HL Deb 28 June 1963 vol 251 cc503-12

3.30 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, perhaps, after the controversies of the Bill we have just been considering, your Lordships will be relieved to come to a Bill which is concerned with the pouring of oil on waters. This is a Private Member's Bill introduced in another place by Mr. H. A. Price, the Member for Lewisham, West. It is a short Bill, but I hope to show your Lordships that it is none the less important in trying to make further progress in preventing the pollution of our beaches by oil.

I am sure I have no need to dwell on the seriousness of the problem. Many of your Lordships will have had the personal unfortunate experience of being covered in oil on our beaches; but, even if you have not, you will be aware of the seriousness with which this problem is viewed by British holiday resorts and the tourist industry; not to mention the amount of destruction and damage caused to wild life, to birds in particular, but also, possibly, to fish. The problem has tended to increase since the war as the quantity of crude oil carried by sea to new refineries in this country and the Continent has steadily increased. We in the United Kingdom have suffered particularly badly because of the heavy concentration of British and foreign shipping around our coasts and also owing to the fact that the Atlantic currents may bring oil over great distances to our shores. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the ultimate objective must be to prevent the release of oil in any way into the sea by any ship at any time; but this has necessarily to be the subject for international negotiations and we can proceed only by stages. I hope to be able to show noble Lords that this Bill represents a significant step forward to the ultimate objective.

The problem arises because of the practical needs of shipping. The cargo-carrying tanks of the oil-tanker require to be cleaned and freed from oil residue after the cargo has been discharged. This is a lengthy process and must be carried out before the ship arrives at an oil-loading port or before entering port for repair or survey. Moreover, when not carrying cargo, the tankers need to ballast some of their cargo-tanks with sea-water to ensure stability. On discharging this ballast, oil remaining in the tanks is discharged at the same time. A separate but equally important aspect arises in the case of ships, other than tankers, which are burning fuel oil. The bunker tanks from which the fuel has been used must be ballasted with seawater in order to maintain stability. This ballast water becomes considerably contaminated with oil and often has to be retained until arrival within sheltered waters, or even within port areas, in the interests of safety.

The solution is two-fold. So far as tankers are concerned, it involves the retention of tank washings, oily residues and oil-contaminated ballast water in a slop tank where, after a period of settling, separation of oil and water can take place and most of the oil-free water can be discharged overboard. The balance must be retained on board and pumped ashore at oil-loading ports or tanker repair ports. Secondly, as regards non-tankers, it is necessary to install oily water separaters on the ship to ensure that only clean water is pumped into the sea; and also to provide installations in ports to receive the residues remaining after the separation of the water.

It is satisfactory for many years that the United Kingdom has been in the forefront of this struggle to achieve the ultimate object. In 1952 the situation around our coasts had become so serious that the Minister of Transport set up a Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. P. Faulkner to consider what practical measures can be taken to prevent pollution by oil of the waters around the coasts of the United Kingdom. The Committee reported in 1953 and, in accordance with its recommendations, an international conference was convened by Her Majesty's Government and met in London in April-May, 1954. It was attended by representatives of 42 nations and resulted in the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954.

The Convention's recommendations were accepted by Her Majesty's Government and were incorporated in the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955, by which this country became the first to ratify the Convention. That Act designated certain prohibited sea areas in which it was an offence to discharge oil. It stipulated the keeping of records relating to the discharge of oil, and laid down considerable penalties for the infringement of its provisions. The Convention also provided that, when the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation came into being, it should act as a central co-ordinating body, and it was this body, the I.M.C.O., which convened a further conference in March-April, 1962.

This second conference was attended by 55 countries, and prepared a list of amendments to the 1954 Convention, which represented a series of further useful steps towards total prohibition. And this Bill, to which I am inviting your Lordships to give a Second Reading, is to put into effect those amendments agreed by the 1962 Convention and so enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify them. They will come into force twelve months after their acceptance by two-thirds of the contracting Governments. Unfortunately, on this occasion the United Kingdom will not be the first to ratify, as these amendments have already been ratified by France, Poland and Sweden, and I understand that the necessary legislative steps are being taken in the U.S.A. and the Federal Republic of Germany. At the same time, it is important that this country, as one of the leading maritime Powers, should ratify the amendments as soon as possible, and give an encouraging lead to other countries to follow suit.

I should like now to refer to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1, relating to the sea areas in which the release of oil is prohibited, eliminates the distinction between tankers and other ships which was made in the 1955 Act. In that Act, the prohibited sea areas were larger for tankers than for non-tankers, but, as I have already explained, the problem applies to other than tankers, and it is an advantage that these prohibited sea areas should apply to all ships. Under the 1955 Act, the areas concerned may be varied by the Minister in order to meet the provisions of any subsequent international Convention, and the enlarged prohibited area recommended by the 1962 Convention can, and will, be put into effect by the Minister without need for further legislation. One of these prohibited areas, which is of most immediate concern to the United Kingdom and which, when this Bill comes into effect, will apply to all Conventions on shipping, extends some 1,000 miles westward into the Atlantic from Iceland, in the North, to Cape Finisterre, in the South, including the whole of the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Channel and the Baltic Sea.

