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Investigating the Oceans

Volume 490: debated on Thursday 2 April 2009

[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.)

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 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 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

“bring together the principal public investors in marine science to tackle cross-Departmental issues”.

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.

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.

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. 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 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:

“It is unacceptable that responsibility for the greatest geographical area in the UK (its seas) should be a minor part of a junior ministerial portfolio.”

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

“ensure clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas, by putting in place better systems for delivering sustainable development of marine and coastal environment.”

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

“deliver marine functions in the waters around England and in the UK offshore area (for matters that are not devolved).”

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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:

“The creation of a UK marine agency is not feasible given current developments related to devolution.”

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

“it was not absolutely clear to me whether you were talking about a marine science agency or a marine science and maritime agency.”

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 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.

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, 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?

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 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.

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 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 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in today’s debate. I congratulate—belatedly—the Committee 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:

“In discussions about climate change, the world’s oceans are often overlooked despite being an integral part of the issue. About one third of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere ends up in the oceans. Furthermore, biodiversity loss in our oceans in the next 20-30 years will be roughly equivalent to losing an entire Amazon rainforest, but this goes unnoticed because we can’t see it.”

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.

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:

“Marine science should therefore be at the heart of a national strategy and effort to find answers to the most topical questions with which humankind is faced.”

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.

The UK marine monitoring and assessment strategy identified a significant gap in monitoring systems of £20 million to £25 million. The Government describe those figures in their response as coarse estimates and say that more work needs to be done. Will the Minister update the House on the progress that the Government have made in securing their own estimates of the funding gap? All hon. Members are acutely aware of the economic downturn and of the pressures that will be placed on public funding, but in determining future budgets, it would be short-sighted to permit any erosion of the science base when the global challenges confronting us are so great. We Conservatives take care to avoid calling for unfunded public spending commitments, not least in the present economic climate, but it is right to emphasise the long-term importance of a science base in this country and to prioritise research, even within pressured budgets. We should like clarification on what we believe are the funding requirements in relation to the science base, on the current position and on what the future requirements and gaps may be.

Although the report is preoccupied with what the right arrangements should be—the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was also preoccupied with that matter in his speech—I confess to being neither expert in, nor overly concerned about, the fairly arcane arguments about whether we have a Marine Science Coordination Committee or a marine agency. We want the Minister to say what the Government believe the right arrangements should be. I have no particular contribution to make on that, other than to ask what the relationship will be between the MSCC, which the Government would prefer to an agency, and the Marine Management Organisation to be set up under the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.

I understand that the MMO will have a place on the MSCC. To what extent should the science function be brought into the MMO and become integral to its operation? I should like to explore—perhaps the Minister will explore it, too—what the relationship between those two bodies should be, because a conservation duty, underpinned by strong science, should be central to the role of the MMO. Perhaps that will be so and the arrangement will work, but I should like to hear more from the Government about that.

What progress is the Marine and Coastal Access Bill making? There is strong support from all parties for that Bill, for which the Conservatives have been calling for some time, and no doubt it will reach the statute book. However, the Minister will know that there is increasing anxiety on the part of many conservation organisations about its slow progress. The Bill is still in Committee in the other place and will not get to Report stage there until early May. All sorts of controversial measures have been introduced in the other place that may be holding things up, but it would be helpful if the Minister gave reassurance, publicly, that the Government remain committed to the legislation and will ensure that it is not held up and does not meet some sort of untimely fate because of lack of progress. I am sure that that will not be so, but his giving a public reassurance would be helpful.

Will the Minister answer the fair question that has been raised about the decision on where to locate the MMO? We Conservatives have no objection to its location in Tyneside—no doubt there are good reason for that—but there is a great deal of concern about the basis of that decision and why Plymouth, with all its advantages, which have been set out by local people, was not chosen. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister explained that.

Finally, I should like to raise two wider questions that were covered by the Committee in its report. The first relates to education and awareness. The challenges are so fundamental that it is important that marine systems should be included in the message put out by schools, for example, which are focusing on climate change and imparting such messages to children. They should be borne in mind in our consideration of public awareness, which the Committee also mentioned. I wonder to what extent marine systems are part of the message.

