[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s role in the degradation of the marine environment.
It is a pleasure to be given the opportunity to lead a debate on this issue. I do not think that I have secured a Westminster Hall debate for two or three months. It is a great pleasure to secure one on this particular subject. I do not know whether anyone in Westminster Hall today thinks I am a latecomer to the subject, but when I was a very young lecturer at Swansea University I had the privilege of listening to a distinguished professor, Ernst Schumacher, just after he published a book called “Small is Beautiful”, and to being introduced—as a traditionally trained LSE economist—to the notion of sustainable development and sustainable economies rooted in small, local communities. That started me on a lifetime of social enterprise and a lot of enterprises that were about the environment and sustainability.
Therefore, I am not a latecomer. I have not just read The Times 2 section, which, rather serendipitously, today is all about the plastic found in our marine environment, or just been influenced by that wonderful—what do we call him?—“saint of the environment”, David Attenborough; I saw “Blue Planet II” last night. He has become very much associated not only with such wonderful research but with wise advice, based on the research and good evidence about the dangers to the planet in general and to the marine environment in particular.
So I am not a Johnny-come-lately. Indeed, I was a founding member of Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom. Many years ago, I started a group called the Socialist Environment and Resources Association, or SERA, a left-wing environmental organisation. On environmental urban mines, we believed that, instead of digging holes in the earth’s crust and taking out virgin material, we should recycle and reuse material, including the waste that flows from towns and cities. I say that just to prove that I have some interest in and a record over the years of involvement in these subjects, and the desire, as a social entrepreneur, to do something about those issues in communities, both national and local.
The fact is that our marine environment is at risk, in a way that we have not previously thought it was at risk. I woke up to the issue a couple of years ago. I suppose I always knew how bad the marine environment was becoming. We had all heard of these vast islands of floating, semi-submerged plastic, which nobody knew how to deal with or tackle and which were getting bigger. The Environmental Audit Committee has done excellent work recently on microbeads. So I was conscious of the impact of that. I was also interested in recycling, what we did with waste and where waste ended up, as well as sustainability. All that came together, I suppose, when I reread an old favourite of mine by the man who created the term “the dismal science” for economics. Thomas Malthus predicted that, eventually, the population would outgrow the food supply and that we would all perish, unless two wonderful things happened—war or pestilence. That was Malthus’s way of suggesting that there would be a natural ability of the economy and society to renew themselves as we ran out of food.
The old counter-argument to Malthus was that human beings were clever, innovative and creative. They would discover new forms of science, applied science and engineering. Agriculture would become highly sophisticated in how it treated the land and grew crops, and we would become so much more productive.
The critics of Malthus were absolutely right, but the fact is that, although humans are creative, clever and innovative, they are also greedy, careless and exploitative. That is the truth. I said to one of my staff yesterday, “It’s not the sort of thing you run round your constituency saying to your constituents”. I do not pick on the British people particularly, but humans are clever, careless and exploitative, and they are in danger—one species—of destroying this planet through climate change and global warming and what we are doing to the oceans of the world, let alone what we have done to the poor species that we have shot, eaten, killed and driven into extinction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I had asked him before the debate if he would take an intervention. Does he agree that it is not only essential that we preserve and protect our marine environment but that fishermen are not prevented from sustainable fishing in areas that they know? Does he agree that science has proven to be fully capable of handling sensible fishing, as was done through the common fisheries policy? Does he realise that there are many who can sustain a business and that fishing is one of them, and that the environment will not be harmed by it?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring up the issue of fishing. With your permission, Mr Owen, I will come back to fishing a little later, including that specific point. Of course there are better ways and worse ways of fishing. When we have DEFRA questions, if anyone mentions bottom-scraping, everyone giggles, but the fact is that there are ships that do scrape the bottom of the ocean, taking everything. That is a savage and unacceptable form of fishing.
I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s brilliant speech so far. One of the problems is that it is very hard for consumers to know whether or not the fish they buy is sustainable or not. The one thing that we can rely on, or think we can rely on, is the label provided by the Marine Stewardship Council. However, new research by the On the Hook campaign shows that the MSC has been awarding certification to fleets that on one day use sustainable tackle but the next day use completely rapacious and unsustainable tackle; it is certifying some of the worst operators in the world. Given the MSC’s near-monopoly status in the world, in terms of providing that certification or assurance, does he agree that the Government should be encouraged to work closely with the MSC to ensure that it raises rather than continues to weaken the science, at the cost of our world’s oceans?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I agree with every word he says. I will also put that issue on the backburner for a moment, because I want to talk about how we move forward. Anyone who saw the last David Attenborough film knows that it offered one little chink of light. Viewers get to the stage where they are feeling quite suicidal about the future of the marine environment, and then suddenly David Attenborough mentions that, actually, there is some possibility of the oceans renewing themselves in some areas, although not as well as we might hope.
Let me talk about the purpose of this debate. There has been a slow awakening to the peril in which the marine environment is in, but now is the time that we must act. David Attenborough says that we have 50 years to save ourselves, but I think that he is being generous. I think that we have to act much more quickly and decisively, and have the right kind of organisations. I am afraid that the only political things that I will be saying today are about what I believe to be the real strengths of the European Union over a number of years in helping us to co-operate across nations to tackle some of the great problems of the environment.
I remember meeting Surfers Against Sewage in my early days in the House. Mr Owen, you will remember what the seas around Swansea were like a few years ago. They were full of sewage—dreadful conditions. So many of our coastal towns used to pump sewage, in a pipe, out into the sea and, of course, back it would come. There has been a remarkable change because of European regulation on discharge to the sea. We rapidly cleaned up our seas and beaches, and also those right across Europe, so that when holidaying there we would know how clean the environment was; there is a standard and a system of flags.
I also remember the tiny amount of recycling that was done in our country in my early days in the House. Local authorities were at 14% recycling. The rates across the country have since zoomed up. Why? Because we took on board European regulations that meant the payment of a levy on any waste that was put in a hole in the ground. What a society we used to be, not long ago, putting all our waste product in holes in the ground. It is still there—a great treachery, a misspent youth. For 150 years, going back to the Victorians, we threw everything we had finished with into holes in the ground. That was a disgrace, and it was only European regulation and landfill tax that turned it around. We now have a much better—but not perfect—situation. Funnily enough, only recently I asked how much each local authority in Britain pays in landfill tax. I have not yet had a reply; the Government are very reluctant to give me the information, saying, “It is so difficult to collect. Inland Revenue cannot provide it”. It is, however, a very good indicator of how effective the authorities are in their recycling.
The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way a second time. It is the new generation of young people who are very much into recycling; the older generation must learn to get into it. Does he agree that, when it comes to educating and thinking ahead, it needs to be at primary and secondary school levels, so that the next generation coming through can continue what has been and even do it better?
