HC Deb 11 December 1967 vol 756 cc158-73

9.29 p.m.

Mr. Tom Dalyell (West Lothian)

Mr. Speaker, I wish to raise the subject, of which I have given notice to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology, of the development of the marine sciences, the development of the marine environment, and the general state of British oceanography.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Has the hon. Gentleman given notice to the Parliamentary Secretary of his intention to raise this?

Mr. Dalyell

I have indeed. On two or three occasions over some weeks now I have been in contact with the Ministry of Technology about an Adjournment debate and I gave definite notice that, should the House collapse, I would be raising this matter. I gave notice at ten minutes past Four this afternoon, the same time as I gave notice to you, Mr. Speaker, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for being here.

On a previous occasion I was lucky to do the same thing on Aldabra where perhaps my purpose was destructive in trying to prevent something. On this occasion it is entirely constructive and my hope is that I will do something to encourage the good efforts of the Government in the matter of the marine sciences. Even though we are at the beginning of what I hope will be a very long story, the Government already have a fairly good tale to tell about their efforts on marine environment development.

The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to progress-chase what the Government have been promising. Such a debate offers an opportunity which we do not get in the debates on the Floor of the House to progress-chase what might be called recondite issues. I would first of all refer my hon. Friend to the Question I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science on 3rd July. My Question was: …what study is being made of the possibility of greater exploitation of the resources of the sea and the sea bed by the United Kingdom. The reply by the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), was: Two initiatives have recently been taken. First, the Government have initiated a review which will examine what additional work would be profitable and how such work could be put into effect and co-ordinated with existing activities. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary how far this review has got, and whether he has anything to report since July of this year.

The Secretary of State went on: Second, the N.E.R.C. is examining the extent to which it would be justifiable and practicable to expand its exploration of the Continental Shelf with particular reference to economic returns and the needs of the extractive industries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd July, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 195.] I wonder how far that examination has got. Perhaps my hon. Friend can tell me.

A moment ago I used the phrase "a recondite issue". Perhaps one should put this in the setting of the American context, where last year the Federal Budget was of the order of 330 million dollars for the marine sciences. This year it is of the order of 410 million dollars, and next year it will go up to 490 million dollars.

The Americans have set up a marine sciences programme and some idea of its importance can be measured from the fact that the Vice-President of the United States, Vice-President Humphrey, is Chairman of the Marine Sciences Council. From an interview of half an hour that I had with him in June, in his office in the Senate, there is no doubt that this extremely important American politician attaches great weight to his duties as an active chairman of the Marine Sciences Council.

Not only are the American Government paying attention to oceanography and the marine environment, but American private industry is too. Although I have no exact figures, Boeing Lockheed, General Electric, Westinghouse and North American Aviation, and General Dynamics have each sunk over 100 million dollars of their own money into industry associated with the marine environment.

This is becoming true in this country. I would refer to the Cameron Ironworks in my own constituency. It has the most modern forge, at any rate in the Western world, and is extremely concerned to know how the British Government will develop an industry associated with marine environment.

I make no apologies for arising a subject that is not perhaps regarded by most people as being highly important at present. It will certainly be regarded as being extremely important in the 1970s. Here I must commend the initiative of the Government. They were very active in encouraging the Atomic Energy Authority to sponsor a conference at Harwell bringing together academics, industry and many other interested parties. The Harwell conference was a great success. My hon. Friend was officially represented by some extremely able members of his Department. What end product has come from that conference? Can my hon. Friend give any progress report?

I want to refer also to the good work of the National Institute under Dr. Deacon. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would agree that perhaps the time has come to make the work of the National Institute rather better known than it is now. I want to ask one minor question. When there was a tragic aircraft crash in the Mediterranean why was it, when researching the metal structures of the aircraft at depth, that we went to American experts rather than use our own experts?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will deal with the subject which he himself has chosen for the debate.

Mr. Dalyell

This is in fact related to the work of the National Institute of Oceanography under the Director of the Institute, Dr. Deacon. I think that salvage work is one aspect of the work than can be done in the marine environment. I would justify that question by the importance which is attached to it my some members of the National Institute.

I would like to ask, too, about the re search ship "John Murray". I commend the Government for their action in promoting even a very small ship in this field. Do the Government intend to build any more ships to enlarge on the work which is being successfully carried out by the "John Murray" at present? I would refer to a letter from the Minister about the National Environment Research Council of 22nd September: N.E.R.C. is particularly concerned to ensure that research workers have the sophisticated equipment they need to make the best use of their time and skills. This has got to be given priority. What are the Government doing to provide the necessary equipment in what is necessarily becoming an ever more sophisticated field of operations?

