HL Deb 14 November 1989 vol 512 cc1248-79

4.3 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Habitat and Species Protection ( 15th Report, HL Paper 72).

The noble Earl Said: My Lords, in August last year the Commission of the European Communities proposed a draft directive on the protection of natural and semi-natural habitats and wild flora and fauna. I understand that this was the subject of three working group meetings last autumn, but it was not tabled at the November 1988 Environment Council as had been expected. The history of the document is laid out on page 2 of the evidence of the Department of the Environment in the report that is before us this afternoon.

Sub-Committee F of the Select Committee on the European Communities felt that the subject raised issues of real importance to the environment of the Community and also one of considerable public interest. The sub-committee therefore resolved to undertake an inquiry, but agreed at the start that it should not concentrate on the detail of the Commission's original draft because it seemed likely that this would be subject to considerable amendment before it was ultimately considered in Council.

Those invited to submit evidence were asked to consider their evidence with regard to two issues.

The first was the extent to which the United Kingdom and other member states of the Community were meeting their obligations under the existing Birds Directive and under international conventions; namely, Bonn, Berne and Ramsar. The second issue upon which witnesses were invited to give us their views was the role that the European Community should play in the protection of natural and semi-natural habitats of wild flora and fauna within the Community.

For the inquiry our specialist adviser was Mr. Robin Grove-White and we owe a great deal to him for his assistance. I believe that I saw the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir, in his place a moment ago. I note with regret the unfortunate omission of his name from the list of noble Lords who took part. He was a valued member of our committee and his name was inadvertently dropped from the list which appears in Appendix 1. The individuals and organisations who submitted evidence are listed in Appendix 2 and their evidence is printed with the report.

The sub-committee also visited the Commission of the European Communities in Brussels and paid a visit to Italy where we met our opposite numbers, the Environment Committee of the Italian Senate. That was an extremely useful visit because it brought us face to face with problems encountered in a southern member state of the European Community which are of a totally different nature from the problems of conservation and protection of the environment with which we are familiar in our own country. A description of the visit to Italy is found in Appendix 4 and a transcript of our evidence session at Brussels is found on pages 165 to 203.

It became clear in the course of our inquiry that wild flora, wild fauna and their habitats are now facing increasingly acute pressures in many parts of the European Community. That was clear from the substantial body of evidence provided by, among others, the Institute for European Environmental Policy, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and Wildlife Link and from the Commission's own observation: that the range of wildlife and natural ecosystems present in the Community now is less than it has been for thousands of years; and the rate of decline and loss is probably greater than it has ever been".

In that respect there is a difference between the northern member states and the southern member states of the Community. In northern Community centres agricultural intensification, land drainage and similar developments have already led to diminutions of habitat, reduction in the ranges of wild species and population losses affecting both animals and plants. It has placed many supposedly protected areas under acute pressure. In the southern member states by contrast greater biological diversity persists; but it is here that industrial and agricultural changes are now producing new and severe pressures on the natural inheritance of wild plants and wild animals.

That difference was amply displayed during our visit to Brussels when we saw the CORINE programme which has been supported by DG XI. That programme has identified more than 5,000 sites which are considered to be of European significance. The majority of those are in southern member states.

The report looks first at the evidence on international conventions and the Birds Directive. Paragraphs 16 to 23 deal with the Berne Convention, paragraphs 24 to 28 with the Birds Directive, paragraphs 29 to 31 with the Ramsar Convention and paragraph 32 with the Bonn Convention. I shall leave noble Lords to read the evidence that we received on those international conventions. The report next looks at the evidence received from witnesses on their opinion of the appropriate role for the European Community in this field.

I can say that there was universal consensus that Articles 130R and 1305 of the Single European Act now provide an undoubted legal basis for Community environmental measures,. It was put to us by the Institute of European Environmental Policy that the real issue now is how responsibilities are to be shared between the Community and member states.

The important issue of habitat protection versus other Community policies was also raised. It was noted by our witnesses that developments that are being sponsored by the Community's structural funds —notably, the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the guidance section of the Agricultural Fund —are now a growing source of concern for environmental reasons. Examples are given in the evidence.

The significant point is that spending under the structural funds is to double between 1989 and 1993. That will involve a total expenditure of around the equivalent of £35 billion. It will account for more than 30 per cent. of the Community's budget by 1993. Given the impact that so me of these developments will have, particularly in the southern member states where, as I have already pointed out, there is greater richness but also greater sensitivity and more threat to the environment, this is a matter of great importance. The committee did not receive evidence that sufficient attention was being paid to that point.

We noted that the Commission has recently drawn up what are called "internal instructions" which are aimed at screening member states' proposals for plans, programmes and projects under the structural funds. These have come into force since April this year in a non-obligatory way; but the Commission's staff is quite inadequate to deal with the proper monitoring of the environmental impacts of this very large expenditure.

Witnesses also brought before us evidence to show that the Community's agricultural policies have already led throughout the Community to serious losses of habitats and species and that the pressure of Community-funded agricultural change is now escalating in the southern states and in Ireland. The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) drew particular attention to gaps in Community and national legislation which concern the protection of individual landscape features such as hedges and walls, as well as broad tracts of semi-natural vegetation. Some of the evidence that we heard emphasised the importance of the conservation of the wider countryside, particularly in the southern member states.

We noted that, in the European Parliament's debate on the implementation of the Berne and Bonn Conventions, the issue of hunting dominated. In Italy we found that this issue divides the nation. While we were there a message was brought from the Straits of Messina, where migrating honey buzzards were crossing that morning and being shot as they reached landfall on the toe of Italy. That brought home to us very vividly the position of conservation in Italy.

Our witnesses felt that it was essential to have Community funding to encourage and support nature protection both by national authorities and individuals. That was regarded also by DG XI as an essential ingredient in the successful completion of a programme for the protection of the environment.

I move on to the opinion of the committee, which was convinced that, as we say in paragraph 71: Few aspirations of European Community environmental policy are more important than that of protecting the range of wild species and their habitats existing within the Community's boundaries".

The committee believes that member states, including the United Kingdom, now face a choice in that field: either member states equip themselves through their own domestic administrations with a genuinely European perspective or they will find it forced upon them by popular pressure. That will lead the Community to step in to fill the gap.

The committee was persuaded that there is a certain level of protection appropriate for Community action. Certain lists can be obtained of species and habitats that require protection at Community level. At this time of rapid social and economic change the Community must give higher priority to the conservation of its remaining wild flora and fauna. The committee believes that it is important that the Community, whose spending under the regional, social and agricultural guidance funds has been responsible for major losses in habitat, should allocate a proportion of these resources to the development of adequate protective programmes. We noticed with regret that within our own administration there appears to be no mechanism for assessing the environmental impact of developments supported by structural funds.

The committee accepted that in the Berne Convention, to which this country is a signatory, there are serious weaknesses. But we believe that it is a useful forum for discussions at the international level on general conservation, on lists of species that require conservation and on habitats generally. We believe that the Berne Convention provides a valuable forum. The first of our major recommendations is that the new directive should make the full implementation of the Berne Convention a Community obligation for all member states.

The committee believes that the Commission itself should prepare a comparatively short list of species and habitats which are genuinely of European significance. We believe that this system, developed through the special protection areas proposed within the directive, would lead to designations of super-protected sites —sites that receive both national and Community-level protection. We say in paragraph 91 that we believe that this new system of designations: should confer a degree of absolute protection".

We have been taken to task for that infelicity. We discussed it later in committee and decided that what we meant to say was that for such sites any potentially damaging development proposals should be vetted both at Community level and at national level. That means that there must be a Community apparatus for assessing environmental impacts and matching national procedures which would be applied to this key group of Europeanly —if that is a possible word —significant sites.

The committee also felt that the progressive erosion of habitats in the wider countryside was a subject that needed to be addressed in the new directive. We believe therefore that the directive should specify that the governments of member states should develop explicit policies and programmes for safeguarding substantial areas of semi-natural vegetation. We accept that there should be periodic reports from member states to the Commission to show how the directive is being implemented.

