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Westminster Hall

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 April 2024

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Liver Disease and Liver Cancer

I beg to move,

That this House has considered health inequalities in liver disease and liver cancer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who is covering Front-Bench duties in this debate, and who was kind enough to co-sponsor the application for it with me to the Backbench Business Committee. She is a long-standing champion of public services and better healthcare provision for all.

I am grateful to several organisations, including charities, that have helped me with my speech: the British Liver Trust—several representatives are in the Public Gallery—Liver Cancer UK and the Roger Williams Institute of Hepatology. Alcohol Change UK has also been good. I have met its representatives in the past, although not recently, and it has been a long-standing campaigner on this issue.

Before I start on the main points of my speech, I pay tribute to Bob Blizzard, a former Labour Member of Parliament in Norfolk. He did a lot of work in this House on the Hunting Act 2004 and in the fight for animal rights. His family have been in touch and wanted me to mention him. Sadly, he passed away in 2022, with a rare form of cancer, having been diagnosed with it in December 2020. His family therefore wanted me to mention the work of the Alan Morement Memorial Fund, which helps patients and healthcare workers.

To start on my key points, this is an important debate about health inequalities in liver disease and liver cancer. It is particularly timely, given the shocking new data released this month, which shows that we are facing the worst mortality and hospital admissions rates for liver disease in a generation. Ninety per cent of liver disease is preventable and, if diagnosed early, damage can often be reversed and the liver can recover fully. Tragically, however, premature deaths from liver disease have surged to their highest levels in decades, and hospital admissions due to liver disease have risen by almost 80% over the past decade alone, driven by obesity, alcohol and viral hepatitis.

We have seen more than a decade of cuts under this Government. Successive Conservative Governments have neglected patients and failed to take liver disease seriously. Our most marginalised communities, the most at risk of liver disease, have been silenced, overlooked and left behind. The liver disease crisis is almost entirely preventable and reflects a decade of decline in our nation’s health, widening health inequalities and worsening life expectancy.

Geographical inequalities in health outcomes for patients are stark, and the north of England is disproportionately impacted, accounting for more than a third of premature deaths in liver disease in 2022, or 3,728. New data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities highlights that the north-west, my own region, has the highest mortality rate for liver disease in the country, at 35% higher than the national average. The healthy life expectancy in Blackpool is now the same as in Angola, at 54.5 years.

The Government have failed to deliver on their manifesto pledge and levelling-up mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy. They scrapped the promised White Paper on health disparities, repeatedly cut the public health grant and in effect decimated the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. They have also overlooked liver disease entirely in their major conditions strategy, and U-turned on their commitment to roll out non-invasive liver scans to 100 community diagnostic centres. Our nation’s liver disease effort is faltering, which is costing lives and piling huge, avoidable pressure on to our NHS. Thousands of people die unnecessarily without access to specialist care, because liver services are consistently overlooked and under-resourced.

Risk factors such as obesity, viral hepatitis and alcohol are most prevalent in our most disadvantaged communities, and mortality rates from liver disease in our most deprived communities are now four times higher than in the most affluent.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on successfully securing this debate. Does he agree that, in the 21st century, the wider expectation in society is that we need to see improving mortality rates from serious conditions? The concern here is that mortality rates are worsening, as he has correctly outlined. That is something we all need to address as a matter of urgency.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention; he makes an important point. As one of the most advanced economies in the world, we expect our population to have the best healthcare, and we want life expectancy increasing for everyone, not just in certain postcodes, so I agree with his point.

Almost two thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and nearly four in 10 children with obesity—38%—are estimated to have early stage fatty liver disease. Deaths due to alcohol-related liver disease in England have increased by 87% over the last two decades, due a rise in harmful and hazardous drinking.

The cost of living crisis is exacerbating inequalities and the risk factors facing vulnerable families in deprived areas, with cheap junk food and high-strength alcohol being widely available. It is estimated that over 206,000 people in England are living with chronic hepatitis B, the majority of those cases undiagnosed and unlinked to care. Undetected, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and premature death caused by liver failure.

Liver disease is a silent killer that is often asymptomatic in its early stages. Shockingly, three quarters of people with cirrhosis are diagnosed in hospital when the damage is irreversible and it is too late for effective treatment or intervention. The impact of late diagnosis and crisis-point hospital admissions on our already overstretched NHS frontline services is pushing the hepatology workforce to breaking point, yet pressures are projected to increase at pace.

My own constituents are at the sharp end of this public health emergency. In Stockport, the premature mortality rate for liver disease in women has surged by 80% since the pandemic. In 2020, it was 12.5 per 100,000, and 2022, it was 22.5 per 100,000. In Stockport, the overall premature mortality rate from liver disease between 2020 and 2022—a three-year range—was 16.5% higher than the national average. I was greatly concerned to learn that the British Liver Trust’s “Love Your Liver” roadshow visit to Stockport last year identified that one in four members of the public had elevated fibroscan readings, which are indicative of liver damage.

Ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted by liver disease. South Asian populations are particularly vulnerable to fatty liver disease, due to genetic and sociocultural factors, while migrants from countries where hepatitis B is endemic are at higher risk of developing liver cancer.

Liver disease patients also face stigma and misconceptions, which is hampering earlier detection and costing lives. Liver disease and liver cancer continue to be falsely labelled as self-inflicted, despite being linked to poverty and social deprivation. Almost half of patients with a liver condition have experienced stigma from healthcare professionals, according to recent surveys by the British Liver Trust.

Everyone at risk of liver disease and cancer should have equal access to faster diagnosis, no matter where they live. Accelerating earlier diagnosis is pivotal to tackling health inequalities and narrowing the gap in healthy life expectancy. Yet new research by the British Liver Trust shows that fewer than one in five integrated care systems in England currently have fully effective pathways in place for the early detection and management of liver disease. Alarmingly, my local ICS—Greater Manchester ICS—reported the highest premature mortality rate for liver disease in the country, but it is yet to implement an optimal pathway.

The evidence is overwhelming. We can and must do more to support liver disease and liver cancer patients across the UK. The next Labour Government will have a relentless focus on prevention and earlier diagnosis to turn the tide of this epidemic of preventable deaths. When the previous Labour Government first asked Professor Marmot to review health inequalities, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that

“the health inequalities we are talking about are not only unjust, condemning millions of men, women and children to avoidable ill-health, they also limit the development and the prosperity of communities, whole nations and even continents.”

Since then, we have had over a decade of austerity and deep cuts to public health, which have caused improvements in life expectancy to slow and even reverse. Health inequalities are widening and a growing number of people live a greater proportion of their lives in ill health.

We need to look upstream, which is why the next Labour Government will be committed to taking bold action to halt the promotion of junk food targeted at children that is high in fat, salt and sugar.

We also need to talk about early detection. To build an NHS fit for the future, Labour is committed to hitting all NHS cancer waiting time and early diagnosis targets within five years. Recently, I tabled a number of written parliamentary questions on this matter, and the answers do not fill me with confidence about the healthcare that my constituents are receiving. We also need to accelerate earlier detection by doubling the number of CT and MRI scanners in hospitals in England.

I urge the Minister to mirror this upstream focus on early detection by committing sustainable funding in the next spending review for new technology, in order to improve the early detection of liver disease in primary and community care. I also call on the Minister to introduce a new nationally endorsed pathology pathway to improve early diagnosis of liver disease and to ensure that every community diagnostic centre has an assessment for fibrosis.

Liver cancer is the fastest rising cause of cancer death in the UK. As one of the six least-survivable cancers, it has a shockingly poor five-year survival rate of just 13%. Yet public awareness remains very low, and liver cancer patients are overwhelmingly diagnosed at a later stage. Outcomes for many types of cancer have seen huge improvements over recent decades, yet deaths from liver cancer in the UK have increased by 40% in the last decade alone, hampered by the lack of funding, research and innovation.

Before I come to the end of my speech, I want to mention a couple of staggering points provided to me by Alcohol Change UK. Sadly, it is a fact that harm caused by alcohol is on the rise. The pandemic has had a serious impact on alcohol consumption in England. People are drinking at harmful levels and increasing their drinking. One in five people in the UK is drinking above the recommended weekly amount; many want to cut down. Alcohol causes the majority of liver disease, and drinking alcohol increases the risk of liver cancer.

Alcohol has become the leading risk factor for death and ill health among those aged 15 to 49 in England. Alcohol Change UK found, only this week, that alcohol-specific deaths in the UK are the worst on record— 32.8% higher than in 2019. In 2022, 76% of alcohol-specific deaths were caused by liver disease.

This is an extremely serious topic. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate and I am grateful to everyone who has turned up in the Public Gallery, as well as to the Back-Bench MPs who have come to support the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate on health inequalities in liver disease and liver cancer. It is a particularly timely debate, given the recent publication of statistics showing that alcohol deaths in the UK surged during the covid-19 pandemic. While alcohol misuse is not the only cause of liver disease, it is, as we have heard, responsible for a large proportion of cases, and that does need to be addressed.

As the hon. Member for Stockport set out, we need to acknowledge that liver disease has an inescapable link to deprivation. The incidence of liver disease and the risk of hospitalisation and death are all significantly higher in regions and nations of the UK that have higher levels of deprivation relative to London and the south-east of England. It is important to discuss this, and it is welcome that we are having a debate on the topic today. We should do so from the starting point that deprivation leads to poorer health outcomes. In the case of liver disease and liver cancer, that means that someone from the most deprived area is four times more likely to die than someone from a more affluent area. That is not acceptable.

It is now conventional wisdom that preventing a disease is far more desirable than having to treat or cure it. In Scotland, we have rates of liver disease that are far too high. However, I am grateful that the Scottish Government have introduced policies that are making a real difference by reducing deprivation, decreasing the incidence of liver disease and improving early detection.

The Scottish Government, looking at the issue in the broadest sense, have introduced policies such as the Scottish child payment, which anti-poverty charities have described as a “game changer”. Combined with other interventions, it has the potential to lift an estimated 100,000 children out of poverty. That investment is just one example of the Scottish Government intervening at the early stages of life to reduce inequality, and it will undoubtedly help in our fight against conditions such as liver disease, and indeed all other diseases associated with inequality and deprivation.

The introduction of minimum unit pricing in Scotland has also delivered results. In England, where there is no minimum unit pricing, liver disease mortality and morbidity continue to rise, whereas in Scotland, health inequalities are gradually decreasing. This has resulted in chronic liver disease deaths in Scotland decreasing from 17.9 per 100,000 in 2021 to 17.4 per 100,000 in 2022. Let me be clear: those figures are still stark, and more action needed. However, minimum unit pricing has reduced alcohol-related harms and alcohol-specific deaths by 13.4%. That is surely an intervention that we should now see across the whole UK to help to tackle liver disease, among other issues.

Scotland’s innovative life sciences sector has produced groundbreaking tests to help to diagnose liver disease at earlier stages, when damage can be reversed and the progression to cirrhosis or cancer halted. Unfortunately, as we have heard, the reality is that three in four liver disease patients present at crisis point, usually in A&E, with cirrhosis and all the horrible symptoms that come with that condition. Researchers from the University of Dundee have developed the new intelligent liver function test, which uses an algorithm to perform additional investigations on abnormal blood test results. The test can help to refer patients to specialists earlier than would otherwise be the case, minimising the workload of GPs in primary care and increasing the diagnostic rate of liver disease threefold. It has the potential to revolutionise the diagnostic pathway.

