HC Deb 26 October 2001 vol 373 cc565-94

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.59 am
Sir Sydney Chapman

I was saying an hour ago, before a most important statement, that my hon. Friend's Bill—I welcome him to his Front Bench post, and hope that it is a good omen for his measure—deals with the marine waters of England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland have devolved powers. I hope that those countries will follow us by introducing similar legislation, which is vital to the interests of conservation.

I appreciate that through the Bill my hon. Friend is not trying to interfere with existing European marine sites. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) mentioned one that is near her constituency. My hon. Friend has targeted his Bill correctly.

Many of the Bill's provisions are mirrored in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994. I shall make two rather detailed points. I agree that such matters are perhaps best kept for consideration in Committee, but I would like to give them an airing now.

Clause 1(3) replicates clause 28(3) of the 1981 Act. It provides for one month for public consultation and comment before the Secretary of State or the Welsh Assembly decides whether to designate a marine area. A special case could be made for providing a slightly longer period—perhaps two or three months—for reasons that I might explore in Committee. On the other hand, the Secretary of State in England or the Welsh Assembly have six months to confirm, or otherwise, the designation after hearing comments and public consultations. I believe that that period could be shortened. I see no reason why it should not be limited to three months.

I have a detailed point to raise on clause 7, which relates to areas where the marine sites can be designated. For good reasons, they are restricted to areas seaward of the "mean low water mark" of ordinary tides. I understand the reason for that: it is to avoid any overlap with existing sites of special scientific interest. As there are so few sites bordering esturial waters or the seaside, I suggest that when new areas are designated and they are not adjacent to SSSIs, there should be provision for the designation to go inland to at least the high water mark. Shores can be crucial to maintaining conservation.

I shall support the Bill. I am conscious that it has all-party support. I know that these issues are strengthened by having across-the-Floor support. I pay tribute, for example—this will not be a comprehensive list—to the hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) for the tremendous contribution they have made to conservation measures, not least the 1981 Act. The Minister is rightly highly regarded for his interest in conservation matters. It would be a terrible pity and a keen disappointment if this most worthy Bill, which has the noblest of objectives, did not at least proceed to Committee.

Finally, I ask the Minister immediately to consult his right hon. and hon. Friends to ensure that the Government come up with a joined-up approach to this vital measure and ensure that it takes its place on the statute book.

12.4 pm

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

It is a pleasure to follow my north London neighbour, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), and to support the principles outlined in the Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), another north London neighbour, on his excellent introduction of his private Member's Bill. As someone who has been relatively lucky in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I believe that he set a high standard for the rest of us to follow. I shall probe his case and raise one or two concerns, but I hope to do so in a way that does not provoke his ire or that of other hon. Members.

I come to the Bill with no great constituency pressure, although the excellent Hertfordshire wildlife trust is keen that I support the Bill, as are one or two other constituents.

Mr. Randall

The hon. Gentleman has a Middlesex constituency, so I should just like to point out that it is the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful for that chastisement and vaguely helpful intervention.

My interest in these matters derives partly from the pleasure that I get from kayaking. I believe that Denis Healey said that every politician should have a hinterland, canoeing forms a small part of mine. In that respect, the timing of the Bill is not fantastic, as one could not hope to go sea kayaking at the moment. One would have to go to inland waters such as the Tryweryn or the Dart to get some practice for the summer, when sea kayaking is much more feasible around our coast. In the last seven or eight years, I have very much appreciated the marine life around the coast of Pembrokeshire, the Llyn peninsula near Anglesey and, indeed, the Hebrides. The pleasure of seeing whales, porpoises, seals and sea birds and recognising that their survival depends on our efforts to provide further protection for the marine environment makes me want to support the hon. Member for Uxbridge today.

As my intervention on the hon. Gentleman demonstrated, I have a particular interest in renewable energy. I am lucky enough to chair the parliamentary renewable and sustainable energy group, and the potential for offshore wind farms around our coastline to contribute to our energy needs is huge. As I suggested, the wind industry supports the progress of the Bill, but it wants further discussion of its concerns. It is worried that a network of designated marine reserves would further hinder the development of offshore wind sites at a time when the Government are trying to streamline the consents process for such sites.

Mr. Randall

Will the hon. Gentleman outline why the wind industry thinks that those reserves will be a hindrance?

Mr. Thomas

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall do so in a moment.

I have a further point of contact with the Bill through my roots at Aberystwyth university. Nobody who was a student there could fail to be aware of the excellent Friends of Cardigan Bay, and its campaigning work over the years to protect bottlenose dolphins in the bay. To be fair, the Government have not been at all idle in the last four years in trying to protect the marine environment. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 touched on the marine environment and additional protection for areas of outstanding natural beauty has rightly been incorporated in legislation. Where AONBs are on the coastline, additional protection is provided for the marine environment. That is also true of SSSIs that border our coastline.

