HC Deb 19 July 1994 vol 247 cc239-62 7.17 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)

I beg to move, That the draft Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 13th July, be approved. The draft Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations were first laid before the House on 4 July. Hon. Members will realise that the draft order that we are considering today was laid on 13 July and that the original draft was withdrawn because two minor corrections were necessary so that two of the regulations should read as intended. I apologise to hon. Members that an earlier oversight made those small drafting adjustments necessary. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The House owes the Minister an apology for being so noisy when he is seeking to speak. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber go quietly and quickly?

Mr. Atkins

I am suitably impressed that the House should apologise to me. That has never happened before and doubtless will never happen again.

The draft regulations to be made under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 transpose into national law for Great Britain the provisions of the EC directive on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna which was adopted by the Council of Ministers in May 1992.

The House will know that we are fortunate in having a substantial body of existing national legislation for nature conservation. The challenge has been to integrate the new requirements of the directive into what we already have.

The directive was a significant milestone for the conservation of the most endangered habitat types and species in the European Union. The draft regulations demonstrate the Government's determination to give proper effect to its requirements.

As my right hon. Friend told the House in his written answer on 4 July, the regulations consolidate the Government's provision and practices in respect of those sites and species of international importance covered by the directive.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Schedule 2 —"European protected species of animals"—specifies that all species of whales are protected. Can the Minister answer a simple question? Under schedule 2, is Norway entitled to apply for a derogation for the killing of whales? Secondly, has it applied for a derogation? If it has or does, do the British Government have the ability to veto it? And will the Government oppose such a derogation and use their veto?

Mr. Atkins

What a good question—I shall endeavour to discover the answer to it and tell the hon. Gentleman when I reply to the debate. It is an important question. The hon. Gentleman has a recognised and considerable interest in these matters and he deserves a proper answer. If I cannot give him one this evening, I shall certainly write to him with the details.

The draft regulations follow the public consultation that took place last autumn. All those who responded have received a letter explaining the contents of the regulations.

A copy has been placed in the Library, together with letters from respondents plus a summary analysis of their contents. A summary of responses to the public consultation on the amendments to the general development order effected by the regulations has also been placed in the Library.

The regulations tell a clear story. In essence, they build on our existing legislative base, which provides the framework for successful nature conservation in this country. Much of the text of the regulations restates the provisions of existing law, modified as appropriate, to ensure that the terms of the directive are transposed. The regulations provide for the selection and designation of sites that will become special areas of conservation—SACs—as required by the directive. They also give effect to the requirement that by June 1995 the Government must submit a proposed site list to the European Commission.

The Government are receiving advice from the nature conservation agencies, through the joint nature conservation committee, on their site proposals based on the directive's scientific criteria. We shall consider that advice and publish a list of sites for consultation before the end of the year. The Government are committed to preliminary consultation with all owners and occupiers and other affected interests on the sites before submission to the Commission takes place. Further full and detailed discussions about the management and definition of sites will also take place before the Community list is agreed.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I appreciate that the Minister is going through matters logically. What, in his and the Department's view, is likely to be the major effect of this legislation as opposed to pre-existing legislation, and specifically is not the weakness of it the fact that the limitation to owners and occupiers' liability will remain a limitation under the new proposals, despite the fact that it is one of the great loopholes of the present legislation?

Mr. Atkins

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Having taken advice, we very much believe that voluntary management and involvement with owners and occupiers of sites is a better way of doing things than legislating fiercely. As the hon. Gentleman might be aware, we have the reserve right to impose a compulsory purchase order where necessary, but that is the nuclear option and not something that we want to use. However, we are required to do that under the directive and that is what we will do if necessary. Experience suggests that voluntary arrangements and agreements are a much better way of doing things.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I very much endorse what my hon. Friend says. As he knows, I have a number of sites of special scientific interest in my constituency. A letter that I received today from the National Farmers Union expresses concern that the consultation procedures will not be as good under the European proposals as they have been under the previous arrangements. I urge the fullest consultation with owners and farmers to make a success of the proposals, which can happen if there is genuine co-operation.

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am aware of his constituency interest in these matters. We have only belatedly heard from the NFU and the Country Landowners Association, but I assure my right hon. Friend that we will ensure that consultation is proper and thorough. Quite frankly, that is the only way that the procedure will work. He was right to say that, if we make it work properly, the benefits will be substantial.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), and the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) took the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 through the House. They will recall that during its Committee stage they said, understandably, that consultation was highly desirable. The Minister now says that it must be thorough. That involves staff. Quite often, the reason given for delay was that there was not sufficient staff either in the Department or in the Scottish Office. Are the Government sure that they now have sufficient staff to carry out a thorough consultation, about which I am sure the Minister is sincere, because that takes a very long time and many, many staff hours?

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. I cannot give him a direct answer but I am satisfied that, as matters stand, we have the necessary staff. We are not lagging behind on this matter, despite the little hiccup in tabling the regulations. That was because we wanted to get them right. We are doing well in comparison with other members of the European Union and it is our intention that that remains so. If the concern the hon. Gentleman raises turns out to be the case, I shall be as worried as he is and I will have to take the necessary action.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Regulation 49 refers to a project continuing if there is an overriding public interest and states that that interest may be of a social or economic nature. My constituency has the chance of an industrial development involving the creation of 1,500 new jobs on an enterprise zone site which, unfortunately, impinges marginally on a site of special scientific interest. Can the Minister provide me with a definition—if not this evening, at some future date—of "economic nature"?

Mr. Atkins

I hear sotto voce from my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who speaks on these matters for the Scottish Office, that he is aware of the case. If the hon. Gentleman would care to approach him, he will write to the hon. Gentleman with the details and perhaps they can then be discussed in the usual way.

The regulations provide for the establishment of a register of European sites, which will be open to public inspection. The entry of a site on the register will be notified to owners, occupiers, local authorities and any other interested bodies which the Secretary of State may direct. The register will be the formal means to record the sites that will be subject to the protection provisions in the regulations.

A cornerstone provision of the regulations is the introduction of new duties on Ministers and the nature conservation agencies to exercise their functions in order to secure compliance with the requirements of the directive. All Ministers and the nature conservation agencies must use such of the provisions in existing nature conservation legislation and in these regulations as may be necessary to secure the protection of sites and species as required by the directive.

All Government and public bodies are given a new duty to have regard to the directive's requirements in the exercise of their functions. The Government remain committed to the voluntary principle of land management and it is expected that where management is necessary most of the conservation needs of designated sites will be delivered through voluntary management arrangements negotiated between owners and occupiers and the nature conservation agencies.

