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Column 139Order for Third Reading read.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.-- [Mr. Eggar.]
Mr. Anderson : Although we are grateful to the Government for acceding to the request for a debate, we would not have had a debate in prime time if it had not been for the insistence of the Opposition. The Government had hoped that this important Bill would glide through on a sea of consensus. I hope that the Government now recognise that the debate has been a worthwhile exercise which has highlighted many of the key problems in this important area. For me, the debate has been an education. It has revealed the deep reservoir of knowledge among my hon. Friends on this matter as on so many others. We accept that if there is to be prospecting there must be proper safeguards. As we have made clear throughout, our preferred option is the creation of a wilderness park, but because of the provisions in the Bill, that option is not available to the House. We recognise that the climate of world and, indeed, domestic opinion has altered in respect of environmental questions. That is reflected particularly in the response of Australia. Hence, what seemed unattainable a few months ago, is now within reach. We were much moved by the evidence of people such as Sir Peter Scott who wrote to all hon. Members today.
The Government have not adjusted to the new circumstances. There is an Australian veto, and Australia is not alone. She has been joined by the French. I gave the Minister chapter and verse on that in Committee. Now we understand that the Belgians have joined the French in refusing to accede to the convention. As I have said, we would prefer a wilderness park and our policy would be to work with the Australians and others for an environmental protection convention. In Committee we saw our role as basically to "green" the Bill as far as possible, to ensure greater control and supervision and stricter enforcement and to reduce as far as possible the discretion available to the Minister, who in his usual dulcet and soothing tones said, "Trust in me--it will all be all right on the night." We were not prepared to give the Minister the blank cheque that he sought. One basic difference between the Opposition and the Government is that the Government have said throughout that we are discussing prospecting and that the Opposition must accept that this is a limited Bill. That is like the housemaid's argument that it is only a small baby. Our reaction was wholly sceptical. As we have said, if multinational companies are prepared to lay out substantial amounts of shareholders' funds on prospecting, it must be the first stage of a two or three-stage operation. As my hon. Friend for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has said, they are not doing it as charities, but with the clear expectation that they will be able to move on to subsequent stages. There is what is known in our domestic planning context as a creeping commitment. It is rather a unique process for the Government to bring to the House tonight, but it is the first stage of what is clearly a multi-stage operation, with the second and third stages inevitably to follow. We therefore expressed scepticism about the Government's "softly, softly" approach.
Column 140I paraphrased earlier what Lord Glenarthur said on behalf of the Government in the other place. He said that, throughout the negotiations, the Government's motive had been to maximise the commercial advantages to British companies of the exploitation of the Antarctic. The Government's position was starkly revealed. All the Government's soothing arguments about concern for the environment must be seen in the context of that clear admission by their spokesman in the other place. We recognise, of course, that any loophole will be exploited and that the Government have taken a rather starry-eyed view. We are worried about the loopholes with respect to offshore companies and we have, therefore, proposed the use of inspectors, the establishment of a commission and the environmental impact survey.
We remain convinced that there has been a sea change in world opinion and, indeed, in domestic opinion in respect of green and environmental issues. However much the green tendency is derided by the Minister, who is supposedly responsible for green questions, the new combination of forces will probably make the Bill entirely non-operative because of the Australian veto. There is a new momentum generally on environmental issues and the Government should properly have come to the House, in the light of those changed and new circumstances, and revealed their contingency plans on the basis that, when the contracting parties meet in October, Australia will exercise its veto--followed by other countries such as France and Belgium. The Government cannot respond as though nothing has changed and they need not change with it. On basic issues, such as the future of the Antarctic, we believe that we have to choose and we, the Opposition, are confident that we have chosen correctly.
Mr. Peter Griffiths : I presume that it is almost inevitable with such a Bill that much time is spent in criticising it for not covering some areas which it might have included or in suggesting that it is not as strong as it might have been in those areas that it does perceive to control. I suggest, however, that it is important to look at the Bill as it is written--the Bill that the House has been considering in Committee and in later stages. High-sounding phrases regarding the environment, whether in the Antarctic or anywhere else, will not bring any protection. What is necessary is for the Bill to provide for a sovereign Government to exercise their power over their corporate citizens in those areas where they have authority. That, in the long run, is the only way to achieve effective protection for the environment in any part of the world.
