HL Deb 18 November 1971 vol 325 cc750-60

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. We are, I think, all familiar with those weather reports on the radio, with their ominous warnings of "gales imminent off Rockall". But maybe it will be the wish of noble Lords to have their memories refreshed of the island's vital statistics. So therefore, for the purpose of this debate, I feel that I should put on record the fact that the Island of Rockall juts out of the Atlantic some 200 miles West North West of Barra Head, in the Hebrides, and about 165 miles West of St. Kilda. It is only about 70 ft. high and its base at still water, which is rare, is only about 100 ft. by 80 ft.

I had a very interesting letter, my Lords, the other day from a citizen of the Island of Islay giving me the reasoning behind the name "Rockall". He said this: Rockall is recorded in pure Gaelic (on page 764 of Edward Dwelly's Dictionary) with the meaning of Roaring and from time immemorial our Hebridean seafarers have known Rockall as the sea rock of Roaring '. He goes on to say that to incorporate the Hebridean rock of Rockall within the County of Inverness has, in fact, been solidly backed up over many centuries by the Hebridean Gaelic name of the rock itself.

My Lords, very few attempts have been made to land on Rockall, partly because it is a very difficult operation from the sea because of the steep, smooth sides of the island's granite, and the constant swell, let alone frequent violent storms. The only marked spot on the Island of Rockall is a small ledge called Halls Ledge, after Lieutenant Basil Hall of Her Majesty's frigate "Endymion", who in 1811 managed, with considerable difficulty, to land from a boat and reach the ledge which bears his name. The Island of Rockall's exact position was first fixed by a Captain Vidal in 1831 from H.M.S. "Pike"; but your Lordships will recall that in 1955, following the decision to establish a guided weapons training range on South Uist the island was formally annexed on behalf of the Crown. The annexation was effected by a naval landing party from H.M.S. "Vidal" acting under instructions contained in a Royal Warrant dated September 14, 1955.

My Lords, the effect of this annexation in 1955 was to make Rockall part of Her Majesty's Dominions. But while it established British sovereignty over the island the annexation did not and could not in itself make Rockall part of the United Kingdom. We therefore have the rather strange situation that although the island is one of Her Majesty's possessions, it is not subject to any administrative or legal system. It is said, my Lords, that nature abhors a vacuum, and this is equally true of the law; and Her Majesty's Government consider it desirable to remedy the anomaly I have described by incorporating the island by Act of Parliament into the United Kingdom. I am glad indeed that the beneficent influence of the Scottish legal system is thus to be extended to another part of Her Majesty's Dominions.

In practical terms the effect of this Bill will be to bring Rockall within the scope of any legislation enacted by Parliament which applies either to Scotland or to the United Kingdom as a whole. It will be possible, for example, once Rockall is incorporated in the United Kingdom, for an Order to be made under the Continental Shelf Act 1964 designating the area for purposes of exploration and exploitation. With the rapid development of new techniques of sea bed exploration this is a matter which in due course no doubt will receive the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. A further consequence of incorporating the island in the United Kingdom is that the provisions of the Fishery Limits Act 1964 will apply to it in the same way as they apply to the remainder of the United Kingdom. My Lords, this is a short and, for once, an uncomplicated Bill. For this reason I commend it to the House, and I have very great pleasure in moving that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.)

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I especially welcome the noble Baroness's opening remarks. They have certainly helped me, and I am sure a number of other noble Lords who know a little more about the subject of this Bill. I should like to welcome the Bill from these Benches, because I believe it is both necessary and timely for the reasons given by the noble Baroness, especially when Scottish fishing rights are still to be finalised with the E.E.C. countries. I hope that the right of establishment on the map of this lonely islet as an integral part of Scotland will play a small but essential role in reassuring the men and women who earn their living from these forbidding waters of a permanent livelihood for the future. The noble Baroness referred to the intrepid sailor or aviator whose task it is to put the Union Flag on top of the rock. I understand that this act was repeated in 1959, presumably to replace the flag and re-establish Her Majesty's claim to this territory. Now that this Bill clearly recognises Rockall as part of Scotland, I should like to ask the noble Lady that the flag of St. Andrew, the national flag of Scotland, be allowed to fly at parity with the Union Flag, as it does on so many national monuments in Scotland. Although Rockall is not a national monument in any sense of the word, it is a Scottish rock, as this Bill clearly states, and I should like to feel that it is going to be identified as such by the flying of a Scottish flag, which would seem to me the simplest and most practical way of achieving this.

