HL Deb 07 April 1937 vol 104 cc811-34

THE EARL OF ILCHESTER rose to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to the lack of adequate facilities in many harbours (naval and commercial) of Great Britain for cleansing bilges and tanks in oil-burning and oil-carrying vessels; to request the Admiralty and Board of Trade to take into consideration the urgent importance of improving such facilities in order to lessen the pollution of the sea by oil; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, when four years ago I had the honour to address your Lordships' House on the subject of oil pollution of the sea, I suggested to His Majesty's Government that they should call an international conference in London to deal with the matter on the same lines as the one which had been held in Washington some years before. This suggestion did not find favour, but the reply was certainly most sympathetic, suggesting that something ought to be done in the matter, and during the subsequent debate a hint was thrown out that the matter might be referred to the League of Nations. This was the action which His Majesty's Government took shortly afterwards. My reason for referring to this is that I think it is quite clear from the action of the Government that they recognised the seriousness of the situation, the terrible number of sea birds that were being destroyed by oil round our coasts, the damage to the amenities of our beaches and also the danger to our fisheries. Therefore I feel that it is not necessary to recapitulate anything I said on the subject on a previous occasion, and I need say only a very few words on the present situation.

As I do not believe in exaggerating one's case, I was hoping to come to your Lordships' House to-day to say that I a thought there was rather less oil in our seas, but in the last three or four weeks I have had information which makes me hesitate to say anything of the kind. Only yesterday I received the report of the fishery officer of my own fishery board in the South of England. He says: On those shores that are exposed to the south and south-west winds oil was observed during the months of January and February. It was particularly noticeable in the Chesil Beach area. Many sea birds (mostly puffins and guillemots) have been found covered with oil and many of them have been seen lying dead on the beach. By the same post I received a letter from the chief fishery officer of the South Wales district telling me that oil and waste had been dumped into Milford Haven after a ship which was stranded had been towed into the harbour. As the ship was perfectly safe that seemed a very unnecessary proceeding. In consequence the shell fisheries, which have quite recently been re-stocked, have had very serious damage done to them.

Your Lordships may have noticed a few weeks ago in The Times a reference to a great number of birds having been found on the North-East coast near Brid- lington. I have also an extract from the Cork Examiner, which says: Oil pollution is menacing life on the South Wexford coast. Hundreds of sea birds, dead or dying, are being washed ashore on the Tuskar Rocks, and between Greenore Point and the Rook lighthouse. The cause of the scourge is crude and waste oil expelled from oil-burning steamers… The Saltees Island bird sanctuary, where the sea birds breed in millions, stands right in the affected area. Your Lordships will realise therefore that things are not as good as they are sometimes said to be, although I think that some improvement in certain areas has been effected by those enlightened shipowners who have in some cases installed separators. I think also that the consciences of some of our sea captains have been stirred by the public complaints which have been made recently.

Your Lordships may wish to know the course of events after the matter was referred to Geneva. A Special Committee was set up and questionnaires were sent to various countries. As I was rather afraid would be the case—and for that reason I should have preferred an international conference—the wheels of the League of Nations have not revolved very quickly; but I must say that within two years, in August, 1935, the Committee had produced a Memorandum on the subject and had issued with it a draft Convention and also the suggested wording of a draft final Act. I am sorry to say that since that date nothing further has been done. Briefly, the statement made by the Committee in their Memorandum was that they had considered the question of installing separators in all ships, which was possibly the easiest way of improving the situation, but that they felt that there was no chance of international agreement on that point. They did, however, hold out hopes that an arrangement might be made whereby new ships should be provided with separators. They went on to suggest that there should be zones extending for fifty miles from the shores of the countries whose representatives were signatories of the Convention, and that in certain cases those zones might be extended to 150 miles. Penalties were suggested for breach of regulations. It was also stated—and with this I confess I personally agree—that in the case of storms, when oil had to be pumped into the sea to save life or to save ships, it should be treated as a lamentable accident and nothing further should be said.

The Committee drew special attention to the fact that very few facilities were being provided in the harbours of the world to enable oil-burning and oil-carrying ships to pump out their bilges and oil tanks. In fact they considered that the establishment of these facilities was necessary for the arrangement of the zones which they were suggesting. They said: The Committee is of opinion that it is essential, in the interests of the safety of shipping, to ensure that the facilities in ports for separating oil from water are reasonably adequate before the establishment of any proposed zones of over fifty miles in width and that any convention should, at any rate, contain a provision relating to this point. And in the draft Convention we find: As it appears that few ports are equipped with appliances for separating oil and water, Governments are recommended to take whatever measures are practicable to increase the number of such facilities in force throughout the world and to keep the charges as low as possible. No doubt your Lordships will note that particular phrase.

