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Antarctic: Tourist Ships

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government whether the passenger safety and environmental protection regulations covering tourist ships in Antarctic waters are satisfactory.

The noble Viscount said: As I have no right of reply, perhaps I may say that I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who are taking part in the debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for agreeing to answer the debate on behalf of the Department for Transport, which is what it is really all about.

On 15 January last year, in the short debate on the International Polar Year 2007-08, I drew attention to the increase of shipping during the Antarctic summer tourist season, and the risk of accidents. Sadly, this was all too prescient as within a month, the MS “Nordkapp” ran aground, sustaining a big gash in her bow. But worse was to come. In November last year, the Liberian registered ship “Explorer” hit an iceberg and sank. The crew and passengers were all evacuated to lifeboats, but they were open lifeboats. Very fortunately, the sea was calm and they were all picked up several hours later. If the weather conditions had been less favourable—high seas are quite frequent in that part of the world—they would have survived only a few minutes in the sub-zero water, thereby causing a major marine catastrophe.

So that is what this short debate is all about, and we need to know from the Government what measures are being taken to ensure that there are adequate controls on the number and quality of the tourist ships visiting Antarctica. Obviously, the British Government do not control this matter, but we are important members of the International Maritime Organisation, located in London, and great supporters of the British Antarctic Survey located in Cambridge. The issue was raised by the UK at the Antarctic treaty consultative meeting in Delhi last year, and I hope that it will be raised again at the Kiev meeting in June.

A free, specialised sat-nav service is currently available, which gives high-resolution sea ice and iceberg information. I do not know whether “Explorer” had this system—if it had, of course it would not have sunk. British input is via the British Antarctic Survey, but the funding comes from the European Space Agency. This means that we have to deal with the Brussels bureaucracy, which is complicated and lethargic. Clearly, it would be advantageous if this vital sat-nav service was made mandatory and provided free. Can the Minister press the European Space Agency for this to happen? Clearly, it would be a great advantage.

We also need to be concerned about the large number of British citizens cruising in ever-increasing numbers of ever-larger vessels in a fragile and often hostile area of great natural beauty. This has both environmental and safety implications. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators provides a self-regulating framework and manages the traffic, but I do not think that it has the power to limit the size or numbers of vessels. Is this really adequate in the light of what happened last season?

Other questions that need to be answered were raised at the last IMO marine environment protection meeting. They include: should ships burning heavy fuel oil be banned? Clearly, it would be very damaging if leaks occurred. Should ships without ice-strengthened hulls be banned? Are crew training standards adequate? Clearly, the UK cannot issue mandatory instructions to foreign-flagged vessels in international waters. The IMO is the only body that can impose international standards covering equipment and procedures. I understand that an IMO sub-committee has been appointed to consider design and equipment in ice-covered waters but that it is not expected to report until some time next year, by which time another Antarctic tourist season will have passed. Can anything be done to speed up these proceedings?

I appreciate that I have posed a great number of questions for the Minister with whom I discussed this issue in advance, but they are mainly to be followed up by his department, although anything he can say today will be very much appreciated and will help the cause forward.

I thank my noble friend Lord Montgomery for raising this important topic which has been focused by recent events in the Antarctic, as he said.

In some ways, this is not purely an Antarctic problem. There have been a number of instances up in the Arctic as well, especially in the Spitsbergen area. We do not need to go back to the 1930s when the Germans took an interest in cruising in those waters. Indeed, a large German company lost a ship in the 1930s. Therefore, we are not dealing with anything new here. However, as my noble friend said, the real change is the enormous increase in cruise tourism, certainly within the past 15 or 20 years. I did a cruise up in the Spitsbergen area and I am well aware of the difficulties that can arise for people who are not wary of what might happen. In fact, there was an incident only last year where a small Russian ship got too close to a calving glacier, a large portion came tumbling down and the resulting wave injured a number of passengers on board that vessel.

