HL Deb 25 October 1972 vol 335 cc2224-38

[No. 59]

Clause 40, page 24, line 23, at end insert—

("(2) So far as is practicable Works Nos. 3 and 4 shall be buried in the sea-bed.")

6.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that Commons Amendment No. 59 be agreed to.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said Amendment.—(The Earl of Lauderdale.)


My Lords, I beg to move, as an Amendment in lieu of the Commons Amendment, to leave out the words: So far as is practicable". I am saying that the Commons Amendment should read: Works Nos. 3 and 4 shall be buried in the sea-bed. I move this Amendment in lieu of the Commons Amendment for two reasons. The first is because the Commons Amendment was, I understand, passed by mistake. The honourable Member concerned meant to move an Amendment such as I am now proposing to your Lordships. He wanted the matter stated in its full rigour. It was suggested to him that perhaps this was impracticable, and he drafted another Amendment. In the confusion the second Amendment, the one he wished to move, was not moved and the Amendment about which he was in doubt was moved, with the result that the Commons Amendment which is before your Lordships reads: So far as is practicable Works Nos. 3 and 4 shall be buried in the sea-bed. I am therefore proposing that the opening words should be deleted.

The second reason why I move this Amendment in lieu is that the Commons Amendment was moved only because the question whether pipelines should be buried beneath the sea or merely laid on the sea-bed was not properly discussed in Committee, with the result that the Amendment was moved on Report stage. I think that the promoters of this Bill owe some sort of an explanation of why this Amendment, and the reasons why the oil pipelines should be buried beneath the sea-bed, was not fully discussed at the Committee stage.

My Lords, at all stages up to the Commons Committee hearing, the promoters had expressed the firm intention of burying the pipelines. For that reason the petitioners say that the question of pipelines was not part of their case against the Bill. It became apparent to the petitioners against the Bill in the course of the Committee stage that the promoters were changing their minds, and that whereas they had firmly expressed the view that they would be burying the pipelines beneath the bed of the sea they now had some doubts about it. That put the petitioners against the Bill in a difficult position. They had said nothing in their Petition as to the question of where the pipelines should be; therefore it was difficult for them to bring it up at the Committee stage. They could do so only if they could get the promoters of the Bill to introduce evidence concerning oil pipelines, and this they several times attempted to do. The promoters did not accept the suggestion that they should produce expert evidence with regard to the laying of oil pipelines.


My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend would allow me to interrupt. I have been looking through the reports of the public inquiry and also of the Select Committee and I have not been able to find at any point that a request was made to the company to produce evidence as to the pros and cons of burying a pipeline or leaving it on the surface of the sea-bed. I should be grateful if my noble friend would draw my attention to the passage in the report of either the public inquiry or the Select Committee where this request was made and declined.


My Lords, at the local public inquiry before the meeting in, I think, 1971, the promoters in fact said in terms that pipelines should be buried beneath the sea-bed. Also I believe I am right in saying that at an earlier date in a committee dealing with oil pollution they said the same thing. So the position was that the petitioners up to the time of putting in their Petition were under the impression, in perfectly good faith, that the promoters intended to put the pipelines beneath the sea-bed. With regard to the second part of my noble friend's question, I am advised that the petitioners applied to the Chairman of the Select Committee for permission to debate this issue and that it was turned down. I am advised that they asked for it three times. I will try to find chapter and verse for my noble friend, but the fact remains that the petitioners were under the impression that this was an issue which was already decided and that therefore they need not deal with it in their Petition against the Bill. It is possible that the petitioners were wrong—I am not arguing that point; I am arguing that the petitioners were under the impression that they were right in this issue and therefore had nothing further to do. Having found, in fact, that the case was not so, they then attempted to put it right and failed. What this means is that at the Committee stage the petitioners were effectively blocked from scrutinising the promoters' intentions with regard to the pipelines.

