§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord Melchett
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Melchett.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD HAYTER in the Chair.]
§ On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
Perhaps I may take one moment to express satisfaction that the Committee is leaving unamended Clause 1 of the Bill. It took us a long time to get where we are and there has been general satisfaction at the fact that a way was found of overcoming the difficulties that arose when the Bill was in another place. I have no more to say and I shall not delay the Bill. Once again I thank all those concerned for bringing about this compromise, which I hope will be the foundation of the tighter application of the law against breaches of the original Act.
§ Lord Gibson-Watt
From this side, I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken. Compromise on this Bill started from the moment the Government held discussions with all the various interests concerned. That co-operation has continued throughout the Bill and I agree with the noble Lord that it has been very valuable.
§ Lord Melchett
I am sure that my honourable friend in another place who moved this clause at Report stage there will warmly welcome what has been said about the clause. I would simply express the hope that once the Bill becomes law the police forces up and down the country will work even more closely with the voluntary organisations involved, such as, in particular, the county naturalists' trusts and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to prosecute people who are breaking the law and who are illegally digging up badger setts and torturing and 1252 maiming badgers. It is with that end in view that we want to see this amendment Bill reach the statute book.
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
Lord Burton moved Amendment No. 1:
After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Amendment of s. 4 of 1981 Act.
§ .—(1) Section 4 of the principal Act (exceptions to ss. 1 and 3) shall be amended as follows.
§ (2) In subsection (3) the words "other than a bird included in Schedule 1" shall be omitted.").
§ The noble Lord said: I am very sad that there is a need to move this amendment because, as noble Lords have said, this amendment Bill has gone a long way towards getting agreement. Briefly, the amendment provides for the putting of Schedule 1 birds into the same category as Schedule 2 birds in cases where the Schedule 1 birds are doing serious damage, and only where they are doing serious damage.
§ During the passage of the principal Act of 1981, it was constantly emphasised that nature conservation is not something which can be controlled by legislation but must be formulated by goodwill, education, co-operation and generally civilised behaviour. Since 1981 there has been more bitterness, more aggravation, more friction and indeed a worsening of the type of relationships which are likely to promote good conservation than there ever was before. However, let me hasten to add that the farming, forestry and wildlife agricultural groups have done a power of work. They have been harmonising bodies. They have educated and have dispelled many misunderstandings and I hope that the Government will encourage and promote them.
§ I am sorry to say that much of the bitterness and aggravation has been engendered by the Nature Conservancy Council. We will shortly come to the question of SSSIs, but the Secretary of State—certainly in Scotland—is being given the wrong information and advice. In England I know that there have been, to put it mildly, problems. In the New Forest, for example, there was a nonsense over dragonflies; and from time to time, if one can believe the media, there have been problems elsewhere. This morning, I am told, the BBC reported that there has been further trouble in Islay.
§ Yesterday I received the refusal of a licence to kill an eagle which has done thousands of pounds' worth of damage. This, I may say, is the second year running that this has happened. Last year we were told what we should do and we were also told that everything would be sorted out this year; but that has not been the case. One NCC officer has been reported as saying: "We will ensure that they never get enough evidence to kill an eagle". I submit that when this sort of attitude is adopted there is bound to be not only aggravation and friction but fury among those who are suffering. The men concerned are losing their livelihoods through the actions—or rather through the inaction—of the Nature Conservancy Council. It is not for me to say whether there has been incompetence, inefficiency or wilful obstruction, but the local people believe the latter to be the case.
§ Last year, after many weeks of problems and the loss of over 90 lambs, the Nature Conservancy Council said that they could find no evidence of major 1253 predation on lambs by eagles. This year it was hoped that, as there had been a failure last year, the Nature Conservancy Council would at least co-operate with the Department of Agriculture and take some advice from the locals, who have been born and brought up in the area and know local conditions. This they have consistently refused to do and, indeed, they have told the locals that if they go near an eyrie, they will ensure that they are prosecuted.
§ One day a Nature Conservancy Council officer told one of the crofters that their ropes were not long enough to let them into an eyrie, but that they would be back in two days' time. The officers were offered the local mountain rescue squad's ropes, but they refused these, preferring to incur another two days' delay. I understand that there has been little or no liaison between the local NCC officials and the local DOAS officials.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ The locals were told last year to produce the evidence of lamb losses by eagles and this they did this year. They handed two dead lambs to a Nature Conservancy Council official, but the crofter who owned those lambs has still had no report on how they died. But nearly two weeks after the lambs were handed in, we heard that they had been taken to the college of agriculture where the vet's post mortem showed that they were big, strong, healthy lambs, with their stomachs full of milk, and that they had been killed by a large bird of prey.
§ I immediately got on the telephone to the Home and Health Department to apply for a licence again this year. I was told that they required the application to be in writing and that I should enclose the vet's certificate, which of course was not available to me. I wrote to the Home and Health Department applying for a licence, and pointing out that the vet's report was already in the hands of the Department of Agriculture's press officer.
§ Meanwhile, the lamb slaughter continued. Two more injured lambs, one with horrid lacerations of the stomach, were taken to the local vet, who reported in the same fashion as the Government vet. I gather that one lamb weighed 12 lb. and the other 13 lb.; so they were big, heavy lambs for that time of year. We have always known that the story that eagles took only sick, weakly or dead lambs was a fallacy. After all, those of us who have to cull deer do not eat the old or run stags, which we send for export to the Germans, but keep a nice, healthy, young beast for our own consumption.
§ Time dragged on and we were informed that the Secretary of State was waiting for the Nature Conservancy Council's report. Further inquiries revealed that, at long last, the Nature Conservancy Council had found four occupied eyries in the area. Two were reported to have some small chicks, one was still sitting and the other had addled eggs. But how did the Nature Conservancy Council know that the eggs were addled? They must have seriously interfered with the nesting birds. Surely this is what the Act is meant to prevent.
§ Why was there all this messing about with eyries? The adult birds would surely not be carrying lambs to eyries to feed eggs, and we already knew the area where 1254 the lambs had been killed by eagles. In recent weeks there have been a number of "gatherings" in the area. One crofter, who, poor man, has only 50 ewes, is 20 lambs short. On another hirsel there were also shortages and two lambs came in with damage marks which had clearly been inflicted by eagles. I am pleased to say that these are still with their mothers and I think they will survive.
§ Last week the Forestry Commission sent out three rangers with three visitors who, we understand, are prominent in the bird world. I heard last night that, twice in the same day, the six of them had seen two eagles carrying lambs. I understand that by the time they got to the place where one bird had landed with a lamb there was very little left of the wee beast and that what was left would soon have disappeared with the hoodie crows and the gulls. So your Lordships will appreciate that it is not very easy to get evidence in this wild area, unless you catch them in the act.
§ I should not like to mislead your Lordships and so I must tell you that I have not had a chance to check this report about these six people. But I believe it to be correct and I think that there will be more heard about it. I gather that this party was under the impression that two eagles were involved. So it appears that the fears which we propounded last year, that the hen would probably teach its chicks to kill lambs, have been justified.
§ The letter from the Home and Health Department, stating that the licence had been refused because there was insufficient evidence to show that the predation by eagles was more than a small percentage of the predation in the area, has caused great annoyance. What evidence of any other predation has the Secretary of State had of the destruction of lambs in this area? We have seen no evidence from the Secretary of State to this effect and, so far as we know, there has been little other predation.
§ I understand that if we amend this Bill in this material manner, there will be no time left for it to pass through the other place. One is therefore in some difficulty, but we can hardly allow things to remain as they are, whereby a few people can, it seems, obstruct the working of the Act in a reasonable and fair manner. The crofters have been extremely tolerant, they have tried to co-operate, they have been law-abiding, and I feel that, even in an area where the inhabitants are notorious for their patience, they have been amazingly patient. But they are being deprived of their livelihood, and is it right that they should be deprived of their livelihood through what appears to them to be sheer administrative incompetence?
§ Perhaps the answer is for the Minister to give undertakings that the whole system of licensing will be very carefully investigated; that the workings of the Nature Conservancy Council will be brought under very severe scrutiny; that individual officers will not be allowed to cause such difficulties in the future; and that individuals suffering severe loss will not be asked to prove, as in a court of law, something which is virtually unprovable and that a reasonable suspicion is all that is required. I feel, also, that it is an appalling waste of time that it is necessary, before any machinery can be put into action, for the application for a licence to be received in writing. Surely a 1255 telephone call is sufficient, in the first instance, to get the machinery working.
§ If I may be a little flippant for a moment, perhaps I may tell your Lordships about a telephone call which I had last night and which shows the frustration of the crofters. A crofter said: "You would think that we were applying for a licence to shoot a NCC officer instead of one bird, and you know, Lord Burton, which I would prefer to shoot". What is of serious concern to all of us who know anything about the subject is that, if nothing is done to change this position, there will be no eagles left in this area. There is a limit to the toleration of these people and to the losses that they will suffer, and if something is not done, I shall be very surprised if many eagles are allowed to survive in this area. I beg to move.
§ Lord Grimond
I welcome this Bill and I have no desire at all to delay its progress. I am no expert on the eagle, nor can I follow the noble Lord, Lord Burton, on his very knowledgeable and detailed account of the depredations of eagles in the Highlands of Scotland. But I should like to take the opportunity of his amendment to raise a matter which I have raised before: that is, the general control of predators.
In Orkney and Shetland we have a very large quantity of black-backed gulls and hooded crows, and to these have been added in recent years an enormous increase in the bonxie or great skua, which is a particularly damaging bird. From having been a very rare bird in Orkney and Shetland, it is now believed that there are many thousands of breeding pairs on the island of Hoy alone, which is having a desperate effect on other bird life. Further, in previous years—I do not know about this year—as a Member of Parliament I received cries from crofters on Fair Isle to be allowed to shoot the great skua during the lambing season.
I simply take advantage of this amendment to draw to the attention of the Government, the Nature Conservancy Council and the other bodies which are concerned in these matters the fact that some control of predators, particularly predators of this type, is necessary, and that nature conservancy means not only conserving everything, but holding some reasonable balance between agriculture and nature conservation and between one form of bird or animal and another. I hope very much that the Minister and the Nature Conservancy Council will take note of what has been said in this debate.
§ Lord Middleton
My memory of when more than four years ago we were debating the principal Act is that we debated Section 4 and the schedule that went with it at considerable length. Your Lordships thoroughly approved of Section 4 and thoroughly approved of the composition of the schedule because within it were a number of birds that were all to a greater or lesser degree engaged in the struggle for survival, and the section gave them that extra little help in their struggle.
At present under Section 4(3) of the Act it is a defence to the charge of killing a protected bird other than one listed in Schedule 1 to show that the killing was necessary for preserving public health or safety, 1256 preventing the spread of disease or preventing damage to stock or crops. My noble friend's amendment would remove the Schedule 1 exception so that the defences which I have just mentioned will apply in respect of Schedule 1 birds. I do not want to get involved in any controversy about what may be happening in the mists and corries of the Western Highlands, but whatever may be the local difficulties occasioned by an eagle or a pair of eagles whose target identification may be a little bit astray, this amendment would give a licence to anybody to attack or kill some of these precious birds in Schedule 1 on the excuse that they were damaging something or other. I hope very much that this amendment will not be accepted.
§ Lord Walston
I cannot support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Burton, but I have a great deal of sympathy for him and for his crofters. I cannot help feeling that a word from the appropriate Minister to the appropriate officials in the relevant areas could overcome this difficulty. What we have heard is a story of a lack of personal liaison between the people who are actually involved in this very difficult question of holding the balance between the livelihood of crofters, which is not a very fat livelihood at any time, and the preservation of a particular species of bird which is extremely rare and has been in danger of extinction. It can be overcome only by the proper kind of personal contact and understanding.
I would ask the Government to instruct or urge the appropriate Minister to talk quietly but firmly to the people concerned so that this type of bureaucratic delay and apparent lack of understanding is removed. But I repeat that so far as the amendment itself is concerned, I cannot support it.
§ The Earl of Onslow
The apparent misunderstanding appears to relate to the point that the Nature Conservancy Council will not give a licence to kill the eagle. I would suggest to your Lordships that the Nature Conservancy Council should not give a licence to kill the eagle. These eagles are very rare birds. There is, I believe, a way round the problem, and that is to increase the ewe stock and take large advantage of the hill compensatory livestock allowance. There will then be lots of lambs, the eagles will be happy and prosper and the noble Lord, Lord Burton, will not have to shoot his eagles.
§ Baroness White
I can see the difficulty of making a management agreement with the golden eagle. On the other hand, in various parts of the administration of grants in compensation in this country farmers are paid for carrying out various acts or for not doing various things. Can we be informed in the reply to the proposed amendment whether any compensation by any means or manoeuvre could be made available? Many of us feel extreme sympathy for the crofters. On the other hand, none of us I hope would wish to kill golden eagles. So possibly there may be some other way round the problem about which the Committee can be informed.
§ Lord Melchett
I have listened to the arguments put forward both for and against the amendment. Perhaps I may deal with one argument which the noble Lord, Lord Burton, raised. He suggested that there would 1257 not be time for the Bill to be amended in your Lordships' House and then get back to another place in time for them to consider the amendment. That is not correct. There is time, if we stick to the programme that has been agreed by your Lordships, for the Bill to be considered on the one day available in another place, 5th July, for Lords amendments to Private Members' Bills to be taken. The Government's concern as I understand it is that if your Lordships' Committee decides to amend the Bill, the Government would not be certain that one of their supporters in another place might not filibuster and deny the Bill the opportunity of reaching the statute hook. Certainly, all the parties on this side of the Chamber would be prepared to give such a guarantee and see it carried through. It is apparently not possible for the Government to do that. That is the difficulty we face; it is not one of timing. Although, if the Government were happy, we might be able to amend the Bill. I think there are a number of reasons why the amendment should not be accepted.
The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, gave the most obvious reason that this amendment does not just affect golden eagles. It would affect little bitterns, bee-eaters and white-tailed sea eagles, a whole range of very rare and endangered birds, all of which, if the noble Lord's amendment were carried, could be killed with the justifications that the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, mentioned. It would include barn owls and snowy owls, a whole range of the rarest and most precious birds in this country. It would clearly be quite wrong in national terms to do it. It would also be illegal in international terms, because the amendment as I understand it is precluded by this country's adherence to the EEC birds directive, which insists that we give special protection to rare birds which are protected throughout Europe. It would clearly be wrong to accept the amendment on those grounds.
I was very concerned about some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Burton, had to say about the local staff of the Nature Conservancy Council. If his remarks illustrate anything, they illustrate the enormous pressure under which quite junior members of staff of that organisation have to operate in areas such as the ones he mentioned. It is quite unfair pressure. The joke, if it was meant to be a joke, that a crofter would be happier shooting a member of the NCC staff than a golden eagle does not ring in very amusing terms in the ears of young members of the NCC staff who may well have been physically threatened on the ground when trying to carry out the duties which Parliament—this House of Parliament and another place—have laid upon them, duties which we have an international obligation to fulfil.
I would deplore the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Walston, that some pressure should be put on the NCC to bend the law. As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, the NCC staff at the moment appear to be interpreting Parliament's wishes quite properly. I hope that that suggestion will not go any further. Indeed, if any suggestion is to be put forward, it should be that the NCC staff continue to act impartially throughout the country in accordance with Parliament's wishes.
§ Lord Walston
I was not for a moment suggesting that any of the NCC staff should bend the law or that the law should be bent in any way. I was suggesting that there should be some pressure to get a better relationship between the officials concerned and the crofters themselves.
§ Lord Melchett
I certainly agree with that. I hope there is a constructive suggestion which the Government will take away and think about. The fundamental cause of the difficulty seems to be that, on the one side, the crofters and landowners in parts of the country, particularly in the West of Scotland, believe that golden eagles do a great deal of economic damage to their agricultural interests. The scientific evidence that I have seen, in particular a recent research project carried out at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Scotland, tends to show that economic losses due to predators, whether foxes or golden eagles, are very small indeed compared with the huge losses that occur through natural losses of lambs, on the whole, I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, caused by over-stocking rather than under-stocking the areas concerned.
I believe that the annual rate of loss caused by overstocking, poor husbandry, lack of food and severe weather amounts to £30 million or £40 million a year. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, can confirm this figure when he speaks later in the debate. By comparison the few lambs taken by golden eagles—clearly some are taken—is an insignificant problem both in economic terms to individual crofters and certainly in economic terms to the nation and to agriculture as a whole.
It may be that more research in the particular area which the noble Lord, Lord Burton, was concerned about, and into those other factors, would help. A consequence of it might be that it would help to persuade crofters that the golden eagle is rather less of a problem than they thought. If on the other hand unique factors happen to be operating in that area and the golden eagles are making a major economic impact—whereas they are not doing so in other areas where this point has been carefully examined—then the point made by my noble friend Lady White, that some case could be made for compensation from agricultural departments, is a good one.
I believe that research is much more likely to confirm earlier work showing that losses from predators of this kind are minimal and are insignificant in economic terms compared with the losses caused by the other factors I have mentioned.
I hope, for the reasons which I have mentioned, that your Lordships will not agree to this amendment to the Bill. It would clearly lead to the loss of the Bill as a whole because I imagine that it would be opposed by all parties, given that the Bill would then contain a provision that would breach our international obligations. For that reason if for no other I hope the amendment will not be pressed.
§ Earl Peel
I should like to take up a point which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has just made in connection with the work done recently by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. He referred to the lack 1259 of damage done by foxes to the livestock and game that was being monitored. I should like to point out that in that particular area it is a well-known fact that there is a lesser number of foxes than in other parts of Scotland and in England.
I should also like to point out that the work the institute carried out in respect of carrion crows was quite interesting. It was originally thought that the effects on the predation of grouse nests by carrion crows was relatively small. It was only when the institute started to monitor the grouse nests by sticking canes in the ground that they realised the true effect of carrion crow predation, when the carrion crows saw the posts in the ground and associated them with nests; predation then increased enormously.
