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Bat Habitats Regulation (No. 2) Bill

Volume 605: debated on Friday 5 February 2016

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a surprise and a privilege to be able to address the issue of bat habitats again in the House so soon, relatively speaking, since I last spoke about the matter back in January 2015. You may recall that, in the last Session of the last Parliament, my Bat Habitats Regulation Bill attracted a lot of interest. The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench today—responded then by promising that various matters would be progressed. I see this debate as an opportunity to find out a bit more about what exactly has happened since he last addressed this issue in the House and about what he thinks should happen in the future.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to cut off my hon. Friend in full flow. This is further to my point of order earlier this morning about the security risk this country faces from a European Court of Justice decision to stop the UK kicking out of this country a Moroccan national whom the Home Office believes to be a severe threat to national security. It now appears that the person concerned is Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law. Whoever it is, this is a very serious matter, and this country and this House should be aware of it. What can be done to get a Home Office Minister to come to the Chamber as a matter of urgency to tell the House about this matter and about what threat this country faces?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for bringing this matter, which is indeed important, to the attention of the House again. As he knows, I have no power to require a Minister to come to the House, but I am quite certain, now that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter on the Floor of the House, that those who ought to take note of what he has said will do so. I trust that the matter will be brought before the House in due course, and the hon. Gentleman is of course well aware of the many methods that he can use next week to ensure that it is brought before the House.

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for what you have said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I share his concern that this is a very important issue, particularly in the light of what has been said about the need for us to be able, as a result of the current EU renegotiations, to improve our own national security.

The EU is of course a significant issue in relation to the regulation of bat habitats. The only way in which my Bill, as currently drafted, can be put on the statute book is either for the Government to agree to exclude it from the application of the European Communities Act 1972 or for us to leave the European Union. If the Bill does not reach the statute book, the need for such a Bill may be significantly reduced if we can leave the European Union. I do not know whether I will be able to draw out the Minister on that matter in this debate. Last year, I described him as one of the leading Eurosceptics. I hope that in the course of the next few weeks or days, he will re-establish his credentials in that respect.

This morning, I received a written answer to my question. I asked:

“what progress has been made…on developing a toolkit for effective and safe management of bats in churches as recommended in the University of Bristol report on Management of bats in churches, a pilot, published in January 2015.”

The Minister referred to that report when he responded to the debate in January 2015.

The answer that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), stated:

“The Government has invested significant resources into research and development to assess how we can reduce the impact caused by bats in churches. This has included a three year research project that concluded in 2013, as well as a pilot project led by Historic England that focused on churches with significant bat issues. Natural England is currently creating a licensing framework to provide the mechanism through which the impact of bats will be controlled in churches.”

I will pause at that point. Natural England seems to be taking an inordinately long time to create the licensing framework. One can only assume that either the matter is incredibly complex or Natural England is not investing sufficient resources in that objective. I hope that the Minister will put more pressure on Natural England to come forward with the licensing framework sooner rather than later.

The second paragraph of the ministerial response to my written question causes me concern. It states:

“A partnership of five organisations, including the Church of England and Natural England, is seeking Heritage Lottery Funding for a five year project to support the creation of a national support network for churches that have bat related issues. The outcome of the bid for funding will be known in March.”

That is an incredibly long timescale. Why can the funding not be provided directly by the Government now? Why do we need to go to the Heritage Lottery Fund to try to get it? Why will it take a similar length of time to the duration of the last world war to come up with a solution, if indeed that funding is available? Why, for all the talk, are we not able to do more, more quickly, to resolve what is for many churches and places of worship a really serious issue?

The seriousness of the issue is recognised in the material that has been produced by the Bat Conservation Trust and the University of Bristol. The Bat Conservation Trust has identified a number of case studies of churches where the problems with bats have been mitigated, rather than resolved. It also sets out in detail all the problems that bats can cause in churches, such as droppings and urine, health concerns, what happens when they fly inside churches and the problems that they can cause when building and conservation projects are under way in churches.

The Bat Conservation Trust has a helpful brief entitled “Solutions to bat issues in churches”, and it answers certain questions such as “Why can’t I get rid of bats in my church? What can I do about bat droppings in my church? Why do churches have to foot the bill for bat conservation? What help is available to churches with bats?”, and so on. It is clear from the way that those questions are asked that we are a long way short of finding a solution to this intractable problem that is causing an enormous amount of concern to churches.

