Monday 5th July 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Twigg—I do not think that I have had the pleasure before, so it is very nice to see you in the Chair. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see all hon. Members and Friends here for this debate.

First of all, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate and for making a very clear case, as he always does in these petition debates. He referred to the debate in 2015, and I think a number of hon. Friends and Members were probably at that debate. I do not know if you were there, Mr Twigg, but I must say that it was one of the best debates I have ever attended in Parliament—and it was about hedgehogs. It was responded to by my then right hon. Friend for Penrith and The Border, and it has stayed in my mind.

Today’s debate has demonstrated, with the number of speakers we have had and the number of people who have signed the petition, just how heartfelt this whole issue of hedgehogs is—they are wonderful creatures. We have had wonderful references to all sorts of hedgehog charities and organisations, and I thank them all. We had Hessle Hog House, Hedgehog Street, the Wildlife Aid Foundation and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, which arranged the petition and does so much good work. It is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who could not be here today but wanted to ensure that we thanked it for all the work it does in his constituency. We have also had Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, and we must not forget Horace the film buff hedgehog—I am sorry that he is outdoing my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) when it comes to his other debates, but that just goes to show the strength of feeling.

This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that our native species thrive, as we take action to address the declines that we are all so sad about. We—and I as the Minister—are deeply concerned about the findings of the red list for British mammals, published in 2020 by the Mammal Society, which has classed hedgehogs as vulnerable.

I am a great fan of hedgehogs, not least from reading all my children Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the amazing Beatrix Potter book. As a Back Bencher, I worked with others, and we secured a reference in the national planning policy framework for hedgehog highways—that reference is in there now. Only today, I made a speech on green infrastructure to the Town and Country Planning Association, and I referenced hedgehog highways again.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers
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I warmly congratulate the Minister on that success. Now she has a real opportunity in her current role, because she will be signing off on environmental land management schemes. A good, simple scheme to promote hedgerows is great for farmers and even better for hedgehogs. I hope that we will see that in the ELM scheme.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank my right hon. Friend very much for that intervention; she is obviously passionate about this issue and indeed worked in the Department. I am sure she knows that we have just announced the details of our sustainable farming initiative and the ELM scheme is very much about habitats, bringing nature back and being able to produce food sustainably, and there will be an emphasis on wildlife corridors and particularly river corridors. All these things will benefit our native wildlife and particularly hedgehogs. So my right hon. Friend is right, and I shall be taking advantage of the opportunity; indeed, I have been speaking up for hedgehogs.

I must mention West Hatch Animal Centre, which is just over the hill from where I live. It does absolutely brilliant work when hedgehogs are orphaned. I have been up there, and the centre has all these baby hedgehogs that are underweight and cannot get through the winter. The centre takes them on and literally drip-feeds them with pipettes to keep them alive. I was then very honoured that my garden was vetted and was deemed acceptable—I garden for wildlife—to receive some of these, now fattened-up, hedgehogs. I had some released in my garden. I was in Parliament one day, and the centre said, “You have to have a hedgehog house.” I thought, “What is that?” So I googled, “What is a hedgehog house?” I then had to build one in order to receive a hedgehog, which we duly did.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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In the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, we make hedgehog boxes. If the Minister would like one for her garden, it would be my pleasure to ensure that one is delivered to her at Westminster.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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That is the kind of offer I would find hard to refuse. Interestingly, we went to all the effort of making the house, then releasing the hedgehog into it, but I do not think that the hedgehog ever lived in it again. I think my garden was much more suited to it than the house. That is not to say that the boxes from Sutton Coldfield will not be a great deal better than those from Taunton Deane.

On the serious points, as we look to conserve and protect our native hedgehogs we have to consider the reasons for their decline. The main threat to the hedgehog is habitat loss, as many hon. Members referenced, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Habitat change has been due to such things as agricultural intensification and deterioration in the actual habitat, and that has affected so much of our other wildlife as well.

Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 focuses on deliberate harm against species. Although I agree with the sentiment behind the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to ensure that we protect our hedgehogs, it is not clear that the species is being threatened in that way. Therefore, that protection under the Act would not address the main challenges that the species faces, although I was interested to hear about the potential collecting and selling of hedgehogs. If there is evidence of that from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, I would certainly like to see it, because that has not been flagged to me and it would concern me.

I must go on to the points made by so many Members, particularly my right hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet and for Epsom and Ewell, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and for Blaydon, about schedule 6 of the 1981 Act, under which the hedgehog is listed. The schedule makes it an offence to kill or take listed animals by certain methods, such as types of traps and snares.

