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Offshore Wind Farms: Unexploded Ordnance

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debate in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the disposal of unexploded ordnance for offshore windfarm construction.

I express my appreciation to the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for supporting my application for the debate. All of us welcome the extraordinary potential of our wind and wave power. As we seek to meet our climate obligations, we have a God-given asset off our shores. I think it was the Prime Minister who called Scotland the Saudi Arabia of renewables.

To the casual observer, the bonanza ahead may seem low-cost and environmentally unimpeachable. If only that were so. Alas, the 20th century’s brutal European conflicts littered our once pristine seabed with a legacy: 100,000 unexploded 20th-century bombs—a monstrous monument to brutality,

“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men”,

as Herman Melville tells us in “Moby-Dick”.

The great offshore wind turbines are anchored to the seabed, and the bombs—an estimated 100,000 of them—pose a mortal danger. What should we do with them? How do we make safe these aquatic minefields? Hitherto, we have got rid of these munitions in the crudest way possible, by blowing them up, using high-order disposal, as it is called, with a counter-explosive detonating the munition so that it can be safely moved—safe for humans, perhaps, but devastating for marine life. Due to the greater penetration of sound underwater, the explosion aftershock can travel up to 25 km. To give an idea of scale, that is roughly half the distance of the channel tunnel. Imagine the noise.

These explosions will kill any sea life nearby. If they do not die instantly, the pressure wave causes traumatic harm, such as lesions, haemorrhages and decompression sickness. Marine biologists tell us that, even if they survive the initial blasts, these can deafen aquatic mammals such as whales, porpoises and dolphins. Without hearing, they cannot communicate or navigate, leading to mass stranding. One recent example of mass stranding occurred when 39 long-finned pilot whales were stuck in the Kyle of Durness. A UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report concluded that the only external event with the potential to cause such a mass stranding was a munitions disposal operation. Nineteen of the stranded whales died. Last year, autopsies showed that scores of porpoises were deafened as a result of explosions used to clear second world war German mines in the Baltic sea. All died subsequently.

Do we have to choose between green power and mammal safety? Fortunately not. A new method of munitions disposals is available. I have seen it work. It is known as low-order deflagration, and it is a breakthrough. The technique was invented in the early 2000s and is used by the US military and 15 other countries’ navies worldwide, including our own Royal Navy, which has used it since 2005. The National Physical Laboratory has said that the new method

“shows considerable promise for noise abatement”

in bomb disposal.

In layman’s terms, this alternative system makes the bombs safe without blowing them up. It allows a small charge to penetrate the bomb casing without detonating it. That causes the explosives to burn out, and the device becomes safe. This system significantly lowers emissions and noise, thus reducing dramatically the danger to wildlife and the local environment. Scientists calculate that for some of the larger munitions, low-order deflagration could be several hundred times quieter.

Therefore, we understand the problem, and luckily the solution is straightforward. In answer to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), the Government assured her that were Ministers to become aware of evidence concerning harm caused to marine life by the disposal of munitions, they would act, and Ministers have now included a request for developers voluntarily to use deflagration

“as an initial method of mitigation”.

Saying please is nice. However, as we well know, it does not always work. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Marine Management Organisation must update their current licensing regime to ensure that deflagration is the only option for munition disposal. After all, if the Royal Navy uses this method, why should not businesses do so as well? The Secretary of State must set out a realistic timeline for this requirement, so that businesses are able to adjust. No one wants to see renewable energy construction delayed any longer than is absolutely necessary, but none of us wants to see a bloodbath on our ocean floors.

This is one of those times when party politics can be set aside and evidence-based policy can be enacted with all-party agreement. The Minister’s team asked me yesterday to outline my arguments for today, to help them to prepare a response. I was happy to do so; I doubt that there will be much disagreement between us. But I will ask something in return. I ask the Minister to take ownership of these issues and regulate as soon as possible. Perhaps we could work together and invite Labour colleagues, too.

