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10.12 am

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on coming first in the ballot for private Members' Bills in this Session and on his choice of topic. My reasons for saying that are particularly strong because of my constituency, Plymouth, Sutton. I am delighted to have a chance to speak in this Second Reading debate.

I wish to discuss why the subject matter of the Bill is of growing interest and importance to our constituents, particularly those who live in Plymouth and the surrounding areas of Devon, Cornwall and the south-west peninsula. I hope then to relate that to the measures proposed in the Bill.

To most people, the seas are inaccessible and mysterious. Why should we be concerned about what we cannot see? To those hon. Members present in the Chamber, most of whom are enthusiasts, that may seem anathema, but many people do not understand these matters. They regard the seas as either grey and choppy or, when the tide is out, a load of old mud. We know little about the sea and treat it as an endless cornucopia. It is a treasure chest on the one hand and, as others have said, a carpet under which we can sweep our waste—anything and everything, from human to nuclear waste—on the other.

We reap but we do not sow. We exploit with little knowledge of what we are doing and of how it might affect the ocean ecosystems, yet 1 cu m of that unattractive load of mud contains the same amount of energy as five Mars bars. All chocoholics, including me, should take an interest in the quality of our marine

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environment, because seaweed extract is present in much of the chocolate that we eat. As nearly £4 billion of chocolate is eaten every year in Britain alone, we have an interest in ensuring that the environment in which seaweed grows is healthy.

We need to conserve our coastal waters because they are still richly biodiverse and still have much to offer us. We know that they are essential in the food and reproductive chains that eventually bring us food from the sea. The tiniest organisms, the plankton, have a profound influence on climate and will play an even greater role as changes in global climates accelerate. However, we need to gain a much deeper understanding of how they work; we then need to encourage public appreciation and participation through education.

If we are to do all of that, we must ensure that the marine environment is conserved—that we hold it as much in trust for tomorrow as we do the atmosphere, and the land mass and its waterways. The United Kingdom is already a world leader in marine-based research, much of which is carried out through a unique partnership in Plymouth—the Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership, which is a world leader in research, education and, of course, conservation. It consists of five organisations: the Plymouth Marine Laboratory; the university of Plymouth; the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom; the National Marine Aquarium; and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science.

Mr. Breed: Have those organisations written to the hon. Lady to support the Bill?

Linda Gilroy: I have consulted them, and they are certainly most interested in the Bill and in all the other developments that the Government are pursuing, as well as those that form part of our manifesto commitment to the marine environment. Each organisation is independent, but works closely and often collectively to deliver world-class marine research, education and conservation.

Bob Spink: Is the hon. Lady saying that, in her opinion, those organisations would want the Bill to make progress so that the issues can be developed?

Linda Gilroy: I shall come to that in a moment, and to the views of the Devon Wildlife Trust, which has briefed me on matters that affect Plymouth sound in particular.

Mr. Dalyell: As a Member of Parliament from the other end of the country, may I just say how excellently the organisations to which my hon. Friend has referred cope with casual visitors? Our family was entranced by what we saw in Plymouth. They are to be congratulated.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that he was able to visit the National Marine Aquarium, about which I shall say a few more words in a moment.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she has been most gracious in giving way. I know that she is an avid reader of the Plymouth

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Evening Herald. Did she see the article that appeared in it the other day about a 30 ft piece of wood on which more than a million goose barnacles were found? I understand that a 3 ft section of it has now been lodged in the National Marine Aquarium and is proving to be one of the strongest visitor attractions.

Linda Gilroy: I have indeed read about that development this week, although I have not been to the marine aquarium recently. However, I hold an annual membership and hope that I can visit it soon. I urge other hon. Members to make the journey to Plymouth, far though it is, to view the Jewels of the Sound exhibition, which has been running this summer. Some hon. Members may already have visited it.

Plymouth overlooks one of the finest natural harbours in the world and is the largest city on the UK south coast. Its maritime heritage goes back thousands of years. Some of the organisations in the partnership that I mentioned can trace their roots back well over 100 years to the middle of the 19th century. The Plymouth navigation school, which eventually evolved into the Institute of Marine Studies within Plymouth university, was founded in 1862; and the Marine Biological Association of the UK was formed in 1884 and opened its Plymouth laboratory in 1888. The 20th century saw the consolidation of Plymouth as an international centre of excellence in marine research, education and conservation with the formation of the partnership organisations.

