HL Deb 01 December 1960 vol 226 cc1200-26

3.19 p.m.

LORD DYNEVORrose to draw attention to oil pollution on the shores of Great Britain; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope your Lordships will not think that this Motion or the debate upon it is in any sense a waste of time. We have these debates occasionally, sometimes on sewage pollution of the sea. On this occasion that would be outside the scope of the Motion, and I mean to confine my remarks entirely to the situation as regards oil. I put this Motion down early in the summer, but in the passage of Parliamentary time it was not reached by the end of the Session, and I have been able to put it down again this autumn. Since I put it down there have been two very serious incidents which have caused a good deal of public disturbance and alarm, one being the big tanker fire in Milford Haven, to which I will refer later, and the other the rather serious accident in the Severn, where two small tankers, manœuvring in fog, rammed each other and also succeeded in knocking down a railway bridge. Incidents of this sort cause a good deal of disturbance in the public mind. But I am hoping to keep this debate as a general rule on a broad level without pinpointing any particular area or incident, except solely for the purposes of illustration.

I should also like to make it clear that I am not speaking this afternoon in my capacity as chairman of the authority charged by Parliament with enforcing the Oil in Navigable Waters Act in a particular port, namely, Milford Haven. I thought I ought to disclose my interest, if it can be called an interest, in this connection, before I went any further. But I would rather try to keep before the world, through a debate in Parliament, the overriding importance of clean seas, as somebody once said, pure as at the begining of time". That is perhaps a little Utopian. More oil is being carried or used in ships on the oceans of the world than ever before, and because of this massive fact we shall always run the disk of disaster or error or just plain carelessness. The master of a ship has just been sent for trial at Winchester Quarter Sessions in connection with an oil offence, which at least shows that magistrates in different parts of the country are taking a serious view of the matter.

As regards the first category, disaster, I instance only the fire that I have just mentioned on the first big ship to come into the new oil port; it caught fire and fouled the waters of the Haven in no small way. Locally everybody of course had an immense sympathy with the Esso Oil Company on this tragic disaster and the sad beginning of a great enterprise. That company met the situation in a magnificent spirit, and spent, so I read in the paper, no less than £30,000 in trying to clean up the Haven. I must say that when I stood at my office window which overlooks the waters, and saw what had happened, I thought that what was achieved in about a fortnight to three weeks was little short of a miracle having regard to the circumstances of the place. It shows what can be done in a haven which is open to the sea at only one end. I should like in passing, if I may, to pay a tribute in Parliament to the immense bravery and gallantry of the Pembrokeshire fire brigade, the crews of the fire-fighting tugs and the fire crews on the ship itself, and I was delighted to read in the paper only yesterday that Her Majesty has awarded the M.B.E. to the chief of the Pembrokeshire fire brigade for outstanding gallantry.

What was possible was this: where floating contamination was very heavy, it was possible to collect the oil by spill booms and manoeuvre it to the shore, where by suction pump it was removed and carried away to the refinery to be dealt with. It was also possible to soak up residual oil in straw and take it away and burn it, and so on. I instance this only to show that there are methods which, if properly and quickly applied—and let me add, if you can afford to do it—can be used to relieve the beaches of oil.

Also on the question of disaster, I think we have to recognise that it is a frequent practice deliberately to pump oil on to a rough sea in order to allow lifeboats to effect a rescue of persons in danger of shipwreck. I have been told that in the China waters many a crew has been saved from being eaten by sharks because of a lot of oil floating around the wreck of the ship, and sharks are allergic to oil. My point is that really all responsible bodies, such as Governments—and I think we may describe Governments as responsible bodies—oil companies, ordinary shipping companies, the tourist trade, holiday resorts and nature protection bodies, whether it be for sea birds or oyster beds or any other form of marine life, are vitally interested. But, even more than that, we want to recognise that this is a question for all maritime Powers, because this problem of oil pollution of beaches is just as serious on the shores of Europe on the other side of the North Sea and the English Channel as it is here.

It is not a new preoccupation of Governments. As early as 1922 the British Government passed legislation prohibiting the discharge of oil into our own territorial waters, but: I am afraid that with the immense growth of oil traffic some of those earlier measures have not proved very effective. To show your Lordships what is going on, I would remind the House that in July last year a very valuable international conference on oil pollution was held in Copenhagen, and the British delegation was ably led by Mr. James 'Callaghan, M.P. One of its main objects was to find out how the 1954 Oil Convention was proceeding. One of the things that came out of the 1954 Convention was the passage through Parliament here of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act. One of the things that was much stressed by the United Kingdom delegation, to which I give my strongest support, was that in this matter almost as much can he done by education as by regulation. The Ministry of Transport, I know, visit some hundreds of ships every year to try to bring before the masters of the ships their duties and responsibilities in this matter. It reinforces what I said earlier on, that a great deal of damage has been done from sheer carelessness or ignorance; and one of the fruits of this debate could easily be to make the shipping interests realise the great importance that Parliament attaches to the subject.

