HC Deb 10 November 1959 vol 613 cc354-62

11.2 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Smoke Control Areas (Exempted Fireplaces) Order, 1959 (S.I., 1959, No. 1207), dated 10th July, 1959, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th July, in the last Parliament, be annulled.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

On a point of order. May we have an assurance that this Prayer will be continued tomorrow night, as there is now less than half-an-hour left for its consideration, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

That is a matter for Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Winterbottom

I want to supplement the idea behind the point of order which has just been made. The subject matter of this Prayer warrants, at any rate, a continuation of this debate should time permit tomorrow night after another Motion has been disposed of. I am hoping that in view of the interest on this question, especially among municipalities, Mr. Speaker will readily accept the suggestion to continue the discussion tomorrow.

We shall certainly not divide the House on this issue. Hon. Members are entitled to ask why not. The reason we have brought this matter forward is that we want to explore the mind of the Minister in regard to smoke control areas. I think that the Minister will readily concede that I have followed rather diligently the application of the Clean Air Act, 1956. He will probably not agree, however, that the Act has been denuded of its real purpose by escape clauses.

Until this Order was laid I felt that the only thing left of any real value in the Act was that contained in Section 11, the provision of smoke control areas. All other Sections have become almost insipid because of the escape clauses, and in a like way this Order will prevent the possibility of effective smoke control areas.

Seeing the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) present, I want to say to him that the Bill he introduced into the House, I think in 1956, was au infinitely better Bill in its purpose than this Act has become in its application.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

I am very grateful.

Mr. Winterbottom

We want to protest strongly against the exemptions which the Minister has introduced in this Order. They limit the powers of local authorities in their job of creating smoke control areas. I will return later to the second point. We want to protest to and to condemn the Government because they have failed to encourage the promotion and the development of inventions and processes which would have made smokeless zones possible in this country over and above the smoke control areas proposed in the Act.

Those are the three reasons why we are praying against the Order, and I will turn to the Order itself. First, I call attention to the fact that the exempted fireplaces are classified under three headings: fireplaces, other than fireplaces fired by pulverised fuel; the Solid Fuel Ductair Unit; and the fireplace known as the Fulgora Slow Combustion Stove. I do not propose to deal at length with the last two, but I will say a word about them in passing.

The Ductair Unit is designed mainly for smokeless fuels, although it can be used for ordinary domestic fuel, coal. My information about the Fulgora Slow Combustion Stove is that it is designed for the burning of pressed sawdust. The point is that these types could be considered for use in smoke control areas without going to the length of including them in an Order such as this. It is worth while reminding my hon. Friends from mining areas, who may support the Order on the plea that we must use coal, that neither of these two appliances will help to burn one ounce more of coal by reason of the fact that they are included in the Order.

It is not worth while exempting in such an Order two such categories when a whole range of fireplaces are doing the same job as these two and are exhibited by local authorities in order that people may make a selection when the local authorities have planned smoke control areas. The inclusion of these two is futile when, in the application of Section 11, they are in any event taken into consideration by local authorities.

We object, however, not so much to these two as to the first category—the type of fireplace designed to burn other than pulverised fuel and equipped with a mechanical stoker. These are not for domestic use. I understand that a mechanical stoker has not yet been made for the ordinary domestic grate. These fireplaces are for industrial use, and that is why we strongly object to their inclusion in the Order, even if they have mechanical stokers attached.

Because of the time, I will not go into all the arguments which can be advanced on behalf of the municipal authorities to support their objection, but I will deal with the main point of our objection. In a smoke control area, where this type of fireplace is in operation, even with a mechanical stoker there will be an emission of smoke.

As there is a prohibition on the use of domestic grates that emit smoke, there will be an invidious comparison between the householder and the industrialist. In a smoke control area, the householder who allows smoke to be emitted from his chimney is guilty of an offence unless he is using what the Act calls "authorised fuels", such as anthracite, gas, electricity, coke, or oil. If the householder uses the ordinary bituminous coal that the industrialist is permitted to use under the Order he commits an offence if smoke is emitted. There is, therefore, that distinction between that which the householder and that which the industrialist can do in precisely the same district.

I think that the Minister is helping to create these difficulties by establishing different standards for the house holder and the industrialist—

Sir Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

Has the hon. Member any evidence that mechanical stokers on boilers using pulverised fuel produce smoke? I believe that the evidence is that they do not.

