HL Deb 14 February 1990 vol 515 cc1386-407

3.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

rose to call attention to the state of the North Sea and the need to continue to prevent further pollution; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a happy chance that success in the ballot should have steered this debate to mid-February, because the third in the series of ministerial North Sea conferences is due to take place at the Hague next month. That gives us a timely opportunity to discuss the subject and offer suggestions. The last conference took place in London a little over two years go. The participants are Ministers from the eight countries with coasts on the North Sea.

In the past, poets would have described the coasts as those washed by the North Sea. However, not now. On some of those shores, rubbish and sewage make a mockery of such a description. In addition, other forms of pollution threaten marine life, sea birds, tourism and recreation —and the amenity of what would otherwise be coastlines of natural beauty.

The fact that the eight governments started to hold these conferences a few years ago is to be applauded. I understand that much work is carried out by the officials' meetings between the conferences. I hope that fruitful preparations will have been made by them for the forthcoming conference at the Hague.

In considering these special arrangements for the North Sea, one must take into account the wider international agreements and meetings which have been taking place for much longer and which also apply to other seas. They have led by stages to agreements, embodied in conventions, to be observed by the participating parties. That process continues, with protocols and annexes being added to put into effect further agreements on related subjects. Examples are the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, and its protocol known as MARPOL, achieved in the mid-1970s, and the London Dumping Convention, which entered into effect in 1975. In both those conventions the International Maritime Organisation (the IMO) has a central role to play. Within the terms of those wider international conventions, the North Sea countries must address themselves to the particular causes of pollution on, and near, their own coasts.

The North Sea has its own characteristics. It also presents special problems. It does not suffer from being almost enclosed, like the Mediterranean and the Baltic, or from the shallowness of the Baltic. It has the advantages of open sea and considerable depth, although mostly it is continental shelf. It also has the boon of swift currents which can disperse and dilute unwanted substances. I suggest that those advantages have tempted many to take liberties with the North Sea which should no longer be permitted.

With those characteristics, it may be asked: why are there special problems? They arise mainly from the proximity of centres of industry and population which have been discarding unwanted material into the rivers and estuaries from the east, the west and the south, and from sewage outfalls along the coasts. Moreover, busy shipping routes pass through the North Sea and there are the large oil ports of Rotterdam and Sullom Voe in Shetland. In addition, during the past 25 years a large new industry —namely, offshore oil and gas production —has developed, with many installations being constructed and continuously manned in the middle of the North Sea.

The international conventions which I mentioned, especially MARPOL, should control pollution from vessels; dealing especially with oil, chemicals and garbage. They have led to a steady improvement in the situation. However, what the eight North Sea countries have to do is to build upon this by reaching agreement on reductions of polluting substances originating from land.

Progress was made at the second conference in London in November 1987. The principal decisions were: to reduce specified dangerous substances —and those were defined as persistent, toxic or likely to accumulate —going into rivers and estuaries by 50 per cent. by 1995. Another was to bring the dumping of industrial waste to an end, with exceptions being made for authorised dumping where there is no alternative which is not worse and where it can be shown that harm will not be done. That was to finish at the end of last year. Thirdly, there was the decision to phase out incineration at sea by the end of 1994. I understand that the United Kingdom is no longer doing this and I hope that my noble friend will confirm that.

In the debate on my Motion on worldwide pollution on 20th December 1989, I asked my noble friend Lord Hesketh what it was hoped would be gained from the third conference in March. He replied that further progress was intended, with special attention being given on this occasion to wildlife and shipping. My noble friend is not replying today because he is in California on an official visit. I look forward to the reply today from my noble friend Lord Reay in his place.

Someone else who is many miles away is my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. He told me last week that he would have taken part today but he is in Borneo. No one can say that Members of this House are not prepared to travel long distances to inquire and consult on environmental matters. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook has been greatly concerned with the state of the North Sea. He is chairman of the Marine Forum, which has just printed a collection of up-to-date comments from various bodies on pollution and its effects in the North Sea.

I believe that this will be the first time that wildlife has been an individual item on the agenda, so I offer a few comments. There are certain species which need protection from pollution as well as other threats. For example, some of the marine mammals, which include whales, porpoises and dolphins, are to be found in the North Sea. Dolphins are a friendly and endearing form of life to the human race. I put in a plea because they are rare round our coasts —and I hope that the plea will be considered by the governments concerned —for the small school of dolphins which takes refuge in the Moray Firth, an inlet from the North Sea. There is anxiety, shared by experts, that plans to increase emissions of sewage and other pollution will harm or kill these creatures.

Another species for which I have a warm regard and which still swims near our shores is the basking shark. The Marine Conservation Society is concerned about its future and its survival. I should point out in its favour that although it looks fierce, the basking shark is completely harmless. If your Lordships will forgive me saying this, it should be remembered about this shark that its bask is worse than its bite!

Birds are of course especially vulnerable to pollution —sea birds, waders and wildfowl. The plight of stricken birds washed up on beaches has attracted the attention of the press and engaged the concern of the public. The Government can be sure of full support in this country for measures to prevent such distressing incidents. Where sea fish are considered, one must be aware that fishermen's livelihoods are also at risk. Shellfish and oyster beds in particular can be wiped out by coastal pollution. In general, too, even the suspicion or rumour that fish are being polluted in a certain area can kill the market for them.

The other subject which my noble friend Lord Hesketh said in my debate on 20th December would be on the agenda at The Hague was shipping. Despite the general success of MARPOL, particularly over oil pollution, practice and discipline need to be tightened up on the throwing overboard of debris, rubbish and unwanted equipment, much of which ends up on beaches. For example, old fishing nets can be lethal for birds, both at sea and on the shore. The United Kingdom has issued regulations —the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage) Order 1988. I ask the Government two questions: first, have other North Sea countries acted similarly? Secondly, how difficult is it to enforce such regulations? It cannot be easy to monitor the discarding of rubbish in the open sea.