I suppose one could say that the one really effective and ultimate remedy lies in the absolute prevention of discharge of any oil or oily residues anywhere in the sea, and that by international agreement. But I suppose that if we face facts as they are, we realise that it would be a long time before that could be achieved. I think we shall never quite get to 100 per cent., but there is nothing to stop us from trying. As a matter of fact, since 1953 many British companies, shipowners and oilers, have voluntarily carried out a great many of the recommendations that have been put forward from time to time, and do arrange to retain their oily residues in the ship until pit gets back to a port where they can be dealt with on shore.

There are many factors involved in this: one is the great expense and the great extra work for the ship's crew. Secondly, it presupposes that in the port to which the ship is going there are facilities for dealing with the sludge and oily ballast. As may be supposed, this is an immense and costly business. But it is a sort of target at Which we could aim. I would suggest that the British Transport Commission should give a lead in this matter, because they are not entirely guiltless of fouling the waters round the coast. So far as I know, twelve countries have hitherto ratified the International Convention on this subject. The United Kingdom did it in 1955, and the last country to do so was Finland, last year. The outstanding omission is the United States, and one can only hope that it will not be long before the vast maritime interests of the United States are brought into the scope of the Convention.

Let me come back for a moment to the effect of all this on what people actually see, not only on the sea water but on their dresses and trousers after they have sat down on our beaches and in our sandy coves. I suppose all troubles bring certain remedies. The lady who helped me type these notes told me that she was most interested in what she was reading, because she lived at a certain seaside resort and her dresses were continually being spoiled by oil. So I remarked, "Well, you must have a large cleaners bill", but she said, "I have found a stuff which will get it off." The point about that is that if she could enlarge its use and spread it over the beaches she would be performing a public service. Be that as, it may, that illustrates the position.

Here I do not want to pinpoint any particular place, but I would inform your Lordships that two meetings were held this year of an association covering coastal resorts from Brighton to Weymouth. It was a most valuable committee, and one of the most illuminating, points which arose out of its considerations was the need for advance information on patches of oil floating on the sea and approaching the coast. I know that the Ministry of Transport are in great sympathy with this and I believe are arranging, so far as the South Coast is concerned, for the coastguard service to help in reporting. Where there are no coastguards, such as in the Solent and in the Dockyard and Port of Portsmouth, other methods are being envisaged and considered. At Milford Haven we have found that the use of a helicopter is of great service in finding these patches. Possibly my noble friend who is to reply for the Government may be able to say something about the progress which is being made in that direction.

Then there arises once again the question: when you have seen the oily patch how do you deal with it, and who deals with it? It has not yet reached the beach, and although local authorities are most jealous of their rights over their beaches, when it comes to the cost of removing the oil they are apt to say, "That, of course, is a national, and not a local, responsibility." These matters are being worked upon, and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is "having a go". I must confess to a certain alarm at one proposal, which is to attempt to sink an oily patch completely on to the sea bed, with all the effect that it would have on marine life at the bottom of the sea. From what I have seen in other parts of the country, I have a feeling that there are possibly better and less harmful methods.

I think I am right in saying that under the Oil in Navigable Waters Act the enforcing authorities can do little except prosecute after the offence has been committed. They certainly cannot deal with the oil which has been emitted from, say, a tanker tied up alongside, and there is no power to grapple with the situation and charge the offender afterwards. I am always being told, I am sure with truth, that proof is immensely difficult to obtain unless one actually observes the thing going on. If there are two or three ships in the port, one has to be careful to pinpoint the one ship from which the damage is being caused. That is the kind of difficulties that one is up against.

Before I sit down I should like to say a word on the effect on wild life of oil pollution. I think we are shocked at pictures or descriptions of sea birds clogged with oil and dying on the shore. This destruction of birds has, in the last few years, reached alarming proportions in this country alone. From what I have been able to find out, I believe that latterly the danger is slowly receding, although it is serious enough. I believe it is receding largely because of the educational effect of debates such as this, whereby every effort is being made to bring home to masters of ships their duties and responsibilities. I believe that at last they are beginning to realise what damage can be done, and that a ship may be cleaned 1,000 miles out to sea and the oil will not disperse on the surface of the sea, but will arrive on some shore as thick as when it left the ship.

A most remarkable paper by the Secretary of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds appears in the report of the proceedings of the Copenhagen Conference to which I have already referred. This shows that in the winter of 1951–52—that is, ten years ago—anything up to a quarter of a million birds were killed in this country. The survey under which that figure was arrived at—of course it cannot be an exactly accurate figure; it will be what was computed—was repeated for the next four years, and generally it showed a decline in the numbers of birds oiled.

This suggestion that the danger is slowly declining, provided we keep at it, is supported by other evidence. From a stretch of 160 yards on one particular beach in Cornwall four tons of coagulated oil were taken in 1952. This slowly decreased for four years until, in 1956, only a quarter of a ton was picked up. That shows that possibly these measures may be having some effect, or it may be just luck that the tide has carried the oil somewhere else. We must always remember, even when we see a slowly improving position, that one serious oiling can really wreck the whole thing. One of the worst cases concerned another seaside resort on the South Coast—your Lordships will notice that I am carefully naming none in particular—where the Council removed 25 lorry loads of thick oil from its beaches. Those are the worst of them.


My Lords, would the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting? Could he give, the House the date in relation to that matter?