There is nothing in the Bill that will guarantee that the Antarctic will remain pure and unsullied for ever. It would be hypocritical for the House to pass a resolution that suggested that it was within our power and remit to insist upon that. Those of us who have looked at the Bill as the means of doing what is possible as early as possible have sought to ensure that the British Government will do their level best to protect the environment of those areas over which we have authority for the benefit of our people and that of all others. The tenor of tonight's debate has meant that the Bill as a whole has not been considered, but those who re-read
Column 141our debates will, given the context of the Bill, decide that it deserves the support of the House and general support, particularly of those who care about the environment.
Mr. Morley : I know that it is late and that some people have asked why we have spent so much time discussing an issue that concerns a bunch of penguins. It is important, however, and it will not come before the house again for many years. It also concerns our global future, as the Antarctic represents the last unspoilt wilderness on this planet. It has a vital part to play in the complete ecology of our planet and it must continue to be protected in its entirety rather than be subjected to the risks that will come with being opened up for commercial exploitation.
Throughout the passage of the Bill the argument has been that it is just about prospecting and identifying what is there. If we pass the Bill and we agree to the convention on minerals, the door will be open for the commercial exploitation of the Antarctic--that is the inevitable outcome.
The basic argument is that the British Government should support the Bill and the convention as there are no alternative means of stopping the uncontrolled exploitation of Antarctica. There is a risk of such exploitation and it is important that it is controlled, but that does not mean that we should accept a convention on mineral exploitation. The same end could be achieved by arguing for a world wilderness park in the Antarctic under the control of the United Nations. That idea is not as far- fetched as some Conservative Members might think.
I remind the Minister that the United States, the Soviet Union, Belgium, South Africa, Japan, Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany do not currently recognise any sovereign claim to any part of the Antarctic. Thus, a group of powerful, influential nations do not recognise any claim to that continent. That is a good basis for moving towards the idea of a world wilderness park.
As long ago as 1948, the United States proposed a condominium of joint sovereignty. That idea was later supported by India and New Zealand, who argued that instead of a condominium of nations, the Antarctic should be subject to United Nations control. The idea of a world wilderness park under United Nations control is not new and it already has the basis of support.
Australia has argued that we should have a world wilderness park, and there is some dispute over whether France has taken the same line. I took the trouble to look up the French statements. On 20 June a joint statement was made by Mr. Hawke and President Mitterrand in which they called for the establishment of such a park. The French support the Australians, who have suggested the only viable means by which to defend the Antarctic's interests.
The convention on the exploitation of marine resources was welcome as it controlled, to some extent, the fisheries of the Antarctic. We can see how it works, however, and some of the weaknesses which I believe will emerge with any convention on mineral exploration. With regard to the convention on marine resources, for some species we need a ban on their being fished. One is the Antarctic cod, notothenia rossii, which has been fished to the verge of extinction. Although scientists agree on the need for a ban, under the convention, one was vetoed by Japan and Russia. That comes as no surprise in view of their record
Column 142on whaling, but it demonstrates that, even when there is a convention, there are still problems with national needs and priorities.
A world park could be an exciting and viable venture. If the Government argued for it, and did not maintain their present stance, it would redound to their credit. In 1972, the idea of a world park was supported by the world conference of national parks. It was also supported by New Zealand in 1975. I realise that New Zealand has since changed its view, but I understand that there are signs that it could be persuaded to support Australia and France.
The north-south issue is involved here. An increasing number of the southern nations argue that they should have a share of Antarctica, which was carved up when many Third world countries were colonies of the richer northern countries. That is a further complication and another dimension when negotiating and policing such a treaty. It is also an argument for having a world park.
Organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature--we have seen the letter from Sir Peter Scott--support the concept. In France recently, 200,000 people signed a petition which supports the concept of a world park. I suspect that a similar petition in Britain would easily command such support. We know that accidents are not preventable and of the terrible impact of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
An Argentine ship, the Bahia Paraiso, recently went aground in Antarctica. It caused immense damage. It spilt 250,000 gallons of diesel oil which was in drums and therefore less damaging than if it had been in a tanker which ruptured its tanks. Nevertheless, New Zealand conservationists who went to the scene of the accident said that the damage from the oil spill will be visible for 100 years because it takes oil up to 100 times longer to break down in Antarctica than in more temperate climates. Cath Wallace, New Zealand's convener of the Antarctica and southern oceans coalition, said that it was only a matter of time before a large oil spill seriously upset Antarctica's fragile ecology.
In Britain, forecasts of major damage were made by Mr. Bernard Moran of the British Antarctic survey in Cambridge. He said that, as traffic in the Antarctic increased, there was a growing risk of similar incidents. The more exploration and development of the Antarctic there is, the more likely it is that there will be accidents.
We have heard that the Group of Seven recently argued that action should be taken to reduce the greenhouse effect. Why, if the Government agree with the G7 nations that we should co-operate to reduce the greenhouse effect, do they also argue that we should open the Antarctic for exploration of its non-renewable resources? Would it not make more sense to argue that we should concentrate on renewable energy and other resources rather than open the Antarctic, which will be damaging and, even with the best will in the world, only a short-term solution to problems such as we have in Britain? There is a statue in the Antarctic of Richard Byrd, one of America's greatest Antarctic explorers. On its base the legend reads :
"I am hopeful that Antarctica in its symbolic robe of white will shine forth as a continent of peace as nations work together there in the cause of science."
That is what we want for the Antarctic. We do not want the thin end of the wedge to be introduced by allowing the multinational companies to exploit the place.
Column 143In the end, the convention will not protect the Antarctic. It will protect it only if one regards the exploitation of its minerals as inevitable. But it is not inevitable : there is another option. Things have changed since the negotiations on the convention started. Large, influential countries are arguing for a world park. The convention may not be ratified, but we cannot argue that if there is no agreement there will be unrestricted exploration. I accept that that is a risk, but the treaty has been in place since 1959 and it has not been breached by a single nation exploring for minerals. So why cannot the moratorium of 1959 be maintained while we switch the discussion away from the convention towards the idea of a world park? That is a more imaginative and realistic prospect, and future generations would thank us for it, not for what we are doing tonight.
Mr. Hardy : I want to endorse the approach adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). Because of his speech, I need not address the House at great length. These are the last kickings of colonialism. I am not suggesting that the northern nations should opt out. Speaking in the House during the Falklands war, I pointed out that South Georgia is as far from Buenos Aires as London is from Athens. This resource should not be left to the control or sovereignty of the southern states, either. As posterity will confirm, the only correct answer is to make the continent an international resource, recognising that the environment is far more important than any mineral resource.
The position adopted by Australia and France, which would readily be followed by a number of nations, is perfectly legitimate and logical. It is a matter of deep regret that the United Kingdom has once again forfeited its position as a world leader in environmental matters in favour of that of laggard.
As a result of this debate and the House's decision tonight, there will be a scramble to unlock the resources of the Antarctic and to maintain the profligate approach that humanity has adopted to the planet's resources. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said, we could take a more conservationist line on energy and fuel. We could and should be far keener and more enthusiastic about recycling mineral resources; but so long as those resources can be easily found and profitably extracted, the often perfectly reasonable lust of commercial organisations to extract them as quickly and rapaciously as possible will prevail.
It must be the duty of politicians to inject other considerations into the decision-making process. I regret that the considerations that will be injected into the Antarctic debate will be unsatisfactory. In some ways I regret the Government's failure to accept the advice offered to them by my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe. They desperately need to win friends. As a party politician, I should rejoice when I see the Government forfeiting support and respect. If they carry on with the approach that the Bill embodies, they deserve to forfeit respect. They will be criticised for this measure not merely in our time but for many years to come.
