Amendment 255

Environment Bill - Committee (7th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 12th July 2021.

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Lord Krebs:

Moved by Lord Krebs

255: Clause 105, page 106, line 7, leave out “instead of” and insert “in addition to”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would allow the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to be amended to further new objectives in addition to existing objectives, rather than in place of existing objectives.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 255 and 256 in my name, together with those of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch; Amendment 257AA in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle; and the proposition that Clause 106 do not stand part the Bill, in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch.

Clauses 105 and 106 were added to the Bill by the Government two months ago without any consultation. These two clauses have important potential adverse effects that these amendments seek to rectify. First, they threaten to weaken the protection of our most valuable conservation habitats and species. Secondly, they confer considerable discretionary powers on the Secretary of State to change the rules governing environmental protection.

In order to fix ideas, I will first explain what these special sites and species are. They include more than 200 special areas of conservation protected under the habitats regulations, such as the north Northumberland coast, the North Yorkshire Moors and Ashdown Forest. They include wetland sites, such as the Humber Estuary, portions of the Essex Marshes, the Isles of Scilly and the Exe Estuary, that have been designated under the Ramsar Convention. Last but not least, they include the more than 80 English special protection areas classified under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and subsequent legislation, primarily for the protection of bird species. Between them, these three categories protect our greatest natural assets. They protect many rare species, such as the lady’s slipper orchid, the marsh fritillary, the bottlenose dolphin and the lesser horseshoe bat.

Currently, the regulations require public authorities, including the Secretary of State, to comply with the birds and habitats directives, which were the legal source of the habitats regulations. But Clause 105 gives the Secretary of State powers to swap this duty to comply with the birds and habitats directives with a requirement to comply with the new objectives set out in the Environment Bill; in other words, it changes the obligation to protect our most precious conservation sites and our most endangered species.

The Minister will no doubt say there is nothing to worry about and that the Government have no intention of weakening the protection of these sites and species. He may point to the fact that Clause 105 has safeguards built in, such as the requirement in subsection (7) that the Secretary of State must be

“satisfied that the regulations do not reduce the level of environmental protection provided by the Habitats Regulations.”

He may also say that Clause 105(9) requires the Secretary of State to

“consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”, although we should note that this is a rather vague commitment; we do not know who the “persons” are.

The Minister may also argue that the habitats regulations are overly bureaucratic and that Natural England, given the swingeing cuts to its budget to which I referred in an earlier debate, will not have the capacity to deal with both the habitats regulations and the new requirements introduced by the Bill. However—and this is the central point—there is a key distinction between the requirements of the Bill and those of the habitats regulations.

The targets in the Bill are all about improving our natural environment as a whole. In contrast, the habitats regulations and related regulations are all about protecting individual sites, populations and sometimes even individual specimens; in other words, the two forms of protection are complementary and are not alternatives. Amendments 255 and 256 would speak to this complementarity by ensuring that the current protections for particular sites and species remain in place by replacing “instead of” with “in addition to”. The amendments restrict the power of the Secretary of State to sweep away existing protections while still allowing the law to continue to evolve and cater for domestic conservation priorities.

Amendment 257AA would add an additional layer of protection by requiring the Secretary of State to make changes only if they were compatible with five international conventions. It would also replace the vague commitment to consult persons who are considered appropriate by the Secretary of State with a specific commitment to consult experts, including the statutory bodies: Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the office for environmental protection. It would also ensure that there is parliamentary scrutiny of any changes.

If the Secretary of State really means to follow Clause 105(7), these proposed amendments should simply underpin the intended outcome. If, however, the Government object to the amendments, one has a right to ask why. As a start, I ask the Minister a simple question: can he confirm that the statutory bodies I have mentioned would be consulted by the Secretary of State before any regulations were changed?

Finally, Clause 106 gives the Secretary of State power to amend Part 6 of the habitats regulations in almost any way. This part of the regulations deals with development projects. It includes rules to prevent harm to protected sites except for reasons of overriding public interest.

The habitats regulations do not stop development, but they do ensure that projects are properly assessed and that effective mitigation and compensation are in place. Projects such as the Thames Basin Heaths Partnership have shown how the habitats regulations ensure that development takes place in a way that is compatible with nature, helping to protect the remains of the UK’s vanishing heathlands while still allowing the building of many new homes. Successive reviews have found the regulations to be proportionate and effective, giving certainty to developers and environmental groups alike.

Time and again in the debates on the Bill we have referred to the conflict between conserving nature and allowing development. Time and again, we have heard that the Bill, in many ways, appears to tip the balance in favour of development and against nature. Some might even be driven to argue that the Bill is designed to protect nature provided that this does not interfere with other priorities, housebuilding in particular.

The Minister may argue, as with Clause 105, that safeguards are built in. Under Clause 106, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that protections provided by the habitats regulations are not reduced and must explain the reasoning to Parliament. But this is an entirely subjective test, left to the opinion of the Minister, rather than an effective legal safeguard. Clause 106 requires the Secretary of State only to have regard to the importance of conservation and biodiversity. It does not require the Secretary of State to consult with relevant experts, only with such persons as are considered appropriate.

At this stage, we have had no indication at all about how the powers would actually be used or what problems with the habitats regulations the Government may be seeking to address. Could the Minister give us some examples of these problems?

In my view, Clause 106 could be used to allow the Government to sacrifice our natural environment on the altar of development, sidestepping protections provided by the habitats regulations. If the Minister says, “Don’t worry, we will look after nature”, the best way to convince us of this would be to delete this clause from the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 257A, 257B and 257C. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Devon, for adding his name to them. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, so that we can debate whether the Government can be trusted to guard environmental policy and how much. In seeking to move that Clause 106 not stand part, in spite of its emphasis on conservation and biodiversity, it appears the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, would not like the Secretary of State to have any room to manoeuvre on the proposals presently part of Part 6. I declare my interests as in the register but also particularly as a livestock farmer in a national park and a member of NFU Scotland.

