HC Deb 16 January 1985 vol 71 cc467-85 1.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Chris Patten)

I beg to move, That the draft Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.

In November 1983, the proposal for a draft Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order was published for consultation. Comments were received up to 3 February 1984 and the proposal was considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which forwarded its report to the Secretary of State on 28 March last year. The Assembly welcomed the legislation and put forward 20 recommendations for amendment, together with 13 further recommendations seeking assurances largely relating to the implementation of certain aspects of the legislation. Eleven of the suggested amendments are included in the draft order and a number of the other recommendations are covered in substance by the provisions of the order as at present drafted.

I shall refer in due course to the more substantive changes resulting both from the consultation process and from consideration by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but I wish first to thank the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) for the contribution that he made to the order.

The Amenity Lands Act (Northern Ireland) 1965, which this order will supersede, is at present the cornerstone of legislation on nature conservation and countryside amenity in Northern Ireland. It was the first piece of legislation of its kind when enacted 20 years ago. In that time notable progress has been made with a planned programme of establishing nature reserves, areas of scientific interest and amenity areas. Several areas of outstanding natural beauty have also been designated.

However, the increasing pressures on the countryside from competing forms of land use and experience arising from the Act's operation over almost two decades have shown the limitations in its framework; amendments are now clearly necessary. These are incorporated in the measure, along with a necessary and perhaps overdue consolidation of the 1965 Act.

The order will bring Northern Ireland broadly into line with the rest of the United Kingdom in matters of countryside, recreation and amenity. It is not possible to do so precisely, because planning control is exercised differently in Northern Ireland. In addition, the executive responsibility in Great Britain for nature conservation and countryside recreation lies with two semi-autonomous bodies, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. In Northern Ireland that function rests with the Department of the Environment.

However, the new provisions in the draft order draw heavily on Great Britain sources, specifically the Nature Conservancy Council Act 1973, the Countryside Act 1968, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

It is appropriate at this stage to mention that the publication of the proposal for a draft order prompted a debate on the question whether the existing administrative structure for conservation in Northern Ireland is the most appropriate or whether it could be improved by the establishment of a body, or bodies, on the lines of the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. As a result of the interest in this matter, the Department of the Environment of Northern Ireland is currently reviewing the existing structure. It has been assisted by a distinguished and independent expert in this sphere, Dr. Jean Balfour, whose report was published just before Christmas.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, among others, feels that there is considerable merit in the concept of a separate body for conservation in the Province. However, recognising the need for full public consultation following the review, and the desirability of bringing into effect at an early date the many improvements which the proposed order and the related wildlife order would introduce, the Assembly supported the order subject to the recommendations contained in its report. Any necessary alterations to the structure for conservation in Northern Ire Land will therefore be the subject of a further Order in Council in due course. I am sure that we were right to proceed rapidly with this legislation and to consider the matter of structure at a more deliberate pace.

The existing functions of the Department in relation to nature conservation and countryside amenity are narrow. They are limited to the acquisition of lands for nature reserve and amenity purposes and the designation of national parks, areas of scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty. These powers are restated in the order, but article 3 will enable the Department in future to exercise a wider range of nature conservation and countryside functions, similar to those administered by the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission.

Article 4 recognises the land use demands of public bodies and requires that such groups, which include Government Departments, district councils and other statutory bodies, should take into account the requirements of nature conservation and countryside amenity in the exercise of their land-related functions. This has a direct analogue in section 11 of the Countryside Act 1968 and reflects an acceptance that the demands of nature conservation and countryside amenity should have the same consideration as other forms of land use planning.

Article 5 establishes a new conservation committee, the committee for nature conservation. It will assume the responsibilities of the existing nature reserve and wild birds advisory committees and will have certain additional functions under this order and also in relation to wildlife protection.

Parts III and IV are mainly consolidation and restate the Department's existing role in relation to amenity lands, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Consultation requirements in relation to the latter have, however, been considerably widened and fresh powers have been given to the Department to enable it to take more positive action towards the conservation of such areas.

In Part V, article 20 introduces the totally new concept of marine nature reserves and in that respect corresponds to section 36 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

The case for establishing statutorily protected marine nature reserves was made at considerable length in the 1979 joint Nature Conservancy Council — Natural Environment Research Council publication, entitled "Nature Conservation in the Marine Environment'. It made the point that some of the primary objectives of conservation policy on land have been to conserve representative examples of plant and animal communities, to safeguard sites where research and experiment can be pursued without disturbance and to provide education facilities. It is illogical that such an approach should end at the low water mark, especially in view of the interdependence of marine and land-based life. Procedural instructions to designate marine nature reserves are precise and all power to create a reserve and to confirm byelaws regarding it will be vested in the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

For the first time, district councils are to be given the power to establish nature reserves within their areas and to acquire land for that purpose. It has long been a feature of Great Britain law that local authorities have this power and I look forward to district councils in the Province playing their part in conservation matters.

