. It is said that when one is drowning, past life emerges in front of one's eyes. My past life at the Dispatch Box has included European beaver, boar, Japanese knotweed, mink, and the problems of what to do in Scotland if things are introduced over the border. One of my senior right honourable friends got into great trouble on this question of likening a colleague to a mitten crab, so I am not going down that route.
What I can say—I hope it will come as good news to all noble Lords and to many Members of the other place—is that in response to the wide interest that has been shown as this Bill has gone through the other place and has been debated in your Lordships' House, we have decided to bring forward a consultation on detailed provisions on the control of non-native species. It is quite clearly an extremely important area and it is our intention to go out to wide consultation in the next 12 to 15 months.
In our view, a comprehensive package of legislation and policy is necessary. We have already committed ourselves to considering and developing the proposals contained within the consultation on Part 1 of the 1981 Act over the coming months. There have been a number of attempts—this is one of them and there are further amendments today—to introduce new clauses to deal with a variety of issues relating to the control of non-native species. We believe that the measures that have been proposed in amendments have raised a number of difficult issues, responsibility for which crosses between a number of government departments, and that these have to be resolved in a proportionate way.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, made clear that it is possible inadvertently to interfere with one normal, natural part of country life in attempting to solve a different problem. I am confident that the noble Earl will be pleased to take part in a consultation on how to get that right. The development of effective policy depends on securing full stakeholder engagement and support, and it would be wrong to rush into legislation because this apparently convenient opportunity has arisen. We need to take all the implications and concerns into account.
We understand the concerns that Amendment No. 293 seeks to address, and we recognise the need for legislation. One of the issues discussed in the consultation paper that I referred to on Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was the definition of native and non-native. Although the amendment seems to provide an answer to that question, there is a difficulty. It proposes that the existing Section 14(1) of that Act is substituted with a new subsection that would make it an offence for anyone to release or allow to escape into the wild any animal that is native; non-native; included in Part 1 of Schedule 9; or is a hybrid of any animal included in that schedule. That list includes almost every species on the planet. We are into that sort of difficulty.
We are most sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised, and I am pleased to say that we will conduct the fullest possible proper consultation on this issue. We share the concerns that noble Lords have referred to, and I have no doubt that they will refer to them again in further amendments covering this area. I hope that noble Lords, on calm reflection, will consider that the approach that we have decided to take will be the most effective and is one that they can fully support.
I would not have thought that a simple probing amendment would introduce wolves and Japanese knotweed to the debate. I am extremely grateful to the Minister. She said that there would be a consultation that would take between 12 and 15 months and then the Government would decide on an approach. I am sure that noble Lords have seen the correspondence in the press about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is in the other place at the moment. This is an example of where that Bill could be used, as it would be non-contentious, it is amending an existing Bill, and it has general agreement. Perhaps if that Bill becomes law it would be the best way to proceed, rather than seeking a new Bill. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 293A:
After Clause 48, insert the following new clause—
"IMPORT OF EXOTIC BIRDS
(a) the trade in that species does not constitute a threat to the conservation of that species or of any other listed species,
(b) that the method of capture used for obtaining specimens from the wild did not involve undue suffering, and
(c) that the means of transport from the place of capture into the United Kingdom shall meet criteria for welfare as may be specified by the Secretary of State.
(2) The Secretary of State may by statutory instrument subject to the negative resolution procedure extend the provisions of subsection (1) to species listed in Annex C of the Regulations.
(3) The Secretary of State may by statutory instrument subject to the affirmative resolution procedure extend the provisions of subsection (1) to any other species of bird not indigenous to the United Kingdom.
(4) In this section "exotic bird" includes any live or dead bird that is not indigenous to the United Kingdom including any egg or offspring thereof but does not include—
(a) domestic poultry, dead sport-hunted birds, dead museum specimens, dead scientific specimens, or products manufactured from such birds; or
(b) birds in the following families: Phasianidae, Numididae, Cracidae, Meleagrididae, Megapodiidae, Anatidae, Struthionidae, Rheidae, Dromaiinae, and Gruidae.
(5) Subsection (1) shall not apply to any bird where the Secretary of State is satisfied that its importation is for the purpose of—
(a) scientific research,
(b) approved breeding programmes, or
(c) zoological display.
(6) The Secretary of State may by order make such provision as may be necesary for the implementation of this section."
I apologise that the groupings on the next couple of amendments were not quite correct. I am grateful to the Minister, because we have notified him of the changes. On this occasion, I am dealing specifically with Amendment No. 293A, on the import of exotic birds. We have a series of six or seven amendments on this very important topic. I am encouraged by the Government's response to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. However, could we not have the consultation a bit quicker rather than have to wait 15 months for it? If it were possible to have it sooner, that would be better.
The aim of the amendment is threefold. First, that,
"the trade in that species does not constitute a threat to the conservation of that species or of any other listed species", secondly,
"that the method of capture used for obtaining specimens from the wild did not involve undue suffering", and thirdly,
"that the means of transport from the place of capture into the United Kingdom shall meet criteria for welfare as may be specified by the Secretary of State".
I suspect that we shall cover quite a lot of the ground from the previous amendment, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. So I shall slightly précis my comments.
Amendment No.293A looks in particular at the question of the import of exotic birds. It is tabled to address two major problems: the control of the wild bird trade and the consequential treatment of traded birds. The trade in wild exotic bird species is beset by problems. The wild bird trade is huge and CITES is unable to monitor effectively the numbers of birds taken for trade from the wild. We need only to look at the present figures. The mortality rate of caught birds is estimated to be as high as 60 per cent. Far from contributing to conservation, we believe that the trade is detrimental to it. The trade is a major conservation threat to globally threatened species—a subject on which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, spoke earlier.
As UK practice stands, the CITES lists of protected birds are appendices to the EC regulations. Those appendices then become annexes to UK regulations. Annexe A is a list of the species most threatened by the world bird trade, and Annexe D is a list of the least threatened. In order to trade within the UK, traders need only to apply for a permit—an Article 10 certificate—to trade in birds listed under Annexe A. Birds listed in Schedule 4 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 are also protected. Traders in those birds have a burden of proof to show documentary evidence that they are legally acquired. Yet birds not covered under Annexe A or Schedule 4 can be traded without restriction. The World Parrot Trust states:
"Existing regulations are only partially enforceable and consequently fail to protect the species they target. CITES' track record suggests that the regulations are not based on current scientific data, they are easily by-passed, they are only partially enforced, non-compliance is generally tolerated and sanctions are rarely implemented".
Our amendment addresses these problems of laxity in legislation. It is drafted along similar lines to the US Wild Bird Conservation Act 1992 and it would prohibit the importation of any bird under Annexe A. Subject to appropriate parliamentary procedure, it would also give the Secretary of State powers to add Annexe C, and any other species of birds not indigenous to the UK, to the list of birds prohibited to be imported. Since 1992, wild bird imports into the United States have dropped by 88 per cent. The US legislation, as we mentioned earlier, has been a real success. Far from driving that trade underground, as some might argue, both trade and the welfare of the birds have improved. The Act has been shown to benefit legitimate bird dealers by stemming the flood of wild caught birds into the American pet market. The importation of those wild birds dropped from 700,000 in the 1980s to a mere—though still far too many—80,000 in 1994.
I am grateful to three organisations: Birds First refers in its briefing to the level of mortality in the caught wild live bird trade; the RSPB also quotes 60 per cent; and figures up to 75 per cent are quoted by the Environment Agency. Parrot-like birds tend to progress from Annexe B to Annexe A-listing on CITES, since there are no effective controls on the trade in the countries in which they are trafficked. Similarly, various Amazon parrots and cockatoos have recently been transferred from B to A-listing, as they have become rarer. I would also like to thank the Bio Veterinary Group, whose members are professional investigators, biologists and consultants, for its full support of this amendment. It also highlights the drop of 88 per cent of wild birds imported into America and raises the continuing problems of the importation of wild birds.
The pet trade's creating opportunities for the release of non-native species into the environment poses a subsequent ongoing threat to indigenous wildlife, something that we did not talk about much earlier but know has been a problem. Wild bird trade carries an unnecessary animal and public health risk, something that we did touch on. Serious zoonotic infections such as avian flu should not be underestimated. Again, queries have been raised by the Animal Protection Agency; it has grave views on the Government's proposals for legalising pet markets, which will obviously contain many exotic animals. I beg to move.
I need not go on at length about the issue again, because I probably said almost everything that I need to say under my previous amendment. Clearly I support the sentiment of this amendment, but would like to add something on a subject on which the noble Baroness touched—the seemingly illogical position that the Government are taking by issuing a general licence for all bird markets. I think that that is their proposal under the Animal Welfare Bill, and it seems a backwards step. The Animal Protection Agency has briefed extensively on that.
The proposition seems to be for a far wider general licence to be issued. In the light of all that we have heard, in terms not only of welfare but of avian flu as well, that seems a particularly bizarre move at a time when the Government, through introducing such a Bill, are trying to improve the life of companion animals. Pet fairs and so on are one of the places where welfare becomes much more of an issue, and—as we learnt to our cost from foot and mouth—when animals are transported to and fro and kept in what are for them very stressful conditions, disease can be spread. I want to raise my concerns under the amendment about the licensing of pet fairs.
I look forward to debating the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned with her when the Animal Welfare Bill is debated in this House, which—who knows?—may not be that far away. It is a joy that we look forward to with eager anticipation.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for moving the amendment in the way that she did. It seeks to introduce a new clause after Clause 48—that is, between the clauses of the Bill relating to protection of birds and those relating to invasive non-native species. In response to Amendment No. 292, which was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I did my best to explain the existing controls on imports in the CITES regulations, and I shall not repeat them. In addition to seeking to ban trade in exotic birds, the amendment also contains welfare provisions relating to their capture and transportation. Everyone knows that the capture and transportation of live birds in some countries can and does lead to undue suffering, but it is not easy to regulate this by imposing conditions on importation. Ultimately, it is for the government of the exporting country to take the necessary corrective measures to regulate those activities, but I accept at once that there is a lot more that we can do to encourage such action. Her amendment would insert a series of additional measures that at best overlap, and sometimes contradict, existing measures to regulate the trade in exotic species. We believe that that would insert an additional level of complexity that would confuse both traders and administrators alike, thereby undermining the effectiveness of existing control on the trade in exotic birds.
I was mulling over the Minister's comment that it is for the exporting country to exert control, and I am trying to draw a parallel between the growing and export of, say, coca leaves and drugs and their import into this country. In drawing such a parallel, one might think it perfectly legitimate to make the import of such items entirely illegal.
As I said, there was much more that we could do. It is only stating the reality that, while the trade is allowed to continue, it is ultimately for the exporting country to take the measures to regulate those activities. That is what I hope I said earlier. That does not, of course, take away from our obligations to make it easier for the exporting country to export humanely and sensibly. But in the end it is for the exporting country to regulate if the trade continues. I remind the noble Baroness what I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in our earlier debate about the meeting that the UK is arranging with key stakeholders in Europe to try to gauge the likely impact of such a ban.
There are a number of detailed points on which we think the amendment, as drafted, is defective. I shall not go into them now as it would not be a valuable use of our precious time. I rely heavily on what I said on the earlier amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response, and am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, who shares our concerns about the legalisation of exotic birds and pet markets which the Government are considering. We shall look at that Bill with great interest when it finally comes to the House.
