HL Deb 13 October 2000 vol 617 cc636-58

12.24 p.m.

Lord Walpole rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Biodiversity in the European Union Final Report: International Issues (22nd Report, Session 1998–99, HL Paper 119).

The noble Lord said: It is particularly timely that we are debating the report before we consider Part III of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill in Committee next Monday. It is nearly 20 years since we had a Conservation Act and it is high time that our legislation was brought up to date, as nature does not recognise national boundaries. Other countries that we visited while compiling the report update their conservation legislation much more frequently than we do.

Although the report was completed and ordered to be printed on 9th November 1999, the Government's response was not received until June 2000. The report was completed before many hereditary Members of the House departed. Three members of the old Sub-Committee C, which produced the report, including the chairman, the Earl of Cranbrook, are no longer in the House, which explains why I, a mere member of the Sub-Committee, am presenting the report.

First, I thank all those who were involved in the production of the report, particularly the Earl of Cranbrook, who made a significant personal input. His expertise and drive enabled us to complete the interim report on Biodiversity, the United Kingdom's Measures in time for the July meeting of Ministers last year. It was presented to the House for information only. The final report was finished by the end of the spillover last year.

Thanks are also due to Tom Radice, our clerk, whose charm, unflappability and wonderful organisation enabled us to gather information over a wide range of subjects and complete the report so rapidly. I also thank Stuart Housden, the director of RSPB Scotland. As our specialist adviser, his practical knowledge was invaluable to the committee. Thanks are due also to the rest of the committee, including the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who will be speaking later. It is a pity that lack of parliamentary time has forced us to be here on a Friday. Several members of the committee have told me that they are unable to attend and contribute today because of other commitments.

On behalf of the committee, I also thank the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr Elliot Morley MP, for appearing before us in a particularly helpful meeting. Thanks are also due to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and many non-governmental organisations for their written evidence, for appearing before us and for writing follow-ups. Today I particularly thank the Minister for being here at the end of what must have been a very tiring week. I also thank the Government for their response, which, I am glad to say, was largely very supportive.

For those who are not used to the issues, there is an excellent glossary of acronyms and technical terms on page 57, Appendix 9, in case some people cannot differentiate between an SAC, an SCI and an SSSI.

Inevitably, the report concentrates on the Atlantic biogeographical region, consisting of the United Kingdom and Ireland, western France, Atlantic Spain, north Portugal, Belgium, Holland, north Germany and western Denmark. However, some recommendations refer to other European Union countries and others refer to central and eastern European countries and newly independent states that wish to join the European Union. They are a warning to those states on how to avoid disasters, learning from our experience, and on the standards of biodiversity that the EU expects from new members.

The committee visited Brussels (the EU), the ETCNC in Paris, and Copenhagen in Denmark, where we went to the European Environmental Agency. We went to Herning to see the Skjern river project and Ribe county to see the coastal conservation area—the Wadden Sea—which runs across the international boundaries through Denmark, Germany and the Dutch coast right down to the Hook of Holland. Finally, the committee went to Dublin. Again, If should like to thank all those whom we met abroad for their kindness and help.

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I touch on five particular points which concerned me personally as a member of the committee. I believe, and hope, that the Minister now knows what they are. He is indicating that he does.

The first is the common agricultural policy. I believe that the last round of negotiations represented a missed opportunity. It would have been so helpful if payments had been coupled with conservation rather than production. We discovered in Ireland that one of the problems of upland over-grazing had been eased considerably by the removal of 1.5 million sheep under CAP payments. Could such an approach be relevant in this country?

I turn to habitat restoration. As I said, in Denmark we visited the Skjern river project. That river had been straightened out and agricultural land created on either side; in other words, it looked like a classical English fen that I am so used to in Norfolk. The river then became unsuitable for salmonoids and sea trout. The project will restore the meanders as they used to be in the belief that, if the original habitat is restored, the fish will return.

Lord Cranbrook tells me that recently he entertained a deputation from the Danish Countryside, Nature, Conservation and Landscape Council, which was studying agri-environmental measures across the European Union. It was looking at the Suffolk river valleys ESA in action. It discussed the Skjern river project and, in particular, the high percentage—approximately 80 per cent—of the Danish annual nature conservation budget which it consumed. That caused resentment among the conservation movement elsewhere in Denmark.

However, the Danes were amazed by the lack of co-ordination between English agencies, in particular for example, the Environment Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the former charging farmers for installing water works recommended by the latter. Lord Cranbrook had a personal example of that approach on his own farm. He said: The excessive zeal of the drainage arm of the Environment Agency not only deprives me of the water I need to obtain the upper tier Environmentally Sensitive Area grant, but actually charges me heavily for doing so". I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on that.

I turn to the subject of four-wheel drive vehicles. During informal discussions with the European Environment Agency, we were told that one of the most environmentally damaging activities in the European Union was the indiscriminate off-road use of four-wheel drive vehicles. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when we return to Part II of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill on Report.

I turn to the matter of participation by departmental staff at all levels. I know that the Minister has covered that in the response (he says slightly doubtfully). However, when we were abroad I got the feeling that civil servants in other countries got far more out of meetings with other European civil servants at all levels than do ours.

With regard to marine protection, especially of corals, we learnt that progress had been slow in identifying areas such as sea lochs, marine reefs and cetacean sites worthy of protection. Can the Minister give me further information on progress?

