HL Deb 26 May 1994 vol 555 cc877-92

12.52 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill before the House today is intended to give greater weight to conservation in existing land drainage legislation in England and Wales. It is designed to build upon the very real progress that has been made in recent years in providing essential land drainage and flood defence services to the public in ways which do not damage the environment but rather protect and enhance it. As such, I hope that the measures that the Bill contains commend themselves to the House.

I should add that I have a very real appreciation, as a landowner and farmer, of the need to combine sound drainage policies with a regard for the surrounding environment. At home we have what I have always called a snipe bog but which is more accurately known as periodically flooding wetland. It sustained a wide range of wetland plant species and wildlife. In so doing, it presented a rare and attractive sight on a piece of ground which will never have any agricultural or commercial use.

A few years ago, the local authority adjusted its drainage policy with fatal consequences for the bog, which no longer exists. That is to the regret of everyone from myself as a landowner to the local school which used it for its nature studies. The loss was neither foreseen nor intended. The land was not necessary for any purpose nor useful to anyone. The irony is that had a very simple regard for the environment been exercised within the needs of that drainage policy, the same drainage objectives would have been achieved at less cost to the ratepayer and the bog would still exist.

That is an historic example. Therefore, I stress that in this day and age the vast majority of farmers, landowners and authorities are very aware that a simple regard for the environment in such matters can amount to little more than good common sense, good rural practices and good economics.

I return to the Bill. Many Members of the House will be aware that under present legislation, a number of bodies are empowered to undertake land drainage and flood defence works in England and Wales. First and foremost is the National Rivers Authority, whose chairman is my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. The authority has a range of responsibilities in relation to the aquatic environment, including the prevention of flooding for which it has powers to undertake flood defence works on major watercourses.

Secondly, there are 250 or so internal drainage boards or IDBs, some of which have existed in one form or another for over 100 years. Those boards exist only in areas of special drainage need such as the Fens and the Somerset Levels, for example, and can carry out arterial drainage and flood defence activities in their (districts. The boards are run by a combination of elected representatives of the agricultural drainage ratepayers in the district concerned and nominees from local authorities in the area.

Thirdly, local authorities may undertake land drainage or flood defence works in areas outside internal drainage board districts which are not designated as main rivers and therefore not dealt with by the NRA. The Bill is concerned with the environmental role and duties of internal drainage boards and local authorities as currently laid out in the Land Drainage Act 1991. It would not amend the role or duties of the National Rivers Authority as currently set out in the Water Resources Act 1991. In fact, as I shall explain, in some respects the Bill would confer on internal drainage boards and local authorities provisions which already apply to the NRA, so putting the various land drainage and flood defence bodies on a more consistent footing.

Under the Land Drainage Act 1991, Ministers approve proposed capital works on land drainage and flood defence undertaken by internal drainage boards and local authorities before making grant aid available towards the costs of the works. In recent years the Ministry of Agriculture and the Welsh Office, which are the departments responsible, have made it clear that only those schemes which are judged to be environmentally acceptable can be approved. In making this judgment weight is given by the departments to the advice of the statutory conservation organisations and particularly English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales. Hence proposed capital works are thoroughly vetted for technical, economic and environmental acceptability before they can go ahead.

The Bill before your Lordships is primarily concerned with the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the existing land drainage and flood defence infrastructure rather than capital works. Operational matters remain the responsibility of the body concerned —the NRA, the internal drainage board, or the local authority. These are the bodies with the relevant local knowledge, expertise and legislative powers. But it is important to note that the day-to-day operation of pumping stations, sluices and other water management devices can have a profound effect, not only on the alleviation of flooding, but also on the environment; effects which may be just as significant as the original decision to put the structures in place. The Bill is designed to help drainage boards and local authorities to strike an appropriate balance between flood defence and conservation in their day-to-day activities.

