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25 Jan 2008 : Column 1786

Bill Wiggin: Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I want to say that, prior to considering the minutiae of the competitive costs we must look at the wider picture and ask what would happen if there were a spillage. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made a great case about how well his constituents were already doing the job, and the fact that their track record is pretty good speaks for itself. The key point, however, is that when an oil spillage happens it is no good saying, “Ah well, this is a consequence of being competitive.” We have a much greater responsibility, and it is to the whole of our country, and to its biodiversity, its marine life, its tourist industry and its shipping industry—to the bigger picture. Therefore, I will not be drawn into giving my hon. Friend an answer about being cheaper or better or the same price as our French competitors. What really matters is that we do the right thing for the marine environment.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend should not forget that we share a channel with the French—if we are going to pick on one particular country—and an oil spill there might impinge on our own waters after a while. That would have an impact, and I wonder whether he knows what consultations have taken place between the British Government and other European Union Governments to ensure that the same strict protection that we are proposing to afford our wildlife will also be afforded to the wildlife in those other countries, particularly if their oil spills could impinge on the wildlife in the United Kingdom?

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend raises another important point. I recall a recent spillage in Spain where we saw how much devastation can be caused. I cannot say whether the Minister has or has not spoken to his European counterparts, but I am pretty confident that he will have an opportunity to tell us himself in a very short time—as I do not intend to detain the House for much longer. My hon. Friend makes the point that we cannot put our own industry out of business on the basis of high principles alone, but I would return to my point that we must maintain those high standards. We must have our eye firmly on the environmental ball, as well as respond to the commercial considerations of the shipping sector.

That is why the Bill provides a balance: we must allow the procedures to take place, but only in areas where it is safe to do so. That is why I was grateful for the answer that I received when I intervened to ask which were the best areas. I was told that harbours were obviously the best areas, and I remind the House that Scapa Flow already has a great record. That response solved various issues. As I tried to emphasise, however, my concern is that we end up with proper marine planning, marine spatial understanding and marine protection for biodiversity that we all look for and enjoy in our seas. We will also need to integrate those aspects with what proposals emerge from the European Commission.

I fear, however, that that is not as joined up as the Government promised it would be, so I urge the Minister to take note. He should ensure first that the Government deliver their manifesto promise to produce a marine Bill and, secondly, that they do an effective job of it with no watering down. Thus far, we have seen only the White Paper and it is very—

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not spend too much time straying on the marine Bill. Instead, he should concentrate his remarks on the Bill before the House this afternoon.

Bill Wiggin: I should be delighted to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, I do not have a draft Bill; I have only the Government’s White Paper to concentrate on, so I could not go on any longer about the marine Bill, but I am grateful for your guidance.

I close by saying how impressed I was not only with the quality of the briefings produced by the RSPB and other interested parties, but with the quality of today’s debate on this interesting subject. We have to get the balance right between the value we place on marine biodiversity and the value we place on people’s livelihoods and the jobs that they are carrying out effectively at the moment.

Mr. Brazier: Of course, not just the livelihoods of people in the industry—important though they are—are at stake, as 95 per cent. of British goods come to this country by such a route, so it is also important to get the balance right in the interests of the country as a whole.

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not as complicated as having to deal with all shipping, as the Bill deals with a specific procedure.

To conclude, I hope that if the Bill does not receive its Second Reading or fails to get through Committee the value in it—for marine protection—will transfer to however the Government eventually choose to act on this front. I emphasise that this must not be yet another missed opportunity.

1.13 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): We have had a useful and constructive debate, which has also been interesting, if slightly curtailed. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on introducing the Bill. As we have all acknowledged, it contains very useful provisions and we should all agree with the sentiments behind it. We should all want to protect the coastline and wildlife of the United Kingdom, which helps to make our country such a special place.

We seem to have got ourselves into a division in that the Bill is perceived as providing a choice between either protecting our environment and wildlife or wrecking the shipping industry. There seems to be a danger of understanding the Bill as if it goes down either that line or the other. What has emerged from our debate, however, and particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)—if I may be allowed to sing his praises—is that the Bill is capable of combining the two, so that we can protect our environment and wildlife while also looking after the best interests of our shipping industry. Having heard all the contributions, I believe that we all want to see that.

