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Mr. Pound: Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of marine fauna, will he join me in paying tribute to the promoter of the Bill for introducing for the first time in the House a discussion of the worm-like Enteropneusta of the phylum hemichordata, commonly known as the sea squirt? For the first time we have had a sensible discussion on this simple but pleasant creature, which is noted in biology primarily for having undiscernible gonads. We have been educated by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall).
One of the great impending debates for the House and the nation in the next few years is the future of our energy policy, which could involve harnessing wave or wind energy. Either of those sources of energy used at sea will have important official, aesthetic and habitat implications for the environment of the area in which they are sited, as has been discussed.
It would be preferable to have a clear strategic view of where hundreds, possibly thousands, of windmills are to be positioned, rather than to bumble through on a one-off application basis, which would lack consistency. An effective strategy could save huge costs, would reduce inconsistencies and enable the benefits and disadvantages to be considered on a balanced basis. It should not be assumed that having a proper regulatory framework would work to the disadvantage of sea industries, or the tourism industry.
Linda Gilroy: Would the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that those interested in marine conservation should be able to accommodate those needs, because climate has a significant impact on our use of energy and on the health of the seas, and of plankton in particular? It would be imperative for us to find such accommodation, and that should not be a difficulty.
The Bill could also be used to encourage marine-related tourism and to develop educational facilities, which are currently significantly underdeveloped in Britain compared with other countries. At the moment, most
Where we have identified species or habitats that are considered to be of such national importance that they should be protected, it is necessary that the power exists to enforce that policy if it is to work. Again, that will require flexibility because of the significant variations in habitat movement, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has said, and seasonal changes that exist in the sea. The relevant statutory conservation agencies should be able to implement management schemes on a site-by-site basis.
As we are an island nation, the sea is the key part of our national psyche. We should value it as an important part of our environment, and the Bill should provide the mechanism for us to give marine conservation the status that it requires and deserves.
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on achieving the Second Reading of this important Bill and on initiating a debate that has perhaps occasionally been more educative than we would require or even like. Like Uxbridge, my constituency is landlocked. In fact, it is probably about as far from the sea as any constituency in this country, so I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for presenting a Bill that would ensure that future generations of people from Uxbridge, West Bromwich, East and beyond would enjoy marine habitats for years to come.
I speak in this debate because West Bromwich is the nature capital of the midlands. I am lucky to have at the heart of my constituency the beautiful Sandwell valleyan ancient woodland and green space that has brought pleasure to countless generations of ramblers, anglers, scouts and guides, boaters and pond dippers, amateur botanists and swan watchers. In fact, the valley lies at the centre of the Black Country urban forest, and its important role in black country life has been protected only because of the laws that have enabled us to resist the tarmackers and the bulldozers. I welcome the Bill because it would allow us to extend that protection to our marine environments throughout the country.
Our valley is home to many of England's key species, including the speckled wood butterfly, the pipistrelle bat, the wood anemone and the wood warbler, so the hon. Member for Uxbridge will know that, like him, we in West Bromwich take our wildlife protection seriously. In fact, we have heard that he is a keen ornithologist, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner). I invite them to come, at any time, to join generations of bird watchers who have walked along the streets of West Bromwich to Sandwell valley patiently to spot kingfishers, snipe, grey herons, willow warblers, whitethroats, skylarks, kestrels, green woodpeckers, redshanks, little ringed plovers, shovellers, swifts, sand martins, house martins and swallows.
The provisions for the protection of nationally important sites in England and Wales are substantially strengthened under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Government recognised that they had to
We should not forget that three out of four of the world's biggest oil spills have threatened the British coast and waters. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) mentioned the salt marshes, three quarters of which have been lost during the past century. Some 50 per cent. of the deaths of the endangered northern right whalesadly, now extinct in British watersare caused by being hit by ships in coastal waters, so it is now time to shift our focus to tackling the multitude of problems that face our unique natural environments.
I praise my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for the work that they did in 1981 in securing the marine nature reserves. I afraid that I was not around on 27 November 1962, when my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow first raised the issue, but the action that some hon. Members have wanted to take has been overdue for some years.
We have had a very good debate today, and it has involved my first foray with the infantry on a Friday. This is my second contribution after my maiden speech, and I welcome the easy ride that Opposition Members have given me, but I shall now sit down and let my right hon. Friend the Minister reply to the debate.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I thoroughly agree with the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson). This is one of those debates that, in my opinion, make private Members' days well worth having, not only for the purpose of finding out about obscure marine species such as the sea squirtsometimes given its Latin designation, of which I have never heard and of which I dare say I shall never hear againbut, mainly, for the purpose of engaging in a serious, non-partisan examination of a very important but relatively neglected issue.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), as sincerely as all who have spoken, on his choice of Bill. Having, as he said, won the lottery, he may not have got the money, but I think he has dealt with all the begging letters and petitions extremely well in coming up with this as his final choice.
The hon. Gentleman made a very fair, balanced, reasonable and supportive speech, to which I shall try to respond in like manner. He did say, howeverI noted this particularlythat a much wider strategy than that contained in the Bill was needed if the marine environment is to be fully protected. That is true.
I shall take this opportunity briefly to set out the Government's approach to the marine environment and conservation, because, as others have said, such opportunities regrettably do not occur very often. I am aware from the speeches of Members in all parts of the House that there is a general wish to ensure that we act together to conserve our precious marine biodiversity. The
It has been said that some 50 per cent. of Britain's biodiversitymore than 40,000 speciesexists in the marine environment. Our oceans and seas cover more than 70 per cent. of the earth's surface. Oceans and seas offer us food from fishing and aquaculture, and opportunities to exploit renewable energy sources such as wind power. I shall return to that later as well. They are an important influence on the climate, and are important in breaking down waste. One speaker referred to the mess coming in from the sea; the mess going out to the sea from the land worries me much more, but there is certainly a problem. On or under the sea bed are minerals and energy supplies.
