HL Deb 25 January 1978 vol 388 cc370-400

4.13 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, if it is your wish that we should go back to sea, I will not take up your Lordships' time by saying anything more at all about the methods of tanker loading and tank washing. The case has been put with unexampled clarity and differing degrees of force by my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder and by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the Government will let us know at the end of the debate as much as they can about what they intend to do. I will confine myself to the question of accidents because it is obvious that however well-built a ship is or however well-managed, if that ship runs aground in a serious manner there will be an oil spill.

What is the world picture at the moment? I should like to start by telling your Lordships a story. Indeed I Want to give several examples. On 26th October last year the Russian tanker "Tsesis" grounded in the Stockholm archipelago and spilled 1,600 tons of oil. When the Swedish authorities said that they would demand compensation for pollution damage the owners of the vessel—that is, the Soviet State—said that, on the contrary, they would claim damages from Sweden since the tanker had run aground because they were using incorrect or out-of-date Swedish charts. That is worth thinking about, is it not? If this can happen in Sweden, it can happen in Britain or in any country of the world.

It is a fact that less than 25 per cent. of the British Continental Shelf has been surveyed by what were regarded as modern methods in 1974. Methods have been improved even since 1974, so that figure would now be lower. The reason for this is quite easy to understand; it is that, until the other day, in terms of marine history, ships drew 30ft. and that was the maximum. Consequently, whenever you did not get a sounding at about 40ft. you did not bother; it was deep enough for everybody, and so you went on quickly to the next place where you were getting soundings of less than 40 feet. That is the old fashioned method. But now as we all know the super-tankers have draughts of anything up to 75ft., and for safety's sake one should call that 85 ft. for a laden ship. That old 40ft. rule will not work and one needs to have a 100 ft. rule. This has not been applied except in a few special areas. Moreover, we are towing platforms around the seas which draw up to 250ft. Yet another floor comes in. We ought to know depths down to this. We know that even less than we know the 80ft. floor.

Moreover, the places of disposal of toxic waste, including nuclear waste, are not marked on the charts. I will tell another little story. In a recent survey undertaken by H.M.S. "Bulldog" of 200 square miles between Dungeness and Dover—a well travelled area if ever there was one—it was thought that there were 180 wrecks, but they found 550 sea bed contacts which were probably wrecks; of that 550, 60 were definitely proved to be hitherto unknown wrecks, many of them with less than 70ft. of water over them. That was in a tiny area. There are 14,000 known wrecks on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf. In the case of 12,500 of them the least depth is not known and the exact position of 11,000 is not known. If the "Bulldog" survey is a statistically valid sample—I do not know whether or not it is—in order to get the probable total number of wrecks on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf we must multiply 14,000 by about three to get the proportion of 550 to 180. As one can immediately see, this will bring us to between 40,000 and 45,000 wrecks.

The other day in the St. George's Channel H.M.S. "Fawn" found a bank more than half a mile across with depths of 69 feet (that is within the danger area for very large tankers) where the chart indicated a smooth sea bed of a depth of 165 feet. This was because the chart was based on a survey carried out in 1843 by a sailing ship taking hand-lead soundings along tracks one mile apart. Already recently a draft traffic separation scheme for keeping shipping lanes apart in opposite directions off Norfolk was withdrawn when a proper survey of the sea bottom was made because it was found that it would have taken big ships into places where they would have grounded.

In June 1977 a merchant ship approaching the Humber with a draught of 40 feet passed over a bank with only 45 feet, whereas the 1911 survey had found 57 feet. Very little of this area, if indeed any, has been surveyed since the beginning of the First World War. Moreover, the Admiralty charts themselves by standard practice do not take account of what is known as "negative surge"; that is, in the Southern North Sea if you get a continued south-westerly gale at low spring tides the water goes to 4 feet below the theoretical lowest level it can go, and in extraordinary circumstances it may go as low below the lowest possible theoretical level as 7 feet. Some of the big ships are used to playing around with a margin of only seven feet under their hulls, even when they know where they are. Of course, when there is a catastrophic situation like a 7 foot negative surge a warning is given, but I think we all know that there are cases when warnings are not heard or are not heeded; it would be better to have everything set out on the chart correctly.

The Government are not unaware of these dangers. In 1975 they set up a Hydrographic Study Group, of mixed Government and industry people, which assessed the national task of surveying the highest priority areas around the United Kingdom; and it found it was going to take 36 ship-years to do what was reasonable, and right up to 1982, and 34 ship-years to do overseas interests, that is outside the United Kingdom shelf, which are of great interest to our shipping, by 1985. For that task it recommended a certain force of ships, with which I will not burden the House. That money was not forthcoming. On the contrary, the Hydrographer, the head of the hydrographic department of the Royal Navy, was instructed—and I quote the Governments' words— to pay particular attention to the commercial potential of his service". He therefore accepted a contract to survey the waters of the Iranian Government, which took away a lot of his ships for quite a large number of years. There is now talk of another Middle Eastern contract which the Hydrographer might be forced to accept because he has to "pay attention to his commercial potential". Therefore, there is no chance of reaching the target set down by the Hydrographic Study Group in 1975.

I think what has happend is probably this. The Navy itself, which is historically responsible for the Hydrographer, contrary to the general trend of shipping, uses smaller and smaller ships. They get less and less interested in the details of deep water, while the merchant shipping, and tankers especially, get more and more interested. Consequently it becomes harder and harder, with successive defence cuts, to defend the spending of defence money on charting. The main point I want to put to the Government is, should not other Departments contribute far more than they do? For one year only the Departments of Energy and Overseas Development contributed towards the running costs of ships identified in the Defence Review as surplus to strict defence requirements. That year is over and they are not going to do it again, and so the burden apparently falls back on the Navy and on no one else, on the Defence Vote. It seems to me that, unless a big change is made, things are going to go dangerously slowly in getting their charting up to date.

