HC Deb 10 April 1956 vol 551 cc115-23

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Powell

I beg to move, in page 24, line 10, to leave out: to cost and other financial consequences. Perhaps it would be convenient, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if the Amendment in page 24, line 11, at end insert "to the financial implications," were considered with this Amendment.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

Yes, if that meets the convenience of the House.

Mr. Powell

The purpose of these two linked Amendments is to deal with the difficulty which some hon. Members felt in Committee, namely, that the words, cost and other financial consequences in their present position in the definition of "practicable," placed an entirely undue emphasis upon the financial element, as compared with other elements, in judging practicability. These Amendments are an attempt to ensure that whilst the cost and financial implications are taken into account in assessing practicability by the courts they are not in any way treated as pre-eminent or over-riding factors or considerations.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I do not want to seem ungrateful, and I agree that since we raised this point in Committee the Minister has obviously looked at it again—but I have to be honest and say that I do not really feel that we have got very much farther. When I raised the matter in Committee I tried to direct the attention of the Minister to the desirability of leaving out these words, not of putting in what is questionably a more inoffensive form of wording.

I hope that what was in the minds of everyone in Committee was that there were two sides to this matter—not only the question of costs and financial implications as they affected the firm which was being asked to make alterations to its plant, but also the financial implications to the people living round about. I want the courts at least to keep in balance those two points. If we can be given some assurance that these Amendments do not exclude the possibility of the courts having some regard to the damage, destruction and cost involved to the public in the area suffering from smoke emission, I should feel a little happier, but I object to the attention of the courts being concentrated exclusively upon the question of the financial implications which fall upon the firms.

This is a matter where a balance must obviously be held between the effect upon the public and the practicability of the operation. There is no isolated test of practicability; no line can be drawn of which it can be said that anything falling upon one side will be within the scope of what could be done. Some regard must be paid to the amount of nuisance and damage that may be caused. That is what most of us are anxious about. We feel that if the words had been altogether cut out of the Bill the question of finance would inevitably colour the views of the courts when they considered what was and was not practicable. But we do not think that the courts should have their direction focused so determinedly upon this issue.

I cannot feel very happy about the Parliamentary Secretary's proposal. The position may be slightly better than it was before, but I cannot feel absolutely satisfied, and I hope that, even at this stage, another place might take a different view of the matter and make certain provisions which we have not been able to achieve here.

Mr. D. Jones

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. It seems to me to be a case of shifting the position of the words without altering their consequences. Whatever we may feel about their interpretation the fact is that the courts will be called upon to interpret "practicable" in their light. That will mean that three things must be present—local conditions and circumstances; financial consequences, and the current state of technical knowledge. I should have thought that with those three qualifications inserted into the meaning of "practicable" it is hardly likely that a conviction would ever occur.

I should have thought that any two of these three qualifications might be present at any time, anywhere in the country; indeed, it could be argued that the effect of these words now being put in after "local conditions and circumstances" would be that more emphasis could be placed upon financial consequences, in connection with such local conditions, than was formerly the case. I should not think that the mere shifting of the words from line 10 to line 11 would make an atom of difference to the interpretation placed upon them by the courts. It will be practically impossible to obtain any kind of conviction so long as the word "practicable" has these three qualifications. I hope that the hon. Member and his right hon. Friend will look at the matter again and see that these words are deleted altogether when the Bill goes to another place.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) is unduly anxious when he says that with this wording it will be practically impossible to obtain a conviction. I would point out that this wording is already contained in Section 110 of the Public Health Act, 1936, which includes a reference to costs and local conditions and circumstances, and under that section prosecutions are continually and quite effectively taking place.

Mr. D. Jones

Very few.

Mr. Powell

If there are very few in any particular respect it is not because of the difficulties of implementing Section 110 (2) of the 1936 Act.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) produced the best possible argument against the Amendment which, perhaps, he is not now going to move. He asked to be assured that the courts would take into account not only the financial effect upon the firm concerned but also the effect upon the neighbourhood. It is the presence of the words" local conditions and circumstances "which enables and obliges the courts to do that, so that with the two factors together, mentioned in the definition Clause, the courts will be both enabled and invited to strike that balance.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I beg to move, in page 24, line 11, to leave out: to local conditions and circumstances". I rise with avidity to accept the invitation of the Parliamentary Secretary to explain my views about this Amendment. The point is that hon. Members on this side of the House, at least, are not at all satisfied that this is the intention or, indeed, is the way in which the provision will be interpreted in the courts. Our fear, which was dealt with rather cursorily in Committee, is that the courts will conclude that the words were inserted in order to suggest that where the general conditions of an area are bad there is no reason why one furnace which is emitting smoke should be picked out for special treatment.

