Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill

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Paddy Tipping: My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby and the hon. Member for St. Ives have made some important points and I am pleased to follow them, although I do so with some hesitation. They both represent constituencies with big fishery interests, whereas the only fishing that takes place in Nottinghamshire is in lakes and streams. My hon. Friend talked about bringing together warring factions, and the hon. Gentleman spoke of the commonality of fishing and conservation interests that is now emerging. He was right to say that they are two sides of the same coin, and we must pursue that argument in clause 1. Clause 1 is the Bill's core in respect of those interests, but also in terms of energy interests, as has been said today and on Second Reading.

In keeping with my hon. Friends' comments on fishing, I want to argue that energy, conservation and extraction interests are not in conflict but compatible with the Bill. I listened carefully to the Minister, who said that he will reflect on the matter and introduce changes later in our proceedings, but we should remember that this is a live and real issue. For example, PowerGen, the second biggest wind power generator, is producing green energy in alliance with the World Wildlife Fund. Energy interests must persuade customers that they are acting in a responsible and, so far as possible, sustainable way, and such partnerships reflect that need. I appreciate that gas and oil interests and the wind power lobby have concerns about the Bill, but if carefully worked it could help them as well, as it defines the area of coastline where problems could occur. It prohibits nothing, but it flags up possible concerns.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge. I thank the Minister, who has taken a close interest in the Bill, for all the work that he has undertaken so far. There remain concerns and conflicts, but with careful thought and discussion of the kind that has already taken place, the various interests can be brought together so that we can achieve both extraction and conservation. If we can do that, we will have a Bill that focuses on sustainability, and of which we can be proud.

Mr. Meacher: We have listened to a range of comments that strike me as reasonable, fair and balanced. They reflect the goodwill on both sides of the Committee, acknowledging that there are different interests but recognising that the polarisation that used to exist has been replaced by greater understanding.

As the hon. Member for Uxbridge said, clause 1 is the core of the Bill and lays the groundwork for the rest of it. I have several reservations, and he may not be surprised to learn that they relate particularly to the stipulation of a duty rather than a power for conservation agencies to notify sites. I should prefer to see a duty replaced by a power. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is keen to include the word ``duty'' because it is more compelling, and in a sense he is right. However, as he acknowledged, a power would ensure that sites that require to be notified will be top of the list and the rest will be more optional.

Let me turn the argument on its head and say that it is absolutely right to give priority to the identification and designation of European marine sites and to allow time for the necessary criteria and scientific information to be gathered in respect of other sites. The hon. Gentleman used the word ``optional'', which reflects the use of the word ``may'' in the clause. I certainly do not regard this as an optional matter, but it is a matter of prioritisation. I am keen that all marine sites that should properly be designated are designated, but it is reasonable to ensure that the most important ones are designated first.

Given that knowledge about marine species and habitats is still relatively undeveloped, and given that the Bill should be designed to protect conservation hotspots and to add value, not to duplicate existing designations, it would be wise to introduce a requirement for conservation agencies to agree the criteria for site selection with the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales. That is in line with what happens in respect of terrestrial SSSIs, and it would enable us to work with the agencies to reach a better understanding of the features that merit designation, the likely size of sites and the likely future programme for designation.

I shall deal with the points that were raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby and for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and the hon. Member for St. Ives. Nowadays, there is a greater understanding that the sea is multi-functional. It serves many different purposes, which can be conflicting, but if we are sensible enough to have a dialogue and to listen to each other, those different interests can be made a great deal more compatible—even if ultimately not fully compatible. I am anxious to pursue that agenda for shared understanding through a dialogue in which differences of view are openly and transparently put on the table and contrary arguments are fully heeded. That is a good way to proceed where there is potential conflict—it is of course the basis of our debates in the House of Commons, although that may not be a good precedent.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Does the Minister agree that after 25 years in which scientists have calculated maximum sustainable yields for fish stocks and in which the fishing lobby, supported by politicians, have negotiated on those yields, our fish stocks have been enormously reduced to the current crisis point and it has finally dawned on the various interests that when one has calculated a maximum sustainable yield, one must stick to it?

