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Column 209Yeo, Tim
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Younger, Rt Hon George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Mr. Tony Durant.
Question accordingly negatived.
Lords amendment No. 320 agreed to.
It being after Seven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker-- proceeded, pursuant to the order [3 July], to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded by that hour.
Lords amendments Nos. 321 to 341 agreed to.
Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill : Mr. Howard, Mr. Alan Howarth, Mr. Roger King, Mr. Allen McKay and Mrs. Ann Taylor ; Three to be the quorum.-- [Mr. John M. Taylor.] To withdraw immediately.
Reasons for disagreeing to certain of the Lords amendments reported, and agreed to : to be communicated to the Lords.
Order for Second Reading read.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. 7.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The main purpose of the Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the convention on the regulation of Antarctic mineral resource activities. The convention was adopted by consensus at Wellington on 2 June last year and was signed on behalf of the United Kingdom on 22 March. The Bill will prohibit exploration and mining development activities in Antarctica by British companies and nationals. It permits prospecting activities authorised by the United Kingdom Government or another contracting party to the convention. It enables the Secretary of State to grant licences for prospecting activities in accordance with the terms of the convention.
The Bill is technical and it seems unexceptionable. However, there are issues at stake in the Bill that are critical for the future of the world environment. It gives us an important opportunity to protect our environment. If we do not take that opportunity, we risk inflicting catastrophic damage on our planet. Those are truly apocalyptic assertions for a technical Bill. To explain and justify those assertions, I need to remind the House about the delicate situation in Antarctica.
Seven states--Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom--claim territorial sovereignty over sectors of Antarctica. Those so-called "claimant" states say that whatever minerals there may be in their respective Antarctic territories are theirs and theirs alone. Other states, most notably the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and the Federal Republic of Germany, do not recognise the sovereignty claims of the seven other states. Those non-claimant states say that they have a right to take minerals in the Antarctic wherever they may find them. That difficult situation is further complicated by the fact that one sector in Antarctica is not claimed by any state. Another sector is claimed by three states : Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom.
As a result of that complex situation, over 30 years ago President Eisenhower issued an invitation to 11 other countries to come to Washington to negotiate a treaty on Antarctica. The background was increasing super- power tension in Antarctica and escalating disputes over sovereignty. Shots had actually been fired in the Antarctic. The outcome of the Washington meeting was the Antarctic treaty, which had two achievements. First, it created out of Antarctica a "continent for science". Secondly, it provided a means for managing what had become literally the explosive issue of sovereignty. The means consisted of a provision, article IV, which simply set the issue of sovereignty aside or, more colloquially, article IV freezes the issue of sovereignty. To give that some chance of success, the treaty also demilitarised Antarctica
Column 211and provided for on-site inspection. Elegant and daring in its simplicity, the treaty has been described as, and has proved to be, one of the most effective of post-war treaties.
However, the Antarctic treaty said nothing about minerals. After many years of discussion, the treaty parties agreed on two points. First, they agreed that a total ban on mineral activity was simply not attainable and, secondly, because of disputes over sovereignty, a regime governing mineral activity had to be in place well before any mining activity or prospecting began. As far back as 1970, it was recognised that if at some stage important mineral resources were found, an unregulated and dangerous scramble could develop. That could obviously have a most damaging effect on the environment in Antarctica.
Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North) : It is apparent that most of the minerals in Antarctica have not yet been discovered and it is not likely that mineral licences will be granted for the next 50 or 60 years, so why take the power now? Will this be comparable to the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981 when we wanted manganese nodules from the deep of the ocean and the House therefore took powers to cover our own territory?
Mr. Eggar : No mining activity of any kind, including prospecting, has yet taken place. The Bill permits only prospecting, and then in defined circumstances only. If, following negotiation of a protocol, it was to be decided that exploration and development should be permitted, the Government would return to the House with another Bill specifically covering those two areas. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall develop that theme later.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Is the Minister ruling out any possibility of making that area off-limits for mining? Many hon. Members feel that any mining in that area is unacceptable. Has that consideration been entertained? Are the British Government to fall in line with the French and Australians and with their attitudes towards the Antarctic?
Mr. Eggar : The French have not yet made their position clear. The Australian Government have said that they will not sign the convention. I shall comment on that later. We have made it absolutely clear that all that this Bill does is to allow prospecting under certain defined conditions.