My former colleague—and political hero—Eric Forth might have started off by saying that, given that we have not had an oil spillage from a ship-to-ship
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transfer in UK waters, the Bill was a solution looking for a problem, and that we should not regulate when there did not seem to be a problem. Equally it is nice, for a change, for politicians to come forward with proposals to prevent a problem from happening. Far too often in the political process, we wait for some great problem to happen and then rush into a knee-jerk reaction to try to solve it. Usually, that leads to bad law and laws with unintended consequences. It is refreshing that the hon. Gentleman has brought forward a Bill that will address what we can all see is a potential problem before a major problem actually occurs on our coastline.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but the context for the problem is the new one of large numbers of transfers in the firth of Forth. When I made the point that there had been no spillages, to which he alluded, it was in a context in which there was less prospect of spillages. That has changed, which is the reason for the Bill.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He makes an important point very well.

As we all know, the Bill is supported by the RSPB, which does a tremendous job protecting the interests of our birds and wildlife. We must be aware that any kind of oil spill would have devastating consequences for seabirds and waterfowl along our coast. It is absolutely right that we look at ways of giving those important parts of our bird population the protection that they deserve.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the problem of wildlife, but the issue is much bigger: tourism and the livelihoods of those who live along the coast would also be affected. The RSPB actively supports the Bill, and I support the RSPB, but the Bill is not purely about wildlife.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The consequences of any kind of oil spillage would be far-reaching for our country. He is right that particular coastlines, the people who live along them, and any tourist industry that depends on people visiting those places would be adversely affected. The country has a large interest in dealing with this problem.

I do not wish to pre-empt the Minister’s comments, but I would be very nervous if he were to start urging the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith to trust the Government, not to bother with the Bill, which is all very nice, and to leave it to them to come back with something a little better. We have heard all that before. The Government are for ever saying, “Leave it with us; we will come forward with some even better proposals if you will just give us the benefit of the doubt.” Time after time, we get such warm words and assurances, and yet nothing seems to come from the Government. I hope that the Minister will not take that line, as he might find that many of us are sceptical about such assurances. If he does, I hope that the Government really intend to bring forward proper proposals, rather than just to get over a particular hurdle on a particular day, and to kick something into the long grass. People’s hopes are raised by the promise
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of some action and then dashed when it does not happen. That damages not just the Government’s reputation but that of all Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was right to emphasise the importance of the shipping industry to the UK economy. I was struck by some of the figures that he quoted: about 95 per cent. of the country’s international freight movements by tonnage, and 75 per cent. by value, are moved through our ports each year. That is a considerable part of our economy.

It would be absolute folly to do anything that might damage the industry. As my hon. Friend pointed out forcefully, shipping is very good for the environment. Surely we do not wish to do anything that would make moving goods by ship a less attractive option. Indeed, we should encourage it. I should be very nervous if any aspect of the Bill had the unintended consequence of persuading people to move their goods by plane, for instance, because that would be much worse for the environment.

Mr. Brazier: I have agreed with everything that my hon. Friend has said until now. I did not quite say that shipping was very good for the environment. I said that given that goods are being moved, it was by far the least environmentally damaging method of moving them—much less damaging than, say, bringing them most of the way by lorry and then across the channel, or, much worse, transporting them by air.

Philip Davies: I note the distinction that my hon. Friend makes, but given that we all want goods to be moved—all of us, surely, believe in free trade—shipping, in that context, is good for the environment. It is certainly better than the alternatives, unless we adopt a system whereby we do not bother to move goods around at all. I hope my hon. Friend will understand that I was speaking in that context, but if anyone misunderstood the point that I was making, his clarification will have been helpful.

I do not want a Bill that would damage the shipping industry or create perverse incentives. Nor do I want a Bill that would impose additional costs on the industry, thus raising the prices paid by consumers. While I am entirely committed to the spirit of the Bill—protection for the environment, for wildlife and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) pointed out, for the public living on the coast and the tourism industry—we must ensure that it does not have those unintended consequences.

