HC Deb 11 November 1954 vol 532 cc1451-62
Dr. Broughton

I beg to move, in page 14, line 34, to leave out "forty," and to insert "thirty-five."

The Deputy-Chairman

Perhaps it will be for the convenience of the Committee to consider at the same time the other two Amendments to Clause 13.

Dr. Broughton

I think that would be convenient, Sir Rhys.

At an earlier stage my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) asked the Government if they would alter the provision in this Clause for a 40,000 population to a lower figure. In the excellent speech he made he put forward a very strong argument in favour of the reduction. We understood the Minister of Food to say that he would consider the matter.

We raise it again at this stage. We have given further thought to the problem and are anxious that the figure should be reduced. We now ask the Minister to substitute "thirty-five thousand." Concern is felt on this subject in the constituency which I have the honour to represent, because Batley has a population of just over 40,000 and will not be affected adversely by the Bill, but Morley has just under 40,000 and will not be a food and drugs authority called upon to operate the Bill.

It is a great pity, because a great deal of good work has already been done by the borough council of Morley to raise the standard of food hygiene. I have a letter here, which I have received frm the town clerk, and in which he says: The local Health Department's staff have already done a very considerable amount of work in food premises within the district. They have a very wide local knowledge and are in a better position to administer the whole of the provisions of the Act than officers from outside the area. The precedent for the figure of 35,000 is in the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949. When that Measure came before the House, the Government of the day proposed a figure which would have robbed the two boroughs which I represent of their justices' bench, and I spoke very severely to the Government about it. I suggested that 35,000 should be accepted, and was very pleased that the Government agreed.

The boroughs which Parliament has considered capable of having their own justices' bench are capable of administering the Bill. Indeed, I go so far as to say that non-county boroughs with a population between 35,000 and 45,000 are of ideal size for managing their own affairs. They are not too small and not too large. They are small enough to be very well governed and large enough to have an adequate number of capable, public-spirited men and women.

It is true that if the figure of 40,000 were to remain in the Bill, the Minister of Health, on application made to him by a council, could allow a borough with a population of fewer than 40,000 to be a food and drugs authority for the purposes of the Bill, but I want to make sure. I do not want to leave the matter to the whim of any Minister of Health. In order that non-county borough with populations of 35,000 or more should be allowed to manage their own affairs, I ask the Government to accept the Amendment.

Colonel Ralph Clarke (East Grinstead)

I hope that the Minister of Food will resist the Amendment, because the effect of it would be that any local authority with a population of 35,000 or more would automatically become a food and drugs authority, not only for the purposes of the principal Act, and the Bill, but for other Acts too. I believe that the county councils of this country are quite rightly very much opposed to such action being taken.

It must be remembered that at the present time the whole re-organisation of local government is under consideration. A statement to that effect was made not so long ago by my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Housing and Local Government when we were considering the Luton Bill. It seems to me to be a mistake to commit anybody to a minor change of this sort while such great legislative changes are contemplated. Certain proposals have been put forward by the County Councils' Association, and they are in the possession of the Minister.

That body has stated that whilst the primary responsibility for these matters should be in the hands of the county councils, it agrees to the delegation to non-county boroughs, urban district councils and rural district councils to such an extent, if any, as may be provided by the delegation schemes. I feel, therefore, that it would be unfortunate as well as unnecessary if the Bill were changed in this way and future arrangements thereby possibly prejudiced.

There are further arguments, but I think they can be presented in a specific case. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) will forgive me if I quote the case of that town. I understand that in 1950 Kettering approached the Northampton County Council with the request that it might support an application to the Minister for powers which are laid down under Section 64 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, and which are substantially the same as in Clause 13 of this Bill as now drafted. It wanted to become a food and drugs authority.

The county council refused to give that support. It believed—and I personally feel that it was right—that it would be to the disadvantage of the county as a whole to set up separate organisations which would mean that, for example, two sets of samplers would be working side by side. That would be so because it would be necessary, even if these powers had been granted, for the county council samplers still to be present and to continue their work in the towns in order that they might carry out their responsibilities under the Weights and Measures Act and under the Labelling of Food Order. It obviously would mean two lots of men working on the same job and increasing the cost to the county and to Kettering.

