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2 Apr 2009 : Column 323WH—continued

3.23 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Welcome to the Chair, Lady Winterton. This is the first occasion on which I have had the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall and I look forward to many similar occasions in future.

I congratulate the Committee on an excellent piece of work in a field that is much under-observed and under-debated. I do not know the constituency boundaries of every hon. Member present, but I suspect that I may be the only one here who represents any ocean. I am fairly confident that I can lay claim to representing more ocean than anyone else in the House. That may be why the fickle finger of Whips Office fate turned towards me
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when a member of the Front-Bench team was sought to take part in the debate. Whatever the reason, I am delighted to be present for this excellent debate, although it is unfortunate that a wider range of right hon. and hon. Members has not been able to attend it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) introduced the debate by speaking about the global importance of the oceans. That is certainly understood in the island communities that I represent, which, historically, have been seagoing communities, because of continuing involvement in the fishing industry and in the merchant navy and Royal Navy, and because of more historic industries such as whaling. That was part of our past and it took people from Orkney and Shetland around the world as seagoing people.

My hon. Friend referred to the ocean as a possible source of power in the future and listed several different areas examined previously by his Committee with relevance to that. He neglected to mention the report of, I think, 2000, in which the Committee identified, quite correctly, the need for a single institute or body to drive on the development of renewable energy generation from wave and tidal power. I mention that in particular because, thanks to a fairly long and tortuous process, that report, having created the idea, led to the creation of the European Marine Energy Centre based in Stromness in Orkney.

I do not know whether the Committee is aware of what impact has been caused, but EMEC is a significant development facility for marine energy. It concentrates particularly on tidal and wave power, and acts effectively as a benchmarking institution, so that by regular examination and benchmarking a foundation can be created for commercial exploitation of wave and tidal power devices.

If the Committee is minded to revisit the issue, its members would be very welcome in Orkney. I do not know whether it is fully understood even there to what extent the Committee was responsible for the creation of that very important resource. Members may be aware that the world’s first commercial wave power station, using the Pelamis device—the so-called sea snake—is to be established in Portugal. That was one of the first devices certified at the EMEC facility, and this is a case in which the initial discussions of the Committee had significant effect on the development of the renewable energy sector.

My hon. Friend also gave a formidable list of institutions, from as far apart as Lisbon and various parts of the United States, to which the Committee went to obtain evidence. I commend the members of the Committee for their dedication and application, which are evident from the quality of their report. They clearly have not spared themselves in their research.

The essential recurring theme of the report is the inability to co-ordinate Government actions in relation to the marine environment in general and marine science in particular. My hon. Friend laid out the history of the IACMST and the MSCC as a successor body. It has often appeared to me that there is no true ownership within Government of anything relating to maritime matters or to do with the sea generally, and that no one is prepared to take overall responsibility. The Minister has particular responsibilities as Minister for marine and fisheries matters—I often deal with him in connection
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with fisheries—and is assiduous in carrying them out. Others, doubtless in the Departments for Transport, for Environment and Rural Affairs, and of Energy and Climate Change, have their role to play as well, but there is not the ministerial champion for marine science that my hon. Friend spoke about. That not only affects our ability to approach the subject properly; for reasons that I shall come to, it risks diminishing the strategic interest that the United Kingdom could derive from a proper, coherent approach.

It is a matter of concern that the MSCC has still met only twice and that there is no coherent strategy in sight, although that was to be produced as a matter of urgency. The MSCC seems to be inadequate in its composition, and the lack of independent voices within it should be of particular concern.

I see wider resonances in our approach to matters relating to the sea. I have taken an interest in matters relating to oil pollution since I was first elected; we have had debates in this Chamber about them. I look at organisations such as the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds, which is basically a fund that was set up by oil and shipping companies in recognition of the fact that somewhere in the world at some time there would be a major oil spill that would have to be cleaned up. The companies pay whatever they think necessary into the fund.

People in my constituency were certainly grateful for the existence of the IOPC Funds when the Braer ran aground, but we would much rather oil and shipping companies shipped oil around the world in reliable, good-quality vessels, thereby avoiding spill incidents. A more recent example is the Prestige, which was damaged off the north-west coast of Spain. That spill is an absolute blight on those coastal communities. In fact, it was the second time that that stretch of coast had been hit. The IOPC Funds will doubtless meet the cost of cleaning up the oil, but there is a psychological cost to a community that has been hit in such a way, and no compensation will ever repair that damage.

