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Dealing with pollution from ships

With one of the longest coastlines in Europe and an economy that relies on shipping for 95 per cent of its visible trade, the UK is at particular risk from marine pollution, which can have serious consequences for people, property and the environment. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), an executive agency of the Department for Transport, is responsible for minimising the risk of pollution from ships and, where pollution occurs, minimising its impact on UK waters, coastlines and economic interests.

The UK’s marine pollution record has improved considerably over recent years, with no major oil or chemical spill occurring in UK waters since 1996. The Agency has a good record in dealing with pollution incidents, recovering its costs and prosecuting offenders. The Agency has put in place a new National Contingency Plan for dealing with pollution incidents, has enhanced its response capabilities and taken steps to ensure that ports and harbours are properly prepared. However, according to a report to Parliament today by Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, the MCA can do more to ensure that the UK is ready to deal with oil and chemical pollution incidents:

  • The Agency needs to ensure that all major ports and harbours have the right resources in place, and personnel with the appropriate training and skills, to be able to deal with a medium sized oil spill.
  • An effective response to a pollution incident affecting the UK coastline depends on coastal local authorities having up to date contingency plans, but 30 per cent of the 170 local authorities around the UK coast have plans that are between 5 and 11 years old. All but one of these authorities are writing new plans. A further six authorities either have no plans or have yet to provide the Agency with information.
  • Although the threat of chemical pollution from ships is real, ports and harbours are only required to have plans for dealing with oil pollution. Requirements for dealing with pollution from hazardous and noxious substances need to be brought into force as soon as possible and all major ports and harbours will then need to comply with them.

Sir John found that the Agency needs to assess the limits of the resources that it has at its disposal, in terms of the number and size of incidents it would be able to deal with at any one time. Although the Agency has made savings by renegotiating its aerial surveillance contract, it could make further savings by sharing contracts with other government bodies that use surveillance aircraft at sea and by sharing counter-pollution equipment with commercial companies.

The MCA and the Department also need to take further steps to ensure that “the polluter pays”. Prompt submission of claims is critical to the Agency’s success in recovering the cost of dealing with pollution incidents, but the Agency has taken too long to compile some of its claims. International compensation arrangements only cover pollution from tankers’ cargoes of crude or heavy fuel oil; international conventions on liability and compensation for pollution by hazardous and noxious substances or by fuel that vessels carry as bunkers for their own use are not yet in force, making cost recovery difficult. There are also major areas around the UK coast that are not covered by oil pollution regulations, preventing the Agency from prosecuting pollution offences irrespective of where they occur.

“The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has in recent years strengthened the UK’s ability to deal with marine pollution incidents. The Agency does, however, need to satisfy itself that ports, harbours and coastal local authorities remain capable of protecting the environment from marine pollution, and ensure that it has the ability to recover its costs, prosecute offenders and deter others from polluting.”

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors


The Maritime and Coastguard Agency is responsible for enforcing the UK’s obligations under two key international conventions concerned with protecting the marine environment from pollution, both of which are reflected in UK maritime legislation:


  • the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (adopted by the International Conference on Marine Pollution, hence known as the “MARPOL Convention”), which aims to control pollution of the sea by oil, chemical and other harmful substances that might be discharged during the course of a ship’s operations or when a ship is damaged. Signatories to the Convention are required to inspect ships in port and at sea, trace and prosecute polluting ships and ensure there are adequate port facilities for receiving waste from ships; and
  • the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (the “OPRC Convention”), which requires signatories to inspect ships, maintain a national contingency plan for responding to oil pollution incidents and provide technical assistance to other signatories in the event of such incidents. Ports and harbours, ships and offshore installations are required to have their own approved oil pollution contingency plans and to report pollution incidents when they occur. They, and signatory governments, must put in place equipment for combating incidents, hold training exercises and have communication facilities to allow them to respond without delay to pollution incidents.

The UK is also considering introducing into UK law by the end of 2004 the international Protocol on Preparedness, Response and Co-operation for Pollution Incidents by Hazardous and Noxious Substances (the HNS Protocol). Ports and harbours will have the choice of adapting their existing oil spill contingency plans, or preparing a new HNS emergency plan, to ensure they are able to deal with pollution incidents involving hazardous and noxious substances.


Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office employing some 750 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.


PN: 44/02