HC Deb 08 February 1980 vol 978 cc1019-32

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

2.35 pm
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

My subject is not only wide-ranging but somewhat complicated and I am likely to touch only upon the fringes of certain important aspects. I shall not take long because I have promised to afford time to the hon. Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and for Chichester (Mr. Nelson).

Unfortunately, two Departments of State—those of Trade and the Environment—are very much involved in the prevention and treatment of coastal pollution and I suspect that they enjoy playing one off against the other. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Trade, the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), in his place, as I am to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox). I am grateful to them both. The Department of Industry, with its direct connection with research—one thinks of Warren Springs and the research vessel "Seaspring"—as well as the Home Office, is also involved in this matter.

It is, however, upon the local authorities—particularly country and district councils—that the main obligation always falls. The time has surely come to relieve those authorities of the main financial burdens which that inevitably entails.

Over the last six months the Isle of Wight county council and to a lesser extent the county councils of Dorset, Hampshire and East and West Sussex have faced demands on their services which go far beyond the normal call of duty. While those authorities have responded admirably, as one would expect, the drain on their reserves has been beyond all reason. Those demands came at a time when the authorities were under great pressure to cut back on their general services. That kind of expenditure has been most unwelcome.

The fire brigade in particular should be singled out for praise. The firemen in my constituency, wearing heavy suits—they may not keep them on for more than 20 minutes because they are extremely cumbersome—are obliged to trudge across sand and thick clay to retrieve the many canisters that have come ashore at frequent intervals along the coast since 5 November last year. So far, more than 800 canisters have been retrieved and more are expected.

Although our firemen are doing the job willingly, it is not part of their normal responsibility. What is more, they are handling some pretty nasty substances of which arsenic trichloride, vanadium pent oxide and malic anhydride are the worst. Many pesticides such as menthol crystals and crop sprays such as Kafil can cause serious injury. I am sure that the House would wish me to say "Thanks" to the firemen.

The Minister will be aware of the Chemsafe scheme, which operates on a 24-hour basis and which provides information on canisters whose origins and content are not immediately clear. The Minister referred to this scheme in his letter to me on 28 December last year. It is now rumoured that the data bank in the Chemsafe scheme is to be put on a commercial basis. In other words, local authorities seeking information on the identification of chemicals will be billed for the time taken and the information supplied. If that is correct it is a retrograde step, because a great deal of the material found in canisters is not properly marked.

The main subject of this debate can be put quite simply. It is long past the time when, in my view, the Department of Trade, instead of pussyfooting around, should openly accept the responsibility for dealing with the remains of dangerous wrecks. It is to the credit of the Department that it has established a marine pollution control unit at Southampon under the direction of Admiral Stacey. That unit went into action during the "Tarpenbek" incident. The unit has its own expertise and the ability to draw on that of others, and the staff have a considerable knowledge of this kind of pollution. I accept that absolutely.

We in the Isle of Wight did not like having that 1,785 ton tanker deposited in Sandown Bay, though I accept that that was probably all that could be done at the time. We appreciate the professional and expert way in which the oil was removed and the ship righted. The report published on the "Tarpenbek" incident in December says at paragraph 5: At no time did the Department of Trade assume control of the salvage operation whether by formal intervention or otherwise. That is utter nonsense. If Admiral Stacey was not in charge, who was? I do not think it was the Minister. I shall quote the words of the admiral, who described his role as "decision by negation". As the county council says in its comments on the report: The determination by the Department of of Trade to have decisive influence over decision making but to seek to avoid financial liability for the outcome, bedevilled much of the incident. The county council submitted its own comments on the report. I hope that both Ministers—and particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Trade—will read the reports, because they are pertinent to the case that I am trying to make. The county council makes a number of excellent proposals which I hope will be taken on board. Someone has to have overall control, so let it be Admiral Stacey or his successor, whoever that may ultimately be.

Secondly, the Department of the Environment should also face up squarely to its responsibilities and immediately reimburse the local authorities for their expenditure on pollution of their beaches, whether it be oil or chemicals, which has come from accidents over which the local authorites have had no control whatever.

Of course, one accepts that it is only right that the polluter should pay, but getting the money from the shipowner or his insurers can be a long and wearisome business, as I am sure Norfolk county council is finding out. After three or four years it is still owed £3½ million.

