6 Sep 2013 : Column 589

House of Commons

Friday 6 September 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

The House divided:

Ayes 0, Noes 33.

Division No. 76]


9.34 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Jacob Rees-Mogg


Mr David Nuttall


Baker, Norman

Barker, rh Gregory

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Mr Russell

Burt, Alistair

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Davies, Philip

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Elphicke, Charlie

Gardiner, Barry

Gauke, Mr David

Gilmore, Sheila

Grant, Mrs Helen

Green, rh Damian

Hancock, Matthew

Harris, Rebecca

Heath, Mr David

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Lewis, Brandon

Milton, Anne

Morris, Grahame M.


Murray, Sheryll

Pincher, Christopher

Randall, rh Mr John

Tami, Mark

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Robert Syms


Mr Robert Goodwill

The Speaker declared that the Question was not decided because fewer than 40 Members had participated in the Division (Standing Order No. 41).

6 Sep 2013 : Column 590

Deep Sea Mining Bill

9.47 am

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mining is not a new industry, certainly not for us in Cornwall. There is a saying, “Wherever there is a hole in the ground, there will be a Cornish miner at the bottom of it.” With over 4,000 years of history, the Cornwall and West Devon mining landscape became a world heritage site in 2006, and I was very proud to be a councillor on Caradon district council when that was decided.

The Cornish have emigrated all over the world to give their expertise in mining, and today have vibrant communities as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. They still celebrate their fantastic Cornish pride and heritage in those communities.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I cannot remember whether I picked this up in 1981 when the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981 was passed by this House, but I think I am right in saying that most of the exploration that has been going on under the international authority is in the central Indian basin of the Indian ocean, and in the northern part of the Pacific ocean, in the Clarion Clipperton zone. If there are Cornish miners there, I send them my best wishes; I hope they are swimming well.

Sheryll Murray: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I am sure that they still pride themselves in taking their lunch in the form of a Cornish pasty: the pastry protects what is inside from dirty hands. Pasties are something else that we Cornish people are extremely proud of.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I hope they withstand high pressure.

Sheryll Murray: Absolutely.

It gives me great pride as a Cornishwoman to take this Bill forward in Parliament today. The concept of deep-sea mining is not new, but as we make technological advances, this new industry is fast becoming a reality, and I am keen that Britain should be at the forefront. Everyone will know of my interest in the sea and the marine environment, and no one is more aware than me of the deep sea’s potential in contributing to the great expertise for which we are world-renowned. The United Kingdom is well placed to benefit strategically, economically and in employment terms, and to influence how deep-sea mining is taken forward.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the Bill to the House. Is the Bill necessary because technology and particularly robotics miniaturisation mean that deep-sea mining can be done remotely so it can be done by an individual or an enterprise rather than its requiring governmental assistance?

Sheryll Murray: My hon. Friend is partially correct. The Bill is all about exploitation. We have the potential in about five years’ time to start looking at exploitation. It is much better that the United Kingdom should

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control the licence applications because we must be able to control the environmental situation in which exploitation and exploration are carried out.

Sir Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend probably already appreciates that we must change our provisions because the 1981 Act was passed before the establishment of the authority in Kingston, Jamaica, and we must meet our international obligations. It may also be worth observing briefly that economics matter. When some years ago the price of metal commodities was going up, everyone thought that digging down into the oceans would be a good idea. Now that the commodity prices are not quite so high that may not happen, but at some stage the cycle may turn again and we may find some commercial exploitation.

Sheryll Murray: We are seeing a shortage of some metals, and the deep sea provides the opportunity to gather metals that are needed, particularly rare earths.

The UK is well placed to influence how deep-sea mining is taken forward, what standards should apply and how to minimise the impact on the environment. In 2012, the UK sponsored its first application to the International Seabed Authority for a UK company to explore for polymetallic nodules in the deep sea in the Pacific ocean, as my hon. Friend mentioned. The application was agreed and a contract was signed between the ISA and the UK company. In 2013, the UK sponsored another application from the same company. That still has to be considered by the ISA council, but the UK Government was able to sponsor and issue a licence to that company under the 1981Act.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a persuasive case for her Bill, but as she admits that an application has already been made under the existing Act and we have been able to proceed, why is it thought necessary to amend the Act?

Sheryll Murray: The 1981 Act predates our signing up to the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, so it is vital that we make these amendments to it.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Just to clear my mind by using my mouth rather than just my ears, I think this is a very conservative approach. We maintain what we have and we improve it.

Sheryll Murray: My hon. Friend is correct.

The UK was able to sponsor and issue a licence to that company under the existing Act, which became valid only upon the issue of a contract by the ISA.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): This is complicated stuff, most of which is way over my head, but it seems rather bureaucratic. Why do people have to get a licence from the ISA and the UK Government? Why do people have to undergo that double whammy? Why is one not sufficient?

Sheryll Murray: Under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, any resources beyond the 200-mile limit median line were declared the common heritage of

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mankind. One must be a signatory to the UN convention to be able to apply to the ISA for a licence. We, as a signatory to UNCLOS, are in the best position to apply for the contract with the ISA on behalf of one of our companies because we can then apply the most stringent and best environmental conditions.

Philip Davies: Does that mean that a company cannot apply to the ISA for a licence without the sponsorship of a nation state, that it has to have the sponsorship of its home country to be granted a licence?

Sheryll Murray: That is correct. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to expand on that if he speaks.

Sir Peter Bottomley: In time, my hon. Friend will get to paragraph 9 of the schedule, which states:

“Omit section 9 (the deep sea mining levy) and section 10 (the Deep Sea Mining Fund).”

I think that answers the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Instead of money being paid to us for us to pay to the authority, it will go straight to the authority. The licence has to be obtained from the national Government under legislation, but if payments become due, they will go straight to the authority, which cuts out some of the bureaucracy.

Sheryll Murray: That is right, and of course this Government want to minimise bureaucracy as much as possible.

Mr Nuttall: As my hon. Friend will be aware, the United States of America has not signed or ratified the agreement, so will she explain the position of a company incorporated in the USA? Would it not have to apply to the international body?

Sheryll Murray: I know that Secretary of State Clinton and the United States Administration were, as recently as 2012, very keen to sign up to UNCLOS. It is not for me to make a judgment on that—it is up to the USA—but perhaps the Minister will expand on it later.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Speaking as an historian, I point out that in 1994 the United States got a modification to the convention. Since 1997, even under George W. Bush, the recommendation has been that the United States should sign it. It has not got around to it yet, but I understand that that is its intention. My hon. Friend the Minister will probably cover the issue of whether a US company could apply to another Government for a licence and therefore get the authority indirectly.

Sheryll Murray: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his expertise and for updating us.

As I have said, the 1981 Act predates the signing of the 1972 UN convention on the law of the sea and, subsequently, the implementing agreement to part 11 of the convention, which relates to deep-sea mining. In some small, niche areas the Act is not entirely consistent with the convention, including with regard to providing for the enforcement of decisions of the sea bed disputes chamber of the international tribunal for the law of the

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sea. The tribunal was established under the convention, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that it is totally necessary.

Putting our legislation in good order is important for the UK, not least because we are strong proponents of the convention, which defines the rights and obligations of coastal states, including the entitlement to various maritime zones over which different levels of sovereignty may be exercised.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; she is being very generous in taking interventions. Will she explain exactly how deep-sea mining works? For example, what are polymetallic nodules?

Sheryll Murray: I hope my hon. Friend will be patient, because I will come on to that later.

UNCLOS defines the rights and obligations of users of the seas, such as flag states and fishing states. I think all hon. Members will understand how passionately I care about the fishing states. A few years ago Canada used UNCLOS to arrest the Spanish fishing vessel the Estai which was illegally fishing outside Canadian territorial waters. It brought her into Canada to measure her nets and confiscated them. Perhaps hon. and right hon. Members will remember that the Canadian flag was flown in many fishing ports at the time in support of their counterparts, the Canadian fishermen. UNCLOS also relates to states that want to lay submarine telecommunication cables across the ocean floor and those that want to undertake marine scientific research.

A convention that is accepted by most states, that addresses those issues and that provides various dispute resolution mechanisms helps maintain international peace and stability in the maritime space.

Charlie Elphicke: A mining process could lead to contamination of the sea, which might either contaminate the fish or, indeed, polish them off. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we ensure that any mining operations that are given licences do not cause environmental difficulties?

Sheryll Murray: Deep-sea mining takes place at great depth in specific areas of the ocean. I do not think that the warps, bridles and trawl doors on my late husband’s boat were long enough to trawl the sea bed. We should not excavate in a non-environmentally friendly way, and I will come on to discuss that. This is one of the reasons why the UK needs to amend the 1981 Act, so that we can impose stringent and clear environmental conditions. The UK takes part in the council meetings, which are considering—this was started at the last meeting in July—what conditions should be applied to the exploitation. These are very early days—we are talking about exploration at the moment and not exploitation, which is still some way off—but the UK should be a leader in that sphere.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I am most heartened by the hon. Lady’s response to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) that one of the reasons why it is important to legislate and ensure that licences come through the UK state system is that we would then be able to apply improved environmental measures. However,

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I do not see any mention in the Bill of a requirement on the Secretary of State to do that. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady could point out to me any such requirement.

Sheryll Murray: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I think the whole House will know how interested he is in the global maritime environment. However, he may be unaware—I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will expand on this—that a lot of the environmental requirements will be covered in the wording of the contract with the International Seabed Authority, so we do not to include that in legislation.

Mr Nuttall: If I may assist my hon. Friend, I think that section 5 of the 1981 Act is pertinent to the point the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) raised. It says:

“In determining whether to grant an exploration or exploitation licence the Secretary of State shall have regard to the need to protect…marine creatures, plants and other organisms…from any harmful effects which might result from any activities to be authorised by the licence”.

Sheryll Murray: That is very helpful. I am sure my hon. Friend can reassure the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) when he speaks.

Another important provision in the Bill widens the scope of minerals for which licences can be granted. The 1981 Act is limited to one type—polymetallic nodules—and the Bill widens the definition to all mineral resources. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts. There are now agreed international regulations for the exploration of such minerals. In future, other mineral types could be discovered or become commercially viable for deep-sea mining. UK-registered firms should be able to take part in exploration and possible exploitation of such resources, as much as companies from any other state.

Sea-bed mining has enormous potential. Scientists know that lying on the surface of the sea bed at great depths are valuable new sources of nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is not in his place, and rare earth elements in the form of polymetallic nodules. Such metals are vital to new materials technology. Nickel is used in superalloys; cobalt and manganese are used in energy storage technology; and rare earth elements, which are strategically important, are used in low-carbon technology, lasers, superconductors and many telecoms applications.

Philip Davies: I must confess that, not for the first time this morning, I am slightly confused by what my hon. Friend says; that has nothing to do with her delivery, but with my lack of understanding. She said that it is important for the Bill to include other minerals because we want British companies to be able to explore and exploit them in the same way that other countries can. Am I right in thinking that if such minerals are not covered by international agreement, British companies are already free to do so without a licence, and that including such minerals in legislation will add bureaucracy and cost to UK companies rather than assist them?

