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15 Jun 2010 : Column 113WH—continued

Stella Creasy: I thank the Minister. Please forgive me, as it is my first time participating in such a debate, but I am a little concerned that we have not heard many details about the remit of the inquiry, particularly on
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the question of consular access, which was incredibly important to a number of people from Walthamstow, members of whose family were on the flotilla, and on the lack of information that we, as the British Government and as British MPs, were able to get hold of. It does not seem clear to me, as far as we have seen the remit of the inquiry, that the issues about how international citizens are treated in such kinds of incidents and what lessons can be learnt will be covered. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

Alistair Burt: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Clearly, we are not responsible for the remit of the inquiry, but a number of Members have mentioned the consular problems that occurred. I will make some inquiries with the Israeli authorities on that matter. I would like to say a little about the consular problems, because a number of Members raised them.

Richard Burden: Will the Minister give way? I have a small point.

Alistair Burt: No, because I have only six minutes.

The consular service is one of the most important aspects of the Foreign Office's work. Our travel advice clearly advised people against travelling to Gaza, and we made that specifically clear in relation to the flotilla as well. I will meet those who were involved in the incident tomorrow. The meeting was set up at my request so that people could discuss their experiences both with me and other consular officials at the Foreign Office. I shall listen to them very carefully.

As far as I am aware, our consular staff in Israel worked tirelessly from the moment that they were alerted to the situation to ensure that they could get access to those involved and that people had everything they needed. We raised with the Israeli authorities the need for immediate consular access, and that was granted the following day. Our officials spent several hours visiting those who were in detention and in hospital before they were deported, and we had a large presence in Istanbul to meet those who arrived there. We are also aware that some people's passports and luggage have not been returned. We will raise that issue with the Israeli authorities because such goods must be returned.

Richard Burden rose-

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman's persistence must be rewarded.

Richard Burden: Does the Minister believe that the Israeli Government's inquiry has the confidence of the international community? Furthermore, Does he believe that it should be an international inquiry rather than an internal inquiry with an international dimension?

Alistair Burt: No, the inquiry meets the United Nations Security Council resolution requirement of an independent and impartial inquiry with an international element, but we will wait to see how it evolves. We believe that it has met the initial requirement set out by the international community, which was not for an international inquiry or a UN inquiry; it was exactly as the UN resolution delivered. The point is we should not be distracted by the remit or the structure of the inquiry. The important
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thing is what it looks at and what emerges from it to give some credibility to the assessment of what happened. We know that there are competing versions of events out there, and we know that the world will not be satisfied unless there is a process that gives everyone the chance to say what they saw and what conclusions they came to. The state of Israel understands that as well as anybody else, and we have made that point very clearly. We should not get hung up on the structure of the inquiry, because, in testament to those who died or who were involved, we should let the inquiry get on and see what emerges, and that is what we are concentrating on.

It is very important to see the incident not in isolation, but as part of the continuing misery and drama of Gaza. We and other members of the international community have underlined the need to lift current restrictions in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860. As for the blockade itself, the UK's position is that there is a role for the EU, both diplomatically and as part of the Quartet, in dealing with the easing of the restrictions.

In terms of semantics, when I talked about not lifting the blockade last week, I meant not lifting the blockade to allow completely free access to Gaza of everything that anybody wants to bring in. No one is talking about that. If conventional wording means to allow the unfettered access of goods that are both humanitarian and necessary to help with the reconstruction of Gaza, but not including arms, that is what I meant, so there should be no disagreement between us there. We support the attempts that have been made to change the nature of the blockade and to get the right goods in.

As far as our support for the UN work is concerned, we announced £19 million for UNRWA's work with Palestinian refugees across the region. That is part of the tranche of money that was already agreed. In relation to the question of the hon. Member for Bury South about continuing that flow of money, such a decision is subject to the same concerns about Government expenditure generally. None the less, I share his belief that that support is necessary and should continue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government's commitment to international aid and development.

The position of Hamas was raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and a number of others. Hamas does play a part in the whole tragedy of Gaza; it is wrong to ignore it or to ignore its part in that tragedy. There is no suggestion that the United Kingdom will change its position in relation to contact with Hamas; we intend to keep that as it is.