The quinquennial review process, which many have referred to, reviews schedules 5 and 8 of the Act, and the JNCC will make recommendations with regard to those lists. As I have highlighted to a number of Members, no changes to species protection have yet been recommended to us, nor have any decisions been made. Proposals for change will be formally consulted on later this year, and the Government will then consider the recommendations and advice provided by the JNCC before making any decisions.

Chris Grayling Portrait Chris Grayling
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Given that the Minister accepted in the debate on the Environment Bill—I am grateful for that—that the current legislative framework is really no longer fit for purpose in today’s world, would it not be better to set aside the quinquennial review and just get on with replacing the system? Carrying on with what we have at the moment will just cause confusion and uncertainty. It would be better to say, “This doesn’t work anymore,” and do something different.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I hear what my right hon. Friend says. We have discussed this at length, and I thank him for that. As I have said previously, it is a priority for us to provide the legislative protections and policy interventions needed for our wildlife, including of course declines in hedgehogs. I am determined that we will get this right, and my right hon. Friend will know that we have recently announced a Green Paper towards that ambition. My Department will begin a review of species legislation, with a view to enhancing and modernising it, and we intend to publish the Green Paper and seek views later in the year. I absolutely agree that we need a better approach to addressing threats to a range of species, and that is what the Green Paper will focus on.

Furthermore, the Environment Bill will strengthen our commitment to such species as hedgehogs. We have amended it to require a new, holistic, legally binding target to be set for species abundance by 2030. The aim of that is to halt the decline in nature. That is a really strong commitment, the like of which we have never seen before. It demonstrates that the Government are determined that we will get this right. Indeed, we have to get it right, and I agree with various Members who have spoken, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who was very forceful. The matter is urgent and we need to get on with it.

We are taking action through a range of measures that I honestly believe will help. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet referred to the net gain provisions in the Bill, which will mean that every single new development will have to put back 10% more nature than was there at the start. I know that many developers will put back more than that, and that will help hedgehog habitats. Through the Bill, we are also introducing local nature recovery strategies, which have been referred to. Those will help to identify local biodiversity priorities in order to improve the co-ordination of the whole conservation effort, but at scale, and they will be beneficial to species such as hedgehogs.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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On paper, all these things are great, but it is essential that we have the resources to enforce the requirements, which need to be very specific. Too many times we have seen hedgerows ripped out, even where there is supposed to be protection. How will the Minister ensure that the requirements are effective?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank the hon. Lady for that, but one cannot rip hedgerows out now. We have a portfolio—a toolbox—of measures that will combine to improve our nature and put back our declining species. The local nature recovery strategies are key to that and will be used on the ground by local authorities. That will give them the opportunity to determine—it is like a mapping system—what they want where, where there is good nature, where it could be better or where they would rather just focus on industry. All of those things will build together, and local authorities will be able to make hedgehogs a priority if they so wish. I am confident that we have a very good framework in the Environment Bill.

We also have our new Agriculture Act 2020, and we have left the common agricultural policy. We now have schemes to ensure that our land use will deliver environmental benefits—through the sustainable farming incentive, the local nature recovery scheme and our much bigger landscape recovery scheme, which will link whole areas and potentially have the corridors that our wildlife needs to move about. Those schemes—sustainable farming, in particular—will be able to create and preserve woodlands, heathlands, species-rich grassland and a range of habitats that will benefit hedgehogs, in particular.

Serious points were made about planning. DEFRA is in close consultation with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, particularly on the issue of sustainable development. Hedgehog highways, swift boxes, ponds and all of the things that we are flagging really need to go into our future developments, together with sustainable urban drainage and all of the things that affect our water quality and flooding. It should all knit together.

There is obviously huge interest in hedgehog protection. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and made such very strong cases.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I think I have time to give way to the hon. Member for Strangford, because he is always so polite.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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A number of people, including myself, have put forward the planning issue, to which the Minister referred. Is it possible, before anyone does any work on any site or development, to ask them to remove any hedgehogs and to relocate them? The Minister said that many farms would wish to accept hedgehogs. Is that possible?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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That is an interesting suggestion. In the Environment Bill, we are bringing in new measures for strategies for certain wider groups of species and wildlife to look after habitats and deal with wildlife issues on a more comprehensive scale, rather than in the itsy-bitsy way that we do now, which often frustrates developments as well, because they are held up. Under biodiversity net gain and the nature that has to be put back by developers, they will be conscious that they have to look at things such as the hedgehog population, just as we do now with dormice and so on.

On that note, I will wind up. I hope that I have outlined that the Government have a real desire, and I believe the framework, to protect nature and biodiversity on a national scale, and that we are committed to reviewing species legislation so that we get it right. We give the assurance that we will be looking after our absolutely much-loved and indeed revered hedgehogs.