In paragraph 98 we deal briefly with the Community Inspectorate I note that the issue of the environmental agency has moved very far since we first looked at this subject. Last night it was debated in another place, so I do not think that I have anything else to say on that matter. However, I think that one point can be made with emphasis; namely; the value of non-governmental organisations within the system that is developing in the European Community. Without the evidence from non-governmental organisations I believe that our committee would not have been able to discover all that it needed to know about the impact of the structural funds and the interrelationship between nature conservation and development in other member states of the European Community. It is only through papers provided by NGOs that we were able to discover these facts. We believe that the NGOs have played an important part in developing public pressure leading to the proposal of this directive. We also believe that well-informed NGOs are and will be effective in helping the Community to achieve conservation goals.

It is a feature of the inquiries of this Select Committee that we are often shooting at a running target. In this case the initial target was more evanescent than it normally is. In Appendix 3 to our report we printed the draft as it was available to us. I have since had sights of various later versions dating from September, October and into November. The revisions materially affect both the substance of the directive and its annexes. It is clear that a very different draft is now in existence. The early November version that I have seen has an amended Article 2 which refers to: giving priority to the habitats of species for which the Community has special responsibility and to types of natural habitat of Community importance which constitute the shared natural heritage of member states".

That is exactly the approach that your Lordships' Select Committee felt was appropriate. We feel that it reflects the notion of subsidiarity as it is outlined in the Single European Act.

The next Environment Council meeting is on 28th November. I look forward to the contributions of the 10 other Members of your Lordships' House who will speak after me this afternoon. In particular I hope for a firm statement from my noble friend Lord Reay of the Government's intentions with regard to advancing this extremely important European directive in the forthcoming Environment Council under the presidency of France.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Habitat and Species Protection (15th Report, H.L. Paper 72). —(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

4.22 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, the noble Earl has done his usual comprehensive job in presenting our report. Indeed, he leaves very little for other members of the committee to say on it. I thank him for the way in which, in his capacity as chairman of the committee, he conducted the inquiry. He is a constant inspiration to the members of his committee. His tact and patience with those of us who may not see the point quite so quickly as he does is commendable.

The United Kingdom has a better record on nature protection than most other members of the Community. We have reserves of experience and expertise which could enable us to give a lead at European level. Because of our experience we are more aware also of what needs to be done in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Community. My few remarks will be aimed at highlighting the need for effective international action to safeguard our wildlife heritage.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act was a step forward but it has proved ineffective even in its protection of special sites; and for the wider countryside it does nothing. In its recent report, Losing Ground, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation draws attention to the serious degradation of our countryside since the Second World War. The Royal Society for Nature Conservation, as most noble Lords will know, is the parent body of 48 wildlife trusts. It has therefore detailed nationwide information on changes in the countryside —the loss of flower-rich grasslands, of heathland, and of broadleaved woodland. The destruction of hedgerows is accelerating. Official figures show that annual losses of hedgerows of 2,900 miles per annum between 1969 and 1980 have increased to annual losses of 4,000 miles per annum between 1980 and 1985. In terms of loss of habitat it is easy to see what a very serious figure that is.

In my own county of Cambridgeshire, the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust reports that loss of rough grassland is forcing barn owls to hunt on roadside verges where over 20 per cent. of the population die in motor accidents each year.

Our common lands, many of which are valuable havens for wildlife, are being eroded year by year for development. The protective legislation we were promised in the election manifesto of 1987 is still not in sight depite many questions which have been asked on the subject. Even those sites designated for special protection are not safe. A Parliamentary Question in another place on 22nd June this year gained the information that between 1st April 1984 and 31st March 1988, 687 sites of special scientific interest had sustained damage. That is about 14 per cent. of the total. That is an underestimate because the monitoring staff of the Nature Conservancy Council is inadequate due to underfunding. We have to assume that were we to have the correct figure of damage to sites of special scientific interest it would be much higher.

None of our protective designations gives total protection. In paragraph 64 of the report the Department of the Environment sets out its reasons for supporting this position. Nevertheless, it is obvious from much of the evidence that we were given that stronger protection must be available if we are to prevent further destruction of our natural heritage.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is particularly concerned about the threat to wetland habitat in Europe generally by drainage for agriculture, and in the United Kingdom by development of estuaries. Some of the bird species wintering in our estuaries represent a significant proportion of European populations and we have an international duty to protect them. No fewer than 57 of our estuaries qualify for designation under the Ramsar Convention or as special protection areas under the wild birds directive. Yet so far only 16 have been so designated.

Eight years have passed since the introduction of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Yet of the seven sites that were identified during the passage of that Act as being suitable for marine nature reserves, only one has since been designated. Question after Question on the progress of the second marine nature reserve —I have another Question down for tomorrow —produces evasive and unhelpful replies.

We are now contemplating the dismembering of the Nature Conservancy Council. That is the body responsible for nature conservancy in the United Kingdom. It is the body which has gained us such a good international reputation. Dismembering it in the way that is being proposed is bound to weaken the cause of conservation in this country. By this country I mean the United Kingdom, which includes Scotland, Wales and probably Ireland also, although I know less about that.

It is at a time when Europe is likely to look to us for guidance. As the noble Earl said in his introduction, we are fortunate in having a number of articulate non-governmental organisations without whose efforts our home scene would be so much worse. However, their efforts need to be backed by national and international legislation, I hope that the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite will be able to tell us today that the Government intend to take a firm lead and to demonstrate that their commitment to environmental protection is real and not just words.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Craigton

My Lords, I should like to add my word of thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and to the members of his committee for the time, the effort and the travelling that they have put in to produce this thoughtful and constructive report. There is a need for this habitats directive and I welcome it. This is of course just another directive but its guidelines are a necessary step to be acted on or ignored as this nation or the other nations feel.

It is nevertheless a stepping-stone to a progress that started perhaps with Ramsar only about 17 years ago, so recent is our realisation of the damage that we have been inflicting for more than a century. It is a worry, but understandable, that in spite of directives, laws and public concern much damage is still being caused by ingrained habits and beliefs, as exampled by the continuing destruction of birds in Italy to which the noble Earl referred.

The report rightly highlights the lack of laws and of the money to enforce them. The Home Office used to tell us that it is no good passing laws unless you can enforce them. But in connection with conservation matters laws are the essential starting point over the whole field of conservation. Not every provision in them immediately achieves its purpose but some do and the prohibitions gather force. The law is the adequate starting point of adequate protection. That is the lesson and that is the goal to seek. As regards money, the directive will not be effective unless there are adequate funds to implement it. The best practicable proposal may be, as the CPRE recommends, that a resolution should accompany the directive requesting the Commission to propose appropriate mechanism.

The committee comments acidly on the apparent lack of enthusiasm and narrow European outlook of Her Majesty's Government as compared with the NGOs who, have shown a helpful range of expertise and concern, complementing, and in some respects exceeding, that of the Government and the Nature Conservancy Council. It continues that it was only through the expertise of the NGOs that it could discover what it needed to know about the structural funds and nature conservation in the member states. It adds later that it believes that well informed NGOs have been effective in achieving Community conservation goals.

That is quite true, but that comparison is unnecessary and unfair. The officials have to advise their Minister on what progress is practicable through our jungle of laws and regulations from other ministries, and their Minister has to advise his colleagues on what is politically practicable. The conflict between the lively strength of the NGO and the apparent inertia of the ministry is democracy at its very best. It is the organised voices of the people that must lead the way.

Finally, the report quotes in paragraph 79 the words of Nigel Haig of IEEP. He said, nature conservation is not a purely national concern". The committee observes that some habitats straddle frontiers and are affected by trans-boundary pollution of rivers and catchment areas in more than one country. Nigel Haig's simple, telling statement of the obvious now has wider implications than he would have believed possible when he made it.

Up to now there has been friendly co-operation and an exchange of ideas on conservation with the nations behind the Iron Curtain. But now the Iron Curtain is not there and that co-operation must now turn to action —action to persuade our own new, free neighbours to adopt some of the proved and successful provisions of the conventions. The new parliaments will have to pass new laws. This should be a deliberate campaign and as always, as the report encourages them to do, the NGOs should lead the way. The tools are there in the IEEP, WWF, EEB, ICBP, IIED and of course others, including, one would hope, Martin Holdgate of IUCN. If they have not already done so, let them all get together now, call a meeting and make a plan of action to visit, to make permanent contact and to produce draft headings for new laws so that for conservation at least the whole of Europe will have the same policy and a common aim.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, from these Benches I join the two previous speakers in congratulating the noble Earl and the Select Committee on presenting to your Lordships a very clear and persuasive report. It is perhaps just as well for our debate this afternoon that the Select Committee, anticipating that there would be considerable amendment to the draft directive, has looked at its work in general terms. That enables us to take a broad view of this draft directive and this proposal. That, too, is just as well, in view of the extremely short notice at which this item of business has been included in today's agenda.

