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Clause 41 - Biodiversity lists and action (England)

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:30 am, 28th June 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 41, page 14, line 33, at end insert

‘and such other bodies as he sees fit’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 5, in clause 42, page 15, line 6, after ‘Wales’, insert

‘and such other bodies as the Assembly sees fit’.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should point out that I have recorded in the Register of Members’ Interests ownership of and partnership in a farming business in Wales, as that may be reflected in my amendments.

When I first started farming, the Government paid me to drain, plough up and re-seed wetland. That was before the common agricultural policy had come into force, so we cannot even blame the Europeans. I am now paid to reverse the process and re-establish the wetlands, so in one generation I have seen a huge change in land use in this country.

I have not recorded in the register, although perhaps I should, the fact that I am a participant in a scheme run by the Welsh Assembly called Tir Gofal, which means the cared-for countryside or land. That scheme is equivalent to, but much better than, the countryside stewardship scheme in England. It is a very good whole-farm scheme, which takes in all land that is farmed and has an integrated and comprehensive approach to nature conservation.

The intention behind amendments Nos. 4 and 5 is to be helpful to the Minister, although he rejects our advances, however much we try. The amendments would give him the opportunity to consult other people in England and the Assembly the opportunity to consult other bodies in Wales, rather than just Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, because we believe that such consultation would benefit the drawing up of the list of species and habitats. The Minister will tell me that he will consult everyone and that the clause merely places a requirements on him to consult Natural England, but it is only fair that the amendment should be part of the legislation, because things change and organisations other than Natural England might come into force. It would therefore be appropriate for the Minister to consult such organisations.

Other factors might also be taken into consideration. Much of our wildlife, for instance, is not only important in this country; many migratory species spend only part of their time here, and it can be difficult to track where many bird species, several insect species and certainly marine wildlife spend some or most of their time. It is therefore important to consult nature conservation bodies not only in this country but in Europe and throughout the world if we are serious about ensuring that our approach to biodiversity is not only neutral, as the Minister says, but a way to promote it for ourselves and future generations.

Such things are not always obvious. A few weeks ago, I went walking with a group of schoolchildren in the hills around their school, and we came across a splendid, huge display of bluebells. I tried to get the children to show some enthusiasm, but they said, “Bluebells are bluebells; we see them all the time.” Britain has one third of all European bluebells, so although the species is common, this country is an important habitat for it, because we have so many areas where it can flourish and thrive.

I shall not pursue the matter, but my point applies not only to European and world bodies involved with nature conservation; on a lower level, many people and bodies with relevant expertise could be consulted.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

Clause 41 places a duty on the Secretary of State to publish lists of living organisms and types of habitat in England that she believes to be of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity, and to consult Natural England before doing so. The clause reflects the current position, which was introduced by section 74 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

The clause requires the Secretary of State to take reasonably practical steps to further—how nice to use that word—the conservation of living organisms and types of habitat, to promote the taking of other such steps, to keep under review the published list, and to publish any revisions of the list.

Clause 42 places similar duties on the National Assembly for Wales, requiring it to consult the Countryside Council for Wales in carrying out the duties.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 propose that the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales should consult other bodies as they see fit. As they are likely to want to consult other interested bodies—I am about to say what the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire thought I might—the amendments are not necessary and do not add anything. In the normal course of things, we should and do consult; whom we consult should depend on the issue on which we are consulting. If anything, the amendment would weaken the clause by reducing the important roles to be played by Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, although I do not want to overplay that point.

In essence, the hon. Gentleman and I disagree, as ever, on whether something should be explicit in the Bill or implicit. I argue, as ever, that implicit is sufficient. On that note, I hope that he will withdraw his amendments.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have heard the Minister’s comments and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

I beg to move amendment No. 128, in clause 41, page 14, line 39, leave out ‘promote’ and insert ‘ensure’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 61, in clause 41, page 14, line 39, at end insert—

‘having regard to the financial costs which such steps would incur’.

No. 129, in clause 42, page 15, line 11, leave out ‘promote’ and insert ‘ensure’.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

I listened to the Minister’s explanations on clause 40 and was particularly pleased to hear his assurance that a responsibility will be placed on local authorities to include biodiversity issues in planning application forms.

In many respects, the issues covered by clauses 41 and 42 flow from clause 40. We are talking about the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales having responsibilities to publish lists of species of principal importance, not about their having a general regard for biodiversity. Species of principal importance may be rare or at risk of loss and may be of European as well as UK importance.

How do we ensure that we give the list a statutory power for delivery among those authorities that are required under subsection (3)(b) to

“promote the taking by others of such steps.”?

A questionnaire was sent out by the Association of Local Government Ecologists, and the drive for local authorities to take action on biodiversity was right there in their top three priorities: legislation and statutory obligations, Government policy guidance and—surprise, surprise—funding incentives.

What we have here is a list that is backed by policy guidance and statutory obligations. It will have greater authority when local authorities and regional development agencies look at it. I cannot speak about   the regional development agencies in England, but the Welsh Development Agency is not noted for its commitment to, interest in or role in the conservation of biodiversity or species of principal importance.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:45 am, 28th June 2005

I have listened to the hon. Lady, but one Member is appointed to the board of the WDA to have specific responsibility for wildlife and diversity issues.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

I am aware of that. However, as always, it is a voice and what matters is how often that voice is listened to. The hon. Gentleman will agree that that voice is often crying in the wilderness.

