HC Deb 16 July 1936 vol 314 cc2391-401

Order for Second Reading read.

11.2 p.m.


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

I would like the House to realise that this is an important Bill, which, I think, will be of great benefit to administrators up and down the country. It represents a further important stage in the task which successive Ministers of Health have set themselves of consolidating and bringing up to date the statute law of the administration of the Ministries for which their Department is responsible. This Bill represents the work of the Departmental Committee set up in 1930 by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). The committee first sat under the chairmanship of the late Lord Chelmsford, and when the Local Government Act reached the Statute Book, the committee was reconstituted under the chairmanship of Lord Addington. Upon the committee which considered this Bill were three Members of this House the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Cardiff (Captain A. Evans), and my hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick), and there were also on the committee representatives of the four principal associations of local authorities. The Bill applies to the whole of England and Wales with minor exceptions, but it does not include the County of London. A further Bill promoted by the London County Council is now before the House, and deals with the public health law of London.

This Bill represents the first instalment of the public health law and covers a large proportion, and perhaps the most important sections of that branch of the law. I will not at this late hour do more than ask hon. Members to look at the contents of this Bill in order to see the vast extent of its operations. It was introduced into another place, and was referred to a Joint Select Committee of both Houses. Evidence was given, and as a result of their examination a number of Amendments were made. The Bill is not technically a consolidation Bill. The Committee have made a number of drafting and other Amendments in order to reduce to a uniform and intelligible code the collection of Sections scattered over some 55 Acts of Parliament dating back to the Public Health Act, 1875. They have also introduced a certain number of provisions which Parliament has regularly approved in local legislation. The explanations are to be found in detail in the report of the Departmental Committee. I will give two points by way of illustration. One is that opportunity is taken to clear up long-standing doubts and difficulties with regard to public sewers—on all these matters and others it has only been possible to do this where substantial agreement has been reached—and also in regard to some of the provisions for by-law-making powers which should prove of great value to owners and builders. The Bill is not put forward as an ideal code of public health law but rather as the foundation on which future amendments should be solidly built.

In conclusion, I should like to express my indebtedness, particularly to the Members of this House, who sat many days and did great work in connection with the Measure. I am much indebted also to the local authorities, the various classes of statutory undertakers, and the representatives of property and industry who have helped and co-operated in order to make this a substantially agreed Measure. It has been a great effort, compressing into 356 Sections 600 Sections of the existing law, and I think it will be agreed by anyone who is versed in these matters that it will mean great simplification and clarification of the law, and will prove of value alike to those concerned with public health administration and to owners and their advisers, and the general public.


In the event of the Bill being passed this Session, when will it come into force?


Immediately, I think.

11.7 p.m.


As one of those who for some five years has had the somewhat laborious task of sitting on the committee which made recommendations resulting in the Local Government Act and made recommendations which have resulted in the present Bill, I should like to say a few words to commend the Measure to the House. It is the second Bill of a somewhat similar kind which has resulted from the action referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, namely, the instruction or request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), when he was Minister of Health in 1930, for the setting up of the committee which has made these recommendations. It must be a source of great gratification to my right hon. Friend that another of the many craft which he launched in those difficult times has almost reached port. In saying that, I do not reflect in the least on the right hon. Gentleman, the Minister of Health, whose interest in this Bill has been as great as that of my right hon. Friend.

There are three observations that I should like to make. The first is, that the House will appreciate that the Bill does not purport to deal with the whole of public health. If hon. Members will turn to the somewhat voluminous report of the Committee they will see that the Bill refers in particular to those provisions of a strictly public health character which relate to the prevention and treatment of disease. Such matters as environment, drains and sewers, buildings, water supply, the abatement of nuisances, personal hygiene, the provision of hospitals, maternity centres, etc. There is still a great deal of ground to be covered in regard to public health before a complete consolidation of the provisions in the various Public Health and analogous Acts has been brought about. There is still a great deal of work for that particular Committee to do.

My second observation is, that the Bill is not purely a consolidation Bill, because the first instruction given to the Committee was that they should recommend what Amendments of the existing law are desirable for facilitating consolidation and securing simplicity, uniformity and conciseness. Within those limits the Committee have thought it right to make a number of minor suggestions by way of bringing about uniformity, for example, between the powers of different authorities, which is so very desirable. To me it was remarkable how many differences had grown up during many years in the methods and powers of various classes of local authorities, and a useful piece of work has been done in bringing uniformity into these matters. Then again a number of adoptive Acts had been incorporated in the general law by the provisions of the Bill, but that has only been done where it was thought right to make them of general application. It will serve a useful purpose and result in a simplication of what was somewhat complicated law in regard to the different powers of various classes of authorities. Another useful piece of work is that hitherto, in these Public Health Acts, penalties in regard to various offences have ranged from £50 to 20s., and, except in the case of very serious offences, the Committee have recommended, and there are provisions in the Bill, that the penalties should be a maximum of £5. That, I am sure, will commend itself to hon. Members. As a member of the Committee I regret, and I am sure other members of the Committee regret, that it has not been possible to make Amendments of a more substantial character; but the Committee thought it right to adhere strictly to the limit which was laid down by the right hon. Member for Wakefield.