Now, my Lords, how binding are statements made by developers before an inquiry? Statements of this sort may induce a planning authority to accept a development or not to accept a development, and obviously they have a considerable bearing upon the conditions under which development is allowed. It seems to me that the promoters ought to say—and I hope that i shall have a satisfactory answer from the noble Earl who is in charge of this Bill—first of all why they expressed the firm intention in the first place, or at any rate, if I am wrong here, why they gave the impression of expressing the firm intention, that they would bury the pipelines, if they in fact knew that there were difficulties in doing this. Secondly I want to know, and I think I am entitled to an answer, why the promoters were unwilling to let the matter be examined at the Select Committee in the House of Commons, because it is quite clear to me that they were unwilling and that the petitioners were effectively blocked from demanding that scrutiny. It is not enough to say that they had no need to produce evidence about pipelines in the Committee on the grounds that the petitioners had not put it into their case against the Bill. As I have said, the petitioners—whether they were right or wrong—did not put it into their case against the Bill because they had accepted in good faith the promoters' expressed intentions. And, thirdly, I want to know from the noble Earl whether, having said all that, they would now be prepared to accept my Amendment, and if not, why not?


The original Question was that the House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 59, since when the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has moved an Amendment in lieu of the Commons Amendment as follows: Page 24, line 23, "(2) Works Nos. 3 and 4 shall be buried in the sea-bed.

The Question is that the proposed Amendment in lieu be agreed to.


My Lords, may I just say a word or two further in support of the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. Your Lordships should be aware that what we are discussing is four pipelines from the single buoy mooring to the shore, each of which will be some two miles long and each of which, as I am advised, is likely at any one moment of time to contain roughly 2,000 tons of crude oil. In the evidence at the local public inquiry in October, 1971, it was stated that these pipelines would be laid below the level of the sea-bed, and later that they would be positioned in the seabed. This would be taken to mean that they would be either buried or trenched. But, after the matter was considered in another place, I am told that the company concerned, Shell, invited tenders on terms which did not in fact provide for either trenching or burial for the entire length of the distance between the buoy and the shore. I am told also that the reason why the petitioners are so much concerned about this matter is that they believe that there can be a genuine danger of pollution if the pipelines are not in some way protected—if they are simply laid upon the bed of the sea. The reasons which they give are that it is possible that owing to the force of the currents at that point in the neighbourhood of Amlwch—the currents which move across the pipelines—there may be erosion of the sea-bed in certain parts, and that this may lead to fracture or to some leakage or seepage from the pipe. They quote, in support of this, experience which another oil company, British Petroleum, has had in the North Sea, where they have decided to bury their pipes to a depth of at least six feet.

We are perfectly aware, of course, that the geological conditions off the coast of Anglesey and in the North Sea are different, and that the developers of this installation might be put to considerably greater expense in the geological conditions off the coast of Anglesey than in the softer types of rock which prevail in the sea-bed of the North Sea. But that does not necessarily, it seems to me, reduce the risk. The other possible risk, so I understand, is that maintenance vessels or other shipping, in some emergency particularly, perhaps in a storm, might drop anchor, and that this might in some way interfere with the pipeline. I am not myself in any way technically knowledgeable in these matters. I cannot judge the seriousness of these objections. But I am very much concerned, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was, that for various reasons these points were not adequately discussed either by the Committee which examined the Bill on our behalf in this House or by the other place.

