HL Deb 21 November 1974 vol 354 cc1180-204

6.11 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This, too, is a repeat performance. In January your Lordships gave the Bill an unopposed Second Reading and it, too, was "killed off" by the February Election. I did not introduce it again in the intervening Parliament because we have spent the intervening time very usefully improving the Bill. I owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her initiative in this matter. I am delighted that she is to speak to-day, I owe gratitude also to a large number of people in the relevant Ministries who have improved the Bill. I hope that in the course of this evening I shall be able also to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who has taken such an enormous interest in the Bill, is not able to be here, or indeed, to move the Bill following this Bill, the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, will be moving that Bill for him.

Some noble Lords may know that it is quite possible that these two Bills, perhaps in composite form, may be introduced into another place. If this should be so we and the whole conservation world would be most grateful to any Member of Parliament who would undertake that task. But meantime, what may happen in another place is not necessarily to be forecast in advance, and I think it is right to go ahead with the Second Reading of this Bill.

My Lords, the main pressure on the plant life of this country is the pressure of land use. Since the 18th century, when there was such enormous richness in our land, improvement of agriculture, urbanisation and all sorts of things have put a lot of pressure on land use, and have destroyed a large number of our plants. To take one small example, every year since the last war, 1 per cent. of the hedges of this country have been destroyed. In those hedges were many plants, and some were very rare. Of course, in itself much of this is very healthy. We all want to see a healthy and economically viable agricultural industry. The turning of meadows into leas, the cultivation of more and more land, the planting of more forests and the increasing use of herbicides and their effect on increasing efficiency of farming have, at one and the same time, increased our food supply while taking their toll of our wild life.

On top of this, comes the thoughtless digging up of plants seen to be pretty and, inevitably thereafter, the depradations which stem from the knowledge of the rarity of the plants. It is not all that long ago 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 a great deal more responsible, a small number of botanists still cause a problem. The classic case history of the extinction of a species of wild flower is diminution through land use, a fault which results in its becoming rare, the rarity is then written up and becomes known, and draws collectors, who exterminate the plant. The only specimens then left are those in museums.

The decline of Britain's flora and fauna, evidenced since the early 19th century, has accelerated sharply since the Second World War. Frank Perring and Max Walters, writing in Nature in 1971, discussed the question of conserving rare plants, and opened 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. Frank Perring also produced evidence that many more species are in danger of extinction if 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 BSBI. A com- bination of these two surveys showed that before 1900, 44 plants, 17 per cent. of the rarest 300, occurred in only one or two 10-kilometre squares of the national grid. By 1930, the number occurring in so few areas was 59 species, 23 per cent., and by 1970, 97 species, or 38 per cent. of the rarest 300. Thus, about 7 per cent. of the native British flora, or about 1,500 species, may be in danger of extinction. Other species are declining so rapidly that they may shortly be in the same dangerous position. This is particularly true of the species growing in marshes and wet meadows which are subject to drainage. The fritillary, Fritillaria Meliagris, once known in more than 100 localities, is now known in only 13. The Fen orchid, Liparis Lowesli, was once widespread in the Fens of East Anglia, but now occurs in only very few localities in that region. The 12 species which are known to have died out since 1900 include the attractive Summer Ladies Tresses Orchid, once locally common in the New Forest and killed by drainage and clearance in the 1940s.

My Lords, much effort has been put into halting this trend, largely through the efforts of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, by spreading awareness of the problem, creating of nature reserves by organisations and individuals, and by the great work of the Nature Conservancy. But the BSBI, the Council for Nature and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves have felt for some time that the time is overdue for legislation. This is the legislation.

My Lords, I now come briefly to the clauses of the Bill, since I think they are fairly simple. Clause 1 of the Bill protects all plants growing wild from wilful uprooting or destruction by anyone other than the owner of the land, or people acting on his behalf. Since the last time I had the honour to introduce this Bill in your Lordships' House, the definition has been extended from "wild plants" to "plants growing wild". This is a much more inclusive, and I believe a more satisfactory concept, and one which would now include certain plants which are not technically indigenous to this country. For instance, there is a particular wild tulip, I think imported by those dangerous immigrant innovators, the Romans, which might not have been covered by the previous Bill, but now, without doubt, is.

Clause 2 forbids the wilful picking, uprooting and destruction of the 20 rarest plants. I have deposited an illustrated guide to these plants in the Library of both Houses. They are to be protected as much as possible. Unfortunately, we have not felt able to go to the ultimate extreme. The landowner can still destroy these plants in the normal agricultural processes, as your Lordships will see in Clause 2, the only exception being that on a designated site of scientific interest where the landowner has been informed by the Nature Conservancy Council that he has a certain plant on his land he is under an obligation to give notice of any work which could destroy it. It does not, unfortunately, in my view, remove the landowner's right to conduct the necessary agricultural operations at the end of the day, even at the risk of destroying the plant, but it does give time for the case to be put to him, for some compensation to be offered to him, if necessary, and in the last resort, at least, the chance of trying to move the plant to a new habitat, unsatisfactory though that is as a rule.

