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World Species Congress

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the World Species Congress.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance as ever, Sir Charles, and I thank you for letting me proceed with the debate on the World Species Congress and the importance of the Reverse the Red movement. The aim of the debate is simple and straightforward: to recognise the urgent species recovery and conservation work that is needed to build a future where nature can thrive. Tomorrow on 15 May the World Species Congress, hosted by the Reverse the Red movement, is being held, and this debate is part of a network of satellite events hosted around the world to shine a light on species recovery. The events will offer a forum for collaboration and a road map for success to all who strive to create a healthier planet, with the ultimate goal of reducing species decline and restoring wildlife.

As chair of the zoos and aquariums all-party parliamentary group, I am particularly pleased that the country’s most visited zoo and, indeed, one of the most visited attractions in the country—Chester zoo—is spearheading World Species Congress activity in the UK. With initiatives ranging from a science webinar on saving species to a livestreamed lesson for schools and presentations to the World Species Congress programme, I thank Chester zoo for its national leadership.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. From a remaining total population of just six plants, Chester zoo and partners have worked to rescue the critically endangered Cotoneaster cambricus, which is only found in north Wales. Thirty individual plants have now been returned to our cliff sides. As a result, the long-term survival of this north Walian plant species is now looking promising. Will the hon. Lady join me in congratulating all involved?

I absolutely will, and I intend to go through some other examples in our nations that we should also be celebrating.

We stand at a pivotal moment in history. We face a global biodiversity crisis where the fate of over 1 million species hangs in the balance due to human disruption and the destruction of habitats. There is simply no more time on the clock. The UK is one of the worst countries in the world for nature loss, with just 3% of our land and 8% of our seas sufficiently protected in nature terms. The 2023 “State of Nature” report makes worrying reading. It states that in the UK native species have on average declined by 19% since 1970 and that nearly one in six species are now threatened with extinction.

I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the debate; she is absolutely right to do so. Does she not agree that the protection of the species we have is vital and that we as a nation and, indeed, our Government have a greater role to play in the protection of native species in the UK, as well as more widely? We in this United Kingdom can play our part globally as well, which is highlighted by the World Species Congress.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We cannot see any of those declines in isolation, because more than half of plant species have declined. Among the world’s worst-hit groups are pollinators such as bees and butterflies, falling by 18% on average. I am ashamed to say that this has left the UK with the lowest level of biodiversity among G7 countries.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the example that the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the zoos are setting has not been copied by the country’s largest landowner, the National Trust? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has been complaining about this issue ever since I was elected 23 years ago, yet it is still failing on its reserves. Is it not time that we asked the people who complain about this to try a lot harder to achieve what they want the Government to do?

The hon. Gentleman is the expert on that, so I accept his argument. I say again that it is only if we all work together with no exceptions that we can make the difference. Of course, the largest landowners need to be pulling their weight, if not leading by example.

It is a relief that, in 2022, the UK joined 195 nations and committed to the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework. That framework includes a commitment, by 2030, to have threatened species recovering, genetic diversity being maintained, and human-wildlife conflict being managed. Despite those commitments, we are well behind in our efforts to reverse the harrowing decline of biodiversity. One thing is clear: we must do more to meet our international commitments, and that work must begin immediately.

First, I call on the Government to set more ambitious nature restoration and species recovering targets. The aim should be to provide the long-term certainty needed to drive action and investment in environmental restoration.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I do not disagree with her call for the targets to be more ambitious, but does she share my concerns that the Government are not on track for a single one of those targets that they did set? Before they start getting more ambitious, they need to show us that they have some kind of plan to actually achieve the targets they have set out so far.

Sadly, I agree. We want leadership, which I—and from what it sounds like, those on the Labour Front Bench—feel is lacking at the moment. As my hon. Friend rightly says, these targets should not just be our end goal; they are signposts that we can follow to get to the peak of ecological restoration and healthier habitats, which I think all of us want.

Of course, climate change is a key driver in nature’s decline, and the loss of wildlife and wild places both contribute to climate change itself, leaving us ill-equipped to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to change in the future. We must therefore recognise that climate and biodiversity crises are intrinsically linked, and take comprehensive and joined-up approaches that tackle both the climate emergency and the nature crisis together. Only then will we start to turn the tide. We are falling behind, but there is hope. Organisations and charities across the country are working hard to recover species and restore nature. I am particularly pleased with the massive contribution that these organisations are making to reintroduce native species, rejuvenate ecosystems and rekindle hope for the future.