Finally, Natura 2000 is not an end in itself; it is merely the beginning of a unified Europe-wide protection of wildlife.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Biodiversity in the European Union Final Report: International Issues (22nd Report, Session 1998–99, HL Paper 119).

12.34 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, apart from having been a member of the sub-committee which produced the report, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks and a member of the North West Regional Committee of the National Trust. I am also a member of organisations such as Friends of the Earth, CPRE and others.

I am sure that the whole House is extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, for giving us the opportunity to debate the report. I start by underlining what he said about the leadership that we received from the chair in the form of Lord Cranbrook. He brought to the work not only an intellectual and emotional commitment which was outstanding but, of course, a lifetime of experience. I believe that this House will miss him badly in its future deliberations.

It was also right of the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, to underline the work of the Clerk who disciplined us in a gentle way into concentrating on producing the report. Again, I believe that he brought to the committee not only his professionalism but his love of the countryside—which I happen to know on a personal level is very deep—and his real understanding of some of the issues with which we were dealing.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, in saying that it is very good to see my noble friend the Minister on the Bench today. His stamina and the style which he manages to maintain at all hours of the day and night in dealing with the prolonged consideration of the countryside Bill are, I believe, a challenge to us all.

I hope that the House will forgive me if, in my approach, I simply underline some of the salient points. As the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, concentrated on the international issues, I shall underline some of the implications for the United Kingdom. I believe that it is very important that in our approach to the European Union and, indeed, to the wider world we operate on a basis of "do as we do" rather than "do as we say".

At the start, I underline that in my view there is absolutely no room for complacency. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that more than half of the sites of special scientific interest have deteriorated as a result of years of damage, destruction and neglect. More than 20 such sites have been damaged since the time of the Queen's Speech last year. The foundation gives examples of species for which action plans were published in 1995 but which are still declining: for example, the tree sparrow, which declined by 87 per cent between 1970 and 1998; the turtle dove, which declined by 77 per cent between 1970 and 1998; the skylark, which declined by 52 per cent from 1970 to 1998; and the water vole, which has declined by approximately 90 per cent in the past seven years.

The Woodland Trust reminded us that in the 1999 report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF, English Nature, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and ERM, entitled The Impact of Climate Change on Wildlife, it was bluntly stated: Climate change is already happening and it is affecting wildlife and wildlife habitats now. It will continue and its impacts will increase. Current policies and approaches to nature conservation must be widened to cope with climate change". Action will require the concerted commitment of a broad cross-section of Ministers and departments, not only environmental Ministers and departments. That must happen in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

It is clear that biodiversity objectives will never be achieved without a wide range of complementary policies, as the report spells out, especially in the spheres of agriculture and forestry, other countryside policy, devolved and regional planning for sustainable development, air quality, protection of the aquatic environment and fisheries policy, not to mention industry, trade, transport, defence and, of course, education. That is why a central biodiversity unit, reporting to parliamentarians in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, is so essential.

That is also why, outside designated areas, the biodiversity action plan process should be a statutory requirement. Too often at present the process goes to the bottom of the administrative pile. Indeed, that is why the buffer zones envisaged in the habitats directive are indispensable. In my view, it is lamentable that we still do not have such buffer zones in the United Kingdom.

It is obvious that the battle for biodiversity will never be won on the basis of isolated sites of commitment alone. Having said that, nature conservancy must invariably be an explicit statutory purpose of the SSSIs themselves.

More generally—and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, dwelt on this—there is a desperate need in the countryside as a whole, throughout Europe and the world, to take far more seriously than we do the regulation of four-wheel driving, motorcycle scrambling, the use of mountain bikes and the behaviour of walkers with dogs not under proper control. All those activities can wreak havoc on conservation and biodiversity. Certainly, all European Union directives should be examined to establish their potential for protecting and enhancing conservation and biodiversity.

With regard to Natura 2000 sites, much more data are urgently required; the report emphasises that. Reliable data are essential to good decision-making. Here, I am certain that NGOs, well demonstrated by the WWF and the RSPB, have a vital part to play in gathering and helping to assess such data. But for the Natura 2000 network, the percentage of national territory so designated is not a convincing measure of site designation. Instead, I suggest that it should be the percentage of relevant habitat which is protected, and, of course, the report makes that point.

A far-reaching issue is the relationship between agriculture and the environment. Farmed land accounts for some 75 per cent of the United Kingdom land area. Agricultural policy and practice have tremendous significance for our countryside and biodiversity. The common agricultural policy has been a disaster. Over-grazing on our uplands is a nightmare.

The discipline is not just to accommodate the importance of environmental considerations in our agriculture but to achieve a change of mindset by which agriculture becomes seen as part of our total management of the environment. Government and European policy and financial support should be geared to that, and fast. Our farmers must become the vanguard of the battle for biodiversity, the environment and, indeed, for any kind of worthwhile future for our children and grandchildren.

We should be open to indictment as half-hearted were we to concentrate on biodiversity on land to the exclusion of the maritime environment. The British Isles are home to an extraordinary array of marine biodiversity. Within our 12-mile limit, let alone any 200 nautical mile economic zone, there is an area equivalent to 70 per cent of the land surface of the United Kingdom and there are at least 8,000 species of marine organisms within those waters.

