HC Deb 14 April 1999 vol 329 cc161-80

11 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of wildlife protection and in particular the current state of many of our sites of special scientific interest—SSSIs. The debate is most relevant to my constituency. I have received a number of letters from constituents as a number of extremely important Cornish SSSIs are under threat.

SSSIs form the core of Britain's natural heritage—the so-called crown jewels—and contain a significant proportion of the remaining rare habitats and species in the United Kingdom; for example, 90 per cent. of the remaining reed beds in the UK have an SSSI designation. At the time, they were properly designated, but far too often their subsequent protection has been woeful. The protection of SSSIs is vital, not only to safeguard part of our natural heritage, but to ensure that the UK fulfils its international commitments under EU birds and habitats directives, the Ramsar convention on the conservation of wetlands of international importance and the convention on biological diversity. Once destroyed, wildlife habitats that have sometimes taken thousands of years to evolve can never be replaced.

When such habitats disappear, so does the wildlife that depends on them. The last fragments of woods, bogs, heathlands and meadows are havens that sustain many of our threatened animals and plants. There are a number of cases of damage to SSSIs that should be brought to the Minister's attention. The Lynher estuary is an important SSSI with a total of 687 hectares in south-east Cornwall—my constituency. The area is of national importance because of its role as a major site for wintering birds. It is estimated that the site is used by 6,000 wild fowl and about 10,000 waders, and is an important roosting area for 5,000 widgeon. However, the site has been badly damaged by intrusive agricultural activities and infilling.

To take a more recent example, during the past few weeks at Rosenannon bog and downs near Bodmin in Cornwall, an SSSI has been damaged by fire and more than half of the site has been severely damaged. The site was a crucial breeding ground for bird species such as skylark and stonechat and has been partially destroyed. It is suspected that the fire was caused by arson, although we do not know yet. No prosecutions have been brought, nor could they have been, because damage to the SSSI was caused by a third party rather than by the owner or occupier.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In the early 1980s, I was a member of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill Committee in which the question of prosecutions arose. We spent 100 hours in Committee discussing these matters. From his experience, is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is inadequate, or is it that the legal authorities do not bother to prosecute—or do not feel like prosecuting—under the complex regulations?

Mr. Breed

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, which is obviously based on his great experience. There have been no prosecutions, but I am not certain whether that is because of the inadequacy of the law or the inactivity of those prosecuting. It is a difficult matter. The evidence that needs to be obtained is part of the problem, but sometimes the prosecuting authorities consider that the degree of work and the costs involved are out of all proportion to the likelihood of obtaining a successful prosecution. Even then, the penalties that may be inflicted might not reflect the costs involved.

Surprisingly, it is not currently an offence for a third party to damage an SSSI: for example, fly tipping, which is unfortunately happening more often; the use of off-road vehicles, which is increasing in popularity; and sometimes arson, may well be illegal under other forms of legislation, but they do not currently constitute an offence of causing damage to SSSIs. There seems to be a loophole in the law that could be closed. However, even in cases where the damage is caused by the owner or occupier of the land, there is currently no way of prosecuting the offender or, more importantly, of preventing the damage from happening to the site in the first place.

On one occasion, a landowner wanted to plough an SSSI to grow flax. He sent his proposal to English Nature, but English Nature could only try to persuade that farmer not to carry out his plan. Unfortunately, he decided to plough the area regardless, causing severe damage and English Nature had no power to prevent that. Without the teeth needed to enforce protection of that site, all that English Nature could do was to sit by and watch another precious SSSI being raped for commercial interest. One of the most significant factors in that case was that of "forgone payments". Such payments are made to landowners as compensation for not carrying out an activity such as ploughing up land, as opposed to financial incentives to help landowners manage triple SSSIs positively. The compensation system must be changed to reflect what we really want—that is positive management, not passive inactivity.

The picture that I have presented of some parts of the south-west is certainly not unique. There are almost 5,000 SSSIs in England and Wales, and during the past six years there have been more than 2,000 cases of damage to those sites; 45 per cent. of all SSSIs in England are considered to be in an "unfavourable conservation status". Not only are the existing SSSIs in decline, but in England and Wales at least 46 sites have lost the SSSI status they had gained since 1981.

Every year, the Government statutory wildlife agencies publish data in reports that indicate damage to SSSIs in the previous year. On average, more than 300 sites are lost or damaged every year. SSSIs are not being protected from damage, yet they represent some of the most significant environmental sites in the UK; they are identified as "special", but are afforded little, if any, real protection to ensure that they can sustain that status.

The monitoring and gathering of data is one of the few things that the Government statutory wildlife agencies can do where SSSIs are concerned. However, there is no systematic monitoring of those sites. Information about damage is gathered only when local agency teams become aware of problems, so large amounts of damage often remain unrecorded and it is likely that the actual amount of damage will probably be much worse than the recorded figures. That situation is made even worse because conservation agency staff can inspect SSSIs only with the permission of the owner. Clearly, that must be changed if proper monitoring and early action are to be capable of implementation.

Ceredigion county council was responsible for the destruction of an SSSI near Goginan, east of Aberystwyth. Reclamation work on an old mine working had been agreed within strict conditions, yet, in breach of the conditions, a fence was moved allowing additional excavations and subsequently the destruction of rare lichens. The council escaped prosecution simply because its officials entered the site and carried out the work without the written authority of the landowner. That case shows how ludicrous the current situation is, when a third party can escape prosecution in that manner. Of course, it does nothing to deter other potential offenders from damaging SSSIs.