§ Lord Melchett
We should not be sidetracked into arguments about species which are not in Schedule 1 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and that covers carrion crows and foxes. I believe it is right to say that the area where that research was done did have a reasonable population of golden eagles. As far as I know, the results as far as that species is concerned have not been challenged. I am not suggesting that there were no losses, but their numbers paled into insignifiance compared with the losses suffered as a result of poor husbandry, bad weather and overstocking.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I have one minor point to make concerning payment for the damage which golden eagles may or may not do. It seems to me that compensation could be the most marvellous excuse for a rip-off. People would find dead lambs, and with an innocent look on their face say that it has all been caused by golden eagles. They would be trooping into the Ministry of Agriculture hoping for cheques. One must be very careful about giving compensation to farmers for losses which may or may not be genuine. We all know how good the compensation is and that the temptation to apply for or accept compensation is very strong.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
We have had a fascinating discussion on this amendment, which has reached far and wide. I for one have learnt an awful lot about golden eagles and other birds. I return now to the substance of the amendment, which would have the effect of removing the full protection currently enjoyed by the 80 or so species of our most threatened wild birds listed in Schedule 1 to the Act—protection which most of them have enjoyed for the past 31 years under the Protection of Birds Act 1954, which Section 4 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 re-enacted without change.
The amendment would allow the killing or taking of those birds by authorised persons without any recourse to one of the licensing authorities provided it could be shown that such action was considered necessary for the purpose of preserving public health or public safety, preventing the spreading of disease or preventing serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for 1260 livestock, crops, vegetables, growing timber, or fisheries.
In 1981, and under the previous Act, Parliament gave this sort of job to the Nature Conservancy Council, who as well as being the Government's agent in these matters are also the Government's scientific advisers on conservation matters. I take extremely seriously the quotation given by my noble friend Lord Burton, which he attributed to a member of the NCC's staff. To be fair to everyone, I should need to know both the name of that staff member and the date of his purported statement before I could take any further action. If that view is widely held among members of the NCC's staff, I do not believe that would be consistent with the aim and objective which Parliament has given to the council.
§ Lord Melchett
Before the noble Lord leaves the matter of this alleged remark by a member of the Nature Conservancy Council's staff, will he deal with the comment made by his noble friend behind him to the effect that golden eagles will be illegally killed if some change of policy is not adopted by the Government? That is an altogether more serious question and it was a remark that all of us heard, whereas the other comment was simply alleged to have been made.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am quite used to being bullied by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, but perhaps he will allow me to make my speech one step at a time. Applications for licences are made to the Department of the Environment in England, to the Scottish Home and Health Department in Scotland and to the Welsh Office in Wales, as appropriate. Consideration is given to the circumstances of the application, balancing the farming conditions against the requirement to conserve the species of birds concerned. The views of the Nature Conservancy Council are taken carefully into account. It is fair to say that to date no licence has been granted to kill an eagle since the Act was passed.
My immediate answer to the noble Baroness, Lady White, is that no provision exists for compensation to be paid in the event of a licence being refused. We have heard arguments on both sides as to why compensation either should or should not be paid. All I can say at the moment is that compensation is not paid in such circumstances.
As my noble friend is aware, the Act already contains provisions in the form of a very comprehensive licensing scheme. I have explained very briefly the administrative ways in which that scheme is operated to cater for circumstances in which a Schedule 1 bird is considered to be at risk for one of the reasons I have just listed. I am satisfied that this scheme provides a flexible means of control which both affords protection to the birds themselves and allows for action to be taken under licence if it can be clearly shown to be necessary.
I would deprecate a free-for-all in those circumstances—and that is a danger (I would not put it higher than that) if this particular amendment were to receive your Lordships' approval. I hope that the Committee will appreciate why the Government see no need or justification for this particular amendment, and that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw it.
§ Lord Burton
That reply is not very satisfactory as far as I am concerned. My noble friend on the Front Bench gave no assurance that any efforts would be made to put the system right. Clearly the current system of licensing is not working.
§ Lord Burton
It is not working—the delay is intolerable and the killing is going on. It is wrong for the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, to say that the damage done is insignificant. The damage is very substantial for some people. If a farmer has only 50 lambs and he loses 20 of them to one bird, then surely it cannot be said that such a loss is insignificant. We know from the example I gave that 90 lambs were lost last year and we suspect that there will be more losses this year. Whereas it was one bird doing the killing last year, this year it appears that there are two. The probability is that the second is the chick of the bird that was doing the killing last year.
I agree with my noble friend in respect of one point he made, when he said that compensation would be likely to lead to rip-offs. At the other extreme, if one has to prove a loss for compensation, that would be equally impossible. If, as in the case I quoted, the lamb has already been eaten by an eagle, it would be rather difficult to prove that a lamb had been killed. Therefore, you cannot get compensation in that way. The compensation system does not, regrettably, appear to be a feasible alternative.
There is nothing in the Acts to say that the Nature Conservancy Council should not co-operate, first, with the Department of Agriculture, or presumably the Ministry in England, and, secondly, with the locals. But so far, over two years, it has refused to do so. A great deal of time could have been saved for government officials if the locals had been allowed to act. The locals know that there are at least nine eyries in the area.
Last year, after all the weeks of fiddling around, I understand the Nature Conservancy Council officials found only three, although we have not yet been given any official information. This year it found four occupied eyries, so what my noble friend said about a scarcity of eagles is hardly borne out in that area because, in view of the record last year, there could well be more which have not yet been found. The tragedy is that a great many eagles do no damage to lambs at all. It is a great pity that where there are one or two such eagles it is not possible to take some action.
On the predation by foxes, to mention this only briefly, we have an extremely efficient fox club in the area. All the landowners and sheep owners have agreed to an increase in subscriptions this year to pay for a fox hunter who has done an extremely good job. We could probably give a good record of how many lambs have been killed by foxes. Unfortunately, the one department which has refused to agree to an increase in subscriptions is the Forestry Commission. That is regrettable, but we are still in negotiation and we hope that the commission will change its mind.
1262 I appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said about other rare birds in the schedule. This presents a difficulty. However, I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench, having heard what has been said, will see whether his colleagues, particularly in Scotland, can do something to arrange for a change in the present administration of the Act, as it stands, because clearly it is not working, whatever anyone may say. Therefore, on the assumption and in the hope that something will be done, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 2 agreed to.
Lord Burton moved Amendment No. 2:
After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Appeal against notification.
§ . After section 28 of the principal Act there shall be inserted the following new section—
"Appeal against notification.
28A.—(1) A person having an interest in any area of land in respect of which a notification under suhsection (1) of section 28 has been confirmed by the Council under subsection (4A) (b) of the said section may within 6 weeks from the date of the receipt of the said notification appeal to the Secretary of State against the said notification on the grounds that the land is not of special interest by reason of the grounds stated therein.
(2) An appeal under this section shall be made by notice in writing to the Secretary of State.
(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe the procedure to be followed on appeals under this section." ").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment is a good deal more complicated than the last: indeed, I had to get a draftsman to prepare it. fThe general principle, which I hope I have incorporated in the amendment, is that the Nature Conservancy Council should not be the judge, the arbiter and the final decider of what areas of ground are to be designated as SSSIs. If one of the Nature Conservancy Council's officers suggests that a certain piece of ground should become an SSSI, the owner of the ground has no appeal other than to the Nature Conservancy Council. I feel that it is reasonable that an appeal should go to the Secretary of State so that he can have an outside look at the matter.
§ I expect a great many people will know of areas which have been scheduled and where it has caused (perhaps we should say) surprise because they have felt it was quite unnecessary. I believe that practically all the gravel deposits in and around Inverness have been scheduled as SSSIs. I do not know what would have happened if similar action had been taken in and around London. The council has scheduled 500 acres on my land, from which one is not supposed to extract gravel. I know of another example which the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, told me about recently. I am sorry that he is not here today to speak about it. Apparently, he has 500 acres which have been designated and an attached acre or two of almost identical ground, just a few yards away, have also been scheduled. It is not at all convenient to him for this piece of ground to be scheduled, yet he has no appeal at all. It is quite wrong that these powers should be given to the Nature Conservancy Council without an appeal procedure. I beg to move.
§ Lord Grimond
Once again I rise to take advantage of the noble Lord's amendment to raise a matter which particularly affects Orkney. In a previous debate 1263 on nature conservancy I drew the attention of your Lordships to the considerable dissatisfaction that there has been in Orkney over the Nature Conservancy Council. It went so far that the peaceable Orkadians actually hanged a dummy representing the council.
The council has under its control a considerable amount of Orkney. In addition, a large acreage belongs to other bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is extremely important that they should get on well with the local inhabitants. That should not be too difficult because the local inhabitants are just as keen on nature conservancy, in many ways, as any others in Great Britain.
I am not very clear as to what the effect of this amendment would be. Certainly there is always a difficult balance to be drawn between seeing justice done and delay. Of course, there have been occasions on which, owing to delay, valuable sites have been destroyed before an order could be laid. I am not certain as to what would happen while an appeal was being considered by the Secretary of State. Presumably, the status quo would be enforced.
I merely want to say that I believe, for the sake of good relations, that it is important there should be some form of appeal to a body other than the Nature Conservancy Council when the local crofters or landowners are in dispute with the council. If there are not unforeseen snags in the amendment, I am inclined to support it simply on the ground that it will improve relations. Crofters will feel more confident if they have an appeal to a third party. However, that is subject to hearing exactly how such an appeal will operate and how long a delay it might entail before a decision on a site is arrived at.
§ Lord Gibson-Watt
May I briefly add to the debate? The question of having no appeal is, as the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, has said, one of the major obstacles to good relations between certain individuals and the Nature Conservancy Council. Anyone who knows anything about the Nature Conservancy Council knows that it is very understaffed. We also know that the staff are difficult people to get hold of.
One of the aspects that upset individuals who are told that an SSSI order is to be laid on their ground is that they get a letter through the post informing them of the fact. I live in the Wye Valley area. I was not told, but heard, that the whole of the River Wye was to be made an SSSI. That is a considerable area. It is a matter which should have had considerable debate, but there was no great public debate. The decision was taken by the Nature Conservancy Council. I do not think that it has done any particular harm, but the Nature Conservancy Council must realise that these matters are of very great interest to outside individuals and that sometimes the council does not give them sufficient consideration.
As regards an appeal, I ask your Lordships to cast your minds back to 1956. Your Lordships may recall the Crichel Down problem which was caused by the carrying on of wartime regulations in Dorsetshire. As a result of that problem, the whole new tribunal system was set up. I would only say to my noble friend when he suggests that the appeal should be made to the 1264 Secretary of State that I think that the wretched Secretary of State already has so many things on his plate that perhaps it might be just as well to consider setting up an appeal system with a tribunal. There are operating at the moment in this country over 60 different tribunals dealing with anything from supplementary benefits to land, criminal injuries compensation or whatever else one likes. Just to add one more tribunal might, I think, go a long way to improve the relations between owners of land, big and small, and the Nature Conservancy. It is only an idea, but I am very glad that my noble friend has raised this matter in the Committee this afternoon.
§ Earl Peel
Perhaps I may just expand on what my noble friend Lord Gibson-Watt said. I have a great deal of sympathy with some sort of appeal system, but there is a further point to which I should like to draw the attention of my noble friend on the Front Bench. I, too, have the pleasure—and I regard it as a pleasure—of having a number of SSSIs on my land and I have received the usual letter from the local NCC officer. I would suggest that one way to try to ease the public relations problems—and I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said earlier about young NCC officers—would be that it would be courteous if in the list of objectionable operations that we receive those which are quite obviously not going to apply to the landowner or farmer were deleted. That would at least make us think that our case had perhaps been thought out a little more carefully. I think it would help enormously.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I think that we went into the question of appeal at fairly considerable length in 1981. I think that I support what my noble friend Lord Gibson-Watt says and the idea behind what my noble friend Lord Burton says, though I could perhaps explain to him why he should not shoot eagles, but that is another question altogether. If an element of appeal were brought in, it would mean that the NCC would have to have more money and more staff, and we know how difficult that would be. But perhaps that would be a good thing. I do not know. Everybody is always asking for money and for staff and the Treasury is always saying, no, they cannot have them. If there is an appeal system, there is no doubt that it would cost more money.
§ Lord Melchett
I am afraid to say to the noble Lord, Lord Burton, once again that I am not all that happy with the proposed amendment to the Bill. Perhaps I may explain the two reasons why I would hope your Lordships' Committee will not agree to its inclusion in the Bill.
First of all, it might be worth repeating a point that I made at Second Reading, particularly as some noble Lords were not present then. The Bill as introduced in another place by my honourable friend David Clark, MP, was based on widespread consultations with conservation, farming and landowning interests. A number of clauses which, on the one hand, conservation interests and, on the other hand, the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association might like to have seen in a Bill amending the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 were not in the end included in the Bill because there 1265 was no consensus behind them. The conservation bodies dropped about 14 proposed clauses because it was not possible in the short time available to secure the agreement of the NFU and the CLA to the proposals that they wanted David Clark to introduce. I suspect that this amendment would have been one which the NFU on previous grounds would have been prepared to support, but I am afraid the conservation bodies would not. It is for that reason—as I understand it, there is no consensus behind the clause—that I hope the noble Lord will not press it.
The second reason is much more important. I believe that the proposal for appeals when SSSIs are first notified is based on a misunderstanding of what that notification implies. If I may say so, I think that both the noble Lords, Lord Grimond and Lord Gibson-Watt, fell into that trap. The notification of a SSSI by the NCC merely carries with it the requirement that the landowner or occupier gives the NCC three months' notice before he undertakes some activity which would damage the public and nature conservation interest in that land. It does not give the NCC power to control what happens on the land over any period longer than three months. It is simply a stop period. That is all that the notification provides.
I would suggest to noble Lords who support the amendment that a major appeal procedure simply over whether there should be a three-month period in which notification is given would be setting up an enormous bureaucratic operation for a minor irritant. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, is quite right; it would require significant additional resources. Surely the point where we need an appeal procedure is where the owner or occupier wants to do something to the land to which the NCC objects. Then there should be an appeal procedure. At the moment the NCC can ask for a Section 29 order from the Secretary of State, and it is at that point that the Government get involved and they make a decision about whether that is justified. If that fails, the NCC could in theory ask for a compulsory purchase order. Again, there would be procedures in which the owner or occupier would have the right to object.
If we moved those appeal procedures to an earlier stage, I think that we should have to accept as a consequence no appeal procedures at the later stages. I believe that inevitably we should be giving the NCC an automatic right to a Section 29 order and to purchase compulsorily the land if the owner or occupier was not going to go along with what it wanted. Many conservationists might feel that that was a preferable package, but it would need to be that sort of package. I do not think that we can have appeal procedures at every single stage of the game, particularly when, as I say, the initial notification simply carries with it a three-month period of delay before action can be taken.
If I may make a serious point, it seems to me much more important that the appeal should come in when somebody wants to do something different to the land. It is at that point that decisions should be made and, if necessary, appeal made to the Secretary of State. The time when notification occurs is not that point; it may be very occasionally, but not normally.
1266 I hope that for those reasons the noble Lord, Lord Burton, will reconsider this amendment. If I may say so, I should have thought that from his point of view there are some dangers in going too far down the road of an early appeal system. It would inevitably pre-judge decisions that would otherwise be made later when the landowner or occupier wanted to do something which damaged the nature conservation interests of the land.
I think that I see this as a teething problem. Parliament in its wisdom decided to have SSSIs renotified in 1981 in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. That has had to go along side by side with the notification of those comparatively few new SSSIs which the NCC feels are justified on scientific grounds. There is no question that that has stretched the staff resources and the budget of the NCC. It has been allocated an extra £7 million—an extra 25 per cent.—for 1985–86 to enable it to recruit over 100 extra staff this year principally to devote more resources to the SSSI renotification programme.
The NCC is of course very conscious of the need for a sensitive and sympathetic approach to negotiations with landowners, and in recruiting additional staff it will be looking particularly for those with the appropriate negotiating skills. I should perhaps say that with the extra staff resources available—which is something that I think the Government have announced on several occasions by the means of Written Answers—the NCC expects substantially to complete the programme of SSSI notification by the end of 1986. So we immediately have a timing problem here.
If a tribunal or whatever else was considered reasonable was set up, it would hardly be got going before the need for it would substantially disappear. The argument therefore seems to me to be whether we need a right of appeal at all. This matter of the right of appeal against the notification of a SSSI has been given a good deal of careful thought, scrutiny and consideration both in the past and more recently. During the passage of the then Wildlife and Countryside Bill in 1980–81 the SSSI system was discussed at length. It was decided then that an appeal procedure was not appropriate for I think many of the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has just adduced.
Further to that, a substantial volume of evidence on the present system was also presented to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment in the course of their recent investigations. On examination of the proposals for a right of appeal to a notification under Section 28 of the Act, the committee concluded that such a procedure was both unnecessary and impracticable. Their findings pointed out that a decision to notify is essentially a scientific one which should be protected from external pressure.
I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Peel that sometimes this is done in a rather insensitive way. In the last year, administratively, the NCC has been sending an explanatory paper alongside its paper notifying the individual landowner that he has become the proud owner of an SSSI. Also, it is accompanied by a list of damaging operations. I fully take my noble friend's point that these items might well be more 1267 specific to the particular farm or holding in question. I am perfectly prepared to investigate this matter to see that the damaging operations which could not possibly apply to a particular landowner be deleted from his copy of the list when he gets it.
On this subject of the letter, the position is this. I think this is also in answer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Gibson-Watt when he said that the only thing people know is when the letter drops through the letter-box. This is not quite true because there are site visits by members of the Nature Conservancy Council's staff and I hope it would come as no surprise to most of the people involved that the area is about to be notified as an SSSI.
Going back to an appeal system per se, I think that it would only be appropriate where there has been some substantial loss of control. At present, owners and occupiers are required to give the Nature Conservancy Council notice of intention to carry out operations which they are advised are likely to damage the scientific interest of particular sites but are subsequently only statutorily constrained for a period of three months—which I trust is about to become four months under this Bill. Hence the present system does not involve any permanent disadvantage over property.
As I have said, this matter has already been given very scrupulous consideration. The conclusion is that the right of appeal is unnecessary in this context. Having said that, I fully agree with those noble Lords who have spoken that sympathy, consideration and care when dealing with landowners, is abolutely essential. I know that the Nature Conservancy Council is considering very urgently and carefully how it can improve its dealings with people on the ground.
Having said all that, I hope my noble friend will agree that there have been no new circumstances to change the view that the right of appeal is unnecessary, and consequently he will recognise why I am unable to support his amendment.
§ Lord Melchett
Perhaps I may just make one more point about the NCC's contact with owners and occupiers. In consultation with the NCC about amendments to which we shall come in a minute, it is my understanding that they have had to drop the explanatory letter, the more informal, chatty letter which they have sent to farmers and landowners in the past, because of the loss of two court cases in recent months.
