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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Marine and Coastal Access Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Roger Gale, † Mr. Greg Pope
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
McKechin, Ann (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 30 June 2009


[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

Written evidence to be reported to the House
MC 01 — Seafish
MC 02 — Lydd Town Council
MC 03 - Countryside Council for Wales
The Chairman: Before we start, I should say that it is perfectly acceptable for Members to remove their jackets, as I have done myself.

Clause 117

Grounds for designation of MCZs
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 117, page 78, line 35, at end insert—
‘(c) the scientific basis behind the designation (including local conservation, environmental and global science) and confirmation that it has been accepted as valid by the Marine Management Organisation’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the Science Advisory Panel.’.
Good afternoon, Mr. Pope. It is a great pleasure to be under your watchful eye this afternoon, as it will be in many sittings in the coming two or three weeks.
In considering clause 117 we come to the heart of the Bill and an issue that a large number of organisations have a particular interest in: marine conservation zones. This morning we were talking about the term “best science”, which is particularly relevant to this area. Clause 117 outlines
“Grounds for designation of MCZs”.
Our amendment would insert a paragraph to expand on the scientific element of the designation of MCZs, and ensure that we meet two key objectives. The first objective is, in the designation of MCZs, to secure the inclusion of all types of science in the process of consideration by the four regional MCZ projects, the statutory nature conservation bodies, the Marine Management Organisation and the Secretary of State. The second objective is to ensure the validity of what constitutes “best available science”.
The designation of MCZs will be based, as we know, on the “best available science”. However, currently there is neither a definition of that term nor any safeguard to ensure that such science is widely recognised as being valid and a meaningful contribution.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the Minister in the other place, has given verbal assurances that “best available science” means science that is, as he put it,
“peer-reviewed in the normal way”.
However, it would be helpful if the Committee received the same assurance from the Minister today.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I echo the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about you, Mr. Pope; it will be very good to serve under you today and in the coming weeks.
Amendment 14, which has been tabled in the names of the hon. Members for Newbury, for Upminster, for East Devon, for Clwyd, West and for Broxbourne, relates to MCZs and examines the important issue of science and how it is recognised within the clause. As the hon. Member for Newbury rightly said, for many people the clause is the Bill in many ways. The amendment also recommends that the MMO’s chief scientific adviser validate the science involved in each designation decision.
We are absolutely and entirely in agreement with the hon. Member for Newbury on the importance of the science, and I echo the comments of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. Science is absolutely fundamental in determining where we will designate sites for MCZs. The drafting of clause 117 (1) ensures that scientific criteria form the basis of site proposals. It sets out specific grounds for designating MCZs, including the number and diversity of
“(a) marine flora or fauna;
(b) marine habitats or types of marine habitat;
(c) features of geological or geomorphological interest.”
I would like to make it clear, given that this is an important issue for the Committee, that clause 117 has been so drafted to ensure that science must, by necessity, form the basis of site proposals. In fact, the number and diversity of marine fauna and flora could not be determined without scientific evidence. Failure to make a designation decision on the basis of scientific evidence would mean, first, that the designating authority did not take account of reasonable considerations; secondly, that it would therefore have acted unreasonably; and thirdly, that the decision could then be considered for judicial review.
Although the science is imperative—it is so stated in clause 117—I do not think that the clause needs to include a specific reference to science. It is shot through the clause. Lord Greaves, in the other place, made a pertinent point on a similar Conservative amendment:
“I suspect, although it is normal for opposition parties generally to want more in Bills rather than less, that the Government are trying to be minimalist about what is in it. Nevertheless, I am not sure why the Conservative amendment”,—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 1028.]
to ensure that the grounds for designating MCZs are based on science, is necessary, in the light of the provisions in the Bill.
The amendment is well intentioned; we completely agree on the importance of science in making these conservation-based decisions. However, I do not think that including in the definition of science the words
“including local conservation, environmental and global science”
would add anything to our understanding. It merely suggests that science should include local and global evidence. I believe that the hon. Member for Newbury is seeking a reassurance on our understanding and intentions regarding scientific evidence. I can reassure hon. Members that we fully expect to consider all relevant science, be it global or local, when designating MCZs. I am pleased that this amendment has highlighted the importance of keeping our definition of science flexible enough to allow for future developments in scientific knowledge and techniques. He rightly referred to climate change. We are facing ocean acidification and will face many other challenges over the next four, five or 10 years.
I shall deal now with the second aim of the amendment. Although I understand the desire for transparent assurances that MCZs have been designated in line with valid science, that is not a role for MMO scientific advisers. MCZs will be designated by the Secretary of State on advice and recommendations from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. They are our scientific and conservation advisers. They are the Government’s statutory nature conservation bodies and have the necessary nature conservation expertise. We want part 5 of the Bill to have a conservation focus to ensure that the environment is adequately considered. It is therefore vital that the advice comes from the conservation bodies set up to do that. The Bill will ensure that the science is given the consideration desired, and as intended by the first part of the amendment.
The MMO, its chief scientific adviser or the Science Advisory Panel can, of course, make representations during consultation on proposed MCZs, and I fully expect them to do so. The appropriate authority—the Secretary of State, the Welsh Assembly Government and so on—would take such representations into account. We fully expect a transparent process in which the public too can view the scientific advice on MCZ designations. For example, Natural England will publish its advice to the Secretary of State setting out the results of regional projects as well as its own scientific recommendations. Consultation comments on potential MCZ sites and the Government’s responses will also be made public, as they should be. We want this to be transparent.
The Bill ensures that science will form the basis, as it should, of MCZ designation.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I think that everybody here today supports this element of the Bill, but would like to get it right. Of course, science is key, and the Minister says that without it a decision could be open to judicial review. Has he any estimate of the amount of sea bed that has attached to it sufficient scientific evidence and knowledge to make these designations?
As I have stated, if these decisions were not based on good science, they would be wide open to judicial review. On that basis, while empathising with the thrust of the amendment, I urge the hon. Member for Newbury to withdraw it, because his first criterion is satisfied and as for the second, the chief scientist can have an input but is not the appropriate person to sign this off.
Mr. Benyon: I am always in favour of the “less is more” argument and if that is the case, I may have been given some assurance by the Minister. I am reassured that all science would be covered under the provision. I would like to see a bit more compulsion on the JNCC and Natural England to adopt that approach in the Bill. If the Minister is assuring me, as I think he is, that that is in the guidance or the schedule, I can live with that. I put down as a marker that a lot depends on the nature of the chief scientist at the MMO and the board over which he will sit. If it is to be the body that we want, they will make sure that their interests and those of the marine environment are represented from a scientific perspective, which is what we want to achieve.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made an interesting intervention on issues such as sea bed mapping. I have looked closely at the processes involved and the methodology of CEFAS. I have discovered through research that it should be possible to fill in the gaps in sea bed mapping, certainly in our inshore waters. Towards the end of 2010 we should be in a position to know what is there.
Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is right. Many colleagues attended when we recently brought RMS Endeavour from CEFAS up the Thames through the raised Tower bridge and showed them some of the science that is going on. His colleagues from the other place also came to see what we are doing with the science and what inroads we are making. By the time we bring forward an ecologically coherent network, our knowledge could be sufficient to make good decisions that will satisfy conservation criteria and others who use the sea and want to know where they can safely carry out their activity for the benefit of conservation.
Mr. Benyon: I am grateful for those remarks. I, too, saw Endeavour when it was here and saw the methodology on my visit to Lowestoft. Given the Minister’s assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Benyon: I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 117, page 79, line 9, at end insert—
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