HC Deb 05 May 1971 vol 816 cc1575-612

Resolved, That if the proceedings on the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Bill [Lords] are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday next at half past Ten o'clock.—[Mr. Anthony Grant.]

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

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time. In October last year, I had the task of introducing the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill which was intended primarily to enable the Government to accept Amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Oil Pollu-

tion of the Sea by Oil, aimed at reducing pollution. The Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Bill, which comes to us unamended from another place is concerned with questions of liability and compensation should oil pollution occur and is based on another Convention, namely the Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage.

It was the "Torrey Canyon" disaster that revealed certain gaps in the law relating to compensation for oil pollution damage. In particular, it raised doubts whether, in some circumstances, cleanup costs were always recoverable—particularly if the proceedings were based on negligence—and whether the extent of shipowners' liability was high enough for such damage. There were also considerable jurisdictional difficulties in bringing proceedings at all.

An international legal conference involving 48 countries was accordingly held in Brussels in 1969. Although there were wide differences of view at the Conference on such basic points as the person on whom liability was to be imposed, the type of liability and the limits of liability which would be appropriate, a compromise was eventually reached which was largely formulated and put forward by Lord Devlin, the leader of the United Kingdom delegation. As a result, the Conference adopted the Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage which was laid before Parliament last July.

The main provisions of this Convention are, first, that the shipowner should be liable, regardless of fault, for oil pollution damage caused by escapes of oil from a loaded tanker, except where such damage results from, for instance, an act of war, or the action of a third party intended to cause damage. Liability also covers clean-up costs.

Secondly, in the absence of fault or privity—by which we mean an element of personal fault as opposed to responsibility for the acts of others, on the owner's part—he should be entitled to limit his liability to 2,000 gold francs—about £56—per ton of his ship's tonnage, with a ceiling of 210 million gold francs, or about £5.8 million. This limitation fund will be available to victims of oil pollution damage only and will be separate from any other limitation fund that the owner may be entitled to establish, for example, in respect of personal injury.

Thirdly, the Conference decided that compulsory insurance with direct recourse by the claimant against the insurer should be applied.

As I have said, the Convention was a compromise. The United Kingdom opposed the provisions for strict liability on the owner and direct recourse against insurers, particularly because the insurer is deprived of almost all the defences he would otherwise have against his insured. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the advantages to us as a claimant—bearing in mind that the majority of tankers passing our coasts will be compulsorily insured against polluting the shores of Convention States—far outweigh the disadvantages, because we hope that most West European Governments will subscribe to the Convention.

The Convention enters into force 90 days after ratification by eight States, including five each with one million gross tons of tankers. No country has as yet ratified the Convention, but the Bill puts the United Kingdom in a position to do so. The Bill goes beyond the Convention in that it makes special provision for clean-up costs in certain cases not covered by the Convention; for example, where fuel oil is spilled from a dry cargo vessel. It also applies to all ships and not just to sea-going vessels. Neither of these points is in our view in conflict with the terms or the spirit of the Convention. They amend the law in cases to which the Convention does not apply.

Provisions concerning liability are not always easy to follow, and I should like to run briefly through the Bill. Should any points arise in the debate, Mrs. Butler, and I am fortunate to catch your eye, I shall, with the permission of the Committee, deal with them at the end of the debate.

Clause 1 makes the shipowner liable for oil pollution damage in the United Kingdom and in Convention countries, and for the cost of measures taken to prevent or minimise it, resulting from the escape of oil from a tanker.

Clause 2 provides for exceptions from liability, where the owner shows that the discharge or escape of oil is due to an act of war or similar circumstances, or … an exceptional, inevitable and irresistible natural phenomenon … There is a significance in these words—they mean roughly what is generally termed an act of God. I believe act of of God is something which is not entirely understood in other countries, but that is the reason for the words.

Also excluded is the deliberate act or omission of a third party intended to cause damage, for example, sabotage by a person outside the ship or wholly to the negligence of Government or other authority in maintaining lights or other navigation aids.

The form of strict liability imposed on the owner by Clauses 1 and 2 taken together was a basic part of the compromise embodied in the Convention. This particular form of liability is imposed on the owner and no one else, so that the claimant knows that there is a person against whom he will be able to proceed. Even in cases involving the negligence of third parties he will be able to proceed directly against the tanker owner or his insurer without being left with only a possible case in negligence or otherwise against the third party. However, subject to certain limitations, nothing in the Bill will affect his rights against such third parties as there may be.

Clause 3 confines the owner's liability for oil pollution damage to that imposed by Clause 1, and prevents his servants or agents being open to actions.

Clause 4 permits the shipowner to limit his liability to 2,000 gold francs for each ton of the ship's tonnage—that is to say, £56—with a maximum of 210 million gold francs—or £5.8 million—except where there has been "actual fault or privity" on his part. As hon. Members may appreciate, these sums may well not be sufficient to cover damage from a catastrophic disaster, but work is already proceeding in I.M.C.O. to provide further compensation over and above that in the Bill for victims of oil pollution. The figures in the Convention represent the highest limits insurable by shipowners, and the source of the new fund will be the oil companies.

Clause 5 lays down the procedure for the setting up and distribution of the limitation fund.

Clause 6 ensures that where an owner is entitled to limit his liability and has paid the amount of his limitation fund into court, any ship or other property of his which may have been arrested is to be released.

Clause 7 deals with the situation where an owner is liable under the Bill and has paid his limitation fund into court and proceedings are being or might be brought against someone else concerned in the management or navigation of the vessel, such as a charterer under the ordinary rules of law, and that person is entitled to limit his liability under the merchant shipping Acts. In such a case, it is contemplated that a claimant should be confined to his remedy against the owner and the fund set up by him.

Clause 8 covers the situation where an owner may be liable for damage in both the United Kingdom and some other country which is party to the Convention.

Clause 9 prevents any court in the United Kingdom hearing a claim under Clause 1 more than three years after the damage occurred or more than six years after the original incident.

Clause 10 requires any ship registered in the United Kingdom carrying a cargo of more than 2,000 tons of oil in bulk, wherever it may be, or any ship registered elsewhere entering or leaving a United Kingdom port or terminal with such a cargo, to carry a certificate of insurance—or other security—covering its owner's potential liability for oil pollution damage. The Clause makes the absence of a certificate, rather than the absence of cover, a criminal offence. It provides for a fine of up to £15,000 where no certificate is carried, and a fine of up to £200 for failing to produce an existing certificate.

Ships requiring a certificate of insurance fall into three categories: United Kingdom ships, ships registered in other Convention countries, and ships registered in non-Convention countries. As regards ships registered in other Convention countries, it is the responsibility of their Governments to issue certificates, and the appropriate United Kingdom authorities will accept these. At to ships registered in non-Convention countries, the Clause gives the Secretary of State powers to recognise specific countries—both Convention and non-Convention as acceptable authorities for the issue of certificates. The object of these powers would be to ensure that certificates were worth while, and that they were given by countries which were able to appreciate the creditability of the insurer or of the person giving the security.

Clause 11 gives the Secretary of State powers to issue certificates for United Kingdom ships. It also enables him to refuse to issue a certificate if he is dissatisfied with the reliability of the insurer or the extent of cover provided. These arrangements respect the international character of the marine insurance market, and leave it open to United Kingdom shipowners, if they wish, to place their insurance with foreign marine insurers.

