HC Deb 15 March 2002 vol 381 cc1186-91

Amendment made: No. 38, in page 5, line 12, leave out Clause 7.—[Mr. Meacher.]

Order for Third Reading read:—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's Consent, on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, signified.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

1.22 pm
Mr. Randall

I am delighted that this morning's proceedings have been taken in the same good spirit from all parts of the House that has characterised all stages of the Bill's passage. I am also pleased that Third Reading will, it is to be hoped, he short enough to allow hon. Members to consider on Second Reading another very important Bill, which I hope hon. Members in all parts of the House will again support.

I want to acknowledge in this debate the excellent support for the Bill that has come from so many individuals and organisations. I made special mention of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on Second Reading, and I should like to pay tribute once again to its hard work and ongoing support of my Bill. In particular, I want to mention Duncan Huggett, Ben Stafford and Sharon Thompson. As you will appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, my duties in the House mean that I do not always concentrate full-time on the Bill. Sometimes I have to do my job in following the Government rather like a great skua harrying a flock of terns. I hope to resume that role quite soon.

I should like also to express my thanks for the hard work of the wider environmental NGO movement, especially through the wildlife and countryside links and the wildlife trusts. It would not be right for me not to thank all those many members of environmental organisations and of the public who have lent their support to the Bill. I know that many colleagues will bear testimony to the extent of that support, as they have expressed to me their delight at receiving so many letters on the subject—of course, that is because it gives them more work to do. I have to admit that that is the result of the hard work of the NGOs, not my personal chivvying of people in their constituencies.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) for her hard work. As she said, there is a genuine and deep desire to protect our marine environment. An early-day motion on the Bill was signed by 114 Members. Although I am not a great fan of early-day motions, that support shows that the views of the electorate are mirrored by hon. Members.

I am delighted to have met representatives of what could be described as the marine industries, including fisheries, ports, shipping, offshore oil and gas, and wind energy as well as those with leisure interests in the marine environment. Our discussions have been, in the popular parlance, frank and open, and I hope that most of their outstanding concerns have been tackled.

I repeatedly said in those meetings that, as someone who comes from business, I am the last person to propose regulation for its own sake. However, it is right to take new measures if they are required to protect nationally important wildlife. I thank the Minister and the Department for their hard work on the measure. Although it is not technically a hybrid Bill, it is getting less private by the minute.

On Second Reading, there were rumours that the Bill was being holed below the water line. Again, I pay tribute to the Minister and the Department for their excellent salvage job, and I thank senior members of all parties. As a member of the Opposition Whips Office, I pay tribute to the Government Whips Office, and especially to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). I am pleased that he is not in his place, otherwise he would be deeply embarrassed. [Interruption.] I do not readily praise Harrow, East, but I am happy to do that on this occasion.

I welcome the fact that most of my aims remain in the Bill despite some amendments. The Bill will allow the notification of marine sites of special interest throughout the territorial waters of England and Wales and give clear conservation objectives and guidance on what management is required. The strong duty on all "competent marine authorities" to further conservation of MSSIs remains, and English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales can exercise new byelaw-making powers when no other authority has the necessary management powers. Those are only some of the fundamental points that continue to underpin the Bill.

I congratulate the Government on tabling amendments to strengthen the measure. For example, they have provided for a new offence of intentional reckless damage to or destruction of MSSIs. As has been said, the fly in the ointment is the weakening of the provision through a defence of incidental damage. We have discussed that and we may return to the matter if the Bill passes to the other place.

I welcome the clarification that the Crown is considered a competent marine authority, and the requirement on such authorities, when setting aside the advice of English Nature or the CCW, to carry out or allow others to carry out operations in a way that causes as little damage as possible.

It would be naive to suggest that the Bill has not occasionally had to weather choppy waters. At the outset, I should perhaps have preferred not to make some of the compromises that were agreed to keep it afloat. As we have mentioned them in our discussions today, I shall not dwell on them any longer.

