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Westminster Hall

Thursday 2 April 2009

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Investigating the Oceans

[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 470, and the Government’s response, HC 506, Session 2007-08 (incorporating oral evidence taken by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee,HC469-i).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Huw Irranca-Davies.)

2.30 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): It may seem a little odd that a report published in October 2007 by a now defunct Select Committee is the focus of today’s debate in this packed Westminster Hall Chamber. Indeed, when the former Science and Technology Committee announced its “Investigating the Oceans” inquiry in November 2006, we did not envisage that so little progress would be made on such an incredibly important area of science and Government policy. I am therefore delighted that today, some 18 months after the publication of our recommendations, we can seek a progress report from the Minister.

Although the Government understandably have a greater interest in what is happening in and around our coastal waters, the oceans are globally important. Indeed, there is growing understanding among scientists and Governments around the world that the oceans are critical to the ability of humans to live on earth. For the production of food, and for trade and security, the oceans have always been important, but they are increasingly seen as key players in the understanding and mitigation of climate change and as a potential future source of power.

The Science and Technology Committee decided to undertake the inquiry because there was a sense that the oceans were being taken for granted and that Government policy on the oceans was lacking. Events such as the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in America highlighted the vulnerability of coastal regions and the need for greater understanding of marine science.

The inquiry built on previous work. The Committee had looked at carbon capture and storage—using the oceans for storing carbon in saline aquifers—and at how satellites were being used to co-ordinate environmental observation. We also looked at the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on marine science, which was the only major piece of work from Parliament to which we could refer, and which was done some 20 years earlier. The prodding and enthusiasm of the land-locked hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) led us to produce our research, which we thoroughly enjoyed doing. I am delighted that he is here today.

Our terms of reference were to examine the organisation and funding of UK marine science in the polar and non-polar regions, the role played by the UK internationally, support for the provision and development of technology
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in marine science, the state of UK research and its skills base, the use of marine science of special scientific interest and how marine science is used to advance knowledge of climate change. It was a fairly wide brief.

We received evidence from 45 individuals and organisations and held six oral evidence sessions at Westminster. We began our inquiry with a public seminar at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. We held informal discussions with many people during our visits to the Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership, the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton and the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge.

To gauge the international perspective, we visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston; Woods Hole, the leading US marine science laboratory in Maine; the university of Rhode Island, which is involved with deep sea and deep ocean drilling; Washington, where we engaged with US Administration officials; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Finally, we visited Lisbon, to discuss with Portuguese Government officials their emerging marine strategy and joined up with the Natural Environment Research Council ship, the RRS James Cook, which was on its maiden voyage. It was good to see it in person.

It is fair to say that UK marine science is world class, but it is struggling to maintain its current strength, let alone capitalise on new opportunities. UK marine scientists are among the most highly skilled and highly prized in the world. Many are working in better-resourced and better-paid jobs in Japan, and particularly the United States, but, increasingly, we are losing our very best scientists to Germany, which is developing a major marine science facility. There is no strategy in the UK to replace, maintain or improve our skills base. Indeed, in places such as the Proudman laboratory in Liverpool, and in the facilities in Plymouth, Southampton and Newcastle and in Scotland, there is a struggle to get young scientists to enter this crucial field.

There is a lack of understanding in policy of the importance of the marine environment for ecosystems, biodiversity, bioresources, energy and climate change, and of the potential to exploit the marine environment commercially and sensitively other than for transport, fishing and leisure. The importance of long-term monitoring is not being adequately addressed and, most importantly, without significant investment, co-ordination and a coherent vision, UK marine science will inevitably fall behind the major players and the UK’s chances of solving crucial problems will be drastically reduced.

Given our distinguished maritime history and the fact that Britain is an island nation, it would be incredibly sad if our scientific endeavour were to be marginalised at such a crucial time, so I shall now turn to some specific recommendations in our report on which we would like the Minister to comment. In 1986, the Lords Committee argued for the setting up of a co-ordinating body comprising all sectoral interests—public, private and university—to promote UK marine science interests. Instead, the Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology, which was more narrowly focused, was set up. It brought together only Departments and the research councils.

The influence of IACMST can best be judged by the fact that no one within Government appeared to know or care to whom it reported. The IACMST believed that it reported to the then Office of Science and
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Innovation, but no formal report had been made for years and the OSI did not bother to attend plenary meetings. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to which OSI transferred responsibility, seemed equally uncertain of the relationship. Given that the Marine Foresight Panel, which had been set up by OSI and was taken over by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, was disbanded—its recommendations were never implemented—it was imperative that a Government organisation carried out horizon scanning on oceans.