There are several exciting examples from across the UK, and I thank my colleagues, the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for raising two of them. Let me give some more. Take, for example, the Scottish wildcat in the Cairngorms national park. The population of these highland tigers has plummeted as a result of human-wildlife conflict and significant losses of native woodland, to the extent that they are now functionally extinct—that is to say, there is no longer a viable wild population for the future. Now, however, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have worked to breed and reintroduce this iconic species, the last surviving native cat in Britain, to the beautiful Scottish landscape.

In Wales, there has been impressive work to reintroduce the native pine marten by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, assisted by Chester zoo, helping to pull this species back from the brink. European pine marten populations have declined dramatically, and by the 20th century, they had mostly disappeared from their once-intensive habitats in the UK. I am pleased to say that not only have the pine martens been reintroduced to Wales, but they have also been successful in breeding a viable population that can create a new stronghold for the species and ensure its survival.

In Northern Ireland, Belfast zoo is working with partners to secure the long-term future of the increasingly rare red squirrel, which is threatened by the invasive grey squirrel. This breeding and reintroduction scheme has taken place for many years now, and is proving effective.

Near where I live, Rosemount, Ballywalter and Mount Stuart all have a red squirrel programme, so there are others outside the zoo doing that. On bees and pollinating, just again for the hon. Lady and for Hansard, the black bee used to be a very scarce and almost extinct species of bee in Northern Ireland, but is coming back through the efforts of Chris and Valentine Hodges, who live just down the road from me. They have black bee projects across a lot of estates, and even on my own farm. There is a lot being done not just by the zoos, but by individual people as well.

It also seems appropriate to mention the farmers who, without those pollinators, are really suffering. I am pleased that today the National Farmers Union is at the Farm to Fork summit, and I hope the Government listen to it.

Finally, in England the Wildwood Trust has worked to reintroduce bison into Blean woods near Canterbury. Remarkably, those are the first bison to roam freely in the UK in thousands of years. They will help to reshape the landscape to make the area more resilient to climate change, and reverse species decline through the natural management of woodlands. Paignton zoo and the National Marine Aquarium have collectively restored acres of seagrass to our coastline, creating vital carbon sinks as well as homes for species such as seahorses.

This is not just in the UK. The UK’s overseas territories have 94% of our unique native wild species, and 11% of those are threatened with global extinction. Zoos are also working to recover species. In Dominica and Monserrat, for example, a consortium of zoos, including Chester zoo and the Zoological Society of London, is helping bring back the mountain chicken frog, one of the world’s largest frogs, often weighing up to a kilo. They are called that because they taste like chicken, which has been one of the problems. The frog has been almost wiped out by over-hunting and disease.

Despite the commendable efforts of these conservation powerhouses, the stark reality remains. The rate of species loss is accelerating at an alarming pace, but things are looking up for the mountain chicken frog and the population is back on—not on the menu but on the climb. Those shocking statistics serve as a sobering reminder of the magnitude of the crisis we face. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, species are disappearing at a rate a thousand times faster than the natural background rate. We may be witnessing the sixth mass extinction event in the Earth’s history. Despite that, it appears the Government do not have a realistic plan to recover species in the UK. Indeed, under the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs described species reintroduction as “not a priority” for the Government.

Although species reintroduction is just one part of the road we must take to protect the intricate web of life that sustains our planet, it is an important one, because conserving our remaining wildlife is not enough. We must also take action to support nature’s recovery, and I urge the Government to act accordingly. I hope that any future Labour Government would certainly work hard to ensure that the UK meets its 2030 targets.

Sir Charles, you may be aware that as part of the COP15 agreement, every country is now obliged to revise its plan, formerly called the national biodiversity strategy and action plan, to bring it in line with a new global framework. Conservation organisations up and down the country, including zoos and aquariums, are patiently waiting for the UK’s publication. There is real concern, however, that it will not include nearly enough ambition and urgency.

Will the Minister confirm that the UK’s plan will outdo expectations, and will not just be a rehash of old promises? Will it contain new plans to fill the gaps? Will the Minister also announce when it will be published? The publication of the NBSAP could be the perfect opportunity for the UK genuinely to show its global leadership credentials, with the whole of the UK working together to produce an ambitious and co-ordinated plan for nature. To do that the UK’s vibrant conservation sector of non-governmental organisations, which includes zoos and aquariums, must be fully engaged in formulating and executing this plan.

