HC Deb 21 July 1994 vol 247 cc586-95 11.46 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I welcome the Minister to his first outing on this brief. What finer start could there be to a ministerial career in the Foreign Office than to deal with the problems of Antarctica? I hope that it means that there is now a Minister for the Antarctic to give the topic the seriousness it deserves.

This is not the first time that I have raised matters concerning Antarctica, and I suspect that it will not be the last. I hope that, with his breakfast briefing this morning, the Minister read carefully my Adjournment debate in 1991 and those of other hon. Members on this matter. It is a matter to which several hon. Members keep returning for several reasons, mainly because we passionately want the Antarctic to be preserved as a zone of peace, as a place that is permanently protected environment, and also as a place that is free from mineral exploration and exploitation. The history of this subject is one of see-saws in many respects.

That continent has been appallingly exploited in the past, particularly for its mammal population. Apart from memories of Antarctic whaling, it has also been a place of great inspiration and great scientific discovery. The hole in the ozone layer was discovered through the work of the British Antarctic survey in Antarctica. The levels of lead pollution in our atmosphere were discovered by taking core samples of ice, and we were also able to measure increases in the carbon dioxide pollution of our atmosphere and global warming.

Many of us strongly opposed the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989. It was with great pleasure that we saw the environmental protection protocol agreed in Madrid in 1991. It was an enormous step forward. That protocol brought forward the concept of comprehensive environmental protection and a number of principles surrounding it. One was that the continent should be a place of environmental protection, including the protection of biological intrinsic wilderness and aesthetic and scientific values, and that there should be controls on and planning of all activities there, be they scientific activities, tourist activities or expeditions of various sorts.

Arguments about mineral activities have gone on for a long time. The protocol banned all mineral exploration and exploitation for 50 years. Consideration may be given after 25 years to what might happen in the future, but perhaps it is now time to think ahead and to try to create the concept for a permanent wilderness park rather than the idea that, at some point, there might be the possibility of exploration there.

The technology does not exist for mineral exploration or exploitation of the area, but clearly it could exist in time. The Madrid protocol went forward to establish the principles of the Antarctic Act which passed through the House not long ago. From that, we then looked forward to the passage of similar Acts of Parliament from the other 26 treaty countries. It is important for those Parliaments also to agree, because unless there is agreement by at least the original signatories to the 1959 treaty, the future of the Antarctic is in doubt.

There are flaws within the treaty system, and also within the Act, in that not every country in the world has signed the treaty. A country which was not a signatory to the treaty and the protocol and had not agreed to any of the environmental protection measures could, theoretically, exploit the Antarctic. We hope that that will not be the case and that others will in time come forward and support the principles behind it.

We must look ahead to what we will do in that context, because the need to settle disputes is important. The continent is overridden with a series of often conflicting territorial claims from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and a number of others. Nations have bases in Antarctica for scientific research, and the possibility of disputes surrounding either the claims or the activities of those bases is considerable.

The importance of moving quickly on that matter cannot be over-emphasised. In the discussions that took place about the Madrid protocol, there was agreement on environmental impact assessments of any activity going on there. There was also agreement on the conservation of fauna and flora, including, for example, the removal of all dogs from the Antarctic from April 1994. I understand that the dogs have all been removed, with the huskies at the British base going to Canada.

It is important that there is an emphasis on waste disposal and management. Greenpeace expeditions to the Antarctic and its examination of British, American, French, Russian and other bases showed that the standards of waste management varied greatly. As it is an area of low precipitation, and it is obviously a cold part of the world, biodegradation is very slow. Pollution is very much to the fore.

The protocols on waste disposal and management are important, as is the protocol on marine pollution. Sewage, oil or garbage seeping into the sea will not self-destruct quickly, and damage can be caused by that. There is also the question of protected areas within Antarctica, including the whale sanctuary which is very popular and is wholly to be welcomed.

We must now look at the future of the Madrid protocol and where we go from here. If the protocol is to mean anything—all the words in it were, in many senses, in response to pressure from environmental groups around the world which, with popular support, had a vision that the continent could be preserved as a zone of peace and a protected zone—something must be done.

