HL Deb 10 May 1933 vol 87 cc802-32

THE EARL OF ILCHESTERrose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the pollution of the sea by waste oil discharged from steamers, caused not only to the waters of estuaries and tidal harbors, but also outside the three-mile limit, and to the consequent injury to bird life and to inshore fisheries and to the general amenities of the foreshore; and to ask whether, in view of the serious nature of this damage, they will summon an International Conference to discuss this question, and if possible, to find and to carry into effect a remedy for it.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I have put down the Question which stands in my name on the Paper, to-day, on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, as they feel, in conjunction with many other important bodies, a great deal of alarm at the discharge of oil which is at present taking place in our seas, and feel very strongly that the time has come for His Majesty's Government to take some action to mitigate this nuisance, which is so constantly caused all round our coasts and in the waters adjacent to them. The subject, I think, falls quite naturally into three headings: (1) the destruction of sea-birds, and their consequent sufferings; (2) the damage to the amenities of our foreshores; and (3) the damage to our inshore fisheries. On the first two points I do not propose to take up too much of your Lordships' time, not because they are any less important than the other, but because, as your Lordships will remember, they were debated some two months ago in this House, and also because I think there will be several speakers who will deal with those points at a later stage of our proceedings. I do, however, particularly want to impress upon the House that this is not only a matter of destruction of birds and bathing suits, as might possibly be understood by those who read the debate here on the former occasion, but there is also an important fishery side of the question. The sea fisheries committees, who have charge of the fishing in our territorial waters, view this matter with the gravest apprehension.

On the subject of damage to bird life you will have heard from Lord Kilmaine, who brought forward the Motion on the former occasion and who, I am sorry to say, is unable to be present here to-day, of the horrible tortures which these unfortunate birds suffer once they have come in contact with this greasy black mess which floats about in our seas. You were then told that on almost every occasion death is the only relief to their sufferings. It is divers chiefly which suffer, though all sea-birds are affected to a certain extent. Divers are unable, once they are affected, to fish for their food, and die of lingering starvation. Worse still, in trying to clean their feathers they get this oil down their throats, and as much of this oil, if you put it on your hand, will burn holes, you can understand the state of the insides of these unfortunate birds.

I am going to ask your Lordships to let me read to you a very short extract from a report of the chief sea fishery officer of my district, the Southern district, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, as I think it puts the case and the effect of what we are discussing to-day very forcibly and very well. The occasion of this report was a very serious discharge of oil in the early days of this year on the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight. He says: Numerous sea-birds, comprising puffins, razor-bills, guillemots and gulls have become covered with oil and have been washed up on to the shores, where they have then died a lingering death, sinless killed in order to relieve them from their sufferings The presence of oil on the sea can only be accounted for by its having been discharged from oil-driven steamers, and although some of the steamers may have been at a considerable distance from land at the time of the discharge, yet, owing to the action of wind and currents the oil discharged has been driven on to the shore. The sea-birds get covered with the floating oil when they are out at sea, and there must be large numbers of birds which are covered with oil to such an extent as to become totally helpless, with the result that they perish when they are miles away from land. It is only those sea-birds that are driven towards the shore by the action of wind and tide that are seen. The birds are quite unable to fly, or to obtain food, and sonic of the birds that have been found were starved to such an extent that they had hardly any flesh on them.

On that occasion two birds were produced which I was told were gulls. They were perfectly black, and it was extremely difficult to realise that they were birds at all. On the same occasion a letter was read from a private individual in that neighbourhood, who had been out fishing with lines, and had come upon a patch of this oil, in which there was quite a large quantity of scraps of food. He saw the birds diving into this oil to get the food, and they paid the penalty. I should say that our fishery committees have nothing really to do with this destruction of birds and this was simply inserted in our report as a sidelight to show how very serious things are becoming.

There is no doubt that more birds come ashore after gales than at other times It is possible that some of these birds were dead before they were touched by the oil; but I think it is equally certain that the majority are driven into this oil by the force of the wind, when in calm weather they would probably be able to avoid it. There are also many that come ashore slightly covered with the oil, and hardly any recover; and it is an interesting point, I think, that in one or two places where the corpses have been carefully examined it is found that the older birds slightly predominate. There is, however, really very little difference in the numbers as between young and old. I have received on this subject a letter from a bird lover on the coast of Sussex who mentions that the worst time for finding these birds is after a south-easterly gale. In calm weather very few oiled birds come ashore. He states emphatically that many more birds come ashore now than before the oil trouble, and he says that there can be no doubt that sea-birds suffer heavily from the oil, the divers in particular. I noticed in a local newspaper the other day that at a meeting of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee mention was made of 800 corpses of birds having been swept up on some beaches to the north of Start Point, and a big beach to the west of the same headland having been covered with the bodies of these birds. I understand, too, that in certain parts of Scotland a great deal of damage to birds is going on.

With regard to the amenities of foreshores, I will only just say this, that we have always been proud in England of the cleanliness of our beaches and coasts. I hardly think we can speak in that way of them as things are at present. This oil comes in from the sea, wherever it is cast out. It follows the private boats, it makes everything most unpleasant for the bathers, and ruins bathing suits. I am quite sure that if His Majesty's Government require more evidence, they will have no difficulty in obtaining it from towns along our coast. I understand that quite recently a very strong resolution was passed by the Federation of Women's Unions, asking their Members of Parliament to take this matter up and press most strongly for action. The public is roused on the matter, and I hope that His Majesty's Government will take note of that point, and that something will be done.

But it is on fishery matters that I particularly want to address your Lordships to-day. I do so, I feel, with some authority, because I can claim to speak for the whole of the sea fisheries committees of England and Wales, who are unanimous on this subject. I would remind your Lordships that our coast line is divided into the areas of twelve committees, while Scotland is managed by one large Fishery Board. Our English committees are appointed by the various county councils, and supplemented by fishery members who have practical knowledge and also knowledge of the local coastline. These committees are co-ordinated by an Association of Sea Fisheries, in the same way as the County Councils Association co-ordinates county councils. I am authorized to-day to speak for the. Association, who at their last meeting passed a unanimous resolution calling for alterations in the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922, which was brought in to prevent the discharge of oil in our territorial waters and harbors; and also to ask for a new attempt to be made to obtain international agreement.

