HC Deb 22 February 1990 vol 167 cc1067-72 3.31 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the problem of drums of potassium cyanide washed up on Sussex beaches.

The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

The first canister of potassium cyanide on Brighton beaches was reported to the Sussex police at 11.5 am on 21 February. The coastguard was informed immediately and, together with the police, they instituted a full-scale search, which located a second canister on the beach an hour later. The police then called in the fire brigade to deal with the chemicals and the beach was promptly closed off to the public by the council. The beach remains closed.

Thanks to the prompt action of the police, the fire brigade and the local authority officers, a total of six canisters of potassium cyanide and several canisters of other dangerous chemicals are now in safe storage in Newhaven. The council is arranging for their disposal.

Local officials are searching the coastline in case further canisters are washed up. We still do not know from which ship the chemicals came or how they came to be in the sea, but our inquiries are under way.

Mrs. Taylor

Will the Minister confirm that potassium cyanide is a deadly human poison and that, potentially, this is a highly dangerous situation for those in the vicinity of those containers? Does he agree that such incidents are causing increasing concern and that the plain fact is that the waters around our coast are in an appalling state, made worse by such problems as this, but also because the Government continue to allow the dumping of industrial waste at sea?

Can the Minister tell the House whether the containers were labelled in line with international regulations for dangerous goods? What action is taken after the sinking of any ship known to be carrying hazardous materials? Recently there have been several incidents when the Government have been aware of hazardous materials on ships that have sunk. What action have the Government taken in those cases to trace chemicals, such as those that we are discussing today?

Surely this incident proves that the Government are wrong to reject proposals for a European Community directive on vessels carrying dangerous goods entering or leaving Community ports. Will the Government think again about tightening such controls before a major catastrophe occurs?

Mr. McLoughlin

This is undoubtedly a very serious situation. Indeed, as the hon. Lady says, the chemicals washed ashore are of the most serious kind and are particularly dangerous. I hope that everybody will urge those who today, tomorrow and over the coming weekend make their way on to beaches to keep a close watch for any chemicals that may appear.

It is wholly wrong of the Opposition to try to make this issue part of the dirty water syndrome, about which we have heard so much from Labour Members. It is absolute and total rubbish. Between 200 and 300 ships a day use the Dover straits. It is imperative that the masters of those vessels operate under the international agreements. If any such cargoes are lost, they should report the fact immediately. That is the requirement.

A major conference of states bordering the North sea will take place in two weeks' time. The question of the carriage of dangerous goods of this kind will be discussed, and we shall see whether anything further can be done to ensure that the IMO rules are fully enforced.

My answer to the hon. Lady's question about the EC directive is that had she read the Official Report of the debate on 25 January of this year, she would be aware that serious concerns were expressed about whether what was proposed by the EC was practicable. It would require setting the standards for more than 4,000 ships, and we were not sure whether what was proposed was the best way forward.

I assure the hon. Lady that, as in the past, Her Majesty's Government will take whatever action is necessary, through our marine pollution control unit, to deal with problems of this kind when they arise. I would point out to her, for example, the action that was taken by the Secretary of State when the Perintis was sunk and chemicals were recovered.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to information that I have received, the total number of canisters recovered has now reached 12? Is there not some evidence to show that these canisters were washed off a ship at sea in recent bad weather? They have clear markings on them and I understand that the labels and batch numbers have now been identified.

Will the Minister give careful consideration to ensuring that the regulations requiring ships' masters to report immediately the loss of any dangerous canisters are enforced and that any ship's master who fails to report such a loss is subject to very severe penalties? Is he satisfied that the liaison between his Department, local authorities and the marine pollution control unit is working effectively?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points, because I appreciate that this problem is of great concern to him and his constituents. Anybody who is convicted of not reporting incidents of this kind, and should be subject to the most severe penalties available under the law. This is a very serious matter; that is certainly the view of the Government, and the penalties are there for the courts to enforce.

There has been very good liaison between the local authorities and the marine pollution control unit. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend, who is right to say that more canisters have been washed ashore. As I said, dangerous chemicals other than potassium are involved.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Is the Minister aware that there is concern about the way in which incidents of this kind are handled and about which Department is responsible? Will he confirm that initially, the local authorities were left to tackle it and that subsequently the Department of Transport was called in? When and under what circumstances is his Department responsible, and when does it become the responsibility of the Department of the Environment?

Does the Minister accept that we need clear international regulations to identify all toxic cargos of this kind and that the trade in toxic materials must be restricted much more rigidly, particularly the trade in toxic waste, which should be limited to the absolute minimum?

Mr. McLoughlin

This incident has nothing to do with toxic waste. The chemicals involved are in canister sizes suitable for laboratory use. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) pointed out, they are fully labelled, in accordance with international regulations. That is an important point.

There is no confusion over the question of responsibility. The responsibility for beaches is clearly that of the local authorities. But the Department of Transport and its marine pollution control unit stands ready to help any local authorities that may experience particular problems in this area. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department is only too willing to give any help that it can, through the coastguard or the marine pollution control unit.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

While I appreciate the action that is being taken, about which my hon. Friend has told the House, has he consulted his right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the potential danger of pollution of the valuable fish stocks on the Sussex coast? Rather than just relying on people walking up and down the seashores looking for canisters, would it not be possible to call in the many Army helicopters that are available and are based quite close to the coast?

Mr. McLoughlin

There has been helicopter assistance and, as I said, if local authorities were to ask for extra help for the coastguard, the Department of Transport would be only too happy to oblige. I assure my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been fully informed about the situation. We shall take, and I am sure that it will take, any necessary action.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to give priority to those Members who have direct constituency interests in this matter.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

As the containers are clearly labelled and this highly dangerous chemical is not widely used, would not it be easy to trace from which ship the containers have escaped? Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the penalties for not notifying a loss of highly dangerous chemicals at sea are sufficient? Is he aware that it is possible in the courts of some nations to prosecute for a dereliction of duty of the kind that has taken place?