I hope we are not going to agree on everything here, but again, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will know that I was the Chairman of what is now the Education Committee for years and I am chairman of the John Clare Trust, which, in the name of our great English poet, who lived between 1793 and 1864—probably our greatest poet of the environment, in my opinion—has a centre where we specialise in getting young people to come to the countryside to learn about the rural environment, and so to love it. If young people in our towns and cities do not visit the countryside, we will not get them to love it at all.
We have expanded that work into my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) will know that we have a charity called Greenstreams, through which we try to clean up the rivers and streams in our part of Yorkshire. In the industrial revolution, the rivers were terribly polluted and the fish were killed; the colours of the dyestuffs would flow into the rivers and make them red, blue, whatever—very patriotic—killing everything. Now the water is clean again and we take children down there to show them that if they lift a stone they will see wiggly things that the trout eat, which are then eaten by the kingfishers—the cycle of life. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is very much on the ball. We must start in schools, and the earlier the better.
I want to cover four things: plastics, overfishing, oil and petrol, and then come back to the big picture of climate change. We are sometimes too polite, aren’t we? If we look back over 400 years, we in Britain, as the earliest industrialised nation, with the greatest sea power, have not been good at keeping the global environment clean. I think we chopped down most of our trees to build warships. The biggest problem today is that as China is the most polluted country, followed by India, and then the United States, if we do not work with those large countries, everything we do in the United Kingdom will be of much less value. We need international co-operation, but not in a colonial way, pitching up in any country—even in Russia, which is a great polluter—and saying, “You should do what we do”. They would point to us and say, “Well you don’t have a very good record. You’re a late convert”. We are late converts, but we know a great deal now about how to change the environment in which we live and make it more sustainable.
Let us quickly look at one of the inspirations of recent years: the United Nations sustainable development goals. Goal 14 is about conserving oceans and protecting them from the adverse impacts of climate change, overfishing, acidification, pollution and eutrophication. At United Nations level, it is very important that every country sign up to the goals and make them happen.
My other interest as a Back Bencher is transport safety. Many years ago I introduced seatbelt legislation and my first private Member’s Bill was on children in cars. I have just recently been elected chairman of the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators. That relates to a different United Nations sustainable development goal, but that package of measures, globally driven by the United Nations, is, at the end of the day, what we must look to—international co-operation.
I was on a ship recently, and its environmental officer explained to me just how tight the fleet’s regulations were, and how stringent its rules were, on recycling, including dropping off metal at one port and plastic at another. Her fiancé, however, worked for a commercial firm in Alaska, where they basically threw everything overboard—no rules, no regulation and, it seems, no conscience.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about the need for international co-operation. Does he agree that, if recent reports are to be believed and we unfortunately have up to 8 million tonnes of plastic pollutants in our seas and oceans across the globe, there needs to be an awful lot more international co-operation if we are to minimise that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for—
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman goes on, I want to say that he is making detailed opening remarks and taking a number of interventions but we are taking the Front-Bench spokespersons from 15.30. So that everyone can get in, I ask Members to make short interventions. I also ask the sponsor of the debate to be a little quicker.
I was coming to the conclusion of my remarks, but I want briefly to skate through some points. There is a danger that we get obsessed only with the plastics. The broader pollution is much greater. We know, as does anyone who has been following the science, that it is the acidification of the marine environment and the warming of the temperature of the seas and oceans that is taking its toll. That is what we must tackle, and on a global level. It is all right blaming the Chinese, the Russians or the Indians, but we must start at home, spreading good practice and sharing innovation and good science, in the most co-operative spirit possible.
Members probably know—they certainly will if they follow me on Twitter—that I am a passionate anti-Brexiteer. I know that might upset one or two people in the Chamber, but I very much value the way in which we have done some amazing things across Europe in improving the environment. However, we must go much further. According to Sky Ocean Rescue, a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute. Some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced in the past 60 years, and 91% of all plastic made since the 1950s has not been recycled, according to Greenpeace. That is the truth of the matter.
In a study last August by Plymouth University, plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish. Cod, haddock and mackerel were all affected. Only one third of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled each year. Two thirds is sent to landfill or incinerated. In terms of tap water—the water we drink in this place and in our constituencies—72% of water samples were contaminated with microplastics. Sixteen million plastic bottles are thrown away every day in the UK. Yes, that means we need regulation and international co-operation, but we also need individuals to change how they live their lives.
I have no commercial interest in Unilever, but anyone who has seen Paul Polman talk about the company’s vision to reduce its environmental impact and improve sustainability must have woken up to the fact that all companies need to look at their own products and supply chains and insist that everything going through their system of commerce should be of the highest standard. If everyone is at that standard, we will get there.
Before I finish, I want to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, who is leading a very successful campaign, the “Final Straw for Waste Plastic”, which aims to end the daft use of plastic straws in every café and pub. That is a sign we are moving in the right direction. We also have a campaign for a deposit return scheme for bottles and the microbead ban could go further, but they are not enough.
I want to give some balance, because marine conservation is not all about plastic. It is also about fishing; the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned that. More fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. Some 90% of the world’s fish stocks are fully or over-exploited by fishing. Several important commercial fish populations, such as the Atlantic bluefin tuna, have declined to the point where the survival of the species is threatened. That is the truth. Recommendations are coming through. We need marine conservation zones. We need an environmental audit body to create more need to stop trawling. That method scoops up all the fish and simply returns the ones not wanted to the sea, dead. The European Parliament has been working positively in this area. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said, the Marine Stewardship Council is not perfect, but it is moving in the right direction.
I will end my remarks by saying this. I have been involved in this area of activity all my adult life, from that early inspiration, “Small is Beautiful”, right through to the present day, when some lone voices can say, clearly and distinctly, with all the research at their fingertips, that if we do not act now as individuals, communities and countries working together, we will not survive on this planet.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will now call Steve Double, followed by Kerry McCarthy. If Members can stick to five minutes, we should get all the speakers in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate on an important issue.
As an island nation, the UK has always had a strong connection to the seas. Although it is probably no longer true to claim that Britannia rules the waves, that connection with our maritime environment is still strong. I speak as an MP representing a part of the world renowned for its coastline and one of only three constituencies that boasts two coastlines. I understand just how important it is that we preserve the wellbeing of our marine environment not only for our fishing fleet, as we have heard—we are hoping to see a revival in it once we leave the European Union—but for our tourism, which is so connected to our coastline. It is also important that we preserve it for future generations. We want to leave the planet in a better state than we found it.
In recent years we have seen growing awareness of the damage we are doing to our seas through the way we live and how we dispose of our waste. We have seen a change from the attitude that existed before, whereby we could just throw rubbish and anything we did not want any longer into the sea and forget about it. There is increasing awareness of the damage that that has caused over many decades and probably centuries. I am proud to say that the Government in recent years have started to take some positive action to address some of the issues, and we have seen good progress.
