HC Deb 04 May 1973 vol 855 cc1676-82


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Sproat

Perhaps I might be allowed to start by saying that I am sorry I was so sharp just now to the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Ham-ling). I apologise. I did not mean to cast any aspersion on his long interest in this matter. He will understand when one presents a Bill to the House for the first time one may be a little more tense and subject to irritation than on other occasions. I hope he will take it that there is nothing personal in that.

On whether or not the question of the Shipping Act 1894 should have been raised on Second Reading had I known there was a certain amount of misunderstanding about the present legal position I certainly might have raised it then, but it has only been since then that interest has been stimulated afresh in this matter, stimulated by the Second Reading. I have had various representations made to me which have clearly indicated to me a need to put on the record the historical situation, and what we propose to do about it, and why. [Interruption.] I am sorry if the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) is anxious to get on to his Bill. However, it is a question of the Ballot, and my Bill takes precedence over his. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am very interested in the subject dealt with by his Bill and that I thought originally of introducing a Bill including the very measures which the hon. Gentleman seeks to put through. I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but I cannot allow that to stand in the way of getting through what I regard as a most important measure on the protection of wrecks.

Clause 2 empowers the Secretary of State, if satisfied, first, that a vessel lying wrecked in United Kingdom waters is, by reason of anything contained in it, in a condition which makes it a potential danger to life or property, and, secondly, that it should on that account be protected from interference, to designate by order an area around that vesel as a prohibited area; and makes entry into such an area without the Secretary of State's written authority an offence.

Hazards of this kind are well illustrated by the "Richard Montgomery", which I went down to see with my hon. Friend some weeks ago to familiarise myself in particular with this case. The "Richard Montgomery" is an American ship stranded in the Thames Estuary off Sheerness during the last war—I think in 1944—when carrying several thousand tons of explosives. Although a part of her cargo has been successfully removed since then, a very considerable quantity—I think about half the total amount of 7,000 tons of explosives; in other words, about 3,500 tons of explosives—remains in the wrecked vessel.

It was decided on the best technical advice that could be obtained that the danger of further attempts at removal outweighed any risks attached to leaving the ship and her remaining contents as they lie, thus allowing the remaining explosives, as we hope and are certain, to become neutralised with the passage of time.

Naturally, traffic in the estuary has to be very carefully routed clear of the ship. The ship is very well marked. However, she has proved something of an object of curiosity to sightseers in boats, and there have been occasions when members of the public have approached sufficiently close to be in a position to interfere with the vessel, without so far—fortunately—actually doing so to any serious extent.

In this case the Port of London Authority has been able, under the provisions of the Port of London Act 1968, to give general directions in the form of a "Notice to Mariners" prohibiting unauthorised navigation in the area of the vessel. It is possible that in the event of such hazards occurring in other harbour and conservancy areas the responsible authority would have similar powers under local Acts. It is not intended that the powers of such authorities should be affected in any way by those conferred by the clause on the Secretary of State. Safety would be the overriding consideration in the case of any particular hazard, and if it occurred in any harbour area there would be full consultation.

However, it is considered right that the powers given to the Secretary of State not only should apply, as they clearly must, to areas for which no authority has responsibility but should be available for use in harbour areas to reinforce as may be necessary the possibly more limited powers of the local harbour board.

It may be noted that the prohibition imposed by the clause is upon entry, howsoever made, and not only upon navigation.

Subsection (1) provides that, where the Secretary of State is satisfied with respect to a vessel lying wrecked in United Kingdom waters, first, that because of anything contained in it it is in a condition which makes it a potential danger to life or property, and, secondly, that on that account it ought to be protected from unauthorised interference, he may by order designate an area round the vessel as a prohibited area.

Subsection (2) requires orders under the clause to identify the vessel and the place where it lies. It also provides that a pro- hibited area shall not include any area above high-water mark; that it shall be all within such distance of the vessel as is specified in the order; and that such distance shall be such as the Secretary of State may consider appropriate as to ensure that unauthorised persons are kept away from the vessel.

Subsection (3) makes it an offence to enter a prohibited area either on the surface or under water without the authority in writing of the Secretary of State. Like the offences specified in Clause 1, this offence is made subject to the provision of Clause 3(3), which specifies the circumstances in which acts which would otherwise constitute the offence shall not be regarded as doing so— for example, acts to deal with an emergency or in the course of exercising institutory powers.

Mr. Onslow

I wish to add one or two points to the very excellent introduction given by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat).

It may be as well for us to understand that there are certain cases which will not be covered by the clause and, therefore, in so far as they are not covered by the Bill, and, so that there shall be no public misunderstanding, I make it clear that they are already covered by other legislation, and there need not, therefore, be any concern as to their being a danger.

