HC Deb 03 June 1991 vol 192 cc35-42 4.20 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about whales and the International Whaling Commission.

Recognising the great concern of this House about whales, which I share, I wanted to have the opportunity to report on the first possible occasion on the outcome of the 43rd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission which took place in Reykjavik last week—27 to 31 May 1991. It was a very successful meeting for the United Kingdom delegation. We set three principal targets, and we have achieved those and more.

First, the moratorium on commercial whaling remains in force. While some stocks have been assessed fully, we co-sponsored a resolution on the proposed revised management procedure. Its further development is now clearly on the basis of low risk and high target levels designed to give maximum safety to whales. We are at this stage only considering the further development of a management system designed to give protection to whales.

Moreover, requests even for modest quotas from Japan for minke whales and from Iceland for fin and minke whales were rejected. There is therefore to be no resumption of commercial whaling this year. Also, Norway's request for the removal of the north-east Atlantic minke's status as a protection stock was also firmly rejected, following presentation of a clear and scientifically based case by the United Kingdom delegation. Minke will therefore still be a species not to be taken.

Further, the United Kingdom delegation co-sponsored resolutions calling on Japan and the USSR to reconsider their proposed research whaling programmes. Those resolutions were successfully passed.

Our second main target was the issue of humaneness of killing methods—methods which are still being used legally by aboriginal whalers. The United Kingdom delegation proposed and secured the establishment of a special workshop, which will thoroughly review all aspects of the methods of killing whales. The last major review was 10 years ago. The issue of efficiency and effectiveness, which is fundamental to humaneness, must be reviewed, and I welcome the support of all members of the IWC in recognising that such a review is necessary. Following a request last year from the United Kingdom, Brazil has withdrawn its objection to banning the use of the cold grenade harpoon. I welcome that.

Thirdly, we also carried forward the work on small cetaceans—dolphins, porpoises and the like. The IWC is divided on whether it has the competence to deal with small cetaceans as well as the great whales. The United Kingdom is quite clear that the IWC does have this competence. In discussions, we pressed this further, and we hope that the issue has been better opened up for more constructive debate next year.

Further, we co-sponsored a successful resolution which will ensure that a comprehensive report on the known status of the many species of whales, dolphins and porpoises prepared by the IWC's sub-committee on small cetaceans to the scientific committee will be passed to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. That gives us another way to try to protect the whale and the small cetaceans.

Those parts of the IWC's scientific report recommending action for the conservation or preservation of vulnerable species will, by this resolution, be brought specifically to the attention of the Governments involved. The House will remember how concerned I was that the Governments of some countries who are outside the IWC chase whales and various small cetaceans. Another resolution which set out these concerns in greater detail has been kept on the table and will provide another platform for further discussion next year.

Tight quota arrangements were also set for aboriginal subsistence whaling by the Alaska Eskimos and the Greenland Inuits, and the quota of grey whales has been reduced by 10.

The many decisions taken at this year's IWC will further such success. The United Kingdom delegation played a leading role in securing these achievements, and I want to pay tribute to the outstanding work of my officials and scientists in this difficult international forum. The conservation of whales has been pursued successfully for this year, and the United Kingdom has much of which to be proud. We must not, however, let up in our efforts, for the preservation of our whales deserves our whole-hearted support.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I am grateful to the Minister for coming at this earliest opportunity to report to the House on the outcome of the IWC conference. Whaling concerns many in this country, and we share the abhorrence of almost everyone at the practice of hunting and killing whales. I must say, though, that the Minister's report today was at some variance with almost every other report by journalists and observers at the conference. The Labour party was certainly disappointed by its outcome.

We were pleased that the plans and proposals of Iceland, Norway and Japan were defeated, but the hunting of minke whales is going to begin next year, and I very much regret that the British Government did not adopt a stronger anti-whaling stance in Reykjavik.

Now that the International Whaling Commission has failed to live up to expectations, is the Minister planning to take any international initiatives? Is he planning to raise the matter at the United Nations, where it is on the table, or in the EC, so as to try to arrest the practice of whale slaughter?

