HC Deb 08 March 1899 vol 68 cc227-42

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made and Question proposed— That this Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir F. Powell.)

*SIR F. POWELL (Wigan)

I have waited six years to get the opportunity of making this statement with regard to the Bill which I am now asking the House to read a second time. I do not introduce it on my own initiative, but at the request, and on behalf, of the County Councils Association, whose members come from all parts of the country; and I venture to submit that a Bill introduced under such conditions deserves the careful attention of the House of Commons. This question of the pollution of our rivers is not a new question. It has attracted the attention of successive Governments. There have been Commissions appointed to consider it, and their reports fill many volumes. It has also had the attention of Committees of both Houses of Parliament. These inquiries resulted in the passing of the Rivers Pollution Act of 1876, but that Act has been found to be so full of technicalities, and so much encumbered by restrictions, that it has proved inoperative in practice. The pollution of our rivers still continues to such an extent that it is a disgrace, in my judgment, to the civilisation of this country. I believe that in many instances the present state of things is injurious to public health, and it is fatal to the amenity of the surroundings of the houses inhabited by many of the working classes, to whose comfort, I am sure, every section of this House desires to minister. While Parliament has been slow as regards Public Bill Legislation, local authorities have been active. There was passed some years ago a Bill called the Mersey and Irwell Act, which was followed a year after by the West Riding of Yorkshire Rivers Board Act. There was another decision of Parliament in the course of last Session, which was of even more importance than the Acts to which I have referred. I allude to the Middlesex County Council Act dealing with the River Brent. The provisions of that Act are far more stringent than those of the Mersey and Irwell Act, or the West Riding of Yorkshire Rivers Board Act. The working of these Acts has been found to be most effective and salutary. Mr. Littler, a well known and distinguished parliamentary counsel, who is chairman of the Middlesex County Council, speaks in the most emphatic terms of the good results which have followed that legislation. I think I shall more clearly explain this Bill by comparing the provisions of it, in the first instance, with those of the Act of 1876. The first part of the Act of 1876 deals with solids—solids of an offensive character and solids that are not offensive, but which block the stream and prevent the flow of the water. The Act of 1876, as regards solids, only prohibits when they either prevent the flow of the water or pollute the stream. Now, it is not easy to find a proof in many cases of one or the other. In any case the finding of the proof leads to delay, involves additional expense, and in many cases makes the issue doubtful. The first clause of this Bill proposes that the mere act of putting solids into the stream should of itself be prevented. Many people will by design place a mass of cinders in the bed of a stream. The mass will remain there until the flood comes, and the flood then carries the cinders down the stream until they settle where the flow becomes less rapid. They there cause an obstruction, and very often a morass occurs, to the great injury of the locality. I have an illustration here, taken from the Report of the Mersey and Irwell Conservancy Board of 1898. They make this remark with regard to solids— The improvement with respect of pollution from solid matters has been well maintained, and the bed of the river in its upper reaches is now practically free from cinders and other refuse. Now, Sir, what has been done in Lancashire I desire to do for the whole country. 'Provision, however, is made in this Bill for those who have a legal right to place solids in a stream for weirs, foundations, and the like. The next part of the Bill deals with liquid sewage. The Act of 1876 seems to me to be of an extraordinary character, because it gave a right to discharge liquid sewage into a stream by persons who were in the habit of doing so at the time of the passing of the Act. My opinion is that this right has lasted so long that it has now become a wrong, and ought to be done away with. There is really no difficulty whatever in keeping liquid sewage out of a stream. The accumulation of this liquid sewage is most injurious to the stream, and becomes most pestilential in its effect. It may be said that the sanitary authority has in some cases discharged raw sewage, as it is called, into a stream, and there is no doubt a difficult in at once curing this evil, but provision is taken in the Bill to give local authorities time to remedy this mischief. On the application of any sanitary authority which at the passing of this Bill is committing any offence, the Local Government Board may—if, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, they think necessary—by order, grant time to such authority for executing any works or doing any acts necessary to prevent the commission of the offence, and during the time specified in the order, which may be extended by a subsequent order, no proceedings are to be taken by any person against the authority. The object is to move one step at a time, so that the work may be proceeded with continuously, and that the authority may not be burdened by an excessive expenditure. We now come to a far more difficult part of the Bill—liquid manufacturing and other pollution. We have had many deputations from those engaged in manufacture in various parts of the country on this subject, but I think this Bill will sufficiently guard manufacturers. First of all, the authority which sets in motion this part of the Bill is of a different character from that of the authority which deals with the first and second parts of the Bill. The authority which would deal with this would be either the joint committee appointed under the Act of 1888, or the committee appointed under some local Act, or the council of the administrative county. That concession was made to meet the views of municipal corporations with whom we have had many consultations, and I believe they are satisfied with the proposal. Then there is a further restriction, one, I think, which gentlemen engaged in trade must surely feel to be most valuable: that proceedings cannot be taken under this part of the Bill without the consent of the Local Government Board. Not only is that consent required under this Bill, but the latter part of clause 8 expressly provides that the Local Government Board shall not give their consent to such proceedings unless they are satisfied, after local inquiry, and having regard to the reasonableness of the cost, and the effect on the industry or trade in question, that means for rendering harmless the poisonous, noxious, or polluting liquid are reasonably practicable and available under all the circumstances of the case. I think this provides security for manufacturers. I represent a manufacturing district, and all my interests, or nearly all of them, are associated intimately with these districts, and naturally I should not be a party to bring in a Bill in this House which would prove injurious to trade. Then we get to another provision dealing with the storm waters. We have received a deputation from municipal corporations on this point, and the clause in this Bill provides that where a sanitary authority have their sewers and sewage works so constructed, maintained, and used as efficiently to prevent the fall or flow of sewage into any stream at all times, except during or immediately after an unusual rainfall, an offence shall not be deemed to be committed under this Bill in the case of an overflow from those sewers or works containing polluted matter, if it is shown to the satisfaction of the court that such overflow was caused by the unusual rainfall. It will be seen, therefore, that the case of storm waters is wholly met, and the difficulties which took place in our preliminary discussions are now, I hope, entirely removed. We now come to the question of penalties and procedure. Objection has been taken to proceedings in respect of offences coming before the county court. There are many reasons why a county court is not a satisfactory tribunal, but it has been found in some cases in Lancashire that resort to the county court has been desirable. This Bill provides that proceedings may be taken either before a court of summary jurisdiction or a county court. Alternative procedure is not in itself always satisfactory, but there has been such a desire on the part of some to have the county court, and on the part of others to have a court of summary jurisdiction, that we have given the alternative in this Bill.