One of the tour guides on my cruise was a great expert on wildlife and ice and had spent many years down in Antarctica on the “Explorer” under her former name the “Lindblad Explorer”. As he was coming away from Antarctica on a small Russian ship, they came across a single pillar of ice standing up out of the ocean, which I think he said was 300 to 400 feet high. They stood off this ice, luckily not too close, because as they looked at it, the thing collapsed. He had some of the most amazing photographs I have ever seen showing this huge finger of ice crashing down to the sea, causing enormous waves. Even standing some way off, the ship was rolled severely backwards and forwards by the backwash, so all sorts of hazards can arise.

I wish to comment briefly on environmental issues. Huge concern was expressed in Antarctica in the early days when larger cruise ships started calling there, mainly expressing anxiety that too many people were going ashore. It was thought that they might damage the fragile environment. Measures have been taken to try to limit the number of passengers going ashore at any one time. However, it was pointed out at the time that the damage done by cruise ship passengers was not as great as that done by scientists and researchers who spend years down there, because things do not degrade in those low temperatures and the detritus—if one might call it that—from Captain Scott’s expeditions is still sitting there untouched. Things hang around for a very long time.

My noble friend Lord Montgomery mentioned the recent incidents. There is one other concern with regard to Antarctica, which was brought to light when the captain of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship HMS “Endurance” gave a talk to the Parliamentary Maritime Group two or three years ago. He showed us some fascinating underwater pictures taken by the new side-scanning sonar. Developments such as that are making a big difference to what we know about the underwater profile down there. He still thinks that lack of good charting in that part of the world is one of the major risks. No doubt as more and more research ships go down there—I believe that the Norwegians have just ordered a very sophisticated new ship to look at Arctic and Antarctic waters—they will help us to have a lot more knowledge about the seabed configuration.

The cruise ships tend to go to the same anchorages all the time. They tend to get very familiar with them. When the ship is anchored there, they will put down crew in small boats and make their own soundings, so they produce what are termed mug shots, so they are pretty well aware of what goes on where they anchor; it is only when they are transiting towards the open sea that the real danger occurs.

My noble friend Lord Montgomery also mentioned that larger and larger ships are becoming involved. Princess Cruises has sent two 100,000-tonne ships down to Antarctica in the past two or three years. Those ships can carry up to 3,500 passengers and burn heavy fuel, as my noble friend rightly said, whereas smaller ships, such as the one that sank recently, run on diesel oil, which is much thinner. In the case of the “Nordkapp”, the Norwegian ship, where some fuel was spilt when they were shifting it from tank to tank, it evaporated very quickly and no adverse results were found when the area was looked at a little while later.

The other thing that I would say in support of large ships is that, as the Committee may imagine, they cost a huge amount of money, so it is in the cruise company’s interest to ensure that nothing adverse happens to them. Also, because of their size, they are much more compartmented than smaller ships, so hitting a small iceberg would not necessarily have the same effect as what happened to the “Explorer”. As far as I know, that has not really been explained. There was talk of a fist-sized hole, and I am still rather surprised that a fist-sized hole managed effectively to capsize a ship so quickly, but as she is lying quite a few thousand feet under the sea, I do not suppose that we will ever find out.

Finally, I come to the situation with the International Maritime Organisation, to which, again, my noble friend alluded. The IMO is responsible for international maritime safety regulations, as I am sure that the Minister is only too well aware. I understand that it has undertaken to rewrite, not just amend, the guidelines for operation in the Arctic and Antarctic waters; I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. Also, a correspondence group has been set up, with Canada acting as co-ordinator. That group will report in time for the IMO working group discussion early next year. It is hoped that life-saving equipment, search and rescue planning and response and other issues will be fully addressed.

In their own best interests, cruise companies operate within well established safety management systems as required by the IMO. In addition, as we heard, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has set up emergency contingency plans and recommendations that include participation in a database that details the position of ships and includes a list of emergency equipment available on board, agreement to assist any other vessel in the event of an emergency and is looking into carrying ice pilots. Another development that cruise companies are actively instigating concerns their planning for going down Antarctic waters. They look at pairing ships so that there is a buddy ship in the area capable of taking off the crew of another craft if there is a major incident. That is a useful step forward.

