HL Deb 24 May 1950 vol 167 cc473-6

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask His Majesty's Government what steps are being taken to prevent recurrences of the inconvenience caused to bathers on the south coast and also the danger to bird and fish life by the increased amount of oil pollution in the English Channel; whether it has been possible to refer the subject of oil pollution to the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation and with what result; and whether the inquiry which it is understood the Ministry of Transport has been carrying out in conjunction with the Chamber of Shipping to ascertain whether the establishment of oil separating barges in ports is the best way of preventing pollution has been concluded and with what results.]


My Lords, His Majesty's Government are fully alive to this problem of the pollution of out coasts by oil and are anxious that all practical measures should be taken to prevent it. Under the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922, the discharge of oil within British territorial waters is an offence, and, further, as the right reverend Prelate is no doubt aware, the ship owners of this and a number of other countries have voluntarily agreed not to discharge oil into navigable waters within 50 miles of any coast.

My right honourable friend the Minister of Transport is certainly prepared to arrange for proceedings to be instituted under the 1922 Act wherever adequate evidence is available of an offence under this Act. The difficulty is to get the necessary evidence. Frequently, it is quite impossible to ascertain with any certainty the source of a given occurrence of oil pollution. In some cases it is possible to guess at the origin of the oil from an analysis of a sample, but very often a sample is so stale and polluted with sea water that this cannot be done with any certainty. It is, of course, a fact that a number of wrecks round our coast have been dispersed by explosives and that others have broken up under the action of the sea, and this is the source of a considerable amount of the pollution which has occurred since the end of the war.

During the past twelve months only eight complaints of oil pollution on the south coast have beer traced. In three of these the complaints were of a very general nature and did not relate to any specific occurrence. It was, therefore, not possible to take any useful action in regard to them. In four others the complaints were investigated by officers of the Department (members of His Majesty's Coastguard), but the source of the oil could not be traced. Samples were obtained in these cases, but they were mainly composed of tarry substances, the nature of which indicated that they had been subjected to the action of sea water for a very considerable time, and the probability was that they came from the Atlantic or from some vessel that had been sunk in the Channel during the war. In the last remaining case the matter was one for the harbour authority concerned. Samples were taken and analysed, but the result was such that the harbour authority felt that they could not reasonably institute proceedings against the alleged offender.

This question of oil pollution was recently considered by the Transport and Communications Commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and that body agreed to a suggestion, which was supported by His Majesty's Government, that the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, when it is set up, will be the proper agency to handle the question. The Organisation has not yet been set up because only the United Kingdom and two other countries have so far accepted the Convention. It is, however, hoped that a number of other countries will accept the Convention in the not too distant future and that the Organisation will begin to operate. As regards the position in relation to the supply of oil separating barges, the right reverend Prelate has no doubt in mind the inquiries which have been directed to discover whether the separating facilities at ports were adequate. These inquiries have shown that such facilities are provided in most of the major ports and that they appear to be more than adequate to meet the demands at present made upon them.

To summarise the position. His Majesty's Government are actively concerned about this problem. They are prepared to take proceedings in all suitable cases, and, from time to time, my right honourable friend reminds ship owners and masters of the provisions of the Act of 1922 prohibiting the discharge of oil or oily water directly or indirectly into the waters within the territorial limits of the United Kingdom, and also of the fact that the ship owners of this country and others have agreed not to discharge oil or oily water within fifty miles of the coast, and urges masters to take every possible step to prevent any such discharge within that limit.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his interesting answer. In spite of all that is being done, the fact remains that this distressing defilement continually occurs, and it cannot be beyond the wit of man and the power of natural science to prevent it. I shall study the noble Lord's answer and, if necessary, I shall at a later stage put down a Motion.


My Lords, it is apparent that His Majesty's Government take as serious a view of this matter as do other people. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred to the difficulty of obtaining evidence. Can he tell us what steps the private citizen should in fact take if, for instance, he comes across a group of birds on the beach in the horrible condition in which they are some- times found? What steps should the private citizen take to assist the authorities in obtaining evidence?


I am glad that the noble Earl has underlined the concern which His Majesty's Government feel about this matter. We are very concerned. In answer to the noble Earl's question, I suggest that the first authority to be contacted should be the harbour authority, if there is a harbour authority in the vicinity, or, if there is not one, then my Ministry.