One of the most significant threats to SSSIs is the growing problem of water abstraction and pollution. Friends of the Earth estimate that 338 sites are under threat from loss of water. About one third of SSSIs can be described as wetlands, which are clearly damaged by water shortage and pollution. The damage may not be direct. Miles upstream, water may have been polluted, diverted or extracted with the result of enormous damage to an SSSI or an important wetland.

Development and construction is another major threat, currently affecting an estimated 220 sites. Sometimes, the economic and structural needs of a region clearly warrant new development. My part of the country has just received objective 1 status, and we want real economic growth. However, the environmental costs of such projects must be considered.

I sat on the Standing Committee that scrutinised the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, and I believed that the environmental aspects of RDA work should be given much higher priority and should carry more weight in the planning process. Specifically, SSSIs should be given strong and measurable indicators of environmental value so that a fair balance of overall costs and benefits can be struck against the indicators of a region's economic needs before development takes place.

Every day, a site is damaged or lost for good. Delay means destruction of more precious sites, and public concern is coming to a head. Only yesterday, wildlife organisations delivered 250,000 pledges calling for urgent action to prevent endangered wildlife to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The support in the country for action is reflected in the House, as noted yesterday at Question Time by the Minister for the Environment. A majority of MPs have signed early-day motion 11 to support the Wildlife Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper). Many Members welcomed Labour's manifesto commitment to greater protection of wildlife, but that commitment has not yet been fulfilled in legislation.

The Government's Green Paper does not go as far as another private Member's Bill that the Labour party supported when in Opposition. The consultation paper, "Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Better Protection and Management", is welcome, but it does not mention some serious threats to wildlife sites. The failure to recognise the problems of peat extraction and old mineral permissions are worrying. Permissions, often given many years ago and sometimes poorly drafted, are being ruthlessly exploited by greedy commercial concerns. We continue to condone the destruction of lowland raised peat bogs such as Thorne moor and Hatfield moor, although they are some of our best wildlife habitats. If the whole Green Paper became law, it would still not stop destruction of those sites by the peat industry, although I recognise the difficulties and costs of compensation.

The Green Paper is a welcome move in the right direction. It contains proposals to require restoration of an SSSI after it has been deliberately damaged. However, the proposals do not solve real problems on the ground. The legal changes proposed signal only modest change that will not meet the need for comprehensive protection. Furthermore, the timetable for action is inadequate. Changes must be made now to protect existing untouched SSSIs and to help to restore sites that have been damaged.

SSSIs are under threat in all parts of the country. That is bad enough, but it is worse that the perpetrators of the damage get away scot free and without prosecution. We are often critical of environmental damage in less developed countries, such as Brazil. Indeed, some hon. Members are today visiting South America. In our own prosperous country, however, SSSIs remain largely unprotected as they cannot be valued by any conventional economic price formula. The Members visiting South America might have found some desecration a little closer to home.

There is enormous public and parliamentary support for statutory protection of our wildlife and countryside. The Government must act to give important wildlife areas legal protection. They are making the right noises, but the consultation paper does not cover all the important threats. Meanwhile, time is of the essence. More sites are being damaged every day.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to the House for arriving a couple of minutes late for the debate.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that protection must be extended to SSSIs, and support for early-day motion 11 testifies to the House's view. However, there must be penalties and prosecutions if protection is violated. The person or company who violates sites must be susceptible to truly penal redress.

Often, the stakes are so high and the speculative possibilities of extraction so immense that people will ride roughshod over protection. They will accept a prosecution, paying perhaps some nominal fine, but perhaps not even that. Unless we put in place a penalty system that truly deters people from acting in that way, legislation, however well intentioned, will probably not have much effect.

Mr. Breed

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. Under the Competition Act 1998, the Government decided that penalties on companies should be a percentage of their turnover. Those are real penalties. The Government should indicate clearly what the penalties will be for violating SSSIs, and we should also insist that sites are reinstated as far as possible so that there is no incentive for people to challenge the system, pay a relatively modest fine, then secure considerable commercial advantage from exploitation of a site. Penalties must relate to the commercial profitability that may be generated from damaging a site.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am prompted by the interventions of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) to ask whether my hon. Friend has considered that, because commercial operators need planning or other permissions, a further way in which to ensure that they understand the penalties would be to bar them from development in a county in which they have exploited or abused an SSSI. Many imaginative means could be employed to ensure that developers realise that they would suffer real disadvantage if they interfered with sites, rather than simply suffering a penalty that can be written off against company profits for the following year.

Mr. Breed

I agree. We need some modest change to the planning process as well as a Bill to protect wildlife. There is no doubt that many concerns and individuals exploit loopholes in the planning system and in legislation to carry out harmful development. Often, local authorities are forced to back down in the face of the costly challenges that companies and individuals can make. We should support local authorities that fight such actions on appeal to maintain the regulation and control that most people want.

Finally, I call on the Minister for two specific assurances. First, I would like an assurance that the Government will widen the debate and consider key threats to SSSIs. That is not included in the Green Paper, which was a discussion document. Indeed, it has generated much discussion, and I hope that some of the approximately 600 contributions to that debate will have raised many wider issues and will taken into account. Secondly, will the Minister assure me that a wildlife protection Bill will be mentioned in the Queen's Speech later this year?

We are rightly proud of our heritage, and we provide significant protection for our valuable old buildings. I understand that the Minister will today declare all sorts of additional buildings in my county to be of grade 1, grade 2* or grade 2 status. That is right; some of those buildings are hundreds of years old—but why can we not provide at least the same protection for our wildlife sites, which are often thousands of years old?

11.21 am
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I am grateful for the chance to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate, as I am sure we all do, the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), on securing it. Having heard his contribution, and some of the interventions in his speech, I suspect that many of us on both sides of the House will make the same points. Not only do we want legislation, we want legislation with teeth. I add my voice to those calling for new legislation to protect and enhance wildlife.

