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23 Jun 2009 : Column 741

The Assembly Government have indicated their desire to bring that power in-house, and I have no qualms about that, provided they are able to retain and use necessary expertise to manage fisheries. However, some campaigning groups, and indeed some people in the Assembly, feel that the Bill should be more explicit in ensuring that the Assembly Government promote sustainable fishing. I know that Elin Jones—our Minister for Rural Affairs in Wales and the Assembly Member for my constituency—is committed to doing that. I have no doubt that she will ensure that the Assembly Government promote sustainability in fishing, but I would be interested to hear what Ministers have to say about discussions held with her. Would they be happy to accept that duty, and are the Assembly Government happy with the extent of the powers that they are being given?

The establishment of marine conservation zones is a welcome step; none of us should understate it. Having listened to the debate, I am now more inclined to move towards the graded approach advanced by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who spoke for the Conservatives. I am perhaps even more supportive of the line taken by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, who said that there should be a separate category of added protection. I have no doubt that that will resonate strongly with my constituents who have raised concerns.

I appreciate that economic and social factors must be considered as part of the broader marine planning system, but I support the assertion that ultimately there should be some highly protected areas that are, in effect, no-go zones for damaging activities. It is the fear of some, including me, that because of the way the legislation is written, it will allow hugely significant environmental and scientific sites to be destroyed because of an overriding, compelling economic argument. I would contend that some sites are simply too important for any considerations to override their protection. I do not think that it is the Government’s intention that economic arguments should ultimately trump the most important environmental ones. I hope that they will consider that higher added level of protection when the Bill is in Committee.

There have been concerns about clause 117(7), which allows the appropriate authority to

when designating a site, critically at the point of designation. Site designation must be carried out on a purely environmental and scientific basis. It is one thing to consider the economic impact of individual activities, but designation must be made on the basis of what is in the zone, and what we need to protect. The effect of the clause currently is to suggest that no matter how compelling the environmental argument for designating a site, it could be overridden. That is a dangerous route to go down. I hope that the Government will consider that point.

I think that it was the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) who made the point about ensuring sufficient time for consideration of the Bill; that is important. We are talking about a highly complex issue. The eyes of a vast number of people are on the House as we consider the Bill to ensure that this once-in-a-lifetime Bill is afforded the status it requires and that our marine areas are protected in the way they should be.

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I live 200 yd from the sea. The advice from the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is no longer in the Chamber, was that we should all go to a coastal area and breathe in the air—I do that every week. I would commend doing so to people in the landlocked constituency of Sheffield, Hillsborough, and to others. My constituents are at the forefront of promoting eco-tourism. We have a beautiful coastline in Ceredigion and west Wales, and I recommend it without any hesitation to hon. Members.

8.15 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It is truly a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I am happy to inform him that I shall spend part of my annual holiday in his constituency, mainly because I am too mean to go abroad, given the fall in the value of the pound. I am still struggling to get my head round the notion of a Plaid Cymru Member who has an accent that makes him sound like he comes from Slough.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): He’s a Liberal Democrat.

Martin Salter: Oh, well that explains it all. I do apologise; there is nothing wrong with the accent at all, and there is nothing wrong with Slough, either. I had better talk about the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which is a long-awaited measure.

Last year, I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill with hon. Members who are present. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who spoke for the Conservatives, was a little churlish; the Bill has had extensive pre-legislative scrutiny. That is why we can have a constrained Committee stage, and why, following the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and extensive, comprehensive debate in the other place, we can get the Bill passed by the summer, after 12 Committee sittings, with co-operation from Members across the House. I understand that the Government have already conceded about 50 cross-party amendments. This is a much-improved Bill. However, we still have some improvements to make, and in my short contribution, I shall sketch out further improvements that I seek to make, hopefully with the support of colleagues from across the divide, in order to make a good Bill even better.

I shall primarily concentrate on issues of concern to recreational sea anglers and people in the recreational angling world more generally, as hon. Members would perhaps expect, but there are three other issues that I want to mention. Before I do that, I should like to read into the record something to show how widely the Bill has been welcomed. It is an international first. It is a major Bill that will introduce a new framework for the seas, based on marine spatial planning that balances conservation, energy and resource needs. Perhaps one of the most powerful non-governmental organisations, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which a number of Labour colleagues and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) are members, probably spoke for the NGO community as a whole when it said in December last year:

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It went on to say that it trusts that the new legislation will protect the natural wealth of our marine environment while providing a framework for the sustainable use of our seas. I have no doubt that introducing the Bill is a truly honourable role for us to play, as others have said. The Bill is a once-in-a-generation, or once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity, and I have absolutely no doubt that with the combined resources and passion that have been demonstrated in this debate and will be demonstrated in Committee, we will improve the Bill still further. Future generations will thank this House and this Parliament for doing that.

