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4.35 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): My first encounter with the subject of the marine environment came when I was a farmer member of the Yorkshire Water consumer consultative committee in the 1980s. The big issue was long sea outfalls. Yorkshire Water decided that that was the solution to the problems of sewage disposal in coastal towns such as Scarborough. It was only because of campaigns by local environmental groups, such as the Sons of Neptune, that Yorkshire Water relented and put in more environmentally sustainable onshore sewage treatment facilities.

The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) raised the issue of what the previous Conservative Government did. The bathing water directive and the nitrates directive were enacted under that Government. The bathing water directive has resulted in all those beaches with blue flags. The nitrates directive has attempted, at least, to cut down on the eutrophication that results in the algal blooms that can devastate our coastal resources.

Martin Salter: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he is far better qualified to answer my intervention than the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) on the Front Bench? Frankly, they should swap places.

Mr. Goodwill: I am a former Member of the European Parliament, so was obviously more involved in European legislation. If we can work together with
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our European partners, it has to be better than unilateral action, which will affect only a small proportion of the European environment.

Furthermore, legislation on large combustion plants reduced the acid rain that went into our rivers and we had agreements on national emission ceilings to bear down further on that. The environmental improvements, for which we waited so long, could take place only because of the investment that followed the privatisation of the energy utilities and the water companies. Before then, any investment had to join the queue with health, education and other Government commitments. We can be proud of the environmental action taken by the last Conservative Government. That is not to take anything away from this Government, who have the best wishes of the environment in mind.

Linda Gilroy: The hon. Gentleman comes from a coastal constituency, which understands such things. However, when he was in the European Parliament, did he give any thought to how to join up the very thing that he talks about with the social issues, because it resulted in the south-west—Devon and Cornwall—having the highest bills in the country? Does he think that some of the planning that will come in with the marine management organisation might help us to avoid such catastrophes for our poor constituents in Devon and Cornwall?

Mr. Goodwill: The areas with the highest bills are the areas that suffered from the lowest investment in the period when utilities were owned by the state. It is a catching-up operation.

There is an awful lot of water in the world—in fact, there are 1.4 billion cu km of it. That is based on the US billion and is 1.4 x 10(21 )litres. In each litre of water, there are 330 x 10(23 )molecules. Hon. Members may wonder what I am getting at. The point is that if after the debate the Minister and I went for a couple of pints of beer and, following that convivial meeting, a litre of liquid was returned to the Thames which over the course of time was equally dissolved and distributed among all the water in the world, there would be 23,600 molecules of that litre of water in every litre of water in the world.

Of course, any water going into the Thames after such a drinking session would be entirely benign, but that is not true of persistent bio-cumulative or toxic chemicals, or heavy metals that are dissolved in the water or become part of the sediment. Whatever we do—whatever may be done by every country in the European Union, indeed every country in the world—that material will be in the sea for a long time and will be distributed throughout the oceans of the earth.

Members of the European Parliament often see environmental disasters hitting the headlines, as happened when the Prestige tanker foundered off the coast of Galicia on 13 November 2002. I went there as a member of the Parliament’s environment committee to see at first hand the devastation and the sticky goo on the beach. As I am sure Members will recall, thousands of volunteers flocked to the Spanish coastline wearing white—initially white, at least—overalls to help with the clean-up operation. Members may also recall the sea birds that were goo’d with terrible pollution, and the desperate attempts to revive
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them. Sadly, almost all those attempts were futile as the birds had ingested the oil through preening and no matter how clean they were on the outside, they could not be made clean on the inside. I was struck by how fragile our environment is, and how often we see that kind of environmental pollution.

Of course, other, more insidious types of pollution do not hit the headlines. We see, for example, the problems of acid rain. During the 1960s and 1970s, we farmers used to be given free sulphur fertiliser courtesy of the Central Electricity Generating Board, but following the legislation that I mentioned earlier in an intervention we have had to resort to ammonium sulphate fertiliser. Matters have improved, but sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide will still find their way into the sea.

We have made a big effort in cleaning up the fuels that we use on land. Exhaust flue desulphurisation has been introduced in our power stations, there has been a switch to gas, and there is now ultra-low-sulphur oil for our cars. However, the sulphur content of the marine fuel we use at sea is still very high. The sulphur that is taken out of petrol, diesel and kerosene for aviation ends up in the bunker fuel that goes into our ships. There are 10 parts per million in a typical diesel fuel that can be bought on the forecourts, and we are using 15,000 parts per million in our ships. Although that has been moderated somewhat by regulations following agreement on the MARPOL annexe VI sea areas—which means that coastal areas on land are protected—ships out at sea are putting large quantities of pollution into the water.

Between 80 and 90 per cent. of the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere will end up in the sea, which will result in the acidification of our oceans. Sea organisms with shells or coral, which would normally “fix” the carbon dioxide in the form of calcium carbonate, will not be able to do so, and they will not be able to fall to the bottom of the sea to form the traditional sedimentary rocks and limestone, chalk, and the aragonite that forms coral. There has already been a fall of 0.1 units in the pH of the oceans, which many scientists predict will increase to 0.4 units by the end of the century. That is creating mounting problems for animals with shells.

