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9.59 am

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on his good fortune in coming first in the ballot and on all the hard work that he has done to get the Bill to this stage. Let me say very firmly that I hope that it succeeds in getting on to the statute book.

The United Kingdom has a pretty appalling record of neglecting the natural environment during the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 20th century, we gradually learned how to protect the land, but our record on the sea is still appalling. The view is that we can tip almost anything into it and try to extract anything from it. It is seen as a sort of piggy bank without a bottom, or a dustbin that never has to be emptied. We must change that attitude, and this Bill could achieve much in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Father of the House referred to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Along with one or two other hon. Members, he and I kept the Standing Committee that considered the Wildlife and Countryside Bill sitting for long hours. Eventually, we were offered a sop. We were told that, if we finished reasonably early, the idea of marine nature reserves would be included in the Bill. We got that sop, but nothing happened for about 15 years. The Government had the powers, but they did not designate any areas. I think that we now have three designated areas in the United Kingdom. That is a very sad record of inactivity, especially as, under Governments formed by each of the main political parties, we were making pretty good progress on land. As far as the sea was concerned, however, we made virtually no progress at all.

I do not want to make a long speech, as I am well aware of what is happening today, but I should like to apologise to the Whips Office. In yesterday's business questions,

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I suggested that the Whips might be plotting to stall the Bill today. I have been working hard to find out what was happening and I am assured that the Whips, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), have been trying very hard during the past three weeks to persuade all the Departments to agree a common-sense approach. Sadly, as I understand it, my hon. Friend has not succeeded. We are likely to hear a series of speeches made in support of the Bill, but it will probably then run out of time. That would be tragic, as I am sure that we could introduce the legislation that is needed via a private Member's Bill. As I understand it, the Government are saying that they want legislation on the matters with which the Bill deals, but perhaps not just yet, and that they need a bit more consultation. Surely consultation can occur as the Bill progresses, and now is the time for the knotty problems to be sorted out.

Piecing together the situation, I understand that the Ministry of Defence has objected to the Bill, but that those objections have been overcome and we now have its support. Allegedly, there were to be some problems with fishermen, but I understand that their objections have also been overcome. So where is the objection coming from? I am told that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is still making objections because it is alleged that people who use high-powered speedboats, go water skiing and so on are worried about the Bill. However, I am sure that negotiations could be conducted to allay their worries. It is very sad that people who have an interest in big boats do not have an interest in ensuring that the beauty of the sea can be conserved.

I understand that the Department of Trade and Industry is worried. I know that offshore oil and gas interests must also be considered—again, there are legitimate needs for pipelines and so on—but surely their concerns could be allayed in negotiations.

We have heard about people who are promoting wind farms. I very firmly believe in wind farms, but those who promote them seem to be brilliant at destroying public support. I am sure that thousands of people will be absolutely appalled if they believe that the wind farm industry has scuppered the Bill. I do not see why we cannot accommodate those with interests in wind farms. Of course, they will want to build some wind farms in the sea, and I would commend such development, but it should be possible to negotiate some way around the problem. I am told that there is also concern in ports and harbours, but surely it is not beyond the powers of negotiation to meet their needs.

The final argument that has been put to me concerns devolution. It is suggested that the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales are unhappy about the Bill. I would not like the Bill's remit to be reduced to cover England alone, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Uxbridge would be prepared to consider making such a change if it was necessary to secure its passage. All those groups say that the Bill should be blocked, but they do not have fundamental objections, and the Government have made a commitment that they want the legislation.

I do not want to take up any more time. My plea now is that we get the Bill into Committee and initiate effective negotiations. I remind the Whips and those who pull their strings that, even if the Committee stage begins and we cannot secure agreement on all the issues, there is still Report and Third Reading. But, please, let us get it moving today.

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10.6 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I wholeheartedly support the views of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett). I welcome the Bill as a contribution to much-needed environmental protection and conservation.

It is not always necessary to have grand international conferences about environmental conservation measures, which do not always have to be introduced in huge Bills. We can introduce varied legislation that works in the same direction and helps to achieve the ultimate aims. The range of international agreements and national designations needs to be complemented by local initiatives. Private Members' Bills should be given the same support and assistance if we are to achieve the real aim of ensuring the environmental stability that we all want.

As has been mentioned, the current system of marine conservation in this country is highly inadequate, in contrast to that of conservation on land, where significant progress has been made without some of the perceived problems about which concerns were expressed when legislation was introduced. The Bill would provide much-needed protection for marine sites of special biodiversity interest.

The sea is extremely important to my constituency. In the fishing ports of Looe and Polperro it makes a significant contribution to the local economy. Sailing takes place from Saltash, Torpoint and Fowey, and there are commercial docks at Fowey and Par. I have not received a single letter from any organisation representing interests in fishing, sailing or ports in objection to the measures, of which I am sure that such organisations have been properly notified.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): The hon. Gentleman may be aware that there are also fishing interests in my south-east Essex constituency. Does he agree that small fishermen want a measure such as the Bill, as biodiversity is very much in their interests? They, more than anyone else, want to protect our marine environment.

Mr. Breed: That is absolutely correct. Many fishermen are beginning to recognise that their economic livelihood at sea will not depend only on fishing. Leisure interests—especially diving and so on—will provide a significant proportion of their work and income.

A number of areas in south-east Cornwall could benefit from the Bill, including the Eddystone rocks. Although I have been out to sea above water, I have not ventured down below, but I understand that the rocks are formed by a huge outcrop of pink granite that rises from a level sea bed in a wonderful cliff-like structure that dominates the area. The rocks are extremely important not only to fishermen, but to divers. Like other sites, they should be protected as use of the area increases. Of course, protection assists the continued use of such features. Thus, the ingredients of protection and economic well-being can be married.

Cornwall has a considerable number of wind farms. Although some may object to wind farms at sea, I suspect that many would prefer wind farm development at sea rather than on land.

Environmental protection needs to be continued, both on land and at sea. Although we are a long way behind in marine protection, we are not as far advanced in land

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environmental protection as we would wish. I hope that the Government will not only support the Bill today but, during this parliamentary term, introduce even more legislation to ensure stronger sustainability throughout the UK marine environment.

The Bill is a useful stepping-stone; it certainly goes in the right direction. Judging from the considerable number of letters that I have had from constituents and other residents of Cornwall, there is significant public interest in this matter. If the Government somehow prevent the Bill from proceeding, people will want clear answers about why that happened.

We require a broader range of measures to achieve real sustainability of our marine resources, but we must also encourage others in that direction. The Bill deals with measures taken in our territorial waters, but the whole subject of marine conservation needs to be further up not only our agenda but the European agenda as well.

My final point is about the growing problem of bycatches from fishing, which include porpoises, dolphins, birds, sharks and turtles. Although some of those are protected by law, the number of victims is causing concern because it is increasing, albeit inadvertently. The problem is particularly acute in the south-west approaches. Will the Government consider funding more conservation research to increase our understanding and knowledge of how bycatches occur so that we may find ways of preventing that tragic loss of marine life?

For now, I wish to give the Bill a warm welcome and I hope that it will be strongly supported today.

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