HL Deb 21 January 1974 vol 348 cc1194-209

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I hope your Lordships will agree that it is right and proper, even in the middle of the very grave troubles in which this country finds itself, that the Legislature should be able to find time to discuss this kind of question. The purpose of this Bill is twofold. It is to protect the diversity and richness of the plant life of this country and to prevent the extinction of certain wild species and their loss to the world, mankind and science.

The main pressure on the plant life in this country is the pressure of land use. In the 18th century there was an enormous richness in the woods, heaths and commons of this country. Gradually the improvement of agriculture, the building of roads, railways, houses, factories, and the digging of mines, have eroded this richness. To take one small example, every year since the war, on the average, 1 per cent. of the hedges of this country have been destroyed. In each mile of those hedgerows there have sometimes been valuable plants.

Many of these things that have led to this change in land use we must all welcome as good in themselves. To take the most obvious example, an agriculture capable of producing a large proportion of what we consume is healthy economically, and (I think we should probably all agree) sociologically as well. The few apostles of a future angelic urban life, where the country will be an adjunct to us all living in towns, the assumption being that this would be in some way helpful, have had a rude shock in recent months. The turning of meadows into leys, the cultivation of more and more land, the planting of more and more forests, not to mention the increasing use of herbicides and the efforts on increasing the efficiency of farming, have all taken their toll.

On top of this comes the thoughtless digging up of plants which are seen to be pretty, and inevitably thereafter the depredations which stem from the knowledge of rarity. It is not all that long since every university botanical department thought itself deprived if it did not have a specimen of every indigenous wild plant. While the behaviour of the scientific professional community is now much more responsible, a small proportion of botanists are still a problem. Indeed, the classic case history of the extinction of a species is diminution through land use, which results in its becoming rare; the rarity then gets to be known and draws collectors; and the collectors then exterminate the plant. The only specimens left are those that are in museums.

The decline of Britain's flora and fauna, evident since the early 19th century, has accelerated very sharply since the Second World War. Frank Perring and Max Walters, writing in Nature, volume 229, in February, 1971, discuss the question of conserving rare plants, and open their remarks with the following statistics: Since botanical recording began in the middle of the 17th century about 20 native plant species are believed to have become extinct in Great Britain. He, Frank Perring, also produced evidence that many more species are in danger of extinction if they are not protected immediately. When the field work for the preparation of the Atlas of British Flora was being carried out by the Botanical Society of the British Isles between 1954 and 1960, a thorough survey was made of the past and present distribution of rare species. In the late 1960s a re-survey of the rarest 300 species was made through the county recorders of the B.S.B.I. A combination of these two surveys showed that before 1900, 44 (17.4 per cent. of the rarest 300) occurred in only one or two 10 kilometre squares of the national grid; by 1930 the number was 59 species (23.3 per cent. of the rarest 300); and by 1960, it was 97 species (38.7 per cent. of the rarest 300).

Thus, about 7 per cent. of the native British flora, of about 1,500 species, may be in danger of extinction, and further species are declining so rapidly that they may shortly be in the same dangerous position. This is particularly true of species of marshes and wet meadows which are subject to drainage. The Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, once known from more than 100 localities, is now known from only 13. The Fen Orchid, Liparis loeselii, once widespread in the Fens of East Anglia, now occurs in only a very few localities in that region and grows mostly in dune-slacks in South Wales. Twelve species are known to have died out since 1900, including the attractive Summer Lady's Tresses orchid, once locally common in the New Forest and killed off by draining and clearance in the 'forties, and the Umbellifer, Hares Ears, last seen in Essex in 1962.

Much effort has been put into halting this trend, largely through the efforts of the Botanical Society of the British Isles to spread an awareness of the problem, and also by the creation of nature reserves, by organisations, and by individuals like the noble Lord, Lord Camoys—I am glad that he will be speaking later in the debate; he created a nature reserve on his land—and by the Nature Conservancy Council to preserve some plants. But the B.S.B.I., the Council for Nature and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves feel that the time is long overdue for legislation; and this Bill, my Lords, I hope is it.

