HL Deb 20 February 1980 vol 405 cc798-841

5.50 p.m.

Lord KENNET rose to call attention to the arrangements for co-ordinating the responsibilities of Ministers and their departments so that this country may have an effective maritime policy, and for keeping this policy up to date in a changing world; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, four years ago, almost to the day, this House held a debate on sea-use planning, on a Motion of the late Lord Henley, which was opened by my noble friend Lady White in his absence. I was very sorry to miss it; I was ill on that day. The reply from the Government of the time was given very positively by my noble friend Lady Birk from the Department of the Environment—a department which is, of course, more obviously and immediately concerned with the matter than the department of the Lord Advocate.

At that time, there were some 21 departments of State with a finger in the maritime pie, or a toe in the water, but I do not think that the Lord Advocate's office was on the list at all. So although I, like all Members of the House, am naturally delighted to see the Lord Advocate and to learn that he is going to wind up this debate, I hope that, among the subjects he will touch on, is precisely this subject of —why him? For our delight can only be tempered by a certain provisional puzzlement, which I am confident will be removed later in the debate.

At the time of our last debate, both in this country and elsewhere, the realisation had been growing that our whole relationship with the sea—economic, defence, environmental—was changing, as a result of the vast political and technological developments of recent years. The freedom of the seas was evidently on the way out. In some fields, it was already gone. Great new industries were developing, oil and gas in particular. Perhaps seabed milling vs as to come. Old industries found themselves in a new context: fishing—the freezer trawlers and factory ships, the ability of the new fishing fleets to wipe out whole stocks; shipping—new shipping nations with new interests, the vast transport of oil, the container revolution, sand and gravel dredging—the ever-increasing need for aggregate on land; waste disposal—more and nastier things poured into the sea and lost in it; and, among and through all these, the armed forces and the civil power developing new roles and new capabilities.

Such was the complex scene at the time; and also, of course, new national interests and old national interests in a new context. The sum of these had to be that our people, now and in the future, should benefit from all the possible forms of maritime activity and exploitation. Gradually, the need for the machinery of government to reflect these new developments was recognised. It was not enough merely to endow existing interested departments with more powers. It was already clear that some interests, protected each by one department, were regularly losing out; some were regularly reaping benefits at the expense of others, and other interests, again, even seemed entirely to disappear between all the stools. At the same time, overall national interests and the overall development of maritime affairs worldwide was no one's business, and the basic assumption continued unquestioned that Britain's interests lay, as they had for 300 years, in the greatest possible freedom of the seas, despite the accumulating evidence to the contrary.

The riches of the Continental Shelf are—we were already then glad—ours. We are now deeply concerned to maintain that the fish are—if not exactly ours—at least no one else's. When a liquid natural gas carrier blows up in the Dover Straits, or when not only whales and crabs but also people start dying from poisons dumped or lost overboard, we shall certainly increase the control of traffic around our coasts further than we have, and we shall be in no doubt of our right to do so.

Four months after our last debate, the Prime Minister of the day announced a new structure of Government for dealing with these matters. The relevant passage of his announcement read as follows. He said [Official Report, Commons, 8/6/76; col. 614.]: I have asked my right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal to co-ordinate policy in matters conected with the law of the sea, the use of the sea and of the sea bed, as well as continuing to perform the role of co-ordinating the measures necessary for the protection of our offshore and other maritime interests, which had already been announced by the Labour Prime Minister in 1974.

That was merely the first step taken by the British Government to adapt its machinery to what every maritime power was experiencing. The Lord Privy Seal's infrastructure, at the time it was set up under my noble friend Lord Peart—of whose absence today we are very sorry to learn—was probably insufficient. He had no scientific adviser and, I believe, little, it- any, full-time staff. But it was a beginning of that positive co-ordination which, I think I am right in saying, all speakers called for in our 1976 debate.

The Motion that we are debating today I tabled when I found out that, instead of building on that entirely necessary new start in 1976, the present Government had demolished it. They have abolished the Lord Privy Seal's oversight role and given what is called the "lead" to the Department of Trade, a department very intimately linked with one of the oldest seagoing industries—namely, shipping; one, moreover, which is having a very hard time in adapting to new circumstances.

From the answer I received to my question, it was not clear whether the Secretary of State for Trade was to become the lead Minister in—and here I quote from the Prime Minister's announcement of 1976—co-ordinating…the protection of our offshore …interests". The Lord Privy Seal had been the co-ordinating Minister as regards the protection of offshore interests. So my question is: Is he now the lead Minister on fishery protection and on oil and gas installation protection? It will be interesting to learn the answer to that. Perhaps the Lord Advocate will be able to tell us something of the Government's general thinking in taking this step. The action has certainly astonished most of those people who are concerned to see the whole great complex of British maritime interests develop and expand.

I said earlier that some of the interests had over the years lost out. The principal one was perhaps fishing. Two of our chief national distresses of recent years have derived from insufficient thought, within government, about fishing. The first was the sequence of cod wars with Iceland. The scientific evidence was there that North Atlantic cod was over-fished and that the over-fishing had to stop if cod was to survive. But this scientific evidence stayed under wraps somewhere in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, while the Foreign Office was sounding off—correctly enough, of course—about our rights in international law. But if I may coin a phrase, de legibus non curart natura.

Equally, there was the failure of Mr. Heath's Government in the first place, and of Mr. Wilson's in the second, to understand that the importance of fishing would lead to our present terribly damaging battles over the common fisheries policy in the EEC. Mr. Heath swept the fisheries question under the carpet when we joined in 1972, and the consequences have been the usual ones of that action.

One industry which has reaped benefits at others' expense is the oil industry. It is the Secretary of State for Energy who takes decisions about the North Sea and North Sea oilfields. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and DAFS, the fishery departments, are consulted, but the fishing industry is very much the poor relation, despite the fact that fish, properly managed, are a permanent and renewable resource and that oil and gas are not.

Another industry which has, in fact, maintained benefits at others' expense is our poor dispirited shipping industry. It was once our pride. It produced an enormous sum of invisible exports, but in 1978—I do not have the figures for 1979—there was a deficit of £300 million on the shipping account. We are now the world's fourth fleet. We were the first only 14 years ago. Our shipowners have been selling ships at the bottom of the market and seeing them change hands at twice the price a few months later. The industry is unprofitable and fighting new political developments all the way.

Despite the ever-increasing damage that their cargoes can do, and do do, the ship-owner's liability against risk—liability for harm caused by accidents—continues to be strictly limited in domestic and international law. It is proportionate to his vessel's tonnage, not to the damage it can cause. It is far too often the tax-payer or the ratepayer who has to pay up for marine pollution. Moreover, in salvage cases, the Lloyd's Form, with its no cure, no pay, ignores altogether the whole pollution aspect. Again, shipowners regularly insure against fines for pollution, which of course is illegal in ordinary life.

Given the risks now being taken at sea, including our own coastal waters and the hazardous cargoes concerned, sometimes I wonder whether Ministers are personally aware that the liability is not related to the damage which can be done but to the size of the ship carrying the cargo. Also, I suspect that these de facto subsidies to bad shipowners flying flags of convenience, avoiding taxation and labour and safety regulations, are not in the interests of our own shipping industry. I find the Department of Trade's devotion to the flag of convenience system puzzling. That their lower costs appeal to charterers is quite understandable, but why should we applaud or even agree when our own major oil companies charter substandard ships from flag of convenience countries? It is true that their own record as shipowners is good—that is, if you leave aside the odd mistake like the "Amoco Cadiz". Generally it is true that it is good. What is not good is the record of the ships which they charter.

In any case, is the Department of Trade really the right department to judge impartially in these matters between the shipping industry's interest and the general interest when the dangers from liquefied gases and from chemical cargoes are such as to make the "Amoco Cadiz" affair look like a picnic? In comparison with them, oil is positively pleasant. The Pollution Control Unit in the Department of Trade, commonly known as Admiral Stacey's unit, are doing sterling work, but for an LNG accident, or for one involving chemicals, they are completely unequipped. Many local authorities would like to see marine pollution control at the Department of the Environment rather than at the Department of Trade. This has already happened on the nuclear front, when environmental control moved from the Department of Energy to the Department of the Environment. Why should there not be a similar move for general marine pollution?