It was three years ago—in 1957. I do not suppose that the final solution will ever be reached until, in the closing words of the Paper to which I have already referred, the oceans of the world cease to be a dumping ground for filthy oil. I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government one question—namely, how the Inter-governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation is getting on because it has taken over the bureau functions from the United Kingdom; that is to say, I understand that it is going to be responsible for summoning the next Inter-governmental Conference as a Convention. The last one was in 1959.

I do not want to incur any reproach on the score of having spoken for too long, but I hope by raising this vital subject, that Parliament will ventilate the problem and good may result. If there is too much licence in the cleaning of bilges and oily ballast at sea in so-called permitted areas, let us retrace our steps and be like the Welsh lady who, on being asked where she was going, replied that she was not going anywhere; she was coming back from where she went. So I repeat that I think things are better; and I believe, in spite of everything, that Great Britain has much of which to be proud in the lead she has given in this vital matter. I beg to move for Papers.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, it will be agreed on all sides that the noble Lord who has moved this Motion has done a public service. As he quite rightly said, "lest we forget" it is as well that we should periodically remind ourselves, and the public at large, of the serious nature of this problem; and if I may be permitted to say so, I believe he has done that with moderation and force. The Motion will also give the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, the Minister who is to reply, a chance to give the House a progress report—because I am afraid that the country as a whole is rather treating this problem in the spirit of "familiarity breeds contempt". In 1954 this was a burning subject. There were huge protests about the pollution of our shores by oil that had been discharged, wilfully or accidentally, from ships. I remember a debate in your Lordships' House on a Motion at about the same time.

I believe that we as a country can take at least a fair amount of credit in this matter because this country was the first of the signatories to the 1954 Convention to put an Act through this Legislature. I think the Government of the day deserve great credit for having done that. As one who played some part in discussions on the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955, I thought I would lend what support I could to the noble Lord who has raised this Motion. His opening and closing words were absolutely correct. There is no solution to this problem except the total prohibition of the discharge of oil into the sea.

What I am distressed by is the fact that, of the 47 nations attending the conference—I believe 37 with delegations, the other 10 being represented by observers—only 12, as the noble Lord has informed us, have signed the Convention. The principal absentee is the United States of America. On inquiry I find that early this year the President of the United States sent to the Senate a message asking for advice and comment on ratification of the Convention by the United States of America, and, with the noble Lord, I hope that in the near future the United States will join the other countries who have ratified the Convention and that this wise step will not be overlooked because of recent happenings in that country. I find it difficult to understand why they have kept out. They are, I believe, the most outstanding absentee from the Convention.

What is the cause of this pollution, even in the areas of countries who have signed the Convention? I am satisfied that the countries who have done so are doing their best to carry out its terms and recommendations—or, at least, I have no information to make me dissatisfied on that. Yet, as the noble Lord has said, even with all the efforts of Her Majesty's Government, we are still experiencing this scourge of pollution, as he so well illustrated. The reason why I interjected to ask him in what year the huge amounts of this wretched tarry substance, filth, of which he was speaking had been carried away—and I believe he said it was 1957—




—was that up to that time I had always felt that a very considerable contributory factor to the pollution on the South and West coasts of this country was the breaking up of ships sunk during the war. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, whether he thinks that the peak of that source of pollution has now passed. We have to bear in mind, of course, that througb our particular geographical position the South and West coasts of Britain, like the North West coast of France have to bear the brunt of this scourge, because the oil drifts towards this country. That, I think, is one of the major factors we have to consider.

I believe I am right in saying—and no doubt the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong, for my memory of the 1955 Act is, perhaps, getting a little thin—that any signatory to this Convention can take action against any ship flying any flag which discharges oil within her territorial waters. But of course, a country has no jurisdiction outside her territorial waters, and oil can float a long way. That is the first thing that happens. There are, then, those two factors—discharge outside of territorial waters and oil from wrecks.

Then we come to accidents; and in many cases that means carelessness. The noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, has graphically described what happened in the tragic accident at Milford Haven. I do not know what was the cause of that, but I am quite certain that there is a lot of oil escaping from ships in our harbours through sheer carelessness. That is a major point that I should like to make to the Government. The noble Lord, in his speech just now, mentioned a case at Fawley where the master of a ship is awaiting trial under the terms of the Act—


My Lords, I did not actually say that it was at Fawley: I did not pinpoint any particular company.


My Lords, I am sorry I have mentioned it. I hope that I have not done wrong in doing so.


My Lords, I do not know that it was there.


I believe it was. It was sheer carelessness that caused that; and 70 tons of oil, 17,000 gallons spewed on to the Solent before it was found out. Whatever happens—and a prosecution is pending—will not put the oil back to the place from which it should never have escaped.

I am not averse to punishment as a deterrent to wrongdoing. But I am wondering, since the results of this are so serious, whether the Government would not consider that in every port where oil is taken or discharged there should be an inspectorate to make certain that everything is done, that all the numerous valves that should be open are open, and all those that should be closed are closed, before any operation of either unloading or loading oil takes place. This 70 tons of oil that I have mentioned was dis- charged through a main valve being left open, and oil was turned straight through into the sea. I make that suggestion to the noble Lord and perhaps he will convey it to the appropriate quarter.

