HC Deb 04 June 1951 vol 488 cc721-33
Mr. York (Harrogate)

I beg to move, in page 13, to leave out line 6.

The purpose of this Amendment is to prevent the repeal of the West Riding of Yorkshire Rivers Act, 1894. Anybody with any knowledge of river pollution will admit that the West Riding Rivers Board and their successors have been most successful in carrying out the difficult job of cleaning out the rivers in the highly industrialised area of the West Riding of Yorkshire. They have done it because they have the powers. The West Riding Rivers Board obtained this Act of 1894 because under the then existing powers they found that they were quite incapable of doing the job which had been set them. They therefore came to Parliament and were given these powers, and they have operated them with great success ever since. They have done the job which they set out to do, and they have cleaned up the rivers.

The Minister will agree that the rivers in Yorkshire, in spite of the heavy industrialisation, are remarkably free from pollution. The Yorkshire Ouse River Board, which is the late administrator of the powers of the Act, were able to carry out their function without any serious difficulty and, indeed, with a considerable amount of co-operation both from the local authorities and the traders in the area. The point I wish to emphasise is that they were able to obtain that co-operation, and the good feeling which now exists today within the area is because they were armed with the powers to carry out the law.

There have been no complaints in recent years of any precipitate action on the part of the Board. Nor have there been any complaints for a long time of any abuses of the statutory powers which the Board have obtained. Yet the Board have never hesitated for a moment to use those statutory powers and to take legal proceedings if any matter has required that action.

The Board welcome this Bill because, although it will not in any way increase their powers, it will bring those other parts of the country which are of a lower standard up to the standard which we have set ourselves in Yorkshire, and I may say also in Lancashire which has a similar Act and which has been able, through that Act, to carry out similar good work. They were generally in sympathy with the Bill until it reached the Committee stage and then, when the Government moved or accepted—I do not remember which—that most restrictive Amendment to Clause 8, in which the Minister has to agree to any prosecution under the Bill, they began to take fright and to realise that all the work which they had put in, all the cleaning up processes which they had carried out, would be endangered by this unwelcome and, in our view, unnecessary restriction of their powers.

As the Bill stands, the Yorkshire Rivers Board are faced with one additional restriction on their powers which, in their view, will prevent them from carrying on the steady improvement in the condition of the rivers in their area. They asked, therefore—and that is why I am moving the Amendment—that the Government should not repeal their private Act of 1894, at any rate until the new Bill comes into full force after the end of the restrictions mentioned in Clause 8.

The Surrey County Council have obtained—how, I am not quite sure—a privileged position in this matter; they have been able to obtain exclusion from the provisions of the Bill. The Yorkshire Board are in exactly the same position as the Surrey County Council. Indeed, the Yorkshire Board have far greater practical experience in these matters than have the Surrey County Council, and I would go so far as to say, without exact knowledge, that they have a far more difficult job to perform than have the Surrey County Council. I therefore maintain that the Yorkshire Board should be treated in exactly the same way as the Surrey County Council.

One of the reasons given for the repeal of this private Act is that this Bill is a consolidating Measure. Of course, for a layman like myself it is extremely useful to have the law consolidated so that we do not have to delve so much into other Acts of Parliament, but if a valid reason can be given why that consolidation is not in the interests of the object behind the Bill, then that seems to me to be a perfectly good reason why it should be delayed. I admit that it is only a question of delay until the new Bill is in full operation, without the restrictions of Clause 8.

It will also be argued, I imagine, that under the River Boards Act of 1948 the boundaries of the Ouse Rivers Board were altered. That is so, but if the West Riding Act is left in operation the powers given to that Board will operate only within the new area of the Ouse Rivers Board. That is, in fact, not a very important alteration because the areas left out are not areas of heavy industrialisation; they can easily be left out, while leaving full powers to the Rivers Board within that heavily industrialised area of the West Riding.

The Rivers Board have been operating efficiently throughout the last few decades. During the passage of the Bill their fears have been gradually but considerably increased owing to the number of small items which have crept into the Bill and also owing to the large item which crept into Clause 8 and which weakened the power of the Rivers Board to do their job effectively and efficiently. For instance, I noticed from the debate on Thursday that it appeared to people who are knowledgeable in this matter that, where the standard of purity had not been laid down, then polluters would be given virtual immunity from prosecution. Under the private Act that is not the case.

The Yorkshire Rivers Board tell me that if the Act of 1876 and their own Act of 1894 are repealed they will be unable to function properly and effectively, because they will be deprived, temporarily, at any rate, of their weapons against actual and potential polluters, who will be encouraged to shelter against proceedings behind Government consent, behind restrictions on the doing of the necessary work at factories or at other places to prevent pollution. They would be able to shelter behind the plea of scarcity of material.

