Clause 1 - Duty to take response action

Antarctic Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:30 pm ar 21 Tachwedd 2012.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

Thank you, Mr Gray; it is certainly welcome that we can talk about the Bill in the way you described.

This is a private Member’s Bill. I was fortunate enough to be drawn early in the private Member’s ballot. This is a useful Bill to promote, because of our concerns about the environment, and because it recognises the important role that the Antarctic plays in Britain’s activities across the world, effectively re-establishing the British presence.

As the Committee knows, the Antarctic is demilitarised and protected, and that remains the cornerstone of the approach to the Antarctic taken by ourselves and all the Antarctic treaty signatories. It is important that we turn our commitments in the treaty, which we have already signed, into law so that this country leads by example, encouraging others to do exactly the same.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Ceidwadwyr, Bournemouth East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important Bill to the attention of the House. He mentions other countries and the treaty. Is he able to say where other countries are, in terms of passing the set of rules that we are seeking to approve today?

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

I certainly am. A very good example is Peru, which, as hon. Members can imagine, is extraordinarily close to the Antarctic, and which has already undertaken this task. That is a good example, and there are others. One task we will have to engage with, as a country and a Government, is ensuring that other treaty signatories, of which there are nearly 50, do the same. That will be time-consuming and will not necessarily happen straight away, but it is a clear and obvious objective.

One key theme is that the Bill introduces the “polluter pays” concept, and rightly so, because we want to see more responsibility and accountability on the part of people who visit the Antarctic. That is central to most  of the clauses. For example, we want more planning capacity, more commitment to planning, and more planning in advance of any arrival in the Antarctic. It is fairly obvious why, and I will come on to that.

The second part of the Bill strengthens parts of the Antarctic Act 1994. In particular, we are extending protection to flora and fauna, which is a good and necessary thing to do. We talk about that in clause 16, which I will briefly mention later.

Another really important part of the Bill is the measures we are introducing to strengthen the ability to protect monuments and historic sites. That is really important in terms of our history in the Antarctic, not least because the ill-fated Robert Scott expedition took place 100 years ago. More recently, in the war years, we had a base there, and the historical features of the area are important to Britain.

I think that is sufficient by way of introduction. I made these points pretty thoroughly on Second Reading, when we had cross-party support and a wide-ranging debate about the nature and objectives of the Bill.

Clause 1 describes the entire Bill in detail; I will highlight some of its aspects. It places a duty on a person organising activities in Antarctica to take

“reasonable, prompt and effective…action”.

I do not think anyone can dispute that that is wise and necessary for a place that is both vulnerable, due to its environmental characteristics, and fearsome in its weather conditions. It is necessary to prepare well and carefully.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Llafur, Edinburgh North and Leith

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the Bill forward. Would the clause and the Bill generally cover the situation of an oil spill if there were exploration in the Antarctic? The Bill would require a company linked to the UK to remedy any damage and, as I understand it, there would be no limit to cost. Is that correct?

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

The key point about the position on the Antarctic is that there will not be any drilling for oil, so that will not happen. However, that would be the case if a ship had an accident; that is precisely the kind of area we would look at. We are talking about shipping to some extent in this discussion, because shipping does take place around the Antarctic.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Ceidwadwyr, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is now an enormous amount of tourism in the Antarctic? There is every likelihood that at some stage there may be an accident, and the ferry or cruise ship operators should be held responsible for clearing up.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The first point I intended to make was that the original 12 who signed the first treaty in 1959—it was effectively implemented in 1961—have now grown to 50. That is the first thing: there are more countries involved, and more people interested in going to Antarctica. There is clearly a greater set of risks, which is why we have to act in this way. Between 1992 and 1993, fewer than 9,000 tourists headed to the Antarctic; now there are many  more. There are 80 stations of some description already erected and operational. That shows that there are huge pressures.

My hon. Friend was also right to refer to the importance of shipping. Ship owners and operators have been part of the consultation process and have expressed a desire for clarification, which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, will provide in due course, as promised.

The essence of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and the point that I am making, is that the potential for an absolute catastrophe in the Antarctic is high, and we have to take action to stop that. That is the key point of the Bill. We must have the principle of the polluter pays, and insurance for those people and organisations going to the Antarctic. That is an obvious risk strategy. However, we want to stop things happening in the first place. The issues attached to the Bill are in the liability annex. We have gone through that in a fair bit of detail, and it is described well in the explanatory notes. It is worth noting that that is part of the legislation that we are introducing.

We need to define an environmental emergency—all legislation has to be clear about definitions—and this legislation does exactly that in clause 13(3). That will be of interest to anyone going to the Antarctic, because we need clarity and a strong sense of purpose.