I now come to my three points. On the marine management organisation, clause 36 brings in, through guidance, a sustainable development duty. That is very important, and it is the result of a worthwhile amendment. On marine planning, amendments to clause 58 mean that it now provides for a duty to report on marine planning every three years. That was a crucial change; it focuses and tightens that essential function. I do not want to repeat arguments that other hon. Members have made, but there are a number of issues to do with marine conservation zones. Clause 123 contains a requirement, once the process starts, to designate an MCZ within 12 months. It is ridiculous, is it not, that following the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—groundbreaking but fundamentally flawed legislation that is need of overhaul, which is basically what we are providing—about only 2.2 per cent. of our amazing coastline is protected? I want that figure to be increased by a factor of 10 very quickly, and I understand that we could have some interesting announcements shortly from colleagues on the Front Bench.

I support the lobby by the NGOs for an ecologically coherent network of sites. I know that the NGOs want, and will get, probing amendments on that issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is an acknowledged expert in this area, was right when he raised the problem of the inter-tidal zones. Natural England got a bit of a pasting from one contributor from the Opposition, in one of the less impressive speeches we have heard today. Natural England does a good job managing the SSSIs. The MCZs will have enough on their plate without worrying about the inter-tidal zones, and where an SSSI stretches into a tidal area, let us leave well alone. If it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it. These new bodies will have many other things to do, and additional powers and responsibilities can come later.

NGOs and hon. Members have talked about socio-economic factors. I tilt towards the Government position here—although I do not guarantee to do so throughout the Committee stage—which is that socio-economic factors “may” be taken into account, not “shall” be taken into account. That is significant, and the House would do well to reflect on that. We will have an opportunity when looking at MCZs of equal value, and socio-economic factors could come into play then. I caution against placing a blanket ban on that.

I turn now to specific issues relating to recreational sea angling and wildfowling. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) proved that he is a true Tory, because he was worried about coastal access on behalf of the landowners. Of course he was: he is a Tory, and that is what they do—

Mr. Gray: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Martin Salter: Go on then—the hon. Gentleman is a proper Tory.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is a true old socialist. Of course my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) was not talking about large landowners. He was talking about farmers and people whose houses go down to the sea. It is a dreadful misrepresentation of what my hon. Friend said to pretend that he was speaking on behalf of dukes.

Martin Salter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing that point to my attention, but I was talking about landowners in general. The serious point—on which I think I will find common ground with my neighbour, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon)—is the little glitch in the Bill’s drafting on the difference between tenants and landowners. Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000—CROW—there is an appeals process, which is open not only to landowners, but to sporting tenants. For instance, that might mean the local angling club, which has some fishing on the tidal Stour in Dorset. It might mean the local wildfowling club—wildfowling is a far more working class sport than shooting on grouse moors. Under the CROW, the Labour Government gave the owner of the grouse moor the right to lodge an appeal, and the shooters on that moor have the same right. Under the Bill, however, the poor little wildfowling club will have no rights at all, if they are—as most of them are—sporting tenants.

Many of us have received representations on that point from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, an organisation for which I have a lot of time. It says:

and wildfowling clubs. The Association goes on to say:

and recreational angling

The marine Bill is the mechanism by which we will deliver much of the salmon and freshwater fisheries review of 2001. We have waited eight years to put some of this into legislation. I have noticed a small technical issue regarding the sale of salmon and sea trout. A number of obsolete provisions in the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 will be repealed under part 7 of the Bill, but the Government have left section 22 untouched. Surely that is also redundant, given that the dates when the sale of salmon and trout was prohibited no longer correspond to the close seasons for those species. Furthermore, we are giving the Environment Agency complete flexibility to set close season byelaws. We must return to this issue in Committee, but I wanted to put a marker down for the Whips to expect an amendment on that point.

A few days ago, in my capacity as chair of the all-party angling group and my party’s spokesman on angling, I convened a meeting with the new governing
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body for angling, the Angling Trust, which brought together representatives from coarse, game and sea fishing. It discussed several issues, some of which have already been mentioned. I welcome the demise of the sea fisheries committees—they were unbalanced—but we must ensure that there are at least as many recreational sea anglers on the new committees, the IFCAs, as there are commercial fishermen. If county councillors who have links with the commercial sector are on those committees, that must be declared; otherwise, we cannot get the balance right.