Will the Minister agree to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity to ensure that we really put nature on the road to recovery by 2030? The World Species Congress acts as a spotlight on the work needed to ensure that nature can thrive. I have already mentioned some of the successes that we are seeing in the UK. They are proof that it is possible, but we need a national effort. Nature cannot wait. Only immediate and decisive action will put us on the right path to restoring nature across our United Kingdom and further afield. We need help to accelerate species recovery and reverse the red, so I urge the Government to prioritise this existential issue.

I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), especially as I was the first chair of the zoos and aquariums all-party parliamentary group when I got here 19 years ago, but enough of that.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and I agree with much of what she said. This issue unites us across the House. The two co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on global deforestation—the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and I—are sitting on either side of the Chamber. We disagree on a huge amount, but on this issue we are absolutely on the same page.

I gently challenge the hon. Member for Rotherham, because I think she has been a bit hard on the Government, who have done more than their predecessors of either persuasion to address the issue. In my view, that is a good start, but there is a long way to go. She touched on a whole range of issues and organisations. I share her congratulations on the work done by people at Chester zoo; I have been to talk to them about their work on elephants in India. She talked about the UK, but the zoo has a global footprint and an enormously important role.

On the NGO sector, I sit on the board of the African Wildlife Foundation, which is an NGO based in Nairobi that does excellent work in protected areas across Africa. The voluntary sector is also enormously important in all its different guises. Some fantastic work is being done around the world that is genuinely making a difference. Recent academic research shows that the tide is beginning to turn. There is a long way to go and there are still some very big problems—with deforestation, for example—but there is a global understanding now that we cannot go on like this. A huge amount of effort from individuals, corporates, Governments and NGOs is beginning to turn the tide. That turning of the tide just has to accelerate, and the good work that the hon. Member for Rotherham described is an important part of that.

I have a couple of nudges for the Government, but I will also mention some things that are being done well. The new support structure for farming in the countryside needs some tweaks and changes—it is not a perfect system yet—but the principle of supporting farmers to protect nature is absolutely right. Equally, the introduction of biodiversity net gain can be only transformational in the UK. The requirements for building companies to ensure that their impact on nature is counterbalanced by improvements to habitats elsewhere are absolutely right, and some of the most important things that this Government have introduced.

The Government have taken important steps on marine protected areas, which I have been pushing for, because they are about species not just on the land, but in our seas, where there are some serious issues. There is still more to do and I encourage the Minister to get on with finishing the task, but it is an important step that we have started to ban bottom trawling in marine protected areas, which will make a significant difference.

I am outraged, to be frank, that various European Union nations are now trying to stop us putting in place protections for the sand eels on Dogger Bank that provide essential food for puffins and other species. We cannot have it both ways: we cannot all say that we want to protect nature globally but then, when one country takes a step to protect nature as the UK is doing, impose the full force of international law and threaten to tear up or revisit international agreements. That cannot be the right thing to do. I very much hope that the European Union will back off, because the protections are right for nature.

I will nudge the Minister on deforestation and the secondary legislation needed to extend the good work done in the Environment Act 2021 to tackle the issue of illegal deforestation and forest risk products coming to the UK. I know that that work has not been straightforward and there have been various governance issues, but the reality is that it needs to get done before the election.

The right hon. Member, alongside myself, does a great job of co-chairing the APPG on global deforestation, and he is absolutely right about the legislation. Does he agree that the Government also need to be mindful of the issue when undertaking trade deal negotiations? We need the legislation, but we also need the Department for Business and Trade to have sight of the issue as well.

I absolutely agree, and indeed I am on record as saying—before the Brazilian election—that I would not countenance supporting a trade deal with Brazil until the deforestation in the Amazon had been addressed. There is significant progress there now, although there are still issues in Peru. However we manage this issue internationally, and whatever we do in terms of financial support for the developing world, we cannot go on chopping down forests around the world—we have to stop. It is hugely damaging to ecosystems and we cannot afford to carry on.

I ask the Minister: can we see the secondary legislation for forest risk products? There will then be two debates to be had: one around whether we should extend the legislation to legal deforestation in the way that the European Union has done, and another around the principle of due diligence, which should also apply to the financial services sector. I do not think that that will happen before the election, but I say to Members on both Front Benches that it needs to be done after the election, as has been recommended by senior business figures.

My recent ten-minute rule Bill on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing would extend the principles in the Environment Act for forest risk products to fisheries around the world. Too much fish is coming into the UK and the European Union from totally unsustainable fisheries and from illegal fishing around the world. Huge fleets of vessels, many from China, are sailing around the world and hoovering up the oceans, without any reference at all to sustainability or the endangered nature of the species concerned. We must talk about species on a world basis: we could all come together and deal with the issue by applying tough international rules about trade in IUU fish, by clamping down on licensing and monitoring, and by preventing IUU fishing from happening. I ask the Minister and, indeed, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), to put that issue more firmly on their agenda. It needs to happen.

