HC Deb 13 May 1958 vol 588 cc359-72

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Alkali. &c. Works Order, 1958 (S.I. 1958, No. 497), dated 24th March, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th March, be annulled. This is a major Statutory Instrument under the Clean Air Act, 1956. It seeks to transfer from the local authorities to the Alkali Inspectorate of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government the responsibility for discharges from industrial chimneys in all those industries which are listed in the Order. It would transfer the responsibility not only for noxious fumes and gases, but, in addition, for smoke, grit and dust, which have always been regarded as the responsibility of the local authorities, even before the strengthening of their powers under the Clean Air Act. It creates a situation—I stress the importance of the Order for this reason—which I believe to be exactly inimical to the trend of Conservative philosophy and policy over the last few years.

My right hon. Friend, in the course of a speech only one hour ago, used these words. He said that it was the purpose of the Local Government Bill to make … stronger and more independent local government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th May, 1958; Vol. 588, c. 337.] My hon. Friends on this side have been peregrinating around the country during the last few months endeavouring to convince everyone that block grants are a very good thing, because they restore authority to local people in local councils. That is a view which I very strongly support. This particular Statutory Instrument does exactly the opposite. It takes away from the local authorities powers in regard to enforcement of clean air policy which, in large measure, have reposed with them over a long period of years and transfers those powers to a Department of Central Government in Whitehall.

Here I must quote a few figures in support of the assertions which I have ventured to make to the House in the last few moments. The effect of this Order will be to transfer control over the smoke, grit, and dust emissions from factory chimneys in respect of 110 million tons of coal burned annually in the works of the types specified, and 17½ million tons of coke burned in those works annually, together with 2½ million tons of fuel oil; a total of 130 million tons burned each year in those works of the types delineated in the two Schedules of this Order. As the total inland fuel consumption of the United Kingdom is of the order of 220 million tons each year, it follows that the control of emissions in respect of 130 million tons represents more than 60 per cent. of that total.

Thus, in this matter of enforcement and implementation of clean air policy, the Alkali Inspectorate of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is going to be the senior partner and the local authority the junior partner. Like myself, many hon. Members sat through thirteen long and tedious sessions of the Committee stage of the Clean Air Bill in 1956, and the theme then running through those discussions was that the local authorities should have the major part in the implementation of this policy. We never envisaged that when the Minister came to lay his Orders in respect of the special processes he would be taking away from the local authorities 60 per cent. of the powers of enforcement in regard to the emission of smoke, grit, and dust from the works here specified.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

When the hon. Gentleman suggests that the majority of the Committee supported the view which he now suggests, I would remind him that I strongly dissented. I dissented from the view he now puts forward, and I want to know what there is in the Order to which he objects when there is an obligation on the Minister, having regard to Section 17 of the Act, which he supported.

Mr. Nabarro

I have a very long memory, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes away and reads subsections (1) and (2) of Section 17 of the Act. If he wishes to be precise in the matter, I will tell him that it was in Standing Committee B on 13th March, 1956, when those of us who support my view, including the hon. Gentleman himself, defeated the Government by 19 votes to 16.

But what I draw attention to this evening is the fact that many major local authorities are firmly opposed to the loss of powers implicit in this Order. These local authorities are the major industrial authorities. I would never defend a position whereby, for example, the Little Piddlecombe-on-the-Marsh rural district council should have control over the emissions from the chimneys of a major steel works, or a power station, or a carbonisation plant in its area. Such a small local authority has neither the facilities nor the technical skill, nor the resources available to control such a matter.

What I have always said and wish again to emphasise this evening is that such major industrial authorities as can demonstrate to the Minister that they have the technical resources and facilities available to control the discharges from complex and highly technical processes carried on in the particular types of works delineated in the Order should have full autonomy in doing so and should not suffer this loss of powers inherent in the transfer of authority to the Alkali Inspectorate of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in Whitehall.

I have mentioned that under this Order 60 per cent. of the control will repose with the Alkali Inspectorate and only 40 per cent. of the control in respect of smoke dust and grit with the local authorities. I demonstrated that point by quoting the figures involved for fuel consumption. It would be fair to add, as I have endeavoured to sort the local authorities as between those which are qualified to do this difficult work and those which are not, that I believe that delegated power should be given only to the major authorities.