In the meantime, the hard-pressed ratepayer has to foot the bill. Governments and Government Departments have, after all, far more clout and muscle in these matters. They have all the information at their fingertips. They know who are the owners of a vessel, or they can soon find out the name of the insurers. Very often this information is not available at local level; in fact, in the case of the "Aeolian Sky" it is still not available to the Isle of Wight county council. The Government have the legal expertise at their fingertips. They cart sequestrate the goods of shipowners, if necessary. It is logical, therefore, that they should take responsibility.

To add insult to injury, when we in the Isle of Wight hired equipment from the Department of the Environment for the "Tarpenbek" incident, it had to come from the Bristol depot, and we were sent a bill for £25,000, plus an additional sum for transport. Yet we had no real say in the decision to move that ship to our waters. I ask that that bill be cancelled forthwith and also any charge for transport.

The "Aeolian Sky" was deliberately towed to Portland, where she unfortunately sank before she could be got into Weymouth. With the prevailing south-westerlies, we are now getting all the side effects. That applies all the way up the Sussex coast. If it is the case that the Solent area and Poole harbour are to be used more frequently as a shelter area for stricken vessels, it is surely only right that we should be given adequate financial compensation when spills occur. In other words, the Government must pick up the bill and reimburse us as the money is spent.

The operation of retrieving canisters is costing us well over £.3,000 a month. It will increase rapidly now because we had a new deposit in Brook Bay the day before yesterday. It is not a burden that, in these difficult times, the local authorities in our constituencies should have to carry.

Unless the cargo of the "Aeolian Sky" is retrieved soon, it is likely to have an adverse effect on our tourist trade. The headlines which have been appearing lately in the national and local press put off potential holidaymakers. This is the time when people are making their bookings for the coming season. They are not exactly encouraged by headlines such as Instant death alert…South's beaches in front line", which appeared in the Sunday Mirror. Similar headlines have appeared in local papers. Another headline read: Deadly cargo may hit holiday homes. This is what is happening at the moment.

I tabled a question to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and received the answer only yesterday. It was most unsatisfactory. I was told that Attempts to identify and locate cargo more precisely and to recover it from the ship would be a protracted operation and could not safely be undertaken until late spring."—[Official Report, 7 Febuary 1980; Vol. 978, c. 298.] However, that will be too late for us. If divers can work in poor conditions in the North Sea, why cannot they do so off Portland? We know already that some of the items from the vessel's hold have been coming ashore. We have been told that they are mainly from the deck, but there is now stuff coming out of the hold. The manifold that has been supplied is far from a comprehensive document. Sometimes it refers to a case, but a case can contain 42, 75 or 1,500 canisters. These are the problems that we are facing, and a lot of the stuff is having to be put into store because there is no way to get rid of it.

One company, ICI, has been very helpful and has taken its chemicals away quickly. In the case of others which have come from Germany for retailing in this country, we cannot get rid of them and are having to store them, at great expense. Nor, incidentally, is it a matter of ease to identify the actual cartons. There is something there that needs attention, but I cannot go into the matter at length now.

The continuing nuisance cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely. I therefore ask for urgent action now and reimbursement without delay of the costs of the operation falling on our local authorities, who are the innocent victims in the whole saga and whose patience is rapidly becoming exhausted.

I have not dealt with the whole subject of supervision of our Channel waters or the role of the oil companies. I agree that some oil companies are already playing a role in this field. They could play an increasing part if we had a proper chain of command. However, I hope that I have said enough to show that we are becoming increasingly concerned at recent events, and we expect some clear-cut policy decisions from the Government.

2.45 pm
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

First, I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for his courtesy in allowing me to intervene in this debate. I shall make only two brief points.

Pollution is a national problem, and it is surely totally unreasonable that the cost of dealing with these accidents and incidents should fall only upon the ratepayers of the coastal belts. I know that in my own area a massive operation has been under way to locate the canisters and to neutralise them—involving the police force of my area, council workers, firemen and others. This costs a great deal of money. It is absolutely wrong that this cost should fall upon my ratepayers in Brighton and those in the two counties as a whole.

This matter concerns all Members of Parliament who represent East and West Sussex. We hope that the Government will take very prompt action. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight made a very important point when he said that it is easier for the Government to get this money back than it is for local authorities.