The Government have done a lot, which is definitely a tick in the box compared with many previous Governments, but nobody should be under any illusions about the extent of the work that remains. Fantastic work is being done by NGOs and, increasingly, by individuals and private foundations, as well as by more and more Governments. However, to reverse what has happened both here and in other parts of the world, as well as to protect what we still have, a huge amount still needs to be done.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate and for all the amazing work she does in the zoological sector around species loss. Given the upcoming World Species Congress, this debate is important and timely.

Many hon. Members will know that I care deeply about conservation, and I have raised it countless times in Parliament, including when I was on the Front Bench. I thank Reverse the Red and the long-standing organisers who work with Wildlife and Countryside Link, BIAZA and, of course, Chester zoo, which I worked with when I served as a shadow Minister, as well as when I have been on APPGs throughout my time in Parliament. They have continued to educate me on the issues of nature and species loss.

There has been a real-terms decrease of 42% in public funding for UK biodiversity since its peak in 2008-09. We do not want to make this an overtly partisan debate, but that does reflect the priorities of our respective parties. It was Lord Goldsmith, when he was a DEFRA Minister, who said that the UK is the most nature-depleted country in the world. I will not go on about the facts and figures, which we all know, but this debate is an opportunity to ensure that the UK adopts a robust, ambitious and integrated national biodiversity strategy and action plan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham alluded to the rumours that the UK’s national biodiversity strategy and action plan for England will simply be a reworking of the environmental improvement plan. That is disappointing and, frankly, dangerous. It will be another failure of ambition by the Government, bypassing the creation of any meaningful legislative or financial measures. The Office for Environmental Protection has said that the EIP is no more than a wish list and does not provide any on-the-ground species recovery targets, so I hope the Minister will clarify her plans. The World Species Congress is an opportunity to shed light on the granular aspects of the commitments we make to support and protect species.

Fundamentally, meeting our environmental targets requires an integrated and collaborative approach across sectors and the UK’s four nations. Each country’s strategy must interlock to form a whole, and they must work with local nature recovery plans, some of which have been developed and some of which are in development, to begin to have a real impact on nature.

The UK’s NBSAP needs to treat devolved nature policy as a component part, and outline new structures of governance. That would ensure ongoing collaboration among policymakers, politicians and environmental organisations, and delivery across sectors. There is no strategy indicating how the new biodiversity policies will work together, so their implementation could be piecemeal, conflicting and small scale as a result. Nature is not adequately factored into Government decision making. The Government should set out how environmental and planning policies will link together to form a coherent whole.

The 2011-20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed by COP10 failed—the UK failed to meet at least 14 of the 19 targets —partly because there was no effective monitoring framework to keep the parties on track; in other words, they were marking their own homework. The 2022 United Nations biodiversity conference of the parties to the UN convention on biological diversity, which I attended, agreed four goals and 23 targets. Currently, each country develops its own approach to measuring and monitoring biodiversity.

To begin to meet those targets, we will need the UK’s NBSAP to implement indicators and allow a regular assessment of progress. That will mean that we can adjust plans and policies in real time when required. There is no requirement in the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework to monitor or assess the progress being made, or not, towards biodiversity and nature goals, so effectively the parties are still marking their own homework.

There needs to be a formal mechanism to assess performance against goals and planned action. In the UK, we have one of the world-leading indexes—the Natural History Museum’s biodiversity intactness index —although it is not the only one. We need to adopt an existing index or get the parties to agree to one that does not currently exist. I would rather that we do the former. By doing that, the UK would demonstrate global leadership on species recovery.

We know that there is overwhelming support among the UK public for the restoration of nature. Improving our ecosystem’s health and supporting an abundant natural environment creates healthier communities. The future of wildlife is inextricably linked to our own future as a species.

Plans for nature recovery and nature gain touch on all aspects of our economy. Delivering wide-scale habitat restoration is reliant on the UK creating green jobs. The NBSAP is an opportunity to integrate nature and people by setting out exactly how funds will be directed towards biodiversity skills shortages. There is a skills gap in ecology. No matter how many well-intentioned speeches we hear about the need to create green jobs, there are no proper financial measures to address that. The devolved Administrations and local authorities will simply not be able to prevent further losses and reach our 2030 goals.

