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The Deputy Chairman of Committees: I advise the Committee that if this amendment is agreed to, I would be unable to call Amendment No. 278.

9.45 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, with great pleasure. I am happy that if this amendment were agreed to, we would not be able to pass Amendment No. 278, because I find the noble Lord's amendment much more satisfactory than my own. He has spoken eloquently of all the reasons why this public duty needs strengthening. I must declare an interest as a vice-president of Wildlife Link and a member of both Devon and Somerset Wildlife Trusts.

The noble Lord is right when he talks of the important role local authorities can play. In my experience, as he mentioned, they often have landholdings, county farms and country parks. They also play a critical role in development control. Often what is needed even more than resources is an attitude of mind that questions all the time: "If we changed this policy, if we did things differently, how would it improve things?". In my time as a Somerset county councillor, our partnership with Somerset Wildlife Trust was one of the joys of that job, and one of the strengths in helping to move forward much of our work on the wetter holdings we had, because of the strength of the trust's experience with wetlands. I should also mention the RSPB, who played a big role in developing a whole new way of working around land, water management and so on.
 
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I support the noble Lord's Amendment No. 277, but I must speak to Amendment No. 279 at the same time; in particular, to paragraph (b). To interpret this a little more for noble Lords, my amendment talks of,

which are:

The purpose of this amendment is to enable a short debate on the sad news that the three elements of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are to be closed, and to find out what the Government's thinking is about that.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is run under the Natural Environment Research Council, which controls the funding and has decided to cut its budget in this particular direction. However, the buck stops with the Government, because the Government provide funding to the NERC, so they cannot simply say, "The NERC has made the decision in the best way it can as to where the cuts will fall". It is also a government responsibility. My amendment is intended to make it clear that it should be a government responsibility.

At a time of climate change, when what is happening to each individual species or habitat cannot be viewed as standalone, it has become evident that a database cutting across all that knowledge about individual populations, be they amphibians, butterflies, mammals or plants, goes to build an entire picture. That is why the collection of this information by such a body as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is so critical, because it brings together the leading research establishments and gathers that information together. Just when we are realising how critical it is to have the information which enables us not only to say, "This is what's happening as a result of climate change", but to learn how to adapt to climate change and how best to protect habitats and enable species to survive some of these changes, we need the best knowledge we can get. It is for that reason in particular that this seems such a strange time for the Government to allow these centres to close. I am glad to say that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats felt equally strongly about this matter and a strong statement was made on it by the Conservative MP, Mr Peter Ainsworth, and the Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Norman Baker.

I hope that, having heard the strong feelings that have been expressed, the Minister will say that the Government are looking into the matter. This has been a very fortuitous discussion on public authorities' duty to conserve biodiversity. It is the Government's prime duty to conserve biodiversity. That duty must start with the Government as they are at the head of all public authorities. Therefore, they should set an example in this regard. I cannot accept that the Government will lay this duty on all local authorities but then renege on it themselves, as the withdrawal of the relevant funding seems to suggest.

Earl Peel: I say a few words in support of my noble friend's amendment. When he moved it he made
 
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reference to an earlier amendment that I moved which concerned a United Nations convention. However, I believe that my amendment was a little more specific than his as it dealt with the use of wildlife. None the less, having given the matter considerable thought, I believe that the points made by my noble friend are certainly worthy of consideration. It is a brave, bold amendment and I have no doubt at all that the Minister will resist it on the grounds that it would put onerous responsibilities on local authorities.

However, as my noble friend said, if the Government and everyone in this country are to pull together to meet biodiversity obligations, everyone has to be involved, and that includes local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was right to say that this is as much about an attitude of mind as anything else. The amendment would help people to focus on achieving what we all want. It would put a considerable onus on local authorities. It would probably put quite an onus on Natural England as regards the amount of advice that it would have to give. But we have reached a point where bravery is required if we are to achieve what we want—the enhancement of biodiversity in this country. On those grounds I support everything that my noble friend has said.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: I refer to paragraph (b) in Amendment No. 279, to which my noble friend Lady Miller spoke, and the cuts in environmental research. It is not just that research establishments are being closed down. I back her all the way on what she said about the two bodies which are due to close and the impact of that on biodiversity. Further, the environmental research councils have cut the budgets of other experimental bodies—for example, the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth, which covers the whole of the UK and not just Wales. It has an experimental farm in North Wycke in Devon. Its budget has been cut and there will be job losses. That institute is engaged in research on drought resistant grasslands. It is very important that its research on climate change and the need for diversity in our grasslands continues. The organisation engages in fundamental and applied research. I add those comments to show that it is clearly not the time to cut back on those research budgets.

Baroness Byford: I support and thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for tabling this very important amendment. I hope that the Minister will end the evening by accepting the amendment or saying that he will take it away and think about it. As I say, this is an enormously important amendment.

The Minister was not with us when, back in 2000, we took the Countryside and Rights of Way Act through, in which biodiversity was first mentioned and put in as an amendment, which the Government eventually accepted. It was a very bold step at that stage, and it was very necessary. In considering his response to the amendment, and the support that has been given to it around the House, I hope that the Minister will bear in
 
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mind the importance that we feel attaches to this. It is easy to say, "Yes, we have in mind that we might do something", and it becomes very wordy, but the addition of "further" is enormously important. My noble friend, in introducing the amendment, said that like many others of us he had received very good briefing from the Wildlife and Countryside Link groups, which have given their support to the amendment. My noble friend said that originally it would be cost neutral and that it might save money in some cases; he is right. He added that in certain circumstances there are to be costs; but there are costs in whatever we do. Certainly, the seasons are changing rapidly in this country. We seem to have drier spells for longer, and then we seem to have heavy rains. We have sunshine and then no sunshine. If that weather pattern continues, there will be even greater pressure on the biodiversity in this country.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister, particularly on the closure of those important research centres, which the noble Baroness referred to earlier. My honourable friend Peter Ainsworth, who I am sorry is not still with us in the Chamber, recognised the importance of those centres. When the Minister responds, will he tell us exactly what savings the Government think they will make by closing those centres? Where will the members of that skill base end up? Will they all be made redundant? That is as important as the closure of the buildings. Are they going to be reallocated to different areas? It is important for us to know that.

My noble friend Lord Peel said that the amendment is brave. We must not lose these opportunities when they come before us. We are not likely to have another Bill of this magnitude before the House for many, many years. When we look back to the CROW Bill, the fact that we did not recognise the need for a marine section was one thing that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and I were quite cross that we let slip by. It has been nearly six years since that Act was passed, and we have not addressed the marine side of the environment. Although a draft marine Act is planned, it may be some time before it comes before the House in the form of a proper Bill.

We have that opportunity now. I hope that the noble Lord will be persuaded by the arguments. I agree that the Government have their own international targets, and we should not shirk those. Sometimes in life one has to take on challenges that are not always comfortable. It is much easier to take the easy way out. I support the amendment, and I thank my noble friend for bringing it forward and explaining it so clearly to us tonight.


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