The Minister said that it was up to the exporting country to put its house in order.
In the last analysis I accept, but I feel that it is also the responsibility of the country where the birds arrive. The answer can come in writing, but I want to know what sort of catches or precautions the Government have to stop people bringing in exotic birds that are not looked after in the accepted manner. We need some evidence on what is currently happening. That would help enormously before we return to the Bill on Report, when we shall consider this section of amendments in greater detail. I understand that the exporting country has to get its own house in order first, but a country cannot export unless someone is receiving. We as a receiving country must have some clarification about what is happening now, and how to make better strides. I am grateful to others who spoke, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 293B:
After Clause 49, insert the following new clause—
(1) In section 22(5) of the 1981 Act (power to vary Schedules), at the end insert—
"(c) add any animals or plants to, or remove any animals or plants from Part III of that Schedule."
(2) After section 14ZB insert—
"14ZC CONTROL OF HARMFUL NON-NATIVE SPECIES
(a) is present in the wild, and
(b) is an actual or potential threat to the conservation of flora or fauna, or
(c) is an actual or potential threat to social or economic well-being, he must add it to Part III of Schedule 9.
(2) Within three months of a species being added to Part III of Schedule 9, the Secretary of State must nominate an appropriate body that within one year will produce an action plan that identifies how the species should be eradicated, controlled or contained in order to protect threatened flora, fauna, social or economic well-being.
(3) Within three months of the action plan being presented to the Secretary of State, he shall inform to Parliament of the provisions of the action plan.
(4) Pursuant to subsection (3) and in the circumstances set out in subsection (5), any person authorised in writing by the Secretary of State may, at any reasonable time and (if required to do so) upon producing evidence that he is authorised, enter any land for the purpose of controlling, containing or eradicating a species listed in Part III of Schedule 9; but nothing in this subsection shall authorise any person to enter a dwelling.
(5) The circumstances are—
(a) that the Secretary of State is satisfied that the body nominated to implement an action plan to control or eradicate a species is unable to conclude, on reasonable terms, an agreement to access land in order for the control, containment or eradication to be effective,
(b) that the nominated body did enter into such an agreement as referred to in subsection (5)(a), but that the Secretary of State is satisfied that it has been breached in such a way that operations to control, contain or eradicate the invasive non-native species are rendered ineffective.
(6) A dispute about whether or not there has been a breach of the agreement for the purposes of subsection (5)(b) shall be referred to an arbitrator appointed by the Lord Chancellor.
(7) More than one person may be authorised for the time being under subsection (4) to enter any land.
(8) A person acting in the exercise of a power conferred by subsection (4) may—
(a) use a vehicle or a boat to enter the land;
(b) take a constable with him if he reasonably believes he is likely to be obstructed;
(c) take with him equipment or materials needed for the purpose for which he is exercising the power of entry.
(9) If in the exercise of a power conferred by subsection (4) a person enters land which is unoccupied or from which the occupier is temporarily absent, he must on his departure leave it as effectively secured against unauthorised entry as he found it.
(10) It is the duty of a relevant authority to compensate any person who has sustained damage as a result of—
(a) the exercise of a power conferred by subsection (4) by a person authorised to do so by that relevant authority, or
(b) the failure of a person so authorised to perform the duty imposed on him by subsection (9).
(11) For the purposes of compensation assessment, an independent arbitrator shall be appointed by the Secretary of State.
(12) Except where the damage is attributable to the fault of the person who sustained it, any dispute regarding entitlement to, or the amount of, compensation under subsection shall be referred to the arbitrator mentioned in subsection (11).""
With the leave—and for the ease—of the House, in moving Amendment No. 293B I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 293E and 293F at the same time because they all deal with the same topic. I apologise for the error; they should have been in the same group. I am particularly grateful for the support, help and briefing that I have received from many organisations. These amendments do one and the same thing—they are two possible solutions to the same problem. The fact that we have two is an indication of how important we think the problem of harmful, invasive non-native species is.
In the first instance, I will refer mainly to the grey squirrel. The American grey squirrel was introduced to the British Isles at the end of the 19th century. It has no natural predators or diseases in Europe, and has now spread throughout Europe—across Italy and towards Switzerland and the French borders. The grey squirrel is a significant environmental pest. It attacks forests, orchard trees, shrubs and woodland birds' eggs and young. We are all aware of the drastic effect it has had on our beloved red squirrel. The red squirrel has been driven out of much of the British Isles by the competition for food and habitat and the spread of the grey squirrel-carried squirrel pox virus.
There is a complex cluster of international law and conventions that goes some way to addressing the problems of the grey squirrel, but on closer inspection there are huge gaps between the rulings, conventions and directives. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species—CITES—established in 1963 to protect endangered species through the control of trade, does not offer the red squirrel protection against international trade. But the UK could apply for the red squirrel to be listed under the CITES rules, giving it greater status. Why has this not been done as a matter of course? The demise of the red squirrel has been with us for some time.
The red squirrel is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, but that only offers protection to listed species from direct harm by man. The animal's habitat is not protected in UK law. Yet, from the consultation with the European squirrel initiative—I thank Mr Roger Cook for his great help on this matter—I have learnt that, in the past, EU and UK officials have frequently said that it is not possible to add the red squirrel to the necessary annexe in EU law. In 2003, however, the Berne convention committed to improving the control of non-native species, and lists red squirrels as a protected species.
However, there is another dead-end in the protection of red squirrels. The habitat directive, which purports to turn the Berne convention into law, does not list the red squirrel as a protected species. Therefore, an EU-protected species would take precedence over a species protected only by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I am sure that that is not what is intended. The refusal to add the red squirrel to the annexe seems extraordinary given that the preamble to the EU Berne convention habitats directive states that,
"technical and scientific progress mean that it must be possible to adapt the Annexes; whereas a procedure should be established whereby the Council can amend the Annexes".
The lack of consistency in the protection of the red squirrel is a serious problem.
An even greater problem is the Government's failure to take the opportunity in this Bill to address not only this issue but other issues and the failure to listen to some of the recent international consultations. Following a meeting of the Berne group of experts on alien invasive species in Majorca in December 2005, the standing committee of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats recommended that the contracting parties,
"encourage European and national institutions to support and further fund studies into the impacts on forests, Red squirrels and other biological diversity caused by the Grey squirrel and into efficient control measures".
Amendment No. 293B is a more exhaustive amendment that makes practical suggestions on the control of the harmful non-native species. It would insert an extra part into Schedule 9, which would specifically raise the issue of harmful non-native species.
Our Amendment No. 293E would afford greater protection for the red squirrel by making provision for the control of the grey squirrel. It would add a schedule to the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, which would impose a duty to control harmful non-native species. It is an alternative way of achieving the same ends as Amendment No. 293B.
Recently the Government made an announcement about their desire to control grey squirrels. I understand that they are considering some action. A pre-announcement—and I hope that they will be able to confirm that it will happen—in the Daily Mail on
I referred earlier to the exotic Chinese mitten crab, which the Minister also referred to. A study by researchers at Newcastle University compared their invasion to that of grey squirrels. The crabs prey on native species, such as the white-clawed crayfish and salmon eggs, and can destabilise river banks by burrowing into them with their own 50 centimetre-long boreholes. It is not just me who is concerned about that. Researchers in Newcastle University have done some important work highlighting the difficulty that grey squirrels cause to the conservation of red squirrels.
I realise that red squirrels are very rare and sadly only exist in certain parts of England. I believe that that makes it all the more important that we address the issue. These amendments give me an opportunity to raise it. I beg to move.
I very much support the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Byford and I support her amendment. We had a passionate speech a while ago from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about exotic birds. I sympathise with a lot of what she said. I do not suggest for one moment that I can make such a passionate speech about the red squirrel, but I would like to because I feel just as passionately about it. I should declare an interest as having been closely involved with the European Squirrel Initiative and as a patron of a wildlife park trust, which seeks to maintain, among other species, the red squirrel in our lands.
As my noble friend has suggested, the situation in the United Kingdom with regard to the grey squirrel and its relationship with the red squirrel—indeed, with trees and with woodland birds—is worthy of a Second Reading speech, but I will try and keep my remarks as short as possible. The fact is that the Government really have done virtually nothing to try and stem the ever-expanding grey squirrel population. Frankly, unless something is done fast, the situation will result in the extermination of the red squirrel from this country.
I am aware of the policy and action document which has just been published by the Government. Perhaps it at least sheds a small degree of light at the end of a pretty dismal tunnel. We will just have to see how that manifests itself in due course.
In supporting the amendment, I would like to stress the seriousness of the situation. On the dreaded parapox virus, which is transmitted by the greys—my noble friend has already referred to it—there seems to be very little research going into trying to stem its effects. It has only recently been announced—and I think that it is a tragic indictment of the situation—that the parapox virus has now infiltrated Kielder Forest in Northumberland and Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, two of the last bastions of the red squirrel in this country. It now looks as though those two populations face the serious threat of total decline.
I simply fail to understand why the Government, English Nature or the Forestry Commission have not commissioned research on the impact of the grey squirrel in the demise of woodland bird populations. Most people whom I know associate themselves with that correlation, but research needs to be done so that we know for sure that this is indeed the problem we think it is. Most important, I simply do not understand why sufficient funding has not been made available to try and develop an effective immuno-contraception method. It is something which I know has been looked at in this country, and I believe that research is being done abroad. But the Government seem to have lost interest in the subject. Will the Minister confirm that they are at least keeping in touch with what is going on and perhaps helping with the development through government investment?
My noble friend mentioned that Britain is a signatory to a variety of international treaties, including the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, the 2004 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Berne convention. All these call on signatories to tackle the problem of invasive alien species, but as yet the Government seem to have been ducking and weaving and the grey squirrel remains at large without any serious attempts to try and control its further levels of invasion.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and I have tabled many Written Questions on the subject. I am bound to say that it is becoming increasingly clear that the Government and the various agencies have been deliberately prevaricating over the question of grey squirrel control. Unless this nettle is really grasped and urgent and drastic action is taken to reduce severely the grey squirrel population in this country, we will lose the red population completely, which I believe is totally unacceptable. So I am looking to the Minister to give a really positive response to my noble friend's amendment so that we can get a real commitment from the Government that they will finally do something to reduce seriously the impact of the grey squirrel and save the red squirrel in this country.
I simply want to say that I know my noble friend Lord Livsey would have liked to be here this afternoon to speak but he is suffering from a particularly nasty attack of bronchitis. I fear that he will not be with us tomorrow either, but he would have wanted to associate himself with the words of the noble Earl, Lord Peel. I do not propose to say anything on squirrels as I think noble Lords have done great justice to them.
I would like, however, to raise briefly the issue of ballast water. The Chinese mitten crab was cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in her introduction. Ships can release hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ballast water a year on to our shores. I believe that there are treatments available that do not affect the water because they are not chemical treatments but light treatments, which can kill any organism within that water. They work fairly quickly. Are the Government going to consider introducing a requirement that ships releasing ballast water into UK waters shall be fitted with such a device that can treat the ballast water, thereby rendering it entirely harmless to any UK wildlife?
I want to pick up the point by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, about ballast water. It is perfectly true that there are light treatments that will kill all microbial problems in water, but no light treatment that I have heard of would kill a mitten crab. Some other means of preventing such an invasion would therefore be required, although we know now that in this instance we would be closing the stable door after the horse had bolted and so we have a problem.
