HC Deb 30 April 1991 vol 190 cc289-96

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

11.59 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

We move from the land of Wales to the killing of whales, but of a different variety, obviously.

Earlier today, I sought to introduce a ten-minute Bill to abolish political honours. I enjoyed a minor triumph by winning the Division, thus depriving myself of any possibility of earning a K.

Political honours pale into insignificance compared with the subject of the debate—the future of the great whale and, specifically, whether commercial whaling will once again blight the planet. I sought the debate because of the growing concern that has been expressed by environmental and animal welfare groups about the possibility of a resumption of limited commercial whaling. Those groups, and indeed Members of Parliament, were alarmed by hints that the Government were retreating from their total opposition to allowing some whaling in certain conditions.

I do not intend to try to score political points; this is not a party political issue, nor am I seeking to make it one. Plenty of opportunities present themselves in the House for me to score points and turn issues to my advantage, but this is not one. I told the Minister outside the Chamber that I am seeking from him a cast-iron guarantee that in no circumstances will the Government agree to the killing of great whales, in the name of either so-called science or the far more open commercial reasons that are being advanced by the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders.

It is not an issue of whale stocks and conservation, or indeed of humane methods of slaughter; it is a matter of ethics. Whales are intelligent, social, warm-blooded mammals that are close to humans in the order of being. For any of them to be killed is a criminal act that cannot be justified or tolerated.

The alarm bells started to ring when the Secretary of State sent a letter on 27 March to Members of Parliament who had expressed an interest in the subject. He said: The situation is now that certain whale stocks are reaching levels where it will be difficult to say that controlled and highly limited catches of whales would harm the stock…If there were, at some point, a resumption of whaling, the technology used should be a genuine and qualitative advance on the older methods so that any whaling that takes place is as humane as it is possible to be. At this year's IWC"— the meeting of the International Whaling Commission— the UK will therefore continue to press for a sound and scientific basis to the decisions of the IWC based on the principles of caution and safety, and that any future whaling is conducted as humanely as possible. That is an ambiguous letter and it was not surprising that The Sunday Times subsequently ran an article under the headline, "Britain may back end to whaling ban". I am not an apologist for any journalist, but that headline, based on a reading of the Secretary of State's letter, was justifiable. But its impact in Japan was nothing compared with our feelings. We were outraged; the Japanese were overjoyed. I have extracts from Japanese newspapers that are in Japanese script. Fortunately, I have O-levels in Japanese and journalese and can translate them for the Minister.

The Japanese newspapers, in response to the letter of the Secretary of State and reaction in The Sunday Times, spoke of the United Kingdom turning away from the whaling ban: Minister Gummer made clear that the United Kingdom could change policy on the whaling ban … that the United Kingdom was reconsidering her policy on anti-commercial whaling … that Britain was ready to restart whaling. It will be a big relief for Japan, which is seeking to reopen commercial whaling. That is what a Japanese newspaper stated. The Japanese were as delighted as we in this country were dismayed.

Obviously, the Secretary of State cannot be held responsible for misreporting in Japan, but it was the Secretary of State's ambiguously worded letter of 27 March to hon. Members that started the whole thing off. I have responded to that letter, expressing my surprise that he appended his signature to a letter that was clearly drafted for him by his civil servants. I await the Secretary of State's reply.

The Minister cannot be in any doubt about the sentiments in the House and the country about the killing of whales for whatever purpose. Nearly 200 hon. Members from all parties have signed early-day motion 697 on the subject. The first three signatories are from the three main parties. One of the co-signatories is in his place on the other side of the Chamber—the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden).

The hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and I went to No. 10 Downing street to present a protest letter to our Prime Minister. We then went to the Japanese embassy to present a protest letter to Mr. Kaifu, the Japanese Prime Minister, in which we said that the great whales belong to all of us on the planet and are not the private property of any particular country to do with as it sees fit. We await a reply from Mr. Kaifu, perhaps more in hope than expectation, that the Japanese Government will reverse their unbelievably selfish, unacceptable and arrogant attitude to the whales.

