HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc480-92

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

9.26 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I am very pleased to have another debate on Government policy towards Antarctica. I am grateful that it is at a reasonable hour because, on other occasions, such debates have taken place in the middle of the night. I have a personal fascination for the subject and that is why I have applied for previous Adjournment debates on it.

There have been two recent pieces of legislation on Antarctica. The first was the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989, which was strongly opposed by the Opposition because it envisaged the possibility of mineral exploration in Antarctica for commercial gain, which was completely at variance with the earlier 1959 treaty. I am glad to say that that legislation has now been superseded by the Antarctic Act 1994, which gives effect to the environmental protocol signed in Madrid in 1991. That was an enormous step forward.

Many people might ask why the House of Commons is debating Antarctica and what relevance it has to the everyday lives of ordinary people. I can understand why people might ask that question, but the answer is simple. We can study in Antarctica a continent in more or less its pristine beauty. We can also study at first hand the effects of gross exploitation of, in particular, the fauna of the continent and the seas around it, and the destruction of the large whale population within the area, a destruction that has meant that now only the Minke whales have a population of anything like the natural size of 100 years ago. Every other species of whale is grossly threatened. In some cases, the numbers surviving are so small that it is difficult to see how they can breed successfully in the future without developing genetic disorders.

In the past, the area has been over-fished. That is now more or less under control, but the vast amount of krill that have been taken out of Antarctica is a cause for concern because that has a knock-on effect on the natural life cycle of so many other mammals and fish within the seas around Antarctica.

Aside from the carnage of the whale population and the destruction of so many beautiful mammals, Antarctica has been a place of inspiration to many people, not only scientific explorers. The wonderful poem "The Ancient Mariner" is about a journey to the Antarctic, and is a description of the beauties of the southern ocean.

My purpose in this debate is to recognise what has gone before. Even at the height of the cold war, during the 1957 International Geophysical Year, countries were able to get together and consider ways of protecting and preserving Antarctica as a place of beauty and peace. In 1959, the treaty was signed at Washington. The document is held by the United States Government in Washington, as host to the signatories. It is still a relevant document which protects the continent in its natural form and beauty from war and military presence. That was an enormous step forward.

Moves were made by a number of people who had an eye, albeit recognising the enormous technical difficulties, to the possibilities of exploitation of minerals in Antarctica. There are possibly vast mineral resources there. That was what was behind the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989 and the interests of a number of international mining and oil companies. We have to recognise that public opinion and the campaigns around the world in favour of an Antarctic world park have had considerable impact. A number of Governments—perhaps surprising Governments in some cases—supported the concept of a world park and a place of preservation and peace.

The Madrid protocol was finally agreed in 1991. There was a great deal in it. I shall not quote it all, but I should like to mention a few points from it. Crucially, it said that there should be a moratorium on all mining or mineral exploration activities for at least 50 years. It is not a 50-year moratorium. It is 50 years in its initial stage. I would not want any long-sighted executives of oil or mining companies to be salivating in offices at the thought of mining exploration in 50 years. I hope that there will never be any mining exploration in the Antarctic, and the environmental protocol looked to that.

The protocol also confirmed the permanent protection of the environment and flora and fauna of the continent. That is important. Many people believe that Antarctica is a huge wilderness, and therefore that there is no great threat to it, but it has a delicate ecosystem. It is not a place of high precipitation—indeed, there is very little. There is a great deal of snow and ice blowing about and there are enormous ranges of temperatures and desperate cold, but it is a fragile ecosystem.

As it is so cold most of the time, the speed of biodegradability is slow, so environmental damage from oil spills or pollution of any sort takes far longer to be corrected by any natural process than it would in a tropical, sub-tropical or temperate climate such as we live in. An important part of the protocol established the principle of environmental impact assessment of all visits to the Antarctic by anyone—scientific researchers, tourists or whoever else.

Greenpeace has done a great deal of work on the Antarctic and has campaigned vigorously. Greenpeace International should be commended for the work that it has done internationally. Its Antarctic campaigner, Iain Redditch, who is based in Amsterdam, should be congratulated on the work that he has done to persuade so many Governments to speed up the ratification process.