Another key dimension of the 2000 Act in relation to the marine environment is the section that makes it an offence recklessly to disturb marine animals. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas)—my namesake— and for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) for their campaigns to get that provision into legislation. Much as I enjoy a jet-ski, I recognise the damage that it can cause and the need for protection. The Government were therefore right to take action.

I commend the Minister for the Environment for an initiative of his that led to a positive Government measure—the United Kingdom's adoption of an internationally agreed strategy under annexe 5 of the Ospar convention to reduce, and indeed eliminate, discharges of hazardous and radioactive substances into the Atlantic. As I understand it, the measure was opposed for some considerable time by the previous Government. The fact that the Government have taken action under the agreement on the conservation of small cetaceans of the Baltic and North seas, to examine further the reasons why porpoises are being caught and their numbers reduced, is also positive. I welcome the development of a UK bycatch response strategy, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed).

The process of strengthening environmental regulation of the offshore oil and gas industry was also important. That regulation was tightened in May. However, probably the single most important initiative for the future protection of our marine environment was the establishment of a review of marine nature conservation some two years ago. Its purpose was properly to evaluate the success or failure of marine nature conservation measures. Other hon. Members have mentioned the crucial conclusion of the interim review, which says that the one key option available to us to protect the purely national parts of our marine environment—the marine nature reserves specified in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—has been a failure, as only three sites in the UK have so far been designated.

Given the length of time that my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) spent some 20 years ago trying to get the marine nature reserve initiative on to the statute book, I hesitate to ram home the message about its failure. Sadly, however, the review was brutal about the failure of MNRs. It pointed out how bureaucratic the MNR process had become and spoke of its unrealistic reliance on the need for complete consensus before designation could occur. It said that the legislation had been too prescriptive. The failure to designate the Menai straits as a marine nature reserve, despite the considerable effort that has been made in the past few years, is proof of that fact.

There was some doubt in the minds of those who undertook the review about whether the initiative was purely a legislative failure. Some thought that the policy position requiring total agreement to be reached among all the relevant interests before an MNR could be established was clearly a crucial contributory factor in its failure. Some marine waters in British waterways that are of European importance are already protected through their designation as special areas of conservation or special protection areas under the EC habitats and birds directives, to which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) has already alluded. As I understand it, there are already some 133 marine SPAs and 151 special sites of marine conservation in our territorial waters. They are part of the Natura 2000 network of sites that is being created. The crucial point about them is that they are designated because of their European and international significance. If sites are significant only to our marine environment, they cannot be covered under European directives.

I welcome this week's confirmation that the habitats directive is to be extended to all waters over which we exercise sovereignty, with a 200-mile limit. I also welcome the fact that we are going to be the first European state to incorporate the initiative in legislation.

We have already identified the first possible special area of conservation beyond the 12-mile limit: the Darwin mounds, a site that is situated near the north-west coast of Scotland. That is excellent news. I am told that the Darwin mounds site has a level of biodiversity equivalent to that of a tropical rainforest. Apparently, its importance relates to the substantial population of deep-water coral, Lophelia pertusa, which, for those not expert in Latin, is a cold-water coral. Another factor that gives the site such international importance is that the coral appears to be growing on sand, whereas before the discovery of the site such a phenomenon was widely thought to be impossible.

Clearly, the protection of such internationally important sites beyond the 12-mile limit is further excellent news for the protection of our marine environment. The problem with the habitats directive is that it covers only sites with elements of European significance. For example, two marine areas with special protection can be found on the coast of Wales in Cardigan bay—the Llyn peninsula and Cardigan bay itself. The Llyn peninsula was designated because of the importance of its estuaries and reefs, whereas Cardigan bay was designated because of its 100-plus colony of bottle-nosed dolphins. Other elements of national importance do not have the protection of the habitats directive, so the sub-tidal sea caves at Maen Meltt, which support a variety of sponges and cobblestone habitats, are not protected by the Llyn special area of conservation designation. The area would therefore benefit from the measures that the Bill seeks to introduce.

Just up the coast, there are nationally important marine sites, outside the internationally important sites, that receive no legal protection whatever. The inland sea between Holy island and Anglesey has sub-tidal basins that are extremely important for a range of marine invertebrates. The Skerries is a wonderful area in which to see seabirds, and crucial tidal rapids support a wide range of sea life, again with no legal protection.