There is also the question of propaganda. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for paying a tribute to the Committee presided over by an honourable friend of mine, James Callaghan. I believe that they did an outstanding amount of good, and it is that which I think is educative and serves a very useful purpose. I am sorry that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House is not here now in his capacity as Minister for Science. In my view, the activities that now come within his range could be more usefully employed. If the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, would not mind looking at resolution No. 7 that was passed, in the Final Act of the Conference and the International Convention in 1954, he will see that it states: That Governments should create national committees to keen the problem of oil pollution under review and recommend practical measures for its prevention, including the carrying out of any necessary research. Have we as a Government, as the first Government to ratify the Convention, carried out that resolution? What progress has been made? If a Committee has not been formed, should it be formed? Is this matter of sufficient importance—as I think it is—to keep it constantly before not only the Government of the country but also the people of the country? Perhaps if that could be done we should make some progress. That, frankly, is my small contribution to the effort made by the noble Lord. I agree with everything he has said, and I do not think it necessary to repeat what he has said, because he said it so well.

There is just one final word. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, will not think that this is not a bane to a great many of the poorer folk (if I may use the expression) in this country whose only chance of a holiday is to take the children down to the sea. I am not so interested in the noble Lord's secretary who soiled her skirt. I am interested in "little Willie's" pants, because "little Willie" might have only one pair of pants; and if they are clotted up with tar through sitting on the beach that little fellow's holiday is spoilt. This is still, I think, a problem which deserves the support of the Government, and I beg the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, not to disregard it simply because there is not the uproar there was in this country in about 1956 or 1957. I will refer to just one well-known resort upon the South Coast, with wonderful beaches and wonderful sand, which is now contemplating a huge expenditure on building an inland swimming pool because the beach and the water are so polluted. If they are doing that in 1960 and 1961, to me it signifies that there is a great problem concerning local authorities. I hope that the noble Lord will take note of what both the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, and I have said, and perhaps we shall he able to congratulate ourselves that at least we have made some contribution to the general knowledge on this problem.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dynevor need have no fears that he has wasted our time in bringing forward this debate, because it is a matter of paramount importance. My only purpose in rising to detain your Lordships for a few brief moments is that I have a wide knowledge of at least one South Coast resort, namely, Eastbourne. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, was kind enough to come to see me a few days ago regarding this subject, and I apologise that I myself have not been able to see him because I have, in fact, only just heard from the Town Clerk of that resort. In Eastbourne, the position at the moment is rather better than it is in some resorts, but it is by no means entirely satisfactory. Last year there ware—I quote from the Town Clerk's letter— only three or four places of localised pollution by oil on different sections of the foreshore and these were dealt with by the Corporation workmen in the normal manner. But these operations cost money, whether the burden falls on the local ratepayers or on the Sussex County Council.

Our beaches are already suffering from the menace of broken bottles, which is, of course, an entirely different matter, and from such problems as sewage; and this menace of oil just about brings things to the limit. Reference has been made to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research which is looking into this problem on the South Coast. I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply how long this investigation is likely to take. I appreciate that he probably cannot answer my question to-day, but if he could ascertain the answer for me it would, I am sure, be of interest not only to your Lordships' House but to the community at large.

I have had some personal experience of this pollution on the South Coast. Last February I was fishing between the Pevensey and Eastbourne shores. I was sea fishing, and I pulled up my line and found on it a very thick coating of oil. That is a case which is of very insignificant inconvenience, but if there are children or anybody else on the beach when once that oil reaches the shore they are going to have their clothes very badly stained, and it is by no means easy to remove these stains from one's clothing.

Reference has already been made to the International Conference on Oil Pollution of the Sea, and I should like to refer to two extracts from the Report of this Conference. One is by Mr. Croft, who was speaking on behalf of the British Hotels and Restaurants Association. He said in his opening paragraph: Hotels and restaurants have both a selfish and an unselfish outlook on this problem. We are selfish in that it affects our businesses. Guests who get oil on themselves, or their shoes, bring it back to the hotels. It damages our carpets, linen, and towels. It also makes guests dissatisfied with their holidays, especially where small and young children are concerned, and they black list the resort,"— and I emphasise this sentence, my Lords— not returning themselves and, as is human nature, telling their friends of their unfortunate experience". In fairness, I would say, on the Town Clerk's evidence, that this does not now apply to Eastbourne; but in the West Country, particularly around Torquay, and in West Cornwall, there is still considerable pollution, and it may well affect people there. I do not know that part of the country very well myself, so I should not like to venture an opinion: but this evidence from Mr. Croft is, I think, valuable.

Then, on behalf of the Association of Municipal Corporations, the County Councils Association, the Urban District Councils Association and the Rural District Councils Association of England and Wales, Mr. Rose, giving evidence to this Conference, said that in 1958, to clear some contamination on one single beach cost £500 for one clearance. That is a lot of money, especially if a small seaside resort has to bear that cost. I do not know who does bear the cost of these clearances, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, can advise me on that point. My Lords, that is my sole purpose in taking part in this debate: to ask Her Majesty's Government to look into this vital, I would almost say tragic, problem where seaside resorts are concerned. We are constantly being urged to encourage foreign visitors, dollar-bringing visitors, into this country, and if they are going to find this oil pollution affecting their clothes or their children's clothes, it is going to have an adverse effect. I beg Her Majesty's Government to give that point some consideration.

4.4 pm.