I should like to pay a tribute to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health for what he has done, and also to the officials of the Department—the Committee appreciate what the officials have done to simplify their work—and lastly to the Parliamentary draftsman, who has consolidated many complicated provisions into the simple text of the Bill. Let me also pay a tribute to the representatives of local authorities, urban and rural associations, who sat on the Committee and greatly assisted in the work. I heartily commend the Bill to the House.

11.14 p.m.


I should like to add a few words in support of the Bill. I only came into the proceedings of the Committee at a late stage but I entirely endorse what has been said. The Bill will be of great assistance to local authorities and other persons concerned with Private Bill legislation before this House, and that is one of the main reasons for passing the Measure as soon as we can. The spirit in which the different parties who composed the Committee approached their task was that although we were, as has been indicated, tempted to make further Amendments than actually were made, we felt that if any suggested Amendment would be likely to meet with opposition in any quarter of the House, it ought not to be made. We felt that the Bill would act as a basis for further amendment as time and opportunity offers, but that we must keep our amending ardour within bounds. There was one thing we did which I thought was unwise. We made measles a notifiable disease, and that is the only thing that is on my conscience, and which I think we did wrongly. It is not a very usual process to consolidate and amend, and it may be a little suspected when it does happen; but I am certain that in this instance it has been useful in small matters. Things that had got a little out-of-date were brought up-to-date by the amendments, and it was possible to adopt some of the best practices of local authorities as part of the general law. I think the result is a very useful one, and I hope the House will consider it favourably and pass the Bill to-night.

11.17 p.m.


Any member of my profession welcomes consolidation of Statutes, and I desire to join with hon. and right hon. Members who have laid emphasis on the value that this particular Bill will have, when it has arrived on the Statute Book, to those who have to administer the Acts and particularly to those who have to advise those who administer them. I wish to take this opportunity of calling attention to the fact that it is nearly 12 years—I believe it was in 1925—since the last general Act amending the Public Health Act was passed in this House. There is no doubt that there is a considerable lag between what the law dealing with these matters ought to be and what it is as it will be declared by this Act, and there is no doubt also that one of the reasons there are so many provisions put into the Private Bill legislation with which this House is burdened is that the Statutes have not been brought up to date and that a great many of the problems which have arisen in the last 11 years are not dealt with, or are not dealt with sufficiently and in an up-to-date way, in the law as it stands.

Now that this Bill is to become an Act of Parliament, it will be possible for us to see clearly in one Statute how serious that lag is between the law as it is and the law as a great many of us think it ought to be, or as we should like it to be; and instead of having to hunt through all sorts of Sections and Statutes we shall be able to see exactly what is the position by consulting the 200 odd Sections of this particular Act. I hope we shall have the opportunity before very long of having a general Bill amending the law as it stands. Perhaps I may be permitted to remind the House that it so happens that the last Statute which amended the Public Health Act was the result of a Private Member's Bill, and although I do not hope that I and my friends who have been taking an active part in looking after Private Bill legislation in this House will have the time or the energy to introduce such a Bill, I hope nevertheless we shall see one at a very early date.

11.20 p.m.


All the hon. Members who have spoken have commended the Bill, and I do not intend to stand in the way of its being passed to-night, but on an occasion such as this, I wish to put one or two questions to the Minister of Health based on a question I put in the House and on which I received assurance from him. In April last I put a question regarding the conditions in certain parts of the country where there are derelict buildings and old mines, and places where water has lodged. I asked him what powers local authorities had to deal with those matters and he told me that Clauses 57 and 259 of the Bill which was then being dealt with in another place had some bearing on the subject. In the latest copy of the Measure I find that the former Clause 57 which is now Clause 58 has some reference to the question and so has Clause 259 but they do not go all the way, or at any rate not as far as I would like in dealing with it. One of the questions which I put to the right hon. Gentleman was as to what would happen if local authorities reclaimed this land and made it useful by destroying the derelict buildings and removing debris and pit heaps. Could the owner of the land—which had been of no use to him before the local authorities reconditioned it—then come along and claim it? There is nothing in the Measure to deal with that point, and I would like the Minister to explain the position.

This is not a purely consolidating Measure. There are certain minor Amendments of the existing law which take it outside the category of consolidating Measures and in regard to Section 91 of the old Act of 1875, which is being continued by Clause 92 of the Bill, I would like to ask the Minister what are the powers of local authorities to deal with burning pit-heaps and whether any amendment of the law is being made in respect of that matter. I have pressed this question on the Minister's attention several times and I have been referred to Section 91 of the old Act. I wish to know whether any of the minor changes which are now being made by this Bill cover that point. The old Act did not give that power to local authorities to deal with that menace which one would desire and the Minister should tell us whether anything is being done in this comprehensive Measure to end the evil. In the five years during which we have been pressing this question on the notice of the Government something might have been done. Only a slight amendment of the law is required and I would like to know from the Minister whether it is not possible to do something in connection with this Bill.

