HC Deb 08 February 1985 vol 72 cc1233-51

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

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

It gives me great pleasure to move the Second Reading of this Bill. I am pleased that the House is reasonably full on this Friday morning. It is often perplexing to many people that we, who represent a very urban society, always devote great time, effort and care to discussing rural, wildlife and countryside matters. I think that it is no exaggeration to say that this private Member's Bill has probably resulted in the heaviest mailbags that some hon. Members have had for many a long year. However, I do not apologise for that, because it shows the interest that exists throughout the country for the careful preservation of our countryside.

However, we should not be surprised that our countryside is threatened. As the Minister has said, the forces of agriculture have changed dramatically in the past 30 years and we must ensure that we have the legislation not to inhibit agriculture — obviously farmers must do their job and the countryside cannot be "fossilised"—but to ensure that we do not allow the unbridled progress of agriculture completely to destroy our countryside and environment.

As we have so little countryside, we must ensure that it is of a high quality. As a small, densely populated nation, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we get the balance right. Because there is so much congestion, we often find that the countryside comes right in to many of our towns. I represent, and live in, one of the most highly urbanised parts of the country, the Tyne and Wear metropolitan county. In that small, densely populated county, we have no fewer than 383 miles of footpaths, and 23 sites of special scientific interest, with a further eight in the pipeline. That is an example of how the countryside encroaches on our towns, and I think that that is why both Opposition Members, representing largely urban areas, and Conservative Members, representing rural and mixed areas, are concerned about the issue. That is the background to the Bill.

The Bill seeks to amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which was founded on the basis of co-operation and consultation. There was a belief that the problems and conflicts within our countryside could be resolved by negotiation and conciliation. It would be less than honest if I did not say that some of us were at least sceptical about that approach and even now have doubts about it. Given the situation, and the fact that the Act is four years old, we may feel that some forms of planning controls are necessary. But that is not the path that we are pursuing today. Today I am attempting to persuade the House to amend, add to and build upon the basis of that 1981 Act. I move the Second Reading in that spirit of co-operation and conciliation.

We should like to be converted to the idea that conservation could be attained without this legislation. In drawing up the Bill, I felt that I should take the philosophy of the 1981 Act as its basis. I apologise for the fact that that has meant that the process has been long and slow and that we were, therefore, not able to bring the Bill to the House until Monday. That has meant, however, that it is an agreed Bill and that hundreds of man hours have been spent in drawing it up. I doubt whether any other Bill dealing with the wildlife and countryside has been presented to the House with such wide backing not only from the House but from those concerned with the countryside.

I was pleased to receive a letter signed by most of the active noble Lords saying that they will not attempt to alter the Bill, apart from any amendments made in this House. Of course, the noble Lords can do what they want, but 20 or 30 of the main Lords have given me that pledge. That is useful, because it means the Bill is manageable. That support negates one of the Government's main arguments against introducing it. The Government argue that countryside matters are not manageable. I believe that they are manageable, and I hope to prove that in this Bill.

We have the backing of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, all the amenity societies represented in Wildlife Link, the Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society and the Nature Conservancy Council, which is the Government's adviser. I was delighted to receive yesterday a telex from the chairman of the Countryside Commission — another Government adviser—saying that his commissioners had met yesterday in Bristol and had decided to endorse the Bill fully.

As if those credentials were not sufficient to show the breadth of the Bill's backing, I was delighted to note the support of the Environment Select Committee. I pay tribute to the Committee's members, including many of those present in the Chamber. I am pleased that the Committee's Chairman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), is present, and I know that he will probably try to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to make his point. I am pleased also that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) is here, because he supports my Bill and has worked hard to achieve consensus.

It is difficult to imagine a body interested in the countryside which does not support the Bill. I hope that I am wrong in saying this, but there have been strong rumours that one body of opinion opposes the Bill. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will reassure the House that the Government do not intend to oppose the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell the House that he not only supports clause 2 but realises that this is a minimum and agreed Bill supported by his advisers and all the countryside bodies. This Bill must not be decimated. I hope that the rumours and press leaks saying that the Bill is opposed by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are wrong. If those rumours are true, the Minister will be doing a great disservice to the House and to the countryside.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will my hon. Friend note for the record that, despite the posturing on environmental affairs outside the House by the alliance, alliance Members have not even bothered to attend this debate and hear my hon. Friend's major contribution?

Dr. Clark

The House will note that no member of the Social Democratic party or Liberal party is in the House. That is not surprising. Alliance members occasionally turn up — all four, so to speak — often in the middle of the night. I regret that they are not here today. The Bill has two sponsors among those parties, and I should have liked them to be here today to show us their support. The House and the nation will judge them on their record. I do not want to cast aspersions on them or speculate about why they are not here.

I take seriously one point made in the report by the Select Committee on the Environment. I believe that there has been a general improvement in certain aspects — notably in the attitude of the farming lobby. The National Farmers Union has acted in an exemplary manner towards this legislation. Their assistance in creating the farm and wildlife advisory groups has been a great support. I am more optimistic today than I was four years ago, and we want to build on that optimism. That is why I took so much trouble in trying to achieve such a breadth of support for the legislation.