The Secretary of State will not be enabled by the clause to designate a prohibited area round a wrecked vessel which is a danger to life or property solely because it is an obstruction to navigation, because the danger does not arise from the vessel's contents and the vessel does not need on that account to be protected from unauthorised interference. There are well-established and, I hope we can agree, almost invariably effective procedures followed in such cases.

Where any vessel other than one of Her Majesty's ships is wrecked in any harbour or tidal water under the control of a harbour or conservancy authority or near any approach thereto, that authority has powers deriving from Sections 530, 532, 533 and 534 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894—similar powers are usually contained in local legislation —to take possession of, mark and remove the obstruction if, in its opinion, the vessel is or is likely to become a danger to navigation.

The Ministry of Defence (Navy) has power to remove any wreck which is an obstruction to a dockyard port or to the approaches thereto under Section 13 of the Dockyard Ports Regulation Act 1865. It also has power to search for, take possession of, and mark any such wreck.

Perhaps more concern will centre round old wrecks which might cause oil pollution. The powers of the clause are not intended to be used to prohibit interference with old wrecks which are difficult to remove and may give rise to threat of oil pollution. The potential danger to property is unlikely to be so great as to justify removal in such a case, although if a particular difficult instance were to be brought to our notice it is conceivable that some way would be found of applying these powers if there were no others to hand.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

The terms of the earlier part of the clause are, as I read them, that the Secretary of State's power to designate an area as a prohibited area round the vessel is restricted to a vessel which represents a potential danger to life or property. My hon. Friend referred just now, as I took it, to an old wreck of an oil tanker which might cause pollution but would not be a potential danger to life or property and would thus presumably be covered by the Bill.

What would be the position with a new oil tanker—not an old wreck—which sank and caused pollution, which did not endanger life or property but certainly might endanger the environment with oil being washed up on beaches? I cite the "Torrey Canyon" as an example. Is such a wreck covered by other legislation, or could it conceivably be covered by the terms of the clause?

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Onslow

That is the very point to which I was about to come. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming that it is a point in which there may be interest, as I had suspected.

I hope this will explain the situation to my hon. Friend's satisfaction. Where an accident has occurred to or in a ship and, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, oil from the ship will or may cause pollution on a large scale—that is the kind of case which I think my hon. Friend has in mind—the Secretary of State has powers under Section 12 of the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971 to require action to be taken to prevent or reduce oil pollution, including power to take over control of, remove or even sink or destroy the ship. Perhaps the "Torrey Canyon" has won a victory of a kind posthumously, although I doubt whether precisely the same methods would always be employed to sink or destroy a similar vessel were a case of this kind regrettably to recur. The Oil in Navigable Waters (Shipping Casualties) Order 1971 applies these powers with modifications also to ships which are not registered in the United Kingdom and which are for the time being outside United Kingdom territorial waters.

We therefore have a satisfactory position in this respect, but that does not mean that we should be complacent about the danger of large tankers stranding themselves on or near our shores and causing massive pollution. Since my hon. Friend has raised this matter, I can say that my Department is conducting this summer a series of exercises designed to test our defences against cases of this kind. Some few weeks ago I went to Milford Haven and saw what was being done there and the way in which new techniques were constantly being evolved to deal with oil coming from a wreck and drifting towards our shores, and, indeed, oil which we have not been able to prevent reaching our shores. If my hon. Friend would like further details of this, without delaying the Committee now I shall be happy to write to him and put him fully into the picture. I know this is a matter of widespread public interest.

There are no statutory powers at present for removing wrecks which may contain toxic, dangerous or polluting substances other than oil. In serious cases administrative action would be taken. If it were not practicable to remove the contents it might be necessary to use the powers of Clause 2 to prevent unauthorised interference.

Therefore, I think my hon. Friend, in this legislation, is providing us with a valuable longstop power whereby we could keep unauthorised people away from a wreck which was dangerous by reason of the fact that it contained toxic or polluting substances other than oil, and which for some reason we were not immediately in a position to do anything to make safe by administrative action. That is again something which I hope we need not contemplate.

Finally, so that there shall be no misunderstanding about this either, at least one local authority appears to have supposed that the powers in this clause would enable it to take some action to protect swimmers against the consequences of their own folly, either against danger to their lives or against the danger that they might bark their shins against a submerged vessel. The powers in this clause could not be used for that purpose—in other words, to prohibit bathers or sub-aqua divers from approaching a wreck which might be dangerous solely because the intruder might get into difficulties in exploring the wreck—for example, by being sucked under water or trapped within the wreck. It depends on the wreck being a potential danger because of anything contained in it. It is because of the need to cope with that situation and to make sure that there is no unauthorised tampering with wrecks that come into this category that I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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