The right hon. Gentleman would be most unwise to take away the teeth from this and other equally efficient river boards before he has provided a new set for them. He knows very well that the Yorkshire Board have done and are doing the job as well as and probably better than boards in any other part of the country.

Mr. Oakshott (Bebington)


Mr. York

If the hon. Member would come up to Yorkshire he would have to admit that what I have said is true. If this Bill is passed, then during the first seven years, or possibly longer, the Yorkshire Board will be in a worse position than they are in today. I am sure the Minister cannot approve of that. The Yorkshire Board feel that the standard of purity will fall and possibly some, if not a great deal, of the work which they have done over the past 50 years or more may be undone.

I ask the Minister to think about this matter seriously and to leave the West Riding Act in operation at any rate for a period. If at some future date, when this Bill is in full operation, and when he is able to see that all is well, he feels that the time has come when he is able to do away with the West Riding Act, then he can do so by a simple matter of repeal. That is not a very difficult operation. I ask the Minister to think again before he repeals this Act.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Colegate

I beg to second the Amendment.

It is true that this Amendment affects only a relatively short period, namely, the period until the restrictions in Clause 8 are done away with at the end of seven years, but the Yorkshire Board have done a very fine job and many people who know the conditions there realise that to have done as much as it has done represents a very fine achievement. I think that it may well be that many river boards may consult the Yorkshire Board about the methods which they have used. Since the Surrey County Council have succeeded in softening the heart, apparently, of the Minister, then I hope that the same warm-hearted gesture will be shown to the West Riding Board.

Mr. Lindgren

Let me say, first of all, that my right hon. Friend and I and the Department appreciate the very fine work which has been done by the Yorkshire River Board. However, to claim, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Harrogate (Mr. York) did, with his pride of county, that the rivers of Yorkshire are remarkably free from pollution—

Mr. York

I did not say that.

Mr. Lindgren

I made a note of the hon. Gentleman's words. "Remarkably free from pollution" were the words he used.

Inasmuch as they are in a better condition than they would have been but for the activities of the Board, who have done their work exceptionally well, I agree with the hon. Gentleman; but I really think that behind this is a little piece of jealousy as between North and South and the question: If Surrey can come out, why cannot Yorkshire come out? I hope to show the hon. Gentleman that that is for totally different reasons. I would admit that there is no comparison, in point of size or responsibility, between the Surrey and Yorkshire boards. Surrey is concerned with three tiny streams of small importance compared with rivers of the importance of the River Thames or of the Yorkshire rivers. It is a matter purely of administration.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), the other day was eloquent almost to the point of being cross. Indeed, in the very happy conduct of this Bill so far he got nearer than anyone to being cross. It was in regard to an Amendment which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Hargreaves) which would have given certain industrial interests and local authorities, and particularly local authorities, certain protection. That was last Thursday. Because of the general pressure, and because my right hon. Friend sensed the feeling of the House we agreed to look again at the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle in conjunction with an Amendment of the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent), which were to give powers even greater than those allowed already under the Bill.

Contained within the Yorkshire Act which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Harrogate wants retained are powers with regard to pollution which are far and away in excess of those that were proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle which horrified hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber except, perhaps, one or two a little concerned about industrial activities. In so far as this Bill is concerned the Yorkshire Board have far greater powers in their good work for preventing pollution than they have had before—except, it is true, that they have to come to the Minister before starting prosecutions in relation to certain local authorities and trade effluents for the next seven years until bylaw standards are made. That is common to the whole of the country.

However, the main standard is higher than it is under the local Act, and, therefore, the main standard the Yorkshire Board have got to work to give them even greater power where there is an offending body. If they want to prosecute they must come to the Minister for approval. I do not think the Yorkshire Board or any other board would be unreasonable at any time; but it is true that we are in very difficult circumstances, and many local authorities in particular—and, I am certain, industrial undertakings, too—would be in difficulty in respect to materials and plant and their availability, and it would be unfair—I am not suggesting the Yorkshire Board would do that—but it would be unfair if the Yorkshire Board or any other board were to prosecute a local authority which did not put in plant it could not obtain—or an industrial concern, for that matter.

Therefore, to protect local authorities and industrialists against the small chance of a river board's taking an unfair action, the boards have to come to the Minister for consent. That is the only way in which the Yorkshire Board are in any way the worse off.

