HC Deb 28 November 2000 vol 357 cc900-6

Lords amendment: No. 104, to insert the following new clause—Conservation of biological diversity—

—(1) It is the duty of—

(a) any Minister of the Crown (within the meaning of the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975),

  1. (b) any Government department, and
  2. (c) the National Assembly for Wales,
in carrying out his or its functions, to have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biological diversity in accordance with the Convention.

(2) The Secretary of State, as respects England, and the National Assembly for Wales, as respects Wales, shall each publish a list of, or lists which together comprise, the living organisms and types of habitat which in the opinion of the Secretary of State or the Assembly (as the case may be) are of principal importance for the purpose mentioned in subsection (1).

(3) Without prejudice to subsection (1), it is the duty of a listing authority to take, or to promote the taking by others of, such steps as appear to the authority to be reasonably practicable to further the conservation of the living organisms and types of habitat included in any list published by the authority under this section.

(4) Before publishing the list or lists required by subsection (2) the listing authority shall consult the appropriate conservation body as to the living organisms or types of habitat to be included in the list or lists.

(5) Each listing authority shall, in consultation with the appropriate conservation body—

  1. (a) keep under review any list published by the authority under this section,
  2. (b) make such revisions of any such list as appear to the authority to be appropriate, and
  3. (c) publish any list so revised.

(6) A duty under this section to publish a list is a duty to publish it in such manner as the listing authority thinks fit.

(7) In this section—

"appropriate conservation body" means—

  1. (a) as respects England, English Nature,
  2. (b) as respects Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales;
"biological diversity" has the same meaning as in the Convention;

"conservation" in relation to a living organism or type of habitat, includes the restoration or enhancement of a population or habitat;

"the Convention" means the United Nations Environmental Programme Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992;

"habitat" has the same meaning as in the Convention; "listing authority"—

  1. (a) in relation to a list which the Secretary of State is required to publish under this section, means the Secretary of State;
  2. (b) in relation to a list which the National Assembly for Wales is required to publish under this section, means the National Assembly for Wales.")

Mr. Meacher

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

This is one of those happy occasions when there is a concurrence of views among all parties on the subject of biodiversity. The Lords amendment responds to the concerns expressed in the Standing Committee of this House and repeated in the Lords and by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in the interim report on its investigation into UK biodiversity. There was very strong support for statutory underpinning for the conservation of biodiversity outside designated sites.

The Government are committed to the conservation of biological diversity wherever it occurs. We tabled Lords amendment No. 104 to give new duties to Government Departments and the National Assembly for Wales to have regard to the purpose of biodiversity conservation, in accordance with the convention on biological diversity.

The Lords amendment also requires the Secretary of State and the Assembly to maintain lists of living organisms and habitat types of principal importance for the conservation of biodiversity, and to take steps, and promote others to take steps, to further their conservation. The amendment provides a comprehensive and effective statutory basis for the current partnership approach to the biodiversity action plan, while allowing flexibility for the future. It also encourages the integration of biodiversity conservation into policy across the Government, which is a central element of the convention's provisions.

I thank all those who have been involved in discussion of the issue. I believe that the resolution will be satisfactory to all parties.

Mr. Green

I concur with the Minister that, through all the stages of the Bill, many of us on the Conservative Benches and on other Benches have demanded statutory backing for biodiversity action plans to be part of the Bill.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have argued all along that there are good and bad parts in the Bill, and that its main use will be in improving the protection of wildlife in Britain. That is why we were so much in favour of this measure, and we are delighted that the new clause will appear in the Bill.

Pursuing the line of thought that there are good and bad parts in the Bill, I am sure that the irony will not be lost on the Minister and his colleagues on the Labour Benches that all the good parts were introduced or significantly enhanced in another place. If the Bill had only gone through another place and never touched this House, it would be the ideal wildlife protection Bill.

However, we have what we have before us, and it would be churlish not to welcome the parts in which the Government have taken steps forward, as we requested. I expect that the clause will make a substantial long-term beneficial difference to the preservation and enhancement of wildlife of all kinds in this country, so we welcome it.

Mr. David Heath

I suspect that it is slightly spurious logic to suggest that amendments introducing improvements to the Bill have come about entirely because of what happened at the other end of the building, rather than because of a delayed reaction to arguments advanced in Committee and in the Chamber. However, I welcome what the Government have done in this instance. It is an extremely significant move on their part. The argument was advanced in Committee that there should be statutory underpinning of a biodiversity action plan.

