HL Deb 06 August 1980 vol 412 cc1482-4

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made at the Law of the Sea Conference at Geneva.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, the Geneva session, which began only on 28th July, will continue until 29th August. The conference set itself the objective of concluding a draft convention at this session, but it is too early to judge whether this will be achieved.


My Lords, while appreciating that the conference has been in session for only a short time, may I ask what is the Government's view on three controversial issues that have been raised? The first concerns the United Nations legislature authorising companies to extract minerals prematurely. The second issue relates to the voting rights in the 36 States International Seabed Authority. Are the Government opposing the proposal that five industrialised nations should have the power of veto and that voting should be undertaken not on the basis of nations, but by technological ability? Thirdly, will the Government support a world tax on offshore minerals, to be contributed to a common heritage fund to help in particular the land-locked nations?


My Lords, the first of the three supplementary questions of the noble Lord was about what he referred to as the United Nations legislature authorising companies to extract minerals. Looking at my brief rather carefully, I suspect that the noble Lord meant the United States legislature. The United States have enacted legislation to establish an interim procedure for the orderly development of seabed resources, pending the entry into force of an acceptable Law of the Sea Convention. Similar legislation is in the course of being enacted in the Federal Republic of Germany. The so-called Group of Seventy-seven have repeated at this session their opposition to national legislation. Her Majesty's Government do not accept that interim legislation is contrary to international law or that it should stand in the way of efforts to negotiate an international deep seabed mining regime which gives effect to the concept of the common heritage of mankind. I think that that really is the first instalment.


My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that one of the main ingredients of civilised law at sea is the elimination of piracy? Is he also aware that the piracy on the Nigerian coast, and in Nigerian harbours, has reached such a volume that navigating officers are very reluctant to allow their ships to enter the harbours or indeed to sail along that coast? Will the noble and learned Lord in his wisdom use his influence to ascertain whether it is possible to take effective action to ensure that British vessels and those who sail in them are freed from piratic actions in that area?


My Lords, I know that the whole House will sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, in his desire to put down piracy on the coast of Nigeria, but I am afraid that I do not have ready a supplementary answer on that subject, since evidently those instructing me did not think that it was likely to be asked in connection with this particular Question.


My Lords, first, will the noble and learned Lord accept my thanks for correcting the slip that I made earlier? Secondly, will he accept my apology for not having given notice of these supplementary questions, as I should have done? I wish to ask whether, despite the declaration of the United Nations that the oceans should be the heritage of mankind, there is not a great danger that this plan will assist mostly the rich nations with their offshore facilities? Has the noble and learned Lord noted the statement of Bernardo Zuleton, the United Nations General Secretary for Economic Affairs, that the area beyond the 200-mile limit will yield only "peanuts"?


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the first part of his supplementary question. "Peanuts" is perhaps an unfortunate phrase today. However, without having noted the particular statement to which the noble Lord referred, I agree with him that the main outstanding issue before this conference is the question of deep seabed mining. I think that it is possible to count one's chickens before they are hatched in this field. We do not yet know quite what is there, or how to get it. It is obviously a matter of contention, between those who have the means to get it, if there is anything there, and those who would like to share the proceeds but cannot have the means to get it, as to how the proceeds, if there are any, will be distributed. But I think that is what the conference is about.