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Biodiversity

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

Tackling biodiversity loss is one of my Department’s top priorities. I have just returned from international negotiations in Nagoya where the UK played a pivotal role in securing agreement on the ambitious new framework to halt biodiversity loss. The challenge now is to implement this domestically. In the spring, I intend to publish a White Paper outlining the Government’s vision for the natural environment, backed up with practical action to deliver that ambition.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Given the Government’s intention to sell off a substantial part of the forest estate, what measures will be in place to ensure the biodiversity potential of this land and to ensure that the commitments in the Forestry Commission’s forest design plans will be fully implemented?

I can give the hon. Lady clear assurances on this point, but we need to start with a little myth-busting on the back of press speculation. Only 18% of forests and woodland in England are owned by the state and it is wrong to confuse ownership with any suggestion of a reduction in biodiversity. It is quite right, and in the spirit of the coalition agreement, to consider giving the community who live nearest to the forest the opportunity to own it, as that community and civil society are most likely to give it the best protection. Finally, I should like to reassure her by clarifying that not one tree can be felled without a licence being issued by my Department. In the last analysis, we are committed to forest biodiversity and to enhancing biodiversity. Our forests are among the richest of our genetic resources and we have every intention of protecting them.

May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for welcoming me to my new role and for the briefing that she gave me on Nagoya? I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the new fund that the Government have pledged in order to deliver international biodiversity benefits through international forestry.

On Government plans to maintain biodiversity at home, however, we have seen a series of deeply worrying moves from the right hon. Lady over the past three months. The Government plan to sell off or simply give away 140 national nature reserves; our national parks, which a Labour Government began in 1949, will suffer a catastrophic 30% cut to their budgets, leaving park workers unemployed, our national trails abandoned and precious habitats neglected; and her Department has announced a review of England’s forests, seeing them sold to the highest bidder—asset stripping our natural heritage. Is it not the case that she preaches environmental evangelism around the world and practices environmental vandalism at home?

That is a disappointing opener from the hon. Lady. She appears not to understand that her own party when in government would have had to make cuts, and there will be no credibility to her accusations unless she tells the House where she would have made savings. In any event, however, there is no suggestion that we are poised to sell off nature reserves. Can she not see that it is not necessarily for the state to do everything? The Wildlife Trusts welcome the opportunity to be more involved in the management of our nature reserves.

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but I suggest that she ask them. As for selling off the forests, she just heard my explanation that it is wrong to confuse ownership with the quality of environmental protection, and I believe that the communities and charities that would like to be more involved in protecting and enhancing our forest biodiversity welcome our suggestions.

The truth is that the Government have reserved their most vicious spending cut for a 30% cut in environmental spending. We know that in the spending review, the right hon. Lady caved in early to the Chancellor’s pressure, and that she gave away too much too quickly. Why did she sell out the country’s environment to the Chancellor?

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but her Government were committed to a 50% reduction in capital. Perhaps she would like to identify in the Department’s budget what she would have done. What I can tell the House is that, going into those negotiations with the Treasury, we took a strategic approach, because it was important for us to protect as much of the capital as possible. Her party, had it been in government, would have cut the capital budget by 50%, but we succeeded in reducing that to a 34% reduction, meaning that the bulk of our flood defence capital has been protected.