The regulations also allow for the making of byelaws to control third-party activities and will enable the existing powers of compulsory purchase in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to be used if necessary, as I said earlier, as the only means of safeguarding the conservation value of the land.

The regulations introduce a highly significant new framework for the conservation of European sites in the marine environment. All statutory bodies with functions relevant to marine conservation must, under a new duty, exercise their functions to secure compliance with the requirements of the directive. Identified relevant authorities such as sea fisheries committees, harbour authorities and local authorities are further empowered to join with one another in drawing up schemes of management for those sites.

Consistent with the Government's declared approach to the inter-agency management of the coastal zone, the Government expect that, for the most part, those authorities will work together voluntarily to establish such schemes founded on the advice that the nature conservation agencies are under a duty to provide. However, under the regulations Ministers may give directions to those bodies in respect of the establishment of a scheme of management, and will do so at any time if it seems necessary to secure the conservation of a site.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has already announced, we wish to bring a number of additional controls relating to consents and permissions within the specific scope of the directive. They will be contained in further draft regulations to be laid before the House in due course. I believe that the regulations represent a thorough implementation package to comply with the requirements of the habitats directive, and I commend them to the House.

7.29 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

Although the directive may be a little overdue—for technical reasons which have been explained—we give it what must, sadly, be a qualified welcome. We believe that an opportunity has been missed: primary legislation would have been preferable to secondary legislation, especially in overcoming the difficulties of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

I am very concerned about the lack of information in the public domain about sites of special scientific interest. I do not know whether the Minister is aware that, some months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) tried to obtain detailed information about the damage being done to such sites by tabling written questions. I shall not bore the House with the arcane procedures that proved necessary; suffice it to say that it eventually proved impossible to table questions that could be answered. Either blocking answers were in place, or no Minister appeared competent to reply.

We then consulted English Nature, which refused to give us a list of damaged sites on the ground that the National Audit Office had all the information. The NAO said that it could not provide the information. Eventually it published a report, which gave no specific details; it provided only statistics, with one or two examples thrown in. I hope that at some point the Minister will consider the great black hole that needs to be filled: I know that a vast amount of data is involved, but it should be brought into the public domain so that Members of Parliament can gain access to detailed information about not only the incidence of damage but what it adds up to, and the difficulties that have been encountered.

Mr. Atkins

Neither my Department nor I intend to hide such information, which is generally available. It might be useful for us to discuss the matter after the debate, through the usual channels, to establish whether there are ways of providing the information the hon. Gentleman wants. It may be a simple process of bringing all the information together, rather than avoiding disclosure. That should not be particularly difficult. I will check, if it will help.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to the Minister. I should be even more grateful if he would go a step further, and give me a guarantee that he will find some way of bringing the information into the public domain.

Mr. Atkins

I never give absolute guarantees, but I will do my best.

Mr. Howarth

That is fair enough, although none of our best is ever good enough.

The NAO report, published earlier this year, stated that, since 1987, 800 reports of damage to sites of special scientific interest had been made. None of us can be complacent about such a serious matter, and I hope that the Government are not complacent. Other statistics from the 1990 countryside survey commissioned by the Department of the Environment itself revealed that there had been a decrease in the bio-diversity of many sites over the preceding 10 years. Again, there is no room for complacency.

The most notorious examples are the St. Catherine hill SSSI, north of Twyford down, and the Itchen valley/Winchester meadows SSSI, south of Twyford down. Tragically, roads have been driven through both. Sir William Wilkinson, the former chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council, has said: Good landowners protect SSSIs but bad boys get away with murder. The most recent example that springs to mind was Twyford Down where the agent of destruction was the Government. I note that the Government are not currently represented by the Minister responsible.

Many of the sites involved provide habitats for various flora and fauna—birds, for instance. Over the past 20 years, the population of seven species of common farmland bird has declined by more than 50 per cent. According to a study conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology—

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

A fine organisation.

Mr. Howarth

Indeed it is. According to that study, between 1969 and 1991 the tree sparrow population fell by 80 per cent., the corn bunting population by 76 per cent., the grey partridge population by 73 per cent., the turtle dove population by 72 per cent., the reed bunting population by 50 per cent., the linnet population by 56 per cent. and the skylark population by 54 per cent. That is very worrying.

There is also legitimate concern about peatlands. Perhaps the Minister can give us an idea of whether he intends such sites to be included among the proposed special areas of conservation. There is already ample evidence to suggest that natural peat bogs—there is one in my constituency—are being routinely and systematically damaged or threatened by developments of one kind or another. It is instructive to note that the threat is not posed only by housing developments and the like; in my constituency, an unusual combination—the manager of Liverpool football club, a nightclub owner and a solicitor—

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman had better wait until the end of the sentence before saying "Hear, hear".

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Liverpool football club is already an endangered species.

Mr. Howarth

I presume that my hon. Friend does not go to Cardiff City matches too often.

Those three people propose not to build a housing development, but to convert the peat bog in my constituency to a landfill site. Hon. Members may ask what a nightclub owner, the manager of Liverpool football club and a solicitor are doing in such a business; I have asked that question myself, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. It clearly does not bode well for the future of the peat bog.

Other important habitats—such as dry heathlands, which are a natural habitat for rare and threatened species of plant life, birds and butterflies—are equally threatened, and in some instances are already being undermined by inappropriate use. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will take into account the importance of such sites—both existing SSSIs and other important habitats—undertake a review and, where necessary, revoke planning consents that threaten their survival? If we are serious, we must consider not only sites that have not yet been damaged but sites that might be damaged, or might be subject to planning consents that would threaten the survival of wildlife.

The Minister might also tell us how he proposes to achieve favourable conservation status for annexe 2 species such as the shoredock plant and the marsh fritillary butterfly. He may not lie awake thinking about such matters, but they are important to many people who are concerned about the survival of those species. It is clear that unless such habitats are managed by specialists and with proper sensitivity, there is a real danger that they could disappear altogether.

I will deal now with management agreements and nature conservation orders. They are, after all, the most significant cause of long-term damage to SSSIs and, as the NAO report made clear, they often result in neglect and mismanagement. The Government are proposing a revised form of management agreements to encourage landowners to manage their land. However, that is effective only when the land owner is willing to enter into an agreement. If he will not accept responsibility, which has happened in many cases, the relevant statutory agency can apply to the Secretary of State for a special nature conservation order.