In 1994–95, the Greenpeace ship toured several Antarctic bases—not by any means in a spirit of hostility. It gave due notice to the bases' occupants and sought to examine what was happening, to check the effects of the 1991 environmental protocol and to discover what the bases were doing to clean up their act. It visited eight stations, which were staffed by people from Brazil, Poland, Peru, South Korea, Argentina, Chile, China and Russia. Argentina and Chile staffed two bases each. Greenpeace would have liked to visit more bases, but the process takes time and the journey is difficult.

The Greenpeace report said: Overall, Greenpeace found that over three years after the signing of the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, countries with Antarctic bases are continuing to violate the Madrid Protocol's provisions, and many working on the continent are unaware of the Madrid Protocol's requirements. It was especially scathing about the conditions at the Chinese station, where a large amount of rubbish had been dumped and which was causing environmental damage. It is important that we recognise the importance of having environmental impact assessments and continuing inspection and monitoring of what happens at the bases.

If we are to achieve the intended effect of the 1959 treaty and of the 1991 Madrid protocol, the question of ratification of the treaty is important. There are 26 signatory nations to the treaty. They are "consultative parties" in the wording of the treaty and 20 have ratified the Madrid protocol, including Britain. There are six still to go. Four of them look as though they will ratify in the near future with no great problem envisaged.

The greatest delay involves Russia and Japan. I would be grateful if the Minister could say what pressures the Foreign Office and British diplomats in those countries are applying to make it clear that the House has passed the Antarctic Act 1994. We have ratified the treaty and want it to be ratified by all the nations concerned. Once 24 nations have ratified it, I should have thought that the idea that Russia and Japan are the slowest would embarrass them. I should like to hear that the British Government will do their utmost to encourage them not to be way behind everyone else in ratifying.

The Russian political system is in turmoil and there is uncertainty about what will happen there. In Japan, there is a problem that is not linked to the Antarctic treaty—its predilection for defying the International Whaling Commission by continuing its so-called scientific whaling of Minke whales. It took 300 from Antarctic waters in the past year. There is an erroneous linkage of the two issues. The environmental protection of the Antarctic stands alone, and it is vital that Japan ratifies the treaty.

My second main question involves the establishment of the secretariat envisaged in the 1991 Madrid protocol. It is essential that a secretariat for the Antarctic should be set up so that there is a central point of contact for discussion, for environmental impact assessment studies to be lodged and for monitoring the future of the Antarctic and the growing number of people who seek to visit it, and the possible dangers that go with that. That is no minor point. It is important that we get the secretariat up and running as soon as possible.

I should not have thought that the issue of where the secretariat is to be sited would be greatly controversial, but it appears to have become so. Many treaty nations feel that it should be sited in a gateway nation to the Antarctic. The gateway nations are Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. There is a considerable head of steam among the majority of treaty nations to site the secretariat in Argentina. Unfortunately, I understand from previous parliamentary answers that I have received from the Minister that the British Government are not disposed towards it being sited there because they do not want it sited in a country that has conflicting pre-1959 claims to Antarctic lands.

As the claims are held in abeyance for the duration of the treaty and the protocols following on from it, the conflicting claims are somewhat academic in many ways. Exactly the same argument about conflicting claims could apply to most other signatory nations. Argentina has not opposed the convention on the preservation of marine life in the Antarctic being based in Australia. So I hope that the British Government will accept that it is important to get the secretariat up and running, and that a majority of treaty nations support it being sited in Argentina.

During a recent visit to this country of the Argentine Foreign Minister, I took part in one of the discussions with him and mentioned the issue. I understand that, at a later meeting with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the establishment of the secretariat was discussed with the Argentine Foreign Minister. I would be obliged if the Minister could tell us exactly what went on at those discussions. Should President Menem of Argentina visit this country, that would presumably be one of the issues that would be discussed with him. It is important that we have a sensible relationship with Argentina. It is not particularly helpful if we adopt a dog-in-the-manger attitude towards the location of the secretariat.