If I may, I will pick up and rehearse a few of the points already raised by the noble Earl as pegs, as it were, on which to make my own observations on behalf of this party. First, I should like to say a word about the scope of the directive to which the Select Committee has given some attention.

In its evidence the CPRE has drawn attention to the obvious fact that wildlife and its habitats are really part and parcel of consideration of the wider environment and it would have liked —and I sympathise with it —to have had a broader ranging directive. After all, in 1981 Parliament embraced both aspects of environmental protection in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. But on balance, and with some reluctance, I agree with the Select Committee that if the directive were to be broadened it might create difficulty in getting agreement from all member states, and that there is advantage in having a narrower focus because that makes more impact. As the noble Earl said, safeguarding substantial areas of semi-natural vegetation and protecting particular landscape features, such as hedgerows, are examples of where both aspects of the environment can and should converge. I accept that and it is referred to in paragraph 94.

Secondly, is a new directive necessary? We learn that the Government tend to think that it is not. The Select Committee has expressed the clear opinion that a fresh directive is needed to "galvanise activity" —I quote from paragraph 85 —to give teeth to, and provide funds and legal backing for, the full implementation of the existing environmental nature protection conventions. In particular, there is the reference in paragraph 17 to the Berne Convention. We are told that that convention especially has not proved fully effective for full action by all member states to match the urgency of the situation.

On this matter of urgency, the Select Committee has pointed to the pressing need for further action now, because of the growing pressures on land use and, in particular, because of the influence on development of the structural funds, particularly in those areas which are still a haven for wildlife.

At paragraph 91, we are told that as regards certain habitats there is a need for absolute protection —a need for top priority —and that to balance that need against the need for economic development in those areas simply is not good enough. At paragraph 11 the committee described the accelerating decline of habitats and loss of species as "serious". That point is underscored very strongly by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation.

At paragraph 103 the committee has further pointed out the time limits of a new directive in view of the fund of goodwill within the Community for nature conservation and in view of the marked expansion in the European economy which is likely to follow the implementation of the Single European Act in 1992 and onwards.

The last and most significant point which I wish to raise in this debate, is that the Select Committee has underscored the part which the United Kingdom is playing and should in future be playing in this matter. Let me say at once that the Select Committee's advice to your Lordships to endorse the new proposed directive in principle rather than to "beef up" the existing conventions and the birds directive has firm support from these Benches. I believe the psychology which underlies the case for such a fresh initiative —a shot in the arm so to speak —is absolutely right.

Conversely, I am bound to say that on my reading of the evidence given by the Department of the Environment, I found the cautious, even reluctant and somewhat negative attitude of the British Government disappointing although not entirely surprising. There seemed to be little sense of the urgency of the situation on a Community level. Indeed, I seemed to detect a hint of indifference in regard to the European dimension.

As one who has been considerably involved in environmental matters between 1980 and 1987 —and I admit that I am now somewhat out of date —I am well aware of the initiatives taken by the Government beginning with the 1981 Act onwards. Those were steps in the right direction and of some, the Government have good cause to be proud. I can accept the opinion expressed within the Community —and I am referring to paragraph 74 —that the United Kingdom system of protection is: one of the best in Europe". There are two points to be made; one is a caveat or qualification of that record and the other a deduction to be drawn from it. The caveat —and here I am echoing the points made in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol —is that our system is by no means perfect. It is not sufficiently protective of certain habitats and species. That is illustrated by the absence of control in conifer forestation which has destroyed much semi-natural vegetation; the destruction, as the noble Baroness said, of several hundred SSSIs within the past two years alone; and the sorry story of the marine nature reserves about which she and I have been much concerned over the whole period of the past nine years. Moreover, we understand from the report that progress in designating special protection areas for birds and in listing wetlands as required under the Ramsar Convention has been slow. Those are indicators of the inadequacy of United Kingdom action and legislation despite our relatively good record.

Britain could also benefit from the galvanising effect to which the Select Committee refers and which the draft directive purports to provide. There is no cause for complacency let alone indifference on our part.

My deduction from the good aspects of the Government's record, which I fully acknowledge, is, as the Select Committee has suggested, that we have an opportunity and a duty, if we are really committed Europeans, to offer our experience and methods to other nation states. It is my contention, as it is of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that such a constructive contribution cannot effectively be made from a position of semi-detachment. To carry conviction, the United Kingdom must submit itself to the same constraints, as well as receiving the same benefits, as all other member states. The British Government must be involved along the general lines adumbrated in this directive.

That leads me to wonder and to ask how seriously the Government are taking their part in Community action in that area. The Prime Minister has waxed eloquent about global pollution and its future consequences. However, I am less convinced as to the Government's concern about the degradation of the rural countryside in the here and now. I hope to hear a positive answer from the Minister that the Government accept that in this matter of protecting wildlife, national frontiers and sovereignty may be quite irrelevant to the actions which are necessary on a wider front.

If your Lordships will forgive a slight frivolity, few species of birds on the British list are British birds; they are European birds and some are international birds. They need to be protected wherever they go, wherever they land and wherever they fly. The dimension is either European or international.

To conclude, I am sure that the one aspect on which we all agree is the vital importance of the matter which the Commission's draft directive addresses. It concerns not only the safeguarding and survival of threatened and endangered species but the need to buttress certain human values which are themselves under threat in the face of the inexorable advance of material development.

4.47 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I was very glad to take part, as a member of the environmental sub-committee, in this exceptionally interesting and important investigation, in which we were very capably guided by our chairman, the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and greatly helped by our specialist adviser, Mr. Robin Grove-White, and our clerk, Mr. Tom Mohan.

The inquiry was particularly appropriate and timely because the Commission and Her Majesty's Government appeared to have fallen out and to be at loggerheads. The Commission had produced a draft directive which was too rigid and centralist and, as so often happens, had done so without adequate informal discussion with governments and experts in this sphere, especially those in this country. I do not believe that that was a sensible way to proceed. It frightened some governments, especially ours, with the spectre of habitat and species conservation run entirely from Brussels.

However, Her Majesty's Government went rather to extremes in their reaction. There was talk of bureaucracy run mad and in a speech on 18th November 1988 the then Environment Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said: We must keep control of the future of our own countryside and of our wildlife in our own hands", and even suggested, the addition of the Brussels bureaucrat to the official pest list". Those remarks were hardly judicious or well thought out and naturally upset the Commission. Consequently, our sub-committee's task was to see whether a Community directive was appropriate and necessary, and, if so, to try to bridge the prodigious gap between the Commission and Her Majesty's Government and put the train back on the rails. That involved us in a short but illuminating visit to Brussels.

We took a great deal of evidence from the Nature Conservancy Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and many others. The almost universal view expressed to us was that we ought to have a Commission directive on habitats and that it was urgently required. We received a mass of evidence about the very serious and continuing loss of habitat all over Europe and the threat to a substantial number of bird, animal, fish, reptile, amphibian and plant species. That loss is serious enough in our own country. To give just one example, the Prime Minister herself pointed out earlier this year that we had lost 120,000 miles of hedgerow in the past 40 years.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the loss of hedgerows, which I agree is very serious, is largely due to the common agricultural policy which has resulted in the encouragement of large prairie areas of wheat or barley with no hedges in between?

Lord Moran

My Lords, the noble Lord has a point and the common agricultural policy has certainly contributed to the loss. That loss is in fact accelerating at present. We have our system of sites of special scientific interest, but the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has spoken about that and, as the Nature Conservancy Council has pointed out, 117 of them were recently damaged or destroyed in a single year. There is continuing damage to habitats, dramatically illustrated in the Royal Society for Nature Conservation review Losing Ground, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. That paper assembled information from all over the country and I strongly commend it to those of your Lordships who have not yet seen it.