We have heard much about damage and destruction of our wildlife sites. Many hon. Members are already familiar with the facts and figures, but there may be one or two who are not. More than 300 sites of special scientific interest—the best wildlife sites in the United Kingdom—are damaged every year. Between 1991 and 1996 one in five SSSIs in England and Wales were damaged, and 45 per cent. of English SSSIs are in an "unfavourable condition"—a description that may rather understate the case.

Since 1945, we have lost 30 to 50 per cent. of our ancient woodland and 80 per cent. of our chalk and limestone grasslands. Those are not small percentages. I was shocked when my research revealed that 95 per cent. of our wildflower meadows have also been lost.

Many of the problems affecting wildlife habitats, especially SSSIs, are not the result of direct destruction by development, as happened in the past; they are the result of neglect, which is partly due to inadequate funding. The problems are also caused by continued damage by agricultural practices and water abstraction. Drying of wetlands and low river flows are affecting the quality and sometimes the very existence of some of our major important wildlife sites.

The problems caused by water abstraction will increase as the demand for water rises with the projected growth in the number of households. My constituency of Peterborough is in an area in which rivers and wetlands are an important feature, with many designated sites, including the Nene and Ouse washes. Yet we have already lost much of our precious fenland. I note with great concern that the counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire now have less wildlife per hectare than anywhere else in the country. Those are shocking statistics.

I am glad to say that in this Session the Government are engaged in several excellent on-going consultations, including those on water abstraction licensing and planning regulations, which should, as all of us on both sides of the House would expect, result in measures that will do much to improve the situation.

Many aspects of the Government's consultation paper on SSSIs have been strongly supported by those who are professionally concerned with conservation. However, I am sure that I am not alone in believing that there are still gaps that require urgent remedy, and that we need a whole package of new measures.

Those measures would include increased powers for wildlife agencies to encourage positive management and to stop damaging operations on all SSSIs, and powers of entry to wildlife areas for agency staff. As we have already heard, there must be increased penalties—penalties with teeth—for offences. There must also be powers to secure the restoration of damaged sites, and all public bodies must have a duty to protect and manage SSSIs. Finally, there must be greater protection for species on land water and in the sea, and protection of habitats outside SSSIs.

Labour Members are proud that it was a Labour Government who introduced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. That was a long time ago; the Act was ground-breaking then, but it is hardly surprising that it is now a touch out of date. I ask the Minister to encourage the Government to include proposals for new wildlife laws in the next Queen's Speech.

11.26 am
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing a debate on such a crucial issue. My hon. Friend has illustrated the importance of protecting wildlife in his Cornwall constituency. I shall concentrate on the importance of such measures nationally. The protection of wildlife and sites of special scientific interest is not a foreign issue to the House, as is reflected in the massive support for early day motion 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and supported by Members from all parts of the House, representing both rural and urban constituencies. I understand that the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association also believe that some reforms are needed.

The report "50 Years of Extinction", published yesterday by the Wildlife and Countryside Link, lists many SSSIs that have been damaged since 1949. One of the listed sites nearest to my constituency is Rainham marsh, where a road has been put through part of the site and the rest is threatened by warehouse development. I am afraid that it seems that the local council favours development on that site.

That is one of the better known examples of SSSIs under threat, but there are thousands of other threatened sites throughout the country, many of which are not SSSIs but are just as worthy of protection, which I am afraid is not now afforded. For instance, in my constituency there are Ruffet wood and Big wood, which are local nature reserves, and an area of the Roundshaw downs.

As we have already heard, and will no doubt continue to hear, this is a one-sided debate. There is broad agreement that action needs to be taken—an argument accepted by the official Opposition, by Labour Members and by the Liberal Democrats. That argument has also been enthusiastically endorsed by the Minister for the Environment. Only last month, he told a lobby that the Government would go for legislation at the earliest opportunity. In fact, although I do not have a transcript of what he said, I think that he was even firmer than that, and said that he was staking his credibility on securing legislation in this Parliament.

The issue is therefore not whether but how we shall act—or more crucially, when we shall act. I was hoping that the position would be clarified in a response to a parliamentary question that I received yesterday. Sadly, the familiar mantra about the Government seeking to act, but only as and when time allows, was repeated. While the argument may have been won in the House, as early-day motion 11 confirms, it has not yet been won in Whitehall. I understand that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has four possibilities for the Queen's Speech, including wildlife legislation. It is perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister who needs to be persuaded of the urgency of the task. Yesterday, he was due to receive 250,000 wildlife pledges from supporters of 22 environmental organisations, but pulled out at the last moment. He was in the House for the statement on Kosovo, but another Minister should have been there to receive them.

The Deputy Prime Minister should not doubt that the task is urgent, not least because our international credibility depends on it. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall touched on that. I and other members of the Environment Sub-Committee are flying this evening to Brazil and Venezuela to discuss international environmental agreements, but we will also talk about local environmental issues. We will not be in a position to complain about how developing countries treat their environments when a relatively prosperous country such as Britain treats its environment so carelessly and fails to deliver on its stated 1992 commitment in Rio to maintain biodiversity. As hon. Members have noted, an SSSI is destroyed or damaged every day. As there are relatively few such sites—6,500—many of which are small, it is obvious that this urgent problem needs to be tackled as soon as possible.