The Government have already passed one amendment to the wording of the habitats regulations that we were operating while we were in the EU, but it was all done so rapidly that it is not altogether surprising that they have a clause in the Bill that would allow them to modify things once the rural environment has settled down. This group of amendments is all about how far they should be able to do so as the proposal unfolds.

Noble Lords will be well versed in the Government’s 25-year environment plan, which is intended to promote a fairer society and social justice, among other things. It was published in May 2019 and outlines their proposals but still lacks many of the mechanisms they hope to be able to use to achieve this, so it remains quite difficult to predict the outcomes.

The purpose of my Amendment 257C is to remedy the fact that in neither the 25-year plan nor this piece of legislation is there a direction to the Government to consider social and economic impacts and give them due regard.

The Government envisage a rural area where a sizeable amount of their planned carbon sequestration and renewable energy will be sourced. I thank the NFU in London for drafting these amendments, but the extent of the whole rural economy is not exclusively involved with farming. Our concern is that agriculture’s progress on a number of fronts, including meeting net zero by 2040, or legislative requirements such as those under the NVS rules, could be thwarted. As part of these commitments, investment in more modern buildings and infrastructure to reduce our environmental footprint will have a huge role to play.

I have been informed that in practical terms, however, planning permission for slurry stores, slurry store covers and buildings are being put on hold or stopped, adding cost and significant business uncertainty, unless these developments or activities are shown not to cause adverse effects on protected sites. In addition, the mitigation expected to be put in place to allow these developments to go ahead is also undermining the investment viability of some projects. Too frequently, the countryside appears to be a zone to be protected from growth and opportunity. But, by working together to make the most of the opportunities we have, by creating jobs, boosting green economic growth, increasing exports, and improving the well-being of the population, we can build a better Britain and level up the entire country, so that no one is disadvantaged by where they live or where their business is based. Farming and rural Britain can provide solutions to many of the challenges. Simply passing legislation is not going to achieve the environmental benefits that the Government seek.

Further, it is held that, as a result of the Dutch N case, Natural England believes that it cannot advise giving permission for a building or infrastructure that will contribute to emissions reductions in areas where background levels are already above or very close to the critical levels for a protected site, even when this is to replace existing infrastructure with a more modern building. This is a particular problem for the question of betterment that is in the second amendment. Despite the fact that emissions for the new build may be reduced, it is often difficult for businesses to gain the required permissions. Enabling every individual or business to make investments that are achievable within their control has the potential to deliver significant environmental benefits, while ensuring that the business remains viable.

They will still have to adapt to fulfil many new purposes. I have heard one analysis of the farming sector that listed some of these as seeking other income, the management of carbon, of renewable energy and of the environment, becoming more efficient, creative co-operation, bringing livestock back on to farms with depleted soils, eliminating the escape of nutrients both to the air and from the runoffs from yards, and at the same time managing the whole carbon footprint of the exercise. They will be faced with how to implement sustainable development, as their current infrastructure simply would not allow many of these enterprises, and new layers will be needed. Can the Minister confirm that a farmer’s existing permitted development rights will not be affected any more than at present by the measures in this Bill?

The 25-year environment plan may be the channel where many of these details must be managed, but the position would be immensely strengthened if Amendment 257A was on the face of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, have their names on Amendment 257AA in this group. At first sight, it appears to flag up a reminder to the Government of what the present rules are. They are largely composed of a number of international treaties in this field that we have been signed up to for many years. A great many of these are specifically sighted on defined sites, and that might offset the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about not having policies which define sites. Those mentioned by name are all international agreements, and our reputation would suffer badly if we were to break them. Would the Minister go along with our abrogating some of these treaties? I have no doubt that the Minister will tell the Committee whether he considers that repeating our commitments here is necessary.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:30 pm, 12th July 2021

My Lords, I speak in favour of all the amendments in this group—except for 257A, which appears to me to be a weakening of a Bill that is already far too weak, away from its purpose of protecting the environment. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already powerfully and comprehensively introduced Amendments 255, 256 and the proposition that Clause 106 should not stand part of the Bill. All of these have full cross-party and non-party support. Indeed, I would have attached my name had there been space.

I will focus in particular on Amendment 257AA, to which I have attached my name, because, when I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, had tabled this, I thought that this was a very neat, comprehensive and protective amendment. We have to be conducting this particular section of the debate in the light of the release in the past couple of hours of the latest draft negotiations of the Convention on Biological Diversity, together with news that the conference is now set to be delayed again, until next year. That provides for, in the current draft—alongside the 2030 protection of land and seas and providing a third of climate mitigations through nature by 2030—new goals for the middle of the century, including reducing the current rates of extinction tenfold, enhancing the integrity of all ecosystems, valuing nature’s contribution to humanity, and providing the financial resources to achieve the vision. This is not, as the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, was just suggesting, something which applies only to specific sites. This very much applies across the whole of the country.

I note that the very useful Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link briefing on all of these amendments noted that, as the noble Duke said, one would assume that the Secretary of State, in light of our international commitments, would exercise this power in a manner that is compatible with our international agreements, including the updated Convention on Biological Diversity. But we have seen again and again that we currently have a Government who do not necessarily see themselves bound by international obligations. Of course, any Government can bind only themselves; they cannot speak to what Governments might do in the future. That is why we need all of these kinds of protections on the face of the Bill.

We also have to look at all of these amendments—but perhaps Amendment 257AA in particular—in the light of the promises that we heard over the past few years that we would have non-regression after Brexit, meaning that we will not go backwards. We heard from the Government again and again that we are seeking only more and stronger protections. All these amendments—but particularly Amendment 257AA—would set on the face of the Bill a promise to stick to what we are indeed committed to now.

Of course, we probably expect to hear from the Minister that this is unnecessary, but I think we all know very well that it is necessary. If it is just some extra protection or insulation, it is hard to see why the Government should have objections to that basic protection, to ensure that we live up to all those international agreements that we have signed, which we expect to be updating through international negotiations in future.

Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench

My Lords, I sought to add my name to the amendments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, but I did so a little late so it does not appear in the current Marshalled List. However, I echo wholeheartedly the sentiments he so expertly expressed and the vital importance when setting these habitat regulations—and indeed all the various worthy strategies we have been debating in the Bill—of supporting sustainable rural development.

I mentioned previously in Committee the danger of the Bill unwittingly inflicting environmental tyranny upon our landscape. If we are not very careful, we will forget that the rural environment that we all know and love and seek to preserve is a place of work for many and was created and sustained by that very same rural enterprise that we are in danger of sweeping away. The only way that our rural landscape will survive and meet the environmental challenges of this era is if it remains a viable and sustainable workplace, supporting farming and a host of diverse rural enterprises.

I know that there is a great enthusiasm among your Lordships for rewilding and large-scale—landscape-scale—interventions in the countryside. However, the Knepp estate is simply not easily replicable, in the same way that not every abandoned mine can become an Eden Project. If we do not conserve small local rural enterprise and local business and employment, our countryside will become a suburban plaything of super-rich environmentalists, supported by a second-home-owning elite able to remote access their white-collar jobs from the comfort of their converted barn while enjoying the view. Local land management will be supported by well-meaning charitable handouts, but we will create a rural life in which there are no local jobs and no affordable homes necessary for a vibrant and diverse local community.

I will also address Amendments 255, 256 and 257AA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I had not intended to, but given that he gave a shout-out to the Exe estuary Ramsar site and that that sits within the Powderham estate, I thought that I ought to offer a comment, particularly with respect to Amendment 257AA and the need for consultation. I would hate for the protections on the River Exe estuary to be in any way weakened. It is a remarkable landscape and it has been created and established that way over many centuries. It is currently managed by the Exe Estuary Management Partnership, which is a remarkable amalgam of vested interests, from the RSPB to local parish councils, and from Exeter City Council to boat clubs, rowing clubs, sailing clubs and shellfishers. It works incredibly well. Can the Minister in his reply say whether the consultation requirements that are proposed would include consultation with local enterprises such as the Exe Estuary Management Partnership, which is so important to the proper management of these very sensitive ecosystems?

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, I support Amendment 257AA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. As the noble Baroness said, this is a very neat amendment which wraps up an awful lot of things that the Government need to pay attention to.

Further on the thought expressed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, that we could trust the Government, I draw the attention of the House and Minister to a project which seems to fly in the face of all the aims of noble Lords in this House and indeed of all these amendments. That is the £3.5 billion theme park called the London Resort, which is on the Swanscombe peninsula on the Thames estuary. The concept for this site, which is spread across 535 acres in Kent, is of a union jack-designed dome, a Disneyesque castle lit up by fireworks, and a Paramount Pictures entryway. It will be the first European development of its kind. It is inspired by Hollywood blockbusters and will have swords, sorcery, dragons and legends. There will even be a jungle where the ancient ruins of a long-extinct Mesoamerican civilisation will sprout out of the ground—which seems ironic. This is in partnership with EDF Energy—always a good one for a bit of greenwash—plus the BBC, ITV, Hollywood and all the rest of it. That is all online. It is aiming to be an attraction claiming to have net-zero emissions—which I personally do not believe. However, it will be built on a recently named SSSI.

Despite letters from all the leading conservation charities and despite agreements from the developers to change some things, the ultimate goal has remained the same and was indeed signed off by Robert Jenrick in February this year. They will be digging up an area of great importance to biodiversity, wetlands, and, of course, given that this is in the estuary, migratory birds. This joint letter from wildlife charities, which I have in my hands, includes the Kent Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Buglife and the CPRE in Kent. They said that the company ought to have sought to withdraw its application and restart the pre-application process after the site was protected. Natural England, which named the area an SSSI, said that 40% of the nationally important wildlife would be directly lost to this theme park, with additional impacts likely from construction and the operation. It also questioned the plans to compensate for the lack of habitat, the home to breeding birds, endangered plants and apparently more than 1,700 species of insects, by creating some sort of protected wildlife somewhere else.

The company is London Resort Company Holdings, or LRCH, and the boss of this project, Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, said that it was fundamental to be a leader in sustainability, and as a result he has provided eight miles of footpaths—I am not sure whether they are concrete or not. It seems the ultimate irony that we are planning to create an ancient civilisation, which has been lost due to the activities of man, in a place which is deemed to be an SSSI and which is just down the road from where we sit now. All the points that noble Lords are making about why we need protections written into the face of the Bill, and indeed the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about the delay again to the meeting in Kunming, mean that the Bill has to be firmed up. I am sorry, but there are inconsistencies that happen with planning such as for this project; as your Lordships will know, I have gone on about the houses on the edge of the Knepp estate. You need people to come with you, and we need to be able to trust the Government. I urge the Minister to look at this project and I very much look forward to his answers.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 5:45 pm, 12th July 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and I thank her for getting down to brass tacks with an example. However, I am concerned about this group of amendments, which seeks yet further to strengthen adherence to the legacy of the EU habitats directive and to regulations made under it. When I was lucky enough to be a Minister much involved in negotiating on EU legislation, I used to attend Cabinet committees where, without revealing any secrets, the iniquities and inflexibilities of the habitats directive was a regular theme. The red tape and requirements, for example, to comply with protections in every relevant catchment even where a species or flora or fauna were abundant elsewhere, helped to fuel Brexit sentiment and the feeling that we should be able to do things our own way.

This Bill is an example in spades of not taking back real control and indeed doing far more than the EU has done on the environment. That troubles me, because we do not know how it will work out in practice, and of course the regulation powers in Clause 105—and indeed elsewhere in the Bill—are very wide. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on the need for proper consultation, and like him, I would appreciate some examples to enlighten us all before Report. I note that there is no impact assessment on these clauses; why is that?

I am highly doubtful about Clauses 105 and 106, since they leave us so close to the EU on habitats and, I fear, open to judicial review if we do things in a different way. Simpler, innovative ways of protecting our environmental jewels and changing things that the EU has decreed but do not work, has to be open to us. We want to get out of the straitjacket of Roman law and have a common-law, common-sense approach to protecting our exceptional habitats and indeed keeping countryside businesses vibrant, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, has said.