Focusing on tackling alcohol misuse, obesity and viral hepatitis are all important in lowering the rate of liver disease and liver cancer, but we cannot escape the fact that the UK Government’s decision to inflict more than a decade of austerity has exacerbated the inequalities and deprivation associated with liver disease. If the UK Government want to get serious about tackling liver disease, they need to get serious about tackling inequality. Threatening to cut the benefits of disabled people who are unable to work does nothing to tackle inequality. Forcing real-terms cuts on departmental budgets that are already strained because of inflation does not deliver the services needed to tackle inequality.

The UK has one of the highest levels of regional inequality in Europe, and until there is a real and concerted effort to change that basic fact, poorer outcomes for liver disease and liver cancer, particularly among the most deprived communities, will remain stubbornly hard to improve. I hope that we will hear today about the action that the UK Government are willing to take to ensure that that statistic quickly becomes a thing of the past.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate, and hon. Members for their excellent opening speeches, setting the scene.

Addressing liver disease and cancer has for far too long been put on the back burner. Despite the vital work of organisations like the British Liver Trust and Liver Cancer UK, liver disease remains a leading cause of premature death, and is now the fastest rising cause of cancer death in the UK, yet 90% of liver disease is preventable, and it is in many cases reversible. It is a travesty, and an indictment of the state of our healthcare system, that three quarters of people living in the UK are diagnosed when it is too late for effective intervention or treatment.

I am acutely aware of the effect that liver disease has, because Washington and Sunderland West is at the heart of this public health crisis, which disproportionately affects those living in the north-east. In Sunderland, hospital admission rates due to liver disease were, shockingly, 84% higher than the national average in 2022-23, and the region suffers one of the worst hospital admission rates in England for women with liver disease. We see the hand of inequality stretch even further, as over a third of all premature deaths reported in 2022 were in the north of England, despite the Government’s manifesto pledge and levelling-up mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy. The Government’s inaction on tackling health inequality is clearly indicated by the simple fact that, since the Marmot review was published in 2010, health inequalities have widened.

If we are to tackle this issue, we must finally start to tackle its root causes. We must reform our approach to liver disease and cancer, no longer allowing the prevailing myth of it being self-inflicted—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said in his opening speech—to impact policy decisions, when we know the fatal consequences of the status quo. Despite hospital admissions caused by liver disease having risen by almost 80% over the last decade, liver disease was omitted from the major conditions strategy and was overlooked in the core modalities for community diagnostic centres.

We owe it to all those affected by liver disease to set out a proper plan to improve diagnosis and treatment. We must take a holistic approach, focusing on improving every area, from research to prevention to treatment. I believe the creation of the new nationally endorsed diagnostic pathway will be key to ensuring earlier diagnosis, with less regional disparity. In the short term, I urge Ministers to deliver a prompt and comprehensive review of adult liver services by NHS England, and to ensure that local health commissioners learn from areas where fully effective pathways for the early detection and management of liver disease are already in place.

We must no longer ignore the simple truth that we cannot improve outcomes for liver disease and cancer if the staffing crisis, long waiting times for diagnosis and barriers to accessing specialist care once diagnosed continue. We are seeing it with liver disease, where the cross-over of specialist services means that those affected experience the pressures on the NHS acutely, but the same story is told in every aspect of healthcare. We must deliver more scans and more appointments every year if we are to catch cancer early.

I am pleased that Labour has committed to a £171 million a year investment to provide the NHS with state-of-the-art equipment and new technology to cut waiting times and speed up diagnosis and treatment. I very much hope we can take momentum forward from this debate and push the Government to finally implement measures to increase diagnostic rates, invest in preventative measures and improve treatment for liver disease and cancer, because those seeking treatment cannot afford for us not to.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I am very grateful to the British Liver Trust for its comprehensive briefings and support for this debate. The Alan Morement Memorial Fund, the cholangiocarcinoma charity, has also provided a very helpful briefing on liver cancer.

I often do not speak in debates on health matters, because they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I have a personal link to this issue. My husband, Joe, was diagnosed with stage 2 non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in 2019. He has taken significant efforts to deal with that condition, because when caught at that stage it is reversible. Like many men, he did not go to the doctor for far too long, and he had that diagnosis when he finally went to get it checked out. He has been clear that tackling it has been challenging—we consciously have to do an awful lot more to keep ourselves healthy; we live in an obesogenic, alcohol-focused environment, so there are always things to tempt us back into bad habits—but he continues to go on with that challenge.

Joe has talked about the stigma around the disease. Almost three quarters of people with a liver condition have experienced stigma, and almost a third feel that it has prevented them from receiving medical care. It often comes from the association of liver disease with alcohol misuse and viral hepatitis. We must do everything we can bust that stigma so that people go and get the treatment they require as soon as possible, rather than putting it off, because the risks of doing so are very serious.

I also want to mention the read-across to the contaminated blood scandal. Some of those infected with hepatitis C did not know they had been infected because of the subsequent cover-up of their medical records, and some did not find out until serious damage had been done to their livers. For some, the news sadly came too late. I have heard stories at the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood about people whose death certificates cite chronic alcoholism as the cause of the disease, even though they had never touched a drink. There is a real stigma around liver issues, which we must do our best to bust.

We have a public health emergency that the Government ought to take very seriously indeed. Liver disease and liver cancer continue to be significant issues in Scotland. Liver disease is a leading cause of premature deaths in Scotland, above breast cancer and suicide, and deaths due to chronic liver disease in Scotland have increased by 85% in the last three decades. There was an impact during the pandemic, as the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) also mentioned. I think that speaks a little to the alcohol culture that we are all focused on. I mean, how many people have heard the phrase “wine o’clock”? It has been minimised and reduced to not really mattering at all, but that alcohol culture leads people into harmful habits, and society downplays that.

I was glad to see the Scottish Government respond to the alcohol culture with minimum unit pricing, which has reduced the consumption of alcohol in Scotland by 3%, reducing deaths wholly attributable to alcohol by 13.4% and hospital admissions due to chronic conditions such as alcohol-related liver disease by 4.1%. Alcohol-specific deaths have risen more slowly in Scotland than in England, highlighting that the situation could have been much worse had Scotland not taken the bold step of introducing minimum unit pricing. The greatest harm reduction impact has been among the more deprived groups in Scotland, so there is an important protective factor.

Will the Minister consider bringing in minimum unit pricing in England? The small weakness of minimum unit pricing is that it puts the profits back into the hands of those selling the alcohol, because we do not have full control over the taxation system for alcohol in Scotland. It would be incredibly useful if we had all those powers in Scotland, but an intervention in England might provide an opportunity to do that. Removing the duty escalator on alcohol has meant that alcohol has got relatively cheaper.

I also want to mention the work happening in Scotland, which is showing signals of incremental improvements following the Scottish Government’s focus on prevention and earlier diagnosis. The same progress has not been seen in England, where liver disease mortality rates are at their highest level in decades; hospital admissions for liver disease have risen by almost 80% over the last decade alone.

In Scotland, by comparison, liver disease death rates between 2021 and 2022 decreased from 17.9 per 100,000 to 17.4 per 100,000, and hospital admissions caused by liver disease decreased by 1.5% between 2021-22 and 2022-23. My own health board area, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, has seen the largest fall in chronic liver disease death rates, which is really quite impressive given the health challenges that we have faced. That is quite significant.

When the British Liver Trust “Love Your Liver” roadshow was on Argyle Street in my constituency, I was struck by the number of people interested. Glaswegians are a very curious bunch; you cannot do anything without somebody asking a question and stopping to find out what is going on. People were like, “Oh, a liver test. I’ll queue up and wait for my liver test in a van in the middle of the city centre.” Around 100 people were scanned that afternoon and 15 of my constituents were later given a referral to their GP as a result, so there needs to be more testing and encouragement of people to go forward and check. It really is important.

Such screening in a community setting is a lifesaving intervention—we should make no bones about that. People should be able to access that at a simple community level. I am sure many colleagues in this place will have had their liver scanned in Parliament, which was welcome. Fibroscan readings have been reassuring in a lot of ways although, with health charities’ propensity to come in and do tests on MPs, I am sure they will find something wrong with me at some stage. However, it is welcome and important that people feel they can go for tests and that there is not a stigma in doing so.

So, there has been progress in Scotland. The intelligent liver function testing pathway developed by the University of Dundee uses an automated algorithm-based system to further investigate abnormal liver function test results based on initial blood samples from primary care, so further important development is happening in Dundee. I am sure the Minister would be interested to hear that the technology is also cost-saving to the NHS by over £3,000 a patient, which is significant. The tests are now being rolled out and piloted in parts of England.

I will touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said about austerity and its impact on public health. The Glasgow Centre for Population Health in my constituency has done a lot of research into the subject over the years. It says that the years of Tory austerity have cost people dearly, through damage not just to public health services but to people’s life outcomes. My hon. Friend was correct to point out further cuts to social security for people from the Westminster Government, because that makes it more difficult for people to make good and healthy choices in the foods they buy and the lifestyles they have. The Glasgow Centre for Population Health said that it will take another decade just to get us back to where we were in 2010. That is 20 lost years of people’s good health, which will have a significant impact for a long time to come.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. We already know that people who live in lower-income and more deprived areas have a lower life expectancy than people who live in more wealthy areas. The data from Alcohol Change UK tells us that people from more economically deprived groups experience higher rates of liver cancer and are less likely to receive treatment. There are also higher rates of liver cancer among people from Asian and black African backgrounds than among people from white backgrounds. That tells us that people who have a lower income or live in more deprived areas will die sooner. On the hon. Member’s point about austerity, does she agree that the Government have not done enough in the last 14 years to address the issues?

I absolutely agree. I see that very much from the varied communities that I represent. It is baffling that the more recent Marmot findings have come as a surprise to some in government. I remember doing modern studies at high school and learning about the Black report and the inverse care law. It feels as though this Government are no further forward. In fact, in some respects they are much further back in tackling long-lasting health inequalities.

I shall now discuss the public health aspects. The Scottish Government are consulting on advertising restrictions on food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar, which again are disproportionately marketed towards children and vulnerable groups. That marketing is also found in poorer areas, where there is often a lack of availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. That is significant because one in four children with obesity are estimated to have fatty liver disease, which has huge implications for their health and wellbeing for the future. It is caused by an accumulation of harmful fat in the liver and is present in around 70% of people who are overweight and obese. Fatty liver disease and excess weight together significantly increase the risk of premature death due to cardiovascular disease and a range of cancers, including liver, colon, breast, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancers.

Although Scotland tries to do its best within the devolved settlement that we have, sadly a number of key commitments from the UK Government to curb childhood obesity are yet to be implemented, including the 9 pm watershed plans to protect children from junk food advertising on TV and the ban on multibuy junk food deals. We have brought in some of those things in Scotland where we can. It does make a small difference but an awful lot more needs to be done, particularly for those in younger age groups. They are being targeted with all kinds of multiple snack-type foods, which are largely unnecessary. Both Labour and the Tories need to stand up to the multinational companies that wish to push those foods on our young people. These things do not come cost-free, certainly not to society.

Will the Government build on the simple, cost-effective diagnostic pathways already in place across the devolved nations? Will they commit to sustainable funding in the next spending review for new technology to improve earlier detection of liver disease? The fact that early intervention—that technology—can permit treatment before things get worse is significant. Will they also introduce a new nationally endorsed pathway to improve early diagnosis, and will they ensure that every community diagnostic centre can provide an assessment for fibrosis? All of those things will help to improve this public health emergency that we have.

