HC Deb 16 February 1872 vol 209 cc594-603

, in moving for leave to introduce a Bill to amend the Law relating to Public Health, said, that he thought the House would concur in the purport of the measure, for it was the logical and anticipated consequence of the Local Government Bill of last year. That Bill, as the House must be aware, consolidated into one public Department the old Poor Law Board, the Local Government Act Office, and the Medical Department of the Privy Council, and thus consolidated into one public Department the supreme administrative supervision of the laws relating to poverty and to health, and it now became his duty to ask leave of the House to introduce a Bill the object of which was to take a further step in the same direction, by giving to some one body in each district the power of dealing with local sanitary matters, and by giving them new powers. The Bill was a sanitary Bill, and nothing more. It dealt with no other questions, aud it was founded upon the Report of the Sanitary Commission, which he had carefully studied and in the main followed in drawing up the measure. That Commission, whose Report was a storehouse of information and suggestion on the subject, had sat for two years, and it was composed of 21 members, nine of whom were Members of that House, and every credit should be given to them for having endeavoured to promote the great object which they had at heart. Indeed, he might say that if he had desired to be original in treating the subject he would have found it extremely difficult to travel outside the recommendations and suggestions put forward by the Commission. He had also found occasion to consult the Report of the Rivers Pollution Commission in reference to the Bill. The Sanitary Commission Report contained a series of 38 resolutions, the first of which was to the effect that it was possible at the same time to amend the law and to consolidate it in one legislative enactment. It would, of course, be impossible to deny that such an object was a desirable one, if it were possible to carry it out; but he had to state that after giving very ample and careful consideration to that recommendation of the Commissioners, he had not felt himself justified in proposing to undertake so heavy a legislative task. The House would easily understand that at a time when the law was being amended, it might not be desirable to attempt to consolidate it. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir Charles Adderley) who had presided over the Commission, had last year introduced a measure the object of which was not only to amend the law, but to consolidate it also, and that Bill had contained 450 clauses, whereas the measure he (Mr. Stansfeld) asked leave to introduce only contained 80 odd clauses, and he though that he was justified in confining it to such modest and unambitious proportions. The next point to which he wished to allude was the proposal to establish County Boards, which, although not referred to in the recommendations of the Commission, had found a place in the Bill brought in last year by the right hon. Gentleman the present First Lord of the Admiralty. As far as his own personal opinion was concerned, he desired to take that opportunity of saying that he looked upon that conception favourably, and to express his conviction that, sooner or later, the country would be anxious to have Boards of that description to undertake the finance of justice, law, and police, and other administrative functions of a sanitary nature—conservancy of rivers and the maintenance of highways. But there were at present practical difficulties in the way of adopting the proposal. If County Boards were to take the place of existing local bodies, it would be necessary that the difficulty arising out of the want of harmony between the areas of parishes and counties should be rectified. That would be a matter of considerable difficulty, and it could not be satisfactorily disposed of except through the medium of a Committee of the House to be followed by something in the nature of a Boundary Commission. He did not, however, think it was either desirable or practicable, just at this moment, to establish County Boards. One object of the Bill was the reconstruction of the local sanitary authorities, and the other was the investing them with new sanitary powers. Of the two, he regarded the reconstruction of the sanitary authorities as the one of the greater importance. The Sanitary Acts might be divided into two classes—those which affected the sanitary authorities, whom they in future proposed to call urban, and those which applied to the country at large. The urban Acts were the Public Health Act of 1848, and the Local Government Acts of 1858, 1861 and 1863. The Nuisance Removal and the Sewage Utilization Acts contained such very large and comprehensive powers that for whatever failure or laxity of sanitary administration there had been, they must look to something more than the absence of power for an explanation. The first important Nuisance Removal Act to which he need refer was the Act of 1855, which defined a nuisance, among other things, to be any premises so kept as to be a nuisance or injurious to health. Power was given, too, among other things, for the appointment of sanitary inspectors, to seize unwholesome food, and to prevent overcrowding. The Nuisances Removal Act of 1855 was followed by similar Acts in 1860, 1863, and 1866, and under these Acts the definitions of nuisances were enlarged, powers were given for cleansing houses, for providing ambulances, for the removal of the infected to hospitals, for the disinfection of clothing, and for the establishment of mortuaries for the reception of the dead. On the other hand, the Sewage Utilization Acts of 1865, 1866, 1867, and 1868 gave powers for the construction of sewers, to provide a supply of water for the inhabitants of different localities, to invest the local authority with the power of taking legal proceedings to prevent the pollution of streams, to provide hospitals for the reception of the sick, and, among other things, in cases of emergency, to furnish medicine and medical attendance for the benefit of the poorer classes of the population. The authorities on whom these powers were conferred were the vestries, and the House would not, perhaps, be surprised that these bodies had not universally availed themselves of the powers so bestowed. The nuisance authorities had changed from time to time. Before 1855 they were the Boards of Guardians; between 1855 and 1860 various bodies exercised the powers conferred by the Acts; between 1860 and 1868 they were again lodged in the Boards of Guardians, but in 1868 the most important of their functions—that was as regarded the nuisances connected with sewage and drainage—was taken from them and vested in the sewer authorities; in other words, in the hands of the inhabitants themselves, instead of in Boards of Guardians. While, therefore, the vestries had not sufficiently availed themselves of the powers placed in their hands, he was, he thought, entitled to say that the Boards of Guardians had not had sufficiently fair or continuous opportunities of performing the duties of nuisance authorities. He could not help thinking that the House would come to the conclusion expressed the other day at Liverpool by Lord Derby, that the first object of sanitary reforms was the construction of proper machinery for carrying them into effect. They required three things. The first, some central and governmental supervision and inspection, was, he thought, practically provided last year. Then came the institution of defined authorities with defined responsibility. By defined authorities, he meant, in the words of the Sanitary Commission, authorities so constituted that there should be one sanitary authority for all sanitary purposes in one place; and by defined responsibility he implied that our legislation should cease to be so much as it had been permissive, and that distinct duties and responsibilities should be placed upon these bodies. With regard to the constitution of authorities they had followed the recommendations of the Sanitary Commission. They proposed to divide the sanitary authorities into urban and rural. Urban authorities were the Town Councillors in boroughs, Improvement Commissioners in Improvement Act districts, and Local Boards in Local Board districts. The rural authorities would be the Board of Guardians, with the exception of those that might be said to represent urban districts. Upon these bodies they proposed to bestow all the powers both of the Sewage Utilization and the Nuisance Removal Acts. With regard to the urban authorities, they would have allocated to them the same powers they already possessed, with an extension. Then powers were taken to combine these authorities for certain purposes, such as the constitution of port authorities, dealing with rivers and vessels thereon, which was eminently necessary in cases of epidemic invasion. Next, by Provisional Order, it would be sought to combine districts for any sanitary purposes which might seem to call for a wider area, such as the conservancy of rivers, the enlargement of sewer works, &c., and by such arrangements, at once simple, elastic, and comprehensive, it was hoped that the recommendations of the Commissioners would be effectually carried out. They did not ask for many new powers, because those existing already were extensive; but the powers they sought were of importance. As Lord Derby had said, the first great necessities, from a sanitary point of view, were pure air and pure water; and he would add that pure air was more needed in-doors than out. Outside there might he much that was offensive; but even noxious gases, if mixed with a sufficient supply of life-giving air, might not he dangerous. But when such gases penetrated into poverty stricken, unventilated, and over-crowded houses, they were extremely dangerous. Therefore, he had taken the responsibility of recommending that the local sanitary authority should have the function, and at least the right of looking to the condition of drains, not only outside but inside houses, and of taking care that sources of disease should not, through a bad system of drains, affect the health and lives of the population. As to pure water, power existed already for supplying water. He would ask for powers to test the purity of the water which was supplied by the water companies. A noble Lord (Lord Eustace Cecil) asked him the other day whether he proposed to deal with the adulteration of food and drugs. He did not propose to deal with the question of drugs; but as to the adulteration of food, there were powers under the Nuisance Removal Act of dealing with unwholesome food, and he proposed to extend these powers specifically in certain directions to which he need not at present allude. But he proposed also to make the local sanitary authority the authority for acting under the Food Adulteration Act of 1860. He proposed also to call upon the local sanitary bodies to provide hospitals, and all the appliances and medical attendance for the treatment of epidemics. He also intended to ask the House to give to the Local Government Board with respect to the country the same power which the Poor Law Board possessed in the metropolis, of requiring the institution of Poor Law dispensaries and the provision of drugs for the treatment of paupers, instead of including them in Poor Law Union contracts. [Sir CHARLES ADDERLEY: Are temporary hospitals intended?] Hospitals available for epidemics, but they might or might not be temporary. He proposed, of course, to call upon the local sanitary authority to appoint sanitary officers, including medical officers of health, who, as he thought, might or might not be Poor Law medical officers. With the assistance of these officers, the Government hoped to secure statistics of disease. As to the compul- sory registration of births and deaths, that would be provided for by another measure. He thought he had now stated in brief outline the provisions of this Bill. It reconstituted authorities and endeavoured to simplify them. It gave new powers and imposed distinct responsibilities. The clauses of this measure were framed in no spirit of distrust of local government. He had no belief in centralization; and if intelligent, independent, and public-spirited men could not be found to undertake such important duties as he had described, he knew of no means by which the objects in view could be accomplished. No proposals were made in the Bill which they did not mean seriously to submit to the House; and, knowing how much interest was taken in this subject, the Government hoped that before the measure left the House it would assume a shape which would do credit to the Legislature and to the subject, and which would be of lasting benefit to the people of the realm. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.


