Wednesday 17 March 2021
[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]
Passenger Boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive at the start of the debate in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I call Andrew Rosindell to move the motion—and happy birthday.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of passenger boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Thank you very much, Dame Angela, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this St Patrick’s day. What a great day to have this debate. It is also Montserrat day. Mr Speaker is flying the flag of Montserrat from New Palace Yard, which is the first time ever that the flag of an overseas territory has been flown from the Palace of Westminster. Happy Montserrat day and happy St Patrick’s day to one and all.
I have served in the House now for 20 years. Also, I have served as the MP for my home constituency of Romford, which is and always has been a proud part of the county of Essex, while of course bordering on and with very close links to the capital city of London. As an MP within the authority area of the London Borough of Havering, located on the Thames estuary, I am all too conscious of the role that our great River Thames has played in our nation’s history, and the role that it will undoubtedly play in our future. To the east of London, the River Thames has once again become crucial for our trade, and in central and west London it continues to play a hugely important role for tourism and the London leisure economy.
I enthusiastically welcome the new Thames freeport, where thousands of new jobs will be created close to my Romford constituency, serving Romford, Havering, east London and the whole of the south-west Essex area. That is a piece of great news that we can celebrate today.
The River Thames is our river. It belongs to us in this region of the United Kingdom, whether we are from London, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire or beyond, and it must always be a river that the people of this region of our country are able to use for business, travel and pleasure. [Interruption.] Yes, I should perhaps have mentioned Oxfordshire as well, although today’s debate is more about the use of the River Thames in the more central part of London. But I assure the Minister that I had not forgotten Oxfordshire.
Many of my constituents rely on the Thames for their livelihoods and careers. They are highly skilled, and keen that a fair, competitive and safe working environment is maintained on the river, both for them and for future generations. As we go further upriver into central London and beyond Westminster, there is—as Members will know, because in normal times we see it alongside Parliament every day—a vibrant river-based tourism industry, whereby visitors to London and tourists can enjoy a unique boat trip along the Thames.
That is one of the issues I want to address today. I will explain why proposals from the Government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency for London’s older passenger boats threaten to put this all at risk. As they stand, the plans are, I believe, disproportionate, inflexible and unfair. They risk forcing up to 25 popular and safe older passenger boats off the River Thames. I am grateful for the Minister’s letter on Monday that set out a determination to proceed with the plans, but I will now set out my very real concerns, which are shared by many Members on both sides of the House.
The MCA first proposed changes to the rules that govern passenger boats operating in category C tidal waters, such as the tidal Thames, three years ago. They are known as grandfather rights. The Thames, uniquely, is home to a large variety of safe, older passenger boats that operate in different parts of the river, based on their target tourist market and suitability. Each year, in normal times, they safely carry hundreds of thousands of passengers both on scheduled services such as the hugely popular and historic Westminster to Kew Gardens and Hampton Court summer service, or on private charter work such as evening parties and functions. As well as the many direct skilled jobs that those services retain, they also indirectly support the Thames boatyards and key tourist attractions, such as Kew Gardens, Hampton Court and London’s night-time economy, all of which have suffered terribly because of a year of lockdowns. They are essential in helping to deliver recovery.
In recent years, because of the growth of the fast and large Uber Thames Clipper fleet of boats, many of the older passenger boats on the Thames have chosen to operate in the less congested upriver areas of the tidal Thames, in the area west of Westminster pier. That will become more attractive as the large, river-reliant infrastructure projects, such as the Northern line extension at Battersea and the Tideway tunnel, are finished and the large tug and barge flows connected with those projects come to an end.
In the Minister’s letter to me on Monday, he said that the determination to proceed with plans was based on “evidence of ship numbers, movements and incidents upriver of Westminster, particularly in Lambeth Reach.” May I ask the Minister to please write to me and detail each incident that the Department has considered and the criteria against which they have judged it appropriate to take those plans forward? That surely is crucial information to judge whether it has been the right decision.
The MCA plans contain some proposals that can be met and delivered by operators, despite their having no work since the pandemic struck last March, but the specific proposal for vessels on the tidal Thames to have to subdivide their hulls, fit new bulkheads and effectively totally rebuild their boats at the waterline is both economic suicide and effectively vessel ending. Known as the damage stability rule, it would slash the passenger-carrying capacity on vessels that were built on the Thames to operate on the Thames and would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds per boat.
Consequently, owners will not be borrowing money to make their boats unfit for purpose—of course not. These boats are owned and operated by family businesses whose ancestors have worked on the river for centuries. They are long-standing stakeholders in the river, and the MCA proposals will put them out of business and their boats and jobs will be lost—the last thing we want at this stage. We should be revitalising the industry, not crushing it. I therefore sincerely hope that the Minister will see the need for at least some flexibility, pragmatism and risk-led common sense, both to improve river safety and to keep the sector afloat.
I want to place on the record the significant cross-party opposition to the MCA’s subdivision plans for older Thames passenger boats. Excellent work has also been done on the matter by Lord West of Spithead, in the other place, as the Minister will know. There have been letters to Secretaries of State for Transport from more than 60 Members of Parliament—cross-party—including the hon. Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), who used to lead the Conservative group on the Greater London Authority, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), the leader of the Liberal Democrats. The Minister will also know that many members of the London Assembly support the opposition to the proposals, and have raised objections and written to the Transport Secretary and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I understand that the Prime Minister has been made aware of the issue by his concerned west London constituents.
Importantly, the organiser of the 2012 Thames diamond jubilee pageant, Lord Salisbury, has also written in protest. One of the boats under threat from the MCA is the Connaught, which led the pageant and carried the Queen’s heralds, alongside Her Majesty’s own vessel. It was a special day for the River Thames, the Queen, the royal family and the whole country. Yet that boat is under threat from the proposal. Surely that cannot be right and there must be a reconsideration of the whole proposal. I hope that the Minister is starting to understand my horror at the implications. I ask him please to intervene and urgently review the Government’s position.
There is a key word that the MCA continues to use in promoting, and seeking to justify, its proposals. It says that the boats must be subdivided in the hull to make them safer. Safety is of course critical and must be proportionate across all modes of transport, particularly heritage transport. The Marchioness incident of 1989, which I am sure we all remember with great sadness, is sometimes cited by the MCA and the Minister in justifying the bans. However, that is not fair or valid. The Marchioness was the victim of a total and unforgivable lapse in navigational rules and standards, which caused it to strike and be sunk by a much larger vessel.
Importantly, in a letter on the subdivision issue to a Thames boatyard owner in September 2019, the chief executive officer of the Port of London Authority wrote: “I fully accept that such a change would in all probability have had minimal impact on the tragic outcome of the Marchioness collision.” That point is an important contribution. River skills, route knowledge, quieter and lower-risk waters, and the best possible training are key for the future of the Thames, alongside a viable and credible compromise that I want to set out for the benefit of the Minister and his Department.
I note that the MCA has told the Thames boat operators that it wants to update them on its plans on 14 April. I hope that the debate can help us to make some progress on that. The Minister is aware of the careful thought and consideration that have gone into the compromise proposal for the older Thames passenger boats, which is that they should be restricted to the Thames west of Westminster pier, with the use of the pier itself, without the need for the subdivision. In our virtual call with the Minister on November 2, Lord West explained how operators were prepared to limit their operations from this point, and concentrate their navigation in the less congested areas of lower operational risk along the river. Indeed, many of the boats were built to operate in the upper tidal reaches of the Thames, with their shallow draft and low deck profiles.
This solution would achieve four important goals. First, river authorities would know where older passenger boats were operating at any one time, given their new zonal restrictions alongside already being on the automatic identification system. Secondly, no older passenger boat would be forced off the Thames and would be able to play its part in bringing tourists and visitors back to the river after the covid restrictions, and help meet the Transport for London, Port of London Authority and Greater London Authority ambitions to significantly grow river passengers over the next 15 years, particularly upriver. Thirdly, the boats would continue to support the important Thames boatyards and skills supply chain, which means jobs would not be lost and yards closed. Fourthly, we would avoid the MCA’s earlier plans to issue exemptions only if individual boats can successfully clear their future risk assessment test, the criteria for which have never been published or released.
I foresee a real risk of bureaucratic and legal quagmire here. As the Minister knows, the upper tidal Thames has full and fast Royal National Lifeboat Institution cover as well. There are many issues that I do not believe have been fully addressed in the current proposals. That is why the Minister simply has to take this seriously and change the current projection and policy. It is crucial that we strike a pragmatic and proportionate balance for operators and safety. This lower operational risk solution will deliver this, without forcing anyone out of business or losing any of these key and safe assets from the river.
If the Minister will not change direction, will he discuss with the operators what compensation they will be offered for the forced loss of their income and their businesses, as well as the considerable devaluation of their assets? He needs to address this directly. If he pushes ahead, he has to consider what he is doing to the livelihoods and the businesses that will be affected. The Government will have to pay huge sums of money to compensate for the damage this policy will do. That could all be avoided if he reviews this policy today.
The Thames has changed considerably in the last 20 years, and it is great to see so many people using it for leisure and commuter travel. As it has grown in importance and popularity, the need for services to be carefully regulated and monitored is all too clear, as is the importance of preventing any anti-competitive practices or unfair situations, which I fear have been allowed to develop. That is a further angle to this.
As the Minister knows, I am increasingly concerned by reports from my constituents that the company tasked with delivering the river’s commuter boats, Uber Thames Clippers, has been abusing its dominant market position and enjoying unfair advantages, which in turn unfairly undermines other operators on the river. I wrote to him about this last year and he replied, asking to be kept informed.
Since 1999, Transport for London has made provision for a dedicated scheduled river boat commuter service, now called Uber Thames Clippers, which is regulated by TfL, under the responsibility of the Mayor of London. Clippers run services between Putney and east London in normal times, in the morning and evening commuter peaks and throughout the day. Consequently, in normal times they carry hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors. It seeks to attract them with prominent marketing. Uber Thames Clippers is therefore not only a commuter service; it is also a tourist service.
For this daytime tourist offering, Uber Thames Clippers enjoys many commercial advantages as a result of arrangements with TfL that are not enjoyed by competing scheduled Thames tourist boat operators. That simply is not fair. It is this point that I wish to explain. I have written to the Deputy Mayor for Transport in London twice, and my colleague in the Greater London Assembly, the Assembly Member for my own borough of Havering, Keith Prince, is also taking these matters up in the GLA and asking probing questions of the Mayor of London, but no answers have been given; this matter is unresolved. A future investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority may now be necessary, and I ask the Minister to address this point.
The key issue is that Uber Thames Clippers does not have to pay landing fees at busy central TfL-owned peers such as Westminster, Tower of London, Greenwich and Bankside, when its boats disembark and pick up tourist passengers during the day, but its scheduled competitors do. These costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds every year, which Uber Thames Clippers avoids but its rivals—the traditional operators—still have to pay. That cannot be fair, it cannot be right and it is uncompetitive, and the Minister must intervene to end this unfairness.
TfL has explained how and why it justifies and maintains having one rule for one tourist operator and one for another. I have constituents who work on the Thames and have to endure the unfair competition and unacceptable distortion. I want to know how it is justified by the Mayor and what Transport Ministers might be minded to do, in line with the Competition Act 1998, given the unfair practices being maintained by a body, in TfL, that has received billions of pounds in public support.
All the operators ask for is a level playing field, so that when they compete with Uber Thames Clippers for tourist passengers outside of commuter times, they all pay the same pier fees. At the moment, Uber Thames Clippers enjoys an unfair market advantage, which is being maintained and defended by the Mayor and TfL. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government can now do to bring more scrutiny and attention to this disturbing issue, especially when the Mayor and TfL have been given billions in taxpayer support over the last year alone? Does he think a CMA inquiry might be an option for consideration?
The future of London is intrinsically tied up with the future of the River Thames. It is the liquid highway, and it has again become key to how we enjoy this great city and to creating jobs, growing the city and showcasing it to the world as part of our new global Britain. Everything must be done to prevent and remove any bad policy, plan or failing situation that threatens to disproportionately undermine those who rely on it for their business or the public’s ability to enjoy it, especially as we come out of the pandemic and look again to the river for some peace, fulfilment and enjoyment. I therefore hope that the Minister will answer my points and provide real assurances to those who want to help ensure that our wonderful River Thames recovers after this bleak period in our history and resumes its historic role of helping Londoners to work, with key services provided on the river in a fair, pragmatic and safe environment.
I conclude on this St Patrick’s day by paying tribute to the vital part that our Irish friends have played in the history of the River Thames over many centuries. I draw the House’s attention to the important contribution of Irish workers, particularly the vital part they played in building the Thames tunnel between 1825 and 1843, which has a special place in British history as the first tunnel built under a navigable river anywhere in the world. The workers spent long shifts digging the 700-foot tunnel in treacherous conditions that would lead to the death of six during the course of its construction. These workers were predominantly Irish migrants who moved to London in the 19th century to find work, and who created a significant piece of London’s history. It is important that their work and achievement should be remembered, and I can think of no better day on which to do that than this St Patrick’s day.
Dame Angela, Minister, colleagues, let us celebrate the central part our River Thames has played in the lives of our people, our capital and our nation, and seek to ensure that it may go on doing so for many centuries to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his presentation and on doing it so well. I wish all hon. Members here in this Westminster Hall sitting and elsewhere a very happy St Patrick’s day. It is a pleasure to come and speak today.
It is good to remind ourselves, as the hon. Gentleman did, that those who built the Thames tunnel were Irish migrants. We should thank them—many from Northern Ireland, and many from the Republic of Ireland—for their contribution to this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As you probably know, Dame Angela, and as others will know as well, they say that if St Patrick turns the stone the right way up on St Patrick’s day—in other words, if it is dry and sunny, as it is outside—that probably means that we will have good weather between now and the summertime. I hope that is the case.
I wish the hon. Member for Romford many happy returns. He is an Aries, I think—
Sorry. I am an Aries—I am not that far away. Again, I wish the hon. Gentleman many happy returns.
The title of this debate is very clear and specific, and I will come to it specifically, but I would like to make some general comments to start with, and I would also like to talk about river ferries at the end. I have to take this opportunity to discuss a massive issue for my constituency. Some of the context in my constituency will tie in with some of the things the hon. Gentleman has referred to.
As we are all aware, Northern Ireland is a landlocked nation in the UK, and, as the Northern Ireland protocol has shown very clearly, landlocking brings its own problems. I am not going to talk about the Northern Ireland protocol—that is not appropriate, Dame Angela, and I know you would bring me into line and correct me if I did—but I just wanted to make that point and then say how it features within this debate.
The onus on hauliers and shipping is massive, and any issue or problem with this route affects the supply of basic goods to Northern Ireland. The passenger ferries from Larne to Cairnryan, where some of the problems we have seen have occurred, or the other ferry services, do not simply ensure free movement of people—they carry our necessities. The issue for ferries, for water travel, is so specific, and it ties in well with this debate about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the future of passenger boats.
Coronavirus has seen a massive impact on our connectivity, and understandably so. However, what must be understood is that this has wider connotations for GB-NI trade, which must be protected at all costs. The waterways are not simply a way for tourists to travel, although having travelled on the Thames on a few occasions with my wife, with other family members and individually, I can understand its attraction and that of maritime boats—it is similar in my constituency, which many people visit to experience the landscape and the warmest welcome—but the waterways are also a way of feeding people.
Over the last four Sunday evenings, Strangford has featured in “Bloodlands”—a drama programme that has given James Nesbitt fairly great prominence. When my wife and I were watching it on television, we were not as intrigued by the drama and the story as we were by trying to work out which part of Strangford lough it was set in and whose farm we were seeing. I can identify with that.
Let me turn to the main thrust of the debate, which is the replacement of boats that are older and that may need attention. The hon. Member for Romford referred to how important that is, and I want to give another example from my constituency. Old is not always not good, and it is important we recognise that. The hon. Gentleman referred to providing grants and help for small boats. We have done that in Northern Ireland; it was in a different sector, but the same principle applies, and that is what I want to refer to.
The fishing fleet in Portavogie is between 45 and 48 years old. It was decided that massive rebuilds had to take place to bring it up to safety standards. Any seaman or fishing person in Portavogie would say that they would take their sturdy, old, seaworthy boat over the new and improved one any day, any time. The Government and, most of all, the Northern Irish Assembly, through the fisheries Department, have made sure that grant in aid is available for that. I know that we are in a difficult time with covid, and that resources are minute, so that is not always a possibility, but the Minister might want to look at the issue.
While it is undoubted that any passenger ferry must be to a high standard and safe, that is not to say that we must discard the older boats. As one who is feeling this more and more, let me say that sometimes the old things can be the best things, and it is important to put that on record as well.
I share the concerns of many about the impact on services, should the requirements be implemented to the full. I will certainly be asking the Minister to listen carefully to those whose livelihoods and trade depends on these boats—the hon. Member for Romford has referred to them, and I am here to support him in his request to the Minister and in what he wants to bring about.
Safety can go hand in hand with this lively and wonderful internationally recognised service. Without a doubt, when people come to London for a few days, as I do every week, or for a break, one of the things they have to do is travel on a boat—one of those leisure cruises—and enjoy the scenery and the water.
In my constituency, there are thriving private fishing and leisure boat business. We have excellent fishing in Strangford lough and the Irish Sea. Those businesses thrive because the opportunity to catch fish is there, but also because there is something really exciting about doing that. I am not sure whether we have the same ability to do that in the Thames, or whether there is a thriving fishing sector—or angling sector, I should say—but, if there is, it would certainly be another thing to look at.
Again, while safety is paramount—it has to be, and it must be upheld—we also have to look at how we can improve some of the older boats. I have spoken to people regarding this debate and comments by the hon. Gentleman about the Thames and the area. I find myself agreeing with a number of MPs, and especially the hon. Member for Romford, who introduced the debate, as well as with others who are looking at this debate from afar—I have spoken to some of them as well, and although they are not here today, they have a similar opinion to the hon. Gentleman.
I will just quote from the Evening Standard:
“The operators are SMEs and family-run businesses which have worked on the river for generations. The double whammy of covid and these unnecessary MCA proposals will do potentially terminal damage to London’s maritime heritage, river jobs and tourism. They should be changed so that no boats are forced off the river and the sector can recover.”
I know that the Conservative party—and, in fairness, the Labour party as well—is committed to ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises can be protected, and that the self-employed have opportunities. If ever there was a time to do that, it is now. Perhaps in his response the Minister can give us some assurance that SMEs will be protected in legislation. I know that the Minister and the Government have done that and continue to do that, but we need that assurance today.
I support the Evening Standard in its call. I truly believe that we can see these boats being safely used and upgraded in a methodical and financial manner that does not close businesses down, but that, as with the changes to fishing vessels in my constituency, where this happened, subsidises them with grants, guides them and enhances them. This is not the time to be putting unbearable financial pressure on any aspect of tourism. In my constituency, tourism is vital—it is the key theme of Ards and North Down Borough Council and Strangford as well. I ask the Minister to review the mechanism and timing of these proposals.
