HC Deb 11 February 1875 vol 222 cc229-34

, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill for consolidating and amending the Acts relating to Public Health in England, said, he should not detain the House long in recommending the Bill to a favourable reception, because the consolidation of the Sanitary Acts had been frequently suggested in both Houses of Parliament as an object desirable of accomplishment. The House might, however, fairly expect to be told why this particular moment was selected for the purpose, seeing that the great labour which the Bill involved must necessarily have interfered with the preparation of other measures which some hon. Members might think more urgent. The House ought also to be told to what extent this proposed consolidation was likely to go, and how much of the old statute law would be swept away in the event of the Bill being adopted. Those who were desirous to go into the whole history of the Sanitary Acts from the earliest times, would find ample information in the Report of the Royal Sanitary Commission of 1869. This Report went back to the time of Henry VI. and Henry VII.; but for all practical purposes—certainly for the purpose of the consolidation now proposed—it was not necessary to go back further than 1846–8, and then to come on to the present day. The Public Health Act of 1848 was passed under the pressure of alarm with respect to the invasion of cholera, and it was called for by a very considerable pressure of public opinion that greater powers of local administration in a sanitary sense were required, especially in the urban and populous districts. Both before and since that time, there had been, in addition to the public Acts, innumerable private Acts, which had provided for many of the more important towns in the country sufficiently satisfactory sanitary provisions and regulations. From 1848 down to the present day, public attention had been continually more and more directed to the question, and efforts had been made from year to year to improve and facilitate the local administration of the country. Many of the Bills which had been passed had been permissive, and others had been partly permissive and partly compulsory. They had been drawn upon different models, and had approached the same subject-matter from different points of view. Some had for their object the removal of nuisances, others the establishment of local authorities, the construction of works, the borrowing of money, and the improvement of towns, while in all there had been frequently contained provisions which touched or conflicted with the provisions of other Bills. One great object of the present Bill was to amend and reconcile provisions in previous Acts which were apparently, if not really, in conflict. Since the Provisional Order system came into operation, there had been passed many Provisional Order Confirmation Bills, which, though ostensibly applying to particular cases, had comprised proposals of law which had been made applicable to the whole community. The Sanitary Commission, in their Report, stated that the number of existing Sanitary Acts, and the mode in which they had been framed, rendered the state of the sanitary law unusually complex. This complexity, continued the Report, had arisen from the progressive and experimental character of modern legislation, which had led to the constant enlargement and extension of existing Acts, without any attempt at reconstruction or regard to arrangement. Further on, the Report stated the result of all this to be, that the law was frequently unknown, and even when studied, difficult to be understood. The time had come for a consolidation of the law on general principles. Since the time to which he was referring, the Public Health Act of 1872 had been passed—an Act which for the first time met the great difficulty of sanitary administration over the whole country by dividing the Kingdom into urban and rural sanitary districts. It was felt at the time to be impossible to introduce into the Bill provisions to consolidate the law. The object of the measure was rather to apply the then existing law. Two years' experience of the working of that Act showed the necessity of making further amendments, in order to secure the due operation of the law, and, in consequence, he introduced, and Parliament passed, in last Session, a further amending Act. He was very much indebted to the indulgence of the House for passing what must have seemed to most hon. Members a very difficult, obscure, and incomprehensible Act, every clause of which was more or less of an amending clause, applying not merely to the principal Act, but also to the other Sanitary Acts which he was about to ask leave to amend. It would have been almost impossible to work the Public Health Act of 1872, if a digest had not been prepared by the officials of the Local Government Board and freely circulated among the local authorities who were charged with the duty of carrying out the provisions of the Act. It might be asked why these digests had not been carried further, so as to bring the law down to the present moment, and that would be a proper criticism, if it were not the case that as far as the Government could see, there was no further need for fresh legislation upon the subject. Her Majesty's Government felt that the time had come when it was incumbent upon Parliament to reconcile the Act of last Session with the Acts it more immediately amended, and it seemed almost impossible to do that without making a complete sweep of the 29 sanitary statutes which had been passed since 1846, with the exception of some few clauses contained in five or six of the measures. These few clauses would be dealt with in a future year, and in a measure which, though of much smaller compass, would still possess a comprehensive character. It was proposed to consolidate in this Bill the Public Health Acts of 1848, 1858, and 1872; the Sanitary Acts of 1866, 1868, and 1870; the Nuisance Removal Acts; the Local Government Acts from 1858; the Sewage Utilization Acts; the Towns Improvement Acts, and many others; and therefore he asked the House to allow the consolidated clauses to pass without much discussion and without opposition, and take