It is not enough to pass the Act through the House. The Minister will be aware from reading the concluding debate on Report and Third Reading of the Antarctic Bill that a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House expressed concern that the passage of the Act was not enough, and that the date in which it came into operation internationally was crucial.

Within the treaty is the idea of the establishment of a treaty secretariat, and that is very important. At the moment, each time there is a consultative meeting, the host nation becomes the organiser of the next meeting. There is no permanent secretariat, but a rotating secretariat which is handed from Government to Government. That is not a particularly satisfactory way of going on. There are different standards of administration and different amounts of resources are placed in the hands of the secretariat. There is not an on-going repository of information or advice on Antarctica which can be readily accessed by different groups around the world.

The 28th Antarctic treaty consultative meeting was held in Kyoto in April, and it established the transitional environment working group as an interim step towards the eventual committee of environmental protection which is required in the protocol. The next host nation, I understand, will be Korea, which is undertaking the work of preparing for that next meeting.

There is no permanent secretariat, but around the world there is a wealth of information and knowledge concerning Antarctica—much of it good, much benign. But there are also people around the world who have a less benign attitude towards Antarctica. They may see the possibilities of mineral exploration or exploitation in the future and there are those who may want to undertake tourist visits to Antarctica. The protocol and treaty specifically include the possibility of tourist visits and methods of tourism within Antarctica, but it is very important that those are controlled.

Visits to Antarctica by bases and the methods of administration of the bases which share information and standards concerning waste disposal and other equally important issues must be dealt with. We then have to look at who will permanently host the secretariat in the future, and it is important that we recognise what has happened up to now. There has been a changed attitude and atmosphere towards Antarctica, and people all around the world understand and accept it as a zone of peace and of scientific research. There must be an agreement on the administration of policies and a repository for information and advice.

I understand that the commanders in a number of the bases in Antarctica which belong to different countries have still not received copies of the protocol, and do not know what is in it. I am not saying that specifically about British bases, but other countries' bases certainly do not have it.

We must look at a location for the secretariat. There are five gateway nations to Antarctica—Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They have enormous interests in Antarctica, as do a number of other countries, including the United States, Britain, Russia, Japan, Germany and others which have had bases there or which will have bases in the future.

I should be interested to hear the Minister's reply and his analysis of British strategy towards the southern oceans, because there has been a welcome change in attitude concerning Antarctica. However, there has also been the declaration of a zone of economic activity around South Georgia. How does that square with the attitude towards Antarctica as a zone of peace, rather than of exploration? I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

I would also like to know what the attitude of the Minister is towards the siting of the secretariat, because it is essential that that functions for the effective application of the environmental protocol. I understand that Britain is blocking the offer by Argentina to host the secretariat in Buenos Aires. Argentina is a gateway nation, has had a base in Antarctica for a very long time and has undertaken scientific research there. The credibility of the British involvement in Antarctica could be seriously damaged if the blocking tactic continues.

Surely it is time to recognise that if agreement can be reached among the treaty nations—which apparently it can —on siting the secretariat in Argentina, that is where it should go. All the progress that has been made on environmental protection could be held up by the intransigence of Britain, which says that it does not want the secretariat in Argentina. I assume that that is because of the disputes over the Falklands, but it works in the opposite direction as well. Argentina clearly disagrees with Britain about the Falklands. We heard in a debate on Latin America last night that there is now a great deal of understanding and discussion between the British and Argentine Governments. We heard that from the lips of the Minister at 2.30 this morning.

To understand the importance of siting the secretariat, we have to recognise that, if there is no co-ordinating body, much of what has been achieved, including environmental protection measures as well as the guidelines on tourist activity, which are very important, will be put at risk.

If we wanted to keep the Antarctic absolutely pure, the ideal solution would be to stop anyone other than authorised scientists and those working research stations going there. It would be difficult to do that. It is probably well nigh impossible to prevent tourist visits to Antarctica. People will want to go there. Indeed, many of us would welcome the opportunity to visit such a pristine and beautiful place.

If there are to be tourists, their activities must be controlled and we must have an absolute guarantee from tour operators about flights and the like, about how tourists will behave, that their rubbish will be taken home with them, that if they go by sea, suitable vessels which will be unlikely to founder on ice or rock will be used and that some form of rescue will be available.