The Bill itself would do three things which must be carefully differentiated. First, it would protect all indigenous wild plants from wilful uprooting or destruction by anyone other than the owner of the land or anyone acting on his or her behalf. This is not a new principle in law; it is the principle that is at the base of a number of by-laws which various local authorities have adopted. I should like to make it clear that this Bill does not prevent the owner of the land or his agents dealing as seems best to them with the plants on their own land.

Secondly, the Bill prevents the picking of wild flowers for sale by persons other than the owner and his agents. Many of your Lordships, I know, will be aware of the gradual elimination from the woods of primroses, daffodils and bluebells which were prevalent in our youths. Now it takes a trip to the West Country to see what used to be very common in the Home Counties. Much of this has been effected, not by change of land use or digging, but by ruthless picking for the market which, it would seem by a glance could diminish the population, often without the pickers realising that it has this effect.

What the Bill does not do is to prevent the ordinary people from picking wild flowers for their own pleasure. Here it is in line, I believe, with the provisions of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, and the discussion held on that Bill in your Lordships' House. Neither does it stop landowners selling wild flowers off their own land. In some of these cases your Lordships may feel that the Bill is in fact too lax; but it has quite definitely been our intention in drafting this Bill that we should get to the root of the problem without affecting civil liberties more than necessary, and without creating more offences than we can possibly avoid.

Thirdly, the Bill names 20 species in danger of extinction, while giving the Secretary of State power to add to them, and it protects these from wilful picking, uprooting and destruction by anyone, including the landowner, except "as an incidental result which could not have been avoided of any operation which is lawful," such as normal cultivation.

These are the three measures which are essential for the greater protection of wild plants, and they are very mild. No one is prevented from picking any save the 20 rarest wild plants. No one is prevented from doing what he likes with the wild flowers on his own land, except the 20 rarest plants, and even then he can, alas!, destroy them if he needs to in the cause of agriculture. Everyone is protected by the word "wilfully" from an offence committed by mistake.

I now turn briefly to the clauses. The first three clauses, which go to the heart of the Bill, I have already explained in my analysis of the three main effects of this Bill. Clause 4 enables the Secretary of State to license the picking or uprooting of plants for educational and scientific purposes—a provision which it is envisaged will be used very sparingly and only after consultation with the Nature Conservancy Council. Clauses 5 and 6 deal with the measures for the arrest and punishment of guilty persons, and are closely modelled on similar measures approved by your Lordships recently in the Protection of Badgers Act. Clause 7 provides for setting up Councils to advise the Secretary of State and making recommendations to him on matters affecting wild plants; and in my mind this is the heart of the whole Bill. By creating this machinery of advisers to the Secretary of State we shall, even if this in itself is a mild Bill, be setting in motion a machinery which will be able to look after the wild botanical life of this country. Clause 8 enables local authorities to educate the public and to institute proceedings. Clause 9 provides machinery for the making of an Order adding to the list of scheduled plants, and gives opportunity for representations against such an Order.

It is important that in regard to this Bill, contrary to a previous Bill introduced in another place, we have kept the Schedule down to the bare minimum of plants, feeling it was important to write in just the strongest preservationist clauses for the smallest number of plants. Of course, if your Lordships can make out a case for additions during the course of the Committee stage (if we reach a Committee stage, if your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading, as I hope you will) those additions can be considered. But we have built into this Bill ability for the Secretary of State to add to this list on the advice of these Councils.

Clause 10 deals with definitions. If your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading, I intend to move an Amendment inserting the Common Council of the City of London in the definition of "local authority". Apart from the fact that many wild plants still lurk in the City, there is of course much marketing therein. I hope also that on Committee stage we might look at the whole question of whether we confine this Bill to indigenous wild plants or cover all wild plants. This is not a question I need go into at Second Reading, but it is an interesting one and my inclination would be to strike out the word "indigenous" in the definition. But we can leave that point to the Committee stage. Clause 12 excludes Northern Ireland.

