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Bee Population - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:45 pm, 19th June 2018

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Bloomfield is undoubtedly to be congratulated—as your Lordships have done—on securing this debate which, as ever, has been enriched by your Lordships’ own experiences. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. Many of us here come to this afresh and have learned a great deal, whether it is through references to literature, history, politics, architecture or health. In particular, I shall take away the practical advice of my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, with her Welsh blacks—which I always thought were cattle until this evening—and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara.

The well-being of bees and other pollinators has been in the public consciousness a great deal over the last few years. People value bees and other pollinators in their own right but they are also vital for the growth of our wildflowers and our crops. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and my noble friend Lady Bloomfield said about the 1,500 species of pollinators’ annual contribution to UK oil seed, fruit and vegetable crop production, which is, to my understanding, valued at up to £700 million a year.

For many reasons, protecting bees and pollinators is a priority for this Government, and I particularly welcome the generous remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Framlingham about the national pollinator strategy and the wider biodiversity strategy. I, in turn, commend the more than 30 members of our Pollinator Advisory Steering Group—representing conservation groups, farmers, beekeepers and researchers—for their supreme efforts and expertise in helping us to deliver the strategy’s successes thus far.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred a great deal to research in her speech and we are fortunate that outstanding scientists help us monitor our collective efforts, including the Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership of academics and NGOs which Defra has helped to establish.

My noble friend Lord Ridley and the noble Baroness Lady Miller referred to the numbers. My understanding from the Government’s own indicators is that the confirmed long-term decline in the abundance and distribution of pollinating insects at a national scale has stabilised in recent years. However, we are clearly determined to continue working to see ever more positive results. Local level data collected by volunteers is also available, supported by public bodies, including the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the research councils.

A number of your Lordships, including my noble friend Lady Bloomfield and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to our 25-year environment plan setting a goal to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site network. What we have heard from my noble friends Lord Ridley and Lord Robathan is an example of two noble Lords giving a personal lead in this matter. Government research shows that increases in pollinator numbers and diversity follow such increases in habitat.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, rightly asked whether the Government are playing their part—an important point, given the considerable land holdings in the public estate. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice created more than 20 hectares of wildflower meadow, and now manages more than 50 sites with native habitats for pollinators. The Ministry of Defence has established areas for pollinators to thrive, collaborating with organisations that include Plantlife, National Parks, the Wildlife Trust and indeed its tenant farmers. These are but two of a range of areas and it is very important that the Government are joined up and that we collaborate as one in a common purpose.

My noble friend Lord Robathan raised the particular issue of agri-environment schemes. Since 2011, these schemes have played a huge role in helping landowners already to establish more than 100,000 hectares of land for restoration to flower-rich habitat. The Countryside Stewardship scheme is often woven into partnership initiatives such as Buglife’s B-Lines, referred to by my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, as well as through farmer clusters, which have been developed by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust with support from Natural England for farmers, landowners, managers and foresters to help develop shared plans for nature. For example, at Martin Down National Nature Reserve, 36 farmers have linked grassland habitats so successfully that since 2016, three new colonies of the scarce small blue butterfly have been established. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, through working to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee, has created more than 1,300 flower-rich hectares and has already seen other bumblebee species arriving on site which have not been seen for 40 years. Defra’s “Health and Harmony” consultation on agricultural policy gives us the opportunity to explore how farmers can continue to benefit pollinators and wider biodiversity, and of course contribute to successful food production.

I turn now to honey bees. We are protecting honey bees through the Healthy Bees Plan and the National Bee Unit. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—the beekeepers of this House—stressed the importance of education. The educational output of the National Bee Unit last year increased to 190 courses, benefiting 9,000 beekeepers. It is aided by partnerships with the British Beekeepers’ Association, the national diploma in beekeeping and the Bee Farmers Association, to whose apprenticeship scheme Defra last year gave around £20,000. The beekeepers of the House may be particularly interested in that. Having sampled it, I can thoroughly recommend what is known as “noble House honey” from the two beehives just along the way here.

I should have said in response to points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about habitat that, in line with the Housing Minister’s May statement, there is absolutely no intention of watering down wildlife protections. The NPPF is out for consultation and before it is finalised, we will make sure that the protection of local wildlife sites is crystal clear. Defra officials continue to work closely with MHCLG to address the issue, and of course we will share the letter not only with the noble Baroness, but with all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate.

Perhaps I may make a number of points in response to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on NBU inspections. These are important in helping us to manage pests like the Varroa mite, keep endemic diseases like foulbrood at low levels, and ensure that exotic pests such as the small hive beetle are absent from the United Kingdom.

My noble friend Lord Framlingham quite rightly raised the issue of the Asian hornet. It is an insect for which I have zero tolerance. It requires constant vigilance, immediate containment action and public engagement via the Asian Hornet Watch app. We are absolutely fully seized of the threat of the Asian hornet. There is every opportunity to raise awareness, for example through important collaboration with beekeepers and the app. A number of people have reported their concerns about Asian hornets—thankfully, almost all of them were not Asian hornets—but that collaboration will help us to ensure that we keep Asian hornets at bay and ensure biosecurity at all times.

Many of your Lordships have expressed opinions about pesticides. I thought that my noble friend Lord Ridley would express the views he had. I want to say, candidly, that as far as pesticides, which include insecticides, are concerned, the Government will always base their decisions on the best scientific evidence available. I say to the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we will draw advice from the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides.

My noble friend Lady Bloomfield cited a report by the European Commission Joint Research Centre. To my understanding, the report was published in August last year in the peer-reviewed journal Pest Management Studies. The report looked at a small number of sites and crops in Europe and spoke about the increased use of pyrethroids and changes to cultural practices, such as sowing densities or seed-bed preparations. It is worth noting that increases in pyrethroid use have not been detected in national pesticide usage surveys in England. Again, pyrethroids are subject to rigorous regulation and authorised for use only where scientific assessment finds no unacceptable effects on the environment. However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Ridley that we should continue to monitor the consequences of the neonicotinoid ban and help farmers to adapt. I could say much more but it is not possible with the time I have. We will always base our decisions on the scientific evidence that we receive from our expert committee.

With the time I have left, I want to say that Defra’s annual “Bees’ Needs” campaign encourages us all to provide food and a home for pollinators. I will ensure that all noble Lords receive further information on it. This year, with immense gratitude to Shaftesbury plc, London’s Carnaby Street—part of Shaftesbury’s Carnaby urban wildlife haven—will be renamed “Carnabee Street” from 9 to 15 July. I hope to encourage your Lordships to be part of that. Importantly, we will also celebrate the next generation of pollinator protectors such as Saint Alban’s CE Primary School and its “Pollinator Promise”, which asks people to dedicate a square-metre plot to grow plants for pollinators. So far, pupils, parents, neighbours, churches, companies, civil servants and this Minister have signed up.

I very much hope that the message in this exceptional debate from your Lordships, whether from experience of being stung or otherwise, is an example of what pollinators bring to us. I will answer in full the many questions that I have not attended to because of the time limit, because it is important that this is carried forward. Pollinators are an essential part of the ecosystem; they are also essential for food production. I cannot think of a better cause to unite us than this matter. I thank my noble friend Lady Bloomfield for gathering us together in such harmony.

House adjourned at 7.59 pm.