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11 Jul 2001 : Column 306WH


1.30 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): It is no pleasure to raise the issue of whaling in the House. I have done it on many occasions, but I am grateful for the opportunity to ask questions of the Government. It might not be a pleasure to raise this issue, but it is a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State in his place. He is held in high esteem in the animal welfare movement, and he is trusted.

Slaughter of the great whales was and remains one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated by human beings against our own or another species. For 50 million years, the great whales lived in perfect balance with nature, the seas teemed with whales and fish were in super-abundance. However, within the space of 200 years or so, we all but wiped out some of the most magnificent creatures ever to have inhabited our planet, and brought many of those fish stocks to crisis levels. Human beings did that—we cannot blame others—yet we continually blame other species for problems that are entirely created by our own selfishness and venality.

One can say a great deal about whales as a species—although there is not enough time—but certain points need to be made to put the matter into context. Eighty species of whales exist. The blue whale, for example, is the largest living creature to have existed on the planet—even larger than the most massive of the dinosaurs. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any living creature, including that of human beings. The song of the humpback whale is evocative, intricate and capable of being heard by other humpback whales over hundreds of miles of open ocean. The toothed whales have natural sonar echo location equipment, which is 95 per cent. more accurate than the most sophisticated equipment developed by man.

Whales great and small are highly intelligent, communal, warm-blooded mammals with complex social behaviour patterns. They deserve to be studied and held in awe. There is so much that we need to know about them, and perhaps even learn from them. Over the centuries, however, we have slaughtered these gentle, social, harmless creatures, for such prosaic purposes as pet food, candles and perfume. I am reliably informed that, in Japan, one can buy whale ice cream. I can think of few worse insults than that—the great whales turned into a confection for fat kids.

The danger that we might wipe out the whales caused the International Whaling Commission to effect a moratorium in 1986 on commercial whaling. Despite the moratorium, 21,000 whales have been killed since 1986, either in defiance of the moratorium or in the name of so-called scientific whaling. The countries that have primarily defied the IWC in world opinion are not dirt-poor countries or bandit states, but among the most economically prosperous countries in the world—Japan, Norway and Iceland. Japan and Norway together kill more than 1,000 whales every year—mostly minke whales, but last year I understand that the Japanese Government added sperm and Bryde's whales to the list. Every year, Japan kills more than 500 whales using the loophole of scientific whaling. Japan has the audacity to claim that it is killing in the name of science. All I can say—I know that I can get emotional about this—is that that is exactly the same sort of claim that was made by the Nazis when they were killing people in the name of science in the concentration camps.

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Meat from the so-called scientific slaughter ends up, unsurprisingly, in markets or on plates in Japanese restaurants. The Norwegians use the same loophole and export the product of scientific whaling as food to other countries. I have noticed, over the years, that the Japanese are especially touchy when confronted on this matter. They tend to accuse those of us who are trying to end the slaughter of being cultural imperialists, or, at times, downright racists. They say that it is an attempt by the European meat-eating cultures to impose their will on Asian fish eaters. It always seems perverse to me that with all the so-called scientific whaling, we are still unable to show the Japanese or, apparently, the Norwegians, that whales are not fish but mammals. So much for scientific whaling.

The Japanese, in particular, say that whales are taking too many fish. How often have we heard that before? Industrial fishing has depleted fishing stocks around the world. Nature has its own balance—it is only human beings that have affected that balance. We have caused stocks to fall, so we turn around and blame other species such as whales or seals for depletion. That argument is as absurd as blaming woodpeckers for deforestation.

On the "Today" programme recently, someone from the Japanese embassy compared the hunting of whales with the hunting of deer. When I raised the issue with the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Mrs. Brundtland, she went further and compared whaling with fox hunting. Those comparisons are grotesque, odious and totally irrelevant, but they reveal the bankruptcy of those who try to defend their arrogant defiance of world opinion. We should remember, when we talk about hunting, that there are those outside this country who use our hunting issue to undermine our stance on wider, more significant animal welfare issues.

Whaling is an animal welfare issue, because we inflict terrible pain and suffering on warm-blooded mammals when the harpoon is fired into them. The time it takes for a whale to die often exceeds one hour; it is estimated that on average 50 per cent. of whales are not killed by the first weapon impact. An independent study financed by Her Majesty's Government showed that some whales were still alive when the whalers cut them up. There is no way of finding a painless way to kill a great whale. Not only is organised whaling economically unnecessary and ecologically unacceptable, it is also extremely cruel.

