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Clause 41 - Biodiversity lists and action (England)

Part of Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:45 am, 28th June 2005

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.