Mount Everest: Safety - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:07 am on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee 11:07 am, 18th July 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they provide to British citizens intending to climb Mount Everest during the autumn and spring seasons to reduce the risk of loss of life; and what representations they have made to the government of Nepal (1) to reduce the number of permits available for climbers in those seasons, and (2) to introduce requirements that all climbers have the necessary skills and training to climb Mount Everest.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, official travel advice for travellers to Nepal, including for those intending to climb Everest, is available on GOV.UK. The Government offer consular support to British nationals who get into trouble in Nepal, including through wardens in popular trekking areas. The British embassy regularly discusses mountain safety with the Nepalese authorities. The embassy has been in contact with mountaineering experts about how to improve the situation, including through the practices of summiteers and tour operators.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in the last five years, there have been 61 deaths on Everest, 11 of them in the spring of this year? In one day, on 23 May this year, there were 250 people trying to summit the mountain. The Nepalese Government have issued record numbers of permits this year—some 380—which will allow some 600 people to tackle the mountain. The result has been that many people have been placed in danger. Will my noble friend urge our ambassador to lobby the Nepalese Government to reduce the number of permits and to make it mandatory that people who go on the mountain, as either outfitters or climbers, are able to demonstrate proper experience and thus will not put other people’s lives at risk? The sums involved could easily be added to the very considerable sums that we provide through overseas aid to the Nepalese Government.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank my noble friend. I think that many people will be in sympathy with what he is saying. I reassure him that the British embassy in Kathmandu regularly discusses mountain safety with the Government of Nepal, ensuring that their policies promote safety for all involved. That was most recently done in June, when consular officials met the senior leadership of the department of tourism. My noble friend makes important points, and in fact the FCO travel advice website covers a number of them. But I hear what he is saying and I will certainly take that back.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that this is a serious situation. In my experience, one of the roles of the guides is to do just such an assessment of the mountaineers. Some of those guide companies come from this country, so there is a role for this country in that process. When it comes to permits, I am sure that the Minister is aware that, while the Nepal side has increased the number of permits, the number of permits coming from the north side—the Tibet side—has substantially collapsed between 2018 and 2019. Does she agree that there is an element of complicating the situation with the Tibet/China relationship? Can she undertake to continue the Government’s work to normalise that relationship?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am interested in what the noble Lord says. That is an aspect of which I was unaware. The Government certainly endeavour to conduct and sustain a positive relationship with China. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth was saying, this is an issue of fundamental safety. We want people to enjoy an exciting and exhilarating pursuit, but it has to be combined with safety. From the Nepalese perspective, it has to be combined also with the safe and sustainable development of tourism—and some very important points have been made about how that progress may be impugned if proper steps are not taken.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

Is the Minister aware that when I went up the Himalayas a few years ago, the Sherpa people there told me that there was not one Sherpa family that had not had a member killed while being a guide in the mountains? It is only when the Europeans came up with this strange idea that you had to get to the top of these uninhabitable regions that these people, because their income is low, started losing their lives. Will the Minister talk to her colleagues in the development department to try to help the income level of those families, so that they do not need to rely on insane Europeans going too high up mountains?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness covers a number of points. I applaud her distinguished experience; I have never been anywhere near Everest myself, and I think I can safely say that that situation is unlikely to change. She will be aware that the United Kingdom has a very good bilateral relationship with Nepal that includes support and financial help. We have been endeavouring to help with advice on, for example, climate change. We have been helping with disaster resilience; we make a very meaningful contribution to Nepal in that respect. Nepal has an interesting economy. There are other tourist opportunities, as the noble Baroness will be aware, apart from climbing these very high mountains. I think the desire will be to support Nepal in its attempts to grow its economy, and tourism is an important part of that, while having regard to the very valid points that the noble Baroness, the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Forsyth have made.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, now that the Minister has lightened the atmosphere a little, would she be kind enough to recommend to the incoming Conservative Party leader that he has a go at Everest? Getting to the top of Everest will be easier than getting a new deal with the Commission.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Well, I already have a very long list of things that I have been asked to put to whoever the incoming leader and new Prime Minister is. I am sure that the successful incumbent will note the noble Lord’s observation with interest.

Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative

My Lords, will the Minister accept that I have a personal interest, as my father was the first man in the world to fly over Mount Everest in 1933, when it was only just technically possible, and if he had not succeeded I would not be here today? Does the Minister accept that Everest is enormously dangerous for mountaineers? There are beliefs that there has been a substantial element of climate change, and full preparations are absolutely necessary for those who wish to do this.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend makes some important points—not least that we owe his presence here today to his late father’s flight over Everest. I am trying to make a connection; it may take me a little time but no doubt I will manage. He makes an important point about climate change. There is evidence that Nepal is being affected by climate change; there has been very serious recent flooding. As my noble friend is aware, the UK is committed to tackling climate change. We are well placed to help Nepal to develop in a low-carbon way without sacrificing growth. Indeed, DfID Nepal offers substantial climate support, primarily through the Nepal climate change support programme and the Nepal renewable energy programme. DfID is also providing support for the important new development, the Arun III hydropower project.