My hon. Friend asked several highly pertinent questions about the marine science strategy, and I hope that the Minister is in a position to answer them today. If not, a limited number of us are here today, and I believe that we would all appreciate a detailed answer in writing at a later stage.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) correctly drew our attention to the interaction of the oceans and climate change in general. That is something about which we know only the tip of the iceberg, to use a highly inappropriate metaphor. It is very much a developing field. From my interest in fishing over the years, I know that there have been significant changes to different fish stocks as a result of the cooling of the seas. There are different issues in respect of cod stocks in the North sea, for example. It was believed that much of the decline might be the result of cooling waters, because cod are known to be particularly affected by water temperature.

Part of the problem with marine science is that much of it is inexact. A more coherent and, dare I say it, occasionally better-funded approach would allow more informed and vigorous debate than has been apparent so far.

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There are knock-on effects in the ecosystem. Every year, I visit the more-difficult-to-reach parts of my constituency. I remember a couple of years ago being shown on Foula in Shetland the sea bird cliffs, which as recently as my first election were full of sea birds, but they were virtually empty. The reason for that is that the sea bird colonies have had several poor breeding seasons, and the reason for that has been the almost total disappearance of the sand eel population. That is something that you, Lady Winterton, have expressed your views on, as have I. It is the kind of thing that would not be allowed to happen if there were a coherent approach to the co-ordination of marine science.

That thought leads me to the second point made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East about co-ordination between marine science and other marine interests. He said that we had to be clear about whether we wanted the co-ordination of marine science, which is clearly important, or something more overarching.

As someone who was born in an island community and represents island communities, and has interacted with marine scientists in different ways over the years, my preference is for a more overarching approach. I am inherently suspicious of anything that seeks to divorce science from other things, put it in a box and pretend that it is somehow capable of separation from other aspects of everyday life. In fact, scientists themselves would benefit from the great deal of information and data that are held by other marine users.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the need for co-ordination of marine science in the Arctic, and the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the world-famous laboratory at Dunstaffnage, near Oban. This is an area of increasing interest and, occasionally, of tension in dealings between Russia and Norway. For that reason, there is a strategic interest for the UK as a whole in getting its act together on marine science. If we are to be part of the discussion—because of our geography, we clearly need to be part of it—we must get our act together and bring together a coherent body of science so that we can make a meaningful contribution to the debate.

Dr. Iddon: Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that chairmanship of the MSCC will be shared with the Scottish Government?

Mr. Carmichael: I had not noticed that, but it takes me on to another point: the need for co-operation between Governments. As the hon. Gentleman said, part of the rationale in the Government’s response was that recent developments in the devolved Administrations—I believe that is how it was gently put—were a barrier to setting up a UK-wide body. I do not doubt that that may well be the case, but it is exceptionally unfortunate if it is true, because this is an issue on which there clearly would be a benefit from UK-wide co-ordination.

The scientists working at the North Atlantic Fisheries college at Scalloway in Shetland, the marine laboratory in Aberdeen, the Dunstaffnage facility near Oban, and in Liverpool, Southampton, Portsmouth and Newcastle are all dealing with the same fish in the same sea. It makes no sense whatever to try to draw lines on a map in respect of this issue.

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I do not know what the constitutional barrier is, but I do know that, in the interests of good science and good marine management, the problem should be capable of resolution. I cannot believe that there should be a tremendous ideological divide on the issue. Surely, it should be one of the least contentious questions in inter-governmental relations.

If there is a problem, I hope that cool heads might bring some influence to bear on it. There are many precedents for that. I remember the role of the Scottish Government on the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. That was a UK-wide body, for obvious reasons, to which the previous Scottish Executive made a vigorous and valuable contribution. I suspect that what is lacking is political will, because, as is always the case with the oceans or anything to do with the marine environment, everything happens out of sight and very much out of mind. Only when there is some crisis is attention suddenly focused on the oceans, but it tends largely to dissipate thereafter.

The final point that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made, which vigorously attracted my attention, was about the role of Crown Estate data sharing. I suspect that, representing Bolton, South-East, the hon. Gentleman has not had much to do with the Crown Estate’s marine division. If one represents Orkney and Shetland, one has rather more to do with it. Anyone who is bored might care to reflect on the contents of my maiden speech to the House, on this very subject.

The marine division is a tiny part of the Crown Estate; the real money comes from renting property on Regent street and elsewhere. However, the estate regards the marine division exactly as it regards Regent street—as a cash cow. It does not particularly care about science, certainly does not care much about the communities that depend on the seabed around them and does not much care about the industries, such as aquaculture and renewable energy, that also require the use of the seabed—other than as a potential source of income for the estate. If it does not share data, I suspect that that is because it has not been offered enough money.