Belgium has much to say on the matter: If neighbouring countries, including Great Britain, adopt a width of fifty miles for protection zones, the greater part of the English Channel and the southern part of the North Sea will form prohibited zones within which vessels arriving at or leaving ports will have to traverse long distances without being able to discharge the oil residues or oily mixtures. In order to make the application of the Covenant effective, the ports bordering on such parts of the sea mentioned above should possess installations for collecting such residues. England had certain remarks to make: British representatives of shipping owners in the United Kingdom suggest that if a zone of fifty miles was strictly enforced, the supply of port facilities would have to be improved. And also France: In the opinion of the French Government the best solution would be to make the practice of having oil-separator barges in harbours general and even compulsory, seeing to it that the fees charged for the use of such barges are as low as possible.

The Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament considered this draft Convention and came to the conclusion that they did not feel that they could recommend the support of the zones. They came to the conclusion that zones were difficult to enforce and that it was extremely doubtful how far they would be useful. It will be remembered that we have a voluntary zone around our coast which has been in operation for a number of years and has not proved entirely satisfactory. Certainly the British experts advising the Committee have no illusions: The British are advised by their scientists that a zone of 150 miles would probably result in a considerable reduction of the evils of oil pollution, but that a zone of fifty miles would be far less efficacious, while a zone of any less distance would be of little use. A questionnaire was put forward to both Houses of Parliament by the joint Committee, and of 200 members who answered, only five said that they thought that zones ought to be employed. A petition has therefore been forwarded to the Foreign Office asking them to refuse ratification of the provision of zones, but to concentrate on the provision of separators in new ships and of more cleansing facilities in harbours. I must confess, if I may state my own opinion, that I have rather changed my mind. I was against zones, but I feel now that they are better than nothing, and that anyhow they would be of assistance to the course which I hope to see adopted, of putting so many more of these appliances in harbours. Of course, on the other hand, I think there is a danger that the public may be led to believe that more is being done than is really the case.

In the summer of last year the Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), for whom I am speaking to-day and for whom I spoke on a previous occasion, considered afresh the position, as nothing seemed likely to be done. During their deliberations our colleague Sir William Bragg made an offer that the Royal Society, of which he is the honoured President, would appoint a scientist to go into the matter generally and more particularly to see whether there was any possibility of dissolving the lumps of oil sludge and the oil films on the sea—which I may say are sometimes practically invisible to the ordinary person. To that end Dr. N. K. Adam gave up his vacation to making a tour of our Southern and South-Western sea coasts, and the result of his labours has been an extremely interesting little report which was published at the expense of the Royal Society and of which they have allowed us copies to circulate to any members of your Lordships' House who were interested in the matter, and also to mem- bers of another place. Dr. Adam has pointed out to me that he had very few weeks in which to deal with this matter and that there were many problems which required far more time than he could give at the moment. Therefore he asks that in any use that is made of this report it should be treated as tentative.

Still, it is an extremely interesting report, and one of the suggestions he makes is the possibility of limiting the discharge of oil in the open sea by the provision of more separator barges in our ports. That is the point which I particularly wish to press on His Majesty's Government to-day. Will they not give the world a lead in this matter? England has given many leads in the past; will she not help to-day? Outside Great Britain and outside the United States of America, where, I am informed, nearly all the ports are supplied with separators of some kind or another, we are told that there are only four large ports in the world which possess them: Le Havre, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Bombay. There are a few in this country, but far too few, and your Lordships should remember that our shores are peculiarly vulnerable, as the currents set in their direction. I feel, and I think many of your Lordships will agree with me, that all the commercial harbours which are used by oil-burning and oil-carrying vessels and al so our naval bases should be supplied with this apparatus.

Before enumerating the harbours in this country which have this apparatus I think your Lordships might be interested to know the reason why so much oil is dumped in the sea. There are two reasons. There are the bilges of oil-burning ships and the ballast tanks, which are sometimes used for water and sometimes for oil. These have to be cleaned out at times, and if a ship has to go in for repairs which are technically known as "hot work," all oil and gas must be eliminated, otherwise there is great risk of explosion. Secondly, there is the accumulation of sludge in the tanks of oil tankers, which must be removed from time to time. This cleaning is a filthy and horrible business. A certain amount of work can be done by hot steam to loosen the stuff, but it means a man crawling about in pitch darkness, in confined spaces, covered with oil and sludge: it is a most dangerous and filthy job. Naturally a skipper will prefer, unless he has good appliances in harbour, to go out and do it in the open sea.