Clause 12 implements that part of the 1969 Convention which provides for the direct action by a claimant against the insurer. The insurer will be able to limit his liability to the figure appropriate to the owner, but will only be able to invoke the defences available to the owner and not to plead defences which would be normally open to him as an insurer—for example, misrepresentation—other than that the damage was caused by the wilful misconduct of the owner.

Clause 13 implements the provisions relating to jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments. It makes it clear that claims under Clause 1 come within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty Court. However, it provides, following the Convention, that a claimant is only to bring proceedings for pollution damage in a State where damage has occurred, and enables the judgments of other Convention countries to be registered in this country and enforced as if they were judgments of our own courts.

Clause 14 makes special provision for ships owned by Governments or used for Government purposes.

Clause 15 is designed to help a claimant in cases not covered by Clause 1 where the Convention does not apply; for example, where fuel oil is discharged or escapes from the bunkers of a dry cargo ship or a tanker in ballast through the carelessness of the crew. It does not impose any fundamentally new type of liability on anybody, but makes it clear that where oil is discharged through carelessness and, under existing principles of law, proceedings on the part of any person, for example, the owner of the neighbouring beaches, would lie against the person responsible, then anybody who has taken reasonable measures to clear up the pollution will be able to recover the cost of those measures from that person.

In particular, this provision should assist local and harbour authorities who consider that they may be met with the argument that, in incurring clean-up costs, they were not acting in defence of a proprietary interest or in pursuance of a duty and consequently could not recover. The Clause should overcome that difficulty.

Clause 16 applies to hovercraft, and I think that Clauses 17, 18 and 19 speak for themselves. If there are any queries on them, I shall be happy to deal with them when I wind up.

Clause 20 is important because it provides for different parts of the Bill to be brought into effect on different dates. A number of parts of the Bill, particularly those relating to the nature of liability for oil pollution—Clauses 1, 3 and 15—can be brought into effect immediately. Others can be brought into effect only when the necessary steps have been taken internationally for the purpose. For instance, Clauses 4 to 7 are incompatible with the existing 1957 Brussels Convention on Limitation of Liability, and we shall have to reach some arrangement with the signatories to that Convention. Most of the Bill, including much of the compulsory insurance provisions, depends on the 1969 Convention being in force.

I mentioned earlier the work going on at I.M.C.O. on the setting up of a fund to provide compensation to at least double the limits provided for in the Bill. The United Kingdom has co-operated fully, and progress in I.M.C.O. has been rapid. A diplomatic conference is planned for December of this year. Whether we shall ultimately find the final package acceptable is too early for me to say; we are, however, behind the work in principle, as are other signatories of the liability Convention.

There are, additionally, two important voluntary schemes, set up by the tanker owners and the oil companies respectively. One is the Tanker Owners Voluntary Agreement concerning Liability for Oil Pollution, known as TOVALOP. This is an agreement between tanker owners to pay larger sums in compensation—£4.2 million or £42 per ton—for oil pollution damage than they are obliged to under current law. The international oil industry has also set up, from 1st April, 1971, a fund to pay compensation beyond this up to a maximum of 30 million dollars per incident. It is called Contract Regarding an Interim Supplement to Tanker Liability for Oil Pollution—more popularly known as CRISTAL. The Government welcome these interim arrangements pending the entry into force of the I.M.C.O. Convention.

As a major importer of oil and an island surrounded by busy sea lanes, the United Kingdom has a major interest in promoting the entry into force of the Convention. The potential dangers have been kept in our mind by the run of recent incidents, particularly in the Channel. It is the Government's view that, if we are in a position to ratify the Convention, we will encourage other nations to act similarly. I understand that some of our West European friends are already working on whatever domestic legislation is necessary, and I hope that they will give this work a high priority. I think that the Committee will agree that the present state of the law in this field is far from satisfactory, and that the Convention and the Bill will go a long way towards guaranteeing a claimant recompense for damage or losses suffered.

I must stress that the Bill is designed to enable us to ratify the Convention. On one or two rather technical points we intend to propose Amendments arising from the discussions in another place and from representations made to us about detailed effects of the Bill. Generally speaking, however, the provisions of the Convention have to be accepted as a package: even though we do not like all its provisions, in our view the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. We cannot amend the Bill in such a way as to alter the substantive provisions of the Convention, and still ratify it. The Bill represents a substantial improvement of the law in this field, and I hope that hon. Members will give it their full support.

10.48 a.m.

Mr. Roy Mason

The whole Committee will be obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his lengthy and detailed explanation of the Bill, for which, as he knows, there is an urgent need. It is one of those measures flowing from the 1969 Brussels Convention and, as he and most members of the Committee also know, one of those that we were preparing before we left office, as was the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill.

The Committee must be aware that much has happened since 1969, when the Convention meeting took place, and since the preparation of the legislation on oil in navigable waters and of this Bill. The hon. Gentleman said, or implied, that many of the accidents, collisions, and strandings which have occurred in the Channel recently have acted as a spur to preparing this legislation and moving it through the House faster than would otherwise have happened. That is right. There have been many oil tankers in collision, strandings, loss of life—a series in our Channel that has caused us all much concern.

But the perturbing features of all this is the slow-moving and cumbersome machinery of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, the more rapid technological changes of the oil tankers in size, tonnage of oil carried, and manoeuvrability, and the resultant increase in accidents, loss of life, and serious threats of oil pollution in our straits and in the English Channel.

To emphasise the point: I.M.C.O. decided, on 28th November, 1968, to convene an international conference, which was held in Brussels in November, 1969. The Bill had its Second Reading in another place in March, 1971. We are probably the first country to legislate. But, as the hon. Gentleman said, before the Convention is ratified, eight States must legislate, five of which must have a million gross tons of shipping each. Then another 90 days must elapse before the Convention is internationally recognised. So this is a very slow procedure.

I know that we are dealing with international law covering international waters but, as no doubt most members of the Committee will recognise, we in the United Kingdom are likely to be the greatest sufferers from oil pollution. Of all countries, we have the greatest percentage of oil tanker accidents off our shores. It is certainly in our interests at least to speed up the I.M.C.O. procedures.

Above all, it is more important to aim at regional agreements which recognise the most dangerous waters, and to obtain international recognition of them. For nearly two weeks there has been on the Order Paper a Motion headed "A Charter for Channel Safety". That charter—our charter for channel safety—is designed to establish such a regional agreement and, in particular, it is framed for the prevention of accidents and oil pollution, and not just to act after a threat of oil pollution on a big scale.

The opening sentences of the Convention itself make a laudable preface to the Bill. The International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage states: The States Parties to the present Convention, conscious of the dangers of pollution posed by the worldwide maritime carriage of oil in bulk, convinced of the need to ensure that adequate compensation is available to persons who suffer damage caused by pollution resulting from the escape or discharge of oil from ships, desiring to adopt uniform international rules and procedures for determining questions of liability and providing adequate compensation in such cases, have agreed … this Convention. That is an admirable preface, and is the guts of the Convention itself.