I was asked in Committee to define what I meant by major authorities. I was in no way hesitant about the matter—[Interruption.]—and I am not hesitant this evening. This is a matter about which we should not be mealy-mouthed. We are supposed on this side of the House to believe in the maximum powers reposing with local people, in local authorities, in important questions of this kind. I suggest for full autonomy under Section 17 (2) of the Act, the cities of London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent and Cardiff. There may well be other places.

Dr. Donald Johnson (Carlisle)

Would not my hon. Friend include a city such as Carlisle, for instance?

Mr. Nabarro

My hon. Friend will no doubt put an admirable case on behalf of the 70,000 population resident within the area of the County Borough of Carlisle. It may well be an irrefutable argument.

The Minister has been extraordinarily ham-fisted in bringing this Order along to the House and transferring en bloc these massive powers from local authorities to a central Government Department without at the same time laying before the House Statutory Instruments under Section 17 (2) of the main Act delegating powers to such major local authorities as are able to demonstrate to him that they possess the necessary technical staff facilities, and resources to control these special processes. He should have laid Orders of that kind thereby enabling all to see that it is not the purpose of Her Majesty's Administration to strip these important powers from major local authorities, but to take them only in the case of minor authorities of a character which have not available the necessary staff resources, facilities and skill to carry them out.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

What about Kidderminster?

Mr. Nabarro

No, not Kidderminster. I would not plead the case that Kidderminster should have Section 17 (2) autonomy; certainly not—nor Billericay, for example.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend would include the major county councils. My reason may be a reinforcement to the argument my hon. Friend is using. The Alkali Inspectorate has completely failed to control effectively the noxious effusion and emissions from the oil refineries on Thames-side, to the detriment of the health and happiness of my constituents. Would my hon. Friend therefore include the major county councils?

Mr. Nabarro

Time is limited. I commend to my hon. Friend the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Standing Committee. If he reads that with his customary avidity, he will find in it that the former Minister of Housing and Local Government, the present Minister of Defence, made that very point. He said in 1956 that there might well be industrial conurbations comprising a number of relatively small industrial authorities, each contiguous to one another, and in total they might represent an area well suited to have conferred on them the type of autonomy I recommend under Section 17 (2) of the main Act.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government, who investigated this complicated matter, further established a public inquiry two months ago to investigate the problem, and a report was made by Sir Frederick Armer, K.B.E., C.B., M.C. The Minister's decision letter of 6th January, 1958, fully recognised the point I am endeavouring to make concerning the need for autonomy to certain major authorities. In paragraph 6 of that letter he said: It was stated on behalf of Sheffield and District Clean Air Committee that a knowledge of local conditions was essential for the proper control of industry. A local smoke inspectorate would possess this to a far greater extent than the Alkali Inspectorate. The staff employed in Sheffield and district were well qualified to deal with the technical problems of air pollution in the area, and there was clearly a case for the Minister to make an Order in due course applying Section 17 (2) of the Clean Air Act to their area. I stress "well qualified." It is unusual for a Cabinet Minister to respond to a Prayer, and my right hon. Friend has had an arduous day. I am grateful to him for coming here this evening to reply to this important matter. I want to ask if he will give an undertaking when he replies that he will give very sympathetic consideration to the requests for autonomy under Section 17 (2) of the Act which will be coming to him in the next few months from such major authorities as I have referred to earlier.

I want to refer to the strength of the Alkali Inspectorate of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The majority of hon. Friends who have approached me about this Order have made the point about the remote control of the Inspectorate in Whitehall which is no effective substitute for the local public health and smoke inspectors who have expert knowledge and long experience of local conditions. Attention has been drawn by my hon. Friends, and I wish to reinforce the point, to the fact that the Alkali Inspectorate is relatively a weak body. On the day the Clean Air Act received the Royal Assent, 17th July, 1956, there were ten inspectors and the cost was £17,480. On 1st June, 1958, which is the date on which the Order we are discussing will begin to operate, they will have risen to 19 at a cost of £33,730, and during next year my right hon. Friend informs me that, in order to deal with the added responsibilities arising from the Order before us this evening, there will be added a further nine officers at a cost of £14,000 per annum. Thus, we anticipate that, by mid-1959, the strength of the Inspectorate will be 28 highly trained and qualified men, costing £47,730 per annum. Even that strength is likely to be inadequate to deal with the onerous duties put upon them by the transfer referred to in this Order.

