HC Deb 06 February 1967 vol 740 cc1070-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McBride.]

12.30 p.m.

Mr. W. H. Loveys (Chichester)

I find myself in a somewhat ironical situation. Having spoken against certain procedural changes which are likely to make Parliament a body less representative of all the interests in the country, including morning sittings, I am delighted at being fortunate enough to obtain the first Adjournment debate to take place on a Monday morning on a matter which is of great concern to most coastal constituencies, particularly mine.

The problem of oil pollution of the beaches is very old. It affects almost every coastal constituency to a greater or lesser extent. It affects our holiday industry, which is the largest dollar-earning industry in the country and which is going through a particularly tough time in many ways under the present Government. I should be out of order if I referred to that matter this morning.

I admit straight away some reluctance in drawing attention to this matter since one has the fear that the impression may be created that all our beaches are covered with oil and tar, which would deter holiday makers. This, of course, is not a true picture, and the Government have a wonderful opportunity of relieving the anxieties which have been caused by giving two definite assurances to the House.

The first is that further efforts will be made to disperse the oil at sea which is the cause of the pollution of the beaches. I am glad to see the Minister of State, Board of Trade, with us, as well as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government because this is very much a problem which affects both Ministries. The second point on which I hope we shat' have an assurance is that before further efforts to disperse the oil at sea become more successful grants will be made to help local authorities to clear beaches when particularly serious outbreaks occur. It is on these two points that I wish to address my remarks and stress the need for Government action.

Before doing that, I should like to say a few words about the menace itself. The most unpleasant factor is undoubtedly the terrible suffering inflicted on birds. There has been a tremendously wide Press coverage lately by such diverse publications as The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Express, Daily Mirror and the Sun and many local newspapers which have the problem on their doorstep. I am sure that the Minister, who has made local inquiries in my constituency, is aware of the articles in the Chichester Observer and the West Sussex Gazette covering the most serious pollution which has taken place and the Bognor Regis Post covering the smaller outbreak in that area.

On 24th January The Times had an article which rightly referred to "a southern massacre". It had made a survey of a five-mile stretch around Selsey Bill. The article stated: It is impossible to know the real toll but about 5,000 birds died recently from oil in the Medway". It is certainly true that on some of the beaches in my constituency hundreds of birds, dead and dying, have been picked up. The birds take from two days to three weeks to die in great pain. The diver varieties suffer the worst. They dive down through the oil and up through it. It gets in their lungs and they suffer great pain. The birds which float on the oil suffer later when they try to clean themselves and get the tar inside them. The R.S.P.C.A. does a wonderful job in cleaning the birds, but it finds it impossible to clean them without removing some of the natural oils on which the birds rely for protection.

Another unpleasant factor is the hardship caused to holidaymakers and the tourist trade. The oil clings to one's clothes. It is most unpleasant and very damaging. Many hoteliers and boarding house keepers have had carpets and furniture ruined when the substance is brought in inadvertently. It is no wonder that local authorities have received many letters from would-be holidaymakers asking whether they could guarantee that their beaches would be free from oil. It is difficult for local authorities to answer these letters unless the Government give firm assurances of help.

A definite step forward was taken in the efforts which are made to solve this problem when an international agreement was signed on 12th May, 1954, not to discharge oil near coasts, but not every maritime nation signed this agreement. I understand that even today many of those which did sign have not ratified the agreement. I should welcome an assurance that every action is being taken to get this agreement, which is now 13 years old, properly ratified. According to the Sunday Times of only yesterday, a new break-through in research is expected in this country. I should welcome any news that there is to give about this.

The oil companies have been doing considerable research. They are naturally very worried about oil pollution. They are spending large sums of money on research. There is also the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea, which has been set up for many years and which meets regularly. Its president is none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is very keen on this subject. He was Chairman of the Committee for many years. I should have thought that there would not be much difficulty in getting money from the right hon. Gentleman for this matter.