In the previous debate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley referred to the fact that it is not just churches that are affected by this issue. The Bat Conservation Trust took up my response to that intervention, in which I said that we should perhaps start with just one small area, such as churches. The fact that I then contemplated the possibility that we might extend that provision to other buildings caused an enormous amount of angst among members of the Bat Conservation Trust, and it placed a riposte on its website. My point is that we have to start somewhere and try to get some urgency into the matter.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking up my point about other buildings as opposed to just churches, and in order for progress to be made, I am very happy to drop my wide ambition to see this measure extended further. If it means that my hon. Friend can make progress on churches alone, I am happy to limit my ambition to that.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope that when he responds, the Minister will accept that dealing with churches would be a good place to start.

One criticism made of the Bill last year was that it contained no definition of a building used for public worship. To address that I have added clause 3, which defines a building used for public worship as

“a building used for the purposes of religious worship by a congregation or religious group whether or not the building is also used for counselling, social events, instruction or religious training.”

I hope that that will overcome the objection raised about the lack of definition in the Bill.

When responding to our previous debate, the Minister said that there were issues that were going to be addressed, and that in light of their vulnerability, bats have been subject to protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. At European level, that was augmented by protection under the European habitats directive in 1994, which was transposed into UK law with the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. He said that there would be a review of the relevant European directive, and that

“the European Commission has committed itself to reviewing certain elements of the directive to establish whether they are proportionate. So, in addition to all the work that we are doing nationally, a European-level review is under way.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 1199.]

Will the Minister tell the House where we are with that European level review, and say when he thinks it will reach a conclusion? What sort of conclusion does he think it will reach, and what evidence has been submitted by the Government to that review?

It is a great concern to me, and to a lot of my hon. Friends, that we have European legislation to deal with bats who do not fly across Europe. These are bats who reside in the British Isles. What business is it of the other countries in the European Union to dictate to us how we should look after our own bat populations? This could almost be a starting point for addressing the much-vaunted but totally ignored principle of subsidiarity. If we have a species in our country that does not move from one country to another, it should surely be a matter for domestic, rather than European, law. I would be very interested to know from my hon. Friend the Minister where he thinks we have got to on that.

There is some good news. Last year, I talked about the impact of wind turbines on bats. I put a provision in that Bill largely because of a proposed massive offshore wind turbine project in Dorset. The good news is that the project has now been rejected by the Planning Inspectorate. There will no longer be the adverse impact on bats on the mainland there would otherwise have been if connecting cables had been constructed through forest areas.

In responding last year to the aspect of that Bill concerning the impact of wind turbines on bat habitats, my hon. Friend said:

“That evidence is fairly mixed. Some studies in the United States and Canada suggested that there could be an impact, but, in order to clarify the position in the United Kingdom the Government are conducting their own research, which will be completed later this year.”

The research must therefore have been completed by the end of 2015. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could tell us the outcome of that research into the wind turbine impacts on our bat populations and habitats. He went on to say:

“If that research establishes that the current approach to planning in respect of wind turbines is insufficient to protect bats, we will review our approach at that point.”

There is a useful purpose to be served by having an almost regular review of progress on issues such as this. The other thing my hon. Friend said last time was this:

“In a changing landscape, where hedgerows and other linear features that are so important to bats have been lost as roosting sites, churches can be important to, in particular, some of our rarer birds. However, the Government recognise, and are sympathetic to, the concern of parishioners who are suffering from the effects of bat droppings on pews, precious artefacts and equipment in the public and private areas of their churches. To address that concern, we have invested considerable resources in research and development to establish how we can reduce the impact of bats in churches.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 1198.]

He then went on to refer to the three-year research project completed in March 2014.

At the beginning of my remarks, I referred to the answer to the question of where we are getting to in establishing a toolkit for effective and safe management of bats in churches. The answer seems to be that it is a long way off. In the meantime, what are we going to do? Something has to be done to make things better for churches and for the parishioners and others who use them. There must be a better solution than their having to put up umbrellas in church to avoid being defecated upon.

Why must our fantastic church monuments be covered with paper—not plastic, because it adds to the adverse impact on the artefacts—so that bats can carry on doing their thing inside our churches to the detriment of that important part of our heritage? It must be possible for bats to co-exist with historic churches. The challenge for the Government, which is reflected in the Bill, is to demonstrate a will to make it happen. For that reason, I ask that the House give my Bill a Second Reading.