A number of sites of high conservation value owe their existence or their special interest to drainage or flood defence structures. I have in mind the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, and the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex. I am glad that two Members of the House are to speak today who come from those two counties and will therefore know them well. These sites and many others continue to require sensitive management of water levels to maintain their conservation interest. Many such sites are designated as sites of special scientific interest. It is estimated that there are some 200 SSSIs in internal drainage board districts. Some will be candidates for designation at the European Community level, as special protection areas under the EC birds directive, or as special areas of conservation under the EC habitats directive.

In order to build on the work already being done by internal drainage boards, in partnership with local conservation bodies, to protect these sites, the Bill I am putting forward would amend present legislation in three ways.

First, local authorities carrying out land drainage and flood defence activities would for the first time be placed under a duty to have regard to the environment. At present internal drainage boards are under such a duty, by virtue of Sections 12 and 13 of the Land Drainage Act; and the NRA, as befits a national environmental agency, is placed under even more comprehensive environmental duties. But at present there is no such duty on local authorities when acting in that field.

The Bill would remove that anomaly by bringing local authority environmental duties broadly in line with those applied to IDBs. I can assure the House that, in consultations prior to the preparation of the Bill, local authority associations saw no difficulty with that. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of local authorities are already fully mindful of the need to protect and enhance the environment in all that they do.

The second proposal in the Bill is that Ministers—in this case the Agriculture Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales acting jointly—would be enabled to issue codes of practice to internal drainage boards and local authorities in England and Wales. Those codes would guide them on how to discharge their environmental duties when carrying out their drainage and flood defence functions.

The departments already publish advice on the incorporation of environmental considerations into flood defence policies and practice, but that guidance, while generally recognised as helpful, has no formal status. Under legislation governing the National Rivers Authority, Ministers may already issue codes of practice to it. It seems sensible to enact a similar provision referring to the other drainage bodies, so that consistent advice in that area of policy can be issued to all of them.

I should emphasise to the House that it is proposed that the codes would be drawn up after consultation with a range of bodies, including the NRA and the major conservation organisations. It is not intended to make the code legally binding, and contravention of the code would not in itself constitute an offence. However, Ministers would be required to take compliance with the codes into account when exercising their functions under the Act. The codes would be confirmed by order, subject to negative resolution procedure. I hope that the House will agree with me that such codes would help foster good environmental practices among drainage boards and environmental authorities.

The third new measure contained in the Bill would enable either of the Ministers to issue a direction to an internal drainage board if it was considered that the board's activities were likely to destroy or seriously damage an environmental asset of national or international importance. That proposal clearly needs a little explanation. I hope that your Lordships will bear with me while I give it.

At present, internal drainage boards have a large measure of freedom of action in the way that they manage the drainage structures in their districts, and quite rightly so. The boards are, after all, controlled by elected representatives of drainage ratepayers and by local council nominees, the latter often in a majority. Those bodies are well placed to deploy their local knowledge and expertise in such matters to the benefit of the local community that they serve. In the vast majority of cases, that presents no problem. Most boards have adapted readily to the changes in environmental policies and practices which have taken place over the past 10 years, and work constructively with conserva-tion interests to enhance the local environment in all that they do. The Association of Drainage Authorities, to which the vast majority of internal drainage boards belong, and of which my noble friend Lord De Ramsey is President, has done much to encourage and strengthen this environmental awareness among its members. I pay tribute to the association for that.

I should point out that my noble friend Lord De Ramsey had very much hoped to be present today to speak in support of the Bill. It is with great regret that an unavoidable commitment has prevented him from so doing. I should also point out that shortly before the debate commenced I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who had also hoped to be able to speak in support of the Bill, expressing apologies for his absence today.

It is important to note that at present there is no "back stop" in the legislation for those hopefully rare cases where an IDB, by accident or design, fails to take adequate account of the effect of its activities on the environment. Such a "back stop" does however exist in the case of the NRA, to which Ministers may issue a direction in certain circumstances. The proposal in the Bill is that a Minister should be able, in the last resort, to direct an IDB in the exercise of its functions, if he or she is satisfied that an environmental asset of national or international importance would otherwise be seriously damaged or destroyed.

