HC Deb 27 November 1978 vol 959 cc133-78

Postponed Proceeding on Question, That this House do now adjourn, resumed.

Question again proposed.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Adley

It is not easy suddenly to return to the subject of oil spillage, because I had barely begun my remarks, but I shall do my best.

It was interesting that in the first half of our debate we dealt with the payment of compensation as a result of the activities of big business. Almost every contributor referred to the need for those who create oil pollution to be responsible for clearing up the mess. In the debate to which we have just listened, that relating to British Rail and the Selby operations, we had a tirade from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who has already left the Chamber, at the mere thought that the National Coal Board might have to pay compensation for damaging people's lives and environment. I believe that what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

In my earlier remarks I said that the impetus for the development of the oil industry and the economic benefits that flow there from have come from the corn-panics. But Governments have been left to develop the resources and facilities, to provide cures, and to cope with the environmental hazards which are the inevitable side effects of oil exploration and exploitation.

There is an analogy with the position that arose over whooping-cough vaccine. The drug companies manufactured drug vaccines recommended by the National Health Service, and only now have the Government recognised the need to provide compensation when the State itself creates the framework for the universal use of the drug.

I welcome the appointment of Rear-Admiral Stacey as director of, the marine pollution control unit. I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) in his concern about Rear-Admiral Stacey's independence of action. My hon. Friend felt that he would be tied into the machinery of government rather than that he would act independently—which I believe is essential if he, is to carry out his work effectively as the oil pollution supremo.

The Minister does not always take too kindly to criticism, particularly from certain Back Benchers, of whom I am sure I am one, but no doubt he will have read and taken to heart the criticisms of his Department in the recent Select Committee report. I shall not weary the House by reading any of those criticisms, but they are voluminous. I do not believe any Minister could lightly set aside that report. Today we have heard, from Labour as well as Opposition Members, criticism not only of the Department, but of the whole atmosphere surrounding the creation of oil pollution. I hope that will amphasise to the Minister that this is not a party political matter. Nobody wishes to make a party political issue out of the subject of oil pollution. Oil pollution will be with us for years to come and no doubt Governments of both political persuasions will be in office in those years.

Reference was made by the Minister to the"Christos Bitas"incident, and at Question Time today he said how much better a job was carried out on the"Eleni V ". However, in the Christos Bitas"incident we were lucky with the weather. Nobody knows what would have happened if the weather had turned nasty half way through that saga.

The new Secretary of State for Trade told me on Friday, in a series of Written Answers, that he accepts the philosophy that"the polluter pays ". He told me that under the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Act 1971 and the Merchant Shipping Act 1974 there were adequate powers to deal with the situation. If there are adequate powers, one can only assume that the Government are not using them. Does the Minister believe that the Government have sufficient powers to deal with problems created by tankers which go astray and with the allocation of responsibility in cases of oil pollution? I am not referring only to circumstances that attract the headlines, but to the daily pollution of our coastline. Is he satisfied not only that he has the powers but that he is using them adequately and has the ability to reclaim funds from those who create the pollution? If that is his impression, he should be willing td, stand up and say so. In an Adjournment debate on 13th July on this subject, when I put forward an eight-point plan to the Minister, he was critical of it to such an extent that I sent it to Mr. Roy Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins was rather less rude about it than the Minister. Mr. Jenkins wrote to me on 11th September and said we are thinking along similar lines ". Perhaps the Minister will now feel that he has to answer the widespread concern that is felt by everybody who has taken part in this debate.

The Merchant Shipping Bill, which is to be discussed in the House on Thursday, deals in one clause with the problems of oil pollution. However, the Government's proposals are still too timid. Clause 20 refers to fines not exceeding £1,000 on summary conviction. The Minister did not answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives about the French legislation. What do the Government feel about the French Government's proposals? Do they believe that they are sufficiently clear to be upheld in international courts of law, and does he believe that if introduced by a British Government they will be regarded as too strong because of their potentially damaging effects on our other interests?

The"Amoco Cadiz"affair brought the French Government into action. For them necessity was the mother of invention. They have introduced really tough penalties. I submit that it is better to take parliamentary action fast and then argue whether the law is right, than to take no action and to have to spend one's time arguing about who pays for all the resultant pollution.

On the question of speed, I wish to concentrate on the anti-pollution measures which are being considered by the Government.

The Minister knows my views about the overt amount of time which has been spent in an effort to find a"detergent"answer to this problem, but for the moment I shall deal with"mechanical"devices. I mentioned, in an intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), a device being developed and perfected by a company in my constituency. One of the facts to come out of the report of the Select Committee is that the mechanical device on which the Warren Spring labora- tory seems to spend most of its time is something called Springsweep, which seems to be a device which, for its success, has to be fixed to a ship and can be used only in that way.

That is fine—the Minister will tell me if I am wrong—if we have a large number of small ships stationed round the British Isles, but the cost of doing that would be prohibitive. It is fine, also, if the next ship that happens to go aground does so 20 or 30 miles from where the Springsweep happens to be. But that will not happen.

It seems to me that Warren Spring laboratory is spending far too much of its time developing the technology which it thinks right and far too little time—this goes for the Department of Trade generally—on listening to what other people say and taking note of proposals which are being put before it by responsible and independent people, many of whose ideas bear a great deal more examination than do those which the laboratory and the Department have so far produced.

What we have to find, in my view, is a form of mechanical device which can be airlifted speedily on to any ship in the area. It is no good thinking in terms of a fixed device on a particular ship, which ship must then make haste to the scene of a disaster. We must create and develop some form of helicopter-borne technology which can be airlifted at short notice on any ship which can get near the scene of the oil pollution.

That has certainly been the intention of the company in my constituency, Oil Recovery International. It has been concentrating a great deal on just that, and as from the end of January it will have a device which can work in seas up to force 7 levels. It has a public company in this country, Star Offshore Services, in association with such well-known names as United Towing, to back it. It has the resources the facilities and the technical know-how, and it has even offered its technology to the Minister to use on an appropriate occasion. I shall not weary the House by repeating all that I said in my Adjournment debate last October.

I remain concerned, and not just about the reaction of Warren Spring and the Department of Trade towards that piece of technology. I am concerned also about what goes in the Minister's Department. On Friday last, in another of the Written Answers in which I obtained information, I was told that there are 16 salvage tugs available to us in this country comparable in size with that currently in use by the French Government off the Brittany coast. To my surprise, I have had a number of comments and a letter again this morning from people who doubt the veracity or accuracy of the Department's information. For example, this is what is said in a letter from a marine consultant, which arrived on my desk this morning: It is reported in Lloyds List today that Mr. John Smith, replying to your question, has stated that he was aware of 16 salvage tugs owned by British companies with a comparable bollard pull to that of the French vessel (presently stationed off Brittany).' If the report is correct, Mr. John Smith has obviously been very seriously misinformed by his officials, and not for the first time. May I suggest that you ask the Department of Trade for the names of the tugs? That happened only in the past two or three days. Is the Minister fully satisfied that the information which he is being given from his officials on all these matters relating to oil pollution is satisfactory?

In view of the time taken by the debate on the Private Bill, I shall not deal with a number of points which I had intended to raise, but I put this thought to the Under-Secretary of State. There is dissatisfaction—even exasperation—in constituencies such as mine about the apparent inaction within the Department of Trade. Committees are set up, people are appointed, but it seems that precise action is taken not in this Chamber but on the other side of the Channel.

No one doubts the good intentions of the Minister and the Government. No one doubts that the Department of Trade wants to get things right. But the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Could it be that all those who have spoken in the debate today have got the matter right and that the Department of Trade, for once in its life, has got it wrong?

If the Minister will just allow himself the thought that those of us who have spoken from both sides today are not satisfied and believe that his Department could and should be doing more—if he will allow that thought to stay in his mind for a bit—this debate will not have been in vain.

8.33 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover and Deal)

It is a great pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) in the debate, especially since in this context his constituency exhibits some of the problems which mine has. Obviously, my hon. Friend has devoted a great deal of thought to these matters and acquired great expertise—expertise which I cannot pretend to match.

Diffidently, I congratulate the Government on at last finding time for us to debate this important subject. My personal involvement does not go back as far as that of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), who spoke so eloquently from the Opposition Front Bench. He was able to recall the"Torrey Canyon"disaster and the heroic episode in the career of the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson). My direct involvement goes back to about 1971 when the"Panther"ran aground on the Goodwins. I went out to the scene with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant), who then occupied the position now occupied by the Under-Secretary of State for Trade, the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis). I went to see what measures were being undertaken on that occasion.

Like so many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have been concerned to see today what lessons have been learnt over the intervening years and what positive steps have been taken by the Government. I am endeavouring not to be partisan. It could be that I should be making the same comments to a Government of another political complexion.