Column 14411.54 pm
Mr. Tony Banks : Most Labour Members remain opposed to the Bill. We tried, both in Committee and on Report, to improve it, but the Government have not been prepared to do anything to meet the fears that we expressed through our amendments.
The philosophy behind the Bill is clear. In effect, the Government have said that, because they cannot stop the move towards exploitation of mineral resources in the Antarctic, they should move to regulate such exploitation.
Mr. Eggar indicated dissent.
Mr. Banks : The Minister shakes his head, as he is entitled to do, but he knows that, although the Bill is supposed to be about exploration, we shall be talking about exploitation in the end. The Bill is an early warning and we are looking beyond it to what we know will shortly follow it.
If regulation is needed because nothing can be done to stop future exploitation, that attitude is, at best, a counsel of despair. We think that it is more. At worst, it is the green light for mineral exploitation, and for the multinationals to move into the Antarctic. The Government are saying that they are willing for the Antarctic to be exploited at some future date.
Despite being asked to do so several times, the Minister has not defined either exploration or exploitation, and there is no such definition in the Bill. As Labour Members have said, the Bill is the thin end of an obvious wedge. No company that has a commitment to its shareholders will become involved in exploration without the possibility of exploitation. We have made it clear that we are not against scientific investigation, as there is so much still to be learned. The Antarctic has to deliver up many secrets that will teach us both about the past and how to avoid some of the obvious mistakes that we might make in the future.
If the Bill were about scientific research and controlling and regulating such research, we would be far more enthusiastic about it. However, it is not. It is about multinational companies that will not be going in for scientific exploration for altrustic reasons. They will be doing it because they are looking for future exploitation. That is why we continue to oppose the Bill.
The Bill provides further proof that the greening of the Government is nothing more than a shallow sham. The Prime Minister recently made a speech in France, in which she said :
"There are rights that you can't take back but there are people who talk about the right to social protection. This is not a right in itself. You don't have the right to a good environment, either." That is a fine example for the green goddess to be setting the world. She went on to talk about what happens in an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood or a fire. Obviously we are talking not about natural calamities but of man-made calamities, which are the hidden part of the Bill. I believe that they will be revealed in due course.
The Government should follow the recently set examples of the Governments of Australia and France and the statements that are being made by the Belgian
Column 145Government about declaring the Antarctic an international wilderness reserve under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked how we could enforce such a reserve. My hon. Friends and I say that that could best be done through the United Nations, and the setting up of a special environmental agency, which would be funded by the major industrial nations such as the United Kingdom. We are moving towards the time when the United Nations must set up an environmental protection force and an environmental disaster force. Ecological disaster worries us more now than at any other time.
The Antarctic is one of the last great unspoiled areas of the planet. It is significant in terms of the ecological balance of the world and it is still not fully understood. There are still many secrets for the Antarctic to yield. That is why we would support proper and genuine scientific research, but not exploration that is a thinly veiled disguise for future commercial exploitation. We must preserve and protect the Antarctic and prohibit all exploration leading to exploitation.
Everyone is so much more attuned to what is happening nowadays. We see all around us the consequences of past over-exploitation of the environment. Terms such as "the greenhouse effect" have crept into everyday language around the world. We are aware of polluted rivers and polluted seas. Rotting algae has been discovered in the Adriatic and it is putting tourists off swimming from the beaches. The authorities do not know how it got there, but they know that it is something to do with pollution. We must be aware of the great dangers that face the planet, which essentially have been created by our own activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow talks about the destruction of the rain forests and rightly brings the issue to our attention day by day. There is acid rain. Cancers and brain damage are known to be caused by contact with lead. How much more evidence do we need in Britain that it is our past follies that have caused the litany of environmental disasters that now face us?