Besides the establishment of fishing rights, I am glad that the noble Baroness mentioned also the mineral and oil rights and the potential there is on the surrounding sea bed. I welcome that this Bill recognises that the Island of Rockall will be brought under the jurisdiction of the Scottish courts. I hope the noble Baroness will, confirm that the same will apply to all mineral and oil rights that are developed in the surrounding sea bed, especially perhaps for the future, when the future rights and royalties are to be discussed.

There are two other minor and entirely Scottish points which may need further clarification. The noble Baroness did not mention the question of teinds. No doubt she has already had some communication with the Church of Scotland General Trustees about teinds and will be able to confirm that they will not be applicable in this instance. If they are, perhaps she will be able to say how much and whose responsibility it is to pay them. There also appears to me to be no mention of clan authority, which I do not believe should he overlooked on these occasions. I should have thought that the MacLeods of the Western Isles might have strong claims on this island because of their historical associations with St. Kilda—and I see the noble Baroness nodding. But, according to a fellow clansman of mine, who was quoted on this morning's programme "Today", it would appear that the Clan Mackay have some rights in this respect. I understand that the island was privately claimed by my clan in 1846, but the noble Lord, Lord Reay, my Chieftain who sits on these Benches and is perhaps in the Chamber this afternoon, may be able to enlighten us further on this point. I should like to ask the noble Baroness, with some seriousness, anyway, if this aspect has been adequately taken care of, as it has been over the centuries with all matters relating to Scottish land ownership.

The noble Baroness is perhaps aware that during the war the island was on rare occasions used by Her Majesty's ships for target practice. Those parties whom she has already mentioned who are interested in rocketry in nearby South Uist may also find it useful for a similar purpose. I think it would be helpful if some undertaking were given that this is not to be the case, or indeed, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, that the rock will not be used for this purpose. It would be a terrible tragedy, our having taken so much trouble to put this rock on the map, if some enthusiastic strategic command were to remove it during the course of its duties. It is also important that the wildlife inhabitants of Rockall, and the colony of sea birds, including the Rockall lyre, which is of special interest to ornithologists, should remain there undisturbed for the future, as they have done for centuries past.

Finally, my Lords, I wish to end on a more serious note. The Island of Rockall, as the noble Baroness has explained, is a remote and rocky fastness with no apparent ability to sustain human habitation. However, its very remoteness, its apparent uselessness, could one day tempt certain interests to see it as a safe and stable platform for experiments involving nuclear devices. Those who have lived under the shadow of the recent underground test in the Aleutian Islands now know to their cost that geographical isolation from the main stream of so-called civilised societies is no protection from the more destructive elements that live among them. It is for this reason that I ask the noble Baroness to give an assurance that this newly acquired part of Scotland, this small speck, if you like, on our planet's surface, which is about to become, through this Bill, the responsibility of civilised Government for the first time, will be entirely left alone by homo sapiens, in perpetuity. Such an assurance by the noble Baroness would, admittedly, be no more than a token gesture, but, on the other hand, it might go some way towards confirming the sincerity of the Government's intentions to safeguard our environment for the future. If such harmless assurance cannot be given, I must conclude, with sadness, like T. S. Eliot in his VIIth Chorus from The Rock, appropriately enough, that the Government's position is similar to those who are prepared only to: … stand aside with empty hands and palms turned upwards In an age which advances progressively backwards. I have no doubt that such assurances will be forthcoming, and that the various points that I have raised, some minor and some perhaps more important, will be answered satisfactorily, in which case I have no hesitation in welcoming from these Benches this Bill as it stands.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, I think that everybody who has ever been in the Royal Navy will have seen Rockall, but not many other people. It is a dreadful place. There could be no place more desolate, more despairing and more awful to see in the whole world. Over it hangs, of course, the spirit of one of the most remarkable creations of modern fiction: I refer to that embodiment of the fallen nature of man, Pincher Martin. It is now to become part of the Rural District of Harris in the County of Inverness, and if any of us wants to go and live there, if we built a house we should, as Scotland is a development area, attract housing subsidy, and when that house is battered by the waves we should attract 75 per cent. improvement grant. If we wished to set up a small industry, we should, because it is in Scotland, get an investment grant for a little while yet, until the Government change all that.