Secondly, a related question, which was also asked by the Committee, is who leads on marine science in the Government? The Committee wanted there to be a Minister for Marine Science: is it the Minister here today?

The Minister nods. The Select Committee will no doubt be encouraged to learn that. Is he confident that there is sufficient co-ordination and that DEFRA is able now to take a lead on these issues?

I hope that many of the questions that have been asked will be answered by the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. We still have plenty of opportunities to examine those questions further, by tabling probing or substantive amendments to the Bill, if necessary. We Conservatives are ready to do so if there are continuing concerns. We support the thrust of what the Committee said: these issues have been overlooked and there are fundamentally important organisational challenges. It is right that we should be debating them today.

Thank you, Mrs. Winterton, for your stewardship of this debate. In time-honoured tradition, I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) on securing it and on his excellent introduction. He pointed out my wide-ranging portfolio interests, all of which are significant, whether British waterways and canals, fisheries negotiations, national parks, and so on.

I come here today as marine champion, a role that was demanded in the report by what the hon. Gentleman referred to as a defunct Committee, but it is living on through its legacy, which is why we are here today. I shall explain how I intend to live up to that role of marine champion, and I hope that I am doing so. I shall try to avoid the necessity of writing to hon. Members by responding to as many points as possible, but if there are any issues that I do not address, I invite them to intervene as we have some time available.

I am encouraged that marine science continues to be a top priority for hon. Members, and I welcome this opportunity to revisit the excellent report “Investigating the Oceans”, which the then Select Committee on Science and Technology produced, and the Government’s response to it. It has been a year since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave evidence to the Committee. He said that we would establish a UK Minister with responsibility for marine science, and I am here today in that capacity. In that role, I am chair of the ministerial marine science group, which oversees the new Marine Science Coordination Committee, as well as being the champion for marine science. I say that humbly and proudly. We have today touched on many of the issues, including fisheries, climate change, what the Maritime Management Organisation will do, marine planning and strategy across the seas, and our international obligations. All must be underpinned by the best available science, whether it is in England, Wales or Scotland, or internationally.

A week ago I spent two days with our Norwegian colleagues, which was illuminating because they face many challenges. They also rest on the gulf stream and face some of the same developmental challenges and changes in a multiplicity of use on the seas and in the marine environment. There is also an issue of sharing, not only the science, but the best knowledge of how to move forward. I will be working with the ministerial group to monitor delivery of the strategy, and to find solutions when problems and gaps are identified and require ministerial intervention to make progress. I may be a humble, junior Minister, but I come from part of the political world in south Wales with a pedigree for doggedness, determination—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his use of the word “assiduousness”. I will dig in and ensure that I fulfil that role determinedly. It is right that whether we are talking about the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, reform of the common fisheries policy, or our international and European obligations under habitats directives and so on, we must move ahead, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, with special areas of conservation, special protection areas and so on. That must be underpinned by the best available science and evidence, because that provides the basis on which to argue the pros and cons, and the way forward, and to obtain genuine ownership from all stakeholders on how to proceed on the marine environment.

At the start of the evidence to the Committee last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was very clear about the importance of marine science in helping us to understand the huge challenges facing society, such as climate change, and in providing evidence to shape policy responses. My new role as ministerial champion emphasises the continuing importance that we attach to marine science. A prime example of the importance of science to policy is underpinning initiatives that will be taken forward through the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on that Bill, which has certainly taken longer in the other place than anticipated. I recognise that the other place has a scrutiny role, and we look forward to the Bill coming to this place to probe, strengthen and modify it, but we will not delay it unduly. It has had five, six or more years of pre-legislative scrutiny and we must put it on the statute book so that we can move on and put into place the sort of framework for the marine environment that we all want. We have spoken, and I have spoken to colleagues of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) who will, I hope, lead for the Liberal Democrats, to see how we can jointly work together to scrutinise the Bill, but also to deliver it in a timely fashion so that the Marine Management Organisation is up and running, and so on. The Bill is in Committee in the other place, as hon. Members know. It has received considerable scrutiny and attention in the past 12 months, and it has helped to raise the profile of marine issues. In my role as a marine champion, marine science is important and the Bill shows our commitment.

