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Protecting the Antarctic

Volume 550: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2012

It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Turner; I look forward to a happy half-hour. It is also great to see my hon. Friend the new Minister in his place. It is a great honour to introduce what I think is the first Westminster Hall debate that he has to answer. I am grateful to him for coming along to do so.

Protecting the Antarctic is a very important subject and one that I and many other people take very seriously. Recently, the Committee Environmental Audit has been doing some very interesting work on the Arctic. That has raised a few issues about the importance of our polar regions in general, and it is therefore right that we consider the Antarctic as well. I thank my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee for all their support of my interest in the Antarctic and, of course, our work on the Arctic.

This discussion about the Antarctic is timely because of course it is 100 years since Captain Robert Scott attempted to reach the south pole. He did so not just to get there first, but to undertake very important scientific work. In doing all that and much more, he established the British presence in the Antarctic that we think is so important now. We need to ensure that we continue with that.

The other important link with Robert Scott is of course his son. In Robert Scott’s last letter to his wife, he hoped that his two-year-old son would show an interest in the natural environment, and he certainly did, because he helped to establish the World Wildlife Fund and he established the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which is based in Slimbridge in my constituency. In addition, he worked extraordinarily hard to highlight the need to protect the Antarctic. I am therefore very proud of the connection that my constituency of Stroud has with the Scott family, with that epic attempt to get to the south pole and with the incredibly important legacy that was left.

That is the background to why I am here, thinking about the Antarctic and wishing to promote and protect it. Indeed, I will be promoting a private Member’s Bill on the issue later in the autumn. If people want to know more about the Antarctic, I can recommend a book by Sara Wheeler, “Terra Incognita”. It is a brilliant and very lively book. It talks about going down to the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey—I will talk about that later—and the lifestyle that one can expect to have in such a cold climate. Incidentally, the first human being to be born in the Antarctic was a Peruvian, and that took place in 1978.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and putting forward that very important Bill. If there is any need for proof of the affection in which the British people hold the Antarctic, we need only look to Edinburgh, where voters recently replaced a Lib Dem with a penguin. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of that.

Absolutely. I also followed the fate of Dirk the penguin. He went out drinking with some Australians and ended up in a pool with very aggressive fish, but he did survive, so obviously penguins are notable for a lot of things, not just standing—

Like the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this enormously important debate. Antarctica, as he says, is uniquely important scientifically, climatically and environmentally. Is it not vital for the protection of penguins, and flora and fauna in general, that there is strict enforcement of the restriction on resource exploitation and unregulated fishing in Antarctica and, like me, does he look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government are doing to reinforce that strict enforcement?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and I thank him for that important contribution to the debate. He can be reassured that that is exactly the direction of travel in which I think we need to be going. The Bill that I will be bringing to Parliament would strengthen those protection mechanisms, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be there to support me on 2 November.

The Antarctic is important for a number of reasons, not least its pivotal role in regulating the earth’s climate. The Southern ocean is a massive sink for CO2. Although it is obviously a harsh environment, we must all recognise that it is also fragile, which is what the right hon. Gentleman was really alluding to. The challenges are captured in the statistics, such as the fact that in the past 30 years the air temperature has risen by 3° C and the sea temperature by 1° C—87% of the glaciers are in retreat. Without doubt, there are challenges to confront and recognise in our thinking.

There are also questions. For example, the number of krill—a relatively common, shrimp-like creature, stuffed full of protein—is starting to decrease, due to not only fishing, but environmental changes. Marine life in general also needs to be protected. That area of water alone contains 120 species of fish, which we must of course celebrate, but also ensure we can defend.

There are threats to the Antarctic that it is important to highlight today. We have considerable good international co-operation. Britain has been a key leader in that process and we need to both salute and cement it. We have played a great part in the Antarctic, not only because of Robert Scott and the Falklands, but because a whole host of foreign policy issues bring us to recognise the pivotal role the area plays. Although we are still recognised as a key leader, it is our responsibility to demonstrate leadership now, as more and more nations become more and more interested in the Antarctic. It is necessary to talk not only about protecting the environment, although that is critical, but about Britain’s interests in the region.