Mr. McLoughlin

I hope that my hon. Friend is correct and, bearing in mind the clearness with which this consignment was marked, that it will be easy to find out its origins. I am convinced that penalties are quite tight. It will be up to the court to make a decision when the case comes to court. Over the past few weeks there have been violent storms in this part of the country and it may be that in some cases ships' masters may not know that cargo has been lost.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that., despite the fact that the Perintis was not loaded or destined for a port in this country, my hon. Friend's Department received the manifest of that ship within a matter of hours? Is it not a fact that my hon. Friend has implemented every suggestion that has been put forward by hon. Members from both sides of the House to try to control the incident? Does he believe that there is a case for co-operation between us and the French so that we know the manifest of every ship that goes through the Dover straits?

Mr. McLoughlin

My hon. Friend makes an important point: the Dover straits is an exceptionally busy piece of waterway. Therefore, it is vital to have total co-operation with the French authorities, and I am satisfied that we do. We work closely with them when such an incident occurs. As regards the Perintis, I agree that we took the necessary action in recovering those canisters.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Does my hon. Friend share with me an appreciation of the job done by the local police, fire services, his Department and the local authority? Will he reassure the House that any additional costs that the local authority may have to bear, which could lead to an increased community charge, will not lead to the local authority being capped for raising the community charge? That point is extremely important to my constituents. While he may have doubts about whether the European Community directive is the best way to control shipping and cargoes in the crowded Channel, will the Government swiftly bring forward counter-proposals for consultation with the EC partners?

Mr. McLoughlin

As I said, there is to be a major conference attended by states bordering the North sea in two weeks' time when this incident will be discussed. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the local authorities and the local people involved. I understand that the cost of mounting these operations for the local authorities will be minimal, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Minister is right to pay tribute to the public services and to commend the thousands of people who are prepared to be vigilant in this matter, and he may be right to refer to the next international conference, but is he aware that, during the past few years, there has been international conference after international conference, one of which I chaired last year in which Conservative Members were involved, and it is about time that we had far less concern for attending conferences and more for ensuring that there are proper regulations? Are not the regulations governing the movement of toxic waste in Britain, around our coasts and in our waters utterly and deplorably inadequate?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am not prepared to put the British shipping industry at a disadvantage, and I am constantly urged not to do so by Opposition Members. Therefore, it is no good Opposition Members asking us to ignore international agreements and we have no intention of doing so. The best way to proceed is by international agreement and I know of no more immediate action that we could take than the conference that is due to be held in two weeks' time.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Standing Committee considering the Environmental Protection Bill which is sitting upstairs seems finally to have reached the conclusion that the direction of wind at sea is the determinant factor in deciding which of the Government Departments in which some of these problems are dealt with has ultimate responsibility? Does he agree that that is not entirely satisfactory, and will he consider, in consultation with Ministers at the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Ministry of Defence, and anybody else who is necessary, the proposition that ultimately the owners rather than the carriers of these products should be held responsible, which would ensure that they did not put some of their products on ships that do not know where they are going or what they are carrying, and lose their cargo?

Mr. McLoughlin

My hon. Friend is jumping to a number of conclusions, which at the moment it would be wrong to draw. There is strong co-operation between all Departments when an incident of this seriousness takes place.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Does the Minister recognise that the present regulations are grossly inadequate and that there is plenty of evidence to support that point of view? Is he aware that, in several incidents around British coasts, and one in particular on Merseyside, containers of hazardous substances were eventually driven ashore, but there was no co-ordination between the emergency services because they were not informed? Is not it time that the Government recognised that such materials should be monitored while they are on board and that the emergency services should be kept informed when something happens, so that it can be dealt with? To rely on local people around the coast to look for each lost cargo is nonsense.

Mr. McLoughlin

There are strong regulations in force, but they cannot encompass every situation that might arise. We have taken strong action in a number of cases where ships have gone down or have lost their cargo and their cargoes have been recovered as a result of the efficient operation of the Department's marine pollution control unit. That is important, and it is the best way to proceed.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Will my hon. Friend the Minister—who has put up a very good performance in replying to the private notice question—reiterate that it was not a matter of dumping toxic chemicals at sea but a maritime accident? In the light of that, is not it opportunistic and cynical of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) to exploit that accident and to attack the Government's excellent environmental record?

Mr. McLoughlin

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. It is not a matter of dumping chemicals at sea. Anyone who dumped such chemicals at sea would be guilty of a very serious crime and would deserve the full weight of the law coming down upon them.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

The Minister described the canisters as containing potassium cyanide. The police have warned that a whiff of the fumes could kill, but potassium cyanide is a solid and gives off no vapour. Did the canisters contain only potassium cyanide or a combination of chemicals? What are the quantities involved? How many containers are there? Is one talking about tonnes or only of kilograms of what is a very toxic chemical?

Mr. McLoughlin

We are talking about canisters of the particular chemicals concerned. One is talking of sizes of 1 kg or 500 ml—that kind of size. It is important to stress that we are not talking about large drums, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gave me an opportunity to clarify that point.

A number of different chemicals have been washed up. Potasium cyanide is one, but there are others. The British public, and the people living in the particular areas concerned, are well advised to take the advice of the police not to touch or tamper with any of the chemicals but, if they come across them, to report them immediately to the relevant authorities.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry for not being able to call all the right hon. and hon. Members who wish to speak.