HC Deb 07 March 1934 vol 286 cc1956-70

11.8 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 1, line 13, at the end, to insert: Provided that no such contribution shall be made towards the expenses of any local authority in providing a supply of water where persons who do not benefit by the supply are rated or are to be rated under a general sanitary rate or rate in aid or otherwise. The object of this Amendment, so far as I understand it, is to get rid of the rate-in-aid as applied to the old water supply. The Committee are aware that the difficulty of water supply for rural districts is the cost. Consumers can never pay a rate that should be levied to provide for the cost. It is found by experience that about 2s. 6d. to 3s. in the £ is the very utmost of rate that will be paid for water, and in practically every case that sum is insufficient to pay the cost. Water supplies are constructed and financed by the rural district council. In the recent Local Government Act provision was made for a grant-in-aid to be given by the rural district council itself, and also by the county council. These two grants have been very difficult to obtain, and as a method had to be found for providing the money to pay for the cost of sinking fund and interest on the expenditure over and above the money provided by the rates, the practice has grown up of the rural district council levying what is called a rate-in-aid to provide for these expenses, such rate-in-aid being levied over the whole parish that is being supplied with water. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that in any water scheme in a country parish, at any rate in a parish of any size, the physical impossibilities of supply are insuperable in the case of many houses and inhabitants, and that not more than about 60 per cent., or at the outside 70 per cent.—the percentage is very rarely as high as 70—of the houses can be supplied at all.

The result, therefore, has been that the rate-in-aid has to be applied over the whole parish, and from 30 to 40 per cent. of the inhabitants have to pay, during the whole period of the loan, for a service from which they can never by any chance get any benefit, so that the persons most interested in having the water supply have often great difficulty in obtaining it. It has therefore been difficult to obtain the assent of the village or district council to such schemes, and that has tended in a great measure to prevent the making of such efforts as might have been made by many of the ratepayers. I have in my pocket a letter which appeared in the "Times" to-day, written on behalf of the County Councils Association and the Rural District Councils Association, from which I gather that the Ministry rather agrees as to the desirability of getting rid of the rate-in-aid. The letter suggests that, where the rural district council agrees to pay by way of grant out of such funds as it has, instead of levying a rate-in-aid, that should not go against them in obtaining a share of the grant of £1,000,000 from the Ministry. The Amendment which I am moving would provide that the rural district councils shall find the money and then go to the Ministry for a grant, so that the very unfair method of providing the money for these schemes by compelling persons to pay who can never get any benefit from them may be avoided.

11.14 p.m.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Hilton Young)

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) has put his Amendment clearly, as he always does, and has described the present state of affairs with perfect accuracy, but I think it is clear from what he has said that what he is really moving is a very far-reaching change in the general law of the land with reference to the supply of water. The effect of the Amendment would be that any deficiency, after allowing for the direct charges for water upon the consumer, would have to be met out of Exchequer funds, and that would be directly contrary to the basis of our present system of supplying water, which is that there shall be a spreading of the burden not only over the parish or the rural locality concerned, but even that there should be a wider spreading of the burden over the rural district and even over the county. If you did not do that, you would never get a supply of water in the rural areas, because it is only by means of fortifying the financial aspect of schemes of rural water supply by such spreading of the burden that you can in any circumstances contemplate the practical possibility of getting a water supply. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman put the case a little too high when he put it that many persons in a rural parish would derive no benefit from the water supply. I do not think that is so. Even though they do not actually take the supply themselves—and very often it will be their own voluntary choice if they do not—they will indirectly benefit very much indeed from the availability of water in their area, and the general improvement in sanitation and health which comes with an improved water supply. In those circumstances I think it will be plain to the Committee and to the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Amendment would go very much too wide for the purposes of the present Bill, and it will not be possible to accept it.

11.18 p.m.


I cannot think the hon. and learned Gentleman intended in his speech to support the Amendment because the Amendment goes very much further than his speech and, if it were carried, it would not be possible to carry out what we are all in favour of, as wide a spreading of the burden as is reasonably possible. The Amendment surely means that supposing an outlying borough was proposed to be rated to help the surrounding rural water supplies, that would disqualify the scheme for Government help. I think the Rural District Councils Association were on the right lines in suggesting that we ought to get away from the principle of special parish rates and pool and spread as much as reasonably possible. As the Amendment would have a contrary effect, I hope it will not be pressed.

11.19 p.m.