In closing, let me thank Joanna Lumley, who brought this issue to my attention. I was delighted to accept her invitation to become involved—indeed, who could resist?

Thank you, Mr Dowd; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing the debate. He has highlighted a very important concern.

I am a supporter of offshore wind. It is bringing significant benefits to my constituency, and there is the potential for it to do even more over the next 30 years. In the southern North sea, there will be an enormous expansion of wind farms, which will create jobs and play a key role in the transition to net zero, but this exponential growth brings challenges with it. Our marine environment is an extremely sensitive and precious resource, and we have a duty to manage UK waters in a responsible and sustainable way, passing them on in a better condition than they were in when we inherited them.

That is not an easy task, as our seas are becoming incredibly busy. Off the East Anglian coast, there are, as well as wind farms, rich fishing grounds, gas fields in which we can store carbon, interconnectors, cables, busy shipping lanes and areas where dredging takes place. I believe that the time is right to review the regulatory framework and to pursue an ecosystem approach that takes full account of the many different marine resources.

With regard to the specific subject of this debate, it is important to point out that developers are bringing forward innovative techniques that significantly decrease the impact of detonating UXOs. ScottishPower Renewables has trailed deflagration and the use of bubble curtains on the East Anglia ONE wind farm, and has given an undertaking to continue with that on the forthcoming East Anglia Hub. The Government must work with and encourage industry to come forward with new and innovative techniques that minimise disturbance to the marine environment. The UK has a good track record of doing that, and it can bring economic benefits as we promote those new technologies globally.

We must also put in place policies that reduce the risk of conflict between the many marine activities. The report by REAF—Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries —highlighted the significant increase in wind farms along the East Anglian coast and the fact that the displacement of fishing is not being properly taken into account in the marine planning and consenting system. We recommended that more use be made of existing data, so as to manage potential conflicts between fishing and offshore wind. I urge the Government to adopt that recommendation, and I am happy to provide the Minister with further details.

The rapid growth of offshore wind is a great British success story, but as the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has highlighted, it can bring unintended and serious consequences. By working collaboratively within a planning and regulatory framework that is fit for purpose—it does need updating—we can meet those challenges and properly and fully build back better.

A number of constituents contacted me about this issue last year, so I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) managed to secure the debate.

Offshore wind is absolutely essential to our efforts to decarbonise the UK grid and combat the climate emergency. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to quadruple offshore wind capacity by 2030, and the funding package announced last October, we need much more sustained financial support and real leadership from the Government if we are to maximise the true potential of wind power as a clean energy source and promote green jobs and enterprise for the UK supply chain. We still need to see much more from the Government on a green recovery package to take us along that path.

As we have heard, the unexploded ordnance in British waters—the figure I have is 500,000 or so items—remains a considerable threat. That terrible legacy of two world wars is not just an obstacle to the construction of offshore wind farms, but a danger to marine life, so it is vital that we safely clear those mines. We cannot let their detonation come at the expense of biodiversity and marine life; we need to identify environmentally sensitive ways to clear them.

The traditional method of detonating the explosives can prove extremely damaging, as we have heard. The images on the Stop Sea Blasts website, which I congratulate on its campaign, are shocking, as are the reports about the mass stranding of pilot whales, the death of porpoises, and how detonation deafens many marine mammals, confusing their navigation systems and causing long-term harm. The blasts also spread toxic chemicals into our oceans, further damaging marine life.

It does not have to be that way, however: there are deflagration methods that burn out the explosive content of mines and cause considerably less damage to surrounding marine life. The Government have stated on the record that they are investigating deflagration as an alternative to detonation. The first phase of the ongoing study by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has shown positive results, so I hope that we see a shift to that method as soon as possible, and I would welcome an update on that from the Minister.