I have attended many of the conferences, which are held in London once a year, between these committees and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I know what they feel about this matter, and am here to represent it to your Lordships to-day. They believe— and I think very rightly— that this oil is doing very distinct harm to inshore fisheries, and if fishing along our coasts is to be maintained at all something will have to be done. The longshoremen, by reason of the size of their crafts— they have only small boats— cannot go far out to sea after the fish. Therefore they are dependent on fish coming close inshore. They fish from small boats and from the beaches with various forms of nets. They fish for lobsters or crabs, they catch shrimps and prawns, and they catch shellfish. These men have been having a very hard time recently. The prices of fish are low, the prices of gear which they have to use are very high; and many of the areas in which they fish have been, I am sorry to say, restricted and curtailed by the action of the armed Forces of the Crown. By-laws have been passed to suit them which are extremely hard. There are cases which I could quote where the Navy could go a few miles further out to sea and would do no harm at all, whereas they are using the best fishery grounds and making it very difficult for these men. I would remind your Lordships that in consequence of these troubles this class of man represents a dwindling race. Young men are not taking up their father's profession because they find it too hard. There, I think, we have another reason for unemployment. I would also remind your Lordships that this is the class of man from which our seamen in the past have been drawn and to which England owes much of the glory of the Navy in past years. Now, on top of all their troubles, has come this new plague, the oil menace.

Your Lordships will ask, how does oil affect them? I am not going to tell you that I have seen fish strangled with oil in the same way as birds, though I have had a definite statement from a gentleman who knows far more about the subject in practice than I do, that he has seen fish in that state; but I think I can show you how it does affect them in many other ways. May we take, as an illustration, a patch of this oil which is thrown out, say, fifty miles out to sea. If it is blown in, it comes drifting towards the shore, and takes very little time to get there. The first thing it does is to take all the oxygen out of the water. Fish must have oxygen. Therefore, the moment these great shoals of fish strike this de-oxygenated water, they sheer off and go out to sea again or go somewhere else, and often they go beyond reach of the fishermen, who, as I have told you, cannot go far out. In many places where mackerel were found in large quantities a few years ago, practically none are found to-day. I again quote from the Devon Sea Fisheries Report that a few years ago in Teignmouth Bay any man could go out in a boat and fish with a line, and catch as many fish as he wanted in a day. Nowadays anybody would be very lucky to get six. On the beaches, where five to ten thousand mackerel were formerly no very rare thing as a haul, hardly any mackerel are taken. This experience applies to the same degree in my own district, though I say quite frankly that oil is not alone responsible, though that is one of the reasons.

The patch of oil we were speaking of floats about in the sea probably for three months, and then it begins to sink. If it sank to the bottom and remained dor- mant there it would not do very much harm, but what in fact happens is this. Small bubbles keep on breaking off; they remain in suspension in the water and scatter themselves all over the bottom of the sea. They damage the fish spawn, they damage the plants, which are the food of the fishes and of the small animals which feed the fish, and altogether they do a great deal of harm. If this oil sinks right out in the open sea, probably it does not do very much harm, but it comes rolling in, and when it approaches our shores it is deposited on the mud banks at low tide. Perhaps I might tell your Lordships that it is calculated that a very small amount of oil will cover an enormous area of sea. Figures I have had quoted to me show that less than six quarts of oil will cover a square mile of sea with some sort of film. It gets on the mud banks, it destroys the food of the young fishes, it is said to damage the shrimps and prawns, and it certainly does an immense amount of harm to the shell fisheries, winkles, mussels, and oysters.

I propose to give your Lordships some account of the result of the researches of my colleague and co-trustee, Professor Stanley Gardiner, the eminent zoologist and lecturer at Cambridge. He has been making investigations for the last two years in the smaller inlets and estuaries of our east coast. The waters there are shallow and enclosed, and a very little oil will do a great deal of damage. But I think it is not unfair to take what he has told me as an illustration of what is going on in the bigger bays and estuaries, where there is much more oil, though probably the result is proportionately less. He tells me that birds have certainly decreased in numbers and the grass weed on the mud banks, which is useful, for food, is disappearing. He tells me that the surface of the mud is far more slimy than it was twenty years ago, and he calculates that the animal life in the mud banks has decreased in twenty years by not less than 75 per cent. The oil affects the bottom plants and the tiny animals which are the food of the immature fish. Small animals that can swim about are not affected in quite the same way, but when you come to the more sluggish varieties, worms and crustaceans of various sorts, they are being killed in a great measure. Both the attached seaweed and the non-attached sea-weed are very much affected, and the very small sea-weed, which floats about and which is a kind of food for these animals, is also affected. If it is examined under a microscope it show s hanging to it little drops of oil whirl destroys it in time. If this state of affairs continues it is only fair to say that a great deal of the food of our fishes is going to be destroyed.

Professor Gardiner believes that there is a 25 per cent. reduction on pre-war figures in the life in these estuaries on the east coast. He also gave me an interesting example of what happens to the shell fish. Some years ago he laid 3,000,000 oysters in the Helford estuary near Falmouth. Shortly afterwards an oil ship went ashore eight or ten miles away and the oil was spread about the coast. Very little oil got into the estuary as far as could be seen, yet half a million of these oysters died, and the others became so thin and attenuated that only the good luck of having a very fine summer saved the situation. I notice that in the debate: in this House on a previous occasion the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, who replied for the Government, gave what I imagine is the official view of the situation, that the available evidence goes to show that pollution is decreasing. I am afraid I am not so optimistic as my noble friend and I am sure he will forgive my saying that, in any case, I should not have been very much moved by his words, for this reason, that owing to lack of trade there are not nearly so many ships coming into our territorial waters, and when trade revives and the normal amount of shipping passes through our waters we shall have much more oil than we are having at present.

I most strongly dispute the official view. If your Lordships will allow me, I will read a very short résumé of the reports which have been made upon oil in my district in the last ten years, and when I have done so I think your Lordships will agree with me that things are not very much better than they were. In 1924 there were two complaints of much oil in the Solent which affected the supply of prawns and shrimps. In 1925, in the first quarter, there was much crude oil or the whole coast eastward from Bournemouth I may say that the district to which I there refer comprises Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, excluding Southampton Water, which comes under the Southampton Harbor Board. In the third quarter of 1925 there was a lot of oil off Portsmouth and the entrance to Southampton Water; also south-west of Portland.