My Lords, we are in the middle of a long process of trying to preserve our environment. We have passed Bills protecting birds, seals, deer and badgers. Now is the time for plants. It may be that the time is getting near when we need a general conservation Bill. But I think that would have to be a Government Bill. Meantime, these individual Bills cover not only the individual fields as they come along but bring the general Bill nearer in the sense that, the more it is a Consolidation Bill, and the more there are these individual Bills to take up into it, the more likely will a Government in the future be able to give time to it, This Bill is closely modelled on other Acts that have passed your Lordships' House. It performs a valuable, not to say a vital, function in the preservation of our wild life. Before I sit down I should like to express the depth of gratitude which I owe to Mr. Peter Mills, who was my predecessor in putting this measure forward in another place; for the enormous help I have had from the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, and from Tim Sands of the Council of Nature, and the officers of the botanical and nature conservation bodies concerned. I repeat that this Bill forms a valuable and an essential function in the preservation of our wild life. I commend it to your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Beaumont of Whitley.)

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, it may be helpful to the House if I intervene in the debate at this point to say a few words generally about the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and about the Government's attitude towards it. I am sure we are all very grateful to Lord Beaumont for providing an opportunity to discuss this interesting subject. The Government welcome the opportunity of hearing your Lordships' views on the important matter of the proper conservation and management of our native flora. I think we all share the desire to conserve the beauty of the countryside, of which wild flowers form such an important part. Her Majesty's Government are well aware of the long-standing feeling which has been held in some quarters that our flora needs protection through legislation. My task to-day is to give, in as objective a manner as possible, an account of the general problem as we see it and then to explain the Government's attitude to this Bill.

The British flora has been studied over a very long period and surveys in recent times have confirmed that there has been a substantial decline in the populations of rare species in Britain and a major reduction in the abundance of several widespread and attractive species. Detailed examination of the distribution records of nearly 200 of the rarest species of British flowering plants and ferns (about 10 per cent. of the British total) revealed that only nine species appeared to be increasing, while 80 were declining and 14 had become extinct in about the last 150 years. Additional evidence suggests that a number of the less rare species are showing a comparable decline. It is clear that there has also been a major reduction in the abundance of several widespread and attractive species, such as the primrose and wild daffodil, which were formerly abundant in many parts of the country but have now become extinct or very rare in certain localities as a result of picking or uprooting. I am informed that, for example, as the result of over-picking, and doubtless some digging of roots for gardens, there are virtually no longer primroses in the former Middlesex area. A similar situation is to be found around many large centres of population. These and other species, besides having scientific importance, add greatly to the attraction and beauty of the countryside and any decline in them must concern us. Such declines are primarily attributable to loss of suitable habitats—both from natural causes and through man's activities, collecting for scientific, educational and commercial purposes and the uprooting of attractive plants by the general public.

It is against this general background, my Lords, that the first Bill to give protection to plants was prepared by the Wild Plants Conservation Board (then an integral part of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, as it was then called) in the 1930s. However, it was not supported in Parliament. It was widely thought that much could be done to protect our flora through education and publicity and through protective local authority bylaws. It was not until the end of 1967 that another Wild Plants Protection Bill, sponsored by the Botanical Society of the British Isles, the Council for Nature and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, was introduced into Parliament, but it too failed to make progress. In view of the continuing concern, the Nature Conservancy, then a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council, set up a Working Party in 1968 to study all aspects of the conservation of wild plants. In the light of their findings and after further detailed consideration, the Nature Conservancy and subsequently the Natural Environment Research Council concluded, late in 1971, that legislation for the protection of wild plants was, in principle, desirable but that the form of such legislation required careful consideration.

As your Lordships will know, the new Nature Conservancy Council came into being only last November and so early in its existence has not been able to give detailed consideration to every facet of this Bill. The Council has nevertheless advised me of its strong support for the Bill in principle. But the noble Lord's Bill casts the net very wide and clearly would cause serious practical difficulties. Clause 1 would make it an offence to uproot any wild plant or to sell any wild plant which had been either picked or uprooted. As I have indicated, the Government have considerable sympathy with the objectives of this clause which is aimed at safeguarding common but well-loved wild plants. But there are serious objections to a clause which seeks to embrace every wild plant. We are advised that there is not even an entirely satisfactory definition of "wild plant". I am assured that the one given in the Interpretation Clause, Clause 11, will not do, and it appears that a definition would need to be backed by a definitive list. In any case, I believe that there are over 2,000 species of plants in Britain and the term "plants" includes not only flowering plants but ferns and their allies, mosses, liverworts, lichens, algae and fungi. Some of your Lordships may have in mind in this context that we already have legislation to protect birds, but precise definition is a far more complex matter for plants than for birds. We are advised that Clause 1(b) raises the additional problem that in some cases cultivated plants cannot be distinguished from wild varieties of plants. One must foresee the difficult position that the provision would therefore create for traders in cultivated plants.

