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2 Apr 2009 : Column 317WH—continued

2.55 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Yesterday, I chaired a two-day conference on HAIs, or hospital-acquired infections, and today I am suffering from a PAI—a parliamentary-acquired infection—so I apologise if I sound rather croaky. I hope that my voice does not give out.

I was born close to the sea and have always been fascinated by it and its exploration. I suppose that is why, when I was drawn 17th in the 2002 ballot for private Member’s Bills, I chose to steer through the Bill that became the Marine Safety Act 2003. The Act plugged two loopholes in two important pieces of legislation, which followed a string of major shipping disasters and reports by the late Lord Donaldson. They concerned the avoidance of sea pollution and the putting out of fires on ships at sea. Today, Britain has the most comprehensive safety legislation, which allows the SOSREP—the Secretary of State’s Representative—who is based in Southampton to keep ships and installations at sea as safe as possible, even in extremely inclement weather. Should they get into difficulty, the SOSREP can take immediate action to avoid casualties and/or pollution at sea.

Before the former Select Committee on Science and Technology embarked on the inquiry that we are debating, I believed that the co-ordination of all aspects of the use and exploitation of the sea to be piecemeal, with too many interested parties and organisations. I still believe that, and I think that the Government have missed a golden opportunity provided by the publication of our report and its recommendations.

The sea is important as a provider of food, and the sea bed can be and is exploited for its mineral wealth. We also use the sea for transport, and 95 per cent. of the UK’s trade is seaborne, for passengers and freight alike. The sea is important for our defence, and we use the bottom of the sea for communications and for pipelines to transmit gas from the continent to our island. We also use the sea for our leisure exploits. Some 75 per cent. of the world’s surface is covered by water, yet we know very little about the oceans and seas. Some 80 per cent. of biodiversity is found in the marine environment, but only 10 per cent. of the sea has been explored and, unbelievably, only about 5 per cent. of the species in the ocean have been identified.

The Government have recognised the importance of the sea in the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which is before Parliament. Carbon dioxide emissions are considered to be the major cause of global warming. Although I recognise the important role that carbon dioxide appears to play in global warming, my reasons for not wanting to burn fossil fuels to provide energy are not the usual ones. I am a chemist who recognises the importance of fossil fuels for future chemical supplies. The chemical industry used to depend on coal to supply its chemical building blocks, but, today, the industry is based on petroleum
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instead. In my view, it is a sin to burn fossil fuels to provide our electricity and transport needs, especially because the conversion of the energy in those fuels to provide heat and/or electricity is such an inefficient process. However, another worry is that 50 per cent. of the carbon dioxide that has been emitted since the industrial revolution has been absorbed by the sea, mainly in the form of carbonic acid. That is slowly destroying the carbonate cycle in the marine environment. Shellfish and coral are part of that cycle, so the dangers are obvious to us.

I am, therefore, pleased that, at the recent meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Copenhagen, the participants focused on acidification of the sea. As a result, the matter has been given much wider publicity in the world’s media. There is no doubt that global warming is occurring—the evidence is there for all of us to see—but the causes of it are less clear than some people realise. Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have been blamed, but the problem is surely more complex than that. Molecular modelling has played an important role in predicting the course of global warming, but it can only provide useful information if all the factors that affect the climate are properly understood. At this stage, I do not believe that they are.

Not enough is known about the role of the sea in determining climate change. Sea-air interactions are very important because, for example, they determine cloud formation, and clouds are important because they protect the earth’s landmasses from the full impact of the sun. In turn, the temperature of the seas affects the rate of evaporation from it, and that can be affected by the melting of the polar icecaps. The role of the Southern ocean, which cools 40 per cent. of the world’s oceans, is increasingly becoming understood. The circulation of that ocean around the Antarctic landmass affects the flow of currents in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans. If all the Antarctic ice was to melt— that is, I hope, unlikely—seas levels would rise by a massive 60 m.