While I should make it clear that I do not wish to delay any further the passage of this Bill—it has taken a fairly long time as it is to pass through both Houses—in the light of the anxiety expressed by the petitioners and the fact that the matter was not adequately discussed in either House on previous occasions, I think we are entitled to receive from those who are sponsoring this Bill a full explanation of how Shell propose to deal with this pipeline matter. The only explanation we have had so far is that after the legislation has been enacted there will be some negotiation between the company and the Department of Trade and Industry, but this does not bring complete confidence to the minds either of the petitioners or, quite frankly, of some of us. Inquiries of the Department of Trade and Industry elicit the fact that the officials there concerned with these matters cannot recall any occasion on which they have asked for any alteration in the arrangements made for pipelines on or under the sea-bed, and it appears to us that it is extremely unlikely that if a powerful company like Shell says, "This is how we wish to arrange these matters", the Department of Trade and Industry will really stand up to them. After all, we are realistic in this House; we know how these things are done. Unless there are very strong reasons indeed against it, a company of the size of Shell is very apt to get its own way. That is why we are worried that there seems to have been no real compulsion on the company to carry out what was understood to be its undertaking, which was to bury or trench these pipelines; or, if they find, for example, for geological reasons as opposed to any financial consideration, that it is really extremely difficult to do what they originally intended to do, then at least, it seems to me, they are under a moral obligation to tell the public just why they are unable to carry out what we certainly believed to be their original undertaking. It is for these reasons that I think the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was entirely right to put down his Amendment, even at this very late stage, and I hope we shall have an adequate explanation.


My Lords, whether as a non-technical person, can give an adequate explanation I do not know.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Earl for a moment? I do not want a technical explanation. I said to your Lordships that I was not really discussing this technical aspect. What I am saying is that I object to the fact that the technical aspects were not discussed in Committee.


My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, I should like a technical explanation. It is precisely on that matter that I am worried. If I were entirely satisfied that there is no reason for them, then, although I would regret the failure to discuss this fully at an earlier stage, my anxieties, which are considerable at the moment, might be put at rest. I should very much like a convincing technical explanation on the Record.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady White, is at all times difficult to resist, even at this distance across the Floor of the Chamber. All I can do is do my best to provide the really full explanation that she has asked for. Whether it will be technical enough for her purpose or political enough for the purpose of the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches, I cannot tell. All I can say is that I will do my best, having had a quick look at this matter since lunch time, when I first heard that this Amendment was going to be moved. I should like again to say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his courtesy, not only in mentioning to me personally but writing afterwards to say that this Amendment was going to be moved and explaining briefly what it was about.

I have not had time to examine at all the proceedings in another place, but the Amendment, as I understand it, as moved by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, would have the effect of deleting the phrase "so far as is practicable" which was in the Amendment incorporated in the Bill in another place on the Motion of Mr. Farr. I believe it is the fact, and I will accept it in any case from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that there was some confusion procedurally on the Report stage in another place, in that I believe that Mr. Farr had two Amendments in his hand and he drew the wrong one out of the hat, and that Amendment having got through, the right honourable gentleman in the Chair could not accept a second Amendment on the same subject. I understand Mr. Farr then found himself saddled with an Amendment which was not really the one he would have preferred, but that I cannot really comment on in any detail.

Dealing first with the matter of engineering, I was surprised to hear the noble Baroness say that tenders have gone out. Well, if they have, I must say it is news to me, because my own information—and I am no closer to Shell than the noble Baroness is, except that I have 200 shares—is that feasibility studies as to the best way of putting the pipe under the seabed are still in progress. The seabed varies, as I understand, between rock, which could probably be blasted or might even be tunnelled, and soft material of a roughly sandy or clayish variety which is often, if not commonly, at any rate in the North Sea, trenched by various means, including a high pressure underwater jet from something called a bury-barge. But the point is that feasibility studies are proceeding as to the best way of putting the pipe under the seabed at a safe distance from danger of corrosion, danger of erosion of the seabed—and therefore the pipe, as happened to B.P. in the North Sea, being left, as it were, between sandbanks—and against the danger of being caught by an anchor. Studies of how, and as to the best way, to put it deep enough to avoid those hazards are still, I understand, in progress.