This is a substantial Bill. Having dealt with criminal liability in the Oil in Navigable Waters Measure, we are now moving on to civil liability and compensation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the main points of the Bill, but five points crystallise it in my mind. First, it imposes a statutory financial liability upon an oil tanker owner for any oil pollution he causes; any losses incurred by those harmed by oil pollution; any damage done and the cleaning up costs involved. Second, the liability is unlimited if it is his own fault. Third, if there is discharge which is not his actual fault, and damage occurs and payment must be made, a ceiling of total cost is established; that is, £56 per ton of the ship's tonnage or a maximum of £5.8 million. Fourth, it applies only to oil tankers which carry in bulk a cargo of more than 2,000 tons of oil. Finally, a system of compulsory certification has to be established, showing that the vessel is covered for owner's liability in the case of oil pollution damage.

These are great advances. Every local authority on our coastline, every Member of Parliament representing a coastal constituency, all those people who have been appalled at the damage caused in many ways by oil pollution, and the Government, too, in the light of the "Torrey Canyon" experience of establishing guilt and obtaining payment, will wish to see the Bill quickly enacted and then internationally ratified.

I have a number of queries to put to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will be able to give us more substantial replies. The first is in respect of Clause 2, which deals with the exceptions from liability. I shall quote the relevant passage: (2) The owner of a ship from which persistent oil has been discharged or has escaped shall not incur liability under section 1 of this Act if he proves that the discharge or escape—… (c) was due wholly to the negligence or wrongful act of a government or other authority in exercising its function of maintaining lights or other navigational aids for the maintenance of which it was responsible. Subsection 2(c) may refer to coastal aids provided by Governments. That is not made clear. It could mean lights and navigational aids on ships, for which, in a State fleet, a Government might be responsible, or a firm which is responsible for the maintenance of the navigational equipment might be responsible.

This is a loophole which ought to be blocked. In the English Channel there have been collisions and strandings due to inadequate or badly maintained navigational aids, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) may even refer to the flags of convenience vessels which might prove to be more guilty than the rest. But Governments can be negligent, so can firms—"authorities" is a wide word to use in the Bill—yet have no responsibility for any oil pollution damage that is caused as a result of that negligence. It could pay oil tanker owners to have long-term contracts of maintenance with navigational equipment firms, so that, in the case of a stranding or a collision caused by officers of little experience or doubtful qualifications, who themselves have not kept the lights or navigational aids and equipment in good working order, they could easily opt out of pollution payments.

Is that not feasible? Is it too much of an exaggeration? The Clause does not make it clear. There would seem to be a loophole. The Clause is badly drafted; it does not state whether it refers to coastal States, coastal aids, lights, or radar equipment on the shore line, or in State fleets. Firms supplying navigational equipment and aids on board ship could themselves be guilty and yet, according to the drafting of the Bill, they could opt out of payment for pollution damage. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give the Committee an explanation.

Secondly, I draw the Minister's attention to Clause 10, which concerns fines. Is the Minister really satisfied that the evader of compulsory insurance against liability for pollution should, if caught, be liable to a fine of only up to £15,000 and, if he fails to produce a certificate, a derisory £200? I should have thought that the moods of Committees on these Bills in recent times would have indicated to the hon. Gentleman that these fines are regarded as small and derisory. He must consider bringing them into line with the fines that we imposed on those guilty of illegal discharges of oil into the sea when we passed the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to consider increasing the penalties so that we can appropriately consider Amendments in Standing Committee.

I also draw the Minister's attention to the costs of pollution, which are dealt with in Clause 4. The costs relating to tonnage may be a good yardstick, but I am not very happy about it, and I am particularly unhappy about the £5.8 million maximum. That figure will stand for some time. To what tonnage does that ceiling now relate?—100,000 tonners? Already we have vessels of 150,000 tons and 250,000 tons on the high seas. A 375,000-tonner was launched only a fortnight ago in Japan. The size of oil tankers has already exceeded the ceiling in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to reconsider the ceiling figure.

Let us examine this in more detail. The hon. Gentleman mentioned TOVALOP and CRISTAL. I should like to draw the attention of the Committee to the way in which these organisations have developed. TOVALOP is the Tanker Owners' Voluntary Agreement Concerning Liability for Oil Pollution. That agreement, signed in 1969, imposed responsibility upon participating tanker owners for reimbursing Governments to a maximum of 10 million dollars per incident for cleaning up oil spills and pollution. It covers 80 per cent. of the world's tanker tonnage.

Since that agreement was established, CRISTAL has been formed—Contract Regarding Interim Supplement to Tanker Liability for Oil Pollution. It is a contract signed by a number of leading oil companies and the tanker owners as a further measure to fight oil pollution. Both bodies are ahead of any inter- national legislation, and credit ought to be given to them for it.

The interesting feature of CRISTAL is that it not only supplements the TOVALOP agreement but provides for compensation up to 30 million dollars per incident involving the participating companies, and the oil companies which have been responsible for CRISTAL are themselves receiving over 70 per cent. of the crude oil and the fuel oil transported over the oceans.

I draw attention to the provision for compensation of up to 30 million dollars per incident. That is well above the ceiling figure mentioned in the Bill. The oil companies themselves, internationally banded together, have a voluntary agreement under which they are prepared to pay more than we are prepared to put into legislation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned it in passing, but he did not stress the point. I want to quote the Chairman of the oil companies' International Marine Forum when they decided on this measure. He said: Both the CRISTAL and TOVALOP agreements are designed primarily as interim measures pending the coming into force of international conventions dealing with tanker owner liability for all oil spills and a supplementary fund supported by cargo interests. In other words, when the Bill is enacted and international ratification follows, the total sum per incident will fall. That must be avoided. It must be deplored by any of us who are interested in dealing with the oil polluters. In the light of this possibility, perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he is giving thought to amending the ceiling figure.

I hope the Committee is seized of my point; CRISTAL and TOVALOP—the internationally recognised voluntary agreements between tanker owners and oil companies—will immediately cease to have effect, in terms of their interim measures, as soon as Her Majesty's Government or any other Government ratify the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that at the 1969 Brussels Conference, I.M.C.O. agreed to set up an international compensation fund for oil pollution damage. That might be the bridging of the gap. It is to be based on two principles; first, that victims should be fully and adequately compensated under a system based upon the principle of strict liability and, secondly, that the fund should, in principle, relieve the ship-owner of the additional financial burden imposed by the present Convention.

I know that work has begun on this new international agreement, but what of the time scale? As I have already indicated to the Committee, we think about a conference in 1968, we have it in 1969, and we are leading the world—and we introduce a small Bill two years after that. Three to four years elapse before the first major maritime nation in the world acts. Here we are considering an international agreement to pay the right compensation to the victims of oil pollution. The hon. Gentleman ought to indicate what the time scale is likely to be. In any case, we may have to re-enact the core of the Bill.

Having in mind the TOVALOP and CRISTAL can collapse after two or three States have agreed on this measure, having given way to this legislation, and remembering that the ceiling rates will have fallen and, meanwhile, more large oil tankers will have taken to the seas, it is evident that there is likely to be a setback in terms of the payment of adequate compensation for oil pollution damage.

Finally, we ought to be informed what progress in legislation other countries are making. It is essential to get ratification as quickly as possible. In particular, I should like to know whether France, Belgium and the Netherlands are making any progress. Have they started to legislate? Are they themselves pursuing the goal of making the polluter pay as urgently as we are? As we all know, especially hon. Members representing Channel coast constituencies, it is just as much in their interests as it is in ours.