Do hon. Members in all parts of the House realise that every power station in the country, every gas works in the country, every steel works in the country, every aluminium works in the country, to say nothing of ceramics and many other works and processes, are now to be thrust into the hands of the Alkali Inspectorate? I believe the strength envisaged for the Inspectorate is quite inadequate and that these central Government inspectors may well largely duplicate the work for which trained men are already available in the services of local authorities which cover industrial areas. The arrangements proposed in the Order may waste technical staff and will certainly suffer from the remoteness of Whitehall control.

The inference that has been put to me by several local authorities and many of my hon. Friends, is that this is a measure of empire-building in Whitehall which ought to be resisted by all who have the interests of strong local government at heart. The Order will create divided control, doubt in the enforcement of clean-air policy, duplication of skilled manpower, and will undermine the success of clean-air policy, notably in black area conurbations, where many contiguous industrial local authorities' areas are involved.

With the greatest regard and respect for the Minister, I say that he should no longer be the Minister responsible in view of the massive industrial interests involved. Responsibility should be transferred to the Minister of Power, who should be renamed the Minister for Clean Air and Power. I am glad to see the Paymaster-General in his place listening to these words of wisdom.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will give us the reassurances which are of great importance to hon. Gentlemen who sit for industrial areas. I commend to my right hon. Friend the words he used about one hour and twenty minutes ago, that our policy is to seek "stronger and more independent local government."

11.3 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

I beg to second the Motion.

The House has been delighted, whether we agreed with it or not, with the brilliant performance of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), who always adds colour to our debates.

Without wishing, to be offensive, I am surprised that the Minister has been obdurate and even obstinate from time to time, in spite of the expressed differences of opinion of his own supporters. At times he seems to think that he can make Orders and Clauses in Bills and ride roughshod over his supporters. During the passage of the Clean Air Bill, my hon. Friends drew attention to the fact that a number of hon. Members had voted against the Government on this matter. The Minister should have realised that the Order which he is making tonight would not be universally popular among his supporters.

There is no hurry about this matter. Nobody is pressing the Minister to introduce this Order to create these alkali inspectors and to replace local authority control.

We Conservative back benchers believe that we are supporting a Conservative Government. We feel that we subscribe to our leaders in this respect and that it is Conservative policy to give more and more power to local authorities as opposed to the central Government. Because of the things which the Minister has had to attend to recently, like the Local Government Bill and the Rent Act, we can, I believe, detect a sort of sinister influence coming from the Ministry under his control of which he may not be aware.

It is not only large industrial areas which will be affected by this Order. I wish to read an extract from a letter written by the Town Clerk of Eastbourne: Although fortunately in Eastbourne there is very little industry of the category likely to produce atmospheric pollution, it will be noted that gas and coke works and power stations are now to be taken outside local authority control. It may well be that in future, if some nuisance arises as a result of atmospheric pollution either by the gas works or the power station in Eastbourne, the local authority will be powerless to deal with the matter. We in the smaller areas, and certainly in Eastbourne, which is a seaside resort, believe that the alkali inspectors at the Ministry will be far too busy dealing with the great industrial areas to take any notice of pollution which may affect the smaller towns and cities which are not wholly industrialised. I hope that the Minister will withdraw the Order.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)

I have put my name to this Prayer, but I hope that the Order will not be withdrawn, for reasons which I will give. First, I wish to correct an impression which may have been created by the speech of the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) regarding the transfer of power from the local authorities to the Alkali Inspectorate. I am interested mainly in the metallurgic industries, and these industries have never been controlled by the local authorities in respect of the nuisance caused by grit, smoke and dust. That was a matter which was debated during the Committee stage of the Clean Air Act.

I shall not vote against the Orders, because if we defeated the Government there would be no control at all either by the Alkali Inspectorate or by local authorities over the metallurgical industries, for example. I use them as an illustration. If the Motion succeeded, there would be a vacuum in Clean Air control throughout the country and the people in charge of the metallurgical industries would be able to do exactly as they wished about the emission of smoke, grit, dust and fumes.