Part VI deals with areas of special scientific interest and its provisions represent the most substantive change in the proposal for a draft order since it was published for consultation. At that time it was recognised that considerable modification of the Great Britain procedure, found in sections 28 and 29, for example, of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, would be required in order to apply it to the Northern Ireland circumstances, in which, for example, the existence of a single-tier structure with the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment responsible throughout, required a single continuous procedure. It was clear that this was a matter that should be fully debated at the consultation stage. Hence, the proposal merely included a provision equivalent to section 28 of the 1981 Act with the Department at the same time encouraging full discussion of the matter through the circulation of a separate consultation paper to the main interests concerned and to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The provisions now included in the draft order are the result of that consultation. The procedure to be introduced will effectively protect areas of special scientific interest in Northern Ireland and at the same time enable the United Kingdom to comply with the requirements of the Berne convention. Parargraph (1) of article 25 eliminates the "three-month loophole" which has caused so much concern on this side of the water.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Gentleman by-passed article 24. What do people believe to be the significant change? When article 14 was debated in the Assembly, the people's response was that it was better for the power to be discretionary than to be mandatory. A change in article 24 which shows that the power is discretionary rather than mandatory has caused concern. That was not on the list of changes noted in the response.

Mr. Patten

I am delighted to deal with that point, because I know that concern has been expressed in some quarters about article 24 as drafted. When redrafting this provision, it was felt that an enabling power similiar to that used for the creation of national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, marine nature reserves, and so on would be appropriate, achieving consistency of drafting within the context of the draft order. That decision was taken in the knowledge that the existing permissive powers in the draft order to which I have referred had not been challenged during the consultation process.

Our legislation runs together. The procedures in sections 28 and 29 of the equivalent legislation for Great Britain are mandatory in one section and ultimately permissive in section 29 which refers to the powers of the Secretary of State. The procedures give us a more streamlined and coherent mechanism. Nevertheless, I appreciate the concern expressed, so I shall give hon. Members a firm and unequivocal assurance that my Department will exercise its powers over areas of special scientific interest in a manner consistent with the objectives of these provisions. Scientific criteria for the selection of ASSIs are being prepared corresponding closely to those applied in Great Britain. I shall consider it an unshakeable obligation on my Department to declare as areas of special scientific interest all areas that meet those criteria.

We shall need to legislate again shortly if we are to implement, after a suitable period of consultation, the main recommendations in Dr. Balfour's report. If, at that stage, there are any reservations about the way in which we are implementing article 24, we shall be prepared—this is another firm commitment—to amend this order and to introduce a mandatory provision.

The financial provisions of article 29 widen the Department's existing powers to grant-aid voluntary bodies, which are presently limited to those under the Wild Birds Protection Acts (Northern Ireland) 1931 to 1968, to include any body which has among its objects the conservation of wildlife or of the countryside. This is entirely consistent with the position in Great Britain.

I am confident that the order will provide for the more effective administration of nature conservation and countryside amenity matters for many years ahead, although I accept that we may need shortly to introduce, as I have said already, further complementary legislation when we have all had a chance to form a view on the main recommendations of the Balfour report— sensible as I believe their broad thrust to be. I commend the order to the House.

1.29 am
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am grateful again for the manner in which the Minister has taken us through the draft order.

There are two important aspects of the order. One is that it seeks to bring into line, as the Minister said, the nature conservation legislation in Northern Ireland with that in Great Britain. As he pointed out, it goes somewhat further, because it rectifies some of the weaknesses and loopholes that have become apparent in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and, not for the first time, we see legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland somewhat ahead of its counterpart on the mainland.

The other important aspect is that we meet our international obligations. We meet the obligations placed upon us by the European Community directive on conservation and wildlife and also, as the Minister said, the Berne convention.

The Minister was kind enough to take us through the consultation procedures which went on for about a year. There were therefore extensive consultations. The Northern Ireland Assembly Environment Committee subjected the order to detailed scrutiny. Amendments were made and, in general, the order was welcomed by those who have nature conservation at heart.

Notwithstanding that extensive consultation, one word in the text has been changed and the Minister met head on the point and the problem that that change might have brought about. He referred to consistency of draftsmanship. The word "may" has been placed in article 24, rather than the word "shall". Thus, powers which might have been mandatory have become discretionary. Discretion is always the better part of valour; free will is better than coercion; and thou mayest is better than thou shalt. It was the entire philosophy behind the play by Henrik Ibsen and a novel by John Steinbeck. The play by Ibsen was called "The Lady from the Sea" and the novel by Steinbeck was called "East of Eden". However, in relation to nature conservation and amenity, the change may be regrettable.

As the House is aware, article 24 deals with areas of special scientific interest. On the mainland, as the Minister said, the Nature Conservancy Council has a duty to notify sites which are of special scientific interest. Article 24 declares: Where the Department, after consultation with the Committee for Nature Conservation, is satisfied that an area of land is of special scientific interest, by reason of its flora, fauna or geological, physiographical or other features, and accordingly needs to be specially protected, the Department may make a declaration that the area is an area of special scientific interest.

The change in the wording from "shall" to "may" raises a number of issues on which we require elucidation.

Why was the change made after the consultation procedures had been completed? Why were interested parties not informed that the change had been made, but left to discover it only when they read the draft order published and delivered to the Palace of Westminster? Has the change in any way altered the obligation placed upon Her Majesty's Government by the European Community directive? Is the order still in line with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981? If it is not, is it proposed to alter the Act to bring it into line with the order?