The horrifying crash of the Air New Zealand aeroplane is all too recent in memory. We must recognise the problems of getting people back from Antarctica if a disaster happens. Operations would have to be of high quality and run by extremely experienced people. That means that guidelines on tourist activities must be drawn up. Potential tour operators and tourists will have to understand what they can and cannot do.

Tourists may also take part in land-based tourism. Bases might be opened for guests to stay for a few days, weeks or whatever to experience what life is like in the Antarctic. Unless there is agreement on the siting of the secretariat, the administration of the tourist protocol and the arguments surrounding tourism will be difficult to resolve. II look forward to the Minister saying that Britain is prepared to agree to the siting and establishment of the secretariat with all speed. That would be a signal to countries that have not yet succeeded in ratifying the treaty. I understand that several are still in the process of ratification and that by this time next year more than half the treaty nations should have achieved ratification through their national Parliaments. The faster we move, the more rapidly we can protect the Antarctic.

The Minister will undoubtedly tell me that there are lots of problems surrounding the siting of the secretariat and that other places should be considered. If a treaty system is established which requires a secretariat, it has to go somewhere. It happens for every treaty. When the United Nations was established, there was enormous discussion about where the permanent home should be. Eventually, for better or worse, for good or ill, it was agreed that it should go to New York, and in New York it has been ever since. Some people might not like it, but it has gone there.

Other secretariats have gone to other places. It must be said that, mainly, international secretariats of organisations have been sited in Europe or North America. It is important to recognise that the Antarctic treaty secretariat does not have to be sited in an English-speaking country. It could be one of the South American countries. It would seem that Argentina leas a strong claim to house the secretariat, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is a possibility.

The criteria for housing the secretariat have to be neutrality, commitment, research programme and capability. While there are obviously judgments to be made on those matters, it seems that a country that is one of the nearest—there might be discussion as to whether Chile or Argentina is absolutely the nearest to Antarctica—has a claim. In view of Argentina's attitude to Antarctica and support for the treaty process, it seems to fulfil all the qualifications and to be capable of housing the secretariat. It would be welcome and helpful to site it in Argentina.

I shall conclude, to give the Minister sufficient time to reply. Perhaps he will be good enough to give way if I seek to intervene to clarify some points.

We should recognise how far we have come on Antarctica. If it had not been for the work of environmental groups, particularly Greenpeace International, including the surveys of the bases, the campaigning work throughout the world to protect the whales and mammal species in Antarctica and the campaign to include the sea bed in the treaty—I hope that it will be included at a later date when unfinished business has been completed—we would not have come so far. Greenpeace International in particular is to be congratulated on the work it has done. I hope that it will be able to continue.

The inclusion of the idea of a whale sanctuary around the Antarctic is wholly welcome. It recognises the danger to mammals in the sea and the horrific stories that have passed into legend about how the whales have been treated. They are supremely intelligent beings capable of communicating and travelling over many thousands of miles. They are enormous creatures. They have been hunted to near extinction in Antarctica. We hope that those days are behind us, but the problem is that the whale sanctuary has to be policed. We need a policing system to ensure that countries do not try to break into the sanctuary and illegally take whales.

In the past, many countries have taken whales. They include Japan, with its so-called scientific whaling. The Soviet Union lied about the number of whales it caught in the region. The whale sanctuary will also promote an understanding of the need for the overall protection of the whale species. Whales migrate vast distances. Perhaps while the Minister is about it he will make it clear that the British Government deplore the Norwegian attitude to whaling and Norway's apparent determination to continue the brutality of killing whales in the northern hemisphere. I hope that we can move to total protection of the whale species throughout the world. That would be very welcome indeed.

We have come an awfully long way on the issue of Antarctica. Some of us have spent a lot of time on it. We shall not give up merely because we do not yet have a siting for the secretariat. We want to see it sited and the treaty brought into operation. We want the continent to be protected. Above all, it would surely be a message to everyone in the world that, if we can protect that continent and learn so much from its natural history, we can change attitudes to protecting our natural world, in which we need to survive.