In the 21st century that lead position will be enhanced and developed in the spirit of discovery. Society will need to grapple with the oceans' role in sustainable development, regionally and globally, and the trends in and consequences of climate change.

The oceans, with an average depth of several kilometres, cover 71 per cent. of the earth's surface. They provide the largest, mostly unexplored, living space on the planet and contribute enormously to global diversity. There is growing awareness of the need to manage the world's seas and their coastlines sustainably to ensure the maintenance of biological diversity and productivity. It is right to try to be at the forefront of developing the best possible framework for the marine conservation that the Bill's promoter envisages.

Natural stresses and those from our activities are increasingly important through the economic impacts that threaten the quality of life for communities around the world. To monitor, understand and predict those impacts, we must identify the processes and interactions that are involved, and understand the role of the oceans in the global system.

Oceans play a crucial role in many natural cycles and processes that support life on earth, controlling global weather patterns and key chemical processes in the atmosphere. The oceans sustain and dictate the shape of life on earth. However, to study, we must be able to conserve and vice versa. The Bill is therefore especially relevant to my constituency and the people who live and earn their living in it.

Independent organisations from the research, academic and education sectors in Plymouth have come together to pool expertise and resources and to increase understanding of the many questions that will help us to appreciate fully the operation of marine systems and how we can sustainably use them. That includes the

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identification, development and exploitation of alternative energy sources. I was interested in the points that hon. Members made earlier about renewable energy. That is of special interest to Plymouth, which has dramatic sites where such developments could occur. Some people in Plymouth have an ambition to make it the first city to become carbon neutral. Hon. Members who understand such matters will realise the extent of that challenge.

Indeed, if it was not already possible to claim that Plymouth is now the focal point of marine sciences in the UK, it soon will be, especially as it continues to extend its influence and breadth of interest. An exciting new development is the proposed national centre for marine science and technology, which will bring the partnership together on a single site in Plymouth. This will greatly enhance the ability of the separate organisations to work together to unravel the mysteries. That will lead to greater knowledge of the oceans and how humans can interact with them without destroying them.

The centre will have a strong emphasis on outreach work in the community, drawing on the expertise of the National Marine Aquarium and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The new centre could become a focal point for the popular as well as the academic interpretation of the sort of marine sites that the Bill covers.

There are already strong links between the National Marine Aquarium and the renowned Eden project in Cornwall. That visitor centre is becoming a focal point for people to appreciate land-based biodiversity in all its glory. So, too, could the marine science centre build on the sound base that the National Marine Aquarium established, and prove an enjoyable and attractive showcase for the challenges of climate change, and the link between our use of energy and floods, tides, the sea and all that lies within it.

That is a major project of considerable vision and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will take an interest in it. It could have great relevance to the Bill's provisions and to their environmentally responsible interpretation by the world at large. One of the centre's major aims is to inspire and encourage nine to 13-year-olds to take an interest in marine science and technology issues and careers.

The centre is the subject of a major bid to the Treasury for money from the capital modernisation fund. I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to lend his support to such an important scheme when it is considered by his colleagues. I know that he will understand that the technological spin-offs of such a centre can generate employment output similar to that from our successful Tamar science park. In addition to building on the experience of the National Marine Aquarium, the centre will also have at its disposal the experience of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. It undertakes numerous projects that are linked to marine conservation and would be enhanced by the provisions that the Bill proposes. The laboratory's biodiversity group has a long and active involvement with nature conservation agencies in the United Kingdom.

In the marine environment, too little is currently known about the distribution of species and habitats for researchers to employ methods commonly used in terrestrial and freshwater habitats. Part of the laboratory's role is to contribute to understanding the distribution of species and habitats in nature and how they are affected

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by man's activities. The main thrust of its work is to develop methods and techniques that are useful to those who do the work that the Bill envisages, or those with regulatory responsibilities for the conservation of marine and estuarine areas.

