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Marine Conservation Zones

Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

1. What plans his Department has to consult stakeholders about the conservation plans which give effect to marine conservation zones. (131726)

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Like him, I am a strong advocate of this policy and have been for some time. May I seek reassurance that the introduction of this policy will create an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones, and will he ensure that all stakeholders—fishermen and environmentalists—are fully consulted on conservation plans, as well as on the designation of sites?

My hon. Friend and I are veterans of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. We have strived hard to achieve the definition of ecological coherence, which I am confident we will achieve. He is right to say that the next stage of consultation concerns the management of conservation zones, and I absolutely agree that fishermen and other stakeholders who were involved in the early stages of the process should be included.

Statutory conservation bodies and the scientific advisory panel have said that to achieve an ecologically coherent network we need 127 marine conservation zones. There are clear indications that the Government intend to reduce significantly the number of zones, so will the Minister look at substituting other zones for those that have been dropped?

With respect to the hon. Lady, I am not the slightest bit interested in numbers or lines on maps. I am interested in an ecologically coherent network that can stand up to the independent scientific advisory panel, which stated that some of the 127 sites did not have enough scientific evidence to support them. When introducing the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, the then Government said, quite rightly, that the zones needed to be evidence-based. We have put lots of resources into getting more evidence—we will bring forward the first tranche of that any day now—and we will continue to progress this expensive yet important measure as years go by.

I welcome the Minister’s proposed visit to the Isle of Wight. Is he confident that the economic impact of MCZs, particularly off the island, will be given sufficient consideration and weight before any formal decision is made?

Quite rightly, the Act allowed Ministers the discretion to consider socio-economic impacts in the designation of zones. I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that we will take such considerations into account.

The Minister’s Department insists that a lack of scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to delay the establishment of marine conservation zones. Three and a half years after Labour’s world-leading Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, and £8.5 million, the latest nature watch report by the Wildlife and Countryside Link has awarded Ministers a black mark for their inaction. When the Department is given an opportunity to act, why does it choose instead to dither?

The hon. Gentleman had only to consult his colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), to understand the basis of what we are seeking to achieve. A couple of weeks ago, those on the Labour Front Bench were wrongly accusing the Government of ignoring scientific advice. The hon. Gentleman is now telling us to ignore such advice but I am sorry, we are not prepared to do that. The establishment of marine conservation zones must be done properly and stand up in terms of evidence. In the full spirit of the 2009 Act, on which all parties agreed, we must have absolute clarity on what is meant by ecological coherence, and we will get there.