HC Deb 15 November 1951 vol 493 cc1236-45

Order for Second Reading read.

6.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

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

This Bill has the merit of being both short and non-controversial, I shall therefore have to make only a very short speech upon it and not have to go into the intricacies of pollution, because the long Title to the Bill does not include matters of pollution which therefore cannot be discussed. I would invite the attention of the House to the long Title, which says: A Bill to make provision for the constitution of, and other matters relating to, joint committees of river boards and river purification boards on ether side of the border in connection with the functions of those boards relating to the prevention of river pollution. That limits the scope of the Bill to those river areas immediately on either side of the Border, and they are the Tweed and the Esk. The authorities which will be responsible for the rivers in England will be the Cumberland and the Northumberland River Boards. In Scotland there will he two river boards that, as yet, have not been formed.

The purpose of the Bill is to tidy up some of the previous legislation that has been passed since the war. There have been three Acts. The first was the River Boards Act, 1948, which empowered joint boards to be set up in England and Wales with the function of controlling whole river systems or groups of river systems. The second Act was the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, which gave stronger powers to those boards in order to enable them to cope with the pollution problem. Again, that Act applied only to England and Wales. The third Act was the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act, which was passed in the last Parliament, and whose object was to set up boards which could grapple with the pollution of rivers in Scotland.

This legislation was based on the principle that one body and one body alone, should be responsible for a complete river system or a group of river systems from the source to the sea. There was the problem of divided control. The weakness of the Acts passed by the previous Government was that they did not provide for the rivers starting in Scotland and finishing in England. The reason may well have been that it was a Welsh Minister who was responsible for the legislation. The snag is that the rivers of the Esk and the Tweed are partly in England and partly in Scotland, but the laws of England and Scotland are entirely different, as is the court procedure. The problem, therefore, was how to make the English Board responsible for the enforcement of law in Scotland.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

The hon. Gentleman says that the weakness of the Bill was that it did not provide for control on both sides of the border. What actually happened was that one of the Bills actually repealed the only Act that could provide for control on both sides of the border, and that was the English Bill.

Mr. Marples

The main point is that there is now no machinery for the effec- tive administration of the removal of pollution of the rivers from Scotland to England. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that rivers which come into England after having been polluted in Scotland ought to be governed by some adequate machinery to enable us to deal with it. One way which did occur to the authorities was to alter the borders of the country. That was rejected, because in this time of crisis it was felt to be highly undesirable that the border feud should commence again, so my hon. Friends from across the border can rest assured that the interests of their nation will be well looked after.

Therefore, rivers that rise in Scotland and flow into England can have no efficient administration under the law, owing to the sharp division between the laws of the two countries which now exists, unless an opportunity is given for considering the problem. This Bill gives that opportunity. The English and Scottish Boards have power under this Bill to constitute a joint committee which can consider the prevention of pollution, and can make recommendations. There may be an objection from some hon. Members that it can only make recommendations but cannot act. Apparently in 1898 they tried having a committee which could act, and the Rivers Pollution (Border Councils) Act—the one which my hon. Friend pointed out was repealed —was passed, and although there were full powers to enforce the River Pollution (Prevention) Act of 1876, they never formed the committee to operate. Therefore, it was tried in the past but did not work at all.

On this occasion, especially when the Scottish law is so different, whereas in those days it was the same, and when the court procedure is different, whereas then it was the same, and when the costs of the administration of the committee with executive powers would then have been less, it has been decided to propose a joint committee which can fill the gap by making recommendations. The English and Scottish Boards can set up joint committees which can watch and discuss matters and then make recommendations to the two boards.

The boards themselves have adequate powers under the three Acts which were passed by the previous Government—the River Boards Act, 1948, and the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, which applies to England and Wales, and the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act which applies to Scotland. I believe that the Act of 1898 was a failure. Of course, there were many important events in 1898; it was the first occasion upon which the Leader of the Opposition appeared in public as a war correspondent—[HON MEMBERS: "The Prime Minister."] It is yet strange to find ourselves on this side of the House, although very gratifying, and it may confuse for a period of time.

Having explained the Bill to the best of my ability, within the very narrow terms of reference and the very small scope which is allowed by the long title, I hope that the House will give it a unanimous Second Reading and its blessing.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

There is one question I should like to ask before the hon. Gentleman resumes his seat. Suppose an offence is committed in England and the damage occurs in Scotland where that would not be an offence. Since the law is different, under which law will the matter be decided, and in which courts will action be taken in connection with it?