We have stated that the Bill’s implementation will need a significant amount of evidence based particularly on marine science, and I shall come to the MMO in a moment. The marine strategy will help to deliver our vision for clean, safe, healthy and productive seas, and the MSCC will bring the available scientific evidence from across the UK together in a comprehensive body of evidence. I will flesh that out in a moment.

DEFRA is funding about £37 million of marine science research in 2009-10, which makes the UK not the largest, but one of the largest funders of marine science in Europe. We are providing more than £600,000 over 18 months for the Marine Science Coordination Committee secretariat, which shows how committed the Government are and how committed I am as the champion in this area. Mention has rightly been made of the quality of our expertise in marine science in the UK, and we must retain that.

The estimated number of people employed in marine science in the UK in 2000—I do not have more up-to-date figures—is about 2,200 researchers at the cutting edge of marine science in all its complex and different areas. We must identify gaps in the strategy, where there could be better co-ordination, and where there is overlapping so that we can make the best use of that research base most cost-effectively. I shall return to that.

I was delighted to announce that the home of the MMO will be Tyneside. I know that there were different views on where it should be located, and I know that some of those views strongly suggested Plymouth, Liverpool and elsewhere. I also know that the people involved in the academic and marine sectors in Newcastle were a little surprised at the suggestion, implicit or otherwise, that they may not have been the best for the job. Let me make clear the difference between the MMO and the marine science agency. Having stated our commitment to the strategy and the need to bring together and co-ordinate more effectively marine science which will underpin much of the MMO’s work, it is critically a marine planning, implementation, enforcement and strategic body. It must make its decisions on the best available evidence, whether from the huge centres of excellence in Plymouth, in Liverpool, in Southampton, or—the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly made this point—in the centres of expertise in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

It is not critical that the MMO lives at the centre of the science, because the science is dispersed. I am sorry, but I forgot to mention the Government-funded Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Scottish equivalent. What is vital—this will be clear in the way in which the MMO and its shadow organisation leading up to it are set up—is that the MMO will be charged with building intricate links with the best science bases in the UK and, sometimes, elsewhere, so that its decisions are based on all the best science. Part of the strategy that we are taking forward alongside that is to ensure that all the academic institutions, commercial institutions and others are better co-ordinated to support it.

In a moment, I shall come to issues about the Crown estate, which were rightly raised, and about how we share experience and data.

May I say how welcome the Minister’s thoughtful response is to the issues raised? I do not think that I or any other hon. Member cast aspersions on the quality of science on Tyneside. If we did, I humbly apologise. What we would like from the Minister is the reasons why Tyneside was chosen, rather than Plymouth, Liverpool or any other place. What were the special features of Tyneside, other than that it had buildings available?

I shall give a shorthand answer, although I give a full answer in what we placed in the Library. The full, independently led analysis, worked through every county council area and region in the UK, started from “anywhere” and then broke that down to focus on coastal areas and areas that had a mixture of expertise—not just marine science, but a marine base, stakeholder engagement and so on. It came up with six places and it concluded at that point that any one of the six, including Carrick, could be an ideal home for the MMO. When those involved in the analysis made visits subsequently, alongside KPMG, to investigate whether their desk-based research findings were correct, they found that they were, but the position of two places—Carrick and Tyneside—improved, for various reasons. One reason had to do with understanding the nature of the MMO—that it was a strategic, planning, multifaceted organisation involving enforcement, implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and so on, as well as marine science and very good stakeholder engagement, plus the other facets of access to Brussels and Strasbourg and around the rest of the UK, including to Scotland.

The decision did not have to do with an empty building. There were empty buildings elsewhere. There were other parts of the estate that we could have looked at. The fundamental question was, where would the MMO thrive? It could have worked in any of those places. People were disappointed in Lowestoft when the body did not go next to CEFAS. People were disappointed in Liverpool, where there is an excellent base of academic expertise. People were disappointed in Plymouth. However, all that expertise will continue to be critical to the base that we need to build in this country of good marine science.