In conclusion, these boats are a wonderfully visual aspect of tourism and must be safe and protected. We can do these things differently, and the hon. Member for Romford referred to that. I ask the Minister to review this issue once more, with a post-covid view and perhaps with a slightly different perspective.
It is pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela, for today’s debate on the future of passenger boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I wish the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) a happy birthday, and I thank him and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions. I wish all hon. Members a happy St Patrick’s day.
Although small in number, the contributions to the debate have been wide-ranging, covering many aspects of marine passenger travel, from the future of travel and the use of the Thames, to the Larne and Cairnryan sea link, to which farm is owned by whom on the banks of Strangford lough.
As the Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, which boasts 26 islands and probably has more passenger ferries than any other UK constituency, I could not speak in this debate. The passenger ferries, whether they are operated by CalMac, Argyll and Bute Council or Western Ferries, are a critical lifeline to our rural communities. I want to highlight some of the enormous contribution made by all of those who work on the boats every day of the year, providing an essential, sometimes lifeline, service to thousands of people and hundreds of small communities on dozens of remote islands. I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to every single one of them.
By far the biggest ferry operator in the west of Scotland is CalMac, the legendary Caledonian MacBrayne, which sails to more than 30 destinations across the west of Scotland. For more than a century, the distinctive black and white boats, topped by a fiery red funnel, have connected Scotland’s islands to the mainland, ensuring that, despite the worst weather that could be thrown at them, the remote communities are served and regularly supplied, and that islanders are able to come and go freely.
In my constituency, CalMac operates 18 different routes, connecting the islands of Mull, Iona, Islay, Bute, Tiree, Coll, Colonsay, Lismore, Gair and Kerrera to the Scottish mainland. It is not just island communities that are served in that way. CalMac plays a hugely important role in linking remote mainland towns and villages to the centre of Scotland, including Dunoon, Creagan, Campbeltown and Tarbert.
For so many of my constituents, ferries are not just something they take to go on holiday; they are the lifeline that brings food, drink, parcels, the post, the daily newspapers, building materials and vital medical supplies. Although CalMac is undoubtedly the largest ferry company, I also recognise and pay tribute to the year-round contribution made by those working on Argyll and Bute Council-operated ferries between Port Appin and Lismore, Cuan and Luing, Ellenabeich and Easdale, and Port Askaig and the Isle of Jura.
A huge and important contribution is also made by Western Ferries, which operates the car ferry that ploughs the Firth of Clyde between Hunters Quay and Gourock. If I look out of my window right now I can see Western Ferries boats crossing the Firth of Clyde on one of their multiple daily journeys.
Not only do these operators serve local communities; they are also part of the communities they serve. They do so much good to improve the area and the general wellbeing of so many communities. I would like to make special mention of four CalMac employees in Oban who last month raised thousands of pounds to support one their colleagues, Megan, who had experienced a particularly difficult time in her life. Nicky MacKechnie, Alan MacInnes, Ian Rodgers and Keith MacMillan launched a charity exercise regime called Megan’s Miles. It had an initial target of raising £500 for the Scottish Association for Mental Health, but by last night they and their colleagues at the CalMac terminal at Oban had raised more than £8,000. I am sure colleagues from across the House will want to congratulate them on that magnificent effort in support of one of their colleagues; it is a very worthwhile cause. Although Nicky, Alan, Ian and Keith may not be unique, they serve as a good example of the people who keep these essential services running. Those services belong to, and are an integral part of, the communities they serve.
There is no doubt in my mind that without CalMac and the other services, those communities would struggle to survive. Despite the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves, the Scottish Government are, and have been, absolutely committed to supporting and improving the ferry network by implementing a long-term, positive, sustainable series of policies to connect our rural communities to the mainland, thereby boosting local economies and creating employment opportunities.
The SNP Scottish Government recognise the essential role that passenger ferries play in supporting our island communities. That is why, since coming to power in 2007, they have invested £2.2 billion in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service, the Northern Isles ferry services and general infrastructure, as part of our commitment to promoting Scotland’s islands and remote communities. The Scottish Government recognise the important role played by CalMac and others in connecting those communities to the centre, and they have put in place measures to make it easier and cheaper for islanders to travel to the mainland and for visitors to go to the islands.
In 2008, the Scottish Government introduced a pilot scheme called the road equivalent tariff. The principle of RET was essentially that ferry fares should be set on the basis of travelling the equivalent distance by road, and that island communities should face no financial disadvantage. At the same time, it promoted Scotland’s beautiful Western Isles as a great place to live, work, stay, raise a family, invest, conduct business and, of course, visit and spend a fortnight’s holiday.
It is absolutely right that any scheme that is funded, as RET is, to the tune of £25 million a year be rigorously and robustly scrutinised, so I was pleased that, earlier this week, with almost precision timing for today’s debate, Transport Scotland delivered its official evaluation of RET on the Clyde and Hebrides network. It is a large and interesting read—it runs to more than 80 pages. It examines in detail the roll-out and impact of RET on local communities, island infrastructure, the local economy, the environment and the all-important tourism sector.
The report took as its measure the original objectives that the Scottish Government set out to achieve when RET was introduced. They are increased demand, increased tourism and enhancing local economies. The Transport Scotland report shows that the demand for ferries has increased. Almost all routes have shown an increase, with a significantly higher number of residents and visitors using the Clyde and Hebrides service than before RET was introduced. Across the network as a whole, it is estimated that the average fare paid by passengers and car users has dropped by between 34% and 40%. That, in return, has made an overall positive contribution to local economies.
Of course, the report makes it clear that the scheme is not perfect. Nothing ever could be when dealing with a large transport network that connects hundreds of communities in the often windswept north Atlantic. There are problems—some predictable, others not—that have arisen since the introduction of the scheme. Among them, the popularity of RET has put added pressure on the already fragile road infrastructure in many of the islands. A lack of public toilets, camping facilities and chemical waste disposal has been highlighted, and increased visitor traffic has made travel for islanders wishing to leave far more challenging, as spaces on the car deck are booked up well in advance of sailing.
The long-term signs are that the upward trend in people visiting the islands will continue, and that will require significant new investment in boats, services and port infrastructure. That said, there is a broad consensus that the introduction and roll-out of the road equivalent tariff has been a very good thing for the islands, and I commend the Scottish Government for it.
Looking to the future, there can be no doubt that improved physical connectivity, coupled to advancements in digital connectivity, has a vital role in reversing the depopulation trend that we are unfortunately seeing across our island communities. Allowing people to live safely and securely in remote island communities must form a major part of any Government’s strategic thinking, and of course, better, more reliable, environmentally friendly ferries have a role to play. However, in and of themselves, they are not the answer.
I urge the Scottish Government and others to consider the bold, innovative approach taken by our neighbours in the Faroes, whose Government have combined a ferry network with a system of subsea tunnels. I was fortunate to visit the Faroes in 2019, to visit the Ministry that overseas these large infrastructure projects, and to stand on the Eysturoy tunnel during its construction—11 km long, connecting three islands by means of the world’s first subsea roundabout. It is a remarkable feeling to stand 5 km offshore, 190 metres below the Atlantic, watching them cutting and blasting their way through the basalt rock. Of course, I understand that the Faroes are much smaller than Scotland, but the scale of their ambition to connect people to the centre and reverse what people believed was an irreversible population decline is something to behold, and something we should all learn from.
Finally, I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Romford for having secured this debate, and for the passionate and forensic way in which he laid out his case; I am sure the Minister will look forward to answering that. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his, as always, telling and informative contribution, and I thank you, Dame Angela, for allowing me to put on record my appreciation for those who work so hard in Argyll and Bute and, indeed, across Scotland to provide that vital service that keeps our remote, rural and island communities connected to the Scottish mainland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and wish him a happy birthday on this St Patrick’s day, which he was very eloquent about. For those who cannot see the hon. Members for Romford and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), they have beautiful green ties on today, but the hon. Member for Romford has excelled by having matching coloured socks as well. I think the British public need to know that. I also thank him for his chairmanship of the Chagos islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) all-party parliamentary group, as I do on a regular basis, and the work he has put in over the years for that community. The small community that I represent in Wythenshawe and Sale East are very grateful for the work of that group.
Like Henry V before Harfleur, I was not angry before I came to this meeting, but when I heard about the Connaught, I became quite agitated. My parents emigrated from the great province of Connacht, from Leitrim and Roscommon, in the mid-1950s. They did not know each other in 1955; they met at a dance in Manchester, and married and moved out to the green pastures of Wythenshawe, where I came along a few years later. On this St Patrick’s day, I pay a particular tribute to my parents and my father, who was an Irish navvy and built the roads and the sewers of the north-west of England in his working life. As you well know, Dame Angela, I also play in the Fianna Phadraig pipe band—the warriors of Patrick—which celebrates its 73rd year this year in Wythenshawe, and I play in another musical ensemble called Lorica. A lorica is a poem that was used by warriors in the time of St Patrick—a poem on their breastplate to go into battle—and one of the lines in the lorica on St Patrick’s breastplate is
“God’s strength to pilot me”.
Listening to the hon. Member for Romford’s speech today, I thought that was an apt part that we should think about; a pearl of St Patrick’s wisdom that he gave us.
Today’s debate has focused on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s proposed changes to grandfather rights for all passenger boats. It has particularly highlighted the thriving and—at least pre-covid—successful passenger boat businesses on the Thames. The Tony Robinson TV series, “The Thames” was particularly excellent at showing what a vital artery the Thames is for our whole nation—and in Oxfordshire, as well, for the record; I say that for the Minister. Members will have admired boat trips along this section. Just before lockdown, I had the pleasure of going to Kew Gardens on one of those boats. These historic boats, including 19th century ships and even some veterans of the Dunkirk evacuation, continue to provide safe and enjoyable experiences for tourists, all year round, year after year. I pay tribute to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for the work it does and the exemplary safety standards on our rivers and coastal waters. It is of great importance to maintain that record, so I welcome the principle of upgrading the standards of vessels operating on rivers such as the Thames.
I join the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) in paying tribute to all ferry workers who have worked so hard during the pandemic. I am sure that view is shared by all Members. They have kept our vital supply lines open, externally to the United Kingdom, and internally. Life is tough at sea and on our waterways and they have done exemplary work. However, I think the sleep is beginning to fall from some voters’ eyes in Scotland; things are not quite as rosy with CalMac as the hon. Gentleman makes out. I am a huge user of CalMac ferries in my biannual holidays to either the Orkney Islands or the Western Isles. I see what is going on in Papa Westray and Westray, and on the ferries to Barra and other places. We know that there are huge problems with Scottish Ministers curtailing ferries to the Western Isles. There are huge rows about that. We know the CalMac fleet is ageing, because the Scottish Government have not invested in it over the last few years. There have been some terrible procurement problems with the SNP Government sourcing new ferries out of Port Glasgow. In particular, there are the contracts that doubled in value for two ferries; then they had to nationalise the shipbuilding yard. Governance of CalMac by the Scottish Government could be better and I hope we see that going forward.
I lend my support to the DFT’s review of Lord West of Spithead’s recommendations for the River Thames west of Westminster. I understand the Minister is currently exploring the review with officials. By allowing those businesses operating boats to continue to work upriver of Westminster pier, where traffic is much lower, Lord West’s plans may mitigate the risks, allowing these businesses and boats to continue working. While I am no expert on boat safety, I would like to note that the Port of London Authority support that plan as being within an acceptable level of risk. The proposed revisions to safety standards, especially affecting boat businesses on the Thames, have been a long time coming. The Minister will be aware that before our time covering this portfolio, there was considerable opposition to the implementation of these new regulations. The Mayor of London, MPs, Lords, GLA Members and businesses have also raised concerns about them. If enforced in their current form, they could wipe out an important part of London’s heritage.
Covid-19, having ravaged much of our economy and taken so much of our bandwidth, has not spared this sector. I ask the Minister to take away the feedback from today’s debate and show some urgency in concluding his deliberations. I hope that the Department and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency can find a proportionate response that allows these historic boats and vibrant businesses to continue to sail safely.
The hon. Member for Romford finished with a tribute, echoed by the hon. Member for Strangford, to Irish navvies, who built the Thames tunnel. On this St Patrick’s day, I think it apt that I finish with a lorica:
“Navigator, Navigator, rise up and be strong,
The morning is here and there’s work to be done,
With your pickaxe and your shovel and your old dynamite,
To shift a few tons of this earth by tonight.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I very much enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). I am not entirely sure I can follow it; it was a very good speech that I listened to intently. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken today. I wish everyone a happy St Patrick’s Day and Montserrat Day, and wish my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) a happy birthday. We have paid tribute to everyone in those diverse communities across the UK today, from Romford to Strangford, and it is an honour to be a part of that celebration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford on securing this important debate about passenger ship operations, particularly on the tidal River Thames. He is quite right to refer to it as a “liquid highway” connecting the country together. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East for having rightly pointed out to the House that it connects Oxfordshire. In fact, it forms the southern border of my constituency and is an artery through the entirety of southern England.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Romford in supporting the announcement of the Thames freeport. Given its location, it has the potential to become a national hub for international trade and commerce, and to attract business and jobs to the region. It reconnects us with our vibrant maritime history and reinforces our position as an outward looking trading nation.
My hon. Friend mentioned the competitiveness points that fall within the responsibility of the Mayor of London. Those matters are for the Mayor and Transport for London to address. I know he will continue to engage with the Mayor and he may question his management of London’s transport system, which has left a lot to be desired. My hon. Friend asked about scrutiny; he is doing a good job in providing that scrutiny himself, but I am happy to join him and write to the Mayor to raise those concerns as well.
I turn to the subject of passenger boats. I associate myself with the comments made by all hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), who paid tribute to maritime workers across our wonderful United Kingdom and everything they have been doing to connect communities, particularly in the difficult circumstances of the pandemic.
I am sure the House will agree that safety must be a top priority for the Government when it comes to ship operations. Operators must ensure that ships are not only built but maintained and operated to maintain the safety of their passengers, their crews and other ships. There is a balance to be struck between safety and the right to trade and remain operationally viable. Ultimately, this is a matter of judgment of risk, and it comes down to having proportionate and appropriate safety measures. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and I would entirely agree on that statement of principle. It is just a matter of where the balance falls.
It may be appropriate to spend a moment looking at the origins of the legislation that is proposed, which, as my hon. Friend points out, was the Marchioness incident. I hope the House will pardon me if I reflect on the tragic events of 20 August 1989, as the background may be helpful. Hon. Members will remember the deeply harrowing scenes of the Marchioness party boat after its collision with the Bowbelle dredger on the Thames around Southwark bridge. Tragically, 51 young people lost their lives that night. That tragic event prompted 30 years of debate about the general safety of passenger ships on our inland waterways, particularly those on the tidal River Thames. The proposals that we are considering spring from that tragic incident, rather than seeking to address an incident that had already taken place. That is an important distinction to make.
There were a number of drivers of change. There was a Marine Accident Investigation Branch recommendation. After Lord Justice Clarke’s Thames safety inquiry in 2000, he conducted an exercise and enhanced security arrangements were proposed. A number of improvements have taken place since 1989 to the emergency response and the operation of small passenger ships. For example, Her Majesty’s Coastguard now has a presence on the river, with the Port of London Authority, at the Thames barrier, the RNLI now has a presence on the river, and additional rescue equipment and safety aids are placed along the banks of the Thames to support people who may find themselves in the water.
Ship movements are closely monitored by the Port of London Authority, which is responsible for safe navigation using modern tracking systems. Ships have adopted better look out arrangements to reduce the risk of collision and training is better, as is the certification of crews. Additionally, ships built after 1992 must meet modern ship damage survivability standards. That is to keep them afloat in the event of an accident, either to get them back to shore under their own steam or to give time for passengers and crew to be rescued.
However, those modern standards have not thus far been applied to the older ships, which retain what are called grandfather rights, and that of course is the subject of today’s debate. But as waterways have become busier, so the concern about the safety of these ships has also grown. Some of the ships are very old and are heritage boats. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford is right to say that they should be treasured. The hon. Member for Strangford has paid tribute to them as well. I think his phrase was that the old can sometimes be the best. I think we would all agree with that sentiment. I totally understand the special place that these ships have in the hearts of many Members of this House and of the other place. I feel a lot of that sentiment myself.
Significantly, I also appreciate the concerns and representations from operators, who are concerned about being unable to continue in business if they are compelled to modify their ships to bring them into line with modern safety standards, particularly the damage stability requirements, which I will come to in a little more detail in a moment. Of course, that is all amplified by the pandemic. Therefore, we come to looking at the point of balance, which is perhaps the real issue in the debate today. There is an argument for saying that the safety record of the old passenger ships on the River Thames is good and therefore there is no need to introduce the new requirements. It is true that we have not seen an incident with loss of life similar to the Marchioness tragedy since that dreadful night in August 1989, but the difficult question is whether that is by design or whether it is simply a matter of good fortune, and it is that difficult question that we must ask ourselves when we are considering this matter.
Safety experts at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Port of London Authority are of the clear view that there has been too much reliance on continuing good fortune, and I would like to spend a moment or two explaining why that is. It is of note as background that, as I understand it, to this day the sister ship of the Marchioness continues to operate on the tidal River Thames. Evidence is inconclusive as to whether the measures proposed in the legislation would prevent an identical incident. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford may well be right; I think he made the point that perhaps they would not prevent an identical incident. But what I ask the House to consider is that that is not the right question, the question that we should be asking, because the relevant comparator is how quickly a vessel would sink were something—not necessarily that type of accident—to happen to it.
The Port of London Authority says that between 2010 and 2018 there were 1,192 accidents or incidents of varying severity along the Thames. I would like to give one example of what may have been just such a near miss. It is very appropriate: in 2008, the Millennium City hit Westminster bridge, literally outside this window here. It was pushed, as I understand it, by the tide and sustained an 8-foot gash to its side, below the waterline. We can never know what would have happened if a different vessel had been involved in that incident, but the expert opinion of the MCA is that, had it been one of the older passenger ships that did not meet the modern standards, it might well have sunk rapidly, with a considerable risk to life. Similarly, with regard to the Millennium Time collision in 2014 with the tug Redoubt, there would have been significant risk of an older vessel, covered by the grandfather rights, foundering.
The tidal Thames, the stretch of the river from Teddington Lock to the east, is complex in nature. It has varying depths and varying width. Other issues are its density, the make-up of the traffic on it, navigational hazards and environmental conditions. It is a tricky bit of river. The significant amount of large commercial traffic that operates on the Thames makes the risk of a collision unacceptably high, particularly in terms of a catastrophic collision between vastly different size ships, where the impact of the larger one overwhelms the smaller one. That mixture of heavy and light vessels also leads to congestion around bridges on the Thames. There is a mixture of tugs and barges with passenger ships and smaller craft. There is competition for berths at piers. That combination of risk factors necessitates the highest safety standards in ship construction, because if one of those older, unmodified ships were involved in an accident, it is likely that it would sink and lives would be lost.