It is important that we have discussed the issue today, but I hope that the Minister will listen and make the changes that she can, and that the Labour Front Bench, should they form the next Government, take this seriously. The alcohol-soaked and obesogenic society that we have poses fundamental challenges that Government should intervene on to prevent the next generation of people developing liver disease and liver cancer; we can prevent that progression if the public health imperative is there.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this debate. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, for sharing her personal experiences. I know that both Members are great champions for improving health outcomes for all, and I am grateful to them for bringing forward this debate to discuss a neglected but major killer. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for sharing the shocking figures on liver disease in her constituency.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport highlighted, new data released this month shows that we are facing the worst mortality and hospital admission rates for liver disease in a generation. Over 17,000 people die of liver disease and liver cancer each year, over half of whom are people of working age—15 to 64—at a huge cost to the NHS and the economy. We have heard from Members that 90% of liver disease is preventable, and if diagnosed at an early stage damage can often be reversed and the liver can fully recover. It is an avoidable epidemic, which is being driven by obesity, alcohol and viral hepatitis. All those issues increase in prevalence in the most deprived communities, and drive the health inequalities that we are debating today.

The debate is timely because it comes in the week when we received the sobering news that annual figures for alcohol-specific deaths had passed 10,000 for the first time ever. Seventy-six per cent of those deaths were from liver disease, including liver cancer, and it is the third year in a row that deaths have risen across the United Kingdom, breaking previous records each time. The rise was not inevitable and it cannot be explained away as the product of the pandemic. It is a policy failure, and Ministers today must answer for it.

Outcomes for many types of cancer have seen huge improvements over recent decades, but as we have heard, deaths from liver cancer in the United Kingdom have increased by 40% in the last decade alone. It is the fastest-rising cause of cancer death in the United Kingdom. It has a shockingly poor five-year survival rate of just 13%. Public awareness remains very low, with liver cancer patients overwhelmingly diagnosed at a late stage.

To her credit, the Minister for Social Care, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), recognised the problem when she committed in a letter to the chief executive of the British Liver Trust that the Government would make fibroscans available for use at 100 community diagnostic centres by March 2025. I have used one of those fibroscans, and they are a fantastic piece of kit that can tell if someone has liver damage or early signs of liver disease.

Why then, in the answer to my parliamentary question, which I received in February, did the Minister say that the Government had plans for fibroscans not in 100, but rather 12 diagnostic centres at the end of March? What about the other 88? It is all very well the NHS announcing funding for a new diagnostic pathway, but without the kit in local communities, how will that actually work? How and where will patients access scans and tests? Will they be available in the most deprived communities, where outcomes are far worse? What about in GP practices and pharmacies?

Perhaps the Minister could take up Labour’s fully costed plan for a “fit for the future fund” to double the number of MRI and CT scanners, so that we can catch illness earlier and treat it faster, before it is too late. To tackle health inequalities, we must get serious about public health and a prevention-first approach. Under this Government, for the first time in a century, life expectancy has dropped in England, and a growing number of people live more of their life in ill health.

While the decline affects us all, as we have heard from many Members it is not spread equally across the country. Over a third of all premature deaths were reported in the north of England in 2022, and in my city of Birmingham, life expectancy has dropped by nearly two years in just three years. A person in Blackpool is three times more likely to die from chronic liver disease than people living elsewhere in England. In parts of that town, life expectancy for men is just two years above the retirement age—but what do we expect when the Prime Minister boasted about changing funding formulas to take money away from deprived urban areas?

As I mentioned, alcohol consumption alone caused more than 7,500 untimely deaths from liver disease in 2022, and those mortality figures have risen three years in a row. Yet faced with that, the Government have decided to dismantle the central public health function and, as far as I can tell from the non-answer that I have received to written questions on this, they have abolished the Department of Health and Social Care’s alcohol policy team. Can the Minister confirm whether it is the case that there are no dedicated alcohol specialists in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and that that team have now been redeployed? Should we take that as an indication of how much Ministers care about this issue, and does that help us to understand why there was no real-terms increase to the public health grant in the spending review in March, even as alcohol treatment services have been hollowed out over the last 14 years?

It does not bode well for the prevention strategy that the Health Secretary has promised before the summer recess. I hope that that does not go the same way as the major conditions strategy and the health disparities White Paper before that. I am encouraged to hear that measures to tackle the obesity epidemic should feature in it, if not alcohol. Fatty liver disease and excess weight significantly increase the risk of premature death due to not just liver cancer but colon, breast, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancers, not to mention heart disease. When one in six children are obese by the time they finish primary school and one in four children with obesity are estimated to have fatty liver disease, this Government have been sitting on a ticking time bomb for the last 14 years, without taking action. Labour is committed to ensuring that all children get a healthy start to life, with free primary school breakfast clubs serving healthy food, an active and balanced curriculum and a pre-watershed ban on advertising junk food. Can the Minister confirm that concrete prevention policies to tackle the obesity epidemic will be included in the prevention strategy, and will she finally publish the consultation on the junk food ban and get on with legislating for it?

Mortality rates from liver disease are now four times higher in our most deprived communities than in our most affluent. That makes a mockery of the Government’s rhetoric on tackling health inequalities and levelling up. To build an NHS fit for the future, Labour is committed to hitting all NHS cancer waiting time and early diagnostic targets within five years. We will drive a prevention revolution, with measures to tackle alcohol harms and the obesity epidemic: banning junk food ads to children, boosting capacity in local public health teams and recruiting thousands of mental health staff to give more people access to treatment before they reach a crisis. As part of our 10-year health mission, we will improve healthy life expectancy for all and halve the gap in healthy life expectancy between different regions of England.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I have to say that I am a bit disappointed, because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), in particular, knows very well my personal commitment to the best start to life, so to hear her saying that the Government have done nothing and Labour is going to fix it is a bit rich, but there we are.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this important debate; it is an absolutely vital debate. All hon. Members, including the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), have raised the importance of prevention, early intervention and, in particular, early diagnosis. I commend them all for doing that. The Government are taking significant steps. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central talks about what the Scottish Government are doing. I can absolutely assure her that the Government of the United Kingdom are totally committed to improving early diagnosis and treatment, and I will go on to explain exactly what we are doing.

First, it is important to set out that we know that there are 6,000 new cases of liver cancer each year, making it the 18th most common cancer, with 5,000 deaths a year; that is 5,000 deaths too many. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir Sajid Javid) said during his tenure as Health Secretary, regional inequalities are “the disease of disparity”. He was absolutely right because—as the hon. Member for Stockport stated in his opening speech—economic and health inequalities go hand in hand.

Blackpool is a perfect example. It is one of the most deprived cities in England and flashes red on every indicator—for life expectancy, alcohol dependence and liver cancer. No fewer than 40% of the people unemployed there are not fit to work due to ill health, and the rate of death from chronic liver disease is almost two and a half times the average for England. That is an area that I have visited a number of times, to visit its family hubs and to look at the excellent work and huge efforts that go on there to level up to improve the disparities. Nevertheless, there is so much more to be done, and our strategy to eliminate disparities in liver disease and liver cancer is based on two key facts.

First, 90% of liver diseases are caused by alcohol dependency, obesity or viral hepatitis. Secondly, the five-year survival rate for liver cancer is only 13% precisely because people do not come forward with their symptoms until it is too late; early detection is vital. We know what causes liver disease, and we know that diagnosing it more quickly will save thousands of lives. That is why prevention and diagnosis are the twin pillars of our strategy to end inequalities in liver disease and liver cancer across our country.

To be clear, this is not about criticising people for drinking alcohol, but stopping the level of drinking that leads to liver disease and liver cancer. We know that rates of alcohol dependency are double in the most deprived local authorities. That is why, in December 2021, we published our drugs strategy, which does three things. First, it has brought the greatest-ever increase in funding —an extra £780 million—for drug and alcohol treatment, over £500 million of which is going straight to local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation and alcohol dependence. Secondly, the strategy is boosting screening capacity for liver disease, and thirdly, it is beefing up referral pathways to build a seamless system from diagnosis to treatment.

Since we published our strategy, we are treating more people than ever before for alcohol use. In February, almost 135,000 people were receiving treatment, compared with just over 117,000 just under two years ago, which is an increase of more than 15%. NHS England is investing almost £30 million to bring specialist alcohol care teams to hospitals in the most deprived parts of England. Those experts in addiction identify people in hospital with alcohol dependence, start their treatment and refer them to local authority community services where they can complete their treatment, overcome their dependence and move forward with their lives. I pay tribute to all those brilliant clinicians who are helping vulnerable people to turn their lives around.

Obesity is another major risk factor for liver disease and is a real scourge on the poorest parts of our country. During last week’s debate on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, we came under fire from hon. Members on both sides of the House who said, “Well, what about sugar? Are you going to ban that too?” This Government are not in the habit of banning things, but I am proud of our record on sugar reduction, healthy eating and obesity.

We have made strong progress in reducing the average sugar content in soft drinks through the soft drinks industry levy: we almost halved the sugar content in soft drinks between 2015 and 2019. I want to make the point that that is not with people saying, “Oh, this drink I used to like, I don’t like it anymore because it’s not sweet enough,” but was actually the result of reformulation that nobody noticed, which is the great thing about reformulation. If we can reduce the sugar, salt and fat content in foods so that people can carry on as normal without having to undertake some punishment routine, that is a good way to tackle the obesity problem.

Having paid close attention to the sugar tax when it was brought in, there was a particular exemption in the products that required reformulation. Milkshakes could contain as much sugar as any of the full-fat fizzy drinks, but were somehow exempted because they had milk in them. Will the Minister perhaps take the opportunity to go away and think about whether they ought to be contained within a future iteration of the scheme?

The hon. Lady will not be surprised, because she knows me well, that I am absolutely determined to tackle childhood obesity in particular, so that we can reverse the problems that we have seen in recent years, especially the spike in unhealthy eating and overeating during the covid pandemic. We know that people—both adults and children—are consuming too many calories. As she would expect, I am all over this and I am happy to debate any point with her. I agree on the sugar content in milkshakes, but there are many other foods that we also need to focus on. I hope I can reassure her on that.

For two years, we have been restricting the placement of less healthy products in shops and online to help consumers to make healthier choices. We are building on that progress. By the end of next year, further restrictions on price promotions on television and three-for-the-price-of-two offers in shops will come into force. I have been encouraging the big takeaway companies, the big supermarkets and so on to try to do it anyway— to get ahead of the regulations and to take action now. A number of them, I am pleased to say, are doing just that.

I am also pleased to update the House on the recent success of the NHS digital weight management programme. This week, the Obesity journal published a study showing that almost 32,000 people achieved sustained weight loss with the programme over a single year, which is really positive news. The programme is helping people from deprived backgrounds: more than a third of those referred were from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. It is obviously early days, but there are positive signs.

The other major contributor to liver disease is hepatitis. Thanks to increased testing and improved access to treatment, we have reduced the number of people living with chronic hepatitis C virus in England by more than half since 2015. Deaths related to hepatitis C have fallen by just over a third since 2015, well above the World Health Organisation’s 10% target.

Liver disease is known as the silent killer because many people are unaware of their condition until it is too late. That is why, as part of our ambition to detect 75% of cancers at an early stage by 2028, NHS England has launched the early diagnosis programme for liver cancer, which aims to prevent liver cancer by actively checking for liver disease in our most deprived areas.