British standing on the Antarctic is good. The British Antarctic Survey has conducted high-quality scientific and biological research in the area for many years. It has produced high-quality reports and has a very high standing indeed. The work done there by Joe Farman and others in discovering the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic has worldwide implications.

However, British standing has been diminished by the Government's attitude to the location of the secretariat. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the British Government can do quite a lot in that area to ensure that the secretariat is established and up and running as soon as possible. It is some years since the Madrid protocol and the Antarctic Act. It is time that we moved on and got the secretariat working.

Thirdly, article 16 of the protocol, on liability for damage and destruction that happens in Antarctica, has been under discussion for about four years. I well remember that, when the Antarctic Bill was being pushed through the House by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling)—as a private Member's Bill with Government support — liability for damage and destruction was debated extensively in the Standing Committee. We discussed whether an expedition's individual members were responsible for any damage, or whether it should be the host country of the expedition. We also discussed what should happen if a ship sank or an aircraft crashed in the Antarctic.

The question of liability has to be sorted out. The growth of tourism in the area has been considerable. Until a secretariat is established and we have total adherence to the guidelines on Antarctic tourism and non-governmental organisation activities adopted in Seoul, Korea in April 1994, the dangers of damage to the environment and the need to clean it up are considerable. I would be grateful if the Minister could let me know what is being done on that question and how it will be sorted out.

In four years of informal meetings, why have non-governmental organisations been continually excluded from the discussions, when they have shown that they have an enormous and responsible interest in the Antarctic and much expertise to contribute to the discussions?

My fourth question for the Minister concerns the future of the Faraday base, which was one of the bases owned and run by the British Antarctic Survey. It was due to be closed and demolished and the equipment brought back to this country. Instead, there was an agreement to transfer the base and its equipment to the Government of the Ukraine, which was a major contributor to the former Soviet Union's scientific efforts in Antarctica. They felt that it would be useful to have a base—and they have now got the base, which is a good thing.

The Ukraine agreed to continue to produce the meteorological information that had been collected at the base—it will be handed over to the British Antarctic Survey. I trust that—like all scientific information collected in Antarctica—there will be the normal degree of transparency and there will be a widespread publication of the results. It is good that the Government of the Ukraine have the base and that it is working.

However, the Ukraine has serious problems in relation to Government resources and spending. The base would have had to have been upgraded considerably had the British Antarctic Survey kept it. Is Britain using its expertise and assisting in ensuring that the base is upgraded so that waste disposal systems, fuel systems and energy systems are the best and the safest, and cause the least possible environmental damage? Those issues are extremely important in such a fragile ecosystem.

Antarctica is a beautiful place, but it is also a great weather vane and a source of great information that is of value to the rest of the world. Earlier, I mentioned the work done by Farman and others at the British Antarctic Survey in discovering the hole in the ozone layer. Had the British Antarctic Survey not been doing that work and had other scientists not been doing work on air pollution and sunlight within the Antarctic, we may not have known the disastrous effects of chlorofluorocarbons within our atmosphere and of the continual chemical process that is set off in the upper atmosphere by the release of chlorine gas.

However, we would have known about the growth of skin cancers in the southern continents—in Chile, in Argentina, and in Australia in particular. We are now finding out the effects of ozone depletion in the northern hemisphere. That had the knock-on effect of the Montreal protocol on the phasing out of CFCs. I wish it was being done more quickly and that it had been done immediately, but at least the information was there in the first place. Perhaps the world woke up and recognised that there were limits to the amount of pollution that it can put into the atmosphere.

One can drill into the Antarctic ice, take out an ice core and measure what the exact state of the world's atmosphere was like at the time of the Romans, at the time of Christ and at the time of the Norman conquests. One can measure exactly what the air was like, one can see the differing levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one can see the differing levels of pollution, and one can see the effects and dangers of global warming. It is important that we are able to do that. I refer also to the current process of melting off parts of the Antarctic ice cover—all sorts of things can be measured.

