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International Whaling

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

I am pleased that I was able to secure this debate. It is particularly timely, as the International Whaling Commission is meeting in Anchorage right now. The scientific committee meeting has already started, and meetings will continue until the end of the month, with decision making happening between the 28th and the 31st.

The issue of international whaling is of great concern to many people in this country. I am sure that I am not alone in having had dozens of constituents write to me on the issue, and that other Members will have had similar postbags. I would like to thank the Minister for his helpful responses to constituents who raised the issue with me.

During the debate, I would like to outline the history of the issue, give some background and explain the problem. I shall discuss the changes made last year by the IWC and explain why the issue is rapidly moving up the agenda of animal welfare organisations, then perhaps touch on the UK’s response so far and turn to the challenge of the meeting at the end of this month. Finally, I shall pose some questions for the Minister about the UK’s activities to secure the outcome that we all want at that meeting.

Whaling has occurred on a small scale throughout history. I believe that there is broad agreement among most nations of the world and even among animal welfare organisations that small-scale whaling by indigenous peoples can be supported and sustained, and that it involves sufficiently small numbers that it will not greatly affect world whale populations.

However, the advent of large-scale commercial whaling in the 20th century has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of these beautiful, majestic creatures being killed. Some estimates of the number of whales killed in the past century are as high as 2 million. In fact, some species were hunted almost to extinction; for example, the blue whale is only now recovering and still has a very small population. It is estimated that there are as few as 1,700 in the southern hemisphere.

But there was a chink of light 25 years ago with the International Whaling Commission, and a reprieve for the whales when it agreed on a moratorium on commercial whaling. To some extent, whale populations have been allowed some respite and the ability to recover. I believe that many scientists agree that the moratorium helped to halt the rapid decline in whale stocks, although the IWC Scientific Committee is not without its internal politics: there is not always agreement on specific whale numbers and the size of whale stocks.

Why is it important to maintain the moratorium? There is a very strong argument in terms of the animal cruelty involved. There is no humane way to kill a whale. Whales are killed by methods that would not be allowed for any land-based mammal. Whaling fleets go out armed with all their technological equipment to find the whales, and harpoons are shot from cannons. A six-foot iron spear goes into the whale. Often, it will have a grenade with a timer on the end of it. The grenade explodes shortly after impact, blowing the animal’s insides apart, but, unfortunately, death is not immediate. Seldom is it possible to fire the spear into the animal’s brain, so the whale may then thrash around in agonising pain for up to 10 minutes until it finally dies. The horrors of that have been well documented by a variety of non-governmental organisations and charities.

Apart from the animal cruelty aspect, I would argue that there is just no economic sense to commercial whaling. Whales may be hunted for human consumption, but there are well-documented health hazards because of heavy metal content. Indeed, even the Japanese, who have undertaken so-called scientific whaling and who have used the meat for food, have huge stockpiles of meat that they cannot get rid of. Few people want to eat whale meat, and the Japanese are trying to sell it off for school dinners or, in some cases, even pet food.

So there is no economic case for commercial whaling. However, there is a great economic case for whale watching, which is a non-intrusive activity that allows people to see the beauty of the creatures in their natural environment. It has been estimated that last year nearly 8 million people took part in that activity, providing $800 million of revenue to those countries where they are able to do so.

Those are reasons for keeping the moratorium, but the problem is that Japan in particular has been actively lobbying to resume commercial whaling. Given that there is no economic case for it, the reasons why the Japanese are so determined to maintain it completely escape me. Perhaps whaling is some kind of cultural totem or tradition.

Japan has had some success in signing up members of the IWC, particularly small countries that have been tempted by promises of aid packages. There are well-documented cases of the amounts of money that have gone to different countries: more than £2.5 million to St. Kitts and Nevis, more than £8.5 million to Nicaragua and more than £4 million to Palau. It is estimated that over the past 12 years Japan has given $750 million of so-called fisheries aid to smaller countries which have then ended up voting on a pro-whaling basis on the IWC. Japan has now started having pre-meetings in Tokyo, to prepare for IWC meetings. It did so in 2006 and again this year, and paid for small countries to attend.

Last year, 66 countries were present at the IWC meeting. For the first time, as we all know, there was a pro-whaling majority on one motion in the St. Kitts and Nevis declaration, which included a statement that the

“International Whaling Commission is therefore about managing whaling to ensure whale stocks are not over-harvested rather than protecting all whales”.

That is a clear message that Japan is not keen on the role of protecting whales.

The declaration also includes the words:

“Further noting that the moratorium which was clearly intended as a temporary measure is no longer necessary”.

It does not have legal, binding status, but Japan hopes that it will give credibility to its case for resuming commercial whaling. The motion was passed on a knife edge of 33 to 32 votes.

