Amendment 110

Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 30th June 2021.

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The Earl of Caithness:

Moved by The Earl of Caithness

110: Clause 43, page 26, line 41, after “habitats” insert “(including the soil)”

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, we change topics. We leave behind the OEP, important though that was, and move on to Chapter 3, “Interpretation of Part 1”, which is equally crucial to the success of the Bill. I am extremely grateful for the support for my Amendment 110 from my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

Clause 43 relates to the meaning of “natural environment”. It begins by saying:

“In this Part the ‘natural environment’ means” and it lists various things, but there is a glaring loophole or error in the Bill because it misses out the soil. My Amendment 110 seeks to insert, after “habitats” in Clause 43(b), the words “including the soil”. Habitats depend totally on the soil. It was the 32nd President of the United States of America, Franklin Roosevelt, who wrote to all the state governors, after the terrible Dust Bowl there, that:

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

The destruction of soil is a worldwide problem but it also affects the UK. Many countries in the world have the same problem. We have not looked after our soil in the way that we should and we are now paying the price for that.

The ability of our topsoil to support nature, food production and habitats for biodiversity is now seriously questioned. As my noble friend the Minister will know, there are now a limited number of harvests in East Anglia and the east side of England because of the loss of topsoil. Anybody who has looked at the pictures of the flooding in the West Country in the last few days will have seen how powerful water is when it rushes over the countryside. This was not in a farmer’s field, where the topsoil is loose, friable and ready to be washed away; it was in the middle of a town. The water pulled up tarmac and concrete, causing a huge amount of damage.

With our increasingly changing climate and the increasing frequency of heavy and severe downpours, it is therefore imperative that we look after our soil better than we have done. At the moment, we lose about 3 million tonnes of topsoil each year. No country can afford that, least of all a small island such as the United Kingdom. It is not just the loss of that topsoil which matters to the land; the effect of that topsoil is also felt in the riverine and estuarial habitats. There is an enormous loss of organic C—carbon—from the soil bank due to erosion.

Farming practices have not helped in this. This happened under the common agricultural policy, but I firmly believe that the future ELMS structure for farmers will help reduce the staggering loss of topsoil going on at the moment. It is not only in farmers’ fields. It happens when one clear fells forestry; there is always run-off from that, which causes huge problems for rivers, particularly on hilly ground, with blocked drains and with washing nutrients away. We start from the premise that a healthy soil is an economic asset. That is what we need to achieve and that is the point of this amendment: it puts it firmly in the Bill.

Before I go on, I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister a question. Could he update us on the research into the feasibility of reconstructed soil? Nature takes hundreds of years to produce topsoil and, even then, it needs to be weathered down to create the topsoil we take for granted now. I know research is going on in this area; could the Minister update us?

The 25-year environment plan aspires to sustainable management by 2030. I therefore wonder why the waste strategy for England ignores soil in its landfill sites. Up to 55% of landfill sites are soil, yet no account is being taken in the waste strategy of the problems this is causing throughout the country. It is also in contradiction to the environmental plan.

Many of your Lordships will recall that we managed to get soil inserted into the Agriculture Act when it was going through this House. I said at Second Reading that it is hugely important that the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act tie up and correlate. If we have got soil in the Agriculture Act, we must have soil in this Bill. That is why I am moving Amendment 110.

I also have Amendment 113B in this group. This is a simple amendment and I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for preparing it for me. That does not mean that he will accept it, but he certainly gave me the wording. It followed a discussion we had on the meaning of biodiversity earlier in Committee. He read out a meaning of biodiversity and it is important that that is in the Bill. I have used his exact words, so I hope he will able to accept it. I beg to move Amendment 110.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 4:00 pm, 30th June 2021

It is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Caithness. In many ways, my Amendment 112, which I am speaking to, echoes exactly what his is and in some respects may be regarded as superfluous.

My amendment is a simple one that merely adds the word “soil” to what the natural environment means. As we know, the Bill currently states that

“the ‘natural environment’ means—(a) plants, wild animals and other living organisms, (b) their habitats, (c) land … air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact”.

As we have just heard so eloquently from my noble friend Lord Caithness, however, it misses out what I—and I am sure many other noble Lords—feel is the very core of our natural environment. Too often soil, which is pivotal to biodiversity and a functioning environment, is considered as an afterthought or as an inert substrate. It needs to be specifically referenced to ensure that targets and set policies are developed and funding applied. The lack of such an approach means that we may not deal with issues such as soil health, which is generally acknowledged to be in pretty poor shape, as we have just heard.

Soil health problems in the UK’s 700-plus soils vary across types, regions, geography and weather. No clear figure exists for the health of the UK’s soils, but a 2020 review estimated that only 30% to 40% of Europe’s soils are healthy. We can be confident that soil degradation is a huge problem across the UK and that urgent action is needed. Average organic matter levels are declining, especially in arable soils. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, soil was inserted into the Agriculture Act and it is very important that we put it in this Bill too, because it is critical for agriculture, biodiversity and other reasons.

Organic matter is critical to soil health, biodiversity, productivity and carbon storage. UK soils store an estimated 10 billion tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 0.2 billion tonnes stored in UK vegetation. In 2013, soil carbon loss was estimated to amount to 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, higher than for many industrial and energy sources combined. Losses appear highest from peat and arable soils.

Soil erosion remains a critical problem. A 2020 review of studies found that 16% of arable farms had soil erosion so high that it was a threat to future food production. Increases in growing maize is a major problem. A survey of over 3,000 maize-growing sites in south-west England found that 75% of fields could not let rainwater in deeper than the upper soil layers, such that a heavy rainfall could wash the soil away. Sedimentation—linked to soil erosion on land—is a major problem in 5% of UK rivers.

We must not forget that peat soils are widely damaged. Around 8% of deep peat soils in the UK are being wasted, eroding or are bare. Upland peat soils are damaged from nitrogen deposition, overgrazing, drainage and, of course, burning. Lowland peat soils suffer rapid erosion from extraction and pump drainage for cultivation. Cultivated deep peat in the lowland fens, where a third of England’s fresh vegetables are grown, is also rapidly eroding. As peat soils have dried out, the land has sunk, exposing it to flooding from rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis. Many peat topsoils will disappear within decades unless they are rewetted so that peat formation can rapidly build them up again. Soil life has suffered.

Unlike terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, our soil life has not been well monitored. However, we know that many of the chemical actives applied to farm soils negatively affect soil microbial functions and biochemical processes, altering soil communities and diversity. Combined with ploughing, reducing crop diversity, acidification and losses in organic matter—a key source of food—soil life is being impacted. Research suggests that reduced soil life can affect crop growth, development and disease incidence, potentially resulting in a negative cycle of more agrochemicals being needed.