There is also the other oversized crab marching down or along the north coast of Russia which has already come around the corner into Norway. I have some hope on that one; I found myself slightly amused by the fact that although it was originally a Stalinist programme its control may become a capitalist success because there is a good market for that crab.
The real reason I rise to speak is to support my noble friends on red squirrels. There were red squirrels in Essex when I was a boy. I was wild enough to climb up and explore squirrel drays when I was nine or 10 years old. I never had the good fortune to tip a red squirrel out of a dray, so I cannot claim that I am the reason that they left, but they were there and a part of my childhood.
That is no longer the case. Now we have grey squirrels; I daresay that we trap them and kill them humanely whenever we can, because they are a nuisance in more ways than one and not just to red squirrels. They are the prime cause for the retreat of the red squirrels into the vastnesses in the north where even now, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Peel, they are becoming endangered by the spread of the virus that the grey squirrels carry with them. There is no doubt that the reason for the spread of the grey squirrel is that as a society we have neglected to deal with them as the invasive issue that they are. If one goes out into the London parks and watches people treating the greys almost as pets, one realises that there is a huge psychological problem in dealing with the issue because most people regard that pernicious animal as rather a sweet little thing that is rather pretty and nice and think, "Why should we worry about it?". So there is a political problem, with a small "p", over the issue because the public's approach is based on sentiment rather than on reality. The reality is that because of sentiment we are losing one of our favourite animals in the country.
While I am on my feet I should mention another invasive species that warrants merit in this context: the muntjac deer. We do not see many of them because they are on the whole secretive. They live discreetly; they tend to live singly or in pairs. They do not show themselves in the open much unless they are disturbed. But the fact is that the population of the muntjac deer is rising and one comes across them across all of southern England at the present time, up into the Midlands—it may be that they go all the way up to the north. That is another invasive species. The danger that they pose is not to another animal species but particularly to bluebell woods. We happen to have a particularly fine bluebell wood on our land and so far we have been fortunate; but the muntjac are around and we all know that they are there. Deer are becoming an increasing problem. In this case they are not invasive species: the fallow deer and the roe deer in East Anglia are now said to number somewhere towards the 300,000 mark. In my part of Essex one can go out on almost any evening in the summer and find a herd of 70, 80 or even 90 to look at—that is ordinary deer. But hidden in those ordinary deer numbers is a subversive group of muntjac deer that cause a great deal of harm to plant life in woodland and in open fields.
There is a strong case for saying that we should deal with muntjac deer as well. There is less inclination to say that they are sweet, cuddly little creatures than there is with grey squirrels. The muntjac is not exactly handsome; it is rather an ugly little beast, but it is also a pernicious pest that does a great deal of damage to plant life.
I rise to support my noble friends Lady Byford and Lord Peel and all those who have argued against that environmental pest, the grey squirrel. It seems extraordinary that we are creating a body, Natural England, to look after the wildlife of the UK. We talk about pesticides that are harmful to wildlife, the protection of birds and all the rest, yet we have done virtually nothing about that character, which has such a blackened name that he is known as an environmental pest—the grey squirrel. I have the privilege of being a caretaker of SSSIs. The one thing on which English Nature and the Forestry Commission will agree, when we talk about it, is that the grey squirrel is very damaging to the environment. In fact, it is questionable whether we could continue to have a high canopy in the SSSIs if we were not to control the grey squirrel. We control the grey squirrel by all the accepted control methods. We kill thousands of grey squirrels per year, year on year. If we were to stop for one year we would be back to square one. It is so brilliant a survivor that any control over it has to be maintained year on year.
I am glad to hear that the Government have leaked through the media that they are intending to control the grey squirrel because of songbirds, but I hope they will also consider controlling it because of the rest of the damage that it causes to our natural environment. What worries me is whether when they come forward with the controls they will say how many years they will control it for, because there seems to me no point in spending a great deal of money to control the grey squirrels one year when the next year the grey squirrel will carry on doing the damage as normal.
I also mention briefly the songbird trust: a new trust that has been set up recently that is looking into the damage grey squirrels do to songbirds. It will be particularly enlightening when its research comes forth in a year or so. I would also like to say to my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith that, while I agree with his statements, the muntjac is perhaps one of the best eating deer. I strongly suggest that the more aggressive shooting management of it might be to the enjoyment of all.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, seems to be the only person other than myself who has read about—I thought it was the Kamchatka lobster—the creature introduced by Stalin to the north of Norway which is marching down. I suggest that when it reaches a point we can have it caught by Scots, perhaps he and I can have a lobster dinner together—it sounds very appealing.
The noble Baroness asked why the red squirrel is not added to CITES. That would not give it any protection. CITES is about trade. No one is trading in red squirrels, so that does not concern it. The red squirrel is protected by being listed in Schedule 5 to the 1981 Act and it is illegal to sell any without a licence. Obviously, that is important.
The Forestry Commission will support local owners with grants where woodland owners want to take action. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, demonstrated that the species of the grey squirrel is not protected under the 1981 Act, so anyone can undertake control measures. It is listed in Schedule 9, making it an offence for it to be released into the wild. It has been subject to the provisions of the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 by the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937/478.
Recent developments in other countries, especially the United States, offer the prospect of the practical application of immuno-contraceptives, which has justified new research. Scientists from the Central Science Laboratory, Defra and the Forestry Commission will carry out research work for squirrels. They started that process in January and it will test a range of agents.
Research into immuno-contraception—did I fail to say that? I thought that the noble Earl had asked about immuno-contraceptive work, which is going on.
The amendments would not add anything to the work that the Forestry Commission has launched, setting out a future framework for control. As I said, the Forestry Commission supports partnerships and co-operative action in areas of critical threat. This subject has been raised before in your Lordships' House. There was a spate of Questions on the fate of the grey squirrel, which it was my pleasure to be able to answer. The last Question was asked about five years ago. Following that, I received a letter from a woman who was researching the history of grey and red squirrels who lived in Sheffield to ask whether I was aware that Scottish landowners launched an organisation at the beginning of the previous century whose sole aim was completely to exterminate red squirrels from Scotland and that it exterminated 60,000 of them. I introduce that just to show that I read letters sent by members of the public.
The Forestry Commission will support action. The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments was signed on
It is not that we are not taking the issue seriously. Many grey squirrels are present on land that is not owned by the Government. The Government have no power to invade people's property to exterminate grey squirrels. They are not protected if landowners wish to do so.
To clarify a point that the noble Baroness made, she said that the Forestry Commission would support action. I was rather hoping that the Forestry Commission might lead from the front and encourage people—landowners and farmers—actively to get involved in comprehensive schemes to try to eradicate the grey squirrel. Unless there is firm action by the Government and their agencies, it simply will not happen.
I support my noble friend Lord Peel. I have written to the chairman of the Forestry Commission asking him whether, in the magazine that it publishes so frequently, in telling people where they can go for recreation, it could also inform them of the pests in the forest, such as the grey squirrel, so that the general public would have a better understanding of the damage that it does. If the public perceive it as a friend, they may not have the trees and great high canopy forests that they go to see on their recreational days out.
The fact that many people try to control grey squirrels illustrates the scale of the problem. My noble friend Lord Rotherwick said that on his estates, many thousands of grey squirrels are killed every year but the fact is that, as with the rabbit, there are so many grey squirrels around that when you kill one, one immediately comes in from next door. We need a really concerted programme across a very wide area—especially in areas where one is attempting to defend red squirrels. There will not be a successful preservation scheme without a comprehensive slaughter scheme. The two must go together; otherwise, grey squirrels will continue their march northwards. It is not a simple subject.
I am very grateful to all Members of the Committee who have contributed to this important debate. I must say that I am slightly disappointed by the Minister's response. I shall deal with that specifically. My noble friend Lord Peel is quite right: the Government have launched action, but that is for the future. At this stage, I do not think that they quite understand the seriousness of the situation. The Minister says, "It is up to landowners; they can do it". As my noble friend rightly pointed out, unless there is a concerted effort, it will not address the problem.
Over the past few months, at least 16 or 17 articles in the press have debated the question of the control of grey squirrels and the demise of red squirrels. We have not fully debated this afternoon the question of how one controls grey squirrels. There are legal methods of controlling them: the Minister mentioned contraception in food, which is one way. You can trap them; you can shoot them; you can kill them in many ways.
I must tell the Minister that the general public is resistant to mass culling. It is looking for more action from the Government to ensure that research is carried on and that development of some sort of contraception is the main aim. Most of us would agree with that. It is a serious matter about which I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, would have spoken at great length.
Although the Minister says that the Government do not own many properties, the Forestry Commission owns a lot of land. The Government may say that it is at arm's length from them, but someone owns the Forestry Commission. Some of my noble friends own land that has forest or woodland on it and they will try to do what they can, but the big area where the grey squirrel is obviously an increasing threat is that of the Forestry Commission. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rotherwick for clearly defining the enormity of the problem that he faces in trying to control and land-manage his tree plantations and his difficult struggle to control grey squirrels.
As I said, I listened to the Minister with great care. I am disappointed. Before I move on, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith for raising the question of muntjac. I do not live in a very wooded area, but we have two regular visitors of muntjac to our garden and the trees around. Frankly, they are a pest. I know that research will be done, but the Government's lack of initiative, drive and action forces me to beg leave to test the opinion of the House.
In speaking to Amendment No. 293C, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 293D. This amendment would ensure that the code of practice inserted at Clause 50 is not confined merely to known non-native species. We fully support the code of practice on known non-native species, but consider that it could be extended to ensure that the effects of hybrid species and their cultivars are kept well under check. This amendment focuses on what should be included in a code of practice and not on the specific control of non-native species. For the code to cover just known non-native species effectively shuts the stable door after the horse has bolted. Non-native species should be tackled at the point of invasion.
Flora locale, an organisation which advises on the use and supply of native flora, has alerted us to a widespread problem in the seed trade. It stated:
"For the people who buy or use native plants for large-scale landscaping, forestry or ecological restoration projects, the lack of information on the native origin of plants they buy has been a significant problem. Currently, the majority of plants and seed on sale do not say where they originate from. There is also a different interpretation of terms, such as 'origin' and 'provenance' used in horticulture. This creates confusion, and makes selection of plants of appropriate origin almost impossible".
Clause 50 would not improve that situation. I understand that this may have implications for the Trade Descriptions Act and would remind noble Lords that this is a probing amendment. The amendment stands to suggest to the Minister that the code of practice, while promising, is not wide enough. The sale of non-native seed species could be detrimental to biodiversity. The code of practice should encourage the planting and establishment of indigenous species and discourage the use of non-native species, particularly in ecologically sensitive areas. To widen the code of practice along the lines of our amendment would ensure that the code is proactive and would assist the trade and the consumer to practice in the best interests of the environment.
On a lighter note, as we consider invasive species, when the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, raised slightly unintentionally the question of Martians, I had visions that we had better get this issue of non-invasive species right in case someone started quoting to us the fact that Martians would contribute to biodiversity. I beg to move.
Clause 50 provides a power for the Secretary of State to issue codes of practice relating to non-native species or to approve such codes issued by others. Amendment No. 293D seeks to remove one of the categories for which such codes may be issued. Amendment No. 293C adds an alternative.
