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Offshore Pollution

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 26 March 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the implementation of his agreement to use his Department as the co-ordinating body for the dissemination of information in the event of offshore oil pollution.

Information about oil pollution incidents at sea is part of the responsibility of the marine pollution control unit reporting to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. A contingency plan is being drawn up, however, for the coordination by the Department of the Environment of the local authorities' response to a very major incident threatening the coast and this will include co-ordination of information for local authorities.

May I thank my hon. Friend for his prompt response to our recent problems on the South Coast? However, does not his answer confirm that the Department of Trade and my hon. Friend's Department are responsible in part, with the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food also being involved? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he appreciates that these problems are aggravated by delay in dealing with them, that there is need for firm control and that somebody should be in overall charge especially in the early stages of the pollution problem?

I hoped that I had assured my hon. Friend that the Department of the Environment had a co-ordinating role. I understand his anxieties. The main problems are speed and communication. My Department and the Department of Trade are giving these matters careful consideration, bearing in mind the recent incident.

Will the Minister assure us that his Department and the Secretary of State for Scotland co-ordinate with the Department of Trade? With reference to the recent incident on the Forth, will he indicate whether the Ministry of Defence is also involved?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all Government Departments regard this as a matter of considerable urgency. Regular meetings take place and I have no criticism of the contact between Departments.

Is the Minister aware that this matter, which he says is of considerable urgency, has been going on for a considerable time and that local authorities are still not satisfied about co-ordination and speed? What are the means at his disposal for finding the oil slicks?

It is difficult to pinpoint the basis of the complaints. I can say that wherever there have been incidents the Departments concerned have dealt with them all successfully.

As oil pollution does not know where the Scottish-English border is, will my hon. Friend confirm that he has arrangements to ensure—together with his hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in the Scottish Office—that the fishery grounds will be carefully protected?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In the past few days we have had a discussion of the sort that he has intimated. Such action is vital to deal with oil pollution disasters.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that is one of the most confused answers that we have had in this Pariament? After all that, where does the departmental buck stop?

I think that the House is deeply concerned about this issue, and the buck would quickly stop somewhere. I have the feeling that the Department of the Environment would be at the fore-front and that before the buck reached my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State it would stop with me.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the heavy cost to local ratepayers along the South Coast as a result of oil pollution on the beaches? What assurance can he give them that they will not be faced with more bills later in the year?

We have maintained the policies of previous Governments. We have always made it clear to local authorities that finance should not be any bar to dealing with these incidents. Over and above a certain figure my Department would help any local authority that was embarrassed.