The current Secretary of State and the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), have taken the issue seriously. Along with the Minister who is here to respond to the debate, we have a team of Ministers who have started to take some decisive action to address this important matter after years of talking about these things. The 5p charge on plastic bags has reduced the number of plastic bags thrown away by billions. Many of those plastic bags would have ended up in our seas and on our coasts. We have seen that dramatic change in public behaviour as a result of something as a simple as a 5p charge.
The Government have introduced a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, which will stop hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of plastic ending up in our waterways. The Government are now taking action to introduce a deposit return scheme on single-use plastic bottles, which will dramatically reduce the number of plastic bottles that end up being thrown away. All too often, they end up in our seas and on our beaches. We are making good progress, but we are all aware that huge challenges remain that we have to address.
I will give some of the statistics that the hon. Member for Huddersfield highlighted. Globally, 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans every day. I am sure we have all seen the videos online of islands of plastic bottles floating in some parts of the world. The visual impact of that brings home just what we are doing. The statistic that hit me—I always go back to it—is that if we do not take decisive action, there will be more plastic than fish in our seas by 2050. We have to carry on addressing the issues and taking decisive action.
As the chairman of the Protect Our Waves all-party parliamentary group, I am honoured to work closely with the Cornish-based charity Surfers Against Sewage. For many years it has addressed the pollution of our seas. I have been working closely with the charity since I have been here in Parliament. Other members of the APPG are here, and I invite Members who are not part of the APPG to join us and work with us to ensure that we continue to address these issues in Parliament.
Surfers Against Sewage is a formidable organisation that has worked tirelessly on sea pollution. It has lobbied Government to bring about change. I joined it just a few weeks ago to present a petition signed by 270,000 people to the Prime Minister at No. 10. The petition called for the introduction of a deposit return scheme as part of the charity’s “Message in a Bottle” campaign. Throughout the year, it mobilises tens of thousands of volunteers in beach cleans to remove the rubbish and waste that ends up on our beaches. It is not just about collecting the rubbish; it is a huge awareness campaign to make people more aware of the damage we are doing. We are making good progress, but there is much more to do and by working together we can do it.
I will make one final point, to which I hope the Minister will respond. We need some further action on combined sewer outflows, which continue to discharge untreated sewage into our seas too often when we have heavy rainfall. We are all aware that we are getting heavy rainfall more often. We particularly suffer from that in Cornwall because of our geography, our ageing sewer system, and being at the brunt of storms that come across the Atlantic. We need to start taking more action to put pressure on water companies to get rid of combined sewer outflows, so that we can stop untreated sewage from being discharged.
We are moving in the right direction on those issues, but there is much more to do. The UK must continue to take a global lead in preventing pollution of our oceans, and cleaning them up wherever we can.
It is pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Owen. The UK, through its overseas territories, is responsible for the world’s fifth largest marine area, amounting to nearly 2% of the world’s oceans. We are therefore a major player, with a major responsibility to act.
We have heard how the health of our oceans is under threat, and degenerating faster than anyone had predicted because of the cumulative effect of a number of individual stresses: climate change; sea water acidification; widespread chemical pollution; plastic pollution; the effect of drilling for oil; and gross overfishing. The world’s oceans are facing an unprecedented loss of species, from large fish to tiny coral, comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory. If we are serious about helping oceans to recover and rebuild, helping fish stocks to replenish, and giving marine ecosystems and coastal communities some breathing space, we need to get serious about creating marine-protected areas.
It is true that the UK has shown real leadership on ocean conservation through the action of various Governments. John Kerry and President Obama were also very good in the lead that they took; I hope that the issue has not completely dropped off the US’s agenda now that they have left office. It was encouraging to hear the Foreign Secretary at a recent event in Parliament reassert the Government’s commitment to creating a blue belt of marine reserves in the overseas territories. I would like a response from the Minister on South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. An MPA was created there in 2012, but it provides a minimal level of protection. It is not enough just to tick a box and say, “Well, we’ve got protection there.” We need a fully protected marine sanctuary. The marine environment there is near pristine, and full protection would safeguard it against what is an uncertain future, because of a changing climate and other threats.
I also want to say a little about Antarctica. “Blue Planet II” has already been given a glowing mention by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). I would like to point out that the BBC’s natural history unit is based in Bristol and cannot be over-praised for its amazing work. Anyone who has seen the images of fish with feet, huge fangs, or transparent heads will agree that what the unit is doing to bring that world to life for people, and to make serious political points about the need to conserve our ocean and marine ecosystems, is just phenomenal.
The ocean around Antarctica is also the lungs of the deep, with its waters among the most oxygen-rich on our planet. Much of the life-giving oxygen in deep waters across the world begins its journey there in Antarctica, but the pristine marine environment is threatened by climate change and expanding commercial fishing interests. Marine life there, for example, is totally dependent on krill, but Russia, Norway and China are all said to have krill-fishing interests in the region. That is not something that the people of Russia, Norway and China need, but it is something that the marine ecosystem in that area absolutely needs for its survival. Greenpeace and others are currently pressing for an Antarctic ocean sanctuary. The UK Government can play a vital role in creating this, as part of the Antarctic ocean commission, but as I understand it, the UK has yet to throw its full weight behind negotiations. I hope the Minister can reassure us today that the UK will put real diplomatic effort into that.
The last key point I want to make is on UNCLOS—the UN convention on the law of the sea. More than 64% of the ocean is beyond the jurisdiction of any one country—the so-called high seas. Although UNCLOS provides the legal framework, the current structure is highly fragmented and has huge governance gaps. We need an agreement under UNCLOS to assist in the creation and management of marine reserves, to set a framework for environmental impact assessments, and to co-ordinate the highly fragmented structure of regional organisations that currently regulate human activities. I understand that there is a draft resolution for starting negotiations on the UN oceans treaty that Governments are deciding on this week, which is really great news. I hope that the Government will throw their weight behind agreeing a treaty by 2020.
Finally, I want to reflect on something my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said—something that very much chimes with my way of thinking and that we do not hear often enough in this House. I was the lead shadow Minister on the Deep Sea Mining Bill a few years ago. I found it incredibly depressing that some people speaking in those debates took the view that all the world’s resources are there to be plundered and exploited, and are put there for our benefit, with little need for concern about protecting our precious natural environment. Episode two of “Blue Planet II” featured hydrothermal vents, which I spoke about in Committee. I had no real understanding of what they were and why it was so important to protect them; I just knew that I did not want deep-sea mining going on in tiny miniature ecosystems at the bottom of the sea. Now that I have seen “Blue Planet II” I realise just how wonderful and amazing they are.