An important part of the early diagnosis programme includes 19 community liver health check pilot sites that were launched in 2022. The most recent data shows that the CLHC programme reached more than 7,000 people in our most deprived areas using mobile units between June ’22 and January ’23. These units are equipped with fibroscans, which is a fantastic new technology, as many hon. Members have mentioned, for detecting liver damage and identifying liver disease before it becomes life threatening. These non-invasive tests have diagnosed more than 830 patients with cirrhosis or advanced fibrosis. I am pleased to update hon. Members that there are now eight community diagnostic centres providing fibroscans and a further 14 planned.

For my entire career, I have fought for the principles of fairness and equal opportunity—from helping children and babies in deprived areas to get the best start in life to levelling the playing field for small businesses when I was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and encouraging young women in my constituency to get into politics. I have done that throughout my career and I will not stop now. I am passionate about making our health service faster, simpler and fairer for all who use it, and tackling liver disease and liver cancer is at the heart of that mission. We have already delivered significant progress and, through prioritising prevention and driving early diagnosis, we have a plan to go further and faster in the years ahead.

I will end on a few remarks. I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate from the Front and Back Benches, though I am a bit surprised that we did not have any speakers from the Government Benches other than the Minister. This is an important issue for everyone.

The rate of hospital admissions for liver disease is higher in deprived areas. In 2021-22, there were 211.4 hospital admissions for every 100,000 people living in areas of multiple deprivation, compared with 125.1 in the least marginalised areas. That is quite serious. Additionally, I agree with the Minister about alcohol consumption; indeed, Alcohol Change UK made the point that it is not anti-alcohol, but against alcohol harm.

I will leave the Minister with a few questions. On a personal level, whenever I have gone to her with various issues, she has been extremely helpful and tried to do her best, but I think this is an important issue for the broader Government and the Department of Health and Social Care. I urge the Minister to take urgent action to improve earlier detection of liver cancer and the less survivable cancers. It is critical that the Government deliver on their pledge to diagnose 75% of all cancers at an early stage by 2030, which is the date I have written down—I think the Minister mentioned 2028, which is even better.

To reduce the staggering health inequalities we still face, the Minister must commit to delivering a cross-Government strategy to curb health inequalities and a prompt, comprehensive review of adult liver services by NHS England. We also need a comprehensive cross-Government alcohol strategy that tackles the social and commercial determinants of health. I also ask the Minister what assessments, if any, the Department has made of the inequalities impact of funding cuts to alcohol treatment services. Those are very serious issues.

I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), for her contribution. I hope to work with the Government on this issue. Once again, I thank all the charities and campaign groups that do so much on it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered health inequalities in liver disease and liver cancer.

Sitting suspended.

Global Ocean Treaty

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2022-23, Protecting Marine Mammals in the UK and Abroad, HC 697; and the Government response, HC 1942.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the ratification of the Global Ocean Treaty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this slot to me. In preparing for this debate, I have been grateful for the many supportive emails I have received from constituents who are keen to see the global ocean treaty ratified. I am also grateful for the time that Lord Benyon took to hear me strongly pushing him to go faster with his policy. For clarity, although I have a private Member’s Bill that is due to be considered by the House, my remarks will focus not on that but on the process of and work needed to implement this landmark treaty.

This debate is one in which we all agree with the goal: that the UK should ratify the global ocean treaty, also known as the high seas treaty, which was agreed by UN negotiators on 6 March 2023 following nearly a decade of negotiations in which, although I know she would be too modest to mention it herself, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) had a driving role. She has been supporting me with this issue and, I am sure, will make a worthwhile contribution later. The UK played a significant part in the negotiations. Our team of negotiators, who were supported every step of the way by Ministers committed to achieving an agreement—and, to be fair, by the main Opposition parties—should all be thanked today.

It is good to note that the UK Government was one of the first signatories to the treaty; however, it still has not been formally ratified by the UK. The treaty is a welcome update to the main international agreement on the oceans, which was adopted way back in 1982 and came into force in 1994: the UN convention on the law of the sea. That established the high seas as international waters in which all countries can fish, ship and do research, but did not include any specific protections for marine biodiversity. The global ocean treaty will change that by providing a legal framework for establishing marine protected areas, to protect against the loss of marine wildlife and share the genetic resources of the high seas.

With the current legal framework now out of date, every week that goes by without the new treaty in place sees the precious environment of our oceans put at risk. As soon as 60 countries ratify it, the treaty will enter into force and we can ramp up international action to protect our shared ocean, mitigate climate breakdown and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people worldwide. Hence, the UK should make progress to get the treaty ratified quickly and within the remaining period of this Parliament—[Interruption]—despite the objections of some people’s mobile phones.

One question that some listening will ask is: what is the potential impact once the treaty is enforced—what are we actually seeking to achieve? At its heart is the delivery of the 30 by 30 target. For background, the UN convention on biological diversity aims to promote biodiversity conservation and includes a focus on the identification of ecologically or biologically significant marine areas. In 2022, the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework was adopted at the 15th conference of the parties. It included a target to ensure that

“by 2030 at least 30 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas, and of marine and coastal areas…are effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures”.

That is now commonly referred to by the much snappier title of the “30 by 30” target. The global ocean treaty is crucial to enforcing that pledge, because without the treaty there will be no legal mechanism to set up marine protected areas on the high seas. We could declare them, but it would be open to some to simply ignore them.

The UK has committed to 30 by 30 and, in an election year, it is worth noting that the three main parties of Westminster are broadly committed to the agenda. The UK is also the leader of the 77-country global action alliance that champions ocean action and conservation towards the target. In that area, we can also be proud to be practising what we are preaching to others within our own waters. Some 38% of UK waters are included in a comprehensive network of marine protected areas, and within the overseas territories more than 60% of waters are protected and sustainably managed within the blue belt. We have a good record, so we should want to show it by being one of the first 60 to ratify the treaty.

We must see the global ocean treaty in the context of the wider work being done to protect our oceans. A few years ago, the idea of mining the deep sea would have been confined to a sci-fi film. Now, technology makes it possible, and areas that until the last century man had never seen or touched, which harbour some of the most unique biodiversity, are under threat. I therefore very much welcome the announcement on 30 October 2023 that the UK would support a moratorium on the granting of exploitation licences for deep-sea mining projects by the International Seabed Authority. As a nation, we should be driving the need for the ISA to develop strong, enforceable environmental regulations, standards and guidelines before any mining commences, while adopting a generally precautionary approach to this novel practice.

Deep-sea mining could pose a new threat to the deepest parts of the oceans, but another threat has been building for decades, and has now touched even the deepest parts of our ocean and washed up on the most remote shores: plastic. I welcome the Government’s work to reduce the use of single-use plastics, some of which might be used only for a couple of minutes but last centuries in the environment. The fact that a litter pick in Torbay found crisp packets from the 1980s, with some from the 1960s being discovered nationally, speaks volumes about what a moment’s idleness can produce. I am pleased that the UK is a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution, which is committed to achieving an ambitious treaty by the end of 2024. We need a clear and strong set of global standards to tackle the problem. Each nation can make its own contribution, but it is inevitable that a global approach is needed.

I note the aim of ending plastic pollution across the globe by 2040, including by restraining and reducing plastic production and consumption to sustainable levels, promoting a circular economy for plastic, and managing plastic waste in an environmentally sound and safe manner. I still recall how difficult it was during my time in local government, back in the 2000s, to get a contract for the processing of plastic collected for recycling that could guarantee that the plastic would actually get recycled, rather than shipped abroad, often to take advantage of labour and environmental practices that were banned in the UK. At that time, it was also well known that many of the items collected could end up as landfill, and not recycled as claimed when they were collected. It was said that they had been recycled simply because they had been exported for that purpose.

I generally welcome the written ministerial statement of 25 March, which provided a welcome update on the current position on ratifying the treaty. As of that day, the agreement had gained 88 signatures and two ratifications out of the 60 needed—although I understand that the number of ratifications is now four, with Belize, Palau, Chile and the Seychelles having formally ratified the agreement. The treaty was laid before Parliament for scrutiny on 16 October last year. According to the statement:

“Before the UK can ratify international agreements, legislation needs to be in place to ensure that new obligations can be complied with…The provisions in the agreement on marine genetic resources…require a clear legislative framework, including substantive provisions in primary legislation.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2024; Vol. 747, c. 67-68WS.]

Hence my introducing to the House a Bill to provide a legislative vehicle for just that.

The Government’s statement also outlined how the treaty creates new obligations for UK businesses, in particular the pharmaceutical, agricultural technology, cosmetic and chemical sectors, along with science and research. It also outlined that

“thorough engagement with key stakeholders is underway to help to ensure that implementation is effective and avoids any unintended consequences.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2024; Vol. 747, c. 68WS.]

Few would argue with a statement like that, but we do not want any delay in getting vital protections in place for our oceans—hence our wanting to ratify the treaty as quickly as we can.

My meetings with the Minister in the other place and officials were interesting, and I welcomed the written statement formally confirming the Government’s intention to ratify. However, given the importance of this work and the impending general election, it is no surprise that many stakeholders are keen to see the Government, who were so keen to get the global ocean treaty in place, be the one that ratifies it—thereby ruling out its ratification being subject to any of the vagaries of future politics, which are inevitable in an election year.

I note that the statement last month indicated that the Government are preparing legislation, with their aim being to implement and ratify the treaty in time for the UN ocean conference in June 2025. I understand that that target is shared by some other countries, but as always I am keen that we set the bar. Hitting 60 countries as quickly as possible is important because the first conference of the parties will meet within the first year of the agreement entering into force. That is when the real work of the treaty can start.

I note that the UK is already part of the preparatory commission to be established by the United Nations to prepare for that conference. It has been indicated that the legislation will come in the first part of the next Parliament, which could be later this year but similarly could be nine months away. Yet would this be a top priority in a new Parliament in the way that it has clearly been for this one and this Government? The sooner we hit 60, the sooner the first conference of the parties will take place.

Given what I have already outlined, there are some specific points to which I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s response. First, what timeline have the Government set themselves for completing the work on drafting the legislation? Why could it not be done by summer for an autumn introduction? Secondly, what prevents a legislative slot being used in the latter part of this year, given the obvious wide support that the legislation could command across the House and in the other place and—although I do not want to speak for them—the likely support we would have from the Opposition for moving it through this place relatively quickly? Thirdly, from her engagement with other countries, when does the Minister expect the 60-nation mark to be hit?

The global ocean treaty is a landmark treaty. It is the basis of delivering the 30 by 30 target, which would protect vast areas of our ocean and the biodiversity within them. Over the past decade, the Government have helped to drive forward the creation and negotiation of the treaty. Individual Ministers have worked with determination to get it agreed and to put the UK’s signature on it. The final stage is ratification. While the pledge by World Oceans Day next year is welcome, surely the Government must want the ratification of this landmark agreement to be a landmark achievement they can cite to voters when the general election comes.

I expect to go to the Front Benchers just before 3 pm, to give Kevin Foster two minutes at the end to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) most warmly on securing time for the debate. I hesitate to predict anything in politics these days, but I have more than a strong suspicion that this may be one of those occasions when we are all in violent agreement with each other. In order that everybody may have the opportunity to say what they have to say, I will try to keep my remarks suitably brief.

