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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that may well be the case.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Minister will, perhaps, be able to think of an answer to my noble friend's question while he is listening to mine. I can confirm to the noble Lord that we agree that convicted prisoners should not be able to vote. The noble Lord is entirely right to say that remand prisoners can vote. However, can he confirm that I am correct in my understanding that remand prisoners who do not have an address (a right of abode) are not allowed to vote at present because they do not have an address to register? I believe that the Government have considered whether that should be changed to allow them to vote. Surely anyone on remand should be allowed to vote even if he does not have an address--some people are on remand for a considerable amount of time--and even if his address has to be "care of" Her Majesty's prisons?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Viscount has put his finger on the problem. Remand prisoners may not have registered to vote at the time when they should have done so. For that reason, the Working Group on Electoral Procedures has been carefully looking at ways in which we can improve the situation. I can tell the noble Viscount that a recent survey revealed that just three of about 700 prisoners who were on remand at the time of the last general election managed to obtain, secure and exercise their right to vote. Clearly we need to try to improve upon their access to the right to vote, given the fact that these prisoners are fully entitled to it.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, as we are discussing the human rights of prisoners, does the Minister accept that it would be good to have warders who are better trained than they are at present to cope with the many prisoners who have a degree, though perhaps a low degree, of mental illness?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I understand the noble Earl's question. However, it does not entirely relate to the Question on the Order Paper. We would, of course, wish to encourage all prison staff to assist those who may well suffer from a mental illness, or any other illness, to improve their personal welfare.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what is the policy justification

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for a blanket ban on voting rights for prisoners no matter how long the sentence, how long they have served or what their record is? Is that really a proportionate interference with the rights conferred by Article 3 of the First Protocol?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a novel and interesting question. The Government have always taken the view that those who are convicted and serving a sentence have no moral right to vote. That is and has been our policy position for some time. I believe that it was also the policy position of the previous administration. We hold to that.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Protection

2.59 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath asked her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the present arrangements for the protection of sites of special scientific interest and what consideration is being given to securing the sites' character.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government will be bringing forward legislation to ensure the better protection and management of SSSIs in England and Wales as soon as parliamentary time permits. We set out our proposals in The Government's Framework for Action on 2nd August this year. New powers to regulate potentially damaging activities and combat neglect will lead to an improvement in condition for all our SSSIs through better protection and better management.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his Answer will be greatly welcomed? However, I hope that I may press him further. In view of the remorseless and continuing damage and the inadequate response to that damage over a long period on the part of the previous administration, will the Government urgently seek effective protection of these sites, which by their very nature are essential parts of our natural heritage?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for welcoming my Answer. At present somewhat over half of the SSSIs are in a satisfactory condition and another 15 per cent, while not being in a satisfactory condition, are improving. That still leaves over a third of SSSIs where there is a serious problem which we need to address. The Government have already allocated additional resources, for example, 6 million to English Nature in the current financial year and payments for positive management, and are taking strong measures to ensure that landowners are aware of their responsibilities in these matters. The provision

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which I mentioned has suggested further legislative and non-legislative measures to improve the position yet further.

Lord Hankey: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the protection of SSSIs and social, cultural or natural sites depends upon the definition and recording of significance and values and that securing values and significance within the excellent system of development control in the UK requires improvement to our systems in the UK of defining significance and value?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I think that to some extent the noble Lord suggests a different definition of SSSIs than we currently have. We are continuing to review the status of SSSIs, and indeed the number has increased significantly over recent years. As regards our wider development and planning policies, I believe that this Government have demonstrated that we have substantially included the protection of SSSIs in our general planning procedures. For example, in the area of roads policy, for which I am directly responsible, we have rightly reduced the number of SSSIs which would be affected by such developments in our own targeted programme of improvements to the transport infrastructure. The same is true of other areas of development and planning.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the overall objective of further protection for SSSIs--which I very much hope will be included in the Queen's Speech--is to protect wildlife? Does he therefore agree that in any protection measures the Government should seek to protect also the wildlife that does not depend on SSSIs but is mobile in habit, such as the skylark? Will the Minister consider rationalising our general approach to wildlife so that policy planning guidance in the planning service, for example, recognises its importance?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in respect of the noble Baroness's first remarks, I cannot possibly anticipate the Queen's Speech and nothing that I have said hitherto should be taken as doing so. As regards wildlife, a number of proposals are before us and are in process to improve the protection of wildlife in SSSIs and beyond. The noble Baroness may know that the skylark is one of the 12 species for which we have arranged sponsorship. We may well take further action, whether legislative or non-legislative, in a number of areas.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo: My Lords, bearing in mind the large number of Ministry of Defence holdings which are SSSIs, will the Minister say whether the review will include Ministry of Defence holdings?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the ongoing assessment includes that. In total the public sector as a whole owns about 40 per cent of SSSIs, a significant number of

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which belong to the Ministry of Defence. I believe that in most respects the Ministry of Defence has a good record in this regard. However, all government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, are required to improve their management and husbandry of these sites.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton: My Lords, can the Minister inform the House what percentage of the land area of England and Wales is currently designated SSSI?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the figure is 7 per cent, which I understand is about a million hectares.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, obviously the Minister cannot predict the legislation in the Queen's Speech, but will there be a Bill to consider the protection of SSSIs--as the noble Baroness on the Liberal Benches asked--or will there be an "overall" Bill? The prospect of an "overall" Bill is causing great concern. Will the Bill, or the principle behind it, take account of over-regulation and the burden imposed on many who run SSSIs at present in difficult circumstances?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am tempted once again to anticipate the Queen's Speech. I can do so neither as regards the substance or the structure of legislation. I regret, therefore, that I cannot reply to the noble Baroness's main point further than I already have. As regards the regulatory burden, the Government are always concerned that any changes do not impose an additional regulatory burden. A large part of our approach is to help owners of such sites to improve their management rather than to impose additional burdens on them.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, as such a wide area--I think that it is a million hectares--is covered, very roughly, what is of special scientific interest as distinct from wildlife interest?


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