Let me end by listing a few interests and issues which fall between ministerial stools. Funding the Hydrographer is one. Perhaps the Lord Advocate has good news for us and can tell us that the Department of Trade has at long last accepted that the cost of the Hydrographer's non-defence work should fall to its responsibility, as was advocated by the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee in the House of Commons the year before last, and as is obviously the right solution. Then, again, it is perfectly crazy that 70 per cent. of our Continental Shelf and 70 per cent. of our designated shipping lanes should still not be surveyed to modern standards. This cannot be justified. With the increasing draughts of tankers and the increasing numbers of hazardous cargoes, accurate charts are by no means a luxury which can be left to fall between bureaucratic stools.

Other navigational aids are equally essential. The Hydrographer's storm warning service, which gives the invaluable negative surge warning, is only one of them. This is the opposite of the kind of surge which we fear might flood London, when there is a sudden lowering of the water level, so that the super tanker, creeping up through shallow seas, must be forewarned that there is four feet less than the minimum mark on the chart. All these things must go on being funded by Government.

I hope that the noble Lord will also be able to tell us something of the Government's intentions towards the research they are now funding at the National Maritime Institute and at the Warren Springs Laboratory, the first on traffic and the second on oil pollution. In each case, the private sector is not very likely to fund the continuation of this work. It has to be accepted as a Government responsibility. Perhaps we can hear also why the Government have decided to halve the existing oil pollution team at Warren Springs and to divert the very same funds elsewhere. There will be no reduction in Government expenditure, so far as I can make out. Why do that? Why halve the team and disperse the funds? It would be interesting to know whether the Department of Trade and the Department of the Environment who are most directly concerned were consulted by the Department of Industry—God knows how they come into it!—before they halved this team. On the National Maritime Institute, can the Lord Advocate say anything to us about the continuation of that remarkable work which is known in shorthand as the "six year movie"? At the National Maritime Institute they have a series of photographs, taken at intervals throughout the day and the night over the last six years, which show a complete pattern of ship movements in the Channel. That is in the process of analysis to see what can be learned from it. Will this work continue and who will fund it if the Government do not? We know that it is the Government's intention to cut the National Maritime Institute adrift, let it float and hope that someone will pick up the tabs.

Answers to Questions I have tabled on the Channel traffic scheme show that 40 per cent. of the vessels thought to be carrying hazardous cargoes of one kind and another still do not report in. They show that every week at least one oil or gas carrier still disobeys the traffic rules and that they are almost certainly not disciplined by their flag States. It is very much the Government's job to ensure that in these affairs the national interest is not neglected for the shipowners'. Are the Government moving as fast as they can towards port-state jurisdiction? That is the point here.

Shipbuilding is another age-old industry which is suffering from inadequacies of all kinds. We know what they are; yet do the shipbuilding and the shipping industries truly search out together new opportunities in the new circumstances? Why is it that only one of the four multipurpose service vessels used in the North Sea oilfields is British built? The others are Finnish and Japanese built. Why is it that Antwerp Bulk Cargoes can undercut our shipping lines by the simple device of having combined bulk and container carriers, whereas the law of the Medes and the Persians in British shipping and shipbuilding appears to be that you have on the one hand a bulk carrier and on the other hand a container carrier. If you combine them, you can, for obvious reasons, cut rates on both. Why is it left to Antwerp firms to do this?

My impression also is that when once again we can increase trade with the Soviet Union and when we are exporting equipment, as we must, for the oil and gas developments in the Soviet and Canadian parts of the Arctic, there will be no suitable British ships in which to carry our exports. Vessels capable of using the new northern route to the Far East as a whole—where are they? Arc we building them? Are we planning to build them? And what about the long vexed question of patrol boats for offshore policing—what one can in shorthand call the offshore kit—that is, that mix of research vessels, aircraft, equipment, communications, expertise and training which could be sold as a package to States going out to the 200 mile zone for the exploitation, administration and policing of that zone? This is another example of those opportunities in the Third World which have, to use an admirable phrase of the Foreign Secretary in a recent debate, been allowed to "wither by default". It has been nobody's business to scan for opportunities opening for us in these new developments.

When are we going to declare a 12-mile territorial sea? On environmental grounds it is urgent, as anybody observing events off Sullom Voe in the last few weeks will agree. "Bad" tankers are now said to be taking the northern route to avoid the Channel, where there actually is a traffic scheme, although it is still not stiff enough.

I know that other speakers will elaborate, for instance, on the local authorities' distress over pollution clean-up claims which are either not met at all or met only years after an incident and without interest paid; and over the lack of consultation when Government policy is being formed. I wish here only to endorse their complaints as being fully justified. The magic circle of those who are consulted before international negotiations is still far too small.

What should we do in general? I think that the synergies and interferences arising within the present uncontrolled policy mass may be extremely dangerous, and that the matter is urgent. It needs two things. It needs, first, research. And here, out of many possibilities, I commend the proposal for a North Sea forum in which the bodies concerned—governmental,academic and commercial—from all the countries round the North Sea come together for the co-ordination of research, including policy research but not, of course, including any policy recommendations, and jointly to ventilate and to publish the research results. This was called for by a conference in The Hague last October which I had the honour to chair: all the people who would be needed for such an operation were strongly in favour of it. I am reminded of the recent excellent opening speech in another debate in this House, by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. The North Sea is a vulnerable pond. All the countries round it arc parliamentary democracies and we all have a common interest. The matter is quite urgent. What are we waiting for?

The second great point is how Government policy is made. It is a curious fact that Professor Donald Watt of the London School of Economics—certainly a leading authority on these matters—recently attempted to obtain research funds simply to gather and compare information about the system of maritime policy formulation in other countries which would be of interest to us. He could not get the funds. We cannot even find the money to look at what other countries are doing in this field.

We do know something about France: they have a publicly known and identified Cabinet committee set up by law and under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister to deal with maritime affairs. This Committee—and this is a striking point for us—is chaired when the Prime Minister is absent, not by the Minister of Trade, or Industry, or Transport but by the Minister for the Environment. It is supported by an interdepartmental staff of 15-20 people and a large advisory council, and a central place in the structure is given to an organ called CNEXO, that is the National Centre for Exploitation of the Oceans. Moreover what they call les choses de la mer has been adopted as one of the so-called "Great programmes for the future of France": the others being nuclear energy, space and telemetries.

I know that we do not do things that way and I know it is also claimed that the French system, which was set up only 18 months ago, in the wake of the "Amoco Cadiz" disaster, is not working very well. We need not be impressed by such claims. Of course it would not be working well yet and even if it never does, we still need not be impressed. The point is that it is a major and visible pledge of the intention of the French State to make sense of this vast, confusing and taxing area. We in this country must develop the same intention, otherwise our opportunities there, too, will "wither by default."

How? I wonder whether the Government would like to consider the following suggestion. We have a great many Royal Commissions now, perhaps too many and perhaps some of them last longer than they need. They are looked upon by Governments as a kind of discreet reinforcement of a right idea, whatever that may be. But in the heyday of the Royal Commission, in the Victorian age, it was not so. In those days the very greatest questions of State and society were remitted to Royal Commissions for analysis and recommendation—the future of India, the condition of the working classes, and so on. Perhaps this should now be done once again in regard to the sea.

If the idea were to find favour with the Government the terms of reference would need most careful consideration. But I hope they will reflect the need for this country once again to become conscious—I would say even consciously conscious— of the old fact that we are an island and of the new fact that with every year that passes, the welfare and indeed the survival of mankind depends proportionately more and more upon the rational use of the sea. I beg to move for Papers.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kennet for introducing this debate this evening. He put a number of questions to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate which will save me repeating some of them. The question as to why he is doing it himself I will leave him to answer although I suspect it is his interest in trade. At the time when I replied for the Government to the debate to which my noble friend referred, in February 1976, I would very much have welcomed a Lord Advocate to take the task off me, but once I got steeped in the subject I found it so fascinating and so urgent that not only was I glad to have the opportunity to do it but I agree with my noble friend that the environmental side and the part played by the Department of the Environment should not only be kept as it is but in fact should be increased.

The sea, of course, has a marvellous, deeply emotional effect on many of us. It inspires music, it inspires poetry, prose, painting, sculpture: yet it can be a destructive as well as a benevolent force. This again came through very clearly in the debate in February 1976 which ranged as widely as I am sure will the debate this evening.

The problem is complex and I will not pretend to be able to go into all the areas concerned. In any case it would not give anybody else except the Lord Advocate a chance to speak, if I were to do so. I see it as having roughly two policy dimensions—national and international. Being an island, we have sea all around us, of course, therefore shipping, fishing and the gathering of oil, gas and minerals all add to our standard of life, while many of their side effects detract from it. Without being chauvinistic, we certainly have a greater interest in the sea with all its "goodies" and "baddies" than many other countries, and a great number of differences of opinion. I am afraid that if today one were to stop anyone in the street and ask for an immediate reaction as to what the sea round our coast conjures up for them the answer would be "oil pollution".