There were two court cases brought by the NCC, against farmers or occupiers of renotified SSSIs who have damaged them in apparent breach of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The NCC failed to win the prosecutions they took in both cases. As a result, one of the things they have had to do is to make their procedures more legalistic and less informal. Thus in future they will have to restrict themselves simply to the formal notice. I think all of us would agree that that is a shame. However, I hope noble Lords will recognise that it is hardly the NCC's fault. Two farmers to whom it had renotified SSSIs apparently then damaged them illegally. They were acquitted in a court of law on what appeared to be technical problems which we shall discuss later.
1268 The second point I want to make is this. My understanding is that the NCC visit every owner or occupier of new SSSIs. That has been its practice since the Act of 1981 was passed. In relation to SSSIs which already exist and have been renotified, that would not be the case. However, in theory at least—and we spent much time on this matter in 1981—owners and occupiers should know of the existence of existing SSSIs.
§ Lord Burton
I should like to thank all those members of the Committee who have taken part in this discussion. I think it has brought out some interesting points. I should like particularly to thank my noble friend on the Front Bench. Following his advice and example there is little doubt that certainly at this juncture one ought to ask leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Earl Peel moved Amendment No. 3:
After Clause 2, insert the following new clause
§ ("Marine nature reserves
§ .—(1) Section 36 (marine nature reserves) of the principal Act shall be amended as follows.
§ (2) At the end of subsection (6) there shall be inserted the words "except with the agreement of Ministers".").
§ The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may take the Committee from terra firma to the sea. The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act made provision for the creation of marine nature reserves but as yet, as members of the Committee will be aware, none has been created. It is against this background that I move this amendment.
The most positive statement that there has been to date from my honourable friend William Waldegrave, Minister of State, is that if the voluntary approach has not yielded results in the next 12 to 18 months, in other words, four to five years after the passing of the Act, then,
we shall need to look very carefully at the existing provision and to consider whether further measures are necessary to strengthen it".
§ This lack of action has resulted in much concern and impatience by those interested in conservation, and not least by those of us who support the principle of the voluntary code which is so important and such a basic part of the 1981 Act.
Perhaps I may quote from the report of the environmental committee of another place:
The NCC has come up against considerable resistance on the part of the Sea Fisheries Committee who have said they are not prepared to support the concept off a statutory marine nature reserve by making bye-laws to control fishing authorities.
That appears to me to be the main stumbling block.
§ However, I am bound to say that I am sure that it is not just a simple question of the intransigence of one particular body holding up proceedings. Whereas I in no way wish to cast aspersions, today noble Lords have already expressed their feelings about some of the approaches of the Nature Conservancy Council.
§ Furthermore, I should be interested to know this. I should be grateful if my honourable friend on the Front Bench is able to answer this question. What percentage of the additional funds, the £7 million that was referred to earlier, provided to the NCC, has been allocated specifically to the further promotion of marine nature reserves?1269
§ It is quite clear—to me anyway—that both Ministries should have been involved in the marine nature reserve problems far sooner in order to knock heads together. I feel sure that if this had happened, we would have seen a situation more attractive and more satisfactory than we see today. Yet, I am bound to say that I feel that without some form of legislation we are not likely to see the kind of results that many of us would like to see. My simple amendment would give the Ministers the power to override those bodies that are in a position to pass the by-laws.
§ I do not wish to go into details of the different reasons given as to why there has been a complete failure to date to create any reserves. However, I think it is interesting and worth noting that the only site which appears to be anywhere near reaching official status is Lundy. The reason for this appears to be due to the direct interference of MAFF.
§ A further point is this. It seems to me difficult to appreciate why there is such opposition to the formation of these marine nature reserves, since the restrictions which are suggested by the Nature Conservancy Council do not seem to me to have any real bearing on the economic effects on fishermen. But even if some restrictions are necessary—I am sure that there are bound to be some, particularly when it comes to the use of mobile gear—then, surely, we are discussing in overall area an amount of sea, an amount of coastal waters, which is an absolutely minuscule percentage of the total fishing grounds available. I say that, understanding full well the problems that the fishing industry has to face at present. The Marine Conservation Society estimates it at less than 0.1 per cent. of our coastline. That is not the waters; that is just the coastline. We should perhaps compare this to the 10 per cent. of land that the NCC estimates will ultimately be designated as SSSIs.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ One should also compare the outcry that would have occurred if the same slow progress had been made on the creation of SSSIs. Surely, if landowners and farmers can co-operate in the way that they have in order to see the progress that has been made on SSSIs, the same could apply without too much difficulty to those involved in the sea. I suspect that the main reason why progress has been so slow and public complaint relatively muted is the simple reason that marine nature reserves can fully be appreciated only by those who are prepared to go under water. There are, I believe, opportunities now for travelling in glass-bottomed boats within the sites, though I suspect that the visibility in our English waters is such that this is not the most attractive or the most sensible way of seeing what these sites can provide. And, of course, when the tide is down, the opportunities for seeing interesting things are greatly exaggerated.
§ As a diver—it may surprise many of your Lordships to know that I am a qualified diver—I fully appreciate the beauty and the fascination of the world under the sea. In its own way, it is every bit as important and dramatic as that above the surface. Like all reserves, whether on the ground or in the sea, marine reserves will be invaluable not only to those seeking recreation but also as a means of studying marine ecology and the proper management of the sea's natural resources. I 1270 pose a question. I wonder how many of Her Majesty's Ministers involved with this problem have actually gone first hand to look at any of these sites. Perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend on the Front Bench that he might like to undertake one or two diving excursions to see for himself what we are attempting to protect. I would be only too delighted to go with him. I would further suggest that in view of the influence of marine nature reserves on the development of environmental education programmes, he might like to invite his noble friend Lord Swinton to join us. I can assure the House that wet suits and full diving equipment can be hired, not necessarily from Moss Bros. But they can be hired.
§ In moving the amendment, I am simply seeking from the Minister a total commitment to the rapid creation of statutory nature reserves as envisaged under the 1981 Act. We want to see a positive programme that will result in the creation and safeguarding of these sites for the future. At the very least, I expect an assurance from my noble friend that his department and the Ministry of Agriculture will do everything within their power to ensure that these sites are brought under statutory control as quickly as possible.
§ I have tried to outline the background. There are many other noble Lords who should like to speak to the amendment—at least, I hope so—and I know that there are many who have much more knowledge of the subject than I possess. I beg to move.
It is conventional wisdom in your Lordships' Chamber not to speak on matters that one does not know a good deal about. However, I support the amendment very warmly. I have a very longstanding acquaintance and connection with the island of Lundy and also with Skomer. My connection with Lundy, I must admit, is due to its magnificent rock climbing on the granite cliffs around the island. In the case of Skomer, it is because of its sea bird life. It chances that during next week my wife and myself will be spending several days on Skomer for that latter reason. I only wish that the Committee stage of the Bill had been timed to enable me to take part in discussions after our return.
Although life on the ocean bed or life within the sea is not my customary habitat, I am, for the reasons I have explained, interested not only in the islands but also in the offshore life around the islands. I have two points to make in support of the noble Earl's amendment. As a very concerned nature conservationist—like, I am sure, all your Lordships—I find it very disturbing, having taken some part in the discussions that brought into being the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, to find that four years after the passage of the Act precisely nothing has been done. I do not mean that nothing has been done, but no marine nature reserves have been created, despite the urgency that all noble Lords who took part in discussions on the Bill will recall was then apparent at all stages of the Bill that something should be done. That is not good enough.
The other reason is one already given by the noble Earl, Lord Peel. I agree that one reason for the lack of public pressure that would have been very likely to have brought into being more than one marine nature 1271 reserve by this time is that what is out of sight remains out of mind. Very few people are aware of what goes on, apart from what they see on their television screens, beneath the surface of the sea. This is a very pertinent factor. Whether or not that is the case—I suspect it is—I hope, especially, perhaps, because it is true, that the Government will not allow discussions and negotiations, which I know are in progress, on this hold-up to continue indefinitely. The House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, in Recommendation 18, said that as a matter of urgency the DoE and MAFF should take action to break the deadlock in negotiations, if necessary by amending Sections 36 and 37 of the Act so as to give the NCC or the Secretary of State—the amendment suggests the Secretary of State—adequate powers to set up marine nature reserves. I hope that if the voluntary approach does not produce results in the fairly near future, the Government will take the necessary steps to intervene and bring this about. I support the amendment.
§ Baroness Nicol
I, too, support the amendment. I have to confess that I do not dive. Nor do I swim. I am probably the only Member of your Lordships House who does not. However, I have a great concern, as your Lordships may have noticed, for marine life. I believe firmly that it is essential to our wellbeing, in perhaps more ways that we have thought, that we should be putting much more enthusiasm and drive into bringing about marine reserves. It is clear that if we are to make progress, ministerial involvement is necessary. That would be provided by the amendment. The necessity, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has said, has been illustrated by the events on Lundy where MAFF was able to stimulate some action. We should like to see that action repeated elsewhere.
Procedures are unnecessarily complicated. There seems, at best, confusion and, at worst, a lack of enthusiasm about finding the next step in negotiations. There has been a certain amount of criticism of the NCC today. No doubt, shortcomings can be found in most of its operations. However, I firmly believe that at the bottom of this is a lack of funds and a lack of personnel arising from that lack of funds. I hope that the Minister will relay to his right honourable friend the message that we in this House at any rate feel very strongly that the Nature Conservancy Council needs much more real support than it has received in the past.
I do not want to repeat many of the matters that have been raised either today or on Second Reading. However, I should like to remind the Committee of what the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, said on Second Reading, because it is very relevant. The noble Lord felt that the wishes of Parliament in the matter of marine nature reserves were being disregarded. We could produce endless examples of the lack of enthusiasm and the lack of drive which is apparent in the negotiations. I refer your Lordships to the report by the Environment Committee of the other place. Of the 18 recommendations at the end of that report a fair number are concerned with marine reserves. In particular, it recommends as a matter of urgency that the DoE and MAFF take action to break the deadlock 1272 in negotiations, if necessary by amending Sections 36 and 37 of the Act so as to give the NCC or the Secretary of State adequate powers to enable the NCC to set up marine nature reserves. I think that your Lordships will find that recommendation on page 12.
It is very sad that we have not progressed further with this matter. If we are not to press the amendment, we shall need to hear some very strong words from the Minister today. I remind your Lordships' Committee that this particular amendment comes within the Second Reading arrangements in the other place and we would not be outside our undertaking if we were to press it to a vote. Therefore, we look to the Minister to give us very good reason why we should not press it to a vote. Finally, is the Minister able to tell us of any real progress that has been made on any of the sites under discussion which may help us?
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I voted against the inclusion of marine nature reserves during the passage of the 1981 Act. However, I accept that Parliament decided otherwise and I therefore accept the principle that marine nature reserves should be set up. Indeed, I can say on behalf of the Royal Yachting Association, whose interests I pursued during the passage of that Bill, that the association is also happy about the creation of marine nature reserves in principle, provided, of course, that there is the right of passage and the right to moor, particulary if stormbound.
Your Lordships may remember that during the passage of that Bill my noble friend Lord Avon on behalf of the Government took those points on board and between us a large number of amendments were tabled to the relevant clause, which satisfied the Royal Yachting Association.
Wearing another hat—a local one—I understand that there is no objection in principle from the local population of my county to the establishment of a marine nature reserve on the Menai Strait, which I know is an area dear to the heart of the noble Baroness, Lady White.
However, my noble friend Lord Peel asks: why have we not made any marine nature reserves when there is so much goodwill? Here perhaps I shall turn on the badwill and I should certainly disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady White, if I did not do so. The reason is quite simple, even though it may be unkind, and it is that I consider—as obviously a large number of your Lordships consider—that the Nature Conservancy Council really must put its organisation in order. Frankly, I would not trust it to make or to operate a marine nature reserve. Indeed, I shall go further—I would not trust it to run a peanut stall!
§ Baroness White
I am certainly one of those who has taken a very close interest in this matter and, therefore, I think that I should have an opportunity to intervene in the debate, not least because I have been referred to by the noble Lord who has just spoken. I am very much concerned about the lack of progress that has been made so far. Frankly, I am not entirely clear in my own mind as to how far the lack of progress is due to the deficiencies in the main legislation which this amendment seeks to improve or amend, and how far it is due to the complexities of the administrative arrangements which have been laid down by the 1273 Department of the Environment for carrying out the proposals in Sections 36 and 37 of the 1981 Act.
As I understand it, the Nature Conservancy Council has powers conferred upon it by the 1981 Act to make by-laws, but it has been more or less ordered by the Department of the Environment not to operate such powers but to stand back and to leave the making of by-laws to the other authorities which have concurrent powers; namely, the sea fisheries committees and in certain situations the water authorities. Some of the delay has undoubtedly been due to the reluctance of certain sea fisheries committees to exercise their powers of by-law making in co-operation with the Nature Conservancy Council, which has been told not to be particularly active in that direction. I am informed that the sea fisheries committees are under no obligation whatever to give public reasons as to why they are reluctant to make by-laws which the Nature Conservancy Council considers would be necessary or desirable if we are to have the marine nature reserve procedure speeded up.
Therefore, I hope that we may have a more convincing argument than the very brief reference—which has already been mentioned—in the Department of the Environment's response to the committee in another place in which it is said that the Government consider that amendments to Sections 36 and 37 of the 1981 Act are neither necessary nor desirable at present. Is that really sustainable?
The other area of concern is the administration. I do not know how many noble Lords in this Committee who are interested in the matter have studied the Department of the Environment's guidance which is formal but not statutory and which has been issued concerning this part of the 1981 legislation. The instructions to the NCC are that it has to follow an 11-stage procedure before the matter finally, under stage 11, is presented to the Secretary of State. It made me think of the Welsh non-conformist revivalist campaigns of the 19th century in which there were 11 steps necessary for salvation—a matter which will, of course, be entirely appreciated by the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy.
The penultimate stage, stage 10, is simply stated as, "resolution of problems", before you finally reach salvation with the presentation to the Secretary of State of all the details and all the consultations that have taken place and all the objections which have been received in some of the preceding stages. The NCC is under an obligation, for example, to hold full consultations with every body in creation from the Aluminium Corporation of Great Britain to the Women's Institutes. This is all set out in the guidance notes. Not only does it quite properly have to have detailed maps of the areas and evaluation of the existing by-laws made by other authorities—those which it considers will be needed for itself—but it also has to consult the International Maritime Organisation about rights of navigation and the type of ships which might be diverted or not, as the case may be, and so on. It is a very, very cumbrous procedure. I am not saying that it is not necessary, but that it is time-consuming is absolutely without doubt.
1274 I repeat: unless we really look at some of these provisions, we cannot imagine the amount or effort that must be needed before any formal presentation of a case for the designation of a marine nature reserve can be put to the Minister.
That brings one to a point which has already been touched upon by a number of noble Lords. It is perfectly true that since the passing of the 1981 legislation both the Countryside Commission—which is not directly concerned in this matter—and the Nature Conservancy Council have been afforded some additional resources of both money and prospective manpower. But are they anything like appropriate to the extra obligations which have been placed upon the Nature Conservancy Council?
The position in the Principality—and we have three of the proposed sites for marine nature reserves within our territory in Wales—allows a small number of additional staff for the Nature Conservancy Council in Wales. As I understand it, in England no fewer than 30 additional officers have been, or are ultimately to be, appointed. In Wales not more than four will be added to the full strength, and these at various levels of seniority. I appreciate that England is a good deal larger than Wales, but proportionately we have more areas of sensitivity than England, and it appears to me that Wales has been badly done by so far as stalling is concerned.
I have had detailed discussions, about which I have no intention of wearying your Lordships, about the three proposed marine nature reserves in the Welsh area and the time that it takes to deal with these matters. At the moment two officers are engaged on this for a small part of their time. This really has to be gone into in detail to appreciate the difficulties of going through all the 11 stages. I was gratified to know that so far as the Menai Strait is concerned, and so far as Skomer is concerned, the NCC have now managed to reach stage 6 out of the 11 stages necessary to salvation. So far as Bardsey is concerned, they arc still stuck at stage 2, which is not promising.
When one tries to get behind these facts, in nearly all cases one of the major problems concerns specific clashes of interest, which are inevitable in such situations. If one may take the Menai Strait, as I understand it there is a difference of view between the Lancashire and Western Sea Fisheries Committee, which is the operative one for that area, and the Welsh Water Authority. It is nothing to do directly with the NCC, but these two bodies cannot agree as to whether net fishing should or should not be allowed in the Menai Strait.
There are, as we know, considerable clashes of interest in many areas between those who are angling for sport and those who are net fishing for commercial livelihood. These matters are not easy to dispose of. It is difficult for the Nature Conservancy Council to overcome the differences between other authorities unless they have both more staff and stronger backing from the departments concerned, particularly in this case where the agricultural interests also cover fish.
I do not want to weary the Committee with the other kinds of problems which have local significance but which undoubtedly are one of the major causes of delay. If the Nature Conservancy Council are to be 1275 expected to settle problems which are not within their direct jurisdiction but which are essential for progress towards designation of reserves, then much stronger action is going to be needed from the departments concerned.
One of the reasons they are still stuck on stage 2 at Bardsey is that there seems to be a squalid squabble between the lobster pot fishermen and the divers, who are accused of raiding the lobster pots, taking undersized fish and committing other almost unnameable misdemeanours. I am told that the Nature Conservancy Council at Bangor have a mass of data on Bardsey but that they lack the resources to work it up adequately, or speedily, in order to go further along the 11 stages towards making an ultimate presentation to the Secretary of State.
Surely what is needed is firmer and more energetic and enthusiastic directions from the department concerned. I do not believe that it is fair to put the blame for this delay entirely on the Nature Conservancy Council. I hope that we shall hear something more reassuring from the Minister than the negative response which the Government gave to the Committee in another place in this document which was published a couple of weeks ago.
I make just one other point: that is to remind the Committee that in the main legislation in Section 36 the purposes for which marine nature reserves were to be established were not only to conserve,marine flora or fauna or geological or physiographical features of special interest",but also to provide.special opportunities for the study of, and research into, matters relating to marine flora and fauna and the physical conditions in which they live, or for the study of geological and physiographical features of special interest in the area".One reason I am so interested in the Menai Strait proposition, to which the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, referred, is that that will provide an almost unique opportunity for study and participation in marine conservation. We have the Sports Council of Wales centre on one side of the strait and other educational establishments on the Anglesey side of the strait. You have a magnificent opportunity there, with captive audiences, to make good progress and do some pioneering work on involving people in the study of marine treasures, marine interests, and taking part themselves.
I am told that the Sports Council of Wales, which I believe originally had no particular interest in marine affairs, are encouraging those who visit the centre—and they reckon that they have a fair number of people on the strait at least 340 days of the year—to take part in the collection of data, for example, on seal movements and matters of that kind, where under proper guidance people can be induced to both add to the data available and to inform themselves of, and interest themselves in, this particularly interesting area of natural history.