Response action, once something has happened, is also important. We want to see responsible operators responding swiftly and effectively. Activities are considered to be connected to the United Kingdom if they are organised in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or British overseas territories, which obviously includes the British Antarctic, under the 1994 Act. That is an important point to bear in mind in the context of this legislation. There are matters connected with the armed forces that effectively exclude them from certain provisions of the Bill, but as I have stated, the area is demilitarised, and there has to be some consideration of that fact, given the type of legislation we are dealing with.

I said I would remark on two other clauses that are important and relevant to the debate, and I will touch on them in a small amount of detail. The first is clause 15, which is on protecting historic sites and monuments. Provision has already been made to protect them in the 1994 Act, but we have to think about how we protect, enhance and repair them. As can be imagined, working in the Antarctic is difficult, given the limited time available and the usual working conditions. Clause 15 effectively enables the Secretary of State to move things from the Antarctic to somewhere where they can be properly looked after or repaired, as the case may be. That is a useful provision and we salute it.

The second clause I wish to discuss is clause 16, which makes provisions regarding flora and fauna. The truth is that we need to protect every aspect of the Antarctic; that is why we are extending protection, through the Bill, to flora and fauna. The original 1994 Act prohibits a number of activities that would damage or negatively affect the flora and fauna of Antarctica, but we need to strengthen that and ensure that it is more comprehensive. That is essentially what the Bill does. It also includes marine and terrestrial invertebrates. That is extraordinarily wise and, I am proud to say, is an illustration of extending protection.

My main point is that first we must protect the Antarctic. Britain’s role historically has been one of leadership in the area and around the continent, and we are demonstrating that now with our enthusiastic willingness to turn the treaty that we have already signed into domestic law. We have to bear in mind the importance—my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East alluded to this—of encouraging the 50 other states that have signed the treaty to do the same.

The Bill reaffirms Britain’s role in the Antarctic. It is a significant step towards protecting the Antarctic, and it respects the treaty’s processes. It captures the essence of our country’s work on the continent in the past two centuries. I commend the Bill to the Committee and I support clause 1.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, for the second time in as many days.

It goes without saying that the Opposition warmly welcome the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud on bringing it forward in this timely way. I hope that it can find its way on to the statute book. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) responded, but unfortunately he cannot be here, so it falls to a shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister to respond. As I was preparing for this debate, I thought about how appropriate that was, because while the Bill is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s responsibility, at its heart is our desire to be a good custodian of the environment to which we rightly laid claim nearly 100 a hundred years ago.

As I look at the Bill, I am struck by how those who drafted it with the hon. Member for Stroud went to great efforts to lay out a clear and principled approach to the protection of that environment, to implement the liability annex carefully and clearly, and to amend the 1994 Act to ensure that it holds together appropriately. We understand the challenges facing the Antarctic. They include the increase in tourism, which particularly affects our territory because of where it is geographically in relation to South America. We need to protect the region’s historic assets for future generations and place clearly thought through requirements on the Secretary of State, so that there is a clear line of accountability to show who is responsible for protecting the Antarctic.

Although I do not want to detain the Committee long, given the cross-party consensus on the Bill, a few points do spring to mind. Let me say at the outset that it is a tribute to the hon. Gentleman that no amendments to the Bill have been tabled. My first point relates to a matter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley raised on Second Reading. This Bill was first constituted in the previous Parliament, and the old part 2 contained a series of clauses relating to contingency and safety planning for British operations. The hon. Member for Stroud referred to that on Second Reading, and assurances were given about the permitting system; I am sure that the Minister will want to speak about that when he comments on clause 1.

It is important that the permitting system is robust, clear and understandable to all. Given the responsibility that the measures place on the Secretary of State, it  would be helpful to lay out the practicalities of that permitting system to ensure that the Bill works to its fullest extent.

My second point relates to the protection of flora and fauna and, for the first time, marine invertebrates. That is important, and it shows that Britain can take a world lead in extending environmental protection, not just in this country but overseas. Will the Minister lay out why he believes that such changes will enhance environmental protections? Obviously, there is existing legislation that covers a number of species. It is important that the Committee and the House are clear about our responsibilities within the world, including our environmental responsibilities.

