Biodiversity

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend 4:30 pm, 14th June 2006

I am sure that you, Mr. Williams, are well aware of the fact that this is Wales biodiversity week. Interest in and support for biodiversity is manifest in the increasing number of people who are becoming members of wildlife organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Butterfly Conservation, local wildlife trusts, recording groups for bats, badgers, fungi, insects, plants, invertebrates and arachnids, and the National Trust.

People want to get involved and do what they can to help biodiversity. They join wildlife groups, watch wildlife programmes on television, read the myriad press articles, and attend events in large numbers, even in the inner cities, including events like the excellent sustainability week in London. Why? They do it because biodiversity impacts on our whole life. It provides the support systems that sustain human existence, from our health to the fertility of our crops. The many species of plants, insects and animals that live in a diverse range of habitats gives us that sense of the place where we live, and can act as an incentive to visit other places.

The world is losing biodiversity at an ever-increasing rate as the result of human activity. In the United Kingdom, 71 moths are recognised to be endangered or vulnerable, mirroring parallel declines in common bird species such as the ptarmigan, the skylark, the grey partridge and, in some areas, even the common sparrow. Summers are not the same without our butterflies; the high brown and marsh fritillaries and the wood white and white-letter butterflies are all in decline. When farmers need to import bees to pollinate their crops, we know that we have a serious problem. Sadly, the list of decreasing species in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee barometer is at about 45 per cent., with insufficient data on a further 15 or 20 per cent. of species.

In preparing for the debate, I communicated with a number of organisations and they raised the same concerns. There is tremendous recognition of the Government's commitment to biodiversity, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, the Commons Bill and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. However, it was felt that we urgently need statutory reporting responsibilities to be built into legislation to take forward the Government's commitment and to record progress.

There is a need for increased species and habitat prioritisation, data collection and research, so that policy making can be evidence-based. Finally, dare I say it, we need increased financial resources for UK BAP—biodiversity action planning. Clear commitments have already been given, and I stress that biodiversity and wildlife groups recognise how much the Government have done.

The Government, with European Environment Ministers, set a target in a Commission communication entitled "Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010—and beyond", yet in Wales, where the natural environment runs deep within the soul, the Welsh environment strategy has a different target. By 2015, 95 per cent. of Welsh sites of special scientific interest are to be in a favourable condition, and by 2026 all sites of international, Welsh and local importance are to be in a favourable condition.

Although I recognise that setting such targets is a devolved matter, wildlife groups are concerned that the disparate nature of those lower targets will have a major impact on the UK's ability to meet its target. The environment does not recognise man-made borders, and Offa's dyke will not hold back the tide of biodiversity loss.

RSPB members have called for increased funding for management agreements and the species monitoring of agri-environment schemes in Wales. However, with the Countryside Council for Wales losing more than 30 staff in the past year, meeting common targets has become almost impossible. If we in Wales are to play our part in meeting the UK target, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must help by ensuring that additional funding and support is available.

Section 40 of the 2006 Act replaces section 74 of the 2000 Act, so that from October 2006 Departments must allocate a Minister with a duty to conserve biological diversity and to monitor how public bodies working with the Department are conserving biodiversity. To see how this was working, I asked questions of all Departments on the allocation of ministerial responsibility, which revealed that although most Departments had assigned Ministers, they were awaiting guidance from DEFRA—guidance that will also be followed by local authorities—on how they should undertake their monitoring role. I give credit to the Department for International Development. It sent the most comprehensive reply and demonstrated a clear commitment to the task, which stood out against the replies of other Departments

The need for a statutory responsibility to report progress in meeting biodiversity duties was raised by all the wildlife organisations to which I spoke. I am aware that DEFRA commissioned Entec to look at the subject some time ago, and there is universal hope that that will lead to targets being set as part of the comprehensive performance assessment and to best value performance indicators, with biodiversity integrated into performance assessment systems, especially in local government. Yet again, it will fall to DEFRA to urge the Audit Commission and the Department for Communities and Local Government to take that forward.

Indeed, local, regional and national Government could follow the excellent example of Hampshire county council, which has a corporate biodiversity management plan in place for all its directorates—they must all demonstrate how they will meet biodiversity targets. It would be good, would it not, if Departments, and local and regional government, had such plans in place by the 2010 deadline?

Targets need to be integrated for the purposes of recording, monitoring, mapping and tracking habitat, species loss and the growth of invasive species at local, regional and national levels. I urge that butterflies are recognised as indicators of both a healthy environment and the effectiveness of the Government's land use policies.