However, there are serious problems when a dispute arises. The Government have the option of acquiring the land by a compulsory purchase order. Clearly, that is something that we support as far as it goes, but the evidence pertaining to CPOs in this respect does not give me any reason—and should not give the House any reason —necessarily to believe that that is the right answer unless it is differently in future.

The CPO scheme already exists in legislation and is carried out by statutory agencies, but the bureaucracy and the limited resources available for their administration often make it unworkable. I am aware of only one site on which a CPO has been served, and that is Westhay moor in Somerset. There were serious problems, but it still took three years for the dispute to be settled and for the CPO to go through. Clearly, that is unsatisfactory, and we need assurances that the CPO system as it is to apply will be an improvement. The regulations offer little reassurance that SACs will be protected when disputes occur. In the past, the Government have often failed to introduce immediate and effective measures.

Problems are anticipated in Scotland where the use of a CPO as a fallback measure could be costly and the purchase of a large estate such as Mar lodge would require several times more than the annual budget for Scottish Natural Heritage. I should be grateful if the Minister will say something about available resources because it is clear that often they do not match the job that needs to be done.

I should also like some information about how the Government intend to deal with trouble spots. I have in mind, for example, the case of an SSSI and a proposed motorway scheme. How does the Minister see disputes being resolved in such trouble spots within the new SAC framework? There is surely a strong case for undertaking a thorough review of all such sites, including and perhaps especially those subject to unsuitable developments. The whole question needs to be examined closely through the planning system, and I should welcome more information on it in the wind-up speech.

Although I welcome the fact that the Government are to consult on such sites, it is very important that the consultation exercise should go as wide as possible and include not only the owners of sites but non-governmental organisations which have a legitimate interest in them. I hope that the exercise will not be confined to the specific selection of sites but will cover the criteria to be used at the stage prior to their selection because it is important that such issues are considered in advance of selection.

I shall deal next with marine and coastal issues. In a parliamentary answer on 11 November 1992, the then Minister for the Environment and Countryside said that his Department would ensure that the proposals for implementation of the marine conservation aspects of the habitat directives fully meet the directive's requirements."—[Official Report, 11 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 791.] Measures for marine conservation lag behind those for conservation on land. The legislation gives specific powers through byelaws to maintain principle of special areas of conservation. The nature conservation agencies can use those powers inside and outside SACs but not in the case of marine sites. The regulations state that the competent authorities will have regard to the requirements of the Directive". However, it is not clear whether that is limited to SACs. It is essential to promote good practice inside and outside protected areas given the highly mobile nature of the marine environment.

The regulations do not give the Secretary of State for the Environment a lead role in directions concerning SACs. That could lead to conflict, confusion and delay in the management of SACs. Priorities for fisheries, transport, mineral extraction and other activities can be in serious conflict with nature conservation objectives. The Secretary of State for the Environment already has a lead role in the case terrestrial protected areas under section 29 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to assist in the conservation of SSSIs. The same should be true for marine SACs. Will the Minister give us an assurance that that issue will be considered seriously?

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Has my hon. Friend considered what amounts to deregulation in the dredging of aggregates, which has altered the foreshore line of rivers at the expense of the environment and bird life? Does he agree that it should be properly controlled and regulated?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend probably has a greater knowledge than any other hon. Member of the River Mersey, on which he worked for many years. I believe that there is also a problem with the River Severn, but his point was well made and I sympathise strongly. That leads me neatly to my final point, which relates to barrages—especially those proposed in south Wales—and their possible effect on the migratory runs of salmon and sea trout.

Apparently, there are seven species of migratory fish in the rivers of south Wales, all of which are subject to barrage developments or proposals. The nature of their life cycle, which involves between two and 12 passages through the estuaries, makes them extremely vulnerable to such developments. Barrage developments create obstructions to the passage of migratory fish, as is well known, and an effective fish passage is crucial to the future of fish stocks.

The River Usk, which is the subject of one such proposal, contains the rare and high conservation status twaite shad, lamprey and allis shad. These species are considered to be in general decline. The National Rivers Authority for Wales estimates that the cost of monitoring and mitigating the adverse impact of developments on the River Usk would be considerable. The development on the River Taff would require the purchase and release of hatchery-reared salmon smolt and it is estimated that 60,000 smolts a year would be required at a cost of more than £1 a smolt. There are clearly a number of issues to be dealt with.

Mr. Morgan

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is so fascinating about the conflict between barrage developments and the migratory fish species in south Wales which he has listed is that it is only at the end of south Wales's heavy industrialisation phase that the sea trout, or the sewin as we call them, and salmon have returned to our rivers? At the very time when salmon and sea trout are returning to the Tawe, the Taff and other rivers, people for some reason decide to erect barrages, thereby preventing with physical concrete obstacles what pollution and the coalfields have prevented for the past 200 years.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. His knowledge of south Wales is almost unparalleled, and few if any of the things in the rivers or on the ground escape his eagle-eyed attention. However, to deal with his comments from a conservation point of view, I was lucky enough once to catch a sewin. It is quite a considerable fish to catch. So, it is important not only in conservation terms for its own sake, but because there are sporting problems.

Mr. Morgan

They taste very nice, as well.

Mr. Howarth

As my hon. Friend said, they taste nice as well.

To return to the point at which I started, while we feel that this is a missed opportunity and that there is a case, which we regret has not been taken up by the Government, for primary legislation, we nevertheless welcome the directive, partial though it is, and we shall not be dividing the House on it.

7.49 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I welcome the measure as a flexible and sensible approach to conservation in this country. I have 10 points which I would like to put briefly to the Minister on these highly complicated regulations. I regret to say to the Minister that my points are inevitably technical and, therefore, I do not necessarily expect him be able to respond to them fully this evening. Perhaps, he may be able to respond to me in due course. I also apologise for putting the points to him rather late in the day. I appreciate that he would have preferred more notice.

First, regulation 2 defines the occupier for purposes of part III—protection of species—but not for the purposes of part II; the section on conservation of natural habitat. Especially in the context of regulation 13—notice to landowners, relevant authorities et cetera—and regulation 16, it is not clear whether "occupier" includes those having rights of hunting, shooting, fishing or taking of the game or fish. That is, of course, important because those with sporting interests have an interest in preserving the species, as defined in part III.