The number of plants on which we wish to put this extreme protection, or not so extreme protection, has been kept to a bare minimum. We think that the right principle is not to spread the protection too far. Of course, we will look sympathetically at any addition proposed by any noble Lord. Nevertheless, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and other sponsoring bodies have very carefully looked at the qualifications of the plants which appear in the Schedule to this Bill, and are satisfied that the really important cases are covered. And, of course, the list can be altered afterwards under Clause 3, which gives the Secretary of State power to add to or subtract from it, either nationally or by area.

Clause 4 allows the necessary exceptions to the Bill for scientific purposes, and puts control of this in the able hands of the Nature Conservancy Council. Clauses 5 and 6 deal with enforcement and penalties and are modelled very closely on similar provisions in the Badgers Act and other wild life protection Acts which have already passed scrutiny in both House of Parliament. Clause 7 makes it the duty of the Nature Conservancy Council to provide the Secretary of State with advice on these matters. Clause 8 is one of the most important clauses in the Bill, with its intention to encourage local authorities to educate the public, particularly children, in these matters of conservation. Clause 9 makes orders under this Bill subject to the Negative Resolution procedure. Clause 10 deals with definitions. I must apologise once again to the Corporation of the City of London for omitting them, and assure them that I will put down an Amendment in Committee. Clause 11 deals with the short Title, extent and commencement.

These are measures which many of us believe, and which a great many botanists believe, are essential for the greater protection of wild plants, and they are very mild. No-one is prevented from picking any save the 20 very rarest wild plants occurring in very few places in this country. Everybody is protected by the word "wilfully" from an offence committed by mistake. No-one is prevented from doing what he likes with the wild flowers on his own land, except the 20 rarest species, and even then he can, alas, destroy them if he needs to do so in the course of agriculture.

We are in the middle of a long process of trying to preserve our environment. We have passed Bills through your Lordships' House and through another place protecting birds, seals, deer and badgers. Now is the time for plants. In an hour or so it will be the time, we hope, for more mammals. It may be that the time is coming when we shall need a general conservation Bill, and I know that there are many people who feel that this would be the time for that. But I feel that it will probably have to be a Government Bill and, if I may use what is probably an unconservation-like simile, I would rather have a bird in the hand than two in the bush, particularly since this afternoon we have already seen another Bill about the National Theatre.

I have just been reading some diaries which I am editing, in which James Agate was asking in 1935 whether or not it would be better in the end to settle for something rather than wait for a National Theatre, which may take a very long time. Well, my Lords, sooner or later it all happens, but I think it is right to go ahead now with these Bills for the preservation of these specific plants and animals. I do not think it will put back the progress of a bigger, more consolidating Bill. Indeed I feel that the more individual Bills we have, the easier it will be for a Government sponsored Bill to enclose them and bring them all up to date. I commend this very small but useful measure for the conservation of the wild life of our country to your Lordships' House. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, I thought it might be helpful if I intervened at this stage of the debate in order to give an indication of the Government's attitude to this Bill. I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for introducing this Bill for a second time and for again explaining its aims so clearly. This afternoon we are taking the Second Readings of two Bills dealing with different aspects of the preservation of our countryside. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, would make it possible for our endangered plants to be protected and, next on the Order Paper, the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill seeks to give protection to our endangered animals.

At the risk of being out of order at the start of my first speech from this position in your Lordships' House, I should like to preface my remarks on Lord Beaumont's Bill with a few words about the conservation of British wild life in general, with which both Bills are concerned. I am not so out of order as I might be, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has said, these two Bills are to be amalgamated. I understand that the Member in another place who has drawn first place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills is planning to introduce the amalgamated version. There are no strong legal or technical objections to amalgamation. This could improve the presentation and reduce the number of subsidiary clauses. But plants and animals give rise to different legal problems and would have to be kept separate in the main clauses. The Government would be quite happy if the Bills were to be amalgamated, subject, of course, to the various points which I will be raising on the two separate Bills to-day.

My Lords, I am not an enthusiast for preservation merely for the sake of keeping things as they are now. Indeed, I do not believe that this is either possible or desirable. As a farmer I am conscious of how much the animal and plant life of our small island is being continuously changed by the changing patterns of agricultural production. Of course, human beings have been changing our "natural" countryside since we arrived on the scene, and I think many changes have been for the better. The planting of all our hedges and hedgerow trees at the time of enclosure, and before and since, created an "artificial" countryside that we are now grateful for and are anxious to preserve. Some of the species that man has introduced here artificially—for example, the pheasant which was introduced by the Romans—would be sorely missed for many reasons if they disappeared.