I do not believe that any hon. Member is surprised to note that the farmers and countryside people support the environment. It is their environment and most of them love the countryside. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the NFU and its supporters support the Bill.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

The hon. Gentleman deserves great praise for getting the NFU so involved in the Bill. It is encouraging to note that, for the first time, the NFU has openly declared that all farmers must seek a balance between production and conservation in the countryside.

Dr. Clark

I happily agree with that point. Without hesitation, I pay tribute to the NFU and the Country Landowners Association, which have tried hard to bring the Bill forward. I am grateful for the time and effort their officers have put into drawing up the Bill. Although the majority of farmers try to conserve the countryside, there are mavericks. I guess that most of those mavericks are not members of the NFU, but I hope that the union will monitor the activities of those who are members of the NFU.

Statutory authorities in rural areas are often dominated by the farming community, and naturally they are reluctant to act against recalcitrant farmers. For example, in the county of Northumberland on two occasions during the past 18 months Farmer Benson was caught polluting a burn, with the result that trout were killed. I have it in writing from the Northumbrian water authority that that farmer was responsible for that pollution, but that the authority was not prepared to take action against farmers. I believe that whoever pollutes a stream—whether he is a farmer or an industrialist — must be punished. I hope that the message will go out from the House that, although we want to work in a spirit of co-operation, people must adhere to the law. That same farmer — he is certainly a maverick—erected a gate across one of the county roads and put up a sign: "Private. Keep Out." Fortunately, Northumberland county council is Labour-controlled and would not stand for this. The sign was quickly taken down.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

The hon. Gentleman can rely in general on the support of farmers and Conservative Members. It would be helpful, however, if he refrained from making too many strongly party political points. It is wrong to suggest that Conservative-controlled councils do not take action against such farmers. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to try to make the point that only Labour-controlled councils are prepared to take such action.

Dr. Clark

I did not want to be too party political but the Labour party is particularly proud that it controls Northumberland and the five northern counties. I apologise to the hon. Member if he thought that I was trying to make a party political point. There are recalcitrant farmers, and we all know that.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

It might help the hon. Gentleman and the House if the hon. Gentleman addressed the House from one of the empty Liberal Benches. He would be able to adopt a more impartial policy there.

Dr. Clark

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman made that point. I hope that he was trying to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Liberal benches were empty. A Liberal representative—the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) — has just come into the Chamber. I happen to be the Labour party spokesman on the natural environment and my Bill has the full backing of my colleagues on this side of the House.

I know that the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) is a fair man, but I must remind him that on two occasions last year the Opposition formally offered the Government our co-operation in amending the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I do not want to labour that point, but the offer was not taken up. As the hon. Member is aware, the Government were not prepared to make time for it. No Conservative Member was prepared to take up the matter—I am not making a party political point—so I took it up.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

If Labour Members wanted to make a party political point, they would want something much stronger. They accept that my hon. Friend has put forward the Bill in a spirit of compromise because it is essential that we make some immediate progress on this matter. If the matter were left to us, we would be aiming for a much stronger measure.

Dr. Clark

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are discussing the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill which has been introduced in a spirit of reconciliation. It has wide backing from amenity and farming bodies. We must recognise that there are still problems. I have identified one of them. Such problems must be tackled.

My second main worry—I am making a general, not a party political, point—is that, while the NFU and the vast majority of farmers support the Bill, the main objections appear to be coming from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. One can only surmise that, because one is not privy to what goes on in the Cabinet and its committees.

I understand that the Ministry is reluctant to take any action which might inhibit it, but it has made noises which suggest that it wants to try to extend environmental control of the countryside. The Bill is a way to do that. That is my second caveat.

I shall run through the main clauses. Clause 1 deals with the badgers. I have sought to amend section 11 of the Act, which deals with the control and killing of wild animals. Many of us thought that the badger problem had been overcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) got a Bill through the House with the support of Conservative Members, and we thought that the problems had been overcome by the Badgers Act 1973 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Unfortunately, they were not. It is illegal to take and kill badgers. If people are caught doing that they are punished. However, there have been too many cases lately where people have been caught digging badger setts, but they claim, time and time again, that they were not doing that. I have details of a case in Gosforth park nature reserve in my region where young men all aged about 22 were caught digging a badger sett. It was not possible to convict them, because they claimed that they were not digging for badgers. On occasion, people have been found with fox cubs to try to show that they were digging for foxes.

Such cases have caused many people a great deal of anxiety, because badger digging and baiting is a nasty pastime. I am sure that the House agrees with that statement. Therefore, anything that we can do to tighten up that legislation is welcome. It is a complicated subject to tackle. I am pleased to say that the Home Office has helped me. The Home Secretary saw a deputation of which I was not a member, and offered general support to try to tighten up the legislation. The clause was given to me by the Home Office. I am grateful for its assistance and the time it gave me to try to get this point right.

If the Bill receives a Second Reading, the House may wish, as it has the right, to amend it in Committee. I wish to emphasise that the draft of the clause was given to me by the Home Office. It spent many hours in consultation with interested bodies and its legal experts to try to come up with the right formula. The purpose of the clause is to block the existing loophole and to put the onus of proof on the defence to show that people were not digging for badgers. That is the only way to block the loophole. We are of course prepared to listen to other views in Committee.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I support the hon. Gentleman's broad objective of trying to tighten up the Badgers Act 1973. If he studies the clause carefully, he will notice that there is a serious mistake in it—as drafted, it does not seek to change the onus of proof, and it would be a grave mistake to make that its objective. The clause seeks to introduce the concept of recklessness, which will be helpful in stamping out badger baiting. That is what the hon. Gentleman should seek to do.

