Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 552: debated on Friday 2 November 2012

House of Commons

Friday 2 November 2012

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Antarctic Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the interest that so many people have shown in my Bill. I shall begin by talking about the Antarctic in general terms, before explaining why the Bill is so important and dealing with the key parts of it.

Many of us know where the Antarctic is, but let me be absolutely clear and say that it contains the south pole. It is the fifth largest continent in the world, and is one and a half times the size of the United States of America. So it is a big place, and hence an important place. The House may be interested to know that the first birth of a human being there occurred in 1978, so it really is exceptionally cold; I am sure that Members are able to make the link. The Antarctic is almost completely—98%—covered in ice, and if all that ice melted, we would find ourselves with a sea level about 60 metres higher than it currently is. The scale of the continent is formidable.

Our history in relation to the Antarctic goes back a long way, and the expeditions of Shackleton and Scott are emblematic of this country’s interest in it. I salute all who were involved in those expeditions, particularly Robert Scott’s last expedition. I shall say more about the subject later, but I think it important for us to recognise at this stage that Britain has always been very involved and interested in the Antarctic, as the Bill demonstrates and emphasises.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having taken his Bill this far. He has not yet mentioned Argentina, which, I understand, also has a great interest in the Antarctic. Why does his Bill make no reference to that country?

My hon. Friend asks a useful and important question, which, ironically, lies at the heart of the Bill. We have a treaty relationship which effectively controls our relationships with other nation states and our activities in the Antarctic. By ensuring that the treaty is applied to domestic law and is strengthened, we are strengthening our own British presence, and thus issuing a challenge in any dispute that we might have with the Argentine Government. That is one of the key reasons why the Bill should be allowed to proceed.

There are two more general points to be made in connection with the Bill—

Before my hon. Friend moves on, this is probably my fault rather than his, but I am unclear as to whether the Bill will have any real impact, given that there are all these other international treaties. How will it make any impact whatever on our current structure of international obligations?

That is an important question, and there are two points to make in response. First, by showing British leadership and demonstrating that the existing treaty arrangements are important to us and should be important to the other signatories, we will signal that we mean business in respect of international control, ownership and responsibility in the Antarctic. That will make dealing with the challenges we face easier. Secondly, we must be aware of other nations, notably China and Korea, becoming interested in the Antarctic for obvious reasons. We therefore need to protect and enhance our international structures to deal with that.

May I assist the hon. Gentleman? One recent concern has been whether the proposed merger of the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre was sending the wrong signals. As he will be aware, the Science and Technology Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), produced a very good report recommending that that merger should not go ahead. I am pleased to see that in response to it the Government have today issued a statement confirming that those two bodies will not be merged. That sends a very good message to other countries with interests in the region, especially Argentina.

I am grateful for that assistance from someone on the Opposition Front Bench. I was intending to celebrate the fact that that merger will not go ahead. That is exceptionally good news for the BAS, and I will discuss it in more detail later.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing this Bill, which I strongly support as it represents a good step forward. I urge him to be positive about the future of Antarctica. There are millions of people around the world who want it to be a zone of peace, and a place for scientific research not mineral exploitation or exploration. There is great support for the preservation of the flora and fauna in the seas around the Antarctic, too, from many people in many countries—some of which may not have close relations with Britain. We must ensure that next year’s Antarctic conference asserts the need to preserve the fish stocks and mammals in the seas around Antarctica as things we can all learn from.

The hon. Gentleman makes a key point. The current treaty arrangements include agreements that the continent be demilitarised and protected. Both those requirements are still upheld, and they are, of course, triumphs of the British contribution to the Antarctic, because it was our approach that achieved them. We should celebrate that.

I want to talk briefly about my personal interest in the Antarctic and its relevance to the people of my constituency. Sir Peter Scott is the son of Robert Scott. Robert Scott wrote to his wife at the end of his final expedition, expressing the hope that his son, who was two years of age, would later show an interest in the natural environment. Sir Peter Scott did precisely that. He established the Slimbridge wetlands centre and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, as well as Falklands Conservation. There is a direct link between the Antarctic and my constituency, therefore.

Interestingly, this morning I received an e-mail from a constituent, Roderick Rhys Jones, who is from Eastcombe. He reminded me that he was a constituent of mine and also noted that he went to a local school, so he has clearly been living in the area for quite some time. He drew my attention to the fact that 29 men and women have died in Antarctica in pursuit of science since 1944, when the permanent scientific base was set up by Britain. They died in fires, and as a result of falling down crevices and exposure to the appalling conditions. Monuments have been raised in memory of those scientists. The theme of my constituent’s e-mail is that we need to make sure that the people doing such important work on what is a very big, and quite dangerous, continent are protected.

I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. It did a fantastic piece of work on the Arctic. When we were discussing our conclusions, I was able to demonstrate that the “polluter pays” concept and the responsibilities of explorers and others in the Antarctic were also relevant to the Arctic, and our report made those points. I pay tribute to the Chair of the EAC, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress he has made with this important Bill, of which I am pleased to be a co-sponsor. The EAC report relates only to the Arctic, but the principles in this Bill would be particularly important for the Arctic, because it faces immediate pressures, not least in respect of oil exploration. I therefore hope the Minister will learn from this Bill and incorporate the relevant aspects into the Government’s approach to the Arctic.

I am grateful for the support I have received from my hon. Friend. We have worked together very effectively on the EAC, and I agree with what he says about the clear links between the two poles.

I want to mention two important recent anniversaries. The invasion of the Falklands took place three decades ago. The recent anniversary should serve to remind us of the importance of maintaining a strong and robust British presence not only in the Antarctic, but in the region as a whole.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should preserve the independence of the BAS? Having a BAS presence in the area would be a good way of showing our ongoing commitment to the Antarctic.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we want to retain our presence in the region, including the Falklands, we have to do so in a meaningful way, and this Bill addresses that point. The British presence in the region matters to the region as well as to us, and it also matters to the other signatories of the various treaties.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that any military presence in the Antarctic by any nation is illegal within the terms of the Antarctic treaty, and we should not think that the British claim to some of the Antarctic gives us any authority to place any kind of military equipment or people there?

I have already noted that the Antarctic is demilitarised as a result of British action. It is recognised as a demilitarised zone by us and every other country and, to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, it will clearly remain so. That should not stop us from addressing the broader issues and mentioning the Falklands, however.

The second anniversary is, of course, that of Robert Scott’s expedition. I wish to emphasise the reputation he has garnered for scientific work—for discovery and real interest in the Antarctic—and why it matters. I remind the House that the discovery of the first hole in the ozone layer was made in 1985 from the Antarctic. That scientific linkage involving issues that are connected with the environment but that are also central to our work on the Antarctic draws substantially from Robert Scott’s expeditions and his emphasis on scientific work.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the first expedition, in 1901 to 1904, was based very much on science as well as exploration? Its scientists, including Mr Ferrar, Mr Hodgson, Louis Bernacchi and Edward Wilson, set a course that has now resulted in this extremely important Bill, because the science was so relevant to their expeditionary endeavours?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he is absolutely right about the science. We should salute and celebrate it, because the linkage between that earlier expedition and everything that has happened thereafter, including what is still happening today through the good work of the British Antarctic Survey, is a fundamental reminder of why it is so important. The history to which he refers is an important narrative in respect of my point, and I am immensely grateful to him for his support.

Let me now deal with the Bill itself. First, I must emphasise that it builds on existing treaties, which have already been amended. We have to go back to 1951 to find the first effective treaty, which was ratified in 1961, the year of my birth. That was a significant piece of legislation at the time I was arriving on the scene—although obviously not in the Antarctic itself! Twelve nations signed that treaty, and 50 nations are now involved in the Antarctic. That underlines the point I was making about China and other countries in response to my helpful colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

I should also pay tribute to the previous Government for the work they did in preparing the way for this Bill, which is similar but not the same as their Bill. They did some good work on that legislation, which emphasises the cross-party nature of the support on this matter, and I am grateful for that. A lot of consultation has taken place, both back in 2005 by those interested in the earlier Bill and more recently. I have also had meetings with a large number of organisations, and I want to list them all: the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose tie I am wearing in a salute to it; the Antarctic Ocean Alliance; the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge; the Scott Polar Research Institute; the British Mountaineering Council; the International Polar Foundation UK; Poles Apart Ltd; and above all, of course, the British Antarctic Survey.

I am conscious that members, scientists, supporters, managers and leaders of the BAS will be listening to this speech and watching this debate, because it is of immediate and direct interest to them. I want to thank everybody in the BAS for doing everything they have done over the years, because their efforts, the sacrifices they have sometimes made, and their extraordinary commitment, courage and tenacity in pursuing scientific endeavour are incredibly impressive, and this House should be grateful to them. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for being so helpful on this whole issue of the BAS, which is based in his constituency. I hope to visit Cambridge from time to time to see how well the BAS is getting on, because it certainly deserves support from this House and I shall be happy to give it.

The shadow Minister referred to the work of the Science and Technology Committee. I agreed with its conclusions, as did the Environmental Audit Committee, and I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) for the work he did in driving through that report to underpin the overall strong support for the BAS. It was great that in the debate in the House of Lords the Senior Minister of State, Baroness Warsi, underlined the Government’s support for the British Antarctic Survey. It is interesting that there is a Senior Minister of State in the Foreign Office, and of course the Foreign Secretary is the First Secretary of State, so that Department contains a lot of powerful Ministers. The Minister here today is equally powerful, and I am pleased to see him in his place supporting the Bill. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is also involved in this because it relates to the future of the BAS. The Natural Environment Research Council made the right decision not to proceed with the merger, which was mentioned earlier, and instead to make sure that the BAS is properly independent and appropriately resourced. From this moment on, I pledge to support every one of its endeavours and make sure that it can undertake the work that it so necessarily does.

My hon. Friend says that he will do everything he can, and he has been a great advocate of this cause, both before being lucky enough to win a place in the private Member’s Bill ballot and subsequently, but he has not yet visited the Antarctic. Will he join me in urging the Minister to support a visit, so that he can use that experience not only on his Bill, but in the future?

That is probably the best intervention I have ever taken, because it underlines the fact that I would really like to visit the Antarctic and support from hon. Friends for doing that is simply fantastic.

I can see where this is going. I know that the Minister is making notes as to when the visit should take place. There may be the need for some of us to keep each other warm in an appropriate way.

I am not going to go into the full details, but I think that single sleeping bags for those hon. Members who have so far expressed interest would be appropriate. The key point about visiting the Antarctic is that it is important to show interest, commitment and appropriate support to those there working on our behalf. That would be the real purpose of such a visit, and I would like to participate in one.

My hon. Friend may not be visiting Antarctica any time soon, but he can visit Parliament square today, where the flag of the British Antarctic Territory proudly flies for the first time ever.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will certainly salute the flag, and I wish to thank him for his work as chairman of the all-party group on polar regions. We have worked very effectively together, and I am grateful to him for coming along to the debate. We will continue to work together because, as I have stressed, this is not just a matter of getting the Bill through Parliament, but a matter of what happens thereafter.

Let me speak about the details of the Bill, which I know hon. Members will have read with great interest. The two parts of the Bill, as I mentioned, build on treaty obligations, the need to maintain and where possible strengthen the British presence, and the good work that our scientists and explorers have done over two centuries. The first part deals with environmental emergencies, and enhances contingency planning for such emergencies. That is important because of the increasing pressure on the Antarctic. Part 1 raises the issue of liability and passes to operators and others the responsibility to make sure that they properly prepare for their activities.

The provisions for environmental emergencies cover the impact not of routine operations, but of accidents and unpredictable incidents that result in environmental damage—for example, ship groundings. There have been one or two shipping accidents. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) spoke about Argentina. The biggest single accident involved a ship from Argentina, which dispensed 600,000 litres of diesel, resulting in a huge $10 million bill for the clean-up. Appropriate contingency measures are important, and responsibility for accidents should be properly allocated. That is a useful point to make.

Part 1 also requires operators to secure adequate insurance, a point that has been discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). It is important to underline the obligation for operators to be properly insured for whatever they intend to do in the Antarctic.

Does my hon. Friend agree that proper insurance of operators is increasingly important, especially with 95% of all tourist visits to Antarctica coming through the British Antarctic Territory?

My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally pertinent point. The provision is partly aimed at the increased tourist interest. Part 1 is essential for ensuring that the Antarctic is protected.

Part 2 takes some protection measures further. It implements and strengthens conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora, and the environmental protection of marine plants and invertebrates would also be strengthened. It protects and promotes the conservation of British historical sites and monuments, which is important in the centenary year of Robert Scott’s final expedition. We should recognise the significance of those monuments in the history that I outlined earlier, because they symbolise the British presence and should be protected appropriately.

The Bill goes on to implement annex 2 of the treaty negotiated about 10 years ago. It is right that we move in that direction and put into domestic law agreements and processes that have been negotiated.

The Bill recognises our treaty obligations and demonstrates that British presence is important to us and will always be part not just of our desire to protect the Antarctic, but of our foreign policy. I am particularly pleased about that, and happy that the Foreign Office has been so helpful in preparing the Bill and that a Foreign Office Minister will be responding to the debate. Issues of insurance will be pored over by organisations. Shipping lines, for example, will clearly be interested in the Bill and I would be happy to discuss with them the implications of the changes. If the Bill proceeds to Committee, as I sincerely hope it does, that is what I expect to happen.

In conclusion, I am committed to protecting the Antarctic, committed to the British presence in the Antarctic, and committed to highlighting the need to protect such an important continent in the wider context of the environment. I am delighted that the links between my constituency and the Antarctic could be strengthened by a visit by me to the Antarctic in due course. I hope the House will support the Bill and give it a Second Reading.

I welcome the Bill and strongly support it. I hope it gets its Second Reading today and goes speedily through a Committee that can be quickly arranged so that it can make its way into law.

I have been involved in previous Antarctic legislation in the House and I have dug out my files from the debates on the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989, which fortunately was repealed some years later. I was involved with the introduction of the Antarctic Act 1994, which in effect recognised the Antarctic as zone of peace, as it always had been, and as a place where there would be no mineral exploitation or exploration, but where there would be scientific research.

We should think for a moment of the value to humanity of preserving the Antarctic in its natural form. Because it is such a pristine and fragile environment, it is possible to study the history of the world’s pollution. One can take ice samples, examine levels of lead pollution in the atmosphere, and see the point at which lead pollution decreased because of the removal of lead from petrol in many countries around the world. One can look at levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) pointed out, the British Antarctic Survey discovered the hole in the ozone layer because it was able to carry out that research in the Antarctic and because it is such a pristine environment. We want to be sure that we keep it that way.

I detected from some of the Members who intervened on the hon. Gentleman a slight degree of xenophobia and nationalism in their approach, but that is a totally unwarranted remark for me to make to any of them. Can we be real about the Antarctic? It belongs to the whole world. There is a significant British claim on the Antarctic territories. There are significant claims on every bit of Antarctica by many other countries, and those claims often overlap. Fortunately, sense has prevailed and there has not been a war over the Antarctic. There have not been ludicrous levels of competition for influence over the Antarctic. Indeed, the treaty principle and the co-operation principle have prevailed.

We should approach the subject on the basis that Britain has made a positive contribution through the work of the British Antarctic Survey, and I compliment that institution. I am pleased that it will not be merged with any other body and that it will carry on its very good work. I am sure the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) will speak about that later. It has been my privilege in the past to visit the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and a very impressive institution it is, too.

Sadly, like every other Member who has spoken, I have not had the chance to visit the Antarctic. The nearest I came to it was in 1990, when I was visiting Chile to celebrate the departure of General Pinochet, and I thought I would conclude the celebrations by undertaking a visit to the Antarctic. I was all ready to go there, but unfortunately I was forced to return to the House to be one of a very small minority of Members who voted against the forthcoming Gulf war. My party Whips rather wished that I had gone to the Antarctic rather than come back; they may have had similar inclinations ever since.

We finally repealed the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989, which authorised exploration for—not necessarily exploitation of—mineral reserves, and passed the Antarctic Act 1994. We should pay a great tribute to Greenpeace for the work that it did at that time. Once the Bill had been through the British Parliament, many other national Parliaments were required to legislate on the matter, and Greenpeace was assiduous in its lobbying to the extent that broadly similar legislation went through many other Parliaments, including Russia’s, so that eventually, by 2005, we had reached a situation whereby the environmental protocol could be signed, the secretariat could be established, and environmental protection could go ahead. That was very important and very welcome.

There are massive fish stocks in the Southern ocean. There is an international agreement on the preservation of whales, which is strongly supported by all parties in this House, and has been by successive UK Governments, but is not supported by Norway, Iceland or Japan. There are always difficulties in the International Whaling Commission when the Japanese, in effect, try to buy votes to end the moratorium on whaling. An important spin-off from the changed and developing pro-environmental protection attitude to the Antarctic has been the preservation of fish and fauna stocks all over the Southern ocean in a very large area around Antarctica. It is very important to maintain that preservation, because if fishing is allowed and there is a massive fish take from the Antarctic, that will have a knock-on effect further up the food chain on seals, whales and everything else.

However, environmental protection in the Antarctic is now under threat. Only this morning we had the disappointing news that China and Ukraine are opposed to a new protective zone around the whole continent. I think that the renewal conference on the agreement takes place next year in Berlin, and the British Government have taken a very robust view, as did the previous British Government, on the preservation of fish and mammals within the whole region. I hope that the Minister will comment on the prospects for the conference in 2013 and that we will manage to get international agreement on continuing with the current approach to Antarctica.

As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stroud, the history of the Antarctic is interesting for many reasons. Obviously, there is the huge narrative in popular British history about the role of Scott and the amazing hardship that his expedition faced—as did other expeditions such as those of Amundsen and many others. There was a form of competitive exploration going on, and there was always a danger that the Antarctic could become a base for military and spying activities, and so on. Indeed, there were suspicions about many of the bases that existed around the Antarctic.

However, things change and move on. The international geophysical year of 1957 began the development the Antarctic as a zone of peace and of research, and that narrative has carried on ever since. I hope that we recognise that the world needs the Antarctic as the Antarctic is. We must learn the lessons of its history and recognise its fragility. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if we continue to allow our planet’s natural environment to be so damaged and we get a massive melt from the Antarctic, we will, quite simply, all drown as a result—it will be the end. We must not only learn the lessons but carry them through into actions that we take later on.

Throughout the passage of the legislation in 1989 and 1994, and at the time of the environmental protocols, there was concern about the fragility of the environment of the Antarctic and the increasing number of ships that go there and the eco-tourism that takes place. The clean-up following the development of the environmental protocol meant, for example, that non-native species, including dogs, were removed, as were all the other dangers of pollution and contamination. However, if a plane crashed over the Antarctic, which would obviously be a disaster, it would be very hard to extract anyone from it, because the distances are so great and the environment is so hostile.

An even greater danger is that if one of the many tourist vessels crashed into an iceberg or another vessel, or developed a serious fault, the spillage of diesel or other fuel would be catastrophic because it would not disperse or evaporate as quickly as it might in warmer waters, and the pollution would be very serious for a long time afterwards. The quality of vessels that are allowed to go to the Antarctic is subject to conditions and there are strict requirements on the protective measures that they have to undertake. Nevertheless, we must be cautious about the number of visits and the degree of irresponsible tourism that could well develop. I am not accusing the British Government or any of their agents of promoting that, but it is a danger. Importantly, the Bill would place even stricter requirements on British tour operators or anyone else going to the Antarctic.

I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Stroud or the Minister could clarify whether the Bill would apply only to someone from Britain who is in an area of the Antarctic that is not part of the so-called British claim or would apply equally to any part. Likewise, we can pass a Bill in this Parliament only for UK national jurisdictions, or for companies based in or operating in Britain, or for British people using their services, but it is obviously possible that tour operators or other vessels could go to the Antarctic from other jurisdictions. Am I right in assuming that if the Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, the legislation will then have to go through the Antarctic environmental protocol process to enable it to become part of the international agreement?

For the sake of clarity, the purpose of the Bill and, in particular, the liability annex, which is the key point that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, would come into effect only once all the countries that are part of the Antarctic treaty have gone through the ratification process.

I thought that that was the position, and I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying it. I assume that he will tell us later that if the Bill becomes law, the British Government will work very hard for that agreement to happen by lobbying all the other parties to it.