If we create a national nature service, people all over the UK will be able to gain hands-on experience and qualifications in green skills. That relates to my earlier point about the need for a cross-sector approach. A national nature service would not only support the economy but deliver biodiversity restoration. The UK is currently behind several major economies globally on that front.

The UK’s national biodiversity strategy and action plan needs to be effective; it must not be a heartfelt but ultimately empty gesture towards nature recovery. Given the UK’s status as the most nature-depleted nation, that could be a real opportunity for us to deliver action and leadership at the CBD.

Leptodactylus fallax, the mountain chicken frog, is dying not because it is being consumed, but because it gets a very nasty fungus called chytridiomycosis, and zoos are able to protect those frogs because they can take them away from their very small habitats. Nearly all species decline is due to human encroachment, so protecting the habitat has to be the first step in protecting those species.

I was fuming this morning when I read that the Woodland Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts have been complaining about species loss. These people own half a million hectares of land between them and have an income of £871 million, so there is no excuse for their getting cross with everybody else when they have so much ability to protect habitats themselves.

What we have seen over the 23 years that I mentioned in my intervention—it was very good of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) to take it and she should be congratulated on securing the debate—is a decimation of the variety of pesticides used, which is welcome. However, the hop growers complain to me that the European Union allows far more pesticides than we do. We see the Government taking steps in the right direction and yet we have more—I must not get this word wrong—corvids; after a covid crisis, it is very easy to get in a jumble. Corvids are magpies, crows, jays and all the types of bird that prey on our species.

We have seen decimation of the curlew population. There has not been a curlew fledge for 11 years on RSPB reserves. Yet on grouse moors, where predators are controlled, we have seen huge results. Ninety-seven per cent. of curlew nest failures were the result of predation by mink, foxes, gulls and crows, but red-listed, ground-nesting birds have a 71% success rate in areas with predator control.

The zoos show that if we manage species, we can bring them back from the brink. The gamekeepers and the areas protected for shooting grouse are more successful at protecting rare breeds. It is not okay to go back to the old mantra of, “Shooting bad, conservation good.” This is about management. I do not care why someone is managing an area: if we want species diversity and success, we have to manage. I hope that, having expressed that thought about population pressure and management, any future Government will consider very carefully allowing unlimited migration of people or indeed foreign species.

If we look at golden plovers or grey partridges, we see that they do better with management through predator control. If we do not stop things from eating the species that we care about, they will not be there. It does not seem to me to be okay to criticise the Government when there is so much that we can all do. People can feed the birds, but if they do, are we just going to encourage more corvids, or will we see our precious songbird populations increase? The evidence is that if we look after the birds, their populations succeed.

Food around the year, conservation of habitat and predator control are a three-legged stool. If we get that right, we will see success. If we continue to stand back and allow these organisations that have failed for the last 20 years to continue to run the countryside into the ground, we will not have the diversity that we all want.

I think the example set by the zoos is one that we should copy. We should not be blinkered about management. I am afraid that when it comes to countries such as our own, where there are large numbers of people, management of predators is essential. If we care about species, we have to take the tough decisions, and I hope that in the future both our Government and any future Government will do so.

We now go to the Front Benchers, who have about five minutes each. They can have a little bit longer, because we have a bit of spare time, but I am sure that everyone will want to hear a full response from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this important debate.

The World Species Congress, organised by the Reverse the Red coalition, will be held on 15 May 2024, as we have heard. This event provides a platform to celebrate global wildlife and to discuss strategies to mitigate species decline, and we have had a very good debate on just that subject this afternoon.

The World Species Congress is also a timely opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global leadership in halting species decline. We in the SNP maintain that biodiversity loss and the biodiversity crisis are intrinsically linked to the climate emergency. Together, they constitute an existential threat to all humanity, so they must be taken seriously. The 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the situation as being “Code red” for humanity. Well, that code is probably now maroon. The rationale is clear—more can and must be done.

Fundamentally, our economy, our jobs, our health and our wellbeing depend on biodiversity; it is integral to our culture and indeed to our way of life. Given that, decision making needs to be managed in a collaborative and balanced way. Biodiversity plays a crucial role in both addressing and mitigating the impacts of climate change. When functioning well, ocean and land ecosystems globally remove around 50% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions every year. More than half the world’s GDP, $45 trillion, is dependent on nature in some way. Yet humans have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and 50% of all plants. Globally, biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’s global assessment of biodiversity describes the pressures on nature; an 83% population decline in freshwater species, a 60% population decline in invertebrate species and a 41% decline in known insect species. More than 85% of wetland areas have now been lost. The high seas, which make up around 50% of the earth’s surface, have only 1.2% of their area protected. In 2022, in its updated red list of threatened species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature assessed that nearly 10% of global marine species are at risk of extinction.