I begin my examination by considering an interesting document that was produced by the Department of Trade in July, shortly before we rose for the Summer Recess. The document is entitled"Accidents at Sea Causing Oil Pollution ". A distinguished committee was formed. As I am sure that all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have seen the document, I shall not detail the committee's formation.

The committee reached some startling conclusions and expressed them in rather startling terms. Paragraph 40 begins: It also has to be recognised that such a spillage could occur at some time somewhere around our coast, although based on past experience such an event on any particular stretch of coast will be extremely infrequent. It may be that my constituents in Dover, Deal and Sandwich will heave a deep sigh of relief. However, if they read on they will find the following: In broad terms, therefore, a major incident involving a laden oil tanker might be expected, say, once in a decade in the Dover Strait area. Major incidents are likely to be less frequent in less congested waters. That is exciting news for my constituents, especially if they take up the Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I add my respectful and diffident congratulations to the Select Committee. It has done a remarkable job on the evidence presented to it, especially on the incident involving the"Eleni V ".

I refer to paragraph 21 of the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which states: This means that in effect the Department of Trade's preparations in the Channel bear no relation to the likely size of any oil pollution incident and leave the south coast virtually unprotected. There was a certain disagreement between the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), who so ably chaired the Sub-Committee, and the Under-Secretary of State, who I hope will reply. Far be it from me to come between them. On the summary of the evidence that is to be found in the report, I prefer the view of the Sub-Committee and of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East rather than that of the Under-Secretary of State. However, I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to persuade us that the Sub-Committee took too gloomy a view.

If the Sub-Committee is right, those who are in the forefront of the battle, as they have been in the forefront of so many battles of a different sort in the past, are my constituents in Dover and Deal. I shall not ask the Under-Secretary of State to reconstitute a Dover patrol, but I have one or two practical suggestions to make.

I shall be interested to hear a candid assessment from the Government Benches. However, at this moment they are entirely devoid of occupants apart from two distinguished exceptions. I am bound to say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales did not reassure me. I doubt whether he will reassure my constituents. Although it is not for me to make personal and stringent comments, I thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was woolly and rather defeatist.

However, I pass from that. I intend to concentrate on three particular points. I hope that what I have to say will be constructive and that the Under-Secretary of State will pick these points up and deal with them and say whether he agrees with them and, if he does, whether he can possibly take practical steps to remedy the problems that I outline.

The first point, which really must be self-evident—it was touched on with far more eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives—is that the most important thing must be that there should be firm and decisive co-ordination and direction of any measures after an accident has occurred. I do not, of course, intend to reflect on the quality of those who are manning the Department of Trade at the moment. Beneath their black coats and striped trousers, I am sure that there lurks many an embryonic Benbow or Beatty. It may even be that the Under-Secretary sees himself as a latter-day Hawke moving his command ship—I think there is a command ship in such situations—two points closer to an oil slick. I shall be interested to hear what his ambitions in that direction are.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Be sensible.

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman is getting a little sensitive. If he is a little sensitive, it can only be that he is not utterly persuaded.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I am not getting sensitive.

Mr. Rees

If the hon. Gentleman cannot take in good humour something that was passed across to him in, perhaps, a slightly jocular vein, I must say it bodes rather ill for our debate tonight and we can look forward to a rather dull and unconstructive contribution from him later tonight. Perhaps he will cool his ardour a moment.

What I have to say is that, for all I know, the Under-Secretary and certainly those who presently staff his Department are, I have no doubt, of great ability, great ambition and capable of ruthless decision when the moment requires it. But they have no direct experience, so far as I know, of immediate action on the seas. This is what is required.

The Secretary of State for Wales told us of one such incident. There was one command ship—and this is why I venture to refer to it once more—and 65 other vessels. The only people who have experience of marshalling that kind of force, of taking that kind of decision and of responding to that kind of challenge are officers of the Royal Navy—not the Under-Secretary, if he will allow me to say so. He may have had a short naval interlude in his past. I do not know. He can perhaps reveal that to an astonished Chamber at a later stage this evening if he has. But, as far as I know, he has not.

In this situation I would, therefore, look to the Royal Navy to provide the kind of expertise and the kind of decision-making that we will require—

Mr. Clinton Davis

It is evident that the hon. and learned Gentleman is allowing his sense of humour, which is like a bowl of Parkhurst porridge, to overcome his knowledge of the facts. Is he not aware that the Royal Navy always has a command vessel available, as it did at the time of the"Eleni V"affair and the"Christos Bitas"affair and, that we have a principal officer on board who is knowledgeable about spraying matters? Is this not the answer to the point that the hon. and learned Member is seeking rather garrulously to make?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman will have plenty of time to comment on the garrulousness or otherwise of my speech in due course. No, that is not an answer. Indeed the hon. Gentleman cannot really have been following my points, or it may be—and I regret it if I have—that I have slightly irritated him and he has slightly anticipated what I am going to say.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to leap up and say"Oh, but we have appointed Admiral Stacey." I want to come to Admiral Stacey in a moment. I shall only say to the hon. Gentleman that I have no doubt that the principal officers designated by his Department—I know that there are various areas for which they are responsible—are men of supreme ability, but I am not certain whether they have the kind of experience that is needed in this kind of situation. May I, therefore, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the appointment,of Admiral Stacey? The reservation that I have about that appointment is that that distinguished officer is now retired. I am not saying that his experience is at all obsolete at the present time, but he is not now a serving officer, and the hon. Gentleman has enmeshed him in the toils of his own particular Department. In other words, although he has a distinguished naval past, he has, in effect, become a civil servant in the Department of Trade.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman's Department, I do not believe that its officials have the training or the capacity to take the kind of instant, rather ruthless, decision which may be needed when a major incident occurs, such as the Department's own committee has envisaged. I believe that the unfortunate Rear-Admiral Stacey will find it rather hard to get through to the Secretary of State. He may possibly get the Under-Secretary of State on the telephone now and then, but that is not the kind of solution which I believe we need.

We certainly need an admiral, probably someone who is on the"active"list with what I would call"an independent command ". I do not know whether he should be responsible directly to the Secretary of State or to some sub-committee of the Cabinet—I am a little diffident to talk about sub-committees of the Cabinet, because we are not actually allowed to know that they exist—but let us not argue about the details. That, I believe, is the kind of administrative set-up which we need to cope with this kind of situation.

At the end of the day, putting it in what the Under-Secretary of State may regard as crude terms—and I in no way cast any aspersions on the distinguished Department for which he has some slight responsibilities—I believe that the British public would have far more confidence if they felt that an admiral of the Royal Navy were in charge of co-ordination and direction in this kind of situation. I leave the Under-Secretary of State to ponder over that and to give us, if he can, his considered views on that particular suggestion, which I hope he will accept to be as constructive as I know how to make it.

My second point is one which has already been made by several of my hon. Friends. That is in relation to cost. Of course, if one is outside the two-mile limit, part of the cost will be borne by the Department of Trade. But within that limit the cost is borne by county councils and district councils and, indeed, by private individuals and perhaps business interests. I ventured to raise this point when the"Panther"went aground on the Goodwin Sands because I could see the Kent county council and the Dover district council—I think it was then the Dover rural district council—bearing the burden of that.

It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell), who sensibly raised exactly the same point in relation to this recent disaster, raised the same point with the Secretary of State for the Environment on this occasion. I can tell the House, and my hon. Friend, that he received almost exactly the same reply which I got from a Conservative Administration. That leads me to fear that possibly the Department's thinking has not proceeded very far in the intervening six or seven years.

It is all very well for the Department to say"Oh yes, you can recover from the insurance companies which are insuring the companies concerned. You may even recover from the oil companies which have providentially set up such a fund ". But as all of us who have applied ourselves to this problem realise—I am sure the Under-Secretary will confirm it because he was involved in the law before he assumed his present position—that it takes a certain time to bring these claims home. There may be rather expensive litigation. The Minister's branch of the profession, and mine, may profit from it, but that is not what we are debating tonight. What we are concerned to see is that the ratepayers of the districts and the counties which are affected by oil spillage should not themselves be faced with an addition to the rates.

I am sure the Minister will recognise that this is fair, because these are disasters of national dimensions. Indeed, why should a private individual—perhaps a hotelier or someone who operates a fishing smack—have to do through this time-consuming and very expensive process? I therefore hope that the Minister will be able to make a bold and generous gesture and say"Yes. we shall accept the liability, although we shall have to distinguish between genuine and false claims, because there are always some people who will push their luck in that situation. We shall be the people who will seek to recover against the insurers of the oil tankers and against the fund set up by the oil companies ".

The third point, which is supremely important, was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives with his usual eloquence and profundity. It is the question of preventive measures. The Secretary of State said that he was deeply proud of IMCO's record, but with a wise qualification he added that machines and men were fallible. Because of that, we must try to prevent before we consider the question of cure. I would far prefer to hear that there was no likelihood of a tanker ever running aground on the Goodwin Sands than to hear that the Under-Secretary had got together the most marvellous set of measures to cope with what might happen thereafter.

