HL Deb 25 February 1971 vol 315 cc1171-4

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Bill, has consented to place Her interest, so far as it is concerned on behalf of the Crown, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Drumalbyn.)


My Lords, the shortness of the noble Lord's remarks make me wonder whether he is even going to say "goodbye" to the Bill, like a certain famous Naval officer under training who was too tongue-tied to order his squad to "about turn" on the Quarter Deck, and who said, "Good God, Your Majesty, aren't you even going to say goodbye to the poor fellows?".

There are one or two things I should like to say about this Bill which I hope the House will not take as any criticism of the Government for having introduced it, or indeed in any way derogating from our approval on this side of the House of the general outlines of the Bill. We raised two points at Report stage and the noble Lord was then good enough to say that he would have another look at them. I would dearly like to know whether he has had another look at them and, if so, what his look revealed to him.

One was the question of taking the precise level of liability out of the fine and putting it in regulations, for which I advanced three separate reasons. The noble Lord was going to look at that point and we should like to know the result. I must say that the presently prevailing silence gives me, at least, the impression that the Government have not the least intention of doing anything about pressing on towards the next Convention which is going to enshrine in international law the present voluntary arrangements under CRISTAL in exactly the same way as the Convention to which this Bill gives force enshrines in international law the earlier and voluntary arrangements under TOVALOF. Can it really be true that the Government are going to do nothing about that? If not, why have they not told us what they are going to do about it?

On the second point we raised, the noble Lord undertook also to re-examine the possibility of using the power of certification which this Bill gives the Government to induce countries to sign the Convention and to induce shipowners to register their ships in Convention countries. The noble Lord said that he would re-examine it, but his silence makes me assume once again that the Government have not the least intention of using these new powers to get other countries to join the Convention or to get shipowners to register in Convention countries. If the Government have no intention of using the powers to that end, what on earth do they want them for? Does it really mean that the Government are going to give a certificate to any ship wherever registered and wherever insured, without any examination by the Government? If not, what do the Government plan to do with these very extensive new powers which Parliament is giving them?


My Lords, it is not often that I am encouraged to make speeches in this House. It is the case, as the noble Lord said, that these two points were put to me at the previous stage of the Bill and I undertook to look into them. I have in fact looked into them and I shall try to reply to the points that he has made.

If the actual sums of liability were removed from Clause 4 of the Bill and stated instead in regulations, then when the amount of the liability came to be increased in future—for example, to the 30 million dollars provided by the CRISTAL fund—it would of course not be necessary to bring in further legislation. That was the first point made by the noble Lord. The point which we particularly discussed at the last stage of the Bill was whether the intention of the Government to go ahead and make further provision in conjunction with other countries for a compensation fund over and above the owners' liability would affect the situation. The noble Lord seemed to think that because of what is known as the CRISTAL fund it would be possible at some given point to raise the whole of the liability that we are talking about in this Bill to a higher amount. I can assure him that a draft Convention is being prepared by the IMCO Legal Committee under which importers of oil would contribute to an international fund to provide compensation over and above the limits of the 1969 Convention. I cannot say when that drafting will be completed, or when a conference will meet to do it. It is hoped that this work can be completed before long and that a conference will take place before the end of the year. As I said before, this may be a little too optimistic. I think I gave this information to the noble Lord before.


My Lords, the noble Lord is perfectly right. But by whom is it hoped? Is it hoped by the noble Lord? It is hoped by me.


My Lords, it is hoped by the noble Lord and it is also hoped by me. I have been given reasons for hoping and it is this hope that I am transmitting to your Lordships. It has to be clearly understood that this would be a different fund—it is not the same fund—and it would not be affected by the terms of Clause 4 at the present time.

So far as the fixing of liabilities by Statutory Instrument is concerned, we can see no possibility that the limits of liability will be changed, as I told the noble Lord before, except where further legislation is in any event necessary, for example to ratify a Convention on the fund. So the removal of the amounts from the Bill would in fact serve no purpose.

With regard to certification—this is the certification that a loaded tanker coming to ports in this country is covered by insurance sufficient to cover the owner's liability—the noble Lord asked 'whether it was the intention under Clause 10 of the Bill, subsections (3) and (4), I think he said, to give a certificate to any ship. I should have thought that the words of Clause 11 indicate that that was very far from being the intention of the Government. Subsection (2) says: If the Secretary of State is of opinion that there is a doubt whether the person providing the insurance or other security will be able to meet his obligations thereunder, or whether the insurance or other security will cover the owner's liability under section 1 of this Act in all circumstances, he may refuse the certificate. As Clause 10 stands at the moment, a ship registered in a non-Convention country must have, a certificate issued by the Secretary of State or a certificate recognised for the purposes of this paragraph by regulations made under this section". Subsection (4) then goes on to say what the particular regulations would specify.

Of course it must be the case that in making these regulations the Secretary of State will have regard to the interest of this country in ensuring that every tanker that comes to this country is covered by a certificate which is worth while; in other words, that those who have given the certificate know or can be trusted to find out, that the insurance cover which is certified is valid and good. I cannot at this moment tell the noble Lord exactly how the Secretary of State will exercise his powers to make regulations, but he will certainly have regard all the time to the interests of this country in seeing that every tanker that comes to our ports will be covered by a certificate which is really worth while; in other words, it will be backed by proper insurance cover.

As to ships passing by the shores of this country, the hope is, of course, that all the countries around the North Sea, for example, will also ratify the Convention; and it is equally in their interest to do so in order that they may get the cover provided for in the Bill against the risk of oil pollution on their shores.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.