HL Deb 23 May 1922 vol 50 cc631-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The need for legislation on this subject is, I think, very well known to your Lordships. Great attention has been called for some time past to the trouble caused by the quantities of oil floating on the surface of the water in estuaries, ports, and other places round the coast. The oil which has caused this nuisance is of a very heavy character. It has even been a source of danger to harbours and docks. Fires of a serious character have occurred in those places because pieces of wood or other material of an inflammable nature floating on the water in the harbours are apt to be set alight and the whole of the oil set on fire. The oil washing ashore in watering places has given considerable trouble not only to people bathing in the sea but in regard to the boots and clothes of people walking and sitting on the beach. It is even carried into the houses. The oil is very difficult to remove and the smell is objectionable. The local authorities of the resorts so afflicted have been placed in a very difficult position, as they dare not complain openly for fear of driving visitors away from their neighbourhood. Considerable damage has also been done to fish, and many birds have been killed by this oil.

A common cause of the trouble is that a vessel which burns oil carries it in the double bottom and tanks and then fills up her double bottom and tanks with water ballast while there is still some oil remaining in them. This mixture of water ballast and oil is then pumped out into the sea. Another cause is that vessels which bring in cargoes of this heavy oil sometimes want to clean out their tanks, and in doing so pollute the water. In addition, if due precautions are not taken during the ordinary transfer of oil from barge to ship or ship to barge, a good deal is lost. The war, no doubt, made the trouble more acute. It was taken in hand then by the Admiralty and the Ministry of Shipping who did what they could to deal with it; but now these regulations are not quite so strong in their effect. The trouble is likely to increase still more from the fact that more ships are being driven by oil and fewer by coal than ever before. The number of ships using oil fuel is increasing annually. In this country harbour, dock and pier authorities have been doing their best, but their powers are too restricted for them to deal with the enormous values in oil which are now being carried. Harbour authorities have power to make by-laws and to inflict a fine of £5 for throwing rubbish into their harbours; some authorities under their local Acts can inflict a fine of £50; but that is not sufficient to deal with the enormous quantities of oil which are now carried.

A Committee was appointed by the Board of Trade in January, 1921, to deal with this question. That Committee consisted of representatives of the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Transport, and of all other authorities who were interested in the question. Later I will give your Lordships the names of the members of that Committee as I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Bearsted, who is, I think, not at present in the House, proposes that the matter shall be referred to another Committee. The essence of the Bill is to be found in Clause 1, which makes it a penal offence to discharge oil into navigable waters. The expression "navigable waters" means, in the Bill, waters within the three mile territorial limit; that is to say, that all estuaries, harbours, and the open seas to an extent of three miles must be clear from oil. The maximum penalty for an offence under the Act is a fine of £100.

The remaining clauses provide certain checks and give power to inspect vessels and premises in certain cases. There is, in particular, a provision in Clause 2 that notice shall be given as to moving oil at night. It is obvious that notice must be given of this, because it is much more difficult to observe whether oil escapes from a ship at night than in the day time. At the same time it is necessary that oil should frequently be removed at night. I have already touched on Clause I which, as I have said, is really the essence of the Bill. If there are any questions on any of the other clauses they could, I think, be dealt with best when the Bill arrives at the Committee stage.

I do not think I need trouble your Lordships with any further observations on the clauses of the Bill, but, I should like to say one word in reference to the Motion to refer this Bill to a Select Committee which, I understand, may be moved. The noble Lord, Lord Bearsted, has shown me every courtesy in the matter, but he considers that the whole subect requires to be further discussed before a Bill is introduced and made law. Further, his contention against the Bill is, I believe, that a certain amount of trade might be driven from this country to other countries where the law as to territorial waters is carried out less strictly than it is in this country.

With regard to the amount of oil which is re-exported from this country, it is essential, or at any rate it is desirable, that we should not lose any of the trade which is now held by this country. It may be of interest to your Lordships to hear that the quantity of fuel oil which was re-exported from this country in 1921 was only 425,687 gallons, of the value of £17,689, and that the oil of all sorts was only 18,572,000 gallons of a total value of £1,483,194. Your Lordships will see, therefore, that the quantity is not enormous. Of course, if the use of oil becomes more general the nuisance caused by the discharge of oil will become much greater, and we consider that the oil companies, in their own interests, ought to be just as anxious as anyone else to see that no oil is lost. During the last fifteen months this question has been fully discussed by a Committee representing all the interests concerned, and the proposed legislation cannot, therefore, be considered as hurried. It would, in my opinion, be a waste of time to refer this matter to another Committee, since all that could be done by that Committee would be to call exactly the same experts who have already been considering the question.

If certain places, it has been suggested, were set apart as places where oil could be dumped within the three-mile limit, such a course would render the Bill entirely nugatory. In view of the extent to which oil drifts what is really required, if it were practicable, is the prevention of dumping of oil within still wider limits than three miles from the shore.

I do not think that there is anything more I need refer to now. I should like to add that the shipowners have withdrawn their opposition on the ground that the dock and harbour authorities would provide receptacles for the oil. That is what is being done now in the port of New York. There large barges are being provided into which the whole of the oil can be got rid of instead of it being dumped into the water. We are informed that in several harbours in this country these arrangements are being made, and the Board of Trade considers that such a course is one that may commend itself to all concerned. It may be said, in conclusion, that this country is going ahead too far in endeavouring to deal with a question which is not dealt with by any other country, but those of us who consider that we are still a maritime nation may think that we have some right and some claim to be the first to show a good example to the world in general, and we believe that all other nations will follow us if this Bill be passed into law. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read2a (Lord Somerleyton).


My Lords, before the Motion is put I desire to make an appeal to my noble friend, Lord Crawford. I do not pretend to speak about this Bill, for I do not know what its contents are, not having read it. I confess I should have been a little more gratified if my noble friend who moved the Second Reading had found it desirable to tell the House a little more about the proposed machinery of this Bill, and how the Government suggest they are going to deal with what is not only an evil but an evil to deal with which is an extremely complicated and difficult matter. My object in rising is not to criticise the Bill, and still less to criticise my noble friend, but to make an appeal to the noble Earl who is leading the House.

I have been appealed to outside the House, and am told that there is a good deal to be said on both sides, especially in regard to some of the proposals in this Bill, and to the principle which, I am told, underlies it. How far that is so I do not know, but it is obvious that the Second Reading of this Bill, taken in your Lordships' House now, would be an acceptance of the general principle, and I would ask the noble Earl, if he could see his way, without induly inconveniencing the business of the Government, to abstain from reading the Bill a second time to-night, and to put it down on another date when it could be taken earlier.


My Lords, I cannot say, offhand, at what time of the evening the debate would be taken, but I am ready to resume the proceedings on the Second Reading at a later date, and I should suggest that it be put down for this day week.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned till Tuesday next.—(The Earl of Crawford.)