The Committee identified a need for a body with real clout to be at the heart of Government and recommended the formation of a marine agency. The Government agreed that the IACMST was not sufficient and accepted the need for better horizon scanning. However, they argued—they were perfectly right to do so—that an agency was not practical for a number of reasons. The Committee did not press that point when we met the Secretary of State. Rather than create an agency, the Government replaced the IACMST with the Marine Science Coordination Committee.

The Government said that the MSCC would

That decision was taken in April 2008. It took three months for the first meeting of the newly formed MSCC to take place—in July 2008—and a further eight months before the second meeting, which took place on 13 March this year. Three weeks later, the minutes still have not been published. Given that the first objective of this new all-singing, all-dancing committee was to publish a marine strategy as a matter of urgency, we must ask the Minister why it took so long to form the MSCC, why it took so long for a second meeting to happen and why it will take until the end of 2009 to produce a marine strategy.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being characteristically generous to the Government. The Government’s response to recommendation 58(c) on the creation of a marine agency was disappointing. Does he share my suspicion that the real reason why the Government have not agreed to a marine agency is that there is still conflict between the producer industries represented by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the more strategic and scientific view coming from other parts of Government? That is the real reason why we do not have proper co-ordination and the agency that we recommended.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman speculates in that way. To be fair and to answer his question bluntly, I think that there is a lack of co-ordination of marine science activities across Government. The parcel is being passed among various Departments rather than being grasped. I will come to some of those issues. We have seen the same thing in a number of cases where it is not easy to compartmentalise the activity in question.

Although we would have preferred a marine agency—I maintain that point, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East would also support it—we nevertheless looked forward to having a new committee.
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It had fewer letters than the previous one and was therefore easier to pronounce, and we thought that it would offer a more inclusive approach to co-ordinating the marine community. It is not just about Departments and the research community; the broader community that uses the oceans also needs to be included. That is what the House of Lords recommended 20 years ago.

Alas, the membership of the MSCC is a disappointing rehash of IACMST. Key bodies such as the Department for Transport, which clearly has an interest in the seas, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are missing from the new body. The independent members who were such an important part of the original organisation—they always attended, and often kept it going—have been disbanded altogether. Indeed, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies seem to have been excluded too. Their seas and coastlines must have disappeared during the development of the new organisation.

There is no university or industry representation, and significant players such as the petrochemical giants, which have a massive interest in exploring the seas, have simply been excluded from the new committee. In other words, from a membership point of view, the MSCC is a watered-down rather than beefed-up IACMST. Although there may be sub-committees of other interested parties—I am sure the Minister will say that the Government consult those people in other ways—the fact is that they have absolutely no voice when decisions and recommendations are made. However, given that the committee has met only twice in 18 months, perhaps they are not missing a great deal.

How was the membership of MSCC decided? Was the broader marine community consulted? Was it the intention to reduce external and independent influence and give the Government more say in marine science strategy? If not, what was the rationale for removing independent advisers before making strategic decisions? How are the nations of the UK involved, particularly Northern Ireland and Wales? Why do the Government consider the views of universities and industry so unimportant to marine science, given that they are at the cutting edge of research and exploitation?

Such deficiencies suggest that the Government have missed the point of marine research. Not only is it very important for global challenges such as climate change, it brings together a range of critical economic factors such as fisheries, transport, energy, leisure and exploration. Surely a marine science strategy must consider all those things and more. It is not just a matter of seeing what Departments and research councils are doing. Can the membership realistically provide sufficient expertise across all these areas to develop a strategy that will stand the test of time?

We would like to know the Government’s thinking on the collection and storage of long-term data sets, as we returned to that issue constantly, not only during this inquiry but during our inquiry into space, on which a huge amount of data is collected and stored. The Committee understands—we certainly understood it as the Science and Technology Committee—research councils’ reluctance to fund data collection and storage, as their role deals with basic blue-skies research. However, a huge amount of work goes into collecting data from
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a variety of sources, sometimes over decades. Marine science at Plymouth has collected data records that go back 60 years or more. Such data are of massive scientific interest, and are priceless. If we cannot continue to collect them and the data sets are not retained in an order that allows them to be interrogated, we will miss a huge opportunity.