Yet we are contemplating moving in to one of the last great unspoiled areas of the world without knowing the consequences that will flow from such a decision. We oppose the Bill because we want to preserve the planet. The green party is to be found on the Opposition Benches. The only thing that is green about the Government are the empty Benches on their side of the House. It is-- [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) and some of his hon. Friends have woken up. I assumed that his somnambulant position was a form of political osmosis, which the hon. Gentleman had assumed in the hope that somehow information would seep through the green leather into his brain. I am glad that I have woken him up. I am saying that the Bill will add only to the great possibility of major environmental and ecological disasters. If that does not concern the hon. Member for Selly Oak, I do not know what does. That is why we oppose the Bill and that is why we shall vote against its Third Reading.
Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford) : I was not moved to intervene in the consideration of the Bill, but having heard some of the speeches of Labour Members I shall make a short contribution. I cannot speak with great knowledge of
Column 146the Antarctic--the furthest south I have been is to the Falklands--but I can speak with some knowledge of Longyearben in Spitsbergen, having been there just seven weeks ago. I suppose that in Labour Members' terms that place has been exploited. It is between 78 deg and 82 deg north.
About 1 million tonnes of coal is mined there annually, and not a pound of it at a profit. It is mined jointly, at a considerable loss, by the Norwegians who have one mine--the only one in Norway--with about 1,000 miners and the Soviet Union, which has the other mine with about 2,000 miners. They both make fantastic losses.
I saw both mines and their settlements and there was not the terrible pollution that we have heard about today. I was fortunate to fly around the thousands of square miles of Spitsbergen and the surrounding islands and saw the flora and fauna. There has been a mining operation there for many years, going right back to the Spitsbergen treaty of 1920. All the signatories have the right to carry out not only scientific investigation but the exploitation referred to today.
I yield to no one in saying that we do not wish to rape the Antarctic or any other area, but there must be a sense of balance. Those who have seen what is happening in Longyearben and Spitsbergen know that even after 40, 50 or 60 years of intensive exploitation through mining the consequences have not been those suggested in the hysterical speeches of Opposition Members. I do not believe that the Bill will cause anything like the catastrophe that they forecast. Conservative Members are as concerned as anybody about the ecology of the south Atlantic and the Antarctic. I reject the Opposition's hysterical nonsense. They should go and see what has happened over 40 years of extensive mining, properly carried out on a basis of co-operation and partnership between Norway and the Soviet Union. Opposition Members referred to the Bill's effect on wildlife. When we went to bed at night in the old miners' huts, we were warned to lock the doors because of the polar bears. That was good because it showed that the wildlife had not been affected by the 3,000 human beings working there. We do not do the ecology of the south Atlantic or the Antarctic any good by getting carried away on party-political green points, which in many cases are bogus. I hope that the House will support the Bill.
Mr. Corbyn : The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) was talking about the wrong pole. It is interesting that he went there not in winter but in summer, and he examined the flora and fauna from the windows of an aeroplane. I am sure that he has good sight and well understood everything going on beneath him.
We are about to pass a Bill--there is a large payroll vote hanging about-- that admits that we cannot control multinational capital and its voracious desire to destroy the environment of the Antarctic through mining and exploitation. The heart of the Bill is, quite simply, the contention that, unless we sign the treaty by November, mineral exploitation will begin, with no restrictions or control. That is all the more reason to insist that the treaty meeting in November takes an enormous step forward instead of ratifying the convention and rubbishing the Australians.
Column 147The history of the Antarctic is of great interest. There has been ruthless exploitation of seals, whales, fish, penguins and many other creatures during the past 200 years. Other steps away from ruthless exploitation would be through the Antarctic treaty of 1959, ratified in 1961, which declared it a zone of peace, through the United Nations General Assembly motion of 1981 and through successive statements by large numbers of international bodies supporting the concept of a world park.
Is any part of the world to be fair game, at any time, for exploitation-- regardless of the scientific information that it could otherwise yield or the necessity for that information--or shall we instead say, "No, we will not destroy our fragile environment. We will not destroy a continent. We shall not allow the multinationals to do so. Rather, the time has come to consider the sustainable rate at which the world's resources can be sensibly exploited." The history of the past few hundred years shows, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) remarked earlier, that thousands of species have been wiped out. Some have been saved by international action, including certain species of whales--perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. However, smaller species of whales, such as the minke, are being destroyed. The lesson we should learn from that is not to rush in and exploit an environment without knowing or understanding the consequences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is an articulate and passionate defender of the world's rain forests. To destroy them is to destroy a major source of oxygen and a major contributor to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Research into rain forests has also revealed species of plant and animal life of which nothing was known previously, and herbs with medicinal effects that we cannot even begin to think about. Will the same happen in the Antarctic? I do not pretend that plant life will be found there, but it is a fragile place that can be seriously harmed by exploration.