them on the responsibility of his Department; and with regard to clauses where the construction was doubtful, and the provisions of law were in apparent conflict, he should make known to the House the grounds upon which the decision of the Government had been based, and ask the opinion of the House upon it. So much for the consolidation. He would now state the points on which he proposed to amend the existing Acts. It was proposed to add a provision as to the construction of sewers, which would enable expense to be avoided in certain cases. It was also intended to provide that local authorities should be empowered to obtain Provisional Orders under the Gas and Water Facilities Act; but this would not involve any question of competition with private companies, nor would it involve any compulsory action beyond what the Gas and Water Bills already contained. There would also be added to the existing power to provide mortuaries, a power to compel their provision in certain cases. There would also be an explanation or definition of that part of the Nuisances Act which related to the over-crowding of dwelling-houses, to the effect that a dwelling-house might be dealt with as over-crowded to such an extent as to constitute a nuisance, even though its occupants were all members of one and the same family. They also proposed to introduce a few amendments of a technical character, with which he need not now trouble the House. Power would be proposed to be given to the Local Government Board, by Provisional Orders, to group together districts in the same county for the joint appointment, under certain circumstances, of Medical Officers of Health. The appointment of medical officers under the Act of 1872 had been the subject of a great deal of controversy and dispute between the localities and the central authority, and it was hoped that this power might prove useful, and also conduce to economy in some cases. The House was aware, from the intimation on the subject in Her Majesty's Speech, that it was intended to introduce a measure in the course of the Session to deal with the pollution of rivers. As this was a Consolidation Bill, the Government thought that some attention should likewise be given to the purification of the atmosphere, and that it would be desirable to make some alteration in the law with regard to nuisances arising from smoke, offensive smells, &c, in order that the law might be carried more effectually into operation. He was very much impressed, from the first moment he took the place he had now the honour to fill, by the widely-spread opinion as to the necessity for further provisions on that subject. One of the first duties, therefore, which he undertook was to propose to Parliament an amendment of the old Alkali Act, and he was led to hope and believe, from his experience in the conduct of that measure, that if the Government made the remedies against ordinary nuisances more effective, they would find the owners of works, trades, and manufactures lend them-selves to this feeling, and not be reluctant to permit the new changes in the law to be effected. He had received a deputation the other day, composed of gentlemen from the Tyne, Mersey, and Thames—gentlemen who represented associations formed for the purpose of enforcing the removal of such nuisances as he had already alluded to—and he could only regret that lie was unable at that time to give them a more definite assurance that their wishes would be attended to. Those gentlemen desired that there should be a system of inspection to regulate the proceedings of manufactures in regard to smoke from furnaces. But, without undertaking anything on so large a scale, the Government hoped by a few simple provisions to enable what was the known and certain intention of the law to be more effectively applied. First, he proposed to enable a local authority to take such proceedings to remove a nuisance with-out their district as they could take under the existing law to remove a nuisance within their district. At present the law was that no local authority might proceed against a nuisance, unless the cause of it arose within their district. Then it was proposed to repeal a provision of the law which he was told had made the process which was laid down in the Nuisance Removal Acts almost ineffective. If a defendant entered into his recognizances to abide the result of an action at law or proceeding in equity, thereupon the proceedings of the local authorities were stayed. That course was found to be extremely expensive and objectionable, and the provisions as to summary procedure were thereby rendered null and void. The Government hoped they might be able to insert a clause in the Bill, which would provide that a person who only assisted in an accumulated nuisance should not be able to escape punishment by pleading that he was only one of many parties guilty of such nuisance. He thought that if these proposals were accepted they would enable parties to obtain remedies which they could not now obtain, and would be found beneficial to the country at large. It must be borne in mind that the Bill which he wished to introduce would not interfere with those provisions of the law which were passed in the interests of those traders and manufacturers who had made or endeavoured to make arrangements for the consumption of noxious vapours or smoke. There was only one other provision to which he wished to call the attention of the House. Under one of the Nuisance Removal Acts a general exemption was introduced of mines and mineral products; and subsequently, in an Act passed 10 years later, smoke was made a nuisance for the first time. He proposed to modify the terms of that exemption, only so far as to enable the obligations of the law to be brought home to all parties, assuming that there was sufficient public spirit in the various local authorities in all parts of the country to carry out these obligations. He would not detain the House further in asking for leave to introduce his Bill.

Motion agreed to. Bill for consolidating and amending the Acts relating to Public Health in England, ordered to be brought in by Mr. SCLATER-BOOTH and Mr. CLARE READ. Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 55.]