Clause 1 is also open to the objection that it would be almost totally unenforceable. I am aware that some legislation, particularly that for the protection of wildlife, poses enforcement problems and I appreciate that legislative sanctions, even though not fully enforceable, may encourage more responsible attitudes. But I think whether they will do so depends on the extent to which the general public are likely to find the provisions sensible and so be willing to abide by them voluntarily. In our view the public are not likely to think it reasonable that a person could inadvertently be exposed to prosecution for a wide range of innocent activities. Where provisions are ill-defined, anomalous and unenforceable, we risk bringing the law into disrepute. Your Lordships may also feel that because of the heavy burdens carried by the police at the moment public opinion may, with reason, be particularly unsympathetic to the creation of new offences which are not always intelligible and could be thought to be minor.

Clause 1, therefore, as it stands is un- acceptable to the Government, but the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, may wish to consider whether more limited objectives could be achieved by means which might overcome the difficulties I have mentioned. It is not for me to say how these objectives might be pursued, but it seems to me that the noble Lord might with benefit seek to concentrate on the line adopted in Clause 2 where an attempt is made to specify in a Schedule those plants to be protected. I cannot, of course, promise acceptance of Amendments on those lines, but I can say that we should examine sympathetically any alternatives which the noble Lord might wish to suggest. From what I have just said it will be apparent that we regard the kind of approach to the problem taken in Clause 2 as much more appropriate. Clause 2 makes it an offence to pick, uproot or destroy any rare plant specified in the Schedule. I am advised that this is pretty much the right list of rare plants needing protection, but in any case this is a matter that could be looked at more closely at a later stage.

I do not propose to detain the House by setting out all the Government's detailed objections to the noble Lord's Bill, but if a measure along these lines were thought to be desirable the present Bill would need fairly substantial Amendment and a good deal of tidying up. A serious deficiency, and one which makes the Bill in its present form unacceptable to Her Majesty's Government, is that it does not provide adequate exemptions for necessary agricultural operations and other legitimate and essential activities by a wide variety of authorities. From the point of view of the general agricultural interest, if the definition of "authorised person" in Clause 11 were widened and applied to Clause 2 it would be just about sufficient to protect the farmer who destroys a plant in the course of normal agricultural operations, but it would also be necessary to make uprooting and so on legal in these circumstances and not merely to provide a defence. Moreover, the Bill would also need to be amended either by extension of the definition of "authorised person" in Clause 11 or by other means to ensure that it did not impede the work of, for example, river and water authorities, land drainage authorities and persons carrying out duties under Acts relating to such matters as, for example, plant health control which requires diseased plants to be destroyed. A wide range of statutory undertakers' functions could clearly be affected.

Clause 4 would permit the Secretary of State to license the picking or uprooting of wild plants for scientific or educational purposes, but it would probably be more appropriate for any necessary licences to be granted by the Nature Conservancy Council. Under Clause 5 as drafted there would be a risk of a breach of the law relating to agricultural holdings if the requirement for an offender to "quit such land" were held to be capable of terminating a landlord/tenant relationship in respect of that land. The penalty and forfeiture provisions in Clause 6 are not altogether satisfactory as they stand. As regards Clause 7, we should expect the Nature Conservancy Council, rather than the external Advisory Committees proposed, to be the source of advice to the Secretary of State. The Council have their own statutory territorial committees to advise them. Consideration of Clause 8 conferring powers on local authorities would, of course, require consultation with the local authority associations, and the reference to "local authority" in Clause 10 would need to take account of the differences in Scottish legislation, since in Scotland local authorities do not have powers to institute criminal proceedings.

