HC Deb 13 December 1983 vol 50 cc969-76

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

1.9 am

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

At this early hour of the morning, I feel a little hesitant about raising the important subject of the United Kingdom's attitude to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but that is the way in which the House works, or fails to work.

My interest in the matter is well known to the House. I served on the Committee dealing with the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981. I have consulted a large number of people on the matter. However, the views that I express are mine and thus unencumbered by departmental or other interests. I do not wish to be personally offensive to the Minister, but I doubt whether he will express views that are as unencumbered or whether he will express the views of the majority of Government Departments or involved United Kingdom interests. I suspect that the House will hear not the Minister's views but the views of the Prime Minister and one or two individuals supported by some mining groups.

As the House knows, on 10 December 1982 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was opened for signature. The Prime Minister remarked recently on the difficulties of getting 10 nations to see eye to eye. How much more difficult it is, therefore, to obtain agreement among over 100 nations. It is a measure of the achievement of the United Nations that on the first day when the treaty was opened for signature, 119 nations signed—a record in international legal history.

However, among the nations withholding signatures were the United Kingdom and the United States and some other industrialised nations, including the Soviet Union. In a statement to the House on 2 December 1982, the Minister made it plain that the Government's major objection related to part XI of the treaty, dealing with the regime for seabed mining. Countering the point that I made, the Minister said: American and British companies must speak for themselves. I am not aware of any public statements that they have made in the United States, in Europe or elsewhere in which they have called for the proposals of the law of the sea convention to be accepted by nation States." — [Official Report, 2 December 1982; Vol. 33, c. 408.] The operative word is "public". The Minister must have known or been aware of a closed meeting that took place at Lancaster House in early November 1982. I suspect that he attended it.

The minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I chaired the meeting.

Mr. Douglas

Such are the guarded statements of lawyers, particularly Scottish lawyers.

The minister said that he was not aware of any public statements. That is true—there was no public statement. At the meeting, which the hon. Gentleman chaired, a number of parties were invited to put their views to a committee of Ministers drawn from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Energy, the Department of Trade and the Treasury. A reliable commentary on the proceedings suggests that both Shell and British Petroleum, which have relationships with consortia associated with investigations of the ocean bed's mineral resources, were in favour of the United Kingdom signing the treaty. Also in favour were the General Council of British Shipping and the Advisory Committee on the Pollution of the Sea, and, although less prominently involved, Brindex also supported the general line. Opposing, it is suggested, were Rio Tinto Zinc, Consolidated Goldfields and organisations representing British patent holders' interests. Last but not least was British Steel, in the person of Mr. Ian MacGregor. It seems that virtually all the Departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Energy and the Ministry of Defence, were in favour of signing. It appears that the major stumbling block came from the then Department of Industry, the views of which reflected mining interests and those of Mr. MacGregor

Mr. MacGregor is a Scot by birth but an American by choice. His views on this matter reflect doctrinaire United States opinion rather than the wider concerns of the United Kingdom. It is perhaps surprising that he has such a ready listener in the Prime Minister. A possible reason for that is that they share a detestation of possible enterprise and thus consider that the International Sea Bed Authority, as proposed by part XI of the treaty, would be public enterprise writ large on the international scene. I shall not suggest that the International Sea Bed Authority and other provisions of part XI are perfect. Some aspects of it might be altered but I am willing to go into more detail on that when time permits.

The prime Minister has expressed doctrinaire views on the matter in the House. The suggestion that opposition to the treaty arises because of the seabed mining provision does not gel when we consider the whole treaty. We see from the introduction that the United Nations regards the treaty as a package deal.

Perhaps wiser spirits are guiding the Government as they have adopted a much more cautious approach The line seems to be that we have signed the final Act and therefore we can take part in the work of the preparatory commission, albeit without a vote, and, at all events, the treaty remains open for signature for two years. We have a two-pronged or dual approach to the problem.