In the face of what is clearly widespread public concern in this country, the Secretary of State gave an interview to The Times on 26 April in which he stated: Britain will not support the resumption of commercial whaling until there is a method of killing whales humane enough to meet British animal welfare standards". The Minister echoed that sentiment in a written answer to me on 25 April, in which he stated: We are not prepared even to contemplate agreeing to the lifting of the moratorium placed by the International Whaling Commission on commercial whaling unless and until it is clear that whale stocks are at healthy levels, a satisfactory management procedure is in place and the methods of killing whales are as humane as possible. These conditions have not yet been met."—[Official Report, 25 April 1991; Vol. 189, c. 552.] That answer does not satisfy me, many of the Minister's hon. Friends or the British public. Nobody is interested now in finding humane ways of killing whales any more than we are interested in finding humane ways of killing people. Both are totally unacceptable, and we should not be contemplating killing whales for any reason.

In response to Ministers' constant references to "humane ways of killing whales", I refer them to a new publication from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is entitled, "The Cruel Seas—Man's Inhumanity to Whales". It details the different methods of killing whales, from the cold or non-explosive harpoon to the grenade-headed or explosive harpoon. In the slaughter of minke whales, which the Japanese are still carrying out in the Antarctic, they are using a penthrite harpoon, which uses the explosive penthrite, which is six times more powerful than the black powder that is used in other explosive harpoons. All the technical jargon leads to one irreducible fact, that the whales die in absolute agony. The RSPCA document is interesting but horrific for anyone who is concerned about the welfare of whales.

Whales are social creatures with family structures. Who knows—perhaps, as one of their number is dying in intense pain with an explosive harpoon embedded in the flesh, others in the group may be suffering similar feelings of grief and fear as any of us would witnessing one of our family being gunned down by terrorists. Some people might regard that as an emotive comparison, but perhaps it is because we know so little about these magnificent and mysterious creatures that it is an act of criminal folly to kill them.

Anyone who has read Heathcote Williams' epic poem "Whale Nation" will have been moved by his description of the humpback whale's music or the awesome size of the blue whale, which is the largest creature ever to have lived on the planet and still be with us—but only just. It is only just with us because of the destruction inflicted on it. The whale nation described by Heathcote Williams which has been destroyed over the centuries stands as an indictment of all of us, now and in the past.

We used to turn all that beautiful animal life into commonplace household products, and now we see the Japanese, the Norwegians and the Icelanders killing minke whales to eat them—that is disgusting and unacceptable and it must stop. But the killing continues to this day. The Japanese, the Norwegians and the Icelanders get round the IWC's ban on commercial whaling by employing the name of science to continue their barbaric activities. That killing must be stopped.

I want the following assurances from the Minister in advance of the IWC meeting later this month. First, I want the Government to continue to oppose the lifting of the general moratorium on commercial whaling. I am sure that he can say yes quickly.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry)

indicated assent.

Mr. Banks

I see that the Minister is saying yes.

Secondly, I want an assurance that the Government will vote against any proposal to allow limited commercial catches of some whales, whatever evidence is advanced as justification by the Japanese the Norwegians or the Icelanders, who are the real villains of the piece.

The third assurance is that the Government will use their best endeavours to stop the Japanese, the Norwegians and the Icelanders from continuing their so-called "scientific" whaling.

Fourthly, should any of those countries quit the IWC, as Japan has threatened to do, in order to resume killing whales the Government should have urgent discussions with our EEC partners and with the United States Government so that appropriate sanctions can be imposed on any or all of those countries.

Lastly, the jurisdiction of the IWC should be extended to the small cetaceans—the pilot whales, the porpoises and dolphins—which are now being slaughtered in tens of thousands, mainly by the Japanese.

The Government have enjoyed unanimous support in the House for their opposition to whaling. This is one Government policy that I do not wish to see altered in any way. I ask the Minister to assure the House that the Government's policy will remain exactly as it is, that the Government will represent the House and the entire British people by saying that there will be no resumption of the commercial killing of whales and that the killing of whales carried out in the name of science will cease forthwith.

12.13 am
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) reflects the views of millions of people. I have had the privilege of seeing the magnificent whales in their natural environment in the seas off Alaska. Anyone who has done that or who has talked to people who have studied whales will know that they are highly intelligent, warm-blooded creatures with a social structure and could not justify their slaughter in any way. We know that whales communicate effectively. It is only a matter of time before human beings will communicate with them.