Sheryll Murray: No, it will not, because we already have the ISA granting contracts—I will come on to who holds contracts at the moment—and one must be a signatory of UNCLOS before one can apply to the ISA for a licence and contract.

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Charlie Elphicke: Rare earth metals are used in mobile telephones. I believe that there may be some such metals in the granite rock under the mountains of Cornwall. The Chinese seem to have a lock on that market. Is it not important that rare earth metals are more widely available, particularly for use in our mobile telephones?

Sheryll Murray: Absolutely. That is another point that I will address.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Following up on the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), is a company in a country that is not a signatory, such as the United States, prohibited from undertaking any deep-sea mining, or is it able to go ahead without applying for a licence because it is allowed to do so under its own domestic law? Might we therefore be disadvantaging British companies against American companies?

Sheryll Murray: Companies in countries that are not signatories to UNCLOS would have to find a host that was a signatory to make an application for them.

There are large quantities of these metals. Whether it is because of increased demand, shrinking supply or both, metal prices have increased notably in recent years. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), rare earth elements, which have a particularly limited number of land-based sources, are attracting great interest. Those factors led to the emergence of the first serious commercial interest in deep-sea mining only a couple of years ago. A UK-registered company is now following up that interest.

An event to celebrate the granting of an exploration contract by the ISA to the UK was held at the Excel centre on 11 March this year. I was very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was able to attend. At that event, he spoke of the potential benefits to the UK and of the supply chain jobs that would probably be created in areas such as Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Aberdeen and—I hope this is the case—Cornwall. Jobs are likely to be created in areas such as engineering, high-tech remote underwater vehicles and ship stabilisation. He said that that activity was estimated to be worth up to £40 billion to our economy over the next 30 years.

Many people from my constituency work in Plymouth. I want to ensure that we have the necessary legislation in place to make the most of these new opportunities. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who cannot be here today, for sponsoring the Bill.

Mr Nuttall: I am interested to hear that there have been developments in this field this year. Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether she has received any direct representations since the publication of the Bill?

Sheryll Murray: I have received one e-mail requesting a meeting from WWF, which is very friendly towards the Bill and is working to progress it. I have also written to my local press and contacted the local media explaining the Bill and its economic benefits, and they have all seen it as a move towards the future by the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister has welcomed the fact that more than 80 UK companies have been identified as having the relative expertise for the UK contractor to work

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with them. He also welcomed the industry workshop event that was arranged to follow the ceremony celebrating the granting of the contract.

One immediate example of the benefits to the United Kingdom was the announcement at that event of environmental work planned by the UK contractor. It has assembled a team of six world-class scientists, including one from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, which I am sure will please the hon. Member for Brent North, and one from the Natural History museum. They will work alongside the company in an environmental survey expedition to study the taxonomy of deep-sea organisms, of which little is currently known. That is a good reflection of the expertise we have in this country, and it is important for UK scientists to work at the cutting edge of science.

The importance of the new industry is clear, but what exactly is deep-sea mining and what does it involve? By deep-sea mining we mean the deep sea, not anywhere near any coastal settlements. In fact, we mean at least 200 nautical miles out to sea. Of course, the UK does not have a complete 200-mile limit. I cannot really envisage any deep-sea mining taking place in the channel, but we have a median line there because the channel is fewer than 200 nautical miles wide.

The contract held by the UK company for the exploration of polymetallic nodules is for an area in the mid-Pacific, in the Clarion-Clipperton zone. It is important to emphasise that deep-sea mining is not fracking, nor does it involve many of the techniques associated with land-based mining. Specifically, deep-sea mining for polymetallic nodules does not involve the excavation of any rubble or the use of explosives.

Mr Nuttall: Although my hon. Friend says that it does not involve any excavation, as I read the Bill, it does not exclude that possibility. Will she confirm that it would be possible if a company wished to do it?

Sheryll Murray: I will come on to that, but I can inform my hon. Friend that I was referring specifically to polymetallic nodules, the harvesting of which does not involve the use of explosives. The nodules lie on the sea bed, or are partially embedded in sediment on the sea bed. Techniques to mine them are likely to involve scooping or vacuuming them up from the sea bed.

Charlie Elphicke: My hon. Friend drew a distinction between deep-sea mining and fracking. Will she confirm that fracking and other processes for winning fossil fuels such as oil and gas are not within the ambit of the Bill?

Sheryll Murray: We are talking about sourcing hydrocarbons, which I will move on to a little later in my speech. If I miss anything out, I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will pick up on it.

Mining for polymetallic nodules could be a lot less environmentally damaging than land-based mining for the same minerals. To assist my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), mining for polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts is a different matter. It would involve the excavation of rock. Mining for those materials is even further off than mining for polymetallic nodules, and the principles that might apply to nodules would have to be reconsidered for sulphides and crusts.

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We are determined to ensure that the highest environmental standards are applied to any use of those minerals. The point is that international regulations have been agreed for the exploration of different types of minerals, and they were in place in advance of exploration contracts being issued. The various regulations have been continually reviewed and updated in the light of developments and new considerations.

There are no regulations yet on the exploration of any of the minerals in question—they are probably at least five years off. As I mentioned earlier, it was only this year at the ISA’s annual meeting that the council had a preliminary discussion on the process for the development of a regulatory framework for the exploitation of polymetallic nodules.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend suggests that the industry is still in its infancy, and I appreciate that, but the Act that the Bill would amend was passed in 1981. The matter was regarded then as so urgent that the Act had to be passed without even waiting for the international convention to come into force. Something must have led to that feeling of urgency back in 1981. Can my hon. Friend explain why nothing really happened after the Act was passed?

Sheryll Murray: I was not around in the House during the passing of the 1981 Act.

Alistair Burt: You weren’t born in 1981.

Sheryll Murray: I have to confess that I was—a long time before, in fact.

All I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is that we are always unsure how quickly we will see technological advancement. I really hope that Members will support the Bill today, because the UK should be a world leader in the field.

The UK prides itself on taking a close interest in environmental matters and having a good reputation on them—that may have been why the 1981 Act was passed. It follows that, being one of the first states to sponsor a commercial company to undertake exploration—and, I trust, being able to demonstrate the highest regard for international law by passing the Bill—the UK is well placed to ensure that discussions leading towards a regulatory framework for exploitation reflect both the desire for the highest environmental standards and what is practically possible from an industry and technological perspective. I am assured that during the preliminary discussions on a regulatory framework at the ISA this year, the UK delegation emphasised just that.

Now that commercial companies have become involved, deep-sea mining looks inevitable. As much as for the benefits, the UK needs to be involved so that it can shape regulations and standards. I hope that hon. Members show support for the scientists, the commercial companies with the expertise and the people who work in the associated companies, and that we can achieve and secure protection for the marine environment as the technology progresses. By passing the Bill, we can also make a big contribution to the UK economy over the next 30 years. I hope the House supports it.

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10.31 am

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I am delighted to speak in this debate, which is important not simply because of the economic interests that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) has outlined; she spoke of a potentially accessible resource that could be worth something to the tune of £40 billion. As she appreciates, it is also important because of the natural environmental resource that could be at risk from both the exploration, and ultimately the exploitation, of those resources.

I was grateful for the clarification made by the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on clause 5 of the 1981 Act, which I have highlighted in my copy. When he quoted the clause, however, he left out one salient phrase:

“so far as reasonably practicable”.

Let me quote the clause in full:

“In determining whether to grant an exploration or exploitation licence the Secretary of State shall have regard to the need to protect (so far as reasonably practicable) marine creatures, plants and other organisms and their habitat from any harmful effects which might result from any activities to be authorised by the licence; and the Secretary of State shall consider any representations made to him concerning such effects.”

In its time, that was an eminently good and sensible environmental protection to introduce, but 32 years later, environmental law has superseded it. It is no longer the significant protection that it may have been regarded as when it was introduced in 1981.

In particular, we need to pay attention to principle 15 of the Rio declaration—the precautionary approach—in all such environmental matters. Principle 15 states simply that, if there are indications of likely but uncertain significant adverse environmental impacts, an activity should not be authorised to proceed. The principle switches the burden of proof. Of course, in overall terms, deep-sea ecosystem processes, connectivity and the importance of deep-sea ecosystem services are poorly understood by contemporary science.

The hon. Member for South East Cornwall described some processes, and mentioned scooping and vacuuming, but she will also know of the process of crushing when mining for these nodules. More than most hon. Members, she will be aware of the deep-sea ocean currents that can take sediment produced from such operations and disperse it over wide areas. As some of the minerals being explored are so toxic, it is difficult to understand with modern science just what the effect of their dispersal by those deep-sea ocean currents could be.

Sheryll Murray: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the polymetallic nodules are golf ball-size spheres that occur in ocean bed sediments? I bow to his expertise, but my knowledge of the sea bed suggests that trying to crush a polymetallic would simply bury it further into the sediment. We need the Bill so that the UK can ensure that the environment is cared for and so that the activities are undertaken in the most environmentally friendly way. If he is concerned about the hoovering and harvesting of the nodules, he should support my Bill.

Barry Gardiner: Let me give the hon. Lady the assurance that I am sure the Bill will pass on Second Reading. I have no desire to stuff it and am not foolish enough to attempt to do so. However, I would like to obtain from

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her and the Minister another assurance: that the environmental protection, which is currently only in the 1981 Act, will be strengthened when the Bill goes into Committee. The burden of proof in the precautionary principle is reversed in the Act, which states:

“In determining whether to grant an exploration or exploitation licence the Secretary of State shall have regard to the need to protect”.

I want to change the focus, so that instead of the Secretary of State having regard to the need to protect, no licence is granted unless full environmental impact assessments have been undertaken.

Alistair Burt: Does the hon. Gentleman intend to present evidence on any matters that would affect the issue of licences by the UK under the 1981 Act? Has any such evidence given him cause for concern that environmental protection measures are insufficient? I understand where he is going, but does he have, or is he aware of, any concerns about how successive Governments have applied the condition? I take his point and understand where he is coming from, but he can also present these concerns in Committee.

Barry Gardiner: As the Minister knows, few licences have been granted since the 1981 Act took effect, so I would not at this stage seek to adumbrate examples. However, I am aware of many concerns from the environmental community about deep-sea mining and about how the Bill does not reinforce the protections that I believe hon. Members on both sides of the House would want us to have.

The World Wide Fund for Nature position paper on deep-sea mining states:

“Distinct ecosystems are or can be associated with these minerals and will be affected in different ways by different types of mining. Dredging for nodules is likely to damage large areas of the seabed and disperse large clouds of sediment. Polymetallic sulphide mining may destroy active and inactive hydrothermal vents (black smokers) and their associated communities and disperse toxic materials. The extraction of cobalt rich crusts may destroy the benthic seamount communities and dependent fauna.”