I continue to have reservations about the Government's decision to reduce to a power the duty on English Nature and the CCW to notify MSSIs. I believe that it will make marine sites less likely to receive the protection and management that they deserve. I am also worried about the intentions behind the duty to "have regard" to the desirability of contributing to achieving sustainable development. That may seem like motherhood and apple pie, but I fear it may mean that other interests continue to ride roughshod over nature conservation. However, we must wait and see.

The procedures for reviewing the compatibility of existing activities with the conservation objectives of MSSIs are unclear. What happens if English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales requests that an activity be reviewed, but the competent marine authority chooses to do nothing about it? Can the activity be judicially reviewed, as originally intended in the Bill?

Despite the fact that the Bill originally contained a requirement to have notifications confirmed by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, I fear that the addition of a sustainable development requirement may mean that sites are never confirmed because complete agreement about a designation will never be achieved, although I received a great deal of assurance on that matter on Report.

I am sure that the marine environment will be debated further in another place and may be the subject of future legislation. I understand that, if the Bill succeeds, it will be only the first step on a long road—the first tentative dip of a toe in the water. However, I would not want to end my speech on a sour note, given the good spirit not only of today's debate but of the discussions that we have had throughout the Bill's passage through the House, and given the hard work that has been put in on all sides. I thank the Minister and his Department again.

I think that this is a good Bill. It has moved the marine environment up the political agenda, where it is just beginning to reflect the importance that it should have. I hope that the Bill will continue to enjoy broad and generous support and I look forward to watching deliberations on it in another place if we achieve Third Reading today.

1.32 pm
Mr. Tyler

May I be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on steering this boat to what I hope proves to be a safe harbour? I hope that it has a successful journey to the other place and beyond. I had never heard a tribute to the usual channels in this Chamber before and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on breaking with precedent. I cannot think of a suitable marine or nautical equivalent to congratulate the usual channels.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have a strong constituency interest in the success of this legislation, particularly in achieving unanimous support at a community level. My constituency has one of the longest coastlines in the United Kingdom and a great number of communities that depend on the sea in some way.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Bill is ground breaking. To an extent, it is also a shot in the dark, because it moves into new territory. In those circumstances, there will be sensitivities. Clearly, the ecological balance is extremely sensitive, but so too is the economic balance of many of the coastal communities that I and many other hon. Members represent. It is extremely important that we take people with us in this process. Teething problems are inevitable because there are potential conflicts, as has been evident from the Committee proceedings and even this morning. It is important that sensitivity at the local level matches sensitivity to those potential conflicts, not least between the fishing community and the different types of fishing. The less intrusive fishing methods to which my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred will be especially sensitive to potential problems. That sensitivity is not exclusive to them, but it will be important. Similarly, some of the smaller ports will he anxious about the problems that may arise.

The successful settlement of those problems can be achieved only with appropriate resources—we have had exchanges on that matter already today—and with local commitment. I hope that as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, there will be careful consultation with local authority bodies and others on whom we shall rely greatly for the Bill's successful implementation. With good will, I am sure that the legislation will play an important role in maintaining the marine environment around the shores of this country.

The Minister said earlier that Her Majesty the Queen and the Prince of Wales had given their assent. I think that that is the right expression; I have never been good at parliamentary expressions, which sometimes seem anachronistic. I suspect that the Prince of Wales is also giving consent in his capacity as Duke of Cornwall which, as we all know, is a much older title than either Prince of Wales or heir to the throne. In that context, I emphasise that many parts of Cornwall would benefit greatly from the measure. As a Cornish MP, I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge and thank him for the persistent hard work that will, I hope, lead to the successful conclusion of the Bill's proceedings.

1.35 pm
Mr. Dismore

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on steering his Bill this far. His Third Reading speech was somewhat disparaging, but he has nothing to be ashamed of and much of which to be proud. When I was preparing for today's debate, I looked at the notes for my Second Reading speech. The hon. Gentleman was perhaps lucky not to have had the benefit—or otherwise—of that speech as it had a lot to say about the Bill, as he might have expected. I am pleased that I have rather less to say today, as the Bill has been improved.