The new category for which the Secretary of State may issue or approve a code of practice is for,
"the marketing, sale and introduction of wild bird species, hybrids and cultivars derived from hybrids, including those considered indigenous or naturalised to the British Isles as well as those considered not ordinarily resident".
The category removed by Amendment No. 293D is the species of animals and plants listed in Schedule 9. These are those species, such as the ruddy duck, or Japanese knotweed, which have become established in Great Britain and are considered to be ordinarily resident. They are listed on the schedule because of the problems that they cause in the wider environment and because we want to prevent further human introduction. These are the very species which are most likely to form the subject of a code of practice, and it would make no sense at all to prevent such codes being issued in relation to them.
Amendment No. 293C seeks to widen the scope of creatures to which the codes may relate: it specifically includes wild bird species, which already come within the term "animal" in Clause 49(3)(c), hybrids, which we already take to come within the scope of "not ordinarily resident in", and cultivars of hybrids. I assume that this is to ensure that cultivated varieties of hybrid plants are covered.
The noble Duke explained that these are probing amendments. I hope that he is reassured by my answer. There is currently no prohibition under Section 14 of the 1981 Act on planting hybrids in the wild or from causing them to grow there. That is because no hybrid plant species are currently listed in Schedule 9. We believe that our legislation is adequate for the reason that any plant, including hybrids, can be listed in Schedule 9, and Section 14 will therefore apply.
The amendment also widens the scope of Clause 50 to include those species which are considered indigenous or naturalised. Presumably, these are included so that codes may be issued in relation to species which are considered to be ordinarily resident but are not listed in Schedule 9—for example, rabbits. This really widens out the list of species for which a code may be issued, if we so wished.
Paradoxically, this amendment, while being unnecessarily detailed and wide in scope on the one hand, is too restrictive on the other. It stipulates that codes issued under the new subsection may be drawn up only in relation to the "marketing, sale and introduction" of such species; that is, by implication they may not apply to their keeping or breeding. This is far too restrictive as we would want for example to issue guidance on how to prevent accidental escapes unrelated to commercial activity.
A further restriction is that, in relation to plants, codes would be issued or approved in relation only to plant hybrids and cultivars of hybrids. It would no longer be possible to issue codes relating to pure plant species, such as Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, and so on. The current drafting of the clause is considered perfectly adequate. It has the potential to cover all non-native species which are considered to pose a threat to our native wildlife. The horticultural code of practice, published last March and launched by the Minister, Ben Bradshaw, encouraged people to buy and plant native species in preference to non-native species. The power in Clause 49 will ban the sale of certain non-native species. It is envisaged that the species to be banned will include plants known to be invasive. I note that the noble Duke said that this is a probing amendment. I have tried in my answer to cover all the points that could be raised in this context.
Where the criteria that the Minister described for plants has been put into effect in the United Kingdom, how does that work within the single European market? Do the same rules apply across the whole of Europe or do they apply simply to the UK? If so, how has the UK managed to opt out of applying the single market rules to plants?
I do not know, and unless wisdom strikes me from on high in a very few seconds, I shall not have the answer. Therefore I will write to the noble Baroness. However, it would be my understanding that we would act legally and within EU rules, so in those circumstances we must have the power to do so. I am not quite sure whether we are doing that unilaterally; it is possible that we are not. However, I shall write to her.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for going into suitable detail on many of these issues in her response. It is interesting to note that the Government reckon that the powers are already in place even if at times they are not necessarily being implemented.
I come to the debate at a slight disadvantage. Periodically we discuss matters relating to Scotland during proceedings on the Bill. I know about the hybridity problem there but I could not say whether it exists in England. In Scotland the Deer Commission has decided that sika deer are polluting the native stocks of red deer and attempts are being made to remove hybrids. I am not sure whether the hybrid problem is known in the English context and whether the Government should be addressing it. However, it may be something for the Government to think about. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
We now move into the realm of the wildlife inspectors. My amendment seeks to ensure that such inspectors would be subjected to a code of practice. When it comes to pesticides inspectors the Minister has already implied that a similar arrangement will be made, so I assume that he will carry out his commitment as far as concerns this amendment.
I hope that I made that clear earlier, but I am happy to do so again now.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I shall expand my remarks just a little because this point is worthy of discussion. For example, I think I am right in saying that there is nothing to ensure that these wildlife inspectors will be subjected to the same level of training as, say, trading standards or environmental health officers. That being the case, it enhances the argument for having a legally binding code of practice.
I want to illustrate by way of a piece of information that has come to my attention why I think this amendment is even more important. Perhaps I may draw to the Minister's attention a Scottish police wildlife crime conference which took place earlier this month. At that conference, the new head of investigations at a well-known NGO—I put it no stronger than that—put forward recommendations for future investigation into wildlife crime. Among those recommendations was included the proposal that the police should,
"utilise the expertise available from partner organisations to assist in the preparation of case files for the prosecutor".
I suggest that this is pretty sinister stuff and I know that the implications of such a proposal will not be lost on the Minister. The idea that a senior representative of an NGO should be involved in the preparation of individual case files is, to my way of thinking, alarming.
My information suggests that there is considerable suspicion that this sort of thing has happened quite a lot in the past, so it is essential that the police and all wildlife inspectors are wholly independent and impartial in their operations. I urge the Minister to accept not only that at all times they should have a statutory duty to abide by a code—I think he has agreed to that—but also to recognise that it is important that the contents of the code should cover the illustration I have just outlined for the Committee.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 295 and 296 grouped with Amendment No. 294. They would introduce a requirement for a wildlife inspector to "reasonably believe" that an offence has been committed before entering premises. With these amendments I am attempting to mirror the Government's own amendment in respect of pesticide inspectors, which I think I am right in saying was government Amendment No. 283, stating,
"if he has reasonable grounds to suspect that he may find there evidence that".
The wording in my amendment is different because it was tabled after the Government's amendment. So I hope that the Minister will respond by saying, "If we will do this for pesticide inspectors, we will do the same for wildlife inspectors". That is my hope. Reference is made in the information notes to the Bill that so-called "fishing trips" are not part of an inspector's role. Clearly they should not be, and this amendment would help to ensure that such forays do not take place.
I should point out that I have tabled two separate amendments because the Bill divides the offences into two groups: new offences under this Bill and old offences already covered in legislation. It is also important to note that none of these amendments has any implication regarding the ability of wildlife inspectors to check compliance with licence conditions. They refer only to offences. I beg to move.
I support my noble friend Lord Peel in his amendment. We are grateful to the Minister for the introduction of the code of practice which, in many ways, forms his response to the arguments put forward on
"Wildlife inspectors have never needed reasonable suspicion of an offence before exercising their enforcement provisions under the 1981 Act".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 5/6/05; col. 218.]
But now a person will be guilty unless he can prove otherwise. Does this not make Amendments Nos. 295 and 296 even more important, and surely they should be included in the Bill?
When the Minister comes to reply, I should be extremely grateful if he could say how many wildlife inspectors are now in post, what is their annual cost and whether it is proposed to engage any more than we have already? I must say that I am quite deeply sceptical about the value of such people. This is not something that ought to be increased or proliferated in any way. I apologise for not having given prior notice of these questions. If the Minister cannot reply now, perhaps he would be kind enough to write to me.
I should like to address a couple of the interesting points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and pay tribute to the work of the police in investigating wildlife crime. Every time they have a successful prosecution, it strikes me how hard it is for them to gather evidence and take it through to a successful prosecution. I recognise that a couple of years ago the Government upped the penalties, which has been helpful. Nevertheless, with all the pulls that crime has on society, it will always be the underfunded part of the work that will be carried out. Although there is underfunding, at the same time there is the willingness of the public to contribute. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, referred to large NGOs which may be willing to carry out the work. It may be easier to foresee a situation in which the NGOs are in a better position to take the sort of action to which the noble Earl referred, rather than public bodies. At the moment, I am not saying whether that is right or wrong; I am simply saying that it is a matter of funding, and before decisions are made, I think we need to think about the funding of them.
I fully appreciate the points made by the noble Baroness, but surely she would agree with me that it would be quite unacceptable for any NGO to be involved in the preparation of individual case files.
We have eminent legal opinion on these Benches, but it is not here at the moment, so off the top of my head I would have to say yes, I think it probably would be unacceptable. I am simply trying to point out that if we want wildlife crime and crime against animals in general addressed, we have to recognise that some of the work is carried out by organisations that command considerable public support through the purses of the public. I agree with the noble Earl that one has to draw a line at some point and the line needs to be drawn once one is into criminal proceedings. I am pleased that the Government have to date supported the work of the police in investigating wildlife crime and I hope that funding will continue for that. My fear is that it might not and the kind of world envisaged by the noble Earl would then become a reality. We need to be aware of that.
We have to be very sure that wildlife crime is found out and punished. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, rightly said, sometimes in this area we have not been as good as we are in other areas. These are important matters and the powers of wildlife inspectors are fairly significant and important. Of course, they have to be kept in check, which is why training is important. I say to the noble Earl that all wildlife inspectors receive appropriate training to ensure that they can carry out their duties in a professional and an effective manner. They also have continued professional development, during which all wildlife inspectors will attend appropriate training inside and outside Defra. There is also a code of practice for wildlife inspectors, which sets out how they should conduct inspections. The Secretary of State can give full assurance that officials have the appropriate expertise before they are authorised to carry out those inspections.
On Amendment No. 294, the noble Earl knows that I have conceded that wildlife inspectors should have regard to the code of conduct that will be set up. Indeed, wildlife inspectors who currently exercise powers under the 1981 Act have operated under a similar non-statutory code for a number of years and we believe that that has worked well. There is no reason to believe that wildlife inspectors, operating under the enhanced powers set out in the Bill, will behave any differently. On Report, I hope we shall find a form of words on Amendment No. 294 to satisfy the noble Earl, as we did earlier on.
On Amendments Nos. 295 and 296, it is worth pointing out that for certain offences—for example, relating to sale registration—wildlife inspectors have been able to go in without reasonable suspicion since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The enhanced powers for authorised wildlife inspectors are available for a number of necessary purposes, including in particular the purpose of ensuring that license conditions are being complied with and verifying statements that are made in the context of licence applications. The circumstances of these inspections differ from those where an offence, such as one under Clause 43 of this Bill, is suspected. Such compliance visits ensure the integrity and enhance the credibility of the licensing system. There is no requirement for inspectors to have reasonable belief in an offence to enter premises. They will not go in looking for an offence, but they will look to see whether there has been compliance with the terms of the licence. That is entirely consistent with the current wording in the 1981 Act. We do not believe that there is any justification in changing that.
I need to tell the noble Earl that the breach of a licence condition is not in itself an offence under the 1981 Act; rather the breach may mean that the person concerned cannot rely on the licence that he has obtained because he is not within the terms of it. If he cannot rely on the licence, then the original offence—that for which he obtained the licence; for example, the shooting of a bird or the disturbance of a habitat—will, of course, have been committed. We think that the powers in this Bill are appropriate and are particularly relevant to the compliance functions of wildlife inspectors.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. I shall read very carefully what he has said. I am disappointed in his reply. Perhaps there is a technical reason why a wildlife inspector should be treated differently in legislative terms from a pesticide inspector. The noble Lord tried to explain that and I shall need to read his words very carefully. I thought he rather glossed over my point about what I described as the leading NGO and the recommendations made by the investigations officer. I hope that the noble Lord will condemn outright any suggestion that the police or the wildlife inspectors will be co-operating behind the scenes with NGOs to try to secure a prosecution. It seems to me that they have to remain absolutely independent. I hope that that will be made quite clear in the code of practice. I hope that the Minister will confirm that what I have suggested should in fact be the situation.