Indeed, it is significant that the European Commission and the European Parliament have confirmed the part played by country sports in conservation. A resolution specifically dealing with the protection of wild birds, initiated by Mr. Jean Baffin, a French Green party Member of the European Parliament, which was adopted at the beginning of February, acknowledged that, if sporting activities are practised sustainably in accordance with the principle of wise use of renewable natural resources", sportsmen can make a valuable contribution to habitat conservation, which is a key feature of many species conservation strategies. Commissioner Padraig Flynn, no less, said: the deterioration and destruction of habitats pose more serious threats to the survival of wild birds in Europe than 'hunting' as such. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could confirm that, for the purposes of part II of the regulation, the occupier also includes those having sporting rights. It may be necessary to ask the owner or occupier who else has sporting rights over his lands and, perhaps, those with that interest could be subsequently notified.

Secondly, regulation 7 provides for the Secretary of State to draw up a list of sites eligible for identification of sites of community importance—so-called SCIs. There is no indication that there will be any consultation with the owners and occupiers of such sites before the list is sent to the European Commission on or before 5 June 1995. The Commission and the Government will adopt a final list by, at the latest, June 1988. Finally, the designated special areas of conservation, the so-called SACs, have to be designated by June 2004.

If the Minister and his Department are to supply that list to the European Commission by June 1995, time is ticking on if they are to have the full consultation for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) called in his intervention. It would be necessary to begin that consultation process pretty well straight away. So, can the Minister explain the Government's intention on the nature, extent and timing of the consultation with owners and occupiers over the preparation of the list of potential SCIs? It would also be helpful if a list of SCIs were not published until full consultation had been carried out. Once such things go on a list, they have a habit of staying on that list, even if turns out that, as a result of the consultation process, they should be not be on the list at all.

Thirdly, article 4(2) of the directive provides that SCIs shall be adopted not only on the basis of the criteria set out in annex III, but on the framework of five biogeographical regions referred to in article 1(c)(iii). SCIs in the UK will need to be selected in the framework of the Atlantic biogeographical region. That is also important because it would be folly if we were to designate far more sites which have a Atlantic ecosystem, only to find that the French and the Irish were designating very few sites and, indeed, on those sites which were designated, there was not the same compliance ratio as there would undoubtedly be in this country under my hon. Friend's Department.

Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister could explain what steps are to be taken to ensure that the Government will include on the list of potential SCIs only so many sites as are appropriate, and no more, in the context of the Atlantic region and in the light of the performance of other member states. That would also give us the opportunity to ascertain how closely our compliance was compared with that of other EC countries.

Fourthly, in paragraph 2.2.4 of their earlier consultation paper, the Government stated that special areas of conservation, so-called SACs, will have already been notified as SSSIs, to which the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) referred. The regulations make no mention of that commitment. Should the Government consider in any circumstances the designation of a land-based SAC, or include land outside an existing SSSI within a SAC, without first giving the owners and occupiers involved an opportunity to make representations to the appropriate nature conservation agency through the SSSI notification process? It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm their intention regarding the relationship between SSSIs and land-based SACs.

Fifthly, management agreements offer an important mechanism for developing an effective partnership between landowners and nature conservation agencies to manage, conserve, restore and protect European sites and land adjacent to them. That voluntary nature of conforming with the regulations has already been mentioned in the debate by a number of hon. Members. Indeed, in his opening remarks, the Minister indicated its importance by saying that the compulsory purchase procedure would be used only in "nuclear deterrent circumstances" or some words similar to that. He has acknowledged the voluntary nature, which is absolutely essential if all those involved, particularly those who have to manage the sites, are to do that effectively.

The Government should recognise that a major increase in the real level of resources available to the major nature conservation agencies will be essential if our international, national, regional and local conservation objectives are to be achieved. For example, many of the land management systems which have produced internationally important wildlife habitats such as lowland heath are no longer economical. Substantial financial support may be needed if landowners are to continue to operate uneconomic farming systems or to restore such systems where they have been lost for nature conservation purposes.

I very much welcome the schemes which the Government have already introduced, such as the environmentally sensitive areas—I have two such areas in my constituency, the upper Thames tributaries and the Cotswold hills—the countryside stewardship scheme, which is operated so successfully by my hon. Friend's Department and, the Tir Cymen scheme which operates in Wales. I am sorry that my Welsh is not as good as it should be and I apologise to all Welshmen present if my pronunciation is not correct.

Mr. Morgan

Nought out of 10.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will intervene and tell me how it should be pronounced.

Mr. Morgan

It should be Tir Cymen. With a little bit of effort, the hon. Gentleman could do a little better.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). I will try again. Is it Tir Cymen? No doubt the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong. No doubt all in Wales will be cheering at the success of this scheme and of the habitat scheme.

All these schemes have an important role to play in European sites, as elsewhere. I mention here the Land Drainage Bill which I promoted and which went through all its stages two Fridays ago. It will give local authorities and internal land drainage boards an obligation to consider environmental aspects before major drainage schemes are carried out. That is a major step forward, because we have lost 50 per cent. of all our wetland areas since the war. I drained 25 acres of my own wetland under a very high grant regime in the 1970s. Having found that the land has never been economic, I rather wish that I had never done it. If my Bill had been in place then, I would not have been allowed to drain that land and we should all have been the richer culturally and environmentally as a result.

It would be helpful, therefore, if the Minister could give a high priority to management agreements at European sites while accepting that the resources required for that purpose should not be made available at the expense of other SSSIs or of other schemes that secure conservation benefits in the wider countryside. Having set up the SSSI regime, it would be a tragedy if we found that the European sites competed for the existing resources and that compliance with the existing SSSIs was weakened as a result. I hope that my hon. Friend can give us some assurance in that respect.

It would also be helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister could confirm that no SAC will be designated until the resources required to sustain the necessary positive management of the SAC have been secured. What would be the point in us designating an area and then finding that we did not have the resources necessary to ensure that the area was managed according to the regulations?

Sixthly, regulation 18 provides for any existing notification of operations likely to damage an SSSI to be amended, for the purposes of the directive, at any time. The regulation provides for owners and occupiers to be notified of such amendments, but not for consultation with them. Surely owners and occupiers should have an opportunity to make representations to the nature conservation agencies regarding any amendments that the Minister may make as they already have under the existing SSSI regime. That surely complies with the rules of natural justice. Surely anyone should be able to make representations regarding a change in designation before that designation is made.