There are serious threats to our remaining prime habitats; no fewer than 30 estuaries are threatened by projected developments. The Government have been desperately slow in declaring Ramsar wetland sites. They undertook originally to complete their listing by the end of 1986. They have failed to do so. Out of 150 recommended sites they have declared only 40. Is it that they do not wish to impede development on the other 110?

Our record in Europe may be relatively good, but in itself it is nothing to shout about. Denmark appears to be a conspicuous example of good practice but in other member states the situation is often much worse than in the United Kingdom. In Belgium 50,000 birds are legally trapped every year, with perhaps another 50,000 being trapped illegally. The shooting of migrant birds still takes place on a vast scale in southern Europe. During our inquiry we learnt about the widespread consumption of thrush paté on the Continent.

It is clearly very important that we should strive to improve matters. Should we do this by way of the Community or nationally as suggested in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness? We in the sub-committee had no doubt that it must be done through the Community, if only because it is already so heavily involved in changing the face of Europe through the common agricultural policy, through the structural funds and to some extent through the move to a single market.

I was personally very disappointed by the attitude of the representatives of the Department of the Environment who gave evidence to us. They struck me as somewhat negative and passive, showing few signs of taking an active line to secure the right sort of directive. Their line seemed to be that all that was necessary was for member states to implement fully the existing conventions. That is clearly important. I believe that France and Belgium have still to ratify the Berne Convention. But it is manifestly not enough. I hope things have changed and that the Government will now be prepared to take a more positive line.

Enormous damage has been and is being done to important wildlife habitats by development projects—mainly but not exclusively in southern Europe —financed by the Community's structural funds. These funds will increase massively in the next few years when there will be huge transfers of resources from northern to southern Europe. It is essential that we balance this with proper protection of important habitats and endangered species. For this a new Community directive is indispensable.

I hope that our report has pointed the way towards a sensible compromise. I hope too that Her Majesty's Government will now take a much more vigorous and constructive line on this question. Some progress has, I believe, been made under the French presidency. I have not seen the later drafts mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, but I am glad that they sound to be on the right lines. It is important that agreement should be reached soon on a text and that the new directive should enter into force with the minimum of delay.

Finally, there is the key question of money. A directive can only be effective if adequate Community funding is provided to enable it to be properly implemented. Public opinion in this country and elsewhere in the Community is rightly very much exercised about the conservation of our wildlife heritage in Europe. I am convinced that a habitat directive is badly needed to do this. We must look to member governments, and particularly to Her Majesty's Government, to bring a realistic but effective directive into force as quickly as possible.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, this is an excellent time to be debating the role of the European Community in protecting habitat and species because environmental issues remain high on the political agenda and all around us we are besieged with advice as to what should remain national concerns and what should become Community concerns. The Commission proposal which we are debating—on which our committee reported —reflects rather neatly the Conservative dilemma about Europe. We are all concerned with habitat destruction and threatened wildlife. The question is whether protection policies should be implemented at the national or Community level.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said, it would not be fair to the Government to suggest that they misjudged their initial response to the Commission's proposals. Certainly it was proper to expose the technical and practical weaknesses of the Commission's draft. We drew attention to those in our report. We were also considerably struck by the weight and quality of the evidence presented to us cataloguing the loss of wildlife and habitat throughout the Community. In the face of that evidence the plea that those were national concerns satisfactorily dealt with in this country was hardly destined to strike a popular note. Fortunately we have all begun to learn that when a voice from Europe insists that our beaches should be clean, our water pure and our countryside protected, public reaction is overwhelmingly one of approval. If it happens to be a bureaucrat who is telling us to save our heathland rather than a politician, that is of no interest to most of us who are simply grateful that at least someone is saying it.

Our committee therefore concluded that the European Community should have a positive role in assisting in the protection of wild species and habitat. There is a clear legal basis for a new Community initiative to do just that, and we appreciate the political imperatives of such action. I do not believe that we have set ourselves apart from mainstream opinion about the proper role of the Community in our national affairs. Inevitably, governments and parliamentarians become preoccupied with the fine questions of Community competence and national law; of directive and statute, of annexes and committees. I do not wish to trawl over this ground except to say in passing that the Commission ought to appreciate that it makes its task harder by presenting what amounts to a blank cheque for signature.

The draft Commission document we studied, upon which governments and voluntary organisations must rely, failed to attach the key annexes which are to specify the species of animals and plants to receive the various degrees of protection set out in the directive. However, I should like to concentrate instead on the two related concerns: first, what is the best mechanism for achieving the satisfactory conservation of wildlife and habitat, and, secondly, what is the role of the voluntary sector and the non-governmental organisations contributing to conservation policy? That point was emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol.

The committee was careful to note what is good and successful about conservation policy in this country. We have elaborate legislation to protect species, particularly the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. We have authoritative statutory agencies which act on a good science base. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said in her speech, not even this system —the envy of some of our European colleagues—provides the complete protection of SSSIs, as recent NCC annual reports have shown. The strength is in its emphasis on co-operation through the use of management agreements backed up with enforceable protection measures should agreement break down.

I believe we must recognise that such a system of management agreements needs the resources for it to be effective. Until very recently the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission have seen real increases in grant. I am disturbed that this trend appears to be changing, with cuts in last year's allocation. It is not just the effectiveness but also the credibility of the voluntary approach which is endangered when insufficient resources are available to make the policy work.

I should also like to emphasise, as did my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, the committee's observations that field sports in this country are closely regulated and close seasons and quarry regulations are widely respected. Much of the early debate about this proposed directive focused on its possible impact on country sports. I hope that policymakers in the Community are beginning to understand that properly managed field sports can play a vital role in conserving habitat and indeed wildlife.

Any sensible proposal must recognise the interests and the conservation value of legitimate field sports, particularly when the annexes are considered. As their European organisation, FACE, reminded the committee, field sportsmen have as much interest as the rest of us in habitat protection. Indeed, all the responsible voluntary organisations with an interest in wildlife and conservation have a role to play in conservation policy. The committee noted that there are non-governmental organisations in this country which are significant landowners and land managers in their own right.

I have a particular interest in the voluntary sector as president of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, which mobilises an army of over 60,000 volunteers who carry out voluntary work on a practical conservation basis. They are perhaps one of the most striking examples of the interplay in British environmental policy between government and non-governmental organisations. Community policy must encourage this co-operation, not seek to replace it; and rather than fear bureaucratic intervention into the countryside the Government should seek to show to the Community that such intervention is not necessary for the effective operation of conservation policy.

Equally, I have been impressed by the argument of many leading voluntary organisations that the habitat directive could have a special role to play in conserving the wider countryside outside existing specially protected areas. I believe that we must work towards a coherent Community policy which provides the right balance of agricultural incentives to encourage farmers to manage their land in a way which provides positive opportunities for conservation while maintaining farm incomes and the production of food. Farm and conservation policy cannot possibly be considered in isolation from each other. Farmers are the custodians of our wider countryside, not government agencies.

I believe that the Government should view the proposed habitat directive not as an unwelcome interference in their national conservation policy but as an opportunity to meet public concern and persuade the Community of the sense of the principles on which British conservation policy is founded. Perhaps the Government accept that it will no longer do for them to say, "We're all right, Jack", or rather, "We're all right, Jacques". Let us work with our European partners to produce a sensible, effective directive which maintains the best of our conservation practice but puts an end to the disturbing catalogue of habitat destruction which concerns us all.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, members of the sub-committee who have preceded me expressed many of the thoughts that I wished to declare myself so I can be very brief. The issues addressed in this report are rather different from those found in reports customarily circulated to your Lordships' House by the Select Committee. They are normally issues such as employment, Community trade, finance, agriculture and the like. Nevertheless, I believe that the subject matter of this report is of real importance.

It is important because the priorities are changing. For the past generation and more, governments in the developed world have seen as their prime responsibilities issues such as social security, health, industrial prosperity, employment and so on. Nobody disputes the continuing significance of those issues but their relative importance has now changed as the environmental consequences of those policies become more clearly understood.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the European Commission, reflecting the anxieties of citizens throughout Europe as they were expressed very recently in the European elections, has produced a draft directive which is the subject of our inquiry. Harsh things have been said about the Commission's proposals in the course of the debate this afternoon. I remind your Lordships that the sub-committee welcomed the fact of the Commission's initiative and I certainly agree with that opinion.