It has been estimated that 50 per cent of the United Kingdom's biodiversity is found in the seas. Effective commitment to the preservation and enhancement of biodiversity in that marine dimension is disturbingly lacking in the policy commitments of both the European Union and successive British governments. The common fisheries policy has proved impotent, if not downright counterproductive, in that respect.

The maritime dimension, therefore, must be addressed without delay. What is really required is for legislation to be announced in the forthcoming Queen's Speech. However, with a sense of caution, lest that does not happen, the very least we can do is to make a firm beginning in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill currently before this House. The Bill has as one of its stated purposes, to amend the law relating to nature conservation and the protection of wildlife". That is why I believe that Amendment No. 536AA to that Bill is so critically important, putting, as it does, a statutory responsibility on government for action in the maritime area.

In conclusion, I have argued that the battle will not be won on the basis of isolated sites and that a national integrated approach is essential. But, in fact, it must be a global, international approach. For a start, as we move towards enlargement of the European Union, we must insist that the concerns expressed in the report are taken seriously by candidate member countries. At present, the evidence of that is scarce. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure us that that will change.

12.46 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, for taking the place of—and I hope I can still describe him as such—my noble friend Lord Cranbrook who chaired this committee. Were he still with us, he would have fulfilled the role of introducing this debate.

I can speak of the great experience and expertise of Lord Cranbrook because one interest I should declare is that I was chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee for five years. At that time, Lord Cranbrook was chairman of English Nature. He was quite the greatest expert in our midst on European Union matters concerned with nature conservation and biodiversity.

Therefore, I wondered why on earth it was necessary to have a specialist adviser when the chairman was, quite frankly, the greatest expert. I should have thought that the specialist adviser held something of a sinecure. Having said that, I know the specialist adviser and recognise the practical contribution he would have made.

Having declared a past interest as chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, I should also declare an interest as a farmer and as vice-president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I also have a number of other conservation interests.

Since the report was produced by the Select Committee, as a report of Sub-Committee C, there has been a shuffle of responsibilities in the sense that Sub-Committee D, which was previously concerned with agriculture and food, has now assumed responsibility for the remit of sub-committee C; that is, environment, public health and consumer protection. Although I now chair Sub-Committee D, I am not prepared to concede that that is necessarily the best of all possible solutions as to how the Select Committee can cover the full range of responsibility. But I must admit that in relation to European Union policies on biodiversity, there is a great deal of logic in bringing together agriculture, environment and the fisheries, for reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has reminded us. But without having effective agriculture or fisheries policies, there will very quickly be an impinging on biodiversity.

Other noble Lords who have spoken have already reminded us that on Monday of next week, we are about to launch ourselves into Part III of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. I am one of those who has been waiting impatiently to reach that part of the Bill, which I consider to be the most important. We have waited 20 years for what is really of quite critical importance to wildlife and conservation in this country. I must be careful not to anticipate the debate, but this report—and particularly the interim part of it which was published earlier—urges that English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales should be given improved powers of protection and management of designated sites. That includes sites of European status as well as those of UK status. We recognise that the requirement for improved protection, which is spelt out in the interim report, is, indeed, addressed in part at least by the Bill. I shall not anticipate the debate on that point.

It is clear that when we come to determine how we fulfil our responsibilities for designation at the European level—the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, reminded us that the acronyms are confusing: SPAs, SACs and the like—it has to be based on sharing data from all sources. In the United Kingdom we are, in one respect, extraordinarily fortunate. We have more data about our wildlife and habitats than most if not all other countries. That is because of the breadth of amateur interest. There are a number of people who are prepared to spend week after week monitoring birds or butterflies. I refer, for example, to members of the British Trust for Ornithology. I refer also to the research capacity of institutes such as the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology, one of the stations of the Natural Environment Research Council, and many others. When all those data are put together, we have the basic data which gives us the ability not to just designate but to monitor and manage.

The problem is that, because many such records go back for many years, it has been difficult to collate the data in a manageable form. For example, when information is collected on bats, there might well be interest of geological importance which is not necessarily available when designating geological SSSIs.

It is one of the priorities of the United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan to bring this widely dispersed data together. When I served on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, one of the initiatives which we set up, along with many organisations, was the National Biodiversity Network. I am delighted to see that in the four or five years since I left the JNCC, that is now up and running as a trust in its own right with 12 founder members representing institutes such as the Natural Environment Research Council, countryside agencies, the Environment Agency, the Natural History Museum and others.

This is an excellent way to ensure that United Kingdom biodiversity information needs are shared. There is still a need to develop this partnership of national systems with other national information data collection systems in the European Union. In conserving our own wildlife, all we are saying, in many respects, is that this is part of the range which extends throughout the rest of Europe. It is only when we understand the significance of wildlife in the European context that we can make best use of the data.

Now that agreement has been reached on a dedicated software tool, which has taken some time, I believe that everyone recognises how in practice this information can be collated and made accessible to all parties. There is always a danger of thinking that designation of a European network of sites of community importance—the Natura 2000 series—will solve a problem. It obviously helps, but by itself, designation does little. It does not deliver protection. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the report, which states that promoting biodiversity has major implications for community polices outside the specific field of nature conservation and protection.

In other words we cannot consider nature conservation as a watertight compartment. As has been said, we have to consider not just a nature conservation and environment policy, but agriculture, fisheries and other maritime interests, transport, industry and much else. Insofar as the European Union has policies in such respects, each and every one has to be tested for its impact on wildlife and habitat degradation or habitat enhancement. Let us be positive, from time to time.