The other quick point I wish to make is concerned with events when an accident takes place. When a ship goes down, instant action should be taken to find out what is on board, and if there is anything dangerous on board action should be taken to get it out. Do we know how many canisters are left on the ship? If not, should not we find out very quickly and neutralise them? I cannot help feeling that if that ship had been full of gold bars it would have been crawling with divers. I hope that my parliamentary colleagues on the ministerial Bench will work very quickly.

2.47 pm
Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for allowing me briefly to associate myself with his remarks. In doing so, I should like to say that I am joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins).

There has been similar concern in my constituency, but a great deal of it has been alleviated—and in this respect I thank both Ministers on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment and the Under-Secretary of State for Trade—by the action that has been taken in recent years. My association of parish councils is very much reassured by the work that is being done by the new supremo to try to alleviate concern.

The only point I make is that there is a particular difficulty in dealing, on the one hand, with the obvious horror of an oil slick, and, on the other hand, the hidden menace of canisters containing dangerous materials coming ashore. They present different problems and different challenges. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will assure me that they will be using every means at their disposal to draw the public's attention to the serious dangers involved. No opportunity must be lost to make this absolutely clear, because recently there have been cases, I understand, of these canisters being opened with tin openers by people in their garages. It is a very serious problem, and I hope that my hon. Friends will reassure us.

2.48 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for raising the subject of coastal pollution and creating this opportunity to consider some of the questions raised by two incidents, involving the "Tarpenbek" and the "Aeolian Sky", which have caused a great deal of concern on the Isle of Wight and along the South Coast. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) for their interventions.

All of us are deeply concerned about the potentially lethal containers washed up recently on our beaches. I immediately give an assurance on behalf of the Department of Trade and the Department of the Environment that we shall do all in our power to minimise these dangers.

I congratulate and thank the authorities on the Isle of Wight and elsewhere along the coast and all those who, by their care and watchfulness, have collected and dealt with the canisters washed ashore during the last few months.

Responsibility in connection with the maritime aspects of shipping casualties such as the "Tarpenbek" and "Aeolian Sky" rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is here today, but my understanding of the course of events relating to those particular incidents is briefly as follows.

First, I deal with the "Tarpenbek". This small tanker was in collision in an exposed position off Selsey Bill. As a result of the damage she sustained, she latercapsized in severe weather, but her cargo tanks remained intact. The problem facing the salvors was how to remove the cargo of lubricating oil with the minimum risk to life and limb and to the environment. The vessel was in distress and needed a safe refuge to enable the necessary salvage operations to take place.

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to rehearse in detail the arguments for seeking to carry out such difficult and dangerous operations in a place of comparative shelter. I would refer him to the report—indeed, he has already referred to it—entitled "The Tarpenbek Incident" issued by the Department of Trade, a copy of which was placed in the Library. The general case for moving shipping casualties to shelter is made in paragraphs 34 to 38, and these arguments are related to the "Tarpenbek" incident in paragraphs 39 to 47. I think, too, that we need to put this in perspective and we have to recognise that the geographical accident which provides the Isle of Wight inhabitants with their superb amenity beaches also provides a safe haven for some ships in distress. But I take note of what was said about wrecks and how they should be dealt with, as I am sure my hon. Friend will have done. We should not forget that, whilst off Selsey Bill, the "Tarpenbek" was a potential threat to all the beaches of the Isle of Wight, Hampshire and West Sussex. Therefore the successful outcome of this venture, with no oil coming ashore, endorses the wisdom of the operation decision.

I now turn to the "Aeolian Sky". This general cargo vessel was in collision off the Casquets, some 43 miles south-west of the Isle of Wight, and was badly damaged. She was taken in tow and headed for the South Coast of England. Because of her deep draught, in her damaged condition she could not safely enter either Portsmouth or Southampton and instead made westwards towards Weymouth Bay. She sank during passage some 12 miles east of Portland Bill. Under no circumstances and at no time was the vessel moved to the Isle of Wight.

Following the sinking, the Department of Trade established that the vessel was carrying several consignments of chemicals, most of which had orginated in the United Kingdom. The Department was able quickly to obtain a copy of the manifest of declared dangerous goods and of the cargo stowage plan.