The environmental assets principally envisaged here are sites formally designated under European Community or UK legislation. The Bill proposes that, except in an emergency, Ministers would consult with the board in question before issuing a direction, thereby giving every opportunity to resolve the matter through discussion. I would also add that use of a ministerial direction would have the advantage of precision; in other words, rather than pass draconian regulations restricting the freedom of action of all internal drainage boards, the remedy would be carefully targeted where it is needed, leaving the generality of boards to continue their good work as they see fit.

In brief, the Bill aims to reinforce the current trend towards more environmentally-friendly flood defence and land drainage policies and practices. It does that through the three changes to existing legislation which I have outlined, which will put the various public bodies involved on a more equal footing and encourage them to strengthen their conservation roles. I believe that the Bill complements action being taken in related areas —for example, through implementation of the European Community habitats directive —in helping to protect and where possible enhance our wetland environment. I therefore hope that your Lordships will give the Bill your support and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Earl of Lindsay.)

1.5 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am glad to be able to support the Bill. I am also most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, for the comprehensive way in which he introduced it, which has left the rest of us with very little to say. As the noble Earl explained to us, wetlands provide important habitats for many species, especially birds. As a council member of the RSPB, I am well aware that the society wholeheartedly supports the Bill.

About 40 per cent. of our wetlands have disappeared since the 1930s. That was for the best possible reasons originally because, obviously, we were trying to grow more food and there were all kinds of reasons why we needed to drain the land. However, things have changed. I agree with the noble Earl that the atmosphere has also changed and that now there is a great spirit of co-operation between all concerned as regards the preservation or the use of such wetlands. I have had discussions in recent years with the drainage authorities and I know that they are taking a much happier approach to this kind of exercise.

In what remains of our wetlands there are sites of national and international conservation importance which need to be treated with special care. That is why the provisions of the Bill are so important. Among the very useful provisions in it, the Bill allows for the relevant Minister to issue directions to drainage boards in some circumstances where there is a threat to a site of national or international importance. That is the one provision which might cause a little discomfort between the drainage boards and the Minister. However, I believe—and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer this in his response—that the power which already exists over the NRA has been used very infrequently. Indeed, the number of occasions when such a situation is likely to arise would be very small. I am quite sure that the provision would be used with great care if the occasion arose.

As I said, I am very glad to be able to support the Bill and I hope that it has a safe passage through the House. However, at the risk of introducing a slightly discordant note, I must say that I worry about its future. I say that because this House was engaged for some weeks with work on the National Parks Bill. That Bill came forward in very much the same way as the Bill now before us: that is, a Bill with Government backing; a Bill which was drafted in a government department; and a Bill with support on all sides of the House. Yet, the Bill has fallen flat in the other place on the voice of one Member—or, perhaps I should say, two Members because I believe that there were two attempts to get the legislation through. That Bill has now had to be withdrawn. I should be very sad indeed if we were to work as hard on this Bill as we did on the latter and then see it meet with the same fate. Therefore, should anything go wrong with the current Bill I hope that the Government will be prepared to adopt it in another place as a government Bill and put it through in government time.

I shall not treat your Lordships to a long harangue about the necessity for the Government to be braver about such Bills which they appear to want. However, it worries me very much that a Bill which is so necessary should be subject to such a potential danger. I hope that when the Minister responds he will assure us that the Government intend to see that this Bill succeeds.

1.10 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, on his introduction of the Bill. I welcome the opportunity to debate the subject. I must say straightaway that I support the principle of ensuring that there is due regard for the needs of the environment as regards the activities of the internal drainage boards. Therefore, my concerns, so far as there are any, are merely matters of fine tuning as to the way in which environmental compliance in this important area of nature conservation is procured by the Bill. I am also a little concerned about the absence of an express duty to take socio-economic factors into account. The National Fanners Union and the Country Landowner's Association have both expressed anxiety to me on those points.

The problem arises because in general there are inadequate provisions for bench marking existing qualitative and quantitative aspects of environmental goods, and for assessing the alterations that have occurred in the past and those which might occur in the future. The way in which this bill is worded is no exception.