Despite their boasts, the Government’s record to date on marine conservation in UK waters is pretty woeful. They have really dragged their feet on creating the ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas that we need, which was first set in motion during the last days of the last Labour Government. The MPAs that have been created are essentially paper parks and offer no significant protection to marine life. The Government recently stripped out of the Fisheries Bill amendments promoting conservation and marine stewardship. With those past failures in mind, we need a firm commitment from the Minister that the Government will act now to protect our marine life.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing this important debate. Quite a lot of constituents have written to me about it. Initially, I was not aware of how extensive this issue is, but through correspondence with my constituents and the lobby group on sea blasts, I have learned a great deal more, and the hon. Gentleman very ably laid out the case.

There needs to be a clear strategy to tackle the issue of unexploded ordnances in the waters surrounding the UK. The number I have differs from that given by the hon. Gentleman, so I will allow the record to stand with what he said. As he pointed out, these are leftover unexploded ordnances from past conflicts that are still lying on our seabed. We are still having to deal today with a century of conflict. It is a historical issue that has come back to us in the present day. It is pressing, because of our urgent need to invest in more offshore wind. Given that unexploded ordnance disposal is a key step in the provision of our future energy needs, the Government must explore ways of delivering it safely and with minimum impact on the environment. It is not good enough to allow our marine life to be adversely affected by such a critical step.

Exploding unexploded ordnances can have a significant noise impact, which is likely to disrupt the hearing ability of significant numbers of marine wildlife. Their hearing is essential for their navigation, communication and feeding habits. That kind of damage can have a huge impact on whole populations of marine wildlife. Exploding unexploded ordnances can also lead to toxic and chemical waste in the water, which has an obvious negative impact on biodiversity.

There are better ways of clearing ordnances, and they urgently need to be explored. In particular, low-order deflagration has been found to be effective. A recent joint study by the National Physical Laboratory—I should declare that I am proud to be a former employee of NPL in Teddington—and Loughborough University found that deflagration as a way of clearing ordnances could significantly lower noise emissions. That is something that must urgently be taken forward.

It is urgent and vital that the Government explore alternatives to explosion so that our marine life can be protected at the same time as we enable our renewable energy programme to expand as necessary to meet the Government’s plans for net zero. The failure to take action points to a larger Government failure to set out clear plans for achieving net zero. So far, we have had a set of aspirations set out in the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, but it is backed up by very little strategy or investment. If there had been a greater focus on the practicalities of how net zero was going to be delivered, consideration would already have been given to this matter.

DEFRA must urgently update its guidance to the Marine Management Organisation and other organisations that are required to remove unexploded ordnances. The need to tackle climate change is urgent, and the path to net zero must lie through our expansion of offshore wind. We cannot allow that expansion to negatively impact on our marine life. The solution to that conflict is straightforward, and I urge DEFRA to adopt it without delay.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing this very important debate. I was the Minister for the marine environment for four years under the previous Labour Government, and I took through the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which at the time was groundbreaking. I add my voice to those of colleagues of all parties in this debate who have said that that legislation and the regulatory framework governing these practices needs updating.

I might try Members’ patience slightly because I come at this from a different angle. Deflagration can have huge benefits both in the marine and land-based environment, as we have experienced recently in Exeter. Colleagues might have seen the news coverage of the recent controlled explosion of the Exeter bomb, but they might not be aware that that “controlled” explosion—I use that word advisedly—caused considerable damage to surrounding properties. People can get an idea from the video footage of how much damage would be done in a marine environment by such a powerful explosion in terms of both noise and physical damage in the immediate environment.

I want to use a few seconds of this debate to request that the Minister—I cannot see her very clearly because the picture is so small, but I think she is the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), a fellow south-west MP—does what she can to try to persuade the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to answer the questions that my constituents have put to them, because they are still in a state of great uncertainty following that controlled explosion. I have been contacted by several retired bomb disposal experts who believe that the alternative, much less damaging process could have been followed in this case. Numerous properties were damaged, and some are still not inhabitable. Residents had to be moved out for several days, and residents of a care home are still not back. They are being told by their insurance companies that the companies are not liable and that liability rests with the Government—either the MOD or the Home Office. Will the Minister or her officials listening to this debate please try to get me answers from the Defence Secretary and Home Secretary? I have asked them, but I am still waiting.