As we conduct this debate, we are reaching the end of one of the most intensive polar investigations ever carried out—the two-year International Polar Year. That has brought together people from 63 nations to intensify their study of the Antarctic and, fortunately, the Arctic regions as well. Britain is participating in 33 of those projects. I hope that, after the results of all those studies are brought together, we will have a better understanding of the importance of the polar regions in controlling our climate, particularly through the sea. Although the British Antarctic Survey has a strong presence in that region, the British presence is not so strong in the Arctic. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research co-ordinates research activities in the south, but there is an urgent need to reflect such co-ordination in the north.

The Scottish Association for Marine Science has a long history in the Arctic, as have Canada and Norway. There is an urgent need to understand how the melting of the Arctic ice-cap affects thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic. A doomsday scenario that is often quoted in the media is the possibility of a strong flow of ice-cold water switching off the Atlantic conveyor, otherwise known as the gulf stream. That would have a dramatic effect on the climate of Great Britain. The good news is that recent evidence suggests that that is, fortunately, highly unlikely to happen.

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We know very little about the species that rely on the marine environment for their existence. I was surprised to see photographs recently of the hitherto unseen and extremely weird organisms that have emerged from underneath the Antarctic ice shelf as it melts and recedes. In 2007, the British Antarctic Survey published a fantastic booklet in which hundreds of new organisms were listed—some of them are very peculiar.

We probably know more about our coastal waters around Great Britain—especially where, as is the case around our shore, a continental shelf exists—than we do about the deep seas beyond the continental shelf. Deep-sea exploration has not been treated in such an urgent manner because it is obviously more difficult and costly to establish. However, when the Select Committee visited the Michigan Institute of Technology, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the university of Rhode Island in the United States of America, we were given fascinating insights into the investigation of the deep sea.

The big challenge has been to construct submersibles that will withstand the huge pressures at the bottom of the sea. I am sure that we all recall the fascinating photographs of the Titanic, which was sunk by an iceberg in the Atlantic ocean and involved a huge loss of life. What advancements made those photographs come to life? The answer was provided for us at MIT, where we were introduced to open-frame robotically controlled submersibles, which are, essentially, metal frames clamped together, through which the sea can flow. Clamped to the frames are motors that propel the vehicle in any direction, robotic arms that can pick up samples from 2 to 3 miles down in the ocean, waterproof cameras that are constructed to withstand the high pressures of sea water, and instruments that are contained in thick glass spheres which are clamped to the frame. The submersibles are attached to a mother ship by an umbilical cord. In the deepest of oceans, those mother ships can be suspended from a ship lying on the surface of the sea, so that the weight of the umbilical cord does not upset the balance of the operation.

At the university of Rhode Island we visited Professor Robert Ballard’s team, which exploited that technology and took those beautiful photographs of the sunken Titanic from Woods Hole. Professor Robert Ballard’s team conducts marine archaeology and, at the time of our visit, they were in the Aegean sea searching for ancient artefacts, which, using the robotic arms, they can lift off the bed of the ocean. They were also receiving TV signals from the mother ship in their education centre at the university, and they have established a programme that means they can beam out those signals to any school that is prepared to buy into the technology. Indeed, we could purchase that technology in Great Britain, if we could only get the money together and provide the organisation.

One of the innovations of that research group has been the production of extremely fine—cotton fine—light-weight optical cable, huge lengths of which are in a special drum that rolls it out and back in again without tangling the cable. That has allowed Ballard’s group to take TV pictures in real time as they carry out operations at the bottom of any ocean. Lights are obviously clamped to the submersibles. Children all around America can now watch exploration of the sea in real time as it happens. That is amazing.

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I first became interested in Bob Ballard’s work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution when I was elected to Parliament in 1997. I joined the parliamentary all-party group that went to see the Derbyshire. The Derbyshire was a bulk carrier that sunk in a hurricane in the China sea as it was en route with a cargo of iron ore from Canada to Japan. All the crew and two wives were killed. I took an interest in the loss of that ship because all the crew were from Liverpool. The trade unions raised enough money to engage Ballard’s team, which provided the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions with photographs of the sunken and broken-up Derbyshire. The photographs were adequate enough to persuade the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), to reopen the public inquiry that had criticised the ship’s crew for sinking the Derbyshire. After that, the ship’s crew of the Derbyshire were completely exonerated from any blame and the real cause of the sinking was revealed, thanks to the magnificent technology produced by the Ballard team.