I confess frankly to your Lordships, and in particular to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that as a matter of fact there seems to have been some genuine misunderstanding about this, in which I must say I shared, because when we discussed this Bill last February on Third Reading, I must say my own impression was that the intention was to tunnel, but I had not then gone into the question in any detail. I think at that point feasibility studies were at such a preliminary stage that nobody could know what was going to be the best way of achieving this object. The point here, as so often happens in major sophisticated engineering projects, is that the best way of doing a particular job which everybody wants has not yet been technically determined. There are various alternatives. It might be that there is trenching at one point and blasting at another, or whatever, and the technical studies on exactly how to do it are still going on. However, I think I am in a position, albeit no part of the Shell organisation, but having accepted their invitation to try to help this Bill through, to say, first of all, that Shell intend absolutely that it shall be under the seabed. Indeed, the very hazards to which the noble Baroness drew attention, and which have been experienced by B.P. and others in the North Sea, dictate that, whatever the conservationists might require. That is the first thing. I understand absolutely that this is the intention, although the best way of accomplishing it has yet, in engineering terms, to be decided.

The second point is that the noble Baroness referred to some negotiations with the Department of Trade and Industry, and it may be that I can help a little on this point. I understand, and I am advised, that it is invariably the case—not just commonly but invariably—that where marine works are proposed the D.T.I. (as the Department is now called) not only require absolutely to be consulted but must give their approval before such works are undertaken. That position is safeguarded in what is now numbered Clause 52. Such tidal works must have the approval of the D.T.I., who themselves must have in mind the same considerations as the rest of us: that the one thing one does not want is to have a spillage arising from corrosion, erosion or accident. One does not want waste; one does not want loss of power. There is every reason for preventing these.

The D.T.I. have an interest, and their engineers have an interest, in being satisfied that whatever is finally proposed by Shell is in fact safe and sound.

The noble Baroness referred to negotiations with the D.T.I., and she said, with an overtone that I am bound to say surprised me, though I do not propose to pursue this aspect, "Oh, we know what happens when great companies deal with Ministries in Whitehall", or words to that effect. As I say, I do not propose to pursue that aspect because I am quite sure that no disagreeable overtones were intended—indeed, if I may say so with respect, the noble Baroness is not capable of disagreeable overtones. As for the D.T.I.'s powers, the Minister, speaking in the other place for the D.T.I., Mr. Peter Emery, did say that he was wholly satisfied with the powers which the D.T.I. have under this Bill in Clause 52.

The question then arises, if all that is so, if the assurances that I have endeavoured to give—and I give them to the best of my knowledge and ability, and sincerely, after making the inquiries that I have—are genuine, why on earth should the words, "so far as practicable" find their way in, because surely they are superfluous? Either the pipe-lines are put on the sea-bed, or they are not. All I can say about that is that those were the words that Mr. Farr himself chose; and not only were they acceptable to him, since he drafted them, but they were accepted by another place. I would only say that had they been my words, which I do not think they would ever have been, if I were called on later to justify them, which I am not attempting to do because I am not responsible for Mr. Farr's Amendment in any narrow sense, I should attempt to do so by saying that at the end of the line, at some point, it has to leave the sea-bed in order to reach the S.B.M. If words "so far as practicable" have any meaning at all, which I doubt, they must relate to the point at which the hose, or hoses, or pipe, will leave the sea-bed and come up to the S.H.M. But there again, not only are the design, the execution of the work, the certification at the end that it is satisfactory all under the control of a Government Department, but that Government Department is represented in both Houses of Parliament. It can be called to account in either House of Parliament. It can be questioned day after day, week after week, by noble Lords and noble Baronesses in this House, and by honourable gentlemen and ladies, and right honourable gentlemen and ladies, in the other place at any time they like. So the assurance of D.T.I. supervision would surely cover anything that is left out or not properly covered.

