by Ben Borland
A battle for Antarctica is looming after the House of Lords approved plans to “take back” control inadvertently given to Scotland.
The UK’s international rights and responsibilities in the territory were devolved in 1999, meaning ministers in Edinburgh have responsibility for Scottish expeditions and research – although few officials were even aware of it.
Now the Coalition wants to “re-reserve” Antarctica to Westminster through the new Scotland Bill, currently being debated in London. Although SNP ministers are not against the plan, the Scotland Bill Committee at Holyrood has said it should not go ahead.
Former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth of Drumlean suggested last week that First Minister Alex Salmond was now “pressing for some control over Antarctica”.
He told the House of Lords: “As far as I know, Donald Trump has no plans to build a leisure facility in Antarctica, so I cannot imagine why the First Minister would think that his writ should run to Antarctica.” During a debate on Thursday, former Deputy First Minister Lord Wallace of Tankerness and former Lord Advocate Lord Boyd of Duncansby admitted they did not know about the powers.
Labour’s former First Minister Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale added that he had never once discussed the issue of Antarctica during his five and-a-half year term.
Lord Forsyth said: “The Bill is about the exercise of power – we have taken back Antarctica; we are giving other things and it defines the powers of the Scottish Parliament.” Lord Sewel of Gilcomstoun, a former Labour Scottish Office minister, even blasted his own party’s “incompetence” in allowing Antarctica to be devolved in the first place.
He said: “It is a disgrace that, because of the incompetence of ministers in 1998, we have had to re-reserve Antarctica, which is now finishing up where it belongs.”
The first Scotland Bill committee at Holyrood – which sat in the last parliament under Labour convener Wendy Alexander – did not oppose the re-reservation of Antarctica.However, the current committee, convened by SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, has come out strongly against the idea.
The Duke of Montrose told the House of Lords: “The question of Antarctica is particularly interesting because one Scotland Bill committee of the Scottish Parliament felt that it could agree to this being included in the Bill, but the next committee came out and said that it would not agree. We still await the final outcome.”
Meanwhile, two of the most senior members of the Labour/Liberal Democrat Holyrood coalition confessed they had not heard of the legislation.
Lord Boyd said: “As a Scottish Minister, I was not aware that we had any responsibility for Antarctica. I see my noble friend Lord McConnell nodding, so I do not think that he was aware of his responsibility. Clearly, that was a dereliction of duty.”
Lord McConnell insisted he never discussed Antarctica during his time in charge.
Lord Wallace, the Liberal Democrat peer and Advocate General, added: “If the former First Minister knew that he had responsibilities for Antarctica, it is clear that he was not advised on it by his senior law officer, and he certainly did not share the fact with his Deputy.”
A spokesman for Bruce Crawford, the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business, said ministers were not opposed to the proposal but believed it could be done in a more “streamlined” way.
He added: “Tory Lords never miss an opportunity to talk Scotland down, but they should stick to the facts. The Scottish Government’s priority is making Scotland better, and realising our potential.”
Article courtesy of the Scottish Sunday Express