HC Deb 07 July 1999 vol 334 cc945-65

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

9.33 am
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this important issue today, as 7 July is the 50th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949—now known as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—which established the existing framework for wildlife protection and access to the countryside. I know that wildlife protection is a matter of great concern to hon. Members, especially on the Labour Benches, and I hope that a number of others will be able to participate in the debate.

I hope that, in the debate, we will succeed in persuading the Government to include a new wildlife and countryside Bill in the 1999 Queen's Speech, to cover the many issues that need to be addressed—the measures that would not only increase the protection of wildlife but increase people's enjoyment of the countryside. That would not only benefit us today, but would be an inheritance that we could leave for future generations.

The past 50 years have brought marked changes to our environment and countryside, some of them good, but many of them destructive and regressive. Many of our best wildlife sites have been lost and species that were once common are now endangered. That is a matter of great concern to my constituents and, sadly, sites in my constituency, are among those that have suffered as a result of inadequate protection.

The challenge to protect our natural heritage is greater than ever. That is emphasised by the shocking figures that starkly illustrate the threats to our countryside. At a rate of almost one a day, more than 300 of the United Kingdom's best wildlife sites are lost or damaged every year. We have seen a huge decline in wild flower meadows, lowland heathland, hedgerows and ancient woodlands in Britain.

Over the past 50 years, more than 25 species have become extinct in the wild in the UK, and more are heading that way. The World Wid Fund for Nature has projected that if no action is taken, water voles will become extinct in 2003, skylarks in 2009, and the song thrush will vanish from farmland by 2006.

Many have welcomed the Government's Green Paper on sites of special scientific interest, which I shall call special sites. It outlined how such sites could be better protected. However, it is critical that those proposals are translated into action at the earliest opportunity. Delay simply means more damage and destruction to our countryside. The Government could do more than they have outlined in the Green Paper by examining the needs of species outside those special sites, where there are also serious threats to wildlife.

More than half of all hon. Members—343 in all—have signed early-day motion 11, which calls for a wildlife Bill based on the wildlife charter. The level of support that it has received sends the strongest signal to the Government that there is a firm belief right across the political spectrum that early action is essential.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act was revised in 1981, but it is out of date and is not working. Landowners and managers are not legally obliged to manage special sites for the benefit of the wildlife for which they were declared. There have been no prosecutions for destroying listed plants, and only a handful of prosecutions for harming animals, other than bats.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I participated in the Committee stage, which was 100 hours, of the 1981 Act. One of the troubles is not the Act, but the reluctance of authorities to go to the courts to prosecute. I wish my hon. Friend well with all my heart in her efforts to persuade the Government to introduce another Bill, but something must be done to persuade authorities to go to law, when that is justified.

Ms Drown

I agree with my hon. Friend. The improvements to the legislation must include clearer statutory duties for landowners and managers, as well as better enforcement, strengthened powers to enter land, and stiffer penalties that would act as a real deterrent. There should be improved powers for statutory nature conservation agencies, so that they can fulfil an effective watchdog role. Landowners also need advice on how they can protect wildlife and which practices will cause damage.

The objective is not anti-farmer or anti-landowner legislation. Farmers in my constituency have made clear to me their commitment to wildlife and the environment, and how they want to co-operate with the Government and environmental groups to get the best for the countryside.

That brings me to incentives. I ask the Government to consider incentives to encourage landowners to invest in the proper management and protection of wildlife. In 1996–97, management payments on special sites amounted to £12 million. Those were typically compensation payments for not carrying out an activity, rather than an incentive for positive management. Compensation payments can be far less than an owner could get for rearing sheep or cattle, or for growing flax, so better directed incentives may reap better rewards for wildlife in the UK.

I urge the Government to take a broader look at how policies across Departments impact on the success of wildlife and countryside legislation. For instance, agricultural intensification has led to a reduction in the quantity and quality of habitats such as heather moorland, chalk grassland and lowland wet grassland. Species are lost because of overgrazing of pastures, undergrazing of marginal land, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the loss of traditional crop rotations. Water abstraction can lead to the drying out of important wetland sites, and planning decisions made years ago continue to cause harm to sites—for example, through mineral extraction. Revising planning policy could help in that respect. The Department for Education and Employment could also have a part to play in improving education in our schools on the environment and protection of wildlife and encouraging initiatives among children to help to protect their local wildlife.

A coalition of 22 wildlife organisations, including the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Friends of the Earth and the Wildlife Trusts, is supported by more than 5.5 million people in the United Kingdom. Most political parties would be glad of such a membership. It is campaigning for better legal protection for wildlife. Specifically, it wants legislation to be introduced that will deliver the Government's manifesto commitment to ensure better protection for wildlife". Such a Bill will also provide an ideal opportunity to introduce the Government's proposals for improved access to open countryside, and I know that ramblers in South Swindon are anxious for it to be enacted at the earliest opportunity. I therefore urge the Government to announce a comprehensive wildlife and countryside Bill in the 1999 Queen's Speech to back up their determination to halt further environmental degradation and to bring many of their good intentions to fruition.

In many cases, we cannot replace the wildlife habitats that we are losing without legislation to protect them. We certainly cannot bring back species that become extinct. There is a consensus on the need for action. For the sake of wildlife, the enjoyment that our countryside brings and the wonderful inheritance that we could leave for future generations, I urge the Government to listen to the calls made by my hon. Friends and by me today.

9.41 am
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I support much of what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) has said and I am sure that the Bill for which she asks will enjoy broad cross-party support. Indeed, I have expressed my support for it by signing early-day motion 11 and a number of similar ones.

For the benefit of the Minister, I want to air a parochial concern that, because of the nature of the New forest and the fact that it is the most important wildlife and ecological sanctuary in western Europe, is also a concern for the nation. I do not want him to take the opportunity presented by the introduction of a wildlife protection Bill in the next Session to slip through a new national park status for the New forest. My concern is that changes made to the existing management structure of the New forest will be for the worse and to the detriment of wildlife protection and that sensitive ecological area.