I must apologise that I cannot give a fuller explanation that I have done, because I found that there were 105 Amendments which I must try to learn about. Being a slow reader I found this pretty heavy going, and I have had little opportunity to slake my thirst since lunchtime. May I just mention one or two other points that were made, first of all by the noble Lord, Lord Henley? He said that Mr. Farr's Amendment had been put down, or accepted, by mistake. Well that I do not know, and I do not really think that it is becoming to your Lordships' House, having handled this Bill earlier, to investigate in any critical sense (shall I say?) the way another House conducts its affairs. As to whether there was improper, or inadequate, discussion in Committee there, I think the same point applies. As to how binding is the developer's statement at the public inquiry (this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and in general terms is a very valid one: it arises over and over again in other cases), I believe that is adequately covered by the sanctions, if you will, control powers, that are vested in the D.T.I by Clause 52 of the Bill.

I do not know whether there are any other points that have been made that require answering, but I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, whose interest I know is entirely altruistic, and who wants merely to make sure that the public interest is best safeguarded in this matter—and this is the object also of the noble Baroness opposite—may find it possible not to press his Amendment in lieu and to accept the Commons Amendment. It is only fair to point out that if an Amendment were carried in this House to an Amendment that is sent up from another place, the consequences in Parliamentary terms would not be little. The whole procedure of Private Bills in Parliament rests on an understanding between the two Houses that neither interferes with the Amendments of the other. Although I have said that I personally do not care either way for these words, I must say to the House that if the noble Lord sought to press his Amendment, and if by any chance his Amendment to the Commons Amendment were carried, the effect could only be to take the Bill back to another place, certainly to delay it, and possibly even destroy it. I know that that too would not be at all what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness would wish to see, because I accept that they raise this matter purely in the public interest. I hope that what I have said may be sufficient to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to perhaps withdraw his Amendment.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to make just one remark. I came here a little uneasy about the wording of the Amendment, but after listening to the noble Earl I should like to say that he has satisfied my doubts in the matter. The words "so far as is practicable" seem to me, as they obviously seem to him, to be quite unnecessary, because if a thing is impracticable then obviously it cannot be done. So the words just seemed quite redundant here. If, on the other hand, the words mean what he suggests—and I hope that he is right—and simply refer to that part of the line where necessarily the line must come away from the sea-bed, then clearly this is quite reasonable and I personally should feel satisfied with the matter. I am glad that the noble Earl was able to give us this careful explanation, and I would merely say that I now remain satisfied.

7.0 p.m.


My Lords, may I say one word and, in doing so, first declare an interest as the holder of a small number of Shell shares? I think my noble friend Lord Henley would have found, if he had had time to examine the Report of the proceedings in another place, that the sequence of events was slightly different from what he described; that Mr. Farr first of all put down the Amendment which is before us which has come up front another place, and then at the very last minute decided to put down a more far-reaching Amendment which would have had much the same effect as that suggested to the House this evening. This arose at the very last minute, an Amendment having been tabled by Mr. Farr the night before. He spoke to both Amendments at the same time and allowed the first of them to go through. It was carried without a Division, when of course he was not allowed to put the second Amendment. My noble friend may like to know that they were the circumstances in which the matter came up at Report stage in another place.

My noble friend also said that this was very late in the day and that the matter could have been discussed earlier had it not been for the firm impression created that the whole of the pipeline would be buried in the sea-bed. My noble friend slightly contradicted himself in telling the House that at several points during the proceedings in Select Committee in the Commons the Shell Company had been asked to produce evidence about laying a pipeline in the sea-bed and putting it on the surface of the bed but had declined to do so. In the short time that has been available to me since he did me the courtesy of letting me know that he would be moving this Amendment in lieu, have skimmed through all the evidence of the Select Committee in the House of Commons and I have not been able to discover at any point where the witnesses from Shell were asked to give information on this point and declined. I think my noble friend said at another point that the Chairman had declined to allow questions to be put. I am not quite sure what are the true facts, but certainly no public request was made to the company to provide the sort of evidence which he now says is lacking. There would have been a full opportunity of discussing the matter on Report stage, but in fact Mr. Farr made a very short speech and nobody else saw fit to take it up. I think that must have been because most people who have given the subject any study will realise that to put a restriction of this kind into the construction of these works might achieve the very opposite of what my noble friend and the rest of the House want.