This Measure is welcomed by us all. Indeed, any anti-pollution Measure is bound to be very popular today. I only hope that other countries who are concerned will be seized of its importance, and will follow the British Government's lead to obtain speedly international recognition.

11.9 a.m.

Mr. Peter Rees

I have the honour to represent a coastal constituency, and I have seen at first hand over the past few months the devastation to the beaches of East Kent caused by oil pollution. I also had the privilege of accompanying my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on a visit to a tanker during its enforced stay on the Goodwin Sands, and saw at first hand what measures his Ministry was taking to cope with any oil pollution.

With that background of experience, I welcome the Bill. If I make any criticisms or comments about it, it is because I am concerned to see that its provisions are wide enough. I appreciate that it implements an international Convention, so that scope for amending it is not large; all the same, my hon. Friend has indicated that there is the possibility of technical Amendments. If, therefore, I look this particular gift horse in the mouth, it is only to ensure that its teeth are sharp enough. With that prelude, I wish to raise one or two matters which I hope he will be able to deal with later this morning.

First of all, will the Bill cover damage to marine life outside territorial waters but inside the 12-mile fishery limit? I have it in mind particularly that off the coast of East Kent there are very important mussel beds that lie partly within and partly outside the three-mile limit. A severe oil pollution might well damage them irrevocably. Will either the country or individual fishermen be able to claim damage for loss of livelihood?

Second, is the devastation to our beaches covered adequately? I can see that it is possible to quantify the cost of bulldozing and covering the beaches with detergent. One can quantify the cost of the men who have to be drafted in to cope with these emergencies. I have seen at first hand the devastation just prior to Easter and it did impose a great strain on the local authorities. Beyond that, how does one quantify in monetary terms the loss of amenity due to severe pollution of the beaches?

I need not stress to my hon. Friend that the beaches at Deal, Walmer, Kings-down and St. Margaret's Bay have suffered acutely over the past few months, and I am not confident that they have been adequately cleaned up. This is not due to any lack of industry on the part of local authorities; the nature of the pollution is such that it is very difficult in the short run to make the beaches fit for holiday makers, and so on. Can one quantify that damage? If so, will one be able to recover it under the terms of this Bill?

There is a smaller but none the less acute problem for those who have suffered. Some of my constituents with houses fronting the sea have found their houses covered with a fine oil film as a result of north-north-easterly winds whipping the oil slicks off the sea. Of course one can trace the oil to a discharge, or a wreck, but if householders in that situation were to claim under the Bill, might they be met with the plea that there was, in lawyers' terms, a novas actus interveniens? Was the causal chain broken? Did this really result from the discharge, or was it a new factor, an act of God, the wind whipping the oil off the sea?

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give a reassurance on this point, because although it does not affect very many householders, it is obviously acutely worrying to those who find the facades of their houses covered with this noxious film, the stench of which persists for many days.

There is always the problem of identification. Although the Bill purports to give remedies to people who suffer, we must consider the practical difficulties of bringing an action under it. I can illustrate this aspect by practical examples that occur to me as a result of the happenings before Easter in East Kent. We had a major tanker, the "Panther", carrying 25,000 tons, stranded on the Goodwins, and although luckily it was pulled off before it broke its back, there was some slight discharge over the days it was stranded. Over and above that, there were discharges, one understands, from the wrecks that are being systematically demolished on the Varne. The "Texaco Caribbean" and the "Brandenberg" are being blown up piece by piece. That inevitably liberates oil from their tanks. Over and above that, by an extraordinary mischance, in the weeks before Easter there was a strong north or north-easterly wind which brought in oil slicks, obviously of an earlier date.

It seems to me that this will raise extraordinarily complicated questions of identification for anyone who wants to take advantage of the Bill. Can the Minister give us any helpful clarification on this point? It is not enough to say that there are theoretical remedies. One must consider the cost and the time involved for an householder or person whose livelihood is threatened, and reassure him that he has a practical remedy.

Like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), I am a little worried about the scope of Clause 2. We are told that a tanker owner can avoid liability if he shows that the discharge or escape resulted from an … exceptional, inevitable and irresistible natural phenomenon … That phrase is not known to English Admiralty lawyers. It introduces a wholly new concept. Is a severe storm, for instance, an irrestible, inevitable and exceptional phenomenon? As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnsley has pointed out, with tankers growing ever larger it may be that one day they will build something that is too large and it will break its back in a storm in the Straits of Dover. Will the owner then be able to plead that this was a natural phenomenon that was inevitable, exceptional and irresistible? It will be no comfort to my constituents to hear that the phenomenon was exceptional, inevitable and irresistible. They will be concerned with the practical consequences. I therefore ask my hon. Friend whether this phrase is a little too loose, a little too widely drawn?

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnsley has to a certain extent anticipated my worries over paragraph (c) of Clause 2. He talked about coastal lights. I have in mind, taking a practical example in the Straits of Dover, the wrecks on the Varne. They have been ringed around with lights, one understands, by Trinity House, but even so there have been some very close shaves in recent weeks. Would one of my constituents who suffered oil pollution because a tanker ran over those wrecks be involved in complex and expensive litigation, trying to establish how far it was the responsibility of the British Government to light those wrecks, and how far they had been effective in fulfilling their responsibilities? These are not fanciful problems, but real problems related to actual situations which have occurred in recent months in the Straits of Dover, with which I am acutely concerned.

These are some of the points that have worried me and I have no doubt that other hon. Gentlemen will find others. I have raised these points, not in any captious spirit, but to make certain that the mesh is drawn tightly enough. I welcome the Bill, but after the traumatic experiences of the past few months people on the east coast of Kent are profoundly concerned with these problems. They are not just academic problems, or things that have happened to the coast of Brittany; they do happen and have happened to the coast of Britain. We are concerned to see that any legislation passed by the Government is drawn as tightly as is consistent with the reasonable and economic importation of oil.

11.18 a.m.

Mr. John Prescott

I welcome the Bill. Many of its provisions follow the Convention recommendations, and it is also in line with the provisions contained in the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill. They are all aimed at tightening up restrictions, and attempting to deal with a very real problem that has been highlighted in the last few months, namely, the pollution and risk the lives of seamen caused by oil tanker collisions.

I welcome the Bill because it goes some way to tackle the problem with which we are faced. But problems arise concerning international control and sovereignty—the question whether we can handle legislation dealing with problems in international waterways. There is the problem of the flags of the vessels concerned, and the country whose responsibility it is to maintain and prevent pollution on its coastlines.

Difficulties also arise concerning the way in which the jurisdictions of the courts of various countries will apply in these cases. For example, when a collision or an act of pollution has occurred, and we are seeking to apportion responsibility, if claims are brought to light, moneys can apparently be deposited with certain courts in France or Great Britain, for example. The one court will make the jurisdiction for both countries. We begin to see problems arising when the courts of one country decide the issue for people who have claims for damages in this country.

The Bill deals with the problem of consensus. The Minister pointed out that it was not exactly as the British Government had wished it would be. I wonder whether he can state the reasons why the Government were not satisfied with the Convention and with the Bill, in the sense that they were not too happy about the owners facing up to their full responsibilities in the matter.