I estimate that no modern legislation would afford the powers that the existing structures enjoy, although those structures are undemocratic. It would not give them the power to stand against so-called progress and development. If hon. Members consider the issues of development versus conservation as they have arisen over the past 30 years in the New forest, they will find that, on every occasion, one or other of the local authorities—be it Hampshire county council or New Forest district council or its forebears—has stood on the side of development, democratically representing the wishes of the people.

To take the cause celebre—the great Lyndhurst bypass—there was a democratic call for the private Member's Bill on it which was considered in this Parliament. By sponsoring it, Hampshire county council was responding quite legitimately to the democratic concerns expressed by the people of Lyndhurst and of Lymington. We know the history of bypasses at Newbury and in the west midlands. We also know of the attendant legitimate concern of people who are interested in the protection of wildlife habitats and we have witnessed the public disorder that may arise from that concern. But we should bear in mind the fact that the people of Lyndhurst and of Lymington sought that bypass.

The bypass would have taken up an enormous swathe of the New forest. My concern is that, had there been a park authority—loaded, as it inevitably would have been, with representatives of the democratically accountable district and county councils—it would have said, "On people versus ponies, because of the development of the fast-growing, economically viable southern coastal strip below the New forest, people are more important that ponies, so we ought to let the bypass go through." I believe that that would not have been in the interests of the New forest or the nation.

It is the job of legislation to protect the interests of the New forest. The Minister will no doubt assure me, as he has done in the past, that the existing structures will not be constrained by any change in status that he might envisage. In other words, the existing laws, which govern the New forest and give the verderers court the power that it now enjoys to thwart development, will not be changed. I understand that, but there is a difficulty and it will arise merely because of the existence of a national park authority or quasi-authority.

I quote the experience of Anthony Passmore, one of the senior and most experienced verderers, as he told it to me. He said, "Mr. Swayne, a national park body may not constrain or change the existing verderers court and its authority, but suppose that there had been a national park authority, representing the strategic view of the future of the New forest and all that that implies, when the Lyndhurst bypass Bill was going through Parliament. Suppose that it had said that there should be a Lyndhurst bypass. Would the verderers court, irrespective of its ability and power to say no, have had—to put it bluntly—the guts to say no when the whole thrust of the strategic authority, which is charged with drawing up the strategy for the future of the New forest, had been that the bypass should go ahead?"

With respect to any changes that the Minister might envisage that would not necessarily change the power of the verderers, who are the guardians of conservation in the New forest, I warn him that there may be unforeseen effects. I would counsel him that any legislation that he might introduce that would change the status of the New forest or alter the balance of the powers within it would be highly likely to be a hybrid Bill, given the existence of the commoners and their rights. That might introduce all sorts of difficulties for a wildlife protection Bill, which the hon. Member for South Swindon would not welcome.

9.48 am
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing an Adjournment debate on this most important topic. My constituency is at the core of the new 200 sq miles national forest. It is developing rapidly and transforming the landscape in several different counties. I shall speak about the mirror image of our expanding forest: the contracting ancient woodlands and the continuing threats that they face.

In England and Wales, ancient woods are areas where there has been continuous woodland cover since at least 1600. Planting was uncommon before that date, so woods were likely to have developed naturally. In Scotland, ancient woods date from 1750, because the best historical maps available are from a military survey carried out at about that time.

It is particularly relevant in the context of this debate to address the protection of ancient woodland, which is one of the great irreplaceable glories of our natural heritage. As the habitat most representative of original, natural, stable conditions, it is home to more threatened species than any other habitat in the United Kingdom. That is underlined by the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan, which suggests that broadleaf woodland supports nearly twice as many BAP species as any other habitat. It supports more than twice as many species as chalk grassland, and nearly three times as many as lowland heathland. It must be a key element in any Government strategy aiming to provide better protection for wildlife.

Ancient woodlands are the last bastion of a good deal of our wildlife heritage. They deserve proper protection, and there could be no more appropriate time than the millennium to consider that. The problem is that 85 per cent. of ancient woodland, including five of the 12 largest ancient woodland sites in the United Kingdom, lacks the designation of site of special scientific interest, or, indeed, any other designation. More than half of Britain's semi-natural ancient woodland has been lost since the first world war, mainly through conversion to conifer woodland and clearance for agriculture. In England, Wales and Scotland, just 300,000 hectares of ancient semi-natural woodland survive—an area roughly the size of Leicestershire. In Northern Ireland, there are no accurate records of the amount of ancient woodland, as far as I am aware.

Ancient woodland remains constantly under threat, especially from development pressures. The Government forecast that, in the next 20 years, 1.44 million more homes will be needed in south-east England; but that is the richest area that we have for ancient woodland. Kent, Hampshire, East and West Sussex and Surrey hold nearly 30 per cent. of such ecological treasures. The Channel tunnel rail link, the Newbury bypass and countless less well-known road schemes have threatened or destroyed areas of ancient woodland. Increasingly, ancient woodland is now to be found in small fragments: islands of biodiversity surrounded by a hostile landscape of intensive agriculture and urban sprawl.

More than 80 per cent. of individual ancient woods in the inventory of England and Wales are less than 20 hectares in size. Just 500 exceed 100 hectares—1 sq km—and only 12 ancient semi-natural woods are larger than 300 hectares. These fragments are often too small to sustain healthy populations of many woodland species, and too isolated to allow migration. As global warming becomes a reality, many species, unable to relocate, face the likelihood of extinction. The bleak picture is considerably worsened by the degradation of our ancient woods through inappropriate use, poor management and repeated replanting with non-native species.

Although, in some ancient woodlands, endangered species, such as the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), hang on, in the past 100 years more species have become nationally extinct in broadleaf woodland than in any other habitat—46 species—and it also contains the most globally threatened and rapidly declining species—78. The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology's "Countryside Survey 90" showed that, between 1978 and 1990, there was a 14 per cent. loss of "species richness" in such woodlands, a higher figure than in any other semi-natural habitat.