In managed landscapes—and drainage is a management tool —there is no birthright in the sense of natural goods. It is hard work, diligence, and often brings little reward. Therefore, there is anxiety that there may be an imposed form of managed retreat, which we have heard about so often, in relation to the activities of certain internal drainage boards or that the cautionary principle —again about which we hear so much—may remove effective management freedoms.

I turn now to specific clauses in the Bill. Clause 61C requires the conservation agencies to notify internal drainage boards and others of any area of land which is of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna and so on. The reference to "any area of land" is not qualified in the Bill. I feel that it ought to be. It can be presumed that the sites of special scientific interest referred to in the margin are those identified by various agencies under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but there is nothing in the Bill to say that that is the case. I feel that that should be clarified because there is great potential for confusion between statutorily designated sites and other sites which are presented to local authorities by local county wildlife trusts and others with a request that they be incorporated into local planning authority plans. While noting the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, on that point, I should be grateful if the Minister could give me an assurance that the aim is to restrict Clause 61C to those sites which have been officially recognised under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

In respect of Clause 61D there is a similar but slightly different situation. Under that clause the Minister may give directions regarding the effects on environmental features which in his or her opinion are of national or international importance. Again, the description is not qualified by anything other than a reference to the opinion of the Minister. It would be inappropriate to rely solely on the opinion of the relevant Minister when advisory bodies and agencies and procedures already exist, or may be introduced in due course, for the careful assessment of such sites, whether they are of special scientific interest or of international importance.

It seems strange that a decision of this importance is left purely to a Minister. The National Farmers Union in particular believes that the power of direction could seriously undermine its members' interests if the measures which are incorporated in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which safeguard the interests of owners and occupiers, are not to apply. I hope that the Minister will give me an assurance that it is intended that the normal basis for the assessment of national or international importance of a site under that Act will apply in this case.

I referred earlier to the question of social and economic interests. I believe that this Bill neglects that aspect. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred to the National Parks Bill. I, too, am sorry that it has not survived in another place because we were given a particularly welcome assurance by the Minister at the end of our discussions on that Bill concerning the importance of social and economic factors following the provisions of Section 37 of the Countryside Act 1968.

I make no apology for returning to that aspect with this Bill. I believe that a parallel provision is needed here and that it should be on the face of the Bill. I shall be most grateful if the Minister will explain how the important needs of agriculture and forestry and the social and economic interests of rural areas can be safeguarded.

In view of the fact that time is getting on I shall curtail my further remarks. I feel that there is a great need for legislators and those who are the guardians of our environmental assets in this country to take careful stock and wake up to the reality of life at the sharp end. By that I mean the chap in his Wellington boots who has responsibility for the hands on, and in this case perhaps the feet in, management of the land. We need clarity of purpose and proper procedures to protect legitimate interests.

It is that economic activity which pays for management and financial investment and which creates business satisfaction. It also feeds families and educates children. Most importantly, it maintains the countryside. Lack of management, or inadequate management, is one of the greatest single threats to conservation objectives. I am concerned that if economic interests are not taken into account or are harmed in a way that is outside the control of the person pursuing them, then abandonment of traditional land management is the inevitable consequence.

Therefore, I particularly welcome Clause 61E which relates to codes of practice. I merely ask again that some reassurance can be given that in the formulation of those codes there will be the widest consultation with the owners and occupiers of the land as well as with other bodies.

1.17 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, for explaining his Bill in such detail to the House today. I also thank him for writing to me in advance of that explanation to tell me what the Bill was all about.

It has already been established that the Bill has the support of the Government. For that reason such comments and questions as I have will be directed to the Minister rather than to the noble Earl. I am sure that he will understand the wisdom of and necessity for such an approach.

To set the scene for the Bill, a Written Answer to a Question in another place on 1lth May took my eye. A Member asked the Minister of Agriculture: if she will make a statement on the place of arterial drainage infrastructure and sea defence works on British agriculture".— [Official Report, Commons, 11/5/94; col. 145.] Mr. Jack responded for the Government: The Government's flood and coastal defence strategy for England and Wales recognises that over 50 per cent. of grade 1 agricultural land is situated in areas which depend on flood defence or arterial drainage works to maintain their productive capacity. The maintenance of this infrastructure is supported through central Government's financial support for local authorities. As far as capital works are concerned, the Ministry no longer provides financial support for new rural arterial drainage schemes which are intended primarily to increase agricultural production but assistance may be available for works intended to alleviate flooding or coastal erosion in rural areas provided these meet the Ministry's technical, economic and environmental criteria".— [cols. 145–6.] Arising from that Written Answer, I should like to ask whether the Bill before us will increase public expenditure in meeting higher environmental standards, and, if so, who will meet those added costs.

