Motion to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 19 December 2022 be approved.
Relevant document: 25th Report by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument).
My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests—some of that land is SSSI, as I have set out in the register.
Biodiversity globally is in decline, and in England species abundance has fallen by 52% since 1970. According to the State of Nature partnership’s 2019 report, 13% of species assessed in England are threatened with extinction within Great Britain. We know we need to take determined action to ensure that we halt the decline of nature and leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, whose amendment gave rise to this debate. It raises concern about the lack of a statutory target on improving the condition of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites; we feel that this is already addressed through our species abundance targets. The species abundance targets to halt decline by 2030 and then reverse that decline by 2042 are ambitious, world-leading targets which will drive wide-ranging actions to deliver nature recovery, including action on protected sites which are vital wildlife havens.
There may be other biodiversity targets that warrant consideration; however, we chose species abundance as a good proxy for the health of the wider ecosystem. Our indicator to track progress includes over 1,000 representative species for which we have robust data; between them, these species depend on the majority of habitats found in England.
The noble Baroness is right that many of our protected sites are in a poor condition and are subject to many pressures and threats, including climate change and water and air pollution. But we are committed to addressing this challenge. Our 25-year environment plan set the goal to restore 75% of our 1 million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition. We have a robust programme of work in place, led by Natural England, which includes providing £2.9 million per year to assess all protected sites, implementing protected-site strategies, introducing the Environment Act 2021, and rolling out the new ELM schemes which will provide the bulk of the funding needed. These regulations implement the requirements of the Environment Act to set a target that will halt the decline in species abundance by 2030, and have at least one additional long-term target relating to biodiversity.
There is no single way to measure the health of our biodiversity, so we have proposed a number of targets that address the status of species and habitats. Our three-pillar approach to restoring and improving our biodiversity involves: first, restoring and creating habitat that is bigger, better and more joined up; secondly, tackling pressures on species and their habitats, such as addressing pollution and improving water quality; and, thirdly, taking further targeted action for specific threatened species. The regulations therefore set targets for species abundance, species extinction risk, and habitat restoration and creation. Taken together, our actions to meet these targets will result in the broad improvement in the state of nature that is needed. Our overall suite of Environment Act targets, including those on water and air quality, will put nature at the centre of all government policy-making for generations to come.
I turn to the details of the instrument. It sets out our target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030 and then reverse that decline by 2042. We have changed that target in response to public consultation and feedback from the OEP. We recognise concerns that the target as previously phrased could have allowed for nature to be in worse condition than it is today, which was not our intent. The instrument therefore requires the Government to ensure that, by 2042, species abundance is greater than it was in 2022 and at least 10% greater than it was in 2030. Species abundance is a good proxy for the health of the wider ecosystem. The indicator that will be used to track progress includes over 1,000 representative species for which we have robust data. These species are listed in a schedule to the instrument and include the water vole, the marsh fritillary and the red-tailed bumble bee.
We know that action to achieve the species abundance targets will require the restoration and creation of wider habitats and ecosystems. We also know that we need that habitat to be bigger, in better condition and more joined up, which is why through this instrument we are setting a target to require the Government to restore or create in excess of 500,000 hectares of a range of wildlife-rich habitat outside of existing protected sites by 2042. We have defined wildlife-rich habitats as those priority habitats set out under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, as well as those habitats listed in a schedule to this instrument. We will measure progress towards that target by compiling a record of actions that have been or are being undertaken to restore or create wildlife-rich habitat.
As well as taking action for widespread species, we need to prevent the loss of our rarest or fastest-declining species. We also need to make sure that those which are currently at a lesser risk of extinction do not further decline. That requires bespoke actions, as some of our most threatened species will not be reached solely by the broad-stroke approaches that are central to achieving the species abundance targets. The instrument requires the Government to reduce the risk of species extinction by 2042 compared to 2022, as measured by the red list index for England. That index includes data covering over 8,000 taxa, including hedgehogs and red squirrels.
