HC Deb 31 May 1951 vol 488 cc413-22

(1) Where any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter is permitted to enter any stream or part of a stream, the river board may give notice of complaint in writing to the person who is permitting such matter to enter that stream or that part thereof, requiring him within a time to be specified in the notice (not being less than three months), to remove the grounds of complaint to which the notice refers.

(2) The river board may, if they think fit, at any time and from time to time extend the time specified in any notice given under subsection (1) of this section by another notice in writing.

(3) Any person to whom any notice is given by the river board under this section shall, within the time allowed by the notice of complaint or any extended time allowed by a subsequent notice, remove the grounds of complaint to which the notice refers, and in default of so doing shall be liable to the penalties laid down in subsection (6) of section two of this Act.

(4) Any notice given under this section by the river board to the owner or occupier of any land shall continue in force, notwithstanding any temporary or partial removal of the grounds of complaint, and notwithstanding any change in the ownership or occupation of such land.—[Mr. Nugent.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Nugent (Guildford)

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

Hon. Members who were on the Committee which considered the Bill will not be surprised at my moving this new Clause, because I undertook that I would put it down on the Report stage. The discussion that we had in Committee enabled us to get from the right hon. Gentleman about half of what we were asking for. In the Amendment which he put down to Clause 5 (5), he met the point about the non-conforming effluent and devised some sort of flexibility which would enable river boards to deal with this problem. We have put down the proposed new Clause to enable river boards to deal with the problem of the low-grade effluent or breaches of standard which may occur after standards have been set up.

In the Scottish Bill it has been recognised that some flexibility of this kind is necessary. There is in it a Clause which allows river boards to license offending effluents. It may be said—I believe that this is the official view—that such a provision is not needed in the Bill because it would be the normal administrative procedure, but I ask the Minister to bear in mind that here is a new piece of legislation, for the river boards set up in the 1948 Act, and that it may well be wise to define exactly how they are expected to proceed. The proposed new Clause gives the river boards a definite line on which to proceed when they encounter an effluent which falls below the standard which they have set up and some procedure for prosecuting a discharger of an offending effluent.

The normal sort of procedure which may be expected is that the river board's purification officer will find an effluent which is below the standard required, whether it is from a local authority sewage works or from a factory. He will report it to his river board. The report on that low grade effluent will be made to the river board, who will then decide what they wish to do. Their normal procedure would be to send a letter to the discharger of the offending effluent requiring him to bring his effluent up to the definite standard.

The proposed new Clause seeks to put that exactly in the Bill, so that the river boards know exactly where they are in regard to procedure. They would normally require the discharger to comply within a given period. Let us suppose that would be a period of three months' notice to bring the effluent up to the required standard, after which the purification officer would make his report again. If the effluent were still below the standard, the river board could, if it wished, extend the notice.

That kind of procedure is fairly common under existing local and private Acts that have been dealing with rivers. It is to be found in most of those Acts, it has been shown to be a valuable procedure and it is desirable that it should be in the new Measure. The river board then proceeds to extend the notice as it thinks expedient in the particular case, provided that the board is satisfied that the discharger of the effluent is doing all he can to bring his effluent up to the proper standard. If at any time he is not doing it, the river board can follow another procedure.

This is a perfectly simple and straightforward new Clause which will assist river boards in their administration and will enable them to have that measure of flexibility which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman wishes them to have. The last thing we wish to see is river boards continually prosecuting people. We want to see them get the right result of higher-grade effluent by administrative action, preserving good relationships between themselves and the people who discharge the effluents.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I beg to second the Motion.

Mr. Fort (Clitheroe)

While appreciating the strength of the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent), I should like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that if we do bring the proposed new Clause into the Bill the result will be to leave a considerable measure of uncertainty in the mind of everyone as to where he stands. There are very clear recommendations in paragraph 77 of the Hobday Report on the subject of those who are concerned with the polluting of rivers knowing exactly where they stand. In that paragraph, Mr. Garner, Chief Inspector of the West Riding of Yorkshire Rivers Board, said: It seems that if there is legislation which does not take into account the setting up of standards to be stipulated either by some central authority or by river boards, we shall be in a very serious position. The late Mr. Turing, representing the British Field Sports Society, said very much the same thing.