I am delighted that officials in DEFRA have announced that, by and large, recreational sea angling will not be banned in the MCZs—it will be banned only in some of the marine protected areas. We have a unique opportunity to help with the enforcement of the MCZs. Recreational sea anglers would welcome the opportunity to fish in the buffer zones on the edge of the MCZs. Those would provide excellent fishing and it would also assist in enforcing the MCZ. It is all very well drawing imaginary lines in the sea, but unless anglers—who have a vested interest in reporting illegal commercial fishing—are there as the eyes and ears, we will have made policy in a vacuum. I want to see on the face of the Bill a definition to improve, develop and maintain fisheries, and to enhance their social and economic contribution through recreational angling.

Finally, I turn to the freshwater part of the Bill—the bit that will enact the review. There is and has been an ongoing problem with fish thefts, especially in public fisheries. It is difficult to define who owns a fish or a stock of fish in, for example, the River Thames, much of which is tidal. The current system of byelaws is arcane and unenforceable. Yesterday, the Environment Agency began consultation on new legislation to make it an offence to take fish without permission. We have had problems, especially with people from other cultures who take fish for the pot and do not recognise our catch-and-release culture. I welcome the fact that we can overhaul outdated fisheries legislation and I am delighted that the Minister has agreed to use this Bill as a mechanism for delivering that review. I am also delighted that we will have an opportunity to protect eel fishing—eels are under particular threat at the moment. Finally, I ask the Minister to think again about the nonsense that the new sea fisheries committees would have responsibility for enforcing the tidal limit. That cannot be right.

8.29 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), with whom I have spent the last 12 years in this place hoping that he as an old socialist and I as an old Tory would find lots of areas of fundamental and sharp disagreement. Sadly, over 12 years I have found that we have agreed on far more than we have disagreed on. Today’s debate is no exception to that. We even agree on the removal of those obnoxious little notices in the cafeteria that say, “Members must take priority at all times.” The hon. Gentleman and I pride ourselves on removing them.

Martin Salter: Will the hon. Gentleman read on to the record that it is he and I who have been acting in guerrilla warfare against the House authorities on those objectionable notices? We stand accused.

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Mr. Gray: We are a pair of hoary old guerrillas, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and we stand guilty as charged. We remove those dreadful notices and will continue to do so. Once he has left this place—it will be a poorer place once he has gone, although of course he will always be welcome to come down to Malmesbury in my constituency to go fishing, as he does at the moment—I pledge to him that I shall continue to remove those dreadful little notices until I am even older than he currently is.

Most of the people who have spoken in the debate have said, perfectly correctly, that the principle behind the Bill is outstandingly good. I certainly would agree with that. It has been a long time coming, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said. There has been pre-legislative scrutiny over the past year, but that is no excuse. The Government have been 12 years in post, and the fact that we have spent six months looking at the Bill does not excuse the fact that it has been so long in coming. Nor do I believe that the fact that there has been pre-legislative scrutiny is a good excuse for curtailing the Committee stage, as has been proposed in the programme motion. It seems to me that many of the things proposed by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I serve, have been entirely ignored in the drafting of the Bill. An opportunity to re-discuss those matters in Committee would be useful.

Overall, most people who have spoken in the debate so far have agreed that the marine conservation aspect of the Bill is a long time coming, is entirely to be welcomed and will be of great benefit to those of us who love the sea and the seaside, which most people in the United Kingdom do. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), who is not here, rather apologised for being from an entirely inland constituency. North Wiltshire is one of the most inland areas that there is, but I am proud of the fact that the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society is based in Chippenham, in my constituency, and it does a good job in preserving whales and dolphins despite the fact that it is hundreds of miles from the nearest whales and dolphins. It does a fine job, and we need feel no embarrassment about that.

In that context, I would prefer to leave the outstandingly good marine conservation aspects of the Bill to one side and to focus on an aspect that has not been given sufficient consideration in the debate but that is an important central part of the Bill—that is, the coastal access provisions.

Perhaps I should start by saying that I am a strong supporter of rambling, walking, getting into the countryside, cycling and riding horses. The more we can encourage people to do that, the better. We are very strong supporters of that. The Labour party acknowledged that in its manifesto by saying that it intended to improve access to the coast. That manifesto did not say that it would create a coastal access path, but made a commitment to improve access to the coast. I strongly support that. The more we can do to encourage people to go to the coast and to go into the countryside, the better it will be. That is not the issue. The issue is the means by which we do that.

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