HC Deb 13 January 1971 vol 809 cc167-79

(1) Where it appears to a pollution prevention officer that a contravention of any of the provisions of section 1 or 3 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955 as amended by this Act has at any time taken place, he may—

  1. (a) go on board the ship in relation to which the contravention has at any time taken place, with or without persons assigned to assist him in his duties, and for that purpose may require the ship to stop and do anything else which will facilitate the boarding of the ship, and
  2. (b) take the ship and the crew of the ship to the port which appears to him to be the nearest convenient port in the United 168 Kingdom and detain the ship and the crew in the port until the completion of proceedings for the contravention.

(2) The following persons shall be pollution prevention officers for the purposes of this section—

  1. (a) commissioned officers of any of Her Majesty's ships;
  2. (b) officers of Customs and Excise;
  3. (c) the following members of the Coastguard; that is to say:
inspectors, district officers and members in charge of coastguard stations; (d) surveyors of the Department of Trade and Industry; and (e) other persons appointed pollution prevention officers by the Secretary of State.—[Mr. Prestcott.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

We are here attempting to tackle the fundamental problem—enforcement. The Government are to be congratulated on continuing a Bill started by the last Government to deal with the problem ahead of most other countries under the Convention. We argued in Committee that the Bill has a number of failings. One of the major problems is that of enforcement. The Bill clearly states the offences and becomes involved in making regulations for British ships. As most of us are aware, many of the problems arise from vessels of other nations. This is an international issue. We shall be dealing with the international consequences of the problem in later Amendments.

The Bill, stating the offences, lays down regulations concerning the records in order that we may be able to apprehend offenders by spot inspections. By these records, we shall have some indication of what is happening to dirty oil, which generally comes about through the load-on-top system which has caused a great deal of the problems. A load-on-top system has been developed by a company in this country which has made a considerable advance towards solving the problem. We have to be concerned with those who ignore moral pressures to adopt these methods and with those countries which do not compel their ships to adopt these methods and whose ships discharge by night or day, if it is thought that they will not be caught, and whose discharges create the problems with which the Bill is meant to deal. The Clause is meant to bring the problem to the fore. We do not claim precision for its wording. It is an attempt to apprehend those who commit these offences at sea.

The Bill lays down the offences and the fines which may be imposed on masters and owners who commit them, but we are concerned to find a deterrent to prevent the offences. The importance of a deterrent depends upon how much those who commit offences believe that they have a change of getting away with them. We were told in Committee that inspections under the 1955 legislation were made by surveyors and Board of Trade personnel and that in 1969 there were about 2,000 inspections. That is only about nine a day and is far from enough considering the number of ports in this country. That is not a sufficient deterrent.

Subsection (2) of the new Clause deals with offences committed by the discharge of oil in port. There is not much of a problem here as it is usually easy to detect the source of such a discharge. The great problem is offences at sea. Log books may record voyages and discharges of oil, but are not necessarily sufficient to show where an offence has been committed. We are dealing with British ships, but much of the problem is created by the discharges of ships of other countries. Far more oil is discharged into our oceans illegally than as a result of collisions. After his recent voyage, Thor Heyerdahl talked about huge balls of oil which he found floating in the ocean, often away from the usual shipping lanes. The problem is increasing in intensity and immensity.

We have rightly praised load-on-top systems; but it must be remembered that even with such systems, because of the powerful pumps which are used by modern tankers and even if the machinery is stopped when the operation reaches the recommended period when oil and water have come together to form the sludge which creates part of the pollution problem, measuring devices are not sufficiently accurate to prevent every illegal discharge. Discharges of oil at that stage can be far greater than the permitted amount at sea.

Using the load-on-top system the amount of sludge is equivalent to one-tenth of 1 per cent. so that with a 200,000-ton tanker we are talking of 200 tons of sludge. When we remember that 800 vessels a day use the Channel we can see that these discharges of oil, insignificant in themselves, create enormous problems, and this highlights the importance of the separators mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth). Even using the meter system for oil discharge a decision has to be made by someone once a level is reached as to whether an illegal discharge should be made. What the person will have in mind are his chances of being caught and at present they are minimal. We have heard of the problems of using pilots to spot illegal discharges or offering money to members of the crew. These discharges take place at sea and they must try to catch the offenders there.

The second kind of offence concerns those vessels with dirty sludge as a result of the load-on-top system, which discharge in the middle of an ocean and then pick up another cargo. They are not too worried about the discharge of sludge from the tanks and then they return to this country. Once the vessel has done a number of voyages it will be almost impossible to detect whether it has discharged the sludge brought about through the load-on-top system.

