HC Deb 17 May 1993 vol 225 cc19-28 3.30 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the outcome of the International Whaling Commission meeting which ended in Kyoto, Japan, last Friday evening. The meeting was attended by 40 member countries. The United Kingdom team, led by my officials with help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of the Environment, played an active and prominent role.

I believe that all our key objectives were reached. First and foremost, the IWC's moratorium on all commercial whaling, which has been in place since 1985–86, remains, despite great pressure from Norway and Japan to have it lifted. I think that you would agree, Madam Speaker, that this has been the prime purpose of the United Kingdom and our like-minded allies. We are pleased once again to have achieved it. We argued strongly that we could not agree to its ending, as our essential preconditions to any such consideration have still not been met.

The scientific committee presented some further work on aspects of the revised management procedure. We made it clear that we could not formally accept that as the basis for considering a lifting of the moratorium until and unless we were satisfied on all other aspects of a new scheme, including new observation and inspection procedures and, crucially, acceptable and humane methods of killing whales. We thus opposed again requests from Japan for interim quotas for minke whales in the north Pacific, and we said that we could not accept Norway's plans for coastal whaling.

There was a great deal of further discussion on the proposal, launched at the Glasgow meeting last year, for a circumpolar whale sanctuary in the Antarctic. We again expressed our keen interest and support for this concept, and we co-sponsored resolutions calling for further work on the importance of environmental threats to whale stocks and on their proper management. Some contracting parties argued that they needed more time to study some of the detailed aspects of the sanctuary approach, such as the delineation of boundaries, matters of jurisdiction and future research plans for the sanctuary.

We had warned earlier that that might be the case. We were concerned that matters should not be brought to a head in circumstances in which the whole scheme might come to nothing. At length, the IWC decided that, although it endorsed the concept, it would work to resolve outstanding issues at a special inter-sessional working group. A final decision is planned for the 46th meeting of the IWC next year in Mexico. The United Kingdom will play its major part in ensuring that we achieve that end.

On so-called "scientific whaling", we were critical once more of both the Norwegian and Japanese plans for yet further lethal research on minke whale stocks. Many of us in the House feel that the word "scientific" when used in this way has little to do with the realities.

We have consistently argued that research should, if at all possible, be through non-lethal means. In that regard, we welcomed an offer by Japan to discuss with scientists a programme to look for the reason for the poor recovery of the great whale stocks. That is an encouraging sign and, in the circumstances of our condemnation of many things that have happened, we should welcome it.

We again pressed home at length our concerns about the methods used in whaling operations—including secondary means of killing those whales which do not die from explosive harpoons. We condemned especially the use of the electric lance, which we think is particularly cruel. Some data on humane killing are coming forward following adoption of the United Kingdom's action plan last year, but many serious questions remain. The commission agreed our proposals for a further workshop for 1995. Meanwhile, we shall vigorously maintain our view that present methods are unacceptable.

We also took action on pilot whales in the Faroes, tabling detailed papers and securing IWC support for further studies, noting our concerns about the cruelty of the methods and the organisation of this drive fishery.

Small cetaceans are an area about which I am particularly concerned, because, if we are not careful, our arrangements to protect the larger whales will drive many to take action against smaller cetaceans and cause real depredations in those stocks. We believe that the IWC is fully competent to consider both the larger and smaller cetaceans, and that belief was reinforced.

We fought to secure specific and improved protection for harbour porpoises in the north Atlantic and for striped dolphins. There has been new progress in considering better, co-operative ways of addressing improved means of protecting small cetaceans, many of which are threatened in directed and by-catch fisheries.

The fact that many people do not wish the IWC to uphold what I believe to be its fundamental responsibilities in this area, is a serious matter. Without that, we cannot look at the whole range of cetacean problems as one. Instead, we will find ourselves dealing with the larger animals and thereby, in some senses, endangering species which would otherwise be protected.

The United Kingdom presented a paper and gained consensus support for new IWC studies on whale watching. That is an innovative and benign way of using the world's whale stocks—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Minister will have plenty of time to watch whales when he gets the sack.