There is a so-called early warning system concerning the oil slicks noticed at sea. The Minister of State, Board of Trade, in reply to a Question of mine on 27th January, said: When coastguards receive information about oil patches off-shore, they immediately notify local authorities which are assisted in dealing with offshore pollution by the Services as the resources of the latter allow."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1967; Vol. 739, c. 381–2.] What does this mean? What are the resources available to the Services to help in this important matter?

That they are unsatisfactory and not working properly has been proved recently by a large patch of oil, estimated at 15 miles in length, seen floating in the English Channel on 16th January which was washed ashore two days later. It is all very well to say that the local authorities knew that it was there, but they have no power to deal with the oil until it reaches their beaches. I should like to know whether the early warning system can be tightened up so that the Services have better resources to deal with the oil before it reaches the beaches. Whatever international agreement is made about discharging oil at sea, it cannot deal with the problem of accidents at sea and near the shore. Therefore, there are bound to be occasions when oil is washed ashore.

This brings me to the main problem with which the debate is concerned—the need for Government help in cleaning up the beaches. The reason I feel that this should be treated as a national problem can be best illustrated by the recent very serious outbreak in my constituency. A large patch of oil or tarry substance—some of the lumps were very big—arrived on a stretch of about 11 miles of beach in the area of the Chichester Rural District Council. Mr. Giles, the clerk of that council, has sent me some helpful notes about it, saying that the lumps varied from the size of large pebbles to pools of 10 to 20 feet in diameter and 7 inches in depths. The material was semi-plastic and strongly adhesive.

In reply to another Question of mine, on 27th January, the Minister of State, Board of Trade said that there is no clear evidence of the source of this pollution and therefore no action can be taken against the offender."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 27th January, 1967; Vol. 739, c. 381.] The problem in this type of attack is that there is no remedy when one does not know the source of the trouble.

Bognor Regis Council, which has taken quick action to remove oil from its beaches, has had previous experience and has been able to recoup the costs from the offenders, but on this occasion it does not know to whom to turn. Fortunately, however, the problem in that area on this occasion is not very extensive.

I turn to the problem which faces Chichester Rural District Council. I stress that it is a rural district council and not a mighty, wealthy conurbation. It has 11 miles of beach which is affected. I understand that 10 miles is in the council's ownership and that about one mile is privately owned. The council informs me that it would cost something like £10,000 to clean up the beaches from simply this one attack. It is making a gallant start to do this—I cannot use any other word than "gallant"—but this is nothing less than a disaster which is caused by factors completely outside the control of the council, whose beaches are used for the enjoyment of people from all over the country.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

Was the recent oil on the beaches in my hon. Friend's constituency due to the sea of oil of 16th January? Was a request made for helicopters to deal with it? If so, why did nothing happen?

Mr. Loveys

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. This is my point about the early-warning system and the fact that it is not working satisfactorily. I am not sure whether the helicopters were asked to join in. I spoke to the station commander at the time, when they were busily engaged. The slicks were noticed and, I understand, reported, but the duties for the Services are not exactly laid down. They should be laid down so that the early-warning system works satisfactorily.

This should be regarded as a matter for Government help. The local authorities are no more responsible for this disaster than they were for the need for wartime defences. They were given a 100 per cent. grant for removing the wartime defences. They even get a 50 per cent. grant, and sometimes as much as 60 per cent., from the Government for ordinary sea defence work. There is urgency for relief work when flood damage occurs. The problem of oil pollution should be looked at again and specific grants should be given for what is a real need for emergency relief.

The cost to the Exchequer would not be very much, because on many occasions it would all be recouped when the culprit was found and had to pay damages. In a case like the present one, however, when enormous expense is caused to a comparatively small authority which does not know to whom to turn to recoup the cost, it is a very serious matter. It may be that the rural district council could obtain help from the county council—I do not know; but nothing is laid down that the county council must help. The present situation is that the rural district council is the responsible body for finding the whole cost. I ought to declare my interest as a ratepayer in the district.