My Lords, I, too, think that the House should be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, for raising this matter to-day, affecting, as it does, coastal local authorities, harbour boards, shipping companies, oil interests, the hotel industry, bird lovers, the tourist trade and, finally, the large number who wish to enjoy the beaches around our country. For, as stated by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, it will give Her Majesty's Government the opportunity to state categorically what progress has been made towards further ratification of the Convention as laid down in the White Papers, Cmnd. 595 and Cmd. 9197. I would agree, too, that complete prohibition of discharge of waste oil into the sea is the only lasting remedy to this problem, as was so rightly stressed by one recommendation of the Faulkner Committee which reported in 1953. In their summary of recommendations, they say: The prohibition of the discharge of persistent oils within a prescribed zone is no more than a palliative, since there can be no guarantee that they will not eventually drift ashore and cause pollution. How true, my Lords, when one considers the effect of currents, the weather, winds and tide! These elements, including the state of the sea, really determine whether one beach or another will be polluted, heavily or otherwise. Therefore the solution of the problem can only be in total prohibition.

As has already been mentioned, so far only twelve countries have ratified this Convention. That figure was correct for 1959, and perhaps the noble Lord who will be replying can say whether or not there have been any further ratifications or acceptances since that year. I believe I am right in saying that last year countries owning 50 per cent. of the world tanker fleet and 55 per cent. of the world dry-cargo tonnage were still outside the Convention. Could the noble Lord say whether there has been any improvement in that figure? Until international agreement has been reached, the problem remains of dry-cargo ships with oily-ballast and tanker washings. With regard to the former—that is, the dry-cargo vessels—Section 5 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955 (which Act came into force on September 8, 1956), under the rubric,Equipment in Ships to prevent oil pollution,says: For the purpose of preventing or reducing discharges of oil … into the sea, the Minister may make regulations requiring British ships registered in the United Kingdom to be fitted with such equipment, and to comply with such other requirements, as may be prescribed. Could the noble Lord say, possibly when he comes to reply, how many ships of over 80 tons gross tonnage are registered in this country—and I refer especially to dry-cargo vessels—and how many of these ships over 80 tons are fitted with oily-water separators? I believe I am right in saying that a number of these separators—I believe mainly gravity separators—have been tested by the Ministry of Transport, and a number of them have proved to be effective. I am particularly interested in obtaining the figures of ships that do not retain separate oil and ballast tanks, which will apply mainly to the latest design of dry-cargo vessels.

Section 8 of the Act empowers the Minister to direct a harbour authority to provide facilities for the reception of the separated residues. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether this power has had to be exercised to any great extent, and whether Her Majesty's Government or the Minister of Transport are satisfied that adequate reception facilities exist at the various United Kingdom ports where loading or repairs may take place. For if not, pollution will certainly continue along our shores. There is a proviso in the Act that tankers may discharge oil beyond 100 miles from our shores, and tankers of less than 500 tons gross tonnage may discharge any waste beyond out territorial waters. My Lords, that is not a very great distance. This proviso is also applicable to dry cargo vessels of gross tonnage of less than 80 tons. The provision of adequate reception facilities; for this oily waste is therefore of the highest importance from the point of view of a reduction in pollution of the sea, as has been mentioned more than once this afternoon, and also toward a reduction in delays of shipping which can arise due to detours which these ships will have to make.

I would also ask Her Majesty's Government whether they could take the initiative with a view to encouraging oil companies to approach their foreign partners when crude oil loading terminals are jointly owned abroad. I particularly have in mind here the Middle East. Could Her Majesty's Government also contact the Governments concerned so that suitable reception facilities for these residues could be provided, even if that meant special pumping facilities, in view of the fact that, especially in the Middle East, these loading terminals are a certain distance out from shore? I appreciate the fact that a number of the countries which would have to be approached have not yet ratified the Convention, but I think it has been said (although I do not know how far it is true) that it is the intention of the United States to ratify this Convention fairly soon. I trust that proves to be the case.

Another approach to the problem, which has been mentioned in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, is the importance of the education of masters and officers, particularly with a view to alleviating any pollution through carelessness or lack of knowledge. There has also been the introduction of certain regulations. In this respect I refer principally to theManual on the Avoidance of Pollution of the Sea—I believe it is already in its second edition—and the oil record book, both of which I think are a useful contribution to solving the problem. However, would the noble Lord, Lord Chasham, say whether this manual is available in a number of languages, or is it solely available in English? I think that is a point which may be of interest to foreign owners. With regard to the oil record book, I presume it is kept only by the masters of ships flying the flag of a country which has ratified the Convention; and if I understand Section 18 of the Act correctly, examination of this oil record book can be undertaken only in ships which come under the provisions of the Convention.

On the question of the pollution of our shores, which question was touched on by several noble Lords, are Her Majesty's Government satisfied that some of our refineries are not contributing to this pollution? The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, mentioned Fawley oil refinery. I should like to refer to it as well but in a different context, in that every year millions of gallons of water are poured out from this refinery, and in that water are little specks of oil.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? The noble Lord will appreciate that I did not attach any responsibility for the incident I have mentioned to the Esso Petroleum Company.


