'. It shall be the duty of the Agency in the exercise of any of its functions to secure compliance with the requirements of the Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora.'.—[Mr. Morley.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
With this, it will be convenient to discuss also new clause 12—Restoration orders for areas of specific scientific interest (No. 2)—'.—In section 31 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for subsection (1) substitute—(1) Where—
780 has destroyed or damaged any of the geological or physiographical features by reason of which the land on which it was carried out was of special interest, the court by which he is convicted, in addition to dealing with him in any other way, may make an order requiring him to carry out, within such period as may be specified in the order, such operations for the purpose of restoring the land to its former condition as may be so specified.".'.
- (a) the operation in respect of which an owner or occupier of land is convicted of a second offence within five years under section 28;
- (b) the operation in respect of which a person is convicted of a second offence under section 29; or
- (c) the behaviour in respect of which a person is convicted of a second offence under any byelaw made under section 20 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (as it applies by virtue of any enactment)
§ Mr. Morley
New clause 10 deals with the functions of the new agency in complying with the European Union habitats directive and would write the duty to comply into the Bill.
In Committee, the Minister acknowledged that the Government accept their responsibilities and duties under international treaties and obligations such as the European habitats directive. The new clause would consolidate all the general duties that the various components of the new agency currently have under the Conservation (Natural Habitat etc.) Regulations 1994.
At present, the agency will have some functions operating under different general duties, according to whether they apply to land or tidal waters. Compliance with the requirements of the habitats directive will apply consistent standards of nature conservation above and below the high tide mark, applying both to special protection areas and to special areas of conservation. In that sense, the new clause will help the new agency to meet its duties.
New clause 12 deals with the protection and restoration of sites of special scientific interest and areas of special scientific interest. SSSIs were introduced under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Sadly, however, the operation of the Act has been flawed in certain areas and there have been difficulties in protecting SSSIs. The report by Wildlife and Countryside Link, "SSSIs—A Health Check", showed that 200 to 300 SSSIs were destroyed or damaged every year. Here I should declare an interest as a vice-president of Wildlife and Countryside Link. A more recent report, the 1994 National Audit Office report "Protecting and Managing Sites of Special Scientific Interest", showed that more than 800 SSSIs had been damaged since 1987.
In this respect, the low fines available to magistrates are a problem in deterring people from damage. The National Audit Office noted that despite more than 800 sites being reported as damaged, only nine prosecutions under section 28 of the 1981 Act had been brought. In many ways, I have a great deal of sympathy with the difficulties of the various countryside agencies in implementing section 28 of the 1981 Act. It can be expensive to bring to court someone who has damaged a site of special scientific interest. It must be galling for the agencies to incur that expense and then to see the people concerned getting off with low and derisory fines.
Most damage done to SSSIs is linked to planning applications and to perceived planning gain. The restoration of those sites, for which new clause 12 calls, is fair and a much more effective deterrent. Some owners of sites have deliberately damaged them because they think that it is in their interests to do so; there have been many such cases. I can recall cases of landowners spraying important meadows with herbicides to kill the plants of particular interest in them, hoping that it would make it easier to get planning permission for the site.
Ensuring that such people had to reinstate sites of special scientific interest would make them think twice about damaging them. Such a requirement would be more 781 effective than the present level of fines. New clause 12 has widespread support from all conservation bodies and, indeed, from English Nature which would welcome this more effective power. I very much hope that the Minister will support the new clauses because they will give the agency a strength that it currently lacks.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)
We believe that the new clause is unnecessary because regulation 3(4) of the Conservation (Natural Habitat etc.) Regulations already places obligations on the proposed agency and on other similar public bodies to have regard to the requirements of the EC habitats directive in the exercise of any of their functions. Hon. Members had the opportunity to debate the regulations in July last year. In addition, any specific duties placed on the National Rivers Authority by the habitat regulations will automatically become duties of the Environment Agency as a result of the transitional provisions in paragraph 218 of schedule 22.
As the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) would expect, I have considerable sympathy with the intentions behind new clause 12. As my letter to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, we have put some flesh on the bones of that sympathy. New clause 12, however, would restrict the existing powers of the courts under section 29 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. As the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe will agree, that is not acceptable. New clause 12 would enable the court to make a restoration order only when a person had been convicted of a second offence under section 29. At present, a restoration order is possible in relation to a first offence.
Under new clause 12, restoration orders would be available only where the geological or physiographical features of the land were destroyed or damaged, with no equivalent provision for the flora and fauna. I hope that with that understanding and in view of the intentions that I have already set out in my letter to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe will feel that he can seek leave to withdraw the new clause.
§ Mr. Morley
I welcome the fact that the Minister recognises the importance of the subject and sympathises with our intention. It is a little strange that the Government are prepared to include on the face of the Bill subjects which could have been included in guidance, such as costs and benefits, but not such matters as the protection of SSSIs.
However, as the Minister has given certain assurances and recognises the thrust of our arguments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.