Mr. Gummer

I hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will realise that we are dealing with a serious matter, for which cheap political remarks are not necessary.

As I was saying, that is an innovative and benign way of using the world's whale stocks. It is big business, possibly $0.4 billion currently, and growing rapidly, including in Japan. Our plans for an IWC involvement with studies and recommendations were fully agreed.

Finally, I must mention Norway. I am deeply saddened by her apparent plans to go ahead with commercial whaling. I urge her to reconsider. Many commissioners signed a statement last week underlining the dangers of undermining the commission and its work. The Prime Minister of Norway, in her introduction to the Brundtland report, made it quite clear that, in circumstances where individual nations disagreed with international agreements, they should accept those international agreements even though that may be to their own hindrance. I am sorry that Norway does not take that view on this issue.

Overall, this was a valuable meeting, with excellent results in our further steps towards safeguarding whale stocks. I do hope that the House agrees.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I thank the Minister for his statement on this historic meeting of the International. Whaling Commission. The outcome of the meeting should be welcomed by conservationists and environmentalists throughout the world.

I am glad that the Minister referred to the cruelty involved in commercial whaling. The methods of killing whales are horrific; there can be no doubt that they experience great pain and suffering before they die. I hope that the Minister will also endorse the fact that the resumption of commercial whaling will threaten whale stocks. Quotas are not enforceable, and all the evidence shows that people who indulge in commercial whaling will flout the quotas. There can be no alternative to a ban on all whaling.

May I ask the Minister about the proposal for a southern sanctuary south of the 40th southern parallel? He may recall that I wrote to him before the meeting urging the Government to support the proposal. I welcome the fact that the United Kingdom voted for it. Can the Minister tell the House when progress will be made on it? Is it the case that there will be an inter-sessional meeting on the sanction proposal in Australia?

What resources and research are the Government planning to contribute to ensure that this important proposal is properly backed? As the Minister recognises and the House understands, the proposal is important because, if the sanctuary is agreed, it will mean that whales in the southern sanctuary will be properly protected, no matter what happens in the future with regard to commercial whaling.

May I ask the Minister about the proposal by the Japanese, which is accepted, to establish a working group to identify objectives for research into blue whales? I must point out that there is concern that Japan's aim is to attempt to demonstrate that the recovery of the blue whale population is being hindered by the minke whale in order to get some justification for renewed minke whaling. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to keep an eye on that issue.

The Labour party welcomes the fact that the commission passed resolutions condemning the scientific whaling programmes of Norway and Japan, and that the commissioner's statement chastising Norway for its plans to resume commercial whaling was passed. What will the British Government do in response to those resolutions?

I understand that the United States Administration have written to Iceland—which withdrew from the Commission last year to resume commercial whaling—Norway and Japan stating that sanctions will be considered, where appropriate, against countries that choose to ignore the IWC conservation programme and resume commercial whaling without the requisite IWC approval. Can the Minister confirm that the United States has made that communication? For their part, what are the United Kingdom Government doing fully to explore all opportunities for such action?

Will the Minister address the question of Norway's position, taking into account the intention of its Government that Norway should enter the European Community? After all, it is the case that the European Community bans commercial whaling. What sense does it make, and how can it possibly be justified, for Norway to resume commercial whaling and at the same time seek to enter the European Community? Surely it cannot be right for a country to apply to join the European Community if it intends to flout one of the Community's resolutions, and makes no secret of that in the process of joining.

I put it to the Minister that the decisions of the International Whaling Commission are of enormous significance to the future of whale stocks in the seas and to the wider environmental issues. It is one thing to pass resolutions and have all these meetings—what is needed is action to stop the cruelty. In particular, we must judge the situation with regard to the action that is taken to prevent commercial whaling interests in Iceland, Japan and Norway from continuing to damage the whales. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that there is a lot more at stake than whales, important though they are. What is at stake is whether we will have effective United Nations-backed action—the IWC is recognised by the United Nations—to tackle these environmental and conservation issues.

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I agree with him entirely about the southern sanctuary. It seemed better to be reticent in advance, simply because I wanted to make it clear that our prime need was to keep the moratorium going. That must be so. We have done the best we could on the southern sanctuary, and I hope that next time we will be able to complete our work. We shall be doing work at the inter-sessional meeting.