In the face of mounting evidence that Scotland is experiencing dramatic declines in our biodiversity, the Scottish Government have set out ambitious plans and a new framework in its 2022 to 2045 strategy to halt biodiversity loss by 2030, and reverse it through large-scale restoration by 2045. Under the SNP Government, 30% of Scotland’s seas are now designated marine protected areas, including 247 sites for nature conservation. We have also reintroduced the Scottish wildcat.

The Scottish Government are also committed to moving towards a circular economy, shifting from a take, make, and dispose model to one where materials are kept and valued. The Scottish Government’s vision recognises the mutually beneficial nature of connectivity between sustainable economic growth, inclusiveness, wellbeing and the protection of the planet and its biodiversity. Failure to act will perpetuate the vulnerabilities, jeopardise the fight against climate change, and threaten human wellbeing, our ecosystems and our economies for decades, if not centuries to come.

The upcoming World Species Congress is not merely an event, but a call to action. We need to seize this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment, implement the robust measures that are required, and lead by example in the fight to preserve our planet’s biodiversity.

Thank you, Sir Charles. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate, and on her contribution.

The contributions today encourage us to focus on not only stemming the tide of species lost, but actively taking steps to promote nature’s recovery. I welcome the Reverse the Red coalition’s hosting a day of reflection about how we help promote species diversity and growth. It is fantastic that such a broad intersection of activities and initiatives will be on offer. It is precisely the kind of collaborative action that will be required, from the classroom to the United Nations General Assembly hall, if the world is to halt decline and restore nature.

In 2022, COP15 in Montreal agreed stretching but necessary targets on nature. Those present agreed four goals and 23 targets to halt the reverse and loss of nature globally by 2030. That was groundbreaking and, let’s be honest, it was tough, but the world is now in a position where those deeply ambitious goals are necessary if the human race is to tackle the dual climate change and biodiversity crises. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) said, any plan is only as good as its implementation. We live in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, despite the Government’s setting out fairly ambitious targets on reversing nature’s decline.

The Office for Environmental Protection’s latest report, published earlier this year, showed that the Government are way off track on all their key goals related to climate and the environment, including for biodiversity loss. We also know that the global 2011-20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed by COP10 were emphatically missed across the board. That simply cannot go on. A Labour Government would look to grow nature-rich habitats— like as wetlands, peat bogs and forests—for families to explore and wildlife to thrive. Championing unique habitats, such as wetlands, will help restore species which call them home, such as the curlew to which the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) referred. Curlew numbers dropped by 64% between 1970 and 2014, and the curlew is currently on the red list for extinction risk.

The Labour party will go further and help protected areas, such as national parks, to become wilder and greener, thus ending the destruction of nature, and restoring and expanding habitats. Before this year’s COP16, in Colombia, each party that signed up to the Montreal agreement must publish national biodiversity strategies and action plans. Those plans must show how each country will individually contribute to the agreed goals. As we have seen with the failure of previous initiatives, those strategies will be crucial to making good on the warm words with which all countries have been happy to associate themselves.

We are led to believe that the UK’s plan will be split into four discrete strands for each of the devolved nations, as well as including additional plans for overseas territories and Crown dependencies. That makes sense. It is crucial that plans are sufficiently granular and specific to local context so that they can guide action on the ground, and get results.

However, there is anxiety across the sector that the plan for England will be—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said—a rehash of the misfiring environmental improvement plan, which has been panned by the OEP, and is more an aspirational wish list than a real plan. What can the Minister say to contradict that verdict? Will the Government lay out a detailed road map for achieving those targets or will it be left to the next Government? Will the Government produce a bespoke, detailed plan for England that includes specific actions required to reverse species decline by 2030?

The hon. Member is talking great sense, but he is missing a couple of examples of the actual things a Labour Government would do. What, in practical terms, are we not doing that he would do?

There are a number of things. Let me continue and I hope I will respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

The nations of the United Kingdom all play host to a rich diversity of natural life. It is our privilege to live on islands in which almost any natural life or landscape one could wish for is present. But, if Britain is to live up to the ambitious goals set at a national level, our strategies and action plans must make sure that each nation is working hand in hand, moving towards the same goals, and not working at cross purposes. Will the Minister confirm that each strategy will set out the framework for co-ordination between all nations and define the mechanisms by which the respective environmental Departments will collaborate?