It is against that background that the MCA legislation has been developed over several years. It has been the subject of a number of consultations and intense scrutiny, and there have also been a number of industry workshops. I accept that there is controversy surrounding it, and I totally accept that there is cross-party objection to it. That is why I met my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, as he kindly said, and others, so I have a first-hand understanding of it. The intention behind the legislation is to update the standards so that they are closer to those expected of modern ships. Passengers have a right to expect safety standards that appertain to the 21st century. That is probably what they expect, without a second thought, when they step on to a ship. My hon. Friend has asked for flexibility. I will come to that in a moment, but it is right to note that even under these revised proposals, older ships will have flexibility in how they comply.
It is important to note that, in addition to survivability in the event of damage, the proposals also cover safety improvements to life-saving equipment, firefighting and detection, bilge pumps and associated alarms. The most challenging part is the damage stability requirement and flexibility—better referred to as “damage survivability”, because that it is really means—and even there we have introduced a facility for an exemption. Owners will need to demonstrate, through a risk assessment, that their ships are operating in an area that presents a lower risk profile. That risk assessment will need to be agreed by the MCA and must not be opposed by the relevant navigation authority. My hon. Friend quite rightly mentioned the details. Some consultation has already taken place, but there will be time, between the laying of the legislation and its coming into force, to make clear the steps that those operators that wish to apply for an exemption will have to take.
I totally recognise that it may not be possible to modify some of the older ships to comply with modern stability standards. As I have said, we will undertake a risk-balancing exercise, whereby risk to life will be assessed alongside the safety standards—it is all a balance of risk, as hon. Members well understand. It seems to me that that is in the right place. Operators can either comply with the standards by modifying their ships, or apply for the exemption. I would suggest that that represents the flexibility referred to my hon. Members, and it is a compromise of sorts.
There has, of course, been a request for further compromise. I am hugely grateful to all hon. Members and Members of the other place for their constructive and expert engagement. I recognise the strength of feeling and thank them for that engagement. It is precisely because of that engagement that the MCA and the Department have considered in great detail whether there is a case for further compromise.
The MCA has carefully evaluated the option of not applying the damage stability requirements to ships that keep their operations to the west of Westminster Bridge, which it judges as being not acceptable from a safety perspective. That decision is based on ship numbers, movements and incidents upriver of Westminster, particularly in Lambeth Reach. My hon. Friend asked me to write to him with details, and I will of course enter into correspondence with him on the basis for that decision.
Although the level of maritime traffic may be less, the balance of risk means that it remains unacceptable to rely on a blanket exemption for small passenger ships. And it is, of course, the blanket exemption that my hon. Friend is asking for today. It is important to stress that that does not mean that exemptions are not possible, because operators can apply for an exemption, using the risk-assessment process to demonstrate that the arrangements for individual ships are safe and will protect the ship, its passengers and crew in the event of an accident. Proposals will allow operators an exemption from the new damage stability requirements if they demonstrate that they operate in an area of category C waters, which pose a lower operational risk. That risk assessment must be agreed by the MCA and not opposed by the relevant harbour authority.
I would not want to prejudge any risk assessment outcomes, but it may be that operators will struggle to show evidence that there is a lower operational risk in the vicinity of Westminster, for the reason I have outlined. There may be more scope to demonstrate a lower risk upriver of Chelsea, although of course everything will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
To sum up, the level of maritime traffic may be less in this part of the river, but the balance of risk means that it remains unacceptable to have a blanket exemption for small passenger ships. However, I believe that the flexibility and proportionality that my hon. Friend asks for is there, because it does not mean that no exemptions are possible; they just have to be approached in the right way in order to protect safety in the way that I have outlined.
I thank all hon. Members who have made representations about the safety of older passenger ships. My hon. Friend made a powerful speech. He spoke hugely compellingly on behalf of his constituents, those who use the river, and all the people who have raised the issue with him. They could ask for no better advocate. He has made powerful points, and I have great sympathy for many of them. However, as I have said, the question ultimately comes down to a matter of judgment on the basis of risk.
The Government’s position is that, when we look at the risk-assessed exemption present in the proposed legislation, we believe that it is no longer sufficient to rely on good fortune when dealing with the safety of life on the river. The MCA has made efforts to take account of as many as possible of the matters raised in the consultation and elsewhere. As I say, there are routes to exemption from those damage stability requirements, subject to developing that risk assessment.
The MCA will consider all cases on their own merits, and will be as pragmatic and flexible as possible, provided of course that safety is not compromised. Although I have sympathy for many of the points that my hon. Friend makes, I feel it is right that we continue with the legislation simply because of the risk to life, which is, as I say, unacceptably high without the new legislation. I thank all hon. Members for their support for, and interest in, today’s critical debate. I am very grateful to everyone for their time.
I thank the Minister for his response, and the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), and of course my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their contributions. I thank the Minister for his responses to many of the points that I made, but I fear that it will be met with disappointment. I am sure that he instinctively understands my points and why I am making them in this way. I hope that he will not simply follow what he is being told, but that he will be genuinely convinced that this is not a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I hope that the Minister will go back to his Ministry, talk to the MCA, fight for my constituents and the boat operators that have served London for so long and so well, and not be part of a decision that will wreck people’s jobs and wreck an industry that has done so much for London and played such a central part on our wonderful River Thames. I ask him to please think about those points: please go back to the Ministry, speak to the people who work in the industry, and look for flexibility and compromise. Do not take what we are told—look at the real situation.
Finally, I was a little concerned by the phrase “design or good fortune”. My goodness—imagine if we applied that principle to everything we do in Government and everything we do in our lives: “It is only by good fortune that bad things have not happened.” We might as well have a permanent lockdown and have everyone stay indoors and never do anything in their lives, just in case we do not have good fortune. We cannot live like that. We have to allow flexibility. We are a Conservative Government and this is in unconservative way of approaching the problem. Yes, we need safety and a sensible way of dealing with such things, and we need people to upgrade their standards where possible, but for goodness’ sake, let us have a light-touch Government, not interfering with everything and taking measures to an extreme whereby people lose their jobs and livelihoods.
I know that the Minister must, deep down in his heart, agree with much of what I am saying. I know, given the Minister that he is—strong and determined—that he will not go back to the Ministry and allow civil servants and others to dictate, but that he will make the decision himself. He will, of course, be responsible for those decisions, so I know that, in the end, he will make the right decisions for the River Thames and for all those people who work in this cherished industry in our capital.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of passenger boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Marine Protected Areas
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the extension of marine protected areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. Marine protected areas are of enormous importance not only to our country and our coastal seas, but to the whole world. Our oceans are massively complicated systems and not properly understood, but we know how important they are to human life. For example, some 25% of the carbon gases produced by human activity are absorbed by the ocean. Some of that is good and some of it leads to the acidification of our seas, which is less good. We know, and the United Kingdom Government and the United Nations are in agreement, that our oceans are now at a critical point. Some 1% have protection but scientists think that a minimum of 30% require protection, to allow our oceans to restore and recover.
Sadly, over-fishing and industrial fishing are still with us, putting whole species of fish at risk. The yellowfin tuna, for example, is now endangered and could cease to exist within a relatively small number of years. The massively destructive use of bottom trawlers—those that scour our oceans, ripping up the seabed and the basis for the biodiversity that allows the fish to spawn and flourish—is doing enormous damage across the world and in the seas off these islands of ours.
We also know that the use of the oceans as a dustbin for human activity cannot go on. Plastic pollution is across our oceans. Even in the deepest recesses of the oceans, many miles down, we now find plastic waste from human activity. Using our oceans as a dump for our sewage is simply no longer acceptable. I can remember a time when the sewage boat from Manchester went out into the Mersey bay and dumped sewage—admittedly treated sewage, but nevertheless sewage—into the Irish sea. Such practices have stopped in the UK, but they must also be stopped worldwide.
Of course, there are questions about antibiotics in our seas and the short and long-term impact that will have. There are even questions about the destruction of the efficiency of antibiotics for human use. We need international action, and it is clear that we need United Nations treaties to govern the use of the sea as a resource. There is a call by scientists, for example, for a moratorium on the fishing of mesopelagic fish that lie at a depth of between 200 metres and 1,000 metres. It is up to our Government to operate internationally and to call for action at a global level.
Whether the UK has less influence today post Brexit is a moot point that we can debate on another occasion. It is a real issue, although I welcome yesterday’s announcement of the new fisheries agreement between Norway, the European Union and the UK. That is an important step forward in rebuilding the trust that has been lost recently. In fairness, the UK Government have entered an era where there are some very good examples of our international obligations in care for the sea. The protection zone, for example, around St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha is important. I think that Tristan da Cunha is the largest protected area of ocean on the planet. It was a welcome step by our country and Government.
I want to concentrate the bulk of my remarks on UK inshore and offshore seas. The cycle of carbon capture, and the maintenance of productive fishing as a resource for human consumption, depend on the biodiversity in particular of our inshore and offshore seas. Those things are most likely to have an impact closest to our coast. The sea is massively important as a source of carbon capture, and we can increase or decrease that. On an international level, in practice, before I talk about our own coast, maintaining the mangrove swamps and seagrasses—and more locally our salt marshes—is of huge importance for carbon capture; but biodiversity of the oceans is of fundamental importance.
There are good examples. The Lyme bay experiment has yielded positive results and shown what can be done, with less fishing but more fish being caught. It is a measure of how far the productivity of the oceans has declined that we can now demonstrate that we can increase the productivity of fishing with less intensive methods. When we fish less intensively there is an increase in the number of coastal fish such as pollock, cod and wrasse, which used to abound around our coast but have now become much scarcer. However, they increase once again if we take care to manage the resources around our coast.
Our coasts are not yet in the state that we would want: 25% of the UK’s seas and 40% of our inshore seas are in some form of marine protected area, but we face problems. The Government’s marine strategy report revealed that only four of the 11 indicators of good environmental status are met across our local seas. There are problems to do with nomadic fishing practices: the practices of those who come into an area without having been there before, fish and overfish, and disappear, perhaps for some years, to come back when it suits them but does not suit the biodiversity we are trying to encourage. In 2019 supertrawlers with bottom dredges engaged in 3,000 hours of fishing in our offshore marine protected areas. It is estimated that in the first half of 2020, that level of overfishing had already doubled. We have huge problems and have to take action, or the destruction of our seas will continue.
I am bound to welcome—and I do welcome—the steps that have been taken already, with the creation of the many marine protection areas around our coast. There are hundreds of them. However, we have a patchwork with different rules and regimes operating in different areas. We need to look forward to something to give greater consistency around the coastline. There are differences, it is sad to recall, between the English, Welsh and Scottish coasts. Of course Ireland is a different regime, but Northern Ireland, again, has different practices. We need consistency. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at Dogger Bank and south Dorset for the banning of bottom trawling—that is so important because of the impact of bottom trawlers—but of course, that means that of the 76 offshore marine protection areas, only two will potentially have that kind of protection. We need a more joined-up strategy.
There has been progress, as I have said. Lyme Bay is a tremendously powerful example of what happens when we take a whole-site approach and say, “We are looking at the protection not just of individual species, but of the total biodiversity of an area.” That is important. The ban on electric pulse fishing has been another major step forward. I am a reluctant Brexiteer even to this day, but that ban has demonstrated that, where we now have the power to use UK law, we can take positive steps and move things forward. The Prime Minister spoke recently about the need to ban the vessels that “hoover up” our oceans, and he was right to call for that, but we need action to ensure that a ban comes into operation.
We need the UK Government to move forward on a total strategy for our shores and oceans. We have some of the best marine scientists in the world, and we have the capacity, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to be a leader in the demand for international change, but we need a total UK marine strategy that looks after our own shores—both inshore and offshore—and gives leadership on and commitment to ensuring that we cherish oceans around the world as something for the future, not simply as dumps for the past or as a resource to exploit and destroy.
A total international strategy would begin the move towards protecting the 30% of our oceans that we have to protect. The UK Government are committed to that, but not yet. My first call is for the UK to operate internationally to look for the kinds of global treaties that will make a material difference, give protection to our oceans, and bring sustainability for the future. My second call is for a whole-site approach to our inshore and offshore seas to join up the work that has been done across the marine protection areas off our coasts. It is tremendously important that we move in that direction.
Perhaps the most important call at the moment is for some consistency in challenging the practice of bottom trawling by super trawlers, which destroys the ocean bed. As our Prime Minster has already said in recent months, we have to stop those who would hoover up not only the fish, but the seabed, which will take many years to recreate. If we bring an end to bottom trawling in our offshore seas, we will have taken a huge step forward.
I appreciate that this is something that we have to take with care. I know that there is suspicion in the European Union that the Dogger Bank ban is being done for nationalistic fishing reasons, but we have to demonstrate clearly that it is actually being done for scientific marine protection reasons. If we can get those arguments across, we can begin to make a material difference to the biodiversity across our seas.
I say to the Minister that although the Government have done some seriously good things, which I genuinely applaud, I look forward to a joined-up marine strategy that says that we will take the lead internationally to protect our oceans, that we will take a whole-site approach to our marine protection areas, and that we will guarantee that the unacceptable practice of bottom trawling by super trawlers is brought to an end.
I feel as though this is a very personal debate, with just Dame Angela, me and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), whom I thank for securing the debate. From what he said, we have a great deal in common and share a great deal of interest in this area. I am not going to say it is all perfect, but I will say that I genuinely think we are driving in the direction that he is very keen for us to go.
The hon. Member recalled the dumping of raw sewage in the Mersey. I had the perhaps ignominious role of going out on the last ever shipment of raw sewage to be dumped in the River Severn when I was a new reporter, and jolly smelly it was. However, that has all stopped, which is a great move. We do not want to see that again.
As I said, the hon. Member and I share a great deal of interest in the wonderfully rich UK marine life and in our marine protected areas, where we have protected the most precious habitats and species. We have three types of protections that come within what we generally call MPAs: marine conservation zones, special protection areas, and special areas of conservation. They all contribute towards our having an ecologically coherent network of MPAs. I hope I can demonstrate that we have a clear strategy for our marine space, but that is not to say there is not work to do. Having left the EU, we now have a great many more opportunities to do a lot of what we really want to do in the marine space.
It is worth looking back at how far we have come in recent years in order to build up the network. Just 10 years ago, there were only a small number of MPAs scattered throughout our waters. Since then, huge amounts of work have been undertaken by the Government, agencies and stakeholders through surveying and other means. The hon. Member mentioned that we have a fantastic groundswell of scientists in this country—experts and specialists in the marine space. They have all been feeding into this endeavour, which has allowed us to identify and designate the network of MPAs in order to protect the very special habitats and species found around our waters.
We now have 371 MPAs—I think the hon. Member will agree that that is quite some achievement—which cover 38% of the area. In England, there are 178 MPAs, covering 40% of English waters. That really is a very big achievement in what is quite a short space of time. However, it is not just about slapping on a designation; it is about making sure we manage those protected areas properly. As he will know, our marine space faces enormous pressures. It has struck me, particularly since I have been the environment Minister, that everyone wants to get their hands on the marine space. There are a lot of challenges, but that is why it is important that we have our network of MPAs and a strong marine planning and licensing regime to prevent harmful activities. However, MPAs also need protection from other forms of activity that fall outside those regimes, such as certain types of fishing that might be harmful to them.
I want to touch on our inshore waters, which are up to 6 nautical miles from the coast. That is where we have full control of our MPAs. Over 90 of those are now protected from damaging fishing activities, thanks to the hard work of the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities and the Marine Management Organisation, and to the use of byelaws that we have been able to put into operation in the inshore areas. The hon. Member touched on bottom towed fishing. In many of those areas, we have been able to permanently stop bottom towed fishing taking place. That is happening right now in Poole harbour, The Needles, Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, Lyme Bay—he rightly referred to the model project that has been put into operation there—and Torbay.
Through working very closely with the fishing industry and other stakeholders, it has been possible to develop individual, tailor-made schemes for certain areas. There are others around the coast that protect such things as reef features by having measures that relate to mobile fishing gear, and restricting dredging in some areas and the hand-harvesting of certain shellfish—for example, in seagrass beds. Lots of measures are being put in place so that we have more sustainable habitats and sustainable fishing at the same time.
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are opportunities in many of these areas, particularly in the carbon storage space—for example, carbon storage in kelp beds and in our mud. There are lots of opportunities and good reasons why we should put in place some of these measures.
In our offshore waters, which the hon. Gentleman touched on, the picture is very different. Introducing management measures for our offshore MPAs has been really hard to achieve because we had to get the agreement of all the EU member states. As you will probably realise, Dame Angela, that is pretty tricky. Now that we have left the common fisheries policy and introduced the Fisheries Act 2020, at long last we have the opportunity to bring in our own byelaws so that we can start to protect these areas properly. A great deal of work has been done really fast to try to use some of the new powers. As was mentioned, we have proposals for four of our most sensitive offshore sites—the Canyons, Dogger Bank, Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge, and south Dorset. We set about consultations literally within days of getting the new powers, and the consultation runs until 28 March.
We are not going to stop there. We are also developing a whole programme to bring in required management for the remainder of the offshore areas in English waters, and we want to do that as fast as possible.
Although we have a proud record of MPAs, the Government are mindful that we could go further in the marine space, which is why we called for a review into the idea of highly protected marine areas. The subsequent Benyon review, which I am sure the hon. Member remembers, looked at whether we could create highly protected marine areas. The Government welcomed the report and are looking at the recommendations. Such areas would allow biodiversity to recover across a whole site. It is very much what the hon. Member touched on—a much wider, more holistic approach. A lot of work is going on with stakeholders to talk about those recommendations. The Secretary of State has announced that we intend to pilot some highly protected marine areas. It is very exciting, and we will hear more about it as time goes on.
I want to touch on large fishing vessels, which are often referred to as super trawlers. Lots of organisations are raising that issue, and I have had a lot of letters about them and their impact on MPAs. The Government are looking closely at what our policy for such vessels should be, but as ever it needs to be evidence based. Everything has to be based on science. Those vessels are usually what we call pelagic trawlers, which means that they fish in the water column. As such, they are not likely to come into contact with seabed habitats and species, which most of the MPAs were designated to protect, but we know that, for those highly mobile fish species, area-based protections such as MPAs might not be sufficient, and they are best protected by measures that apply across the full range. Certainly, looking at those vessels is on the radar.
I just wanted to say yet again that having left the common fisheries policy, and now that the transition period has ended, we have the opportunity to look at these large vessels coming into our waters offshore. I want to highlight, though, that we have already acted to ban pulse fishing in our waters, which the hon. Member referred to, and I am pleased that he welcomed that.
Our domestic MPA network has meant that the UK is in a strong position to be a global leader in protecting our seas. The hon. Member questioned what our role would be, and whether we would step up to the plate—whether we could, now that we have left the EU—but I definitely believe that we can play a much greater role on the international stage.