Improvement is also necessary in the use of facilities at ports for receiving oily ballast and other polluting substances. Otherwise, these are likely to be released into the sea. Above all, everything should be done to avoid collisions and accidents at sea, the cause of the worst pollution incidents in recent years. There have been serious incidents in the last two years, not only in Europe, caused by bad navigation and seamanship. This should not be allowed to occur, given the technology and training now available.

I have touched on the two subjects volunteered by my noble friend to be discussed at The Hague. I urge as the most important of all that the Government should strive to improve targets for the quality of rivers and estuaries and to build upon the agreement reached on this in 1987. My information is that rivers are the main cause of North Sea pollution. A very large part of that pollution is caused by industrial effluents emitted into rivers and estuaries. We must be severe, if necessary, regarding our own British rivers.

It is important also that rivers flowing from the east in continental Europe should be carefully considered. It is estimated that less than a quarter of the pollution from rivers now comes from Britain, from the west. The rest comes from elsewhere. Can we hope for further progress in the cleaning of effluents before discharge into rivers and estuaries on both sides of the North Sea?

The British Government clearly take pollution from British rivers seriously. They will receive strong support in all future progress. In England and Wales this is becoming the responsibility of the new National Rivers Authority, which does not apply to Scotland. The word "national" has unfortunately misled the media. Since I raised that point before Christmas there has been a further example on the BBC, among other media, of a radio programme which entirely concentrated on the fact that the new authority would be in charge of all the rivers in Britain. Of course, that is not so; the facts are different. The Secretary of State for the Environment does not have functions in Scotland. Everything he does in England and Wales is carried out in Scotland by the Secretary of State for Scotland, who has his own team of officials and a pollution inspectorate in the Scottish Office. It is therefore essential that the two government departments should work together to ensure that the rivers flowing into the North Sea from Britain are kept clean and improved where necessary.

I wish to make clear at this point that I accept that the best way of disposing of some waste matter is to release it into the sea, in the right conditions. The sea can break down and transform safely, bringing about a sea change. Safe disposal can be achieved of suitable substances with knowledge, within assessed quantities and in the right places. To take a simple example on land, the normal and correct disposal of a dead and decomposing cat is burial in the earth in a suitable, well-chosen place. Friends of the Earth would not object to that. The sea similarly plays a part in the natural cycle of decomposition and change. Mankind, when substantially adding to it, should do so, however, with knowledge and discrimination.

I now come to the subject of dumping. While pollution from rivers is largely invisible, dumping is visible and more obvious. The North Sea in this respect is covered not only by the London Dumping Convention but also by the Oslo Convention. The latter was concluded later in the 1970s. I hope that progress can be made to reduce dumping, although I recognise the difficulties. In North-East England there are industries —for example, the coal industry —which have problems in disposing of waste material. The United Kingdom has had to make use of the exceptions allowing authorised dumping if a substance is regarded as harmless —for example, stone from mining operations —or if it cannot be dealt with more safely on land.

I have two questions on this matter for my noble friend who is to reply to the debate. First, is further agreement on dumping necessary and likely at the Hague? Secondly, can he explain the licences granted after 31st December last for dumping industrial waste so as to dispel the apprehensions and doubts of some observers, including those from the other North Sea countries? I understand that soon it will for the first time be an offence for any vessel, whether it is UK registered or not, to dump without a licence in any part of the British continental shelf. If that is so, that will be a great advance.

The press yesterday suggested that one of the items at the Hague conference would be PCBs. I shall not spell out the long title of those substances as I believe noble Lords know what they are from previous debates. PCBs are not being manufactured or introduced but they are still widely in use in refrigeration and cooling liquids. However, this is a world-wide topic and is not confined to seas or to the North Sea. I was surprised to note that that topic was to be discussed at the conference. Is that expected on the part of the United Kingdom delegation? Certainly more needs to be agreed between the nations on that matter, but it is not necessarily an item for the North Sea agenda.

This debate would not be complete without some comment on the offshore oil industry. with which I am familiar. I again declare an interest. For the past 14 years I have worked in a non-executive capacity for an international oil company 'which is the operator of one of the largest fields in the North Sea, Ninian, which has been producing oil for 11 years. The worst oil pollution is likely to arise from accidents. These may be accidents on platforms such as a blowout or they may result from breaches in pipelines. Prevention is best secured by safety measures and by the highest standards in use and maintenance of plant and equipment. It is good news that leading oil companies are now installing at considerable expense on the sea bed below platforms additional valves which will cut of oil in emergencies. This will prevent oil from continuing to flow into a fire or into the sea. It is a significant measure affecting both safety and pollution and is being carried out before the report of the Piper Alpha inquiry makes recommendations.

In the United Kingdom sector of the North Sea, the Department of Energy monitors and controls spills and pollution from oil installations. It rightly brings charges against alleged offenders and goes to court if necessary. There are allowable amounts of oil drippings, the cuttings from drilling and "produced water" as it is called, which can go into the sea as part of operations. However, I ask the Government whether they can ensure that the other national sectors, for example the Norwegian and Danish sectors, have equivalent standards which are required and enforced. The offshore industry has found and applied technology to improve the removal of oil traces from waste. I should mention the hydrocyclone, which has been invented and recently brought into use to separate oil from water on platforms at sea. Research is now being done to reduce oil contamination of cuttings and other discarded material in order to lower the percentage now allowed.

In the United Kingdom the Marine Pollution Control Unit has been in existence for only the past 10 years. In that time it has collected great expertise and has gained the confidence of the British coastal local authorities. We are much better placed now to deal with major incidents. I wish to pay a tribute to its leader for the first eight years, Admiral Michael Stacey, who has helped to create a key element in prevention and remedy. I ask my noble friend whether other North Sea countries have the equivalent of that unit.

During this opening speech I have naturally probed and asked questions. Other noble Lords who will follow me in the debate will no doubt do the same. I conclude by stating that my good wishes will be with the United Kingdom representatives at the conference in the Hague next month in their joint endeavour to improve conditions in the North Sea. I beg to move for Papers.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, we must all be appreciative of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has raised in a short debate a subject matter which is of pressing interest and of continuing difficulty. The noble Lord in a wide-ranging speech touched upon the questions of sewage disposal, chemical dumping, long sea outfalls, effluent disposal and other such matters. I myself want to concentrate rather more on the continuing war which exists between the offshore oil industry and the fishing industry. It is a mini-war but it could almost be described as a war.