Again one hopes that when we ultimately—and I suppose that we shall ultimately—have marine nature reserves designated and operative, the Government will not forget that resources will also be required to put them to the best possible use. This is an area in 1276 which some of us take a keen interest. We are deeply disappointed at the difficulties which have been encountered. I hope we can have an encouraging reply from the Minister on whether the Government are prepared to think again about the statutory provisions and also some constructive assurances about the administrative arrangements.
§ The Earl of Radnor
I sympathise with noble Lords regarding the sluggishness of marine reserves coming forward and being created, and I sympathise with what the noble Baroness has just said about the rather ponderous procedures that have to be gone through. Even so, we must go back to the amendment itself and see what is the alternative suggestion; and this was overriding powers on the part of the Minister. That was how I understood it.
I think that that would be quite wrong. We must realise that marine reserves may have been in people's minds for a long time but they are quite new on the statute book; and as we have just noticed, they do not in fact exist at all so far. At least it seems reasonable that the procedures should be long and that many people should be consulted. It may well be that there are some staffing or organisational problems or something of that sort. But we should be patient with this and not too autocratic and not hurry forward too quickly.
The people with whom I have been in contact are commercial people and they do not seem to be worried about the creation of these reserves. They seem to be short of information and not prepared to commit themselves. I am tempted to feel sometimes that if only the nature conservancy people on the spot could identify all the many people concerned in any area, whether it be the Menai Strait or Lundy, and could have an agenda covering the areas on which they should try to reach agreement, and then were locked in a room for a long time perhaps something would happen. The burden of my few words is: please, do not let us have the Minister holding overriding powers.
I should like to return to the comparison made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, between the SSSIs on land and nature reserves at sea. It is a false comparison because with the SSSI one is dealing with a corporate body or, more likely, with an individual. It is easier to reach agreement, notwithstanding the troubles we have heard mentioned. In dealing with the sea it is more like common land where there are endless rights to be dealt with and that must be very difficult indeed. I would hope that both Lundy and the Menai Strait would, under existing procedures under the 1981 Act, become nature reserves. I hope they would be successful and form a pattern for the future which might take some of the worry out of the minds of people who feel, perhaps unreasonably, that they will be adversely affected. I am afraid therefore that I cannot support this amendment.
§ The Earl of Onslow
The Irish, those great practitioners of administrative speed, have several marine nature reserves. The French have in action several marine nature reserves. I believe we are one of the few countries in the European Community that 1277 have not yet managed to get them functioning. The Government have admitted delays. Can my noble friend tell me what has caused those delays and why? It is worthwile pointing out some of the things which will not happen in marine nature reserves. In the Isles of Scilly there is no objection by the Nature Conservancy Council to any current fishing practices in the area proposed. Static gear is on the whole not regarded as having any effect. It is the dredges which can destroy the whole ecology of the seabed.
There is also a worry about fish farming. My noble friend Lord Radnor quite correctly raised this point. The conflict, it appears, is as at Loch Sween where already one mussel culture system has failed because it has overloaded the carrying capacity of the loch. If we are sensible we can discover which lochs may be set aside for fish farming, which is an extremely important source of food and employment and should be encouraged. There should be a better legislative framework for it than there is at the moment. We must get these things going and it is not satisfactory that nothing has happened in four years.
We know what has happened to the technology of dredges and diving, or monofilament nets which can continue fishing forever, it seems. We know that these marine nature reserves will become a tiny special super reserve for large chunks of marine life. It is up to my noble friends on the Front Bench and Her Majesty's Government to knock the heads together of the various people to make sure it happens. I suggest that amendments such as this would never have to be used because once it was part of the legislative framework it would concentrate the minds of people very rapidly indeed. I hope that we can have some satisfactory answers from the Minister.
§ Lord Melchett
I thank the Minister for letting me say a word about the amendment. I am delighted we have reached an amendment which, as sponsor of the Bill, I should be happy to see in the Bill. It was in a slightly lengthier form in the Bill which received a Second Reading in another place.
I shall first take up something which the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, said about the need to allow people to understand what marine nature reserves would be like and to take time over their formation. That might have been a reasonable view if it had been expressed two years ago, two years after the Act; that might have seemed a reasonable time and if negotiations had been going along reasonably smoothly on the seven or so sites which the NCC had identified as priorities, in part because of their scientific interest and in part because they were felt to be the easiest sites on which to reach agreement. That is important for the noble Lord to remember. At the moment we are talking about the NCC's failure to deliver a single marine nature reserve when they had a target of seven which they reckoned would be the easiest places along the coastline to reach agreement on. They did not tackle the most important scientifically because they had not yet done the necessary research to enable them to determine what areas were the most important scientifically. This is one of the problems resulting from the lack of 1278 resources in the NCC which my noble friend Lady White touched on.
The fact is we are talking about this four years after the Act was passed. Negotiations broke down completely at two sites. The first which the NCC tried to go for was the Scilly Isles, in part because of strong support from the landowner, but negotiations were stopped by the objections of one or two individual fishermen, although as the noble Earl said, the fact was the NCC did not intend to object to any of the current fishing practices. On Lundy negotiations broke down completely because the Sea Fisheries Committee refused to discuss the matter any further and said they were opposed to a marine nature reserve. It was only after the welcome intervention of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture that negotiations were re-started. That surely demonstrates the need for this amendment.
The fact is that if it is possible for one or two individuals—on whatever side they may be and from whatever point of view they may speak—completely to halt negotiations, then Ministers need to intervene to say, "Let us get this thing going again and get together because this is of national importance. We attach importance to agreement being reached".
That apparently was the process that was gone through on Lundy. This amendment would simply give statutory backing to what Ministers from MAFF and DoE appear to have to do at the moment to keep talks going, and clearly they will have to do that if talks are to reach any successful conclusions even on the easiest sites on which agreement might be reached.
I should like to say a word about the NCC. Again they have been criticised, not least and not for the first time by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley. This is unfair criticism. I join with people (and there are many outside Parliament) who have criticised the NCC for not giving sufficient priority to marine nature reserves. But the fact is that Parliament placed an impossible duty on the NCC when we passed the 1981 Act—something on which some noble Lords on all sides of your Lordships' House pointed out at the time would be an impossible duty—but the resources of the NCC have had consistently year by year to be substantially increased. They welcome an increase in resources from the Government but the grants have had to be very substantially increased year by year. Still the NCC are finding it extraordinarily difficult to cope with the burden of work placed on them by the 1981 Act; that is borne out by comments that noble Lords have made today.
It is unfair to suggest that all this lack of progress is the fault of the NCC. They have not had the resources and when they have tried to tackle sites one by one taking the easiest first, sooner or later they have come up against a blank refusal for further discussion from sea fishing interests. The chairman of the NCC has told me in a letter that the statement made in another place by Mr. Waldegrave, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the DoE, was that the Government would look again at the situation, (that is, look again at the need for legislation) in 18 months' time; and, that, assuming that, if the position was still unsatisfactory, they would then legislate. This is certainly acceptable to the NCC. The first question that I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord 1279 Skelmersdale, is whether it really is the Government's position that they will look at the position in 12 to 18 months' time and, if it is still unsatisfactory, they will legislate. That appears to be the understanding of the chairman of the NCC. I should also like to ask the Government, if this is an agreement that they have reached with the NCC, whether they can give us any of the criteria that they will use to judge whether the position is then satisfactory. Will a single marine reserve be all that we shall ever get and then the pressure will be considered to have been lifted and Ministers can go back to considering other matters and the process will be allowed to grind to a halt again; or will the Government consider it satisfactory if all the reserves that the NCC has currently identified have been agreed at that stage or are moving rapidly towards agreement?
I hope that the Government will also require some progress on the marine conservation review, the scientific study, which is needed to assess all the areas of coastline in Great Britain to see where else marine nature reserves might be desirable on scientific grounds.
I should like to say a word about something that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said at Second Reading; that is, the importance that the Government attach to the voluntary approach. That is something that has been echoed by noble Lords opposite today. Clearly, it is going to be important when a marine reserve is set up for all the interests concerned to support the reserve and to abide by the by-laws and other provisions made to protect the area. I would not deny that for a moment.
But the fact is that there is a large number of voluntary marine reserves already in this country. The problem there is that they receive no actual protection. Skomer, which has been mentioned, is an example of that. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, told me in a letter recently that an experiment was being carried out at Skomer with a bit of dredging equipment to demonstrate whether it was the case that dredging caused severe damage to the marine environment and therefore should be excluded from the reserve when it is set up. The fishing boat conducting the experiment unfortunately broke down after a day; but I gather that sufficient information on film and other evidence was collected to enable a judgment to be made about this. I do not know whether the noble Lord has yet heard the results of the experiment. If he has, I shall be interested to hear them. The fishing boat which broke down after a day's experimenting with the dredging kit was working again a few days later when it returned to the voluntary marine reserve and dredged the sea bottom for scallops. The fact that there is a voluntary marine reserve there does not afford it any protection. I do not believe that the Government, who at Second Reading in any event, gave some support to the voluntary principle, are supporting that with any cash; or, if they are, it is with very little. I should like the noble Lord to tell me how much money the Government have been prepared to put into supporting the voluntary marine reserve in the last few years; because my understanding is that it is a very small or nil amount.
1280 I think that that demonstrates that while support for marine nature reserves is clearly going to be important, simply leaving this to voluntary discussions and voluntary agreements is not enough. The Government themselves appear to recognise this by intervening very actively in a number of cases; and I welcome that. But I would hope that they would then go on to accept the logical conclusion of their own action; that an amendment of this sort, which does not give a power to the Department of the Environment to override fisheries' interests but allows Ministers collectively to reach an agreement, is necessary and, in fact, reflects what they appear to be starting to do already.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Would it not be absolutely marvellous to be able to wave a magic parliamentary wand and to have a marine nature reserve on the stocks tomorow? But it just is not practical. It is not practical in part for the reasons enunciated by the noble Baroness, Lady White. In conditions such as this you have to consult a very wide range of people. You have to consult people—namely, the fishermen—who are not very used to having dealings with the Ministry of Agriculture. This means that it takes even longer to have a marine nature reserve than it does to have a site of special scientific interest.
In those circumstances, this amendment would give Ministers the power to override totally the existing functions and rights of relevant authorities: local authorities, sea fisheries committees, statutory water undertakers and so on, and in effect would establish MNRs by ministerial decree where voluntary agreements could not be reached. We have discussed marine nature reserves on several previous occasions and, most recently, on Second Reading. I am sure that noble Lords will by now be well acquainted with the Government's view on this proposal for the creation of a power of ministerial override to speed up the establishment of marine nature reserves. Quite simply, giving Ministers power to override existing functions and rights is not the right approach. The introduction of compulsion at this stage when there are encouraging signs of progress in several areas (which I shall go into in a minute) in our view would be counter productive. It would arouse anxieties, harden attitudes and could alienate the very interests on whose willing cooperation the establishment of well protected marine nature reserves depends.
In this context I was surprised that of all people it should be my noble friend Lord Peel who raised this matter today. He, after all, supports the Government's commitment to the voluntary approach in conservation, except where it has manifestly been shown to have failed. So the question that I have to answer is whether it has failed. Why is there different progress on land as opposed to at sea? I almost agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that out of sight means out of mind in this connection, at least so far as most of the people who live in this country are concerned. The Government do not take this view. We are concerned and that is why, albeit slowly, we are fostering discussions on various potential marine nature reserves. Officials from MAFF and my own department have been making very substantial efforts 1281 to assist with and encourage negotiations with the Association of Sea Fisheries' Committees concerning the general principles underlying the establishment of marine nature reserves, and substantial progress has been achieved. The departments have also been closely involved in discussions on individual marine nature reserves and have, I hope, been able to contribute to the progress which has been possible recently in areas such as Lundy.
The Association of Sea Fisheries' Committees has displayed a very constructive and positive attitude in recent discussions concerning the establishment of MNRs and the individual sea fisheries committes have been equally helpful in negotiations on individual sites. In Lundy, for example, despite some initial difficulties which led to a breakdown of negotiations—and I fully admit that—between the Nature Conservancy Council and the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, I am happy to report that negotiations have recently been reopened and there are very encouraging signs of progress. On Skomer local interests, too, have adopted a very constructive attitude towards the setting up of a reserve there. In this case, too, progress is being made. A collaborative experiment organised by the Nature Conservancy Council and the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee to assess the impact of scallop dredging has been carried out and the results of this experiment are currently being evaluated.
A noble Lord (whose name I regret I cannot remember) asked why we cannot have some research, get to the bottom of the problem and then get on with it. Research takes time and then has to be evaluated. Then, most certainly, we can get on with it. But research in this instance is going hand in hand with the proposal to designate the various marine nature reserves.
I was given a challenge, as I understand it, at the beginning of this debate by my noble friend Lord Peel to go diving with him. I must confess that I have never donned an aqualung, although I have donned a wet suit from time to time, and I have snorkelled, especially around the island of Colonsay. I have also been an amateur lobster fisherman in my time. I therefore have an appreciation of what life can be like under water, but obviously not in the same detail as my noble friend. If he wishes to do so, I shall be only too pleased for him to educate me further in this matter.
The other point which arose was the Nature Conservancy Council's appreciation of exactly what my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary said in another place, and indeed what I said at Second Reading. I should have thought it was perfectly clear. What we both said was that if we have not got agreement on at least one marine nature reserve within 12 to 18 months we shall need to look again at the existing statutory provisions to see whether they need strengthening.
I have not seen the letter to which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has referred but I have in my hand a letter from the Nature Conservancy Council, signed by the chairman, to my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of the Department of the Environment. It says: 1282Might I make a suggestion on how the circle might be squared: I believe I could come out in support of the Government's stance, if I had to do so under questioning, and honestly so, if:the Government were to make clear that it wanted to try the voluntary principle for a limited length of time—say, further twelve to eighteen months. This would put pressure on those who are opposing the setting up of marine nature reserves to be more co-operative.If the Government, particularly MAFF … were to ensure that all the Departments were to give us maximum support, we might be able to make headway".In this letter, from which I have just quoted, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Nature Conservancy Council felt that the Government were committed to producing legislation after 12 to 18 months. Indeed, the Nature Conservancy Council have got it absolutely right. They are not in that position.
I fully accept that the establishment of the first, let alone any other, marine nature reserve is taking a very long time. But I think that we have explained today the reasons it is taking a very long time. I must, on behalf of the Government, entirely accept that we cannot wait indefinitely for the establishment of the first marine nature reserve. That is precisely why I indicated on Second Reading, and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary indicated in another place, what our position was. I am prepared to put that into a slightly more definite form of words: that if we have not got agreement on at least one marine nature reserve within 12 to 18 months we shall need to reconsider the statutory provisions with a view to strengthening them. But as I said earlier, there is significant progress on at least two marine nature reserves. I ask the Committee to give us just this little bit longer so that we can complete it. I can give a personal assurance that I am genuinely hopeful that we shall not reach the stage when we need to consider legislation on this issue.
§ Baroness White
Before the noble Lord sits down, can he give us any further assurances on the administrative strength of the NCC to deal with this proposition? As I have said, I am familiar with the Welsh scene, where there are two officers giving part of their time. The more senior one is in fact a specialist adviser for the whole of the Principality, both terrestrial and marine. When I asked him how soon he could get down to Skomer to see what was going on with the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee he said. "We have the Royal Welsh Show next month; the Royal National Eisteddfod in the first week of August; we have to prepare for the exhibition stands there; I have to be there", and so on. To call him a maid of all work would be insulting. That is the position: that the senior person concerned with marine conservation in Wales has a great many other things to do.
§ Lord Melchett
I should like to raise a similar question of resources at the NCC, with the possibility of the NCC at least starting the basic research work in the marine conservation review that I mentioned. I was not trying to equate that with the limited experiment involving scallop dredging, but I should have thought that if the Government are going to show everyone that they are determined that real progress should be made in this field, the starting of the marine conservation review must be a major priority. It would be helpful if we had some commitment from the 1283 Government about when that work will be started, which will involve the NCC receiving the funds to do it.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Earlier I referred to the extra £7 million which the Government have voted this year to the Nature Conservancy Council. I described it as a 25 per cent. increase in their grant. This is no mean amount of money. I do not know whether the noble Baroness on the Front Bench opposite heard me refer to it in the last amendment, or the one before, but to be asked when we were going to produce more money from national funds to support the NCC even further caused me a little wry amusement, I may say. Money does not grow on trees. It has to be justified. We had very good reason to justify it, as we all know very well, in that the Nature Conservancy Council was understaffed. The point surely is how this money will be used, with special reference to marine nature reserves. I cannot say, because this is a matter for the NCC themselves. They do not of course hypothesise about individual sums of money within their total grant. What I can say is that with the extra staff resources they are about to have available the NCC expect substantially to complete the programmes of SSSIs notified by the end of 1986. I have already said that. They also intend to increase their staff involvement with marine nature reserves fivefold over the next five years. Therefore not only are the Government taking this matter extremely seriously but the NCC admit themselves that they are taking it extremely seriously.
So far as administrative arrangements go—a point also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady White—the current arrangements have been prepared with the need to ensure adequate consultation with all interests concerned with the establishment of marine nature reserves very much in mind. I am sure that in general terms such comprehensive consultations provide the best means of ensuring secure, well-protected reserves.
The present arrangements were, I understand, based on the principle of consulting any groups who had expressed an interest in marine nature reserves generally. I entirely accept that this may have resulted in a rather formidable list of consultees. I think it is appropriate, since the noble Baroness has raised this matter, to look again at the list of consultees rather on the lines that my noble friend Lord Peel suggested: that the Nature Conservancy Council should look at whether a particular, damaging, operation was appropriate to a particular farm. I am perfectly prepared to undertake to see whether a particular consultee is appropriate in every case. I think it could well be that there is scope for streamlining the procedure, which would also help to speed up the establishment of a marine nature reserve. That is something that I think we all want.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Melchett
I am sure that all noble Lords who are concerned with this amendment will no doubt decide for themselves what to do about it. There are one or two points I should like to address to them rather than to the Government. First of all, I hope that at this stage they will not press the amendment to a 1284 Division, although my own feeling is that they would be well justified in doing so in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has said. I say I hope they will not press this to a Division because of the difficulties which the Government apparently foresee, if the Bill is amended here, when it returns to another place. I think it would be desirable to look at all the amendments which have been tabled at Committee stage to see whether some other technical amendments will have to be made in any event before deciding on whether an amendment on marine nature reserves should be pressed and, hopefully, put into the Bill. We could always do that at Report stage.