We are a very ambitious participant in what we are calling a marine super year—2021 is the marine super year—and we are continuing to push for strong multilateral action on ocean protection. As part of this, the UK is advocating the protection of at least 30% of the global ocean within marine protected areas by 2030, which aligns with global protection of at least 30% of land by the same year. We are championing the 30 by 30 target through our leadership of the Global Ocean Alliance, and as ocean co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People. I am delighted to announce that Bangladesh has recently joined the Global Ocean Alliance, which brings us to 41 countries and counting. Between the two alliances, 70 countries now support the 30 by 30 target, which I think the hon. Member will welcome, because he touched on some of these much wider issues.
The hon. Member also touched on this whole space of a more holistic, joined-up approach to everything that goes on in our seas, particularly fishing. It is our ambition to have world-class fisheries management that will achieve sustainable fisheries, safeguarding stocks, which is obviously crucial for the fishermen themselves, but also safeguarding the environment in the long term. The Government remain fully committed to sustainable fishing, and to the principle of maximum sustainable yields as set out in the 25-year environment plan and our fisheries White Paper. The objectives of the Fisheries Act 2020, the joint fisheries statement and the fisheries management plans collectively reaffirm our commitment to achieving sustainable fishing and protecting the environment, while tailoring our approach to our unique seas and the needs of our fishing industry. I want to give reassurance that I am working very closely with the Fisheries Minister on this, because while she is responsible for fishing and our fishermen, I am responsible for the environment, and we need to work together so that we have a sustainable future for everyone.
I have been very pleased to have the chance to talk about some of these issues, and I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for, in his very measured and fair way, raising the points that he made. I think he will agree that we are thinking along the same lines, which is always good, even when speaking to the Opposition. I know this is something that he strongly believes in, and I hope I have demonstrated that we are doing a great deal for marine protection. Our marine does faces a lot of challenges, but we now have the structure in place and we are working very hard to make all these things line up so that we have a sustainable future around these coasts, and are also using our influence internationally for all concerned: wildlife, nature, and those earning their living from the sea.
Question put and agreed to.
Research and Development Funding
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice, in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be a suspension between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debate and they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. There are no Members in the Public Gallery.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of research and development funding.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Dowd, and to have the opportunity to discuss this vital question, which is extremely timely. Has there ever been a time when the public were so interested and indebted to the work of our researchers? Quite simply life-saving and life-changing, with huge social and economic consequences, the vaccine development is not the subject for today. The research and development, the research institutions and universities that support them are a cause for global celebration and thanks.
That opening sentence makes it clear that this a huge and complicated area. I suspect that in 90 minutes we will not be able to do full justice to it, not least the complicated and important relationship between public and private funding, which I suspect others will touch on. I will concentrate on some of the key, immediate questions facing particularly public funding and its future. The debate is also timely for different and, frankly, much more political reasons.
I will concentrate on public funding issues relating to Horizon, the impact of official development assistance cuts, and the curious case of the new kid on the block, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which I know was discussed earlier today at the Select Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I am sure he will have more to say about that later.
Although for obvious reasons the debate is about money, money is only part of the challenge. The vital resource is people. Throughout the difficult debates of the past few years, I have spoken to many people in the research and development and science sectors, and that is a point they come back to every time: it is about people, relationships between people and scientific collaborations. Science is global and research is global. Those relationships matter.
I am delighted to see my neighbour, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), who shares some of Cambridge with me. My constituency is in an area that is about research and development to its core. It boasts countless institutions working on a dazzling range of areas. To cover it geographically, from north to south and east to west, we see a huge array of start-ups at the innovation centre to the north, very close to the science park, which hosts UK success stories such as Owlstone, now the Bradfield Centre.
Nearby Darktrace, the world-class laboratory of molecular biology, whose iconic building is a gateway to the south of the city, has been conducting research for decades to understand biology at a molecular level, and whose work has produced no fewer than 12 Nobel prizes. That is now located, by no accident, very close to the new AstraZeneca building, to allow collaboration to thrive, as it does right across that area of the biomedical campus.
Green aerospace design work will be found at the Whipple to the east, a project that is well known to the Minister and is very topical. That is not far from the British Antarctic Survey, while the huge international success story that is Arm is to the west. Marshall Aerospace is also in the private sector, providing world-leading aerospace development as well as materials development.
Go further to see the Cleantech works being done at Allia, and go past the railway station to see the Sainsbury Laboratory of plant science. Step forward to find Anglia Ruskin University, with its hugely important research into climate and environmental change. We then find our famous colleges, which host such relevant thinkers as Professor Dasgupta, whose recent review of economics and nature must be transformative. There is huge expertise among our social scientists, helping our understanding of our past as well as our future, our legal frameworks and our relationships with other countries.
I could speak for 90 minutes just listing all the amazing things going on in and around Cambridge. I will not do that, but I can hardly fail to mention the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and the surrounding science parks, Babraham and the amazing DNA sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. I will have missed others and I apologise to them. In all of them, people are the key. The money counts too.
For a considerable time, the importance of research and development work and the funding for it has been recognised on a cross-party basis. There is widespread agreement that UK spending on R&D has historically been too low. Although R&D investment in the UK has risen over the past 30 years, the amount we actually spend on it as a proportion of GDP has been flatlining, hovering at between 1.5% and 1.7% of GDP over the past two decades. It is behind the European average of 2% and the OECD average of 2.4%.
Our key neighbours and allies have been successful in investing far more. We often claim that we punch above our weight and get more for our money, but how much better we could be if we were matching that. The Government acknowledge this and have pledged to catch us up with the rest of the developed world, with a target of raising investment to 2.4% by 2027 and to increase public investment in R&D to £22 billion a year by 2024-25. This is welcome, although we know it will be a challenge.
This week we have seen studies showing that such targets are often set but have historically been difficult to reach, despite good intentions. It is important that we have this as an ambition and set a clear pathway. There are growing concerns in the R&D sector about how that figure is to be achieved and whether, beyond the rhetoric, the Government really still have that commitment to meet that ambition.
I will turn to the immediate problems, the first of which is Horizon. For many of us, there was little to welcome in what I would call the slapdash, desperate, last-minute trade and co-operation agreement that the Prime Minister salvaged with the European Union, but one glimmer in it was the framework for the UK’s continued association with the EU’s newest and biggest research funding programme, Horizon Europe. With a budget of €100 billion, it is the world’s largest and most competitive research funding programme.
We know that membership of the EU’s 2014-2020 Horizon research programme has been extremely beneficial to UK research. The UK has been one of the largest beneficiaries of the nearly €60 billion of funding that has been allocated over the past six years, receiving more than €7 billion. The vast majority of that has gone to our excellent UK universities, with academic research in the social sciences, arts and humanities particularly dependent on this stream of income from the EU.
The harsh reality of leaving the EU means that we are undoubtedly in a worse position this time around. While the rules for our participation have yet to be completely settled, it is clear that we will now be participating as an associated country, meaning that although we can lead and participate in collaborative research projects, we will have no formal decision-making power over the programmes and we will not be involved in discussions about which areas should receive priority for funding.
Taking back control turns out to mean not being in the room when decisions are being taken and, incredibly, having to beg others to make the case on our behalf. It does not matter how it is dressed up, our influence is reduced. In another blow this week, we have learned that we could also be excluded from major quantum and space research projects.
Whatever one thinks about all that, one of the biggest question marks is about how the Government will be funding the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, which is expected to cost about £2 billion a year, and who in Whitehall will be managing this. Post Brexit, we know the Horizon Europe bill will be paid in isolation rather than as part of overall EU membership, and that there is no existing budget provision for it. It was notable, despite many calls from the sector, that plans for where the funding would be sourced were conspicuously absent from the Budget earlier this month. There are significant and growing concerns among scientists and research funders that it could now be taken from the UK’s existing science budget. That would pit different elements of UK R&D against each other and would see a collective diminishing of the overall pot. It could set us back in our progress towards 2.4%.
Universities UK has warned—I am sure that the Minister will be aware of its letter to the Prime Minister this week—that if the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is required to fund the costs of participation out of the existing budget, it will amount to an effective cut of something in excess of £1 billion, roughly equivalent to the cost of funding the entire Medical Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council combined. Reduced domestic funding would also damage our ability to compete for Horizon Europe funding, risking a double loss. Universities UK estimates that a £1 billion reduction in funding would be equivalent to cutting more than 18,000 full-time academic research posts, distributed across all parts and all four nations of the UK, and could potentially lead to a further reduction of up to £1.6 billion in private R&D investment that would have been stimulated by public investment.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering—I am, as ever, indebted to Professor Sarah Main for her advice—warns that sourcing the Horizon bill from the current science budget in the way I referred to would effectively negate two years of Government increases in UK R&D funding, so it is a serious issue. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of it, and I hope that she will be able to confirm that the Government are on the case. Ideally she would confirm that the cost of association to Horizon Europe will not be taken out of the existing UK Research and Innovation budget.
I am afraid that what I have been describing is only one of the pressing problems. The Government’s recent decision to cut £4 billion from the aid budget prompted fury in Cambridge, where we take those things very seriously, not least because it broke a manifesto promise by the governing party to maintain spending of 0.7% of gross national income on aid. However, it is becoming increasingly clear this week that as a consequence the plug will now have to be pulled on hundreds of international collaborative research projects funded with UK aid. In passing, I want to pay tribute to Chris Parr and his colleagues at Research Professional News, who uncovered much of the detail. UKRI, left with a £120 million shortfall, has had to announce this week, with just four months’ notice, that most of its aid-funded research projects are now unlikely to be funded beyond 31 July, regardless of the stage that the research is at.
Those projects are aimed at tackling some of the world’s major problems, such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance and poor health and nutrition across the world. Projects that were previously funded through the global challenges research fund and the Newton fund, which usually receive official development assistance, have seen UK universities take centre stage in efforts to address plastic waste management, develop renewable energy and clean water technology, improve worldwide labour laws and roll out 5G networks in lower and middle-income countries. In the past year alone, lessons learned from ODA-funded projects have enabled UK universities to support the national effort against covid-19 through enhanced virus detection technology and online rehab services to help those suffering the long-term effects of the disease. I am grateful to Universities UK for its advice. As I said, the Minister will have seen its letter this week, which I thought was an unusually strong warning and intervention.
In Cambridge I am already hearing that there could be an impact on internationally important scientific programmes, such as those run from the UN Environment Programme world conservation monitoring centre, which is based in the city, as well as on many university projects that are currently focused on international development. Once again, I could read a long list of projects. I will not, but I will say that a consistent message is coming from all those people about the soft power delivered for us by those projects, which are of course good in their own right, but are also how we still have influence in the world. Those people all tell me that that is based on trust, and that if we break that trust it is hard to get it back again. There is much more than a financial cost.
That response is not only coming from Cambridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) just missed the deadline for speaking today, but he asked me to mention that the all-party parliamentary group on global tuberculosis recently conducted an inquiry into the UK’s investment in global health research. It found that the sustainability of the UK’s funding across the full product development pipeline is essential to getting life-saving new tools from UK labs to patients around the world. Cutting that funding will have enormous implications for the lives of the most vulnerable, collective global health security, the UK’s research infrastructure and our standing on the international stage. He urges the Government to think again.
It is shocking that the Government are punching a hole in such important research, particularly in a year when we are recovering from a global pandemic and, of course, hosting the G7 leaders summit and the crucial COP26 climate summit. Frankly, in terms of diplomacy, how inept does it get?
Universities have rightly warned that the cuts will harm our international standing, curtail successful programmes that have been a key vehicle for UK science diplomacy for many years, and lose international science and research partnerships that have taken a long time to establish. Stopping funding mid-cycle frankly shows blatant disregard and disrespect for our international partners. It is hardly surprising that six academics from a key research council advisory group for international research resigned this week in protest. The publication Research Professional News put it well yesterday when it noted:
“Anyone who has held a grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund will know that the UK goes out of its way to carry out rigorous due diligence on international organisations to ensure that they are reliable partners. It turns out that Her Majesty’s government was the party that everyone should have been keeping an eye on.”
All this is taking us in a worrying direction, when looking at that 2.4%. It seems to be flying in the face of the Chancellor’s stated aim of making the UK a scientific superpower, which was reiterated only yesterday by the Prime Minister. Universities UK has estimated that on top of the cost of Horizon association, the cut to ODA research funding could lead to a £1 billion reduction of the overall R&D budget. I suspect that, in the end, these are Treasury decisions. The Minister may well agree with the rising number of voices speaking out against many of the cuts. I urge her to do all she can to ensure that they are reversed and the vital projects that the funding supports are maintained.
Given all those pressures, it is perhaps surprising that the Government are considering diverting funding into a new, untested idea—the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. I will try not to duplicate this morning’s discussion. I will also try not to let my view of its leading proponent prejudice my thoughts, but I cannot help reflecting on the delicious irony of the name transition. DARPA—the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency—sounded like a rather crude 1960s American missile system. ARIA is much more, dare I say it, European. Names aside, it raises a whole series of questions about how it fits into a delicately balanced landscape.
The Haldane principle, dual funding, mechanisms to safeguard blue-sky research—people have been wrestling with these issues for years. The raison d’être of the Cambridge college system is to preserve space for imaginative and creative thinking. I do not say that there is no scope for change or improvement, but please identify the real problem. As David Sainsbury has so sensibly warned in the past, we should not just try to import something from another culture or another system; it is much better to nurture and encourage what we are good at. We should maybe look at the real problem: the much-talked-of valley of death—getting our great innovations developed. If we want to borrow from America, we should perhaps look more closely at the Small Business Research Initiative and the role of public procurement.
Where is the overall plan? I have to say that there was not much that the Opposition welcomed from the previous Conservative Government, but an industrial strategy—now apparently sadly discarded—was a step forward. A huge amount of work was done across many sectors, although I fear there is only limited public awareness of it. The Opposition would certainly have preferred the mission-oriented approach championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), but at least we had a structure.
Let me conclude on two further issues. These sources of public funding are vitally important for R&D, but given that public funding made up only 26% of total R&D funding in 2018 and the majority of funding currently comes from the private sector, we know that much more needs to be done to encourage private sector investment. According to Government estimates from 2019, we will need an additional £12 billion per year of private investment to meet the 2.4% target. That is significant.
Currently, British businesses invest less in R&D than those of similar nations. Investment is concentrated in major players in just a few sectors, with the life sciences sector consistently the largest R&D investor in the UK, but my understanding is that this, too, has been flatlining in recent years. There are concerns over the long-term certainty of key schemes which have been supporting early stage innovation in the UK life sciences sector. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for life sciences, and colleagues tell me that despite being recognised by the Government as a highly effective scheme for driving business investment in R&D, the biomedical catalyst scheme still has no confirmed budget for the 2021 competition. I could say more, but time presses.
I will touch briefly on workforce issues. Back in 2019, the previous Science Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), highlighted that, as well as private investment, one of the key challenges we may face in meeting a 2.4% target will be the workforce, with an estimated 260,000 additional researchers working in R&D across universities, business and industry likely to be required. He was right. We should be concerned, because there are a number of known workforce issues facing those in R&D.
As the Royal Society has helpfully set out, the UK immigration system is still one of the most expensive in the world, which is a particular deterrent to international researchers and entrepreneurs considering making the UK their research home. Careers in R&D are not as attractive as they should be, with relatively low salaries, short-term funding, unclear career development and difficulties facing researchers and technicians looking to shift between academia and industry at various times during their careers.
Diversity is also an issue, with only about 7% of managers, directors and senior officials in academic and non-academic higher education positions being black, Asian and minority ethnic. Despite many excellent initiatives, such as Athena Swan, still too often there are too few women.
All of this must be challenged in order to create a welcoming working culture in R&D. I recognise the good work that the Minister has done, and is doing, to tackle this. I am glad that the Government have made at least some moves in the Budget to undo the damage inflicted by their predecessors, by looking again at visa restrictions, with a view to attracting global talent, and that they have recognised the need to tackle these wider issues in their recent research and development road map. I look forward to seeing the detail of the people and culture strategy that has been promised.
Unfortunately, as the trade union Prospect notes, public sector research establishments have found themselves constrained by public sector pay freezes by successive Conservative Governments, and unable to match the competitiveness of pay offered by universities and elsewhere in the private sector. Another former Science Minister, David Willetts, admitted in 2020 that it was only when George Osborne visited Cambridge’s Medical Research Council laboratory of molecular biology and saw the impediments to performance caused by public sector rules that the then Chancellor was convinced to grant it and similar bodies greater freedoms. I am told by Prospect that those freedoms have once again been removed. If that is the case, they should be restored.
In conclusion, we all recognise the importance of this sector to the future of the UK. I suspect that the Minister is fighting her corner, and all power to her. If she needs an aria, she should look no further than Puccini, “I will win—vincerò!” “Nessun Dorma” did once capture the public mood, and we need to show that our victory against the virus, if it is secured, will have come on the back of UK researchers and our great universities. We should celebrate them, but that means securing the funding. Minister, please sort out how Horizon is to be funded, restore the ODA cuts, and start to undo the damage that I fear has already been done to our international reputation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this debate. I am a little disappointed that he did not burst into song at the finale of his speech, but I recognise the important points made.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a time in which the profile of, and gratitude for, UK and international science has never been higher across the country and the world. The excellence of British science has been particularly prominent, whether in the city that he and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) represent, or in other great cities and towns across the country that host some of the best scientists in the world, working in collaboration with others across the world. It is no coincidence that the first pillar of our global strategy—in the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy published yesterday—is science and technology, specifically to grow the UK’s science and technology power in pursuit of strategic advantage. That is right and it represents an exciting prospect in the light of what we have discovered about the possibility of science moving quicker than we ever thought possible to save lives across the world. We are also seeing, in other aspects of the response to the pandemic, a real acceleration in the deployment of technologies, even if they are far removed from medical sciences.
The new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirmed this morning that it remains the Government’s intention and commitment to invest 2.4% of GDP in science by 2027, and to achieve a public R&D budget of £22 billion of investment in science, so this should be a boom time for science and research. With the confidence of the public and the unprecedented commitment that the Government have made to doubling the science budget, we should be able to do more things to change more lives. Just at this moment, however, for some of the reasons mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge, science faces the prospect of having to retreat.
First, two weeks before the beginning of the next financial year, our principal science research body, UKRI, does not yet know what its budget will be for the year ahead. As we know, especially for science projects, long-term funding is crucial to contracts and investigations that take many years and months.
Secondly, there is uncertainty, as the hon. Gentleman said, about whether the UK’s contribution to Horizon Europe will be deducted from the science budget. In the past, what we got out of Horizon 2020, as it was known, was separate from the science budget. It has been suggested that our contribution to that project will be £2 billion a year, which would amount to as much as a quarter of the UKRI budget, meaning that at a time of intended advance, programmes such as the Faraday Institution’s research into batteries might have to be cut. In evidence to my Committee this morning, Dominic Cummings made it clear that the Prime Minister’s intention in the Brexit negotiations was always that that subscription should not be settled by cutting the science budget.
