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House of Lords Hansard
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The North Sea under Pressure (EUC Report)
30 November 2015
Volume 767

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

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That this House takes note of the Report from the European Union Committee The North Sea under pressure: is regional marine co-operation the answer? (10th Report, Session 2014–15, HL Paper 137).

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My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate this report this evening. It is fair to say that while regional marine co-operation in the North Sea is not the snappiest of subjects, the inquiry that led to this report was truly a worthwhile endeavour.

As your Lordships may know, the remit of what was then Sub-Committee D, which I chair, includes agriculture, fisheries, the environment, energy and climate change. Unlike the House of Commons Select Committees, one of the strengths of Select Committees in your Lordships’ House is the cross-cutting nature of our inquiries and reports. The report before your Lordships this evening is one such example, because the governance of the North Sea covers topics as diverse as reform of the fisheries policy, cross-border energy installations and the effect of persistent organic pollutants on seabirds.

I am grateful to the members of Sub-Committee D at that time who took part in the inquiry, many of whom were rotated off because of the new procedural rules. I am also pleased to see current members of the energy and environment sub-committee here this evening. As is often the case with inquiries, they lead you into places that you never quite expected at the outset, so we learned rather more about the Dogger Bank and radial and meshed energy grids than we thought possible. I extend my thanks to our specialist advisers, Dr Irene McMaster and Mr Rodney Anderson, the clerk, Patrick Milner, and our policy analyst, Alistair Dillon. Before going any further, I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Harwich Haven Authority, which is a trust board.

Before I go on to speak about the report itself, I would like to mention my concerns about the timing of the debate this evening. The reports produced by Select Committees of your Lordships’ House are widely read as they offer authoritative, well-researched and thoughtful contributions to whatever topics they look at. A great deal of effort is expended and they are usually very well received, far beyond this Chamber. It is therefore a great personal disappointment that we are here this evening debating a report that was published more than eight months ago and for which we took the evidence a year ago. Timely debate can be critical for the overall impact of an inquiry’s conclusions and recommendations. This is far too long to wait to debate a report here in your Lordships’ House, and I regret to say that this is not an isolated case. I would underline the need for the Government and the usual channels to take note of various resolutions of the House which call for regular debates of Select Committee reports in prime time.

The Government’s official response to our report came two months late and, when it came, it was sadly dismissive in tone. A letter from George Eustice MP, Minister for the Marine Environment, explained that the response was delayed by a “circumstance” outside the Government’s control. I would appreciate it if the Minister could elaborate on what that particular circumstance was.

The North Sea is one of the most industrialised seas in the world and is under enormous pressure. My committee found that attempts to manage the competing pressures in a strategic manner are embryonic and unpredictable. We are expecting more and more from this single natural resource, both economically and environmentally. These objectives should not be mutually exclusive, but delivering them in harmony requires effort to co-operate—between countries, between sectors, within sectors and on the rules that govern the sea. Whereas it is now common practice to manage a river by taking into account the whole system from source to mouth and including its surrounding area, rather than through each local authority managing its own part separately, we still manage the North Sea by administrative or national boundaries. We found this segmented approach to be unsustainable.

In our evidence, we found that the need to co-operate was universally acknowledged but that the main stumbling block is lack of political leadership. This is where we believe government has to step up to the plate. If it fails to give such leadership and to co-ordinate and co-operate effectively, we risk failing to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the North Sea and risk its long-term sustainability. My committee concluded that no existing body or mechanism has a sufficiently broad remit to facilitate the political co-operation required to make the necessary step change in managing the North Sea basin. We argued for the re-establishment of the North Sea Ministerial Conference. Our main recommendation to the Government was that they should convene this ministerial conference in an effort to deliver the urgently required political and strategic vision that will sustain the North Sea for generations to come. It was bitterly disappointing that the Government’s response to the report dismissed the recommendation, arguing that the previous North Sea Ministerial Conference came to an end because,

“all the significant discussions and legal developments were taking place in other fora”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could explain which other fora exist for this work, because in all our evidence, with the single exception of that for energy, we were unable to identify any.

We also concluded that English local authorities must be more engaged in North Sea co-operation and recommended that the Government work with English local authorities to identify and, most importantly, address barriers to their participation. This is currently minimal for English local authorities compared to those in Scotland and from other North Sea countries. Once again, the Government dismissed our recommendation. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether he believes it is important for local authorities to engage with the North Sea Commission and why the Government will not work with the LGA and local authorities to facilitate this.

My committee found that although a lot of data are collected around the North Sea, by academic researchers and industries alike, very few of them are shared. We were concerned about a duplication of effort and that the best and most cost-effective use is simply not being made of those data. Having most of the data in one place would allow researchers and planners alike to develop a much clearer understanding of the sea and to plan for its future. It is telling that we were unable to source a single map depicting all the seabed uses of the North Sea. Commitment to a single database would allow resources to be allocated accordingly. It could become a one-stop shop, covering the costs not only of data collation but of quality assurance, which we heard can be expensive.

We called for greater progress on electricity interconnection. The North Sea has enormous potential to provide cross-border energy supply. This could be hugely important to every business and consumer if it can reduce costs by delivering energy more efficiently. Encouragingly, the European Commission has expressed its active support for greater energy co-operation around the North Sea and has committed to the development of an action plan. We heard that currently offshore wind farms are connected to national grids individually and that national grids are then linked independently through interconnectors. We recommend a pilot project creating a more “meshed” approach, which would integrate both offshore wind farms and interconnectors. We heard that there are technical obstacles to this measure, but they are mostly of a regulatory nature, relating to trading options, cost allocations and so on. We understand that the Government are already working to overcome these through their involvement in the North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative. Could the Minister update us on that work?

