HC Deb 02 December 1966 vol 737 cc892-8

Order for Second Reading read.

3.39 p.m.

Sir Clive Bossom (Leominster)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is concerned with the Antarctic. I have not been fortunate enough to visit the Sixth Continent, but I have visited the Arctic. I have long been interested in Antarctic affairs. My interest first arose from the fact that my father gave to the nation the film record of Captain Scott's last expedition, becoming, at the same time, a trustee of the film. It was called "The Epic of the South Pole" and it introduced a new recording technique for polar explorers.

It was the first moving picture which recorded British enterprise, courage and endurance in those cold and distant parts of the earth. It was also the first to show moving pictures of the animals and birds of the Antarctic.

I would like to give a swift bird's eye picture of the Antarctic. It is the size of America and Europe put together. It is a continent of 6 million square miles and has 14,000 miles of coastline. Ninety-nine per cent. of it is buried deep under the ice, which reaches down to a maximum depth of three miles and has an average depth of one mile. It is about the most isolated and the coldest, and it can be the windiest place on earth.

Nevertheless, it has a lot of wild-life. The Antarctic never has any rain and is an extremely healthy place. No cold germs exist there. It has no permanent population. I am told that no child has ever been born there. Nevertheless, this vast Continent has always held a tremendous fascination for me because it has so much of the unknown.

The principal purpose of the Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to approve the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora. A secondary purpose is to give full effect to Article VIIII of the Antarctic Treaty. These two international instruments, the Antarctic Treaty and the Agreed Measures made thereunder, have been made possible by a rather unusual combination of circumstances. During the International Geophysical Year, 1957–58, special efforts were made by a number of nations to further Antarctic scientific research.

This was followed by the drawing up of the Antarctic Treaty, which recognised the importance of scientific co-operation. All the 12 countries which signed the Treaty lend advice and assistance to one another. It allows British, American and Russian "exchanged scientists" to work at one another's bases. The co-ordination of research programmes has continued after the end of the I.G.Y. and has become the responsibility of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, known as SCAR, which has its Secretariat at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

The Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961. It has been acclaimed as a remarkable example of international co-operation. Mr. Peter Scott wrote to me about my Bill and ended his letter by saying: The Antarctic Treaty is one of the most enlightened events in modern history and gives reasonable cause to believe that there is still hope for mankind. I certainly agree entirely with those sentiments.

This Antarctic Treaty recognises that it is in the interests of all mankind that the Antarctic should continue to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord. I have always looked upon the Treaty as a trial run for some of the space problems which will arise when we humans land on the moon. I know that already American scientists are calling for an international agreement. This Antarctic Treaty could be a model for a moon treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty provides for the holding of Consultative Meetings to discuss Antarctic questions and to make recommendations to Governments on a series of matters, including the conservation of living resources. Four Consultative Meetings have been held, at Canberra in 1961, Buenos Aires in 1962, in Brussels in 1964, and last month there was one held at Santiago. The Brussels meeting drew up the Agreed Measures for Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Fauna, with which this Bill is concerned.

The Agreed Measures have been welcomed by scientific bodies in this country, including the British Antarctic Survey, the Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Fauna Preservation Society, and, in addition, they have been welcomed by such international bodies as the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, and the Special Committee for the International Biological Programme.

I should like to say a few words about the wild life which the Agreed Measures and the Bill are designed to protect. At the outset, I should state that whales have been deliberately excluded. The nations concerned with Antarctic whaling are not all signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, while the established forum for the discussion of whaling is the International Whaling Commission. The Bill, therefore, does not affect whaling in any way.

The main species from the point of view of popular interest are seals and penguins. There are six species of seal, including the Crabeater and the Fur Seal. The Crabeater is the commonest, but also the most vulnerable. The Fur Seals were twice nearly wiped out during the nineteenth century, but are at last beginning to recover their former numbers.

Antarctic birds are remarkable in several ways. The list is strikingly short. More than half the breeding species are petrels, and only 15 species breed on the Continent itself. There are four penguin species including the inquisitive, amusing and attractive little Chinstrap penguins. There are six species of petrels, and one other species with the delightful name of the Blue-Eyed Shag.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is life on many of the exposed inland mountains of Antarctica, although it is very scanty. Roughly speaking, we know that if you put a competent zoologist with proper equipment on any large exposed rock area in Antarctica, he would quite likely find life.

Anything can tip the balance of most of the Antarctic fauna, and human influences could easily tip the scale in critical cases. Scientists have discarded the old argument that a species is in no danger because it is still common. Seals, petrels and penguins are especially vulnerable because they concentrate for breeding, sometimes in really vast numbers, on relatively few small island sites, where introduced diseases can have catastrophic results.

Any sudden increase in human activities in places where the fauna have been isolated from outside infection and where there is no rapid bacteriological decomposition means that man may suddenly bring disaster. The natural balance of Antarctic life forms can probably be destroyed even more rapidly than those of temperate regions.

Before the United Kingdom can formally approve the Agreed Measures, new provisions are needed in our law, and that is the principal purpose of the Bill.

A summary of the Clauses of the Bill is given in the Explanatory Memorandum, but, as time is so short, I will not be able to go through them. However, I do want to add that the Bill has an all-party support. Today, the world is in desperate need of drastic conservation measures. I hope that the House will see fit to give the Bill a Second Reading.