A diver went down to examine the vessel as soon as the weather permitted. He was able to establish that the vessel lay on its side and that some hatch covers were off. However, because of the extremely short time in which diving was practicable, and the poor visibility prevailing, it was not possible to identify individual items of chemicals. I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown that, as I understand it, no amount of money could have tempted anyone with any sense to stay near this vessel any longer.

Because of the difficult and dangerous conditions for diving at this time of the year, it has not been possible to determine what remains in the ship—not that this was not felt to be necessary—to attempt the lengthy operation required in order to recover the cargo. The Department of Trade is, however, keeping the situation under close review and maintaining close contact with the local authorities concerned.

The hon. Member has suggested that the central Government should play a bigger part in the onshore operations when in incidents of this kind pollution from ships threatens the shore and, in particular, should carry more, if not all, of the financial burden of such operations, at least until the costs are eventually recovered from the shipowners and their insurers.

I should, first of all, correct any impression that the central Government are indifferent to the problems local authorities face in protecting the coast and people's lives and that they leave the consequences of dealing with pollution from wrecks entirely to the local authorities. As I have said, dealing with shipping casualties at sea is firstly the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. There is a broad division of responsibility in dealing with pollution whereby the Department of Trade operates at sea and the local authorities close inshore or on the beach. But this division is applied in the most flexible manner and in all its operations my right hon. Friend's Department works in close liaison with the local authorities involved.

The "Tarpenbek" incident was the first oil tanker accident off our shores since the setting up of the special unit in the Department of Trade to deal with such incidents. The hon. Member has already referred to the unit under Rear-Admiral Stacey which was involved throughout and ensured that what little pollution escaped from the vessel was quickly dealt with and that the interests of the local authorities were safeguarded to the maximum extent possible in the circumstances. Admiral Stacey was able to keep the local authorities constantly in the picture on the progress of the operations and the nature of the risks involved. A good relationship was established.

In response to the question about who is in charge, the salvors are in charge in that they ultimately have to meet the bills. Admiral Stacey has an advisory capacity.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I must object to that. It may have worked on the "Tarpenbek" incident, but I do not think that it will work on every one. I ask the Minister to look at the comments that we made on the report, because some aspects of co-operation were most unsatisfactory.

Mr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am sure that in those circumstances Admiral Stacey and the Department of Trade would take charge.

This incident was also the first in which the central Government were able to give direct and immediate aid in the form of specialised oil pollution clearance equipment which was made available from the Government's stockpile at Bristol on request from the Isle of Wight local authority. The arrangements which were made for call-out and delivery of a considerable amount of equipment were most satisfactory, and I understand that Isle of Wight county council officials have expressed their satisfaction with this aspect of the operations. I shall come to the question of payment for the use of the stockpile in a moment.

In the case of the containers of chemicals such as those from the "Aeolian Sky", the local authorities' principal need is for specialised advice on the hazard presented by chemicals that may be washed ashore.

In the case of the "Aeolian Sky", the local authorities were given all the information that was available on what she was carrying from the dangerous cargo manifest. Since the general cargo manifest has become available, it has emerged that some items of chemicals may not have been included in the dangerous cargo manifest and a check is now being made of the items in the general manifest. All coastal authorities have advice about what action to take when chemicals are washed ashore, what help is available—from the coastguards and the fire services, for example—and sources of specialist advice in the Government's scientific advisers, from the continuously manned chemical emergencies centre at Harwell and from the chemical industry's Chemsafe scheme. The chemical industry, in the shape of ICI, is always willing to help. I have been concerned to see that the Isle of Wight authorities have all the technical help they need, and I believe that their contingency plans for dealing with hazardous chemicals washed ashore have so far proved effective, as indeed has action taken elsewhere on the South Coast.

Local authorities, I am sure, accept that they are the best people to deal with the consequences of coastal pollution. The question is: should they receive more financial help? To some degree, day-to-day costs incurred by local authorities in dealing with coastal pollution are a factor in the calculation of the rate support grant. This was not always so. Until 1974, there was a specific grant for expenditure in cleaning up oil pollution, but the local authorities agreed that this should be abolished and accepted full responsibility themselves. I think that that was right.

Nevertheless, I fully appreciate the concern of some authorities, such as the Isle of Wight and others, about the possible costs of dealing with the consequences of particular wrecks.