However you look at it, the situation is disquieting. There was a meeting at the United Nations of something called the Group of Experts on Hydrographic Surveying and Nautical Charting only last month, and this group took the trouble to tabulate the training given by different countries to their hydrographers and marine surveyors. The results are quite startling. The training provided in this country for our people, and indeed for others who wish to come and undergo it, is less than the training provided in the following countries: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Japan, Turkey and the United States. That is to say, it is less measured in the time of the courses available. We come at the bottom of that league table. This, for the country which more or less invented, in the 19th century, the healthy custom of having marine charts at all—reliable ones—is a startling figure.

There are certain questions I should like to put to my noble friend who is going to round off the debate, of which I have given him notice, and about which I hope, if good answers are not available now, they soon will be, so that we can get out of the very dangerous situation in which we now stand. This is the first question. When the Hydrographer is "paying particular attention to his commercial potential" he earns money, of course. He earns it in Iran, and he is earning some in Ghana. Whore does this money go? Is it ploughed back into his own department or is it just lost in the Consolidated Fund? The I ran contract was said to be worth £11 million. When calculating the income from that did the Government make any offset against that for the cost of delay in charting our own waters? The cost is the cost in groundings, temporary, standings, severe groundings, wrecks, pollutions.

Does the Department of Trade pay anything to the Hydrographer? The Department of Trade is the protolor and patron of all shipping, and it seems a natural channel for public money to go to this service. Recently Mr. Judd, in the House of Commons, reeled off a very long list of civilian Government Departments who use the services of the Hydrographer; it is just about all the Departments in Whitehall. Why should not they pay their bit?

I have some particular questions about what is surveyed and what is not. The Government are considering permitting the building of a gas gathering line in the North Sea; the total cost of the scheme is £3,000 million. Is the probable line of that gas gathering system properly surveyed, and, if not, would the cost of doing so be more than the smallest drop in the budget of £3,000 million? Does the 76 per cent. of our Continental Shelf which is not properly surveyed include designated shipping lanes, and, if so, how many of them? What is their length? Does it include traffic separation schemes? To put it another way, are areas where shipping lanes are designated and traffic separation schemes set up getting the benefit of a special survey so as to put them ahead of the surrounding bits of the seabed? If not, I think they should.

Finally, I would say, as a general observation, that there has been some discussion in this country about what to do with the North Sea oil money. Can I put it to the Government, with all the force that I think the remark justifies, that the very first thing we should do with the North Sea oil money is to make the North Sea safe for oil?

4.28 p.m.

The Earl of INCHCAPE

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, for having initiated this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity of contributing briefly to it. First, I must declare an interest, as I am the chairman of a shipping company which owns and operates a number of tankers. My industry colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Inverforth, has spoken with eloquence and conviction on the problem of tanker safety and pollution, and I can support wholeheartedly every word he has said. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has referred to hydrography and indeed has made many points which I also had intended to make, some of which I will repeat. Noble Lords may recall that the House was kind enough to give a fair hearing to my maiden speech on the subject of hydrography, which I had the honour to make on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, in December 1975.

During that debate a remarkable unanimity of opinion emerged regarding the need to ensure the continued provision of an adequate hydrographic service for implementing the recommendations of the Hydrographic Study Group which reported in March 1975. Unfortunately, the Government were unable to accept the study group's recommendation that they should, if possible, make the necessary finance available to enable the survey fleet to be expanded. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has said, Mr. Patrick Duffy, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, made an announcement in another place on 12th October 1976 which included the following passage: It has been decided that the Royal Navy hydrographic fleet should be retained at its present size for the time being. During 1977–78, the Department of Energy and the Ministry of Overseas Development will contribute towards the running costs of the ships identified in the defence review as surplus to strict minimum defence requirements". That statement, taking into account the financial difficulties at that time, went a considerable way towards meeting the wishes of those of us who had pressed the Government in debate. It would be ungracious of me if I failed to acknowledge that and express my appreciation.

In considering this important issue I had hoped to avoid being controversial. I am sure that all noble Lords, whatever their persuasion, would agree with me about this for what we are trying to achieve is the important objective of enhancing safety at sea. It has, therefore, been somewhat disappointing to learn, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has stated, that the Department of Energy is to make no contribution towards the cost of hydrographic work in the financial year 1978–79 and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has said, about a quarter of our existing hydro-graphic fleet has been deployed to carry out contract work in the Gulf for the Iranian Government.

I am well aware of the importance of the Gulf, and the need to ensure that ships can navigate with safety in that difficult area. I appreciate that the Department of Energy would not wish to pay for work in home waters which is not being done. Even so, the result has been to leave what must, I am sure, be generally agreed to be an inadequate survey force to continue the vital "non-defence" work still to be accomplished in our home waters. It may be recalled that there was an enormous backlog of "top-priority" work on our own doorstep as identified in the Hydro-graphic Study Group's report, whose recommendation reads as follows: The remaining ships of the Survey Fleet should be concentrated from 1st April 1976 on the programme of high-priority defence, neergy and shipping requirements in home waters". The Department of Energy's requirement for "priority work" needed to survey the oilfield area east of the Shetlands was reflected in Paragraph 20 of the study group's report. However, that work, had, I understand, barely started when lack of resources caused it to stop.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has referred to two recent and worrying cases which I shall not repeat but which have also been brought to my notice. However, I should like to say that I appreciate that these are two isolated cases, and, certainly as far as I am aware, there have been no recent occasions in home waters when a ship has struck an inaccurately charted obstacle. Moreover modern ships, by the proper and sensible use of their navigational instruments, especially the devices for measurement of depth of water, can usually navigate safely even in badly charted areas. However, the risk remains, and I am sure that all will agree that those two events which have been publicised are, to say the least, disquieting.

I am confident that shipowners, worldwide, will co-operate willingly in implementing any sensible and reasonable measures that the International Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention may decide. However, first could we ask that all Governments discharge their prime responsibility to provide accurate and up-to-date charts necessary for the safe passage of our ships at sea?

Having said that, I fully recognise that Government funds are stretched and that the provision of the necessary resources for even such a worthwhile process could present difficulties. But I understand that an Ordnance Survey "once and for all" exercise to resurvey the land area of the United Kingdom, and to produce a new series of modern maps is, after 20 years, almost complete. Could not a similar project be considered by Her Majesty's Government in respect of the adjacent waters of the United Kingdom? That would serve to get matters up to date, apart from the continuing need for "check" surveys in unstable areas.