We spend £25 million a year on the British Antarctic survey. Much of that money will be a great help in giving the necessary research backing, and there is new MAFF-funded research on the issue. I shall ensure that that is set for the advantage of the inter-sessional group which will meet in Hobart, Australia, in October-November.

The hon. Gentleman refers to research into blue whales and his fear of the Japanese. I shall keep an eye on the matter, but it is important that the Japanese were prepared to enter into the investigation. Until we think or know otherwise, I am prepared to go along with their intentions. I hope that we can encourage them. Certainly it would not be proper for such an investigation to start with a prejudgment on either side. We want to know the facts. That is what the investigation is about.

The international community has shown Norway that its largely unilateral approach is unacceptable. If Norway were to come into the European Community, it would have to accept the rules. I do not suggest that it cannot say or argue what it likes in advance, but it belongs to an international body that has banned commercial whaling, and it ought to meet its obligations. If Norway were to join the EC, it would be expected to meet its obligations within the Community.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's opinions on the International Whaling Commission's role and the importance that goes beyond whales of dealing with the environment. That is why I get somewhat angry about the reaction of Norway. If a nation cannot accept the scientifically based decisions of an international organisation to which it belongs because they happen not to be in its interests, it is infuriating when that nation goes around the world telling other nations to obey other international institutions the demands of which those nations find onerous. There should be one standard that should be adhered to not only by Norway but by the rest of us.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom has been one of the leaders in the IWC, and of late the pressure groups in this country have led the movement to protect whales internationally? Will he therefore try his best to keep whales out of the other more spurious and doubtful campaigns in the way that he has stated today? Is he aware that our hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was talking about whales in the Council of Europe last week at 15 to the dozen, as only he can?

Mr. Gummer

I am pleased to agree with my hon. Friend that this is not a matter of party political division. I should like to recognise the work of my official Tony Burne and his officials not only at the meeting but in the many months that have gone before.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is a sterling supporter of the moratorium, and even if I were likely to slip from my view, he would soon see that I was ratcheted back to the position in which I ought to be.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

May I thank the Minister, the Government and Tony Burne and his colleagues, and welcome the success of the session of the IWC? May I add to the pressure on the Government to make their view clear to those who are threatening to go their own way?

Will the Minister reaffirm to the House that what Japan calls research, but which ends up as catching whales for food, and what Norway calls necessary hunting, even though it now appears that the majority of Norwegians questioned in opinion polls are against it, are unjustified?

Does the Minister further agree that the last couple of centuries have seen the loss of various species of whale completely, and that until it is shown scientifically that there are growing and sustainable stocks of all species of whale, no argument that allows commercial whaling to continue is acceptable to this community or to any other country that calls itself civilised?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the conservation elements in such decisions. It would be wrong of us to endanger any part of the whale population.

I am extremely suspicious of those who now tell us that there are enough minke whales to take, when the only reason that there are reasonable stocks of minke whales is because the other larger whales proved more profitable in the past. They sought to destroy those stocks and nearly succeeded, and are now suggesting that the minke whale has become essential, when it has been saved only by the fact that it was not big enough to attract depredations in the past. Of course conservation comes first, but I think that being able to insist on the rules comes a close second. I want to find a much more humane method of taking whales before I shall even discuss the possibility of resuming that activity.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept the argument that whales have human levels of intelligence, and therefore undergo extreme suffering when they are murdered by inhumane methods? Will he undertake to ensure that our Government will not support any resumption of the killing of whales unless a proper and humane method of killing is discovered, whatever the other arguments for killing? Is he prepared to help to seek to enforce a worldwide ban on the sale of whalemeat?