Future generations will look back in horror at the way in which we have treated whales in this and the previous century. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government will remain firm in their policy and will oppose the resumption of any form of commercial whaling.

12.14 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry)

I remarked in the office last week that it was about time that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) had his Adjournment debate on whaling. I was not disappointed because it came up on the following week's schedule. I note what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has said. We had the same debate last year and there was no disagreement between us. I hope that we will be in the same position after this debate.

I ask the hon. Member for Newham, North-West to accept one proposition—that we are all committed to the conservation of the whale. The hon. Gentleman also referred to hints. I am sure that he will also acknowledge that, in the discharge of my responsibilities, I do not normally deal in hints. Indeed, that has been a problem with my responsibilites.

The argument is not about the classic great whales such as the right whale, the blue, the sperm and the humpback. The argument is about certain specific stocks of whales. I accept that for many people, and especially young people, the fate of the whale, like that of the elephant, is a symbol of man's acceptance that he is just one part of creation and that his role of dominance must lead him to accept the role of stewardship for the earth's diversity. I accept that proposition. However, how do we go about that?

We should not go about it by force. That is clearly not a practical proposition. We cannot use threats either. We must use persuasion and persistant and powerful presentation of sound arguments. The forum for the arguments is the International Whaling Commission. We have an important reason to keep the whaling countries in the IWC. The alternative—this is a real alternative, not just a hollow alternative—is that they might pull out of the IWC and form their own organisation and set their own rules. If they did that, there would be one big loser—the whale. Commercial whaling would resume, perhaps in considerable volumes.

How we persuade those countries to stay within the IWC is a practical political question. How do we maintain the moratorium? I must make it clear to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that the Government's policy has not changed in that regard. We stick to the long-established terms of reference of the IWC. That body's great achievement was the moratorium on commercial whaling of the mid-1980s. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said, certain forms of whaling continue under that. Aboriginal whaling continues even in the Alaskan waters. There is also research whaling, some of which, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said, is effectively a form of disguised commercial whaling. However, the take has declined, even in research whaling.

At Reykjavik we are fully committed to the continuation of the moratorium. The IWC is working to achieve a series of long-established objectives which have not changed. All members of the IWC are formal subscribers to those objectives, the first of which is a comprehensive assessment of the state of the stocks, including the Antarctic minke, the central Atlantic minke and the grey whale. The latter is not in commercial contention, but there is a need to find out more about it. It tends to live in waters close to the United States and the Americans are anxious to collect further information about it. These assessments have been carried out.

At the meeting this month, the commission should hear reports on assessments of the other stocks which are in contention, such as the north Atlantic minke. An assessment last year, on the north Atlantic fin whale and on minkes in the Okhotsk sea, which is off Japan, was sent back for further work, to come forward to the commission again this year. Those stocks are being assessed this year.

Mr. Tony Banks

The assessment that is taking place is not to try to find out more scientifically about whales so as better to understand their lifeform, their welfare and all the other aspects to which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) referred, but to establish whether it is possible once again to opt for more commercial whaling of that species. That is the whole point. We do not believe that there should be any killing of whales in any circumstances. The science is not about the understanding of whales; it is about whether the Japanese can be allowed to kill them in larger numbers than they do already.

Mr. Curry

I accept that point. Of course we do not have the power to stop whales being killed. The object of the exercise is how to achieve the maximum conservation of whales. Our judgment is that we must keep the debate in that forum. If we say that that forum is now to be used for a wholly different purpose from that for which it was set up, countries that wish to whale might walk out. I cannot judge what assessment they will make of the risks of doing that. That is for their own judgment. However, if they were to resume, we might end up with more whales being killed than otherwise. The judgment to be made is how, within that forum, we are able to persuade those countries that whaling is not in their broader interests. That is the task in front of us. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

If we allow the debate to escape from the International Whaling Commission, we shall risk the whale being the loser, and nobody would accept that. The management of that dilemma is a difficult political decision, but we must address it. It is clear that the Japanese, the Norwegians and the Icelanders are members of the International Whaling Commission so as to achieve an agreed international rule for resumed whaling of the minke and the fin whale stock. We are not fools. We know that that is the purpose. In a sense, that is what the constitution of the organisation says, so that is a legitimate expectation on their part.