These developments are usually brought upon us by disasters, but unfortunately one cannot always act as quickly as one would like. Although the machinations of the International Maritime Organisation may seem to be a little slow, I think that that is the correct way of dealing with these matters, and I can only say that I hope that we will not suffer another, and possibly worse, incident in the mean time.

I, too, congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, on introducing this debate. I will keep away from the environmental issues, which are quite serious. Although it is unclear whether the science all points in one direction, we should be very cautious about causing further depredations in the Antarctic area. The need for safety and training has been emphasised. Oddly enough, when I was putting my contribution together, the person who helps me in the Whips’ Office said that a friend of theirs was actually on the ship that rescued the people who were cast into the sea when the “Explorer” sank. That incident resulted in a considerable interruption to their cruise as well, in that they were kept in their cabins for three days and all their food was brought to them—presumably so that the two groups of people could be kept apart, I do not know. It is important that people who go into these somewhat uncertain waters are properly trained and that a sufficient number can speak a language which is easily understood. If there is an emergency, having people who do not even speak the same language is worrying.

I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, say that the IMO is doing all sorts of things to avoid risks to tourist ships, and I certainly accept that if people are sending large ships to Antarctica, it is in their own interests to ensure that they are properly prepared for anything they might meet. Tourism is increasing in many fragile parts of the world. Something that the IMO and others ought to take up is the fact that as far as possible, they should ensure that they consume their own smoke, that they should not dump waste, and that they do not interfere any more than necessary with the environment. We must not make things worse.

What I would particularly like to hear from the Minister when he winds up the debate is whether the Government have any intention of reducing the personnel strength or the equipment at the disposal of the British Antarctic Survey. The survey makes a valuable contribution to science, one that we would not wish to lose. In fact, it conducts a lot of vital research. I have been reading about some of its work, and while it does not say that this or that will happen, it does say that we should be careful about this or that and stresses the need for the scientific measurement of what is actually going on. There appear to be quite a few possibly alarmist stories, so we need the facts. If, in his summary, the Minister is able to say something about the funding of the British Antarctic Survey, that would help a lot.

I am very grateful to the noble Viscount for asking this Question for Short Debate. The nautical experience of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, is unrivalled, and he has not disappointed us today. Before doing any research, I was quite relaxed about this subject, and I thought that I had a grasp of the issue. I assure noble Lords that I am no longer at all relaxed. This is a new topic for me, but I will be following it up in future months. The noble Viscount has done an excellent job in posing the Question, and I will not repeat all his work. While the environmental concerns must not be ignored—they are real concerns—I will confine my remarks to maritime safety.

In January 1975, the motorship “Lovat” sank in a force 8 to 9 gale. The 13-man crew took to the life raft at 06.30 hours. By 07.45, they had been seen by a cross-channel ferry. By 08.00, they had the first helicopter support on scene, and by 08.30, only two hours later, 10 of the 13 crew members had died from hypothermia or drowning. That happened 29 kilometres south-west of Land’s End.

The reason they died was, despite being commercial seamen, they had not been properly trained and they did not understand the need to conserve body heat, keep the covering of the life raft shut and keep bailing water out. All of that is very difficult to do in a storm. I am not convinced that passengers on cruise ships are anywhere near well enough trained to survive in similar circumstances, let alone far more difficult circumstances in the Southern Ocean or Antarctica. Of course in an evacuation the aim would be to have at least one crewman in each life raft, but would he be an officer or a senior rate? Leadership in a survival situation—which is what it would be—is absolutely vital.

If a human is immersed in seawater at anywhere near freezing point, his survival time is measured in minutes. It is minutes in the water, and it is hours in the life raft, unless you have done everything absolutely correctly. Other noble Lords have correctly identified risks arising from the remoteness and the merciless environment. In one of those disasters in the Southern Ocean, you could easily have to wait 24 hours or more for a rescue ship to arrive. There is virtually no chance of a suitable rescue helicopter—there may be a small utility helicopter—being available, because it is far out of range, and the ships in the area would not be equipped to support the helicopters. It would be extremely difficult, slow and distressing to rescue hundreds, or maybe thousands, of passengers directly from the sea to a ship in the Southern Ocean. In a storm, it does not bear thinking about. A significant proportion of cruise passengers are senior citizens, because that is when people can afford to go on a cruise, or they may be other than fully able bodied. Can the Minister say whether it is legal for a cruise company offering an Antarctic cruise to discriminate on the grounds of disability?

