HC Deb 16 May 1952 vol 500 cc1858-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."ߞ[Mr. Butcher.]

4.1 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I seek to bring before the House a matter which, compared with the contentious week we have had and the somewhat uproarious scene we have just witnessed, will be, I trust, a very placid affair, and which, I hope, will be to the liking of all parts of the House. It is a matter which affects all the coasts of our islands, and I do feel that it is a thing which is rapidly needing some more powerful intervention than has hitherto been given it. I refer to the matter of the pollution of our coastal navigable waters by fuel oil.

The Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922, in Section 1 (1) says: If any oil is discharged, or allowed to escape whether directly or indirectly, into any waters to which this Act applies from any vessel or from any place on land … the owner or master of the vessel … occupier of the land … or the person having charge… shall be guilty of an offence and shall, in respect of each such offence, be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds. Section 8 (3) says: The waters to which this Act applies are the territorial waters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the waters of harbours therein. There can be no doubt that this Act is now suffering from a disregard that is nothing less than wholesale.

The source of this oil is a matter which is, perhaps, of some conjecture. Clearly, one source of origin is shipping in general, which is giving rise to oil by seepage or leakage from tanks or by deliberate evacuation, this oil so evacuated being bunker oil or fuel the vessel uses itself. In this connection it is, perhaps noteworthy that 83 per cent. of the shipping that is going about the seas today is oil burning, as against a mere 55 per cent. in 1939. The second possible source of this oil is the oil establishments and tankers which are situated on and around our coasts, the first producing local fouling, and the second, fouling that is not local, arising from the waste or residues of bunker fuel and of crude oil.

The third possible source is the wrecks that abound around our coasts—they have abounded especially since the recent war —which are said in some circles to be giving rise to semi-solid discharges of altered oil in the form of sludge and tars, and those products may, perhaps, be most notably found on the coasts of Cornwall, where they are giving rise to great complaint. Of course, whatever the source may be, there is no doubt that it is the semi-solid tarry residues as they are found which are causing the trouble.

I hope that the report of the Government chemist, which we may hope to have some time in the near future, will give some information about where the oil that causes the trouble may be coming from. Action under this Act may be initiated by a number of bodies. The original Act does not include the Ministry of Transport. I understand that by subsequent legislation. the Ministry of Transport has not only come into being but assumed responsibility, so that my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is here today to answer this short debate.

It is obviously very difficult indeed for the open sea to be supervised at all. The particular problem I wish to raise today is that of the Solent. Here, as elsewhere, the scale of the fouling by oil is increasing, in proportion perhaps to the increasing activities of ships there and of the oil establishments. For instance, in 1949, the Port of Southampton handled 11,264 ships of a total of 11¼ million tons, whereas last year, only two years later, it handled 12.831 ships of a total of 15 million tons.

The new oil port of Fawley now handles no less than one-quarter of the whole United Kingdom oil traffic, which amounts to seven million gallons daily; and it handles no fewer than 200 ships a month as against 134 ships a month two years ago—an increase of exactly 50 per cent. A point not to be ignored is that, of the oil brought to Fawley pretty well all is taken away again by tanker, no less than half of it in the form of heavy bunker oil.

The Solent is subject to certain difficulties of responsibility which do not exist elsewhere. If one stands by the sea mark on the point by Titchfield Haven, on the shores of my constituency, and takes a line westerly to Stansore Point on the New Forest shore, northwest of that line is the Port of Southampton. If one takes a line to the south-south-west, to Old Castle Point, the nearest point on the Isle of Wight, southeast on that line is the naval port of Portsmouth. Wedged between those lines, and extending away to the southwest, is what we might call Tom Tiddler's ground: it is nobody's business. Of course, tankers and other vessels move freely between those three areas and anchor where they choose, in any of these zones, so that they are constantly shifting from one jurisdiction to another. This constitutes an administrative problem badly in need of some consideration.

My own interest in this matter is obviously a local one. Ever since I have been elected for the constituency of Gosport and Fareham, I have tried to bring before the Government of the day the situation in the Solent and Southampton Water. My interest is identical with that of those who live or disport themselves on the shores of the Solent. or on its oily water—or even in them.

Like everybody else who goes to sea and returns to the Port of Southampton, on rounding Calshot almost every time one runs into acreages of oil on the surface of the water; any day one see rafts of oil being borne out of Southampton Water on the ebb tide. Last August, when I was in bed ill for the whole month, I had to watch from my bedroom window, day after day, in that stormy month, a continual stream of oil flowing round the corner of Titchfield Haven from the direction of Southampton Water. When I returned to this country from convalescence early in September I was called within an hour to look at the water at Titchfield Haven—water, did I say? When I got to Titchfield Haven, I saw oil so thick that no water at all was visible; it was like looking into a soup tureen or the top of an ordinary oil tank.