Only today, in a timely contribution, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend Philip Dunne, published its report Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? The report highlights the importance of soil in its summary, where it states as one of its recommendations:

“We support the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee that the development of soil indicators should be fast-tracked; that a shadow target for soil health should be established urgently; and that a legally-binding target for soil health ought to be established as soon as monitoring data allows. Healthy soils should be a priority outcome for the Environmental Land Management Schemes, so as to encourage farmers to adopt beneficial agri-environmental practices.”

The simple addition of a word would ensure that soil is properly considered as a priority alongside air, water and biodiversity within environmental plans, and of course by the OEP.

The amendment from my noble friend Lord Caithness is probably superior to mine, but I am not fussed about that. I am rather simple; I just like one word here and there. But, whatever it is, the Government have to take serious note and insert “soil” into the Bill.

Finally, before I metaphorically sit down, I also support Amendment 113, which has yet to be spoken to by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. It would ensure that the marine environment is included. I have a slight difficulty on whether it is necessary when talking about marine wildlife to particularly include marine mammals. I think they should be included anyway in the whole general thing, but I will leave that for others to discuss. I hope that we can insert “soil” into this Bill.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and I am grateful to him for his support in principle for Amendment 113. I pay huge tribute to his work and his interest in birds—of the feathered variety—whereas I have to confess that water is my element. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support for Amendment 113. I thank the Marine Conservation Society for its support and briefing as well.

Why is Amendment 113 necessary? The Bill at present makes only a passing reference to the marine environment. I wonder why that is the case, particularly as our seas represent over 50% of the environment of England. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the work of David Attenborough on plastics in our seas and oceans will realise how it has captured the public imagination, in this regard.

My noble friend Lord Caithness spoke eloquently on why soil should be included, as did my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. In his Amendment 113B, my noble friend Lord Caithness goes on to say why

“terrestrial … marine, and … other aquatic ecosystems” should be included. I believe that Part 1, and indeed the Bill in its entirety, is relevant to the marine environment, and I would welcome the greater clarity of putting “the marine environment” into the Bill, in this regard.

I also acknowledge that, in replying to a Parliamentary Oral Question either a week or 10 days ago, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith acknowledged that there is a “tension”, to use his word, between inshore fisheries and offshore wind farms. So my question to him is: how will that tension be eased and resolved if we do not place, as I have chosen to phrase it here,

“the sea, the marine environment and maritime wildlife, sea mammals, flora and fauna” on the face of the Bill?

I will address the point made by my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge on whether sea mammals should be included here. Under the very able chairmanship of my friend the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the EU Environment Sub-committee—within the greater family of European committees under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who is in the chair now—did some work on this earlier this year and took evidence. I think it was on 17 March that, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, we took evidence on North Sea ecology.

One of our witnesses was Trudi Wakelin, the director of licensing for marine planning et cetera at the MMO. In response to a question from me she said that there were unaddressed “cumulative impacts” from not just the construction but the operation of wind turbines that may be causing sea mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and whales to bank in increasing numbers on our shores. That is a source of great concern to me and we will go on to look at it in a later amendment on wind farms. It will probably surprise noble Lords to know that no research has been done on this, yet we are going to urbanise our waters even more by rolling out wind farms in future.

Another witness on the same day, Professor Melanie Austen, the professor of ocean and society at the University of Plymouth, told us that

“by urbanising the sea and offshoring our problem of energy generation, there will be casualties”.

As others have argued, I argue today that we should exercise here the precautionary principle, at sea and on land, by halting or pausing our offshore wind farms and other activities that may be harming

“the sea, the marine environment and maritime wildlife, sea mammals, flora and fauna”.

I will end with a question to my noble friend the Minister. Does he agree that it would be in the interests of greater clarity to put my proposed sub-paragraph (d) into Clause 43? Why has the marine environment been left out from the specific remit of the Bill as it stands?

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 4:15 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because they have proposed additions to the definition of the natural environment. When I started looking at this, I thought, “Well, everything’s covered anyway”. In debates on many previous Bills, Ministers have always said that they do not like lists because you always leave something out of lists, and that is serious. But the arguments from the three noble Lords who have spoken indicate an obvious concern that water and soil are not in fact included in this definition. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will confirm that they are, and maybe even add them in.

My small addition is to suggest that “ecosystem” should be included as well because it covers everything that is in paragraphs (a) to (c) of Clause 43 but also soil and the maritime area—I shall come on to water later—and, I think, it goes wider. On the role of ecosystems, the definition that I found included this:

“A community is created when living and nonliving components in an environment are in conjunction with each other.”

The components, including “biotic and abiotic components”, “interact as a system” to form an ecosystem. So, the word “ecosystem” covers everything. I am not suggesting that the Minister should leave out anything that is there at the moment or not include soil or water, but I think that there is an argument for having something that talks about the conjunction between them and the way they work together. I am interested in hearing the Minister’s comments on that.

I also want to speak briefly to Amendments 194AB and 194AC in this group, which are in my name. They also cover the issue of ecosystems but relate to the condition of planning permissions in Clause 92. I think that “water” should also be included in the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and maybe “rivers” as well. That is something we should discuss.

A week or two ago, I came across an example that illustrates why this is quite important. I understood that the Port of London Authority had applied to extend the jurisdiction—that is, ownership of or responsibility for—of its water, as I suppose it is, by changing the definition from a limit of mean high water to mean high water springs. Many noble Lords may think, “Well, what does that matter?” In terms of the maritime definition, it is actually a height difference of about 50 centimetres. When you have a river wall, like we have out here, 50 centimetres is probably neither here nor there, but I am told that the extent of the River Thames—the tidal part of it—covers 190 miles of riverbank. On the bits that are pretty flat, as opposed to vertical walls, the extension would have allowed the PLA to extend its planning development potential quite dramatically. There was a big campaign against this at the last general meeting of the PLA; in the end, it withdrew it. Obviously, I welcome that, but it does indicate the difference between and the challenge of biodiversity and ecosystems and the planning condition.

I have one more example. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about offshore wind farms and things like that. A similar debate, which occasionally I get involved in, goes on regarding the role of marine conservation zones and what the boating and yachting community think that it wants. One is environment and the other is leisure. I got quite involved in debates about whether it is possible to have a marine conservation zone in the south-west, or even around the Isles of Scilly, to prevent any ships going there unless somebody had changed the route. This was all resolved, but it is an example of the importance of keeping biodiversity and ecosystems in mind when it comes to planning issues.

I am sure that we will talk about that much more, but this has been a very useful little debate. I hope that, when he comes to respond, the Minister will add in some of these extra suggestions to what we have in paragraphs (a) to (c) at the moment. I also hope that, if he says that he cannot do so, he will tell us why.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

My Lords, I would like to say a word or two on behalf of soil and in support of Amendment 110 from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.

