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Sustainable Seas

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 17 January 2019

Environmental Audit Committee

Select Committee Statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Mary Creagh will speak on her subject for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Mary Creagh to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in the questioning, and I am sure they will indicate if they wish to do so. I call the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh.

I begin by thanking the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to present the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on sustainable seas. I have a copy of it here, and it is our 14th report to this Parliament. We launched our inquiry last April, examining how our oceans can be protected from climate change, overfishing, resource extraction and pollution, and what more the Government should do. Human activities in both coastal and open waters have dramatically increased in recent years. The UN estimates that up to 40% of the world’s oceans are impacted by humans, with dire consequences, including pollution, depleted fisheries and the loss of coastal habitats. We have treated the seas as a sewer—literally—and that has to stop.

Plastic makes up 70% of all the litter in the ocean, with most of it coming from land, being transported by rivers and draining into the sea. If no action is taken to reduce plastic pollution, it will treble in the next 10 years. The amazing “Blue Planet II” programme showed us the consequences: a turtle tangled in a plastic sack; and the death of a newborn whale calf from causes unknown. Plastic litter and chemical pollution are everywhere in the ocean. These plastics are eaten by seabirds and they suffocate coral reefs; they break down into microplastics, which are eaten by sea life, which we then eat, potentially transporting chemicals into our human food chain. The long-term harm from plastic and chemical pollution is unknown because, as the Government’s chief scientific officer told us, we have not looked hard enough.

There is so much more that the Government should do to prevent our waste from reaching the ocean. We could start by not exporting our waste to countries with poor recycling infrastructure. Supporting Indonesia and Malaysia to reduce their plastic while simultaneously exporting the UK’s contaminated plastics to them shows the Government’s lack of a joined-up approach to reducing plastic pollution. The Government published their resources and waste strategy in December. It places much more onus on producers to pay for the cost of clearing up and treating waste, as was recommended in the Environmental Audit Committee’s reports on plastic bottles and coffee cups last year. But we cannot wait until 2042 to phase out avoidable single-use plastics, and the plastic bottle deposit return scheme, which was promised by Ministers in 2017, will not be ready until 2023.

The Government have signed up to the 14th sustainable development goal target to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds by 2025. So here is our plan. We want to see the Government ban single-use plastic packaging that is difficult to recycle; introduce a 25p latte levy on disposable coffee cups, with all coffee cups to be recycled by 2023; and bring forward their deposit return scheme and extended producer responsibility schemes before the end of this Parliament. The Government must also set out how they will create and fund the UK’s domestic recycling industry to end the export of contaminated waste to developing countries.

Climate change is causing a triple whammy of harm from ocean acidification, ocean warming and deoxygenation. This harms the entire food web and disrupts our weather systems. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed us that a 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels will significantly harm biodiversity and fish stocks, and will destroy nearly all the coral reefs in the world. If we can keep the temperature rise to 1.5°, we will still lose 90% of coral reefs. Until we did this inquiry, I did not know that the UK has a cold-water reef in the south of England.

That is why we have to redouble our actions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and meet the Paris agreement on climate change. The Government must set out their plans to achieve that in the first half of this year and set a net-zero emissions target by 2050 at the very latest. Species affected by climate change include krill and plankton; if they are removed from the marine food chain, that could lead to a one-third collapse in the populations of predators such as polar bears, walruses, seals, sea lions, penguins and sea birds.

Britain’s overseas territories and their waters cover an area nearly 30 times the size of the UK, and nearly 90% of the UK’s biodiversity is located in their waters. They have the most unique and biodiverse areas on the planet, and we have a huge responsibility to protect them. We welcome the Government’s December announcement on the creation of a marine protected area for the South Sandwich Islands. We have also discussed with the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who is in the Chamber, how the exploitation of minerals from the deep sea could begin in the next decade. The prime sites are around the deep sea hydrothermal vents, but those habitats are unexplored and unique. We heard from scientists that in a very small-scale study they found six hitherto unknown species. This is the great last wilderness left on earth; in fact, it may be where life on earth first began. Mining those sites could have catastrophic impacts—from local extinctions of as yet unmapped ecosystems and species, to the production of sediment plumes, which can travel long distances through the water column, smothering seabed organisms. Our report urges the Government not to pursue licences at active hydrothermal vents in their own jurisdiction and internationally, and to use their experience in regulating marine industries and their influence on the International Seabed Authority to impose a moratorium on exploitation licences in those areas.