I was struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said about clause 1(2)(c), which provides for a transfer at sea to be considered a “plan or project”. He said that it might prove not to be good for the shipping industry, and hence in the long run might not be good for the environment. If, as I hope, the Bill proceeds to a Committee stage, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith may wish to consider allowing it to be removed.

As was pointed out earlier, Bills must be meaningful, and I certainly would not wish to fillet this Bill, allowing the sentiment to remain but preventing it from achieving anything. However, if clause 1(2)(c) were removed, the rest of the Bill would ensure that it was still meaningful. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury about the helpful nature of
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the subsection providing for the designation of places where ship-to-ship transfers could take place. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith pointed out that it would also help the shipping industry by providing certainty about how and where transfers could best be carried out. I hope that the Committee will consider removing the paragraph, because removing it would improve the Bill rather than rendering it meaningless.

The best aspect of the Bill is that it highlights an issue that rarely gets highlighted here—the importance of wildlife and our coastlines. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a specific constituency interest in introducing the Bill, but he has done a great service to the whole House and the country by highlighting the issue. Although my constituency is very much inland and has no coastline to be affected by the Bill, many of my constituents are equally concerned about protecting wildlife and the beauty of our coastlines. He should be congratulated wholeheartedly on choosing to introduce a private Member’s Bill on this subject.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend has just said that his constituency does not have a coastline. Knowing Shipley relatively well, I can endorse that fact. It will take a lot of global warming before he finds a bit of coastline round Shipley. If he does, I have had it. My constituency is the Ribble Valley just the other side from him.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that our coastline is one of the best things about the United Kingdom? We are an island and we have a fantastic coastline. Irrespective of where our constituents happen to be, they almost have a feeling of ownership of our absolutely beautiful coastline.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The coastline is one of the things that makes our country great and unique. In an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), he touched on the subject of how similar legislation might be implemented in other parts of the European Union. Knowing him well, I am sure that his intervention was not calling for more intervention from the EU, but he makes an important point. The United Kingdom is in many respects unique given the coastline and wildlife that we have on this island. Therefore, it is imperative that the protection we have for our coastline and wildlife is greater than might be considered by other European countries if we were to engage in common action. They do not have the same beautiful coastline.

Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but there is a problem with such legislation. If we legislate for ships registered in Britain, how can we ensure that ships flying the flags of other countries, including the flags of countries that do not have coastlines, would be as good as our merchant fleet in doing what they should?

Mr. Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and highlights why we should avoid excessive and burdensome regulation. The point that I would like to make about the Bill is that we can secure protection for our coastlines and wildlife without creating excessive
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burdens that will make us uncompetitive and put us in a less advantageous position than some of our neighbours. It is important that we strike the right balance, which is why I believe that the Bill is a positive one. However, it is important that we take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and remove the provision in clause 1 that may have unintended consequences.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his support. Given his comments about the need for us not to get out of step with our European partners, I trust that that will lead him to give his full support to the Bill on the European treaty when it comes before the House in the next few weeks.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We will concentrate on the Bill before the House today.

Philip Davies: I had slightly anticipated your intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am disappointed by it. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to provide a critique of the European treaty.

Mr. Evans: He is warming up.

Philip Davies: Indeed, I am warming up for next week’s debate, but I will resist the temptation to go down that line even though it was offered to me. I can only ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith to watch the debate next week; then he will see why I do not support the European treaty. As I do not wish to introduce a discordant note in a debate on a Bill that is, on the whole, very good, I will move on.

To sum up, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on making his comments in a constructive way. He supports the spirit and intention of the Bill, but his modest alteration would avoid an unintended consequence. I hope that the Minister will state his support for the principles of the Bill, and I hope that he will not say that he will introduce something better in future, if we will just be patient and bear with him.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): Given the number of Conservative Members who are coming into the Chamber to listen to the hon. Gentleman, I get the impression that I might not get the opportunity to express any view on the Bill.

Philip Davies: It is always a pleasure to listen to the Minister. I am so keen to find out what he will say about the Bill, and to make sure that any promises that he makes at the Dispatch Box today are honoured, that I will conclude my remarks, so that he has the maximum amount of time in which to tell us exactly what the Government will do.

1.30 pm

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