I had the honour of visiting the Arctic. Indeed, my new year’s resolution was to get to the Antarctic. I still have another five or six weeks to go, but I suspect that it will not happen. When I visited the university of Svalbard in the Arctic circle, research was under way on how we clear up after the incidents that have been mentioned—for example, after a heavy oil spill from a ship. Such research is vital if we are to uphold not just the first part of this Bill, which is about responding to what happens when something goes wrong, but the second part, which is about planning to ensure that we avoid problems in the first place and clear up after ourselves when they occur. I hope that the research can be protected, enhanced and continued.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Ceidwadwyr, Bournemouth East 1:45, 21 Tachwedd 2012

The hon. Gentleman mentions the Arctic—I hope that I do not wander too far off the Bill, Mr Gray.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Llafur, Islington North

It is about as far away as you can get.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Ceidwadwyr, Bournemouth East

Well put. I visited the Arctic at a time when nations were dabbling with the idea of sticking flags under the ice and making claims for territory. At the same time, there were new shipping lanes, which were much faster than the usual ones, because of the reduction in the size of the ice cap. Does the hon. Member for Luton South agree that it would make sense to look at the provisions in this Bill and introduce similar ones for the Arctic?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

We are wandering slightly wide of the Bill that we are discussing. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will stick with the Antarctic rather than the Arctic.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Frustratingly, it would take me away from the Bill to answer the hon. Member for Bournemouth East, but perhaps he and I can pick up those questions afterwards.

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about the two models of engagement with the different territories. One is as an observer to the Arctic Council, where we are not taking a lead, but working alongside other nations. The other is the proposed model—I strongly commend it—in which Britain is taking leadership and showing that it can influence other nations through being strong and positive about the extension of environmental protections.

Overall, we welcome the Bill and wish it a speedy passage. We believe that it is important to extend environmental protections and to sort out the governance  and the practicalities of the issues. In that context, I commend the Bill and hope it has a speedy passage in Committee and on to the statute book.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Ceidwadwyr, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud on introducing the Bill. I declare an interest, in that I am a trustee of a charity that deals with the Antarctic and is very much engaged with it. I became involved for the simple reason that I was invited to do so by David Wilson, the great-nephew of Dr Wilson who died with Captain Scott on the ice on 29 March exactly 100 years ago this year. I was delighted that you and my hon. Friend came to a church service at St Paul’s cathedral to commemorate Captain Scott’s death on 29 March. I am also a vice-chairman of the all-party group on the polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic), of which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford is the chairman.

I became involved in the whole of this debate because of Captain Scott and his legacy. His main concern was to undertake scientific environmental research, which he did very effectively. When he died, the last message he left for his wife about his son Peter Scott, the well-known environmentalist, was whatever else she did, to

“make the boy interested in natural history”.

If I may say so, the Bill is about protecting Captain Scott’s legacy in a very big way. That is deeply commendable, and we should certainly press forward.

In February or March, I went to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, where I visited the British Antarctic Survey and looked at some of its work. It has drilled down 800,000 years into the ice and taken out that ice, which it is now analysing. It has had a major impact on the whole climate change story, which I find very interesting. It has successfully analysed that ice and worked out that, bar the past 300 years, there has not been much climate change, but that when industrialisation started, changes suddenly began.

The reason why the Bill is so important is that we need to ensure the protection of that environment. If we do not do so, we will not be able, over the next 100 or 200 years, to do historical research. We therefore need to protect not only the environment, but the fauna.

The Bill will have a significant impact on our fishing stocks. As hon. Members may know, our fishing stocks have been affected by global change, with the movement of the plankton on which fish are dependent for eating, and that has made it much more difficult for them to survive. The Bill will have a very important impact, and I am delighted to have been invited to join the Committee and to have the opportunity to protect our Antarctic heritage.

The Committee might like to know that I was always taught that the difference between the Antarctic and the Arctic is that the Antarctic is land surrounded by sea, whereas it is the other way round for the Arctic.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words about the Bill. As a latecomer, I applaud the hard work of hon. Members that has gone into it. At the heart of the Bill is the recognition that it would be incredibly irresponsible of us not to put in place measures to protect against potential disaster in one of the world’s most fragile and ecologically important areas.

The treaty recognises that the creation of a unique long-term framework for peaceful co-existence and scientific co-operation is indeed the right thing to do. It shows that countries can come together to work for the common good for future generations, and that a harmonious relationship between humans and nature needs to be at the forefront of our minds. By putting the Antarctic treaty regulations into United Kingdom law and enshrining the polluter pays principle for damage to the Antarctic environment, the Bill paints an inspiring picture of what UK leadership can look like.

I seek clarification from the hon. Member for Stroud and the Minister on two things. First, I understand that there could be a delay in bringing into force the strong provisions of the Bill, while we wait for a majority of the signatories to the Antarctic treaty. It would be good to know whether the UK can move faster than that on its own. Can we apply the provisions in respect of our own territories immediately, even if other countries take longer, and thus begin to hold operators to account as soon as possible?