I did not wish to imply anything like that, and I am grateful to my noble Lord for his intervention. What I wish to say is that from this and other refineries great quantities of water are poured out, and in that water is a percentage of oil. I believe that, so far as Fawley is concerned, the oil content is never higher than 25 parts of oil to one million parts of water. I know the Convention states that it should not be more than 100 parts of oil to one million parts of water, which is four times as much, but—and this is the important point—in that case it is oily water which is discharged beyond the territorial waters. That is to say, it is discharged on the high seas where there is good dilution; it is not something which is discharged near the shore. What I wish to ask Her Majesty's Government, therefore, is: Does Section 4 of the Act sufficiently cover this point? Because there are several experts abroad who feel that that percentage can contribute to pollution of our shores.

With regard to Cornwall, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Dynever, I think it is interesting, and at the same time worrying, to note that a resolution was recently passed during the course of this month, I believe, by the St. Eves (Cornwall) Hotel and Boarding House Association to the effect that, in their opinion, oil pollution is increasing year by year. That is a state of affairs which affects them, and it may bear out the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that the peak has not yet been passed. In conclusion, it would seem that it is Her Majesty's Government's grave responsibility to seek international agreement on this matter, for, in the words of the Faulkner Committee's Report, at page 33, paragraph 3: As jurisdiction over ships on the high seas can be exercised only by the country of their flag, total prohibition of the discharge of persistent oils into the sea outside territorial waters can be brought about only by international agreement.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I certainly agree that my noble friend Lord Dynevor has performed a very useful service in bringing forward this Motion, and I am entirely in agreement with him that it must be good to keep this matter in all our minds. It is certainly a matter that Her Majesty's Government regard as of great importance and to which we have long wanted, and still want, to do our utmost to find a solution as soon as we can. I think that it is only fair to say that Her Majesty's Government do not require any urging in this matter, although perhaps we shall not suffer from the reminders of my noble friends Lord Merrivale and Lord Auckland in that respect, even though in the circumstances they may seem to be redundant.

My noble friend Lord Dynevor reminded us very ably of the various harmful effects of oil pollution and of the various causes, such as errors, accidents of one sort or another and even ship casualties; but basically the problem arises from the discharge into the sea of oily residues resulting from the necessary operations of cleaning the cargo tanks of tankers and of ballasting the fuel tanks of other types of ships. Crude oil, fuel oil Wand some types of diesel and lubricating oil are very persistent: perhaps I might say, virtually indestructible. If ever it was true to say that a little goes a long way, it must be so in the case of oil—and in two senses. Not only does a modest amount of oil spread over a great area of sea, but the whole may travel enormous distances before it comes to rest and pollutes somebody's sea coast. If my memory serves me right, I recall the case some years ago of an accident to a tanker somewhere in the North Sea, which resulted in a patch of oil some 600 square smiles in extent, most of which, I think, ended up on the Eastern shores of the North Sea.

As has been pointed out, since 1922, it has been an offence to discharge oil of any type into our territorial waters. I think that my noble friend Lord Merrivale may be comforted if I remind him that it is equally an offence to discharge oil from the land into territorial waters. For many years a voluntary arrangement was also observed by shipowners of this country and a number of other countries not to discharge oil within 50 miles of any coast. That worked, up to a point, until the war, but after the war the quantities of crude oil that were brought to the new refineries in this country and in Western Europe were vastly increased. The problem became much more serious and that brought about the setting up of the Faulkner Committee in 1952. Broadly, the Committee's conclusion was that there is no alternative to the total avoidance of discharge of persistent types of oil into the sea. That means that suitable separation arrangements must be made in certain types of ship, and reception facilities must be provided in ports for these oily residues. I am afraid that I have not the figures for which my noble friend Lord Merrivale asked, but I shall endeavour to get them and will write to him in clue course.

The conclusions of the Faulkner Committee were accepted by the Government of the time, and they still are. But they were also accepted and fully supported by the British shipowners, the oil companies, dock and harbour authorities, ship repairers and all the other interests concerned. The Government went promptly into action and, as your Lordships know, made arrangements to convene the international Diplomatic. Conference in 1954 to try to set up a Convention. The Conference accomplished a good deal but by no means as much as we should have liked. The International Convention which was finally adopted did not provide for total avoidance of discharge of persistent oils but only for a system of prohibited zones. These zones are extensive in the North Atlantic and the North Sea—that for tankers in the Atlantic extends for nearly 1,000 miles—but in most of the rest of the world the zones extend for only 50 miles from land.

The provisions with respect to discharges from dry-cargo ships—they ballast their fuel tanks with water as they become empty, and that water has to be tipped out at some stage—were not to take effect until three years after the Convention came into force. That meant that these provisions are not yet in force: they do not become effective until July of next year. The difficulty lies mainly in the fact that many parts of the world are not so seriously affected as Western Europe, and a number of countries were not prepared to regard the problem as really serious or to accept the urgent necessity of the proposed measures for ships and ports. But, as has been hinted several times, the most disappointing feature of all has been the slowness with which the Convention has come into operation. As my noble friend Lord Dynevor and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, mentioned, even now only 12 countries, out of the 32 who took part in the Conference and the 10 who sent observers, have ratified it.