However, the Bill goes further than the Convention, and the Minister is to be congratulated for that, and for recognising that problems can arise, particularly in respect of oil and pollution caused by dry cargo vessels. We must extend the legislation beyond tankers, to other vessels. The Bill goes some way in extending its provisions to all sea-going vessels.

The Conventions, with which we have been dealing, going back to the 1954 Convention on Oil in Navigable Waters, and the various pieces of legislation which various Governments have brought in to face the obligations under these Conventions, are very welcome. This legislation is particularly welcome because it places responsibility firmly on those answerable to anyone wishing to make a claim in a case of pollution.

It tightens the checking procedures, and also provides for the coverage of an international insurance system that will allow moneys to be made readily available to those who have damages in such circumstances. We are well aware that the costs involved in cleaning up after pollution, and the damage caused by oil, are tremendous. The Bill is a welcome step forward in attempting to deal with this.

However, I am somewhat alarmed by the criticisms that my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) made. He highlighted the fact that a number of the voluntary arrangements that have been brought in—including CRISTAL and TOVALOP—are a means by which the industry itself has attempted to cover the huge costs involved. If it is the industry's intention to remove this supplementary insurance, in favour of what is proposed in the Bill, that would be a retrograde step. Perhaps the Minister will be able to provide some assurance about that.

I do not want to deal too much with criticisms of the Bill. There are some points that I would like to bring up, possibly in later stages, particularly as my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley made a very wide-ranging speech, which dealt admirably with a number of the fears which we have about this legislation.

I would reserve myself the right to make one or two criticisms, and ask for assurances. One matter that concerns me is the operation of the certificates of insurance. The Bill clearly states that the country involved will be directly responsible for seeing that the ships bearing its flag have the certificate of insurance which is required under the Bill. It places responsibility firmly on the State.

I welcome the provisions giving the Secretary of State power to decide that certain insurance certificates are not sufficiently comprehensive, and to refuse the entry of certain vessels into our waters, or to make those countries bring their certificates of insurance up to standard. The Secretary of State may be able to exert some pressure in those circumstances. The reason for making that point will become more valid when I deal with the question of the non-signatories to a Convention and those countries who do not face up to their responsibilities.

Can the Minister also assure us about the manpower? If we are to have certificates of insurance, and provide that certain papers must be made available, failing which a captain can be fined up to £100, it involves having people who will be prepared to inspect vessels, and to check the situation and have the necessary sanction force to see that the laws are obeyed.

The importance of this legislation is only as important as the chance of getting away with it. If the inspection procedures are not efficient and people think that they can get away with it the sanctions will not be binding upon them, and there will be a greater chance of people departing from what is required of them under this legislation.

I have the same reservations concerning things which have been interpreted as acts of God as those which were described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley. The paragraph that causes most concern is Clause 2(c), which refers to the wrongful act of a government or other authority in exercising its function of main- taining lights or other navigational aids for the maintenance of which it was responsible. Inquiries into recent Channel collisions have shown that navigational equipment was not up to the standard required; indeed, in some cases it had been out of operation for a considerable time. I take the point made by my right hon. Friend that possibly this is referring to the coastal authorities, and the responsibility of those authorities in this sense, but that is not made clear. It would seem to be a serious loophole, giving exemption to those who could claim exemption in the case of a collision or stranding, or the creation of pollution. Could we have a tightening up of that provision and some comments from the Minister about it?

The main point that I wish to make is the main point to be made against all international legislation, namely, that a Convention represents the generally accepted opinion of all countries involved, in this case through the International Marine Consultative Organisation.

It suffers, as we have pointed out, because it is a consensus, but at least it is a step forward.

There are very real difficulties in international control. It must be recognised that all parties to these agreements want a general level of aceptability. Though the consensus may lower the standards of what some of us feel should be enforced it creates an international acceptability which, in the final analysis, is the only way of solving an international problem.

International agreement is of value only if all parties are prepared to observe it and carry out its intentions. A number of countries signed the provisions contained in the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955. Liberia—a country of which I have considerable criticism—signed those provisions, and we must remember that Liberia is responsible for almost 24 per cent. of world tanker tonnage. It is the major tanker-owning country.

Most of the accidents that have occurred in our Channel waterways—be they the result of collisions or stranding—which have given the impetus to the legislation with which we are dealing today, have not concerned vessels of Britain, Norway or any other major maritime country; they have concerned ships belonging to the Liberian States or sailing under the Liberian flag.

Liberia does not face up to her obligations under this Bill. If these major tanker-tonnage owning countries do not play a forceful rôle in this matter this legislation, although still welcome, will not be as effective as one would want it to be. Hence we need the imposition of some sort of control of the Channel waterways, and of internationally-accepted standards on the part of those vessels that come into our waterways.

I note that the Brussels Convention of 1969—over two-and-a-half years ago—has now been signed by 29 countries. Liberia has still failed to sign it, as have Greece and Japan. They are the very countries that are creating the major part of the pollution problem. They are also responsible for almost half of the world tanker tonnage.

Some of the countries who have not signed the Convention are responsible for almost half the world tanker tonnage. More important, they have been responsible for the recent collisions and strandings of vessels which led to the pollution problems in the Channel. We know from the inquiry reports into these collisions that they have been the direct result of the navigational incompetence of those on board. I therefore suggest that a serious loophole exists in relation to this problem.

I agree that this is not the legislation in which we would have to embody the terms of agreement for the control of the Channel waterways. That must come later. I remind the Minister that when we were discussing similar Bills we pointed out that international action would have to be taken because the problem arose outside our territorial waters. It was regarded as impossible to deal with at the time, but we welcome the Government's action in taking steps to try to get that sort of agreement.

We are very concerned that those countries who do not sign the agreement—in this case the Convention—and declare that they intend to observe and ratify it, create serious difficulties in attempting to deal with this problem.

I hope that in the later stages we may be able to deal with the more detailed aspects of the Bill, and that the criticisms that we have made at this stage will be answered to a certain extent by the Minister, and dealt with more fully in Standing Committee.

11.34 a.m.

Mr. Mark Hughes

I am in some difficulty in welcoming a Bill which, in essence, is based on at least three fundamental misconceptions. It is based upon the misconception that pollution is a matter of tar on beaches, that territorial waters have a relevance to the question of pollution as a whole, and that innocent right of passage cannot be interfered with. The ecological idiocy of thinking of pollution simply in terms of lumps of oily tar on beaches is too obvious to need stating.

Unfortunately, as the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) raised with the question of the mussel beds, it is clear that the question of pollution goes far beyond tar on beaches. It is not now necessary to consider whether lobsters and king crabs are sedentary or swimming species. I know that there is an international dispute between France and Brazil on such matters at the moment, but mussels are clearly a sedentary species in respect of which pollution damage can take place. The concept that by calculating the cost of cleaning we can compensate mussel bed fishermen is unacceptable, being based on this narrow human inconvenience definition of pollution. It is not that on one Easter or summer holiday the beaches of a beautiful part of the country are spoilt by tar; it is that we are permitting our fellow human beings to poison the seas around our coasts, and that our only claim to our successor generation will be to ask their forgiveness on the ground that we did not know what we were doing.