The effect of such damage is devastating. I shall try not to repeat examples that other hon. Members have cited. Lapwings have declined by 70 per cent. over the past 10 years in some SSSIs. When should something be done? As soon as possible, if tomorrow is not an option, and that means in this Session of Parliament. The second issue is how, a matter which must be considered in its own right. I hope that the Government will advance specific proposals on wildlife. Alternatively, they could link wildlife with the right to roam and access to the countryside. That is not ideal, but it would be better than nothing.

The Minister knows that it was a Labour Government who first introduced serious legislation to protect wildlife, for which they should be commended. It was crucial to that Government's reforming credentials. The desire of the Prime Minister and his Deputy to be seen as heading the last great reforming Government of the century is well known. The 250,000 people whose wildlife pledges I and the hon. Member for Pavilion delivered to No. 10 yesterday believe that protecting wildlife for future generations is crucial to any such claim.

11.34 am
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing the debate. The enormous number of signatures to early-day motion 11, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), and the submission of a petition with 250,000 signatures yesterday reflect growing public awareness. We need to remember that more people choose to belong to wildlife and environmental organisations than to join political parties, churches, trade unions or any other voluntary associations. Parliament ignores that at its peril.

The vulnerability of sites of special scientific interest, the dangers that they face and the scale of the damage has been well documented by other hon. Members. I want to rebalance the debate by concentrating on the overwhelming majority of the country that is not subject to SSSI legislation. By force of circumstance, I happen to have lived in the same village for the past 27 years, which has allowed me to observe the changing nature of wildlife in my immediate environment. Three things, above all, are apparent.

First, there has been a drastic decline in wildlife in areas subject to agriculture. Secondly, there has been a remarkable increase in wildlife in ordinary, domestic gardens. Thirdly, wildlife has suffered drastic effects from various developments, particularly new housing, and the associated increase in the transport infrastructure, in green-belt areas. I conclude that the public desire to see more wildlife in their immediate environment. That is why so many people are making strenuous efforts to improve biodiversity in their own back gardens.

Mr. Brake

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that permitted development rights in people's back gardens mean that there is no protection for wild species on such sites? An owner-occupier can build an extensive patio or garden shed over a site.

Mr. Chaytor

I agree. That reinforces the point that to focus entirely on SSSIs is to ignore the bigger picture. We should not regard wildlife as something that has to be protected in a few specialist areas; it needs to be encouraged across the country, in urban, suburban and rural areas.

The other conclusion that I draw from my observations of my immediate environment over the past generation is the appalling effect of the common agricultural policy. There is a growing realisation of the need for change, about which there has been a major debate. I am not yet sure that, in the desire to reduce subsidy and move to a more market-driven agriculture, we have yet accepted fully the need to provide more and more incentives for farmers to be the guardians of the countryside and biodiversity rather than simply adjusting their production to a market-based system.

The analogy drawn earlier between the protection of SSSIs and of listed buildings is important. It is as foolish and self-defeating to protect listed buildings in isolation without wider concern for preserving our heritage as it is to see wildlife preservation only in terms of the protection of SSSIs. We need to take a far broader approach to wildlife preservation and adopt a range of measures across Departments to encourage biodiversity over the whole country.

As with all debates on the environment, it is important that the Minister should respond to our points. We know that the Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have an unswerving commitment to the preservation, protection and enhancement of biodiversity, but the power to achieve that does not always lie with that Department. My second major point is that we must constantly reinforce the message that other Departments have as much, if not more, power to determine the future of wildlife. That is especially true of the Department of Trade and Industry and its responsibilities for energy policy, because our obsession with burning fossil fuels and generating nuclear power—instead of the development of renewable energy policies—has drastically reduced biodiversity. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and its traditional support for the common agricultural policy is thankfully now changing, but much more work needs to be done.

The Department for Education and Employment also has a role to play. I recently visited Greenhill primary school in my constituency. It designated a week as its environment week, and all the school's activities were devoted to developing awareness in the children of the importance of biodiversity. I was privileged to attend a presentation by pupils of the school in which they demonstrated the enormous level of interest that young people have in biodiversity and how effective that can be when channelled by teachers into constructive and informative educational activity.

The role of the Treasury is of crucial importance, which brings me to my next point. Without a consistent and coherent implementation of a green tax policy, there is little future for wildlife and biodiversity. The Budget made an important step towards a green tax policy. However, although 250,000 people will sign a petition in support of environmental protection and the preservation of wildlife, when the difficult decisions that put that desire into effect have to be taken, people get nervous. The truckers and their concern about the changes in diesel tax are one example of that, but there are many others.

I was pleased to see from the Red Book that the Government remain committed to a tax on aggregates. Although the tax did not appear in the Budget, discussions are continuing and the Government have reinforced their intention to legislate if voluntary agreement cannot be reached with the companies concerned. Mineral extraction has been disastrous for the variety of our wildlife. We must continue to put pressure on the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and to support the commitment shown by environment Ministers, but it is other Departments—especially the Treasury—that hold the key to the future of wildlife.

Mr. Breed

The hon. Gentleman mentioned mineral extractions and the Treasury. The problem of compensation includes the relative values of the site in economic terms and in its preservation for wildlife. Does he agree that existing planning legislation does not emphasise sufficiently that land should be reinstated once its economic purpose has been achieved? That is a requirement in SSSIs and in areas of outstanding natural beauty, but when permission is given for any development that might destroy the land, it should be automatic that the landowner is obliged to reinstate the land once the development has ceased.

Mr. Chaytor

That is an important point and I agree completely. Such issues will increasingly become the responsibility of regional development agencies and it is important that they put a commitment to sustainable development at the heart of their economic development programme. I am delighted that that has already been done in the north-west.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments about green taxes and the Treasury. Does he believe that there is a role for incentives—tax breaks—for the good guys instead of taxation which inevitably means paying more? We should help those who are more environmentally friendly, whether driving cars or lorries, with tax breaks, and penalise those with dirty lorries or high-polluting cars. People could then offset the cost of making their vehicles more environmentally friendly.