The provision of the necessary funds even for this could prove a difficulty, and I warmly support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, that the Government should consider using a small part of our oil revenues for this purpose. In that way we could support, in a most practical fashion, the requirements of our vital offshore and merchant shipping interests, and at the same time contribute significantly to measures to prevent pollution caused by the stranding of ships on uncharted obstacles.

In conclusion, I should like to quote from the draft Report of the United Nations Group of Experts on Hydro-graphic Surveying and Nautical Charting which met during December 1977 in New York. It says: Those responsible at the highest levels in Government should recognise that in the Marine environment, there can be no exploitation of resources without exploration and there can be no exploration without hydrography".

4.35 p.m.

The Earl of HA LSBURY

My Lords, in common with other noble Lords who have spoken I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder for giving me an opportunity to say something on this subject which I have wanted to say for a very long time. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy—I am sorry he is not in his place to correct me if I misquote him—as I understood it, said that four out of five of either "the incidents" or "volume of oil spilt" (I am rot quite sure which it was) were concerned with operation and the fifth with accidents. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon took up that point and said that, of course, the accidents tend to spill a very large amount of oil in a highly concentrated area.

I should like to give noble Lords some idea of the sort of hazards that we run in this connection. There is a very high traffic in tankers going in an out of Milford Haven Harbour to the oil refineries. Immediately outside Milford Haven harbour there are the two enchanting little islands of Skokholm and Skomer, which are a focus of concentration for some of our more important seabirds, some of which are quite unique. Entrance to and exit from Milford Haven harbour—I have done it running in on a ebb-tide in a south-westerly gale—is quite a tricky business, because one has to make a very sharp turn to starboard as one goes in. Accidents can happen.

I do not know whether any noble Lords have seen, as I have, what is called a time-lapse radar scan over a 24 hour period of the air traffic over London and the Home Counties. It looks exactly like a number of interpenetrating swarms of bees all mixing in. It is quite incredible that there could be so much movement taking place. One only has to look at it for a moment to see the necessity for air traffic control. I believe that, if one could see a time lapse radar scan of the traffic in the English Channel, one would get an immediate appreciation of the need to have some kind of narrow seaways traffic control. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oram, will indicate in his reply whether or not this is being contemplated.

What struck me very much when considering alternatives to the Channel Tunnel—and this is in confirmation of some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet—was that there was a large patch of the English Channel which had only 10 feet of water at low water springs. There is a region where there are very high tides and where there is a liability to fog. Vessels can get off their course. I can remember a rather rare sight. I was crossing the Atlantic in the "Normandy" in, I think, 1939, and I saw an ice-patrol boat watching a large iceberg. The ice-patrol boat looked exactly like a rather small boy in charge of a very large white St. Bernard dog which he was taking for a walk. It was, in fact, communicating with all shipping in the area notifying the position of the iceberg.

I cannot help feeling that these mammoth tankers—we are talking of 600,000 tons and some people are even talking in terms of million-ton tankers—these monsters, cannot be allowed to float around unaccompanied in fogs. They themselves may have the most perfect navigational equipment aboard, but what about other people who could run into them and who do not have this perfect navigational equipment? For that reason I believe that our grandchildren will not tolerate a situation in which unrestricted traffic is moving around in the Channel like motorcars round a roundabout, each vessel obeying what it thinks to be the rules and regulations and, possibly, off-course while it is doing so, not able to turn, not able to stop and spilling millions of tons of oil all over the place. I believe it is the job that you do not start that takes longest to finish. I believe that we should make a start on sea lane traffic control for these purposes. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oram, will be able to tell me something about this in his reply.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, it is two days short of two years since I first rose to speak in this House. Your Lordships have no reason to remember, though I do, that on that occasion I spoke on the use, or indeed the misuse, of the sea. This evening, in doing so again, I am grateful to two sources in particular, one of which complements the other, and one of which compliments the other source.

First, I want to speak on the impact of oil on the marine environment and, secondly, I want to speak on the design features of tankers to reduce oil pollution. The sources to which I go are, in fact, the specialist ones—those people who in the port of Milford Haven, which has just been mentioned, are actually coming to grips hour by hour with some of the problems which noble Lords have already mentioned.

Before I do that I should like to refer to some quotations from the Joint Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution, and particularly to a Summary of that very massive fundamental report which was prepared by Mr. Richard Sandbrook. As noble Lords who have studied the report will know, it deals with three major items, one of which is the chemical and physical effects of oil discharges on marine life forms and on human health. I do not propose to say anything in this debate about the effect of pollution on human health, but I should like to introduce the known effects of oil pollution on marine life forms. The major report said: A great number of factors, acting both individually and in combination, govern the effects that an oil discharge may have on marine life. In general, the biological damage is more severe if the discharge occurs in a coastal or estuarine environment, especially if the intertidal zone is affected, than if it occurs in the open ocean". The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has already referred to the fact that accidents can happen; and your Lordships will know that accidents have, indeed, happened in the tidal estuary of Milford Haven and they have had their effects on the offshore islands. As the report points out, these effects may be: lethal or sublethal, acute or chronic with different organisms reacting in different ways". I shall not go into the detail of all that. I simply say that sea birds are the only known group of marine organisms that have so far been affected by oil pollution to an extent sufficient to jeopardise the entire local population, which in some cases constitutes the total world population; that there have been few instances in which extensive mortality of marine mammals from oil pollution has been reported; and that crude and heavy fuel oils seldom appear to cause extensive mortalities of adult fish. I merely sketch here some of the points that have been made in relation to the difficulties which occur when accidents happen in the marine environment, and particularly in landlocked estuaries.

That brings me to the point which was made in the report about Milford Haven itself. We are extremely fortunate that we have working in the Milford Haven area the Milford Haven Conservancy Board which was intelligent enough and well-advised enough to seek powers to itself which are, in fact, the envy of the marine world.