3.49 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mrs. Irene White)

I am sure that everyone in the House will join me in congratulating the Member for Leominster (Sir Clive Bossom) on his good fortune in the Ballot and on his choice of subject. He has made it clear in his opening remarks that he takes a real personal interest in the matter, and we are, therefore, especially gratified that he should be able to assist the Government in this case to bring forward legislation for which we have been waiting for some years.

The Antarctic Treaty, from which the Measure before us originates, was signed seven years ago yesterday. Therefore, we are very happy that there is now some prospect of obtaining legislation which will give fuller effect to, and will enable the United Kingdom to play its part in carrying out, the provisions of that Treaty.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the main purpose of the Bill is to enable us to give effect to various agreed recommendations which have been made over a series of meetings held between the Governments concerned so that we may all ensure that proper measures are taken for the conservation of living resources.

There is another important aspect of the Bill, which is to give effect also to the measures which are required for the exercise of jurisdiction in the Antarctic in both the spirit and the letter of the Treaty. Under Article VII of the Treaty, the Government have the right to designate observers to inspect the Antarctic stations of the other contracting parties. This is a very important right which we have exercised. It is designed to ensure that all the provisions of the Treaty are being complied with.

The Treaty also enables the Government to arrange for British scientists to work at the stations of other contracting parties. For example, a British scientist has spent a season working on a Soviet station. Under Article VIII, such British observers and exchanged scientists have to be subject only to their national jurisdiction. This is the purpose of Clause 5 of the Bill, which makes such persons whilst carrying out their functions subject to the law of the United Kingdom.

It is extremely unlikely that observers or exchanged scientists will commit criminal offences while visiting other countries stations, but one has to provide for all eventualities. If the Bill becomes law, the Clause to which I have drawn attention will enable such a person, should he commit such an act, to be prosecuted according to our law on his return to this country. Correspondingly, Article VIII of the Treaty renders him immune from the jurisdiction of the host country, and, therefore, we owe it to the host country to make him subject to our jurisdiction. At present, our powers in these respects are incomplete. The Bill will fill that deficiency and thus ensure that the United Kingdom can carry out fully its international obligations.

I think that the House might be interested to know that we have working in the Antarctic the British Antarctic Survey. This is at present the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and comes under the Dependent Territories Division of the Commonwealth Office. The Government have been giving some consideration to this matter, and feel that it may be more appropriate if the British Antarctic Survey were administered under the general aegis of our civil scientific effort.

Consideration is, therefore, being given to the possible transfer of the Survey from the Dependent Territories Division of the Commonwealth Office to the Natural Environment Research Council for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is responsible. This matter has not yet been finally determined, but I thought that the House might be interested to know that we are considering this possible administrative exchange.

I am advised that the British Antarctic Survey is carrying out very substantial and interesting scientific work in meteorology, upper atmosphere physics, oceanography, hydrography, cartography, glaciology, solid earth physics, and biology. The biological programme is centred in the South Orkney Islands, where a permanent research station was built in 1963. This station is unquestionably the best sited biological laboratory in the Antarctic. It permits critical studies of soil, vegetation, land animals, the freshwater system and the life of the shallow seas, all within a single small area.

The biological work in the United Kingdom is organised through a research unit at Queen Mary College, in London. The British Antarctic Survey has two ships of its own, the Royal Research Ships the "John Biscoe" and the "Shackleton", and it charters one other ship. It has in all six stations in the Antartctic—the one that I have just mentioned in the South Orkney Islands, four in the Antarctic Peninsula area and one on the east coast of the Weddell Sea at Halley Bay. Last year, 82 men wintered at British stations in the Antarctic. Of these there were three scientists to every two technicians, which indicates that the Survey is organised in such a way as to obtain the maximum productivity in terms of scientific results.

The completion of the Antarctic scientific field work in the United Kingdom is organised from four research units attached to the Universities of Birmingham, which is concerned with geology, Edinburgh, which is concerned with geophysics, London, at Queen Mary College, which is concerned with biology, and the University of Cambridge, which is concerned with glaciology. So it is quite clear that we in the United Kingdom take a very active interest in the research.

We are by no means the only country concerned, and in terms of the legislation which is before us this afternoon I should tell the House that four States—Argentina, Norway, South Africa and the Soviet Union—have already approved the Agreed Measures to which the Bill will give effect. I understand that France has also recently passed legislation.

We are, therefore, particularly glad to have the opportunity this afternoon—although admittedly very briefly—to give effect also to measures which have been agreed after the most careful preparation and consultation among the international scientists, the academic research bodies and the universities which are concerned. The Third Consultative Meeting, at Brussels in June, 1964, was the occasion for drawing up the final measures included in the Bill. There is provision in the Bill for further legislation by Order should it be required. The next Consultative Meeting will be held in Paris in 1968, and if further measures are required, powers are taken under the Bill to put them into effect.

I am sure that there are certain points of legal interest which hon. Members on both sides of the House may wish to discuss in Committee, but I hope that there will be no disagreement with the principle of the Bill, which the Government are happy to accept. We shall do our best to see that it has fair progress and I very much hope that the House will be willing to give it a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).