HL Deb 25 June 1985 vol 465 cc647-51

3.3 p.m.

Read a third time.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass. (Lord Melchett.)

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I know that the House will forgive me if I rise and keep your Lordships for a very short time simply to say how very glad we are to see this Bill finally on its way. If I may be forgiven for introducing a slightly sour note, I should like to say how much better it would have been if the clauses which were approved at Second Reading in the other place had been allowed to remain in the Bill, especially those on marine reserves, forestry and the duties of agricultural Ministers. The last one, in particular, received wide support from all sides of the House and from outside bodies which are concerned with farming interests. It is very difficult to understand why the Government insisted on removing this particular clause. Public opinion demands it and sooner or later it must come.

During the passage of the Bill there have been many weaknesses exposed in the 1981 Act, and we look to further amendments from the Government in the next Session as part of their programme, instead of having to rely on Private Members' Bills. Finally, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend Lord Melchett, and my honourable friend Dr. David Clark in another place, on what is a very useful Bill.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is it acceptable if I rise from these Benches to echo very briefly the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, in congratulating the author of this Bill, Dr. David Clark, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for introducing it in this House and in saying how glad we are that it may shortly reach the statute book. I cannot do better than reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has said about other most important elements in the matter of protecting the landscape and wildlife which remain outside the Bill. There is an over-riding need of providing very early protection for badgers and of ensuring that the loophole which existed in the protracted process of designation of intended SSSIs should be closed and that they should be protected by law. I would only say that there are other important matters, such as the marine nature reserves. It may be of interest to your Lordships if I say very briefly that I have just come back from spending four days on Scoma. There is no doubting the deep concern of people directly informed about the damage being done on the seabed in that intended nature reserve through dredging for scallops.

It follows that any delay in further tightening the measures to protect the environment, whether it is submarine or on the land surface, can only mean further damage, and therefore there remains important unfinished business. We on these Benches hope very much that there will be support from all sides of your Lordships' House in this strictly nonpolitical area beneath the sea and in the landscape and habitats of wildlife, for pursuing and pressing for further amendments and improvements of the principal Act.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I wish to detain the House for only a moment or two on this Motion. This is a Private Member's Bill which arrived here on a very choppy sea. I hope that anyone who is now making a study of the Private Member's Bill procedure will have a look at how this Bill came here and at the drawbacks and hazards that it overcame. It is fortuitous that Clause 1 is in this Bill. At an earlier stage I expressed an appreciation of this provision being here and I am grateful to all those who used their endeavours to insert it and keep it in the Bill. However, I want to underline the appeal that I made at that earlier stage of the Bill to the hunting fraternity and to the British Field Sports Society.

The badger is under very heavy pressure all over the country. Not only is there this tragic destruction of badgers which are found to be infected with bovine tuberculosis—and the area of trapping and killing is widening the whole time—but in addition there has been a growing menace to the badger from those who are unaware of the popularity of this animal and the desire of the people to cherish it after many centuries of persecution. People go badger digging and sometimes they take dogs with them to assist. Clause 1 is an attempt to strengthen the existing law against this and it is to be hoped that Clause 1 will bring about the conviction of persons accused of badger digging where, at the present time, the courts are unable to convict through lack of sufficient evidence.

Be that as it may, only experience will show how the clause will produce the results that we want. I want to make this appeal. We are all now trying to safeguard the badger, not only against the extreme danger of the disease of bovine tuberculosis, but also from badger diggers and others who harass the badger. It is the duty of those who go fox-hunting and those in charge of foxhounds and hunts to play their part, too. There is a practice in some hunts of stopping up badger setts before the hunt begins in order to prevent foxes taking refuge in them, which I am advised they frequently do. That is called stopping up. Another practice is that if a fox is seen to take refuge in a badger sett, the fox is dug out in order to set it again in the chase, and that is called digging out. If I am misrepresenting what fox-hunters do, I hope that noble Lords who are more familiar with this sport will correct me.