In the report from which I have already quoted extensively I find this on page 76: The only satisfactory approach to the conservation of the sea birds is to reduce the number of spills and the amount of oil on the surface of the ocean. Clark (1973) strongly favours the use of chemical dispersants to remove spilled oil drom the surface as soon as possible and considers this the only technique presently available that offers any hope for the future of sea birds". I do not want to lake this House at this stage of the evening into the arguments about the use or the non-use of this type of dispersant, but I want to fix its attention on the success of the Milford Haven Conservancy Board's policies, which are being followed around the world. The report goes on to say: As an illustration he cites the successes at Milford Haven where the use of dispersants has virtually eliminated sea bird casualties without damaging the rich marine fauna and flora of the area and, by way of contrast, the unnecessary kill of 900 birds, mostly scoters, from a spill of 80 to 100 tons of oil from the 'Delian Apollon' in Tampa Bay". This evening I am not here to talk specifically about the effects of oil pollution on sea birds. I have chosen that only as an illustration that an effective and active policy, clearly worked out and clearly followed through, can, in fact—even when accidents occur—prevent the ravages from doing the great damage which they sometimes do elsewhere. If, in fact, the Milford Haven Conservancy Board and its policies have been singled out for attention and praise in a particular aspect worldwide, it is important that What they say there about the control of that major area of oil pollution—the overboard spilling of oil from tankers at terminals or tankers off-loading or taking on oil—should be properly said in this debate.

In fact, I went to the Milford Haven Conservancy Board and met its managing director, Colonel Sulivan, and its harbour master, Captain Guildford Dudley; I asked them whether they would consider some of the problems that might be raised in your Lordships' House. They had some words to offer on the question of the double bottoming of ships. At one stage the Americans were pushing for this. However, I have been reassured by my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder, to whom I pay the usual tributes for having initiated this debate, that the Americans are no longer pushing for this modification. I hope that this is so.

Although double bottoms are normal in dry cargo ships and the space between the bottoms is divided into tanks which are used for ballast water or fuel, I think that the British Government, and I believe the great majority of the maritime nations in the world, are against the installation of double bottoms on tankers for two major reasons. One is that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the integrity of the inner bottom between the cargo tanks and thye double bottom, with the result that a non gas-free atmosphere would exist within the double bottom which would constitute a considerable fire and explosion risk.

The second of these arguments is that although pollution by reason of bottom damage might be reduced if double bottoms were fitted, this would be the case only where the grounding resulted in damage to the outer skin. Your Lordships do not need to be told by me that in major groundings, such as the "Torrey Canyon" —and I understand that that ship suffered major bottom damage along more than 50 per cent. of its keel—it is almost certain that both the outer and the inner bottoms would be damaged. Furthermore, most major pollutions are the result of side damage or the break-up of a ship, neither of which would be helped, so I am advised, by the fitting of double bottoms.

Bottom damage in isolation is not such a serious cause of pollution, as the only oil that will escape from the tank in this case is that laying between the top of the oil in the tanks and the ship's waterline—about 10 per cent. of the total volume of the content. In other words, although double bottom tanks might reduce pollution from minor damage, their presence may constitute an even greater danger, as an explosion in these tanks would probably lead to severe rupture of the hull itself. I have deliberately said that because sometimes assurances that are given are not maintained.

I want to move to the point that has already clearly been made in the debate both by my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder and by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. By far the greater number of pollution incidents, in fact, arise from operational practices, and these operational practices occur chiefly within the ports themselves. Therefore, I was interested in what my friends at the Conservancy Board told me about methods of containing pollution on the decks of ships when spillages on those ships occurred.

The majority of our pollutions, again within this figure of which we have talked, consists of relatively small quantities of oil spilt on the deck, and many of these could be prevented from entering the sea if certain relatively minor feature alterations were made. I am sure that this will take us into considerable argument among sailors as to whether you could carry out this modification, but it is to the sailors that I have gone for advice.

Deeper scupper bars should be fitted, it is maintained, at the ship's side to retain oil. This creates problems in tanker design. Objections to this proposal have been voiced by the classification societies on the grounds that they would seriously affect the stability of the ship if large quantities of sea water were retained on deck at sea. That is a fairly elementary point. But I contend that adequate freeing ports—and this is my advice—could be provided which were left open at sea but were closed in port while cargo was being handled. The height of the scupper bars would, of course, be dedendent on the size of the ship and would only need to be considerable at the after-end. Although there are probably many uninitiated who might not know, those who know the system of unloading will realise that all vessels working cargo trim by the stern and any oil spilt on deck accumulates aft.

The second point in this connection is that it should be possible to fit tankers with a drain turning across the after end of the ships into which oil off deck would automatically flow. The oil could then be drained off into slop tanks. One of the objections raised to this is the problem of static electricity being generated by oil and water mixtures dropping into a tank. This is obviously a matter which the Government and their advisers will have to study carefully indeed, and it could be, I am advised, modified by careful design.

There is the question of loading warning devices. It seems again elementary to the uninitiated, people such as I, that if there were a high level alarm system—and they do exist—which could be fitted to all tanks giving an audible or visible warning when the tanks are nearing full capacity, all those operating would be alerted and would be able to avoid some of the errors that have occurred in various ports of the world. This should help to reduce accidental overflows of tanks during loading. But there are experienced operators in my home area who tell me that there is a possibility that such techniques could provide a false sense of security and in fact lead to less efficient watch-keeping than is kept at the present time. Obviously the answer then is a combination of both efficient operatives and efficient warning devices to make those operatives even more efficient than they presently are.

Finally, I come in this particular context to the overboard discharges and inlets. When the ship is taking on or discharging major accidents occur. We were unfortunate in Milford Haven, as some of you will know, in the fact that our first ship ever to take on oil or discharge cargo at the port was involved in such an override spill through the breakdown of a mechanical arm. Leaks from valves on these discharges are a frequent source of small pollutions. I am advised that this problem could be overcome if positive blanking systems were incorporated in all overboard valves. It would be necessary to make it obligatory for them to be used in ports. Classification societies do not permit positive blanking devices on main sea valves for the best of reasons, but a number of the better companies are fitting double valves on all overboard discharges.