The report was well received in other North Sea states, including Germany and the Netherlands, and a number of stakeholders have submitted their own responses, making helpful suggestions on how to take the issues forward. These include the East of England Energy Group and the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology’s joint Marine Special Interest Group. They told us told us that our recommendations, if implemented, could,

“start a process of unmatched international co-operation in the management of the North Sea”.

The North Sea Commission’s Assen Declaration with the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe followed up our key recommendation by calling for the Dutch presidency of the European Council, starting in the new year, to develop a North Sea agenda. Similarly, the European Commission’s response was positive and receptive to our message that increased regional co-operation is the key to harnessing the full potential of the North Sea.

To use the opening words of the report:

“Often out of sight and out of mind, the North Sea is the lifeblood of more than 60 million people who live on or near its shores”.

The North Sea is a shared resource and plays an important part in the lives of many of us, whether we are mindful of it or not. Regional co-operation enormously enhances the possibilities open to North Sea countries and industries and can bring significant benefits for the environment. We should not lose sight of this approach. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I commend the EU Committee on its report and this debate, which cover many aspects of the North Sea environment. I begin by endorsing the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, about data exchange. I had many experiences of this in the Met Office, dealing with meteorological data. The situation was very poor 20 years ago, but it has improved progressively. I know that the interagency committee is dealing with data, and that is a very important point.

The North Sea plays a critical role in the life of all north European countries, including the UK. The coast and the different regions of the seas are extraordinarily precious environments, many of which have special qualities. Weather, oceanography, ecology, shipping and fishing all have traditional interests in the North Sea, and these are now joined in the 20th and 21st centuries by new interests relating to pollution and its dispersal. There are new kinds of pollution, mainly associated with radioactivity, which is a source of great concern to other countries around the North Sea. This radioactivity comes largely from the UK and France, although there is some from Germany.

The other modern feature of the environment of the North Sea this century, of course, is wind and wave power. There are also the geological resources: the extraction of gravel is a long-standing activity, and the idea of using the rocks under the North Sea as a repository of carbon dioxide was thought to be a central part of this Government’s environmental policy. That was until last Wednesday, when it stopped being part of their policy with a £1 billion cut in the money allocated to it, to the consternation of the Shells and the BPs and of other countries. Maybe the Minister will have something to say on that.

The other feature is that there is a strong tradition in the UK of the scientific study of the North Sea. I was delighted to find that the Venerable Bede, no less, discovered in the eighth century the changing times of the tides by using his contacts in the abbeys around the coast. Of course, we also have world-class governmental and institutional laboratories, including those of universities. As stated in the report, there is a plenitude of data and those institutions make their contribution.

I declare an interest as president of ACOPS, now the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea, founded by Lord Callaghan and later presided over by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. It has been successfully pressing for strong environmental regulation at international organisations, in London at the International Maritime Organisation and through the London dumping convention. Every year, there is an ACOPS survey of marine pollution sponsored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Those who, like me, are old enough may recall holidays in the 1950s on the beaches when they were covered with tar. It was such conventions that prevented the spreading of tar from ships, which is an enormous boon. That came about, so the myth says, from the Callaghan family holiday in Wales at the time. He was an instigator of the founding of the organisation.

Another feature is that beaches are cleaner as a result of better sewerage systems, some of which, it must be said, followed privatisation of the water companies in the UK, and coal is no longer found on northern beaches. However, sadly, most visitors to the beaches that I know have experienced long-term deterioration of the biodiversity of flora and fauna. One sees fewer sea anemones, shrimps and crabs in the rock pools—except, as my daughter tells me, plastic crabs, so that children have something to play with.

However, the main complaint about the marine environment is not the aesthetic aspect of the coast but the reduction in fishing, which is different in various parts of the North Sea. There are signs that it is returning, but there has been a devastating impact.

The report begins with a very useful review of marine biodiversity and its degradation, but it is surprising that it does not include the strong recommendation that government laboratories and other institutional laboratories should be strengthened. A Minister recently revealed to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that he was surprised that it was so important to maintain government laboratories, as opposed to privatised ones. He said that the reason was that foreign countries have more confidence if that work is done in governmental laboratories. The laboratory of CEFAS and the Scottish Association for Marine Science laboratory in Oban are examples of that, and I hope the Government will assert that their work will continue.

The report rightly emphasises the need for collaboration between UK and European laboratories and to relate better scientific knowledge to the marine business environment and local authorities. The Government state in their response to the report, which rather disappointed the noble Baroness, that one of the most important measures being taken is the establishment of marine protected areas. I hope the Minister will tell us how many marine protected areas there are. I read document after document from Defra, but I never get an answer. All I know is that there is one, Lundy Island. I have been asking everyone where there is another marine protected area in operation, but I cannot get a positive answer. If the Minister’s colleagues here can give us an answer, that will be fantastic, because nobody else knows. There is a challenge.

What progress is expected in the establishment of marine protected areas? I know that it is difficult, because there is the big question of what happens to a Spanish ship when it gets to Lundy, for example. Sometimes you meet Spanish chaps in the pubs opposite Lundy—I know a little bit about that area. I would like to hear as much as the Minister can provide us with. What is the timetable for the expected so-called rollout of marine protected areas? As we all know, the country that has been most successful in that regard is New Zealand. Lobsters went into the marine protected areas there, were not caught, crept out and then the fishermen caught them on the outside. Fine: it works.

I understand that the problem is with implementation because of lack of agreement on fishing rights between different countries. The EC is apparently working to resolve that impasse; what is the timetable? The government response to the report shows the critical role of the EC. Are the negotiations the role of Defra, and which other government departments are involved?