The Commission has acted in response to genuine concern at both the popular and the scientific level at the deterioration of the natural environment which has been taking place. In the past governments of member states preferred in many cases to deal with these matters by national measures. But, as has been pointed out, the passage of the Single European Act and the changes which have been made to Article 130 of the Treaty of Rome now give the Community a clear legal responsibility to act.

This is not only a question of popular sentiment, of scientific evidence and legal niceties. It stands to reason that the protection of fauna and flora can only be undertaken effectively on an international basis. We already have in existence a number of international conventions on these matters and the Commission is building on that base.

Another particular reason for Community action is the fact that the Community itself has decided to spend large sums of money through the structural funds. We have a direct responsibility to ensure that this is done in ways which avoid environmental damage. The report explains that the sums involved are now very considerable by any measure and that they will be used in regions of special sensitivity; for example, in the Mediterranean countries.

So I see no difficulty in accepting the idea of a Community initiative. Indeed it is very appropriate. It came as a disappointment to me and to others on the sub-committee that the Government originally expressed some unhappiness, even distaste, for the Commission's proposal. I am glad to learn that the Government may now be adopting a more moderate approach.

I also believe that there are some strong reasons why our own country should take a positive attitude on this question and should involve itself actively in the formulation of Community policy on habitat and species protection. There are a number of reasons for suggesting why this is so. First, because of the enthusiasm and knowledge of our predecessors for the past century or more, we are lucky to have in Britain many voluntary organisations and individuals skilled and dedicated in this field. These experts and specialist bodies exist on a much larger scale here than in most other European countries, which accord them a good deal of respect.

It seems important that we harness this excellent human resource to the preservation of the European environment at a time when it is most needed, which is now. By doing so we should be able to make a significant contribution not only to a more knowledgeable treatment of the subject but to the development of Community policy. There are many ways in which this might be done since the Community does not seem to have decided yet what form the collective efforts and the directive should take —whether, for example, the Community should have an executive agency responsible for nature conservation, perhaps something like our own Nature Conservancy Council, an advisory body to help the Commission in its work or a centre for sharing scientific information.

It would be particularly unfortunate if our own authorities were to miss the opportunity to play a leading role at the formative stage of the Community's policy and in the evolution of its institutions in the environmental field. Too often in the past our hesitation has deprived us of the influence which we could have brought to bear at the crucial moment on the Community's affairs. In my opinion we are now at or fast approaching this very point in Community environmental policy. I am anxious that we should not miss the boat on this occasion.

I do not wish to leave the impression that I can give uncritical support to the Commission's proposals. There are, on the contrary, a good many uncertainties and some defects in what it has proposed so far, and our report describes them. But these faults can be put right by active participation. They cannot be corrected by hesitancy and opposition. To achieve the result that we are looking for will also require a more positive attitude of mind than we detected in some of our official witnesses, as the noble Lord, Lord Moran, has already said.

I suggest another reason why we need to be sympathetic to the idea of action by the Community. On the visit paid by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and myself to Italy it became evident how much southern member states of the Community will benefit from joint action by the Community —action which they are unable to take themselves. There are often profound social reasons in Mediterranean countries which make it difficult for national governments to act. Community governments working together can act as a means of social change in bringing about the protection for the environment which we all wish to see.

For all these reasons I submit that the report is an unusually important one. I have pleasure in supporting the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, in its presentation to the House, and I congratulate him on his remarkable chairmanship of our sub-committee.

5.12 p.m.

Viscount Blakenham

My Lords, standards of conservation vary greatly between individual European Community countries. One of the most important themes of this absolutely excellent report, on which I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, is the growing awareness that conservation of species and habitat needs to be viewed on an international and not just a national basis. I should like to give an example of what I have in mind. In paragraph 28 of the report the experience of Duich Moss is referred to. Duich Moss is the wintering ground of the Greenland white-fronted goose. The report says: The experience of Duich Moss (Islay) in Scotland in 1985, when a Commission official visited the site to investigate a possible case of non-compliance, was regarded by the Scottish Office as having created unwelcome and unnecessary political controversy". If that unwelcome visit had not been made the wintering ground of the white-fronted goose is unlikely to have remained protected.

The Government have done a great deal for conservation in the United Kingdom in the past decade. This makes me more sorry to read of the apparently unenthusiastic response to the EC initiative. It has been widely welcomed by the voluntary conservation bodies and could greatly help the raising of conservation standards throughout the Community. The existing international conventions carry no legal sanctions. A well thought through Commission directive could provide an important impetus to improve European conservation.

If I may speak personally rather than as a representative of the Nature Conservancy Council, of which I am a member, I believe that this attitude, described in the report as somewhat parochial, is reflected in the Government's plans to split the Nature Conservancy Council into three independent agencies at a time when the United Kingdom voice in Europe needs to be heard loud and clear. I hope that the Government will think again both about this point and about their attitude to the proposal for a European Commission directive.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, I congratulate the chairman and members of the committee on an excellent report and also on their choice of a well qualified adviser, Mr. Robin Grove-White, who I am sure played a major part in drawing up the report. It is more than just a report of the House. It is a work of reference. I am grateful to the noble Earl for reminding us about the Bonn Convention, the Berne Convention, the directive on birds and the Ramsar Convention. They are all described fully and explained in this excellent document.

I have been much heartened by the speeches in the debate. I speak as chairman of Wildlife Link, which gave evidence to the sub-committee. I am an amateur among a great many professionals. But virtually a year ago, before the meeting at which the directive was to be discussed, I took a delegation to see the then Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. It was one of the most disappointing occasions that I can remember. We got absolutely nowhere. I came away from there bitterly disappointed.

Members of the committee and noble Lords who have spoken tonight have rightly praised the work of the NGOs in this country. I have a high regard for their expertise. I listen to many of their representatives on a monthly basis. They have not only patience and drive but real knowledge. They fully understand the restraints, such as Treasury restraints, under which Ministers must operate. They know that Ministers cannot deliver the impossible. However, when we went to see the noble Earl, I do not believe that we were asking for anything other than common sense. The Prime Minister went to the United Nations and offered £100 million to save the rain forests—goodness knows, I support that action. That is part of an international effort, but we are surely interfering in the affairs of Brazil. Is it not right that we should also play a major part in the affairs of the EC; and not just the EC but the whole of Europe? The Continent still looks to us for a lead and finds our lack of enthusiasm puzzling. Continental environmental groups are desperately dismayed by our response to date.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred to their visit to Italy. I found that part of the report very interesting indeed. The noble Earl described vividly the problems faced by conservation groups in Italy, particularly in regard to the shooting of honey buzzards over Sicily. Many brave people in Malta, in Sicily and in other parts of southern Europe are trying to do their best to stop this happening. They need support from this country and from bodies such as the RSPB which they hold in high regard.

The report was printed before the break up of the NCC was announced, which in itself adds to the concern about the future. Our European colleagues regard the Nature Conservancy Council as an excellent model to follow. I wonder what they are thinking now. In addition, as was mentioned earlier in the debate, the NCC's budget has been cut by 5 per cent. in real terms. When the report was published it received wide press coverage. All of it was favourable. This issue has enormous public support so it cannot harm the Government to be a little more forthcoming. They could do with a few friends at court just now. The public would go along with a change of heart by the Government on this matter.

It is refreshing to note that in its report the committee said —and it has been mentioned by many speakers this evening —that not everything is perfect in our own back garden, despite the rather self-satisfied remarks of the present Minister responsible in such matters in a letter to me dated as late as 22nd September. I think that I am right in saying that Mr. David Trippier is now in charge of these matters. He is a Minister for whom I have a very high regard. He played a major role in developing the enterprise agencies in this country. I am sure that he is a good choice to represent Britain in Brussels at the forthcoming meeting.