Further evidence is afforded by those who have attempted to keep boats in the water there. A neighbour of mine has a little red sailing boat called "Naida," painted white underneath, which lies off the shore on a mooring. Being inshore, she is on the ground more than half the time. Last year I was horrified to see building up on the bottom of the boat great growths, structures and lumps of this oil residue that had collected tide after tide. This is not an academic matter; I believe it is one of practical damage. It is costly, wantonly destructive and moving whole populations in the area to real wrath. I have plenty of correspondence about this subject over the years, a tale of beaches ruined and summer holidays spoilt.

Right through the Solent and round to the "Back of the Island," at Sandown, the beaches are now ruined and almost unusable. Visitors' clothes are wrecked and stained indelibly. I will quote one letter from a friend at Portsmouth, a prosperous suburb of ours, who visited Stokes Bay recently. He says: On Sunday last I saw this: A gentleman pulled up in his car and out leapt three children —ages from three to seven or thereabouts. The smaller one, dressed in a yellow frock with panties and hair ribbon to match, costing about £3 to £5 a set, thought she would like to pal-up with the sand and proceeded to sit down on it. She then took quite a lot of shingle to make a pile of it on the sand. Perhaps a midge—maybe a mosquito—had a bite at her and she rubbed her hands down her face. The result was almost a coal black mammy and complete ruin of her frock, panties, etc., because, believe me, that oil stain never comes out. I know that it has been a customary thing for families visiting the beach at Stokes Bay—I am speaking of the years before the war—to take with them pats of butter with which to try and remove the stains. I do not think any administration could recommend that now. I make no apologies for speaking for yachtsmen and for amateur sailors who go round in their boats, whose sails and paintwork were discoloured this year on their very first setting out at Easter. It is not just bad seamanship that suffers; you don't need to let your sail go with a run into the water. Every spot of spray makes a lasting blot on the sails and discolours them for ever. So people are put to a frightful expense in the cost of renewal, new clothes, new paint and new sails. No individual, nor the country. can afford such waste.

Where is all the oil coming from in the Solent and Southampton Water? Seepage from ships? Maybe. But this would not amount to much. Wrecks? Perhaps elsewhere—but there are no wrecks breaking up in the Solent. It is often suggested that the oil is blown in from the open sea. That is a fantastic suggestion, because any seaman knows that the wind in the Solent blows Southwest, even if it is different elsewhere. It blows up from the Needles channel, where a complete screen lies across the way. There are the Isle of Wight, the Shingles shoal, which is never covered, and Hurst Castle and promontory, completely screening anything that could be driven in on the surface.

Some blame the naval port of Portsmouth, but I have here a letter from the town clerk of Portsmouth, who states: It is curious that although the dockyard has been in existence for many years, no complaints were made until the commencement of refining operations at Fawley. I am satisfied that the discipline in the Navy is a good deal better on this matter than it is at Southampton Water.

I would say that there are two main sources. One is major accidents at Fawley or Hamble. Last Easter Sunday there was a great disaster. A complete tank full of the oil-water mixture from a tanker was allowed to flow into Southampton Water, so, of course, the whole place was obliterated. Although people worked all night with a boom and lighter collecting what they could of the mess, and although the culprit was dismissed, the boats and beaches were wrecked for miles in all directions. I appreciate the efforts which Fawley has made, and would say that this constitutes a much better form of public relations than the initial denials that accidents could happen there.

The other main potential source I think must be tankers. One of my hon. Friends observed at Easter an unpleasant sight. Tankers are so numerous now that many came to lie in Cowes Roads. There is a sort of overflow meeting there in Tom Tiddler's ground, and in the naval area adjoining it. I am convinced that, to save time and trouble, a number of the tankers pump out their bilge residues. They have been seen doing it.

If we remember that almost all the oil from Fawley is reshipped and half of it is heavy bunker, we must regard a two-way traffic as existing at Fawley. I am satisfied that the discipline of the Esso Transportation Company is high. In any case, deep sea tankers do not come in in ballast. They come in with a full cargo and fill up their ballast tanks here. I think that it is the coastal tankers who need more watching. They are seldom, or never, outside territorial waters where they can legally get rid of ballast.