The hon. Member for Bury South asked a number of questions about Hamas, but he also called for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit and asked what we can do about that. We in the Conservative party have also pressed for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit for a number of years. As a Government, we will continue to do that-

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. We must now move to the next debate.

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Lymington River

12.30 pm

Mr Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): I feel almost like a country parson reading the banns of marriage-"this being for the third time of asking"-given that this is the third time I have dragged a Minister to Westminster Hall to answer for the actions of the Government on the protection of the Lymington river.

Furthermore, as with the controversial actions of country parsons in respect of changing hymns and modern unpopular liturgies, I find that my own actions in my assiduous dedication to this task have proved equally unpopular. While I was going about my duties in Lymington on Friday, a charming but forceful lady took me aside and demanded to know why I was so "anti-ferry". Actually, I am not "anti-ferry" at all. My starting point is that there is a critical need in both the Lymington and Yarmouth economies for the ferry service and I want to see that ferry service preserved. However, there are other interests that have to be balanced against those of the ferry service, not least the protection of the European Natura 2000 sites, the importance to the local economy of the yachting interest in Lymington, and indeed the long-term survival of Lymington as a harbour, which is protected by the local mud flats. The diminution of those mud flats poses a long-term threat to the future of Lymington. So, all those interests have to be balanced.

It is the law that provides protection and balance. The fact that we are now having a third Adjournment debate on this issue and that we have had two spats in court, both of which the Government lost, is down to the failure to implement the law properly. The Government gave all sorts of commitments in signing up to the relevant European directives, but then failed properly to transpose those directives into English law.

I do not want to repeat the entire history of this subject; those who are interested in it can read the Official Report of the two previous Adjournment debates. However, I shall give a potted history now. We have always been led to believe the received wisdom that the erosion of the Lymington salt marshes was an inevitable consequence of nature-"It's the weather and there's nothing we can do about it". Of course, those salt marshes are vital to Lymington, and the Lymington harbour commissioners have come up with a plan worthy of our Victorian forebears in its engineering prowess. They are going to build a sea wall-a monument to King Canute-to hold back the waves and save at least some of the salt marsh. I am not qualified to say whether that plan will survive current economic realities or whether it will actually work.

However, as a consequence of this controversy, a number of studies have been carried out of bathymetric data-a subject on which I am uniquely unqualified to pontificate. I understand, however, that the findings of the Southampton university team who carried out one of those studies suggest that the salt marshes, if left to nature alone, would actually be accreting-growing and extending-and that it is only the introduction of the particular form of propulsion used by the Lymington ferry from the 1960s onwards that has led to the swift erosion of the salt marshes. That erosion has been even swifter since the introduction of the new "W"-class ferries, a development that has sparked the recent controversy.

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These are issues well beyond my competence, as I said, but they are precisely those that must be clearly understood and examined in that appropriate assessment. A principal reason for the court's determining that the new ferries had been unlawfully introduced on to the Lymington river was that Wightlink was its own competent authority for the determination of that appropriate assessment. Notwithstanding reams of assurances, in correspondence from Ministers and in parliamentary answers to my questions, that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency was the appropriate authority, when it came to the crunch it turned out that because the Government had been so cack-handed in implementing the habitats directive, Wightlink was its own competent authority. The judge said it had shown a complete disregard for its public responsibilities, separating them from its own commercial interests, and that as a consequence it was absolutely invalid.

The question is what to do next. Wightlink has said it will rerun the appropriate assessment and, in addition, do a full environmental impact assessment. The difficulty is that Wightlink remains its own competent authority. Wightlink will still be judge and jury in its own court. Wightlink has said, "No, no. We're going to form a new company-Wightlink CA, or Wightlink competent authority-to judge the appropriate assessment." Key questions arise. How will the commercial interests of Wightlink CA be different from the commercial interests of Wightlink itself? Will it have a different board of directors? There is a clear need in these assessments for an independent referee.

Wightlink has said it will carry out a full environmental impact assessment. That is a huge undertaking, involving public consultation. It must consider the whole environment, including the increase in heavy goods vehicles traffic through the Forest to take advantage of the greater capacity of the ferries, especially as the bridge restrictions at the mouth of Lymington at the Ampress site mean that those lorries have to travel through the sensitive parts of the national park. All those issues give rise to great local concern about the impartiality of Wightlink, because it already has form on this matter. Why should we trust it now, given that the court could not trust it earlier?