Now I come to 1927—your Lordships will notice there was a year with no report—and the reports state that in the third quarter small quantities of oil were discharged in Portland, but there was general improvement. In the fourth quarter there were small quantities round the Isle of Wight. In 1928, second quarter, there was a considerable amount at Lulworth and Lyme Regis. In 1929, first quarter, large quantities were reported in the Isle of Wight and the Poole districts. The Solent was fairly free. During the second quarter of 1929, on the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight, many puffins were affected. As to the fourth quarter, there is a reference to Portland Harbor and Weymouth Bay. In 1930, first quarter, there was some in Weymouth Bay. Birds were damaged in all districts. In the second quarter, Chesil Beach, Weymouth, and the east end of the Isle of Wight, are mentioned, with large quantities in Sandown. Bay; and in the third quarter Portland Harbor. I am afraid in that last mentioned case it was certainly due to a naval vessel because there was nothing else in the Harbor. In the Solent, off Cowes, there was a film extending all along the shore 100 yards in depth. In 1931, second quarter, on the foreshores of the east coast of the Isle of Wight disabled birds were reported. In 1932, first quarter, some birds were reported in a pitiable condition. In the second quarter there were birds in Portland Harbor and on Chesil Beach; and in the third quarter a bad discharge in Portland Dockyard.

Then I come to this year when, as I have already mentioned to your Lordships, there was a very bad discharge off the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight, and our last report stated that there were small quantities in every district and many birds were affected. Your Lordships will notice that in 1929, 1930, 1932 and 1933 there were complaints everywhere. I have already mentioned the complaints from Devon. I have seen the most recent report of the South Wales Committee, whose district is one which suffers very severely from this oil, and the conditions are appalling all along that coast. I have referred already to the Act of 1922. I believe personally that it has done good, but it has several shortcomings and the members of the fisheries associations have asked for its amendment for the last three years and no doubt will do so again at the conference in London this year. They asked particularly for an alteration of paragraph 7, subsection (4), which is, in effect, that they shall themselves be given power to prosecute the vessels which are offending against the Act. It was apparently intended in the Act that they should be given these powers, for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries actually issued instructions as to how they were to proceed in the case of prosecution, and then discovered that the fisheries committees were not given any powers under the Act.

The present situation is that we have to go to the Ministry if we want to prosecute and this procedure is not working well. I may say that my committee had a good case which the Ministry of Agriculture refused to take up. We also suggest that power should be given to committees to prosecute in the harbors. At present only the harbor authorities may prosecute in their harbors— that is to say, they are either prosecuting themselves or their best customers, and naturally not very much is done. It is only fair to say, however, that one or two authorities, especially the Southampton authority, are very active in this matter, but there are others who are not. There is a further point, and that is that the Act does not apply to any vessel not capable of carrying in bulk for cargo or bunker purposes more than twenty-five tons of oil or not having oil space that would take more than five tons. Small boats up to that size can therefore do a great deal of harm. We think that those sizes ought to be reduced. We were told at the conference that the matter would be looked into, but nothing has been done.

To amend this Act will require legislation, and I felt doubtful of suggesting legislation to His Majesty's Government as I know they do not like it, but the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries has foreshadowed legislation on behalf of the fishing industry and it occurs to me that that might provide an opportunity for making some changes. That, however, does not do away with my argument that international agreement is really the only way to deal with the matter. The only proper way to deal with this question of oil is to get separators introduced into all ships. Your Lordships were told on the last occasion of the Conference of 1926. Attempts were then made to get every country to insist on separators being put into oil-burning ships and also to get some agreement as to zones where in oil should not be discharged. That Conference failed. The only thing that came of it was a voluntary agreement between certain countries that they would not discharge oil within fifty miles of the coast. I maintain that a zone of fifty miles is absolutely useless. If you are going to have zones they must be 200 miles to 300 miles from the coast because otherwise with certain winds oil is back on the coast in a very short time.

No doubt the Board of Trade have fully studied the separator question, and we may be told something about that to-day. I am not an engineer and I know very little about this side of the question, but I am told that separators are very much cheaper than they were. I was given a quotation of the cost of separators and I was told that in a ship of 8,000 to 10,000 tons the cost would be about £250, which does not seem to be a very serious proportion of the whole cost of the ship. Moreover, I understand that oil can be used again when it is taken out of the bilges by the separators and therefore the separators should pay their way. I understand that a Bill is to be introduced in another place by an honorable Member, Sir Cooper Rawson, to provide that England at all events shall insist upon separators being installed in ships. One of the objections to this Bill, I understand, is that it will penalize English ships as against other ships. Possibly that objection will not be pressed when we find the Government putting a further tax on heavy oil, which apparently is going to do exactly the same thing.

I spoke of zones just now and I said that I regarded a fifty mile zone as a positive danger in certain respects. That bears on another question, that of oil tankers, which is quite different from the pumping out of bilges of ordinary ships. These oil tankers clean out their tanks at certain times and there is an Admiralty order that no tanker shall clean out within the fifty-mile limit. Consequently these tankers, when they want to get rid of oil, go out fifty miles and then pump out the oil. I suggest that the only way to get over that difficulty is to insist on barges being supplied in every harbor into which these tankers, and possibly other oil-burning ships, can pump their spare oil. I believe it is done voluntarily in certain harbors and that it is insisted upon in the United States. I notice that in replies to questions in another place the Government have continually stated that they would welcome effective action but find it impossible to secure agreement. My Lords, we want the Government to take the initiative and not to welcome effective action from somebody else.