In Milford Haven they seal all those valves on arrival. However, it is necessary to open the valves in order to take in ballast. If there is any oil lying between the valves and the pumps there is a risk of this oil running out before suction has been achieved. They advocate then a bleed system between the pumps and the overboard discharges with warning devices which indicate the presence of oil in these lines. The fitting of double valves with warning devices and bleed systems has greatly reduced the numbers of these pollutions. The Department of Trade "M" Notice published in November 1974 supports the desirability of these precautions.

Finally, the type of valves themselves comes into question. Gate valves are the most positive type but they are slow and difficult to operate if they are of large size. Some years ago it was common practice to fit butterfly or ball valves which are much quicker in operation, but it has been found that they suffer from the defect that the rubber seal can become detached from the body of the valve allowing oil to pass. It is most undesirable, therefore, that butterfly or ball valves should be used in overboard sea suctions. The major companies have either replaced these valves or have fitted secondary valves on these lines.

In summary of the points I have made, it is the considered view of those active in these operations that occasional minor escapes of oil in ports are inevitable, mainly owing to human error or mechanical failure. But the number and severity of sea pollutions caused thereby could be reduced by altering the design of tankers in quite modest ways, either by retaining oil spilt on deck or by better sea valve systems. The major oil companies have gone some way to overcome some of these problems, but this is not always true in the case of chartered tonnage. Major pollutions normally result from side damage or massive hull damage caused by collisions or from serious groundings, none of which would be significantly helped by the fitting of the double bottom tanks. Pollution from minor bottom damage which might be overcome by the fitting of double bottom tanks only results in a relatively small portion of oil in the affected tanks escaping, even when no double bottoms are fitted.

I speak for no particular interest. I speak from derived experience, but I speak as one who lives on the foreshore of one of the most beautiful parts of Britain and on a harbour which has become essential as a lifeline to the economy of this country. We, probably more than anyone who visits casually some seaside resort somewhere, would want to urge upon the Government at this time the necessity of their giving maximum support and maximum urgency to the prevention of any oil spillage which is likely to have a dangerous effect either upon the wild life; or the human enjoyment of the environment.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Morris was particularly eager to take part in this debate because he has made a detailed study of the problem that is being debated, and he wished to have his views on the record if possible. Unfortunately for him, he was committed to attend the General Assembly of the Council of Europe and so could not be here in person. He asked if I would convey some of his views to your Lordships. I accepted the task of doing that with some trepidation, because I feel very much like an unrehearsed understudy in a very technical production indeed. Having heard the debate, I do not apologise for vicariously putting the views of my noble friend Lord Morris, because if there is one thing the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, is to be congratulated on it is his timing. This debate today is clearly a well worthwhile curtain raiser to the important international conference to be held in London next month.

If it is to be a worthwhile curtain raiser it is a good thing that all the points of view that are sincerely held by people who understand these matters should be in front of our delegates when they go to represent the point of view that is in the best interests of this country. While one ought to approach this in a manner that is disinterested, and wanting perfection to come out of the result, on all these matters of international discussion national elegates ought never completely to disregard the self-interest as it affects the nation which they represent. In many ways we must be grateful to the United States who initiated this forthcoming conference, and we congratulate them on having avoided the temptation of taking unilateral action to deal with their own problems. Yet, having said that, there is an irony in their having initiated the conference, for the United States have played a greater part than almost any other country in establishing and building up flags of convenience. In addition, the United States ports do not for the most part have the deep dredged channels suitable for modern tankers and as a result, older and smaller tankers have been used there to deal with the ever-increasing American imports of oil.

The tanker casualties, which no doubt inspired the special American interest, which occurred last winter off the United States coasts were all with one exception from United States flags or from flag of convenience vessels. That of course would create their interest. However, the proposals which they seem to be sponsoring are directed to the shipping of all flags, not those which can be separately identified as being the more dangerous ones. Nevertheless, as I said, they are to be congratulated for not taking unilateral action because their problem has been a special one, particularly in the last year. It is a good thing that IMCO should try quickly to work out something that will be acceptable overall and which, if it will not produce perfection, will produce results to minimise the many dangers and effects we have heard described in this debate.

On many of the items proposed last March by President Carter to Congress there has been general agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, made this point, but it is worth repeating. There is no dispute about the need for second radars and collision avoidance systems. There is no dispute about emergency steering gear. There is no dispute on inert gas systems or on the construction of new tankers and having all the modern thoughts one can have when building new tankers. There is no dispute about the need for more frequent inspection and enforcement of the items which have been generally agreed. There is no dispute about the need for training and certification to achieve the standards we want.

However, the one item on which there is dispute—this has been reflected in today's debate—and on which there has been a substantial difference of view among experts in this field is whether or not the retrofitting of segregated ballast tanks in existing tankers should form part of the directive which could flow from the conference next month. In the view of my noble friend Lord Morris, three points must be stressed in regard to this proposal. The first is that the only previous case when agreement was reached at IMCO on retrospective structural requirements—that was for structural fire protection in passenger ships—that proposal, the retrospective one, proved to be a heavy burden on the shipping industry at a time when passenger ships were going out of fashion. It could well be that pushing on with that retrospective structural requirement helped to speed putting into oblivion the passenger shipping about which we all used to be so proud.

The second point is that retrofitting would be very costly indeed. The noble Lord, Lord Inverforth, estimated it at £150 million, whereas my noble friend Lord Morris has estimated it at £170 million for the United Kingdom fleet alone. In addition, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out how it would affect the capacity of the refitted ships themselves. Thus, in doing it we would be committing ourselves to terrific expenditure which would produce a lower income in terms of what would flow from it after the alterations were made.

