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9 May 2007 : Column 134WH—continued

Denmark is particularly a matter of concern because, as the Minister will know, last year it voted in
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favour of whaling. That was against EU policy, although it is a member of the EU, and was against the wishes of its own people who are overwhelmingly anti-whaling. Will the UK use its influence to strongly point out to Denmark that its responsibility should lie with its people and the EU, and that it should not repeat its pro-whaling vote of last year?

One further concern is that of sustainable whaling, which may be mooted by Japan to muddy the waters by introducing a new category of coastal whaling. That would be the thin end of the wedge and should be strongly resisted by the Government.

In conclusion, there is much agreement about the issue and DEFRA has done some excellent work to preserve these majestic animals. I commend the good work that has been done, but am concerned about support for the issue at the highest levels of Government. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to gain high level support for the issue and to exert his influence over the next few weeks.

4.45 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this debate. I know from my postbag that the issue concerns many hon. Members and their constituents. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her help in highlighting the plight of whales—animals that hon. Members from all parties would agree are in need of protection.

Not only whales, but the world’s oceans and the life that they support are under serious threat from pollution, over-exploitation, the damage and destruction of habitats, and climate change. Despite those pressures, three nations in the world continue to hunt whales on a large scale, which is why the UK places great importance on the protection of whales and all cetaceans. That is supported through my Department and our membership of international conventions, such as the IWC, as well as the convention on international trade and the convention on migratory species.

I agree with everything that the hon. Lady said about the substance of the issue and why the anti-whaling cause commands so much support from hon. Members. However, her attempt to drive wedges between parts of the Government was somewhat churlish. It is widely recognised, not just in the House, but internationally, by other Governments and among the main non-governmental organisations that are involved in the issue—such as WWF—that no country has done more than the UK in recent years to hold back the tide of pro-whaling nations, led by Japan.

I assure the hon. Lady that Government at all levels have engaged in the issue. The Foreign Secretary wrote joint letters with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to a number of important countries following the publication of “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”. I was grateful that she praised that document, which we decided to publish after the worrying development last year of Japan managing to win one vote with a majority
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of one. I am satisfied that the joint letter has been important in helping with the recruitment of a number of new members.

I also assure the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister was ready and primed in the wings to engage if he and we felt that was necessary. I hope that she would also agree that one keeps one’s most powerful and secret weapon in reserve until it is absolutely necessary and that it should not be deployed unless that is the case. As things stand, we are quietly confident that we have been successful enough to regain a simple majority in Anchorage, but we will wait and see. We certainly have not ruled out the possibility of engagement at a higher level should that be necessary.

Last week, I spoke to my US counterpart who was visiting this country in relation to these issues and she gave me a strong reassurance that the US would be solid on the matter to which the hon. Lady referred and that no deals would be struck. After last year’s vote, I made the UK’s displeasure quite clear to the Danish Environment Minister, both on the telephone and in person. The hon. Lady is right to point out the oddness of the Danish position.

It is not just up to Governments and NGOs, however. I am always urging Members—as I think that I did in the letters that I sent to the hon. Lady—in any activity in which they take part, whether parliamentary visits abroad as part of Select Committees or parliamentary groups, to take with them a list of countries on the wrong side of the whaling issue. They should never lose an opportunity to make it clear that we think that this is an abhorrent activity that belongs to a bygone age and that it is not acceptable anymore. Often, such low-level, bottom-up parliamentary and political activity can have a significant effect.

Events in Iceland in recent months have been very interesting. Much to everybody’s horror, last year Iceland resumed commercial whaling, against the spirit and, we believe, the letter of the convention. Iceland faced quite a strong backlash from the international community. The UK led a diplomatic démarche against the Icelandic Government. A number of senior Icelandic business people and politicians spoke out against their country’s decision because they were worried about the impact that it was having on Iceland’s international image and on tourism and whale watching.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is absolutely right to point out that even for whaling countries, whale watching is a far more significant economic earner than whale killing. She was right to say that countries that continue to kill whales do not find markets for their products and spend a great deal of taxpayers’ money desperately trying to do so. Excuse the pun, but I suspect that they are flogging a dead horse. The public in all of those countries, particularly the younger generation, are turning against whale consumption in a very big way.