My intention, which I know is shared by those people, is that we should lead the way in the UK. We need to lead the way in what we do on conservation and sustainability of the seas. We need to lead the way in marine science in terms of what we do on fisheries reform. Some of the best science on fisheries reform is coming out of Scotland as well as England. Deciding where to locate an organisation such as the MMO is always difficult. In some ways, it is like judging, at a larger level, a bonny baby contest. One parent will be very happy and many others completely disenchanted. We take that on the chin and now we need to move on. The fact that we have made the decision has been welcomed, and on we go. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to explain the rationale behind the decision.

There has been comment about whether the composition of the MSCC is adequate. Let me provide clarification. On the MSCC are senior representatives of DEFRA, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the MOD, the DFT, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Department for International Development, the devolved Administrations—I shall come to why this format is better than another format, such as an agency, involving those Ministers—the Met Office, CEFAS, the UK Hydrographic Office, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Environment Agency, Fisheries Research Services, NERC, the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

There is no problem with devolution. The MSCC is co-chaired by the marine directors from DEFRA and the Scottish Administration by agreement. It will also have in the near future three non-executive members with experience of marine science from the perspective of industry, academia and non-governmental organisations. We recognise the issues that have been raised; we are filling those gaps.

One of the serious criticisms that we picked up in the inquiry was from the private sector, which did not feel that it had a voice in marine and maritime policy. Where can the private sector exert its influence now?

To clarify, one of those appointments, which we will be making shortly, and transparently, will be of a member representing the interests of industry, so that it will have a voice at the top table. The MSCC has senior representatives of the major marine science funding Departments, including the devolved Administrations, and the key marine science providers, so it has the right people to make things happen. It has clout, and shortly it will have even more clout. I have mentioned the external perspective that we will shortly be bringing to it.

Good progress is being made, although there is a curious dichotomy. There has been criticism of the slow speed at which the meetings have been pulled together and so on. At the same time, we are receiving some criticism about the pace at which things are happening. Why? Because to cover the range of stakeholders and everyone else out there who wants to be engaged in the process takes a fair degree of discussion and consultation. We are not having a 12-week consultation; we are having many head-to-head, one-to-one meetings. We are meeting representatives of individual institutions and organisations. We are doing it bit by bit. However, I take the message from today’s contributions—I am aware of this already—that we now need to get a move on. We are committed to doing this and to delivering the strategy by the end of the year. In a moment, I shall go into detail on what we might see in the strategy.

The MSCC has agreed its initial terms of reference, its membership, its governance provisions and the secretariat arrangements. The immediate focus now is on developing and implementing the UK marine science strategy. We have already agreed the broad outline for that strategy. I mentioned that we have put in place £600,000 for the period up to June 2010 to fund the secretariat. The MSCC met again just recently, on 13 March, in the form of a facilitated workshop to brainstorm the potential content of the strategy.

A point was raised about the minutes of that meeting. The reason why there has been a small delay is that it was not a typical meeting. It was a workshop, a brainstorming session. As soon as the minutes are pulled together, which will be very shortly, they will be placed on the website. We want to ensure that the whole process is as transparent as possible, not least because the transparency will help, I hope, to bind people into it. If they see the discussions taking place and the evidence being put forward, they will be confronted with the reality of where we need to make progress.

Work on the strategy has been progressing well. The MSCC’s view is that the marine science strategy’s overall aim should be to support delivery of the Government’s vision of achieving clean, safe, healthy, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas, as we set out in the marine stewardship report “Safeguarding our Seas”. On the detailed content of the strategy, the MSCC’s views are still evolving. That is part of the reason for the slight delay. We shall continue to ensure that those views are informed by stakeholder views, not simply top-down or Government views. However, the MSCC’s outline views are these: it should be a short strategy and should not reinvent the wheel; it should probably be about 20 pages long—short and succinct; it should be sharply focused, addressing high-level, cross-cutting issues and providing direction on our future science needs; and it should concentrate on identifying where there are overlaps and gaps, because one of the things that we are not clear on is where the gaps are. We know that much good work is going on in many different institutions, but we are not clear on whether it is being duplicated and whether there are gaps.

As we heard, the wide variety of the marine environment means that, by necessity, the science base has to be equally wide. However, we will need to prioritise. We will need to find opportunities for more collaboration, and to provide signposts to more detailed strategies to follow on from that. Improving communication and access to scientific information, too, is important.