In his reply, the Minister will say that the ships are first class, the crew are specially trained, they have special equipment, they have an Antarctic pilot, and the increase in the number of ships in the area will speed up a rescue if the worst happens. To an extent, all of that is true; but undoubtedly there is an increased risk of this problem occurring.

In his reply, the Minister will tell us that the situation is not out of control and that unreasonable risks are not being taken. He will tell us about the 102 operators in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, covered so well in his speech. But not all operators have signed up and the ones who are not signed up will be the ones who are not operating to the highest possible standards. In any case, accidents are notoriously difficult completely to eliminate, no matter how big the ship is. Of course, the Minister will not point out that the IMO has some serious problems. Influence within the IMO lies with Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas, and their interests are not absolutely coincident with ours in this matter. It is well known that it is extremely difficult to get safety changes implemented.

I am concerned that life-saving equipment may not be tested under realistic conditions. How is life-saving equipment—life rafts and lifebelts—being tested? Are we using professional divers in a swimming pool at UK ambient temperatures, rather than using lay people in a defined sea state and temperature? I have been briefed that one’s hands become as lumps of rubber and totally numb after only a few minutes when wet at near-zero or subzero temperatures.

I am not qualified to state the probability of having to disembark a ship in the Atlantic or the Southern Ocean, but in my opinion the risk is increasing. Although the problem may be low risk, the impact of such an incident will be absolutely devastating. The international media will be there immediately. As we know, successful rescue could be extremely difficult and slow unless we are, as we have been, very lucky with the weather. It could take at least 24 hours to get a suitable rescue ship on the scene, so I hope that the Minister has a media plan for dealing with that, because the UK Government, despite all our capabilities nationally, will be powerless to do anything about it.

What should the Minister do? His problem is that shipping is an international activity, with freedom of the seas an underlying principle. As other noble Lords have pointed out, regulation has to be on an international basis, but the mechanism at the IMO may be flawed. The Minister also knows that national regulation would simply make UK operators uneconomic—a point also made by noble Lords this afternoon. The underlying problem for transport Ministers is how the UN as a whole works. I think that that is slightly above their pay grade but also, I suspect, not a priority for the Prime Minister. My fear is that, one day, it suddenly will be the number one priority for the Prime Minister.

I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for initiating this debate. He is very knowledgeable on the subject and has a track record and history of taking legislation through your Lordships' House on issues relating to the Antarctic, and a strong personal interest in issues relating to Antarctic exploration and travel to it. As he reminded us, last year he initiated a debate on the subject—and prescient that debate was. Recent events have made another opportunity to discuss Antarctic matters very timely, with the issue of passenger safety and the need to protect the marine environment coming very much to the fore.

This afternoon, in this very short but important discussion, we have had some valuable and timely additions to the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, who is a great marine expert and who commands tremendous respect on this subject. I confess that this issue is not one on which I have a ready knowledge, nor can I claim any depth of knowledge, but it has been fascinating to work through the briefing material and talk to officials and the noble Viscount. I have learnt something from this and I am extraordinarily grateful to all who have helped me. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. I shall try to deal with as many of the points that have been raised as I possibly can. We have the benefit of some time.

The Antarctic is a place of great beauty and wonder—a pristine environment like no other on earth. It is a truism to say that it is an area of global significance due to its profound impact on the world’s climate and ocean systems. With climate change being very much to the fore of our thinking, that significance and its importance are increasing. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, drew attention to that in his concluding comments. It is not going to be far away from our thinking. The land mass occupies something like a tenth of the overall land mass of the globe and has a profound effect on the environment.

The area is attracting an increasing number of tourists, and a number of noble Lords drew attention to that. That brings its own set of challenges. The world cruise industry is undergoing a strong renaissance. A record 4 million Europeans took a cruise last year, of which 1.3 million passengers came from the United Kingdom. That shows just how much we love to travel. Compare that with other nation states, and the figures are very different. Perhaps we are a curious nation.

