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10.38 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I am grateful to those who have enabled us to debate these matters. I do not intend to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) on the "take note" motion on the European Community document. In other circumstances, I should not have been taking part in this debate. Had it not been for the fact that, coincidentally, on the morning when I was due to go on my holiday last summer, I was phoned at 2 am to be told that a boat had sunk in the Thames and that much of that week and a considerable time thereafter has been occupied in thinking through and trying to assist with the consequences of that accident, I might not have thought that this was a matter that need detain me. An accident of that severity, with the loss of life that occurred, happening literally on one's doorstep, makes one think again about such issues.

I want first to comment on what is paradoxical--although no criticism is implied--in the implementation dates of the two regulations. The Minister will be aware that the implementation date of the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations was 19 November 1989, after the Marchioness sank in the Thames. The implementation date of the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations was 7 August 1989--just a matter of days before the Marchioness sank. When the Marchioness sank, the new mechanism for investigating accidents was in force, but the new tightened regulations on the avoidance of collisions were not yet in force.

I should be grateful for a response from the Minister--later, if not tonight--on whether the investigations, which I am not trying to prejudice in any way, will consider whether the new regulations that came into force in November would have made a difference had they been in force in August. I ask that for two reasons. First, as is made clear in the note that accompanies the regulations, they have brought about various changes to the rules. There is now a discretion under rule 1(e) that certain vessels need not comply fully with the general requirements concerning lights and shapes and

sound-signalling appliances. There are widened exemption powers. I always worry when an international convention gives wider powers for nation states to exempt vessels from such requirements.

Secondly, the regulations amend rule 8. They add a paragraph which sets out in greater detail the duties of the vessels in so far as they are required not to impede other vessels and the duties of the vessels that are not to be impeded. That tightening of the regulations affects vessels travelling in each direction down a major waterway. Is the inquiry considering whether the amendment to rule 8 would have made any difference, had it been in force and had everyone been aware of it?

Mr. McLoughlin : The international regulations that we are discussing are intended for the high seas and navigation areas such as the Dover straits. Different regulations and byelaws apply to inland rivers. There was an interim report by the inspectorate, and we accepted the points that it raised, but it is important not to think that the international regulations that came into force on 19 November would have made any difference. I am not trying to preclude any findings by the inspectorate, and I

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can assure the hon. Gentleman that the inspectorate is carrying out a most thorough investigation into that incident. Although regulations came into force on 7 August 1989, they were made on 6 July and were brought before the House well before 7 August.

Mr. Hughes : I am grateful to the Minister, but he will understand the concern that we are dealing with navigation on a tidal river such as the Thames and the amount of traffic on it, even these days. All concerned- -the skippers, the crew, users of the waterway, the port of London Authority and all the passengers who use passenger, pleasure and commercial vessels--want to know that the highest international standards that apply to tidal waters anywhere, be they inland or offshore, are applied to the Thames. That is why the question whether the regulations would have made any difference is relevant. I hope that the inspectorate is addressing that issue, so that at least we can be given the reassurance that they would have made no difference or the comment that they would have made a difference.

Given that the collision regulations came into force in November, I assume that everyone concerned with navigation is aware of them, that they are being enforced and that the mechanism for doing so is in place. Obviously, people who are responsible for training and retraining will be made aware of them. I am aware of the methods by which crews are trained, but it is important that the Minister assures hon. Members that we are complying with the regulations. I am anxious that Britain does not plead for, and benefit from, exemptions, thereby reducing safety.

I have a question about regulation 3(2) of the accident investigation regulations, which says :

"The Regulations apply to accidents involving or occurring on board--any United Kingdom ship except that regulation 5 shall not apply to pleasure craft".

Regulation 5 provides a duty to report accidents. I should be interested to know why regulation 5 does not apply to pleasure craft--I believe that it should.

I have a further question on regulation 9, which deals with the report that the Minister mentioned. What are the criteria for the Secretary of State to order a formal investigation under the Merchant Shipping Act 1970, which takes any investigation out of the rules set down in the regulations? What is the dividing line between an investigation under the Act, which prevents the regulations from coming into operation, and the rules?

I asked the Minister about the interrelationship between the inspector's report and prosecution. That is partly dealt with by regulation 9, which makes it clear that if, when a report is being compiled, there is any hint of a breach of the law and that prosecution should be considered, the report should not be published until that has been considered.

