HC Deb 13 January 1971 vol 809 cc197-202
Mr. Anthony Grant

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 5, line 20, leave out 'In relation to' and insert: 'The limit of the fine that may be imposed on summary conviction in respect of'. It would be convenient, as you have suggested, Mr. Speaker, to take Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 with this Amendment.

Hon. Members will recall that in the Bill as originally introduced we made provision for increasing from £1,000 to £5,000 the maximum penalty which could be imposed on summary conviction for a number of offences under the Oil in Navigable Waters Acts, 1955 and 1963, primarily those concerning the illegal discharge of oil at sea. £1,000 was already an exceptionally high figure for a fine on summary conviction, but we thought it right to make a considerable increase in view of the increased public concern about illegal discharges of oil and the general feeling that more stringent penalties ought to be imposed. It became clear, however, during the debate on Second Reading that there were demands from both sides of the House for the Government to go even further and provide for a maximum penalty much in excess of £5,000.

As the House knows, I advised the Standing Committee against adopting an Amendment raising the maximum to £50,000. This was not because I thought £50,000 too large a penalty for a serious pollution offence, but because it is far in excess of the fining powers normally available to magistrates. Because of this, magistrates may find themselves in some difficulty in deciding how to treat pollution offences within such a high maximum.

The cases which usually come before magistrates are relatively trivial, little or no damage is done, and, athough somewhat higher penalties than those imposed in the past could certainly be justified, £50,000 would be disproportionately a penalty on quite a new scale. We must remember that there is power to take a really serious case on indictment, when there is no limit to the fine which may be imposed, but there has been no occasion to do this in the past.

On the other hand, the new restrictions which will be brought into force under this Bill will create a new situation. We shall then have a better chance of catching a serious offender, one of those, for example, who deliberately discharges tank washings at sea instead of using "load on top". For such offences we certainly want to have a penalty available which will provide a real deterrent. Even so, the chances are that the power available to magistrates would not be relevant to such an offence. If the offence occurred on the high seas, it would be for the Government of the flag State to act, and if it were a British flag ship we would have the possibility of proceeding on indictment. However, there remains the possibility that a foreign ship might be caught committing a really serious pollution offence in waters within United Kingdom jurisdiction and we might have no choice but to prosecute before a magistrate. If there were to be such a case—which does not seem very likely—the magistrate might well feel it appropriate to impose a penalty of the size which has been proposed.

I gave an undertaking in Standing Committee to reconsider the £5,000 maximum originally proposed, and intended to return and report with a higher figure. I did not then think a penalty 10 times that sum appropriate because there are valid objections to making such an enormous departure from the normal level of powers available to magistrates, and the occasions when a magistrate will feel justified in imposing such a high penalty are, as I have explained, likely to be few.

On the other hand, the House has expressed itself in no uncertain terms on this question, and I have little doubt that the demands for an exceptionally high maximum penalty on summary conviction will have found many an echo among our constituents. There is a widespread feeling that the time has come for determined action to put a stop to unnecessary pollution, and this Government fully share that feeling.

We have, therefore, decided to accept the abnormally high figure of £50,000, and I am sure that this will be seen by the world as an indication that we are serious about pollution. I am sure that we can rely on the judgment of magistrates in interpreting the will of the House in respect of pollution offences.

However, one change is necessary, and that is the reason for these Amendments to Clause 7. As it stands, the Clause would apply the same maximum of £50,000 to offences under Section 5 of the 1955 Act. This Section enables the Secretary of State to make regulations about equipment to be fitted in ships to prevent oil pollution, and makes contravention of those regulations an offence. The Section applies only to British ships, and, therefore, the argument justifying an exceptional maximum penalty on summary conviction for illegal discharges of oil does not apply to offences under this Section. As only British ships are affected there would be no difficulty about proceeding on indictment against the owners in the absence of the master. We have, therefore, concluded that the maximum penalty on summary conviction for offences under Section 5 should not be increased above the maximum of £1,000 already provided in the 1955 Act. These Amendments provide accordingly, while leaving the maximum fine on summary conviction for illegal discharges of oil at £50,000.

Mr. Mason

I think the whole House will accept this very sensible, agreeable and, I think, big decision by the Minister. It is very pleasing to those who have been involved through Committee to this stage that he has been able to overcome the objections which we knew were being placed in his way by the Home Office.

The figure of £50,000 was floated as a possibility during the Second Reading debate and it was supported by practically every speaker during that debate, and in Committee both sides thought that our Amendment proposing £50,000 was wise. So we are particularly pleased that the Minister has been able to agree that we can raise the fine from £5,000 as proposed in the Bill initially up to £50,000 now for a guilty offender. As other maritime nations enact their legislation as a result of I.M.C.O.'s recommendation to deal with pollution at sea by oil I hope that they, too, will follow the lead by substantially increasing their fines for oil pollution. I think that the Government in this respect have now given an excellent lead.