However, I think everyone is agreed that the rate of change, and so, unfortunately, often the rate of destruction of native plants and animals has increased over recent years, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has said. Nowadays we do things on a far larger scale than we did in the past. This is as true of farming as it is of the building of roads, homes, offices or factories; as true of new agricultural drainage schemes or the removal of hedges as it is of oil drilling or the creation of new reservoirs.

I must say that, for me, one of the least attractive aspects of the economics of size and mass production is that it tends to lead to uniformity, whether it is prairie farming, vast blocks of high-rise flats, vast blocks of conifers, or merely a farmer tidying up an odd piece of scrub or draining an odd wet patch. And it seems to me that it is this increasing uniformity of the world in which we live that these two Bills could do a great deal to counteract.

Blocks of flats and blocks of conifers will come down in time, but once we lose a wild plant it has, of course, gone forever. My Lords, I am quite sure that I have talked in general terms for far too long. I would only add that the Government warmly support the aims of conservation in general, and are prepared to support the general aims of these two Bills.

Legislation cannot prevent continuing change, but to the extent that some species are endangered by human activities it has a role to play. As I see it, the Bills before us should primarily fill an educative function, pointing out and emphasising to the public the need to treasure our natural inheritance and the consequences of careless or thoughtless actions. I have no doubt that the supporters of these Bills are planning to supplement them with suitable publicity drives; indeed, considerable work along these lines is already being done. But, my Lords, the Government accept that publicity drives on their own are unlikely to halt the present decline, or to save certain species from extinction.

It is the Government's view that while only a small number of prosecutions are likely to result from these measures, the educative value of legislation, and to a lesser extent of any resulting prosecutions, would have the effect, in the short term, of conserving our most endangered species, and, in the longer term, of changing people's attitudes. At the same time, enforcement is bound to be a problem and it is not easy to strike a balance between the aim of effective enforcement and the need to avoid unduly infringing the civil liberties of the individual. In concluding my general remarks, I am happy to be able to say that these two Bills appear to plug the main gaps in existing legislation protecting our native endangered species.

I turn now to the Wild Plants Protection Bill in particular. Before briefly going through the various clauses of the Bill, I should like to deal with the one area of political controversy. Noble Lords will know that the Bill as drafted would prevent the uprooting of that highly endangered species, the Blue Heath, which is listed in the Schedule to the Bill. It may be thought that this is an attempt to interfere with the democratic rights that may, I understand, shortly be exercised by noble Lords opposite. I am happy to be able to tell your Lordships that this is not so. According to the reference book that I have consulted, the Blue Heath is more commonly known as the Scottish Menziesia, and it occurs only on a moor in Perthshire. So, if anything, it is another ex-Conservative Prime Minister that this Bill seeks to preserve.

I am happy to say that since the Bill was last debated in this House fruitful discussions have continued between the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and his advisers and Government officials. As a result, many of the very real obstacles pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, at the last Second Reading, have been dealt with in as satisfactory a way as the nature of the exercise allows. I note that the clause aiming to prevent the sale of wild plants, which threw up so many complications, has gone; I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will be well advised to rely on the provision against picking for sale in the Theft Act 1968.

The earlier omission of adequate exemptions for farmers and for statutory undertakers such as water authorities has now been largely made good. The main drawback that remains is that some of the definitions, notably those of "uproot" and "plant", are still very wide. It is of course notoriously difficult to draw hard and fast lines where nature is concerned. I know that many hours have been spent in trying to improve on the text that we have before us. It may be that it cannot be improved. The problems that arise may be theoretical rather than practical, but we must recognise that much will be left to the discretion of the courts.

One thing we must ensure is that ramblers and other members of the general public are free to enjoy wild flowers, and are circumscribed by the law as little as possible. Under this Bill anyone may pick any wild flowers unless they belong to one of the rare protected species—and there are only 140 or so localities in Britain where the 20 protected wild flowers in the Schedule to the Bill could be found. And even then anyone picking a protected plant by mistake should have a defence if he had genuinely confused the species with another. Here I should like to suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that the phrase, "without reasonable excuse" might be considered, in Clauses 1 and 2, instead of "wilfully". I am advised that the courts have, on occasion, held that "wilfully" meant only that an action had to be undertaken voluntarily, and, with that in mind, "without reasonable excuse" might be preferable.

The use of this phrase in Clause 2(2) might make the inclusion of the words, "knowing it to be a protected plant", unnecessary. The uprooting, as opposed to picking, of wild plants would not be allowed under the Bill. It is unfortunate that the definition of "plant" is still so wide that it includes many plants, and even weeds, where uprooting would do no harm at all. But this is not the major infringement of liberty that it might at first sight appear to be. Uprooting is already an offence under both the Theft Act 1968 and the Criminal Damage Act 1971, even though prosecutions under these measures would be unlikely except in extreme cases. And, on a more down to earth note, uprooting is hard work! Unless the soil has been cultivated most plants break off when pulled, so for uprooting one would usually need an implement like a spade or trowel. So I, at least, am prepared to accept that these provisions will not curtail ordinary enjoyment more than the very minimum necessary to protect our wild plants.