Mr. Winterbottom

The Order makes that clear. Indeed, with the exception of one type that I shall presently mention, I do not think the hon. Gentleman could at present find a boiler, even with a mechanical stoker, that did not cause smoke to be emitted.

The right hon. Gentleman is even going against his predecessor, who said: Above all, progress, and, indeed, the success of the operation will depend upon people understanding the problems, and their readiness to co-operate in smoke control measures. I suggest that if, in a smoke control area, the industrialist is allowed to cause smoke to be emitted while the householder is not, we shall have even greater difficulty in getting a proper understanding of the need for the promotion of smoke control areas than if we had left things as they were.

Because of the lateness of the hour, I do not propose to go into all the arguments for complete municipal control—even though the Order provides for a certain weakening of that control. I shall not enter now into the controversy as to whether mechanical stokers are worth while. For the purpose of the present argument, I will accept that they are. It is sufficient for my purpose to say that the Act gives to the municipalities all the powers necessary to deal with the type of exemption included in this Order. That was done deliberately, to give the local authorities the opportunity to take local circumstances into consideration.

My main point is that, having given to the municipalities the task of setting up smoke control areas, it would be foolish to take from them the powers they can exercise, and which are still controlled by the Minister. It is much better that control should be exercised at local level by people who understand all the local conditions, as against the general conditions that the Minister is now trying to set up by this Order.

The mechanical stokers mentioned in the first class of exemptions certainly limit the emission of smoke, but they do not prevent it. Coming, as I do, from Sheffield, where there is great experience of the use of mechanical stokers, I want to make it clear that the mechanical stoker cannot prevent the emission of smoke.

There are other factors to be considered in connection with this Order. One cannot talk about smoke control areas or smoke abatement unless one considers the whole of the economy of the country and the motive powers used industrially and domestically. The Minister has introduced two Orders, the first being in March, 1957, exempting fireplaces burning liquid fuel, in other words, oil. Now he introduces this Order. I strongly suspect that the Minister has introduced this Order to stimulate sales of ordinary domestic and industrial bituminous coal, to assist the coal mining industry.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to do that, I approve of his motives, but I disagree with his methods. Why does he take the long, tedious and ineffective road which will only arouse the ire of municipalities and which will set their backs against the creation of smoke control areas'? Does he really want to stimulate the coal industry? If he wants to help the miners I am with him; I hope that he is successful. But, let us face it, he has not shown much evidence yet of wanting to help the miners. Neither of the two Orders that he has introduced will help to burn any more domestic or industrial bituminous coal.

The first Order related to oil, and, while oil does not produce smoke, it is more dangerous in polluting the atmosphere than even bituminous coal. In Sheffield, to our eternal shame, in view of the situation in the coal industry, we have installed a gas from oil plant. The Minister could have helped the coal industry by enabling the gas required by industry to be extracted from coal.

This Order will not help the miner a bit. I approve of the use of coal, our greatest mineral, but we must face the possibility that coal will have to be used, both domestically and industrially, in a way that will not injure the health of the community, and I think that the miners will face that challenge. I condemn the Government because I cannot see any evidence that they have helped towards such an end. We cannot re-establish coal in industry as our main motive power, or as our main domestic fuel, in fireplaces that take the largest percentage of combustible properties up the chimney. But we can make ever-growing use of the research and experiment which has been done on the use of coal.

I understand, for instance, that it is possible in research work today to extract from coal that part which can be used in our oil-burning furnaces. I know that the process is a much more expensive proposition than buying oil, but with help, encouragement and, perhaps, subsidisation from the Government, it should be possible to curtail the heavy expenses which this country incurs in using oil.

I call attention also to the fact that, while the Minister has brought two types of domestic appliance within his Order, there is in this country, though not a British invention, a type of appliance which is virtually smoke-free in use and which, in terms of fuel combustion, is 99 per cent. efficient. At the Fuel Utilisation Centre, there have been experiments conducted with the Escomb system, a system which will burn high grade bituminous coal, poor coal, peat, wood chips, wood waste and all the other waste products which usually pollute our atmosphere. It can do this to the extent of 99 per cent. efficiency, in a boiler which can be adapted for domestic purposes or for industrial purposes, for stoves or ovens, for ships or for locomotives. The encouragement and help given by the Government has been negligible.

