HC Deb 28 July 1971 vol 822 cc742-52

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

12 a.m.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

The English Channel is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Indeed, it could be described as the Piccadilly of the world's shipping routes. Danger to life is considerable in the Channel and is increasing, and pollution dangers after accidents are always present. At this time the Channel is overcrowded, but what about the future? A frightening picture can be painted of two massive one-million ton tankers approaching each other from opposite directions on a collision course. The tanker "Panther" exploded after a collision, so it can be readily appreciated that the damage, loss of life, and pollution that could be caused by two very large tankers colliding in the Channel would be nothing short of frightening.

The voluntary traffic routing scheme which has been in operation since 1967 has worked very well. Up to 95 per cent. of ships have observed the rules. It is the other 5 per cent. which have created the problems and which will continue to do so. What steps should be taken? There is a not inconsiderable body of opinion which believes that, unless further international action is taken quickly, Britain should consider unilateral action and that we should police and control the Channel ourselves without international agreement. This would be a drastic step and every possible course must be taken first.

I suggest that the time has come for the present voluntary traffic control scheme to be made mandatory. To set an example to the world, British ships should be compelled to observe a traffic separation scheme at the earliest possible moment. I hope that the British Government will be able to bring this into effect before the end of this year. Second, the area of the Channel which is at present covered by the voluntary traffic separation scheme is far too restricted and should be extended substantially, particularly in the southern approach to the Channel. The Government and I.M.C.O. should consider a Special Channel Service to help and guide ships using the Channel. This service could not only help and guide ships going through the Channel but could also keep all ships in the area fully informed of movements; it could maintain a continuous traffic survey, and it could identify and report vessels that failed to observe the traffic control regulations. It could also play a part in helping to raise the level of seamanship and navigational expertise.

I turn to the question of oil pollution. Recently there was a sound and responsible editorial in the Evening Argus. Referring to oil on beaches in Sussex and elsewhere on the south coast, it said: But, on the whole, there appears to be a lot less than in previous years. Credit for this should go first to the Board of Trade, who are responsible for dispersing the oil as soon as it is sighted. Next in line for a pat on the back are the local authorities, who keep the water clear up to one mile from the shore. And finally, there are the men who do most of the hard work spraying the beaches and shifting the shingle. They probably deserve our grateful thanks more than anyone else. But although the situation has eased, there is no room for complacency… Oil pollution could still become part of our every-day lives. No complacency—that is the key part of the editorial.

I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is far from complacent about the problem because oil pollution is an ever-present danger. I much regret that there is no statutory obligation upon ships' masters to report spillages of oil outside harbour areas. We should make it compulsory within our own three-mile limit and work to obtain international agreement for areas outside it. I am convinced that time, speed and warning for anti-oil pollution squads working on our coasts is vital. Recently, there was a spillage off the Sussex coast involving over 500 tons of oil. It was nearly seven hours before it was known to the authorities and antipollution squads in the area could be alerted.

Unless the Government take some action to compel masters to report spillages immediately, it will only be a matter of time before a number of beaches are hit by a large amount of oil without warning. I am naturally concerned about the beaches in Brighton, but this applies to beaches at every seaside resort. If pollution of this type were to hit these beaches it could have disastrous effects on the area, seriously damaging the prospects of visitors and tourism.

It is no exaggeration to say that major steps have been taken by both Governments in recent years to increase safety for shipping in the Channel and to minimise oil pollution, but there is still much to be done.

12.9 a.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

Before the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemp-town (Mr. Bowden) sits down, I would like to point out to him, as I survey the Benches opposite and indeed those on this side, that we have had recently the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Act and a debate on safety at sea, and on every occasion the hon. Gentleman was noticeably absent. The matters he has mentioned are history and have been repeated many times. He is fortunate in having obtained this debate, and he might at least have mentioned the sterling work done by hon. Members opposite and by my hon. Friends who have been helping to pass legislation in order to achieve just what he has been asking for. His hon. Friend who will reply has been most forthcoming and helpful in the House and in Committee in the past, and the hon. Member ought to have paid tribute to those who have worked when he has been absent.

Mr. Bowden

I have had a great deal of correspondence with my hon. Friend on many of these problems. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have been active in Committee at every opportunity. If I were amiss in not paying tribute as the right hon. Gentleman claims I should have done, I happily do so now. I was careful to pay tribute to the action not only of the present Government but of the last Government, because this is a continuing problem. A lot has been done, but I submit that a great deal more has to be done in the future.

12.11 a.m.

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

I certainly want to pay tribute to the work done by hon. Members on both sides, including the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), in a series of pieces of legislation, some of which stem from the previous Government. I found the greatest possible help from those Members who have taken a personal part. To be fair to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemp-town (Mr. Bowden), in view of his constituency situation I know that he has taken a particular interest in this situation, and has certainly corresponded with me and has played his full part in the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Bill in Committee. I am grateful to him for raising this important topic, which is not only of interest to his constituents and others who live along the Channel coasts but is a matter of vital concern to a maritime nation such as ours.