The Minister has explained why the amendment went into the text unannounced, but has it been before a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments? If the change was brought to the attention of the Committee, what, if any, were the comments of members of the Committee?

There can be little argument that when the order was originally published—and, indeed, even in accordance with the Amenity Lands Act 1965 for Northern Ireland—the Department of the Environment had a statutory duty to notify land as an area of scientific interest where that land, in its opinion, was required to be protected because of the wealth and richness of both flora and fauna. Now that that duty has become discretionary rather than mandatory, it gives the impression that there is a weakening of the sense of responsibility towards nature conservation in Northern Ireland. Having been brought in without consultation, it creates what the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds describes as a very dangerous precedent and one which undermines the good which has been done to improve the orders during the consultation. I believe that the Minister's statement will go some way towards modifying that attitude, but, nevertheless, the point should be made.

The reasoning behind the change in the wording is further called into question when Ministers have argued in the past that the notification of land of special scientific interest is simply declaratory of its scientific value, rather than a decision as to its future management, but such designation is also of benefit to the landowner or farmer, for without that designation no information at all is forthcoming on the reasons for the site's value, and no advice can be given on future management. Indeed, no compensation would be available if permission were refused for further changes of land use in such an area.

Notification of some sites and failure to notify others of similar importance—an inevitable outcome of a may or may not policy—will cause confusion and increase rather than reduce concern over those valuable sites. In addition there are appropriate safeguards for the interests of those landowners and occupiers, including compensation where necessary, and those come into play at a later stage if and when there is a development proposal on the table to be considered.

Before leaving the subject I can do no better than quote from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which declared: We are at a loss to understand why the wording of article 24(1) has now been changed, and are moreover deeply disturbed by the perplexingly unorthodox way in which the change was introduced — tardily; unannounced; contrary to the expectations of the Northern Ireland Assembly; without consultation with any of the interested parties. It is hardly surprising, in those circumstances, that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds pressed for the withdrawal of the order and its resubmission in the form which originally contained the word "shall" rather than the word "may" in article 24(1).

As I mentioned earlier, in some ways the order is ahead of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, for that Act contains a recognised loophole. It became known as the three-month loophole; that is to say, during a three-month consultation period any owner of land subject to such a notification under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 might modify the land if he so wished. That would or might be to the detriment of conservation. In addition, he might do so without sanction. That preoccupied those Ministers responsible for the operation of the Act, and they are prepared to modify it when parliamentary time allows. Indeed, it may be that they will take advantage of the excellent private Member's Bill which my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) proposes to introduce to reform the 1981 Act.

The order is ahead of that Act because of the inclusion of articles 25 and 27. Article 25 prevents the owner or occupier of any land from tampering with it once there has been a declaration, and for so long as that declaration remains in force he cannot carry out, cause or permit to be carried out, on his land any operation or activity without written consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) introduced a private Member's Bill to modify the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 along the lines now defined by article 25 of the order. His Bill has now been superseded by that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields.

Should the Government take on board all the elements of the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, thus tightening, for example, the laws to prevent badger digging, empowering the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Forestry Commission to give Government grants for conservation practices—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

What about Northern Ireland?

Mr. Bell

If the right hon. Gentleman is patient, I shall come to the matter to which he refers.

I was saying that should the Government tighten laws, empowering the Ministry and the Forestry Commission to give Government grants for conservation practices and making it easier for the Nature Conservancy Council to declare marine nature reserves, will those changes in the Wildlife and Countryside Act be followed by another order for Northern Ireland?

I should like to draw the attention of the House to article 20. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it was thought desirable that there should be created marine nature reserves. The Minister referred to that in his explanation of the order and said that powers would be vested in the Secretary of State. Yet, because of the system of consultation on this side of the water, no marine nature reserves have been created. Are the provisions in article 20 the same as under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and, if so, how many marine nature reserves does the Minister expect to be created in Northern Ireland as a result of the legislation?

Over and above the criticism which the Minister has taken on board and sought to assuage, a great deal in the order is welcome. We have seen that the habitat provisions of the order provide the long-awaited strengthening of conservation legislation in Northern Ireland. We are complying with our international obligations. We are witnessing, therefore, a significant stage in the development of conservation in Northern Ireland, and it should be further said that the order constitutes an efficient and practical framework for, to quote the RSPB again, wise land-use planning and the conservation of natural resources".

However, two questions remain to be answered. Will this order and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order be implemented? The Minister gave an assurance that the latter order would be. Secondly, will the resources be made available so that the orders can be fully implemented? There is an ungenerous suggestion abroad that the reason for the significant word change in article 24 from "shall" to "may" was based on resource considerations; that it would cost less to have a discretionary rather than a mandatory power placed with the Department of the Environment.

I am sure that the Minister would wish to take an early opportunity to refute such a suggestion. Nevertheless, it lingers on in the minds of those who have been involved in the consultative procedures. Any categorical assurances that he can give would be most welcome. They would be even more welcome if the Minister were to confirm that the resources overall will be available to implement the orders. These resources should mean greater staff and greater finance so that the conservation effort in Northern Ireland can be strengthened, rather than simply maintained. A desirable goal would be one where these resources were on a par with those available on the mainland.