I unreservedly endorse the view expressed by the Minister. Only last week I had a representation from four rural district councils which all agreed that the method which the Minister has developed is the one which should be developed and that no other method could possibly ensure any progress in the water supply in sparsely populated areas. In any case persons are not rated but hereditaments, and those hereditaments may belong to one person stretching over a very wide area. I hope the Amendment will not be pressed.

11.20 p.m.


I rather gather that the Minister agreed with the object of my Amendment, which was to do away with the rate-in-aid, that is to say, to make the rural district council find the money and then go to the Minister to get a grant. That is what I understood the County Councils' Association and the Rural District Councils' Association meant in this letter, where they say: We desire to recommend such county and rural district councils which have not already done so to take advantage of the powers conferred upon them by Sections 56 (1) and 57 (1) of the 1929 Act, that is, to make the grant as big as they need. In this connection it goes on to say: It is understood that if a rural district council will allocate an immediate deficiency out of their general fund"— That is to put it over the whole of the rural district instead of a particular parish— and choose to obviate the need for a special rate on the parish, they would not thereby prejudice their right in their application to the Minister for a grant. The Amendment was really meant to carry out that principle. However, if the Committee are against me, I do not propose to carry the matter any further.

Amendment negatived.

11.22 p.m.


The next Amendment which I call is that in the name of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens)—in page 2, line 16, to leave out paragraph (b).


Is the next Amendment on the Order Paper—in page 1, line 13, at the end, to insert: Provided that provision for the disposal of sewage shall be deemed to be part of the provision of a supply or to be the improvement of an existing supply of water within the meaning of this section. ruled out of order, or is it not being selected?


The Amendment of the hon. and learned Member is outside the scope of the Bill.


On a point of Order. I submit that it is in order for the follow- ing reason. This is a Bill for the purpose of providing a rural water supply, and I venture to say that you cannot have a rural water supply and bring water to the houses unless you also take away the water which is polluted. I ask for your reconsideration of whether polluted water is not part of the water included in a rural water supply.


If the hon. and learned Gentleman will look at the Money Resolution, he will find that it is to authorise the provision of money for providing or improving supplies of water in rural localities. I should regard it as a great stretch of the English language to say that the disposal of that water was either a provision or an improvement of the supply.

11.24 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 2, line 16, to leave out paragraph (b).

Sub-section (4) of Clause 1 is a very drastic provision. After a plan for improved supplies has been submitted and approved by the Minister and an undertaking has been given for a contribution, such contribution may be withheld in whole or in part. Paragraphs (a) and (c) provide that it may be withheld if the works are not carried out in a satisfactory manner, or if there is default in carrying out the transaction, a provision which the Committee will no doubt think fair.

Paragraph (b) goes very much further. It provides that if it turns out that a supply is not effective, after the proposals have been duly approved by the Minister and an undertaking has been given, and if the Ministry form the view that the ineffectiveness of the supply was because there was some default in the formulation of the original proposal, for which the local authority can be held responsible, then the contribution shall be withheld in whole or part. It appears to us that that would mean that where proposals are put forward by local authorities it would tend to make their investigation by the officers of the Ministry before the undertaking was given much less thorough than they might be, because it would be known that if it turned out that the proposals, after they had been worked out, did not give an effective supply, and if the fault could be attributed to the authority which put them forward, then the grant need not be given in whole. In considering the proposals to be put forward the local authority would have expert advice and the expert would obviously say to them: "Such and such a proposal may be and probably will be, in our view, effective, but you have to remember that if it turns out ultimately that it is not effective, the Ministry will have power to withhold part of the contribution which it promises you." It is only human nature that in those circumstances the expert would say to the local authority: "Instead of these proposals which we think will probably be effective, you ought to have something much fuller, something more expensive to make it absolutely certain that your proposals will be effective."

We feel that if paragraph (b) stands, in many cases much more expensive proposals will be put forward than will really be necessary; proposals which will take much longer to carry out than is desirable. It does seem rather hard on local authorities that after they have put forward proposals and they have been approved, at a later date the Minister shall have the right to say: "There was some fault in these proposals, for which you are responsible." In those circumstances, although the work has been undertaken on the faith of the Minister's contribution, none the less the Minister is to have the right to withhold the contribution in part. That is quite a different suggestion from withholding part of the contribution on the ground that work which has been approved has been improperly carried out or that there has been some default in carrying out the transaction.

11.29 p.m.