I emphasise that the measures in the regulations are crucial for us to halt and reverse the decline in nature. I hope that all noble Lords will support these measures and their objectives. We will be setting out our approach to meeting the targets in our revised environment improvement plan, which will be published by 31 January 2023. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
At end insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations fail to set a target for terrestrial protected sites condition; notes that this contrasts with the Environmental Targets (Marine Protected Areas) Regulations 2022 target for Marine Protected Areas condition; notes that around 40 per cent of England’s terrestrial protected sites remain in unfavourable condition and this has not changed significantly since publication of the 25 Year Environment Plan target to reach 75 per cent in favourable condition; further notes that the United Kingdom committed in December 2022 to a new Global Biodiversity Framework including the target to ensure that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of the overall terrestrial and marine areas are effectively conserved and managed and to report periodically on that target; and therefore calls on His Majesty’s Government to bring forward a new target which addresses the condition of terrestrial protected areas in England”.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust and president and vice-president of a range of conservation organisations as listed in the register. When I tabled this regret amendment, I did not realise I would be scheduled in the death slot at the end of the day, and I apologise to the Minister for keeping him up.
I thank the Minister for laying out these regulations. I feel a sense of déjà vu with some of them because the history of creating targets for biodiversity is a rather chequered one. I hope the House will forgive me if I dwell on some of the history. When I first came into the environment movement 30 years ago, I was told very firmly that to save biodiversity we had to pay attention to three things: first, the abundance of individual species and the extent of their distribution; secondly, habitat creation in the wider countryside; and thirdly, very definitely, a network of protected special sites and the condition of those sites. We have got some way in these targets towards the first two, and I will comment briefly on them, but I am afraid we have nothing on the third. The targets put forward by the Government fail to tackle all these three issues, and they need to be put together.
The targets were roundly booed by between 92% and 99% of all the respondents to the consultation, when they were asked whether they would be a good measure of biodiversity changes and on the grounds that they lacked ambition. The UK, as the Minister has already said, is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. We are at the bottom of the league table among G7 countries, as measured by the Biodiversity Intactness Index. We have a bit of a car crash on our hands and a big turnaround needs to be delivered, and we need effective targets to drive progress.
The first requirement I had dinned into me 30 years ago was about species, but the species extinction risk target to reduce the risk by 2042 compared with 2022 is a bit limp. It has been said, although the Government have denied it, that this could be met by simply improving the status of one species from critically endangered to endangered, which does not sound like 20 years’ worth of achievement to me; perhaps the Minister could say whether it does to him. Can he reassure the House that there is a commitment to a statistically significant or even a major reduction in extinction risk, not just any reduction however minor, which the current wording might encourage people to believe? Some 13% of species in England are threatened by extinction, and many of the rest are in serious decline. They are on the brink and must be brought back from it urgently. The importance of toughening up this target has been thrown into sharp focus by the recently agreed COP 15 global goals that agree that, by 2050, extinction rates and risk of all species will be reduced tenfold. That sounds more like it in my book. We signed up to this COP 15 agreement—indeed, we did a lot to lead it—only a month ago. The ink is barely dry on the agreement, yet the Government are putting forward an England target for 2042 that would not enable us to be on track to meet that global agreement for 2050. We are going to look very foolish to other countries, especially the ones we cajoled to sign up. Can the Minister say how he is going to resolve this, and make sure our international reputation is not in tatters?
On the second point—increased habitats in the wider countryside—the target proposed by the Government is for the restoration or creation of in excess of 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat by 2042, as the Minister said. However, that is a lot less than the target of three-quarters of a million hectares that was supported by a large majority of experts and the public during the consultation period. It is also not a very good metric. A better one, which would cover quantity, quality and connectivity of habitats, is under development by Defra following the 25-year environment plan, but it is more than five years since the plan was published. Can the Minister promise that this more satisfactory indicator that is still under development will be finalised very shortly, not in 2024 as is promised? Will he commit to using the metric to set a better binding target for habitats as soon as it is available?
The biggest flaw in the biodiversity targets that we are considering tonight is the complete absence of the third thing I was told was important 30 years ago. There is no target at all for the condition of terrestrial protected sites—sites of special scientific interest. SSSIs, as has been said many times before, are the jewels in the crown of our wildlife resources. They are designated for the importance of the species they support. They are the bedrock of our biodiversity conservation and will be vital for reversing declines in the abundance or even the survival of many species. Overreliance on the abundance target underplays the value of habitat restoration, the primary place for which, at first, is in the protected sites.
Over the past 30 years, mostly as a result of the EU birds and habitats directive, we have not seen SSSIs completely trashed to a great extent any more; it has become comparatively uncommon and is mostly done by government-financed infrastructure schemes—but we will put that aside for the moment. But many SSSIs are in pretty poor condition, impacted by a lack of management, inappropriate land use and modern agriculture. The percentage of SSSIs in favourable condition has remained steadfastly below 40% for many years.