In this country we passed legislation, the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, in 1955, and Her Majesty's Government were the first to ratify the Convention. But as it did not come into force until ten Governments had ratified it, it was July, 1958, before the Convention began to work. Her Majesty's Government have not lost any opportunity of urging other Governments of maritime countries to ratify the Convention, and it is satisfactory to be able to tell my noble friend and other noble Lords who asked that in the early part of this year the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations endorsed the President's proposal that the Convention should be ratified, even though the United States do not regard the Convention as entirely satisfactory in its present form. I understand that the necessary legislation is now being prepared. We have also recently learned that Australia and Italy hope to ratify soon, and we most earnestly hope that other countries will follow suit.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, asked what action was being taken on Resolution 7 of the Convention. A Departmental Standing Committee was set up in 1954 to keep the problem of pollution of the sea by oil under review and to make recommendations. On that Committee are representatives of interested Departments, dock and harbour authorities, oil companies and the shipping industry. The Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. James Callaghan has also been doing excellent work and has been able to contribute a good deal under what I might broadly call the terms of Resolution 7.

So far I have been talking about what the Government have been attempting to do, and I think that at this point it is only right that I should pay my tribute to the energetic support which has been given to the Government in pursuance of our aims by the shipowners, the seafarers organisations, dock and harbour authorities, oil companies and ship repairers. Shipowners not only in no way opposed the provisions of the Convention, but have also accepted under our 1955 legislation considerably more extensive "prohibited zones" in the North Atlantic and the North Sea than the Convention lays down. They accepted, too, the application of the restrictions to smaller ships not covered by the Convention; they were also willing to apply the Convention's provisions long before it came into force, and in 1958 they accepted the application throughout the world of the restrictions on discharges from dry-cargo ships which under the Convention, as I explained, are not due to come into force until July of next year.

The United Kingdom shipowners and the seafarers organisations have done all they can to help to encourage a full sense of responsibility on the part of masters and crews, and we have been able to assist them, as my noble friend Lord Merrivale pointed out, by the publication of a manual,Avoidance of Oil Pollution. That manual is in English only, for issue to British ships, but we hope that other countries will produce a similar manual for their own ships. In their turn, the dock and harbour authorities, oil companies and ship repairers have done a great deal in seeing that the necessary facilities for the reception of oily residues are available in our ports, and I think I can say to my noble friend Lord Merrivale that these facilities are adequate, because we have received no complaints whatever from shipowners as to their lack, or from those interests which have borne the cost of providing them. I should like to tell him, too, that the powers my right honourable friend has under Section 8 of the Act have never yet had to be invoked.

I do not think I should he complete in the tribute I am paying if I failed to mention the help which Her Majesty's Government have received from other interested organisations, such as local authority associations, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the International Council for Bird Preservation and many others. The interests of these bodies have been co-ordinated in a most valuable way by the Co-ordinating Advisory Committee on Prevention of Oil Pollution of the Sea, under the chairmanship of the honourable Member for Cardiff (South-East), Mr. James Callaghan. They did, indeed, organise an international conference to spur on the interests of Governments in 1953, and again in 1959 at Copenhagen, as my noble friend Lord Dynevor informed us. I should like to stress how very deserving are their efforts of the fullest praise and support. I do not know whether or not I am right, but I have the impression that my noble friend had perhaps a slight confusion between that conference and the 1954 Conference leading to the Convention, and I think it is worth saying that, valuable as their work is of course, their international conference has to be regarded as working in an unofficial capacity.

But despite all these individual and collective efforts, it is abundantly clear that the only real hope of further improvement and eventual solution lies in the field of international agreement. My noble friend inquired as to the progress of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, and I can tell him that it is already doing a good deal by approaches to Governments. But what is much more important is that its Maritime Safety Committee has endorsed a proposal to call an international conference in London in March, 1962, and it is expected that this will receive the final approval of the Assembly of the Organisation when it meets next April. I can assure your Lordships that the Government's one aim and ambition at this conference will be to complete the work which was begun in 1954; and in the meantime we earnestly hope that further Governments will not wait, but will apply the Convention as it now exists.

I was glad to hear my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, make the point that the position in regard to pollution is improving, because it is certainly our impression, from reports which we get from the Coastguard and other sources, that there has been improvement on the country's coasts over the last few years. I am speaking generally, however, and that does not mean that I would seek in any way to minimise the effects of serious outbreaks which continue to occur from time to time. We have been very unlucky this year, in particular, because there was a serious collision in the Solent in January between a Norwegian tanker and an American cargo ship which resulted in the unavoidable escape of a great deal of oil, despite the prompt and excellent countermeasures which were organised by the Southampton Harbour Board. There was also a serious accident at Milford Haven in July, again attended by prompt action, of which my noble friend told us; and there was yet a further occurrence at Fawley. I do not think that I can say any more about these as the circumstances are still the subject of formal inquiry on behalf of my right honourable friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, suggested that inspectors should supervise the loading and unloading of oil at terminal ports and quays, and I should like to look into the matter to see if there is anything in it. I do not know whether the noble Lord has thought about the implications of the change of responsibility, which is at present with the master of the ship.


Yes, I have. I would not do anything to relieve the master of any ship of his legal responsibility; but the action of factory inspectors does not relieve the employer of his statutory responsibilities.


No. I think the best thing to do is just to say that I will look at this suggestion, which is certainly an interesting one. At its face value, it appears a little impracticable, but I would rather go more deeply into it before saying that.

