asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many applications for agricultural grants in the countryside, in areas outside national parks and sites of special scientific interest, have been refused by his Department on environmental grounds for each year since 1980.
I regret that the Ministry does not keep records in a form which would readily identify the number of applications refused grant and the reasons for such refusals.
Does the Parliamentary Secretary accept that that is a major defect in any system that is geared to enhancing what she says is her Department's duty to have regard to conservation? Until local authorities and others can he prenotified—I hope the hon. Lady can say that this will be possible under the new structures regulations that are about to be implemented—conservation in the countryside will not be something that her Department can honestly say it is trying to uphold.
Obviously, we shall have to ensure that any capital grant paid is for investments compatible with good conservation in the areas which are designated as environmentally sensitive and which my right hon. Friend has ensured are in the structures programme. Prior notification is one possibility to which we shall have to give consideration.
Is my hon. Friend convinced that since 1980 no environmental damage has been done by grant-aided agricultural works, or does her reply suggest that we should move to a system of prenotification of agricultural works that attract grant-aid?
Prenotification is an enormously expensive objective. During the past few years there has been a much wider appreciation of conservation in agriculture. I trust that my hon. Friend is well aware of the initiatives in which my Department has been involved during the past months in improving conservation in agriculture. Unfortunately, I do not have sufficient time to recite those initiatives now.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, whatever the costs of prenotification-1 disagree with the costs she suggested—it will be necessary for people to be able to object to the granting of agricultural grant where damage is caused to the environment? What alternatives is the hon. Lady considering?
The extension of prior notification was recommended by the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment. The Government will publish their reponse to that report shortly. I cannot, therefore, comment at present.