That is the sort of connotation which Members of the House have become used to in regard to other Measures which, indeed, the Parliamentary Secretary himself has been concerned with, in relation to housing. There are references and definition Sections in housing Acts regarding the action which should be taken about certain types of property in relation to local conditions and circumstances—and in those Measures the phrase means just what I suggest it means here. In this case we fear that local conditions and circumstances refer to the general pall of smoke, dirt and grime in an area.

If an area is generally afflicted, as is the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom), and, indeed, many others, then this definition Clause may well be prayed in aid of the factory that is committing the nuisance. It may well be said, "We are doing no more than has been done for generations in this area." I am not satisfied with the noble intention, which I put into the Parliamentary Secretary's mouth, of urging courts to consider the damage and trouble that is being caused by a particular emission in the area.

I feel very strongly, as indeed do the local authority associations, who take strong exception to this provision, that in the general context of this definition Clause these words should not be included. If the intention is as suggested by the Parliamentary Secretary, he should at least promise to examine the matter to see whether a clearer definition of the intention could be devised and inserted at a later stage in another place, where I am sure their Lordships, at any rate on one side of the Chamber, would give such an interpretation their blessing. As the matter stands, I feel that it would be desirable that these words should be omitted from the Measure if a clearer definition could be devised.

Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)

I beg to second the Amendment.

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) in his plea to the Parliamentary Secretary to explain what he thinks these words mean. It is not sufficient merely to tell us that they appear, as apparently they do, in the Public Health Act. 1936.

I have taken a great interest in this Bill throughout its passage, although I did not serve on the Committee and have not spoken before during any of its stages, but when the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) introduced the original Bill I gave the House some information about the sort of conditions which obtain on Tees-side. I will not weary hon. Members with any repetition of that information, of the kind of incidence of chronic bronchitis and other diseases associated with the prevalence of pollution of the air which are all too frequently found in my constituency and the surrounding constituencies.

What I am anxious about is that this phrase "local conditions and circumstances" shall not in a grimy area like Tees-side, which is afflicted constantly by smoke and grit discharged by smoky appliances, be held to mean: "It has been like that for fifty years; these are the local conditions and circumstances. The fact that there is some grit in the air should be regarded as one of the things which people always put up with in this area, and the emission of this small volume of smoke which comes out of one chimney ought not to be taken too seriously because people are used to it, and where there is muck there is money." I hope that kind of consideration will not be brought to bear in determining what is reasonably practicable in such an area.

8.15 p.m.

An even more important aspect of this matter has recently been brought to my attention. In areas like Tees-side, where very great industrial expansion is taking place, it might be argued when this particular formula is used that because the area is expanding, with new industry coming in and additional furnaces being installed, this very desirable development which all the inhabitants welcome inevitably results in some further emission of smoke and therefore no notice ought to be taken of it.

I have previously given the House some figures relating to Tees-side, which I do not propose to repeat, but it seems to me to be significant that when we look at the figures for the year 1955 as compared with 1954, we find a most remarkable increase. In 1954, in the industrial areas on Tees-side, the monthly deposit of objectionable matter was 48.41 tons per square mile, but in 1955 that figure had risen to 54.80. In the semi-industrial areas the deposit which was 24.76 tons per square mile per month in 1954 was 32.36 tons per square mile per month in 1955. In the residential areas a similar increase from 14.12 to 17.26 tons per square mile per month has taken place.

I recognise that there may be special explanations for these figures. It may be, for all I know, that the prevailing winds which blow from the west and blow the smoke out to sea did not prevail so much during 1955 as they did during 1954. There may be some technical explanation about the places at which the measurements were taken, or something of that kind. Nevertheless, it is rather disturbing to find such large increases. Another possible explanation may be that this extension of industry on Tees-side has been taking place at a rapid rate.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will consider whether these words which we propose to omit might be wrongfully construed so that the excuse can be made that in an industrial area people must put up with what they have been accustomed to for year, that it is an expanding area and that the emission of smoke and grit from the chimneys is increasing because the properity of the area is increasing. There is surely no reason why that should happen. If it is an expanding area, steps ought to be taken from the beginning to make sure that the industries going there are properly equipped to prevent the emission of dirt and smoke to which we all object.