For a brief period in the 1990s and early 2000s—when, by sheer chance, I happened to be chairman of English Nature, the predecessor of Natural England—there was a glimmer of progress, which was not led by me but finagled by Defra and English Nature’s great staff. In 2000, Defra’s public service agreement for SSSIs was set at 95% of them being in favourable condition by 2010—that was ambition. That was a real target. Defra and English Nature had a six-year rolling programme that was well thought through and resourced to make this happen. By 2003, 58% of SSSIs were in favourable condition, and, the following year, 62% were—real sustained improvement was possible. But, alas, as the years went past, resources were cut, the focus moved away and SSSIs declined in quality from then until now. More recently, in the 25-year environment plan, government committed to 75% of SSSIs being in favourable condition—so we are still not as good 95%, but 75% might just pass. But the improvements necessary to deliver that have not been driven, and the long-term targets that we are debating today are totally silent on the condition of protected sites.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s recent report on these statutory instruments notes that the Government failed to comment on why a target is not possible. That raises an excellent question, so I ask the Minister: why is such a target missing? The Office for Environmental Protection’s recent report on progress with the 25-year environment plan points out that its objectives are not being achieved across the board and calls for “challenging apex targets”—that is a bit jargony—for all goals in the forthcoming environmental improvement plan, which would include protected sites. I look forward to that on 31 January. So it is pretty clear that everyone thinks that the absence of a condition target, or indeed any target, for protected sites is a bad thing. In fact, you have to ask a more basic question: what is good about protecting protected sites if they are simply allowed to decline?
But, again, the implications of this omission have become worse as a result of COP 15. Only three weeks ago, we signed up to a commitment to ensure that, by 2030, at least 30% of areas of degraded terrestrial ecosystems are under effective restoration and that, by 2030, at least 30% of the land is protected and effectively managed—this is the 30x30 commitment that the Government busted a gut to support in Montreal. Back home, we are miles away from either 30% commitment, and, unless we adopt a binding target for protected sites’ condition to drive their recovery, we will look globally foolish or duplicitous, as well as letting those sites go down the drain. The slogan is, “Think global, act local”; we did the global diplomacy on this one, so now let us get the England action into focus with a target—hopefully an ambitious one. If the Minister would like, we can tell him how we made progress 20 years ago.
I hope that the Minister can commit to bringing forward as soon as possible a new target for the condition of terrestrial protected sites—our precious SSSIs. Let us not forget that the crisis of biodiversity decline is as existential as the climate change crisis. Every extinction foreshadows our own. We need to do better than this. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be taking part in this debate, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for her introduction to her amendment.
The environmental target on biodiversity is extremely important. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am member, reviewed these instruments on 17 January. The committee has commented fully on each of the targets and on the overarching legislation under which they hang. The consultation that Defra conducted from 16 March to 27 June last year received 181,000 responses, and Defra seemed surprised at the number.
As the consultation response document indicates, there was an overwhelming number of responses from campaigns, organisations and petitions. There were also 660 individual responses. Given the number of campaign responses, it is surprising that Defra gave the huge number of responses as the reason for not being able to meet the deadline of 31 October 2022 to set the environmental targets, as required by the Environment Act, especially since there was only minimal, if any, alteration to the targets after considering the consultation responses.
In terms of biodiversity, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee found that between 91% and 99% of respondents disagreed with the proposed targets, feeling they indicated a lack of ambition. Concern has been expressed as to how the red list indicator will be interpreted. A very small change in one species from “critically endangered” to “endangered” could be interpreted as meeting the target. This would clearly be nonsense. The Government said in their response to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s concern about the absence of a favourable condition target that they do not feel a more ambitious target is necessary. Can the Minister say why?
Wildlife and Countryside Link and Greener UK had three criteria for a successful biodiversity target package. First, there should be high ambition, which sadly is not the case with these targets. Secondly, it should be comprehensive, which again is not the case. Thirdly, it should include sites of special scientific interest, which are totally absent from the targets. We are lucky in England that we have a large number of SSSIs over a very wide range of habitats, from lowland peat moors to uplands, coastal waters and woodlands. Some are managed extremely effectively, but others are in a very sad state and in need of radical attention in order to increase the species they should be supporting.
The UK’s agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 framework strengthens the case for a protected sites target to:
“Ensure that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration”.
Defra’s target to
“ensure that species abundance in 2042 is greater than in 2022, and at least 10% greater than 2030”
could be met by restoring 1% of the moth, 3% of the butterfly and 5% of the bird abundance lost since 1970. This in itself would not be an accurate indicator that biodiversity is healthy or resilient.