In Committee, the Minister always drew a distinction, which I understand, between exploration and exploitation. However, as I said earlier, there has been a move from scientific research to commercial exploration. I do not believe that any of the companies involved in the Antarctic have any intention other than to return there in the future, armed with a licence and the legislation now before the House, which will allow them to extract the minerals they want. The damage done will be incalculable.
We argued the case against the Bill very strongly on Second Reading, in Committee, and on Report. I hope that the Bill will be defeated tonight, but I observe the payroll vote hanging around and growing very impatient. If the Bill is passed, the scene moves to the treaty meeting in November. The Australian and French Governments now say that they support the environmental park, and the Belgians are apparently about to express the same view. I understand that other Governments are likely to move in the same direction.
Will the Minister return from the November meeting and tell the House, "We couldn't put over our view, so we support the world park now"? Or will the Government heap a barrage of abuse on the Australians--and anyone else who takes the same stance--because they stand up against the multinational mining interests? My hope is that
Column 148the Minister will instead propose a Bill to protect the Antarctic as an environmental park, to be used only for genuine scientific experiments and not those leading to exploitation--and will promise that Antarctica's sovereignty will be re-examined.
Some countries claim title to parts of the Antarctic, while others claim title to parts already claimed. And there are no claims at all to other parts. Is there not a classic case for arguing that Antarctica should be handed over to the United Nations so that it will become the property of the entire planet--rather than Britain trying to hand over to multinationals something that is not ours in the first place?
Britain has an important role to play in preserving and protecting the environment, and it should not pass legislation that will, bit by bit, stage by stage, lead to a great deal of environmental destruction. If we are serious about protecting our planet, we should refuse to allow the Bill to pass tonight.
Mr. Home Robertson : I have been in my place listening carefully to the debate on this important piece of legislation since it began. But I do not wish to detain the House for more than a couple of minutes. The Minister assured the House that the purpose of the Bill is simply to control scientific exploration of the "wilderness continent" of Antarctica. I am afraid that he has been let down on several occasions by two of his Back-Bench colleagues--first the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) and then the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed)--who have acknow-ledged the intention in a number of people's minds that such exploration should move towards commercial exploitation of the continent. Hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that that could cause terrible long-term damage to an area that must be protected.
I am particularly concerned because I am acutely aware that one of my constituency's most famous sons--John Muir, who left the little town of Dunbar 100 years ago to settle in the United States of America--founded the national park movement in North America. He realised, a century ago, the vital importance of protecting the wilderness areas of that continent. How alarmed he would be now at the suggestion that Antarctica--the last continental wilderness--may be under threat.
I only hope that this and other Governments will acknowledge the importance of the area--even at this late stage--and will take steps to protect it not only against unnecessary and avoidable exploration, but against exploitation, too.
Mr. Eggar : The House is united on the need to protect the environment in Antarctica--the debate has been about how best to achieve that aim. The Government firmly believe that the antarctic minerals convention--with the Bill, which is based on that convention--is the best means of protecting the Antarctic environment. It is the best means because it is the only practical means and because
Column 149it ensures, by international agreement, a level of safeguards and controls unparalleled in any legislation on similar activity anywhere else in the world.