Commercial and defence shipping will obtain the necessary protection through customary law. That will protect non-contracting states. However, the General Council of British Shipping, the views of which ought to weigh heavily with the Government, does not share that view. It lists the provisions on freedom of navigation and pollution and agrees that they are considerably in advance of the present regime for several reasons. First, it establishes the width of the territorial sea at 12 miles. Secondly, it defines innocent passage and makes it clear that coastal states cannot make regulations with regard to design, construction, and equipment and manning which affect foreign ships in innocent passage unless they are implementing international agreements. Thirdly, it sets up a regime for straits. Fourthly, it establishes a regime for archipelagos. Fifthly, it provides sanctions for pollution offences to financial penalties except in circumstances of wilful and substantial pollution in the territorial sea. Sixthly, it imposes duties on states to preserve the marine environment.

The council concluded that, while some aspects of the treaty might take an international norm, most of the important points that I have mentioned would nor. It said: If there is no convention, there will be no beneficial development and we can expect unilateral legislation, lacking the balance obtained by negotiation. The council strongly recommends signature and eventual ratification of the Treaty. Enlightened opinion in the United States is that that country is making a mistake in not signing the treaty. Elliot Richardson, former United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, said recently: The real importance of the Law of the Sea Convention cannot be found either in the sum of its parts or in its extraordinarily comprehensive whole. It lies rather in its demonstration of the capacity of 160 sovereign states to work out accommodations among vital competing interests. This is an achievement whose significance will loom even larger as the world increasingly finds itself forced to come to grips with its own inseparability. Both Elliot Richardson and, in his own way, Leigh S. Ratiner, have unique experience of these negotiations, and, as the latter said: the guardians of pure conservative ideology may have won a battle when the United States stood alone at the Law of the Sea Conference, but the United States may lose a very important war. My concern is that the United Kingdom, through the Prime Minister's adherence to such ideology, may involve us also in the loss. This is a package deal, and the Government must answer the following questions. First, why are we alienating international opinion? The vast majority of Commonwealth members have signed the convention, and may move towards ratification. We are alienating international and political opinion.

Secondly, what are the advantages attached to our trying to go it alone, albeit proceeding towards a mini treaty for seabed mining operations, based on ourselves and other nations having independent legislation? I have asked several questions about the legislation, and I have received cryptic and corrected answers.

A letter dated 17 November from the Overseas Development Administration states: Applications for licences have been received under this Act. But for the time being, both for technical and for economic reasons, no one is commercially exploiting the seabed either under national legislation or under the Convention. Although I recognise that we are dealing with future developments, I do not envisage any company risking economic, financial and technical resources to exploit the deep ocean bed purely because of the legislation of individual nations. We are aligning ourselves with the United States for reasons that are difficult to grasp. I argue that it is against our national advantage to do so.

We are alienating international opinion and proceeding in a way which is inimical to our economic position. Moreover, we are a major maritime nation, and there is no guarantee that we would continue to enjoy the so-called customary and conventional rights of passage which we have enjoyed, especially the passage through various straits, if we did not sign the convention.

I appreciate that the Minister will argue and suggest that we are doing well in the preparatory commission, and that we are influencing events, but it would be much better if we signed the convention and took a full part in the preparatory commission. In those circumstances, our persuasive voice would be heard all the more.

To sign the treaty would be to the United Kingdom's best advantage. Much has been heard from the Prime Minister and from Conservative Members about adhering to the domestic rule of law. I challenge the Government to adhere to the international rule of law, to support the principles of international law and the common heritage of mankind and to sign the convention and thus ratify the treaty.

1.18 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) on his good fortune in having this subject chosen for debate, even if it is at such an unfortunate hour.

The hon. Gentleman began by expressing interest as to whose views I would be putting forward. The views that I shall express will be mine. It so happens that they coincide with the views of the Government, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman is entitled to assume that they coincide with the views of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am sure that the House would take great pleasure in such a happy combination of circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a remark that I made when making the statement to the House on 2 December 1982. He questioned my justification for saying that I was not aware of any public statements that had been made in support of signing the convention. He then chose to quote from what he perceived to be a discussion at Lancaster House. He will appreciate that that is an important location for great occasions.