Thus marine sites of special scientific interest need to be established to secure further protection and to manage nationally important wildlife sites—even if they are not of European significance. The urgency of the case for action has been chronicled by a number of organisations—the excellent World Wide Fund for Nature published a report in September last year entitled the "Marine Health Check", based on 16 case studies of key species or habitat indicators representing different levels of the marine food chain. The report says: Among the habitats seen to be in severe decline are eelgrass meadows, home to the seahorse, which have disappeared from 85 per cent. of the UK's estuaries, and saltmarsh". That is just one example of the need for action.

An example highlighted by the excellent RSPB, touched on by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), is Lyme bay, which has some of the most diverse marine habitats in Devon and Dorset and is known for its rocky reefs. Concern about the reefs has grown ever since local fishermen and divers started to report damage and decreasing catches. Some three years ago, a dive survey confirmed the need for action by nature conservation agencies to protect the most biologically sensitive reefs.

Work is under way in partnership with local fishermen to find an agreed method of promoting and protecting the reefs and the fish in that area, but designation as a marine site of special scientific interest would give added clout to the work. Stronger enforcement action will also be necessary to protect any sites that are designated as marine SSIs. The duty under clause 3 would further the conservation of sites, which is important in that regard. However, there is an issue about the funding for bodies engaged in marine conservation enforcement. Some of the non-governmental organisations that have commented on the Bill are worried about the need for additional funding.

I want to deal with a specific anxiety about the Bill's impact on offshore wind farms, partly in response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Uxbridge. The British Wind Energy Association is keen for the Bill to make progress and for it to be considered in Committee, but it is worried about the law of unintended consequences. Offshore wind farms tend to require shallower waters, which are often potentially important wildlife sites. It points out that the criterion for designating sites of special scientific interest—the terrestrial equivalent of marine sites of special scientific interest—is that the selected area should contain more than 1 per cent. of the British population of a specific species.

Mr. Randall

I am aware of that anxiety. It should not be assumed that the current threshold of 1 per cent. will necessarily be appropriate for the marine environment. It is important to understand that the Bill would not grant any new powers to stop developments in the marine environment.

Mr. Thomas

I agree especially with the second element of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. However, the use of that 1 per cent. threshold until now may help the hon. Gentleman to understand the anxiety throughout the wind energy community, which is nevertheless keen to discuss the matter further with him.

The two most common species on the 18 offshore wind farm sites that the Government have designated so far are the common scoter and the red-throated diver. Their numbers tend to go beyond the threshold. On 10 sites, the threshold is easily reached.

Mr. Randall

Common scoter have almost disappeared as a British breeding bird. Although it may be inconvenient, it is important to conserve that species.

Mr. Thomas

I appreciate that and I support the hon. Gentleman's aim of protecting sea birds, such as the common scoter, which face the threat of extinction. However, we do not want to prevent sensible wind farm development.

The wind energy industry is also worried about the lack of data on much of our marine environment. The possible adoption of the precautionary approach may mean that the sites where wind energy developers have collected data on the marine environment may take on greater importance because of a lack of information on others.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge will also understand that experience of the hunt for onshore wind farm sites shows that the designation of SSSIs and the justified anxiety to protect wildlife in those areas have been used as an excuse—sometimes a genuine excuse—by energy conservatives, who are desperate to stop wind farms.

Mr. Randall

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that SSSIs are valid, or does he believe that such designation should not occur?

Mr. Thomas

Of course they are valid. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the additional measures that the Government introduced in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act to toughen up their protection. I merely make the point to amplify and explain the concern of the wind farm community about the possible designation of marine sites.

I have had experience of the hon. Gentleman's persuasive powers in the context of hospitals, in which we have a mutual interest. I have confidence that he and those working with him will be able to persuade the wind farm community of the need for the Bill to make further progress, and I hope that he will meet them.

Ironically, wind farms may help to bring wildlife benefits by creating no-go areas in the marine environment, which may become havens for wildlife. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point that no existing organisation would be given new powers under the Bill to prevent marine developments such as wind farms. Nevertheless, I hope that after this discussion he will have a further understanding of the concerns of the wind industry.

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to achieve with the Bill. I hope that given the particular anxiety to which I have referred he will meet the wind energy community to try to resolve the issue. I wish the Bill well in its progress through the House.

12.26 pm
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on his presentation of the Bill. Hon. Members have recognised that my hon. Friend has put a vast amount of work into this legislation, with the support of hon. Members from both sides. He rightly emphasised the support given by non-governmental organisations, especially the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

My hon. Friend is a distinguished ornithologist, and he has a specialist interest and knowledge in this area. I congratulate him on the way in which he presented the Bill and on his contributions in the give and take of the debate. The Conservative Front-Bench team welcome the Bill, and we wish it every success and a swift passage.

