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Mr. Dalyell: Can my right hon. Friend give any really heavyweight interests that were critical of the Bill, and the reasons why?

Mr. Meacher: I will come to that. Commercial and industrial interests are undoubtedly concerned about an extension of the designation process. The issue is whether it is possible to find compatibility between those and other interests. As I have explained—I have given the figures—there are already substantial levels of designation, totalling about 1.5 million hectares. It is not surprising that those interests are concerned about the possible impact of future designations. That is a crucial point in relation to the Bill and its future.

We are pursuing internationally agreed strategies under annexe V of the Oslo and Paris convention, which include reducing or eliminating inputs of hazardous and radioactive substances in the north-east Atlantic. Annexe V contains a strategy on the protection and conservation of ecosystems and biological diversity of the marine environment. Another is ACSCOBANS, if I can introduce another ghastly acronym. It stands for the agreement on

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the conservation of small cetaceans of the Baltic and North seas; ACSCOBANS is a great deal better than having to repeat all that each time.

Mr. Gardiner: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will with some trepidation.

Mr. Gardiner: I rise only to say that Askaban has a far more widely known meaning for all children in the United Kingdom because it is in the Harry Potter books. It is the prison for magical creatures. Since the Minister was referring to such magical creatures, perhaps it is appropriate.

Mr. Meacher: One of the great pleasures is that I learn something every time I attend these debates. I am glad to know that. I missed it in my earlier life.

ACSCOBANS came into force under the previous Government in March 1994. Its aim is to promote the close co-operation between parties with a view to achieving and maintaining a favourable conservation status for small cetaceans in the Baltic and North sea.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Meacher: I am getting a little concerned, but I give way.

Mr. Banks: My right hon. Friend is talking about cetaceans. May I mention crustaceans? We should consider not just the welfare of marine wildlife, as it were, in the marine environment, but how they are subsequently exploited. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 278 on Barney the lobster? The Department is, I hope, working with Bristol university on the development of a crustastun. Will he give his ministerial attention to the welfare of lobsters and how they are cooked?

Mr. Meacher: Sometimes one learns more than one bargained for. I cannot immediately remember the wording of that early-day motion but I know of my hon. Friend's real and deep concern on these matters. I shall look at it and promise to get in touch with him next week. Perhaps we can have some further discussion.

Mr. Dismore: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Meacher: I think my generosity is getting the better of me.

Mr. Dismore: On the issue of cooking lobsters, I understand that Mr. Rick Stein has a theory that, if we keep a lobster in the deep freeze for some time beforehand, it chills it to such a degree that it does not realise it is being cooked.

Mr. Meacher: I think that the Bill is about the preservation of marine species, not the subtleties of slaughtering particularly tasty species.

The UK hosted the third ACSCOBANS meeting in July 2000. I mention that because several hon. Members raised the important question of bycatch. A resolution, which was strongly supported by the UK, setting clear limits on

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levels of incidental take of small cetaceans was agreed. Bycatch of whales or dolphin species above 1.7 per cent.—I do not know how the figure was arrived at but it is relatively low, I suppose—is regarded as unacceptable. To meet that target, an intergovernmental working group is developing a UK bycatch response strategy.

Biodiversity action plans have been very effective on land and we are now trying to apply them at sea. As part of the UK's biodiversity action plan, there are specific plans for the conservation of 19 species, including six plans for group species—for baleen whales, tooth whales, small dolphins, commercial fish, deep-water fish and marine turtles. A co-ordinated steering group led by my Department is taking forward cetacean action plans working with representatives from non-governmental organisations, other Government Departments, the devolved Administrations, fishermen and other stakeholders.

Let me turn briefly to the World Wildlife Fund oceans recovery campaign. Hon. Members will be aware of that campaign, so I shall take this opportunity to refer to some of its main objectives.

First, it is seeking an improved network of marine protected areas to protect marine wildlife and habitats, and this Bill falls squarely within that aim. It supports the idea of an improved network of marine protection areas, which we are working to achieve through the application of the habitats and birds directives. It also supports the introduction of marine environmental high-risk areas, working under the auspices of the Ospar convention and through the development of ideas under the review of marine nature conservation. We support that objective and several of our initiatives are designed to achieve it.

Secondly, it supports the introduction of fishing-free zones, which is an extremely important proposal. We support the principle of fishing-free zones where they are justified, but we have yet to see the scientific evidence to support their introduction in UK waters. There would also be difficulties with implementation, because under the EU common fisheries policy establishing protected areas in international fisheries requires agreement in the Fisheries Council. Socio-economic effects would also have to be considered, particularly as it is not Government policy to make compensation available as a result of closures put in place to protect stocks.

Having said all that, I return to the hon. Member for Uxbridge and his Bill. I recognise the considerable work that has gone into it and the real commitment that the hon. Gentleman has shown in bringing it to the House today. The principle of taking action to identify and protect the most important marine sites is unquestionably a valuable one. The hon. Member for Mid–Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who was very generous in his remarks, said that there was a gap in coverage of sensitive areas that will not be covered by designation under the habitats and birds directives. We acknowledge that, but if and when we legislate in this complex area, which is regulated by overlapping regimes and controls, we must make sure that the systems that we introduce do not further complicate an already complex, piecemeal mosaic. The hon. Member

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for Mid-Norfolk recognised, quite fairly, that we need to rationalise the present rather variegated framework. The question for the Government is whether the Bill is the most appropriate instrument for that purpose. I hope that I carry all hon. Members with me when I say that we must not apply a simplistic solution to a complicated problem.

Legislating in the marine environment is certainly never easy. Several hon. Members have acknowledged that there are still serious unresolved concerns about the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends have drawn attention to this very openly in relation to offshore oil and gas exploration, wind farms, ports development and certain sporting interests.

I also noted that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was seeking a derogation in the Bill for the interests of inshore commercial fisheries. That was one example. Additionally, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the need for further research, which I entirely support, to be sure about conservation impacts. Therefore, there are problems. The Government believe that those legitimate interests have to be fully considered before the Bill, perhaps in modified form, can finally proceed.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: I shall not give way now.

I want to be as helpful as I can in the light of the virtual consensus on the Bill, but, for the reasons that I have just set out, we cannot support the Bill in its current form. Nevertheless, if it is the will of the House to give the Bill a Second Reading we are content to have further discussions in Committee with the Bill's promoter and sponsors. I hope that it will be understood that I cannot make any commitment at this stage on the Bill's ultimate fate, but we recognise the value of its objectives, the sincerity of its promoter, the manner in which he introduced it today and the support that it has received from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. We certainly share those concerns and interests and, as I said, we are content to have further deliberations in Committee on the application of its main provisions.

2.6 pm

Mr. Randall: I thank the Minister very sincerely for his comments, and I do not think that any of us could have wished for more than that commitment. Our intention was to have a constructive debate, and that is precisely what we have had today. I hope that we shall have just such a debate in Committee. I also thank hon. Members, both those who are inside and outside the Chamber, for their support on the issue, which is not as simple as it may sometimes seem. I am also grateful for the power of "the infantry", who have been very useful in this debate.

Without taking anything for granted, I hope that the Bill will now be read a Second Time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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