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Natural Environment

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 29 October 2009

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's policies to protect the natural environment; and if he will make a statement. (296300)

We have seen improvements in water quality, more species have been protected, pollution levels are decreasing, and 89 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are in a favourable or recovering condition. However, we all need to do more to protect our natural environment, and securing a good deal at Copenhagen would be a very important step forward.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that last Monday night I hosted the fourth annual bat and moth evening in the House. A large number of Members attended to see how those vital species, which are interdependent, are declining. In this year when we are celebrating 150 years since the writing of “On the Origin of Species”, and with next year being the international year of biodiversity, what is he going to do to ensure that in another 150 years, our descendants will not be attending museums and looking at further bat and moth species that we have lost?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on hosting the event, and I am sorry that I was not able to join her for it. The single most important thing that we can do is understand and appreciate more the value of biodiversity, including what it does for us, because it is fundamental to human existence and we have taken it for granted for far too long. It sustains our economy, our clean water and air and the production of our food. We need next year to get a new target internationally agreed that we can measure and make progress on.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the scourge of ragwort is a shame to this country? His Department has issued a code, which appears to be widely ignored. Will he therefore take steps to see to it that this infection is removed from our countryside?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and we are trying to find the most effective way to deal with such invasive species. I am happy to write to him to set out the steps that we are seeking to take.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to protect the natural environment, we have to get people to visit it? Has he seen the Natural England survey showing that children’s access to green space and the natural environment has halved in a generation. What are the Government going to do about that?

I have seen that report, and I share my hon. Friend’s desire that more people should have the chance to get out there. The national parks provide a wonderful opportunity for that, and of course the coastal access provisions of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which received its Third Reading earlier this week, will provide further opportunities for young people and others to enjoy the beauty of our countryside.

It is clear that the Government will break their promise to halt biodiversity loss by 2010. In an admission of failure to the Environmental Audit Committee, they said that it was “never realistically achievable”. Now the Secretary of State talks of more targets for some date way in the future. Is it not the truth that there remains a marked lack of will in the Government to reverse biodiversity loss?

I profoundly disagree with that last statement. The Government are very committed. If the hon. Gentleman considers, for example, bird numbers, we have managed in this country to stop the decline that happened between the 1970s and the 1990s. The number of sea birds is up, we have offered protection to Lyme bay to safeguard the pink sea fan and there are otters in every single English county for the first time in 40 years. However, we need to do more, and the point about having a target is that it gives one something to aim for.