I am also concerned that regulation 18(3) leaves nature conservation agencies to decide which owners or occupiers should be notified of amendments. In view of the penalties likely to face owners and occupiers who damage protected sites without reasonable excuse, surely it is unreasonable for the agencies to have that discretion. It would be helpful for the Minister to outline what opportunities, if any, will be available to the owners and occupiers to question the decision to amend the list of potentially damaging operations in respect of the European site. It would also be helpful if the Minister could explain why it has been decided to give the nature conservation agencies the discretion to decide which owners and occupiers they should notify of the amendments in any one case.

It would be helpful if the Minister could lay out the parameters for how far outside the designated site—[Interruption.] I can see my hon. Friend looking at his watch. I am a long way through the points that I must make to him. It would be helpful if we could have some idea of how far outside the designated site owners and occupiers will be notified.

Seventhly, regulations 50 to 59, to which the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) has already referred, provide for extant planning permissions that may affect European sites to be reviewed. It is important that compensation is payable to anybody holding such permission which is subsequently modified, discontinued or revoked. I believe that such a provision is contained in regulations 50 to 59, but I know from reading the regulations that they are extremely complicated. It would be helpful to have the Minister's clarification on this point.

I have in mind the following example. Let us suppose that a quarry was operating and that it was then decided to designate it as a SAC. The quarry might have an existing planning permission. As a result of the designation, its operations might be curtailed or modified in some way. Would the quarry owner receive compensation? It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that point.

Eighthly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am at the eighth out of 10 points, as my hon. Friend the Minister will be glad to know. I am particularly concerned—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have no power to curtail anybody's speech tonight, beyond the final one. I remind the hon. Gentleman and all others that the whole debate has to be contained within an hour and a half.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful for that advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have come to my eighth point out of 10 so I shall be fairly brief in concluding my speech.

Eighthly, I am particularly concerned that it appears that some permitted development works by farmers and others could now be disallowed without compensation. That could happen if it were decided under the regulations that planning permission was needed for such works and it was then refused. As the Minister is aware, there are certain permitted development rights under existing planning legislation which can be carried out without planning permission, such as the erection of certain farm buildings, although they have to be notified to the local authority. Under the current system, where permitted development rights may be withdrawn under an article 4 direction, compensation is payable. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain why compensation is not to be offered where permitted development rights are withdrawn under the regulations.

Ninthly, I understand that the provisions relating to planning permission and permitted development in part IV of the regulations apply to any development affecting European sites, whether or not the development lies within their boundaries. I am concerned that that could lead to quite innocuous developments being subject to further consultation and control when they are likely neither significantly nor adversely to affect the European site. One can envisage an immediately adjoining or a not-so- immediately adjoining landowner wishing to carry out a development. He carries it out in all innocence under the existing planning regulations only to be told at some time in the future that he comes within the scope of the regulations. We owe it to all those who may be affected by the regulations to ensure that they are widely publicised in a form that everyone can understand. I am sure that no one will thereby fall foul of them.

It would be helpful if the Minister could explain how local planning authorities will distinguish between innocuous proposals and those likely to have significantly adverse effects. It would also be helpful if the Minister would agree to review his advice to local authorities on this matter and the regulations themselves if local authorities appear in practice to take an unnecessarily interfering approach to development proposals outside European sites. It is only a matter of human justice that those who live some distance from the site should be well appraised of any possible effects that it might have on their activities.

Tenthly—and finally, the Minister will be glad to know—article 2(3) of the directive requires that Measures taken pursuant to this directive shall take account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics. That is fundamental to a rural area such as mine. The requirement does not appear in the regulations although —the Minister may be able to give me clarification on this —it may be that regulation 3(2), which gives the Secretary of State powers, but not the ability to issue directions, covers the point. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that the Government, nature conservation agencies and local authorities will heed that fundamental requirement in all their actions relating to the directive.

I apologise to the House for that rather long, technical tirade. The regulations are highly technical. They will have a fundamental and long-lasting effect in the conservation of flora and fauna. I welcome that most wholeheartedly. Equally, I ask the Minister to give clarification on the 10 points that I have raised this evening.

8.8 pm

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Can the Minister tell us exactly how the exclusions will work? We all welcome the codification of the regulations in so far as they bring up to date the European habitats directive, although they are a month late and there are errors in their production, and so on. However, in at least one respect, they weaken the existing nature conservation provisions because of the ease of exclusion. I do not wish to appear to be spoiling the party tonight, but these are important issues as regards exactly how the exclusions will work.

I am extremely puzzled as to how the regulations are meant to apply and whether one can wriggle out of the protection measures through what one might call Henry VIII powers. In other words, if the Secretary of Slate decides that, in spite of the protection that has been conferred, he wants a development to take place—such as Twyford down or the Cardiff bay barrage—he can then just say that he has decided that there are reasons of an overriding public interest nature for developing. He can thereby reduce or eliminate altogether the nature conservation interest in a marsh, fen or hill, or in a wetland as was the case in the barrage that I mentioned.

The problem is that we always imagine, when we pass legislation of this type, that it confers real protection. It looks like a bulky document of 70 or 80 pages, it seems to repeat the words "nature conservation interest" and it appears to legislate to protect that interest. However, when one looks at the details, one sees that it is remarkably easy to wriggle out of the obligations if the Secretary of State feels like it. At other times, it seems easy when the European Commission feels like it.

It is difficult for us to accept that this is a wonderful piece of legislation when there are overriding Henry VIII powers to say that the nature conservation interest is secondary in a particular site to the socio-economic or other interests. Who decides whether it is really an overriding interest? Is it the Secretary of State or the European Commission? It is not clear at all.

Regulation 24(6) shows the major weakness of the habitats directive compared with the wild birds directive. It states: Where the site concerned hosts a priority natural habitat type or a priority species the reasons referred to in paragraph (5) must be either … reasons relating to human health, public safety or beneficial consequences of primary importance to the environment". That was the element that was there before, via the wild birds directive. However, the new element is introduced in the statement that other reasons may be considered which in the opinion of the European Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest. How do we know what the European Commission will judge as being imperative reasons of overriding public interest? What are the criteria that it will use? Will it be jobs, or simply an opinion, which will have to be considered before it is decided that a project is overriding? Must it be a direct employer, such as a new steelworks or a chemical plant where so many thousands will be employed? Will it be a piece of infrastructure such as a road, or a cosmetic piece of infrastructure such as the barrage on the Usk or at Cardiff bay, although they are not direct employers?

How do we decide what is really an overriding interest? What is to guide the European Commission? We do not know. In certain cases, it appears to be the European Commission that decides—other areas of exclusion are mentioned in regulation 48—while in regulation 49, it appears to be the Secretary of State.