My own feeling, in reading the proposed new Clause, is that it will leave this uncertainty in everyone's mind, although I realise that it is attempting to meet a very real difficulty about what is known as the non-conforming effluent. After the discussion which we had on this matter in Committee, I am bound to say that I am a little disappointed that the Minister, with the great resources which he has at his disposal, did not produce a rather fuller Amendment later which would have covered the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford and other hon. Members made in Com- mittee. I hope that it will not be impossible for him to say now that he will introduce in another place an Amendment which will cover the point more satisfactorily than the present drafting Amendment does.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

Like the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort), I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent) about the proposed new Clause. It appears to me to have the danger that matters may be left in uncertainty which may be prolonged for an indefinite time. That would be so after a river board had tried to get the machinery of the Bill thoroughly well established. I invite the hon. Member's attention to Clause 5 (6), on page 6 of the Bill, where we find that before making any by-laws which would fix the standard the river board have to give notice of their intention to any body of persons designated to them for this purpose by the Minister as being representative of a class of persons having a material interest in the waters of the stream. If that notice is properly given, it will be unnecessary at a later date, having fixed the standard and having made the bylaws, to give a further warning notice. It seems that if Clause 5 (6) is worked effectively, a Clause on the lines now suggested would be unnecessary.

I happen to know that the proposed new Clause has given some anxiety to anglers in my constituency. I hope that the hon. Member for Guildford will not consider my own speech too much in the nature of a non-conforming effluent.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

I have received reports about the Clause from what must be the last surviving fishery board, that at Wellingborough. I agree substantially with the comments that have been made by the hon. Members for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort) and Huntingdon (Mr. Renton).

There are two objections to the Clause. First, I am not sure whether it had escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent) that he is adding an offence to the punishable offences under the Bill. At present, under Clause 2, people are liable if they cause or knowingly permit polluting matter to get into the water, but in the proposed new Clause the word "knowingly" is omitted, and consequently penalties are provided against someone who unconsciously permits this to happen. The two Clauses, when taken together, produce very considerable difficulties. The new Clause complicates the issue of what is and what is not an offence under the Bill.

I dislike the Clause for another reason. It does not add elasticity to the Bill. I believe that it has the opposite effect. It is the practice in all these cases to give warning and usually to enter into some kind of negotiation and discussion beforehand. That has been done for many years. It is now proposed to substitute for that excellent practice a rigid period of three months during which remedial steps could be taken. I feel that such arrangements, for substantially the reasons which have already been given, might allow a somewhat under-active river board to delay proceedings which it ought to take. Although one appreciates the intention behind the Clause, it would complicate the Bill, make it rather more difficult to deal with actual cases and add nothing to the clear statement which already appears in Clause 2 about punishable offences.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

I do not think that the point which has been taken by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) is a real one. Someone who had notice would know what was the matter complained of, and the essence of the Clause is to give that notice.

Two streams of thought are mingling in the House at the present time. There are those who are concerned from the angling point of view with keeping the water clear, I would not say at whatever cost, but almost at whatever cost, and there are those who are concerned with avoiding undue interference with industry and local authorities, again I would not say at whatever cost, but at any rate at some considerable cost. Somehow we must reconcile those two conflicting interests. The proposed Clause is an attempt to effect that reconciliation.

It is plain that if we set too high a standard we shall do serious damage to certain undertakings and local authorities. On the other hand, if we set too low a standard we shall not carry out the real purpose of the Bill, which is the prevention of pollution. Somehow we must devise a means of covering the exceptional case. We may have an undertaking, whether local government or industrial, which cannot very readily, certainly in the present state of affairs, put its house in order and prevent offensive effluent from being discharged; but it has to be dealt with in some way.

My view—it is shared by some of my hon. Friends—is that as a rule we should have a high standard but within it we must necessarily have at first certain exceptions. It is better to do that than to begin with a low standard and try to push it up generally. The purpose of the Clause is to enable a high standard to be set in the first place and the special exceptions which may exist to be dealt with. On the whole, it is better to deal with the matter by such means than by means of a licence, which we discussed in Committee.

The Clause will have the effect of putting constant pressure on the offender to stop committing an offence. He will never be able to sit down and say, "That is all right. I have my licence and can now continue." He will constantly have a warning that he is an offender and he will know that sooner or later the authority will clamp down on him and tell him to put things right. I believe that is the right way to deal with the matter, and for that reason I hope that the Minister will be able to give a sympathetic reply on the Clause.

The Minister of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Dalton)

There is evidently some difference of view on this point. We discussed many of these matters at considerable length in Committee, and even then there were differences of view. They did not at all extend to party differences; they were differences between those who are interested in the subject regardless of party.

I am inclined to think that the proposed Clause does not really improve the Bill. However, I shall be prepared later—Clause 5 might be an appropriate place—to see whether we can meet any of the points which have been raised by the supporters of the Clause. But the Clause as drafted rather cuts across the procedure laid down in the Bill. Clause 5 (5) provides that people who discharge effluents may be given time to ensure that their effluents comply with the standard prescribed by the by-laws, and Clause 8 (2) contains the requirements for the Minister's consent, for a certain period, to proceedings. Both are valuable provisions. When we get to those Clauses, I shall be happy to listen to arguments on how they might be further strengthened, but I believe that we have there the elements of what is required.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) observed, the argument against the new Clause is that it makes a bare failure to comply with a notice, without any proof of actual pollution, subject to considerable penalties. That is a very doubtful principle to introduce. It certainly multiplies the penalties without real justification. Subsections (1) and (2) of the new Clause are really unnecessary, because the river boards have power now to give notice and to allow offenders to execute work before proceedings are taken.