What action should the Government take to staunch the worrying losses of ancient woodland? There are some encouraging signs that the need to protect these crucial sites is being recognised, but words must be matched by actions. The "England Forestry Strategy", published by the Government at the end of last year, contains a commitment to review the effectiveness of existing measures to protect ancient semi-natural woodlands, and to provide added protection if that is shown to be necessary. Organisations such as the Woodland Trusts, in its recently launched millennium challenges to Government—I believe that the Minister was present at the launch—have said how crucial it is to deliver on that core commitment. A similar commitment was given in the "United Kingdom Sustainable Development Strategy", along with a statement of the Government's aim to halt the trend of ancient woodland loss and fragmentation. It is crucial for those commitments to be acted on quickly.

Hon. Members sometimes speak of the need for protective mechanisms targeted at land adjacent to SSSIs, and of the importance of empowering Government agencies to fulfil an effective watchdog role. I agree: SSSIs certainly need to withstand environmental change, and the measures suggested would be helpful. Agencies have a key protective role, but I believe that similar measures for our ancient woodlands are needed even more urgently. There must be no further loss of ancient woodland. The time really has come to say, "Enough is enough."

I support environmental organisations that are pressing for a fully maintained, up-to-date inventory of ancient woodland covering the whole of the United Kingdom, with regular assessments to confirm the extent and quality of the nation's ancient woods. We must also provide better protection of ancient woodlands such as Gracedieu woods in north-west Leicestershire through legislation and the planning system. I believe that, in the longer term, a special designation for them will be needed to toughen up those controls.

We must also encourage owners of ancient woodland to understand its importance and manage it appropriately, and provide better guidelines and incentives to help them to do so. We must assist appropriate groups to continue to acquire ancient woods, and bring them under sensitive management. Finally, in providing new native woodland cover, we must target it to link and buffer existing ancient woodland sites that should be seen as the key resource in enhancing people's enjoyment of woodland.

I believe that we should treat ancient woodlands, those timeless places of great tranquillity and beauty, as the foundation of our approach to improving biodiversity. I should very much like to hear the Minister's comments.

9.57 am
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing this important debate. I support her call for the inclusion of a wildlife Bill in the next Queen's Speech, and would be happy to facilitate the swift passage of such a Bill.

As has been said, the debate is timely. Fifty years after the post-war Government's landmark legislation, new measures are needed to protect our wildlife. The House is well versed in the arguments: we debated them in an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on 14 April, and, only last week, a linked issue—the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty—was discussed in an Adjournment debate called by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton).

Early-day motion 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), continues to attract increasing support. As of yesterday, when I checked, it had the support of no fewer than 343 hon. Members. In the last Session, a similar early-day motion received the support of 302 hon. Members, so progress is clearly being made. A clear majority not just of Back Benchers, but of the House as a whole, now favours legislation. I hope that the Minister will note that.

Threatened species were mentioned in those earlier debates, and have been mentioned again today. I have obtained a few new examples. One is the nail fungus, which lives in the dung of horses, mainly in the New forest in Hampshire. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) may well be familiar with such species. The nail fungus is internationally threatened, but has been refused protection because the threats that it faces are not intentional. That is a key point, which the Minister should consider. The Wildlife Trusts tell me that it can only advise on the need; there is no law to back it up.

There are other examples that are more local to my constituency. As a Member whose constituency is in Greater London, I am particularly concerned about the future of the Erith marshes in south London, which support breeding skylarks, grass snakes and the hugely important population of water voles. They are threatened by the proposed development of a supermarket distribution depot. Currently, the law can do nothing to stop that development.

I could mention many other wildlife species or habitats whose days are numbered. In Surrey and across south-east England, where the pressure to build is greatest, acres of ancient woodland are under threat. The Deptford pink, the sandy stilt puffball and dormice are all under threat somewhere in the United Kingdom.

Today's debate is timely not only because we are marking the anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, but for another reason, because the Government seem to be starting to wobble in their commitment to require that 60 per cent. of new build should be on brown-field sites. As the current rate of such build—1996 is the most recent year for which figures are available—is 56 per cent., a target of 60 per cent. can hardly be thought to be challenging. The Government have to be bolder both on that issue and on wildlife protection.

The debate is also timely because a revised planning policy guidance note 3 has just been issued, although it has relatively little to say about the biodiversity implications of new housing development. The PPG also provides no guidance whatsoever on minimising the indirect environmental impact of housing development.

I should like to deal with a couple of wildlife reform matters that I have not dealt with before. First, it is—at best—unclear whether the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan is adequate to fulfil the requirements of the 1979 European Union birds directive and the 1982 habitats directive, both of which require restoration of protected habitats. As the biodiversity action plan has not been implemented statutorily, many of its prescribed actions have no Government funding and can be undertaken only by voluntary bodies. I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us whether such provision fulfils the function of habitat restoration required by the EU directives.

The second matter also concerns EU law. The EU birds directive requires the United Kingdom Government to designate as special protection areas sites that support internationally important concentrations of particular bird species. However, certain species listed for protection under the directive are not covered by the existing SPA network, as their populations are dispersed over a much wider area. Some heathlands in England—the Thames basin heaths, Wealdon heaths and Breckland—for example, support important populations or rare species, such as the stone curlew, woodlark, nightjar, and the Dartford warbler, but are still not protected by SPA status. Although that issue is slightly different from that of sites of special scientific interest, it is certainly relevant to today's debate, and illustrates the general crisis facing United Kingdom wildlife.

We should be in no doubt that time is running out for our wildlife. Here are a few facts: every day, another SSSI is destroyed or damaged; in the past six years, there have been more than 2,000 cases of damage to SSSIs; and 45 per cent. of all SSSIs are deemed to be in an unfavourable condition. Time is, therefore, of the essence—as I said in our most recent debate on the issue, in April. Since then, unfortunately, nothing much has changed—except that two more months have elapsed, and, undoubtedly, another 50 or 60 cases of damage to SSSIs will have been recorded.

