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23 Jun 2009 : Column 705

Hilary Benn: It is not for us to put such duties on the Welsh Assembly Government. It is a matter for them to determine. We will clearly be looking for co-ordination. On devolution, when the Bill was published in draft one of the principal concerns expressed by those who scrutinised it was whether all the bits would fit together. We have worked very hard—I pay tribute in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford and to Ministers in the devolved Administrations for approaching the Bill in the right spirit and saying, “Yes, we will come together to make it work in a coherent fashion”—so that the Bill before us today does that.

Part 7 and schedules 15 and 16 amend legislation relating to marine fisheries, including the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 and the Sea Fisheries (Shellfish) Act 1967, to provide new powers to regulate fishing. They also give new and more flexible powers to the Environment Agency to conserve and manage those fisheries.

Part 8 and schedules 17 and 18 will provide for the appointment of marine enforcement officers and powers to enforce licensing, nature conservation and sea fisheries legislation. In addition, further powers are provided for marine enforcement officers, covering inspection, seizure, retention and release of fish and gear. Those powers also contain provision for an administrative penalty scheme for domestic fisheries offences. Enforcement officers will also be able to investigate suspected nature conservation or licensing offences in their area of jurisdiction.

Before I turn to part 9, I think it right to inform the House that I am the part owner of a small piece of land on the coast in Essex. In drafting this legislation, I have delegated to my ministerial team all questions that might be relevant to my potential interest.

Part 9 and schedules 19 and 20 will extend recreational access to the English coast and create, as far as possible, a continuous route for walkers around the coast, and recreational space associated with the route. Natural England will be charged with making that happen. The Bill will also enable the Welsh Assembly to make similar provisions for the Welsh coast.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way on that point. The 646 Members of this House will have about 200 dogs between us, if we share out the 7.3 million British dogs, and we will be walking them on the coastal footpaths from time to time. Does he understand the concerns of farmers and landowners, and particularly of those who have livestock near the coastal path or in the spreading room around it? We need a publicity campaign to spell out the responsibilities of dog owners and the rights of farmers and landowners to protect their livestock so that the two come into conflict as rarely as possible.

Hilary Benn: I absolutely acknowledge that point and that is why the provisions in this part of the Bill try to strike a fair balance between the interests of the public, who want to be able to walk the coastal route, and the interests of landowners. That is why we clarified the rights of landowners, gave them more say in developing the route and included a right for objections to be heard. We have also placed a duty on the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a copy of Natural England’s
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scheme, clarifying how it will deal with the route around estuaries and providing more involvement for local authorities.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): On the specific point about part 9 and access to coastal paths and beaches, which I greatly welcome, may I ask my right hon. Friend for reassurance? My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned the interests of dog walkers, and several of my constituents are concerned that the Bill might enable local authorities to put additional controls on dog walking on coastal paths and such areas. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that nothing in the Bill will extend the existing powers of local authorities in that respect?

Hilary Benn: We should consider that in Committee, and I am happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend and any Members who want to raise the point.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con) rose—

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab) rose—

Hilary Benn: I shall give way two more times, then I shall bring my remarks to a close.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Secretary of State tell the House why he is so set against compensation for landowners who see the financial value of their direct interest diminish?

Hilary Benn: I do not think that it is appropriate, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we have recognised landowners’ interests in the objection mechanism that is now in the Bill as a result of discussions in the other place.

Rob Marris: Will my right hon. Friend say something briefly about equestrian access, where there is a difficult balance to be struck?

Hilary Benn: There is indeed. I have no doubt that that is an issue that we will also consider in Committee. In the end, the whole House has an interest in getting a pragmatic solution in this part of the Bill that takes account of everybody’s interests but, at the same time, tries to ensure that more of our coastline can be enjoyed by all of us.

Part 10 and schedule 21 amend legislation in relation to Natural England and modify the regime governing harbours set out in the Harbours Act 1964. It also introduces navigational controls into the Energy Act 2008, in lieu of those currently contained in the Coast Protection Act 1949. Finally, Part 11 and schedule 22 cover procedural issues and definitions connected with earlier clauses.

As I have said, many Members want to speak, so I will to draw my remarks to a close. The Bill fulfils two manifesto commitments, but it is the determination of those who campaigned for it, the skill of those who drafted it and the views of those who have shaped it that have brought us to this historic point. We now have the wisdom, perhaps, to understand that nature’s gifts are not inexhaustible. We need to balance the demands
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that we place on our seas and to do so in a way that allows us to generate energy, to simplify and streamline regulation, to improve marine and fisheries management, to protect the natural world and to provide us with greater access to it. It happens to have fallen to us—this generation—to act to protect our seas and the wonders that lie beneath them while we can. That is what this Bill does, and I commend it to the House.