I welcome the Bill, which is a huge step forward. I welcome the work of the British Antarctic Survey. I counsel Members not to get involved in some kind of international rivalry. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Governments who are trying to undermine the environmental protection provisions, but that is not to say that there are not many people in those countries who understand the case for the Antarctic to be for ever a zone of peace, for ever demilitarised, and for ever a world park that we can all appreciate and learn a great deal from. If we in this Parliament pass this Bill, we are giving the signal that we support the work of the British Antarctic Survey, that we support the Act that we passed in 1994, and that we do not wish to be party to the destruction of the Antarctic or, crucially, the natural wildlife that exists all around it.

We have made progress. We in this country no longer exploit whales—that is completely banned, as it is in the majority of countries around the world. However, the commercial pressures of tourism and to exploit the natural resources of the Antarctic and the fish in the whole region are huge. Robust action needs to be taken by national Governments, international treaties and the Antarctic environmental protocol in order to preserve the place for what it is—a wonderful place of beauty. It is, obviously, a risky environment and it is an environment at risk. It is up to us to preserve it for all time, which surely ought to be our main focus in discussing this Bill.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing Second Reading for his Bill and commend all hon. Members who have spoken with such passion about this important subject. My hon. Friend has engaged in excellent work to champion the vital cause of protecting the Antarctic. As chairman of the all-party group on the polar regions, which was established last year and focuses on both the Arctic and the Antarctic, I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to support what I consider to be a significant Bill that will strengthen, enhance and protect the environment of the Antarctic region.

Antarctica is a truly unique region of the world and Britain has always maintained a very close attachment to it since it first rose to prominence over a century ago. One can only imagine what the explorations were like at the turn of the 20th century, when the courage of those heroic British men spread far and wide until most of the western world had heard the names of Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. It is, indeed, fitting that we are debating this subject in the centenary year of the fateful Terra Nova expedition, in which Captain Scott and his colleagues tragically lost their lives.

Fortunately, polar expertise has come a long way since those first dangerous pioneering expeditions and now, thankfully, it is much safer for modern explorers. Antarctica, like no other continent, is a region of our planet that remains almost untouched by mankind.

My hon. Friend has paid an undoubtedly deserved tribute to those who went on the Terra Nova expedition, which ended in tragic circumstances. Captain Scott also went to the Antarctic beforehand, from 1901 to 1904, and the people who went on that particular expedition were going there for the first time—certainly in that era—which was an astonishing feat in itself. Does my hon. Friend agree that attention should be given to that first expedition, as well as to the second one?

I agree. We should pay tribute to all those who pioneered those early expeditions. We now benefit from the progress made by those brave men, so we should acknowledge all involved.

It is our responsibility to protect Antarctica from those who might cause it damage. Indeed, we have a moral duty to ensure that it is adequately protected, which is why the Bill is so important. It is surely right that Her Majesty’s Government should take preventative measures to shield the environment and enhance the conservation of the Antarctic. The Bill will, I believe, enshrine that protection in law so that those who fail to respect the environment when travelling to Antarctica as part of a British operation can be properly held to account in the British courts for any irresponsible behaviour or damage that they may cause. There will be stronger regulations, fines and penalties for operators who break that code. With an increasing number of expeditions to Antarctica from around the globe, now is the time to introduce provisions that would enhance the protection of this amazing region of planet Earth.

There is another reason why we in the United Kingdom should take the lead in the protection of Antarctica. I urge hon. Members to take a look at Parliament square today. They will see displayed opposite the Houses of Parliament the flag of the British Antarctic Territory flying proudly alongside those of the other 15 British overseas territories and the five Crown dependencies. This is the first time that those flags have been displayed in Parliament square, and that, I believe, is a clear indication that Her Majesty’s Government value the contribution that our territories and dependencies make to the overall success of the Great British family. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place, but I would like to pay tribute to the previous Minister with responsibility for the British overseas territories, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who championed the territories’ cause to ensure that they were recognised, as they are today in Parliament square, with your support, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The British Antarctic territory is our responsibility, so we must not only protect the environment, but uphold the territory’s security at all times. We are all too aware of the claims by Argentina to all three British overseas territories in that region, namely the British Antarctic Territory—which is also claimed by Chile—and South Georgia and, of course, the Falkland Islands. Defence of our national interests in the Antarctic and south Atlantic region is vital. I strongly urge Her Majesty’s Government to remember the importance of maintaining our presence in the seas around the region and to be vigilant to any potential threat.

The hon. Gentleman and I work very well together on the issues facing the British Indian Ocean Territory, but may I gently remind him that both Chile and Argentina are signatories to the Antarctic treaty and the environmental protocol and that they host conferences on the preservation of the Antarctic? As far as I am aware, the Governments of Chile, Argentina and the UK have worked well together on preserving the natural environment of the Antarctic. Could we not approach the debate in that spirit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have indeed worked very well together on the issue of the Chagos Islands—the British Indian Ocean Territory—which is another policy that I hope the Minister will review. Yes, we will work with Argentina and Chile on the issue of Antarctica—it is our responsibility to work with all the nations that are signatories to the Antarctic treaty—but it would help the cause if they respected the sovereignty of territories that are under the Crown. It is not helpful that countries such as Argentina in particular ignore the democratic wishes of the people of the Falkland Islands and retain an illegal claim over that territory. I hope that they will take the hon. Gentleman’s advice and show respect for the traditions that we all respect, namely democracy and the right to self-determination.

One organisation maintains the British presence in the Antarctic like no other. It is a body with a proud record of scientific research and unparalleled achievements in the field of polar science. It is, of course, the world-class British Antarctic Survey, which, until today, faced a battle for its own survival as the result of a foolhardy proposal by the Natural Environment Research Council to merge BAS with the National Oceanography Centre. I could not have supported that plan in any way whatever.

I do not wish to appear churlish, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is unfortunate that we had to await a report of the Science and Technology Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), before the Government took action to slap down the proposal, instead of their intervening at an early stage for all the good reasons that the hon. Gentleman and other Members have mentioned?

I commend the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and his Committee for its report, which has certainly made a contribution, but the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) might not be aware of the impact of the letter that the Minister recently received from the all-party polar regions group. I had his response today. There has been collaboration from all parties to end the proposal, with many of us working together on it, and all those who have spoken up against it should take some credit. I completely agree, however, with his commendation of that report.

I referred to that report in my remarks, and although it was important, it was the icing on a big cake that had been cooking for quite a long time. A large number of submissions were made about protecting the British Antarctic Survey, and huge efforts were directed towards the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the NERC to prevent the merger from taking place.

The plan to merge the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre would have, in effect, disbanded the BAS, which could not only have had a devastating impact on Britain’s ability to continue to lead the world in polar research but diminished our standing and our perceived commitment to our overseas territories in the Antarctic and south Atlantic region.

The BAS is one of the world’s leading scientific research institutes, with five bases in the Antarctic and more than 400 staff in total. As the House will be aware, it has a long and distinguished history of carrying out research and surveys in the Antarctic and the surrounding regions. Undertaking most of the British research across that frozen continent, it plays an invaluable role in carrying out highly complicated and sophisticated scientific field research programmes in a way that is cost-effective for the UK taxpayer. Its work and expertise is stunning, and it is a truly great British institution. To have undermined its achievements by forcing upon it a merger with a separate organisation established for different objectives would have been a huge mistake.

The break-up of the BAS could not possibly have been in the interests of Britain, including our wider interests throughout the Antarctic and south Atlantic region. I therefore commend the decision that we have learned about today. However, I draw the House’s attention to the words of Professor Klaus Dodds, a leading academic on polar issues. He stated:

“One of the lessons we learnt in 1981 was that the proposed withdrawal of HMS Endurance, our ice patrol vessel, sent a signal to Argentina that we were losing interest in the region. Argentina is not likely to be invading the Falklands any time soon, but the Kirchner government might think that their best chance of taking over these overseas territories lies in simply waiting for the UK to cut costs and rationalise what we do there. To be clear, British Antarctic Survey and the UK’s credibility in the region lies in very strong part to the high quality science that is undertaken.”

It is clear that any attempt to dissolve the BAS, which I am pleased is now not to take place, would have sent precisely the wrong signal to the nations in the region that have displayed and continue to display a hostile attitude to Britain’s presence there.

The BAS is internationally renowned and has been responsible for many of the great polar discoveries, such as the hole in the ozone layer, which has had a huge impact over the past few decades. For the reasons that I have outlined and many others about which I could speak at length, to quote the former deputy director of the BAS, Robert Culshaw, “Britain needs BAS”. I am relieved that my words and those of many other people have been listened to on that vital topic and that the BAS will remain in operation, I hope, for many years to come.

May I also take this opportunity to mention the BAS scientists currently stationed at the south pole? As hon. Members may know, polar science is generally conducted over the summer months, with a skeleton crew manning the permanent bases over the winter. Right now, many of those staff are preparing to come back after a long and dark winter. Those men and women are essential to the running of the BAS, and it is important that they are given the recognition they deserve for their public service. On the other side of the planet, back in Cambridge, the BAS is gearing up for the summer, with ships and planes full of supplies and staff ready for the long months ahead. Many will be making the long voyage for the first time, and I cannot stress enough the importance of their work.

I am glad that the NERC has dropped the proposals to merge the BAS with the NOC, which could have had disastrous consequences and destroyed a national treasure. It is imperative that a new director is appointed as a matter of urgency so that the BAS can retain its upper management and continue its work in future.

In February, I will be fortunate enough to return to the Falkland Islands to attend a conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. While I am there, I hope to visit the BAS office in Stanley so that I can see at first hand some of the work that it is doing in the southern hemisphere. Indeed, the Falkland Islands is a fine example of the significance of our overseas territories to the work that we carry out in the Antarctic region. The Falkland Islands and South Georgia are important stepping stones in the Antarctic and make operations in the area significantly easier. It is also worth bearing in mind their importance to the Bill. Any expedition setting off from a British overseas territory officially becomes a British expedition and falls under the Antarctic Act 1994, under which British activities in Antarctica are regulated.

I welcome the increased global interest in the region, but it is not without its problems. There are now more than 50 permanent bases in Antarctica and a great many more semi-permanent summer bases, and that huge increase in numbers could have detrimental consequences. Antarctica has a fragile and delicate ecosystem that is incredibly vulnerable to even the slightest change. Although the Antarctic treaty of 1959 addresses the unique situation in Antarctica and goes some way towards protecting the region, much more needs to be done. The Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud would reinforce many existing parts of the treaty while making much-needed additions, so I welcome it and hope that colleagues in all parts of the House will give it their enthusiastic support. It is essential that we maintain the unspoiled landscape of Antarctica and hold people and organisations responsible for their actions should they jeopardise the Antarctic environment. It may be only a matter of time before an incident occurs in Antarctica, and the Bill will go some way towards preventing such an accident or ensuring that its consequences are less far-reaching.

We can all be justly proud of the role that Britain has played in Antarctica for more than a century. Today marks a further step in Britain’s long-standing commitment to that region of our planet, and I commend my hon. Friend’s Bill to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on introducing this excellent Bill. He has done a huge amount of work on this matter. I congratulate him also on wearing Antarctic tartan—it looks very good on him, and I hope that other Members will wear it in future.

It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), with his track record of legislation in this area, and the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who chairs the all-party polar regions group. I have the pleasure to serve as the vice-chair, and it is a great pleasure to be his vice.

The Bill, which I am delighted to co-sponsor, has the potential to provide lasting safeguards for an entire continent whose outstanding natural beauty is matched only by its scientific importance. The original Antarctic treaty, signed in 1959, has long upheld peaceful and demilitarised international ownership of the continent. Its original 12 signatories have expanded to 50, and together we remain committed to co-operation and joint scientific endeavour. Although every country is committed through those treaties to the protection of the Antarctic, few have been as committed to scientific work in the area as Britain, particularly through the British Antarctic Survey, of which so much has been said, which is based in my constituency of Cambridge.

I have, I believe, the pleasure of representing more Antarctic workers than any other Member of the House, and I have a number of friends and colleagues who have worked and overwintered in the Antarctic. Indeed, the house next to where I used to live was used frequently by returning BAS members for getting used to a climate in which they could stroll outside or ride a bike, without having to deal with snow and ice. From talking to them, and to non-governmental organisations based around Cambridge—particularly those involved in conservation—and to a huge range of companies involved in this field and elsewhere, I have heard the huge concerns about the proposed merger with the Natural Environment Research Council. The topic has been raised many times in many places, and it is having a huge effect on the morale of people in BAS. They are extremely concerned about their future, and nervous that the merger will see an end to the wonderful independence of BAS and the research it does.

People are quite rightly concerned about the effect on the international reputation of BAS and British science in the area, and concerns about the merger have been expressed from as far afield as former Vice-President Al Gore. I am therefore delighted that yesterday NERC took the correct decision to abandon the merger. That was definitely the right decision, and ultimately it is right for research councils to decide how research funding should be allocated. I pay tribute to the Science and Technology Committee and to its report, in relation to which I submitted evidence, for helping to advise NERC on the correct decision, to the Minister who gave evidence to that Committee, and to others such as Phil Willis, who was formerly a Member of this place but is now in another place. He serves on NERC and has been robust in his opinions about how we can achieve a good future for polar research.

We must look at the future and at what will now happen to BAS, rather than at the past. BAS is clearly a vital national asset, and it has a dual mission that involves both the Foreign Office and pure research. It is fundamentally wrong that for eight months, BAS has been left with an interim director who has another responsibility and no polar experience. Real questions must be asked about how NERC allowed so much of BAS’s leadership to leave in somewhat questionable circumstances—I do not want to air those points in this place, but questions should be asked about how it happened. It is essential to appoint a new full-time director of BAS as soon as possible, with responsibility for delivering that dual mission, including UK commitments under the treaty. It is also important that terms of reference for the director’s post are agreed in advance by the Government—not just the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—and ideally by Parliament, to show how seriously we take the role of the BAS director.

There will also be discussions about funding for BAS. BAS works in a uniquely difficult place; it will always be expensive to work in the Antarctic. Capital funding is essential, and the Minister for Universities and Science has managed to secure capital funding for seven of the research council’s eight key requests. The eighth request concerns the funding needed for BAS, and I hope that the Minister will persuade the Treasury to support it.

We need support for capital investment on the Cambridge site, and hon. Members who have managed to visit the site will know that further work is required to bring it up to the standard we would expect. Concerns have been raised about BAS’s revenue budget. Even as I speak, redundancies are taking place in BAS. That is causing great concern to many staff, even though they are relived that the merger will not take place.

BAS has done a fantastic job. For more than 60 years it has been responsible for the majority of Britain’s research on the continent, collaborating with international scientists on a diverse and important array of topics. That independent work must remain high-quality, separate, and guided by scientific principles. If we are to continue leading the world on high-impact issues addressed in the polar regions, that autonomy is essential. The survey maintains two ships, five aircraft, eight research stations in and around Antarctica, which are all monitored from BAS headquarters in Cambridge. The work done by BAS’s 400 staff is crucial to our understanding of planetary environmental science.

Despite my reservations about some aspects of the hon. Gentleman’s party and its policies on other matters, may I strongly commend the speech he is making and the interest that he takes in this issue as the Member of Parliament for Cambridge? I understand that he has also been nominated as the only scientist in the House of Commons. I do not know whether that is true, but I am glad to commend him on his speech.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention; it is nice to know that we agree on some things. Although it has been said that I am the only scientist in the House, that is sadly not true. I am one of two Members with a science PhD and I went on to do research, but there are other scientists in the House and it always a great pleasure to have them here. However, that is not relevant to the Bill.

BAS does a fantastic amount of work, and the Bill will help with that. It will give scientists in a hostile and at times dangerous environment the additional support they need, and secure the protected status of the unique place in which they work and often live.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his speech, and the British Antarctic Survey. Will he confirm that BAS works with international institutions all over the world and shares all its research and publications? It makes an important contribution to worldwide efforts to preserve the Antarctic, and does not focus solely on what happens in this country.

The hon. Gentleman makes, of course, an accurate and important point. BAS works internationally and collaborates with universities around the world, NGOs, and a range of different organisations. It was suggested in some of the discussions with NERC that it could collaborate further with universities and other organisations, and I dare say that it could. I think, however, that it does an extremely good job of leading internationally.

The Antarctic is an incredibly important area. It is often depicted as an empty and lifeless continent, but nothing could be further from the truth. Understanding its wildlife is vital to a deeper understanding of our world, and its effects on the environment and economic stability matter hugely for us all. The demands that are placed on the polar region are changing, and there is concern in the scientific community that a sudden increase in visitor numbers to the region is applying further pressure on local ecosystems. There has also been an increase in the number of privately organised trips, Commercial activity puts pressure and stress on the krill and fish populations, damaging habitats and environments. The ever-present threat of climate change and future projections of weather patterns remain a priority.

The work being done in the Antarctic by researchers is vital in monitoring what could happen. Already, 10 million people each year are affected by coastal flooding, and projections indicate that that number could soon rise to 30 million. Understanding the Antarctic will make a difference to that. A number of fascinating projects are taking place, which I would talk about if we had more time. Work at Lake Ellsworth poses great challenges regarding how we carry out research in an unspoilt area without accidently spoiling it.

This Bill makes a fantastic contribution. I will not go through each part of it as the hon. Member for Stroud has already done so. It will put environmental treaty regulations into British law, and for the first time will guarantee the “polluter pays” principle for damage to the sensitive ecology of the Antarctic. It will further establish Britain’s position as an international leader by ensuring that the continent continues to symbolise all that is good and right about the preservation of a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. The British people have a responsibility to maintain and protect that fragile wilderness. Fittingly, during the centenary of Scott’s voyage to the Antarctic, the Bill will legally and financially guard a region in which Britain has been keenly involved since those courageous first steps upon the ice. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, and ensure that it proceeds into law.

In the knowledge that the Government are about to make a statement on the ghastly tragedy in Northern Ireland, I begin by saying that I very much welcome the Bill, which is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). He and I differ in our views on another continent, but we are clearly strongly united in our views on Antarctica, which is a very good step in the right direction. The environmental protection of the Antarctic and other aspects—my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) referred to the relationship with the Falklands and other matters—are immensely important.

I should like to pay tribute to—

Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).

David Black

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the murder yesterday of David Black.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the cowardly and evil crime that took place in Northern Ireland yesterday, and that it will wish to join me in sending our deepest condolences to Mr Black’s family with regard to the devastating loss they have suffered.

In brief, the facts are as follows. At around 7.40 am yesterday, a car was found on the Belfast-bound carriageway of the M1 between Portadown and Lurgan. There were a number of bullet holes in the car and the driver was dead. He was later identified as Mr David Black, a 52-year-old officer with the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Mr Black was travelling to work at HMP Maghaberry, Northern Ireland’s top security prison. He leaves a widow, Yvonne, and a son and daughter, Kyle and Kyra. Our profound sympathies must go to all of his family and friends at this very difficult time, and to the prison service, which has lost a valued friend and colleague.

Mr Black had served as a prison officer for over 30 years. Like all his colleagues in the prison service, his dedication to duty and to public service played a vital part in efforts to keep people in Northern Ireland safe from harm. As the First and Deputy First Ministers put it in their joint statement yesterday, an attack on the prison service is

“an attack on all of us.”

Condemnation of this despicable murder has come from across the community in Northern Ireland, as it has from the rest of the UK, from the Republic of Ireland and from the United States. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has embarked on a meticulous investigation of the crime. The House will appreciate that the inquiry is at an early stage, so the information I can share today is limited. I would, however, repeat the appeal that was made by many yesterday that anyone who has any information about this tragedy should come forward and contact the police. From my discussions yesterday in Belfast with the Chief Constable, I know that he and his officers will not rest until the perpetrators have been brought to justice and put behind bars where they belong.

The attack has demonstrated the gravity of the threat that dissident terrorist groups continue to pose. That is reflected in the threat level classification in Northern Ireland, which remains at severe, meaning an attack is highly likely. The numbers involved in terrorism activities are small, but these groupings have the capability, and they have lethal intent. They can still ruin lives despite their lack of support within the community, so we remain vigilant.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana for their untiring efforts to combat terrorism. Co-operation between the two police services has never been better. That co-operation plays a crucial part in protecting the public, pursuing the terrorists and saving lives. The Government will do whatever we can to help the PSNI to bring the perpetrators of this atrocity to justice. We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that the terrorists do not succeed.

Our overriding objective is to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe and secure. In the Government’s 2010 national security strategy, the Prime Minister made countering Northern Ireland-related terrorism a tier 1 priority, and last year we provided an exceptional additional £200 million over four years. However, as crucial as security measures are, they will not on their own bring an end to this threat—defeating terrorists also requires the united determination of the people of Northern Ireland. Their response to this horrific crime has been clear, united and resolute.