That presumes that regular inspections will be made in an English port. The Bill does not propose to increase the number of those carrying out inspections, and the likelihood that a vessel will be subject to a spot check is slight. We cannot draft measures which will prevent these problems but we have a greater chance of increasing the fear among people that they will be caught by increasing the checks to which vessels are subjected on arrival here.

In the Clause we suggest that a number of other bodies, such as the Custom and Coastguard, could be considered to be on watch, playing a part in prosecuting those who commit this offence. Many engineers and captains do not do this but there are a few and it is with those that we are concerned. If they had to consider other vessels being on the look-out they may stop to think before committing the offence. Therefore, I ask the Minister to reconsider the view which he stated in Committee on 17th November: We shall have to look at the manpower situation from time to time, but at this moment the advice we have from the experts is that the Bill should facilitate rather than hamper their task."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 17th November, 1970; c. 41.] Now is the time to look at the manpower situation. The Bill is an attempt to handle the problem, but we must bear in mind the increasing size and number of tankers being built and used to meet the increasing demand for oil. It is proposed to have the same manpower to deal with an ever-increasing problem. I hope that the Minister will take these points into account. We must have greater manpower in order to make the inspections which are essential for the proper enforcement of the Bill.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

The more I look at the Clause, the more it endears itself to me and the more fascinating I find it. Since my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is my neighbour, I feel fraternal and I must support him.

I seize upon a narrow point in my hon. Friend's argument about enforcement. He used also the word "deterrent". In this connection, I refer to subsection (2)(a) of the new Clause: commissioned officers of any of Her Majesty's ships". On these benches we once had a famous Cabinet Minister who said that anyone who willed the end must also will the means. What on earth is the good of setting out all these desirable aims and objectives without at the same time having some means of enforcement.

In Committee, I put to the Minister the analogy—he thought it a somewhat vague analogy—of the vessels which we use for protecting our deep-sea fishery vessels and for detecting offences against the law on the high seas. Would the Minister address his mind to that? Why not use Her Majesty's ships, what we formally term the Queen's Navy? The people who discharge oil at sea are commercial pirates, ditching this filthy muck into the ocean, and taking us nearer to what some of us fear will, by the year 2000 A.D., be an ecological "Munich". We need vessels to protect us and other nations against this abominable filth poured into the seas. Let the Minister regard these people as what they are—I use the true advisedly—shipping villains.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East suggested, though not in so many words, that eight vessels out of 10 obey the law, if I may put it that way. But two vessels out of 10—mainly under the Japanese flag—do not. We often talk about flags of convenience. But this is not Liberia, if I may put a word in for that State, with which I have some connection. As I say, these are mainly Japanese ships, and, without doubt, the total—I stand to be corrected, but I believe this to be right—is at least 200,000 tons ditched or deposited in this way, which is the equivalent of many "Torrey Canyons", perhaps as many as 10 or 12.

This state of affairs must be tackled seriously. If we feel as a nation that we cannot tackle it on our own, why not act in conjunction with other nations, under the auspices of I.M.C.O. here in London? Why should we not have for this purpose something analogous to the United Nations peace-keeping force on land? Why cannot we have a force of that kind so that our Navy, in co-operation with other nations, could join in dealing with this menace on the seas?

We must have enforcement. It is no good expressing a pious hope that these people will behave themselves in future. It is a perfectly fair analogy to refer to what is done in respect of deep-sea fishing. In the same way, we could expect the Queen's Navy, or, as it is put in the new Clause, commissioned officers of any of Her Majesty's ships", to be on the look out and to tackle the pirates or villains of the high seas.

Mr. Anthony Grant

I am always pleased to answer a debate in which the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) take part, because I know that they have a keen interest in this subject and they make their contributions with great enthusiasm. Clearly, not a drop of oil will touch Kingston upon Hull. I am intrigued by the suggestion by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West that there should be some sort of United Nations force moving about the oceans. We shall think about it, but he will appreciate that it would be a matter for international agreement and would involve a large number of countries.

The problem of enforcement has been not so much a shortage of surveyors and people to ascertain offences but an inability to pin an offence upon the offender because of lack of evidence. In that sense, the Bill will make their task much easier and will enable them to bring miscreants to justice far more easily. In the past, lack of evidence has been the problem.

The new Clause, moved with great sincerity by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, would enable pollution prevention officers, as he defines them, to go on board a ship, requiring it to stop if necessary, where they suspect that a breach of the Bill has occurred. Further, such an officer could take the ship into the nearest port and detain it until the completion of proceedings for contravention.