The “Keep it in the ground” campaign asserts that 80% of the fossil fuels that we currently know of ought to be kept in the ground if we are to meet our climate change commitments. That means that we should not be drilling for oil in the tar sands, or in the Arctic. We should not look down, at deep-sea mining and the hydrothermal vents. I want to pay tribute to what my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said. I am entirely with him on this: the world is not ours to exploit; it is ours to protect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing today’s debate.
The Government have a good record on dealing with pollution in our seas, and I congratulate not only the Minister, but the Secretary of State on all the fantastic things that they have spoken about over the last few months that will make a big difference. The ban on microbeads is very welcome indeed, as is the consultation on single-use plastics, the ongoing work to clean up our coastal waters, and the responsibility that the Government have acknowledged to take a lead in making sure that we have responsible fishing at home and abroad. I want to speak about those last three matters briefly today.
Last month, I joined a beach clean at Burnham-on-Sea, and was struck by the incredible amount of plastic that had been washed up. There were bottles, earbuds, drinking straws, packaging—all sorts. The Government should be as concerned as I was about the amount of plastic that was there, but they should also take great heart and credit for the significant reduction in plastic bags that are being washed up on our beaches compared with three years ago, which is the direct result of the charge that they have made for bags in supermarkets. It just goes to show that if we can attach a value to plastics, we can change people’s behaviour.
We can encourage consumers and businesses to use different materials. Wetherspoons should be congratulated on using paper straws rather than plastic ones. Increasingly, the plastic buds that people use to clean their ears are being switched from blue plastic sticks to paper sticks. Things like that make a difference, and where we cannot lean on manufacturers to change packaging, we should look at a deposit return scheme, so that we attach a value to the plastics and drive down their usage.
The Government, the Prince of Wales, Sky News—with its excellent ocean rescue campaign—and, of course, the brilliant “Blue Planet II”, which we are all watching on Sunday evenings at the moment, have shown real leadership. We should all agree that single-use plastics are absolutely avoidable. The UK is already taking a lead in how they can be avoided, and we should be behind the Government in continuing that effort.
On fishing, Brexit is clearly a great challenge. We should beware the siren calls that may come from some in the fishing industry to eschew EU regulation and let the UK fishing industry be great again. I think that that is a false narrative. If we adopt the best practice from EU regulation into UK waters, we can support a thriving UK fishing industry, while making sure that marine life in and around the United Kingdom can also thrive.
We should also, of course, expect the very best practices from fisheries overseas. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) in supporting the On the Hook campaign. When they buy fish in our shops, consumers want to know that the blue tick on the tins or on the packaging for their fish is something they can rely on. The Marine Stewardship Council is responsible for the blue ticks and it has been deeply concerning to see evidence from On the Hook that that blue tick is being applied to fish products that were absolutely not caught in a sustainable way, particularly from the Parties of the Nauru Agreement fishery in the Pacific. One might question why on earth we should worry about that, but a lot of that fish ends up on shelves in UK supermarkets, and UK consumers have every right to expect that what they buy, if it has a blue tick on it from the Marine Stewardship Council, is legitimate and that that blue tick is justified so that they can purchase with confidence.
Finally, I want to raise with the Minister, as I have done with her predecessors, the bathing water quality of Burnham-on-Sea, which, it has been announced today, has fallen short of the standards we should expect. There is a good news story underneath that. There have been significant improvements in bathing water quality at Burnham-on-Sea over the past few years. Wessex Water is to be congratulated on the huge amount it has spent in improving the sewerage systems throughout the catchment, and we are seeing that reap dividends as the results have improved this year.
There is also improved behaviour from local residents, businesses and the council. There are better bins, so there are fewer seagulls, and we see good practice with dog walkers on the beach. All of that sort of thing is happening, which is great news. However, we still do not understand which farms within the enormous catchment are having the most impact on bathing water quality. I have been pushing Natural England and the Environment Agency to understand that for some time now. Some ministerial support might be useful in ensuring we do a full and accurate audit so that we understand exactly which farms contribute to the bathing water quality challenge and so that we can target the grants for improving farmyards and waste-water run-off in a way that directly affects bathing water in Burnham-on-Sea, rather than simply rewarding the farms and farmers who are best at applying for grants.
Our oceans are vital to the health of our planet. The levels, the temperature and the life of and in our seas are absolutely vital. The Government are doing some brilliant work. It is quite incredible when George Monbiot starts to write complimentary things about a Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment. The Government are to be congratulated on all they are doing. They have my full support. If we could get the bathing water in Burnham-on-Sea improved, I would be very grateful indeed.
I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this debate. As we have heard today, we do not own the, seas; we are simply caretakers of them. It is important that we bequeath a rich and healthy marine environment legacy to future generations, and do so to the best of our ability. Some progress has been made. The UK and Scottish Governments are working together, as we heard earlier, to deliver on a commitment to implement a ban on microbeads in personal care products to tackle the scourge of microbead pollution.
Marine protected areas have now been established in waters around the United Kingdom with the Scottish marine protected network covering around 20% of the seas around Scotland. Those protected areas are important since this means that any proposed development or use of such areas will have to take into account the need for recovery.
Scotland’s seas are a vast and rich natural resource. It is our sacred duty to keep them healthy and protected for current and future generations. Much of our coastline and surrounding seas are globally important habitats for many bird species, providing food, a place to rear young, and winter refuge. The future of our marine environment must be sustainable for our precious yet vulnerable marine habitat. The national marine plan in Scotland was adopted in March 2015 and provides a framework for consistent decision making that takes account of the marine environment. Work is now ongoing to implement marine planning on a regional scale.
Marine protected areas provide additional protection to important locations in our seas, and the network covers 20% of our marine area. The marine protected area monitoring strategy monitors and surveys some of Scotland’s most vulnerable marine habitats. It ensures that detailed information is collected from the marine protected area network to create a more accurate picture of the health of marine environments. In addition, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first ever marine litter strategy for Scotland, which details almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. Yet the challenges we face are ongoing.
The fish farming industry has admitted that it has to discard significant numbers of its stock because of disease. Some are now calling for a shift to a closed containment system that would protect the fish and the marine environment. The same demand has been made by the wild fish campaign group, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland. That seems at least worth examining. Fish and shellfish farming contribute £620 million to the Scottish economy every year, supporting more than 12,000 jobs. We have a duty to protect Scotland’s marine environment, and the health and welfare of farmed fish is of utmost importance to the industry. The Scottish Government are committed to working with the aquaculture sector to develop a strategic health framework that ensures we make progress in tackling major problems, including emerging disease. That is essential for the future and sustainability of our marine environment.
There is also concern about the need to protect vulnerable habitats from scallop dredging. Indeed, an investigation by the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage into claims that the vulnerable habitat in Loch Carron had been damaged by scallop dredging has confirmed that damage to the flame shell beds was consistent with the impact of scallop dredging. Subsequently, the endangered sea bed habitat of the north-west coast was designated as a marine protected area by the Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham MSP. The investigation found there was a viable prospect of recovery because part of the bed had survived and another bed had thankfully remained intact. It is right, as I mentioned in the House today, that such matters are investigated comprehensively and that all options are considered to militate against such an occurrence in the future, in the light of the damage and marine devastation it can cause.
