HC Deb 08 July 1856 vol 143 cc495-505

Order for Committee read.

Motion made and Question proposed, "that Mr. Speaker do now leave the chair."


in moving as an Amendment that the House would upon that day three months resolve itself into the said Committee, said, that when the Public Health question was brought forward in 1848 it was considered to be virtually settled by the Bill of that year, and the present Bill, differing as it did so materially from that measure, was a breach of faith with the public. The Bill now before the House differed not only from the Bill of 1848, but also from that which was introduced in 1854. All the stringent clauses of the Act of 1848 were retained, while all the remedial clauses proposed by the Bill of 1854 were omitted. That was his first objection. His second objection was, that it repealed the 145th section of the present Act, which gave the public a right of appeal against the Board of Health; and his third objection was, that it doubled the amount of money allowed to be raised on mortgage of the property of the ratepayers wherever the Act was enforced. Now, that duplication, he contended, was unnecessary. The fact was, a great many of the towns where there were local Boards of Health had spent all the money they were empowered to raise under the Act of 1848, and yet the works were not completed. That had arisen in consequence of the engineers of the General Board of Health having been exclusively employed to make the estimates, the towns themselves not being allowed to employ their own men. Those towns had been assessed at the rate of l-16th of the yearly value of the property; it was now proposed to subject them to another assessment to the same amount; making the rate 1-8th of the value, and that without giving them any voice at all in the matter. Now he therefore submitted that those parties should be heard before any such tax was imposed upon them. It was his belief that the repeal of the 145th clause would be most injurious. All reasonable protection ought to be afforded against large companies supplying water and gas; and the right of appeal which the 145th clause gave afforded that protection. Many of the local Boards formed themselves into those large companies, and they had the power to oppress the neighbouring districts, and it was only by the right of appeal that those districts had any check upon such local Boards. To show how that portion of the Bill would work, he would mention the case of the town of Luton, with a population of 10,000 or 12,000 inhabitants. It used to be drained' by cesspools. There ran by the town the river Lea, which was from twenty to thirty feet wide, and capable of being used for all sorts of domestic purposes, and it was always full of fish. A Board of Health was established at Luton, and they immediately drained the town and emptied their sewers into that river, rendering it a most horrible nuisance. The river was turned into a filthy open sewer; the fish all died; the water was unwholesome for drinking purposes; the sheep that were washed in the river came out dirtier than they went in, and the bottom of the river was covered for full thirty inches deep with decomposed matter, having only fifteen inches in depth of water running over it. Nothing could ho more disgusting, or more contrary to the rules laid down by the Board of Health themselves, who, in their Report on the use of impure water, had shown that cholera and other disease were greatly increased by persons drinking bad water. The people of Luton, by virtue of the 145th clause of the existing Act, took proceedings before the Vice Chancellor to obtain redress, when the local Board; promised that the nuisance should be abated. It was very natural therefore that the Board of Health should wish to get rid of this the only security which the public had against them. Should the present Bill pass it would confirm every abuse which the people had so much struggled against. He should, therefore, press the Amendment of which he had given notice.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House will, upon this day three months, resolve itself into the said Committee," instead thereof.


said, that when the Government thought it their duty to bring forward a measure which interfered with property of every description—with property in land, in water, in canal shares, harbour shares, and with the administration of the local government of towns—they ought, at least, to bring it forward at a sufficiently early period to admit of the question receiving that due consideration which such important interests demanded. He was perfectly aware that hon. Gentlemen on the other (the Ministerial) side of the House had some very liberal notions of the rights of property which had never yet been acquiesced in by the House of Commons; and he trusted that, as long as the House of Commons existed, the rights of property would be maintained sacred, and that no interest would be suffered to be taken away in a morning sitting, at the close of the Session, by a Bill which professed to be one thing, but which in reality was of a totally different description. When the Government brought forward an amended Bill, purporting to contain certain saving clauses, they should be saving clauses, and not enabling clauses, it was a most unfair way, he considered, to attempt to obtain power by bringing in such clauses, pretending to be saving clauses, but which in reality gave to the President of the Board of Health a control and a jurisdiction over property which had never yet been conceded by that House. The question of the powers of the Board of Health had on various occasions been brought forward, but it had always met with one result—defeat—because it grasped at a despotism which the House of Commons, he trusted, never would sanction. As far as he was personally concerned, he thought it might be better not to reject the measure altogether, but to permit the Bill to go into Committee with the understanding that all the clauses which gave to the Board of Health powers which they did not at present possess—all the saving clauses which were in reality enabling clauses—should be omitted, and that the Board should be continued for a limited period. If the House did not take that step, great evils might arise and much injury be done to local interests.