That is totally unacceptable. The level of research that we undertake into marine pollution, not only by oil but by other toxic wastes—and here I gladly pay credit to the research done by the oil companies—is totally inadequate. If a civil engineer were establishing a sewage disposal plant he would calculate how many million gallons of water went in at the front end to dilute the sewage that was being treated. We pour untreated sewage into the Irish Sea and the North Sea, and we have not a clue about the rate of substitution of the water in those seas.

We do not know how fast the Irish Sea replaces the sea water therein. All we say is that if we can find who put the oil on the beaches in the Irish Sea we can take him to civil liability at court. That is no cure. It is like suggesting to those who adulterate food that they should be liable to have to pay the cost of having the carpet cleaned when one has been sick. That is no solution to the problem of oil pollution by ships.

Remember, also, that in the formulation of such conventions we have taken too much notice of the "Torrey Canyon" type disaster These disasters represent a very small percentage of the sources of pollution round our coasts.

We say that territorial waters represent the limits beyond which we cannot interfere with the right of innocent passage over the high seas. Hon. Members must know, surely, that the three-mile limit is based upon the range of cannon, circa. 1670. If we are to determine our concepts of biological and ecological pollution on the range of cannon three hundred years ago, we are out of our minds. This has no relevance at all. To believe that territorial waters, when it comes to pollution, have some magical quality, is a deplorable position for any intelligent man to take up.

In the Continental Shelf Act, 1964, on which the Minister heard me animadvert in the debate on the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill, we claim up to the 200 metre isobath the exclusive right to the exploitation of sedentary species. We vested that right in the Crown. At the beginning of the Third Reading debate in another place, it was signified that the Queen had graciously granted Parliament the right to dispose of the Crown's rights in this matter in connection with this Bill. Here we have the Crown's unquestioned and internationally accepted right to enjoy the exploitation of sedentary species far beyond territorial waters.

How does the Bill propose to start to calculate the effects on sedentary species out to the 100 metre isobath? We do not have the first idea about what is happening to the sedentary species at that depth, or what the effect of poisoning one sedentary species will be at a later point in the marine food chain. We are in a state of regrettable ignorance. It is a personal sorrow to me that the Bill be discussed in Committee when the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed), who is probably the most knowledgeable marine biologist in the House, is not present. I greatly regret that we do not have the benefit of his knowledge in this discussion.

None the less, we are placed in the position of having to welcome a Bill which tinkers at the margins of the problem rather than getting anywhere near the reality. As long ago as 1942, over the Gulf of Korea, a treaty was signed between this country and Venezuela—far beyond territorial waters. In that treaty the right of innocent passage was expressly excluded from any interference. There are many other examples. Now why did we do that? We did it because there were oil deposits beneath the sea. As long as there is a sordid commercial advantage in going beyond territorial waiters, then we will do it. As long as we claim ignorance, we can poison the seas beyond that limit and nobody says "Nay". The shipping interests, quite properly, claim that the right of innocent passage is too important to be jeopardised by unilateral action.

As many of my hon. Friends have said, international action is clearly more desirable than unilateral action, but the slowness of I.M.C.O. and the reluctance of many other countries to start to think in terms of pollution prevention on an international basis lead to the position where we in this country are likely, for many reasons, to be as bad a sufferer, whether it is in the loss of particular species of marine life, the general running down of a putrid sea round our coasts irreversibly poisoned, as appears to be the case already with the Baltic. Are we to be told that we can do nothing because we have to wait for international agreement? That impotence, that unwillingness to take a firm national position as a lead to other countries, seems to be the greatest misfortune in the Bill. It is highly commendable, except that every concept on which it is based is wrong.

11.44 a.m.

Mr. Frank Marsden

The hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) referred to the peculiar phraseology, to say the least, of Clause 2(a). Does this paragraph cover bad navigation in fog or not taking reasonable precautions in a storm? Surely, the aim of the Bill is to make a polluter pay. I hope that the Minister will later make some reference to this Clause and this paragraph.

11.45 a.m.

Sir Charles Taylor

I want to refer to one aspect very briefly. The Bill is rather inclined to ignore the causes of some of the accidents that have occurred in the narrow waters of the English Channel. I believe that one of the major causes of accidents is the use of automatic pilots. Unfortunately, some of these large oil tankers are apt to switch over to the automatic pilot: they do not keep proper watch, but blind on through the Channel under the automatic pilot.

There should be some penalties against any captain who uses automatic pilots between, say, the Isle of Wight and Ramsgate or the mouth of the Thames. They should not rely on the automatic pilots while they are in those very narrow straits. If automatic pilots are found to have been used in a ship that was guilty of causing an accident, penalties should be prescribed against the shipping company that allowed them to be used, on these occasions.

11.47 a.m.

Mr. Mark Woodnutt

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) has mentioned the Isle of Wight, I must say that this Bill is extremely welcome to us, and we ought to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Devlin, on the remarkable job he did in leading our delegation.

Will the Minister make clear what are our powers of enforcement of this Measure before it has been ratified by the minimum eight States? It is my belief that if a ship polluted our waters and we were able to seize it, we would be able to take action under the Bill. I should like my hon. Friend to make that clear.

Another point, which has been mentioned twice before, is that although, undoubtedly, a Force 10 gale is an irresistible natural phenomenon, it is certainly not exceptional. I should like it made clear that subsection 2(a) does not include Force 9 or Force 10 gales.

11.48 a.m.

Mr. Albert Booth

The only serious test that one can apply in judging whether legislation on this subject will be successful is whether it will prevent pollution. In so far as, by providing remedies and making legal liabilities one can be certain of preventing pollution from taking place, this type of legislation has an important rôle to play. However, I want to make clear, even at this stage, the attitude I take to the Bill.

One can say glibly that prevention is better than cure, but in the case of oil pollution of our seas one can go a step further and question whether there is any cure once pollution has taken place. One can take various steps to ameliorate or reduce the offensive results of oil pollution but, on such ecological evidence as we now have, it will be a bold man who states that one can completely cure the effects of a massive discharge of oil into our seas. We shall not know for possibly another 50 years just how much damage has already been done to our marine environment as a result of discharges which have already taken place.

In this connection, I underline, as has been said from this side, that most pollution takes place as a result, not of accidents but of deliberate decisions of shipowners or their agents; of decisions to pump oil waste overboard on a dirty night when they are not likely to be caught doing it; to take a cheap short cut in building a vessel; to engage in shoddy operating procedures rather than spend the money necessary in operating the vessel to ensure that oil does not go overboard accidentally.

It is because we now have concrete evidence that most pollution takes place in this way rather than by accidents, whether we call them acts of God or anything else, that we are entitled, to demand the severest possible penalties—and when we come to the Committee stage we shall discuss the penalties in detail—and also to take the view that when legislating on oil pollution one must make is absolutely impracticable, in the long run, for anybody to operate in a way that jeopardises our environment to the degree that is now, apparently, the case.

My first point concerns the difficulty of proving who is responsible for pollution. It is good and desirable that one should state liability in a Bill such as this. But all who have any knowledge at all of shipping practices will realise the difficulty of proving that a particular discharge of oil came from a particular vessel. This must be more a problem for the United Kingdom than for a number of other Convention countries, largely because of the high numbers of tankers passing through our waters, especially the English Channel and the North-East Approaches.

