HL Deb 24 October 1979 vol 402 cc71-4

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would agree that all oil tankers should be excluded from the Minch and that their course should always be set West of—that is, outside—the Hebridean Islands; and whether they are aware that any spillage of oil in these narrow waters would result in appalling pollution of mainland and islands coasts, and destroy still further our already depleted fish stocks.


My Lords, the Government are very much aware of the dangers presented to the Scottish coasts and to marine life by the increased tanker traffic to the North and West of Scotland. For this reason, a group under Department of Trade chairmanship, and including representatives of the Scottish Office and local authorities, has been examining this problem. As a result, the Department has undertaken to develop for approval by IMCO a traffic separation scheme for the Minches. Consideration is also being given to whether it would be practicable to put forward a recommendation that large, laden tankers should keep to the West of the Hebrides.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that satisfactory Answer, and I hope it will not take too long; we do not want any more disasters. Some major ones have occurred there.


My Lords, the House will want to wish my noble friend who has put down this Question a happy birthday today!

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!


My Lords, while the right of innocent passage is of great importance to this country all over the world, and the Minch is within the territorial waters of the United Kingdom, may I ask whether the Government will none the less put all the pressure and influence they can into arranging for oil tankers to avoid the Minch and to go round West of the Hebrides?


Yes, my Lords; I think that was implied in the original Answer. However, the mandatory exclusion of tankers would not be consistent with the right of ships to innocent passage through our waters, and we are obliged to comply with the terms of the 1958 international convention on the subject.


My Lords, it has been properly reported in the Press that before long cargoes of plutonium will be going on their way from Dounreay to Windscale. The prospect of a disaster due to some marine catastrophe concerning a cargo of plutonium is probably much more dangerous than even the worst oil spillage. When the Government committee considers this problem, could I ask that it makes appropriate arrangements for these ships in their right of passage, as well?


My Lords, I think that question is pretty wide of that of traffic going through the Minches.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the nationalities of some of the principal offenders in this regard and of the flags under which they sail? Will the noble Lord give some assurance that Her Majesty's Government will make representations to other Member States of the European Community who have so far not signed all the international conventions, to one of which he has referred?


Yes, my Lords; we hope that all those countries who have not so far adhered to these conventions will do so as soon as possible.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government pay particular attention, and perhaps call the attention of the committee concerned with such matters, to the fact that oil spillages occurring in the far North or the far South are particularly dangerous?—because the degradability of oil on the surface of the sea very much depends on the temperatures surrounding it, and far to the North and far to the South the oil remains on the surface of the sea for very much longer.


My Lords, I think the noble Viscount is right. The Department of Trade's contingency arrangements for dealing with oil spills at sea, however, extend to the whole of the United Kingdom coastline. However, in view of the obvious difficulties in mounting a counter-pollution exercise off the North-West coast of Scotland, the Department recently carried out an exercise based on a simulated grounding of a loaded oil tanker off the island of Rhum. The lessons learned will be applied in the further development of arrangements for dealing with pollution incidents in these waters.

The Earl of GLASGOW

My Lords, could my noble friend tell me whether his inquiry includes the same restrictions for oil tankers in the Firth of Clyde, where a spillage would be even more disastrous?


My Lords, the inquiry to which I referred does not include that aspect.

The LORD PRESIDENT of the COUNCIL (Lord Soames)

My Lords, before we get on to the next Question, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy wished a happy birthday to my noble friend Lord Cromartie, it seems to be a vintage day for birthdays and I think that the House would wish me, on all our behalfs, to wish a very happy birthday, and indeed many happy returns of the day, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, on his 70th birthday.