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Column 542Department of Transport's marine pollution control unit removed nearly 600 tonnes of fuel oil from the wreck at a cost of some £650, 000--a large amount on that occasion.
In the same month, the Latvian-flagged Lunohods 1 ran aground carrying some 22 tonnes of fuel oil. Yet again, in both cases, major pollution was averted by a combination of good fortune and the prompt action of the authorities. Earlier this month, the Tynesider tug sank in Loch Fyne with about 20 tonnes of fuel oil on board, and arrangements to try to recover the vessel are still in hand. Those examples show that the threat of pollution from fuel oil is very real around our coasts. My amendments would ensure that, if there were cases in United Kingdom territorial waters, victims who had suffered financial loss would not have to prove liability against the shipowner. That would reduce any uncertainty about whether compensation would be available, and it is not hard to imagine that the uncertainty might be almost as distressing to the victims as the incident.
It is not only the victims of pollution who will benefit. The amendments would also allow the marine pollution control unit to claim against the liable owner for the cost of interventions to prevent the release of bunker oil following a marine casualty, or to minimise the effect of a release once it has occurred.
The amendments also encourage preventive measures to reduce the risk of spillages. The possibility of liability should provide a financial incentive to shipowners to maintain good standards of safety and seamanship. That is important, because, in marine matters, as in all others, prevention is much better than cure.
The amendments are consistent with the concept--I think that it is accepted in all parts of the House--that the polluter should pay. I see no reason why owners of some vessels should be liable for fuel oil spillages, while others are not. I certainly would not want to explain to a constituent that he is likely to receive compensation for oil pollution only if it came from a laden oil tanker. My constituency is just as much at risk as--perhaps more than--any other that has an extensive coastline.
I should explain how the amendments relate to the 1992 protocols and to the 1969 civil liability convention, which also deal with bunker fuel. Under the current wording of the 1969 civil liability convention, oil tankers are liable for bunker fuel spillages only when they are carrying a cargo of persistent oil in bulk. Here is another anomaly. Oil tankers with empty tanks are exempt, even though the tanks might contain a residue of oil.
The 1992 protocols recognise that residue oil can cause pollution, and apply the exemption from liability only to oil tankers whose tanks are clean. The amendments take that one step further by extending the liability for bunker fuel to oil tankers, irrespective of the state or content of their tanks. Other vessels are also covered for the first time.
The other important change that the 1992 protocol makes to the 1969 liability convention is to render shipowners liable for the cost of preventive measures when there is a grave and imminent threat of a release of oil, even if no oil is spilt. That enhanced regime of liability will be applied immediately for bunker fuel.
Historically, shipowners have been allowed to place a limit on the extent of their liability. It is not hard to see that, without those limits, the cost of marine insurance would become prohibitively expensive. Limits of liability vary with tonnage, so that larger vessels are liable for greater amounts. Most vessels limit their liability under the
Column 543general liability regime in the 1976 limitation of liability for maritime claims convention, which does not apply if there is a high risk of extensive damage being caused, such as when oil is carried in bulk, which is covered by the higher limits in the 1969 civil liability convention.
The amendments will not affect the way in which shipowners limit their liability, and they may continue to do so for ships that fall within the general liability regime of the 1976 convention. The extension of liability to cover bunker oil that I am proposing does not mean that vessels will be subject to the higher limits of the 1969 civil liability convention. As far as I know, the amendments have the full support of the shipping industry in this country and of the insurance world.
There has been considerable concern about the financial value of the limits in the 1969 and 1976 conventions. Both have been eroded by worldwide inflation. Higher limits for the 1969 liability convention were agreed in the 1992 protocols, which the Bill would allow the United Kingdom to ratify ; the International Maritime Organisation, which is situated just across the river, is discussing how to raise the limits in the 1976 convention.
The amendments would not extend to other vessels the requirements placed on large oil tankers by the 1969 civil liability convention for compulsory insurance to the extent of the limit of their liability. Compulsory insurance for other types of vessels is being discussed with the IMO and may be required. In the meantime, it will be for shipowners to choose the best means of providing for their liability, should the need arise.
The amendments provide a welcome addition to United Kingdom maritime law and are not contentious. They would improve the compensation available to victims of oil pollution, without imposing unreasonable demands on shipowners operating off the United Kingdom coast. For those reasons, I commend them to the House.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) : I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate on the new clause. I appreciate that the matter is not contentious and that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) opened the debate in a masterly fashion with a complete account of the technical details and legal background.