Secondly, as the Bill is put into practice, will there be scope, even informally—obviously, I am not suggesting amending it—to increase further the buy-in of scientists, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders by giving them a stronger role in ensuring that the plans of, for example, the commercial operators respect its provisions? Given the small number of operators and the good relationships that already exist between the NGOs and the British Antarctic Survey, as well as the holistic view that civil society organisations working in all the Antarctic countries could bring to such an area, it would be good to know if there were scope for that. I look forward to hearing about those two matters. I conclude by reiterating my warm welcome to the Bill on which I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Cambridge

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud on introducing this important Bill. I am pleased that so far it has had cross-party support, and I hope that it will make good progress. As has already been said, supporting the planet matters for our national interest, as it does for our global interest. That has already been outlined, and I spoke about it on Second Reading, so I shall not detain the Committee by going through all the details again.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Ceidwadwyr, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Would my hon. Friend welcome the David Attenborough films shown in the “Frozen Planet”. They certainly explained an awful lot of the environmental issues that face our country.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Cambridge

Indeed. The series was excellent. Sadly, I understand that the last episode was not shown in the United States of America because there were worries that talking about some of the current climate changes might upset watchers there. I hope that the many people in the US who follow the transcripts of these debates will find that episode, which I am sure is available somewhere.

As well as such matters being an important critical, global issue—I am glad that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned NGOs—for me they are also a constituency issue. I probably have more Antarctic  workers in my constituency than other Members of Parliament have in their constituencies. There is the Scott Polar Research Institute, which is not talked about as much as another institution I shall refer to in a moment, but I recommend its research. It has a wonderful museum, and I hope that people will look at its work, as it covers both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

I also have the great pleasure to represent the British Antarctic Survey with some 420 staff—not all of whom are my constituents, although a large number of them are. At times, they make remarkable visits to overwinter in the Antarctic; I tend not to hold constituency surgeries to look after their interests during that period, but they are always welcome to get in touch. The British Antarctic Survey is key and it is named in the Bill, so it is good to see that recognition. The role of its director is important, and is named specifically under section 16 of the Antarctic Act 1994. That is a particular problem at the moment, because there is no permanent director of the British Antarctic Survey; it is currently held as an acting role by the director of the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton. Given recent discussions, that is clearly not a viable future.

On Second Reading the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness, said:

“I agree that a full-time director of the British Antarctic Survey needs to be appointed as soon as possible”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2012; Vol. 552, c. 538.]

I agree wholeheartedly, and I hope that all Members will agree. I would be grateful if the Minister would enlighten us as to whether any progress has been made, or, alternatively, if he would contact the National Environment Research Council to see whether it has made any progress. That said, I am delighted to see the Bill brought before the House in this way. I look forward to it making speedy progress and I commend it to all Members.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Llafur, Islington North 2:00, 21 Tachwedd 2012

Like others, I commend the hon. Member for Stroud for his work on the Bill and getting it thus far. Presumably we are going to get out of Committee very quickly and it will therefore become law. That is an absolutely brilliant step forward and I commend him for it.

The Bill comes on the back of legislation in the past, which I shall go on to in a moment. We should put on record our admiration for the British Antarctic Survey and the Scott Polar institute. They have done incredible work. I visited the British Antarctic Survey and, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport pointed out, it is fascinating to look at ice cores going back thousands of years. We can see the good effects of bits of legislation here and there—on the high lead content in the air until lead was removed from petrol and on chlorofluorocarbons and a number of other things. The Antarctic is a laboratory of peace for the whole world and we are doing the right thing in enhancing its environmental protection.

The history of Antarctic protection is interesting. At the time of Scott and Amundsen’s expeditions to the Antarctic at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the world saw it as a place where whales could be slaughtered and dragged away, where fish could be taken,  if possible, and many saw long-term potential for mineral exploitation. That was the narrative for a long time. The best years the whales had were during the second world war, because nobody could get down there to kill them. They did quite well during the second world war but suffered afterwards. However, international opinion and world debate moved on and the 1957 international geophysical year, at the height of the cold war, showed co-operation between the United States and the Soviet Union. That led to the very interesting 1959 treaty, again during the cold war, which declared the place to be a continent of peace. It is worth remembering some of those points in history.

We went through a bad period in the 1980s when there was an attempt to get legislation through the House—indeed, it got through—for mineral exploration of the Antarctic. That was superseded by the 1991 treaty and the 1994 Act, which was put through by Lord Jopling, a former Chief Whip. To the consternation of his Front Bench and mine, we co-operated on it and they were so totally bemused that it went through unopposed. He did good work in getting that legislation through.

I want the Minister, or the promoter of the Bill, to answer some points. Protecting the Antarctic environment, maintaining it as a zone of peace, supporting the British Antarctic Survey and ensuring it carries on, and ensuring that we do not get into any ridiculous territorial disputes about the Antarctic are key. There is a British claim, an Argentine claim, a Chilean claim—everybody and their uncle seems to have a claim on the Antarctic and many of these claims overlap. In reality, that does not give them territory, it is merely a claim. Therefore our legislation, as I understand it, applies to the whole of the Antarctic, not solely to the British claim on it. I am sure that the promoter will confirm that I am correct. Therefore, it requires a majority of treaty signatories to endorse a protocol similar to the provision we are adopting before it can become law. I hope there will be enthusiastic lobbying by NGOs such as Greenpeace and others, as well as the UK Government, to ensure that we get a majority. Last time we had to wait three years before we got a majority of treaty states to get the environmental protocol through and a further 10 years to get the offices of the environmental protocol set up.