The attitude of countries such as Japan and Norway is breathtaking in its arrogance and defiance of world opinion. It is sometimes difficult to understand how such economically powerful and supposedly civilised countries can continue such offensive and cruel slaughter of the great whales. In so far as the whales are owned by anyone, they are owned by all of us.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I agree absolutely with everything that he said. Would he care to comment on the falsification of figures in the past in returns to the International Whaling Commission by countries that have taken up so-called scientific whaling? Would he also like to comment on the number of massive fishing fleets, especially in the Pacific and the south Atlantic, that have taken and sold whales illegally and not reported the fact to anyone? Does he not think that there

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should be a much better surveillance system on all fishing fleets to protect what remains of the great whales?

Mr. Banks : I absolutely agree. I want to ask the Minister about our involvement in the revised management scheme and the DNA records. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) has worked with me on this issue in all the years we have been in Parliament and knows the matter as well, if not better, than I do.

The moratorium has worked more or less and certain populations of whales can be argued to have reached healthier levels. It is at this point that we are told that they can survive being harvested—a horrible euphemism for slaughtering that ignores the cruelty. We brought whales back from the brink of extinction and yet there are countries, including some of those that brought that crisis about, that now want to reintroduce commercial whaling. They must not be allowed to succeed.

One of the most contemptible practices employed by the Japanese is the buying of votes in the IWC—providing development and fisheries aid to a number of countries on condition that they will vote with Japan at the IWC. I have a list here: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Morocco, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada and Guinea. Two more countries—Panama and Peru—are likely to join the IWC this year as part of the Japanese vote-buying strategy. Namibia and Togo are rumoured to be potential IWC members, having signed fisheries agreements with the Japanese.

The Government must challenge Japan on that vote buying, because if it is allowed to succeed at the IWC it will, in effect, buy a return to whaling. Most of the countries that I listed are members of the Commonwealth. Has the issue been raised at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, or will it be raised at them in the future? The Minister or the Foreign Office should call in the high commissioners of each of those countries and tell them that if they accept conditional aid from the Japanese, the British Government will withdraw development aid from them. We must impose appropriate sanctions on countries that continue to whale or to allow whaling in their territorial waters.

The plenary meetings of the IWC will begin in London on 23 July. We Londoners must let the whaling nations and their vassal states know how this country feels about what they are doing. At the meetings in Hammersmith, there will be discussions about the revised management scheme that has been mentioned. By definition, we cannot accept a revised management scheme if we oppose the idea of whaling, but it is essential for us to be involved in the discussions. No mechanism has yet been proposed for the enforcement of the rules and for the penalisation of those who infringe them.

Whaling nations oppose any advancement of the RMS because they object to international observation and inspection. They say that that is on the ground of cost, but we know what it is really about: they do not want the world to bear witness to what they are doing. Similarly, they oppose the establishment of an

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international DNA database to track legal and illegal whale products. Of course, they also oppose any discussion of the humane considerations surrounding whale killing.

I would like the Minister to spell out the position that the Government will adopt at the IWC, and I shall ask him a few specific questions. First, will he insist that humane considerations be given priority? Whales are slaughtered without any legislative framework to provide standards or even recommendations about methods of killing. In Monaco in February, a large number of countries spoke in support of the UK's data collection protocol and we must build on that.

Secondly, the scientific committee does not have sufficient expertise on welfare matters. What proposals do the Government have to provide such expertise? Thirdly, what resolution will the Minister propose on the ethical considerations associated with the whale kill? Fourthly, will the Government support an independent DNA database? Fifthly, will he do what he can to ensure that Iceland is not permitted to rejoin the IWC while it maintains its reservations to the moratorium?

This House is united in the objective of ending whaling completely. In the meantime, however, we must put in place the most rigorous rules to try to mitigate the damage being done by countries such as Japan and Norway. Ultimately, the so-called civilised nations that continue to slaughter whales must be forced to acknowledge that what they are doing is not pursuing cultural or historical activities, but perpetrating crimes against the planet and world opinion. No country, however big and powerful, should be allowed to get away with that.

I thank the Government for their refusal to allow Norway to count minke whales in our waters. I tabled an early-day motion on that matter and it is attracting considerable support from hon. Members in all parties. I wish the Minister well in his efforts to control and ultimately ban all forms of whaling. When he goes to the IWC, he will take the support of all parties in the House. I feel strongly, and I think that world public opinion does too, that whaling must be brought to an end. I wish the Minister well in his deliberations to achieve that objective.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) on initiating the debate. He has articulated strong views, which a majority in this country share and which are also held internationally. He has been a longstanding campaigner on the issue and can speak on whaling with authority and knowledge. I hope that the countries that are still involved in it will take note of his comments because he is articulating an important strand of thought.