Washington started this ball rolling. Why should not our Government keep it moving? Surely it is for a National Government to try to get this question dealt with. I want to ask the noble Lord a definite question. When were foreign Governments last approached? I would also like to ask whether the National Government have done anything with the question. They may tell us that they have done nothing because nothing could be done seven years ago. I confess I think that that is a very poor argument. You can get nothing unless you try. I strongly suggest that a new Conference should be tried. Seven years is a long time, and many things have happened since 1926. France, for instance, is far more dependent on visitors to French bathing beaches than before, but if bathing beaches are going to be soiled by this oil, nobody will go there. Then, take the case of Italy. Who would have believed seven years ago that there would be a bird sanctuary in Italy as there is now? I dare say some of your Lordships will have read the most friendly message sent recently by Signor Mussolini to the Royal Society fur the Protection of Birds. We know that the United States are most anxious to get something done, and I suggest, though I know some will hold up their hands in horror at the idea, that if five or six of the large countries get together we can afford to snap our fingers at the others and tell them that if they do not put in separators they shall not come inside our harbors. I am sure that would assist many of our ships which are now laid up and help to bring them again into use.

I urge the Government most strongly to take this matter up and carry on the work of 1926. Everybody in the country is calling for action and if His Majesty's Government do not move nobody else will move, and things will go on exactly as they are. Even if our campaign is not completely successful we might carry matters a step further and make a move towards the ultimate goal we desire to reach, when at least we shall be able to say that England has taken seine part in doing away with this menace to our own and other shores. I must say that to take no hand in the matter seems to me to be a disgrace.


My Lords, I am anxious to have the opportunity of supporting as strongly as I can the noble Earl who has just sat down. There is really before us in this country and else where a new yellow peril with which we have to deal—a problem that has increased enormously in the last few years and now requires more rapid solution than a little time ago. If I may say so, I am speaking on behalf of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which I have the honour to be Treasurer. I think T may say that that Society was the first to take up this question twelve or fourteen years ago and to attract public attention to it. I think to them was largely due the Act of 1922 which, though not altogether effective, has done a considerable amount of good. I recognize that this is not a matter merely of protecting birds against the existing evil. There are many other interests involved. One to which the noble Lord specially referred is the fishery interest of this country, and he has shown that in various ways the fishing industry is much injured and hampered by this oil. But I would like to say a few words upon the subject as it affects bird life.

I do not know whether any of your Lordships have seen—it really is a horrible sight—a gull or tern, which is the embodiment of freedom and of the joy of life, saturated with this oil, floating on the surface of the water unable to fly, swim or dive, in a state of starvation because it cannot feed itself, or actually drowned by the roughness of the waves or washed ashore in a crippled condition. As the oil cannot be removed, the kindest thing to do to such a bird is to kill it, and that is illegal. I do not think too much stress can be laid upon the injury and suffering to bird life throughout the country. In addition, of course, there is the fishing industry to be considered, the enormous injury done all round the coasts at seaside resorts and elsewhere, the depreciation of property, and the immense inconvenience and discomfort caused to those who live in these places. I am sure that the general feeling in regard to this matter has increased of late because of the increasing amount of damage which is being done.

The noble Earl, Lord Lucan, speaking in a recent debate, said that the evidence before him showed that the evil was diminishing. I am bound to say that I agree with the noble Earl who has just sat down that, far from decreasing, it is increasing. As far as the Bird Protection Society is concerned, we have had a larger number of complaints of death and injury in 1933 than either last year or the year before; that does not suggest that the evil is diminishing. Further, a memorandum of the Shipowners' Parliamentary Committee states that they themselves do not think that the oil nuisance has really abated of late years, though they point out that if it has it is to a certain extent due to the action of shipowners in regard to separators and the 50-mile zone. Any decrease would he mainly due, of course, to a falling off in trade. We hope that the falling off in trade will soon be remedied, and we understand from the Government that they are going to improve our economic position, but the more our trade improves the more will this evil extend unless something is done. We cannot look forward in the ordinary course to any diminution of the evil for the good reason that the percentage of ships driven by oil, when compared with those driven by coal, increases year by year, from under 3 per cent. in 1918 to some 50 per cent. Now.

A still more serious consideration is that all this oil accumulates. In that respect it is not like ordinary pollution which as it is diluted disappears. This is what I am given to understand is the actual effect of the heavy oil "This heavy oil discharge when agitated with salt water forms an emulsion consisting of oil, water and air. These emulsions are very viscous and adhesive, and resemble a heavy grease much more than the original oil." It neither sinks nor disintegrates nor evaporates. Tine, after a time some of it does sink, but when it sinks it probably does more damage to fish than when it is on the surface. At all events this accumulating oil becomes a greater menace year by year. I think my noble friend has said that some of these films were hundreds of miles long. I would like to read to the House, if I may, a memorandum by Dr. G. W. Field of New York, submitted to the Biological Survey of the U.S.A., last year. He said this, to prove the way in which the oil is already there and year by year increasing and accumulating: My observation convinces me that the oil film is well-nigh continuous for at least 500 miles out of New York Harbor, and off Cherbourg, France, and that a single, continuous sheet of oil at least 100 miles in diameter…existed…mid-way between the French and Newfoundland coasts. If that is so then we have to find a remedy. I think everyone agrees as to the evil, and the question is what remedy can be found.

There are really only two practical ways in which the matter can be dealt with. One is by fitting separators in the ships, which extract the oil before the bilges are cleaned out. The other is to have local barges in the harbors, which themselves have separators, and into which the ships can discharge their bilge water mixed with oil. The Chamber of Shipping are very anxious about this matter. Their remedy, finding difficulty in putting separators in all the ships, is that it should be the duty of all port authorities to provide these separating barges. They would partly remedy the evil without the necessity of an international agreement. That is one point to which the Government might direct their attention. Another proposal is, of course, that to which the noble Earl referred, but it is really only a palliative—namely, that ships should be induced or forced to discharge their oil and bilge water some fifty miles away from the coast. I am bound to say that I think his remarks about that are perfectly sound. It is true in a way that the discharging of bilge oil fifty miles away from the coasts would be better than discharging it into harbors and docks, but undoubtedly, as this oil floats on the surface and neither breaks up nor sinks nor disintegrates, the waves and winds would in time drive it ashore and into the harbors. It is merely a palliative, and certainly not a remedy such as would prevent the poisoning of the waves.

It is quite true, unfortunately, that if you are to have anything in the nature of compulsory separators you can only do that by international agreement. It would not be fair upon our ship owners, or the ship owners of any particular country, without international agreement, to force them to provide separators. They would take up space and cost money, and would handicap our ship owners in competition with those of other nations. Therefore we have to look in that matter to international agreement, and it is to an International Conference that we look for a main remedy for this state of things.