Overfishing is a risk. I do not want to get into a discussion about the common fisheries policy, because its area does not stretch that far, but we need to think about protecting fish stocks.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. He is of course right to say that we must do all we can to protect and preserve the fragile environment of the Antarctic. Does he agree that that does not necessarily equate to doing nothing there? There are those who would ban any form of human activity in a fragile environment of that kind, but properly controlled fishing and exploration for oil and minerals may well be beneficial in some ways to the economy and the environment of the Antarctic.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The key point is that we need to ensure that, if pollution occurs, the polluter pays. We must also ensure that they go with insurance, rather than worry about it after an accident. That is a critical part of the legislation I have brought forward. It underlines the fact that although we need people down there, they must conduct responsible activity in a responsible way that protects the Antarctic and does not threaten or damage it. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to underline that point.

Shipping is worth noting, given the accidents in recent years. According to research I recently undertook, we have had 12 significant incidents in five years. That again underlines the need to protect the area.

I visited the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. It is partly the instrument of our presence in the Antarctic. I recognise, as we all do, the constraints on public funding at this time. The Natural Environment Research Council is a perfectly responsible body, but I hope that when those two bodies come together, the role of the BAS is still recognised for its importance in securing our presence in the Antarctic and in researching its interesting history and the story it can tell of how the earth developed and how climate change, oddly enough, has been an issue for many centuries. If we drill into the ice, we can look back over 800,000 years to explore what has happened. That process alone—carried out by the BAS—has been of decisive importance. I ask the Minister to think carefully about our presence in the Antarctic and the role of scientific exploration there.

The purpose of today’s debate is to highlight the importance of the Antarctic, to underline the need to protect its environment, to recognise its important role in our global climate and to strengthen the argument for a British presence there. That is why I am keen not only to talk about the Antarctic in general terms, but to do something about it. On 2 November, I will bring the Antarctic Bill before Parliament for its Second Reading. It has two parts. The first is about protecting the environment, which hangs on insurance and the concept that the polluter pays, as we discussed earlier. It is an important concept that we should apply to other areas that we need to protect, including the Arctic. The second part is about protecting marine life, vertebrates and other living creatures. The Antarctic is a sacred part of the globe. We must treat it as such and recognise that it is fragile. It is a subject of interest across the globe, as the Antarctic treaty makes clear, which is why we must strengthen the treaty’s structure by recognising its place in our domestic law.

Finally, I return to Robert and Sir Peter Scott. They were of decisive importance to the natural environment. As we all know, Robert Scott is being celebrated as a great explorer and a man of huge character who left a massive legacy. We are building on that legacy. His son, Sir Peter Scott, made a huge contribution to the natural environment, with, in particular, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, and also the WWF, which he helped to set up. It, too, is a critical supporter of the need to protect the Antarctic.

To sum up, our interests are to protect the Antarctic for future generations, and to ensure that global climate is properly understood in connection with the Antarctic and that Britain continues to deliver the necessary leadership in the region.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Turner, for my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), first, on securing the debate; secondly, on doing such detailed and through research into the subject, and, thirdly, on the lucid, articulate and knowledgeable way in which he introduced it. He detailed the important history of the Antarctic, his constituency links to it and his visit to Cambridge. I am delighted that my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister is on this key environmental and important part of the globe.

The debate is extremely timely. The Antarctic and the environment should never be far from our thoughts, particularly because it is the world’s fifth largest continent—nearly twice the size of Australia. The debate is timely because of the centenary of Captain Scott’s expedition and the coming celebrations of Ernest Shackleton’s famous exploits on the Endurance.

Even though I have been in this office for only a short period, I am aware that the UK has the oldest sovereign claim, stretching back to 1908, to any part of Antarctica, and that we have maintained a strong and permanent presence there since 1943. I want to make sure that everyone is aware that, as a nation, we should be proud of the continuing British presence in the region provided by the skilled and dedicated men and women of the British Antarctic Survey and of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship HMS Protector.

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he was seeking: the commitment to supporting the current level of UK activity in the region, particularly scientific research and tangential matters, will not change. I want to place it clearly on the record that the UK is firmly committed to upholding the Antarctic treaty system, and we take our responsibilities towards the proper governance and environmental protection of the British Antarctic territory extremely seriously. However, we are not complacent, as my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be interested and pleased to hear. We need to look consistently at what more we must do to protect and promote the future of the continent.