Another scientific challenge raised in the report is the effect of wind turbine farms. Your Lordships may not realise that the Danish Government’s meteorological agency has been studying in detail the effect on Denmark’s climate of all the very large wind farms off Denmark. In fact, because wind turbines take force out of the wind—drag, as we would call it—that changes the airflow over the land, which has some effect on agriculture. It is a phenomenon seen in the United States, where huge wind farms in Texas have a significant impact on the rainfall downwind. That is a factor that needs to be considered. There are also reports on disturbances to the seabed by wind turbines because of the connecting cables and the frequent movement of maintenance ships. These disturbances can affect the sea bottom ecology and fishing. I would be interested to know the current position.

To return to the remark I made at the beginning, another challenge that causes great concern to the countries around the North Sea is the spreading of radioactive materials from nuclear processing. I personally believe that nuclear power is essential to the UK and France as a form of low-carbon energy, but it is very important that we ensure that radioactive materials are treated better. If they are dispersing, that should be openly known. Those issues are regularly considered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but are they are also discussed by the EC groups dealing with the North Sea environment?

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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak to the Motion and the report introduced by my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market. I congratulate her and the whole committee on a high-quality report. It has gone into the subject of the North Sea basin as a whole in great depth and breadth, covered a number of disciplines and asked some very pertinent questions of the Government—not all of which the Government have satisfactorily answered.

Reading the report took me back to many happy hours—days and nights, I think—spent in this Chamber on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, as it then was. We were breaking new ground in a number of areas, particularly marine planning. There had not really been a marine planning regime before that Act came into force. It is interesting, reading the report, to see how far it has got—perhaps not as far as we had hoped. It also took me back to large amounts of time I spent when I was much younger taking holidays on the Yorkshire coast, on the North Sea coast, particularly at Filey—but perhaps that is for another day.

One theme that comes through the report is the fundamental need for co-operation between countries and communities and what I suppose people might call stakeholders—the users of the North Sea—all around the North Sea basin. This is one area where the report is particularly critical; it points out that the only existing cross-border body is the North Sea Commission, which is formed of local authorities. For funding reasons, English local authorities along the North Sea coast have withdrawn from that body, which is surely not a good thing. Far be it from me, as a member of a local authority responsible for overseeing the finances of that local authority, to criticise councils when they find that their present financial circumstances are such that they really have to cut back on everything except the most essential things. If they have to choose between serious cuts in social care, for example, or cutting rural bus services or closing libraries and being a member of a European, North Sea-wide body, it is not difficult to see why they make the decision that they do. But surely it is not good. The summary of the report says:

“There are also substantial regulatory tensions. Different countries around the North Sea, for example, take different approaches to defining the environmental quality of their parts of the basin”.

They suggest that the European Commission should “improve guidance”, and so on. It goes on to say:

“As the responsibility for the marine environment lies at a local, an EU and an international level, we urge the UK Government to work with English local authorities to identify and address barriers to their co-operation with other authorities around the North Sea”.

The response from the Government to the committee, which as my noble friend said took them rather a long time to produce, is very unsatisfactory. It says:

“The Government believes that it is for each local authority to determine whether or not the costs associated with membership of the North Sea Commission or any other forum represents value for money and adds value to existing structures through which local authorities can collaborate on economic development such as LEPs”.

That is a very unsatisfactory response, because local authorities might well take the view—and probably do take the view—that it would be value for money and add value to existing structures, but they do not have the money to do it. This is the kind of response that we get increasingly from this Government to local authorities across a whole series of areas—that local priorities are for local authorities. But if you do not have any money, your priorities may be the same but the level at which you can fund them goes down. They talk in a way that shows they misunderstand the issue; they talk about the coastal concordat, which was launched in England,

“in November 2013 to increase cooperation between terrestrial and marine regulators and to streamline the consenting process for coastal development”.

It lists the concordat partners, which include various government departments,

“the Marine Management Organisation, the Environment Agency, Natural England and National Parks England”.

Those bodies will not really be able to organise co-operation across the North Sea with partners in Holland, Denmark or Norway. It is a totally unsatisfactory answer, which suggests that it is just a brush-off from the Government.

One thing that we were very conscious about when we saw the Marine and Coastal Access Bill through your Lordships’ House was that we were setting up a new marine planning process—a new framework, to include both licensing, or development control, and a proper strategic planning of shared space through local marine plans. One of the disappointments of the marine planning system has been how long it has taken to get those plans into place. Planning is often regarded as a hindrance, but it is a positive thing; in the economic sphere it provides predictability for investment and in the environmental sphere it provides a reliable and firm framework and basis for proper ecological controls. We were very aware that it needed to be coherent and comprehensive. One innovation from the Marine and Coastal Access Act were marine conservation zones. Another disappointment is the slow progress and relatively small number of those zones that have been created. The first tranche was based on an initial series of recommendations to the Government by people who knew what they were doing—the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Natural England—for 127 MCZs. However, the first tranche was only 27, and there is now a consultation, out since the beginning of this year, for another tranche, but the total number being looked at is only 23, which would be much less than half the number that was expected. My question for the Government is whether they think the number and extent of those zones will be sufficient to provide the coherent ecological network.

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If I understand the noble Lord correctly, he is talking about plans, not about actual areas that are in operation. Is that correct?

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The first 27 marine conservation zones are in operation; the next 23 are in tranche 2, on the drawing board.

I very much welcome the report; it was a very good read. I congratulate the committee and wish the Government would take it a bit more seriously. In particular, I wish that they were not pulling back resources for the whole area of marine regulation, planning and promotion. I have two questions. What has been the funding of the Marine Management Organisation since it was set up by the Act, and what number of staff does it have now compared with the number at the beginning? It has been subject to cuts like everybody else, and it is not surprising that things are slowing down.

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My Lords, like most Peers serving on EU Sub-Committee D during the preparation of this report, I am no longer on the sub-committee, or on the EU Committee. In passing, I should say that it is absurd that the quality of House of Lords committee work, arguably our greatest input to UK and EU life, should be sacrificed on the altar of Buggins’s turn—but I shall say no more and start again.