We all realise the difficulty of this kind of thing, and it was only last week that the medical officer of health for the Wigan area was calling attention to the trouble that arises, and he could not see how it could be dealt with under the existing Act. I would not like to think we are taking a comprehensive Measure like this and patting ourselves on the backs about the wonderful progress we have made, and the agreement between my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) and the hon. Members opposite, and yet not dealing with this particular question. There is always danger when we find so much common agreement on all sides. I might be tempted to give a meed of praise to the right hon. Gentleman if he would satisfy me on this point, and I hope he will because I am diffident of giving praise to anybody. I have pressed this matter so often in this House, I have sat here for two Sessions week after week, every Tuesday night, appealing to hon. Members opposite to give way to my little Bill, and I have had to say "next Tuesday," but I am taking this opportunity of asking the right hon. Gentleman, before the Committee stage comes along, to assist me in my desire to put in some Amendment, if it is not already in, bearing on this terrible evil.

11.27 p.m.


As one of those who served on the Joint Select Committee, perhaps I may also say that I think this is a good Bill. The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) knows that I have a considerable measure of sympathy with him on the point he has raised, because he and I have discussed it outside the Chamber. The more Consolidation Bills we get, the better I am pleased. The right hon. Gentleman this Session has, I think, five altogether going through. In addition to being a Consolidation Bill, this is what I might call a tidying-up Bill, which is quite important, and it is not only consolidating the general public law, but it is regarding as bringing into the general public law those Sections of private Acts which have been passed very frequently, and they are now given to those few municipalities that do not possess them. It therefore represents a substantial advance. On the other hand, the Bill, quite properly, does not attempt to do what may be called any general amendment of the law, because that is not its purpose.

There is one feature of the Bill about which I am very pleased. On two occasions, in conjunction with hon. Friends of mine, I have helped to bring about the defeat of a Bill known as the Offices Regulation Bill on the ground that the existing law was adequate. I rejoice that the re-definitions which are contained in this Bill make clear what are the duties of the sanitary authorities with regard to nuisances arising in connection with offices, and I honestly believe that this Bill, when it becomes law, will deal with all the grievances which have existed in the past and which have led to the agitation for the Offices Regulation Bill. I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the fact that in all probability this Bill will shortly be an Act of Parliament

11.29 p.m.


I desire to associate myself with my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) in urging upon the Minister of Health to give some encouragement to the local authorities that they will have the necessary powers to deal with the terrible nuisance and the awful danger that exists in our mining areas. I feel it to be my duty, although it is not my purpose to keep the House long, to say a word or two on this matter. I have been pressed in my division time and again to raise this matter in the House, and during the short time I have been here I have endeavoured to put their point of view. Recently I had a communication which leads me to believe that the County Councils' Association has been pressing the Minister of Health, evidently with the knowledge that this question was coming before the House, to do something to strengthen the Act in a way that would give county councils power to deal with burning pit-heaps.

I am quite alive to the difficulties of the problem, but this evil is not an old one; it is continually recurring. If the Department have looked around this question and have endeavoured to deal with it in a practical way, and have found that the difficulties of dealing with existing heaps are such that they have not been able to solve the problem, well and good, but new heaps are continually being commenced. I have in mind at the moment one that was commenced not more than 15 months ago. There are thousands of tons of stuff in that heap—stone mixed with coal—and it is now smouldering, and in a short time will be a raging mass. Within 100 yards of that heap are the houses of the people. If nothing can be done with the existing heaps, cannot something he done to prevent a repetition of this nuisance in our mining districts? I drew attention some time ago to the serious danger of these flaming heaps at night, and it has been taken up in other parts of the country, especially on the North-East Coast. I do not want to go into that, but I urge the Minister to hold out some hope that local authorities will have the necessary power and the necessary cash to do the job.

11.34 p.m.


I appreciate the tribute which has been paid by the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) to the work done by the staff of the Ministy on this Bill in the last four or five years; it has been intensely arduous work. May I also pay a tribute to the hon. and gallant Member, to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Sir F. Acland), to the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams), and others who have been doing this work? There has been no glory attached to it, and we are very grateful to them. As regards measles, we shall have a suggestion to make in Committee which, I hope, will ease the conscience of the right hon. gentleman. The operative date of the Act is fixed in the Bill as 1st April, 1937, but there again, a suggestion will be made in Committee. With reference to burning slag heaps, if ever there is a chance of getting anything done the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) is himself like a burning slag heap. I wish I could assure him that this Bill, which is primarily a consolidation measure, would do that for which he has been pressing, but it is a rule of this House that in a consolidation Bill dealing with health matters you are not entitled to insert wide powers relating to amenities. However I have his point in mind.


But as to the power to deal with old buildings?


Under Clauses 58 and 92 the powers are set forth, and I shall be pleased to consult with the hon. Member to see whether we can do anything to stop what has occurred. If health is involved the powers are there, but that is not so if it is a case of amenities.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for Tomorrow.—[Captain Margesson.]