The noble Earl referred to the fait that there was an International Conference at Washington about seven years ago, which met at the instance of the United States, and I would like to say, from a study of this matter, that the United States of America have taken not only a leading part in this matter but a practical part, with regard to their own ships, and have in many instances voluntarily instituted these separators. That Conference had before it two proposals. One was the compulsory fitting of separators in ships, and the other was the question of a 50-mile zone, within which no ship should discharge its bilge oil. Unfortunately, at that Conference the large majority of those represented, some 14 countries in all, were opposed to making it compulsory on s l Ups to carry separators, and although in favor of the zone idea they objected to its being made compulsory. The result was that that Conference came to no conclusion of any real value in diminishing this oil peril.

There is, however, one bright spot, which is immensely to the credit of the ship owning firms in this country. A very large number of the ship owning firms in this country have themselves voluntarily fitted separators in their ships, in order to avoid this evil of oil on the waters. I think that that is an action which we ought not only to recognize but appreciate—that they should have done that on their own initiative. I would almost: cave liked, if the list were not so long, to read to your Lordships the names of the firms who have in recent years taken that action, which is so immensely to their credit. In addition I think all our merchant shipping firms have instructed their masters to take care that they shall not discharge this bilge oil within the 50-mile zone. That, after all, is something, although, as I have said, I do not think it is really a solution of the matter, because in the end most of this oil would conic back into shallow waters. Still it shows that shipping firms in this country are anxious to do what they can towards finding a solution of this very difficult problem.

The Admiralty themselves have also issued strong instructions to all their ships that in every case where they come into harbor they must use the separating barges, and that when out at sea they must never discharge within the 50-mile limit. Therefore, so far as this country, and also, I think, the United States are concerned, we have done our best apart from international agreement. It does appear, however, that without some international agreement we shall not really obtain a solution of this question. I gather from answers made in the House of Commons, and in this House, and from the speech of Lord Lucan the other day, that the Government rather deprecate the calling together of an International Conference to deal with this question. I wish they would show courage and take the initiative and not wait for other people to call a Conference. As has been pointed out, it is seven years since an International Conference took place, and a very great deal has happened since then which, if put before a Conference now, would surely alter the views which were taken seven years ago.

In the first place the matter is a far more serious one than it was seven years ago. The amount of oil is increasing and accumulating every year, and the problem has become a far greater one, and there is a far greater danger in every aspect of the question. Then I am certain of this, that public opinion has enormously increased in this matter. Seven years ago very little was known about it, and very little was said about it. But now you will find in every country—France, Italy and so on and most certainly here—that public opinion is very strongly in favor of effective steps being taken. Then, after all, we have got much more accustomed in the last seven years to International Conferences on various subjects, with the hope of getting international agreement in regard to them. But there are two points which are even more effective from the point of view of a fresh International Conference. The first is this. When seven years ago this Conference took place very little was known about separators. They were a comparatively new suggestion. They were very expensive, they were experimental, and many people did not know whether they would be effective. During those seven years our shipowners and others have had experience of them. It has been shown not only that they are effective, but that you can get them comparatively cheaply, and it is known that if you put a separator into a ship that separator will work properly and satisfactorily. The further point is that it has also been shown in the last few years that the separator put into an oil-burning steamer is a profitable thing, and not merely a capital loss.

I would like to read something that was written last year by Dr. G. W. Field, who is an American expert in these matters. He states that: Of 105 British vessels reporting, all but five found oil separators a profitable investment. Through the United States Steamboat Inspection Service, as of June, 1932, it is reported that of 349 oil-burning steamers 159 are and 190 are not equipped with separators. All but three of the separator-equipped steamers report a profit in their use. The Bibby Line, which was one of the first to use these separators, say: All our eleven oil-burning vessels are fitted with separators. For purely economic reasons no shipowner to-day can afford to throw overboard valuable oil. Neither of those arguments—and especially the fact that, the separators are now effective and are shown to be profitable—came before the International Conference when it took place. In these circumstances I would press very strongly upon the Government that they should reconsider their position, and take the initiative in calling an International Conference in order that they may see whether this really very serious evil from every point of view cannot be remedied and cannot be dealt with in a more effective way than it is at present


My Lords, the speech of my noble friend Lord Ilchester appears to me to put this matter on a wholly different footing from that which it occupied only a few weeks ago.

At that time we learnt from the Government that they looked upon this as a diminishing evil. Well, Lord Ilchester has access to the very best biological information on these matters as a Trustee of the British Museum, he is in touch with students of this matter from the purely scientific point of view, and he takes an active part in practical local government of our inshore waters. He is accordingly in a position to acquire the best available knowledge, and in reply to the optimism of the Government about this oil scandal—which is as great, though I hope not so disastrous, as has been their optimism about the musk rat —he has felt it his duty really to lay before your Lordships the actual state of affairs. Accordingly the problem now assumes new proportions. The public can now realise how grave it is. Hitherto those concerned in this subject have taken it almost for granted that the matter is serious. Now that is proved.

And it is no good for the Government to tell us that they think and hope that the matter is not so serious as it was. It is no good for them to say: "We failed seven years ago to get anything done, and therefore we are not going to try again." A very good opportunity is going to present itself. A great International Conference is going to assemble in a very few weeks. Your Lordships may be quite sure that during that Conference there will be long intervals of leisure; and I suggest that steps should be taken to use the Conference which is now going to take place to make soundings, if not to do more, with a view to a definite Conferencead hoclater on. Really, the Government must not be allowed to push this matter on one side as if there were no interest in it. It is a grave and serious scandal, and it is really incumbent on us to take the initiative in raising the question.


My Lords, I wish to associate myself as strongly as I can with the powerful appeals that have been made by the noble Lords, Lord Ilhester, Lord Buxton and Lord Crawford, to His Majesty's Government to find some remedy for these grave and proved evils. I say nothing about the dangers and the injury to fisheries and the fishing industry from this accumulation of oil on the surface of the waters, but I want to dwell upon the subject of sea-birds.

