Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 2 of Session 2002-03, dated 9 January 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that the system is not tough enough on ship polluters and particularly condemned inconsistencies  between different parts of the UK coast.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 2nd Report of this Session, which examines the preparedness of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (the Agency), and others, to deal with pollution from ships, and the enforcement of the principle that 'the polluter pays'.

The Committee found that the Department for Transport should bring forward legislation to enable pollution offences to be prosecuted on the same terms irrespective of where those offences occur within the UK Pollution Control Zone. Existing legislation limits the Agency's ability to prosecute pollution offences in the Thames, the Solent, the Bristol Channel and other major estuaries around the UK, and provides statutory defences against prosecution even where an incident arises through negligence. There should be a consistent approach to dealing with pollution offences wherever they occur in UK waters.

The UK's marine pollution record has improved considerably in recent years, with no major oil or chemical spill occurring in UK waters since 1996. The Agency and the Department have acted to improve preparedness. A major pollution incident could happen at any time, however, and the Agency will need to check periodically that ports and harbours comply with the key requirements of their oil spill contingency plans, while knowing the limits of their ability to handle a major incident. 

The response requirements for a major terrorist incident at sea involving oil, chemicals or other hazardous or noxious substances may differ significantly from those following an accidental spillage. Through the Department's participation in international initiatives to prevent terrorist incidents at sea, and the Cabinet Office's current review of civil contingency arrangements, the Department and the Agency should put in place appropriate prevention and response plans to deal with terrorist threats involving vessels carrying potential pollutants.

'Pay to be paid' insurance policies leave the Agency to bring a successful claim against the vessel's owners before the insurers will reimburse the owners. A 'one ship company' means that, if the vessel is wrecked or scrapped following a pollution incident, there may be no other assets from which the Agency can secure payment of its claim. The Department and the Agency should take early action to limit polluters' avoidance of liabilities through such devices.

Mr Leigh said today:

"The system is not tough enough on those who pollute our seas. Too many polluters are able to escape their dues by setting up a 'one ship company'. And what's worse is that in some parts of the coast polluters have much more protection from prosecution than in others. For example it is paradoxical and perverse that the owners of a ship causing pollution close to Southampton or Portsmouth would be very difficult to prosecute but if the incident took place further out in the English Channel prosecution would be much easier."

This Report can be accessed via the internet from around 12.00 noon on the day of publication.