Mr. Banks rose --
Mr. Eggar : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, because this is a complex area and I should like to explain our thinking. However, I shall, of course, give way again if the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied with the answers.
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent) : Will the Minister ensure that he tells the House exactly what happened in the discussions with the Australian Prime Minister, so that the House has a full account of those discussions? Will he also tell us whether this matter will be raised with the President of France shortly, when the Prime Minister meets him?
Mr. Banks : If there is prospecting, surely there will also be mining.
Mr. Eggar : In answer to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), if he will bear with me I shall be dealing with the Australian view later. I shall give way at that stage if he wishes to intervene.
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : I wonder if the Minister would explain whether combustion gases from petrol and diesel oil used in prospecting and possible mining would not further damage the depleted ozone layer, and if there should be a volcanic eruption, sending sulphuric acid into the atmosphere, which happens every few years, would not that decimate the ozone layer? Will the Minister give a guarantee that no mining will be allowed until the moves to prevent further damage to the ozone layer have come into effect and time is allowed for the ozone layer to repair itself?
Mr. Eggar : The hon. Lady has made several jumps from one complex issue to another. I repeat the assurance that I have already given--this Bill does not permit mining ; it permits only prospecting-- [Interruption.] That is an important division. Perhaps the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will bear with me. As I have already said, the Antarctic treaty said nothing about minerals. It was recognised that we had to try to introduce a regime to govern future possible prospecting and mining activity before embarking on such activities. On five occasions in the 1970s, the possibility of a binding moratorium to prevent any minerals activity was discussed. On none of those occasions was there a consensus in favour of a binding moratorium.
As I have already said, there has so far not been any serious interest in exploiting minerals. However, the treaty partners were not prepared to rule out the possibility that minerals might one day be extracted from Antarctica under defined, environmentally sound conditions. It has been said that the convention, and in consequence this Bill, is some sort of miner's charter. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To demonstrate this, I want to go into some detail about the convention and the Bill. The convention provides for three stages of mineral activity : prospecting, exploration and development. Prospecting is aimed at identifying areas of mineral resource potential. It rules out deep dredging, excavations--that covers the point raised by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon)--and drilling to depths of more than 25 m. In that context, it is important to realise that the ice cap in Antarctica is over one mile deep. Exploration is aimed at identifying and evaluating specific mineral resource occurrences or deposits. Development is what it says--the development of specific mineral resource deposits. That distinction between prospecting on the one hand and exploration and development on the other is critical to the way the convention works. "Prospecting" is defined so as to ensure that the act of prospecting has no more effect on the environment than similar scientific research activity. Such research activity is already permitted and has been of immense value. It was, after all, the work by the British Antarctic Survey which identified the hole in the ozone layer. For that reason, prospecting is not subject to authorisation by the Commission or the other bodies which the convention will set up.
However, prospecting must be carried out in accordance with the convention. Prospecting bodies will have to comply with any relevant measures which the Commission may adopt in the future. It is the responsibility of the prospector's country to make sure that the prospector complies with the convention.
The convention naturally recognises that exploration and development involve far greater possible risks to the
Column 213environment. The convention sets out stringent environmental controls of exploration and development processes. No exploration or development can begin until all member states of the commission unanimously agree that it should do so. Each state party--they include all Antarctic treaty consultative parties--therefore effectively has a veto on exploration and development within Antarctica.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : On the point about states having a veto on the agreement, I understand that Australia and France intend to use their veto. If that is the case, from what the Minister is saying, the agreement cannot proceed, so would it not be more sensible for the Government to decide not to proceed with this agreement but to argue for a different agreement, perhaps in the concept of a world park?
Mr. Eggar : If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall deal with those arguments later. I must correct him on a matter of fact : France has not declared its position, although Australia has done so.
Moreover, the convention bans any exploration and commercial development until a separate protocol on liability has been negotiated. That protocol will set out detailed rules and procedures governing the operator's liability if damage should be caused to the environment. The liability protocol will build on the liability provisions applying to prospecting already in the convention. Negotiations on the protocol have not yet begun, but when they do they will probably last several years.
