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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments Nos. 32 to 34.

Amendment No. 58, in page 3, line 38, leave out "(where one exists)".

Amendment No. 59, in page 3, line 38, leave out "a" and insert "the".

Amendment No. 60, in page 3, line 39, at end insert "concerned".

Government amendments Nos. 35 to 37.

Mr. Dismore: To a large extent my amendments have been overtaken by the Government amendments. My intention was to ensure that the marine authority did not merely take any old reasonable steps but took all the reasonable steps it could take to exercise its functions, and to deal with the fact that there is no point having an MSSI if there is no management scheme. That harks back to remarks I made previously. Subject to the Minister's comments on the Government amendments, I do not intend to press mine.

Mr. Randall: Government amendment No. 32 would amend clause 3. It provides that a competent marine authority

before carrying out or consenting to others carrying out operations which in its opinion—those words are important—are likely to damage a site.

There are some concerns. When a competent marine authority wishes to carry out, or to give its consent for others to carry out, operations that are likely to damage in the context of the conservation statement, it will be required under clause 3, as amended by amendment No. 32, to consult the relevant nature conservation agency. That is unless subsection (9) of amendment No. 36 applies.

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I am also interested in who will set benchmarks on which operations constitute damage to the interest of a marine site of special interest, so as to guide competent authorities in identifying damaging activities under clause 3.

I am concerned that there is no requirement to review existing consents. Perhaps the Minister will clarify what arrangements exist for English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to request competent marine authorities to review existing consent activities to assess their compatibility with an MSSI. What will happen if a competent marine authority fails to review an existing consent activity, having been asked to do so, if that results in continued or further damage to a marine site of special scientific interest?

Government amendment No. 37 removes the duty on English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to report on implementation of the Bill. Will the Minister confirm that English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales will be expected to monitor the status and health of the MSSIs, and to report on implementation of the Bill? Will the Minister confirm that the two bodies will be provided with adequate resources to enable them to carry out the necessary monitoring and reporting? If they cannot carry out those duties, there is not so much import.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on all the hard work that he has put in to his excellent Bill so far. I thank the Minister, because I know that he has been working hard on the Bill.

I shall make some brief comments about the sea fisheries committees. I am glad that they are now included under the heading of "competent marine authority". The committees are intrinsically inshore fishing management bodies. Fishermen in Boston are deeply unhappy with the current arrangements and workings of the local committee. Better funding is needed for these bodies, and I hope that extra funding will be given. The committees will have to implement new powers, which are set out in the Bill.

The committees are struggling to meet existing responsibilities, both in general terms and environmentally, especially under the European Union habitats and birds directives. That is due specifically to a lack of funds.

The committees are funded by local authority levies, and there needs to be a review. The committees need to be funded by a mixture of local authority levies and central Government funding. That would enable them to have financial security. At the same time, they would maintain local responsibility and a certain amount of local control. This view was supported by the Select Committee, which suggested that

It may be appropriate to take the opportunity look at the structure and lack of success of SFCs, which are not working.

12.45 pm

Mr. Swayne: Briefly, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) has drawn to my attention a key point in amendment No. 54 which I had not spotted. The

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actions that the competent marine authority proposes to carry out or to which it proposes to give its consent are new actions, not pre-existing ones. Having re-read the amendment carefully, I believe that that is implicit rather than explicit. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case, or will the amendment apply to actions currently under way? The position on the actions which the competent authority proposes to take is clearer than that on any consents that it may give. Any action that it may take will be taken anew every time, but any consent already given does not necessarily have to be renewed and reviewed.

Mr. Meacher: I am grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and his acceptance of the broad thrust of the Government amendments, which meet the requirements expressed in his amendments.

I shall briefly spell out the intention of the Government amendments, some of which have been questioned. Their purpose is to clarify the way in which competent marine authorities should act when proposing to carry out operations or authorise any activity likely to damage an MSSI. They also outline the procedures to be undertaken if the site has a management scheme, the context for which is the duty in clause 3(1). In exercising its functions, a competent marine authority should take reasonable steps, consistent with the proper exercise of its functions, to further the conservation of the features for which the site has been notified, which is consistent with provisions relating to SSSIs on land. Amendment No. 54, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, does not add value to the clause's provisions, and I am grateful that he accepts that.