We are often told how much of the earth’s surface is covered by water and how we must take care of it—and so we must. However, we are told less often that the remainder of the world is covered largely by soil—or was, until we decided to spread concrete and tarmac over huge sections of it. That includes motorways, airports, houses and factories—even putting slabs over our own front gardens so that we can park our car. This has taken huge quantities of soil out of commission, with deeply damaging effects on the environment. A layer of concrete not only creates drainage problems by removing the soil’s ability to absorb water, causing the massive problems of run-off and flooding; it also sterilises the soil, cutting off oxygen from all living organisms beneath it. Nobody has yet tried to measure what the cumulative effect of this is but it will be huge.

Soil that has remained untouched for long periods of time is hugely beneficial to all kinds of flora and fauna. Sadly, it is all too rare. This is why our ancient woodlands are so very precious. Although it may not look it at first glance, soil structure is relatively fragile, ranging as it does from heavy clay through loams to sandy soils, and from acid to alkaline. Its health is valuable not just for growing crops and grass to graze but for supporting countless other organisms, some beneficial and some less so. All were held in a natural balance before man’s intervention.

Soil’s value to agriculture and the importance of keeping it in good health were first recognised formally by the great agricultural reformers of the 17th and 18th centuries, most notably Turnip Townshend and Coke of Holkham. The Norfolk four-course rotation was introduced; it varied the types of crops grown over a four-year cycle, sometimes allowing land to lie fallow. The practice of nurturing the land persisted until relatively recently when the pressures to produce more and more from the same acreage grew, with spectacular results. Some cereal crops have increased fourfold, but with this intensification has come a change of attitude to the soil. It is simply—and to some extent understandably, with modern technology—seen purely as a medium for growing crops. Systematic rotation has long since gone. The same crop is sometimes taken off the same land year after year. Spraying against pests and diseases has become regular and routine. To turn the clock back would be very difficult, although some organic farmers are now trying.

Food is essential but many would argue that it is much too cheap. A bottle of milk can still cost less than a bottle of fizzy water. Supermarkets, incidentally, have a crucial role to play in this regard. The proportion of our income that we spend on feeding ourselves has dropped hugely. The old links that customers made between production and consumption have long since been broken, although locally grown produce is increasingly popular. New government environmental policies are forecast to take 21% of land out of agriculture. Arable land and grazing, once carefully drained and cultivated, is going to be turned into marsh and swamp. Where the food lost will come from, nobody has yet told us.

These are very difficult issues requiring much thought, but they will have to be faced one day. Otherwise, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, our soils will simply, through infertility, disease or flooding, no longer be able to provide what we expect and have too long taken for granted. If I may, I, too, wish to quote what President Roosevelt said in 1937 in response to the huge dust-bowls that had been created in America; the noble Earl has already done so, but I think that it sums up the situation. He said:

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

That says it all.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 4:30 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, I once again refer to my interests: I chair the Cawood group, which has laboratories and analyses raw materials, including soil, and I am a trustee of Clinton Devon Estates.

Amendments 110 and 112 propose that “soil” is included in the meaning of the “natural environment” in Clause 43. I fully support the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, who has just spoken. I do not mind which amendment is adopted, but, in my view, the positioning in Amendment 112 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, flows more naturally in the text, following the listing of “air and water”.

The key issue is that “soil” is listed as a key component of the “natural environment”, and it is unbelievable that it is not already included in this definition. How can

“plants, wild animals and other living organisms” be included, when they cannot exist without depending on soil? Soil is as crucial as air and water and fundamental to support life on earth. The natural world depends on it.

When the Minister responded to Amendment 11 in an earlier debate, he rejected its call to have “soil quality” as a priority area within the Bill on the basis that to do so would involve setting a target and that the definition and descriptor of “soil quality” were still not resolved and were a work in progress. It would not be the first time that the definitions underpinning a Bill were incomplete, and that is no reason not to have it included. A definition of satisfactory soil quality that supports sustainable food production, identifies the essential microbial organisms and life within the soil, and determines the level of organic matter to optimise carbon sequestration will be agreed. This will be resolved.

From current analysis by Cawood, I know that the level of sequestered carbon varies enormously from field to field, never mind farm to farm or region to region. It is essential that we address this opportunity and realise the carbon storage potential that the soil offers. Indeed, in the light of climate change, we would be failing in our responsibility if we did not do so. I encourage the Minister to seriously consider introducing an amendment on this topic before Report to save time, in view of the weight of opinion in support of this subject.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Curry, with his deep scientific knowledge of agriculture and soils. I declare my interests: my family runs a livestock farm and owns a series of SSSIs in two areas of nature reserves.

In this clause, we get to define the extent and, where necessary, the boundaries of what we want the Bill to influence. On soils, I support my noble friend Lord Caithness’s Amendment 110, which is necessary because the government strategy for carbon sequestration is considerably dependent on the soil and peat. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will respond positively to either of these amendments.

I will produce a quote from a rather different angle: 300 years ago, in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift expressed the old saying that

“whoever could make ... two blades of grass … grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

That was in his day. This has inspired our farmers for 300 years. To me, it is an environmental principle, but in the Bill the Government have given us as their environmental principles a set of prohibitions, protections and penalties.

The judgment, from the measures contained in the Bill, is that that earlier principle has now gone too far. The protections listed will be necessary, but we need to be sure that our purpose is not simply to put all the processes of the countryside into decline. It would be nice if someone could come up with a phrase that would draw all our aspirations together and point the way forward. The outcome will hang on the wording in these clauses and what we interpret as the meaning of “natural environment”.

I support Amendment 113, in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the others who have signed it. This draws our attention to the whole marine biosphere, an area that is under great threat at the moment. It is essential that this is not overlooked. The various marine organisations are still drawing up their inventories of what is in the natural environment at present, and a great deal of expense and research will have to be dedicated to that area. I too served on the EU Environment Sub-Committee that my noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned, and I contributed to the work that was put in. There are huge areas where we have hardly any information.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh spoke of the importance of the marine area to the UK. In December, Scotland published its latest marine assessment report, which has to be updated every three years and which, in turn, covers an area six times greater than the Scottish landmass—so biodiversity is a very important field for that Administration.

At the same time, the Bill will incorporate the policies of species abundance and the encouragement of biodiversity. We have spent so much time discussing targets. Given the role that mankind has taken upon itself over the centuries, targets are necessary. The Secretary of State can introduce almost unlimited targets under the Bill, but Clause 3 has a number of subsections that must be observed if the Secretary of State wishes to reduce them.