I believe that my noble friend Lord Dynevor was not quite correct in his reference to the collision between the oil barges on the River Severn, because I understand that in this tragic accident the oil contained in the one was consumed by the fire which occurred to the petrol in the other, and that, in fact, little or no pollution resulted from it. But it does not matter whether it did or not: the one thing that comes out of these cases is the importance and effectiveness of speedy co-operation in counter-measures by all concerned. My noble friend has already paid tribute to the extensive efforts made by the oil company concerned in both the Milford Haven and Fawley cases, and it is up to us at the Ministry of Transport, in consultation with all interested parties, to do our best to see that all the lessons learned are generally applied.

On a further point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, I am certainly under no delusion as to the unpleasantness of oil pollution on beaches for all the people, whoever they may be, who use those beaches. I can certainly think of no reason not to agree with him entirely on that point.

That leads me to the question of oil on beadles. I think we must all feel considerable sympathy for the local authorities who may find that their beaches have been affected by pollution from some source over which they have no control. At the same time, we have to remember that in a large number of cases the land between high and low-water marks is either owned outright by the local authorities or they lease it from the Crown. They are, therefore, in the usual position of owners or lessees over these foreshores, which are part of their assets, and they can take what steps they like or think fit to keen them clean. I should have thought that this would apply to the removal and disposal of oil thrown up by the sea, as it would apply to the removal of refuse and litter deposited on the beach by people who use it, or by some other means.

On the other hand, where an offence has been committed and a conviction is secured for an offence, the courts have power to apply the whole or part of the fine imposed to the expenses of those who have had to clear up the mess. Her Majesty's Government have no power whatever to contribute towards the cost of local authorities in taking remedial measures. One thing which can be done, and has been mentioned, is that my noble friend the Minister for Science has undertaken that the D.S.I.R. will investigate the need for research into methods of cleaning beaches. Of course, there is a lot of research on the part of commercial concerns who are putting a great deal of effort into such methods, and also to dispersing or otherwise dealing with oil on the sea before it arrives.

My noble friend Lord Dynevor mentioned an early warning system, and this, indeed, is something else that we can do to help. At the beginning of June this year, a deputation from the Committee of South Coast Authorities came to the Ministry of Transport and, as a matter of fact, they saw me. As a result, it has been possible to arrange such an early warning system of approaching oil patches. It is based on reports from pilots of Service aircraft and, more recently, from pilots of civil aircrafts where they are flying low enough, and, of course, on whatever information can be obtained from ships. These reports come to the Coastguard, who endeavour to plot the likely drift of oil and so warn local authorities and enable them to take whatever action they can. But I am afraid the system is too new for me to be able to give your Lordships any idea about results.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, raised the question of wrecks, and undoubtedly there must have been pollution coming from all those vessels that were sunk during the war. As the noble Lord inferred, many of them were sunk with a good deal of oil in them. But I should think that in the years immediately after the war, when, as the noble Lord knows, there was a large programme of wreck dispersal and disposal, a great deal of pollution did come from that source. But I should have thought that we were well past the peak, and it seems unlikely that they are responsible now for anything more than a very small part of the trouble.

Before I finish, I must say a word on the very difficult subject of enforcement. From September, 1956, when the 1955 Act came into operation, up to the end of 1955, there were 123 successful prosecutions for offences under the Act. That is out of a total of 134 cases brought. Most of those were brought by dock and harbour authorities in relation to offences within our territorial waters. Detection of offences on the High Seas is obviously a matter of considerable difficulty, and, even where they can be detected, offences by foreign ships outside our territorial waters cannot be dealt with under our own domestic legislation. Where we get reports of contravention we follow them up wherever possible and bring them to the attention of the Governments concerned—that is, if the offender is a Convention ship: but if the ship belongs to a non-Convention country, we can do no more than report the matter to the International Chamber of Shipping.

As I have said, we get a great deal of help from the pilots of Service and civil aircraft, and from ships, but the Ministry of Transport surveyors also take a good deal of positive action. In 1959 they visited 1,200 ships in British ports to make routine inspections or inquiries into preventive measures. I should perhaps explain, as one of my noble friends raised the point, about the oil record books. The ships inspected were both British and foreign ships, but ships of Convention countries only, because it is only Convention ships which have to carry such an oil record hook, which (I might tell your Lordships) is a very detailed book and in a form which it is not easy to "cook", if anybody has a mind to do so.

I have spoken mostly about the past and the present, and now I come to the future. In making preparations for the forthcoming international conference, Her Majesty's Government will do the best they can to secure its success. They will continue their studies of the practical and scientific problems involved and will welcome the co-operation of all those many and willing interests who may be able to contribute to their solution. The measures which we regard as right are relatively simple and straightforward and, in our view, the cost is not excessive. The task seems to me largely to be one of mobilising public opinion in all the maritime countries. Her Majesty's Government have sought throughout to give a lead, and in this we know we have the full support of British maritime interests and of the British public, and we shall seek to justify that support to the full.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, for the very full reply he has been able to give to the points raised in this debate, and tell him how grateful I am for the trouble he has taken? I should also like to thank other noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the noble Lord on the Front Opposition Bench for the generous terms in which he supported my Motion. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.