HL Deb 06 July 1988 vol 499 cc319-27

7.6 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th May be approved [26th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is made under Section 6 of the Antarctic Treaty Act of 1976. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has considered the order and it received the approval of another place on 17th June.

Your Lordships will be aware of the many unique life forms existing in Antarctica, but less well understood is the fragile nature of the Antarctic environment. For this reason we attach importance to maintaining a proper balance between the interests of those scientists and tourists who work in and visit that beautiful continent while at the same time providing the maximum protection for the delicate eco-system.

The Antarctic Treaty Act 1967 is concerned with giving effect to measures agreed by the contracting parties to the Antarctic Treaty, measures which are designed to protect Antarctic flora and fauna from unnecessary human interference. These agreed measures have been amended so as to oblige participating governments to prohibit entry by their nationals without a permit into any designated specially protected area.

This amendment has been reflected by the amendment to Schedule 2 to the Act made by Article 2 of the Antarctic Treaty (Agreed Measures) Order 1988, which came into force on 22nd April. The purpose of the order which is before us now is to give effect in our law to the prohibition required by this amendment. It specifies the necessary new offences under the Act and the maximum penalties that may be imposed in each case.

Article 3 of the draft order will make it an offence for a British national to enter into a specially protected area without a permit. Specially protected areas are those designated as such by orders in council under Section 7 of the Act. Seventeen such areas are at present so designated. Article 4 makes provision for the issue of permits authorising British nationals to enter specially protected areas and makes it an offence to fail to comply with the reporting requirement imposed by a permit or to make a false statement in a report in pursuance of such a requirement. Article 5 specifies a maximum fine of £400 on summary conviction of an offence under Articles 3 or 4. Since 1961 the contracting parties to the Antarctic Treaty have collaborated closely to develop effective and adequate environmental safeguards for Antarctica. A responsible attitude towards the environment is one of the tenets which underpin the Antarctic Treaty system and one which this order will reinforce. I commend it to your Lordships and I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th May be approved [26th Report from the Joint Committee].

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for his explanatory introduction to the debate.

We welcome and support the order. While it is a very short order, it is also part of a structure of international laws and agreements that have profound implications for the world, and especially for this country and others who have subscribed to those laws. The implications are both scientific and political, and they are far-reaching. The Falklands conflict gave us a taste of some of the political aspects, and the debates among scientists and others about the stratospheric ozone layer and the ecosystem generally have taught us that it is essential for all countries to show a healthy respect for the Antarctic and not to exploit it for short-term material gain or territorial aggrandizement. I do not pretend to be an expert upon the subject, but I have read the treaty and looked at the relevant Acts. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Shackleton, who is an acknowledged expert, is present and proposes to speak in the debate.

The countries that subscribed to the Antarctic Treaty have worked closely together to develop proper safeguards for Antarctica. We passed the 1967 Act referred to by the Minister as part of this cooperative effort. We also followed the very important meeting that took place in Wellington, New Zealand, with great interest. The objective of that meeting is an Antarctic minerals regime, and differing views have been expressed about it. On the one hand Mr. Marshall, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, has said that the aim is not to open up the continent to mining but to fill a gap in the 1959 treaty, which declared Antarctica a demilitarised and non-nuclear zone but which did not prohibit prospecting and mining. On the other hand environmental groups are arguing that a convention would allow commercial exploitation of the Antarctic. They fear that oil, gas and minerals will be mined very soon. We know that Britain was represented at the conference in Wellington. I understand that our representatives made a valuable contribution to the debate. Perhaps the Minister can give us a synopsis of that view and tell us what procedures will follow agreement at Wellington. I assume that there will be legislation in every one of the 37 countries and the need for ratification of the convention.

These therefore, are early days, but we must be sure that we are on the right track. Our own record in the observation of international treaties is a good one, but there are countries that are not quite so fastidious. The fear of course is that a breach by one country could lead to a scramble.

The Economist of 28th May said that, while the present system has worked, it is showing signs of strain. The region's commercial potential is gradually becoming apparent and conflicts of interest are stirring. To prevent these shattering the treaty, its signatories are trying to devise means of sharing out Antarctica's spoils without awakening nationalistic claims". Those are very disturbing words. I shall be glad to have the noble Lord's reaction to them.

The order is a step in the right direction, but it is modest and one wonders how it would stand against a powerful multinational combine—it would not worry about a fine of £400! I hope that I am being less pessimistic than realistic, and I think that thus far things have gone reasonably well, but the crucial moment will come in 1991 when the treaty comes to be reviewed.