Really the appalling cruelty that is inflicted upon sea-birds by these oil films on the sea surface is almost incredible. In this matter I am entitled to speak for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and I have been furnished by them with some of the reports of their inspectors, and with your Lordships' permission I will refer to one or two of these reports.

The inspector for the Folkestone district stated on January 31 this year that during that month eighty-seven sea-birds were found suffering from the effects of oil and had to be destroyed. On February 28 this year he reported that during that month fifty-four oiled seabirds had to be destroyed; and during March, 1933, forty-seven oiled guillemots had to be humanely killed. The inspector for the Dorset branch reported on April 1, 1933: The weather has been very wild and unsettled throughout the district, with the result that birds which have come in contact with oil and tar far out at sea have been washed upon the shores. Birds with their bodies thickly coated with oil have been found at St. Albans Head, Ring-stead, Weymouth, Wyke Regis and along the Chesil Beach to Burton Bradstock…All birds seen were dead and their bodies so thickly coated that they resembled masses of tar. I could give any number of quotations, but I think your Lordships sufficiently realise the intolerable suffering which these birds are subject to and the necessity for finding some remedy.

What is the remedy? There was that Act passed to which reference has been made, the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922. I hope that that may be amended so as to get rid of some of the present difficulties. But, even if it is amended, the Act is entirely inadequate to meet the evil, because it only forbids the discharge of oil into the territorial waters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That, of course is very inadequate. Then it has been suggested that we might pass an Act making it compulsory upon all British ships to carry oil separators. In this connection I think the House will appreciate the most humane and most sensible action of British shipowners referred to by Lord Buxton in voluntarily putting upon their ships, at some not inconsiderable cost, oi1 separators which will go far to prevent, this evil, not only in territorial waters, but all over the sea. But, again, an Act of that sort, to my mind, would be not only inadequate, but it seems to me would be hardly fair to British shipowners, because, although the cost of these separators has been largely decreased and their effectiveness has been largely increased, it would be hardly fair to British shipowners to put them to the cost of installing separators in all their ships when they are in competition for sea transport with the sea-going ships of all the maritime countries of the world. Therefore I venture to think the position is this: that no really effective remedy can be applied unless we get the consent, good will, and co-operation of all the maritime countries of the world, and that can only be done by an International Conference.

I agree with Lord Ilchester that perhaps it is hardly necessary to obtain the consent, in this matter, of all the countries of the world. If we can get the co-operation of the principal maritime countries of the world, and if it is possible to have these oil separators on their ships, it would go a very long way, if not the whole way, to getting rid of these evils. As the noble Earl very properly said, there are ways possibly that might be adopted of bringing in any recalcitrant among the smaller countries who will not adopt this method. I do urge upon the Government, knowing what has happened since 1926, that the time has now come when an International Conference could be advantageously summoned, with what may be good results, to meet these very great evils.


My Lords, I feel quite sure that in the country there are no two opinions on this subject. The public has realised now the damage which is done by this floating oil, and I feel quite sure that it will not be very long, if the Government do not deal with this question themselves, before they will be compelled to do so by the country at large. Surely there is no one who objects to this matter being dealt with, because it is absolutely necessary. The only difference of opinion, in all probability, would be as to the method of dealing with it. Of course, shipowners naturally do not want to be put to great cost if what they have in view can be accomplished by other means. The vessels which have got special separators are chiefly very large vessels, and amongst them are many of these passenger ships, very large ships, running all over the world. The people who object most strongly to it are the small owners of tramps, because the burden upon them will be much greater than upon anyone else. I do hope that the result of this discussion will be that the Government will be serious in the matter and will take it up.

I think the speech made by the noble Earl on this side of the House was excellent. He put the facts very lucidly, very clearly in every way, and I hope the Government will not be long before they attempt to deal with this question in such a way as to settle it, because settlement there must be, for the evil is increasing every year and will continue to do so. Shipowners are anxious to do it. The captains of the ships—and I have some experience of dealing with these men—are all anxious to get some scheme whereby they can avoid doing so much damage by the oil and water which come from their ships. I think the middle course suggested by the noble Earl, of having barges in the different ports where the ships could empty their mixed oil and water, would probably be the best solution, but that is a matter which will have to be considered. I hope the result of this discussion will be that the Government will take up this matter seriously.


My Lords, we have had an interesting debate on this important matter, initiated by my noble friend, than whom nobody, I am sure, is more capable of putting the facts which he has before the House. I can assure my noble friend at the very outset that His Majesty's Government by no means consider this merely a matter of birds and bathing suits. They are well aware of the serious consequences of this oil discharge, although my information, I am afraid, does not agree with that of the noble Earl and of other noble Lords who have spoken, because I am informed by the Departments concerned—the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office—that this matter of oil pollution is certainly no worse, whereas most of your Lordships who have spoken have said it is certainly getting no better and probably getting worse. It is sometimes thought that nothing has been done in this matter, but I can assure your Lordships—and I hope to do so in a very few words—that really since 1918 the Government have done all they can, without international agreement, to deal with this matter.

As the noble Lord has said, the Oil in Navigable Waters Act was passed in 1922. It prohibited, under the maximum penalty of £100, discharge in territorial waters in Great Britain and Northern Ireland of oil, or oil mixed with water. It was in 1931 that the Bill referred to by my noble friend was introduced by Sir Cooper Rawson to make it compulsory to fit separators in British ships, but the Bill made no progress, and in fact it was never printed. But I am informed that that Bill, or one like it, is shortly to be introduced again. I think the main objection to that Bill was not so much the cost, as was suggested by Lord Ilchester, but the fact that, in the absence of an international agreement, British ships would be at a disadvantage if they were compulsorily fitted with separators, owing to the curtailment of cargo space. To any one who knows the slackness of trade at the present moment, and the lamentable slackness in the shipping trade in particular, I think this objection will appeal very strongly. The other objection was that the question could not be dealt with completely if only our ships were fitted and not those of foreign nations as well, and to that point I will refer later.

It is therefore, I think, impossible to take steps to compel British shipowners to install separators, but I have to inform my noble friend that oil separators have been voluntarily fitted on a great many ships, and, according to the latest information which I have, in 1930 the number of ships fitted with these separators was 280. Separator barges were referred to my noble friend opposite (Earl Buxton). These have been fitted at various ports of the United Kingdom, especially Bristol, the Clyde, Leith, London and Liverpool.