I have been in touch many times with the Minister of State about an investigation, and possible prosecution, by the railway inspectorate. I am not making any criticism, but I am concerned about the time lapse between accidents and inquiries. The bereaved must be assured that quick progress is being made in an investigation. Sometimes, when a thorough report is published that leads to

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complicated legal questions about whether there should be a prosecution, there is a long silence and it appears that the authorities are not taking action.

I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that it is important that the inspectorate should not be timid about prosecutions. I am not saying that the crew of the Bow Belle or the skipper of the Marchioness were to blame--that is not for me or the House--but there is a provision in English law whereby, if people are criminally negligent, they should be liable to prosecution.

I heard your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), so I do not propose to say any more about the Herald of Free Enterprise case, except to reaffirm that the fact that a legal process is available and that people can be prosecuted should require us to consider whether there has been criminal negligence in any case involving death. It is important to do so, because those in charge must be accountable. I welcome the change in regulation 9(4), which allows comment by interested parties. I also welcome the fact that the chief inspector can issue information during an investigation. I told the Secretary of State that I welcomed the interim report on the Marchioness. I compliment and thank the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for acting promptly. They acted reassuringly. I understand that they must await the final report before taking any further decisions. I also welcome the fact that summaries of the report can and will be made available to anyone with a legitimate interest.

I am concerned, however, that a spot check investigation of some vessels on the Thames carried out by the Evening Standard a matter of weeks ago apparently revealed--I relate this to the Minister so that he can make departmental inquiries--that some of the requirements made by the Secretary of State after the sinking of the Marchioness were still not being complied with. It is not for me to judge whether that is true, but it is vital that we should have the most stringent safety measures for the prevention of collisions and for the reporting and investigation of accidents and that they should be enforced properly. As Opposition Members often say, if more people should be put in post to enforce safety requirements, we must put more people in post. No price can be too high to pay for employing as many people as necessary to ensure that the highest safety standards are in force.

The lesson that I have learnt from the sinking of the Marchioness is that, in spite of the general good conduct and great experience of many of those involved, we were not doing the absolute maximum that could be done to avoid an accident. I hope that the new regulations and enforcement measures will prevent such accidents in future. 10.51 pm

Mr. McLoughlin : With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This has been a useful debate. I shall do my best to answer most of the questions that have been asked, but I may need to write to hon. Members on some. I hope that hon. Members will understand that some of the matters

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raised were fairly technical and that, rather than give a false impression tonight, I should like to take the time to find out the correct answers.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to the Perintis. In an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) on 23 October 1989, I referred to that incident, and as it is important that the House should be aware of our powers to deal with such incidents, I propose to quote what I said on that occasion :

"In an incident threatening grave or imminent pollution we shall not hesitate to use those powers if need be. This was demonstrated in March of this year when a small Panamanian-registered,

Indonesian-owned ship, the Perintis, capsised and sank in international waters in the middle of the English channel, about 35 miles south-east of Brixham."

I hope that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) will take note of that important point, because a ban on all ships coming into British ports would not solve the problem of incidents in international waters that may nevertheless threaten our coastline. I continued :

"The vessel had a quantity of toxic pesticides on board and the expert advice to the marine pollution control unit was that the chemicals posed a major pollution threat to the marine environment and to United Kingdom fishery interests in particular. The owner of the vessel was not intending to do anything about the chemicals, and accordingly the Secretary of State authorised the MPCU to take direct action to recover the drums of pesticide which were scattered over the sea bed when the vessel capsised. Later, 28 of the 32 drums of toxic chemicals were successfully recovered. Tests showed that they had a much lower rate of solubility in sea water than first feared and scientific advice was that a continued search for the remaining drums was not therefore justified.

The Governments response on that occasion shows that we are conscious of the environmental hazards posed by the loss of dangerous goods being transported by sea, and we are ready to take action where it is practicable to do so."--[ Official Report, 23 October 1989 ; Vol. 158, c. 639.]

It is important to emphasise that, as some may too easily think that our attitude is rather laid back and lackadaisical. It is not. Let me deal with what the hon. Member for Southport said. To believe that we could ban or stop all ships carrying dangerous or chemical cargo coming into British ports is to live in cloud cuckoo land. If that were the policy of Liberal Members, I wonder what they would do in the North sea. Oil is a dangerous cargo. If it is spilt, it has immense environmental consequences on a coastline. Would Liberal party stop any oil tankers coming to the North sea because of the possible damage to the environment? Of course they would not.