Mr. Meacher: I do not want to get drawn into the problems of the common fisheries policy or discussions between scientists and the fishing industry. I agree that there is a fundamental incompatibility between what the two are seeking to do. Unfortunately, there is no final arbiter, such as the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, who sits down with the parties, listens, takes account of views and reaches a decision. Under the common fisheries policy, quite apart from rogue vessels, or rogue states who take advantage by overfishing—which, as we know, has catastrophic consequences—no final basis for arbitration and adjudication exists.

I think that the situation is different here. Dialogue is worth pursuing because it has already made a measure of progress. I accept that the ports, fishing industry, offshore oil and gas industry and possibly some of the sporting interest groups will never be in total agreement. However, we should go as far as we can to try to find compatibility. As Minister for the Environment, I have a special interest and am concerned to see that the marine environment is properly conserved. It is extremely unwise for a commercial, or any other, interest to pursue exploitation of the marine environment that could cause irreparable damage; the same argument applies to fishing stocks.

11.15 am

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby that it is important not to regard the Bill as simply tacking another piece of jigsaw into a complicated mosaic and that we should try to pursue marine conservation in the round. It is a complex matter. One reason why the Government want more time to think about it is to ensure that what we propose will be integrated into regulation in a sensible and fruitful fashion, and will not cause future problems.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion asked for time for consultation. The Bill may not be debated on Report for some time, but I am anxious that the Government produce proposals early and allow plenty of opportunity to consult the relevant interests. It is important that the Government do not seek to use their position to enforce a view other than one that is the best compromise or coalescence of different interests. That is my objective.

As I explained earlier, overlapping sites are also problematic and, as with many other issues here, require further consideration. Our useful debate has highlighted that. We need to consider those problems before I can suggest sensible and practical alternatives. The Government will certainly reflect on what has been said in this Committee and I will give the clause further thought and table amendments at the next stage to address concerns and to ensure that the Bill is securely drafted.

Mr. Randall: I should like to address a couple of matters raised by hon. Members. I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Ives, and others, for pointing out how things have changed; that there is now constructive dialogue between different interests. I hope that that has been reflected in what a single Member of Parliament can achieve by consulting with the various interest groups. I am a little disappointed that a constituent of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby thought that we had not fully taken on board sensitivities, because I am well aware of the travails in the fishing industries.

Lawrie Quinn: I was not at the meeting so I cannot give a verbatim record of it, but the key point put to me was, as the Minister pointed out, the failure to recognise the difficulty with the emerging science and the cost of effective research. The fishing industry is on its knees and the failure to recognise the immense potential cost to an industry on its knees was the main concern. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could elaborate on how the Bill would deal with that concern.

Mr. Randall: I shall return to the point about fisheries.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) referred to a duty and a power, and I have my rebuttal ready. However, the Minister said that we would return to that, so a detailed debate now might not be helpful. The difference between paragraphs (1)(a) and (b) reflects a concern expressed at the consultation and in particular the National Assembly for Wales. I have some interesting figures that show how wonderful and rich the Welsh coastline is, and I congratulate Welsh Members on looking after it so well. It may be slightly off the beam, but I would like to add my voice to the suggestion that perhaps the new Danish Government should take a more constructive view of the issue of sand eels and not overfish them.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby raised genuine worries on behalf of the fishing industry in general and not just within his constituency. I come from a business background and I certainly do not want the Bill to make life more difficult than necessary in a business or commercial environment. I recognise the sensitivities of the industry and since Second Reading I have tried to meet many of the interest groups. My door is almost always open and, although it may be more appropriate for them to go to other doors at this stage, I am happy to speak to those groups. As the Committee moves forward, they should perhaps speak to other people as we consider redrafting the clause.

I have an inland constituency in which the fishing interest is limited to a canal and one or two gravel pits. However, fishing is of great national importance, and the industry has had a rough time.

It is not my job to tell the Government how to spend their money—it would be unwise to do so—but during my discussions it became apparent that the sea fisheries committees have been doing an excellent job. However, they are under-resourced and if new powers or duties come their way under the Bill, I would not want them to be more under-resourced. I want to flag that up.

The Minister is taking a helpful attitude. My interest and the interest at which the Bill is directed is the environment, but I recognise that that must not exclude other legitimate interests. That would have a negative effect and would not be in the best interests of environmentalists. Having started to work together, we do not want barriers to rise.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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