I say I think that those who have put their names to this amendment would be well justified in pressing it because I really felt that what the noble Lord had to say on behalf of the Government was extraordinarily inadequate. He was in effect saying, "If in another 12 or 18 months we have not achieved a single marine nature reserve then we will consider the possibility of further legislation". Incidentally, I think that runs counter to the understanding I have in writing from the chairman of the NCC. I find that of no great importance, because the target the Government have set themselves is such a miserably small one. The NCC, four years ago, thought that they could achieve seven marine reserves in a comparatively short space of time. After all, four of the seven sites which they went for were already voluntary reserves, and they felt that agreement could be secured in a matter of months.
The then Secretary of State, Mr. Heseltine, had plans to open the first statutory marine reserve before he ceased to be Secretary of State; and that was some time ago. He obviously felt that getting one marine nature reserve set up would not take very long or be very difficult. For the Government to say now that if, after some six and a half years from the passing of the Act, they have not got a single reserve then they will reconsider the matter is really setting themselves a target which it is quite impossible for them to miss. That is why I do not really think that the undertaking which the Government have given is worth anything at all.
§ The Earl of Onslow
Really, the reply that my noble friend has given is very unsatisfactory. "Dilatoriness" is the word which springs immediately to mind. We are not asking for very much. The Irish have got several, and they are people who seem to be able to get things organised. The French have got one. My noble friend has not said what has caused the delays. Of course, if people do not want change and if there is no stick at all, people will not be prepared to do anything because it is easier to keep things unaltered. For my noble friend to say that Ministers cannot do anything is almost saying that the Government cannot function at all.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
That I most certainly did not say. I am accused of saying that Ministers cannot do anything. It is simply not in my nature to say something of that kind.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I thought that was exactly how my noble friend described the position on the amendment, but if I misunderstood him then 1285 obviously I misunderstood him. However, I do not think I am alone in taking that point of view and I can equally see that we should not press this amendment because it gives an absolutely perfect opportunity for an obscure "fishing" Member of another place to get up and filibuster. The Minister knows as well as we do that we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, if your Lordships will excuse a rather laboured pun.
§ Baroness Nicol
I have one more question I should like to put to the Minister. Is he seriously suggesting that discussions have been going on for the last three or four years? Is he saying that negotiations started the moment the original Bill became law? Is that a fact? Have they been discussing this matter, or have we had only recent interest in marine reserves? I think we need to know, because if negotiations started four years ago I would respectfully suggest that we need not wait any longer. If in fact the negotiations have only just begun, perhaps he has a case.
§ Lord Melchett
I hope my noble friend might consider that if negotiations really have only just begun, which I believe is the case in respect of one or two of these reserves, they have begun because of the possibility of the law being amended—and that surely makes the case for the amendment just as well as if the talks had been going on for four or five years. I do not honestly think that my noble friend can find an escape clause for the Government either way.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
The normal procedure is that when an Act reaches the statute book it is then necessary to devise procedures, which is what was done. Then, as I understand it, about 18 months later, the "sharp end" (to use a rather inelegant expression) started. Then, as we all know, some negotiations came to a rather sticky impasse. The news I have been able to give to the Committee this afternoon is that this impasse is now being resolved, and I have asked the Committee to give the Government another 12 or 18 months. I think the position is quite clear on this.
§ Earl Peel
I can assure the noble Lord opposite, and indeed every other noble Lord who is concerned with this matter, that I have no intention of pressing this amendment. However, I think it is a very good thing that we have had this debate particularly in view of the fact that when this Bill went through another place discussions there were largely dominated by the subject of badgers. I think it is right that marine life should have its share of attention, and I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have supported me. I think I am right in saying that, even including my noble friend Lord Stanley, who agreed to the clause in principle, there was total support except for my noble friend Lord Radnor.
I hope I was not being unfair in comparing marine nature reserves and SSSIs. All I was trying to put across was that a great number of SSSIs have been created, whereas we are talking about so few marine nature reserves that really I do think we can make comparisons. In addition, he mentioned that dealing with marine nature reserves was rather similar to dealing with common land. I should like to assure him, although he is not in the Chamber at the 1286 moment, that SSSIs have actually been created on common land: I have two on my own.
Great expertise has been shown by many speakers, and in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady White, who is a great expert in these matters. She mentioned the complications of the 11 clauses which are required before a marine nature reserve can be designated I was delighted to hear my noble friend say that he will perhaps look at the system to see whether it can be speeded up. I must confess that I am extremely interested to know what the noble Baroness was referring to in talking about "unnameable misdemeanours". As she was not prepared to divulge further information, perhaps she would be good enough to tell me afterwards.
§ Earl Peel
I am disappointed! I must confess I do not know very much about the habits of hen lobsters. My noble friend Lord Stanley talked about the use of yachts within marine nature reserves. I am sure that would be acceptable unless, perhaps, anchors were dropped in vulnerable places. I do not know whether that would cause problems, but it is perhaps something that ought to be considered.
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, quite rightly asked whether the creation of one or two marine nature reserves would result in the Government sitting back on their laurels and saying, "Here is a sop to the conservationists". I think my noble friend answered that satisfactorily, although I shall read with interest in Hansard tomorrow what he said. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, also mentioned the need for a marine conservation review, and that, I believe, is absolutely paramount.
Moving on to the reply made by my noble friend on the Front Bench, I can only say that I, too, am bitterly disappointed. We have really heard nothing new. I thought we might at least have gone one or two steps forward, but nothing he has said can give me or, I am sure, other noble Lords any encouragement whatsoever. He said he was surprised that I had put my name to this amendment, and indeed had spoken on it, in view of the fact that I am a member of the same party as he and therefore believe in the voluntary principle enshrined in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I do believe in the principle, but only if it is going to work. There are cases—I happen to believe that this is one—where it is necessary to give the ministry powers over and above those of other organisations. Incidentally, during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act I did not support the compensation clause—what became known as the "may" clause—for loss of profits within national parks and SSSIs. So I was not totally and utterly one who was committed to the voluntary approach.
I have said enough and I have expressed my disappointment. The only commitment that my noble friend gave was when he said that he was genuinely hopeful that things would proceed. If that is all he has to say in a positive way, I reiterate my disappointment in his reply. But for reasons I have already given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.1287
The Earl of Onslow moved Amendment No. 4:
After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:
§ . After section 38 of the principal Act there shall be inserted the following new section:—
§ "Service of notices
§ .—(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, any notice or other document required or authorised to be served or given under Part II of this Act may be served or given either—
- (a) by delivering it to the person on whom it is to be served or to whom it is to be given; or
- (b) by leaving it at the usual or last known place of abode of that person, or, in a case where an address for service has been given by that person, at that address; or
- (c) by sending it in a prepaid registered letter, or by the recorded delivery service, addressed to that person at his usual or last known place of abode, or, in a case where an address for service has been given by that person, at that address; or
- (d) in the case of an incorporated company or body, by delivering it to the secretary or clerk of the company or body at their registered or principal office, or sending it in a prepaid registered letter, or by the recorded delivery service, addressed to the secretary or clerk of the company or body at that office.
§ (2) Where the notice or document is required or authorised to be served on any person as having an interest in land and the name of that person cannot be ascertained after reasonable inquiry, or where the notice or document is required or authorised to be served on any person as an occupier of land the notice or document shall be taken to be duly served if—
- (a) being addressed to him either by name or by the description of "the owner" or "the occupier" as the case may be, of the land (describing it) it is delivered or sent in the manner specified in subsection (1)(a), (b) or (c) of this section; or
- (b) being so addressed, and marked in such manner as may be prescribed under this Act for securing that it shall be plainly identifiable as a communication of importance, it is sent to the premises in a prepaid registered letter or by the recorded delivery service and is not returned to the authority sending it, or is delivered to some person on those premises, or is affixed conspicuously to some object on that land.
§ (3) Where the notice or other document is required to be served on or given to all persons having interests in, or being occupiers of any land, and it appears to the authority required or authorised to serve or give the notice or other document that any part of that land is unoccupied, the notice or document shall be taken to be duly served on all persons having interests in, and on any occupiers of, that part of the land (other than a person who has given to that authority an address for the service of the notice or document on him) if it is addressed to "the owners and any occupiers" of that part of the land (describing it) and is affixed conspicuously to some object on the land." ")
§ The noble Earl said: This amendment is extremely simple and very technical. Two gentlemen were prosecuted for carrying out damaging operations during the notification period. One of them ploughed up some wild saffron in order to grow swedes and the other destroyed a herb-rich meadow. They then got off, because they went into the witness box and said that they had not had the letter, even though it had been delivered by registered post. For people to be able to walk around the Act like that is verging on farce.
§ I believe, because of the problems that we are having over not wanting to risk what small gains there are in this Bill, that it would not be very wise to press this amendment. But I believe that the honourable Member, Dr. Clark, is trying to produce a Wildlife and 1288 Countryside (Amendment) Bill—it seems as though it must be No. 86, though it is probably only No. 2—which will take just this one clause. It is hoped that it goes through on the nod in the Commons and will go through on the nod in this House, because it is unsatisfactory that people should be able to escape the consequences of their misdemeanours by pretending that they have not had a letter. We all tried that one when we went to school. It did not work then and I do not see why it should work now. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Nicol
I should like to say just a few words in support of what the noble Earl has said. The wording of this amendment is based on the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, Section 283, and therefore should be acceptable. I understand that the single clause Bill, which it is hoped will find its way here, will be in much the same words. I should like to ask the Minister whether he will give an assurance that if the single clause Bill is produced, the Government will speed its passage. I understand that it had its First Reading on Monday. If he will give us that assurance, I am sure that we shall be prepared to withdraw this amendment.
Perhaps I may just add that, as a result of the two cases mentioned by the noble Earl, legal opinion suggested that in all future notifications two NCC officers should deliver the notices, so that there is a witness who is able to testify in court if required. That shows the nonsense that we have reached in this case. When we consider that magistrates will accept that a summons has been delivered if it has been sent by recorded delivery, this is nonsense, and I hope that the Minister can give us the assurance we want.
§ Lord Melchett
Perhaps I may stress the importance of clearing up what appears to be yet another major loophole in the 1981 Act, because, according to a recent Written Answer in another place, of the 4,085 sites previously notified under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, the NCC has so far renotified only 1,476 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, so that it has a very large number of renotifications still to carry out, although, as the noble Lord told us earlier, it is hoped substantially—what that means, no one seems clear—to complete the process by the end of next year. But if the NCC has to deliver each notification personally, with somebody there as a witness, and if, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, some areas of common land have to be renotified as SSSIs, there may be very large numbers of people holding commoners' rights, all of whom will have to be approached personally by two NCC staff. The position will be impossible and the target for finishing renotification will recede not just towards the end of this century, but well into the next.
I should like to ask the noble Lord whether it is the case that the Government were aware of this problem before the Bill left the other place. It seems to me that one feature of the slightly strange attitude that the Government have adopted to what has been all the way through a consensus Bill, with strong support from the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association, as well as conserva- 1289 tionists—something which I should have thought was very welcome to everybody, including the Government—is that they have not been prepared to be very forthcoming. My understanding is that the NCC told them about this very serious potential problem before the Bill had its Report stage in another place, when the Government would have had an opportunity of adding a clause to deal with the problem without any great difficulty, but the Government apparently chose not to do that or, indeed, to tell anybody on any side of another place or anywhere else that there was this potential problem coming up. That seems to me to be unfortunate, because the matter might well have been dealt with there, without the need for a Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill to be introduced.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
It is a fact of political life that it is very late in the year to start putting down a Private Member's Bill. I understand that there are procedures in another place for rushing things through there, but I cannot hold out any strong hope that it will arrive here. But one commitment I can give your Lordships is that the Government in this House will not seek to hold up that Bill in any way whatsoever, should it arrive here.
On the amendment with which we are now dealing, I understand the concern that has been expressed, and I take it very seriously indeed. It stems from the NCC's recent lost prosecution which has prompted my noble friend and the noble Baroness to put down this amendment. I also understand their desire to see that arrangements are made to ensure that the Nature Conservancy Council does not remain vulnerable to similar challenges in future.
One of the results of the challenges was the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that the accompanying note with the formal notification that one owned part of a SSSI had been withdrawn. I did not refer to that assertion at the time, because I wanted to check my facts. The position is that the NCC letter has been redrafted in more legalistic language, because the informal draft used previously was considered by the courts to be defective, since it failed to advise landowners explicity of their right to object to the NCC regarding SSSI notifications. It has been rewritten and a revised draft is now in use. But that does not help on the specific point to which this amendment is addressed.
As my noble friend pointed out, the difficulty in this case arose from a lack of any provision for deemed service of notices which are sent by post under Section 28 of the principal Act. It seems to me that this problem can be overcome by administrative means, without the need to amend the principal Act. Indeed, I understand that the Nature Conservancy Council has already taken such action. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, immediately put the worst possible complexion on the matter and said that it would be very likely to extend the notification procedure well into the next century and so on. But I can assure him that things are very much better than he led the Committee to believe. The position is that the NCC has just issued instructions to staff, advising them to attempt service by recorded delivery post in the first instance, and to satisfy themselves on receipt of the 1290 acknowledgement card that the owner or occupier has signed a receipt. In cases where there is any doubt as to whether the original communication has been brought to the personal attention of the owner or occupier, NCC staff have been instructed to arrange for it to be served personally.
I am confident that the revised procedure introduced by the NCC, while I accept it may prove somewhat more staff intensive than the previous system, will be sufficient to ensure that the difficulties which this amendment is designed to overcome do not recur. I hope therefore that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness will not seek to press it. However, I say that without prejudice to the Government's attitude on the No. 2 Bill which we have just heard has recently received its First Reading in another place.
§ Lord Melchett
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord two questions. First, are the Government entirely confident that the extra administrative burden which the new procedures will involve can be managed? Anybody not returning a reply slip acknowledging receipt of a letter will have to be visited by two people personally, which seems to me in any event to be a great shame because the NCC staff resources will once again be diverted into formal legalistic procedures rather than what all of us on both sides of the Committee—particularly, if I may say so, noble Lords behind the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale—appear to want, which is the NCC spending more time talking informally with farmers and landowners and improving relations locally. That clearly will be less easy.
Can the noble Lord assure the Committee that the timetable which the NCC has fixed for the renotification procedures being substantially completed in England, Scotland and Wales at different times during 1986 will still be adhered to? The second question is a shorter one. If the Government are prepared to support in this House the Wildlife and Countryside Act (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, why will they not agree to this amendment being included in this Bill, because the wording is exactly the same?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I did not say that the Government would accept it in this House. What I did say was that the Government would not stand in its way. Those are two rather separate things.
I have admitted that the administrative procedure that I have outlined and which the NCC is now following could create more work for staff and therefore be more costly in those terms; but I am persuaded that this is not extra work with which they will be unable to cope, bearing in mind that an alternative would be to re-notify again which would be much more time consuming.
§ Lord Melchett
Another alternative would be to accept this amendment, and then the staff would not have to do any extra work.
§ The Earl of Onslow
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, did not answer an extremely pertinent point put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. It was: were the Government aware of this particular hiatus before this Bill left the Commons? If that is the 1291 case, he should have encouraged the amendment of the Bill in the Commons and then we would not be up against this difficulty of being terrified to amend it in this Chamber in case somebody gets up and filibusters in another place.
For this Government to say that it is easier to do some unnecessary work than to amend a piece of legislation strikes me as being really quite extraordinary. What the noble Lord the Minister has said is, "Yes, we will put them to unnecessary work, these two figures plodding about the countryside looking for a non-existent unknown common right holder to deliver him a letter because he has not signed a piece of paper accepting that he has had a recorded delivery letter". That is going to be acceptable work as opposed to them getting on and doing proper scientific and useful work which we all want. I could understand it from noble Lords opposite. The whole concept of socialism is producing large numbers of people going around delivering extra bits of paper to people who do not want to receive them. But for my noble friends on the Front Bench to be suggesting that is really below par.
However, having said that, I am forced, I am afraid, to withdraw the amendment. Before doing so, I should like the answer to the question about when the Government became aware of the situation.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
The key question in my noble friend's most recent speech was: were the Government aware of this hiatus in time before the Bill left the Commons? The answer to my noble friend is a flat, "No". They were aware but they were not aware in time. The Government were not in a position, without consulting the NCC, to slap down an amendment any way, and so the answer is that we were not aware in time.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Buxton of Alsa moved Amendment No. 5:
After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Further duties of agriculture Ministers with respect to the environment.
. After section 41 of the principal Act there shall be inserted the following section—
Further duties of agriculture Ministers with respect to the environmennt.
41A.—(1) In regard to those functions of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which may affect the physical environment, the Minister shall, so far as may be consistent with the proper discharge of such functions, endeavour to secure a reasonable balance between—
(2) Without prejudice to its generality, the duty under the previous subsection shall apply in particular to—
(3) In the application of this section to Scotland, references to the Minister shall, where appropriate, be construed as references to the Secretary of State.".").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment is as I understand it, a revised version of a revised version of Clause 4 as originally introduced by Dr. David Clark in another place. I say "as I understand it" because during the Second Reading debate I was happily in the Galapagos Islands and therefore all my impressions and information are from reading Hansard from both Houses during the past 24 hours.
§ I do not intend to dwell on the arguments or repeat them at all in favour of this clause because they have been so eloquently covered in both Houses by several Members. But we are moving this revised amendment which has the complete support as I understand it of everybody except the Ministry of Agriculture, because both Houses and the Members of both Houses wanted it and repeatedly said that they hoped it would be reinstated. Dr. David Clark himself, who has done such tremendous work in getting it as far as it has, and getting the full support of NFU, CLA, CPRE and all the voluntary bodies, withdrew on the clear understanding and with some certainty that this amendment would be rediscussed here today.
§ Having said that, I am not going to repeat the arguments; I should like to ask some questions. I am very glad to know that my noble friend Lord Belstead is to reply, in view of his keen, incisive and sympathetic attitude to all countryside matters, whether agricultural or conservation, and based as he is like myself and the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, in East Anglia. This also gives me the chance as I was away last time, to pay tribute to the valiant efforts he has been making in Brussels.
§ On every occasion that David Clark, as a result of his painstaking efforts, has had this amendment introduced it has been rejected by Ministers. Dr. Clark and his colleagues have then gone back to the drawing board with considerable patience, grace and resolution and have come up with a new amendment. Today we have a new amendment which has the full support of everybody so far as I know outside the Government. I should like to ask my noble friend to answer two or three questions.