I fear that these clauses limit our freedom too much. Moreover, nearly all the amendments in this group would make things worse and will therefore, I hope, be resisted by my noble friend the Minister. Whether you are a Brexiteer like him or not, we must all acknowledge that we have left the EU and must move forward independently.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, we are all very much in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for introducing this series of amendments and he is, of course, right to be concerned about habitats, the survival of species and all those things on which he touched.

I want, however, to focus the House’s attention on one specific matter. We debated some amendments the week before last, I think, on heritage and, underlying the debates that we have had day after day, has been a recognition that our landscape is manmade or man-moulded in its entirety. The villages, towns and cities in which we live are, of course, entirely manmade. I supported the heritage amendments, introduced very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, because of my concern about buildings in general that have historic interest, and churches in particular. Nowhere else in our country is the story of our country more graphically told than in our country and town churches and, in particular, in the monuments and other artefacts that they contain.

We must get the balance right—balance has occurred time and again in these debates—because there is a real danger from one particular and specific source to the monuments in our churches. I refer to the danger of bats. Somebody may chuckle, and “bats in belfries” always raises a laugh, but this is a serious subject. I have brought it to the House’s attention before; I even introduced a Private Member’s Bill three or four years ago. But if noble Lords came with me to the wonderful church of Tattershall in Lincolnshire—one of the finest perpendicular churches in the country—they would be amazed, or would have been a few years ago, by the glory and beauty of the brasses. They have had to be covered, and in some cases hidden, because of the corrosive effect of bat droppings and urine. This is a story that can be told in many parts of the country, indeed in some thousands of our 16,000 listed grade 1 or grade 2-style churches. Nobody who cares about our country and the beauty of those buildings should dismiss this. We have to get the balance right.

I am not being so stupid or frivolous as to suggest that we try to exterminate bats as we exterminate rats. I am not doing that at all, but I am saying that there must be a real attempt to address this problem—and there is a partnership at the moment, experimental and very slow, between Natural England and English Heritage. When I raised it last time in your Lordships’ House, I had dozens of letters from all over the country. One in particular sticks in my mind, which came from somebody who worshipped regularly at the church of Abbey Dore, one of the glories of the golden valley of Herefordshire—one of the loveliest parts of our country. This particular correspondent was kneeling to receive holy communion on a Sunday morning when a bat defecated into his and the vicar’s hands. The vicar, who was a lady, was understandably distressed and so was he.

We have to wonder what we can do about this because, apart from anything else, there is a health hazard. We know—it is proven—that bats carry diseases. It is even suggested, with fairly good evidence to support it, that the pandemic under which we are still suffering at the moment originated in bats in the wet markets of China. So this is not scaremongering; this is making a serious point in, I hope, a serious way. Many of our monuments are brasses, but many are marble, which is particularly badly affected by bat defecations and bat urinations. It is not a pleasant subject, but it has to be addressed. I am very worried, because so many of our churches have been closed for so long during the pandemic—just what extra damage has been done during this period?

Again, I do not speak as a scaremonger; I am a long-standing member of the Church Monuments Society, vice-president of the Ecclesiological Society and have been warden of three churches for a total of 36 years. Like my noble friend Earl Shrewsbury when it came to shooting, I know a little bit about the subject of which I am talking. It is something that, in an Environment Bill, should be brought to your Lordships’ attention. I ask my noble friend the Minister one particular favour: perhaps the greatest expert on this subject is Professor Jean Wilson, former president of the Church Monuments Society, and I would be very grateful if my noble friend would allow me to bring her to meet him so that she can give him graphic examples and discuss this.

There are ways and means of diverting bats from churches, such as building special bat roosts or emitting certain sounds that will drive them out. There are a whole range of things that can be done. Some are being done at the moment, but this is an urgent problem. An Environment Bill passing into law which did not recognise heritage or recognise some of the glories of built heritage would be an inferior Bill. I do not question for a moment my noble friend’s interest in these things and his concerns about them, but none of us can be experts on everything, and a meeting with Professor Wilson might be extremely helpful to him. Government must have the opportunity to balance things.

I have great sympathy with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who spoke, as he always does, with calm and quiet authority. However, from a very brief conversation that I had with him, when I told him that I would introduce this subject this afternoon, I got the impression that it was something that he had not necessarily given a great deal of thought to. I do not criticise him for that at all. He is one of the greatest experts that we have in your Lordships’ House, and we are exceptionally fortunate to have him—but this is something that I am glad to draw to his attention, and I hope that he will appreciate the fact that I am doing so. We ought to have a post-Covid survey of our churches, we ought to see how much this damage has increased, and we ought to make it a real object of Natural England and English Heritage to try to come together to address this, because much is at stake.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 6:00 pm, 12th July 2021

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Cormack. I can immediately make him an offer: once full service is resumed, as I hope it will be soon, I will entertain him and Professor Wilson, and I could bring along someone from the Bat Conservation Trust to show that there is a middle way here. I do not know whether he was in his place during that last debate, when I explained my interest as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. I recognise his genuine concerns, but at some stage we could probably have a good discussion over a cup of coffee and a sticky bun.

I added my name to Amendment 256 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who said everything I need to say, really—I support his sentiments entirely. I also express my concerns about Clause 106 standing part. I do not see it, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe does, being in any way a Brexit-related matter, just one of making sure that we in this country can have the best conservation and protection for our natural environment and species. Whether that was afforded in the EU, I do not know. I have not always been the greatest fan of some of its regulations, not so much because of the regulations themselves but because of the way in which they were implemented. The Bill is a fantastic chance for us to get ahead of our European neighbours on this.

I also completely endorse the views and sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on the Swanscombe proposals. I brought up this matter in your Lordships’ House a while ago and we need to take it very seriously, because it is a prime example of something that maybe does not immediately look like the most appealing of natural environments but actually has the most marvellous biodiversity. Once it is gone, it is gone—and what for? A theme park. Is that really how we want to look after our nature?