The ultimate responsibility for meeting the costs of cleaning up must rest with the polluter. We must, I am sure, hold firmly to the principle that the polluter should pay and should expect the proper costs incurred in dealing with the pollution and its consequences to be recovered in full. Without making any comment on specific cases, I can say that the compensation regime, at least for oil pollution damage, is quite comprehensive. It was thoroughly reviewed only last year.

I also believe that it is essential that, in the interests both of good financial control and of justifying a claim against the polluter, the initial costs should be met by those who have operational responsibility, despite what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown—in other words, the local authorities.

This may mean that sometimes a local authority has to find money to meet the immediate costs, but only temporarily until the costs—and it can claim interest on any loan—are met by the polluter. I find it extremely difficult to imagine a situation in which a local authority in these circumstances would be unable to find the necessary finance; that would mean that the authority in such circumstances would be insolvent. But, if that ever were to occur, I am sure that ways would be found to enable the authority to overcome its temporary problems. I shall not speculate what these ways might be as the event seems so unlikely. But I see no need for central Government to put local authorities in funds pending the recovery of their costs from the polluter.

In relying generally on the fact that normally the local authority's full costs will be recovered, I recognise, of course, that, as in all emergencies, and notwithstanding the general rule, there may be occasions when local authorities are left to bear heavy expenditure.

For this reason, the Government recognise that special assistance may exceptionally be justified to relieve a local authority of what would otherwise be an undue burden on its local resources. In these cases, applications for special assistance are dealt with on their merits, in the light of the nature of the incident and the cost to the local authority in relation to its financial resources. I am talking here of very exceptional cases: I would not think that in the case of the two incidents that I have described the local authorities' expenditure has been of a scale to justify this special assistance.

Perhaps I can now deal with the point about charging the Isle of Wight county council for hire of equipment. At the time of the "Tarpenbek" incident, my Department was setting up a stockpile of specialised pollution clearance equipment. This equipment is intended to supplement local authorities' own resources and a charge will normally be made for its use. Some of this equipment was called out by the Isle of Wight county council in anticipation of pollution from the "Tarpenbek."

When the equipment was issued, the county council was told that charges would be made for its hire and a bill for approximately £25,000 was subsequently presented. This was the first time that the equipment had been called out and the basis of charging was at that time still under discussion. To that extent, the bill presented to the Isle of Wight was an interim one.

The discussions on hire charges that that have been taking place over the last few months have now been completed and agreement has been reached on a revised formula for dealing with cases where equipment is called out in anticipation of pollution that does not in the event occur. We are very conscious of the need not to deter local authorities from calling out the equipment in good time when pollution is threatened, and that is why we feel it right that there should be special arrangements for charging in cases such as "Tarpenbek", where equipment is called out but not in the event used.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the news that a revised invoice is being issued to the Isle of Wight county council. The invoice has been reduced to approximately £2,000, which represents the actual costs of transporting the equipment. I must stress that that revised charge is a result of reaching agreement on the general principles of charging and is in no way related to the decision of the salvors and owners to tow the "Tarpenbek" to Sandown Bay or the Government's involvement in that decision. Had the equipment been used to deal with pollution, the full charge of £25,000 would have stood. Of course, the £2,000 for transport will be included in the Isle of Wight claim on the owners of the "Tarpenbek".

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends will take some reassurance from what I have said. The Government recognise fully the need for those dealing with incidents at sea to work closely with the local authorities. They are ready to support local authorities with technical advice and equipment when those are needed. Together with the authorities, the Government are also drawing up a contingency plan for dealing with a really major disaster, such as the "Amoco Cadiz", which would clearly be beyond the capacity of any local authority to cope with on its own. Fortunately, the two recent incidents that affected the Isle of Wight were not on this major scale, although the "Tarpenbek" incident would have had very serious consequences if it had not been handled successfully. Some of the containers being washed up now can certainly be very dangerous.

The care that the local authority is taking is fully justified, and people who find containers on the South Coast should certainly hand them in at once. I hope that before long, when the full manifest has been checked, it will be possible to draw up a balance sheet of what was on the ship and what has now been accounted for so that we may know better the size of the remaining problem, and that in the spring inspection of the cargo can be made and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade will be in a position to decide what best can be done with the wreck to minimise the remaining hazard.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends will accept my assurance that both Departments will do all that they can to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Three o'clock