I am quite happy to acknowledge the leading role the Government have taken in the past 10 years that has brought us to the agreement of this treaty. The target of a 30% protected area for the high seas is a significant one. It will not be easy to achieve, but it is an important goal that we should aspire to. Of course, what happens on the high seas may be outwith the jurisdiction of our territorial waters and our exclusive economic zone out to 200 miles, but it is still nevertheless important for the inshore waters on which we rely in my constituency in particular, so we see this as an important opportunity for us. This is also an important opportunity for Britain to continue the leading role we have taken so far. The target of getting 60 countries to ratify the treaty is an important one, and when only four countries have currently ratified it, for Britain to step up to the plate and give early ratification would make a significant difference.

The truth of the matter is that, so often when it comes to what happens at sea, what happens is out of sight and out of mind, and things that happen on the high seas happen in a state of ignorance, because we simply do not know what goes on there. That is not just in environmental areas: if we consider the labour standards and rates of pay on many deep-water fleets, we will see a similar situation.

For me personally, one of the most important aspects of the treaty is the duty that it gives to parties to assess the environmental impacts of things such as plastics. The growth of plastic pollution has been a blight on our shores for decades. The alarming thing I have found in recent years is that when I do a litter-pick on a beach and end up looking at it and thinking, “Well, this is absolutely pristine,” I then spend another 10 or 15 minutes carefully going over it and realise that even in that short time I can fill a carrier-bag with small pieces of plastic. As an islander both by birth and by choice, I see that all the time when walking around our coastlines. The blight of plastic pollution must be tackled. We made so much progress following “Blue Planet II” in 2017, but then along came the pandemic, the closedown and the necessary biosecurity measures. As a consequence, we have lost so much momentum. This treaty might be one opportunity to recoup some of the lost ground.

The hon. Member for Torbay said that our high seas have unique biodiversity, and he is absolutely right. Of course, we used to have lots of unique biodiversity; we did not have to look to the high seas and the oceans for it. On dry land, however, we have already seen the loss of so much of our critical biodiversity and I fear that it has probably gone forever. So this treaty is for all of us a second chance. Our oceans are the lungs of our planet and if we do not take the action necessary for the ratification of this treaty now, we risk treating the biodiversity of our high seas in the same way that we have treated the biodiversity on dry land, and we will all be poorer as a consequence.

It is a pleasure, Ms Vaz, to serve with you in the Chair for this debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this debate. I know how passionate he is about this issue and he has already referred to my commitment to making sure that we get the treaty ratified as soon as possible. That is why I was happy to support his private Member’s Bill. Although I appreciate why it might not be possible to use that Bill as a vehicle for other things—I am sure the Minister will explain in more detail later—it is important that we continue to ensure that the Government, including our good friends at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, are as speedy as possible in sorting out the issues, so that we can get the treaty ratified.

I should also pay credit not only to Lord Benyon but to Lord Goldsmith, who has done a lot of work on this issue. Gosh—the first time I was a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I really got the bug for marine. I think that is not only because my constituency is Suffolk Coastal but because I grew up in a village just north of Liverpool. The sea has always mattered to me in many ways. As I say, I now represent Suffolk Coastal, where I look out at the north Sea, which is a lot colder.

The amount of biodiversity in the North sea, and the importance of the oceans, was brought home to me in my time working on coral reefs, which face the threat of ocean acidification. I also learned about the amazing science that we have in this country. The National Oceanography Centre is no longer formally a Government body, but is still very close to the work that the Government are trying to do. Indeed, it is still leading the United Kingdom’s National Decade Committee on the ocean and the chief scientist from DEFRA was at its conference just a couple of weeks ago in Barcelona.

The world and this Parliament are united in wanting to ensure that we take better care of our oceans, recognising how much the oceans have taken care of us and our planet for millennia, although we will never really properly compensate for some of the harm that we have done there.

However, the opportunity is now. That is why we have done the work in creating many marine conservation zones and marine protected areas, while continuing to try to strengthen the protections that exist, despite people like the European Union taking us to court on protecting areas such as the Dogger Bank—the extra controls that we have put in recently, to protect the sand eels that are the food for the puffins and kittiwakes. Those are the sorts of things that might not matter to every person in the street, whose greatest worries will understandably be about the cost of living and similar matters, but they are long-term strategic issues. That is why it is good to have such cross-party support and focus on tackling them.

It is less than a year ago that the final agreement was adopted in New York, back in June. When the treaty was opened up for signatures during the United Nations General Assembly on 20 September, it was my privilege to be alongside Lord Ahmad when he signed it formally on behalf of the UK Government. There was an interesting debate that day on whether the United States would sign it or not, so I was very pleased that President Biden gave the go-ahead because it matters that we have people sign up to these treaties. I will always give huge credit to the United States for a number of its activities, but they have never signed up to the convention on biodiversity. It is not a shame—they have done that for certain reasons—but the most powerful global treaty we have ever had is the Montreal protocol, signed back in 1987. The United States being a part of that really made a massive difference in ensuring that it was a priority for them in their activities around the world.

The threat to the ocean is so widespread, even from things like illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. That sort of harm is very difficult and challenging. In my time at DEFRA, I was proud of working to ensure that oceans became a very prominent part, while recognising the special relationship within Government, where the Foreign Office takes the lead on UN treaties and the like, and the importance of collective working. The creation of the blue planet fund is probably one of the most significant things we will have done on environmental improvement.

While we have been celebrating Earth Day this week, the focus was on plastics, because of the plastics treaty. The oceans have become a sink for carbon and all sorts of different things; they have literally become a sink for our rubbish. We need to continue to work on improving the state of our oceans. An amazing thing happened down in the south Atlantic when a marine protected area was established for the South Sandwich Islands. I recently took part in a debate here on penguins, and it might surprise people to know that through our overseas territories, the United Kingdom is responsible for 30% of the world’s penguins.

We must think about the impact on the building blocks of life itself and how the United Kingdom can, not with pride—pride comes before a fall, or a sin—but with determination lead by example. That is why so many parliamentarians and activists have been keen to ensure that we are leading the pack in getting the ratification done, given all the consequences that come as a result.

I am hugely enjoying my right hon. Friend’s speech. She mentioned the overseas territories, which fall under the remit of the FCDO. Bermuda is one of those, and is a champion for the Sargasso sea, which is a huge carbon store and increasingly a rubbish dump. Through its hydrographic service, the Royal Navy has mapped the world’s oceans more than any other country in the world. Surely, this is a golden opportunity for this country to show an international lead.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When UNESCO was considering doing the decade of ocean science, we were right behind it, supporting it and putting people forward from the plethora of excellence we have in this country. My hon. Friend points out the Royal Navy, but there is also the funding we give. As we move forward with this, we need to ensure that it is led by science and expertise, rather than solely ambition, in order to save the oceans that have done so much to save us. My hon. Friend is right that we need to be able to deliver for it to have credibility.

At COP26, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama came together to create the first significant cross-boundary marine protected area, the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor. We helped on that journey and are still financially supporting it; there are good ambitions there. They were well placed to trigger the race, and I hope they succeed, but I have a suggestion for the Minister about what we can do to get into the race. Between Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, which are obviously part of Ecuador, there is a gap, and I think we should use our resources to accelerate its designation as the first ever biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction zone. We could also get a run-on by working with Namibia and creating a BBNJ zone between it and Tristan da Cunha, which might be simpler. The ambition is there, and I encourage the Minister to discuss that with her officials.

On the treaty, the Foreign Office reply contained various articles and stated that we need legislation. I have to say that it was not particularly detailed. I know we are not supposed to use props, but I have the document, which was circulated to a number of MPs, in my hand; I am happy to share it with anyone who is interested. If the Minister cannot give us a full answer today, it would be helpful if she gave a more substantive answer, perhaps by writing to the Members who attended the debate or by putting a response in the Library.

Will the Minister set out what primary legislation, secondary legislation and other agreements are needed? We want this to happen, and officials said that they should have it ready before the end of this calendar year. I wonder what, with a bit of a heave and a shove, good will and the wash-up, we can do to get it through so that we are not waiting for it. No disrespect to whoever forms the next Government, but quite often priorities change and things take time. We have been leading the pack—we have at least been co-leaders—so let us stay there and ensure this gets delivered properly.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this very important debate and for his speech, and to the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who spoke with such knowledge of these matters.

We are discussing the ratification of the Global Ocean Treaty, but it is important to see it in the right context. It arose out of a problem with the global biodiversity framework. I was delighted to be in Montreal at COP15 when the global biodiversity framework was adopted. It established the 30 by 30 target to ensure that

“by 2030 at least 30 per cent of terrestrial, inland water, and of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures”.

But the problem was how to protect areas of our planet whose biodiversity lies beyond national jurisdictions, and how to create an ecologically interconnected system of protection and enforcement when so much of our planet is open ocean, not under the jurisdiction of any Government.

The treaty is the missing piece of the jigsaw. Without it, there would be no legal mechanism even to set up marine protected areas on the high seas, let alone enforce them. The high seas make up 40% of the surface of our planet and comprise 64%—almost two thirds—of the surface of the oceans, but in terms of capacity they represent 95% of the oceans’ volume. We used to think of the deep oceans as a barren wasteland, but we now know they are teeming with life: more than 2,000 new species are discovered every year.

I do not know how much time you spend thinking about whale poo, Ms Vaz, but understanding its importance for life on our planet is quite sobering. Whale faeces, very rich in nitrogen and iron, is critical for the growth of phytoplankton. Like plants, phytoplankton capture large amounts of carbon dioxide and convert it to usable cellular energy. That not only removes carbon from the atmosphere but produces the oxygen that we human animals need to survive. When phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton and krill, the carbon continues to pass through the food web, creating a healthy ocean.

If phytoplankton do not get eaten, they simply die and sink to the ocean floor where they lock away all the carbon that they have stored.

Known as the “biological pump”, billions of metric tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere are transferred to the bottom of the ocean every year, reducing the impact of global warming. Without the high seas shielding us, we would already be in a full-scale climate breakdown. Over 90% of the warming of the earth between 1971 and 2010 was directly absorbed by the oceans. If we increase the phytoplankton in our oceans by just 1%, it would have the same climate benefits as 2 billion mature trees.

Protection of the high seas is desperately needed for both ocean health and human wellbeing. Properly protecting 30% of the high seas would create havens for ocean wildlife that sustain and replenish the waters closer to shore. Importantly, it would enhance fish populations and food security. The high seas should be a global commons benefiting all of humanity. In fact, they are grossly abused. The result is that 80% of fisheries worldwide are fully or over-exploited, depleted or in a state of collapse. Continuing with the status quo and avoiding the necessary steps to curb overfishing and avert climate breakdown will lead to the comprehensive collapse of fisheries, and the lowest-income nations will suffer the most.

Research has shown that protecting more of the oceans will provide more fish to eat because we create the safe havens for fish to grow to maturity. Orange roughy can live for 200 years. They are not sexually mature until about 30. At full maturity, a female can produce almost a quarter of a million eggs. A female in her 30s might produce only 20,000. So it makes sense to create the marine protection zones that the global oceans treaty will facilitate.

The treaty allows for nations to establish marine-protected areas by a majority vote of ratifying members where they cannot reach consensus. That avoids the blocking stalemates and vetoes that would otherwise come into the political counting. It will ensure the sharing of marine genetic resources, providing equitable access to science and the benefits from ocean discoveries, with a benefit-sharing committee to oversee the treaty’s call for a standard batch ID to be added to genetic samples and subsequent patents on sales.

