Marine Oil Pollution

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th July 1978.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

11.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch and Lymington

I turn from the problems of the national financial scene to a problem that is worrying many people almost as much—that of oil pollution at sea.

This is worry enough for those of us who represent coastal constituencies. It is a double worry when, off those coasts of our constituencies, oil has been discovered under the sea. In the case of south-east Dorset and south-west Hampshire we also have onshore oil as a potential threat.

Worry turns to fear when one considers the events of the last two and a half years—the "Urquiola" affair in La Coruna; the Ekofisk blow-out in the North Sea; and, more recently, the "Amoco Cadiz" and "Eleni V" disasters, with their tragic consequences. There was also a less-heralded event in southern England when there was a leak in the pipeline from Southampton Water to London. Subsequently electronic testing showed that there were 90 faults in that single pipeline. So it is not surprising that people are alarmed at what could happen if these disasters strike near at home.

There has been widespread dissatisfaction with the way in which the Government handled the "Eleni V" affair. The Minister will know that there was widespread alarm at the implications of the "Amoco Cadiz" affair off the Brittany coast. We all know the phrase about Nero fiddling while Rome burned. It has looked to many people—the Select Committee on Science and Technology heard this yesterday from the county council representatives in East Anglia—that Her Majesty's Government appeared to dither over the case of the "Eleni V". While Governments dither, the oil industry relentlessly pursues its interests, sometimes with apparent disregard for the interests of the people whose livelihoods can be affected, particularly fishermen.

One of the points that I wish to make in my case tonight is that so many Government Departments are involved that the oil industry seems willing and able to pursue its own interests in the knowledge that whilst the Departments decide amongst themselves which is responsible, the industry does what it wants to do. We had an example recently in the English Channel, where BP and Gulf have been carrying out a seismic survey. They have caused considerable damage to lobster pots and fishermen's nets. The fishermen are ostensibly looked after by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whilst the oil companies are responsible to the Department of Energy.

I want to quote briefly from one or two letters that I have received from different Ministers, to illustrate the point that I am making. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food wrote to me on 9th June as follows: Although John Silkin has no formal statutory obligations or authority for dealing with such matters, the good offices of our Sea Fisheries Inspectorate have been used in order to bring the fishing and oil interests together. I am glad to say that by working quietly behind the scenes the Inspectorate has already achieved some measure of success in cooling the temperature. It should not be necessary to have to work to bring the fishing and oil interests together. The Minister of State went on to say: Immediately the local Inspectorate had heard of BP's activities they contacted my officials in London. My contention is that if the oil companies had been observing the law, the fishing interests would have known beforehand what was going on, because the Petroleum (Production) Regulations 1976, schedule 5, paragraph 23, state: The Licensee shall not carry out any operations authorised by this licence in or about the licensed area in such manner as to interfere unjustifiably with navigation or fishing in the waters of the licensed area or with the conservation of the living resources of the sea. There is one of numerous examples that I could give where interdepartmental split responsibility has caused a great deal of unhappiness and discontent. Whilst the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Energy have been trying to find out what has been going on, BP and Gulf have been having a ball in the English Channel.

The Under-Secretary himself wrote to me on 16th June. He always tells us—we accept this—that he and the Government have overall responsibility for oil pollution matters. But in correspondence concerned with the situation in the Channel, he said: I am sorry that the Department of Trade's limited powers in this area do not allow us to take account of the interests of the fishing industry, other than to safeguard the navigation of their vessels. That is quite unsatisfactory.

In the limited time available, I cannot possibly read out all the different ministerial responsibilities of Trade, Agriculture, Defence, Energy, Environment, Home Office and Industry which illustrate the point that I am trying to make. I take just one small item. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible for licensing chemical dispersants, but the Department of Industry is responsible for providing research on these dispersants. There are numerous other similar examples that one could give.

I have not taken an interest in this matter just recently, as the Minister will know. In fact, over two years ago I took a director of a company in my constituency to see one of the then Ministers at the Department of Industry because he needed further assistance from that Department with his oil mop device, which is able to lift oil off water. In spite of persistent questioning, it has taken over two years for Warren Springs laboratory finally to get round to testing this oil mop device at sea. The oceangoing test has just taken place and I am delighted to say that it looks as though the device will be every bit as successful as we all believed it would be two years ago. This device, manufactured in my constituency, can have inestimable environmental advantages and can, I believe, bring tremendous economic advantages to the United Kingdom.

But the pressures from outside this country to steal our technology are well known. In the case of the oil mop device, when I went with my constituent to La Coruna I was confronted by some fairly ruthless people, and it was quite clear to me that if this country does not develop its own technology and keep it for itself, others will snatch it from us.

