HC Deb 08 April 1971 vol 815 cc685-9

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will make a statement regarding the emergency measures being taken to avoid the danger of oil pollution arising from the discharge of oil from the tanker "Panther".

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)

We estimate that the oil slicks in the Channel to the north-east of Dungeness amount to several hundred tons of oil. It may have come from the "Panther", but analysis is necessary to attempt to determine its source. The Government now have five vessels spraying the slicks at sea with low toxicity detergents, and more vessels will be used if necessary. The local authorities are taking action to disperse the oil on and near to the beaches. We believe that these measures will prove successful. I would like to pay tribute to all personnel who are working so hard to deal with this problem.

Mr. Rees-Davies

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the measures which have been taken by the Government and those engaged in the dispersal of the oil. Thanks are due to them in that regard. I congratulate my hon. Friend also on the Amendment he moved last night to the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill, which should go a long way to ensuring that incidents of this kind will not happen in the future, in that emergency action may be taken.

I have three questions to ask of my hon. Friend. First, will he be continuing with these dispersal measures at sea? One recognises that incidents close to the shore are for local authorities to deal with. Secondly, does he agree that this is a suitable moment to press other countries, in view of these incidents, to ratify the Brussels Convention of 1969? Will he undertake now to approach other nations in this regard, and also to draw their attention to the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill? Third, does he not think that this is a suitable time to review the question of territorial waters? If we had had a 12-mile limit we would have had complete control of the situation.

Mr. Grant

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his first remarks. I can confirm that we shall continue dispersal operations, certainly over the weekend and longer if it should prove necessary. We shall use every opportunity to press other countries to ratify the Brussels Convention. When the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill receives the Royal Assent we shall notify it to the Convention countries in the usual way, and hope that it will be a useful example. The subject of territorial waters is more complex. We have to consider world wide implications. But this is a matter at which we are looking, and I believe that the Amendments we made to the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill last night will go quite a long way to achieving the results we want.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the House will have noted the more hopeful statement put out this morning about detergents helping to deal with the situation? If this is so, it has proved the success of the new detergent developed by the B.P. Company which many of us have seen tried out and is a very big step forward. But is the hon. Gentleman aware that while we welcome his Amendment to the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill last night, some of us find it a little hard to see why the Navy cannot take action outside territorial waters. Obviously, some people might object, but the "Torrey Canyon" was outside navigable waters, and well outside, yet the Navy went in within hours to take charge of the whole situation there, and to the best of my knowledge no one from any other country objected. The Royal Navy acted on Government instructions because of the imminent risk of damage to all the beaches, not only in Cornwall, but right up the Channel and the Bristol Channel. Will the hon. Gentleman, without even waiting for the Bill to receive the Royal Assent, recognise that in a case like this we have an absolute right, however people may quibble about it, to put in the Navy to protect our shores and those of France and other friendly countries when this kind of disaster occurs?

Mr. Grant

The international legal position is by no means so clear as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but undoubtedly the Amendment we made last night will provide a greater degree of clarification. As to the "Torrey Canyon", it was not until some ten days before the vessel was abandoned that positive action could be taken and in that time some 100,000 tons of oil escaped, whereas here we are dealing only with about 100 tons.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not wish to misrepresent me. I did not say that the legal position was absolutely clear, nor will the international position be any more clear by the unilateral passing of a Measure here. I said that in that situation we put in the Navy. As to the rather illegitimate difference the hon. Gentleman tries to point out, there is a lot of difference between a 130,000-tonner being stranded on a rock and a much smaller vessel being stranded on sand, and where, in the first case, the damage was such that it was impossible to pump out the oil without further loss of life, loss of life having already occurred when the tugmaster went down. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to make illegitimate differences, but will accept congratulations on the fact that the much smaller operation seems to be going well; and that he has introduced this Bill to assert what we believe to be the international position, and not to change it.

Mr. Grant

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. My aim was to correct an impression which seems to have got abroad in some places that this incident in some way presented a greater degree of pollution danger than did the "Torrey Canyon". The position is not at all comparable. I say that in order to set at rest the minds of people who might otherwise be over-anxious. Putting in the Navy is always a possibility if another event of this nature occurred, but I think that the Amendment to the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill will give quite wide powers to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take this action or any other necessary.

Mr. Braine

While I completely approve the action taken so far by the Government, may I ask whether my hon. Friend is aware of the risk arising from the rapidly growing oil traffic in the Thames Estuary itself, with these large resident population risks which recent oil fires and collisions in the river have underlined in no uncertain manner? What action is being taken by his Department in connection with proposals to add no fewer than three large oil refineries to those already there? Does he believe—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This cannot arise out of the Private Notice Question which deals with a specific problem. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue these other matters he must do so by means of another Question.

Mr. Ogden

The Private Notice Question referred to the oil now threatening the South Coast as coming from the "Panther". The Under-Secretary of State said in his statement that the oil might have come from the "Panther". Yesterday there were reports that the oil threatening the beaches had been analysed and had proved not to have come from the "Panther". Can the Under-Secretary say which view is correct? Has his Department had any contact at all with the marine insurance people who, it would seem from certain reports about the equipment of the "Panther", were not doing the job they should have been doing?

Mr. Grant

On the first question, the analysis which our experts are carrying out on the oil is not yet complete, so it is not possible at this stage to say positively from where the oil is coming. We shall know this as soon as the analysis is completed. At this stage I cannot say more than that. There is conflicting evidence on this point.

Concerning marine insurance and the equipment carried upon the vessel, these are matters for the vessel's insurers, but we will consult them. As a nation in international circles concerned with international bodies, we are taking active steps to raise the standards of navigational equipment carried on all vessels.

Sir D. Renton

Is my hon. Friend aware that however much of this oil reaches the beaches, as happened in the case of the "Torrey Canyon", despite efforts to prevent it doing so, the help of thousands of volunteers would be of great use to clear it up? What preparations have the Government and local authorities made for making the best use of those volunteers?

Mr. Grant

I agree that this may be necessary. I reiterate that we are dealing with hundreds of tons of oil, not with 100,000 tons as in the case of the "Torrey Canyon". The removal of oil pollution on the beaches is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I have no doubt that he will take note of my right hon. and learned Friend's suggestion. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is at the coast today and will no doubt be able to bring back a full report.

Mr. James Johnson

Will the hon. Gentleman clear up another small point? Did he say earlier that he was quite happy that United Kingdom legislation would cover the Government in the event of our taking action against other vessels outside territorial waters?

Mr. Grant

I can do no better than refer the hon. Gentleman to the speech which I made in the debate last night. The purpose of the Amendment was to enable an Order in Council to be made giving powers to the Secretary of State to make directions concerning an incident which occurs outside territorial waters.