I want to refer also to the Report of the Working Group of N.E.R.C. on a British National Oceanographic Datum Centre. In a letter the Department wrote, it was stated that this was being pursued, and I would like to know if the Parliamentary Secretary has any news to report.

I come now to the biggest of all the laboratories dealing with the marine environment. This is the Fisheries Laboratory at Lowestoft, where I think last year the expenditure was of the order of £1,1 90,000.

I want to refer to a letter dated 23rd August from my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell), who was at that time the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology. He said this: Briefly the situation is that there is no technical difficulty in producing a fish protein concentrate of the type you mention and no doubt about its nutritional value. The real problem which has been shown up by trials in developing countries is the lack of any substantial consumer demand for such a material. It may well be that the expanding populations of the developing countries will need to mike some changes in their traditional diet if they are to be adequately fed, but there are many problems in this; the technical ones are the least formidable, the fundamental revision of customs and the development of distribu- tion lines are likely to be most difficult where the need is greatest. I think that my hon. Friend knows that this is a matter of some contention. There are very many scientists, particularly those who are concerned with likely shortages of nutritional value after 1975 and into the 1980s, who really find it difficult to accept the view which is put by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

I ask my hon. Friend whether in his Ministry there is any reconsideration of thinking on the matter of marine protein concentrate. The view abroad, particularly among the Americans, is that there is an important future. Although I would not wish to stray from the current subject, it is in this very week that the remarkable developments of B.P. at Lavera in the South of France, led by M. Champignat, have become public in the ability to make protein derived from petroleum products. This has some bearing on the need for marine protein concentrate, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend has any observation to make on this important matter.

Next I come to the role of the Navy. I think I should make it plain that I would not put forward any proposition to the effect that suddenly overnight the Royal Navy should cease to be a fighting service and should give up its entire being to the needs of the marine sciences. This is not the argument at all. But I think it is true, and it is certainly the opinion of a number of highly placed naval officers to whom the Ministry of Defence know I have been talking, that there is scope for a great deal of enlargement of the Navy's activities in the development of marine environment, particularly in the hydrographer's department, and the simple charting of the Continental Shelf, which needs to be done around British shores.

I should like to refer to a letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, dated 7th September 1967, as follows: Both the Hydrographer and the Director of Naval Physical Research are members of the Oceonography and Fisheries Committee of the Natural Environment Research Council. This involves close liaison with British scientists, institutions and industry concerned with oceanography and the Committee constantly reviews the national effort. As a result a national programme for the future exploration and study of the sea is developing. The Hydrographer advertises well in advance the general movements of his survey ships, and, as far as possible, accedes to requests for accommodation and facilities for oceano-graphical studies. During the last few years, for example, we have granted such facilities to scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the White Fish Authority, and are now planning, in collaboration with the Royal Society an examination of heat exchange between the sea and air in mid-Atlantic. Close relationships are maintained, amongst others, with the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Cambridge University ". I think we are often inclined to be critical in this House, and very often in the past, perhaps, I too have been critical, of defence thinking, but I would pay tribute tonight to the excellent co-operation that the Navy has shown in these matters, and say that all these scientists to whom I have spoken have the highest regard for their naval contacts. In this House I think an expression of thanks ought to be given to the Navy for their great co-operation, and particularly to the Defence Ministers who have encouraged it.

I should like to refer to something else in my hon. Friend's letter. He went on to say: Any increase in civil interest and commercial activity in these fields would make it practicable, except for specialised naval applications, for a longer and more effective attack to be made on these problems. This would he to the advantage of the Royal Navy but we would expect that in return our own contribution to the research programme would continue on a wider basis to be of help to all participants ". I hope that my hon. Friend will convey to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy that many of us would like to see his activities in this field enlarged at the present time, especially when there is perhaps going to be a rundown of naval personnel, and this extremely important work could be an example of weapons being battered into pruning hooks. There really is scope for the Navy at the present time to take part in an enlarged British marine science programme.

I have however, one criticism, and here I refer to a Question answered on Friday, 23rd June last. I asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will consider ways in which information on diving obtained by the Royal Navy, Fan be made available for British industry involved in the civil development of the seabed. The Answer was: Details about standard naval operational diving techniques are already available to industry generally ". There are some people in industry who dispute that somewhat, but the Answer goes on: Information on techniques still in the research and development stage, however, could be released only to those firms which have a clear appreciation of the considerable risks involved. The Navy Department is already planning a symposium on this subject to which representatives of industry and of other Government Departments concerned would be invited."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd June, 1967; Vol. 74, c. 364.] Has this symposium taken place—it is rather important—and what has the follow-up action been?