When, a few years ago, I raised this point, and urged strongly that something should be done in this direction, my noble friend Lord Templemore, who answered for the Government, told us that the port of Bristol had installed an appliance, but that it was seldom used. He said that it had been used by twenty-seven ships in ten years, and by none in 1931; that there had been six in 1927, and that they had used the appliance for 133 hours. I am rather sorry that this argument was used, though it was a perfectly legitimate one, because it seems to have had rather far-reaching effects, as I notice that in the answers to the League of Nations from Australia, there is a resolution of the State Harbour Authorities of Australia, saying that: in view of the meagre use of oil separator equipment provided by the port authorities in the United Kingdom, the authorities of the Commonwealth should refrain from providing such equipment. Whether that was due to the speech of my noble friend or not, I do not know, but that is what has happened. An examination of the figures which have recently been supplied to my honourable friend Sir Cooper Rawson—who has done such magnificent work on this problem in another place—gives, the reason why nobody uses the port of Bristol plant. The cost is much too large. It is very high indeed. The charge is £3 for the first hour, £2 for each subsequent hour, higher charges for night work, etc. The minimum charge is £10. The hirer has to dispose of the surplus oil. Is it then surprising that ships go out to sea to do this work where they can do it for nothing—and by so doing spread oil along our coastline? I would point out that if we take the 1927 figures, when six ships used this apparatus for 133 hours, the cost to each of those ships for cleaning out was nearly £50.

The other ports where there are appliances are quoted in the return of the League of Nations for 1935. Liverpool is well supplied, Southampton is badly supplied. Vessels must dispose of their own oil, and a note appended is hardly encouraging to a prospective hirer: "The cost generally well exceeds the value of the oil recovered." Falmouth, North Shields, Middlesbrough and Sunderland have plants, but only for vessels about to undergo repairs. At Swansea the barges belong to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and are only used for their own tankers. I think your Lordships will agree that this is a very meagre proportion to the number of ports around our coast, and I hope that the noble Earl who is going to speak for the Government will tell us that the Board of Trade will take strong measures to see that more are provided.

May we go, for one moment, to the Admiralty? Their Lordships of the Admiralty are a law unto themselves. They are able to give orders and have them obeyed. The Secretary of the Admiralty informs us that separator barges are provided for Devonport, Portsmouth, the Medway and Malta. There is nothing of the kind in the Forth, Invergordon, Dover and Portland, not to mention bases abroad. I hope that we shall be told that orders will be given forthwith for all naval vessels, if they have not got separators, to use them, and that appliances shall be placed in all ports for the use of Admiralty tankers and tankers carrying oil for the Government, which shall be ordered to use them.

There is one further question which I am very anxious to clear up and I shall be glad to know whether the noble Lord has anything to say about it. It is as to the plant which has been in use in Liverpool for the last three years. It is operated by Messrs. Grayson, Rollo and Clover. It is known as the Wheeler system. It is an American contrivance, rather on the lines of a vacuum cleaner. I understand that it has been installed by the German Navy at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven and is in use in all the American naval ports. I also understood two years ago, when I first heard of it, that it was likely to be used by the French Navy and that it was then under investigation by our Admiralty. It is claimed for it that it does away with hand cleaning practically altogether. Cleaning with it can be done in one-tenth of the time. Consequently, and being a mechanical device, it is far cheaper. One installation is sufficient for a whole port, and the oil recovered is used to operate the plant. Accidents to ships and men are practically unknown, and the insurance is one-quarter of the original charges. All my inquiries corroborate these views, and I urge the Board of Trade, if they have not yet gone into the matter, to examine this process and, if satisfied, to insist on the plant being installed in all our principal ports, or in any case to insist on whatever they consider is the best separator. I think it is quite patent that we have to endeavour to educate the ship's captain to realise that he can do this dirty work much more quickly, and reasonably cheaply, in harbour, instead of going outside and spreading his oil on the coast. If His Majesty's Government can take some action of the kind that I have indicated I feel that we shall go a long way towards curing this plague. I beg to move.


My Lords, I rise for a few moments only to offer my general support to my noble friend's Motion, and to say how deeply this matter interests certain societies with which I have been connected for some time, who view with very grave concern the damage which is being done to sea birds by means of oil. It is not only that, for, as my noble friend has said, very considerable damage is also done to the fishing industry. Reports from various parts of our coasts have given emphasis to this aspect of the matter. We know further that the drifting of oil and refuse from ships does much to destroy the amenities of seaside resorts. All these matters seem to me to require very careful consideration, and I feel sure that your Lordships will agree that anything that can be done to mitigate this evil should be done, and should receive the hearty support and encouragement of His Majesty's Government.