It is a point that, although many people believe that one should go 50 miles from the nearest land to discharge it, that is actually only a matter of a draft convention of the League of Nations in 1935 which was never completed. Although it has been discussed before the Economic and Social Commission of the United Nations since the war, that is all that has happened. As it is, they can release this stuff three miles off shore, though even that may mean 20 miles steaming each way if they do not intend to use the facilities at Fawley or do not wish to take the trouble.

These ships arrive in ballast. Therefore, they have to get rid of it. They all have oily ballast to discharge. If they do not propose to use the separating plant at Fawley then, of course, it goes over the side. The risk of a £100 fine is much less formidable than the trouble of going to sea beyond the three miles to dump the stuff. After all, it is not altogether likely that they will be caught. The chances of getting caught are not, in my opinion, great enough. This is where I think that new efforts are needed.

I think that Fawley has a lively and practical attitude now to the causes and chances of accident. I think the Esso tankers are well disciplined, but the coastal tankers need watching. I have recently locally made suggestions about how the shipping on Southampton Water could be better observed. I have suggested that we should obtain the cooperation of the flying instructors at the Air Service Training school who are training pupil pilots and constantly flying over the Southampton Water area. I have suggested that we should obtain the co-operation of flying instructors at the flying boat base at Calshot. I suggest they could be of great help.

We must also have some sea patrols to watch the shipping, especially perhaps at dawn and dusk. Also we must have established a clear and well-known channel of reporting, available to ordinary citizens. I am far from satisfied that the Southampton Harbour Board is showing that alacrity in protecting local in- terests that is desirable. Complaints are constantly being met by the passing of the buck to the complainant, suggesting that he or she should find the culprit. The responsibility mut be made clear and it must be accepted.

I know that the Southampton Harbour Board is in old-established body organised as such under the Southampton Acts of 1863 onwards, and reconstituted in 1913. But this oil threat is new, and it requires a new attitude. Section 14 of the Act of 1913 lays down that there shall be a Board of 26 members of whom 16 are appointed by various bodies and ten elected. Of these, only one represents waterside frontagers.—

I ask the Minister to draw the attention of this body to its responsibilities and to the need for actively assuming them to a greater extent than at present. I suggest that in the long run, if that does not prove sufficient, it is desirable to add to the representation of front-agers on the Board if the present Board fails to do its duty. I ask the Minister to use all his powers to endeavour to save what is rapidly becoming a devastated region.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

The hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) has raised a matter which is causing considerable concern to a number of residents in the neighbourhood and on the shores of Southampton Water—the increasing danger of the pollution of those waters by oil. There was almost bound to be an increase in the danger, because the tonnage of oil-burning ships using Southampton Water has increased by 2,700,000 tons in the short space of two years. Then, of course, the activities of the Esso Petroleum Company have been very much extended recently. As the hon. Member said, Esso formerly handled 134 ships a month; the figure is now 200 ships a month, and they move about 7 million gallons of oil daily.

The danger of pollution is bound to exist in view of the great magnitude of these operations. The Esso Petroleum Company was fully aware from the start of this danger, and they took steps which they thought would be adequate to deal with it. They installed anti-pollution machinery in their works to the value of £445,300, and they have a specially, care- fully disciplined staff in order to deal with the danger of pollution and to work the machinery which was installed.

The Esso Petroleum Company informs me that on the whole the leakage was very small indeed, with the exception, unfortunately, of the circumstances this Easter to which the hon. Member has referred when there was a substantial leakage which did considerable damage to the shore. That leakage was caused by error on the part of one of the operatives. He was immediately dismissed for his negligence and the Esso Petroleum Company also cleaned up the shore, which had been damaged by oil, spending £200 in doing so. It did that job satisfactorily and itself paid the cost.

The Esso Petroleum Company informs me that they are now taking further precautions and spending a considerable additional sum of money in order to prevent oil leakage. The sum of £500 is to be spent on improved methods of separating oil and water in the ballast water tank discharging into Southampton Water. A further capital investment of £10,000 is to be made for additional separator plant to be brought into operation immediately new refinery tankage is built. A detailed survey has been made of all pipelines throughout the entire refinery to ensure appropriate allowances for expansion of joints.

As a further precaution against unforeseen accidents an additional 4,000 feet of spillage boom, as well as a new steel pontoon and reclamation launch for recovering oil from the water, are to be provided at an estimated capital cost of £15,000. The Company has set up a special study group to consider and make recommendations for the elimination of all potential causes of spillages.

The Company is issuing special and detailed instructions to the captains and navigators of the Company's tankers which use the refinery with a view to seeing that there is no leakage and no pollution of Southampton Water. I think that the Company is doing all it can or can reasonably be expected to do to prevent pollution.