Other votes last year did not command a simple majority but still give cause for concern. There was a vote to prevent discussion on steps to protect small cetaceans, or dolphins, which was narrowly defeated 32 to 30. There was a resolution to permit minke whale catch in the Okhotsk sea, which was defeated by 31 to 30. Perhaps most worrying was a proposal by Japan that votes of the IWC should be held in secret. It was defeated by just 31 to 30. Given the allegations of bribery—the votes of specific countries being bought by Japan—that is obviously of special concern.

What has been the UK’s response to the issue? First, I very much welcome the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the issue. I believe that the work of DEFRA Ministers and officials is very much praised by interested groups in the UK. The document “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”, with a foreword by the Prime Minister and David Attenborough, has been sent to the countries on the IWC. It was certainly a very good initiative. Strong diplomatic means of showing our views on the issue, such as the summoning of the Icelandic ambassador last October, have helped to make the UK stance quite clear and to show a lead in Europe and globally.

However, I would like to press the Minister on some points and seek an assurance from him that all of the Government as well as his Department are doing everything that they can to secure a victory at the IWC at the end of this month for the anti-whaling countries.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the distinction between DEFRA and higher levels of Government. Does she share my concern about the slightly ambiguous answer I received from the Minister on 26 April, which mentioned that the highest diplomatic levels were being used and that Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts in the relevant capitals were being briefed? Would she welcome confirmation of whether his Department has asked the Prime Minister to make his views known to countries, such as Denmark and the smaller Commonwealth nations, and would she also welcome confirmation that the Prime Minister has done so?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I would welcome some clarification from the Minister on that issue. Obviously, it is welcome that the Prime Minister has written the forward to the document, “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”, but that is not enough on its own. The Prime Minister should be encouraged to write to all the nations concerned.

I urge the Minister to emphasise to the Prime Minister the importance of using occasions when he meets other world leaders to press the matter. We know that the Prime Minister met the Japanese Prime Minister on 9 January this year and a written parliamentary question on 30 January 2007, Official Report, column 151W, asked whether they discussed whaling. In the answer we are directed to the website, which states what was discussed at the meeting. However, there is no mention of whaling on the website. When the Prime Minister had the opportunity to press the Prime Minister of Japan on the issue it seems that he did not rise to the challenge and ask him about whaling.

Although the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs may press the issue, in terms of diplomacy within the wider world, surely the Foreign Secretary has a role to play. Yet in a written question on 27 February 2007, Official Report, column 1205W, the Foreign Secretary was asked what discussions she has had with Ministers and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about whaling in the past 12 months. In answer she said:

“I have no current plans in this regard.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1205W.]

It seems that she is passing the issue onto DEFRA. The Foreign Secretary should have plans in that regard. She should be involved in efforts to deal with the issue and it should be taken forward at Cabinet level.

Can we really take the Government’s anti-whaling credentials seriously if, despite the good work of DEFRA, the issue is not receiving the priority attention that it should at the highest level? I urge the Government to recognise that Japan never misses an opportunity to involve its highest profile Ministers from the Cabinet and the Prime Minister of Japan in the issue. That can be countered only by a similar level of effort from the UK Government.

On a similar point, I note that it will be the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attending the IWC on behalf of the UK at the end of month. I know that the Minister has previously attended and has great experience in this area so I am curious to know why he is not attending this year. That may be a matter of concern in terms of sending a message that the highest levels of Government are involved in the issue.

We have the meeting at the end of the month and there are more than 70 members of the IWC. We hope that there will be a slim majority of anti-whaling countries, but the process moves quickly and countries have up to the last minute to join, so the situation could change. What steps are the Government taking to convince more of the current members to switch if they are anti-whaling or if they are wavering? What are the Government doing to encourage more countries to sign up? There has been some great success with Croatia, Slovenia and Cyprus, but is there likely to be any progress in getting Greece to sign up before the end of the month? From the documents I have read, I understand that secrets ballots are unlikely to be an issue at the meeting. However, I would welcome the Minister’s understanding of the situation and if we could at least have some reassurance about whether that will come to the table at the forthcoming meeting.

In some circles, there is a fear that the US, which, of course, is usually anti-whaling might be tempted to do a deal with Japan to ensure that there are enough votes to secure aboriginal hunting of bowhead whales off Alaska. That is of concern because the US is an influential country that could carry others with it. Has the Minister anticipated that happening? What is being done to use our influence, particularly with the smaller countries that we have strong historic ties with—for example through the Commonwealth, as my hon. Friend mentioned? What UK diplomatic efforts are being made to exert influence on those countries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands: it’s the survival of the natural world in all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”

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

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.