I was disgusted when I found that a Mr. Wayment, who had been working for the Department of Industry and who had been most unhelpful, had subsequently gone off and worked for an American competitor of the company in my constituency and had taken with him all the technology which he acquired when he was working at the Department of Industry. This is the sort of international competition and tactics that we have to face.

Having had a glimpse under the blanket of the tactics of the oil companies, I want to take a moment to examine the activities of Lloyd's and the insurance side of the oil pollution business. Oil insurance is very big business, and the Minister, amongst his many responsibilities, is responsible for insurance. It is estimated that the "Amoco Cadiz" catastrophe will cost the French authorities about £60 million. In this country, if we have a problem like the problem of the "Amoco Cadiz" I have no doubt that Lloyd's will very quickly pay out the money owing to the oil companies and tanker owners.

In my inquisitiveness I wrote to the chairman of Lloyd's on 4th April and asked him: Can you tell me what, if any, checks you make on the proficiency, qualifications and behaviour of the crews on oil tankers before you are willing to pay out insurance money? It is felt in some quarters that Liberian-registered tankers with a multinational crew are less likely to observe proper navigational rules than those observed by a British crew in a British ship and I would very much welcome your views on this point. I was somewhat surprised to receive a reply from the deputy chairman of Lloyd's telling me: Underwriters have no control over the proficiency, qualifications, and behaviour of crews on oil tankers. This is the responsibility of the Classification Societies and the Governments of the Countries in which the vessels are registered. That is not a satisfactory situation. If one drives one's Mini along Whitehall and knocks into a bollard I have no doubt that the insurance company concerned will ask many searching questions about one's licence, insurance, tax and test certificate. It seems to me that there is rather less concern on the part of Lloyd's about paying out insurance premiums to the "drivers"—if I may refer to them thus—of 250,000-ton tankers than there is about Mini drivers driving up and down Whitehall.

I know that the Minister is looking forward to presenting us at some stage with a merchant shipping Bill. Eighty per cent. of the accidents at sea are caused through human error, and I certainly hope that we shall be ratifying the IMCO convention, which was agreed last Friday, because the question of competence is of very great concern.

Competence, however, is only one of the problems. The threat that our coastline faces is not just a threat of incompetence; it is a threat that is aggravated by the sometimes ruthless and aggressive and acquisitive actions of the oil companies themselves. I am not satisfied that the Government possess adequate machinery or powers to deal with the situation, so, in the few remaining minutes that I have I want to put to the Minister an eight-point plan.

Oil pollution ruthlessly threatens the livelihood of people everywhere, and also the environment. Ruthless action is therefore needed. We cannot wait for world-wide agreement. The EEC should act, because it offers a clearly defined areas in which inter-governmental action is possible.

In my eight-point "EEC Oil Charter" I want to ensure that the principle "The polluter pays" becomes a reality. Failing speedy EEC agreement, Her Majesty's Government should act alone, now.

First, I want to see all oil companies world-wide registered in a special category before they can trade in the United Kingdom or the EEC. I call this the A list.

Secondly, all oil-carrying ships and their owning companies should be registered in a special category, which I call the B list.

Thirdly, the carriage of oil at sea within EEC territorial waters should be restricted to companies registered on the A list, in ships registered on the B list.

Fourthly, all companies on the A list to indemnify Governments whose territorial waters they enter against all costs of environmental pollution caused by collision or other source of pollution, such as washing tanks at sea.

Fifthly, an indemnity or oil fund to cover these anti-pollution costs should be financed by companies on the A list and held and administered by EEC sources. These funds should be available to Governments for research into anti-pollution devices, including the provision of standby tugs with anti-pollution devices aboard.

Sixthly, all companies on the B list should notify Her Majesty's Government of the competence of all senior crew who will be in charge of ships on the B list.

Seventhly, no tanker insurance should be provided by companies trading in insurance in EEC, unless clause 6 is fulfilled.

Eighthly, in the event of oil spillage at sea, the Government of the territorial waters concerned should have immediate call on the funds provided under clause 5 of my charter, such funds to be made available by the Government to local authorities or whoever is responsible for clearing oil from land or sea; and it shall be the responsibility of the relevant oil company immediately to refinance the oil fund after an accident involving its oil.

At the moment we merely pay lip service to the principle "The polluter pays". The ACOPS report, published in May this year, produced a whole series of interesting information. It said that all com pensation depends on identifying the source of the pollution, but ACOPS states that in most instances the source of pollution cannot be traced. Thus, Government adherence to "The polluter pays" principle often carries little weight in practice. This seems to me to be a strong reason for suggesting that the strongest possible restriction should be placed on oil tankers entering our territorial waters.

If only registered tankers were allowed, perhaps we could do something about recovering the costs from previously unidentified pollution—the unglamorous pollution about which we hear little, but which is a constant scourge.

