HC Deb 23 January 1855 vol 136 cc912-24

then rose and expressed a hope that he should be excused for soliciting the attention of the House, as he was about to address them on a question of vast interest, and one of no little difficulty in respect to legislation. He proposed to introduce two Bills, both tending to the same object. It would be in the recollection of the House that towards the close of last Session a Bill was introduced for the purpose of continuing the system of the Board of Health, with certain modifications, and an intimation was given that a Select Committee would be moved for at an early period of the present Session for considering the manner in which the Act of 1848 had been carried out, and for determining what alterations should be made. The House of Commons, however, decided that the system should be put on an entirely new footing; and it was enacted that the department relating to the public health should be presided over by a Member responsible to that House. As he had accepted that responsibility, he did not consider it consistent with his duty merely to move for a Select Committee, and then leave the question wholly to that Committee; but he deemed it more convenient and more proper to bring in a Pill making such amendments of the Act of 1848 as he conceived to be advisable. Should it meet with so much favour from the House as to pass the second reading, he should then move that it, together with another Bill of which he had given notice, should be referred to a Select Committee in order that they both night be considered fully in detail by gentlemen practically acquainted with the operation of the law, from whom valuable suggestions might be expected. He thought he might ask for this assistance without fear of meeting with a refusal, for the subject was not one of a party character. If he considered that referring the Bills to a Select Committee would retard the accomplishment of sanitary improvement he should not ask the House to adopt that course, for he was most anxious that some measure on this subject should pass at a very early period of this Session, in order that, if it should please Providence to afflict the country again with such a pestilence as prevailed during last summer, such precautions might be adopted as legislative foresight could devise. The most convenient course for him to pursue would be to state briefly the origin of the present law, to point out its various defects, and show the manner in which he proposed to deal with them. He would not at the present moment say one word with respect to the necessity of some measure of sanitary reform, for that would be admitted on all hands; it would, however, be his duty to call attention to the various courses taken in reference to legislation and attempts at legislation on this subject. He found that various reports had been made to that House either by Committees or by Royal Commission on the question of sanitary improvement. In 1840 a Committee of that House sat, and made a valuable and useful report in favour of a similar proposition to the one he was now about to submit to the House. Front 1840 to 1845 inclusive Commissions were appointed, and they made reports all in favour of the same object. It appeared also that the subject had been referred to in the Speech from the Throne in January, 1847, in November, of the same year, and in September, 1848. He would now notice the various attempts made to legislate on this subject. In 1845 a Bill was introduced, based on the principle of centralised Government authority, but so much objection was felt to it that it was found impracticable. In 1847 another Bill was framed, of a rather more liberal character; but, great powers being still retained by the Government, much objection to it was entertained, and the Bill was not proceeded with. He now came to another Bill, introduced, in 1848, by the Earl of Carlisle (then Lord Morpeth). It was introduced on the 8th of February, but did not become law until the 31st of August, in consequence of the great opposition given to it. That measure was to endure for five years, and to the end of the then next Session of Parliament, but no attempt was made by its promoters to renew it until the eve of its expiration. The Bill, as introduced, contained provisions of a most arbitrary character; but some alterations were made in it through the Committee. When the Act was first passed, the demands from various districts to have it applied to them were very numerous, but, they rapidly fell off, as the Act became unpopular and difficult to work. From August, 1849, to December, 1849, there were nineteen applications; in the year 1850 they rose to sixty-six, but in 1851 they sank to thirty-six; in 1852, to thirty-seven; in 1853 they were twenty, and in 1854 they fell as low as nine. This showed that there was something wrong in the Act. The defects of the Act were unquestionably many, and he had therefore determined to apply to Parliament for an entirely new one. He proposed to repeal the existing Act altogether, retaining, however, those parts which were useful and inserting them in a remodelled form in the Bill which he should ask leave to introduce by the side of the new matter, in order to avoid the necessity of a perpetual reference to a repealed Statute. He had always thought the manner in which provision was made for the application of the Bill was very objectionable. At present, on a petition from one-tenth of the rate-payers the Board of Health had power to send down inspectors, and to take all the measures necessary for the application of the Act in places where there were defined boundaries and no local powers, without any reference to Parliament; but in places where there were no defined boundaries, and where there were local powers, the board had to apply the Act by provisional order, and to obtain the sanction of Parliament afterwards. He