Since 1975, pollution has been on the increase, although the 1978 figures appear to show some improvement. Nevertheless, oil pollution round our coasts has become an unfortunate and familiar way of life which affects its quality gravely. As my noble friend pointed out, for local authorities the effects can be financially heavy as well as socially deleterious and the local authority associations are pressing for the reimbursement of the cleaning-up costs to be much more prompt. I was fascinated and alarmed by the examples provided by the Association of County Councils and the other authorities, which indicate the heavy financial losses caused to county councils and district councils in separate incidents.

For example, in May 1978 the wreck of the "Eleni V" resulted in costs to the Suffolk County Council of over half a million pounds. Those costs have not yet been recovered, and moreover—and this is the important point for local authorities—the interest has continued to accumulate at the rate of £147.11 a day. Then in 1975 another incident involved H.M.S. "Achilles" and resulted in a claim by Kent County Council of over £32,000. This was settled only after three years, with a loss to the Council of £13,800 in interest. Again in May 1977 an incident involving the "Petros Hajikriakos" led to a final claim of over £71,000. No settlement has yet been made and again interest charges are already in the region of £22,600. Finally, Devon County Council are awaiting compensation for the grounding of a ship in September 1978. So far their claim has been acknowledged but no cash has been received.

Then we all saw on television last week the "Athena B", having been washed up on Brighton beach, causing a great deal of interest and amusement to a great many people. She then set off and has again been washed up somewhere else. That interest and amusement was at a cost of between a quarter and a half million pounds. Therefore, it is not surprising that all the local authority associations in England and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are pressing for a European fund to be paid for by the oil industry or its insurers. It would have two purposes; first, to reimburse costs of spills from unidentified sources, and, secondly, to make interim payments to authorites waiting for delayed settlements from identified pollution. This would avoid the necessity for rate-borne interest payments for money borrowed to finance the clean-up. This is even more urgent today when rates are rising and we are having public expenditure cuts made on local authorities.

But oil pollution is only one example of where there are conflicts of interest between localities on the one hand and central and local government on the other. if we carry all of this into the international field, it is little wonder that sea policy moves very sluggishly. In the debate in 1976 noble Lords in all parts of the House recognised the need for co-ordination, and suggestions were made for either a new Ministry, agency, or, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, suggested, a senior Minister with special assignment to direct and co-ordinate, and he thought perhaps this could be done by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I hope he is not going to suggest today that it is to be done by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.


My Lords, if the noble Baroness would allow me to intervene, of course the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at that time was the noble Lord, Lord Lever, and he was in a position to do this.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I was quite aware of that. The noble Lord has just spoiled a very good joke. I was going to say that the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has enough on his plate with the arts and the leadership of the House. I know the noble Lord was referring to Lord Lever. In reply to that debate what I said was: Whether there be an agency or a Minister, and my personal inclination is towards a Minister who would have some political clout in this field, if it is to be a viable starter the area of co-ordination must be precisely defined and positively integrated into the Government's structure. One does not want a gimmicky appointment or somebody there with a title with no power or influence to do an effective job. The Government recognise the need to co-ordinate discussions and decisions in relation to the different uses of the sea, and in cases of potential conflict to consider carefully which areas should be used for which purpose"—[Official Report, 18/2/76; col. 560.] Then in June, as my noble friend recalled, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked the Lord Privy Seal to perform the role of co-ordination. I like to feel that this was a cause and effect situation. It certainly made excellent sense.

The committee, until it dispapeared under the aegis of the new Government, prepared its negotiating stance for international conferences and for the Conference on the Law of the Sea. I think my noble friend rather underestimated the staff that it had. I understand from my noble friend Lord Peart, that it had a good staff, including a very distinguished civil servant from the Cabinet Office; the committee consisted of officials and of Ministers of State and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary from the Foreign Office. I understand it was meeting regularly about every two months. One of its briefs concerned the disparity between the rich and the poor countries—because there are rich and poor countries as far as sea resources are concerned as well as land. It was still in its early days, but it would appear that there were the makings of the sort of thing that we have now seen in relation to the Brandt Commission as far as land is concerned, in the developed and underdeveloped areas.

There is so much to do on the scientific and technological side, where co-ordination is very important, that it would seem to me that we must speak with one voice, not 25. My noble friend said 21, but I made it 25 different departments and organisations responsible. Otherwise, we are in danger of making the same mistakes at sea as we made on land from the time of the Industrial Revolution, in the absence of land use planning, which permitted dereliction and, later on, the horrors of more modern development. The second Industrial Revolution must be based on the sea. Its industrial and economic potential is enormous, the mineral wealth great.

I should like to ask the noble Lord the Lord Advocate what the Department of Industry is doing about manganese modules; how much help is given to rock conservation. The Department of Trade, in the report of their working party brought out in 1978, referring to prevention, which is so important when it comes to pollution, says: Most preventive measures require international as well as national action. These problems call for sustained action over a wide front rather than a single initiative. That was against the background and in the context of co-ordination. At the latest meeting of the Committee of IMCO in October 1979 the United Kingdom delegation was the only one among the EEC delegations which was composed solely of Department of Trade officials. Since the IMCO meetings are held in London, I wonder whether the Minister can tell me why this is so, when Environment and so many other Ministries have an interest. There are also other similar examples. There are endless Law of the Sea Conferences, but, as my noble friend said, we have not yet got a 12-mile territorial limit. I think we ought to have port State jurisdiction rather than flag State jurisdiction, which would mean that we would catch the pollution dilinquents and also interfere less with shipping.

Finally, my noble friend suggested a Royal Commission. I think that should be given consideration. I would also like the Government to consider the possibility of setting up a Select Committee of this House to look into the whole question, so that if they recommend, as I hope they will at the end of the day, some form of co-ordination machinery, it will be something not so easily swept away as has happened this time. I know Governments of both parties are notorious for not looking far enough ahead. But we have not got all the time in the world when we are talking about the sea, and we must make sure that we do not waste the time that we have.

6.29 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for initiating this extremely important debate. It is true that we have discussed this subject two or three times over the last few years, but each time we discuss it it seems to me that it deals with topics which are becoming more and more important. We have at least three of the major interests of the immediate future for this country involved in maritime matters. Fish is an extremely important part of the diet of a great many countries of the world, and as the numbers in the world become greater and as the amount of food becomes less per person, as unfortunately it shows signs of doing, the conservation and the encouragement of fisheries will be one of the most important matters with which people have to deal. Already we are seeing the troubles which can come from not looking after your fisheries well enough.

There will be not only the problems of dealing with the conservation of the major fisheries of the seas of the world, but we shall reach a position where we shall be going in for fish-farming not only in ponds on land but, as our ancestors often did, in the areas immediately around the coast. Therefore, a great deal of our food and the future food of the world is involved when we talk about the future of the sea. Moreover, a very great many of the world's resources in terms of mining are also involved.

Already we are mining the North Sea extremely intensively for oil. It used to be said, "How could we be hungry and cold in this country—a country surrounded by fish and built upon coal?" However, we are now surrounded by fish and oil. The conservation and management of that oil is tremendously important. So far it can be said that the countries bordering the North Sea have not done at all badly. Britain, and Norway in particular, and the other countries involved, have not made too big a hash of what was a tremendously new venture. However, it is a matter of diminishing resources and of very important supplies of energy in a world in which energy is in short supply; and again it is a matter to which we should be turning our fullest attention.

However, of course, it is not just a question of oil. Indeed, manganese nodules have been mentioned. Undoubtedly, there are immense riches to be harnessed from the seabed in various parts of the world which will become more available as our techniques and technology improve, as they undoubtedly will. So, we have two great resources which we need to husband. At the same time we have the problem as regards the sea of the enormous pollution which is engulfing so many of the world's seas. We have always thought that the oceans were one great sewer into which we could tip all our detritus without danger of anything coming back to us. Now we are realising, with the killing of various inland seas—and the Mediterranean is well into the process of being killed as a sea—that we cannot go on causing this amount of damage. Even our North Sea is beginning to show signs of pollution of one type or another. The evidence that was put forward at the extremely interesting Conference on the North Sea which was held in Holland and at which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, as he said, took the chair, was horrifying as regards some of the prospects which are creeping up on us.