These terrorists act in defiance of the will of the people of Ireland—north and south—who voted in overwhelming numbers for the current political settlement. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister yesterday rightly emphasised the utter futility of the attack. The perpetrators may have intended it to destabilise the political situation, but from what I saw in Belfast yesterday, I believe it will do the opposite. It will strengthen the determination of the vast majority in all parts of the community and on both sides of the border that there will be no return to the dark days of the past, and that nothing will frustrate the efforts being made to build on the huge achievements of the peace process and deliver the shared future we all want to see.

Those who seek to pursue their objectives by violence will not succeed. The future of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined by democracy and by consent. That is a clear message coming from Northern Ireland in the wake of this tragedy—from political leaders, from Church leaders and from across the wider community. I am sure the whole House will join me in endorsing it.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement and for her words this morning. It is a sad duty that we both have in the House this morning. The murder of David Black was a sickening and deplorable crime. My thoughts and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and indeed of all hon. Members, are with his family—his wife Yvonne and his children Kyle and Kyra—and those who loved and knew him as a husband, father and friend. I send condolences, too, to all those working in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. They have lost a valued and highly regarded colleague, the 30th prison officer to be murdered since 1974. They do a remarkable job in very difficult circumstances. An attack on any one of them is an attack on the criminal justice system, the law and the community.

Will the Secretary of State tell us today, in the light of this dreadful incident, whether there will be any reassessment of prison officers’ security, both inside and outside their places of work? I welcome the arrests made this morning by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which bear out the Chief Constable’s statement yesterday that he would leave no stone unturned in finding the killers of David Black. Although there are limitations to what the Secretary of State can say, is there any further information she can give the House this morning?

The murder of a man on his way to work is particularly appalling. Let the message from both sides of the House today be very clear: this was not a political act, it was not done on anyone’s behalf or to achieve any aim, and it will not further any cause; it was the cold-blooded, evil murder of an ordinary man, going about his ordinary, decent business. People across Northern Ireland and the House will be rightly outraged at the actions of these terrorists, who seek only to hurt and destroy peace and progress, and the democratic process. Will the Secretary of State join me in saying that the security of people in Northern Ireland is, as it should be, the priority of all of us who are in positions of leadership? Will she assure the House of her and the Government’s continuing commitment to that?

There can be no complacency about the threat from the small number of people engaged in violence, and there must be total support—both financial and political—from the Government and the Opposition to help the security forces to keep people safe in Northern Ireland. Does she agree that there is an onus on the Government to ensure that those protecting the public, particularly the Police Service of Northern Ireland, have all the resources needed to tackle terrorism and the threat to national security? Does she believe that the current level of support is sufficient?

Northern Ireland is a changed place and a great place. We have made great strides over the last number of years, but we cannot take what we have for granted. This murder shows that we still need to work hard for peace and progress. The First and Deputy First Ministers, the Chief Constable, the Justice Minister and the Tánaiste have spoken with one voice on behalf of the whole community and the whole island. Their voice speaks to reject the attempt to subvert the will of the people of Ireland, north and south. Will the Secretary of State join me in saying that all of us—people in Westminster and at Stormont, and people right across the United Kingdom, and our partners in the Irish Government—stand together in our commitment to building a better Northern Ireland?

The murder of David Black was an appalling act that has deprived a man of his life and a family of their loved one. Those who so callously planned and carried out an ambush on a man going to work want to divide the community and destroy the peace that has been built, trying to take us back to the dark days of the past, but people across Northern Ireland—people just like David Black—will make sure they do not succeed.

Let me finish by again sending my condolences to David Black’s family and friends, my solidarity to his colleagues, and my commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that all in the House will keep working towards the peaceful and prosperous future that they deserve and are striving to build.

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for the tone that he has set, which demonstrates with great clarity the complete solidarity across the House in condemning this atrocity. That is a crucial message that we need to send out at this difficult time. I also wish to associate myself with his comments about the dedication of those in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. As he says, they do a difficult job and they are a vital part of keeping people in Northern Ireland safe and a vital part of the criminal justice system. Like him, I believe that an attack on them is an attack on the criminal justice system.

I can also give the shadow Secretary of State the assurance that he seeks: the Government’s overriding priority is the security of our citizens. We remain vigilant in the face of this terrorist threat. It has continued to be severe and we have continued to highlight the tremendous achievements of the Northern Ireland peace process without in any way letting up in our efforts to combat the activities of the terrorist groupings that continue to inflict violence and ruin lives in Northern Ireland. We will continue to place resources in the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to enable it to continue to carry out that vital task.

On the future of the security arrangements for prison officers, about which the shadow Secretary of State and others have understandably asked in the hours since the tragedy occurred, the PSNI is completely focused on maintaining the safety of prison officers, as it is on maintaining the safety of police officers, who are sadly also targeted by dissident terrorists. I am sure that every lesson will be learned, and that the PSNI and the Prison Service will look with care at whether any changes need to be made as a result of yesterday’s tragedy.

I welcome the condolences that the shadow Secretary of State paid, and I am happy to repeat them. It is a deeply sad day for Mr Black’s family and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time.

May I commend my right hon. Friend’s statement? This is clearly a disgusting episode. Does she have any idea why David Black was targeted in this way, and whether it was as an individual or as a prison officer more generally? If the attack was initiated by people in prison, what steps is she taking to toughen up security in prison to ensure that any lines of communication between prisoners and people outside cannot be used again?

It is too early to say with any certainty why David Black was targeted, but as Chief Constable Matt Baggott made clear yesterday, this attack bears all the hallmarks of dissident republicanism. It is also too early to say whether there is any connection with the prison dispute that is taking place in Northern Ireland. I can say that whatever the dispute about prison conditions, nothing could possibly justify what has taken place. I also pay tribute to the hard work done by the prison service and by Justice Minister David Ford in seeking a resolution to that dispute.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that have been paid to David Black for his work over many years in protecting and defending the community in Northern Ireland. Our thoughts and prayers are with his dear wife Yvonne and his children Kyle and Kyra at this devastating time of personal loss for them. Mrs Black’s brave and courageous words calling for no retaliation stand in stark contrast to the blackness in the hearts of her husband’s murderers. Our thoughts are also with Mr Black’s colleagues in the prison service.

This was a despicable and callous act of terrorism, as the Secretary of State and others have said. It is all the more appalling because of its total and utter futility and pointlessness in the wider context of Northern Ireland. Across Northern Ireland, there is a united coming together in a common stand against these men of evil. As the Secretary of State has said, it is essential that people with information, especially in the Lurgan area, give that information to the police to help them to track down these murderers and bring them to justice. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she will give whatever resources are necessary to the Chief Constable in his battle against dissident terrorists and others in Northern Ireland who want to destabilise the Province and bring us back to the dark days of the past? Will she also give reassurance to the individual members of the security forces and the prison service in this time of terrible concern and worry that they will get all the protection that they need, and that whatever resources need to be given to the police to do that will be given? Finally, will the Secretary of State urgently review the threat level assessment across the United Kingdom in the light of this terrible event?

I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s reference to the comments made by Mrs Black through her local minister, in which she made it clear she did not want any form of retaliation—a courageous and entirely right statement to make. Such activity would be to play into the hands of the people who would drag Northern Ireland back to the past, and it is a message that should go out loud and clear from this House, as it has done from the people most tragically affected by the incident.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government will continue to bear down hard on terrorism. It continues to be our highest priority to protect our citizens and we will continue to devote the appropriate resources to enable the PSNI and its partners to continue their excellent work in protecting people in Northern Ireland.

I know that the PSNI takes the security of prison officers exceptionally seriously. As I said in response to the shadow Secretary of State, it is vital that any appropriate lessons are learned in relation to the security of prison officers and I am sure that the police and the prison service will look carefully at that once the facts of this tragedy are established and at whether any changes need to be made.

The overall threat level regarding Northern Ireland-related terrorism in the United Kingdom remains under constant review, and the security services will assess whether any change is needed. I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we remain vigilant and that if the threat level needs to be amended in Northern Ireland or in Great Britain, changes will be made.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cowardly group that carried out yesterday’s attack is completely misguided if it thinks for one second that its objectives will be advanced one inch by violence? Will she confirm that the future of Northern Ireland will only ever be decided by the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland?

I can confirm that. This attack was both senseless and futile, and it will not subvert the political process. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend: the future of Northern Ireland will be decided by democracy and by consent.

I join the Secretary of State and right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to Mr David Black, who was shot—or assassinated, as the term should be—in a part of my constituency that is well known for dissident republicanism. It is good to hear the news this morning that the PSNI moved swiftly to make arrests. We hope and trust that charges will be forthcoming and that these people will be kept in to serve time for this heinous crime.

Although we can all pay tribute today and give the family our genuine sympathy, there is an empty chair, and that chair will not be filled—it will remain empty. This man had served 30-odd years, I believe, within the prison service. He had made a lot of plans to be with this family, but that will no longer be the case. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that, whatever resources are needed, it is essential that the Government give the Chief Constable every co-operation, financial or otherwise, to stamp these people out. It has been said before, in the House and in press reports, that the dissidents do not have the capacity to stage a long-term campaign. Well, they do not have to. They just have to do this every six months, every year or every two years, and it opens up all the old wounds of people who have lost loved ones down through the years. I urge the Secretary of State to do everything in her power to bring these people to justice.

We will indeed do everything in our power to support the PSNI in its efforts to bring these murderers to justice. The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about the danger that these kinds of incidents could open up old wounds. We all need to work together so that this incident merely reinforces our wish to ensure that the peace process is not derailed but built on, and that we continue the fantastic progress of recent years, which has seen those sectarian divisions start steadily to be dismantled. There is more work to be done on that front, however, and it would be a fitting tribute to a great man and a dedicated public servant if this was an opportunity for the community across Northern Ireland to come together in the face of adversity, rather than be driven apart by terrorists.

I associate all my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches with the condolences and tributes paid to the family on the day after such a senseless and brutal murder. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the security services, those upholding the peace in Northern Ireland, will get whatever resource they require to keep themselves and members of the public in Northern Ireland safe?

Yes, as I have said, we will continue to provide the resources that the PSNI and the security services need to perform their important role of keeping people in Northern Ireland safe and secure and combating terrorism.

The point has already been made by Northern Ireland colleagues this morning that despite the rightful condemnation of the killers and their collaborators and supporters, and the condolences sent out to the family and friends of the prison officer shot, there will be an empty chair today. Does the Secretary of State not think it remarkable, then, that the widow of the assassinated officer has appealed not for retaliation but to avoid retaliation? We do not want more killings on the back of this. A democratic process is in place in Northern Ireland, and people should air their grievances, complaints and concerns there, not in cold-blooded, cowardly killings.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point very strongly and clearly, and I am sure that everyone in the House will agree that Mrs Black has made an incredibly brave statement. It is vital that her message be heard. Her contribution is extremely highly valued and is anther demonstration of the strength and courage of the people of Northern Ireland in the face of this kind of terrorist atrocity.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unanimity of disgust among Northern Ireland’s politicians and the wider community shows that those behind this act speak only for a tiny, reprehensible minority?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people involved in these kinds of activities enjoy very, very little support in the community. I believe that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland utterly condemn their activities. The murder of David Black is viewed as an atrocity by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Black has shown tremendous courage in asking—on the day after her husband was assassinated—that there be no retaliation. Recent attacks have led to the exact opposite—to a coming together of the community in Northern Ireland in the face of terrorism. What measures can the Secretary of State take to encourage public unity and public condemnation of these terrorist attacks?

I have been speaking out strongly on the importance of such condemnation. I have spoken on the telephone to a long list of political and religious leaders in Northern Ireland, and have also spoken to the US ambassador. It is helpful, given the positive role that the US Government played in the peace process, to have their voice heard in condemning this atrocity. The ambassador gave me the clear assurance that that was the case. I know also that Secretary of State Clinton retains a close and strong interest in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that she shares the concern expressed in the House today. I am sure that we all welcome the fact that arrests have already been made and that the PSNI is determined to bring the people responsible for this crime to justice.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement and join in the condemnation of this heinous murder. Like many, I am sure, I will be offering my prayers not only for the soul of Mr Black but for the family and friends left behind. This terrible crime is reported to have been committed from a car with Dublin plates. Will she comment further on the co-operation between the PSNI and the police service of the Republic of Ireland, and is she sure that everything that can be done is being done?

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that the co-operation between the Garda Siochana and the PSNI is strong and extensive—it is probably better and more extensive than ever before, reflecting the fact that relations between the UK and the Irish Government are better and stronger than ever before. I am sure that that relationship of effective co-operation has saved lives and will continue to do so.

It is right and fitting that the House has been entirely united today in condemning this atrocity, and it is absolutely right that the Secretary of State took the earliest opportunity to come here and make this statement. I note that certain colleagues from Northern Ireland are not here this morning. I seek her assurance that she notified them as early as possible of this statement so that they could make their feelings known.

I appreciate that making a statement on a Friday is not ideal, because not all colleagues can be here, but such was the gravity of the situation that I felt it was important to come to the House at the earliest opportunity—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—to inform the House of what was going on.

I suggest that “No retaliation but maximum pursuit” should be our watchwords. I echo the tributes paid to Mr Black and the Northern Ireland Prison Service. What assurances and assistance will be provided to those who would wish to give information to the PSNI as we seek to build a better case against these killers?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Of course, the PSNI would be happy to keep confidential the identities of people who approach it. It is entirely possible to approach the police in Northern Ireland on a completely confidential basis—people should have no fear about approaching them if they have any information about this recent tragedy or, indeed, any terrorist activity in Northern Ireland.

May I associate myself and my constituents with the comments made this morning by the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State? As Remembrance Sunday is just around the corner, some of us will remember with horror and sadness the events of 1987 at Enniskillen. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that appropriate security measures have been put in place this year? Does she agree that we should use this Remembrance Sunday not only to remember our fallen soldiers, but to pay tribute to all our prison officers whose lives have been so tragically lost in the troubles over the past few years?

I am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with an assurance that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is completely focused on keeping people safe and secure in Northern Ireland and combating terrorism. I am sure that it will be focused on ensuring that Remembrance Sunday is commemorated in a way that is safe and secure for the people of Northern Ireland. I agree that it will also provide a fitting opportunity for us all not just to reflect on the service provided by our dedicated servicemen and women in the military, but to consider the service, dedication, courage and bravery of our prison service as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition to putting in place security measures, it is critical that we make progress in areas such as the economy and building a shared future, effectively to kill off such atrocities and stop the direction of travel being different from the one we all hope for?

Yes, I agree that an effective counter-terrorism strategy must embrace not just effective security measures to bear down on these evil terrorists but efforts to ensure that they have no recruiting ground. As I have said to the House, I am confident that they enjoy very little support in the wider community in Northern Ireland. In order to ensure that that does not change, it is important to focus not just on boosting the economy in Northern Ireland but on ensuring that continual progress is made in fostering mutual understanding and mutual respect between the different traditions in Northern Ireland, and in finally seeing an end to the sectarian divisions that have played such a damaging part in Northern Ireland’s past.

May I associate my constituents with the remarks that have been made? The Secretary of State has clearly indicated that solidarity exists in this House. May I offer a suggestion that might show that solidarity in a physical way? I have been to Northern Ireland on several occasions as an MP and have received a great reception. May I suggest that many other Members take up the offer and opportunity to visit Northern Ireland? The welcome they will receive will show a physical solidarity that transfers from this place.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Visits to Northern Ireland by Members of this House who represent constituents in Great Britain would be positive and always help to enhance understanding. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is engaged in trying to arrange a number of visits and to encourage that to take place.

May I associate myself with the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State? Our thoughts are with the family of David Black. I also pay tribute to the commendable stance taken by Mrs Black. The Secretary of State will know that great progress has been made towards peace in Northern Ireland in the past few years. Can she assure the House that she will always continue to work with the vast majority of the community, to ensure that progress is not blown off course by a small group of people intent on ruining the peace process?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Today has provided a good opportunity for Members on both sides of the House to reiterate our support for the peace process and all the efforts that have been made to bring the community together in Northern Ireland in the face of these efforts, which will not succeed, by the terrorists. They will not succeed in driving Northern Ireland apart or driving it back to the past.

It is very likely that people in both Northern Ireland and, of course, the Republic of Ireland will have knowledge of those who perpetrated these attacks. Will my right hon. Friend encourage anyone who has that knowledge, both north and south, to come forward to the PSNI with that information so that these people can be dragged to justice?

I firmly agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that anyone with any information about what happened to Mr Black yesterday or the activities of these despicable terrorists who continue to seek to inflict violence on the people of Northern Ireland should come forward.

This is an appropriate opportunity also to praise the Irish Government, not just for the co-operation between the Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but for the incredibly strong and robust way in which they too condemned yesterday’s outrage. The Tánaiste, the Justice Minister, the President—all of them were adamant and emphatic that they utterly condemned this terrorist outrage, demonstrating solidarity not just with this House, but with the political leadership of Northern Ireland. Indeed, not only were the First Minister and Deputy First Minister very vocal, articulate and strong in their condemnation, but that message came from all the political parties across Northern Ireland.

Will my right hon. Friend accept our congratulations on the manner in which she has presented this statement? It is not only the First and Deputy First Ministers in Northern Ireland, but the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who are here today, who have demonstrated the degree of unity on this dreadful occasion, as well as our determination in this House to express our views about the horrors we have just heard about.

I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments. We have heard some excellent contributions today, not least from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). They demonstrate the commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland and to building a genuinely shared future for the whole of Northern Ireland.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for her sombre and resolute statement this morning on the murder of David Black, which will have resonated across Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland? Does she agree, first, that the unity of response from all parties is the best guarantee that we will not see a return to the cycle of violence of the past? Secondly—I echo some earlier remarks by an hon. Member—does she agree that although we frequently and rightly recognise the risks and dangers facing those serving in the armed forces and police forces, this very sad event reminds us of the threats that all those across the United Kingdom in our uniformed services may face, including members of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, and that this is a good moment to recognise their contribution to public life too?

I agree with my hon. Friend that unity of response is the best guarantee of defeating the terrorists. That is why I welcome the universal condemnation of this crime. I also agree that this event provides us with the opportunity to reflect on public servants who find themselves in harm’s way in all sorts of contexts. That of course includes those in Afghanistan, but sadly in this case those performing dedicated duties in the prison service also tragically found themselves in harm’s way. This is a good opportunity for the House to reflect on the courage and dedication of all public servants who find themselves in that situation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement this morning and associate myself with the condolences expressed across the House to the family of Mr Black. Will she confirm that this futile and horrendous action, far from achieving the aims, as they may be, of those who perpetrated it, will do nothing but set the people of Northern Ireland further down the path to peace and confirm in them their resolution to ensure that Northern Ireland remains a peaceful and successful place?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This was a futile and senseless act. It will not succeed in damaging the peace process or deterring the people of Northern Ireland from pursuing the path of democracy and consent as a means to decide the future of Northern Ireland.

Antarctic Bill

Proceedings resumed

For a few moments before that tragic statement, I was commending my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for bringing in the Bill, for the manner in which he did so, and for the importance of the legislation. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). As a scientist—if not the only one in the House—and as the Member for Cambridge he has put up a strong case, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, for the continuation of the organisation that has carried forward the remarkable historical, geological and scientific achievements in Antarctica. It provides a framework for present and future scientific exploration and reflects the past.

I was fascinated to read an article—I think it was in yesterday’s Evening Standard—by the famous art critic, Brian Sewell, whom I find extremely engaging. He is one of our foremost art critics, and he described the photographs that were taken on the Antarctic expeditions as being of such immense quality that he ranked them alongside some of the greatest works of art. That is an astonishing statement when we consider that he was talking about photographs, rather than sketches, water colours or other paintings.

Those photographs are mainly held in the archives in Cambridge. I have had reason to look into those archives, and anything that can be done to maintain that institution is vital. I was also delighted to hear from other speakers that steps had been taken, notwithstanding the urgings of the hon. Member for Cambridge, to ensure that the collection remains intact and that the organisation should actively continue to perform the work that I am about to describe, which originated in the expedition of 1901-04.

The Bill has been explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud in sufficient detail, but I would like to elaborate on one or two points. What is being proposed strongly reflects the heritage of the United Kingdom, as well as its endeavours, adventures and sense of commitment and exploration, and this Second Reading debate is an appropriate occasion on which to call attention to the heroism not only of Captain Scott, who so tragically died in the second expedition, but of the accumulated courage and endeavours of those who went on the first and second expeditions. It must have been astonishing, in 1901, for those pathfinders to go into those extremely hazardous conditions. They had a sense of adventure that the likes of Ranulph Fiennes perpetuate today. We owe those people an enormous debt.