I have confidence in the Minister and in his passion to deliver against these targets, but I regret that I have no such confidence in Defra as a whole. Defra was unable to publish the environmental targets by 31 October; these were delayed until 16 December. Defra was overwhelmed by the number of consultation responses. It is due to publish the environmental improvement plan by the end of January, which is next Tuesday. Defra has the largest number of all pieces of legislation due to be reviewed under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Further, according to the green business paper for today, Defra has 22 of the 34 questions not answered after 10 working days—with one going back to November.
I am left, therefore, with the overwhelming impression that Defra is currently underresourced. Unless something is done to rectify this, it will not get anywhere near dealing with the retained EU law items that have to be dealt with by December this year, never mind delivering its environmental targets.
Could this be the underlying cause of the unambitious environmental targets? Regardless, it is necessary to halt the decline in biodiversity now and quickly. How is public confidence to be restored in the country’s ability to delivery on the 25-year environment plan, which promised so much but so far has not lived up to the expectation that it set? Something concrete must be done—and done soon.
My Lords, my noble friend made a powerful speech setting out why the targets in this SI are inadequate. It follows on from the concerns we raised in the amendment to the Motion on water on Monday and in Grand Committee yesterday.
The fact is that these targets are not the huge strategic targets that we were expecting from the Environment Act. Instead, they have been cherry-picked to comply with the legislation, so that the box can be ticked without worrying the department unduly. As a result, we have weak and unambitious targets, which will underpin the environmental improvement plans due at the end of the month, and the department will continue to coast along without clear drive and focus.
I refer noble Lords again to the excellent report from the OEP published last week, to which my noble friend also referred, which was a stocktake of the Government’s progress on improving the environment. It raised significant concerns, making reference to persistent trends of environmental decline; adverse trends becoming difficult to arrest; and risks of environmental impacts becoming irreversible. It also made the important point that the Government have far too many targets—some voluntary, others statutory—and that it is not at all clear how these targets work together to achieve the overarching goals and objectives. I do not think that the OEP had had sight of these new targets when its report was written, but I am guessing that its concerns will not have been allayed by these statutory targets that we are now considering.
Once again, I am also grateful for the excellent work of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the submissions from Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link. They raise considerable concerns about how the targets will be measured and the consequences of unforeseen distortions of data. For example, as has been said, they question whether the use of the red list indicator fluctuations is a credible way to measure extinction risk, which should look across a wide range of species rather than one or two outliers. I ask the Minister: was authoritative scientific advice requested before this statistical model was proposed? Were the Government advised on the best way to set the baseline, so that we could be assured that real progress was being made right across the board?
On species abundance, we already have a target set in the Environment Act to halt the decline of species abundance by 2030. There was a logic in all the debates around this target that a halt in the decline of biodiversity would then be followed quickly by increases in biodiversity as the graph started to go up again. But this expectation is not reflected in the new targets before us today. Instead, we have a huge gap between 2030, when the decline will halt, and 2042, when we might see some measurable progress upwards, according to these proposals. This seems to water down the original, hard-fought deadline of 2030, as we now have to wait 14 more years for signs of progress. Then the target will be met—as we have heard—if, by an insignificant amount, the 2042 level is better than the baseline 2022 level.
Given the current rate of decline, with 41% of species in decline since 1970, this is a ridiculously unambitious target. Can the Minister provide some reassurance that 2030 will see the species decline go properly into reverse and by 2042 a significant, measurable improvement will be achieved?
Finally, my noble friend has made a compelling case for an ambitious target to improve terrestrial protected sites. We know that protected sites have a crucial role to play in delivering the Government’s stated objective of creating 30% of land for nature by 2030, but so far the rate is only 3%. The SSSIs have a particular role to play in protecting our ancient woodland, hay meadows, peat bogs, chalk streams and moorland. How have we allowed them to get in such poor condition that only 40% meet an acceptable standard?