Thirdly, the temporary reduction in ODA spending that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is already causing UKRI to have to terminate some existing grants and leaving it unable to initiate any new awards. Sir Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust has said that the National Institute for Health Research could see a cut in global health funding of 28% just at the time when covid has established the importance of that international work. There is also the importance of restoring the fundraising proceeds that charities have lost.
We know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are committed to getting the budget we need. Now is the time to fight for that. The Minister enjoys the support of my Committee and, I am sure, of the whole House, in fighting those battles to give clarity to UK science.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for his interesting and comprehensive speech, and for arranging a debate on this important issue.
Research and development underpins our economic resilience, our global competitiveness and our progress towards a sustainable and climate-friendly future. The UK has always been a centre for research excellence, and Wales has played a foundational role in driving innovation across the UK. Wales is home to eight universities, including Bangor University in my own constituency of Arfon, and—as you would expect me to say, Mr Dowd—Bangor is a leading centre of excellence across the disciplines, in fields as diverse as social science, forestry and psychology. Wales has long driven innovation, from producing the historic first hydrogen fuel cell in 1842, to innovations reflected in the work of leading Welsh companies such as Riversimple. I hope that the Minister can confirm today the protection of funding for Bangor University’s research into agricultural microplastics and the consequences for food security and sustainable development in developing countries.
Welsh research has global implications, with Welsh-based researchers active in many countries, not least in the developing world. Perhaps the only really welcome aspect of yesterday’s grandiose integrated review was the commitment to return spending on overseas development to 0.7% of the UK’s national income. That, of course, was qualified, but I assure the House that I will do what I can to encourage the Government to return to their commitment, as set out in law by a previous Conservative Government. I hope you will allow me to say, Mr Dowd, that I was dismayed by that particular cut in the midst of a global pandemic. It is a cut in aid to those in conflict zones such as Yemen, where British-made weapons and systems are causing and compounding untold suffering. More positively, overseas development assistance also supports research by universities across the UK to advance our global progress towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. As I said, I hope that the Government can confirm that funding for Bangor is protected.
From supporting sustainable development to ensuring our global competitiveness, research and development funding is pivotal to sustainability and productivity in our economy. That is why Plaid Cymru welcomed the UK Government’s commitment to raise R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2024, yet the same regional inequalities that split our economy, favouring London and the south-east, are reflected in how the UK Government support research and development. In 2018, while R&D spending was £587 per head in England, it plummeted to just £250 in Wales—in other words, the level of research on R&D in Wales was just 42% of that in England. I have no doubt that this is linked, to a degree, to the low level of investment and ambition by the Labour Welsh Government, but it also reflects the huge concentration of public spending in the golden triangle of London, Oxford, and—with due respect to the local Member—Cambridge. For instance, in 2018 London and the south-east received 49% of total R&D spending from the UK Government and UK Research and Innovation.
Such inequalities have also extended to the UK Government’s fiscal interventions, which of course have profound implications for research. Between 2015 and 2018, only 210 businesses in Wales benefited from the enterprise investment scheme. That is why I urge the UK Government to acknowledge that, if the rhetoric of levelling up is to have any substance, they should immediately commit to equitable funding, not least in research and development, for otherwise marginalised economies such as we have in Wales. Anything else would prove that, in yet another respect, the UK just does not work for Wales.
I begin by putting on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for having secured today’s important debate. I am also delighted that it comes a day after the Prime Minister announced in the integrated review the Government’s renewed commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027. It is a familiar figure, which I know the R&D policy community has spent a long time debating.
I was a Science Minister for two years and set out my own road map to 2.4%. I made a series of four speeches that looked at the importance of investing in people, in international partnerships, in private R&D investment and in emerging technologies in order to meet the target. The broad theme of those speeches—the hon. Gentleman rightly referred to this—was the importance of doubling not only public but private investment and seeking an entire change in the culture of how we do R&D in this country in order to hit 2.4%, given that other countries are now racing ahead of us. Germany is near 3%, South Korea is at 4.5% and Israel is at 4.9%. We will fall behind in the global race unless we raise our ambitions higher still.
I stand by the words of those speeches that I made in 2019, but what has changed since then is time: we have too few years to achieve 2.4%. As the hon. Gentleman stated, we are standing still at 1.8% of GDP being spent on R&D. There are just 2,115 days until 2027. We have only 302 weeks—or just a little over 50,000 hours—to go, if we are to reach that target.
Reaching the target is not just about investment, important though that is—I will talk about that in a moment. It is also about providing certainty for the future; and with certainty comes the need for advance planning in order to allow for the lead-in times, which are lengthy for R&D investment. That is why, when we were preparing to leave the European Union, the Government announced the underwrite in August 2016 and then the underwrite extension—the guarantee—so that in-flight applications to Horizon 2020 and projects already taking place in Horizon 2020, would still receive money for the duration of the projects. Communication is absolutely vital when it comes to demonstrating long-term certainty for the R&D community.
On certainty and commitment, there were big-ticket items that I needed to fight for as the Science Minister, one of those was association into Horizon Europe in order to ensure that British science stayed on the road. That was why I also worked hard to commit to an increase in the UK contribution to the European Space Agency, increasing the subscription to a record level in 2019, and also to secure the first real-terms increase in QR—quality-related research funding—for more than a decade. Those were essential big-ticket items that we needed in order to enhance stability for the sector.
When it came to Horizon, many people told me that that simply would not be possible to do. I think that sometimes the R&D policy community can see things in a bit of a glass-half-empty way, mourning for yesteryear, when what we really need is to work together towards a positive vision for the future.
The manifesto commitment made by the Government saw R&D investment publicly increase from £9 billion to £19 billion. That was a huge amount—one of the most significant increases in a generation. Since then, the Chancellor’s Budget last year increased the investment to £22 billion, so my assumption was that the Horizon subscription would come from that increase of £3 billion—the difference in what was being spent as a result of the Budget.
I recognise that we have difficulties over the current ODA R&D money that needs to be secured. Although we need certainty, it is right that we now look afresh at new structures and new funds in order to ensure that we can enhance our international research capabilities. I think that sometimes the global challenges research fund and the Newton fund were a square peg to fit a round hole when it came to justifying ODA spend—not necessarily when it came to actually fighting for what is right when it comes to R&D spend. I would look at the agility fund and the discovery fund set out in the Smith and Reid review for answers here.
On funding in general, however, we need to move away from the diverse plethora of pots—there are too many people competing for too small budgets—and replace them with the UK equivalent of Horizon Europe. A multi-annual framework for the R&D budget would help us to reach 2.4% by 2027.
Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing the debate and by welcoming the proposals for ARIA, which I believe is about to begin its legislative journey. It is good to hear that ARIA will have a guaranteed life of at least 10 years and that the chair will be responsible for its mission. It would also be good to hear that industry will be represented on the board. There is widespread recognition that innovation funding is just too short term in this country. The Catapult programme, for example, which has been a significant success, is funded in five-year blocks. The Select Committee on Science and Technology recently called for long-term funding for Catapult.
We need that long-term funding and support for research that might fail. Otherwise, we will be in the game of trying to spot and back winners. That is not the way to lead research in this country. We have a 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution. We have set out the grand challenges in the industrial strategy. Surely we now have to develop an R&D strategy that supports those measures and is aimed at finding jobs for the future.
Let me pick two areas. We have committed to phasing out petrol and diesel cars by 2030. When we take into account the rules of origin requirements guaranteeing free entry to the single market, that probably means 2027. Batteries account for 60% of the value of an electric car. The UK Battery Industrialisation Centre is helping with the developments, but in Europe, CATL, Samsung, LG Chem and SK Innovation are already building gigafactories close to European car manufacturing centres. Unless there is more support and subsidy, as is happening on a massive scale across Europe, we will be the losers.
With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, we need a strategy to support those areas with high industrial R&D investment but poor access to public money. The alternative is simply to reinforce the golden triangle, which already benefits from the lion’s share of UKRI and the industrial strategy challenge fund. In south Birmingham, we are building the health innovation campus, dedicated to translational health and life sciences research. The first phase of the partnership, involving the University of Birmingham and the University Hospitals Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Trust, will include space for small and medium-sized enterprises and scale-ups, working in med-tech, precision medicine, diagnostics and digital health care, the very areas we need to develop.
The campus was approved as a life sciences opportunity zone last February, the first outside the south-east. Now the Government need to demonstrate what benefits attach to being an opportunity zone. As Professor Richard Jones points out in his paper, “The Missing £4 Billion”, the east midlands, west midlands and north-east benefit from business-led investment at or above the UK average, but suffer from low levels of public investment.
There is a concentration of UK R&D activity in the three areas of London, the south-east and the east of England. Over the past 10 years, 72% of R&D jobs in the 10 most R&D intensive industries were in the sub-regions covering London, Oxford and Cambridge. If the Government’s proposed uplift in R&D investment were targeted on projects outside the golden triangle, it could mean a further £9 billion for regions where there is real industrial potential.
Now is surely the time to maximise the benefits of combining public funds and business investment, to take risks on research, to ensure that resources are distributed fairly in a way that supports new jobs and new industries.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this essential and timely debate. He rightly referred to the renewed awareness of how critical properly funded research and development is, and how it saves lives.
There is a need to provide adequate public research funding for brain tumours. We have developed the covid vaccine through proper funding and a reduction in logistics and bulky infrastructure. Brain tumours predate covid and their lethal threat will remain when the vaccine has reduced covid mortality rates.
I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why research and development of brain tumour treatment and diagnosis is so critical. I chair the APPG on brain tumours and we mark the month of March each year by raising awareness and finance for brain tumours and their treatment. In fact, more than 100,000 people have signed a brain tumour research petition calling on the Government to level up research and development funding for brain tumours to similar levels as that for other devastating cancers.
Public funding for research is critical if we are to offer hope to brain tumour sufferers. Brain tumour research supports discovery science and early-stage translational research. The major output from discovery science—also known as basic research—is new knowledge. Few organisations are willing to take on such early-stage, high-risk research. Therefore charities such as Brain Tumour Research play a critical role at the early discovery stage. As well as the governmental support offered by the NIHR, the UK Government can also support discovery science through UK Research and Innovation and the Medical Research Council.
However, only 14% of UK spend on brain tumour research is from the Government. The remaining 86% is from the charity sector. Without new discovery science, the outlook for patients with brain tumours is very bleak. While it is high risk, when discovery science is successful it can lead to significant progress, new ways of thinking and new treatment strategies. It is this investment in discovery science that can, in time, deliver huge improvements in patient survival.
The 2016 House of Commons Petitions Committee report “Funding for research into brain tumours” declared that successive Governments have failed brain tumour patients and their families for decades. Somewhere between the NIHR, UKRI and the MRC lies a funding solution for brain tumour research, but responsibility must not be shuffled and passed on between those departments. If it is, we will continue to fail those diagnosed with this devastating condition.
It is worth pointing out that if early-stage research is not funded, there will be nothing coming out at the other end of the pipeline, and currently we are not allocating available money effectively. Just 25% of the NIHR £40 million, which was announced following the sad passing of Dame Tessa Jowell, has so far been committed to brain tumour research. Brain tumour sufferers just do not have the luxury of time. Even after significant attention has been given to the brain tumour and brain cancer space, it is still the case that brain tumours kill more children and people under 40 than any other cancers.
The potential for significant improvement to survival rates is very real. New methods of treating brain tumours are being developed, but it is a very difficult and tricky pathway. Proper Government focus and targeted funding into brain tumour research will accelerate the discovery of effective treatment. Not only would that give thousands of families real hope and reduce mortality rates, but it will also support UK plc as a world leader in this, as will the other areas of research and development raised during the debate.
It is critical in this month of March and as we go forward to make sure that adequate funding is going into research so that we can find the correct way to treat and cure those who have a brain tumour diagnosis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on setting the scene so very well, and other hon. Members on their contributions. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. It is a pleasure to speak for the first time in a Westminster Hall debate that she will respond to.
One of the many lessons that can learned from coronavirus is that for the brightest scientific minds in the world—I say this unashamedly, because we all believe it and evidential base for it is very clear—the special ingredient is governmental support. That has made it happen. The Government deserve credit for the way the coronavirus vaccine has been found, and for the initiative, power and strength that they put in to make sure that happened. The roll-out of the vaccine is proof of the brilliance and expertise of our scientists. We should put that on the record and thank them. I am not a scientist—I never could be, as I would not have the brains for it— but many are. Thank the Lord that we have them and that they have been able to find the antidote for covid.
We need the right people with the right training and the right equipment to make the groundbreaking discoveries that we are capable of and to achieve what we need with Government backing. This debate is about ensuring we have that. That is what we are trying to achieve. We all know that we are in difficult financial times, and my party and I have backed the Government’s Budget and plans. However, there are a few issues. We need to invest in healthcare and in research and development. Those are the two issues that I want to speak about very quickly.
The UK Government have committed to investing £22 billion in UK R&D by 2024-25 as part of the target of 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and 3% in the long term. The Government have always been committed to R&D, but I want to pose a few questions. I do it gently and constructively, by the way. I always try to do that. That is the way I try to work with my contributions.
I read the briefing by the Royal Society, which outlined what it felt must be committed to enable our research and development to continue to provide the breakthroughs that coronavirus has shown we are capable of achieving. There are many reports of mutant strains, and we need to ensure that we have the people in place to respond to whatever the future may bring, in the way that we have in the past. I personally believe that we will have to live with covid-19. I think it will be like getting our flu injections, which I do every year. I have had my vaccine, and one hon. Gentleman said that his is coming. It is good to have that in place.
The Royal Society has said that further raids on the UK research and development budget will create a funding gap that undermines the Government’s commitment to increasing UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. We realise the potential of that to improve lives. It is good to have the research, but it is also good for jobs, the economy and the wages that go with it. Since then, the Government have confirmed the UK’s association with Horizon Europe—a valuable commitment to international scientific collaboration—but they have not given an assurance that the money to pay for it will be additional to the funds already committed to the research and development budget, so we seek a response to that. The Government previously recognised that and committed to addressing the funding gap that would open up if the UK did not associate with Horizon Europe. The payment for association is now taken from the existing research and development budget, so the Government are creating a new funding gap.
I want to speak about health, but I just want to give a quick plug to the battery initiatives. In my constituency—back home in Strangford—we are going to have a couple of those coming through, and I believe there is the potential for us to drive that. I want to take the opportunity to get clarity—we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul here, I presume. It is not enough to say that we are sewing it in, but the money for this year is for little more than a membership pack.
Will the Minister also confirm that there will be collaboration between universities and companies? Queen’s University in Belfast has been one of the great exponents of how businesses and universities can work in partnership to improve health. We have cancer care in Queen’s University. We had the Prime Minister in Northern Ireland just last week, and he was saying that very thing. The Prime Minister recognises that, and we as a Parliament should recognise it and try to push on it. I want to ensure that Queen’s University has the continued funding to continue to deliver its research on cancer and many other issues.
I look to the Minister to clarify and underline what the precise delivery of the Government commitment looks like for the future of R&D. We need that, and the Minister and the Government need to deliver it.
I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)— a fellow Cambridge city MP. I have the south of the city. It is fantastic to have this debate on this issue, which is really important for all the reasons he highlighted. It is enormously important for the country but also for my constituency.
Research and development is clearly absolutely vital for economic growth. We are a largely knowledge-based economy. It is a growing sector globally. It is growing far faster than general economic growth. It is absolutely right that we position ourselves as a science superpower. I fully welcome the Government’s target of R&D being 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
One thing that the pandemic has shown, and that we have always known in South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge, is that we are already a life sciences superpower. We do more testing per capita than any G20 country. The AstraZeneca vaccine, which the hon. Gentleman talked about, has been rolled out not just in the UK, but around the world, despite some wobbles in Europe at the moment, which I am sure they will get over. In my constituency, the Wellcome Sanger Institute does more genome sequencing of the covid virus than the rest of the world put together—that is a huge achievement.
The life sciences are the largest R&D sector in the whole economy. In 2019, it brought in £2.8 billion of investment, up tenfold since 2012. Although there are great amounts of private investment there, there is a huge role for Government support. The reason for that is that in the life sciences, there are often very long lead times. After the research and development stage, many years can pass before getting any revenues. There is also a lot of fundamental blue-skies research that is not necessarily directly related to commercial opportunity.
I want to mention bit.bio, a start-up company in my constituency that I happened to meet virtually yesterday. It has the technology to use the DNA from a human hair to create every type of cell in the human body in a functioning way. It has created functioning human muscles from a human hair cell in a laboratory, not for Frankenstein reasons, but because those human cells can be used to treat a lot of diseases. The company is at least two years away from any commercial application, however.
They might be able to use the hon. Gentleman’s hair—he has some left and they could use the DNA.
The Government support the life sciences industry, through the biomedical catalyst, with £30 million a year— that is a very welcome and successful scheme. An Ipsos MORI report last year showed that for every £1 of Government money put in, it leveraged £5 of private sector investment. The 150 companies that won grants from the scheme have raised £710 million. That is a 5:1 ratio compared with a 2:1 ratio across Government funding for R&D in general, so it is a far better sector in which to leverage private sector investment. Six firms in my constituency have won grants from the biomedical catalyst in recent years, and I thank the Government for that.
One sign of success is that the quality of applicants has increased dramatically. Five years ago, one third of projects of sufficiently good quality got funding, but now only one in 25 does, because there are so many high-quality applicants. That means that there is a lot more opportunity to fund, and if the Government wanted to maximise the leverage of private sector investment across R&D in all sectors, they should increase the budget of the biomedical catalyst from £30 million to, say, £100 million. There are definitely enough projects there.
I have some good news and some bad news about what is happening at the moment—the Minister and I have exchanged letters on this. The biomedical catalyst has had a competition this year, and has decided the winners, three of which are in my constituency. They are poised to make the announcement about their great funding so that they can go out to investors and get more private sector investment in, showing what a triumph both the Government programme and their technology are. The bad news is that the winners cannot be announced because the biomedical catalyst has no budget as we speak. The money is there in BEIS overall, but there are Departmental negotiations going on. In the industry as a whole, that has led to a fear that no news is bad news, and that the rug is going to be pulled from under the whole scheme. The industry is finding the silence rather ominous.
My plea to the Minister is to prove the worriers wrong. Will she announce the budget commitment to the biomedical catalyst, unlock the investment in the companies in my constituency and across the UK, and help Britain and South Cambridgeshire retain their position as life sciences superpowers of the world?
I thank everybody who has contributed to this really interesting debate. The public have never been more aware of the global importance of science, nor have they ever been more supportive of spending in that area. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing the debate. He rightly highlighted the superb work taking place in his constituency.
I will not attempt to detail all the groups working across Glasgow, specialising in areas as diverse as quantum optics and space, and doing all sorts of incredible work striving towards eliminating global poverty. This diversity is important, and as we see cuts in ODA, we have to ask what exactly the purpose of research funding is. As the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said, today in the Science and Technology Committee we discussed both ARIA and UKRI funding, and if we throw in the impact of Brexit and the role of Horizon Europe, we have a lively mix of factors contributing to funding in the UK.