We therefore join the Minister in commending the order to the House. We note the statement that he made in relation to the mandatory exercise of the power under section 25. He has offered to change the wording of that article in a future Order in Council if that is the appropriate course of action for him to take. We welcome that suggestion and, as he has done, commend the order to the House.

1.45 am
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I am placed in the same embarrassing situation in which I was placed on the last order: while I naturally welcome the vast majority of recommendations contained in the order, I have one gripe. That flows, perhaps regrettably, from the procedures that are applicable to Northern Ireland business. The Minister will be aware, although the House may not, that while in the case of the last order I concentrated on dealing with what the Minister did not do, he did in fact accept 55 of recommendations of the Assembly.

In the case of this order, of the 33 recommendations of the Assembly, the Minister accepted 29. I leave to one side, perhaps ungenerously, those recommendations which he did accept and shall consider the areas in which we still have some difference of opinion. Nevertheless, I place on record the grateful acknowledgement of most people in the Assembly and in the Province of the contents of the order, which embraces two main themes, the first dealing with the structure of conservation in Northern Ireland and the second dealing with the protection of areas of environmental importance.

On the structure of conservation in Northern Ireland, I take some heart from a comment that the Minister made concerning the report of Dr. Jean Balfour. I have had the opportunity to read that report. I was relieved at the end of doing so because I am holding the ring, as it were, between colleagues in the Assembly and have to part my party leader from certain other colleagues; in other words, considerations of agriculture have been weighed against those of the environment. That Dr. Jean Balfour has steered what I consider to be a fair and balanced middle course helps me out of many difficulties that I might have experienced when the report is debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I trust that, when I put this forward as a personal view, the Minister will accept every letter of it rather than putting it into the melting pot and considering afresh what emerges at the end of the process. I take encouragement from the fact that in relation to article 24 the Minister said that, if there were any reservations when he came to legislate for the structure of conservation, he would take that into consideration. This clearly shows that in his office he is already contemplating legislation for the structure of conservation. I for one would be eager to hear from the Minister at what stage that may be expected. More important, following the comments from the Opposition, does he believe that the resources for that structure can be found within his budget? I appreciate that there is pressure from priority areas such as housing and all too often conservation becomes a scapegoat and is left out when finances are allocated. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that it will be possible to meet the Balfour report in terms of finance.

In my discussions in the Assembly I discovered that the chasm that I had imagined between agricultural and environmental interests did not exist, that there was a great deal of common ground between them and that the two terms were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, many strong conservationists are members of the agricultural community and some of the best protectors of the natural habitat in the Province are farmers. I was pleased to find that the Ulster Farmers Union, the Agriculture Committee of the Assembly and even the Department of Agriculture in many ways were not unsympathetic to proposals to protect the environment.

The problem, however, is the unfortunate change of one word in the order. Again, this shows the weakness of our parliamentary procedures. Even when the Minister agrees that the word should not be as it is and the House would clearly be prepared to accept the change to which he has referred, he cannot do anything about it because Orders in Council cannot be amended, however sensible the amendment may be.

For once, the situation cannot be blamed on the Assembly, however much any hon. Member may wish to do so. The proposal for a draft order considered by the Assembly was perfectly satisfactory as it used the mandatory "will" or "shall" rather than the permissive "may". The Assembly made no recommendation because it was satisfied with the proposal, having had the advantage of both written and oral evidence from the Minister's Department which at no time referred to any proposed change in the wording.

None of the conservation and amenity groups made any comment on the matter because they, too, were perfectly satisfied. Indeed, we were aware that the 1 965 Act was mandatory. as was the 1981 Act for Great Britain, so it was logical that the Northern Ireland order should take that form as its main purpose was to bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain. Suddenly, however, somebody somewhere in the Department brought out a rubber and a pencil and changed a proposal that had left everyone quite pleased into one that has alarmed the vast majority, if not all, of the conservation and amenity groups and bewildered many of the rest of us.

I recognise that the Minister in good faith has given an undertaking to the House. That is on the record and I know that he will stand by it. No matter how many of us may wish it, the Minister will not be with us always. He is undoubtedly destined for higher things. He may not be there to ensure that the guarantee that he has given to the House, and which the House no doubt accepts, will be upheld in the same spirit by his successors. The hon. Gentleman might—heaven forbid—even be succeeded by an hon. Member of another party, who might not take the same generous view of the interpretation of the legislation.

I hope that the Minister will tell us tonight that, regardless of whether there are major reservations, he will, when he finds that he can legislate for the Balfour report on the structure of conservation, correct this unfortunate mistake in the legislation and ensure that those who follow him have the strength of statute behind them when they take decisions.

I do not believe that the Minister was trying, by sleight of hand, to put one over on the Assembly, the conservation groups or the amenity organisations in the Province. Here is a way in which he can prove to us that I am right.

1.56 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

I join the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) in looking forward to the day, which is visibly coming closer, when the law in Northern Ireland will be made in a manner which enables it to be debated and amended in detail as is the law for the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it was part of the encouragement of this evening's proceedings to have learnt that the Liberal party is now in favour of legislating for Northern Ireland, wherever practicable, within a United Kingdom Bill. Things are looking up, and we may not have to take part in niggling debates such as this for ever.

