HC Deb 06 March 1928 vol 214 cc1057-71

Order for Second Reading read.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir Vivian Henderson)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a short Bill with only four operative Clauses. It is necessary before we can consolidate the whole law with regard to the Petroleum Acts, which is now most desirable. The first Act was passed as far back as 1871. There was an Amendment, so far as motor cars are concerned, by the Highways Act of 1896. We substantially amended the law by the Act of 1926. The increased use of petrol by the general public, not only for motor cars but for other purposes, has made it necessary to introduce this short Bill and to consolidate the whole law on the subject, partly because it is extremely difficult for local authorities to administer the law as it exists now, scattered over a number of Acts, and partly because the Act of 1871 was not very well drafted and several difficulties have arisen with regard to the interpretation of it.

I will take the four operative Clauses and explain them. Clause 1 refers to harbours. There has been considerable uncertainty as to the true interpretation of the provisions of the Act of 1871 on two points. One is the definition of a "harbour authority," whether it is limited by implication to persons acting under a statutory jurisdiction, like the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and bodies of that kind, or whether it applies to the owner of any little pier or jetty to which any small ship might be able to tie up.

Of course it was intended by the Act of 1871 that the power of making by-laws should be restricted to statutory bodies, but owing to the wording this Section 2 of 1871 has been made to apply to individuals owning small jetties. That is not desirable, and it is necessary that we should have it amended, as is done in Clause 1 of this Bill. As regards another difficulty which has arisen under the Act of 1871, it is not clear whether the jurisdiction should apply to the authority exercising power over the whole harbour or whether it should also apply to subsidiary authorities exercising power over parts of the harbour. It was intended that where a statutory authority has subsidiary jurisdiction over part of a harbour that authority should have power to make by-laws. The second part of Clause 1 of the Bill makes that point clear. The reason why it is necessary to do so is that certainly in one case a dispute has arisen between a harbour authority and a railway company on the point.

Clause 2 deals with the making of bylaws for substances other than petroleum. It is intended to remedy a defect which has been found to exist in Section 14 of the Act of 1871. In that Section 14 power is given to apply the provisions of the Act so far as they deal with petroleum to other similar substances such as calcium carbide, but power is only given to vary the provisions or modify them in two particulars, one as regards the quantity of the substance which may be kept without a licence, and the other as regards the vessel containing the substance. It has been found in practice that new modifications are necessary and that it is desirable that greater latitude should be given. For instance, it may be desirable to vary the amount of any one substance to be kept without a licence according as different conditions are observed, that is to say, whether it is kept in a reason- ably safe place or not. It is proposed wider this Clause that a general power should be taken to modify the provisions of the Act as applying to other similar substances, on the condition, of course, that there is no power taken to increase the stringency of the provisions that may be made.

Clause 3 deals with the repeal of Section 5 of the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896. That Section was a concession which was passed at that time and was applied to motor cars, which were considered to be light locomotives. Since that day petrol has come to be used for a great many other things besides light locomotives. It is used, for instance, for agricultural machinery, for motor-boats, for stationary engines used in the manufacture of electric light for houses, and for pumping water. It is desirable that the application of the full requirements of the Act of 1871 should be modified for this purpose as well as for the purpose of motor cars; otherwise they are unnecessarily burdensome. To begin with, by Section 7 it is necessary in every case to get a licence from the local authority. It is obvious that that should not be necessary in the cases that I have cited. If we did not modify this provision as proposed, the ordinary motor boat propelled by petrol would be, for the purposes of the original Act, a ship carrying petroleum, and she would be subject to all the regulations to which a ship carrying petroleum is subject when she goes into port. That was not intended.

With regard to Clause 4, the last operative Clause, it is intended to give to canal companies a general power of making by-laws relating to the transport of petrol. At present some companies have that power and some have not. Towards the end of 1926. I think it was in September, a rather serious explosion took place on a canal in Yorkshire and resulted in a fatality. It was then shown to the Home Office that it was most desirable that all companies should have the power of making by-laws, even if they did not exercise them. Petrol is being carried on canals in increasing quantities, and that alone makes it most necessary that there should be adequate safeguards, in its transport. The House will observe that in the First Schedule a number of minor Amendments have been included. They are all small Committee points and they are necessary for two reasons, one as consequential on the operative Clauses of the Bill, and the other reason is that the Act of 1871 was drafted rather defectively. We want if possible to clear up one or two bad pieces of draftsmanship before we bring in the consolidated Bill, which I hope it will be possible to do later on.


