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If we are serious about tackling climate change and about decarbonising our electricity supply, and we have to be, we need to use the resources that our seas have. They are uniquely rich. There is no country in the world that has better energy resources in its offshore waters. We must make the best use of them, and although I
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strongly welcome the Bill, I am still disappointed by its balance. It is just as important to make the most of our marine energy resources as it is to have effective conservation of our marine ecosystems. The two things should go hand in hand. There is no need for conflict. There should be total synergy, and if we get this right, we can use our offshore waters as a potent weapon against climate change and reap the benefit of having many thousands of jobs and a genuinely green, environmentally benign industry. This is just as big an opportunity as anything else that has been mentioned this afternoon in the context of the Bill. This must be got right, and I say constructively that I do not think the balance is right at present. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that DEFRA no longer has any energy responsibilities or direct energy interests; that is a disadvantage in terms of this measure. The Bill is, however, vital in respect of energy considerations, and I implore my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to get it right.

9.31 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): First, may I warmly welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to your position, and add that it is fitting that the first debate that you are overseeing in this House is of such importance?

It is a great pleasure to be winding up on behalf of the official Opposition. I must apologise to Members if there is a slight aura of fish around me today, but I was at Billingsgate at 6 o’clock this morning to discuss, in accordance with my shadow Front-Bench duties, marine sustainability. I am therefore coming to this debate fizzing with enthusiasm for the subject, my mind stimulated by omega 3, a vital ingredient in fish.

As many hon. Members have said, we are discussing a very important issue, and we have had an excellent debate. This is an historic opportunity to put a landmark Bill on to the statute book, providing a framework for the protection of the marine environment for future generations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, the Conservatives have pushed for a marine Bill for a number of years, and it is with great pleasure that we see it enter the Commons, and in a much better state than it entered the other place. We may take a lesson from that: their lordships did not have a programme motion or a guillotine in place, yet they managed to tease out so many more issues and thereby improve the Bill. It is a credit to their lordships that we now have a serious Bill that will implement some very positive conservation measures for our seas and give the public greater access to our coastline. There is, however, still some work to be done before this Bill reaches its full potential.

There have been a number of excellent contributions this evening, but may I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)? If this Bill could have a paternity test, he would be the daddy, as it was his idea all those years ago in his private Member’s Bill. He made an excellent speech, which was full of passion and love for our seas and its birdlife. He gave us a great mental glimpse of the sea, where we should take our battered souls for restoration. There can be no better advice than that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs spoke about the need to put this in a European context. There is no point in protecting our seas from
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our own fishermen if we are not going to get that protection secured at the European level. This Bill must, therefore, go hand in glove with common fisheries policy reform. The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) made an important contribution, in which he spoke about the need for differentiation between types of marine conservation zone. Like many other Members, he also talked about the compatibility between MCZs and wind generation in terms of protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) said that our overall priority must be conservation. As he and many hon. Members said, we have one chance in a generation. He is right and I am deeply conscious of that fact, as are all who are involved in this Bill.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) spoke about how the Bill will impact on his constituency and pointed out that its coastline incorporates tourism, energy, conservation and many other uses. He spoke about the need for expertise in the marine management organisation, and I entirely concur with his view that engineering expertise is as important as scientific understanding.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about tourism—an issue that I will come back to—in the context of coastal access. It is vital to understand that in order to encourage people to visit our coastline, it is not good enough just to have a coastal path: we have to work with local authorities to get access points, which is why it is so important that local authorities become involved in the creation of car parks and other connecting points.

Some of my hon. Friends expressed legitimate concerns about the Bill’s coastal access provisions. I can assure them that I take their concerns very seriously; there is much to be teased out in Committee. I know a little bit about providing access in the countryside. I know how voluntary access arrangements work, and I will represent their views as best I can in Committee.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) spoke about how little protection was afforded to Cardigan bay under special area of conservation status. We all know what has happened in Cardigan bay, and we will have those factors in mind as we progress the Bill.

The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) made a moving plea on behalf of dukes and landed estates for their sporting rights. I can assure him that the Opposition are deeply mindful of hard-working members of the public with wildfowling rights, for example. We will bear such issues in mind, and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to support the interests of all legitimate users of coastal Britain.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke with real passion about her own coastline and how the Bill will enhance and help the environment in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) raised the important point made by the film “The End of the Line” and said that although we may have yet to experience peak oil, we have certainly experienced “peak fish”. We have to represent these views as we progress the Bill. A number of other Members made important points that I do not have time to cover.

The health of the marine environment is a critical issue on which we must act immediately if we are to tackle climate change and secure the sustainability of
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our fisheries and the conservation of endangered marine flora and fauna. It is no exaggeration to say that the UK marine environment is in trouble. Some important fish stocks are in dire straits. Marine biodiversity is suffering, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs pointed out, given that more than 50 per cent. of the UK’s total biodiversity is found in our seas, this presents a challenge that we must grasp.