As I understand it, there is a draft of the new code of practice in the Library. I do not have it in front of me at the moment. The noble Earl is quite right to be cautious about how these things happen. However, it is important that, if wildlife offences are committed, those who perpetrate them are brought to justice in a fair and reasonable way. There has been a thought that not all those who have committed offences of that kind have, in the past, necessarily been prosecuted or convicted. That is something that we have to bear in mind on the other side as well.
I acknowledge what the Minister says, but I put to him the same question I posed to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Surely he condemns the idea that a senior NGO investigatory officer should be involved in the preparation of individual case files. That is going way beyond their remit, and I believe that the police and the wildlife inspectors should have absolutely nothing to do with it.
I am drawing on the only other parallel I can think of at this moment: an NGO running a women's refuge might, in a case of domestic violence, gather quite a lot of evidence and help the victim. It would not be the prosecuting agency, but would simply pass the case over to the authorities at the appropriate moment. I must declare an interest as a patron of a women's refuge. I cannot see why what happens in other walks of life—such as the example I have given, which is a fairly common occurrence—should be any different for wildlife.
I come back to the point that producing a case file often requires confidential information. I would be horrified if I thought that confidential information was going to be shared between the wildlife inspectors, the police and possibly an NGO.
I understand the noble Earl's point. I want to take it away, and I will write to him with a considered view on what he says, but I am not prepared at the moment to concede his point from the Dispatch Box.
moved Amendment No. 297:
Page 62, line 39, leave out from "sample" to end of line 40 and insert "included power to take a sample from a seal (whether alive or dead) for the purpose of testing for disease"
This is a probing amendment to establish why we should legally be able to take samples from live imported destructive animals such as deer and badgers, but not from live seals. I understand there is great concern about the form of maritime flu that appears to be killing a large number of seals, and I had expected that testing for the disease would not be restricted to dead seals. I beg to move.
The amendment as drafted would allow the taking of a sample from a seal for the purpose of testing for disease. It consequently raises questions about how this proposed power would be used in relation to live seals. Wildlife inspectors do not have routine contact with live seals, and in most cases it is outside their experience. That is why the Bill contains a requirement to consult the Natural Environment Research Council about any authorisation of a wildlife inspector in the context of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. I am advised that there would be practical difficulties in capturing and confining a live seal in the environment where they live. Seals can be aggressive, and there would be associated risks to safety. It would also be necessary to anaesthetise the animal in line with common practice before a sample could be taken. Those are the reasons why the Bill as drafted specifically excludes the power to take a sample from a live seal. I am not persuaded that such a power should be made available to wildlife inspectors.
moved Amendment No. 298:
Page 63, line 20, at end insert—
12 (1) Section 19(3) of the 1981 Act (issue of search warrants for purpose of obtaining evidence of offence) applies in relation to an offence under each of the Acts mentioned in sub-paragraph (2) as it applies in relation to an offence under Part 1 of the 1981 Act.
(2) The Acts are—
(a) the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 (c. 12);
(b) the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 (c. 30);
(c) the Deer Act 1991 (c. 54);
(d) the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 (c. 51)."
This is a government amendment that seeks to extend the powers of constables to obtain warrants under Section 19(3) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to four other Acts where police currently have only very limited powers of entry; namely, the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932, the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, the Deer Act 1991 and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. The powers would allow constables, under a warrant issued by a justice of the peace, to enter and search premises for evidence where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence has been committed and that evidence may be found on those premises. These extended powers would ensure that wildlife protection legislation is complied with, and that wildlife crime could be more effectively investigated. The provisions within this amendment also provide greater consistency across the main wildlife legislation. I beg to move.
I find it a trifle curious that the further four Acts which the Minister has mentioned were presumably debated at some length in this House. We would like to hear a little more explanation of why the circumstances are now so different that he feels the power to obtain a warrant should be extended to these Acts.
The lack of current powers under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, as it was passed, is a major concern to the police when tackling crimes, particularly badger-baiting. The amendment will bring the Act into line with the provisions introduced in Scotland under an Act that I am sure the noble Duke knows well, the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. While there are provisions in the Deer Act 1991 to enter and search without a warrant, those powers do not allow entry to dwellings, nor do they allow a general search of premises to obtain evidence. We believe the amendment will close a perceived gap in the legislation, but with the safeguards associated with a requirement to obtain a warrant.
With regard to the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, the police are increasingly involved in cases relating to the shooting of seals, especially as the close season for grey and common seals in certain areas of England was extended. The 1970 Act has limited powers to search vehicles and boats. The police need wider powers. Looking around, I do not think that anyone in the Committee today was present when the Destructive Imported Animals Act became law. The police currently have powers to seize and detain any animals that are imported or are attempted to be imported in contravention of the Act, but no power to enter premises to search for such animals.
All this arose, as the noble Duke may recall, because a chief constable expressed concern about the apparent disparity between the enhanced powers proposed for wildlife inspectors in the Bill and those of constables. The view of ACPO is that the current drafting of the Bill would unintentionally shift primary responsibility for enforcing wildlife crime from the police to wildlife inspectors. This amendment—and I hope the noble Earl will be delighted to hear this—seeks to restore that balance to some extent.
Like many other noble Lords, I am sure, I listen to the wildlife programmes on Radio 4. Fortunately for me, many of them are broadcast at the weekends. A common theme in recent months has been the way that certain animals and plants are changing the habitat of native species, and, in some cases, killing them. We have had debates about striking a balance between protecting the red and the grey squirrels. The noble Lord will not be surprised that I was disappointed by the Government's response. I believe that far more relevant action is needed than is currently taking place.
In recent weeks we have also heard about the two species of crayfish, both emanating from America, that are becoming a serious, and possibly terminal, threat to our variety. That is to say nothing of the destruction they cause to riverbanks. We have for many years now faced the whole question of rhododendrons and, more recently, Japanese knotweed. As I am sure that noble Lords are aware, there are many further examples I could draw upon. The important factor in the context of this debate is that they usually start from small beginnings and then romp away. By the time the threat is appreciated, it is already out of control, or nearly so.
I cannot see a single valid reason for time-limiting the prosecution of someone who breaks the rules on importing destructive animals, or indeed any form of proscribed wildlife. If such an offence comes to light, perhaps in the course of another investigation, it should surely be prosecuted no matter what the time interval. I ask the Minister why the interval of two years has been chosen. Several Members of this House have been trying by various means to slow the illegal inflow of bushmeat, wild birds and other items dangerous to humans or animals in this country. Many questions have been asked; the replies make it clear that prosecutions of those caught in breach of those rules are rare. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" does not seem to apply to those plying illegal trades through our borders. I beg to move.
The amendment seeks to remove the upper time limit for bringing summary proceedings for offences against the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932. The Bill already extends the present requirement to bring summary proceedings for offences under the 1932 Act within six months of the commission of the offence. Under the Bill, summary proceedings must be brought within six months of the acquisition of evidence sufficient, in the prosecutor's opinion, to warrant proceedings and, in any event, within two years of the commission of the offence. This amendment would remove that two-year long-stop.
While I agree with the need to improve our ability to deal effectively with wildlife crime—indeed, I have talked about it this afternoon—and to provide a better deterrent to those seeking to commit it, we do not believe, on balance, that the proposed amendment is necessary. Its effect may be disproportionate. For example, under the amendment proceedings could be commenced for an offence committed many, many years in the past. There needs to be a proportionate time limit in commencing—and I emphasise this—summary proceedings, to ensure a realistic possibility of securing a conviction and that the evidence is reliable. We believe that the time limits set out in the Bill are proportionate and will allow the enforcement authority sufficient time to conduct investigations and gather evidence.
A further important aim in the enhanced wildlife provisions of the Bill, in Schedules 5 and 6, is to improve consistency across wildlife legislation. We believe that the current drafting of the Bill achieves this. While I obviously appreciate the positive motive behind this amendment, we think that, in this instance, we have got the balance and proportion right.
I have listened with care to what the Minister had to say. I do not mean this disrespectfully, but while we are delighted that the noble Lord is still within the brief, he is still fairly new to it. We have had discussions over many years about the need to control the illegal trade in bushmeat, for example. I could give other examples, but bushmeat is a particular case, especially when it entails the taking of animals that are becoming rare species. The success rate—or lack of it, as it currently stands—is an absolute disgrace, to be frank. I hope the Minister, when we are not in Committee, will have a chance to look back at some of our discussions on illegal bushmeat. The number of prosecutions brought is small; the success rate in prosecuting somebody and their being fined is even smaller. That is what makes me so nervous about a restriction such as the two-year time limit.
I do not know what discussions the Minister has had with the various bodies that have given evidence to the Government, or brought this sort of thing to the Government's attention, but I can assure him that it is a very unsatisfactory situation. My fear is that in restricting it to two years, an already poor conviction rate will become even poorer, and people may well not be prosecuted. I am sure that the Minister will share my concern that we should get to grips with crime in this way. It is a big illegal trade, which has been going on for many years. I know the Minister would support that. I hope that between now and Report the Minister and his colleagues will have a chance to reflect. I give way to the Minister.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I am advised that the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 does not have anything to do with the bushmeat offences, which, as the noble Baroness rightly says, have annoyed and upset people over the years.
If the mistake is mine, I can only apologise to the Committee, because I certainly did not want to go down an alley. I thought there was a definite link between the two. What I would like to do is reflect on what the Minister has said and perhaps we can have a discussion before Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
By virtue of the improvements brought about to the SSSI legislation by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, Parliament enabled the conservation bodies to remove the SSSI status of land where it was no longer appropriate for the regime to apply, for example where the interests might be lost irretrievably to lawful developments or natural changes. However, there is also the possibility that very occasionally an area of land might be included within a notified SSSI boundary that is not of special interest and never was. With advances in technology and the digitising of geographic information in place of good old paper maps, it is possible that cartographic discrepancies or errors could arise. Therefore, Amendment No. 300 removes the implication in the current provision that the power can only be used to denotify land that was at some point of special interest in its own right. It is a small facilitating amendment that avoids the need for more complex solutions, should any landowner discover that some of his land was included within a SSSI in error.
Amendment No. 301 is intended to provide clarity for the future and to further improve the legislative framework that Natural England will inherit. The SSSI legislation requires that notifications relating to the site must be served on every owner or occupier of the land in question or, in relation to certain of the requirements, affected by the notification. The relevant provisions, as significantly expanded through the CROW Act, are listed in subsection (2). This amendment introduces a saving to ensure that a SSSI notification, given after commencement, remains valid should it later be discovered that some relevant party's interests were not identified when the notification was served. It was by strong desire of Parliament, during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, that the original requirement to notify every owner and occupier of land to be made a SSSI was imposed on the conservation bodies. While nobody today would sensibly argue against the principle behind that, it is, on the face of the legislation, a tall order, despite best efforts, to identify all relevant interests, particularly on large or complex sites.