I should have thought that, instead of putting provisions of that sort into the Bill, a better plan would be to embody some general guidance and encouragement to river boards, in regard to the lines along which they should act, in an explanatory circular which is, in any case, due to be issued as an administrative act when the Bill becomes law. I have it in mind to issue such a circular, and I should be glad to be assisted by hon. Members as to its contents. I should have thought that that would have been a more suitable means of conveying the provision in those two subsections than by injecting them into the Bill.

There is not much purpose in putting into an Act of Parliament measures which really have no binding effect, as these would not have, since they are merely an expression of hope that the board will do this or that. I believe that subsections (3) and (4) are in some respects unreasonable. Quite severe penalties are laid down in Clause 2 (6). Under the new Clause, the river board would be able, merely by serving a notice, to by-pass the need for getting the Minister's consent to tie proceedings and make the person concerned subject to the penalties. I should have thought that that was rather rough. As I have already said, they would define mere non-compliance with the notice as an offence, and I cannot think that, on further reflection, the House would want to do that.

In Committee we had friendly and helpful discussions, and I am quite prepared to consider any improvements that can be made as we go along Clause by Clause. Also I have put down a number of Amendments to meet the points raised in Committee. However, I do not think this new Clause would be helpful, and in view of the fact that several hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed doubts about it, I hope it will not be pressed.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

The Minister recognises, as we all do, that the discussion of this Bill is certainly not following any party line, and the House has already had witness of that. Those of us who set down the new Clause hoped it might be considered as a substitute for Clause 5 (5), because obviously it would be wrong to have the two running together; we put down the Clause also on the grounds advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent), that in many local and other Acts it has been found desirable to place these words actually in the Statute.

I agree that it is dangerous to try to put too many things in a Statute and, if one can get away without that, so much the better. Therefore, I was rather attracted by the assurance of the Minister, first, that he had in mind issuing a circular, and, secondly, that in the terms of that circular he might find it possible to consult with those on both sides of the House who were interested in this matter. That might go a long way to meet the views of those of us who have set down these proposals.

I call the attention of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) to the effect of subsection (5), which is that a state of uncertainty will inevitably persist whatever happens. That is to say, under subsection (5), if a person who has been discharging any effluent into the stream proposes to take steps to ensure that the effluent will comply, but the steps cannot be completed before the date when the bylaws come into force, he may apply to the board, and then the board may direct that for such period as may be specified in that or in any subsequent direction the effluent will be treated as complying with those standards. Therefore, the whole thing hangs of the words: for such period as may be specified in that or any subsequent direction.… We are dealing here with an inevitable period of uncertainty and we cannot get rid of it whatever words we write into the Statute. We thought the warning notice might be the simplest method. The person might not know that he was trespassing until his attention was called to it. Although it has been said by certain hon. Members that writing a letter is the normal administrative procedure, nevertheless in other Acts it has been found desirable to embody those words in the Statute.

We have a long series of Amendments on the Order Paper, but I believe that with friendly co-operation they need not take as long as perhaps one would fear from looking at the weight of the Order Paper. Perhaps, on the assurance given by the Minister that not only will a circular be drafted but that hon. Members on all sides of the House will be consulted as far as is reasonable, it might be possible for my hon. Friends not to press this new Clause.

Mr. Nugent

In the light of the undertaking given by the right hon. Gentleman that he will send out a circular and will consult with those who are interested, I reluctantly—because I would have preferred to see this in the Bill, where it would be better—beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Speaker

I am not calling the next new Clause.

Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask why my new Clause, relating to annual reports of river boards, the object of which was accepted by the Minister in Committee, is out of order?

Mr. Speaker

I have been into this matter rather carefully and I understand that an effort was made to table an Amendment which would be in order. However, the hard-hearted people in the Order Office found it was out of order. Therefore, this must fall out of order, too, as it is outside the scope of the Bill. If I may suggest it to the hon. Member, if his new Clause is slightly altered, it might be put down in another place and considered there. I am very sorry that it cannot be called now.

Mr. Colegate

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, may I point out that Section 4 of the River Boards Act, 1948, makes it quite clear that 95 per cent. of the functions of river boards have to do with river pollution?

Mr. Speaker

That Act goes much further. This Bill has a very narrow title, and that would be going right outside its scope. I can assure the hon. Member that this was gone into most carefully and it is out of order. I am sorry.