As for the Southampton Harbour Board, to which the hon. Member has made reference, I believe it is composed of a very conscientious, capable body of men, the majority of whom, I would Point out to the hon. Gentleman, are of the same political persuasion as himself.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

In that case they are not likely to be very efficient.

Mr. Morley

They are efficient so far as their abilities will allow them to be. I am sure that they are doing their best to keep Southampton Water free from pollution. I believe that both the Company and the Harbour Board are doing their best, and that any help that the Parliamentary Secretary can give will be very welcome.

4.24 p.m.

Sir Peter Macdonald (Isle of Wight)

I do not intend to take up much time on this matter, but I wish to give my whole-hearted support to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett), who has done good service in raising this question. I had a Question on the subject down for answer last week. I have been carrying on in this House in the last quarter of a century a crusade against the oil pollution of the Solent waters.

A quarter of a century ago I presented to the House a petition signed by about 30,000 inhabitants of the Isle of Wight on the subject of the damage done to seabirds by oil washed ashore. The situation is far worse today than ever before, and that must be due to the fact that this refinery has been established in Southampton Water. In spite of the precautions taken—I know that the Company is taking precautions—the nuisance has greatly increased in the last few months. I urge the Minister to tell us what practical steps he is taking to see that this matter is remedied at the earliest possible moment.

4.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

When my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) announced that his Adjournment Motion was to be on the subject "Oil on Troubled Waters" I was mystified, because this process is usually associated with a calming and soothing effect. It was not until I entered the Chamber just before Four o'Clock and listened to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) on another topic that I realised just what "oil on troubled waters" was intended to convey.

My hon. Friend has raised an issue of great importance. The local trouble at Fawley has already been dealt with. The hon. Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley) has Its pointed out that there was the very serious incident when a cock was left open by a careless employee, who has since been dismissed. Remedial measures are being taken, in the shape of alterations to the tank, with a view to preventing a recurrence of the trouble. Any question of legal proceedings is a matter for the Southampton Harbour Board, but whatever may be their efficiency or their political colour, it is my duty to inform the House that the Ministry of Transport have no power to issue directions to this Board. It is for them to take action, and I shall suggest in a moment the action that might be appropriate.

It is an offence for ships to discharge oil within the three-mile limit, but hon. Members will appreciate the difficulty of obtaining effective evidence on which to base a prosecution. When my hon. Friend says that acquaintances of his have seen ugly sights and unpleasant spectacles, I suggest that if they could go a little further and get the names of the vessels they would be rendering assistance in this matter. Outside the harbour limits my right hon. Friend is always ready to prosecute on the production of conclusive evidence, but he is obviously quite unable to act upon general complaints unsupported by details.

Action is already taken by the Ministry of Transport in this connection. First of all, every master and chief engineer entering our ports is supplied with a notice setting out clearly that it is an offence to discharge oily water inside our territorial waters. Secondly, every complaint of pollution is carefully investigated by the coastguards, and specimens are sent to the Government chemist with a view to tracing the source of origin. It is rather like taking a blood test in paternity cases.

On the general issue, I am sure that the shipping industry is very much alive to its responsibilities, as well as to the difficulties inherent in the subject, as is evidenced by the fact that two bodies. which together represent the shipping industry in this country, namely the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom, and the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association, have set up a committee to deal with the wider aspects of the problem. In addition, there are other committees and sub-committees of the industry which have been studying the technical side of the subject for some time. Moreover, the International Chamber of Shipping, representing shipowners of the principal maritime countries, is considering the possibility of securing the voluntary adoption by all its members of uniform anti-pollution rules.

Meanwhile the co-operation of everyone is required, and any assistance or information received from any source will be welcome. The Ministry of Transport are conducting a comprehensive review of this problem, and when it is completed my right hon. Friend will be ready to discuss the matter further with the shipowners to see whether any further practical measures can be evolved. As my hon. Friend has said, it is sometimes the case that war-time wrecks are a contributory factor, but not, it would appear, in the enclosed waters surrounding Southampton.

I have always believed that these Adjournment debates frequently serve a useful purpose in focusing attention upon matters for which normally the time of the House cannot be found. I trust that this will prove to be one of those occasions, and that the initiative shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham will bear fruit. The fact that we have present on the Front Bench opposite the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), who is one of my distinguished predecessors in the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, will, I hope, add the necessary weight on this occasion to the representations which have been made. I hope that this short debate may receive some publicity which may be of value, and, if so, this brief half hour will prove to have been not in vain.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.