said, that at such an hour it was no time to discuss the details of a measure for the local government of the country. All were calling out for some such measure, and the House would readily consent to the first reading of a Government Bill. On the second reading, they should scrutinize the general scheme; but it recommended itself to the Sanitary Commissioners as part of their own Report. But he wished to explain why he intended to ask leave to introduce at the same time his Bill for the consolidation and amendment of the sanitary laws, and that was because the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board (Mr. Stansfeld), while approving of such a scheme, did not propose to attempt to carry it out at present, but only introduced an amending or patching Bill, and because, in his opinion, the sanitary laws of this country were chiefly inoperative in consequence of their confused, contradictory, and scattered condition. The law on the subject of public health was much less defective than confused, and the amendments required, in way of addition to it, were not very many. Little more than making authorities universal and imperatively active was needed to complete the law. It was the confusion of the law that was the chief cause of a very large and unnecessary mortality, and not only of mortality, but of chronic sickness, misery, and debility among the working classes, and, as recent experience had shown, among the highest classes also. The existing law, cleared of this confusion, would almost suffice. He himself had tried during the Recess to make himself experimentally acquainted with the law; but he found that those by whom he attempted to carry it out were wholly ignorant of its multitude and variety, and if they commenced proceedings under any provision were often tripped up by some Act of a more recent date than the one they were trying to put into force. Even the lawyers were not thoroughly acquainted with the aggregate of law, and were frequently at fault through not knowing under which of a multitude of Acts they ought to proceed. Few knew the authorities responsible, and the authorities knew not their own responsibility, nor did the people know the penalties to which they were liable, or the duties they had to perform. The first and most imperative necessity was that the law relating to public health should be consolidated, for much of the existing evil calling for remedy arose from the fact that the law was scattered over so many statutes, passed irrespectively of each other, partial, contradictory, or in repetition; and he did not hesitate to say that to add to the existing statutes without consolidating them would be to increase the mischief. Nothing was more important in this, or any free country, than that its local government should be of universal recognition and efficiency. The central Executive should set it in motion, but be kept by its activity from all temptation to supersede it. The Commission which sat upon the subject had drafted a Consolidating Bill, which had already been laid before Parliament; and what prevented the right hon. Gentleman from adopting the work of the Commission, making also the additions which he now proposed? The right hon. Gentleman said he was deterred by seeing 450 clauses in the Bill; but those clauses were already on the statute book, and the sole difference was that in the Bill of the Commission they were consolidated and reduced to order, and contradictory and superfluous parts removed. The Government Bill, together with all the Acts left unrepealed to be read with it, involved double the number of clauses. In his opinion, the right hon. Gentleman would be much more likely to attain the object in view by adopting the course which he recommended than by trying to pass the present Bill, and then setting about the consolidation afterwards. Parliament would fight his new propositions actually presented more than if they were embodied in a general re-enactment of existing law. He (Sir Charles Adderley) intended, therefore, to ask leave to re-introduce last year's Consolidation Bill. At the same time he should give his hearty and zealous support to the present measure, which, also emanating from the Commissioners Report, he believed to be most essential. Possibly, the two Bills might be amalgamated. The only ground on which the Bill was at all likely to meet with opposition was that it might be supposed to entail additional expense upon the community. The subject of rates had wisely been separated from the present Bill; no new rates were proposed; it might, however, be thought that when the law was made more perfect and operative the rates, even such as now levied, would be larger in amount, but surely it was more economical to get a good return on an expenditure of £100, than to spend £99 and get nothing, or even mischief, for it. The return obtained for the present expenditure in connection with public health was certainly most inadequate. But so far from the improvement and consolidation of the law leading to a larger outlay, he believed it would lead to an actual economy in the amount expended. A principal part of the proposed consolidation consisted of an unification of offices and machinery.