Many people will have seen the film “Scott of the Antarctic”. Others might also have been to the exhibition about the Antarctic that was held in the annexe of Buckingham Palace. I am not sure whether it is still on, but if it is, I strongly recommend that people go and see it, because the photographs that I was just describing are displayed in it. The book that accompanied the exhibition is also fascinating; I think that His Royal Highness Prince Philip wrote the foreword to it. It is important to remember that those who went on the expeditions were not just a few people who wandered off to have an interesting time. We should always recall their sheer courage and the intrepid nature of their characters, as well as the hardship that they endured.

I want to refer to certain aspects of the Bill, before I go on to talk about the history of the expeditions. Clause 15 deals with historic sites and monuments. Under section 10 of the Antarctic Act 1994, it is an offence to

“damage, destroy or remove any part of a site or monument”.

However, it was thought that that prohibition could occasionally impede the effective conservation management of the sites. It has therefore been decided—rightly, I think—to enable the Secretary of State to grant a new form of permit in respect of the conservation of, or repairs to, designated historic sites and monuments.

Clause 16 is an important measure that deals with the conservation of animals and plants. I shall mention that again in a moment when I make reference to what went on between 1901 and 1904. I have with me the two volumes written by Captain Scott entitled “The Voyage of the Discovery”, and it would be appropriate to put on record one or two of the matters to which he refers. These books are quite difficult to get hold of, and this is a good opportunity for me to give the House an indication of what was going on at the time.

The 1994 Act contains a provision that makes it an offence to

“remove or damage such quantities of any native plant that its local distribution or abundance will be significantly affected…except in accordance with a permit…or under the written authorisation of another Contracting Party”

to the protocol. The provision also extends to native invertebrates, which is an important and necessary measure. Because of the vast wilderness of the Antarctic landscape, the plants and native invertebrates are essential to the preservation of the integrity of the environment, and it is important that nothing is done to damage them. It is also vital to maintain their presence there.

The 1994 Act also makes it an offence to introduce a non-indigenous species. That is to preserve the integrity of the existing continent, but there are provisions allowing for plants and animals to be kept on board vessels visiting Antarctica, provided that they remain on board. Of course, if we go back to the original expeditions, it would have created a few problems if it had not been possible for the explorers to take their dogs with them to pull the sledges. Amundsen’s expedition eventually won the battle by virtue of having his team of dogs with him. The difficulties that arose for Scott’s expedition meant that they were left having to pull the sledges by hand—quite a remarkable feat. The intensity of the cold and the distances were such that it was an amazing achievement that they managed to do what they did.

Other provisions on microscopic organisms are designed to ensure that we can develop certain native plants, while other provisions prohibit the introduction of non-sterile soil into any part of Antarctica. These provisions may seem unusual, but we have heard in the last few months about the destruction of the ash tree in this country, resulting from spores coming here from other parts of the continent— from Denmark in particular. In dealing with an area such as the Antarctic, it is essential to maintain the integrity of local species and not to have them contaminated. In practice I believe these provisions will turn out to be immensely important as the Bill is brought into effect and then into full operation.

I thought today might be an appropriate moment for this debate, given that some of us feel that the people participating in these expeditions were so intrepid and fearless. This is perhaps also reflected when we think of other great explorers, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles). As I understand it, he and his mother have been to the Arctic, and I believe from a speech he recently made in my constituency that he is going to the Antarctic, too, following in the footsteps of Robert Scott. I am sorry that my hon. Friend is not here—never mind, he probably has an important constituency engagement—but his journeys are fascinating. He used to be in the Army; he has rowed across the Atlantic with his mother; and he is now proposing to go to the Antarctic as well. He will be following in the footsteps of the other explorers that I am about to mention.

It is important to put on the record those whom Robert Scott acknowledged in his own book, “The Voyage of the Discovery”. He pays tribute to Sir Clements Markham, whom he describes as the father of the expedition and its most constant friend. One has to remember that, with Scott having died in 1912, no successor book was written about the second expedition. To feel the character and sheer quality of these expeditions, we can read the “The Voyage of the Discovery”, published in two volumes, to find out how Scott and his team of fellow explorers felt during the first expedition. I strongly recommend that anyone interested should take the opportunity to read it.

I have taken a particular interest in another aspect of this topic, not least because my wife’s family included a certain Thomas Kennar, who went with Scott to Antarctica as the quartermaster of the first expedition. Another young man, a petty officer, was pretty much seconded as the geologist to the national Antarctic expedition. I pay tribute to him as well. He was called Mr Ferrar, and in the book’s appendix 1, he set out a summary of the geological observations made during the cruise of the SS Discovery between 1901 and 1904. There is the now-famous Ferrar glacier, and I am glad to say that Mr Thomas Kennar was given the opportunity to use his name, too, so there is a valley in the Antarctic known as the Kennar valley. It could be said that we are pretty proud of that.

In view of this habit of naming places after great men who have led fierce expeditions, I wonder whether Brussels should be renamed Cashland.

It is very kind of my hon. Friend to suggest that, but if any such thing were ever done, I should prefer it to be done after we had defeated those in Brussels. Let us get that done first, and then we can think about some method of commemorating the event, if and when it occurs.

I thought that it would be helpful to give some idea of the sort of activities in which those on the expedition were engaged. There was, in fact, an important expedition within the expedition, which took place in October 1903. Scott writes: “Because the region in which much of our work lay was very beautiful and interesting, I propose to take the reader”—and, on this occasion, the House—“into the details of one more sledging excursion. The party with which I left the ship on October 12th 1903 numbered 12 members in all”, and he says who they were.

Scott led the advance party himself; the second party was led by the geologist Mr Ferrar, with whom went two men, Kennar and Weller. He says: “The original scheme was that the whole party should journey together to the summit of Victorialand, and it was said that there should be an absence of nine weeks calculated for the advance party.” To cut a long story short—[Laughter.] It is quite a long story, but I make no apology for that.

I do want to make one thing clear. Astonishingly, although they were completely lame and exhausted, those who had led the second party were determined to follow the first group. Scott writes: “Once or twice they halted to brew tea to keep themselves going, but not one of them had suggested the halt should be extended.” That was in absolutely incredible conditions. He goes on: “In the hard struggle of the last few hours, some of the men had kept things going by occasionally indulging in some dry remark which caused everyone to laugh. Kennar’s attitude had been one of grieved astonishment. Presumably referring to me, he kept repeating ‘If he can do it, I don’t see why I can’t…My legs are as long as his.’”

Order. Perhaps he could, but the hon. Gentleman cannot. I know that he is desperate to return to the Second Reading debate, although he has given us a great history lesson and we welcome that. I just hope that we do not spend too much time on global warming, given the amount of his speech that he has already used up.

I simply say that it is important to put on record that all the work that is being done in Cambridge and is being talked of now refers back to those amazing people, who were, as Ernest Shackleton wrote subsequently, “the life and soul” of the party. The archives include the “South Polar Times”, and I think that people should take a look at that. In his letter to Mrs Kennar, Shackleton wrote that

“the Prince of Wales read the South Polar Times with great pleasure.”

The importance of the archiving, and the historical context of all this, need to be reaffirmed by all of us who are fascinated by the Antarctic expedition. We should recognise the work that is being done now, the work that will be done under the Bill, and the tremendous courage and determination of those who started all this. That deserves to be recalled. At the same time, we should to do all that we can to ensure that the existing organisation that was referred to by the hon. Member for Cambridge and my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Romford is maintained, and that the finances are in the right shape to enable it to continue in the manner that was intended by those on the original expedition. It is quite right that the Government are supporting the Bill.

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I cannot guarantee Members that I shall talk about anything as interesting as his wife’s family history, and I am sure we are all sorry that he cut his long story short, but perhaps we will hear the rest of it another time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on being successful in the private Member’s Bill ballot and making progress with his Bill, and I am sure he will be heartened by the widespread support that it has received. I certainly do not intend to do anything to prevent it from making further progress today. Therefore, as is customary on these occasions, I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief.

This Bill makes

“provision consequential on Annex VI to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty”

and amends the Antarctic Act 1994. That Act implements most of the Antarctic treaty requirements in domestic law, and this Bill seeks to implement further treaty measures.

The Bill has two parts. The first addresses liability and the annex, and deals with environmental emergency liability and the concept that the polluter pays. The second part amends the 1994 Act to allow the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to permit foreign nationals on British-led expeditions and to give additional protection for the Antarctic environment, including its marine life and other living creatures.

Antarctica is a fascinating and important continent. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud had a Westminster Hall debate on the Antarctic.

I am sorry for interrupting my hon. Friend so early in what I hope will be a fine and Gladstonian-length speech, but I was wondering whether the requirement to allow foreign nationals on British expeditions is a requirement of EU law, and whether, once again, the European Union is getting its grubby mitts on our legislative process.

My hon. Friend makes a good point and, as he knows, I share his horror of the European Union sticking its nose into our affairs. His question might be best answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, as this is his Bill, but I think that provision is intended to allay the concerns of universities who might have foreign nationals on teams wanting to carry out research in the Antarctic. At present, the required process is quite difficult, and involves having to get foreign nationals’ own countries to sort things out. The idea is that it would be a lot easier for research institutions in this country if the British Government could sort everything out. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is, however, always wise to be on the look-out for encroachment by the European Union, the consequences of which are hardly ever in our favour.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making this speech in support of my Bill, and I can assure him that the EU is not involved in this in any way at all.

I think we are all grateful for that clarification. My hon. Friend may be disappointed that the EU is not involved in some way, however, as I know his views on Europe are somewhat different from mine. It is a great pleasure to me and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that the EU has not got its grubby little hands all over this Bill.

Before discussing the details of the Bill, it is important to look at where we are now and how we got there. The Antarctic treaty was ratified on 1 December 1959 in Washington DC and came into force on 23 June 1961. It established international co-operation to protect and preserve Antarctica. The UK enacted its obligations through the Antarctic Treaty Act 1967. There were 12 original signatories of the 1959 treaty, including the Governments of the UK, Australia, Belgium, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union—as it was then—and the USA. As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made clear, the other signatories were Argentina and Chile.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has just reminded me that last week in the European Scrutiny Committee we had a document before us that confers observer status on the European Union—no doubt to complement the Soviet Union, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has just referred to as being a party to these international bodies. It is extraordinary, and I hope we can find out exactly why it is, that the EU should be given that status. We are primarily dealing here with the British Antarctic, but perhaps as the Bill goes through Committee we will find out.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that; he is as vigilant as ever on these matters. I understand why the mention of the Soviet Union drew his immediate thoughts to the European Union, as there is very little to choose between the two.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the European Union has just issued a new logo with the hammer and sickle at the very top of it, which makes the connection explicit?

I am sure that we are all grateful to my hon. Friend for that update, and that we are all alarmed, if not surprised, by that development.

In addition to the treaty signatories, we now have “other consultative parties”, such as Brazil, China, India, Germany, Italy, Holland, Finland, Sweden, Spain, and even Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Bulgaria, Poland and South Korea. There are also other “non-consultative parties”, including Austria, Belarus, Canada, Colombia, Cuba and the Czech Republic. I will not read them all out, Mr Deputy Speaker, but suffice it to say that plenty of other countries are also involved on a non-consultative basis.

The treaty parties meet each year at the Antarctic treaty consultative meeting, for the purpose of consulting and exchanging information on matters of common interest pertaining to Antarctica. The reasons for the treaty were competing territorial ambitions—my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) made much mention of those—and claims by various countries, including the UK, that sometimes overlapped each other. At the same time, Antarctic scientific research was becoming more important, which encouraged the need for the negotiation of a peaceful agreement establishing spheres of interest and the permanent presence of national teams conducting scientific research. The UK made its first territorial claim in 1908 and has had a permanent presence since 1943. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, our zone of presence is called the British Antarctic Territory, which was established to provide survey and meteorological information in the south Atlantic ocean—this is known as the British Antarctic Survey. The BAT is administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, as I am sure we all know, it is located in the coldest and windiest part of the Antarctic and it has no indigenous population.

The main objectives of the treaty can be defined as follows: to demilitarise Antarctica; to establish it as a zone free of nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste; and to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only. That is set out in the introduction to the Antarctic treaty 1959, which states:

“Recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.

Nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive material are prohibited under article V(1). However, article V(2) states:

“In the event of the conclusion of international agreements concerning the use of nuclear energy, including nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste material”—

by—

“all of the Contracting Parties...the rules established under such agreements shall apply in Antarctica.”

Although, hypothetically, this might be allowed and executable, it is rather unlikely that all the parties to the treaty would agree on such actions at the same time.

The second objective is to promote international scientific co-operation in Antarctica, which we have heard quite a lot about today, so I will not dwell on that. The third objective is to set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty. The treaty preserves the incompatible views regarding territory that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford spoke about earlier, but prevents any action from being taken to create, extend, support or deny claims to territorial sovereignty. All these factors make the governance of Antarctica slightly more complex than anywhere else in the world. It is important to say that the treaty is already in force indefinitely.

As with other international treaties and agreements that have been adopted by a large number of states, more than 300 recommendations have been adopted by the Antarctic treaty parties which negotiated separate international agreements, of which three are still in use. These three treaties are collectively known as the Antarctic treaty system—ATS. The three international agreements are the convention for the conservation of Antarctic seals 1972, the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources 1980, and the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty 1991. I will come to each of these separately.

What is important to all these agreements is the geography of Antarctica, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred at the beginning of his remarks. He pointed out that the Antarctic was about one and a half times the size of the USA. It is also one and a third times the size of Europe. It is a huge area, bigger than China and India combined. The Antarctic icecap contains 90% of the ice on earth. It is almost impossible to live there, but Antarctica is well known for its biodiversity, which is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend is so keen on the Bill—whales, seals, mammals, emperor penguins, albatross, vertebrates and microscopic organisms are well adapted to the cold climate. In contrast with the Arctic tundra, the Antarctic tundra lacks large mammal fauna.

According to the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, the first Antarctic marine living resources to be exploited were fur seals and elephant seals early in the 19th century. Subsequently great whales were hunted in Antarctic waters. Most, if not all, Southern ocean whales are migratory. They head into warmer waters during the Antarctic winter and the calves are born in these more hospitable seas, as they would struggle to survive in polar waters during their first few months. No native bird or mammal may be killed or captured without a licence from the competent authority. Thanks to the British Antarctic Survey, I know a great deal more about seals than I did before, but given that time is pressing, I will not indulge the House by passing on some of the facts that I learned about seals, but I commend my hon. Friends to read them.

I am sure the subject of seals will be of great interest to the House. Will my hon. Friend make a copy of his research available in the Library?

I am not sure the demand would justify making the research available in the Library, but I am happy to send it to my hon. Friend. He can do with it what he wishes. I would not want to trouble the House of Commons Library with it, although it is interesting.

The extremely cold and dry climate does not allow rich vegetation, but some flora exists on the continent, which creates the Antarctic tundra in some parts of the continent, particularly the Antarctic peninsula, which has areas of rocky soil that support plant life.

The protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty is of great importance to the Bill. A ban on mining was imposed in 1998. The protocol, which was introduced in 1998, will be reviewed in 2048.

Part 1 of the Bill introduces a number of new statutory duties on those operating in Antarctica, relating to appropriate response action, preventive measures and contingency planning and information. It will come into force when it is officially approved by all the consultative parties which signed up to annex VI in 2005. I would imagine that this would be quite a difficult and lengthy process as there are 28 separate signatories and it is hard to envisage that they would all be content with every single part of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress has been made in getting agreement with all the consultative parties that signed up, because that could be one of the most difficult parts of bringing this into operation. In 2009, the previous Government launched a consultation on a draft Antarctic Bill, and the version that we see today deals with issues raised by that consultation and includes some of the subsequent recommendations.

Clause 1 says that

“the person who organised the activities must take reasonable, prompt and effective response action.”

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has something precisely in mind on what would constitute such action—whether that would be left for the courts to decide, or whether the Government have formulated any definitions. At the moment, it is not particularly clear. The clause also says that the costs that would have to be incurred

“are the costs that the person would have incurred had the person taken reasonable, prompt and effective response action.”

That seems to be rather difficult to determine, and it would be helpful to know exactly how it would be done. How would we know exactly what the costs would have been if people had taken such action in the event that they are before the courts because they have not done so? I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants to deal with those matters now or in Committee.

I think that they would be more appropriately dealt with in Committee. The definition of

“reasonable and prompt response action”

has to be seen in the context of the difficult and unpredictable circumstances in the region that we are talking about, and that should be borne in mind.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a fair point. Legislation of this kind is problematic in that it is easy to be too vague and easy to be too specific. I understand that he is trying to leave enough flexibility for individual circumstances to be taken into consideration. Perhaps he had in mind the similar provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which asks employers to make reasonable provision without specifying what “reasonable” means so that it can be considered on a case-by-case basis. However, it would be helpful if at some point we had a better understanding of what might be considered to be reasonable and who might decide that, or whether it would be left to a court to decide.

The liability annex obliges state parties to take preventive measures and to establish contingency plans for responses to incidents with a potentially adverse impact on the Antarctic environment. It imposes strict financial liability for the polluter to pay the costs of response action. Concerns may well arise about the level of liability that might be incurred by smaller expedition operators who do not have the financial muscle of some of the big corporations. In the case of commercial fishing operators, for example, would the expedition organisers or their employees be liable for any damage? Would there be corporate or individual responsibility for these liabilities if the corporation concerned could show due diligence in what they expected of their individual employees?

The potentially heavy burden that the sanction might place on individuals might not be realisable. Would individuals have to pay or would the sanction be limited to companies? Would the ability to pay also be factored into any costs and fines incurred? The Bill makes it clear that the money taken would be based on the costs of cleaning up or the costs that would have been incurred had the people concerned acted properly. Will there be a provision to cover circumstances in which they do not have the money? I urge my hon. Friend to address this issue in Committee. Rather than accept that they do not have the money and that, therefore, nothing can be recovered, it might be worth while to have a provision stating that the company or people concerned have to be able to afford the payment; otherwise, the big hammer with which we hit them might end up being meaningless and worthless.

According to the Library research paper, part 1 also has measures that

“enhance contingency planning to reduce the risks of ‘environmental emergencies’ in Antarctica i.e. accidents with significantly harmful environmental impacts such as oil spills.”

I have mentioned that Antarctica does not have great natural resources sufficient for exploration, so it is hard to imagine environmental emergencies such as oil spills in Antarctica. Not only are the temperatures extremely low for oil to sustain its qualities—in contrast with extracting it elsewhere in the oil-rich world—but there is also a deficiency of oil for adequate extraction. Drilling would be totally ineffective and economically unfeasible for oil companies due to the remoteness and hostility of the climate and related conditions, which would make it exceptionally difficult for any such businesses to operate. How big an issue will that be?

My hon. Friend is making some interesting points. He is right that these matters are likely to be considered in Committee, but the Bill does mention insurance for expeditions as part of their preparations. On oil, I commented in my speech on 600,000 litres of diesel being spilled by a ship. That also needs be borne in mind.

My hon. Friend’s point about insurance is a good one. We need to encourage people to take out the relevant and necessary insurance before they start and the Bill considers what happens if they do not do that. Perhaps that should be explored in more detail in Committee.

The explanatory notes state that the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, which was signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998, already

“provides for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment. Its Article 7 prohibits any activity relating to mineral resources other than scientific research. Until 2048 the Protocol can only be modified by unanimous agreement of all the Consultative Parties to the Treaty and, in addition, the prohibition on activity relating to mineral resources cannot be removed without a binding legal regime on Antarctic mineral resource activities being in force.”

It is important to state that considerable protection is already in place in the Antarctic. I accept that my hon. Friend is seeking to strengthen that protection in order to address unforeseeable future circumstances, but will the Minister explain what additional protection the Government think the Bill necessitates that is not already covered by the international treaties?

The British Antarctic Territory is the UK’s largest overseas territory and is administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as an overseas dependent territory—an arrangement that dates back to 1908. Rather than dwell on that point, I take this opportunity to support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford. I think it is fair to say that he is the leading authority in the House on the British overseas territories and does a fantastic amount of work to defend and speak up for them, often when very few other people are prepared to do so. We should commend him for what he does, and particularly for what he said today about the British Antarctic Survey and the Natural Environment Research Council. I endorse everything that he said. I do not want to go over old ground, but his points were particularly well made.

