HC Deb 01 March 1972 vol 832 cc428-31
Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the protection of endangered species of wild creatures and for the establishment of a National Wild Life Authority. It is an honoured tradition of the House that even when confronted with great and immediate issues it can find a few moments to turn its attention to issues perhaps less dramatic and less controversial. I do not claim that this is a matter of such immediate urgency as others which the House has debated and will be debating this week, but as our generation is in many fields reaping the harvest of our predecessors' blindness our grandchildren may complain of us that we never spared a thought for posterity.

Of all species of wild creatures—there are about 20,000 species in this country alone—man is one of the very few which are increasing in numbers. Almost all the others are diminishing. Perhaps the first pioneer of our contemporary concern with the environment, Rachel Carson, called her book "Silent Spring", when no bird will sing, because there will be no birds.

The House heard yesterday from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) that the next generation may know no Gavin Maxwell, because there may be no otters to observe. The sparrow hawk may, within a few years, be a memory perpetuated in books. Butterflies like the Sussex Emerald may be seen only preserved in museums.

On the international scene a few years ago Stubbs' painting of the Indian cheetah was sold for £220,000 at almost exactly the time when the last living Indian cheetah that the world will ever see was dying because there were not sufficient resources to save the species.

It is not only for the sake of the wild creatures themselves that this is a matter of concern, Without its wild life the world will be a poorer place for humans. I was born, as many of my constituents' children are still, in the great West Midlands conurbation where no badgers are to be seen and no nightingales are to be heard. We had few books, and television was a thing of the future. Visits to the country were rare and brief. This generation is more fortunate in being provided with many attractive books, good television programmes and ready access to the countryside. It would be a tragedy if the first generation of town children who can observe wild life should be the last to have wild life to observe.

It is not only a matter of according to animals the right to exist. It is not only a matter of preserving a richer heritage for children. Man may follow other animals which destroy their own means of subsistence. Destruction of plankton in one estuary may mean irreversible harm to marine ecology, resulting in fish famine.

I turn to the proposals in the Bill. The House will understand that in the short time available I leave a number of obvious questions unanswered. The purpose of the Bill is to establish a wild life authority with overall responsibility for assessing the needs, for advising authorities responsible for planning, for the widest possible programme of education, and for enforcing legislation. A primary purpose will be to advise the Secretary of State and planning authorities on planning decisions, because the greatest single threat to wild life is the progressive destruction of habitat.

The House will understand that I use the word "progressive" in its geometrical sense. Every time a wood is destroyed, or even thinned out in the interest of forestry, that is the end of hearing the nightingale in that area. I am not suggesting that we should never drive a motorway through what was previously a wood, or chop down trees to make a housing estate. I am suggesting that proposals for such development should be referred to the authority, so that whoever takes the decision will not take it while unaware of the consequences.

Nor would I discourage the principle of nature reserves, but there is a dangerous form of thinking which imagines that if one draws half a dozen small circles on a map one can do what one likes with all the rest without any fear of the consequences. That is the kind of thinking which has already resulted in the destruction of many primitive tribes of human beings. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that whenever a decision is taken relating to the environment wild life will have its advocate to state the case. The authority would advise the Secretary of State when it is necessary to stop the killing of a species or to control the methods of killing. This is not an anti-hunting Bill. I would not seek to enter into the controversy which we heard in the House yesterday between my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). I have my views, but one cannot deal with every problem in one Bill.

The authority would advise the Secretary of State to protect a species only when it is endangered. There may be occasions when it would advise the Secretary of State that a species is too numerous, that it has reached pest proportions, or is endangering the balance of the ecology. The authority might then advise on steps which should be taken to cull that species. It could also tender advice about the control of unintentional killing of a species by pollution. It would have power to prosecute for infringements, both of legislation which it had itself initiated and existing legislation, such as the Protection of Birds Act, 1954, and the Deer Act, 1963. But I hope that it would not react to every problem by reaching for its summons. It might discover, like the Race Relations Board, that sensible talk and the processes of education are often more effective weapons than prosecution.

The Bill is primarily concerned, of course, with wild life in this country, but we are learning that in many fields we cannot divide the world into watertight compartments. Wild life may be saved for the world only by international cooperation. The authority would advise the Secretary of State as to where legislation is needed to prohibit the importation of certain animal products. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) is already arranging with one of the Under-Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry to discuss with a deputation from the Friends of the Earth methods by which this can be done effectively and without undue inconvenience, as it is done in many parts of North America.

I intend no criticism of existing institutions. The Natural Environment Research Council, particularly its Nature Conservancy Unit, the Countryside Commission and the Forestry Commission, have all proved to be mindful, and effectively mindful, of the needs of wild life within their terms of reference, but they have neither the powers nor the resources to mount the kind of rescue operation for which this situation calls. I do not wish to be dogmatic as to what is required. There is no single answer, and if the House gives leave for this Bill to be introduced I shall welcome advice. I am most grateful for the advice and encouragement which I have received from hon. Members on both sides of the House. One thing which has impressed me—and this is one of the many subjects in which I claim no expertise—is that this is a field in which one meets many able and sensible people. If I single out the Committee for Natural Wild Life Control and Preservation, it is because I had the good fortune to meet it early in the course of my inquiries, and I received from it much unstinting help and advice.

After full discussion, we may conclude that the demands of the technological age are so overwhelming that there is no way of saving our wild life. If that is so, we can at least leave our reasons on record for posterity. I only ask the House to say that we will not leave a message to future generations that the disaster happened because we could not spare a little time even to consider it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Archer, Mr. Blenkinsop, Mrs. Butler, Mr. Crouch, Mr. Dalyell, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Faulds, Mr. Green, Mr. James Johnson, Miss Lestor, Mr. St. John Stevas and Mr. Steel.