had always thought, too, that great delay took place in the application of the Act in consequence of the very complicated machinery which had to be set at work; but this he proposed very much to simplify. Another point which had been urged upon him very strongly was the inconvenience of the present system of giving several votes to one voter, and he proposed that, for the future, instead of one voter having, as he might now under Sturges Bourne's Act, any number of votes from one to six, each voter should have only one vote. Another grievance which had been greatly complained of, and which was, no doubt, often felt to be very galling, was, that local boards could not dismiss their surveyor, or appoint or dismiss their medical officer, without the permission of the General Board. During the time that he had held the office of President of the Board he had never interfered in these matters, because he was aware that if he had refused to sanction the dismissal of any officer the local board would easily have carried its point by stopping the supplies, when, of course, the official in question would cease to act. These clauses, therefore, had generally been nugatory, though in cases where attempts had been made to enforce them they had, no doubt, been found most galling. Another point was the limit at present placed to the borrowing powers of local authorities. There were many places which, though not wealthy, found it desirable to carry on great works, and at present they could only borrow money for such a purpose to the extent of one year's rateable value, and were obliged to repay the sum so borrowed in thirty years. He should propose to increase the capability of borrowing to the extent of two years' rateable value, and, while retaining thirty years as the general term for repayment, to give power to the Board of Health, under special circumstances, to extend it as far as fifty years. There was one most objectionable feature in the former Act, which had, no doubt, in some measure, impeded its successful working. Under the old system the General Board of Health appointed inspectors, who were sent down to places which petitioned for the application of the Act, to survey and to make reports, and these gentlemen were permitted also to give estimates for the construction of the works, and even, in some cases, to carry out the works themselves. He would show the House what were the consequences of such permissions, and then, perhaps, they would no longer be surprised to find that the Act had got into bad odour, for localities not unnaturally expected that when Government inspectors were sent down to make surveys and to prepare estimates, those estimates would, at least, be guarded. He would first read a list of the towns where the original inspection had been made, and the works ultimately carried out by the same inspector, contrasting, at the same time, the estimated and the actual cost. At Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the estimate was 6,500l.; the actual amount raised on loan, 8,000l. At Alnwick, the estimate was 6,500l.; the amount raised, 11,000l. At Croydon, there was no estimate, but the works cost 49,062l., and much of the work had to be done over again. At Ormskirk, the estimate was 7,500l.; and the actual amount, 10,000l.; giving total estimates to the amount of 20,500l., and actual cost, 29,000l.—a difference of nearly 9,000l. Next came towns where the works were carried on by an inspector who did not originally visit the town. At Launceston, for instance, the works were estimated by one inspector at 4,500l., but they were carried out by another for 7,800l.; at Rugby, they were estimated at 11,609l., and carried out for 18,000l., making a difference in these two towns of more than 9,000l. between estimate and actual cost. These were towns where the works were now completed, but there were others where the works were still in progress, and in these, too, the difference was quite as great. First, with regard to cases where the towns had been inspected and the works carried on by the same inspector. At Berwick-on-Tweed, the estimate was 14,500l., and 10,000l. had already been raised on loan; at Southampton, the estimate was 63,490l., and the amount now raised, 60,000l.; at Burslem, the estimate was 11,300l., and the amount raised, 14,589l.; at Epsom, a small town, the estimate was 7,012l., and the amount raised 15,921l.; at Rotherham, the estimate was 18,009l., and the amount raised, 30,500l.; at Selby, the estimate was 6,929l., and the actual amount raised, 8,600l.—making a total amount of 121,240l. estimated cost, and 139,610l. expenses actually already incurred. The most remarkable instance, however, was that of Dover, where the town had been inspected by one inspector and the works carried out by another. In this case, the estimate was 16,500l., and the actual cost incurred was 50,000l.—making a difference of 33,500l. He had only been able to find one case in which the cost of the works had been less than the estimate, and that was Knighton. Here the estimate was 2,700l., and the cost of works, 2,100l. By the Act, however, of last Session, it was arranged that the inspectors were to be paid by salaries, and the inconveniences to which he had just alluded were therefore obviated. He had conceived it to be his first duty on entering office to carry out the decision of the House of Commons, and it was with this view that the following letter had been written to the gentlemen appointed to act as inspectors— General Board of Health, Aug. 31, 1854. I am directed by Sir Benjamin Hall to say that he will appoint you as superintending inspector, and will recommend the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury to assign you a salary of 800l. per annum, commencing from this date. It must be distinctly understood that you do not, directly or indirectly, by yourself or by a