In the debate so far—I hope that other hon. Members will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—we have had good, short contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) in his interventions. We have had experienced contributions from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), whom I have had the privilege of hearing on a number of occasions on such subjects, and from the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). We heard a long, well-read speech from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who I assume was in favour of the Bill, although I was not quite sure. The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) supported the Bill, but rightly raised concerns that we hope to address.

The basic question is whether my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge has identified a serious gap in nature conservation. I think that we all agree that he has—that is the most important principle that we have established. He has much evidence to support that from the specialist Committees of the House of Commons. I shall not go into great detail, but I shall briefly refer to the 20th report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee on UK biodiversity, of 22 November 2000. Its conclusions said: The Government must address the range of problems and inadequacies in their approach to marine biodiversity. As an island nation, the conservation of marine biodiversity should be paramount and the Government should consider whether a new statutory agency is required to deal with marine biodiversity issues. There is a great deal of other evidence on this subject.

What have the Government done? To be fair, they have moved a considerable way, and I praise them for that. In particular, like other hon. Members, I want to put on the record my appreciation of the work done by the Minister for the Environment, who has a long and distinguished track record in this area. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, he speaks with a great deal of knowledge.

The Government have identified that a gap exists in nature conversation involving marine wildlife. In 1998, they set up a working party to consider the options to improve protection for marine sites and species, and the interim report of its review of marine nature conservation was published by DEFRA in March 2001. Its most important conclusion was contained in paragraph 153, which states: The one option that the report cannot recommend is the retention of the status quo. At the very least, the continuing evolution of marine conservation regulation threatens to make an already complex situation even more confusing: some rationalisation—even if only at the level of the adoption of more common objectives—is essential. On this matter, there is consensus between conservationists, regulators and regulated. Many hon. Members know that it is rare to get those three groups together, singing off the same song sheet.

As I have said, the Government have recognised that something needs to be done, and the Minister is on record as saying just that. In fact, in the 13 July edition of Tribune, he made this comment on the Government's approach to United Kingdom biodiversity: Labour did a lot in its first term to improve the protection of the terrestrial environment. I believe that we need to do much more to protect our oceans and sea—which contain over half of our biodiversity. We are committed to producing a cross-Government, Marine Stewardship Report. That is excellent news, but many hon. Members and those outside Parliament would argue that we now need to go beyond producing reports. In all such complex situations, the danger is always that we study them to death. Genuine reservations have been raised, but we now need some form of implementation.

I have great faith in the Minister because he has already effectively accepted that something needs to be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, by introducing the Bill—which he has said does not contain a vast number of rules and regulations—is taking a first but important step on something about which consensus exists in the House. We should bear in mind the comment by the WWF in its update for June 2001: There is no national vision or policy for the marine environment. There is no single Government statement on the marine environment which draws together the areas of responsibility in DEFRA, DTI, MOD and others, nor is there any coordination of devolved and non-devolved matters.

By this private Member's Bill, we may be able to bring together all those interested parties. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish implied that several Whitehall Departments had reservations, so ironically, we may well be able to use the Bill as a tool to make a considerable advance in marine wildlife conservation.

I warmly welcome the Bill. It is an excellent example of a private Member's Bill that has all-party support, and it has been proposed by an hon. Member who is much respected on both sides of the House. I hope that the Minister, whom I know feels very sympathetic towards the Bill's aims, will give it Government support. He will undoubtedly flag up reservations, but I hope that we can proceed actively into Committee.

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, 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 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.

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.

Mrs. Helen Clark

I would like more detail about how the lives and livelihood of local fishermen are threatened by that renewable energy source.

Mr. Bellingham

I shall come to that in a moment, but I must first deal with dredging, if the hon. Lady does not mind. I shall return to her point. The fishermen want to work within the confines of the Bill, but they also have their concerns, which I hope will be addressed.

Worries have been expressed over the past few years about dredging, carried out with permission from the Crown Estate, for the building industry, the replenishment of sea defences and export. About 28 per cent. of all marine-dredged sand and gravel is exported. I want that to be reduced. It is one thing to deplete a precious national resource for our own needs, but its export should be queried.

I understand that new planning guidelines are being introduced for marine dredging, and I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. The system known as the Government view is to be replaced by more formal planning guidelines, which is important because dredging obviously has an impact on biodiversity. There is a significant short-term impact and recolonisation begins soon after dredging, but it can take up to five years for an area's biological status quo to be restored. That is very important.