When Wightlink announced that it would do an environmental impact assessment, it set out the details of how it was to be achieved, including the setting up of Wightlink CA, in a letter from its solicitors. The letter concludes by saying what the outcome would be before the assessments have begun. It states:

There it is: it has already concluded that the mitigation works it is to undertake will compensate for any erosion. Before the assessments are undertaken to establish the rate of erosion and other facts, we have the conclusion that the mitigation works will take care of it. The conclusion has been announced before the studies have even begun.

Wightlink goes on, in a most extraordinary piece worthy of Alice in Wonderland, to say:

In plain English, that gobbledegook means, "Notwithstanding the damage we are doing to the Natura site, because we are compensating by dumping some mud somewhere else, no damage has occurred." This is a most ridiculous interpretation. It did not fool the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. In a classic piece of English understatement, in its letter to me it says:

So we have this issue of compensation and mitigation. Natural England has already accepted a measure of damage and adverse effect on the sites. It tends to rather understate it. In its stakeholder response to the study carried out by Natural England, Wightlink says:

When people put things in newspeak, it is an attempt to confuse the general reader. I did not come across "ha"-whatever "ha" is-in my O-level maths, so one feels intimidated and does not ask the question but simply accepts the conclusion that it is very small. I suspect it is a hectare.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice) indicated assent.

Mr Swayne: The Minister nods, so it is a hectare. So 0.16 of a hectare is 1,600 square metres, and that is the impact each year. I do not consider that to be very small at all.

Let me outline for the Minister what I think the law states should happen. For the purposes of the habitats directive one has a plan or a project. That was one of the first battles in court. Yes, it is a plan or a project. Will it have an adverse effect? In order to determine that, one needs an assessment. Whether one needs an appropriate assessment or a full environmental impact assessment in addition is a question of law, but one needs the assessments to answer the first question.

If the assessments suggest there is no adverse impact, one can go ahead with the project; if yes, stop. Then, ask the next question. Is there an alternative-a question that has been completely avoided by the current process? There are all sorts of other alternatives, including a smaller ferry with a different means of propulsion that is not so damaging to the river. Nevertheless, is there an alternative? If yes, take the alternative. If no, that is when it lands on the Minister's desk.

If the answer is no then the Minister has to decide whether there is overwhelming public interest in the project proceeding, notwithstanding the damage it will
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do to the sites. That is where, if I were the Minister, I would probably take a step back and say, "Well actually, when it comes down to it, we do need the ferry." But we have not been through that assessment yet; we have not reached that point. It is at that point, if the Minister decides there is an overwhelming public interest in the project proceeding, that he considers compensation and doing something else to build up the salt marshes elsewhere.

The process that has been undertaken in Lymington has put these elements in completely the wrong order. We are already talking about compensation, although an attempt is being made to say that it is actually mitigation: "Don't mention the word 'compensation'-it's really mitigation-because of the implications that arise from that definition." Clearly, however, that is the process that ought to be followed and I fear that if it is not, we will end up with another expensive spat in court.

Let me briefly describe to the Minister my desired end state. I hope that we end up with a viable ferry service between Lymington and Yarmouth, and that we can come to an accommodation on the basis of preserving the Natura sites and the yachting that is vital to Lymington's economy. I fear that we will be presented with a fait accompli: regulators were asleep on the watch. Whatever the reason, we now have expensive ferries, built in Bulgaria, operating on the Lymington river and doing damage. How do we get round that? I hope that with some means of determining the compensation and the way forward, we can reach an agreement that Wightlink will go to some lengths to ensure that those ferries are, in a reasonable period, sold on for use elsewhere, or used on another of its routes, while an appropriate ferry for the conditions of the Lymington river is introduced as a replacement. In reality, this is a highly profitable route. It has one of the highest charges per passenger mile of any ferry in the world, a monopoly inherited from British Railways. The company ought to be able to make a go of it. There should be no question of any threat to the viability of the continued service.

I close by asking the Minister to reflect on this. Notwithstanding the failure of Government and the regulators to spot this on the horizon and deal with it effectively, and leaving aside the Adjournment debates that I held in order to raise the issue with Ministers, it has been a small number of local yachtsmen who have had to take the initiative and raise the huge sums of money to take the matter to court. I hope that they are not going to have to do so again.

12.47 pm

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