I recall the incident of the"Panther"running aground on the Goodwins. The message recorded by the coastguards at St. Margarets Bay from the master of the"Panther"was"I have run aground, where am I?" In these days of radar, this was a staggering comment. Someone had to go out from Dover to put the radar right because it was out of action.

Do we really have adequate control of the sea lanes? I emphasise that what I am saying contains no implied criticism of the coastguard service. I deeply admire the service, and I am in regular contact with coastguards in my constituency. However as they would be the first to recognise, they have very limited powers. If they find a rogue tanker going up the wrong lane, the best that they can do is to draw his attention to the fact. No doubt the Department of Trade will then write a letter in due course to the owners and perhaps also to the country concerned. But that is of small comfort to those who are likely to be hit by the tanker or likely to suffer from the spillage.

The French, with ruthless Gallic logic, have decided to extend their territorial waters. More than that, I believe—and I think that the evidence for this is to be believed—that they have stationed a gunboat in the area. Whether the Under-Secretary feels able to call on the Secretary of State for Defence for a gunboat in such situations, I do not know. I appreciate that these are very delicate matters.

As a great seafaring nation, with probably a larger merchant marine than our French friends, we must be concerned with freedom of the seas. I believe that, historically, we have fought many wars —I do not know whether it was the war of Jenkins' Ear, but no doubt the Under-Secretary is well briefed in these matters—to defend the freedom of the seas. I have no doubt that the Under-Secretary will say that were we to be so bold—or, as he would probably say, so rash—as to take the kind of steps that the French have taken, our shipping might be at risk in the Straits of Malacca or the Baltic.

I believe that the time has come to reconsider the position. I do not put it any higher than that. I am being very moderate and responsible. I am not saying that we must have a gunboat the day after tomorrow, deployed in the Dover Straits, but I do think that the time has come to review that position.

I believe that this is an area where the EEC has a considerable role to play. Every member State, except Luxembourg, has a coastline. Every member State, to a greater or lesser degree, is concerned with the problems of pollution. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be stimulated to approach his colleagues in similar positions in other EEC countries to see that a concerted effort is made. Perhaps there could be some world-wide conference of the sea with a concerted EEC position. It is a trite observation, but prevention is always better than cure. I have not been entirely convinced by the cures provided by the Under-Secretary and I am sure that the House agrees that a few preventive measures would be infinitely more reassuring.

The Government have left an impression on me of being a little bland and complacent. No doubt that impression will be corrected by the Under-Secretary and I hope that he will take up the points that I have made and the more cogent points of my hon. Friends.

The House cannot guarantee complete immunity for the shores of this island, but we must all, particularly those of us who have the privilege to represent coastal constituencies, be able to reassure our constituents that every reasonable measure has been taken to protect our shores.

8.56 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this short debate and to add the Scottish dimension. I am disappointed to see that the Labour Benches are almost empty, but perhaps we can be generous and say that many Labour Members must be in the Shetlands, cheering ashore the oil coming in to Sullom Voe. I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer must be there, because that oil will certainly save his bacon.

The oil started to come ashore on Thursday night and by tomorrow night the first pipeline will be running at almost full capacity—a rate of 150,000 barrels a day. That will make a very great difference to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the attitude that this country should adopt on oil pollution. It should also make a great difference to the attitude that the Minister should take in considering the problems of oil pollution.

Between now and the end of February, Britain will move from being a net buyer of oil to being a net supplier and, in that powerful position, we shall have the opportunity to lay very different terms on those who buy our oil. In a world of scarce oil resources, we have the unusual situation of the seller having the power. He can impose strict criteria on those who take away the oil. The Minister will have a wonderful opportunity to put a surveillance team on board every vessel that comes to load oil from Britain to make sure that the tanker is in a reasonable state to stand up to heavy seas.

We have three loading points for oil. Those of us who travel by train past Hunter's Point, on the Firth of Forth, have seen the tremendous amount of pollution that has already been caused along the north shore of the Forth. Oil from the Argyll field comes ashore in Teesside and, so far, there have been no major disasters there.

The terminal at Flotta has been loading oil for some time. It is small wonder that the councillors who live on the mainland of Caithness, and particularly the regional councillor who represents the John o'Groats area, are very worried at the lack of controls on the passage of oil tankers through the dangerous waters of the Pentland Firth. The regional councillor has always maintained that no strange vessel should be allowed loaded into the Pentland Firth without having on board a pilot who knows the area.

Now, of course, we have the most wonderful bonanza of all at Sullom Voe. It means so much oil coming ashore and then being transhipped out again that the tonnage moving by the end of February will be about the same as that which goes in and out of Rotterdam in a year. That situation will clearly put a different dimension to the problem of oil pollution. We have been told of the problems in the Channel, but the future is with the Scottish people and the future problems will largely lie in Scotland.

The Scottish electors are particularly touchy about the question of oil spillage. They are annoyed because the Government take away oil revenue that really belongs to Scotland, and they are particularly annoyed by the fact that when that oil is taken away our beaches and our sea bed will be polluted. The Minister of State said that he did not want to adopt a posture of complacency, but we who represent the constituencies along the shores of Scotland believe that the Government have been far too complacent and are leaving too much to chance.

To this end, we believe that it is high time to set up a Ministry for marine affairs to look after the affairs of the sea right from the high-tide mark to the end of our economic zone, the 200-mile limit, or the median line, wherever that applies, and that everything in that sea area, whether it be marine life, the minerals on the sea bed, or the oil under the sea bed, should come under the responsibility of a Ministry for marine affairs.

Members representing Scottish constituencies are worried about the many inadequacies of the present Department of Trade. Is the Under-Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient anti-pollution vessels are stationed around the shores of Scotland to deal with these very large tonnages of oil? One thing that worries me particularly is the total inadequacy of the charts available for many of these areas, where vessels with draughts up to 90 feet have never been before. Is the Minister satisfied that the charts that the present Hydrographer of the Royal Navy has been busy working on are adequate to cover all the areas that many of these strange, very large crude carriers can wander into? There is a genuine fear amongst many of us about this matter. It is important that these huge vessels should have compulsory pilotage. Such vessels are anything up to 1,000 feet long—indeed, in the case of vessels of up to 90-foot draught they are more than 1,000 feet long. This is a genuine worry.

Much of the pollution that has occurred up to now has been the result of small spillages and of carelessness. Some of my colleagues and I on the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee recently did a trip on two tankers in the Channel, the"British Respect"and the"British Dragoon ". There we saw a lightening operation in Lyme Bay. We had to get up at 4 o'clock one morning to see it, but we were very impressed by just how little oil a responsible company spills. We were amazed to find that the amount of oil spilled on the decks could be wiped up with two rags.

We believe that there is far too much divergence of responsibility between the Department of Trade, marine survey service, Trinity House, Her Majesty's coastguards, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. We believe that the most important thing is to keep these tankers out of danger's way.

In this instance we see the application of Murphy's law—that if something can go wrong it will. It is up to the Minister and his Department to make sure that nothing can go wrong. That is why, in the new set-up, the tankers, which must be vetted, must follow strictly policed lines. We must insist that all vessels report in and out of British waters.

I am aware that that is an entirely new concept in British marine affairs, but it has already been adopted by the Norwegians. No vessels, not even fishing vessels, go into Norwegian waters without reporting in the minute they go over the 200-mile limit or the median line. They also report out when they leave. It is no good the Minister's saying, as he may well do, that that is much too complicated. If Norway can do it with every fishing vessel, surely we can do it with much larger vessels, including tankers, which have much more sophisticated machinery.

I am also very worried about the development taking place in Nigg Bay, an inner firth of the inner Moray Firth. There is some very shallow water there. More than that, my fishermen constituents assure me that there are areas where the sandbanks move. Unless there is a pilot who really knows the area, there is real danger. The problem is that many of the oil vessels that have been accustomed to being on the run from Rotterdam round the Cape to the Gulf States have not previously experienced the very wild and cold seas around Shetland.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that the polluter must pay. That is vital. We must also ensure that the oil companies do not cut corners. Many of the accidents and strandings in recent years have occurred because oil tankers have been cutting corners. There is no excuse for that. The oil companies are very wealthy. Many people believe that they are great white gods, which can do no wrong. But they do do wrong, and they take short cuts. It is important that the Minister makes sure that nothing will go wrong. Just as we do in atomic energy matters, we must see that in dealing with all problems related to oil pollution a belt-and-braces approach is adopted.

As the major oil producer of the EEC, Britain must take total control of the operations and of the oil movements within our exclusive economic zone. That is why I do not welcome the proposed EEC measures, which suggest that the Commission should take control of the oil operations round our shores. Any bowing by us to our EEC partners would give the Commission a foot in the door.