When there is a good row going on over a word—the argument between "may" and "shall"—the temptation to join in is irresistible. When I heard reference to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, it occurred to me that there was a case for a royal society for the protection of parliamentary draftsmen. They are, as Dr. Johnson once defined a lexicographer, "harmless, necessary drudges" and it is only right that from time to time a word should be said in their favour. This evening, that is a task that it falls to me to take up.

I have read article 24(1) of the draft order without any inhibition caused by having previously considered a different draft, and I notice that the conditional part of that paragraph is voluntary. It is discretionary. For "Department" we have to read "Minister", doing the usual voodoo—that is now the in word—which is prescribed by the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The paragraph begins: Where the Department is satisfied that such and such. We then proceed to the main sentence, of which the verb is now "may".

It seems to be self-evident that if a condition is discretionary, the act itself must be discretionary by nature and that, if the draftsman had originally written "may" he would have been acting in conformity both with good sense and with the drafting practice that, in other statutes, we have been accustomed to who in our younger days happily moved amendments to leave out "may" and insert "shall" and made such speeches as have been heard in the Chamber tonight.

I do not believe that there is anything wrong with paragraph (1) of article 24. What is wrong—this has come out in the debate — is the awkward manner in which the drafting was brought into consonance with logic and common practice at an awkward stage in the gestation of the order. This too is something which we would have avoided if we were legislating in the normal manner, for if we were legislating in the normal manner it would have fallen to the Minister in charge of the Bill first to decide whether he wanted to alter the drafting at any particular stage and then to come forward to Committee and move his amendment in the open. All of the speeches would then be recorded in the indelible pages of Hansard and there would be no suggestion of disappointment and no tremors of alarm would have run through the observing public as they have done as a result of this drafting alteration.

I hope that the Minister will take comfort from those remarks and also from the generous and comprehensive démenti of any other intention but that always expressed in relation to this article which he offered to the House.

I should like to raise with the Minister the relationship in this order between the functions of the Minister, or Department, and the functions of local authorities. Far be it from any hon. Member on this Bench to query powers entrusted to local government in Northern Ireland, but even when we see such powers entrusted, as they are in two places in this order in respect of nature reserves and areas of outstanding natural beauty, it is pertinent to inquire what is to be the division of responsibility and how that is to work out between the Minister and district councils. If the Minister is to make up his mind as to the nature reserves that need to be created, what scope is there to be for the district councils similarly to arrive at their own conclusions to create nature reserves? Are we to have competitive creation of nature reserves between local authority and Department; or is there some gradation of the desirability of nature reserves whereby the higher level of necessity will be met by ministerial decision and the lower level will be left to the discretion of the local authority? It seems to me that, with this order, we are entitled to some indication from the Government of the manner in which they believe these concurrent powers will be exercised by central and by local government.

The concurrence in the matter of nature reserves is on the face of the order. In the case of areas of outstanding natural beauty, the concurrence is between the powers in this order and some of the powers in the Access to the Countryside (Northern Ireland) Order 1983.

I draw the Minister's attention, and that of the House, especially to the provisions in paragraph (5) of article 14, which empowers the Minister to formulate proposals for, among other things, promoting the enjoyment of areas of natural beauty by the public and providing or maintaining public access to it. That latter provision is directly concurrent with the powers of local authorities under the access to the countryside order. It would be helpful if there were a certain statement of policy in that respect from the Government, especially as—in this I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) — the financial provisions in this order appear to be extraordinarily vague. Indeed, they are difficult to understand.

When one considers the financing of the provisions to which I have drawn attention, one learns in article 29 that the Department may make grants to any body of persons and give financial assistance by way of grant or loan". There seems to be a strange inapplicability of the wording of that provision to the direct operations of the Department itself. It looks as if it were a provision of finance purely for the assistance of secondary bodies or secondary functions under the order. I hope that when he is replying to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough the Minister will be able to clear that up. I do not think it would be reasonable to expect him to offer in numerical terms any forecast or specification of the cost of implementing the order in successive financial years, but I think the House ought to understand better than it is easy to do from article 29 how the application of the financial provisions will work.

I return to the concurrence of powers for providing access to the countryside so as to utter a cautionary note which may have financial applications. About a year ago the Minister and I were in correspondence, helpful as correspondence with the hon. Gentleman always is, if I may say so, on access to the countryside in one of the areas of the most wild and glorious natural beauty in the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom, namely, South Down. I have in mind the Trassey valley in the Mourne mountains where public access exists, always has existed and should be properly preserved and safeguarded, if that were necessary.

Unfortunately, the result of unregulated public access is to bring considerable loss and damage to those who earn their livelihood or part of their livelihood from that countryside who happen to be members of one of those syndicates which for historical reasons control the use of the uplands in that part of the Province. They find that the unregulated access along undoubted rights of way to the joys of the countryside in that area results in damage and loss to themselves, simply because those who have access do not restrict themselves to the right of way nor their activities to enjoying the country but go as far field as to collect firewood by demolishing fences and making fires for cooking and other purposes with the result of their ravages.

