The debate was tabled by Baroness Hooper (Conservative). She opened by noting how our awareness of the UK’s Antarctic heritage has been boosted by a series of centenary events, from exhibitions to radio programmes and a commemorative service at St Pauls in March.
She then turned to the institutions that currently support our presence in Antarctica, specifically the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). In June 2012, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced it was considering a merger between BAS and the National Oceanography Centre. In the light of this she asked: ‘Can the minister give us any reassurance about the future of the British Antarctic Survey? Are the fears that this is the first step in winding down research at the poles justified?’
Baroness Worthington (Labour) also expressed concern at the merger proposals. She said: ‘NERC must be urged to reconsider, and I hope that the government would, if necessary, intervene to restore confidence in BAS and its scientists.’
Lord Willis of Knaresborough (Liberal Democrat) declared an interest as a council member for NERC and sought to reassure members that consultation on the proposals was ongoing and that current scientific programmes were not under threat. He said: ‘There has to be a compelling argument that the merger will enhance opportunities for world-class science.’
Other members drew attention to geopolitical concerns. Lord Oxburgh (Crossbench) said: ‘In the shadows between UK diplomacy and local South American politics, where every trivial action is minutely scrutinised, analysed and reanalysed, are we in danger yet again of inadvertently sending the wrong signals?’
Baroness Warsi (Conservative) responded on behalf of the government. She began by saying: ‘I want specifically to reassure noble Lords that ministers are absolutely committed to maintaining and developing a physical presence in Antarctica.’
She went on to recognise the ‘golden thread of scientific excellence’ that links Scott’s work to today’s scientific programmes and confirmed that ‘we will take all the steps necessary to preserve British supremacy in this field.’
On the issues of diplomacy and geopolitics she stated that: ‘Antarctica is the only continent never to have seen conflict and the UK will strive to ensure that this will always be the case.’
Other speakers included:
Baroness Andrews (Labour), Lord Jenkin of Roding (Conservative), Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat), Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat) and Lord Mitchell (Labour).