Mr. Fearn : That applies only to toxic waste.

Mr. McLoughlin : They have refined their policy now. Before, they said dangerous waste, but they have refined it to toxic waste. Perhaps they should consider more carefully what they say before they give categorical assurances.

Among other things, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) asked about research into roll-on roll-off ferries. It is due to be published soon. We hope that once it is published we shall have a full discussion with the architects, the industry, the National Union of Seamen and other interested bodies.

The hon. Lady also asked about inspection of vessels. At present, we inspect about 25 per cent., of vessels, which is what we are required to do. We inspect all types of vessels which come into our ports.

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No decision has yet been made on a public inquiry into the loss of the Marchioness. The inspector's inquiry by the investigation branch is still in progress, and a decision will be taken when it is completed. I hope that that will be in the near future, but I explained earlier some of the natural delays that will take place. It is not that we are simply waiting for the report. We must give the people who may be criticised in the report time to respond and to include their comments in it.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) : The inquiry is important. Conservative and Opposition Members wish to impress on the Minister the fact that if the inquiry shows that blame can be apportioned, to several people, as will probably be the case, relatives and many hon. Members want a public inquiry to follow. We cannot impress it too much on the Minister that that should be taken into account when a decision is made by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. McLoughlin : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I shall not say any more, because I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the inquiry. I am sure that the House will understand that, if I said more, I might be in danger of doing that, I have not seen the report, but it would be dangerous if I gave the impression that I had some idea of what it contained.

Action has already been taken as a result of the Marchioness disaster. Six recommendations in the interim report identified shortcomings. If further shortcomings in the collision regulations are shown up, we shall take them up with the IMO and make further amendments. We can apply for byelaws to cover regulations on the Thames.

The hon. Lady referred to the collision last week between the Mayflower Garden and a barge. That is being investigated by the marine accident investigation branch and the Port of London Authority. However, the scale of that accident is not the same as that of the Marchioness tragedy.

The hon. Lady said that the MAIB should be made a separate body. I cannot help thinking that that is a response to her party's policy in the 1970s when the Department of Transport sponsored the industry. There is a difference between setting out the regulations and expecting independent owners to abide by and accept them. That is the difference. We do not own any boats or aircraft. However, we will act whenever the investigation branches give us sound advice on safety matters that need to be looked into. Therefore, we do not accept that there is any necessity to split these functions away from the Department.

As I am running a little short of time, I shall be unable to answer as many of the points that have been made as I should have liked. I shall try to deal with as many points as possibly generally, instead of dealing with those raised by each hon. Member in turn. We do not accept the need for a blanket imposition of compulsory pilotage irrespective of the views of the harbour authorities. In any event, that could be applied only when a vessel was within United Kingdom territorial waters. We have no jurisdiction to support the extension of compulsory pilotage outside such waters, and we therefore believe that to leave the decision to the harbour authorities, which can rightly say whether pilotage is necessary, is the best way to move forward.

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In response to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, I should say that, if a pilot saw or felt that something was definitely wrong, he should draw that to the attention of the port control authorities and, if it was felt necessary and desirable, an inspection would ensue. One has to rely on the good sense of the pilot, who might not have specific technical qualifications but who would have the knowledge of the waterways.

It has been said that we are not implementing the directive because of the cost. That is certainly not the case because no detailed costing has been carried out. It is doubtful whether any meaningful figure could be arrived at. As I said, even on the European Commission's own research, it is estimated that 4,000 ships might be required. As that relates only to the United Kingdom's coastal waters, we are talking about an incredible and technical job which would be fairly unmanageable. That is one reason why we are not sure about the practicalities of implementing some of the provisions of the directive.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked why pleasure craft are excluded from the provisions. The regulations extend to fishing vessels and pleasure craft, except that pleasure craft are not required to report accidents. That is because many of them are small yachts and are susceptible to minor incidents, and it would not be practicable to insist that they report all accidents. Obviously, if there is a major accident or if something is drawn to his attention, the inspector can investigate it and report on it if necessary.

I was grateful that one of the Defence Ministers joined me on the Treasury Bench during the debate and was able to put me right on some of the points made by the hon.

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Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow about the problem of fishing vessels sometimes getting their nets caught on Royal Navy equipment. I am advised that any complaints made are investigated fully and that compensation is payable. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, I shall of course check how the regulations require those affected to register their case.

