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Natural England

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

First, I welcome the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and her new team to the Front Bench. I enjoyed cordial relations with her predecessors in the short time we were opposite each other and I hope that cordiality will continue.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working closely with Natural England on substantial reforms to transform it into a leaner, more efficient front-line delivery body that is focused strongly on the Government’s ambitions for the environment.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Will she give a little more detail regarding the impact of the comprehensive spending review on the two stewardship schemes that are run by Natural England and how she sees that impact progressing in coming years?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that as a result of the comprehensive spending review, both types of stewardship scheme will be maintained. There will be new entrants to both the entry-level and the higher-level stewardship schemes. We have ambitions to increase by about 80% the number of farmers in the higher-level stewardship scheme and to increase qualitatively the environmental benefits provided under the entry-level scheme.

Natural England is the nation’s principle conservation agency and our champion of biodiversity. In the name of reform, the Government are leaving it with no choice but to hand over 140 national nature reserves to anyone who will take them on, to put our network of national trails up for grabs and to cut back on the expert support that is vital to delivering the environmental stewardship schemes. We are talking about the nation’s front line in protecting our environment. The Government claim to be the greenest ever, but is not the reality that the Secretary of State is prepared to sacrifice Natural England and our precious environment in a bid to win friends and credit at the Treasury?

I should like to countermand those suggestions. Natural England, in common with all the arm’s-length bodies in the DEFRA delivery network, is taking a pro rata reduction. It is required to make efficiency savings in the same way as the core Department has to. None the less, there will be no changes in Natural England’s statutory functions. It will cease to undertake some activities, such as lobbying and policy making, which should rightly be the domain of the Department at the centre. Consideration is being given to options for improving the management of our national nature reserves because that is consistent with a big society approach.