The Minister makes great play of one of his four objectives—that concerning the small cetaceans. He reminds the House that a paper before the sub-committee of the commission pointed out that dolphins, porpoises and other small whales were threatened with extinction in many parts of the world if no action was taken. I know that the Minister understands this point, because he has made many fine speeches on the matter, but I cannot help thinking that his actions in Reykjavik betrayed a slightly and characteristically disingenuous approach to it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that, after initially signing the resolution to protect small cetaceans, he had second thoughts? Does he deny that he instructed the United Kingdom commissioner not to speak up for the resolution? Does he deny that, in the coffee breaks at Reykjavik, the United Kingdom put pressure on other delegations, especially that of the United States, to withdraw the resolution to protect the small cetaceans? Could it be that he had cold feet because he had given the go-ahead to Cornish fishermen to begin the obnoxious practice of large-scale drift netting, which, as he and the House may know, will involve nets up to five miles long, which will create deserts in many parts of the sea and result in the killing of many porpoises, dolphins and small whales?

I heard the Minister defending this practice on the television. Does he further deny that the United Kingdom delegation approached the United States, which had announced its intention to table a resolution to the IWC to ban the use of drift-net fishing? Do the Government deny that they put pressure on the United States not to go ahead with that resolution?

Will the Minister listen, even at this eleventh hour, not only to Opposition Members but to many Conservative Members who say no to the practice of drift-net fishing? Unless we say no to it, we are entering the trade of killing small cetaceans just as much as countries such as Japan, Iceland, Norway and others.

Mr. Gummer

I have rarely heard anyone undermine so offensively our battle against whaling and against the problems concerning small cetaceans. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) should be reminded of one or two facts, and he might remember his own reputation as a man of decency.

The Government's policy was outlined when I was Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in a document which I produced jointly with Sir Peter Scott, at the meeting of the IWC at Bournemouth some years ago. Our policy was made clear in that document, and we have adhered to it. To my knowledge, the hon. Member for South Shields has never written to me to complain about drift netting off the north-east coast of England. I have never heard him mention that. Why not? I shall tell the House why not.

The reason is that the drift nets used off the north-east coast of England are not 60 miles long. The drift nets of which the United Nations is speaking, which are being used in the south Atlantic, are up to 100 miles long. We are talking of the drift nets that are being used off our coast, which have never, in any scientifically measurable way, caught a dolphin. If they did, or if they caused any damage of that sort, the first Government in the world to take action would be this Government, and the first Minister to take action would be this Minister.

This is an occasion when some indignation at the attack of the hon. Member for South Shields is in order. Of course my delegation did none of the things that the hon. Gentleman suggested. We were the co-sponsors of the motion to which he referred. We did not press it to a vote only because we believed that we would lose the vote, and therefore lose the opportunity next year to press the motion to a successful conclusion. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself for casting aspersions on my officials and on all those in this place who have worked against the slaughter of whales while endeavouring to conserve small cetaceans. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of his response to my statement.

Far from defending the Cornish nets, I made it clear that, in the negotiations within the European Community that will take place in July, we shall be considering motions that, if agreed, would make the nets illegal. The United Kingdom will be supporting those changes and will be seeking to ensure that the carrying of such nets will be illegal, so as to ensure that we protect waters that the European Community does not control. [Interruption.] When the hon. Gentleman says from a seated position, "Will we be supporting that?", having told us that he heard my television statements, it is clear that he failed to listen to those parts that he did not like. I made it clear in my television statements that we would be supporting it. The fact that he was not clear enough in his understanding is one that he must attribute to Independent Television News, which avoided broadcasting answers to the questions which he raised. It included merely half a sentence. It is not surprising, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman, like some others, was misled about the Government's position.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Before the departure of my right hon. Friend's delegation to Iceland, he expressed considerable concern to those of us who went to see him about the method that was being used to kill large whales. He made it clear to us that he intended that the delegation should raise that specific issue and should seek to ensure, before any major whaling operations commenced, that considerable improvements would be made in the manner in which these large mammals are killed. Was any progress made in that direction?

Mr. Gummer

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is important that we now have a working party to discuss the matter. It means that the issue of the humaneness of killing methods occupies a central position in the discussions. That is something that my hon. Friend and I were concerned about. I think that we have achieved what we wanted. We must build on what has been secured and ensure that the work that is done will produce the results that we know it should produce, to show exactly the extent to which some of the methods used are appallingly inhumane.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North West)

I accept the Minister's sincerity on this issue. We have had meetings about it, so I am aware of his position. Is it not a fact, however, that, under the terms of the IWC's decisions, limited commercial whaling will resume in a couple of years? The fact that Iceland has threatened to leave the IWC is a matter of great concern. Is it possible to renegotiate the terms of reference of the IWC and move it away from whale slaughter, which in the end is what it is all about, into a position of ethical consideration? The majority of people in this country, in the United States and probably throughout the world are entirely opposed to the slaughter of whales. We must try to impress that upon the nations that continue the slaughter.