I state the obvious in mentioning that there are currently substantial numbers of oil and gas field developments in British waters together with their associated platforms, subsea installations, pipelines and suspended wellheads. Inevitably an unacceptable level of debris is thereby generated. Moreover, we are now faced with the fact that as and when those installations come to the end of their working lives and have to be abandoned the Government seem clearly resolved to pursue a policy of either partial or non-removal of platforms, subsea installations and pipelines with the consequences that disruption, inconvenience, loss of access and risk to safety at sea are likely to be with us forever and a day.

While it is not my primary function this afternoon in such a debate as this to review in any great detail the level of activity, both current and prospective, in the North Sea entered into by offshore oil companies, it might be helpful if I refer to a few facts from the report of the Department of Energy, known as the Brown Book, which was published in April 1989. It is entitled The Development of Oil and Gas Resources in the United Kingdom. The report records among other things that there have been 11 licensing rounds since 1964 involving the award of some 689 licences covering approximately 1,368 blocks. It also records that there were 36 offshore oil and 24 offshore gas fields in production at the end of 1988, and that those were served by no fewer than 75 trunk and interfield offshore pipelines with a total length in excess of 3,000 miles.

The Brown Book also tells us that a total of 177 exploration and appraisal wells, the highest number since 1984, were started in 1988, that 167 offshore development wells were drilled during that year and that 24 development projects were approved, also in that year. All in all the thrust of the report leaves me in no doubt that there is a very substantial volume of development still to come in British waters. That will take us well into the next century. The consequence will be increasing discomfort —to put it no more strongly —for our fishing fleet.

Against the background that I have outlined, your Lordships may be interested to learn that there is no obligation whatever on the oil companies to consult with the fishermen's interests —for theirs is the main interface in the dark waters of the North Sea with the oil companies —about the location of production platforms, drilling rigs or subsea installations. Obviously those are sited where the oil and gas are to be found, or in the case of drilling rigs thought likely to be found, irrespective of their interference with fishing grounds or with the fishermen's favourite tow.

The impact does not end there in that there are fields in the UK Continental Shelf which comprise a number of platforms and satellite wellheads all of which are connected by interfield pipelines and small diameter flowlines. In those cases the companies concerned have claimed and been granted development area status for the fields in question. The implication is that fishermen should give those areas a wide berth.

As I have indicated, there are about 3,000 miles of pipelines. They comprise a mixture of large diameter trunk lines, smaller pipelines, interfield lines and flowlines. Some are trenched or buried, others are not. Therefore, in spite of the undertakings of the early days that there would be no proliferation of pipelines, that is what we most certainly have.

The views of the fishing industry on pipelines are clear and concise. Fishermen would like to see all lines buried on construction so that they can feel assured that no problem will arise in terms of contact with fishing gear. Moreover, when the time for abandonment comes, as it surely will, little if any remedial action will be required. Neither the Government nor the oil and gas industry have seen it in that light, at least so far. It seems that from the outset while some companies have either trenched or buried their pipelines, others have laid them proud on the sea bed.

In approaching the matter in that way —after conducting certain experiments involving the interaction between fishing gear and pipelines, I agree —the Government adopted a policy approach which decreed that whereas all pipelines of 16 inches diameter or less should be buried or trenched, those of larger sizes could safely be laid proud on the sea bed. We have been saddled with that approach to pipeline projects ever since with the consequent fouling of nets and the increase in debris which has subsequently occurred.

Fishermen create debris. I do not attempt to suggest otherwise. However, in my view that is as nothing compared with the amount of debris dumped by the oil and gas industry across the whole range of its activities in the North Sea. There is no doubt whatever that the oil operators and their support companies have been guilty of bad housekeeping in that respect. That is to put it reasonably kindly. It is, if anything, an understatement.

The situation has not been helped by the patent ineffectiveness of the dumping at sea legislation or such legislation as we have to that end thus far. The legislation is clearly unenforceable given that the bulk of the debris cannot be attributed to anyone since there is no requirement in the legislation for equipment to be marked durably. That is one of the key points.

While the amount of debris dumped is a cause for disquiet, the picture becomes even more depressing when one considers what is happening on the question of abandonment in terms of both the emerging international legal regime and the statutory powers already taken by the United Kingdom Government under the Petroleum Act 1987. The prospect of either platforms or pipelines being left in the waters of the North Sea in partial form must dismay and alarm. I should make it clear that the proposed regime on platform abandonment, if it were implemented as it stands at the moment, would result in the removal of only the three platforms of the Beatrice field which are located in the shallow waters of the inner Moray Firth on the north-east coast of Scotland.

Regarding platforms in general, whether they are severed or toppled there will be a stump which will present a hazard both to the safety of navigation and fishing operations in perpetuity. At the very worst, that will give rise to the prospect of a vessel putting its gear round the stump causing great danger to the safety of that vessel and its crew. Inevitably, partially removed platforms will degrade, with debris being distributed all over the adjacent sea.

Much the same considerations will apply to pipelines which will also degrade and perpetuate debris on the sea bottom. That again gives rise to the potential fouling of fishermen's gear and a further increase in debris. A disused pipeline will be subject to an order by the Secretary of State who may authorise the pipeline to be abandoned in total in situ. I can see the argument in favour of that as an act of government policy, but it has the concomitant difficulty of further sea bottom debris pollution.

What should we be seeking to do in the circumstances that I have just mentioned? It seems to me at the least that vigorous pressure needs to be applied urgently within the international negotiating arrangements to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred. If we are to have any prospect of securing the introduction of satisfactory safeguards to combat the onset of the policy of partial removal of platforms and pipelines which now seems to be gaining momentum, and probably inevitably so, a possible package of proposed measures might include the following. It might include requirements to the effect that the area or areas around any partially —or completely —removed installation or installations should be the subject of a debris clean-up operation. In the case of partial removal, it should further be subject to an annual inspection with a view to ensuring that it remains free of installation related debris. There should be agreement that any debris identified as a result of such an inspection should be removed as soon as the parties concerned can arrange for that to be done. That would require an enforcing inspectorate, a concept which so far the Government have rejected.

