HC Deb 26 April 1991 vol 189 cc1398-406

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

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister for Health rose to her feet and said a few words, but declined to continue. Will you inform Mr. Speaker that a Minister was here but, on the advice of another Minister, decided to keep her mouth shut instead of being accountable to Parliament. The Minister was attempting to contribute. Perhaps that will help Mr. Speaker to make up his mind to accept an application for a debate.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Mr. Speaker is aware of what takes place in the Chamber. Hon. Members are now taking time from the Adjournment debate. I hope that they understand their responsibility in making points of order at this stage.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have dealt with all the points of order relating to that.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)


Madam Deputy Speaker

Is it a fresh point of order?

Mr. Gale

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It must be a matter for the record that the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was a travesty. My hon. Friend the Minister for Health was prepared to speak, but you, Madam Deputy Speaker, ruled her out of order.

Mr. Simon Hughes

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to say that I shall block all Government business until we have a statement about Guy's hospital.

2.43 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The subject that I am raising is of great importance both to what goes on in the House and to the views of millions of people around the country. More significantly, we are at the apex of a decision about the future of one of the world's last great wilderness areas—the Antarctic.

The British Government's role in the discussions about the future of the Antarctic is not only less than helpful, but positively dangerous for the protection of a fragile ecosystem whose destruction would have enormous consequences for the whole world. We have an opportunity to make a decision that the great wilderness area should be declared a wilderness park for the benefit of all humankind. In doing so, we could show our concern to preserve the wilderness area. Alternatively, we can go down the road of smash, grab and destroy, to which the minerals exploration charter, which the British Government are pursuing, would lead us.

The Antarctic has fascinated many people over many centuries. One of the greatest poems in English, "The Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describes the voyage of Captain Cook in which he discovered for Europeans much of the Antarctic. Coleridge gives a brilliant description of the fragile ecosystem in the Antarctic. He writes And ice, mast-high, came floating by, As green as emerald. That is an evocative description of a beautiful and wild place.

Tragically, Captain Cook, although a wonderful ecologist who sought to preserve the ecosystems that he discovered and whose writings sought to preserve what he recognised, was killed because of a misunderstanding in the Pacific. Unfortunately, his discovery of channels into the Antarctic led to the destruction of many of the sea mammals there. It led to the whaling industry, which came mainly from Britain. The carnage of the whales of the Antarctic followed and the subsequent damage to the water ecosystem was incalculable. Some of the damage has been repaired by the growth of fish stocks but the whale is still, tragically, a seriously endangered species. The world is at last waking up to the wondrous nature of the whale and to the need to preserve it. However, we must recognise that in our destruction of the whale population, we are destroying one of the largest and most intelligent mammals on this planet. If we continue that destruction, it will lead to the whale's extinction. There is a lesson for us in our treatment of the whale and especially of the huge blue whale. If we allow that treatment to continue, we shall contribute to the destruction of the whole continent of Antarctica.

The history of the Antarctic reveals the acquisitive nature of mankind, which has gone to the area to take from it and to destroy it. However, some have sought to recognise the beauty of Antarctica and to preserve it. Others have sought to exploit it for the potential mineral wealth beneath it. We must recognise that much of the scientific work there has been valuable. Joe Farman's discovery with the British Antarctic Survey of the existence of the hole in the ozone layer was possible only because scientific research was being undertaken in the Antarctic. I stress that it was scientific and not commercial research. Similarly the discovery through drilling into the ice cap of the levels of impurity in the world's atmosphere 100 years ago, 500 years ago and 1,000 years ago was possible only because the Antarctic is an area of peace and of scientific discovery and because it is not an area of commercial exploitation—yet.

We should recognise that if we do not protect what is there, we are destroying not only an ecosystem, but the possibility of discovering more of the damage that human activity has already done to the world's environment—the air and the seas. We shall pollute and destroy for ever something that is incredibly beautiful and incredibly fragile. Antarctica is a dry place and a fragile ecosystem which is easily destroyed.

A fuel oil spill from a survey ship that was minor by world standards did enormous damage in the Antarctic. Damage has been caused through the construction of runways and bases and the bad management of some of the bases has also caused great damage. We should think of the consequences of the Exxon Valdez disaster, which was terrible for Alaska. We should think of the damage caused to the Gulf by the oil spills, which continue. If we translate that to the coldest part of the world, we find that there is less natural biodegradable action by the sea to resurrect what was there.

The Antarctic is a fragile place. That concern about the fragility of its environment led to expeditions and explorations and finally to the 1959 treaty, which was a remarkable document for its time. That treaty was signed at the height of the cold war by many nations which recognised the Antarctic as a place of peace, of scientific exploration and of the free movement and publication of all information discovered there.