On the marine side, I completely agree that we can learn from what has been common practice in land-based bomb disposal for a very long time. There are alternatives to simply blowing up this stuff and causing the sort of havoc that we see in the marine environment and that we saw in Exeter recently, with very serious structural damage done to numerous local properties that might have been avoided if we had used less explosive and less damaging alternatives.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for calling this important debate on a matter of grave concern to some of my own constituents and, as we have already heard, to those across the United Kingdom.

I have received letters in support of Joanna Lumley’s Stop Sea Blasts campaign, which is supported by Marine Connection, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, World Cetacean Alliance, and Advocating Wild. I thank everyone who is doing that fantastic work right across the UK. I have written to the Government on constituents’ behalf and I have tabled written questions, as has already been highlighted. I have also submitted an early-day motion on this matter, so I urge other hon. Members to look at it and consider signing it.

In summing up for the Scottish National party, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their excellent contributions today. It has been a thorough debate highlighting to the Minister many of the main issues of concern, and has included contributions from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), and the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous).

Stop Sea Blasts is concerned with the future of marine mammals that rely on their auditory systems for navigation and communication. Those systems are rendered ineffective by the detonation of unexploded ordnance. Efforts to drive a green and sustainable future by the expansion of offshore wind farms should not come at the expense of harming marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. Explosions can have deadly consequences for marine mammals. We would do well not to forget the mass stranding of 39 pilot whales at Kyle of Durness on the north highland coast following munition clearances in 2011. The future of many marine mammals is already, as we know, precarious. Many are vulnerable or at risk of extinction as a result of human activity already, so we must do everything we can to secure their survival for future generations to marvel at in wonder. That is all the more important, I believe, in the light of the upcoming G7 at Carbis Bay and the United Nations COP26 later this year in Glasgow, where discussions will focus on how to implement a greener future for all.

The wind power potential of Scotland both onshore and offshore must play a crucial part in the drive towards net zero and beyond. We can use the opportunity to lead, by setting ambitious targets for the protection of the environment, and, in doing so, to address the sustainable development goals. Stopping sea blasts and using deflagration will protect marine mammals from harm, but there is another benefit. Protecting life below water relates to sustainable development goal 14, and as we develop offshore wind farms to reach sustainable goal 7 on affordable and clean energy, we can implement sustainable development goal 13 on climate action—everything works in harmony.

The Government must set ambitious targets for the protection of the environment, and for our future. I have no doubt that wind power will be a topic of much discussion through COP26, just as it should be. The drive towards a sustainable future should not jeopardise the future survival of marine wildlife, which is already vulnerable to eco-stress. Deflagration should be used, as we have already heard, instead of sea blasts. COP26 in Scotland and the G7 represent perfect opportunities for the Government to set out their commitment to act on the issue. I urge the Minister to prioritise the matter in conversations with ministerial colleagues in the lead up to that crucial conference.

We need updated guidance to be published, and evidence gaps to be identified, as well as funding for research on the impacts. However, guidance and evidence offer little protection without political will and commitment, so they must not be mistaken for anything more than a first step. I urge the Government to prioritise those programmes and publish their findings without delay, and to act to enforce their findings wherever and whenever possible, to make sure that we have a sustainable, climate-friendly future for all.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing the debate. I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