Government amendment No. 32 ensures that, before deciding to undertake or give a consent to an operation which is likely to damage an MSSI, the competent marine authority informs the appropriate nature conservation body. When deciding whether an operation or a consent is likely to damage the features for which a site has been designated, we expect the competent marine authority to have regard to any list of potentially damaging operations which may be contained in the conservation statement for that site.

The nature conservation body has 28 days in which to comment on the proposal. Any comments received from the appropriate nature conservation body within that period must be considered by the competent marine authority before it reaches its decision. The procedure is similar to that required for operations on SSSIs. In line with the other considerations to which a competent marine authority must have regard when taking decisions, the need for the operation or consent may outweigh pure nature conservation considerations. I repeat that that is the essence of sustainable development. The competent marine authority must inform the conservation agency how, if at all, it has taken account of its advice. That is an important protection; the authority cannot simply issue a statement that it has taken the advice into account, but must produce a much fuller statement on its treatment of that advice. Again, similar to the procedures for SSSIs, the operation should be carried out or authorised in such a manner as to give rise to as little damage as possible to the protected site.

It is likely that a number of marine sites of special interest will be the subject of management schemes set up under clause 4. That is a subject in which my hon. Friend

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the Member for Hendon has taken a special interest. Amendments Nos. 33 to 35 provide for such schemes to be taken into account by competent marine authorities. Where management schemes are set up, competent marine authorities will be required to take reasonable steps to carry out their functions in accordance with the scheme.

However, I do not accept that it would be necessary for every MSSI to have a management scheme. A management scheme should be established only if there is a need, and then pursued through agreement. Amendments Nos. 58 to 60 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, which would require every site to have a management scheme, go too far.

The main purpose of management schemes is to co-ordinate the activities of those operating in the MSSI to ensure the conservation of the site. Within a scheme it will be possible to allow certain damaging activities to take place which do not affect the overall conservation of the site or detract from achieving the conservation objectives for the site. Obviously, that is a fine judgment to make. If those activities are in line with a management scheme, the competent marine authority will not be obliged to go through the procedures set out in amendment No. 32.

Amendment No. 36 provides for the Secretary of State to exempt from the provisions of clause 3 activities carried out in the interests of national security. I do not expect this power to be widely used, but the clause is loosely based on similar provisions in the Environment Act 1995.

Amendment No. 37 removes subsection (4) of clause 3. The Government consider that this provision is not necessary. Paragraph 20(1)(b) of schedule 6 to the Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires the nature conservation body to make a report on the exercise and performance of its functions every year, and there is nothing to suggest that that is confined to functions under that Act. We would therefore expect the appropriate conservation body, in any report made under that provision, to include details about how it has carried out its functions and duties in relation to the Bill, so that there will be regular reporting of functions carried out under the Bill.

It might be convenient now for me to answer some of the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Uxbridge asked me to confirm that English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales will be expected to monitor MSSIs and to report on the implementation of the Bill. I have already answered that.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me to confirm that English Nature and CCW will be provided with adequate resources to enable them to carry out the necessary monitoring and reporting. I have made it clear that we intend to provide appropriate resources for English Nature, and that it would consequently be expected to make changes to its corporate plan to ensure that the requirements under the Bill and the matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be properly carried through.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge and the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asked me to clarify what arrangements exist to request competent marine authorities to review existing consented activities to assess their compatibility with a marine site of special interest.

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The answer is that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the appropriate nature conservation agency from reviewing existing consents—we would expect the agency to do so—and indicating a view on those activities to the relevant competent marine authority, which I would expect to take note of that advice and to make decisions accordingly.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) raised issues relating to sea fisheries committees. We had an earlier discussion on that matter, for which he was unable to be present, so perhaps he could refer to it in Hansard. His main concerns were funding and the adequacy of sea fisheries committees in achieving their desired role. Those are certainly important points, but I am afraid that they fall somewhat outside the Bill's parameters. However, I can say that no decisions will be taken on whether to address funding issues, or on the form of any review of sea fisheries committees, before the common fisheries policy review is complete.

As the hon. Gentleman said, funding issues are currently a matter for local government, because sea fishery committees are local authority bodies wholly funded by levy on their constituent local councils—perhaps excluding certain EC grants for fisheries enforcement. This is a relevant issue to which he has rightly drawn attention, and I am sure that he will find other opportunities to pursue it. However, I cannot take it further in the context of the Bill.

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