In 1997, Labour was elected with a pledge to ensure better protection for wildlife. As we approach 2000, it is time to deliver on that pledge. In 1949, the Attlee Government had the foresight to introduce their legislation; now, the Government should show similar foresight. As other hon. Members have said, adequate legislation must be introduced in the next Queen's Speech. The House of Commons wants such legislation. I think that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions also want legislation, and I know that the country wants it. Now, it is time for the Prime Minister to deliver it.

10.4 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I am very happy to contribute to this very important debate on wildlife conservation. I shall keep my remarks brief, as I know that many colleagues wish to speak.

A moment ago, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) spoke about the importance of ancient woodlands, and said that we should help people to understand the importance of maintaining them. As he was speaking, I allowed myself a wry smile, because it was only a few years ago, in 1995, when the warden of Windsor great park ordered the felling of 63 ancient oak trees that dated back to Queen Anne's days. The warden of Windsor great park is, of course, the Duke of Edinburgh. If he does not know the importance of ancient woodland, what hope is there for us?

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) spoke about the nail fungus living in the dung of New Forest ponies. Tragically, that is not the only species that has gone in recent years. I received a briefing from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, stating that the Essex emerald moth has gone—it is extinct. The mouse-eared bat, which sounds like an endearing creature, is gone for ever—extinct. As for plant life, alpine butterwort is gone, as is the purple spurge. I do not know what the purple spurge looks like—I have probably never seen it in my life—but I feel that it is a tragedy for all of us that it is gone.

We need to act, and to act quickly. This morning, on the "Today" programme, I heard the Minister for the Environment tell us that action would be taken. He was good; he is always good. If I had a vote for Ministers—tragically, I do not—he would have my vote. I hope that he keeps his job.

Mr. David Taylor

Kiss of death.

Mr. Prentice

We all want my right hon. Friend to keep his job. We do not want him to be moved, to placate some lobby saying, "The Government are too green. We've gotta get rid of him." I want him to stay where he is.

The countryside Minister told John Humphrys that we need legislation to protect sites of special scientific interest, and that it was not a question of if, but when—which had a familiar ring to it. This year, in March, when I withdrew my Right to Roam Bill, he told me that the Government were in favour of opening up the countryside—4 million acres of mountain, moorland, heath and common land—and that that would be done as soon as parliamentary time permits. This November, we want to see that parliamentary time permitted.

This Session, we have dealt with the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill. No one asked me whether we should consider that Bill. Mysteriously—magically—we discovered ourselves debating it in the Chamber. That Bill has never been debated in the parliamentary Labour party, and no one in the wider Labour party knows about it. Personally, I feel quite hostile to it; but we debated it. In the same breath, however, we are told that we cannot introduce wildlife and habitat legislation because of a problem with parliamentary time. There is lots of parliamentary time.

Mr. Brake

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would be prepared, as I would, to extend our stay in this place a little into our rather generous summer recess to address the issue?

Mr. Prentice

The hon. Gentleman's comments would carry more force if he had a few Liberal Democrat colleagues sitting behind him. I should say, just for the record, that one Liberal Democrat Member—from a party that waxes lyrical about its concern for wildlife and habitat—is in the Chamber. It is a pity that, today, he could not get a few more Liberal Democrats Members to come and support his request.

This morning—to get back to the point—the countryside Minister said that he was seeking the earliest legislative slot for the relevant Bill. Listening to him, I started running around trying to find a pen, as I thought that he was going to say something of great moment, which he did. He said that there was a very good chance of obtaining that legislative slot, and then he played his trump card: "Tony Blair is strongly in support of this."

So what is the problem? The Prime Minister apparently supports strongly the need for early legislation. The problem is that too many people just do not believe it. Philip Rothwell, head of policy operation at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds [HON. MEMBERS: "Protection."] I am obviously too fired up today. Let me call it the RSPB. Mr. Rothwell was quoted in The Express as saying: Tony Blair is not interested in the environment and he has surrounded himself with advisers who are not interested either. The RSPB is not some fringe organisation that can be dismissed with a wave of the hand. There are 3 million members of the RSPB and other organisations dedicated to the protection of wildlife.

If the RSPB holds that view, we can imagine the millions more who feel the same. The perception exists that the Government are dragging their feet, and much that has happened has reinforced that idea. I was given a commitment in March that there would be legislation on the right to roam, but the papers tell us that the idea has been shelved in case it alienates landowning interests. Fox hunting is immensely important, particularly to our younger constituents, but the Government give the impression of being unwilling to take on the blood sports lobby.

Despite what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said on the radio this morning, there is a feeling that wildlife is another area that may fall off the end of the plank. If we are governed by focus groups that tell us that health and education are the top priorities—as they must be—it is inevitable that wildlife protection will be regarded as less important in the great scheme of things. But that is a mistake.

Our attitude to wildlife boils down to trust. Do the people trust the Government to deliver? If we do not deliver on wildlife, it will be impossible to make promises about legislation at the next election. We have an enormous majority, and we control the legislative agenda. We could sit here for 12 months to pass a wildlife Bill if we wanted to.

The Government must recognise that SSSIs are being damaged and that more must be done to protect habitats. There is huge support for legislation, and a Bill would immensely cheer up my colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party. A fortnight ago, we held a debate—no vote of course—on what we should like in the Queen's Speech, and there was overwhelming support for legislation on access to the countryside and on wildlife. To coin perhaps the wrong phrase, we could kill two birds with one stone by yoking the two areas together in a comprehensive Bill. The legislation would have no cost, or at most a very low cost. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to do all in his power to persuade the decision makers to introduce such a Bill in November.

10.15 am
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I am delighted to add my voice to those calling for greater protection for wildlife, and particularly to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) who spoke with great passion. It is fitting that we should mark the 50th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which was, as so many have said, ground-breaking legislation introduced by a great Labour Government, by returning to the issue of wildlife protection and asking what improvements we can make.

We must accept that improvements are now needed to that legislation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment knows that, and I commend him on his hard work in this area. However, to make improvements that we all want for the protection of sites of special scientific interest, we need new legislation, and I hope that the next Queens Speech will include a Bill.