We debated this question fully in Standing Committee. I assure the House that I have carefully considered the various ways in which the requirements of the Bill might be more effectively enforced. I considered the possibility of detention of the ship until the completion of proceedings before the Bill was introduced and I rejected it. As I told the Committee, my reason for doing so was that a power such as his might impose a quite disproportionate financial penalty on the persons interested in a ship even before the criminal proceedings could be dealt with in circumstances in which it might turn out that no offence had been committed. A large tanker may cost thousands of pounds a day to run. To have the ship immobilised because it was suspected that an offence had been committed in connection with it would be unduly severe.

There is one precedent for this power on which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West touched; namely, that power found in the Sea Fisheries Act, 1968, in relation to fishery offences. But it is most unusual and is made necessary only because foreign fishing boats commit offences under that Act, principally by fishing in United Kingdom waters contrary to the Act, without calling at a United Kingdom port. That is not usual in relation to pollution offences.

Mr. James Johnson

Is it not a fact that our fishery protection vessels can pursue offenders to any distance? I accept that the offence may have taken place 10 miles offshore, but the vessel is pursued and chased. If there is oil pollution 10 or 20 miles offshore, why is it not possible to have a vessel of a similar nature to pursue and hound the offender?

Mr. Grant

I do not think the two things are analogous. The fishery poacher never comes into a port. He deliberately poaches in the territorial waters of a country. The case of the oil pollution is utterly and entirely different. He comes into a United Kingdom port. The effect of the Bill is that he will be liable if he discharges oil illegally anywhere in the world. What the hon. Gentleman has said is not a parallel case because the fishing boat cannot be detained in port. The fishery offender cannot be got hold of and he never comes into port, whereas the tanker does. The pollution offence is not parallel with the fishery offence.

Nevertheless, I recognise that there is a real problem with which this proposal attempts to deal. But I am not convinced that prosecution of offences under the Oil in Navigable Waters Acts is proving so difficult as to necessitate the introduction of special provisions which cut across the general principles of procedure applicable in criminal cases in this country. I recall giving analogies in Committee. The difficulty of bringing proceedings against foreign masters or sailors is a common one applicable to offences under the Merchant Shipping Acts and the general law. In the absence of real proof of need in this context, I do not think that a provision peculiar to the Oil in Navigable Waters Acts is justifiable.

Lastly and most important, there is considerable danger that if legislation of this kind became widespread it could lead to considerable harassment and delays to United Kingdom shipping. The Canadians have already introduced a provision of this type, and our view is that it could be detrimental to our shipping interests generally if this example were to spread throughout the world.

I should like to make two further comments which may lead the House to consider that the new Clause is unnecessary. The powers of sea fishery officers are strictly limited to taking action against foreign fishing boats which are within United Kingdom fishery limits and British fishing boats anywhere. This Clause does not appear to have any such geographical limitation, yet we should be in breach of international law if we sought to interfere with foreign ships on the high seas or even passing innocently through our territorial waters. The exception in the Sea Fisheries Act occurs only as a result of international agreement.

9.0 p.m.

Secondly, in relation to the pollution prevention officer which the hon. Gentleman seeks to create, I draw attention to Section 11 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955. This gives to all surveyors of ships and other persons—who would include any persons listed in subsection (2) of the new Clause—appointed as inspectors by the Secretary of State, all the powers of an inspector under Section 729 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. This Section gives him power, among other things—I invite the House to consider this—to go on board any ship and inspect it or its equipment; to enter any premises or inspect apparatus as necessary; to summon witnesses and examine them; to require the production of necessary documents; and to examine witnesses on oath. Section 11 of the 1955 Act makes it clear that these powers include the power to test equipment the vessel is required to have fitted, and to require the production of oil record books. Furthermore, where the vessel is in harbour, the harbourmaster has similar powers.

Therefore, we do not think it right to give inspectors the sweeping powers which this new Clause envisages. I hope that the House will agree that our inspectors already have sufficiently wide powers. For these reasons I regret that I cannot recommend the House to accept the new Clause.

Mr. Ogden

It is perhaps appropriate that the representative of that sea-girt constituency of Wirral should have joined us at this time when we are discussing oil in navigable waters, for every Member of the House will be aware of the interest which you, Mr. Speaker, took in matters of navigation and the Merchant Navy so near your own constituency.