On the codes of practice which the Bill proposes to establish, perhaps I may ask the Minister or the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, which bodies other than Ministers may draft codes of practice for approval under the Bill. Where a code has been drafted other than by Ministers, will its parentage be acknowledged when the relevant SI is laid before Parliament?

Perhaps I may say by way of an aside that on this side of the House we have been looking in recent days at the growth of government SIs. Indeed they featured quite strongly in preceding business of the House this morning. In 1983, SIs presented to Parliament totalled 1,965. Ten years later, in 1993, the number of SIs had increased to 3,359. That is a staggering increase by any standard. Sometimes one thinks in the early hours of the morning that Parliament may soon need a third Chamber to be called the "House of Scrutiny".

The Bill is due to come into force in two months, beginning with the day on which it is passed. Does the Minister consider that period adequate as regards notice? What will the effect of the introduction of the legislation in two months' time have on work in progress? Will such work be governed by existing or new legislation?

While acknowledging the provisions contained in the Bill for emergency action, I should like to ask whether the consultation provisions required of Ministers under the Bill will have a delaying effect on implementing work under its provisions. Consultation is a fine and worthy institution but it is introducing in this country long delays in getting anything done. It is important to have some indication of whether delays will result from the provisions of the Bill.

We acknowledge the support which exists for the Bill. It has been described in some detail by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. In view of that support and the improvement potential over existing procedures contained in the Land Drainage Act 1991, we are supportive of the Bill. I look forward to hearing what the Minister may say in answer to the questions I raise.

1.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, the debate we have had on the Bill that my noble friend Lord Lindsay has introduced has, I think, amply demonstrated the importance of the work that is done by internal drainage boards and by local authorities on land drainage and flood defence. The services which these bodies provide are often unsung, but are nonetheless vital for the continued well-being—in both economic and environmental terms—of many of our urban and rural areas.

As my noble friend has said, his Bill enjoys the Government's full support. The measures it contains; will, I hope, commend themselves to all sides of the House. I believe they enjoy a broad range of support from conservation bodies and from the flood defence authorities themselves.

In many ways the theme of the Bill is nothing new. Its provisions fall squarely within the policies and principles set out in the Government's strategy for flood and coastal defence in England and Wales which was published by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in October las;t year. It might be helpful to the House if I were to outline the key principles behind our strategy.

First, our overriding priority will always be to safeguard human life. This consideration is clearly a major determinant of the resources which we allocate to flood defence every year. Secondly, environmental considerations must be integral to flood defence policy. The potential impact on wildlife habitats and the environment generally is a key consideration both when capital works are being formulated and equally when existing structures are being managed and operated. Thirdly, we emphasise the need for a strategic approach. Measures to address flooding should not be looked at in isolation from their wider impact on the river catchment. Whenever we decide what action, if any, to take we must bear in mind the natural processes involved and the effects of defence measures on adjacent areas. Fourthly, a factor which cannot be overstated is the importance of consultation with those affected by flood defence and land drainage activity. Once again, that applies not only to proposals for major capital works, but also to the day-to-day operation of flood defences.

I turn now to the three measures set out in my noble friend's Bill. I should like to say a few words about each in turn. The first of the Bill's provisions would place a duty on local authorities carrying out land drainage or flood defence works to have regard to the environment. The Government believe it entirely appropriate that local authorities, along with other drainage bodies, should be under a duty to have regard to environmental matters, and the associations representing local authorities share that view. They also agree with us that the change would not impose any significant additional burdens on authorities, given that the majority of them are already mindful of environmental concerns in all they do.

