HL Deb 02 December 1982 vol 436 cc1323-9

4.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will be opened for signature in Jamaica on 10th December, and will remain open for signature for two years thereafter. The convention deals with many aspects of the law of the sea. Some provisions are a restatement or codification of existing international law; some provisions seek to make new law. Parts of the convention, for example, those relating to navigation, the continental shelf and pollution, are helpful, but the provisions relating to deep seabed mining including the transfer of technology are not acceptable. They are based on undesirable regulatory principles and could constitute unsatisfactory precedents. A number of our friends and allies share our misgivings on these points. We need to obtain satisfactory improvements in the deep sea mining régime, and will therefore explore the prospects with interested states. As the convention is open for signature for 2 years there is ample time for revision before taking a final decision. It is our wish that there should be generally agreed provisions for regulating marine matters, and we wish to continue to work with the international community to achieve this.

"I should emphasise to the House that we could not participate in a seabed régime on the present terms, and for that reason we could not ratify the convention unless the provisions for the deep sea mining régime become satisfactory.

"A copy of the convention and relevant resolutions of the conference have been placed in the Library of the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. It does not really say a great deal that is new, and it is, I think, disappointing that we are still withholding our signature from this convention. Is it not very much in our own interests as a maritime nation to sign, but is there any substantial reason, apart from United States pressure, why we should not subscribe to a package which has been negotiated with great difficulty over a period of eight years?

The Statement refers to deep seabed mining. Would the noble Lord not agree that the present United States Administration, differently from the last, are giving in to pressure from private deep sea mining consortia which are working to extract cobalt, nickle, copper, manganese and other minerals from the ocean floor, whereas the convention provides that sites—and I think it is one for one—should be mined for the benefit of the poorer countries of the world? Is not that the real core of the objection of the United States, and therefore the core of our objection? Would there not be considerable advantages in relation to such things as territorial limits, freedom of navigation, the right of innocent passage—and I think 116 international straits would be involved in passage of this kind—fisheries, the exploitation of oil and other minerals on the continental shelf and so on? Does he really think that after eight years we can now hope to secure agreement on what is a fundamental point in a period of a further two years?

On the question of possible revision, how does the Minister think that this can be negotiated? What further arrangements have Her Majesty's Government made to discuss the revision to the deep seabed provisions with those who are prepared to sign the convention and with those who are not? Finally, if we do attach importance to the rule of international law, should we not sign this convention forthwith?

4.10 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, that it is very disturbing. I thought that we would all back the simple principle that because deep seabed mining is an area of such advanced technology it is only open to the industrialised nations and that an international seabed authority should distribute the benefits among the poor countries, instead of the present position where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I hope that the Government are not departing from that principle. The Statement is grossly inadequate. I hope that the Government will tell us why they are so proceeding. I sincerely hope that they will tell us that they are not acting out of the purely selfish reasons which, it appears, the international mining groups are pressuring the United States to adopt.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Mackie of Benshie, for their comments. Clearly, both noble Lords are concerned on behalf of their parties about what is an important Statement and I understand their reservations.

I agree with both noble Lords about the advantages of the convention. Clearly the provisions on the continental shelf and freedom of navigation, to select only two of the provisions, are very desirable. There are other very desirable provisions. It gives no pleasure to Her Majesty's Government to be compelled to make this Statement today, but we feel that for the time being it is not possible to sign the convention as the deep sea mining provisions stand.

That leads me to answer the first question put by the noble Lord. Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: why are we not signing? The reasons are that we have never hidden from the conference, which has been discussing the convention, that parts of the deep sea mining régime are based on undesirable principles. We feel we must work for changes which will improve the balance in favour of the development of seabed resources and produce a realistic and workable convention which does not deter investment and does not set undesirable pressures now.

As regards investment, this leads to the second question which both noble Lords asked—have the Government been under some form of pressure from mining interests, which alone have led the Government to reach the conclusions which, for the moment, are set out in the Statement? The answer is quite clearly, no. There are two aspects of the convention which lead to great apprehension on the part of Her Majesty's Government. There are the provisions in the convention about the transfer of technology which, I understand, will be mandatory. The international seabed authority will be able to require the transfer of technology and there will be no argument about that in the future if the convention is agreed as it stands. There is also the difficulty about the opportunities for licences in the future. It is only fair that the mining interests throughout the world should at least have some certainty as to what their chances will be to get licences in future. This is by no means certain.

There is also a matter which I raised in answer to a Question by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on the 10th November. There is provision under the convention for what is called a review conference, which apparently means that after a period of years a conference can be held to unscramble the whole convention. We do not believe that these provisions give the certainty which is required in order to bring the necessary investment into deep sea mining.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked: how can improvements be negotiated? First of all, the conference in Jamaica will have a signing of the Final Act. I do not in any way wish to conceal from the House that it would be the intention of Her Majesty's Government to sign the Final Act. We will, therefore, be entitled to participate as observers in the preparatory commission which will then be set up.

The convention needs ratification by some 60 member states, and this will take a period of time. It is during that time that we hope it will be possible, as the Statement said, to explore the prospects with interested states for improvements in the convention which will, of course, have to be done by an amending protocol.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to my noble friend for repeating the Statement made in another place, because the convention is to be opened for signature in four days' time. While I accept that the deep sea mining part of the convention is unsatisfactory, is my noble friend aware that there are at least two powerful reasons why British interests would benefit from other parts of the convention?

First, as a trading nation our shipping would benefit from the parts of the convention on navigation rights throughout the world. Secondly, our extensive coastline would benefit from the strength and protection from pollution and the increased area of jurisdiction for enforcement measures. Is it not the position that if the United Kingdom were to sign the convention at an early stage during this two-year period we would then be in a position to negotiate further amendments which would be beneficial for Britain? Is my noble friend aware that the prospects of a serious start to deep sea mining have now receded, for economic and other reasons, and that land based supplies are likely to be the sources of these metals for much longer than had been thought a few years ago?