The significant enhancements to the regime introduced by the 2000 Act mean that government and their delivery bodies will be investing much of their public resources in protecting and managing these sites. As the Committee knows, we have set ourselves a challenging but admirable PSA target to bring 95 per cent of SSSI areas into favourable or recovering condition by 2010. Achieving that is also drawing down on significant commitment from private landowners, public utilities and a range of other bodies. We should therefore take steps to minimise any risks that would unreasonably undermine that. In Scotland similar action was taken in 2004 where Section 48 of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act addresses the same point. As we are now in the business of laying the foundations for Natural England to take over these responsibilities from English Nature, we have concluded that it would be right to take this opportunity to provide a similar safeguard for England and Wales.
By way of seeking a balance between the interests of owners and occupiers on the one hand and those of the public on the other the amendment would be effective only if the conservation bodies have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the requirement to serve notification on every owner or occupier is met. Where that is the case, we believe it is right to provide that the validity of the site should be preserved. Where that is not the case, the courts will determine the issue according to the circumstances. In the event of discovering a party whose existence or identity was unknown at the time of service of the notification, subsection (4) removes any doubt as to whether and at what point the notification is to be treated as served, and subsections (5) and (6) require that a copy of any notification be served on such a person once they have come to light and ensure that they will not be liable for anything done or not done prior to that point in time under the offence of carrying out damaging operations without the consent of the conservation bodies.
We believe that this reflects a pragmatic and realistic approach to the duty in the legislation, recognising both the practicalities of the task faced by the conservation bodies themselves and the importance of safeguarding the status of sites which many individuals and other bodies have managed and conserved. I beg to move.
I hope that the Minister can clarify a point on Amendment No. 301. As I understand it, the amendment applies only to notifications made by English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales from the point of commencement onwards. A great number of SSSIs have already been notified in England and Wales. Indeed, I understand that the suite of SSSIs is considered to be largely complete. There is therefore a significant body of existing sites in respect of which there may be scope to argue about the consequences of any failure to notify a relevant owner or occupier from many years ago. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point.
Government Amendments Nos. 300 and 301 seem to be practical amendments but I have one question in relation to SSSIs. Is there now any database which the public can access to see all the SSSIs in their area? Defra has developed a very sophisticated geographical information system. Can one now log on to that and see where all the SSSIs are?
I believe that the Minister said that ultimately the courts would decide the matter if a mistake had been made. I should be grateful if he would confirm that. I shall not move the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley.
I do not know the answer to the noble Baroness's question with regard to a list of SSSIs. I am advised that there is such a list. I do not know how long it is but I presume that it is fairly long. We shall put a copy of it in the Library at the earliest possible opportunity.
It would be helpful for the public and anyone concerned with these matters such as local councillors and conservation volunteers for that list to be available as part of the geographic information on the Defra website. I hope that the Minister is about to tell me that it is.
I am about to tell the noble Baroness that. It is on the website, which includes details of the SSSIs, why they are important and what the condition of the site is. The noble Baroness can log on later and find that out. I thank her for her question.
It is very much hoped that in some cases the parties would reach agreement but in the last analysis the courts could determine any issues that needed to be determined. That is why we think it is a practical way of looking at the issues which arise out of these amendments.
The noble Baroness referred briefly to Amendment No. 302. Its aim is to expand the areas over which Natural England and, in Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales, can exercise their powers to put in place management schemes and, if necessary, enforce them through the use of management notices. This goes wider than the SSSIs; outside the SSSIs. A scheme may be made for the purpose of conserving the special interest features of a SSSI, restoring them or both. While there must be consultation with the owners and occupiers of the SSSI, the final decision as to whether the scheme is necessary and what it can contain is a matter for the conservation bodies. Where an owner or occupier is not giving effect to the scheme and the SSSI features are being inadequately conserved or restored, the conservation bodies may serve a management notice on him provided they are satisfied that it is not possible to conclude a management agreement with that individual on reasonable terms. Failure to comply with the terms of the notice is a criminal offence. Additionally, the conservation bodies may carry out the work required by the notice and recover the costs from the landowner or occupier. These are all strong positive powers introduced by Parliament in 2000 to secure the conservation of SSSIs. They are currently applicable only to owners and occupiers of the SSSI—people who have had the opportunity to make representations when the SSSI was created, have had the benefit of advice and been given the list of operations likely to harm the site's features. They will also have had a say in the management of the site. As a registrable land charge, successors to these people will be aware of the SSSI nature of their acquisition.
However, we believe that the position is very different for other landowners whose land is not within the SSSI itself—they would have acquired their interests with no prior warning or expectation that such robust restrictions or management prescriptions might be later imposed on them and their business activities by the nature conservation bodies. We believe that there are more co-operative means for securing appropriate management by land owners outside the SSSIs. The Bill already provides a power in Clause 7 for entering into management agreements with any person, on any land, for anything within the broad purpose of Natural England. SSSI agreements can already be entered into with owners and occupiers of land outside an SSSI if this is necessary for the conservation of the site. Additionally, Natural England will administer the Environmental Stewardship Scheme and experience to date is that most land managers are willing to co-operate and to enter into land management agreements.
There are other factors too that will encourage or require land managers generally to raise environmental standards more widely. These include the CAP reform cross-compliance requirements and in relation to the water environment, the need to achieve the ecological standards of the Water Framework Directive. Given this continual drive towards better land management and the fact that neither English Nature, nor the Countryside Council for Wales considers such an extension to their powers is justified, I do not believe that Amendment No. 302 is necessary.
The changes would give Natural England very imposing control over adjacent and possibly even more distant land owners and occupiers. We think instead that Natural England should continue to work through positive partnerships with land managers who have no immediate interest in the land holdings containing the SSSI land as it does with the majority of those within the sites. It should work collaboratively with other regulatory advisory bodies whose functions might be better suited to some of the issues arising out of the SSSIs. That is why we do not believe that Amendment No. 302 is appropriate.
Lastly, perhaps I may reply to my noble friend Lord Carter and thank him for raising the important issue on our Amendment No. 301. This provision is indeed prospective rather than retrospective. It is an improvement to the existing regime and will apply to any notifications, including amendments to existing sites, made after the provision comes into force. It makes the position quite clear for the future. However, as my noble friend pointed out, the current amendment will not provide such a safeguard to existing sites, of which there are more than 4,000. It is also right that we do not expect this current suite of SSSIs significantly to increase in future and therefore the majority of the risks of legal challenge to validity are no doubt already inherent in the system.
One of the perhaps few advantages we have had during the Committee stage is that it has been useful to allow us to reflect further on the issue in relation to existing sites. While we consider that in the event of any challenge there would be very strong public interest arguments for maintaining the validity of a SSSI, we agree that while we have this opportunity it would be preferable expressly to deal with the situation in relation to existing sites so that they are safeguarded as future sites will be. I would of course wish to ensure that there is clarity and certainty over whether and at what point any existing missed owners or occupiers become subject to the control regime, with the aim of ensuring that the system is fair and proportionate to all SSSI landowners and occupiers.
For these reasons, careful consideration is now being given to further widening the measure if this amendment is accepted, so that it will apply to existing notifications as well as future ones. I hope that the Committee will appreciate that this raises slightly more complicated issues than the ones we are debating now. However, subject to this further consideration, may I indicate to the Committee that I hope to come back to this issue on Report. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 301:
After Clause 54, insert the following new clause—
After section 70A of the 1981 Act insert—
"70B EFFECT OF FAILURE TO SERVE CERTAIN NOTICES
(1) This section applies where the relevant conservation body—
(a) has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that, under any provision listed in subsection (2), notice is served on every owner and occupier of any land to which the notice relates, but
(b) has failed to do so.
(2) The provisions are—
(a) section 28(1) (notification of SSSI);
(b) section 28(5) (confirmation or withdrawal of notification of SSSI);
(c) section 28A(3) (notice varying notification under section 28);
(d) section 28A(5) (notice confirming or withdrawing variation of notification);
(e) section 28B(2) (notification of additional land to be included in SSSI);
(f) section 28B(7) (confirmation or withdrawal of notification);
(g) section 28C(2) (notification of enlargement of SSSI);
(h) section 28C(3) (confirmation or withdrawal of notification of enlargement);
(i) section 28D(2) (denotification);
(j) section 28D(5) (withdrawal or confirmation of denotification);
(k) section 28J(3) (notice of proposed management scheme);
(l) section 28J(8) (withdrawal or confirmation of management scheme).
(3) The validity of the notice is not affected by the failure to serve it on every owner and occupier of the land.
(4) For the purposes of sections 28 to 28Q, the time when the notice is to be treated as having been served is the time when the relevant conservation body took the last of the steps referred to in subsection (1)(a).
(5) If the relevant conservation body becomes aware of its failure to serve a notice on an owner or occupier, it must serve a copy of the notice on that owner or occupier.
(6) Nothing in subsection (3) or (4) renders the owner or occupier liable under section 28P(1) in relation to anything done or omitted to be done before the copy of the notice is served under subsection (5).
(7) "The relevant conservation body" means—
(a) in relation to land in an area in England—
(i) subject to sub-paragraph (ii), Natural England;
(ii) in relation to any time before the commencement of section 27AA, English Nature;
(b) in relation to land in an area in Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales."
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendment No. 302 not moved.]
moved Amendment No. 303:
Page 21, line 23, at end insert "after consultation with whom the agreement has been made"
"After consultation with every occupier of that land".
This has now been refined for practical purposes which were highlighted in the Standing Committee debate. The Minister said that he would expect Natural England to liaise with owners and occupiers. I am sure that he is right but we would encourage him to accept our more restrictive amendment.
The Countryside Alliance was also interested in this amendment because it would ensure that a land manager would be fully aware of any signs being placed on his land and be consulted on the issue. One of the points it made was that Clause 55 currently goes against the spirit of community conservation and the Government's commitment to working with local land management communities. The purpose of this Bill is to devolve responsibilities closer to rural people and ensure that practical integration on the ground is achieved. Failing to consult local land managers of any changes is failing to deliver on the objectives of this Bill.
Amendment No. 304 probes the parity between punishments that are on the same tariff. In Clause 54 there is an insertion into the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to the effect that anyone who does damage on a SSSI commits an offence punishable by a level 4 fine. It seems rather odd to have the same level of fine for damaging a notice. We feel that either the greater offence should have a greater fine or that the damage to a notice should have a lesser one. On balance, we feel that the latter course of action is more desirable. I beg to move.
Clause 55 provides a general power for Natural England or the Countryside Council for Wales to put up signs or notices relating to the site on land within the SSSI. They will be able to maintain the signs and remove them and it will be an offence for any other person to interfere with those signs or notices without reasonable excuse.
At present, the conservation bodies have no general power to convey information by means of signs or notices on SSSI land. Such provision as there is for using notices relates only to the formal service of notifications or documents required or authorised by the legislation.
What is the justification for this general power? English Nature's press release of June last year announced a 100 per cent increase in unlawful activities on SSSIs in the previous year, 71 per cent of this being attributable to third parties and more than 160 recorded incidents in England of damage caused to SSSIs by off-road vehicles. The provision of information in areas subject to particular pressures could therefore help raise awareness of the importance of the land, reduce or avoid harm to the sites and any need for enforcement action, and complement the efforts of owners and occupiers to manage and maintain the interests of the sites. The noble Duke's amendment seems to require prior consultation before the power could be used. A similar concern was expressed in another place.