I think my hon. and learned Friend is under a misapprehension. He has read into the Clause what no one else ought to read into it. Perhaps I can allay his misapprehension. The Clause is put in as a proper safeguard where State money is undertaken to be paid. When a local authority comes to us and explains its proposals, we accept those proposals, the scheme is carried out, and, if there has been default, a case of wilful negligence, the contribution may be reduced. The hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) omitted the word "default." Take the case of a local authority which submits a scheme which is not effective, but which they had every reason to believe would be effective, in a case of that kind the Clause would not apply. It only applies in the case of wilful negligence. Let me give an example. Suppose a local authority says that they have tested the water and find that it is pure and it ultimately turns out that they have not tested the water at all, that is a case of default. The Department cannot possibly check every statement made by every local authority. Take another case, toe case of a surface reservoir where obviously the local authority should take soundings and bore holes, and also see if the foundations are substantial. If they said that they had taken every reasonable precaution to see that the foundations were secured, had bored holes and taken soundings when in fact they had not, that would be a case of default and the Department would be entitled to reduce the contribution. I hope that I have cleared up the apprehensions of the hon. and learned Member.

11.32 p.m.


I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot accept the Amendment because the words he has used proved that it is necessary we should have the assurance asked for. He has used the words "wilfully negligent." They are not in the Bill, but if he will put them in the Bill we shall be satisfied. At the moment it simply says "default." When a local authority makes an application to the Minister for permission to proceed with work there is an idea that the proposals will be scrutinised by the Department, that they will have the advantage of the expert knowledge at the Ministry. It may not be right for them to rely entirely upon it, and it should not relieve local authorities from taking all the necessary precautions before sending up their schemes, but the fact that the words "wilfully negligent" have been used by the Parliamentary Secretary proves that unless they are in the Bill they have not the security to which they are entitled.

11.33 p.m.


I hope that the Government will consider favourably the views put forward by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb). We accept the interpretation of the Clause put forward by the Parliamentary Secretary, but local authorities will be guided by the actual wording of the Bill itself. It definitely says "effectiveness of any works." Let me give an instance. An urban district council in North Lincolnshire applied to the Minstry for powers to borrow money in order to sink a bore hole. They did so, and they found that the water was so hard that it was quite unsuitable for human consumption. They came to the Ministry again for permission to raise a further loan for the purpose of sinking the bore hole to a greater depth. That was done, and again the water was found to be unsuitable. In that particular case it was the hardest water ever known in the world to have been raised in a bore hole No one can say that that local authority was to blame, no one could possibly tell that the water would be unsuitable. I think it would have been very hard on that local authority if the Minister had gone to that authority and said, "You have not done your work properly." Such an unfortunate experience for that particular authority might have a restraining influence upon local authorities which are undertaking water schemes. If they think that there is any possibility of the water supply which they endeavour to carry out not being effective they might be deterred from embarking on a scheme, and the whole purpose of the Bill in rural areas might be undermined. While I do not wish to press the Amendment, I hope that between now and Report the Minister will see fit to alter the wording of this Clause so as to make it clear to the local authorities that what is in the mind of the Parliamentary Secretary is actually in the Clause itself.


I can assure my hon. Friend that the instance he gave, where every reasonable precaution is taken, is not a case of default. Accidents will happen in the best of families and the best of bores. The words of the Clause have a perfectly clear meaning.


I accept the assurance with regard to bore-holes. With regard to mistakes in families, as I am a bachelor it does not carry much weight.


While I am quite unable to accept the view that default is the same as neglect, on the assurance of the Parliamentary Secretary I do not press the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.38 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 2, line 27, at the end, to add: (6) Except as provided in sub-section (3) of this section no payment shall be made by the Minister under this section in respect of any undertaking to make a contribution unless the payment shall have become due and payable within two years from the date on which this Act comes into operation. The purpose of the Amendment is to set up some sort of time limit for the making of applications to the Minister and the receiving of contributions from the Minister. I feel that something should be done in order to try to make the rural authorities take up this matter and be as expeditious as possible in putting forward their proposals and obtaining contributions from the Minister. It follows almost as a matter of course that those parts of the country which most require the benefit of this contribution are the most rural areas, where the authorities are the slowest to get going and to put forward proposals. Our feeling is that same sort of spur should be inserted in the Bill. It is undesirable that authority should be given to the Ministry to expend £1,000,000 without any time limit. When a sum of that sort has been voted, some time limit should be set within which it is to be used and, if further funds are required, further authority should be asked from the House of Commons. In those circumstances we suggest that a limit of two years should be inserted for the expenditure of the money in respect of these contributions, unless an arrangement has been made in respect of a lease going on for a period of years.