My noble friend has laid stress upon several points. One is that the number of plants in the harbours of this country is inadequate, especially if we consider what the United States does. At the same time, I think my noble friend has said that we in England are better supplied—though by no means sufficiently supplied—than is the case in other countries. There are only four foreign ports in Europe which have these separators. It seems to me that the best thing that His Majesty's Government can do is to encourage, through the Board of Trade and the Admiralty, the construction of these plants in the most used harbours of this country. It has been said that, even if you have them, the skippers will not make the use of the apparatus which they could do. As my noble friend has said, surely much can be done by educating and encouraging the masters of vessels and shipping companies and owners to make use of these facilities, and to refrain from throwing their waste into the sea. Then again much may be done by the example of the Admiralty. The Government can install separator plants in the principal naval harbours of this country and insist on their being used by all His Majesty's ships. If that were done, it would, I think, encourage merchant vessels and shipping companies to make use of the facilities if they were provided in the various ports.

Of course, what I have so far said refers to this country, but the real difficulty, as I think has been stated on every occasion when the matter has been discussed in your Lordships' House, is that unless you get general action by all countries which have considerable merchant fleets you cannot really deal effectively with this growing nuisance. We have heard that the matter has been discussed at Geneva, and that it has been suggested that there should be an International Convention. These International Conventions are frequently suggested, and from time to time one emerges that is of value. I have noticed that as a rule when a discussion of this kind does come to a definite conclusion it is one Power or another which really takes the matter up and presses it forward. I might perhaps cite to your Lordships the example which His Majesty's Government offered in setting up a Conference for the purpose of preserving the fauna in Africa. That resulted in an Agreement, which has been ratified and is now part of International Law. The matter which we are now discussing affects much larger interests and raises many more problems, but if His Majesty's Government were to take it up and press it forward, I think there would at any rate be a reasonable chance of success. I hope that the noble Earl who replies for the Government will give us some encouragement to hope that something will be done, and that His Majesty's Government will do all they can to achieve that something in the near future.


My Lords, I desire to say a few words in support of the Motion of the noble Earl opposite, which he moved in a very clear speech, showing a degree of knowledge to which most of us—certainly I—can lay no kind of claim. The state of affairs outlined by him offers another instance of the unhappy truth that the bounties of science never bring about an unmixed condition of good. The invention of the internal combustion engine has added to the comfort and convenience of millions of people and to the considerable profit of some. But at the same time, so far as land transport is concerned, as we know, it has produced on our roads a bill of mortality exceeding each year that brought about by many wars in the past. Here is another instance which exhibits the same truth.

The noble Earl opposite has explained the matter very clearly, and my noble friend Lord Onslow has put the case from the humane point of view, he being connected with some of the important societies which deal with animals. The misery which the pollution of the sea by oil causes to sea birds is perhaps the point which appeals most to the public. There is nothing in nature, I think, which so much gives the impression of careless freedom as the life of a sea bird, and as we know, in this country at least, these birds are more free from attack by predatory enemies than any other kind of animal. It has never happened to me to witness any of these horrible scenes on the shores, but I believe that they are painful beyond belief. My noble friend opposite has couched his Question in a very moderate form. He has confined it to the possible increased provision of separating plant in our harbours, and I should hope that His Majesty's Government will not at all throw cold water on that proposal but will give it their benediction. At the same time Lord Ilchester made it clear that in the past full use has not been made of that provision even where it exists, and it seems to me almost to stand to reason, whatever may be effected by argument and persuasion, that if shipowners and shipmasters find that extra delay and extra expense are caused by the utilisation of this plant, it would be a very strong temptation to them to put out to sea and discharge the refuse in the open sea—possibly not too near the coast—where they can do it without expense and with little loss of time.

I wonder, therefore, how far it would be possible to apply any form of compulsion in this matter. Lord Onslow said, and said with great force, that if His Majesty's Navy set the example of regular use of these plants it was bound to have an effect on others. We all know that, as a nation, we dislike the exercise of compulsory powers by public authorities, but I hope that His Majesty's Government will keep at the back of their minds the consideration that if these plants are more fully supplied and are not sufficiently used they will be prepared to look to the possibility of some form of compulsory use of them. I shall not detain your Lordships any longer, because I am sure there are others who would like to take part in the debate, but I am confident that the plea made by my noble friend opposite will, at any rate, receive a sympathetic reply from His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, the whole House will, I know, sympathise with the object that the noble Earl has in view. It is a very terrible thing to see, as we all have seen, birds dying or dead as the result of oil on the high seas, but I cannot allow the House to remain under the impression that it is due to the lack of facilities in the commercial ports of this country. I speak in a dual capacity—on behalf of the Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association, which includes all the large harbours in the country, and as Chairman of the Port of London Authority—and I say that so far from it being the fact that there is a lack of these facilities in the harbours of the country, the facilities are in fact in excess of the demand. I shall give one or two illustrations of what the experience of certain harbour authorities has been during recent years. I shall take my own first. We provided separator barges at a very substantial cost some years ago. In 1933 they were used on eighteen occasions; in 1934 on three occasions; in 1935 on four occasions; in 1936 on three occasions. In the case of Glasgow, in 1933 their oil-separating barge was used by fifteen vessels; in 1934 by nine; in 1935 by eleven; and in 1936 by eight. In the case of the Port of Bristol, in 1934 their separating barge was used once; in 1935 not at all; in 1936 on three occasions; and in 1937, up to date, on three occasions. So that I am justified in saying that the supply is in excess of the demand. I said just now that the Port of London Authority had provided these facilities at considerable expense, and that remark also applies to the other harbour authorities.