I seek to reassure noble Lords that in the interests of good working relations we would of course expect Natural England to liaise with owners and occupiers of SSSIs if it is intended to erect signs or notices on their land. If there is a need to deter activities that are damaging the land and its special interests or to steer visitors away from sensitive areas, it would serve both their interests to take steps to alert users to the importance of the sites. These things have of course already been the subject of discussion between them. We expect the power to be used as and when there is a particular need or a useful purpose for putting up signs or notices. Natural England will of course want to be as discreet as possible so as to minimise any visual impact or unnecessary interference without compromising effectiveness. For the most part we would naturally expect signage or notices to be sited at entry points of the SSSI.
With all that in mind, a strict legal requirement to consult each time the power was to be exercised—either to put up a sign or to maintain one, especially in the case of some common land SSSIs for example—would be a completely disproportionate administrative exercise. Our view is therefore that any consultation should be left to the normal relationships and liaison with owners and occupiers.
We are not clear why the amendment refers to a person,
"with whom the agreement has been made".
Use of the power is not dependent on any agreement with the owner or occupiers of the land, neither as a simple mutual accord nor as a legally binding management agreement. We think that the wording of the amendment is faulty—that is a side issue.
Amendment No. 304 would remove the summary only offence that would deter interference with any such signs or notices. To be effective and to justify the time, effort and resources that may be involved, these signs and notices must be protected from damage or interference. The Countryside Council for Wales has experienced many cases of signs erected with the agreement of the landowner having been destroyed or damaged. We think it may be important to note that the offence is committed only if the act is intentional or reckless and without, of course, any reasonable excuse. Otherwise it would be all too simple just to remove or take down any warning notices. It is for these reasons that we invite the noble Duke to withdraw his amendment but I think he may have a query of me.
I am considerably mystified by some of the arguments put forward by the Minister. I confess to being the owner of a SSSI which was designated before devolution and presumably was part of the same legislation that we are talking about here. Under the management agreement, it was laid out that signs would be erected and the landowner agreed to the signs being erected. It sounded to me when the Minister quoted the number of signs that had been destroyed as if he was suggesting that the landowners were destroying the signs. In fact, if Natural England has the agreement of the landowner to put up a sign and the sign is destroyed, whether that is done under this legislation or through agreement with the landowner will not reduce the number of signs that are destroyed. That is vandalism by persons unknown whom we hope someone will try to find.
In some ways, this seems to be part of the whole tendency towards more heavy-footed government. At the moment, there is a possible problem with common land, but now that we are talking about the setting up of proper governing bodies for common land you would think that SSSI agreements would have a body with which they could consult about putting up notices. There might be an odd area in which the owner of the land was not known, but very soon there should at least be some body for common land in most areas. Our amendment is a halfway house, suggesting that agreement should be reached with the person with whom the SSSI has been set up. It might be a tenant; it would not necessarily be the owner. Making a blanket power that the government body can implement of its own volition without consulting anyone else is going a little too far.
Of course there is no suggestion that landowners are destroying the signs. Others are doing so, and we need the power to act when there is no agreement in place. We hope that putting up the signs may prevent some destruction, because people will realise that if they are caught they will be punished.
I hope that they would receive punishment even now if they were caught. Maybe the Minister wants to introduce some special penalty. At the moment, the fine would merely be the value of the sign, which might not be much of a deterrent. We will probably come back to this at a later date. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 305:
Before Clause 56, insert the following new clause—
"CRITERIA FOR DESIGNATING NATIONAL PARKS
(1) In section 5(2) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (c. 97) (criteria for designating National Parks), for paragraphs (a) and (b) substitute—
"(a) their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and
(b) the fact that, having regard both to their character and to their position in relation to centres of population, they afford, or could be used to promote, opportunities for open-air recreation and the understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities by the public,".
(2) Subsection (1) applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation on or after the day on which this section comes into force of orders made before that day as it applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation of orders made on or after that day."
This group of amendments is intended to reverse the recent Meyrick judgment. It serves to amend Section 5 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and its purpose is to re-establish the link, which we had always assumed to exist until Meyrick, between the purposes that national parks are expected to deliver and the criteria for choosing areas to become national parks. The Countryside Agency was nervous that the drafting could be interpreted to mean that all three of those criteria—natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage—would have to be met before land was designated. The intention, and the current practice, is that wildlife and cultural heritage considerations are factored into the natural beauty assessment rather than being free-standing tests in their own right.
As a consequence of the Countryside Agency's view, which has some merit, we have put in train a new series of amendments to deal with that point. I wrote to noble Lords earlier today, and I hope that many of them will have received the letter. If not I can only apologise. I do not intend to move Amendment No. 305 or the other government amendments in this group at Committee stage. I will return with government amendments on Report.
moved Amendment No. 306A:
After Clause 56, insert the following new clause—
"CRITERIA FOR DESIGNATING NATIONAL PARKS
(1) In section 5(2)(a) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (c. 97) (national parks) the reference to natural beauty shall be construed as requiring a high degree of relative naturalness manifested by the physical beauty of the area in question.
(2) In section 5(2)(b) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 after "afford" insert "at the present time".
(3) This section applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation on or after the day on which this section comes into force of orders made before that day as it applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation of orders made on or after that day.
(4) This section shall come into force on the day this Act receives Royal Assent."
I am grateful to the Minister. I put on record that he told me earlier today that the Government were going to withdraw their amendments because there was a technical fault with them. My Amendment No. 306A is grouped, and I explained to the Minister that I would speak to it as it seemed to me that if the Government were going to reflect on their amendments and come forward with new ones it would be of benefit to them to hear some of the views that might be expressed around the Committee in anticipation of those new amendments.
The Minister has explained why he has withdrawn his amendments at this stage and that he will be bringing new amendments forward on Report. Mr Justice Sullivan, in the case of Meyrick v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ruled that the land at Hinton Admiral Park was unsuitable, and the New Forest National Park Designation (Confirmation) Order was quashed. The Minister has indicated that the department will appeal. Even so, it seems to be at best hasty and at worst rash to push through legislation in the way that would have happened if the Minister had not decided to withdraw his amendments. Unless the amendments are changed in a major way, that will still apply. Does the noble Lord accept that this could be viewed as a case of sub judice?
Mr Justice Sullivan said:
"It must be remembered that the question is not what factors should, as a matter of good countryside planning practice in the 21st century be taken into consideration in designating a National Park, but what factors may lawfully be taken into consideration under an enactment that is now over 55 years old".
Parliament had an opportunity to change that in 1995, but did not do so. Government Amendment No. 305 rewrites the legal basis for national parks, by changing both the criteria of natural beauty and open-air recreation.
The addition of the words "wildlife and cultural heritage" overturns the High Court decision. What is meant by cultural heritage? It is not defined in this Bill or the 1949 Act. What will it cover, and who will decide what is or is not relevant? Any Secretary of State could decide that anything counted as cultural heritage and could feasibly designate any area with an old building—or in the case of the South Downs an Anglo-Saxon burial ground—as a national park. Our Amendment No. 306A would ensure that no land would be designated as a national park unless it had already achieved a high degree of "relative naturalness". We have chosen the wording that Mr Justice Sullivan used in the Meyrick case. It is a tried, tested and, at the moment, legally binding position.
As the judge said, natural beauty is a relative concept. In the case of a national park, it is an extensive tract of land that is relatively natural. That will invariably include some more managed areas that would otherwise not have been considered as meeting the national park criteria, such as, for example, Chatsworth Park in the Derbyshire Peak District National Park, which is entirely surrounded by a very extensive area of moorland. In England, we have a spectrum of wild upland areas at one end, and intensively cultivated or managed land at the other. In the judge's ruling, it was clear that the law needs to include criteria for designating national parks of a high degree of relative naturalness. In other words, national park land should be that which has been least interfered with by man. It should be the finest landscape in the country.
The next part of our amendment would ensure that any recreational potential in the possible national park land was assessed on its present potential. The Government's amendment—which has not been moved, so it is quite difficult for me; but I hope that I am still in order—redefines the criteria for open-air recreation. It enables national park designators to consider land that could be used for open-air recreation. In current legislation, open-air recreation is only a part of the national park criteria if that recreation already exists. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is meant by the fact that national parks,
"could be used to promote opportunities for open-air recreation".
I am, and speaking to it. I cannot help the fact that some of my comments will be linked to another amendment which has not been debated.
The noble Baroness knows why it has not been debated. I have explained fully to the Committee, and indeed to her by telephone this morning, why. It is absolutely a matter for her whether she chooses to speak to or move her amendment today. But she cannot blame us if she has difficulties with it.
I personally have no difficulty with this. The intervention came from the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I thought that I was quite in order. It is important that the Committee should consider the wider aspects of national parks and the reasons why we are raising them, so that when the Government bring forward another amendment, they will have had a chance to hear some of the views of other people. So I have no difficulty. I acknowledge that this morning the noble Lord kindly made contact with me. I was promised a letter, which did not arrive, although that is not his fault. So I do not think that I am wrong.
Will the Minister tell us what is meant by the fact that national parks could be used to promote opportunities for open-air recreation? Will it be quiet recreation? Or will the other activities be considered suitable under a new amendment that is put forward? I could argue, for example, that the CenterParcs holiday centres are out in the open air. But under this amendment they would fall within the new criteria. While my family has enjoyed the centres at CenterParcs—and I wholeheartedly support the ethos and the enjoyment that they provide—I have to question whether the Government's amendment, which is much more widely defined, would be appropriate. It would certainly take it further away from that.
The Companion clearly states that the debate should be relevant to the Question before the House. The noble Baroness has just referred again to an amendment which has not been moved. The Question before the House is Amendment No.306A, her amendment, and that is the amendment that she should speak to.
May I make some objection to the continual intervention on this point of the noble Lord, Lord Carter? If the Government are going to come back later, on Report, with amendments that we will not have the chance to discuss in Committee, it is perfectly reasonable to have as full a debate as we can now on the noble Baroness's amendment. She is quite entitled to compare the wording in her amendment with a hypothetical wording which the Government may still be inclined to use. Although the noble Lord, Lord Carter, shakes his head, and I am aware it is nearly the dinner hour, it is important to get the wording of this absolutely correct. In saying that, I do not support the wording of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, either.
At this stage, having got to that point, I would like to formally move the amendment. Others can then comment on it and I can come back at a further stage. I beg to move.
I should at this stage remind the Committee that I am an active vice-president of the Council for National Parks. I am also president of the Friends of the Lake District, which is not only a constituent member of the Council for National Parks, but also represents CPRE in Cumbria. I must say to the Minister that I have not received a letter.
I apologise very much to the Committee that the letter has not arrived. I made sure that it was sent out early this morning from my office. I really should have hoped that it would reach—as it was sent to—all noble Lords who have taken part in this Committee stage, whether they were particularly interested in this or not. I also tried to contact the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, by telephone this morning, but I failed. I apologise for that not just to my noble friend but to the Committee as a whole.
I certainly accept the apology of my noble friend—he is always one of the most courteous Ministers in dealing with the House. I am sure that no offence was intended. The letters may indeed be waiting for us when we get out of this Committee and go back to our desks. In the circumstances I commend the noble Baroness on having pursued her amendment as far as she did. I agree with what was said from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. If we are to return to this matter only on Report, it is important for the Government in Committee to know a bit about the issues raised—and I assure my noble friend Lord Carter that I will try to stay within his strictures—by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.