I hope that we will get something more than just sympathetic noises from the Government about this disaster which has hit my constituency, about future sudden disasters which may hit any part of the coast at any time and, above all, about specific plans to deal with oil pollution before it actually reaches the beaches.

12.44 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I should like briefly to support my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys). This is a matter which I have raised in the House during the whole time of my membership. We know of the damage both to birds and bikinis, and we know what something must be done centrally about this problem because local efforts will not suffice.

There are two problems. One is the prevention of discharge of oil from tankers and the washing of ships' ballast tanks. Those responsible on ships always say that somebody else has caused the trouble with the result that it is almost impossible to catch the offender.

The other problem relates to the question of curing the trouble. I have it on the best possible authority that the Navy has both the means and the resources for destroying, dispersing, sinking or precipitating floating oil. The tragedy, however, so I am told by the Navy, is that it is not called in for the very reason mentioned by my hon. Friend, namely, that local authorities are apprehensive of the burden of oil floating inshore and wait to the very last moment hoping that the wind will change and the oil will go somewhere else. Finally, when they see it descending upon them they telephone in panic for the Navy, but by that time it is too late.

So that we should not suffer this rather idiotic state of affairs, there should be a central organisation and funds for the destruction of the oil. The money might somehow be side-stepped as a central matter from the general grant so that resources are available to be used no matter what part of our beaches are fouled.

12.46 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I join the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) in expressing my pleasure that we are able to have this important discussion at a known time and under calm conditions rather than in the small hours of the morning. This enables us to look at these problems with the seriousness that they deserve and in a dispassionate manner. I do not in any way hide the seriousness of the problem. As the hon. Member has said, it is cruel to birds. It is very unpleasant for people who want to enjoy the beaches, and it is often, at some stage, an obvious wanton piece of indifference to other people's rights, happiness and enjoyment when the oil is discharged in this way.

I would like to look at some of the problems that have been put to us, but let me first grasp the main nettle concerning grants. The Government have no power to give specific grants towards this work and, as was said when we discussed this matter during the passage of the Local Government Bill, they do not at the present stage intend to obtain those powers. I am not saying that we are rigid about the matter and that we are indifferent to the problems, but, for reasons which I will make presently. I do not think that the financial burden is the most critical problem.

The hon. Member has mentioned the particular bad case facing Chichester Rural District Council, which I recognise, is a different problem from that of a large town. Even in the case of the Chichester R.D.C., however, the cost was about a penny rate. Although a penny rate is a burden for anyone, it has to be balanced against other authorities which have to cope with their own particular problems. Some places have problems of smoke abatement which are very acute. Some have special problems in dealing with refuse disposal and sewage which are, perhaps, easier in some of the places on the coast. Therefore, to look at the problem in perspective—

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that many coastal towns have a very great problem concerning sewage disposal and that in the past his Ministry has given grants towards direct disposal into the sea, which is now very much criticised, and that it is extremely expensive to pipe it a long way out to sea and often quite impracticable to pump it back and deal with it on land?

Mr. MacColl

I do not want to get diverted into an entertaining discussion on that matter. I merely put the view of a North Country Member of Parliament from an industrial constituency who sometimes wonders whether people on the coast realise their advantages. I do not want to be cold or unhelpful about the problems of local authorities, but I do say that at the moment one would not have a case for choosing this particular problem for a specific grant, particularly at time when the policy of the Government, largely supported by the Opposition, has been to move from specific grants to a general rate support grant.

If I may explain the position about dispersal, it is that dispersal at sea is not a Government responsibility. The Government's responsibility is confined to detecting offenders and trying to bring them to book. ft is perfectly true that the Royal Navy has done a great deal of work which has been of enormous help. I am glad that hon. Members have mentioned that. What it has been able to do is certainly of importance, but it does not do it as a duty, and nor is it the duty of the central Government.