In the run-up to the 1997 election, at which time I temporarily left the political arena, there was a significant debate in north-west Norfolk about Docking shoal and Race bank. Local fishermen were concerned as they thought that insufficient account was being taken of their interests. They are also convinced that the significant dredging for sand for the Skegness to Maplethorpe section of sea defences impacted on their industry.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge is so open-minded and I hope that the respective marine authorities that the Bill would introduce have a mechanism to deal specifically with dredging applications. I hope, too, that the new planning guidelines will play a significant role and that the new authority can be involved in shaping them.

On wind farms, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) pointed out that the Government's objective is for renewable energy to make up 10 per cent. of the UK's electricity requirement by 2010. I understand that the Crown Estate alone has 13 sites on which draft agreements have been entered into, and that two are in my constituency: Cromer and Lynn. On the Crown Estate sites alone, about 480 turbines will be constructed.

I agree with the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) that it is essential that we meet the renewable energy requirement or, indeed, surpass it. We must place as much emphasis as possible on renewable energy. I accept that wind farms will play an important role, and obviously offshore wind farms will play a critical role in providing that energy. My concern relates to the impact that those wind farms will have on inshore fisheries.

Obviously, during construction, those inshore fisheries will be disturbed. The site at Lynn will have 60 turbines. I think that there will be 30 turbines on the Cromer site. It will be a huge construction operation. That will certainly have an impact on local fisheries, including that at King's Lynn. Exclusion zones will, rightly, be in place around wind farms, and we do not yet know what effect propellers on turbines will have on fish shoals and other marine habitats. More research needs to be done.

I am not trying to be negative about wind farms. We must have wind farms, but their location will be crucial. I would like the competent marine authorities to co-opt on to the particular bodies the relevant fishing interests: for example, in my constituency, the Lynn fishermen's co-operative and the eastern sea fisheries committee. When the Bill goes into Committee, we could consider writing in a requirement to give paramount importance to inshore commercial fisheries. There is currently nothing in the Bill about fisheries. I have no doubt that if such a clause is inserted and we have a mechanism whereby the relevant marine authorities are involved in the planning process—both the Department of Trade and Industry consents for wind farms and the new planning guidelines for dredging—the Bill will have a beneficial effect for inshore fishermen.

I have no hesitation in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge. He has been fortunate in the ballot.

Mr. Pound

Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the rather strange subject of the problems of wind farming, as one who spent some time before the mast and has rubbed up against a few fishing folk in his daily, I have found that the average fisherman gets a richer crop if there is some obstruction on the sea bed such as a gun turret or ammunition platform. He describes wind farms as a menace to fisheries, and prays in aid the problem of the propellers. Is he concerned about the flying fish quota? How on earth can an aerial propeller cause any problems for marine fishermen?

Mr. Bellingham

I think that we need more research on the matter. I am flagging it up as a potential problem. If the propeller of a large turbine is going around very fast in a high wind, it is bound to create huge ripple effects on the water within its vicinity. I am merely pointing out what a number of fishermen who are far better qualified than me have pointed out—that that could have an effect on shoals coming in. What we surely need is more research. I am not didactic.

Mr. Chaytor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham

Of course I shall because the hon. Gentleman is an expert on wind farms.

Mr. Chaytor

It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to say that, but it is not true. I was simply curious about the logic of his reasoning. If there is a high wind, it is fairly obvious that there will be more than a ripple effect on the water. Any additional ripple effect by the turbines of a wind farm will surely be absolutely negligible.

Mr. Bellingham

The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that there will be a counter ripple effect by the propellers of the turbine. It has been pointed out to me by various fishermen that a man-made system that interferes with the delicate ecosystem may well produce side effects that we are not aware of at the moment. That is why there should be proper research into this.

In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge. As the shadow Deputy Leader of the House said, he is highly regarded and respected on both sides of the House. He came first in the ballot and he has put a huge amount of effort and research into the Bill. I am particularly impressed by the extent to which he has discussed the Bill very openly with all the different groups, bodies and organisations involved.

As I pointed out, the Bill is not perfect, but it is certainly an important step forward. We are all aware that there is a critical need to preserve this type of habitat. It is vital that the Bill is given a Second Reading and is discussed in great detail in Committee so that we can improve it and make it acceptable to every organisation involved.

12.56 pm
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on coming first in the ballot and on choosing this Bill to present to the House. I am very pleased that a Conservative Member is promoting such a Bill. The Conservatives' new-found support for environmental policies is most welcome. Perhaps this Bill provides a new interpretation of the concept of clear blue water.

