HC Deb 11 July 1984 vol 63 cc1017-9
1. Mr. Hicks

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he now has any proposals to amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)

The Government are indeed considering suggestions —including the amendment Bill brought forward by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy)— for improving some aspects of the Act.

Mr. Hicks

In view of the unanimity demonstrated by all interested parties that some loopholes and abuses in existing legislation should be closed, including that which relates to the three months consultation period, will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will introduce legislation this autumn?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am not sure whether I can give an assurance in quite the terms requested by my hon. Friend. We are considering suggestions sympathetically.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister agree that support for the amendment Bill, which the Government blocked last Friday, is informed and broad-ranging? If the Minister cannot give an assurance that a Bill will be introduced in the autumn, will he undertake to introduce a Bill as urgently as possible, and certainly before late 1985?

Mr. Waldegrave

I have had useful discussions with the hon. Member about the technical difficulties involved in drafting the Bill. We are considering the hon. Gentleman's suggestions sympathetically.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

Does my hon. Friend accept that the level of compensation under management agreements is not sustainable? When he reviews the financial guidelines, will he consider eliminating all elements of subsidy in compensation, because subsidy is not the creation of wealth, merely its transfer?

Mr. Waldegrave

I have already said that we shall in due course review the financial guidelines. My hon. Friend's suggestion, with others, will be considered.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Under-Secretary confirm that among the deficiencies which the Government intend to remedy is, first, that the Act deals only with parts of the countryside and not the whole countryside; secondly, that it has driven away some voluntary conservation acts in the countryside, and, thirdly, that it does not protect sites of special scientific interest? Does he accept that the report in The Observer last Sunday is correct? Will he invite Opposition parties other than the Labour party to join his discussions before the matter is finally dealt with in Government legislation?

Mr. Waldegrave

The discussions to which I referred were with the hon. Member for Wentworth (Ms. Hardy) and were to do with his amendment Bill, which deals particularly with SSSIs. I should be delighted to talk to the hon. Gentleman about these matters.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my hon. Friend agree that although this small but important amendment is essential, the majority of SSSIs are in good hands, looked after lovingly by their owners and are in no danger?

Mr. Waldegrave

I agree that a large part of the threatened habitat is in good hands and being looked after, but some worrying features of damage remain. That is what we are considering.

Mr. Dalyell

What has the Minister learnt from Halvergate?

Mr. Waldegrave

I have learnt not to give assurances to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) without much more care. I hope that I shall not make that mistake again. We have all learnt that we must have a new and more integrated regime on the Norfolk Broads, so that we do not continue having absurd arguments.

Mr. Baldry

When my hon. Friend considers the workings of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, will he consider how greater access to the countryside can be secured for the many people who want to use it for recreation, in a way that is compatible with the rights and interests of agriculture?

Mr. Waldegrave

We await with interest the report of the Common Lands Forum—the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) knows all about that, because he is vice president of a society that forms part of it — and we shall want to re-examine these areas next year when we have seen the report. The footpath network remains the backbone of access to the countryside and it must be protected.

Dr. Cunningham

Will the Minister recognise the urgency of the problem? Has he seen the report of Friends of The Earth, which points out that during the past three years 133 sites of special scientific interest have been either damaged or completely destroyed, and that most of the damage results from intensive agricultural activities? In the past weeks we have seen many examples, such as the Halvergate marshes, which show that the damage is gathering momentum. Will he recognise the urgency of the matter? Does he agree that that shows that the Act is not working as everyone hoped it would, and that we must press on with the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill, about which my right hon. and hon. Friends and others have been talking to him?

Mr. Waldegrave

I saw the figure to which die hon. Gentleman referred, which is why I was hesitant in agreeing entirely that the position was fairly satisfactory. For those reasons we are seeking to strengthen the Act further, if we can do so properly.