However, there is no requirement for the Secretary of State to pay any attention to taking actions if a crisis develops when one element becomes prolific or threatening and the need to cull numbers requires some urgency. The nearest experience that I have had did not have the urgency in question: it was decided that the deer population in the huge Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, which is next door to me, was well above what was good for forestry purposes and that it should be reduced to four deer per square kilometre. They then set about culling 4,000 deer out of this area, which is not something that I would readily support, but it was a necessary management action and is an indication of what might be required if proliferation becomes extreme. In the spirit of the Bill, it will always be preferable to employ nature-based solutions, but, if diseases or threats to biodiversity occur, we must be prepared to act in whatever way will be effective.

My noble friend Lord Caithness’s second amendment raises the important question of defining biodiversity. “Biodiversity” in the Bill seems limited to the abundance of species, particularly in Amendment 22, moved by my noble friend the Minister on day 2 of our deliberations. Amendment 113B would mean that attention could be given to how far biodiversity should be supported.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise to offer the Green group’s support for all the amendments in this group, which have given us the opportunity of an important debate about what we are trying to save, what we are trying to protect and what we are trying to improve.

Amendment 110, in the names of the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Shrewsbury, and my noble friend Lady Jones and myself, proposes that soil be regarded as a habitat. I will address it with Amendment 112 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, that it perhaps does not matter so much where “soil” appears; it needs to appear somewhere. I would suggest that a very simple solution which the department could implement easily would be to go through the Bill and look everywhere where “water” and “air” appear and add “soil”. I doubt that there would be many problems when one looked at the result. We are of course revisiting our debate on day 1 of this Committee—which now feels like quite a long time ago—about Clause 1 and an amendment in my name which would have added soil as an important target. It needs to be in all these places.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, will forgive me if I pre-empt a little what she is perhaps going to say, but it is so important that it needs to be highlighted. I saw that she was speaking to the Secretary of State at Groundswell. During that discussion, it was said that soil health was perhaps the most important thing and would be the focus of the sustainable farming initiative. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us more about that; it would be very interesting. The Government themselves identify soil as a huge priority. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and many others have said, we are talking about how the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill fit together. The Agriculture Act provides directions on the methods of action; this Bill judges how successful it has been.

I have circulated to a number of noble Lords—I realise that I neglected to circulate it to the Minister, for which I apologise and I will fix it shortly—a briefing paper that I received from a number of farmers, academics and farm advisers on the difficulty of being paid for results in managing soil health. It makes an argument for payment for practice instead, with the three key things identified as minimising soil disturbance, maximising soil cover and maximising diversity of cover. All are clearly good things to work towards, but we need to measure how the results come out, and that has to be in the Bill.

Following the coverage from Groundswell, there was a lot of discussion and excitement about work done on worms. There is perhaps an argument for the number of worms per square metre being a very good measure. I am not putting that forward entirely as a serious proposal although it is certainly something to look at, but I would point the Minister to the publication last week of a volume entitled Advances in Measuring Soil Health, edited by Professor Wilfred Otten from Cranfield University. It is a real sign of how much this field is moving forward. That brings me back to our discussion on Clause 1, when the Minister, in arguing why soil should not be included in the clause, said that

“the Government are working collaboratively with technical experts to identify appropriate soil health metrics … it is a complicated business”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; cols. 94-95.] and that they were looking to develop a healthy soils indicator as part of the 25-year environment plan. This is a matter of extreme urgency and focus, as identified by the Secretary of State; it cannot wait for something off into the far distance. A great deal of new work is available now; a great deal of ideas are available now. The first metric that we end up with may not be perfect, but we need a metric, and if that needs to be improved in future, so be it. It could be dealt with by regulation, as the Government so like to tell us.

Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and signed by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, my noble friend and me, again takes us back to some of our debates on Clause 1. We are talking about including the marine environment. I want to cite just one, apparently small but very illustrative case study. I thank Dr Alexander Lees at Manchester Metropolitan University for drawing it to my attention. It is simply a photo—a very sad photo of a bundle of sodden feathers. This was a black-browed albatross. We can see coming from its mouth a ribbon that indicates that it almost certainly died from ingesting a balloon. It is a magnificent creature that could have lived for seven decades—seven decades of a life of freedom—and it was cut short for a balloon. The noble Lord and I have engaged in debate, and I am sure we will do so in the coming groups, about extended producer responsibility and plastics. I would question how any form of extended producer responsibility would cover the cost of that albatross and its loss of life.

It is important to include marine because we need to stress that there is no such thing as “away”—we cannot throw things away. Very often, we have regarded the marine environment as the space where we throw away. If we do not include that, we shall not be taking proper account of the impacts of our actions.

I commend the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on some very nimble drafting for Amendment 113B—this, again, goes back to our debates on Clause 1 and an amendment I put down then about the state of nature. I made a rough first attempt at defining biodiversity. The noble Earl has struck on something by working on the Minister’s response and coming up with this amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to his own words.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would add “ecosystems” in a number of places. Again, we come back to the definition of biodiversity. We can protect plants, animals and fungi—the three kingdoms—and look at them in isolation, but it is the relationship between them that makes up the natural world and the natural environment. It is terribly important that the Bill recognises that. The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, talked about how rare the wonderful, irreplaceable soils underneath ancient forests are, and how little of that we have left. Adding “ecosystems” would help draw attention to the utter fallacy of biodiversity offsetting and the idea of something that I have seen first-hand: that we can just transplant the bits of an ancient forest, shove them into an arable field and assume that they are going to get back together somehow or other. Adding “ecosystems” here would be very useful.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 4:45 pm, 30th June 2021

I support the amendments in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, as well as that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, about soil, that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about ecosystems, and that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, about the oceans.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is absolutely right: I did interview the Secretary of State last week, who talked extensively about how the Government saw soil as a key part of future strategy and as being at the heart of both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill.

The thing about soil is that it is very small in our eyes, but in the soil’s eyes it is of course a factory and it has been described as a factory. In a tea-spoon of soil, you will probably get some thousands of species, some millions of individuals and about 100 metres of fungal thread. This is a world of major complexity and, every second that we are alive, this factory is performing a function that none of us could do. No scientist could take sunlight, air and all the nutrients in the soil and produce leaves, which produce trees. Look around this Chamber: everything in here, apart from the quarried stone, has come from a plant, has come from the soil. This leather has come from an animal that has fed on a plant; the carpet, probably from Axminster, and some sheep; my clothes; everything. Yet we call it “the dirt beneath our feet” and we stomp on it.

Once I got the image of a factory into my head, and the notion that there are all these people pulling levers and rushing up and down hills, it struck me that it was like being in a city, but a city on a completely different scale to how we live, so of course we ignore it. What has gone so tragically wrong with the soil in recent years is not so much the tinkering around but the deep ploughing and then the addition of heavy chemicals. It strikes me that you could think about it as like living in Homs or somewhere like that. Your buildings get bombed every other day or, in the case of the soil, two or three times a year. We have decided, since the green revolution of the 1950s, that deep ploughing was a really good idea because it let in the air. It was extremely fallacious science that is now completely accepted not to be right.