It is important that we recognise that Antarctica is a place for the whole world; that it is a place of international importance and heritage. We would not have got this far if people had not wanted to undertake scientific research there. Above all, people have not said that this is a place that we can exploit and destroy—instead, they have said that this is a place that we want to protect in all its beauty and learn lessons from. Many environmental groups, particularly Greenpeace International, have campaigned on behalf of the Antarctic. That has been a welcome and an enormous contribution.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is pleased with the progress that has been made in the passage of the Antarctic Act 1994 through the House. I hope that he will do everything that he can to ensure further ratification of the treaty and the establishment of the secretariat, which is very much part of the treaty, and of the environmental protocol that goes with it.

I hope that the Minister will give us some hope that the British Government will not be the last in the line in this but, instead, will be a mover and a shaker. I hope that he is able to assure us that all the campaigning that achieved the Madrid protocol and a change in attitude towards the Antarctic will get the secretariat established and will ensure that environmental impact statements are done thoroughly and that Antarctica is properly protected, as it has to be.

9.50 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Sir Nicholas Bonsor)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for securing the Adjournment debate, for two reasons. First, he is raising once again the extremely important issue of Antarctica. The hon. Gentleman has said that he has a personal fascination for it. I am aware that, both in 1991 and in 1994, Adjournment debates along the same lines as this evening's debate were conducted. It is useful that we have the opportunity for periodic updates as the situation in the Antarctic moves on, quite rapidly. Secondly, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity of having the last word in the House before the Easter recess. It is an unusual privilege and one that I enjoy, but I hope that I do not have it too often.

I largely share the hon. Gentleman's interest in and fascination for what goes on in the Antarctic. Although, as part of my remit, I have not yet had a chance to get down to the Antarctic, a month ago I visited the British Antarctic Survey and Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. I had the opportunity to hear at first hand of the work of our scientists in Antarctica. I was greatly impressed by what I heard and I whole-heartedly endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of their work, the vital need for humanity to understand what is happening and the value of the research that is being done in trying to alert us to possible future danger.

We as a country are a major player in the Antarctic treaty system. Our long-standing presence in Antarctica is provided by a programme of first-class scientific research, which is the envy of most of our Antarctic treaty partners. We are committed to environmental protection in Antarctica. It is our policy to maintain that position and to maintain our lead.

I shall take up the detail of some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and try to deal with them. First, there is the implementation of the environmental protocol. The United Kingdom ratified the protocol in April 1995. We have already actively implemented all its provisions. We were in the vanguard of treaty partners in introducing domestic enabling legislation. The Antarctic Regulations 1995 are now fully in force, as is much of the Antarctic Act 1994. Steps are in hand to bring the remaining sections into force as soon as possible, and I trust before the next austral season. The legislation provides a tough framework within which to meet our obligations under the protocol.

United Kingdom activities in Antarctica will take due account of the need to minimise environmental damage. The protocol cannot enter into force, however, until it is ratified by all 26 consultative parties. As the hon. Gentleman said, only 20 have done so far. We shall continue to press the others to join us in ratifying the protocol.

The six remaining parties are Belgium, Finland, India, Japan, Russia and the United States. They will be pressed to ratify during the forthcoming treaty consultative meeting. The most likely forecast, unfortunately, is that that will not happen overnight. We very much hope, however, that the protocol will come into force within the next two years. We look forward to that time in eager anticipation.

The United Kingdom's main operator in Antarctica, the British Antarctic Survey, has already introduced measures and procedures to address the protocol.

Mr. Corbyn

What signs has the Minister received from the Japanese Government, and the Japanese Parliament especially, of the likelihood of early consideration of ratification of the treaty? It is my understanding that the Japanese response is likely to be the greatest stumbling block. The other five nations, while late and slow, are likely, it seems, to endorse the protocol.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment. I think that the Japanese are the most difficult to persuade. We are engaged in substantial dialogue with them. We are examining the issues in detail. I hope that they will be persuaded to ratify the protocol. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we shall win the argument, but we will try our hardest to do so.

The environmental impact assessment of major proposed developments has been carried out and tough waste management procedures have been introduced. When I was in Cambridge I saw how effectively we are implementing those procedures, which include retrograding waste materials out of Antarctica. To put that into usual English, we are taking all waste away with us.