Mr. D. Jones

I do not wish to weary the House with figures relating to the other side of the River Tees. The same problem prevails, as hon. Members are aware, because the figures were given during the Committee stage. This matter was raised in Committee, and although we got from the Minister an undertaking that the financial provisions would be reexamined, he was asked to consider the wording. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand), I rather fear that the court may take into account the local conditions prevailing.

If one takes Tees-side from the village of Yarm, right to the North Sea, on both banks of the river it is completely industrialised for about 15 miles. If there were any vacant spots, they are now being taken by the Wilton and Dorman Long extension. Will it be argued that because there are industrial developments on both sides of the River Tees, that is one of the penalties which the local citizens have to pay for living in that area? Will the court be entitled to argue that those are the local circumstances which are meant in this context? Will it mean that because those local circumstances prevail and are likely to prevail for a long time to come, nothing can be done to abate the solution of the atmosphere nuisance on Tees-side?

One could multiply the example in a number of parts of the country. For instance, the City of Newcastle and its environments are in precisely the same position. Would the court be entitled to argue that nothing can be done because these are the "local conditions and circumstances"? Is it to be argued in the mining district of County Durham and of Yorkshire, or in the industrial districts of South Wales, that because people have to live and have their being in the centre of a highly industrialised area, those are the local conditions which they are expected to endure? One must not forget in this connection that as a result of the Amendment which has been made the words "financial implications" now immediately follow "local conditions and circumstances". If they are taken together by the court it seems to me that the industrial districts of the country have very little to expect from the Bill.

We have already inserted into Clause 1 three main routes of escape. We have inserted into Clause 2 two subsidiary routes of escape. Now we are proceeding to take off the gates from all the remaining routes of escape for the industrial areas. Is that what the people of the industrial areas are to expect from the Bill? If it is, then I prophesy that the right hon. Gentleman will not get the enthusiasm which he has himself more than once admitted will be necessary to make this Bill an effective reality. If it is too late to do anything about it now, I hope something will be done in another place to see that these objectionable words are taken out of the Clause.

Mr. Powell

I can give hon. Members opposite the assurance that the effect of these words is opposite to that which they apprehend. If there were a remote part of the country with few or no inhabitants, and there was emission of smoke, or grit and dust, clearly it would not be reasonable to impose upon the operators of that plant such stringent requirements as upon a plant in the centre of an inhabited area. If local conditions and circumstances are taken into account to mitigate the force of what is practicable in a remote and lightly inhabited area, then, conversely, the effect of the words "local conditions or circumstances" where there are many people to be affected and much damage to be done by the emission of smoke, grit and dust must be to strengthen the requirements which would be regarded as practicable.

If these words have the effect which is feared, I can assure the House—and I think they will accept this in view of what has been said about the pioneer position of Manchester throughout debates—that the Manchester Corporation would not have written these very words into the Act of 1946. They are in Section 36 (4) of the Manchester Corporation Act, 1946, which says that in determining, for the purposes of this Section, whether a furnace is as far as practicable capable of being operated continuously without emitting smoke—that is, in interpreting the practicability—the corporation or a court shall, if either of the parties, so desire have regard to cost and to local conditions and circumstances.

The words are also in the model Clause which Manchester was no doubt using, and, as I have reminded the House, they are in the relevant Section, Section 110 of the Public Health Act, 1936. If therefore, they had been interpreted in the way in which some hon. Members fear, they would certainly not have been retained by the Manchester Corporation and they would not have been a part of legislation for 20 years without these anticipated interpretations having been placed upon them. The House is, therefore, not relying upon my, I admit, ineffective ipse dixit interpretation of these words but is making the natural assumption that they will be interpreted in the future as they have been interpreted in the past, both in general and in local legislation.

Mr. Marquand

Have these words been pronounced on by the courts at any time or is the hon. Gentleman referring to Manchester Corporation in the context only of what the pronouncement might be?

Mr. Powell

I cannot say that they have been pronounced on by the courts, but if they have not been pronounced on by the courts it must be because no attempt has been made to use them as an escape in the manner in which has been apprehended.

Mr. Blenkinsop

With the leave of the House, may I intervene again? Even the Parliamentary Secretary can quote the Manchester Act when he wishes, apparently. We still have some anxieties on the matter, but in view of what he has said is the clear intention of himself and his right hon. Friend, and in view of the fact that the matter can, I hope, still be looked into a little further in another place, if required, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 24, line 11, at end insert "to the financial implications."—[Mr. Sandys.]