HC Deb 13 June 1990 vol 174 cc280-2
9. Mr. Kirkwood

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has had expressing concern about non-scientific activities in the British Antarctic territory.

10. Sir Russell Johnston

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what measures he is taking to ensure that the environment is protected in Antarctica.

Mr. Sainsbury

We have received representations from many hon. Members and members of the public. We fully support and comply with the relevant obligations under the Antarctic treaty system and the Antarctic minerals convention, which offer the best possible means of protecting the Antarctic environment.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does the Minister accept that any commercial exploitation of mineral reserves in Antarctica would cause intolerable environmental damage? Does he agree that the Government's position to date will have the practical effect of allowing industrial diggers to slip in via the back door? Will he give the House a categorical assurance that he will support the creation of a world park for Antarctica to give some protection to that last unspoilt corner of the planet?

Mr. Sainsbury

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has not studied either the provisions of the minerals convention, the history which led to its being on the table, or the widespread support for it of most of the nations that are parties to the Antarctic treaty. Our objective is to achieve the best possible protection for the Antarctic environment. In the absence of a minerals convention, there is nothing to protect the Antarctic against mineral exploitation and exploration. I hope that the hon. Gentleman wants that protection to be in place as soon as possible.

Sir Russell Johnston

Does the Minister accept that we have before us a proposal from the French and Australian Governments for a wilderness reserve and a proposal from the West German Government for a 50-year moratorium? Both are enlightened and workable solutions. Why do not we support them? Is not it time that we were on the side of the goodies just for once?

Mr. Sainsbury

I repeat my answer to the hon. Gentleman. If he studied the history of the Antarctic treaty system and the protection that it has provided to the Antarctic for 30 years, and if he would realise that it has taken about 10 years to arrive at an agreement on the minerals convention—in the absence of a minerals convention there would be no protection for the Antarctic environment—he would surely welcome that convention coming into force as soon as possible. We can move on from that to a comprehensive further package of environmental protection which we look forward to discussing at the next meeting in Santiago later this year. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that other proposals that have been put on the table by no means command unanimous support and, therefore, cannot be implemented. In the absence of the implementation of such proposals, surely a minerals convention that can command support is worth having.

Mr. Hill

Does my hon. Friend agree that we must not have the sort of deadlock that occurred over the problem of fishing for whales when almost all the whales in the southern hemisphere were slaughtered? I fully realise that my hon. Friend will take a compassionate view of this matter because we are the party of environmental protection. This could be the first major environmental issue for the Conservative party. There must be a compromise. Some part of Antarctica must be preserved for nature and for future generations.

Mr. Sainsbury

I assure my hon. Friend that the minerals convention provides the strictest regime of environmental protection anywhere in the world. It is by no means a charter to allow the exploration or exploitation of mineral resources. Indeed, it is not known whether there are substantial mineral resources in Antarctica. The convention provides for exploration to be carried out only with the consensus of the parties to the Antarctic treaty, who would give priority to ensuring that environmental protection was built into any action that might be taken.

Mr. Summerson

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the minerals convention is not supported, the Antarctic treaty system may collapse? If that happens, the whole continent of Antarctica will be open to exploitation by other countries.

Mr. Sainsbury

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure that we all agree—at least I hope we do—that it would be disastrous if the Antarctic treaty system collapsed, especially given its success over the past 30 years in providing protection to the Antarctic, keeping peace in the region and eliminating territorial disputes. The minerals convention would add substantially to the protection of the Antarctic environment. I hope that we shall see its early agreement and then move to a comprehensive package of environmental protection.

Mr. Foulkes

Why does not the Minister now accept that, as we predicted when we opposed the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989, Australia, France, New Zealand and other countries will never sign the minerals convention because it is a prospectors' charter? Therefore, at the very least, at Santiago in November will the Minister support the German compromise for a long-term moratorium on mineral prospecting in Antarctica? If he does not, the United Kingdom will once again be totally isolated and the Prime Minister's "green mantle" will be shown up for the fraud that it is.

Mr. Sainsbury

I seem to remember that the attitude of the Labour party to that Act was inconsistent. It changed its mind during the Act's passage. The hon. Gentleman seems to have overlooked the fact that 19 countries support the minerals convention. Therefore, it is wrong to talk about isolation and even more in error to refer to the minerals convention—which, as I said, provides the most stringent regime of environmental protection anywhere in the world—as in any way a charter for mineral exploitation.