Dr. Clark

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for making that point. He is parliamentary private secretary to the Attorney-General, so he will have studied the matter. He will be aware that there have been wide consultations among Government Departments on the point. However, of course we shall listen to such points and discuss them in Committee. He is almost certainly right in what he says. That is our objective, and if the form of words is incorrect, it is the one that I received from the Home Office.

Clause 2 is one for which I believe there is overwhelming support; even the Minister is keen. This clause was given to me by the Department of the Environment. It spent many weeks on this clause, which is incredibly complicated. We hope that it blocks the loopholes contained in sections 28 and 29 of the original Act. It provides that, once a site is notified as a designated site, it is protected. There is no loophole. As hon. Members are aware, 14 or 15 sites of special scientific interest have been destroyed as a result of loopholes in those sections. I thank the Government for their help with the clause. I do not need to spell out the need for it, because all hon. Members are aware of it. I hope that the clause will receive overwhelming support.

Clause 3 relates to marine nature reserves. When we discussed the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, there was a feeling that as an island nation we should have some marine nature reserves. It is disappointing that we have not been able to create any. Seven were suggested. Some of them were apparently innocuous—for example, around Lundy island, which is a bird reserve. We were unable to reach agreement on that. When I and my advisers considered the matter, we realised that people thought that the Act was too cumbersome. It gave the power of veto to a number of interested bodies.

No one would deny that interested bodies have a right to be consulted, but I am not sure that they should have the right to veto something of national interest. It would be unheard of in any other sphere of life for one vested interest to have the right of veto. We want interested bodies to be consulted, but the Minister will have the power to make the final decision in the interests of marine nature conservation. I feel that that is the right way to do this, as we might then get some marine nature reserves.

Clause 4 is one of the most important. It deals with the duties of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We have heard many hot words from the Ministry about how it wants to do something to further conservation, and it has a duty to do so. I have already paid tribute to the wildlife advisory groups and I know the effort that the Ministry has made. I know what it does and that it is trying hard, but there comes a time when we legislators have to give officials a little push. The whole point about bureaucrats and the official machinery is that their own inertia keeps them where they are. It is up to us, as parliamentarians, to give officials a shove in the right direction.

Clause 4 builds on a section in the original Act by which water authorities were required to take account of nature conservation and the environment when carrying out their duties. The clause is taking the Government's form of words and intentions on water authorities and extending them to the Forestry Commission in clause 6 and to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in clause 4. People expect this clause to go through.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) made the point earlier that our agriculture Acts are largely based on the Agriculture Act 1947, which was introduced to try to overcome food shortages in Britain, Europe and the world. We live in a different world now, and, although it is important to produce food — that is the vital role of agriculture — we must at the same time protect our environment. That is almost equally important. As the general public — urban as well as rural — gives a fair subsidy to the agriculture industry, the Minister should listen to the voice of the nation on this point.

I hope that clause 4 will influence the philosophy of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the making of grants to farmers, in the provision of advice, which is important because we are talking about conservation and conciliation, and in the Minister's consultations on EC matters. We are told that grants cannot be given because of EC rules, but I am advised that the Dutch Government take a different view. I know that the Minister is interested in, and supports us on, this point. If, when he went to Brussels, he could say that we have domestic legislation that requires us to take into account, and further nature conservation, that would help him in his negotiations.

Clause 5 is also important. As hon. Members know, national park authorities are required to map moors and heathlands. That has been a success, with the one problem of some inconsistency, because each local authority has to judge for itself what is moor and heathland. We felt—we had the support of everybody in this — that the mapping should be extended to cover a wider area, and to cover those areas that it is particularly important to conserve. The decision of the National Parks Authority as to which areas it should map will be taken in consultation with the Countryside Commission so that there is some uniformity, bearing in mind the different characteristics of the national parks.

I want my final point to ring loud and clear from the House today. We are discussing a consensus Bill—that cannot be said too firmly. It has been agreed by all interested parties. I believe that it represents the broad wishes not only of the House but of the overwhelming majority of people. The only rumours — whiffs — of opposition seem to be coming from the Government. I hope that they will listen to voices in the House and will be able to acknowledge that there is a tide of opinion so great that the Bill is the minimum that people will accept. It is less than the Select Committee suggested. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will make it plain that the Government, subject to technical amendments to ensure that the clauses are correct, will accept that this is the right Bill and should have not only a Second Reading but the blessing of the Government in Committee.

10.4 am

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clarke) on his success in the ballot. This is a matter of some envy for me, because, in my 18 years in the House, on the only one occasion that I have been successful in the ballot a general election was called in the middle of the Committee stage. We are glad to note that the hon. Member is at no risk from that.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his choice of a Bill giving effect to some of the main recommendations of the Select Committee report on the "Operation and Effectiveness of Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981". The report identified a number of defects in the Act which were admitted to by officials in the Department of the Environment when giving their evidence. However, they told us that no Government time could be made available in this Session for introducing the necessary legislation. Therefore, sites of special scientific interest would continue to remain at very high risk but for the hon. Gentleman's initiative in introducing the Bill.