The noble Earl has suggested that the charges are too high. I can only say that the return which the various harbour authorities get on the provision of these facilities is extremely small and that the expenditure has formed a considerable charge on the revenue of the authorities. I made it my business to ask the Chamber of Shipping whether they ever had any reason for complaining of the charge that is made for the facilities, and the reply was "No." I asked my own Authority—the Port of London Authority—whether we had ever had any complaint in respect of these charges, and the reply again was "No." It has been suggested that the temptation to shipowners to pour this oil on to the seas is too great for them to resist. I think that is rather unfair. I am not here to speak for shipowners, but I do know that they have on every occasion shown their desire to co-operate whenever there has been any chance of making any progress in the solution of this problem. I know that voluntarily they exhorted their captains not to put any oil on to the waters within a limit of fifty miles and I believe—there may be exceptions of course—that that exhortation has been responded to. I am afraid that there is more pollution of the high seas from shipwreck and accident and by the pouring of oil on troubled waters. I could give many illustrations of that, but I will not detain the House with them at the moment. But I did rise to protest against the suggestion that is made in this Motion that the pollution on the high seas is due to any laxity on the part of the harbours of this country in providing facilities.


My Lords, my noble friends would like to support the general idea behind the Motion of the noble Earl who introduced it to your Lordships' House. We want to support anything that will prevent this terrible loss of life amongst sea birds around our coasts and the destruction of fish life and the pollution of coastal resorts. I have also been in touch with the Chamber of Shipping to get the latest information, and I would like respectfully to bear out what the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, has said with regard to the provision of receptacles. I understand that they are ample and also that the damage seems to come very largely from the use of oil in cases of marine disasters such as wrecks, and also from the sinking of ships and the gradual release of their oil cargoes. The position naturally has become more serious with the increase in the proportionate number of vessels which bear oil.

I understand that the shipowners who have examined this matter in committee through their Chamber suggest that the zone should be increased from fifty miles to 150 miles, and that the noble Earl's suggestion of more vigorous action taken to try to bring about international agreement should be followed up. They are against the compulsory provision of separators because they do not think that will meet the evil, and it will be a very great expense and inconvenience. They report their desire to do all they can as shipowners, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, says, to meet this evil and to persuade their captains and officers to obey any Conventions that may be arrived at. With regard to the question of compulsion, may I, speaking personally, say that I think we shall have to bring in some measure of compulsion in this matter. We have tried voluntary methods since 1922. I believe British masters have been very good indeed in observing the fifty mile zone, but if we have to have a wider zone there will perhaps have to be some measure of compulsion. In conclusion I would support what the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, said from the Liberal Benches on that matter.


My Lords, may I intervene for one moment to emphasise a point which I think has perhaps not received sufficient emphasis in this debate? I do not want to keep your Lordships any longer than is necessary from hearing the Government's reply, and, possibly unlike most of your Lordships, I am anxious to get on to the next business on the Order Paper. But there is one point on this matter which has been just mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, but on which there has been no real emphasis, and that is the position of sea coast resorts in connection with oil pollution. A certain amount has been said about the effect of oil pollution on sea birds and that is in itself of course a serious and a very sad matter. But sea coast resorts do suffer undoubtedly to a very great extent from this evil, and to an extent possibly which we do not realise. As has been said already in the debate, it is often impossible to the uninitiated to see the film of oil that there is on the surface, but even if it is invisible it is still there, and one has no knowledge of what effect that may have on the health of those who wish to bathe in the sea at our sea coast resorts. Over and above that, you get cases of excessive pollution when the seaside is covered with a visible film of oil to the disgust of all those who wish to enjoy themselves at the seaside and derive health and benefit from a holiday there. I think that is a point which should be very much emphasised. I do not wish to detain your Lordships but I trust that as a result of this debate we may get some reply from the Government which will hold out hope not only that our sea birds will be saved from a horrible death but that our people who go to enjoy themselves at the seaside can do so without getting covered with the slime and the oil with which they do get covered on occasions nowadays.