The third point which my noble friend thought it right to keep very much in mind is the positive one; if it were just a matter of criticising the new ballast tanks and leaving it at that, one could be accused of being little-minded in one's approach. But he argues, as many noble Lords do, that there is an alternative technique which may go almost all the way to securing the benefits that would flow from this retrospective structural requirement but which would be better in economic terms and would produce most of the results for which we have called. That is the use of crude oil to wash out cargo tanks. If this alternative were not available, it might be that the necessity, expensive and difficult though it would be, of the retrospective structural requirement would have to be accepted. But with this alternative being available, certainly for existing vessels, there is a very strong argument indeed for our delegates to the conference to bear in mind that they are going far enough to meet the needs of today—the new vessels will meet the needs of the future—by producing an alternative which would minimise the risks which have shown themselves so far.

It might be said that surely everybody would be against the retrospective structural requirements if what I have said were accepted in its entirely; but I do not think we should presume that that would be the case because there are other considerations. We are living in a world in which practical considerations and human reactions have to be taken into account. Many of the countries which will be at the conference have a much larger tanker surplus than we and some others have, and it could be that, because of their great surplus, which is a complete waste to them now, they see in the retrofitting a means of taking other countries' tankers out of commission. It could be that they have in mind that reducing of cargo-carrying capacity of their competitors would make it easier for some of their surpluses to be used. It could be that increasing freight rates that would to some extent flow from such a step would give them a chance to get a better return on the fleets they have to carry, and of course they—this is an argument which would apply to us too—may think very strongly in terms of benefiting their shipbuilding and ship repairing industries.

But all of those things are not good arguments for pressing on with something which is not in itself economic, which is not a process which could be speedily carried out and when there is an alternative which, it is argued by those who understand these matters, could go a long way towards overcoming the problems we have in mind. Fortunately, the United Kingdom—this is what one would expect our delegates to keep in mind—has a much smaller tanker surplus than the world average, and, because of that, the considerations which I have suggested may be in others' minds should make us extremely reluctant to accept solutions which are in effect designed primarily to benefit the shipping industries of other countries at a considerable cost to ourselves.

It would seem unlikely that the requirement to fit segregated ballast tanks to existing tankers would come into force in time to have an effect on the current tanker surplus or shipbuilding or ship repairing capacity. I was interested a short while ago, when we were listening to the nuclear Statement, to hear one of my noble friends say that the best might well become the enemy of the good. There are times when absolute perfection, which cannot be gainsaid, is not the right thing to do if the result one wants is needed reasonably early, and I believe that the whole of the argument which my noble friend Lord Morris has asked me to present to the House fits into that.

I appreciate that some, if they wanted to, could think that the arguments which I have adduced have championed sin over virtue, but in my view these things have to be looked at in a practical and sensible way. As for the things that can be agreed, get on with those and put them into effect. But on the one item where there is a genuine difference of view and which could be very much to the detriment of this country, our delegates should keep that very much in mind. I think I could sum up the views of my noble friend Lord Morris by saying to the delegates that there are plenty of good things to get on with which can be agreed and speedily put into action now, and there is an effective alternative to the one point which may be difficult to agree—an alternative which can be speedily and more economically put into action.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join the other speakers in this debate who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder on his initiative in bringing this particular subject to your Lordships' attention. In his opening he rather seemed to wonder whether, from the Government's point of view, it was not perhaps awkwardly timed. I assure him that I certainly do not take that view. Indeed, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, who has just spoken, that it is timely that we should have this debate and that the Government should have the benefit of your Lordships views at this point, when we are preparing for this highly important conference to be held in London.

I was most relieved to hear my noble friend announce early in his speech that he did not propose to "bash" me personally, because he sits in a particularly good strategic place to do so if he wishes; and, as we all know, his mental equipment on this and cognate subjects is so impressive that he could "bash" me verbally as well if he chose to do so. He put before your Lordships a most fascinating and clear statement of his point of view; and I am glad that he referred to the work of the committee of which he has recently become the chairman, the Advisory Committee on Pollution of the Sea, because that enables me to take this opportunity to assure him and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the vice-president of that committee, that the Department of Trade and the Government regard the advice from that committee as highly constructive and valuable. That does not mean that we always accept it, of course, but we do regard it as most welcome.

Before I deal with the main question of tanker safety and pollution, I should like to refer to the speech made by my noble friend Lord Kennet, backed up as he was by the noble Earl, Lord Inchcape, and to thank my noble friend Lord Kennet for having given me notice that he was proposing to raise the different but related subject of hydrography. He kindly gave me notice of the questions he proposed to ask; and, indeed, he wrote to me on a number of aspects which he did not include in his speech this afternoon. Having communicated with me as he did, I have had the opportunity to obtain detailed information on the points he has in mind. Much of it, I am sure he will recognise, cannot appropriately be conveyed in a winding-up speech in a short debate of this kind, but I shall certainly send the information to my noble friend, and if he wishes it to have a wider circulation, I am quite sure that the procedure of Written Answers might be usefully taken up.

Meantime, I would tell my noble friend that the proceeds from the Hydrographer's revenue-earning activities are paid into Defence Votes as appropriations in aid; and, as far as surveying activities are concerned, it was decided in 1976 that the hydrographer's potential to undertake commercially-funded work should be exploited, since not all the existing survey fleet was required for defence purposes, The costs of the hydrographic services are borne on the Defence Votes; but I have certainly noted the impressive points that he and the noble Earl, Lord Inchcape, have made this afternoon about the urgency of further and much more extensive modern surveys, and the point that other Departments should appropriately make contributions to this work. I am quite sure that the points made by those two noble Lords will be noted by those whose duty it is to reach decisions on these matters.

The debate has, understandably, ranged rather wider than the conference itself, covering the question of safety at sea and pollution in more general terms than perhaps it will be under the agenda of the specific conference. For that reason, I should like to start with some general remarks on the position of Her Majesty's Government on these important matters. Indeed, I think I can say "the position of successive Governments", because, as has emerged from the debate this afternoon, I detect no Party lines on this particular subject. The United Kingdom has a merchant fleet of some 32 million gross registered tons, and lies third in the league table, behind Liberia and Japan. Under this figure, tanker tonnage comprises some 17 million gross registered tons—again, the third largest in the world and representing some 10 per cent. of world tonnage. Our tanker fleet is relatively modern.