Mr. Chaytor

I agree, and that is what the Government did in the Budget. However, green taxes do not inevitably mean that more tax will be paid, because they can redistribute the way in which tax is paid. Many of the good green taxes are fiscally neutral in their attempt to shift the burden of taxation from activities that are generally considered good, such as labour, to pollution, which is generally considered to be bad.

Mr. Burns

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that green taxes should be fiscally neutral. The problem is that the measures in the Budget may be fiscally neutral in their overall effect, but they are not fiscally neutral in their effect on individual businesses in certain sectors of the economy.

Mr. Chaytor

I agree; although I said that green taxes could be fiscally neutral, they do not necessarily have to be so. It is true that a fundamental rebalancing of the tax system is taking place, the like of which we have not seen for many years, and it will mean winners and losers. However, we should not allow local difficulties to get in the way of the general strategy. It is right, although it must be applied sensitively—and within a generation it will have huge beneficial effects on biodiversity, wildlife, and the quality of our environment.

I congratulate the Government on their many positive initiatives on a range of topics. I especially wish to draw attention to the importance of the publication of the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan a few weeks ago. This debate should send the message that the Government's various initiatives and consultations need to be drawn together. I disagree with the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) because I think that a future wildlife Bill should tie together the various wildlife and countryside issues, including the right to roam.

Mr. Brake

If those two issues were linked, the Bill would get bogged down in the other place.

Mr. Chaytor

One would hope that the nature of the other place will change in the not too distant future. The important point is that wildlife cannot be preserved in isolation, because it must permeate our whole environment. That is why I am arguing for comprehensive wildlife and countryside legislation. We should not adopt a piecemeal approach and tackle the issue section by section: we need a single block of comprehensive legislation.

To their credit, this Government—like the post-war Government—have improved many policy areas in need of fundamental reform. They have grasped the nettle in the crucial areas of welfare and health care reform, and we must now continue that process by introducing wildlife and countryside legislation. By making a clear commitment to include such legislation in next year's Queen's Speech, we will not only fulfil Labour's promise to put the environment at the heart of Government policy, but leave a lasting legacy for the new millennium.

11.50 am
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing this important debate. We welcome the opportunity on a Wednesday morning to discuss intelligently and calmly and at reasonable length a subject of critical importance. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) said, this is a very topical issue, given early-day motion 11 and the Government's moves to examine wildlife issues, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and to introduce legislation to address several problems that have been discussed in the debate.

The sooner we get such legislation, the better. I echo the comments of several hon. Members—the fact was reiterated at Environment questions yesterday afternoon— that this is a matter of urgency, and I hope that the Government will introduce relevant legislation in next year's Queen's Speech. However, for several reasons, I am not as enthusiastic as are the hon. Members for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and for Carshalton and Wallington about introducing Christmas tree-type legislation. The wildlife aspects of any legislation would command universal support in the Chamber and could be piloted through Parliament in an intelligent and non-partisan manner. The danger with Christmas tree-type legislation is that it introduces certain politically controversial issues that might prove self-defeating.

Mr. Brake

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what he means by "Christmas tree legislation"? We are talking about wildlife.

Mr. Burns

The hon. Gentleman is relatively new to the House. It is a parliamentary expression that refers to including several issues within a broad subject base. To take the wildlife example, the Government might introduce legislation regarding sites of special scientific interest and other wildlife considerations. They might then add to that the issue of access to the countryside, possibly hunting—which, although a countryside issue, would be fraught with danger—and other unrelated issues that come under the umbrella of the countryside. I saw the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) look towards heaven when I mentioned the "H" word. However, certain lobby groups are seeking to put pressure on the Government to include hunting in any wildlife Bill.

My point is that, although there would be almost universal support for a wildlife measure, other issues that come under the countryside umbrella are far more controversial. It would be sad if the Government caused problems by making such badly needed legislation a Christmas tree-type measure. I hope that they will consider my concerns seriously when taking decisions about what will be in the next Queen's Speech.

We share an interest in protecting our natural heritage. All types of animal and plant life need protection for their own sake and because of the many benefits that they provide to mankind and the way in which they interact as part of our fragile eco-structure. Caring for the environment must be central to any society's responsibilities. Economic growth and environmental protection must be balanced carefully and integrated successfully.

This generation clearly needs the homes, jobs, food and services that only continued economic growth can provide. However, at the same time, common sense demands that economic growth be sustainable. It would be wrong to limit the ability of future generations to meet their own needs or to pass heavy environmental costs to them. We must consider and manage the environmental consequences of our actions today in the context of their future implications for the environment, the countryside and wildlife. We must take a long-term view and focus more on the quality of life of both this and future generations, and not simply on current economic facts of life.

I listened with interest to several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Peterborough and for Bury, North, who paid tribute to the Labour Government of 1945–1951 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. I share their views about that legislation, but I am slightly perplexed at their suggestion that all legislation and Government action to improve and protect the environment stopped in 1949 and began again only on 2 May 1997. I appreciate that the hon. Members were making a point for internal consumption—the Government Whip is on the Front Bench. However, I was slightly puzzled by their failure to mention the landmark Clean Air Act 1956, which did so much to protect the environment and plant and animal life in this country, particularly in London and in other big cities.

Mrs. Brinton

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and I mentioned the sterling environmental achievements of the reforming Labour Administration of 1945. Has the hon. Gentleman read the minutes or reports of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, which comprises hon. Members from four political parties? If he reads those documents closely, he will see that all members of the Select Committee give credit, where it is due, to Governments of all political colours.