I will not quote the paper at length—it is available online for hon. Members to read for themselves—but we need to take those concerns seriously. The global community has a principle on environmental legislation. It is the precautionary principle, which is that when we do not know, we do not do something that we have good reason to believe will cause damage.

Philip Davies: There are always uncertainties, so the precautionary principle would mean that we never did anything. Many of these environmental concerns were raised in the debate back in 1981, and according to Hansard the Labour party opposed that Bill. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the misgivings expressed back then were unfounded, and therefore the misgivings that he is expressing are also likely to be unfounded?

Barry Gardiner: That is a very interesting interpretation of the precautionary principle—that because misgivings were unfounded in the past, they are likely to be unfounded in the future.

I do not speak from the Front Bench, but I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who will do so today, that we

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will not oppose the Bill. I certainly seek not to oppose the Bill, but to improve it. Indeed, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said that it was a good Conservative principle to conserve what we have and to improve it. On the sea bed we have immeasurable riches, and the international community has stated clearly that they are part of the common heritage of humanity. That is what the international community has agreed and that is what the Government have signed up to. That common heritage should be preserved, protected and improved. If the hon. Member for South East Cornwall will give the assurance that in Committee we can ensure that protection through this legislation, I for one will be very happy to see the Bill make progress.

10.41 am

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): It is a great pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who has raised the issue of environmental protection, which goes to the very heart of the Bill. I happen to take the view that resources were placed on this world for the exploitation of man, but we must ensure that they are exploited with great care and caution, whether they are on land, in the sea or on the sea bed.

Philip Davies: Has my hon. Friend identified the contradiction in what the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) said? He said that he supports the Bill, but believes in the precautionary principle. Of course if the precautionary principle had applied back in 1981, the 1981 Act would not have become law in the first place.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend is right. There is a contradiction in that position. It is interesting to ask at what point in the last 32 years the Labour party changed its position on this legislation. Did the conversion happen this morning, at the last general election or at some other point? I look forward to hearing from the shadow Minister on Labour’s conversion, because it voted against the Bill that became the 1981 Act on its Second and Third Readings.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on retrieving this legislation from the dusty Foreign Office shelf where it had been languishing, perhaps for several years—although it may have been drafted this year. It was an orphan waiting to be adopted and I am grateful that she has adopted it and brought it before the House this morning.

Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend endorse the words of our former colleague, Teddy Taylor, who said in the debate in 1981:

“The Bill appears to be a small and sensible measure, but anyone who has Britain’s interests at heart must view with suspicion any measure which has anything to do with our Foreign Office.”——[Official Report, 29 April 1981; Vol. 3, c. 867.]?

Mr Nuttall: I read those comments, although I am sure that with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—a predecessor of mine in Bury North—at the Dispatch Box this morning we have no need to fear, as the Bill will be handled with the utmost care.

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Some important economic issues are at stake. It would be easy for an individual or company wanting to exploit the resources of the seabed to relocate to the jurisdiction they thought most favourable to them. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who so ably proposed the Bill this morning, I want our country to be the world leader in this industry. Despite the fact that it has been 32 years since the original Act was passed, we can still describe it as being in its infancy, and this nascent industry has great potential for the future.

Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that this country has always been a world leader in oceanographic studies, and that we should support those institutions through this Bill?

Mr Nuttall: It is true that this nation has been a world leader in exploring the world. As an island nation we have an affinity with the sea and a natural interest in deep-sea matters, exploring the seas and fishing—as my hon. Friend knows only too well. It is important that we continue that tradition, and I see the Bill as an opportunity to do just that. But there are risks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggests, in that it would be all too easy for us to try to cover every environmental risk and make the terms of the licences so onerous that we would not only fail to attract companies from overseas to our jurisdiction, and thereby benefit economically from their success, but drive away British companies from our jurisdiction. They would look at our legislation and think, “We might as well relocate our company to some other jurisdiction.”

More than 160 other countries have signed up to the UN convention, so companies would have plenty of choice. It would be easy to shop around the world for a legislative environment that was more economically advantageous than ours. We must therefore exercise great care when examining this legislation.

On the face of it, this Bill is rather dull, and to a casual observer it could appear uninteresting. However, it is one that could open up the high seas—or, more accurately, our deepest oceans—to what could turn out to be the 21st century equivalent of the 19th-century gold rush. It is like the Klondike. The ocean depths contain some of the last unexplored areas on our planet. The Bill seeks to update the existing statute, which, as we have heard, dates back to 1981. It perhaps needs to be explained why an Act passed 32 years ago as a temporary measure is now not only being amended, but turned into a permanent fixture. Indeed, the original Act was so clearly intended to be a temporary measure that its official title included the words “Temporary Provisions”, while section 18(3) made provision for the Secretary of State to repeal it.

Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that that could have been because discussions were taking place about the UNCLOS agreement? It was always the intention of the House to introduce further legislation in line with UNCLOS, but that has never happened.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I was coming on to say that my understanding was precisely the same. The 1981 Act set out to regulate mining on the sea bed in the farthest and deepest oceans

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of the world. The reason it was required was that it had been discovered that valuable hard mineral resources, known as manganese or polymetallic nodules, existed on the seabed, as we have heard, and United Kingdom companies, among others, were interested in mining them.

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman just used the important word: “hard” mineral resources. The Bill would excise that word to allow for the exploitation of oil and gas as well. Would he care to reflect on the assurance given by the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) in introducing the Bill that operations at a deep-sea level such as fracking would not be used?

Mr Nuttall: I cannot give any assurances about that; it is not for me to do that. I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about environmental protection, and quite rightly too, but I venture to submit that if the Bill is not made friendly towards companies, there is a danger that they will go and seek some other jurisdiction with a lot fewer environmental protections than in this country. There is a danger in going too far the other way. We have to strike the right balance on these matters, and I believe the Bill attempts to do that.

United Kingdom companies at that time were among those interested in mining polymetallic nodules. The idea behind the 1981 Act was to provide a statutory framework for the development of a nascent industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall said, it was passed in the full knowledge that negotiations were taking place at the United Nations. As we have heard, unfortunately, things did not proceed quite as fast as parliamentarians at the time thought they might. That might be due to a difficulty with the technology. Indeed, it is interesting to consider that man was able to send rockets and put men on the moon, the satellite of our planet, back in the 1960s, yet it has proved to be technologically much more difficult to travel to the depths of our planet.

A United Nations conference on the law of the sea had for several years been working towards an agreement on establishing an international system for regulating the exploitation of the mineral resources of our oceans. It was hoped that when a satisfactory agreement had been reached and had entered into force, the international arrangements would supersede the national provisions contained in the 1981 Act. It was for that reason that the legislation was sold to the House as a temporary measure. The Government of the day anticipated that there would be no need for any national legislation once the United Nations convention came into force.

The Government of the day were understandably keen to improve the security and availability of future supplies of vital raw materials for our UK industries. The UK was, and still is, heavily dependent on a small number of countries for supplies of minerals that are critical raw materials for our manufacturing industries. The possibility of securing our own supplies of minerals such as nickel, cobalt, copper or manganese from the sea bed was understandably regarded as a very welcome prospect indeed. Furthermore, the prospect of UK companies participating in the new industrial activity of sea-bed mining promised an economic opportunity for the benefit of the companies involved and the wider British economy.

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The nodules that gave rise to that flurry of interest and activity were described at the time not as being like golf balls, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall described them, but as like charred potatoes that varied in size and, where they occurred, were like a carpet on the sea bed in a single layer. We do not yet fully understand how and why the nodules form, but it is clear that they apparently require the undisturbed conditions that are found only in the deepest areas of the ocean. Although the nodules were found in various parts of the ocean, only very few areas contained sufficiently rich deposits to justify the enormous costs of establishing commercial mining operations. The deposits of nodules are beyond the limits of national jurisdictions and were consequently treated as resources of the high seas, which any nation could attempt to recover.

It is perhaps worth considering what exactly it is envisaged will be mined as a result of the Bill. There are essentially three types of minerals involved. First are the polymetallic nodules, which contain manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they either occur on the surface or are partially buried, and are discovered at depths of 3,000 to 6,000 metres—in other words, some 4 miles deep, so we are not talking about something that one can undertake lightly. It is estimated that the global reserves of deep-sea manganese nodules are in the order of 10 billion tonnes. Those of greatest economic interest are made up, on average, of about 30% manganese, 1.5% nickel, 1.5% copper and 0.3% cobalt. However, I understand that the presence of traces of other, rare earth elements might also attract interest in these resources, particularly as the supply of such metals from land-based resources is reducing.

Secondly, there are polymetallic sulphides, which are sulphide deposits found at water depths of up to 3,700 metres in mid-ocean ridges, back-arc rifts and sea-mounts. They often carry high concentrations of copper, zinc and lead, in addition to gold and silver. That is what gave me the idea that there could be a 21st century Klondike in the deep sea. Thirdly, there are ferromanganese crusts, in which cobalt-rich iron-manganese forms on the sea floor. These, too, could lead to mining activity.

Before I began to research the Bill, the letters “ISA” had always stood for “individual savings account”. Now, when I see them, I think of the International Seabed Authority. That new body was established under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, and it plays a pivotal role in deep-sea mining. The authority has stated that the areas of exploration have not advanced much since 1981. They still mainly comprise the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone in the equatorial north Pacific ocean, south and south-east of Hawaii, and the central Indian basin in the Indian ocean. Exploration for polymetallic sulphides is also taking place in the south-west Indian ridge and in the mid-Atlantic ridge.

Unsurprisingly, in view of the potential economic importance of those resources, there has been considerable international interest in, and concern about, the nature of their exploitation. In 1967 and 1970, that concern was formalised in two resolutions of the United Nations. The first sought to impose a complete moratorium on deep-sea mining until international arrangements had

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come into force. The second was a declaration of principle stating that the sea bed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, and its resources, were the common heritage of mankind.

A United Nations conference on the law of the sea was convened in 1973 to negotiate an international system of regulation for sea-bed mining. No agreement was reached by the time of the passage of the 1981 Act, even though the conference had met regularly since 1973 and made some progress on developing an international regime. The negotiations were sufficiently advanced, however, for it to be fairly clear that any convention emanating from the talks would contain complex provisions for operations by private companies and by an international sea-bed authority. Incidentally, the negotiations apparently stalled because the United States decided to carry out a full review of its policy on the law of the sea, and therefore decided not to play an active role in those negotiations.

Those uncertainties demonstrated the problems that would face Governments and mining companies until an international convention could be agreed and ratified. Because of those uncertainties, the United Kingdom Government of the day considered it necessary to pass the 1981 Act as an interim measure to give the UK mining industry a firm basis for proceeding, pending an international agreement being reached.

Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that we had to pass an Act of Parliament even though we were a member of the European economic area because the competency lay with the member state? Because the European Economic Community was not a nation, it could not have that same recognition.