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend, and I pay tribute to his work as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. I press my noble friend the Minister to respond to the concerns I raised in the debate on the Amendment 234 group and ask for his confirmation that a greater balance will be achieved between the interests of bats and humans in the context of the closure of St Hilda’s Church at Ellerburn. It is extremely important that the parishioners of that and other churches know that their interests will not be subordinated to those of bats.

I associate myself with the amendments in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose and the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his co-signees, which proposes that Clause 106 do not stand part. I associate myself with all the comments made by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose on his amendment. I need say nothing more than that I support and applaud the idea, set out in his amendments, of achieving sustainable development and a balance between different uses. In particular, I support the words of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, in support of farming and the rural economy, and I hope that this group of amendments will place on record our desire that a balance be achieved.

In addition to my question about bats in the belfry in the context of St Hilda’s Church at Ellerburn, I press my noble friend the Minister to confirm the reason for the urgency for Clause 106. I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that it was added at quite short notice and without any consultation, which is always slightly worrying. Can the Minister confirm—my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe hit the nail on the head—that this is, to a certain extent, a consequence of the EU directive on habitats being retained in UK law? Paragraph 955 on page 118 of the Explanatory Notes, which my noble friend the Minister is always keen that we read—I am one step ahead of him in this regard—says:

“The national site network of European sites provides protection for habitats designated for a particular purpose and supports delivery of international and domestic biodiversity objectives.”

I imagine that one of the main thrusts of Clause 106 is to ensure that that list is kept under review—by granting the Government the power to keep it under review—now that we have left the European Union. I urge my noble friend the Minister to continue to obtain a balance between the uses and the different interests that will be exercised in this regard.

How will the habitats regulations be applied when it comes to the planning Bill, which is coming before the House in short order?

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, to which I added my name. He is right to raise the concerns that a number of us have about the intentions of the Government in removing the protections on our most valuable ecological sites and habitats. He mentioned some species that are very important to him; for me it is about the bitterns and nightingales. The Government are proposing, as the noble Lord rightly said, to change the present situation, where there has to be overriding public interest to remove protections for particular sites, to one in which, basically, local authorities have to satisfy the needs of the Bill and meet overall targets for improving nature.

They are asking them to do all that on trust, and as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, rightly said, the Government’s amendment says that the Secretary of State will decide whether there has been a reduction of those protections. There is no guarantee of consultation with independent experts. I hope the Minister will answer the direct question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on that point: will the Government guarantee to consult the independent experts? Without that, we must query their intentions.

There is a slightly broader point about consultation, one which the noble Earl, Lord Devon, raised. The current system works very well when there is proper consultation among all interested stakeholders in a given area, including the businesses, environmentalists and local action groups. It might work well in the Exe estuary; it certainly works well with us in the Thames basin, with the heath development framework. My local authority is working on that with 11 other local authorities, and we have managed to operate within the existing framework of the habitats directive. Meanwhile in Surrey—a heavily developed area—we are building the homes that are needed while protecting our most special ecological sites. The current consultation system is working, so there is no way we should give that up for a system in which there is no guarantee of consultation in future.

Secondly, on the point that the Government are asking us to take all this on trust, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said that there is no impact assessment. Surprise, surprise: that is because there was no consultation and it was introduced at Report in the Commons. There is no impact assessment, but there have been multiple reviews of the legislation on the habitats directive and all of them said it should be improved, not revoked. That consultation has involved businesses as well as environmental NGOs and other stakeholders. It is a shame that the Government have not introduced the improvements asked for by those interested parties over the years, rather than going for the nuclear option of suddenly throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Thirdly, I come to what worries me most about the Government asking us to take this on trust. We have had debates about why they will not include in the Bill the state of nature targets for species abundance, and they said it was because at the moment, they cannot work out the metrics: they do not have the metrics in place and must work out what those targets are. If they must work them out, why do they think it is okay to get rid of the existing system, when we do not have those robust metrics in place? We should not be removing something that is delivering protection for our most valuable ecological sites and allowing developments in hotspots such as Surrey, if we do not have the metrics to prove that we can move from a system that is working to another which may be what the Government want, but for which we do not have the metrics.

The Government are asking us to take too much on trust at this stage. It makes me think that this is really more cover for future changes in the proposed planning Bill, through which they will sweep away protections for particular sites to allow more development in these new zoned areas. I accept that we have left Europe and we need to move ahead. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said that we need to move ahead independently. I do not care whether it is independently or not; I want us to move ahead so that we better protect our environment and, at the same time, build the affordable houses we need. The existing system is working and the Government need to provide some very good answers if they are to persuade the House that it should be swept away and replaced by something unproven and not clearly argued.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, we support Amendments 255, 256 and 257AA in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others, which allow the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to be amended to further new objectives in addition to, rather than in place of, existing ones. Government amendments to the Bill were, disappointingly, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said in his introduction, brought in without consultation. They introduced new Clauses 105 and 106, providing powers for the Secretary of State to amend the habitats regulations. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that taking things on trust is simply not good enough in legislation. This Government may say, “Yes, you can trust us”, but who knows what the future holds?

We have heard that Clause 105 allows Ministers, as, as the noble, Lord Krebs, said, to swap the duty on public authorities to satisfy the requirements of the nature directives with a duty to satisfy the requirements of the Bill’s targets and environmental improvement plans. However, the new objectives are simply not a substitute for those of the nature directives. They serve an entirely different purpose. as noble Lords have said. The Bill’s targets aim to ensure overall national improvement across the natural environment.

To satisfy the expected Environment Bill requirements, habitats and species in general need to be increasing. By contrast, the nature directive is all about protecting particular habitats and species and specific sites and populations. They form the first line of defence for some of our most precious habitats and species, and any powers to amend them must be designed and considered very carefully to avoid unintended consequences. Any protections must be maintained and built on, not undermined.