said, he must confess that when he went into the Select Committee on the Bill he was greatly surprised at finding the most popular part of it withdrawn, and that clauses were introduced which had met with great opposition; but as the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Health had since withdrawn those clauses he should not oppose the Bill going into Committee. He had the honour to represent a very large population where the Public Health Bill was in operation (Bristol), and he thought it just to state that, under the management of the local Board, it had given general satisfaction.


said, the hon. Gentleman who had moved the Amendment had gone at some length into particular clauses of the Bill, but as those clauses did not affect the principle of the Bill, he should not say more than that they formed part of the Bill submitted to the Select Committee, and that evidence had been heard both for and against them. Some of the clauses had been copied verbatim from the Bill which had been sanctioned by the Select Committee after every attention had been paid to local and private interests, and it was generally understood that those clauses were assented to by the canal and other companies. He apprehended the proposition of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Knight) to be that the House should not consider any Amendments of the Act of 1848. He was exceedingly surprised that a Motion to that effect should come from such a quarter. If the hon. Gentleman were an admirer of the Act of 1848 he could understand it, but the singular fact was that the hon. Gentleman particularly objected to that Act. The hon. Gentleman appeared to say that, as the House could not adopt the Bill of last year, therefore they ought not to adopt any lesser Bill. The hon. Gentleman appeared to be reviving the cry which was very powerfully raised some years ago in reference to the Reform Bill; and he seemed to say that he would have "the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill." But such a cry, however useful it might have been when originally raised, was very inappropriate now, because there was no possibility of getting the whole Bill in the course of the present Session. Hon. Members must be well aware of the impossibility, at that late period of the Session, of attempting to discuss and carry a Bill containing between 200 and 300 clauses. Then came the question—would they have the instalment which he (Mr. Cowper) now proposed, or would they postpone the whole subject till next year? He had endeavoured, but in vain, to bring the whole subject under discussion at an earlier period of the Session; and he therefore thought the best way of dealing with the matter would be to propose a Bill that should contain clauses which would amend the Bill of 1848 in its practical details, and which the local Boards said prevented them from carrying on their work efficiently. There were many ambiguities in the law which it was desirable to get rid of. Alterations were also required respecting the power of purchasing land, the establishing of gasworks, and other such practical matters. He thought therefore that it would be better to make those Amendments in the law, and then proceed next year to deal with the other and more important branch of the subject, namely, those organic changes which were deemed necessary in the constitution of the Board of Health—such as the mode of voting, the qualification of electors, and other machinery connected with the more theoretical portion of the subject. He really thought that by thus separating the practical details from the theoretical part of the Bill he was advancing the object which the hon. Gentleman himself wished to accomplish. He was not aware that any part of the present Bill would give rise to any serious difficulty. But if any of the clauses should appear to require much discussion, he was perfectly willing to postpone the consideration of them to another year. He hoped the House would not shut the door altogether against the only Amendments of the Act of 1848 which he was now able to propose. There were 209 towns in which local Boards of Health existed. They were under local representative government, and they wished the Act under which they ministered to the health of the inhabitants to be amended.