Look at agroecology. Where I was with the Secretary of State last week, we saw new devices that slice through the soil like pizza cutters, dropping in individual seeds, making minimal disruption and, as a consequence, needing minimal fertilisers and producing strong, healthy plants that also support biodiversity. We have done so many things wrong it is quite impossible to start to count them: the monocrops that kill the culture; the deep ploughing; the addition of chemicals—it is really astonishing—but the soil is truly phenomenal. It is the most amazing stuff. Give it a break, and it will come charging back with great health. I have to say to whichever noble Lord it was who said how long it takes to regrow, it really does not; it is really amazing. It will knit itself together, start co-operating and start not only giving us back the goods and services we want, but at the same time taking down the carbon.

As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said, it seems quite astonishing that soil is not in the Bill, along with air and water; it should be. History is littered with examples. I do not know whether any noble Lord has been to Leptis Magna. It is a desert, but it is not that long ago, in the big history of things, that the Romans used to get three harvests a year from Leptis Magna. That is why they wanted north Africa. They had the most sophisticated systems for bringing water from the mountains; they had an amazing market with marble and they kept the water in tanks underneath to keep the vegetables cool and then they overfarmed it. But it was fine then, because they just packed their trunks—I do not know whether they had trunks then—and got on their oxen and went somewhere else, because there was always somewhere else. There is not anywhere else now. It is the same as when the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, “There is no such place as away.” You throw it away: where is that away? As Greenpeace says, we throw away our plastic and it ends up in Turkey. We throw away something and it ends up in that awful albatross. That makes my heart break too. We have to respect and adore these particular things.

The thing about the soil is that there are a lot of “don’ts”. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, “Don’t deep plough”, “Don’t put fertiliser on it”, “Keep cover crops on it.” Soil wants that; soil wants to work. We have to find intelligent ways to pay for this; we cannot just expect people to do it and not get anything back. They will get it back in advanced crops without having to pay for chemicals, but that will take a bit of time. Yes, indeed, people are using earthworms as a measure, but it is still a bit clumsy and a bit inexact. It is kind of fun, but there are some more sophisticated things that we can do.

I want to quickly address the necessity of understanding things as ecosystems. I do not know how many noble Lords know of Dr Suzanne Simard, but she is a Canadian forestry professor at British Columbia University. She grew up in the forest, became a logger and a forestry expert and at the age of 20 she was put to work by a forestry company in the north-west and her job was to clear-fell and then plant pine. After a bit, she looked at it and thought, “Why are these things dying over huge acres?” That was when we thought, “Survival of the fittest: get rid of everything else and everything will grow”, but in fact they died. They did not do well, they sort of struggled and some of them just fell apart. What she realised, and what she has now written about and become the world expert on, is that there is an extraordinary interconnection that goes on underground. We are only just beginning to learn about it. A tree will help out another tree if it is in trouble. It will send extra nutrients. It is quite magical. In the same way that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was moved about the albatross, I am extremely moved about the power of the soil. I feel very strongly that it has to be at the heart of the Bill.

Finally, on the question of the oceans, not only did I see the Secretary of State last week, but the week before I saw the Minister for Food and Farming. We were in the West Country at an event and she was on her way to Brixham. She said to me, “This is going to be tricky, but 80% of the fish that comes in comes from bottom trawling.” Bottom trawling is just like ploughing: it is smashing through someone else’s home with absolutely no regard for those who live there. We would not smash through a field of cattle, just wipe them out and throw them all over the place; that is what we do every day. Some in this Chamber will have seen “Seaspiracy”. It is not a pleasant watch. You get the sense of how many fish get sacrificed in the by-catch. Please, Minister, find a way to put the sense of ecosystems and soil absolutely at the heart of how we assess our environment and take care of it, because we will fail otherwise.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

It is a very real privilege, and I mean it, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. Hers was a splendid speech—one of many we have heard this afternoon—and she was so right in her references to bottom trawling. I may be the only Member of your Lordships’ House who sailed, in the old days, in a deep-sea trawler. I was the candidate for Grimsby at the time, in 1965, and I went up to the north coast of Norway in a trawler. That was proper fishing. It was fascinating, and the men who were there were among the bravest I have ever known. I represented a mining constituency later. That is another tough and appalling job, but at least the miner went home to his bed each night. The trawler-man was out for 18, 21 or 24 days, and it was extraordinary. That was what convinced me, and I have always been convinced, that we must look after our marine environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who has put his name to my noble friend’s amendment and who will be winding up on it for his party, is bound to be sympathetic and enthusiastic. Of course, he chaired that session of the EU Environment Sub-Committee to which my noble friend Lady McIntosh referred in her speech. We heard some fairly disturbing things that day. Anybody who has watched “Blue Planet” knows that the isolated, moving incident of the albatross, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, referred, is just one of a million examples. It was a very graphic and good example, but there are so many—all of them caused by the careless distribution of our detritus across the world.

I am sure many noble Lords will know about Operation Neptune, where the National Trust sought to buy many miles of our coastline. It has been an operation that has lasted for some half a century now and has been extraordinarily successful. It has succeeded in preserving some of the most beautiful of our coastal areas—many of which, incidentally, were rather badly despoiled during the pandemic by careless visitors and worse than careless visitors. If we want to preserve our coastline, we must also preserve our marine environment, so I very much hope that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith will accept this amendment with enthusiastic alacrity or, if not, call a meeting to devise an amendment that he can accept with enthusiastic alacrity, because this, again, will come back on Report and we need to get it right.

I turn to my noble friend Lord Caithness, who moved his amendment about soil very splendidly; I completely agree, of course. I was interested in my noble friend Lord Framlingham’s speech, in which he quoted Jonathan Swift and the two blades of grass. As he was referring to that, I could not help but think of TS Eliot who, towards the end of the last century, wrote that if we are not careful our legacy will be

“the asphalt road

And a thousand lost golf balls.”

It is very important indeed that soil—the good earth, as I would prefer to call it, although obviously, soil is a better word for our Bill—be included in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, in her splendid speech referred to deep ploughing and made the analogy with deep trawling. Much damage has been done and nobody can look back on the 1960s and 1970s, when so many hedgerows were ripped up across our country, and not feel that that was an era of desecration. I referred to it in a book I wrote at the time, and lamented it. I am glad to say that hedgerows are, to a small degree, coming back; but we will never have the hedgerows and wildflower meadows we had. We must, at the very least, keep what we have got and add to it.

