Standing Committee C
Wednesday 21 November 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: I call Mr. Randall to move the sittings motion.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Not moved.
The Chairman: For the benefit of the Committee, I should explain that we hope to complete our proceedings this morning. The Minister is unfortunately not available next Wednesday, so there is no point in moving a motion that we should sit then. If circumstances prevail against us, the Chairman will make a decision on what to do at the end of this morning's sitting; and Members will be informed of it as quickly as possible.
Marine sites of special interest
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 18, leave out `one month' and insert `three months'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 10, leave out `six' and insert `three'.
Mr. Thomas: I seek to make a small improvement to the Bill, and I hope that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), the Bill's promoter, will accept it. The Bill's wording follows the procedure for dealing with sites of special scientific interest—that is land sites in England and Wales—under which interested parties have one month to make representations and the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales has up to six months to make a designation. I want to change that to three months for the consultation and for the decision-making process.
I seek to make those changes in response to concerns raised on Second Reading—for example, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) suggested that the consultation period was too short. The suggested change is also based on my experience. Two or three years ago, before my election to the House, I was involved in consultation on the candidate marine site of special interest at Penllyn ar Sarnau in north Wales; I was working with the Countryside Council for Wales in putting together the public consultation exercise for that site. My experience is that a month is not sufficient, and I therefore seek three months' consultation.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I am pleased to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale—although I hope that this Committee stage does not last as long as the Committee stage of the Transport Bill last year. That was so memorable that medals should have been handed out.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned his experience of marine environments. The part of the country that I represent has many fishing interests, and I wonder whether the amendment will afford them enough time, bearing in mind the concerns of the fishing industry. Fishermen work strange hours and have difficulty in getting to meetings. Even three months might not be sufficient time to allow those stakeholders to play an important part in the consultation.
Mr. Thomas: I was involved in consultation with a group of fishermen in Pwllheli off the north Wales coast, and that process took some three to four months. The process should not drag on too long, but the legislative framework should allow more than a month. I believe that three months is a reasonable period for interested parties to make their views known; and three months is long enough also for the designation decision to be made by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, it is important that fishermen and other interests looking to use the marine environment should know whether or not a designation has been made; and flowing from that whether a management plan has been put in place.
It is important that there should be consultation, and three months is a reasonable period. It is also important that stakeholders are involved throughout in putting together the management plan. It is reasonable to allow three months in the context of designation, and the amendment represents a significant improvement on the Bill. It is important to involve stakeholders all the way down the line. The Bill makes no provision for that, but it will be taken into account in the work of the Countryside Council for Wales, English Nature and the Secretary of State. I hope that the Secretary of State will bear the hon. Gentleman's comments in mind if the Bill gets a fair wind and becomes law.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion for praying in aid the point that I made on Second Reading. As I said at the time, it is a matter for consideration in Committee.
The Bill's provisions mirror those in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which the Minister will probably cite as a precedent for the one-month and six-month periods. I agree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion, however, that public consultation should be longer than one month. Those involved with planning issues usually have a few months to consider whether to appeal. There is, therefore, a precedent. The Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly—to take the hon. Gentleman's principality—should need no more than three months to reach a decision. I fully support the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I am pleased that we have reached the Committee stage of the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I congratulated him when he secured a Second Reading. I hope that our discussion will be constructive and that we shall complete it this morning.
The Government are committed to improving nature conservation in the marine environment. It is vital to protect marine ecosystems, given that an estimated 50 per cent. of United Kingdom biodiversity is in the sea. We are sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the Bill. As I said on Second Reading, we want to tackle the concerns that we have about all the clauses, particularly the early ones.
Legislating for the marine environment is complex. We are concerned that legislation to protect it should take proper account of other legitimate interests and uses of the sea. Several of the amendments are designed to do exactly that. I want the detailed wording of the Bill to be scrutinised to ensure that it achieves the desired objectives, and we shall table amendments to that effect on Report. I look forward to working with the Committee to achieve those objectives and to secure the overall aim of promoting marine sites of national importance.
Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 deal with the notification procedures for marine sites of special interest. Such sites should benefit from our experience of notification procedures for terrestrial sites of special scientific interest, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet correctly suggested. Where appropriate, those procedures should be consistent with each other.
Amendment No. 9 would bring the period in which interested parties could comment on the notification in line with that for SSSIs on land, which is fine. Amendment No. 10 would, however, have the opposite effect and would reduce the time available to the Secretary of State to confirm a notification. It is imperative that the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales have adequate time to take into account the representations of all those who comment on the designation. The proposed reduction for such consideration to three months would make proper consideration impossible. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion is seeking the quickest way to ensure that site notifications are confirmed. That is desirable, and I share his aim. However, proper account must be taken of the views of all those affected by designation, and the Secretary of State might not be able to carry out that consideration in three months.
Mr. Simon Thomas: The Minister just said that proper consideration needed to be taken of all views that were received. Does he accept that proper consideration needs to be given to the interested parties who are awaiting determination of, for example, an application for a wind farm or for oil exploration? All such applications involve a great deal of economic and environmental interests, and in the Minister's scenario they might have to wait for six months. That could be too long for them. How can he give assurances that the decision-making process will not become overlong or overlaborious either in his office or in the National Assembly, which I accept that he cannot control?
Mr. Meacher: I recognise—it is the burden of much that I am going to say this morning—that other interests are concerned about the provisions of the Bill and the designation of marine sites of special interest, and of course it is in their interests as well as in those of the conservation agencies to ensure that matters are resolved as quickly as possible. Conservation agencies have nine months to confirm notification of sites of special scientific interest on land. Whether it is six or nine, that is considerably more than three months. Hon. Members might think that three months is adequate to ensure that matters are properly considered; I believe that it is too short.
I take account of what the hon. Member for Ceredigion has said. We shall look at it. I do not wish to extend the period unnecessarily, but I want to ensure that all interests have proper time to make representations and that no one can say afterwards that they were prevented from making their views known because the time was cut short.
I undertake to table an amendment that will allow for a reasonable consultation period and will achieve consistency between the lengths of the consultation periods for marine and terrestrial site notification. I am not committing myself to nine months, but I think that it is reasonable to be consistent. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Ceredigion will be willing to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Randall: It is a delight to serve on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I should like to thank the members of the Committee for volunteering to sit on it. It is not always the case that genuine volunteers are found in this place, and I am very grateful. I am also extremely grateful to the Minister and his Department for the critical but concrete encouragement and help that I have received from them. I was delighted on Second Reading to see such a positive attitude to the Bill and to its coming into Committee.
I always listen carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet because he has a great deal of experience in a wide variety of matters, and I understand the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. I accept the good faith of the Minister. I want decisions to be made in the appropriate time; they should not be overlong. Yesterday we had an example of a decision—that about Heathrow terminal 5—that many thought had taken a little on the long side. I hope that it will be possible to re-examine the matter when the Bill is discussed on Report, so I urge the hon. Member for Ceredigion to withdraw the amendment, bearing in mind the assurances that the Minister has given.