However, if the hon. Gentleman re-reads what I said on 2 December 1982, he will see that I was saying that no deep seabed mining companies had shown any enthusiasm for the convention or any desire to see it signed. I was not suggesting then, and am not suggesting now, that there are not other interests, and possibly other companies not involved in seabed mining, that might wish to see the convention signed for their own reasons. However, there is no reason to qualify in any way at this stage what I said then, which was that that does not apply to those companies that might be or have been involved in anything connected with seabed mining.

Mr. Douglas

The Minister should not be so evasive. Which seabed mining consortia were present at Lancaster House?

Mr. Rifkind

I am not prepared to give the hon. Gentleman details of private meetings, and he should not expect me to do so. If he thinks that he has good sources of information on the subject, he can quote them. I shall be even more explicit. I am not aware of any companies involved in deep seabed mining that have said either publicly or privately that they wish to see the convention signed. I have made that clear to the hon. Gentleman.

The Government's view has been quite clear from the beginning. We would have liked to see a convention that not only met our own requirements and which we could have signed but which would attract an international consensus and could therefore have been endorsed by the international community. However, that did not prove possible, not just because of ourselves or the United States of America but because a very significant number of countries felt unable to sign the convention.

The hon. Gentleman made various references to particular interests that have shown their support for the convention. That does not come as a surprise to me or to the House. I mentioned that in the statement that I made on 2 December 1982. I said that there was a significant number of provisions in the convention that were acceptable to the United Kingdom, and that parts of the convention, for example those relating to navigation, the continental shelf and pollution, were helpful. I ended my initial remarks by saying: I should emphasise to the House that we could not participate in the seabed regime on the present terms and for that reason we could not ratify the convention unless the provisions for the deep sea mining regime become satisfactory."—[Official Report, 2 December 1982; Vol. 33, c. 404.] Therefore, the Government have made it abundantly clear from the beginning that we do not in any way question that there are parts of the convention that are helpful and are certainly acceptable. If that was all that we had to decide about, we would have been happy to sign the convention. However, we have made it clear that the provisions on deep seabed mining do not fall into that category, are fundamentally unacceptable and unattractive to the Government, and that as we have no choice but to sign the convention as a whole—we cannot sign parts of it and decline to accede to others — and attach importance to the seabed mining provisions, we have been unable to sign.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is already aware of those aspects of the seabed mining regime that we found unattractive. There are several of them, but I shall briefly mention one or two. The provisions involve the establishment of an international seabed authority. It is a substantial and expensive bureaucratic structure that would involve particularly industrialised countries such as the United Kingdom in very substantial initial capital expenditure and continuing expenditure on items that relate not to the enterprise's profitability but simply to the creation of a major international organisation that would no doubt provide large-scale employment for those administering it but which would not have any direct impact on the profitability of deep seabed mining. That is a major problem. Thus the bureaucracy and the expense should be borne in mind.

It has been clearly demonstrated by the relatively small number of companies and countries that would take part in deep seabed mining that they regard the provisions as being a profound disincentive to making the massive investment required if deep seabed mining is ever to become a reality.

The hon. Gentleman made great play about the large number of countries that had signed the convention. He will be aware that a high proportion of them are either landlocked, with no direct interest in the law of the sea as such——

Mr. Douglas


Mr. Rifkind

—or they are countries which, for the most part, do not have either the will or the ability to involve themselves——

Mr. Douglas

New Zealand.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman should allow me to finish my remarks as I allowed him to finish his—or they are countries which, for the most part, do not have either the will or the ability to involve themselves in deep seabed mining. They have no price to pay. They would be the beneficiaries of the activities of other countries' companies and industrial structures.

Mr. Douglas


Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, he knows the normal procedure for doing so.

Mr. Douglas

We have heard these arguments before. We heard them during the debate on the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Bill. The countries preparing the convention in a way covered them because in terms of initial investment massive compensation and "privilege" is given to the consortia and the nation states which embark on the technological innovation of deep-sea mining. That is the provision of the treaty at present.

Mr. Rifkind

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I should apologise for the fact that he has heard the arguments before. The hon. Gentleman has put his case before. I plead guilty to consistency because it would be rather astonishing if I gave completely different answers from the ones that he has had before to exactly the same questions. I do not think that he would consider that a more satisfactory response than the one he is presently receiving.