We heard how so much of the sea—58% of it—is outside national jurisdictions, has little or no protection and is suffering from the tragedy of the commons: everyone goes there to graze their sheep, but there is nothing left at the end. Everyone goes there to take their piece, but no one is protecting it. We must lead international negotiations. The Government have signed up to the UN’s ambition to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, but that will work only if our Government, alongside other nations, fund the satellite monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for those areas that we want to protect.

The UN is currently negotiating a high seas treaty. We call on the Government to seize this chance and push for a Paris agreement of the seas. Like the climate change agreement, it would contain legally binding targets and regular conferences of the parties to hold Governments to account, and designate marine protected areas and the funding needed to achieve them. We look forward to the publication of the Government’s international ocean strategy later this year. I hope it will include and build on our Committee’s cross-party ambitions.

We are an island nation. We care passionately about our seas and oceans. I commend the report to the House, and commend my Committee colleagues for such an excellent report.

I commend the hon. Lady for her statement, and her Committee for its superb report. I hope that other Select Committees will follow her example and make statements directly to the House. Page 48 of the report recommends a 25p coffee cup levy and that all coffee cups should be recycled by 2023. All our constituents can readily identify with that issue. It does not strike me that recycling coffee cups need be that problematic, so why do we need to wait four years for them to be recycled?

That is an excellent question. The Government’s resources and waste strategy states that they want the industry to work towards voluntary commitments and that they will introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, but that they are ruling out the latte levy, which we think would influence a very important behaviour change. We need to change the way in which we consume the planet’s resources and bend the curve of our plastic use. In the time between us writing our coffee cup report and last December, despite all the warm words from the coffee cup industry and all the available discounts, the number of coffee cups used went up by 500 million. The target increases every year as more people buy and drink coffee. Industry efforts are not working. The product is difficult to deal with because it has a plastic lining and a paper outer part, and it needs specialist collection and specialist disposal. Some companies are working heroically in trying to tackle the issue, but even if we get to 30 million or 100 million, there are still 3 billion coffee cups in circulation every year.

I agree passionately with the hon. Gentleman that it should not take another four years. The Government need to regulate, but I am afraid that they are reluctant to do so. It is interesting how far ahead of policy the nation and consumers are, and I hope that Ministers are listening.

This is another excellent report by the Environmental Audit Committee and I am very proud to have been a part it. The underlying principle that such reports should always follow is that the planet’s resources are precious and should be preserved, not plundered, whether they be fish or rare minerals that could be found in hydrothermal vents. That should underpin everything we do. Does the Committee Chair share my concern that while the Government are treading water, the race for deep sea mining and the rise of other environmentally damaging economic activities in the seas are going ahead untrammelled, and that there is a risk that if we do not act quickly, we will not be able to put the genie back in the bottle?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is a fantastic member of the Committee and a real thought leader in many of the areas under discussion. As she said in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, she has been talking about the food system—“banging on” is how she put it, I think—and following the persistence principle for many years.

My hon. Friend is right about the race for deep sea mining. We are in a new wild west of exploration. The irony is that we are prepared to plunder and churn up the last great, unexplored wilderness—the equivalent of Yosemite national park and other brilliant places that people travel the world to see, such as our own Lake and Peak districts—so that we can have more “smart” phones. Those rare earth minerals are used in our smartphones and in some of our industrial applications. If we were better at recycling the rare earth elements in the 7 billion mobile phones, or however many there are, on the planet—I think there is at least one for every man, woman and child—we would not have to do that. A positive side-effect of the exploration is that we are finding out more about these unexplored areas, but the question is: what happens when we know they are there, and what will we discover? That is a problem.

I thank the hon. Lady for chairing the Committee and for her brilliant precis of a brilliant report. Needless to say, as a member of the Committee I fully endorse all its recommendations and am very proud of it.