Acid conditions impede the deposition of calcium, which affects not just molluscs and bivalves but coral, which is made up of billions of small organisms—the polyps that have formed over the centuries. Coral grows at a rate of 40 cm per 100 years. Over the past 100 years sea levels have risen by 50 cm, but it is predicted that the rate will increase dramatically in years to come, and the coral will be unable to keep pace with it. As sea surface temperatures increase, the symbiotic algae that are essential to the survival of many coral species will die. That will lead to the characteristic bleaching of the coral, followed by its death. Acidification, or eutrophication, results in algal blooms, which can similarly destroy the coral. Many scientists predict that 50 per cent. of our coral reefs may be destroyed by 2030. If that is the case, the oceans will lose their ability to store CO2. The natural carbon capture—or the natural sequestration—will be destroyed by disacidification.

Let me turn to aggregate dredging in our waters. Members might recall the Marchioness disaster, when
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that pleasure cruiser was hit by the dredger, the Bowbelle. I am sure that many people, when they heard the news of that disaster, thought that that dredger had been dredging the river and was going out to sea to dump, but in fact it was the other way around: that dredger and many other such vessels—some are so large that they have a capacity of 5,000 tonnes—dredge gravel and sand out at sea and bring it inland for use in the construction industry.

While such dredgers are out at sea not only do they cause damage to the sea bed, but in the case of gravel up to 50 per cent. of the material sucked up by the dredger is screened out. That forms a curtain of filth that can smother many marine organisms. With sand dredging, the currents on the sea bottom can quickly restore the conditions prior to dredging—they can do so in a matter of months—but gravel dredging can cause more permanent physical changes to the character of the sea bed. That not only removes the source of food for many fish species, but damages their spawning grounds and nursery areas. There has been a big increase in that over the past 15 years, not least because of the difficulties in achieving planning permission for gravel pits on land. If anything should come out of the marine Bill—when it arrives—it should be the securing of a balance between the environmental considerations of gravel and sand extraction on land and gravel and sand extraction at sea. In many ways, the attitude to issues to do with extraction at sea is a case of, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I hope that a balance will be struck in terms of environmental damage wherever it occurs.

The Netherlands and Belgium have imposed restrictions on aggregate dredging in their waters. They have imposed a limit of 25 km in dredging and will not allow any dredging where seas are less than 20 m deep in order to protect their coastlines and fisheries. In response, there has been a big increase in the amount of aggregates exported from the UK to countries such as Holland, Belgium and France; indeed, 30 per cent. of the production of such commodities in the UK is exported to those countries. I do not argue that we do not need sand and gravel. We need construction: we need construction at the Olympic site and we need new roads and houses, but that should be achieved with the minimum environmental damage both to the oceans and on land.

With recreational fishing, the proposal is that licence fees will be charged. People who fish regularly might not much resent having to pay a fee, but Whitby has a number of vessels that are engaged in sea fishing trips. Many of their skippers are fishermen who have been forced out of commercial fishing because of reductions in quotas and in stock, and the pressures on them. I hope that if any levies are imposed, they are not so high as to deter people from engaging in occasional sea fishing. In my entire life, I have been on sea fishing trips twice—and I have probably caught fewer than five fish in total. It is important that such skippers, who have already been hard hit by the demise of the fishing industry, are not hit again by such levies.

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I agree with him, but I would go a little further—he might, characteristically, be being generous
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to the Government. If fees and licences are to be imposed on the fishermen, what does he think they will get in return? Information on that is one of the topics that are missing from the White Paper.

Mr. Goodwill: I agree. If this is seen as just another stealth tax there will be tremendous resentment among recreational fishermen, but if they see that there are some concrete benefits their attitude might change. However, the people who might get genuine benefits will be those who regularly fish, but I am particularly concerned about those who might occasionally fish, such as when they go on a works outing—I first went on such a trip with other young farmers. If we had had to pay much more than we were already paying that might have put us off. Therefore, recreational fishing might be hit hard.

Martin Salter: Despite the bit of banter between us earlier, I very much welcome the thoughtful contribution that the hon. Gentleman is making. He is right to say that we will need to see the benefits before we put a regime in place, and I hope to expand on that matter shortly. However, does he agree that it would be sensible to allow charter skippers to possess a generic licence that entitles them to carry on their vessels, for a very nominal charge, anglers who do not own personal licences? That has happened in the past in the freshwater sector, and it offers a way around the problem posed by the occasional day angler.

Mr. Goodwill: That might be one way out of the problem. Skippers are already under great pressure, but a suitable mechanism already exists: local fees for such activities could be collected as part of a skipper’s harbour dues, and that money could be invested in improving the local marine environment.