These sites are key to driving nature’s recovery. Can the Minister explain why, after 13 years of Conservative government, the SSSIs have been left to languish in such a poor state? Can he assure us that this latest round of target setting will be more effective than those that have gone before, when we have not been able even to protect our most sensitive and highly prized sites? I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a rabid Green who thinks that these are not just limp targets; they are utterly inadequate. It strikes me that Defra is not doing its homework with scientists. It is not listening to the science; it is not keeping up.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for tabling this amendment and I have really enjoyed the speeches. I am not going to go on for very long, but I would like to mention the whole issue of zoonotic disease. I am quite concerned that at the moment we have caged animals in the UK for all sorts of reasons; they are mainly hens. Such practices can pose a serious risk to human health as well as to animal welfare and biodiversity. Unnatural crowding, poor hygiene, stress, injuries and low genetic diversity are ideal for the creation and spread of novel pathogens, as we have already seen in the past few years. I am curious as to whether the Government are working on this issue or if it is just not part of their thinking at their moment.
I also mention that international zoonotic diseases are particularly prevalent in fur farming and although we have banned such practices in the UK, we still allow imports. Are the Government considering a ban on imported furs?
My Lords, this has been a really interesting debate. I cannot help noticing the gender balance of speakers who have shown an interest in the environment this evening, so I forgive the Minister if he is slightly terrified by us all standing here tonight.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for bringing this forward tonight because it has given us the opportunity, even at this hour—and it is not late for your Lordships’ House; I was here later last night—to look at some really serious issues and see whether there is anything the Minister can do, other than answering the questions posed to him, to take this back, as the noble Baroness asked, and come back with something more ambitious that will do the job that we seek it to do. Her speech showed her experience and knowledge of the issues and that is what this House is best known for. It is where our strength lies but it is a strength only if we take notice of what is said by those who know more than us at the Dispatch Boxes.
My first reaction to this SI was one of disappointment, which I think is a similar comment to the one made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. This was an opportunity, across the suite of the SIs we are seeing, although we are discussing just one tonight, to set targets that match the scale of the challenge. The Minister was clear at the beginning about the scale of the challenge we are facing. But there was an opportunity to set targets that were ambitious but which with commitment would be achievable. The Government’s own reports outline the scale of the challenge, but it is not clear, certainly from today’s SI, that the sense of urgency and the ambition that are needed are actually there.
I want to raise three issues. A lot of the issues have already been aired and I feel that the Minister has a long list of responses to make. First—and I am glad to say this when the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, is here—I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its work. I also thank all those who provided briefings, including Wildlife and Countryside Link and Greener UK. On the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, one piece of advice I give to MPs, which was given to me when I was first an MP, is to look at the reports from this committee, because they are excellent at getting under the issues of how things could have been done better if there is an issue. Interestingly, it was one of the very few occasions when I have seen one of these reports quoted extensively in a House of Commons debate on this issue: the committee is a credit to the whole House.
I start by emphasising the points made by my noble friend Lady Young on the reasons for her amendment today. It is clearly a serious omission not to have a target for the condition of terrestrial protected sites. SSSIs are recognised by Defra as important to the future programme of protection. Its own report says:
“To halt nature’s decline by 2030 we know we will need to take action to restore our protected sites, which are vital wildlife havens.”
These areas are pretty much the foundations of site-based conservation: there are 4,000 sites in England over 4,000 square miles, yet where are we and what are we doing about it? The 25-year environment plan committed, as my noble friend Lady Young said, to ensuring that 75% of SSSIs were in favourable condition. That has not been met. Not only has it not been met, the figure, as has been made clear in the debates, is stuck at around 40%.
This SI was a prime opportunity for the Government. It is a missed goal. It was an opportunity to show that we care about this, we want to do something about it and we are going to be ambitious. I do not understand why there is no target in here. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, will enlighten us this evening as to why there is no target, because that is the crux of why we are here this evening. My noble friend Lady Young has provided an opportunity for the Government to explain why, or to withdraw and come back with other targets, so we can understand and make some progress. I think the best thing to do, as she says, would be to take it back to the department to act on this.
My second point is about the 2030 species abundance target, regulation 12 in this SI. It outlines how the Government are going to measure whether the decline in biodiversity has been halved by 2030. We have heard already that it will be determined by comparing the relative species abundance index for 2029—anybody watching tonight is probably dozing off at that snappy expression—and 2030. The target to be met is for the 2030 figure to be
“the same as, or higher than,”
the 2029 figure. That seems to me pretty unambitious. It is a low bar to be comparing two consecutive years, rather than using an earlier baseline.
We know that biodiversity is steadily falling, year on year. It has been noted in the Commons already—by the Minister, incidentally—that the index has declined by around 2% a year, yet the Government think it is an ambitious target to ask if it has stayed the same. I have to say, that is really not good enough. It would be helpful to know whether Defra has an estimate of the likely index in 2029 and how that compares to where we were when Ministers made the commitment in 2021.