My Lords, I should like to say that I think the House owes a deep debt of gratitude to the noble Earl beside me for having brought this matter before us on many occasions. It is largely owing to his activity that the matter has been brought effectively before the League of Nations at Geneva, and I hope he will persist in the matter. I listened with interest to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, who told us that in one year recently the appliance at Bristol was not used at all. I dare say not. They do not use a bad appliance if they can avoid doing so by dumping their muck into the open sea later, and they do not use expensive apparatus if they can avoid it. I thought the figures which the noble Earl, Lord Ilchester, quoted about Bristol were, conclusive, that the inefficiency of the appliance there is such as not only to give no inducement to owners of ships to clear their surplus waste, but to tend in the other direction and dissuade them from using it at all. Apparently the same sort of thing is happening in the Port of London. I wonder what appliance is used by Lord Ritchie and his authority. Is it the Wheeler system? He quoted no figures from Liverpool. I have not any figures at my disposal, but the general impression is that Liverpool has got an appliance better than anything to be found in London, and infinitely better than anything to be had at Bristol, and that at Liverpool they can operate far more quickly, far more cheaply and in every way far more successfully.

I am not at all convinced by what Lord Ritchie said about the methods which are adopted in different parts of the country. In some ports, at any rate, the appliances are very far from up to date. They are slow and costly and, therefore, ineffective, and it is no good quoting those harbour authorities for having done their duty when they have failed to do so. This in my opinion is a gross scandal, and it ought to be taken up more actively by the Government than is the case. I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, just now referred to what I may call the amenity side of it, the injury to people who go down to the sea shore for the pleasure of themselves and their own families and find themselves enveloped by this nasty film of dark, smelly, dirty, waste oil. That has happened constantly, especially on the South coast of England. Moreover, the fishing trouble is really quite serious.

I hope the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, will tell us not only how far progress has been achieved at the League of Nations but what action is now being taken by the Government to carry the matter a stage further. I have been surprised in the last two or three years to find how ready other countries have been to interest themselves in this subject at our instance. I think progress in that respect has been very marked indeed, but as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said a few moments ago, it is necessary that some country shall make itself responsible for stimulating action at Geneva. I hope that our country will be the country to take that responsibility upon its shoulders. This is a great scandal, even if it is not a growing scandal. It is one undoubtedly to which the utmost attention should be paid, and I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, when he comes to speak, will reassure us on this subject.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with what the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, has said in expressing gratitude to my noble friend Lord Ilchester for initiating this debate. It is quite true, as the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, said, that it is probably due to my noble friend the Earl of Ilchester that action has been taken on this matter in the past and that His Majesty's Government once again have given the lead. Perhaps your Lordships are not quite aware how far that has been the case. Not only did this country request the League of Nations in July, 1934, to institute a further examination of the subject, but it was one of the distinguished civil servants of this country who was Chairman of the Committee of Experts which went into the whole matter throughout 1934 and 1935. I had hoped that the noble Earl would have given us one cheering word on the subject, but I listened for that in vain. Undoubtedly the difficulties are great, and the damage that has been done by putting out oil at sea is considerable, but my information—and I think it is also that of my noble friend—is that according to the report of the scientist who went into the question last summer the position is at any rate a good deal better now than it was a few years ago. The damage to beaches is considerably less, according to those who have examined the question, and while unfortunately some 1,400 sea birds were destroyed by this oil in the last twelve months, yet in regard to fish and the destruction of seaside amenities improvement has taken place.

As my noble friend said, there are really three different methods to be considered. The first is the provision of separators upon board ship; the second is the provision of zones within which oil may not be discharged; and the third is the provision of separating barges in the ports around our coasts. As regards separators in ships it is impossible, as my noble friend told the House, to obtain agreement from other countries, and I think that our own shipping authorities, in regard to the installation of separators in ships already in existence, think that it would be in many cases a costly matter. Not only would the separators cost a good deal of money, but there would be a loss of cargo space which would be a serious matter to an industry which, as your Lordships all know, has had a severe struggle to keep its head above water at all in the past few years. In the matter of new ships the situation is somewhat easier, but there also the International Committee found that it would be extremely difficult to get agree- ment on a Convention which imposed compulsion. It was thought that it would cost £1,500 to put a separator which would be of any effect at all into a tanker, and in the case of ordinary oil-burning ships the cost would be about £300 per ship on a very conservative estimate. I am informed, however, that that is not the whole of the difficulty, and that no one is quite satisfied that there is any separator yet found which will deal effectively with this trouble.

Then there is the question of the various types of oil which have to be got rid of somehow. My noble friend did not stress one point, and that is that the sludge at the bottom of the tanks is partly composed of rust, partly of oil, and partly of all sorts of other bestialities I was going to say—it is the wrong word—which collect in the tanks. There is a good deal of creosote and matter of that kind in that conglomeration. I think I am right in saying that no separator has yet been found which would deal effectively with that type of matter, which, as far as I understand it, is the most deleterious of all these substances. The thin oil which looks horrid on the sea and gives a bluish tinge to the water does little damage to bird life. I believe that the experts are inclined to think that in time it evaporates and disappears. But what nobody can say is what happens to the oil which congeals and forms glutinous lumps. So far as is known they may float for an indefinite time on the surface; it may be that in time they sink; but nobody is quite certain. I am told that this oil almost always appears about high water mark or just below it and hardly anywhere else, and that the damage on the sea is less than it was.