But there have been ominous movements in recent years, leading up to the minerals convention of 1988. Those ominous movements saw the Antarctic not as a place of scientific research—a place to be preserved for its wonder and beauty for future generations—but as a place from which minerals could be exploited.

The British Government led the way in promoting the minerals convention and put through the House the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989, which included some fundamental changes in policy towards the Antarctic. I will explain two of those changes. For the first time, it was said that the exploration of minerals in the Antarctic could take place for commercial purposes and that the information gained from the exploration, being of commercial value, should be in the ownership of the mineral or oil company. Once we allow the exploration of potential mineral resources, as sure as night follows day, those who have invested millions in that exploration will want to exploit those resources.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the commitment and knowledge that he showed during the passage of that measure. I assure him that there is a fundamental divide between the Front Benches on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made it clear in Madrid on the eve of the conference that the Labour party agreed that this last wilderness should be a world park and that the next Labour Government would not be in any way bound by what the British Government decided at the Madrid conference. It is crystal clear that the position of the Government—what can only be described as a messy compromise—is unsustainable and has been fatally holed by the move by Japan announced earlier this week.

Mr. Corbyn

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which underlines the importance that the Opposition parties place on Antarctica. We believe that an incoming Labour Government would support the idea of a world wilderness park and would not allow the headlong rush, which the British and American Governments seem keen to pursue, in favour of the minerials convention and the environmental destruction that will result.

When the Antarctic Minerals Act first appeared in the House from the other place, little interest was shown in it, either in Parliament or outside. I strongly compliment the work of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in promoting discussion and understanding about the issue, resulting in the avalanche of letters that hon. Members have received. As a result, the Antarctic is, and will remain, a major issue and a crucial decision must now be taken.

The British Government's role in all this resulted in support for the CRAMRA initiative—the convention and the regulation of Antarctic mineral resource activities. When we promoted the idea of a world park in Committee and on the Floor of the House when the 1989 measure was debated, the Government said that the world park idea had little support and that its creation was not possible. They thought that the only way to protect the Antarctic was by the minerals convention.

I do not accept that. No one nation should seek to grab parts of the Antarctic for itself. An examination of the map of the area reveals that an amazing series of conflicting territorial demands are being made. Chile claims one bit, Argentina another, while another part is claimed by both. The United States claims some, as does Britain, and the list goes on. Virtually every piece of land that forms the Antarctic is claimed by some country.

We cannot allow the idea of territorial claims to get in the way of what must be done to protect the area. Nor can we hand the future of the Antarctic over to the world's oil and mineral companies. It must be settled on an international basis, and the only way to do that is to accept that it is a zone of peace, of non-military activity and of scientific research, so long as all the results of that research are published. Once we allow the idea of commercial ownership of the results of research to enter into the matter, we face serious problems.

At the conference in Vina del Mar in Chile last year, the British Government pursued their idea of a minerals convention, for which there was some support and some opposition. Thankfully, that conference did not decide to support the minerals convention or mineral exploration. Instead, its delegates deferred decision for an environmental assessment, largely promoted by the then Government of Chile, to the Madrid conference which is now taking place.

Matters have changed dramatically at the Madrid conference. Far from being alone and isolated, as New Zealand and Australia were to begin with in their support of world park, their proposal has now come much more into the mainstream of discussion. New Zealand and Australia fully support the idea of a world park, as do a number of other countries, including France. That is important because the power of those countries in support of that idea are considerable.

A large majority of countries have basically supported the notion of a world park or, at least, a long moratorium on mining activities. That majority includes the Soviet Union, which now appears, in the words of President Gorbachev, to support the idea of the protection and preservation of the continent rather than its destruction and exploitation. Among those countries which apparently have the least concern for the environment of the Antarctic are Britain and the United States. It is important that the British Government put on record today their exact intention and what they are doing at the Madrid conference.

The case for a world park is overwhelming. If we turn our backs on the idea of a world park, we shall get mineral exploration, with companies rushing in in Klondike-like competition—perhaps not this year or next year, but in five or 10 years' time. Those companies will be more concerned about what they can get out of the ground of the Antarctic than about protection of the fish stocks, the atmosphere and the land on which they are working. First and foremost at stake for those companies will be commercial interests, and scientific research will take second place. Research into the effects of the pollution of the air over centuries is not of commercial interest, whereas the exploration of oil, coal, manganese, tin and other minerals is. Therefore, there will be a gradual twist and the destruction will continue for a long time.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is not there a risk of military conflict arising if there are disagreements about the claims made under the minerals convention?