In passing—this is a matter for the House—it is a pity that urgent legislation such as this has to depend on the lottery of a private Member's Bill. It is sheer coincidence that the Select Committee's inquiry, with the evidence that it was making available, was virtually concluded at the same time as there happened to be an available successful Member in the ballot with a particular interest in this subject. Perhaps the House will consider enabling its Select Committees to promote legislation and to make time available in similar circumstances should they arise again.

Clause 1 deals with badgers, a subject which was not considered by the Select Committee, as it falls outside part II of the Act. However, I am sure that the Committee, if it had considered the matter, would have wished to afford greater protection to badgers than exists at the present. However, I was a little alarmed by the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, which suggests that the burden of proof should shift from the prosecution to the defence because that would imply that we were abrogating a time-honoured principle that a man is presumed innocent until proved guilty. The House will have to think carefully before abrogating one of the most fundamental of principles affecting the liberty of citizens. I was reassured to hear in the exchanges which took place between the hon. Member for South Shields and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) that this is not necessarily the case. Perhaps the explanatory memorandum is wrong, but if that is not so that can be cured in Committee.

Clause 2 is most welcome because it closes what is known as the three-month loophole under section 28. This allows a farmer to damage or destroy an SSSI in the three-month period immediately after receiving a notice from the Nature Conservancy Council, but before formal notification. Many witnesses before our Committee expressed anxiety and gave examples of damage that could be caused, and, in some instances, was caused. I am delighted that the Bill follows the recommendations that the first notice takes effect as if it were formal notification and removes the pre-notification period while allowing the farmer the same time in which to object. However, I regret that the Bill does not follow the Select Committee's recommendation about closing the loopholes in section 29 of the Act.

A similar lacuna to that in section 28 results from the time that it takes the Department of the Environment to consider and prepare nature conservancy orders applicable to sites of special scientific interest which are of national importance. These sites remain vulnerable during the period before an order is made. During that period a farmer may, without fear of sanction, damage or destroy an SSSI of particular national significance. I appreciate that extending the period from three to four months for a potentially damaging operation affords a modest amount of protection as extending the period in which counter action may be taken by making an order.

However, many of the witnesses who appeared before the Select Committee favoured the use of a temporary stop order while a section 29 order was being prepared. The Committee recommended accordingly. It noted that the intentions of the Department were not sufficiently clear. This was recorded in paragraph 28 of the Select Committee's report. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has allowed the Department to distract his attention from imposing a completely watertight closure of the loophole. I hope that he will give further study to this very technical matter during the Committee stage, when he will have been able to make a closer study of evidence to the Select Committee.

Dr. David Clark

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I raised this point with the Department of the Environment. It is a very complicated matter. In the end we had to use diagrams. I have been assured that this loophole is closed. If it is not, we shall seek to close it at the Committee stage.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that there may still be gaps through which people can slip, and I think that it would be better to deal with the matter by means of a temporary stop order. There will then be no problems.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I have misunderstood what he is seeking to do, but clause 2(7) seems to create problems. Under this subsection a farmer can make an agreement with the Nature Conservancy Council not to carry out specified operations without obtaining consent. As far as I recall, this was not suggested by any witness who gave evidence to the Select Committee. If my understanding of the subsection is correct, a farmer gives notice that he wishes to carry out a potentially damaging operation under section 28 of the Act. He then agrees to carry it out only if he has obtained consent under the proposed new subsection (6A). He can follow this up by cancelling the agreement that he has made, under the new subsection (6B). If he cancels the agreement in this way he will be entitled to carry out his potentially damaging operation. Therefore, a clever farmer could reduce the four-month protection period to just over one month. I hope that I am wrong in my interpretation of the clause, but I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to that possible further loophole which may unwittingly have been created by the way in which the subsection has been drafted.

Clause 3 gives me particular satisfaction. The failure to create marine nature reserves under the 1981 Act was a matter upon which the Committee received a great deal of evidence. This failure caused great disappointment and acute concern. It was clear from the evidence we received that the Nature Conservancy Council had insufficient powers in the face of determined opposition by the sea fisheries committees and the reluctance of the Ministery of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to intervene. Witnesses posited three possible solutions to the deadlock which had been reached. I note that the hon. Gentleman has decided to go down the route of a weak SSSI-type designation. The evidence that we received from departmental officials showed that this was possibly the most inappropriate route, because SSSIs are all about management and management agreements, whereas marine nature reserves are about regulation and control. Emphasis should be placed upon byelaws and the power of the NCC to initiate those byelaws so as to enable the Secretary of State in appropriate cases to override the obstacles raised by the fisheries committees. That is a point which the hon. Gentleman may wish to reconsider in Committee.

Clause 4 is the Bill's most far-reaching clause. It brings together several recommendations in the Select Committee's report which have attracted the greatest public attention. It requires the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to further wildlife habitat and countryside conservation in the exercise of his duties. It imposes a positive duty which does not at present exist to the extent that was wished for by the majority of witnesses. In paragraph 24 of the Select Committee's report we noted that not only conservation groups but farmers and landowners want agricultural policy to place more emphasis upon conservation.