Attention having been called to the fact that there were not 40 Members present, the House was counted, when 40 Members being present—

*SIR F. POWELL (continuing)

I have stated what I may describe as the operative part of this Bill. I do not think I need delay the House by going fully into the machinery which is provided, and which, I hope, is suited to the occasion. We have met, as far as we can, every suggestion. We have seen, and have had interviews with municipal corporations, and with those who are concerned in the different industries, and so far as I know, every objection and every difficulty has been met. There has been some difficulty in the cases where there are Local Acts, and in this Bill we have left untouched Local Acts, which have been passed within recent years, and to the benefits of which we feel those who have passed them are entitled. These are the main features of the Bill, and I hope they will commend themselves to the House of Commons. It is possible that some expense may arise as we are proceeding, but that is no new question. We have had to deal in the past with many difficulties in connection with legislation concerning dangerous trades; but they have been removed by a firm hand, and I am sure no one ever regrets the passing of the Acts to which I refer. I am sure that the placing on the Statute Book of the Bill, the Second Reading of which I have the honour to move, would prove of great benefit to the districts affected. I think this is one of those Measures eminently fitted for discussion by a Standing Committee on Law. The Measure contains many details, some of which may not commend themselves to honourable Members who are not able to accept the Bill in its entirety, and it is possible also that the machinery may be improved. The Standing Committee is, I think, the proper tribunal to make these investigations, and if I succeed in obtaining a Second Reading for this Bill, I shall move that it be referred to the Standing Committee on Law.