My latter suggestion —for it is no more than that —might be a first faltering step at least towards some solution of what is becoming an increasingly intractable problem in the dark waters of the North Sea.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy for introducing the debate, and congratulate him on his luck in the ballot only three weeks before the Third North Sea Conference takes place. In his introduction he set the problem in the context of world agreements covering all seas, and he rightly pointed out that the North Sea countries have a special responsibility for what happens in our seas. Although we in this country are to blame for many things, it is true that the discharges from the Rhine are of even greater concern. However, that should not leave us feeling complacent. Everything that is done by all the countries around the North Sea has an effect on the marine environment. I, and I am sure all noble Lords, believe that this country should set an example rather than lag behind.

The UK Government was a signatory to the ageement reached at the Second North Sea Conference two years ago. It outlawed the dumping of industrial waste in the North Sea from 31st December, 1989, unless there was no other practical alternative for disposal on land, and the materials dumped posed no risk to the marine environment.

In his introduction, the noble Lord asked the Government many questions. I wish to ask the Government why, having signed the agreement, do they grant licences enabling the CEGB to dump fly ash in the North Sea off the east coast? At present, 98.5 per cent. of fly ash is disposed of on land, so an alternative exists; it is unnecessary dumping. There is no doubt that the dumping of fly ash seriously affects marine life by smothering the sea bed and killing that life.

I have also been told that a local company called Thermalite has stated that it can turn the fly ash into breeze blocks. That process of recycling, about which we continually talk, may help to influence building costs.

The UK is now the only country in Europe still dumping sewage sludge in the North Sea. From our rivers 300 million gallons are discharged into the North Sea every day. More than 8 million tonnes of sewage sludge, containing a high proportion of heavy metals, is dumped into the North Sea each year. Direct industrial discharges include arsenic, copper, cadmium, nickel, mercury and zinc. We also continue to allow the incineration of toxic wastes off the Scarborough coast. That is to be banned completely from 1994. However, most of us would wish to see this country join the Danes in calling for a world-wide ban by 1991.

The fishermen off the east coast complain of diseased fish and a great reduction in their catches. They also complain of suffering from strange infections, and some of them now wear facial protection when fishing. Yesterday the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Mr. Jim Wallace, met a delegation of those fishermen who were lobbying for an end to the incineration of toxic wastes.

The European Community agreed to phase out the dumping of industrial waste in the North Sea by 31st December 1989. That date has now passed. The UK Government recently applied to the Oslo Commission for a licence to dump further industrial waste. They have asked for a licence to dump 42,000 tonnes of waste from paracetamol production; 3,000 tonnes of waste, from O-tolyl-biguanide which is a curing agent and anti-detoxicant, and 4,000 tonnes of waste from the synthesis of asthma and allergy medicines. A fourth application has been made for permission to dump 8,000 tonnes of chemical waste. It is a particular waste called BSM which is mostly alcohol and has a very high oxygen demand. Quite clearly, it poses a risk to the marine environment in the North Sea. Most of those toxic substances could be disposed of in other ways. If that is not possible, they should be stored for a period of years until a means of disposal has been found.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred to an article in yesterday's Times about PCBs. I also read the article and the headline pleased me very much. It stated, UK will back international pact for a total ban on PCBs". That is wonderful news; but further reading shows that again there is disagreement about the timing of the prohibition. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden want them to be phased out by 1995. West Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Switzerland are pressing for the year 2000. But again Britain, with only one other member state (France), is pressing for a much longer period; that is, 2005. That is too long, and in many cases the Government are not courageous enough in committing themselves to the earliest deadlines.

As a nation our responsibility is great. We should commit ourselves, as should the Government, to the complete phasing out of incineration of waste at sea by 1991; a complete ban on sewage sludge dumping at sea with immediate effect; a ban on direct discharges of sewage sludge into the sea, and an end to all industrial discharges into the acquatic environment by the year 2000. We should set up an urgent scientific survey of all mammalian populations in British waters in order to establish population levels, birthrates and general health. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, I welcome the fact that for the first time the North Sea conference is to discuss the mammalian populations of the North Sea.

Lastly, I wonder whether some of the enforcement policies in this country are correct or whether we should consider altering them. For instance, there is the problem that dumping is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture. Some of us believe that perhaps that Ministry is not as green as it might be. I should like to ask the Government whether they would consider transferring the responsibility to the Department of the Environment, which I believe better understands these matters.

4 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are a number of reasons to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, on having introduced this debate this afternoon. First, he is himself a distinguished former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Pollution of the Sea, of which my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff has been president. Secondly, as he said, it was timely that he should win the ballot for short debates only three weeks before the Hague Convention opens. Thirdly, as a number of noble Lords said, the debate is timely because we have just passed the deadline for the prohibition of dumping of industrial waste in the North Sea which was required by the second conference in London in 1987.

I have no doubt that the government spokesmen will go to the Hague Convention next month full of joy at showing how much better we are as regards the cleanliness of our rivers and in various other detailed respects compared with other European countries whose rivers discharge into the North Sea. We had a foretaste of that in the speech of Mrs. Bottomley at the Hamburg Harbour meeting on 12th September last year. She boasted that the Thames was very much cleaner than the Rhine, the Meuse and the Elbe. I do not doubt that she is correct. I do not doubt that many of the longer rivers which run through industrialised countries, and particularly the Elbe which starts off in the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia, carry very much worse chemical contamination into the North Sea than does the Thames and, I imagine, even more than the Tyne or the Tees.

It is also true that we have quite effective scientific programmes to investigate attempts to devise controls for pollution in the North Sea. As she announced at that meeting, we have the North Sea action plan which is based on what I think is the nastiest acronym that I have ever heard; namely, BATNEEC —which means best available technology not entailing excessive costs. The sting of that acronym is in the tail: not entailing excessive costs. In other words, the phrase means that we shall do as little as we can but we shall call it by a grand name.