However, I have here his letter to me in reply to my request for a change in government attitude as regards the directive. It reads: I have to say that I was a little surprised to see your letter because I had the impression that the Government's position on the draft Directive had been spelled out on numerous occasions in the past: in correspondence, Parliamentary Answers, and in submissions to the House of Lords Sub-Committee Enquiry into habitat protection". I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who said how disappointed he was with the evidence given by the Department of the Environment to the committee. Yet, in September, we were still following the same line. Further on in the letter Mr. Trippier said: Frankly it seems to me that you are confusng two separate issues here —one is what is needed in Europe as a whole; the second, which may or may not be the same, is what is needed in the UK. Our impression has been that your prime objective" — this is a reference to Wildlife Link's objective — in this whole exercise has been to improve the standards of nature protection in southern Europe, where the pressures for harmful development are greatest and the protection mechanisms weakest". That, of course, is absolutely true.

If you take the view that a more advanced system is needed in the UK where we already have a much more established record of achievement in the conservation field we can debate that issue. But I see no reason why we need to conduct such a debate in Brussels where the emphasis should be on what member states can, and should, do collectively". I believe that the Government still have—although I hope that it is changing —a too glossy view of what is the situation in this country; they are too self-satisfied in the matter. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, gave some statistics to the House, and other noble Lords have done likewise, about the problems which we face in the UK at present. I shall not read out any more figures.

As regards SSSIs, evidence given to the committtee showed that about 389 such sites had been damaged during the past two years. That, however, does not mean to say that they have been written off. Indeed, only a few have been lost altogether. But if 389 have been damaged, that is a staggering statistic.

I should also like to draw the attention of the House to the loss of heathland, especially in Dorset. Lowland heathland is an exceptional habitat of which the UK has more than any other country in the world. We hold almost 40 per cent. of the lowland heathland remaining in western Europe —yet much of it has been disappearing because of the developments which have been taking place around Bournemouth and elsewhere. It is the home of the Dartford warbler, the nightjar, the woodlark and many internationally rare reptiles.

Heathland is threatened as never before from development proposals, agriculture, forestry and lack of management. Between 1830 and 1980 72 per cent. of the UK's heathland was lost. We have heard about the loss of the wet grassland and about the lack of funding to deal with such matters.

We have drawn such matters to the attention of the respective Ministers, expecially the problems concerning heathlands and fish farming in Scotland. I must say that when she came to one of our meetings Mrs. Bottomley was concerned and well-informed on the subject. But, of course, she has now been moved elsewhere so we must try again. However, we have Mr. Trippier who has accepted an invitation to come and meet Wildlife Link representatives on Thursday. I shall certainly be placing a copy of the Hansard report of this debate before him. I hope very much that he has read and inwardly digested the report before us and that this time he will visit Brussels with a rather more open-minded outlook.

As has been said by my noble friend Lord Hunt, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was a major step forward and greatly welcomed at the time. However, one glance at the CPRE's leaflet, which I imagine Members of the House have received during the past few days, entitled The Changing Face of Britain must cause considerable concern and serve to remind us of many of the problems to which I have referred. Moreover, Wildlife Link recently circulated a similar broadsheet to all MPs, MEPs and many Members of this House —I believe that over 700 documents were sent. It is entitled Europe's Wildlife Under Threat. Therefore we are doing our best in the voluntary sector.

I think that we should also pay tribute to the Greeks. As I understand it, they played a major role in getting the draft directive off the ground in the first place. Presumably, therefore, they want action. It is now feared in many quarters that the original proposals may be so watered down in an effort to reach agreement as to be—I shall not say useless—not as effective and they might be.

The noble Earl referred to some proposals which he has seen. He reassured the House that these were rather along the lines of those contained in the report. If that is the case, then I reserve judgment upon the matter. I hope that it will be so and that what is proposed will not in fact be watered down.

The French now hold the presidency and the meeting of Ministers to which reference has been made is due to take place on the 28th November. However, for various reasons no firm agreement can be expected at that time because, among other things, the annexes must still be approved. Moreover, the matter must be returned to the European Parliament which debated the issue a month or two ago.

I shall say to our representative—indeed, I shall tell him personally when I see him—that we hope for a more supportive approach by the UK representatives at the meeting and that this could indeed be a crucial matter in achieving the progress which is so urgent.

No one should accuse Members of this House, or members of the Select Committee—the report of which is before us —of dragging their feet. Indeed, every speech which has so far been made has been critical of the Government's approach to date and has pleaded for a more forward-looking attitude. The problems and many of the solutions are set out in the report clearly and lucidly, and in good time. The timing is good. There is perhaps one slight quarrel concerning paragraphs 88 and 89 where one could perhaps be a little critical and say, "We only want a short-list of the major areas to which protection should be given". I think that many organisations —the RSPB and others —would say that they hope that such a list would not be too short and that we do not cut out many birds and other species which are on the danger list.

I believe that mention was made of thrushes. I think that I am right in saying that the song thrush used to be our fifth or sixth commonest bird. However, it is now our sixteenth and that is because the French like thrush pâté. Surely we can do something to try to stop this happening. It is so appalling.

As has been said by my noble friend, we on these Benches are proud to be associated with the report. We pray that it may persuade the Government of the United Kingdom to change course. It is still not too late. However, tomorrow it just could be.

5.28 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I should like to join with all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate in adding my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, to all his colleagues, to his special adviser, to his clerk and to all of those who have given evidence to him, upon what is a most excellent and timely report. Unusually, I allowed myself the indulgence of reading it the right way round this time; in other words, I started with the minutes of evidence and did not turn to the report itself until I had almost completed reading the minutes.

I started by reading the "disappointing" and "parochial" evidence from the Department of the Environment. Those are not my words, they are those contained in the report. I then went on to read the fascinating evidence from the non-governmental organisations in this country. I was especially fascinated by the visits of the committee to Brussels and to Rome. I was also interested to read the final anguished evidence from the representatives of the Commission, who politely described themselves as being "puzzled" by the British Government's attitude and the response to the report.

As many Lords have made clear, there can be no doubt about the need and the danger. There has been the danger of increasing damage to our habitat and to our species in Europe ever since the Industrial Revolution, and probably ever since the agricultural revolutions which preceded it. The danger started earlier in Britain than elsewhere because our agricultural and industrial revolutions took place earlier. Therefore, the damage has gone much further and the need for protection is much greater.

In its evidence on page 107, the CPRE refers to the losses. Indeed, these have been referred to by other speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and my noble friend Lady Nicol. The Countryside Commisson, in its annual report published a few months ago, referred to the fact that we have possibly 10 years left to redeem, or at least to put a halt to, the damage which has gone on and which continues to go on to our countryside, to our habitat and to our species.

Particular attention should be paid to the damage brought about by European Community activity, the effect of intensive agriculture under the auspices of the common agricultural policy, and the effect, which will probably worsen considerably, of the intensification of the structural fund; in other words, of development projects, especially in southern Europe, and therefore in those parts of Europe which are underdeveloped and which retain a habitat that is closer to the original than that of the traditional industrial areas of this country.

There has been unanimity in the House about the increasing need for protection and the fact that the dangers are worsening. There has also been unanimity about the inadequacy of the protection provided at the moment. Reference has been made to the advances resulting from the Wildlife and Countryside Act, but, after all, that Act was intended only to give effect in this country to the Berne Convention, which has still not been ratified by France and Belgium. The problem with such conventions is not that they are not worthy in themselves —I agree with the idea that in many ways it would be desirable for such directives not to second-guess the conventions but to reflect their best parts —but their enforceability. The noble Lord, Lord Craigton, made that point effectively.

Even where there is national legislation such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which purports to give effect to the provisions of the Berne Convention, the inadequacies of that Act have become clear over the eight years since it was enacted. It still has the idea that protection should be restricted to specific sites (the SSSIs). Many noble Lords have referred to the fact that even the specially protected sites, such as the SSSIs, are being damaged and threatened and have not been protected adequately against development.

However, the second and more important point is that it is now being recognised that if we are to protect habitats and species in Europe we must go beyond designated sites and have some sort of overall protection for the countryside as a whole. That is the view that Denmark has taken. Although it should not be held to the exclusion of the protection of specific sites, it is a valuable addition which has become part of policy-making in the 1980s. It is not part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and it deserves the Government's attention. Greater attention should be paid to it in the draft directive.