The document states that the Commission will have the last word in deciding whether to override the provisions of the legislation, so the protection will, all of a sudden, disappear. It says: the competent authority may agree to the plan or project notwithstanding a negative assessment of the implications for the site That is negative in nature conservation terms. It continues that that may take place if there are other reasons which in the opinion of the European Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest". However, the document continues: The Secretary of State may thereupon, if he thinks fit, seek the opinion of the Commission; and if he does so, he shall upon receiving the Commission's opinion transmit it to the authority. Who has the last word? Is it the Secretary of State or the European Commission, and on what do they base it? They must receive advice from the local authority nature conservation body. How do they weigh it? Do they simply say that they like a particular economic or social project and decide that it overrides the nature conservation interest? That is a key area where the legislation weakens the nature conservation protection that is available today.

We should not delude ourselves and say that this is a great piece of legislation that in all cases strengthens the nature conservation interest. In certain areas, it puts Henry VIII powers in the hands of the Secretary of State and the collective college of cardinals of the European Commission. Those powers are not necessarily in the hands of the Environment Commissioners, because they are a mixed bag and the present one is certainly not interested in the environment at all. They appear to have the last word and they can say that a project of a socio-economic character that they judge to be of overriding public interest is more important than the inherent nature conservation interest in the site. The site will then go for economic development. Perhaps there are good reasons for doing that, but we must know in the legislation how they are to judge it.

In areas such as south Wales, that is of enormous controversy at the moment. That is because of the way in which the Cardiff bay barrage was handled, the way the Usk barrage proposal is supposed to be handled and the disaster that has already occurred at Tawe barrage. The last has been in place for only two years, but the National Rivers Authority has found serious de-oxygenation and a loss of the ability of migratory fish—the great glory of the Welsh river environment—to find gaps in the fish pass.

Very rare migratory species such as the allis shad and the twaite shad, which were mentioned by hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth), have a serious difficulty for fish in not being good swimmers. A couple of lengths of the baths and they are knackered, one might say. That is a considerable problem for a fish, particularly when it is having to surmount a fish pass. That also applies to salmon, which are extremely strong swimmers. However, there has been a drop in the ability of salmon to move up the estuary to their spawning grounds at the Tawe barrage.

There are also problems for sea trout which, although they are not a protected species, have to surpass a barrage such as Tawe and the proposed barrages on the Taff Ely and the Usk. They might have to surmount such a barrage up to 12 times in their life cycle, while a salmon may have to do so only two or three times. That is a serious problem, and the conservation interest in such an area can be overridden on the say-so of the Secretary of State without his having to publish the correspondence.

I have been pressing the Secretary of State for a long time to publish his correspondence with the Environment Commissioners on how Ministers came to their decisions on the Cardiff bay barrage and how those decisions fitted in with the wild birds directive or the habitats directive. However, I cannot get it. Ministers say that the correspondence is confidential. If so, that is a Henry VIII power. The Secretary of State just decides that he feels like it, and does not have to prove that there is an overriding or socio-economic case for doing so. That may then eliminate the nature conservation interest.

The Secretary of State may just say that he wants to override the nature conservation interests, and he has the power to do it. He does not have to come to the House to explain and he does not have to publish his correspondence with the European Commissioner. I ask the Minister seriously to consider how to expose to public view the reasoning behind the overrides or exclusions in areas where the decision weakens the nature conservation protection. Will he at least place in the Library the exchanges of correspondence which he has with the Environment Commissioner? We would then know why he was doing something, and whether there was or was not an objection from the European Commission and from nature conservation bodies.

It would be of enormous benefit to the House if the Minister promised to publish any correspondence of the type that he has not been willing to publish on the Cardiff bay barrage. We would know whether there was any reasoning behind a decision, or whether it was a brutal use of Henry VIII powers of the kind which the spirit of the regulations is completely against.

8.18 pm
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

I am pleased to make a brief contribution to this important debate. As one would expect of someone who was raised on a dairy farm in Devon and who now represents a seat that is flanked to the west by Cornwall, to the north by the delights of Dartmoor, to the south by Plymouth Sound and to the east by the rolling pastures of the South Hams, I have a deep and abiding love of the countryside. I recognise that there are real threats to the wild fauna and flora which must to be protected.

I welcome the important measure which we are debating this evening as an important further plank in the Government's attempts to introduce that protection. I also welcome the fact that the measure is balanced. Surely balance must be the watchword in all environmental issues —the balance between competing interests and between the need to develop economically, to farm and to enjoy the countryside and the vital need to preserve our natural heritage, because once it is gone, it is gone for ever.

I welcome the Government's proposals for consulting widely on the regulations. Surely it is important to take into account the views of farmers, landowners and groups that regularly use our countryside, on such an important measure.

The regulations give effect, in United Kingdom law, to the European Union natural habitats directive of 1992. As one who feels that many issues are best dealt with by national Governments and not at a European level, and that subsidiarity is such an important notion, I should be the first to admit that measures to protect the environment from destruction and waste, and anti-pollution measures, are the exceptions. They are best dealt with at European level.

It is important that the measure is being introduced on a Europe-wide basis, not merely to protect the countryside and fauna and flora throughout Europe, but to ensure that there is, as far as possible, that famous level playing field for industry and taxpayers in each European country.

One of the many matters on which I join forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who spoke so creditably, is the need for an assurance from the Minister for the Environment and Countryside that similar measures will be enforced effectively throughout Europe. We know that our civil servants will vigorously enforce these protective measures. Can we have an assurance that the measures will be enforced adequately in Greece, Portugal and other European countries, so that a level playing field is introduced?

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)

My hon. Friend has a reputation for a strong interest in this issue. On applying the rules throughout the Community, clearly Britain has a more concentrated industrial area and less land mass is available for conservation areas than in France or Spain, for example. Is it not important that EC directives are applied fairly according to the geographical circumstances of member states?

Mr. Streeter

That is a valid point and my hon. Friend is right. The regulations have that measure of balance and take into account the geography of the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the Government on their record on environmental issues. Our Prime Minister took such a strong lead at the Rio conference two years ago. The truth is that many people talk about the environment, but we are the party that introduces environment protection measures. We understand that, to be successful, environment protection must be balanced and must take into account the interests of land users and other groups.

The measure aims to promote biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats, wild flora and fauna, and it is very welcome. I have some specific questions, however, which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with, either in his reply or at some other stage. Schedule 2 of the regulations contains a list of protected species of animal, for example, the bat and the dormouse. That is extremely sensible. I anticipate pressure, however, in years to come to increase the list of protected species, for example, to include foxes and deer.