The Government have said they need this power because they want the legislation to adequately support their ambitions for nature and free up technical expertise in Natural England from the distraction of what they regard as highly prescriptive legal processes. But these processes include crucial safeguards in decisions concerning the protection of species and habitats. They are not the bureaucratic burden being painted by some, and they must not be stripped away in the name of simplification.

If the powers in the Bill are not appropriately prescribed, they could be used to deconstruct the regime of strict protection for the UK’s finest wildlife sites and could weaken the strong and vital safeguards for European protected species. The Government must therefore ensure that the powers provide for additional protections, in line with the overarching ambition of the Bill to improve the environment, without diluting the important technical protections for individual sites and species provided by the habitats regulations. Exactly how does the Minister envisage that happening? We know that this will be achieved only if the clauses are amended as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked about the Government’s promises on non-regression. Again, I ask the Minister: how is non-regression met by the clause?

We know that the habitats regulations ensure that development projects that cause significant damage to wildlife sites go ahead only for reasons of overriding public interest. As drafted, the new power could be used to change any aspect of the habitats regulations assessment rules which currently protect our rarest designated conservation sites from being harmed by new activities, both onshore and in marine environments. As we heard earlier, there has not been enough discussion of the protections needed for our precious marine environments. Unfortunately, all of this could easily undermine the most important protections. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, laid out her concerns clearly in this regard.

The Government have said that the power is needed to accommodate future changes to consenting regimes, which are likely to include the change to a zonal planning system, as proposed in the planning White Paper. This is really concerning, as it could allow large areas to be zoned for development, including protected sites, without the site-specific searches and safeguards currently in place.

During debates on the Bill, we have heard many concerns about inappropriate development. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, gave us a particularly vivid example of how this could all go wrong if we are not careful. The wide scope of the new power and the weak procedural safeguards in the Bill make Clause 106 a significant threat to maintaining critical environmental protections. The power would give future Ministers the ability to sidestep the vital safeguards for sites currently provided by the habitats regulations and on which the Government rely to meet their international obligations. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, eloquently explained why Clause 106 is so very problematic. We agree, and we agree with him that it should be deleted from the Bill.

I will now speak briefly to the amendments in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. I thank him for his introduction, during which he explained some of the challenges faced by farmers and the rural economy in delivering the expected environmental benefits. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, spoke passionately, as he always does, about the importance of sustainability in our rural environments, but in a way that supports farming and local businesses. Those of us who live in in rural farming communities understand the importance of balance, and our rural communities must be supported as they go through so much change, as they are at the moment.

It has been a very interesting debate. The Minister really needs to listen to people’s concerns, particularly regarding Clause 106, and I look forward to his response.

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) 6:15 pm, 12th July 2021

I thank all Peers for their contributions to this debate, and I share the strong feeling in this House that we need to protect our precious species and habitats, and ensure that our laws and regulations enable us to do that. This Bill creates a new ambitious domestic framework for nature. We have brought forward a suite of legally binding targets, including two for biodiversity, put environmental improvement plans on a statutory footing and created a range of powerful new policy levers, including biodiversity net gain. The Government’s intention is to capitalise on this new framework and, to enable us to do so, we must be able to update our conservation laws. So it is right that those laws should be updated to meet our new heightened ambition for nature restoration in this country, even while we must be clear—as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, emphasised— that whatever changes are brought in do not reduce existing protections for our most vulnerable sites and species.

Earlier in Committee, I brought forward a new clause to require the Government to set a further legally binding target aiming to halt the decline of nature. Ensuring that our protected sites can be restored to good condition to provide a safe haven for our most vulnerable habitats and species is a key part of this. That is why we are introducing a power to amend Part 6 of the habitats regulations. The twin climate and biodiversity crises present long-term challenges that threaten our future if left unchecked, so we need to ensure that we have the means to act, if we need to, to adapt some of our principal nature conservation rules to address these pressures.

The Government want to see a more nature-rich Britain, with a fit-for-purpose regulatory framework that drives the delivery of our ambition and reverses the decline of nature. A Green Paper in autumn this year will seek views on any proposed changes within the context of the Government’s approach to nature recovery. The paper will be informed by the habitats regulations assessment working group, led by my colleague, my noble friend Lord Benyon. Stakeholders will have the opportunity to influence how we can improve our wildlife laws to deliver on these ambitions. Noble Lords will know that the clause includes a number of safeguards that are designed to retain our existing protections. I will set them out here, as it is important to demonstrate that the Government do not treat this casually.

The power to amend Regulation 9 cannot be used before 1 February 2023, after the Government have set our biodiversity targets and reviewed the environmental improvement plan. In addition, Ministers will have to be satisfied and explain to Parliament that any change would not reduce our existing environmental protections, and Parliament will have a vote on any use of the powers. In addition, Ministers must consult before the powers are used. We have committed to consulting with the OEP, in particular, before these powers are used. Moreover, we will of course ensure that consultation on any proposals is comprehensive and appropriate to deliver our environmental ambitions.

In response to Amendment 257AA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I stress that the test that the Secretary of State must “be satisfied” that protections are not reduced is a high bar. It requires certainty on his part that there have been no reductions in protections from the existing habitats regulations. The Secretary of State will also have to demonstrate this by making a statement to this House and subjecting that statement to scrutiny. If the judgment of the Secretary of State is proven, or even thought, to be wrong, it can subsequently be challenged in court.

Looking slightly more widely, I will also address the noble Lord’s Amendments 255 and 256. I hope I have demonstrated that we want to enhance the regulatory framework to improve outcomes for nature in this country. I understand the concern that this power might substitute the protections offered by the directives with more general requirements. However, it is designed to allow requirements to specify particular protections for habitats and species. For example, we could require specific species to be strictly protected to ensure delivery of our new species abundance target. It will also provide greater clarity for public authorities on the precise requirements they are required to meet. These amendments would not allow us to reconsider existing requirements in the directives. This would deprive us of the scope potentially to clarify or improve the requirements and would therefore remove the opportunity to tailor and improve the existing legislative framework to support our domestic ambitions and international obligations.