said, it was his belief, that the Act of 1848 was not very popular, and had not been very successful. That Act was referred last year to a Select Committee. After much discussion that Committee produced a Bill, dealing with most of the difficulties proposed to be dealt with by the present Bill, and with many others besides. For some reason, best known to himself, the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cowper) did not produce that Bill. He had given no reason why, except that it was more easy to take up a part of the subject than the whole. It would have been but fair on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, seeing that he had only taken a part of the Bill recommended by the Select Committee, if he had referred this limited Bill to another Committee, so that some reason might have been obtained why this small portion of the larger Bill should alone be submitted to the House. But the right hon. Gentleman said he wanted to clear up some doubtful points, make some Amendments, and supply some defects. But the right hon. Gentleman would not pretend to say that if the Bill now under consideration were allowed to pass there was the most remote chance, after the Board of Health should have obtained all the powers which the Bill would give them, of any of those grievances which the public now suffered under being attended to and redressed. That was the real question which was before the House. The right hon. Gentleman had got himself clear of light and water by withdrawing the clauses relating to the Water and Gas Companies; but that was, he supposed, because gas and water interests were somehow always represented in that House. The right hon. Gentleman, however, had treated very lightly the fact, that in different places the local Boards of Health had created intolerable public nuisances by draining towns into the small streams running through the country, and thereby killing the fish, poisoning the people, and ruining manufacturers. The great sanitary improvement of the country had resulted in a vast system of what was called pipe drainage. This vast system discharged all the filth of the towns somewhere. In the metropolis it was discharged into the Thames; and the Metropolitan Board of Works were now engaged in the undertaking of cleansing the Thames. There were clauses in the Act of 1848 which afforded some protection against this system; and the people were becoming awake to the evils with which they were threatened, and were prepared to say that the Board of Health should not poison the health of the neighbourhood by polluting their water. But by a very short clause in the Bill now before the House, it was proposed to do away with all power on the part of a Court of Law to interfere, and thus the owners of property would be left without any means of protection. That was a sample of what the right hon. Gentleman called an amendment of the law. It was an amendment of the law with a vengeance, but was it a just amendment? It was also proposed to extend the power of borrowing over fifty instead of thirty years, the only effects of which would be to produce extravagance in the expenditure of the money, because it would not have to be repaid for a very long time. Every grievance that had been complained of in the old Bill, and the jobbing that was carried on under it, were left totally untouched. He hoped that the valuable time of the House would not be wasted in a long discussion upon a measure that would be of no use when carried. Everybody knew that the object of the Bill was only to pass certain miserable clauses for the satisfaction of those parties who went roaming about the country putting their hands into the tax-payers' pockets, and creating work and expensive jobs for their own benefit. The Bill would give those parties double taxing power, and for that reason and because the measure was utterly useless, he should oppose its going into Committee.


said, his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Health, had consented to postpone any clauses to which objections of a serious nature were entertained; but there were portions of the Bill involving matters of great importance, as to which no doubt was entertained on either side, which it was desirable should be passed into a law. The first part of the Bill was to continue the General Board of Health. It was true that Board would exist to the 1st of July next, and to the end of the then next Session of Parliament; but his experience at the Poor Law Board convinced him that it was most important not to defer the renewal of an Act to the very last Session, because no one knew what would become of that Session. It might be cut short at the end of the next week after it met. That part of the Bill ought, therefore, to be passed. There were many other provisions also which would afford no matter for controversy in Committee.


said, he would warn the House, that if it once allowed bit by bit legislation on the law in question, they would never have the law satisfactorily amended. There had not been the shadow of a reason assigned why the whole measure should not have been brought forward in the early part of the Session, so as to give the House sufficient time to consider all its provisions. If, however, the House confined itself to renewing the powers of the Board of Health for one Session he would not object to it.


said, the House owed it to its own dignity to reject the Bill altogether. The Board of Health was limited in its duration by the Act of 1848. A Bill was brought in last year and submitted to a Select Committee. He (Mr. Barrow) had objected to certain clauses, which he was assured across the table should be abandoned. With the Bill which came from the Select Committee, however, it appeared the Government did not agree; and in the Bill laid on the table by the Government, the objectionable clauses which it had been promised should be abandoned were reintroduced into it. There was one clause, however, which was particularly objectionable, namely, that which gave to the temporary occupiers of property a right to tax the owners of that property for a period of fifty years, in a rate for the purposes of the Board of Health. The clause exempted the occupiers from payment. That clause, however, he was bound to say, was not in the amended Bill; but it showed the animus of the promoters of the measure; and under the circumstances he could not vote for the Bill going into Committee, because he wished to force the Government to reconsider the entire subject by next Session. He must also complain that the Bill was not introduced to the House at an earlier period, so as to bring it to a public discussion, and enable the public to become acquainted with its provisions.