Surely by now even the most landlocked elector in England is aware of the tragic mess that the Commission is now making, of Britain's fishing. Therefore, how can we trust the EEC to make a better job of the oil than it has over fish? I say to the EEC"Take your hands off Scotland's oil. It is bad enough having England's hands on it."

9.8 p.m.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) said that the polluter must pay. It seems that that statement has largely been the theme of the debate.

I speak on behalf of many of those who reside on the Forth estuary, who feel very strongly about the matter, because the discovery and exploitation of North Sea oil have had a marked effect upon that estuary. Just a short way from the shore of Cramond, beside the Forth railway bridge, is Hound Point, the oil-exporting terminal. The refinery at Grangemouth, further up the estuary, is one of the most important in the petrochemical industry. The dangers have recently increased substantially. There is now almost certainly far more shipping on the Forth than there is on the Clyde. It is now the fourth busiest port by tonnage after London, Milford Haven and the Tees.

Although its oil spillage record is good, there have been a number of accidental spills. In 1977, the advisory committee on oil pollution of the sea reported 17 accidental spills, and the Forth ports authority claims that that figure may have been slightly low. Even so, relatively small spills can have very adverse effects on wild life, and concern has been expressed by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy. So far, the spills have been dealt with speedily and effectively, but if there were to be a very large oil spill from a single vessel the effects would be felt throughout the estuary and the spillage could have very damaging consequences for fishing, for bird and marine life, for beaches and for amenity areas in the whole of the East of Scotland.

The Department of the Environment estimates that by 1981 there will be a 14 per cent. chance of a large tanker spill occurring in waters off the East of Scotland. At present, the Forth channel is about 600 yards wide in certain places, and the Forth ports authority has encouraged BP to ensure that vessels coming to Hound Point are seaworthy, fully capable of loading and unloading, and under the control of persons of the highest consequence.

At present the, Clearwater Forth antipollution team believes that it could cope with a spillage of up to 1,000 tons but possibly not very much more, and we all know that a supertanker capable of using the Forth waterway could carry up to 250,000 tons. Can the Minister assure the House that in the event of an emergency off the East of Scotland, or in the Fourth estuary, an emergency service or a major task force could be readily available there as well as in all other parts of the United Kingdom within a very few hours? The hon. Member for Banff asked how many anti-pollution vessels might be available. It is the question of speed and how quickly availaible they are which is important, and we should be grateful for some indication from the Minister.

In the present context, the powers of the Forth ports authority are very important. I understand that there is before Parliament at present a provisional Forth ports authority order giving the authority powers to issue directions after consulting the Forth pilotage authority and the General Council of British Shipping. These directions might be incorporated in written instructions and would have a penalty of up to £200 for non-observance. This penalty is laid down by the Scottish Home and Health Department. In my view, it would be quite insufficient. I notice that clause 20 of the Merchant Shipping Bill suggests £1,000. But even that figure might be quite inadequate. I ask the Minister to consider carefully the possibility of inserting much more effective deterrents.

In certain cases, it is far more economic for shipowners to risk pollution and court fines rather than to lose time and money cleaning tanks in port facilities. Surely the Secretary of State and the Minister should consider having stronger fines, the moral being that the polluter should pay and be liable for any damage. Pollution should not be in the interests of any shipowner any more than of anyone else.

The European Commission has recommended that the polluter should pay and that this requirement should be enforced strictly. There is also an EEC research programme on chemical and mechanical means of controlling pollution with minimum damage. The Government should do all in their power to encourage concerted European action on this matter as strongly as possible.

I hope that the Minister will take account of the problems of the estuaries and closed waters in the interests of the fishing industry, of wild life and, last but not least, of residents in the East of Scotland who want the amenity of their magnificent coastline to be safeguarded.

9.14 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)

A striking feature of this debate has been the unanimity of views expressed and the extent of the concern voiced from all parts of Britain.

I am especially pleased to be taking part in this debate because my constituency is especially vulnerable, and we have just suffered from the unhappy accident to the"Christos Bitas ". On that occasion, I was able to spend a good deal of time in the operations centre at St. Ann's Head. I inspected the beaches both onshore and from a Royal Navy helicopter.

I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating those involved on what proved a remarkably successful operation. We were fortunate. For once, the luck and the weather were with us and a major disaster was averted. Even then, extensive pollution occurred on both sides of the Bristol Channel and there was considerable loss of bird and marine life.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) concentrated substantially on the prevention of accidents. I intend to devote most of my remarks to the problems of dealing with pollution when the accidents have occurred, and with compensation. All I would say of some of the specifics that have been advanced in connection with prevention during this debate is that a good many of them have snags that we should recognise. We should not think that there are easy panaceas. For example, even the fairly obvious suggestion of regulated lanes can, if not done skilfully, contribute to accidents.

A pilot with great knowledge of the area has seriously suggested to me that this may prove to have been a contributory cause of the"Christos Bitas"accident, but we will not know until we have the inquiry. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), when I shook my head, about visibility from the Welsh coast, the inquiry may reveal that visibility was down to four miles at the time and that Grassholm and the Welsh coast were probably invisible. But that is no conceivable excuse for the accident.

I have considerable doubts whether compulsory pilotage is a practical proposition in all areas around our coast. There are considerable problems, not least in getting pilots aboard in the Western Approaches and similar places, although it may prove a sensible answer in a more confined setting. I have a great deal of sympathy with the views of the hon. Members for Cornwall, North and Banff (Mr. Watt) about compulsory surveillance and reporting. On all these subjects and on some of the wider issues referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, we need a Government paper settting out some of the arguments and the Government's views on them. We need more clarification of their thinking on these important prevention questions.

We may be certain that however successful we are with international prevention measures and steps that we can take in our own waters, pollution will continue for the foreseeable future and that some will be massive. I share the judgment on that point of the Secretary of State for Wales.

At present, we suffer from chronic pollution interspersed, much more rarely, with catastrophes. Estimates of the extent of the problem vary considerably. In a recent Lords debate, a Minister said that Her Majesty's coastguards had reported 164 incidents around Britain in 1977. But the annual survey of the advisory committee on pollution of the sea revealed 642 incidents and that is the figure that the EEC Commission accepts. Since 1970, on the other hand, the Department of Trade's organisation for dealing with incidents at sea had been activated only 11 times and on only four occasions did the quantities spilled exceed 2,000 tons.

However, the"Eleni V ", the"Christos Bitas ", the"Amoco Cadiz"and the Anglesey spills have given vivid evidence of the scale of the threat confronting us. It is not surprising that there is widespread concern, evidenced here by the frequent debates that we have had in the last year, initiated by Back Benchers in both Houses and by the early-day motion in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) and many other right hon. and hon. Members.

The Select Committee which reported on the"Eleni V"incident was justifiably critical of that operation. Many lessons were learned. The Department of Trade emerged with credit from the"Christos Bitas"affair, but one is still left with the impression that our present arrange ments are inadequate for the scale of the problem.

In two previous debates, the Under-Secretary of State, who is to reply to tonight's debate, sought to deal with the matter by being rather offensive to my hon. Friends the Members for Honiton and Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), who have taken a praiseworthy interest in the subject. I thought that the Under-Secretary of State was also a little short with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees). The Under-Secretary of State tried to create the impression that when confronted by admittedly difficult problems everything was being done that could be done. In the light of the views that have been expressed today from all parts of the House and by the Select Committee report, that approach would be a mistake tonight.

The acceptance of unpleasant realities, of which the Under-Secretary of State has spoken in the past, is commendable, but a certain humility in the face of suggestion, criticisms and experience of others would be prudent.

I wish to deal with the problem of control to which a number of hon. Members have referred. I wish to point to two lessons which should be drawn from the"Christos Bitas"incident. First, the mistakes of the"Eleni. V"were not repeated at sea. There was prompt and effective control. The operation was run smoothly by the officers on the spot at St. Ann's Head.

Whatever the argument for overall control, there is little doubt that the experience and resources of the Department of Trade are relevant. In future, that experience is to be organised through the new pollution control unit. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives suggested, its responsibility should be direct to senior Ministers and, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal said, it should have a degree of independence. The chairman of the Select Committee said that it is important that tile officer in charge should have real and effective authority. I agree with that.

I formed the impression, during the recent incident, that for an affair on this scale, control in the region from a coastguard station has clear advantages.

In its review of contingency measures, the working party discussed the option of using the joint services maritime headquarters in Plymouth and Scotland. That might be appropriate to deal with a massive disaster in those areas. But there is much to be said, in terms of proximity to events, and contact with local authorities and the press, for the people who are directing the operation to he at the nearest, adequately equipped coastguard station. I emphasise the words"adequately equipped"because much needs to be done if places such as St. Ann's Head are to be used efficiently as control centres. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State will accept that since he has visited that place.