The second point is a very minor one, but I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm it. The Bill applies to the UK, not to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or any other British-controlled territory. I assume that an Order in Council would be required in order to achieve that. I would be grateful if the Minister can confirm that it will be sought and done. Otherwise, we could have a situation in which a shipping operator claiming to operate out of the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man caused a disaster, spill or pollution in Antarctica and claimed immunity from the Bill. I assume an Order in Council will be sought, but I would be grateful for confirmation.

Finally, on marine protected areas, article III of the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources states:

“The Contracting Parties, whether or not they are Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, agree that they will not engage in…activities in the Antarctic…area contrary to the principles and purposes of  that Treaty and that, in their relations with each other, they are bound by the obligations contained in Articles I and V of the Antarctic Treaty.”

Not all countries have signed the Antarctic treaty, and many that have not signed it are involved in fishing and fishery exploitation in the area, so the convention is an important vehicle for ensuring that they are brought into the spirit, ambit and reality of the treaty. If they are not, there would be a huge danger of overfishing by non-treaty nations. A big unauthorised take of Antarctic krill has an effect all the way along the food chain and results in starving whales, seals or penguins and an ecological imbalance. The principles behind Antarctic environmental sustainability recognise that it is a fragile ecosystem, so I hope the Minister shares my sadness at the collapse last month of the talks to try to reach agreement on the convention. The treaty will be discussed again next year, and one hopes that at that point Russia, which is, of course, a treaty signatory, Ukraine and others that are not treaty signatories will come on board, otherwise we will have a real problem with some countries evading the treaty system and taking excessive stocks of fish, with all the consequences of that. I would be grateful if the Minister can answer that point.

I close by saying that it is a good story that international environmental pressure and concern, and the work of Peter Scott and many others, have brought to the world’s attention the fragility of the Antarctic ecosystem and the responsibility we all have to maintain it. We understand where we have come from because of the Antarctic, and it will tell us where we are going and what environmental damage we are doing to the rest of the world. The Bill is a good step forward, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud on guiding it through thus far. I look forward to seeing it on the statute book.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time in as many days, Mr Gray.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who has responsibility for the overseas territories, sends his apologies for not being able to be here today. He has been called away to Africa. He is genuinely away in his ministerial capacity, unlike other Members who seem to be in other parts of the world. He is not in a jungle in Australia; he is on ministerial duties. We have yet to hear anyone from Australia say, “I may be gone some time.” That is certainly not what one of our hon. Friends said to the Whips, but in the spirit of the Antarctic, it is a phrase that resonates throughout the Bill.

I take great pleasure in being here in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness, and I am delighted that the Committee is considering the Bill. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has got his Bill to this stage and has been able to build such strong support on both sides of the House, as was apparent on Second Reading.

The spirit of consensus in the Committee Room is most welcome, and contrasts with the spirit of this morning’s Westminster Hall debate on Scotland’s future in the EU, in which the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith took part. That debate showed the House divided; this debate shows the House united, which is very welcome.

The Bill offers an important opportunity to strengthen the environmental protection that this country can provide for Antarctica and to fulfil our international obligations under the environmental protocol of the Antarctic treaty. The Government believe that the Bill provides appropriate and proportionate protection for the environment without disadvantaging British interests. No one can doubt that the consequences of an environmental emergency in Antarctica could be devastating. Its sensitivity, remoteness, and the hostile operating conditions mean that we must do all that we can to avoid that possibility; if it should happen, operators must be as ready as possible to respond. The Government believe that the provisions of part 1 of the Bill will fulfil those requirements. The clauses to enhance contingency planning, to avoid environmental emergencies and to take response action where, despite that mitigation, the activities create such a situation, are sensible and proportionate. All responsible operators—the majority, I am pleased to say—welcome the provisions. At the same time it is right that when an operator fails to take the right action, they should be liable for the cost of that failure. The related clauses on the need for adequate insurance and the importance of the timely sharing of information on environmental emergencies are similarly welcome.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Llafur, Edinburgh North and Leith

Is there any suggestion that the insurance requirement should be demonstrated to an authority in some way before the activity in question takes place? Clearly, the insurance regime is a very important part of the Bill and it would be useful to know whether that is envisaged at any stage.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my remarks; I will add something about that.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has received representations in relation to clause 4 about the relationship between the liability limits in the Bill and those provided for under the convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims. I would like to put on record the Government’s position on this issue. The liability limits in the schedule are intended to complement those contained within the 1996 protocol to the limitation of liability for maritime claims, known as the LLMC. Currently, in the event of a catastrophic incident to which the LLMC applies, the effect of an operator limiting its liability in respect of claims for loss of life or personal injury may leave it with a reduced or even no capacity to meet additional claims in respect of property, to the extent that the liability limit has already been exhausted by the loss of life or personal injury claims. Property claims would include any cost of response action to an environmental emergency that they had caused, so the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith is right to press on that point.