MR. WILSON-TODD (York, N.R., Howdenshire)

I beg to formally second the Motion.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months."—(Mr. Kenyon.)

MR. KENYON (Bury, Lancashire)

I have listened carefully to the speech of the honourable Baronet, and I must express my surprise at hearing him say that the bulk of the people—I think those were his words—approved of the Mersey and Irwell Act of 1892. I con- tend, Mr. Speaker, that if the people in those districts were polled on the question you would find an enormous majority of them against that Act. I believe it has been one of the most troublesome, most irritating, most annoying, and most expensive Acts of Parliament which has ever been brought into force in this country, and I am astonished that the honourable Member should not have had more and better information on the subject. Last Session I took the same course that I am taking to-day, and opposed the honourable baronet's Motion, and I shall be glad to give him some information as to the great expense and annoyance which this Act has been to Lancashire. I am also surprised that the honourable Member should introduce this Bill without waiting for the Report of the Royal Commission on Sewage which is now sitting, and the reference to which covers all these points. I certainly think the honourable Baronet might have postponed this matter until the Report of that Commission was received. The object of the Bill which is now before the House is to extend to county councils, to joint committees, and to rivers boards, the many provisions of (he Mersey and Irwell Act of 1892, and I shall not only be very sorry indeed for the manufacturers, but also for the ratepavers, if the Bill passes. I have heard many times in this House expressions of opinion that the local rates in this country were growing very considerably, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has viewed with alarm the increase of local indebtedness. This Bill is one of those Measures which will tend more to raise the rates throughout the country than any other Measure which could be brought forward. It is a most expensive process that the honourable Baronet the Member for Wigan is seeking to get the House to adopt, and the results from the other Bills have proved very doubtful indeed. No standard of purity is fixed, and a locality would be absolutely at the mercy of the inspector and a few faddists on a joint committee or county council. If the inspector's liver was not in good order, he might complain, and as there is no standard of purity fixed manufacturers are put to a great deal of annoyance and irritation. That is so under the Mersey and Irwell Act, and would be so under this Bill, as there is nothing in it to remedy that state of things. I had the misfortune, some years ago, to be concerned in a law suit, and, to show honourable Members what some people's ideas of pollution or deterioration of water may be, I may say that the learned judge who tried the action gave it as his opinion that water which had been boiled and passed through the condenser of a steam engine was deteriorated. Of course, honourable Members will understand that my feelings, on hearing the learned judge give that opinion, were more like iced water going down my back than hot water or condensed water. I mention this to show the House the different opinions which may be held, perfectly conscientiously, and by the most honourable people in the world, as to what constitutes deterioration of water. When you have well-educated people like our judges, who have great experience in all matters, and particularly in these matters of water rights, expressing such opinions as the one I have quoted, what may you expect from the ordinary joint committee, county council, magistrates, county courts, or quarter sessions, whomever may be called upon to judge in this matter? Under this Bill you place manufacturers and the local authority in a most unfair position, and in a position which I do not think they ought to be placed. Then there is another most important matter in regard to the Mersey and Irwell Act, and in regard also to the Bill the Second Reading of which the honourable Baronet has just moved. The majority of manufacturing works are placed at a low level, so that the water supply may gravitate down to the works, and the effect of such a Measure as this would be that all the polluted water would have to be lifted to a considerable height in order to prevent it getting into the tributaries. The great bulk of manufacturers are not unwilling to provide some simple settling beds, but to require them to filter and purify the water, making it as clear as when it was taken from the stream, is to make a most unreasonable demand. Allow me to relate-a few experiences of the Mersey and Irwell Act. The county borough which I have the honour to represent, which has a population of 60,000 people, was compelled, in order to meet the requirements of this Act, to alter the levels of their drains. They have put down very large sewage works to treat this sewage, and they have gone to a considerable expense in many ways. The total cost of these works, up to the present time, is £130,000, and before they are finished and got to work I expect the cost will be another £30,000, or about £2 10s. per head of the population, for this precious fad of the Mersey and Irwell Committee. I do not think it has done five shillings' worth of good in regard to improving the state of the stream, or in improving the health of the people. The upper reaches of the river, I admit, are improved slightly, but near Victoria Station at Manchester the river remains a sewer, as it always has been. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that the Mersey and Irwell Act has cost Lancashire over two millions sterling, and I repeat that I do not think it has done five shillings' worth of good. I do not think expenditure under any Act has been so foolishly wasted as the expenditure which has been incurred under the Mersey and Irwell Act. As regards the Bill now before the House, I should like to call attention to one or two clauses. Clause 9 provides that— Where a sanitary authority have their sewers and sewage works so constructed, maintained, and used, as efficiently to prevent the fall or flow of sewage into any stream at all times, except during or immediately after an unusual rainfall, an offence shall not be deemed to be committed under this Act in the case of an overflow from those sewers or works containing polluted matter, if it is shown to the satisfaction of the Court that such overflow was caused by the unusual rainfall. Surely the honourable Member, with his experience of the North of England, will know that this very clause would be sufficient to cause no end of litigation in proving whether there was an unusual rainfall or not. There would be the temptation to let go the sewer when a rainfall came, especially when it was an unusual one. Clause 18 provides that— For the better enforcement of the provisions of this Act it shall be lawful for any officer of or other person authorised by local authority to enter at any reasonable time on any land, manufactory, or other work or building, for the purpose of taking and carrying away samples of any effluent at the point where it passes into the stream. Such officer or person shall leave under seal a duplicate of every sample taken by him with the owner or occupier of the premises whence the effluent flows. The manufacturer would, therefore, be subject to the annoyance of an inspector coming to demand samples at any hour of the day or night. Work is carried on both day and night in many of the factories, and this system of inspection would, I am afraid, be carried on in a very objectionable manner. The inspectors in Lancashire have, in their zeal, inquired as to which was the worst machine, and where the dirtiest water and the most polluted water was turned out, and, when they have obtained this information, samples have been taken from the very worst point in the works. These samples have been presented to the committee and spoken of as if such water was constantly coming from the works, and it has required considerable persuasion on the part of the manufacturer to get the committee to believe that water of the kind that had been taken by the inspector was not always being turned out. The manufacturers of the whole country are, as I have already said, quite willing to clear their effluent to a certain extent, but they do not wish to be put to the enormous expenditure which such Acts as the Mersey and Irwell Act imposed. And when one talks of expenditure, it is just as well to bear in mind that this is another factor which has to be taken into account when we consider the question of competition with our friends abroad. I have travelled a good many miles in the United States, and I have never heard anything said about the pollution of the rivers. The manufacturers there do just as we did in the old days. The same thing obtains in Germany and in many other countries. I must ask honourable Members to consider the question of foreign competition in regard to this Bill. Under this Bill small manufactories will be handicapped by an additional expenditure of quite £400 a year to carry out the provisions of this Bill, if passed, and I am sure in some works where they use a large quantity of water, such as bleaching works, dyeing works, and paper works, the expenditure would be much higher. If you handicap manufacturers in this country with all these expenses you must remember that you are handicapping them in their competition with foreign countries. We have frequently heard during the last 12 months that the British manufacturers cannot do this, and cannot make that, at the price which foreign countries are able to. We in England are not afraid of any competition so long as we are treated fairly and reasonably. We can make the goods, and we can compete with the foreigner, and give quite as long credit if we are not interfered with. I appeal to honourable Members, before they sanction such a Measure as this, to consider the expense which it would throw on the British manufacturers. These are matters deserving of the most careful attention of this House, and I sincerely trust the House will reject the Second Reading of the Bill, and leave manufacturers free from such burdens as this Bill would impose. The Bill will cost a great deal of money, and will confer but little benefit, if any. I beg to move that this Bill be Read a Second time this day six months.