I was giving the number of owners, not of ships.


I quite understand. In connection with these separator barges, of which a great point was made by my noble friend Lord Ilchester and also by the noble Earl opposite, I should like to read part of a letter from the Dock and Harbour Authorities Asso- ciation with reference to the barge which was fitted up at the Port of Bristol. The letter finishes: I should like to draw your attention specially to the information from the Port of Bristol Authority which shows that the barge which they provided at considerable capital outlay has hardly been used at all in recent years. In an annex to this letter it is stated: The barge has only been used by 27 ships in the last ten years, its greatest use being in 1927 when it was used for six ships over a total period of 133¼ hours. In 1931 it was not used at all, while in 1932 it was used by one vessel on two days over 4⅔ hours. The general manager states that the appliance is quite satisfactory, and his authority is very disappointed at the small use which has been made of it. It appears, therefore, that the use made of certainly one of these barges by the masters of vessels is rather disappointing.

In addition to this, I can assure the House that the Board of Trade are keeping in touch in the matter with the Admiralty and the Chamber of Shipping. They take all possible steps to lessen the nuisance and, when evidence is obtainable, to enforce the penalties under the 1922 Act. I understand that up to a year ago there had been 27 actions taken in which convictions were obtained in 20 cases and fines of from £1 to £250 were inflicted. According to my information, which, as I have said, does not coincide with that of my noble friend, the number of complaints of this nuisance has been considerably less—that is, the number of complaints that have reached the Board of Trade. The number has dropped from twenty-nine in 1926 to fourteen in 1932, and of these latter two were in respect of oil discharged inadvertently from gas works. I think possibly a good many cases of damage to inshore fisheries and foreshores may be due to the discharge of oil from works on land and not from ships.

My noble friend has asked me one or two questions which I will try to answer before I go on to the second part of my reply. He has stated that an amendment is requested to the Act of 1922, and he has gone into certain details which will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT and I will take care that this information is passed on to the necessary quarters. This will probably require legislation, but I think, as my noble friend said, there is to be legislation as regards fisheries introduced later on in the Session, and in that connection I happen to notice that a question was put to the Minister of Agriculture by, I think, the honourable member for the Gower Division, who belongs to the Party opposite, asking if this question of oil in navigable waters would be included in the proposed legislation. I have not the reply by me but, as far as I remember, the answer of my right honourable friend the Minister was that all cognate subjects would be included. My noble friend was very insistent on providing barges in which to pump out tankers in order to obviate the oil being pumped just outside the 50-mile limit at sea. I am not quite sure, and possibly I might put to my noble friend this question. When the oil has been pumped into these barges where do the barges put it? I am not quite clear what happens.


There is a regular process by which it can be separated and used again.


I hope my noble friend did not mind my asking that question. He and others have laid stress on international action. As the House is aware—I think it does no harm to stress it again—an International Conference was held at the instance of the United States Government in 1926 at Washington to consider the whole question and two main headings were discussed. One was the compulsory fitting of separators in oil-carrying and oil-burning vessels and the second was the establishment of zones in which any oil or oily water should not be discharged. As regards the first of these, no agreement whatever was found possible, but as regards the second, a Draft Convention was actually prepared, to which this country and most countries agreed, but three countries, and they are leading countries—namely, Germany, Italy and Japan—would have nothing to do with it, so that no further progress was possible. But a voluntary agreement was come to by shipowners in Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States not to discharge oil or oily water within fifty miles of any coast. I think on the whole that has probably done good and been an advantage.

My noble friend asks for another International Conference. I take note of this new anxiety for Conferences. I thought that the complaint usually against this Government, and other Governments, was that there were too many Conferences. However, I take note of my noble friend's desire. In this connection I would remind my noble friend that there is going to assemble in this City on the 12th of next month one of the largest and certainly the most important Conference that has ever assembled in the world. I think sixty nations are going to take part in it, and His Majesty's Government do not think the present moment a. fitting time to take the initiative in calling another Conference on a subject like this, which, although most important, is, after all, a minor subject as compared with the enormous questions that the World Economic Conference is going to discuss and, if possible, settle. At the same time I take note of what was said by my noble friend Lord Crawford, who introduced a new note into the debate, and said that possibly this matter might in the intervals of the Conference be mentioned with a view to interesting other nations in the matter and possibly trying to assemble an International Conference on this particular subject later on. I do not deny that an international agreement would be highly desirable, but it is unfortunately the case that other nations have ceased to take the interest in this subject which they formerly took.

My noble friend the Earl of Ilchester asked me when were foreign Governments last approached. The answer to that is, I am advised, as regards the United States, in June, 1930, and as regards Germany, Italy and Japan, in 1929. Those were the Powers owing to whose opposition further international action has been dropped. Since then we have no reason to believe that the readiness of these Powers to collaborate has increased. I can only say that if my noble friend the Earl of Ilchester or any other noble Lord who has spoken in this debate can produce any evidence that the interest of foreign nations is greater than we think, the Government will give due weight later on to that consideration. At present I can assure my noble friend the evidence in possession of the Foreign Office is quite to the contrary.

I should like to read an answer given in the House of Commons on February 22 last, in answer to a question by the honourable member for the New Forest. This is what appears in the OFFICIAL REPORT:

"MAJOR MILLSasked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether at an early date he will take steps to bring before the League of Nations the question of the prevention of the discharge of oil at sea outside territorial waters and endeavour to secure international agreement and action in this matter?


His Majesty's Government would welcome effective international action to achieve this object, but it has hitherto been impossible to secure agreement among the principal maritime Powers. It would, therefore, unfortunately serve no useful purpose to bring the matter before the League of Nations at the present time."

I only mention that as proof that my right honourable friend has gone into this matter and that he considered that in these circumstances it would not be at the moment any use taking initiative on this subject. I think I have answered all the points which my noble friend asked me and have commented sufficiently upon the matter. I greatly regret not being able to give a promise to my noble friend, but I assure him and other noble Lords who have spoken that I will see that both my right honourable friends the Secretary of State and the President of the Board of Trade are duly apprised of the debate to-day and of the interest—indeed, I might almost say the high feeling—which this subject arouses.