If only one tanker per year passes an island and there is a discharge within 12 hours of that tanker passing the island, one is pretty sure which vessel was responsible for it, and it will not be difficult to prove by an analysis of the oil on board and the oil on the shore. But when, as in the case of the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees), hundreds of tankers pass within a comparatively short time, travelling in opposite directions, it is almost impossible to prove which one was responsible for a particular discharge, unless provision is made for access to records of the operating procedures on the tankers and to the records which will have to be kept as a result of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will indicate his thinking on the question of the difficulty of obtaining evidence and the right of access to ships' records for anybody wishing to make a claim in respect of oil pollution damage.

My second point is: how far it will be possible, in defence in an action brought for pollution damage, to argue the effectiveness of operating procedures on board a vessel? If we want to encourage owners and their agents to use the best operating procedures on tankers, it is not unreasonable to legislate, as a line of defence, for a good and consistent record of the best possible type of operating procedures to avoid a discharge. Without my going into the arguments at great length—as the Minister heard them rehearsed on the previous Bill—I hope that he will indicate whether it is his view that, under the terms of the Bill as at present printed, such a line of defence or argument would be open; and, if not, whether he will, in Standing Committee, be prepared to consider an Amendment at least to test the feasibility of this idea.

11.55 a.m.

Mr. Frank Taylor

I very much applaud the introduction of the Bill and hope that it will become law and enforceable at the earliest possible moment.

I am uncertain whether I can speak as a Member for a seagoing constituency—I do not know whether the Manchester Ship Canal so qualifies me—but I have a close knowledge of the "Torrey Canyon" and of Cornwall, and have a bird's eye view of all the problems down there. I can say categorically that, whatever compensation is allotted, it will never compensate the people who live on the coast and have to suffer from it; nor the visitors who come to a coastline which is polluted by oil.

I am particularly interested in, and to some extent concerned with, Clause 10, and the penalty for not being properly insured. If one considers the latest tanker of nearly 400,000 tons, and if the figure of £56 a ton which is quoted has any relevance to the value of the contents, we are talking about a tanker with perhaps £20 million worth of cargo. When we value the tanker, we are perhaps talking in terms of £30 million which is at risk. A maximum penalty of £15,000 looms very small in comparison to that total. That should be taken into account, as well as the £200 maximum fine for the master for not producing an insurance certificate. These figures should be married up in some way.

I am particularly concerned with the question whether we shall be able to ensure that these ships are properly insured. We lay down all the rules in the Bill, but a ship passing through the Channel and not calling at a British port may never have to produce a certificate to anyone here. We know that many countries will not honour the rules. What can we do to make sure that they are insured? It is no use our having a major tragedy in the Channel, and having millions of pounds worth of damages against a company that is quite unable to pay. If such a calamity occurs, the fact that there is a £15,000 fine to pay on top of that will neither be here nor there.

I would like the Minister to look very seriously into the implementation of the requirement to be properly insured.

Mr. Joseph Harper

I must apologise; it is no discourtesy to you, Mrs. Butler, or to the Committee, that I keep flitting in and out. I have to keep my eye on another Committee further along the corridor.

I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes) had to say about pollution in general. We are really only scratching at the surface in the Bill. I have heard it said that pollution is worldwide, and that what is one country's out-tray is another's in-tray. But that is no excuse for dividing the Committee against this Bill or for chucking it out altogether. We welcome it, and in Standing Committee we shall seek to amend it in certain ways.

One of the points that I wish to make concerns Clause 2. The Explanatory Memorandum makes three main points. It says: For example an owner will not be liable if he can show that oil escaped as a result of an act of war, act of God or wilful act of a third party; But Clause 2 contains the words resulted from an act of war, hostilities, civil war, insurrection or an exceptional, inevitable and irresistible natural phenomenon; I take that to mean an act of God.

I wonder why the Explanatory Memorandum refers to "an act of God", and then leaves those words out of the Bill. When oil escapes, who will determine what is an act of God and what is not? Will it be left to the courts, or will the Minister in his wisdom, lay down a sort of code of ethics, or a rigid code, providing that if there is a fog of above a certain density, or if there is a Force 10 gale, or a tidal wave, it is an act of God?

It reminds me of the coal-mining industry. Whenever there was an explosion in which more than a certain number of men were killed it was always described as an act of God. I do not know how God came into it at all. God did not compel people to work down the pit, or on the pit top, or wherever the explosion occurred. Should it have been described as an exceptional, inevitable and irresistible natural phenomenon"? I wonder whether the Minister can give us some idea whether he intends to set down a rigid pattern of what will be considered as an act of God, or whether it is going to be left to the courts. I know that every Bill that we publish, and every Bill that becomes an Act of Parliament, adds more money to the learned profession, and the courts are kept even busier. But I should like to know whether the Minister can tell us what is an act of God, and how he is going to apply it.

Mr. Grant

This has been an extremely helpful debate. I appreciate very much the support that has been given to the passage of the Bill, and I have been extremely interested in the many points that have been raised, many of which are Committee points. We can go into more detail in Standing Committee, but I shall do my best to reply to as many as possible of the points that have been raised.

We had a very interesting speech from the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes). I always listen to his speeches with great interest. He took us into the realms of philosophy. He raised the general question of pollution rather than the detailed aspect of a useful but limited Measure. It would probably be unwise for me to engage in a long dissertation with him at this time, although I appreciate what he said in the broadest terms. I only hope that other countries will also heed what he said, and will take as much interest in the question as he does.

He is right in saying that oil pollution is not the only form of pollution. I can think immediately of two others—starvation and disease. Without the use and transport of oil throughout our world I suspect that these two forms of pollution—which the hon. Member may agree are infinitely worse—might become much more rampant.

However, I want to bring the hon. Member and the Committee back to the Measure. He should think through what he says when he tells us that we should take unilateral action. It is important and sensible to secure international agreement on all these matters. I suspect that that is more effective. People who advocate unilateral action must think right the way through the consequences of their action.

That leads me to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) and others, about the general slowness of getting international agreement. In this instance I.M.C.O. has worked rather fast, by its perhaps somewhat slow and cumbersome standards. I do not think that it can be criticised. I detect an increasing international interest and concern about these matters on the part of other countries. I can assure the Committee that the United Kingdom will be in the lead in urging other nations to take action to ratify internatonal conventons as vigorously as possible.

The right hon. Member for Barnsley asked what progress had been made by other countries. Some countries do not need to pass legislation; they can proceed either by decree or their own national law. But we have impressed on our European colleagues the need to speed up their procedures to ratify the Convention. My understanding is that France and the Netherlands are taking steps towards ratification, and other countries are sympathetic.

Certainly that consideration applies to Belgium. I am not certain at this stage whether Belgium needs to pass any law, but I can certainly find that out for the right hon. Member. Certainly it is wholly sympathetic to this legislation. In all, 31 countries have signed the Convention. Most of them prefer to await the outcome of the fund negotiations, later this year, but our action on this Bill will, I am sure, encourage others to follow our example.

The right hon. Member for Barnsley also drew attention to a possible loophole in Clause 2(c), in the exceptions provided if a Government or other authority has been guilty of a negligent or wrong act. That is a Committee matter, but I can say that we will look at this very closely and see whether a loophole exists. If necessary we can come back to the matter in Standing Committee.