My hon. Friend is right that the International Whaling Commission will be holding its third annual meeting in London between 23 and 27 July. I can confirm that the UK delegation will oppose all forms of whaling, other than some subsistence whaling by indigenous people, which is insignificant in comparison

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with the whaling carried out by Japan and Norway. We strongly support the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling and will robustly resist any attempt by other countries to weaken or reverse it.

My hon. Friend is right that there will be further detailed discussions on the revised management scheme that is being developed to regulate all aspects of commercial whaling. We are totally opposed to any return of commercial whaling. We recognise that whaling has been going on and that there is a need for proper regulation. We have participated constructively in work on that to ensure that our voice and scientific expertise are involved.

I should make it clear that we are in no way satisfied with the current content of the RMS. As it stands, it provides insufficient safeguards. Like many like-minded countries, the UK is seeking a comprehensive RMS that would ensure that no form of whaling was a threat to whale conservation and that catch limits and other rules were strictly observed.

One key aspect of any RMS—this is one of the points that my hon. Friend outlined—is that there must be an effective and robust DNA database. There must also be provision for international observers on whaling vessels. Without those two key elements, the RMS will be completely ineffective. We are not satisfied with the procedures that have been agreed so far and we will not compromise on the points that I mentioned.

Jeremy Corbyn : I welcome the Minister's remarks. What plans does he hope the International Whaling Commission will produce for the observation of illegal whaling in the Pacific and south Atlantic and of massive over-fishing and over-catching? What does he hope that the IWC will do about the use of long nets, which catch many smaller mammals in addition to the fish that they are designed to catch, resulting in the loss of the food source of many whales? Does the Minister accept that a comprehensive strategy is needed, as well as the strongest possible intervention against illegal fishing?

Mr. Morley : I certainly accept my hon. Friend's points. Indeed, an observer programme might well be part of an international approach to the problems of cetacean bycatch, which involve both great whales and small cetaceans. One of a number of fundamental disagreements that the UK has with the pro-whaling lobby in the IWC is that we believe that the IWC has competence on issues such as small cetaceans. We also believe that it should have an evolving role—it should evolve away from regulating the commercial exploitation of whales, which it was originally set up to do, towards dealing with environmental threats to whales, which come from several sources, including pollution, over-fishing and a range of other issues that it is important for the IWC to note. The IWC has a good scientific base and the UK plays a full role in that regard, along with other countries. We should use that scientific base to tackle the issues that I have mentioned.

International over-fishing goes beyond the competence of the IWC. However, the UK takes the matter seriously and has raised it with UN organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation to ensure that there is international action on regulating the illegal fishing that has been taking place on the high seas.

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I echo my hon. Friend's argument that, scientifically, it is ludicrous to try to hold whales responsible for the perilous state of many international fish stocks. Whales are an integral part of the marine ecology and the state of whale stocks is a biological indicator of the ecological health of our seas. The fact that many species have not recovered well suggests that all is not right in relation to the exploitation of our seas. We must tackle that internationally. Speaking as a Minister with responsibility for fisheries, I know only too well that the impact of modern fishing fleets on fish stocks all over the world is much more detrimental than that of any whale. I made that point forcefully to the Japanese commissioner and scientists who gave an unimpressive presentation on the subject at the most recent IWC.

We are disappointed with the lack of compromise demonstrated by the pro-whaling countries. Nevertheless, we shall continue to take part in discussions, as it is important that we have input on issues such as the revised management scheme. We will make it clear that our participation in that work is without prejudice to our declared opposition to any form of commercial whaling. There should be no misunderstanding about that.

A key element of conservation of whales that will arise in the IWC is the creation of regional whale sanctuaries. We strongly supported the initiative proposed last year by Australia and New Zealand to create a south Pacific whale sanctuary. This year, Brazil will propose a south Atlantic whale sanctuary. Those sanctuaries will afford greater protection to whales in areas that are highly important for their breeding and feeding and are on their migration routes. It would be irresponsible to oppose those sanctuaries, which would be an important step for conservation, on the grounds that they might interfere with commercial exploitation. We will support the proposals strongly and argue for them robustly.

With the majority of IWC members, we have also consistently criticised Japan for its whaling operations authorised under special permits—the so-called scientific whaling to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred. Like him, we were appalled last year when Japan extended those whaling operations to cover two further species, sperm and Bryde's whales. Under the IWC's parent convention, IWC approval for those proposals is not needed and it is for Japan to authorise whaling under special permit. However, we expected Japan to take note of the IWC's views and those of its scientific committee. We will again register the Government's strong objection to the activity and urge Japan to restructure the research so that its objectives are achieved by non-lethal means. Whales need not be killed to be studied.