I assume that the purpose of Clause 2(2)(a) is to protect farmers while undertaking their normal operations, but to avoid giving blanket exemption for unnecessary damage. But in the absence of a definition of the term "good husbandry" which is used in the clause, the courts would probably look to the Agriculture Act 1947, where the phrase "good husbandry" is used to denote efficiency and a standard of management, concepts which are not really applicable in this Bill. I should have thought the phrase already in Clause 2(2), "which could not reasonably have been avoided", would provide sufficient cover against reckless or unnecessary damage by farmers. The noble Lord might like to consider deleting the reference to "good husbandry", and the remaining part of Clause 2(2)(a) could then with advantage be redrafted along the lines of "any operation in connection with agriculture, horticulture or forestry".

The provision in the latter part of Clause 2(2) requiring owners and occupiers to give 28 days' notice before destroying protected plants on sites of special scientific interest is a new concept that goes well beyond the existing voluntary arrangements and raises considerable implications for the Nature Conservancy Council. As your Lordships will know, these sites of special scientific interest are declared under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, but the only legal effect of this at present is that the local planning authority must then consult the Council before giving permission for development. I fully appreciate the reasons for wanting this provision included. But I know that the Council are engaged in a fundamental review of their policies on these sites and I must reserve the Government's position on this until we have had an opportunity for further discussions. I hope, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will be prepared to discuss this idea with us to see whether something satisfactory to the Council and the noble Lord can be worked out.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, might care to consider three more points. I appreciate that the powers of the police to stop and search suspects and vehicles in Clause 6 are based on those conferred by the Protection of Birds Act 1967 and the Badgers Act, but I think we shall want to examine this a little more closely at a later stage. As drafted, Clause 6 goes further than those two Acts, and it might be more acceptable if, for example, the provision that "a police officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting that evidence of the commission of the offence is to be found on the person or in the vehicle" were added. Secondly, the Nature Conservancy Council are already required by their Act of 1973 to advise the Secretary of State on all matters affecting nature conservation, so Clause 7 appears to be an unnecessary duplication. And, lastly, the consultations with local authorities and others before making an Order may not need to be as complicated as the arrangements proposed in Clause 9.

My Lords, I am afraid that Government speeches on the Second Readings of non-Government Bills often tend to sound like a long catalogue of "ifs", "buts", and other reservations. So in conclusion it is my pleasure to confirm that the Government are prepared to support this Bill in principle. There is a long history of attempts to legislate adequately for the protection of plants, and in my opinion this is much the best effort to date. I have raised a number of matters which appear to need attention, but if your Lordships decide to give the Bill a Second Reading I am sure we can work together to find satisfactory solutions. May I say that I am particularly pleased to have been able to make my first speech from this Bench on this subject, not only because I have been allowed to start off gently on a politically uncontroversial Bill—Blue Heath aside—but also because I have been able to give the Government's support in principle to a Bill that I feel sure is supported by everybody in your Lordships' House.

6.41 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, on his first speech from the Dispatch Box and to wish him well in the new responsibilities that he has taken up. I am sure we all agree that he spoke with great clarity and I, too, am delighted to be speaking to him now on a politically non-controversial subject, as in the past we have usually exchanged our remarks in the more heated atmosphere of a politically controversial Housing Bill.

I begin by giving the Bill a warm welcome and to thank the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for reintroducing it. I well remember the Second Reading of his Bill with similar aims last January when I think everybody who spoke in your Lordships' House supported it. This was not surprising then, nor should it surprise anyone to-day. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has made out his case well, if I may say so, and I do not think there is anyone to-day who is interested in conservation or in the environment who would not welcome such a piece of legislation as this. There is an urgency about it because with each year that passes there is the ever-increasing danger of the further disappearance of some species of wild plants; and, of course, if the wild plants go then so much of the enjoyment of walkers and ramblers will go, too.

I am particularly glad to see the form in which the Bill reappears, because the last time I looked at it was on the occasion when I discussed it with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment. As I remember the discussions that took place on that occasion, it seemed to me that this Bill incorporates many of the suggestions that were then made by the experts to make it acceptable to the Government of the time. It was a Bill which had the support in principle of the last Conservative Administration, and I was very glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that now it has been reintroduced it has the support of the present Government. As I understand it, when the Bill goes to another place, it may take the form of an amalgamated Bill, which I must say is something that is new to me. But I have no doubt that if it has Government support it will find its way on to the Statute Book.