Second, is my hon. Friend satisfied with the number of skilled divers available in this country? My general impression is that we are becoming very short of skilled divers in relation to the industrial and other tasks ahead of us. Would not the Navy be the best qualified of all to train them in this field?

Next, a question of which I have given by hon. Friend notice regarding the Government's help to the Kraken project off Oban. Does he think this is a good and worthwhile use of resources?

Now, a rather different question: how can we fit in with the United States programme? There are some of us who believe that oceanography and the development of the marine sciences presents an ideal occasion for meaningful international co-operation. My hon. Friend knows that, for the second time this year, the secretary of the American Marine Sciences Programme, Dr. Ed Wenk, was in this country talking to the Minister of Technology and also to the Minister of State for Education and Science, my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchen (Mrs. Shirley Williams). If we are to have that international co-operation which many of us would like to see, there is some desirability in having overall direction of the British marine sciences programme. I understand the dangers in having a number of civil servants imposed from above and, perhaps, a number of naval officers imposed from above. But this is not what is asked. What is being asked for is a focal point of leadership and co-ordination so that we may deal with countries abroad and, perhaps, gear our own programme to their needs as well as our own.

Here is a concrete example. It is not my business tonight to refer to the Aldabra Atoll in a defence context. I say only that there are many who would like to see a modest pioneer research station set up on Aldabra. This is certainly the view of the Royal Society. We would like to see it set up in conjunction with a number of other research stations which would he promoted and paid for by the American Government. It is certainly the view of the head of the Smithsonian Institute, Dillon Ripley, that there is considerable scope for co-operation between Britain and the United States in a world oceanography programme. I think that many pure scientists would like also to see the Soviet Union and other countries included.

There is a practical basis here for something which can be done in the Indian Ocean now. I hope that, in the not very distant future, there will be an undertaking from the Government to join in the work which the Woods Hole Institution in the United States is doing in the Indian Ocean and to promote that small research station on Aldabra which could be the beginning of a joint marine science programme in that part of the world.

What about the mining of phosphorite nodules, which is important for British industry, and, perhaps the most important thing in the short term that a marine development programme could do, the production of gravel? Can my hon. Friend say anything about the production of gravel in relation to the kind of programme we have discussed tonight?

There is also the simple point that the legal problems of the sea must be solved as soon as possible. Mr. Jerry Brougher the vice-president of the Cameron Ironworks, which are now becoming so important to Scottish industry, said in a discussion that the first thing politicians must do to help industry is to sort out the legal problems. Mr. Brougher, speaking from his base in Texas, has a considerable knowledge of the problems confronting us in marine environment industries. Perhaps my hon. Friend will have discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to see what can be done.

Finally, I should like to raise the question which must be related to any marine science programme, that of desalination plants. The most practical example is the possibility of the West's setting up a desalination plant in Israel and perhaps another in the Arab world, through a firm such as Weir Westgarth. I refer to the Memorandum of Mr. Edmund de Rothschild, which has been discussed with various members of the Government. He is happy that it should be quoted in public.

It is headed: "Water for the Middle East", with sub-heading, "U.K. Content in Cost Estimates", and reads: Analysis of the capital cost of a dual-purpose power water scheme incorporating an S.G.H.W. reactor and multi-stage flash distillation plant, based on a submission made by the U.K. A.E.A. in February, 1966 (giving 200 MW(E) saleable electricity and 100 m. gallons of water per day) shows the following breakdown of costs between currencies. These figures should only be considered as an indication and would need revising before any actual quote might be made, in order to incorporate advances in reactor technology. The important figures are that the United Kingdom component in a power/ desalting plant would be £35 million, comprising 69 per cent., and other currencies £16 million, comprising 31 per cent., of a total of £51 million. Of indirect costs and water and electrical transmission facilities the United Kingdom component would be £13 million, comprising 54 per cent., and other currencies £11 million, comprising 46 per cent., of a total cost of £24 million. There is also the question of ancillary equipment. That is a practical, sensible, technical scheme whereby the lamentable situation of food supplies and irrigation in the Middle East might be partially solved.

Although it may be an off-beat issue at present, a vast potential exists in a marine science programme not only for developing countries but for ourselves. Anything that we can do for the Middle East or countries in tropical areas suffering from droughts will more than replace military expenditure we commit at present, and it would have the added benefit of vastly helping British industry and our balance of payments. A marine science programme would be an example of enlightened self-interest, and that is why I commend it.

