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Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that touches on some of the concerns that have been raised about press speculation, to which I referred as well.

We put a tremendous amount of effort into communicating with families. In advance of the statement, a signal was sent to all the forces which will remain deployed. Families were advised in advance or at the same time as the House. We are very conscious of the importance of that. If there were to be any change, the same rules would apply. It is important to communicate with local Members so that they are fully aware as well and not caught offside by any press comment. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

I will meet the commitment to ensure that families are as best served as possible and provided with as much knowledge, as much in advance as possible, as we can give them.

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Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill

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.

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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

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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

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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

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"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:

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.

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