However, there is a constant battle among various organisations to fund that vital activity. We recommended in our report that it should be co-ordinated by our proposed marine agency, which would have a separate budget to do so. However, the Government argued that that responsibility should remain with UKMMAS, the UK marine monitoring and assessment strategy. All these acronyms remind me of an episode of “Soap”, if hon. Members remember that wonderful television series. The UKMMAS, which the Minister believes is the right organisation to deal with the co-ordination and collection of hugely important data sets, has no powers, no budget and no authority to engage in international programmes such as Argo floats or deep marine piling. It is an organisation with absolutely no influence in this hugely important issue.

What steps has the Minister taken to plug the £22 million funding gap identified to our Committee in 2007 by UKMMAS and cover the costs of basic monitoring and data collection? What steps has he taken for long-term storage, sharing and access to data sets? What assurances can he give us that UKMMAS is now engaging with the royal and commercial navies on data collection? It is an important issue, and I hope that he can give us some satisfaction on it later.

We recognise that the marine environment is hugely complex and international by nature. That is one reason why we called in our report for a ministerial champion for marine issues. This goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made earlier. Judging by the slow progress following our report, and despite the ongoing, lengthy passage of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, there is not much ministerial enthusiasm in this area. In our report we said:

But that is exactly what it appears to be. I hope that the Minister will make me eat my words, and will demonstrate that he is going to be a champion of marine science. If he does, I will be the first to congratulate him as we leave the Chamber.

It would be useful to know from the Minister who is driving forward the marine agenda in Government, and when the marine strategy has been raised at Cabinet level or even at departmental level. Can he tell us a time when it was raised? Also, how many champions have there been in the past two years? I think that the Minister is the third one in his post. I contrast marine science with the rest of science, which has Lord Drayson as its champion, and a Cabinet Committee right at the heart of Government. Would it be better if marine science were part of Lord Drayson’s responsibilities? Could he take up the cudgels for us within the Cabinet?

Moving to the promised UK marine science strategy, my Committee is pleased that the long-awaited Marine and Coastal Access Bill is passing through the House. We wholeheartedly share its objective to

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How could one not agree with that statement of fairly obvious things? However, the Bill’s passage through Parliament is running parallel to the work of the new MSCC, which is designing a UK marine science strategy. Will the Minister explain how he intends to design a UK marine science strategy while the marine landscape, from a regulation point of view, is still in flux? Or does he know the outcome of those deliberations? Will he give an assurance that the marine science strategy will be completed by the end of 2009, and that parliamentary time will be allocated for its discussion?

Will the Minister also explain his thinking about the formation and location of the Maritime Management Organisation? The Government brochure on the MMO states that it will

It will, in effect, be a maritime planning authority, and will therefore rely heavily on scientific input from specialist universities, laboratories and key private sector marine organisations.

The Government have committed, during and following other Committee inquiries, including our present inquiry into science and engineering policy, to grow centres of excellence to meet national strategic science needs. We are discussing this issue in our current inquiry. The Government say that they are committed to a concept of excellence, and that they will focus their investment according to excellence, not geography, which is why the diamond particle accelerator was built at Rutherford Appleton, rather than, say, Daresbury in the north-west. We fully expected that policy to apply to marine science, and that Plymouth or Southampton would be the favourite location for the new MMO. Plymouth houses a marine laboratory, the National Marine Aquarium and its university’s marine institute, and would have provided a good base on which to build the new organisation. Equally, Southampton, in the same geographical region, boasts the National Oceanography Centre, and was an equally strong contender. Crucially, between Southampton and Plymouth, there is the critical mass of science needed to support a national centre of excellence. That is one of the key Government tests for national centres.

The MMO will want access to the best evidence and the best people if it is to be effective, and it would make sense to put it in a location that boasts the largest concentration of marine expertise in the UK. However, Newcastle had an empty building ready to be used, so that is where the MMO will go. That fishy decision raises a number of questions. What benefits, other than cost, does Newcastle have over Plymouth? What political factors came into play? Was the Minister’s arm bent up his back as he made this decision? We, and the scientists at Plymouth and Southampton, would like to know why an empty shed in Newcastle won over their huge expertise. The legitimate interests of the marine science community appear, once again, to have been thwarted by political expediency. I hope the Minster will convince me that I am wrong.

There is much more in our report that could be discussed today, and I trust that other hon. Members will have the opportunity to raise other issues during the debate. Marine science continues to have strategic
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significance for the UK. We have world class scientists and a world-class reputation, and I trust that the Minister will convince hon. Members today that he is a world-class champion and is worthy of their cause.

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