I will not speak about "Tory imperialism", or even about "bungled local government reform". Noble Lords on this side of the House support this Bill. We think it is a bad idea to have bits of land sticking up out of the sea the status of which in national law, and therefore in international law, is in any way in doubt. Some of us feel that there is one bit of the wording of the Bill that is open to question, and that is where, in the Long Title, it refers to "that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland", I know what Scotland is; I think we all do. If we are going to put Rockall into "that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland", should we not apply to it the laws not of Scotland, as the Bill very properly says, but of "that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland"? I raise this point without pressing the matter, to inquire whether there is any possibility of reverting to standard English usage whereby Scotland is Scotland and we can keep away from "that part of" something else.

I think the annexation of Rockall to Harris opens a larger question, and I should be glad if the noble Baroness could tell us something about that at the end of this short debate. As she said, very properly, openly and fully, this is a matter of mineral rights and fishery rights. It is not long since this House had a set piece debate on the law of the sea bed, and in that debate the Government advanced in tentative terms a certain policy which might be applied to the carve up of the sea bed beyond national limits throughout the world. I think it would be fair to say that that policy did not find much favour in the House, and it would be equally fair to say that nobody could think of a better one.

There is to be in 1973 a World Conference on the International Law of the Sea and the Sea Bed—meaning the top of the sea, the water of the sea, the surface of the sea bed and everything under the sea bed—the lot. I think the House would be glad to know, not indeed what Government policy is going to be in 1973 —it would be unreasonably early to expect that—but to know what the Government are doing about formulating a policy in this extremely complicated and broad matter. One might make a comparison with the 1972 conference in Stockholm on the Human Environment, where the Secretary of State for the Environment has very properly set up a structure by which the Government are to take views of informed bodies and formulate a proper policy for this other vast subject. Is anything comparable to be done with regard to the World Law of the Sea Conference in 1973? How are the Government going to set about getting such a policy and, when they have got it, will they tell Parliament about it before they go to the Conference, in order that Parliament may have its say in the formulation of this policy, which is a matter of vast import for the rest of the future of mankind? My Lords, I repeat that we on these Benches welcome this Bill and give it blessing.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to declare at the outset that I have no interest in the Island of Rockall. However, I have some interest in this matter because I have a remote connection with another annexation which took place in the 1860s of the Island of Redonda. I am, I believe, the sole Vice-Admiral in the Redondian Navy and I was Minister of Marine to his late Majesty King John of Redonda until his unfortunate demise. The island of Redonda was annexed to the Crown in the 1860s, the Kings of Redonda (King Neil was on the throne at the time) objecting. Nevertheless, it was annexed and the Colonial Office proceeded to recognise the Crown of Redonda on the basis, as they said, that the Kings of Redonda did not raise the inhabitants in revolt. The Crown might have been inconvenienced, but it was unlikely to have been damaged by any revolt of the inhabitants of Redonda in view of the fact that the only inhabitants at the time—and in fact now—are guano pigeons. So the island was continued under the British Crown, nevertheless having its own Kings ever since, and the Kings of Redonda have continued to exercise such rights as they ever had until now.

I want to ask the noble Baroness this question: are there any ancient rights relating to the Island of Rockall? I know that my Welsh ancestors were quite good grabbers of one thing and another, and my Scottish ancestors were, if anything, rather better. Has none of them ever claimed any ancient rights and, if so, what, to the Island of Rockall? I know that my Campbell ancestors, and the Dukes of Argyll in particular, claimed to be Admirals of the Western Waters. Did this give them any right over the area? It may be that some other Scot may have claimed some ancient rights in the area. It would be very interesting to know if this is so, and perhaps the noble Baroness could tell us.


My Lords, having regard to the quaint expression which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, mentioned, that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland, this reminds me that during the last war an American soldier was given a very convivial evening in a public house in Glasgow, and as he left he turned to the assembled company and said: "I sure will tell the folks back home that the swellest part of England is Scotland."