One point that I noted about the form of this Bill was of course that the clause which made illegal the picking of wild plants for sale has been deleted. This, I think, was one of its more controversial features. I was glad, too, to see that under Clause 2(2) agricultural and other legitimate operations are exempted from the provisions of the Bill. Again, I was glad to see that the Nature Conservancy Council is to be the statutory adviser to the Secretary of State. When this Bill was last introduced, the Nature Conservancy Council had only just been established and I am delighted to see it in its rightful place and that the proposal to set up special advisory committees, as in the original Bill, has been dropped.

There are, however, three particular points that I wish to raise. The first is a general point on the Schedule to the Bill at the end. When the Bill was last debated on Second Reading, many of your Lordships said that the list of protected rare plants was too short, that it was already out of date and should be added to. I would leave to others far more expert than myself to say whether or not this is true at the present time. But what I am certain will be true is that in the course of time the list will need to be added to. Am I right in thinking that the Bill does not make clear the procedure for adding to the list? Does it in fact require another Bill? This may be simply the fact that I am not a lawyer and that I have missed it somewhere, but it would be helpful to know the position.

My second point is on the question of the drafting of Clause 1. I wonder whether this is yet right and whether I am right in saying that it has already been amended since the first draft of the Bill? Nevertheless, as I read it, I must say once again that I am not a lawyer. To say that it is an offence to uproot any plant, unless with the permission of or by an authorised person, seems a very wide provision indeed, particularly when one looks at the definition of the words "a plant". There surely must be a difference between wild flowers, which we all recognise as such, and what could only be described as common weeds by a great many people. It seems to me that this is a matter we should look at again on the Committee stage.

My third point is in relation to the local authorities. I see that they are to be the authorities who will be responsible for providing publicity about the Bill. Obviously, professional bodies will do so as well. I have no doubt that there will be discussion with the local authority associations about this. But it seems to me that it will be very necessary for the general public to have some means of identifying specified rare plants. Most members of the public will not be able to do this. On looking at the list, I could say without doubt that I could not recognise any of them. I think that unless one is an expert and has taken a great interest in these matters one will not be able to do so. It is clearly in areas like country parks, National Parks, places where people may walk, the kind of places where the Ramblers Association will take parties of people, where it will be necessary to have some way of identifying these specified rare plants. It will be particularly necessary since the penalties for picking any one of them are severe, and although I quite understand it would be possible to say one had picked a plant by mistake, clearly this is to be avoided at all costs.

I very much welcome the proposal that local authorities should take whatever steps they think best to educate children about the need to protect wild plants. In many instances, I suspect that it may be that the teachers themselves will need to be educated as well. Education is nearly always a very long process, but I am certain that there are many schools to-day which still encourage children to go out to pick wild flowers for the nature table. Although it is not an offence to pick any wild flower, clearly the whole of the spirit behind the Bill is that people should be encouraged simply to look at them growing in their natural state and not to pick them. I believe it will take a long process of education to get this lesson across to everybody. Of course, teachers will have to know what are the specified rare plants so that the children can be taught how to identify them. Although it is probably unlikely that they will come across them—the fact that they are rare will protect them—nevertheless they should know what they are. I therefore welcome this debate as being part of the educational process, and I hope that the Bill has a speedy passage through your Lordships' House and through another place.

6.50 p.m.


My Lords, I will not keep your Lordships more than a few moments. This Bill has my wholehearted support, and I sincerely hope it has a smooth passage through your Lordships' House. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will forgive me if at Committee stage, if he intends to have one, I try to introduce one flower on to the protected list. I am ashamed to say that I cannot even remember its name now except that it is an orchid, not remarkable for its appearance but very remarkable indeed for scientific reasons, as it is the only one which has that particular root system.

My Lords, there is one difficulty in regard to this Bill, and that is: how on earth is one going to enforce it? Most of the rare plants in the Schedule grow not in places which are likely to be developed agriculturally or which are likely to be built on, but in wild places where practically nobody ever goes and which cannot possibly be supervised. So I wonder how on earth one is ever going to prove that somebody has taken a plant if, by some extraordinary chance, it happens to disappear. That is the only difficulty I see at the moment, apart from the one that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has just mentioned, of recognising whether a plant is a specified rare plant. I am wondering whether, at the entrance to National Parks and protected places, it will be possible, provided the Schedule does not get much longer, to have a board showing pictures of them all, so that one may recognise what one is intending to pick. While perhaps not being a very practical way, it may be one way of showing people what they must not pick. I see no other difficulties at all, and I sincerely hope that the Bill has a very successful passage.

6.53 p.m.


My Lords, it is pleasant to turn aside for a moment from the sturn and drang of what passes now for normal life to matters which may seem trivial, possibly, to some but are none the less concerned with matters that are rather more real than many of the other things that we talk about. At least, I assume that all the things mentioned in this Bill are real, although I confess to a momentary measure of suspicion concerning the Oblong Woodsia, which seems to me to smack somewhat of Edward Lear's just as celebrated Manipeoplia Upsidedownia. Blue Heath of course I recognise as my right honourable friend; and Cheddar Pink is no doubt a fellow traveller from the county of my childhood. Saxifraga cespitosa, I see with that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude, growing tuftily beside the septic tank.