The case has been quoted of one of the B.P. lines in the North Sea where, because of the nature of the sea-bed, the sand underneath was washed away by the force of the tides. There is another case where part of the B.P. line from the West Sole gasfield had to lie on the surface because it runs through what is called boulder clay. That is a mixture of heavy clay and boulders, which vary in size from a football up to the size of a house, and it would clearly be an extremely difficult, if not an impossible, undertaking to construct a pipeline that was buried in that kind of sea-bed. Therefore the Department of Trade and Industry, quite properly, agreed that it should be on the surface; and, as the noble Earl opposite has emphasised, if any geological conditions were discovered in the case of the Anglesey Marine Terminal which justified laying part of the line on the surface, then under Clause 52 the approval of the Department of Trade and Industry would have to be obtained in the same way as it was with the West Sole field. The noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, thought that this might apply solely to the lines coming up from the sea-bed to the S.B.M., but I do not think that is what the noble Earl opposite was trying to say. We do not yet know enough of the configuration of the sea-bed off the coast of Anglesey to say definitely which method is preferable.

If, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, has said, there have been requests for tenders to construct a pipeline in the two alternative ways, this is surely quite proper. It would be necessary for the company to find out what the costs were going to be in case the Department of Trade and Industry came back to them and said, "In this particular stretch of the sea-bed, for perhaps a quarter of a mile, because of the geological or hydrological conditions we think it would be safer and better for the pipeline to lie on the surface of the sea bed". I am sure the noble Baroness would agree that if the Department said that and the company had no estimate of the cost, it would be liable to severe criticism for its lack of foresight in not anticipating that such a situation might arise. I personally am very satisfied with the explanation that the noble Earl has given, and I want to underline once again the important point he raised, that if we did not allow this Amendment from the Commons to go through as it stands we should be putting the Bill itself in jeopardy.


My Lords, I do not know who has made a better explanation of the actions of the promoters—my noble friend or the noble Earl—but I am satisfied. I think the assurances given are good ones, and if Shell really intend to put this pipeline under the sea-bed then I am very glad. I am not in the least surprised that the best way of accomplishing the object has not yet been determined. But the whole point of what I said was that I am sorry this was not said in Committee. That is the whole point I am making: that it should have been said at the Committee stage. In spite of what my noble friend Lord Avebury has said, I still think that there were attempts on the part of the petitioners to extract this information but either it was not given to them or the answer was given in an extremely equivocal way. When they were asked whether the pipeline would be under the sea, I think their counsel answered that it had not yet been decided. That is an equivocal answer if, in the earlier stages of the application, the company had been saying all the time that it would be put under the sea-bed. But I take the noble Earl's point that there are technical problems here, about which I do not want to bore your Lordships and which are not yet known.

I have no intention whatever of pressing this Amendment in lieu to a Division. I entirely accept what the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, said: that it is doubtful what exactly "so far as is practicable" means, and that if it means anything at all it is superfluous. As to the question of the mistake that was made in another place, I am not quite sure why the noble Earl twitted me with raising the question that there might have been a mistake over moving an Amendment in another place. I said that and he then followed up the same point. If there was a mistake, there was a mistake, there was a mistake. So be it.


My Lords, may I say that the noble Lord is irresistible?


My Lords, I entirely take the point about the consequences of attempting to do anything that might delay this Bill here, and I have no intention whatever of doing so. But I fed that this has been a valuable debate, that we have elicited a very firm assurance from the noble Earl, and that we have aired the subject. This is the sort of matter that must be seen to be argued at all stages. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment in lieu.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, I will put the remaining Amendments en bloc, if they are so moved and if the House agrees.