9.54 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Dr. Jeremy Bray)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for giving us an opportunity to discuss marine science and technology. As he said, he kindly gave us notice of his intention to raise the matter some time ago and he did so again earlier today.

The House had an opportunity of discussing marine science earlier this year when the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser) raised it on 31st May. My hon. Friend who replied was the present Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, then the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, and he dealt mainly with the scientific aspects of the work. I shall take the opportunity tonight, in reply to the very wide-ranging questions that my hon. Friend raised, to concentrate mainly on the technological aspects.

I would say in passing that the work of the National Institute of Oceanography is well known and appreciated. I am happy to undertake to look at what further steps might be taken to make it better known. I have nothing to add to the letter of my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs on the work of the Fisheries Laboratory and, in particular, fish protein concentrate.

In the defence area we are, by virtue of the integration of the former Ministry of Aviation with the Ministry of Technology, combining those parts of the defence research programme and the civil research programme which fall within our area of activity. An instance from the marine field is the hovercraft area, where we have a single hovercraft unit covering both defence and civil applications.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions in the technology field on which I should like to concentrate. He referred to the review announced by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Education and Science. The review was set up following the Harwell Conference and was committed to a working party with terms of reference roughly on the following lines. It was asked first, to review research and development now in progress on all aspects of marine science and technology in the United Kingdom. This will, I hope, meet the point that my hon. Friend made about the very diverse activity that is going on and the need to examine its inter-relations to provide at any rate the beginnings of the focus of co-operation which he asked for in the context of international developments.

Secondly, the working party was asked to identify areas of marine science and technology which are likely to be the most economically profitable, and to consider what further research and development would be necessary to exploit them. It would be a mistake, and unjust to the working party, to expect more than preliminary conclusions from its study of the problem. We cannot expect fully justified projects with full cost-benefit analyses attached to them. It can only be an initial identification of areas which are worth examining more closely with the help of experts.

Thirdly, the working party was asked to advise on a programme of action and on means of co-ordinating the existing and proposed programmes of research and development. We shall, therefore, be following up the work of the working party and have an open mind about how this should most effectively be done.

My hon. Friend asked how the Government looked at the problem of developing the industry which will be concerned with exploiting marine science and technology and meeting maritime demands of all kinds. Anybody who has been as concerned with the world of science and technology as my hon. Friend has will agree that we have now a great deal of experience on the relationship of major programmes to industry, and, looking back, I am sure that he would be the first to point to the dangers of a really major applied research programme undertaken by an organisation which was not integrally linked with industry. Clearly there is a rôle which institutions dedicated solely to research, with their own source of funds, are able to play. But we must make sure that that rôle is planned with the close co-operation of industry and that arrangements are made with industry—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gourlay.]

Dr. Bray

We must make sure that arrangements are made with industry for the exploitation of research and that industry is brought into the guiding and shaping of the programme. Perhaps I can best illustrate this by referring to a point which my right hon. Friend made about the work on desalination which the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell has been working on, in a programme under Section 4 of the Science and Technology Act, for the past year or so. In that part of the programme of work which has been directly relevant to current exploitation—the work on multi-stage flash distillation — they have been highly successful, together with Weir Westgarth. This firm specialising in this work, has secured practically all the major world contracts in this area open to public tender in the course of the past year. That is a remarkable achievement on which I am sure the Atomic Energy Authority and the company deserve the congratulations of the House.

But it shows the kind of arrangement which we have to make in marine science and technology generally. We have to have a set up in a firm which has not only the right technology but also the right management and sales organisation and which is able to form the right link with the research organisation. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not press us—I do not suppose for one moment that he will—to set up some sort of maritime research authority with a budget of anything like the size of the United States budget on the marine sciences programme. If this kind of relationship with industry is to develop, clearly we must get down to very considerable detail in examining the areas to which a marine sciences programme cart contribute. These were very extensively explored in the conference at Harwell in April to which my hon. Friend referred.

I should like briefly to remind the House of some of the very wide-ranging subjects which need investigation in this area and of the many possibilities in marine technology. Perhaps the most immediate problem is the development of improved methods of fishing. Other hon. Members may have had the experience which I have had in a nuclear submarine of watching the movements of fish swarms on the sonar. I am told that in the North Sea in a submarine it is possible to watch swarms swimming into and out of the nets controlled by the trawlers and that they often wish they had some means of shouting "grab" when the swarm is in the net. Clearly such techniques are extremely expensive and not suitable, as they stand, for use in an ordinary trawler, but there is the question whether a fishing fleet should be so organised that expensive gear could be concentrated in one ship and used for the guidance of neighbouring ships. These possibilities clearly should be explored.

