HC Deb 27 January 1993 vol 217 cc1032-3
10. Mr. Clifton-Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to meet the Government's commitment to prevent further oil pollution in the sea as stated in the paper entitled "This Common Inheritance".

Mr. Howard

We are continuing to promote more effective international rules against marine oil pollution from all sources and to encourage co-operation in their enforcement. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has set up an inquiry into further measures that are needed to protect the United Kingdom coastline from pollution from merchant shipping.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will my right hon. and learned Friend co-operate fully with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Transport when looking into the use by the marine pollution control unit of dispersant spray and its toxicological effect on the environment? Will he ensure that the long-term environmental effects of the Braer disaster are minimised? In line with the stated aims of the Command Paper "This Common Inheritance", will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage our international partners to uphold the provisions in annex 1 of MARPOL, the marine pollution convention, relating to oil spills at sea?

Mr. Howard

I can give my hon. Friend assurances on all those issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has set up an ecological steering group to examine the long-term consequences of the Braer incident. We are determined to learn all the lessons that we can from that event.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Is the Secretary of State aware that, even as we speak, a row is continuing between civil servants in Whitehall on whether the Minches constitute an internal waterway or an internationally recognised navigable channel? While that dispute is going on, tankers continue to go up and down the Minches and at some stages only four miles separate the coastlines on either side. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the House that he and his colleagues in other Departments will go and bang together the heads of the civil servants in Whitehall—I can name them if necessary—to ensure that the International Maritime Organisation designation of "area to be avoided" is agreed and we can prevent the risk of further disasters affecting the west of Scotland or St. Kilda?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the decision whether waters are internationally navigable is not one to be taken by this country alone, but must be taken in accordance with international law. We have to decide on the interpretation of international law. It is not a matter of banging together the heads of civil servants in Whitehall, but of interpreting the provisions of international law on what areas should be avoided. That issue is being considered by the inquiry that has been set up by my right hon. Friend. We shall be keen to examine carefully the recommendations of that inquiry when they are available.

Mr. Harris

Although I accept everything that my right hon. and learned Friend said, is not it a fact that the Government can take a lead in such matters and should do so when it is necessary to have an exclusion zone or a recognised route for tankers? Is he aware that I have taken up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport requests from the isles of Scilly in my constituency, which suffered from the Torrey Canyon disaster some years ago, that there should be a sensible exclusion zone for bulk tankers and ships carrying dangerous cargoes in the vicinity of the isles of Scilly?

Mr. Howard

I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents and the steps that he has taken to safeguard them. Although we can take a lead—and have done so in a number of respects—decisions on such matters have to be taken internationally, through the International Maritime Organisation. We shall be keen to pursue such issues when we receive the report of the inquiry set up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.