On land, the major lesson to emerge is that there is a massive and, so far, unresolved problem about what one does to dispose of oil which is deposited on shore and which might be mixed with large quantities of sand and shingle.

Mr. Fell

An interesting matter emerged from the"Eleni V"incident which do not think was discussed in the report. It was that if the oil is buried under about 8 feet of sand it is never seen again. During the war, oil was buried and nothing has seeped through.

Mr. Edwards

That is is an interesting point which should be examined. In the recent incident, nobody, including the National Parks Commission, the Ministry of Defence at Pendine, where there are extensive dunes, and the Welsh water authority, was prepared to accept deposits on refuse tips or anywhere else because of the fear of damage to the environment and because of the danger of water pollution.

I understand that research is now going on into disposal and that an investigation is being made of possible sites. The Preseli district council strongly urges the Government to press on with research, which it regards as being of prime importance, and to lay down clearer guidelines for local authorities.

This raises the important question of control. In the event of a major disaster, who would have the authority to reach decisions about dumping and other emergency measures on land? No one has the same authority as the chief officer of the Department of Trade has at sea. Such power as exists rests with the local authorities. In the"Christos Betas"affair a senior official of the Welsh Office played a useful role. I think that the Secretary of State implied that he could have taken a more decisive action if that had been called for, but I tend to doubt that under the existing arrangements. I doubt whether he could have done more than negotiate between the various parties. I should be interested to know from where he would have drawn his powers.

What is required is not so much a director of land operations, filling a coordinating and overseeing role, about which the Secretary of State spoke, but a final authority able to act between competing departments and organisations and to take difficult decisions in a crisis.

In the light of their experience the West Wales local authorities welcome the establishment of the marine pollution control unit, which is to be under the direction of Rear-Admiral Stacey. They want an equivalent far-reaching power for a designated Minister so that he may deal with the problems on land.

I am not completely clear, and I may have got it wrong, but as I understand it Admiral Stacey and his unit have no power over land operations. They are concerned only with what happens at sea. My local authority is suggesting that there should be comparable powers on land. That seems to be a sensible proposal. But it leaves the question of overall control to be resolved. This matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), who wants the Department of the Environment to take decisions where there may be a conflict of interest between what is happening at sea and what may result from it on land. In Scotland and Wales, of course, that would have to he dealt with by the Scottish and Welsh Offices respectively. That in itself creates a complication.

In any case, the co-ordination of Departments is a matter for the Prime Minister, and I would not want to prejudge any decision that a Prime Minister might have to take in the future. So long as there is effective departmental responsibility on land and at sea, surely coordination ought to be possible between them. All I ask at this stage is that the whole question of responsibility should be reconsidered at the highest level.

Mr. John Morris

That is precisely what I said. I said that there was a demand for someone to be appointed in this way, but that the point to be considered was the one that the hon. Member was adumbrating a few moments ago, namely, what powers should be given to the person appointed.

Mr. Edwards

I am glad to have the right hon. and learned Gentleman's undertaking that this matter is being looked at. He made an earlier reference to it, and, as I suggested earlier, I am not entirely happy about some of the phrases that he used, particularly the suggestion that this person should take over some of the duties of the local authority. I do not believe that that is what is required, but I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will examine what has been said in the debate and by the local authorities and carefully consider all these points.

I wish now to deal with the question of equipment. Some of the hand sprayers that have been used are perfectly suitable for minor clean-up jobs, but have proved to be woefully inadequate in dealing with the large quantities of oil and"mousse"that came ashore on certain beaches. There were also problems about getting some other equipment on to the beaches.

One of the most effective instruments to be used throughout the operation—it would not be universally suitable—was an old fire engine which was able to squirt detergent on the oil on the water, on the rocks and in the harbour. We have to use some imagination and inventiveness.

My local authorities welcome the new control depots being established by the Department. They believe that it is acceptable that they should be as far away as Bristol, in the case of the South Wales area. The depots are intended to supplement what is available locally. The contents could be on the scene within a few hours. As for the equipment at sea, we are fortunate that the"Christos Bitas"chose to go aground close to what is probably the best-equipped port to handle oil pollution in the world. At any rate, adequate numbers of tugs and other vessels were quickly on the scene.

It is probably desirable that in future we should have available some heavy stripping pumps and that information should be readily available about where heavy compressors and other salvage equipment can be quickly obtained. I welcome the undertaking, in today's report on the"Christos Bitas"incident, to establish a cache of such equipment under United Kingdom Government control.

Considerable doubts and criticisms have been expressed during the debate about the research effort and pre-planning. The Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out—indeed the Secretary of State in his speech admitted—that no preparation for dealing with heavy fuel oil had been made. The Chairman of the Select Committee thought that there had been complacency within the Department of Trade generally and I think that that is fair comment.

My hon. Friend for Hastings (Mr. Warren), a member of the Select Committee, spoke of the lack of leadership on the part of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton asked some important and entirely reasonable questions about the adequacy of the research effort. He inquired whether there were overall catalogues and inventories. The central question, which was raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal, concerned the equipment, and this was brought out in the Select Committee report and the report of contingency measures carried out by the marine division working party.

The present policy is to maintain sufficient resources to treat a maximum of 16,000 tons of oil per day, spilled round the whole of our coasts, within which total the area capability would range from only 1,500 to 3,000 tons, or 6,000 tons in the Channel. It is also the policy to have equipment capable of dealing with 1,000 tons per day coming on shore around the whole of our coastline. A considerable question mark hangs over that policy and over the conclusions of the working party to the effect that nothing has happened to invalidate the judgment on which existing policy is based.

The job of the working party was to advise the Government. This is not the type of decision which, ultimately, can be left and simply accepted on the word of the working party, however distinguished it may be. It is a major political decision. I found the working party report chillingly inadequate, not only in its conclusions but in the bland and casual way in which, on page 6, it justified this decision. After pointing out that coping with the worst possible disaster would entail tying up large resources to deal with a disaster which might occur once a decade, and that even this scaled-up capability would not, in the worst case prevent oil coming ashore in substantial quantities, it added: Also the resulting pollution, though it is damaging to the environment and to amenity, and a matter of great public concern does not cause injury or loss of life to people. Moreover, oil pollution can, at a cost, be cleared up. If, anywhere in Britain, people were to see devastation on the scale of the social and economic catastrophe suffered in Brittany, they would find that casual last sentence pretty hard to stomach.

I do not underestimate the problem. We are told that about 100 ships are available under present arrangements and that, with a 24-hour assembly period, we would need 500 ships in favourable circumstances and that the cost would be prohibitive. The trouble is that the cost of a disaster on that scale would also be prohibitive. Even the working party sees the possibility—no, the probability—of a major disaster involving a laden oil tanker once in a decade in the Dover Straits area. No wonder my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal expressed concern.

There is much more that we can do without the cost being prohibitive. Of course I accept that one cannot prevent oil coming ashore and massive pollution if a major accident occurs. But if pollution occurs, one cannot play with it. We should do more within our own resources. Much of the equipment is still primitive and experimental. Surely, as, the working party said in its report and as the Secretary of State for Wales hinted in his speech, there is considerable scope for air spraying. We have only just begun with the techniques. Far more research is needed. But in my view a proper way to resolve the dilemma is not by going it alone, but by pooling the available resources. This pooling must take place at various levels. It must take place internally.

The Select Committee, in paragraph 22 of its report, points to the lack of a plan to concentrate national resources quickly, and in paragraph 23 suggests ways in which this could be done. The policy must take full advantage of all resources, private and public. My hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) and Honiton (Mr. Emery) urged that the Government should not go it alone but should make use of the tremendous resources of the oil industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington referred to private technology. On the Continent and in the United States the authorities are making increasing use of commercial contractors for clean-up work. There are firms in Holland, Italy, France and Denmark which specialise in the clean-up pollution business. I am informed that private firms in Rotterdam could have placed 20 trucks with equipment on a ferry within eight hours to help with the"Christos Bitas ".

That brings me to the third area in which pooling must take place. It must take place at an international level. It is a fairly remarkable fact that, apart from passing reference to the French, there is no mention in this review of contingency measures of our neighbours and no reference to the EEC. It is an attitude which, sadly, we have come to expect from the Government, but I still find it incredible.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales referred to the EEC documents and particularly welcomed the document on safety, but he said virtually nothing about the EEC suggestion on pollution clean-up. The fact is that the European Commission is showing more urgency and realism about this matter than apparently are the Government. The Commission has put forward proposals for prevention, dispersal and compensation. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) was right to see the EEC document as a springboard, and he suggested the involvement of the Council of Europe.

One of the first steps proposed in these documents is for a census on a Community-wide basis of all specialist teams and equipment to assess availability and compatability. This would allow the necessary action squads to be set up. We in the Opposition believe that, in addition to improving our own facilities, we should be moving urgently to make these EEC proposals a reality. There needs to be a carefully prepared European scheme for tackling the major oil pollution incidents.