Also, from another point of view the county is responsible for milk sampling, and if that duty had been handed over it would have meant some complication in tracing the origin of these samples back to the farm. While it was the responsibility of the county council the duty was all under one authority and under the same officials. I understand that after receiving that advice the borough council of Kettering did not approach the Minister. Perhaps in a different way it is approaching him now.

There is a third reason why I think this Amendment should be resisted. Anybody who has listened to these debates and appreciates the time that they have occupied will realise what a highly complex subject this is. A lot of the procedure relating to food and drugs is very complex, and obviously one on which there is a great variety of opinion. It seems to me that it is something which, without any reflection on the administrative capacity of the smaller local authority, is one that the sanitary inspector cannot do as well as a more highly geared and more representative body like the county council, which has a number of persons who can concentrate on the subject and who give their full time to similar matters. There are other reasons, but I will not weary the Committee with them. I hope that the Minister will resist the Amendment.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison

Those who speak for the parish pump must do so briefly. My Morley is Kettering my Batley is a future Corby. The Minister of Health is a Scot who has come to England and who, no doubt very rightly, has reached a very high position. I hope he is not small-minded on his heights and will not cause Corby, Scots as it is, to look down on Kettering as a place which cannot be and will not be a food and drugs authority.

It seems to me to be a bad plan to have too many authorities which have part of the duties under the food and drugs Regulations, that is to say, the enforcement duties under Section 65 (2) of the 1938 Act but who have no other duties of a food and drugs authority. The position in the area of a local authority which is not a food and drugs authority is that the local authority has to enforce part of the legislation, but as it is a food and drugs authority the county council has to do the rest.

That sort of thing ought to be reduced, and if we take an average between 30,000 or 35,000 and 40,000 we get a type of small town that will do this kind of job thoroughly well. The job is becoming under this Bill, slightly different. As was pointed out in the debate on the previous Amendment, we are imposing a number of additional requirements and rather more detailed requirements in regard to all kinds of food establishments in a town, and while the county council may be highly geared—I do not know exactly what that means—it seems to me extremely difficult for it to do the job in a number of places where a smaller local authority could rightly and properly do it.

It seems to me better to have the job in the hands of the authority which is the authority concerned with housing, with the condition of houses, and which is dealing with all those other matters which come within the purview of a non-county borough than in the hands of a county council. I have a certain sentimental interest in places of that size but I am not going to talk of that again. This is a matter about which one forms an impression, one keeps it and there is not very much argument one way or the other.

I suggest that the figure of 40,000 is rather too high, that it ought to be reduced. The figure of 35,000 has been put forward on this occasion instead of 30,000, in an appeal to the sporting instincts of the right hon. Gentleman. After all splitting the difference is not too bad, and this Amendment suggests that the difference should be split. Of course, it is not unimportant that Kettering happens to have a population of over 35,000.

Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)

I hope that some Minister will one day look at the whole of this problem and its allied problems. I can well understand the desire of a small authority to take over as many functions as it reasonably can; it indicates a high civic sense. Nevertheless, there are some difficulties from the practical point of view. I attach importance, in this type of work, to the inspector not being too well known to the people whom he is inspecting, but the smaller the authority is, the more difficult it becomes for the inspector not to be well known to all the shop-keepers in the area.

In the case of many smaller authorities, this is one of the additional functions carried out by sanitary inspectors. They are highly qualified people, and many of them can do the work quite well, but I doubt whether it is practicable when one bears in mind the modern conception of what is required of a sanitary inspector. I consider that the work can be carried out much better by a body which functions over a wide area and can switch inspectors from one district to another rather than that they should operate only within the confines of a small borough or urban district. Weights and measures duties are carried out by county authorities, and that is a function with which the food and drugs inspection function can be combined.

The problem has been experienced in Middlesex, where the general view is that the function is better regarded as a county one. The importance of having a degree of special qualifications is recognised. The complaints have usually been that the county authority has not reported sufficiently to the county district. If the Minister wants to put some "teeth" into this duty, he should let the county authorities undertake the function but should insist that they satisfy the county districts that it is being properly carried out. That would be better than giving the function to smaller authorities.

I am speaking dispassionately. I am not speaking from a county council point of view, wanting to collect jobs. I am more concerned about efficient and economical administration. The county authority has to appoint a public analyst. If the Amendment were carried, presumably the smaller authority, with the consent of the Minister, could appoint a public analyst. That would be extremely wasteful.

