Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill

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The Chairman: I have recognised that clause 1 contains the substance of the Bill and further recognise that hon. Members did not have the opportunity to raise some of the issues that might have been raised during a debate on a programme resolution. For that reason, I have permitted a fairly wide-ranging debate on clause 1. That leniency stops now.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Competent marine authorities: duties

Mr. Randall: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 26, after `body', insert—

    `(ii) wait until the expiry of the period of 28 days beginning with the date of consultation referred to in subsection (2)(a)(i) before deciding to undertake or give consent, permission or other authorisation;'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 27, leave out `account of' and insert `into account'.

Mr. Randall: Amendment No. 3 provides a definite cut-off period within which English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales should provide any requested advice, if they have views that they wish to be taken into account. The Bill requires competent marine authorities to consult those bodies before carrying out or permitting others to carry out operations likely to damage a marine site of special interest. Several bodies that I consulted after Second Reading, including the ports and fishing interests, expressed concern that that might cause an unspecified delay, because the Bill defined no period within which English Nature or CCW must respond to the request for advice.

The equivalent sections, 28H and 28I, of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 define a period within which conservation agencies must respond to such requests. Amendment No. 3 provides for a period of 28 days within which English Nature and CCW must respond to a request for advice on operations that might damage the site. If they do not respond within that period, the competent marine authority may proceed without further delay.

Amendment No. 4 brings the wording of the clause in line with the existing Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. When a competent marine authority wishes to carry out, or permit others to carry out, activity likely to damage a marine site of special interest, it must seek the advice of the appropriate nature conservation body and take account of any written advice received.

During a meeting of the UK Offshore Operators Association it was pointed out to me that a similar provision in the 1981 Act contained the wording ``take into account'' rather than ``take account of''. The amendment replicates the wording of section 28I(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The amendment would ensure that the competent marine authority took into account advice from appropriate conservation bodies as well as considerations such as Government policy, social implications or commercial needs before designating a marine site of special interest.

Mr. Meacher: It is essential to give organisations with an advisory function clear target periods within which to provide advice. Without a clear time frame, there could be unacceptable delays to the determination of authorisations and consents, and the hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly drew attention to that. I am pleased, therefore, that the hon. Member for Uxbridge has, through amendment No. 3, made the time period consistent with that for similar activities within sites of special scientific interest.

We are not convinced, however, that there is a need for amendment No. 4. I listened to the hon. Gentleman's explanation about the slight change of wording making the clause consistent with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but in our view that does not have any practical effect. The hon. Gentleman did not say that it did, merely that it would bring it into line with the terminology in the earlier Act.

For marine sites of special interest to work, competent marine authorities should normally notify the conservation agencies when they intend to carry out or permit the carrying out of operations likely to damage MSSIs—an acronym that will no doubt enter the English language. Such authorities would take account of any advice that conservation agencies might provide about operations notified to them, and they would give such advice due consideration. Whichever wording is used, it is not a material point, and we are agreed on the point of substance. This is a key clause in ensuring that the Bill's conservation objectives and the socio-economic interests that operate in marine areas are brought together so that a balanced consideration of all issues surrounding the authorisation of consents can take place.

11.30 am

It is vital that the views of the conservation agencies are sought when operations that are likely to damage the special features of a site are being considered. That will give an opportunity for competent marine authorities to consider any likely damage to a site by activities that they have authorised. I am pleased that the clause accepts the principle that competent marine authorities should have the discretion to set aside advice from conservation agencies about operations affecting marine sites, but that is what we expect when we use phrases such as ``take account of'' or ``take into account''. The way in which such legislation is drafted by convention in statute does not mean that it is merely cosmetic; it means giving full, adequate and proper consideration, whatever the final decision may be.

The Government are concerned that, leaving aside the time limit for conservation agencies to respond, the proposed amendment does not address other Government concerns, which I shall briefly—taking account of your stricture, Mr. Gale—set out. It must be made clear which body takes responsibility for assessing whether an activity is likely to damage a feature for which a site was designated, and how such activities would be identified.

The amendment does not allow for the possibility of emergency action that might damage marine sites, on which it would be impossible to obtain advice from conservation agencies. These are reasonable points that must be addressed. They might be covered by the conservation statement for the site required by clause 1(4), but we should like more time to draw a firm conclusion about whether that would be an appropriate mechanism, or whether something else is needed.

As I have outlined, we agree with much of what the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Uxbridge are trying to achieve. However, we have other concerns about the clause that are not covered by those amendments. On that basis, I am happy to take on board the hon. Gentleman's views about the time limit for the conservation agencies' advice, and I will table a suitable amendment to address both his and our concerns. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be willing to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Randall: I am grateful to the Minister who has made some reasonable points. I am certainly not a lawyer, and phrases such as ``take account of'' or ``take into account'' are not matters on which I would regard myself as competent to judge. I shall therefore take the opinion of those people who have greater competence than me. Was the Minister asking me to withdraw both amendments, or just the amendment on taking ``account of''?

Mr. Meacher: I have said that I am happy to accept the 28 days. The hon. Gentleman made a generous comment about lawyers having superior knowledge. One of my few virtues is that I am not a lawyer, which is something that does not make a scrap of difference. We want to table new amendments to meet the points that I have spelt out. My concern is that the gaps be filled.

Mr. Randall: With that in mind, and given that we shall have many other opportunities to amend the Bill, I should like to withdraw both amendments.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: I am satisfied that hon. Members have had the opportunity to discuss all matters arising from this narrow clause, so I do not propose—

Andrew George: On a point of order, Mr. Gale, I wish to raise one narrow point on the clause that I would like the Minister to bear in mind if he is to table amendments.

Mr. Meacher: I trust that the hon. Gentleman will be able to convince me.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. George: My local sea fisheries committee has drawn my attention to this clause. Sea fisheries committees already have to work within the consultation arrangements in Section 28(1) of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and Regulation 48 of the Conservation (Natural , &c.) Regulations 1994. This clause adds another consultation process. The hon. Member for Uxbridge made a broader point about the resources available to sea fisheries committees to work within these new regimes. I would appreciate it if the Minister would revise the clause to take that into account and to dovetail the consultation processes as far as possible.

Mr. Meacher: I take note of that point. It is important that we do not suffer from ``consultationitis''. If I can find a way of dovetailing the processes I shall be happy to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Management schemes

Mr. Randall: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in clause 4, page 4, line 2, leave out

    `, in consultation with the appropriate nature conservation body,'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in clause 4, page 4, line 5, after `exercised', insert

    `as far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the proper exercise of their functions,'.

No. 6, in clause 4, page 4, line 6, at end insert—

    `(1A) When establishing a management scheme under subsection (1), the relevant marine authorities shall consult—

    (a) the appropriate nature conservation body;

    (b) every competent marine authority that has functions in relation to the marine area for which the management scheme is to be established who in their opinion will be affected by the management scheme; and

    (c) as far as is reasonably practicable—

    (i) any holder of a property right;

    (ii) any holder of statutory right of any kind; and

    (iii) anyone who carries out an activity that already has consent, is licensed or permitted

    in relation to any of the marine area for which a management scheme is to be established.'.

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