Skip to main content

Environmental Liability Directive

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

6. Whether he plans to make special provisions for sites of special scientific interest when implementing the environmental liability directive. (117815)

According to GeneWatch UK, 11 sites of special scientific interest in my constituency are at risk of genetic and toxic pollution, including one site near Eashing farm in Godalming, where there are plans for a quarry, despite the deep reservations of many of my constituents. Will the Under-Secretary ensure that the directive is implemented in a way that gives proper protection to wildlife? That is one of my constituents’ biggest concerns about the often unpopular quarries.

I understand the force not only of the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about sites of special scientific interest in his constituency but of the wider issue. The arguments in favour of a wider and of a narrower interpretation of the directive are finely balanced. In line with Hampton, Arculus and all our principles of better regulation, we should not over-implement EU directives in this country. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear support from the Conservative Front Bench on that. Equally, we wish to ensure that we meet our biodiversity target of restoring 95 per cent. of SSSIs to a favourable condition by the end of 2010. The consultation is a genuine opportunity for the hon. Gentleman and others in the Chamber to present evidence in support of the case for gold-plating, in this instance, if that is what they wish.

GeneWatch UK’s campaign to press the Government to extend the directive to all SSSIs and all biodiversity action plan species is supported by many Members of the House. Will my hon. Friend address that argument when he responds to the consultation taking place on the implementation of the directive?

Yes, the whole consultation is about that. Approximately 75 per cent. of SSSIs overlap—by area, not by number—with Natura 2000 sites and would therefore have some protection under the directive. I take my hon. Friend’s point that she wishes that to be applied to the protected species and habitats that we designate under SSSIs in this country. Strict liability, which the directive proposes, is a test that should be used sparingly. On the whole, the Government consider that when a person has sought and obtained a permit for some activity, or when the actions were clearly in compliance with the best scientific practice and information available, it is wrong to hold that person accountable should damage result. When damage was intentional or reckless, however, we already have powers under the SSSI regulations to take action to remediate and to prosecute the perpetrators.

I am concerned that the route being pursued by the Government may exclude three important SSSIs in my constituency, Mapledurwell fen, Pamber forest and Silchester common, all of which are highly valued by local residents. It has been useful to hear the Minister’s comments, but will he specifically consider cases put forward for protection? Mapledurwell fen in particular has been cited by botanists as the “richest half acre” of Hampshire, and I believe that it deserves more attention.

I am pleased to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks: we will be considering the issue in relation to SSSIs. I want to correct one misapprehension under which she may be labouring. The greatest threat to SSSIs comes not from the sort of damage that it is envisaged that the directive would counter and remediate, but from inappropriate management, over-grazing and heather-burning of moorland. When the proposal as to how the Government should treat the issue first came forward, the regulatory impact assessment showed that the cost to small farming businesses might be 5 per cent. of average turnover. Although the costs are small nationally, as a proportion of small farm holdings’ turnover they are high. The Government had to come to a resolution on that fine balance when we put forward our interim position in the consultation. We have a position on our preferred status, but it is subject to consultation. A cost of £30,000, however, is a lot to a small farmer.

I am pleased that the Minister is clearly thinking hard about the issue and I hope that he will continue to do so because he may avoid the Government scoring yet another environmental own goal.

There is a real danger that the Government will squander an opportunity to enhance ecological protection. By excluding a large number of SSSIs and species listed under the biodiversity action plan, they are in danger of sending out a message that those do not matter very much. More specifically, as the Minister should know, the science of genetically modified crops is still being debated and the commercial and environmental dangers posed by the risk of cross-contamination are a matter of serious public concern. Will he therefore follow the example of the Welsh Assembly and remove the permit defence against strict liability in the case of contamination by GM?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are consulting on that. I take positively his remarks about it being given serious consideration, which is what we wish to do. He will accept that devolved assemblies have the right to come to different conclusions. The different situations in England and Wales in terms of progress towards our biodiversity targets—in particular, towards their favourable and improving status in our SSSIs—mean that in Wales the traffic lights are showing red whereas in England they are showing amber-green, as he will know. There is a relevant difference, and it is appropriate that in different jurisdictions we consider the directive, the impact that it may make and the gold-plating that may result from it.