Under the North Sea action plan, Mrs. Bottomley promised the nations participating in the Hamburg Harbour conference that there would be substantial reductions in pollution of the North Sea by 1995. She talked about the North Sea task-force producing by 1993 a new quality status report which in effect is a bill of health for the North Sea, and the North Sea project from the Natural Environment Research Council producing mathematical models of physical, chemical and biological processes affecting the quality of the North Sea. So far so good. I have no doubt that there will be effective and sincere speeches made by Government Ministers at the Hague next month.

However, we have to look at the matters on which we can congratulate ourselves in the context of those matters on which we are far less able to congratulate ourselves. My noble friend Lord Kirkhill and the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, referred to some of them. My noble friend referred politely to the bad housekeeping of the offshore oil industry. I agreed with him when he called for effective debris clean-up when offshore oil sites are partially or wholly abandoned and for a subsequent annual inspection. He made his remarks from the point of view of the interests of the fishing industry, again quite rightly, but there are wider interests involved.

As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said —and he has very specific knowledge of this industry, particularly, as he said, in the Ninian field —there is a substantial amount of pollution from chemicals, oil and materials used in the upkeep and cleaning of the offshore oil installations. That damage is continuing. The evidence for bad housekeeping has been very clearly outlined by my noble friend. It would be interesting to hear what the government spokesmen will say about that at the Hague. After all, we are the largest single exporter of North Sea oil and gas and our responsibility is therefore very considerable.

I also want to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, on making a large part of the speech that I intended to make about dumping of industrial waste. As she said, the second conference in London in 1987 undertook to phase out the dumping of industrial waste by 31st December 1989 except for inert materials of natural origin. I think the qualification to that was that those who were dumping what are claimed to be inert materials of natural origin would have to prove that it was not in any way dangerous. I accept that that applies in particular to the minestone which is dumped off the north-east coast by the coal industry. I believe that it is nowadays generally agreed —certainly by the Scandinavian countries, which are the most advanced in the control of dumping—that minestone off the north-east coast is inert and not dangerous to the natural environment of the North Sea. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton made that point only last Friday during the Second Reading of the Coal Industry Bill.

But although all the environment Ministers at the London Conference signed the declaration, only the United Kingdom continues to make application for licences to dump on a very large scale. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, referred in particular to three applications; namely, those from Sterling Organics for 42,000 tonnes of materials used in paracetamol production; from Orsynetics for 13,000 tonnes of ortho-tolyl-biguanide which is used in the production of soap; and from Fisons for 4,000 tonnes of materials used in the preparation of asthma and allergy remedies. In fact, as confirmed by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in an Answer only last December to my honourable friend Dr. David Clark, there were no fewer than 26 applications for dumping of chemical wastes in the North Sea in the course of 1989. Of those 26 applications one was not approved and was not put forward to the Oslo Commission but 21 of them were due to extend beyond the deadline of 31st December 1989 and therefore are in conflict with agreement to the London Convention and, I put to the Government, in conflict with the international obligations of the United Kingdom.

When the government representatives are congratulating themselves at the Hague, perhaps they will put on a hair shirt and confess that our record on dumping is not what it ought to be and that there are many ways in which we continue to defy internationally accepted standards with regard to dumping damaging materials into the North Sea. I should like to remind the noble Lord who will reply to this debate from the Government Front Bench that in a parliamentary reply to Dr. David Clark on 4th December 1989 Mr. Gummer, the Minister of Agriculture, said that the final termination date for applications could not be precisely identified. He said that most of them would be terminated within about two years. That indicates to me that a considerable number will still be continuing for more than about two years and will therefore be at least two years outside the deadline agreed at the London Conference.

With reference to polychlorinated biphenyls, the noble Baroness mentioned the fact that our deadline of 2005 is very much worse than any of the other European countries with the exception of France. That is again a matter where the United Kingdom will have to stand up and be counted at the Hague. I shall be interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Reay, what the Minister will say at the Hague Convention and how we shall defend the fact that we are putting forward much worse deadlines for the removal of pollution than almost any other country.

We have talked much about the removal of damage from the dumping of chemical waste. However, in terms of quantity, there are two things that we continue blatantly to do, and about which we do nothing. Nobody else acts in this way. The first is the dumping of sewage sludge. The second is the dumping of large quantities of less damaging, but still damaging, industrial waste. The water and sewerage undertakings in this country dump 9 million tonnes of sewage sludge in the North Sea. A very large proportion of that is seriously contaminated with chemical effluent from the treatment that sewage undergoes. What proposals do the Government have to eliminate that?

It has been virtually universally agreed that dumping of sewage sludge is part of the failed tall chimneys technique for dealing with pollution. I refer to the idea that if one dilutes the pollution somehow one is dealing effectively with the problem. That has been shown not to be true when one talks of air pollution. It has become quite clear that the tall chimneys approach —the dilution approach —simply results in the damage caused in this country taking effect in Germany, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and other parts of Central Europe. While we congratulate ourselves on the purity of our rivers compared with those countries, we must compare the damage that we are doing to their forests and air conditions by our tall chimneys approach.

When we look at the remainder of the industrial waste, it is still the case that British industry is dumping 3 million tonnes of waste in the North Sea per annum after 31st December 1989 —after the deadline set at the London Conference. Mr. Patten, the Secretary of State, met Mrs. Maij-Weggen, the Dutch Minister for Transport, yesterday. I shall be interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Reay, what he said to her and how he defended the continuing pollution that is undertaken by this country and the continuing damage to the condition of the North Sea by the policies of this country.