On a more general point about targets in the regulations, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, touched on the issue of consultation. We have heard from several speakers tonight that about 90% of those consulted thought the targets were not ambitious enough.
When I look up a definition of “consultation”, it normally means you listen, you take on board what has been said and you do something to respond to it. Are the Government just going to plough ahead, regardless of what is in the consultation? It is probably wasting public money having consultations in the first place. I remember as a Minister, the first question I would ask when we were consulted was, “Are we going to change our minds on anything?” If I was told, “Well, the policy is settled, Minister”, then why are you going to have that consultation? The Government need to take that back and think about the terms they use and if they are serious.
I have just a couple of further points. During the considerations we had here on the Environment Bill, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Hayman, will remember well, the House opted not to press amendments—at that time, they were on issues such as the condition of peat bogs and chalk streams—on the basis that they would be dealt with in future targets. Those amendments were not pressed because we had assurances from the Minister. Is he able to confirm tonight—or he may want to write to us on this point—that because we were persuaded and trusted in Ministers’ commitments at the time that these issues would be dealt with in later future targets, all those areas, in which we did not vote on our amendments, will be explicitly addressed when the Government publish their first review, as he has mentioned, by the end of the month.
On the interim targets, does the Minister think that they are sufficiently ambitious? More importantly, if they show either that they are being met very easily, or they are not being met, is there some flexibility to adjust them at that point? That seems to be the ideal time to increase the ambition and address the points that my noble friend Lady Young made.
It is disappointing. The noble Lord will have heard that there is good will on this side to make this work. It is a serious issue; we recognise the problems, as the Government do, but it comes down to the political will and commitment to do something about it.
I hope the Government will take note of my final point. It is a comment by the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection, Dame Glenys Stacey, who said:
“Our assessment shows that the current pace and scale of action will not deliver the changes necessary to significantly improve the environment in England”.
I think that indicates that the regulatory foresight is not good enough. If the Government can go some way to addressing the questions that have been raised tonight, it might help provide some reassurance, but ultimately this is not good enough and it has to be better.
I thank all noble Baronesses for their valuable contributions tonight. This is a very important subject, regardless of the time or the fact that this is an SI as opposed to a piece of legislation. The environment and environmental targets are one of the reasons why I joined this place, so this is a subject that is very important to me. As a Government, we put the requirement to set targets into the Environment Act in 2021, but at the same time it is important that they are deliverable and realistic, while also raising our ambition to tackle the issues faced by the natural world. I absolutely agree that it is the job of this House to question those targets and that ambition, and it is our job to set out how they will be met.
The targets were developed to be complementary. They will ensure that action is being taken to improve wider ecosystems in England. Meeting them will require improvements across our protected sites network in line with the 25-year environment plan goal to restore 75% of 1 million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites by 2042.
As well as action across central government, we will need to work with local authorities, businesses, land managers and environmental NGOs to ensure that we do not just halt biodiversity decline but actually turn it around and restore nature.
As I said to preface this, it is important that we set targets and that noble Lords challenge them, but we also need to see wider societal and cultural change. It needs to become unacceptable for people to throw litter out of car windows or leave rubbish on the beach. Meeting this challenge will take everyone changing their mindset and behaviour. I will try to answer the questions put tonight. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not cover them all; I will endeavour to write to noble Lords so I ask them to pick me up on that.
We believe these targets represent one of the most robust environmental programmes in any country. The final suite of targets is stretching, and to deliver them we will require shared endeavour across all of government and society. We considered the evidence carefully. In some cases, it is not technically or practically possible to go further at this time; in others, higher targets would involve significant restrictions on and costs for businesses and people’s lives which we do not think would be right to impose at this time—but that is not to say that they are not constantly under review.
The Environment Act requires the Government to report regularly on the process. As new technologies and methodologies evolve, we will be able to show more ambition and increase the targets. The Government have committed to halting and reversing decline, and the UK has been leading international efforts in developing an ambitious and transformative framework under the global targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We have addressed concerns with the previous phrasing to ensure that we leave the environment in a better state than it is in now.
We have also considered calls to increase our ambition further, but we do not believe that those calls to increase the targets have been met by the evidence base we have seen. Modelling for species abundance targets was developed alongside external partners, with guidance from Defra and Natural England. These targets are already challenging, so it is important that we set them at an achievable level.