I believe that that is my cue for answering one of the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, when he asked whether any measures in the Bill would increase public expenditure. The Bill will have no such effect. In practice, local authorities are already very environmentally aware. I hope that the House will agree that that first measure is sensible.

The second of the Bill's new provisions is the power for Ministers to approve, by order, codes of practice giving guidance to internal drainage boards and local authorities on how best to discharge their environmental duties under land drainage legislation. There are a number of reasons why the Government support that.

In the last three years departments have produced a number of guidance booklets advising on the integration of environmental concerns into flood and coastal defence policy and practice. We believe that the existing guidance is very valuable, commands widespread acceptance and is generally followed. That acceptance is in no small part due to the extensive consultations carried out during its preparation. But the Government believe that further encouragement would be given to best practice among authorities if the guides were formally approved as codes.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, expressed concern about the extent of consultation in this area. The Bill makes clear that wide consultation will take place before such a code is approved and that codes will have to be confirmed by order. I can assure the House that it is the firm intention of Ministers to continue their present practice of holding thorough and comprehensive consultations before issuing guidance documents on flood defence and land drainage. Those consultations will continue to extend well beyond the major organisations listed on the face of the Bill. I can assure the noble Earl that that would include landowning and farming interests alongside others concerned.

In relation to the codes of practice, it is worth re-emphasising what my noble friend said: the Bill would place local authorities and IDBs on the same footing as the National Rivers Authority, to which Ministers are already empowered to issue such codes under the Water Resources Act 1991.

The third provision in the Bill is the measure enabling Ministers to direct the activities of an internal drainage board when a Minister considers that a board's actions would otherwise result in an environmental asset of national or international importance being destroyed or seriously damaged. Relatively few new flood defence capital works are undertaken by local authorities and internal drainage boards nowadays, although some £2 million a year in total goes mainly on refurbishment of existing works. But the operation and maintenance of the existing structures are an important and continuing task for those bodies. Ditches have to be kept clear, pumping stations operated and water levels managed. Those operations greatly affect the local environment. Land use and economic activity in the catchments concerned may have changed greatly since the original drainage works were undertaken. The environment and wildlife habitats may also have changed; and the needs and aspirations of local people, as well as national policy, also change.

I believe that in the vast majority of cases the local drainage bodies have adapted to these changes and where necessary modified their operations. These bodies are, after all, representative of local people and interests. But whereas at present Ministers stand as ultimate custodians of the national interest in respect of capital works—and in addition have a power of direction over the National Rivers Authority—there is no such backstop or power of last resort over the day-to-day flood defence activities of IDBs or local authorities. The Government believe that in respect or IDBs at least there should be such a backstop, and that is what the Bill proposes.

The purpose of the ministerial power of direction is, therefore, to provide a mechanism whereby in the last resort, if very important environmental issues are at stake, the Minister can ensure that the national interest will prevail. Specifically, the wording of the Bill means that Ministers would intervene only if a number of conditions were met. First, the environmental asset at risk must be of national or international importance. This means that Ministers would not intervene in matters of purely local importance. This would be entirely inappropriate as the local bodies concerned are best placed to resolve such difficulties. In determining what is of national or international importance, Ministers would give weight to the views of the statutory conservation advisers: English Nature, English Heritage, the Countryside Commission and the equivalent bodies in Wales.

Secondly, the environmental asset in question would need to be at risk of destruction or serious damage. Again, weight would be given to the advice of the statutory conservation bodies in assessing this. I can assure the House that such a judgment would not be made speculatively but on the basis of expert advice and sound science.

