Lord Cormack said that his Bill was not “anti-bat” but he was keen to emphasise that churches should be protected from incursions that threaten their condition and purpose. He cited two letters he had received that mentioned bat droppings and urine, which had caused issues in churches nationwide. After discussions with heritage bodies, he had concluded that there was insufficient funding available for most institutions to deal with the scale of their bat problems.
Lord Redesdale (Lib Dem) took Lord Cormack’s points but emphasised that some proposed solutions to bat issues, notably bat boxes, had been ineffective. He also noted that churches were some of the last places in which bats could thrive because of the destruction of their natural habitats in ancient woodland – and that any efforts to remove them could seriously damage the bat population. He suggested that, rather than the blanket exemption in the Bill, ‘we [should] look at the damage being done in certain churches and then have an exemption if it is of particular note, rather than excluding all places of worship’.
Viscount Goschen (Con) pointed out the high cost of bat surveys, which made them unaffordable for many groups. He asked for more flexibility for local authorities and national park planning authorities to take an intelligence-led, flexible and proportionate approach and suggested that it might be worth considering whether money could be better targeted towards conservation of the most important bat species, gathering intelligence on what measures could be taken to support those populations.
The Bishop of Norwich said that it was unfair that churches should be treated differently on the matter from private dwellings in the eyes of the law. He mentioned the Bats in Churches project, in which the Church of England was working with Natural England, Historic England, the Bat Conservation Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust. It was a five-year project intended to work with some of the most severely affected churches, finding ways in which to protect church buildings without harming bat habitats. One challenge was to recruit hundreds of volunteers to help care for those churches and the bats that live in them.
Lord Berkeley (Lab) emphasised the need for diversity of bat habitats, including pylons, telegraph poles – and churches. He suggested ultrasonic barriers or specifically designed “bat rooms” in churches as potential solutions.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con) was eager to point out that not all bat species were even close to being endangered and suggested that the overall protected species list should be kept under regular review.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, speaking for the Government, emphasised the importance of churches as a habitat for bats following the destruction of much of their natural environment, He pointed out that the Government, in partnership with Historic England, had rolled out a research and training programme designed to help deal with the situation and also questioned whether the Bill’s proposal of a blanket removal of protection for bats in places of worship would contravene the Berne Convention.
“All species of bat are subject to protection under the EU habitats directive, which will continue under UK law through the withdrawal Bill. It is a criminal offence deliberately to kill, injure, take or disturb bats. Bat species are also protected from disturbance in their place of rest or the deliberate obstruction of such locations.
The Bill put forward today by my noble friend proposes that bats be excluded from a building used for public worship unless it has been demonstrated that their presence would not have a significant adverse impact on the users of such a place. Such a blanket prohibition does not take account of the importance of some churches to some of our most vulnerable bat populations, or of the considerable steps that the Government in collaboration with others are already taking to alleviate and mitigate the impacts in such places where bats are causing nuisance or distress.”
In short, though the Government understood the issues and recognised the concerns expressed, “for the reasons I have outlined, we do not support this Bill”.
In accordance with the convention in the Lords, the Bill was given a second reading and committed to a Committee of the whole House – but it is clearly not going to go any further.