I do not wish to go over the ground of the privatisation of water and the effect of that on the environment. It has become very clear that the privatisation of water and of the electricity industry has been used by this Government as excuses for failing to deal with pollution in the way that they should have done. However, I suggest that there are many answers that the Government will have to give at the Hague Convention next month. Any indication by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, of a recognition of our failings would be unexpected but very welcome.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for introducing this important topic which provides us with a very useful opportunity to reappraise marine pollution issues in the run-up to the Third North Sea Conference, which is to be held in the Hague in three weeks' time. As the outgoing chairman of ACOPs —the Advisory Committee on Pollution of the Sea —my noble friend is perhaps one of the best informed Members of your Lordship's House on marine environment issues. ACOPs has done much to influence and raise the quality of international debate on marine pollution issues and we expect to see evidence of some of this influence at the Hague Conference.

First, perhaps I may refer to the condition of the North Sea. The most accurate picture that we have is that provided by the quality status report, prepared and agreed by all North Sea states for the second London conference in 1987. The report demonstrates that, although there are some problem areas, the North Sea is generally in good shape. It continues to support a rich variety of marine life as in evident in this quotation from the report: [North Sea] habitats are rich in marine life. Large and diverse migratory bird populations are found along most of the North Sea coastline. Marine animals and especially seals are also widely distributed. The shallow and highly productive Wadden Seas have their own rich flora and fauna, and fragile and vulnerable ecosystems; they also provide the major habitat for the early stages of many commercial species of fish caught in the open North Sea. Many of the estuaries are flanked by salt marshes which support rich and sometimes unique populations of marine plants and animals and are important in the turnover of nutrients in the coastal zone". In addition, the North Sea still yields an exceptional fishery, representing between one-quarter and one-third of the total catch of the North-East Atlantic. The threat to this major renewable resource comes not from pollution but from overfishing.

The picture painted by the quality status report, which was agreed by marine environment scientists from all the North Sea states, indicates clearly that there are specific environmental problems in the North Sea, principally in the areas close to the main sources of pollution of which the large industrial rivers are the most important example. Where the circulation of water is slow and depths are shallow, large volumes of contaminated riverflow can create problems in the coastal belt, but this is a far cry from claiming that the North Sea is dying or even that its general environmental quality is poor. Taken as a whole the North Sea does not show evidence of widespread damage. But it is to address the particular problems which have been identified that the North Sea conferences were established.

The first North Sea conference was held in Bremen in 1984 and the second in London in November 1987, hosted by my right honourable friend the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The conferences bring together all the North Sea states —Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. Your Lordships may like to know that for the purposes of these conferences the North Sea is defined as including the English Channel almost as far west as Falmouth and, on the Scottish coast, the waters as far west as Cape Wrath. In addition to member states the conference includes observers from the main relevant international organisations such as the Oslo and Paris commissions, the International Maritime Organisation, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, and so on.

The achievement of the first conference in Bremen was to establish the broad principles and strategies for international co-operation on the North Sea. It was the London conference which established the basic framework for tackling problems identified by the quality status report, by proposing specific measures for each of the main inputs to the sea. The most important of these was to secure a substantial reduction, of the order of 50 per cent. in dangerous substances entering rivers and coastal waters. The conference also agreed to phase out the dumping and incineration of industrial waste and to apply tighter controls to discharges from ships and offshore platforms.

The United Kingdom has made clear that it places a high priority on the measures agreed by the North Sea Conference and after the London conference we took an early lead in publishing a guidance note explaining how the declaration was to be implemented in the United Kingdom. We also committed ourselves to its general application to all our coastal waters including the Irish Sea.

To illustrate this commitment, I shall select some aspects of our implementation of the London agreement. The most important has been the development of a national North Sea action plan on reducing dangerous substances inputs to rivers. The action plan will, among other things, review the consents granted for any discharge of waste water to rivers, estuaries and coastal waters. Our first task in this area was to develop a system for identifying the most dangerous priority substances. There is no point in having unrealistically long lists where the likelihood of taking action is remote.

In April last year we published our first priority "Red List" of the 23 substances which the United Kingdom considers to be the most dangerous to the aquatic environment, together with the criteria and selection system used for identifying them. Indeed the selection scheme is currently being refined with a view to identifying the next group of substances to be considered for possible later additions to the list.

Many of the substances identified in the "Red List" reach the aquatic environment from what are called diffuse sources. In other words, we are talking not about a single plant or industry, but about a scatter of waste sources—discarded drums of pesticides, abandoned dump sites and so on. We are increasingly taking the potential of such diffuse sources into account when looking at the approval for use of pesticides and similar chemicals. We have recently decided to ban all remaining uses of the pesticides dieldrin, aldrin and chlordane and we are now looking closely at lindane, and dichlorvos. But where such contaminants originate from past uses of land or materials, or from improper disposal, the problems are considerable and the persistence of these substances means that their reduction or elimination will sometimes be a slow and gradual process.

The United Kingdom can also point to a strong record on other aspects of the London agreement. We began a regular programme of aerial surveillance for oil slicks in April 1989 and recently we have increased that programme. Harbour authorities have provided reception facilities at ports for ships' waste and their adequacy is monitored. Indeed an example of good progress, and one where a lot of people can do something themselves to help, are the controls on disposal of refuse at sea. Annex V of the MARPOL convention on pollution from ships, provides strict controls on the dumping of garbage and prohibits completely the disposal of plastic refuse which is now an offence under United Kingdom law. Making this a reality will surely depend as much on education, publicity and public pressure as on any international agreement. A disgraceful amount of plastic and other litter is still thrown carelessly into rivers or from ships at sea. This is something that we can all play a part in putting a stop to.

The United Kingdom also took the initiative at the London Conference in proposing the North Sea task force to co-ordinate science and research in the North Sea. The task force was established in 1988 and brings together scientists from all North Sea states to prepare a new and much more comprehensive report on its quality. Much has already been agreed, but critical gaps in science remain. We in the United Kingdom are helping to cover those by directing research effort from the programmes of the Natural Environment Research Council and the Fisheries Departments towards the priority areas identified. The Department of the Environment co-ordinates the United Kingdom contribution and has increased its own programme to around £1.6 million per annum to help address these concerns.