I hope that the noble Lord will consider these general comments to have been made in a helpful spirit, as is certainly the intention behind them. They may sound critical but, as I have already made plain, the attitude of the Government is one of sympathy to the objective of protecting wild plants. If, after to-day's debate, your Lordships decide to give the Bill a Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, may wish to look again at its provisions in the light of the comments that I and other speakers in the debate have made.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, it is a trite opening in a speech to compliment the mover of the Motion, and to say how much one welcomes this proposal, but on this occasion I am deeply moved by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and by the Bill which he has put forward. It gives us an opportunity of doing something which ought to have been done years ago. All of your Lordships in this House have witnessed a number of small but valuable Bills conferring protection here and there. But possibly the greatest of all our heritages in this country is our floral heritage, and when one listens to the noble Baroness replying for the Government, and hears how over these last years some of out most lovely species have been allowed to disappear while people have been fumbling with the legislative process, it makes one quite ashamed.

I myself feel ashamed, having devoted some 40 years of my life to the protection of rural England, that over all these years we have done so little along the lines of this Bill. I feel this both as an Englishman and as a member of your Lordships' House who has given so much of his time to these particular matters. I did not realise how rapidly these lovely plants are disappearing from our countryside. During my lifetime, of these 300 most rare species to which the noble Lord has referred a very appreciable fraction has disappeared from our countryside. I hope that this Bill will be passed and that, at any rate during the short span of life which is now left to me, there will be no further disappearance of these beautiful plants from the English countryside.

The noble Lord has drawn attention to what seems to me to be a very great danger, of which the population as a whole has been just as ignorant as I have myself, and for which the population as a whole ought to feel equally ashamed. So I hope the noble Lord and your Lordships gathering round him this afternoon will insist that this Bill is given a Second Reading. I can quite see that there are a number of matters that will have to be put right: the noble Baroness has set them out very clearly. I did not feel that some of them were particularly serious but others, obviously, need to be dealt with. However, the Committee stages in this House and in the other place exist for the purpose of enabling matters of this kind to be put right, so I sincerely hope that your Lordships will see to it that this Bill receives its Second Reading this afternoon.

From time to time in the past we have had specific problems in regard to the protection of plant life brought both before the public and before Parliament, The noble Baroness referred to some very important examples of plants which are disappearing, and the enthusiasm of botanists and collectors from time to time has been an important cause of these disappearances. The spring gentian—gentiana verna—one of the most lovely of all the little plants which are native to this country is found only in a very small area in the Yorkshire hills. Every now and then some enterprising journalist draws attention to the fact that it can be seen. The following Sunday in that particular valley hordes of motorists arrive with their forks and trowels, not because they want to make the little gentiana verna an extinct species but because they want to dig it out, take it back home and put it in their gardens. Anybody who has tried this knows perfectly well that there is not one chance in a hundred, or indeed in a thousand, of the wretched little plant surviving for more than a very short time.

We had a Bill before us involving the conferring of powers on Imperial Chemical Industries, Limited, to make a reservoir in another Yorkshire valley at Cow Green, which involved very great danger—possibly not of extinction but at any rate of substantially diminishing a number of other rare species. Some effort was made to provide protective clauses in that Bill, although it certainly did not satisfy me, or indeed many other people. That is an example of the sort of thing that happens. I hope that this Bill will bring this problem home to the public and will make them realise what they have been losing and what they are in danger of losing in this way.

There is no country in the world to which the appeal of the wild plant is stronger and which is more built in, so to speak, to our appreciation of Nature. Almost every Englishman wants to get out into the countryside. Very few people realise the treasures that live there, and unfortunately a large number of them are so ignorant that they carry death and destruction with them. I hope that publicity will be given to this Bill, and that there will be an appreciation of its subject matter so that the dangers which confront us will come home to the people of England.