The ambition to increase research funding to 2.4% of GDP is widely welcomed, but there needs to be clarity on what this means. The UK’s status as a science superpower is underpinned by international research collaboration, and we need to make sure that that is protected. It is concerning that UKRI has announced a shortfall of £120 million between its ODA allocation, which has been reduced to £125 million, and its commitment to grant holders. That will affect projects funded both through the global challenges research fund and the Newton fund. A UKRI spokesperson has said that it is too early to detail the final impact on grants funded by ODA funds but that
“we expect to be making some very difficult decisions—including issuing grant termination notices”.
I have been contacted by my constituent Professor Alison Phipps, who is the UNESCO chair at the University of Glasgow. She says:
“This is profoundly concerning and will set back our ground-breaking work on racial justice at the University of Glasgow…Far more important is the welfare and safeguarding of the communities we work with in the world’s poorest countries, and where the staff we have just employed across 24 ODA countries will be destitute if we terminate their contracts upon termination of grants”.
Universities Scotland has said:
“The decision will have a whole-systems impact on our connections and collaborations internationally. Our research and innovation communities have worked intensively to establish high quality global partnerships targeted around the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”
It says that the impact will be permanent reputational damage to both Scottish and UK researchers and that it will impact a whole pile of poverty-associated challenges, including the impact of climate change and the response to the covid-19 pandemic. Investing only in domestic scientific research will not solve the problems we face as a planet. In the year when Glasgow will host COP26, and the UK is meant to be showing global climate leadership, this cut is just unacceptable.
Many Members this afternoon have asked about Horizon Europe contributions. Will this be new money, or will UKRI see its budget squeezed? We need answers to that. It is of further concern that, in the latest draft of the Horizon Europe work programme, text has appeared that would exclude participation in all quantum and space programmes by organisations in associated countries. I urge the Minister to look at that, and if groups do indeed find themselves locked out of funding as a result, I urge the Government to ensure that that funding is replaced. On ARIA, of course, any additional funding or spending is welcome, but there has to be clarity over whether this is new money or simply reprofiling.
This morning, Dominic Cummings talked about the bureaucracy of current funding as one of the reasons for the new body, but if bureaucracy is causing problems, we would surely be better off tackling that than creating a new body. He also talked about extreme freedom for researchers, so could the Minister detail how we enable extreme freedom while retaining oversight of public spending?
The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) raised the issue of national inequality of research spending, and the National Audit Office report into the industrial strategy challenge fund noted:
“The Fund is unevenly spread across the UK with the majority being provided to the West Midlands, South East and London”.
I would therefore like to hear something about how the Government will ensure that ARIA is fully representative of the devolved nations.
I have found myself in the strange situation in the last few days of agreeing with Tories when they have commented about balancing the books on the backs of the world’s poor. A global Britain—or a Britain that purports to be global—that continues to do that is not one that any of us should be proud of.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who called today’s important debate. He is a passionate champion of science and his constituency’s science strengths. In his excellent opening remarks, he set out today’s R&D landscape, and where the Government must do better. Indeed, there has been cross-party agreement in the debate about the importance of research funding. It is unfortunate that the Government do not build on that consensus.
From the gravitational constant to the structure of DNA, and from jet engines to the worldwide web, the UK has a proud tradition of science, innovation, research and development that is renowned across the world. Our university research base contributes £95 billion to the economy, supporting nearly 1 million jobs in science institutes, charities and businesses of all sizes across the country. Twenty per cent. of the UK workforce is employed in a science or research role, and those are good, high-wage, high-skilled jobs that are helping to solve key challenges facing our country and planet—climate change, disease and productivity—and helping to ensure that the UK stays globally competitive.
As the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) emphasised, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of the UK’s science research base and shown the world what we can do, particularly through vaccine research and development. However, our world-leading science sector does not have the world-leading Government that it deserves. As we have heard, the Government’s warm words on science have not been backed by action. Industrial strategy seems to have been archived, with decisions on science made piecemeal rather than strategically.
The Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), mentioned the importance of science to yesterday’s integrated review, but the Wellcome Trust has commented:
“There’s a growing gulf between rhetoric and reality in the government support for science. The Integrated Review is full of fantastic and achievable ambitions, but the words are meaningless if they’re not backed up with funding.”
Funding our R&D sector makes economic sense. The Campaign for Science and Engineering found that, for every £1 of public investment in R&D, between 20p and 30p was returned every year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) emphasised, R&D is a key driver in building the economy of tomorrow, creating new jobs as others are overtaken by automation, and positioning the UK as a leader on the world stage.
I am sure the Minister will agree when I speak about the importance of R&D, but let us look at the Government’s actions. Reports in the Financial Times today indicate that the Government are likely to miss their 2.4% of GDP R&D spending target following the cuts to overseas development. Labour has called for a 3% target. To fail on 2.4% would be truly shocking and, as has been said, it would be on the backs of the poorest countries in the world. Imperial College London, where I studied electrical engineering decades ago, is one of the many bodies that have written to me emphasising the need for international collaboration to be a priority. Yet, as the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) highlighted, the Government are cutting overseas development research. Why?
The Government promised to double R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024—a move supported by key stakeholders. However, as with many a prime ministerial promise, we do not have the detail. I have tabled many written questions on that, but the Minister has successively hidden behind the spending review, the Budget and, now, departmental budget reviews. As the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee mentioned, just this morning the Business Secretary admitted that UKRI’s 2021-22 budget had not yet been agreed. When Labour calls for a long-term funding plan for science, our ambition is orders of magnitude greater than three weeks.
During the Brexit negotiations, the Government sowed uncertainty and anxiety among researchers as they refused to commit to Horizon alignment. I am pleased that the eventual deal did make that commitment, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge pointed out, the Government continue to be evasive over the funding details. The Wellcome Trust says:
“Researchers in the UK welcomed the decision to continue the UK’s”
Horizon commitments, but
“they will be immensely frustrated, and with good reason, if it’s going to be paid for by cuts to other research. We urgently need reassurance on this.”
Can the Minister tell me whether the UK’s estimated £2 billion of Horizon contributions will be taken from the promised £22 billion science spend, as the right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) implied? Will funding received back from the Horizon programmes be counted as part of that £22 billion, and which departmental budgets will pay the Horizon contributions? Science spend increases are a positive break from the decade of austerity inflicted on our economy, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge explained, we need direction, not a destination-less road map, in the absence of a clear strategy.
The Government have failed to protect our research sector from the impact of the pandemic. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) highlighted the importance of charity medical research, which invests £1 billion into university research and development but has been consistently ignored when it comes to pandemic support. Modelling by the Institute for Public Policy Research predicts that lost charity income could mean that medical research charities invest £4 billion less in health R&D between now and 2027, with a knock-on effect on private investment of up to £1 billion. The British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK have announced thousands of lost research jobs and cut hundreds of millions from R&D budgets as the Government have turned a blind eye. Why have the Government been prepared to risk those jobs and that investment?
The failure of the Government to respond to the pandemic is costing jobs and risks creating a lost generation of researchers. There are 17,000 early-career researchers whose long-term future in research is in jeopardy. In January, researchers from the Northern Ireland and north-east doctoral training partnership, representing universities across the UK, wrote to the Government calling for them to provide security for PhD students. The Government have merely shifted the cliff edge six months back, and only for some. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to support early-career researchers and the next generation of science researchers?
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and others have highlighted concerns about the new high-risk, high-reward research body ARIA. Although we welcome it in principle, today’s Select Committee hearing reflected our concerns that, without a clear mission beyond the ideological eyesight of Dominic Cummings, ARIA could become a vanity project vulnerable to cronyism.
If R&D is to drive our recovery and provide high-skill, high-paying jobs, it must do so for all regions. In 2018, 72% of R&D expenditure was in the south-east and south-west, with the north-east receiving the lowest per-head funding in England—just a quarter of that of the east of England. Recent decisions may make things worse. Chris Day, the vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, has written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to say:
“The decision to reduce the budget for international development projects is deeply concerning. If funds are cut such that the Hubs contracts are terminated this will lead to immediate redundancies in North East England.”
What is the Minister doing to ensure that R&D investment is shared fairly across the regions of the UK? The Labour party would champion R&D as an engine of regional progress, strengthening regional economies by rebalancing R&D investment.
Finally, we will never unlock the full potential of our research sector if we do not use the talents of everyone. There are real issues with diversity in the UK’s science and research sectors. Diversity is an economic imperative, especially as we face a shortfall of science, technology, engineering and maths workers, so what is the Minister doing to increase diversity, and how is that reflected in the Government’s funding model? Labour would build on the UK’s science successes and ensure that we continue to be an innovation nation that draws on the talents of all.
The Royal Society said that the Government’s actions are undermining their ambition for the UK to be a science superpower. Government indecision and inaction have made the impact of the pandemic worse for our critical research sector. They must now provide the long-term funding needed for the recovery.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing the debate and raising important issues for the future of research development funding. I thank all hon. Members for the quality of their contributions. There have been many enthusiastic observations, indicating the passion felt by many Members. I fully echo that sentiment, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to reiterate that R&D is absolutely central to the Government’s ambitions of unleashing innovation and continuing to cement the UK as a science superpower.
The hon. Member for Cambridge spoke of the importance of research and development, highlighting the benefit that it brings, as well as the issue of Horizon Europe. I am delighted that the United Kingdom has an agreement to take part in the Horizon Europe programme. He also rightly pointed out that R&D is about relationships as well as investments, which is why the association to Horizon has been welcomed by businesses and the research community and will bring huge benefits to the United Kingdom. The decision to associate to Horizon Europe came after the spending review, so we continue to work through where its costs will fall. We will set out our plans for R&D spend in 2021-22, including funding for Horizon Europe, in due course. I reiterate the comments made by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy earlier today that we continue to robustly defend the research budget. We are working hard to confirm R&D budgets as soon as possible.
A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Cambridge, for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), raised official development assistance. I recognise the depth of feeling across the research sector regarding ongoing funding for international development research. The impact of the pandemic on the UK economy forced the Government take some difficult decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount spent on aid. This has inevitably meant less funding for BEIS R&D development programmes, as it has for all areas of ODA spending. My officials are working with our delivery partners to best manage the impact of those reductions and to protect the strongest research programmes. I should add that both the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary have reiterated the Government’s commitment to international development and our intention to return to the 0.7% GNI target when the fiscal situation allows.
The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned our commitment to the R&D road map and to developing an R&D people and culture strategy that will set out the direction and actions that Government, funders, employers and individuals can take to ensure that the R&D sector has the people it needs, working in a culture that gets the best out of everyone. I am committed to ensuring that the UK attracts, develops and retains talented individuals and strong teams to support our science superpower ambitions.
The hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) raised the important question of levelling up. The Government are due to publish the UK R&D places strategy in the summer. We will ensure that R&D and innovation benefits the economy and society in nations, regions and local areas across the United Kingdom, contributing to the Government’s wider levelling-up ambitions. This is about not only how much money we spend in each place, but outcomes, so our focus must be on the impact that our R&D system can have in different places across the country.
R&D is incredibly important in so many ways. It advances the boundaries of human knowledge and discovery and is a key driver of economic growth and productivity. It also enables society to solve the challenges of the future in areas of fundamental importance, such as health and climate change. As several hon. Members have noted, the UK gets significant value from its investment in R&D. Each £1 of public investment in R&D ultimately leverages around £2 of additional private sector investment and creates, on average, around £7 of net present social value.
Hon. Members will know that we published our R&D road map last July. It sets out our vision and ambition to ensure that the UK is the very best place in the world for scientists, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to live and work. Although we recognise the challenging economic and fiscal climate, the Government committed through the spending review in November to invest £14.6 billion in R&D in 2021-22, with BEIS, as the custodian of the R&D system, being allocated £11 billion for R&D in 2021-22. That commitment re-emphasises the importance of science, research and innovation towards our future prosperity, as well as our ambition to move towards the UK investing 2.4% of GDP in research and development by 2027.
The UK has a world-leading research base and global expertise across a wide range of disciplines. With less than 1% of the world’s population, the UK accounts for 14% of the world’s most highly cited academic publications. Our strong core research system is integral to that success, as recognised by the Chancellor in the spending review. He confirmed an ambitious multi-year settlement for UK Research and Innovation and the national academies core research budget. By 2023-24, the Government will be investing £1.4 billion more per annum in core funding for our world-leading research base compared with 2020-21.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) spoke about funding for life sciences, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his passionate and constructive contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) also spoke passionately about the importance of funding for devastating conditions such as brain tumours and cancers, and I recognise the importance of such research. That is why we are committed to supporting the health and life sciences sector, where we are fortunate to boast a vibrant ecosystem that brings together researchers in some of the world’s top universities to work collaboratively with their counterparts in leading pharmaceutical companies, clinical researchers in the NHS and others. This has never been more important than in the response to covid-19, and we recognise that years of blue-sky research, enabled by the strength of the UK’s core research system, was vital to our success in developing effective vaccines so quickly. The Government continue to support that response, with commitments including £128 million to support vaccine research and manufacturing.
The rapid response to covid-19 has also led to a cultural shift around funding and decision making, with a desire to move towards a leaner and more agile system. The new Advanced Research and Invention Agency will be an independent research body that funds high-risk, high-reward scientific research, and it will complement the work of UK Research and Innovation and other research funders. ARIA will be led by a prominent world-leading scientist, who will be given the freedom to identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed. It is based on successful models that are built on giving researchers significant autonomy and freedom from bureaucracy.
Looking forward, we want to go further and build on our truly excellent UK R&D achievements, which is why we are committed to increasing UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) spoke about this, and about the importance of public and private investment in reaching that target. Public investment in R&D is increasing, but we must also leverage further private sector investment. UK businesses provided almost £26 billion of R&D in 2019—an increase of 3.3% compared with 2018—as part of a long-term trend of positive annual growth.
Earlier this month we published “Building Back Better: our plan for growth”, in which we announced plans to publish a new innovation strategy in the summer to inspire, facilitate and unleash innovation, supporting and harnessing the tremendous capability of UK innovators to boost future prosperity, both locally and nationwide. The Budget also announced £375 million to introduce Future Fund: Breakthrough, a new and direct co-investment product to support the scaling up of R&D-intensive businesses, and Her Majesty’s Treasury has announced that it will review R&D tax relief to ensure it remains up to date, competitive and well targeted.
In conclusion, research and development are integral to our objective of unleashing innovation. R&D will help us drive the Government’s long-term plan to build on the UK’s world-class credentials in research and development, and deliver economic growth and societal benefits across the UK for decades to come.
I thank all hon. Members for the high quality of their contributions, as one would expect given that we had former Science Ministers and former Secretaries of State involved. It was an excellent discussion. I am particularly grateful to the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) for mentioning the medical research charities; others picked that up, including the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas). I probably should have alluded to them in my introduction. They have been very hard hit and they do vital work.
I note, as I had expected, that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and others suggested that the golden triangle is in a privileged position. We are and we do get the lion’s share of research, but I gently suggest that when talking about levelling up we should always be aware that there is a danger of dragging down. We are world leaders, but that does not happen by accident. I have always said that future success cannot be taken for granted, and we have to make sure that we continue to support what we do very well in this country. Some of that is in the golden triangle, and we should not be ashamed to say that.
In conclusion, I say to the Minister that I am a little disappointed. I had hoped to hear a little more than that the budget would be resolved in due course and the cuts would be managed to minimise the impact. I hope that she will be fighting our corner, because this is so important, and not just for the future of this sector or for particular parts of the country. This is what we do so well. If there is a future for Britain in the world, this is it, but it cannot be done by making short-term cuts because the budget cannot be sorted out for a few months for bureaucratic reasons. I hope that the message will go back to Government loud and clear that we are looking for better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of research and development funding.
UN Human Rights Council: UK Voting Record on Israel
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not on the list to speak, so it is in the grace of the Minister and the Member in charge. I am happy to suspend the sitting if other Members wish to do so, but I cannot suspend it only for the hon. Gentleman.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, for the first Westminster Hall debate that I have had the privilege to lead. I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for a fact-finding visit I undertook to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2019.
The landmark peace agreements signed between Israel and her Arab neighbours in recent months are an extremely welcome development after years of stagnation, but it is an unavoidable reality that the unrelenting attacks on Israel at the United Nations make regional peace harder to achieve.
It is no secret that the UN and its associated bodies have a long history of singling out Israel far more than any other nation in the world. Past UN Secretaries-General have publicly raised concerns about the UN’s fixation with Israel, with Ban Ki-moon stating in 2016 that
“decades of political manoeuvring have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel.”
He rightly said that this bias does not help the Palestinian issue but instead foils
“the ability of the UN to fulfil its role effectively”.
His predecessor, Kofi Annan, said that while Israel faces “intense scrutiny”,
“other situations fail to elicit the world’s outrage and condemnations.”
The current UN Secretary-General has said that Israel
“needs to be treated as any other state”.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate to Westminster Hall. I fully support what he is saying. Does he agree that the targeted, sustained and passionate bias against Israel displayed at the UN is a stain on every bit of good that the UN seeks to do? Our Government and our Minister need to take firmer steps to highlight that the Israel-Palestine issue will never be resolved by continuing to peddle the false narrative perpetuated by the UN, by painting an awful picture of the victimisation of innocent Palestinians at the hands of so-called evil Israel. Will he join me in saying that this is simply false and needs to end now, if there is to be a lasting peace in the middle east that we can all subscribe to?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is a proud supporter of Israel, as are all his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party. I have a great deal of sympathy with his remarks.
I believe that the UK has a historic responsibility to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to stand up for our friend, Israel, when it is singled out for such unfair criticism in international forums. The Foreign Secretary recently said that we have
“stood up for Israel when it has faced bias, and frankly, politicised attacks in the UN and other forums.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 111.]
Our voting pattern at the UN now needs to match these warm words.
The subject of today’s debate is the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently meeting for its 46th session. The Council was established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights around the world, a laudable and just cause, which I am sure all of us would completely endorse. It is deeply regrettable that the Council has failed so comprehensively in its noble mission, while gaining a reputation as yet another politically exploited UN body. Consider that in the 15 years since its inception, the Council has passed 171 condemnations, of which more than half have targeted Israel. It is simply unjustifiable that 90 condemnations have been passed against Israel, while a mere 10 have been adopted on the world’s worst human rights abuser, Iran.
Astonishingly, no condemnations have been adopted on China, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela or other serial human rights abusers. Instead, many of those serial violators are Council members, which of course makes a mockery of the UN’s highest human rights body. As China crushes democracy in Hong Kong, and as Venezuela stands accused of crimes against humanity, both remain members of the Council. For proof of the Council’s inbuilt conscious bias, one need look no further than the existence of the permanent country-specific stand-alone agenda item at every session. I am sure it will come as no surprise which country is targeted.