Mr. Burns

The hon. Lady's initial comment is slightly redundant. She will remember the fascinating debate—in which she and I participated—in this Chamber only four Wednesdays ago when we discussed the Select Committee's report. Some six months after its publication, I was able to study and read the report in depth, and I do not dispute the hon. Lady's comments about its contents.

My point is that the speeches made today in the Chamber—which have a wider audience—did not reflect the contents of that report. Labour Members seemed to suggest that governmental action on the environment stopped in 1949 with landmark legislation and resumed on 2 May 1997. The Clean Air Act 1956 and other measures, including our signing up to the Rio commitments in 1992 under the previous Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), are equally important. They will help us to improve the environment of not only this country but the rest of the world—because the environment does not respect national or geographical boundaries.

Of course, no debate on the environment could take place without the House paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have the decency to recognise him as having been a pioneer Secretary of State for the Environment concerned about advancing environmental considerations.

I remind the House that Conservative Governments had a good record on the environment, and under my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, passed the 1981 Act and established SSSIs and environmentally sensitive areas. We were responsible also for the expansion of the countryside stewardship scheme. The Environment Act 1995 provided Parliament with the powers to implement a statutory scheme to protect the hedgerows, which are so crucial to sustaining wildlife and enabling it to thrive in the countryside. The previous Administration established the biodiversity action plan and the biodiversity steering group, which committed Britain to tough targets.

I turn now to the problems of SSSIs, which have featured significantly in the debate. As hon. Members have said, SSSIs cover approximately 7 per cent. of the land of England and Wales, and there are more than 5,500 sites. They represent the best examples of our natural heritage of wildlife habitats, geographical features and land forms. In addition, environmentally sensitive areas cover about 15 per cent. of the land of the United Kingdom.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in an excellent brief that it provided for the debate, has drawn attention to serious problems with SSSIs. In the past six years, more than 2,000 have been damaged, just under half have an unfavourable conservation status, 46 sites have lost their status altogether and hundreds have had part of the designation deleted. As it was pointed out at Environment questions yesterday, it is important that more is done through the introduction, as soon as possible, of a wildlife or countryside Bill to strengthen the regime and its protection and enforcement and so avoid the continued demise and denigration of those sites. Once a site is lost, it is difficult, if not impossible, to restore it to its former condition.

I found interesting the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) and the intervention—I believe that it was made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, but I may be wrong—about penalties for people who actively damage SSSIs and seek to walk away from any responsibility. There is little point, as experience has shown, in having legislation to protect areas or certain features of our countryside if there are no powers to punish people who wilfully seek to destroy or denigrate them. I hope that when the Government introduce their legislation, they will consider that.

The Conservative party fully understands that the market can often be brought to bear on environmental problems. People must appreciate that the market is not simply a negative force but has an important positive role to play in environmental protection. Economic instruments make environmental costs more explicit and identifiable and thereby ensure that they are properly taken into account. In government, we operated a number of schemes to provide financial incentives for environmentally friendly farming, such as the introduction of nitrate-sensitive areas to protect selected groundwater sources and the habitat scheme to improve a range of habitats. We also encouraged organic production through the organic aid scheme.

In opposition, we are developing the policies that we operated in government. We have been consulting a wide range of interested parties throughout the country. In our on-going listening to Britain campaign, the environment has emerged as one of the key issues, especially among members of the younger generation. The protection of the environment will be a central part of the next Conservative Government, as it was in the previous Conservative Government. However, the protection of wildlife should not have to wait until the next general election to receive the attention that it deserves. It is up to this Government to take forward the work that they inherited and implement solutions to the many problems that clearly still exist.

The Labour party's general election manifesto contained a commitment to ensure greater protection for wildlife". In September 1998, the DETR and the Welsh Office published a consultation document entitled, "Sites of special scientific interest: better protection and management", which proposes a number of changes to the existing legislation and guidance about SSSIs. Those modifications to the current framework promise to assist the enforcement of SSSIs, and that is to be welcomed. However, I urge the Minister to reconsider and pay careful attention to the responses to the consultation process and to be bolder than the document suggests the Government might be. They have a golden opportunity to seize the moment and draw up comprehensive legislation, particularly on SSSIs, to provide for extra protection and enforcement of those valuable sites.

Mr. Brake

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government should give better protection to the site of Rettendon Shaw, which is in or near his constituency? I understand that a six-lane highway that is being built from Chelmsford to Southend will go through that site of special scientific interest.

Mr. Burns

I suspected that at some time, and probably on the Liberal Democrat Benches, a note of discord and a point of sheer party politics would be raised. First, the site is not in my constituency, although it is close by. Secondly, I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman wants an answer to that question, he should address it not to me but to the leader of Chelmsford borough council, which, he will be aware, is controlled by the Liberal Democrat party. The leader of the council has lobbied as hard as anyone for that badly needed road to be built because the existing road is an accident black spot of unacceptable proportions. Many families have members who have been injured or, sadly, killed on that stretch of road and they desperately want the new road to be built. I suspect that they would not be terribly amused to hear a Liberal Democrat Member trying, because of a local election campaign, to score cheap party political points in what should be an intelligent debate on wildlife.

Mr. Brake

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns

No, I will not give way again because the hon. Gentleman may try to make another petty party political point and that would waste the time of hon. Members who are trying to have an intelligent debate on the environment.

We all want a new wildlife Bill. I caution the Government against trying to introduce a Christmas tree-type Bill, because I believe that it will detract from the importance of the wildlife aspect and probably—judging by experience in the House in the past few years—introduce a degree of controversy and division that will not exist for a straightforward wildlife Bill.