The BAS operates its research stations in the Antarctic throughout the year, and it should also be commended for its fantastic work in South Georgia, Adelaide Island and Coats Land. We were right to be concerned about the merger that my hon. Friend discussed at length, and everybody welcomes today’s statement about it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his generous remarks. Does he agree that when we discuss the British presence in that region, the sovereignty of our three overseas territories there—the Falklands, the British Antarctic Territory and South Georgia—should be paramount? He mentioned the Antarctic peninsula, and he will know that in South Georgia there is a peninsula called the Thatcher peninsula. I have no doubt that he would celebrate the name of that part of that overseas territory.

Absolutely. I can think of no better name for it; it is greatly honoured by having that name, as far as I am concerned.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about sovereignty. As he knows, I absolutely agree with him on these matters, as I am sure the Minister does. It is important to make the point that the existing treaties make it clear that nobody can question our sovereignty over those territories. Others may have their own claims, but nothing in the treaties can encourage them to make them aggressively.

One might think that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud had brought a niche issue before the House today. I think it is a big issue, but people might consider it a niche one in parliamentary terms. Nevertheless, it has generated quite a bit of interest in the form of parliamentary questions. It is a shame that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) is not here today, because I know that he takes a close interest in it. I commend him in his absence for his work in pressing the Government on the mission and scientific research of the BAS. He has pressed both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign Office on that and has raised some interesting points about the funding of the work that is carried out. I should point out that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has also done so. He has a constituency interest, given where the BAS is based.

I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments about the work of colleagues who are not here, as well as those who are, in highlighting the important work of the BAS. Will he also draw attention to the work of the Science and Technology Committee, which undertook an investigation and published a report this week? [Interruption.] It made a useful contribution to the final decision to put on hold decisions about the future of the BAS, which is completely the right thing to do. Will he encourage the Minister—

Order. An intervention is meant to be very short. The hon. Lady had a good go, and I tried to give her a nudge, but she wanted to carry on. I am sure that Mr Davies, with his ability, has got the message. If needs be, the hon. Lady can intervene again shortly.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is not here, as he could add the Science and Technology Committee’s report to the reading material on seals with which I will supply him. I am sure that piece of work will trump anything I can produce, and that my hon. Friend will be particularly interested in it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex has been pressing the Government on the British Antarctic Survey, and in particular its cost to the public purse over the past few years. Given the financial situation we are in, it is understandable that expenditure has been considerably reduced over the past five years or so. Does the Minister have any thoughts on what an optimum amount of money would be to ensure that BAS’s work continues? Total resource and capital expenditure has fallen from £56 million to £46 million over the past six years.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Evans. I am sure that your predecessor, Mr Hoyle, was sad to leave during such an exciting part of the debate. Clause 14 amends the Antarctic Act 1994 to enable the UK to grant permits to non-British nationals on British expeditions, and it concerns an important point that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset raised earlier. The legislation will enable foreign scientists working in the UK to apply to the UK for authorisation, rather than to their national Governments. As I understand, non-UK nationals are not currently eligible for a UK permit, even if their activity is to take place on an expedition organised by a British scientific institution. The Bill’s explanatory notes highlight that that has previously “caused inconvenience” to some UK institutions that employ non-UK nationals, and could even prevent a national of a state not party to the protocol from being issued a permit. That anomaly clearly needs to be resolved, and this Bill is a useful mechanism for dealing with it.

Part 2 of the Bill also implements agreed revisions to annex 2 of the environmental protocol on the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora. It tidies up the implementation of the original treaty, which was signed in 1959 and came into force in 1961, and subsequent agreements. The Bill proposes to

“give marine plants and invertebrates protection for the first time”—

I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is proud to do that—

“introduce measures to conserve British Historical Sites and Monuments in Antarctica better”,

which I am sure all hon. Members support, and

“update the Antarctic Act 1994 to facilitate better regulation of British activities in Antarctica, including to respond to the increasing internationalisation of Antarctic expeditions.”

Other matters tend to be fairly straightforward. I am anxious about time and to hear what the Minister has to say, and I am sure that all hon. Members wish to see other important business progress. In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud on his Bill, which has the support of the whole House. I would like to think that my contribution has been helpful—people do not always say that my contributions to Friday debates are helpful, but on this occasion I hope it has been useful in raising issues that we may wish to consider further in Committee. We must ensure that we end up with a Bill that gives the best possible protection to an important part of British overseas territories, which is what we all want.

It is good that we are debating the Antarctic on the 100th anniversary of Scott’s death. It is a privilege to follow contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Stone (Mr Cash), although at times I have felt like Captain Oates. I was tempted to conjecture that I could step out of the Chamber because it was obvious that my hon. Friends would be speaking for some time, but their contributions were important and of significant weight. I will be much briefer, because I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak and make progress on their Bills.

I support the Bill and congratulate wholeheartedly my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who has fought courageously on behalf of the Antarctic and worked hard to secure the House’s attention on the region since he was elected in May 2010. I also support the British Antarctic Survey and welcome the stopping of its proposed merger with the National Oceanography Centre. Clearly, that is a right and proper decision, and we are rightly moving on.

It is good that the House is debating the British overseas territories. I made the case for the Falkland Islands in a one and a half hour debate in Westminster Hall in January, and other hon. Members have mentioned other communities of the British overseas territories. We must acknowledge and accept that the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are inextricably connected to the fate of the British Antarctic Territory. We need to do everything possible in the House and in the media to support the Falkland Islands and the British Antarctic Territory, because they are vital to a number of British interests. The Bill is a continuation of our support.

It can only be a good thing that the Bill supports environmental legislation and applies it to the Antarctic and historic monuments, and we should make progress on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford is a staunch advocate of the Falkland Islands and strongly supports their right to self-determination in the run-up to the referendum in spring next year, which will, as it should, strongly support British citizenship and reject any possibility of any Argentine involvement.

We should support the British overseas territories. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office White Paper issued in June discusses how our 14 overseas territories, one of which is the Antarctic, are “small communities” but “big societies”. The coalition Government set out their vision for the territories in the White Paper, which states that they need to be

“vibrant and flourishing communities, proudly retaining aspects of their British identity and generating wider opportunities for their people”

and mentions the “environmental conservation and management” that is required. The Bill dovetails nicely with the White Paper, and attaches and addresses the individual points made on the British Antarctic Territory. Notably, the White Paper states:

“Environmental protection is an integral part of this strategy and is amongst its highest priorities: the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming, and therefore most rapidly changing places on the planet.”

Given that the White Paper was published in June, and that we are considering the fate of the Falkland Islands and other overseas territories, does the Minister agree that it is right and proper for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider allocating time to consider the White Paper? That was envisaged and discussed in the Falkland Islands debate in January, but I hope the Minister can find time for the House to debate that important White Paper.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on introducing the Bill. It is a great pleasure to deal with a genuinely bipartisan Bill. As he rightly said, the Bill follows a consultation on a draft Bill in 2009. I do not propose to detain the House too long on this issue, albeit for possibly a little longer than my 57-second contribution last week.

The Bill would implement a new annex to the Antarctic treaty that was agreed back in 2005 on liability arising from environmental emergencies. It requires anyone undertaking activities in Antarctica to ensure that measures are in place to deal with any environmental damage, together with contingency plans for any damage that might occur. The present Bill was based on the Bill consulted on in 2009 by the previous Government, but it does not contain part 2 of the original Bill covering the requirement for contingency and safety planning by all British operators. In that context, I understand that the Minister’s officials believe that these issues can be addressed through the permit system, so that part of the original Bill is not required. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to be a bit more explicit and to send a clear message to operators—and reassurance to those who have a passionate interest in the Antarctic environment—that that is the case, and that the Bill follows the long line of measures to protect this vital environment. I hope that the Minister will deal with that issue when he winds up.

The Antarctic environmental legislation is a very good example of international co-operation on matters of great concern for the future of the planet. The treaty froze territorial disputes relating to the continent in order to pursue peaceful scientific investigation and conservation. Several hon. Members have referred to examples of that, some of them at considerable length. In the 1991 protocol, stringent measures on environmental protection were introduced, including—importantly—a 50-year moratorium on mineral extraction. The current permit requirements for British expeditions entering the Antarctic were introduced in the Antarctic Act 1994—in another example of the bipartisan nature of these discussions and concerns about the issue—which implemented the treaty’s protocol on environmental protection.

Why is this Bill so important and necessary? The Antarctic, as has been stressed by several hon. Members, is a pristine and highly sensitive environment that is of great significance in the global ecosystem. It contains, for example, 90% of the ice on earth and 60% to 70% of its fresh water. At a time of rising sea levels—mentioned with great concern yesterday by Mayor Bloomberg in New York—the melting of this ice would see a dramatic increase in sea levels. The seasonal growth of sea ice each year is one of earth’s most significant seasonal cycles, covering 19 million sq km at its maximum extent, which is one and half times the area of the Antarctic continent.

The Southern ocean also dominates the global oceans and influences the climates of many countries. In that context, I was pleased and honoured earlier this year to visit the Australian Antarctic division in Hobart, Tasmania. That is a valuable resource, and the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) will be well aware of the extensive co-operation with our Commonwealth ally, Australia, on this issue. This is a valuable resource not only for Australia but for the international community. It monitors the impact of climate and environmental change, conservation and ecosystems onshore and near shore, and in the vast Southern ocean.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in hoping that the marine conservation zones are strongly endorsed and supported as a means of protecting fish stocks and the food chain from the larger mammals that inhabit the southern oceans? If the fish stocks are removed and too much krill are taken, long-term damage will be done to the whole ecosystem.

My hon. Friend and fellow allotment holder is exactly right. It is of considerable concern that no proper evaluation has been made of what take of krill in the Southern ocean is sustainable right the way up the food chain. Much more scientific work will need to be done before we understand the matter. Harvesting is right and proper, but we do not want mining of the populations in the Southern ocean, because of the deep long-term effects all the way up the food chain. I understand that even now there is considerable concern about whether there are adequate food supplies for penguins in the area. That demonstrates the enormous importance of the Southern ocean for the ecosystem, although, as I have indicated, it goes much wider than the Southern ocean area. I agree with him about that and with his comments about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Implementation of the treaty is rightly welcomed here, but the FCO should engage actively with other signatories to ensure the more rapid implementation of this important work.

Those measures are extremely welcome, and I am sure that any concerns that hon. Members have can be dealt with in Committee, as the hon. Member for Stroud indicated. The broad thrust, however, has support across the House. It is slightly disturbing and contradictory, then, that alongside these excellent measures we are looking at proposals to merge the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre. As I indicated in an intervention, the decision not to do that was extremely welcome, and I once again place on the record my tribute to the Science and Technology Committee, under its excellent Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for producing a report that was highly critical of that measure. Its criticism was based not only on the scientific contribution, the excellent work done and the loss of scientific capability but, as hon. Members have mentioned, on a concern about the message it might send in the south Atlantic area.

Our noble colleague Lord West rightly drew attention to another problem that he claimed could lead to us sleepwalking towards another Falklands—a matter of enormous concern to him, obviously, given his heroic record.

The right hon. Gentleman might like to take the opportunity to confirm that should a British overseas territory, such as the Falkland Islands, be threatened, the Labour party would be 100% in favour of defending the right to self-determination of the peoples of that territory, unlike what happened in 1982, when many Labour Members opposed the actions of Her Majesty’s Government.

I regret and resent that question for two reasons: first, because the then Labour Opposition supported the action of the Government, and, secondly, because of the reasons for the action. I did not raise this before, because I thought this was a bipartisan issue, but the hon. Gentleman knows full well that it was the withdrawal of British capability in the south Atlantic by the Government he so praises that encouraged the Argentines to believe that we were losing interest, unlike the position taken by Jim Callaghan when he was Prime Minister, which he protected. It is outrageous for the hon. Gentleman to try to play politics. Unfortunately for him, when he chose his weapon, he chose a boomerang.

If the connection I have described was so obvious to many hon. Members in both Houses, I am slightly surprised that it was not so obvious to civil servants, the quango or Ministers. Notwithstanding that, it is extremely welcome that we have made the change we have, which enhances the measure we are considering today. It is a worthy and timely measure, and I hope that in responding the Minister will say not only what actions the Government will take, but what encouragement they will give to speed up international co-operation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on presenting this important private Member’s Bill at this time and on the detailed and knowledgeable way he introduced it. I am pleased to confirm the Government’s support for his Bill to introduce increased protection for the Antarctic environment. One of the encouraging things about the debate is the clear unanimity of purpose to put it beyond any doubt that Antarctica matters as much to the United Kingdom today as it ever has done. The United Kingdom has the finest possible traditions of Antarctic exploration and care for what is an immense but fragile landscape, a point made particularly passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

This has been an excellent and well-informed debate. Several Members have mentioned the centenary of Captain Scott’s final expedition, previous expeditions and the importance of keeping faith with his scientific legacy. The Bill’s provisions are a real and important part of that legacy. Antarctica is a unique global asset for science, in particular predicting the global impacts of climate change. At the same time, we must all recognise that human activity has increased significantly, with tourism, research stations and growing global interest. The consequences of a man-made emergency in Antarctica could be severe. The remoteness, unpredictability and severity of the climate, together with a lack of rescue or emergency services, would only heighten the impact of any incident.

The Government believe that the Bill provides appropriate strengthening of environmental protections by providing clear lines of accountability for dealing with environmental emergencies caused by human activity; putting the best existing practice into law; increasing the protection given to Antarctic marine plants and invertebrates; and helping further to protect Antarctica from invasive non-native species. There is a significant UK future in Antarctica. However, Members have raised a number of concerns about the future of the British presence in Antarctica and the south Atlantic. I want to provide the strongest possible reassurance from the Dispatch Box about the UK’s future in Antarctica and the wider region. The Government are absolutely committed to maintaining and developing the British scientific and physical presence in Antarctica.

Let me pick up one of the points that the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) made. He was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the Science and Technology Committee, but its work was one of many contributions and lobbying efforts made to Government. The Government have consistently been purposeful at all times about the dual mission and its importance to the region. We are also glad that the decision by the Natural Environment Research Council reflects the clear messages received from the Select Committee and from my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and his all-party group, and those received from many other Members, scientists and concerned members of the public. Indeed, let me say how articulate and passionate I found my hon. Friend’s contribution. He should be praised for the enormous contribution he has made to strengthening ties between the United Kingdom and all our overseas territories, and take personal credit for the significant role he has played. While I am in this ministerial office, I intend to continue to develop and build on the work of my predecessor, who was also enthusiastic, keen and passionate about this agenda.

I am pleased to confirm that the Government’s commitment to continuing the dual mission in the region is as strong as ever. I welcome the fact that, having completed its consultation, the Natural Environment Research Council agreed yesterday that it would not now proceed with the proposal that it had been talking about. The Minister for Universities and Science has placed a written ministerial statement before the House this morning to confirm that position.

Does the Minister agree that it is now essential to appoint a full-time director of the British Antarctic Survey to lead the organisation forward and to deliver the dual mission?

I agree that a full-time director of the British Antarctic Survey needs to be appointed as soon as possible, but I do not agree with the suggestion that Ministers should get involved with such an appointment. That is a matter for the BAS and for the other groups and organisations that need to be consulted.

I want to turn to some of the important issues that hon. Members have raised. It is right to put them in context, and also to correct the one or two misunderstandings that have emerged. I want to clarify the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), to ensure that the House is in no doubt about the United Kingdom’s sovereignty of the British Antarctic Territory, which stems from the oldest claim to the territory in Antarctica back in 1908. We have to acknowledge that the sector was subsequently claimed by Chile and Argentina, but, under the terms of the Antarctic treaty, sovereignty issues are held in abeyance and are neither confirmed nor denied. The United Kingdom continues to assert its sovereignty over the territory through the provision of legislation and postal services and the presence of the Royal Navy and the British Antarctic Survey. As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) correctly pointed out, co-operation with Chile and Argentina is good on the ground and in most international settings, and we are keen to maintain that positive good relationship.

The Minister has probably heard the news today that there has been a breakdown at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources at its meeting in Hobart, because Ukraine, China and Russia appear unwilling to sign up to an agreement on linked marine protection zones. Those zones are clearly important for the protection of the ecosystem and fish stocks. The commission will reconvene in Berlin next year. What lobbying efforts will the Government put in, ahead of that meeting in Germany next summer, to ensure that we can reach an agreement to extend marine conservation all around the Antarctic area? Such agreement is essential, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) has explained.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that he will be patient, because I will address that issue in a moment. I am going to go through the points that have been raised in a logical, chronological order.

In his well-informed contribution earlier, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) asked about the military presence in Antarctica, and he was absolutely right to seek clarification on that important point. I can inform the House that the Antarctic treaty prohibits military testing or exercises there. However, military help with the logistics of national programmes is allowed. That is why HMS Protector will be in the Antarctic this year to assist with UK programmes in such areas as hydrographic charting, to give logistical support to the British Antarctic Survey and to provide a search and rescue capability.

The hon. Gentleman just raised the important point about the unfortunate breakdown in the negotiations in Hobart yesterday. It is extremely disappointing that there has been a failure to reach agreement on the new marine protected areas, particularly those in the Ross sea, which I think was the area to which he was referring. The UK has an excellent reputation, under both Governments, for the creation of marine protected areas. We were instrumental in setting up the first one in the Southern ocean around the South Orkneys, and we have announced a new one around South Georgia in the Southern ocean as well. Our commitment to the protection and sustainable use of the Southern ocean is undimmed and undiluted. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will continue to work to persuade other countries to reach an agreement on the creation of appropriate marine protected areas, and that we are pressing hard for an opportunity to bring the process back on track in anticipation, hopefully, of an agreement at the conference next year.

The hon. Gentleman also made a point about whether the Bill’s application is to only part of Antarctica or to the whole of it. I can assure him that it will cover British expeditions and activities anywhere in Antarctica. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), he asked about the time scale for the Bill’s ratification by all members. I can give an assurance that the UK will push for ratification by other members as fast as possible. Indeed, some—including Finland, Peru, Poland, Spain, Sweden and, recently, Australia—have already ratified the protocols before the UK. All 28 consultative parties to this particular liability index have signed article 6 of the environmental protocol. This Bill, along with other national Bills, is merely a ratification of what has already been signed up to, so we anticipate no significant issues or problems there.

In response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) about the EU’s possible interest in British expeditions or other aspects of the Antarctic, I can confirm that the Bill’s amendment to existing legislation reflects the growing international nature of science teams and the necessity for universities—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley—to secure easier recognition of world-class British expeditions, which inevitably have an international flavour nowadays.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone was absolutely right to highlight the importance of clause 15, which provides for orderly regulation and conservation of historic and monumental sites, and of clause 16, which increases the environmental protections of flora and fauna, along with marine plants and invertebrates. He raised the issue of the EU’s application for observer status. I can confirm that it is not for the Antarctic but for the Arctic Council that the EU is trying to gain such status. I can confirm, too, that this has not been agreed and that the EU has no status in the Antarctic treaty system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley gave a very forensic and detailed analysis of the legislative architecture surrounding this Bill. It will not come as a surprise to him to hear me say that many of the points he raised deserve thorough and detailed consideration in Committee. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I will be interested to discuss these issues to ensure that the Committee is happy with the thought process and detail, supplied by my hon. Friend and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that have gone into the Bill.

It is important to say that the Government are supportive of the Bill. We see it as making a significant contribution to organising Antarctic expeditions and other tours to take preventive measures and establish contingency plans to reduce the risk of environmental emergencies and to secure all-important insurance. The Bill is important, too, for updating existing Antarctic legislation to recognise and respond to the increasingly international flavour of scientific activity and to provide better protection through clauses 15 and 16.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley asked about the liability annex, which mirrors the issue raised by the hon. Member for Islington North. My hon. Friend asked about ratification, too, and I can confirm that once the annex is ratified, we will be able to show leadership, alongside those who have already ratified the environmental protocol, in the Antarctic treaty consultative meetings and actively lobby all countries to ratify at the earliest opportunity.

My hon. Friend raised a series of detailed but very important issues, which I do not intend to go into now unless the House absolutely wants me to. I get the impression that it probably does not. If it would help, I should be happy to write to my hon. Friend in the meantime—especially if he is not here—

I apologise. He is here, sitting on the Front Bench. I shall write to him setting out the details, if he is happy with that. He may find himself on the Committee, in which case we can dig into some of the issues if he is sufficiently interested.

In response to the point correctly made by the right hon. Member for Warley, I can confirm that the provisions in the draft Bill on which consultation took place in 2009 regarding search and rescue can be implemented by means of the existing permitting regime as contained in the Antarctic Act 1994, and that primary legislation is therefore unnecessary. I am sure he agrees that there is no point in legislating when legislation is not necessary, or when the position is covered by existing legislative frameworks.