The Government have gone further than that by enshrining the convention on biological diversity in law. That is to be welcomed. It will give a tremendous boost to conservation outside protected sites. It will encourage species recovery programmes and habitat restoration schemes. Congratulations go to the Government on doing what was essential if the Bill was to meet its conservation objectives.

Mr. Llwyd

I add my congratulations to the Government on this important part of the Bill; it was the subject of considerable debate in Committee. I differ from what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said. I am not sure that those in another place were able to get things entirely right. There were some pretty good and persuasive arguments advanced by Opposition Members in Committee. I know that the hon. Gentleman might have been jocular; I too am not without a sense of humour.

It is patently obvious that there is a need for what has been done. In Wales, for example, there are 222 species and habitat action plan areas that are relevant. In other words, there are 222 species and habitats in Wales that are currently endangered. The Countryside Council for Wales is the leading body in the UK on biodiversity, and its contribution is important. I am not sure to whom I am pleading, but that body, like other similar bodies, says that it is extremely underfunded. At present, it is able to work on only 120 of the 222 action plans. Knowing the Minister's sincerity and his interest in these matters, I am sure that I have made the point sufficiently clearly.

I am extremely pleased that the Government have seen fit to introduce proper statutory underpinning. I pay tribute to some of the bodies that lobbied during our earlier consideration of the Bill, particularly the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which was persuasive in its support and the definite need that it saw for the underpinning of the biodiversity action plan. I am pleased that the Government agree with the amendment, having agreed with the other place.

Clause 74 goes slightly further than the RSPB agenda in that, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, it enshrines the convention on biological diversity which was signed at the Rio summit in 1992. It is a substantial breakthrough for the conservation of wildlife outside protected sites. It must be a much needed boost to the implementation of species recovery programmes.

Mr. Forth

I have been in this business long enough to know that one is entitled to a modest degree of suspicion when there is unanimity and mutual self-congratulation, especially among politicians. The present situation is a good example of that. I am made even more suspicious when I see that everything started with something that glories in the name of the United Nations environmental programme convention on biological diversity of 1992.

I can imagine that a well-meaning group of politicians probably got together in an exotic location, and in a spirit of mutual self-congratulation signed up to something that they thought was rather wonderful. They probably trumpeted what had happened on their return, as

politicians are wont to do, and then left others to pick up the pieces and pay the bills. I want to pursue that theme for a few moments.

Mr. Green

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that one of the leading politicians who negotiated the treaty in the exotic location of Rio was our right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).

Mr. Forth

That makes me even more suspicious. Anything that could have persuaded my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) to go as far as he did must have been pretty significant. No wonder my right hon. Friend is not here—which is unusual for him. He would probably be ashamed to account for the result, which I shall now examine in some detail.

It is all very well for well-meaning politicians, including my right hon. Friend, to go off and then return in triumph waving a piece of paper and saying, "Biological diversity in our time." However, the reality of that becomes plain years later when we look in detail at what is required to give effect to the well-meaning aspirations of the politicians who gathered on the occasion in question. In a different context, we have just seen our beloved Deputy Prime Minister try to pick up the pieces of another great moment in international environmental history. To use his own term, he returned "gutted" from an unfortunate disagreement with someone with whom he was supposed to be enjoying an ever closer union. We had better not go into that too closely, but Members will know what I mean.

We are now looking at the detailed provisions that will bring the aspirational convention of 1992 into effect. The reality is that Lords amendment No. 104 starts to put the details of the convention in place, and we hope that it will give effect to its aspirations. According to the amendment, Ministers of the Crown, Departments, and the National Assembly for Wales will, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of their functions, be obliged to conserve

biological diversity in accordance with the Convention. What happened to Northern Ireland? I could ask what happened to Scotland, but I assume that I would be told that the Scottish Parliament will have to give effect to the convention in its own way. I take that as read, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister comment. I can, however, see how the National Assembly for Wales, which has a rather different relationship with the House and the United Kingdom statutes, fits in with the provision. However, there remains in my mind a question about whether Northern Ireland is not mentioned in the amendment by omission. Do we not care about biological diversity in Northern Ireland? I would have thought that we did. I hope that there is not a lacuna in the amendment, and that that matter has not been overlooked or forgotten. Will the Minister reassure me that Northern Ireland is properly catered for and that biological diversity is safe there?