The need for improvements is illustrated by Government figures showing that more than 300 SSSIs are damaged every year. The effect of even just one more year's delay is absolutely clear. A year's delay would mean another 300 of our finest and most treasured wildlife sites being destroyed or ruined. We cannot allow that to happen.

My constituents have raised this matter with me. The protection of wildlife sites and SSSIs has real resonance with members of the public who want our countryside to be preserved and the wild animals and wild flowers that make the countryside such a special place to be protected. I have received many letters from constituents, and many hon. Members will have received, in the form of an enormous daisy chain, a novel and very large petition from their constituents.

It is easy to see why the issue has such resonance with the public. Many beautiful places known to our constituents are being damaged. In Northamptonshire alone, two SSSIs have been all but destroyed. A tiny fraction of Harleston heath remains; despite its SSSI status, the rules to protect it from development and forestry were too weak. Likewise, only a fragment of the Oakley purlieus SSSI remains, its having been destroyed by quarrying.

On top of the loss of those beautiful places, the public recognise the loss of important and well-loved species. I was staggered to see in today's report from the wildlife and countryside link that 25 species have become extinct in the UK since the passage of Clem Attlee's 1949 Act. We think of extinction as something that happens in countries struck by poverty, or as a relic of the last century. We think of it happening when people destroy habitats in a desperate attempt to grow food or scrape out a living. We do not think of it happening in a prosperous country such as the United Kingdom, where there are laws to protect the countryside.

Other species have suffered dramatic declines. The grey partridge has declined by 78 per cent. since 1972, and the tree sparrow by 87 per cent. Even among birds as common as starlings—once positively a pest because of their enormous flocks—numbers have dropped dramatically. People notice these changes, and the introduction of a Bill to halt the decline would be extremely popular and effective politics.

As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has taken a superb, excellent and dynamic lead on the issue. The coalition of wildlife groups, with a total membership of some 6 million people—a heavy voting body there—welcomed the positive spirit of co-operation that he has shown and gave him an excellent reception at a public rally here at the House of Commons. Now is the time to build on the support and good will for the Government's work so far, but we need to maintain that momentum by introducing the necessary legislation to protect our wildlife.

Along with many other right hon. and hon. Members, I would be delighted if new legislation provided greater access for people to enjoy the countryside. This is how our Labour Government should celebrate the 50th anniversary of Clem Attlee's last Bill; it is how we should welcome the next century and it would delight the many millions of people who would welcome such protection.

10.21 am
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on her initiative in introducing today's excellent debate. I very much support the call from my hon. Friend and others for new countryside and wildlife law. I do so as a committed environmentalist and as a Londoner.

Despite the common perception here and elsewhere, London's wildlife encompasses rather more than the pigeons in Trafalgar square. Londoners have always very much supported and valued the city's elegant parks and municipal flowerbeds. There is increasing recognition of the precious diversity of our wildlife. We have urban habitats, railway corridors, private gardens and wasteland, all of which support valued wildlife.

The London Wildlife Trust has a membership of 7,000 and I am proud to be one of them. We are engaged in a great fight to try to preserve our precious wildlife against the on-going and unrelenting pressures of development. It is not that the development is unwelcome—indeed, in my run-down and deprived constituency rehabilitation and regeneration are critical to our economic life and employment opportunities. Although I support building homes on brown-field sites and protecting the green belt, the pressure on those sites means that Londoners may be deprived of their wildlife and that is clearly not acceptable.

Our quality of life in London depends on getting the balance right between appropriate development and respect for ecology and the recognition that biodiversity matters. A surprisingly wide range of animals and plants are found in London. Many of them are thriving, but others are only just surviving. We cannot take that natural wealth for granted. In London, as elsewhere, there has been a haemorrhage of wildlife sites over the past 30 years. Unless we have stronger wildlife laws, the process will continue inexorably.

My constituency is no exception. Although its border is just five miles from here and it is a dense urban area, just 200 years ago it was an area of market gardens. A nationally rare species of plant known as the Deptford Pink dates from that time. Another rare species is found in Deptford creek. The black redstart, which is rarer than the golden eagle, first bred in London in the 1920s. Seven per cent. of the national population and 40 per cent. of the London population of black redstarts are found in Deptford creek. However, Deptford creek is now a silted up part of the river. It is bordered on all sides by dereliction and it is prime land for redevelopment. The creekside project in my constituency, led by Jill Goddard, has undertaken a mapping exercise to ensure that we understand what wildlife is there so that the development that we welcome will preserve wildlife habitats. Amazingly, the Environment Agency has constructed new flood defences from old wood and in a way that protects the wildlife habitats.

Given all that, why do we need new laws? The black redstart is listed in schedule 1 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Its nests are protected; its eggs are protected; breeding adults are protected and so are the young birds. However, for the rest of the year it is possible to destroy its habitat and, as we all know, if the habitat is destroyed, the species cannot breed.

There are many similar cases in other parts of London. Water voles are under threat in many areas such as the Erith, Crayford and Rainham marshes that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake).

Many other sites are being targeted for development, including those occupied by skylarks, stag beetles and other wildlife. I have not time to mention them all, but they are extremely numerous and precious. They are important not only to Londoners, but regionally and nationally. Without new laws, the quality of life in our great city will be undermined and so will our biodiversity. I very much support today's debate.

10.26 am
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing today's debate. I should like to concentrate on peat lands and the Thorne and Hatfield moors that are in my constituency and the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). They form one of the United Kingdom's rarest and most vulnerable habitats and are all that is left of a vast wetland that once existed around the Humber estuary 4000 years ago. Over time, layer upon layer of mosses accumulated and became compacted in the waterlogged conditions. Plants and insects colonised the surfaces and rare or even extinct bog plant, dragonflies, butterflies and beetles were commonplace many years ago.