The Government believe that the Bill provides a real opportunity and gives proportionate support to the Antarctic environment. This country is rightly proud of its Antarctic heritage in the form of exploration, international co-operation and good governance. I am delighted to support the Bill on behalf of the Government, and I urge Members to give it their active support in Committee in order to ensure its expeditious passage on to the statute book.

With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond.

We have had an excellent debate. It has thrown up some very interesting issues, which will doubtless re-emerge in Committee. I am immensely grateful for the wide support for this important Bill, and I obviously appreciate the expressions of support from the Minister.

We heard several fascinating speeches. I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), for Stone (Mr Cash), for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for their thoughtful contributions. We also heard some useful interventions, but I shall not list them all because I think that we need to move on to other business.

Let me say two final things. First, let me reassure the Opposition that a huge campaign was launched at a very early stage to ensure that the British Antarctic Survey was dealt with properly in terms of its autonomy and resources. That reassurance was given to us very firmly today by the Minister for Universities and Science. Secondly, let me ram home the point that the Bill reaffirms Britain’s presence in the Antarctic, and adds substantially to our capacity to protect that very important continent.

I have pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

Presumption of Death Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was fortunate enough to come 14th in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. Unsurprisingly, a few hours after hearing that news I returned to my office to find a full inbox, and over the next days the amount of mail that I received increased substantially. One letter gave me some hope. It was from the former Member of Parliament for Chertsey and Walton, Sir Geoffrey Pattie, who wrote that in the 1970s he had managed to get legislation on to the statute book having also come 14th in the ballot. That has given me a little encouragement, and I hope that the House will be minded to look seriously at my Bill and will allow it to proceed as well.

Having been given this opportunity, I thought carefully about the legislation I should present to the House. I concluded—on the basis of my time as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, and also on the basis of personal experience—that a means of supporting families by dealing with the uncertainties surrounding presumed death would be an extremely worthwhile cause to champion.

As I have said, I have some personal experience of the effects of such situations, although at one step removed. In 1996 my sister’s godfather disappeared. His name was Norman Harriss, and he was an airline pilot, married, with two sons. The case was reported at the time. He had taken a yacht on to the Solent. The yacht was found with the engine still running and the dinghy missing, and with no sign of him. A search ensued, but, unfortunately, he was never found.

When I was thinking about taking up this cause, I contacted one of Mr Harriss’s sons, Alistair, to ask whether he thought the proposals were a good idea and whether it would have helped his family if such a law had been in place in 1996. Fortunately, he was unequivocal in his response: he said he was more than happy for me to mention his father’s case and stressed the effects of his disappearance on the family when no provision was in place to acknowledge properly his father’s death.

I just want to put on record my total support for my hon. Friend’s work in this area. It builds on the work done by a brilliant organisation based in my constituency: Missing People. It has on its books hundreds and hundreds of examples similar to the case my hon. Friend has just outlined, of families who are unable to move on as a result of what is effectively a bureaucratic barrier. My hon. Friend’s Bill addresses that barrier, so I wish him all the luck in the world and I hope he succeeds.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I will talk about the Missing People charity later, but for now let me just commend it on the wonderful work it does.

Alistair said:

“The 7 year wait on the death certificate was a serious strain on everyone involved with my father’s case. Dad made sure that we would have been provided for in the event of his death but due to the circumstances the death certificate was not released for nearly 7 years. Our house was defaulted on and sold, the boat was sold and I very nearly had to change schools in the middle of my GCSEs. Due to some serious hardships from my Mum and step father I managed to complete my GCSEs and A-levels and am now flying as a commercial pilot. I think I was one of the lucky ones!”

As a result of my researches into the issues involved in such cases I have also been fortunate enough to meet Peter Lawrence, the father of Claudia, who has now been missing for more than three and a half years. I, along with many people throughout the nation, have been extremely moved by his story. I have listened carefully to his testimony, and he is very clear that the law needs to be updated. Peter would also like provision to be made for guardianship, and I shall touch on that subject, too.

For all the reasons I have set out, I hope this Bill can be progressed, and the law can be improved for people with missing family members who find themselves in the distressing situation of not being able to deal with their affairs following the disappearance of a loved one.

I am acutely aware of the fact that many people have spent a great deal of time—more than I have spent—in campaigning on this issue, and in bringing energy to advancing a solution to this problem. Some of them are present today, supporting the Bill. I must mention a 2009 private Member’s Bill introduced by the former Member for Daventry, Lord Boswell of Aynho. Unfortunately, his Bill did not make it on to the statute book, but I have based my Bill on its contents.

I also wish to put on the record my gratitude to Baroness Kramer, who has a similar Bill in the other place. Should my Bill be fortunate enough to progress, she will be able to assist in the other place. I have also had a great amount of cross-party support from hon. Members, particularly those associated with the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, especially the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who, unfortunately, cannot be here today.

At this point, I should mention the help I have received from the Missing People charity, whose sharing of expertise has been so invaluable on this subject. I am thinking, in particular, of the valuable evidence it gave the Justice Committee prior to the publication of its report in February. Missing People was founded in 1986 by Mary Asprey OBE and Janet Newman OBE following the disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh. The charity supports the friends and family of those who have gone missing, young people who have run away from home and missing adults. Missing People offers advice and practical support, as well as maintaining a database of missing people and providing a central point of contact to report sightings. It also provides advice on working with the media and the police, and on the legal and financial difficulties faced by families when somebody goes missing.

I would like to use my speech to pay a particular tribute to the chief executive of Missing People, Martin Houghton-Brown, who has been a tireless champion of presumption of death legislation. He has made his case persuasively in the media over many years and during the Justice Committee’s inquiry. Martin is, unfortunately for Missing People, about to leave that organisation, but I know that I speak for everyone he has worked with in wishing him well in his new role. Martin is generally acknowledged as one of the most effective advocates and campaigners in the charity world.

The Justice Committee’s report on presumption of death strongly recommended primary legislation on this subject. It stated:

“Non-legislative solutions to the problems of resolving the affairs of missing people are necessary but not sufficient. Primary legislation is required…the fact that, in 34 years, only one person who was the subject of an order under the Scottish Presumption of Death Act 1977 has reappeared is a compelling argument that the legislation provides a clear, robust court process to resolve the question”—

I wish the hon. Gentleman well with his proposals. Would it not be relatively simple to use the Scottish and Northern Irish approaches, and then replicate them in England? That would make things much easier. We are not starting anew; we can actually adopt what happens in other areas to see how things can go forward.

I am grateful for that helpful intervention. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and this Bill indeed builds directly on the provisions in Northern Ireland and Scotland, learning many of the lessons from their experience.

The Scottish example, where there has been only one revocation, is often cited. I have not seen anything about the Northern Ireland example. Is that because there has not been a revocation of any particular measure there?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I am not certain on that point, so I would need to examine things further. However, my understanding is that such situations are extremely rare and it is quite probable that there has not been a revocation from the Northern Ireland legislation.

Let me return to the point I was making. The Justice Committee said that

“the fact that, in 34 years, only one person who was the subject of an order under the Scottish Presumption of Death Act 1977 has reappeared is a compelling argument that the legislation provides a clear, robust court process to resolve the question of whether a missing person is alive or dead. We therefore recommend that the Ministry of Justice introduce legislation based on the Scottish Act.”

It continued:

“The law relating to the affairs of missing people will only affect a limited number of people. It will, however, allow families placed in extremely difficult emotional circumstances at least to resolve the financial and legal affairs of their missing relatives. We believe the time is long overdue to extend to English and Welsh families the protection that is available to Scottish and Northern Irish families.”

At present in England and Wales we do not have a single certificate procedure that deals with a situation where somebody goes missing and is presumed dead. This, as the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) said, contrasts sharply with Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have legislated in this field. Scotland has the Presumption of Death (Scotland) Act which has been in place since 1977, and Northern Ireland has the Presumption of Death Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. If the Bill progresses and is enacted, it will put England and Wales on a par with Scotland and Northern Ireland in this respect.

It may be helpful for hon. Members to know that there are currently about 360,000 reports of people going missing annually, and 25,000 of those remain open for more than a week. About 2,000 people remain missing for more than a year, and in 2010 the charity Missing People had 346 cases on its UK database which were more than seven-years-old.

At present, when a person goes missing and is thought to have died and there is no corpse, a death certificate cannot be obtained in the usual way. This means that there can be difficulties for surviving spouses or civil partners, and property cannot be distributed in the way that it would if death were confirmed through the production of a body. There are a number of procedures that must be gone through in order to deal with the missing person’s affairs if they are presumed to have died. These include dissolving a marriage, applying for an inquest, sorting out probate, and dealing with benefits and other administrative matters.

All these are separate processes and involve considerable time, stress and legal advice, not to mention costs, to complete. Of course, there is great uncertainty and a lack of direction as the expertise and experience available among the police and legal profession is not generally available with sufficient depth in one single place. Therefore, a single process that provides a document that would act like a death certificate would be a great improvement for families going through this awful, traumatic experience.

Let me turn to the Bill and explain what it contains. It will introduce a new court-based procedure that will enable those left behind to obtain a declaration from the High Court that the missing person is deemed to have died. The High Court will be able to make that decision if it is satisfied that the missing person has died or has not been known to have been alive for a period of at least seven years. When the declaration has been made, a copy will be sent to the Registrar General for England and Wales and the details will be registered in a new register of presumed deaths, which will be linked for research purposes to the register of deaths maintained under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. The certificate will be conclusive as to the presumed death and effective for all purposes and against all persons.

Following this, property can then pass in the usual way, as if the missing person had been certified dead in the normal way. His or her marriage or civil partnership will end, just as a marriage or civil partnership ends on death.

There will be, in effect, a certificate of presumed death that can be used by those left behind to deal with the property affairs of the missing person as if he or she had actually died and a death certificate had been issued. There is provision to allow the declaration to be revoked should emerging facts require it, and of course the register would then be amended. Based on the Scottish experience, it is anticipated that we would expect, on average, 30 to 40 declarations per year.

It may be helpful at this point to reflect on what is really involved. The situation can obviously be incredibly traumatic for many of these families. Families who have worked with the charity Missing People highlight the constant mental anguish and uncertainty as to what has happened to their missing person. On top of this, dealing with various financial affairs—changing mortgages, selling equities or other investments, drawing on pensions, or selling or disposing of property—can be particularly difficult. Many have pointed out that engaging a solicitor to deal with these affairs can be prohibitively expensive. I realise that the Bill will not be able to address the trauma and constant anxiety and concern that is inevitable when somebody goes missing, but it can simplify the complexity of dealing with an individual’s affairs and bypass the need for expensive legal advice and services.

I should now like briefly to go through the Bill and outline, clause by clause, its precise provisions. Clause 1 enables the High Court to make the declaration of presumed death, and it sets out who will be able to apply for this declaration—usually a close relative, spouse, civil partner, parent, child or sibling of the missing person. However, the Court can also hear an application from someone it believes has sufficient interest. There must also be a connection with England and Wales, either via the missing person or the person making the application. The missing person must either have been living in England or Wales at the time of the disappearance or habitually resident for the previous year, or the person making the application must satisfy similar rules.

Clause 2 relates to the two bases that the Court has for making the declaration. They are distinct. The Court must be satisfied that the missing person has either died or has not been known to be alive for at least seven years, although the person does not have to have been missing for seven years for the Court to believe them to have died. This part of the Bill also sets out when the Court deems the person to have died, which can be extremely important in determining property interests.

Clause 3 goes on to explain the effect of the declaration—that it is conclusive proof of a missing person’s death, and as such effective for all purposes against all persons. The declaration also ends a marriage or civil partnership, just as a marriage would end when someone has died. It also extends to matters of property ownership, and it is final once it is no longer subject to an appeal or any previous appeal that has been dismissed or withdrawn.

Clause 4 allows the Court to make any order it considers reasonable in relation to any interest in property acquired as a result of the declaration. For example, it requires that even if a variation or revocation order is made, any interest is not recoverable under certain conditions or under any conditions. Some hon. Members have raised the scenario of when a revocation is necessary, and clauses 5, 6 and 7 deal with this. Variation orders involve important safeguards. They allow the High Court to vary or even revoke a declaration of presumed death. That means that if evidence comes to light that the missing person is not dead, the Court can determine to revoke the order.

If that happens, there might be issues regarding property that has been disposed of as a result of the original declaration. The Bill addresses such circumstances. If a variation order is made it will not necessarily affect the property that has been acquired as a result of the original presumption of death declaration, but it will allow the court to make further orders that it deems reasonable and necessary as to the property acquired. A variation order does not revive a marriage or civil partnership; otherwise, subsequent marriages or civil marriages could be invalidated.

Schedule 1 provides for the establishment of a register of presumed deaths, to be maintained by the Registrar General. As I have said, the register would be linked to the register of deaths maintained under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, so it would be searchable in the same way as the register for death certificates.

Finally, clause 17 gives the Secretary of State the power to amend certain periods of time specified by the Bill—for example, the seven-year period in which a person has not been known to be alive.

The rest of the Bill is fairly self-explanatory, but I want to address a couple of points that hon. Members might raise. Guardianship is one of the most difficult issues that I encountered as I contemplated this Bill. I know that the Justice Committee has recommended that laws should be put in place to address this issue, and many people I have spoken to would like a provision to appear in the Bill. I also acknowledge the views of Peter Lawrence, who explained to me a couple of weeks ago how he found it frustrating that we could not make such a provision at this time. Guardianship would give a suitable person certain powers over the property and affairs of the missing person, but without having to satisfy the standards for a full presumption of death certificate. It would, in effect, be an interim measure that could then be superseded at a later point by a presumption of death certificate, if appropriate.

Such a system exists in Australia, where a court can make an order only if there is a need for decisions to be made about the missing person’s property, if the decisions are made in their best interests, and if all people with a relevant interest are notified. However, after consulting widely and taking advice from a number of respected experts in this field, I decided not to include guardianship in the Bill, despite my firm belief that it needs to be legislated for in the future—in fact, as soon as possible.

I was concerned that including guardianship would have caused problems for the passage of the Bill, because the structures of guardianship are very complex and require far more work than it is possible to undertake during the time frame available for this Bill. Ideally, there would need to be a consultation about the exact form that guardianship orders should take and the criteria that should be applied in making them. That would make this a more contentious Bill, so I took the view that it is more important to work towards getting presumption of death legislation on to the statute book for England and Wales, so that they can be on level ground with Scotland and Northern Ireland. I did not want the debate and concerns about guardianship to prevent that from happening.

If this Bill were enacted, it would be entirely right to push for guardianship. In fact, I believe that the Bill lays the foundations for that to happen very quickly. I consider it a first step in that process, and should the House wish for it to proceed it will be a stepping stone for further legislation.

It makes absolute sense for there to be an interim measure whereby the closest relatives of a missing person can be legally enabled to take control of their assets. Of course, many issues need to be considered and resolved, but if other jurisdictions have managed to overcome those obstacles and develop the appropriate legal framework, it seems incumbent upon this legislature to do so as quickly as possible, learn from their experiences and develop an appropriate guardianship system for England and Wales.

I anticipate that some people will be concerned about the costs of using High Court applications for declarations of presumed death. After consideration, however, I have decided that it is right that the High Court is used because of its expertise in the area. It should be the Court to take the decision in the first instance. As Members will be aware, the presumption of death is a decision of great seriousness and requires the careful weighing of evidence, as it has enormous, life-changing implications for those involved.

There is also merit in the point that the High Court should test the standards that will need to be applied in all cases. As there will be perhaps 30 to 40 cases a year, it would be sensible to have them at one court that has expertise and can establish those standards, rather than at a number of courts that may not be fully conversant with the protocol owing to it not having sufficient cases to develop expertise. However, I recognise the possibility that cases could be devolved to certain county courts under secondary legislation at a later date, if it seemed that the expertise was in place at those courts to deliver the same reliable outcomes as the High Court.

The time is right. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that it is now long overdue to pass legislation in this area. Not only is it right from the perspective of the numerous relatives and friends of those who are missing, but the need is generally accepted by all parties in both Houses. The Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s report was clear, stating:

“Introducing a single procedure to obtain a general purpose certificate of presumed death equivalent to a death certificate in England and Wales will bring the law of England and Wales into line with the law in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The new procedure will replace the existing range of procedures providing specific limited outcomes, which taken together currently provide the equivalent protection to that available in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This simplification should make it easier for those left behind to deal with the affairs of a missing person, who is thought to be dead, notwithstanding the very difficult circumstances in which they have been placed.”

That clearly indicates that there is wide and deep understanding of what should be done.

I hope that the Bill will bring some measure of finality to distressed families who have to live daily with the emotional trauma and distress of not knowing whether they will see their loved one again. Allowing friends and families to obtain a certificate of presumed death, after careful deliberation by a judge on all the evidence, will enable them to move forward and deal with the missing person’s affairs, and perhaps begin to rebuild their lives. I ask Members to support the Bill so that it can proceed quickly to Committee and move forward as soon as is practicably possible.

I will be brief. I think I am the only Member of the Justice Committee who is here today. Its Chair, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), cannot be here, so it was agreed that I would offer the Committee’s full support for, and welcome to, the Bill. We hope that it passes rapidly into law.

I compliment the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on his careful and caring introduction to a Bill on a difficult and traumatic issue faced by many families. When the Committee made its inquiries on the presumption of death, one could only feel the deepest sympathy for families from which somebody had disappeared 15 or 20 years previously. The sadness about the disappearance is always present, and although the family has to make a presumption of death there can be no closure. Everything remains open and questions are never answered, and the Bill makes a good step towards providing at least a degree of closure and order to the families and relatives of those who have disappeared. We already have appropriate legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and as the Justice Committee learned—indeed, this was referred to this morning—there has been only one case in Scotland of anyone reappearing after seven years, and no cases in Northern Ireland. It is important to recognise that seven years is a reasonable period to pass before a presumption of death can be made.

The Justice Committee took evidence from large numbers of people, and sent its recommendations to the Minister as required. I was grateful that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice, stated:

“I am pleased that we are accepting the Committee’s recommendations for the production of better guidance to present procedures and the introduction of a certificate of presumed death. I hope that these measures will go a long way to simplifying and demystifying what has to be done when a missing person is thought to have died.”

We must remember that when somebody has disappeared or is thought to have died, it is unbelievably traumatic for the families concerned. The lack of support and coherent guidance needs to be addressed, and I was pleased the Under-Secretary of State did that.

Paragraph 56 of the Justice Committee’s report states:

“While the numbers of people who have to deal with the repercussions of having a family member go missing are small, the pain and anguish those families go through is considerable. As things stand, their suffering is exacerbated by: a legislative patchwork of bewildering complexity; the inability to administer the financial situation of their missing relatives; a lack of information about the actions they are able to take; and ignorance of the correct procedures to be followed by police, lawyers, banks, insurers and others. We therefore recommend a threefold approach: the introduction of a presumption of death act to clarify the legal position; the introduction of ‘guardianship’ orders, so that financial stewardship of missing persons’ affairs can be established more speedily; and the provision of effective guidance for the families of missing people and those who provide services for them.”

When the Minister responds to the debate—I believe she was a member of the Justice Committee at the start of the inquiry—I hope she will provide some reassurance that when the Bill proceeds into law, public guidance will be offered to the families of those who have disappeared. Those people are often suffering complete trauma and do not necessarily understand what is available for them.

Briefly, I will refer to recommendations 9 and 10 in the report. Recommendation 9 states that:

“The law relating to the affairs of missing people will only affect a limited number of people. It will, however, allow families placed in extremely difficult emotional circumstances at least to resolve the financial and legal affairs of their missing relatives. We believe the time is long overdue to extend to English and Welsh families the protection that is available to Scottish and Northern Irish families.”

The Bill clearly covers that point, which is welcome.

Recommendation 10 states:

“We recommend that the Government take steps to introduce provision for ‘guardianship’ orders modelled on the approach adopted by states in Australia, either via the introduction of the presumption of death legislation we have recommended, or some alternative legislative mechanism. This will protect the financial position of the missing person and his or her dependants.”

I realise why that point has not been included in the Bill and the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) explained it perfectly well. I hope, however, that the Minister will provide some hope that after the passage of the Bill a separate Government Bill—or, if necessary, a statutory instrument—will be introduced to cover guardianship so that the wishes of the Justice Committee, which have clearly been accepted by the Ministry of Justice, can proceed into law. I recognise that this complex area will inevitably involve foster care, adoption and the role of social services, and I understand why the hon. Member for Salisbury did not want to include that provision in his Bill at this stage.