Like most Peers on Sub-Committee D during the preparation of this report, I was amazed at the urgent need for action on the planning of our marine environment. Anyone who has been to sea, out of sight of land, will probably have a vision of a vast and extensive watery desert, with no sign of human activity anywhere, either on the surface or under it. Little do they know that there is a host of interweaving and sometimes contradictory activity going on; the landscape is constantly changing and getting more crowded.

For a start, our knowledge of our seas is poor; no formal map of EU marine territory exists, or even certainty about where member states’ responsibilities begin or end. There are sometimes gaps and sometimes overlaps. Imagine having parts of England devoid of any planning controls or regulation; imagine the mayhem and possible environmental degradation that would soon appear—or, possibly worse still, imagine if two different authorities reckoned that they were both running the same bit of countryside. Again, I would foresee chaos.

Then there is the fact that our seas are already in a state of some disarray; many commercial fishing stocks are not assessed, and many biodiversity features and characteristics are unknown or not assessed. There is no current overview of the spatial extent of human activities. There is little co-ordination of data, which every member state is bound to produce under the marine strategic framework directive.

The reason this is so serious is because change is happening so fast. It is almost out of control and, unless we know what we have, there is no incentive to manage that change. For instance, there is change from climate change. This includes higher sea temperatures and increased acidification. We were told that in recent decades acidification has been happening 100 times faster than in the past 55 million years. Higher temperatures have resulted in the movement of species northwards by more than 1,000 kilometres. Meanwhile, 39% of assessed fish stocks in the north-east Atlantic—which includes the North Sea—are overexploited. I might add that in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea that figure is 88% of stocks, so we are quite good compared to others.

Eutrophication remains a problem, particularly at the entrance to the Baltic. Around the shores of Europe, 34% of sea birds are not in good status. Marine litter is accumulating, particularly microplastics which are building up in the food chain. I think it would be true to say that the ecological boundaries for sustainable use of our seas are currently unclear.

Meanwhile, the potential for growth in human activity, particularly in the North Sea, has never been greater. North Sea blue growth, as it is called, is a recognisable phenomenon and already represents a gross value added of at least €150 billion and employs about 850,000 people. For Norway, which is outside the EU, the direct and indirect GVA is about €50 billion, mainly based on the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas sector around the North Sea employs nearly 600,000 people. The shipping industry in the North Sea handles 648 million tonnes, with direct employment of 60,000 and a GVA of €11 billion. Shipbuilding amounts to €5 billion GVA and 64,000 jobs, and probably double those figures if marine equipment activities are included. The cruise and ferry sector promotes 10,000 jobs in the North Sea, which is about the same as the growing coastal protection sector—that is sea defences to you and me. Fisheries are in decline as overfishing of species continues, but still employ 100,000 people.

Meanwhile, new industries are on the rise. The UK is leading the offshore wind growth, with our Government’s 2020 target of nine gigawatts or 3,000 turbines, twice what we have now, which they hope will rise to 30 gigawatts by 2030. Sea-based aquaculture is on the rise, as is marine mining and gravel extraction, along with the cultivation of algae and, of course, energy production from tide and waves. Possibly the biggest new disruptors of the North Sea seabed are the numerous electric cables needed to enhance the connectivity of Europe while at the same time bringing power back from the wind farms.

So noble Lords can see that there is already a lot of activity in the North Sea, and this can only increase, along with the incompatibility of some of the activities. Fishing and cables do not always work together, particularly where the dreaded beam trawling is involved. Neither do wind farms and shipping go well together—or, for that matter, gravel extraction and environmental conservation. Meanwhile, the lack of any real understanding of the cumulative impact of all this led one of our witnesses to say that,

“if you ask me whether our marine ecosystems are healthy, I would not be able to answer that question”.

There is, it appears, actually quite a lot of information being collected by both the public and private sectors, but there needs to be more effort to harmonise the methodology between member states and also to analyse the cumulative effect, disentangle the replication and from there put in place international co-operation to implement an effective planning and control system. However, it goes without saying that it is only by collating and understanding the evidence that we are ever likely to promote the necessary action.

I would have to say that the North Sea Regional Advisory Council is a very good example of where international voluntary co-operation has transformed what could have been a disastrous situation vis-à-vis fisheries, but I do not believe that for the multifaceted blue growth I have been describing we can rely totally on voluntary co-operation. There are just too many parties to get around the table and too many interactivity compromises to be made. The situation is also too urgent. We desperately need some form of international planning with a degree of oversight and even compulsion.

However, we were told by our Government that their marine planning was still at an early stage. I am glad to see by their response that this is beginning to change, but any planning we do must be aligned with neighbouring member states, and this alignment should be an urgent priority of the Commission. It, too, seems to have been given a wake-up call by our report, and that is good to see as our report was targeted at Brussels and at European action. However, I do not believe that the Commission should dictate from the centre exactly what should happen and where; rather, it should drive a North Sea forum composed of all the relevant stakeholders and, above all, it must fund the forum. The successful North Sea Regional Advisory Council, which I mentioned, only just pulled through because Aberdeen County Council, of all bodies, funded it in its early days—to the eternal credit of Aberdeen and the everlasting shame of the EU.

Apart from the funding, I believe that the necessary decisions should follow the principles of polycentric government whereby, with a central driving force and firmly enforced principles from the EU, which really has to grip this one, key management decisions should be made as close as possible to the scene of the events and the actors involved.

I commend the report and suggest that both the UK Government and the EU need to grip this exciting agenda before the environment suffers—or, indeed, the blue growth itself gets cut off in its prime.

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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and the members of the European Union Committee on a most compelling report The North Sea under Pressure: is Regional Marine Co-operation the Answer? The answer must be yes, but the question is, how? I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to the committee’s recommendations.

