Skip to main content

Minister for the Oceans

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for appointing a Minister for the Oceans.

My Lords, ocean protection is vital for the domestic and global economy as well as for nature, of course, and that is why we have several Ministers across government covering different aspects of the marine environment. We work together to deliver our ambition for healthy, productive and sustainable oceans through the effective management of UK waters and by championing ocean protection internationally. The range of ministerial portfolios covering the marine environment is both a reflection of the priority that we afford the ocean and the need to integrate ocean considerations across government policy, from biodiversity and climate change to energy and maritime security.

I do not find it to be a brilliant Answer at all because it sounds like everywhere and nowhere to me. The oceans are a huge entity with billions and trillions of ecosystems. This is about not only their protection but understanding our impact on them, which might be good or bad. Should not the first job for the Minister today be to go back and ask for one good person to be a Minister for the Oceans so that they can be understood and supported?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right about the importance of the ocean but that is why this issue runs like a thread through most departments of government. The impact of our collective government approach is clear from: the success of the G7; COP 26, where we put nature, including the ocean, at the heart of our approach; our own extensive MPA network, covering nearly 40% of our domestic waters; our protection of 4 million square kilometres around our overseas territories; our leadership of international efforts to secure protection of 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030; and our co-sponsorship only last week of the successful UNEA resolution on a new treaty on plastic pollution. I could spend much longer than I have done reeling off things that have been achieved on the ocean by that collective approach here in the UK.

Rising sea levels are a national security issue as well. They threaten the boundaries of countries, as well as countries full stop. If we are to avoid the wild west on the wild seas, with refugees left abandoned, can I urge the Minister to address this matter on a global level with colleagues?

We absolutely do address this issue at the global level. There are many things that we need to do to restore the health of the ocean and protect what we have, but the single most important thing that we can do is to tackle emissions. The mantra “climate action is ocean action” is very much the case , which is why the oceans were such a central part of our presidency of COP in Glasgow just a few months ago and throughout our presidency this year.

My Lords, in terms of international humanitarian law, how would a future Oceans Minister reconcile our signature to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the safety of life at sea convention with the Government’s policy to push back vessels to outside national boundaries?

I am not 100% convinced that I followed the question, but the UK’s role internationally in standing up for the rule of law on our oceans is almost second to none. We have taken a strong position in the past few days in the BBNJ negotiations on the attempt to create a new framework. Other than perhaps France, which has taken a leadership role in recent weeks, no country in the world is doing more heavy lifting than the UK.

My Lords, I stand ready to be Neptune. I must congratulate the Government on a number of the measures they have taken to protect whole areas of the ocean around our overseas territories. However, as I have mentioned before, looking after those waters needs ships. It is no good just having satellites and aeroplanes. Even in this latest shipbuilding strategy, there is no coverage of the ships that might be able to do that task. In the context of the strategy, and looking to the future, will the Minister ensure that we have the ships to look after these waters?

It is a really important point. Take South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, for example, where we have a large protected area. Those waters are policed by a UK ship that is paid for through very conservative sales of the right to fish for krill. The areas of ocean that we currently protect, combined with what we hope to protect in the near future, mean that the vessel approach is probably unrealistic. One of the things we are trying to do this year is bring together the main donor countries and those countries most affected by illegal fishing to agree a global action plan. It will rely heavily on technology, which has advanced massively—even in the past 12 months—but has not been put to proper use.

My Lords, given that 90% of the UK’s biodiversity is in the overseas territories, what plans does the Minister have to work more closely with the First Ministers of those territories on this agenda? Can I also suggest that he is doing an excellent job as the Minister for Oceans and we do not need anyone else doing it?

I thoroughly approve of the second part of the question; I thank my noble friend. I am in regular contact with my counterparts across the overseas territories. There is a real hunger among our overseas territories to do more in not just ocean conservation but terrestrial conservation. There is real ambition there. We made provision for their representatives to have a serious platform at COP 26, which has not happened before. Their leadership shone through and inspired other countries to raise their game.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a single Minister for Oceans could capitalise on our status as a maritime nation, bringing together offshore renewable energy, a sustainable fishing policy and blue carbon initiatives to harness the ocean’s carbon sequestration capacity and deliver huge environmental benefits?

I am just not convinced that we would have a better approach. We may enjoy self-flagellating in the UK but, outside this country, the UK is seen as a leader on ocean conservation issues, on ocean-related climate change issues and in standing up for the rule of law in international waters and beyond. I am just not convinced that having a single Minister would meaningfully change anything. This issue touches almost every department of government. It is therefore right that, instead of creating new positions, we focus on improving cross-government discussions.

My Lords, the Minister has talked a grand game about policing the oceans of the world. Does he understand why we might be sceptical when the waterways under his and the Government’s direct control are infected with tonnes of sewage every day?

That is a very different issue. The noble Lord will not be surprised that I disagree, but again I challenge him to give me a single example of another country that has either protected more waters directly or done more heavy lifting internationally to get the rest of the world to increase its ambition. More than 100 countries are now signed up and committed to protecting 30% of the world’s ocean by the end of this decade. That would not be happening if it were not for UK leadership.

My Lords, my noble friend, as Minister for the Oceans, took a great interest in the passage of the now Environment Act, and in how the competing claims of fishing, shipping and new planning applications for offshore wind farms would be balanced. Have there been any further developments to put our minds at rest that future applications for offshore wind farms will have regard to fishing and shipping?

This is an important point and there is a tension between our desire to scale up offshore wind, a sector in which the UK has a leadership position, and the need to protect our ocean and fishing sector. Defra is playing an increasingly important role, mostly through my colleague Rebecca Pow, and is liaising with BEIS and other departments, working to improve our understanding of the adverse environmental impacts and developing a cross-government approach to addressing them. In a few months, we will publish the findings of our recent consultation.

My Lords, in advance of World Ocean Day, could the Minister indicate what action the Government will take to protect sensitive fish species and ensure that the by-catch is minimised, at the same time as underpinning our fishing industry throughout UK coastal communities?

My Lords, before becoming a Minister, my noble friend Lord Benyon put together a report for the Government on highly protected marine areas. We are now taking those plans forward. These areas will take a whole-site approach and conserve all species in the key habitats we want to protect around our domestic coastline. We will provide more details of this programme shortly. In addition, through the new blue planet fund the UK is investing £500 million to help other countries, particularly small-island developing states which really depend on marine environments for their economies, to protect and defend those environments against the threats we all know about.