On Second Reading and in Committee, I explained that the Bill is the opposite of the miners' charter that some people--particularly Back Benchers--have portrayed it to be. The Bill bans any activities in the pursuit of mineral resources in the Antarctic which might cause more damage than scientific research--and scientific research is already specifically permitted under the Antarctic treaty system. Furthermore, the whole House-- and, indeed, the whole country--recognise that it is invaluable to the international community.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), in a brief intervention, raised the question of the appointment of a secretariat. As he knows, we fully appreciate the need for an Antarctic treaty secretariat. We believe that it could do much to assist in the Antarctic generally, and we hope that progress will be made on that critical issue at the Paris meeting in October. The Bill is the vehicle for Britain's ratification of the convention. We consider it vital that we play our part to bring that convention into force, not just because we believe that it is a remarkable international achievement--as, indeed, it is--and not just because we think that it offers the best chance of preventing possible disastrous exploitation of Antarctic mineral resources, but because unless it is implemented in a timely manner the voluntary moratorium on Antarctic minerals activity will definitely be put at risk. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) recognised that.
A fragile consensus--a consensus with no legally binding force--is all that currently inhibits mineral activity in the Antarctic. That consensus is conditional. If it ever became clear that the convention was unlikely to come into force, it would be only a matter of time before one of the parties decided that the conditions on which it had agreed to the moratorium no longer applied and that the moratorium was no longer valid. We already know that at least one country had engaged in prospecting activity under the guise of scientific research. We simply cannot run that risk.
Without the Bill and the convention, there is a real risk of a mining free- for-all, of heightened tension and possibly conflict, and of the collapse of the Antarctic treaty system which has served so well to keep Antarctica peaceful and stable for more than 30 years. Mr. Morley rose --
Mr. Eggar : It has been implied that to suggest that such risks existed is merely scaremongering, but that is not the view of the other Antarctic parties. However slight the risks may appear to Opposition Members, the Government are not prepared consciously and deliberately to incur those risks.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State a certain amount of flexibility and discretion in some areas. The Opposition argue that allowing the Secretary of State such discretion would make him too vulnerable to commercial pressures. I may say that I have more confidence in the impartiality of our Secretary of State than the Opposition, by implication, have in any future Labour incumbent, should there ever be one. That flexibility and discretion are essential for the Secretary of State to respond to different situations, new technology, new environmental concerns,
Column 150changing perceptions and new rules and regulations which the commission established under the convention will inevitably devise. It is not a question of "trust me", as the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) put it. It is essential that further rules applicable to mineral activity be agreed internationally. That is the purpose of the commission. We must be able to ensure that we in the United Kingdom can comply with the commission's new rules. In Committee there was an attempt to insist on environmental impact assessment procedures drawn from local government legislation, but laws which are appropriate for Aldershot may not necessarily be appropriate for the Antarctic. The commission will have to decide standards and procedures within the strict requirements of the convention. I can assure the House that once the commission has been established, however, the Government will press for suitably tough environmen-tal impact assessment procedures to apply to all prospecting activity. The Secretary of State will then come to the House with regulations to put those procedures into United Kingdom law.
The subject of inspection was discussed at length. I can give the House an assurance that the Government entirely accept the need for rigorous, independent and efficient inspection procedures. The hon. Member for Swansea, East also stressed the importance of making publicly available all information resulting from prospecting activity. I am happy to tell the House that all information about prospecting activity which would be of environmental significance and without commercial value will be put in the public domain. We shall bring forward regulations to that effect.
I can also assure the House that we shall work within the commission for measures to avoid the duplication of prospecting activity, thus cutting the risk of further impact on the environment. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), as usual, is making sedentary interventions. As he has not been following the procedures in Committee, he is not aware that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) made a specific request and I am commenting on it so as to assure him that we have paid attention to the point that he raised.
The Government care passionately about what happens to the ecology and environment of the Antarctic. At the next Paris meeting of the Antarctic treaty consultative parties in October, we shall be pressing for a range of new protection measures for the Antarctic, such as better safeguards to prevent marine accidents and tighter rules on waste disposal. We want to build up a network of regulations to ensure the safety of the Antarctic. The convention is one element of that network. The other proposals that I have mentioned can operate in parallel, but they cannot be a substitute for the convention--and for the convention to become effective, the Bill must be passed.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Thirdtime :-- The House divided : Ayes 171, Noes 65.
Division No. 303] [12.25 am
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)