We also noted that there had been a welcome shift of emphasis in MAFF, but that it had not moved far enough nor fast enough. This is quite understandable. The whole ethos of MAFF, certainly during the majority of the post-war years, has been to increase farming efficiency and productivity in the interests of the nation. However, this has been at the expense of the countryside. As the National Farmers Union told us, the change would involve a major retraining policy by MAFF.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), who gave evidence for the Department of the Environment, told us: It would be easier if MAFF grants were not available for some things that may be damaging environmentally. This view was supported by the NFU and the Country Landowners Association. The Committee therefore recommended a fundamental change in the approach by MAFF so as to redirect resources towards conservation-conscious methods of farming. The Bill also picks up the specific recommendation that conservation should he a greatly increased priority in the work of ADAS, the agricultural advisory service for farmers.

I am not quite sure of the extent of the several exhortations to MAFF in the latter part of the clause. However, there will still be a need, in accordance with recommendation 4 of the report, to set up a working party to investigate how the duties and structure of MAFF could incorporate a strong conservation element in all agricultural policies. Recommendation 5 of the report is that the Government should urgently undertake a review of the whole use of the rural estate and produce a White Paper. These recommendations are not legislative matters. They are for administrative action. However, I thought it only right to emphasise this aspect of the matter in view of the evidence which so clearly emerged from all those who had an interest in the countryside. The Select Committee made similar observations concerning the Forestry Commission because of the weakness of its conservation policy. That has now been corrected by clause 6.

Sir John Farr

As a country boy, I am following my hon. Friend closely, as he speaks with the benefit of a good deal of experience, but surely he is not suggesting that the main duty of the Ministry of Agriculture should be in the direction of conservation rather than the improvement of agricultural efficiency.

Sir Hugh Rossi

If I gave that impression, I wish to correct it at once. If my hon. Friend studies the Select Committee report he will see that we seek a better balance between the need to produce food and the need to conserve the countryside. Our criticism has been that in the past the thrust was entirely in one direction, to the detriment of the countryside. We suggest that conservation should be considered by MAFF in overall policy matters.

Clause 5 carries out the recommendations for the mapping of moors and heaths. Thus, every clause, except clause 1, follows one or several recommendations of the Select Committee. As I have said, some of the recommendations are not capable of legislation but require administrative action — also, for instance, financial guidelines in respect of management agreements for SSSIs. Others, such as the section 29 loophole and landscape conservation orders in national parks, however, are capable of legislation, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's anxiety not to risk losing his Bill by being overambitious and insisting on too much from the point of view of the Department.

Despite my wish for further consideration of certain matters, I regard this as a most welcome Bill and I congratulate and thank the hon. Gentleman once again for introducing it. I am also gratified to know that the hard work of all the members of my Committee has been of some help to the hon. Gentleman in doing that. I look forward very much to the Bill reaching the statute book.

10.21 am
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on his preparation of the Bill. I am glad that the Chairman of the Select Committee has welcomed it so warmly, and I hope that he and many of his hon. Friends will join us in the Lobby in the event of a Division.

I am, however, disappointed that the initiative has had to come from a private Member. Members who have spoken in various environment and Adjournment debates during the last 12 months have shown the depth and breadth of the consensus in favour of change. One would have hoped for an initiative from the Department of the Environment, perhaps jointly with the Ministry of Agriculture, so that wider proposals could be implemented. I appreciate that discussion would have been necessary and the Department might have seen fit to issue a Green Paper on its proposals before intiating a policy change. It is disappointing to have to rely on a private Member to introduce legislation of this kind.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields referred to the consensus. We are all aware of the pressure both from the unorganised public and from amenity groups. Reference has been made to the change in attitude in the agricultural community and to the development in the philosophy of the National Farmers Union. The Country Landowners Association has also welcomed the Bill. Conservative Members may be interested to know that the CLA has said in relation to the operation of the 1981 Act: we accept that its continued success depends on closing loopholes in the legislation which are found to exist. The Bill must be considered in the light of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) spoke for many Opposition Members when he said that if the Bill had been introduced in a politically partisan spirit we should have sought far stronger and more detailed legislation, but we accept that in a private Member's Bill we must confine our attention to closing the loopholes.

We all appreciate the change of attitude in the agricultural community and the Government's appreciation of the stresses and strains between that community and the environmental lobby. Clearly, there is a basic incompatibility between the two interests. Successive Governments have pursued the objective of food production in a way that has inevitably led to the expenditure of public funds on schemes that we now regard as environmentally damaging or even disastrous. I believe that the public, too, recognise that incompatibility between MAFF and the Department of the Environment.

The consensus also depends on greater public awareness and there is now far greater public interest in the countryside and environmental issues than there was 15 or 20 years ago. There is also, especially in my native Wales, a general realisation that unless action is taken quickly to close loopholes and prevent abuses there will be precious little left to conserve.

As a result of serious damage, Wales has lost seven SSSIs since 1981. Details of the damage were given in a parliamentary answer to me on 22 January. Gwent has lost 67 per cent. of its natural broadleaved woodland because of the operations of the Forestry Commission, individual landowners and agriculture. The predations of the Forestry Commission have affected broadleaved woodlands especially in upland areas, with the loss of some 200,000 hectares since 1946. That reservoir of flora and fauna is important not just scientifically but for the enjoyment of the wider community, but in the past 30 years south Wales has lost about 50 per cent. of its moorland and upland.