We also intend to ask Norway to reconsider its whaling activities, because we believe that they are contrary to the IWC moratorium. Iceland has no case to rejoin the IWC with a reservation on the moratorium. A country cannot set out its reservations to an international organisation before it has joined it. We are taking legal advice on Iceland's position. We are especially disappointed that Norway, which generally has a good environmental record, has disregarded the decisions of the IWC and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species by deciding

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to export whale products. That is a principal reason why we have refused permission for its whale count in United Kingdom waters this year.

We will also raise the argument about cruelty that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I think that it is on the record that I have had a financial relationship with the International Fund for Animal Welfare in the past.

I congratulate the Minister on his radio broadcast of a couple of days ago. It probably reached a bigger audience than the debate will, and made many of the same points effectively. He said that the Government had blocked the Norwegian survey in our waters this year. How will he come to a judgment on future years? Is that matter still open, or is it likely that the Norwegian survey will continue to be blocked?

Mr. Morley : Generally speaking, it is important to have good science and to co-operate internationally on collecting and sharing data. That is the fundamental basis for a sound scientific approach. Our objection to Norway is that it has ignored international conventions, and CITES in particular, by trying to restart the export of whale products.

We object to the Norwegian method of calculating its self-imposed quota for taking minke whales. We do not think that the survey makes sound science or that it helps whale conservation. Of course, if Norway changes its stance and the criteria that it applies in its approach to whales and its study of them, we shall reconsider our decision in future years, but we are not prepared to assist Norway in the matter of information relating to the quotas it has set itself for the slaughter of whales, particularly given that country's behaviour internationally.

The UK will express its concern about the cruelty involved in whaling and about inhumane methods and lack of regulation in the hunting of not only great whales but small cetaceans. Video evidence from the Environmental Investigation Agency showed appalling scenes of the slaughter of small cetaceans. We raised that matter at the IWC last year. We shall also promote the practice of whale watching, which is a way for many countries to benefit from whales without killing them. Even whale watching needs regulation and management and that is an important function of the IWC.

Jeremy Corbyn : I endorse what my hon. Friend has said about whale watching and whale tourism. I understand that that could be a way to change the mind of some of the smaller countries whose votes have been bought by Japan. They may be persuaded that there is more in it for them in the future if they pursue ecological tourism and whale observation than there would be in accepting gifts from Japan in a trade-off for votes to permit the continuation of scientific whaling. Are the Government prepared to think further about that?

Mr. Morley : Yes, I am pleased to reassure my hon. Friend. We have been actively involved in that approach and sponsored a study of the benefits of whale watching in the Caribbean. I am glad to say that we received

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support from several Caribbean countries. At this year's IWC we shall present a properly researched analysis of the benefits of whale watching off the west of Scotland, so that small countries can see that there is an economic return from whale watching—perhaps a greater one than can be had from the sort of commercial exploitation that is now taking place.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham will know that Japan strongly denies vote buying, but it is accepted that there has been, shall we say, recruitment. It is for the Governments concerned to answer for themselves on those issues, but there is strong public opinion about whaling in the countries involved. The relevant Governments are democratically accountable and I hope that they will account for their actions. They are individual delegates to the IWC. They do not have to follow a given line; they can listen to the arguments. We shall be arguing strongly on issues such as whale sanctuaries, which are important.

I should be disappointed to be given evidence that Japan, for the sake of argument, had tried to use whatever influence it had to persuade delegates to vote in a certain way. That would ultimately rebound

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strongly on the Governments concerned and it is one reason for our intention to resist moves for voting in secret at the IWC. We are all accountable to our electorates and Parliaments. People should be able to witness a transparent, open process at the IWC.

Our Commonwealth links are strong and I set great store by them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been active in its contacts with our Commonwealth partners and other countries, in raising international and conservation issues in both the IWC and CITES contexts. I pay tribute to what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has done. It has managed to air the arguments in a way that is not patronising or threatening to the countries concerned; it has simply put the case for whale conservation and explained what would be at stake if commercial whaling returned or CITES were relaxed. It has outlined the risks—not only the prospect of cruelty, but the risk to many whale species that are still on the brink of extinction.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham that I know the views of the House very well and he has put them forcibly and strongly. We will ensure that they are articulated firmly at the forthcoming IWC.

Question put and agreed to.

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