HC Deb 23 June 1937 vol 325 cc1339-44

11.8 p.m.

Major Hills

I beg to move, in page 10, line 14, after "may," to insert: after the holding of a public local inquiry if so requested by the local authority before the expiration of the said period. I have a similar Amendment down to Sub-section (2), and as both deal with the same subject, it will save time if I mention them together. Sub-section (1) enables the Minister to require a local authority to make by-laws dealing with trade effluents, and Sub-section (2) provides that where the Minister thinks that the bylaws are unreasonable, he can require the local authority to revoke them. The Amendment proposes that a local inquiry should be held in both cases, in the first case if the Minister thinks that the local authority has not gone far enough, and in the second case if he thinks that it has gone too far. There would be no delay, since the inquiry could be held within the six months given for the Minister's action.

11.11 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Sir Kingsley Wood)

My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon (Major Hills) has clearly explained the object of the Amendment, but I hope that he will be satisfied with the assurance that I am about to give. This particular proviso, as far as the Minister's powers are concerned, follows closely the Clause in the Public Health Act, 1936, with reference to building by-laws. That Clause was devised after careful consideration by a Committee of the House, and I think it has received general acceptance. I assure my right hon. Friend that I would not, of course, contemplate making use of these powers without giving all the parties concerned, whether the local authorities or the industrial interests, the fullest opportunity of stating their case. I can give my right hon. Friend the explicit assurance that if the suggestion is made, whether by the local authorities or from any other quarter, that the procedure of a public local inquiry is appropriate, I will certainly give it my most careful consideration. I cannot, of course, give an undertaking that it will be held in every case, and he will appreciate that that might not be necessary, but where a local authority makes a request of that nature to the Minister, it is necessarily a matter to which the Minister must give full consideration and attention.

Sir Joseph Lamb

The right hon. Gentleman said that this Clause follows very closely a Clause in the Public Health Act, but the conditions are very dissimilar in the two cases. However, in view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I should like to see the Amendment withdrawn.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

While I am very glad that the Minister has not seen his way to accept the Amendment, I am a little disturbed by the explanation he has given. Some of us have been interested in the Bill from its early stages, and while we are very much obliged to the Minister for what he has done to amend the Bill since it was introduced last year as a Private Member's Bill, if he is not going to use adequately the powers which have been put into the Bill to prevent abuse by incompetent local authorities in the making of proper provision for the disposal of effluents, I should be very much concerned. If the right hon. Gentleman says that he really intends to see that proper provision is always made, in spite of an incompetent local authority, for the disposal, in the public interests as well as in industrial interests, of trade effluents, we shall be satisfied.

11.15 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

The right hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension, and I do not think he can have followed, with his usual acumen and care, what I said. All the Amendment proposes is that before I make by-laws, where local authorities have not done so, I should permit the local authority concerned to make representations and have an inquiry. That, in no way, interferes with my power in the matter and I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I intend to carry out the Measure not only in the letter but in the spirit with the object of bringing about a change which I think the House desires. The undertaking which I have given is one which I am sure hon. Members will gladly accept, that before putting this power into operation I should consider these representations.

Major Hills

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 Bill be now read the Third time."

11.17 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Beamish

I should like to say a few words on this Bill with which I have been identified for a considerable period. On this the final stage of the Bill in this House, I wish to draw attention to its prospective effects in checking the pollution of our rivers and streams. The fact of the matter is that the condition of our rivers and streams at present, owing to the industrial revolution and the stifling of the public conscience, is a tragedy. The purity of our streams has been sacrificed almost to the point of permanent extinction over great areas of the country. I ask a question as to whether the Bill would enable our people to recover, in part at least, the heritage which is represented by the purity of our streams. I feel considerable doubt in that respect, although I agree that we have here a welcome and long-delayed Measure which, if enforced—and I would emphasise that—will do immense good, and is capable, I believe, of reducing substantially the pollution of our rivers. I would ask whether the laws which at present exist apart from this Bill can and will be enforced. If the answer to that question is in the negative, it appears to me that we shall find the greatest difficulty in doing anything effective.

I am not suggesting putting anything further into the Bill, because that would not be in order; but there are Acts of Parliament at the present time which would enable this Measure to be enforced if the powers given under them were utilised. But, as the case stands at the present time, the Rivers Pollution Prevention Acts initiated about 1876 are not put into force. They are full of legal loopholes and channels, as a result of which impurities are allowed to reach our streams. Thus we have such sentences as: The best practical and available means are used to render the effluent harmless. Great play is made with that sort of sentence. When one realises that for many years the idea of commercial prosperity, and profits has been made an idol which had to be bowed down to, and that the effect has been that rivers, conveniently situated for factories, have been utilised almost as sewers, one must be impressed by the tragedy of it all. I want to remind the House of what the conditions are at the present time. I may say truthfully that there is not merely dual responsibility for the enforcement of the anti-pollution laws and of this particular law, but almost infinite overlapping responsibility on almost every river in this country; and that overlapping responsibility has been accepted for years past as a sort of normal feature of the situation. It is true to say that in some cases there are no fewer than three authorities concerned with the enforcement of the anti-pollution laws on one piece of river, and two of those authorities, with overlapping authority at the same time, are very often not only potential but also actual polluters of the stream themselves.

There are more than 1,600 authorities altogether, and nearly 1,500 of them own and control, in one form or another, sewers and sewage plants which may pollute rivers. A number of them are actually concerned with the subject of this Bill, which is the draining of trade effluents, and they themselves, as I say, will become, unless the laws are carefully enforced, potential and actual polluters of the streams that they are supposed to look after. I hope that I have said enough to impress the House and, if I may humbly say so, the Minister also, that this Bill will permit purification of rivers to progress only if the laws are enforced, and, too, that the responsibility for the enforcement of those laws is at once so varied and so overlapping and divided as to make them well-nigh useless.

11.23 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

I would like to assure my hon. and gallant Friend that I shall endeavour to see that the Measure is put properly into operation, but I rely, in the first instance, upon the co-operation of the local authorities and the interests affected themselves. I may say that the provisions of this Bill are generally accepted and that I count upon general voluntary compliance with its provisions. I hope the time will not come when it will be necessary to enforce the penal side of the Measure. It has received general approval and the co-operation of local authorities and other interests alike, and I have every hope that the Bill will prove another step forward in the direction which my hon. and gallant Friend desires.