To address some of the points raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, the UK, probably more than any other country, is playing a central role in reversing biodiversity loss—for example, in negotiating the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which commits world leaders to urgent action by 2030, and goes far beyond that. I encourage anyone who has not read it to do so; it is a very ambitious document, to which 86 countries have signed up so far.

At home, we are committed to protecting 30% of our land for nature and have come forward with a duty to set a legally binding target on species abundance, which we have already discussed in Committee. We are also publishing a Green Paper later this year, which will provide the first opportunity in a generation to draw together the evidence for change to update and modernise our current patchwork of wildlife legislation, which has been developed in a somewhat piecemeal manner over many decades. We can then build a coherent system of protection to ensure that our most precious habitats and species thrive across England. But time is critical. Where the evidence is clear that amending the regulations could improve the natural environment and make the processes clearer and more legally certain to help improve the condition of our sites, we will have the means of doing so.

In response to a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, we will provide a full impact assessment of any regulations made under the powers, when bringing them forward, in line with the approach taken to delegated powers across the Bill. My understanding is that we cannot use those powers until the metrics are in place and the targets have been set.

In response to a number of noble Lords and as I mentioned earlier, the Secretary of State has asked my noble friend Lord Benyon to form a small informal group to oversee consideration of how the habitats directive amendments proposed in the Bill, in relation to these regulations, might be progressed. This thinking will feed into the Green Paper planned for autumn this year. If the evidence suggests that amending the regulations can help improve the condition of our sites and contribute to our 2030 ambition, we will have the means to do so swiftly.

I add one further point to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. Her compelling speech described the habitats directive as having worked, but the reality is that it has not. We have experienced a dramatic collapse in our biodiversity over recent years and decades, despite the rules that are in place. It is wrong to hold them up as some kind of gold standard. That is not to say they are without value; they have been an extraordinarily important framework that, I suspect, has prevented even more damage being done to our nature and biodiversity, but it would be wrong if the extent of our ambition were to end with the status quo, which is not delivered. I reiterate to noble Lords my assurance that the Government will not do anything to undermine existing protections and will take a measured, inclusive and consultative approach to reform. In light of this, I beg that Clause 106 stands part of the Bill.

I recognise the importance of the proposal of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, in his Amendments 257A and 257B, to encourage sustainable development and betterment. Our farmers play an enormously important role as custodians of our natural environment—a point made well by the noble Earl, Lord Devon. They play an enormously important role and their contribution will be critical to delivering nature recovery. Nature recovery and our ambitions will not be possible without them. It is not a choice of farmers versus nature, farmers versus biodiversity or farming versus beauty. As is already happening all over the country, we have to find a way to reconcile these ambitions. We are already working on guidance to support our ambition of modernising on-farm infrastructure, a vital part of the agricultural transition to improve productivity and efficiency, and to protect the environment.

Clause 105 offers the opportunity to ensure legacy EU legislation can protect and enhance our natural environment as effectively as possible. The Green Paper, which will be published later this year, will provide an opportunity to explore these issues further. I welcome discussion with noble Lords and stakeholders as part of this.

I hope I understood the question from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose. He asked me to reconfirm that the UK will adhere to those international agreements to which we have signed up. If that is what he asked, I would be happy to do so, as any of my colleagues would.

The noble Earl, Lord Devon, asked about consultations generally. The Secretary of State must consult people before making any change to the habitats regulations. The power is general and therefore can include the organisations the noble Earl cited, and many more. I would be very happy to meet my noble friend Lord Cormack, with Professor Wilson, at a time that suits him. He is right to raise this issue. Reconciling the needs of historic buildings with those of important species, such as the 18 species of bat that we have in England, can be difficult and raises all kinds of issues such as those in his speech. I applaud the “bats in churches” project, a partnership between Natural England, the Church of England and other heritage and conservation partners. It is a really good example of these different interests working together to deliver solutions. Long may that continue and long may we learn from that.

Regarding Amendment 257C, we do not want to limit the scope of the clause to development alone, as enhancing biodiversity can have a multitude of benefits, including sustainable development. Social and economic considerations may already be considered in Part 6 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, where there are imperative reasons for overriding public interest.

I thank all noble Lords for their impassioned and informed contributions to this hugely important debate. As I have set out, the Government believe that without the ability to update our conservation laws where the evidence suggests that it is necessary to meet our ambitions and our new legally binding targets, our ambitions for nature may end up being constrained. Clause 106, in conjunction with Clause 105, will ensure that our conservation regulations can contribute to meeting the tough challenges that we set for ourselves as we seek to restore nature in this country. I listened carefully to the debate and legitimate and understandable concerns have been raised, but I hope that I have gone some way towards reassuring noble Lords about the Government’s intentions for these powers, because that is what this comes down to: our intention to improve the conservation status of protected habitats and species across the country and to improve our ability to deliver on those wider ambitions. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees 6:30 pm, 12th July 2021

I have received two requests to speak after the Minister, from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I was not intending to speak to this group of amendments, especially as I was keen to keep the Minister sweet for my tree amendments in the next group, but I have become increasingly worried and suspicious. I support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and want to ask the Minister about the Government’s intentions.

Why the Government would want to put their head into this particular lions’ den mystifies me. Why were the clauses to weaken the habitat regulations introduced without consultation, late in the day in May? The habitat regulations, with protections for SACs and SPAs, are one of the jewels in the crown of EU environmental legislation. Even for Brexiteers there are such things, one of them being the habitats regulations. They give protection for the very small number of the most important priority sites and species, and there are only about 900 across the whole four nations of the UK. Quite a lot of them are in Scotland and out to sea, so it is not as if you would be falling over SPAs and SACs on every street corner and being prevented from doing anything as a result. We know that their protections are much valued by the public. They are also a bit of a coup for the UK. The UK led on negotiating these protections into EU law originally. It was the Prime Minister’s dad who played a substantial role in that, so threatening the habitats regulations is tantamount to a declaration of war. Why would the Government invite this sort of conflict? That is what is worrying me.