Today, 94 per cent. of the United Kingdom's peat bogs have been lost and fewer than 6,000 hectares remain in near natural condition. Thorne and Hatfield moors are part of this and today they represent England's largest raised peat bog site. They support more than 3,000 insects, 800 flowering plants and hundreds of liver-worts, lichens and fungi. They are vital for breeding, migrating and wintering birds including golden plovers, hen harriers and nightjars. People have worked on the moors for 500 years and the incredible archaeological record contained within the peat was, until relatively recently, undisturbed.

Such a site should be managed for its incredible wealth of bog vegetation and associated wildlife, yet, instead, I am sad to say, it is being threatened by commercial peat extraction. Instead of being treasured, protected and nurtured, it is being plundered for its peat.

Peat extraction threatens many important sites in the United Kingdom. Of the 14 extraction sites in England, nine have SSSI status. Thorne and Hatfield, along with Wedholme Flow—all three proposed EU Natura 2000 designations—account for more than 50 per cent. of UK production. The fact that extraction of peat is permitted on SSS1s highlights the major weaknesses in protecting those sites.

The problem dates back to 1951 when planning permission was granted for peat extraction. Then, as for hundreds of years previously, hand-digging was the norm, but industrialisation of the process has ravaged the land. In the 1960s, the process was mechanised and now, since milling methods were introduced in the 1980s—with little complaint from the Opposition—extraction involves the almost complete removal of surface vegetation along with the top layer of peat. That has occurred on large tracts of Thorne and Hatfield and the huge areas of stripped, bare earth, where once were beautiful moors, are a very sad sight indeed.

The vast majority of peat that has taken many, many years to be created, has been lost in only the past decade. That has heightened the sense of the urgent need for Government action. Each day that extraction continues and the land is stripped and drained, with the removal of tons of peat, nature's foothold on the Thorne and Hatfield moors weakens.

Locally, there is immense concern that such an important site is being lost. I get more letters from constituents on that issue than on any other. When English Nature proposed removing the SSSI status there was an amazing campaign, which we won. I was pleased to attend a meeting in Thorne where more than 400 local residents came along to make their feelings known. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North and for Brigg and Goole have had the same experience.

Environmental matters are often said to be the concern of the middle classes—eco-warriors shut away in their leafy suburbs—but the letters that I get are from people in the former coal mining villages that surround the moors, who are witnessing the disappearance of a national treasure. They understand only too well that the extractors' economic arguments do not add up.

Extraction is not and never was a long-term employment option; it will result only in the permanent destruction of the moors. We believe that there is an alternative: a sustainable tourist industry on the site, protecting it while providing enjoyment and long-term economic stability for the local population.

There is such concern that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has established a peat working group that includes representatives of the industry and of the environmental lobby. Labour Members are keen that, wherever possible, business interests should be married with the public interest, but my worry is that, on this issue, there is no common ground that can be established between the extractors, who see money in peat, and the public, who want the moors to be preserved.

I am not surprised that the peat working group has so far failed to produce any report, but I am very concerned and I call on the Government to bite the bullet and take the long-term environmental view that is so clearly in the national interest. Many solutions are available. In the long term, my constituents want a complete end to peat extraction. That could be phased to avoid any major impact on jobs. We can work with the industry to develop alternatives to peat. I am sure that many hon. Members are keen gardeners and viewers of "Ground Force". We want a "Ground Force" team of our own in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I leave it to Ministers to decide who should be Alan, Tommy and Charlie, but if the Government can find a solution that will preserve the moors for all time, they will receive great credit.

The longer we spend without a clear policy, the more events will take their own course, and the moors will simply be worked to death; with them will go much of the precious wildlife that they support.

10.32 am
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) has done the House a service in securing this debate.

I want to express my support for the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who has waged an unrelenting campaign to secure the right to roam. I agree that it is essential to ensure that access to open countryside is built into comprehensive wildlife and countryside legislation.

Such legislation also provides the opportunity to settle once and for all the contentious issue of fox hunting. No other issue has aroused such interest, especially in young voters. Our manifesto made it clear that our position was not to legislate against fox hunting but to provide the opportunity for a free vote, although there is huge public support for a ban.

I endorse the work of the Government and the previous Government in developing biodiversity policies. It is important to understand that wildlife protection is not only about furry creatures but goes far deeper: it is about environmental survival. The variety of species that survive is an indicator of the health of the planet on which we all depend. This is not an add-on extra: it goes to the heart of our survival on this planet.

I commend the previous Government's biodiversity action plan, and especially the recently published volume 4, on invertebrates. For those with any interest in creepy crawlies, it is a treasure house of fascinating information. I look forward to volume 5.

Whatever legislation we pass, the protection will be limited if we do not tackle the root causes of environmental degradation. In most cases, those are the deregulated economic processes, both industrial and agricultural, that have disfigured our society and environment for so many years. We must set this debate in the wider context of the reform of the common agricultural policy and the implementation of the Kyoto directive on climate change.

Whatever an individual Government may do, this is a matter on which the limitations of the nation state are most evident. We must work internationally. The European Union has an important role and it is crucial that we play a full part in the various international treaties and protocols that have been and will continue to be established to secure biodiversity.

The Government and the previous Government have an enviable record in not only signing international treaties but ratifying them quickly. I urge the Government to continue that process, especially with the Kyoto protocol and the Århus protocol on access to environmental information. There are two important protocols that we have signed, but not yet ratified: the heavy metals protocol and the one on persistent organic pollutants. Those protocols are crucial to biodiversity and I urge the Government to ratify them swiftly.

10.37 am
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I welcome this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) has given everyone an opportunity to express their views and feelings, which is very important. There is nothing more important to people in this country than looking after wildlife, habitats and countryside. There is more pressure as more people want to enjoy the countryside, and we must make it more accessible.

All our mailbags are filled with letters from people who want an end to fox hunting. Sooner or later, it must be tackled. The majority of the House and of the country support a ban. It is time to legislate. Let me describe what happens in conservation areas that are supposed to protect wildlife. In Rivington, a beautiful part of my constituency—I am lucky to have a mainly rural constituency where we can enjoy the pleasure of the countryside—the hunt comes along, and the fox hunters, having had no luck that day, dig out a fox. They do not kill it instantly. Oh, no. We cannot have fun without cruelty. They release the fox and chase it and chase it before killing it. Is that how we should treat our wildlife? I say not. The time has to come to end such cruelty.