For once, my industry, the sea fishing industry, might be showing us the way. I recommend that noble Lords read paragraphs 125 to 131 of the report and the evidence of the co-operation—would you believe it?—between the European Union and fishery stakeholders that was so welcomed by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. That is not something I ever thought I would see written down on paper, but it goes to show that when it gets tough, everybody has to get going.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and her committee,

“note the successes that have resulted from the work of the fisheries Advisory Councils and support their enhanced role in Commission-level consultations. In the light of their enhanced role, we recommend an urgent review of their funding by the Commission”.

They point out that the annual grant from the Commission of €250,000 has not changed since 2007 but that a change is well overdue, given,

“the pace at which their activities are developing”.

I really do not want to read out all of this report; it is a good read but not a very good stand-up event. Therefore it would be far better for me just to quote one or two things that the committee says at the end of its recommendations. It states:

“Successful future marine co-operation in the North Sea region will require strong and effective political leadership”.

It goes on to say that there is no strong, effective local political leadership—that was depressing.

The report goes on to state that, sadly,

“no existing body or mechanism has a broad enough remit to facilitate the political co-operation required to make the necessary step-change in the management of the North Sea basin. We recommend therefore, that the UK Government convene a North Sea ministerial conference in order to develop a holistic approach to all economic and environmental issues affecting the North Sea. Importantly, the conference should seek to deliver the urgently required political and strategic vision which will sustain this precious resource and secure it for future generations”.

These are great big statements to make and none of us knows exactly how to do it, but it is right and proper that the statements should be made. Eventually, we will have to listen to the science. We must save our seas. The North Sea is only the first of them. Noah heard the warning and responded—and so must we if we are all to survive.

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My Lords, I emphasise the need for enhanced co-operation amongst the nations of the European Union in respect of the governance of the North Sea, which is suffering increasingly from environmental degradation. If one stands on the shores of Britain at any point other than at a busy sea port, one is likely to see an undifferentiated expanse of water stretching to the horizon that seems to be unaffected by human activity. Perhaps, if one is standing on the esplanade of a coastal town, one might see a cast-iron pipe of significant girth running out to sea, but one can easily imagine that whatever it is conveying will be widely dispersed in the vastness of the ocean.

There is no doubt that such impressions are highly misleading. The seas around the British Isles and throughout the entire region of the North Sea have been greatly affected by human activity. A map has been reproduced in the introduction to the report on the North Sea from the European Union Committee that shows the competition for space in the seas surrounding the British Isles. The area is criss-crossed by power cables, communications cables and pipes for transporting oil and gas. Large areas are dotted by oil rigs, gas rigs and wind farms. Some areas are designated as waste disposal sites, and some are licensed for the dredging of seabed sands and gravels. Other areas are set aside exclusively for fishing. The region also contains some of the busiest shipping routes in the world.

The seas can be likened to the common lands that were available to the peasants of mediaeval Europe. In the absence of property rights, the lands were available to all comers. The incentive of those who had access to the commons was to take as much as they could in the knowledge that others were bound to do likewise. The inevitable overexploitation of the common lands depleted their fertility and rendered them barren and useless. The outcome has been described as the “tragedy of the commons”.

The open access to the North Sea has resulted in widespread fly tipping and waste disposal, and in the virtually unrestrained exploitation of its resources. As a result, the sea has been subject to oil pollution, to pollution by hazardous chemicals and radioactive substances and to eutrophication, which is the damaging introduction to the ecosystem of chemical nutrients, including nitrates and phosphates. These disturbances have posed a major threat to the various species and to their habitats. Fish stocks have been severely depleted by overfishing in a manner that continues to threaten their extinction. Some species have all but vanished from the North Sea.

These deleterious effects have been widely acknowledged for 50 years or more, but the efforts to protect the marine environment and to preserve its fauna have been remarkably ineffective. It has long been recognised that the North Sea requires an international system of governance comprising policy-making, political bargaining, legislation, administration and enforcement. The committee’s report bears witness to the inadequacy of the present system of governance and makes numerous recommendations for its improvement.

There is now a patchwork of European policies, national policies, private initiatives and regulations on different levels that often conflict with each other. The European Union has produced more than 200 pieces of legislation that have direct repercussions on marine environmental policy and management. It is fair to say that this plethora of legislation is a consequence of the fact that the European agencies have insufficient power to effect meaningful policies for the protection of the marine environment. Instead, effective power remains at national and local levels. The EU legislation often amounts to no more than plaintive injunctions that are widely ignored. Notwithstanding the formal governance of the European Union, the tragedy of the commons is being enacted throughout the marine environment.

There is no better illustration of the conflict between national interests and those of the community as a whole than the disastrous common fisheries policy. Fish are a mobile resource. They do not remain for long in one place and they have no respect for political or national boundaries. It is difficult to establish rights of ownership over fish. Therefore, the issue of conserving fish stocks needs to be addressed not at a regional or a national level but at the level of the Community.

The common fisheries policy had its inception in the 1970s. The rules were drawn up in advance of the accession of the UK, Denmark and Ireland to the European Economic Community at the beginning of 1973. The new members had controlled what had been the richest fishing grounds in the world, and the new regulations gave all members of the community equal access to all the fishing waters. In effect, Britain ceded control of an estimated four-fifths of all the fish off western Europe.

The common fisheries policy, or CFP, establishes quotas for each of the member states, specifying the amount of each type of fish that they are allowed to catch. These quotas are determined, ostensibly, by the Ministers of the Council of the European Union on the advice of a scientific secretariat, and they make some reference to the traditional fishing rights of the nations. After the quotas have been fixed, each EU member state is responsible for policing its own, which some may be disinclined to do. Different countries distribute their quotas among their fishermen in different ways.