There are three areas—food, mineral resources and pollution—which need very strong action on the part of Government—not just Government, but Governments. We shall not be able to help deal with these resources and problems in the seas of the world, or even in our own North Sea, without a very great deal of co-ordination and co-operation between the countries concerned. We must govern the seas and police the seas. Both of those matters are essential. We are lucky that, in the North Sea, we have an area which ought to be manageable. It ought to be manageable because, as has been said, on its borders are the countries of the EEC and also of Scandinavia, which have a long tradition of co-operation, democratic government and of being very reasonable when it comes to discussing international matters. That surely is an area in which we can make one great step forward towards an internationalism which is necessary for these purposes and in itself.

It is because I think that there is this strong necessity for pressing forward as much as possible with international negotiations that I shall stick my neck out this evening and say that I think that there ought to be a Ministry for Maritime Affairs. I know that that is inviting people to declare that I am foolish and to say that, wherever there is a problem someone always produces the quick answer of setting up a new Ministry, but that does not solve anything. I can only say that I can put my hand on my heart and say that, on the whole, I do not accept that particular solution to most problems. I have been, and I am, deeply interested in education and children. But I have never fallen for the idea that there should be a Minister for Children.

However, I think that we should examine the prospects of a Minister for Maritime Affairs, as indeed was suggested by Elizabeth Young in the valuable Fabian pamphlet which came out not very long ago. I repeat that the reason why we should do that is because I believe we must push forward the area of international negotiation on all these matters, and we shall not be seen to be doing our best until we have a Minister—indeed, I go further and say a Minister of Cabinet rank—representing this country and taking the initiative in making the moves on these matters. This is a most important area. I have repeated already the areas which seem to me to be so important that we must not neglect them in the way that we have neglected them over the past few years.

As regards the question of more food, more minerals and of stopping pollution, we must be seen to take the initiative. That is something that Britain can do, but it is not something that Britain can do by itself. It is something to which Britain can give a lead and which Britain can help push. I think that we ought to do it, and I direct your Lordships' attention and the Government's attention to the fact that maybe the time has come to consider very seriously the creation of a Ministry for Maritime Affairs.

6.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad and grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has introduced this subject once again. As he pointed out, it is almost four years to the day—indeed, I think it was yesterday—since we had an effective debate on this subject. It was introduced on that occasion by the noble Baroness, Lady White, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Henley. Since then, as has been pointed out—and I measure my words carefully—we have had at least a symbolic bracketing of the departments under the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal. I am sure that they did quite a lot of the work, but it was not very evident in the displayed activities of the separate departments, which they did not rule or direct. I find it very disturbing that now, in the absence of that bracket, or "committee" as I would call it, we are now seeing quite clearly that the lead in this matter is being taken by the Department of Trade.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and indeed of my noble friend Lord Kennet, of a Minister of Maritime Affairs, if only to keep such matters out of the hands of the departments. In this case there must be a manifest conflict of interest. The Department of Trade is, in fact, the Ministry of Shipping, and its clients, manifestly and considerably, are the shipping people themselves. I am the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea, and when we have had to discuss these matters we have been discussing with the shipping element of the Department of Trade. Occasionally we have had a shotgun wedding and have managed to get two or three departments together. But the noble Lord is right when he says that we are negotiating with the Department of Trade. I do not say that meaning any disrespect at all; but I insist that there is a genuine conflict of interest here.

Today there is a great deal more to the uses of the sea than the traffic on the surface. We are no longer even a dominant shipping nation; nor are we a naval or mercantile nation. We no longer rule the waves. But what distresses me—and I am sure that it distresses everyone who is taking part in this debate—is the way in which we have abdicated our role as great traditional sea people. We have neglected the very influential role that we can play. We can take initiatives and, above all, we can set examples.

In all these debates, and in discussions outside this House, we run into the point that the Government can always say that we have the international maritime organisation, IMCO; that we are waiting for IMCO or that we are doing this or that within IMCO. I am a great admirer of IMCO and a great advocate of everything that IMCO is trying to do. I have great respect for the people in IMCO who are trying to do those things. However, as an ex-professor of international relations I personally believe entirely in relying on international agreements. We talk about the "Seven Seas", but there is only one ocean, the hydrosphere which covers seven-tenths of the planet Earth. Therefore, it is proper and absolutely essential that we proceed through international agreements and on a global scale.

However, there is a very serious factor here. It takes roughly three years to prepare for a diplomatic conference which adopts the conventions in IMCO, another five years for the convention to be ratified and enter into force, and a few more years before it is implemented in or through national law. For two years the IMCO Legal Committee has been preparing a convention on liability and compensation for chemical pollution. It is sitting today—I know because I have spoken to the secretary—and it will continue sitting. This convention is to be discussed at a diplomatic conference in 1982, to come into force in about 1987.

This delay means that the kind of incident about which we have read recently in the papers, where the chemical containers from a ship have been scattered along our coastline, will be multiplied. I love the word "incident". These incidents are death-dealing, and on a larger scale that one could have resulted in disaster. We are looking for the answers. We are looking in the proper way for a proper instrument. At the same time we should—indeed, we must—be taking account of our own position, not in defiance of international law but in the implementation of what is demonstrably the sound principles which have been arrived at either by the IMCO processes or as a result of what we can learn from the United Nations' Law of the Sea Conference.

However, those who are at the receiving end of marine pollution—the local government authorities, the tourist industry and the fishing industry—are the victims of the law's delays. My noble friend Lady Birk has mentioned the very substantial complaints which the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils have made about the long delays during which the ratepayer is subsidising the cost of the mopping-up operation, often without a settlement in sight or sure of a guarantee that there will be one—because the sources of many of these incidents cannot be identified. It is highly undesirable and highly objectionable that the local authorities and the ratepayers—the victims—should have to pay for these mistakes, which are no fault of theirs. I hope that we all accept—I am not sure we all do—the fact that the polluter must pay. I also believe that it is the function of Government to recover the loss and make sure that the polluter pays. There should be what the Americans call—and I do not know whether we do this—a "no fault" insurance, under which the victim is taken care of while the insurance companies, or in this case the Government, try to recover.

Local authorities are in a state of very great distress; their responsibilities have multiplied. They foresee, and I certainly foresee with a nightmare clarity, what is liable to happen at any moment in very many different ways. The county councils are also looking with apprehension at what may happen. In its evidence to the Royal Commission the Association of County Councils discusses what my noble friend is trying to resolve; that is, the divided responsibilities between Government departments, particularly between the Department of Trade and the Department of the Environment, which, of course, is the overseeing department of the local authorities.

While acknowledging that in recent incidents the arrangements between the Department of Trade and the local authorities have been generally "flexible and efficient", the association points out that the department is responsible for oil pollution clearance up to one mile from the shore, and that is where they turn round and go back. There is no legislative provision for the inshore belt, which local authorities are expected to supervise. As their submission says: There is little point in the Department of Trade ceasing to be involved when a slick is, say, 100 yards from the shore. They just turn away and leave it. They strongly argue that the Department of the Environment should take a more active role, both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

The other point they stress, and which has already been pointed out, is that in international conferences we are principally represented by the Department of Trade. This is what the Association of County Councils says: Although the Department"— that is, the Department of the Environ-ment— is invited to be represented at the IMCO (The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation) Marine Environment Protection Committee meetings, the UK delegations consist mainly of Department of Trade officials, who represent shipping rather than environmental interests. The Department of the Environment also shows little interest in the meetings of the Legal Committee of IMCO which discuss, for example, compensation for oil pollution damage". There is then a reference to the latest meeting of the Legal Committee. The representation on the Legal Committee sitting at the moment is in fact entirely DOT officials.

On the contrary, the other delegations are led by officials from mainly the Ministry of Justice. I might even suggest to my noble friend Lord Kennet that that might be a justification for having the Lord Advocate here. This is the situation in which we are completely under-represented on what I regard as the genuine issues here. The issues are not just the concern of the shipping industry. It is not just the concern of the tanker owners and so forth, even when we are in fact at the moment getting a great deal of co-operation from both.

Of course, in these discussions and in the international conferences it is right and proper that commercial interests, the shippers, the oil companies and the insurance companies, should be consulted. Indeed, they are in fact embodied considerably in the delegation themselves. But it surely is also right and proper for those who have a right to protection that they should have some say in the nature of the protection and whether it is adequate. It has now become—and I speak from a good deal of experience of international conferences—a matter of comment at international conferences that, as the Association of County Councils pointed out, while other delegations are led and staffed by jurists representing the common weal—from the Ministries of Justice or External Affairs, or from the environment—the British rely on the Department of Trade with its emphasis on commercial interests.