Not long ago I took a taxi to my railway station. I said to the driver that I had not seen him for a while and he told me “I’ve been very busy”. I asked, “Have you been travelling?”. He said, “Yes, I have been travelling and have recently been to the Antarctic”. I would wager that a generation ago, very few taxi drivers would even have contemplated a trip to the Antarctic and certainly they would not have set their meter running to get there. I was struck by that. It is symptomatic of the way that tourism and cruise tourism is developing.

The rate of growth is currently 17 per cent per annum. Cruising is a success story and the United Kingdom industry and our citizens are benefiting significantly from the opportunities afforded by this growth. It is a benign growth but one with challenges. It is benign because it extends and raises our interest levels and awareness of the wider world and globalisation. The Antarctic region is also becoming a destination of choice for many cruise ship operators. Until recently, few people other than scientists and explorers—certainly not taxi drivers—had ever visited Antarctica. In the past few years, however, the region, particularly the Antarctic Peninsula, has become a common destination on many cruise itineraries.

As concerns about climate change increase, the growth in the number of people seeing for themselves this vital region of the globe is not altogether a bad thing, given that it helps to spread the knowledge about this area and its contribution as a pivotal component of the earth’s ecosystem. The UK recognises tourism as a legitimate activity under the Antarctic Treaty and we support the self-regulatory framework established by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Nevertheless, we are concerned to ensure that there is proper management of the tourism industry in the Antarctic and to set strict environmental guidelines. We are also concerned to ensure that tourism to the Antarctic is carefully planned and monitored to ensure the safety of those involved as well as to minimise the environmental impact of their activities.

The arrival of more cruise ships in Antarctic waters, some of which are very large indeed, poses certain risks, which were demonstrated by the sinking of the MS “Explorer” near the South Shetland Islands last November and referred to by noble Lords this afternoon. Fortunately, that marine casualty did not lead to any loss of life among the 154 passengers and crew on board at the time of the accident, nor did it have a major environmental impact. But there is, of course, no room for complacency, since there were a number of fortunate factors involved in that incident.

Governments are aware of the potential difficulties arising from operating cruise ships in Antarctic waters, and consideration will be given to how we can learn from the lessons of the MS “Explorer” when the results of the accident investigation are known. As noble Lords have rightly said, this is a matter for the International Maritime Organisation to take the lead on in due course. The Antarctic treaty parties have asked the IMO to consider guidelines for Antarctic shipping, which would be based on the existing Arctic Shipping Guidelines. The current guidelines include provisions on ship suitability and emergency equipment, to take up the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. That has to include a requirement that all lifeboats carried by polar class ships should be of the fully enclosed type, to provide adequate shelter from the environment. The United Kingdom has been pressing for the guidelines to also apply to the Antarctic, and the IMO has indicated its intention to consider amending the current Arctic guidelines for use in both Arctic and Antarctic waters.

Safeguards are already in place. The Antarctic treaty’s protocol on environmental protection of 1991, which has been implemented domestically through the Antarctic Act 1994, requires all activities in Antarctica to be planned to minimise the environmental impact. In addition, the UK has also implemented an agreement of the Antarctic treaty parties in 2004 that all tourism activities in that region must be able to demonstrate self-sufficient search-and-rescue and contingency plans.

All treaty-flagged or registered vessels entering Antarctica must have either a permit or licence to do so from one of the contracting parties to the Antarctic treaty. The United Kingdom is one of those parties, and the FCO issues permits, under the Antarctic Act 1994, following a checklist of relevant requirements. In addition, only ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers are allowed to disembark their passengers on Antarctica.

Hydrographic survey work and chart production also make an essential contribution to maritime safety. The United Kingdom continues to make a significant contribution, and the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, supported by HMS “Endurance”, is the most active player in the production of Antarctic hydrographic charts.