I associate myself with the Speaker’s remarks earlier following the sad death of Harry Harpham, the MP for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. Like many colliers, Harry carried himself with strength and dignity, and we will miss him greatly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on the selection of his Bill today. Bat numbers have been in a downward spiral over the last century. The loss of roosting sites and insects from pesticide use sent the bat population into a sharp decline. The habitats directive was an important mechanism aimed at halting this decline, and I am pleased to say that as a result bat numbers have stabilised and even increased in recent years. That is down to the hard work of the public, private and voluntary organisations involved in bat conservation. Together, they have ensured the directive’s success.

Dark, quiet buildings are a natural roosting spot for bats, and it is true that churches are a target. A nationwide survey concluded that one in six contained bats. It also concluded, however, that the number of bats was small and that congregations might not even be aware of their presence. Indeed, a separate survey by the Bat Conservation Trust showed that only 12% of churches expressed any concern about their presence. Having said that, urine and droppings can create problems, and in large quantities, they can make a church unpleasant to use and damage historic fabric.

The Bill, however, ignores the many measures being taken by organisations such as English Heritage and the National Churches Trust to help mitigate these issues. Plenty of advice is available on how to manage buildings, including churches, that contain bats. Most of this is offered free of charge and can even involve visits to affected areas. Indeed, if this requires a monetary contribution, public and non-governmental organisations can fund it for important sites. Furthermore, a Heritage Lottery Fund bid is currently being prepared by a partnership that includes the Church of England, Historic England and the BCT. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that earlier, and I hope, like him, that it is brought forward soon. Those actions are to be applauded and are an example of the system supporting itself without the need to remove vital protections.

In conclusion, there is no reason to water down the important legal protections for bats, and I urge the House to reject the Bill.

I too associate myself with the comments about the sad death of Harry Harpham.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for giving me the opportunity to respond to his Bill. As he indicated, this is a Second Reading in more ways than one, because, a little over a year ago, I stood at the Dispatch Box debating precisely the same Bill. This is an opportunity, as he said, to update the House on what has happened since, although it is obviously a short time in which to make progress on such a long-term problem. I am afraid, however, that the Government still do not support his Bill, for reasons I will explain.

All bats are subject to protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it a criminal offence deliberately to kill, injure, take or disturb bats. There is also a strict liability offence of damaging or destroying their breeding sites or resting places. The Act’s provisions protect bats from disturbance in their place of rest and the obstruction of such locations.

Most of the 18 species of bat found in the UK evolved to live, breed and forage in or around trees and caves, but many have now adapted to roost in buildings, including barns, houses, churches, tunnels and bridges, following the loss of their natural roosting sites through modern agriculture and forestry practices, and also through urban growth. Such artificial roosts are now essential to the survival of many bat species. However, the threat of demolition of old buildings, barn conversions, an increasing use of artificial lighting and the move towards air-tight buildings have highlighted the increasing importance of the remaining roosting sites. Decreasing the protection afforded to bats in these important sites is therefore likely to have a detrimental impact on the conservation status of bats in the UK and would be in contravention of our existing national legislation, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is also underpinned by our obligations under, for instance, the habitats directive.

My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes that surveys must be undertaken before any new buildings are built, to assess the presence of bats in the area; and if there are any bats present, that building should proceed only if bat boxes or other artificial roosts are provided. The requirement to be aware of the existence of bats and to consider the impacts of any build on their numbers already exists. Local planning authorities have a duty to consider biodiversity and the requirements of the habitats directive when considering developments. Mitigation of damage to bat roosts and resting places may be required, but bat boxes and artificial roosts are only two of the possible measures that can be implemented. Each case should be considered on its merits. Furthermore, bats require not just roost sites, but suitable habitats in which to feed. The Bill does not take account of this.

The Bill also proposes to prohibit the placing of wind turbines in the vicinity of any bat habitat. Again, bat surveys are already undertaken at potential wind turbine sites when bats are nearby. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has commissioned research on the impact of wind turbines on bats, and I am told the report will be published shortly. My hon. Friend asked for an update on that report, and the fact that it is being published suggests that either it is nearing completion or the finishing touches are being put on it. We expect the report to be published in the spring. Should that research show an impact, we will consider what changes may be needed in the placing of wind turbines. I would make the point, though, that this is not believed to need new legislation; rather, there would simply be a change in planning policy guidance.

Finally, the Bill proposes that bats should be excluded from a building used for public worship unless it has been demonstrated that their presence would not have a significant adverse impact on the users of such a place. Unfortunately, the Bill does not define what a “significant adverse impact” would be. Such a blanket prohibition does not take account of either the potential importance of some churches to vulnerable bat populations or the work the Government are doing to alleviate the impact of bats in such places where they are causing a nuisance or distress. In a changing landscape, where hedgerows and other linear features so important to bats have been lost and other buildings used as roost sites, such as farm outbuildings or other traditional buildings, have been lost or demolished, churches can represent one of the few remaining constant resources for bats, thus giving them a disproportionate significance for the maintenance of bat populations at a favourable conservation status.