The United Kingdom safety record over the last 10 years has consistently been one of the best, with a low rate of total losses, both in terms of tonnage at risk and in terms of numbers of ships at risk; and the Government have played their part in creating high safety standards by regulations, codes of practice, certification of crews and ships, surveys of ships, general inspections and advice to masters of ships, and by personal co-operation at every level with the shipping industry. But a great deal of credit should go to the industry itself for the great strides that it has made in improving the quality of its ships and their crews. Of course accidents happen, and we should never be complacent. There have been some bad examples; but, on the whole, the British fleet is well managed, safe and efficient.

If we were in a world of our own we might be prepared to rest it there, but, as has been emphasised this afternoon, shipping in its very character is international. For example, the Dover Strait is the busiest seaway in the world, with some 350 lateral movements per day, mostly of foreign flag. In this connection, I noticed the point that the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, was making; and he asked me about the results of the traffic separation scheme. I can tell him that there has been a significant reduction in the number of collisions in the Dover Strait since the traffic separation scheme came into effect, particularly in conditions of fog; and the scheme should be even more effective since the international collision regulations came into effect last July. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, entered into the discussion on this point, and he would wish to know that, in addition to the traffic separation scheme in the Channel, to which I have just referred, the British and French have jointly set up the Channel navigation information service, based on the United Kingdom side at St. Margaret's Bay, which monitors traffic, both lateral and cross, in the Channel.

The safety of foreign as well as United Kingdom vessels is important to us, not only, obviously, on grounds of common humanity but because our own interests are involved, whether by threat of collision with our own vessels, the need to give assistance or the threat of pollution after a casualty. Secondly, our own merchant fleet depends upon maintaining freedom of movement across the globe; and this includes the freedom from different countries imposing, different and confusing sets of safety and pollution regulations. Thus I suggest that it is in our self-interest, as it is of other countries, to achieve internationally-agreed regulations and, so far as possible, internationally-agreed criteria for enforcing them.

It is fair to say that the United Kingdom traditionally played the leading role in the past in achieving this kind of international agreement. Before IMCO was set up in 1959, we convened international conferences in London such as the 1932 Load Line Conference, the 1948 Safety of Life at Sea Conference, the 1954 Pollution Conference; and we were the depositories of the resulting conventions. After IMCO was set up, these conventions were superseded by the 1966 Loadlines Convention, the 1960 and 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Conventions and the 1973 Pollution Convention, all of which represented major international steps forward in safety and pollution control.

As I have said, we played a leading part in these conferences and the United Kingdom continues to play a lending role in IMCO, and many of the new requirements in these conventions and other instruments have sprung from this country's initiatives. When the "Torrey Canyon" disaster hit us in 1967 our reaction and that of France was to press for emergency action through IMCO. Much has been achieved in the decade since then. When the United States, as has been referred to, faced a series of tanker accidents last winter, their reaction was, similarly, to press for emergency action through IMCO. We applaud such action and we see no merit, indeed much harm, in pursuing the route of unilateral action.

My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder made reference to the possibility of unilateral action in these matters by the USA and by the Arab States. I believe it is true to say that no such announcement has been made and, therefore, the point raised is somewhat hypothetical. Indeed, President Carter has stressed repeatedly the desire to reach a global solution on the whole area of safety and pollution covered by the conference. The United Kingdom has played a leading part over the years in building up international regulations and we believe that any resort to unilateralism would undermine that and the maintenance of safety and pollution standards.

I was glad to note that the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, indicated his strong support for this point of view. Her Majesty's Government have consistently supported the United States in its call for the conference and, like the United States, certainly, we aim for a successful conclusion; that is, a generally accepted agreement. The United Kingdom delegation will do its best to contribute towards this objective. Like all decisions on safety and the environment—indeed, like most decisions—there will have to be a balancing of cost and benefit and a balancing of the needs of IMCO Member-Governments of which there are over 100. We need to gauge the attitudes of other countries as we are doing now and as we shall do at the conference, and I am sure that noble Lords will not expect me to spell out in detail our precise negotiating position. Indeed, I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for specifically saying that they did not expect that I should be able to reveal our cards.

However, I can describe our broad approach and this I am sure is what the House would expect me to do. First, as I have said, we will aim for a successful conclusion—as we shall, in the summer, at the complementary Conference on Training and Certification of Seafarers. Secondly, we shall try to get speedy agreement on the many points on which there has already appeared in preparatory meetings to be a broad measure of agreement. I have in mind, for example, the proposals relating to the more effective implementation of conventions, more frequent inspections and intermediate surveys for older tankers. These proposals are much in line with the initiative which the United Kingdom has taken in IMCO over the last three years to improve the enforcement of conventions against ships which are substandard.

The United Kingdom has put forward its own proposal of setting up a marine safety corps under IMCO which would assist countries whose maritime administrations needed to be developed and be given the capacity to exercise their obligations under the conventions. There are encouraging signs of agreement on other proposals before the conference; so that, although attention this afternoon has been focussed on one particular aspect of the conference, I think that we should take note that there is a broad agenda on which there is a vast degree of agreement and we can, therefore, look forward to constructive decisions in those areas.

A major issue which will have to be decided, as has been pointed out by many speakers, concerns the question of the provision of segregated ballast on tankers. This is already a requirement in the 1973 Convention for new tankers over 70,000 tons; but one of the proposals before the conference is that the limit for new tankers should be reduced and that the requirement should apply to existing tankers as well. The advocates of the application to existing tankers argue on the grounds that it would have benefits for the environment; that it would, by spreading the load between more tankers, help to alleviate the current tanker surplus; and that it would provide work in the shipyards. But I would suggest that the proposal has little, in itself, to do with safety or with accidental pollution.