So your Lordships may ask: how does this record compare with other North Sea states: We do not yet have a full answer, but it is clear that on the inputs of dangerous substances to rivers and coastal areas, the United Kingdom has a strong position. Figures showing the reductions expected to be achieved by 1995 will be published very shortly, while similar returns from some other North Sea states have yet to be made. Certain states have failed to address the critical problem of diffuse sources of dangerous substances, such as pesticides. Again this is an area where powers in the Environment Protection Bill, are proof of the Government's commitment.

I do not want to appear narrowly nationalist on this point, but I think it is worth reminding ourselves that the United Kingdom is not the source of most North Sea pollution. If we look at rivers, which are the most important source of pollutants, the United Kingdom accounts generally for about 20 per cent. of contaminants, while the Rhine and the Meuse alone contribute 50 per cent. On incineration, for example, the United Kingdom has made comparatively little use of the option, while the Federal Republic of Germany has accounted for about 60 per cent. of the total. Indeed when we hear strong environmental concerns being expressed about this or that aspect of the United Kingdom's inputs to the sea, I cannot help wondering if this is an attempt sometimes by some to deflect attention from more fundamental problems closer to home.

Turning now to some of the topics currently highlighted as a cause for concern, we can, I think, show clearly that the United Kingdom has kept to the undertakings it gave at the London Conference. In the case of dumping at sea, which has been raised by several noble Lords, the London Declaration clearly states that dumping should be phased out as practical land based alternatives become available, but that no waste should be disposed of in any way which has a worse effect on the environment. The United Kingdom is actively pursuing the availability of practicable land based alternatives. and indeed for both sewage sludge and industrial waste dumping detailed assessments of this are made before a licence is granted, while at the same time ensuring that the materials dumped are not likely to harm the marine environment.

In the case of sewage sludge, the London conference put forward an additional requirement that the level of contaminants in sludge should not exceed 1987 levels. Figures recently presented to the North Sea Conference Secretariat confirm that the United Kingdom has achieved this, and indeed showed that since 1976 levels of mercury and cadmium in sludge had been reduced by two-thirds, while in the case of the man-made organic micropollutants, such as pesticides, most levels were below the limits of detection. Indeed sewage sludge generally accounts for only 1 per cent. of contaminants in the North Sea and, in the form in which it is dumped, is around 95 per cent. water. We shall be continuing to keep under review the possibilities of land based alternatives to sea disposal, but such moves will in most cases require substantial investment and long term planning.

Turning to industrial waste, again the picture is far from that which some reports and overseas commentators would have us believe. Industrial waste dumping in the United Kingdom consists of highly diluted washings from industry on the one hand, and colliery spoil and power station fly ash, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, on the other. In all these cases, we are looking very carefully at the availability of alternatives, but these cannot be found overnight. In the case of the largest quantity of liquid waste —165,000 tonnes of ammonium sulphate from ICI at Billingham —a £30 million investment in a recycling plant to take this waste is now under way, but I understand that several years will be needed to bring it into full operation. Equally it will be obvious that landfill is not an option for large volume liquid wastes of this type. Nevertheless the United Kingdom has reduced the total of this type of waste disposed at sea by around 50 per cent. since 1980 and only nine current licences remain. Following further scrutiny of alternatives, one of these licences will not be renewed and it is hoped to terminate most of the remainder within the next two years. Indeed of the four United Kingdom licences which are being considered at today's special meeting of the Oslo Commission, one is no longer required and two will not be required by the end of this year.

In fact, none of the industrial wastes licensed for dumping in the North Sea is toxic and they are a negligible source of contaminants in the North Sea. The metals they contain cannot be detected above existing background levels. Incineration at sea is another form of disposal which the United Kingdom has agreed to phase out as land based alternatives become available. In recent years, the United Kingdom has made little use of marine incineration generating around 3 per cent. of the North Sea total, and we envisage that all United Kingdom marine incineration will end well before the 1994 deadline established by the London Conference.

Nutrients are a topic addressed by the London Conference which undoubtedly will also be one of the most important issues at the Hague conference. The agreement in London reflected the quality status report observation that high levels of nutrient input into the shallow coastal belt running from the Wadden Sea to the Skaggerak appeared to be a major contributor to eutrophication problems and to be linked with an increase in the frequency of exceptional algal blooms. Accordingly, states contributing discharges to these affected areas pledged themselves to reduce, by the order of 50 per cent. inputs of nitrogen and phosphate to these waters. That has proved to be an enormous commitment affecting not only discharges from sewage works, but also drainage and run-off from agricultural land, some of which is among the most intensively farmed in Europe. Again the hydrographic aspect of the North Sea is important. Riverflow from the great European rivers, such as the Rhine the Meuse and the Scheldt, is maintained as a separate, slow-moving band of water staying close inshore along continental coasts by the large volume of Channel water which flows into the central North Sea.

Following the London conference the United Kingdom surveyed its coastal waters to establish whether problems of eutrophication could be found.

The only evidence of this was in a handful of highly localised areas such as Langstone Harbour in Hampshire. Indeed surveys of offshore levels of nitrate show no increase off the United Kingdom in recent years while for the hydrographic reasons already referred to any inputs the United Kingdom makes have no material effect on the situation off continental coasts. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom is considering carefully whether it can make reductions in nutrient inputs to the North Sea and a number of measures already taken by industry and pollution control authorities will help to achieve that aim. Equally important is the long-term commitment to further research to establish more accurately the exact contribution to the sea of man-made nutrients.

PCBs are a topic which is of particular concern to all those interested in marine mammals and it is likely that the next North Sea Conference will consider specific initiatives to phase out all remaining identifiable uses —an objective which we would support; but since remaining PCBs are used in "closed" systems only, that is, inside machinery, withdrawal in our view only makes sense if it is firmly linked to destruction in an environmentally safe way. Some North Sea states are proposing early withdrawal and then storage. Storage of withdrawn equipment containing PCBs is in our opinion not only no solution but ducks the issue and indeed introduces an additional hazard through the possibility of damage by fire or other means. I suggest that illustrates that it is not enough merely to make environmental policy gestures —the implications have to be rigorously and honestly addressed.