The treaty establishes the need for capacity building for developing nations to ensure that they can gain equitable access to science, technology and marine genetic resources, and it insists on environmental impact assessments for activities on the high seas that are expected to have a substantial impact. The treaty will not require new permits for research projects exploring the high seas, but it will create a science and technical committee to oversee regulations and react to changing conditions in the oceans. In the context of the last point, let me welcome in passing the UK Government’s announcement of a moratorium on deep-sea mining in October last year.

I am delighted that the UK was one of the first signatories to the treaty, but speedy ratification is vital if we are to reach the triggering number of 60 states that would bring the treaty into force. We have only six years before 2030. If we are to achieve 30% of high seas protection, we have to begin planning now, even before ratification.

Before the general election in 2010, I played a small role in lobbying for the UK to create what was then the largest marine-protected area on the planet, in the Indian ocean. Since then, the Conservative Government have developed their flagship blue belt programme for the establishment of MPAs in the UK overseas territories. I think it is perhaps their single greatest achievement, protecting over 4 million sq km of ocean habitat, accounting for 1% of the ocean’s entire surface.

The MPZ created by the Government of Tristan da Cunha, which was mentioned, is the fourth largest MPA in the world, providing critical habitat for tuna, penguins and the iconic Tristan lobster. In 2024, the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands were officially protected by the Government, creating an MPA eight times the size of Wales. Those islands lie on important migration paths for birds travelling from the Antarctic to South America. The waters off their coasts are equally important for various marine species in the Southern ocean. The blue belt programme is a success, and I commend the Government for what they have done, but there have been challenges and disappointments on the way, and it is from those that I hope the Minister will seek to learn when coming to consider how best to implement the Global Ocean Treaty.

The very remoteness that fosters the strong biodiversity in the UK’s overseas territories also creates logistical challenges and capacity issues. While the Government have provided some technical and financial support to address those capacity issues, they know that support has not been sufficient, and it has caused problems with the roll-out of the blue belt priorities. It has also imposed considerable burdens on the already strained capacity of the overseas territories’ Governments.

The unique constitutional status of the OTs has also disqualified them from seeking outside financial support from organisations such as the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Environment Programme. These capacity issues are often most apparent in the fight against IUU—illegal, unsustainable and unregulated —fishing.

Most of the overseas territories do not have access to cost-effective fisheries surveillance and monitoring systems. That makes it difficult to police the MPAs and ensure that they are not being violated. The UK should not restrict the amount of resource that the overseas territories are permitted to allocate to conservation efforts, which it does at the moment. The Government could also allow the territories to access funding pots already put aside for conservation efforts, such as the UK’s contribution to the UN decade on ecosystem restoration.

Territory Government Departments are unable to deliver all the top-down work programmes being recommended by blue belt agencies. More long-term, local staff are required if the programme is to achieve all its ambitions. These problems will be even greater when we think of establishing MPAs beyond the territorial jurisdiction of even our remotest territories.

The Minister will be aware that the Marine Conservation Society has recommended creating a UK Government-led MPA satellite surveillance system, sharing transparent metrics on enforcement in overseas territories’ waters, and also funding observer coverage on local fisheries. Will the Minister set out how the Government will ensure that, under the treaty, we are not simply drawing lines on an ocean map, but are creating robust and enforceable protected areas?

Finally, I support the call from a number of non-governmental organisations and agencies, and from Members today, urging the Government to begin the work of planning the development of these ocean sanctuaries, and not to wait until the treaty is ratified and enforced. Alliances with other coastal states are already there in embryonic form, such as with the Sargasso Sea Commission—of course, the Sargasso sea is also home of one of our overseas territories, Bermuda.

Bermuda’s deputy premier recently called for the Sargasso sea to be prioritised for protection under the new treaty. Can the Minister assure us that she is working with Bermuda and other countries in the region to jointly spearhead a proposal for an ocean sanctuary in the Sargasso sea that might be ready to present at the treaty’s first conference of the parties?

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), my South West Bedfordshire constituency is about as far from the sea as you can get. So why does this debate matter to my constituents? Why am I here today? The reason is that the oceans produce half the oxygen that we breathe. It is worth pausing for a moment on that point, given how important oxygen to human life on the planet.

Oceans are the world’s largest carbon sink and have already absorbed 30% of all our carbon dioxide and 90% of the excess heat caused by human activities. Three billion people around the planet rely on the oceans for food and livelihoods. That is a huge number. Just think of the global economy and what would happen to those people if the oceans were not able to carry on supplying that food and their livelihoods. Protecting the high seas from industrial overfishing and mining can lock away carbon, while replenishing those all-important fish populations.

We should also remember the potential of the blue economy for the whole pharmaceutical sector. We know that fungi in the twilight zone of the oceans are highly likely to be a new and really important source of penicillin-like drugs for the future, which can help us to deal with some of the terrible health issues that we face. What is the problem that the global ocean treaty is trying to solve? We know that, sadly, two thirds of the high seas are already experiencing pollution, overfishing and the impacts of climate change. A third of global fish stocks are already overfished, and over a third of marine mammals, such as sharks, are under threat of extinction. Sharks are an incredibly important apex predator—many of us think they are to be feared, but we now know from marine biologists that they have a very important role in the whole ecosystem of marine life.

There is also the whole issue of plastic that is integrally bound up in this, which several other hon. Members have already mentioned. The United Nations believes that some 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. We all do our bit as litter pickers, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, and I am sure we have all tried to do our pathetically small amount on holiday. We all have to do what we can, but that is an absolutely huge amount. We also know that, in the first decade of the 21st century, more plastic was created than in the whole of history up to that point. The production of plastic is on an accelerating curve, and unless we do something about it, we will not get on top of this issue.

A quarter of all fish sold in Californian fish markets have plastic in their gut, according to some recent studies. There are four countries that dump more plastic in the sea than all other countries combined: China—which is by far the worst—Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The Yangtze river pours more plastic into the ocean than any other river on the planet, and that cannot go on. I say to our friends in those countries—with a degree of humility, because our own record has not been perfect in the past—that that is an issue they need to get on top of.

What needs to be done to address those really serious problems? The UN high seas treaty was finalised in 2023, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal for her role in that. It took 20 years of negotiation, and that is a very long time. I am proud that the UK was a member of the so-called High Ambition Coalition to get it done, and I join what every other Member has said about trying to get it ratified as quickly as possible, to provide a really important lead on this issue. The UK blue belt around UK overseas territories has protected an area of ocean larger than the size of India, which is to be welcomed. Closer to home, around England, we have three highly protected marine areas as well, which are also very much to be welcomed. We need to ratify the treaty as quickly as possible. We also need the closely related UN global plastics treaty to be created and finalised by the end of 2024. I am pleased that the UK is a member of High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, because those two issues are integrally connected.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Vaz. The contributions today have been excellent. I was beginning to question my life choices when my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) started talking about whale poo, but he explained in great detail and breadth why this treaty is important and why it is rightly getting attention today. After decades of campaigning and about a decade of negotiation, it was a landmark moment when it was agreed, and there is no doubt that it will have a positive impact when it is finally ratified.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said that we need 60 countries to ratify the agreement, and as we heard, it will provide a legislative framework for the first time. That is a crucial step if we are to achieve our 30 by 30 goal of protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. All hon. Members present are committed to that, which is a rarity; there is great unanimity about the need for us to get on and ratify the treaty.

I have many constituents, as other hon. Members do, who asked me to take part in this debate, because they understand the importance of the ocean for protecting not just the diverse ecosystem in there but the wider planet. We have seen the effects of the failure to protect our environment in this country alone. A report from the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee published last year noted that, in the UK,

“41 per cent of species have decreased in abundance since 1970 while 15 per cent of species have been classified as threatened with extinction.”

The fact that the Government support the treaty and are undertaking the groundwork is welcome, but there are concerns about some wider aspects of Government policy, such as the progress of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which comes into potential conflict with the ambitions behind marine protected areas. New oil and gas beds can inflict serious harm on the marine environment. Exploration can cause oil spills, which harm marine wildlife and ecosystems. Underwater noise pollution from surveys also causes severe harm to marine mammals, commercially important fish, and invertebrates. There is also direct destruction of habitats such as deep-water sponge and cold-water corals, which form an important part of the natural cycle of our oceans.

Exploration can have a wide-ranging impact on marine life and ecosystems. The treaty is meant to limit those kinds of harms, so it is surprising that some policies seem to conflict with MPAs. Will the Minister comment on how that contradiction will be resolved? Questions ought to be raised about the place of MPAs in UK waters and the commitment to restore 70% of designated features to favourable conditions by 2042. It would be useful to know exactly what measures will be brought in to ensure that that is delivered.

We are short on time, so I will end on a positive note. The treaty is a step in the right direction, which has been decades in the making; we do not want to see more decades go by before we see the results. There are many reasons to be optimistic about where we are heading. The consensus that we have heard today is encouraging, but we have to be aware of wider Government policies. There is a lot of evidence that much more needs to be done to protect our seas—let alone the rest of the planet’s oceans. With 71% of the Earth covered by oceans, we have to pay as much attention to what is going on there as we do to dry land.

Last year, we saw record temperatures in the oceans. We cannot ignore the influence that has on the climate. The oceans absorb heat and carbon dioxide. Importantly, they drive weather patterns, the impact of which we are seeing regularly. Warming oceans also contribute to the increasing melting of ice, which causes sea levels to rise. Everything is connected. It is clear that with every passing year, the battle against climate change becomes a little harder to defeat. Protecting the oceans is a key part of that. Ultimately, it will determine whether we continue to survive as a species on this planet, which is why we really must get on and ensure that the treaty is delivered and begins to produce results.

I apologise for my phone going off while the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was speaking. I did not wish to interrupt his speech.

I strongly support the ratification of the treaty. I follow the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) in hoping that that can be sped up in Government processes so that we can pass legislation before the general election, perhaps in the wash-up period. It is clearly not controversial between parties and it could be done. I see the Minister nodding sagely; she obviously wants to do the same thing but cannot say so, so I will say it for her: I hope that we can get this legislation done as quickly as possible.

There is widespread support for the treaty among the members of the public who are aware of environmental issues. Indeed, the whole attitude towards the marine environment has changed dramatically, certainly during my time in the House. I remember the massive controversy about an Antarctic mining Bill in the late 1980s. It was eventually defeated and withdrawn by the Government, and replaced by full support for the Antarctic treaty. Later, we got the protection of the Southern ocean as a whaling-free zone, and then as a fishing-free zone, so we got the principle of large-scale protection for the Southern ocean. That has meant that the whale population has begun to recover quite quickly. Our participation in the International Whaling Commission also helped to achieve that.

Marine protection zones, and other zones that protect all species, are very important. Some 10% of all marine species are under threat at the present time. I am pleased that we have the massive marine protection zone around the Falkland Islands and south from there, but also around Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, which has now been adopted by Mauritius, as a continuation of the British initiative.

In addition to the 30% target, we should think more about general attitudes towards the ocean. Obviously, water flows from one place to another, so we can protect one area from mining, overfishing and so on, but unless we have a similar attitude towards the rest of the ocean then, clearly, fish stocks and ocean biodiversity will be severely damaged.

The efforts of deep-sea mining companies will come back. There will be enormous pressure from mining companies and others who want to do seabed mining, just as there is pressure from some in the fishing industry who have a voracious appetite for deep-bed trawling, which ruins coral, ruins biodiversity and destroys the ocean almost for all time. It is about regulation in the whole of the oceans, as well as in the areas that we are seeking to protect.