If Conservative Members have not yet read last Saturday's edition of The Daily Telegraph, I would very much commend to them the article by the editor of The Ecologist. It is essentially an appeal to members of the Conservative party, suggesting that in their fundamental review of policies and principles there may be considerable mileage to be gained by taking a much more proactive view in support of environmental policies. In the past, there has been a suspicion that their affection for the environment has been largely due to the fact that some of them owned so much of it. Now there is an opportunity for them to show their support for sustainable development out of genuine principles and care for the wider good of the community.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge has done the House a service in bringing the marine environment to our attention. My constituency is a long way from the sea, so it is important that I speak on behalf of my constituents, some of whom have contacted me on this issue, to demonstrate that it is not just an issue for those of us with coastal constituencies. The marine environment is important to us all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) said earlier in the debate, the oceans are the drivers of our international climate system and it is completely impossible for us to separate ourselves from what happens in the oceans.

I have a particular interest in what happens in the north-west coastal waters and the Irish sea and I am particularly concerned about the historic levels of contamination of that sea not only from the normal economic processes of extraction, the laying of pipelines and other forms of mineral exploration, but the radioactive emissions that have been pumped out from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing station in Cumbria for many years. I congratulate the Government—and to some extent the previous Government—on the steps that have been taken in recent years to tighten the regulations over radioactive emissions into the oceans, but we still allow far too much radioactivity and radioactive materials to leak out into the seas around the United Kingdom, and particularly into the Irish sea from Sellafield. I would be very grateful to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Uxbridge on that and grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment referred to it in his reply to the debate.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) that if the Government have any reservations about the detail of the Bill, for example if the Department of Trade and Industry has concerns about the impact on the oil and gas industries, they can be dealt with in Committee and should not lead to the Bill being sabotaged today.

As other hon. Members wish to speak, and as other Bills for consideration today deserve progress, I shall be brief. I hope that all hon. Members in the Chamber will support the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill. I support it for two main reasons, the first of which is the absolute need to recognise the importance of maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. I think that there has been a new public understanding of the issue in recent years. People now appreciate that there has been a drastic loss of wildlife and plant species and that that loss cannot continue. We have to take action to conserve and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

The second main reason that I support the Bill is the opportunities that it will create for greater scientific understanding of what happens in the ocean. I think that many people have started to realise that understanding the secrets of the oceans can provide the key to dealing with the problems facing the continuation of civilised life on earth. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the potential benefits of increasing our understanding of what happens under the sea, including the possibility of generating new sources of renewable energy, and I entirely endorse those comments. We have to gain greater scientific knowledge of what happens in the deeper parts of the ocean.

I should like to raise two issues. Although the hon. Member for Uxbridge may not be able to address them today, I should be grateful if the Minister will address them briefly. The first issue is European legislation, because much of the environmental legislation that has effective or been adopted by the United Kingdom has been driven by Europe. I think that that fact is one of the very good reasons why we should have closer and not more distant links with the European Union. How will the Bill relate to current European legislation on the environment?

Secondly, and returning to the issue of radioactive emissions to the seas surrounding the United Kingdom, because of emissions from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, the Irish Government have announced their intention—they may already have taken action—to cite the United Kingdom Government in legal action over a breach of our obligations under the Oslo and Paris—Ospar—convention. That convention seeks to reduce radioactive emissions to the ocean almost to zero. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Uxbridge will say how his Bill might link with the provisions of the Ospar convention, and if the Minister will say something about the Irish legal challenge—although I appreciate that it might be difficult to say much about it at the moment.

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.

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 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 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?

Mr. Gardiner

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but he will notice that I am speaking at twice my usual rate in order to put on record the reasons why the Bill is important without impeding its progress. I want to allow time for other hon. Members to do exactly the same thing. The Bill deserves our support and I have many sheaves of paper to help me to express that support. I assure him and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I shall make absolutely sure that I try to keep well within time on this occasion.

The pink sea fan is what I call a "sodof". I should point out that I use that term not to try to stop any further interventions, but to explain why the pink sea fan is important. We are all familiar with items that are "bogofs"—buy one, get one free—but the pink sea fan is a "sodof", as people can save one, develop one free. That is the case because it supports a further unique species, the sea fan anemone or amphianthus dohrnii. For the benefit of our Hansard reporters, let me say that I shall ensure that they receive the correct spelling. The sea fan anemone is another biodiversity action plan species. This little anemone, which rarely exceeds 1 cm in width, generally attaches itself to the branches of sea fans, although it may also occur on other tall structures such as hydroids and worm tubes. As it normally reproduces asexually by basal laceration—a process whereby small fragments of tissue tear away from it and regenerate into tiny anemones—its distribution can be patchy and changeable. Where one occurs, there will often be others nearby, but it is difficult for them to spread. Recent information on distribution is limited, but suggests that there are concentrations along the south-western coast. Its small size means that it is likely to be overlooked.