The Justice Committee welcomes the Bill and thanks all those who gave evidence during our inquiry. We were impressed with the thought that people had put in and understand the stress they had gone through. If the Bill can alleviate that stress and bring about some resolution to families who have gone through horror, we will have done good work. I strongly support the Bill and hope that it receives a Second Reading today.

I rise to support the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on introducing it. I know—not from personal experience, but from speaking to colleagues who have been lucky in winning the private Members’ Bills raffle—that hon. Members are put under a lot of pressure by different organisations. My hon. Friend has wisely chosen to introduce a Bill that is at the heart of his experience and that will make a tangible difference to individuals’ lives. I hope it is deliverable, and I urge the Minister to support it.

Cases involving deaths are among the most harrowing that Members of Parliament deal with—they are the cases I felt least prepared to deal with as a new Member of Parliament in 2005. I have been asked to be involved in five cases when constituents have passed away, and surprisingly I have dealt with three cases of missing persons—all three went missing overseas.

I should like further debate in Committee—I am keen to serve on the Committee, and do not want to detain the House too long today—on deaths overseas and the role of the Foreign Office, and on what information local embassies need to trigger the certificate to allow the presumption of death to be dealt with exactly the same as it would be in the UK.

I asked my hon. Friend about Northern Ireland, and am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for clarifying the absence of information on revocations in Northern Ireland. I accept his word that there is no information because there are no revocations, which is most reassuring.

I am also reassured, as other hon. Members will be, by the involvement of Lord Boswell, previously of this place. Like my hon. Friend, he was admirable in the discharging of his duties for those less fortunate.

We need to clear up the patchwork of complexity that my hon. Friend has described—that has been pushed for by organisations such as Missing People. I have read more about Missing People over the past few days, but through my own inadequacies I have not linked up with it when dealing with cases. The more we can do to publicise its good work in helping people in their moment of need, the better. I was amazed when looking at the fact sheets on its website at the numbers involved, which have been mentioned by hon. Members. In addition, the numbers mentioned by the Serious Organised Crime Agency are horrific. When people are at their lowest ebb and hoping that their relative is missing and not dead, it is difficult for them to take responsibility within that patchwork of complexity. The Bill will tidy that up, so that when people are dealing with the emotional strains of having a missing relative who has probably passed away, they will not also have to deal with the complexity of the law.

I urge hon. Members to keep the Bill focused. Like the hon. Member for Islington North, I would have liked it to deal with guardianship, but I recognise the wisdom of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury in keeping the Bill clean and clear-cut. Equally, I would have liked a Foreign and Commonwealth Office provision in the Bill—perhaps the Bill will be amended in Committee—but I would not want to include it if it held the Bill up.

I wish my hon. Friend well and congratulate him on his choice of Bill, and look forward to seeing it in Committee and in practice.

It is a privilege to be called to speak in this debate. I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on his success in the ballot and choosing this Bill. I also note the immense work on this issue that has been done by the Justice Committee and the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults. Other hon. Members have also mentioned the immense amount of work done by the charities Missing People and The Children’s Society.

Far too often we forget how many people go missing every year. I was looking at the statistics just yesterday for 2009 and 2010, and there were more than 1,000 reports every day, amounting to 356,000 people being reported missing. Of course, many of those people quickly returned home or were found. In fact, the vast majority are back home with their loved ones within 24 hours, but many others do not return home. Indeed, in that year, some 2,000 people were still missing after a long period. Many of those people have not passed away, thankfully, but they are never heard of again. Many families are left in limbo, not knowing what to do or which way to go. After they have experienced that amount of stress and level of concern, they may be faced with the reality that their loved one will never return, that their life may have been taken. What can the families do? Unfortunately, there is no simple process in England and Wales, as my hon. Friend clearly demonstrated. It is an immensely complex system.

On rare occasions, the procedure has been overridden, such as after the tsunami in 2004, when very swift action was taken to deal with that devastating and horrendous loss of life. But that, I am afraid, is the exception. We have so often heard that there are processes in place for families to follow to deal with this situation, but in fact they are immensely complex. I am not a solicitor—I am very much a layperson—and when I read through what had to be done I was shocked by the complexity. The coroner’s inquest under section 15 of the Coroners Act 1988 provides that a coroner may report to the Secretary of State where he or she has reason to believe that a violent, unnatural or sudden death with unknown cause has occurred in or near his or her district but that the body is irrecoverable or has been destroyed. On receipt of such a report the Secretary of State, if he considers it desirable, may issue a direction to the coroner to hold an inquest. A death certificate will be issued as a result of the inquest.

That procedure was used after the tsunami struck, but it is very difficult to go down that route. In the past, Ministers have said that there are other options, including the decree of presumption of death and dissolution of marriage or the presumption of death order under section 19 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and section 37 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. There is also the leave to swear death, when a person goes missing and a member of the missing person’s family wishes to obtain a grant of probate in order to administer the estate of the missing person, and the certificate of presumed death. When people are at their lowest, faced with a dreadful trauma, they must deal with this incredibly legalistic and complex process. It does not help families in great distress. It is absolutely right, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has introduced this Bill. He has been very thoughtful in trying to ensure that it goes through.

As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out, there is legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland dealing with this subject. It is not about inventing something new but about learning from the very best practice and about seeing what is out there and making it relevant here, in England and Wales. That is what my hon. Friend has done. A lot of the equivalent legislation introduced in Northern Ireland dealt with the issue of those who were missing as part of the troubles. Of course, we do not have that legacy in England and Wales, but the distress of families is as acute here as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It is comforting to think that this Bill will help families. My hon. Friend mentioned that it was almost impossible to access life insurance and spoke about people losing their home and everything they had. I think of my family’s distress if I went missing—some colleagues might be quite grateful—and how they would deal with it. How would they pay the mortgage? How would they live? How would my children be fed? They would not want to have to worry about that; they would just want the state on their side and, having paid their premiums, would want their insurance company to support them. This Bill goes a long way towards ensuring that people in that incredibly difficult and awful position are not left alone.

It is a great pleasure to support the Bill, and I wish my hon. Friend the best of luck in Committee. I support it wholeheartedly.

I am pleased to welcome the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) to change the law on the presumption of death. I congratulate him on bringing it before the House. I also thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the rest of the Justice Committee for their work on the issue and the excellent report produced in February. It highlighted how traumatic it is for the relatives of a missing person to deal with their outstanding affairs. The Committee and the hon. Gentleman make a powerful case for legislation to simplify the process.

I also pay tribute to the Missing People for its tireless campaigning on this issue and for helping to bring about the opportunity to debate this Bill. The previous Government committed to working with Missing People to bring forward such legislation before the last general election. The hon. Gentleman detailed many of the concerns that led Labour to consider such legislation necessary, and we continue to view it as necessary.

For the most part, this is a relatively simple piece of legislation, and I see no reason why the Government would consider it necessary to delay its implementation. I hope that the Minister will commit to co-operating with us. We will certainly co-operate with them to ensure that the Bill proceeds as swiftly as possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on his good fortune in securing a high place in the private Members’ ballot and his good judgment in choosing to introduce a Bill on the presumption of death. The Bill is clearly based on the Presumption of Death (Scotland) Act 1977 and the Presumption of Death Act (Northern Ireland) 2009—and, therefore, the Presumption of Death Bill introduced in this House in 2009 by the then Member for Daventry, my noble Friend Lord Boswell of Aynho.

The Bill is important because it will greatly improve the position of people and businesses left behind when a person disappears. At present, individuals—often family members—may have to use a number of procedures to deal with different aspects of the property and affairs of the missing person. This can make a difficult situation daunting. Meanwhile, it seems that different businesses adopt different approaches, and even legal professionals can find it difficult to identify the right solutions for their clients. The Bill will make a real difference in such cases.

The importance of the Bill is brought home by the stories of real people. I have listened carefully to the stories of hardship and distress that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and others have described. I share their concern that the current law is not working as well as it should. I want to take this opportunity to add brief details from some case studies provided by the charity Missing People, which has worked so prominently in campaigning for a change in this important area of law.

The first case study relates to Janis from Merseyside. Janis told her story to Lucy Holmes, policy and research officer with Missing People. I shall summarise what she said. Janis’s husband James, in his 40s, went missing three and a half years ago. She spoke to solicitors, who told her that she would have to wait seven years until he could be pronounced dead. Only then would the mortgage and other financial matters be sorted out. The financial implications were an added stress, which Janis could have done without, and I shall mention some of the financial problems she faced. Janis and her husband held shares, but they were in her husband’s name. As a result, she was unable to access them. Janis and her husband had originally taken out a fixed-rate mortgage, but the fixed rate stopped a few months after he went missing. She tried to see whether she could get a mortgage holiday or a change in the product, but was told that she could not, because she needed two signatures—her own and her husband’s. She ended up locked in a standard-rate mortgage. Janis was also unable to sell her house without her husband’s signature.

The second case study relates to Julie, from west Yorkshire, who also told her story to Lucy Holmes at Missing People. Julie’s former husband Peter, in his 30s, has been missing for nearly 10 years. Julie believes that he has died but his body has not been found. He first went missing when they were in the middle of sorting out the finances for their divorce. The judge was sympathetic and explained that Julie would be able to go back and sort everything out, including her husband’s estate, if he was still missing after seven years. It was therefore always at the back of her mind that she would have to wait that long. The types of problems Julie has encountered include not being able to access Peter’s pension, which could be left to their children if she could declare him deceased. Julie also had problems finding a solicitor who could help her. None of the solicitors she tried—and she tried several—knew how to handle the case. Eventually she got a solicitor she knew to do it for free, in his own time. Julie needs to access endowment and insurance policies, but she cannot touch them because she needs her husband’s signature. She needs the money for her children’s university education, and finds the whole situation horrendous. She complains that there are no rules or guidelines.

These stories, taken together, create the strong impression that the disappearance of a husband has locked the wife who has been left behind into a financial conundrum from which there is no obvious escape and on which little information is provided.

The third case study was provided by Rachel Elias, the sister of Richard James Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, in evidence to the inquiry of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults in June 2011. She also provided written evidence to the Justice Committee inquiry into the presumption of death. Her brother disappeared on 1 February 1995, and has not been seen or heard of since that date. At the time of his disappearance, he was a member of the successful British band, the Manic Street Preachers. Once the family were convinced that Richard was dead, an application was made for a leave to swear death order. The process took about three years and cost them about £3,500. Rachel Elias commented on how hard it had been to prepare the paperwork and provide the corroborative evidence, 13 years after the disappearance.

The Justice Committee also took oral evidence from Vicki Derrick. Vicki told the Committee of the disappearance of her husband in 2003. She said that she could not change her mortgage or move house because they were in joint names, and that she could not get a life insurance policy to pay out. She described how she had moved overnight from having a joint income to being a single mother on a greatly reduced income, and how she had to rely on her family to support her. She somehow survived the eight years of uncertainty and difficulty, which came to an end in February this year when the remains of her late husband’s body were found. The finding of the body ended the need for a presumption of death certificate in that case, but that happened only by chance.

These case histories, and the other cases that have been described by hon. Members, tell of individuals from different backgrounds who have been visited by tragedy. I offer them my condolences and sympathy. I know that my expressing sympathy and solidarity will probably make little difference in the struggle that those individuals face in coping with their loss and trying to move their affairs forward when it seems almost certain that the missing person will not return. What can make a difference is simplifying the law to provide a clear path for people to take if they believe that the missing person is dead.

That brings us to the content of the Bill. There will be a single, obvious, all-purpose procedure for obtaining legal confirmation that a person is to be deemed to be dead. This should make the process of moving on more straightforward, not only for those affected by the disappearance but for those who advise them. Businesses such as insurers should also benefit because the making of a declaration will make it easier for them to know where they stand. In short, the Bill will provide a means to clarify the uncertainties caused by the disappearance.

Clarification and simplification must not, however, be introduced at the expense of rigour. The declaration of presumed death will be granted only following consideration of the evidence. No one should lightly be presumed to be dead. If the interests of the missing person, and of the people who would be affected by his or her deemed death, are to be protected, the process of obtaining a declaration of presumed death must be thorough and robust. To achieve this, the Bill creates a new court procedure and an associated process of registration.

The court procedure will enable a person with sufficient interest to obtain a legally binding declaration from the High Court that a person is to be deemed dead for all purposes, including the end of the marriage or civil partnership. The High Court will make the declaration if it is satisfied that the missing person has died or has not been known to be alive for a period of at least seven years. Based on experience in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we expect that on average between 30 and 40 declarations are likely to be issued each year.

A court also has the power to deal with myriad consequential property-related issues that may arise as a result of the declaration. Once the court has made the declaration and the time for any appeal has passed, the High Court will send details of the presumed deaths to the Registrar General for England and Wales, who will enter the relevant particulars in the register of presumed deaths created under the Bill. The Registrar General will also include the entry in that register in the index of the registers of deaths. This will enable those left behind by the missing person and others to find out about the presumed death and, on payment of an appropriate fee, to obtain certified copies of the entry in the register of presumed deaths. These certified copies will, without the need for more evidence, be conclusive evidence of the death of the missing person. They will be usable in the same way and for the same purposes as death certificates in relation to an actual death.

There is, of course, a crucial difference between actual deaths and presumed deaths: the actually dead do not return, but the presumed dead may do so. Experience in Scotland suggests that this happens only rarely. None the less, the Bill, as it must, makes provision for amendment or revocation of a declaration by giving the court power to make a variation order on application. A variation order will alter the facts on which any property-related orders made as a result of the making of the original declaration were based. The Bill therefore gives the Court power to make such further orders as it considers reasonable in relation to any property acquired as a result of the declaration varied or revoked.

This power is subject to limitations—for example, to protect innocent purchasers—and in some cases the court is required as far as possible to have regard to the principles specified in the Bill in deciding what to do. These provisions are, I think, the most complicated in the Bill, but they are necessary and follow in general terms the Scottish and Northern Irish precedents that I have mentioned.

It is clearly vital that the court should have the best information that it can obtain in making declaration or variation orders. The Bill therefore gives the Court power, on application or of its own motion, to order third parties to provide specified information relevant to the question of whether the missing person is dead or alive. Details of the court procedure and the registration process will be set out in the rules of court and the regulations to be made in due course.

The Bill will, from time to time, result in the payment of a capital sum or of a transfer of a piece of property from one person to another, consequent on the presumed death. However, as described, circumstances could arise in which that capital sum or property should actually have gone to someone else. Recipients of these sums or pieces of property might well want to consider whether it would be appropriate to take out insurance against the possibility that these circumstances could arise in their own particular cases. That will be a decision for them.

In two cases, however, the Bill makes specific provision about insurance. First, it provides that the court can order trustees affected by a declaration to take out insurance against claims consequent on the making of orders in connection with the variation order. Secondly, the Bill allows an insurer to require the potential recipient of a capital sum made as a result of a declaration—for example, the sum assured under a life insurance policy—to take out insurance against claims consequent on the possible future making of a variation order.

The new procedure for a declaration of death will replace some, but not all, of the existing procedures by virtue of which a person may be deemed to be dead under the law of England and Wales. The Bill will, for example, repeal the declaration of presumption of death and dissolution of marriage under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. The new procedure is intended to replace the present probate procedure for obtaining leave to swear death orders. The retention of other existing procedures will preserve flexibility, and will ensure that not everyone seeking to establish a presumed death is required to go to the High Court if there is a suitable alternative procedure. However, the Bill will require assumptions regarding the time and date of death under other procedures to adopt the same conventions as are specified for declarations made under the Bill. There are similar requirements in the Scottish and Northern Irish Acts,

Members have made numerous points today. I acknowledge the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about guardianship, and assure them that I will take those concerns into account in reaching a decision on whether—and, if so, how—to develop legislation on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) asked whether there had been a revocation in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland legislation came into force only in 2009 and, as far as I am aware, no declarations have been revoked. The hon. Member for Islington North also raised the issue of guidance. I can confirm that the Ministry of Justice acknowledges the role of good guidance, and that substantial work is being done in that respect.

By creating this procedure and process, the Bill will achieve the objective of recommendations made by the Justice Committee in its Twelfth Report of the previous Session. As a former member of the Committee—although I was not a member at the time when the report was produced—I am pleased to learn that its recommendations are being implemented. The Committee’s inquiry into the subject of presumption of death followed an extensive investigation earlier in the Session by the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults. I regret that I was unable to attend the round-table discussion organised by the APPG last week, but I am pleased to acknowledge the good work that both it and the charity Missing People have done to raise the profile of the difficulties faced by individuals and families when a person goes missing and does not return.

In their response to the Committee’s report, published in July 2012, the Government stated their intention to introduce

“legislation to create a certificate of presumed death…when Parliamentary time permits.”

If enacted, my hon. Friend’s Bill will achieve the same result as the Government’s intended Bill. I am pleased to confirm the Government’s support for it, and I wish it a swift and successful passage through the House.

With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker.

We have had a useful discussion of many of the issues raised in the Bill, and I am grateful for the contributions made by Members, particularly the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who referred to the Justice Committee’s report. I pay tribute to the Committee’s work in laying the foundations for the Bill; I also pay tribute to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who unfortunately could not be here today.

The provisions relating to guardianship are clearly the most contentious, but it would have been difficult to proceed with the Bill if we had included them. I hope that, in Committee, we shall have opportunities to consider how we can best establish a basis for progress in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) made a powerful speech in which he raised what is, essentially, the new issue of people who go missing abroad. That will need to be given special consideration in Committee: we shall need to think about what can be done to ensure that the families of such people are helped in the best possible way, hopefully by means of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) powerfully set out the challenges involved in having to go down seven different routes in order to tidy up the affairs of someone who has gone missing. That underscores why this Bill is necessary.

I am extremely grateful for the support I have received from both Front-Bench teams, and I hope we can move forward swiftly. As many Members have said, it must be almost intolerable to have to deal with both the trauma involved in handling the affairs of someone who has gone missing and the emotional strain of trying to come to terms with the loss when it is difficult to believe that that person is dead. This House can put in place legislation that would allow a presumption of death certificate to be granted, however, and thereby at least enable families to tackle the affairs of someone who has gone missing and therefore move on in at least one regard. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

Smoke-Free Private Vehicles Bill [Lords]

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the Bill has already been passed in the other place under the expert guidance of the Conservative peer, Lord Ribeiro, Members now have the opportunity to complete the process and put the Bill’s provisions into law after its Commons passage.

Some 15 months ago I was pleased to have the opportunity to present a ten-minute rule Bill that had cross-party support, but despite a positive vote on First Reading, it failed to gain a Second Reading because of lack of time. I was therefore delighted to see that Lord Ribeiro’s private Member’s Bill with almost identical provisions passed in the other place. I hope that Members will today follow the good example of the other place and act to protect our children from the harmful effects of smoke, by banning smoking in private vehicles.

I know from my meeting with the Health Minister, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), that her Department is committed to combating the harmful effects of smoking. While her Department is currently concentrating on other smoking-related areas, including the much-needed introduction of standard or so-called plain packaging, she understands why action on smoking in cars in which children are present is so important.

Opposition to this Bill is largely based on libertarian grounds. It is claimed that the motor car is a private space in which it would be wrong for the state to intrude. That ignores the myriad ways in which the state already intervenes. We are required to wear seat belts, abide by speed limits, stop at red lights, give way to pedestrians and not use our mobile phones while driving. More importantly, the libertarian argument assumes that the right to smoke trumps the right of the child to be free from harmful smoke. I have stressed in the past, and do so again today, that this is not just a health issue; it is a child protection issue, too.

I am amazed when I see a mother pick up her children—and also, perhaps, those of other families—in her car on what is called the mother’s run, and the first thing she does is smoke a cigarette even though there are perhaps four or five children in that car. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I do, and it frightens me that this is a greater problem in my constituency than it is in many other parts of the country.

Opponents of the Bill often argue that it is difficult to enforce this sort of law. That is undoubtedly true, but I again draw the parallel with seat belts, speed limits, red lights, “give way” signs and mobile phones. British people do generally obey the law, as compliance with the seat belt law demonstrates. The primary goal of legislation is to build awareness and social norms, and I remain confident that this law would become largely self-enforcing. Additionally, we already have laws banning smoking in vehicles carrying passengers in the course of paid or voluntary work. That provision covers buses, trains, planes and taxis.

Most people understand that cigarette smoke is harmful to children, and would not expose children to smoke in a vehicle. In a survey carried out by Ash, 10,000 adults, including over 2,000 smokers, were asked about the car they travel in most. Only 6% said that people should smoke whenever they like. Some 71% said that smoking should not be allowed at all in the car, and a further 9% said that smoking should not be allowed if there were non-smokers or children travelling. Few adults and only a minority of smokers would allow smoking in a car containing children. Given the significant health impact on children, who are unable to remove themselves from cars, I am sure that the Government would not want to dismiss calls for a ban as unworkable or impractical.