We very much need at the level of government an interdepartmental instrument for the proper planning of sea uses to give us, as the Motion today says, an effective maritime policy and for keeping this policy up to date in a changing world. This is the only way we can avoid "government by catastrophe". I have used that phrase before in this House, and I cannot repeat it often enough. We wait for some disaster to happen and then we improvise; with a lot of headlines, a lot of reassuring noises, we then begin to do something about it. It is true we now have Admiral Stacey's unit in being to deal expeditiously and, one hopes, effectively with events at sea. I am very much reassured on events at sea so far as that kind of incident is concerned, but we need some sort of effective civil defence, as it were, to deal with the effects ashore.

Every time a disaster happens we find that the lessons of previous disasters have often been forgotten and mistakes are repeated, or we discover the extent of our ignorance which proper research should have remedied. That was notoriously true in the case of the "Eleni V". Your Lordships will recall it was discovered that the dispersants and other measures could not cope with heavy fuel oil. They had not really an insight into the nature of it. The biggest traffic in oil round our coasts is in heavy oil. It happened again in the case of the "Esso Berenicia". In the"Eleni V" the Department of Trade mounted a lavish operation, with ineffective equipment and futile dispersants. I should like to hear from the Lord Advocate whether the Government are going to be able to recover compensation for that expenditure for that expensive exercise, because I gather they are not likely to.

The merchant ships, including tankers which carry the bulk of the oil, and the carriers of toxic freights and liquid natural gas, the naval ships, fishing craft, and pleasure craft, share the seas now with oil rigs and mining vessels dredging for aggregate or manganese nodules. All have their own kind of hazards, and not only our shores and our immediate offshores but also what has been called "the common heritage of mankind", the ocean and the sea bottom (a very desirable piece of real estate nowadays) are now dangerously at risk. Remember this is the last resource of mankind. It is not just a case of fouling it up, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, pointed out, with all kinds of pollution; it is a case of life at sea, including the plankton and the photosynthetic process, being at risk. I would remind your Lordships that it is that photosynthetic process over the oceans—over seven-tenths of our globe—which liberates the oxygen in the air we breathe, and on which all life on earth depends. We have tended to think of the oceans as so vast that it is impossible to damage them, but as a life support system it is very fragile. It is a web of life, and it can be irreparably damaged.

It was that genuine concern, and a concern about the exploitation of the ocean floor, that gave urgency to the United Nations Third Law of the Sea Conference. Now I am sorry to say "urgency" has become a horse-laugh. It is still dragging on, and the national measures of self-protection are being deferred until the Convention can be achieved, and I do not see it being achieved even this year. This goes back a long time now. When I realised the implications of the economic wealth in the form of ore or in the form of manganese nodules paving vast areas of the ocean floor, and realised the hazards—not just the opportunity—which reckless exploitation would entail politically as well as ecologically, I agitated to have Britain take the lead. I saw 14 years ago how ill-equipped we were, and I got into the discussions. I was not in this House at that time, but I got into discussions in both Houses and in Government departments, because I realised to my horror how ill-equipped in experience or in imagination the government departments were to deal with this. It really was alarming. It was then that we should have begun to create the framework of an effective maritime policy.

My noble friend Lord Caradon who, as Minister at the United Nations took an active and laudable part in the setting up of the United Nations Seabed Committee, may recall that I wrote to him at that time saying that this was Britain's tryst with destiny, and how it could be in true internationalism the sublimation of our great history and tradition as a sea-going nation which had acquired a sea-knit empire. We could have inspired the world. I think we still can.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for raising this subject this evening. We are indebted to him. I took part in the debate on 18th February 1976, which unfortunately he could not move because of his illness, but I am glad that he is here today. I am also glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder. He and I work together on the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea.

He indeed pointed out that so much of what we have discussed so far in this debate affects the law, and is being discussed at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference. So it is no surprise at all to me that the Lord Advocate should reply to this debate. After all he is one of the Government law officers, and it is quite appropriate that he should be a Scottish one because after all most of the matters we have been discussing—such as oil and fish—arise in the waters around Scotland, where, so far as United Kingdom jurisdiction applies, it is Scots law. I may say to my noble and learned friend, in case he should have been at all discouraged by some of the comments made about this and as he was not in your Lordships' House in the last Parliament, that another Scottish law officer, the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, was on a number of occasions asked to deal from the Front Bench with some very unusual subjects. This, when he was not engaged with the Scotland Bill, he did—as anyone who knows the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, will appreciate—willingly and very well.

Both the noble Lords, Lord Kennet and Lord Ritchie-Calder, drew attention to a subject which has always been important to our country; it has now been made even more complicated by new functions and duties which have fallen on the Government. We are still a leading maritime nation. The shipping industry has been mentioned, and I would point out that we are still a leader in the world of shipping. Taking into account registered tonnage, and our standing and authority in the world, and not counting flags of convenience, the United Kingdom and Japan are the leading shipping nations in the world.

In this debate we must ask: Has the British machinery for co-ordination been adjusted and strengthened to operate adequately in view of the very recent increase in the United Kingdom's responsibilities, particularly round our own shores? The significant events have been very recent, and I will mention three briefly: first, oil and gas; secondly, navigation; and thirdly, fisheries. As regards oil, five years ago not a drop of oil had yet started to flow from the British sector of the North Sea. Now, large quantities of oil are flowing through terminals in both Orkney and Shetland, there is a network of pipelines to the coasts and there is some tanker loading at sea taking place at the oilfields.

On navigation, it is only in the last few years that giant ships, both tankers and bulk carriers, have been passing round our coasts in their present numbers. They increase the risks of accidents and pollution because charts of our continental shelf had not previously had to cater for draughts of such magnitude. There has naturally therefore been pressure from noble Lords, including me, for acceleration of work towards the necessary completion of hydrographic surveys.

My third point is fisheries. Besides the expansion of the sea area to be controlled, measures have been necessary to preserve fish stocks, and this has required much closer policing than ever before. The new common fisheries policy for the EEC is being negotiated and that is vital for the United Kingdom. I wish our negotiators all success and I would ask them to bear in mind the imminent joining of the Community by Spain, a large fishing nation. But, both now and after agreement, we do and shall need an effective system of control.

The position was clear in 1972, when we were negotiating to join the EEC, that the forthcoming move—it was obvious then; it was already being discussed—to a 200-mile fisheries limit was going to cause renegotiation of the EEC fishery policy anyway; it was bound to come and therefore there had to be a 10-year standstill. I would add that in my view, besides the total allowable catches on which the fishing nations in North-East Europe are now operating, we should go in for the licensing of individual vessels, both as regards time and place. That is really the only effective way of monitoring fishing operations. All the fishing nations concerned moved from a mere 12 miles to the 200-mile limit at the same time, at the beginning of 1977, and the noble Lord, Lord Peart, and I, from opposing Front Benches, at the end of 1976 helped to get the Fisheries Act through in time, before the end of 1976. That had been agreed at the Law of the Sea Conference by all the nations concerned, but it has now been carried out and is therefore de facto international law.

If anyone is puzzled about the cod wars that took place and the position of Iceland in the light of that, I must point out that what Iceland was trying to do was to get unilateral advantages without the disadvantages by trying to move to 200 miles some years before international agreement, before the fishing nations themselves had had time to make preparations and move together. Looked at another way, it was as if the Icelandic runner in the Olympic marathon was giving himself a start of 24 hours over the other runners in that race.

As a result of such recent developments, the United Kingdom now has a vast area of sea round its coasts in which to monitor and control activities. This will continue whatever is finally decided at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea or in the negotiations for a new EEC fishery policy. Most of the task is being carried out by the RAF in their Nimrod aircraft, which I would describe as flying electronic workshops with highly sophisticated detection equipment, and by Naval vessels below. The Navy divide their work with the Scottish Office fishery protection vessels. I must point out that three of the four squadrons of Nimrods are stationed at Kinloss, near my home in northern Scotland, again because much of the work they have to do is in the seas round Scotland.

Besides the principal function of defence, there are four important British interests to be protected and different departments are involved; on fisheries, the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Agriculture are mainly concerned: on offshore oil and gas, the Department of Energy is mainly concerned; as regards safe navigation, the Department of Trade is the regulator; and regarding the prevention of pollution, the Department of Trade, the Scottish Office and the Department of the Environment are principally involved, the last two also having the interests of coastal local authorities to protect. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, spoke about the Department of the Environment, at which she was a Minister, but I must point out that of course the Department of the Environment does not in these duties extend at all into Scotland; it is the Scottish Office which carries out all the duties there, and this only makes our problem worse because it shows the division among even more departments.