Is it not possible to make any application for EC membership from Norway and Iceland conditional on their abandoning any form of whaling—scientific, commercial or any other?

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I appreciate his strong feelings, which. I share to a large extent. The IWC is the only body that has been able to bring about a moratorium. The Government's first aim must be to ensure—as would any Government who believed in protecting whales—that that moratorium continues. There is no agreement that commercial whaling should start either next year or the year after. The hon. Member for South Shields is entirely wrong. I believe that he is disingenuous and mischievous to suggest that.

We believe that we must accept the constitution of the IWC, which requires us to discuss the control of the management of whaling and the enforcement of that management. We are continuing to do that. We have taken some early steps, but there is much more to be done. We stick clearly by the statement that we do not believe that we ought even to discuss the taking of whales unless fundamental conditions are met. In our view, they are not being met. I do not believe that they will be met next year, because a whole raft of information is vitally necessary before anybody, even enthusiasts, can effectively and properly propose the resumption of whaling in the IWC.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) knows—better, it seems, than his party's Front-Bench spokesman—that it is better to use the existing system, which has achieved a moratorium, than to kick the whole thing over and end up with no protection for the whale. The comments of the hon. Member for South Shields are contradictory. He said that the conference was a failure, but the only country that has threatened to leave the IWC is the country that complains that it has not been allowed to start whaling again.

Some journalists have made different comments, but I want the facts to be given. Which country has threatened to leave the commission? Not the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia or America—which are strongly opposed to the slaughter of whales in the conditions that have prevailed until now—but the country that has been pressing most strongly for the resumption of commercial whaling.

I would be sad if those countries left the commission. We must make the system continue to work, because it is the best we have. I will have a meeting with Wildlife Link—which I always have after such discussions—to see how progress can be made not only in the IWC and the United Nations, but on the specific problems caused by the taking of whales by Turkey and Canada.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his substantial achievements at the conference. Does he accept that whales have human levels of sensitivity, intelligence and understanding? It is especially murderous to kill them by the methods used in the past. Under no circumstances should we return to the slaughter of whales on such a scale, whatever Iceland, Norway or Japan says.

Mr. Gummer

My right hon. Friend is right in saying that the whale is a very advanced animal and must be protected. I feel strongly that we must do so in the one forum that enables us to stop other people taking whales. If whales were in danger only from this country, which has not whaled since the early 1960s, they would be safe. That international forum is to protect them from the dangers posed by other people.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I thank the Minister for his statement. The result was successful and should be commended. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that there is no ground for complacency, because in effect all we have done is to agree a further year's moratorium. He will know the strength of feeling in this country that the moratorium should be indefinite.

I understand that, since the Minister began his statement on the Agriculture Council, the Icelanders have announced that they are leaving the IWC. If that is the case, would not a Europewide ban be the only clear way of making the position in respect of European Community negotiations absolutely clear for Iceland and Norway—should Norway be minded to follow the same policy?

Mr. Gummer

There is already a ban on the import of whale products into the Community. I do not believe that the kind of ban to which the hon. Member refers will affect the position—and I have heard only what the hon. Gentleman has heard. However, it would be sad if Iceland decided to leave the IWC. That is a kind of backhanded tribute to the work that we have tried to perform.

It is very serious for a country to state that, contrary to international scientific evidence, contrary to the nonexistence of a management agreement, contrary to our ability to enforce such an agreement and contrary to an understanding of the humaneness of the killing methods, it should decide unilaterally to take up the cause once more. In the end, the Icelandic Government, who are after all democratic and civilised, will reconsider. I will do everything that I can to assist that. The comments of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey about this matter—which, after all, does not divide the parties—were in stark contradiction to those of the spokesman for the official Opposition.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work in relation to small cetaceans. It is more than 30 years since I first set sail from the Solent. In those days, basking sharks and dolphins were regular and enjoyable companions as one sailed westward down the channel. I have not seen a dolphin east of the Bishop's rock for at least 20 years. This is a very urgent and necessary move.

Should we not consider banning the sale of monofilament netting to amateur fishermen? Great clods of such netting come ashore on the beaches of the Isle of Wight whenever we have a south-westerly gale. Those nets must do irreparable harm to the marine wildlife in the western approaches.