The noble Lord, Lord Walpole, referred to the failure to take full opportunity of the agri-environmental measures. That has always been a frustration. I remember many debates and reports from the old Sub-Committee D on agri-environmental measures. It has been demonstrated that we have now a number of pilot schemes in this country and elsewhere in Europe funded modestly from the agri-environmental measures of the common agricultural policy but simply not developed as we would wish.

We often know what is needed to make commercial agriculture—by which I mean competitive agriculture, insofar as we can be competitive in northern Europe—compatible with wildlife interests. We need to keep diffuse habitats; in other words a range of habitats. Corridors for wildlife are essential. We need to retain some semi-natural areas. There must be an appropriate use of inputs.

With the changeover from spring-sown crops to a greater predominance of autumn crops, we have lost the autumn stubbles which were so important for feeding wildlife. There are fewer rough areas and we are over-grazing large tracts of the highlands. They do not amount to tinkering at the edges and having a green margin to agriculture. They amount to fundamental problems in the common agricultural policy which come back ultimately to the need to have effective economic instruments. It can be and would be done, if only the common agricultural policy could be thought through de novo. While we have to have environmental measures latched on to the side and at an inadequate level, we are missing the opportunities to which the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, referred.

Finally, I refer briefly to the promotion of local biodiversity action plans. Again, I must not anticipate the debate we shall have on an amendment to Clause 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. The United Kingdom National Biodiversity Action Plan is an impressive document based on the commitments we made at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. If we are to make that action plan work, we have to enlist the good will of every conceivable interested party: the land managers; local industries; schools; conservation groups; various NGOs and fishing and maritime interest organisations.

Unless people recognise that there is a light touch and there are carrots rather than sticks, I doubt whether we will ever be able to enlist the ground support. That is why I am slightly nervous about introducing too many elements of compulsion. By all means we must encourage and enlist the good will of every interested party. However, if, as the report recommends, we put the statutory responsibilities on the face of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, we must be careful that by so doing we do not in any way dissipate the good will which already exists. With that minor observation on the report, I thoroughly commend it and agree with every other aspect.

12.57 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome the final report of the Select Committee on Biodiversity in the European Union and this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, for introducing it. Let there be no doubt about the vital importance of this issue: it is not an optional extra; it is not the subject matter of some eccentric hobby; it is not an expendable aspect of human life. As the Rio Earth Summit statement said eight years ago:, Our planet's essential goods and services depend on the variety and variability of genes, species, populations and ecosystems. Biological resources feed and clothe us and provide housing, medicines and spiritual nourishment £ The current decline in biodiversity is largely the result of human activity and represents a serious threat to human development". Recognition of the centrality of biodiversity to human flourishing and even, one might say, to human survival is fairly recent. I am glad to say that successive Lambeth Conferences—meetings every 10 years of the Bishops of the World-wide Anglican Communion—have emphasised over a long period of time the importance of biodiversity as part of the stewardship of creation entrusted to the human race. The last Lambeth Conference, which took place two years ago, was very outspoken. I hope that noble Lords will not mind if I quote one or two of the comments made in the final report. It reaffirmed the biblical vision of creation, according to which, Creation is a web of inter-dependent relationships bound together in the Covenant which God has established with the whole earth and with every living being the divine Spirit is sacramentally present in Creation, which is therefore to be treated with reverence, respect and gratitude: human beings are co-partners with the rest of Creation and living bridges between heaven and earth". It went on to regret the extinction of many thousands of plant and animal species, and saw that servanthood to God's Creation is becoming the most important task facing humankind, to be tackled by people of all faiths working together to care for, look after and protect what has been entrusted to us.

I apologise to your Lordships if I speak in an evangelical way; perhaps just occasionally it should fall to those of us who sit on these Benches to strike that note. Those are statements of a confessional nature, but they rightly transcend the traditional divisions between faith communities. They may not be accepted or welcomed by everyone but they attempt to establish a theological and philosophical, as well as a scientific, basis for caring about biodiversity.

It is not difficult to portray biodiversity enthusiasts as tiresome people wanting to impose restrictions, regulations and prohibitions on the legitimate freedom and variety of human activity—to take an essentially negative view of this campaign. The reality is that the campaign for biodiversity is entirely positive—an essential element in a sustainable future. It has a significant contribution to make to the local economy (through tourism and agri-environment schemes); to education (through all kinds of field activities); and to health (through a cleaner, more varied and enjoyable landscape).

It is important to recognise the significant contribution of the pioneering work of the European nations in identifying and supporting the issue of biodiversity. And I do not simply mean the European Union. It was the Council of Europe which as long ago as 1979 produced the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, a convention which had, I believe, 38 signatories. Later the European Union signed up as a corporate member and so developed the habitats and species directives and in due course the Natura 2000 proposals. Each member state is bound to work towards compliance with the directives in the identification and protection for SPAs for birds and SACs for habitats.

It must be said, and the report makes it clear, that progress has been depressingly slow. There has been a good deal of political infighting; disagreements, for example, between the Federal Government and the Länder in Germany. There have even been some difficulties with devolution within the United Kingdom. But tribute needs to be paid to the European work over more than 20 years and to the EC biodiversity strategy.

