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27 Oct 2009 : Column 211
6.50 pm

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and to agree with his last point. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his Ministers on the Bill. I want to concentrate on the issue of coastal access. I cannot think of a better way of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the national parks than the designation of the south downs, which is now combined with the opening up of coastal access by the Bill.

I was Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality when we implemented the right to roam, and I experienced the enormous complexity of going beyond the legislation to do the work of opening up that access. It was not just the commitment of Ministers but the excellent work and commitment of officials at DEFRA who carried that through that allowed us to go so far so fast. That is no mean achievement, and the right to roam is now not as controversial as it sometimes was in advance of that legislation.

There will be similar challenges in implementing the coastal access requirement. I know what that entails and just how complex that can be, because for 10 years I took youngsters to work on the South Glamorgan heritage coast to open up access. The commitment to opening up coastal access is enormously beneficial, and that experience taught me how much the social benefits of such access mean to young people. When I see those youngsters now, as quite middle-aged adults, they always refer to that experience. There is something very important about the link to the special parts of our natural environment. The most single significant fact about coastal access was borne in on me when I opened both ends of the south-west way, with its value of £300 million a year to the local economy. It is about our natural environment, the benefit to society and the economy.

I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) about Sir Martin Doughty. He was a great friend and a wonderful human being, and I cannot think of a better way of making the link between people and the environment than a title such as Martin's way for the coastal footpath. He is not just a local hero; for many of us throughout the United Kingdom he was one of those individuals whom we value because he made such a contribution to society. It is significant that, with my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and for High Peak, we commemorated him on Kinder, where it was not just controversial but against the law to walk on the hills. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak made the link between the high hills of the country and the coast.

This is a significant piece of legislation, which I am sure we will value for many years to come.

6.53 pm

Mr. Gummer: I represent 74 miles of coastline, so for me this is an important Bill. I want to put it on record that I have a fundamental objection to the basis on which the coastal path is placed. It is entirely wrong and it will be very damaging in the future, but I recognise how we have reached this situation.

However, that is my only disagreement, because the main part of the Bill on marine protection makes a very important contribution. I pay tribute to a person who is
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no longer a Member of the House, Tam Dalyell, who represented West Lothian and who played an important part in supporting the original Bill-the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall).

I supported two amendments, and it is in no spirit of party politics or indeed irritation that I come back to those in these last words. The promotion of sustainability must be at the centre of everything that we do, and the Government, in objecting to that, and indeed reversing the Committee's decision, have done something very serious. By that very reversal they have suggested something that I do not think they mean but which could easily be used afterwards to stop actions being taken that should be taken. Sustainability should be our watchword. I remind the Secretary of State that his former leader, on becoming Prime Minister in 1997, said that he would put sustainability at the heart of all his policies. To have voted that down tonight was a mistake. It was also a mistake not to put on the face of the Bill the words about ecosystems, and that will prove to be so.

There is one other matter that I am sorry that we have missed. District councils feel that they have a particular role that was less than adequately recognised in our discussions, as they are very often the maritime authorities.

Altogether those are small things once one recognises this important Bill. It is important in recognising what has obviously been the input of civil servants to remind the Minister in future to avoid the temptation of "better not". I suspect that some of the matters that we have pressed were not taken on board because somebody said, "Better not." We need to be adventurous, and I hope that the new management arrangements will enable, at least in prosecution of the Bill, the adventure that is so important. It is the beginning of a new part of our history: the proper protection of the seas. I wish it well. This has been an exemplary procedure. I only hope that those who carry it through-that is where the proof, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said, will be-will push the boundaries further with a spirit of determination in a way that most of us, on both sides of the House, would like them to do.

6.57 pm

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): As the coastal path goes through the constituency of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) he will learn the huge benefits that will flow from it, as I have in my constituency where the 187 miles of the Pembrokeshire coastal path is seen as a huge economic benefit to the area as well as an opportunity for people to see some of the best maritime scenery not only in this country but in the world.

I congratulate not just the present team but the teams which, over the years, have worked on the Bill. I know, as a former Minister, that discussions took place with the devolved Governments on its detail, and it took a long time. Remarkably-it is remarkable-the industry and all the pressure groups have come together to achieve consensus and balance, and it took a lot of work to achieve that.

As well as the important features, such as the designation of marine conservation zones-which are vital and in the long term will have a huge impact on our ecosystems
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and sustainability, not just of those habitats but of the fishing industry, which will benefit hugely in the long term-the fact that we are now seeing our marine areas as an important source of energy in the future meant that it was vital to get the planning systems right for our offshore areas. It would have been catastrophic to meeting our climate change obligations if we could not develop renewable energy from our marine areas.

So, congratulations are genuinely deserved in this case. The Bill is a good example of cross-party and cross-interest working, admittedly over a long time. The gestation period has been long, but the birth that we hope to see shortly is well-deserved and its results will be incredibly effective, too.

7 pm

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 26 October).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

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Opposition Day

[Un-allotted Half Day]

Parading in Northern Ireland

7 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I beg to move,

I should perhaps begin by providing some explanation for the choice of this subject matter and by outlining something of our purpose and intention. Members who study these things will be aware that our last Opposition day debate was on the economy. We are currently considering the issue of policing and justice, which is a major subject in Northern Ireland, and parading is closely aligned with that subject and therefore has a critical common theme, which I shall come to in the course of my remarks.