Abandoned United Kingdom bases have been surveyed and cleaned up—I saw pictures of what has been done and it is extremely impressive—including a major renovation in the past field season of the designated historic site of Port Lockroy, a United Kingdom presence in Antarctica dating back to the early 1940s. In addition, the British Antarctic Survey has produced a waste management audit, oil spill contingency plans for its bases and ships, and new management plans for protected sites. A number of United Kingdom initiatives have been used as model examples by other Antarctic treaty parties. We remain at the forefront of developing new ideas for environmental protection.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the Antarctic treaty secretariat. I agree that the establishment of a secretariat for the Antarctic treaty will be a major asset in the successful operation of the Antarctic treaty system. It will greatly enhance the implementation of the environmental protocol when it comes into force. Indeed, the United Kingdom has for many years urged that a secretariat be set up.

One of the most important criteria for hosting such a secretariat—which the hon. Gentleman identified in an Adjournment debate in July 1994—is the need for neutrality in terms of Antarctic claims. We do not see how a treaty party that has a territorial claim against another treaty party can meet that criterion. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Chile, Argentina and the United Kingdom share a claim for the same patch.

The Government believe that, out of the 26 signatories, it should be possible to find another site that would be uncontroversial where we could locate the secretariat. Unfortunately, that has not yet proved to be the case and I suggest that Argentina should make a concession and agree to a neutral site. I do not believe that the United Kingdom should make a concession to one of the parties that will ultimately test our claims in the Antarctic.

The forthcoming Antarctic treaty consultative meeting, which will be held in the Netherlands on 29 April for 12 days, will raise several issues. The first concerns the transitional environmental working group. It was established last year as the interim institution for the committee for environmental protection—a new body that will come into being when the protocol is in force. Unfortunately, the first meeting of the TEWG last year was not a resounding success.

At Utrecht, the United Kingdom will attempt to regalvanise the working group. We shall propose that it be given four or five key tasks to address and no more so that it may focus effectively on matters of prime importance. We shall also propose that the momentum continue between sessions through correspondence groups acting through nominated co-ordinators so that the impetus of progress is not lost.

The future success of the protocol depends in part on the effective operation of the committee for environmental protection, which, in turn, hinges on the transitional group getting off to a good start. We shall do all we can to assist that process.

Secondly, there is the question of the liability annexe—an issue raised specifically by the hon. Gentleman. The treaty parties are committed to negotiating a further annexe to the environmental protocol in order to address liability for environmental damage in Antarctica. We are actively engaged in that process. Liability regulations would act as a deterrent to environmental damage and would also help to achieve clean-up and restoration in the event of such damage occurring. It is vital that the liability regime should not only be legally competent but be designed to address the realities of Antarctica. Negotiations must engage not only lawyers, but those who are involved in Antarctica and who are aware of its special and harsh qualities and of the extreme difficulties of operating in that region.

A liability regime that did not take such factors into account would be unworkable. It could cost a huge amount of money, with no quantifiable environmental benefit. It could also prove damaging to our science programme in Antarctica, where resources would have to be deployed to meet an ill-designed liability regime. We believe, therefore, that it is important to get the basis of the regime right. We are not satisfied that we have currently reached that degree of consensus.

Mr. Corbyn

I understand what the Minister is saying. I am looking for some hope that after four years of informal discussion we are in a position to reach an agreement on a liability regime. In the meantime, people are travelling to the Antarctic and there is a danger of oil spills, ship wrecks and aircraft crashes, as have happened in the past. The longer we delay in setting up a liability regime, the greater the danger of pollution in the area.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

All of us who are concerned about maintaining the ecological strength of the Antarctic would agree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment. I mentioned the subject when I visited the Antarctica survey team in Cambridge. We have not yet got to the stage of an enormous ecological liability threat, given the current amount of tourism and the amount of work being done in the Antarctic. We have a little time, but nobody should be complacent, and we must try to move forward as fast as possible.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

The United Kingdom Government will make every effort to do so. However, it is never easy to obtain a consensus among 26 parties, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Tourism is related to that point and continues to grow in Antarctica. Almost 10,000 tourists visited the continent in the past austral summer—most by ship-borne cruises. All the information that I have seen suggests that the tourists behaved well. Those who visited British bases looked after them well and complied with the strict terms we have laid down about going ashore and what they were allowed to do when ashore. We insist that any waste that the tourists may produce has to be removed with them.