The correspondence between the Minister and myself terminated somewhat unsatisfactorily in February of last year with a reference to the fact that the district council could make an order, the terms of which could be agreed with the users of the land concerned. That left completely at large who was to do the policing of this access to the countryside and where the financial burden would be borne of any loss which rested with the users of the land as a result of the access that was accorded.

So we are brought back, not surprisingly, to finance in the end. One would wish to know how far the Department will stand behind the district councils in whatever is to be their distinct function, as opposed to the Department's own function in exercising the duties which can be undertaken under the order. I know that this is a problem to which the Minister has been alive. I place it upon the record deliberately because, though I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East that good agriculture is one of the best forms of conservation and enhancement of the amenity of the countryside, we must remember that there is always an attendant potential penalty which accompanies all these well-intended and desirable measures. That penalty is often not spread over the whole community but falls on individuals and specific groups to whom it is also our nature to have regard.

As well as giving sympathetic attention to these matters in his administration of the order, I hope that the Minister will also be able to make an illuminating reference to them when he replies.

2.10 am
Sir John Farr (Harborough)

One of the most welcome features of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was the firm requirement relating to SSSIs. This order contains a similar form of site of special scientific interest known as an area of special scientific interest.

I wish briefly to back up what has been said about article 24. The Royal Society for Nature Conservation, the national association of the nature conservation trusts, is concerned about the change in the wording to "may". It regards the change to be of such fundamental importance that it would like to see the order withdrawn and a new one introduced.

Unlike the House, it has not had the benefit of the Minister's explanation and his firm and generous undertaking that he will look at how this works. He also said that in any event he would be introducing new orders and legislation in relation to wildlife and countryside matters in Northern Ireland and that, if any concern still existed at that time, he would put the matter right.

However, it should be put on record that the Royal Society for Nature Conservation feels that, as the order is currently drafted, criteria other than scientific ones could easily creep into the decision about whether or not an area was scheduled. For example, it would be easy for a site with potential for industrial development not to be scheduled, thereby losing any benefit it might have received from an official label as to its importance.

These are the fears of the national association of the nature conservation trusts, a not unimportant body, which has been closely concerned with the hammering out of the structure of the order. While I know that it, like me, willingly accepts the undertaking that the Minister has already given, I hope he will recognise that this concern is widespread on both sides of the House.

2.14 am
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I do not wish to labour the point about article 24, which has been referred to by every hon. Member who has spoken so far. However, this first-class order has a shadow hanging over it because of the change in the wording from "shall" to "may". Most people think that it should be "shall", as that more clearly reflects what was intended.

The Minister went a long way to assure us, but his words will be read over and over again, not only by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, but by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and many others who are concerned about any weakening of the order. I hope that the Minister will give us further assurances when he replies.

One of the failings of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is the lack of adequate resources provided to the Nature Conservancy Council and to a number of qualified people on the ground. That has now been met by an additional £7 million being made available to the NCC. That will allow it to take on at least another 100 staff.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reckons that in the Countryside Commission, the NCC and the national parks about 2,000 people are deployed on conservation matters in Great Britain. However, it calculates that only 27 such people are deployed in Northern Ireland in the Department of the Environment, and they are spread about and have different obligations. The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) wondered where the money would come from to increase the numbers. More people will be needed if the measure is to be properly implemented.

Will it be possible to extend the work of the NCC to Northern Ireland? I hope that that will not be thrown against me as another Liberal suggestion. I do not see why the NCC should apply only to Great Britain. I do not want to reflect on the abilities of the members of the proposed committee on nature conservation, or on the Ulster Countryside Commission, but they will act merely in an advisory capacity and not operate on the ground carrying out orders.

Has the Balfour report been published, and will people other than hon. Members be able to make representations about it? Will there be adequate consultation? I assume that interested parties will be able to make representations to Ministers. I hope that discussions will be fruitful and that the error in article 24 will be remedied. I welcome the step forward. Northern Ireland is now ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, and that is a jolly good thing.

2.17 am
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)

I have studied the order, and I commend the Government on their efforts in support of the principles of conservation and provisions for Northern Ireland.

Some aspects of the order concern me. As that concern might be due to my ignorance, I should be pleased if the Minister could clarify one or two matters.

I am interested in marine nature reserves, so I was happy to read in article 21 (2) (a) (ii) on page 16 that provision may be made for prohibiting or restricting…the doing of anything therein which will interfere with the sea bed or damage or disturb any object in the reserve. I agree with those sentiments, but I should like clarification of article 21 (5) on page 17. That states: Nothing in the byelaws so made shall make unlawful…anything done more than 30 metres below the sea bed. I should have thought that anything done below the sea bed would interfere with any marine reserve.

Perhaps it refers to the safety of a vessel. It is not unlawful to discharge any substance from a vessel. Paragraph (4) (a) says that it is not intended to prohibit or restrict the exercise of any right of passage by vessel other than a pleasure boat". I do not know what difference there can be between a pleasure boat and a commercial boat. They are boats and they can cause problems in a marine reserve. They can erode banks and disturb the inmates. That seems to be recognised in article 30 (3) (b), which says that the Department may prohibit or restrict, either generally or in a manner specified in the bylaws, the use of mechanically-propelled vessels on watercourses in, or whose shores lie within, any such land". The order states that a watercourse includes tidal and coastal waters, rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs.