I want to acknowledge and reinforce the references that my hon. Friend made to the positive British influence in the Antarctic treaty system. It is fair to say that it would be hard to find an international treaty that has been more powerful, influential and successful in preventing unnecessary conflict and exploitation. As he rightly pointed out, the environmental provisions of that treaty were brought into domestic law by the Antarctic Act 1994, but it is right that we continue to review the importance and the workings of the legislative architecture surrounding Antarctica.

That is why we are particularly delighted that my hon. Friend has introduced his Bill. The UK is already committed, absolutely rightly, to implementing such provisions and related ones into domestic law. I am confident that, subject of course to the will of the House, the provisions set out in the first part of the Bill offer a targeted, proportionate and reasonable way to implement our international obligations. They will ensure that those organising Antarctic expeditions and other tours take preventive measures and establish contingency plans to reduce the risk of environmental emergencies, and that they secure insurance and other financial security for response action in the event of such an emergency. A good example of that might well be in relation to oil leakage from a ship or other vessel. There is every opportunity to make a practical difference to protecting the Antarctic environment and its wildlife, as well as to enhancing Britain’s international leadership and strategic interests, which are also important.

I want to be clear that there is no risk that the UK will be disadvantaged by early adoption of the proposals in the Bill. The liability provisions will not come into force until all the international parties to the Antarctic treaty have adopted them. By acting now and leading the way on this useful protection, we will be at the forefront in regard to influence and we will thereby strengthen our leadership role, without tying our hands by adopting rules that other countries do not.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s Bill details a range of changes to existing Antarctic legislation. The changes aim, first, to recognise and respond to the increasingly international flavour and co-operative nature of scientific activity; secondly, to provide better protection of historic sites and monuments, and thirdly, to ensure that the lists of protected species—fauna and flora—are up to date to reflect the likely pressures presented by global temperature changes.

Taking all those elements together, the Bill demonstrates in a practical way—with the Government’s support—the UK’s commitment to upholding the Antarctic treaty system and to having comprehensive environmental protection of Antarctica. The Government therefore stand ready to support the passage of the Bill through the House. The Bill will ensure that our domestic legislation is among the most comprehensive in the world, which is good both for the Antarctic environment and for the many people, British and others, who visit the continent and do scientific research there.

The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) made an important point about potential resource exploitation. I want to confirm that the UK is a key player in and is committed to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which is the framework that regulates fishing in the Southern ocean. The architecture takes a very conservation- based approach and, thanks to a UK proposal, there is already a large marine protected area in the Southern ocean. We are working with other members of that organisation to promote further areas, and I hope that such protection will be put in place in the future.

I want to confirm, as this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), that, absolutely without question, the Government agree about the importance of peaceful human activities in support of peace and science. Tourism and fishing are very strictly regulated, and hydrocarbon extraction is prohibited under the Antarctic treaty. Given the fragile environment—a key point made by other hon. Members—we fully support the continuation of this indefinite prohibition.

It is of course very important that hydrocarbon extraction could be prevented in the Antarctic. However, it does occur in the south Atlantic, and it is terribly important that the strongest possible environmental controls should be applied to oil exploration off the Falklands and down towards Antarctica to prevent oil spills and so on from affecting that continent.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is one of the main focuses of the first part of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, which will be debated on the Floor of the House later this year. It is absolutely essential that we maintain the prohibition within the Antarctic treaty area.

To conclude, Antarctica is vast, but it is vulnerable, as we have heard. The UK has a long and proud history of active, positive engagement and leadership in protecting Antarctica for the good of all, and we are keen to maintain the UK as a leading force. Now is exactly the right time to renew and refocus our efforts to protect this sensitive region to ensure that it remains a place of peace and co-operation into the next generation and beyond.

I am extremely happy to meet my hon. Friend, and other Members if they are so interested, to discuss the detail of the Bill to make sure that we get it exactly right. I look forward to debating its finer points later this year. I very much hope that, with co-operation, the Bill will receive an expeditious passage through the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.