Under the "tapestry surveillance system, as it is known, I understand that the RAF and Navy include in their duties the policing of fisheries and the monitoring of oil pollution, and that is to be welcomed. I also understand that it is now possible to make an arrest from the air; for example, that it is possible technically to arrest an offending fishing boat, and I would ask my noble and learned friend if he can tell us more about that and whether that is now the case and that it is not necessary to have to follow up with a surface vessel and, if necessary, a boarding party.

As a country we cannot afford duplication of effort. Moreover, every ounce of effort must be effective. But much can be achieved by the deterrent effect of making it widely known that airborne detecting apparatus is constantly in use. I draw a parallel with what is done on the roads in this country; the notice "Police radar in use" slows down many a driver who is exceeding the speed limit. A similar policy could be helpful at sea. Any irresponsible skipper of a tanker who is contemplating illegally releasing some oily ballast should in future be tortured by the anxiety that he may be being watched both by day and by night. Above all, we must make certain that there is never another "Torrey Canyon". The Secretaries of State for Defence and Trade are probably the most involved, but several other departments are involved too. Co-ordination should not only be quick and effective; it should, I submit, also be seen to be being carried out successfully.

I am going to make a suggestion—and am not suggesting a new Minister, or a new Quango. Because of the new functions of supervision which have become necessary very recently over the seas adjacent to our shores, new Government machinery has, I believe, become necessary for co-ordination. We may hear this evening what has already been done by the Government. My own suggestion, made respectfully, is that this function of co-ordination should be taken out of the Cabinet Committee and the departmental committee system and given to a National Maritime Council. The Government departments mainly concerned would he members, with Ministers attending on some occasions and officials on others, as appropriate. The chair should not be taken by a departmental Minister. The subject is so important that the chairman should be a senior Minister without a department, perhaps the Lord President of the Council. Indeed, the Prime Minister might on occasions preside.

The Cabinet Committee system is of course confidential, and is continually changing—it is a matter for the Prime Minister of the day—and that is in order to protect Cabinet collective responsibility. But in this field everybody knows the departments which are involved and it is a matter of co-ordination, not of policy making. Outside bodies could be invited to attend certain meetings so that the council would function on the same lines as the National Economic Development Council. For example, representatives of the General Council of British Shipping, the fishing industry, the United Kingdom Offshore Operators' Association—the gas and oil industries—and Trinity House could attend on suitable occasions.

This is building on a previous suggestion of mine, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, referred. I then suggested the Chancellor of the Duchy because he was not only the appropriate Minister, as I thought, in that Cabinet four years ago, but he was indeed, as Mr. Harold Lever, at that moment involved in North Sea operations. He had been given the special task by the Prime Minister of the day of negotiating with the oil companies.

So much of what we are discussing is related to defence that I do not think it would be appropriate to appoint another special Minister, nor do I think it would be appropriate for the Minister of Defence to have to take over all these other duties. It may be argued that co-ordination is already being adequately achieved and that adjustments are being made. Well, I should be glad if that is happening. I am certainly not suggesting additional bureaucracy; rather that the co-ordination that is essential should be on a visible, nationwide basis.

If anyone claims that arrangements have been working perfectly, I must dissent. One fairly recent example was the collision in fog of the small tanker, the "Eleni V", and the subsequent oil pollution. A mass of detergent was pumped from special vessels with considerable effort and at considerable expense, but as it was a heavy oil there was no effect at all on it. In fact the only effect was a damaging one, because the detergent itself is toxic. In that instance it clearly took days for the information about the kind of oil that was on board the vessel to reach the authorities concerned, when it should have taken only minutes. That is one example, and I could give others. We must ensure that there is better coordination, and that it can be seen.

I hope that there are improvements with Admiral Stacey's new marine pollution control unit within the Department of Trade. But can the Government be completely satisfied with the present situation? I offer my suggestion as a student of methods and machinery of Government. We have newly-found resources in the seabed. We have also important maritime interests around our coasts to protect. Surely we must have the most efficient and up-to-date system to conserve our renewable resources, besides enforcing the necessary measures for restraint and safety, and for the protection of all these interests.

As a country what we can afford is limited. What the United Kingdom can and should do, however, is to ensure that all the methods of surveillance available, and potential responses to incidents, are co-ordinated to the highest standard of speed and efficiency. Clear and visible success in this will in itself be a cogent deterrent against offences and carelessness.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, when it was suggested to me a little time ago that I might take part in this debate I was very doubtful whether I was competent to do so, and I was not sure what the range of our discussions would cover. However, I wish to speak very briefly on one subject which seems to me to be of maximum importance. I realise that it is only part of the very wide spectrum of subjects which have been discussed this evening, but it is the one in which I personally have been interested and concerned for a decade or more.

I remember the time in the United Nations when, shortly before the General Assembly started for that particular year, the Ambassador of a small country came to us and said that he had a new subject for the General Assembly. His proposal was greeted with universal irritation since we had been to great trouble in the General Committee to settle the whole programme for the year, and now this little country came forward with a suggestion which meant that we must give our minds to a new subject. What was it that Malta wanted to raise which must hold up the work of the world? Ambassador Pardo of Malta came forward and said that he wished to raise the subject of the deep seabed. What could that have to do with Malta? What did they want to say about it? Ambassador Pardo said that he understood that the riches of the deep seabed, so far undiscovered, unexploited, might one day be discovered to be equal in value even to the mineral deposits of the dry land.

It was all very well as a hypothetical idea, but what did he want to say about it? He said that he wanted the international community to declare at that time that this, the greatest unexploited asset of the world, should not be made to make the rich countries richer, should not be merely an advantage to those who already had the advantages of high technology and economic capacity. But this, the remaining asset of the world, should be declared now to be the asset of all mankind.

Well, in a few speeches perhaps Ambassador Pardo could be persuaded off the idea, or bought off it. But Ambassador Pardo was not prepared to give way, and through the sittings of the General Assembly we had to come back to the subject every now and then, and towards the end of the time we realised that we would have to vote on it. I do not forget the day—it may be well to remember it tonight—when the vote took place. A gasp went up that evening; when was it?—12 or 13 years ago; I am not sure. Ambassador Pardo's Motion that the riches of the deep seabed should be the common heritage of all mankind was passed that night by 99 votes to nil.

I think that all of us present felt that we had seen something which might be of great consequence to the world, which might make all the difference possibly to the prevailing problems of the rich and the poor. Here was a great asset which should not be turned to the profit and advantage of a few, but should be kept and preserved for the benefit of everyone.

What has happened since? It is a sad story. First, there was an international conference called in Venezuela. Then the international conference met subsequently in Vienna. Then it met in Geneva. Years went by. It met in New York. It is to meet again—I have forgotten the date. The arguments go forward. Now there are all sorts of other things: freedom of passage, fisheries, the law of the sea. These are subjects which are to be considered at international conferences for a long time to come. Meanwhile, the grabbing goes on: the new colonisation of the sea.

We sometimes congratulate ourselves that we have finished with the colonisation of the land, but now every country with an aspect of the sea grabs the maximum, up to 200 miles—yes, and beyond if possible—led, I believe, by the United States and supported, I believe, by ourselves. It is now proposed that beyond the 200 miles it should not be a matter for international control but should be a matter for the company and the country which has the capacity to make the exploitation. I believe that is an American proposal with, so far as I know, the United Kingdom taking a passive position in this matter.

Surely, it is a great conception that the riches of the deep sea should be for the benefit of all mankind. Why should it be thrown away? Why should the idea of establishing an international authority to license and develop this remaining asset be neglected? It seems to me that, with all the other matters that have to be considered in the very comprehensive and able speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, it would be a good thing to stop and think whether it is right that this country, which has a tradition in matters of the sea—and we have been reminded of it often enough tonight—should be content to see this asset thrown away. We cannot tell exactly what it amounts to, but we know that up to 200 miles there is now a determination by many countries to grab all they can as if it were their own. So I think that maybe the subject to be discussed should take into account the possibility that the idea which emerged from a small country a long time ago should become a matter of concern in which this country might well take the lead.

7.22 p.m.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has this evening introduced a subject of wide scope and great importance. When I saw the name of the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, on the list of speakers I wondered whether he was going to talk to us about the danger to the beaches of Cornwall through pollution. They have fine beaches in Cornwall—and that is a very generous and broad-minded statement for me, a Devonian, to make.


My Lords, I especially appreciate, if I may say so, that from a mere Devonian that reference to Cornwall should be so generous!