I cite my own interest in that. We had a near catastrophe with the MSC Napoli at Lyme bay in my own constituency a few years ago. Hon. Members will remember the scenes of stuff coming on to the beaches in Branscombe and the associated oil spillage. It was absolutely tortuous trying to find out where liability lay, and the limitation of claims and the hierarchy of claims, so that is something very close to my heart.

Under the Bill, however, should such a scenario occur in Antarctica, the operator would still be liable for the cost of response action to an environmental emergency  up to the limits of liability set out in the schedule. Those liability limits, however, are only equivalent to the limits for property claims under the LLMC that would otherwise have applied had no other claims been made. It is hard to imagine such a situation occurring in Antarctica, but the Bill rightly recognises that the Antarctic environment is fragile and of global importance. Under the Antarctic treaty, there can be no expression of coastal state rights to pursue ship operators for clean-up costs. In this regard, Antarctica is geopolitically and environmentally unique. No other region in the world would ever be the subject of a treaty to suspend territorial claims, in the same way as the Antarctic treaty.

The Antarctic Bill ensures that in all circumstances, vessel operators have the financial provision available to pay for the costs of response action to an environmental emergency that they have caused. The Government support this approach as a responsible treaty party, and in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of vessel traffic in Antarctica occurs around the British Antarctic Territory.

Paragraph 5 of the schedule ensures that no shipping operator can be held liable for the same costs twice. This means that liability cannot be sought for environmental clean-up under both the LLMC and the Antarctic Bill. If the environmental clean-up work includes vessel salvage, the operator cannot be liable twice, under the salvage convention and the Antarctic Bill.

Part 2 of the Bill updates and strengthens the environmental provisions of the Antarctic Act 1994, and I am pleased to say that the Government support those clauses. This part of the Bill provides for the environmental provisions of the Act to adapt to the changing conditions of Antarctica and to the changing numbers and nature of those who visit this sensitive area. I welcome the fact that the Bill will bring environmental protection for marine plants and invertebrates into line with that afforded to their terrestrial counterparts, and that the UK will be able to permit non-British nationals to join British expeditions, making it easier to hold scientific and expeditionary teams—increasingly multinational in nature—to appropriate account.

I am particularly pleased to offer the Government’s support for the provisions of the Bill that assist in the conservation of British historic sites and monuments in Antarctica by allowing much needed conservation and management work to be authorised through our permitting system. In the far-off days when I was a shadow Culture Minister, I managed to get into our 2005 manifesto a commitment to restore the huts. I understand that conservation work is now under way, which is most welcome, especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. In this year of the centenary of Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic, and as we look forward to Shackleton’s centenary, the provisions on conservation seem particularly fitting.

I will now attempt to answer some of the questions raised by hon. Members. If by the end I have failed, they will no doubt ask me again; if I fail at that stage—

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Indeed. I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman and to anyone else. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Luton South, asked about the existing permitting regime. Each year, the Foreign Office issues between 35 and 40 permits to people undertaking visits to or activities in Antarctica. The process requires an application form, and that a preliminary environmental assessment be undertaken. Foreign Office officials consider those documents, seeking expert advice as appropriate, and normally invite the applicants for a discussion prior to their going. During that process, planning, contingency arrangements, insurance, and medical and evacuation procedures are scrutinised. I asked this particular question of officials when I knew I was destined to speak on behalf of the Government at this Committee, and I raised a particular name. I am not sure that I am allowed to talk about somebody who is about to mount an expedition, but I said, “What about X?” and was told that that person was indeed about to mount an expedition, and had just been in and gone through the different procedures. I can thus tell the Committee that the procedures work, in theory and, hopefully, in practice.

The hon. Member for Luton South also asked whether the permitting system would deliver what was in the old part 2 of a previous draft of the Bill. The answer is yes. I repeat the reassurances my hon. Friend the Minister for the overseas territories gave on Second Reading; the provisions relating to search and rescue can be implemented using the existing permitting regime and there is no need for primary legislation.