12.7 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on obtaining the Adjournment debate today. He is right. He impinged on my breakfast reading this morning. Listening to his speech I almost thought I was back as Minister for science.

I welcome this opportunity to debate further the matter of Antarctica. For a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Islington, North, the issue is fresh in the mind of the House. The Antarctic Bill successfully passed all its stages on 16 June and received Royal Assent only two weeks ago, on 15 July. It was an important milestone in the United Kingdom's commitment to the Antarctic. It was only the third time since 1967 that Parliament has enacted legislation for Antarctica.

The Act makes the necessary changes to UK law to enable us to ratify the 1991 environmental protocol to the Antarctic treaty. We hope to be in a position to do so by the end of the year, and certainly well before the next Antarctic treaty consultative meeting scheduled for Seoul in May 1995. The Government are currently working actively on the necessary subsidiary legislation.

The protocol cannot enter into force until it is ratified by all 26 consultative parties to the treaty. So far, nine have done so. It is telling that only two of the nine have so far enacted the necessary enabling legislation—legislation akin to the United Kingdom Antarctic Act 1994.

In terms of enacting legislation to implement the protocol, we remain in the vanguard of the treaty parties. That is fitting, for the United Kingdom has been intimately involved with the protocol since the early days of its gestation. Along with Chile, the United Kingdom called in 1989 for the convening of a meeting to negotiate provisions for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment. What was to emerge from those negotiations was the Madrid protocol, a document developed by the United Kingdom and some like-minded countries.

The environmental protocol is the most significant new element of law introduced into the Antarctic treaty system since the adoption of the Antarctic treaty in 1959. It provides the framework for environmental protection, which was lacking in the treaty. It has, in effect, brought the treaty system up to date and negated any calls which might have been made to carry out a review of the treaty.

The protocol was designed specifically with flexibility in mind. It is a relatively simple framework document. It bans mining for 50 years, unless there is a consensus to do otherwise; it contains general environmental principles; it establishes a new institution; the committee for environmental protection and it sets out inspection and emergency contingency procedures.

The detailed nuts and bolts of the protocol are contained in five annexes, which deal with environmental impact assessment, the conservation of flora and fauna, waste disposal and management, the prevention of marine pollution and protected areas. The annexes can be amended by relatively simple procedures to take account of changing environmental needs. That is important.

We are obliged under article 16 of the protocol to negotiate a further annexe, or annexes, on liability for damage. Those negotiations are under way, and the United Kingdom has played a most active role in the meetings to date.

Clearly, the priority facing the Antarctic treaty parties is the timely entry into force and implementation of the protocol. We will give what encouragement and assistance we can to other parties to ratify soon. I hope that the passage of the Antarctic Act will be one such sign of encouragement.

Implementation rests at both international and national levels. At their 16th meeting in Bonn in 1991, the treaty parties pledged to implement the provisions of the protocol, pending its entry into force, to the greatest extent practical. Individually, many have taken that commitment to heart. Collectively, the parties have, disappointingly, been somewhat slower.

One crucial element to getting the protocol up and running would be the committee for environmental protection—an advisory group to the treaty parties. At the recent treaty meeting in Kyoto, the United Kingdom was to the fore in urging parties to introduce an interim committee to carry out the functions of the committee. We were pleased that the challenge was taken up and a transitional environmental working group will begin work at the next consultative meeting in Seoul. It is a crucial step towards full implementation.

On the national level, the United Kingdom's main Antarctic operator, the British Antarctic Survey, has taken rapid steps to carry out the provisions of the protocol in practice. The BAS has carried out environmental impact assessments of key operations, conducted waste disposal audits, introduced oil spill contingency plans and trained staff to deal with such emergencies and begun a clean-up operation of abandoned British bases in Antarctica.

I must once again accord the Government's thanks to all concerned at the successful adoption of the Antarctic Act. Especially our thanks go to the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who sponsored the Bill in this House, and to Viscount Montgomery for sponsoring the Bill in another place.

If the provisions of the protocol are tough, those of the Antarctic Act are equally if not more so. The drafters of the legislation placed considerable emphasis on how best to ensure that United Kingdom nationals in Antarctica and British expeditions to Antarctica comply fully with their obligations under the protocol. That is achieved by a series of tough permitting provisions.