That brings me to the question of compensation, which is directly related to the cost of these arrangements. The costs arise directly as a result of an accident and on a continuing basis as anti-pollution measures are maintained. Some of the accident costs are recovered under existing convention and insurance arrangements when the source of pollution is known. But the continuing costs are not recovered, nor is the recovery where the spills are of unknown origin. The Department tends to say that the cost of these unknown spills is relatively small, but it may be considerable for individuals. Collectively, the burden of all these anti-pollution measures falls on the taxpayer, the ratepayer and private citizens. There are strong arguments that these costs should fall on the charterers and carriers who cause the nuisance and be passed on through the price mechanism to the consumer.

Hon. Members on both sides have spoken of the principle that the polluter pays. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North rightly emphasised the importance of the charterers. Lord Ritchie-Calder and his advisory committee are by no means alone in calling for the establishment of a fund financed by a levy on shipping or on charterers. No doubt, the Minister will argue that we must not impose undue burdens on the shipping industry and suggest that it would be difficult to proceed except on an international basis. Of course, there are great problems. After all, much of the shipping passing our shores and polluting our shores is not on its way to British ports. I understand that discussions are going on within the tanker owners' federation about a possible fund, and at the recent Carmarthen conference on the"Christos Bitas"spill a Government spokesman said that consideration was being given to a central fund.

We want to hear the Government's views on that matter. I urge them to work closely with the EEC. This is another area for co-operation, since if we have to go ahead with a levy-financed fund ahead of wider international agreement it will be better to do so on a European basis with a levy applied to shipping entering all EEC ports—the hon. Member for Sunderland, South would apply it to all ports in Europe, inside and outside the EEC—and that would be a pretty effective base on which to launch such a scheme.

I put two specific points to the Under-Secretary of State. First, regarding the site chosen for the sinking of the"Christos Bitas ", the report published today says that it was chosen in accordance with the spirit of the London dumping convention. This morning I received a rather disturbing letter from Dr. Nelson Smith of Swansea university, a considerable authority on this subject, pointing out that the site was right in the middle of the prohibited zone under the 1954 convention, as amended in 1962, and that oil rising to the surface might be expected to reach Britain in about 30 to 40 days as a result of surface drift. May we have the Minister's comments on that letter?

Secondly, we know that private citizens may make claims in respect of damage and loss under the terms of the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Act 1971, but what needs clarification and a public statement is to whom those claims should be addressed. Will the Government make themselves responsible, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal suggested, for paying individuals and local authorities and then set about recovering the costs from those responsible? What is their position on that?

I believe that the Government's approach, despite the advances which undoubtedly have been made, has been too piecemeal. They have advanced from crisis to crisis, and their approach is still inadequate because, in effect, they are washing their hands of any ability to cope with a major disaster, which almost certainly will come. If the major disaster does happen, we shall have to cope with it. We had better start preparing for it now, and the best way to do that is on a European basis.

9.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

This has been a wide-ranging debate and it will be difficult for me to take up every point that has been raised by hon. Members on both sides, as will, I believe, be appreciated, but I shall do my best.

At no time have I ever expressed in the House, on television or anywhere else the view that the Government have a complete answer to these problems or indeed, that we are complacent about them. I am extremely surprised that that charge should have been made but, bare of evidence, it has been made, and at the outset, therefore, I seek simply to repudiate it.

The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) spoke of the inadequacies of the working party report. Perhaps I should add that there are in addition four studies which we hope will be complete by the end of the year—naturally, the House will be informed about them at the earliest opportunity—to deal with the following topics: the command control and communication question, the question of resources and research and development, the question of salvage and the availability of salvage equipment, and the question of liability and compensation.

We have a great deal to learn from the incidents that have occurred, but, as I shall endeavour to establish, the charge that we have learnt nothing since"Torrey Canyon does not bear examination. We have to consider these matters in a wider sphere than our domestic resources and domestic expertise. We have to look wider than the EEC. Surely we must be capable of learning not merely from the EEC but from countries such as the United States, Norway and Sweden. It would be folly if we closed our eyes to the experience that such countries are able to offer.

We feel, too, that we can make a powerful contribution. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales stated at the outset of the debate, we have taken a number of important international initiatives through IMCO. We have been anxious to support the moves that have recently been made at the EEC to fill in the gaps and to bring quicker implementation, followed by enforcement, of decisions that have been made at IMCO.

When we move to consideration of the Merchant Shipping Bill later this week we propose to recommend to the House that powers be given to enable the Government to implement IMCO agreements by regulation before they have the force of international law. We do not believe that that will breach the concept that I have been anxious to explain to the House ever since becoming a Minister and dealing with these matters. I do not believe that it will breach the concept of establishing the authority of IMCO. We would be merely anticipating the coming into effect of decisions that have already been arrived at internationally. We would seek the power to do that by subordinate legislation. That will be a matter for the House to decide when we consider the Merchant Shipping Bill in Committee. The House will decide whether the Government should have such powers. I shall be making the recommendation strongly.

As for the international dimension, I deal first with operational discharges. We have heard from my right hon. and learned Friend and other hon. Members that these constitute the most potent cause of pollution and that accidents, serious though they are, represent a much smaller measure of damage to the environment. I am not in any sense mitigating their effect. It is important that we have to deal with accidents as well as operational discharges. However, a number of hon. Members have sought to put the matter in a proper perspective.

Discharges of oil into the sea, in the sense that they are caused by operational discharges, are related to the need to clean cargo tanks. British oil and shipping companies, with the support of the Government, have played a leading part in devising methods to reduce pollution of the seas from that source and getting them accepted internationally. The latest technique of that sort, following load-on-top, is crude oil washing, known elegantly as COW, whereby part of the oil cargo is recycled during unloading and sprayed through high-pressure jets to remove the great bulk of the residues normally left in the tanks after discharge and recover it for the cargo. The acceptance of this technique was a major success at the February conference of IMCO, which dealt with tanker safety and pollution prevention.

Many other important measures were agreed then, and it may be helpful if I just list them without commenting in any detail upon them. They include the segregation of cargo and ballast tanks on new tankers; the protective location of the ballast tanks to reduce the risk of outflow in the event of a collision or grounding; much wider use of inert gas systems to reduce the risk of explosion, especially when tank cleaning is under operation; duplicated elements in steering gears; more frequent inspections of tankers; and in the area of navigational safety, second radars and the development of collision avoidance aids.

The Merchant Shipping Bill will enable the United Kingdom to ratify these and other important international agreements concerning maritime safety and pollution prevention. Thereafter, we propose to use every effort to ensure that they come into force internationally as quickly as possible.

Those are very important developments. It is quite wrong to imply, as some hon. Members may have done, that IMCO has not been getting on with the job or has simply related its tasks to a number of incidents that have occurred. This is an ongoing process, and it has been a matter of very great concern to us to support IMCO in all this valuable work.

One other factor I would mention is that IMCO has set new target dates for ratification and implementation of these proposals. Admittedly, for this particular area these are as far ahead as 1981. Of course, it is necessary to get the international community of shipping to recognise that these things have to take place. It needs a certain amount of education and a certain amount of expenditure. But fixing a target date is an advance over what happened before. We shall do our very best to ensure, as I have said, that other nations can be shown an example by us in early ratification.

Mr. Watt

We are delighted to hear that the Government have been pushing on for ratification of these various measures within IMCO, but can the hon. Gentleman say that at the end of the day there is any way in which he can impose penalties or sanctions on those oil companies and those nation States which do not recognise the IMCO regulations?

Mr. Davis

I shall come to the question of compensation, but it so happens that virtually all the major shipping countries, including flags of convenience, recognise these international conventions, and I am no great admirer of flags of convenience, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.

Before I come to the question of human fallibility, which is an important one, I ought to comment on a point that has been raised by a number of hon. Gentlemen. In so far as operational discharges in our waters are concerned, it is clearly an offence for a British or foreign vessel to undertake such discharges. I think it is right to say that, provided that we are able to secure the evidence—and this is true of any criminal offence—then we are very ready to prosecute any ship that comes into our ports. The problem is securing the evidence.

Many of these acts of great irresponsibility occur at night, or when one simply cannot expect them to occur. They occur, most irresponsibly, in the wake of a catastrophe. For example, in respect of the"Amoco Cadiz ", there was evidence that irresponsible masters were discharging their tanks and thereby adding further pollution to the French coast. This also happened with the"Eleni V ". Fortunately, it does not appear to have happened as far as the"Christos Bitas"incident is concerned.

It is an act of gross and overwhelming irresponsibility for people to indulge in that. If it happens and we catch them in our territorial waters—and I shall come to the point about territorial waters later—we certainly will prosecute. The courts have powers to impose very heavy penalties indeed. Magistrates, quite exceptionally, and at the insistence of this House when the 1971 Act was passed, may impose a fine of up to £50,000 on the master and/or on the ship owner. The higher courts are able to impose an unlimited fine. Therefore, I am confident that I carry the House with me when I express the hope that the courts in appropriate cases should make fuller use of those powers than they have tended to in the past.

