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House of Commons

Friday 26 October 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Winning the ballot for private Members' Bills is like winning the national lottery, except that one does not get the money. However, one does get all the begging letters. Coming out of the Committee Room where I had gone to see which poor soul had come top in the ballot, I felt rather like someone coming into a mediaeval court, having petitions thrust into my hand.

Sometimes I feel that we in this place make too many laws and regulations, and the idea of adding to the burden on our population was a little much for me. However, I decided that deregulating was not my job—nor would I be capable of it—so I thought carefully about the Bill that I wanted to introduce. Ever since I was very young, I have had a passionate interest in wildlife and wildlife conservation, so despite the many obvious and worthy candidates for a Bill, I decided on the present subject.

The Bill fills a significant gap in protection for the marine environment. I should say at the outset that the Bill should not be the final word: the Government need to take action on a much wider scale than my Bill would hope to achieve. Indeed, they have made such statements, and we in all parts of the House will make sure that they keep their word. A comprehensive approach is needed to marine management and conservation, including integrated planning and strategic environmental assessment. I hope that the Government's working group reviewing marine nature conservation will take matters forward.

I introduced the Bill because I passionately believe that the marine environment needs better protection. The postbags of parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House, which are full of letters from constituents supporting my Bill, indicate that the wider public share that passion. That may to some extent be fuelled by the BBC's excellent series "The Blue Planet".

At least half of the United Kingdom's biodiversity is found in the marine environment, but existing laws do not adequately address its protection and management. Protection for marine habitats and species is far weaker than that for their equivalents on land, where protection was recently further improved by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The UK has international

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commitments to protect marine wildlife through the habitats and birds directive and the Ospar convention. However, there is no domestic legislation to underpin those obligations or for us to meet our national aspirations to conserve wildlife.

For too long, the marine environment has been the Cinderella of wildlife conservation—a case of out of sight, out of mind. Surely it is a matter of great concern that such sensitive areas as Lyme bay in Dorset are unprotected, and that in areas where dolphins, porpoises, puffins and gannets can be found, their habitats are still vulnerable.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): When I was Northern Ireland Minister looking after agriculture and environment, we found that to be the case with Strangford lough, where it was difficult to find the powers to stop beam trawlers wrecking the lough bed. Proposals such as those that my hon. Friend is making would be useful not only outside territorial waters, but inside them.

Mr. Randall: I thank my hon. Friend. He will know that Strangford lough is now a marine nature reserve and the Bill does not deal with Northern Ireland, but the point is well made. Such areas need protection.

Coastal policy guidance states that sites of special scientific interest do not normally extend below the mean low water mark but can do so if there is local authority jurisdiction. That means in general that SSSIs—a land-based designation—are doing very little for the marine environment. My hon. Friend referred to Strangford lough, which is one of three marine nature reserves. They can be designated in coastal waters out to a distance of three nautical miles. However, since 1981 only those three marine nature reserves have been designated, the other two being Lundy and Skomer. The Government have accepted that the concept of MNRs

and concluded that

Since the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, successive Governments have undertaken reviews which have identified the need to address shortfalls in the Act with respect to the marine environment. I am a relatively new Member, but I understand that in 1985 the Environment Select Committee suggested that one solution might be to extend the SSSI provisions of the Act to marine sites. In 1992, the Committee recommended that the Government address the issue of how to protect sites of marine conservation importance, and considered an option to extend SSSI-type mechanisms below the low water mark.

In 1999, the House of Lords Committee Select Committee on the European Union concluded that a new approach was required to protect sites in the marine environment and that the relevant provisions of the 1981 Act should be reviewed to provide workable and effective protection for important marine areas of nature conservation interest.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and I were active members of the Committee that considered what became the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

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We struggled hour after hour to wring out a concession for marine nature reserves. The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that the outcome has been a disappointment. Is part of the disappointment the fact that insufficient effort has been made to get local people, especially the fishing community, to accept MNRs in areas such as Loch Sween? I know that that is a Scottish example.

Mr. Randall: I am sure that there was concern in the past, and I am sure that local people will be concerned about in today's environment. There is usually some reaction. During consultation on the Bill, we did not find significant local opposition. It might be true that the world has moved on—people are much more aware now of the importance of such sites and their responsibilities to them.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is an important economic benefit in being near areas of marine importance, as with any wildlife area. There is increasing eco-tourism, and people want to visit pleasant places to enjoy them. The Government responded to recommendations by establishing the review of the marine nature conservation group, which was chaired by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Earlier this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs submitted an interim report to Ministers that was based on work and discussions with the group. The membership of the group was a broad representation of interest groups, Government Departments and conservation bodies. The report concluded that only retention of the status quo seemed likely to require no statutory action. New duties imposed on DEFRA and the National Assembly for Wales, which apply throughout the territorial waters of England and Wales, coupled with new duties on public bodies, open the possibility of protecting sites and marine waters. I agree entirely with the marine nature conservation group's view that retention of the status quo is not desirable, which is why I have introduced the Bill.

I wanted there to be an inclusive process. At the end of July, I put my initial proposals out for wide consultation. Those consulted included the participants in the Government's review of the marine nature conservation working group, including ports, fishing organisations, energy interests and leisure interests. The response to the consultation paper was excellent. Most respondents agreed on the need for nationally important marine sites to be designated, although views on how to go about that varied.

I listened to the respondents' views and took account of them. For example, my initial idea of simply extending SSSIs into the marine environment was dropped in favour of something specifically designed for the marine environment. The idea of introducing an offence of recklessness for users was dropped. I have been grateful for the assistance of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds both in helping me to consult and assisting me in drafting the Bill. I mention particularly Duncan Huggett, Ben Stafford and Sharon Thompson. I thank also David Lloyd of the Public Bill Office, who was waiting for an addition to his family. I am pleased to say that that addition has arrived safely.

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I put on record also my grateful thanks to DEFRA, which has helped me to define what should be achievable. I was happy that the Department undertook a more joined-up approach by consulting other Departments.

There are extensive explanatory notes, which I hope will be helpful to Members in understanding the intention behind the Bill.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): My constituency has an SSSI for wildfowl. Indeed, it is an area where there is a great variety of wildfowl. There are, however, quite promising environmental proposals for wind farms, which would be adjacent to the SSSI. As I understand it, the intention behind the Bill is not to have no development in a marine environment but to have controlled and sensitive development, and it will not necessarily prevent wind farm development out at sea. Is my understanding correct?

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