Mr. Gummer

We ban whale product sales in the European Community, which is a good way of taking the lead. I am aware that the problem for the whale is that, because it is thought of as a large fish, people fail to remember that it is a mammal, with a highly developed nervous system. I am not sure that I precisely agree with the human comparison that my hon. Friend used, but the whale is an advanced animal. Three criteria have to be met before we even discuss the resumption of commercial whaling, none of which has so far been met—all three have to be met before such a discussion can take place.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement. Will he acknowledge that right hon. and hon. Members receive considerable correspondence about the subject, not least from secondary and primary schools, where there is much horror at the vicious and uncivilised manner of killing? The dolphin population around the shores of Wales is diminishing and urgently needs protection. Has the right hon. Gentleman any details of how Iceland, Norway and Japan have been monitored by the Commission and Governments? I urge the right hon. Gentleman to go away, read Melville's "Moby Dick" and take note of the character, the monomaniac Captain Ahab. If he does so, the right hon. Gentleman may become even more concerned about the cause in which the nation wants him to succeed.

Mr. Gummer

I have been criticised for doing the opposite: for being too tough—and I do not accept that criticism. I think that any further reading about Captain Ahab may make me less able to remain quiet in the face of the comments of the hon. Member for Bolsover, so I shall do my best to act without a further reading of the book.

We must be careful not to extend the issue, so that we push everything else into insignificance. That is one reason why I believe that we should look into the management of all cetaceans, not just those which have so far been covered by the International Whaling Commission, which has full power to deal with other members of the whale family. It would be hard if some change of nomenclature resulted in our damaging the stocks of some of the smaller cetaceans—as is now happening. We must monitor the position more effectively, and we shall seek to do so.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has done on the subject. I am particularly grateful that he has told the House of the considerable pressure on the smallest cetaceans that results from the barbarous activity. People on the south coast have been entertained by the dolphins that have taken up residence in the Solent recently. Their presence not only shows the improvement in water quality there, but that dolphins are clearly migrating from Wales.

Although we all appreciate that the southern sanctuary would be the best possible policy, would my right hon. Friend care to consider the questions that I have been asking the Foreign Office—proposing that we extend the 200-mile exclusion zone around the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia and all our Antarctic property? While we always strive for international agreement, in the short term would not 200-mile territorial limits be a quick answer to preserving some of these stocks?

Mr. Gummer

I shall get out my atlas and check on my hon. Friend's questions.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

While I welcome the Minister's statement, my constituents believe—I share their belief—that the phrase "the humane control of whales" is a contradiction in terms. Surely we should not encourage any method with claims to killing whales humanely, however long the scientific seal of good housekeeping might be. We should move further and more swiftly towards a permanent and total ban on all whaling.

What steps does the Minister contemplate the Government taking to bring pressure to bear on Norway, which has taken this unilateral decision, to make it acknowledge the commitments to which it has signed up, and to stop forthwith any whaling at all?

Mr. Gummer

I know that some people share the hon. Lady's views, but if we are to ask Norway to obey her commitments, we must also obey ours. The International Whaling Commission is clearly set up to manage whaling, not to abolish it. So much is quite clear in the international agreement. I therefore could not possibly demand of Norway that she adopt a responsibility that goes contrary to what we have all signed up to. That is why the United Kingdom has been quite clear about this.

We have readily taken on our international obligations. We insist on others carrying them through, but the hon. Lady does her cause harm by undermining the basis on which we have achieved and will extend this moratorium. Once we start saying that we do not approve of the IWC's basic constitution, it will be very difficult for us to keep Norway or Japan under control. I am much more interested in saving the whale than in advancing a particular view.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his great achievements at the conference will be undermined unless we can bring real pressure to bear on the countries that seek to ignore the rules of the club? Does he agree that, far from excluding Norway from the European Community, we could bring much more pressure to bear if we encouraged her to join it? One of the benefits of the Maastricht Bill is that it will bring greater enforceability of the rules of the European Community, including rules affecting conservation, of whales or sea fish. We should welcome Norway in, and then make sure that she obeys the rules or pays the price.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to say that no country can join the European Community without accepting the obligations that that entails. Until now, we have not been able to insist on that; the great advantage of Maastricht is that it makes such insistence possible. The sooner the House passes the Maastricht Bill and Britain returns to the centre of the Community, the better for my hon. Friend, for us and for the whales.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

The Government deserve congratulations on the outcome of the negotiations and on their far-sighted view of the consequential threat to other cetaceans. Does not the Secretary of State believe, however, that our position is undermined when Norway and Japan refer to us as "hypocrites" because we oppose the harvesting of whales for food while permitting the hunting of equally intelligent animals for sport? Would we not be in a far stronger position to show our compassion for all other species if we banned fox hunting in Britain?