So far as the Surrey County Council is concerned, I am not quite sure that I should be in order in dealing with it, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of in any way giving preference to Surrey over Yorkshire. The matter is dealt with in the next Amendment, which is in the name of my right hon. Friend—in page 13, to leave out line 9. It is purely a question of administration. We have Wandsworth and the County Borough of Croydon and Surrey all involved, and it is for the purposes of administration that we shall move the next Amendment.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept the assurance that we are not in any way taking anything away from the powers of the Yorkshire Board—except, as we admit, that they have to come to the Minister now for approval for prosecution; and as they would never undertake prosecutions which were not justified we are, in fact, taking nothing away. Because the standard they will be required to work to is higher under the Bill than under that Act the Yorkshire Board will have more power. In the light of these considerations, and as the hon. Gentleman has made his point, and as there have been congratulations on the work the Yorkshire Board have done, I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. York

I think that that was one of the most unsatisfactory—and, I am sure, the lightest—attempts to answer an argument I have ever heard, and if the Bill had been conducted in that way during its passage through the House I should not have been surprised at the strictures levelled at the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). First of all the Parliamentary Secretary started with a gratuitous misquotation of my remarks. He then went on to talk about river boards being jealous of one another, which certainly, so far as I know, does not enter into the matter at all. I had no notion and said nothing in my speech about whether Surrey was a greater area or a lesser area. What I am concerned only with is the question of the pollution of rivers and the cleaning up of the rivers.

The hon. Gentleman did not try to answer the case, because he knows perfectly well he cannot answer it. There is no answer, and if he is fool enough to think—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If he is unwise enough to think that if boards have to go to Whitehall to get permission to prosecute he is going to get that same speedy and reasonable conduct between traders and the boards as we have got now under our local Act, then he had better think again, because he will not get it. Anybody knows that when something is centralised, as this is being centralised for the next seven years, the results decline in their value.

I have done what I can to make the Government see sense in this matter. They refuse to see sense. If we have, therefore, a decline in the standards of purity in the Yorkshire rivers it will be the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend and the Department concerned that will be entirely to blame.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Lindgren

I beg to move, in page 13, to leave out line 9.

This is an Amendment, which was referred to earlier, by which we exclude the Surrey County Council Act from the Schedule. The special powers of the Surrey County Council in this connection apply particularly to three small tributaries of the Thames—the Wandle, the Hogsmill and the Beverley Brook. These are not of any great significance and none of them compares with the major industrial rivers or with the Thames itself.

This Amendment is really necessary because of the problem that we have with the County Borough of Croydon along the general stretch of the river, and with the Borough of Wandsworth on one side and the Surrey County Council on the other. For the purpose of administration, it would be to the general advantage if the Surrey Act remained in its present form, and I hope that the House will accept the Amendment.

Mr. Nugent

On behalf of the Surrey County Council, I should like to express thanks that they have been allowed to keep their Act, if only for the rather special considerations which the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned. The hon. Gentleman will recall that in Committee I did not press this matter. I simply asked that there should be consultation. I trust that in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. York), with his Yorkshire Act, there has been consultation and that the exact circumstances have been examined. The Parliamentary Secretary will recall that it was after consultation had taken place that it was decided that it was advisable to retain the Surrey Act.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I beg to move, in page 13, to leave out lines 12 and 13.

The purpose of this Amendment is to ensure that the Lancashire County Council (Rivers Board and General Powers) Act, 1938, should not be repealed by this Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to special circumstances in the case of Surrey. I hope to persuade him that there are special circumstances also in the case of Lancashire.

I think I should begin by saying that there is, of course, nothing irrevocable in the step that I am asking the House to take this afternoon. It would always be possible, under paragraph 11 of the Second Schedule, for the Minister at any time to make an order to amend or repeal any local Act. I have no doubt that in due course if my hon. Friend is able to accept the Amendment, it will be decided in the interest of uniformity that the Lancashire Act should ultimately be repealed.

The special circumstances to which I refer are especially the particular complexity of the problem in the area of the Mersey River Board. One example is that of the rivers which flow into Manchester which accept the discharge from 133 sewage disposal works and 232 trade premises. It must be apparent from those figures that the difficulty of framing bylaws to cope with the rivers in this area will be a heavy task, and it will be possible only after a great deal of research to frame bylaws even covering quite short sections of the water courses concerned.

In these circumstances, the Mersey Rivers Board are anxious to retain their full powers under the Lancashire County Council (Rivers Board and General Powers) Act, 1938, until it is possible to frame the bylaws and to set up the machinery to put them into operation. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept this very reasonable Amendment.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

In order that we may have an answer from the Minister, I beg formally to second the Amendment.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Lindgren

For the same reasons that I asked the House not to accept the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. York), I have to ask my hon. Friend not to press this Amendment. While I am on my feet, and because the hon. Member for Harrogate was rather rude to me when we were discussing the previous Amendment, I should like to state categorically that exactly as Surrey were consulted, Yorkshire were consulted in regard to their rivers. Lancashire were not specially consulted. They were only consulted collectively with the other river boards.