Clause 105 says that there will be no diminution of the habitats regulations’ requirements, but the judgment on this is left to the Minister, and, although he will consult and bring proposals to Parliament, he will to some extent mark his own homework—so noble Lords can see why I am suspicious. Speeches like that of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, stir up that suspicion even further. The government proposals could quite easily be set alongside and be complementary to the habitats regulations’ requirements. The requirement to meet the Environment Bill targets and the environmental improvement plan targets could be additional and not instead of the habitats regulations’ requirements. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, very clearly pointed out that they are not the same requirements.

In fact, of the targets that we discussed earlier in Committee, the one that the Government are prepared to move on is on species abundance, which is about species numbers, rather than habitats or sites. So the habitats regulations’ protection for these most important habitats and sites is still required. Why do the Government want to junk one of the decent pieces of EU legislation? Is it simply because it is a European law? Is the Minister being forced into sweeping the ground for a set of planning proposals that have not been seen across government yet, let alone by your Lordships or the public?

In these circumstances, Clause 106 ought to be deleted from the Bill—it is a pig in a poke, and we do not know enough about what is going to come in its wake. Above all, I would like to hear from the Minister why the Government are stepping into this maelstrom—because it will be one—and how the changes that they plan to make could be made more transparent so that your Lordships could be enabled to decide whether or not to be suspicious. I would also like to hear why we cannot have what the Minister is proposing as an addition to the existing habitats regulations’ requirements, rather than instead of them.

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 am sorry that I have raised the noble Baroness’s suspicions. I have described the safeguards that are in place, and I will not repeat them because she will have heard what I said. It is wrong to imply, as I think she did, that we are scrapping the habitats directive or that it is deemed to have no value by government—that is not the case, and I hope that I made that clear in my speech. However, it is equally wrong to pretend that it is unimprovable; clearly, it is improvable and clearly we need a better or improved set of rules to deliver on the ambition that we have set ourselves. The facts make that unarguable.

However, I will go further and say that describing what the Government are doing as a “declaration of war” against nature is very hard to reconcile with an Environment Bill that has unprecedented targets. I challenge the noble Baroness to find any other country with ambitions that come even close to those that we are setting out here in relation to peat, water, waste, species, tree planting, et cetera. I challenge her to find any other country that has as ambitious an approach in relation to land-use subsidies. Indeed, I can tell her that we are the only country to have attempted, let alone achieved, the transition from the kinds of subsidies that dominate worldwide to the subsidy system that we are replacing them with, based on the condition of the delivery of public goods. Through the Bill, we are the only country to legislate to clean up our international footprint. I believe that we are introducing a world first in net gain. I could go on with many other examples. The idea that the Bill represents a declaration of war on nature is frankly absurd.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for expressing concern for the rural economy and farming, but the only question is whether, without this amendment, it is a continuing commitment. It was interesting to hear him thread together his arguments about the habitats directive and how it is safeguarded under the Bill.

I asked about the position on permitted development rights for farmers—perhaps he would like to write to me.

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 apologise to the noble Duke if I did not answer all his questions. I will scan Hansard and write to him to fill in any gaps that I left.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

I thank all Peers for their contributions to this very interesting and well-informed debate, and I thank the Minister for his reply. I listened very carefully to what he said, and he certainly made some encouraging noises. He reiterated that the Government wish to ensure that we do not reduce existing protections and that we want to create a more nature-rich Britain. I understood, I hope correctly, that there will be some Green Paper consultation on changes to the habitats regulations and that, in making any changes, the Secretary of State will consult the office for environmental protection. The Minister did not mention the other bodies that I listed—Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee—but I hope that the Secretary of State will also consult them. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, he also confirmed that there would be some form of impact assessment related to any proposed changes.

In spite of that, having listened to what the noble Baroness, Lady of Young of Old Scone, just said, I think that a number of us are not totally convinced and wonder why, if the Government’s intentions are so genuinely for nature, they are not prepared to make some relatively modest changes to Clause 105 and, possibly, if not remove Clause 106, certainly change its wording to give us in the Bill the reassurance that the Minister is prepared to give us at the Dispatch Box.

I will also comment on a few points that were made by various contributors to the debate. Many Peers, including the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, my noble friend Lord Devon, the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke about the balance between the needs of nature and the needs of people. None of us doubts that there is a balance to be struck, and we do not know exactly what that balance is. But what we do know, without any question—I do not think anybody in this Chamber or elsewhere could deny it—is that, in the past, the balance has been in favour of human exploitation, wealth and economy, and against nature. Otherwise, if we have not got it wrong in the past, why are we living in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world? Whatever balance we seek, it must be a balance where the needle shifts from the past towards a position on the dial where nature is given higher priority. That is what I and many other Peers who have spoken in this debate and previous debates in Committee firmly believe. I think the Minister shares that belief.

The second point is about the combination of trust, consultation and non-regression. My noble friend Lady Boycott gave a compelling example of why we should not take things on trust—why we have to look at what is happening on the ground rather than honeyed words that we might hear. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also referred to the Government’s commitment to non-regression, which the Minister did not actually repeat but I think he implied. It is not that we do not trust the Minister, but trust is something that has to be borne by future generations of Governments and many of us would like to see some tweaking of the Bill to underpin that trust.

The final point that came up in the debate, which the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned, was the question of whether this is really all about cutting red tape. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, gave us the impression that, in her view, there is a need to cut excessive bureaucracy that we have inherited from the European Union.

I will take away and reflect on what the Minister has said, but I end with one final comment, picking up on something that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, about the biodiversity metric. Yesterday, I read a very powerful criticism of the biodiversity metric by Professor Katherine Willis, a member of the Natural Capital Committee until it was disbanded. She argues that the metric, as currently developed by Defra and Natural England, is absolutely not fit for purpose. Among the many other meetings that he is now committing himself to, is the Minister prepared to meet me, Professor Willis and perhaps some other interested Members of this House to review these criticisms of the biodiversity metric and, perhaps at the same time, to discuss any changes in wording to Clauses 105 and 106? In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 255 withdrawn.

Amendment 256 not moved.