I believe also that nobody quite understands why birds get affected. The expert to whom my noble friend referred said that he watched black-headed gulls hovering over a big patch of oil slowly floating in and saw them hunting for food and picking food out of the oil. They were extremely careful not to get more than their beak and toes in the oil. They never alighted to consume what they found, as they would normally. In other words, they knew the danger of the oil and did not settle into it except by accident. Apparently what may happen is that a wave may bring a patch along and sweep it on to a bird, which then gets the oil on its feathers, and once that happens the bird cannot get it off. Or sometimes a bird which has dived may come up in the middle of a patch of oil. As far as can be ascertained a bird does not swim through oil or alight in oil. It is only when birds get accidently touched with it that they get oil on their feathers. Another point to be considered is that the very thick oil may most probably not be separated by any of the separators now known. The experts found that they could not recommend that separators should be installed in old ships, but they did recommend in the final Act that they should be eventually installed in all new ships.

As regards these zones it is quite true, as my noble friend said, that our own experts were not satisfied that fifty miles would be sufficient and they thought that a wider area would be better. But our difficulty in all these matters is to get international action. As your Lordships will realise, it is no good making a law in this country that British ships shall not discharge oil near our coasts if ships which are going up the Channel to Germany or Scandinavia or Russia discharge their oil much closer to the coast. What is wanted is combined action by all the Powers. If we go too far ahead we shall not attract other Powers to follow us. We may be a little ahead, but we must not be too far ahead if we want to get combined international action. I think there is no doubt whatever, as my noble friend Lord Ritchie said, that British shipowners have given stringent instructions to their captains to observe strictly the fifty-mile limit, and that as far as can be discovered it has been observed almost universally by the captains of the big ships. That in our view accounts for the improvement which in fact has taken place.

As regards the use of separators in ports, I am afraid I must support what was said by Lord Ritchie that where these have been provided they have been little used. When my noble friend the Earl of Crawford quotes the new separator, the "Tulip" at Liverpool, he may be a little surprised to hear this, that whereas the Port of London Authority, who have two vessels called "Gog" and "Magog," charge 35s. per hour, the "Tulip" at Liverpool, for a minimum of eight hours, charges six guineas.


It depends how quickly it works.


Perfectly; I will give him the figures of that too. In the Port of London Authority the capacity of the vessel is only 50 tons an hour, but the "Tulip" is 130. It is not as fast as some of the other methods which have been provided, but I am given to understand that the method is probably the best. However, as I say, it is an extremely expensive method, and that is why they make such high charges. I believe the necessary vessels would cost somewhere round £10,000, and therefore they are justified in making a high charge. They could not get any return on their expenditure unless they did, or, indeed, unless they got very wide support from large numbers of shipowners in getting ships to use it. But the difficulty is, as several noble Lords said, the time it takes to clear the ships and to get them turned round. If only our scientists could discover some method by which all this oil could be separated much more quickly, then I am quite certain that these separators would be used much more widely, because there is no doubt that some of the oil that is recovered can be used again, and it is of just as good quality as after it has been cracked in the ordinary course.

So far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, we are anxious that the League should again consider this matter and see whether the draft Convention which was put up by this Committee of Experts could not now be introduced and, with or without modification, accepted by the great maritime Powers. One noble Lord said that the wheels of Geneva are inclined to move somewhat slowly. Of course, as noble Lords realise, the last year or so have not been very suitable for this kind of meeting to be summoned, to get the chief maritime Powers to attend. That is no doubt why the time has been somewhat long. When the prospects are better, I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs would be very glad indeed if a further meeting was called to consider the subject, and the Board of Trade would certainly take a similar view. The Board of Trade's feeling in regard to provision in harbours here is that it is really a matter which should be taken up between the harbour authorities and the shipowners. It is obviously no good supplying any further plant unless it is to be used a good deal more than it has been in the past. If, therefore, the shipowners and the port authorities could only come together and see that further provision is made of some modern type, perhaps, and of one which is quicker in operation, and if some guarantee were given by shipowners that if this new plant were provided it would in fact be made use of, then certainly the Board of Trade would do their very best to promote such an arrangement and to give it every assistance in their power.