In December 2023, analysis conducted by Wildlife and Countryside Link—the largest coalition of wildlife and environmental organisations in the UK—found that, a year on from COP15 in Montreal, the UK was off track on 18 of the targets to which it had signed up. Of those 18 targets, Link found that, on 11 of them, either no progress was being made or things were actively getting worse. As I have mentioned, there is a complete failure to meet the previous targets on nature, agreed at COP10. That failure is, not least, due to the lack of a serious monitoring and reporting regime to track the nation’s progress against those goals. Transparency on progress is crucial if the strategies are to be credible and effective. Will the Minister commit to embedding a real-time monitoring framework into the plans to make sure we can all see how nations are faring against these goals and allow policy to be adapted accordingly?

Although it is necessary for the Government to take the time required to develop plans with the level of detail we have requested today—not simply take the environmental improvement plan off the shelf—it is also important for us all to have sight of those plans and make sure they are up to scratch. Can the Minister please tell us when her Department intends to publish the strategies in advance of COP16? The time for action is now. The strategy must start with an acceptance that Britain is currently off track, and a renewed determination to rescue our depleted natural world.

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles, because I know you are interested in areas such as these and have done much work on them yourself. I must also thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for tabling the debate. She, too, has done valuable work with the zoos and aquariums all-party parliamentary group. I was very pleased to hear that referenced, and in particular to hear the reference to the work on cotoneaster going on at Chester zoo. Projects like that are so valuable to our plants and animals, given the stress they are under.

I believe there is clear synergy in the room: despite some conflicting views, we are all moving in the same direction in understanding the importance of having healthy and sustainable nature, how that links to climate change, and why we need to do something about it. It has never been more important to restore biodiversity, and the 24-hour, non-stop World Species Congress presents such a good opportunity for all the experts, volunteers and other people involved to come together to share their knowledge and ideas. These events are very important. More than half of the global economy is dependent in some way or another on the ecosystem services provided by nature. Our global GDP is intrinsically linked to that. Around 75% of all food crops are dependent in some way on pollinators—we have heard pollinators mentioned. That is why this issue is so important.

We have all heard about the alarming depletion of nature, but I want to focus on how we are leading the way. I want to take issue with some of the things we have heard from the other Front Benchers. The critical thing that this Government have done, which no other Government have done so far, is put in place the framework we need. We know there is a problem; we have set the framework, and it is backed up by legislation. As the Opposition know, the Environment Act was not a quick thing to do. I steered that through the House—many Members present were on the Bill Committee—before it went through the House of Lords, and it took two years. It is globally leading and sets the whole framework of targets. Targets are very important, and they were not set without a great deal of expert advice. One of the major targets we set was the globally leading apex target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030—I will give some more detail about that—and then reverse it by 2040.

Just last Friday, our species abundance indicator, a new official statistic that is still in development, reported back to tell us how we are doing. We have all been waiting for that, which has been an enormous piece of work. While there is a real problem and it is very complicated, the indicator gives us some encouragement, and I urge hon. Members to have a look at it. It shows that some of the historic declines may be beginning to level out. However, there is still so much to do, a lot of which is embedded in our environmental improvement plan annual review, which will be published again this summer and will show progress. The first one was published after a very short time, but now the plan has been going for two years.

The Minister may be touching on the point I was going to raise. There is cross-party agreement that the targets were a welcome step forward, but she cannot ignore the OEP’s critique that we are not on target. If she is saying that she thinks the next update will show that we are making progress, I very much look forward to seeing it.

I think the hon. Gentleman would respect that we are the party that set up the OEP. We actually set up a body that would challenge us to make sure that we are on target. That was a bold thing to do, but we have done it, and it is necessary. He will see a change as the years go on and the policies start to have effect. For example, we have already turbocharged peatland restoration. We set a target of restoring 35,000 hectares by 2030 and we have already done 28,000. We also have our huge nature for climate fund, which is funding so many projects.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned what Labour might do with national parks. He obviously has not noticed that we have already strengthened the legislation for our national parks and national landscapes. They will play a very important part in achieving our targets.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) made a good point about the importance of habitat management. There are some huge landscape recovery projects going on, particularly in protected landscapes. There is a good example on Bucklebury Common, where heathland has been restored, which has managed to get back adders and nightjars. He also made a good point about major landowning groups. I have started to chair a body of those groups, which include the Church, the National Trust, the duchy and the Crown, in order to discuss what contribution they can make towards our biodiversity targets. As everyone here is agreed, we all have to work together on this. Everyone has to play their part, and this Government have put in place the strategies and frameworks so we can start to deliver on the targets.