Mr. York

May we be told the dates of those consultations? Did they take place before the deputation came to the Minister?

Mr. Lindgren

I cannot give the date, but I have taken the trouble to ascertain that there was specific consultation on this matter.

With reference to the Amendment, the same argument applies as that which applied in the case of Yorkshire. The only disadvantage, if it be a disadvantage, under which the boards will be placed is that they will have to come to the Minister for sanction for prosecutions during the initial period of seven years or until bylaw standards are fixed. On that point which is the only one in which their powers are less—under the Bill their general powers are greater—I think it is agreed that we are in a difficult period and that local authorities and traders have difficulty in meeting special standards which are set.

It is equally true, as shown by the operation of the various boards during the past 10 years or so, that the boards are reasonable in what they require either of local authorities or industry. If they are satisfied that local authorities or industrialists are doing everything they can to maintain a good standard, the boards do not attempt to prosecute. The fact that we have been so free from prosecutions during that period proves the point, The same will apply when the powers pass to my right hon. Friend and his successors.

I am certain that the boards will not ask for permission to prosecute unless they are justified. Equally, if they are justified, my right hon. Friend will give sanction for prosecution. That is the only way in which the powers of the boards are curtailed. The Bill brings Yorkshire and Lancashire into line with the rest of the country. All the river boards in the rest of the country have to ask permission from my right hon. Friend. The Bill puts everybody in the same position. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the Amendment, although it will mean that in that one way Lancashire will be a little worse off—in theory but not in practice.

Mr. York

I should like to comment on the consultation that has gone on between the various river boards and the Ministry. It is probably true, from the information I have, that the Surrey County Council were consulted. I do not know whether the Lancashire County Council were consulted, but I am informed directly by the other boards that no consultation took place. They said that they had not been consulted directly but that the Minister had referred to them as a very successful anti-pollution authority. It appears to me that the Ministry were remiss in not calling into consultation these important and hardworking bodies before any action was taken which would seriously affect their working. I hope that we shall not have further statements like this made in the House by a Minister.

Mr. Lindgren

Equally, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not make statements without having all the facts. We have had a very happy time on this Bill, and his rude intervention was the first time that we had had any discord, either during the Second Reading, the Committee stage or the Report stage. I had at the back of my mind the information that there had been consultations with the Yorkshire board, and I took the opportunity, through an hon. Friend, to ascertain from the Departmental officials whether there had been consultations, and my information from them was that between the Committee stage and the Report stage they were seen twice by officials of my Ministry.

Mr. York

That was a deputation from the river board to the Ministry.

Mr. Lindgren

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would not contradict. They were seen separately on two occasions between the Committee stage and the Report stage.

Mr. York

At their request.

Mr. Lindgren

It does not matter at whose request. So far as Lancashire is concerned, the consultation was jointly with the river boards and was not a specific consultation.

Mr. Dalton

I think the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. York) was gravely misinformed.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

In view of the earlier remarks made by the Parliamentary Secretary with reference to Lancashire, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Lindgren

I beg to move, in page 13, to leave out lines 21 and 22, and to insert: (which shall be made by statutory instrument and, if objected to by any authority authorised to enforce this Act and having functions under the local Act or statutory order, or by any local authority having such functions, shall be subject to special parliamentary procedure). It was suggested that the Amendments in page 16, lines 42 and 47, might be considered with this Amendment. These Amendments give effect to the Minister's undertaking in the closing stages of the discussion in Committee to introduce Amendments to provide that orders made under the First and Second Schedules shall be subject to special Parliamentary procedure. That is faithfully carried out in these Amendments.

Mr. Nugent

I am glad to see that these Amendments give effect to the undertaking which was given in Committee. I should perhaps say that there have been one or two previous undertakings of the same kind, which have introduced special Parliamentary procedure on other not dissimilar matters, and which have been passed on the nod. That is a point of some importance because those concerned with these local Acts, particularly in connection with the Thames Conservancy and the Lee Conservancy, were anxious that local Acts that may be affected should not go by default simply on an order which, in view of the enormous number of orders that come before the House, might be missed.

Now that the hon. Gentleman has conceded that special Parliamentary procedure shall be employed, that does ensure that the matter will come positively before the House, and that the House will have the chance of considering it on its merits before deciding whether any of these local Acts should be in any way affected. I personally hope that the Thames and Lee Conservancy Acts will not be brought under this procedure at any time, because I believe that in their special circumstances they should be left with their special Acts; In any event, I am glad to see these Amendments, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for fulfilling an undertaking.

Amendment agreed to.