Mr Nuttall: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing up the matter of the European Union. I was wondering whether we might be able to touch on that. She is absolutely right to suggest that the EU plays an important role in this matter. I understand that it has taken it upon itself to become a signatory to the convention, which demonstrates just how it can behave as though it were a single European state. It is clearly positioning itself so that, one day, it will be able to take over the organisation of and responsibility for passing legislation such as this. She might think that that is of little consequence, but she has highlighted a real fear. There is a danger that, if the European Union continues on the path that it appears to be taking, this will be yet another area over which this House will have no competence whatever.

As I was saying, the Government of the day considered the 1981 Bill necessary, because of all the uncertainty, in order to allow British companies to proceed with some certainty, notwithstanding the involvement of the European Community at that time.

I should point out that the 1981 Bill was by no means uncontroversial. Indeed, it divided the House on Second Reading and Third Reading. One concern that was raised at the time was that people wondered why it was necessary to introduce legislation at all, given the progress that was being made on securing an international agreement. Concern was expressed that, if the United Kingdom passed unilateral legislation, it could jeopardise the wider international treaty negotiations.

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The answer was that that Government were keen to pass an interim measure because the text of the draft convention available at the time contained a provision for the convention not to become effective until 60 states had ratified it. That was the threshold set in the draft agreement. It was therefore clear that, even if agreement were reached fairly soon after the Bill had reached the statute book, it was likely that several years would pass before 60 states had ratified the treaty.

The Government of the day were absolutely right to predict that it would take several years to bring together that number of signatories. Indeed, although international agreement was reached the year after the Bill became law and the convention was signed on 10 December 1982 at Montego Bay in Jamaica, it was not until some 12 years later on 16 November 1994—one year after Guyana had become the 60th nation to ratify the convention—that it actually came into force. Members might wonder why it was signed at Montego Bay. The answer is that that is where the headquarters of what is now the International Seabed Authority are situated.

Another concern expressed at the time was that the delays and uncertainties in the international arrangements left the developing deep-sea mining industry in a difficult and uncertain position. The industry was in its infancy and had to carry out costly development work before being ready to embark on commercial operations. Understandably, mining companies were not prepared to invest the huge sums required to undertake this development work without a reasonably stable legal framework in which to operate. If the 1981 Act had never been passed, the Government feared that mining companies would allow their development programmes to run down, and if they did run down, there was no guarantee that they would ever be built up again.

A further reason why legislation was required was that the companies that had pioneered the development of sea-bed mining had already expended considerable efforts on prospecting large areas of the ocean floor. They wanted to secure their claims to potential areas of exploration and exploitation—the areas that they had identified as worthy of further investigation, particularly when other countries were already pressing ahead with their own national legislation.

The key concern was, of course, ensuring that the exploitation of the valuable mineral resources did not result in damage being caused to the marine environment. As already mentioned this morning, section 5 of the 1981 Act provided for protection of the marine environment, which was a central part of the legislation at that time, and it is the one section, incidentally, of the Act that is hardly altered at all by my hon. Friend’s Bill.

Of course, the whole purpose of the present Bill is to amend the 1981 Act. Although on the face of it, this Bill is very short, I venture to suggest that it is deceptively short. There are only two clauses, but the real meat lies in the schedule, which extends to no fewer than 12 paragraphs containing 11 separate sets of amendments over six pages.

The first of the amendments to the 1981 Act is designed to substitute proposed new subsections (1) and (2) in section 1 of the 1981 Act. That Act presently prohibits anyone covered by the section from undertaking mining activities in the deep sea without a licence. There are essentially two types of licence: exploration licences and exploitation licences. The provisions apply to UK

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nationals, Scottish firms or anybody incorporated under UK law and resident in any part of the UK. That is the 1981 definition, and I shall deal later with how the Bill proposes to extend it.

The crucial change is made to the description of what might be mined. The 1981 Act referred to “hard mineral resources”, but it is now proposed to change that to “mineral resource”, which is defined in amended subsection (6) as

“a solid, liquid or gaseous…resource”.

That definition is obviously much wider than the previous one, which was very specifically defined as meaning

“deposits of nodules containing…quantities”


“at least one of the following elements…manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper, phosphorous and molybdenum”

in “quantities greater than trace”. The new definition will allow several different explorers to start prospecting for different minerals at the same time in the same area.

In view of the much wider definition, I wonder what will be the likely increase in the number of explorers who will now need to seek a licence. I am sure that, when we hear from him, the Minister will want to reassure us that the Government have in place sufficient resources to enable them to deal with what I hope will be sudden rush of applicants wanting to take advantage of the opportunities provided once the Bill has passed through here and the other place.

The crucial definitions in amended section 2 introduce references to the International Seabed Authority and to what the provisions refer to as a “corresponding contract”, defined as

“a contract…granted by the Authority to the licensee”

either to explore or exploit mineral resources in a given licensed area. As has been said, this is very much a twin-track approach. It is no good a company only obtaining a licence from the UK, as it must at the same time ensure that it has a contract from the International Seabed Authority.

There is also a requirement to pay a fee to the Government, so we need not think that there will necessarily be a cost to the UK Government, although I express the hope that any fee does not put off potential applicants. As I said earlier, there is a real danger that if we do not establish a friendly regime for exploration companies, they will simply go elsewhere. Nevertheless, the requirement to pay a fee is retained. Proposed new subsection (3) of section 2 makes it clear to applicants that double authorisation is required by specifying that a licence granted by the Secretary of State under the UK legislation shall

“not come into force before the date on which a corresponding contract comes into force.”

It will thus not be sufficient for any individual or company to obtain just a licence.

Proposed new subsection (3A) sets out a minimum list of terms and conditions that a licence may include. I add, although the hon. Member for Brent North is no longer in his place, that this subsection could provide the means and the mechanism by which any further environmental protection that the Government felt necessary in any particular case could be dealt with—without any necessity to amend the Bill in Committee or on Report.

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Proposed new subsection (5) provides that where a person has been

“granted an exploration licence, the Secretary of State may not grant an exploitation licence which relates to any part of the licensed area”

or to

“any of the mineral resources to which that licence relates”

to anyone other than

“the holder of the exploration licence”

without their “written consent”.

Of course, that immediately poses the question why, when an exploitation licence can be granted only to someone who has an exploration licence, anyone would want to go prospecting on the patch of someone else. I thought that that could happen only if they had in mind a joint venture agreement with the holder of the exploration licence and cut a deal with them.

The amended section 8 adds two new subsections to reflect the fact that under the terms of the 1994 agreement, there is a requirement for judicial and arbitration decisions to be recognised. This area was not covered at all in the 1981 Act. Sections 9 and 10 of the 1981 Act are then removed. Perhaps worthy of note is just how much debate and discussion took place around the two clauses when the Bill was debated back in 1981. Hours and hours were spent considering them, and we now discover, 32 years later, that neither the deep-sea mining levy nor the deep-sea mining fund have, in fact, ever operated at all.

The schedule then makes provision for the list of definitions to be extended to take into account the new structures and terms introduced by the 1994 agreement. Finally, it removes the reference to the 1981 Act as a temporary measure and it removes the provisions that allowed the Secretary of State to repeal it. I assume that it is the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for this legislation to become permanent.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Does my hon. Friend share my view that it is a pity so to tidy up the statute book as to remove the word “temporary”, which always serves as a useful reminder? Even income tax was introduced on a temporary basis. We are very bad at ensuring that the word “temporary” means what it says.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this is a case in point. The House was given all sorts of assurances in 1981, when the original Bill was debated, that it would be a temporary measure, extending even—as I said earlier—to the inclusion of the word in its title. Section 18 of the Act sets out the mechanism enabling the Secretary of State to repeal it, but of course that never came to pass, although, as we have heard this morning, the expected flurry of applications did not materialise. It was expected that once an agreement had been reached there would be no need for national legislation, but, notwithstanding that, the Act remains on the statute book to this day.

I want to make two brief points about clause 2. First, I am pleased that it retains the provision in the Act for the legislation to be extended to the British overseas territories by Order of Her Majesty in Council. Secondly,

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I note that, unlike the Act, the Bill does not extend to Scotland. I can only assume that deep-sea mining is a reserved matter for the Scottish Parliament, and that the House of Commons no longer has power to legislate in that area. If there is no corresponding legislation in Scotland, I wonder what would be the position of a company that chose to incorporate north of the border. Would it be able to bypass this legislation?

I believe that the Bill presents the United Kingdom with an enormous opportunity to become a world leader in this emerging industry. I believe that, if we adopt a sympathetic and light-touch approach, we shall be able to attract exploration companies from all over the world which will choose to set themselves up in the UK to take advantage of both the licensing regime established by the Bill and the fact that, thanks to the actions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, they will benefit from one of the most competitive corporation tax regimes and lowest corporation tax rates anywhere in the G20. Conversely, I believe that, if we make our regime too onerous, it will not encourage applications, and other countries throughout the world will profit from this new area of human activity.

I do not wish to be in any way critical of the Bill, but I wonder whether it would not have been simpler to repeal the 1981 Act and introduce a new Bill, which might have made it easier for people to understand what the legislation was all about. Notwithstanding that small point, however, I wish the Bill well. I trust that it will receive an unopposed Second Reading today—time will tell—but, regardless of whether it is opposed or not, I hope that it will be given a Second Reading, that it will then enjoy a smooth and speedy passage through both Houses, and that, in the fullness of time, this country will be able to benefit from the enormous opportunities that it affords and we shall be world leaders in an emerging industrial activity.

11.24 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who, as usual, made many comments with which I should like to be associated. I join him in congratulating our hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on her Bill, which she presented with her customary charm. I think that that will stand her in good stead today, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I hope that the Bill is passed without too much trouble.

Reading up on this subject has been a learning curve for me. I was not particularly well versed in it before, unlike the Minister, who, I know, is a long-standing expert in the field. My starting point was to establish what deep-sea mining actually was. I had not realised that it was such a controversial subject until, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I read the report of the 1981 debate. Having assumed that the debate must have been fairly consensual and that the issue had not been particularly controversial, I was astounded to discover how heated the discussion had become on some occasions. If I detected accurately what was said earlier by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), the Labour party had changed its mind about the legislation, so I am delighted. However, I think that some of the reservations that have been expressed about this Bill are similar to those expressed

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in 1981. It is strange that people who now say that they are in favour of the 1981 Act and who seem to be in favour of the Bill should express the same reservations that they expressed in 1981.

Deep-sea mining, I learn, is the process of retrieving minerals, raw materials and precious metal from the deep-sea bed. The United Kingdom has a great tradition of oceanography and similar activities. The modern age in that respect—certainly the modern age as far as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is concerned—began in 1872, when HMS Challenger set out on its four-year voyage to explore the oceans. The expedition was led by John Murray and Charles Thomson, who should be commended for the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North pointed out, much of our present exploration and exploitation activity is thanks to their discovery of what was out there. We should be incredibly grateful to them for that. Only yesterday, I believe, the Prime Minister said that pretty much everything that was worth inventing was invented by people in this country. Much of what was worth discovering was discovered by people in this country, too, and we should be immensely proud of that great tradition.