Why did I put my name to the Motion? For one reason only—that during the Committee stage of the Bill we were successful in defeating the Government on behalf of the local authorities when we wanted—and I still want—the control of all pollutants in the atmosphere to be in the hands of local authorities. But praying against the Orders will not bring that about. The Orders introduce for the first time control over certain industries which in the past have been allowed to do exactly as they wished. We face that situation now in law, and we cannot alter it. Control is in somebody's hands. We must accept that fact and make the best of it. Clauses 17 (1) and (2) were moved from these benches and supported by the hon. Member for Kidderminster as an alternative to the impasse in which we were placed when we defeated the Government in Committee.

We are faced with the present law and all its implications, but I want to put certain questions to the Minister. First, in Committee, after we had defeated the Minister, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, in accepting Clause 17, said: The Standing Committee was concerned had competent staff and facilities, and where mainly to see that where a local authority in all other circumstances it was desirable, the authority should be empowered to carry out these functions by itself. The Committee was concerned that in those cases the Minister should be able to transfer the responsibilities to the local authority in question."—"[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April. 1956; Vol. 551, c. 36–7.] That was in the discussion on Clause 17. Is the Minister prepared to accept the spirit of the statement made by his predecessor and give to those local authorities with the competent staff to deal with the problem of the scheduled industries the power given to him under Clause 17 (2) of the Act? Rather than defeat the Government tonight on something which cannot be altered because it is the law, assurances from the Minister that he will sympathetically consider investing authority under the Act in the local authorities in respect of these special industries would, in my opinion, meet the situation.

The hon. Member for Kidderminster was a very long time going through the list of cities of this country before he reached the City of Sheffield, but I venture to suggest—I say this not because I am a representative of the aity—that there is no other place in the country which has paid so much attention to the problem of air pollution as has Sheffield. We have not only five fully qualified inspectors to deal with the problem of smoke, grit, dust and fumes, but we have behind us also as advanced a section of any university in this particular matter as there is anywhere in the kingdom. Quite respectfully, I say that, in the City of Sheffield, more has been done by qualified people than has been done anywhere else in the country. I use Sheffield as an illustration. There are other cities and towns where there are qualified inspectors to deal with these problems.

The Minister must now answer this question. How is he to deal with this huge additional list of industries, including all the metallurgical industries, with the comparatively few alkali inspectors at his disposal? The Order is to come into force in June. Frankly, he has not enough qualified alkali inspectors to deal with the problems of smoke, grit and dust, in addition to the problem of fumes, throughout all these additional industries, let alone in those scheduled under former regulations.

I support the hon. Member for Kidderminster in asking the Minister to assure the House that he will give sympathetic consideration to the position of those areas which can prove that they have the qualified inspectorate to deal with these things. It was by the tacit consent of the Committee and of the Minister that Section 17 (2) was accepted as the alternative to the complete defeat of the Government on this issue of the Alkali Inspectorate.

I want to be quite fair to the Minister. While the hon. Member for Kidderminster has been putting down Questions on the Order Paper, I have been quietly writing to the Minister. I have asked him what is to be the position of Sheffield if this Order is passed. Until it is passed, no one can apply for permission. I have arranged with the authorities in the City of Sheffield that, if the Order is passed tonight, they will immediately apply for Ministerial permission, under Section 17 (2) of the Act. But there is one doubt in my mind. I will at once pay a tribute to those in charge of the steel industry in Sheffield, that many of the steel companies in the city are far in advance of anything provided for in the Clean Air Act; many of the best employers are introducing innovations in their works which bring them completely outside the scope of the Act. But for all those who are doing this beneficent work, there are others who are not. The Act of Parliament was passed to prevent their being able to take advantage of that situation.

It is in the interests of the good element in management that the Minister should give Ministerial consent to Sheffield controlling its own smoke, grit and dust, even under the new measures to be brought in. It has been suggested to me—I do not know what force there is in it—that there is a desire on the part of the managements of some of the steel factories that there shall not be Ministerial consent to such a city as Sheffield controlling its own atmosphere.

A very important question is raised here. Has there been any representation by any department of the metallurgical industry in the City of Sheffield imploring the Minister not to apply Subsection (2) of Section 17 of the Clean Air Act to the City of Sheffield? If such representations have been made, they have not been made in the interests of the city or of its steel industry, nor have they been made in the interests of developing this idea of clean air throughout the length and breadth of this country.

Will the Minister answer please the questions which I have put to him and give a categorical assurance that in applying Section 17—which gives him the power to schedule these industries as he has done under the Alkali Orders—he will do so sympathetically towards the local authorities, proving that he has the necessary qualified Inspectorate? May I just add that woe betide him if he does give this power to any other local authority and leaves out the City of Sheffield.