When those negotiations are satisfactorily completed, the Government intend to return to the House with another Bill which will, of course, be debated in the House. That Bill will implement the liability protocol and provide for exploration and development in accordance with the convention. But that is for the future. Tonight the House is not being asked to enact legislation enabling British operators to undertake mineral exploration and development in Antarctica.
Mr. Tony Banks rose--
Mr. Eggar : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way now. I shall give way later if he is not satisfied with the explanation by that stage.
The present Bill only covers prospecting. It actually prohibits for the first time any British national or company from undertaking any exploration or development activity. What is more, it bans all prospecting activity, except that which is in accordance with a licence issued by the Secretary of State. It provides that the Secretary of State shall not grant a prospecting licence unless he is satisfied that the activities he is asked to authorise will be consistent with the international obligations of the United Kingdom. Specifically, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the authorised activities would not cause
"(a) significant adverse effects on air and water quality ; (b) significant changes in atmospheric, terrestrial or marine environments ;
(c) significant changes in the distribution, abundance or productivity of populations of species of fauna or flora ; (d) further jeopardy to endangered or threatened species or populations of such species ; or
Column 214(e) degradation of, or substantial risk to, areas of special biological, scientific, historic, aesthetic or wilderness significance."
Neither can my right hon. and learned Friend issue a licence until he is satisfied that--and I quote again :
"(a) technology and procedures are available to provide for safe operations ;
(b) there exists the capacity to monitor key environmental parameters and ecosystem components"
and so on.
So we are talking only about prospecting ; and then we are only permitting prospecting under extremely stringent conditions--so stringent that the Government believe that, provided the convention enters into force, no Antarctic mineral prospecting activity could take place which would significantly or adversely affect the Antarctic environment.
I have now reached the point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North- West. The convention depends for its entry into force on 16 countries ratifying or acceding to it. The United States, the Soviet Union and the seven claimant states--including Australia--must be among those 16. As one of the claimants, it follows that our ratification of the convention is necessary.
That then is the position if the convention comes into force. I believe that the House will agree that the protection for the environment offered by the convention is very considerable. What would happen if the convention does not enter into force? In 1977, the Antarctic treaty consultative parties decided that each of them should urge their nationals to
"refrain from all exploration and exploitation of Antarctic mineral resources while making progress towards the timely adoption of an agreed regime concerning Antarctic mineral resource activities". That 1977 voluntary moratorium was extended last year by the terms of the final act of the conference at which the Antarctic minerals convention was adopted.
The final act says :
"The Meeting agreed that all States represented at the Meeting would urge their nationals and other States to refrain from Antarctic mineral resource activities as defined in the Convention pending its timely entry into force".
I want to underscore those words
"pending its timely entry into force".
Therefore, the continued effectiveness of the voluntary moratorium on mining activity is conditional on the convention entering into force and upon it doing so in a timely manner. So if any of the key states were finally to rule out ratifying or acceding to the convention, that state would, by its actions, have destroyed the existing voluntary moratorium. That state would bear a severe responsibility for the consequences of its decision.
Those consequences are clear. At some stage, perhaps not so far in the future, some entity would go to Antarctica to find out whether Antarctica might contain mineral resources which could be exploited. Such prospecting, exploration and development would be entirely unregulated. There would be no control over that entity's effect on the environment. Mining would inevitably raise sensitive sovereignty issues and consequent dispute and possibly conflict. The Antarctic treaty system could begin to unravel. It was the thought of such mining activity that led to the negotiation of the convention in the first place.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : One of the things that one regularly finds when talking to oil companies about their decision to invest in a particular place is that they look for what they believe is a stable
Column 215political regime. That is why they have been prepared to invest in the North sea. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that, without any legal or licensing framework or without any security as to the political regime--for example, if there were questions of sovereignty hanging over it--those companies would be prepared to put at stake considerable investment?
Mr. Eggar : The point is that we do not know whether companies would be prepared to prospect. It is far better to take measures now on a worldwide co-ordinated scale so that, if they wish to go down there and prospect, they can do so with proper environmental safeguards. If we do not have those environmental safeguards, entities could go down there and cause unlimited damage.
Mr. Morley : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Eggar : If the hon. Gentleman will let me continue, I shall be willing to give way later, but I must be allowed to develop this part of the argument.