The question is how, within that framework, we move on the debate. Our position is perfectly clear. The United Kingdom believes that the present state of work does not permit us even to contemplate the resumption of commercial whaling. Three vital questions must be addressed. The first concerns the re-establishment and conservation of healthy whale stocks; the second, the fully developed management procedure; and the third—the hon. Gentleman has said that he regards it as irrelevant, but we think that it is important—the methods of killing.

Those criteria have not been fulfilled. Therefore, the question whether whaling should resume ceases to be scientific and becomes ethical. It is not even on the agenda at the moment, because the clear criteria that we wish to debate have not been fulfilled. On those scientific grounds, we believe that no case is made out for the resumption of whaling. The first reason for that is that the revised management procedure is not yet fully elaborated. Indeed, the options will not be presented to the commission until the end of May. Even if a possible procedure is identified or decided upon, or if some procedures are shortlisted, there will still be much work to be done. On top of that, enforcement and related arrangements must be addressed. There is a considerable volume of work, even in satisfying criterion No. 1, to be done. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, we are not satisfied with the slaughter methods that are used.

We are going to the International Whaling Commission meeting with clear criteria and with a clear objective. Our objective is to hold it together so that we keep the debate within the practical political forum that has now been established and that has a good track record in reducing the hunting and harvesting of whales. In fact, it has the moratorium to its credit. As there is no other forum, there is no reason to bust that one.

I emphasise that there is no question of our agreeing at Reykjavik to the resumption of whaling. We must persuade the whaling nations that it is in their interests to stick with the international approach. Equally, it is in our interests to stick with the international approach. If either we or other countries walk away, both will lose. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about how the whale is seen and about its particular qualities as an animal. But the biggest loser, if there were to be a departure from the international approach, would be the whale itself.

It is perfectly legitimate to say that this matter should be tackled on the basis that it is directly ethical, directly emotional, or directly moral. Clearly, however, we have to use a coherent political process to give expression to that concern. That is the only means that we have. Declaiming does not save one whale. We must maintain the political engagement. That is how, in the past, we have managed to save whales, and I believe that it is how we shall do so in the future.

Mr. Tony Banks

Consider the argument that has been going on about Antarctica. What is to stop any country from going into Antarctica to mine? What would the British Government or the United States Government do if some country were to say, "We do not care that all these nations say that this should be a wilderness park. We are going in"? Why should not we adopt towards the whale the same attitude as we adopt towards Antarctica? Why should we be blackmailed by the Japanese? In effect, the Japanese are using blackmail. They are saying, "If the IWC does not do what we want, we will quit it, and will go out and kill whales." Should that kind of blackmail be allowed?

Mr. Curry

If we were to adopt the attitude that, on that basis, all the work of this organisation should be set at naught, they would say that we were using blackmail. We cannot just sweep to one side all the work of the IWC on the purely ethical ground that we want total prohibition, for reasons that go beyond any of the criteria that brought us into the organisation.

As I have made clear, the United Kingdom Government do not want to see whaling resumed. It is not my purpose to argue the Norwegian case, the Icelandic case or the Japanese case, and I have no interest in doing so. I do have an interest in trying to conserve the whale. Not for a moment do I impugn the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman, and I am being absolutely genuine when I ask what we could do if those countries were to walk out of the IWC and start whaling. We could not send a gunboat to stop it. Clearly, force is not a practical option. Some may ask about the possibility of economic sanctions. Let us not forget that there is aboriginal whaling in the United States. I find it difficult to imagine that, in that case, economic sanctions would be a practical proposition.

We are left with the option of trying to operate the system as we find it, of using the only forum that exists for this purpose. The British Government's position is clear. Our policy has not changed. At Reykjavik, we shall oppose the resumption of commercial whaling. I was at a meeting in Oslo less than a fortnight ago, and whaling was very much at the top of our agenda. I explained directly to the Norwegian Minister the force of the argument and the power of the emotion that goes into British people's beliefs about whaling. I asked her to realise that this is a matter of great importance to her country. We must continue the negotiations. Their purpose is absolutely clear. It is to make sure that there is no resumption of commercial whaling in Reykjavik. We maintain that forum, and we maintain the framework in which we have managed to do a great deal for the whale. We continue to preserve it as one of the rarest animals in our creation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.