I see no need, nor have I the necessary botannical knowledge, further to analyse or criticise the list of protected plants that appears in this rather charmingly drafted Schedule. It is right, I am quite certain, to protect plants that are of value—and plants are of value to me, especially if they are rare. What, however, is a plant? Every speaker so far has referred to this matter of definition, including the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I observe from the interpretation clause, Clause 10, that 'plant' means any plant (excluding any fungus and alga) growing wild on any land". "A plant means a plant growing wild" seems to me to lack precision as a definition. That may be a Committee point, but perhaps the noble Lord could help us a little by saying whether it is intended to distinguish some kind of plant from, say, a moss, a bush, a shrub or even, for all I know, a sapling oak. In the earlier Bill this definition was much clearer, though not altogether clear if one looks at it now, because it made it plain that "plant" included trees. It also mentioned, I think, although I do not know whether it is necessary to mention it again now without being confusing, that it included lichens, whereas lichens are now; excluded.

I am sure your Lordships will be favourably disposed towards this Bill, its aim and its intentions, as I am myself, but I trust that noble Lords will not be so carried away by their enthusiasm for it that by the time they have read to the end they will have forgotten what was said in Clause 1. This is not the first time that reference has been made to this. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, seemed to find no great risk attending the future of persons who might be caught by this clause. I think he was a little optimistic; and my noble friend Lady Young has certainly drawn attention to some difficulties. May I go a little further than this, my Lords, and invite your Lordships to look at Clause 1, that I may warn noble Lords of their peril. It may happen one day that you will visit a friend in the country. You may be walking alone in his field, his park, his garden or his potato patch, and your eye will chance to fall upon a weed or two. Seeking to do your friend a good turn, with no thought of criminal intent and without pausing to consider the enormity of your deed, you will pluck from the ground, say, a sprig of groundsel, a stinging nettle and a dock, all of which are quite easy to pull out, as a matter of fact—when they are small, anyway. It may also befall that a police constable will observe this action and request you to furnish him with your name and address. Should you decline to do so, possibly supposing the constable to be either drunk or an imposter, he will then be entitled, under Clause 6, to arrest you and drag you off to the "cooler", from which it will cost you to get out, apart from bail money, which is recoverable, anything up to a total of £400; that is, £100 for each of the three weeds, as they are all of different species, plus £100 for refusing to oblige the constable.

Now I dare say I shall be told that this Bill is not intended to legislate for such ridiculous nonsense as this, and that nobody in his senses would interpret it in this way. But, my Lords, the truth is that I am not interpreting it: I am telling your Lordships what it says. It says: If any person other than an authorised person wilfully uproots any plant he shall be guilty of an offence. My Lords, "any plant"—daisy, dandelion, yellow ragwort, ground elder, Colorado thorn apple, deadly nightshade. These are, whether we like it or not, weeds; and it may not be the intention, and it may never happen, that anybody should prosecute anybody for pulling up any of these things. But that is not an excuse for putting them in the Bill, because it is not the task of Parliament to pass laws which it does not intend to operate, and something must be done about this, I suggest.

Having said all this, the Bill then goes on to say what happens if you molest a protected plant. Now it turns out that the only difference is that you may not, under pain of the full rigour of the law, pick a protected plant. You do not have to pull it up to fall foul of the law, as you do with the unprotected plant. But what happens if in fact you do pull it up? You will find that the penalty for doing that is no higher than for pulling up a stinging nettle; that is to say, the maximum penalty is no higher, and I dare say (in fact, I am quite sure) you could successfully throw yourself upon the mercy of the court.

My Lords, the point I am making is indeed a perfectly serious one. In my submission we do not want or need draconian laws against the uprooting of all wild plants. On the other hand, I most heartily agreee that some protection is needed for some plants. The question is, which? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has some particular plants in mind; and, if so, I wonder whether he would consider the possibility of making some kind of a list of semi-protected plants. This may not be easy, but it might be done. There again, let us not be too specific about what "semi-protected" means, although it would obviously protect plants within two different categories. Alternatively, if it should be felt that certain plants are in special peril in a particular neighbourhood, perhaps it would be possible to give special protection to them in the same way that the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill seeks to extend protection to bufo calamita in Norfolk and Suffolk only. I should perhaps point out that bufo calamita has nothing to do with the noble Earl, Lord Arran, who lives in Hertfordshire. On the contrary it is the Natterjack Toad—a species which surely nobody could confuse with any Member of your Lordships' House.

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will be able to give an assurance that this dreaded Section 1, as I regard it, will undergo some modification before it reappears in the amalgamated Bill. If he cannot, I think that I shall feel obliged to ask your Lordships to agree with me that this Section should be plucked, uprooted and destroyed.