Permanent agenda item 7 is reserved for criticism of Israel, showing how deeply embedded this anti-Israel obsession has become. Motions adopted under item 7 have accused Israel of serious breaches of international law, while ignoring Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism. It is of course legitimate to highlight the plight of the Palestinian people, just as the national claims of other groups should also be given due attention. But when the blame is solely placed on Israel for the plight of the Palestinian people, with not even a superficial recognition of the numerous security challenges Israel faces, the failure of Palestinian leadership to prepare its people for a future peace agreement, and the countless peace deals rejected by the Palestinian leadership, it is clear that something has gone seriously wrong.
There is no mention of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which terrorise Israeli civilians with rocket fire. Those terror groups use Palestinian civilians as human shields, investing in weaponry rather than welfare. Just last month a Hamas-run court ruled that women required the explicit permission of a male guardian to travel. Where was the international condemnation?
The violations of Palestinian rights in Lebanon are also conveniently forgotten by the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies, despite hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being denied the most basic freedoms, including the right to work. At each and every session of the Council, the likes of the Palestinian Authority, Syria and North Korea accuse Israel of human rights abuses, while escaping scrutiny of their own violations. Frankly, it is a student politics style stunt that is entirely unbecoming of a supposedly distinguished international forum.
It is worth reflecting that such disproportionate singling out of Israel is one of the clearest examples of contemporary antisemitism, according to the world-leading definition. Such blatant bias will not change unless it is tackled head-on and rooted out. The UK’s decision in 2017 to put the Council on notice, stating that
“If things do not change, in future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct...”
was a hugely welcome first step.
Our Prime Minister was right, during his time as Foreign Secretary several years ago, to describe the Council’s “disproportionate” focus on Israel as
“damaging to the cause of peace”.
In 2019, the UK said that item 7 amounted to “systemic institutional bias” and voted against all item 7 resolutions. That was another welcome step, but when an anti-Israel resolution previously adopted under item 7 was proposed under item 2 in the same session, the UK abstained rather than voting against it.
My hon. Friend is making an important and timely contribution. He is rightly highlighting the systematic bias that brings the United Nations into disrepute and does nothing to aid the cause of peace and security in the middle east. Does he agree that the key issue right now—he alluded to it a few moments ago—is that the kind of biased text that has traditionally appeared under item 7, and which we as a Government have rightly committed to voting against every time, is now quietly making its way into another agenda item, sometimes with cosmetic changes, and when it appears there, we do not appear to be showing exactly the same level of commitment to voting against it? That is the issue we need to lean into this afternoon, and hopefully hear some positive remarks about from the Minister later on.
I welcome that intervention from my right hon. Friend, and of course he is entirely right. If items that are moved under item 7 are then moved to item 2, but the text is substantially the same, the UK should of course oppose those, just as we would have opposed them under item 7.
The resolution in question referred to the findings of the international commission of inquiry on the 2018 Gaza border protests, which the UK refused to support as it failed to examine Hamas’s role in the violence. Despite stating that Hamas bore responsibility for the violence and recognising Israel’s right to self-defence, the UK did not oppose this one-sided resolution.
As a direct result of growing international opposition to item 7, proponents of these one-sided motions have been working to move them into other agenda items, as my right hon. Friend has just stated. In 2018, instead of challenging this procedural sleight of hand, we undermined our principled stance by abstaining. Surely, if the UK deems resolutions within item 7 to be biased, it is ultimately irrelevant where they end up on the agenda. Biased one-sided motions are biased one-sided motions, irrespective of the agenda item number attached to them. Can the Minister explain this step backwards from the previously stated pledge to vote against all anti-Israel resolutions? Will he confirm that at the current session of the Human Rights Council, with votes expected next week, the UK will call for a vote on item 7? He will know that if no country calls for a vote, the resolution passes uncontested by consensus. Given our principled and outspoken criticism of item 7, we cannot afford to rely on others.
Reports of some of the language that has been considered for inclusion in an item 2 resolution next week are deeply worrying, including language that we would have voted against had it appeared in item 7 resolutions previously. The Government have said that they will support scrutiny of Israel outside of item 7, so long as it is justified and proportionate. Does the Minister believe that a resolution that condemns violence, including acts of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction, but does not even mention Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is justified and proportionate? Does he agree that there should never be any implied equivalence between Israel’s defensive actions and indiscriminate attacks by terrorist groups?
The text also reportedly seeks to restrict arms sales to Israel, despite article 51 of the UN charter stating that countries have a right to defend themselves. I hope the Minister can reassure me that the UK will indeed vote against this harmful motion. The Foreign Secretary’s calls earlier this month for the abolition of item 7 should mean not only the end of a permanent agenda item singling out Israel for criticism; it should mean that all one-sided motions are also withdrawn, not simply moved elsewhere. Until then, we must honour our pledge to vote against all anti-Israel resolutions wherever they appear, just as we would have voted against those motions if they targeted our other allies.
Another UN body known for its bias against Israel is the UN General Assembly. While the likes of Iran, North Korea and Syria have only been condemned a handful of times, 112 resolutions condemning Israel have been adopted there since 2005. China has not been condemned once.
It is deeply worrying and regrettable that the UK voted for 12 out of 17 resolutions singling out Israel in December 2020, abstained on four and voted against only one. One of the resolutions we supported only used the term Haram al-Sharif to describe Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—Judaism’s holiest site—ignoring the Jewish connection to the site altogether.
The Abraham Accords present a momentous opportunity to reinvigorate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians in order to achieve the two-state solution that we all hope to see. We simply must not allow this process to be derailed by allowing attacks on Israel at the UN to go completely unchallenged. At the Human Rights Council next week, we should vote with our feet and send a clear message that Israel must be treated fairly. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that he can confirm that the UK will be calling for a vote on item 7, and voting against all anti-Israel resolutions, including any proposed outside the scope of item 7. It is time that our words were matched with actions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not just for the words that he has spoken in this debate, but for the hard work that I know he does outside this Chamber to fight against antisemitism. I have listened to, and am grateful for, the contributions and interventions made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), and I will try to cover as many points as possible.
First, let me state on the record that the UK is a proud friend of Israel. I think it is fair also to say on the record that prior to my ministerial appointment I was a member of Conservative Friends of Israel. My personal feelings aside, the UK Government’s position is that we are both happy and proud to stand up when we feel that Israel faces bias and unreasonable criticism from international institutions, or indeed from anywhere else. We agree with my hon. Friend that item 7 is an example of that bias. As he said, item 7 is unique; it is the only item on the council’s agenda that singles out an individual country for scrutiny. For many of the reasons that he mentions, we feel that this is wrong; furthermore, we believe it hinders the work of the human rights agenda that the UN seeks to pursue and actually disincentivises full co-operation in pursuit of that agenda. Rather than encouraging Israel to engage with the mechanisms and expertise that the Human Rights Council has to offer, we believe that item 7 alienates Israel.
This is an issue that has been brought up with me directly, and it is clearly one on which a number of Members of the House of Commons agree. We want Israel to engage fully with the human rights machinery. We feel that item 7 dissuades it from doing so. Item 7 damages the efforts to advance dialogue, increase stability, and build mutual trust and understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian people, and therefore damages the prospect of a sustainable, meaningful and peaceful two-state solution. That is why, at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2019, the UK adopted a principled approach in which we voted against all resolutions tabled under item 7.
Our vote sent a clear signal that the UK stands against the implicit supposition that Israel’s conduct deserves a unique focus and greater scrutiny than that of any other country in the world. The UK will continue to push for the abolition of agenda item 7. Let me make it clear that we will continue to support the scrutiny of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the Human Rights Council, as long as that scrutiny is justified, fair and proportionate and is not proposed under agenda item 7, which is why, by definition, agenda item 7 should be abolished.
My hon. Friend spoke about issues moved from agenda item 7 to other agenda items. I touch on that because it is an important distinction. It goes to the point that the UK is happy to support the scrutiny of countries, including Israel, if it is done fairly and proportionately. That is why that when the Palestinian Authority made the decision in 2019 to move resolution items from item 7 to item 2—bearing in mind that item 2 looks at a range of actions of a range of states—the UK engaged with that resolution in good faith and closely with our international partners. We ultimately chose to abstain, in keeping with the position we took in 2018 when we abstained on a resolution to create a commission of inquiry into Gaza protests. In that instance, we could not and did not support an investigation into violence that refused to call explicitly for an investigation into the action of non-state actors such as Hamas—a point that my hon. Friend made. Our expectation is that accountability must be pursued impartially, fairly and in an even-handed manner.
This Government have also chosen not to support resolutions at the Human Rights Council that include provisions that go beyond our broad policies. In 2016 and 2017, alongside other European states, we abstained on a Human Rights Council resolution that called for the creation of databases of companies involved in settlement activities in the Palestinian territories. As we said in our explanation of votes at the time, we did not believe that establishing such a database was a helpful measure or consider it appropriate for the UN Human Rights Council to take on this role. The UK has not co-operated with the process of compiling this database, nor have we encouraged UK companies to do so.
As my hon. Friend says, the 46th session of the Human Rights Council is ongoing. The Government will continue to vote against all resolutions under item 7. The Palestinian delegation has listened to our concerns and has moved some resolutions from item 7 to item 2, meaning there will now be two Palestinian-tabled resolutions under item 7, rather than the four that were under item 7 back in 2018. The Palestinians have also merged or consolidated the two items, reducing the overall number of resolutions focused on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Negotiations on the resolutions are ongoing. As I said, we have committed to enter in good faith into negotiations on the text of such resolutions. Our blanket opposition is to resolutions under item 7, rather than more broadly to resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We will therefore decide how we vote based purely on the merits of the resolution and on the final text that is put before the council.
I am sorry to cut in just as the Minister is making a very important point, but I want to get some clarity. I understand the argument that he is making about engaging with the text that has moved from a permanent item 7 agenda into item 2, but if we voted against text that singles out Israel for criticism without mentioning Hamas or Islamic Jihad when it appears in item 7, surely it is morally right and logically consistent to vote against it when it appears under item 2 or anywhere else. Will he commit to vote against text exactly like that when it appears under item 2?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which it is worth exploring. The UK Government have a principled opposition to agenda item 7 and have therefore voted against it because of its nature. We recognise that moving away from agenda item 7 is a positive step, so our commitment is to engage with the specific text. It may well be the case that the UK Government find the final text unacceptable, but the decision will be based on the specific text rather than our principled opposition to item 7 as a tool of specific and unfair criticism of Israel. Those negotiations are ongoing, so I am not in a position to provide my right hon. Friend with the reassurances he seeks.
It should be recognised that the close and strong bilateral relationship between the UK Government and Israel gives us the opportunity to speak out when we feel that Israel’s actions warrant it, as we have done on our concerns about annexation and the demolition of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, it is also the Government’s position that we will continue to support and advocate balanced resolutions in UN bodies. We are committed to making progress toward a two-state solution.
Resolutions that politicise UN bodies or that risk hardening the position of either side do little to advance peace or mutual understanding. We believe that negotiations will succeed only when they are conducted between Israelis and Palestinians and supported by the international community, and we will continue to work with international bodies, regional bodies, European partners and the United States, and of course with Israel and the Palestinian leadership, to advance dialogue, to encourage joint working and to find a permanent peaceful solution to this conflict, which has gone on for too long.
Offshore Wind Farms: Unexploded Ordnance
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debate in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the disposal of unexploded ordnance for offshore windfarm construction.
I express my appreciation to the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for supporting my application for the debate. All of us welcome the extraordinary potential of our wind and wave power. As we seek to meet our climate obligations, we have a God-given asset off our shores. I think it was the Prime Minister who called Scotland the Saudi Arabia of renewables.
To the casual observer, the bonanza ahead may seem low-cost and environmentally unimpeachable. If only that were so. Alas, the 20th century’s brutal European conflicts littered our once pristine seabed with a legacy: 100,000 unexploded 20th-century bombs—a monstrous monument to brutality,
“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men”,
as Herman Melville tells us in “Moby-Dick”.
The great offshore wind turbines are anchored to the seabed, and the bombs—an estimated 100,000 of them—pose a mortal danger. What should we do with them? How do we make safe these aquatic minefields? Hitherto, we have got rid of these munitions in the crudest way possible, by blowing them up, using high-order disposal, as it is called, with a counter-explosive detonating the munition so that it can be safely moved—safe for humans, perhaps, but devastating for marine life. Due to the greater penetration of sound underwater, the explosion aftershock can travel up to 25 km. To give an idea of scale, that is roughly half the distance of the channel tunnel. Imagine the noise.
These explosions will kill any sea life nearby. If they do not die instantly, the pressure wave causes traumatic harm, such as lesions, haemorrhages and decompression sickness. Marine biologists tell us that, even if they survive the initial blasts, these can deafen aquatic mammals such as whales, porpoises and dolphins. Without hearing, they cannot communicate or navigate, leading to mass stranding. One recent example of mass stranding occurred when 39 long-finned pilot whales were stuck in the Kyle of Durness. A UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report concluded that the only external event with the potential to cause such a mass stranding was a munitions disposal operation. Nineteen of the stranded whales died. Last year, autopsies showed that scores of porpoises were deafened as a result of explosions used to clear second world war German mines in the Baltic sea. All died subsequently.
Do we have to choose between green power and mammal safety? Fortunately not. A new method of munitions disposals is available. I have seen it work. It is known as low-order deflagration, and it is a breakthrough. The technique was invented in the early 2000s and is used by the US military and 15 other countries’ navies worldwide, including our own Royal Navy, which has used it since 2005. The National Physical Laboratory has said that the new method
“shows considerable promise for noise abatement”
in bomb disposal.
In layman’s terms, this alternative system makes the bombs safe without blowing them up. It allows a small charge to penetrate the bomb casing without detonating it. That causes the explosives to burn out, and the device becomes safe. This system significantly lowers emissions and noise, thus reducing dramatically the danger to wildlife and the local environment. Scientists calculate that for some of the larger munitions, low-order deflagration could be several hundred times quieter.
Therefore, we understand the problem, and luckily the solution is straightforward. In answer to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), the Government assured her that were Ministers to become aware of evidence concerning harm caused to marine life by the disposal of munitions, they would act, and Ministers have now included a request for developers voluntarily to use deflagration
“as an initial method of mitigation”.
Saying please is nice. However, as we well know, it does not always work. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Marine Management Organisation must update their current licensing regime to ensure that deflagration is the only option for munition disposal. After all, if the Royal Navy uses this method, why should not businesses do so as well? The Secretary of State must set out a realistic timeline for this requirement, so that businesses are able to adjust. No one wants to see renewable energy construction delayed any longer than is absolutely necessary, but none of us wants to see a bloodbath on our ocean floors.
This is one of those times when party politics can be set aside and evidence-based policy can be enacted with all-party agreement. The Minister’s team asked me yesterday to outline my arguments for today, to help them to prepare a response. I was happy to do so; I doubt that there will be much disagreement between us. But I will ask something in return. I ask the Minister to take ownership of these issues and regulate as soon as possible. Perhaps we could work together and invite Labour colleagues, too.
In closing, let me thank Joanna Lumley, who brought this issue to my attention. I was delighted to accept her invitation to become involved—indeed, who could resist?
Thank you, Mr Dowd; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing the debate. He has highlighted a very important concern.
I am a supporter of offshore wind. It is bringing significant benefits to my constituency, and there is the potential for it to do even more over the next 30 years. In the southern North sea, there will be an enormous expansion of wind farms, which will create jobs and play a key role in the transition to net zero, but this exponential growth brings challenges with it. Our marine environment is an extremely sensitive and precious resource, and we have a duty to manage UK waters in a responsible and sustainable way, passing them on in a better condition than they were in when we inherited them.
That is not an easy task, as our seas are becoming incredibly busy. Off the East Anglian coast, there are, as well as wind farms, rich fishing grounds, gas fields in which we can store carbon, interconnectors, cables, busy shipping lanes and areas where dredging takes place. I believe that the time is right to review the regulatory framework and to pursue an ecosystem approach that takes full account of the many different marine resources.
With regard to the specific subject of this debate, it is important to point out that developers are bringing forward innovative techniques that significantly decrease the impact of detonating UXOs. ScottishPower Renewables has trailed deflagration and the use of bubble curtains on the East Anglia ONE wind farm, and has given an undertaking to continue with that on the forthcoming East Anglia Hub. The Government must work with and encourage industry to come forward with new and innovative techniques that minimise disturbance to the marine environment. The UK has a good track record of doing that, and it can bring economic benefits as we promote those new technologies globally.
We must also put in place policies that reduce the risk of conflict between the many marine activities. The report by REAF—Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries —highlighted the significant increase in wind farms along the East Anglian coast and the fact that the displacement of fishing is not being properly taken into account in the marine planning and consenting system. We recommended that more use be made of existing data, so as to manage potential conflicts between fishing and offshore wind. I urge the Government to adopt that recommendation, and I am happy to provide the Minister with further details.
The rapid growth of offshore wind is a great British success story, but as the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has highlighted, it can bring unintended and serious consequences. By working collaboratively within a planning and regulatory framework that is fit for purpose—it does need updating—we can meet those challenges and properly and fully build back better.
A number of constituents contacted me about this issue last year, so I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) managed to secure the debate.
Offshore wind is absolutely essential to our efforts to decarbonise the UK grid and combat the climate emergency. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to quadruple offshore wind capacity by 2030, and the funding package announced last October, we need much more sustained financial support and real leadership from the Government if we are to maximise the true potential of wind power as a clean energy source and promote green jobs and enterprise for the UK supply chain. We still need to see much more from the Government on a green recovery package to take us along that path.
As we have heard, the unexploded ordnance in British waters—the figure I have is 500,000 or so items—remains a considerable threat. That terrible legacy of two world wars is not just an obstacle to the construction of offshore wind farms, but a danger to marine life, so it is vital that we safely clear those mines. We cannot let their detonation come at the expense of biodiversity and marine life; we need to identify environmentally sensitive ways to clear them.
The traditional method of detonating the explosives can prove extremely damaging, as we have heard. The images on the Stop Sea Blasts website, which I congratulate on its campaign, are shocking, as are the reports about the mass stranding of pilot whales, the death of porpoises, and how detonation deafens many marine mammals, confusing their navigation systems and causing long-term harm. The blasts also spread toxic chemicals into our oceans, further damaging marine life.
It does not have to be that way, however: there are deflagration methods that burn out the explosive content of mines and cause considerably less damage to surrounding marine life. The Government have stated on the record that they are investigating deflagration as an alternative to detonation. The first phase of the ongoing study by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has shown positive results, so I hope that we see a shift to that method as soon as possible, and I would welcome an update on that from the Minister.
Despite their boasts, the Government’s record to date on marine conservation in UK waters is pretty woeful. They have really dragged their feet on creating the ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas that we need, which was first set in motion during the last days of the last Labour Government. The MPAs that have been created are essentially paper parks and offer no significant protection to marine life. The Government recently stripped out of the Fisheries Bill amendments promoting conservation and marine stewardship. With those past failures in mind, we need a firm commitment from the Minister that the Government will act now to protect our marine life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing this important debate. Quite a lot of constituents have written to me about it. Initially, I was not aware of how extensive this issue is, but through correspondence with my constituents and the lobby group on sea blasts, I have learned a great deal more, and the hon. Gentleman very ably laid out the case.
