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Volume 181: debated on Wednesday 28 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he has had with the Government of Australia regarding their proposals for designating the Antarctic a wilderness park.


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the recent conference in Santiago on the future of Antarctica.

We have had no discussions with the Government of Australia regarding their proposals for designating Antarctica a wilderness park.

The Australian high commissioner and the French ambassador called on me on 30 October to deliver their Governments' joint proposals for a new convention for the protection of the Antarctic environment. Officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments are currently attending the 11th special consultative meeting of the Antarctic treaty parties in Vina del Mar, Chile, and it is likely that discussion of designating Antarctica a world park will take place there.

The Minister has the well-deserved reputation of being one of the most Machiavellian Members of the House. He may be able to deceive half the Cabinet about his true voting intentions—[Interruption.]

Order. This sort of thing takes up a lot time, and it has nothing to do with the question.

—but I do not think that he should try to deceive the British people. A statement was made before the Chile conference, giving a clear indication that the British Government would support the proposal to turn the Antarctic into a wilderness park but what has been said so far at the Chile conference clearly demonstrates that that is not the Government's position. They still support the extraction of minerals from the Antarctic.

What is the Government's true position? Is it to be a wilderness park or the extraction of minerals? The Minister cannot take it both ways.

The position of Her Majesty's Government is to attempt to seek consensus in regard to Antarctica. We have made it perfectly clear that, to achieve that, we are prepared to listen to all the options put forward by other signatories of the Antarctic treaty.

Will my hon. Friend give us some more detail about the existing convention on the regulation of Antarctic resource activities—CRAMRA—and how it uses international consensus to save the Antarctic environment, especially from mineral extraction?

It may be worth reminding the House that CRAMRA was introduced by consensus; it was not a departure introduced by the British Government. It has been agreed to by 18 of the signatory parties. We have made it clear, however, that if consensus on this matter no longer lies with CRAMRA, we shall attempt to be the focus of a new consensus to protect the environment.

I am sure that the Minister will accept that a consensus is achieved when the parties propose various stances. He still has not told us what the Government's position is. What is it?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the conference in Chile was called by Britain to protect the environment. I think that the House should understand that Britain has not been dragged to the conference—indeed, Britain called it.

We have already presented our own protocol for environmental protection which covers environmental impact assessment, tourism, waste disposal, marine pollution and habitat protection. As I think the House knows, all those issues pose an immediate threat to the environment in Antarctica. I am sure that the House will be pleased to learn that the protocol presented by the British delegation has already received a great deal of support from 10 consultative parties, as well as from the five proposing countries. It should be clear that the first thing that Britain has done in the conference is address the immediate threat posed by pollution to the environment in Antarctica.

The threat posed by mining exists, but it is not an immediate one; the immediate threat to Antarctica is caused by tourism, oil pollution and so forth. As I said, if there is no consensus around CRAMRA, Britain will take the lead in trying to find a way of achieving consensus on this difficult issue.

As my hon. Friend is the Minister with responsibility for the polar regions, he will be interested to hear that recently I received a large petition from my constituents who would like Antarctic to be turned into a wilderness park. Is he aware that many of those constituents expressed support and approval for the positive and constructive attitude that my hon. Friend has shown?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to many hon. Members and members of the public who have put their views to the Government. It is important to stress that those views have, I hope, enabled us to express the Government's position more clearly to the many hon. Members who take an interest in the matter and, through them, to members of the public.

Is not it true that the Minister, having received a relatively modest welcome as a new broom at the Foreign Office from the organisations concerned about the Antarctic when he said that he had no rigid objection to a world park, now appears to have been nobbled by Foreign Office officials? His delegate in Chile put forward a plan which does not include a mining ban or arrangements for enforcement. Will the Minister now, at the Dispatch Box, re-assert his authority? He says that he is prepared to listen. Will he now talk to the Australian Government and support the idea of an Antarctic world park? If he does not, the next Labour Government will.

I recognise, of course, that the mining issue is difficult and that it may run for some time, but it will have to run for a considerable time before the hon. Gentleman and his party have any say in the outcome.

The proposal that our delegation put forward in Vina del Mar seeks to address the immediate environmental threats to Antarctica. As I said, that proposal seems to be gathering consensus around it. It is true that the mining issue must also be resolved, but we know of no one in the world who is intending to mine or is interested in mining in Antarctica. Therefore, although that issue is important, it is not as great a threat as the immediate environmental threats. We have put forward our proposals. We will certainly tackle the mining issue with an entirely open mind and we will listen to any proposals around which consensus may be seen to gather.