As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the sad thing is that there is a serious debit side to the European contribution. The CAP and the central fisheries policy have both seen significant reductions in biodiversity on land and at sea and the radical reform of the CAP is essential if those two fundamentally contradictory elements in EU policy are to be reconciled. Agenda 2000 cries out for more rational and coherent policies.

There have been some very encouraging developments in the enhancement of biodiversity within the United Kingdom. The strengthening of protection for SSSIs in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill is a great step forward and very welcome. And so is the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan. But, as has already been said, co-operation is needed on a number of different fronts if action is to be effective—obviously from those concerned with farming and forestry. However, we also need regional and local authority commitment and the co-operation of business interests. It can be said that significant contributions from commercial firms have greatly improved biodiversity and have been much more than window dressing for PR purposes. And we need the voluntary sector, especially the nature trusts and organisations such as the CPRE and the CPRW. Here I must declare an interest as president of the CPRE in Herefordshire and a patron of the Herefordshire Nature Trust. The promised enhanced protection for AONBs will also make a positive contribution to the cause of biodiversity.

However, the UK biodiversity action plan needs statutory underpinning. I echo what has been said by other noble Lords about what we hope might be achieved in next Monday's Committee stage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. We look to the Government to signal wholehearted commitments to the biodiversity action plan in principle and legislation to back it up in practice. It is excellent that protection is now offered to candidate SPAs and SACs and that owners and occupiers must prove that any proposed new development or activity will not have a prejudicial effect on the conservation purposes for which those areas have been designated.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give the House some assurances about Recommendations 42 to 45 of the report about sorting out areas of responsibility for these matters and establishing proper and effective co-ordination. That seems important in this area, with the many diverse interests concerned.

Perhaps I may make a few final comments about specific issues. Recommendations 18 and 19 are about coherence and compensation. We do not want islands of biodiversity separated by wildernesses of intensive farming or abandoned land. Field boundaries are very important, and as well as hedges, which enjoy some modest and selective protection, we need protection for stone walls and field margins and we need corridors. We need consistency to link up the areas of the richest biodiversity.

We need to speed up the process of diverting financial support from product subsidy to agri-environment schemes. Although statistics can prove anything, the table on page 10 of the report makes it look as though what we are spending in this country on agri-environment programmes compares most unfavourably with what is being spent in most other European countries.

It is serious that so much overgrazing has taken place and noble Lords have referred to that. It is good that there is to be a transition from headage payments to acreage payments. However, the level of support is critical. The proposed arrangements will leave hill farmers significantly worse off, despite the transitional payments. We must be more generous if we want to achieve the continued farming of upland areas and that enhancement of biodiversity which the new arrangement is intended to deliver.

Finally, I turn to the vexed question of the misuse of land in ways which can have a devastatingly damaging impact on biodiversity, especially the increasing use of four-wheel-drive vehicles. That is not simply a matter of particular landowners giving permission for the use of particular tracts of land. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, pointed out in the Committee debate on Wednesday, we need more effective protection because owners may not care and may not be interested in the biodiversity aspect of giving permission for their land to be used in that particularly destructive way. The Government have acknowledged that problem and I very much hope that in due course they will bring to the House specific suggestions for solving it.

I reiterate the enormous importance and urgency of the need to promote and protect biodiversity. There have been some notable successes; for example, the Manor Farm Project in Yorkshire where David Bellamy issued a challenge to the farm management both to increase biodiversity and to increase farm profits. And it was achieved. That may not be possible everywhere but it is an interesting indication that it can be done. There are some encouraging sign at both European and UK level.

However, the pressures bearing down on biodiversity, the ruthless processes of globalisation and commercialisation and the sheer increase in population are very powerful factors working to reduce biodiversity. We look to the Government to be absolutely committed to the cause of biodiversity in their priorities, legislative measures and contribution to educating and encouraging people to care more about these issues which are, in the profoundest sense of the phrase, for the common good.

1.8 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I, too, want to begin by commending the members of the committee for producing the report. It is readable, understandable and, above all, short. That is quite an achievement, considering the complexity of the information. I am aware that when debating biodiversity it is easy to become side-tracked and talk about smaller issues such as the curious success of the ruddy duck. But to focus on the larger issues, as the report does in such a readable format, is a success.

As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, pointed out, one of the problems in this country is not so much the mapping of biodiversity but the fact that it is continually under pressure and stress and is being destroyed. A number of speakers have pointed out that one reason for this—it is a mantra that becomes increasingly desperate each year—is CAP reform. As the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, the opportunity was missed on the previous occasion that CAP was considered. The pace of reform of the CAP indicates that perhaps we shall not have significant reform for decades.

Like the report, I should like to focus on the biodiversity action plan. The report comes up with some rather nice three-letter abbreviations (or TLAs as they were called in the Territorial Army); for example, SACs (special areas of conservation) and SPAs (special protection areas). It is always helpful when they are put in this format. However, the proliferation of environmental terms and agencies meant that I had constantly to refer to the appendix to look up a large number of agencies. When I read the report I was concerned to note that some of the bodies grandly named as having certain areas of responsibility did not cover them at all.

One of the issues raised in the debate is whether the biodiversity action plan should have a statutory basis. While I understand the past sentiment of the Government that the plan should have a voluntary basis so as to get the generous support of many organisations, which would not be as keen to assist on a mandatory basis, I refer to one of the drawbacks of the present situation in Wales. In recent years the Countryside Council for Wales has been operating under a frozen budget and has had to drop significant sections of its workload. The CCW has prioritised those programmes which are the subject of a statutory obligation. As a result, BAPs have not had a statutory status. Therefore, the work in Wales has been de-prioritised, which is a serious problem.