Mr. Gummer

That is the first question today to undermine the position of the United Kingdom in international affairs. The argument for whales derives, first, from the fact that they are an international, not a national, resource. They are therefore clearly the responsibility of an international body.

Secondly, whales are threatened as a species, and that makes them wholly different from any of the animals to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Thirdly, there is no indication that, at least in present numbers, whales are so predatory that we have to cull them to protect other species. Again, that makes them entirely different from vermin and pests.

The hon. Gentleman should recognise those distinctions. I know that he feels strongly about the issue, but he does the cause of the protection of whales no good at all by confusing those distinctions. He can put his case, and I shall argue vehemently against him, because in my view hunting is one of the sensible ways to ensure that the balance of nature is maintained. We can have that argument, but he should not try to drive a wedge between us on whales when we are on the same side.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the Minister confirm that, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), he said that the Government do not envisage any measures against any country that unilaterally breaches the moratorium on whale hunting?

Mr. Gummer

No, I was answering the hon. Lady's main question, which was whether I was prepared to insist that the Norwegians had broken the IWC agreement because they were not opposed to whaling per se. The IWC is not opposed to whaling per se. It has a moratorium because it believes that the proper conditions for resuming whaling are not being met.

I have made it clear that we shall seek to bring all kinds of pressure on Norway and Japan to ensure that the rules are kept. So far, we have been successful in that. Norway has threatened to withdraw from the IWC, but has so far not done so. Iceland has withdrawn, but has not resumed commercial whaling. My job is to ensure the end rather than the means. I want to stop whales being hunted unless there are circumstances in which that becomes necessary.

I say not that there are no measures that we would fail to take, but that we shall take every measure that is open to us. So far we have been successful. I have today repeated my plea to the Norwegian Government to recognise that it is entirely inimical to their normal stance in international affairs to insist upon whaling when any other country that broke an international agreement of this sort would be attacked by the Norwegian Government right from the start.

Mr. Dennis Skinner

Is the Minister aware that, if Norway was daft enough to join the Common Market, it could decide to have an opt-out on whales anyway, as the Tory Government have done on the social chapter? If the British people are barmy enough to listen to this Minister and accept what he has to say, would it not be good for them to reflect upon the fact that the Government promised protection for the British fishermen, many of whom are now out of work? They promised protection for the miners, the steel workers and the shipyard workers, but they are nearly all on the dole. If the whales could listen to me for a moment, I would say to them, "Don't believe a word this Government say."

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the House expected that question. It would be helpful to the House if it could be advertised when the hon. Gentleman proposes to put his maiden question that does not involve lowering the tone of debate to the level of party political abuse.

Mr Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

Does the International Whaling Commission consider the effect of pollution and submarine development resources on the cetacean population? I am thinking especially of the dolphin population in Cardigan bay, whose survival may be endangered by the development of oil and gas resources. They may be driven from Cardigan bay to the south of England, and I should not like to see that happen.

Is there any liaison between the Minister's Department and the Department of Trade and Industry about the granting of licences? If there is, will he ensure that that Department undertakes a proper environmental impact assessment of Cardigan bay in advance of any further licensing for oil exploration there?

Mr. Gummer

For obvious reasons, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is involved in discussions on anything that might affect marine life. We carry out a great deal of research and are concerned to ensure that pollution and other factors do not cause the loss of stocks. The reasons for the reductions in stocks seem quite different, but we keep a close eye on the matter. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we do not wish to give as an excuse for the resumption of commercial whaling the claim that we merely have to do something else to the environment? I am keen to ensure that we stick by that first principle—the moratorium—and proceed from there. I shall keep a close eye on pollution.

Madam Speaker

We must now move on.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)


Madam Speaker

I know when the hon. Gentleman came into the House.