The hon. Member for Luton South asked about marine plants and invertebrates. Existing protection under the Antarctic treaty does not currently extend to marine plants or invertebrates, as I have just said. However, there is increasing interest in the use of genetic resources in Antarctica. By affording those marine species the same level of protection as for terrestrial species, we can ensure that there is no unregulated biological prospecting in Antarctica. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East asked where other countries are in ratifying the annex and I will return to that point in just a minute. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport talked about tourism and said that ferry operators should be held responsible for clearing up. The Government agree entirely with that sentiment. That is one reason why the Government support the Bill and will introduce clear lines of responsibility—effectively, a polluter pays principle—for activities, including tourism, in Antarctica.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith asked whether claims would cover an oil spill, with no limit to cost. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, hydrocarbon exploration in Antarctica is prohibited under the treaty, although I think that, as we speak, a cruise ship is grounded there, or in the area, so it can happen. Oil spillages from ships or bases are covered by the Bill and subject to the limits set out in the schedule.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion asked about further collaboration between NGOs, scientists and commercial operators. The annual Antarctic treaty consultative meeting has invited experts from NGOs, national Antarctic programmes, the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and the International  Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. All those bodies were engaged in the negotiations on the liability annex as well as in the discussions of the Committee for Environmental Protection, which advises the treaty parties of best environmental practice.

The hon. Lady asked about delay in bringing the measure into force and whether we could move faster: in other words, other countries should not hold us back. We would argue that implementing the provisions early would put UK businesses, universities, other scientific institutions and the taxpayer at a disadvantage compared to their international counterparts. It would also be likely to result in some UK businesses and institutions seeking a permit from a party to the treaty who has not brought the liability provisions into force, rather than the UK. That could reduce the UK’s influence and control over the Antarctic activities of its operators.

Once the Bill is passed, the UK will actively lobby parties that have not yet ratified the liability annex to ensure it is brought into force globally at the soonest possible time.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

Would the Minister care to give an estimate of the amount of time he thinks would elapse before we can actually see the provisions coming into force, given that they are urgent?

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I do not have that information currently to hand, but it may appear at any moment. I believe, as other Members said, that the UK is doing the right thing with the Bill and hopefully others will follow in our wake. Hopefully we will not be too far ahead of other countries, and I am about to find out whether or not that is the case—at least I hope I am.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East asked where other countries are in ratifying the annex. There are 28 consultative parties to the environmental protocol which need to ratify the liability before it comes into force. Of these, five parties reported to the last Antarctic treaty consultative meeting, held in June 2012, that they have ratified the annex. The five were Finland, Peru, Poland, Spain and Sweden. Australia has also since ratified. Once the Antarctic Bill has been passed, the Government will encourage all other parties to make good progress with their own ratifications. I could not have put that better myself.

The hon. Member for Cambridge, who cares deeply about these things, not least on account of his constituency’s location, asked whether the Minister—me—could indicate what progress has been made to appoint a new director of the British Antarctic Survey. I understand that was raised on Second Reading. I understand that the Natural Environment Research Council is commencing a process to recruit a new director of the British Antarctic Survey. My officials are meeting the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the NERC to discuss progress next week. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I apologise for not raising this point earlier. In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Universities and Science stated:

“There is at present no agreed plan to change the status of the British Antarctic Survey.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 749W.]

Can the Minister reassure me that this means there are no plans to change the status of the British Antarctic Survey?

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I will come to that in just a minute, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to go through the answers to Members chronologically.

The hon. Member for Islington North asked whether the Government would extend the Bill to overseas territories and Crown dependencies. The answer is yes. The Antarctic Act 1994 has already been extended to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and we will do likewise in consultation with those territories for the Bill, which contains the necessary provision in clause 18(2).

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Llafur, Islington North

I also asked about marine protection zones and the convention that has been reconvened next year on the subject of fishery protection.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that I will come to that shortly.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith asked whether insurance should be demonstrated. Proof of adequate insurance will need to be given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office prior to departure to Antarctica. This will be implemented through the existing permitting regime. I should have said that earlier.

To return to the hon. Member for Islington North, he asked a few more questions. One was whether our legislation applied to all of Antarctica and not just our claim. Yes, is the answer. The Bill applies to all activities in Antarctica undertaken by British expeditions, ships or vessels. However, the UK is in no doubt about its sovereignty over British Antarctic territory; that claim is held under the treaty.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about fishing in the Southern ocean. The UK is fully committed to the designation of marine protected areas in the Southern ocean. It was a UK proposal that led to the first such MPA in 2009. We share the disappointment that the recent commission for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources did not agree to new designations. However, the UK will work hard with others to ensure a more successful outcome in a special meeting of the commission next July.

The hon. Member for Luton South, in his most recent intervention, asked whether there was any intention to change the status of the British Antarctic Survey. I confirm that the statement made by the BIS Minister is correct.

I think that deals with most of the questions. If not, I invite hon. Members to raise their questions with me now.