I want my hon. Friend's assurance that those who want to ban hunting in this country will not be able to use the measure to introduce, through the back door, legislation op which the people have firmly closed the front door. 'The best guardians of the countryside are people who enjoy the countryside and country and field sports. People who participate in hunting are a fine example. So often those who purport to care about animals forget to take nature as it really is. Nature is cruel.

The wildcat is one of the species protected in schedule 2. My family lives just outside Plympton in Devon and we are the proud owners of two cats, one of which might be described as a wildcat. Since we moved house recently, the cat regularly brings into the house mice, voles and rabbits and eats them before our very eyes. Nature is cruel and people who want to ban hunting should recognise that fact. I want an assurance that schedule 2 of the regulations cannot be used to ban hunting through the back door.

What will happen if protected species become pests to landowners, farmers and householders? Bats are in the list of protected species. We have bats in the roof of our house and we are stuck with them. Should those bats become a nuisance to us and to our neighbours, what advice can my hon. Friend the Minister give? I hope that the Government have thought the matter through. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members may have differing views from the hon. Member who has the Floor, but it is a part of the tradition of the House that those who are expressing their views are given a fair hearing, however unpopular those views might be with others.

Mr. Tony Banks

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Do you have the power that is given to Madam Speaker under the Mental Health Acts to section a Member, as it is quite clear that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) has gone completely loopy?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I should not want such a power—it would be a great temptation.

Mr. Streeter

As one who has listened to the speeches of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in the past two years, I must point out that people who live in glasshouses should not throw stones.

I have another question for my hon. Friend the Minister. What will happen if protected species of flora become a pest to landowners? The species of ragwort that is fatal to horses is greatly threatened in some areas. What will happen if it becomes protected, yet its existence is a real nuisance to wildlife?

On compliance costs, I mentioned the importance of balance. The regulations take into account the fact that they will have an impact on businesses. For environment protection to be sustainable, it must be affordable. On regulations 11 and 12, what proposals do the Government have for compensating businesses, should the regulations have an unfavourable impact on them?

Finally, I remember a picture from my childhood—my school playground, where a thistle had grown through the tarmac. Perhaps it was a symbolic representation of how, ultimately, nature cannot be suppressed. It is better to conserve and preserve before nature is under threat; it is better to get the balance between economic development and the protection of natural habitats right in the first place. The regulations are an important step along that road, and I support them.

8.29 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I shall not follow the speech of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter). If his speech was an argument for balance, I am against it. The debate tonight is much more urgent and necessary than he suggests. He implied that we are having the debate thanks to the wonderful British Government. That is not so. We are having it thanks to the European Union. Its directive requires us to have a debate to introduce regulations to implement it.

The key question underlying the debate and the regulations is whether they will make any difference. Some of us are extremely sceptical about that.

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman always is.

Mr. Hughes

I am always sceptical about the Government's determination to deliver such a policy. The evidence commissioned by the Government and produced by officials leads us to believe that habitats, species and biodiversity are under extreme risk and in danger.

Throughout most of the earth's history, the rate of extinction has been in the order of one to 10 species per year. In the next 30 years, we risk losing between 150,000 and 300,000 species per year. The debate is about what part Britain should play in looking after our bit of the environment. People could produce litanies about the amount of woodland, marshland, wetland and heathland that has been lost.

Clear statistics exist on how some of the most common species of familiar birds like the robin are much more at risk than they used to be. Last year, the mouse-eared bat became extinct in the United Kingdom—the first mammal to be declared extinct since the wolf in the 1740s. I spent a night in wonderment in Pembrokeshire looking at horseshoe bats, the population of which is down to probably 1 per cent. of its population at the beginning of the century.

Most significantly, the Government should follow their own evidence on this matter. Let us consider the countryside and habitats as opposed to species. At the end of last year, the Government-commissioned countryside survey of 1990 was published. The broadsheet newspapers carried the following headlines: Decade of decline for wildlife". £m survey reveals decline of this green and pleasant land". Hedgerows in steep decline, department's survey shows". In The Daily Telegraph the headline read: Landscape census reveals depth of rural destruction". Whether considering hedges, arable fields, weeds, pastures, meadowland, moorland or plant life, the survey showed that there had been significant reductions almost entirely across the board.

The important point is that the countryside survey covered the period since the implementation of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That, therefore, suggests that the legislation, which the regulations are meant to replicate, has done little to protect the habitats of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Will the hon. Gentleman note schedule 4 on page 58 of the order which contains a list of nine plants? The hon. Gentleman may recall that, in 1974–75, I took through the House the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act, a private member's Bill. Schedule 2 of that measure listed 21 species and it was consolidated into the 1991 Act. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in inviting the Minister to tell us what has happened to the 19 species that were listed in the 1975 Act and to establish how many of those species have become extinct in the British Isles?

Mr. Hughes

I am happy to endorse that request. It would be helpful if the Minister could answer it in his winding-up speech or later on advice.

The warning note is being sounded not only by Opposition Members and people with a particular interest in species. The last paragraph of the editorial in The Times last autumn following the countryside survey puts the argument as well as anyone: This big island is still too small to have room for savannahs or Saharas, or any more concrete or docklands jungles, or much more motorway. In its pointilliste variety, the countryside survey is a reminder of diversity, the natural British virtue. And a useful warning of the pressures that threaten it. The natives will not forgive their master if they ignore the Domesday warning. If the Government are true to the convention which they signed at Rio de Janeiro and which, on environment day this year, they ratified—which we welcomed—if they are true to the goal of that convention, if their policy, as published in their documents, is to conserve and enhance biological diversity in the United Kingdom, they should seek to protect all species. They should not, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton argued, go for a balance whereby it is all right to lose some of them. We must keep the bio-diversity of Britain.

I should like to ask some questions and to request some answers. First, what additional protection do the regulations give to protected species that wildlife and countryside legislation does not already give? Secondly, in relation to both land-based habitats and marine habitats, is not it right that, because of the huge amount of consultation —to which I do not object—a huge compromise will be built in as a result of the regulations?

The Government still intend to rely on voluntary arrangements. Although there will be more marine protection under the regulations, all sorts of organisations with separate interests will temper the potential benefit of the regulations. The sea fisheries committee, National Rivers Authority, harbour authorities, local authorities and nature conservation agencies may conspire to mitigate and to reduce the effect of the regulations.