hoped that some attention would be paid in the Bill to the status of the executive officers of the nuisance authorities. He concurred in the extreme importance of local self-government, but that self-government was by no means perfect, and in many cases the members of Local Boards and vestries were elected simply for the purpose of making the Acts as inoperative as possible. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would introduce into his Bill some provisions for making the executive officers to a certain extent independent, and not so much under the thumb of those who had to appoint them.


was sorry to have heard from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government the time had not arrived for the consolidation of the laws relating to the health of the people, and hoped that when the Bill before the House became law it would contain a wider range of provisions, and among these he would like to see clauses regulating the closing of wells which were unwholesome, the making it compulsory to provide a public mortuary in every district, and also some disinfecting apparatus. Instead of the system of building bye-laws existing in the present Acts, the words recommended by the Sanitary Commission should be substituted, and he hoped the Government would also introduce the definition of nuisances which the Commissioners recommended.


contended that more power should be given to the medical authorities, and that they should not be the mere clerks of the nuisance committee of the Local Boards.


believed that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board would deserve the thanks of the whole community for the measure which he had brought forward, and to which he had pleasure in giving his entire support.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to amend the Law relating to Public Health, ordered to be brought in by Mr. STANSFELD, Mr. Secretary BRUCE, and Mr. HIBBERT.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 48.]