My Lords, reference has been made in the course of speeches to-day to target practice, to the exploitation of minerals and oils and to the conservation of wild life. It seems to me that there may be some conflict between these interests. Could the noble Baroness give us any idea of which will have priority?


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness could tell us if there are any liabilities. We have heard of the possible advantages that may arise from the passing of this Bill, but are there any liabilities? In this life nearly everything that has an advantage almost always has a disadvantage, and I am wondering what hidden liabilities or disadvantages there might be in this Bill. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I would thank all noble Lords who have each one welcomed this Bill and also thank them for taking part in this debate. Perhaps I may answer the points in the order in which they were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, wanted to know whether it was possible to raise the Saltire over the Island of Rockall rather than the Union Jack. I think this is a very interesting suggestion and something which should be considered, but I can give no firm promise at this moment. The Union Flag was raised successfully in 1955 at the time of annexation and in 1959 from H.M.S. "Cavendish" and in 1969 from H.M.S. "Heckler".

So far as mineral and oil rights arc concerned, any licences for exploration would have to be given under Scottish law. Whether oil companies, just as they do now, give out orders for any work to be done elsewhere is entirely up to them, but so far as it is known at the moment there is no evidence of any hydro-carbon deposits. Indeed, the Rockall Bank, on which the Island of Rockall is situated, is much deeper than anything which has been exploited up to now, for example, in the North Sea.

So far as Teinds are concerned, I should like to leave that question to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland. So far as giving an assurance that Her Majesty's ships will not use the Island of Rockall for target practice, that assurance I can certainly give on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. So far as wildlife is concerned, I am glad to say that the major Act of Parliament (the 1954 Act) which I had the honour to pilot through another place provides that all rare birds are left undisturbed and are protected. So far as the last question; that is, whether I could assure the House that at this moment in time, the Island of Rockall should be left alone in perpetuity, that I cannot undertake to do. It is really beyond my responsibilities or those of any other Minister in this House.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is one of the few who could, I imagine, from personal experience say that the Island of Rockall is a dreadful place. Never-theless, it is to us in Scotland and I think to all noble Lords, a very important place. The noble Lord asked me certain questions about the Conference on the Law of the Sea which is to take place in 1973, and I realise that the question of any special arrangements was raised both in Questions arid in debate earlier in House. I would thank the noble Lord for having given me notice that he was going to ask this question. Of course, he will realise that this particular Bill is concerned with domestic legislation, but so far as other arrangements are concerned, I should like to meet him just so far by saying that the matter as to whether there should be a special Select Committee was considered very carefully. It was not really thought that special arrangements were necessary, because the various Government Departments are at this time trying to ensure that important British interests, such as the Chamber of Shipping and the oil industry, are consulted. In addition, of course, Ministers will always be available for consultation with any noble Lord who wishes to put a particular point of view. I would only say that if the noble Lord has any particular point I hope that he will be good enough to put it forward.

The noble Lord then asked whether if would be possible, on the question of policy, to have any kind of debate in this House or for information to be given to this House. I am sure that it would be possible to arrange this through the usual channels much nearer the time. He also raised the question of the Long Title. He did not like the words that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland". Those words are a quotation from the Act of Union, and therefore I suggest that they are hallowed by precedent.

The noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, told us quite frankly that he had no interest whatsoever in the Island of Rockall, although he told us of his personal interest in the Island of Redonda. He wanted to know whether there were any ancient rights connected with the Island of Rockall. There are no ancient rights, and there has never been any challenge to British sovereignty over many, many years. The noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, asked which would get priority, the search for oil or the care of the environment. I can assure the noble Baroness that this is the kind of subject which comes up at the Conference on the Law of the Sea and will be discussed. Quite apart from that, we are at the moment having consultations on trying to prevent pollution in, for instance, the North Sea where there is exploration at this moment.

My noble friend Lord Wakefield asked me whether there were any liabilities in connection with the Island of Rockall. The only liability that I can think of at this moment is that we are now in the process of establishing an automatic light at the top of the Island of Rockall for the purpose of aiding shipping. Therefore we shall have the liability to maintain it in good order.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.