I must declare an interest as an underwriting member of Lloyd's, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said this matter has insurance implications.
I very much support the spirit in which my hon. Friend moved the new clause and I support his remarks on the transfer from common law liability to strict liability, which is important. My hon. Friend argued the case for that transfer very well and I underline everything he said, especially his comments about easing the availability of compensation and creating greater awareness of the need for shipowners to take preventive measures.
Generally, the House rightly regards the imposition of strict liability with some wariness and it should be reserved for the most serious cases, when any breach of that liability will have very grave consequences. However, the case has been well made for transferring to a regime of strict liability. It is also important that there should be easier access to compensation for people affected by a breach of liability because of an oil spillage.
My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that many legal difficulties stand in the way of people trying to establish such liability under the ordinary principles of common law.
Column 544There are many well-known cases. A veritable array of legal minefields lie ahead of those who would establish common law liability, especially in a case that involves technical details of seamanship.
Those who want to obtain compensation would have to establish, among other things, that shipowners breached their duty of care. Speaking as a layman, I envisage that that would be no easy task and that it would require much technical knowledge, many inquiries, much expense and delay, and protracted legal proceedings to establish such a breach of care in the type of cases that my hon. Friend envisages. Strict liability is that much easier to establish and my hon. Friend argued the case very well.
The second limb of my hon. Friend's argument was the need for preventive measures. Strict liability places a great burden on those who are subject to such a regime. When they set out on the activity in question, if they fulfil their duty of care under ordinary common law principles but are nevertheless responsible for a spillage or an incident that causes damage or loss, they will be responsible. In such an important matter, the House should set the highest and strictest standards, and strict liability is a good example. Shipowners should know that they must act according to the highest standards and go beyond the mere discharge of the ordinary common law duty of care. They will be judged not on whether they are proved to have breached that duty, with all the complications that that entails, but on whether a spillage took place. That should concentrate their minds on preventing such a spillage.
I know that spillages are of great concern to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, who, as the representative of a region that is apt to be affected by such spillages, no doubt speaks with great knowledge. Awareness of the need for conservation and to protect our coastline is increasing throughout the country, however, and, although I speak for a landlocked constituency, I know that many of my constituents are very interested in the protection of the environment and the wildlife of our coastlines. They would readily agree with the propositions that my hon. Friend advanced in such a masterly fashion.
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : I also speak as yet another Member who represents a landlocked constituency, and I notice some of my hon. Friends casting curious glances at me. I must declare that I have an interest in a measure that will come before the House later and, having arrived in good time, I was fascinated by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) was moving a new clause to his Bill. I congratulate him on the excellence of his pronunciation of a variety of interesting names.
My constituency would be affected if global warming really took a grip in the next 100 or 200 years, but in the short term I can still recognise the importance of dealing with such problems, given the fragile environment around our shores. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives rightly introduced the new clause and my only question for him and the Minister, whom I welcome, is why it has taken us until now to introduce such a Bill and the new clause, which seem entirely logical and sensible.
How many incidents would have been affected by my hon. Friend's proposal in the past five or 10 years ? He gave one or two examples but it would be helpful to understand the scale of the problem. How many cases might have been different, had this legislation been in place previously ?
Column 545In taking forward this measure now, are we leading the world or following it ? What has been the progress of legislation in other countries, both in Europe and other parts of the world ? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can assist in answering that question. It is always good when this country leads on environmental matters such as this and it is important that, if we are showing a lead, we should trumpet our progress loudly and clearly.
I was about to say that I shall support my hon. Friend despite those two questions--I notice that they have generated some activity around the Chamber--in the face of whatever opposition he may face. Judging by the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, this is not a hugely contentious matter, but we have been ambushed before and I shall be in my place to support my hon. Friend when the matter comes to a vote.
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport) : I am pleased to have an opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Mr. Harris) and pay tribute to him for introducing the Bill. I, too, represent a coastal constituency--one which enjoys clean and tidy beaches, some of which meet the European Community bathing standard. I should not wish anything to happen that would put those in jeopardy. Fortunately, my constituency has been subject to no oil spills, but they have taken place over the years, not just in the North sea but to the west of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend's Bill will, in great measure, assist in the prevention and cure of such problems in future. I share the impatience of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) to get the matter resolved. However, five years is not a great deal of time to deal with matters that were first discussed in 1989.