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, they are second in beauty only to the beaches of Devon. Let me give another example of my broad-mindedness and generosity this evening by saying that I have not the smallest objection to the Minister who is going to comment on this debate from the Front Bench being a distingushed legal luminary from Scotland. I wish to offer only a few observations on one aspect of this problem, and that concerns the responsibility for dealing with pollution from the sea which falls on coastal county councils and district councils. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has already referred to this, and the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, has, too, and that means that I can be even more brief than I had intended.

Those councils, I understand, are convinced that the existing laws, conventions and working arrangements between central Government and local authorities are in urgent need of being brought up to date in the light of the experience gained from various disasters in recent years. The views of local authorities are fully set out, as has been mentioned, in the memorandum of evidence submitted by the Association of County Councils to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. I will therefore not attempt to describe, or even to summarise, the many important issues contained in this memorandum. It calls for action, as has been asked for by several noble Lords, both at the international and at the national level, to clarify and to enforce the existing responsibilities and to make action more effective. The theme of this memorandum is notably free, I think, from theoretical concepts. It emphasises throughout the need for practical co-operation and flexible arrangement; it acknowledges that much pragmatic co-operation already takes place in emergencies, but that the totality is inadequate to deal with the scale of the consequences of major disasters today; that the existing procedures are sometimes too slow and responsibilities are not by any means always clearly defined; and notably, as has already been mentioned, that the arrangements for compensation are quite inadequate in practice, whatever they may be or ought to be in theory.

I gather that the central Government are considered to be responsible for dealing with pollution at sea to within a mile of the shore while counties are mainly responsible for pollution below low water level and district councils above that level, though surprisingly there is no statutory obligation on them to do so. In practice, co-operation between all three is essential in all but quite minor disasters. Local councils believe that the only just principle is that the full cost—I repeat, the full cost—of pollution disasters at sea should fall on the polluters (the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, quite rightly stressed that) and not on the innocent ratepayers of coastal areas. One trouble is that the polluter cannot at present always be identified, and in such cases some kind of fund, international or national, may be the answer; but in existing circumstances, even when the polluter is identified, obtaining compensation seems to be a frustrating and long-drawn-out business, sometimes taking several years, during which, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, said, local authorities are seriously out of pocket; and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has quoted some examples.

Another complication is that during an incident local authorities may have to deal with two government departments, the Department of Trade and the Department of the Environment, both of which have important interests in this field. I should like to say that obviously the Department of the Environment has, and must have, important interests, and it is perhaps an illustration of one of the inadequacies that that department keeps only one stockpile of emergency equipment at present, I understand, and that at Bristol. But more effective international co-operation is absolutely essential, and local authorities, I gather, are not satisfied that Her Majesty's Government are at present pressing for this with sufficient energy. A European fund, for example, to which potential polluters should contribute, would seem to be a sensible and useful plan; and much more vigorous enforcement of existing controls are clearly called for.

In these few remarks I have confined myself to the effects of marine pollution on shore and on the fisheries and the amenities in the coastal areas affected; but the prevention of accidents at sea is of crucial importance. In the past a collision at sea has often been thought of as affecting two parties only, the two ships concerned; but, now, with chemicals and oil there is a third party, the central and local governments of the coastal areas affected by it.

I feel there is an argument for saying that more energy should be displayed in ensuring internationally that the existing laws are adequate and enforced. I do not agree with the proposal made by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who said that he was sticking his neck out in proposing it, and by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, that there should be an additional department. It is always tempting to think that by doing that one will simplify proceedings. The other departments have a natural interest in these problems. But to do so (and I think my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy would agree) would add one more link in the chain and perhaps make the result exactly the opposite of the intention of this proposal.

The general impression one gets is that in respect of coastal damage from oil and chemicals, local authorities generally are trying to do their best but could be much more effectively supported by central Government. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for giving me the opportunity to say these few words and I hope that my noble friend the Lord Advocate will make it clear in reply that he agrees that there are important issues here which are not at present solved and that the improvements in arrangements for combined action and, particularly, in the matter of obtaining payment of compensation if possible have become urgent, and that these problems will receive the Government's attention.

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, asked me to take part in this debate I said that I would not put my name down but was so interested that I would listen to the debate, and, if time permitted, as it now does, I would make such contribution as I could, based on my experience as a one-time yachtsman, a shipping agent in the East, a trustee of the Port of Bombay and a traveller in the old days of passenger liners. As a result, I have been fascinated by what has gone on. I feel like a seagull flying along over the stern of a ship in the saloon of which a large meal had been eaten, and that there were various crusts falling overboard on which I could swoop and then make my own contribution to the whole thing.

I will dodge about a bit. I went to see the Viking Exhibition this morning at the British Museum. I found there a queue for 300 yards which had started at 8.30 this morning. Yesterday they had had to close the gates at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, otherwise there would not have been time for people to see the exhibition. That confirms what the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, said, that we are a nation who at heart are interested in the sea. We must be; it is bred in us. Consequently, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for having put forward this debate at this time.

I have one or two small additions which I think are worth making. I cannot help agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that it is time to set up a Ministry of Maritime Affairs. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, there are emergencies nowadays which call for prompt action. If one wants prompt action, one must have one central authority who is authorised to move promptly.

I do not envy the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate in replying to this debate with these 101 different ideas coming from different directions. One problem which I feel ought to be tackled is the extraordinary case—and noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong—when recently, out of our pockets, we subsidised the shipbuilding of some vessels for Poland. They have now been supplied to them at very favourable rates, thanks to the subsidy from our revenues, and will now be plying the oceans in competition with our own mercantile marine. Whether or not that is the case remains to be seen.

Talking of the mercantile marine, one point that I had expected my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy to mention was the problem of coastal shipping. I was concerned with coastal shipping in the Indian Ocean. At the moment, I am in a way also so concerned because I happen to know the great pressure now being put on the cost of living in the Scottish islands due to the high freight rate on ferry services. This is a problem which is not purely a commercial one. It is an environmental one and a social one; because if something cannot be done to reduce freight rates for coastal shipping in the Western Islands of Scotland the depopulation of the islands will continue and a very reasonable source of agricultural products may deteriorate as a result.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Glasgow has not been able to speak. I expected that he would have been able to put in a word which I am now going to put in. Another item in which a Minister of Marine Affairs would be concerned is the Royal Naval Reserve, and of ensuring the wellbeing of the splendid body of men who ply the seas. Fortunately, I have had recent contacts with members of the Master Mariners' Association. In terms of our naval history, it is important that the Royal Naval Reserve should be fostered and that someone should be able, from the Government point of view, to be in contact with the Navy, linking the Navy with the mercantile marine.

My Lords, that is the last crust on which I propose to swoop and pick out of the water. In conclusion, may I repeat what I have said before: that if speed is the essence of dealing with some of the disasters that the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, spoke of, the co-ordination for which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and all other speakers have pressed must be centred in one authority.

7.40 p.m.

The LORD ADVOCATE (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I am sure that we are all very deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for initiating this debate on what I think we are all agreed is a vitally important subject. The noble Lord was good enough to indicate to me some time ago some of the principal topics on which he would address the House, but he did not indicate that the first would be why I was replying to the debate. The simple answer is that this debate would normally have fallen to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne but that he was doing so many other things that it was right that he should be relieved. Noble Lords may know that one of the interesting aspects of the Lord Advocate's position is that he is an ex-officio member of the Northern Lighthouse Board, which is the general lighthouse authority for Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Lord Advocate is also responsible for enforcing the law of Scotland and, I suppose like most people in such a position, is not averse to an extension of the area of his jurisdiction. It is obvious that legal matters often come into the discussions that we have had, and the law officers of the Crown, including the Lord Advocate, are consulted from time to time in such matters.

It is also fair to say, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out, that these are matters which very much affect the people of Scotland. Before I came to my present position, in private practice, as a member of the Scots Bar, I had quite a lot of occasion to become involved in legal problems arising from oil exploration and its resulting marine activity off the Scottish shores.

In any event, the subject is an important one and I am glad to have the opportunity of speaking about it. I think that everyone has recognised the importance of co-ordination in this field. The Government are no exception to this. The present Government have recognised the importance of co-ordination and have sought to deal with the matter in the way announced in the reply that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne gave to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on 20th November last. The arrangement is that the Department of Trade has the lead role in co-ordinating policy on marine matters. Other departments which have responsibilities in these areas—for example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which provides the lead and legal expertise on negotiations at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference—retain their responsibility. Similarly, the Department of Energy, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Scottish Office, the Welsh Office, and so on, retain their primary responsibilities. But there is a need for co-ordination, and that co-ordination has been placed as a responsibility on the Secretary of State for Trade. He is responsible for taking the lead where necessary in co-ordinating Government policy.