Most vessels visiting the Antarctic region are not UK-registered, and therefore we have no statutory obligation to them. There are also a number of UK-based operators which operate ships in the area but choose to register their vessels outside the UK. Whatever the registration of the vessel concerned, they are good ship owners with a strong safety culture behind them. Corporate social responsibility is also a key component in improving the social, economic and environmental standards of shipping. That means doing more than the bare minimum needed to comply with legal requirements. After all, better crew standards lead to safer ships, safer ships lead to fewer accidents, and fewer accidents mean less cost and less damage to the environment.

The requirements for ships operating in Antarctica are underpinned by the Safety of Life at Sea Convention—or SOLAS, as it is more commonly called—the International Safety Management Code and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which is commonly known as MARPOL. They are global safety requirements which are kept under constant review.

The stringent SOLAS requirements require the subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments, bilge-pumping arrangements and stability requirements to enable the ship to withstand significant accident damage. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, knows better than I, the degree of subdivision varies with the ship's length. Therefore, in this instance we can be enthusiastic about larger ships. There are also requirements covering machinery and electrical installations to ensure that services which are essential for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew are maintained under various emergency conditions.

SOLAS also details requirements for life-saving appliances such as lifeboats, rescue boats and lifejackets according to the type of ship. These provisions are supplemented by the International Life-Saving Appliance Code which provides specific technical requirements for life-saving appliances.

The International Safety Management Code also requires, for example, that ship operators have procedures to ensure the safe operation of ships and protection of the environment in compliance with relevant international legislation and to have procedures to respond to emergency situations.

Noble Lords mentioned that the increase in the number of vessels operating in Antarctica poses a risk to the marine environment. Safety and protecting the marine environment go hand in hand. By enhancing the safety of the passengers and crew, the marine environment is also being protected. Governments recognise, however, the need to protect the marine environment in such an important region. Ships operating in Antarctica must also comply with the relevant provisions of MARPOL. This is the main international instrument aimed at preventing ship-source pollution. The seas and coasts of Antarctica benefit, like all other seas and coasts around the world, from the protection afforded by the MARPOL provisions, and as Antarctica is designated as a special area for the purposes of the MARPOL provisions regulating discharges of oil, noxious liquid substances and garbage, the relevant standards are even more stringent for ships operating in these waters.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said, passenger ships mainly use heavy grade oil for their propulsion. However, heavy grade oil is a highly polluting substance and can pose severe problems when spilled in icy conditions. Noble Lords will no doubt be pleased to learn that in response to the increasing number of passenger ships entering Antarctic waters and in recognition of the threat which heavy grade oil poses to the pristine Antarctic environment, work has been initiated in the IMO to develop a measure which will very substantially restrict the use and carriage of heavy grade oil in the Antarctic region.

The IMO’s Sub-Committee on Bulk Liquids and Gases discussed the issue in some detail when it met in February 2008, and it is expected that this subject will be a high priority work programme at future sessions of the sub-committee. But ships can damage the environment in other ways which are much less obvious than a heavy oil spill. The United Kingdom is leading the development of the interim Ballast Water Regional Management Plan for Antarctica so as to meet the requirements of Annex II to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which deals with the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora, and requires precautions to be taken to prevent the introduction of non-native species to the Antarctic treaty area, such as the marine organisms that may be found in the ballast water taken on board vessels to ensure stability. Such non-native species may cause serious ecological impacts if let out of a vessel with the discharge of ballast water into a different environment.

Of course, we need to ensure that both these environmental protection initiatives achieve their objectives. This brings me to the provisions of Annexe VI of the 1991 Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. This annex concerns the setting up of a liability regime for environmental emergencies which will impose strict liability for the costs of environmental damage following an accident in Antarctica. The liability regime will be covered by a system of compulsory insurance and the establishment of a fund to provide compensation. At present, only two of the 28 states required for entry into force have ratified the annexe. While this is disappointing, the United Kingdom Government are keen to progress our ratification of the annex and we fully intend to introduce the necessary legislative proposal as soon as parliamentary time permits.

The measures in place are satisfactory to help ensure maritime safety and protect the environment, but we are not complacent, which is why we continue to play a leading role in seeking to strengthen the existing international arrangements.