I hope that my noble friend, who has not been terribly good at accepting amendments, will turn over a new leaf this afternoon and show that he really, desperately cares about what we care about and accept at least the spirit of these amendments.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 5:00 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, I declare two interests—one as a member of the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside, and the other in the mental well-being of the Minister. We are picking on him and I feel deeply sorry for him, because he is between a rock and a hard place. This is another example of an amendment that, in a normal world, he would simply accept and we could all go home happy.

I support Amendments 110 and 112, which rightly specifically include “soil” in the definition of the natural environment. As other noble Lords have said, we have already touched on the importance of soils during our debate on a previous amendment. Indeed, many of our older Members of the House will remember Kenneth Williams who, in character, used to say in response to any question at all, “Arr, the answer lies in the soil.” He was right. However, for a period, with the exception of the organic movement, soil came to be regarded as nothing more than a handy medium for holding plants up, especially crops. It was nothing more complex. Of course, the pendulum has now swung and it is generally acknowledged that soils are complex ecosystems with huge importance for a whole range of things such as carbon storage, flood alleviation, crop health, biodiversity and water quality. Other noble Lords have gone through these.

It is true to say—the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside very much supports this—that agroecology and restorative agriculture, which focus on the importance of soils, are going to be vital components of the future of farming and food production. Of course, the mycorrhizal elements of soils are the telegraph systems for trees and plants and are capable of warning colleague trees and plants many metres away of attack by something nasty, so that they can prepare to repel boarders. Basically, soil is pretty cunning stuff. However, it has been the poor relation in terms of environmental action and safeguarding in the past, and more than one-third of the world’s soils are degraded. That is no less the case in this country, with factors such as erosion, sealing, compaction and contamination causing this deterioration.

I very much welcome the 25-year environment plan highlighting the need to manage all the UK’s soils sustainably by 2030. Signalling the importance of soils in environmental protection ought to be the purpose of including soil in the definition of the natural environment in this Bill. It is not just a practical step; it is a signalling step of the fundamental importance of soil.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, reminded us that one of the reasons given by the Minister for not including soil was that to include it would require a target and the science was not there yet to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said that we need a soil metric now and it does not need to be perfect. I very much agree with that. Indeed, that has been endorsed today by the report from the Environmental Audit Committee in the Commons, which stressed the need for the rapid development of soil indicators and for a shadow target to be established urgently in the meantime.

We are going to need soil metrics for a whole variety of purposes, not least because soil is going to be fundamental to the environmental land management schemes. Let us get on with it and establish a metric. It will not be right but it will be something, and it will be a huge signal of the importance of soils in this section of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is not taking part in the debate so I call the noble Duke, Lord Wellington.

Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Crossbench

My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to Amendment 112, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. As other noble Lords have said, Amendment 110 has very much the same purpose.

In Clause 43, in defining what is meant by “natural environment”, mention is made of “land”, “air” and “water”, but I really do think that the Bill would be much improved by including “soil”. All scientists tell us how much the quality of soil has been degraded in this country in recent years. There is an increasing risk of erosion from flooding. There is an increasing occurrence of compaction caused by the regular passing of heavy agricultural machinery. There is a decline in organic matter in the soil, brought about by modern farming methods and the use of chemical fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides. I am sure that the new environmental land management schemes will indeed encourage farming methods that will avoid this steady and continuous degradation. Let us hope they will go further and encourage and support farming systems that restore soil quality. However, in the meantime, I encourage the Minister to accept either Amendment 112 or Amendment 110, which would demonstrate that the Government intend to take very seriously the question of soil quality and to include it in the various proposals to improve the natural environment.

I turn briefly to Amendment 194AC in this same group, which deals with biodiversity gain in planning. Of course, I would be minded to support any improvement in biodiversity in rivers and lakes as a result of any new planning application. I must say that I am doubtful whether it can really be practical to place on all developers an obligation to demonstrate on each occasion a biodiversity gain in water. Surely, connection to a wastewater system that will not create any increased risk of sewage discharges in the adjacent river system should be a condition for all developers. The most important point for improving aquatic biodiversity is to reduce in the short term and eventually eliminate discharges that pollute our rivers. Therefore, although I know it is well intentioned, I personally could not support Amendment 194AC.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, we have had some really good literary contributions. My favourite was probably about Kenneth Williams from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone; we also had a number of others. When the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talked about the dust-bowl, I thought of when I was quite young—an A-level student, I think—and I read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Even today, that brings back an image. I could see that novel as a movie in my mind about that dust-bowl during the depression of the 1930s in middle America where, because of soil erosion and degradation caused by wind, there was a huge exodus in the United States to urban areas and a failure of the farming system and those ecosystems. That is a lesson for us.

One of the things that struck me when the 25-year environment plan came out—that was what, five years ago?—was that, at that moment, it seemed the Government had suddenly discovered soil for the first time. The great advocate at that time, who particularly seemed to have discovered soil, was Michael Gove, the then Environment Secretary. I ask my Liberal Democrat colleagues to put their ear muffs on for a moment: I thought that Michael Gove was an absolutely excellent Secretary of State for the Environment because he brought all these issues to the fore. He had guts, he was bold and I am sure that, if he were still in the position, we would have rather a bolder Bill than we have before us at the moment. Needless to say, I was less keen on the rest of his career, so I will stop there.

The noble Lord, Lord Randall, was absolutely right about the breadth of what we mean by soil. Piedmont soils are something we have to be incredibly careful about in this country. I was privileged, two or three weeks ago, to see peat restoration on Bodmin Moor, which was brought about by a consortium of organisations—public and private sector and water companies—as part of bringing back a huge area of peatland to hydrate that whole area. I always thought we had enough rain in Cornwall to keep the whole of the ecosystem going, but you could see the degradation there. That team had worked in Dartmoor and further north and west as well. This is really important. Whether the Minister says soil is somehow included in these definitions, it is absolutely clear that it is right to give it the emphasis by including it within these definitions. I was thinking of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and Gulliver’s Travels, which I had not noticed, I must admit.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, used the word “urgent”. The 25-year environment plan is brilliant in terms of laying out the issues and what we need to do but the implementation of so many of these things has not been good, as the Audit Commission pointed out strongly. Urgency is something that we can maybe put back into this Bill now. Many Members—including the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who is well known for his agricultural knowledge and experience—have come out strongly on the need to do that.

I was pleased to put my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. A number of my amendments will come in Committee about the marine. I believe that, despite the Minister trying to persuade me that the definition of “England” includes the marine area, this Bill sees marine as an appendix or an afterthought—and a small addition at that. It is covered but never focused on. That is why it is so important we include, as the noble Baroness’s amendment says,

“the sea, the marine environment and maritime wildlife, sea mammals, flora and fauna.”