said, he was much of the same opinion as the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. He could not give his vote for the Bill, even on the ground laid down by the hon. Member opposite (Mr. T. Greene)—namely, that the Board of Health would expire next year. The right hon. Member for Leeds (Mr. Baines) had endeavoured to alarm the House by representing that some dire calamity would befall the country if the Board of Health wore altogether to expire. Before, however, the House or the country felt any alarm upon the subject it would be well to inquire what that Board had done, what it had cost the country, and what it proposed to do. During the present Session, he had moved for a Return, in order to ascertain what the Board was about. Since 1848 the Act was applied to nearly 300 towns during the five years for which that Act was passed. The Act was then renewed for another year, and to the end of the next Session of Parliament. In 1853 the Act was applied by order of the General Board of Health to six towns, and by order of the Privy Council to three towns, making together nine towns; in 1854 and 1555 the Act was applied by order of the Board to thirteen towns, and by order of the Privy Council to six towns, making altogether twenty-eight towns from 1853 up to the present year; and the expenses incurred amounted to £36,000, being a very pretty sum to be dealt with for those towns. It was now proposed to continue the Board for three years longer. The last Bill did not propose to renew the Board for more than two years, one of which had already expired. He did not know whether there was any Member present who was what was called an administrative reformer. He did not see the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck). That hon. and learned Member was going to reform the Administrative Reform Association itself, he ought, therefore, on such an occasion as the present, to be here. He is going to set us all to rights, not only in. Leadenhall Street, but in New Palace Yard, at Somerset House, at the Admiralty, at the Horse Guards, and at Downing Street. But if the hon. and learned Gentleman would come down to this neighbourhood he would find in a corner of a street a little hole called the Board of Health, and where lie would discover comfortably ensconced a near relation of the Prime Minister, a brother of a Cabinet Minister, and the relative of another Cabinet Minister—all very snug berths for Ministerial patronage to bestow. No wonder Ministers want to continue the Board of Health. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Mr. T. Greene) says, "Continue the Board for another Session." Why, he would undertake to say that before the discussion closed the right hon. Gentleman below him (Mr. Cowper) would jump at the proposition and be anxious to accept the boon for another year. But if the chairman of the Administrative Reform Association would just call in at the Board of Health he would find those three Gentlemen he had named sitting there, and if he were to ask them what they were about, and say to them—"You cost the country a great deal, and we have a right to ask you what you are about?" he was certain the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hertford would reply— "That is the great difficulty. We have nothing to do; we want to know what we are to do, and how we are to humbug and delude Parliament, in order to get it to continue the Board. We have one plan in our head; we are going to adopt the cowpox throughout the country, and we mean to superintend it. We had also another plan, which we tried to accomplish; we proposed that the President of the Board of Health should be President of the new council of medical men." But that Bill has all of a sudden dropped; so that one of their supports is gone. But there is one more chance, and what, perhaps, the House will ask, is that? Why, the Home Department proposes to transfer the administration of the Burial Act to the Board of Health—a very pretty sequel! First, you superintend the general health of the people; next, you promote vaccination; then you would preside over the Medical Board; and then, when the curtain drops, you come to the Burial Board—the last shot you have. He was against all the powers which the Bill proposes to confer. Let the people do the work themselves. He should oppose the Board on any terms. It has got one year to live; he hoped it would be its last, and that we should never hear of it again.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out, stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 6l; Noes 73: Majority 12.


said, as the decision had been adverse to him, ho must fall back upon the suggestion made by the lion. Gentleman opposite, the Member for Lancaster, and he should therefore propose a continuance Bill for next year; his hon. Friend behind him (Mr. T. Duncombe) would then have the opportunity of again amusing the House with the proceedings of the Board of Health. He was himself much amused by the manner in which the hon. Gentleman stated the case, but he a little overstated it—for instance, a large portion of the money voted, was for the Medical Council. The only charge against the Board of Health was that they had a desire to do work, and that was not a heavy imputation.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Committee put off for three Months.

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