A great deal of work has already been done by officials in identifying the relevant responsibilities of departments, and a guide was prepared and published in 1977 by the Interdepartmental Committee on Marine Safety itself under the chairmanship of the Department of Trade and an important part of the structure for co-ordination. This arrangement, as has been pointed out, differs from that of the previous Administration, under which the Lord Privy Seal (then the noble Lord, Lord Peart) was responsible for co-ordination centrally. He had no marine responsibilities apart from that. May I pause to say that I am sorry that the noble Lord is not able to be with us this evening. We hope that he will soon be back in his place—but that is with no disrespect to the charming noble Baroness who took his place on this occasion.

We take the view that where there is need for co-ordination it is better to build on the wide marine interests that the Department of Trade has traditionally had, with the Secretary of State for Trade in the lead. It has been suggested that this involves a conflict of interest, because the Secretary of State for Trade is primarily concerned with shipping. In my submission to your Lordships that is not so. This is a type of difficulty which the Department of Trade have had to cope with for a long time because, although it has shipping interests, it also has marine interests. For example, the Secretary of State for Trade is the Minister responsible for standards of safety in relation to the construction of ships. He is the Minister responsible in overall position in relation to the general lighthouse authorities. He is the Minister who has responsibility for search and rescue operations of a civilian kind, and so on.

The policy which has led to this is that utilisation of existing services, existing resources, in this department is the foundation upon which co-ordination should be built. We believe that the current arrangements are sensible and that they are working reasonably satisfactorily. Of course everything can be improved, and we are doing our best to work towards every improvement that can be made. The various matters which have been mentioned in the course of this debate this evening will certainly be considered in seeking to achieve that goal.

It has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley—supported by others—that the correct approach is really the opposite one; setting up a new department, creating a new organisation altogether, in a Ministry for Marine Affairs. That would mean, in our view, breaking the existing important functional linkages in the wide range of departments whose responsibilities have significant marine aspects. An example is the formulation of energy or defence policies as a whole, because energy involves use of the sea and use of the land and of course supply of people on the land. Defence policies involve use of the sea, the use of the land and the use of the air. So if one went for a Minister of Maritime Affairs, one would need to have co-ordination in these areas. So it is really a question of administrative convenience how one approaches this. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is responsible for the allocation of ministerial responsibilities, takes the view that the benefits of retaining the existing linkages within the departments concerned outweighs any advantages to be gained from creating a new department concerned solely with marine affairs, and that it is better to use the existing structures and build upon them a structure of co-ordination under the energetic lead of the Secretary of State for Trade.

I shall certainly draw the attention of my colleagues to the suggestions which have been made this evening that there should be a Royal Commission on the Sea, a national Maritime Council and a North Sea forum. But I must say that the Government already have the benefit of the best possible advice from many interested parties, including noble Lords in this House. I should like particularly to mention in this connection the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and Elizabeth Young for the work that they do in this area.

If I may, I shall turn briefly to some of the more detailed points that have been raised: first, with regard to the question of pollution and the "polluter pays" principle, like the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, we take the view that it is very important in this area to have regard to the international dimension. As he pointed out, the suggestion from Malta was to look at this in a broad way, not let everyone look only to his own interest and try to grab what he could while the opportunity offered. Therefore we remained committed to international solutions on problems of this kind, as our predecessors in government have been so committed. Oil pollution liability and compensation are by their very nature international problems and can only be satisfactorily dealt with by international agreement.

Under the 1969 Civil Liability Convention, the tanker owner is made strictly liable for pollution damage, including prevention and clean-up costs; so it is a "no fault" regime once one establishes the identity of the polluters, subject to some defences with which I need not detain your Lordships. It is right to point out that, in relation to an unidentified source of pollution, a "no fault" regime is not much good, because it is essential to identify the polluter before the "no fault" liablity can attach to him. The Government are pressing forward as fast as is possible in the international field in an endeavour to improve on this position. A possible new convention on liablity and compensation for damage arising from the carriage of hazardous and noxious chemicals by sea is currently under consideration. Indeed, the Legal Committee is debating it at this very moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, pointed out. The committee is working to the target of a diplomatic conference in 1982. There are difficult questions involved and progress—so long as it is progress—is very welcome. In the nature of matters, if one is going to get agreement from so many people, progress cannot be very fast.

So far as the perhaps more fundamental question of preventing pollution is concerned, the Government are also pressing ahead in the international field and are endeavouring to arrange for adequate standards for shipping and, of course, adequate enforcement procedures. In this connection some reference was made to flags of convenience. It is not clear to us that it has been demonstrated that flags of convenience are yet at the stage where they should be outlawed. In particular, we think it is unjustified to assert that United Kingdom oil companies have a policy of chartering substandard "flag of convenience" ships, since all ships using United Kingdom ports are subject to the same safety standards, whatever their origin.

Some comment has been made on the nature of the representation sent, for example, to the IMCO Legal Committee. The position is that while the Department of Trade takes the lead, policies are agreed beforehand—indeed, that is the whole object of having collaboration between departments—with the other departments such as the Department of the Environment, and the co-ordinated policy results are put forward on behalf of the Government as a whole to the conferences or committees in question.

It was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, that we should move towards port State jurisdiction as against flag State jurisdiction. This again is a matter that requires to proceed by international agreement if it is to be effective. The general view is that the flag State is in the best position to enforce standards when a ship is registered, and to continue to do so over time on a sustained and consistent basis, because there are obvious difficulties from the point of view of the port State in enforcing its standards.

Perhaps this is the moment to refer to arrest by aeroplane, to which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy referred. We think that international matters move slowly, but in the Convention on the High Seas of 1958, printed in Cmnd. 1929, it is provided that— hot pursuit may be exercised only by warships or military aircraft, or other ships or aircraft on government service specially authorised to that effect. … The aircraft giving the order to stop must itself actively pursue the ship until a ship or aircraft of the coastal State, summoned by the aircraft, arrives to take over the pursuit, unless the aircraft is itself able to arrest the ship. Even then, they contemplated the possibility of this happening.

The situation with regard to local authorities and delay in the recovery of costs has been mentioned. It is true that there are difficulties here. I referred to the Civil Liability Convention, which provides a basis for legal liability, but unfortunately, in this area as in other areas, it is not always a quick matter to enforce one's rights. So far as interest is concerned, the Government and local authorities have included interest in their recent compensation claims.

With regard to the "Eleni V", I would mention two points. First, it was said that heavy oils represent the bulk of the oil carried round our coast. My information is that heavy oil represents a fairly small part, and not the bulk, of oil carried round our coast. It is also a fact that the Department of Trade has claimed all the costs it incurred in mounting the "Eleni V" operation, and so far there has been no adjudication on the claim. I would remind your Lordships of the very successful co-ordination arrangement made by the Department of Trade under Admiral Stacey, and a tribute has been paid to that operation already.

Manganese modules have been referred to and, of course, the Department of Industry has a great interest in that matter. This is amost important subject, and when the Law of the Sea Conference resumes next month it will be pursued on behalf of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is working as hard as it can towards a solution in this matter which will be fair to all interests, including our own.

I think all of us are agreed on the need for co-ordination. Many of your Lordships have advocated that we should lead the world. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade has been appointed to lead us, and I hope the House will wish him well in this task, and that under his inspired leadership we shall indeed lead the world.

7.55 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate for stepping into the breach and giving us the information that he has. He has defended the recent step taken by the Government, which I have argued is a retrograde one. Of the eight speakers in this debate, excluding the noble and learned Lord as the Government spokesman, all but one have addressed themselves to the machinery of government. Of those seven, every one has called for a change, usually of a more or less dramatic nature, ranging from the proposal advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and myself for a Royal Commission to investigate the matter to a governmental maritime council proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy and the most extreme change of all for a Minister for Maritime Affairs as was proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont.

I do not want to go into the respective merits, but I would point out that here are these seven people, many of them with decades of experience in these agonising matters, who are unanimous in believing that the recent step taken by the Government is not sufficient, that the status quo is not defensible and that there must be action. I would say no more than that, except, if I may, to doubt that the Government can really be so sure that they are doing the right thing, because I believe that if they were sure they would have announced the fact rather than leaving it to be fished out by an Opposition Back-Bencher in a Question for Written Answer.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I, like a seagull, make one more swoop? I may say that I could not go and stand in a queue at the Vikings exhibition. Is it possible that the usual channels might lay on a House of Lord's party for the Vikings, as they did for Tutankhamen?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. I think it is an excellent idea and perhaps we could resume discussion of these important matters in more informal surroundings, standing around the rings and hairpins of our ancestors. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.