As others have said, we have made major strides in improving conservation on land, notably in the landmark Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which I was privileged to take through the House. It will give English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales all the tools that they needI thinkto ensure that sights of special scientific interest on land are brought into a favourable condition. The Government, indeed, have set a pretty testing specific target to bring 95 per cent. of them into such a condition by 2010. However, as almost all hon. Members have said, the sea surrounding us deserves similar attention.
We acknowledge that not enough progress has been made on the marine environment. For several reasons, we do not have a comprehensive system of marine protected areas in British waters. One reason is that we do not yet possess the same depth of knowledge about marine ecosystems as we have about the terrestrial environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) said, we are sometimes unaware of the biodiversity because we cannot see it, so we are not immediately aware when it is lost or damaged.
Another reason is that the marine environment is ecologically more complex: setting the limits of protected areas is problematic in an environment whose nature is fluid and ever changing. A further reason is that the sea has historically, for 2,000 years or more, been available for us to use, exploit and traverse as we please. There are few individual ownership rights over the seathat should not changeand the uses of the sea are subject to a range of different mechanisms for the management of human activities that has developed over time. A large percentage of those mechanisms are agreed in European and international forums, which I must admit adds to their complexity.
We should not underestimate the problems associated with developing an approach, which the Bill is designed to do, to managing our influences on the marine environment, in recognition of its great ecological value. It would be a mistake to develop a system of protected areas that could give rise to the presumption that the rest of the marine environment was of no concern. To be fair to the hon. Member for Uxbridge, he said no such thingin fact, he acknowledged the other legitimate interests in our marine environment. Although the designation of protected areas is important, as Minister for the
Despite standing by my statement that we have not done enough, we have recently made a good deal of progress in protecting the seas surrounding our coast. Many activities that damage the marine environment have now been banned or brought under tight controls. We no longer dump sewage sludge or low-level radioactive waste in the seathose initiatives were started under the previous Government. Tighter controls have reduced the amount of mercury and cadmium going into the north-east Atlantic. Furthermore, we have banned the use of many pesticides that are harmful to marine life, and played a full part in European and international efforts to protect the oceans globally.
The Bill, which is about identifying and conserving nationally important marine sites, needs to be seen against the background of the habitats and birds directives, both because they already exist and so must be taken into account, and because their presence adds to the complexity of the mosaic that is our legacy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) gave some details that I can now confirm. To date, within territorial waters, there are 133 marine special protection areas and 151 candidate special areas of conservation. Our best estimate of the total area of coastal and marine Natura 2000 sites is about 1.5 million hectaresa considerable area. The new regulations that we are introducing will place a duty on the Secretary of State to designate SACs and SPAs between 12 nautical milesthe limit of national watersand 200 nautical miles from baseline. That, too, represents a substantial extension of conservation areas. The UK will be the first EU member to introduce such regulations.
My Department has let a contract with the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee to identify and agree relevant habitats and species in that 12 to 200-mile marine zone, to develop selection criteria and refine habitat definitions and to collate known data on those habitats and species. The committee is due to report in March, after which the Government will move to consider potential site identification.
One Membermy hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West, I thinkreferred to the Darwin mounds, which are interesting. They are likely to be the first candidate for declaration as a special area of conservation once the new marine regulations are in place. The Darwin moundsthis is new to meare an example of sandy coral mounds and they are no less fascinating for being in the cold, deep waters of the Rockall trough rather than the tropical waters in which we would normally expect coral reefs to reside. They are important not only as species in their own right, but as the habitat for sponges, starfish, worms, sea urchins, sea stars, gastropods, crabs and deep-sea demersal fish. I am amazed to find that all those marine species, let alone the coral mounds to contain them, are so near our shores, but that is a fact.
The key point for the hon. Member for Uxbridge is that we recognise that there may be gaps where data have still to be obtained and reviewed and in the coverage of nationally important marine wildlife and habitats. In our view, that should be addressed by the review of marine nature conservation.
I established that review and the working group to undertake it in 1999 to evaluate the success of previous marine nature conservation measures and to make proposals to improve marine nature conservation. The review is led by my Department and made up of a wide range of stakeholder organisations. I must say that I hate the word "stakeholder", but it applies to the relevant interests. The review includes other Departments, countryside agencies, the non-governmental organisations and, significantly, the commercial and recreational interests, which need to be part of the debate.
I should make a point in parenthesis. Several Members said that three marine nature reserves are designated under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. There are in fact four: Skomer, Lundy, Strangford Lough and St. Kilda, but that is a small matter of detail.
The working group published its interim report in May. It is a good review that attempted to highlight the full range of options on the way forward, from a complete overhaul of the current system to making minor changes. I am very interested in the working group's proposal of a regional seas pilot scheme in the Irish sea to test some ideas developed during the review. We shall consider that and, if we decide to proceed, we hope that the scheme might start in early 2002, with the results of the pilot available in early 2004.
Several hon. Members referred to the marine stewardship report, which is relevant to the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in March that the Government are to launch measures to improve marine conservation here and abroad, including a series of marine stewardship reports. The first will set out the Government's goals for an integrated and sustainable management of the marine environment across the range of marine sectors.
The views of key stakeholders will be listened to at three workshops, the first of which I chaired in the past week. It was a hard-hitting session, with the commercial and industrial interests and the conservation interests discussing their differences frankly and straightforwardly. Both sides want to find a compatible way forward.