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Marine Environment

5. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): What measures she is taking to protect the marine environment for future generations. [55117]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The first marine stewardship report was published on 1 May. It sets out our strategy for the conservation and sustainable development of our marine environment. Copies have been placed in the Library.

Lawrie Quinn: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I think that he is aware of the important work that is being done locally in Scarborough and Whitby and along the coastline by Yorkshire Water, in its coast care project. Will he congratulate all the people involved, including those at Yorkshire Water, the contractors, and many members of the local community? My constituency has a long, historic and respectful relationship with the sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the Johannesburg summit considers these important issues in a global context, projects such as Yorkshire Water's coast care should be viewed as the way forward in protecting the sea for future generations?

Mr. Meacher: I am glad to offer the tribute that my hon. Friend requests. It is very important that the water companies recognise their coastal management responsibilities. We have instigated a review of coastal management, but it is for those companies to establish responsible care regimes such as Yorkshire Water's. We certainly intend to draw attention to the matter at the world summit, and we have already established internationally based partnerships between several of our water companies and Governments, to try to encourage in many developing countries the services and skills at which those companies excel.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): The Minister may be aware of the irony of the situation whereby draconian measures will almost certainly be introduced by the Commission for the recovery of cod, hake and other species, yet the total allowable catch of sand eel has been set for at least double the amount that is currently being caught. Although I appreciate that the United Kingdom is

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impotent to do anything about that, other than using our 10 votes in the Council, does the Minister agree that if the sand eel catch—it is industrial trawling, which is extremely damaging to the marine environment—is not dramatically reduced, those draconian measures on cod and hake recovery will be totally meaningless?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Lady refers to draconian measures on cod and hake, but I would say that they are largely necessary. Eight stocks, including North sea cod, are fished in quantities that give rise to a severe risk of collapse. Last year, a recovery plan was implemented that closed 40,000 square miles of the North sea to preserve the spawning fields.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the sand eel fishery. Denmark is the European Union country that engages most in industrial fishing. Our scientists have had extensive discussions with its scientists about its impact. I understand that last December the Agriculture Council agreed that limitations should be placed on industrial fishing, and that certainly applies to the sand eel fishery.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the anxieties of the fishing industry about the threats to the marine environment posed by wind farms at sea, excessive depletion of aggregates and the discharge of pollutant water from oil and gas platforms? Will he ensure that the effects are fully researched and more tightly controlled? Will he also ensure that industrial fishing, which is a major threat to marine ecology, is not more tightly regulated but banned completely?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend's last point is a matter for the EU and the appropriate Council under the common fisheries policy. A complete ban would have wider implications than he suggests, but everyone agrees that the size of nets and fishing methods have to be reviewed if they are not to be utterly counter-productive.

I agree that coastal management is not only about preserving marine ecology but about trying to ensure a better balance between economic interests and conservation. Discharges from offshore oil platforms, the amount of produced water and other effects of industrial development around coasts can have dramatic consequences. The purpose of our review is better integration of environmental and economic interests, and to get all the players involved in forming policy.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I would like to ask the Minister a question of which I gave him a modest amount of notice. He mentioned the review of the regulatory scheme and system that affect developments in coastal waters, which was announced in the recent marine stewardship report. What does he hope that it will achieve? What is its geographical scope? Will it cover all territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles or be more restricted? If the Government are committed to a review of regulations that affect development in coastal waters,

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what plans do they have for a similar review in waters further from the coast? If they have such plans, what are their likely time scale?

Mr. Meacher: I am grateful for the notice, albeit after Question Time had started. Perhaps that marks a new concordat in the quality of exchange of information between those on the Front Benches.

The hon. Gentleman asks a serious question, and I shall try to give him a serious answer. I hinted at it in my previous reply. The purpose of the review of the regulatory system that affects development in coastal waters is to reconcile the divergence of interest that has been apparent so often in the past between economic development and marine conservation. The Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) promoted is designed to do precisely that: designate marine sites of special interest and involve all the economic players—for example, those who want port development, offshore oil development and wind farms. They all need to be involved in developing policy. It is not one or the other; we can do far better than in the past in reconciling interests.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the extent of the review. It does not cover our territorial waters out only to 12 miles but to 200 miles. We propose to extend and apply the habitats directive to that distance. Britain is the first country to do that. [Interruption.] I can see that there are further ways of exchanging information; it is slightly novel to receive a further question when answering a question. I shall stick to what I have been asked formally.

The hon. Gentleman asked about time scale. We will undertake the work in the autumn and we plan to complete it around the end of the year.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): My right hon. Friend knows that the marine stewardship report received a warm welcome from environmental organisations such as the wildlife trusts and WWF-UK. What is his view of the proposal from those organisations for a marine Act for the UK? Will he confirm that he and his colleagues will continue to press for radical reform of the common fisheries policy to ensure that it takes account of environmental considerations, which are so important to fulfilling the report's objectives?

Mr. Meacher: I absolutely endorse my hon. Friend's latter point that the common fisheries policy needs a much stronger environmental dimension. Indeed, I would like to see a much closer relationship between the respective Environment and Fisheries Directorate-General in Brussels and the Councils.