11.41 p.m.


I have the strongest possible sympathy with the motives which underlie the Amendment, but it appears to me that this is a matter which should be left to administration and that it would not be an advantage to deal with it by legislation. It is agreed that this is a Bill, the administration of which should be carried out as a matter of urgency and, indeed, if I may put it in that way, under pressure. It is agreed that no time should be lost, subject to the preparation of sound economic schemes, in getting the work done. But as my hon. and learned Friend indicated in his speech the most powerful incentive to local authorities to get their schemes through is the old principle of "first come, first served." When there is only £1,000,000 to come they will not be slow in making sure of their share of it.

Apart from that consideration, there is the possibility that a cast-iron limitation of the sort proposed might do harm in certain cases. I can imagine a case in which there had come into being a big area scheme for dealing with a number of rural localities—I hope there may be such schemes—and in that case it might be found impossible to proceed within a limitation of this kind. I can also imagine a case in which a scheme had been agreed upon. It is thought that water will be found in a particular place but water is not found there. A search for water takes place, time passes and it may be that at the last minute the water is found, but because of some cast-iron system such as that proposed here, the chance of carrying out the scheme is lost. Let me remind the Committee of this circumstance which I think will be a final reassurance—that in letting the Bill go in its present form, without Amendment, the House of Commons is not losing control of the matter. If it is thought at any time undesirable that a scheme should be allowed to linger on any longer, the House can always bring it to a conclusion by refusing the annual Vote necessary to implement the Bill.

11.44 p.m.


The Committee appreciate what the Minister has said. We put down the Amendment because we feared that what has happened in the past might happen again in the future, namely that some dilatory local authorities will not take the necessary steps to see that the water is supplied within a reasonable time. There is a great deal of urgency in the matter and after what the Minister has said, will he undertake to see that local authorities are urged and almost compelled, to take up this matter and where urgency exists to see that something is done.


I can certainly give the assurance that every possible means will be taken to bring to the attention of local authorities their opportunity under the Bill and urge them to take advantage of it.


In view of the Minister's statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

11.45 p.m.


I desire to raise a point with regard to the words "expenses to be incurred." On the Second Reading I mentioned a case in my constituency of three villages that, on the encouragement of the Minister, had applied for a scheme. They had got the preliminary expenses, but no other expenses had been incurred when the Minister made his announcement that he would give a grant for all such schemes. In the Debate on the Second Reading I asked the Parliamentary Secretary if those parishes would be excluded from getting a grant. There was no question about the merits of their application. A penny rate for those parishes would only bring in £5, and the cost of the scheme would involve heavy expenditure in the way of a water rate. I suggest that if there ever was a scheme that ought to be in this Bill, it is that scheme. It happened that, unfortunately for me, in that Debate the right hon. Member for North Cornwall (Sir F. Acland), who has just left the House, also put a point to the Parliamentary Secretary, asking if he could get a grant for schemes that were completed many years ago. In fact, from the right hon. Gentleman's speech, I understood he was asking for grants for schemes of 20 or 30 years ago, at some time when the Liberal section to which he belongs was a live section of politics in this country. Clearly such a scheme would be outside the terms of the Bill or of the Financial Resolution. I am now asking the Minister to make the matter clear, because when the Parliamentary Secretary replied, he said, "The answer is decidedly 'No.'" I understand that in the heat of the moment I might have got mixed up with the right hon. Member for North Cornwall, but it does not rest there. Since then I have had numbers of letters from rural district councils all over the country, and they tell me that they have had the same reply. I will read one letter from a rural district council, not in my constituency or my county, but in the county of Durham. The clerk writes: We have already put a scheme up to the Minister to spend £1,750 in providing a rural parish with water, which would entail a rate of something like 2s. 8d. in the £. We have two or three other schemes in hand but are afraid to put these schemes up to the Minister lest we should be prejudiced when we make application for a grant. I wrote to the Minister on the 5th instant and pointedly asked a question in this respect, I am told in reply that the Minister cannot express any opinion as to whether a grant will be available in aid of any particular scheme. 'It is not contemplated, however, that grants are to be made in aid of expenditure already incurred by the Council or to which they are committed.' Those last are the words that I want the House to consider very carefully. Clearly expenditure which has already been in curred is outside the terms of the Bill, but I submit that it is not just that, if a rural district council are committed to a scheme by having asked for the Minister's sanction to that scheme and have not spent any money other than preliminary expenses on the actual carrying out of the scheme, they should be deprived of the benefit of the grant. If I may venture a legal opinion on this matter, I would ask the Minister to consider the words—and I am glad to see the learned Solicitor-General in his place—"have been incurred." The same words were considered in the Chancery Court, in the case Mayor of West Ham versus Grant. Mr. Justice Kay there asked himself the meaning of the words "incurred expenses." He said: I need not pause to say what 'incurred expenses' might possibly mean, whether it involves the actual payment of the expenses or not; but it certainly means this, that they have paid, or become liable to pay them at least. Now, in the case before me, the local authority have not incurred—that is to say, they have not paid or become liable to pay—any expenses; and yet they have brought an action in the Chancery Division, asking, not that the expenses which they have incurred, but that the estimated expenses of doing certain works, which expenses at present they have not incurred, may be made a charge on the premises."—(1889, 58 L.J. Ch. at p. 123.) This, in my submission, is an actual case on all fours with these cases in my constituency of authorities who have put in estimates of expenditure to the Minister. If the Parliamentary Secretary intends that those schemes cannot rank for grant, then I submit that he is in contradiction to the learned judge in that case of 40 years ago. It may seem to this Committee a paltry matter, and that £4,750 is not very much. I would, however, ask the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister to go down to those parts of my constituency where they have read the Parliamentary Secretary's reply and where they see that the schemes would burden not themselves only but their sons and their sons' sons with 6s. in the £ water rate. I ask, in view of those circumstances, that the Minister should make it clear that all those local authorities who have submitted their schemes to the Minister but have not actually incurred expenses should be entitled to receive the benefit of this great piece of legislation.