12.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on spending his parliamentary time trying to obtain this important debate. He has shown an interest in the subject since he came to this place, and it is to his credit that he has chosen to obtain considerable parliamentary time to devote to this important issue.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government also take very seriously the preservation of wildlife in the United Kingdom. I therefore welcome the opportunity that the debate gives me to emphasise the high profile that nature conservation now rightly receives, in line with the Labour party's manifesto commitment to afford greater protection to wildlife in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is fortunate in the diversity of its wildlife—especially so when one considers the intensity of human occupation that these islands have been subjected to, particularly for the past 200 years. It is also fortunate in the depth to which that wildlife has been recorded and studied, and in the scale of interest that the general public take in the subject of conservation. No other country has wildlife bodies that are as well supported and have as many members. It is therefore not surprising that there is such a strength of feeling that politicians must do all that they can to conserve and sustain our wildlife assets. The Government acknowledge that strength of feeling and are responding to it today, via this debate.

The debate has focused in large part on the protection of sites of special scientific interest, and Labour Members understand that emphasis. We do need to pay particular attention to the conservation of those most important sites, which constitute some of our most precious areas for wildlife, harbouring rare and endangered species and providing the habitats where they can flourish.

For that reason, the Government have given priority to drawing up proposals that, we believe, would provide for better protection and management of those sites of special scientific interest—or SSSIs, as they are commonly known. Those are the 4,000 or so sites that constitute the best areas for nature conservation, and which have been designated by English Nature as representative of the full suite of nationally important species and habitats.

Those sites may be special, but I emphasise the degree to which SSSIs lie within the grain of the countryside. Most are in private hands and many have a long tradition of human use—human use which has often been a major contributor to creating the special interest that has caused the designation.

Many SSSIs are well managed and in good condition, and their owners and managers enjoy a constructive relationship with the conservation agencies. However, as the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and one or two other hon. Members have pointed out, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), too many of those special sites suffer damage, and in too many cases they are not in good health at all. English Nature has said, following assessment of the condition of interest features on many sites in 1997-98, that more than 55 per cent. of all units on SSSIs were meeting their conservation objectives. However, in a quarter of units there are features in unfavourable condition, and the condition in one tenth is becoming even worse.

The main reason for the decline appears to be the lack of appropriate management. In England, English Nature aims to increase the proportion of sites that are positively managed for conservation and to reduce the proportion that are in an unfavourable condition. We recognise that more needs to be done to encourage the process and to provide the best framework within which it can operate. For those reasons, last September we published a Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper on SSSIs, containing significant proposals to help deliver real improvements in the immediate future.

Our proposals covered a range of options. We believe that better protection and management can be secured by a mixture of policy, administrative, financial and legal changes.

We propose the following policy changes. We propose to make it clear that all SSSIs are of national importance, and that some of them—perhaps up to half, by area—are recognised as being of international importance. We propose to clarify planning guidance so as to reflect the national importance of SSSIs, with a strong presumption against development that would significantly affect any SSSI—a test already introduced, in relation to trunk roads, by the Government's transport White Paper.

Administratively, we propose to demonstrate the Government's commitment to better protection and management by giving effect to a duty on Government Departments holding SSSI land to ensure that those sites are managed in the conservation interest. We shall encourage English Nature to develop further the range of partnerships with owners and occupiers of sites, including the voluntary conservation organisations, and to be more proactive by involving the local community in decisions that affect them and by taking enforcement action against those who deliberately damage sites. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark).

Regarding finances, we have already provided additional resources to English Nature to improve the condition of sites, but we also propose amending the financial guidelines on management agreements, so as to move further from compensating managers for not damaging sites and towards paying for positive management.

We believe that we can make progress in that regard very quickly but, last but by no means least in the package, we acknowledge the need to legislate in several key areas. For instance, we have proposed new powers for the agencies, the most significant of which will allow them, for the first time, to refuse consent for damaging operations. There would be a right of appeal, but an entitlement to compensation in very limited circumstances only.

The consultation paper also considers and seeks further views on the powers that the agencies might be given to address further key areas—in particular, neglect and lack of management and third-party damage, where greater powers and better enforcement are especially necessary.

We have proposed increased penalties for damage to SSSIs and increased powers to require restoration. The agencies should also have additional powers of entry to land, and more flexible powers to purchase SSSI land compulsorily, although we envisage that both those types of power would need to be used in very exceptional circumstances only.

Finally, we have said that we would consider policy developments in other areas to ensure that those deliver conservation benefits. To take a recent example, which was mentioned by several hon. Members on both sides of the House, the package of environmental measures that water companies must include in their business plans specifically covers schemes that address problems associated with water abstraction at more than 50 SSSIs in England and in Wales.

It may be helpful if I reconfirm the philosophy that underpins our proposals for those special sites. First, we want to build on rather than displace the constructive relationships already established with thousands of owners and occupiers of SSSIs. We need a variety of partnerships with owners and occupiers, with local communities, with voluntary conservation organisations—and with Government Departments, some of whom are major land holders with SSSIs and are custodians of our wildlife heritage. The Government recognise and accept the responsibilities that that places on us, and we will help and encourage others who similarly accept their responsibilities for the nation's wildlife.

We realise that there is a need for further legislation to underpin partnerships and provide better means of addressing problems. To that end, we have proposed significant new powers for the conservation agencies. Deliberate damage, however, is rare: what we need to deal with is neglect, along with unsympathetic management. Legislation alone will not solve all the problems. We shall look to a range of options that will deliver key objectives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) pointed out, the overall outcome of recent negotiations on reform of the common agriculture policy represents a further step—a small step—in the right direction, and we have worked hard to ensure that there will be potential benefits for the environment and for wildlife.