As we have heard from many Members today, the issue of unexploded ordnance in our seas is a far-reaching one. There are no official estimates of how many unexploded devices sit on our seabed, but as we increase our use of renewable energy—and we welcome increasing construction of wind farms in our seas, which the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) highlighted—the issue of munitions must be addressed and dealt with. The creation of an offshore wind farm should not come at the cost of irreparable damage to the seabed and vulnerable marine species. It is clearly preferable for wind farms to be constructed offshore. The risk and disruption at sea are clearly less. In my constituency just last week a blade flew off a wind turbine. Luckily no one was hurt, but there is clearly a risk to human life. Where we can extend offshore wind at sea that is preferable, but clearly that comes at a risk to the seabed and to marine life.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), using high order detonation methods to remove munitions from the seabed is causing undue harm. Many species of marine life rely on their hearing to navigate around our waters, establish feeding patterns, and communicate with other mammals. High-order detonation has been found to cause irreversible noise trauma to thousands of sea mammals, as discussed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). A 2015 study found that 88 explosions in one year would be likely to cause about 1,200, and possibly more than 5,000, permanent hearing loss events. In the five years since that study, we have seen an increase of 13 new wind farms in British waters, which contain a combined total of 853 individual wooden turbines. Does the Minister agree that a more up-to-date assessment of the harm caused to our vulnerable marine life is well overdue? We need to establish the damage caused by more recent detonations, so that we can understand the scale of the problem today.

Low-order deflagration is said to cause far less damage to our marine life and seabeds than high-order detonation, yet detonation remains the most common method of clearing unexploded ordnance in preparation for the construction of offshore wind farms. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) spoke with great experience and knowledge of that alternative, and of its benefits. Surely protecting our marine life and seas should be a major factor in the decision about whether to move to the use of low-order deflagration methods in place of detonation. We should not have to tolerate any more manmade tragedies, such as what happened at Kyle of Durness in 2011, when 39 long-finned pilot whales became stranded in the bay area after being displaced from their habitat following a high-order blast. Nineteen sadly died, and the subsequent DEFRA report concluded that a high-order blast

“was the only external event with the potential to cause the Mass Stranding Event.”

In June 2020, the National Physical Laboratory published a report funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The report appears to favour low-order deflagration over high-order detonation, but there has been no move from the Government to implement any changes following the report’s publication. Instead, we are told that there will now be a third, and potentially a fourth, stage of the report in order to

“further improve the information base”.

Will the Minister give an indication of when the findings of the third phase will be published, and whether there is a commitment to move straight into the fourth stage? When that is completed, do we expect to see a change in legislation to preserve vulnerable marine life and our seabeds? Given that the reports have been commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that this is obviously an issue that has far-reaching consequences for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can the Minister tell us what ongoing discussions DEFRA has had with BEIS on this issue?

As everyone in the debate is aware, we are in the midst of a climate crisis, which is something that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about at some length. An increase in renewable energy sources needs to be made available, and more offshore wind farms is one of the best ways to achieve that. Indeed, at the end of 2020, there were a further nine offshore wind farms under construction. When finished, they will have a combined total of an extra 619 turbines. On the one hand, that is a positive move in the fight against the climate crisis, but it should not come at the cost of threatening our marine life. The Government have previously said that they

“recognise the potential for significant impact of underwater noise from unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance on vulnerable marine species”,

and that they are

“taking active steps to manage and reduce the risk.”

In conclusion, can the Minister outline the steps being taken and give a commitment that further action will be taken to ensure the waters around the UK, and the species that live there, are protected?

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for securing this debate on the very important issue of detonating unexploded ordnance in the wake of the growing offshore wind industry. He is not alone in his interest in this area; we had a great many eloquent speakers, all of whom I thank for their interest. We share a great interest. I am particularly interested in this issue, and I am very pleased to have the chance to talk about it today.

I want to thank all the Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). The debate has really brought the issue into sharp focus. We have also had it raised recently by the Stop Sea Blasts campaign, which has contacted me about it.

I want to set the record straight by saying that protecting the whole marine environment—both habitats and species— is a key commitment of the Government. DEFRA’s 25-year environment plan sets out ambitions and targets to improve our marine environment and protect it for future generations. Of course, that plan will be the first environmental improvement plan for the Environment Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. I refer all those who have spoken today to the Westminster Hall debate I responded to this morning about the marine landscape. That was all about marine protections, and it touched on many of the things that hon. Friends and hon. Members have asked about today. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) secured that debate, and in it I highlighted that we have made a great deal of progress in just the past 10 years on marine protection in the UK: we now have 371 designated marine protection areas, protecting 38% of UK waters and spanning 340,000 sq km. Internationally, the UK is advocating for the protection of at least 30% of the global ocean within marine protected areas by 2030.