We felt throughout that our reasoning was sound. If a fine is to act as a deterrent the initial £5,000 was certainly not enough. It would have meant little to a major oil company anyway. It guilty, it would pay, would scoff, and would carry on. It is only rarely that they are caught anyway. To them, £5,000 would be an inconvenience and that is all. Most of the honourable oil companies will not mind the increase to £50,000 for illegal discharges because they are not going to be guilty anyway. We really want to deter the mavericks, the fly-by-night oil slickers who are illegally discharging oil by night and vanishing by morning, and a fine of this size may well be sufficient to do that.

Finally, as the Minister, during the Second Reading debate, said regarding the £5,000 fine: It may incidentally benefit those who are put to the expense of clearing up the pollution, since the court may direct that they be recompensed out of the fine itself."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th October, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 579.] That is as good a reason as any to establish the maximum fine at £50,000, and I only hope that those who are responsible for administering the law will remember it.

10.15 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

We, too, on this side of the House greatly rejoice in the Government's wisdom in accepting the decision of the Standing Committee. It is sometimes in my experience not a bad thing to do anyway if in doubt. I was a little disappointed that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, with that modest charm, or charming modesty, which we have learnt to expect from him, in giving his reasons why he was asking the House to let the Clause be as it was subject to the extensions of it which he is making, did not give quite those convincing reasons in favour of his action which are available. I hope that I am not presuming too much if I attempt to assure him and the House that the Government's action is very wise indeed.

The first reason is that whenever we fix a maximum penalty we should try to make it big enough to cover the worst possible imaginable example of the offence in question. We should also make it big enough to act as a deterrent, and, bearing in mind the constant change in the value of money, big enough to stand the test of time. Bearing in mind the prevalence of these offences, the terrible damage they do to the quality not only of human life but of marine life, the difficulty of detection and many other factors, surely £50,000 is not in excess in itself.

The only question is—and this is where my hon. Friend was I think in the greatest doubt—whether it is a penalty which should be placed at the disposal of the courts of summary jurisdiction. With great respect to him, when he said that this was disproportionate to what had been applied before and was on a new scale, I do not think he was correctly advised. Under the Customs and Excise legislation, the exchange control and currency legislation and the Companies Acts, courts of summary jurisdiction have power to award fines and fixed penalties, for example, in the case of Customs and Excise, three times the value of the goods, which can easily amount to as much as £50,000 and have on occasions done so. Other examples could be thought of. So I do not think that we are here creating a precedent of the kind my hon. Friend suggests.

In any event, apart from these good precedents which I have mentioned, there are surely practical advantages in having these cases dealt with in a court of summary jurisdiction fairly quickly rather than in a court of quarter sessions or assizes, which inevitably means delay, and will do so when we have the circuit courts after Beeching. In the interests of the ship owners and of everybody concerned, it is essential, with seafarer witnesses or witnesses who are flying about the world, that these cases should be dealt with quickly, and that means taking them in the courts of summary jurisdiction. If by any chance the court of summary jurisdiction awards too big a fine there is always the opportunity of appeal to put the matter right.

Therefore, I think that the Government were absolutely correct in their decision and correct also to pay a compliment to the Standing Committee by extending this £50,000 fine to the other offences mentioned in the Amendments we are considering.

Mr. James Johnson

May I make a Machiavellian intervention by thanking the Minister? I wished to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), who had a short joust with the Chair over which Amendments and new Clauses were called.

I will not name the Amendment which I had hoped would be called, but I ask the Minister to cast his eye down the Amendment Paper, from which he will see that I am not satisfied even with £50,000. If we are talking about a wealthy shipping company which buys £10 million worth of tanker, I should have thought that, since this offence is so heinous, we might well have gone up to £100,000. We thank the Minister. I have in mind his words about the "load-on-top" techniques, which we want so badly. We had hoped to have a debate on that matter. We are unable to do so, and so I end by thanking the Minister for his £50,000 rather than the £100,000 figure.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I wish sincerely to thank my hon. Friend for what he has done. One does not need very much imagination to guess at the battles which he has had to fight, successfully, with other Government Departments which have not done their homework, were not aware of the problems involved, or else were in a state of hyper-anxiety. I am sure we are all grateful to him. It is also encouraging to Committees of this House that when reasonable action of this kind is taken, the Government do not then use their potential majority on Report to reverse a sensible decision taken by Standing Committee.

Mr. James Johnson

We on the Opposition benches would not wish to appear churlish. May I on behalf of my colleagues also thank the Minister—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. The Question is, That the Amendment be made.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: No. 2, in page 5, line 21, after first 'section', insert: 'under section 1 or section 3 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955 or section 5 of the Continental Shelf Act 1964, shall, instead of the sum of one thousand pounds specified in'.

No. 3 in line 22, leave out from '1964' to 'fifty' in line 25 and insert 'be the sum of'.—[Mr. Anthony Grant.]

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