May I pick up on a number of points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives ? The Bill, including the schedules to it
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not dealing with the whole Bill. This is not a Second Reading. We are dealing with a clause and others linked to it.
Mr. Banks : I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would not think for a moment of straying from the straight and narrow. I am not sure what I have said that might have suggested otherwise. I wish to pick up one or two of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives. The clause gives effect to the importance of ensuring that those, other than oil tanker operators, who cause pollution are held to account and pay for any pollution that they may create.
I recall the first oil disaster in 1967 caused by the Torrey Canyon--there have been many since then--when a fully laden tanker caused considerable pollution to the United Kingdom shores. As my hon. Friend pointed out, in other cases, tankers not fully laden with oil have cleaned out their tanks in coastal waters off British shores. In those incidences, it is right and proper that those who pollute our shores should be held to account and pay for the pollution.
The polluter should be liable to pay and I congratulate my hon. Friend on moving a clause to ensure that ships that
Column 546are not fully laden with oil--they may be not necessarily oil tankers, but carrying other goods--are held to account if they pollute our shores or those of other countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) referred to prevention. That is an important issue and I suspect that, under other clauses that we shall discuss later this morning, it will be possible to comment on it further. On what my hon. Friend said, may I lay down a marker in this debate that I am especially concerned about flags of convenience ?
It is very well for my hon. Friend to bring forward this important Bill, but these days, an increasing number of ships that fly flags of convenience in international waters may not be captured by the clause, despite the fact that they may cause pollution. I regret the necessity for ships to sail under flags of convenience. The matter also concerns many of my constituents and those of other hon. Members, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment briefly on what I have just said.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives also referred to the extension to bunker oil. That is a crucial part of the Bill, implementing some aspects of the 1969 convention that have not been properly tackled so far.
The clause is most welcome and long overdue, and I hope that the Bill will pass through the House with best speed.
The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) asked why it has taken so long for us to debate this matter and put something on the statute book. Perhaps I can give him the answer before the Minister for Transport in London replies on behalf of the Minister for Aviation and Shipping from another place.
It is simply because the Government were not prepared quickly to take on board the lessons of various oil spills, particularly those caused by the Braer. In discussing private Member's legislation concerning other issues, we continually pressed the Government, in the absence of a comprehensive measure to deal with shipping, urgently to introduce legislation to deal with those conventions. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), because it is only as a result of his insistence and the fact that he was prepared to take a ready-made Bill from the Government that this legislation is going forward. Conservative Members should ask the Minister why it has taken so long and why the Government were not prepared to propose legislation in the Queen's Speech to enable us to debate the issue earlier. It is only because we have continually pressed the Government that we have got this far, but I am glad to see that we have, and that we have a possibility to make a few more amendments at this late stage.
I hope that, before the Bill completes its passage, a few more amendments will be made to tighten it up further and deal with the huge issues of pollution around our shores, about which we are all so concerned. However, I want to know whether we are prepared, not simply to pay lip service to that concern, but to do something about it.
I welcome the new clause, because it extends liability for bunker fuel, and any enhanced regime of liability for bunker fuel is welcome. However, I have a slight reservation and I wonder whether there might be an
Column 547opportunity to discuss further points that might relate to it as the Bill continues its passage before reaching the statute book. I ask the hon. Member for St. Ives and the Minister, how can we tackle the problem--which we discussed in detail in Committee--of oil spills that do not necessarily result from an incident or major shipping disaster ? When we have evidence that oil has been, perhaps even deliberately, discharged into the sea, but no one admits liability, no one can obtain compensation from anyone, because the source of that oil pollution has not been proved.
I mentioned that problem in Committee on behalf of an organisation called Care for the Wild. The Minister kindly offered me and that organisation an opportunity to discuss the problem in more detail with the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, but nothing constructive resulted from those discussions. The Minister for Aviation and Shipping was not prepared to take on board the significant problems that confront us when oil pollutes our shores.
Earlier this year, when there was a considerable oil spill off the coasts of Northern Ireland and western Scotland, voluntary organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and its Northern Ireland counterpart, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Care for the Wild, all helped with clean-up operations, but they could not prove the source of the oil that was killing so many animals and birds. For that reason, this new clause, welcome though it is, does not go far enough.
I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken this morning, paying lip service, genuinely wish to prevent further pollution to Southport or wherever else it might be, but if they want to ensure that we have found a way of dealing with those issues, they must accept that there will be instances when the source of the pollution cannot be proved and that we have to take precautionary action to prevent further damage as a result of that contamination. For those reasons, I shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to say. I welcome the amendment as far as it goes, but I put on record the fact that I shall look to my learned Friends in another place to see whether, even at this late stage, we can make the new clause watertight.