I am pleased that arrangements can be made to provide grants to any body of persons involved in conservation, as that will encourage active participation in the protection of our habitat. It will be welcomed by all those interested in that part of our environment.

2.20 am
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

I had intended to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and berate the Minister about the change from "shall" to "may". They are always good words on which to base a few remarks. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) has already given an explanation that I have not yet fully digested. I have no doubt that the Minister, who has greater back-up than I, will have sorted it out and will have his own views. Having said that, the information that we have been given is that nature conservancy in Great Britain has a statutory duty to declare an ASSI.

I do not yet understand whether there is a difference between the end result in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I welcome assurances, but Ministers and Governments change. However, a statutory right would remain unless it was brought before the House and changed. For that reason, I am unhappy and want to hear rather more about it.

I wish to ask one or two questions about finance. Under article 7, the Department may make grants either by way of the Department of the Environment or otherwise to the National Trust for the acquiring of land. Under article 29, the Department of Finance and Personnel may make grants to any body or persons (not being a body carried on for profit) having among its objects the conservation of wildlife or of the countryside. That does not have to be the only objective of the body; it is only one of several. Organisations may have more than one interest and they may not be universally loved, even if the Government are prepared to give them money. One wonders whether any grants, loans and financial help will be used in a way that might be detrimental to the desires and wishes of others who might have an interest in that same land.

The Government are giving a financial advantage, even if it is only an offsetting financial advantage. Heaven only knows when money goes into an organisation what the end result will be. I am always unhappy about such measures. I would prefer the Department to have taken direct responsibility for those matters rather than subsidise someone else to do it. It would be simpler and more straightforward for the individual directly responsible to be on the Government Bench so that we could question him. However, instead, the matter is dealt with at arm's length and hon. Members can be fobbed off. The Department of the Environment is the proper body to take direct responsibility for those lands.

There is the whole question of covenants and management agreements. As time is running out, I shall not go into that matter too deeply. I wish to draw to the attention of the fanning community in Northern Ireland that once such a covenant or management agreement is entered into, it is permanent. Therefore, there is a permanent loss to the landowner. It is doubtful whether the successors in title would in all cases be happy that an agreement had been made. I would not as a landowner wish to make any commitment which extended beyond my lifetime, as one has no way of knowing what the next generation will do or what the end result might be. The farming community will need to consider this matter deeply before entering into any commitment.

It will be possible under article 19, by byelaw, to prohibit the shooting of birds or of birds of any description within such area surrounding or adjoining the nature reserve". How will that work? What is meant by "area surrounding"? How wide will be the boundary of land which is not under the direct control of the body which controls the nature reserve? Will it be 100 yards, one mile, or what? Sportsmen will want to have that made clear.

There is the problem of seals in relation to marine reserves. The Under-Secretary will be aware of the problem with seals on the west coast of Scotland. While they may not pose a major problem off the coasts of Northern Ireland, they are of concern to salmon fishermen. These problems are well known to the Minister. I should not like the position to be reached when everybody loved the seals so much that they forgot about the fish and the fishing communities.

Mr. Chris Patten

indicated assent.

Mr. Ross

I am glad to see the Under-Secretary nodding in agreement.

In Scotland, the needs of fishermen are being ignored, and the right of seals to multiply for ever is being greatly respected. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that easily understood regulations will be laid to enable everyone to understand what is an adequate number of seals—or of any species of wildlife in a reserve—so that numbers may be kept to reasonable levels.

As other hon. Members have said, the implementation of these provisions will depend on money being available. As this is partly an exercise in centralisation, I hope that the money will be forthcoming.

What demands are placed on us in this connection by the EEC and the Berne convention? Only in the Minister's closing remarks on the preceding order did it become plain that the real reason for introducing the ban on snares and automatic shotguns was the demand of the EEC. That, in my eyes, was enough to condemn the proposal straight away.

2.24 am
Mr. Chris Patten

I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to the debate.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), in an interesting speech, said that he thought that we were, by the order, improving on Great Britain legislation, and that was a fair point for him to make. He then said—this point was made by a number of hon. Members—that appreciation of the progress that we were making by the order had been somewhat undermined by the terms in which article 24 had been drafted.

There is not much point in my seeking to adduce once again the reasons for the choice of words in article 24. I must clearly take responsibility for what happens in my Department and for the terms in which its legislation is drafted. I have listened carefully to the views of hon. Members, especially to those of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who made, I think, his inaugural address on behalf of the royal society for the protection of parliamentary draftsmen. He put the point rather better than I could have done.

I appreciate that suspicions have been aroused by the drafting of article 24. The hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) have voiced them with their customary civility. I assure the hon. Gentlemen that their suspicions are groundless. However, I should not want them to blight what has been an agreeable occasion, or what is important and valuable legislation.

In the circumstances, it is reasonable for me to go further than I went in my earlier remarks and to give the undertaking that when we bring forward legislation, as we shall be obliged to do in due course to implement the Balfour report, we shall amend the wording in the article so that it takes account of the arguments that have been advanced. I hope that that will be regarded as satisfactory by the House. The issue was taken up also by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough. (Sir J. Farr) and by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). I hope that my undertaking will reassure those who understandably, are anxious. In the meantime, I repeat that my Department regards it as an obligation to declare as ASSIs all areas which meet the criteria which we shall be drawing up.