The difficulties are not entirely a matter of the cost of doing it. With developments in the Navy and the growth of extremely complicated and highly sophisticated ships of war, the Royal Navy is not equipped for this sort of work. So it is not just a question of the cost of doing it. Some local authorities have powers to undertake dispersal work in tidal waters, and to disperse the oil before it reaches the beaches.

The hon. Member for Chichester asked about the International Convention. The position now is that 31 countries have accepted the Convention, and they include most of the major maritime countries. As a result of the Convention, in this country the Oil in Navigable Waters Act was passed in 1955. That gives harbour authorities, conservancy boards and sea fisheries committees the power to start prosecutions against people who are caught polluting the sea in this way. But enforcement of the law is always a problem. It is no use having legislation making it an offence unless offenders can be caught and brought to book. There have been quite a number of prosecutions, though not enough against the background of the damage which has been done.

One point to which I would draw attention is that, under the Act, a court can order compensation to be paid to the authority responsible for clearing away some of the damage which has been caused. It is not for us to tell the courts what to do, but my right hon. Friend would very much welcome it if that power were used. As yet, it has not been used very often, but it would be helpful if that kind of compensatory grant could be made.

Dr. Bennett

Do those powers extend to proceedings against wrecks pouring out oil, of which there are a couple littering the Solent now? If there is a disaster to a ship, can the hon. Gentleman say whether proceedings can be taken against that ship, although it has suffered a disaster?

Mr. MacColl

My first thought would be that it would not be possible. However it is a point that I shall look at and I will write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Does not the problem mostly arise from tankers cleaning tanks at sea, which they should not do? Are facilities for cleaning tanks ashore increasing? They were quite insufficient a few years ago.

Mr. MacColl

Those are the kinds of points which are being looked at. We are not in any way adopting the position that we have solved the problem and are doing nothing more about it. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we are engaged in quite a number of pieces of work on the subject. For example, the Warren Spring Laboratory of the D.S.I.R. has carried out experimental work on techniques for the removal of oil from beaches, including full scale trials at Shoeburyness and Eastbourne. A report containing some valuable information has been sent to coastal local authorities. There is a technical working group which has been mentioned once or twice in answer to Questions consisting of representatives of the local authority associations and the Institute of Petroleum, which started work in October. Its terms of reference were to find an efficient and economical way of combating oil pollution on beaches. I notice that the chairman of that group said at a recent Press conference that he hoped its report would be in my right hon. Friend's hands by mid-summer. The group has also sent a questionnaire to some 500 local authorities about their experience and about expenditure on these problems. That should give us a very valuable background of information on which to base any further examination of the subject.

It is a very serious and difficult subject. My right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade have concurrent responsibilities for it, and they keep in close contact with each other to try and solve the problem.

I welcome this opportunity of having a discussion about it. It is important that we should keep it in mind and make it clear to the public that we are worried about the position and anxious to explore some ways of improving it. If what I say is thought to be inconclusive, it is due to the fact that we have started these various different movements and inquiries to try and assess the position. When we get full information, it will be possible to come to a rather more balanced decision about the best way of tackling it. I hope that the House would regard this debate as essentially an interim one at the moment and not a final answer on some of the acute and difficult problems which have been raised—

Mr. Loveys


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Parliamentary Secretary has sat down. Sir Charles Taylor.

12.58 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not think that I am being brutal when I say that I regard his reply as very unsatisfactory. If there is a sea of oil floating up the Channel which lands on one seaside resort, just missing other resorts on the way, I cannot see why the one poor resort which is hit by the oil should be responsible for the money involved in cleaning it up. I feel that the Government must accept responsibility. After all, they are trying to get people to spend their holidays in this country. They are publicising our resorts throughout the world through the British Travel Association, and I regard clean beaches as absolutely pre-eminent among the problems of our holiday resorts.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) will not let this matter drop. We shall all pursue the Government, because I am quite certain that it is their responsibility to clean up our beaches which ships foul through no fault of the resorts concerned.

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting till half-past Two o'clock pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.