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National Biodiversity Network Report

Volume 800: debated on Monday 4 November 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the National Biodiversity Network report State of Nature 2019.

My Lords, we are working at home and in the overseas territories to address biodiversity loss. Partnerships between government, farmers and conservationists have seen particular successes, often through habitat restoration, supported by agri-environment schemes. For example, we have supported local recoveries of the marsh fritillary and cirl bunting and the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee. Our 25-year plan marks a step change in ambition. The Environment Bill introduces measures to ensure that the Government are held to account against our ambitious goals.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his recognition that the rate of species decline is dire. If we leave the EU, I think it will be even more dire. How does the Minister explain what happened at Defra when the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove, said about the proposed ban on slug pellets:

“Once outside the EU, we will continue to make decisions on pesticides based on the best … science”.

The best science in this case was the Expert Committee on Pesticides, which recommended a ban because of the unacceptable risks to birds and mammals. Defra proposed a ban, the manufacturers objected and went to court, and Defra just gave up. The ban has been overturned, even though there are perfectly practical alternatives available, and now thrushes, hedgehogs and so on are dying in their hundreds again. It is also affecting drinking water. Is this the sort of approach that Defra intends to take?

No, it most certainly is not, which is why we are bringing forward the environmental land management scheme as part of the post-CAP arrangements. It is why we have published the Green Finance Strategy and why more than 370,000 acres in England have been set aside for new wildlife-rich habitats. I could go on, particularly on the international stage. All of this is because we need to enhance the environment. We will always turn to the best scientific advice on pesticides and chemicals. Clearly, that is why we decided that neonicotinoids are not acceptable. We will take action if the science directs it.

My Lords, how can the Government claim to be protecting the natural world when the budget for Natural England has been halved and its staff numbers have dropped from 2,500 to 1,500 since 2010? What hope does it have in helping to rebuild our biodiversity when it does not have the funds or the support to deliver on its targets? What message does that send about how seriously the Government really take their promises on this issue?

I have been very lucky to work with Natural England—it does a great job, and I recently saw Tony Juniper. The United Kingdom’s contribution to international climate finance will double to £11.6 billion from 2021-25, a proportion of which will be for nature-based solutions. Yes, we have to work in this country, but turning around what the noble Baroness and the State of Nature talk about is a global problem. Our global spending is growing very considerably indeed.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned our overseas territories in his Answer. My friends in the Falkland Islands tell me that if Brexit goes ahead, their economy will be devastated. In the unfortunate event of the return of a Tory Government, what will the Minister and his colleagues do about that?

My Lords, I shall be very pleased indeed if there is a return of a Conservative Government because we will put the environment four-square in the centre in this country, in our overseas territories and globally. That is one of the prime responsibilities of government. We have an emergency. I have talked about the noble Lord shaking his noble head before. He asked what a Tory Government will do about it. There is a great story in the Falklands. Our approach in dealing with rats on South Georgia has meant that pipits and pintails are back in profusion. Dealing with invasive species is one of the most important things. Tourism to that great set of islands is very important.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the former representative of the constituency containing Rothamsted. That is the principal area where GM and other species development is going on, enabling us to use varieties of plants that cut down on the use of pesticides, which are so damaging to biodiversity. Unfortunately, as long as we are members of the EU we will be unable to do so and will therefore put biodiversity at risk.

My Lords, the point about gene editing is that it is very important that we use the best science to ensure that we feed the world and restore nature. The whole point about the scientific endeavour is to make sure that we do both. We must be aiming for both. We cannot find ourselves enhancing the environment and then not producing enough food. We need to work on that as a joint endeavour.

My Lords, the Minister referred to neonicotinoids. I am sure that he will be aware of the report from Japan in Science this week of the horrific effects documented there on the lake and fish populations. We have been through this again and again with different pesticides that arrive as a wonderful new cure and then are exposed as causing massive damage. Is it not time to stop soaking our countryside in pesticides, with the effects that we have seen on nature, and move to organic and near-organic solutions for agriculture? That has to be the way forward for nature and people.

My Lords, the balance is as I have sought to describe it. Yes, we need to improve and work on soil fertility and soil health. Mixed farming is very important. However, scientific advances in integrated pest management are the way forward. We have to move to a more nature-friendly form of farming. That is important and farmers recognise that. This country can do it well.