§ I noticed in Hansard that the question of there being technical defects was referred to several times. I am not clear whether the technical defects referred to the first version or the second version, or whether there are technical defects in ours. But knowing that I was going to introduce this amendment, I asked for searching inquiries to be made as to whether there were any technical defects in the amendment tabled today. There were repeated telephone calls to MAFF. We asked for a meeting and we were promised letters over a period of several weeks, or at least two or three weeks. There has been absolutely no response at all, and so I feel entitled to ask my noble friend the Minister what is the position about technical defects.
§ 7 p.m.
§ The second point that impressed me considerably in reading the debates in another place was that 1293 references were made to the various duties being placed on Ministers and ministries. While Members were speaking only about the duties to be placed on the Minister of Agriculture, the debate nevertheless developed into a discussion of the duties being placed on practically everyone in Government. I must say in all fairness that it seemed to me to be a complete rigmarole and I really could not understand what it was all about. To be frank, I regarded as almost a sick joke the absurd suggestion that because MAFF should have a duty placed upon it about conservation, the DoE should have a duty placed upon it about agriculture. I cannot conceive of anything more ridiculous.
§ Since 1947 the Ministry of Agriculture has invariably been the organ grinder, with immense powers of authority and resources. Other ministries have been the monkeys. To suggest that the DoE should do anything about agriculture is absurd and obviously that is not what we are talking about in suggesting that it would be a huge benefit both to agriculture and to farmers, as well as to conservation, for the Ministry of Agriculture to have a duty and not just a regard for conservation.
§ A regard means absolutely nothing at all. I could have a regard for the National Health Service, but not do anything about it. What is required in order to give a lead, to give leadership, and to get everybody moving in an exciting new area, which I believe most officials, and certainly members of ADAS, would welcome, is a duty.
§ Finally, as every mover of an amendment has had to mention today, there is a problem relating to the fact that this is a Private Member's Bill. We are constantly reminded of the danger of rocking the boat. It seems to me a strange situation that when a Government remove from a Bill a clause they do not like but which was introduced and supported by the vast majority of Members in both Houses, to be then accused of rocking the boat because one wants to reinstate it seems rather far-fetched. I accept, however, that there is a danger of filibustering and certainly I would not wish to be the cause of any risk to the Bill. Nevertheless, it strikes me on the first point I have just made and on the second—that the majority of Members and speakers in both Houses, and especially in another place, are in favour—that this amendment seems to be a special case.
§ We are all conscious of a great change in feeling and attitude in the bureaucracy itself. One of the most encouraging portents is the keen interest and sense of opportunity among officials, not least, if my impressions are correct, among officials in MAFF itself and especially officers of ADAS. I believe that this amendment and clause are grossly misunderstood by MAFF. I do not see the amendment as imposing any restraint or imposition, or directing any offence whatever at the ministry. It is certainly not intended to do so. It should be looked at as offering wider powers, much more scope, and providing huge opportunities to agriculture and farming itself.
§ Why is it that Ministers are still apparently reluctant when it comes to seizing the torch of leadership in the whole area of the countryside? That is the question I should like to put to my noble friend Lord Belstead. A great opportunity is on offer to MAFF; it is not a question of restraint or opposition.1294
§ Looking back, this movement stems not just from 1981 but from the first wildlife exhibition at Alexandra Park in the late 1960s. That was the result of a suggestion made by the Duke of Edinburgh, and it led to the first Countryside 1970 Conference. At that conference, for the first time in history, all the bodies concerned were united at a two-day meeting. Only the Ministry of Agriculture remained aloof and described itself as an observer. But that was par for the course in those days and quite understandable.
§ It is not fundamentally true that anything basic has changed. There was merely a senseless confrontation originally, developing into mutual suspicion and mistrust over the years. Partly due to ignorance, the parties concerned were convinced that co-operation and compromise in relation to the countryside was against their vested interests. What has now happened in recent, much more encouraging times, is that the penny is beginning to drop all round. Distrust and suspicion are known to be groundless and opportunities and benefits are seen by the more enlightened to lie ahead, in an age of co-operation and common objectives.
§ I must impress upon the farming community—though I believe that most of the community acknowledges this—that the financial benefits and advantages to be gained for farmers through the ministry having a duty are obvious, particularly when the prospects for agriculture are not as rosy as they have been; and I am a farmer. I must ask my noble friend the Minister to tell the Committee whether the Treasury had anything to do with the Minister's refusal to take on this further duty—a duty which could immeasurably strengthen agriculture in the future and give many new opportunities for support.
§ MAFF is proud about the Broads scheme, as indeed it should be. Why, therefore, does it shrink from accepting a similar duty elsewhere?
§ Finally, if there is some technical complication concerning Scotland, I cannot accept that it is a reason for denying farmers in England the benefits that would accrue from the acceptance of our amendment. A way must surely be found, just as it would be found, I venture to suggest, if it were the Government who wanted this amendment to be made.
§ After 40 years' experience in this industry—and I am sorry if I sound pompous—perhaps I may tell my noble friend that, in my judgment, reform is certain to come. It will arrive come what may, and before long the Minister of Agriculture will have a duty. The momentum has been going for too long for it suddenly to slow down. This reform has the support of the NFU, the CLA, and a whole horde of bodies and societies, supported by the weight of the electorate. There will be no U-turns in opinion now.
§ The Minister's duty towards conservation will inevitably become a fact before long, however much Ministers continue to resist. That may be a personal opinion, but it is based on what one has learnt in the past. I ask my noble friend whether it is not better to meet the reform now, gain public applause, and be the popular boy of the day, rather than to wait until the Government are forced to give way, as so often happens?1295
§ Finally, I appeal to my noble friend the Minister to be flexible and to see the wisdom of this reform, even if he feels unable to do anything today. I ask him to recognise the wisdom and benefits of reform, especially for farmers, in view of the somewhat bleak outlook for agriculture in some sectors. It is an absurd thought, but if a farmer has 50 per cent. of his land as arable—and I am speaking only allegorically—and 50 per cent. as woodland or wild country, he receives financial aid to increase production of cereals which the public do not want to need, but probably nothing to support his wild landscape, which the British public want very badly. There must be opportunities there, if the Minister of Agriculture has a dual responsibility.
§ This has been the farce of the MAFF position over the years; a farce that could be put right in a flash for the benefit of all parties, and especially farmers, if the Government will only take the simple step of accepting this amendment. It may be that in these special circumstances my noble friend would prefer to give positive assurances about plans for the foreseeable future. We could perhaps regard such assurances as being positive and satisfactory; perhaps something in connection with my noble friend's brilliant and splendid efforts in the Community structure legislation being debated in Brussels. I beg to move.
§ The Earl of Onslow
Conservation is not now an optional extra with which land use and agricultural policies are decorated, but is built into the structure of policy making, as it should be. Your Lordships' Committee will be surprised to hear that those are not my words. They are the words of the Minister of Agriculture in the departmental response to the operation and effectiveness of Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. That is Government policy. Therefore, it seems to me very sensible that it should now take legislative form.
The Ministry of Agriculture is a ministry of single-minded purpose which has served the country extremely well for a very long time. It came to its conclusions and did exactly what we, the public wanted it to do after the trauma of a world war, and a famine outside, and together with the European Community it has made Europe self-sufficient in cheap, abundant and very high quality foodstuffs. On that it must be congratulated.
The problems that the agricultural industry now faces are those of success and, therefore, we must change. I suggest to my noble friend that if an amendment such as this is accepted, or perhaps put in another Bill at another time—I have already spoken of the constraints under which we operate—the Ministry of Agriculture, because of its single-minded purpose, then, in effect, becomes a ministry of the countryside. It will start thinking of the countryside in a way that an old-fashioned hereditary landlord would think about his estates; that is, to look to long generations ahead when he plants oak trees. I gave your Lordships the example of Nelson's second-in-command. He always came back to plant oak trees in his farm in Northumberland because he said that the Royal Navy would always need oak. One of his woodlands was cut down in 1940 to provide anti-magnetic minesweepers for the Royal Navy. Therefore, it is good that we 1296 should look at the land in the long term. It is also good to concentrate on multiple land use. That is what we, in the amendment, are trying to encourage the Ministry of Agriculture to do.
It will possibly be said that the Ministry of Agriculture is already encouraging conservation in the countryside, but I suggest to your Lordships' Committee that as it has a duty so to do in national parks it may have no duty to do so in the non-national park areas. There is a Latin tag which goes, expressio unius est exclusio alterius. This means, for those of us who cannot understand it in the first place, "If you express one part, you exclude the others". Therefore, it could be possible that if someone is refused a grant, or is advised to do something different on conservation grounds in a non-national park area, and the grant is withheld, or altered, or whatever it may be, the farmer concerned could take the Ministry of Agriculture to court for acting illegally. That would be a fairly silly thing to do and it would be most unfortunate if it were to happen. However, there are one or two people who have been known to behave in extremely uncivilised fashions.
I make one other point on this issue. The whole of the community of conservationists, the CLA and the NFU, have encouraged the inclusion in the Bill of amendments such as this. I make no apology for repeating that particular part of what my noble friend Lord Buxton said, in a very forceful and admirable speech. It was about the most important part of his speech. I also believe that we must be careful of our countryside. It is manmade and it has to be kept by man. Some of it is the most beautiful in the world.
§ 7.15 p.m.
I have no hesitation in suggesting to the Committee that, notwithstanding the importance attached to the previous amendments we have been discussing and the time we have given to them, this is the most important amendment on the Marshalled List. At Second Reading I said that we on the Alliance Benches would be ready to move or support an amendment to reinstate the original Clause 4 in Dr. Clark's Bill, as it was at Second Reading in another place. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, for relieving me of the onus of moving the amendment. It goes without saying that I warmly support it.
I like the wording of the amendment and, if I may, I shall extract the relevant words from the early subsection:the Minister shall … endeavour to secure a reasonable balance between … efficient agricultural industry; and … conservation".That differs from the wording in Dr. Clark's Bill, as it was in another place, but I think it is better. It points to the all-important need to upgrade the value of environmental conservation to bring it on a par with the agricultural industry. That, of course, has been the objective of the Countryside Commission and all the conservation bodies, and countless others, for a very long time.
It is in consonance, as your Lordships will have seen, with the wording in Clause 4 of the Bill now before us relating to forestry. In fact, the wording is identical and I put it to the Committee that the reason and need for 1297 identical wording is exactly the same. It will be no good the Minister, in replying, saying that agriculture has a greater importance and significance than forestry from the point of view of producing food. We all know the situation as regards the production of food.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, I hope that the Minister will accept this amendment. At Second Reading I asked the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to explain why such a laudable duty should not be laid on his right honourable friend; the more so because, as has been pointed out many times, it has the support of the farmers and the landowners. As I said at Second Reading—and I am glad the noble Lord is in his place to hear it today—I am second to none in my admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and I entirely accept the sincere concern of the noble Lord and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for environmental interests. It is not to doubt them to say that this alone simply is not good enough. Nor, frankly, is the Government's response to Recommendation 4 of the Select Committee on the Environment in another place. Again, I am selecting the words, but not distorting the sense. In response to the recommendation (I shall not read it out as there is no need to do so) the Government said that conservation objectives are now looked upon—I stress the word "now"—as being a major part of mass overall responsibilities in pursuing a fair and balanced approach.
I would say that that is good news—it is excellent news—but there is no obligation implied in that statement. There is no permanence. There is no statutory requirement about it. I suggest that what is needed is action to prevent changes in that policy without parliamentary decision to change it. Changes there can be in ministerial attitudes. We may not always have these two excellent Ministers sitting on the Front Bench today and that might adversely affect the vital matter of balance. That is an overriding reason for entrenching this amendment, beyond peradventure, in black and white, by putting it on the statute book.
In conclusion, perhaps I may say to the Government that they should think twice before missing what I consider to be a golden opportunity to enhance their dwindling credit. I say that because environmental damage and the need to conserve the environment is a matter of growing public concern. There is no doubt whatever that it will be an important issue at the next election and in the run-up to it.
§ Lord Stodart of Leaston
I rise with some trepidation after all the words of glowing enthusiasm which have been spoken for this amendment to voice, if I may, some short misgivings about it. The art of the draftsman is extremely obscure, I have always found. But having served in the Scottish Office I would suspect that with the enormous range of the functions of the Secretary of State—and no doubt my noble friend will correct me if I am wrong—the reference to the application to Scotland is probably defective. If that is so, it can easily be redrafted. Of that there is no question. But I rise briefly to ask your Lordships' Committee—and I do not believe that I shall get the answer, yes—to wonder whether the words of the new 1298 clause are not superfluous to what happens within the Ministry of Agriculture.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, read out the words, with which I entirely agree:endeavour to secure a reasonable balance".I think that that is absolutely essential. I remember using those very words in a Second Reading speech, I think, on the Pesticides Bill. In my view the new clause merely states what a Minister in my noble friend's department already does. If he does not do it, having served there myself, I wonder how on earth he can function.
I suspect that the representations from environ-mental and conservationist bodies are far more numerous and more vigorous today than they were when I was in that department 12 years ago. But even then there were many proposals of an agricultural nature which caused the Friends of the Earth and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, to mention only two bodies, to come to see me to put their suggestions, and I certainly remember acting on many of them. I think that I can claim that I thought about the arguments put by each side, and thought about them at fair length.
Of course one Minister's conclusions on the same subject or issue may be different from another's. I think that it is remotely possible that my conclusions, had I to come to any today, might not always be identical to those of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, but I am quite certain that the conclusions which each of us reached would have been reached after the most careful thought in an endeavour to balance the issues at stake.
§ Baroness Nicol
We thought it necessary to put this duty on agriculture Ministers in regard to SSSIs and areas of natural beauty—national parks. That would seem to me to indicate that we felt that the general duty which we would expect them to perform was not sufficient in those cases. When we consider that those areas which are subject to special protection are such a very small part of the countryside, however important they may be, I think we realise that if we are to make any impact on maintaining the beauty of our countryside, which we all wish to do, we have to put the duty on Ministers generally to protect the countryside in the same way.
I want to make only two very brief points. At Second Reading I asked a large number of questions, many of which were answered and some of which were not. I want to come back to one which was not answered and to another which was. One question which I asked and which has not been answered is this. The areas covered by this duty, as I said, are small. I asked whether the Minister could quote a single example of an application for a farm capital grant being refused on environmental grounds outside those special areas. I have not had an answer, and I should like to press for one.
The other question which I dealt with at some length—and I shall try now to be brief—was about agricultural grants. I was led to believe that an EC regulation would override the existing protection of the 1981 Act. I have had a very helpful letter from the Minister. He agrees that that is so, but in the last 1299 paragraph he gives an assurance that the Government recognise the problem and are considering how best it could be handled through some other vehicle. Is the Minister going to deal with that problem in the agricul-tural legislation which I understand is pending in the autumn? I think that the answer to that question is very important.
§ Baroness White
I do not want to detain the Committee more than a moment or two, but I think that one can fairly say that this clause, which has been redrafted since it first appeared in the Bill in another place, has something which it certainly would not have had 10 or 12 years ago, with great respect to the noble Lord opposite, and that is the support of the NFU and the CLA. Things have changed, but they clearly have not changed sufficiently as far as the Ministry of Agriculture is concerned.
Many of us are extremely grateful to the Ministry for the admirable work that has been done by Mr. Jopling in particular and by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in the recent Brussels discussions regarding the EC structures. But, to say the least, it was disappointing that when a request was put to the Minister of Agriculture to discuss the clause now before the Committee, or its predecessor, by the most responsible environmental associations in this country—the CPRE, the Council for National Parks, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is the distinguished president and of which I happen to be a member, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation—he was unwilling to discuss the matter with them at all. I thought possibly the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, might have mentioned this.
On 23rd May the Minister said that he saw very little value in either of the clauses which had been tabled to impose new statutory duties upon agriculture Ministers. Presumably that was the previous clause and the one now before us. He expressed his inability to meet anybody to discuss them. I think that that was regrettable from the point of view of public relations. I do not say that it in any way demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the concerns by the Minister, but it is a pity that he felt unable to meet responsible people who had been working on that particular line.
May I ask a specific question which was not asked by my noble friend Lady Nicol, who referred to grants? It is about the future role of the advisory service of ADAS. Some of us are much concerned that Section 41 of the 1981 Act, which is the basis for this amendment Bill, refers specifically to—and I am not responsible for the rather clumsy wording:The advice for the giving of which free of charge the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State are required by section 1(1) of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1944 to make provision through such organisation as they consider appropriate shall include—(a) advice to persons carrying on agricultural businesses on the conservation and enhancement of the natual beauty and amenity of the countryside",and then there are various other matters. It includes that but it does not include wildlife.
The phrase which worries is,to make provision through such organisation as they consider appropriate".1300 Recent announcements have suggested that in future ADAS will be entitled to charge, will be encouraged to charge and may be obliged to charge for certain kinds of advice. May we have an assurance that advice which would be appropriate to the duties under the Wildlife and Countryside Act will not be chargeable, that they will remain free and that they will be carried out by the Ministry's own advisory staff?
I say this not out of any disparagement whatever for the line which the Minister is now taking—and that includes also the Welsh Office. Such advice should in future be largely in the hands of the voluntary organisation, the farm wildlife advisory groups, FWAGs, as they are commonly known, which of course are in themselves admirable. However, they are no substitute whatever for the advice that should be available from the Minister's own official advisory service.
I shall not labour the matter because time is passing and there are other matters to come before the Chamber. However, I think we are entitled to ask whether, in relation to this particular area covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, we can have an absolute assurance that ADAS will continue to give advice? May we be assured that it will make it part of its normal duty? May we have an assurance that not only in one particular section of ADAS, as it is apparently increasingly becoming, but in all the day to day functions of ADAS, in giving advice, their consideration of countryside and wildlife matters shall be included and that no charges will be made for advice of this nature; it will remain free?
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
I shall be exceedingly brief because I think the case for this amendment has been put most powerfully and persuasively by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. I agree with everything he says and can really add nothing to it. However, I think that, rightly or wrongly, this clause has become to some extent the litmus test of the Government's attitude to conservation. At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that conservation is Government policy affecting all departments of state. I was very happy to hear him say that.
If the Government accept this clause, then I think it will be a signal both to all the staff of the MAFF and to ADAS that a balanced policy, as set out in the amendment, between the promotion of agricultural efficiency and the promotion of conservation, is what the Government want. It will also be a signal to the country at large that conservation really is in the forefront of the Government's policy, as I hope it is. If, on the other hand, they reject this amendment, then I think the contrary signal will be given out about the Government's intentions, which would be a very great pity.