I had not previously been particularly well versed in polymetallic nodules and deep-sea hydrothermal vents—or, for that matter, manganese nodules—but they are actually more fascinating than people may think. They are very productive, and not only rich in minerals but home to unique organisms that have evolved to live in extreme conditions and are of interest to scientists for their genetic properties, which have many remedial, medical and other practical applications.

I may be doing him a disservice, but it is possible that the hon. Member for Brent North has read—as I have—the briefing on the Bill that was sent to us by Greenpeace, which I am sure was also read with great interest by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall. Greenpeace fears that if sea-bed mining is allowed to proceed in the absence of a comprehensive system of environmental protection, we may be destroying species for ever before we have fully explored what they are. That returns us to the precautionary principle mentioned by the hon. Member for Brent North.

Sheryll Murray: Some of the cone-shaped polymetallic nodules are alive and smoking, and certain marine creatures live in their environment. I understand that the harvesting will be restricted to the dead ones. I think the Greenpeace paper refers to the living ones, which we see in films with smoke coming out of them, but I understand it is the dead ones that are going to be mined.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend has far more expertise in this field than me, and I am grateful to her for that clarification. I do not necessarily agree with the Greenpeace stance, but I think there are certain points that are worth putting on the record. The concern is that problems we are not yet aware of may arise from deep-sea mining. It is always difficult to counter such arguments: if we are not aware of the problems, how can we give reassurance on them? I suspect we cannot. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith, however; otherwise, we would never do anything. We would never do anything in this country

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if we were constantly concerned about things we are not yet aware of. Such an approach would not take us very far forward.

Mr Nuttall: In a similar vein, does my hon. Friend not think there will be some difficulty in establishing whether these cone-shaped nodules are living or dead, and who is going to monitor whether the correct sort of nodule has been mined?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope that such detailed questions, which go way beyond my sphere of expertise, will be covered by the Minister. He has much more expertise in these matters than me, and I have hopes that he will be able to cover much of this ground in more detail than I could.

Environmentalists are also concerned about pollution of the deep sea, which they say is likely to occur from deep-sea mining activities as the ocean currents may carry sediments and toxic pollution far from the area of mining activities to areas of fishing, which would potentially have a terrible impact on fishing levels. However, it is worth quoting from a magazine that I am sure is read by many Members called Mining Weekly—I am sure you are a regular reader of it, Mr Speaker, so you will be able to correct me if what I say is wrong. The environment principal and marine ecologist for De Beers, Dr Patti Wickens, said:

“An environmental-impact assessment was undertaken in the early 1990s to assess the impact of offshore diamond mining on the seabed in Namibia. It was found that while mining activities alter the nature of the seabed landscape or habitat, this effect is not permanent.”

We should bear that point in mind: there may be some changes, but they will not be permanent, and the habitat will return to its normal state after the mining ceases in an area. I hope that gives comfort to those with concerns.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I agree to a certain extent with what the hon. Gentleman says, but what if the damage is so significant that the environment cannot repair itself as he blandly indicates? Is there not a real risk that damage may not be reparable?

Philip Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me more credit than I am due. I was not claiming anything; I was merely quoting what a principal marine ecologist said. I would not wish the hon. Gentleman to think that was my theory. I would not want to claim credit for what Dr Patti Wickens said in Mining Weekly. I can only refer him to her if he wants to argue the case. I suspect he will get much further if he argues the toss with her rather than me. I will leave on the record what she said, however, and people can make their own minds up as to whether the hon. Gentleman or Dr Patti Wickens knows more about this subject. That is a judgment we will all have to make at some point.

The deep-sea bed is defined in the schedule as an

“area of the sea bed situated beyond the limits of national jurisdiction of the United Kingdom or any other State”.

The main marine mineral content of interest is manganese nodules, manganese crusts and seafloor massive sulphides. Two metallic mineral resources of the deep-sea floor incorporate dissolved metals from both continental and deep ocean sources. One of these is what my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall—and, I

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think, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall)—described as golf ball-sized polymetallic modules. I have heard them described as “golf-to-tennis” ball size, but I am not sure whether there is any mileage in arguing about the size, as we know what we are talking about here.

These nodules precipitate from sea water over millions of years on sediment that forms the surface of the deep ocean. It is understood that they require the undisturbed conditions which are found in areas of the deepest oceans. That serves to highlight again the environmental point that the undisturbed conditions are what is important. To clarify:

“Polymetallic massive sulphides are types of minerals discovered in the oceans in 1979 that were previously known only from deposits that have been mined on land since pre-classical times for copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold.”

Rather than get bogged down in all the science, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North covered in some detail, I will focus on some of the impacts of this proposed legislation and ask some questions, which I hope the Minister may be able to answer.

The history is important. The oceans had long been subject to a freedom of the seas doctrine, a principle dating back to the 17th century essentially limiting rights and jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow belt of sea surrounding a nation’s coastline. The rest of the seas were proclaimed to be free to all. That seems to me to be a sensible doctrine. It has been challenged by some countries, however, which have tried to claim the rights to certain seas beyond what international agreement indicates.

Mr Nuttall: Does my hon. Friend think there is any merit in the international community, through the auspices of the United Nations, simply stating by way of further agreement that all these international seas should be dealt with only by the International Seabed Authority, and leaving the matter of national jurisdictions out of it altogether?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it should be considered. Again, the Minister may be able to address it.

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a conscientious application to serve on the Bill Committee, where that matter, among many others to which he has briefly alluded, can be explored in further detail.

Philip Davies: I am very grateful to you for highlighting my pitch for me, in a far more eloquent way than I was, Mr Speaker, so that nobody could be in any doubt that I would, obviously, be delighted to serve on the Committee.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am concerned that my hon. Friend might have been tempted down a dangerously internationalist path by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). It is always important in these matters to preserve British sovereignty.

Philip Davies: I certainly agree with that. I am not sure that what my two hon. Friends are saying is necessarily incompatible, but I am sure they will be able to discuss

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that in the Tea Room at a later date. I am certainly one for upholding British sovereignty, however, as most people will appreciate.

Let me now deal with some of the points that I would like the Minister to cover. I am interested in the licences that the UK Government offer and give to people who apply for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North referred to the resources that the Government provide to ensure that the licences are dealt with properly and in a timely manner. I am not entirely sure what the fees are for these licences and how our fees compare with those in other countries. As he said, we want the UK to be an international leader in this field. If companies can, in effect, apply to any signatory country for a licence, in order to take that to the International Seabed Authority, we want a commitment from our Government that the fees they charge for these licences will be competitive—more competitive than those charged by other countries. I would be interested to hear whether or not they are.

This is not just about the fee; it is also about the timeliness of how a licence application is determined and a licence issued. I hope that the Government also make a commitment to ensure that licences are processed more quickly here than in competitor countries, because, again, that might be a factor in which country a company chooses to go through. I would be interested to know how many licences have been applied for and how many applications have been rejected. That would allow me to see whether the process was strenuous or whether licences were just given out on the nod.

Mr Nuttall: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that perhaps one reason why so few licences have been applied for under the 1981 Act is that the regime it established was too onerous and companies have been going elsewhere in the world?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we certainly would not want what he describes to have been happening. As he said, we want the UK to be a world leader in this field and to be seen as such, so I hope that the Minister can give some assurances on those points.

I would also be interested to know how the licences are policed once they have been granted and who does the policing. The international authority, presumably, polices the contract that it has agreed can be carried out. However, given that the UK Government has also issued a licence, are they happy just to accept the policing carried out by the ISA? Do they have their own policing to ensure that the licence conditions they have applied are being adhered to? If that is the case, how many of the licences that have been granted have been subject to a revocation because the conditions were not being met? Alternatively, are the licences given and that is the end of the matter, everyone just cracks on with it and nobody will bother contacting the people involved again?

I would like clarification on a further point, which relates to the heart of why it is important that we have a competitive system, particularly when it comes to time scales. What happens when different companies in different countries all want to explore or exploit the same area at the same time? That must be a fairly common situation. It is a bit like supermarkets really: when one company

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decides it wants to open a store in a particular place and its competitors get wind of it, all of a sudden two or three applications are made for the same place, because all the companies think, “That’s a good area. We all want a slice of that action.” Presumably the same things must apply in this field, so if different companies in different countries are all looking to exploit the same area, is the company that can do so decided on a first-come, first-served basis? Is the company that gets its licence first and gets a contract agreed with the ISA the one that gets to do the exploring? Or are more rigorous criteria used? If this is done on a first-come, first-served basis, it is crucial that we process these licences as quickly as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall made a good job of dealing with my next point, but I just ask the Minister to say a little about whether we are unnecessarily introducing or increasing bureaucracy at the expense of UK companies. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset in intervention. Although we want the licences and legislation in place to allow UK companies to get involved in this field, we certainly would not want them to have to do it in an overly bureaucratic way or one that disadvantaged them in relation to what other countries would expect them to do. How has this country’s licensing regime stacked up against those of other countries?

I hope that the Minister can answer those issues satisfactorily. Many of those points are not really about the principle of the Bill but about the application of the regulations, the legislation and the licensing. I hope he will make sure that this country is at the forefront in this field, and that he will help UK companies rather than hinder them—I am sure that is the case.

Teddy Taylor is a great man and this House has a lot to be grateful to him for. I am sure that the point he made about the Foreign Office in the debate in 1981 is somewhat unfair, although probably only slightly; I am sure that the Foreign Office always has the British people and British companies as its priority and wants to do its best for them. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that, on the points I have raised, the British Government are at the forefront of making sure we are world leaders so that the Bill will what do what I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall intends, which is to ensure that this country becomes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said, a world leader in this field.

11.46 am

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who have been, for a Friday, most amazingly reticent and brief in their remarks. I am worried that this Bill may not therefore get the scrutiny that it deserves, given that people who normally go into every detail have skated over some of the more important points—perhaps that will come at a later stage, however.

The great thing that we should bear in mind as a nation is that our companies and our businesses should never be disadvantaged against foreign businesses and foreign companies. Any regime we have of licensing and of regulation should be as light-touch as possible, particularly when this enormous and exciting resource

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is available for us. We have heard of the metals that there may be—of molybdenum, of rare earth metals. It occurs to me that at the depths of the ocean there may even be gold, and it might be possible for us, through the ingenuity of British companies, to go down fathom after fathom to explore and find the gold that could be used to replace that which was sold by a former Chancellor of the Exchequer at an extraordinarily low price and against the advice of the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), who thought it was very unwise to sell that gold at a rock-bottom price. That is what it is really about: exploring these resources that could add to the wealth not only of the nation but of the globe at large. As we have seen the emergence of the new economies—of China, India, Brazil and Russia—so we have seen demand for resources grow extraordinarily. The demand has been for steel, obviously, and all that goes into manufacturing it: the components and the other metals that make steel of a particular strength to ensure that the skyscrapers that have gone up across Asia can be built safely.

