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Marine Bill

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 17 May 2007

Our manifesto commitment was for a Bill in this Parliament, and I am confident that we will deliver that. Our White Paper, the precursor to the Bill, was published in March.

I am grateful to the Minister, but could he possibly expand a little on the reasons for the delay? Several environmental groups are campaigning for the Bill, and the Minister must be more forthcoming as to what the problem is. Does he think it important that the devolved Administrations should introduce a piece of legislation to run in parallel with his proposed Bill?

There is not a problem. Governments are elected for five years, and we are just two years into this Parliament. I fully appreciate that many organisations, individuals and Members of this House would like a Bill as soon as possible, but I want to ensure that we get a good Bill instead of moving unnecessarily fast. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the importance of the engagement of the devolved Administrations. I hope that the new Administrations in Scotland and Wales will engage positively in furthering the legislation and that it will not get bogged down in unnecessary discussions about the devolutionary settlement.

Langstone harbour in my constituency has a thriving commercial wharf that imports about 500,000 tonnes of recycled aggregate. There is a sewage treatment plant at the top of the harbour and a storm water outfall at its mouth. The harbour is an important breeding ground for gulls and terns, and has a thriving marine leisure industry. Does my hon. Friend accept that we will need a strong regulatory body in the Bill in order to manage those conflicting interests?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The situation that she describes in her constituency is a good example of why we badly need to modernise our marine legislation. She correctly outlines the diverse interests and pressures on the marine environment and why it is so important that we develop the marine Bill in a comprehensive way to deliver all the economic and environmental benefits to places such as Portsmouth, for which she fights so strongly.

Will the Government use the marine Bill as an opportunity to review the operation of the Crown Estate Commissioners as owners of the seabed? May I suggest to the Minister that there is a contradiction between a sustainable management regime for marine resources and the owner and operator of the seabed being a landlord whose statutory duty is to maximise the financial return to the Treasury?

We all want sustainable development of our marine environment. We want a Bill that does not damage economic prospects, particularly in areas such as renewable energy, but that at the same time preserves the environment. I see no conflict whatever as regards the role of the Crown Estate Commissioners; in fact, we have worked closely with them on the development of the marine White Paper, and I am sure that we will continue to do so as the legislation comes before the House.

Do not we need fully to protect our inland waters? The Marine Conservation Society points out that full protection from damaging, and potentially damaging, activities is in place in the UK only around Lundy island—an area of about 3 sq km, or 0.002 per cent. of the area that needs protection. Will the Minister liaise closely with the society to promote and extend the very limited area of protection that we have at the moment?

Yes; the society gave a warm welcome to the White Paper when it was published. The Bill will make it easier to develop a network of marine protected areas around our coasts such as that which my hon. Friend describes. That does not mean that we are being inactive in the meantime, but the new legislative tools that the Bill will provide will help us to give the protection that he seeks.

Given the continuing decline in species and habitats in UK waters and the hugely complicated and ineffectual measures that are in place to protect them, may I confirm for the Minister that we strongly support the introduction of a marine Bill? Indeed, we have done so for several years. The consultation on the marine White Paper ends on 8 June. Surely that allows enough time for a marine Bill to be introduced in the next Queen’s Speech. I know that we need to get it right, but no one could accuse the Government of acting with undue haste.

Equally the hon. Gentleman will understand that no Government ever give a commitment about what will be in the Queen’s Speech before any measure is actually in the Queen’s Speech, so he would not expect me to do that. He is wrong to paint a picture of catastrophic decline in all our marine environment. Some of it is doing especially well. Of course, some fish stocks are over-exploited and we take steps to tackle that wherever can. However, the seas around many parts of our coastline are in better shape than at any time since before the industrial revolution. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.