Mr. Bagier

Is not the difficulty that there is no set pattern right across the ports? If we had a pattern in the whole of the European ports which applied a set system and control we might have a better means of bringing these people to book.

Mr. Davis

There is a point in what my hon. Friend says, but in the final analysis the court must have the discretion as to the imposition of a fine in the event of a conviction. There is no way of avoiding that situation. All I am hoping is that the courts will take note of the views that have been expressed in the House, which I believe are representative of the country as a whole.

As to human fallibility, a most important conference of IMCO was held in June and July of this year to deal with training, certification and watch-keeping practices. We took the initiative of ensuring that special attention was paid to those who were in command of tankers and other vessels carrying a potentially noxious cargo. I think that it was right for us to do so. This is a most important development. I believe that in the due course of time—it will not be too long—the effect of this will be felt throughout the international shipping community.

Having said that, I should like to try to pick up as many of the points as I can which have been made. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) made some initial comments about my right hon. and learned Friend, who has had one or two problems in mitigation in the last few days. I do not think that it was altogether unreasonable that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who had familiarised himself with this matter as a result of the incident which occurred just off the shores of Wales, should have opened the debate in these circumstances. I notice that the hon. Member for St. Ives now forgives him, and I shall convey that to my right hon. and learned Friend.

I was asked why we were waiting until Christmas—incidentally, it is not a Christmas present—to publish our reply to the Select Committee's report. I think that we would have done less than justice to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) if we had published a response which dealt inadequately with the criticisms that were made. In fact, we had anticipated earlier that this debate would take place after the report had been published. But it was felt appropriate—there is a good deal to commend this point of view—that it would have been wrong for other important issues in the Merchant Shipping Bill to have been confused with this issue.

Mr. Palmer

In order to encourage my hon. Friend, I should tell him that if he replies before Christmas, that is about a quarter of the time that it normally takes a Government Department to reply. I compliment him on that.

Mr. Davis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend at least for that, if not for everything that he said.

The hon. Member for St. Ives wanted to know about the position of Admiral Stacey in relation to the Department. He asked why he was to be a member of the Department. I cannot see how the admiral could operate independently of a Department. We have a great deal of expertise within the Department, with 50 to 60 nautical surveyors who have Merchant Navy command experience. We draw our oil pollution officers from that source. We also have senior coastguards with command experience. They can make an important contribution to the work of Admiral Stacey. He will clearly need to work with them, but in an emergency he will have direct access to Ministers. It is important to emphasise this.

On the question of compensation, the polluter pays in the final analysis. Let me summarise the international provisions. First, we have the international convention on civil liability for oil pollution damage of 1969, which was enacted in our legislation in 1971. A difficulty about that was that the shipowner could limit the amount of damages, depending on the saze of his vessel, and there was a maximum of £9 million imposed. Therefore, the oil companies got together to create a voluntary scheme which is known as Cristal. That was designed to bolster the provisions of that convention.

There was a further convention, the international fund convention, which was agreed in 1971, to increase the coverage of the compensation agreements. This was financed by the major oil importers. The total sum available for compensation was £19½ million. That came into force on 16th October of this year. We tried last week to double that amount, and we were together with the French Government on that. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in convincing others that it should be doubled at this stage. I hope that we shall be able to do so in future.

The hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned traffic separation schemes and their breach. This constitutes an offence under section 680 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. We can prosecute foreign flag vessels which cause such breaches of the traffic separation schemes in our waters, but only, in practice, if they call at our ports. We can, of course, prosecute British vessels for breaches that they commit anywhere in the world. But the penalties are grossly inadequate. At present they are a fine of only £100 on summary conviction and/or imprisonment for up to six months and, on indictment an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment for up to two years. Although this is not stated in the Merchant Shipping Bill as published, we propose to increase the fine on summary conviction very substantially by Government amendment at a later stage.

The question of standarad salvage procedures is under review. This needs to be done in the international sense. It is a matter which the legal committee of IMCO is studying at present. We must look at our own practice of salvage, and this was dealt with earlier.

I come to the question of French action, sometimes bordering on and sometimes going over the unilateral action of which we do not really approve. We do not approve of unilateral action, because a series of such actions could confuse the situation.

The international shipping community should abide by the internationally agreed requirements. If one nation goes one way and another nation goes another way the result is chaos. In those circumstances no adequate response can be found to the questions which must be answered by the community. We have told the French that we are unhappy about certain aspects of the actions that they have taken. On the other hand, we have supported some proposals. For example, we need to examine the question of reporting in before a ship gets into a traffic separation scheme or if a vessel is in trouble. These are matters which certainly demand support, but I am much more sceptical about interception by naval vessels and the imposition of penalties that might deter a conscientious master even putting to sea.

I am not suggesting that the French Government are irresponsible about this matter, but some countries undoubtedly are. As an important maritime nation, we have to be aware that masters and officers are deeply concerned about action that might be taken to their detriment by countries wanting to use political muscle rather than deal with pollution that has arisen.

The hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned The Hague memorandum. I agree that everything possible should be done to extend the scope of the memorandum and this was one of my aims when I was in Brussels a few days ago. The power to detain sub-standard ships is an important power and part of our defensive mechanism.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East referred to demarcation and the one-mile limit. No one has suggested that the one mile should be adhered to strictly. It is a convenient way of demarcating responsibility between the Departments of Trade and the Environment, but there is no hard and fast deciding line.

My hon. Friend and his Committee took me to task for the way in which I consulted local authorities. My Department and I will deal with that aspect in greater detail when we respond to the report, but I had no intention of creating a charade of consultation. I had to present some ideas that were reasonably firm to the local authorities and other interests because we would otherwise have had a very wide agenda and would have come to hardly any conclusive results. I listened carefully to the local authorities' propositions. Where practicable and where the urgency of the situation permits it, we ought to engage in consultation. We did so, as far as we could, over the"Christos Bitas ".

However, there is a potential conflict about which my hon. Friend must make up his mind. There can be a conflict between the need to give authority to the principal officer or the supremo and the need for extensive consultations, whether with local authorities or the oil companies. There seems to be a lacuna in the Committee's thinking on that matter.

It is much better that we should deal with the criticisms concerning delay when we issue our comprehensive reply to the Select Committee report, but I welcome the constructive critcisms in the report. I acknowledge that we made mistakes. Even in our successful enterprise of dealing with the"Christos Bitas ", we made mistakes. It is inconceivable that, looking back on actions taken urgently, one would not say that they could have been handled differently in some material respects.

Mr. Palmer

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for what he said. He said that he had had consultations, but the Select Committee urged that much more power should be given to the highly professional executive officer on the spot.

Mr. Davis

The principal officer in that case had the power to take emergency decisions, and he exercised it. I well recall his doing so. I was closely involved throughout that incident. However, there were important matters, not of a desperately urgent nature, that had to be referred to London.

For example, the question of our relations with other nations is not a matter for the principal officer. Nor would it be a matter for the so-called"supremo"It is a matter for the judgment of Ministers. We exercise it rightly or wrongly, but it must be a matter where we carry the responsibility and become answerable to the House.

I turn now to the suggestion that the South Coast is virtually unprotected. With respect to some of the criticisms of his speech, I believe that my right hon. Friend dealt with the matter in some detail, and adequately. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East said that the only evidence before him was that of a capability of dealing with 6,000 tons per incident. My hon. Friend's memory has failed him on that point. I call his attention to paragraph 3 on page 114 of the report, which gives part of the evidence given by my Department. That evidence was that The Department's contingency arrangements are geared to providing the capability to treat some 16,000 tons of oil per day at sea around the United Kingdom coastline as a whole; this total includes some 3,000 tons per day for the Department's south-eastern Marine Survey District. That was our evidence, and apparently it was overlooked by the Select Committee.

My hon. Friend drew the attention of the House to a very important matter—the question of priorities in public expenditure. All kinds of pollution of our constituents' lives have to be taken into account as well. It is interesting that many of the proposals by the Opposition involved increased public expenditure, although they shied away from it. When it comes to constituency points, Opposition Members are never shy of asking for such things to be done. I shall not go on to make more party political points, however. The Opposition always claim that they are not making party political points, but in fact do so.

Mr. Pardoe

The hon. Gentleman said that the Department's contingency arrangements arc geared to provide him with the capability of treating some 16,000 tons of oil a day at sea around the United Kingdom as a whole. That was not what the Select Committee said. It said: Furthermore, in any one part of the Channel the spraying capacity is far less than 6,000 tons. Is there no difference between those two statements?

Mr. Davis

The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The Committee referred to a capability of 6,000 tons per incident. The important figure is 6,000 tons per day. However, I will not go on about that because my right hon. Friend dealt with it.