I am not at all satisfied that even the legislation that we have, let alone the conventions to which we have adhered, provide the necessary protection. Our inability to implement the Ramsar Convention was referred to again by my noble friend Lady Nicol. I am not convinced by the argument commonly used by government that planning controls are adequate to provide the necessary protection. I am reminded of an excellent short story by Fay Weldon. She describes a woman moving from London to live in the country. She has at the end of her garden a wood of which she is fond, but it is scruffy. It is then threatened by having a ring road built through it. She recognises that she will not get anywhere by filling the villge hall with protestors or marching to county hall, or with any of the normal planning protections, so she first cleans the wood and the pond in the middle of it and she then stocks it with rare orchids, toads and newts and other examples of protected wildlife; and she wins. There may be a lesson in that for us all.

I repeat that I am not happy with the protection that is given even in this country, let alone that given in other European countries, to our habitats and the species in those habitats. The complacency which shines through the evidence from the Department of the Environment is unworthy of it and should not be repeated in current thnking. I was disappointed to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Ross, that the Minister responsible still shows that degree of complacency and isolationism from European problems.

The other issue that we must address is that of funds, because it is clear from the report and the evidence that the funds available to DG11 to implement any policy, even if the directive were to be enacted, are inadequate. There is some discussion about the need for a common environmental protection agency. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has been advocating such an agency in this country for a number of years. He has now converted me to that idea. The need may be for a Community environmental protection agency and for some sort of Community inspectorate, or at any rate meta-inspectorate, to provide a common level of enforcement. That idea is not as outrageous as some people may think, as the report points out. The European Community's fisheries directives are enforced by an inspectorate which was set up largely at the instigation of the United Kingdom Government and so there is nothing especially outrageous about that idea.

When I think about funds on a wider scale, not just to appoint Brussels bureaucrats, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, so rudely calls them, but to provide compensation where that is appropriate, it seems to me that those funds are readily available. If the common agricultural policy and the structural fund contribute heavily to the damage, they should contribute heavily to putting it right. A diversion from common agricultural policy funds to protecting our environment might not just do good on its own; it might have the additional advantage of restricting the excesses of the common agricultural policy. It would also have the advantage of reflecting the view that the polluter pays.

I am convinced that the Labour Party will support the need for a revised proposal. No one is defending the wording of the draft. The principles behind the draft directive must be accepted, as they have been in the House this afternoon. They are the principles that the protection of our habitat and species should all be to the highest standards available anywhere in Europe; that there should be legal protection for specific areas; that the special protection areas proposed in the draft should be set up to a timetable, which, in the end, in default of individual government action should be enforced by the European Community; that in addition to special protection areas there should be protection of the wider environment; that there should be a link between protection of the habitat and the landscape as a whole, to which a number of noble Lords have referred; and that there should be public information on the objectives of protection of the environment and what progress is being made towards it.

Although the proposal needs to be revised, it does not need to be weakened. It nees to be strong enough not just to protect the environment in southern Europe but to deal with the deficiencies in our legislation and the policy-making for the environment in the United Kingdom.

These are government obligations. It is the responsibility of government in their response to the Commission and the directive, and in legislation. As has been said on a number of occasions, the report is timely, first because of the meeting on 28th November. When we look back at the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in Oxford in November last year we realise how far there is to go before we reach a proper recognition of the needs of the environment by the Government. I was astonished to read that speech in the light of the fact that it was made only two months after the Prime Minister's speech to the Royal Society when she said, quite rightly, that we do not have a freehold on this planet but only a full repairing lease. It would have been as well if that very valuable insight had been reflected in the noble Earl's speech in November 1988.

There is an opportunity for Mr. Trippier, when he goes to the meeting on 28th November, to put matters right. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Reay, when he replies, will be able to indicate that he will do so. In the negotiations which take place at the official level, leading up to that meeting, and in Brussels and elsewhere there is also an opportunity for the Government to put right the very damaging impressions which were given by the submissions of the Department of the Environment to the committee.

Above all, we are promised a green Bill in the Queen's Speech. If the green Bill follows the bad examples of the past 12 months, as evidenced in the report, that Bill will need drastic amendment and strengthening. Judging from the debate this afternoon, I am sure that your Lordships' House will be in the forefront in seeking to remind the Government of their responsibilities.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I should like to start by congratulating my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and the other members of Sub-Committee F on producing this excellent report and providing a most stimulating, knowledgeable and fairly like-minded debate.

It is an important feature of our parliamentary procedures that they require such detailed scrutiny of Commission proposals. The result is that no other member state has had the benefit of such an extended study by experts, taking evidence from all sides of the argument in Europe as well as the United Kingdom, and producing at the end of their work a substantial and balanced report showing all the evidence on which it was based. If we add to that the high regard in which the United Kingdom system of nature protection is held, as the committee itself records in paragraph 101 of its report, it is easy to understand why it is that the committee recorded in paragraph 75 that other member states have been looking to the United Kingdom to give a lead in the negotiations in Brussels.

So let me say straight away, to clear up any misunderstanding, that the Government wholeheartedly support the principle of Community action in this field —that is, provided that, as required by Article 130R of the Treaty of Rome, it is clearly understood that Community involvement must bring some added value over and above what member states can achieve by themselves. We believe that it can. So too does the select committee, and I shall return to the theme of added value later.

Before going into the detailed provisions of the draft directive, I should just like to dwell a little on the story so far, both in Brussels and at home, particularly in the light of the committee's criticism —a criticism which was reflected by several noble Lords —that the Government have been "unenthusiastic" and "parochial" in their approach to the prospect of Community action in this field.

When the Commission first published its text, it is certainly true to say that we approached it with caution rather than enthusiasm. My noble friend Lord Craigton explained very well why this was so. However, claims that we were the villain of the piece, pulling against the wishes of the majority of member states, are exaggerated. I believe that our initial lack of enthusiasm was soundly based. The report shows in paragraph 28 that the Community's previous involvement in nature conservation (the 1979 Birds Directive) has sometimes created tensions between the Commission and member state governments. The report also records in paragraph 66 the Government's view that the Commission's draft on this occasion was presented prematurely —without any prior consultation, without eight of the 11 annexes, and containing a number of features which had not been properly thought through. The absence of the annexes was particularly regrettable because, while some of them relate to matters of technical detail, most are of fundamental importance to the thrust of the directive. They set out matters such as the number of sites to be designated as special protection areas, and the list of species to be protected. Even now, over a year later, most of the annexes are only at early draft stage and are not generally available —the rest are not available at all. This is most unfortunate when they contain so much that is of fundamental importance to the directive.

As a result of this unsatisfactory situation, there has been a virtual stalemate in Brussels, with the Commission adhering to the original draft, while all —and it really is all —member states have consistently expressed deep dissatisfaction with both the content of the text and the continuing absence of the annexes. Indeed, dissatisfaction with the situation has spread to the European Parliament, which has refused to take a view on the environment committee's somewhat premature report on the grounds that the proposal is incomplete.

Clearly then, a means of breaking the impasse has to be found. I believe for three reasons that there is now light at the end of the tunnel. In the first place, the Commission has been showing greater flexibility —more over the past couple of months than in the whole of the previous year. It seems to us no coincidence that this greater flexibility has followed the publication of the select committee's report. We know that the report was circulating in capitals throughout Europe within a month of publication, and we believe that both the select committee's criticisms of the Commission's draft—which it described at different points "unsatisfactory", "unwieldy and overambitious", "rigid and mechanistic" —and the constructive suggestions which the report contained have had their effect.

Secondly, the current French presidency has tabled an alternative text as a basis for further discussion. I understand that a copy has now been deposited in the House and we shall be tabling a supplementary explanatory memorandum as soon as possible. Our initial reaction, like that of most other member states, is to regard the French text as an improvement on the Commission's draft. The purely numerical aproach to site designation, for example, seems to have been dropped, while the new proposal on environmental impact assessment is much less ambitious. However, most member states have tempered their general welcome for the French text with the reservation that a full and proper assessment of the draft still cannot be made in the absence of substantive proposals on the annexes.

The third encouraging factor is that the Commission is at last beginning to make progress on the annexes. Drafts have begun to appear over the past month, so there is a genuine possibility that we may have a full proposal to consider before long.

Against that background I can say that the Government feel that there is now a real basis on which to move forward and that we are looking to play a leading role in this process. I believe that the recommendations in the select committee's report are very helpful and I think that the best use of my remaining time would be to run quickly through the principal elements which the committee recommend should be incorporated in any directive.

