HC Deb 27 July 1989 vol 157 cc1158-60
3. Mr. Marland

To ask the Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food when he last met the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; and what matters were discussed.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)

I have met the RSPB on a number of occasions in the past and I look forward with great pleasure to renewing my acquaintance.

Mr. Marland

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend back to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food where we look forward to him carrying on the good work of his predecessor.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that, while studying alternative land uses, the Select Committee on Agriculture recently visited the flow countries, where we met representatives of the RSPB. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that at his next meeting with the RSPB he will encourage it to have a slightly broader vision than did its representatives whom we met in Caithness, who seemed to be 100 per cent. opposed to any further development of those vast tracts of land, whether for forestry or agriculture, because they felt that it would disturb a few rare species of birds?

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I suppose that we would both agree that an organisation set up to protect birds would tend to go on about birds. However, I agree that we must take into account a range of matters when we make decisions. I much welcome the work done by the RSPB on behalf of birds, but in the end we have to achieve a balance between the perfectly proper demands that such conservation makes upon us and the demands for jobs and for preserving the countryside. There are often different tensions, even between conservation organisations. In the end, the Government must hold the ring and make the decisions, and I agree that they must be made impartially.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the Secretary of State accept that when he next meets the RSPB one issue that it will be particularly worried about is the state of Britain's hedgerows? Does he accept that, if hedgerows are to be stockproof and to provide a good habitat for birds, they need, in agricultural terms, to have a good bottom and to be laid regularly? Does he accept that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be doing far more to encourage farmers to maintain their hedges in a stockproof state rather than relying on strands of barbed wire to join up trees in outgrown hedges?

Mr. Gummer

I have considerable sympathy with the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's question. I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when we stopped paying people to grub up hedges. I was pleased when we started to pay people to lay and look after them properly and I shall keep that support under review. Hedgerows are of great importance and I agree that we need proper hedgerows, not ones with strips of barbed wire, wherever that can be avoided.

Mr. Michael Brown

First, may I very warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his elevation to the Cabinet. I ask him to pass on to his Parliamentary Secretaries, who will ably support him, my warmest congratulations. He has a superb team and I am sure that agriculture will benefit from this marvellous team. I also ask my right hon. Friend to remember that the RSPB has welcomed the farm woodlands scheme, which it says will be a lifeline for birds.

Mr. Gummer

It has certainly been extremely supportive of the farm woodlands scheme. I found the regular meetings that I initiated with the RSPB when I was Minister of State to be valuable and I hope that we shall continue those meetings.

Mr. Ron Davies

Has the RSPB raised with the Minister the Government's failure to protect British wildlife from deliberate and illegal killing? Will the Minister confirm that in the past eight years, there have been about 200 cases of deliberate killing of raptors by the illegal use of pesticides and that for those 200 incidents there were only four prosecutions? Is he aware that the position has been made considerably worse this year because in the grouse-rearing areas of England, all the nesting pairs of hen harriers, a bird that merits special protection under the EC birds directive, have been deliberately killed? Will the Minister forcefully condemn the actions of those responsible? Will he remind the landowners concerned of their legal responsibility and will he review the actions of his Ministry to ensure that the law is adequately and rigorously enforced?

Mr. Gummer

The RSPB has not so far drawn that to my attention, but I am happy to discuss the matter with it when we meet. I am also happy to condemn forcefully anyone who breaks the law, especially in the areas of sensitivity about which the hon. Gentleman spoke. I cannot, of course, necessarily support all that the hon. Gentleman said, but I suggest to him that the Government's actions on pesticides generally and some of the actions that I hope to announce later today will comfort him very much. I am also happy to examine again the problem to which he refers, and if further action is needed to toughen up the reactions of the Ministry, I shall be happy to take it.

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