partner, become engaged in any surveys, contracts, or works, and do not enter into any business or speculations during the time that you arc connected with this department. The Act under which the appointments are made is limited in duration to one year, and until the end of the then next Session of Parliament; and you must not consider yourself entitled to have any claim upon Her Majesty's Treasury for compensation or otherwise in case your services should not be required beyond that period, when a reappointment, if approved by the then President, will be necessary. I am directed further to refer you to the section of the Act which relates to the appointment and dismissal of officers engaged by this Board. In order, too, to carry out still further what he understood to be the intentions of the Legislature, he had looked through the various instructions given to the super- intending inspectors, comprised in a volume of 300 folio pages, and he had had these compressed into such a shape that the inspectors could read them at the public meetings which they might have to attend. These were as follows— The inspector is to show that there is no intention or desire on the part of the General Board of Health to force the application of the Act upon the district against the desire of the inhabitants. He will state that those ratepayers only who will derive direct advantage from the works will be charged with the cost of such work. The superintending inspector will especially urge that the object of the inquiry is to elicit facts for further consideration, and not to make out a case for indiscriminate application of the Act. He will seek the aid of all parties best qualified to afford information, and will so conduct the proceedings as to give every one the opportunity of being heard, and he will invite all persons, especially those who deny the want of improvement, to accompany him in his tour of inspection. Having ascertained the existing state of the district, the superintending inspector will examine and consider how far it may be advisable and practicable to apply the remedies of the Public Health Act within such cost as the inhabitants might be reasonably called upon to bear. To arrive at any accurate conclusion as to the cost, proper plans setting forth the levels, &c. must be furnished, and these plans are not to be undertaken by the superintending inspectors, but by persons selected to act by the local authorities after the locality shall have adopted the Act; but it will be the duty of the superintending inspector to make such general examination as will enable him to pronounce as to the practicability of remedial measures, and this may frequently serve for preliminary guidance of the local board and their surveyors in working out the necessary plans. It will generally be desirable that the superintending inspector, after completing his inquiry, should attend another meeting of the inhabitants before leaving the district, at which meeting he will state the conclusions at which he may have arrived and the recommendations which he will be prepared to make. An opportunity will thus be afforded to receive suggestions, and consider any objections which may be raised, all which may facilitate further proceedings. He will at the same time explain that all statements which may be transmitted from the locality to the General Board in reference to his report will receive the fullest attention and consideration. Not very long ago a petition had been sent up from a large place in the north of England of not less than 20,000 inhabitants, praying to have the Act applied, and directly after it came a strong counter-petition praying that the Bill might not be applied. An inspector was sent down to the place; he attended a public meeting at which he read these instructions, and the consequence was that the people, on receiving this strong assurance that it was not the intention or the wish of the Board of Health to force the Act upon them, im- mediately withdrew their opposition, and gave the inspector all the assistance in their power. A petition had just been received by the Board in favour of the application of the Act, signed by the majority of the ratepayers, and it was the intention of the Board to apply the Act. He came now to the provisions of the Bill which he was about to lay before them. It consisted of 170 clauses, and might be divided into three parts—the first relating to the constitution of the General Board of Health; the second, to the manner in which the Act was to be adopted and applied; and the third, to the powers and duties of the local boards. With regard to the first point, he proposed that the General Board of Health should substantially remain the same as at present constituted. With regard to the second part, he proposed that the Act should be applied either by adoption or by application. The first step to the adoption of the Act would be that a certain number of ratepayers—ten, at least—should present a requisition to the chief local authority—called in the Bill the summoning officer—who would then call a public meeting, at which the adoption of the Act would be discussed. If the decision was in favour of its adoption, the resolution of the meeting would be forwarded to the General Board of Health, and upon that the Board would proceed to apply the Bill. When, however, there was a difference of opinion on the subject, the summoning officer was to appoint a day for taking a poll of the rate-payers, and if the poll were favourable to the adoption of the Bill it would be forwarded to the Board, but, if not, of course the whole matter would drop to the ground. Power was also given to the Board of Health to apply the Act to places having no defined boundaries, and to portions of places, on the receipt of a petition signed by one-tenth of the ratepayers. On the receipt of such a petition the Board would proceed to