Many hon. Members talked about plastic pollution, which is clearly very serious. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made the important point that plastic production is rising rapidly all around the world. It is probably rising more rapidly in southern countries than in western Europe or the United States, where there is some degree of regulation. I am not sure that it is possible to have a completely plastic-free life, but a lot of the plastics that we use are completely unnecessary and end up being discarded and wasted. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out, we can look at a beach and think that it is beautiful and pristine, but once we start sifting through the sand—we do not have to sift very far—we find bits of plastic waste. That plastic waste is ingested by fish and then eaten by those who eat fish. Having this level of plastic waste is self-poisoning, so we need very tough regulation.

We also need tough regulation on what ships dump in the ocean. Cruise liners and other sea-going vessels are pretty bad culprits. They think that because they are out of sight of land, they can tip anything they want into the ocean and get away with it. That means that we need a much tougher attitude towards dumping stuff in the ocean.

We must also look at the pollution that we create in the oceans around our shores. A phenomenal amount of sewage waste flows into our rivers every year because of the inadequacy of the sewage treatment system and the lack of investment in it by many water companies. It is not just about the obvious unpleasantness of seeing solid waste in the oceans around our shores. A lot of the chemicals flushed down the toilet or put down drains and so on from industrial processes and elsewhere are not treated. That, too, adds to the pollution and poisoning of our oceans, so we need to be much tougher on water company regulation. For example, Thames Water has made a huge profit from its water distribution, but it has run up massive debts of £14 billion. It is paying shareholders with its debts and polluting our seas and rivers at the same time, so we need to be a bit sharper with all the water companies on the levels of pollution that are caused.

I know that the Front Benchers want to speak, and I do not want to go on too long, so I will just say that it is an attitude of mind about the ocean that is important—that if we throw something in the sea, it does not disappear. In fact, it goes somewhere, it causes pollution and it causes damage which eventually comes back to bite us. I absolutely support the treaty and think it is a huge step forward. I hope that we can get it ratified quickly to help the speed of global ratification. I hope that we will play our part in reducing the pollution to the sea from our own sources, and put pressure on other countries that are producing ludicrous amounts of plastic with no thought given to the damage it does to the ocean and to future fish quality and supplies.

The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) made the point about the regulation of international waters—by agreement, obviously—because overfishing in one place has an effect on the loss of food supply for migratory birds or larger sea mammals. That causes an upset to the natural balance and we all pay a price. Let us agree today to get this treaty ratified as quickly as possible, so that we are playing our part in delivering sustainability and clean oceans.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, and I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing the debate. The decision to hold Westminster Hall debates slightly earlier on a Thursday is paying off, because it is giving more of us an opportunity to speak on behalf of our constituents on issues that are important to them.

Like the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), I have had dozens of communications— nearly 200—from constituents expressing their determination to see the global ocean treaty ratified and ensure that this debate is well attended. It is particularly encouraging to see Conservative Members make the positive case for multilateralism and the rule of international law. I want to assure hon. Members that the SNP joins the support for the principles of the treaty and the calls for its immediate ratification by the UK Government. If the hon. Member for Torbay’s private Member’s Bill helps to speed that up, so much the better.

The treaty goes by many different names: in full, it is known as the legally binding international instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. More simply, it is known as the biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction treaty, the high seas treaty or, as most of us have referred to, the global ocean treaty.

How we name things is important, and sometimes the high seas or international waters are described as some sort of frontier, which evokes dated imagery of unexplored territory that is there to be exploited. Previous frontiers, whether the American west or the interior of Africa, were no such things to the people, flora and fauna that had been there for hundreds if not thousands of years before European or other explorers arrived. The approach of the treaty is important in that it is an assumption not in favour of the exploitation of resources, but in favour of the conservation of the marine environment and the sustainable and managed development of any economic potential.

That potential is significant, as we have heard. Around half of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, but less than 2% of that area is under any kind of legal protection. At the same time, nearly 10% of global marine species are estimated to be at risk of extinction, so there is a need to rapidly enhance our approach and to ensure that treaty obligations can be undertaken and held to account. That means that there will be another round of COPs, but that is vital if we are to meet the 30 by 30 target that was spoken of by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and others.

The point about plastic pollution has also been well made by a number of hon. Members, starting with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Many people in Glasgow North, myself included, recently took part in the Big Plastic Count to better understand our plastic use and how we can reduce our plastic footprint. There is also a campaign for a global plastics treaty that might sit alongside the oceans framework. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what progress has been made on that to ensure a just transition away from the use of single-use plastics in particular.

In Scotland, we stand ready to do our part. Our marine environment is an integral part of life in the country. It is difficult to go anywhere in Scotland and be particularly far from the sea. I am not sure how this compares to South West Bedfordshire, but I think the furthest point in Scotland, Glen Quoich in Braemar, is only about 65 km from the coast. If one goes up to any elevated point, it is not difficult to see either the sea or something that flows into the sea.

The marine environment in Scotland supports about 8,000 species of plants and animals, and new discoveries are always ongoing. Under the SNP Government, some 37% of Scotland’s territorial waters are now designated as marine protected areas, including 247 sites for nature conservation. The Scottish Government have a vision of

“a clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse marine and coastal environment”

managed in a way

“that meets the long term needs of people and nature.”

They, too, have adopted the idea of a blue economy approach to recognise the mutually beneficial nature of, and connectivity between, sustainable economic growth, inclusiveness and wellbeing, and protection of the environment and biodiversity.

Unfortunately, some of the UK Government’s actions to date do not necessarily always meet the same high ambitions. Their decision to grant new oil licences is not a long-term solution to energy security or the cost of energy crisis and is actively damaging to the progress that needs to be made on tackling climate change. It is estimated that the Rosebank oilfield, which the Government seem determined to press ahead with, would, over its lifespan, equal the annual emissions of about 90 countries and 400 million people. The development company’s own environmental statement admits that the construction of new oil wells would have the potential to lead to wider changes in the seabed, the direct loss of species and habitat, and wider indirect disturbances.

The Government have to be very careful about how they use some of the legal mechanisms and instruments contained in this treaty or others or in their own competence. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke—not to my surprise—about the situation in the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos islands. There was concern that when the marine protected area there was introduced, that was less in the interests of the marine environment and more in the interests of preventing resettlement of or the right of return to those islands. Of course, in the end, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the UK should have engaged more fully with Mauritius before making that declaration, and in 2021 the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that the UK Government do not hold sovereignty over the Chagos islands—but perhaps it turns out that these are just more decisions by “foreign” courts that the UK Government choose to ignore.

That would be my only note of caution. I do not want to break the consensus that we have heard today, but I will just gently suggest to the hon. Member for Torbay that although his initiative today is incredibly commendable and there is clearly consensus in favour of the global ocean treaty and its rapid ratification, the reality is that in recent years the Government have not had the best track record of respecting their international obligations and have been simply dismissing or ignoring decisions or commitments that they find inconvenient.

Likewise, the Government have to consider carefully the message that their attitude sends to other countries around the world. We cannot pick and choose our obligations under international law. If we support the rules-based international order, if we support the treaties and mechanisms that have attempted to secure peace and security, or at least progress towards peace and security, and the protection of the environment since the second world war, we have to support and accept those institutions and agreements in their entirety. By all means make a case for reform, but that has to be done through the order that exists in the first place. That is particularly true if we expect and request other countries to do the same, so it also has to be true of our approach to the global ocean treaty.

The Government have a responsibility to current and future generations to do all they can to protect the marine environment. Water is life, as my friends in Malawi often say, and the waters that make up the seas are home to life in abundance. They are part of a global ecosystem on which we all depend, in a fragile balance that we damage or destroy at great peril to all of us. The ocean treaty has been hard won, and now the challenge is for the UK Government to play their part to ensure that the treaty delivers on its ambitions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I genuinely express thanks to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for this debate. I recognise that it is not the first time that he has pursued this interest in the ocean treaty. I am really grateful that he has brought about the debate today.

I tip my hat once again to the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who, despite no longer being in the Front-Bench position, has continued to advocate for environmental issues from the Back Benches. I completely respect that. And I love, I have to say, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) being “in violent agreement” in a debate. It is not often that we are in violent agreement, but I quite like that as a phrase—so long live our violent agreement.

I always enjoy the speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). They are always very informed, and I know how passionately he cares about the environment. We share an interest in whale poo, so that is really good. That was going to be in my speech a bit later on; I think it is fascinating.

Why does the treaty matter? The treaty stopping any individual country having a veto is important, because not all countries will agree all the time. One country being able to have a veto would always delay things. That is an important point to highlight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), an excellent Member of Parliament, has been listening to his constituents who come here to speak about this subject. He has been hearing about it, and he pointed out the rarity of agreement among us. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) highlighted the progress on how we view the oceans and how it has changed for the better over the years. There is still further to go. I liked the phrase he used at the end, about an “attitude of mind” with the ocean. He made the good point that just because it is out of sight, it should not be out of mind. That is worth bearing in mind.

The ocean is beautiful. Perhaps it is the former teacher in me, thinking that every day is a school day—but every day is, when it comes to the ocean. We learn more and more, and we understand more and more. The more we learn about it, the more the mind is blown by how important literally everything is.

In my constituency is a place called the Deep, a big aquarium. It is amazing. When I was younger and my children were little—one was a baby and one a toddler— I got a year’s pass, very good value, for us all to go as a family. Every week, my toddler used to say, “Go to the Deep! Go to the Deep!” and I would be like, “Go and push them around the Deep—again?” At lunchtime, if I timed it well, we could go into the dark area—the deep sea area—and the baby would fall asleep, so I could eat with the toddler before the baby woke. I spent many a day in the Deep, learning about and understanding the ocean.

Oceans regulate everything, including our climate. They support biodiversity and provide food and livelihoods, as has been pointed out, but less than 1% of the high seas is currently protected. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North, without the high seas shielding us, we would already be in a full-scale climate breakdown. We should be preserving critical habitats, such as mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs, which act as carbon sinks. Protecting those vast stores of blue carbon is critical to slowing climate change. The plants and animal life of the oceans fix carbon. I loved that about the whale poo. It is amazing. If, however, we were able to increase the plankton population by just 1%, it would have the same climate benefit as about 2 billion mature trees. As I say, every day is a school day—I get very excited about all this.

It is time to stop presenting the protection of the natural world as a trade-off between the needs of people and the needs of nature. There is no trade-off. Protecting our oceans and the life they contain protects us. But do not take just my word for it. The UN global oceans treaty is historic. It is one of the most significant steps forward in international conservation in human history—something we can all be incredibly proud of. Yesterday, the European Union ratified it, and we should be proud that the UK was one of the first countries to sign the treaty when it opened for signatures at the UN last year. Since then, however, progress has stalled, and the legislation has been pushed back—I am hearing until after the general election, apparently.

Please hold in the forefront of your minds, the incredible prize that is in front of us: the opportunity to protect life on our planet. It is not often that we get the chance to look at that. Just imagine how great, how good, for our international reputation it would be if the UK were leading from the front, championing the new high seas ocean sanctuary proposals. Imagine the signal we could send the global community of the UK as a real and genuine world leader, with a commitment to tackling climate change, biodiversity and global ocean protection. Sadly, however, that is just my imagination, and the reality brings us much further down to earth.