Thirdly, the Bill provides that the Minister should consult the IDB in question before issuing a direction, except in an emergency. I can assure the House that we would wish to enter into full and frank discussion with a board were such a set of circumstances to arise. I hope that in the majority of cases such explanation and discussion would result in the board concerned deciding to make the necessary changes to its practices voluntarily without the need for recourse to a formal direction. Where boards have agreed water level management plans already in place, the need for directions is likely to be even less.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked how often the ministerial power of direction has been exercised over the NRA. To date, it has never been exercised. The NRA has been in existence for only five years and has a very good record of achievements, as I am sure the House will agree.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, raised a point about the new Section 61C. He wanted to know whether the phrase, any area of land … of special interest", was meant to refer solely to sites of special scientific interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or whether it had a wider meaning. It is right for me to remind the House that the part of the present Bill to which the noble Earl referred carries forward the existing provisions in Section 13(1) of the Land Drainage Act 1991. The Bill which my noble friend has introduced simply extends those provisions to local authorities. The short answer to his question is that the phrase, any area of land … of special interest", goes wider than just sites of special scientific interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. In practice, however, the notifications given by the statutory conservation agencies to internal drainage boards and local authorities have been of SSSIs. So far as I am aware, the provision to which the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred, which I understand has been on the statute book in that form since 1989, has not created problems. There is no reason to believe that it will do so in the future. At this stage, therefore, the Government have no plans to amend the clause in the way that the noble Earl suggested.

The noble Earl also sought clarification of the new Section 61D which sets out the proposed ministerial power of direction to which I referred. Perhaps I could elaborate on one or two of the points I have already made. The intention under the clause is that Ministers would be guided by the views of the Government's statutory conservation advisers, as I have already said. Those bodies' views on the seriousness of the risk to the feature in question would also be sought so that Ministers would have the benefit of the best available scientific advice from both within and outside the department. I can assure the House that Ministers will expect to see compelling evidence before making use of the provision.

I do not think it would be appropriate to restrict application of the ministerial power of direction to those SSSIs in which a nature conservation order is in force. Those orders are primarily, though not exclusively, designed to deal with the activities of landowners and occupiers of SSSIs. The proposed power of direction, on the other hand, is intended to apply solely to one class of public body, namely IDBs, and to put them on a similar footing to the NRA, which is another public body acting in the same field. The Bill will therefore complement rather than duplicate the nature conserva-tion order procedure.

I must make it clear that it is not the Government's intention to rely on the present Bill to implement their obligations under the EC habitats and species directive. Separate regulations will be made under the European Communities Act to achieve that. The present Bill is intended to be complementary to those regulations.

I hope that what I have said will reassure the noble Earl that the decision to proceed by ministerial direction would not be taken lightly. It would be taken in the last resort only and on the basis of advice backed up by comprehensive scientific evidence. Equally, however, I hope that the noble Earl will accept that if the procedure is made too formal or too cumbersome, its advantages —namely, those of a quick and precise remedy to isolated and serious problems —will be lost.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, raised a number of other queries. He asked what effect the Bill would have on work already in progress. The effect will not be retrospective. The power of direction will be used only if there is firm evidence of damage on works that are in prospect rather than those which have already been approved. He also asked whether two months' notice, as prescribed in the Bill, was adequate. I believe that that period will be adequate, bearing in mind that environmental considerations are in practice already taken into account by operating authorities.

The noble Lord asked who may draft a code of practice other than the Government and whether that fact will be acknowledged, if it applies. I envisage that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will lead on the drafting of such guidance. However, that exercise will involve the statutory conservation bodies and the flood defence authorities themselves, in addition to the involvement of landowners, as I have already made clear to the noble Earl, in the consultation process. I hope that what I have said on the record today will be a sufficient indication of the Government's debt to all concerned in the codes of practice.

I hope that I have given the House a clear view of how the Government regard the Bill, why we think its provisions are necessary and useful and how they might be applied in practice. I commend my noble friend Lord Lindsay for taking it on in such a capable way. I hope your Lordships will agree with me that its effect would be to strengthen the environmental aspects of land drainage and flood defence activity in a way which is sensible and proportionate and which avoids excessive regulation. It has the Government's full support and I hope that it will command that of your Lordships' House.

1.39 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, this has been a most valuable debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. I should particularly like to thank the Minister for his expression of the Government's support for the Bill and his explanations of how Ministers see its provisions being implemented.

A number of important and interesting points were made on aspects of land drainage and conservation by all speakers. I will endeavour to answer the points that still need to be answered. I am grateful to my noble friend for answering some of the specific points raised. If any remain unanswered, I shall endeavour to write to noble Lords.