Moreover, the Government’s failure to get an extended derogation on the marine fuels directive means that, from 1 January this year, recreational craft have had to pay to use expensive white diesel in their boats, rather than red diesel. If the Government pledged to reinvest in the marine environment the money that is coming in through that route we might see improvements this year, and not at some time in the future when the legislation is in force.

The sea is very big. I shall not say any more about the total number of litres of water there are, but it is not so big that it is beyond man’s influence. We have watched fish stocks fall: indeed, they have crashed so much in areas such as the Canadian grand banks that it seems they are incapable of recovery. No one owns the sea, but we have a responsibility to care for our environment, of which the seas are a part, on behalf of future generations. The White Paper may be tardy, but I welcome it. I hope that the legislation that follows will be discussed constructively in the House and that we produce something that is effective, workable and welcomed by the people in our fishing and rural communities who depend so much on the sea for their livelihood.

4.51 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Like my hon. Friend the Minister, I represent a region that has 40 per cent. of the coastline of England. Plymouth
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has 450 marine scientists, the largest cluster in the UK, and there are 1,500 students studying 40 undergraduate courses with a marine theme at the university, which also offers 20 masters degree programmes.

The university’s marine institute focuses on coasts, estuaries and shelf sea systems, and it uses a hilltops-to-oceans approach in disciplines such as biogeochemistry, dynamic engineering and coastal change, marine biosciences and ecosystem dynamics, as well as marine policy and maritime affairs. Like many of my constituents, I was therefore delighted with our manifesto commitment that stated:

Like many Members of all parties, I have been impatient to see a draft marine Bill, so I was pleased when the White Paper was published on 16 March, just a month ago. The marine Bill will be an international landmark. The European Commission is developing European marine thematic strategy and a Green Paper, and a draft marine strategy directive is under discussion. All that has happened since we set out on this path, and Britain has a chance to lead the way in Europe and in the world. So far, no other country has tried to develop a framework to manage the marine environment and economy. Such a framework is much needed, but it must strike what is a challenging balance between environmental protection and social and economic needs.

Getting the balance right presents significant challenges, and nowhere is that better appreciated than in Plymouth. Not only are we a centre of excellence in marine science—as my hon. Friend the Minister saw on his recent visit—we also have a busy naval and commercial port and first-class marine sport and leisure facilities. Recently, HMS Scylla was placed on the sea bed to form an artificial reef, and Plymouth also boasts shipbuilding and repair facilities. There is an intense interest in renewable energy, and there are plans to develop a wave hub off the Cornish coast. That will be a focal point for realising the potential of what would be an important contribution to the energy sector.

Plymouth has the fastest growing fish market in Europe. Modern facilities and an electronic auction system allow fishermen to obtain the best value for their diverse catches. We have marine scientists in Plymouth who work closely with all those sectors to help them meet the many challenges that we face. Plymouth Marine Laboratories, under the leadership of Professor Nick Owen, has developed a number of spin-off companies, and has a track record in observational research and monitoring. There are exciting examples. Many hon. Members will have seen the photo bio-reactor capable of growing micro-algae, capturing carbon dioxide and then harvesting micro-algae to give us biofuel.

A few weeks ago I was pleased to accompany my hon. Friend the Minister on a visit to see some of that work as well as to see the fish market and the National Marine Aquarium. The day before yesterday I was equally pleased to welcome colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) who made an important contribution
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earlier and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who is hoping to make a contribution shortly, to launch the marine science inquiry into the oceans and to visit several key laboratories. There were awareness seminars led by Plymouth scientists, Dr. Chris Reid, Professor Steve Hawkins, Professor Laurence Mee and Professor Nick Owen, with short presentations on the big picture of marine science and technology, monitoring the oceans and trends in climate change, biodiversity and bio resources from the oceans, and the sustainable management of our oceans. Other hon. Members have set out the case for issues covered in the White Paper, which was published last month.

We had a seminar held in public with an invited audience, including local school and university students. I was particularly pleased that it was held at the National Marine Aquarium. It has acquired a well-deserved reputation as a science centre as well as a tourist destination. It combines fun and learning and is every bit as important as museums. One of our proudest achievements has been to restore free entry to museums. I suggest that Ministers look at support for science centres, such as the National Marine Aquarium. I first visited the Marine Biological Association when I was a 10-year-old and it cost a matter of pence. To go to the National Marine Aquarium it costs a family £27, including VAT. A first step would be to reduce VAT to a minimum. That would be worth £250,000 to the NMA. We could proceed by giving an entitlement to each child to visit and perhaps a discount to parents. School and university students should have a free pass, at least at off-peak times, to science centres covering the oceans. There are 80 science centres throughout the United Kingdom.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make a careful note of that and perhaps get behind the campaign around which I shortly hope to gather Members from both sides of the House. That has a close link with the strategic goals set out in the White Paper to promote public awareness, to promote understanding and an appreciation of the value of the marine environment and to see active public participation in the development of new policies. It also suggests that we should increase our understanding of the marine environment, its natural processes, our cultural marine heritage and the impact of human activities on them.

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