I also highlight that leaving the common fisheries policy has given us extra ability to put protections in place and create management arrangements in our MPAs that previously would have been very difficult, particularly in our offshores. We have used our bylaws on the inshore area; now we can use them on the offshore area to do much more specific, sustainable management, which touches on what my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney was pointing out when he was calling for a much more joined-up, holistic, sustainable approach to a marine strategy. We have our marine strategy, and it is very much moving in that direction. I also add, because it is relevant to this conversation, that cetaceans—whales, porpoises and dolphins—are legally protected species in UK waters.

Let us just touch on the expansion of offshore wind. Alongside all of our environmental ambitions, we have further targets to help tackle the climate crisis and secure a green recovery from covid-19, and we have set targets for reaching net zero by 2050, one of the most ambitious targets in the world. Right at the heart of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green recovery—which I think was touched on by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock)—is this commitment to quadruple offshore wind energy to produce 40 GW by 2030, which is a huge commitment and has massive support. I think every hon. Friend and hon. Member who has spoken today has supported that ambition, which is central to achieving net zero and reducing carbon emissions.

However, and really importantly, the Government are also committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, so we are very clear that the offshore wind must not come at the expense of the marine environment. As has been highlighted, there are now multiple calls on the marine space in many areas: everybody wants to get their hands in the water, so to speak, whether for carbon storage, fishing, oil and gas, or all of these different challenges. I wanted to make very clear that DEFRA is working closely with BEIS to come up with the right balance and approach for delivering sustainable offshore wind and a sustainable, well-managed and well-protected marine space.

Turning to the noise issue—the underwater noise impacts—we recognise that underwater noise can cause significant damage and disturbance to marine life. That is why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working so closely with Departments, statutory nature conservation bodies, and marine industries to reduce the impacts on sensitive species such as marine mammals. However, as has been highlighted quite clearly by all speakers, unexploded ordnance continues to be a dreadful legacy, particularly of the second world war, and removing these items from the seabed is absolutely vital for the safe construction of offshore wind and other marine industries. There is some dispute about how many of these bombs there actually are; my figures were between 300,000 and 500,000. I think the 100,000 figure referred to by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is the tonnage of the unexploded bombs, but however many it is, it is a great many, and it is a really significant issue.

I want to give reassurance that at the moment, the highest levels of protection possible are put into place for our marine mammals and our environment while these removals take place. Any removal of unexploded ordnance must be individually assessed in accordance with our habitats regulations. A marine species licence is also required if the activity is likely to negatively affect a protected species, which includes all dolphins, whales and porpoises. Marine mammal specialists are deployed to ensure that no marine animals are in the vicinity. I said, “Well, how are you going to do that?” Acoustic devices can be put into the water to try to keep them away from the area where the bomb is going to be exploded. Bubble curtains can also be put around the area. They create bubbles that take away a lot of the sound created by the explosion. There are, therefore, already things in place.

I take note of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Exeter. I saw what he spoke of on my local news, coming as I do from Taunton. I urge colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to take note of the impacts that he highlighted very clearly.

Everybody who has spoken is right—there is more to be done in this space. We also recognise that, given the huge expansion of offshore wind, there will be increases in the levels of underwater noise. That is why DEFRA has recently secured a £4.3 million fund from the Treasury for a cross-Government programme to facilitate the sustainable delivery of offshore wind in the marine environment. That includes a dedicated focus team for reducing the impacts of underwater noise. They are working on this, to get better evidence, data and solutions.

Deflagration, which many colleagues have raised today, is a potentially quieter and less destructive alternative to detonating unexploded ordnance. As mentioned, this issue was raised by the Stop Sea Blasts campaign. Indeed, Joanna Lumley wrote to the Prime Minister just last week and her letter was shared with me. Like Joanna, I am keen that we take care of our vulnerable marine species and that we do the very best we can. The Government are testing and investigating the feasibility of deflagration. In recent weeks and months, we have been in discussions with providers of this technology, the Royal Navy and scientists who are exploring its success, the noise mitigations, the level of risk and its safety.