In practice, the advice of the scientists has been ignored frequently. The bargaining process over the allocation of quotas has invariably resulted in a total allowable catch that exceeds the scientific recommendation. The non-compliance with the rules and the quotas has been a significant problem. In several of the EU fisheries, illegal fishing accounts for one-third to one-half of all catches. Fishermen have been landing quantities far in excess of their quota, falsifying their records and conniving with the fish processing industries to conceal their malfeasance. The Spanish and the French have often been blamed for this, but the Scottish black fish scandal revealed that during the first decade of this century Scottish fishermen had been flouting the rules on a massive scale.

One of the fundamental flaws of the common fisheries policy has been the allowance for fishermen to discard those fish in their catch that exceed the quota for their species, while continuing to pursue fish for which the quotas are unfulfilled. The discarded fish are dead when they are returned to the water. Undersized juvenile fish are commonly discarded in order to fulfil the quotas with larger and more profitable fish. The reforms of 2013 of the common fisheries policy are intended, eventually, to constrain fishermen to land everything that they catch, but it is doubted by many that this policy, which admits of many exceptions, will be enforced effectively.

The common fisheries policy has attracted vociferous criticism, both from environmentalists and from local fishing industries that have resented the constraints of the quota system while blaming their competitors for despoiling the fish stocks. The Commission has responded to these criticisms by a partial devolution of its authority to member states by establishing regional advisory councils. Some critics regard this as a retrograde step that implies a derogation of the essential central control. It may serve only to exacerbate the conflicts over rival claims to fishing rights.

The common fisheries policy has come to embody some specious injunctions that threaten further to imperil the fish stocks while seemingly being aimed at their preservation. A declared objective of the policy is to harvest the fish at the maximum sustainable rate. The maximum sustainable yield, or MSY, denotes the maximum rate at which the fish can regenerate themselves while being harvested. If the rate of harvesting exceeds the MSY, more will be taken from the sea than can be resupplied by the fish stock. The inevitable result of exceeding the MSY, even for a short while, will be an increasingly rapid diminution of the stock. To avoid this hazard, one must fish in a manner that will ensure that the MSY is never exceeded. Fishing at a lower rate will also result in a more abundant and resilient stock.

To the layman, the MSY might seem to be a felicitous concept. The term suggests a strategy that is both sustainable and that achieves a maximum economic return. In fact, it denotes a strategy that is more than likely to lead to species extinction. What is most disturbing is an allowance granted to protesting parties to permit them to take their time in meeting the target of the maximum sustainable yield if to do so more rapidly might jeopardise the social and economic sustainability of their fishing fleets. This is nonsensical. Such a recourse would guarantee the extinction of the fish stocks unless the fishing were to be severely curtailed or suspended in a timely manner.

Some would regard the contradictions and the failures of such policies as a justification for disengaging from the European Union. However, the interdependence of the member states is an inescapable fact. They occupy a common ecosystem. To advocate any kind of national independence in this domain is to deny a reality that must be confronted. There is an urgent need for active marine co-operation throughout the European Union. The report of the European Union Committee has clearly highlighted this need.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for her introduction and explanation of the committee’s report on the North Sea which is before your Lordships’ House.

The committee has identified the North Sea as being under tremendous pressure from exploitation and interests from many sectors—namely, energy, food, shipping and leisure—yet it concluded that EU member states and bordering countries and authorities lacked a coherent vision or strategy for the North Sea. The report reflected that there was a need for a single authority to co-ordinate disparate activities, provide a framework for development, collect knowledge and information and provide leadership for a strategy. Better co-ordination of existing activity through co-operation could achieve a step change.

The committee provided an excellent assessment of the existing structures and concluded with 20 recommendations on the Government’s approach, the EU’s activities and wider international organisations. The report appears to have been well received by other EU member states and various technical bodies. However, the Government appear to lack enthusiasm for taking many of the recommendations forward, saying that many initiatives already exist and that co-ordination could lead to duplication of resources and activity. Although it is understandable that the Government should point to the European Commission as being where leadership should be provided, there is, nevertheless, much that could be achieved.

When in government, Labour recognised that there are significant pressures on the marine environment around the UK and in the North Sea in particular. Through the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, Labour committed the UK to establishing an ambitious, ecologically coherent and well-managed network of marine protection areas, setting up these zones around the UK. Yet after 2010 there was a lack of commitment by the coalition Government: only 28 of the recommended 127 zones have been designated. My noble friend Lord Hunt highlighted the lack of urgency shown by the Minister’s department and asked whether there has been any further action beyond initiating just one zone. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, remarked that, on further measures in that Act such as marine planning, little appears to have happened in taking forward those important areas, where the Government could have shown leadership.

In their response, the Government highlighted where they have joined in with other initiatives. Their second point was that,

“Defra has established a cross-government working group to examine opportunities for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of cumulative effects assessment”.

It will develop and implement a strategic work programme to deliver improvements and create a more consistent and predictable assessment and management process. This is one area where the Government have taken forward activity. Will the Minister expand on this point and give the House some more details? What other government departments have been involved? How often is the group meeting? Where is it concentrating its focus? When will any assessment or report be forthcoming?

The Government also point to commercial agreements being more relevant as a platform to deliver improvements and change. This also reveals a sad lack of enthusiasm to seize the initiative and grip the situation, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, commented. All noble Lords who spoke highlighted the plight of the North Sea. My noble friend Lord Hanworth was critical of what the EU and its member states have been able to achieve, especially regarding fisheries policies.

The committee has produced a very thoughtful and worthwhile challenge to be seized. The Government need to show that they are taking the report more seriously and showing more commitment. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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My Lords, I very much welcome this debate and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, on securing it. I also thank all committee members for their thorough report and acknowledge the work of the clerks and other staff, who, as is habitual in this House, make such a contribution to the work that we are all engaged upon.