I shall now turn to something that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), the Chairman of the Committee, mentioned; it is one of the reasons why I was keen to launch the inquiry. The report confirmed what I already believed: we are not co-ordinating the disparate number of organisations that operate in the marine and maritime policy area. As hon. Members have heard, unfortunately the Government did not accept that a new marine agency with powers to bring all our marine interests together under one roof, including fisheries interests, should be established. Our report suggested that DEFRA should be the lead Department co-ordinating all that work through a marine agency.

As we have heard, the Government accepted that the former cross-departmental mechanism for marine science management and co-ordination—the IACMST—had its weaknesses. In its place, they have now established the Marine Science Coordination Committee, but like our Committee’s Chairman, I do not believe that they have given it the clout that our report called for to allow it to co-ordinate all the disparate activities that I want to mention.

One of the Government’s objections to establishing a marine agency is that it is not feasible because of devolution. On page 2 of their response, they say:

Yesterday, however, I received a briefing note on the new co-ordinating committee, which showed that all four parts of the United Kingdom are taking part in it. Perhaps the Minister can explain whether there has been a U-turn.

There has been confusion about whether we are talking about the co-ordination of all marine and maritime activity or just of the various research interests. It is still my view that we should be talking about the whole marine policy area. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the Committee that

He reminded us that there would be a maritime Green Paper and that the Marine and Coastal Access Bill would establish a marine management organisation in
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2010. When that new organisation is established, it will become part of the co-ordinating committee for marine policy that my hon. Friend the Minister has already set up.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee reached similar conclusions to ours way back in 1986. Out of its report came the Co-ordinating Committee on Marine Science and Technology, which was established in 1988. That committee produced a marine strategy, which, in 1991, led the Government to form the Inter-Agency Committee for Marine Science and Technology, bringing together representatives of Departments and agencies with an interest in this policy area, as well as a small number of representatives of individual interests. However, no private sector interests sat on the Committee to discuss marine science policy, but that was taken care of in a small way in May 2006, when the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology was invited to attend the meetings.

Our report covered the problems that the IACMST faced. There was confusion over departmental responsibility, although that has now been sorted out. The committee also lacked powers, which led to questions over its effectiveness, and I am not sure whether that problem has been overcome. Attendance at the committee’s meetings, especially by representatives of some Departments, was also not good. During our inquiry, it was noticeable that, wherever we visited, marine scientists were totally unhappy with the previous arrangements. Of course, we cannot measure the effectiveness of the new arrangements, because they are being put in place so slowly.

In the past, those involved in marine policy tried to organise their affairs through a plethora of committees, all with different acronyms, and the Chairman of our Committee has referred to them. There then has to be organisation at a European and, beyond that, an international level, because the seas and oceans are obviously international.

On top of that, we have seven research councils, not all of which have an interest in this policy area. The Natural Environment Research Council has the greatest interest, but the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and others among the seven councils also have an interest.

On top of that, NERC has seven institutes around the country: the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom at Plymouth, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory at Liverpool, the Scottish Association for Marine Sciences at Dunstaffnage—I hope that I pronounced that right—the sea mammal research unit at St. Andrews and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science. This is an extremely complex area of policy, and I still believe that it needs better co-ordination than the Government are providing.

Graham Stringer: I agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis, as I agree with that of the Committee Chairman. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important to spell out the consequences of the lack of co-ordination? One consequence is that there has been an inability to declare sites of special scientific interest, marine protected areas,
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marine nature reserves and special areas of conservation. Along with the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which is going through the Commons, such things—particularly if they are assisted by means of a pilot area—would help to create marine preservation areas. Does he agree that we have not done very well at protecting such areas and that there may be dire consequences if we do not do better?