I beg to Second the Amendment.

MR. CAWLEY (Lancashire, Prestwich)

Mr. Speaker, as I have had to go to considerable expense in purifying my effluent, I am in a position to say something on this matter. I do not agree with my honourable Friend, that if the people of Lancashire were polled they would vote against the Mersey and Irwell Act, but I do say that manufacturers in Lancashire consider that they have a very great grievance, inasmuch as they are compelled to spend large sums of money in purifying their sewage, whereas other manufacturers throughout the country are not compelled to do so. What we want is that all parts of the kingdom should be placed on a level in this matter, and I shall vote for this Bill, not because I consider it a perfect Bill, but because I think it may be so altered in Committee, after the experience of the Mersey and Irwell Act, as to be made a good Bill. I think the other Acts ought to be repealed, and this Bill, as amended, made the law of the country. When the Mersey and Irwell Act was brought in a friend of mine, a large manufacturer spoke to me in a very aggrieved tone. He had been for years in the habit of throwing into the river tons of cinders, and he was aggrieved because he would not be able to put them into the river in future. It is gentlemen like this whom we wish to catch, and I think if a Bill was brought in applying to the whole country, and not to Lancashire alone, it would be of considerable advantage. Competition is not always between England and foreign countries. It is sometimes between manufacturers in one part of England and manufacturers in another part, and I do think paper-makers, for instance, in Lancashire have a very great grievance when they are compelled to spend thousands of pounds under the Mersey and Irwell Act, while their competitors in other parts of the country have had to spend nothing, and are, therefore, able to under-sell them. That seems to me a real grievance in Lancashire. My honourable Friend mentioned the town of Bury, and other towns which had had to purify their sewage. It is not right that large towns with 60,000 inhabitants should be allowed to turn their sewage unpurified into the river. I think an Act which prevents large towns on the upper reaches of the Irwell sending undiluted sewage into the river will commend itself to this House. I sympathise with the manufacturers who have had to spend so much money on their works, but I think that a very great number of them, notwithstanding that they have had to spend this money, would not go back to the old state of affairs, because it must be remembered that bleachers and dyers, if they can have a stream purified above their works, sometimes get compensation for any outlay they may make by being able to obtain purer water out of the river. I should like this Bill to go to a Standing Committee and be made a little less drastic than it is, but I should be very sorry to see it rejected.

SIR W. FOSTER (Derbyshire, Ilkeston)

This Bill has been before the House on many occasions. It is one on which I hope we shall receive an expression of opinion from the Government, and I trust that that expression of opinion will be favourable to the general principle of the Bill. I have been grieved to hear the Member for Bury defend that barbaric ignorance by which the pollution of the rivers all over the country has been allowed. To have allowed this to go on so long is one of the greatest mistakes this country has ever made. The honourable Member who has just spoken, and who has gone through the process of purifying his effluent, says that he desires that in this matter manufacturers in all parts of the kingdom should be treated alike. I believe that in the end that would be an economic process. If the pollution of rivers had not been allowed, we should have had much less difficulty in obtaining pure water supplies, and great communities would not have to spend millions, and even tens of millions sterling, in order to provide pure water for their people. Although the immediate effect of the passing of this Bill may be a temporary, and perhaps permanent, slight increase in the rates, I believe it will be good economy that that slight increase should be made, because it will have the effect of improving the health of the people, and of giving them closer to their doors a large amount of pure water. I hope the Government will support this Bill, and send it to a Grand Committee on Law.