The Welsh Assembly Government have said that if the level of smoking in private vehicles does not drop dramatically in the next three years, they will consider legislating. We do not have the luxury of waiting three years to find out if something is damaging to children, we should do something to stop it now. The Northern Ireland Executive—

I am not going to give way, as I have very limited time.

The Northern Ireland Executive are also launching a public consultation on options on banning smoking in private vehicles in the coming weeks. I welcome campaigns that raise the profile of this issue, such as the Government’s recent two-month marketing campaign to reduce children’s exposure to second-hand smoke. It featured a television advert depicting a child’s exposure to smoke in a car and offered family smoke-free kits. That was a helpful step in addressing this issue. However, the evidence shows that educational campaigns are most effective when accompanied by legislation. Seat belt use shot up from 25% to 91% when legislation was introduced alongside an awareness campaign. Department of Health figures indicate 98% compliance from the moment of the introduction of smoke-free legislation. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee found that usually the most effective means of changing behaviours at a population level is to use a range of policy tools, both regulatory and non-regulatory.

This Bill is intended to raise awareness of the risks of smoking in cars where children are present and to drive home the message that we, as adults, are responsible for the safety and protection of our children. I hope to convince the House of the need for the Bill, and I will provide scientific evidence to support my case. When we see a room full of smoke, we recognise it as somewhere that we would rather not expose a child to. There is a misguided perception that driving in a car with the window open will not inflict exposure to tobacco smoke on a child, because the smoke appears to be filtering out—that simply is not the case. There is strong evidence that second-hand smoke enters the back of cars where children sit, and they do not have the option to leave the car.

Research from the university of Waterloo in Canada shows compelling evidence that, whatever measures are taken by a smoking driver, a child in the back seat of a car will be exposed to damaging second-hand smoke. The research showed that a single cigarette smoked in a car can provide levels of second-hand smoke that are a great deal higher than those in a smoke-filled pub. Measures such as turning on the air conditioning, or opening one window or more, did not prevent dangerous levels of exposure.

I have said that this is not just a health issue, but a child protection issue. Children are much more vulnerable to second-hand smoke: they are still physically developing; compared with adults, they breathe into smaller lungs more quickly; their absorption of pollutants is greater; and their less developed immunes systems make them prone to respiratory and ear infections. Research by the Royal College of Physicians shows that we are taking on 300,000 primary care consultations a year, 120,000 new cases of middle ear infections a year, 22,000 new cases of wheezing and asthma a year, 9,500 hospital admissions a year and 40 sudden deaths a year. Each case is linked to second- hand smoke. This costs money—£23 million of taxpayer money is spent each year. The Bill could reduce that cost dramatically through the ban, although of course I acknowledge that other smoky environments contribute to the numbers.

In 2010, an NHS Information Centre survey of nearly 800 children aged between 11 and 15 found that one in five children had been exposed to second-hand smoke in cars. A survey by the British Lung Foundation of more than 1,000 children aged eight to 15 found that only 31% of affected children thought it appropriate to ask the adults in question to stop smoking, while 34% were too embarrassed or frightened to ask.

There are international precedents for action. South Africa, Mauritius and Bahrain have all outlawed smoking in cars where a child is present, as have seven of the eight states or territories of Australia, nine of the 13 in Canada and four of the 50 states in the United States, although nine municipalities there have imposed a ban. It is time that we followed suit.

Public support is very much on the side of change, and the Government would do well to heed the strength of feeling on the issue across the country. British Lung Foundation research shows that 86% of children surveyed were in favour of banning smoking in cars when a child is present, and 86% of adult respondents to a Mumsnet survey were also in favour.

I know that I am rapidly running out of time, so I shall end my remarks to give the House an opportunity to make a determination on this matter.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 1 February 2013.

Business without Debate

transparency in uk company supply chains (eradication of slavery) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (19 October), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 18 January 2013.

bank of england (appointment of governor) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 July), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 18 January 2013.

Local services (planning) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Fire Services (London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joseph Johnson.)

There is a view that to serve as an officer in the fire brigade, one has to be good at taking risks. Nothing could be further from the truth. To serve as an officer in the fire brigade, one has to be good at assessing risks. It is for this reason that, when I heard of the £65 million cut that the Mayor has proposed to the budget of the London Fire Brigade, I sought the views of those best able to assess the risks that such a cut might involve: the officers themselves. I want to begin by thanking the crew at the Wembley fire and rescue station for the time they spent with me and Labour Assembly Member for Brent and Harrow, Navin Shah, earlier this week outlining the very real concerns that they and their colleagues have about the impact that such cuts will have on the service they provide and on public safety.

What do we know? Well, we know that there is a leaked hit list of 17 fire stations that have been earmarked for closure. In alphabetical order they are Acton, Bow, Belsize, Clapham, Clerkenwell, Downham, Islington, Kensington, Kingsland, Knightsbridge, New Cross, Peckham, Silvertown, Southwark, Westminster, Whitechapel and Woolwich. If these stations go, 17 appliances go with them, along with 600 firefighters.

After this hit list was leaked, the chairman of the London Fire Authority, James Cleverly, provided a further list of 28 fire stations that he said would definitely not be closed. These are Barking, Battersea, Croydon, Dagenham, Dockhead, East Ham, Edmonton, Hammersmith, Harold Hill, Harrow, Heston, Holloway, Kingston, Lambeth, Lewisham, Leytonstone, Millwall, Mitcham, Old Kent Road, Orpington, Paddington, Plaidstow, Purley, Shadwell, Stratford, Walthamstow, Wembley and West Norwood.

We also know that the 17 stations on their own could achieve only £30 million of savings and we can therefore deduce that on top of the 17 stations earmarked for closure, a further 68 out of the 113 stations in London have the threat of closure still hanging over them. This is unacceptable. I ask the Minister to recognise that such uncertainty is bad for these communities, and to urge the Mayor to announce his definitive plans as early as possible.

London Assembly members on the fire authority were originally set to debate the proposals at a meeting on 22 November, but the Mayor has now said that the authority should defer this until after the local government finance settlement is known on 20 December. This means that the Mayor will avoid any scrutiny and, in effect, bury the announcement in the Christmas holiday season so that no proper public debate can take place until after the middle of January, with the final decision being taken in March. I trust that the Minister will regard this as reprehensible and make the necessary representations to the Mayor’s office to ensure that such a cynical move is not carried out. The Mayor has a public face of bonhomie and charm, but Londoners will not be fooled by such manipulation to stifle debate about their safety.

As the 17-station hit list cannot deliver the totality of cuts that the Mayor has demanded, the LFB has outlined a preferred option that would see 30 stations and 30 appliances lost, along with 840 jobs, but even this would save only £45 million. To this must be added what the authority has identified as “back-office” savings of £14 million. These sound like bureaucracy savings that might be achievable without impacting on public safety, and I put this to the 30 or so officers whom I met. They pointed out that these back-office savings included a reduction in translation teams. For anyone who doubts the importance of that to a borough such as mine, let me point out that in Brent 130 different languages are spoken in our schools. Many residents are from refugee communities where parents and grandparents speak English poorly or not at all, and where cooking practices are widely different from those in the average English kitchen. The importance of translation teams in educating these communities about fire safety is absolutely fundamental. Good fire safety begins with fire protection. In Brent, and in many other London boroughs, the loss of so-called back-office functions will be even more dangerous than the proposed closure of fire stations. It is essential, therefore, that we know what equality impact assessment has been conducted into the proposed loss of translators as part of these cuts.

Another “back-office” function that faces closure is the local intervention fire education—LIFE—project. This project was pioneered in Brent, where youngsters with a history of arson offences were given a week’s intensive induction into the fire service. At the end of the week, they not only performed fire drills in front of their parents but had acquired a real understanding of the risks and dangers of fire. The project was a major success in two important ways. It turned around the lives of serial arsonists so that they no longer started fires, and it turned into friends youths who had previously thrown stones at fire crews when they attended fires. One particular estate in my constituency had been dreaded by fire crews because of the abuse that they used to endure from young people when they were attending incidents there. The LIFE project has completely turned that around.

When politicians are told by civil servants that it is possible to make back-office savings, we often breathe a sigh of relief and think, “Thank goodness it won’t hit front-line services.” The truth is that these proposed savings are every bit as damaging to the safety of the public and of fire officers themselves. They will result in many more incidents as translation teams are disbanded, fire safety education programmes in schools are cut, and innovative and effective prevention work such as the LIFE project is abandoned.

In my discussions with front-line firefighters this week, I was told that the loss of 17 stations and their crew, let alone 30, would in effect put crews on restricted attendance for approximately half the time. This means that instead of sending two appliances to an incident from the beginning, only one will be dispatched. They explained to me that the initial protocols and guidelines around an incident and the risk assessment that takes place will often mean that, under restricted attendance, crews have to wait for a back-up crew before they are able to take effective action.

Such delays result in not only greater economic loss before a fire can be brought under control, but in extreme cases, increased danger to firefighters themselves or even loss of life to the public when no entry control officer is present from the beginning of an incident. As one officer in charge put it to me, “The public need to know it is going to take us longer to pull them out of a burning building.” He thought for a moment, and then added, “And in a major city like London, that is just unacceptable.”

Another risk that the officers foresaw was an inability to respond to a combination of major incidents. They told me that last year the service had been stretched to breaking point when, during the London riots, it was called to a major incident at the Sony distribution building in Enfield. The Sony incident lasted for six days, with relief teams being called from south of the river. Instead of crews being relieved every three or four hours, they were forced to work seven-hour shifts and told that no relief was available. These firefighters are courageous individuals who are prepared to endure such gruelling conditions when they accept them as the result of exceptional circumstances, but they simply could not countenance what the impact on their own personal safety would be if such exceptional calls on their resource become commonplace as the result of the potential culling of up to 840 of their front-line colleagues and 30 appliances.

Another officer recalled this summer’s Dagenham fire, which coincided with the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. In this instance, there was restricted attendance on what became a 40-pump fire. It is not just unreasonable but unsafe to expect our firefighters to work routinely under such conditions.

The concurrence of major incidents puts extraordinary pressure on the fire brigades. One of the key ways of relieving that pressure at present is through reciprocal arrangements and protocols of cross-border support, whereby teams from other authorities in the home counties come to support London crews and London crews go to the surrounding shire counties—even as far afield as Buncefield when required—for such emergency incidents. Officers are concerned that the loss of personnel in London and a corresponding loss of capacity in surrounding services will reduce the capacity of brigades to offer such cross-border support in the future. The public need to be aware that the Fire Brigades Union has already lost 1,500 officers since 2010. We must be clear that these cuts really will endanger both public and crew.

In his usual cavalier fashion, the Mayor has said that response targets will be maintained regardless of any cuts. The targets currently stand at six minutes for the arrival of the first engine and eight for the second. I note in passing that the target prior to 2008 was that the first engine should arrive within five minutes. The FBU regional secretary, Paul Embery, spoke with me yesterday, and told me of his concern that the computer modelling used to justify the Mayor’s statement is flawed. The FBU has asked that the system be independently audited to ascertain whether the targets could still be met under a cuts scenario, but this eminently reasonable request has been denied. Will the Minister speak to the Mayor’s office to ensure that the computer modelling system that the authority has used is independently audited, so that public confidence can be maintained in the process? The FBU has every right to be suspicious that response times will not be maintained, because it is already the case in four London boroughs that the brigade does not meet these response targets.

I have no doubt that the Minister’s officials will have armed him with statistics that show that the number of fire incidents to which the London Fire Brigade is called is at its lowest level since records began in 1966. He may be tempted to respond that last year, London recorded 26,845 fires, whereas 10 years before, in 2001, there were 55,063. That is a drop from an average of 150 fires to just 74 fires each day—a reduction of just over 50%.

The Minister’s officials may have encouraged him to conclude that a smaller number of fires requires a smaller number of appliances and firefighters. May I counsel him that that would be a foolish conclusion to draw? It would ignore the fact that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 broadened the remit of the service substantially. It placed more obligation on local brigades to focus resources on fire safety work as well as the traditional intervention work. Today’s firefighters are out and about in the local community giving talks in old people’s homes, fitting smoke alarms and taking part in youth engagement schemes in a way that they were not previously. That is precisely what accounts for the drop in incidents and call-outs in the past decade, and it cannot be used as a justification for depleting the service now.

The cuts to the force will put increasing pressure on crews and create a vicious cycle. Either less time will be spent on training, in which case lives will be put at risk, or less time will be spent on preventive community work, in which case the number of fires will rise and, again, lives will be put at risk.

Society has rightly become much more keenly aware of the duty that we have to those in our armed forces who put themselves in harm’s way for our safety. I regret that we have not yet recognised with equal force the obligation that we have to the men and women of our fire and rescue service, who daily expose themselves to danger and put their lives on the line to protect us. Nobody in the Chamber today would doubt that we owe them an enormous debt of thanks. I hope the Minister will agree that it is a debt that is ill repaid by a budget cut of £65 million.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing this important debate.

The London fire service has been protecting and serving Londoners for almost 150 years, but the Government’s decision to cut the fire service budget by 25% is putting it under enormous strain. As my hon. Friend said, the London Mayor’s reported plans for implementing the cuts could lead to 17 fire stations across London being forced to close and hundreds of firefighters and other staff losing their jobs.

I wish to focus on the impact of the proposals on my constituency. We are currently served by three fire stations, in Bow, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, and I echo my hon. Friend’s comments about the enormous gratitude we owe the firemen and women who protect us. We must do everything we can to ensure that they are supported in their very difficult job.

In Tower Hamlets, the fire brigade attended nearly 6,000 call-outs in 2011-12 alone. Its front-line service is vital for keeping the community safe, but the Mayor’s proposals to cut our local fire brigade would represent the deepest cut to a borough’s fire service in the whole of London, leaving us with nearly 100 fewer staff, four fewer appliances and only one remaining fire station in my constituency. That seems outrageous considering that Tower Hamlets had by far the greatest number of fire incidents in London last year.

The loss of vital front-line services would have a severe impact on the speed with which crews can attend fires in my constituency and across the borough. It would also dramatically reduce the fire service’s ability to engage in important community safety and fire prevention work. I am shocked at the apparent willingness of the Government and the London Mayor to take such risks with the safety of my constituents and residents in other parts of the borough and across London.

Densely populated constituencies such as mine are always likely to experience higher rates of call-outs and fire-related incidents. Last year there were 308 fires in people’s homes in Tower Hamlets, 35% higher than the fire brigade had hoped. How can the Minister support a Mayor whose decision to cut fire services so drastically, not only in Tower Hamlets but across London, is bound to put lives at risk? Some 33 London Labour MPs have written to Boris Johnson expressing our deep concern about the risk to the safety of our constituents should the cuts go ahead. Will the Minister write to us and explain how the Government will ensure that lives will not be put at risk as a result of these irresponsible proposals?

The Mayor and the Conservative chair of the fire authority deny that a list of specific closures has been drawn up, and refuse to clarify details of what exactly will be cut. They are not being straight with Londoners, and London Labour MPs call on them to hold an honest and open discussion with Londoners on the future of our vital front-line services. I imagine that the same concerns apply to colleagues in other parties where fire services are at risk. The Government must also take their share of the responsibility. By slashing 25% of the fire budget they are forcing the fire service in London to cut this year’s budget by £29.5 million, and by £35.5 million next year.

In conclusion, Tower Hamlets has the highest rates of fire call-out in the whole of London, yet Boris Johnson thinks that stripping our borough of one third of its fire stations is a sensible idea. Does the Minister agree that those cuts are irresponsible and will unnecessarily put safety and lives at risk? The Opposition call on the Mayor of London to reverse those plans, as nothing is more important to protect lives in London and ensure that our fire service men and women do their jobs to the best of their ability and with proper support.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing this important debate and on speaking with a characteristic and heartfelt sense of why this issue is important and of the role of individual fire officers and services. Both he and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) alluded to the fact that fire and rescue services in London is a devolved matter. I am sure that the Mayor will take great interest in the issues raised in this debate, although I strongly reject the idea that there is a cynical or underhand approach to the way he deals with this issue. I was sorry that the hon. Lady started to turn this into a partisan debate, which it should not be, and we must look at these matters on behalf of all our constituents. Before responding to the specific issues raised, I wish to commend—as did the hon. Member for Brent North—the remarkable courage and bravery of the men and women who serve in the fire service in London and in my area of Hertfordshire. I met some of those people recently.

A number of issues have been raised, and I would like to look at the context of this debate and at the welcome reduction in incidents of fire. I will respond to the point about funding streams and answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions on how we can best secure a more effective and efficient service.

Thankfully, the context of this debate is one in which the number of injuries and fatalities is falling. That is due in part to the efforts of fire and rescue authorities, the impact of the Fire Kills campaign, and changes in modern technology. The past 10 years have seen a fall in the number of accidental fire deaths of 40% nationally. Ten years ago there were 310 accidental fire deaths in the home, but latest statistics show there were 187 fatalities in 2011-12. Numbers of non-fatal casualties in accidental fires in the home are also decreasing. In 2011-12 there were 6,335 non-fatal casualties, compared with 9,278 in 2001-02—a reduction of 30%. Those statistics are reflected in London where the number of accidental fire deaths in homes has fallen by 45% in the past 10 years, and attendance at incidents has reduced by 38%. Clearly, any deaths are to be regretted, but hon. Members across the House will accept that those figures are significantly better, and that they must have a substantial effect on the nature of the fire and rescue services that we need now and in the future. The financial context is that the Government inherited a record deficit from the previous Administration. To date, we have been able to cut that deficit by a quarter. That is an important part of the context of the debate.

Every bit of the public sector needs to play its part, but the Government recognise that fire and rescue is a front-line emergency service. That is why we have sought to give funding protection when we have been able to do so. For example, reductions have been back-loaded to give more time for long-term savings to minimise the impact on the quality and breadth of the service.

In the context of London, it is worth bearing in mind that the reductions applied to the fire and rescue services have been less than those applied to local government as a whole. London fire service has had its formula grant reduced by 3.3% in 2011-12, but the Greater London authority has had a reduction of 4.9%. This year, London fire has had a small increase of 0.2% compared with a GLA formula grant reduction of 5.9%.

Clearly, operational matters such as the deployment of firefighters should and must be determined at local level, and it is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational activity of its fire and rescue service. It does so through an integrated risk management plan, and it must do so in consultation with the local community.

The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the question of fire stations. I am very much aware that there is speculation about fire station closures. The Fire Brigades Union has, I believe, named 17 stations that it believes are earmarked for closure. As an experienced parliamentarian, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment directly on speculation, and that fire station closures are rightly a matter for the Mayor of London, but I can advise hon. Members that any significant changes to the integrated risk management plan, such as closures, are subject to public consultation. That means that people will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Will the Minister assure me that he will make representations to the Mayor that the computer modelling system that is being used should be independently audited? That would do a great deal to enhance public confidence in the proposals.

That is a slightly different matter from stations, and I will come to it in a moment.

I was talking about the speculation about the fire station closures. It is worth bearing it in mind that the London Fire Brigade has stated that it plans to build nine new fire stations—Dagenham, Leytonstone, Plaistow, Old Kent road and so on. Eight are being completely rebuilt on the existing sites, but one will be on a new site. It is important to bear it in mind that this is not simply a matter of closures, but a matter of deployment. That is an important local issue, and Ministers should not seek to overrule.

Let me turn to the future, which is an important part of the question. We have looked at how the grant system works, but the hon. Gentleman highlighted the new functions that the 2004 Act brought into play. It is important to bear in mind the balance of the debate. There are other funding streams. Funding for the new dimension capability, which addresses a number of the activities to which he referred, has increased by £9 million in two-year period from 2011 to 2013. That deals with some of the additional functions to which he referred, such as urban search and rescue, and the new operations of high-volume pumps. The Government have always had the stance that, should more be required, we will treat it as a new burden. That is an important point to bear in mind.

Given the time, I want to draw my remarks to a brief conclusion. It is true that funding reductions have been made to London’s fire services, but it is important that we see them in the context of a significant fall in fire deaths and casualties. In other words, demands on fire services are changing. That is why we believe that London’s fire service needs to respond. Although this is a devolved matter for the Mayor and local management, the Government are ready to help the service to manage change—I mentioned funding streams in that context. The very fact that the Government are providing those funding streams, and responding to the changes and challenges that face the brave men and women to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, are testimony to the constructive approach that we intend to take.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.