I would like to take this opportunity to tell the House of the measures which the Government are taking to improve navigation in the Channel and in the Dover Strait. The Dover Strait is one of the busiest international waterways in the world, with several hundred ships a day passing through. We should bear in mind that nearly 80 per cent. of these ships are not bound to or from United Kingdom ports. To help regulate traffic a voluntary traffic separation scheme was agreed internationally in the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, and was put into operation in 1967. This scheme has resulted in some improvement in the collision rate but as my hon. Friend said, more needs to be done. Indeed, recently the need to improve the safety of navigation in the Dover Strait and adjacent waters has been highlighted by a series of collisions and strandings which have caused considerable loss of life and have posed a considerable pollution threat to our British coast.

The Government have therefore sought to get effective action to achieve an improvement in navigation and in the casualty rate. In doing so, we have sought to be realistic in recognising what is likely to be achieved, and we have also had full regard to the fact that this is an international waterway and that the agreement of other maritime nations is essential.

In the first place, the United Kingdom proposed to the Maritime Safety Committee at its meeting last March that States should accept an obligation to impose a compulsory requirement on ships of their flag using the traffic lanes of the Dover Strait separation scheme to proceed in the prescribed direction of traffic flow. The Committee, I am happy to say, unanimously accepted the proposal, and, indeed, extended it to all traffic separation schemes throughout the world which have been adopted by I.M.C.O.

The Committee produced an appropriate amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention for consideration by the I.M.C.O. Assembly at its next meeting in October. It also asked the I.M.C.O. Working Group, which is drafting revisions of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea in preparation for a Conference in 1972, to take account of the proposal. We have, however, been very much aware of the need to get quick action. As a result of our recommendations the organisation as an interim measure has recommended member Governments, in advance of these amendments being accepted, to make it an offence for ships of their flag to proceed against the prescribed direction of traffic flow in traffic lanes of traffic separation schemes adopted by I.M.C.O. We are confident, bearing in mind the results of our traffic surveys, that this recommendation will, in fact, lead to effective action by nations who control a large proportion of the relevant tonnage. We ourselves in the United Kingdom intend to make a Statutory Instrument applying to British ships to come into force before the end of the year.

In the second place, the United Kingdom have put forward proposals to amend and extend the present Dover Strait Separation Scheme. These were considered by the I.M.C.O. Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation at its meeting in the week commencing 5th July and, with some reservations, have been put forward by that Sub-Committee to the Maritime Safety Committee recommending that they should be adopted. We hope that I.M.C.O. will agree to these proposals and that they will come into force at the beginning of next year.

In the third place, the Committee agreed to a suggestion by the United Kingdom that there should be a meeting between States bordering the Dover Strait to consider what further measures could be adopted. This meeting, between Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom took place in London on 12th, 13th and 14th May this year.

At that meeting it was clear that none of the delegations was prepared to take action on a unilateral, or even multilateral, basis outside the general framework of a properly ratified I.M.C.O. agreement.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)


Mr. Grant

In view of what the hon. Member says, I must reiterate that it is important for us to live in the real world and to understand that a unilateral action is, I am afraid, not a viable proposition in a situation like this for a nation such as the United Kingdom. Everyone who thinks about it carefully will realise that that is the case. That was certainly the view of the delegation.

However, with this limitation, there was general agreement with the United Kingdom views. In particular it was agreed that measures should be taken to make effective the new mandatory traffic separation scheme in the Dover Strait. There was also agreement that negotiations should start for a regional search and rescue agreement, and that France and Britain would examine long-term measures for the improvement of safety, including the possibility of setting up a Channel navigation service. This would be a prelude to further discussions with other states.

We intend to play our full part in making effective the new I.M.C.O. recommendation about traffic separation in the Dover Strait. We are, therefore, establishing a radar surveillance station at St. Margaret's Bay and will use the helicopter stationed at Manston for search and rescue duties to identify vessels travelling the wrong way; we may also use surface craft for this purpose; and we intend to pass particulars of offending ships to their flag Governments for appropriate action. We also intend to broadcast information to shipping about these vessels.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

Would my hon. Friend give way briefly on this point? I should welcome what clarification he can give on what action he expects the Government of Liberia would take against unqualified, unskilled and unscheduled ships flying the flag of that nation and blatantly disregarding the safety regulations laid down by the Channel countries.

Mr. Grant

I stress that Liberia is increasingly playing its part in these organisations, but whatever the State is, whether it is Liberia or any other country, it is for that State to pass the internal legislation in order to provide offences of this kind, and it will be for us or whoever else may detect what we believe to be an offence in this respect, to report it to that nation for action to be taken. I have no reason to suppose that nations, including Liberia, concerned with shipping, will flout the international agreements in this respect.

We hope that once this system starts to operate there will be a substantial drop in the number of ships using the lanes in the wrong direction. The French Government have said that they may be able to help us in the identification of ships.