In the southern lakeland, gamekeepers use traps on badgers. In their view, killing them instantly is obviously wrong. They believe in cruel traps and it takes a long time for the badgers to die. We have found half-skeletons of badgers. What a terrible end for such a beautiful animal. Badgers are protected, but such practices continue.

Protected species of birds have their nests robbed and their chicks stolen. There is no true protection. Fines are not enough: if it takes mandatory prison sentences to protect the birds, let us do that. Hen harriers—beautiful birds—are shot by gamekeepers because they do not fit in with what they think a grouse moor should be. The countryside is not about that; it is about balance. We must ensure that species are protected for everyone to see and enjoy, because they are not for the few to destroy. It is time for us to change our views about wildlife, habitats and countryside. If we work together, we can ensure our future.

10.40 am
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on securing the debate. She will be either cheered up or worried when I say that I agree with about 90 per cent. of what she said. The Minister and I are getting used to each other: this is the second Wednesday morning in a row that we have discussed countryside protection. If we go around the same course again next Wednesday, I hope that he will still be with us in his post.

It is clear that we broadly agree on many of the aims of wildlife and habitat protection, although I am slightly worried by the means that many Labour Members have discussed. There is an inclination to reach for the stick rather than the carrot, and I hope that the Minister will not go too far down that route.

I shall deal with the various details in a moment, but the question at the heart of the debate is not whether there should legislation, but why there has been none so far. Like the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I listened to the "Today" programme this morning with great interest. However, when the hon. Gentleman said that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with its 3 million members, had written off the Prime Minister as uninterested in the environment, he added a plea that the Minister for the Environment should retain his job. If I were that Minister, I am not sure that I would consider that the most helpful intervention in the debate this morning.

The "Today" programme item was instructive for several reasons. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) repeat what she said on the programme—that the reason for introducing wildlife legislation was that the Labour party was worried about losing rural seats. That is a terrible reason for wanting to protect the environment, and anyway it will not wash, because of other factors that I shall describe later. However, I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that, even if she is right about the reason for introducing legislation to protect wildlife and endangered habitats, Conservative Members would still support it, because we consider the underlying issue so important.

The contribution to the programme this morning by the Minister for the Environment was equally instructive, although I am not sure that I am as optimistic about what the right hon. Gentleman said as the hon. Member for Pendle. To me, taking to the air waves to fight for a place in the legislative programme is a sign of desperation, not of confidence. I hope that I am wrong, that the matter is all stitched up and that the Minister was simply making a lap of honour in public. However, I suspect that I am not wrong.

The Minister for the Environment also said that the Prime Minister, and the whole Government, were very much in favour of the legislation. Perhaps that is so, but we are coming up to what may be the final full legislative session before an election in which the Government can guarantee taking a Bill through the House, and we are still unsure about whether such a Bill will be introduced, despite the manifesto commitment to do so. St. Augustine famously said: Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet. The updated, modernised, new Labour version would be: Oh Lord, make me green—but only with the agreement of colleagues across Whitehall. That will not do. If the Minister cannot give a positive commitment to early legislation, fears will arise that delay is turning into inaction, and that another broken promise is on the way.

What specific measures should any new legislation contain? The first point to be made is that it would be much more sensible if the Bill were confined to updating the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. We would support a Bill with that general aim. Various hon. Members have spoken this morning about how a Bill should be extended to include much more controversial matters such as access and the right to roam, and some have even proposed that it be used to bring back anti-hunting measures. Anyone observing the debate will have noticed that the latter possibility, more than any other, set the juices flowing among Labour Members. It was instructive to see so strong a desire to oppress minority interests. We all agree that there is an urgent need to promote wildlife and habitat protection, and Conservative Members would support and seek to improve any legislation to that end. However, including in a Bill other, much more controversial measures would impede its passage through the House, and might even prevent it altogether. That would be a tragedy for our wildlife and countryside. I hope that the Minister will resist the siren calls from Labour Back-Bench Members.

Any legislation would cover those areas already designated as sites of special scientific interest, but it could go further. The RSPB has proposed some helpful principles for the contents of a wildlife Bill, and I hope that the Minister will consider them seriously. The RSPB proposes that such a Bill should include a statutory purpose for individual SSSIs and the whole SSSI network. It should also contain provisions to give a legal underpinning to the bio-diversity action plan, to improve the powers of the statutory nature conservation agencies, and to impose a duty on all public bodies to protect and manage SSSIs.

However, we need a comprehensive strategy for all green land, whether it be part of an SSSI or not. Friends of the Earth rightly wants greater protection for species that are outside SSSIs, and a related problem involves land adjoining an existing site. If that land is developed unsympathetically, the knock-on effects can be very damaging to the neighbouring SSSI. We hope that any legislation to be introduced will be wider and more comprehensive. It should include incentives for better management and adopt a partnership approach.

I said that I was worried that Labour Members shared a tendency to reach for the stick rather than the carrot. In the long term, without the partnership approach advocated by responsible bodies such as the Country Landowners Association and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the effects on the countryside will be less beneficial. We need to engender support for the measures in a new Bill among people who live and work in the countryside. A permanent state of war between visiting regulators and people who live in an area every day would not be helpful.

I am sure that the hon. Member for South Swindon would agree that merely establishing a strict police force is not enough and will not work. Strict policing is necessary, but there must be a mixture of regulation and incentives.

In addition, there must be radical reform of the common agricultural policy. I was astonished to hear the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) say that one of the problems was that farming was too deregulated. Has he ever met a farmer? He said that industrial and agricultural deregulation was bad for the countryside. The problem with the CAP is not that it is deregulatory, but that it pours billions of pounds into encouraging farmers to produce intensively in ways that may damage the environment. It pours only a few million pounds into encouraging them to farm less intensively.

Mr. Chaytor

That is not what I said. In fact, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis: the problem with the CAP is that the resources have been wrongly directed, not the degree of regulation associated with it.