Mr. Corbyn

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point because, while the 1959 treaty debars military activity and the deployment of forces in the Antarctic, it is unclear who could give the authority for mineral exploration. Clearly, national Governments would want to support what they would perceive to be the interests of nationally owned or nationally recognised oil and mineral exploration companies. Then the potential danger of military action in the Antarctic, which my right hon. Friend rightly exposed, becomes a much more serious threat.

My case is perfectly simple and is, I believe, strongly and widely supported by millions of people around the country. The executive director of Greenpeace, Lord Melchett, sent a letter to a Foreign Office Minister this week stating: In your letter to MPs on 25 March 1991, you said: 'We now believe that consensus may be achieved through a moratorum on mineral prospecting and exploitation activities and we intend to promote this with our Treaty partners.'In fact, in Madrid, your representative said in his opening statement to the meeting, that the UK Government's preferred position was to see the minerals regime, CRAMRA, enter speedily into force, that the Government believe an unqualified ban on mining is irrational, and that you are upset at the rejection by other nations of the minerals regime. The letter concludes: Further, if you are genuinely interested in consensus, I challenge you to say that you welcome the Japanese change of heart, and their statement that: It is important that all the Consultative Parties undertake strenuous efforts to reach consensus on the regulation of mineral resources activities at the Madrid meeting. Based on this consideration, the delegation of Japan is now in favour of a prohibition of mineral resource activities … (for) an indefinite period. Millions in this country and many more around the world see that as a decision of great importance, because we are saying that we can no longer look on every corner of the world as a place to exploit for minerals. Instead, we should look to stop, protect and learn from what is there. People see the Madrid conference as a possibility of the world turning a corner on environmental and ecological issues. The Government are among those who are obstructing the wishes of millions of people to preserve Antarctica as a wilderness park for future generations. I hope that the opportunity provided by this debate will persuade the Government to say that they, like the Japanese, have had a change of heart and will now support the concept of a world wilderness park in Antarctica.

3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on raising this subject, about which he knows a great deal, at this timely moment. As he said, the meeting in Madrid that is considering these matters will continue until 30 April. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall move rather fast, as I wish to put the Government's position on the records before I sit down.

The future of Antarctica is a matter of considerable and justifiable public concern, with which the Government are in full accord. The meeting in Madrid will be an important stage in developing a consensus for the protection of Antarctica. I emphasise the word "consensus" because there can be no way forward without consensus. It is from that premise that our policy on Antarctica stems.

Our exploration and scientific work in the area is second to none. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have been involved in that part of the world for many years. Britain was first involved this century in 1908, and we were prominent in the drafting of the Antarctic treaty, which came into force in 1961, and to which the hon. Gentleman paid tribute. That treaty forms the heart of the Antarctic treaty system that manages, by consensus, all Antarctic affairs. It developed as a mechanism to deal with the escalating quarrels about the exercise of sovereignty in the Antarctic following the second world war. Its achievements have been substantial. Geo-strategic and sovereignty considerations together with super-power rivalry, were all factors that the treaty system had to encompass and tame.

Mr. Corbyn


Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I shall give way, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not seek to intervene again.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Government now give an undertaking to release to the Public Record Office all Cabinet discussion documents relating to mineral exploration and military activities in the Antarctic, rather than hiding behind the 50-year rule, as they are now doing?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The hon. Gentleman takes me by surprise. I cannot give such an undertaking—indeed, it would not be possible to do so in an Adjournment debate.

Later, the treaty also had to weather the conflicts that emerged in the north-south domain with proposals that would allow the continent to be exploited. For 30 years, it has proved itself effective in fulfilling its objectives. As an example of long-term international co-operation and collaboration, it is unparalled. For that reason, the maintenance of the Antarctic treaty system is the cornerstone of British policy in Antarctica.

For much of the treaty's 30-year existence, public interest in Antarctica has been limited, while a good deal of valuable work has been carried out by scientists, especially in the conservation of marine resources. The hon. Gentleman touched on that. We both know that the situation has changed dramatically. Public opinion is now seized of the importance for the whole world of Antarctica. Much of that attention is due to the excellent scientific work of the British Antarctic Survey. We know that the existence of the hole in the ozone layer was first brought to the attention of the world by that survey. Britain has long foreseen the need for environmental protection in Antarctica.

Although the environmental provisions in the existing Antarctic treaty system are far reaching, we believe that they need further strengthening to bring them into line with what we now know about environmental protection. We also recognise that a number of threats to Antarctica need to be dealt with as a priority. That includes not only mineral activity, although that aspect has now taken the limelight and is the focus of public attention. Debates on a ban on mineral activities failed to lead to agreement amongst Antarctic treaty consultative parties, and so later we were one of the prime movers in proposing a convention on minerals to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

In supporting the minerals convention, we argued against those who wished to retain the right to mine unilaterally and insisted that there were strict environmental safeguards. That was the purpose of our being involved in proposing the convention.