Several noble Lords

My Lords—

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think we normally allow the Minister to reply.

Lord Belstead

If it is for the convenience of the House, my Lords, I shall reply to one question at a time.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy referred to the rights of navigation. Yes, as I said on behalf of the Government, there are aspects of the convention, not least the rights of navigation, which are of very important interest to the Government and to the nation. This underlines the regret that the Government have in making the Statement today.

As regards the extent of the territorial sea, we are considering this issue in the light of the results of the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference. There are some advantages, but there are also some possible disadvantages which will need to be carefully examined. My advice is that an extension of the United Kingdom territorial sea from three to 12 nautical miles will depend upon international practice and is not tied irrevocably to the wording of the convention. Therefore, we can consider freely whether it is right that the United Kingdom should do it.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, while I am in general agreement with the thrust of the questioning from the Labour Opposition and from the Liberal Party, obviously the situation is extremely complex and cloudy and should be probed in a fuller debate in future. But for the moment may I ask the noble Lord one or two questions. We know that we are looking at an action by President Reagan when he kicked over the traces of eight years of international negotiation, and we are following him in that posture. What is the position of other countries like ourselves? How many other countries are staying out alongside the United States?

The Government seem to believe that it is safe to sign the Final Act without signing the treaty and to hope to be able to amend the treaty during the signature period after, presumably, some other countries have already signed it. Is that really practical diplomacy? It sounds a rather dubious procedure when one first hears of it. It looks like throwing away the first chance that the world has ever had of exploiting part of the natural wealth of the earth for the benefit of all mankind. It seems as though it will, to a greater or lesser extent—a matter which we must also probe—prevent our benefiting from all the good things in it which the Minister has so rightly listed, and all because it is "unacceptable" to transfer technology to the poorer nations.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked me about the position of other countries. France has said that it will sign the convention in Jamaica, but it will seek changes in the deep seabed régime, and I understand that the Netherlands will do likewise. I understand that Turkey, Venezuela, Argentina and Israel will not sign and, of course, the United States will not sign. On the other hand, some Community countries—namely, Denmark, Ireland and Greece—have said that they will sign, as have Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are other Community countries which are still considering their position; they include the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium and Italy, all of which share our misgivings about the seabed provisions.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, is there any substantial reason to be dissatisfied? Although I appreciate the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who has always been intensely interested in the subject, I have some knowledge of the subject myself. I suppose I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who is an honorary life member of the National Union of Seamen, which means that I am not required to pay any subscriptions. This subject has been before us for the last 50 or 60 years. There are many complications.

Will the noble Lord and other Members of your Lordships' House take note that we cannot solve with Denmark the problem that now confronts us as regards fishing rights in the European sphere? If we cannot solve a simple problem of that kind, how is it possible to solve the problem of navigation rights, pollution difficulties and a whole series of cognate problems? We have two years during which we can use the offices of those connected with the conference to revise our views or consider new views on the subject. But it may be wiser for us to exercise some caution in the matter and not to agree on some definite project, only to discover that we are creating new problems.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think that it is fair for me to repeat what I said a little while ago in your Lordships' House. We tried at the last meeting of the conference in September to be the catalyst, to get agreement between those who disagreed fundamentally on the deep sea mining provisions. The two major points were the question of the transfer of technology and also the certainty, or better certainty, for the awarding of licences under the convention. We did not succeed in doing so and that is why today we are saying that we wish to see whether it is possible to explore the prospects with interested states for gaining a greater area of agreement before we come to sign the convention.

Lord Balogh

My Lords, would the Minister consider that his denial of mining company interests influenced the Government's attitude to the problem? We have only one example, and that is the sea oil, when all the problems of the seabed came up. That story is really not in any way reconcilable with the Minister's Statement.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Balogh, is overlooking the fact that the international seabed authority—which, when the conference on the convention began its deliberations, was going to have been not very far off self-supporting—will now cost huge sums of money in order to support. Any Government must take that into account in order to try to decide whether it is in the national interest to decide on a convention which contains deep sea mining provisions at the moment. For the reasons which I sought to deploy in your Lordships' House on more than one occasion, and again today, we have some very grave reservations about this, and I underline them in answer to the noble Lord's question because the Government would have to take into account the huge sums of money which will be necessary in order to finance the provisions of the convention. I do not think that that answer adds up to the fact that there has been unwarrantable pressure brought to bear by mining interests.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that this is literally a matter of life and death for millions of people in the developing countries? Is it the case that the British Government are opposed to the transfer of technology to the poorer countries? Will the noble Lord tell the House whether it is the case that, during this two years, the consortia of mining companies that are already prepared for the mining of minerals on the seabed may very well start their operations, if they have not been started already? Is there any precaution against that happening, despite the fact that the convention has not been signed by this Government?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's first question, I hoped that I had made it clear that the question of technology really needs to take into account the fact that very substantial sums of money will be needed in order to finance the provisions of this convention. It is no good talking about the transfer of technology as though this is something which is happening in a vacuum; it is necessary under the convention to finance it, and on any objective view at the moment there is not a fair provision under the convention for the transfer of technology.

So far as the noble Lord's second question is concerned, of course this sort of mining simply is not happening at the moment. There is exploration going on but there is no mining of this kind. Indeed, the convention will not be ratified for probably—I do not know—a year and a half, two years or maybe longer, while the 60 signatory states which decide to ratify it in fact get the permission of their legislators to do so. Meanwhile, so far as far as Britain is concerned, last year we passed legislation through both Houses of Parliament which make it clear that for this sort of mining we are not granting licences in Britain until 1988.