I am very grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, is able to support the Bill arising from her role within the RSPB and more especially because of her extraordinarily wide experience of all countryside matters. Much of this Bill is based on that breadth of vision, and therefore that balance of vision.

The noble Baroness quite rightly identified the spirit of co-operation and consensus which now exists in the countryside on many matters. Some of the old battle lines which people anticipated four or five years ago between conservation and the environment on the one hand and farmers and developers on the other have not materialised as was expected. Indeed, a great sense of co-operation and of mutual benefit and interest has been identified.

The noble Baroness mentioned the National Parks Bill and her distress that this Bill might suffer a similar fate. I stress that this Bill contains three fairly modest and simple proposals designed to strengthen the conservation aspects of local land drainage and flood defence duties. They were the subject of very wide consultation before they reached this House. On that basis, there seems to be a good chance that this Bill may be successful both in this House and in the other place. I also add, from a personal and rather pragmatic Back-Bencher's point of view, and given the weight of legislation that is consuming the time for the Government's programme, that if I were not to present the Bill there would simply be a delay in the introduction of this sort of measure. Therefore, it seemed well worth taking the risk and hoping that we might achieve something with it.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, raised a number of very interesting issues. I assure him, first, that I understood exactly what points of reassurance he was seeking. Apart from having an interest in environmental issues, I am a member of the CLA. I am a farmer and I own land which is not of any agricultural use, but is quite wet land. We have an SSSI and although the land consists of only 700 to 800 acres, we have an extraordinarily complex pattern of ground. There are many migratory species tracking through it. My role in introducing this Bill was based only partly on my interest in environmental issues.

I looked at the Bill very carefully and at the implications for landowners and for farmers. I would not be standing before your Lordships today if I felt that there was a material threat to their interests. The noble Earl made a remark about this Bill threatening the reality of life at the sharp end. I believe that that is not a threat that is posed by this Bill in any way whatever. I would not in any way want to be associated with a Bill that did pose that sort of threat. Like all small farmers, I am very anxious that the other, so to speak, socio-economic activities involved with the countryside are properly protected.

I therefore mention specifically that internal drainage boards have considerable experience of balancing the needs of flood defence and socio-economic activities. I remind the House that the boards are governed by representatives of agricultural drainage ratepayers and local authority nominees. The legislation under which they act rightly gives precedence to flood defence considerations, and that will not change. Therefore, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will feel reassured. It is a point that we could take up either in writing or in discussion after today's debate if he would like to do that.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, for his support. I am conscious of the fact that he wisely directed most of his questions to the Minister and that they have been answered. I would add one footnote. The noble Lord was worried that, by raising environmental standards, costs might also be increased. I believe that the example that I gave earlier in the debate put that doubt to rest. Very often, by increasing respect for the environment, costs which might be associated with engineering or with day-to-day operations are actually decreased. One of the great realisations of the past year or two—it goes back to what the noble Baroness said —is that many environmental activities are not the bottom-line cost activities which were anticipated in the 1980s. Many of them reduce costs or produce bottom-line profits. Therefore, increasing the environ-mental consideration of flood defence and land drainage uses will not necessarily increase costs and might well reduce them.

In conclusion, I thank all noble Lords who made a contribution to today's debate. I think it is fair to say that the Bill enjoys a good measure of support from both the land drainage and flood defence authorities and the conservation bodies. I hope that it has support from all sides of this House, and certainly from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who is unable to be here. I hope that the level of agreement will make for the speedy passage of the Bill both in this House and in the other place. I feel sure that it will help to foster and strengthen the provision of environmentally friendly land drainage and flood defence measures to the benefit of local communities and the public interest generally. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House and I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

Earl Howe

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am told that I gave a slightly misleading answer to the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, which I certainly did not intend to do, on the question that he asked me about the effect that the Bill might have on works that are currently in progress. I answered the noble Lord that the Bill is not retrospective —which is absolutely right. Conceivably, it could apply to the current or indeed the future operation of infrastructure work which has been installed in the past. I should like to make that point absolutely clear.

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