There needs to be a clear strategy to tackle the issue of unexploded ordnances in the waters surrounding the UK. The number I have differs from that given by the hon. Gentleman, so I will allow the record to stand with what he said. As he pointed out, these are leftover unexploded ordnances from past conflicts that are still lying on our seabed. We are still having to deal today with a century of conflict. It is a historical issue that has come back to us in the present day. It is pressing, because of our urgent need to invest in more offshore wind. Given that unexploded ordnance disposal is a key step in the provision of our future energy needs, the Government must explore ways of delivering it safely and with minimum impact on the environment. It is not good enough to allow our marine life to be adversely affected by such a critical step.
Exploding unexploded ordnances can have a significant noise impact, which is likely to disrupt the hearing ability of significant numbers of marine wildlife. Their hearing is essential for their navigation, communication and feeding habits. That kind of damage can have a huge impact on whole populations of marine wildlife. Exploding unexploded ordnances can also lead to toxic and chemical waste in the water, which has an obvious negative impact on biodiversity.
There are better ways of clearing ordnances, and they urgently need to be explored. In particular, low-order deflagration has been found to be effective. A recent joint study by the National Physical Laboratory—I should declare that I am proud to be a former employee of NPL in Teddington—and Loughborough University found that deflagration as a way of clearing ordnances could significantly lower noise emissions. That is something that must urgently be taken forward.
It is urgent and vital that the Government explore alternatives to explosion so that our marine life can be protected at the same time as we enable our renewable energy programme to expand as necessary to meet the Government’s plans for net zero. The failure to take action points to a larger Government failure to set out clear plans for achieving net zero. So far, we have had a set of aspirations set out in the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, but it is backed up by very little strategy or investment. If there had been a greater focus on the practicalities of how net zero was going to be delivered, consideration would already have been given to this matter.
DEFRA must urgently update its guidance to the Marine Management Organisation and other organisations that are required to remove unexploded ordnances. The need to tackle climate change is urgent, and the path to net zero must lie through our expansion of offshore wind. We cannot allow that expansion to negatively impact on our marine life. The solution to that conflict is straightforward, and I urge DEFRA to adopt it without delay.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing this very important debate. I was the Minister for the marine environment for four years under the previous Labour Government, and I took through the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which at the time was groundbreaking. I add my voice to those of colleagues of all parties in this debate who have said that that legislation and the regulatory framework governing these practices needs updating.
I might try Members’ patience slightly because I come at this from a different angle. Deflagration can have huge benefits both in the marine and land-based environment, as we have experienced recently in Exeter. Colleagues might have seen the news coverage of the recent controlled explosion of the Exeter bomb, but they might not be aware that that “controlled” explosion—I use that word advisedly—caused considerable damage to surrounding properties. People can get an idea from the video footage of how much damage would be done in a marine environment by such a powerful explosion in terms of both noise and physical damage in the immediate environment.
I want to use a few seconds of this debate to request that the Minister—I cannot see her very clearly because the picture is so small, but I think she is the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), a fellow south-west MP—does what she can to try to persuade the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to answer the questions that my constituents have put to them, because they are still in a state of great uncertainty following that controlled explosion. I have been contacted by several retired bomb disposal experts who believe that the alternative, much less damaging process could have been followed in this case. Numerous properties were damaged, and some are still not inhabitable. Residents had to be moved out for several days, and residents of a care home are still not back. They are being told by their insurance companies that the companies are not liable and that liability rests with the Government—either the MOD or the Home Office. Will the Minister or her officials listening to this debate please try to get me answers from the Defence Secretary and Home Secretary? I have asked them, but I am still waiting.
On the marine side, I completely agree that we can learn from what has been common practice in land-based bomb disposal for a very long time. There are alternatives to simply blowing up this stuff and causing the sort of havoc that we see in the marine environment and that we saw in Exeter recently, with very serious structural damage done to numerous local properties that might have been avoided if we had used less explosive and less damaging alternatives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for calling this important debate on a matter of grave concern to some of my own constituents and, as we have already heard, to those across the United Kingdom.
I have received letters in support of Joanna Lumley’s Stop Sea Blasts campaign, which is supported by Marine Connection, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, World Cetacean Alliance, and Advocating Wild. I thank everyone who is doing that fantastic work right across the UK. I have written to the Government on constituents’ behalf and I have tabled written questions, as has already been highlighted. I have also submitted an early-day motion on this matter, so I urge other hon. Members to look at it and consider signing it.
In summing up for the Scottish National party, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their excellent contributions today. It has been a thorough debate highlighting to the Minister many of the main issues of concern, and has included contributions from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), and the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous).
Stop Sea Blasts is concerned with the future of marine mammals that rely on their auditory systems for navigation and communication. Those systems are rendered ineffective by the detonation of unexploded ordnance. Efforts to drive a green and sustainable future by the expansion of offshore wind farms should not come at the expense of harming marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. Explosions can have deadly consequences for marine mammals. We would do well not to forget the mass stranding of 39 pilot whales at Kyle of Durness on the north highland coast following munition clearances in 2011. The future of many marine mammals is already, as we know, precarious. Many are vulnerable or at risk of extinction as a result of human activity already, so we must do everything we can to secure their survival for future generations to marvel at in wonder. That is all the more important, I believe, in the light of the upcoming G7 at Carbis Bay and the United Nations COP26 later this year in Glasgow, where discussions will focus on how to implement a greener future for all.
The wind power potential of Scotland both onshore and offshore must play a crucial part in the drive towards net zero and beyond. We can use the opportunity to lead, by setting ambitious targets for the protection of the environment, and, in doing so, to address the sustainable development goals. Stopping sea blasts and using deflagration will protect marine mammals from harm, but there is another benefit. Protecting life below water relates to sustainable development goal 14, and as we develop offshore wind farms to reach sustainable goal 7 on affordable and clean energy, we can implement sustainable development goal 13 on climate action—everything works in harmony.
The Government must set ambitious targets for the protection of the environment, and for our future. I have no doubt that wind power will be a topic of much discussion through COP26, just as it should be. The drive towards a sustainable future should not jeopardise the future survival of marine wildlife, which is already vulnerable to eco-stress. Deflagration should be used, as we have already heard, instead of sea blasts. COP26 in Scotland and the G7 represent perfect opportunities for the Government to set out their commitment to act on the issue. I urge the Minister to prioritise the matter in conversations with ministerial colleagues in the lead up to that crucial conference.
We need updated guidance to be published, and evidence gaps to be identified, as well as funding for research on the impacts. However, guidance and evidence offer little protection without political will and commitment, so they must not be mistaken for anything more than a first step. I urge the Government to prioritise those programmes and publish their findings without delay, and to act to enforce their findings wherever and whenever possible, to make sure that we have a sustainable, climate-friendly future for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing the debate. I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition.
As we have heard from many Members today, the issue of unexploded ordnance in our seas is a far-reaching one. There are no official estimates of how many unexploded devices sit on our seabed, but as we increase our use of renewable energy—and we welcome increasing construction of wind farms in our seas, which the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) highlighted—the issue of munitions must be addressed and dealt with. The creation of an offshore wind farm should not come at the cost of irreparable damage to the seabed and vulnerable marine species. It is clearly preferable for wind farms to be constructed offshore. The risk and disruption at sea are clearly less. In my constituency just last week a blade flew off a wind turbine. Luckily no one was hurt, but there is clearly a risk to human life. Where we can extend offshore wind at sea that is preferable, but clearly that comes at a risk to the seabed and to marine life.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), using high order detonation methods to remove munitions from the seabed is causing undue harm. Many species of marine life rely on their hearing to navigate around our waters, establish feeding patterns, and communicate with other mammals. High-order detonation has been found to cause irreversible noise trauma to thousands of sea mammals, as discussed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). A 2015 study found that 88 explosions in one year would be likely to cause about 1,200, and possibly more than 5,000, permanent hearing loss events. In the five years since that study, we have seen an increase of 13 new wind farms in British waters, which contain a combined total of 853 individual wooden turbines. Does the Minister agree that a more up-to-date assessment of the harm caused to our vulnerable marine life is well overdue? We need to establish the damage caused by more recent detonations, so that we can understand the scale of the problem today.
Low-order deflagration is said to cause far less damage to our marine life and seabeds than high-order detonation, yet detonation remains the most common method of clearing unexploded ordnance in preparation for the construction of offshore wind farms. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) spoke with great experience and knowledge of that alternative, and of its benefits. Surely protecting our marine life and seas should be a major factor in the decision about whether to move to the use of low-order deflagration methods in place of detonation. We should not have to tolerate any more manmade tragedies, such as what happened at Kyle of Durness in 2011, when 39 long-finned pilot whales became stranded in the bay area after being displaced from their habitat following a high-order blast. Nineteen sadly died, and the subsequent DEFRA report concluded that a high-order blast
“was the only external event with the potential to cause the Mass Stranding Event.”
In June 2020, the National Physical Laboratory published a report funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The report appears to favour low-order deflagration over high-order detonation, but there has been no move from the Government to implement any changes following the report’s publication. Instead, we are told that there will now be a third, and potentially a fourth, stage of the report in order to
“further improve the information base”.
Will the Minister give an indication of when the findings of the third phase will be published, and whether there is a commitment to move straight into the fourth stage? When that is completed, do we expect to see a change in legislation to preserve vulnerable marine life and our seabeds? Given that the reports have been commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that this is obviously an issue that has far-reaching consequences for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can the Minister tell us what ongoing discussions DEFRA has had with BEIS on this issue?
As everyone in the debate is aware, we are in the midst of a climate crisis, which is something that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about at some length. An increase in renewable energy sources needs to be made available, and more offshore wind farms is one of the best ways to achieve that. Indeed, at the end of 2020, there were a further nine offshore wind farms under construction. When finished, they will have a combined total of an extra 619 turbines. On the one hand, that is a positive move in the fight against the climate crisis, but it should not come at the cost of threatening our marine life. The Government have previously said that they
“recognise the potential for significant impact of underwater noise from unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance on vulnerable marine species”,
and that they are
“taking active steps to manage and reduce the risk.”
In conclusion, can the Minister outline the steps being taken and give a commitment that further action will be taken to ensure the waters around the UK, and the species that live there, are protected?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for securing this debate on the very important issue of detonating unexploded ordnance in the wake of the growing offshore wind industry. He is not alone in his interest in this area; we had a great many eloquent speakers, all of whom I thank for their interest. We share a great interest. I am particularly interested in this issue, and I am very pleased to have the chance to talk about it today.
I want to thank all the Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). The debate has really brought the issue into sharp focus. We have also had it raised recently by the Stop Sea Blasts campaign, which has contacted me about it.
I want to set the record straight by saying that protecting the whole marine environment—both habitats and species— is a key commitment of the Government. DEFRA’s 25-year environment plan sets out ambitions and targets to improve our marine environment and protect it for future generations. Of course, that plan will be the first environmental improvement plan for the Environment Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. I refer all those who have spoken today to the Westminster Hall debate I responded to this morning about the marine landscape. That was all about marine protections, and it touched on many of the things that hon. Friends and hon. Members have asked about today. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) secured that debate, and in it I highlighted that we have made a great deal of progress in just the past 10 years on marine protection in the UK: we now have 371 designated marine protection areas, protecting 38% of UK waters and spanning 340,000 sq km. Internationally, the UK is advocating for the protection of at least 30% of the global ocean within marine protected areas by 2030.
I also highlight that leaving the common fisheries policy has given us extra ability to put protections in place and create management arrangements in our MPAs that previously would have been very difficult, particularly in our offshores. We have used our bylaws on the inshore area; now we can use them on the offshore area to do much more specific, sustainable management, which touches on what my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney was pointing out when he was calling for a much more joined-up, holistic, sustainable approach to a marine strategy. We have our marine strategy, and it is very much moving in that direction. I also add, because it is relevant to this conversation, that cetaceans—whales, porpoises and dolphins—are legally protected species in UK waters.
Let us just touch on the expansion of offshore wind. Alongside all of our environmental ambitions, we have further targets to help tackle the climate crisis and secure a green recovery from covid-19, and we have set targets for reaching net zero by 2050, one of the most ambitious targets in the world. Right at the heart of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green recovery—which I think was touched on by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock)—is this commitment to quadruple offshore wind energy to produce 40 GW by 2030, which is a huge commitment and has massive support. I think every hon. Friend and hon. Member who has spoken today has supported that ambition, which is central to achieving net zero and reducing carbon emissions.
However, and really importantly, the Government are also committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, so we are very clear that the offshore wind must not come at the expense of the marine environment. As has been highlighted, there are now multiple calls on the marine space in many areas: everybody wants to get their hands in the water, so to speak, whether for carbon storage, fishing, oil and gas, or all of these different challenges. I wanted to make very clear that DEFRA is working closely with BEIS to come up with the right balance and approach for delivering sustainable offshore wind and a sustainable, well-managed and well-protected marine space.
Turning to the noise issue—the underwater noise impacts—we recognise that underwater noise can cause significant damage and disturbance to marine life. That is why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working so closely with Departments, statutory nature conservation bodies, and marine industries to reduce the impacts on sensitive species such as marine mammals. However, as has been highlighted quite clearly by all speakers, unexploded ordnance continues to be a dreadful legacy, particularly of the second world war, and removing these items from the seabed is absolutely vital for the safe construction of offshore wind and other marine industries. There is some dispute about how many of these bombs there actually are; my figures were between 300,000 and 500,000. I think the 100,000 figure referred to by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is the tonnage of the unexploded bombs, but however many it is, it is a great many, and it is a really significant issue.
I want to give reassurance that at the moment, the highest levels of protection possible are put into place for our marine mammals and our environment while these removals take place. Any removal of unexploded ordnance must be individually assessed in accordance with our habitats regulations. A marine species licence is also required if the activity is likely to negatively affect a protected species, which includes all dolphins, whales and porpoises. Marine mammal specialists are deployed to ensure that no marine animals are in the vicinity. I said, “Well, how are you going to do that?” Acoustic devices can be put into the water to try to keep them away from the area where the bomb is going to be exploded. Bubble curtains can also be put around the area. They create bubbles that take away a lot of the sound created by the explosion. There are, therefore, already things in place.
I take note of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Exeter. I saw what he spoke of on my local news, coming as I do from Taunton. I urge colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to take note of the impacts that he highlighted very clearly.
Everybody who has spoken is right—there is more to be done in this space. We also recognise that, given the huge expansion of offshore wind, there will be increases in the levels of underwater noise. That is why DEFRA has recently secured a £4.3 million fund from the Treasury for a cross-Government programme to facilitate the sustainable delivery of offshore wind in the marine environment. That includes a dedicated focus team for reducing the impacts of underwater noise. They are working on this, to get better evidence, data and solutions.
Deflagration, which many colleagues have raised today, is a potentially quieter and less destructive alternative to detonating unexploded ordnance. As mentioned, this issue was raised by the Stop Sea Blasts campaign. Indeed, Joanna Lumley wrote to the Prime Minister just last week and her letter was shared with me. Like Joanna, I am keen that we take care of our vulnerable marine species and that we do the very best we can. The Government are testing and investigating the feasibility of deflagration. In recent weeks and months, we have been in discussions with providers of this technology, the Royal Navy and scientists who are exploring its success, the noise mitigations, the level of risk and its safety.
The Marine Management Organisation fully considers potential mitigation to effectively manage underwater noise before issuing a licence for unexploded ordnance clearance. It already requests that developers investigate and use this deflagration method where feasible, as referenced by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire.
We welcome the testing funded by BEIS and the industrial strategy last year. The testing has been carried out inland, in a quarry. It is producing strong evidence that the technique results in significant and positive noise reduction, but we need to be sure of its safety and effectiveness out in the much wider marine space, because users of the marine environment have raised quite a lot of concerns about its reliability, effectiveness and safety. We would not want some of the explosive to be left there—we have to be super sure that it does the whole job. It is hard to get all the evidence, but that is what we need. We need to know, however it has been dealt with, that it is safe for other operators, vessels, mariners and developers working in the marine space, but we do not yet have evidence of its safety and effectiveness. We need to be sure of that.
The wider marine space complicates the issue because of the challenges caused by water movements, greater depths, poor visibility and partially buried, partly degrading explosives. That makes real-life ordnance removal in the marine environment more challenging than it is in the controlled quarry site, but that is why we are working closely with scientist to gather the evidence and asses the risks with all speed, and that will continue.
To respond to the shadow Minister’s point, following the completion of the third phase of the analysis work, we will, potentially, go into the fourth phase, involving offshore fieldwork to explore these issues with all speed. We will report back once we have the details and are content with what we feel safe with.
I want to touch on the wider issue of noise. It is not just the noise from exploding ordnance that our fellow creatures face in the sea. There are many other forms of noise. A great deal of work is being done to consider how underwater noise can be monitored and managed more strategically—my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney touched on this—to reduce harm and to enable the sustainable and responsible growth of the offshore wind sector, which is so important to all of us. It is a growing and important area on the shores of England and Scotland.
There is no doubt that underwater noise is increasing and there are concerns. That is why I welcome—the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned this—the guidance on underwater noise for statutory nature conversation bodies, which was published last June. This important guidance includes information on noise thresholds that should not be exceeded in special areas of conservation for harbour porpoise. That should help to avoid significant disturbance of vulnerable marine species.
Through DEFRA’s offshore wind enabling actions programme, we have set up a strategic advice group, comprised of policy makers, regulators, industry representatives, statutory nature conservation bodies, the Crown Estate, which is really important in this area, environmental organisations and a range of scientific experts, to see what else we can do in this space, including looking at new techniques. A number of today’s contributors have urged us to look at all techniques and to apply new technology. I hope I am making it clear that I think this is a really important area to get right.
The Government’s commitment to using offshore wind and our drive to achieve net zero are to be applauded, as is our commitment to protecting our marine environment. Getting the balance right is key, and part and parcel of that, of course, is reducing the impact of underwater noise, finding strategic solutions and protecting our vulnerable species, in particular in relation to the concern about unexploded ordnance.
I again thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire for securing the debate. It has been a good debate and it has shown that we are all in the same waters, so to speak, and that we all want to drive forward to get this right.
I thank all the people and constituents who asked for this debate, and the hon. Members who have spoken. I felt the Minister’s pain as she tried to cope with saying “East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow” a couple of times.
I was interested to hear the Minister say that whales, dolphins and porpoises are legally protected. They are not being protected if they are being blown up, which is what is happening at the moment. The Minister asked a number of times whether deflagration works, what the evidence is, and whether it is safe. Those are all excellent questions, but we already know the answers because the method has been tried around the world. We do not have to do our own independent research when research is available from other countries.
There is only one question that Members across the room want an answer to, and it is this: will the Minister ban the bomb—yes or no? Sadly, the answer appears to be maybe. I hope there is speedy progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the disposal of unexploded ordnance for offshore windfarm construction.