During recent times there has been a considerable change in food packaging methods. To a large extent, articles of food come from large centres and are distributed over wide areas. An inspector working over a large area will find it easier to get at the source of supply than one operating in, say, a borough. That is an additional argument in favour of having the function operated over wide areas. In the old days the shopkeeper bought his goods in bulk and blended them himself, and if the mice got at them it was a local matter, but today when multiple shops and others have spread their operations over much wider areas it is much better that the function should be a county one.

If it is felt that a county authority is not doing the job properly, the Minister should insist that it does it properly. If, however, the county authority is functioning efficiently over a wide area and has appointed highly technical people for the purpose, it is better that it should continue to carry out the function rather than that the function should be given to smaller authorities. I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friends about this, but I feel that, on the whole, from the point of view of efficiency, the larger authority is likely to operate better than the smaller authority.

Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)

There is another Amendment on the Order Paper which refers to the designation of a food and drugs authority. I do not expect that it will be accepted, because I understand that it is not to be called.

The Deputy-Chairman

If the Amendment is not going to be called, it cannot be discussed.

Mr. Beswick

Perhaps I might make a reference to it, Sir Rhys, because it has some bearing on the Amendment which we are now discussing. My Amendment proposed to give a certain amount of discretion——

The Deputy-Chairman

I do not know to which Amendment the hon. Member is referring. We are discussing three Amendments to Clause 13. They are the only ones which can be discussed at this stage.

Mr. Beswick

I appreciate that there are only three Amendments which are being discussed at the moment, Sir Rhys, but I wished briefly to refer to the fact that there is another Amendment on the Order Paper dealing with the same matter. I was making a passing reference to it.

The Deputy-Chairman

There is no other Amendment beyond these three to be taken at this stage.

Mr. Beswick

I understand that the Amendment to which I was referring is not to be called. I was only referring to it in passing, Sir Rhys. I will direct my remarks to the Amendment with which we are now dealing.

My Amendment proposed to give a certain amount of discretion to the Minister when issuing directions under subsection (3). However, the Amendment which has been moved will have relation to the anomaly which it was felt would arise in the County of Middlesex if the powers which the Minister proposes to take under the Bill were used. The power which is required by the right hon. Gentleman to issue a direction in the case of an urban district or non-county district which, though appearing not to have 20,000 population in the last census figures, nevertheless becomes an area over that size according to the figures of the Registrar-General will, I feel, cover the anomaly which I had in mind in the case of Middlesex. My hon. Friends and I are prepared to accept the words proposed by the Minister as covering the anomaly. I wish to thank the Minister for listening to the argument which we advanced last week and for listening equally carefully to the representations subsequently made.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Iain Macleod)

So far during the progress of the Bill I have sat with an air of rapt attention and have not spoken.

An undertaking was given on the Committee stage that I would look carefully into the matters raised by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick). Illustrations were given of difficulties which existed, or might exist, at Kettering, Corby and Potters Bar, and Batley and Morley have been added this afternoon.

When the hon. and learned Member for Kettering made his latest bid in the auction that he is conducting I was not in the least surprised to find that he picked the figure of 35,000. The only thing that surprised me was that he did not choose the figure of 36,509, which I am told is Kettering's exact population at the moment. Also I have no wish either to depress or strengthen the case of the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton), who argued entirely for Morley, saying comfortingly that Batley's population was over 40,000. Actually, in the latest figures of the Registrar General for June, 1953, Batley has also got below the 40,000 mark, so that to that extent, the hon. Member's argument is, no doubt, strengthened.

6.30 p.m.

I am sure the Committee will agree that although these illustrations are interesting, a matter of this importance must be settled by reference to the general proposition. What we are doing in this Bill is nothing new at all. Apart from an alteration in Clause 14 and certain clarifications of the law, we re-enact Section 64 of the 1938 Act, which in this regard will disappear.

It is quite true, and it is a fair point of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, that there is nothing sacred about the figure of 40,000, or, for that matter, 35,000. But it is also true that when this matter was discussed in 1938, a joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament took evidence from the County Councils' Association, the A.M.C., the Urban District Councils' Association, the Ministry and other bodies, and they came to the two conclusions of the 40,000 limit and the 20,000 limit, which I do not think we should lightly upset, and which are subject to various provisos.