send down an inspector, and, on his report, would make a provisional order for the application of the Act. As the law at present stood, that provisional order would be binding on the locality; but he proposed that it should first be sent down for the consideration of the inhabitants, and should not be applied unless they signified their willingness to accept it. With regard to the compulsory application of the Act, power would be given to the General Board of Health to proceed at once to put the Act into operation in places in which it should appear from the Registrar-General's report that the mortality exceeded twenty-three in 1,000. There would also be power to attach portions of places, in which the mortality was found to be excessive, to adjoining districts in which the Act was already in force. He came next to the powers and duties of the local boards. They would be empowered to appoint and remove officers, and in many respects would exercise the same duties as at present. He proposed, however, to take some very large powers, to which he would invite the special attention of the House, because, if this proposition were sanctioned by the Legislature, it would not only interfere with many of the existing duties of Parliament, but also supersede the necessity of applying to Parliament for local Acts. They were powers which had been long desired, and in favour of which the House of Commons had reported over and over again in reference to the subject of private Bill legislation. If any one wished to know what the opinions of Commissioners on this point were let him read the report issued in 1847, in which the proposition he was now about to make was fully considered and also recommended. If, however, hon. Members should think that large folio volume too great a task to wade through, he would advise them to read the admirable article in the Edinburgh Review of this month, in which the suggestions of the various commissions were succinctly summed up. Perhaps the House would allow him to read a short extract from this article. The writer said— These abuses of private Bills Committees have been the subject of discussion almost annually during the present century in both Houses of Parliament; there are upwards of seventy long Reports, in which the delay, expense, and general inconvenience of our private Bill system have been from time to time pointed out. Some salutary changes have certainly been made in the institution of Committees, the mode of selection, and the reduction of the number of members, and the more important reform has been carried of providing, by general law, for several subjects hitherto dealt with only by private Acts; but the system of private Bill legislation and the greater portion of the inconvenience still remain. He held in his hand a list of the improvements Bills relating to water supply, gas, and markets, that had been prosecuted in that House between the years 1850 and 1855, inclusive. The number of these Bills was as follows:—In 1850, there were proceeded with 47; in 1851 there were 53; in 1852, 70; in 1853, 85; in 1854, 96; and in 1855 notices had been given of the intention to prosecute 77; making a total within those years of no less than 428. He had been informed by those who were best qualified to advise him as to the probable cost of prosecuting these Bills that if he put down the sum of 2,000l. for each, exclusive of the expenses of opposition, he would be quite within the mark. Therefore, a sum of not less than 856,000l. had been spent in the prosecution of private Bills from the year 1850 down to the present period. Now, the proposition he was about to make was this—that where the local Boards desired to acquire land, either in or out of their locality, for purposes of drainage works, water supply and the like, it should be in their power to acquire it without the necessity of coming before a Committee of the House of Commons. In order to make himself distinctly understood on this subject, which was one of very great importance, he would read the clause that had been prepared in reference to it. It ran thus— Every local board shall have power to purchase any land necessary for carrying into execution the above objects (drainage, water supply, &c.) And for the purposes of this section the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, shall be incorporated with this Act; but the exercise of the above powers shall be subject to this restriction, that no such reservoir as aforesaid shall be made, nor shall any land be purchased, under the compulsory powers of the said Lands Clauses Consolidation Act for the purposes aforesaid except with the sanction of the justices assembled at some court of quarter sessions, such sanction to be obtained by the local board who have projected any such work in manner hereinafter mentioned. The Bill then went on to provide that the local boards should publish notices in the newspapers of their intention to apply for the sanction of the justices, and should also serve notices on the owners and occupiers of the land to be taken; and persons whose property might be injuriously affected by the construction of the works would have a right of appeal before the justices, the decision of such justices to be binding on the local board. The effect of these provisions would be to exempt the local boards giving notice from the necessity of appearing before that House, which everybody knew was not the most satisfactory tribunal in such cases, but to require them instead to go before the court of quarter sessions sitting in the immediate locality where the land was to be taken, and which was, therefore, more likely to arrive at a sound decision. If he were now proposing to grant these powers in the case of schemes undertaken by private enterprise, such as railways, for instance, this course might be open to grave objection, but where the property was required