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Richard Benyon MP
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|Westminster Diary 20th May 2013||Marine Conservation – the facts 2nd April|
It always strikes me what a ghastly piece of real estate forms the part of Brussels where the EU and its institutions are based. Vast hubristic buildings are surrounded by derelict land, boarded up buildings and litter. If it aspires to be an international City, it ought to get its act together. I was there last week for another marathon negotiating session on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. These take on a groundhog day repetition having had five of these all night talks in the last eleven months. This time we were successful with agreement reached at 6.15 on Wednesday morning to inch this tortuous reform process to a conclusion later this year. This means that the Ministers from every Member State, the Commission and the European Parliament are nearly in agreement, which is an achievement in itself. In real terms it means an end to the obscenity of thousands of tonnes of edible fish being thrown away each year. It means a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably and it means an end to the top-down centralised micro-management of fisheries from Brussels. We are not quite there yet but we might be about to prove that the EU can be reformed.
How to make a Mayor
On Sunday, with my sleep patterns still not quite adjusted, I attended the Mayor Making ceremony in Newbury. The outgoing Mayor, Arthur Johnson, has been superb. He would do his Mayoral duties all day and work the night shift afterwards. He charmed everyone and has been a great face for the Town. His successor, Anthony Pick, is another good choice. He has always had Newbury’s heritage at his heart. He will now be in a position to remind people that while the Town is a successful and bustling community at the heart of the Thames Valley economy it also has a rich and fascinating past. He has degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge which means that as well as being decent and super-efficient he also has two brains.
I have invested many years of hard work (starting long before I became a Minister) to see meaningful marine conservation introduced into UK waters. I am on the side of those who want good evidenced based decisions that protect our seas for the future.
It is vital that Ministers are informed in their decisions by independent scientific advice. The Science Advisory Panel told me that many of the 127 sites that the regional stakeholder groups came up with were very lacking in the necessary evidence. That is why I delayed the process and allocated an extra £3million from Defra's hard pressed resources, to find more evidence.
31 is a start
We are now able to designate 31 sites, subject to the consultation which has just ended, without the whole process being buried in the courts. In our legal system, if you are going to stop people doing activities like fishing in certain areas, you have to have the necessary evidence. I just cannot sign off all 127 sites without risking falling foul of legal challenges. Also, we have to get EU backing for the many of these sites that are outside our 6 nautical mile limit. If we don't get this backing foreign trawlers could be dragging their nets through waters from which our UK fishermen are excluded. That would bring the whole project into disrepute.
Progress is being made
I may sound as if there are problems at every turn. I am actually optimistic that over the coming years we will see good progress. I confess I do get irritated by the banality of the 127 campaign because it is not recognising the realities of the situation. I am on the side of those who want as many MCZs as possible to be designated but my message to some campaign groups is, "get real". Help me rather than shouting at me. I don’t mind taking flack from some parts of the fishing industry and other socio-economic interests and I am happy to take more to get the UK to be the leader in Marine Conservation. But we need to get this right.
Part of a network
From some of the conservation lobby’s statements you could get the impression that MCZs are the “only show in town”. We already protect 23% or our seas out to 12 nm. Off the English coast alone there are 37 Special Areas of Conservation, 42 Special Protection Areas, over 300 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and many other areas closed to fishing. With 31 MCZs we will add an area three times the size of Cornwall. Not a bad story. We can feel real pride that the UK is leading the way.