I am afraid that I have a bleak view of the Crown Estate and its wider interests, because I do not think that it has any understanding of these issues. It is answerable, but through the Treasury. Perhaps therein lies the problem. If the estate’s marine division, at least, were accountable more sensibly through DEFRA, or through the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which makes more sense than going through the Treasury, or even through the devolved Administrations, the estate would take a different approach. In the meantime, it remains answerable through the Treasury—in the loosest possible sense. Accountability is not something it prizes very highly; the estate regards accountability as important to other people.

This is an exceptionally important topic, not just for people who live in island and coastal communities, although it is especially important to us. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to take part in today’s debate and very much look forward to the Minister’s reply.

3.42 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in today’s debate. I congratulate—belatedly—the Committee
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on its report and particularly its Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on the persuasive way in which he spoke to it today and has sought to draw the attention of the House to its conclusions.

We face an unprecedented crisis in the marine life in our seas and oceans. Research predicts that the world will run out of seafood species that it can fish by 2048 and that the associated loss of marine biodiversity will destroy the ocean’s natural ability to adapt and self-repair. A strong science base is therefore essential if we are to respond to the challenges to our marine ecosystems.

It is possible to identify five key challenges to the marine environment. First, and perhaps the most significant, is climate change and its impact on sea levels. The world’s oceans absorb more than one quarter of the carbon dioxide that the human race generates, and half of that is absorbed in the Southern ocean alone, so oceans and marine systems play a key role both in the debate that we must have about climate change, and in regulating climate systems. There is a danger that meltwater could interrupt the oceans’ natural currents and a particular concern that the gulf stream could slow down or even shut down, meaning less heat for north-west Europe and, therefore, harsher winters.

The second key challenge is fishing in our seas and oceans. Some 70 to 80 per cent. of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, and 15 of the world’s 17 largest fisheries are so heavily exploited that their reproductive cycles cannot guarantee continued captures. Demand for fish next year is expected to reach 110 million tonnes, which will outstrip supply. The global crisis is mirrored in our waters. We need to reconnect fisheries domestically, in the European Union and internationally with environmental interests, to ensure that fishing can be conducted in a sustainable way.

The third challenge confronting the marine environment relates to its biodiversity. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said that 80 per cent. of the world’s species are found in marine ecosystems, so in addition to the impact of fishing on other animal species, climate change has an impact on biodiversity. The warming of the oceans leads to increased acidity and severe damage to coral reefs. I was struck when I read the comments of Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, when he launched a new Google Earth service in February. Google’s mapping has proved controversial in recent weeks, but one thing that Google Earth does do is allow users to explore the oceans as well as the land. Mr. Schmidt said:

The fourth challenge that we must address is pollution. More than 80 per cent. of marine pollution comes from land-based activities; rivers and streams transport billions of tonnes of eroded sediment into coastal waters; ships discharge oil; there are chemical discharges; and waste, including littering, kills hundreds of thousands marine mammals, birds and countless fish.

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Finally, an overlooked form of pollution is noise pollution, which has a particular impact on cetaceans. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has expressed great concern about that and would like us to address it in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. That could be difficult, but these important and, in some cases, threatened species are greatly affected by sounds—man-made ocean noises—that shipping, military sonar and so on inject into the sea. It may prove extremely difficult to address those problems, but we must be aware of that other form of pollution.

Those are, by my reckoning, five considerable challenges to the marine environment. Hon. Members may very easily produce more, but they all add to the force of this conclusion by the Committee:

In our debates on climate change inside and outside the House in recent years, its impact on the marine environment and the need to reform marine environmental management have probably not played as great a part in our consideration as changes affecting the land. Perhaps they should. The report, in part, aims to redress that balance.

Clearly, the central message of the report is about the importance of ensuring a strong science base, which we cannot divorce from funding. In their response to the Committee’s report, the Government have produced a table on funding that suggests that there was a £15 million real-terms increase in Natural Environment Research Council expenditure relating to marine science between 2001-02 and 2006-07. It would be helpful if, in due course, the Government updated those figures and clarified whether the figures in that table are set out in real prices, because I do not think that they are; I think that they are cash prices, making it difficult to measure the real increases. If blue-skies funding, funding for exceptional items and capital funding are stripped out—this is on page 7 of the Government’s response—there has not been a significant real-terms increase in marine science funding over the period, as the Government claim. I will happily stand corrected if they are real prices, but even if they are, if the items I have mentioned are stripped out, I do not think that there has been an increase.

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