I referred earlier to the French Senate. In The Guardian of 1st July there was a very interesting report on the French Senate committee which was looking into the "Amoco Cadiz" affair. The report said that proper control of pollution in the Channel could only be done with an investment of about £600 million, according to the Senate, which recommended that the prefect should have a fleet of helicopters, tugs, anti-pollution vessels and new radar systems under his control. It suggested that other European countries and petrol companies should help finance an anti-pollution plan. The next disaster may be tomorrow's headline. The time to act is now. Prevention is better than cure. We cannot wait for the merchant shipping Bill, with which I am not satisfied anyway because the proportion of the Bill that deals with oil pollution is minimal. We have interdepartmental muddle and uncertainty characterised by the "Eleni V" affair. It is 11 long years since "Torrey Canyon". I ask the Minister "When shall we ever learn?"

11.44 p.m.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), in a brief period, has raised a number of headline points, but I suspect that he has not done much research. He referred in the first place to the desirability of implementing the merchant shipping Bill. In his peroration, he said that he disagreed with the legislation and had doubts about it. The Government have every intention, as is exemplified by the fact that we introduced a White Paper to which the merchant shipping Bill was annexed, of implementing the Bill.

It is to the discredit of the Opposition that their trade spokesman yesterday denounced the need for the Bill and said that a Conservative Government—if, by some mischance, they were elected—would not introduce that legislation. He was running completely counter to the wishes of the whole shipping industry—owners and trade unions alike—and counter to the interests of the countless people who have contributed to the working party reports on pilotage, discipline, the employment of Asian seafarers, and so on. That shows the degree of responsibility of the Opposition.

This is not a satisfactory opportunity for discussing the pros and cons of the Government's actions over the "Eleni V". The matter is being considered by a Select Committee, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and I have given evidence.

I wish to rebut some of the hon. Gentleman's general allegations. It is easy to throw out such allegations in an Adjournment debate—wholly irresponsibly, wholly disregarding the available evidence, and claiming that the Government are to blame. Others will be able to pass a more authoritative judgment than can the hon. Gentleman, whose judgments in the House can scarcely bear the scrutiny of being authoritative in general terms.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

No. The hon. Gentleman has had his go. I cannot cover all the ground that he covered, and I do not propose to deal with matters affecting fisheries, but I or one of my colleagues will write to him on that.

Although I have been given only short notice, I shall try to deal with the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised at the end of his speech. I agree that the primary emphasis must be on the prevention of pollution, and my worry about the hon. Gentleman's proposals is that, in practice, they would have little regard to that consideration. We are determined that the United Kingdom should continue to play a leading role in the search for effective measures to reduce oil pollution from ships, but we must recognise that our coast may be polluted by vessels of any nation, not just by those trading with Europe or ourselves. The problem can therefore be dealt with only on an international basis. If we are to avoid the anarchy of conflicting national requirements, that is the route that we have to travel. We have therefore directed our main efforts to action in IMCO, but there are no easy solutions. We need more dedication to resolve these problems through the international community than has been evident for a number of years.

There have been a number of important advances this year alone. In January, the 1969 amendments to the international convention on the prevention of pollution of the sea by oil, 1954 finally came into force internationally, and the amended convention lays down discharge standards which, if universally adopted, should substantially eliminate oil pollution as a result of routine ships' operations. It is worth noting that the adoption of these standards was made possible by the development, largely at the initiative of our own oil industry, of the "load-on-top" system.

In February, agreement was reached at the IMCO conference on tanker safety and pollution prevention requiring all tankers of 10,000 gross tons and above to have two separately operable remote steering gear systems. All such ships will also have to be fitted with at least two independent radars. In addition, more frequent inspection of the equipment of all tankers will be required. All this should significantly improve safety. Furthermore, important agreements were reached to deal with operational oil pollution by adopting requirements for segregated balance tanks and crude oil washing.

Safety depends largely on the human factor. It is with that in mind that IMCO organised a conference in London on the training and certification of seafarers during June and this month. The conference led to the adoption of the first international convention on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers. Following a proposal by the United Kingdom Government, the conference developed and incorporated in the convention regulations and recommendations dealing with the special training of masters, officers and ratings of oil, chemical and liquefied gas tankers, which we shall ratify at the earliest opportunity.

We are also in the final stages of a joint study with France on a system of movements reporting by certain vessels carrying dangerous cargoes in bulk as they pass through traffic separation schemes in the Channel. That will have to be subject to international agreement through IMCO.

Reaching agreements on conventions and protocols is one thing, but they have to be brought into effect. It is encouraging that IMCO has now agreed on establishing a number of target dates. That should expedite implementation.

We have already ratified the 1974 safety of life at sea convention. Last month the Government published a White Paper to which the merchant shipping bill was annexed. We propose to see that implemented as soon as possible so that we can ratify international requirements much more speedily. The hon. Gentleman and his party do not want the Bill to see the light of day.