I do not know whether this will be satisfactory for the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, but on the timing my understanding is that, because of the general election, the response was not started until the new Government were in place and policies had been decided on. The noble Baroness will perhaps be able to help me with this after the debate but I understand that the response to the report was further delayed while Scotland decided whether it wanted to be part of the Government’s response or to provide its own response. Eventually, Scotland decided that it wished to make its own response, but I am afraid that I am not aware of whether the Scottish Government have in fact supplied it. That may not be as satisfactory as the noble Baroness would wish but those are the reasons that I put to her.

The committee’s report considers whether the existing structures for a collaborative approach to the management of the North Sea are appropriate. This is against the background of the North Sea being one of the busiest sea areas in the world, with a diverse range of economic activities, described fully by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and numerous environmental features that require protection.

Although one would not gain this impression from what noble Lords have said tonight, I say at the outset that the Government strongly support a co-ordinated approach to the management of the North Sea, particularly through co-operation with our North Sea neighbours. Indeed, we have been co-operating with our North Sea neighbours for many years—for example, through the International Maritime Organization, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, referred, and the Ospar Convention, the Oslo and Paris conventions for the protection of the north-east Atlantic.

We also co-operate very closely with EU member states, and the Government share the committee’s enthusiastic welcome for the appointment of a European Commissioner responsible for both environmental policy and maritime affairs. This EU approach has already created benefits, including guidance to member states on, for example, fishery matters to protect habitats in marine protected areas. I notice that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is in her place. This may be an appropriate moment to mention that we had a very interesting debate on world biodiversity only last week, when some questions were asked about marine protected areas. In responding to that debate, I referred to the fact that:

“16% of UK waters are already protected in marine protected areas”.

As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones,

“the second tranche of these is on course to be established in January 2016 and a third tranche of sites will follow”.—[Official Report, 24/11/15; col. GC 140.]

My understanding is that more than 100 UK marine areas, as well as sites of special scientific interest with marine elements, are already protected under provisions such as the habitats and birds directive. In addition, the Government have designated 27 marine conservation zones. They consulted on a further 23 such zones earlier this year, and there is a third tranche of sites to follow, which we believe will help to complete a network of sites.

I take this opportunity also to mention the extraordinary marine protected areas within the overseas territories, which were referred to in our world biodiversity debate. A marine protected area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands covers more than 1 million square kilometres, which is equivalent to four times the size of the United Kingdom. Therefore, Her Majesty’s Government are particularly interested in protecting marine areas not only around our shores but internationally.

We are also acting, through Ospar, with the North Sea states to define and assess what constitutes an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas at the regional sea scale. The UK Government support this co-operative approach to the designation of protected areas. Although final designation is a matter for each member state, the UK will continue to involve other member states in our consultation process.

We are also working with other member states to achieve good environmental status in our seas by 2020, under the marine strategy framework directive. Much of this is being processed through the EU marine strategy framework directive technical groups and through Ospar, including agreeing common indicators, data collection methodology, database management and analysis, which will assist in making cumulative impact assessments and better inform the collaborative approach that we wish to take.

In the North Sea area, Ospar also leads on the collaborative approach to taking action to address the issues identified, by pushing ahead to gather evidence that informs the development of appropriate actions that will contribute to the achievement of good environmental status. Indeed, Ospar’s regional action plan on marine litter is just one example of a successful, wide-ranging and meaningful outcome from this collaborative and co-operative approach.

I was particularly struck by what the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Chesterton and Lord Cameron of Dillington said about litter. Those of us who enjoyed British seaside holidays in our youth remember that tar on children and dogs was always an issue. When one reads of the number of birds being found with plastic around them, one sees that this is surely something that we must address altogether.

Co-operative working is also essential for the implementation of the reformed EU common fisheries policy. The UK, including Marine Scotland, works very closely with other member states in the North Sea region; for example, to develop regional discard plans and, most importantly, for the demersal landing obligation that comes into force in January 2016. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Wilcox spoke powerfully about sea fisheries and brought, in her own way, all the experience of that great industry and its way of life to this debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Chesterton and Lord Cameron of Dillington, all discussed the importance of fisheries and of getting this right—that is the point that we all need to now address. The Government welcome the enhanced role of the fisheries advisory councils under the reformed common fisheries policy. This co-ordinated and collaborative approach is already benefitting the sustainability of our fish stocks and our fishing industries in the North Sea, as we all seek to achieve the objective to which the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, referred: maximum sustainable yield.

This year’s Marine Stewardship Council’s amber listing of North Sea cod is just the latest indication of stock recovery, and cod should be fished to a maximum sustainable yield in 2016. This is clearly what we have to seek to achieve: the wise and sustainable use of fish stocks around our shores.

Implementing the reformed common fisheries policy also requires us to move from a focus on single-stock annual quotas to multi-annual mixed-fishery management plans. These will enable a more strategic approach to fisheries management that takes into account the relationship between different stocks, moving us closer to an ecosystem-based management. The European Commission aims to publish its proposal for a North Sea multi-annual plan early next year.

The Government agree with the committee that data collection initiatives should not be duplicated. That is why the Government are a major sponsor of the Marine Environmental Data and Information Network, MEDIN, which is a partnership of UK public and private organisations. MEDIN is committed to improving access to marine data so that data, once collected, can be used many times.

The UK also joins in Ospar and EU initiatives to co-ordinate data collection, including monitoring programmes under the marine strategy framework directive. This is complemented by the Secretary of State’s recent initiative to make virtually all the data Defra holds—at least 8,000 sets—freely available to the public over the next year, putting Britain at the forefront of the data revolution.

Co-operation can enable sea users to operate without impacting on others, and the Government agree with the committee that,

“International Maritime Organization guidance is comprehensive in its navigational safety requirements”,

and that the organisation has a regulatory process in place to implement that guidance.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change continues to work with offshore energy developers, the aggregates industry, the Crown Estate and other third parties to ensure that potential conflicts can be resolved at an early stage so that respective developments can co-exist where they may overlap.