It is an extraordinary fact that, while so much of our poetry has evolved around these lovely little flowers, we should be almost the last civilised country in the world to be proposing to take any steps to give them protection. Every one of your Lordships will have seen, when visiting foreign countries—Switzerland, the Austrian Tyrol; I need not mention all the countries which have this legislation—the long lists of flowers which are put up in the front halls of all the hotels. Under peine d'amende you are forbidden to take them away or to dig them up, and this legislation has worked, because while many of these plants have been in danger over all these years you will find them in the meadows and on the Alpine slopes still growing, and, as it would appear, in plentiful supply. I hope that this scandalous position which our England has had in, so to speak, this league table—right at the very bottom—will soon be put right.

As I have already indicated, I think that the English people should be particularly sensitive to the importance of their floral heritage. What have flowers meant to the English? If you go to the Chelsea Flower Show, if you go to Vincent Square every fortnight, you will see not wild flowers but flowers which have developed out of wild flowers; but for the wild flowers they would not be displayed there and our gardens in the summer would not be the lovely sights that they are. Plants have meant a very great deal to the English people, to the English way of life and to our culture. One important aspect of this I have already mentioned; namely, what flowers have meant to our poets. Obviously, our greatest poets have been as much moved by the charming little flowers in our countryside as by almost anything else, and that has meant a great deal.

The inspiration to our people of our great poets—Shakespeare, Wordsworth and the others—cannot be measured. It certainly cannot be measured in money. It cannot really be measured in words. What would Wordsworth's poetry be without the flowers? There was Wordsworth seeing the daffodils "by the lakeside under the trees fluttering and danc- in the breeze". He saw "the primrose by the river's brim", to which the noble Baroness has referred, that lovely little plant, which, as she told us, is now disappearing from quite wide areas of our countryside. What a shameful thing to have to say. The primrose struck the imagination of one of the most imaginative of all the Prime Ministers this country has produced, Benjamin Disraeli—and indeed the league which was founded in his memory to further his work was called the Primrose League, for that very reason. So I ask my noble friends opposite—because I am sure that they are my friends so far as this Bill is concerned—to bear this in mind and to insist that this Bill should have a Second Reading. The fritillary has been referred to, and those of your Lordships who love the lines of Matthew Arnold will remember how he found "tracking the shy Thames shore" the fritillary; what a lovely plant it is! To feel that it is disappearing makes one very sad indeed.

My Lords, I think that I have said enough to underline the importance which these wild flowers have had in our botanic history and general outlook on life, bringing us recreation and joy when we visit the countryside. This is not only a matter of aesthetics, and so on. Our best medicines have come to us in this way. We have been told to-day of the work done by the Botanical Societies. The Director of the Botanical Society in Cambridge has been one of the great protagonists of this Bill. The botanical societies, or very many of them, sprang out of the herb gardens which grew up in the Middle Ages for the purpose of producing medicinal herbs. They were the medicines of those days, and they form still an important basis for the medicines of our own time. It is rather regrettable that until the Medicines Bill, to the consideration of which your Lordships gave a great deal of time only a few years ago, reached this House, the position of the medical herbalist right from the time of the ancient Greek medical man had depended so much on these humble herbs which had been completely forgotten.

It was in your Lordships' House that the necessary clauses were written into the Bill to protect medical herbalism. Some of the herbs and many of the flowers, like the foxglove, are still an important source of some of our most valuable medicines. Without this Bill, or something like it, they are left unprotected. Of course they would be produced specifically for the purpose, but it is still possible that some of these plants contain within them specifics which are not yet known. It is within the memory of almost every one of your Lordships how the old wives' remedy, which I believe Fleming noticed being used in the Wiltshire cottages, was the origin of Penicillin. This has saved so many thousands of lives since it was discovered only a few years ago. It may well be that some of these plants, which this afternoon we are hoping to start protecting, may have within them other qualities of that kind. It may be that a historian of medicine will look back and say, "How well it was that this Bill was passed through Parliament in the year 1974, without it such and such a plant might have disappeared forever from England, and its specific never discovered."

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it is important to give the Bill its Second Reading. If there are blemishes, as I have no doubt that there are—and most of them the noble Baroness has pointed out already—we can spend some time in removing them in the Committee stage. So I join with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, in commending the Bill to your Lordships' House.