HL Deb 23 May 1985 vol 464 cc478-80WA
Lord Chelwood

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are yet in a position to respond to the First Report of the Environment Committee on the Operation and Effectiveness of Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, published in January, and if they will make a statement.

Lord Skelmersdale

The Government have already implemented several of the recommendations made by the Select Committee. We feel this area is of sufficient importance to publish our formal response today as a Command Paper, issued jointly by my department, the Welsh Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Although the committee's report did not deal directly with Scotland, the Secretary of State for Scotland wishes to be closely associated with the approach set out in response.

The committee clearly recognised the major contribution of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to the valuable developments that have taken place in our drive to conserve the resources of the countryside. We are especially encouraged by their firm endorsement of the voluntary approach to conservation. We should like to record a special tribute to the vast majority of those who live and work on the land for the constructive way in which they have responded to the policy for consent and co-operation embodied in the Act.

The Government response deals with the detailed recommendations and sets these in the context of its overall policies. It makes clear that we will continue to support voluntary co-operation with the selective use of more rigorous measures. The Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill, which we are supporting through Parliament, will provide useful improvements in the effectiveness of the 1981 Act.

The committee expressed concern about the balance of the Government's priorities between agriculture and conservation. The Government's policies are not of course those of a single department or Minister but represent a balance of the departmental objectives of the various departments involved. My department works closely with MAFF and the Welsh and Scottish Offices and other Government departments to seek to ensure this balance. The agriculture industry and those concerned with the ownership and management of the countryside are becoming much more aware of the importance of conservation, and the changing policies of agriculture departments both foster and reflect these changing attitudes. As examples, I would mention the changes to the Farm Capital Grant Scheme to achieve a closer integration of conservation and agricultural policies, and the Government's success in negotiating a provision in the new structures regulation for special payments to farms in environmentally sensitive areas. The joint MAFF/Countryside Commission three-year experiment to conserve the unique landscape of the Broads is a very positive example of this approach.

Many of these initiatives meet criticisms made by the Committee and represent a real attempt by the Government to pull together the various aspects of policy in this area. There has, for example, been a move away from providing support for operations such as hedge removal and land reclamation in favour of assistance for positive conservation measures. And we broadly accept the Committee's recommendation that ADAS staff should give greater priority to advisory effort related to conservation of the natural beauty and amenity of countryside.

The Government are grateful to the Environment Committee for its hard work, which has resulted in a very valuable report. We welcome it as an important contribution to the emerging consensus on how best to safeguard our precious countryside and its wildlife. Our Command Paper sets out in detail the many actions we have already taken to meet recommendations made by the committee. We intend to press ahead with our policies, reviewing them where necessary to cope with changing circumstances.