The House will be interested to hear that I was at a meeting only last week with the Crown Estate. We dealt with a range of issues, but we took time to talk about the marine science base and some of the excellent work that it has been doing, such as mapping the marine environment. We also spoke of different uses being compatible in the marine environment, and about how the work can best be shared with other agencies, particularly in connection with the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.

We need to go further, not only with the Crown Estate but with many other organisations, including academic institutions, which sometimes try to closet their research. We need to be more open and to share information. The strategy will also need to consider the big science questions—for example, those relating to climate change. We need to ensure that an eco-systems approach is taken to the marine environment. We should also consider the wider interests of various stakeholders in the marine environment, including industry. The strategy will need to improve understanding between the MMO and the marine science base. It will also need to improve understanding between policy makers and scientists.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs asked whether it would be better for science to come under the MMO. No, it would not. That is a straightforward answer, and there is a simple reason. The MMO has a job to do. It will be unique in being the only body that implements high-level strategy at the regional and local level, alongside the inshore fisheries, conservation authorities and others.

The MMO will primarily be a manager of the seas, and not working as scientists, although it will have to rely on the science base. The two will go hand in hand, but putting science with a planning body may lead to a conflict of priorities on funding, expertise and so on. Both are important, but the MMO is not the right home for science. The Bill has taken such a long time to get this far that I would not want to introduce the idea of slotting science in under the MMO. I mentioned that when talking about location a moment ago. The strategy will also need to recognise the important question of the long-term observation and monitoring of the marine environment.

Those are the headlines for our discussions on marine strategy and our engagement with stakeholders. However, I and my officials are committed to driving things forward across Government and with stakeholders. I want the strategy to be done and dusted by the turn of the year, so that it synchronises with what we are doing elsewhere—such as common fisheries policy reform, the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and much else.

We are determined fully to involve stakeholders—marine industries, academia, NGOs, and so on—in developing the strategy. We have already started; we can now continue. A series of stakeholder workshops will be taking place in Edinburgh and Reading later this month. We will follow that up by a variety of means, including smaller group meetings, one-to-one discussions and other tailored events, and we will put that information on the internet.

We want to test the MSCC’s emergent thinking on the strategy and to take on board stakeholders’ views. I understand people’s frustration over the time, but it is important to get things right. It is an iterative process that will lead to an outline document in around December, followed by a draft strategy—not further consultation but a draft strategy. We should be able to sign it off by the end of the year. I believe that it has a degree of synchronicity with our other broad aims in the Bill and elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that we need to keep our marine science expertise. I hope that I have demonstrated not only the funding aspects of our commitment, albeit that we always have to satisfy certain priorities, but that marine issues generally are high on the Government’s agenda. My very presence here today as the Government’s marine champion—I am only a humble junior Minister, but I can punch quite hard for my size—proves that we intend to keep and develop our marine science base and expertise.

A significant number of marine scientists from other countries now work in our marine laboratories. They are attracted by the opportunities that we can offer and what they see coming down the pipeline. For example, our fishery scientists at CEFAS are independently ranked as world-class, and they include specialists from other countries who have taken the opportunity to work alongside our agency’s scientists.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether parliamentary time could be found for a further debate on the subject. I would welcome the opportunity, and I would support the process through the usual channels if an opportunity could be found. It would be good to report on progress, and to judge whether the Department had delivered. I am confident that it will.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) rightly pointed out the importance of the marine and sea environment to climate change. He also pointed out the need to draw on the best science and evidence from wherever it comes. That would include the Proudman Institute and others, and what is going on north of the border. Britain’s involvement in the 33 projects that my hon. Friend mentioned signals our intention. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited Antarctica with other environmental leaders on the international stage. He was convinced before he left, but he came back more clearly convinced of the need, in the marine environment and elsewhere, to lift our game in order to meet the challenges of climate change.