One of the main concerns of both sides of the House is to ensure the protection of the Antarctic environment. The fulfilment of that aim requires that international harmony in the Antarctic be maintained. Indeed, our first priority must be to maintain that harmony. If the United Kingdom were not to ratify the convention, we would be contributing to future discord in the Antarctic and therefore jeopardising the protection of the Antarctic environment. The House is aware--Opposition Members have already intervened to make the point--that the Australian Government have recently announced that they believe that there should never be any mineral resource activity in the Antarctic of any kind. The Australian Government want the Antarctic to be declared a wilderness park in which only scientific research and a small amount of tourism would be allowed.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Toryism?
The Australian Government aspire to a comprehensive Antarctic environmental protection convention that would ban all Antarctic mineral resource activities. As has already been said, as a claimant state, Australia's eventual ratification or accession is essential for the convention to enter into force.
The British Government are disappointed at Australia's decision, particularly since Australia played a major role in agreeing the convention. Despite the views put to us by the Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, we believe that the Australians have not considered the possible consequences of their action and have not taken account of the possibilities offered by the convention to meet Australia's stated public objectives.
The Antarctic treaty has succeeded over the past 30 years because every member of that treaty system has exercised forbearance and no member has pushed its interest beyond the point where it can be tolerated by others. The treaty system has also depended on an implicit assumption that, once an agreement has been reached by consensus, all parties to that consensus will confirm and implement the agreement. The Australian move has gone against both of those tenets of the Antarctic treaty system.
The Australian case rests on an unsubstantiated assertion that Antarctic mineral resource activity is now
Column 216suddenly environmentally unacceptable. The idea of maintaining the Antarctic as an unsullied frozen paradise free of environmentally damaging mining activities is attractive. It is an easy political slogan, especially for hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West.
But the Australians cannot claim the moral high ground resulting from some sort of conversion on the road to Damascus, because the purpose of the convention is precisely to avoid environmental damage from mining in Antarctica. Perhaps Australia does not believe that rational objection to mineral activity will be effective when decisions come to be made under the convention. We find that puzzling, to say the least.
Dr. John Gilbert (Dudley, East) : Leaving aside the merits of what the Australians may or may not have said now or in the past, is it the case that, if the Australian Government refuse to ratify the convention, it will not come into effect?
Mr. Eggar : The Australian Government have said that they will not sign the convention, but they have not ruled out ratification or accession to the convention--
Dr. Gilbert : A technical difference.
Mr. Eggar : It is more than technical--it is an important difference. I want to explain why we believe the Australian decision is inappropriate and why, despite that decision, we are determined to press ahead with the Bill.
Australia's Antarctic partners have a right to ask Australia for its reasons for inflicting damage on the consensus machinery of the Antarctic treaty system. They have a right to ask Australia why it has taken a path that could result in a collapse of that treaty. What is more, the Australian alternative, a ban on all mineral activity, is simply unattainable. The route of a ban on mining activity was tried throughout the 1970s, but it proved impossible to reach an agreement on such a ban. The fact is that the convention is the only attainable means to ensure the protection of the Antarctic environment.
Even if an outright ban on mineral activity could be negotiated--we do not believe that it could--it would be extremely unlikely to work. In a world of increasing population and increasing pressures on a finite resource base, prospecting for minerals would continue. Instead of such prospecting being carried out openly within Antarctica and subject to proper control, as laid out in the convention, it would be done covertly under the guise of scientific research. No one would be able to use scientific research techniques, such as seismic investigation of the structure of the continental shelf of Antarctica, or conduct a geological investigation without those perfectly viable scientific research techniques raising questions as to whether they were prospecting activities in disguise.
At this stage, the world needs not a grand gesture, however superficially attractive it might be, but an example of how environmentally properly internationally negotiated sustainable development can be pursued. The Antarctic minerals convention is just such an example. In shorthand, what the convention says to mining entities is, "Yes, you can go to the Antarctic and, under strict environmental controls, you can find out whether the Antarctic has any minerals in it that might be worth exploiting. You should know, however, that if you think you have found anything, the primary and overriding
Column 217concern of the convention is to ensure the protection of the Antarctic environment." Any proposed activity that posed significant risk of damage to that environment would be stopped.
Mr. Morley : Earlier, the Minister read out a list of areas in which protection would operate, and it sounded fine. Who will control the conditions of the actual prospecting? Will we operate that control as a Government or as partners to the treaty? As the Minister said, the treaty says that such prospecting will not take place if it causes significant adverse effects to the environment, but how does one define what is significant? Surely that is an enormous loophole in the treaty.