Mr. William Ross

As the Minister knows, there appear frequently from the departments of the Northern Ireland Office various orders which contain mistakes. Subsequently we receive a small slip which tells us that there is a error and that a word should be substituted for the one printed in the order. Can that not be done in this instance?

Mr. Patten

No. As always, the hon. Gentleman has made a seductive proposition, but it is not one that will lure us into his boudoir. I wish that life was that simple and straightforward. I have noted what hon. Members have said during the debate, and my response is given on behalf of the Government. The hon. Member for Belfast, East said that I might be taken away to higher things. I assure him that, like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, who preceded me at the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, there is no more important Department than that for which I am responsible.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough referred to marine nature reserves. The provisions relating to them are the same as those in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Surveys are being undertaken to determine the criteria for the reserves and to identify potential reserves. We are all too conscious of the problems which have been faced on this side of the water. Monitoring is taking place, and should similar problems arise in Northern Ireland we shall seek to remedy the position, especially in the light of future changes that are made in Great Britain legislation.

The hon. Member said that in order to implement this legislation fully we would need, as the Balfour report suggested, to provide resources of manpower and cash. I accept that point, which the report agrued strongly. It would be injudicious and dishonest of me to pretend that the sky is the limit in providing resources. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that we need to do more and that, even while my Department has other pressing priorities, we need to commit greater resources. I am bound to confess that I doubt that the increase in resources will match what people will press us to provide.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to the Balfour report. I shall ensure that he is sent a copy. We shall welcome representations from everyone. I doubt that we could stop any representations. We look forward to the representations that we shall receive about that extremely thoughtful document, which was highly commended by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. I welcome the broad thrust of the document's proposals. Legislation will be required to implement them.

The right hon. Member for South Down referred especially to the relationship between the functions of the Department of the Environment and those that will be discharged by local authorities. He had in mind particularly the functions referred to in article 22, which follow the position that has obtained in great Britain since 1949. Clearly, we shall need to proceed, wherever possible, by agreement. The Department of the Environment will continue to establish nature reserves of national standing. Nature reserves of local status can be established by district councils. We shall encourage district councils to use the grants that we provide to enhance and control public access to areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The right hon. Member for South Down mentioned the loss of amenity by misuse by visitors to Trassey valley. The district council in that area may have a range of service grant — aided by the Department of the Environment. Where the district council makes an access agreement with a landowner, such as in the case to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, it takes over responsiblity and public liability for that land. I shall look again at that case. I should like to think that we could be helpful, working with the district council or with the Mournes advisory committee, because I share the right hon. Gentleman's regard for and love of that area, even though I do not yet share his knowledge of it.

The right hon. Member for South Down asked about total expenditure. It is difficult to be precise. The order contains five new powers under which financial aid may be given, first, to district councils to acquire land for nature reserve purposes; secondly, to landowners tinder management agreements in respect of ASSIs; thirdly, to the owner of an estate in an agricultural unit who can show that he has suffered a reduction in the value of his estate which is directly attributable to the declaration of an ASSI; fourthly, to the owner of any estate in land comprised in an ASSI who can show that he has incurred loss or damage or abortive expenditure as a consequence of an extension of the initial three-month period of restriction or negotiation; and, fifthly, to voluntary conservation bodies and individuals under article 29. We are setting aside funds for those items in the financial year 1985–86. At this stage it is a little difficult to be precise about figures. We shall not be able to define the financial requirements accurately until the order has been in operation for a year or two.

I repeat what I said earlier to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, that I recognise that we will have to commit more resources out of our fairly hard-pressed budget if the provisions in this legislation are to have the effect that we should all like.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North asked about local marine nature reserves and the possible interference with the passage of shipping, including pleasure boats. I hope that that will not occur. The right of innocent passage, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, is an international obligation under the 1958 convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone. The byelaws that we shall produce cannot override international obligations to which we are a party. I hope that it will be possible to proceed in these matters by co-operation.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) asked about article 7. The National Trust is mentioned because of its statutory base. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is established under an Act of Parliament. He also asked about article 22. The principle of giving grants is to encourage more bodies and individuals to be actively involved in conservation. He mentioned marine nature reserves, and there will, of course, be full consultation to determine marine nature reserves. We have provided for public inquiries before they are specified. Therefore, I hope that the relevant points that he mentioned can be dealt with during those consultations and the process of inquiry.

I shall conclude with the last sentences of the report by Dr. Balfour, which has been mentioned so often this evening. In her last sentences she wrote that the opportunities for change provided by the Access to the Countryside (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 and the two Draft Orders must be grasped and the chance to develop new relationships in the countryside seized with purpose and understanding. Such initiatives can benefit those who live and work in the Northern Ireland countryside and those who visit and enjoy it, but most important of all will be the contribution to the quality of life in the Province. To do this requires a will at political and departmental level to change, and a commitment to provide the resources to do the job.

My Department looks forward to meeting that challenge and to providing the commitment which I know will be available from those who work in my Department.

It is my task to ensure that there are enough of them and that they have the resources to do the job which to date they have done so competently.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.