HL Deb 20 June 1996 vol 573 cc455-7

3.27 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to accede to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention in time to nominate candidates and to vote for members of the Law of the Sea Tribunal, and if not why not?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, the Government consider that the long-term interests of the UK will be best served by accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The timing of accession remains under review. Parliament will be informed as soon as the Government have taken a decision. It will not be possible to take a decision on accession in the timeframe necessary to secure voting rights for the UK in the Law of the Sea Tribunal election.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it took some eight years to negotiate this worldwide convention, it was open to signature for about another six years, and has been in effect for two years? Will she further confirm that, by 30th June this year, all countries that wish to appoint members to the tribunal under the terms of the convention must have given in the names? Is it the case that, in not having done that, we exclude ourselves from the tribunal on the law of the sea and from various ancillary bodies thereunder? Why are we excluding ourselves from an arrangement that is manifestly in our national interest, as it is in the interests of all other countries given that, until the week before last, the Government were saying quite simply that we should accede, without any qualifications?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I underline that the Government are committed in principle and we are working at this matter. However, it has turned out to be more complicated than we anticipated. That is why it is taking longer than we wished. About half the countries have signed up; the other half have not.

The noble Lord is quite right: the UK candidate for the Law of the Sea Tribunal will not be able to succeed, because one has to have acceded to the convention for over a month before the election takes place. I hope that that will not affect the question of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, since the elections for that commission do not take place until March 1997. By that time I sincerely hope that we shall have been able to resolve these matters.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, as the noble Baroness confirmed that as a maritime nation we have a stronger incentive than most to establish an effective legal regime in international waters, how does it come about that even when we are on the side of the angels and for all the right reasons, we somehow contrive to make it appear to the world that we wish we were somewhere else?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I have no idea about being on the side of the angels. These matters need to be worked at quite a lot. A number of states are party to UNCLOS and that is growing. But many industrialised countries are only now acceding or have not yet done so. We must continue our work on this, which is what we are doing.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say why half the signatories were in time but not us?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as a nation surrounded by water, we have a great deal more interest in this matter than some of those who are landlocked and who signed up quickly.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm, as has been reported, that a recently discovered obstacle is a belief by one member of the Government that the fisheries around Rockall will be affected if we sign up to the convention? If that is the case, has that been confirmed by the Government's legal advisers and, if so, which?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am not sure that I can give the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, all the legal details. The Rockall fisheries zone is a matter of concern to this country. That is why we are continuing to study the legal and practical implications to make sure that we get things right.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, because Rockall is important for the United Kingdom and there are claims on it from at least three other countries, it is surprising that that has not already been dealt with, if Rockall is the problem. I have a special interest because I was the Secretary of State who put the Bill through Parliament which became the Rockall Act nearly 25 years ago, confirming and declaring that Rockall is part of Scotland.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I know that my noble friend worked extremely hard on that. However, while there is so much uncertainty around this is not the time to amend unilaterally the British fisheries limits, which would obviously be required if we were to bring them into line with UNCLOS. My noble friend will be well aware that that is the reason.