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1.2 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point): My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) showed great judgment in selecting to promote the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill, and he has demonstrated his characteristic eloquence and his great passion for the subject both in his speech and his interventions. It is a most important issue and I welcome his collaborative approach to it. I hope that all hon. Members will accept that, because of his responsible approach to the issue and his diligence in consulting on it very widely, the Bill should be considered in Committee so that all the issues that it raises can be properly explored.

My constituency of Castle Point has important coastal and marine sites and bird colonies of international importance, although I shall not go through their names lest Labour Members challenge me on my knowledge of the subject, which is very small indeed. I am not an expert.

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My constituency includes Canvey island and Two Tree island, with its population of avosets, and the coastal areas of Benfleet and Hadleigh. They are most important natural habitats, particularly for marine wildlife and for birds. In the early 1990s, in my first term in the House, I had some success in gaining some protection for those habitats, and I would welcome the opportunity to win more protection for the marine habitats around my constituency. Consequently, I support the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge to enact his Bill. It is certainly a step in the right direction, although I accept that some fine-tuning is necessary. For that reason, I hope that the Bill will go through to a Standing Committee.

On renewable energy, the arguments about wind farms are understandable. I share the concerns that have been expressed and welcome the comfort offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for North–West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that there should be a great deal more research on the impact of such devices on the marine environment, the fishing industry and so on. It would be nonsense to proceed with such an innovation without doing that research and without knowing the consequences of that action.

I know that hon. Members want to make progress, but I shall raise one more key issue. My hon. Friend the Member for North–West Norfolk mentioned dredging. That issue is important to my local area of south-east Essex, which includes much of the Thames estuary. The proposal from P&O for Shell Haven port development will have consequences yet unfathomed for the marine environment of the Thames estuary and beyond, out to sea. It is proposed to dredge millions of cubic metres of spoil from the sea bed. As my hon. Friend the Member for North–West Norfolk said, not only will that destroy the biodiversity in the local area for at least three to five years, but as dredging must be repeated every three to five years, the local marine environment will never recover. The proposal has not been thought through. I hope that we can focus on it in this place and in other places when the time is right.

I hope that the Bill will proceed to Committee, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge on his initiative.

1.7 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): This morning's debate was, of course, interrupted by a statement at 11 am on the deployment of military forces. Those of us who are regulars on a Friday morning sometimes feel like the poor bloody infantry, because we come to the Chamber armed with our speeches, which we have spent long hours preparing, and sometimes we feel that our commanders are rather like those in the first world war.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gardiner: To a distinguished long-serving member of the infantry, yes.

Mr. Dismore: Does my hon. Friend agree that long hours are spent not only in preparing our speeches, but in delivering them?

Mr. Gardiner: Indeed. All the infantry who came into the Chamber on the Government side this morning

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support the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and wish his Bill well. I came armed with a good many more words than I now intend to speak because I wish it well. I support it fully and fulsomely, and my hon. Friends agree that it is an excellent Bill. If it is talked out, we certainly will not be responsible.

If and when the Bill gets on to the statute book, it will be a major achievement for the hon. Member for Uxbridge and a tribute to the dedication of all those involved in marine wildlife conservation. It will be a triumph for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Marine Conservation Society. They have all lobbied for a long time to address the anomaly between land conservation and marine conservation. I acknowledge the continued commitment of my right hon. Friend the Minister to introduce effective marine legislation. His support from the Government Benches, which I trust will continue today, is welcome.

The Bill is fundamentally sound, and sets out a practical and positive way in which marine sites can be protected. It will fill in the gaps in the protection of the marine environment by designating nationally important sites in the waters around England and Wales, which are not covered by European designations. Earlier this year, the RSPB commissioned research in support of the Bill to highlight marine environments that could receive protection and management. I shall cite just two for their importance.

Dungeness is on a headland on the Kent coast between Folkestone and Hastings. The site is nationally important for populations of great-crested grebes—there are more than a 1,000 birds at that site—and red-throated divers, of which there are more than 300; they feed offshore in winter. The area is also a vital feeding ground in summer for birds, including internationally important breeding populations of common terns, little terns and mediterranean gulls. Sometimes it is right to follow the advice of one's parliamentary researcher, and sometimes it is wrong. When I was filling in the slip for my entry in "Dod's Parliamentary Companion", my researcher advised me most heartily not to say that I was an avid bird watcher. I ignored that advice and am pleased that I share the distinction of being a member of the RSPB with the hon. Member for Uxbridge. I know that he will appreciate the importance of the bird colonies that I have just mentioned.

Another important site is Waldrons reef, offshore to the east of Bognor Regis, where there is an extensive area of sandstone bedrock. Mystery surrounds the origin of the angular boulders that are known as sarcens; some people think that they are glacial deposits, others that they are discarded ballast stones from early shipping. However, the underwater wildlife there includes an amazing collection of 24 species of sponges, as well as cuttlefish, tompot blennies, burrowing anemones, slipper limpets and hermit crabs.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) spoke about an article in The Daily Telegraph. I shall refer to one published on 13 October 2000 which told a wonderful story about the discovery of a wildlife-rich reef offshore near the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Apparently, the reef is the size of 50 football pitches and lies in just 25 m of water; it is not a coral reef but a reef built of ross worms, which construct protective

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hollows using mud and sea shells. The fact that such amazing natural features are still being discovered around our coasts illustrates perfectly the need for a proper inventory of those sites so that they can be protected.

The Bill has the potential to protect specific species as well as species-rich sites similar to those that I have just outlined. I pay tribute to the research of Mr. Chris Wood into Eunicella verrucosa or the pink sea fan, a species that will undoubtedly benefit from the Bill. Eunicella verrucosa is one of only two sea fans that grow in British waters. It is a soft coral found in south-west England, unlike the northern sea fan, Swiftia pallida, which occurs in western Scotland. It is a slow-growing and long-lived species, which is especially prone to damage caused by fishing gear and careless divers. It is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 2000 and is one of the marine species for which a biodiversity action plan has been prepared. The aim of the current recording of the sea fan by the Marine Conservation Society is to add to the knowledge of sea fan distribution, habitat and condition and complement other research aimed at preserving the species.

Sea fans are filter feeders and can be found in rocky areas. They are oriented across the current and are sufficiently flexible to withstand quite a bit of buffeting. The problem that the hon. Member for North–West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) highlighted with wind power and the cross currents that it could create will probably not trouble the sea fan too much. Sea fans normally live deeper than any wave surge, so are not usually seen in water shallower than 20 m. Fans grow typically in an open rocky habitat among dead men's fingers and ross coral.

The species is located in the south-west waters of the British isles, but can also be found around the south-western coasts of Europe, the Mediterranean and north-west Africa.

Mr. Chaytor: Does my hon. Friend agree that listing the idiosyncratic habits of obscure species is a technique that is often used by those who wish to delay the progress of a Bill?

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