This has been a useful debate. There is general agreement about the marine accident investigation branch. We place a high regard on environmental protection in relation to our shipping industry. When something goes wrong, it is at great cost to the shipping industry and, if a captain is involved in a collision, he loses part of his standing. Obviously, nobody on the high seas wants to be involved in any sort of collision. As has rightly been said, fatal accident investigations are matters solely for the discretion of the Law Officers in Scotland.

I hope that the report does not take too long, but I cannot and would not like to say. I do not want to rush the report. It relates to a completely different kind of accident from that involving the Marchioness, so perhaps we shall not have to wait too long, but I cannot give any assurances about exactly when the report will be available. I hope that it will be as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 7074/89 relating to requirements for vessels carrying packaged dangerous goods when using Community ports ; considers that Community legislation does not represent the most appropriate means of securing the development of effective provisions to enhance environmental safety in this area ; and endorses the Government's view that any new measures should be adopted and implemented on a wider international basis through the International Maritime Organisation.

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Waste Dumping (North Sea)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]

11.5 pm

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : I am very glad to have the opportunity to debate in the House the issue of the dumping of waste in the North sea. I make no bones about it : as far as I am concerned, the purpose of this debate is to continue to bring pressure on the Government to put an end to this filthy British habit of dumping industrial and chemical waste in the North sea. The immediate precursor of this debate is probably the incidents last week when the Greenpeace ship Sirius attempted to stop the dumping of fly ash by the Central Electricity Generating Board off the north-east coast of England--and it did for a short time disrupt that process.

Much more to the point, the action highlighted what was going on, not only with the dumping of fly ash but also in the licences that were still in force and the new applications being considered and made by the British Government for the dumping of chemical waste in the North sea. There were at that time three applications for licences outstanding, and a fourth application has been submitted this week.

Those licences have drawn the fury of the other countries around the North sea who are signatories to the Oslo Commission and the North sea anti- dumping agreement. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Holland have all said that they do not accept the prior justification arguments put forward by the British Government, that inadequate information has been provided and that no case has been made that either these materials are harmless or that there is no adequate alternative method of disposal--the prime considerations of the prior justification procedure.

I have seen the letters submitted by several of those Governments and they contain the nub of the argument. For example, the Swedish objection says :

"In our view the proposed dumping of industrial waste, MAFF/DAS752, is not in accordance with the decision taken by the commission in 1989 According to your report there also seem to be alternative synthesis routes available, routes that other producers have found practicable and economically feasible."

The Dutch Government have gone somewhat further and said : "As indicated in Berlin and Ghent it is very difficult to assess the availability of alternatives if so little detailed information is given. The present information is more detailed, in comparison with the data submitted in Berlin. Nevertheless the level of detail is still not sufficient to enable outsiders to assess and to advise on possible alternatives. The documentation of no alternative treatment is very poor and it is therefore difficult to accept the conclusion."

Norway, on behalf of the Oslo Commission, has asked for an urgent meeting to discuss Britain's continuing dumping of waste in the North sea.

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth) rose --

Mr. Bruce : I have very little time.

This, I understand, is to take place on 14 February in London, but the Minister will no doubt tell us when he replies. My understanding is that the Government intend to maintain a robust line, defending their position.

I have also been advised that the application by Fisons, who wanted to dump 4,000 tonnes of waste from Intal

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allergy/asthma medicine, has been withdrawn by the company, fundamentally because of the adverse public reaction, and presumably the judgment that it is not good for the company's image to be associated with that kind of dumping. Sterling Organics still wants to dump 42,000 tonnes of waste from paracetemol. I understand that it is para- aminophenol, which is known to be toxic. Orsynthetics wants to dump 3,000 tonnes of waste from the production of


In addition, Fine Organics has apparently, through the British Government, applied for a licence, for which prior justification is sought by the British Government, to dump 8,000 tonnes of chemical waste. I am told that the waste is mostly alcohol, which has a very high oxygen demand and is likely to have a negative effect on marine environment.

The important point is that the British Government's line tends to be, "We have no evidence that these substances are harmful. They are diluted and dispersed. Therefore, we should dump them." My challenge to the Government is, is it not high time, in the changing circumstances and with the pressure from other countries, to presume that substances which are certainly not beneficial or naturally occurring in the North sea should not be dumped where they cannot be monitored and where the consequences cannot be determined? The Government should consider whether there are other means of disposal which allow for proper monitoring and control.

