The Government has bowed to pressure over the foreshore and seabed repeal bill and ditched a provision that would have allowed secret deals to be done with iwi to award customary title.

Instead, any such title that is negotiated with an iwi will have to be passed into law by Parliament.

The bill's alternative, of restoring the right of Maori to go to court to claim customary title, remains unchanged.

Attorney-General Chris Finlayson said yesterday that recognising title through legislation rather than regulation "will dispel any concerns about future Governments doing shoddy deals".

Regulations are approved in private by order in council and are notified in the Gazette. In contrast, passing legislation is a very public process, with opportunity for public submissions.

Yesterday, the the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill was reported back two weeks early from the select committee studying it, amid an outcry by opposing parties over the speed it was being processed.

Officially, National attributes the haste to the efficiency of Maori affairs committee chairman Tau Henare.

But in reality, it wants the bill passed as soon as possible in case Maori Party support for it gets wobbly, and to get the controversial issue off the agenda in election year.

The Maori Party is not unhappy to have it back in the House while the bill's chief opponent, Hone Harawira, is immersed in a fight against moves to expel him from the party.

It is likely that the bill will be passed by the end of next month.

The biggest concern Maori have with the bill is the requirement that iwi will have to show they have had continuous use and occupation of the claimed foreshore since 1840 before being awarded the ownership title.

The Maori Party MP for Te Tai Tonga, Rahui Katene, is under pressure from the powerful Ngai Tahu iwi, which opposes the bill.

She said last night there was still a chance to make changes to the bill "and of course through negotiations".

But Mr Finlayson ruled out making any more changes to the requirement.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said that despite the high test, the party would continue to support the bill because it repealed a law stopping Maori from going to the courts.

"I will never accept ... legislation that removes access to the courts."

Yesterday's move towards greater transparency has not been enough for Act, the Greens and Labour to abandon their opposition to the bill.

Act deputy leader John Boscawen said the select committee had had only one sitting day to consider a 500-page report by officials - "a massive abuse of parliamentary scrutiny".

"I believe the Government wants to pass this legislation as quickly as possible, as far away from the election date as possible."

Labour MP David Parker said the process had been farcical. After receiving 4455 submissions and hearing submissions all over the country, "consideration of all of the issues raised was done in less than two hours".

"We are a single-chamber Parliament. We are reliant more than most countries on robust select-committee processes, and here we have the normal protections of the process being ignored."

Many Maori have claimed the bill, as well as setting a test for exclusive use and occupation, is discriminatory.

It guarantees public access over what would be private property, without imposing similar guarantees over the 12,500 pieces of foreshore already held in private title.

To that, Mr Finlayson said last night that he had to "deal with the world as it is" and he would not confiscate the rights of 12,500 others, because two wrongs did not make a right.

He thought the present test for customary title was sufficient and clear. He said he wanted to avoid the courts arguing about it in years to come.

"It behoves the political class to set out some tests, and we can't shirk our responsibility there. It's hard, sure. It gives rise to people saying the tests are too high on the one hand and I'm handing the coastline over to Maori on the other. But I think the responsibility is clear."

CUSTOMARY TITLE
PRESENT LAW
* Crown owns foreshore and seabed.
* Free public access is guaranteed.
* Court can recognise customary rights.
* Claims to court for customary title banned.
* Iwi who might have won customary title in court can negotiate settlement with Crown.

NEW LAW
* Crown ownership relinquished.
* Foreshore and seabed deemed "common marine and coastal area".
* Right to claim customary title in courts restored.
* Customary title holders own the area, including minerals, and can veto development.
* Free public access is guaranteed.