Dr. Iddon: I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the Marine and Coastal Access Bill will overcome some of those difficulties when it is enacted. The science could at least have been provided up front, but it has not been, and that, I think, is his point.

Back in 1986, the House of Lords report flagged up not only the lack of co-ordination in marine science policy but the shortage of money for research. Oceans 2025 is a NERC-funded research programme, which aims to deliver not only key strategic scientific goals in marine science research, but stability in the long-term monitoring of the oceans.

NERC, DEFRA, the fisheries laboratories, other agencies and conservation groups fund 370 programmes that monitor and observe changes in our oceans. The UK is also involved internationally in the Scientific Committee on Ocean Research, the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans, the global ocean ecosystem dynamics programme, the international geosphere-biosphere programme and the Argo project, which our Chairman mentioned. The Argo project is responsible for a global array of 3,000 free-floating profiling floats that measure the real-time temperature, salinity and upper-surface velocity of the oceans.

Satellites have made a huge contribution to the observation of the earth and the sea. They can, for example, measure wave heights quite accurately and they can keep ships out of trouble. If we had had such satellites when the Derbyshire was sailing the seven seas, it probably would not have sunk in a hurricane. A significant number of ships have been sunk because they took on green water in hurricane-like conditions or were overwhelmed and capsized by freak waves, the formation of which is still not properly understood. Satellite monitoring of the polar caps in the north and the south is also extremely important for monitoring global warming.

Tide gauges around the world help us to measure coastal sea levels. As part of my studies on this policy area, I visited the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool—it is on the university of Liverpool site, but independent of the university. I was surprised to hear that Scotland is lifting ever so slightly out of the sea, while the south of the United Kingdom, and particularly the south-east, is dipping into the sea. Such tectonic plate shifts can be measured only by tidal gauge records. The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory is also engaged in the long-term monitoring of the oceans worldwide and measures sea levels, coastal erosion and deposits of sediments. In addition, it works with the Met Office on flood forecasting.

The problem with the monitoring and observing the oceans is that they are very long term, and they do not involve basic research either. The question therefore arises as to who should be responsible for funding such work and interpreting the results. There is also the question, as our Chairman said, of where the records
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should be kept. Funding for that kind of longitudinal study can be intermittent, and there are gaps in some of the records as a consequence. The UK provides £500 million per annum for terrestrial monitoring but only £36 million for marine monitoring. Argo funding, which the Met Office leads on, for example, is not secure. The marine agency that our report proposed, which was mentioned by the Chairman, could have been responsible for all such work. There have also been problems in accessing some of the data collected through that observation and monitoring. The national facility is the British Oceanographic Data Centre, which is in the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool. The UK Marine Data and Information Partnership was formed in 2005 to build a framework that would allow data collected by any organisation worldwide to be available and managed in such a way that others can access it for their research purposes. Unfortunately, some organisations are reluctant to part with their data to be stored in that way and made readily available, because they keep going by selling the data they collect. Barriers are particularly high if researchers want to get access to data from the Ministry of Defence and, incidentally, the Crown estate, which stores a lot of data.

It is obvious from the breadth of my remarks, and particularly the number of national and international organisations and projects that I have mentioned, that this policy area is extremely complex, and in the opinion of the Select Committee, it is not working as effectively as it should be. That is why we recommended establishing the marine agency, to organise better all that work across the marine and maritime policy areas and to bring the many collaborations together in one place. I was interested to read about the new committee that will review organisations, committees and other bodies co-ordinating marine-related activities, with the aim of reducing the number of co-ordinating bodies. There are just too many, and we have not mentioned them all this afternoon. There is a plethora of organisations, and they are in silos and do not interact as well as they should.

Britain is ahead of the game in marine science and investigation. We have a proud record. The records of sea levels collected by the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory by means of the tidal gauges that I mentioned are some of the oldest in the world, so that is somewhere people can go for such data. We must carry on collecting that information for use by future generations, so that they can see how the natural environment is changing, because we, who live in the natural environment, must adapt to those changes.

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