Six years later as the hon. Gentleman said, the convention was adopted by consensus after hard negotiation. We considered it to be a breakthrough. The convention was signed by 19 countries, including the United Kingdom, and would have prohibited the exploration and development of mining in Antarctica, unless agreed by all parties. In effect, it would have been an indefinite ban on mining, since any member could have vetoed indefinitely any application to mine.

However, it is now recognised that we are in a different position and we wish to pursue consensus. By imposing a legal framework to deal with any application for mineral activity that might be approved, those 19 countries which had signed the convention believed that the door had been opened just enough to encourage countries that might consider mineral exploration at some time in the future to abide by the rules. The signatories believed that a simple no to any mineral activity permanently would be in danger of being ignored completely, leading to an unregulated free-for-all. However, we now accept that there will not be a consensus on the basis of that convention and, as we wish to seek consensus, we are prepared to consider other ideas. As the hon. Gentleman said, just one year later, a number of countries, following Australia and France, announced that they would not sign.

For that reason, we moved quickly to call a meeting to discuss comprehensive measures for the protection of the Antarctic environment. The first session of meetings on this subject was held initially in Chile last November. The second is the current meeting in Madrid.

At the meeting in Chile, we proposed an environmental protocol to the Antarctic treaty, which was to form a broad framework on environmental protection, to be supplemented by annexes dealing with individual topics. This was to deal with the most immediate problems. Our environmental protocol approach was the one which found favour with the majority of the delegations. For it is of gravest concern to us and to them that significant progress should be made on the threats from marine pollution, tourism and waste disposal. The hon. Gentleman mentioned damage to that delicate environment caused by oil pollution, and I entirely endorse what he said.

The British Antarctic Survey is also involved in an extensive clean-up of British bases—no mean feat when wastes accumulated over many years, in the days when everyone was less environmentally aware. Little publicity is given to the efforts of the British Antarctic Survey in cleaning up Antarctica, but on this question also Britain's record is second to none. When compared with all those immediate threats of pollution to the Antarctic environment, the threat from mineral activity begins to take on a less immediate perspective.

The exploitation of minerals, if it is ever to take place, is for the far future, for no one knows whether there are any viable mineral deposits in Antarctica. No one knows whether they can mine, no one has the technology and no one has yet shown any inclination to do so. We always recognised that the discovery of abundant minerals in Antarctica would have a profound effect on the operation of the Antarctic treaty. Those countries that now demand a permanent ban on mining, but one supported by no legal safety net in the event of its collapse, are threatening the Antarctic treaty system. It is this weakening of that system that we fear most.

In the Antarctic treaty debates, various proposals have been made. Our concern is to ensure that the Antarctic treaty system deals with the mineral question before minerals are discovered. The way to do that, it seems to us, is to reach agreement that minerals activity can be carried out only if that would be compatible with the preservation of the Antarctic environment. Once we reach agreement on that, we can relax. Until we do so, we should have a prohibition on mineral activity. Let there be no doubt about that. At the meeting in Madrid, our delegation is promoting our proposal for a renewable ban, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) in his letter to all Members of Parliament on 25 March.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) mentioned the word "park", which was also mentioned in public recently by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). It is still an ill-defined concept. We do not know quite what is being proposed. No one at the Madrid conference has raised it. It is not a matter for discussion. If concrete proposals were ever put forward, we should examine them, but while they are vague, we must be sceptical. For example, would a marine park prevent our legitimate continuing scientific work in the Antarctic environment? Such a concept would be unacceptable, if it were to include that. We do not know. The hon. Gentleman nods, but, with great respect, we have not had the details.

Mr. Anderson

No one has a closely defined position, but what is clear is that it would prevent mining operations. Do not the Government accept that their position has been wholly undermined as, kicking and screaming, they move from compromise to compromise? The Government's position, as they approach Madrid, has now been undermined by the switch in Japanese policy.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question because I must finish my remarks. However, he ought to look at the Japanese proposals most carefully before he draws complete and clear-sighted conclusions from them.

Our position does not, we believe, create expectations of the inevitability of mining in the future. Rather, it recognises that it may indeed be a possibility and that we should have a plan to cope with it. That is realism rather than fanciful idealism. Common sense tells us that this must be right.

Our objective is most certainly the protection of the Antarctic environment. In order to achieve it, we must ensure that the Antarctic treaty parties return to consensus as soon as possible. It is no use proceeding unilaterally. That is our objective. Our delegation at Madrid is working to achieve that precise consensus. I hope that the House will support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Three o'clock.