First, on the Berne Convention, which was referred to by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we accept that full implementation should become a Community law obligation. In one sense I regret that this should be necessary because it might have been hoped that ratification of the convention should in itself mean that full implementation would follow as a matter of course. But the reality, as I think the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, is that two European Community member states have still, after 10 years, failed to ratify the Berne Convention. Furthermore, the fact that funding is not available under the convention to aid compliance is a serious deficiency. More effective implementation of the Berne Convention is therefore one area in which Community involvement might bring added value to member states' nature conservation efforts. I should add however that we shall continue to regard Berne as an important convention in its own right, and that we are currently participating in a number of ongoing initiatives to improve its effectiveness.

Secondly, we accept the proposition that it is possible to identify sites and species of international, as compared to purely national, importance. As I have stressed, the annexes are still being formulated but examples might include endangered species such as monk seal and important habitats such as The Wash. Taken together these habitats and species could constitute a European heritage in whose well-being the Community might take a particular interest. The question of the degree of protection that might be afforded is one to which I shall return in a moment.

Thirdly, as regards the annexes, on the basis of the text we have before us we support the select committee's proposal that the intial list should be brief. By brief we mean of manageable proportions and relating firmly to matters of truly European importance. If they are simply an aggregation of all that member states are already protecting, then the notion of added value is lost. Moreover one might find that the annex would include a species which was rare in one country, yet very common, perhaps even treated as a pest, in another. I believe that the pine-marten is such a case. We share the select committee's view that the contents of the annexes should be nominated by member states on a national basis, and subject to unanimous voting. Subsequent revision should be made by an adaptation committee, acting on qualified majority and relying on scientific qualitative data for its decision-making.

We are endeavouring to press this line in Brussels but at present the French text envisages greatly extended annexes. Commission involvement in site selection and what we regard as unacceptable powers for the proposed committee might lead, for example, to site designation from Brussels against the wishes of the member state concerned. So there is some way to go on this front yet.

As regards the degree of protection to be afforded to sites designated at the European level, the committee already recognises in paragraph 78 that there is a balance to be struck between economic, industrial and conservation objectives. Our planning system takes that into account and the relevant procedures which apply to all SSSIs are set out in Circular 27/87 to local authorities.

The Commission directive would seek to give designated sites permanent and absolute protection. The select committee talked about a degree of absolute protection and my noble friend Lord Cranbrook had more to say this afternoon about what he would like that to mean. I am grateful for the clarification that he brought to the matter. I can say that we are willing to explore to see what scope there might be for extending in some cases the degree of protection currently available under British law. However, much will depend on the content of the annexes. Plainly the greater the scope of the annexes, the less the degree of protection which could be considered for everything in those annexes. At present the Commission drafts are very lengthy.

This is a difficult area and it may be that another way forward will have to be found. One alternative and perfectly logical approach might be for the extended annexes to stand as they are, provided that they were based on sound scientific data, but for member states to make their own assessment of what measures were needed to protect species and habitats of European significance within their own national boundaries. I do not say that this is necessarily a better approach, but it shows that there are different ways of resolving this problem. We have to be flexible in our negotiating position so that we can consider alternative approaches. Once again of course this underlines the need for a complete proposal —text and annexes —to appear on the table as soon as possible.

We support the committee's comments about the need for pooling of conservation experience and expertise, and the need for regular reporting of performance under the directive. These are both features of the drafts under discussion.

As regards the question of providing a degree of protection outside the network of protected sites, many member states have expressed their opposition to the inclusion of any measure of this kind in the directive, on the basis it would seem that it is enough to get the site designation procedures in place. It seems unlikely therefore that anything beyond an obligation expressed in fairly general terms will feature in the final text of the directive. I recognise that this is less than the committee may have sought, but perhaps the important thing is that the subject is appearing in the draft directive at all. However, we remain ready to consider any firm and practicable proposals to do more.

We are of course always prepared to consider proposals for improvements to domestic British procedure regardless of developments in Brussels.

Let me turn now to the question of funding the directive. The matter was raised by my noble friend Lord Craigton, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and other noble Lords. Our position on this is that we know very well from our own experience that the costs of management agreements —my noble friend Lord Norrie referred to these —can be considerable, and we understand therefore why some member states are saying that they will not agree to the text of this directive unless the financial provisions are clearly established in advance. The ball is therefore very much in the Commission's court to produce a proposal. I understand that work is now being done on this. Meanwhile the department's officials are in contact with NGO representatives to discuss possible approaches. We shall certainly consider carefully any suggestions that may come forward, although I stress again that this would not form part of the directive itself.

There have been suggestions that NGO representatives should sit on the adaptation committee in Brussels. We very much endorse the Select Committee's view that the NGOs have a considerable store of knowledge on conservation matters and we very much value our contacts with them. Indeed only yesterday the officials in the department met representatives of the key organisations in this field to discuss both the draft habitats directive and the question of protection in the wider countryside.

However, I do not think that there is any likelihood that NGO representatives will become directly involved in the work of the adaptation committee itself because such committees normally consist of Government representatives only. However, the Commission has made it clear that it will expect to convene its own expert committees in order to produce recommendations for the Article 23 Committee itself. NGO involvement in the process is therefore virtually guaranteed. We shall do what we can to ensure that its involvement is effective. It would not however in our view be appropriate or necessary to write this in on the face of the directive.

As has been pointed out, the next stage in Brussels on this dossier will be the Council of Environment Ministers on 28th November. On that occasion my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for the Environment, intends to adopt a constructive stance with a view to achieving a worthwhile measure, possibly under the subsequent Irish presidency. Where appropriate he will seek to support the French proposals, as a positive attempt to break the long-standing deadlock. If there are difficulties, for example, over the annexes, the select committee's report may well offer the Community a satisfactory way forward.

In conclusion, let me say —and I particularly have in mind the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt —that we believe in a shared European inheritance. We do not think that the fate of each nation's threatened species, and of the habitats necessary for their survival, is and should be the concern only of the nation within whose frontiers they are to be found. Through the structural funds the Community plays a vital role in the economic development of poorer member states, and this must be matched by a recognition of Community involvement in matters of environmental concern.

That applies particularly perhaps in Southern Europe where the wildlife is richest, the protection systems least advanced and the development pressures greatest.

However, we acknowledge also the right of others to know what we are doing in our own backyard. We accept that we can learn from the experience of others. We hope therefore that it will soon be possible to reach an agreement on this important directive which, as my noble friend Lord Blakenham said, could indeed raise standards of conservation throughout the Community. I should like to repeat my thanks to the committee for the valuable contribution that it has made to that end.

6 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, there have been two threads in the debate this afternoon, one concerning nature conservation in the United Kingdom and the other appropriate action at the European Community level. I do not wish to pick up the first thread, but in thanking all those who have contributed to the debate I should like to wind up with a few remarks on the second, particularly in response to the speech by my noble friend Lord Reay from the Front Bench.

I have been strengthened by the warm words that have been spoken about our report this afternoon. It is more than reassuring—it is thoroughly heartening —to be told that the report has been widely read and is generally well received.

I note that my noble friend defined "brief", with reference to annexes, in a way that would be very much in accordance with the definition of the select committee. I suggest to him that the size of the annexes reflects the general concern that is widespread in the European Community about the threats to species and to habitats. I take note of his remarks that some of our cultural heritage, in the form of sites or habitats, is the concern of the wider Community and not merely of the member state in whose territory they may lie.

Therefore, I put it to him that at some stage in the development of the process in the European Community, looking beyond the near future and into the period when the directive is in operation, there will be and must be action at the Community level which may be against the wishes of some at least in a member state. That is an inevitable deduction and is one that we have to face up to as the debate grows.

I was somewhat disappointed by my noble friend's treatment of the important issue of financial provisions. The Government are waiting for the Commission to bring forward proposals. The select committee's proposals were very clear and I thought that he was moving towards them in his final remarks. It is important that a proportion of the vast sums that are being committed to the structural funds should be diverted to alleviate the serious threat to the European environmental heritage which is implicit in some of the proposed developments on which the money is being spent. That is a very central point in the arguments deployed by the select committee, and one that has been emphasised by noble Lords who have spoken this evening.

On Question, Motion agreed to.