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) on the way in which he moved the new clause, which continues the fine tradition that he has already established in the way in which he brought forward the Bill and took it through its earlier stages. He is doing the House and, more important, his constituents and constituents of all Members for coastal constituencies and others, a great service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) was right to say that there is no reason why those of us who do not have coastline in our constituencies should feel divorced from a measure such as this, because concern for the environment necessarily extends throughout the country and internationally. That is entirely as it should be. We welcome the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) was right to concentrate on strict liability, because at present only owners of laden oil tankers are strictly liable for damage resulting from an oil spill. My hon. Friend is right--I defer to his professional understanding of the subject--that the business of trying to prove liability, and having to muddy the waters in relation to negligence and so on, is extraordinarily complex.
Column 548Were it not so, my hon. Friend and many of his friends in this place on both sides of the House would not earn the large salaries they do--long may it continue. However, although I am all for my hon. Friends earning a great deal of money in the law courts as they discuss angels dancing on pinheads, there is a practical reason why, in this sector, it simply is not good enough. I shall expand, to present practically what is happening here.
Let us suppose that a ship is identified. I am advised that it is often identified because, for example, a bird such as those for whom the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) is rightly anxious--I will discuss the detail of her amendment later--is washed up on the shore, covered in oil. That is evidence that something has happened out at sea.
As few vessel masters are keen to own up unilaterally to the fact that an accident has happened or, more cynically, that a deliberate discharge has been made, it is probably the first evidence we have that that discharge is there and that it poses a threat. The oil slick is inexorably on the move. Understandably, in many cases it moves towards the coast, where, if it arrives at the coast unanticipated, the risks multiply considerably and include risks to coastline, to sites and to other types of wildlife.
Therefore, time is of the essence and we cannot afford to put in the minds of those people who might be at risk the idea that they may not wish to incur expenditure, because, if there is any way in which the identified polluter can avoid liability, the likely recipients of the problems, will be left picking up the bill. That is a significant risk when the sums involved can run into many hundreds of thousands of pounds.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives mentioned the
unpronounceable vessel, which he made a gallant attempt to define--I shall not attempt to second-guess him lest my attempt is even more ludicrous--and referred to the fact that the incident involved expenditure of £650,000. One does not willingly incur expenditure of that magnitude.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere was right to say that strict liability should not be used unless there is an overwhelming public interest case for doing so, because that concept determines that the vessel is liable even though there may not even have been negligence ; the incident may have been caused by accidents alone. If one employs a principle of that type--the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere was extremely useful--one has to be careful about the way in which one does it.
Let me make it clear that the 1992 protocol changes the 1969 liability convention to make shipowners liable for preventive measures. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives was right to say that the amendment is consistent with another important principle, which I believe that the House will accept, that the polluter should pay. That is, in a sense, what overrides the difficulty that one might otherwise have of moving from provable to strict liability, because where else should the burden lie ?
One of the inherent risks that it is not unreasonable to ask any transporter of fuels, or any vessel carrying such fuels, to undertake is the risk of escape, just as we routinely insure businesses, motor cars, premises and ourselves against the risk of our causing third party damage.
Mr. Norris : The hon. Lady's question involves her discussions with my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping. On occasions, no vessel is identified at the time or subsequently. In those circumstances, the cost falls either on the Government, generally in cases of offshore activity or, more often, on local authorities when the threat of pollution is likely to affect their coastal environment. There is no question--in that case, the costs are absorbed by the Exchequer, at national or local level.
The hon. Lady raised an important issue concerning the involvement of individual organisations in that exercise. I shall answer the contributions in order and deal with that later.
We welcome the new clause and amendments, because they are helpful and take the Bill an important step forward. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon, in a helpful intervention, asked why we had not taken action earlier. To clarify the position, I can confirm what I am sure he would expect of one of the world's leading maritime nations--we are in the leading group of nations in terms of applying the convention. The Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands already impose strict liability for spills of bunker fuels, as does the United States. As ever, we are not at the back of the queue when it comes to implementing the convention.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon will not mind if I respond to his understandable impatience by saying that, as he knows, the legislative agenda is full. Last year, when we were discussing merchant shipping legislation, I assured the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, who properly pressed for the conventions to be implemented at an early date, that we would seek an early opportunity to take action.