Mr. Gummer

I will have to consider the second point separately. It is a different issue from the earlier point raised by my hon. Friend. However, I am also conscious of the fact that our children have the same right to see dolphins as we had when we were young. That is an aspect of conservation about which I am most concerned.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Although it may seem out of character, may I pay tribute to the Minister for the very hard line that he took with regard to the Norwegians and in particular the Icelanders? My wife is Icelandic, members of my family in Iceland have been part of the whaling industry, and I sometimes visit that country. Should not the Icelanders realise that they are not enhancing their international reputation by pressing their case in favour of whaling as they do? Should they not realise that they are upsetting the civilised world, which objects to the practice and which pleads with the Icelandic Government and nation to end that industry?

The Icelanders are no longer dependent on it. They do not need it as an industry in future. May a call go from this House today to the Icelanders requesting them to review their position, not to leave the commission but to play a full and responsible part in the international community?

Mr. Gummer

It is entirely characteristic of the hon. Gentleman to make that kind of comment, and he would not expect me to say otherwise. We can have hard arguments, but there are some things about which we agree, and this is one.

I hope that the Icelanders take the comments of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) very seriously. Iceland is a northern outpost of European civilisation. European civilisation is primarily about the rule of law. We cannot have a rule of law in the sea unless there are management arrangements, enforcement and rules about humaneness and conservation. Those are all necessary precursors for any civilised discussion about a topic such as whaling. To refuse to wait for those precursors illustrates an attitude towards whales which is unacceptable, and I hope that the Icelanders will review it at once.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I thank the Minister for his genuine efforts, which reflect the general view of hon. Members and their constituents about whaling. I want to press him about cetaceans. He will be aware of their importance in my area, as the Moray Firth is one of the two remaining centres for bottle-nosed dolphins. How will the population of bottle-nosed dolphins be assessed" What contacts will be made with the various interested organisations such as the fisheries industry and the local authorities that have a responsibility for pollution aspects in our waterways? I should be grateful if the Minister can give us some information about that and some idea of the time scale involved.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady's remarks were kind. In the past few days, we have initiated a British plan to consider the impact of netting of all kinds on dolphins and other cetaceans. That is part of our contribution. We shall insist that that working party receives papers from a wide range of groups, not only of fishery interests, but groups such as Wildlife Link, which are fundamentally concerned about the conservation of whales. We shall ensure that there is the widest possible consultation and the best possible scientific evidence. In the end, action must be taken on the scientific evidence, and that is what we are trying to ensure. That is one reason why I am particularly sad that the Icelanders feel that they should leave the IWC —if that is true. They are saying that they are not prepared to wait for and act upon scientific evidence.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

How does the Minister respond to the accusation of Mr. Sean White of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, that the buck passing by the British delegation at the meeting will result in several species of dolphin, whale and porpoise becoming extinct? Are not the Government exposed to criticism in spite of the good things that came from the meeting and to the accusation that their policies on small cetaceans—dolphins and porpoises—are little more than pretence and deceit?

Mr. Gummer

In so far as we are all exposed to wholly untruthful claims, yes, I suppose that we are exposed. However, our aim is the protection of small cetaceans and whales. To continue that aim, we and our co-sponsors withdrew the second of the two small cetacean elements, because we wanted to make the best that we could of the one that we managed to get through.

I can tell the hon. Member directly that he does the cause of small cetaceans and whales no good by trying to shoot his own Government, who are universally supported in these issues by all parties, instead of supporting us to deal with those people who are fighting the battle from the other side. I do not know of the particular statement made by a particular individual. However, any environmental agency that seeks to undermine the single-minded view of the British Government does the cause of whales no good. Of course I could get much public support by stating this, standing for that, or banging the table about the other, but that does not save a single small cetacean or whale. It is my business to make it possible to continue the moratorium, to fight the cause of conservation and to do that in the only arena that counts, the only one we have, which is the IWC.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the Minister use the same vigour to appeal to the Icelandic Government to reconsider their decision to leave the IWC? Will he make it clear to them that many people in this country will demand that the British Government and the EC look harshly on any application by Iceland to join and that they will be considering ways to introduce a consumer boycott on Icelandic products to bring pressure on Iceland to reconsider? It would be better for Iceland to reconsider now than to be forced to do so as a result of consumer or other action in future.

Mr. Gummer

I promise to do my best to ensure that Iceland does not leave the IWC. We have only just heard what has happened. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to leave it to me to decide, in consultation with many other people, how best to fight that battle. I prefer to win the battle rather than to make public points about the way in which I fight it. In the end, it is not the method of fighting that matters but the success of the battle. I want to keep Iceland within the fold of civilised nations.