11.53 p.m.


Some mercy should be shown to those poor local authorities who have taken at their face value the exhortations of the Minister, dated 11th May last, and have acted in preparing and committing themselves to these exceedingly necessary schemes. I do not know how far even the Minister realises the exceeding urgency of permanent schemes of water supplies in some rural districts. I can only speak for my own area, but the urgency is very great, and those authorities who have committed themselves to schemes on the exhortations of the Minister during the past six months ought, I submit, to be encouraged by some sort of assistance. The considerations which caused some of us to support the proposed limitation of two years were not only merely the encouragement of local authrities but also the giving of an additional inducement to the Minister to consider permanent legislation relating to water, as there are many of us who regard this Bill as being merely of a temporary makeshift nature although it is for permanent water supplies.

By the courtesy of the Minister, I have been studying a series of admirable reports by the Ministry of Health on rural water supplies and rural legislation. After discussing those reports with rural district clerks, surveyors and others, it is clear that unless we get a revision of the dead hand of the past, the Waterworks Act, 1847, and unless legislation is brought up-to-date, as it has been in most other departments of public health with which the Minister of Health is connected, great delay and great expense will be incurred in all sorts of minor ways which do not at first sight appear to Rural District Councils but the nature of which has been made plain by these reports of the Ministry of Health, which urge very extensive legislation which will, if effect is given to it, make cheaper and better work of the kind possible. I urge that this Bill be regarded merely as a temporary measure pending a comprehensive water Bill. There is only one other point with which I wish to deal on this Clause. There may be serious difficulties as between one region and another. There is a Bill in another place—


The hon. Member is getting far beyond the scope of Clause 1.


I was dealing with paragraph (c) that is, default consequent upon some difficulty arising out of the possible default of other local authorities. I hope we shall have regional organisation and planning—


I understand the hon. Member is now trying to refer to a Bill in another place. That does not arise here.

11.55 p.m.


Let me say as regards the speech of the hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) that he has said many interesting things which deserve the most careful consideration as to general legislation in regard to water. I think I can assure him that these considerations are present in our minds with regard to the possibility of future legislation. As to the very practical point taken by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), the administration of the strict letter and spirit of Clause 1 would proceed Upon perfectly common sense lines, and common sense administration must, of course, avoid any such danger as he feared. It would obviously be absurd that the mere fact that expenses have been incurred by the preparation of a scheme should disqualify the scheme from participating in the grants, and they will not be disqualified in accordance with the Clause or with any manner in which it will be administered. The hon. Member will, of course, not understand that I am pronouncing on any particular scheme, but such schemes as he had in mind, where all that had been done was to incur expense in preparation, but where expenses in the supply of water had not been incurred, fall within the ambit of the Bill. If, on the other hand, there be cases where expenses have actually been incurred on a definite and determined scheme, they will not fall within the ambit of the Bill, but I do not think that these were the schemes which the hon. Member had in mind.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.