Before we pass the Bill, which would appear to be more or less an administrative Measure, we might have a little enlightenment on one point in particular, with which I tried to make myself familiar some time ago. Before I come to that however will the Under-Secretary kindly tell us what are the main provisions of the Act of 1871? His exposition would have been better if he had told us what powers local authorities have already under the Act of 1871. Then we should have better understood the Amendments proposed by this Bill. I am sure that the House would be glad to have a general outline of the main provisions of the Act of 1871. I wish to put to the hon. Gentleman one question only. Do I understand that under this Bill local authorities can make by-laws to improve the control and transport of petroleum and other very dangerous liquids through the streets of towns? When I looked at this question not long ago I understood that there was still a difficulty in dealing with the carriage of petroleum through the streets. There was a case, I believe in Northumberland, of a terrible explosion that occurred in conveying oil through the street, and people living in houses on both sides of that street were injured very badly. Will the Under-Secretary enlighten us as to the position now, and tell us whether a local authority can compel the carrier of the petroleum to remove the lights on his vehicle out of danger? I understood some time ago that the danger arose mainly through neglect in allowing lights to be attached to these vehicles. I shall be glad to get that matter cleared up.

8.0 p.m.


As one who opposed the Bill that is now the Act of 1926 on 15 different occasions, and got the seven Amendments through the Lords, I might say that there is no need for anyone to ask questions as to what the law is, because it is contained in all the printed matter that is available. I would like to deal with the question of "substance" as mentioned in Clause 2. When the original Act was framed it was not too well known what the substance petrol was; it was not clear how it was to be treated so far as an Act of Parliament was concerned. When you deal here with a substance you leave yourself open to a great many things. For instance, is tetra-ethyl lead a substance? If it is added to petrol does that combination still remain a body to be known by the word "petrol," and if so can I have a reply as to whether any combination of substances that give explosions, say in an internal combustion engine, are to pass under the name of petrol, or are we to be tied down to the word "substance," which may mean anything? Would potato raw spirit be called a "substance," or industrial alcohol? If petrol is to be called a "substance," are we to have some determination as to whether evaporation at a certain point is to decide what that body is. Even suppose you had a law which gave you the right to say that a body evaporated at a certain temperature was petrol, still you have to find means of expressing it, and the question is what may be added to your petrol itself and leave a "substance." Suppose you take the ethyl question at the present time. How are you going to determine what body that becomes? After you have got this ethyl mixed with petrol, does it cease to be petrol, or is the name ethyl to be the subject of legislation? That is a very important point. In the Bill we are to have the power to label a thing. That is a purely political expression, because we know that politicians—I am not a politician, thank God for that—label things. We have got peculiar stuff in our shops labelled jam and marmalade. If we are going on with this labelling proposal, does it mean that any kind of substance that may explode at a certain temperature is going to be called petrol? The Members of this House do not yet realise the dangers of lead tetraethyl, and will not realise them until it is driven in upon them by some very serious cases, one of which, as I know, is now developing. I would ask those in charge of the Bill to explain what they mean when they say "a substance." Is any addition to that which may have the nominal name of petrol to be included in the Bill? Whether or not that is to be done, there is a certain element that must be dealt with in some way or other to ensure the public safety. If the Bill is to permit the addition of any of these elements of which I am speaking, it will mean that every one who is making a "dope" for motor cars or any other form of internal combustion engine will be entitled under the Bill to call it petrol. I would ask those in charge of the Bill to take a very serious view of this point, because my only concern is to ensure the safety of the public. I represent a district of a great city, Glasgow, and I know exactly what has taken place in the past 30 years since they started using petrol in industry in the making of waterproof coats. I know what took place at the fire. I was at it. I know what took place in the Chemical Works at the top of Renfrew Street. I was there. I know from practical observation and knowledge what is causing all this trouble.

If those in charge of the Bill will give a nod now to indicate that this Bill will be withdrawn until we know more about the subject, I will sit down. They are not prepared to do that? Very well, I will go on. When I opposed the Bill of 1926 before it became an Act I was told from the Government Benches that I was doing a very cruel thing, because the Bill was the baby of a man who had been 42 years in the Department and was retiring, and wanted to see the Bill on the Statute Book as one of the great things he had accomplished. I do not wish to detract from that man's capacity, mental or otherwise. He had been a faithful servant, and I should have liked to oblige him by seeing that the Bill was placed on the Statute Book, but let the House note how defective it was, even with the seven Amendments which I got put in. At that time, too, I was given a promise about what should be done in the first amending Bill which came before the House. I had that promise from the Home Secretary, but I had an experience of the Home Secretary during the coal stoppage, when he applied his Regulations to everybody else but his own friends, and when we brought cases up for review he was impertinent and stupid in his answers. But I was told that as soon as the first amending Bill came along the other questions I had raised, which were not included in the seven Amendments, would be dealt with. We know that the controlling Act was passed in 1871, and that between 1871 and 1926 practically nothing was done so far as the dangers of petrol are concerned, except, perhaps, in connection with rubber solution. In that period there were great developments in motor transport, and the danger has become correspondingly greater. Take the case of the motor bicycle. Any man can have a motor bicycle. Probably he is without any proper place in which to store it, and he keeps it in the entrance of his house, behind the front door. He also has a can or two of petrol, and these he takes into another part of the house. I was in a house two or three weeks ago when a gentleman came in with his motor bicycle. He pushed it behind the front door, and then brought in two cans of petrol, put them down beside the fire, sat on them and had a smoke. I say that something ought to he clone to deal with cases of that kind.