I hesitate to make a party political point, and I was not anticipating the need to do so, but the hon. Lady has raised the ugly spectre of the body politic, so, merely for the record, I should say that, for all the rhetoric of Opposition Members, it took the prescience of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives--and his good fortune in the ballot--to introduce the Bill.
The nation is indebted not to an Opposition Member, but to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives. There have been plenty of words from Opposition Members, but the action has come from my estimable hon. Friend.
Ms Walley rose
Ms Walley : I certainly would wish to pay tribute, as I have already, to the action of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). I congratulate him on having managed to obtain an off-the-peg Bill, which the officials clearly had ready. I put that on record. Given what the Minister has just said about the Opposition's rhetoric, I must ask him whether the rhetoric that we have heard from the Government about giving a commitment to British merchant shipping will mean that,
Column 550when we discuss the Finance Bill, the Government will give a commitment to ensure that the measures so urgently needed for British merchant shipping are enacted.
Mr. Norris : Those measures, which are tangible and can be delivered, are not what the Opposition want. They are what any decent Opposition--whatever else the hon. Lady is, I am sure that she is that-- would want. But the Opposition, as ever, want measures that are beyond the scope of the public purse. I cannot allow myself to stray into the territory of whatever other arrangements my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might make for the good order of the Merchant Navy and our merchant fleet. Were I to do so, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would call me to order. It would not be appropriate to do so now, but it would be a good debate for another time. I would not dream of suggesting that every word of the Bill was not that of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, had not the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North let the cat out of the bag. As the cat is running around the Floor, I should make it clear that the Bill is further evidence of the Department's willingness to assist and to take an early lead.
It was not difficult to persuade my hon. Friend, because he is an hon. Member who understands matters maritime. It is not the first time that he has urged improvements in maritime legislation, particularly related to the shipping industry in which he is an expert, to the benefit of the nation.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) rose
Mr. Dykes : It is important for us to reflect that the Bill, which is so well drafted, is the result of a brilliant incandescent explosion between my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and the Department. It shows that it is no Government legislation is off the peg, but an original, autonomous creation of great profundity.
Mr. Norris : The description of the measure as an original, autonomous creation of great profundity is how I should prefer to leave the matter, as a sort of tombstone to the legislation. The subject of the number of incidents covered by the provision was also mentioned. It may surprise you, Madam Deputy Speaker--it certainly surprised me--to learn that we are talking about 20 or 30 incidents a year, which is not an insubstantial number. The business of the House on Friday morning is generally uncontentious Government business, when we deal with matters of less than earth-shattering international importance, but that is not so today. My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon was right to say that the Bill is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) represents a constituency which is directly affected by the Bill. On this occasion, the Irish sea is affected, but my hon. Friend's constituency contains an important piece of coastline with an important beach which constitutes a huge economic resource for his constituency. It would be
Column 551immensely vulnerable in the event of a maritime incident. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport is aware of incidents that have affected the beach at Southport and the Lancashire coastline, and have resulted in great expense and difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport raised the extremely important issue of vessels that either run under so-called flags of convenience or are not as well financed as those owned by the major shipping groups. His main concern, in his lucid address, was how liability might be enforced. He will know that, ironically, in terms of marine law, that is not as difficult as in other cases, because the powers of arrest mean that the authorities have something tangible that, if necessary, can be auctioned to provide the proceeds.
In limited circumstances, that does not provide the whole answer, particularly if a vessel breaks up completely so that it has only salvage value. If the vessel has no owner of substance and is registered under a flag of convenience, and there is no means of recourse, the burden falls on the public purse. However, in other circumstances, my hon. Friend's concern about the status of vessels should not detain him. That is not an impediment.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North asked a question related not so much to establishing who pays when an incident occurs for which we cannot attribute liability, whether strict or otherwise, but to another matter. In the meeting that she had with my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, she said that charities such as Care for the Wild, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, might want to take prompt action on spills and subsequently be reimbursed by the Government.
I make it clear that, in the main, the issue does not relate to Government per se, because, as I said earlier, generally the main source of action after such incidents is the local authority. If the organisation wants to make representations to the local authority, it is able to do so.
My noble Friend shares with me one or two concerns that do not make it possible for us to go quite as far as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North would like. In a sense, the first concern may sound challengeable, but it is not meant to be, because we all appreciate the good work of charities.