Oil pollution remains a high priority for those concerned with protecting the marine environment. One of the principal threats remains illegal discharges by ships, and North Sea states are co-operating even more closely both on exchanging information when an offence has taken place and on deterrent measures, including airborne surveillance. Among the issues for the third North Sea Conference will be proposals to achieve higher standards for legal discharges. The primary problem remains those who break the law. Another source of oil discharges is offshore platforms and here I hope that the forthcoming conference will secure an agreement to minimise and in due course eliminate the pollution caused by some of these discharges in what is an expanding and vital industry. When and if pollution occurs, the United Kingdom has well-tried and tested arrangements for preventing damage. Those are co-ordinated by the Department of Transport's marine pollution control unit. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy asked me whether other countries have similar bodies. I am informed that other North Sea countries all have similar capabilities and co-operate on their operation within the framework of the Bonn agreement. The unit to which I referred maintains a national contingency plan to cover emergencies at sea and offers advice and assistance to local authorities if pollution reaches the coastline.

This year's conference will also address for the first time the protection of marine wildlife, as a result of proposals put forward by the UK —a point made much of by my noble friend. These we hope will lead to a new emphasis on conservation for coastal and marine sites around the North Sea and in particular for the protection of small cetacean species of porpoise and dolphin, so dear to the heart of my noble friend and others.

My noble friend asked about the throwing of rubbish overboard. I am informed that all North Sea states have ratified Annex V of MARPOL which prohibits the dumping of most forms of garbage. A poster education campaign is under way by the Department of Transport.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point it might be convenient to ask him whether he can reply to the related question that I asked about monitoring and control; because one can pass protocols and annexes, but it is extremely difficult to discover when garbage is thrown overboard in the open sea.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am told that the answer is yes. My noble friend assumed that the "green" Bill would prohibit the dumping of industrial waste anywhere on the United Kingdom continental shelf. That is not so. The clause in the Bill is designed to control dumping by vessels of non-United Kingdom registration loaded in non-United Kingdom ports. It is designed to deal with ships such as the "Karin B" had that ship dumped its waste over the side.

I hope that I have addressed some of the questions asked by noble Lords. I am sure that there will be others that I have not addressed. I cannot do so now and I hope that they will permit me to write to them.

In addition, for reasons which I am sure noble Lords will understand, I do not feel that I can say more at this stage about the expected conclusions of the Hague conference, but in selecting the topics to speak about I hope that I have given some indication of its scope. It will be concerned primarily with reviewing and cementing the initiatives agreed at London, as, for example, in consolidating the lists of dangerous substances used in each North Sea state into a common North Sea list. It should also produce some useful new initiatives.

The United Kingdom Government remain strongly committed to the success of the North Sea Conference and will continue, through that and other means, to do all that they can to protect and improve the quality of our seas and coastal waters.

4.37 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the speakers who have taken part in the debate. They have spoken with knowledge of and great interest in the subject. We have not had to limit our contributions today because of the passage of time. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, for taking part in the debate. He was Lord Provost of Aberdeen during the four years that I was Secretary of State for Scotland in the early 1970s when oil was first discovered in the North Sea.

Conflicting interests were immediately apparent between the fishing and the oil industries which the noble Lord has described today. In those years until 1974 there was no Department of Energy. As part of the arrangements to adapt to the new oil discoveries I established a body containing representatives of both the fishing and the oil industries. At that time it could discuss and iron out early possible conflicts of interest. Naturally, I am not fully in the picture now, but I hope that my noble friend will have heard what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, said.

As we have time, I should like to say a little more about that topic in reply to the noble Lord. The fishermen's anxieties are ones with which I am familiar. They are concerned about debris and obstructions, including pipelines, on the seabed. It may mean that they cannot trawl on or near the bottom or that they foul their nets on obstacles. It is similar to the minestone from industry on land to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred. It is not harmful toxically, but it may interfere with traditional fishing grounds. Care has to be taken where it is dumped, particularly off the North-East of England. It is a long-term problem because fishing boats are not allowed to approach within a certain distance —if I remember correctly it is 1,000 metres —of any North Sea platforms. That is a safety precaution. The debris that may fall below the platforms cannot possibly foul their nets or be an obstruction at the moment.

Some of the fishing grounds may be unusable, but that is inevitable if we are to have an off-shore oil industry. That is part of having the industry. The noble Lord mentioned the abandonment of North Sea structures, when the oil fields eventually come to an end, or the structures are no longer in use. That, too, causes concern to the fishermen because unless they are removed they could leave obstacles for the fishing industry. It was discussed when the Petroleum Bill was passing through this House about two years ago. But I would mention that there are platforms about 100 miles from land in deep water where no one has ever heard of any fishermen trying to trawl the bottom for fish, so there could not be a danger there, except to submarines; but that is another question.

This is not an absolutely straightforward matter and certain questions still need to be worked out before abandonment principles are finally decided upon. I am told that the first case of a platform being abandoned is still at least five years off.

The noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, supported my inquiry about licensed dumping by the United Kingdom after 31st December last, which was the deadline for ending dumping of industrial waste. She also shares my concern for wildlife. I am sure both of us were glad to hear what my noble friend Lord Reay, was able to say about that.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, expressed the views of most of us concerned with the subject, and helpfully raised some matters for which I did not have time in my speech. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Reay for his reply. I was not quite sure whether he was able to say that incineration at sea had already been completely ended in the United Kingdom, but he certainly indicated that that has not been done for some time and it is apparently not intended to do much, if any, in the future.

I did not raise the question of nutrients —that is, nitrates and phosphates—because of the need to restrict the time of my opening speech. As regards the United Kingdom, I was delighted to hear my noble friend's statement that the Government were going to insist on reductions of emissions of nitrates into the rivers and waters of the North Sea from this country but, as he mentioned, the real problem is the long stretch of shallow water along the coast of the Netherlands and Germany known as the Wadden area, where nitrates and phosphates have caused a real problem of pollution.

Again, I thank all who have taken part in the debate, and I wish the Government representatives all good fortune at the conference at the Hague. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.