Whatever views may be held by honourable Members with regard to this Bill, I think we shall all agree with my honourable Friend behind me that the question of the pollution, of the prevention of the pollution of our rivers is one of the very first public importance. At the same time, it is quite evident that there are rather sharp differences of opinion in the House upon the particular merits and the machinery of the Bill which is before us this afternoon. My honourable Friend has explained its provisions very fully and very clearly. What the Bill does, in a word, is to extend to county councils, to joint committees, to river boards, and to town councils throughout the country the provisions of the Mersey and Irwell Act, and what is known as the West Riding Act. My honourable Friend the Mover of the Amendment, the Member for Bury, spoke in terms of the severest condemnation of the operation of the Mersey and Irwell Act, and declared that not only had it been futile and useless in effecting its purpose, but that in its operation it had been enormously expensive, entailing upon the people of Lancashire a cost of something like two millions sterling. I wish to guard myself against being supposed to endorse the statements made with regard to the operation of that Act, but I refer to these statements in order to show that there are many matters in connection with these questions which undoubtedly do deserve most careful consideration. The honourable Member entertained the greatest apprehension that if this Bill were passed in its present state its operation would tend to enormously raise the rotes in Lancashire. We all agree, I think, that, as far as it is possible to effect it, our rivers ought to be free from the pollution which affects many of them. The general conclusion I have arrived at is that I hope the House will be disposed to agree to the Second Reading upon condition that the Measure should be referred, not to a Standing Committee on Law, but to a Select Committee, by whom it should be considered in detail. Subject to that condition, I, on behalf of the Government, will be quite ready to assent to the Second Reading.

MR. JACKSON (Leeds, N.)

I am sorry to say that I entirely disapprove of the course which the right honourable Gentleman proposes to take in regard to this Bill. I have had some experience in dealing with this difficult question, and I think the Mover of the Second Reading of the Bill himself will hardly claim for it that it satisfies even him with regard to its machinery, and in many other respects. I do not hesitate to say that a Bill of this importance, applying as it does, to the whole country, and affecting, as it would, to a large extent the manufacturing industries of this country, ought not to be dealt with on a Wednesday afternoon. I endorse a great deal of what has been said by the honourable Member for Bury as to the great expense which the Acts now in force on this matter have involved. As I understand it, the honourable Member who moved the Second Reading of this Bill proposes to exempt all districts where they have local Acts already. Therefore, the result of the passing of this Bill would be that we should have one law in one part of the country and another law in another part of the country. I entirely agree with the honourable Member opposite who said that there is such a thing as competition between manufacturers in this country, and I am strongly of opinion that a Bill of this importance ought not to be passed by the House except after the most careful consideration of the Government. The West Riding Act has created a great deal of friction and a great deal of expense, and while I have heard a great many objections raised to it, I have never heard one word in its favour. I know one man who is at the present moment being prosecuted by the West Riding Rivers Board. I express no opinion on the merits of the case, but I do say this, of my own personal knowledge, that he has told me that if the West Riding Rivers Board are successful in their prosecution, he will be compelled to close his works. That, surely, is a very important question.

*SIR F. POWELL rose in his place, and claimed to move "That the Question be now put," but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put the Question.


My honourable Friend the Mover of this Bill has, I think, large interests in Yorkshire, and I wonder what his friends would say with regard to this Bill. I should be surprised if they supported it. I have an interest in a business which is a source of great pollution. We have been trying for years to deal with it; we have had chemists to assist us in endeavouring to try a remedy, and we have made considerable progress; but, after all we have done, we have failed to satisfy the West Riding Rivers Board, and we have appealed to the local authority —the Corporation of Leeds—to help us out of our difficulty by allowing us to turn our effluent into their sewer. We have had a little help from the Local Government Board in that direction, but we are now met with another difficulty. A navigation company claim to have certain water rights in the stream into which the effluent went, and they now threaten us with legal proceedings to compel us to turn the effluent back again into the stream.

And, it being half-past Five of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.