Subsection (2) of the new clause deals with the publication of lists of living organisms and types of habitat which in the opinion of the Secretary of State and the Assembly…are of principal importance for the purpose of giving effect to the convention. We now start to get into the nitty-gritty of the mechanisms whereby effect will be given to the convention's aspirations. To the casual observer, it may appear that it is fairly straightforward to produce a list. Indeed, that is easily achieved. However, have any estimates been made of the scale of the lists and the number that will be required? In principle, that should be easy to estimate. Ministers, Departments and the National Assembly for Wales will be involved, so it should be easy to put a figure on how much is involved in the production of lists of living organisms and types of habitat, the very obligation laid upon them by the amendment.

Subsection (3) of the new clause might impose greater costs. Not only are the lists to be produced, but there is a duty to promote the taking by others of…such steps as appear to the authority to be reasonably practicable to further the conservation. That provision could take us into some interesting territory. The new clause deals not only with the production of the list, but also the promotion effort. Such provision could have extensive organisational, staffing and cost implications, to say nothing of the steps that other bodies would be obliged to take in response to action taken by the listing authority. Another element of cost has appeared, to which an estimate should be attached at this stage.

The new clause goes on to deal with consultation, having already provided for listing and promotion. [Interruption.] The Minister finds that amusing. He would. To him the expenditure of taxpayers' money is nothing—a mere bagatelle. If he thought it appropriate, the words "biological diversity" would be sufficient to spark an orgy of public spending. But a simple question remains. The Minister is the custodian of taxpayers' money as well as an enthusiast for biological diversity.

9.30 pm
Mr. Llwyd

Am I right in thinking that the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that it is worth while to spend taxpayers' money to preserve endangered species?

Mr. Forth

I cannot make a judgment until I know how much money is involved. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for making that point more clearly than I seem to have done. However wonderful biological diversity may be, and however anxious we are about endangered species, it is legitimate for hon. Members—indeed, it is our duty—to take an interest in what is involved in achieving the aims set out by the convention, for which the hon. Gentleman is, no doubt, a keen enthusiast. I do not accept that it is legitimate for Members of Parliament, who are responsible in different ways for the raising of public money through taxation and then its expenditure, to exercise that responsibility without knowing anything of the cost involved.

The new clause imposes on the public bodies duties to create the lists and to persuade others to take appropriate measures. A consultation process, to which reference has been made, is also to occur. In addition, however, subsection (5) of the new clause states: Each listing authority shall, in consultation with the appropriate conservation body— (a) keep under review any list published by the authority

Furthermore, authorities must keep those lists under review and continue to revise them. Those are serious requirements, and I have no doubt that the Minister wants them to be fulfilled responsibly, thoroughly and comprehensively, to ensure that the convention's aims can be properly fulfilled. Thus it is surely reasonable for us to ask what cost is involved. Does the Minister believe that the provisions can be properly and easily effected within existing organisational structures and with existing staff, or that extra expenditure will be necessary? If it is necessary, roughly how much will be needed? It is not right to expect hon. Members to sign up to the provisions blindly and regardless of cost.

I remind hon. Members of what has occurred in the past few days, during which the Government, in the person not only of the Deputy Prime Minister but of the Minister for the Environment, were present in The Hague. They went there following an international beano a few years ago in which everybody cuddled up to each other and expressed warm thoughts about what they wanted to do, but the wheels came off when it came to detailed implementation. The detail caused the difficulties, not the grandiose pronouncements, lavish meetings or mutual self-congratulation to which Ministers are prone. It is such detail that we are considering under amendment No. 104.

My query is whether we, and the Minister, are satisfied that he knows enough about the costs of the staffing and organisational implications of Lords amendment No. 104 to believe that they will be carried out, and whether all the authorities involved have the means and the ability to manage them in a way that will give effect to the convention's aspirations.

Those are the questions that arise in this context. I do not believe that I am making an unreasonable request. Any responsible Government, and any responsible Minister, would already have made all that clear, but the right hon. Gentleman has not yet chosen to share the information with us, although I hope that he is about to do so. Unless we know the costs, we are unable to make a proper judgment—I am trying to answer the spirit of the question that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy asked me a moment ago—about how far we can go, with regard to public expenditure and commitment, to meet the convention's objectives.

That is a very simple point, and I am sure that the Minister will give me a straightforward and, I hope, comprehensive answer; after which we can move on.

Mr. Meacher

In the almost certainly mistaken belief that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is searching for real information and elucidation, I shall answer his questions. First, the Bill will apply not to Northern Ireland and Scotland, but only to England and Wales. Secondly, on the question of cost, the measure will put on a statutory basis what happens already, and will not lead to any increased public expenditure.

Lords amendment agreed to.

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