If the Minister believes, as I believe, that the time has come to use to the full not only the coal which we mine but also our research and British—or in this case Swedish—inventive powers in order efficiently and safely to heat our homes and provide power for our industry, then he should encourage the use of the latest appliances which have been experimented with and proved successful.

I have no interest in the Escomb system. All I have seen of it has been the experiments which have been tried and found successful. I do not know any of the directors of the company. I have no financial interest in the matter. The only interest I have is in seeing that the coal of this country is properly and efficiently used, and used in such a way that we do not emit into the atmosphere those poisons from coal which cause all the respiratory diseases to which we seem to be subject in Britain.

I want the Minister to give an assurance to the House that he will examine the possibilities, for both industrial and domestic purposes, of the ideas which I have mentioned. I hope he will, if necessary, recommend them to the municipalities. I do not ask that he should table an Order if he finds that these things are promising enough to be worthy of an Order, but I suggest that he should encourage their use so that the municipalities themselves, as I believe they should, can make their own choice according to local circumstances and local needs.

Not only from the standpoint of this Order, but also from the wider standpoint of the use of fuel in this country, we have prayed against the Order and what the Minister has directed in it.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I beg to second the Motion.

I should like to pay tribute to the great enthusiasm and diligence of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winterbottom) in the cause of clean air both in this House and, particularly, in the City of Sheffield. When, thanks to the initiative and persistence of the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), the Clean Air Bill was introduced, I hoped that I should live to see the day when the pollution of our atmosphere would notably decline. When that Bill became an Act, it was quite clear that substantial loopholes remained, and it is really in praying against one of those loopholes that we detain the House tonight.

I want to supplement the admirable case put forward by my hon. Friend by addressing one or two questions to the Minister. First, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the very unusual form of the Order in which the products of two private firms are mentioned by name. I am wondering whether that means that we are going to have a long list of Orders from the Ministry listing various appliances by name and whether, if either of these firms becomes the subject of a take-over bid and its name changes, another Order will have to be substituted because the description in the Order will no longer fit the appliance in question.

From a purely local point of view, I know that the fact that the Minister is satisfied that these appliances do what he says they do means that they cannot be challenged in a court of law. But I am sure that the Minister would not seek to avoid satisfying the House even if he is not under any obligation to satisfy a court of law. I should like him to tell us why he is satisfied that these particular appliances should be recommended. I also wonder what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind when he comes to form an opinion about these matters.

The wording of Section 11 (4) of the Clean Air Act, 1956, is very ambiguous. It uses the words: without producing any smoke or a substantial quantity of smoke. It makes complete nonsense of any clean air legislation if we list as approved appliances a lot which create smoke but not a substantial quantity of smoke, the quantity being left to the discretion of the Minister.

My hon. Friend has already dealt with the discrimination in the Order as between the industrial and the domestic user. I would only reinforce what my hon. Friend said about the interference that this Order creates with the powers of the local authorities. I think that in many respects the local authorities have too narrow a field in which to operate. As local authorities have specific powers actually to create these exemptions themselves in their own areas in the full knowledge of local considerations, I wonder why it is thought necessary that the Minister should not only interfere but should, more or less, imply that they are not fit to exercise these responsibilities.

In the City of Sheffield, one of whose constituencies I have the honour to represent, we are very proud of being pioneers in this field of smoke control. We have a very vigorous council which wants to do more than the Act permits and one which is very conscious of the limitations which this Order imposes. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will give us a clear answer. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that whilst we all know the problems of the coal industry and want to assist it, this Order is no substitute for a proper national fuel policy.

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

In the few seconds at my disposal, I rise to say that I think the House agreed in the debates on the Clean Air Bill of 1956 that the lowest grade bituminous coal could be burned smokelessly in any industrial boiler provided that the boiler used was adequately and efficiently equipped, and notably with a chain grate mechanical stoker, and had the services available of a properly trained and skilled boilerman.

I think that the Minister is correct in entering in the Order before the House—

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. 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, and the debate stood adjourned till Tomorrow, pursuant to Standing Order No. 95A (Statutory Instruments, &c. (Procedure)).