One useful thing will be the biodiversity net gain, which will add to the sum total of our nature. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) referenced the forest risk legislation, which I hope to introduce later this month—the Secretary of State referenced it just last week at DEFRA questions—so that we can make it illegal for large regulated businesses to use soya, palm oil, cocoa and cattle products if they have contravened any of the laws in the source country. That is the way we think we can make that very important move, and I was talking to manufacturers of cattle feed in this country who want that legislation because it will set the agenda for investment.

Will the Minister look at simple things we can do in the UK in that legislation, such as not insisting on a bat survey in the planning process, but insisting that bats get the mitigating changes to building regulations that they require automatically, thus saving developers and getting on with saving species?

We have done a lot of work with DLUHC on improving and speeding up site strategies. We have a new method for site strategies, which is particularly working for newts, and certainly bats are being looked at.

Oceans were referenced. We have 178 marine protected areas and three highly protected marine areas, and because we have left the common fisheries policy, we are now in charge of our own policies and have brought in byelaws to stop the damaging bottom trawling that was referenced. We have also banned the fishing of sand eels on Dogger Bank—a huge step that we were able to take because we are now independent. Through that, we are saving our seabirds. Sand eels are their main source of food, yet other countries were going there with their supertrawlers to catch them in order to feed their fish farms.

We are doing so much at home, including the environmental land management and sustainable farming incentive schemes, that is feeding into reaching our targets. We have integrated pest management to help our pollinators and a raft of other measures that farmers are putting in place to help us hit the targets and recover nature. We are also doing so much work internationally. We have all our international conventions. We adhere to the convention on the conservation of migratory species and we have the convention on biological diversity, which will be so important at COP16. As everyone knows, the UK was at the forefront of the negotiations at COP15 to set the global biodiversity framework, which we are adhering to.

The UK national biodiversity action plans were mentioned in detail. We have been working very hard to prepare those and will publish them imminently. I remind the shadow Ministers and other colleagues that all the devolved Administrations have to take part in that, so we urge them to make sure they are doing their bit to feed into it. That is in addition to our UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies. In fact, I have just come from chairing a meeting with the OTs. They are so important to the sum total of our nature because they hold 94% of it. They are working with our funds—our Darwin funds and our other funds—so that we can help them to nurture and save that wonderful wildlife.

Importantly, we cannot do any of this without mobilising finance on a large scale across the globe to help us protect and conserve nature. The UK is again leading the international efforts on that, with our international climate finance commitment. We have committed huge amounts: £3 billion from 2025 to 2026, and £11.6 billion overall.

I hope I have demonstrated just how much we are doing. I could talk for hours on this subject. I feel that with the experts and the advice that we have, including all the people working in DEFRA and in other Departments, we genuinely understand that there is a big crisis. The critical thing is getting the framework in place so that we can drive the action. Of course, our policies have to do that, which is why what farmers do, while also producing sustainable and secure food supplies, is so important. We understand that, and those two things can work together, as our Farm to Fork event today showcased.

I thank everyone for their contributions to this important debate and the hon. Member for Rotherham for securing it. I wish the congress all the best with its 24-hour marathon. Let me finish by saying that there is more to come.

Thank you very much, Minister. The hon. Member for Rotherham has two minutes to wind up this excellent debate.

I thank the Minister, because I know she is truly dedicated to the topic and has done a huge amount to move it forward, but whenever I go into schools, biodiversity and climate change is the one topic that pupils want to know why we are not doing more on. When we look back on the contributions that have been made today, part of the problem is that the topic is so broad. There is deforestation, sustainability of fishing, the decimation of our wild birds, and better land and habitat management. One of the things I say to the schoolchildren is that until we get proper cross-departmental buy-in and collaboration, we are always going to be struggling, because we are dealing with symptoms in isolation. One particularly good example is marine protected areas. On 3 May, the Government rolled out another 70 oil licences, and a number of those directly hit our marine protected areas. I urge the Minister to try to get that cross-Government collaboration going.

I will end by paraphrasing my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who said that what we need is robust, ambitious and integrated programming when it comes to securing biodiversity in the UK and internationally. I really hope that this Government and future Governments take that on board and act with the urgency that we need. We do not have time to wait any more.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the World Species Congress.

Sitting adjourned.