However, the marine environment does not recognise borders or boundaries. It is essential that all Governments across the United Kingdom work together co-operatively to ensure that the health and sustainability of our waters and marine life are secured. Our marine environment is extremely important. We must be able to enjoy the benefits that the sea offers us, but we must also respect the need for sustainable use. We owe that to future generations.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) spoke of his love of the poet John Clare. He was a great poet whose poetry is uplifting to read, but he could at times verge on the pessimistic. He once said,
“I am the self-consumer of my woes.”
That is a particularly apposite quotation for this debate because we—humankind—are the self-consumer of the woes we have created in terms of our management of the seas. There is a massive lightbulb moment going on around the world. We are seeing at last, as the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Huddersfield pointed out, marine conservation on a global scale, which is something to applaud.
I was extremely pleased to see President Obama with John Kerry, his Secretary of State, at his side announcing a marine protected area around Hawaii. It was fantastic that they did that. By comparison, Britain announced an area the size of India, vastly larger than the United States marine protected area, but it was sort of put out as a press release on a Friday night when no one was looking, as though it was the love that dare not speak its name.
Blue Belt is an outstanding policy that we should all be hugely proud of. I am glad that senior members of the Government, including the Foreign Secretary, came to the launch of my pamphlet, “Blue Belt 2.0”, which shows that the Government have at last grasped the fact that they have in their hands something really extraordinary. We can create a gift to the world from our imperial past; a necklace of marine protected areas around our overseas territories—or the confetti of empire, as somebody once called them. We can be extraordinarily proud about that.
I do not have time to go into all the many recommendations in “Blue Belt 2.0”, but it suggests to the Government how they can take things further, and address issues affecting the South Sandwich Islands. Britain is responsible for a quarter of the world’s penguins. That is a bit of information to win a pub quiz with. There are problems with what we are doing in areas such as Ascension Island. Our ambitions must keep in parallel with the innovation we have seen with the Catapult system that monitors those overseas marine protected areas. Then we can really succeed in the delivery of a proper marine conservation.
More than that, as with President Obama, what we do can be more than an act of environmental responsibility; it can be an act of global leadership. We can start to re-engage, post-Brexit, in organisations such as regional fisheries management organisations, from which Britain has had to withdraw, because the EU—rather badly—takes part in them. I have the scars on my back from the International Whaling Commission. I had to sit in EU co-ordination meetings, where I found that Britain’s very pro-whale conservation measures were watered down so that there could be a single EU view. Now we can open our shoulders like a batsman at the crease, and start to make a difference to the delivery of marine conservation.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) about the On the Hook campaign. The Marine Stewardship Council is the only show in town in terms of accreditation of sustainable fisheries. It is a UK-registered, UK-based charity, so we are right to hold it to account. It has messed up, and there is a good chance that it could re-accredit an unsustainable fishery. That must stop, and I applaud colleagues who are taking part in the On the Hook campaign; we must continue to raise that.
There are many other areas where we can and should do more. The clean growth plan recently announced by the Government, with its real understanding of the need for a proper circular economy, addresses many of the issues that we have concerns about. It is vital to encourage industry to be innovative and to create markets that do not currently exist for recycled plastics in particular, but also for other manufactured products that end up in the oceans and the food chain, destroying the quality of the marine environment and our health. Government must nudge industry to deal with those things, and to get an understanding of what a circular economy is.
My final point is to ask, please, in the remaining months for which we are in the EU, that we hold it to account to make sure that pulse fishing is banned. It is a bottom trawling system using electrical pulses and is not at all selective. I applaud the Bloom Association and other NGOs that are campaigning hard on it.
I shall finish where I started, with John Clare. He said,
“I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down”.
He was saying that the natural world can influence our cultural and societal beliefs and values. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the oceans.
It is interesting to follow the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has always considered John Clare to be an early socialist; but we will return to that theme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield mentioned “Small is Beautiful”. I of course remember the publication of Schumacher’s book, but of course the ocean is also beautiful, and very large. The problem is that for decades we have believed it to be effectively infinite, but it is not and we have now reached its capacity, or perhaps beyond it. I applaud and agree with the steps taken by the Government to reduce plastic use, which is important; but there is in reality no one-nation solution. We are not unilateralists as far as the protection of the marine environment goes. Threats to the marine environment cannot be solved in one country, whether they are littering, plastic pollution, fertiliser run-off or bottom trawling. I agree with the right hon. Member for Newbury that pulse fishing should be banned, but the validity of any bottom trawling has to come under consideration, because of the damage it does. Acidification is another major issue. It is right, as one country, to extend the role of marine conservation areas. We must do considerably more on that, as I hope hon. Members present for the debate would agree; we must press on with real action. However, even those efforts will be undermined if we do not do something about the overall quality of the oceans.
I want to speak briefly about coral reefs. They represent only 0.25% of the ocean floor, but they house probably half of marine life. An astonishing amount of ocean life lives on coral reefs—not only the romantic warm sea corals, which people are aware of, but the cold sea corals. They are fundamental to life in the ocean, and probably they are important to life on the planet as a whole, because of the impact on the food chain. Preserving coral reefs is vital. Bottom trawling destroys soft and hard coral, but perhaps the biggest threat is acidification. Half the carbon dioxide in the world disappears into the seas. They are becoming not simply warmer but more acidic, and we do not know what the impact will be on sea creatures with calcium-based shells; but we must operate on the precautionary principle. The position is critical for oceans now. If we get things right, there is a really exciting possibility that, as well as protecting the shoreline, coral may have medical research potential, which could be unlocked for humans in the future. That would be a more rational exploitation of the sea than some of the things that have happened so far.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that we need a different international legal framework. The law of the sea is massively important, but we must transcend what it has done. It must be global and must have an impact on the things that are threatening not only marine life but probably life as we know it on the planet. The Government are well placed to take such international action—including within the EU, for the remaining time we are members of it. Who knows where we will end up, but internationalisation of the process must be fundamental, and I look to the Minister to say how the Government will approach the international agenda.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and all the Back-Bench speakers for their self-discipline in sticking to their timings. I am sure that after the Front-Bench speeches the Minister will allow the hon. Member who moved the motion time to make some concluding remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has secured a vital debate today on marine degradation and the threat to our seas. We have heard many good points about how marine environments and resources are being threatened, degraded or destroyed locally and internationally.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield made some excellent points about sustainable development and mentioned the sage advice of David Attenborough. I think we all thank goodness for that man, because the world actually listens to him. The hon. Gentleman made us aware of his longstanding association with social entrepreneurship; his concerns about plastic and microbeads are shared by all those in the Chamber, and his passion was not lost on us. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), in an intervention, made an important point about the Marine Stewardship Council tick—something that leads us all to assume that ethical, approved practices are in place. Real doubts are now emerging about whether the MSC awards the blue tick to questionable fishing areas.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a point about recycling, and about educating people from primary school children through to older people such as me, to think about what we do with our purchases, and how we dispose of them. His point was well made and much appreciated. International co-operation was also mentioned, and I will refer to that later in my speech. Again, the point was well made and much needed.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) shared his concerns about the future of his beautiful area, and expressed his views on the plastic throwaway culture. It is good that the Government are trying to help as much as they can, because we all share the same concerns. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) shared her knowledge and concerns about marine protected areas and the threat to the marine environment in her constituency. Her consistency on these matters throughout this Parliament has been well noted. The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) mentioned his awareness of the amount of plastic bags being washed up on our beaches, and through the tributaries and along the river networks that lead to them. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made excellent points about marine planning, of which she is a great champion. She described the positive steps that the Scottish Government were taking to address those problems, and said how valuable our seas were to us all.