5.58 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): The American poet Walt Whitman once described the sea as “a continual miracle”. His description captures both the beauty and the importance of our marine environment. The waters surrounding our island contain a rich and diverse collection of species. Indeed, our seas contain double the number of animal groups found on land. It is estimated that more than 44,000 different types of plant and animal—about half the UK’s biodiversity—live in our seas. They are home to 22 marine mammal species, such as minke whales and bottlenose dolphins, and 300 species of fish, which include different varieties of seahorse and basking sharks. However, the seas are not just crucial for marine creatures. They are of the utmost importance for people, too, performing the vital tasks of absorbing damaging greenhouse gases, regulating our climate and producing oxygen for us to breathe.

It must also be recognised that many people enjoy the benefits of the marine environment through a variety of leisure and sporting activities. The oceans are an important resource for food, and an enormous potential source of energy—provided, of course, that we harvest such resources sustainably.

There can be no doubt that the condition of the marine environment is of great importance to the public. In a 2005 survey conducted by the National Trust, two thirds of respondents said that visiting the seaside or coast was important to their quality of life. In 2007, the wildlife trusts produced a poll showing that 94 per cent. of people believed that the health of the marine environment was important to them, but the same survey also revealed public concern about the decline in fish stocks in our seas. That is one of the most pressing challenges facing the marine environment. Around 70 to 80 per cent. of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over- exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. It is predicted that the world will run out of seafood species that can be fished by 2048.

The picture is similar for UK waters, as fish stocks have greatly decreased over recent decades. In 1956, the British distant water fishing fleet returned to shore with 8.36 million tonnes of fish. By 2007, the whole UK fleet landed only 600,000 tonnes.

The Secretary of State referred to the recently released film called “The End of the Line”, which highlights the damaging impact of over-fishing on marine ecosystems, and the harmful effects of the common fisheries policy in particular. I pay tribute to the efforts of Charles Clover in raising public awareness of that hugely important issue. Reform of fisheries policy is essential, but we also need to focus on two other great challenges facing the marine environment.

The first and most important challenge is climate change. As I mentioned earlier, our seas perform the vital task of absorbing harmful greenhouse gases. The
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world’s oceans absorb more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide generated by the planet, but there are concerns that the amount of CO2 that they are soaking up is decreasing. In 2007, scientists from the university of East Anglia showed that CO2 absorption in the north Atlantic halved between the mid-1990s and the early part of this decade. There are fears that, if the oceans become saturated with CO2 and are unable to absorb any more, that could lead to an increase in global warming.

The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership has highlighted some of the effects of climate change on the marine environment. It has stressed the

Rising sea temperatures brought about by global warming have led to increased acidity in our oceans and seas. In the last 200 years, ocean acidity has increased by 30 per cent., a much quicker rate than at any time in the previous 65 million years. That has caused considerable damage to coral reefs, which provide food and shelter for marine species.

To mitigate climate change, there is a pressing need to improve the amount of energy generated from renewable sources. The Government missed their 5 per cent. target in 2003, and they have admitted that they will miss their 2010 and 2020 targets to generate, respectively, 10 and 20 per cent. of electricity from renewables. If we are to have any hope of meeting our targets and developing our capacity to generate green electricity, offshore wind must play a bigger role. Our proposal for a network of marine energy parks would greatly increase that capacity, and address some of the current infrastructure problems that stand in the way of greater progress. There is no reason why such parks, if correctly sited, could not coexist with the marine conservation objectives set out in the Bill. In many cases, indeed, offshore wind farms that prevent the catching of fish can serve as de facto no-take zones.

The second challenge is pollution, and the WWF has estimated that 3 million tonnes of oil each year end up in the seas and oceans around the world. Shockingly, a third of the total is pumped out from tankers cleaning their tanks before receiving a new load. Although oil spills are rare, their consequences are horrific. In 1996, the tanker Sea Empress was holed below the water line as it entered an estuary off the Pembrokeshire coast, spilling 72,000 tonnes of oil into the sea. That resulted in the deaths of thousands of sea birds and the contamination of 120 miles of coastline.