11.23 p.m.

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

It is quite true that we discussed this matter at great length during the Committee stage, and it is also true that some of us have quite clearly fixed the fact in our minds that there is a great difference between the functions of the Alkali Inspectorate and our smoke inspectors and public health inspectors. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) is at fault when he asks for a great number of alkali inspectors. They are not there, because there are not the people available for training; and, in any case, they are not there to see if there is smoke pollution. They are not there to look at a nuisance or to investigate it, but to cure it when other people with less knowledge and training and understanding of modern techniques cannot do the job.

The matter about which I wish to speak, however, is the narrow issue of a local authority like Stoke-on-Trent, the centre of the largest number of pottery factories in the world. It had a terrible problem in the past, but now we are moving towards a solution. The authorities there feel that control over smoke, so far as factory chimneys are concerned, is taken from them and handed to the Alkali Inspectorate. They give arguments which I personally find impossible to controvert, and when I wrote to the Minister on the subject, his Parliamentary Secretary answered explaining that no serious harm would be done. I had hoped that the Minister would have agreed that the letter really has not been phrased correctly. I should like to quote from the letter, which stated that in 1938 we were consuming in the pottery industry more than a million tons of raw coal. Now consumption is down to about a quarter of a million tons as a result of new methods of firing, either by gas or electrical equipment. It is stated that these appliances are available to everyone and that they are more economical to run and cheaper to install.

They also point out that 46 per cent. of the pottery factories are now smokeless, that only 16 per cent. are not smokeless and that 38 per cent. are partly smokeless and moving on towards becoming completely free from the power to pollute the general atmosphere.

Mr. H. Fraser

A great deal of that pollution is issued by the power station in my constituency, is it not?

Dr. Stross

I was speaking only about the pottery industry. I could not ask for any local authority to take over power stations, because they do not have enough knowledge to do so. I do not think that the average local authority, certainly neither Stafford nor Stone, would have inspectors able to deal with obligations arising from power stations.

We have six inspectors in Stoke-on-Trent—more than Sheffield, and we are a smaller city. We take the problem of smoke pollution very seriously. Among our female workers in the pottery industry, most of whose workers are female, the morbidity rate from tuberculosis is twice as high as for the general population, and for the men in the industry it is even higher. We are therefore very sensitive to atmospheric pollution and to us this is a matter of life and death. As we are winning the struggle, we do not want anything to check us.

Virtually every great firm in the industry is smokeless, because it pays to be smokeless. It is economically sound, and it is of great benefit to the rest of us. If control is handed over to the Alkali Inspectorate, it will be remote control, whether from Birmingham or Manchester. I remember the Chief Inspector very well—I read science with him—and I am sure that he would be the last person to say that we do not know how to deal with smoke pollution in the specialised difficulties in the potteries.

We have never closed down a factory, never borne harshly on our manufacturers. We accept that in the heavy clay industry, in the firing of certain types of brick and roofing tiles, there is bound to be some smoke. With all that, we have a magnificent research centre and the liaison among the centre, the manufacturers and the council is very friendly. Why should not we be allowed to continue as we are doing, confidently expecting that within a very few years we shall be able to have a completely clean atmosphere, obtained by agreement, throughout the city? It would not be to the detriment of any manufacturer, but inevitably to the benefit of each and every one of them.

There is no time for me to quote the letter sent to me by the Parliamentary Secretary——

Mr. Nabarro

On a point of order. An unusual situation has arisen with this Prayer which has not occurred in previous Prayers, certainly in the lifetime of this Parliament. Can you give the House some guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? Under Standing Orders, we are compelled to adjourn our discussion of this Prayer at exactly 11.30. Am I right in assuming that we resume discussion tomorrow evening at the end of business on the Order Paper, and that if that business should run after 11.30, there would not be time for the resumed discussion of this Prayer? Would the situation then be that we should resume this debate on Thursday evening? As the fortieth Parliamentary day since the Order was made on 27th March is Monday next, 19th May——

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, being of opinion that, owing to the lateness of the hour at which consideration of the Motion was entered upon, the time for debate had not been adequate, interrupted the Business, pursuant to Standing Order No. 95A (Statutory Instruments, &c. (Procedure)), and the debate stood adjourned till Tomorrow.