These are factors of major importance which have led to most of the countries concerned—even some of those that have signed the convention—making it abundantly clear that they have not the slightest intention of ratifying it unless there are major changes. The United Kingdom Government, as a matter of general principle, do not believe it right and proper to sign an international agreement unless they expect to be able to ratify it at the end of the day.

Mr. Douglas


Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman may intervene if he wishes, but he should let me make my speech in my own way.

A number of other Governments do not approach these matters in the same way. They feel able to sign conventions or international treaties even when they have come to a view that it is improbable or impossible that they will ultimately ratify unless there are major changes. We believe it wrong to approach matters in that way. We believe it right to sign a convention only if we expect to ratify when ratification becomes appropriate.

Not only the points that I have mentioned led o the Government's decision. There are also the provisions on the transfer of technology which are unattractive to industry and which the hon. Gentleman appears to acknowledge as being an important and relevant consideration. There is the provision about the review conference after 15 years that could lead to even some of the safeguards and some of the concessions that were made during the convention being overruled and replaced irrespective of the wishes of those countries that will be involved in deep seabed mining operations. This adds up to a package of disagreeable and unattractive provisions, unnecessarily bureaucratic and extremely expensive for those countries that will be involved. That is an important consideration which we have had to bear in mind.

Both this evening and on previous occasions the hon. Gentleman has suggested that the United Kingdom, in deciding not to sign the convention, was motivated solely by its desire to be in step with the United States of America and that this is the sinister explanation, irrespective of the arguments that may be used. Not only the United Kingdom but a total of 37 countries have refused or declined to sign the convention. Although some of them are allies of the United States, I think that the hon. Gentleman would be unwise to suggest that this is the dominant criterion. He may like to know that among the countries that have so far declined to sign the convention are Albania, Libya and Syria—not countries that one automatically thinks of as being anxious to appease the United States and to be in step with its foreign policy.

As I have said, 37 countries have declined to sign the convention. They include half the European Community — major countries such as the Federal German Republic, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy. These countries have not decided irrespective of the arguments to be in step with the United States.

I am sad to say that there is no consensus. A number of countries have concluded — some because of the seabed provisions and some because of other considerations relevant to them—that they cannot identify with the convention in its present form.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West asked why we were alienating international opinion. There is no single international opinion on such a matter. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to criticise the United Kingdom if we took the view that what he calls international opinion was more important than the United Kingdom's national interest. Each country which signed the convention perceived that it was in its national interest to be in favour of such action.

Mr. Douglas

How does the United Kingdom get the advantages of the major provisions in the treaty, particularly in relation to the seagoing aspects, without signing the convention?

Mr. Rifkind

Signing the convention does not give any rights. Only when the convention is ratified are rights given. It is an important distinction. There is no question of the convention being ratified for some time. About 60 countries must ratify the convention before it comes into force. So far, fewer than a dozen countries have ratified. The countries which ratify will have to take into account the major financial burden that will fall upon them. That will be an important consideration. A number of countries which have signed the convention have said that they are unlikely to ratify unless major changes are made.

We do not lose any opportunities, even if substantial, unless and until the convention is ratified. That is not likely to be in the immediate future. Customary provisions continue to apply not only to the United Kingdom but to the international community.

There are some doubts about the question of navigation. We find the convention helpful in that it clarifies the provisions and removes the doubt. If that could be taken in isolation, it would justify signature, but it is not the end of the world if we are unable to take advantage of the provisions because the customary law will continue to apply. For the most part it meets our requirements.

We have not boycotted the convention, unlike the United States, which has refused even to send observers to the preparatory commission in which we are playing an important part. We hope that in time states which have signed the convention will show a willingness to consider significant changes to the seabed mining regime. Perhaps we are aiming at an unrealisable objective, but that is our objective. The United Kingdom, half the Community and many other states are hoping that this is the best way to make progress.

I do not disagree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said about the other aspects of the convention. If that is his only case, he is knocking at an open door and there is no disagreement. We must either accept the convention in full or decline to accept it. For the reasons that I have explained——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes to Two o'clock.