We are in a difficult period in the history of the IWC. We had that setback last year, although it does not pose a threat to the moratorium because a three-quarters majority in the IWC would be needed to over turn the moratorium. However, as the hon. Lady said, it would allow Iceland and the pro-whaling countries to take control of the agenda and to influence important issues, such as the protection of small cetaceans, whale
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sanctuaries in the southern oceans and procedure in the IWC, which could include secret sessions and ballots, which we think would be disastrous and completely indefensible. How can any democratic country recommend that such issues be discussed behind closed doors and that their own public should not have any idea about their Government’s position and how they voted? It is completely unacceptable.

As I said earlier, and as the hon. Lady kindly acknowledged, we have had some success—more in the last year than in the last few during which I have been responsible for this policy area—in recruiting extra members. I would like to pay tribute to the EU Fisheries Commissioner. Last autumn, I raised this matter at an Environment Council. Joe Borge was very keen and picked up on it. In fact, he issued a statement in that Council condemning Iceland’s decision and urging all EU members to join the IWC. A significant number of those recruits are EU members. A couple of countries that did not pay their subscriptions last year have now been persuaded to do so. That is extremely welcome. We are still not quite sure about Greece. We were led to believe that it would be there, but there is still some uncertainty about it. We are trying to clarify such things all the time.

I pay tribute—perhaps unexpectedly—to the former Conservative party treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, who is a passionate defender of whales. He helped to fund a very powerful, short advert that would be shown more widely in a number of Caribbean countries were it not for disgraceful censorship by some of them. If reports that I have read are true, even television channels such as MTV have been intimidated into not showing it in some of those countries. That is a disgraceful example of self-censorship. We will write to MTV, asking for an explanation for why it has not shown the advert. Nevertheless, Lord Ashcroft has been very effective, particularly in central American countries, helping them to come on board on the right side of the issue.

We are perhaps more confident than we have been for a while that the tide is turning in the right direction again, but we will be very vigilant. One never really knows what will happen at the IWC. Its procedures are perhaps more ruritanian than those of any other institution or event in which I have ever been involved. I am very sorry not to be going this year. There is a simple reason: as I explained to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I have had a long-standing family commitment since before the date of the IWC was set. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is responsible for biodiversity—and after all, whales are animals—will do a tremendous job with our very strong team. We send one of the biggest teams of any country in the world and we are one of three countries that religiously are represented at ministerial level, along with Australia and New Zealand.

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I am very glad to say that—I would like to think, partly at my instigation—the Germans will also this year be sending representation at ministerial level, which they have not done for a number of years. Given that they have the EU presidency, that sends a very good signal. I am quite confident that the pro-whale nations will be strongly represented; we will do our best, as we always do, to make a strong case and to beat off the advance of the whale-killing nations.

I would like to say a little about what has been happening in the past year in relation to whale killing. It is particularly worrying that the Icelanders began to kill the endangered fin whales as well as minke whales. As I said, we led a démarche against the Icelandic Government. We heard some very interesting comments a week or so ago from the Icelandic Prime Minister—Iceland is in the middle of an election campaign, which may be relevant—who said that Iceland’s decision was not final and that they might revisit it. I hope very much that it does when its elections are out of the way, and I urge all hon. Members to use any influence that they have, either in London with the Icelandic embassy or through contacts that they may have, to keep up that pressure. It would send a clear signal. I do not think that public opinion in Iceland is in favour of the killing. It is being conducted by a single operator.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire speculated, which is something I often do, about why the whale-killing countries continue to do that when there is no economic benefit. She put her finger on one important reason: there is a feeling that it is part of their tradition; it is almost a cultural obstinacy. Dealing with that is quite difficult, because the harder the international community pushes, in many ways the more some people tend to dig in. The feeling is, “We don’t want the rest of the world telling us how to conduct our affairs.”

Another interesting fact is that the phenomenon is relatively recent in Japan. Large-scale commercial whaling in Japan really kicked off only after the second world war, because it was a source of readily available and cheap protein. Many countries, including the United Kingdom, which used to whale until relatively recently, have long since abandoned it. I hope that those other countries do so as well.

As Sir David Attenborough said in the foreword to our excellent brochure, which has been widely welcomed and acclaimed through the House:

The UK has made its choice already: we have chosen to cherish. It is now time for all countries to make theirs. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail the whale.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.

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