The North Sea states memorandum of understanding is important, but the hon. Gentleman did not mention that. It is designed to exert control procedures over the standards of merchant ships visiting the ports of the countries concerned. It came into force on 1st July. It covers both safety conventions agreed under IMCO and a series of conventions dealing with crew matters agreed under the auspices of the ILO.

Much has been achieved, but I agree that much more remains to be done, especially in bringing agreements into operation and enforcing them. We shall play our full part in that process.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been much concerned about the mechanical recovery of oil. We have relied on the use of dispersants in dealing with pollution at sea because so far that has been seen to be the only method proven to be generally reliable and effective in the often turbulent waters around our coasts. There are other methods. There are booms and mechanical recovery systems. Warren Springs laboratory has been evaluating the more promising items of recovery equipment over the past two years. It is developing a system of its own design for use in the open sea. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is showing encouraging results. I shall not deal with the specific recovery method that he has mentioned.

I turn to the specific proposals that the hon. Gentleman made. I doubt whether I shall be able to complete my consideration of them this evening. He has taken the trouble to devise a charter. It is not my intention to pour cold water on the proposals. However, there is a danger of heightening expectations with ideas that in practice may be unworkable.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested unilateral action. Prima facie, that is attractive, but in practice I do not believe that it will work. What is more important, unilateral action would diminish the authority of IMCO. It would thereby diminish the ability of the international community to devise and enforce international legislation, which I believe is the only effective way of doing something about the problems that concern the hon. Gentleman. Ships not visiting our ports or those of the EEC but using the waters of the North Sea, the Atlantic and the English Channel would be unaffected by the proposals that he has put forward.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch and Lymington

No, they would not be unaffected.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

Further, some of the hon. Gentleman's proposals interfere with the right of innocent passage. Has he considered the repercussions? Has he considered what effect it might have on our own vessels, which provide a livelihood for a substantial number of British seamen? That is a factor that I, as a Minister, have to take into account.

What would be the repercussions of the hon. Gentleman's proposals on the rest of our industry? Surely we must gauge that too. His proposals ignore the situation of North Sea States that are not within the EEC.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman's proposals ignore the degree of international co-operation already existing, as exemplified by the North Sea States memorandum of understanding. It ignores the work that has been done through IMCO which is continuing and has had particular stimulus this year. It ignores the degree of Anglo-French co-operation, following "Amoco Cadiz", which introduced positive proposals. It ignores the Bonn agreement among a number of nations in Europe, providing for assistance in time of emergency and for the exchange of information. It ignores the degree of anti-pollution work that has already been undertaken, in particular through IMCO and the certification of training of seafarers' conference—a monumentally important conference. It ignores the compensation provisions that exist and that would be improved by the coming into effect of the 1971 fund convention, expected shortly to come into effect. It ignores the fact that accidents occur to vessels when crews are already thought to be competent and whose certificates of competence would undoubtedly satisfy the hon. Gentleman's requirements as set out in paragraph 6.

I submit that none of the proposals, save perhaps those in paragraph 6, which are indefinite in any event, has a direct bearing on accident avoidance. That is the factor that is uppermost in the minds of all responsible Governments and has been uppermost in their minds, as exemplified by the February, June and July conferences that have taken place through IMCO.

I concede that we have a great deal to learn. That is why the Government are engaged in their own internal stocktaking at the moment. That is why many organisations are deeply concerned to learn lessons from "Amoco Cadiz" and "Eleni V". That is absolutely right. We do not have, and I doubt whether we shall have, complete answers to these problems. There is always room for improvement. If the Government have made mistakes, they will not be afraid of admitting them, because improvement is essential.

I believe that to reduce the authority of the organisation which, above all others, is able to introduce the international requirements, without which we cannot take effective action and which would be the corollary of unilateral action, which the hon. Gentleman is at least in part advocating, would be a very dangerous step. It is one of the reasons why we urged the United States not to take unilateral action—a judgment which they accepted at the February conference of IMCO.

I believe that it is dangerous simply to talk in general terms, as the hon. Gentleman has done, although no doubt with the best intentions in the world. It heightens people's expectations that there are ready solutions available. There are not ready solutions available. We have to work and to research carefully. We have to do this assiduously and in co-operation with the oil companies, the shipping industry and the trade unions concerned, because they have a valuable contribution to make in all these matters. It is not good enough, in my judgment, to make generalisations and, indeed, condemnations as the hon. Gentleman has done, unfortunately without adequate research.

The hon. Gentleman was right about insurance. I have a responsibility in that matter. I am concerned about the role of the oil companies in chartering ships. But I am not prepared to condemn them without giving them an opporunity to answer the allegations that are frequently and generally made. I said to the House not long ago that I was proposing to call the oil companies in for a discussion so that I could hear what they have to say—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.