HL Deb 11 March 1997 vol 579 cc157-60

Lord Kimball asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why English Nature, as stated in its report for 1996, gave a grant in aid of £75,000 for purchase of land and a further £30,900 for research projects to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB); and whether it did so with full knowledge of the resources available to the RSPB.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the land purchased is within the proposed Poole Harbour Ramsar site and special protection area. It is a site of prime biodiversity interest, which required continued protection. Nine research projects by the RSPB have been supported to the value of £48,700, involving a number of other organisations. All are consistent with English Nature's conservation objectives.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the society, which is not short of money, is receiving a government hand-out twice over: first, by the repayment of tax on covenant subscriptions; and secondly, by grants from English Nature? Is my noble friend aware that all the fishermen in this country are extremely concerned about the funding of dubious scientific research into predation on inland fisheries by cormorants? A curb on the society's finance would be welcome.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very crafty point. It is perfectly true that the society receives tax rebates as a result of its covenants. But English Nature supports projects in relation to biodiversity irrespective of the nature of the owner. Cormorants are a listed species under Annex 1 to the birds directive. They can be removed only if economic damage is proved. In that event, one can obtain a licence from MAFF to shoot them. Research is being carried out by my department together with MAFF. It began in 1995 and a report is due by the end of next year.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, are those funds not being used to mask the need for a proper policy on avian predators?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, not to my knowledge.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the Minister aware how interested many of us are to find that research started in 1995 may be brought to a conclusion by the end of 1998? That is a rather tortoise-like process. In view of the urgency which attaches to what my noble friend Lord Kimball said, I hope that somebody will get a move on.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's anxiety but a bird which is classified as a listed species can be removed from the list only if it is proved that economic damage has been done. That must be proved. The cycle of the cormorant, like every other bird cycle, is quite lengthy. Therefore, it takes a certain amount of time to ensure that one has the facts right.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, returning to the Question on the Order Paper, I must first declare an interest as vice-president of the RSPB and a previous council member. The grants made to the work of the RSPB represent very good value for money for the British taxpayer who benefits from the input of the RSPB's workforce and RSPB money and effort generally in relation to each project. Does the Minister not agree that since grants to statutory conservation bodies have been severely reduced recently, unless the Government are helped by the RSPB and other NGOs their attempts to meet international commitments will be severely curtailed?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, as the noble Baroness is a vice-president of the RSPB, she believes that the Government and the taxpayer get jolly good value for money. I would expect her to say that and she would expect me to say that the Government think so too. That is why that money is made available. It is true that the RSPB carries out a great deal of research, and that is helpful to the Government in reaching some of their conclusions.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, I am rather concerned about the implied criticism of the value of research. Is it not clear from the conversations today that more rather than less money should be spent on research into cormorants, their feeding habits and life cycles?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I did not realise that we were having a conversation; I thought it was Question Time. My noble friend would say, wouldn't he, that more research should be undertaken? People from universities do tend to say that. We carry out a lot of research. Some people think that it is too much; others think that it is not quite enough.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, will the Minister accept that when the RSPB acquires a nature reserve site it intends to hold it in perpetuity? As we know at the National Trust, that is a very challenging objective. It would be quite imprudent for the RSPB to finance capital expenditure out of its ordinary operating income. After all, the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, may not be aware that the RSPB has only three months' cash reserves to cover its ordinary expenses. Therefore, will the Minister agree that the RSPB's approach is entirely laudable and prudent? Will he accept—and the parallel is close—that it is probable that no major acquisition by the National Trust in the past 20 years would have been successful without help from English Nature and its other agencies? The criterion in both cases is benefit to the nation.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me to defend the RSPB; indeed, the society is capable of defending itself. However, the noble Lord is perfectly correct to say that, when it takes on a site, the society looks after it in perpetuity and that involves a good deal of cost. In this case, the society will be taking on the responsibility for that site in perpetuity.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, does the Minister agree with his colleague in another place, Mr. Gummer, that it is extremely important that we keep to our targets on biodiversity in the future as one of the key planks in the sustainability of the world? Does the Minister also agree that the RSPB plays an enormously important part in the continuance of biodiversity?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is very anxious that we should keep to the targets which we have set for biodiversity. As long as he is Secretary of State—which will be a good deal longer than the next couple of months—that will continue to be the case. Certainly, the RSPB has played a part.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a large number of interesting birds in Wales?

Noble Lords


Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

Can the noble Earl please tell the House how much of this money goes to the Principality?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not believe that any money goes to Wales; it goes to Poole.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, we seem to have become somewhat diverted on this Question with discussion ranging from cormorants to the Principality. Will the noble Earl agree that the Question as phrased by his noble friend raises an important point of principle? As the Minister pointed out, English Nature has a task to perform. However, would it not be wrong in the noble Earl's view, and in the Government's view, for English Nature to apply some sort of means test to those to whom it decides to give a grant? Further, can the Minister say whether I am right or wrong in saying that English Nature gives grants according to projects rather than the wealth or poverty of the voluntary organisation in question?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I hesitate to say that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is right. That is always dangerous and it is not always accurate. However, in this case, he is reasonably accurate. English Nature does consider each project on its merits and ascribes such funds as is appropriate to the project in question.

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