The fact is that the Government have simply failed to devote the resources needed to this legislation and to get the job done. In the ministerial letter to the hon. Member for Torbay on 28 March, Lord Benyon claimed that the private Member’s Bill would,

“slow down the necessary work towards ratification by diverting resources”.

I find it difficult to believe, or understand, how that could be a serious problem in a well-resourced project.

Will the Minister therefore update us on the progress of the legislation and any future timetable? To meet the goal of protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030—as has been mentioned—the work to identify and collaborate on proposals for ocean sanctuaries must begin now, so will the Minister confirm that that identification has begun and tell us which countries we are collaborating with?

Another interesting fact: the Sargasso sea—as has also been mentioned a few times—is nicknamed the golden floating rainforest. Wow! The golden floating rainforest is home to more than 145 invertebrate species and more than 127 species of fish. Will that site be identified as a priority by the UK, as it is surrounded by UK overseas territories? Our global British family in the UK overseas territories contains 94% of all the unique species that the UK is responsible for. These huge marine areas throughout the world’s oceans are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, yet their contribution to it is negligible. That is understood by our friends in the overseas territories and recognised by schemes such as the blue belt programme, which have been mentioned. From Helena to Cayman, Bermuda to Anguilla, the Falklands to the British Virgin Islands, these efforts underpin the reasons why this debate is crucial. Does the Minister share my ambition for the UK to be ready to present at the treaty’s first conference of the parties, COP1? If so, does she agree that identification of, and collaboration on, marine protected areas is urgent?

The UK has every incentive to lead the way on the ratification of the treaty and show global leadership. Wouldn’t it be good for the UK to be leading the world in a positive way, to make the news for positive reasons and to show that it actually follows and agrees with international law? Wouldn’t that make a wonderful headline?

I am very much enjoying the hon. Lady’s speech, and there is very little of it that I disagree with. Obviously, I hope that her party will not be the one making this decision. However, can she be clear, given that there is an impending general election, that she would, first and at the very least, meet the target for ratification that the Government set out and, secondly, ensure that the legislation will be in the first King’s Speech?

I am delighted to say that we absolutely would meet that target. We would signal to the international community that we take seriously our responsibility for tackling the interconnected climate and nature emergencies by prioritising the treaty. If we do not prioritise and pass the treaty, we would simply not be doing that. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be in a new Labour Government and ratify this treaty? I almost feel sorry for the people opposite who have put most of the work in beforehand. Instead, we have seen what we always see with this chaotic Government: dither, delay, excuses.

I have a simple message to all those who care about protecting the oceans and to all those who know that protecting the oceans protects us: if the Government will not ratify this treaty, then a future Labour Government will, and we will be the leaders that this treaty needs and deserves.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this important debate and for the contributions from other hon. Members. I have learned much, as I think many of us have, about our oceans, biodiversity and the processing of nutrients.

As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), said, we will all take away useful information; as ever, today is a learning day. The hon. Lady’s children sound like future champions of ocean life and biodiversity, thanks to their mother’s very cunning ways of spending their afternoons. That gives us all hope that the next generation will also be passionate about this important part of our planetary biodiversity.

It is immensely encouraging to hear so many colleagues so engaged, and I thank them all for their attendance. This is a policy area that we are continuing to lean in on; the Government have led on it throughout our governing time. That includes my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who provided incredible leadership during her time leading DEFRA, and colleagues in the other place, including Lord Benyon, who holds this portfolio within the FCDO. He has a joint portfolio across DEFRA to ensure that the Government’s progress on this can be as effective as possible.

I will address some of the specific points made. As ever, if I miss one, I apologise in advance—we will ensure that we write to Members. I will make and unpack three points during the course of my remarks. First, to be clear, the UK is supportive of the BBNJ agreement. It is really important to set that out in full. Secondly, the BBNJ agreement will help us to protect two thirds of the global ocean that lies beyond any national jurisdictions by establishing marine protected areas in the high seas. That is vital to protecting and restoring the health of our ever warmer and more acidic oceans as they bear the brunt of emissions. It will support the worldwide web of marine life, including those critical commercial stocks that a number of colleagues have mentioned. That is an important and challenging area of policy globally.

As is absolutely right, the UK, led by this Government, has been hard at work behind the scenes over the last 14 years to secure the agreement, with many people putting a huge amount of work in. Our aim is for the UK to be able to implement and ratify the BBNJ agreement in time for the UN ocean conference in June 2025. That is an ambitious target date, which is, importantly, shared by like-minded countries. We are cracking on with the work needed to achieve that, as well as helping others to do similarly. It is important that we get the implementation right.

By 2030, our vision is for the ocean to be governed effectively, clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse—linking resilient and prosperous coastal communities around the world, and supporting sustainable economic growth for the UK, our overseas territories and Crown dependencies. The UK’s commitment to upholding the United Nations convention on the law of the sea—UNCLOS, as it is known—in all its dimensions is at the heart of achieving that. For 40 years and more, UNCLOS has effectively been the global ocean treaty, and the BBNJ agreement will sit under it.

As colleagues have highlighted, here in the UK we have cross-party and—it is lovely to hear it raised—constituents’ support for powers to establish new high seas marine protected areas. The powers are one facet of an agreement that includes a number of provisions that will be important, especially to developing countries, and that we are working equally hard to negotiate in three particular areas: marine genetic resources—ensuring that the benefits are shared fairly and equitably—environmental impact assessments, and building capacity and transferring technology.

I am listening carefully to the Minister. Can she explain exactly how we will support countries to get that access and to have the capacity themselves? What financial and other resources will we make available?

I am afraid that I do not have that information to hand, but I will ensure that the team gets back to Members to set out the road map that is in place already, on which there is a great deal of work. It covers a very broad range of areas, as I have set out.

Trying to bring all the provisions together has made securing the agreement complicated, to say the least. I pay tribute to our indefatigable UK negotiating team, some of whom are here, as well as the National Oceanography Centre team, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal mentioned, and which was a crucial part of the UK delegation. As we have mentioned, our team played an instrumental role in getting the whole treaty across the line. It is an achievement in which the UK and so many should take real pride. The result is a major victory for ocean protection and multilateral diplomacy that will underpin UNCLOS and help us to make good on shared global commitments to manage the whole ocean sustainably, protect at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030—the 30 by 30 commitment —and halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2030, which is our global mission.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned, the UK was one of the very first to sign the agreement, on 20 September 2023, the day it opened for signature at the UN—we were at the front of the queue. We want to ensure that it comes into force as quickly as possible. Globally, that will take several steps to achieve: 60 states or regional economic integration organisations must become party to the agreement, and 120 days must pass after deposit of the 60th instrument of ratification before it can enter into force. The first conference of the parties will then be able to meet within a year of that date. The agreement has gained 89 signatures and four ratifications so far. Realistically, we expect that the first conference should be able to meet in late 2026. We intend for the UK to be there as a party to the agreement, and we are making timely progress towards that end, as well as, importantly, helping others to do similarly.

As hon. Members would expect, here at home we have hit the ground running, having been right at the front of the queue in putting our names to the agreement. We are making good progress, in line with the process for the scrutiny of treaties by Parliament, which is 21 sitting days under section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. We began the process of parliamentary scrutiny the first sitting day after signature.

We are working on the clear legislative framework needed to implement the agreement, including substantive provisions in primary legislation, and ensuring that stake- holders can comply with what are complex new obligations. That includes scientists and industry, reaching across the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, agricultural-technology, cosmetic and chemical sectors—as I say, it is a broad range of interlocutors whom we are working with—and all those required to provide environmental impact assessments both in areas beyond national jurisdiction and, indeed, those within UK waters.

I am pleased to report that work to develop the policy on implementation is almost complete. As I set out, our aim is to implement and ratify the agreement in time for the UN ocean conference in June 2025—that is, next year. It is an ambitious target date, but it is shared by other forward-leading countries, and it will ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of ocean protection. We will provide updates on our progress to both Houses before summer recess and again when Parliament resumes, as well as continuing to work with the devolved Administrations on what they will also need to do. We intend for the UK to play an active part in that first conference of the parties, including in the UN’s preparatory commission.

The Minister says that the work on the legislative framework is almost complete. When does she expect it to be complete, and what timeline has she set for that?

My hon. Friend asks me questions that I am afraid I do not have the answer to, but to my earlier point, I will ensure that Lord Benyon contacts him to give him the latest update on that as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) highlighted that the UK’s blue belt now protects an area of ocean larger than India around the UK’s overseas territories, so of course we welcome the extension of the BBNJ agreement to them and to the Crown dependencies, recognising that they have their own domestic considerations and, indeed, procedures to undertake.

We want to see the BBNJ agreement implemented and ratified by as many countries as possible as soon as possible, so we are supporting the efforts of developing countries, including some of the smaller Commonwealth countries, and working through the Commonwealth secretariat for small island developing states. There is particular interest from some Pacific and Caribbean islands and states. We are scoping out new marine protected areas that could be proposed once the agreement is in force. Of course, all that sits alongside our wider work to champion the ocean, both at home and right across the world.

It is encouraging to know that the Minister is scoping out some areas. Could she give more detail either now or later in writing on where these areas we are looking at are?

I am happy to ask Lord Benyon to update the hon. Lady on that question. Together we can make good on the promise of this landmark international agreement. Indeed, it matters greatly that we do—not only for the health of our oceans and the good of all those who depend on them, as many colleagues have set out today, but for confidence in the UK’s continuing leadership on the world stage in this important area.

I thank all Members for their interventions, passion and commitment to keeping the Government’s feet to the fire on getting this legislation in place as soon as possible, as well as raising those important wider issues around ocean pollution and plastics. I noted that the Adjournment debate in the main Chamber was also on that subject. That tells us a great deal about the focus that colleagues and, indeed, their constituents have on this important area.

On the reduction in plastics pollution, the UK have led the world on legislation to change and reduce unnecessary plastic usage. I just got back this morning from Hong Kong where I was in conversation with an enormous number of people who all raised how the UK had managed to get consumers to be part of this legislative change; they are trying to bring in new legislation themselves on this issue. It was interesting to hear directly that what we have been doing is being watched, admired and learned from. That should give us all confidence that the continuing lead we have on this issue is important, and we must all champion it across the piece.

In conclusion, I confirm that the UK’s full commitment to the BBNJ agreement is clear. Its vital role in protecting the areas of the high seas as part of the global effort to help nature to recover, and indeed to help people to prosper across the planet for generations to come, is critical. Our commitment to making progress on the UK legislation so that we can ratify the BBNJ agreement and implement it effectively here at home is in full swing. We will both get that done here and encourage others to do so as quickly as possible.

It has been a pleasure to sit through this debate. I repeat the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael): we have all been pretty much in violent agreement about the outcome we all wish to see, namely the prompt ratification of the treaty by the UK. However, I have to say that I did not realise quite how much whale poo would form a part of our discussion.

It is also right that we have referred to the issues around plastic. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in particular for his point on that.

It is welcome to hear some of the comments made by both sides of the House, particularly given the necessity of taking our legislation through either just before a general election, as I had hoped, or just after. That will help to protect us against some of the vagaries of politics that inevitably come in an election year. That said, I hope we can get on with the work of getting the proposed legal framework out there. I would like to hear a timeframe so that we can actually get on. We should not be looking to meet the bar of others; we should be looking to be one of the leading nations in getting the treaty ratified so that we can get on with the vital work of protecting our oceans.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the ratification of the Global Ocean Treaty.

Sitting adjourned.