Earlier this year we instituted traffic surveys in the Dover Strait. These are continuing and will form the basis for evaluation in discussion with the French and other Governments of a possible navigation service to assist the movement of ships through the strait. Experience of operation of the radar surveillance system will also be useful for this purpose. In addition, work is being done on the forecasting of future traffic movements through the Channel and the possibility of traffic simulation studies.

Allied to all this we are most anxious to see an improvement in standards of seamanship and navigational competence in the Channel and indeed elsewhere. We in the United Kingdom intend to make regulations which will revise and extend substantially certification arrangements for officers on British merchant ships. Moreover, we are trying to work out proposals to put to the Inter-governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation and to the International Labour Organisation in order to achieve minimum international standards of competence and training by other sea users.

I should warn the House that this is difficult and complex, because there are different standards of education in many nations which use the sea. Nevertheless, we are determined to encourage international bodies to raise the existing standard of seamanship and navigational competence. However, the British and French and other Governments are most anxious to make progress in this area. We are also pressing other Governments to ratify as quickly as possible the amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention which have been agreed in I.M.C.O. and which require wider carriage of navigational equipment, in particular radar in ships.

The Government take the need to improve navigation in the Channel and to lessen the danger of oil pollution extremely seriously. This is such an anxiety to my hon. Friend and to all hon. Members who represent constituencies on the coast.

The vast majority of ships navigate perfectly safely, but we regard the accident rate as too high. The action which we are taking, and which I have explained, has two main strands. The first is to secure a quick improvement by the new rules on traffic separation and by pressing for the carriage of proper navigational equipment.

In the second place we are studying very seriously with other Governments how to make further improvements in the future such as the institution of a Channel navigation service—a step, which requires considerable work and international agreement. The service—I prefer that word to calling it a police force of some sort—would be of the greatest possible assistance to mariners and to all who use the Channel. If we can achieve this it will be a great step forward in safety at sea and in minimising the risk of pollution.

With regard to oil pollution generally, we are continually seeking to make progress in a number of ways. In the light of experience we are improving our own organisation to deal with oil slicks, for which my Department is responsible, as the Evening Argus recognises. We are responsible concerning oil slicks at sea while the local authorities are responsible at the shore. Our organisation has improved very much over recent years, under both Governments, in the light of the experience which has, unhappily, been imposed upon us.

I must, however, reiterate once again that the most important steps forward in the control of oil pollution would be the acceptance by enough States of the amendments to the Oil Pollution Convention and ratification of the two 1969 I.M.C.O. conventions on the rights of coastal States and on compensation for oil pollution damage.

In that respect I am entitled to repeat, as I have said a number of times, that Great Britain has set an example to other nations by introducing and passing this Session two pieces of legislation which are of importance in this connection. If the other nations would ratify those conventions, however, this would force tankers to use the load-on-top system or some analogous system on a worldwide basis. It would be an enormous step forward in eliminating the amount of oil put into the sea. I believe we are on the road to success in this way and that there is increasing awareness of the need for action by nations throughout the world; but action, as opposed to mere desire, by other Governments is most important.

I hope that the House will agree that the Government are fully seized of the need to improve navigation in the Channel and are taking appropriate action.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the pollution aspect—and I immediately declare an interest in this—may I ask whether he does not believe it right that those persons who in any way can be held responsible for pollution should meet the cost, whether incurred by the Government or by local authorities? This is not clearly understood. Those of us in the House who have been associated with these matters know that that is widely felt but it needs to be said much more strongly, because that is what the oil companies, the shipping companies and, I believe, the Government want.

Mr. Grant

That is precisely what will be achieved by the recently passed Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Act. I believe that this will have a dramatic effect and I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Bowden

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Grant

I am sorry, no.

Much remains to be done in this direction, but useful preliminary work has already taken place. Our approach is to concentrate on matters of practical value which will achieve real results, realising all the time that we are dealing with international traffic on the high seas. In all this work by my Department, we are assisted by a professional staff of master mariners with long seagoing experience, and not simply Whitehall civil servants, excellent though they are. We have professional expertise and my Department keeps in close touch with professional opinion outside, which is voiced by many different organisations.

12.29 a.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

In the 30 seconds that remain, I should like to say on behalf of the Opposition that we welcome the Under-Secretary's statement, first, that it shall be an offence to proceed against the recommended traffic flows in the Channel as a whole; secondly, that in the Dover Straits separation schemes will be worked out and enforced by the end of next year; and thirdly, what the hon. Gentleman said about the Channel surveillance service, with radar, helicopters and surface craft. We have pressed for this and we are pleased to hear that it is being considered. Fourthly we welcome the fact that higher certification standards are to be required in the Channel.

We are sorry that it has not yet been said that there will be compulsory pilotage on large tankers and dangerous vessels. The Under-Secretary must recognise that it has to be established that unilateral action will in due course be taken by the Channel countries to control——

The Question having been proposed at Twelve o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Twelve o'clock.