Tourism is a legitimate activity in Antarctica and, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, that will be the reality in the future. We could not ban tourism in that part of the world, but—as the hon. Gentleman said tonight and in July 1994—it needs to be controlled. Adequate means to do so are available. It will require effective implementation of the protocol, not the imposition of yet more regulations. We have the framework, but we must ensure that the framework is properly enforced.

The UK will provide the latest update on tourism to the forthcoming Antarctic treaty consultative meeting. We were a major partner this past season to a US programme to identify wildlife sites of major importance to tourism. The results of that will also be presented at the Utrecht meeting.

We are also keen to promote port state jurisdiction to ensure that rigorous standards can be met by vessels and aircraft going to Antarctica. Most of those leave from the so-called gateway ports, which include Stanley in the Falkland Islands in our jurisdiction.

United Kingdom domestic legislation already incorporates the concept of port state jurisdiction. We see merit in extending that to wider Antarctic communities and enforcing it in that region. That would ensure that comparable standards between gateway ports are maintained. That issue will be explored further with our Antarctic treaty partners.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked me about the transfer of the Faraday base to the Ukraine. On 6 February, the UK base of Faraday was formally transferred to the Government of Ukraine. That followed detailed, lengthy negotiations, in which all the points that the hon. Gentleman raised were confronted.

In a spirit of scientific co-operation under the Antarctic treaty, the UK offered Faraday to the international Antarctic community. Ukraine responded favourably and Ukraine scientists were integral to the Antarctic programme of the former USSR. The transfer will enable them to re-establish their commitment to Antarctica. The transfer will also help to reduce the escalation of bases in Antarctica—a feature much criticised in the past by environmental groups.

Most important, Ukraine has agreed to continue the acquisition of long-standing scientific data sets. Data will be provided free to the UK and to relevant international bodies for at least the next 10 years.

Once Ukraine has consolidated its science programme at Faraday, now renamed Vernadsky, we look forward to it, in due course, applying for consultative status to the Antarctic treaty. We also look forward to Ukraine acceding to the environmental protocol. I am glad to be able to tell the House that in the interim Ukraine has made it clear that it will abide by the tough obligations of the protocol.

The transfer of Faraday is part of a major rationalisation of the BAS programme, a major objective of which is to strengthen the survey's science base in the British Antarctic territory by capitalising on the new infrastructure put in place by the Government since the mid-1980s. That has included the new purpose-built bases at Halley and Rothera; the expansion of the BAS fleet of aircraft, including the acquisition of a De Havilland Dash 7 to operate direct between Falklands and Rothera; and the launch of the survey's highly sophisticated research vessel, the RRS James Clark Ross. I have not seen the ship but have seen a model of her, and she looks an extremely exciting vessel.

The "Way Forward" programme, which attracted an additional £4 million in the 1993 public expenditure survey round, enabled new laboratory and accommodation facilities to be constructed at Signy in the south Orkneys and expansion of further laboratories at Rothera. That building programme is well on schedule. The transfer of terrestrial ecology and inshore marine biology to the new facilities at Rothera will offer major new scientific challenges.

Mr. Corbyn

There has been a large increase in the fur seal population on Signy. Is it affected by that development? If so, what is being done to protect the seals' ecosystem and stocks of food supplies?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I am not aware that the seal population has been affected, but I will check and write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm that opinion.

I refer next to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and to the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources—which was not specifically raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North but is important in this context. I wrote to my hon. Friend for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) on 22 March with a full explanation of our policy towards fishing around South Georgia. A copy of that letter has been placed in the Library. I am grateful for the additional opportunity to point out the steps that we have taken to ensure the conservation of fish stocks around South Georgia—something to which I attach particular importance, as I do to the conservation of all stocks in the Antarctic sea area. I know that sentiment is shared by the hon. Gentleman.