That raises another factor--whether adequate monitoring takes place of the dump sites in the North sea. The evidence is that the Department has inadequate resources to conduct monitoring satisfactorily, and that we are continuing to dump without knowing the consequences.

Another question that arises is whether these companies, and presumably other companies which operate under licences, were told of the implications of the North sea agreement. Were they given an indication that dumping was to end and that they should be looking for alternatives, or were they told nothing? Worse still, were they told not to worry, that the Government, under the prior justification procedure, would ensure that they could carry on dumping, and that this was simply a fig leaf to give the impression that Britain had taken an initiative to advance the limitation of dumping in the North sea, when in reality it was attempting to get out of the commitment? I am afraid that that is becoming increasingly the way the British Government choose to operate--claiming rhetorically that a great deal is being done to advance environmental protection, when they are actually trying to find methods of escaping their obligations. Indeed, through the Environmental Protection Bill, the Government are seeking to write the prior justification procedure into the law. For those who might not appreciate the implications, it might look good in the Bill but, far from tightening the law, the Government are trying to give a new reinforcement to their unilateral action, which has been roundly condemned in many parts of Europe.

The evidence of waste build-up in the North sea justifies concern. A report in August 1988 states :

"A joint monitoring programme carried out by the North Sea states under the aegis of the Oslo and Paris Commissions has shown that concentrations of mercury, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls"-- mostly from sewage sludge --

"in coastal waters have declined less rapidly than have pollutant loads, but that pollution levels are at worst stable and at best falling slowly in virtually every area."

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So there is no justification for carrying on a process that all other countries have recognised should end, and have ended. The position gets worse. The countries in the Oslo Commission are also trying to tighten the controls on the dumping of sewage sludge. Britain is the worst offender. There are two draft final declarations for the third North sea conference in March this year. One states that the objective as regards the disposal of sewage sludge in the North sea should be

"(a) to monitor and review dumping operations with regard to paragraph 21 of the London Declaration with a view to adopting land based means of disposal whenever this becomes a practicable alternative ;

(b) to continue their efforts to reduce the contamination of such sludges by materials that are persistent, toxic or liable to bioaccumulate, so that they pose no hazard to the marine environment and to ensure that the quantities of such contaminants disposed to sea by this pathway in the immediate future do not increase" above 1987 levels.

That is the British Government's submission. Let us compare that with the submission of the Federal Republic of Germany, supported by most other countries :

"(a) to gradually reduce the dumping of sewage sludge in the North sea, aiming at a termination within a transitional period"-- of five years--

"(b) to launch as soon as possible a programme to achieve such a reduction".

In other words, there is a clear, unequivocal objective to put a stop to the process, but the British Government will not sign it. We have tabled an alternative, which effectively would allow us to carry on dumping.

Interestingly, the Government complain about their image. The Guardian, on 6 December 1989 reported the Secretary of State for the Environment as saying :

"I am tired of seeing the UK pilloried as the dirty man of Europe. That tag is simply not accurate."

The Government do not have the slightest chance of getting rid of that tag as long as they carry on with such actions. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot state, as he did in his written answer of 4 December :

"The United Kingdom is fully meeting international agreements reached unanimously by the North sea countries."--[ Official Report, 4 December 1989 ; Vol. 163, c. 104. ]

Ours is the only country that believes that to be true. Every other signatory is protesting vehemently about our interpretation of the treaty. To blame Germany for polluting the North sea through its rivers is not a relevant response.

The Government are certainly in spirit, and possibly even in the letter, flouting the agreement to stop dumping chemical industrial wastes in the North sea. In so doing, they are becoming the biggest threat to marine life and the total ecosystem of the North sea as far as Britain is responsible for it.

The evidence may not be automatically connected, but once-common seals are dying in their hundreds, dolphins are fighting for their very existence and fish stocks are falling disastrously, with appalling economic consequences for fishing communities, especially in Scotland. The Government's response to the problem is to carry on dumping, because they say that there is no evidence that what they are doing is harmful and they do not intend to

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comply with what every other member state expects them to do. While every other country has stopped waste dumping, Britain carries on. The Government say that it is harmless and there is no risk--they should tell that to the marine environment.

Britain alone continues to dump sewage sludge--3.5 million tonnes was dumped in 1989, contaminated with heavy metals. The Government say that that poses no risk. Britain continues to incinerate 90,000 tonnes of highly toxic waste off the coast of Scarborough every year, and claims that that is harmless. No wonder the other nations around the North sea are outraged by Britain's cynacism in allowing 22 dumping licences to continue in operation, with one more being sought. Among its neighbours, Britain is simply becoming an environmental outcast.