Is it realised that in the 1926 Act and in this amending Bill we deal only with petrol in bulk? Is it not realised that the last Act was brought in chiefly at the behest of the vested interests in petrol. It did not deal with anything outside those matters which concerned the petrol industry; it did something for them, but left out everything else. I drew the attention of the Glasgow Corporation to what was taking place, and they came forward with an amendment, and sent a deputation to meet the Joint Committee. Thereupon the Committee realised the necessity of getting at least a promise that something more would be done. What is going to be done? Little houses are being built now, with garages attached. They are wooden garages, with simple doors, and people have found petrol disappear from the garage. As they do not want to question one another's honesty they now take the petrol into the house. That is where the danger comes in, and I want to know what is to be done about controlling from two-gallon lots up to what I would call "the maximum small quantity." We have had legislation dealing with the transport in bulk on roads, though even that legislation is not all that it ought to be. But are we going to do anything in the direction of introducing safety regulations in other cases? It is the question of safety with which I am concerned. It is not a question of increasing expenses or increasing the price of petrol or of insisting that something has to be done which will cost money; but it is a question of securing a measure of safety. The 1926 Act deals with persons keeping petrol for the purposes of trade and industry. It finishes up with "trade and industry." As if the use of petrol had not extended far beyond the confines of trade and industry, seeing that it goes into practically every home. Therefore, I once more ask the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill whether he is prepared, having gone this distance, to nod his head in indication of his readiness to withdraw the Bill in order that we may get something better.

There is no answer, and therefore I will go on to the question of the transport of petrol on roads. The hon. Gentleman gave us an illustration to-night of what happened in a canal explosion, but there is nothing in this new Bill which would prevent that happening, because the Bill, instead of stating definitely what is to be done, only gives permissive powers to this, that and the other body to make their own regulations, and that is not protection given by the Government. Each body will make its regulations just to suit its own business and not to meet the safety of the public, and the regulations will always be a minimum. Let us take the case of the petrol tanks now seen on the streets—a drum on four wheels holding, perhaps, 2,000 gallons. It is filled through an opening which is closed with two valves. Last summer I was riding on top of a bus in very busy street in the centre of London. In front was a steam lorry. The fireman had been detained too long—it was not his fault—and had to get up steam. He put on some fresh fuel. When he stirred the fire and started up there was a stream of sparks—and immediately behind was a tank of petrol! People will say, "It is all right; it was all closed up." Yes, but it might not have been. It is just the same as people saying, "Miners have safety lamps." The safety lamp was not produced to enable men to work in gas, but in protect them against the unexpected presence of the deadily enemy. It is the same in the case of petrol. The vibration of that tank in going along the street might have caused a loosening of the valves, and on a hot summer's day one knows that the evaporation of petrol is speedy, especially from an iron surface. It might have been better if the tank bad been covered with wood.