That needs to be stated in this Bill, because, as I was reminded by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in an earlier amendment, land and marine are interconnected; they are dependent on each other but different, and that difference needs to be mentioned strongly.

I agree particularly with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the way in which we fish the seas. I have an amendment later on, which I am trying to bring forward urgently, on the higher level of marine conservation areas. At the moment, our marine conservation areas do not do the job they need to, and we need to find a way forward with the fishing industry to protect the bottom of our territorial seas and the seas of the EEZ.

I have also put my name to Amendment 113B in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—although I did not get it down in time for it to be on the latest list of amendments—because defining biodiversity is important. I was very pleased that there was an emphasis on marine and other aquatic ecosystems.

How can one disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on “ecosystems” being in there? Whenever I mention ecosystems in another context, I am always told off because I do not include “ecosystem services” as well, but I know exactly what the noble Lord means.

It seems that there is unanimity that soil is fundamental to ecosystems. It is an ecosystem service in itself. It is usually described that way; for example, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, described it as a “factory”. Because of that importance, looking at the history of the United States and our own soils—this is where we need naturally based solutions to stop fast water run-off—we need to make sure that we retain soil quality. These Benches are fully behind that proposition.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:15 pm, 30th June 2021

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. It has clearly demonstrated the strength of feeling about the need to improve Clause 43 to resolve the omissions in the definition of the natural environment, which we have all been looking at. In many ways, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, summed it up when she said that we need to decide what we are trying to save, what we are trying to protect and what we are trying to improve. She gave a very moving example of why this really matters.

When the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, introduced his amendment he talked about the glaring hole in the Bill. I think everyone would agree with him, and with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Both amendments talk about the need to include soil in the definition of “natural environment”. Headlines have warned us that the state of our soil is now a serious threat to the environment and to our ability to grow crops, but we also know that good-quality soil can help to save the planet. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, just mentioned Michael Gove, who, when he was Defra Secretary of State back in 2017, said that

“no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”

He was correct.

The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, talked about the huge importance of the health of our soil, and how it is critical for our biodiversity and the future of our agriculture, because we fundamentally rely on it. Soil produces 95% of our food, be it the crops we eat or the grasses and other plants that feed our animals. It also stores an extraordinary amount of carbon —three times the amount in the atmosphere and twice the amount in trees and forests. Although soil can store—or sequester—carbon, we also know that it can lose it when it is degraded. The loss of carbon in poor soils contributes to the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which we know is one of the main causes of climate change.

It has been estimated that there could be 50,000 species of microorganism in just 1 gram of soil. Crucially, this rich “soil web” of underground life creates an open structure. It allows rainwater to seep into the ground, storing moisture for plants and crops to grow well, even in times of drought. It also prevents flooding, which is an important function of global warming. Further extreme and uncertain rainfall is becoming more prevalent in the UK. As someone who lives in Cumbria, I am all too well aware of this.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talked about the amount of topsoil we lose every year—3 million tonnes. He rightly said that we simply cannot afford to continue in the way we are. He also made the important point, as did other noble Lords, that the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act need to work together to get the outcomes we need.

As we have heard, the Environment Bill currently lists land, air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact, but there is no specific mention of soil. We on this side of the Committee believe that this is an important omission, so we support the amendments in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, to specifically include soil in the Bill.

We have also been debating the extent to which the marine environment is provided for in the Bill and how it is not clear enough. The marine environment must be seen as an integral part of the process of environmental conservation. Our legislation includes substantial activity to enable environmental protection and conservation to take place in these zones, but, as other noble Lords have said, this is not always effective enough. So, in addition to the need for the marine environment to be included in the Bill’s scope, Clause 43 needs to be amended to make it explicit that the “natural environment” includes the marine environment.

Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, would expand this definition. I thank the noble Baroness for her clear explanation of why the amendment is needed. The contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, was also very powerful as to why we need to look after our marine environment. The Explanatory Notes indicate that the definition extends to the marine environment, as well as to terrestrial and water environments, but although Explanatory Notes are often helpful for providing information as to intention, they add nothing whatever to, or take nothing away from, the actual legislation in front of us. For legal clarity, we believe that this should be stated in the Bill. For this reason, we support Amendment 113.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley talked about why biodiversity gains should also include water. The links between the water sector and biodiversity involve the impacts of the sector on biodiversity and the benefits the sector can receive from the ecosystem services—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that I have now said “ecosystem services”—provided by biodiversity. The water sector really should have a direct interest in safeguarding biodiversity both for its own use and for that of others. Well-functioning ecosystems—forests, grasslands, soils, rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, aquifers; I could go on—all influence the availability of water and its quality. They are also vital to meet water management goals such as water storage and flow regulation, filtering, and flood and drought protection, among others.

I am sure that the Minister has heard the strong support for the amendments, particularly for the inclusion of soil, although the marine environment is just as important. I look forward to hearing from him.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate. This first definition of the natural environment is deliberately broad, and includes both the living, such as plants and wild animals, and non-living, such as land, air and water, elements of the environment. To be comprehensive, it also includes the natural systems, cycles and processes through which the elements of the natural environment interact. The difficulty is that if we were to add to the Bill matters already covered by the definition it would cast into doubt anything not specifically included. However, I hope that I can provide reassurance on all the points raised by noble Lords.

I agree with the intent behind Amendments 113A, 113C to 113E, 194AB and 194AC from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Clearly, our environmental governance framework must protect the ecosystems that make up our natural environment. Clause 43 makes it clear that the systems, cycles and processes through which the elements listed in paragraphs (a) to (c) interact are a fundamental part of the natural environment. This definition therefore already includes ecosystems, as referenced in the Explanatory Notes at paragraph 371, page 59. Regarding Amendments 113C to 113E, as the Bill’s definition of environmental protection refers back to the definition of the natural environment, it is also not necessary to specifically mention ecosystems in Clause 44.

Regarding Amendments 110 and 112 from my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord Randall respectively, the Government of course recognise the fundamental importance of healthy soils to a thriving natural environment. Both my noble friends made powerful cases. It may not be the most glamorous of environmental subjects, but it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of soil. I was struck by the teaspoon factory analogy from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, which I have no doubt will stick with me.

I will make a couple of points. Outside of the Bill, a number of big levers are being introduced that will have a direct bearing on the health of our soil. A number of noble Lords mentioned the environmental land management system—a shift away from, in effect, subsidising the conversion of land to farmable land, no matter the value of that land beforehand, to a system where all payments are conditional on the delivery of public goods, such as restoration of the soil and good management generally of ecosystems.

In addition, our tree action plan is backed up by the £640 million Nature for Climate fund, a major part of which will be encouraging landowners, through very generous incentives, to either plant up or naturally regenerate land either side of England’s waterways, with a view to boosting the biodiversity value of these already biodiverse and valuable places, but also to slowing water and cleaning the water that eventually makes it into our waterways in numerous different magical ways. In addition, we have our peatland plan, which we will debate at another point.