The Bill offers the potential to protect both species. The Marine Conservation Society considers that such protection would be hugely significant for the anemone and could lead to an increase in the number of sites in which it can be found. Both species are threatened by damage caused by unmanaged marine environments. As such, they are excellent examples of why the Bill must be enacted. That is why I have laboured my points at such length.

I could talk further about the reasons why basking sharks will also benefit hugely from the Bill. They are incredible creatures, as anybody who is familiar with the marine environment will know.

Linda Gilroy

May I invite my hon. Friend, and, indeed, all hon. Members, to visit the National Marine Aquarium, where the basking shark is celebrated? I encourage him to continue his peroration about the pink sea fan, which I mentioned earlier. It is exactly the sort of organism that is not captured by current measures, but could be protected by the Bill.

Mr. Gardiner

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. The basking shark is an extraordinary creature of which we should be proud, as it inhabits our native waters. It is a filter feeder that mainly consumes plankton. In the UK, basking sharks appear to favour a copepod called calanus finmarchus. Amazingly, they can filter almost 2000 cu m of sea water every single hour that they feed. Let me put that into context: it is the equivalent of an Olympic-size swimming pool of 50 m in length, with eight lanes.

I shall not speak as much as I could about the basking shark. Suffice it to say that the Bill will protect the feeding areas of the shark. I hope that it will provide us with an opportunity to get more information than we currently enjoy about that unusual species.

The Bill will require the sea fisheries committees, the local statutory inshore fisheries management bodies that operate in England and Wales, to be heavily involved in the management of sites set up as a result of the Bill. The SFCs are funded by a levy on local authorities but, with local authority finances under such pressure, funding for SFCs is not always a political priority. Let me mention at this stage that, should the Bill become law—I hope that it does—it is fundamentally important that a review be undertaken of the funding necessary to secure the future of both coastal fisheries and the marine environment.

As SFCs will have a major role to play in ensuring that the Bill works in practice, the case for better funding of the SFCs is stronger than ever. Historically, they have had a role in managing special areas of conservation and sites of special scientific interest. The demands on their resources are for administrative work, including work on management plans, practical work on enforcement and fisheries monitoring.

The Association of Sea Fisheries Committees of England and Wales has for some time been pressing for an arrangement that would share responsibility for SFCs' funding between national and local government. That would maintain SFCs' local base while making them more financially secure. The association is supported in its request for a review of funding by a recent House of Commons Agriculture Committee report on sea fishing, which recommended that the funding arrangements for SFCs be re-examined in order to establish a secure, permanent, financial framework within which they can plan and perform their duties". In view of the SFCs' experience that managing a special area of conservation or an SSSI with a significant marine interest costs some £20,000 a year, I hope that local authorities will receive the funding necessary to fulfil their responsibilities under the Bill.

I shall bring my remarks to a close so that others can speak in support of the Bill. I could not close, however, without speaking as the joint Chair of the all-party parliamentary sport and leisure industry group. I am fully aware that, when new legislation is introduced, there is often concern about the cost of implementing it. I mentioned earlier the costs that may be associated with the SFCs. However, at a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of eco-tourism, and when we have a new Government Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, one of whose aims is to build links between farming, recreation, economic development and a range of activities, we should recognise that the Bill also has the potential to bring financial benefits in eco-tourism.

Linda Gilroy

I wonder whether my hon. Friend noticed from my earlier contribution that the south-west regional development agency has said that eco-tourism is almost as important as information and communications technology to the economy of the south-west, which is pre-eminent in these matters.

Mr. Gardiner

I recognise what my hon. Friend is saying. As she knows from her area, and as many other hon. Members know from theirs, this is an extremely critical time for tourism in England and Wales. It has suffered much in recent months and the industry should realise that the Bill could help in the development of eco-tourism. I hope that the Government, when considering cost implications, will also consider the net benefits that could be achieved from supporting the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge not on his good fortune for coming first in the ballot—that is a matter of luck—but on his sound judgment in bringing the Bill to the House and on the way in which he has piloted it through. I wish him God speed and a fair wind.

1.24 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

I support the Bill and join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on promoting it.

It is surprising that, as an island nation surrounded by marine life, we have paid so little attention to the sea. The sea is a place of work in terms of fishing and energy, and has historically denoted our boundaries and signified our power. Although Britannia ruled the waves, we spent little time considering what is beneath them. Perhaps that is because we are not blessed with warm climates, and the cold waters put people off trying to understand the sea.

Clearly, there is a new appreciation of marine life, the beauty of our environment, the dangers of pollution and the need for a proper environmental balance. On land, much thought has already gone into achieving such a balance and weighing up the rights of industry and those of local people and visitors. The balance between historical and future use has also been considered. However, that cannot be said about our marine environment.