The United Kingdom has argued against this measure on the grounds that the environmental benefits would be very small when measured against the cost, a cost comprising capital cost of about £150 million for the United Kingdom fleet plus additional costs arising from lower carrying capacity which would lead to an increase in the price of oil to the consumer; or as an alternative, that it would add additional costs to the taxpayer. This assertion of mine, that the environmental benefit would be very small, is hacked up by a similar conclusion which was recently reached in an independent consultant's report which was commissioned by the OECD, which said: SBT affords some saving in oil pollution, a saving which, in relation to the cost of the measure as a whole must be regarded as relatively insignificant. OECD also commissioned three case studies on the environmental benefits, in economic terms, of SBT. They were the New York Bight area, the fishing industry in North-East Scotland, and tourism in the South-West Wales area. The conclusions—which are subject to various caveats—are: that in the particular areas investigated there are no demonstrable economic benefits from environmental improvements arising from SBT retrofit of tankers operating in these areas". Those are important points of view of which to take note. My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder included in his speech some matters relating to this question of costs to which I referred earlier, particularly in relation to employment in British shipyards and possible savings in public expenditure on social security. I can assure him that studies have been undertaken in these matters using a number of different assumptions, hearing in mind a number of uncertainties. These studies have come to the clear conclusion that, as a means of bringing work to British shipyards, RSBT would be extremely expensive as an indirect subsidy compared with any form of direct subsidy.

Secondly in this area of costs, he asks whether the cost benefit of RSBT has been considered in relation to the expensive oil reception facilities which the United Kingdom will have to provide as an oil-exporting State to deal with waste disposal. I am grateful to him for having given me notice of these specific questions that he was proposing to ask. In answer to the point that I have just recalled, it has not been possible to quantify this item but it is difficult, I suggest, to see why the United Kingdom alternative of crude oil washing would require more reception facilities than RSBT in areas which are not special areas.

In the case of repair ports, perhaps fewer reception facilities would be required for COW—crude oil washing—since no sludge disposal would be required. In terms of the shipping industry, we doubt whether the measure would come into force early enough to alleviate the tanker surplus which has affected some other countries more than the United Kingdom. In considering this proposal, the Government have taken into account therefore all the wider aspects, though the main objective of the conference to which we are directing our attention concerns the question of safety and the environment.

My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder asked which department and which interest groups have been consulted in the formulation of British policy for the conference. We have for some time taken into account the views of the committee to which I have referred and of which he is chairman. In formulating policy for the conference, the Department of Trade have consulted directly with the tanker safety group, which includes the General Council for British Shipping, the seafarers' union, Lloyd's Register, oil companies and the Ship Pollution Advisory Group, which includes shipping interests and departments concerned. Government departments which have been consulted include the Department of Industry, the Northern Ireland Office, the Departments of Environment, Employment and Energy and, as always, the Treasury and the FCO. I assure him not only that we have taken all the wider aspects of this question very much into account but that we have sought advice from all the interests concerned.

This is because we have been anxious to put forward a constructive alternative to RSBT, and we believe a requirement to make mandatory the relatively new technique of washing tanks with the cargo instead of with sea water—the technique referred to as crude oil washing—would have at least an equivalent environmental effect. It would not have the same capital cost; indeed, one-ninth in the case of the United Kingdom fleet, which accords very nearly with the estimate that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was asking about. That relates; to ship of over 70,000 tons. I would make the point of course that other countries make other estimates which differ from ours. The noble Lord was right regarding our estimate.

We believe that this method would not bring forward higher freight costs. It would have energy saving implications since it would increase the payload of a carrier, thus reducing the consumption of tanker fuel and of disposal residues from tanks. We believe that these are very strong arguments which we will deploy, and we hope that these arguments will convince some countries which previously have seen attractions in retrofitting segregated ballast tanks. Indeed my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder read out a list of countries which favour RSBT, but I should inform him that in fact the count is something like two to one in favour of COW at the moment. As I said, we are hoping that our arguments will convince others. Acceptance of the crude oil washing alternative might form the basis of a package which will be acceptable to the great majority of countries.

In concluding—and I am sorry to have spoken for so long—whatever the differences between my noble friend and myself on this matter, I am sure that all of us agree that we have listened to a series of very well-informed speeches, and we owe our thanks to my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder for having made this debate possible. It is a very timely debate and we believe that it will in general help the Government to state the point of view which is in this country's interest and the interest of shipping world wide. In conclusion, I should like to thank the other noble Lords who have made such notable contributions to our debate.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, I want to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what I think has been a very effective debate. I have noted every one of the points and arguments raised and deployed, including those of Lord Oram. I want to say to my noble—and, I was going to say, "dear"—friend Lord Oram that I did not say that I was going to bash him. I said that I was not going to abash him. That just shows your Lordships how articulation breaks down. I appreciate what my noble friend said at great length on behalf of the Government. I still feel intransigent on some points; but, on the other hand, we have heard a full and frank disclosure of the Government's position and what our arguments will be.

The only thing I want to see coming out of this conference is an effective and long-term agreement which in fact will take the form of international law. I agree entirely with my noble friend when he says that we ought to aim for multinational agreements and not be intimidated by unilateral claims. We have in the past learnt to recognise that countries are quite capable of taking unilateral action which eventually acquires the force of international law. I refer in particular to my bête noire— which may not be the bête noire of a lot of other people—which is the position of the Continental Shelf. That arose originally out of a unilateral declaration by the United States.

Therefore, I am not going to argue again about the merits of the separated ballast tanks at this point, except to say that I am not yet—and I repeat this quite seriously—I am not yet convinced that the arguments against separated ballast tanks are operationally valid. I said during my speech that I had no reservations in accepting COW, or crude oil washing, as a very important contribution to this whole problem. I would be prepared, in a longer and more investigatory debate, to dispute a great many of the figures which have been canvassed today; and therefore I am not entirely reconciled to what is likely to be the British position, simply not promoting crude oil washing but, on the contrary, using that as an alternative to separate ballast tanks.

I hope that out of this debate today we have given the Minister and the Government some insight into our thinking, and that we shall find the delegates to this Conference going there in the spirit in which I always hope that members of my Government will go—that is, being responsive to the thinking and the wishes of others and not merely taking up an intransigent position. We are asking at this Conference for flexibility of thinking and I am sure that something very constructive will come out of it. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.