We are in no doubt about our sovereignty over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and hence our right to exercise coastal state jurisdiction around the islands. Fishing in sub-Antarctic waters, including the waters around South Georgia, is regulated by a multilateral treaty—the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, or CCAMLR. The commission established by the convention adopts conservation measures binding on its member states, but the commission has no enforcement powers. It is left to flag states to ensure that their vessels comply with the conservation measures. The commission was established in 1980, but flag state enforcement of the conservation measures has been largely ineffective. Over-fishing continued throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s and was increasing.

Non-members of the convention are not bound by the conservation measures, but the convention recognises that parties to it with sovereign islands within its area of application may exercise coastal state jurisdiction in respect of those islands. Such jurisdiction may be exercised in respect of all vessels, including those of countries that are not parties to the convention.

In recognition of the continuing threat posed by over-fishing to the conservation of the fish stocks, a 200-nautical mile maritime zone was proclaimed in 1993 around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. A fisheries ordinance was enacted, which provides for comprehensive regulation of fishing within the zone. Licences are required for fishing there. Licences are granted only in a manner consistent with the conservation measures adopted by the CCAMLR commission.

Mr. Corbyn

I mentioned the over-fishing of krill outside the designated 200-mile zone from South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Will the Minister confirm that that issue can be raised at the Utrecht meeting, or that there could be a separate meeting? If over-fishing of krill continues, the effect on other marine live and mammals will be enormous, and could have an ecological effect as devastating as over-whaling in the past, which led to the moratorium.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I fully share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the over-fishing of krill. It is a critical part of the ecological chain. Over-fishing of krill could have a devastating knock-on effect. I cannot guarantee that this is part of the Utrecht discussion—I am not sure, but I will look into it and let the hon. Gentleman know. It is certainly a matter of primary concern to the UK Government, and we are in constant dialogue with other countries affected whose fishing fleets might threaten the ecological balance. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the categorical assurance that the Government take the issue extremely seriously.

Argentina asserts that our licensing regime is a new development that impinges on the fishing activities of Argentine-flagged vessels. The licensing regime operated by the Government of the territory has been no different this season from that in force in the previous two seasons. Since the introduction of the fisheries ordinance, all vessels have been required to obtain a licence before fishing in the waters around South Georgia. Unlicensed vessels are subject to arrest and prosecution.

This year it was apparent that a number of vessels, including several Argentine-flagged vessels, intended to target this limited fishery, and that this number was far greater than the total allowable catch could withstand. The projection was for a fishing pressure of about 40 vessels, targeting a 4,000 tonne TAC. There would have been three results: first, a rapid exhaustion of the allowable catch; secondly, an uneconomic take for the majority, if not all, of the vessels involved; and, thirdly, there would have been the inevitable risk of large-scale illegal fishing as vessels attempted to ensure viable, economic returns on their fishing efforts.

The South Georgia licensing regime does not preclude vessels from fishing unhindered outside of South Georgia waters. But with due regard to the TAC, and other conservation measures, the commissioner for South Georgia limited the number of licences available to 10, although there was far greater demand. Licences were required by Chilean, Korean, Russian and US vessels. In addition, one Argentine vessel voluntarily applied for, and was granted, a licence. The vessel operator subsequently arranged to transfer the licence to another non-Argentine vessel as part of a commercial arrangement. The allegation that we put pressure on the vessel to apply for a licence was wholly unfounded.

The South Georgia fisheries regime is legal in terms of our international obligations under the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. Moreover it is wholly consistent with the convention in terms of its conservation measures.

In summary, the United Kingdom remains committed to Antarctica. We shall continue to demonstrate that commitment through a programme of first-class science there. We shall also continue to maintain a high political profile within the Antarctic treaty system.

Antarctica remains the platform from which many of today's global processes such as ozone depletion, atmospheric pollution, global warming and sea-level rise can best be monitored. The hon. Gentleman touched on the importance of those activities. Such issues are crucial to the global environment and to mankind. The UK will continue to play an active role in environmental protection and scientific research in Antarctica. I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, and to reiterate my thanks to him for raising this important subject in the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Ten o'clock till Tuesday 16 April, pursuant to resolution [26 March].