I wish the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill to understand that I am not opposing it, but merely asking for additions to be made to it. The Bill does not go far enough. If this had been a decaying industry instead of a growing industry, one could have understood this attempt to deal only with one or two aspects of the matter. Finally, I would ask the hon. Gentleman if he can answer the questions which I have put to him. First of all I want to know whether any added substance is to be included as the nominal name of whatever substance is put in; that is to say, is industrial alcohol with some addition to be called petrol; is potato spirit with some addition to be called petrol; is petrol with lead tetraethyl to be called petrol? Is it to be a question simply of the label? If we are legislating for labels, let us remember the process of protection for the public which has been followed in pharmaceutical Acts. I am glad to see that a doctor is now present. There was a great fight about labels. What was the consideration behind the passing of a law requiring that poison must not be put in an ordinary bottle, but in a bottle of a certain shape, so that even though one picked up the bottle in the dark one would know that it was a poison bottle? What brought that about was consideration for the safety of the public. In the case of petrol we are dealing with a substance which is in far more common use than medicine, and is much more dangerous to the public, and yet here we have the Government, which always claims to have the best brains of the blue blood which produces the best brains, coming along with feeble Amendments all mixed up and dealing only with vested interests, all the while leaving the question of public safety where it was before. I hope the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill will be able to withdraw it now, or, at any rate, give us some guarantee that we shall have some redress before the Bill reaches a further stage.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I notice that the name of the Home Secretary is on the back of the Bill, and I should like to know why he is not present. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is dealing with some other kind of spirits put up in magnums. The hon. Member for Springburn who has just spoken (Mr Hardie) comes from the north of the Tweed; he represents a Scottish Division, and I presume that this Bill applies to Scotland. Why is the name of the Secretary of State for Scotland on the back of the Bill, and why is he not present? I know this Measure does not apply to Northern Ireland, but I presume it applies to Scotland, and there is no representative of the Scottish Office on the Treasury Bench at the present moment. I think this is treating the House very disrespectfully. Here we have under consideration a Bill of first-class importance dealing with a growing industry, and we are going to have a much larger number of motor vehicles running through the streets. Clause 3 provides that The Secretary of State may make Regulations as to the keeping and use of petroleum spirit by persons intending to use it for the purpose of any class of motor vehicles. A provision of this kind is of the utmost importance, and, with every respect to the hon. Member in charge of this Measure, I contend that this question should not be left in charge of the second eleven of the Government, and that the Home Secretary ought to have been present. If the Secretary of State for War intends to speak on this subject I apologise, and perhaps he will tell us how this Measure affects his Department. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is going to tell us something about the use of petrol in hot climates. I want to know if, in the carrying out of these Regulations, any differentiation is going to be made in regard to petrol coming from Russia. I think that would be quite possible under the loosely-drawn terms of this Bill.


I desire to call attention to the fact that 40 Members are not present.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Captain FitzRoy)

There cannot be a count between a quarter past Eight and a quarter past Nine o'Clock.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I want to know if the President of the Board of Trade is doing everything he can to encourage trade with Russia despite the differences that exist between the two Governments. Not long ago the President of the Board of Trade issued broadcast to the world—


We must confine ourselves to the matters raised in the Bill.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

May I point out that Clause 3 provides that: The Secretary of State may make Regulations as to the keeping and use of petroleum spirit by persons intending to use it for the purpose of any class of motor vehicles. Does that empower the right hon. Gentleman to make Regulations in regard to Russian petrol?


Now the hon. and gallant Member is proceeding on still wider ground.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

This is one of the objections we have to legislation by reference. I will deal with another matter, and that is a question of petrol pumps. Under these Regulations, will the Home Office have any powers to enforce some decency in regard to the form of petrol pumps which at the present time are disfiguring the countryside? We have in this country a lot of beautiful scenery, and I want to know if the Home Office, in putting this Bill into force, only intend to pay attention to the question of safety, and pay no attention to the æsthetic point of view. Is there any intention of limiting the number of these pumps?


That is another matter which is entirely outside the scope of this Measure.


Seeing that petroleum comes out of the ground, would I be in order in discussing the taxation of land values?


The hon. Member is not entitled to make a joke of the proceedings of Parliament.


I beg pardon. I am very serious, and we are anxious to raise everything that we consider should be raised in this House.


The only things which can be raised are those which are in order on the particular subject before the House.


I was only asking for information.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I come now to the question which has been raised by my hon. Friend behind me, namely, the special Regulations proposed with regard to the use of lead tetraethyl. The hon. Member for Springburn went into details in regard to this very extraordinary substance. In Switzerland the use of this highly dangerous poison is already forbidden. In the United States of America the use of this doped petrol resulted in five deaths, and 30 or more cases of poisoning. Although this substance has been advertised for months and has been placed on the British market, no warning whatever in regard to it has been published by the Home Secretary, the Minister of Health, or the President of the Board of Trade.

I am glad to say that in another place—I should, of course, be out of order in referring to the details of the Debate—a Noble Lord drew attention to this matter, and this is the first opportunity that I have had of drawing attention to the matter here except at Question Time, when Ministers can always ride off by refusing information or shirking the giving of proper answers; and if we on this side try to press them they always have their claque from the benches behind them, and we are shouted down. This Bill is a Bill for the greater safety of the public in the use of petrol, and I would like to ask the Under-Secretary if he can give me any explanation on this matter. After it has been raised again and again in this House and in another place—in this House, unfortunately, only at Question Time—an Inter-Departmental Committee is about to be set up. It has not yet been set up. I was told the other day by the Minister of Health that no members had been appointed, and that the Committee had not been called together. Now we are going to have further delay in setting up this Committee and waiting for its Report. One thing is certain, and that is that an Inter-Departmental Committee means delay. They will take very great care with their evidence, and their find- ings, and their Report; the Government will delay still further before they act upon the recommendations; and, in the meantime, a great deal of mischief will have been done.

