§ 3.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I beg to move,That this House considers that, in view of the great advantages to be obtained for industry and the people of this country from a supply of natural gas, early legislation should be introduced to carry out the provisions of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf, followed by ratification of the Convention, and the speedy issue of licences to prospect and obtain oil and natural gas from the North Sea.I regret that in the very few minutes remaining to me it will be quite impossible for me to explain to the House the somewhat complicated nature of this matter. If I speak rather shortly, I hope the House will not consider me in any way discourteous. There is reason to believe that under the North Sea there is, if not oil, certainly natural gas. The reason for thinking this is that it has been found in Germany and in North Holland in large and commercial quantities. There is no reason to suppose that it is not under the sea on the Continental Shelf outside the shores of these countries.
Those who understand prospecting for this type of natural gas are well prepared at their own expense to prospect under the sea for this natural gas. It is a very seasonal thought at the moment in this very cold weather, that we should have in this country a supply of natural gas for cheap power and cheap heat for our people and for industry.
Before licences can be granted by the Ministry of Power so that prospecting can take place it will be necessary for the House to pass the necessary legislation to ratify Annex IV of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. The Convention of 1958 enters into force thirty days after the date of deposit of the twenty-two ratification—that is to say, after 1381 twenty-two countries have ratified it. Fourteen countries, not including this country, have so far ratified it. There is no reason why, to encourage a few more to do so, so as to bring the Convention into force, we should not ourselves pass the necessary legislation to ratify the Convention, which would enable us to enter into agreements with States also neighbouring on the North Sea so as to define our spheres of interest so that the respective interests in the countries concerned could issue the necessary licences.
There are copies of the Convention in the Vote Office. I can assure the House that legislation to ratify the Convention would be of a formal and entirely non-controversial character. Yet since 1958 we have not had any suggestion that the necessary legislation should be put before the House. I have criticised a good deal of the legislation which has been brought before the House, which has taken up a good deal of time. In a few minutes—an half an hour after ten o'clock one evening—this legislation could be introduced. I am sure that the House would be pleased to pass it quickly without a Division and without any lengthy debate.
It would be of great advantage to the people of this country if this gas were found. It could be piped here, a perfectly easy task, and supplied to the Gas Council, which is anxious to use it. The Gas Council is well aware of its existence and has had discussions with those who are prepared to do the necessary drilling, prospecting and recovery and is anxious that the supply should be made available to the Council for use through the channels which it possesses.
There is only one thing lacking in the whole of the machinery required; legislation from this House to give the Minister power, firstly to enter into agreements with neighbouring countries and, secondly, to enable him to issue the necessary licences to the companies concerned, whose job it would be—at their own expense and risk—to find this very necessary gas and bring it to this country. It would then be for the Gas Council to use it via the gas boards' installations and pipelines.
1382 In the few minutes available to me I have been able to outline only the bare facts of this matter. It is something which could be of extreme importance to this country and which could almost revolutionise the fuel and power needs of our industries and homes. I urge the Government to give an assurance that the necessary legislation will be introduced at the earliest possible moment with a view to issuing, as speedily as possible, the licences which are required to do this necessary exploration.
§ 3.57 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. John Peyton)
I should like to take up the first part of the limited time left to me by thanking my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) for raising this important matter. It is, perhaps, one which has not received all the attention it deserves. I would not begin to deny most of the things he said, either on its importance or its potential value to the country. I must, at the same time, remind my hon. and learned Friend of the two Answers my right hon. Friend gave to him on 10th December last in which, while recognising the importance of the matter, he nevertheless stated that he was unable to promise legislation in the near future, thought admitting it to be necessary.
It might help if I were to remind the House of the present position. The Continental Shelf, so-called, is defined in Article I of the Convention, which is published in Cmnd. 584 of 1958. As my hon. and learned Friend said, the Convention requires twenty-two ratifications before it can come into force. I think I am right in saying that seventeen countries, not fourteen, have so far ratified it, but not yet this country.
The Continental Shelf is defined in Article I as being the sea bed and subsoil between the outer limits of territorial waters and a line of sea depth of 200 metres—and in fact, almost the whole of the North Sea is a depth of less than 200 metres. The Convention would confer sovereign rights on coastal States which would result in the United Kingdom enjoying rights over deposits up to a line roughly halfway across the North Sea to Belgium, Holland and other coastal countries.
1383 It is not possible to say whether exploration would reveal worth-while resources of natural gas or oil. There must be grounds for hope that it would, but it would be wrong to encourage any premature hopes of that kind. Suffice to say that interest has been shown, and is being shown, by a number of important companies. It does not need words from me or from the Government to say how important and valuable to this country would be the discovery of important deposits.
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.