The wording of the motion was considered in the context of ensuring that this would not become a debate of contention. I and my colleagues desire that the matters relating to parades in Northern Ireland should be resolved. That is particularly important in the context of the devolution of policing and justice. I strongly contend that although they have been divisive issues in the past, they should not be treated in a manner whereby it is a victory for one side or another to seek and gain a resolution. A resolution should be considered to be a success for all.

I said that I believed it to be imperative that we resolve these issues in the context of the potential devolution of policing and justice. To leave them unresolved and to devolve powers in policing and justice would plant a seed at the heart of government in Northern Ireland that would, I believe, be corrosive and derisive and could ultimately be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I urge people seriously to consider these matters and to put them at the centre of debate, particularly in Northern Ireland, and I urge politicians to seek a resolution to the problems.

All too often, we get around to June or July and politicians and other well-meaning people decide that that is a good time for us to start to consider how we can resolve the issue of contentious parades. It is already too late by then-the parades start moving forward, it becomes more difficult to get a resolution and we all wait to the following year before we suddenly wake up to the issue again in June or July.

For that reason, as First Minister I invited the Orange Order in Portadown and the Garvaghy road residents to come to see me so that we would have a full year to start working through how we might resolve the issue. I believe that we made some progress. I found that both parties were willing to sit down and to talk about how they might resolve the issues, and both were looking towards the Parades Commission or some other independent arbitrator to bring together the parties and
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to consider a resolution on that parade, which is one of the longest running disputed parades with which we have to deal. Now is the time to do this-we should not wait until we are into the marching system, as it is called in Northern Ireland, before we start struggling with these matters.

It is my goal and that of my colleagues, I hope, that over time parades in Northern Ireland will be dealt with as they would be in any other part of the United Kingdom-indeed, as they would be in any other European democracy. As a Unionist I have no difficulty in stating categorically that a human rights framework is crucial to get us to that point in Northern Ireland. I recognise that that framework will be defined principally by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, although there will be some who will not be happy about that. I also recognise that in certain situations there might be a number of competing rights. In any lawful society the balance between such competing rights will ultimately be determined by the courts, not by the group that has the ability to cause the maximum disruption around contentious parades.

Those who are concerned that the legal framework in Northern Ireland surrounding behaviour at parades might not be sufficiently adequate to deal with these circumstances should not lose any sleep worrying that additional legislation is required. The contents of the statute book are more than sufficient. A cursory glance through the relevant criminal legislation reveals no fewer than seven pieces of legislation that could be applied to anyone misbehaving at parades-either those participating or those protesting. They are: the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987; the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997; the Terrorism Act 2000; the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; the Criminal Justice (No.2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004; and, of course, the Human Rights Act 1998, which places all public authorities under an obligation to act in a manner compatible with the European convention on human rights and to take into account decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Freedom of expression as guaranteed by article 10 of the convention has been described by the Court as

Who am I to disagree with that assessment? That right, of course, is not absolute, but again the Court provides assistance when restrictions on freedom of expression are mooted. Any restriction "must be convincingly established" and subject to very close scrutiny, given the recognition that freedom of expression is often a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of many other rights, including the right to freedom of peaceful assembly as articulated in article 11. That right is one that

Again, the Court is of assistance.

Let me say to Unionists, who have for far too long been reluctant to embrace the protections that human rights legislation provides, that there should be no hesitation in praying the convention in aid on parading matters. Two cases stand out in that regard. In 1980, the European Commission of Human Rights held in Christians Against Racism and Fascism v. UK that

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It went on to state that

Eight years later, the European Court of Human Rights gave judgment in Plattform "Arzte für das Leben" v. Austria. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for quoting from that judgment, but given the history of intolerance shown towards loyal order demonstrations, it is perhaps helpful to show where the balance of rights lie in a lawful society. It stated:

It goes on:

Let us compare the rights that the Court articulated with the strategy that republicans organised and orchestrated in opposing lawful parades. Gerry Adams's now infamous briefing, fortuitously caught on tape by RTÉ, is chillingly cynical. Let me remind hon. Members of the unguarded but authentic words of Mr. Adams. He said:

The situation to which Mr. Adams refers was one in which those seeking to exercise their convention rights were prevented from doing so by violence and by the threat of violence. As I said, the demand for parading to be seen in a rights-based framework is one that every citizen of the United Kingdom-indeed, of any democracy worth the name-can comfortably support.

Let me dare to make the point that no matter what role Sinn Fein had in the creation of parading disputes, it is now in the interests as much of Sinn Fein as of Unionists to find a resolution. A way forward can gain the support of both sections of our community, and it is both achievable and desirable.

My colleagues and I strongly support the work of Lord Ashdown, who has been working on the strategic review of parading in Northern Ireland. My party welcomed the initiation of the review, because it provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at the issue and to put right the failures of the past. The review body published an interim consultative report in April 2008, and the foreword to that report was signed by all the members of the review group-all the members, including the well-known Belfast republican Sean "Spike" Murray. Given the consensus reached in April 2008 by the group, which also had a leading member of the Orange
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Order on it, one has to ask why the final report has not reached the Secretary of State. I make it very clear that it is no fault of Lord Ashdown that it has not done so; after all, the timeline envisaged in the foreword was,

and the group believed that its proposals

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