HL Deb 20 December 1983 vol 446 cc711-2WA
The Earl of Bessborough

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are yet in a position to respond to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's Eighth Report. Oil Pollution of the Sea.

Lord Skelmersdale

The Government's response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's Eighth Report was published yesterday. Copies have been placed in the Library of the House.

The Royal Commission concluded that marine oil pollution at current levels is unlikely to cause long-lasting damage to the environment. But they recognised the severe short-term local dislocation, frequently accompanied by heavy losses of sea birds, caused by large spills, and made recommendations for improving matters, both as regards prevention and as regards clean-up when preventive measures have failed.

I am glad that we have been able to accept most of the Royal Commission's recommendations. Prevention is a collective responsibility. Governments, shipowners, port authorities and many others have an important part to play. If accidents are to be avoided, tankers must be built and operated to high standards. Offshore oil exploration and production must be carefully handled. Our response to the Royal Commission sets out a great variety of steps which are being taken both nationally and internationally to minimise the risk of accidents and deliberate polluting discharges.

As for clean-up, the Royal Commission recommended a fully integrated response to a major spill—on land and at sea. The Government accept this recommendation. The United Kingdom environment departments' direct responsibilities in relation to onshore clean-up—both of oil and of chemicals—are therefore to be transferred to the Department of Transport's Marine Pollution Control Unit, which already has responsibility, within the Government for dealing with oil at sea. Following discussions between the Government and the United Kingdom Petroleum Industry Association, the private sector will also be playing a fuller part in clean-up operations. The new arrangements will help to ensure that all concerned—central Government, local authorities and industry—are better able to mount a swift, co-ordinated and, most important, effective response when necessary.

We see no need to take legislative powers to compel local authorities to help to clean-up in a particular way following a spill: we believe that the present voluntary arrangements are adequate. Nor do we see the need to alter the present financial arrangements whereby each organisation bears the immediate costs of any operation which it initiates or controls, except in the case of costs which are directly attributable to a particular area being used as a safe haven. From now on, central Government will reimburse such clean-up costs as are reasonably attributable to the use of a place as a safe haven.

However, the extent to which we differ from the Royal Commission is far outweighed by the extent to which we are at one with them. My right honourable friends and I are most grateful to the commission for their excellent report.