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene rather briefly on this Bill, as I had intended to speak on the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill, but it is quite clear that we are discussing both Bills together. I have to leave early and, since I am opposed to noble Lords who make speeches and then disappear before the end of the debate and it is now just before the end of this debate, I feel safe in abiding by the Rules of the House. I have, however, been stimulated by a number of the remarks which have been made.

First of all, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Melchett on a truly excellent speech. If I may say so, he is a very valuable member of the Government and it was a very well-delivered speech in a most technical area. I am all the more stimulated to speak in full support of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, because of the criticism. I am bound to say to the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery—who is more skilful at making what might be called witty heavy weather of any situation than practically any noble Lord I know and whose wit and ingenuity, not to mention his research, are sometimes so very thorough that it is dangerous to debate with him—that although I do not normally go around picking dandelions in my friends' fields, I frequently pull up ragwort, which is a much more dangerous plant. I should regard myself as an authorised person under the Bill if I was on my friends' land and from reading the definition—I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will be able to put us right on this matter—it seems to me that I shall be perfectly safe. I urge the noble Earl to continue his practice and to attack those plants which are more dangerous than dandelions.

My Lords, there has been some suggestion that these Bills should be amalgamated. In my experience in the matter of legislation there are always better ways of carrying it out, but the important point is—as one cannot put everything into one monster Bill—to take one's opportunities and to go ahead with them. It has been the practice in your Lordships' House—and nobody knows this better than the noble Earl, Lord Arran—to press on and to put through one's Bills somehow or other. One's Bills do not necessarily pass into law in that particular Session, but ultimately they will and therefore I strongly encourage the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, not to be too bothered by some of the objections which have been made, to most of which I believe there are satisfactory answers. I am not worried about what might be called the particularly draconian nature of the penalties. It seems to me that the penalties have to be adequate. The Bill appears to me to provide nearly every protection that is necessary and, in so far as it does not, with the help of the Government—we always have to look to the Government for some help on Private Bills—I am sure that this can be taken care of.

My Lords, we always make heavy weather over definitions. One of the difficulties is with regard to the titles: in many ways it would have been better if this had been called the Vegetable Kingdom Bill (Wild Plants Protection). The Wild Creatures Bill could have been called the Animal Bill, because there seems to be some ignorance among noble Lords as to what is an animal and what is a vegetable. The wild creatures protected under the latter Bill—including the Natterjack Toad, the Large Blue and the Smooth snake—are all technically animals, but because I was slightly uncertain I rang up the Director of the Zoo and he confirmed this point to me.

The same difficulties arise over the present Bill. I should have liked to question the noble Lord, because I am a little concerned about the exclusion, if not of algae, then of fungae and, particularly, of lichens. It may be that the Nature Conservancy Council, which is such a marvellous institution and which has happily survived its dissection—largely helped by your Lordships' House, which amended the previous Bill to make it more workable—could advise. I assume that for some of those plants which are not covered in the Schedule—and I have in mind some rare lichens—some protection will be provided in SSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest), but, of course, the protection there is still very limited. This is an aspect which we shall need to pursue further and I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, whether, when he comes to a later stage, the definition of "plant" is perhaps a little too restricted.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would forgive me if I tried to be helpful here. I have looked up the definition of the word "lichen": it is said by the Oxford dictionary to be a compound of a fungus and an alga. That is why I said that it is apparently excluded from the provisions of this Bill under the definition.


My Lords, the noble Earl is being very helpful. I was aware of it, and it is because it is a kind of hybrid and a very interesting form of life (which seems to me a safe description) that I hope we shall not forget the importance of preserving certain forms of lichen. I happen to have collected some rare lichens on the tops of mountains in Borneo, so I have a particular emotional link with that form of life.

We shall need—and here, again, I am sure the Nature Conservancy Council will help—to study and to protect. In this connection, I wonder whether SSIs provide enough protection, particularly for those areas of swamp or bogland where there is available something which I have heard described as a form of paleonto-logical record—something which in about forty years' time may be the subject of valuable analysis, tracing through the plant life some of the history of development on earth. I have no doubt that as we advance through these Bills we shall move to more comprehensive and sophisticated studies.

It is here that we come up against the conflict between agriculture and wild plants and wild life. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, who knows a great deal about farming, that it is extremely difficult to establish a clear dividing line, or to lay down principles. We know that so much of our beautiful countryside is man-made and not natural, but the purpose of this kind of Bill is the protection of certain species which might be in danger. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Somers, who expressed concern that some of these species would be in places where nobody went, and thereby they would be endangered because no one would see them being taken. But if nobody goes there, they are probably fairly safe anyway. None the less, we have to take into account this extraordinary phenomenon of the immorality of certain collectors. One has seen this in the art world and one has certainly seen it in what may be called the natural history world. We shall need to watch this further in the future.