Mr. Green

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made that clarification.

There is much to be discussed in the detail, but all hon. Members clearly agree that the need for action is urgent. We have heard this morning about the various species that have been made extinct already, or are in danger. The doomsday list of the World Wide Fund for Nature is alarming, as the hon. Member for South Swindon noted. She mentioned some of the species in danger, but the WWF has warned that the high brown fritillary butterfly and the pipistrelle bat may be extinct by 2007, and that even the skylark may have vanished by 2009. Clearly, those would be large-scale ecological disasters.

Therefore, as long as he sticks to what is sensible and gets on with it, the Minister has a chance to lead a wide consensus among all the parties, including even landowners and the many environmental non-governmental organisations. If he does that, Conservative Members will seek to give him a fair wind when the legislation is introduced.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) for his kind remarks and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on using her parliamentary time to obtain a debate on such an important issue, especially at this historic time. She is a worthy champion on the issue, as she is on a number of others.

That is not surprising as my hon. Friend's constituency is fortunate to include several nationally important nature conservation sites, including three geological sites of special scientific interest at Great quarry, Okus quarry and Old Town railway cutting, and a further four biological SSSIs at Coate water, Burderop wood, Clouts wood and the Coombes, Hinton Parva. Included within those sites are open water, woodland bird communities and chalk grassland. They all contribute to the overall value of the national SSSI series and to protecting our natural heritage for our children and grandchildren.

The Government share the view of many of the hon. Members who have spoken that the UK's nature conservation heritage should be given effective protection. Indeed, I welcome the opportunity that is provided by the debate to reaffirm the commitments in the Labour party's manifesto to affording better protection to wildlife, and the priority that the Government are giving to implementing those manifesto commitments.

At this point, I should like to answer queries that several hon. Members have raised that may not be answered in my brief. That is important because it is always an easy option just to go on and not to give replies to specific queries in a debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon raised incentives for management. I confirm that the Government propose to move from a compensatory scheme of payments to landowners to positive agreements. Even now, in advance of any changes in legislation, a substantial number of payments for support action are under way, rather than cash compensation payments.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) never misses an opportunity to raise questions on the area that he represents. I repeat my assurances to him that, within the present consultation, there is no thought within Government for any changes that would affect the status of the verderers. I say it every time. To his credit, he always raises a range of issues on the New forest. On that particular one, I reconfirm our position.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) mentioned widely dispersed bird species, which pose a particular difficulty for boundary definition. We are committed to effective and full implementation of obligations under the birds and habitats directives. My Department is discussing with English Nature the best way in which to protect such wide-ranging species. I will write to him to give further information on the matter, and try to get an answer to the point that he raised on restoration.

The hon. Member also asked me to acknowledge the tide of support for early-day motion 11. There is no doubt that that can and, indeed, should be done from the Government side of the Chamber. We are aware of the support and greatly impressed by it. It is very large—one of the largest gatherings of support on an issue since the last election. The Government are reassured by the level of interest and the swell of opinion on the need for legislation. We are aware of that and keep it in mind in all our considerations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster raised the question of peat working on SSSIs. [Interruption.] Sorry—my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). We support moves to encourage alternatives to the use of peat. Where sites have Natura 2000 status, there will be obligations to review extant planning permissions. We are considering the options for other sites. All the issues that she raised in respect of that will be considered.

The Government's approach to wildlife conservation must blend a strong statutory framework for the protection of species and their habitats with positive measures through biodiversity action plans and environmental education. In that respect, we have encouraged a participative approach to conservation through partnerships between the public and private sectors and involvement of voluntary conservation organisations and the public. We believe that each element is important in ensuring that we protect and enhance the value of our countryside.

I take first the protection of habitats. We continue to make good progress in implementing Natura 2000, the network of special sites that are recognised at European level. The United Kingdom has now classified 200 sites as special protection areas for their ornithological interest under the birds directive, and submitted 340 sites as candidate special areas of conservation to the European Commission under the habitats directive, giving recognition and enhanced protection to the cream of our nature conservation heritage.

The UK Government are committed to full implementation of the requirements of the habitats directive. Our SAC list has been selected through a rigorous and iterative scientific process, which has applied the directive's criteria consistently throughout the UK. What is more, there has been full consultation on all the proposals, which, in a number of cases, incorporated changes in the light of comments from the voluntary conservation movement and other consultees. I acknowledge criticisms of our list, but those have been based on unscientific comparisons and misunderstandings of the directive's requirements.

Natura 2000 sites—together with sites listed under the Ramsar convention on the conservation of wetlands of international importance—are all sites of special scientific interest, all of which are designated for their national importance and constitute some of our most precious areas for wildlife, hosting rare or endangered species and providing habitats where they can flourish and—I hope—multiply. Although many are well managed and in good condition, and landowners and managers enjoy a constructive relationship with the conservation agencies, the Government agree with hon. Members who have expressed concern about special sites that have been damaged, or whose interest is declining as a result of both human activities and natural processes.

English Nature is already aiming to increase the percentage of sites in England that are being positively managed for conservation and to reduce the proportion that are in an unfavourable condition. The comprehensive proposals that we announced in last year's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper on SSSIs will also help to deliver real improvements in the immediate future and will substantially strengthen English Nature's hand as steward of the most valuable examples of our natural heritage. Those proposals covered a range of options and looked at ways in which enhanced protection could be delivered quickly without new legislation, as well as the case for legislative change.

The Government believe that it is important to foster the constructive relationship that has already been established with the owners of SSSIs, many of whom are sympathetic to conservation aims and work actively alongside statutory agencies to conserve the interest of their land. On SSSIs, the consultation paper emphasised the need for a variety of partnerships with owners and occupiers, with local communities and voluntary conservation organisations and with Government Departments, some of which are major landholders and custodians of our wildlife heritage. We accept the responsibility that that places on us. We will help and encourage others who similarly accept their responsibilities for the nation's wildlife.

The paper acknowledged—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. We now come to the next debate.

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