I apologise for speaking fully on this matter, but it is very important that I do so. I think that the noble Baroness will agree that the views she puts forward reflect the view of those who are unhappy about the creation of the South Downs National Park and who claim that the Bill will move the goalposts for the designation process. The outcome of the Meyrick case in the High Court, which excluded land at the Hinton estate in the New Forest from the new park, has clearly therefore provided ammunition for this anxiety and this proposition. I want to deal with that in the context of what the noble Baroness has said about her amendment.
Section 5(2) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which gives the criteria for designating national parks, currently states:
"The said areas are those extensive tracts of country . . . as to which it appears to the Commission that by reason of (a) their natural beauty".
Section 5(1) of the same Act gives the purposes of the national parks as:
"(a) to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage".
In the Meyrick case, the judge concentrated on the difference between the criteria and the purposes. His analysis, as I understand it, was that the added distinction of "natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage" in national park purposes, compared with the sole mention of "natural beauty" in their criteria, meant that wildlife and cultural heritage are not factors which can be considered when selecting areas of landscape for national park designation. But this is surely questionable. Prior to the 1995 Environment Act, the purposes and criteria of the national parks were the same. The purposes were only then amended so that national parks could be certain that they could focus more on biodiversity and heritage improvements. In practice, for the past half century, wildlife and cultural heritage have been a clear influence on what land should be included for national park designation. For whatever reasons, however, the judge did not address the issue of practice and precedent.
However, because of the focus on "natural beauty", the judge pondered what that could mean and, in the absence of a legal definition in the 1949 Act, put forward his own. It was,
"a high degree of relative naturalness"
—in other words, very little interference by man. By that definition, the Hinton estate in the New Forest, with its parkland, farmland, woodland and Grade 1 listed building, did not qualify. That clearly has big implications for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty alike. The 1949 Act applies to the creation of both. They all contain land influenced by man, through farmland to physical infrastructure and settlements, and to areas very similar to the Hinton estate, such as Chatsworth or Lyme Park in the Peak District. Again, it must be underlined that the judge did not address practice and precedent. All national parks in Britain are influenced by man. That is why the Government's new clause, which we were expecting this evening, made common sense—but we must not discuss that.
We need to look at some of the history. The application of the natural beauty criterion by the Countryside Agency has been fully exposed to debate and ratification in Parliament and by government for more than 50 years. Starting with the reports that led to the creation of national parks, it is obvious that "natural beauty" or "scenic beauty" and the influence of wildlife, cultural heritage and man have been critical to the designation process. The 1945 Dower report, which made the first post-war recommendations for national parks, set out the requirements clearly—the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved; access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment are amply provided; wildlife, buildings and places of architectural and historic interest are suitably protected; and established farming use is effectively maintained.
The report of the national parks committee chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse and presented to the Minister of Town and Country Planning in 1947 underlined that approach with its references to "merit in variety", "wide diversity of landscape" in England and Wales, and the need to include,
"other districts, which though of lesser grandeur, have their own distinct beauty".
The report tellingly observed:
"We are dealing with a closely populated and highly developed country where almost every acre of land is used in some degree for the economic needs of man and has its place in a complex design of agricultural, industrial or residential use".
Both the Dower and Hobhouse reports had far-reaching influence on the preparation and legislative process that produced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.
Between 1951 and 1957, 10 national parks and 37 areas of outstanding natural beauty were designated. Again, I emphasise that all of them contained manmade features—settlements, farmlands and areas similar to the Hinton estate. In 1974, the so-called Sandford report, by the committee established by the government with the Reverend Lord Sandford in the chair, after taking much evidence and holding many public meetings did not find any need to review the criteria. Again in 1991, the national park review panel chaired by the distinguished professor, Ron Edwards, recommended no changes; indeed, it re-emphasised the influence of man, observing that,
"the essence of the concept of national parks lies in the striking quality and remoteness of much of the scenery, the harmony between man and nature it displays . . . the softer and less remote areas of our national parks also exemplify at their best a harmonious interaction between humanity and the natural world . . . This part of the national parks scene where man's hand is most in evidence is no less an integral part".
If there is any question of the goalposts being moved, it is not by anything that we might have been debating this evening—I must remain in order—but by the ruling in the Meyrick case. I hope that what I have said will help to reassure the noble Baroness that the situation as it stood until that ruling is the one that overwhelmingly recognises what the national parks are about, clearly, explicitly and in every sense. In this Committee today, we should continue that tradition. Therefore, I hope that on consideration she will not find it necessary to press her amendment.
I am sorry to intervene at this stage and delay us still further into what is normally regarded as the dinner hour, but unfortunately I happen to have with me the Minister's letter. It is appropriate to quote from it, so that we know why there is the dilemma, why my noble friend has rightly initiated this debate, and why it needs to continue to take place. The letter states:
"I explained in my letter that this recent High Court case has produced a difficult judgment regarding the purposes and criteria for designating land as a new National Park, and in particular on how the term 'natural beauty' is to be interpreted. The effect of the combination of amendments 305 and 353 with consequential amendments . . . sought: to clarify what may be considered under the 'natural beauty' criterion, to clarify the role of the purposes in designation, and to clarify that just because an area is used for agriculture, woodland, as parkland or is the product of human intervention in the landscape it is not prevented from being treated as area of natural beauty.
Since laying these amendments the Board of the Countryside Agency have only very recently raised an important possible ambiguity in amendment 305; i.e. that it could be taken to imply that wildlife and cultural heritage considerations carry the same weight as natural beauty, whereas in fact they should be subsidiary to it.
Defra lawyers and Parliamentary Counsel are looking at how that intention can be made unequivocal but have not been able to draft an alternative amendment in time".
It is therefore clear that the Government's intention is that the general purport of the amendments should stand. Therefore, despite the fact that the amendments have not been moved tonight, they are the background to this discussion.
In sympathy with my noble friend, I am bound to say that as time moves on it appears increasingly that the criteria for designating national parks are becoming relatively looser, if I can put it that way; my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry would be suitably furious with me for those words. While there is considerable justification in the original designations—the New Forest was an inevitable and natural extension—when we get to the South Downs, if we are not extremely careful we get to the point where almost any area that happens to look rather attractive scenically is included. I have an area of outstanding natural beauty in my area. It is attractive countryside—not particularly so, but it happened to be painted by a notorious artist and, as a consequence, everybody thinks that it must be special. It is a bit of the English countryside—heaven help us. The English countryside has its glories all over the place, but they do not all justify designation as a national park.
The way in which we are moving makes it increasingly possible that beautiful areas can be designated as national parks, whereas they are simply natural bits of glorious English countryside. It is right that we are having this discussion, although it is probably time to draw it to a conclusion, as we will clearly have it all again at some point on Report.
I did not intend to take part in the debate because I got the Minister's letter, but I want to support the noble Lord, Lord Judd—contrary-wise to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. The looseness was already in the 1949 Act. The Lake District is in the part of the world in which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and I live. I also declare an interest as vice chairman, or vice-president—I cannot remember which—of the Council for National Parks. In the Lake District, Windermere would fail the Meyrick test, as would Ambleside, Hawkshead, Coniston, Keswick Borrowdale. Penrith is outside, so it does not matter, but practically every village in the Lake District would fail. That shows that the Meyrick case does not fit. It is right that the Government are paying considerable attention to sorting it out. It is a pity we cannot get it reversed in the courts beforehand, as that would be much easier. Nevertheless, I understand the Government's predicament.
I have a lot to say on this issue, but given the time and the fact that the Government have withdrawn the amendment, I shall not begin to approach any of the points that I was going to make. It is despicable that legislation of this magnitude is introduced into the Committee stage of a Bill in this House, and without having been scrutinised in another place. This is no way to conduct legislation. It is hugely important legislation, which diminishes national park status. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but I shall not debate the issues now. I simply want to say that this is not the correct way of dealing with legislation of this magnitude.
Given the importance of national parks and the difference between how each area of land has been treated historically in the south-west, for example—Exmoor became a national park while the Mendips did not—even under the withdrawn government criteria there would have been a debate. Even under Amendment No. 306A there would have been a debate. There is always a long public inquiry and plenty of consultation. We should not make a mountain out of a molehill although it is important that we get it as right as we can. I declare the same interest as a vice president of the Council for National Parks. I am most concerned that the importance of national parks is at the forefront of our minds. I believe that the Government are correct to give some thought to the issue. I acknowledge that the Minister tried to telephone me, but I was coming back from seeing the parrots, so I was not at my desk. I do not believe that the noble Baroness's amendment is correct because I am unhappy with the phrase,
"high degree of relative naturalness", as we then get into discussions of what is relative and so on.
The Government were nearly there in their amendment, and I hope that we can discuss it with better humour on Report. I am sure that some consultation between now and then will be very helpful.
I have listened carefully to everything that has been said in this debate by the noble Baroness in moving her amendment, and the different points of view round the Committee. I shall read Hansard with extreme care before deciding what wording the government amendment should have at Report stage. I do not intend to stand at the Dispatch Box and reply to the questions that have been raised now. If anyone wants a particular question answered by letter, I shall be happy to do that. We shall meet again on Report and will have another discussion on this important matter. I thank all those who have taken part in the debate, and once again apologise to everyone, except the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith—in other words, all those who did not receive my letter.
Have I got it right that the judgment by the court will be appealed against? If so, and as the opinions around the Committee seem to be that there is a reasonable chance that an appeal would succeed, I am not clear why it would not be right to wait until the appeal procedure has been conducted and the result is known.
We do not have leave to appeal as we speak, so there is no guarantee that there will be an appeal in this case. We thought that with this Bill going through Parliament, it was important that the law should be clarified. That is why I genuinely welcome the debate that we have had in Committee this evening and the one that will take place on Report. We do not believe that this case is sub judice. We are considering the law as it will relate to national parks in the future.
In the constraints of the situation my noble friend's remarks are very helpful, but does he accept that some of us are disappointed that we wanted strongly to support and applaud what we thought would be discussed, but now find that that issue is not before the Committee, and we have been denied the opportunity to table an amendment of our own? That is very unfortunate, and I hope that the Government will take consultation between now and Report all the more seriously. I am sure that the Minister will do so. I mean that with no House of Lords hyperbole whatsoever. There is no Minister who takes his responsibilities to this House more seriously. I am sure that he will consult fully before Report.
It is an unfortunate situation, but the fact remains that the Countryside Agency has made a fair point. It is much better to get it right rather than to bang ahead with an amendment that if carried turned out not to be workable. While I apologise to the Committee, we have done the right thing.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. To those who do not like my amendment—that is the only one we are allowed to talk about—I am grateful to them for expressing their views. We were trying to have a debate around the future concept. As I said earlier, the Conservative Party supports national parks. We believe that we should have them. There is no question of us saying that they are rubbish and should not exist. There are good reasons for being slightly concerned, as I tried to explain earlier, about what we are not allowed to talk about. We look forward to talking about it on Report. I am grateful to those who have spoken in the debate. For those who are concerned about my amendment, I shall read the contributions—particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, which was very detailed—with great care. When we return to the issue on Report, we shall see whether an amendment of ours is important. It may not be relevant by then. I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that if circumstances had been known in advance, he would probably have tabled an amendment himself. It is not often that I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who I thought consistently tried to cut me off at the knees. I know him well and know him to be a just man. On this occasion, I think that I was a just lady. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
This may be an appropriate stage for the House to be resumed. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.58 pm. I therefore beg to move that the House do now resume.