I believe that a solution may emerge on Monday when an amendment is moved to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. However, if the Minister can indicate the likely stance of the Government it may help us to decide how strenuously the amendment should be pursued.

I should like to deal with agri-environmental schemes. I declare an interest as a landowner on whose land such schemes are taking place. We on these Benches believe that agri-environmental schemes should not he seen merely as a means of replacing one form of subsidy with another. Such schemes should have clearly defined biodiversity objectives and be looked at in conjunction with other schemes. However, the agri-environment schemes are the only ones that we have at the moment. In areas where good work takes place the problems have been exacerbated by a number of bureaucratic changes, two of which I cite. First, this year farmers saw environmental payments for agricultural schemes, such as countryside stewardship and environmentally sensitive areas, reduced by 10 per cent in line with the overall fall in cereal prices. This makes a nonsense of the environmental value of management carried out under those schemes because the costs remain constant, in particular the cost of stone-walling. My wife banned me from stone-walling because, on the previous occasion, I almost put my back out. That is a specialised, and extremely expensive, activity. At the minute, in Northumberland the cost is about £18 per yard.

Secondly, currently in environmentally sensitive areas 84 per cent of prescriptions are in tier 1. Effectively, that pays farmers not to intensify, as opposed to carrying out positive management. Therefore, that scheme has no biodiversity benefits. We need a massive expansion of uptake in the higher tiers before restoration targets for habitats, such as lowland, wetland and grassland, can be met. However, all the usual factors, including lack of resources, restrict uptake.

I have one specific question on the agri-environmental schemes: is the livestock exclusion annual payment scheme (LEAP) to be reinstated? This is a matter of particular concern because it is one of the payments that can encourage farmers to reinstate natural woodland and remove cattle and stock so that regeneration can occur.

Having spoken to a number of people about the report, it clearly defines a number of problems in the translation of the aims and objectives of European policy by the different departments, for example, MAFF and the DETR, and local statutory authorities. The report also gives an underlying indication that an associated problem is money, as highlighted by the right reverend Prelate. I should be interested to hear an indication from the Government as to whether they intend to increase the underlying funding for the reinstatement of biodiversity up to European levels.

I conclude on a positive note by referring to a matter which was dealt with by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I refer to the excellent work carried out not only by government departments and statutory authorities, such as those concerned with the national parks, but by NGOs. I am aware from the projects that are being undertaken in Northumberland that small and large NGOs, such as the RSPB, do the most work not only to monitor but to counteract some of the depletions in biodiversity.

1.18 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I open by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, for introducing the report today. Rather than declare an interest, I point out that I am perhaps less qualified than anyone else contributing to this debate to speak on biodiversity, having recently spent a considerable number of hours with the Minister on another Bill. It may be that I have not done as much homework on this matter as I should.

Today's debate has been extremely enlightening and interesting. I believe that both the interim and final reports have provided a good number of sound pointers. In particular, I note that there are a considerable number of areas highlighted in the report which in the view of the committee need urgent action by the Government. How many of those matters are to be dealt with in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill that the House is considering will emerge in the next week or two.

A large number of the points raised today by noble Lords were raised one way or another during our Committee stage on the Bill and there are more to come in Part III. In particular,' a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, pointed out that the recent review of the CAP was a missed opportunity. I agree and am sad to reflect, as did the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that CAP reform may still be many years away. If so, it will make the looking after of our biodiversity interests more difficult.

Habitat restoration was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, and others, and we debated that at length in Committee. Again, a lot depends on the available finance—who will pay and where will the funding come from? Many noble Lords, discussed the problems of four-by-four vehicles and the destruction that they can create to the environment. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate reminded us of the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, the other day. I shall not go through what everybody said; many key points were repeated today, which is not surprising considering that the report is extremely objective and sets out a clear schedule. But perhaps I might just pick up on one or two points.

There needs to be some form of long-term legal underpinning of the United Kingdom's biodiversity plan. The point was well made by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Judd—if I am wrong, forgive me—that public bodies can keep their priorities in relation to budgets and cash only if there is a legal underpinning. As has been said again and again, in order to maximise the contributions towards achieving the biodiversity plan, we need to involve all those concerned with land management and land ownership. It must be frustrating if one works hard for a few years with the support of a local authority or government agency and then suddenly they run short of funds. Not only does progress stop but, as we know in nature when we stop caring and maintaining, we start to go backwards. I therefore press that point on the Minister. We should expect public bodies to plan to remain involved and to keep their priorities for biodiversity plans at a high level.

Another area I should like to touch on, because it is close to my heart, is marine biodiversity. As was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, within the 12-mile limit of our shore lies 50 per cent of the United Kingdom's biodiversity. A European legal case was confirmed in the High Court which was to the effect that under EU Commission rulings, we are responsible for biodiversity up to 200 miles out to sea. It is an important area that needs to be considered. That again reflects back to debates we had on the countryside access Bill. Members of the Committee were pressing the Government that, should there be increased access to the coastal strips, it should not be a matter of regulation and in the gift of the Secretary of State of the day but an issue that should come before Parliament. That is relevant to today's debate and I therefore put a marker down there.