A leading article in The Times on 6th June discussed the pros and cons of the position. It thinks that prospecting for oil and minerals will no doubt take place". It goes on to say that the most important safeguard included in the convention is that of "good housekeeping". It also refers to the fear of the environmentalists that the world's "last great wilderness" will be polluted. The environmentalists want to see the whole continent preserved as a world park out of bounds to commercial activity. There are strong arguments for that. The leader's final words are worth quoting: At present the Antarctic is virtually untouched by direct pollution. This makes it a unique laboratory for the study of the world's atmosphere. Such a laboratory may be crucially important for future generations of scientists. It is irreplaceable and must not be spoiled. To the extent that the new Antarctic mining convention commits a group of nations to making that less likely, it is a considerable achievement". We can agree with those words, but also hope that the final sentence is not too optimistic.

I think that, in view of this country's close involvement we should in due course have a full debate on the Antarctic and all its problems. In the meantime, we support the order.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, for his short but well-informed introduction. I hope that he will give us some more information when he replies.

I support my noble friend, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. I think that I should correct him on one point, which the Minister perhaps can confirm. The Antarctic Treaty is not up for renewal in 1991. As I understand it—and experts no doubt will be able to inform the noble Lord—it is open for members to ask for amendments or indeed even to ask to withdraw. However, if my recollection is correct, they cannot withdraw for two years. In any case, the treaty is virtually a perpetual treaty. if a number of countries sought to pull out, of course, that would have a serious effect on what is undoubtedly the most successful international territory treaty in my lifetime.The Antarctic Treaty is a great triumph. It is nearly 40 years, I think, since I wrote an article saying that the Antarctic ought to be internationalised and come under the UN—because we believed in the UN in those days—and that it would be a good practice for when man went into space.

The Antarctic Treaty—I shall not spend too long talking about it—has been very successful in many ways. This order and the accompanying order that does not require parliamentary sanction are a step in the right direction. I should like to ask the Minister some questions about this.

The areas marked for protection are very few—although I am not complaining—only 13 or maybe 17. I have not put them all on a map. The majority seem to be in the Antarctic peninsula area where the British, Argentine and Chilean claims are located. There are some over on the east—Ross Island and so on. There will of course be a need for many more.

I am not an Antarctic man—if anything, I am an Arctic man. I spent many months in the Arctic, which we must not forget is an area that also needs good conservation. I was lucky to go to the Antarctic. There are a number of areas of complete fascination like the dry valleys where there is no snow at all in the summer and little lakes that are frozen. One in particular, Lake Vanda, thaws for a while. It is very cold at the top, but that does not stop the British having a Lake Vanda swimming club, although the temperature at the bottom of the lake is something like 25 degrees centigrade for reasons that I have never quite discovered. I should have thought that practically the whole area ought to be marked a conservation area, if only because there is a little band of moss running below the glacier. Indeed, to put it delicately, one is unable to perform one's natural functions in the area for fear of pollution.

It is very interesting to note the importance which is attached by scientists to the preservation of this area in pristine beauty. It is already subject to some pollution, and I fear it may continue, regardless of what is done in the Antarctic unless the world is able to do more about it. I should be interested if the noble Lord could expand a little upon these special areas and whether there is a need for wider areas, larger than the present ones, which will be protected in one form of another. As I understand it, these areas may occur anywhere, including the Australian and New Zealand sections. British nationals will be forbidden to go into an area in any other territory, whether or not we have claimed it. I do not believe that we shall ever make good our claims. There is one area where there is no national claim at all. I have been unable to look at a map but some of the special zones are liable to occur there.

This is a measure both of the value of the Antarctic and of the quality of the work that the British have done out there. The work is something of which this country can be completely proud. We are grateful to the Government for the support they have given to British Antarctic Surveys. I am even prepared to give praise to the Prime Minister who has taken an interest in this area. British Antarctic Surveys are undoubtedly the most cost-effective of all the scientific bodies that operate there.

This treaty and its operation depend a great deal upon that work and also upon the Polar region section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have spoken with some of the international scientists involved like Mr. Beeby and others who are full of praise for the work of people like John Heap, who is himself an Antarctic man, and others.This is a matter that I wish to put on the record because I believe it to be extremely valuable.