If I may unusually refer to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have some experience of animal charities. I wonder whether you and some hon. Members share my view that when an organisation that is concerned with a particular feature of life is a charity, it does not necessarily sit well with that concept for that charity to demand reimbursement from Government for its work.
That is not to say that there are not perfectly proper cases when a large charity will need to have costs reimbursed. That applies especially if it is invited to take on work that it would not otherwise be able to discharge.I have been associated with charities that have worked for Government Departments and have been reimbursed for that work. That is perfectly consistent with their general charitable aims.
The hon. Lady's proposition was that charities such as Care for the Wild should, for example, be able to pass on to the Government the cost of their work. No one denies the commitment and care of such charities, and I readily
Column 552place that on the record and endorse it. The issue of who pays can be seen in another context. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is a perfectly good example of the fine borderline between where Government responsibility ends and charitable opportunity begins.
There is a strong feeling that it is precisely because there is such work that the charities have been set up. The hon. Lady will know that, in the Shetlands in the wake of the Braer incident, and in incidents elsewhere, some of the beneficiaries, ironically, were the charities associated with disasters in such areas. I understand that there is some dispute between the charities about who ought to benefit, and whether some charities have jumped on the back of the incident to try to exploit it to gain funds. However, that is not a debate for this place.
I am concerned that, generally speaking, it is not good practice to allow organisations or individuals to make retrospective claims for costs incurred without authorisation. If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House consent, I should appreciate an intervention from the hon. Lady to clarify the subject. It is quite clear that, if we are to work in such circumstances, there must be notional authorisation in advance of the work. Almost of necessity, the work to be carried out cannot be described precisely, but we can at least set the contractual arrangements between the parties in a proper context. While the general principle will be that charities will respond from resources raised by public subscription to the demands and challenges that such incidents present, and generally speaking on their own initiative, that is not to say that the Government would not wish fully to discharge their own obligations and employ whatever agencies were appropriate.
Ms Walley : I sense that there is not much difference between the way in which the Minister and the Opposition perceive the issue. The impression I get from him is different from that which I receive from the Minister for Shipping and Aviation.
I should like to raise two issues. First, in the context of charities, we are talking about a situation that needs not only an immediate response but some expertise. Neither the marine pollution control unit, or whatever it is now called under its executive status, nor the local authorities necessarily have the specialist expertise to respond immediately. That was why the issue was raised with me by the charities in the first instance.
Secondly, the Minister spoke about the retrospective nature of the work. I would not suggest, and have not suggested, that somehow or other we should consider an amendment that would give an open cheque book to various voluntary organisations to spend money on no one's behalf and then submit claims. Perhaps in the debate on the next amendment there will be more opportunity to debate that matter. If the marine pollution control unit had the expertise to act quickly, we might be in a different situation. But, because it does not, we must formulate some contractual arrangements. If amendment No. 2 were accepted, the person appointed by the Government to take immediate charge in a particular situation could perhaps immediately assess it, recognise that neither the local authority nor anyone else had the expertise on hand to deal with it
I shall respond to the two issues that she raised. I am grateful that, rather unusually, more light is being shed on a subject on the Floor of the House than might have been apparent previously. It is important to accept the principle that if work is to be considered eligible for any kind of public compensation, it must have appropriate prior authorisation. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for confirming that.
I suspect that there has been some wariness about this whole issue. The understandable enthusiasm of those who are passionately committed to the protection of, in this case, wildlife--birdlife--leads them to want to act rather more quickly than is prudent in what the hon. Lady quite properly describes as emergencies. I made that point when I spoke earlier about the justification for strict liability. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about expertise. It is inescapable that, occasionally, a particular skill is not in the public sector or in the conventional private sector but in the charitable field. As I said, Madam Deputy Speaker, I suspect that you have some personal experience of that. I certainly do.
It follows that, if the Government are properly to discharge their responsibilities in relation to clean-up, irrespective of a subsequent ability to transfer liability for the costs, occasionally such work will need to be carried out. The Department has not been backward in that respect. Substantial expenditure has been incurred in clean-ups of one sort or another where wildlife has been affected. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those issues during this helpful exchange.
I will draw our exchanges to the attention of my noble Friend the Minister and ensure that full account is taken of them. If necessary, discussion with the hon. Lady can continue, to what I am sure will be a fruitful conclusion. We are referring not to a particular incident but to a general and helpful principle.
This has been a useful debate on key amendments to the Bill that the Government wholly welcome. I reiterate my congratulations to my hon. Friend and gladly commend the amendments to the House. Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.