Another area about which I am concerned from a governmental point of view is in relation to devolution, particularly as my home is in Northern Ireland. As I understand the report and the situation in Europe, the United Kingdom as a whole has targets and objectives that it is expected to meet. The area covered is the whole of the United Kingdom, including the devolved parts of Northern Ireland and Scotland. I understand also that if we fail to meet our targets and are brought before the European Commission, we may be fined. How does the Minister intend to manage that within the devolved situation if Northern Ireland and Scotland do not pay due attention and come up to scratch with our expectations?

Perhaps I may conclude by saying that from these Benches we support further reform of the CAP—that goes without saying. We support legislation to protect wildlife. We would like to see greater protection introduced for wetland areas. We would like to see greater development controls on farmland. A great deal has been said today about the integration of biodiversity and modern agriculture, and there is clearly a great deal more to be done, whether in relation to the uplands or high pressure cereal crops and farming. But one thing that was not mentioned is that we would like to see a major emphasis and shift from future construction on the greenfield sites to the brownfield areas.

1.27 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, for introducing this debate on behalf of the Select Committee and I echo his and other noble Lords' appreciation of the work of that committee and its staff, and of our former colleague, Lord Cranbrook. This is a good report. Despite its relative brevity, a number of far-reaching but clear recommendations have been made and as the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, said, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, the glossary is an important tool for those of us who plunge into this field.

Many of the recommendations in the report were, or are, being taken forward and it is noticeable that many noble Lords—not least the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—also have a deep interest in the countryside Bill. There is considerable overlap in that regard, to which we shall return on Monday.

This is a vitally important topic and I do not resent at all the right reverend Prelate taking an evangelical line today. This is something which needs proclaiming, preaching to educate and inform all members of society who might otherwise inadvertently, though sometimes deliberately, undermine the biodiversity we have in the United Kingdom and across Europe. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, indicated, we need a firm legal underpinning of our approach to biodiversity. The UK Government are working on a number of fronts. We are doing this on land at the national level through site protection and wider countryside measures and in the marine zone. Compliance with the birds and habitats directives is being achieved in collaboration with the European Commission and other European Union member states. But it involves partnerships beyond that, with the devolved administrations, with local government, the NGOs—as indicated by my noble friend Lord Judd—and of course with the wide range of people throughout the country who have a huge interest in this area, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, indicated.

On the question of devolution, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, clearly many of these matters are devolved and it is necessary for the United Kingdom to have both a coherent overall policy and to fulfil its obligations under EU and other international law. That is why we in the devolved administrations keep very much in touch on this issue, and instruments such as the biodiversity group and so on cover the United Kingdom as a whole. It is important that we all adopt broadly similar, or at least compatible, approaches to meet our obligations here.

On site protection, which is perhaps one of the main areas addressed in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, the Government are committed to ensuring that SSSIs are fully protected. We are in the process of seeking powers in that Bill to strengthen existing measures. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the problem of deterioration of many of these sites. That can be caused by development pressures, whether industrial, housing, or agricultural, or man's total lack of consideration for the environment in which he works and takes his pleasure. It can also be caused by huge issues, such as climate change, also referred to by my noble friend.

Provisions to improve management of SSSIs is very important. It is very important to take the landowners on board in this, and many of them have a very good record in that respect. Those measures are included in Part III of the Bill. We shall probably have quite a lengthy debate on Monday on many of those issues, and I do not want to pre-empt that. The measures substantially strengthen the power of conservation agencies and provide for their more effective management.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, broadly speaking, recommendations nos. 2 to 6 and recommendation no. 21 are being directly dealt with within the Bill. A range of actions will affect some of the other recommendations, including those relating to Natura 2000, site identification and so on.

Perhaps I may try to address some of the specific points raised by noble Lords, and then see if I have the time and the tolerance of noble Lords to wind up more generally. Several noble Lords—my noble friend Lord Judd, the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale—identified the need for further reform of the common agricultural policy. That is certainly true. It is a view shared by all interests in this area, right through from farmers to those concerned with particular habitats and species. There has been substantial reform and we should not underestimate its effect, in particular, the creation and now our desire to strengthen the so-called second pillar of the CAP, which provides for measures to promote both rural development and environmentally friendly farming. But we will accept that there are further measures that are needed and we continue to pursue that in the EU context.

Several noble Lords raised the issue of marine conservation. The noble Lord, Lord Walpole, my noble friend Lord Judd and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised the issue in various ways. The Government acknowledge that the system of marine nature reserves, put in place by the 1981 Act, has not been in some respects as successful as we had hoped it would. However, the application of a habitats directive has created a series of marine special areas of conservation and is developing management schemes for those sites. In drawing on those experiences we set up a review of marine nature conservation the year before last. The group has representatives from all interest groups and we hope to report by the end of this year. The focus is on inshore waters between the low water mark and 12 miles. But they will be taking note of developments beyond that, including changes to the SSSI which are proposed by the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill.

Separate consideration of regulations for offshore waters is already under way. We hope to consult on that before the end of the year. Therefore, we recognise the need to strengthen matters in that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised more generally the issue of resources. Clearly, the Government recognise the importance of ensuring sufficient resourcing both to the DETR and its agencies and MAFF to enable them to play a major role in that. We believe that we are making adequate provision. For example, in the last spending review another £2 million was given to the Environment Agency for biodiversity-related projects this coming year.