§ Earl Peel
I should like to add my support for the principle of my noble friend's clause. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked the question as to whether there had been any cases in which grants had been refused on conservation grounds, which presumably refers to the 1968 Act.
In connection with the 1981 Act, of course there are powers imposed on MAFF in relation to conserving 1301 the countryside; yet—and I speak as somebody living within a national park—we still have the situation where, for example, MAFF are continuing to pay LFA compensatory allowances on numbers of stock which in many cases are way in excess of what the environment can stand and also way in excess of what are registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965.
No one can argue against the support to maintain a social structure. However, I really think the time has come when I hope my noble friend will consider reviewing the whole of the social structure of support and HLCF within the uplands. The point is that what we have already seen is that the restrictions on MAFF have not been particularly effective. Obviously the new EC structures that have been referred to are a major step forward. So long as they are implemented with the proper financial backing, then I am sure that they will go a long way towards resolving many of the problems to which members of the Committee have referred.
The question I pose is this. How effective would this amendment be? I believe that the root cause of many of the problems that lie within the countryside was the abolition of prior approval. I believe that even the NFU was against that when it occurred in 1980. Without prior approval, such a clause will be relatively ineffective, as MAFF cannot prevent agricultural activities from taking place.
Furthermore, there is a fact that I have recently discovered, largely due to the efforts of my noble friend Lord Belstead. That is that MAFF do not have the power of discretion on giving HGS grants. That is a point which I must confess I found very disturbing. Thus, if farmers wish to proceed, MAFF are obliged to pay them. That is of course assuming that they wish to have a grant. It is on those grounds that I wonder whether the amendment would really have the bite that the noble Lords think that it might. However, in principle, as I have already said, I accept the amendment. My noble friend Lord Buxton made a good point when he said that one day this particular clause or a similar one will somehow find its way into the statute book. It must do so; it is logical.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
I shall not keep the Committee more than a minute or two. The importance of this amendment really lies in the fact that it is on the Marshalled List at all. As my noble friend Lady White said a few moments ago, a dozen or 14 years ago one would not have seen an amendment of this kind on the Marshalled List. This is a sign of changing opinion, of greater awareness of our environment and our anxiety about what is happening to it. Probably it is a sign of greater anxiety of what may happen to it, with the increasing pressures of growing population. Indeed, if the country makes a substantial economic recovery, then there will be more pressures on the environment for recreation, holidays and all the other purposes for which land is required for the expansion of society and the amenities that it desires.
Of course, it is very difficult to impose upon Ministers duties in these terms. There is nothing onerous about the terms of the amendment. The disciplines imposed upon the Minister by the amendment are in very general terms. I doubt whether 1302 it would ever be possible to decide for sure whether or not he was fulfilling them because he would say, he was using his best endeavours all the time and he was trying to strike the balance all the time. It is almost like the clinical judgment of a doctor: it really cannot be said that he is not trying or that he is being negligent.
One cannot really boot a Minister of Agriculture for making a genuine mistake. Therefore, this is really a homily rather than a discipline. The Minister can get up and say, "I embrace this concept of the duties of the Minister of Agriculture. You can be sure that this is what we shall do", and there need be no further argument about it. It is something which the Government can voluntarily accept as a splendid gesture, a great reassurance. However, I do not think we can impose it upon the Minister because that becomes a mark of displeasure, a lack of confidence. Then we should really have to have a long debate on a Motion of no confidence because that is really what it would amount to.
The disquiet of the public has been heightened by some of the programmes that we have seen on television, where it seems that there have been the most stupid situations involving clashes between environmental requirements and the almost routine expansion of agricultural production accompanied by capital grants.
I should be greatly reassured if the Government, in accepting the spirit of the amendment, would say that in future the Minister of Agriculture will not be a farmer. That would give me terrific encouragement. As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said in his remarkable speech on Second Reading, the agricultural industry has had a tame Minister for years and years. When I was in Government and the then Prime Minister appointed me chairman of the farm price review committee of the Cabinet, I was told by a former Minister of Agriculture that he would have resigned rather than put up with it. This just shows what property rights the industry seems to have upon the machinery of government.
§ Baroness White
May I remind my noble friend that our noble friend the Leader of the Opposition in your Lordships' House was Minister of Agriculture, and he is not a farmer?
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
That is splendid. Of course, he was not. I agree. My memory is at fault in that regard. He is a lawyer, a solicitor, I understand. Perhaps he was not there long enough to make a firm enough impact as a non-farmer. I do not want to be taken too seriously. But there is a serious note, and the response of the Minister will be of some importance. As there has been insistence on this matter in both Houses, it would be a great comfort to have, in words of the noble Lord's own choosing if he likes, an assurance that this is the policy of the Government and that all that the amendment contains and implies will be taken fully on board by the Government in their future exercise of responsibility.
§ Lord Melchett
My noble friend is, I believe, right in saying that the wording of the amendment is not as strong as it should be. Indeed, it is not as strong as the wording that was contained in the Bill of my 1303 honourable friend Dr. David Clark which received a Second Reading in another place. But as I explained, I think, in the course of the introduction of the amendment, an attempt has been made, I hope in a spirit of reasonable compromise, to choose wording to which the Government would have greater difficulty in objecting than they did in regard to the original wording. The wording has been lifted from an amendment that the Government themselves have put into the Bill. Indeed, the Bill is now drafted entirely by the Government. The clause on Forestry Commission duty was drafted by them, and the wording is taken from that. I do not think that the wording in that instance is satisfactory. We shall no doubt discuss that matter on a later amendment.
I do not want to repeat anything that has already been said. I want to try to cover slightly different ground and to demonstrate in practical terms how I think that an amendment of this sort, if possible stronger but at least of this sort, could make a difference on the ground. I should like to preface my remarks by saying that I also welcome, like other noble Lords, the recent initiatives that the Ministry of Agriculture has taken towards the conservationists' case and to support the greater integration of agricultural and conservation interests. In particular, the Minister of Agriculture has had success in negotiating a new article in the EC's structures directive.
It is, however, a fair criticism of these initiatives, welcome though they are, that they have tended to concentrate the ministry's attention on particular areas of land. The Broads experimental scheme applies to the Broads. The new structures directive, Article 19, will apply to relatively small, discreet areas of particular conservation interest where agriculture has to be maintained. The prior notification arrangements of capital grants which have been retained apply to national parks and sites of special scientific interest—slightly larger areas, but still 9 per cent. and 5 per cent. of the countryside. All these initiatives, welcome though they are, tend to concentrate on particular, smaller areas. There is a real danger that in the wider countryside the Government's agricultural policies are still in many cases working in conflict with conservation interests. This seems to me both undesirable and unnecessary. That is why conservation organisations and farming and landowning organisations have supported this amendment and the earlier clause that the Government deleted from the Bill.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, expressed doubt about the practical value of an amendment of this sort. It seems to me, however, that he gave one of the best examples of the sort of policies that need to be changed and that could be changed with the impetus that this amendment would give. This is in the way that agricultural money is spent in the less favoured areas in this country. I believe strongly that the agricultural support available to farmers in less favoured areas should continue. Indeed, I believe that the balance of expenditure between the lowlands and the uplands should probably be switched considerably in favour of the uplands. I say that as a grain farmer in the east of England. But that support must be spent in ways that do not continue to damage the environment. It is an 1304 unfortunate fact that conservationists believe and have evidence—the noble Earl seemed to accept this himself—that the payments are currently made in ways that do damage the environment.
The RSPB has recent evidence of damage to valuable sites in Wales, in Orkney and in Devon. It is not just a problem in particular areas. It occurs all over the country. In those areas there has been agricultural reclamation of moorland, the replacing of hedges and stone walls by wire fences and so on. A large number of bird species, many of them rare, have been adversely affected by these changes. Those did not occur in national parks. They may well not have occurred in sites of special scientific interest. But they still affect conservation interests in the countryside—important interests—and it does not seem to me that it is of much benefit to farmers to get money that way rather than to get it in a way that did not cause this conflict with conservation.
As the Council for National Parks has said in its comments on this amendment, the hill livestock compensatory allowances continue to be awarded with no account taken of the severity of handicap that the farmer farms under, of the flock size, or of environ-mental factors. That leads to continual over-grazing and perhaps some of the problems with lamb losses that we were discussing at the start of the Committee stage. Certainly it leads to very great concern from conservationists about agricultural support for farmers who need the support most—and where that conflict should not occur.
I believe that an amendment of this sort would help in that kind of case. I should like to give one other example concerning a lowland site in Cambridgeshire, Swavesey Fen, where, as recently as earlier this year the Ministry of Agriculture gave the final set of approvals for a new drainage scheme which will lead to the conversion in due course of most, I have no doubt, of an area of over 1,000 acres of grassland to cereal growing. Your Lordships might not think this a particularly desirable way of spending public money, given the problems of cereal surpluses, over-production, the cost to the Community, and so on. That scheme was finally approved just a few months ago.
I have corresponded with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, about this. My honourable friend in another place, Dr. Clark, has taken a particular interest in the case. The noble Lord was good enough to tell me in a letter recently that the Nature Conservancy Council had not formally objected to this scheme. That is, of course, true. The area is not a site of special scientific interest. It is not in a national park. The NCC, given the constraints on its manpower that we have discussed at length today, has inevitably to concentrate its efforts on SSSIs; and the national park authorities only exist and operate in national parks.
I asked for some advice from the Nature Conservancy Council about the comments that it had made on the drainage of Swavesey Fen. The council stated that as long ago as 1978 it had voiced great concern that the loss of this area would contribute to the then rapid decline of wildlife habitat in that part of 1305 Cambridgeshire. It had not formally objected but had expressed considerable concern to the Anglian Water Authority. It went on to tell me that during 1983 and 1984 the Anglian Water Authority approached the NCC and sought advice about how to minimise the adverse consequences to wildlife if the scheme went ahead. The NCC welcomed that approach but pointed out that the fundamental problem was the drainage scheme itself. If the drainage scheme went ahead, the water table would be lowered and as the NCC put it, the mosaic of wet pasture, ditches, trees and old hedges would inevitably be lost. So there was no way that it could suggest some compromise to the scheme that would really meet its concern. Its main concern from the conservation viewpoint continued to be the loss of areas of general nature conservation interest. It said that this had the effect of increasing the isolation of sites of special scientific interest.
Therefore, while this particular scheme did not have sufficient consequences on a top wildlife site to justify a formal objection, the NCC says:We do, however, look to other Government departments to exercise their responsibilities in the wider countryside having due regard to general wildlife value which in turn will ensure the maintenance and hopefully the enhancement of landscape and amenity".The fact of the matter is that as far as I gathered from the correspondence from the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, the view of the Ministry of Agriculture was that if the NCC had not entered a formal objection, that was the end of the matter: the drainage scheme could go ahead. The ministry itself apparently had no obligation as the noble Lord saw it—and if I am wrong about this, the noble Lord will no doubt correct me—to look behind the Anglian Water Authority's proposal to the attitude that the NCC had adopted to what the conservation consequences of the scheme might be, and so on. I am leaving aside what seems to me the agricultural absurdity of public money being spent on increasing grain production, in 1985.
Therefore, I believe that there are positive advantages in leading to less conflict between farmers and conservationists if a clause like this one were to be reinstated in the Bill. I should like to make one other point. I should put on record the gratitude of my honourable friend and, indeed, of myself, for the support which the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association have given to the amendment. It has not been an easy period for those organisations or, indeed, for conservation bodies, to reach a compromise with what have been opposing interests in the past, but which it is hoped will not be to anything like the same extent in the future. It has taken some foresight and some courage, and that is very welcome. I only wish that that same foresight and courage had been demonstrated by the Government in the first place and that they had been able to accept the amendment.
I should like to reiterate one other point that has been made. There really is a great deal to be gained from this in the Ministry of Agriculture itself and I believe that particularly ADAS would welcome having a statutory duty of this nature placed on the ministry. Maybe the noble Lord could take up that particular point, which I know has already been made, when he comes to reply to the debate.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)
My noble friend Lord Buxton began by asking me, as his first question, whether there were technical defects in this amendment. I hope that I am not returning ill for good—because my noble friend and, indeed, other noble Lords expressed generous remarks to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale and myself on personal grounds—when I say that this amendment really is quite defective from a technical point of view, though no doubt the defects could be put right.
First, the amendment would require my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture to endeavour to secure a reasonable balance between the promotion and maintenance of a stable and efficient agricultural industry and conservation interests in regard to his functions which affect the physical environment—and, of course, some of my right honourable friend's functions affecting the physical environment do not impinge on agriculture. The most obvious example of that is fisheries policy.
The second defect, which in my view is more serious, is that the new clause states that in Scotland references to the Minister of Agriculture shall be construed as references to the Secretary of State for Scotland. My noble friend Lord Stodart is quite right in his apprehension that this would cause trouble. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has, of course, even wider responsibilities affecting the physical environment than my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture because in Scotland there are responsibilities for planning and for transport.
Thirdly, for some reason there is no similar provision for Wales in this new clause. The new clause would not, therefore, apply uniformly in the three parts of Great Britain. For those reasons I really do not—
§ Lord Belstead
Yes, but I think that your Lordships would need to think about Scotland with a little more care. For those reasons I really do not think that this clause would be capable of consistent implementation throughout the country. That is the answer to my noble friend's first question.
As to the merits, all of your Lordships have made the point that there are statutory duties regarding conservation which are already laid upon agriculture Ministers and, of course, that is absolutely true. However, the duties relate to specific functions and in part to specific geographical areas. As your Lordships will be aware, Section 32 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act deals with the duties concerned with SSSIs, Section 41 deals with national parks, and Section 48 deals with applications for arterial drainage. Those provisions are specific to the Ministry of Agriculture, though of course all Government departments, indeed, all public bodies, have the general responsibility, which my noble friend Lord Buxton mentioned, laid upon them by Section 11 of the 1968 Act whereby they must have regard to the conservation of wildlife and wild plants and the enhancement of the landscape. I suggest that It is a 1307 very different matter to do what this amendment would do; namely, to impose a general duty upon agriculture Ministers alone relating to a whole range of their functions.
The second point of my noble friend Lord Buxton was that he could not understand why there should really be any objection to this particular line. Broadly speaking, the proposed clause is based on the premise that there is a need to make the Ministry of Agriculture more responsive to the requirements of conservation. It is a new clause, which emphasises the need for the ministry to be given general responsibilities capable of general application across the range of its policies, and it presumes that without such a duty the ministry would not be sufficiently responsive. However, the clause would apply only to the agriculture departments and not to any other Government departments which have an impact on the countryside, as a great many of them, of course, do.
If I may say so, I think that there is as great a commitment and responsiveness to the desirability of conserving the countryside in the Ministry of Agriculture as there is in any other Government department. I would not make comparisons with the department of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, or at least the department for which he is speaking—the Department of the Environment—because there is a very special responsibility on that department so far as conservation is concerned and a very special link with the statutory agencies.
However, apart from that, I would assert that the Ministry of Agriculture—and quite rightly so—is as committed as any other department to conserving the countryside. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service is pursuing this and advising farmers on conservation and promoting conservation practices among the farming industry. That is an example of one of the specific responsibilites which was laid upon the ministry's advisory service in the 1981 Act when the section was included which said that the ministry's advisory service must go out and give advice in a positive way to the farming community.
Under our capital grants schemes we now pay the highest rates of grant that are to be had for environ-mentally enhancing argicultural operations, such as hedge planting, the building of stone walls and some other things as well. The proposals for new grants under the structures directive from the European Community, which we have put out in a consultation document, have, I think it is fair to say, been welcomed by conservation interests. We are currently considering the helpful suggestions that many of them have put to us about the proposed new grants scheme. It is a new scheme which, incidentally, puts all the environmentally helpful grants into the national scheme for the future—and only those grants, except for one set of grants for horticulture. Therefore, it puts the environmentally enhancing grants in a very special position for the future.
Finally, our commitment to conservation is perhaps most forcefully illustrated by the campaign which was waged successfully in Brussels by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture to obtain a provision to enable us to encourage environmentally 1308 sympathetic farming practices in designated sensitive areas. Although I am not agreeing with your Lordships on this amendment, may I say "thank you" to noble Lords who have mentioned this today and, indeed, have done so in generous terms. We shall, of course, be bringing foreward legislation on this matter in the near future.
I believe that my noble friend Lord Stodart is right when he says that in essence agriculture Ministers are doing their best to carry out the wishes incorporated in this amendment. When my noble friend Lord Buxton said that for his part he was sure that the Ministry of Agriculture and all agricultural departments would increasingly find themselves bringing conservation considerations into agriculturel policy, I am certain that my noble friend, with all his experience of the land and of wildlife, is correct. But this process is not helped by an amendment of this kind.
It is an illogical amendment and not consistent with the collective responsibilities, which have to be shouldered by Government in this country, to extend to one Government department general responsibilities which ought to apply to all Government departments, and do so under Section 11 of the 1968 Countryside Act. However, by building on the foundation of that Act the Ministry of Agriculture has specific responsibilities laid on it by the 1981 Act. I have referred to them already. We are very ready to shoulder those responsibilities, and that is the way forward.
I have been asked some specific questions, and perhaps I may briefly answer them. First, the noble Baroness, Lady White, asked about conservation advice given by ADAS and as to whether it would be free in the future. I cannot anticipate future legislation but I can give the noble Baroness two assurances. First, the noble Baroness will remember that the director-general of ADAS, Professor Bell, in his report on the future of the service said that he believed that charging was a way forward for securing a part of the income of the advisory service, but at the same time he made an important recommendation in the report that additional emphasis was, in the director-general's opinion, necessary for the conservation work of the advisory service.
My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture has accepted in broad terms that recommendation, as he accepted the other recommendations in that report. I assure my noble friend that within our available resources we shall be pursuing that recommendation. Secondly, may I remind the noble Baroness, who probably needs no reminding, that the Minister of Agriculture broadly accepted the recommendation of the environment committee of another place that conservation should be given increasing priority both in the training and in the work of ADAS.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked whether there is a single example of grant refusal outside designated areas. Off the top of my head, I can at the moment think of only one. We do not generally give specific examples, and certainly not as to exactly where the farm is where grants are given. I can think of one off the top of my head in a part of west Sedgemoor 1309 before designation occured there. I am sure that there are other examples as well.
Then the noble Baroness asked me an important question. The noble Baroness is on to a good point here, and it is a difficulty. She is right in saying that the 1981 Act omitted to bring within its scope the absolute requirement for a management agreement to be offered when grant is refused either in a site of special scientific interest or in a national park area.