I hope the hon. Lady will allow me to highlight two of the recommendations. The Government’s blue belt policy is probably our single biggest opportunity to protect a very large portion of the world’s oceans. The report rightly urges the Foreign Office to back full protection of the waters around Ascension Island. It is worth saying that the Ascension Island Council, as well as DEFRA, has made very promising noises, but the blockage seems to be the Foreign Office. The first recommendation, therefore, is for the Foreign Office to get going, agree with the Ascension Island Council and DEFRA, and provide maximum protection at minimum cost to an incredibly important part of the world.

The second recommendation is to build on the recent announcement of increased no-take areas around the South Sandwich Islands, to provide full protection for those extraordinary and pristine waters, much of which featured in the “Blue Planet” series. That view is backed by an almost unprecedented alliance of scientists, experts and non-governmental organisations. The solution will cost very little, if anything, in public money, but it will deliver huge results for nature, so will the Foreign Office get on with that as well?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who was instrumental in getting consensus around the recommendations to the Foreign Office. Ascension Island could benefit from a huge boost from tourism if it was designated. He is right that the Antarctic krill fishing industry is very heavily regulated, but, again, it is in danger of over-exploitation in order to feed our insatiable demand for farmed fish, including salmon. Increasing the no-take areas and protecting them properly is really, really important.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and her Committee on a very good report. I was struck recently by the Simon Reeve series on the Mediterranean, which highlighted, in particular, the vast areas of plastic greenhouses around Almería in south Spain, where they produce enormous quantities of vegetables and fruit for European supermarkets, including those in this country. I have written to all the supermarkets in this country, but I am not convinced that proper measures are in place to guarantee that the supply chains are meeting high environmental and labour standards. Those chains make use of migrant labour from Africa and have awful working conditions. Does she share my view that the supermarkets have a real responsibility here?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I share his concern about the plastics that come off the greenhouses where our tomatoes and cucumbers are grown, which are discarded and then literally chucked into the sea. We treat the sea as a waste disposal unit, and it is not. There is more that supermarkets can do in tackling the full carbon footprint of the fruits and vegetables that they import and making sure that they stamp out any abuse and any forced and slave labour in their fruit and picking supply chains. We know that that they is an area where forced labour and child labour are prevalent.

I commend the hon. Lady and her Committee for this excellent report. May I also mention the excellent work that is done by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in my constituency to both identify the problems and come up with solutions? Based on its work, the UK can be a global pioneer in the sustainable stewardship of our seas?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a former and much esteemed member of our Committee, for that question. I saw the CEFAS ship on a visit to his constituency when I was shadowing the DEFRA brief. He is right that we have world-leading marine biologists and marine scientists. The world looks to the UK for our brilliance and thought leadership on the subject. One criticism that we have of Government is that they have stopped funding our long time series around ocean certification measurements. One key recommendation is that we need to measure the acidity of the ocean. We know what it was going back decades, but we need to have more monitoring sites around the UK, so I hope that he will help us in pushing the Government on that task.

I thank the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee for her leadership on this report, which built on our report on plastics. Does she agree that Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials did a great job in trying to make the Weddell sea a marine protected area, but that they need to redouble their efforts with the Chinese, Russian and Norwegian Governments? However, our work on plastics is well behind. We do not have a compulsory deposit return scheme guaranteed, and the target for eliminating single-use plastic is not until 2042. We need to have both those things in place much quicker.

Again, I appreciate the input of my hon. Friend and neighbour into the Committee and this report. He is right: we need to speed up our ambition. The scientists have warned us that we have 12 years to tackle climate change. It is no good putting targets in place for 2042—that is far too little, far too late. We heard about some of the interesting foreign policy discussions that are going on around Antarctica, particularly some of the negotiations with the Norwegians and the Russians. Clearly a lot of politics is involved in the oceans, and we have to be mindful of that.

May I also add my thanks to the Chair, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), and the Committee for bringing this report forward? You were very clear that these must be quick questions, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will be succinct.