My Lords, I do not wish to prolong this discussion, but as principal Trustee and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Trustees of the Natural History (British) Museum. I should like to thank my noble friend who has just spoken on behalf of the Government for the friendliness with which he has received representations made on behalf of the Trustees. At the Same time, so far as I can speak in an official manner, I would venture to say that I hope the noble Lord will represent to His Majesty's Government that those who are really concerned about this matter and who have a great deal of information and scientific authority behind what they say, are not disposed to go on indefinitely being told that His Majesty's Government will give the matter most careful consideration. It has been pointed out already in the House that great changes have taken place since the last Conference in 1926, and I think it has been shown conclusively this afternoon on scientific evidence that there is grave danger that this matter of pollution is affecting the fisheries of the country which are already in a somewhat difficult state. On the ground both of the intolerable way in which we continue to allow cruelties to be inflicted on the beautiful birds all along our coasts and of tile possible danger to one of the industries of the country, I do hope that the noble Lord will represent to the Government that they must take up this question very seriously.

My noble friend the Earl of Crawford alluded to the debates which have taken place in reference to the musk rat. We were given definite assurances that the matter was receiving the most careful consideration of His Majesty's Government. But meanwhile the evil grew, and it has now become a serious menace. If His Majesty's Government at an earlier stage had done something more than give sympathetic consideration and had taken some practical steps it might have been possible to combat the evil. With the utmost gratitude for the spirit in which my noble friend has replied to the noble Earl, Lord Ilchester, I hope we may pass from favourable consideration to some effective action.


My Lords, I am very much interested in this matter and I should like to say a few words approaching the subject on a somewhat different line. I would like to refer to it as a matter of chemistry about which at one time at any rate I knew something. This is really a problem of waste products and modern chemical science has devoted itself to utilising waste products. That has been done with great success in dozens of industries it which waste products have produced profits, and important profits. An outstanding instance of that occurred in English chemistry about 100 years ago. A great soda business was developed and it was concentrated on the banks of the Mersey, where great factories were established. The process consisted of taking sea-salt and treating it with sulphuric acid. That produced sulphate of soda, which in turn could be turned into carbonate of soda by a simple process. But in that process huge quantities of acid gas were dis- charged into the air. The result was that not a blade of grass would grow, every tree was stripped of its leaves and the countryside was devastated. But the soda factories were working at a profit and their owners objected to any change.

Then some public-spirited people—headed, I believe, by Lord Shaftesbury—succeeded in the face of a good deal of opposition in getting legislation passed to prevent any factory turning into the air more than an extremely small amount of acid vapour. The manufacturers said their business would be ruined and that they would not be able to compete with foreign nations. However, legislation was passed and was enforced, apparatus was put into the factories, and it was found that without difficulty every scrap of that acid could be kept out of the air. Then the manufacturers began to find uses for that acid. They found that it could be turned into chloride of lime—bleaching powder—for which there was a steady and increasing demand, and although new processes have been discovered on the Continent for making soda in an entirely different way, much cheaper than the old English way, the English process still continues simply because of the profit made from the bleaching powder produced from these waste fumes. For many scores of years waste products which used to foul the atmosphere and the ground have been used in a harmless and profitable form.

With the chemical knowledge and the engineering skill that we have in England, there is no earthly reason why this waste oil about which we have been talking this afternoon should not be furnished in large and regular quantities to firms who could turn it into a. fuel oil which would be of value more than enough to pay for the expense of recovering it. The noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Government said that it was difficult for the Government to take action because it was necessary to have an international agreement. But is that necessary? Would it not be possible for England to take a stand, to say that she would not allow her shores to be polluted, and that every ship that came into her ports, whether British or French or German or Japanese or American, should first dispose of its waste oil in a proper manner. Boats provided with separators should be able to dock without delay. The rest, before docking would have to discharge their waste into separator barges, the revenue from which would undoubtedly pay for the expense. Boats, without separators, that had cleaned out their oil tanks before entering port, would be fined, or refused permission to land. Could not rules of this sort, if applied to all oil-burning ships without any discrimination, be laid down as harbour regulations, without the bother and delay of formal International Conferences? It seems to me that to do that is exactly like telling members of our own families and outsiders that when they come into our houses they must first clean their shoes on the door mat and not bring in mud. But in this case the mud will be turned into profit. I have a strong belief that if England set the fashion in this matter we should find that other nations would soon follow suit. At any rate, we ought to take the initiative.


My Lords, I have to apologise for venturing to intervene in this matter because I do not pretend to any expert knowledge; I only rise to make a practical suggestion for the consideration of His Majesty's Government. This is evidently a very serious matter and craves the most prompt action that can possibly be given to it. It is also evident, as I understand the debate, that nothing effective can be done without international action. My noble friend (has explained that there is a difficulty in summoning a special Conference, partly because it is always a difficulty to summon special Conferences—it takes a long time and involves considerable negotiation—and partly because of the present situation. But why could not the Government raise the subject at the Assembly of the League of Nations next September? There you have a Conference ready summoned for you. It is true that it has not the necessary technical knowledge, but there is no difficulty about that; it can refer the question to a Special Commission which would have the necessary knowledge and would draw up the necessary treaty. In that way the subject could be disposed of within a year after, and I really believe that would be practically quicker than waiting to summon a special Conference, and would certainly be cheaper.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Vis- count's appeal that this subject should be brought up at the Assembly of the League of Nations. The reply of the Government was very sympathetic, but it did not get us any further, and I listened almost with pain while it was explained that a proposal on this subject coming from the British Government would receive little support from foreign nations. Really I think the Government have grown too diffident. I still believe that this is the greatest shipping nation in the world and that any proposal put forward by the Government of Great Britain in the name of Great Britain in regard to a shipping question would receive careful attention. I do not think the Government need be so timorous. More than once in recent years friends of this country and of the League of Nations have regretted that the Government have not been willing to put matters forward at Geneva. I beg the Government to speak out boldly on this matter to the Assembly of the League of Nations, to uphold proudly their position as the leading naval nation, and to assert that in the interests of shipping, of the trade of the world, of the preservation of fish and fishing and of birds, steps should be taken internationally to deal with this question, which can only be settled by international agreement.