I am tempted to follow my noble friend in discussing the minerals regime. I am not sure that I shall be in order, but it is relevant. I believe the minerals regime is a good one. I do not believe that it will be possible—this is my personal aim—for anyone effectively to carry out mineral exploration in the near future in the Antarctic. I agree with my friend Peter Scott. I should like 100 years at least of protection for the Antarctic. I should also like it to be a permanently protected area. The question is, what is the art of the possible in all this? I believe that the critics have been unfair to the provisions of the Antarctic treaty. It will be a great deal more discouraging for dangerous multinationals to go effectively into the Antarctic area.

What is important is that there should be continued scientific work, that it is properly controlled and does not pollute. Non-scientists are not alone in causing damage and pollution. Here again the standards of the British Antarctic Surveys are very important. I hope the noble Lord will comment on the Antarctic treaty. It is a subject that we ought to discuss at some stage. There is criticism that the advisory committee does not carry a total veto. Who would expect such a committee to do so? I hope that those who believe that it is important to conserve the Antarctic will support practical measures.

One of the troubles as regards the Law of the Sea Convention, which alas we still have not signed, is that the regime was an almost unworkable one. I did not mind it being unworkable. It is a great pity. There is more to be gained in the Antarctic area in the surrounding seas, and by wholehearted support of the Law of the Sea, than simply protection on land of the islands and the mainland. I believe this order to be important and useful. It is one that we shall wish to continue to monitor and I hope that the noble Lord will be able to provide a little more information. I envisage thousands, if not millions, of specially protected areas in the Antarctic unless we can establish a more firm and general agreement between the nations.

It is worth remembering that 60 to 70 per cent. of the consultative members comprise not just the Western countries, but the Soviet Union, Poland, China, India and the South American countries. Also a number of members are fully able to take part in and listen to the discussions upon the minerals regime though their signatures are not relevant. I strongly support this order and I congratulate those who are responsible for it.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome this order with enthusiasm. We wish to echo the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that a great deal of praise must be directed at the Government for their enthusiasm in taking part in the international efforts to preserve this unique part of the world. In Antarctica some 10 per cent. of the earth's surface provides an extraordinary and unique environment, with the very special role that it plays in the ecology of the world. At first sight it appears to be somewhat restrictive. Any scrutiny will show that this is a very valuable order concerned with preserving the beauty and the flora and fauna of one of the few areas of the globe untouched by man.

I suppose that it will be viewed as a small measure; but nevertheless we consider it a very valuable one when added to some of the other protective measures passed over the years such as the agreed measures of 1964, with attempts to regulate the environmental nature of human activity in Antarctica. In addition there was the Convention for the Conservation of Antartic Marine Living Resources, with its concern for the eco-system as a whole.

We are particularly concerned with the protection of wildlife. The unique environment of Antarctica must be a priority. The order specifically refers to Section 7(a) of the Antarctic Treaty Act 1967, part of which is concerned with seals which are totally protected by the agreed measures. I need not stress that we are also concerned with other animals and wildlife, particularly birds such as the albatross, penguins, petrels, skuas and fulmas. We also welcome the recognition that this order gives to the specially protected areas where vehicles cannot be driven and where plants cannot be collected. We also welcome the fact that where entry is restricted, it is further enforced by this order. In this way insensitive human impact on the unique eco-system of Antarctica is to be limited.

Where areas are declared as specially protected, they should remain so and not be redesignated as less restricted sites of special scientific interest where human interests often clash with environmental ones. On these Benches we are much concerned, as your Lordships will know, with the ecology of the planet as a whole. We feel that we must go all out to protect the fragile environment. We are very heartened to see that in the press the attention of the public is being drawn more and more to the very fragile state of the environment of our planet.

Where rare plants and animals thrive, human activity must be looked at most carefully where it appears to be invasive and destructive, particularly to an area like Antarctica with the implications of interference on the biosphere of the earth as a whole. The depletion of the ozone layer over the Continent is now receiving much publicity. This is a further indication of the importance of Antarctica's preservation. So as a general principle, tourism, scientific research and mineral exploitation—in fact, all activity, including, as the order specifies, the movement of humans in Antarctica—must be carefully regulated.

There is certainly a case, as Greenpeace has suggested, for declaring the continent an Antarctic world park, with strict regulation, or for the development of an Antarctic conservation strategy, as recommended last May by the European Parliament's Committee on the environment, public health and consumer protection.