My hon. Friend raised an important point about data sets. The United Kingdom marine monitoring and assessment strategy brings together all the major funders of marine monitoring with the associated data sets; the aim is to improve collaboration and deliver a more comprehensive picture of the marine environment. Associated with that, the marine discovery metadata standard—MEDIN—has been set up to improve access to and management of UK marine environmental data. We are striving to make the marine data sets as comprehensive as possible; that will indeed be covered by the strategy. As for data sharing, the point is well made; we need to ensure that we constantly try to prise open data sets, although some have commercial imperatives, and to share the best knowledge. In my short tenure as the Marine Minister, I have seen a wealth of knowledge in various places.

My hon. Friend asked whether we have changed our stance on devolved matters. We have not; co-ordination within a committee is different from that within a UK agency. It is different from a double-hatted Minister, perhaps a Northern Ireland Minister, sitting on a broad ministerial agency. The MMO is not a UK body. It will liaise closely with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is an England body. One of the great successes of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill is the fact that we managed to work with the devolved Administrations to make it a UK Bill, but the MMO is an England-based organisation.

Marine policy is the responsibility of different Departments and funding agencies. Each of them has specific requirements for marine science, including providing evidence on which to base marine policy and decision-making. It would not be appropriate to pass some of those responsibilities to a new super agency. We believe that our way forward will achieve the degree of collaboration between Departments and devolved Administrations, and make the strategy work. As I said, I am happy to return later in the year to show how that is evolving.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, whom I am glad to see here and contributing to this debate, reminded us of the wider UK interest. These are actually shared seas. As was pointed out to me, earlier in my fisheries negotiations, it would be very easy to do quotas, if only the fish would stay in one place. Unfortunately, however, they do not; they swim all around the darn place—pardon my French, Mrs. Atherton. He was right to say that we cannot entirely divorce fisheries policy and science from wider marine policy and science. Sustainability on the seas presents us with important challenges in terms of conservation and marine habitat, and people making livelihoods off the sea. We need to be aware of that as we build the marine science base. Last week, when I was in Norway, I was fascinated to learn how Norwegians are progressing with their marine science and planning bases. Although we have some things to learn from them, they were also very interested in learning lessons from the UK. It was useful to build that relationship, and we intend to continue liaising.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs rightly pointed out the large challenges facing us—climate change, fishing and fisheries, biodiversity and pollution, including noise pollution. The commonality of all those is that they are all underpinned by good science. This strategy, if it is to do anything, will identify how best to deliver the science base to underpin our policies, whether on climate change, fisheries and reform of the CFP, or biodiversity. The point was rightly made: we will have to make some difficult decisions about areas to which we look for additional protection. However, if we can do that on the best science base, hon. Members can argue on the basis of the evidence, rather than on politics. We are all politicians, but it is important that we take this forward based on the evidence.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about pollution. I hope that the measures that we have taken, way upstream, on nitrate protection zones, all the way downstream, on things such as marine litter projects, and everything in between, will get the support of hon. Members. I agree with him that marine science should be put at the heart of Government. That is what we are trying to do today, and we will continue to do so. I note—with only a slight smile—that he rightly said that, although a Conservative Government would support the science base, it would make no unfunded commitments. However, he then asked if I could guarantee that funding will continue.

I might be misquoting the hon. Gentleman, in which case, I apologise.

I hope that I have demonstrated our commitment both to funding and putting in place an appropriate strategy so that the funding goes further. I also welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. If we can work together, across the House, to speed the Bill on its way, while giving it proper scrutiny, it will be very welcome, and I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the House to do that.

I began by explaining the importance that we place on marine science, and I shall conclude by making an offer to hon. Members, including you, Mrs. Atherton. On 22 and 23 April, the RV Endeavour will be docked next to HMS Belfast. The ship is one of our marine science flagships—I hope that hon. Members will excuse the pun—and it will be hosting a number of presentations and displays to explain the Government’s overall approach to marine science. My office would be very pleased to make arrangements for those interested in visiting RV Endeavour.

Finally, Mrs. Atherton—

My profound apologies, Mrs. Winterton. I am grateful to you for your careful stewardship of this debate, and to hon. Members for today’s lively and passionate debate about this very important topic. I look forward to returning, towards the end of this year, to this Chamber—perhaps under your chairmanship, Mrs. Winterton—or elsewhere, in order to demonstrate what progress we have made.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.