HL Deb 16 October 2000 vol 617 cc761-872

8.32 p.m.

House again in Committee

Clause 69 [Limestone pavement orders: offence]:

[Amendment No. 519 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List]:

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen moved Amendment No. 520: Page 43, line 46, at end insert— ("( ) In section 34 of the 1981 Act (limestone pavement orders), in subsection (4) for "or disturbs" there is substituted ", disturbs or sells".").

The noble Baroness said: My noble friend Lady David is unfortunately unable to be in her place today. However, she raised this issue at Second Reading on 26th June. My noble friend has asked me to move the amendment on her behalf and I am happy to do so.

It is a small but important amendment. Limestone pavement on a global scale is extremely rare and is one of the rarest features in Britain's landscape. It is irreplaceable. It is a habitat which has been created over thousands of years. As such, it is not a renewable resource in any sense of those words.

In Britain, limestone pavement is home to 16 rare or threatened plant species. A range of butterflies and moths use the limestone flora associated with the pavement and the wren and wheatear make their nests in it. Limestone pavement is also known as waterworn limestone. As such, it is often used in garden rockeries. But most gardeners are totally unaware of both its origins and rarity and of the fact that one of the world's rarest habitats is being destroyed. If they were so aware, I am sure they would not use it because there are alternatives. Sandstone, granite, slate and deep-quarried limestone are readily available and more environmentally acceptable.

In England, limestone pavement is protected by orders which make it illegal to remove stone or damage pavement. But in the remainder of Britain and Ireland there is no legal protection. Research has shown that the increased protection in England has put Irish pavement under greater threat. Sadly, the UK still harbours unscrupulous extractors who continue to remove limestone pavement from wherever they can obtain it. That is why the selling of limestone pavement must also be an offence.

Some organisations believe that the continued damage shows that the legislative protection of limestone pavement is inadequate. The wildlife trusts and the limestone pavement action group are calling for a trade ban on the sale and purchase of limestone pavement in the UK as the only way effectively to halt its destruction. A combination of legislative enforcement and awareness-raising is needed to control demand and protect limestone pavement habitats in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. A sympathetic response to the amendment would assist in this process.

Lord Jopling

I have a good deal of sympathy with what I believe are the sentiments underlying the amendment. I do not want to bore the Committee by repeating a speech I made earlier on limestone pavements. However, in a previous incarnation I represented more limestone pavement areas than any other Member of the House of Commons. Some of the great limestone pavements existed in my former constituency in the north-west of England. In either 1978 or 1979 I think that I was the first person ever to propose amendments to a Bill to preserve limestone pavements. Therefore I hope that the noble Baroness who proposes the amendment will understand my passionate desire to protect limestone pavements.

I am in favour of almost everything the noble Baroness said. However, I am not in favour of the amendment in the terms proposed. I regret that I have seen the amendment only recently and have not had time to consider the 1981 Act. To add the words "or sells" to the legislation would be admirable if it referred to selling limestone pavement after it had been extracted from where it naturally occurs. I believe that that is the noble Baroness's desire; she nods assent. However, by inserting into the legislation the words "disturbs or sells" one makes it illegal for a landowner where limestone pavements exist to sell them in situ and preserve them, as we all wish.

I sympathise with the noble Baroness's intention but the amendment is not well worded. If the noble Baroness and I were to get together, perhaps we could find a way of saying, "disturbs, or sells after it has been disturbed". I hope that that is her intention; again the noble Baroness nods. If a landowner has limestone pavement on his land and he or his family want to sell it, it would be unfair if he could not do so because of the amendment. I am sorry to be pedantic but it is important to make these points at this stage.

Lord Hardy of Wath

I shall be brief. I recall the long-standing constituency interest of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, in the matter. He has made a valid point, but I commend my noble friend Lady Gibson on the powerful case that she has presented. I hope that some suitable action will be taken.

I have missed most of the Committee stage, and earlier withdrew an amendment that might have been relevant. It would have provided for the confiscation of vehicles used in committing crimes—particularly rural crimes—not least those used to take limestone pavement. It is a profitable crime that costs nothing to commit. The criminals simply take a vehicle to the appropriate limestone pavement area, smash some pieces of rock and then sell them at astonishing prices. It is a crime that has been committed for a long time and should not be tolerated. I hope that, while taking note of the significant point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, Ministers will hold discussions with him or with my noble friend Lady Gibson to secure the right form of words to put an end to a practice that is destroying a significant part of our natural heritage.

Lord Glentoran

I shall also be brief. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, on moving the amendment. She mentioned Ireland. We should be European, not parochial. If we are going to take action to protect limestone pavement in this country, we should protect it also in Ireland and other European countries. I hope that the Government will consider the whole issue, to cover the trading, importing and selling of limestone pavement, because it is unacceptable.

Lord Greaves

I do not have much to add to the eloquent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson. The limestone pavements of the North of England are some of this country's most glorious landscapes. No doubt there are more spectacular examples in other parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world, but we cannot afford to lose those features. The same applies in Ireland, where the limestone pavement at The Burrell on the west coast is probably even more important botanically than that in the North of England.

If a form of words can be found that clearly outlaws the trade in pieces of limestone pavement, we shall support it enthusiastically. We add our voices to those asking the Government to come back on Report with something constructive.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

The amendment would make it an offence to sell waterworn limestone removed from a limestone pavement subject to a limestone pavement order. We have every sympathy with the intention behind the amendment, which my noble friend Lady Gibson moved on behalf of my noble friend Lady David. We recognise the desire to give greater protection to one of our most valuable habitats, but we do not think that the amendment would be effective.

There continues to be a demand for limestone pavement for use in garden rockeries, but it is fed almost exclusively by stocks from outside the United Kingdom, largely from Ireland, where legal extraction continues. It is very difficult at point of sale to establish the source of the extracted material. We do not believe that the amendment would be enforceable because of the problems in distinguishing between legally and illegally extracted limestone.

We are also conscious of calls to stem demand by enforcing a trade ban—perhaps one of the routes suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. However, that raises difficult issues, because any attempt to interfere with trade in legally extracted materials from other parts of the EU would be covered by the free trade rules of the Union.

I understand and perhaps can sympathise with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. We cannot arbitrarily impose a ban across the European Union. That is why we have concentrated on protecting all our significant remaining areas of limestone pavement and providing for more effective deterrents against illegal extraction.

All significant areas of limestone pavement in England are now protected through the limestone pavement order provision in Section 34 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. We are encouraging colleagues in Scotland and Wales to make full use of those provisions. In England there are currently 22 sites of special scientific interest and four special areas of conservation designated for their limestone pavement.

The provisions for increased penalties in Clause 69 will substantially reinforce Section 34(4) of the 1981 Act, which makes it an offence, If any person without reasonable excuse removes or disturbs limestone on or in any land designated by a limestone pavement order". We are increasing the penalty under those provisions from £5,000 to £20,000. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath recognises that that demonstrates the seriousness of our intent.

We believe that the combination of those measures will provide an effective means to protect limestone pavements. On the basis of those assurances, I hope that my noble friend Lady Gibson will not press her amendment.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

I thank noble Lords for the support that they have given to the amendment. I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. I understand her arguments. I am a little disappointed, but under the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 69 agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 521: After Clause 69, insert the following new clause—

("Payments under certain agreements

  2. cc764-8
  3. LOCAL WILDLIFE SITES 1,787 words
  4. cc768-88
  6. cc788-91
  8. cc791-869
  10. cc869-72