So far as applications for grant under AHDS—the European Community scheme—are concerned, the noble Baroness put this clearly and absolutely right on the Second Reading of the Bill, and has written to me and my noble friend about this. Although there is an anomaly here I do not think we need to get too worried about it. So far as the Ministry of Agriculture is concerned, we have been applying the conservation duty to the AHDS scheme on an administrative basis ever since: that is to say, we require prior notification and look to see whether the giving of a grant would be furthering the cause of conservation. If we are not sure we consult with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment's department. We do all that. We have every intention of going on doing that under the new scheme of grants.
The noble Baroness asked me whether we will put it right in forthcoming legislation. I am sorry, but with the best will in the world I cannot say what is going to come forward in forthcoming legislation. I can only say to the noble Baroness that she is correct on the point she raised and I shall draw it to my right honourable friend's attention, as indeed I have already done.
Finally, there was the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, about the Swavesey drainage scheme. The noble Lord in essence said that he thought it was not a good example of the Ministry of Agriculture being interested in conservation. Uncharacteristically, the noble Lord was being a little less than fair. This is a scheme for drainage which was approved and where there were no objections on conservation grounds of any kind at the public inquiry.
I was told that much of the land is going to remain in grass at any rate. Thirdly, the scheme was altered with some significance before it was approved in order to take account of conservation considerations. Finally, as the noble Lord may know—and I am glad to be able to say this—I understand that the Anglian Water Authority are at the moment considering representations to see whether any final variations can be agreed. Although I know that the noble Lord feels strongly about this scheme, I think that it is not an example of either the Ministry of Agriculture or the water authority being insensitive to conservation considerations in this case.
§ Lord Melchett
Before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment, if he is going to do so, may I return to the Swavesey case. I know it is difficult to concentrate on a particular case but it is important to try to get home to the noble Lord, if we can, why a number of us think that a duty of this sort would make a real difference. As the noble Lord says, there were no objections at the public inquiry. The Nature Conservancy Council did not enter formal objections. What the Nature 1310 Conservancy Council did was to give their opinion that the scheme would be damaging, but said that this was in the wider countryside and that they were relying on the Ministry exercising its duty of care and interest in nature conservation. The noble Lord rather confirmed my worry that the Ministry was still relying on other people to object to it, to have an argument with it, or maybe even have a row with it, and then it would take into account the conservation interest.
I know that the noble Lord and I hay e had arguments from time to time about this subject_ but I believe fundamentally that farmers and conservationists could be working together, and that there should not be any need for conservationists to object to an agricultural development programme and have an argument before some accommodation or compromise, or cancellation of the scheme, is decided upon. It ought to be possible to devise systems of supporting agriculture which do not give rise to these conflicts in the first place.
That simply is not happening in the wider countryside at the moment. The noble Lord in his lengthy reply did not deal with the point that both I and the noble Earl behind him, Lord Peel, made about the less-favoured areas and the way that payments are made. After all, that affects a much larger proportion of the countryside than SSSIs, national parks, or the new Article 19 areas are likely to do, and so on. That is indicative that the Ministry is still prepared to look at particular trouble spots but not at wholescale integration of the conservation and agricultural case, which is what conservationists and farming and landowning organisations really want to see happen.
§ Lord Belstead
There are two points in reply to that. First, I believe I am right in saying that the water authority concerned in this case makes a habit of circulating proposals for forthcoming schemes to interested bodies. I should have thought that attempts in this particular case have most certainly been made to see that conservation interests and agricultural interests see eye to eye. Perhaps the best thing to do is leave it there because informal discussions are still going on.
There are safeguards against overstocking in the HLCA regulations. If there is evidence of overstocking we have power not to pay the HLCA on the excess animals. I know that some of your Lordships will say that that does not happen very often. No; and I know that there are difficulties there. Nonetheless, the power is there and can be used if there is clear evidence.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and to the noble Baronesses, Lady White and Lady Nicol. It has been a very rewarding and helpful exchange of views. I am even grateful to the two noble Lords who expressed reservations, because that is characteristic of the balanced nature of all our discussions.
I should like to add one or two points that have arisen from the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke about what was the most important part of the Bill, and in debates in another place it was referred to as the heart of the Bill. In my view like the noble Lord, I believe that Clause 4 is the heart of the Bill. I myself believe that had Clause 4 been a part of the legislation 1311 and the Minister of Agriculture had this duty, it is possible that the loopholes and all the other matters would not have occurred or become such a problem. Legislation has a sobering effect and concentrates the mind. I believe that if it were known to farmers—I am talking really about the rogue farmers, perhaps, outside the NFU—that the agricultural establishment, including the Minister, was against that sort of thing, I am not sure that we should have had the outrageous excesses in Kent with the oak trees, and in Essex, where a field of 15,000 rare orchids was sprayed at night in the hope of getting planning permission. That sort of thing does not happen unless the agricultural world has grown up to think that it is likely only to get a mild ticking off, and probably a wink and a nod.
There were three other points. I do not intend to comment on speeches because my noble friend the Minister has done that and nothing needs to be added by me. I found the arguments about Scotland and Wales quite unconvincing. I have to repeat what I said before: that if the Government wanted this clause they would not have the slightest difficulty in solving those problems.
Nor do I agree, as the noble Lord seemed to imply, that MAFF or the Minister are not doing their jobs. I never said that. I said, and I tried to make it clear in my speech, that MAFF has a new and important opportunity and that we are moving into an era where it may be very important from the point of view of farmers that this opportunity is seized. This has been understood by several noble Lords who have spoken. This provides an opportunity for giving agricultural support where necessary, not necessarily to increase production when it is not required.
I cannot admit, with great respect, that anything new has come out of the debate, as far as the Government statement is concerned, by the observations of my noble friend Lord Belstead. We have heard it all before, and we would not be here if we had been entirely satisfied before. Nevertheless in view of the assurances, the general disposition, the goodwill and the general intentions, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 3 [Maps of National Parks]:
The Earl of Onslow moved Amendment No. 6:
Page 5, line 4, leave out ("act in accordance with") and insert ("have regard to").
§ The noble Earl said: I have been asked briefly to say a couple of words on this. It appears that in order to provide a reasonably consistent basis on which mapping is carried out the clause provides for the drawing up of guidelines by the Countryside Commission. The commission has indicated that these guidelines will be prepared in full consultation with the NPAs and will need to reflect the inevitable and important differences between the ten national parks. The guidelines will therefore need to be flexible, evolutionary and capable of sensitive application. This particular amendment would allow each national park slightly more flexibility in applying the guidelines in the individual circumstances of its park. I beg to move.1312
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I shall try to be equally as brief as my noble friend has been in moving the amendment. I should point out that, as I understand it, the real worry of the local authority associations concerned is that the clause provides for the commission to consult other interested parties in the drawing up of the guidelines, and the national park authorities will, naturally, have an important contribution to make towards their preparation. I am sure that we can rely upon the commission not to issue guidelines which are generally unacceptable to the authorities or subsequently to revise them in any way that is generally objectionable to them. Moreover, I am able to give this assurance to the Committee; namely, that the Government will consult with the commission on the proposed guidelines to ensure that this is not overlooked.
It has never been our intention that the Countryside Commission's guidelines should supplant the national park authorities' responsibilities for the detailed decisions involved in the map-making process. I therefore believe that, in practice, the obligation placed on national park authorities to prepare and review their maps in accordance with the guidelines will not prove to be onerous or to jeopardise their freedom to draw up maps which delineate all those areas of open country that they believe are particularly important to conserve. I hope that my noble friend will agree with this view.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 3 agreed to.
§ 8.15 p.m.
The Earl of Onslow moved Amendment No. 7:
Page 5, line 39, at end insert—
("(3B) In formulating or considering any proposal under the Forestry Acts 1967 to 1979 which relate to any land that has been notified under section 28(1) of the principal Act as being of special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features the Commission shall—
§ The noble Earl said: The object of this amendment is to bring the duties of the Forestry Commission into line with those of the regional water authorities. The Forestry Commission has not historically had the best reputation for sensitive handling of tree planting. It has tended to plant great masses of blocks of conifers. It still allows felling of quite large chunks of broad-leafed woodland which are not replaced by other broad-leafed trees. Some is carried out to agriculture, some to mixed planting and some to coniferous planting. The broad-leafed woodlands of this country are extremely important. It would concentrate the minds of the department and the Forestry Commission wonderfully if an amendment such as this could be placed in the Bill. Obviously it will not be, because of the constraints 1313 we have had before, but I think it is well worthwhile airing this point of view once again. I beg to move.
§ Lord Gibson-Watt
I wonder whether I can briefly help my noble friend, even it' I cannot support his amendment. I must confess an interest as a Forestry Commissioner for some years. In regard to SSSIs, which are the concern of this amendment, any problem about planting or felling applications in them or in national nature reserves is always a matter of discussion between the Forestry Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council. This follows from statutory directions given to the Forestry Commission by the forestry Ministers. Therefore I am able to speak on this matter, which I know about, and I repeat my assurance to my noble friend that what he is asking for already exists. He is pushing at an open door.
§ Lord Melchett
The noble Lord may be right in saying that in theory this provision already exists, but in practice I am afraid matters do not work out quite like that. I was recently in Scotland looking at Abernethy, a grade 1 site of special scientific interest. It includes the RSPB's Loch Garten reserve which in turn includes the famous osprey tree and the nest which has been seen by hundreds of thousands, indeed nearly a million, visitors over the years. In that Caledonian pine forest, that SSSI, I saw an area which has recently been clear felled by Thompson Forestry, with permission given by the Forestry Commission; and not only that—the area subsequently has been drained right up to the edge of the site. This is a grade 1 site of special scientific interest. It is a grade 1 nature conservation review site which makes it, if anything, more important scientifically: and it looks like part of a battlefield from the First World War. And this has been done, not just after discussion with the Forestry Commission hut, as I understand it, with their active support. And that is not the only part of the Abernethy SSSI which has been destroyed in that way with the agreement and support and, in some cases, grant-aid from the Forestry Commission.
If I could give another example, I think that it was the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who earlier spoke about Nelson's second-in-command planting oaks. I am not sure whether it was in Northamptonshire, but in any event there is an oak woodland in Northamptonshire called Salcey Forest, again a site of special scientific interest. In 1970, 1,000 acres of oak woodland were notified as a site of special scientific interest at Salcey Forest. Despite that and despite the fact that oak woodlands, as noble Lords will know, are rare in lowland England and have declined dramatically since the war and are very much at risk, the Forestry Commission undertook extensive clear felling, replanting with conifers or conifer-deciduous mixes, either of which (as the noble Lord will also know) completely destroys the scientific and wildlife interest of the woodlands. As a result of all this, and the Forestry Commission's—and I have to say this—total lack of appreciation of the fact that this was an SSSI, a complete lack of interest in that and total determination not to protect it but to destroy it, when the SSSI was renotified in 1984, following the passage of the 1981 Act which this Bill amends, it was only one-third of its former size.
1314 The noble Lord may be right in saying that, in theory, consultations and duties are placed on the Forestry Commission but I am afraid that in practice there are many woodlands all over Great Britain which have been or are in the process of being destroyed with Forestry Commission agreement. The figures nationally tend to bear that out. The number of broad-leafed woodlands which have been clear felled or clear felled and replanted either with conifers or a conifer-hardwood mix are very high indeed. The numbers which have been selectively felled and under-planted with hardwoods which would be the desirable nature-conservation system in most woodlands are tiny.
The Forestry Commission simply are not recognising the importance of nature conservation in the way that they handle applications for telling licences or the management of woods. I am afraid that that has been repeated in the consultations that they have had over their new policy on broad-leafed woodlands where conservation bodies have been very unhappy about the way the consultations have been carried out and about the resources which the Forestry Commission are proposing to devote to deciduous woodlands. Nobody sees the process of destruction being halted.
§ Lord Gibson-Watt
With respect, this is a matter for the future and certainly not a matter for debate at this moment in this Committee. The noble Lord is not totally right in what he is saying.
§ Lord Melchett
If any of the facts that I have given about Abernethy or Salcey Forest are inaccurate, I am happy to be corrected by the noble Lord. I can assure him from my personal knowledge that what I have said about the attitude of the conservation bodies to the broad-leafed review which the Forestry Commission are carrying out is in fact their attitude. If the noble Lord wants to contradict that, I am happy to give way to him.
§ Lord Gibson-Watt
Indeed, I shall. If any public body has ever been to the lengths of having discussions and seminars with all interested bodies, I should like to find it. I would ask the noble Lord not to be too unfair to the Forestry Commission. They have great problems and they bend over backwards to recognise the problems to which the noble Lord refers. On the question of the earlier cases, I would not argue with him. All that I am arguing with him about is with regard to the so-called broad-leafed policy. That is a matter for the future and I would ask him not to prejudge it.
§ Lord Melchett
I do not think that I was pre-judging the actual policy. What I was saying was that the conservation bodies are very unhappy about the way in which consultations have been carried out. The noble Lord is right to say that the seminar was held recently; but he may also know that a number of conservation bodies who commented to the Forestry Commission on the proposals were excluded. It is an unfortunate fact that the Forestry Commission chose to exclude those organisations which happened to have made some of the most critical comments on the proposal. The noble Lord is shaking his head. If he 1315 wants to contradict me I shall be happy to give way and allow him to correct me. But that is a fact. The Forestry Commission have now organised a further meeting, I think, in recognition that there was some weight to this criticism.
But, as I went on to say, the conservation organisations—and I believe that this applies to the Government's statutory advisers, the Nature Conservancy Council—remain very unhappy about the content of the proposals and the degree of support, particularly for continuing management which is vital in deciduous woodlands, which the Forestry Commission are proposing. I believe that a much stricter duty than is currently in this Bill is necessary to be placed upon the Forestry Commission. The clause which was in the original Bill received very widespread support. If I may say so to the noble Lord, the Forestry Commission did not find many allies in another place when it came to the discussion on placing a further statutory duty on them. It was the Government that weakened the clause—I think, unfortunately—but I very much hope that by concentrating in particular on sites of special scientific interest, as this amendment does, the Government will find it acceptable.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Irrespective of what the Forestry Commission do and do not do, what we are discussing at this moment is an amendment and whether the words in the amendment would make any difference to the way the Forestry Commission are behaving. I must tell the Committee that the answer to that particular conundrum is that it would not. This amendment would not alter the arrangements which already exist between the Forestry Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council for handling applications for grant-aid and felling permission in SSSIs. Under the terms of the statutory directions issued by the three forestry Ministers, the Forestry Commission is required to consult with other departments and authorities as appropriate on grants of felling applications. In the case of the NCC, there is a long-standing agreement that the Forestry Commission will consult on all such cases arising within SSSIs and national nature reserves.
To the best of my knowledge and belief, this is exactly what the Forestry Commission has done. The noble Lord counters immediately with his reference to the felling at Abernethy Forest SSSI with the permission of the Forestry Commission. All that I can say to that is that the Forestry Commission's agreement was given in 1979 to 1980 under a plan of operations which lasted for five years. This was before the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and before the present arrangements for consultation with the NCC in SSSIs came into force. I would think that it was inconceivable—
§ The Earl of Onslow
Will my noble friend give way for a moment? On Salcey Forest, I have been advised, as late as 1984 they clear-felled the largest remaining block of mature oak. That is three years after the introduction of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
§ Lord Melchett
While the noble Lord is sitting down may I make another point that at Creag Meggiadh in 1316 Scotland, where application was made to afforest a site of special scientific interest, the Forestry Commission agreed to planting going ahead with grant-aid. I know that in the event the Nature Conservancy Council had to buy the site at huge public expense and planting did not go ahead. My understanding is that the Forestry Commission had indicated that planting would be allowed and, for that reason, a considerable increase in the capital sum had to be paid to secure the site for conservation.
§ Lord Burton
As I know this area, may I intervene at this stage? One department of the Nature Conservancy Council in Inverness had already given clearance for this. They then decided that it was not in their area, that they had made a mistake and that it had to go to Aberdeen. It was not really altogether surprising that the Forestry Commission, quite rightly, gave its permission for planting on that ground.
§ Lord Melchett
I do not know what one office of the Nature Conservancy Council did or did not do; but the fact is that the Nature Conservancy Council nationally consistently opposed any conifer planting on that site of special scientific interest, as they were bound to do, it seems to me under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It seems to me very undesirable that one publicly-funded body should be giving permission in effect to destroy a site of scientific interest which leaves another public body, the Nature Conservancy Council, having to spend even more public money to prevent that planting taking place. That is in fact what the result was of the Forestry Commission's agreement for some of it to be planted.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
That was an interesting intervention in my speech. All I can say is that the position of Creag Meggiadh has been decided by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and matters have been proceeding from that decision. What I was saying before I became embroiled in particular points on particular forests brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and other noble Lords, was that this amendment does not actually add anything to the existing lore and therefore, in technical terms, is totally otiose. That is my view so far as the amendment is concerned. If I may repeat what I was saying about the Abernethy Forest, the agreement was given in the winter of 1979 under a plan of operations which lasted for five years. Therefore the fact that the most recent felling was done in 1984 is within that agreed plan of operations.
§ The Earl of Onslow
May I interrupt for one moment? This is showing a remarkable insensitivity. That is the duty we want placed on the Forestry Commission. It is to learn to behave with slightly more sensitivity. The evidence so far is that they do not behave with sensitivity. We want them to be taught to behave with sensitivity.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
What I was going on to say—but my noble friend the Earl of Onslow interrupted and said exactly the same point—in the second of the two speeches that I was making was that the permission would not be given now without full and proper consultation. In other words, the situation 1317 since the 1981 Act operation so far as the Forestry Commission is concerned is entirely different. I do not think that I can add anything more to this evening's discussion on this point.
§ Lord Melchett
May I ask the noble Lord to confirm one thing? I know your Lordships want to get on to other business. The noble Lord said the amendment—and I take it he means the whole of the amendment—adds nothing to the existing law. I am not asking any trick question. I am thinking in particular of paragraph (b) of the amendment. Can he confirm what he has just said, that the whole of this amendment simply reflects the current position that the Forestry Commission is under; and adds absolutely nothing to their powers or their duties which they are under?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am informed that Amendment No. 7—which of course is an amendment to Clause 4 of the Bill, which is an entirely different situation—adds nothing to the existing statute and therefore should be resisted from this Box on those grounds.
§ The Earl of Onslow
In view of that totally unsatisfactory answer, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment that stands in my name.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 4 agreed to.
§ Remaining, clause agreed to.
§ House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.