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19 Apr 2007 : Column 501

Marine Environment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Bradshaw.]

3.16 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): May I say how delighted I am that the House has been given this opportunity to debate this important subject? The United Kingdom has a proud maritime history and this Government have taken unprecedented steps, as have previous Governments, to protect the marine environment and to promote its sustainable use. Over the past 20 years, inputs of heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium into our seas have been reduced by more than 70 per cent. We no longer dump industrial waste or sewage at sea. More than 99 per cent. of UK coastal bathing waters now pass the mandatory standards required under the bathing water directive, and 76 per cent. of bathing waters pass the stricter guideline standards needed to qualify for a blue flag award. That is why UK beaches received 136 blue flags last year—the highest ever number, up from just 37 in 1997. In UK inshore waters, there are now 146 marine protected sites. These include 78 special protection areas for birds, 65 marine special areas of conservation and three statutory marine nature reserves.

Our seas are generally cleaner than at any time since the industrial revolution, but they are still under pressure. About half of the UK’s biodiversity—more than 44,000 species—is found in our seas and further action is needed to protect it. Climate change is now the biggest environmental challenge that the globe faces. Its effects on the marine environment, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification, pose an unprecedented risk to marine habitats and species. At the same time, our oceans play a vital role in our battle against climate change because of their role in absorbing carbon dioxide, and a number of marine technologies that could play a vital role in reducing and mitigating the impact of climate change are in the process of being developed. It is clear that tackling climate change and protecting our seas are closely linked. On 13 March, we published our draft Climate Change Bill—the first of its kind in any country. It will provide a legally binding framework to address climate change and to put into statute the Government’s long-term goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050.

Climate change is not the only pressure that we need to address to safeguard our seas. Back in 2005, my Department’s report “Charting Progress” provided the UK’s first integrated assessment of the state of our seas. It identified unsustainable fishing as the other major threat to our marine environment. Within Europe, we welcomed the reform of the common fisheries policy in 2002 to put fishing on a more sustainable footing. A degree of progress has been made and some fisheries are now managed more sustainably, but there is still a long way to go and much more work is needed to secure a genuinely sustainable future for the fisheries sector. In particular, we must ensure that the environmental impact of producing and consuming fish is acceptable. That means tackling discards and by-catch and achieving a level playing field across the EU.

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My Department is consulting on its draft fisheries contract, which sets out what we would like the fisheries sector to look like in 20 years’ time. It also identifies the roles and responsibilities of different people in delivering sustainability. Globally, it is estimated that 52 per cent. of fish stocks are fully exploited and 25 per cent. are depleted. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a particular concern. It is estimated to cost the international community about $9 billion every year. The UK, through my Department and the Department for International Development, has committed considerable sums over the years to fight that problem. With our support, the European Union is now also moving to propose a new regulation against illegal fishing, with measures to block the import of illegal fish into EU ports and on the use of certification schemes to help to control fish imported into the EU.

Last December saw another important step forward, with the United Nations agreeing to a regulatory framework to stop destructive bottom trawling in the high seas by the end of 2008. That will protect key vulnerable ecosystems, such as coral reefs and seamounts, and put deep-sea fisheries on a sustainable basis.

The United Kingdom has also played, and will continue to play, a prominent role in maintaining the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling. I know that that concerns many hon. Members and their constituents. Most recently, we have produced a new publication entitled “Protecting Whales—A global responsibility”. It was endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Sir David Attenborough. Copies are available in the Library of the House.

The publication has been sent to 57 countries as a way of urging worldwide action to protect those magnificent creatures. If you have not seen it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest that you take a look if you have time. It has been widely acknowledged as being excellent. It was followed up by a joint letter from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign Secretary to a dozen EU and accession states, encouraging them to join the IWC. We have already had some success with Cyprus, Croatia and Slovenia joining in time for next month’s meeting of the IWC in Alaska. Several more countries have committed to joining the IWC in time for next year’s meeting. However, the Government cannot meet that challenge alone, and I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to play their part. It is vital that we all use our contacts as parliamentarians to persuade like-minded countries to join the IWC, to help to maintain the moratorium on commercial whaling and also to influence those in the caucus of Japan.