The danger lies in two facts. One is that the spirit itself is poisonous. If any of the liquid gets on to the skin, it can be absorbed and bring on lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is slow in its effects; the symptoms take some time to appear; but the poisoning is none the less deadly when it runs its course. Therefore, the innocent motor user who buys this "Ethyl" clothed in red—and red is a very suitable colour in this particular case—if he has some trouble with his engine, floods his carburettor, and gets a spot of this petrol on his skin, he may be poisoned; and who is responsible? The hon. and gallant Gentleman. If the Home Secretary were here, I should say that the Home Secretary was responsible, but, as he has not chosen to be present, I say that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will be responsible for the death of this innocent, law-abiding citizen, who is taxed to pay the salary of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, while the hon. and gallant Gentleman neglects his duty by not safeguarding the public by means of warnings. I say that this substance should never have been put upon the market—and it has been upon the market for some weeks—without Orders being issued, through the local authorities and the police, to all who have anything to do with the sale of petrol, to warn the public against handling this liquid. In spite, however, of what has gone on outside this Chamber, and of what we can drag from Ministers in this Chamber, the unfortunate liege has no kind of safeguard at all.

That is one side of the matter. The other is the question of the effect on the general public. Every hon. Member in this House has had the misfortune to be in traffic blocks, and knows perfectly well that the fumes even of ordinary petrol are most objectionable. Present-day cities, especially here in London, with ever-increasing motor traffic, are suffering from a very foul atmosphere due to the exhaust fumes of motor cars. Now this petrol has been introduced, doped with lead tetra-ethyl, and here I want to pay tribute to a newspaper which is not always friendly to my party, namely, the "Daily Mail." This Government allows the country to be run by the "Daily Mail." As far as I can make out, the "Daily Mail" wins its elections for it, and, when it is in office, it allows the "Daily Mail" to carry out its scientific experiments, which its own Department of Scientific Research, money for which is provided out of the taxes, should be carrying out.

This newspaper—I daresay in order to increase its circulation, but in the public interest as well, and I make no complaint in that regard, for I think the whole public should be as grateful in this particular matter to the paper as hon. Gentlemen opposite are for their occupancy of that Bench at the present time—this newspaper has carried out certain experiments, which have lasted for weeks, with this tetra-ethyl lead petrol, and, in its most recent report of tests made by the Research Department of the Association of British Motor and Allied Manufacturers, which was dug out by this paper and given very useful publicity, and which was founded under the auspices of the Government's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the distinguished chemist who carried out these experiments, and whose report is reproduced in this newspaper, has stated categorically that the exhaust vapour from the use of this petrol is poisonous. Therefore, you may have a traffic block in Bridge Street, just outside this House, and a quorum of Government supporters may be poisoned; and the hon. and gallant Gentleman sits there all unheeding.

As I have said, the Government are still about to set up an Inter-Departmental Committee to look into this matter, after this poisonous liquid has been for weeks on the market. It is all very well for the hon. and gallant Gentleman to say that he is going to make regulations in regard to this matter. I judge the Department by its previous conduct, and the Department has been wholly negligent with regard to this poisonous, doped petrol which has been placed on the market; and, but for the action of Lord Buckmaster in another place, and of one or two hon. Members in this House, including a gentleman of medical knowledge who is a supporter of the Home Secretary—but for our action and the public-spirited action of a daily newspaper to which hon. Gentlemen opposite owe their office, and to which we owe a good deal of opposition, but which I nevertheless compliment, and I hope my generosity is appreciated, on its public spirit in this matter, the unfortunate public would have had no warning whatever. And yet His Majesty's Secretary of State for Home Affairs has not even the interest to come into the House and explain his Bill to us, but leaves the matter in the, I admit, competent and courteous hands of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. This is how Parliament is treated; this is how the Opposition is treated; and, worst of all, this is how the unfortunate public is mulct in taxes to keep up this useless Department of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. This is how the unfortunate public are treated, and I hope the opportunity will soon come for them to vent their displeasure in the only way that is open to them, by throwing these incompetents out of office.


I want to ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I should be in order in moving that this Debate be now adjourned, until the Home Secretary Is here? This is his Bill, but he is not here, and his understudy has no experience, he is an amateur, and we are objecting to his trying—


I certainly cannot accept a Motion that the Debate be adjourned.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.