Questions were raised, many of which I think I have probably answered. The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, asked how we might control cruise ships. We take the view that a simple ban is not realistic. Such bans would need global rather than individual action, and it is fair to say that there would be little likelihood that all Governments would agree. We think that the best approach is to continue to develop and raise global shipping standards more generally. We as a nation can be proud of the role that we have played, particularly through the IMO in advancing this.

The noble Viscount also talked about the size of vessels entering Antarctic waters. I referred to that. We recognise that the size of vessels entering Antarctic waters needs to be considered some more. Larger vessels, as I pointed out, tend to be newer. They are also built to a higher specification, with superior safety standards as compared with some of the smaller vessels. We must take a balanced view. There are protections through having larger vessels, but the potential for adverse environmental impacts is greater. We therefore need experts to consider this issue carefully and keep it very much under review.

The noble Viscount also referred to sat-nav. We see immediate benefits to this. The IMO is instituting a system of long-range identification and tracking of vessels. This system, coupled with the use of GPS, will assist in the monitoring of vessels in the region. That is very much to be encouraged, and we as a Government are trying to play our part in moving the IMO along in that general direction.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, mentioned the rewriting of the Arctic and Antarctic guidelines and the pairing of cruise ships. That is a very important issue. I can confirm simply that the IMO is looking at the existing guidance. We do not quite know what the outcome of those investigations will be, but work is being pursued. The idea of pairing cruise ships to heighten safety is transparently a sensible notion that I understand is under active consideration.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, talked about training. He drew attention to the tragic incident off Land’s End, and expressed a lack of confidence that training issues were being taken seriously. We do take those issues very seriously. In the guidelines that are issued to those who promulgate cruises in the area, that issue must be addressed by organisers and operators. Specific reference was made to the number of qualified crew, accompanying guides and expedition staff, who must be fully apprised.

What about the training of the passengers? They may find themselves in a life raft in a storm in the Southern Ocean. Perhaps they are lucky and have a good senior rate with them, or perhaps they just have a cook who knows absolutely nothing. They will need to know exactly what to do in that life raft, otherwise they will die in two hours.

One of the points in the document makes it clear that visitors should be aware of conditions and the restrictions placed on the Antarctic expeditionary stations and so on. The point is well made about the importance of ensuring that they have knowledge, so it is important to have guides and that some training is undertaken. I am sure that that takes place; part of the preparation plan has to be carefully tailored to that so that those who travel on those cruises are well aware of those issues. It is important that those issues are addressed and not underestimated, so that testing of equipment and passenger participation in understanding the impact that they can have is actively considered.

We continue to play a leading role in strengthening existing international arrangements. We can never be complacent about issues relating to the environment or the safety of cruises; we are right to keep it under review. The point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, about the importance of ensuring that the International Maritime Organisation is continually up to speed is well understood not just by our Government but other Governments who work in this field. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part.

Before the noble Lord sits down, may I question him on the issue of the sat-nav specialist service, which he mentioned? Will he press the European Space Agency to continue the funding, because that is the key to the issue? It is funding it and we need to ensure that that goes on, otherwise people will not use it. If he is unable to answer that now, perhaps he will write to me.

I would like to offer the noble Viscount reassurance this afternoon, but I do not have briefing on the funding arrangements for that. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who raised another issue about Antarctic survey work, and I was conscious that I had not answered that point either, so I will compose some correspondence and make sure that we properly research the funding arrangements for both those projects and will of course share that with other noble Lords who have participated.

The information comes late. I can tell noble Lords that the Antarctic survey forms part of the Natural Environment Research Council work. We recognise the importance of the scientific contribution made by the BAS and the importance of research and associated monitoring continuing. Looking back, the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 was an important result of its work, which underlines the value of that research work. I understand that the Natural Environmental Research Council is introducing new arrangements for the funding of science as part of its wider science strategy and will monitor the impact of those arrangements for its research centres, including the BAS but, as I say, I am happy to write to noble Lords with any more detail that can be usefully shared by all who have contributed.

I thank all noble Lords who have been involved; it has been a very valuable debate.

[The Sitting was adjourned from 3.53 pm to 4 pm.]