Report (4th Day)
Marine and Coastal Access Bill [HL]
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 127 to 129. In one of the documents circulated as we prepared for this Bill was a very helpful map of who was responsible for which part of the coastal waters around the United Kingdom. In the middle of the Irish Sea was a large, white hole. The purpose of this amendment is to explore the nature of this large, white hole, because it represents not only the coastal waters of the Isle of Man but also a gap in the application of this Act and many others, which seems to be a matter of considerable ambiguity.
As the Minister will know, I have wider interests in the extent clause and in the whole relationship between the British Government, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. A responsible Minister from this House described the constitutional relationship to a Commons committee last December as one which includes considerable ambiguity. That ambiguity may be useful for some purposes, but when, for example, it comes to the duty of Her Majesty's Government when signing international conventions on behalf of all UK territories to implement the obligations that are taken on, the quality of the extent clause leaves a great many questions.
I take as an example Clause 313(8), which lists some of the Crown dependencies and some of the overseas territories but does not list others. It lists Jersey but not Guernsey or the Isle of Man; it lists the Falklands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, but not the Chagos archipelago, Gibraltar or the sovereign base areas of Cyprus. Perhaps the Minister can explain why some are listed and others are not. Was it an accident and an oversight, or is there is an unseen rationale in government policy of which we are perhaps not fully aware?
Part of my concern is the capacity of these very small territories to implement what they are asked to do. It has, after all, been a settled policy of British Governments of both the major parties during the past 20 years to assume that any local authority with a population of less than half a million is incapable of implementing proper legislation. We are talking here about a range of authorities all of which have populations of less than 100,000—some, after all, have 20,000 or 30,000. They simply lack the staff, the ability and, in some cases, the competence to begin to implement what is asked of them. Anyone who has read the recent government report on the quality of governance in the Turks and Caicos Islands will know exactly what I mean when I talk about competence and ability.
There is then the question of who is in charge in Whitehall. I must thank the Minister for allowing me to meet a number of officials to discuss the matter. However, I gained the impression that there is a settled reluctance across Whitehall to address an issue which to several departments is marginal and where it is unclear which department is in charge.
One of several briefings that we received on this issue points out that there is an interdepartmental ministerial group on biodiversity, which is responsible for ensuring that biodiversity in the Crown dependencies and overseas territories is considered. It brings together representatives of four departments—the Foreign Office, Defra, DfID and, for some reason, DCMS, but it has not met for nearly two years. It was due to meet in January, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me whether it has met since January to consider this important issue. If it has not met for over two years, the Government are leaving an even larger hole in this important area than we had expected.
Biodiversity, after all, is an important issue for many of our overseas territories. This morning I received a note from Simon Hughes, my colleague in the other place, who is campaigning for the European elections in Gibraltar on Friday. As Ministers will know, one of the many oddities, ambiguities and absurdities of our Crown dependencies and overseas territories is that although the Gibraltarians get to vote in European elections by their choice, the people in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey decided that they did not want to—so some are in while others are out. Simon Hughes has discovered that Gibraltar is,
"really important as a bottleneck site for migratory species between Europe and Africa, particularly raptors",
such as the,
"Egyptian vulture, Black kite, European Honey Buzzard, Montagu's Harrier",
and lesser kestrels. I am sure that the Minister could recognise all of those through his binoculars with no problem at all.
The Environmental Audit Committee report on halting biodiversity loss in November last year concluded:
"The government has a clear moral and legal duty to help protect the biodiversity of the UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies".
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds points out that Her Majesty's Government currently allocate some £2 million for biodiversity protection to all of this rather long list of Crown dependencies and overseas territories. In the Chagos Islands, which include Aldabra, the British Antarctic territories, as well as St Helena and Ascension Island, we are talking about territories that are particularly important for bird species and for coastal and marine wildlife.
There are a large number of questions here, which I know that the Government would prefer not to have to answer—but that is part of the reason why I wish to pose them. We are assured that the Government will consult these dependent territories and their small Governments on whether they might like to implement some of these obligations. What form will that consultation take? Is there an expectation, since the Government have already signed up to international conventions covering these issues, that implementation will follow? What happens if Crown dependencies and overseas territories decide not to implement obligations to which Her Majesty's Government have signed up in international conventions? Do we simply accept that? Do we have to go back to any of the international organisations to which we belong and explain that we have no authority to force them to implement it? It would be a little easier if we understood some of the informal mechanisms so beloved of the British unwritten constitution.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says that the approach,
"reflects the low priority the Government gives to the Territories",
as a whole, and particularly with regard to biodiversity. Which is the lead department for biodiversity conservation of the territories—or is it not clear which it is? Do the Government intend to take on board the recommendation in the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry about providing increased and adequate resources for biodiversity conservation, which was also reinforced by the Environmental Audit Committee? Why were some but not others listed in the extent clause? If the Minister can assure us on those questions, we will not have to divide the House or be more of a nuisance on later occasions. I beg to move.