On measuring the targets and comparing the 2042 target with the 2022 target, the index value is linked to a smooth value which takes into account fluctuations in data from year to year, making underlying trends easier to detect. The calculation of the index values in the smoothing process is peer-reviewed and well established. The methodology applied to this indicator follows that used in the England biodiversity indicators, so we are confident that using this will enable us to report on the target. The 2042 target will be assessed based on an increase in the smooth index value.
We believe that the suite of targets we are proposing is appropriate at this time, but the Act allows additional long-term targets to be set in future. There were quite a few concerns over whether this is it. It is not: we will monitor and continue to improve and push the targets, but we have to establish that baseline. The natural environment is complex, so we see target setting as an iterative process, built on over time, as our evidence base and understanding develop. We want to use the targets meaningfully to drive the environmental outcomes that we need to see.
I was asked why we have focused on abundance rather than other species indicators, such as distribution. We believe that species abundance is a good proxy for the health of the wider ecosystem. The indicator that we will use to track progress includes over 1,000 representative species, for which we have robust data. Between them, these species depend on the majority of habitats found in England. Action to achieve the species abundance target will necessarily require the creation and restoration of wider habitats and ecosystems. Indicators of abundance, in comparison with others such as distribution, are the most sensitive to change. This sensitivity will be useful in demonstrating whether policy action is leading to improvements.
I turn now to the 2022 red list index for England and assessing how that will change towards 2042. The index used the best available evidence at the time of the laying of this SI to set out a baseline for 2042. For the purposes of legal certainty, the SI needs to refer to a fixed baseline and not a baseline index value which will be calculated in the future. To ensure that we are measuring the target as accurately as possible, we will consider new data and information as appropriate, in conjunction with the relevant independent experts.
On the subject of ensuring that environmental regulations are protected, I can say that, in reviewing retained EU law, Defra’s aim is to ensure that environmental law is fit for purpose and able to drive improved environmental outcomes, while ensuring that regulators can deliver efficiently. This will ensure that the UK regulatory framework is appropriate and tailored to the UK. The Government have clear environmental and climate goals, demonstrated by the 25-year environment plan and the net-zero strategy, and any changes to environmental regulation will need to support those goals.
Several Peers mentioned the missing of targets, including laying the instrument by 31 October, and it is important to address that. As was mentioned, in March 2022, the Government launched their consultation on targets relating to the Environment Act 2021. It included 800 pages of evidence that were published following three years of developing the scientific and economic evidence. The consultation closed on 27 June. We received over 180,000 responses which needed to be analysed and carefully considered. In light of the volume of material and the significant public response, we indicated that we would not be able to publish targets by 31 October. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reassured the House and all interested parties that we would continue to work at pace to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable.
I turn now to the criticism from the OEP. The Government are looking at alternative systems of land use; I was very proud to serve alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, on the Lords Select Committee on land use. I would like to think that I heard a lot of the arguments over land sharing and land sparing. Land is a finite resource and we are asking it to do more—to provide more in terms of food, but also restore nature and energy. We are constantly looking at that, and it is very encouraging that Defra has made positive sounds about a land-use framework to balance all the competing asks on land. Our new environmental land management schemes will encourage farmers to maximise the use of highly productive agricultural land, while freeing up less productive land for things like planting trees and creating wildlife habitat.
In addition, the introductions of technological innovations, such as vertical farming, through our £270 million farming innovation programme, will allow us to free up space for nature while maintaining agricultural output. We will publish more details of this in our land-use framework later in 2023.
Several Peers raised the issue of sites of special scientific interest—SSSIs. We feel that what we are introducing through these species abundance targets will help to nurture SSSIs. We know that to halt nature decline by 2030 we need to take action to restore these protected sites, which are valuable wildlife havens. We are committed to delivering our 25-year environment plan and for our 1 million hectares of terrestrial and fresh water protected sites to be in a favourable condition by 2042. Natural England is increasing proactive work on SSSIs and has developed a much-improved monitoring system to gain a better understanding of the action required. Natural England is using this information at local and national levels, working closely with landowners and managers to put in place the changes, on and off site, that are required to improve site condition.
We have listened to the consultation views and have actively sought to include previously underrepresented species within the target indicators where there is available data of sufficient quality. Since the publication of the consultation, we have increased the representativeness of our indicator to 124 additional species, including previously unrepresented groups such as freshwater and estuarine fish. This will also be kept under constant review.
