HC Deb 13 April 1999 vol 329 cc11-2
7. Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

When he expects to bring forward measures to implement proposals in the Government's consultation paper, "Sites of Special Scientific Interest—Better Protection and Management". [78822]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

Following the recent conclusion to the consultation exercise, to which we received nearly 600 responses, I hope to be in a position to make an announcement very soon outlining how we intend to proceed.

Mr. Lepper

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread public support for legislation for the greater protection of our wildlife which will be shown this afternoon by 250,000 pledges collected by the Countryside and Wildlife Link which will be presented to hon. Members? Will my right hon. Friend also note that 334 hon. Members have now signed early-day motion 11 in my name in support of such legislation, and agree that a commitment to introduce legislation more securely to protect our wildlife would be welcome? Can my right hon. Friend give a commitment to the early introduction of that legislation?

Mr. Meacher

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent campaigning in support of wildlife protection. I recognise the widespread support in the country for the strengthening of wildlife protection laws. As the House knows, 335 signatories to an early-day motion is a large number and shows strong support from hon. Members. As soon as parliamentary time permits, I intend to introduce legislation to strengthen the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which is now outdated in significant ways.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I assure the Minister that we shall look forward to his announcement with great interest, because we believe that the 1981 Act needs to be tightened up and improved. Does he accept that the crown jewels of our wildlife heritage, the SSSIs, are in a desperate state? There have been more than 2,000 cases of damage in the past six years, 46 sites have lost their SSSI status and hundreds more have had part of their designated area depleted. Do the Government accept that there is an urgent need to take quick action to prevent further erosion and damage to these important sites? Can the Minister give the House any reassurance that, before further legislation is introduced and enacted, more will be done under existing rules and regulations to tighten the protection of these important areas?

Mr. Meacher

I agree that, over the years, SSSIs have been significantly damaged. The reasons for that are road building programmes, over-abstraction of water and intensification of agriculture, all of which were significantly increased under the previous Government. We are taking action on all three fronts. Last year, we carried out a review of the roads programme. We are also reviewing existing consents for water abstraction and seeking the time-limiting of all consents. At the negotiations on the common agricultural policy in Brussels and Berlin, we have recently made significant progress on the countryside through the inclusion of the rural development regulation and cross-compliance on environmental conditions for agricultural grants. Those measures will reduce the damage that was done in the Tory years.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that new legislation in this area is not only desirable in principle, but urgent in practice because of the steady deterioration referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and other hon. Members? Does he accept that this subject has excited great public concern beyond the usual groups that routinely write to us?

Mr. Meacher

I accept what my hon. Friend has said. The Government published a consultation paper, "Sites of Special Scientific Interest—Better Protection and Management", last September. The radical policies that it contains were broadly accepted during the consultation process. I repeat that we are seeking the earliest opportunity to introduce a new Bill to give greater protection to SSSIs, which are essential for wildlife.