On my hon. Friend's point about a marine Act, the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill is already going through the House. There has been talk of an oceans Act—we shall certainly raise the issues of world governance and the better protection of our oceans at the world summit—but that possibility would depend on its contents. We have already instigated a more integrated system of coastal management, and we are working under the terms of the Oslo and Paris conventions to tackle pollution from hazardous and radioactive substances. We are also proposing to pilot a framework for nature conservation in the Irish sea.

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At the North sea conference in Bergen, which I attended in March, we proposed—and obtained agreement—to designate marine protection areas belonging to a network of well-managed sites. This is not to say that there are not still gaps in the mosaic, but before we embark on further legislation, the important requirement is to digest and implement effectively the series of measures that have recently been put in place.

Bovine TB

6. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): If she will make a statement on bovine TB. [55119]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): TB in cattle is one of the most difficult animal health problems we face, and the increase in its incidence is continuing to give considerable concern. The Government are seeking to proceed on the basis of sound science drawn from independent scientific and veterinary experts. Action is centred around a five-point strategy that involves protecting human health, developing a TB vaccine, carrying out research into bovine TB, testing cattle for TB and putting controls in place, and the badger field trial.

Dr. Lewis: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Outbreaks of bovine TB more than doubled between 1995 and 2000. Does she think that that had anything to do with the decision in May 1997 to abandon the interim badger culling strategy?

Margaret Beckett: No, I do not. We are examining the risk factors now, but there is strong scientific support for carrying out the long-term research programme that is now under way, to settle once and for all whether there is a reservoir of disease in badgers specifically and in wildlife more generally, and whether there is cattle-to-cattle transmission—something that has not been looked at much in the past. We want to identify the problems once and for all so that we can tackle them.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, Cumbria was a bovine TB-free zone. Since we started to restock, however, there have been 20 reactor cases in the county, which is very worrying. I understand that the Ministry is carrying out major tests on the farms involved, but is being hampered by a shortage of at least 20 Ministry vets in the area. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we eradicate bovine TB from Cumbria, and that, to do that, we need money to employ more vets? The cases are a consequence of the restocking following the foot and mouth outbreak, so the cost should surely be borne by the Treasury. Let us do this quickly, before the disease gets into the badger population.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am grateful to him for raising it. He is quite right to say that there is a different set of concerns following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, in which so many animals, sadly, had to be killed. I am grateful to him for giving me this chance to encourage farmers who are restocking to ensure that they buy from herds with known disease-free status and that they get their animals tested. As my hon. Friend said,

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there is a testing programme in place to try to detect any incidence of the disease. It had not been drawn to my attention that there might be a shortage of vets to carry out the tests in Cumbria, and I shall look into that.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The number of cows affected by bovine TB is now a multiple of those affected by BSE. What will happen if the present rate of increase continues, so that the timetable set out in the Krebs research is overtaken by the pace of the disease? The Secretary of State mentioned finding out "once and for all" whether there is a link between badgers and bovine TB. What will happen if, as is entirely possible, we do not get such an outcome once and for all? In that unfortunate eventuality, at what stage would the Government start to draw up an alternative approach?

Margaret Beckett: Let me begin where the right hon. Gentleman ended. I did say that we were looking at other issues—not just at the badger trial, but at cattle-to-cattle transmission and so forth.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the greater incidence of TB. I think he must have been referring to the results of the recent testing. The programme was of course suspended during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Although we are paying close attention to what is happening, it is a little early to conclude that some major unforeseen development is in progress.

I hope the House will accept that it was sensible for the Department to act as it did. Once the testing programme was able to resume, the Department naturally began with the areas where the highest incidence was anticipated.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I agree with my right hon. Friend's answers. It is clearly important for us to continue with the Krebs trials, and do so with determination. It would be unwise to alter that strategy radically in mid-stream. I do, however, suggest two further steps. First, I think the compensation arrangements for those affected by TB should be reviewed. It has been demonstrated that although they seem generous to outsiders, they are insufficient to meet the costs of the outbreak. Secondly, I think the scale and frequency of the testing exercise itself should be reviewed. That, too, has been shown to be insufficient.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is of course unfortunate, as ever, that there is an economic as well as a disease consequence where TB is detected. I fear I cannot tell my hon. Friend that the Department will always be able to compensate for every incidence, but, as he says, we must do all that we can to maintain the variety of testing and identification programmes and learn as much as we can about what is a very damaging disease, not only in cattle but in humans.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Secretary of State has rightly emphasised the seriousness of the issue. She is aware of what has been said by Members in all parts of the House, and her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State recently spoke of a serious and growing animal health problem.

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Farmers, animal welfare groups and many Members of Parliament fear that the Government—I emphasise "the Government"—may be failing to devote enough resources to dealing with a problem that continues to grow. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that her Department has enough resources to cope with that growing problem, and can she tell us what is the current backlog of tests for bovine TB, in terms of both the number of tests and the delay?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those figures, but I will send them to him in writing. As for the general issue, it is always possible to argue that more resources would be helpful. Let me repeat what I said to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: although we await the outcome of the recently resumed testing programme with considerable concern, it is not yet clear that we are experiencing a major unexpected incidence of the disease, as opposed to its emergence after a period during which studies did not continue. It is also not clear that we lack resources to deal with it. Obviously, however, we will keep the issues under review.

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