The right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) made an interesting observation on the lightbulb moment throughout the world on MPAs in general. That was much appreciated, although I do not know the poet to whom he referred—perhaps I will try to research him a bit later. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) pointed out the need for global co-operation on action that needs to be taken, and I totally agree with him.
The principal threats are climate change, marine pollution, unsustainable resource extraction, and the physical degradation of marine and coastal habitats and landscapes. Such transnational problems can be solved only by international co-operation. Globally, humans are exerting multiple pressures on 41% of the marine area, and we harvest 40% of the ocean’s productivity. Some 30% of global fish stocks are recognised as being overfished, and the quantity of predatory fish has halved in 40 years. The world’s seas have already absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emissions for which humans have been responsible. Although that has been a valuable carbon sink, it has reduced the pH of the oceans from 8.2 to 8.1, with the possibility of a decline to 7.8 by 2100. That reduces the concentration of calcium and other minerals in sea water, threatening shellfish and coral species. Such acidification hinders the ability of marine ecosystems to absorb carbon, and it is thought to be one of the reasons why the marine absorption of carbon has slowed since the year 2000.
Melting sea ice has caused a global average rise in sea levels, and the rate by which it is rising is increasing. Local tidal variations and the effects of post-glacial rebound mean that rises are higher in the south of England than in Scotland—southern England is subsiding by about 1 mm to 2 mm per year; Scotland is rising by a similar amount. A 50 cm rise in relative sea level would endanger 200 km of England’s coastal flood defences. That represents 20% of the total length of those defences, and their destruction would nearly triple the number of properties at high risk from coastal flooding—a very concerning and worrying trend for those communities.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, Scotland has a massive fish farming industry, which we recognise is not without its problems. The salmon industry in Scotland, Norway, Canada and elsewhere is under investigation for its impact on wild fish and marine ecosystems. I am sure that the House will welcome the inquiry into the environmental impact of fish farming that will be carried out by the Scottish Government early next year—they have not shied away from their responsibilities.
It has been estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic enter Europe’s oceans every year, which represents an extraordinary and insidious threat to the health of our seas. In light of the findings of an inquiry into microplastic pollution, which was carried out by the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, I ask whether the “renewed strategy” on waste and resources that was promised by the Secretary of State will include effective measures to tackle the origin of most marine litter, which is litter on land. We should work with and follow the Scottish Government in establishing a strategy to tackle marine litter, and support efforts to reduce the escape of pre-production plastic pellets—I have here some nurdles. We should praise the efforts of the charity Fidra, which is raising awareness of this awful problem in Scotland, and hopefully we can ensure that the upcoming ban on microbeads extends to all consumer products.
I had a lot to say about the Chagos islands and various other things, but I shall now conclude my remarks because of time. As a wealthy maritime country, the UK has more opportunity than most to show leadership in the fight to safeguard the future of our oceans. However, as we have heard, there is a long way to go before that is achieved in reality as well as on paper. Today we welcome this debate, and we hope that the Government will now deliver the political will to follow through on what we have discussed and debated today.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) who, as he said, has long been a passionate champion of these issues. I thank him for the detailed and passionate speech that he gave to kick off this debate today.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is nothing particularly new about some of these issues, but there is real urgency about where we are today. This debate is timely because latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggest that the amount of litter in our seas has increased, and research this week indicates that carbon dioxide emissions are set to increase by 2% by the end of this year. In addition, many of us will have seen recent images of the sea covered in plastic waste. With that in mind, it is thoroughly welcome that there is renewed public awareness of the issue, largely as a result of David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet II”, which is watched by more than 10 million people. I am sure that hon. Members, and anyone who has seen the programme, will agree that it is a visually stunning showcase of all that is important in our marine environment. It gives us a sense of why that environment is so precious and how important it is to protect it.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) represents a particularly beautiful coastal community, and he shared some examples of best practice from his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has an outstanding track record of campaigning on these issues. I join the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) in welcoming the charge on plastic bags, which he rightly suggests has shaped consumer behaviour and attitudes. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) highlighted, very much from a Scottish perspective, the importance of addressing marine and coastal litter, and the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) enlightened us with some poetry, and also gave us some hope about all there is to look forward to—there is more that we can do on these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) stressed that no one-nation solution is available, and that we must consider all ways we can work internationally to address this issue. I am pleased to see the Minister here today, and I am hopeful that she can provide a positive response to some of the issues raised in the debate.
Our seas and oceans face a changing climate, and a long-term, strategic approach will be essential. Research this week suggests that, disappointingly, global carbon dioxide emissions appear to be increasing once again, after a three-year stable period. Our oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with knock-on effects such as inadequate shell growth in marine animals, and a variety of risks to coral reef ecosystems. Temperature rises are already having an impact on marine life around the UK. For example, reports suggest that squid, anchovies and bluefin tuna are being drawn into our waters by the warmer temperatures, while other species are being driven north or deeper as the seas warm.
Earlier in the year, I visited the US, and Congressmen and women who represent districts on the west coast told me about the impact that the so-called “warm blob” has had on their fishing communities. This mass of unusually warm water in the north Pacific ocean was first detected in 2013. It is nutrient poor and has had a detrimental impact on marine life in the area. Although a significant distance from our shores, it is a stark reminder of the fragility of our oceans. According to UN figures, 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal resources for their livelihood.
As already mentioned, the public are more aware of plastics in our oceans than ever before. That has generated a real appetite to do more to reduce all pollutants, such as heavy metals, oil, radioactive materials and plastics, including microbeads. We welcomed the recent announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment that he supports a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, yet there is still much more that could be done to tackle the problem of single-use plastics.