As demand increases we will find that the traditional sources of metals and minerals can be exhausted. We will then find that economic growth across the globe slows down because the prices of commodities will rise. As you know, Mr Speaker, the laws of supply and demand would come into effect and if the supply is limited in relation to the demand, the price rises. If the price rises, the burden of higher prices will ultimately fall on the consumer and standards of living in the country at large and, indeed, in the world at large would be reduced. There could be an exciting resource in the depths of the ocean in an area where mankind has hardly dared go before—there have been limited efforts, and cables have been laid, but we have otherwise been able to do very little in terms of exploration. If we find on the base of the ocean little things the size of golf balls, or possibly even cricket balls, that could add to our wealth, that would be exciting, but we want British companies to be at the forefront. We do not want to allow the Americans, who are not following this regulatory path, to get ahead of us as they have on other occasions.

I hope that the Minister will focus on international law. I am always very suspicious of internationalism. I think that the nation state is the right way of dealing with problems. It is the right way of legislating, of representing a democratic mandate and of ensuring a fair and better economic outlook for the country. If there are international agreements to which major countries are not signed up, in what position are those countries and their companies left? International law is only enforceable by the acceptance of the people on whom it is enforced. There is no equivalent to this Parliament that can pass a law for the whole world nor is there a court that can lead a judgment against a country that refuses to accept what international law proposes.

Indeed, we discussed how, by the 17th century, the oceans were viewed as owned by everybody and as free, but we did not go on to develop how that freedom was protected. It was protected by the might of one great nation and one great navy, the Royal Navy, which went across the world ensuring the freedom of the seas. Although the argument was that the seas were global, they were global by the fiat of the British empire, which enforced internationalism and the security and safety of

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those travelling on the high seas. Indeed, it was a deliberate change of British policy. In the reign of Elizabeth I, letters of marque were issued to allow piracy on the high seas as a means of getting at the Spanish wealth. We changed our policy to internationalise and that is the situation that we are now in, but sadly our Navy is not what it was.

Do we have the hundreds of capital ships that we used to have? Do we have the dreadnoughts that we used to have ready to save the high seas from dangers? No, we do not. So, we must think about who will enforce the freedom of the seas. Which great navy is left today that can patrol those open spaces? The US navy, of course. Which state is not a party to the agreements that will regulate mining at the depth of the ocean? The United States, of course. So we must consider who will act against an American company that has not come along dutifully to get a licence from the Secretary of State and applied to an international body for confirmation of that licence. What if an American company goes out? Who will say no? Perhaps the Russian navy might go out, but I doubt it. The British Navy would certainly be unwise to take on the United States in such circumstances. We must consider what we are imposing on our companies and our fellow subjects that is not necessarily being applied internationally.

Philip Davies: Is my hon. Friend saying that, given the lack of support for internationalism, so to speak, we should not have the International Seabed Authority, and that we should have a free-for-all whereby, if our companies want to go out there and explore or exploit somewhere, they should just get on with it irrespective of what any international body might say?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is an exciting way of looking at it—to adopt a real free-market approach, which allows companies to go out to prospect, as they did in California in the 19th century, and as Cecil Rhodes did when he went to South Africa. He found great acres of space and he made a claim and he dug and he dug and he dug, and he found gold, diamonds and platinum, and he put them into a great company, and he made millions—in modern money, billions—of pounds by doing that. That was not through state regulation, not through international bodies, not through the United Nations reaching an agreement to say, “You may do this,” or “You may do that,” but by enterprise, hard work and energy—by all those great British virtues of which we should be so proud. Why not say that of the oceans? Why not mount expeditions? We could launch one together, Mr Speaker, to try and find the lost city of Atlantis, which we would expect to have all sorts of valuables—metals, gold, excitements—in it.

We could have other companies, perhaps, doing more careful geological surveys to locate those metals—the rare earth metals. An interesting fact about rare earth metals is that they are not particularly rare. The Chinese sold them very cheaply to start with, but they became a monopolist and then they raised the price. In doing so, they showed absolutely classic monopolistic behaviour. Those metals are not particularly rare, although they are quite expensive to gather together. People could go off as a free-enterprise endeavour, without having to pay for licences and regulations.

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Every pound that is spent on a licence is a pound that cannot be spent on exploration, or on exploitation of the asset once it is found. How relieved I was to hear from Mining Weekly about the speed with which the sea bed—the mighty sea bed—restores itself to pristine condition after someone has been down and done a little digging. That conjures up wonderful images. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) say that there is always a Cornish miner involved, and that they go down and dig, even at the depths of the ocean, to find valuable assets that we may be able to exploit for the benefit of the British people. That is a free-enterprise endeavour.

Interestingly, those who spoke in the debates in the early ’80s thought there would be a great expansion of activity at the depths of the ocean. Why did that not happen? Is it not obvious, Mr Speaker? The dead hand of legislation and bureaucracy came crushing down on those who wanted to be enterprising in their prospecting activities. So there was no equivalent of the Californian gold rush. There was no shout of, “There’s gold in them there hills,” or anything of that kind, of the undersea hills.

As we are talking about geology, it is worth mentioning that the great father of geology, a Mr Smith, started all his work in North East Somerset, in the village of High Littleton. Going down in a mineshaft, he saw the different layers of the earth and worked out—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am all agog at the racy and intoxicating oration that the hon. Gentleman is delivering to the House, but I have two concerns. First, if the hon. Gentleman leads a lengthy sojourn, either accompanied or unaccompanied, in the terms that he describes, he may be sorely missed in North East Somerset. Secondly, I feel sure that, ere long, notwithstanding the quite legendary eloquence that the hon. Gentleman has thus far deployed, he will turn his attention to the contents of the Deep Sea Mining Bill itself.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Because so many other Members are keen to speak in the debate, I shall keep my remarks short. I know the Benches are not currently filled, but people are waiting in their offices to come racing down into the Chamber the minute the Minister has said a few words, such is their excitement to talk about the details of the Bill.

The details of the Bill are of course crucial. Its worst aspect is that it removes the Secretary of State’s ability to repeal legislation. If there is one thing that I take particular exception to, it is the idea that legislation that was temporary and could be removed is now to become a permanent burden on our statute book. When we look, in the No Lobby, at the statutes of this great nation, we see one volume covering the first few hundred years of the existence of Parliament, and now we see a volume barely doing a Session of Parliament. How glorious it would be if more Bills gave Secretaries of State power to take them off the statute book—to deregulate. I would urge that the Bill should have a more deregulatory ambition, and therefore in the early stages of its consideration we should delete the conversion of the 1981 Act from temporary to permanent, because the temporary nature of legislation is one of the pious hopes that all legislators should have. We should wish our legislation to deal with a temporary problem and

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then restore the liberties of the British subject as soon as possible. That would be my first concern over the Bill and the regulations within it.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend knows that I agree with him about this, and in my time I have unsuccessfully tried to introduce sunset clauses or expiry dates into Bills. But will he concede that, in essence, every Bill is temporary in the sense that it can be repealed at any time?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: If only that were true. I would hope that Bills would be repealed at any time, but sadly the House is much keener to pass new Bills than it is to repeal old and defunct ones. Every so often a Session will pass 20 repeals of ancient Bills. I think we had one earlier in this Session or at the end of the last Session, which repealed some Bill relating to the purchase of the Isle of Man from whoever previously owned it to make it part of the Crown territory. That does happen, but not often enough.

A sunset clause in this Bill would be particularly attractive, especially if the Americans are not part of this. I rather like the American approach to internationalism; that is to treat it with the deepest caution, and not to sign up to every international body that comes along. My hon. Friend mentioned what Sir Teddy Taylor said about the Foreign Office. It is interesting that in the United States the State Department almost always wants to sign up to any bit of internationalism that is going. But the sensible people in the Senate who have to ratify treaties almost never do, because they do not think it is in the interests of the American people. Because of our system, we seem to be rather too keen to sign up to international agreements, when, as I was saying earlier, we should do things by free enterprise, which will often ensure more success, riches and wealth for the nation at large.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. Mr. Speaker has done a long stint and we are glad to have you standing in for him.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): This will be an even longer stint.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Then Mr Deputy Speaker will no doubt be pleased that I will try to entertain him for at least part of his stint in the Chair.

Following that preamble and my concerns about the nature of the Bill and internationalism, including the risks that that has for democracy and the problem of it being a dead hand on enterprise, if we are to have this type of regulation, the Bill is obviously sensible. It is obviously wise to extend it from purely metals to include gas and liquids, because there may be all sorts of exciting things at the depths of the sea. There may be endless supplies of gas. There may be oil spurting out as if Saudi Arabia was on the sea bed rather than in Arabia where it is more normally located, and therefore one would find that there is this enormous wealth that could reduce the price of oil to the enormous benefit of our constituents, particularly those in rural seats where the price of petrol is a serious problem. These resources, liquid and gas, could be sucked out of the earth and used to the benefit of our constituents.

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To that extent, I am happy to support the Bill. I do not think that there will be much opposition to it. It is a sensible level of amendment to what already exists, bearing in mind my overarching concern that we are being too internationalist and that, in principle, we are not encouraging enough enterprise.

12.3 pm

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). With you having appeared on the scene, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thought that he was about to take a second crack at the whip—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): He would have been all at sea.

Mr Brown: I suspect that he would have been.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on introducing her private Member’s Bill this morning. Like many others in the House, I fully understand her passion for all things maritime. She is steeped in the very issue. The Bill would amend the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981. Like one or two others in the House this morning, I knew very little about deep-sea mining until I discovered that I would be at the Dispatch Box this morning. I thank the House of Commons Library for producing a standard note, which has been used by other Members this morning and which was my starting point.

I want to make clear my interest in the environment and that I make a monthly contribution to the WWF, but I say to those on the Government Back Benches that that does not colour my position. It is a contribution that I make to the WWF, not one that it makes to me. It does not lobby me in any shape or form; let me be frank about that.

I had breakfast this morning with an expert, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who is chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. Members present may be interested to know that the committee will undertake a programme of work during the autumn and bring in experts to examine the issue of deep-sea mining. Back Benchers who have spoken this morning may wish to attend those sittings.

Just because we cannot see something does not mean it is not precious. There is much going on down in the depths of the seas and oceans, and as I said earlier, if we do things in a radical way we could do damage that can never be repaired. I believe that we should explore—I do not know whether exploitation is the right word, because it worries me—what could be of benefit to mankind. That is what this is all about: we have explored space, so why not explore the depths of the oceans as well?

We must, however, be measured in our approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) completed a quote that the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) gave earlier by pointing out that we have to be “reasonably practicable”. As a trade unionist, I know that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is littered with the term “reasonably practicable”.