Clause 2 of the Bill is an entirely new departure and a significant step forward towards total abolition of the release of oil at sea. It makes it an offence for any United Kingdom-registered ship of 20,000 gross tons or more, for which the building contract is placed on or after the day on which this clause becomes effective, to discharge persistent oil anywhere at sea. Underlying this provision is the idea that ships of over 20,000 tons built in the future should include arrangements for the retention of oil separated from water in tank washings, oily ballast water and oily residues, so that clean water only is discharged at sea and oily waste is subsequently deposited on arrival at port.

The Bill recognises, as did the Convention, that there may be special circumstances which make it impracticable or unreasonable to retain the oil or oily mixture in the ship, and in such cases the master is allowed to exercise his discretion, provided he reports the fact to the Minister. This early discretion allowed to the master of a ship applies only outside the prohibited areas specified for other ships.

Clause 3 relates to the Schedules to the Bill and covers three minor amendments to the 1955 Act. The first is to define more clearly what is meant by pollution. In the 1955 Act the words used were: with the consequence that the oil in the mixture fouls the surface of the sea". The effect of this amendment is to remove all reference to fouling the surface of the sea and to prohibit the discharge of an oily mixture containing 100 parts or more of oil in one million parts of the mixture. The second relates to the defences provided under the 1955 Act in respect of the discharge of oil in a prohibited zone. The 1955 Act allowed as a defence the proof that the discharge of an oily mixture was made in order to secure the safety of a vessel or her cargo. This is enlarged by this Bill to include the safety of any other vessel or her cargo. Thirdly, the 1955 Act applied only to ships registered in the United Kingdom, but in accordance with the recommendations of the 1962 Convention this is now extended to include unregistered ships of British nationality. Naval ships are still excluded, as they were in the 1955 Act, but the provisions of the Bill will now apply to other Government ships, such as G.P.O. cable-layers and Air Ministry weather ships.

Clause 4 extends the Bill to cover Northern Ireland, and provides that the Minister may bring into operation any part or the whole of the Bill at any time by order. The reason for this is to ensure that, as the amendments to the 1954 Convention are accepted by two-thirds of the contracting Governments, they may be brought into force twelve months later in the United Kingdom, as provided by the Convention. My Lords, there is still a long way to go before the ultimate ideal of total prohibition of pollution of the sea by oil is achieved, but in the meantime I can warmly recommend this Bill to your Lordships as a significant step forward, backed by international agreement. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Aberdare.)

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Mabane, who is Chairman of the British Travel and Holidays Association, has asked me to apologise for his not being here; he had to leave at half-past two. He has asked me to say how enthusiastic his Association is in supporting this Bill. Personally, I remember querying along the Mediterranean coast last year why all the local Italian inhabitants swam in the swimming pool within a yard of the sea while the English folk swam out to sea, until we realised the oil and bilge pouring in from the ships stopping at Naples, and also, I think, from the drains coming out from the city. He asked me to mention one further point, and that is that he understands from experts that some of the causes of the trouble are ships sunk in the war that are now discharging oil from the depths. I am sure the Minister will take note of this point.

I have also been asked, as representating the Fauna Preservation Society, of which I am Chairman, and the World Wild Life Fund, to express our gratitude for this Bill. Also I think we should remember the tremendous propaganda and hard work put in by Mr. Callaghan in another place over the years to stop pollution, especially as it affects wild life and birds. It seems strange that in the last ten years the human race seems determined to destroy, not only themselves, but everything of beauty. Anything that this Bill can do to make oil pollution better in the seas around us has the wholehearted support of this Society.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I was a member of our Government's delegation, both at the earlier international meeting and at that held last year. I am very glad to hear that we are now taking steps which will enable our Government to ratify a new Convention. The alterations made some material improvements in the old agreement, some of them of very direct interest to this country. As one who took a part in these proceedings and has in many respect a great interest in its subject matter, and more particularly having been for so many years associated with the Ministry of Transport and shipping, I cannot but regret that on this occasion our Government has not been able to be the first in the field. France, Poland and Sweden have on this occasion got ahead of us. But I think it is only right to say how much all those concerned with the protection of our bird life are grateful to the Government for the assistance they have always given to advancing some means of coping with this evil, not only in the international Convention itself, but behind the scenes in the drafting of this measure.