Non-recyclable disposable plastic waste, such as straws and takeaway coffee cups, generally ends up in one of three places: incinerated, in landfill or littering our natural environment. How can we ensure that consumers and businesses share the responsibility of limiting our use of such items? My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield already mentioned the campaign, and I am grateful to him for his kind words: in September, I wrote to the top 20 bar and restaurant chains in the country, urging them to adopt a “straws on request only” policy, and asking them to stock only biodegradable straws. Plastic straws are designed for a single use, lasting for a matter of minutes, yet once thrown away, they will litter our planet for centuries. They have become ever-present in our bars, pubs and restaurants. It is not unusual to order a drink that comes with one or two straws, whether we have asked for them or not.
Millions of people have viewed the difficult-to-watch video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril. The straw had to be removed, causing a great deal of distress to the animal. That is at the extreme end of the impact of the estimated 500 million straws that are thrown away every single day. I am pleased to say that there has been a very positive response so far to my request, with a number of major chains, which operate thousands of outlets, committing to join the movement. I anticipate that another of our biggest chains will be making an announcement on that soon, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of straws from finding their way into our oceans.
I would be grateful if the Minister, in summing up, would take the opportunity to update hon. Members on the microbead ban, to assure us that there will be no loopholes and that the legislation will be tight enough to deliver the ban as intended, setting the standard and removing unwanted microplastics from our waters.
One of the proudest achievements of the previous Labour Government was the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which created a system for improving the management and protection of our precious marine environments and coastal ecosystems. The Act allows the Government to designate marine conservation zones in our territorial waters to prevent further deterioration in marine biodiversity, while promoting recovery and supporting healthy ecosystems. The intention was, and remains, to achieve a coherent network of well-managed marine protection areas. We very much hope that the Government deliver that as they begin the consultation on the third round of marine conservation zones in English waters next year.
Labour remains committed to building on our proud record on conservation, and I am sure that the Minister would be disappointed if I did not at least touch on one or two causes for concern under the current Government—not least, the fact that the “polluter pays” and the precautionary principles are currently missing from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I urge the Government to think again and adopt the amendments that have been tabled to correct that omission.
The reality is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has suffered the largest cuts of any Government Department. The Minister will be well aware of the impact that has had on staffing levels at a time when expertise is so essential as we leave the EU. To deliver our aspirations for a healthy and pollutant-free marine environment, we must have the resources and the know-how to plan, deliver and manage environmental protections effectively. The Secretary of State is the man who once claimed that the people had had enough of experts; that cannot be a healthy attitude in a Department that relies heavily on science, evidence and research to determine how best to protect our climate and our seas.
On the wider issue of the Government’s strategy for environmental protection, I imagine that many Members are keen to find out if the Minister can shed any further light on when we might see the Government’s 25-year plan for the environment. Ministers initially signalled that it would be released last summer, and although I appreciate being invited to a discussion about the plan several weeks ago by the Minister, I am concerned that after a series of delays, we are still no nearer to understanding what the plan will mean for the marine environment, or the environment more broadly. Environmental groups have grown impatient, with Greenpeace urging the Secretary of State to get on with publishing the plan. The Green Alliance has said there is now an urgent need for it. I urge the Minister to reflect on the need for as much certainty as possible as we leave the EU. I hope that she can provide us with a date for the publication today, or, at the very least, an update on its progress.
Although some of the Government’s work in this area is certainly welcomed, I think we would all like to see efforts going much further. I have high hopes for our post-Brexit fisheries policy, but only with healthy, thriving and protected marine environments will we be setting the foundations for a science-led, sustainable fisheries policy. With fewer people at DEFRA than ever before, and the stalling of progress on both the 25-year plan and the Brexit negotiations, I am looking to the Minister to allay our fears, commit to fighting for our stunning marine environment, and take the boldest possible steps to combat the pollution of our precious seas and oceans.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen. As I represent a coastal constituency, I can assure hon. Members that the marine environment is very important to me.
Dare I say, when I first saw the title of today’s debate, I was slightly surprised: the UK’s historic role in the matter would perhaps have been more appropriate. I hope to inform the House today—I thank Members for what has already been said about the progress that has been made—about the leadership role we have taken in enhancing the marine environment around our coastline, in the north-east Atlantic and throughout the world, especially through our overseas territories. The United Kingdom has an excellent track record on protecting the marine environment and we will certainly continue to do so after leaving the EU. We will continue to honour our international obligations and note the importance of UN sustainability goal 14 in that respect. That is why we will continue to pursue local and global alliances to protect our rivers, seas and oceans.
We all know that there are increasing global pressures on our marine environment. That is true in terms of managing the different uses of the sea, whether that is fishing and aquaculture, maritime, energy or other uses of the seabed. In the United Kingdom, we have a comprehensive set of measures in place to ensure that we protect and enhance our marine environment and ensure that it is managed sustainably.
The UK’s marine strategy—our current maritime plan—sets out our overall approach to managing the marine environment around our seas. We have nearly 300 marine protected areas and, by 2020, we will deliver an MPA network that will cover 25% of the United Kingdom’s exclusive economic zone. We are on track to provide 4 million sq km of protected ocean across our overseas territories by 2020. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said, together that provides a substantial blue belt for our seas and oceans. We will continue to work globally on marine protection and are committed to establishing a new UN agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of the marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, which will deliver MPAs across the world’s oceans.
We are also making our fisheries sustainable. We have a well-developed approach of evaluating stocks alongside ways to monitor how practices are impacting the marine environment. That is successful. The United Kingdom continues to make significant progress in achieving maximum sustainable yield, with 29 stocks that are of UK interest in line with that standard in 2017, compared with 25 last year. The actions that we are taking are working, and the 2016 “State of Nature” report showed that the change in abundance of marine species overall has increased by 37% since 1970. But we do not hide away from the challenges of what is affecting the marine environment, including marine pollution. We know that we all need to work together to stop that pollution at source, in transit and at its landing point.
There are various sources of plastic entering our seas and oceans and, unfortunately, a lot of that is due to human behaviour. It is estimated that 80% of the plastic in the ocean comes from land. Active pursuit of our litter strategy, which the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) mentioned, will help to address that. We want to continue to recycle more of our plastics at home and in the business environment. As has also been pointed out, the 5p plastic bag charge has cut the use of plastic bags by more than 80%, or 9 billion, in just over one year. All four nations have that levy.
Our microbead ban will be one of the toughest in the world. We are using the information gathered from the consultation on the use of plastic microbeads to identify what further action is needed to address marine plastic pollution. In terms of an update, we had to notify both the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission because of a potential single market restriction. We have had clearance from that perspective and are now finishing our final bits of regulatory process in preparation for laying the appropriate legislation before the House. We have taken evidence in our consultation and are making sure that it will be the toughest ban in the world.