But since it is called a sport, why not be sporting enough to give the fox a reasonable and natural chance of escape? Certainly badgers have suffered through having their setts stopped up, and very often badgers have suffered through being the victims of the digging-out of a fox which has taken refuge there. I do not think it is unreasonable to ask fox-hunters to desist from both of these practices. If a fox can get away, let it get away. I thought this was the idea: that you hunt animals with the chance of escape, and if there is not the chance of escape it is not called hunting and it is not called sport.

In those circumstances I think, since others are being asked to refrain from activities which are harassing the badger in present circumstances, that those who are in the field probably more than anybody, those who claim to be sportsmen in the field more than anybody, should also play their part. I am not myself a fox-hunting man, although I come from fox-hunting country. I have witnessed some parts of foxhunting, but I have never ranted about foxhunting, and that is something about which to commend a Member of your Lordships' House on this subject, because emotions run very high on it. There it is, my Lords, in good temper, in the hope that there will be a response from those who have responsibilities for the conduct of foxhounds, and hunting men and women in the field. Give the badger a chance.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, for the second time in 24 hours I have to say quite genuinely that six months ago I never thought that this day would ever come. That it has is due to the combined efforts of many people—too many for me to mention by name. Through the difficult medium of a Private Member's Bill we will have on the statute book an Act of Parliament that strengthens the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that, had it been a Government Bill, it is my own personal view that it would inevitably have ended up as a very different animal.

This strengthening is done in two very important ways. The first, and originally the only, gap that this Bill plugs is the so-called three months' loophole. As from Royal Assent, even though there will still be a three-months' period for objection after a site has been notified as a SSSI, the protection for the site will run from the date of notification and not the end of the three-months' period allowed for objections to be made and considered.

The second important thing that this Bill does is to shift the burden of proof on to a person accused of molesting badgers to show that he was not, as opposed to the situation in the Badgers Act where the onus of proof is on the prosecutor. The Bill does two other things which in their own way are equally important: namely it extends the range of topographical features which have to be mapped in national parks, and gives the Forestry Commission a duty to try to achieve a reasonable balance between the interests of forestry and conservation.

The House will know that this Bill could have covered more subjects by this last stage in its parliamentary timetable—perhaps even would have. Many of them were discussed in Committee and I shall not go into them now. Moreover, due to the traumas inherent in the Private Bill procedure in another place, your Lordships were asked to do something completely unheard of in countryside matters in recent years; namely, to have a self-denying ordinance and to appreciate that in this unusual case the best really was the enemy of the good.

Nonetheless, the Government are most grateful to the House for the very thorough way in which it has examined the whole Bill and the reasons underlying it. Getting this Bill on to the statute book brings great credit not only to the promoters of the Bill but also to all the interests in the countryside and their continuing diplomacy. It therefore only remains for me, on behalf of the Government, to wish this Bill all blessings and beatitudes.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, first may I thank those noble Lords who mentioned by honourable friend, Dr. David Clarke, who promoted the Bill in another place, and on whom almost the entire burden of work—and it has been an enormous amount of work—has fallen as a result of the Bill going through Parliament. He certainly deserves the thanks that have been given to him. I should also like to thank the interests which came together to provide the initial suggestions for the contents of the Bill and some of the drafting help, particularly the voluntary wildlife, animal welfare and landscape conservation bodies, the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association, all of whom played a big part in helping my honourable friend to introduce the Bill and to get it now to this stage and on the statute book.

I should also like to thank the Government for the drafting help that they gave for the clauses that are still in the Bill, but to echo my noble friends comments of deep regret that two of the most important clauses were deleted by the Government as part of that redrafting exercise. I am sure, as other noble Lords have said, that those two clauses raise issues to which we shall inevitably return in the very near future, and quite rightly so.

Finally, perhaps I may issue my own plea to the Government—and I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, sitting on the Front Bench listening, because I think it is to his department that this plea is mainly directed—that in two months' time when the Bill will come into force, assuming that it gets Royal Assent in the near future (as I hope it will), the Government will make every possible effort to give maximum publicity in particular to the new laws contained in Clauses 1 and 2, which will have a major impact on farmers and landowners. I think it is only right that they should be given as much information as possible about the change in the law. Having said that, I hope that the Bill can now proceed to be an Act as quickly as possible.

On Question, Bill passed.

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