All British expeditions, vessels and ships to Antarctica will require a permit from the Secretary of State. Similarly, British bases in Antarctica will need a permit. Permits will be needed by those undertaking any mineral resource activity and, lastly, permits will be needed to take or interfere with wildlife or enter protected areas.

Overall, the provisions of the Antarctic Act are tough. To ensure that there are no loopholes in the system, we shall be discussing with the dependent territories how to extend the legislation to them. That is particularly important for our territories adjacent to Antarctica—the Falkland Islands and South Georgia—which act as gateway ports to the continent.

I shall take up one point that the hon. Gentleman raised in detail with respect to the fishing zone around South Georgia. The zone is fully consistent with the Antarctic treaty and the Antarctic fisheries convention and has as its sole purpose the more effective implementation of fish conservation measures taken under that convention.

Mr. Corbyn

The Minister said that the Government were in discussion with dependent territories—the Falklands and South Georgia—about the operations of the Antarctic Act. Can he be more specific? Does he mean that there are discussions about how they might be implemented, or about whether the Act applies to them in its entirety?

Mr. Davis

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, he will realise that my briefing is recent. I shall write to him on the detail of the issues he has raised so that we can be absolutely clear.

We have a major opportunity—through, for example, port state jurisdiction—to ensure that vessels or aircraft going to Antarctica from our territories can comply fully with our obligations under the protocol and we shall enforce the measures keenly.

The Antarctic treaty secretariat took up much of the hon. Gentleman's speech. The introduction of a secretariat for the Antarctic treaty would also be of major assistance to the implementation of the environmental protocol.

We have long urged that such a secretariat be set up. Indeed, in the longer term, a secretariat is crucial to the successful operation of the Antarctic treaty system. It is, however, important to stress that the site of the secretariat —I remind the House that we are talking about what would be the most important institution within the Antarctic treaty system—is acceptable to all parties. Treaty parties are active in trying to resolve the matter and we will play an active part. It remains our hope that consensus will be reached before too long.

We still have some work to do to ensure that our domestic legislation is up and running. A number of sections of the Antarctic Act need regulations to be effective and these are now being drafted. They will be laid before the House as soon as possible.

We believe that, through our legislation, we have the ability to ensure that rigorous environmental standards are maintained in Antarctica. We shall do what we can to see that other parties to the treaty do the same.

The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of detailed issues about which I shall have to write to him. I thank him again for giving me the opportunity to make this speech today.

Mr. Corbyn

The Minister has given a full reply to most of what I said, but the synthesis of what I was saying is that there is a very strong offer from Argentina to site the Antarctic secretariat in Buenos Aires, and the British Government apparently find it unacceptable. Although the Minister said that there is search for a consensus, he needs to be slightly more forthcoming.

It is not good enough to say that we, as a country, are in the vanguard of the campaign for the protection of the Antarctic and to say that there has to be further discussion to obtain consensus on the siting of the secretariat. As I understand it, the consensus is everybody except Britain. We need a straighter answer from the Government. Are they trying to veto the siting of the secretariat in Argentina and if so why? What are their proposals? The longer the debate goes on, the slower the setting up of a secretariat.

While one welcomes the development of regulations associated with the passage of the Act, surely the operation of the treaty, the protocol and the Act is the important thing —on the ground and in the air. While the British Antarctic Survey is carrying out the provisions of the Act, as passed in this Parliament, other countries are not doing the same. Tour operators are not getting the information and advice that they should be getting and the damage caused to the Antarctic environment by illegal or unqualified tour operators is, in some cases, considerable. Those issues must be resolved—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. This is a very long intervention and the House knows my views on interventions.

Mr. Davis

I had drawn my remarks to a close, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I shall reply. As I said, I will write to the hon. Gentleman in detail.

Locating the secretariat in Buenos Aires would unbalance the political relationship between the three counter-claimant states. For that reason, we did not suggest that the institution should be housed in the United Kingdom. We would prefer a site in a more neutral state. Within that context, we are making as much effort as possible to resolve the issue as quickly as we can. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with any more details, if he wishes to press the matter further.