We are looking for a chance to ensure that the list is proactive and not passive. We have such lists in Wales. The issue is the status of the list. The hon. Member for the traffic jam of South-East Cambridgeshire expressed concern at putting definitive responsibility on local authorities. Here, we must push the responsibility because we are discussing a list of species of principal importance. I want to ensure that the necessary steps are taken, not merely promoted. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to a voice in the Welsh Development Agency. I am sure that that voice promotes the taking of such steps by the WDA and I am sure that that happens on equivalent bodies in England. If species of principal importance are to be protected, the responsibility must be to ensure that the necessary steps are taken.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement of an additional £850,000 for local biodiversity partnerships. I hope that that will enable us to add to the species list, so that we ensure that it increases and does not decrease.

I am sure that the planning inspectors would note the responsibility for species on the list if they were required to ensure their protection.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have listened with interest to the hon. Lady and do not dissent from her desires, but I am concerned about her proposal that the Secretary of State should have the power to ensure—that effectively means enforce—that local authorities and other public bodies deal with the list. The drafting of my amendment may not be the best, but it tries to flag up my concern that the Secretary of State may, even with the word “promote”, put obligations, even if they are only moral obligations, on public bodies, and particularly local authorities, regardless of the financial cost. There may be arm twisting in the form of promotion. That is a difficult issue. Most of us would say, when we are talking about endangered species and the biodiversity action plan species, that, clearly, we should not have to think about what the cost is, because the long-term costs to the country, as the hon. Members for Bridgend and for Bury, North said earlier, are terribly important. I agree with that.

I am also conscious, as we all are, of the reference by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall to the ever-increasing obligations on local authorities to do things without the cash flow to do them. It is one reason that council tax has been rising so much faster than   inflation during the past few years. Obviously, there are many other reasons, but more and more duties without the Government funding them is one.

The purpose of amendment No. 61 is to insert the provision that when the Secretary of State promotes the taking by others of such steps, it should be done—using the Government’s own phrase—“having regard to” the financial costs that such steps will incur. In other words, the amendment is making the Secretary of State stop and think, not necessarily that the steps should not be taken, but that they could be expensive. If the Secretary of State is going to say to local authorities “You need to take these steps,” or by using “promotion”, “We want you to,” the Government should provide the wherewithal to do so. I am seeking not to stop the action, but to ensure that the council tax payer is not yet again forced by local authorities to pay for another responsibility that the Government, in imposing that obligation on local authorities, have not directly supported.

It is a straightforward point. I entirely agree with the principle of the proposal in the legislation. The Secretary of State should promote the taking by others of such steps, but we must flag up the issue of cost, not to stop those steps being taken, but to give some thought to who will pay and how. As the hon. Member for Bridgend said in relation to the Association of Local Government Ecologists, the funding question is always there and one cannot ignore it. It needs to be incorporated in that responsibility, and that is why I have tabled amendment No. 61.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

I have already sketched out what clause 41 seeks to do. Amendments Nos. 128 and 129 change the duty for the Secretary of the State and the National Assembly for Wales from promoting the taking of steps by others to further the conservation of biodiversity to ensuring it. The duty of the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to promote the taking of such steps already exists in section 74 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. So, we do not seek to change anything, and the judgment about whether we have got the provision right is about whether what is in operation is working.

The duty is being carried out effectively, and there would be no additional value in changing the wording from “promote” to “ensure”. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend shaking her head. There may be some difficulty about how we would enforce “ensure”, but I hope that on the basis of what I have said and of our discussions about clause 40, she will withdraw her amendment.

Amendment No. 61 would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the financial steps that she promotes others to take to further the conservation of the living organisms and types of habitats included in any list published under this provision. I should expect any decision to be based on the three pillars of sustainable development and therefore to incorporate social, environmental and economic considerations. In addition, this part of the clause refers to those steps that the Secretary of State would “promote” others to   take, and therefore there would be no obligation on others to take those steps if they believed that they would be unduly costly. Value for money and financial implications are already comprehensively integrated, and I do not, therefore, believe that the amendment is necessary or desirable.

The clause goes no further than section 74(2) of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and already includes the concept of practicability in the steps that should be taken to further the conservation of biodiversity. Practicability would clearly include financial considerations. I hope that I have given the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire sufficient comfort to persuade him not to press his amendment.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

I am sorry to hear the Minister’s reply. It is because the list has little impact in Wales that I tabled the amendments. It is given scant regard because its status and authority are in doubt. The stance that he has taken will ensure that that happens in England, too. I shall take heart from his words about clause 40 and the idea that recognition of the Government’s determination to move forward on issues of biodiversity will raise the status of the lists. I want to see an improvement on “regard” and I want local authorities in Wales and in England to take cognisance of the lists. If I do not see that happen, I will make the Minister’s life a misery. With that in mind, and on the understanding that he can look forward to my making his life a misery, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.