The methods that the laboratory has developed are widely used by the Environment Agency, English Nature, wildlife trusts and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science as well as environmental consultancy companies and universities. Those methods and the associated training are marketed successfully by a spin-out company and continue to be developed as part of the laboratory's continuing core programme. The prospects for that company will be enhanced by the Bill.

The laboratory is currently celebrating because, in the past month, the National Environmental Research Council has unanimously approved its business plan for the next five years. After a difficult period, staff are excited by the prospects for their science and the exploitation of their intellectual property.

Successive Governments have already done much on marine conservation. Some hon. Members have already referred to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and its weaknesses. There is no statutory basis for regulatory bodies that operate in the marine environment; they rely on voluntary consensus and tend to be established in areas where human activities and impacts are remote or non-existent.

In addition, the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 provide for establishing special areas of conservation and special protection areas. The habitats directive is Europe's most important nature conservation measure, creating a range of safeguards for the Community's most endangered plant and animal species.

The Government's commitment to improve habitat conservation is being developed through the directive, with the help of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which is due to report to DEFRA in March 2002. It is important that the Bill takes account of that work, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us today that that will be possible. I also hope that he will comment on the work of the review working group, which was established in 1999 to evaluate the success of previous nature conservation measures, and the resultant pilot project.

The Prime Minister announced on 6 March in his speech, "Environment—the Next Steps" that the Government are committed to launching measures to improve marine conservation at home and abroad, including a series of marine stewardship reports. The first report will set out the Government's goal for integrated and sustainable management of the marine environment across the range of marine sectors. As I have said, a commitment to improve marine conservation overseas and in the UK was made in the manifesto.

I want to consider some of the Bill's possible implications for Plymouth. I am indebted to the Devon Wildlife Trust for a specific briefing on that. It is especially keen for the voice of Devon's Members of Parliament to be heard, and I am sure that it would also welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for South–East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). It has pointed out that, with the exception of two, the constituencies of all Devon Members of Parliament border the sea, and that the coast is a natural capital asset essential to tourism in the whole

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county. No other county has two discrete and very different coastlines to protect. I hesitate to say this, as I look at the hon. Member for South–East Cornwall, but I think that there is a marked contrast between the north and south coasts of Devon, whereas the coastlines of Cornwall have many more similarities.

The Devon Wildlife Trust has been active in marine conservation for many years. It has a team of marine experts second to none in the country; it regularly conducts sea bed surveys and monitoring in support of its marine conservation programmes; it runs two voluntary marine conservation areas at Wembury near Plymouth and on the north Devon coast around Ilfracombe; it has been involved in the Lyme bay reefs project for many years; and it has been instrumental in drawing up and agreeing voluntary conservation measures with local fishermen to protect two of the reefs, Lanes Ground and Saw Tooth Ledges. It is currently working on a similar initiative for Beer Home Ground, and supports a large team of volunteers working on the seaquest south-west project to report sightings of marine megafauna. It is in the process of developing an "estuaries for life" project for the conservation of these special habitats. Richard White, its marine conservation manager, will be well known to those who follow Select Committee inquiries into reform of the common fisheries policy.

The trust tells me that the marine life of Plymouth sound and the approaches has been well studied, and the presence of the Marine Biological Association, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the university of Plymouth ensures that valuable research work continues in this area. As well as work on the shore, underwater surveys are also carried out. Indeed, some of the earliest diving surveys were carried out in Wembury bay adjacent to Plymouth.

In 1993, the Devon Wildlife Trust carried out a survey to fill gaps in the knowledge of this important area, which reported:

A number of species were found that are rare in the UK, or at the limit of their natural distribution in UK waters, including seaweeds, sea slug, the yellow trumpet anemone and soft corals such as the pink sea fan. Those species were found among rich and diverse plant and animal communities. In addition to the importance of the area's marine wildlife, the estuary complex of the Tamar is valuable in its own right, providing an important feeding and breeding area for large numbers of waders and wildfowl.

The international conservation value of the wildlife in Plymouth sound and the surrounding estuaries is recognised by its designation as a European marine site under both the birds directive and the habitats and species directive.

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