The Minister, in replying, and rejecting the new Clause, suggested that his reason was not the shortage of ships or of the personnel to discover whether someone is breaking the law in this regard, but that one of the reasons was identifying the source of the oil and linking a sample of the oil with a particular ship, and particularly because of the size of the oceans and the amount of traffic. He told the House he was more than anxious to answer questions from Members representing Kingston upon Hull. I do not want to take advantage of the fact that he comes from an inland port and that I come from a Merseyside one, but I wonder whether he has had drawn to his attention an article which appeared in yesterday's issue of The Times in which the science correspondent of that newspaper reported: A method of computer analysis for identifying rapidly the source of oil slicks at sea is being developed at the Admiralty Materials Laboratory near Poole, Dorset. The way the type of oil that causes pollution can be analysed to provide certain identification is described in the current issue of the journal Laboratory Practice by a research group from the laboratory. The scientists believe the method can be used to find out the origin of a spillage of crude oil, residues from tank bottoms, or furnace fuel oil. I would hope that, in the light of that, and the answer which he gave, he might take up this point, and consult his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, the scientists, civil servants and officers who are at work on this problem. It has always been an extremely difficult one. We may find the ship, but to link a sample of oil with the ship is difficult. Since the work seems to have got so near to completion it would appear that it would be useful to have the results of that work. I wonder whether, instead of just nodding, he would just add a comment. I should like his agreement, and if he could put it on record that would be appreciated.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

As this is the first time I have spoken since you have been elected to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, let me be permitted to say how delightful it is to see you sitting where you are.

The only reason I intervene is that I am a little concerned about the reply which my hon. Friend gave to this new Clause, having been Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology which looked into coastal pollution after the experience we had with the "Torrey Canyon". It was only natural to consider what both the United Kingdom Government and I.M.C.O. might do with a view to ensuring that encouragement was given to the use of the load-on-top system and that any master of a ship who discharged oil in navigable waters, however far out to sea, should be able to be hauled up at once. We discussed at some length the instruction that is now given to masters of ships to ensure that they are fully aware of how to use the load-on-top system and how to ensure that they prevent pollution. I hope that my hon. Friend's answer will not be a final one. I foresee the day when I.M.C.O. will take the view very strongly that there must be oceanic enforcement as well as coastal water enforcement of this legislation.

I am sorry that I was unable to be present on Second Reading because I should have liked to participate. I do not want to get out of order on the new Clause, but I hope that I may be allowed to say that I think there is a new spirit abroad in the fighting of pollution. The encouraging way in which so many countries have taken up the load-on-top system makes it increasingly important that those owners who do not adapt their ships to this system should be more stringently treated than ever before. As time goes on it will be even more difficult to identify them, and there may well have to be some form of international inspectorate. The Minister referred to Section 11 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955, which provides: The Minister may appoint any person as an inspector to report to him— (a) whether the prohibitions, restrictions and obligations … have been complied with;". I do not think that this really covers the point. I hope that this may be given further thought, although I recognise that we could waste a lot of money and possibly damage British interests by overdoing it. At the same time, I am always a little suspicious when I hear the argument used that hypothetically this might possibly damage our interests. We should be in the forefront, as I believe we are. Shell in particular has led the way with the introduction of the load-on-top system. We are in the lead in persuading the world to do more about these matters than ever before, and it would be a pity if we did not arm the appropriate body with sufficient powers of inspection and appoint sufficient people with the right qualifications to carry out this inspection.

I hope that my hon. Friend will look at this again and give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will support anything that I.M.C.O. tries to do by general agreement to ensure that those who are still reluctant to fall in with the sensible modern approach to this matter are properly inspected, properly restrained and properly punished.

Mr. Anthony Grant

I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that the United Kingdom is very much in the lead in all these activities. We have certainly been extremely active in I.M.C.O. and, as I shall say later on Third Reading, if I catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, we are in this Bill almost the first country to ratify the convention and we hope to be one of the first to bring in a Bill dealing with civil liability. There is no question of the United Kingdom dragging its feet. Far from it, we are very well in advance.

We have considered carefully the matter of enforcement and are satisfied that the existing powers are sufficient and that the provisions in the new Bill will make that much easier the task of the officers concerned. This will be necessary to make evidence stand up in court and to obtain a conviction. This is what we hope the Bill will do. We shall, of course, keep the matter under review and consider carefully whether we need any further powers. If my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) looks with great care at the 1955 Act, he will find that the powers I have recited are available to our inspectors at the moment.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) drew attention to an article in The Times. This is known to my Department, and our scientists are engaged on similar lines of research as the Admiralty; our laboratories and experts are actively concerned with this matter. I thought the hon. Gentleman would like to have that assurance.

Question put and negatived.

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