Mr. Marples

I think it would have to go upstream, and if that were the case, although the hon. and learned Gentleman has performed some remarkable anatomical acrobatic tricks at times, even he cannot make pollution from England go upstream to Scotland. Therefore, I should call the question a hypothetical one.

Mr. Mitchison

Does that mean there are no rivers which flow from England into Scotland, or no rivers which flow from Scotland into England? Has the hon. Gentleman forgotten that tributaries are part of the river?

Mr. Marples

Rivers flow from Scotland to England, but not from England to Scotland, and the question he asked concerns a river flowing from England into Scotland. In any case, it would be for the joint committee set up by the two boards to consider what action should be taken in the light of all the circumstances.

Mr. Mitchison

We are talking about pollution, and I think the hon. Gentleman has still not understood the ques- tion. Tributaries are part of the river, and what I am asking him is what happens when the pollution occurs in one country and the damage in another, where the pollution would have been perfectly legal in the country in which the damage occurs.

Mr. Marples

Each board has its powers in its own country, and any legal action to be taken must necessarily come from the board of that country. The joint committee which will be set up by the two boards would make its recommendations to either the Scottish board or the English board in order that legal enforcement could be possible.

7.7 p.m.

Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)

This is one of the occasions upon which we can get that unity which is so often sought after. If His Majesty's Government will in future do what they have done in this instance, and that is to adopt what we left behind and would like to have done, given the opportunity, then we can be sure of unity as other Measures come forward. It is only fair to say that we should have brought forward this Bill had we had the opportunity of doing so, and we therefore give it our full support.

7.8 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

It is, of course, quite true to say, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Lindgren) has just said, that this is a Bill which the party opposite would have brought forward had they been in power, and they are the true parents of the Bill. But as I see it, they are parents of the Bill owing to a curious flaw in the procedure that we followed in dealing with the Bill in the last Parliament.

What happened was that the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Bill was introduced for England, and provided for the repeal of the Rivers Pollution Prevention (Border Councils) Act of 1898. During its passage, and when it was well on its way, the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Bill was introduced, and it was referred to the Scottish Grand Committee for Second Reading on the ground that it dealt entirely with Scottish matters. It was therefore impossible to amend that Bill in any manner which would affect England, so that it was impossible to put into that Bill the provisions that are now being made. That is why it is a hangover from the last legislation. No time was left in the last Parliament to enable this short Bill to go through.

That is the history of it, and it does show the very great difficulty one is in because of this practice of referring Bills to the Scottish Committee for a Second Reading. It means, in effect, that the corresponding English Bill has to be extremely carefully scrutinised by the Scottish Department, to make quite certain that it covers all possible emergencies that may affect Scotland, because once the thing is referred to the Scottish Grand Committee we cannot there deal with anything affecting England. That is the first lesson of this Bill.

The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the difference between this Bill and the 1898 Act. The point is that the 1898 Act required an application from the local authority concerned to the Minister of Health or the Secretary of State for Scotland, who would then together make a provisional Order. As we know, no application was in fact made, presumably because the way of dealing with pollution in those days was not in the opinion of those concerned, sufficiently complicated to warrant the setting up of a council.

As my hon. Friend has said, this Bill does propose that bodies responsible for dealing with river pollution on each side of the border should form a joint committee for consultation and recommendation. That is, of course, an entirely different procedure, and they will have no powers; but I think it does provide the answer to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), because the answer, surely, is that if a case arises where pollution occurs on one side of the border and affects the river on the other side of the border, then the joint committee can get together and alter their byelaws accordingly. The only point on which I should like to be reassured by my hon. Friend is this: There is so far as I can see, no provision in the Bill empowering him to ensure that such a joint committee is in fact set up. I should like to know how he proposes to ensure that that will be done.

The big difficulty that I see in this Bill is that, so far as the river Esk in England is concerned, it falls entirely under the control of the Cumberland River Board, set up under the River Boards Act of 1948; but, so far as the river Esk in Scotland is concerned, it falls under two different administrations. So far as pollution is concerned, it falls under the Scottish River Purification Board, which, as my hon. Friend said, is not yet created, and, so far as the fishing is concerned, under the English board, which is the Cumberland River Board.