There is one point I should like to raise to which the noble Lord who will speak on behalf of the Government may or may not be able to give some answer. The crux of the whole matter, as was said by the noble Lord who introduced the Bill so clearly, is how to get rid of the oil which can be separated on board ship in washing out the tanks, or whatever other methods may be adopted. The disappointment I think we have all felt during the last ten years is that so little progress has been made in most countries of the world in providing the shore facilities to which the separated oil can be discharged. But, of course, there is another method, and that is to retain the separated oil on board ship and put it back into the holds with the new cargo. I should not wish to ask any question or say anything which might impair progress of negotiations, but I would say that to my own knowledge our own ship-owners and oil companies have taken the most progressive and enlightened views of these matters. I believe it is quite practicable, having separated the oil, to put it back and bring it again into the country as part of the new cargo. The great difficulty is that some authorities abroad insist on charging dues on the separated oil, so that the owner of the oil and the ship are subject to a financial disability. There may be means of getting over that.

As I have said, I do not want to ask any question or make any point which could possibly embarrass negotiations. But that is the real, new and hopeful line of approach: to avoid the cost of having to put facilities on shore (which in some cases is not at all easy) for the reception of the separated oil, and to merge it in with the cargo and use it again, which I believe to be in the long run both the economical thing to do and also the real way of keeping the oil out of the sea. I should again like to give my strong support to the Bill, and hope that the Government will lose no time in ratification, once they are empowered to do so by the passage of this Bill.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, may I say a word or two on behalf of this side of the House to thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for introducing this Bill and to assure him that it has our support? We hope it will have a speedy passage through all its stages. May I add that, like other noble Lords, I have the honour to be one of the vice-presidents of the River Boards Association, and I am in a position to say that that Association is strongly in favour of the Bill. The River Boards Association, representative of the river boards of our country, has a mass of evidence which is convincing as to the need for this Bill, and I am sure that when it reaches the Statute Book and becomes an Act the separate river boards will do all that they can to see that the Act and its provisions are effective. Again, I should like to congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for bringing forward this Bill.


My Lords, I should like to make the briefest of interventions in this debate in order to give warm support to this Bill. For a number of years now the Co-ordinating Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea has been campaigning in this country and abroad to secure in due course, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, told us, the total prohibition of the discharge of oil and oily wastes into the sea. The Association of Municipal Corporations have been in deep sympathy with this work, and this Bill of course has their warmest support. They, of course, are particularly concerned with eliminating or reducing to a minimum the contamination by oil of beaches and coastal works. This matter has become not merely a nuisance but a menace to their position and prosperity; and, naturally, they are anxious that this Bill should become law as soon as possible, again as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has emphasised, as just a further step towards the ultimate goal which is total prohibition.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, having regard to what your Lordships have said generally on this matter, I hasten to assure your Lordships that the Government give their full support and welcome to this Bill, and I should certainly like to take the opportunity of expressing my thanks to my noble friend Lord Aberdare for having introduced it as he has done to your Lordships today. It seems to be generally recognised as important that it brings us a further step towards the stage when the discharge of oil into the sea, heedless of the consequences, on which I need not expatiate beyond what my noble friend has said, will cease. Of course it is perfectly right that the Bill is needed in order to give effect to amendments that were made to the 1954 International Convention by the Conference which met in this country last year.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, regretted that we had been slower than some Governments to accept it. I hope that he did not mean to be chiding in that respect, because I do not think that after a period that is only a little over a year the Government can really be described as being slow.


My Lords, I was not seeking to chide Her Majesty's Government at all, but merely to regret that on this occasion we were not first, as we were before.


Of course, I share the noble Lord's regret in that respect, but I am unable, without actually making a constitutional study regarding the other countries, to say offhand whether their legislation permitted them more easily to accept the amendments than is the case with us. Be that as it may, we cannot formally accept the amendments until the existing legislation is modified to give them legislative effect. I might point out that, for the future, the Bill takes opportunity, I notice, to extend certain of the Minister's powers under the 1955 Act so that provision can be made for the easier acceptance of future measures as and when they are agreed internationally, and possibly even to avoid the position which the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, now regrets.

The noble Marquess, Lord Willingdon, mentioned wrecks, which, undoubtedly give rise to pollution. There is really little that can be done about it, from the very nature of the problem, and also from the fact that many of them lie in very deep water. I suppose we can at least derive a little comfort from the fact that that must be a diminishing problem over the years, as the war recedes.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, mentioned retaining or re-separating residues and using them again, which I understand is a matter of some technical difficulty. I can assure him, though, that my information is that work is proceeding to try to develop the system he mentioned, although it is not proving as easy as is sometimes thought. In the same way progress is also going ahead—whether or not it is fast enough to satisfy the noble Lord I do not know—to provide facilities for discharging it in ports in countries which have accepted the Convention. With that, I have no more to say except that the Bill does have our sincere welcome and full backing, and I can assure your Lordships that it is the Government's intention to accept these Amendments as soon as the Bill receives the Royal Assent.


My Lords, I should like to thank, most warmly, those of your Lordships who have so kindly supported this Bill, as indeed all of you have. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Chesham for giving it Government support, and to the noble Lord, Lord Burden, for speaking on behalf of the Bill from the other side of the House. May I also refer particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, who has himself played such a significant part in bringing these provisions into effect as a member of both international conferences? I would thank all your Lordships for the kindness shown to this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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