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12.34 pm

Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough): I, too, welcome the Bill, which has been introduced by the hon. Member for Uxbridge, Mr. Randall, and I deeply congratulate him on doing so.

The need for better protection for marine wildlife is very real, and the arguments in favour of such protection have been rehearsed in the House before. DEFRA is carrying out a review into ways to improve the conservation of the marine environment, and the Bill would help to achieve the objectives of that review, in which the need for more action to protect our nationally important marine wildlife sites has already been recognised.

In February last year, as the House will know, I introduced a Marine Wildlife Protection Bill, with the support of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and others, to tackle the problems of harassment and disturbance of marine wildlife by motorised marine leisure vessels and jet skis. The Bill sought to enable local authorities to stop the use of such vessels in coastal areas,

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to protect marine wildlife and promote safety, and to make it an offence to disturb marine wildlife. The Bill would also have given local authorities power to designate, on either a temporary or permanent basis, any coastal marine area within their power a motorised marine leisure vessels-free zone.

Since my Bill was considered, we have had the Government's own piece of environmental legislation, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I was delighted to be chosen to be a member of the Committee. The Act represented a significant advance for nature conservation. As a result of it, intentional or reckless disturbance of whales, dolphins and porpoises is now an offence. My Bill would have addressed that, too.

The Act represented a giant leap forward for terrestrial nature conservation, but its passing into law has meant that, despite one or two improvements such as the example I have just given, protection of the marine environment has fallen yet further behind. The Bill that we are discussing today will, I believe, begin to redress that terrible imbalance.

There is much to be welcomed in the Bill. In particular, it will mean proper and correct enforcement of protection measures through the establishment of management schemes for marine sites of special interest. One of my personal concerns, when I introduced my own Marine Wildlife Protection Bill, was the level of hidden disturbance and, indeed, persecution of marine wildlife. This Bill will tackle those problems head-on, as they should be tackled.

I am also pleased that the Bill will ensure that those with the power to protect our best marine wildlife sites will have to exercise that power. It gives the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales authority to direct the development and implementation of management schemes for marine sites of special interest in cases in which it is felt that not enough is being done to look after those sites. It is right that relevant marine authorities will have to observe their responsibilities to protect our precious marine wildlife. I hope that those measures in Mr. Randall's Bill will be used to tackle the problems posed by motorised marine leisure vessels that I highlighted in my Marine Wildlife Protection Bill, and which were also highlighted very well by The Sunday Times.

Early research commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has revealed a significant number of sites around the coasts of Wales and England that would benefit if this Bill became law. I am told that off the Sussex coast is an area called the Royal Sovereign shoals, where a variety of habitats are present. They include a sandstone reef and outcrops of chalk. Local wildlife include a variety of sponges, anemones and starfish, as well as more bizarre-sounding creatures such as the elephant's ear sponge—a new one on me.

Mr. Pound: You'll find one in the Strangers Bar most nights.

Mrs. Clark: Perhaps my hon. Friend would know more about that than I would.

There is also the chimney sponge. However, another important area that will be more familiar to hon. Members is the large expanse of Poole bay, off Dorset. The bay is

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sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly winds, and is an area of gentle underwater slopes punctuated in places by hard ironstone reefs. Not surprisingly, this sizeable area is home to a rich community of wildlife.

Of particular interest to me are the frequent sightings off Durlston head of bottle-nosed dolphins, common dolphins and pilot whales. There are also significant wintering populations of several bird species, including red-breasted mergansers—a new one to me—and great crested grebes. The Bill offers an exciting opportunity to improve protection for the Royal Sovereign shoals and Poole bay, and for many other sites.

I do not believe—nor does anyone else—that the Bill will solve all the problems facing our marine environment and wildlife, although I hope that I have helped to show that it can and will be a significant step forward. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge for introducing it. I hope that the Government will give a commitment that comprehensive marine legislation covering all United Kingdom waters will be forthcoming later in this Parliament. In the meantime, there is no doubt that the Bill takes us in the right direction, and I hope that others will join me in supporting it today and working for it.

12.41 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I am pleased to learn that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) supports the Bill. I hope that in the few minutes remaining before the end of today's sitting, she will speak to some of her colleagues who have reservations.

Mrs. Helen Clark: Indeed I shall.

Mr. Bellingham: It is only a small point, but perhaps it is time the hon. Lady learned to refer to hon. Members by constituency, not by name.

I welcome the work on the Bill done by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and the efforts that he has made in promoting it today.

Mrs. Clark: I referred to the hon. Gentleman as the hon. Member for Uxbridge, Mr. Randall. I suggest that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) listens more carefully.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We should get on with debating the Bill.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Lady and I can discuss that point afterwards in the Bar.

I have an interest in the Bill because my constituency extends over a large section of coastline along the Wash. As several hon. Members have mentioned, this country contains many sites of special scientific interest and other designated sites. My constituency contains a significant number of SSSIs that cover the coastline itself. They run to the low water mark—the hon. Member for South–East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and the Bill's promoter pointed out that fact. There is therefore a gap in our habitat conservation policy. I shall not repeat what has been said today about the numerous reports that have been produced. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) summed that up very well.

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My constituency contains a thriving commercial fishing community, which is based on the inshore fishery. A significant number of fishermen fish out of Lynn fishing fleet. There is also an important plant processing sector based on the inshore fishery, which mainly produces mussels, cockles, whelks and shrimps. The fishery is one of the most important in the country and local people feel strongly about it. They and their families have been fishing it for generations, and their views are highly traditional. Their primary concern is conservation of stocks—to them, that is paramount. They are concerned about other issues, not least control of fisheries and access to their waters, which fall within UK territorial waters.

I am concerned that, at some stage, those waters might one day be opened up to other European Union countries. That would be a disaster. The common fisheries policy has failed dismally to control North sea stocks—just look at the populations of cod, herring and haddock. Those reserves have been hideously depleted. The time has now come for this country to repatriate its fisheries. If we do so, we shall at least have control over a precious resource, which could be managed through bilateral agreements with other EU countries. Our local fishermen feel strongly about that, but they feel particularly strongly that their inshore fishery should not be opened up in any way to other EU countries.

Our fishermen also feel strongly that they must work with other competing interests in the Wash. Obviously, the Bill is highly relevant to that. They already have to work within the confines of a Royal Air Force bombing range on the Wash. At this time of international conflict in particular, when local RAF squadrons are being deployed to the Gulf and flying out of RAF Marham near the Wash on reconnaissance missions over targets in Afghanistan, those ranges play an important role in ensuring that the RAF is properly trained. The fishermen, many of whom are war veterans, understand their importance.

The fishermen also have to work with dredging and alongside the threat of wind farms. I shall say a quick word about dredging.

Mr. Chaytor: Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to have referred to the threat of wind farms? Does he consider wind energy a threat?

Mr. Bellingham: I shall elaborate in a moment, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that wind farms are a threat to the interests and livelihood of some local fishermen. I support the Bill, however, as do most fishermen in my constituency.

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