Few Members manage to take a private Member's Bill this far, so the hon. Gentleman should also be proud of that. I hope to be able to repeat that trick in two or three weeks—perhaps with the assistance of the usual channels on his side.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

That might be arranged.

Mr. Dismore

Obviously, the hon. Member for Uxbridge has the thanks of all the people involved in the environmental world, and I echo their gratitude. However, he would also be thanked by many who cannot speak for themselves—the dolphins and seals which will live to a ripe old age and the other marine wildlife which will benefit from what he has achieved on their behalf.

While we are talking about people who cannot speak for themselves, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks to my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who has also done a good job in helping to pilot the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman might know, I have had several discussions with my hon. Friend about the Bill and I am glad that the House has reached a consensus about taking it forward.

1.36 pm
Mr. Swayne

I briefly add my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). The measure is a not insignificant step in addressing a large gap in our environmental policy—so much biodiversity is threatened in the maritime environment. It is an enormous task to bring the protection of the maritime environment up to the standards for which we have been working in respect of the land.

My hon. Friend has carried out a tremendous task. He has been ably assisted by the hard work of the Minister for the Environment and his officials in improving the Bill. It is a good Bill and we wish it every success.

1.37 pm
Tony Cunningham

I, too, add my congratulations. Normally, I go home on Thursdays but I attended today's debates because of the sheer volume of letters from my constituents asking me to support the Bill.

I offer the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) my congratulations and those of my constituents.

1.38 pm
Mr. Meacher

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) must be feeling weighed down with congratulations, but I am only too glad to echo what other Members have said. The hon. Gentleman has steered the Bill positively and constructively through choppy waters. Given my classical upbringing, the analogy that came to mind was that of Scylla and Charybdis. Several times, I thought that the measure might hit one or the other—or even both at once. The hon. Gentleman has done extremely well. The Bill is very worth while.

The House spends far too much time on confrontational activity, although we broadly agree on many issues. It is refreshing that we have achieved consensus on a matter of considerable importance to us all. The hon. Gentleman can take credit for engendering that spirit.

The measure has also shown us a new and significant role for private Members' Bills. Although they are often enacted, they are sometimes confined to a relatively small role. I would never describe their role as insignificant, but it could be more important. This is unquestionably an important Bill. I consider that private Members' Bills should have a wider coverage and role—as long as the Government are able to ensure that their policy prevails in the end, of course. I believe that that is well understood. I shall be brief because other Bills follow, which are also of considerable importance.

The Bill is important for three reasons. First, we have protected land-based SSSIs pretty effectively with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 but marine sites have much less protection, and yet a high proportion of Britain's biodiversity is in the seas around us.

Secondly, the marine environment is an important part of promoting the policy of sustainable development. It is a very difficult policy. Everyone will pay lip service to it but its effective and balanced application is a work of art. Reconciling development and conservation under the Bill will not be easy. The hon. Member for Uxbridge said delicately that compromises had been made that he would have preferred not to have been made, and he spoke about other interests riding roughshod over conservation. I really do not believe that that will happen. Mechanisms have been put in place to ensure a balance.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is right to say that we must take people with us. We want a broad consensus, not only in the House but "out there", that our fishing communities should be able to thrive but that marine biodiversity in our marine sites should be preserved wherever possible.

Thirdly, the Bill is important because, although we have European Union protection of international sites—European marine sites—there has been a gap in the legislation in terms of national sites of marine importance. The Bill plugs that gap. As legislative slots are not easy to obtain, I am very grateful, speaking for the Government, that we have had the opportunity to take the first step in our major review of marine conservation, and to channel it through the Bill. Next week I shall travel to Bergen to discuss with the Scandinavian and other Ospar countries the issue of marine conservation in the north-east Atlantic; these matters must be pursued internationally and nationally.

For all those reasons, the Bill is very important. I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge once again. I thank all those who have collaborated on the Bill and I strongly commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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