I now turn to the question that has exercised the minds of many hon. Members—the exception in Clause 2(a), on the question of act of God. An act of God is something which, if not well known to lawyers, certainly occurs in English law. But the words "act of God" are not understood in other countries; indeed, in some ways the phrase is incapable even of translation. Therefore, the phrase "act of God", known to English law, is certainly not appropriate to an international matter and the wording which, I think, stems from the Convention, was … exceptional, inevitable and irresistible natural phenomenon …". I am advised that this is a stronger and a tougher phrase than "act of God". I assure my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) that it would not be possible to use a Force 10 gale as an … exceptional, inevitable and irresistible natural phenomenon …". because it is certainly not exceptional.

Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that this wording is much tougher, and does not afford even such a wide defence as does the phrase "act of God" in English law.

The right hon. Member for Barnsley drew attention to the cost of pollution. The practical situation is that, at the moment, it is possible for victims of pollution to claim under TOVALOP up to the limits prescribed therein, and to go further than that through the other voluntary agreement, CRISTAL. These will apply, and CRISTAL will continue to apply, until the further limits are agreed, as we hope they will be by the end of this year. CRISTAL has to lead in order to give some incentive to governments and countries to get on with the matter.

CRISTAL has said that it will continue its limits until about 1973 or 1974, after which time it expects countries to have completed their ratification so that the new limits can apply, and therefore replace CRISTAL. In that sense, therefore, the ceiling figure is already at CRISTAL limits and, after the Convention which takes place later this year, this will be embodied into the Convention. That deals to some extent with the time-scale for further compensation.

Mr. Mason

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that when the I.M.C.O. international agreement on compensation for oil pollution is established, at least the figure within that international agreement will be 30 million dollars per incident, which is the figure that CRISTAL now operates? In other words, I would not wish to see us coming back to reenact the core of the Bill on the basis of a new international convention with a ceiling figure lower than that which CRISTAL has been operating.

Mr. Grant

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that point. When the next Convention is agreed and it applies legislation, no one has suggested, and I would not expect it in any way, that the limits therein would be less than those which CRISTAL provides. That is not our expectation or intention.

The question of the fines has been raised by a number of hon. Members on both sides and I recall very well what occurred with the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill. But I must make it clear that we are dealing with a very different kind of offence from that dealt with in the Oil in Navigable Waters Act. That Act dealt with a criminal offence—the deliberate discharge of oil into navigable waters. Here we are dealing with failure to have an insurance certificate, and we consider that in this case the £15,000 fine is adequate. The offence of not producing a certificate, for which the fine is £200, is something quite different. This penalty is intended to deal with a bloody-minded skipper or crew member who refuses point-blank to take the certificate out of his pocket.

These two offences are not analogous to what is in the Oil in Navigable Waters Act. No doubt we shall look at them again in Standing Committee, but I ask hon. Members to consider in the meantime the different natures of the specific offences. At the moment, I am not persuaded that they are wildly out of line.

Many questions were put to me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) who has considerable constituency interests, as have so many of my hon. Friends. He asked me about damage to marine life outside the three-mile limit but within the 12-mile fishing limit. This will be covered only if the damage is within territorial waters and the claimant can show that he has suffered damage—that is to say, that he is the owner of an oyster bed, or something of that kind. The Bill follows, as it must, the Conventions, and at the Brussels Conference it was decided that damage outside territorial waters should not be covered and that the question of remoteness of damage should be left to the relevant rules of municipal law.

My hon. and learned Friend also referred to houses which were covered with a fine oil film blown in from the sea by the wind. This is exactly the sort of case that would be covered, and a claim could be made assuming, of course, that that wind was not an exceptional phenomenon. But it is almost inconceivable that that defence could ever arise in the Channel and, if it did, it would be such a sensational matter as to cause a considerble furore and be well understood. In most cases, however, particularly in the cast to which he referred, I imagine, and we consider, that this is just the sort of thing that would be covered by the Bill.

My hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) referred to the great difficulty of identifying oil slicks. This is inevitable. But the sort of damage of which we are thinking—the really serious damage, involving large sums of money—usually comes from a well-known and identifiable source. It is difficult to identify every spot of oil that comes on to the beach, but every spot of oil does not necessarily cause a substantial amount of damage of the sort about which one would want to bring civil proceedings.

Obviously, one can never get into a situation where every spot of oil that lands on a beach has a five-pound note attached to it, but in the major oil slick cases or the serious pollution cases in which one would envisage litigation and claims being made. I believe that source would be reasonable identifiable. My Department has improved very substantially over the years, following the "Torrey Canyon" disaster, that means of identifying the source of oil slicks.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) drew attention to Liberia. It is important to get matters into perspective, and it would be quite wrong if I were to say that Liberia was the only guilty party in this respect. It is not. It is the name which most readily springs to people's lips when they are discussing this problem, but it would be wrong to suggest that Liberia was the sole offenders.

A better way to put it would be that there are a great many countries which could well emulate the example of Britain in endeavouring both to deal with oil pollution and to raise their standards of shipping generally.

Mr. Prescott

I do not suggest for one moment that it is the sole offender. All I am seeking to try to prove is that it is the major offender in these incidents. As it is also one of the major countries, with the largest tanker-owning fleet under one flag, it is of major consideration to the Committee. It is not the sole offender, but the major offender.

Mr. Grant

True. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the Bill will be a considerable improvement. It will be possible to impose Convention liability on non-Convention countries, such as Liberia. Although we would naturally like the other States, like Liberia, to ratify the Convention, the Bill will do just that so far as we are concerned, and once the Convention is fully ratified it will be possible to deal with non-Convention States, such as Liberia. Liberia is a contracting party to the original 1954 Oil Pollution Convention, although her accession did not take place until some time after 1954.

Mr. Prescott

And with reservations.

Mr. Grant

Yes. She attended the conference which drew up the 1962 Amendments, and has accepted these Amendments. It is true that she has not yet accepted the 1969 Amendments to the Convention.

As I indicated earlier, the Bill and the Convention will enable us to deal

Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Chairman) Marsden, Mr.
Booth, Mr. Mason, Mr.
Bowden, Mr. Prescott, Mr.
Clegg, Mr. Rees, Mr. Pete
Costain, Mr. Shaw, Mr. Michael
Grant, Mr. Anthony Taylor, Sir, C.
Harper, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Frank
Hughes, Mr. Mark Woodnutt, Mr.
King, Mr. Evelyn

with countries which are not parties to the Convention. That applies also to the question of insurance certificates. It is true that a non-Convention country ship may be floating about airily without proper insurance, but provided the Convention is ratified—particularly by European countries—power will exist to deal with the situation, and by countries which are non-Convention and do not have proper insurance will find themselves unable to trade or to go to ports of other countries. Clearly that is an incentive to get themselves properly covered.

I have endeavoured to deal with most of the points that have been raised. This Measure will set an example to the other Convention countries. It will indicate that Britain is very much in the lead. It will assist people who suffer from the curse of oil pollution, and make their recovery of compensation easier. It is a Measure that I commend to the House and the Commitee. I am grateful for the support that has been indicated.

Ordered, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

Committee rose at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.