It is a matter of collective failure that we have long since waved goodbye to our 2010 biodiversity targets. However, the Bill provides us with a unique opportunity to tackle problems in the marine environment head-on, effectively and coherently. This is not a Bill for the here and now. It has to be robust enough to address fast-changing technologies, as discussed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). In discussing technologies in Strangford loch, which were developed in my constituency, he made a very important point. We have to address fast-changing technologies in power generation in particular, and be flexible enough to deal with changing environmental factors in our seas. Areas considered relatively benign in conservation terms today may be fragile ecosystems in desperate need of protection in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Marine conservation zones have the potential to be an extremely effective conservation tool that will make a real difference to the marine environment, but that will happen only if they form a coherent, dynamic and flexible network that can respond to the changing needs of our seas.

There are those who, for wholly understandable motives, wish us to commit to a clear percentage of sea to be protected. The problem with an arbitrary figure is that it can be relatively easily reached by protecting areas of relatively little ecological benefit. Let us be honest: there are some difficult decisions ahead, as the hon. Member for Reading, West, said. Ministers, now and in future, may have to make difficult choices affecting communities on our coasts. An arbitrary figure would be more likely to encourage people to take the path of least resistance to achieve a headline percentage, when what is needed is a science-based, ecologically coherent decision process.

I was pleased to see that in the other place further clarification of the nature of MCZ networks was achieved. However, during the Bill’s passage through this House, I hope to gain further clarification of how the Government intend to ensure the ecologically coherent network that our seas so desperately need. I heard this morning, on my visit to Billingsgate, about how the mapping of our inshore waters can be completed by the end of 2010; that can form the basis of the protection zones that we need.

We must avoid closing ourselves off to the potential benefits of dual use—an issue mentioned by the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe—within appropriate MCZs. For example, in a flexible network, there may be opportunities for offshore wind to work in harmony with the conservation aims of an MCZ while aiding enforcement. To achieve the successful protection of marine areas, proposals for MCZs need to have integrity, and integrity will come only from a widespread, transparent consultation process—a point made by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton). If designations are deemed to be the property of a few interested parties, rather than being based on the accepted view of many, they will lack the legitimacy that they need to succeed.

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As Lord Taylor of Holbeach said in the Lords, the MMO needs to be the standard bearer for our seas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said, although the role of the MMO has been bolstered by some amendments in the Lords, we remain concerned about its relationship with the Infrastructure Planning Commission. If the MMO is to be able effectively to manage planning within our seas, it should have control of everything in the marine environment. By giving the MMO piecemeal control we are diluting its role, and therefore its effectiveness.

There is concern about the state of preparedness for the MMO. In a very short time, we will need to appoint a chairman, a chief executive and a board. I am particularly concerned about the expertise currently found in the Marine and Fisheries Agency. Many of its staff have said that they are unwilling to move to the new organisation, or have not been consulted enough on the move. It is crucial that we carry them with us.

In the last few moments available to me, I should like to mention coastal access. A number of hon. Members raised important points on that issue, some of which I have covered. Although we agree with the Government that it is an honourable ambition to increase access to our coastline, the Government have introduced the measure in a rather blunt fashion. I am delighted that, in the other place, the Government conceded the need for an independent right of appeal; to their credit, they listened to the very good arguments put forward. However, there remain concerns about the legitimate rights of landowners, land managers and small coastal businesses, over whose land the path will travel. I give notice to the Under-Secretary that there are issues of safety, liability, privacy and—most importantly, perhaps—biosecurity that we need to address in Committee; we will need to make improvements in respect of those issues.

In conclusion, I assure the House that our intention is to persist with the positive, consensual attitude adopted in another place to carrying the Bill through its stages. It is vital that it gets on to the statute book as soon as possible, but not at the expense of proper, diligent examination in Committee. Those who believe that concern for our marine environment is the sole interest of fishermen and conservationists make a big mistake. There is growing concern across the country about falling fish stocks and damage to our marine environment, as well as increasing understanding of the fundamental role that our seas play in everyone’s quality of life, as a key component in the climate change debate.

The many thousands of people who have seen the film discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, “The End of the Line”, will have seen a compelling critique of the global marine environment. They are asking politicians here and abroad legitimate questions about our stewardship of the seas. Now is not the time to be half-hearted or timid. It is our duty to make sure that we create robust, effective legislation. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we simply cannot miss.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to the Chair on the occasion of these august proceedings. It is an apt debate for you to join us, because—as has already been pointed out—this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and an historic Bill.
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Those phrases are often over-used, but it is true in this case. This is the first Bill over whose Second Reading you have presided and, if we get it right, it will be a landmark not only for this place, but for this country, Europe and the rest of world. We will lead the way in marine management for future generations.

I am fortunate—I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State feel fortunate too—to inherit this Bill from a succession of very able Ministers, many of whom have spoken in this debate today. They have advocated this approach, and we are fortunate in being able to take it on to the next stage.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), who has taken a constructive approach. We saw the same in the other place, and that is how we will make progress. We need to focus on the important issues that will refine, improve and strengthen the Bill. A strong Bill went into the other place, and an even stronger one has come out of it. There may be more that we can do, but we will discuss that in Committee.