For those reasons, I especially welcome clauses 2, 4 and 6, which block the loopholes. Those clauses are widely welcomed, although I suspect that clause 1 will be somewhat contentious. I understand that clause 1 may provoke objections from some Conservative Members for two reasons. The hon. and learned Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) referred to the Bill changing a time-honoured principle in that the burden of proof would be on the defendant to prove his innocence, although my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has said that that is not necessarily so. In this context, I refer to some of the evidence on badger digging. I cannot for the life of me understand a law which allows the acquittal of individuals caught at a badger sett with terriers, spades and transporting equipment. Many prosecutions have failed because the defendants claimed that they were searching for a terrier down a rabbit hole. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields referred to one such case.

This is a grey area, and I realise that some reservations exist because we may be impinging on the rights of the fox-hunting fraternity. In other cases, individuals take along a live or dead fox or fox cub, and if they are caught they say, "We are digging for foxes, not for badgers". As someone who is reasonably familiar with the countryside and who knows the difference between a fox hole, a rabbit hole and a badger's sett, I cannot accept that anyone who lives in the countryside would not know the difference. Those familiar with the countryside will know the location and characteristics of a badger's sett, and we cannot believe those who claim that they are in pursuit of foxes.

This loophole must be closed because there can be no question of innocence, and we must make no concessions to those who go badger hunting. In this case, the term "country sport" is offensive. Badger hunting is not a sport or a pastime that can be endorsed. It is one of the most barbaric of human activities. No one can claim to be a country lover if he engages in the sort of activities that we know are carried out by badger diggers. We must make no concessions. It is a vile, cruel and barbaric practice. It inevitably leads to the death of badgers and to the horrifying mutilation or death of terriers, and it must lead to the brutalisation and degradation of those involved in it. We must pursue vigorously all attempts to close the loophole.

Those involved in badger digging are invariably involved in other crimes, such as trespass and theft. In many cases, if they cannot find badgers to torment, they become involved, through disreputable organisations, in the pitting of terrier against terrier. Such practices must be stamped out in any way possible, and clause 1 will help to block the loophole. The loophole was not inherent in the 1981 Act, but has been created by those who wish to get round the Act. I ask Conservative Members to accept that the loophole has been created by those individuals. No one can have any complaints if the House says that the loophole should be closed by making it clear that anyone who is in pursuit of badgers, without reasonable cause, is deemed to be guilty. All the evidence will show that he is.

I realise that some objections will come from those associated with fox hunting. It is a matter of regret to me that people are still allowed, with the full blessing of the law, to find their enjoyment on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays in killing animals for fun. That is the be-all and the end-all of the argument about fox hunting. But the Bill is not about the outlawing of fox hunting, although some Conservative Members have reservations about clause 1 because of its association with that activity. They believe that a tightening of the law in relation to badger digging will impinge on their rights as fox hunters.

I draw their attention to a letter from the Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office relating to the proposed amendments: What we think may work is something on the lines of making it an offence under the Badgers Act to permit a dog to enter the underground retreat of any wild animal other than a badger when it is known, or should be known, that a badger may be encountered. We do not think this will interfere with hunt servants. Some of us may wish to interfere with the activities of hunt servants, but the Bill will not. Conservative Members should think about the opprobrium that they will bring upon themselves if they oppose this tightening of the law on badger digging as a defence of their sport of fox hunting. They will do their cause a great deal of harm, and they will be guilty by association.

There is much good will for the Bill on both sides of the House. I know that there are reservations about it, but I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.

10.35 am
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies). As a member of the Nature Conservancy Council, I can tell him that the input from Wales is first class and most important to our work.

The hon. Gentleman overestimates the objections to clause 1. Indeed, he is pushing at an open door. All of us want as much protection as possible for the badger; it is simply a matter of getting the wording of the clause right, which I am sure can be achieved in Committee.

I support the Bill of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and congratulate him on taking the opportunity obtained through the ballot to introduce this legislation. I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading and that we can add to it in Committee.

I was much involved in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and I believe that it is still too early to judge the success of the Act. However, it is fair to say that it has brought new attitudes to conservation. It has been the only major legislation in about 15 years, with the exception of some valuable private legislation introduced by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), and it helped to focus opinion on important issues of habitat conservation and the encouragement of wildlife. The voluntary organisations appreciate that fact, although I sometimes wish that they would be more encouraging and complimentary about the Act, bearing in mind the important objectives that I am sure it will achieve in the long run.

Too often I read about the Act failing and the Nature Conservancy Council having no money. That is not true. No site of special scientific interest has been damaged through lack of money, and the Government have made it abundantly clear that money is available for management agreements or purchases. This year, the additional £7 million from the Department of the Environment was greatly welcomed by the NCC. It will enable us to accelerate our efforts on notification and renotification.

The NCC is enthusiastic about the Bill as it relates to section 28 of the original Act. It has been realised for some time now, and it was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) in the Select Committee, that a stop power during consultations had been omitted. That is corrected in the Bill, although in a complicated piece of drafting, and I hope that it will achieve what it sets out to do.

We must accept that relatively few owners of sites of special scientific interest have damaged their properties during the consultation period, but every loophole that we can close must be closed to prevent this from happening again. Some owners believe that the notification of an SSSI means complete sterilisation. Of course it does not. Many operations are allowed within an SSSI, provided that they do not damage the scientific reason for the designation. That is when management agreements can be and usually are of mutual benefit. We are making great progress in changing attitudes towards sites of special scientific interest. Many landowners now feel proud that their estates have SSSIs and make great efforts to look after them. However, there are a few irresponsible landowners, and the proposed amendment to the Act should close the loophole. For that reason, I hope that the measure will be enacted soon. Like other hon. Members, I regret that this is not a Government Bill. We all recognise the fragility of private Members' Bills in regard to time and amendment.