We have a call for evidence on reward and return schemes for plastic bottles, but I should point out to the House that, although bottles and caps are often found on our beaches, we still need to tackle other issues of litter, such as wrappers, fishing gear and other plastics. We have also signed up to Operation Clean Sweep, which focuses on eliminating plastic pellets—or nurdles, as the hon. Member for Falkirk said—from the environment. We have ring-fenced 10% of our litter innovation fund for the marine environment, but it is clear that, despite those efforts, we cannot prevent all litter from reaching the sea, although we will try. It does not sit still; this is a transboundary issue. As hon. Members said, we literally see waves of plastic circulating around the seas.
Managing the marine environment is a global issue. The United Nations sustainable development goals set the global targets for the sustainable use of the marine environment. The Government will use the forthcoming Commonwealth summit to further co-operation to deliver those global goals. In June, the UK joined the UN Clean Seas campaign, which aims to connect individuals, civil society groups, industry and Governments to transform habits, practices, standards and policies. The G7 adopted its marine litter plan in 2015, and we continue to work on that. More recently, we joined the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative—an alliance of the fishing industry, where non-governmental organisations and Government agencies work together to solve the problem of lost and abandoned “ghost” fishing gear, which can trap sea life.
We continue to work with the International Maritime Organisation. One of its conventions, MARPOL, is one of the most important international maritime and environmental conventions. It seeks to eliminate pollution by oil and other harmful substances completely and minimise the accidental spillage of such substances from sea vessels. MARPOL is regularly updated and forms part of UK law.
Thinking further afield, we are providing £10 million to support key marine initiatives abroad. We have allocated £4.8 million to drive forward the creation of the blue belt across the overseas territories, and £5.2 million to marine projects in the two most recent rounds of the Darwin Initiative and Darwin Plus grant schemes, which help to protect coral reefs and increase coastal communities’ resilience to climate change. However, as I said earlier, there is more we can do, which is why the UK Government are committed to the UK agreement on protecting more parts of the world’s oceans.
The risk of global CO2 emissions is a greater threat. As hon. Members highlighted, there has unfortunately been a change in the output of China and India. To tackle that issue, we need to work together globally. We need to save ocean life and the very planet we all inhabit.
The oceans are key to generating oxygen and are directly responsible for every other breath we take. Climate change is having a direct impact through ocean acidification, which threatens the very basis of the marine foodweb itself. As has been pointed out, corals vital to biodiversity, fisheries and tourism are threatened by the twin threats of acidification of the seas and the continuing rise in water temperature. That is why this Saturday, in Bonn at COP23 on the United Nations framework convention on climate change, I signed the “Because the Ocean” declaration on behalf of the UK, which links us directly to the Paris agreement. In the UK, we brought scientists, Governments, their agencies and NGOs into the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership, which has just published a study entitled “Marine Climate Change Impacts: 10 years’ experience of science to policy reporting”.
Earlier this year, we published a synopsis of our UK ocean acidification research programme. Based on current projections, cold water corals will be 20% to 30% weaker, causing reef disintegration and losing the rich biodiversity that they support. Such linkages have been further developed by the UK’s active engagement internationally on ocean monitoring and observing.
We have world-class marine science in the UK at several universities and research facilities, including Government bodies such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. We intend to work internationally to address the challenging scientific questions that remain, and we will continue to invest.
I was delighted that the National Oceanography Centre has just been awarded £19 million from the industrial strategy challenge fund, which will help it to develop autonomous underwater vehicles with sensors measuring nutrients and seawater carbonate chemistry, again extending our knowledge in that area.
I am sure the House recognises the amount of work that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) has done through his all-party group. He wanted me to mention combined sewer overflows, which prevent sewage from backing up into homes and businesses. I assure him that we are working with South West Water and local councils in Cornwall to help to prevent discharges from combined sewers at times of heavy rainfall by reducing the amount of water entering the sewage system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) referred to the issues affecting Burnham-on-Sea. I am happy to talk to him further about that matter to see what we can do to work with local farmers to reduce the amount of run-off. He is right to point out that there are many readily available alternatives to plastics, including cotton buds and a deposit-return scheme. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked about reducing the number of straws in circulation. I agree—straws suck. We need to work together wherever we can.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) asked a series of questions. The Government of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands produced a 2012 plan for a marine protected area, which is working. They are undertaking their first review of it. Working with the Satellite Applications Catapult and OceanMind, we are using technology to ensure that monitoring and enforcement are more effective than ever before, but I am aware of the wider calls for that.
On the Antarctic, the Government are absolutely committed to working with other nations. In 2009, the UK proposed the South Orkneys marine protected area, and it was accepted. Last year, the Ross sea MPA was finally created—it is about the size of the UK and France put together. We continue to support further MPA proposals. On the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, I am aware of the draft resolution, and we are actively engaged on that matter.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury was right to highlight the blue belt, which we want to continue to make effective. I will raise his concern about pulse fishing with the Minister with responsibility for fisheries.
I hope I have addressed the issues that have been raised. I assure the hon. Members for Falkirk and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) that we will continue to work with the Scottish Government, but they will take their own action to tackle the issues that have been raised.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does listen to experts. That is what he did when he listened to the Expert Committee on Pesticides and voted for further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, which I am sure have been welcomed across the House. The 25-year environment plan is still being formed, but as I pointed out, the UK marine strategy, which has been widely welcomed, is already in place. The principles to which the hon. Member for Halifax referred are very important. They were originally set out in the Rio declaration, and we will continue to put them into effect in our environmental legislation.
I hope I have been able to address most of the other points that were raised. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) was right to talk about recycling. I encourage Kirklees Council to get its recycling rate up from 28.5%. I know he will lead by example.
I commend hon. Members’ concern for the marine environment. It seems that we are all avid watchers of “Blue Planet II”. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are not complacent about this issue, which is why we are taking a proactive leadership role. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate to the House exactly what leadership actions we have taken.
This has been a cross-party debate; it has not been too political. It has certainly been stimulating. I just want to remind colleagues that this is about what we do as Members of Parliament. We often think about the next election, whether we are going to hold our seats, whether we are going to form a Government and all that. We are discussing in the main Chamber today the future of our country in Europe and the Brexit question. Even in this debate, we have to think about that sacred trust we have for our constituents—the sacred trust to keep this planet in a decent condition for the sake of our constituents and the ensuing generations.
This debate is not just about the Minister, who made a good speech. It is also about this House and Members of Parliament taking their responsibilities seriously. I would like to see a cross-party commission on the future of the marine environment in the House so that we can take evidence and do some work cross-party on this issue.
I am very worried about the fact that, at this very moment, many nations are looking inward, being nationalistic and do not want to collaborate with other countries. That is very damaging, given the environmental challenges and the issues relating to the maritime environment.
I believe that we must take this message to our constituents—the citizens of this country. They are consumers. They have children and they want to preserve this planet for future generations. We must energise those people. It is our sacred duty as Members of Parliament to do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK’s role in the degradation of the marine environment.