The fly ash dumping, although not the subject of the complaint, is a real issue, because it suffocates marine life. It sets like concrete on the sea bed and sterilises that area. Some 98.5 per cent. of all fly ash is disposed of in other ways, so it is ludicrous to suggest that there is no other way of doing so. A local company, Thermalite, in the north-east of England, has said that it could have taken it all and coverted it to breeze blocks. Fly ash dumping, therefore, should come to an end.

The objections which have come from the Nordic countries and Holland not only require answer at the Oslo Commission, but the matter is to be debated at the European Parliament, by its environment committee on 1 and 2 February. The German Government have called for a stop, and Mrs. Maji- Waggen, the Dutch Minister of Public Works and Transport, who will chair the next North sea conference in March, has called Britain's explanations unsatisfactory and said that Britain appears to stick to procedures, not agreements. We hail our agreement as a great breakthrough and then cop out on the technicalities afterwards.

The North sea is becoming seriously polluted. The information may not be fully available and may be disputed, but it is no longer justified to go on adding to a problem which we have not yet learnt how to tackle and solve.

The Secretary of State for the Environment should be ashamed of himself. It is not his Department that issues these licences or answers this debate. He should get a grip on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make it stop its filthy habits. He should ensure that, if Britain is to take a lead on environmental issues, it honours the obligations that it has signed, not just in the letter, but in the spirit.

He should ensure that it puts pressure--this is an important point--on companies to recognise that they cannot rely on cheap dumping of waste at sea, but must find ways of reducing the waste, recycling material and developing the best techniques to ensure that waste is handled well, minimised and, when disposed of, done so in a way that can be seen to be least harmful and most effectively monitored.

Companies must not be allowed simply to toss waste into the environment, without any possibility of retrieval, effective monitoring and seeming to say, in a cavalier manner, "We do not believe it is harmful, so we do not propose to stop it." That is against the evidence of all the marine life in the North sea, which is facing a fight for its very survival.

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The Government rightly stand condemned, and they will not be able to clean up their act until they ensure that British industry cleans up its act and stops the filthy habit of dumping rubbish in our North sea.

11.20 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) for raising this subject, albeit in a frantic sort of way. I found some of his remarks rather bizarre. The idea that fish stocks have declined principally because of pollution is daft. They have declined basically because of over-fishing. When that has ceased and there has been restraint--for example, in herring--the stocks have come back very strongly indeed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned incineration. He failed to mention that the United Kingdom incinerates less than 5 per cent. of the total amount and that it is all done aboard a Dutch ship, which is presumably registered by the Dutch Minister to whom he referred. Many of his remarks in that context bore the same hallmark of a sort of frantic objection without looking at the facts of the case. He is anxious to paint us as the villain of the North sea, but I decline that mantle of villainy.

I should make clearly at the outset an essential point. The Government fully endorse the objective of stopping the dumping of liquid industrial waste, so there is no difference between us on that. We are committed to stopping it at the earliest practicable date, and where we differ appears to be on those practicabilities. Our position is clear-cut : we shall terminate the licences as soon as safe alternatives of disposal are available on land.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : Really!

Mr. Curry : If the hon. Gentleman, who has spoken at length on other matters earlier tonight, will listen to me, he will hear that I have figures to sustain the point that I am making.

It might be helpful if I were to distinguish the various categories of dumping at sea which we license. The hon. Member for Gordon referred to industrial waste. There are certain categories of waste which nobody has the intention of phasing out in dumping at sea. For example, there is dredged spoil. Most companies dump that at sea, because disposal on land can be difficult. Most North sea countries dump dredged spoil in their inshore waters. There is no question of a ban on dumping at sea in general by anybody ; nobody has suggested that.

There is sewage sludge, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Then there is the industrial waste in its solid and liquid form. The North sea conference declaration exempted inert material, of which minestone is the only one being dumped to any degree, from its controls. For the other industrial wastes, the declaration envisages that dumping will stop. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the North sea conference is made up of the eight North sea riparian states, and covers all means of polluting the sea.

We do not for a minute believe that we are in breach of the international commitment that we accepted in that declaration. It is not the case that there was to be a complete ban on the dumping of industrial waste from the end of 1989. The ministerial declaration stated that the dumping of industrial waste in the North sea should be

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