not for purposes of speculation, but for a public object, to be carried out by a public body for the benefit of the inhabitants of the district; and the tribunal to which the matters would be referred would consist of gentlemen conversant with the circumstances and requirements of the locality, and, therefore, well qualified to pronounce whether the powers sought for ought to be conferred. He had stated this part of his plan not with the view of eliciting much discussion upon it on the part of the House at that moment. Hon. Members would have ample opportunity for giving it that consideration which it demanded at a subsequent stage of the Bill. If he were allowed to introduce the measure, he should feel it his duty to make the various local boards acquainted with its provisions, and enter into communication with the proper parties to ascertain whether such powers as he had described could be safely granted, or whether they were liable to such serious objections that Parliament ought not to assent to them. In his own opinion, very few persons could object to such a proposition. Of course, those who derived professional advantage from their practice on Private Bill Committees might not view it with any great favour, but he did not apprehend that on any other ground serious objection could be offered to it. He had stated already that great complaints had been made in consequence of some deficiencies in the former Bill as to the regulation of the building of new houses and the re-erection of old. He wished to put a stop, if possible, to the power of building houses in streets not only side by side, but also back to back, so as to entirely preclude any outlet or inlet for air except in front, and utterly to prevent the construction of the outbuildings which were indispensable for the proper accommodation of every dwelling. He had received communications on this subject from Sunderland, Leicester, Coventry, and other places; and these clauses were suggested by some of the largest towns in the kingdom. With regard to slaughterhouses—great nuisances—it was proposed that no new one should be allowed to be built without a licence, and every slaughterhouse would have to be registered. The local boards would be enabled to erect slaughter-houses on their own land. Powers would also be given them to levy rates and raise money on mortgage, as at present. He proposed that they should also make by-laws, but such by-laws as inflicted penalties would be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. At present the ratepayers very frequently had no means of knowing how their money was expended; and he, therefore, proposed that every local board should make an annual report of what it had done during the year in the execution of the Act, and send a copy of it to every ratepayer, and also one to the General Board of Health. The sum which the General Board of Health had sanctioned the raising of, upon mortgage, amounted to a total of 585,477l.; yet no authority existed in that Board for seeing how the outlay it had sanctioned had been incurred. He therefore proposed that the Board of Health should have power to inspect the town, and discover whether the money had been expended in conformity with the plans originally sent up and approved. Having taken this power, he thought the General Board of Health ought to make a Report annually to Parliament of what it had accomplished in pursuance of the Act; and the Bill would contain a provision to that effect. He would not trouble the House further. He had already sketched the general outline of the Bill, which would provide that the Act should not be applied to any town without the consent of the ratepayers, excepting in cases where the mortality was excessive; that parts of places might adopt the Act; that the necessity for having an Act of Parliament for local improvements should be almost entirely avoided; that the General Board of Health should have power to see that the money borrowed under its sanction by the local boards had been appropriated in accordance with the scheme which the ratepayers had themselves sent up. In the Bill of last Session it was provided that the Act should be continued for one year, and thence to the end of the next Session of Parliament. He proposed now that this Bill should be continued for two years, and thence to the end of the next Session of Parliament. He believed that by that time the House and the country would have had ample opportunity of knowing how far the measure was applicable to the objects it was designed to meet, and whether it had proved successful. His own impression was that it would he a most useful measure for country districts. He felt persuaded, if the individual placed at the head of the department over which he now had the honour to preside would make up his mind not to set up fanciful theories or to seek to determine every case according to one inflexible rule, but would examine into the peculiarities of each district and apply the Act to it in conformity with its special circumstances—that then the office which he held would be respected rather than shunned, and he believed that that department—though it might not be one of the highest in the State—might be made one of the most useful. The right hon. Baronet concluded by moving for leave to introduce a Bill to alter and amend the Public Health Act.


was glad that the right hon. Baronet had taken up this question, which was one of very great importance. He much approved referring the Bills to a Select Committee. He understood that the first Bill did not apply to the metropolis, but that the Nuisances Removal Bill did. It was necessary that the Government should allow evidence to be taken before the Committee, as many important trades would be affected by the second measure.

Leave given; Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir BENJAMIN HALL and Viscount PALMERSTON.