Thirdly, is it not the case that, after all the consultation, and although I accept the Government's undertaking that they will produce the list, as they are meant to, by 1995, they will produce a minimalist rather than a maximalist set of regulations, which do the minimum that is necessary to comply with the European directive? That has never reflected the urgency of the matter.

Fourthly, the present law is toothless and flawed. It was not I who used those words, but the Law Lords in the High Court in a major case last year. One said that, because the Wildlife and Countryside Act applied only to owners and occupiers, a stranger who enters the land for a few weeks solely to do some work on it does not fall into that category. Therefore, the legislation is insufficient to penalise the fly tipper. Why will not the Minister come to the House with specific proposals that will allow him to say that, as a result, sites will be much more adequately protected?

Lastly, is it not the case that the only way to make sure that the regulations are effective is to ensure that all countryside and conservation schemes have one simple objective: protection and enhancement of current habitats. We are sceptical and we are right to be so. We do not believe that, by the time the Government get around to doing things, many of the remaining habitats will be left to be protected.

8.38 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

We give the regulations, which are important to nature conservation, a guarded welcome.

I am sorry that some hon. Members took up much time without raising serious issues, despite the fact that many Labour Members wished to speak. I say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) that those of us who object to people inflicting pain on animals for fun accept that there is cruelty in the wild, but when the hon. Member for Sutton thinks that it is normal behaviour to come into the House with a live vole and devour it in front of us, we shall accept that it is normal for people to inflict pain on animals.

The Minister will not be able to reply in detail to all the points that have been made in the debate, but I hope that he will take my points on board along with the other relevant points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

We want to see more monitoring, and my hon. Friend mentioned the need to ensure adequate funds for monitoring. We are concerned that monitoring is being cut. I wrote to the Department about cuts in the contract of the British Trust for Ornithology with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Those cuts will mean that work on integrated population management monitoring will be deferred for 12 months, that work on woodland and farmland habitats will be cut to six months and that: posts designated for recovery processing will be reduced by 20 per cent. These cuts will affect next year's wetland bird survey.

The British Trust for Ornithology is an extremely cost-effective organisation that provides much reliable scientific data by amateur input, and I am surprised that the Joint Nature Conservation Committee has made the cuts. I cannot blame the Minister, as it is a cut within the total budget, not a budget cut, but I hope that he will look at this matter carefully because proper monitoring will not be possible without proper scientific research.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that SSSIs are not necessarily offering protection? My hon. Friend knows well the Thorne and Hatfield moors in my constituency, which have not been protected despite their SSSI status. If the Government make Thorne moors a special area of conservation, will he join me in hoping that it will offer more protection than it has had previously?

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is well known for his campaigning for Thorne moors, which are a fine example of raised peat bog. I hope that the Minister takes that into account.

We are a bit sceptical about the Government's record on hedgerow protection. Linear habitat has been mentioned, and the Government made the introduction of a hedgerows Bill a manifesto commitment. We do not think that leaving it to a private Member's Bill, with all the difficulties associated with it, meets their manifesto commitment or shows proper concern and priority for habitat protection.

We must draw attention to resources. About £3 billion goes into agriculture, about 4 per cent. of which is committed to the habitat directive and 1 per cent. to the agri-environment package. We have no idea how species such as otters, dormice, native pinewoods, orchids and rich grasslands will be protected—an issue of concern to the wildlife trusts.

The concern about monitoring is shared by organisations such as the National Farmers Union, which made points about consultation and made further sensible points about the need for proper resources to conduct monitoring.

We should have liked pond protection to be included in the regulations, as the excellent document of the Council for the Protection of Rural England outlined. But, above all, we believe that the Wildlife and Countryside Act is not adequate. There are problems with protecting SSSIs and with compensation agreements. We would rather see the voluntary principle apply. We recognise that many landowners have an excellent record on habitat protection.

One of my local farmers, Ted Harland, has done tremendous work on his farm to help the environment, and that needs to be recognised, but others have abused the compensation system and obtained millions from the taxpayer without doing much in terms of conservation or habitat protection. Some management agreements are worth more than if the Government had bought the land.

Those are the issues that need to be looked at. I hope that the Minister will give careful consideration to them.

8.43 pm
Mr. Atkins

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) spoke of problems with SSSIs. More than 6,000 SSSIs cover 8 per cent. of Great Britain. Some damage is sometimes inevitable, but in the vast majority of examples the damage is short term and such that the site can recover from it. In 1992–93, for example, there were only 153 cases of recorded damage, and all but a few are expected to recover completely. That represents a loss of 0.001 per cent.—11 hectares out of 858,000 hectares, whatever they are. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but, as I said, I shall do what I can to ensure that we get the information, although I understand that there are some difficulties about that.

I recently paid a visit to the Game Conservancy and was fascinated to learn about the work that it has been doing recently on the effects of set aside- and how it can encourage farmers and landowners to reattract birds like the corn bunting, the grey partridge and others. If the hon. Member for Knowsley, North gets an opportunity to go to the Game Conservancy, I recommend that he does so. He will find that it exists not only for those who enjoy hunting but that it conducts much worthwhile work; it is worth a visit.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned peat bogs—a subject dear to my heart. I have some in my constituency, but as a Minister in Northern Ireland I was instrumental in drawing up a document that went a long way to trying to save the remaining few peat bogs in Northern Ireland. As he will know, in the north-west and Lancashire there is a substantial number of bogs and we are pleased that Fisons and English Nature have reached an agreement that will ensure their future.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and other hon. Members mentioned resources. We are as concerned as they are to ensure that resources are made available, although this must be considered in the context of the public expenditure round. We are proud of the fact that last year resources for agencies increased by 7.6 per cent. I cannot, with my Secretary of State sitting alongside me, guarantee that we shall be able to do the same again, but we intend to do so if we can.

A number of other important issues were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who I now forgive because I understand the reasons for his raising them, and I promise faithfully that I shall deal with them by writing to all hon. Members because time will not permit me to deal with them at length. My hon. Friend emphasised the importance of the owners and users of some of the areas concerned. I met wildfowlers on the Ribble marshes and know how much they have done to ensure growth of wildfowl in the area. That was admitted by English Nature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) was entirely right about consultation. There are problems with bats in churches and they should not be underestimated. He will not find me in favour of the anti-hunting stance—

It being one and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR DEPUTY SPEAKER —put the Question, pursuant to Order [15 July].

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 13th July, be approved.