The Marine Management Organisation fully considers potential mitigation to effectively manage underwater noise before issuing a licence for unexploded ordnance clearance. It already requests that developers investigate and use this deflagration method where feasible, as referenced by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire.

We welcome the testing funded by BEIS and the industrial strategy last year. The testing has been carried out inland, in a quarry. It is producing strong evidence that the technique results in significant and positive noise reduction, but we need to be sure of its safety and effectiveness out in the much wider marine space, because users of the marine environment have raised quite a lot of concerns about its reliability, effectiveness and safety. We would not want some of the explosive to be left there—we have to be super sure that it does the whole job. It is hard to get all the evidence, but that is what we need. We need to know, however it has been dealt with, that it is safe for other operators, vessels, mariners and developers working in the marine space, but we do not yet have evidence of its safety and effectiveness. We need to be sure of that.

The wider marine space complicates the issue because of the challenges caused by water movements, greater depths, poor visibility and partially buried, partly degrading explosives. That makes real-life ordnance removal in the marine environment more challenging than it is in the controlled quarry site, but that is why we are working closely with scientist to gather the evidence and asses the risks with all speed, and that will continue.

To respond to the shadow Minister’s point, following the completion of the third phase of the analysis work, we will, potentially, go into the fourth phase, involving offshore fieldwork to explore these issues with all speed. We will report back once we have the details and are content with what we feel safe with.

I want to touch on the wider issue of noise. It is not just the noise from exploding ordnance that our fellow creatures face in the sea. There are many other forms of noise. A great deal of work is being done to consider how underwater noise can be monitored and managed more strategically—my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney touched on this—to reduce harm and to enable the sustainable and responsible growth of the offshore wind sector, which is so important to all of us. It is a growing and important area on the shores of England and Scotland.

There is no doubt that underwater noise is increasing and there are concerns. That is why I welcome—the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned this—the guidance on underwater noise for statutory nature conversation bodies, which was published last June. This important guidance includes information on noise thresholds that should not be exceeded in special areas of conservation for harbour porpoise. That should help to avoid significant disturbance of vulnerable marine species.

Through DEFRA’s offshore wind enabling actions programme, we have set up a strategic advice group, comprised of policy makers, regulators, industry representatives, statutory nature conservation bodies, the Crown Estate, which is really important in this area, environmental organisations and a range of scientific experts, to see what else we can do in this space, including looking at new techniques. A number of today’s contributors have urged us to look at all techniques and to apply new technology. I hope I am making it clear that I think this is a really important area to get right.

The Government’s commitment to using offshore wind and our drive to achieve net zero are to be applauded, as is our commitment to protecting our marine environment. Getting the balance right is key, and part and parcel of that, of course, is reducing the impact of underwater noise, finding strategic solutions and protecting our vulnerable species, in particular in relation to the concern about unexploded ordnance.

I again thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire for securing the debate. It has been a good debate and it has shown that we are all in the same waters, so to speak, and that we all want to drive forward to get this right.

I thank all the people and constituents who asked for this debate, and the hon. Members who have spoken. I felt the Minister’s pain as she tried to cope with saying “East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow” a couple of times.

I was interested to hear the Minister say that whales, dolphins and porpoises are legally protected. They are not being protected if they are being blown up, which is what is happening at the moment. The Minister asked a number of times whether deflagration works, what the evidence is, and whether it is safe. Those are all excellent questions, but we already know the answers because the method has been tried around the world. We do not have to do our own independent research when research is available from other countries.

There is only one question that Members across the room want an answer to, and it is this: will the Minister ban the bomb—yes or no? Sadly, the answer appears to be maybe. I hope there is speedy progress.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the disposal of unexploded ordnance for offshore windfarm construction.

Sitting adjourned.