Our marine areas are vital if we are to meet our current and future energy needs. The potential benefits of cross-border energy co-operation in the North Sea are surely significant in improving security of supply and reducing the cost of integrating renewables into the UK and EU markets. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to the North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative. We will continue the work under way in that initiative to facilitate investment and trading, including identifying potentially suitable projects to test the feasibility of establishing a North Sea grid.

As the committee noted, a marine planning system is a significant element in the co-ordinated management of the North Sea. Our emerging network of marine plans will provide the principal means through which balanced decisions are taken on potential uses of the marine environment and its resources, and the benefits and impacts of human activities, informed by relevant national and transnational interests and obligations.

Our approach to marine planning in the UK is underpinned by the UK Marine Policy Statement, a cross-government policy framework signed up to by all four UK Administrations. This has successfully enabled consistency in marine planning by providing a high-level policy context within which national and subnational marine plans are being developed and implemented. Government departments are collaborating to support the development and implementation of marine plans, including closer integration on terrestrial and marine matters. We are making good progress on the UK network of marine plans, with two approved plans in the English North Sea and two further plans under way for the English Channel. The National Marine Plan for Scotland was published in March this year and marine plans for Wales and Northern Ireland are anticipated in 2016-17.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to local authorities. UK local authorities and stakeholders from coastal communities are directly involved in shaping marine plans as they are developed. For example, 25 local and unitary authorities are regularly consulted in the development of the English North Sea plans. Where we have plans in place we are providing support to local authorities on their implementation, helping to ensure that marine plans impact on decision-making and the sustainable management of the marine area.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked about expenditure. My understanding is that, to date, the Government have invested about £8.9 million in the development of marine plans for England, with further investment promised to complete the currently planned network of England marine plans. If I have any further information as I think about other matters, I will of course write to the noble Lord.

The Government support transboundary co-operation as set out in the EU maritime spatial planning directive, but agree with the committee that it is for member states to determine how they co-operate. The principle of cross-border co-operation on marine planning is enshrined in the UK-wide Marine Policy Statement and the Government will continue to co-operate with neighbouring member states to ensure that marine plans are coherent and co-ordinated.

The UK actively engages in EU fora and initiatives on maritime spatial planning to realise effective co-operation with other member states, including those with a specific interest in the North Sea—for example, on the development of consistent methodologies and the exchange of data and best practice in order to inform the development of marine plans by individual member states. It is interesting to note that a recent meeting of the Ospar Convention confirmed that there was no requirement for an Ospar sub-committee on marine planning co-operation as it would only duplicate existing well-functioning structures.

In developing our UK marine plans, we have consulted neighbouring member states in order to ensure transboundary co-ordination and coherence between plans. In developing the England east marine plans, the Marine Management Organisation consulted relevant member states and Norway, hosting a number of workshops which facilitated discussion on cross-border interests. These efforts were well received.

The UK’s vision for the marine environment is for clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas. The regular review of the marine planning system will serve to ensure that it continues to contribute effectively to the delivery of this vision.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked what the Government’s stance is on the well-being of the North Sea. The committee recommended the establishment of another North Sea forum. I want to be clear that the Government are not convinced that an additional forum would be the best use of limited resources, given the existing level of co-operation around the North Sea that I have already outlined. I have a list of the fora that are already in place: OSPAR, which I have mentioned; the North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative; regional groupings for fishery management; the EU Maritime Spatial Planning Expert Group; the EU Integrated Maritime Planning Expert Group; various groups under the marine strategy framework directive; the coastal concordat on marine licensing—there is a great deal of existing structures. It is interesting—I did not realise this until I read into it further—that the North Sea ministerial conference was wound up because all the significant political discussions were taking place effectively elsewhere.

The Government agree that UK local authorities and regional organisations should be involved in marine management issues, and there are already structures in place to enable them to do so. It is for them to decide where they believe membership of a forum is good value for money and helps to achieve environmental protection and economic development. In England, the coastal concordat was launched in November 2013 to increase co-operation between terrestrial and marine regulators and to streamline the consenting process for coastal development. The concordat partners include several government departments and the Local Government Association.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I especially thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the members of the EU Committee for bringing forward this important report. I am sorry that we do not agree with all of the report.

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Perhaps the Minister could clarify one point. It is my understanding that a strict marine protected area is one from which you exclude fishing. The areas he was talking about were ones in which you have habitat conservation, which is a different process. Or is he saying that in something like 20% of the coastal area covered by MPAs commercial fishing and so on is excluded? That is the question. There are different definitions of MPA. In the sense of the strictest definition, there is only about one, as I understand it.

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Given the time, I should like to write in some detail on all the areas around the United Kingdom because, in fairness to the noble Lord, I have mentioned a number of different elements of protection. So that everyone is clear, including me, it would be best to set it out in proper detail.

To conclude, this is a most valuable contribution to the outcome that we all seek, which is effective regional co-ordination for the North Sea. It is our responsibility, by working together with our neighbours, to achieve the shared objective of a clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse North Sea. In the final words of the summary, we need to do this to secure it for future generations.

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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and the Minister for his characteristically thoughtful response. As our report highlights, there is a major challenge in achieving the various economic development uses of the sea as encapsulated in the use of the new phrase “blue growth”, and its environmental protection. We have identified that co-operation is the key to achieving that balance. The Minister set out a long list of areas of co-operation, but I would observe briefly that out of that list, many of the bodies are UK-only, many are regulatory in nature and some are really very technical. The point made in our report is that, to make progress, what is needed is political leadership, and that really does have to come from the top.

A few years ago, I was on holiday in Perthshire and we visited an old loch settlement, one that is around 2,500 years old. Among the artefacts that were found was some amber jewellery which had come from the Baltic. It is clear that for many thousands of years the North Sea has been our common cultural courtyard. It is something we should cherish and be proud of because we do not want to be the generation that failed it.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 8.57 pm.