The existing legislative framework is haphazard. There is no shortage of laws to govern activities on our seas: they include legislation on merchant shipping, water resources, water industries and fisheries, and European regulations and various treaties. However, they tend to reflect effects on the marine industries rather than marine life. Indeed, the complexity of our laws often hinders the ability to introduce policies in favour of marine life.

There is therefore a need for legal and policy frameworks to be directed at the protection of habitats and species. However, they need to balance environmental needs, to cater to the needs of industry and those of leisure and to provide a strategic and consistent approach, which has been lacking in the past.

Our thinking about the sea is too disjointed. There have been many significant and worthy projects to clean up the nation's beaches. That has resulted in many excellent beaches, but most of the efforts have been directed at cleaning up the mess from the sea rather than considering the reasons for it. That is a good example of lack of strategy and joined-up thinking.

Debates about fishing policies are also often disjointed. We argue with our neighbouring countries about who has rights over our fish, and we highlight the genuine plight of our fishermen, but we say little about why fish stocks are depleted. We need a framework whereby we can better understand our fish habitats and form our policies in the context of a proper understanding of the environment in which fishing takes place. We can thus prioritise and balance the interests of consumers, fishermen and the environment.

As on land, conservation at sea is about not only protecting beautiful sites but understanding the environment so that we can make proper choices about development. Unlike the sea, little is natural about our land environment. Fields and hedgerows are man's invention, and foxes have to be controlled because we have chickens and lambs. The environment that we enjoy has been moulded over the centuries. As we develop in different ways, our views about the sort of environment that we want have changed. We have developed a regulatory environment to provide a framework for that.

That has not happened in the marine world. It could be said that that was because the sea was inaccessible, but that would undermine the beauty and value of the vast range of habitats and species that exist in our marine environments. I shall not argue in favour of any specific sort of marine environment or weigh up the value of different sorts of habitats or species. However, we must create the regulatory environment for doing that. Indeed, in some local marine environments the national interest may better be served by the presence of oil and gas industries or by carrying out exploration, but that is not the case in many areas. Some areas will be suitable for touristic development of the sea from an environmental point of view, and some will be unsuitable. There needs to be a regulatory environment for the enforcement of policy decisions that also allows the proper consideration of the issues.

The key will be adaptability, which will be even more necessary at sea than on land. For instance, a suitable place to allow fishing this year may not be suitable next year, fish being more transient than, say, cattle. The same point could be used to show that there is a need better to understand the fish habitats around our shores so that we can strategically evaluate fishing in environmental terms.

It is also important to consider the marine environment, how it relates to current sea industries, such as shipping, fishing, oil and gas, and how it relates to the industries of the future. Many hon. Members have referred to that aspect.

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).

Mr. Djanogly

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been a pleasure to hear about sea squirts. I admit to knowing very little about them before this debate.

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.

Mr. Djanogly

I agree with the hon. Lady. That is another reason why adaptability will be important—as the hon. Lady said, climates affect the sea.

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 consideration goes into securing rare habitats and species, but the emphasis needs to be changed so that we also encourage the study and enjoyment of the many excellent habitats that are currently thriving but about which we know relatively little because not much data are available.

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.

1.35 pm
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 valley—an 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 take further action to protect SSSIs on land and the species and habitats in them, but I also welcome the Government's recognition that we should do more to protect our marine environment. I understand that DEFRA, will publish a marine stewardship report next March because it recognises that today the imbalance between, land-based and marine wildlife is greater than ever before.

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 whale—sadly, now extinct in British waters—are 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.

1.40 pm
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 squirt—sometimes given its Latin designation, of which I have never heard and of which I dare say I shall never hear again—but, 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, however—I noted this particularly—that 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 Government entirely share that feeling. Indeed, in a keynote speech in March this year, the Prime Minister set the tone when he said that the Government would launch measures to improve conservation here and abroad, including the preparation of a series of marine stewardship reports. I shall return to that in a moment.

It has been said that some 50 per cent. of Britain's biodiversity—more than 40,000 species—exists 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 clown 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 need—I think—to 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 sea—that should not change—and 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 thing—in fact, he acknowledged the other legitimate interests in our marine environment. Although the designation of protected areas is important, as Minister for the Environment I am the first to say that it is not enough. That is why the Government have already started initiatives to take a broad view of the needs of biodiversity in the marine environment as a whole.

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 sea—those 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 hectares—a 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 miles—the limit of national waters—and 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 repot in March, after which the Government will move to consider potential site identification.

One Member—my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West, I think—referred 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 mounds—this is new to me—are 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.

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 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 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 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).