There is also concern about the growing problem of discarded plastic items such as nets, line and containers. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that there are 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in every square mile of ocean. According to the WWF, this form of pollution is tragically thought to kill about a million seabirds and 100,000 whales, seals and dolphins every year. Here in the UK, the Marine Conservation Society’s recent Beachwatch report found that litter on Britain’s beaches is at its highest levels since records began in 1994. Over a single weekend last September, more than 5,000 volunteers from the society picked up 385,000 pieces of litter from beaches in the UK. The most common items were pieces of plastic.

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So we on this side of the House recognise the pressing need for a Bill that faces up to the challenges before us and ensures that the marine environment is protected for future generations. When the Secretary of State published this Bill last year, he proclaimed it as “groundbreaking legislation”, but it has taken a long time to break the ground. It is now eight years since Tony Blair said that his Government were

The Labour party’s 2001 manifesto promised action. There was a consultation in 2002—predictably entitled “Seas of Change”—but another two years passed by, until the then Prime Minister said that

Despite those “strong arguments”, however, the new approach consisted of plans for a new Marine Bill in DEFRA’s five-year strategy, and yet another manifesto commitment. Another two years elapsed before proposals for a draft Marine Bill were included in the Queen’s Speech of November 2007. Finally, the Bill was introduced in the other place in December last year.

The Secretary of State told the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that we have waited

Of course we have not, but it certainly feels like it. Throughout this time, while the Government delayed, we on this side have pushed for a marine Bill. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) proposed a Bill some eight years ago that would have greatly increased the protection offered to the marine environment. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Graham Stuart: The Ministers who are here today are to be congratulated on introducing this Bill. However, it does them no good, and this House no service, for them to shake their heads and to try to interrupt my hon. Friend when he makes the reasonable point that all hon. Members interested in this matter are disappointed at how long it has taken to bring the Bill forward.

Nick Herbert: I agree: what is the point of the 2001 manifesto commitment if it is not honoured? I was simply making the point that the Bill has been delayed and that there is considerable concern among conservation bodies that it should now get safely on to the statute book, because the measures that it contains are urgent and necessary.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said back in October 2001 at his Bill’s Second Reading:

What a pity it was that the Bill ultimately ran out of time in the other place. However, better late than never, we now have this Bill before us.

My criticism over the delay, does not extend to the other place, which scrutinised a complex Bill thoroughly. It is fair to say that much of the “heavy lifting” of the Bill has been done already. The format and objectives of
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the proposed marine management organisation, the functioning of the proposed marine conservation zones and the process for establishing the coastal route have all been markedly improved, but there remain a number of outstanding issues of concern.

The core of the Bill is the proposed creation of the MMO. We support that proposal, as there is a genuine need for a co-ordinated management of the marine environment but, as the wildlife trusts have said,

We need to ensure both that the MMO has adequate powers to fulfil its important role, and that it is accountable for how it uses those powers. As Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who did so much to improve the Bill in the other place, said:

We are therefore pleased that a duty has been added to the Bill to require the guidance relating to the sustainability criteria to be consulted on and laid before the House, and that these criteria have been strengthened.

Minsters also accepted calls to improve the sustainability aspect of marine planning statements through a requirement to carry out an appraisal. Sustainability must be at the core of our approach to the marine environment, and we are pleased that the Bill now reflects this.

It is also welcome that clause 2 now contains a specific reference to the need for decisions taken by the MMO to be based on scientific evidence. As the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recently reported, it has been the lack of scientific evidence guiding fisheries policy around the world that has done so much to damage fish stocks and the wider marine ecosystem. We welcome the amendments to ensure that a chief scientific adviser will be appointed to lead the MMO in that area, as well as in further marine science more generally. Those requirements will be important in ensuring the best possible protection for the marine environment.

An outstanding issue that has not been adequately resolved is the relationship between the MMO and the Infrastructure Planning Commission. As the House will be aware, the Opposition did not support the creation of an infrastructure planning commission, principally because it would embody a democratic deficit, and it is our intention to replace any such commission with a speeded-up planning process, in which the Secretary of State remains ultimately responsible and accountable to Parliament for decisions on controversial applications.

In the meantime, with the formation of the IPC and its remit in the marine sphere, it makes little sense to create an organisation such as the MMO, which should be the prime delivery body for managing the marine environment, without giving it control over all relevant development. Given the potential impact of some development at sea on the operation of the MMO, it seems wrong merely to require developers to consult the organisation about proposed developments while the final decision rests with the IPC. The Government need to explain why they are so keen that planning applications in the marine environment should be adjudicated by the IPC when the MMO, with its marine experts and scientists, will be most in tune with the impact of development at sea.

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