In conclusion, we feel that Antarctica cannot be viewed—and is not viewed, as people become better educated about this astonishing area covering some 13 .5 million square kilometres—as a barren, cold, ice-covered area but as an area where wildlife, flora and fauna flourish. Its role in the regulation of heat exchange and the circulation of atmospheric and marine currents is absolutely vital. In this context its preservation is paramount. We welcome the order with enthusiasm.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am most grateful to those noble Lords who have spoken on the order, and for their encouraging welcome to it. Only a month or two ago I was in New Zealand where I was briefed for the first time on Antarctica. The place has not ceased to fascinate me ever since. There was enormous interest in the work of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and all that his father did there.

Perhaps I may deal first with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. The order before us is not directly concerned with the minerals convention which was taking place while I was in New Zealand. The order is concerned with the control of trespassers. Designated specially protected areas enjoy special protection in the minerals convention which is something rather different.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that future exploitation of Antarctic minerals is a pretty speculative matter. It will not be practicable in the foreseeable future. Views may differ but that is the general opinion among those who are involved in it. Negotiation of the minerals convention is driven by foresight and the need to put environmental and other controls in place before activity, whether economic or otherwise, takes place and before the technical feasibility is developed to take advantage of any resources there may be. The convention has removed the last serious risk of tension within the Antarctic treaty system. We would expect all parties to abide by international obligations, but until the convention comes into force there is a moratorium on any commercial minerals activity.

I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that legislation would be required in the United Kingdom and almost certainly in all other Antarctic treaty states. The convention is now being studied. If the Government decide on ratification, it is unlikely that the parliamentary process will begin before the spring of next year. This will provide an opportunity for debate. Although the noble Lords, Lord Shackleton and Lord Cledwyn, have suggested an alternative time, I suspect that that may prove a good opportunity when it reaches us. Any debate will be a matter for the usual channels, but I certainly note the interest which the noble Lord expresses.

Although it is slightly wide of the topic, the minerals convention is a significant development. It adds to the protection of Antarctica and ensures that the peace of the past 30 years will continue. It reduces the likelihood of significant change to the Antarctic treaty after 1991.

There are 17 designated specially protected areas at present. Three of the previously designated areas have been redesignated as sites of special scientific interest and are no longer covered by the Act. I disagree with the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, when he suggested that they were of a lower order. They are a particular category where scientific experiment rather than flora or fauna requires attention. It is not true to say that they form a lower order. It is just a different means for a different purpose.

Specially protected areas are generally adopted by the Antarctic treaty on advice of scientific experts of the International Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. No more are likely to be added at present. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has a list of them. They are set out in Annex B of the 1967 Act, as amended by a number of other orders. I do not think the noble Lord will wish me to give a full list because apart from anything else the list sets out a good many latitudes and longitudes which might be rather wearisome to read out.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for the tribute that he paid to the British Antarctic Survey. I agree that it is a most worthwhile body. It does a great deal of work, and from what I have heard it is held in high regard internationally among others who carry out research in that part of the world. I am grateful too for his tribute to the polar region section within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, was quite right when he spoke about the Act itself. It is based on nationality, not on territoriality. This therefore covers the unclaimed sector and elsewhere as regards British nationals. Parts of the dry valleys are designated SSSI. There are more than two dozen at present, which goes some way to showing that a good deal of the area is protected. The suggestion by the noble Viscount of a world park to some extent mirrored the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. It is an interesting concept. There are those who feel that it is based more on emotion than on a rational scientific and political approach. There is some doubt that it would be clearly enough defined or even that it would be widely enough respected. There would be no bar to unilateral exploitation, as I understand it. Against this background, we and our treaty partners opted to develop an internationally-recognised and acceptable system of conservation measures which we believe will he the most practical and effective way of protecting Antarctica's environments and resources.

The noble Viscount also referred to the effect of tourism on the environment. Any individual scientist, tourist or explorer is free to visit Antarctica provided that his respective activities are consistent with the objectives of the Antarctic treaty. However, people are responsible for their own safety and protection and they are also responsible for the protection of the environment. A heavy burden lies upon them. The position is regularly discussed under Antarctic treaty auspices.

The treaty provides for review after June 1991 if requested by a consultative party. Review is not an automatic requirement, and we have no plans at present to seek one. The 14th consultative meeting of treaty parties took place in Rio de Janeiro last October. It was one of the regular biennial series of meetings to consider the Antarctic housekeeping affairs—for example, to monitor and regulate man's impact on the environment— and agreement was reached on key environmental impact assessment procedures.

What I have said broadly covers the main points which have been raised. I agree with all those who have spoken about the importance of this part of the world. It is an area in which many of us take a keen interest because it has not been exploited in the way that so many other areas have. I am grateful for the welcome that has been given to the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.