There has been a considerable amount of legislation recently as a result of which on the Esk alone, of all the rivers in Scotland, charges for rod licences can now be made—and that by an English board on which at the time when the proposed schedule of charges was prepared there was no Scottish representative. That omission has since been amended; but it was a grave lack of tact I consider, to say the least of it, to impose this sort of taxation without representation on those who fish the Scottish waters of the Esk. Surely in the changed circumstances, just as responsibility for pollution is divided and co-ordination effected by a joint committee, so too responsibility of the Esk, so far as fisheries are concerned, could be divided and a joint committee or council set up for co-ordination of fisheries.

What I should like the Government to do—I suppose that I am entirely a lone voice in this matter—is to withdraw this Bill altogether. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Well, that is my suggestion. I should like to see the Bill withdrawn and a new Bill introduced which would not only provide for joint consultation and recommendation in regard to pollution, but would also amend the appropriate sections of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1923. Section 37 (2) of the River Boards Act of 1948 and Section 21 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Protection (Scotland) Act, 1951—and put the Scottish waters of the Esk and its tributaries under Scottish law and control.

It may be said that it has been under English law for a matter of 80 years, but that is not an argument in view of the fact that circumstances have changed and the law has also recently been changed substantially. What I should like the Government to do is to bring the law up to date and allow the rivers on both sides to be dealt with by their respective countries, and then have a joint committee, such as this Bill proposes, to deal both with fisheries and pollution.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

Perhaps I should say that we do not join with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) in asking that the Bill be withdrawn for the purpose he has suggested. We consider that this will be a very useful little Bill. The main purpose of the two Acts to which reference was made by the Parliamentary Secretary was to clean up and purify our rivers for reasons of health, amenity, food supplies, increasing fish stocks and, strange as it may seem, industrial well-being, which has often been prejudiced by there being too much filth in some of our rivers, as a result of which industries have not been able to draw the clean water needed.

The hon. Member for Dumfries apparently somewhat regretted that there was a provision for the repeal of the 1898 Act in the English Act, passed through this House in the last Parliament, and that there was not provision for the joint control of the border rivers. He knows, however, that it was our intention in the second of two Acts to go on the Statute Book, which was the Scottish one, to make provision similar to that set out in this Bill. That would have been done had it been possible to do it, and had there not been some technical objections to it being done on the Report stage, after the Bill had left the Scottish Grand Committee. As I understand it, we ought not to introduce into the consideration of this little Bill the wider questions which the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

What we had in mind was this. We have a river purification board on the Scottish side of the border—and, incidentally, we have spent a lot of time today discussing borders and the difficulty arising out of them—and a river board on the English side of the border. Each, in their byelaws, lay clown standards of purity which have to be adhered to, and anyone who does not adhere to them will be guilty of an offence. There are those rivers which the Parliamentary Secretary referred to which cross the border. We have taken great trouble to ensure that all other rivers will be controlled by one authority from the source to the sea. It seems to us to be common sense that we should endeavour, as far as possible, to make similar provision for these rivers that cross the border.

If we do not have this provision for a joint committee, albeit an advisory com- mittee, we might well find a different standard would be fixed by the river board on one side and the river purification board on the other. Then we should have circumstances arising, such as were postulated by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) which I think will never arise if effect is given to this Bill. I think that these boards would want to have the sort of consultation that is here provided. I am sure that they would have done, if we had not had this Bill.

The point is that this little Bill provides for the setting up of machinery recognised by Statute, and empowers the authorities concerned to meet the expenses of the Committee so constituted; and there is provision, as there is in the parent Acts, for persons other than members of the authorities being on the Committee. That seems a right and proper thing which would not have been possible without this Bill.

We on this side of the House welcome this Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary apologised in the course of his remarks for describing the Prime Minister as Leader of the Opposition. It is a bit strange for some of us to be on this side of the House. It is said we are going to be here a long time. So long as the Government bring forward Measures such as this, which was left behind by their predecessors, of course they will be, but as soon as they begin to bring forward the traditional Tory Party legislation so their tenure of office will become shorter. We congratulate the hon. Member on bringing this Measure forward, and no doubt he will find a few more plans about his Ministry which he can present to the House. In those circumstances, he can be sure of that national unity for which the Prime Minister has often asked.

7.20 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Commander T. D. Galbraith)

The Bill has been fully explained to the House by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser). I am quite sure that the House will have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), and we can congratulate him on being able to introduce rod fishing for salmon into a purification Measure. He asked for one assurance, and that is that these joint committees would, in fact, be set up. I think that he may leave that to local interests. I cannot understand why these boards should not set up these committees, but I think he will find that that will be covered by local feeling and local sentiment. It only remains for me to ask the House to give us the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House for Monday next.—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]