One noble Lord referred to what is done in the Royal Navy. My Lords, I have before me the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions which are issued on these matters, and I may say that they are extremely clear in forbidding any discharge of oil or oily refuse within fifty miles of the coast. One or two complaints have been made which have been investigated by the Admiralty, but in no single case have they been able to bring home a charge to show that any naval officers, either on board the ordinary ships or on board the Fleet auxiliaries, have disregarded the Admiralty Instructions. As a matter of fact the three main home ports have these separators and have made very considerable use of them. In the last twelve months before June 30, 1935, approximately 36,000 tons of oily matter passed through these three oil separators at the three main home ports and 750 tons of oil were recovered and reissued. The remainder was burnt under boilers in the dockyard or was mixed with sawdust or other matter and destroyed. That will, I think, show your Lordships that the Admiralty have taken and are definitely taking considerable action in this matter. I may say that they have just decided on a further step, which is to provide separators in the bigger ships which are now being built. They do not propose to put them into ships already in existence, but for the bigger ships that are now under construction and, we hope, for those to be built in the future separators will be provided. Once again, perhaps, we have given a lead in this direction. So far as I know, no other Navy has thought of installing separators, and we hope that both the Navies and the Mercantile Marines of smaller nations will follow suit.

I am afraid that is really almost all that I can tell your Lordships about it. I agree with Lord Ritchie that many of the worst cases are due to damage by gales, sinkings and so on. I think that Lord Ilchester will be pleased to hear that. He quoted a case which happened at Milford Haven of a ship that had been ashore on the rocks. I have not much information about it, but I rather wonder whether in that case the tanks were not perforated by rocks and the oil got abroad on the sea and was afterwards washed up on the coast.


My information was that it was pumped out after the ship had been brought into anchorage in port.


Then I agree that I have nothing to say in defence at all. Undoubtedly there has on one or two occasions been the most ghastly amount of muck—I can only describe it in that way—owing to wreckage, and the result on the shore and on sea birds in the neighbourhood has, of course, been quite deplorable. The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, referred to the disadvantages of the internal combustion engine. I go much farther than he does about it, I am afraid, and I should certainly have added the danger from the air, which is also due to the internal combustion engine and which is perhaps the worst of all those things which are due to that invention. I agree with him about the difficulty of compulsory powers to see that the fifty-mile area is maintained, but the information of the Board of Trade is that, so far as we can discover, it is being very generally observed by our shipowners, and we hope that the results of this debate and of further publicity may mean that it will be observed more still.

The damage to fishing, so far as the coasts of this country are concerned, appears to be somewhat small. There does not seem to be very much evidence of it. The chief complaint of damage came from Japan, as far as I remember from looking through the Report of the Committee of Experts at Geneva, and in one case—I think in South America or Mexico, I forget which—oysters were destroyed. But as a whole the damage o fishing is much less than would be expected. The damage to sea birds, as I said, is the most depressing aspect of this matter. There is no hesitation on the part of His Majesty's Government in sup- porting every conceivable measure which can be legitimately taken to improve the situation in that respect. As I say, there must be international action, but, where it is possible for us to take the lead, then His Majesty's Government are only too willing to do so.


My Lords, my noble friend has expressed himself as sorry that I was not more congratulatory to the Government. Surely I said I was only too delighted that the matter was referred to Geneva; but what I am complaining about is that nothing has been done during the last two years, although Geneva definitely submitted that more separator barges should be supplied before any agreement could be entered into. I think my noble friend a little misunderstood me. I was referring to separator barges in harbours. We want to get rid of the oil in our harbours before it gets out into the sea and forms sludge lumps and oil films. As regards the Liverpool appliances, I know nothing. I only quoted the figures which have been given to me, and my figures go to show that the work done is done ten times more quickly by this particular machine than it is by others, and therefore that the cost, even although it is larger to commence with, is definitely smaller in the long run.

As regards the Navy I hope that my noble friend will urge the Government to insist that their tankers shall clear out their tanks in the harbours where they have these barges, and that all other naval bases shall be supplied with these appliances. As I have already quoted to your Lordships, at Portland, where there are many ships at times, there is no barge. In the Forth there is no barge, nor is there any at Invergordon, according to information given by the Admiralty themselves. I hope that that may be soon rectified. The noble Earl said that the orders were that the ships of the Navy should always go fifty miles out to sea before they got rid of their spare oil, but I am sorry to say that they are sometimes riot above suspicion in the ports themselves. On my fishery board we constantly get reports of quite unpleasant discharges of oil when there are no other ships but naval ships in port. I hope the noble Earl will represent that to the Admiralty.


I do not want to interrupt the noble Earl but I can assure him that the strictest orders are given, and that if any oil is found in the harbour it is traced down to some ship and steps are at once taken.


I am sure that the noble and gallant Earl is right. Nobody wants to spill oil, but they do spill it. May I say to Lord Ritchie that the last thing I want to suggest is that shipowners or port authorities are not doing their best, or that the latter's charges are not economical from their point of view; but the point is that we have to make the cost economical for the ships themselves, so that they shall be able to use these barges in ports and not spill their oil outside. I hope that this debate will have some success as regards action in the future, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.