HC Deb 19 April 1985 vol 77 cc588-9

Considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

2.17 pm
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a simple Bill. It is a Bill to save the bilberry. Farmers in upland areas need to be able to burn heather and grass so that their livestock are able to benefit from fresh heather and grass. That procedure creates difficulties for wildlife in the upland areas, and it has therefore been necessary, since the passage of the Hill Farming Act 1946, to regulate the burning of heather and grass. It has been found that in practice other species may be damaged by the burning, especially bracken, vaccinium and gorse, and it has therefore been thought necessary to introduce a Bill to enable the Minister to control the burning of those species. The Bill is widely welcomed by those concerned, and I hope that hon. Members will give it their support.

2.18 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and thank him for introducing the Bill. As he said, the Bill will extend the powers available to Ministers to make regulations controlling moorland burning, which is very important for agricultural management.

The Bill will bring three new plant species—gorse, bracken and vaccinium, or the bilberry—into the same category as heather and grass. The need to make this change was another profit of the discussions held by the heather and grass burning working party, which observed that the burning of moorland vegetation affects adventitiously a number of other plant species which grow in close association with heather and grass. Chief among these are gorse, bracken and vaccinium.

In addition, some farmers choose deliberately to burn certain of these species either to control or to eradicate them. As the potential risks and consequences of the burning of these species are similar to those of the burning of heather and grass, the working party argued that a loophole in the present controls needed to be closed. I am persuaded by this argument and am delighted that the Bill gives us the opportunity to bring about the necessary changes. It therefore has the support of the Government.

Any system of control is meaningless unless it is backed by some sort of penalty. The Hill Farming Act already includes a fine of up to £400 for a breach of the present regulations, and my officials in the regions are under instruction to follow up reports of illegal burning. Last year there were only two such reports. We have also written recently to chief constables asking for their cooperation, by making sure that police officers in rural areas are aware of the legal requirements. We therefore have a mechanism for enforcement which, I am pleased to say, has rarely to be applied to the full, but which provides an appropriate back-up to our main aim, which is to encourage sensible burning through sound advice. This year, as in previous ones, our publicity campaign will include radio announcements and press notices, issued at regular intervals throughout the year and designed to achieve this end.

It is perhaps premature to talk of the type of controls that we might apply once the Bill becomes law, but we would want to use these new enabling powers as soon as the necessary subordinate legislation can be drawn up. I see here a further opportunity for consultation with the working party, since subtle differences might exist in the growing charactristics of the three new species and in how they are best dealt with. I believe that it will also be important to extend the heather and grass burning code which the working party has produced and which is widely circulated, so that suitably fuller advice on moorland burning is available. However, I do not regard these as protracted matters and I hope that subordinate legislation might be laid before the House fairly quickly once the Bill becomes law.

I am delighted to be able to commend this Bill to the House, because, although it is short and simple, it marks yet another important step towards achieving a balance between the needs of conservation and the needs of agriculture, which the Government have already done much to further.

Question put and agreed to

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.