I turn to the convention on biological diversity and the COP 16 CBD targets. Our targets to halt the decline in species are consistent with the global goal of increasing the abundance of native wild species to healthy and resilient levels by 2050. Our habitats target will be a key component of our domestic implementation of the CBD framework with respect to ecosystem restoration. This is in addition to our commitment to deliver on our 25-year environment plan favourable condition by 2042 and a commitment to 30 by 30 on land. Our ambitious species extinction risk target specifically addresses the risk of loss of species in England and, as such, contributes to the CBD target of halting human-induced extinction of known globally threatened species—those species in England that are globally threatened.
On meeting domestic commitments under the coming Montreal global biodiversity framework, the delivery of domestic commitments is legally binding. The 2030 species targets and our 30 by 30 commitment will be supported by significant investment from public and private sources that recognises the scale of the challenge. This includes over £750 million for woodland and peatland restoration through the Nature for Climate fund, and current and future agri-environment schemes. The Government have also set a new target to mobilise at least £500 million in private finance to support nature’s recovery every year by 2027 in England, rising to more than £1 billion by 2030.
I recognise that I have not answered everyone’s questions, but I am being told that I am testing the patience of the House, so I will endeavour to write to noble Lords and put letters in the Library. I hope that I have given at least an overview of the suite of targets.
My Lords, where do you start, where do you start? I thank the Minister for his response and thank other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. There was an interesting point from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who is no longer in her place, that she worries that Defra is struggling with volume. We are all worried that Defra is struggling with the volume of things coming at it. We are struggling with the volume of things coming at us, and it must be 10 times worse for the department.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, made a very valid point about the expertise of this House. There is an issue in that Defra does not capitalise on expertise. There is quite a lot of inventing stuff from the start when, in fact, there are a whole load of old fogies like us out there—including former Defra civil servants, ex-NGO folk and business folk—who have gone through many of these issues umpteen times before and could have valuable input into Defra’s considerations. That has been particularly so with the ELM scheme. I do not know how many million times I have sat down and helped develop new land-management schemes under agricultural subsidy, and I am just one small cog in a big set of wheels that could be at Defra’s disposal; that is a bit off the point but is nevertheless important.
I want to pick up one or two things that the Minister said. At the heart of my concern about there being no target for protected sites is a worry about the point he made that halting species decline will need site improvement. My view is that, if there must be a focus on improving the condition of protected sites to halt species decline, why not have a number on it while we are at it and measure site improvement? First, you will be looking at sites anyway; and, secondly, not all protected sites will be picked up by the array of species in the “species abundant” set. A number of SSSIs are designated for weird and wonderful small organisms that are nevertheless incredibly important and threatened but simply will not be picked up by the array that is there. I remember fighting nobly for the SPA in the Bristol Channel, which is designated for some teeny little worm that lives in mobile sandbanks. Try telling that to the folks who were trying to build the Severn barrage—but it was important, and we won.
I am happy about the idea that optimising land use will produce a bigger range and extent of habitats, but I do not think that really helps with the protected sites. For me, the important thing about protected sites is that they are specifically designated for a set of species and there is a specific set of management conditions that can produce improvement. We have to focus on that. I was a bit gobsmacked, if that is the technical term in your Lordships’ House, that the Minister seemed to say that some things that need to happen cannot happen because they would mean restrictions on and costs for people’s businesses and lives. That is the whole point of protected sites. They are protected regardless because they are that important. They are only a small proportion of the land surface but they are protected so that they are above the rest of the land that can be managed for multiple uses. Biodiversity must be the primary purpose.
We have legally binding targets, which are what we wanted in the Environment Act. Now that they have emerged, we are not that thrilled with them. I worry a bit. Yesterday, we spoke in the Moses Room about the woodland target because the tree cover target has been reduced to make it more achievable. The idea that, if we cannot achieve something, we should pull it down and make it more achievable worries me stiff. I also worry that we may have a tiger by the tail in that inventing the Office for Environmental Protection has meant that there is now a huge focus on anything that is statutorily required by the office’s processes. I worry that this will distort priorities and that the total focus is on avoiding the OEP taking cases against Defra; that would be a real shame at the very beginning of this new regulator.
I recognise the Minister’s personal commitment. However, I just want to say that in 2042 I shall be 94, but I will be around to remind people of how well we have done on these targets. What is more, I shall be around every year from now until then to remind people of what needs to happen. I hope that I will be encouraged by the environmental improvement plan next week and that we will see some of the informal, non-statutory targets covering protected sites. If we do not, I shall be cast down, because the statutory targets do not. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
House adjourned at 9.55 pm.