My officials are currently analysing detailed responses to the consultation paper, which demonstrate a wide range of interest in the issues and present a variety of alternative suggestions. We shall consider all those suggestions carefully before developing final proposals. I hope shortly to be able to announce preliminary conclusions, but we have already demonstrated our commitment to action through the increased resources that we have given English Nature. During the current year, English Nature will receive an extra £6.14 million, a significant proportion of which will go towards supporting the management of SSSIs. We shall look to English Nature to demonstrate that it can deliver immediate improvements.

In emphasising the protection of SSSIs to such an extent, we are also aware of the importance of such sites as a foundation for many of our international wildlife objectives. SSSIs underpin such obligations, providing the main domestic mechanisms with which we can deliver. Primary among those obligations are our obligations under the European Union's nature conservation directives. We continue to make good progress in implementing Natura 2000, the network of special sites that will represent the finest nature conservation sites at a European level. The United Kingdom has now classified 197 sites as special protection areas because of their ornithological interest under the birds directive, and has submitted 333 sites as candidates for special area of conservation status to the European Commission under the habitats directive, giving recognition and enhanced protection to the cream of our nature conservation heritage.

The United Kingdom is committed to full implementation of the requirements of the habitats directive. Our SAC list was selected by means of a rigorous and iterative scientific process, which applied the directive's criteria consistently across the UK. There has been full consultation on all the proposals, which, in a number of cases, incorporate changes made in the light of comments from the voluntary consultation movement and other consultees. I acknowledge that there have been criticisms of our list, but they are based on unscientific comparisons and misunderstandings of the directive's requirements.

SSSIs are also the foundation for other international obligations. I especially wish to mention the progress that we have made in delivering our commitment to the Ramsar convention on wetlands of international importance. The convention is concerned not just with the listing of sites because of their ornithological, botanical or hydrological significance, but with the wise use of all wetlands, and with effective programmes of education and public awareness that will communicate the value of wetlands and secure commitment to their conservation and sustainable use. The publication in 1998 of a Ramsar strategic plan for the UK, with appropriate targets for action, has underlined our commitments under the convention, and we expect to play a full part in the seventh conference of the parties in Costa Rica next month.

I must also stress the Government's commitment to our other international wildlife targets. I refer particularly to the Berne convention on the conservation of European wildlife and habitats and to the Bonn convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals, with its daughter agreements relating to cetaceans, bats and water birds. In emphasising our proposals to protect and manage special sites better, however, we should not overlook the importance of the context of wider policies. Protection of special sites needs to be complemented by action to protect species.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 affords protection to all native birds, to animals listed in schedule 5 and to plants listed in schedule 8. The Act also requires the protection given to native animals and plants to be reviewed at least every five years. In April 1998, the most recent such review resulted in protection for an additional 17 plant species and 11 animal species. Although such reviews must be conducted at least every five years, the Department and its scientific advisers are duty bound by the Act to monitor the conservation status of threatened species and, where necessary, to consider legislative protection if it believes that that will deal with a particular threat to the species. It is as a result of that process that I recently signed an order to control the release of sika deer hybrids to protect native red deer.

We are, however, increasingly aware of concern about the effectiveness of relying on the listing of species in schedules to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to protect animals and plants. As a result of the concerns that have been raised, the joint nature conservation committee was asked to undertake a review of the rationale and effectiveness of listing species in all the schedules to part I of the Act, and we shall shortly be considering the outcome of that review.

Where necessary, we shall also take appropriate steps to address specific concerns about the conservation of species. Lead poisoning in water fowl has been a worry for some time, and shooting, conservation and landowning organisations have been working with the Government to find a solution. Only last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment announced a consultation exercise on the detail of proposed legislation to restrict the use of lead shot over wetlands. Comments on the proposals will be taken into account in the finalising of the legislation, which is intended to come into force in England and Wales by the start of the shooting season on 1 September 1999.

We are keen that there should be robust means of enforcing wildlife protection legislation. About two years ago, the partnership for action against wildlife crime submitted to Ministers a package of recommendations to strengthen the enforcement of the legislation. The Government are sympathetic to most of those recommendations, which include proposals for the provision of a clear power for police officers or the Department's wildlife inspectors to require tissue samples to be made available for DNA testing purposes, the introduction of custodial sentences for certain offences under part I of the 1981 Act, the rationalisation of search-warrant and time-limit provisions under the same Act, limited new powers of entry for the Department's wildlife inspectors and a new offence of recklessly disturbing a nest site or a place of rest or shelter. I attach priority to those measures, and consider that they should be given legislative force as soon as possible.

I have mentioned a number of specific initiatives that the Government are taking to protect our wildlife better. Let me now take a minute to say something about the overarching framework within which those initiatives need to be placed: the strategy provided by the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan. The plan provides the framework within which, in considering the preservation of wildlife in the UK, we must go beyond the protection of species and habitats. In that wider context, the Government's biodiversity politics are an important component in a suite of measures aimed not just at conserving wildlife, but at fostering sustainable development. Biodiversity is one test, a key test, of whether we are moving towards a society that operates sustainably.

We have built on the structures that were bequeathed to us when we came to office—notably the UK biodiversity group, chaired by an official from my Department, but also with members of all key sectors. We have developed UK biodiversity work, not least by providing additional resources for it, and we have made good progress in involving people from outside the nature conservation world in biodiversity work.

I have not dealt with a number of relevant issues, but I have noted all the questions asked by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, his hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, as well as those asked by my hon. Friends. I promise that I shall write to them in due course—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must move to the next debate.