Perhaps I may revert briefly to the marine side. As far as concerns the habitats directive, we are developing that beyond territorial waters. We have begun a scoping exercise which will assist in the eventual identification of sites containing, for example, reefs, deep coral and sandbanks.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and other noble Lords referred to the issue of biodiversity action plans, which is also an issue we shall probably debate on Monday. The UK is a signatory to the convention on biological diversity. Article 6 of the convention already requires preparation of a national strategy. In many respects, so far the voluntary approach has worked well between the Government at various levels and the voluntary sector and others. A statutory approach in some ways might put some of that at risk. Some parties might fear the implications and withdraw support and others might try to renegotiate already agreed targets. So there are dangers in moving to a statutory approach. We recognise the importance of enshrining the commitment of public bodies to integrate biodiversity into other policies. We want to reinforce that. I shall not go further than that today. As I said, we shall return to the issue on Monday.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, also raised the question of the funding for the Countryside Council for Wales. We understand that additional resources have been given this year specifically to help it deliver the Natura 2000 sites. Primarily that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly, but I understand that to be the position.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, raised the important issue of the exchange of data across the EU and the engagement of officials from this country with officials from abroad. That is very important for us. The EU Environment Director-General is looking to facilitate the exchange of data sources. A database of sources is being set up and will be accessed from the European Commission's website. But contact on all these fronts is very important and officials from my department and from the Environment Agency have over recent years spent a lot of time contacting and being engaged in joint action with many of their colleagues in other EU countries.

Consultation and contact also take place with interests within this country, particularly with conservation NGOs, currently in the context of identifying European sites. In that context, I am pleased to say that in a recent report the WWF indicated that the UK had fewer additional sites which would merit designation than most other EU states. In other words, there was already a degree of protection for most of our important sites. That is good news and it means that we can concentrate on those areas we have already identified to a large extent.

Activities on this front have to fit in with wider efforts on the countryside which the Bill and other aspects of government policy address. Efforts are being made to address this point in the wider countryside reforms and in developments under the common agricultural policy. The England rural development programme, which the Minister of Agriculture announced in October, will put another £1.6 billion into addressing the economic and environmental aspects of rural development, and enhancing biodiversity through the support of agri-environment schemes is a key aim of the EU's development dimension. I regret that I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, an immediate answer on the LEAP programme. I shall write to the noble Lord.

The report stems from the need to address the European dimension. It is particularly important to work closely with the European Commission and other member states. I have referred to the importance of the exchange of knowledge and the opportunities for scientists and officials and others active in this field to meet and exchange views. Administrators are regularly in contact on that. The challenge of enlargement, to which the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, referred in his opening remarks, needs to lead to a further assessement of biodiversity when we look beyond the current 15 members of the EU to the rest of the European continent. In many respects, some of their environment has been deeply damaged by the developments of the past 50 years, but other parts are in a better state than some of the agricultural land within western Europe. We need therefore both to restore some of the land that has suffered depredation and to ensure that whatever developments take place under the common agricultural policy when those countries become members of the EU does not lead to a depredation of the agricultural land in many of those states.

To sum up, the United Kingdom continues to play a key role in seeking to preserve European biodiversity as a whole by ensuring that nationally important sites are identified and fully protected, by identifying and protecting, at the earliest opportunity, sites of European importance, by taking forward a range of wider countryside measures and by taking steps to apply the habitats directive in the marine zone. In so doing, the United Kingdom Government and other levels of administration within the UK are helping to shape the protection needed for important species and habitats at home and abroad. We will continue to do so.

In that respect, the timely report from your Lordships' Select Committee, the recommendations that it has produced, and this debate will form a useful background to further developments of policy. I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I shall check in Hansard. If there are any points that I have failed to address—I am sure that there are—I shall write to noble Lords accordingly.

1.42 p.m.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, it would seem obvious to say that this has been a very good debate. I believe passionately in what the report says. I thought it was wonderful that I did not hear any dissent from it on any side of the House. That was most encouraging. It was music to my ears. One aspect of being a Cross-Bencher is that you watch these parties doing things around you and you wonder what on earth they think they are up to. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford understands me when I say that. We are all trying to go in the same direction. I do hope that on Monday we try to get in the right hole, if I may mix my golfing metaphors.

I do not want to delay the House any more than necessary but I would like to make one or two points. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for what he said. I know that water voles are disappearing rapidly. I know why. I have to declare an interest in having a cat that catches them. That was being frivolous, of course. The problem is very worrying.

I am delighted by what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I was also very moved by the right reverend Prelate's speech and by the practical way in which he approached the subject. I hope to goodness that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is wrong about the CAP. Until the CAP is properly reformed, we cannot increase the size of the EU. There is no way in which the common agricultural policy can refer to the central European countries.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I am worried about the devolved situation. I suggested that perhaps there are occasions when MAFF and the DETR cannot agree with each other. One has those two bodies —and four lots of them—throughout an area, which I am sure no bird would recognise as being a different country. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, would know, but I do not think that many birds do—or fish for that matter. The devolved situation is slightly worrying and must be watched.

I am not quite sure whether the Minister answered all five of my questions—I shall have to read Hansardto find out—but I am sure that he will write to me. I thank him very much indeed for what he did say. After a debate which has knitted everyone together, I hope that we can get all noble Lords to continue happily with Part III on Monday.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes before two o' clock.