Closer to home, we are for the first time in our country’s history preparing to introduce comprehensive marine legislation. It will be the jewel in the crown—or perhaps I should say the pearl in the oyster—of the Prime Minister’s pledge in 2001 to bring forward new measures to improve marine conservation and promote marine stewardship.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am happy to endorse and support the Minister’s statements on whaling and the conservation of fisheries. Before he moves on from the exploitation of fish in the sea, I seek
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his reassurance on paragraph 7.65 in the marine White Paper. It deals with the number of sea fisheries committees, which undertake excellent work on inshore fishing. The proposal is to reduce them from 12. Will he confirm that he will not do that without the full support of the sea fisheries committees? They are important because they understand how the inshore sector works and is best managed.

Mr. Bradshaw: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the important role of sea fisheries committees. That is why we did not accept the option to get rid of them altogether. We agree that they provide local knowledge and a level of democratic accountability to local marine management. However, I think that the committees would be the first to accept that they are overdue modernisation. Their structure, number and make-up have been the same for a long time. I think that they would accept that they need to be more strategic and to be given more powers, and that there may well be good arguments for some rationalisation across the country so that they can do their work more effectively. All the proposals in the White Paper will, of course, be subject to consultation and to the scrutiny of the House. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman playing a full role in that.

I was talking about the marine White Paper, which we published last month. It fulfils the manifesto commitment that we made at the last election to introduce a new framework for the sea based on marine spatial planning that balances conservation, energy and resource needs. We are committed to legislation in the current Parliament.

The marine Bill will give us a modern, streamlined, forward-looking approach to deliver our vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans of seas. On 15 March, we published the White Paper as the next step towards turning that vision into reality. It followed our marine Bill consultation last year, which enjoyed widespread support from more than 1,000 individuals and organisations.

The White Paper was widely welcomed. The campaign director of the WWF, Paul King, said

The Bill will contain a package of measures to promote sustainable development, better regulation and governance fit for the 21st century. It will contain something for everyone who relies on the seas for their livelihood and cares about their protection. It will introduce a marine planning system, which will be a first for the United Kingdom and will help us to take a forward-looking, holistic approach to maintaining the resilience of marine eco-systems and optimising the use of marine space. It may help to mitigate the effects of climate change by promoting the development of offshore renewable energy and carbon capture and storage.

The Bill will provide a new way of viewing interactions between different activities and their cumulative impacts on the environment. It will help us to become more efficient in our use of marine space by considering activities that are compatible, even mutually beneficial, when put together. It will also enable us to highlight
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potential conflicts between different uses of the sea, or with the environment, before many of them arise.

The Bill will streamline regulation. It will provide a modern, efficient and transparent environmental consenting process to reduce risk, delay and cost to business, as well as cutting bureaucracy. It will enable us to designate marine conservation zones to conserve biodiversity, which will protect nationally important habitats and species that do not qualify for protection under European law. It will modernise arrangements for managing inshore fisheries and provide a more proactive approach to the management of recreational sea angling. It will strengthen fisheries enforcement powers and provide a power to recover the costs of fishing vessel licence administration. Last, but by no means least, a new marine management organisation will be established to help deliver many of our marine objectives and to provide an holistic approach to managing the marine environment, including marine planning, licensing and enforcement.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on these measures. He knows the extent to which they are supported both in the House and outside. Will he tell us a little more about the structure of governance? Good governance will be essential to a proper, integrated eco-system and proper management of our seas. That includes our devolved Administrations, because there must be both a United Kingdom and a regional basis for the system. Will he also tell us whether research is under way to identify areas that need priority protection, so that it can be implemented as quickly as possible after the Bill is passed?

Mr. Bradshaw: I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate him on initiating the work in the Department. I merely picked up the baton; he, more than anyone else, is owed the credit for the progress that we have made. As Members on both sides of the House know, he has a long and admirable record of fighting for the marine environment and for environmental issues more generally.

My right hon. Friend put his finger on an important point about data. One of the challenges that we face in planning and managing the marine environment holistically is that we do not know nearly as much about what goes on in that environment as about what happens on land. I assure my right hon. Friend, however, that mapping and planning work is already in progress. If we are to have a proper and credible marine spatial plan, we must know what is going on in the water and on the sea bed, and what features are where. The Government are firmly committed to that work.

My right hon. Friend was also right to refer to the importance of joined-up working between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations. We have experienced good co-operation with the existing Administrations in both Edinburgh and Wales, and I only hope that that continues after the forthcoming elections. I am concerned that if certain parties—particularly in Scotland—do well in the elections, they might spend more time in wrangling about who has responsibility for what and where than in getting on with us and delivering this very important piece of legislation for the marine environment. I hope that all the voters in Scotland who care about the marine environment and who want something to be done—and who do not want this work to go into a quagmire of wrangles about the
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devolution settlement—are well aware of that; there are certainly thousands, and probably millions, of such voters in Scotland.