I wish that the hon. Member for South Shields had seen fit to limit his Bill to the one significant point that concerns most hon. Members, and had drafted the long title accordingly, so that discussion on parts I and III of the original Act would be avoided. Had he done so, I would gladly have accepted his decision. From practical experience, we know that legislation on the countryside and the heritage is relatively rare. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity to introduce valuable amendments it should be accepted.

I strongly support clause 1 in regard to the protection of badgers. As I said to the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I think that he is creating concern where none exists, but we must get the wording right. That can be dealt with in Committee.

The words in the explanatory memorandum with regard to clause 1 cause some concern, as the clause requires the proof of innocence rather than guilt. It is a matter of concern in regard not only to badger digging but to any legislation. I am sure that that aspect will be dealt with in Committee. I am keen to ensure that badgers are not molested in any way, and I welcome the opportunity to visit setts near my home.

Speaking for myself and not as a member of the NCC, I am glad that the Bill provides the opportunity to correct a failure in the 1981 Act to implement the wishes of this House and its own declared policy. I spoke on the subject at some length in Committee and on Report when I was the Minister in charge of the original Bill. In this respect I know that I have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr). If we had a guiding principle on bird protection and quarry species, we should have stuck to it. The principle was that birds remain on the quarry list unless the NCC specifically recommends their removal for conservation reasons. In another place, the curlew and redshank were removed from the list, but they were put back on it in Standing Committee in line with Government policy. That position remained on Report. However, during the spillover Session in October 1981, the Lords reinstated the provision. Unfortunately, because the Government — of which I was then no longer a member—said that they had not time to deal with Lords amendments, they accepted the position and failed to fulfil their duty of maintaining the policy and judgment of this House. It was a rather miserable procedural defeat.

My hon. Friend the Minister can put the matter right with an amendment in Committee. To do otherwise would involve a U-turn on policy. There is no conservation reason for the removal of curlew from the quarry list. There are hundreds of thousands of curlew and redshank, and the NCC advice of 1980–81 still stands. The facts can be argued in detail in Committee.

With regard to the Brent goose, the chairman of the NCC in the 1950s—Sir Arthur Duncan, who died a few months ago—made it clear, when the Brent goose was protected, that it would be back on the quarry list when the numbers became substantial again. That position had almost been reached in 1980–81, and it has now been reached. Therefore, Sir Arthur's undertaking should be implemented.

There should be a much more flexible approach in the schedules to movement of species, as seems appropriate to the NCC. The world population of the Brent goose is between 180,000 and 200,000, and probably 85,000 or more are in Britain. Wildfowling is a traditional sport and the Brent goose is becoming a great pest to farmers. Therefore, a return to the quarry list should be considered. It is interesting to note that the population of the Brent goose now exceeds that of the grey goose, on which there is at present a full open season.

I have never seen so many barnacles as there have been in the Solway this winter. Consequently, there has been considerable agitation by the farming community. If the barnacle could be removed from the protected list, it would remove a great deal of aggravation and unhappiness on the island of Islay.

We should consider the arrangements for the cold weather ban. I support the ban, but almost invariably we seem to get the dates wrong. That causes great unhappiness among wildfowlers.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the British Field Sports Society and other bodies, including farmers, play a great part in protecting the habitat of birds, and their rights and interests have to be considered together with other shades of opinion. It is totally unacceptable that saboteurs and others should take action against country sports. They should receive short shrift from the police and the law.

There are vast numbers of stock doves. They were put on the protected list as a result of misunderstanding in the Ministry. There is no conservation, and many of them are shot, together with pigeons. The shooting should be made legal again.

There was no provision in the original Act for marine nature reserves. The provision was put in in another place because the Government foresaw certain difficulties. The NCC has found the establishment of marine nature reserves to be very complicated. I fear that the provision in the Bill may make the consultative processes marginally more difficult. There are many interests involved — fishermen, water sports, recreation bodies and landowners on the shore line. There is no point in trying to short-circuit those interests by legislation. We should take people's rights and interests into consideration and try to proceed by agreement.

I note with interest the new responsibilities that are to be placed on agriculture and forestry.

Dr. David Clark

Although the hon. Member is a very respected member of the NCC, I do not think that he is speaking for the council in regard to marine nature reserves. I have a letter from the council in which it says that it supports the proposed new clauses and welcomes the possibility of the Minister taking overriding decisions. The NCC's official position is that it supports the clause dealing with marine nature reserves. However, I know that the hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was speaking for himself.

Sir Hector Monro

Yes, I made it clear, after I referred to section 28 of the principal Act, that I was speaking for myself. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to accept that, as the Bill appeared only on Monday, the NCC has not had an opportunity to look at it. I am aware of the views of our experienced officials and, I am sure, the chairman. The point that I am seeking to highlight is that we shall not necessarily make it easier to obtain marine nature reserves by following a legal process rather than consultation.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State is not here at the moment but it would be fair to say that, following the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had the greatest conversion since St. Paul to nature conservation and the improvement of the habitat. Now, having been converted, as so often happens, it is proceeding with tremendous zeal, and I am delighted at that. The appointment of experienced officials and the promotion of conservation through the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service is good news. It has all been made so much easier for the Ministry of Agriculture by the splendid lead given by the National Farmers Unions of England, Wales and Scotland and the farming and wildlife advisory groups. The Stanton survey in Suffolk is a fine example of what is being done.