I would like to think that we have moved on since the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981, which is the very reason why the hon. Member for

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South East Cornwall has proposed the Bill. It is 30-odd years later and I know that the hon. Member for Bury North will be wondering why the Labour party has changed its mind. We need clarification—perhaps the Minister will provide it—on how many applications have been made for licences and how many have been refused, and on the important issue of how we will police the companies that have secured them. I will not be anywhere near as radical as the hon. Member for North East Somerset, because I think we need some kind of control over what is happening. Our environment is precious not only to us, but to those who will come after us.

Mr Nuttall: On the question of policing, does the hon. Gentleman think that the present provision in section 11 of the 1981 Act, which gives the Secretary of State the power to appoint inspectors to assist in the execution of the Act, is satisfactory?

Mr Brown: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It raises the question of how the inspectors carry out their work. It brings to mind the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Barry Gardiner: I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that the provision of inspectors relates more to the other functions under the 1981 Act, whereby certain minerals could be made available to the Secretary of State and the Government for inspection so that there was a clear understanding of the quantities and qualities of the minerals that were being mined. I think that that is the inspection regime that was envisaged in section 11, not going down to the sea floor and seeing how the mining was being carried out.

Mr Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to provide that distinction. Again, without wishing to put pressure on the Minister, perhaps he will be able to give the history of what has been done.

Greenpeace, as quoted in the standard note, draws attention to

“the rapid increase in license applications being made to the International Seabed Authority to exploit the mineral resources found in international waters.”

It also states:

“If seabed mining is allowed to go ahead without a comprehensive system of environmental protection in place we may be destroying species forever before they have even been scientifically described.”

The hon. Member for South East Cornwall gave an explanation of what Greenpeace is talking about. There are things down there that have not yet been determined or detected.

Let me make it absolutely clear that the Opposition will not oppose the Bill. However, as was said earlier, we would like certain parts of the schedule to be improved. The Bill is about the protection of our environment and the opportunity to use the resources that are there for this nation—I am sure that the hon. Member for North East Somerset would agree with that. We should be able to fully utilise what lies in the murky waters of our seas and oceans, but we must consider the manner in which that is done.

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Mr Nuttall: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he think the primary responsibility for the crucial task of setting the level of environmental protection should lie with this House or the ISA?

Mr Brown: At the end of the day, we are passing legislation that must meet the needs of mining companies and other businesses not just in this country, but elsewhere. We should definitely be looking at what best meets the needs of the UK, but we cannot ignore what is going on internationally.

To conclude, I wish the hon. Member for South East Cornwall well in taking the Bill through Committee. I do not know whether her Back-Bench colleagues who are in the Chamber today will assist her with it as it progresses to its next stage, but if Opposition Members in the Committee table amendments—I know that only one has turned up today to take part in the debate—I hope that she will take them on board, because they will be intended not to destroy it but to improve it. I wish her well in the Bill’s next stage.

12.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to the debate. I begin, of course, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on her success in the ballot and on introducing a Bill that is so appropriate to her interests and her constituency. She speaks with passion about fishing, Cornwall and the heritage of the sea, and she has been able to apply that passion to concerns about how we balance the opportunities presented by the resources of deep oceans with the environmental protection that we need if we are to ensure that we all have the type of world that we wish to live in.

I do not often get the chance to speak on a Friday in my current position, and I feel as though I were taking part in a pro-am tournament—I am speaking on a day when the professionals get to work. We have heard some exceptional speeches by colleagues who take a broad and deep interest in matters before the House, even if they are not subjects with which they have been familiar. They have an ability to turn their forensic minds to issues of importance to the House, so that they can quite properly ensure that private Members’ Bills and the Government response to them are under full scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is a regular here and always ensures that particular points of interest are raised, in this case concern about the environment, which he frequently expresses. I very much appreciate his comments and the way he went about making them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made some pertinent comments about the importance of business and enterprise to the United Kingdom and how that consideration should be balanced. I am old enough to remember his predecessor, the late Sir Marcus Fox, a great man. Many Members have fond memories of him, and it is a great pleasure to be reminded of him by my hon. Friend’s presence.

I am old enough actually to be the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). As you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, I could spend the next hour reminiscing about Bury North.

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): But I know you will not.

Alistair Burt: As I think the House knows well, Bury North is not only a constituency that I was proud to represent for 14 years but my birthplace and home, and the place to which my fondest memories are attached. It remains a matter of great pride that I was able to represent my home town, and I only ask that my hon. Friend take my very best wishes to the metropolitan borough, all those in it and the diverse community of Bury.

Mr Nuttall: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alistair Burt: Indeed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Minister gives way, it may help if I say that we are not going to have a love-in about Bury, either North or South, or the north-west.

Mr Nuttall: I will take the Minister’s good wishes back to Bury, but to return to the Bill, does he agree that it has potential advantages for businesses based there? Opportunities will open up for them as a result of it, maybe not directly but through the supply chain.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember—he will know this from first-hand knowledge—how wide the industrial base is in Bury. For example, I recall being very impressed with how many were involved in the aerospace industry.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am now intervening. It is a great temptation to listen to the Minister talk about the wonders of the north-west as I represent a north-west constituency, but I am sure he is itching to get on to the Bill. The problem is that the rest of the Chamber is also itching to hear him on the Bill rather than on the virtues of our great north-west.

Alistair Burt: With that admonition, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will leave the subject of Bury North when I have reminded my hon. Friend to take my best and fondest wishes to Bury football club, and to Gordon and Morris who do the commentary on Shakers Player every week. I am young enough to have played football regularly with the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown)—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I will help the Minister. I do not want to hear about football or about Bury, and certainly not about whether he plays football with the shadow Minister. I want to hear about the Bill. I know he will tell me about it. If not, we will move on.

Alistair Burt: I am very pleased to move on.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Not as pleased as I am.

Alistair Burt: I should like to set out responses to the Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, and, when I have made some progress, to deal with the series of questions colleagues have raised during the morning. This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I thank colleagues for their contributions. Deep-sea mining is in its infancy,

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but by being at the forefront of developments, we can ensure that the UK economy sees the benefits and that any environmental concerns are fully addressed.

The subject of the Bill is probably, in all fairness, unfamiliar to most colleagues. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway was honest enough to say that it is a relatively new subject for him. I could pretend that my situation is different, but I will not. I am indebted to Mr Chris Whomersley and other Foreign and Commonwealth Office colleagues for their assistance in preparing me for the debate.

On the background, I want to fill out what colleagues have said about the origins of the Bill and the importance of correct definitions of, for example, the deep sea bed. Deep-sea mining does not come up every day, so it is important to alleviate concerns, particularly bearing in mind recent concerns about mineral extraction and the environment on land, by noting that any activity would take place a long way from any coastal area.

The term “deep sea bed” is defined in amendments in the Bill to the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981. The UN convention on the law of the sea calls it the “area” of the

“sea-bed and ocean floor, and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.

That is commonly referred to as the common heritage of mankind, a phrase that has found its way into the UN convention in article 136. The concept, which goes back to the 1960s, expresses a profoundly important point, namely that the area and its resources do not belong to any one state. They should be developed for the benefit of everyone on the planet. They are controlled through the International Seabed Authority, an international organisation to which all states can become a party. I will say more about the ISA later.

To refer to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), getting the balance right between what is controlled by regulation and legislation and what is allowed to run free, as it were, is difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley spoke about the freedom of the seas and the like. Access to the sea and freedom to roam on the seas is important, as is the enforcement of such rights to freedom. However, the world recognises that the resources of the sea and what lies on the sea bed and below are genuinely precious. Hon. Members are aware how resources can be badly exploited—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall knows that some countries have badly exploited resources through their fishing practices. That gives us pause to say, “Simply having a free-for-all will not work.” My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset can be assured, however, that the attitude of the United Kingdom is to ensure that, if international regulation does curtail freedoms, it must be because that is the right thing to do. We have to take our responsibilities seriously, and our responsibility to the environment and the need to ensure that the regulations cover that adequately are as important as ensuring that opportunities for prosperity are not lost through over-regulation or complicated bureaucracy.

The “area”, or the common heritage of mankind, is the area beyond the limits of any coastal state’s continental shelf. Under article 76 of the UN convention, a coastal state is entitled to a continental shelf of at least 200 nautical miles from coastal baselines, and more where the slope

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of the continental margin meets certain specified criteria. This entitlement is without prejudice to the question of delimitation of the continental shelf between states with opposite or adjacent coasts. The exception to the rule is for a small islet or rock that cannot support economic life. Under the UN convention, such rocks only generate a territorial area—a maritime zone up to 12 nautical miles from coastal baselines.

The UK has one such rock which is sometimes the subject of academic debate. That is Rockall, some 186 nautical miles west of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Anyone who has seen this rock, or seen pictures, will well understand why we could not claim that it could support economic life, being only a jagged spike of rock jutting up some 60 feet above sea level. Therefore, and contrary to some of the sometimes ill-informed comments about Rockall, the United Kingdom does not regard Rockall as capable of generating a continental shelf of its own. Does this mean that deep sea mining could take place in the vicinity of Rockall? No. While the UK uses a baseline on St Kilda—which, coincidentally, is uninhabited but has in the past supported a human population—the UK claims a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in a westerly direction, way out into an area known as the Hatton Rockall plateau. Other states have overlapping continental shelf claims in the same area, but while the claims exist and their validity is yet to be considered by the appropriate international body, the area does not fall within the definition of one

“beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.

To be clear, deep sea mining as provided for by the Bill, would not take place anywhere near the coast of the UK, or the UK’s overseas territories, or any other coastal state for that matter. Indeed, most of the current applications relate to areas in the Pacific ocean, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) mentioned, and are a long way from any landmass.

I have described the “where”, now let me explain the “what”. As hon. Members appreciate, we are not talking about hydrocarbons, at least not at the moment. My notes suggest that it is safe to say that many hon. Members will be unfamiliar with the mineral types, but the debate suggests that they have made themselves very familiar with the mineral types we are discussing. Those minerals currently being explored for in the deep sea are composite mineral deposits, in formulations unique to the sea bed, which is why they are so special.

Presently there are international regulations in place for the exploration of three mineral types in the deep sea. The first, polymetallic nodules, have already been the subject of discussion today. Polymetallic or manganese nodules contain manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel, and are—as far as the FCO is concerned—potato-shaped balls generally found on the sea bed surface. I have no information about whether they may be tennis-ball sized, and it is the official view of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they are potato-shaped balls. They are generally found partially buried in sediment, and cover vast plains in the deepest areas of the sea bed.

Secondly, there are polymetallic sulphides. These, mainly sulphide deposits, are found in ocean ridges and seamounts, and often carry high concentrations of copper, zinc

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and lead, in addition to gold and silver, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset will be pleased to hear. Not for the first time, he is right on the ball—the tennis ball-sized ball. Such deposits are associated with previous volcanic activity, where the deposits have built up over time via plumes from vents. Where such vents are active, they tend to be places of unique fauna and flora. However, mining would take place only when such sites were extinct, not least because of the very high temperatures associated with live vents. That deals with one of the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley raised. There is no question of mining such areas when they are live, because frankly the temperatures would make it impossible.