My hon. Friend referred to the production of fish protein concentrate. It may be possible, and indeed desirable, to go somewhat further than that and to meet an animal feeding requirement by tapping the ecological chain at a somewhat lower level, filtering out and processing concentrates of small crustaceans living in the sea, making that the basis of an animal feedingstuff.

A further development is fish farming which might be expected to go beyond the breeding of gourmet varieties to fish of more staple varieties.

It is notable and regrettable that so much of the experience of deep water civil engineering is now concentrated in the United States. This is evident to those who have visited the North Sea oil rigs, the pipe laying barge and so on, from the colossal concentration of American expertise in this connection. Clearly we were right to exploit it where it was available, and we could not conceivably have built up the volume of effort which we have on the Continental Shelf without American technology. Equally clearly, it is a subject in which we should examine the contribution which we can make ourselves.

There is a need for fundamental information about the environment at the bottom of the sea. Here I should like to refer to the project which my hon. Friend mentioned, the Kraken project at Oban. This is an under-sea laboratory parked at a depth of about 90 ft. where scientists will live and work at the pressure of the surrounding environment and will themselves be able to work in conditions which in a sense are more natural and certainly less expensive than those of similar experiments overseas which have gone mainly simply for increased depth without necessarily greater relevance in application. A very large part of the Continental Shelf is at relatively shallow depths—obviously, by definition—and in working at depths of this kind it is useful to have the sort of experience which may be collected from the Kraken exercise.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of undersea mining. The first stage is exploration. Means of coring and sampling the sea floor are a necessary start. There is the possible use of small, cheap manned submarines, the possibility of their independent operation, or, perhaps, more practically, the operation of such submarines at the end of feeder cables.

Clearly, if one is exploring such devices as these the Navy has a very important contribution to make in many cases. Diving is an obvious case. The cheapest way of securing development is often by the adaptation of naval gear. There is a serious lack of manpower for routine diving operations. The glamorous "trouble-shooting" diver is available at a price. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for suggesting that we ought to consider ways of increasing manpower for the more routine tasks.

Some types of undersea mining are achieved already. Gravel is extracted from the sea bed in very large quantities. There are possibilities of a few metal lodes, but probably a more fruitful source of deposits for mining will be horizontal layer deposits. It is known that off the North-East coast there are deep potash beds which could well run out under the sea for considerable distances and be exploitable there. Deep deposits are difficult enough to mine on shore, and probably for some time it will be a matter of land-based shafts leading to underwater galleries going out to sea in the manner of current coalmines, but clearly it would be a mistake to limit the ingenuity of miners in future.

Through the wide range of technology which the Working Party is now exploring we can look for some areas where there is an immediate payoff and where firms will currently have expenditure proposals for projects which they can put to us for Government support. We are beginning to gather the experience, not least in the Programmes Analysis Unit at Harwell, to select particular projects in industry which are worth supporting. It may well be that there are longer term projects which should properly be undertaken within a purely research institute. We shall certainly explore them, including the possibility of international co-operation in a rather more comprehensive programme such as my hon. Friend suggested.

My hon. Friend is aware that there is a major programme in meteorology. The main feature of this programme is that it has a definite objective—to improve weather forecasting. To forecast efficiently, one needs good current recording of a very wide range of meteorological phenomena. This is the basis of a successful international programme. If one has less clearly defined objectives and means of obtaining them, an international programme can be almost destructive of international goodwill. We need to see clearly the objects at which we are aiming and then get on to the stage of proposing international co-operation.

My hon. Friend mentioned legal problems. He is right in stressing their importance. It was the quick and speedy resolution of the legal problems of North Sea oil and gas exploration which led to the quick development of the North Sea. It is equally clear that it is possible to adopt a solution which secures a quick, immediate payoff but possibly at the cost of creating much greater longer term problems such as those we are facing in the North Sea. But this is a question, not for me, but for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power. I take the point in relation to marine technology.

Mr. Dalyell

I ask my hon. Friend for an assurance that he will approach the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers involved with some definite proposals to the United States Government and to the Marine Sciences Council in the United States—the Smithsonian and Woods Hole Institute—about the possibility of a British centre at Aldabra in conjunction with other American projects in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Would my hon. Friend put that case?

Dr. Bray

In so far as this is a question of research, I will draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Science to this proposal and ask him to take the appropriate action. In so far as it is a question of technology, I am sure that it will be covered by the Working Party. If it is not covered, I will draw the attention of the Working Party to this proposal.