The Government welcome the Bill. We are pleased, as I said earlier, to support it. It is a good Bill and will make a significant contribution to the environmental protection of the vast but vulnerable continent that is Antarctica. Once again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and thank all who have served on the Committee. I wish my hon. Friend well in the next stages of the Bill’s progress.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

I am immensely grateful to you for your chairmanship of the Committee, Mr Gray. The Committee has been completed remarkably swiftly. It was characterised by cross-party support, and we had a thoroughly useful debate on Second Reading. I was  impressed with the range of questions and am grateful for the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister answered them.

I reiterate my support for the British Antarctic Survey. I have had a huge amount of support from it and a huge amount of co-operation with it over the past few months. I certainly endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge regarding the need for a newly appointed director and for the appropriate leadership for such an excellent organisation to be in place so that it can carry on its excellent work.

The hon. Member for Luton South was absolutely right to refer to the parliamentary question, because I think I asked it. The answer is absolutely clear: a long and successful future awaits the British Antarctic Survey. Quite right too, because of its pivotal part in, and the way its work has characterised, the preparation for the legislation.

The hon. Gentleman also said that it is good news that he is the shadow spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because this is a matter about the environment. However, the issue is first and foremost a Foreign Office one, and that is one of the underlying themes I have picked up in the debate, on which I would like to make a couple of comments.

First, the Antarctic is unique. No precedent will be set by any part of the Bill, because it is based on treaties. That is central to the whole strategy and theme—touched on by hon. Members: the need to get other nations to sign up, and quite right too. We need a boisterous campaign to ensure that more and more nations sign up so that we reach critical mass. The process can certainly be helped by amplification of Britain’s leadership. As we have heard, Peru, Finland, Sweden, Australia and others have already done the appropriate thing.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Llafur, Edinburgh North and Leith

As has rightly been pointed out, Antarctica is a long way from the Arctic, but there is a link, in that historically many Arctic nations have also been active in the Antarctic. Given the growing role that Britain is playing in organisations such as the Arctic Council, is there an opportunity for Britain to use its lobbying influence to try to get more supporters to ratify the Antarctic protocol?

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. That is a very sound and sensible point, because Peru is obviously close to the Antarctic but Sweden is clearly closer to the Arctic. There are obvious links, which the Environmental Audit Committee touched upon in its report on the Arctic. I completely accept that point. We need a campaign to ensure that plenty of nation states sign up.

The hon. Member for Luton referred to the flora and fauna. The Bill strengthens their protection by, for example, improving protection of the Antarctic environment by specifically prohibiting the carrying of animals on board vessels in the Antarctic, which is clearly a very sensible measure and one that should be saluted.

The issue of insurance was touched upon by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, and quite right too. I think it has been thoroughly answered by the Minister and has certainly been explained properly to appropriate shipping organisations in the past.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made some good points about co-operation between organisations and the need to demonstrate leadership to make sure that action is taken. I simply make this appeal: that all organisations interested in making sure that the Bill not only becomes an Act but becomes a catalyst for greater things in terms of encouraging other nation states to participate, should say so publicly and frequently.

I am heading to Dohar for the United Nations climate change conference, representing the Environmental Audit Committee, and I will be giving a full report on how things progress. One of the things I have already noticed is that Dohar is more or less in between the Arctic and Antarctic and nearer the equator—the point the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to. The occasion offers opportunities to promote the interests of the Bill and the need to extend our support for the treaties. That opportunity is a good one, but there will be many others that are worth pursuing.

I thank every member of the Committee for coming along today, and for expressing support generally for the Bill and making such constructive comments about it. That matters in terms of what we really think about our environment and Britain’s role as a leading country in protecting the environment, as well as saluting the treaty process, which is important.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Llafur, Islington North 2:30, 21 Tachwedd 2012

When the hon. Gentleman is in Dohar on behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee, will he do his best to raise the issue of the marine protection zones and to get widespread support for them beyond the 28 members of the Antarctic treaty?

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Ceidwadwyr, Stroud

That is a very good point and I am grateful for the intervention. It gives me the opportunity to reiterate the importance of krill and the question of fishing around the perimeter of Antarctica. It is worth underlining that other nations interested in fishing krill are not participating in the process and we need to have their interests firmly in mind when we are considering the matter. Of course, China, Korea and even Ukraine have activities and interests down there, so we need to bear that in mind. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: it is all part of the dialogue that we must participate in seriously and robustly.

I am grateful to the Government in general and to the Minister in particular for their support for the measure. I thank all members again for contributing to the Committee; it has not lasted long, but that is because we all agree rather than disagree. It demonstrates not only that we are setting out an important and necessary leadership role, but that we are united and firmly behind it. I commend the Bill to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.