The third group of mineral elements to which the current legislation applies are found in cobalt-rich crusts or ferromanganese crusts, which form at the flanks and summits of seamounts, ridges and plateaus. They contain amounts of iron and manganese, and are especially enriched in cobalt, manganese, lead, tellurium, bismuth and platinum. Such minerals are important. Mineral prices have increased noticeably since 2000, largely as a result of increases in demand, especially from emerging economies such as China and India, as colleagues have noted. According to the United States geological survey in 2013:

“China has advanced from consuming less than 10% of the global market for metals to over 25% of the market in the past few years and that trend is increasing; India is following on a similar path.”

As I will explain, changes in demand have created a need for legislation.

Barry Gardiner rose

Alistair Burt: I will answer colleagues’ questions in due course, but I am happy to take an intervention now.

Barry Gardiner: I might have missed it in the Minister’s remarks about the various chemicals, but the briefings that I have read refer to deposits of submerged massive sulphides—the hon. Member for Bury North talked about the ISA, but this is SMS. Will the Minister say what category SMS falls into? My understanding is that a different treatment might apply in their mining.

Alistair Burt: The point I was making in going through the three mineral types is that they are the ones that are currently affected by regulation, but we are moving on. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: as he will be well aware, seafloor massive sulphide deposits are the modern equivalents of ancient volcanogenic massive sulphide ore deposits—or VMS deposits, as we call them in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The term has been coined by mineral explorers to differentiate modern from ancient deposits. SMS deposits are indeed relevant; I will come to the reason for changing the legislation.

There is also an issue of limited sources of supplies. For example, in 2010 it was estimated that the Congo produced 40% of global cobalt supplies, South Africa 79% of global platinum and China 97% of global rare earth elements. That factor can distort total global supplies and costs. Access to supplies makes these strategically important minerals. An increase in available stocks of such minerals should increase competition in

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the global market, reduce the price faced by consumers and help to ensure sufficient future supplies to satisfy rising global demand. For example, present estimates suggest that there is a 100-year supply of cobalt deposits on land, which might increase to 200 to 300 years if deep-sea supplies are included.

As the world, we hope, exits recession—helped in the United Kingdom, of course, by this Government’s economic policies—it is inevitable that demand for minerals will increase. It is certain that commercial companies will be looking for new sources of such minerals, and the deep sea bed is the new frontier for them. We in the United Kingdom must be at the forefront of such developments.

Barry Gardiner: The Minister has drawn a parallel that will have ramifications for the environmental agenda. He will know that the mentality of the Klondike and the frontier, and the rush for the extraction of minerals on land, resulted in some of the worst environmental degradation. Will he accept that the Opposition are simply trying to ensure that the Bill contains proper safeguards and environmental protections relating to the new frontier that he is describing, so that a similar laying waste of the environment that happened as a result of the extraction of natural resources on land does not happen on the sea bed?

Alistair Burt: That is the intention not only of the hon. Gentleman and his party; it is part of the Bill’s raison d’être and of the working environment on which the regulations are already based. There is already a double lock. The reason that UK legislation provides for licences is to ensure that those whom the UK sponsors for licence applications to the ISA have already passed the standards that this House, and this country, would expect from those involved in mineral extraction and exploration. Once the UK has been satisfied, the second lock comes into operation. That involves the environmental controls put forward by the ISA, and I will cover that subject in more detail in a moment.

There is no difference between us on the importance of this matter. In answer to some of the hon. Gentleman’s previous questions, there has not, to date, been any challenge to the existing arrangements. Only two licences have been granted under the 1981 legislation. The original reason for introducing those temporary provisions was that the possibility of Klondike-type activity was in the minds of companies in the early 1980s. That proved to be a false expectation, however, and the pace of exploration has been slow. The reason for introducing this legislation now is that we anticipate the pace picking up, given the increase in information and technological development.

In the interim, however, the environmental protections in section 5 of the 1981 legislation have proved entirely sufficient, as have the inspections. If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that and wishes to raise a challenge to what we have done, he is entitled to do so. He is right to be concerned about this, but I am genuinely not aware of any challenges to those who have taken licences through the United Kingdom. We must protect for the future, however, and I will go on to explain how that is being covered by the ISA, how we are dealing with negotiations as we look forward four or five years to mineral exploitation—which is not anticipated yet—and how we are involved with the ISA in relation to that.

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He need not fear that we are not considering these matters. Nor need he fear that this matter has caused any concern to date.

Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to the Minister for trying to respond fully to my concerns. I appreciate that. However, it is not sufficient to say that there is no cause for concern simply because only two licences have been issued to date and because there have been no problems with the way in which section 5 of that 32-year-old Act of Parliament is being implemented. He knows very well that section 5 states that

“the Secretary of State shall have regard to the need to protect”

the marine environment. The words “have regard to” do not provide for a strong protection. All we are asking is that that wording should be upgraded in the Bill.

Alistair Burt: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall will give that matter her consideration. I was not seeking to link the fact that only two licences had been issued to the issue of environmental protection. There have been only two applications because only two consortia have felt it necessary to do that kind of work. Others have not been prepared to do it. There is no linkage between the two points. My point was that we have no evidence that environmental issues have ever been a matter of concern in relation to those applying for a licence under our legislation and going on to be sponsored for permission from the ISA. The protections that are in place have in no way been considered inadequate. Had they been, that would have been an important point of evidence, but we do not have any such evidence to date.

Mr Nuttall: Does the Minister have any evidence to suggest that any companies have been put off from applying for a licence as a result of this country’s regulatory regime over the past 32 years, and that they have gone elsewhere?

Alistair Burt: No. The sort of work we are talking about is immensely expensive. If a company is to get down and explore the resources in deep sea, that will mean a very expensive financial commitment. Companies have not come forward because it has not been worth their while to do so, but the world is moving on. There is no evidence to suggest that anything in UK regulation has been in any way off-putting; indeed, quite the contrary. The most recent company to go through the process made reference to the helpfulness of the British Government as it pursued its licence. I hope I can set my hon. Friend’s mind at rest: regulation does not seem to be an issue.

Let me make a little more progress. When one thinks of the offshore, what inevitably springs to mind first is the search for oil and gas. However, industry has yet to express an interest in possible supplies of hydrocarbons in the deep sea, which is why no international regulations have been developed for their exploration. That is not to say that it will not happen. It may sound odd to suggest that international regulations for the exploration of hydrocarbons would be needed when exploration for hydrocarbons is not new. Multinational corporations are exploiting hydrocarbons all around the world, often in very deep water, but the point is that when we talk of the deep sea and “the area”, we talk of the role of the

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International Seabed Authority in managing the resources. So any exploration or exploitation would need to be under those ISA regulations, not national ones.

Let me deal now with some of the questions raised about the Bill, as it would be pertinent to do so now that I have set out the background, before providing some comment on the history of the Bill and why we are where we are with it. If I may, I shall discuss the issues in relation to the hon. Members who raised them.

I thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for setting out the position of the Opposition and for indicating that the Opposition will support the Bill for the reasons that he set out. He rightly emphasised that policing needed to be done in respect of those who had applied for, and been successful in gaining, licences. The need to get on with the job has to be balanced with concern for the environment. Our intention is closely to scrutinise the activities of contractors. The current contractor is a highly reputable company, and we are satisfied that it will act appropriately.

The ISA has responsibilities, too, in respect of those who apply for licences from it. Reports have to be made to the ISA, whose legal and technical commission scrutinises them. We are pressing for improvements in the quality of the licences, which will become part of the negotiation; we anticipate greater exploitation of these resources. I shall say a little more about that in a few moments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North raised a series of points. He mentioned the involvement of the European Union, but I am conscious that this is a track down which it would probably be inadvisable to go or spend any time; there might be some differences between him and me on certain elements of the EU. I would like to give him an absolute assurance, however, that there is no question of the UK ceding any powers to the EU, which is represented on the ISA for two reasons. First, a number of states without maritime interests want the EU to represent them, and secondly, a number of areas in the convention on the law of the sea fall within Community competence. They are listed in a declaration and include issues such as the marine environment, trade in minerals and fishing, and there is no intention to go any further.

Questions were raised about a company from a country outside the parties that had committed to the convention—and the United States came up as an obvious example. How would it go about things if it was prevented from participating? As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall suggested, it would need to seek a sponsorship from a party in a participating state. Such a sponsorship is not lightly handled; the regulations are covered by the ISA, which has set out in regulation 11 details of a certificate of sponsorship and the exact connection between a state and company wishing to apply for registration by using either its own state or another.

As for the position of the United Kingdom, we have a contractor that is largely based in the United States but has a subsidiary in the UK which allows it to apply through the UK to the ISA. Companies are not prevented from being sponsored by the fact that their nation states have not signed the convention, but they will be sponsored in a way that is properly controlled.

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Members have asked what penalty would be imposed on a company that operated outside that sphere, and just went rogue and mined. I understand that there would then be a question mark over the title to the minerals, as a result of which the company would be at risk in selling on those minerals or anything else. As far as we are aware, however, the issue does not arise at present. The legislation has encouraged companies to operate in accordance with the rules because it is in their interests to do so. The costs of exploitation of resources in the deep sea are such that a company would not wish to be involved unless it was absolutely sure that it would be able to sell on what it had, and that it was protected. The legal ramifications of not going through international regulation would be enormous.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Is that also the view of the United States Government, or might they be willing to protect an American company that had mined and was not party to the convention?

Alistair Burt: Obviously I cannot speak for the United States Government. I am not sure whether they would be able to protect a company based in the United States under their laws if that company was in breach of the international regulation and convention that apply here. However, as I have said, that does not arise at present, and there are ways of handling the accession of companies whose nation states are not party to the convention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North asked why the 1981 Act was being changed now, and why it was passed at the time. I dealt with that question a moment ago. The atmosphere surrounding the exploration of deep-sea minerals was very different in 1981. Things have moved on since then, and we need to upgrade the legislation. The Act was passed at a time when early and rapid exploration was anticipated, but it did not happen, so there has been no need to replace that temporary provisions legislation during the intervening years. However, market and technological developments now suggest that the time is right to amend it, and the Government will therefore support the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley raised questions about the prosperity agenda. He asked how we could ensure that our determination to enforce environmental controls and licensing did not get in the way of those wishing to become involved in business. Fees are prescribed with the consent of the Treasury. I must admit that I do not have the fees in front of me, but I can assure my hon. Friend that I will have them in time for the Committee stage. I can tell him that only two licences have been applied for over the years, and I have no reason to believe that the fees have posed any difficulty. Indeed, as I said earlier, the company that was most recently involved in the process thanked the Government and congratulated them on their help and support. What I do know is that the fee for application to the ISA for a licence is some US$500,000. We are not talking about applications by companies operating on a small scale. We are talking about big business and serious sums, which is understandable if the authority is to be allowed to do its work and ensure that no one makes a frivolous application.