I listened, and I am prepared to respond, to what the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) said, that I should look again at this matter. Indeed, I am prepared to do so, but I do say that at this stage of the Bill it would be wrong if we threw over that very careful decision, unless we have evidence—and I have none—that circumstances in that respect have particularly changed since then.

There are one or two points which I should like to make briefly, particularly in response to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering. The hon. Member for Batley and Morley said that he wanted to make sure of having this matter in the Bill, but he would not be making sure because it would be open, as happened in Middlesex, to a direction being made by the Minister of Health.

If we take the case of Kettering, its population has been over 30.000 since 1931, and Kettering has never applied to the Minister of Health for such a direction, although we have been told by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) that certain preliminary soundings were taken, so that the door upon Kettering is not shut, if I may put it that way. The position remains as it was before, and, being between 20,000 and 40,000, if Kettering so wishes, it is open to it to apply for such a direction.

The point which appeals to me most related to what was said about Corby and Potters Bar. Using those only as illustrations to consider the wider problem, it seems to me that a wait of 10 years from census to census is too long in the circumstances of today. There are new towns, there are vast out-county estates, and developments are going on in many areas very quickly. It seems to me unreasonable, therefore, not to try to meet that point if possible.

To take the particular illustration of Potters Bar, which I know well, the merit of the hon. Gentleman's case rests on the fact that the population of Potters Bar is already not far off 20,000 and is growing very rapidly. Large out-county estates at Edmonton and Tottenham have been approved, and only in the last week or so the whole structure of its local government has been altered to take into account its prospective growth. Clearly if Potters Bar had been an urban district with only 7,000 or 8,000, and if it was going to remain so, it could scarcely be a food and drugs authority, whatever anomalies had been detected.

It seemed reasonable, therefore, to see whether I could find a method of reducing this long gap of 10 years, and that is why I shall be putting before the Committee an Amendment—I propose to move it formally soon—standing in the name of my right hon. Friend. That will enable me to take the estimates of the Registrar-General for the mid-year, which are published early in the following year, and, if suitable, give such a direction. I can then anticipate the census, and a direction so given would continue until the next census, notwithstanding any fluctuations in population.

I am sure that will be of some help in at least one or two of the examples that have been given. I should like to emphasise, however, that it is not given in response to individual cases. It is given because, as a result of my study of this matter, I feel that in spite of the blandishments of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, in the absence of more evidence than we have, and without representations to myself and this House from the leading associations of local authorities and professional bodies involved—to whom we have to give an opportunity to make such representations —I do not think we should upset the two major provisions of the 1938 Act.

I have tried in this Amendment to which I have referred to meet the case of the growing town and the growing area which may well qualify in a short period of time with a population of 20,000 and, therefore, have a right to be considered to be made the subject of a direction. Therefore, I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, having most vigorously waved his parish pump, or whatever one does with a parish pump——

Mr. Mitchison

Pump it.

Mr. Macleod

—both in Committee previously, and now, will feel that, on the whole, that is the right course for us to take, and perhaps if he would not press his Amendment the Committee might agree to the Amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Willey

It is proper and appropriate to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on making his maiden speech as a participant in the long discussions that we have had on this Bill. He spoke reasonably, and I should like to express our indebtedness to him for meeting us and discussing this matter. Before I am ruled out of order, I should like to add that I think it a pity that the right hon. Gentleman did not reply to the last debate, because I am sure that he would not have expressed himself with such a flagrant disregard of the facts.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: In page 15, line 20, leave out from "thousand," to "shall," in line 26, and insert: no directions shall be given under subsection (3) of this section that the council of the borough or district shall become the food and drugs authority: Provided that such directions may be given if it appears from any estimate published by the Registrar General that the population is for the time being more than twenty thousand and the Minister of Health thinks it expedient that the council should become the food and drugs authority in advance of the next census. (5) Where immediately before the publication of any census the council of a non-county borough or urban district were the food and drugs authority for the borough or district (otherwise than in pursuance of directions given by the Minister of Health after the taking of the census and by virtue only of the proviso to the last foregoing subsection) and the population of the borough or district is shown by the census to be less than twenty thousand—

  1. (a) the council shall cease to be the food and drugs authority, and
  2. (b) any directions in force under subsection (3) of this section in respect of the borough or district."—[Mr. Iain Macleod.]
Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.