Mr. Eggar : I have already outlined the procedures that must be followed to obtain a prospecting licence. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they are elaborate and, before the Secretary of State gives such a licence, he must be satisfied that all the procedures have been met. If we were to introduce a Bill that governed exploration and development following the successful negotiation of the liability protocol, such exploration and development would come under the terms of the convention and they will be controlled by the commission and the other various convention bodies set out in that convention. Earlier, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) asked me whether the convention was effectively dead as a result of the Australian decision. We do not believe that that is the case, and there are three reasons why that should not happen. First, we do not accept that our Government should accept that a treaty system which is bound by the consensus rule should enable one state to dictate to the other treaty states. We believe that the consequences of the Australian decision must be debated and resolved in the same spirit of compromise and mutual accommodation which are the essential prerequisites if the Antarctic treaty system is to survive. Secondly, we believe that the Australian decision is wrong in principle. We believe in the convention and we hope that the Australians will change their minds. Demonstrating our belief in the convention is the best way to proceed, and we intend to do so by giving ourselves the enabling powers to ratify that convention. Thirdly, there are many other ways in which to protect the Antarctic environment. Such protection can be afforded by dealing directly with such issues as pollution from ships, waste disposal at Antarctic stations, the environmental effects of tourism and so on. Most important of all, however, a start should be made on the negotiation of the liability protocol called for by the minerals convention. The convention says that the rules and procedures developed in that protocol
"shall be designed to enhance the protection of the Antarctic environment."
If the Australians are serious in their concern about the environment, they should be in there fighting for their particular points during the protocol negotiations.
If we fail to pass the Bill, we shall throw away the only practical means of regulating mining activity in the Antarctic. We shall ensure instead that issues of territorial sovereignty will arise in an unmanageable form. The Antarctic treaty system may well crumble and the
Column 218international harmony and co-operation that have been the hallmark of matters relating to Antarctica in the past 30 years will come to an end.
If we give the Bill a Second Reading tonight, we cannot of course thereby guarantee that the convention comes into force and that the possible adverse consequences will be avoided. Whether the convention comes into force will depend on others following our example. By passing the Bill, however, we shall give a necessary and important signal of our continuing faith in the Antarctic treaty system. Furthermore, it will be a signal that patient international negotiation is the way in which to preserve the environment in Antarctica--not grand and ill-thought-out gestures.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and add instead thereof :
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which fails to take account of major changes since the signing of the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Minerals Resource Activity (CRAMRA) including the Exxon Valdez disaster, increased public concern about ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect and the declaration of opposition to signing the Convention by the governments of Australia and France, and fails to make provision for Her Majesty's Government to join new negotiations for a comprehensive Environmental Protection Convention."
The amendment declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill for the stated reasons, but I should make it abundantly clear that the Opposition in no way imply any criticism of the excellent work undertaken by United Kingdom officials in negotiations to achieve the convention to which that Bill relates. We pay tribute to the diligence, patience and sincerity of them all. I hope that I will be excused if I pick out Dr. John Heap, an Edinburgh graduate-- [Interruption.] Scottish Members will know why I choose him. In all seriousness, he has played a central role throughout the negotiations.
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) rose --
Mr. Foulkes : I have hardly begun my speech.
Mr. Burns : I am sorry to intervene so early in the hon. Gentleman's speech. Does he agree that there has been a dramatic turnabout since 20 April, when the Bill had its Second Reading in another place? On that occasion the Opposition spokesman welcomed the Bill and said that he would assist it throughout its passage.
Mr. Foulkes : I was wrong to give way and the hon. Gentleman was right to apologise for intervening. I shall be dealing with the speech of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Cledwyn in a few moments.
Since the agreement was made in Wellington on 2 June last year, some dramatic events and substantial changes in public opinion must be taken into account in considering our approach to the Bill, the convention and to Antarctica in general. It should be noted that it is thanks to the Opposition that we are debating the issue on the Floor of the House at a reasonable hour rather than in the middle of the night. We arranged that because we wanted to acknowledge the importance of the changes.
The dramatic events and the changes in public opinion have influenced our thinking, and they should influence the Government's thinking as they have influenced the