I am tempted to say “Thank the Lord” that we have reached this position. I am excited that the Bill will have its Second Reading tonight and look forward to the Committee stage. Perhaps I should say “Thank the Lords”, but I am not supposed to refer to them in that way, so I shall just say thanks to the other place. Thanks to its work, we have a stronger and clearer general objective for the marine management organisation in relation to sustainable development, its use of science and other evidence to underpin decision making, and its relationship with the Infrastructure Planning Commission. We also have additional provisions for parliamentary scrutiny with new duties on Ministers to report on marine planning progress; to make a statement to Parliament on principles to be followed in implementing the duty to contribute to a network of marine conservation sites; and to lay sustainable development guidance for the MMO before Parliament, which is where it should be. We also have a requirement on Government to publish a sustainability appraisal of the marine documents, a clearer description of roles for local authorities in marine licensing and coastal access, a clearer duty to designate marine conservation zones, the introduction of a 12-month time limit to designation once intention has been published, and the addition of reckless damage into general offences. Finally, and not least—as has been remarked—we have the addition of the procedure for making objections and representations about coastal access reports.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned delay, but after a long period of pre-legislative scrutiny, we now have a very good Bill. He referred to the links with the Infrastructure Planning Commission and his objections to that body as it stands. The Bill and the Planning Act 2008 have been developed in parallel, and the roles of the marine management organisation and the IPC are complementary. The marine management organisation will license most projects and developments in English territorial and UK offshore waters, which include marinas, coastal habitat creation, aggregate dredging and renewable energy installations.

The IPC, as set out in the Planning Act 2008, will consider applications for “nationally significant” infrastructure projects. In the marine area, that means the largest
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ports and renewable energy installations that will generate more than 100 MW of power. When the IPC is the consenting authority, the MMO will lend its expertise through the IPC and will act in a close advisory role on the marine aspects of each project. After consent has been given the MMO will monitor and enforce those consent conditions. As the Bill went through the other place, we considered that relationship and, although we need to bolt it down, I think that we have done that very effectively.

The Government listened very closely to the debates in the other place on the relationship between the two bodies and agreed to reflect in primary legislation the important role that the MMO will have in applications for development consent by bringing forward amendments to the Planning Act 2008. So, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs remarked, we have been a listening Government and we have acted on many of these parts of the Bill.

Several hon. Members remarked on aspects of socio-economic criteria in site designation. Marine conservation zone site proposals will be based on scientific evidence and the scientific evidence will be the first consideration in the designation of each site. There will obviously be some cases in which the need for conservation must prevail, but there will be other cases where we have options, particularly when designating representative sites. We might have more choice of potential locations and about the size and shape of the marine conservation zones.

In such circumstances, it would be sensible and appropriate to be able to take account of socio-economic considerations in deciding where a site or a group of sites should be designated. We would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we did not take reasonable steps to minimise the impact of MCZs on what, as has rightly been pointed out, could be vital economic activity or could be vital to our energy needs—especially if we can do so while still achieving our conservation objectives.

Let me turn to the issue of ecologically coherent networks. Ministers in the other place and I have repeatedly made it clear that we intend to subscribe to those networks. The Government are fully committed to contributing to an ecologically coherent network. We have included three core principles in clause 123(3) that set out the basis of the UK network. They are based on the definition of ecological coherence developed for OSPAR, the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic. Let me give the House the three underpinning principles from OSPAR which ensure that we will deliver that ecologically coherent network. The first is that it should contribute to the conservation of the marine environment, the second is that it should protect features that represent a range of features present in the UK marine area and the third is that it should reflect the fact that conservation of a feature may require more than one site to be designated. Those are the principles. The definition of an ecologically coherent network, as we all know, can vary all the time. There might be a better version as time goes by. We might need to improve it. Let us not come back to primary legislation to do that—let us put the principles in, deal with them and then move on.

The commitment in clause 123(3), alongside the requirement to satisfy our European and international
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commitments, as found in clause 124(4), and the clear duty to designate marine conservation zones effectively enables the Government to deliver a network that is ecologically coherent. However, let me go further. To ensure transparency in the principles that we will use to design the network and further to demonstrate the Government’s commitment, we amended the Bill on Third Reading in the other place to insert clause 123(6) and (7). Those subsections require the appropriate authority—Scottish and Welsh Ministers and the Secretary of State—to lay a statement before the relevant legislature, setting out the principles that it will follow in designating areas so as to contribute to that network. Statements might also include other matters that the relevant Minister considers to be relevant. The statement must be made within two months of the commencement of the Bill’s nature conservation provisions, must be kept under review and must be updated if necessary. Those safeguards will allow us to take the concept forward as it evolves, and make sure that we report back so that people can hear about what we are delivering. In the other place, Lord Eden of Winton summed this up very well when he said:

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