The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) made a number of interesting points on the question of utilising hovercraft and helicopters to agitate the waters. Warren Springs is working on this, as the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know. Suction pumping, I understand, is mainly for use on the beaches. It is trying to arrive at more effective procedures for that. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how many standby boats have been recruited for Cornwall and Devonshire. I shall write to him about it.

I turn to the question of cleansing and the stockpiling of specialised oil clearance equipment. The Department of the Environment is arranging for specialised oil clearance equipment to be stockpiled, and studies are going on into the subject. There is also a review of beach-cleaning contingency plans. I do not want to go on at length about that. It is not within my Departmental responsibility. But my right hon. Friend raised the possibility of the central Government appointing a co-ordinator to take over the responsibility for coastal clean-up operations.

On the question whether these operations should be carried out by the Department of Trade or the Department of the Environment, I remind the House that two quite different operations have to be undertaken. The operation at sea is not within the expertise of the Department of the Environment. I know that some people say that, it is not within that of the Department of Trade either, but I think that we have the resources, the surveyors and the people with the knowledge. I believe that as a result of the new marine pollution control unit we shall also have that experience channelled more rationally and sensibly than we have in the past.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of other important points. He asked whether I was satisfied with the activities of Warren Spring. I do not know whether I have the expertise to say that I am satisfied or am not satisfied with the scientific laboratory's activities. Those at the laboratory know very well that more studies are necessary to deal with the heavy fuel oil problem. However, no one in the world has been able to find an antidote to that problem.

The oil companies have been very co-operative in providing us with facilities —Captain Maybourn is to assist the new unit and the companies are investigating the problem of burning oil, about which I shall say a word later, and are helping with the research and development programme. We take all these factors into account, but they are the oil companies' responsibilities, and they should take those responsibilities in hand.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about having a conference of all interested bodies. We undertake to have such a conference early in the new year; we had planned to have one round about March. It could make a substantial contribution to our thinking.

I come now to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), which were essentially the questions of compulsory pilotage and burning. The hon. Gentleman wanted burning to be a doctrine of first resort. That would be wrong, as the"Christos Bitas"incident showed. It would have been wrong to burn that vessel.

Mr. Pardoe


Mr. Davis

Because we were able to discharge a great deal of the oil from it and to save a certain amount of important equipment. To have tried to burn the vessel would have been an operation fraught with difficulties. First, the vessel was down fairly low in the water. The decks were awash, and there was no certainty that burning could have been accomplished with any degree of success. We might have had great difficulties in trying to clear up any residue that was left after an attempt at burning. In any event, that approach is inconsistent with the Select Committee's report in 1967 and 1968.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) was anxious that we should consider the extension of The Hague memorandum, but it already extends beyond the EEC.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett) was concerned about the lightening operations in Lyme Bay. I should like to pay the hon. Gentleman this tribute. He has taken a very reasonable and responsible view of them.

I do not think that compulsory pilotage provides a panacea. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Pembroke said about that. There are difficulties about obtaining sufficient pilots with the necessary expertise. There is by no means agreement that the wider use of deep sea pilots would be useful to the seafaring community.

The hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) is not here, so perhaps I can better reply to his points in correspondence. The hon. Gentleman apologised to me before leaving the Chamber. I accept his apology, and I believe that I have taken rather a long time in replying to the debate.

Mr. Walter Harrison (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Davis

I have the acclamation of the Deputy Chief Whip for that statement. However, the House will realise that I have been trying to deal with many disparate points.

Mr. Wigley

Will the hon. Gentleman respond to the representations made by several hon. Members about the burden on local authorities, the additional cost that lands on those local authorities that have to clean up the routine oil spillage that hits them year in, year out? Is there any way in which the Government can help them?

Mr. Davis

I have given some attention to this problem with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment. The problem is that the total amount involved is about £100,000 a year. It does not all fall on one local authority and, although I wish to continue to investigate the matter, we could create a very heavy bureaucracy which would cost far more than £100,000 in representing the sort of compensation which would be required. However, this is a matter that we shall continue to keep under review. But the local authorities were aware of this back in 1974. When it appeared as part of the rate support grant, they were happy to accept it on that basis.

The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) raised a number of matters, some of which I have dealt with already. He was concerned especially about the adequacy or inadequacy of Warren Spring in pursuing new ideas. I think that some of his criticisms were without justification. He referred to the oil mop, with which he is himself concerned as a constituency Member. On his own admission, this is awaiting a full-scale prototype, and it is much too early to make a judgment about its value. He also spoke of navigational aids. I have already dealt with that matter.

The hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) was scathing of the Government's actions in regard to the Dover strait. Although no one can give any guarantees, and although accidents can occur in so constricted an area of water, I think that we can claim that the success which the traffic separation scheme has enjoyed is considerable. It has halved the number of accidents, and that is progress. However, there are 300 vessels going through the Dover strait each day in the summer months, and that is a fact with which we have to live. If the hon. and learned Gentleman has any comprehensive and useful ideas to put forward, we shall consider them.

The compensation of individuals is a very difficult matter. This is not the only area where people can be disadvantaged as a result of claims which they may have and which are not settled promptly. It is not an area where it would be right for the Government to say"We shall enable Mr. X, who claims that he has suffered damage, to pursue his claim outside the courts, if that is necessary." He has to prove his claim in the first place. The proposition which has been put forward about the Government settling the claim and standing in for the individual later on is one which would have considerable ramifications in other areas. I do not think that we should pursue that as hon. Members have suggested.

The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) was concerned about hydrography. We are considering an aspect of public expenditure in that regard.

We are very anxious to ensure that there is a sufficiency of vessels available to deal with any pollution in the area of country concerning the hon. Member for Banff. It presents a problem. However, I do not think that the same problem is presented on the east coast of Scotland.

Mr. Fell

The Minister will recall that I asked his right hon. Friend to find out what had happened to the compensation to Yarmouth, through the Norfolk county council, for the money expended by it on the"Eleni V"disaster.

Mr. Davis

The local authorities concerned asked us to put forward a consolidated claim. Therefore, the Government will have to wait until the last claim comes in. We are still waiting to hear from the Kent authority. We have referred back the claim of Essex asking for more detail because of the inadequacy of detail provided.

I apologise to the House for having taken so long. However, right hon. and hon. Members have expressed a great deal of concern and not a little criticism. I believe that people in my Department have worked hard day and night through these difficult episodes and that they deserve the compliments of the House rather than constant rebukes.

This applies to all of those in the oil companies, the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere who have worked assiduously in dealing with the successful handling of the"Christos Bitas"and the not so successful handling of the"Eleni V ". Theirs is a difficult task. Successful operations are attributed to good fortune, while less successful ones are said to be due to incompetence. I congratulate those in my Department and elsewhere upon what they have done. I believe that basically the House appreciates the service they have rendered to the country, which has been of immeasurable benefit.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I had not intended to take part in this debate. I asked for certain information and it has just been given to me. I am grateful to the Minister for giving me this information, but I find it astonishing that he should be keeping Norfolk county council —[Interruption.) I am sorry. The Minister was so summary in his answer that he did not say anything about Norfolk county council asking that its claim should be put in with those of Kent and Essex and so on. We ought to have a full explanation. People are waiting for a lot of money. My local authority of Yarmouth is owed well over £300,000. Interest charges are mounting up at the rate of about £150 a day. Is there no way of pressing the other county councils for whom we are waiting? I suppose that they are asking for smaller amounts than Norfolk. I do not understand why Norfolk should have to wait. The figures were sent in on 18th October.

Mr. Clinton Davis

The consolidating of claims was a procedure adopted by the hon. Gentleman's local authority. I said that in my speech. If the local authority had wanted to pursue its own claim, which would have been more difficult, it was at liberty to do so. I did not stand in the way of that.

Mr. Fell

I heard about the consolidation of claims, but I assumed that it referred to consolidation by the Norfolk county council of the claims made by the various district authorities. When was this great meeting, when the county councils came together and decided that everyone would wait for the slowest authority? It seems such an extraordinary procedure that it is almost unbelievable. I do not understand how it happened. Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to make some sort of statement to the House or write a letter to me saying when these moneys will be paid?

Mr. Davis

I shall write the hon. Member a letter. I promise.

Mr. Fell

I am grateful for that promise.

Mr. Emery

It would be helpful if the Minister would say in this letter whether the interest rates, which have to be met by the local authorities, can become part of the claim. As long as those interest rates which accrue are met, there need be no concern.

Mr. Fell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I imagine that the voice from the Government Front Bench which was heard to say"You are pushing it too far"when my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) intervened was not referring to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but to my hon. Friend and to me. I do not intend going any further than this. I wanted an answer of a reasonable kind. Now that the Minister has told me he intends to write to me, I shall not press this any further.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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