I wish this Bill well, as indeed I do the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill, which will be coming forward. I would only counsel against adding too many species to these lists too early, which could destroy their purpose. I have heard of a number of species of plants, and indeed of animals, which people would like to have. I think we need to study this carefully and, above all, to take the advice of the Nature Conservancy Council who are certainly better qualified than I am in such matters. My Lords, I strongly support this Bill.

7.11 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, for their support in greater or lesser degree. I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, on his first and extremely able speech from the Dispatch Box. If I may, I will try to answer just a few of the main points which have been made. There are a number of minor points on which I am sure we can reach agreement, either at a later stage or perhaps even in the intervening period. The point was made that perhaps the Schedule is out of date. My advice—and I flatter myself that I have the greatest experts on my side at this moment advising me—is that it is the right Schedule in this context. However, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the Secretary of State has power to add to it at any time under Clause 3 of the Bill. Also, in reply to a point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, there is power to add to it by area, if necessary.

I should like to make certain that one misapprehension does not arise from this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, put the point accurately, but what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, may have been misunderstood. It is true that we have taken out of this Bill the clauses dealing with the picking for sale, and the exposing of flowers which have been picked for sale. We have taken out prohibitions against this, but picking for sale is still a criminal act under the Theft Act, and whatever is said about that it will still remain so. All that has been removed from that clause is the rather difficult business of prosecuting people for exposing for sale flowers which have been picked. There is obviously a problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said, but the Nature Conservancy Council is looking at its obligations and its whole area of work.

I was delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reinforced the importance of the Council taking on work in connection with this Bill. There is very little in the Bill—not, for instance, the business of letting landowners know of SSIs—that is obligatory on the Nature Conservancy Council. I hope, together with a number of my friends, that the Council are not running away from some very useful jobs that they could be doing, without any great additional obligation. I hope they will look at that carefully. Obviously, nobody would dream of trying to make them do something that they do not wish to do, but I hope they will look at this carefully to see whether there is something they might usefully do.

I very much sympathise with what the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, said about penalties. We have simplified these very much in this Bill to the sort of overall level that they are at the moment. I understand that the Home Office is rather keen on uniformity of penalties in Bills of this nature. But this is certainly something we should be happy to look at again if noble Lords wished this to be done. As noble Lords may remember, we looked at a much earlier stage at the question of having a secondary Schedule for semi-protected plants, but this caused such difficulty that we are convinced that the principle of an overall prohibition and a small Schedule of fully protected plants is the right way of tackling the problem.

Turning to the question of picking by mistake, of course this is an educational Bill and we shall try to accompany it with an educational programme in many different ways. There is already a poster of the 20 plants; but this vision that school-children, and even school-teachers, may take the plants by mistake is very unlikely. We have already heard that there are only 140 sites in the whole of Britain where these plants can be found. The great majority of them are in boggy places or in screes. They are not attractive plants, not normally to be found in National Parks, and so on. There is really very little danger here; and of course the whole question of picking inadvertently is covered by the present wording.

If that wording does not happen to be quite right, we shall make sure that it is covered in the future. On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, pointed out in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Somers—and he was absolutely right—the distant places are where you will occasionally get the real villain, who is the only person at whom the penal clauses of this Bill are aimed. The main villain is the collector and he is going to some places that he knows about and will take a plant for his collection. It is those people whom we are trying to get at.

Perhaps I may just finally put to rest the fears of the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, but I feel I shall awaken them even more. Before this Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, he is still liable at this moment for all those penalties, because if he uproots a plant—and is presumably disowned by the friends who invited him on to that land, so he is not an authorised person—in order to destroy it, he can be had up under the Criminal Damage Act, even if it is groundsel. If he steals it, he can be had up under the Theft Act. These Acts have been in operation for some time without anyone having arrested the noble Earl on these grounds, and no one else has been arrested either. There is a serious point which I should like to stick to in defending Clause 1. I do not see any reason why anybody should go around rooting up plants on other peoples' land without permission, or the implied permission of knowing that you are picking up ragwort on a friend's land and that it will be approved of. It is a very good principle and we should have it in this Bill. There is nothing wrong with the principles that we have put down. I have put that slightly strongly.

We can certainly find agreement on a great many details. If there is a real point of substance, and your Lordships feel that I have not met it, I am sure we can do so because this Bill is, as several noble Lords have said, not meant to make heavy weather of the criminal law. It is meant to be an educational Bill to help us in the best possible way to preserve our wild life. As with the Preservation of Birds Act, where the number of prosecutions has been minimal, they will be absolutely minimal under this Bill; there may not even be any at all. It would be a great triumph for the Bill if there were not any prosecutions. The principles which we have worked out over a long time with Government Departments and professional advisers are the right ones, and I therefore look forward to your Lordships giving this Bill a Second Reading and allowing us to thresh out some of the smaller details on the Committee stage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.