My noble friend Lord Caithness asked me to answer his question about the research being conducted by Defra into soil reconstruction. Although I cannot give him a detailed answer now—I will ask my colleague, Rebecca Pow, to write to him with a proper answer—I can say that today we are publishing details of the first options under the sustainable farming incentive, which will be open to farmers eligible for the basic payment scheme. We have decided to start with soil health since, as so many noble Lords said, that is where everything connected with successful farming begins.

Regarding the Environmental Audit Committee report—I apologise, I cannot remember which noble Lord mentioned it—we are developing a healthy soils indicator, a soil structure monitoring method and a soil health monitoring scheme to help land managers and farmers track the health of our soils over time and the impact of some of the policies I just mentioned.

The definition of “natural environment” in Clause 43 already includes soil; Clause 43(c) includes “land”. As is clarified in paragraph 370 of the Bill’s Explanatory Notes, I can confirm that this already includes soils, as well as geological strata and other features. In any event, soils would also already be captured to the extent that they formed a habitat for plants, wild animals and other living organisms, as habitats are included regardless of their location.

I turn to Amendment 113, tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. I completely agree that it is essential that the marine environment is included in the environmental governance provisions of the Bill. I was also struck by the palpable anger and sadness expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in her very powerful speech as she described the effects of plastic pollution on the noble albatross. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, also expressed concerns—shared by most of the Committee, I suspect—about the devastating impacts of mindless bottom trawling. As she says, it is a bit like clear-felling rainforests; it is just not visible to most of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has been around long enough to know that it is not Committee but rather Report that is the business end of legislation. I have said many times that I consider all input and all amendments to be fair game and valid, and I will be looking through them in great detail over the coming weeks. He asked that I demonstrate my seriousness on this issue, which is slightly annoying, I have to say. I have committed and devoted every day of my life as far back as I remember—since I was a five year-old—to the environment, and I will continue to do so. Being a Minister for the Environment is a mere step in that process. I might ask him to square his own suspiciously hollow laments about the stupidity of plastic waste with his daily insistence on wearing these absurd throwaway masks, which really are unforgivable, as far as I can see.

I reassure the Committee that the marine environment is already included in these provisions, as we have noted on pages 23 and 59 of the Explanatory Notes. The definition of the natural environment explicitly covers “water”, which includes seawater. It also covers “land”, which includes the seabed, intertidal zones and coastal floodplains. Any plant, wild animal, living organism or habitat is also included in the definition, irrespective of where it is located. The Bill therefore includes the marine environment within the definition.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the tensions between wind farms and the marine environment, which I think we discussed in a previous debate. She is right: there is undoubtedly a tension there. It is a concern that is very much shared by my colleague in the other place, Rebecca Pow, who is looking into this and talking to stakeholders, with a view to developing an answer. I am afraid I am not able to give an answer; I do not think there is one at this point, but I absolutely recognise the need for the Government to deliver one.

In Amendment 113B my noble friend Lord Caithness proposes a globally recognised definition of biodiversity from the Convention on Biological Diversity. Because the definition is necessarily broad, the risk is that it could be unhelpful to some of the specific measures in the Bill. For example, under the broad definition of the CBD, the exotic fauna of a new safari park could be argued to contribute to biodiversity net gain, despite doing very little to support local wildlife or ecology. So, where necessary, setting out definitions which are context-specific will help users fulfil their duties without ambiguity. That is why we have, for example, defined the actions which may be taken to further the biodiversity duty in Clause 95 without defining biodiversity itself.

On Amendments 194AB and 194AC, while I agree that we cannot enhance biodiversity without also enhancing the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in which it exists, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that the biodiversity net gain approach does already take these into account. The biodiversity metric used for biodiversity net gain takes account of habitat quality by looking at a range of properties, such as plant communities and geology. The biodiversity gains resulting from these clauses will therefore be broad gains in ecosystems, not just gains in or for the charismatic and rare species which can dominate biodiversity discourse.

I hope I have answered the questions put to me today and provided some reassurance. I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 5:30 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this very interesting debate of just over an hour and a half. I have to say that I was saddened by my noble friend Lord Framlingham: when he started talking about how much soil had been lost to development, he did not mention HS2. We know my noble friend’s thoughts on HS2, and I thought that might well be top of his list—but it is in there too, I am sure. I have received a lot of support for my amendment. I agree with my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge; I do not really mind whose amendment wins at the end of the day. The important thing is that we get it in the Bill.

I am very grateful for my noble friend the Minister’s reply to me. There were some very good things in what he said, and we seem to have hit a good day to discuss soil, with the announcements that are going to be made by his fellow Minister. As for his final remark to me, that soil is already covered in the Bill as it stands, that is the same reply we had during the passage of the Agriculture Bill. We put soil on the face of that Bill and this Bill must tie up with it.

The brief from the department has a strangely familiar ring, even though it was 25 years ago. I seem to recognise quite a lot of the wording my noble friend used.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned the good work done on soil by my right honourable friend Michael Gove, who was Secretary of State. I think it would be wrong not to mention the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in this debate. I remember that when my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble was taking the Agriculture Bill through, he referred to the “Krebs amendment” when it came to soil. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is not with us.

This leads me to a general point. My noble friend the Minister said that the “business end” of a Bill is done on Report. That never used to be the case in this House. We used to divide a lot in Committee, and we got rid of a lot of amendments that way. I am really very worried about this Bill now. There has been no ground given by my noble friend, and we are not even halfway through the Bill. I have no doubt that we are going to be under very severe time constraints on Report and at Third Reading because of the urgency to get this Bill on to the statute book before 1 November and the COP in Glasgow. We are, in effect, going to have a guillotine put over our heads, and there is an awful lot of stuff coming back. I tell my noble friend that this amendment is coming back too. I say to him and my noble friend the Whip: there must be some way we can progress this slightly better than by leaving everything to Report. I want a good Bill and I want the House to work well. I am not trying to be obstructive, but the way it is going will cause a lot of problems in September and October. I think there is a better way for us to get the Bill going at the moment.

With that, I thank everybody who took part. I thank my noble friend but, again, warn him that I will be back with this amendment. In the meantime, I will discuss it with my noble friend Lord Randall to see in which of the two places in the Bill it ought to go. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 110 withdrawn.

Amendments 111 to 113A not moved.

Clause 43 agreed.

Amendment 113B not moved.

Clause 44: Meaning of “environmental protection”

Amendments 113C to 113E not moved.

Clause 44 agreed.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 113F. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.

Clause 45: Meaning of “environmental law”