This groundbreaking legislation will ensure that we are well placed to meet our international commitments, notably the implementation of the proposed European Union marine strategy directive and the forthcoming EU maritime policy. Most importantly, it will deliver a lasting legacy so that future generations will continue to benefit from a clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse marine environment.

The sustainable management of our marine environment is the second most important environmental challenge that the globe faces, after climate change. Because of the ocean’s role in helping to regulate our climate, those two issues are intricately connected. I am therefore delighted that we have found time to debate this subject, and I look forward to listening to Members’ contributions and to responding to them.

3.31 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): In 2002, we were promised improvements in the marine environment. In the 2002 document, “Working for the essentials of life”, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated:

In 2004, the Prime Minister promised a marine Bill. He said that

and he made a personal commitment to producing one as part of DEFRA’s five-year strategy. In the 2005 Labour manifesto, a marine Act was promised. The Minister has suggested that the White Paper is a fulfilment of that promise, but it is not because the manifesto states:

In the Queen’s Speech after the Labour Government’s re-election, we were promised a draft marine Bill in that parliamentary year. In its 2006 departmental report, DEFRA listed the delivery of the marine Bill as a key task for it in 2006. We are now in 2007. The Minister must let us know when he plans to introduce the marine Bill and whether it will be in draft form—and I doubt that even he can guarantee that sufficient time will be available to enact the Bill prior to the next general election.

It is important that all the non-governmental organisations, the fishermen and the industries that rely on marine spatial planning have some certainty that the Bill will make it on to the statute book. That is also important for all the people who care about the marine environment, such as the Wildlife Trusts which are fighting hard to protect areas such as Lyme bay, and all those who worked so hard on the consultation process and will continue to help guide both the Government and the official Opposition.

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Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman drowns in crocodile tears, will he remind the House how many marine conservation Bills were introduced in the 18 years when his party formed the Government of this country, and name them?

Bill Wiggin: When it comes to crocodile tears, I have to give way to the hon. Gentleman. We have been waiting for the Bill to which I am referring to be introduced, and for this Government’s manifesto commitments to be fulfilled. Conservative Members will do our best to ensure that that Bill remains in the best possible shape on its parliamentary passage.

The Minister owes the House and everyone who has put in so much effort an explanation for the delays. We have become aware of differences between Government Departments and devolved Administrations that have delayed proceedings, but we must be given further details on why that has happened. If DEFRA is incapable of leading a consultation, what hope is there of getting a Bill through? There is strong feeling in all parts of the House that a marine Bill is needed; we are all anxious to deliver, but we are all waiting for DEFRA.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On delivery, much of the improvement that has taken place over the past 25 years is due to European legislation produced when the last Conservative Government were in power and supported by us. The delivery of clean beaches, cleaner seas and cleaner waters has largely been done on our watch.

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend is right, and the Minister admitted as much in his opening remarks when he listed the beaches that had already received a blue flag at that time. Perhaps I should have been more open in my response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), but his reference to crocodile tears was just too good to leave.

The general public outside the House have an expectation, or at least a vague hope, that the Government will deliver on their promises. Almost two years ago, the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s marine Bill campaign delivered a petition of more than 165,000 signatures to the Prime Minister. Within a year, DEFRA had managed to deliver a draft climate change Bill, but it has had almost twice as long to produce a draft marine Bill and we are still waiting.

I accept that the marine Bill will be very complicated, but the delays could have been shortened. We know from last year’s Environmental Audit Committee report on the marine Bill that DEFRA had not grasped the nettle and shown strong leadership in its dealings with the devolved Administrations or other Departments; for example, oil and gas licensing is to remain the preserve of the Department of Trade and Industry.

The EAC also pressed DEFRA to establish a timetable for enactment as early as possible in the 2007-08 Session, as it recognises the importance of the legislation. Although the marine environment did get a mention in the Secretary of State’s correspondence with the Prime Minister in May and June last year outlining the priorities for DEFRA, it is disappointing that no promises were made or targets set for the
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timetabling of the marine Bill. If the Minister could promise a timetable for enactment today, I am sure that the House would be grateful.

There are two main reasons why we are all so eager to see the Government produce the first marine Bill and why we have been putting them under pressure to do so. First, such a Bill is most certainly needed. Secondly, we have little confidence in the Government’s current policies to protect the marine environment.

Historically, the marine environment has not been offered the same level of protection as terrestrial habitats. In 2004, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee reported:

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