All that is a great plus for the movement towards greater understanding of conservation, led now not only by the voluntary groups which have played such an important part, but also by the farmers, the country landowners and others.

I too am particularly pleased that there is emphasis now on the Forestry Commission. I welcome the commission's recent appointment of Dr. Morton Boyd, who used to be the director of the NCC in Scotland, to advise it on conservation. I hope that all the private forestry groups will make a particular effort to play their part along with the Forestry Commission in the promotion of countryside conservation and wildlife. I encourage all private groups and the Forestry Commission to go and see the Economic Forestry Group's headquarters at Eskdalemuir in my constituency, where it runs the most splendid operation to the benefit of wildlife. We must look after pests and predators if we want to promote wildlife, and foresters in the commission and in private groups, other than the EFG, have not played their full part.

Far too many people tend to underplay our achievements in recent years in the attitude to wildlife and the countryside, and over-emphasise our failures. There is much good in between. The biggest "but" is the future profitability of farming. As incomes decrease, so will the input to conservation. Therefore, we must look at the broad picture of a profitable agriculture and a great swell of enthusiasm for wildlife in the countryside throughout the nation.

The Select Committee's recommendations are excellent. I support nearly all of them. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to have a full debate on those recommendations, and, in particular, to go into the issue of the rural estate, a matter which I have tried to promote in the House for many years.

My final word is a wish for harmony. I wish the Bill success, but there will need to be some give and take. The Government, the voluntary bodies and the public will have to accept some compromises if we are to get the Bill through, as I wish. That is not complacency but a fact of life and practical politics. We must look at the matter in broad terms. I particularly hope that the amended section 28 goes through as it stands and I am sure that in that way we shall prevent unnecessary damage to SSSIs.

10.53 am
Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

I want, sincerely and warmly, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). He is undertaking a task with which all of us would agree. He is trying to bring about real protection for the badger. I was pleased that he said he would be prepared to look at any amendments, because we must make illegal what is happening in the so-called sport of badger baiting, and we must ensure that we close all the loopholes so that we finally get rid of that practice in the same way as we have to a great extent got rid of cock fighting, although some still takes place, and bull baiting.

It is wrong that this measure should be a private Member's Bill. It should, as other hon. Members have said, be a Government measure. To describe badger baiting as a sport is something that I cannot understand. It is a barbaric practice and I cannot understand what kind of people partake in it. Yet much of it takes place in the north-west, some even in the urban areas there.

I saw a video film of badger baiting which the Sunday People had obtained from those who had partaken in such baiting. The League Against Cruel Sports showed it to me, and it is believed that the action took place in an urban area in Liverpool. The badger had been taken from its sett and was then attacked, not by one, but by countless dogs, which continued to attack it. As one terrier got tired another was put in, and at one point an alsation was used. That went on for hours. It is beyond belief how anybody could not only witness such an act but film it and then show it to clubs to get a wider audience. To hear those creatures laughing at the distress, pain and suffering that they were causing to that defenceless animal is something which, as hon. Members, we must ensure does not occur again.

We have all had a large postbag on this subject. Only this week I had a letter from a lady in west Wales, who said: Only this week a trial took place in Haverfordwest of five men who carried out the most horrific cruelty on a badger, which included breaking the badger's back with a spade to make things easier for the dogs. We are beginning to try to frame measures against that kind of background.

The real difficulty, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) referred, is to prove that people are going after badgers. Their defence has always been that they are digging for foxes. In 1984 the police brought a prosecution at Retford. They failed to establish the fact that the defendants were digging for badgers rather than foxes and, as I understand it, the police have not brought another prosecution. A private prosecution was painstakingly brought at great length and expense by the Derbyshire Naturalists Trust. I think that that is the only case that has been successful, because of the difficulty of establishing the fact that it is badgers rather than foxes that are being dug for.

After seeing the film, an all-party delegation went with the League Against Cruel Sports to see the Home Secretary. It may be of some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields to know that two categorical statements were made at that time. The Home Secretary said: We are entirely sympathetic with your objections to badger baiting. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, he said: If it is possible to stop badger baiting in a way that would not affect legitimate hunting, I think your proposals would have Government support. That is what we are asking for this morning — Government support.

We are always up against the sacred cow of this so-called other sport called fox hunting, which I do not describe as a sport at all. I fail to understand how anybody can think that it is a sport to chance a defenceless animal such as a fox. Nevertheless, we were told that if the Bill did not affect legitimate hunting, it would have Government support.

We do not want my hon. Friend's Bill to go by the board because it runs up against opposition from the fox hunting fraternity. That is the difficulty that we must overcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly is right. There is a great distinction between a fox hole and a badger sett. However, members of the fox hunting fraternity might chase a fox into a badger sett and then put a terrier in, which I believe should be considered illegal and they should face the consequences.

Already voices have been raised in dissent because if we were to accept the Bill clause 1 would place the onus of proof upon the defence to prove that those people were not digging for foxes. I think that that is absolutely right. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will take on board—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER, interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).