However, as I have said previously, the Government recognise and are very sympathetic to the concerns of the many parishioners who are suffering from the negative effects of bats in churches, such as bat droppings. To address this, the Government have invested significant resources in research and development to assess how we can reduce the impact of bats in churches. A recent three-year research project led by DEFRA, along with a pilot project led by Historic England, developed techniques to assist churches with significant bat-related issues. Solutions are ready to be implemented in some churches that were involved in this work. Natural England is currently creating a licensing framework, which will be the mechanism through which these techniques will be delivered.

I do not have a particular timetable, but the framework is being developed based on the evidence from the research project. I imagine that it could be done relatively quickly.

I thought my hon. Friend took a rather “glass half empty” view of the parliamentary question and the response to it that he received today. The reality is that Heritage Lottery Fund money is being sought to support the roll-out of this work across England and to create an effective national support network for churches that have bat-related issues. He might have misinterpreted one element of the response, because it made it clear that this is a funding application, a decision on which is expected in March this year, and that that funding will support a five-year project. It is not the case that nothing will be done for five years or that further evidence gathering will go on for five years. If the project is supported, it will be largely complete after five years. There is more reason for optimism than my hon. Friend showed.

Obviously, I would not expect the Minister to anticipate not getting the funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but can he guarantee that, whether or not that application is successful, this work will be carried out, because it would be perverse if it were dependent solely on the success of that bid?

When it comes to heritage assets, our churches are almost second to none. We have thousands of churches and they provide incredibly important heritage assets, so I think this bid will be a very strong one. If, however, for some reason the bid were unsuccessful, it goes without saying that we would seek alternative means to fund this important work.

Major positive strides forward are already being made at one church. Work carried out at St Hilda’s in Yorkshire led to the impact of bats being removed altogether, while ensuring that the bats were still able to roost in the roof of the building. This is an excellent example of peaceful co-existence between bats and parishioners in churches.

Let me deal with the habitats directive, another point that my hon. Friend raised. The Commission is working on its REFIT—regulatory fitness and performance programme—proposals, looking at the implementation of the habitats directive. We think it unlikely that any major revisions to the list of species protected by the directive will be made, but the Commission is keen to ensure that implementation is proportionate. That work is carrying on. My hon. Friend will know that things do not always move at a pace in the European Union, but I can assure him that we are in regular dialogue with the Commission on this matter, and we are keen to see the REFIT approach to the directive taking place.

My hon. Friend’s Bill deals with the habitats directive by inserting a notwithstanding clause. The constitutional position is clear: Parliament has the right to set aside directives in the way he describes if it wishes to do so. It would, of course, cause difficulties for our laws internationally, which is why we have tended not to do this. He should understand that we sign up to other international conventions. He sought to make a distinction between the protection of migrating species and species that are here purely domestically. We have signed up to the Bern convention, which encourages wildlife protection in all the countries that are signatories to it—whether or not they are in the European Union and irrespective of whether the species are migrating. The Bern convention makes some reference to bats in this respect.

May I give an example by referring to what happens with migrating birds in Malta? Although Malta is a member of the European Union, it does not seem that any of these rules apply to that country.

The rules do apply to Malta. We have debated in the House some of the challenges posed by dove shooting in Malta, for example. Legal cases have been brought against the Maltese Government on precisely these issues. They have been required, under these regulations, to put in place protection for migrating doves, too.

In conclusion, the current licensing regime administered by Natural England already allows us to address problems caused by protected species such as bats and properly balances the legitimate interest of people in a way that avoids harming wildlife, without the need to change the law. For the reasons I have outlined, the Government oppose this Bill as being both unnecessary and inappropriate. I can, however, assure my hon. Friend that I take the issues he has raised very seriously. I hope he will recognise that although it is just one year on, we have indeed made progress with this application to the lottery project and with the ongoing review of the habitats directive. I hope therefore that he will see fit not to push this to a Division.

I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response to the points that have been raised. I hope that his optimism about the Heritage Lottery Fund bid is well founded and that that project is able to continue. It is not often that I would describe a piece of legislation that I have put forward as being premature, but in the light of what he has said and of the fact that we are shortly to have an in/out referendum, and on the basis of the Bill’s prematurity, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.