I live on the edge of Strangford lough in my constituency. Ards and North Down Borough Council has managed to get a grant to carry out an environmental project at the mouth of the narrows of Strangford lough, where the ebb and flow of the tide is, to harvest the litter and plastic that flow through there. That might be a small project in the bigger picture of what we are talking about today, but small projects collectively make an immense difference in the long run. What assistance is there for councils across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to involve themselves in projects that, singularly, do not do a terrible lot, but collectively make a big difference? Can the hon. Lady tell me whether grants are available?

That sounds like an absolutely brilliant initiative from Ards and North Down Borough Council. I think that the hon. Gentleman also has an oyster fishery in Strangford lough, the produce of which I have enjoyed on several occasions. I am not aware of what funding is available, but I am sure that officials will write to him on that issue.

I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate her Committee on its excellent and challenging report. It is likely that much of the plastic entering the oceans has been collected supposedly for recycling. Does she agree that, at the very least, this country needs to institute comprehensive and rigorous checks of all recyclable materials exported for processing? We need to put our own house in order as well as demanding an international agreement to protect our seas from the dumping of supposedly recycled material.

My hon. Friend the shadow Minister is absolutely right. We do have to put our own house in order. We know that most of the plastics enter the ocean from, I think, five rivers in Africa and Asia. There is no point in our carrying out heroic clean-up work here at home if we are then going to export the material to far-away countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand that do not have the right infrastructure in place and whose own populations are now rebelling against being consumed in a mountain of our contaminated plastics. We need to do more, and there is much more that we can do. The Government can start by carrying out better enforcement. There are some great waste exporters, but there are also some criminals in the waste sector. The Environment Agency carried out just three unannounced inspections in 2017. That is not enough. When we sent in the National Audit Office, it found that the audit systems and processes for waste export did not tally, so someone somewhere is playing the system, and we need to crack down on it here at home.

I do have a question, but, with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to genuinely thank the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and her Committee for once again producing what I really feel is an excellent piece of work. She has heard me speak before about the work that this Committee does in looking across Government and across boundaries. We saw it with the “Greening Finance” report, which had some superb recommendations around understanding risk from a regulatory perspective, particularly for pension regulators, and she will know that the Government have responded to that. I genuinely thank her and her Committee for their work. It is an extremely high-quality Committee, with some very talented and able colleagues and very good Committee staff.

It is ironic, is it not, that this House is almost empty, but that it was packed when we were debating the next three years in Europe? There are very few of us here today to understand what is happening to 70% of our planet. This report joins up the challenge of climate and environmental sustainability across land, sea, air, and, of course, the very important littoral zones. That is what we need to do and are doing, and this is a superb report.

The Government, of course, are listening. The hon. Lady will know that she has made a number of recommendations that are relevant to my Department, as well as to the Foreign Office and DEFRA. I am off after this to have a meeting with one of the DEFRA Ministers. The hon. Lady knows, I think, that she is pushing at an open door with this Government, and we will continue to do whatever we can to support these recommendations.

Finally, I do have a question for the hon. Lady. So much of what she says is relevant to both our overseas territories and our Commonwealth partners, which, in many cases, are small island states facing down a barrel of disruption—literally—from climate change and ocean pollution. Has she communicated the findings of this report to those countries and organisations? If not, how can we as a Government facilitate her in doing so?

I thank the Minister for her kind words and for her many appearances before our Committee, giving evidence on a variety of different subjects. I have also been neglectful in not thanking our brilliant Committee staff, who have worked so hard on the various Committee reports that we have produced, and on this one in particular.

The Minister is right; here we are in an almost empty Chamber, with people at home saying “Why is nobody talking about this?” Obviously Brexit it taking up so much time because it is urgent, but this is also urgent and important. We debated whether or not to launch the report on this date, but we decided that we needed to talk about the other important stuff as well as Brexit.

The Minister is also right that our Commonwealth territories are on the frontline of illegal activities, including illegal fishing, which is depleting their domestic, more sustainable fishing practices. They are at all sorts of risk, not least from the changes in weather systems that come from ocean warming, which made the hurricanes that sadly hit them last September much more powerful, slow-moving and damaging.

We have not communicated this report to anyone in the overseas territories, although the Committee has met representatives of some countries, including parliamentarians from Belize in October. Perhaps I could meet the Minister at the back of the Chair to discuss how we can get the report out to a much wider audience in the Commonwealth and overseas territories.