HC Deb 25 July 1960 vol 627 cc1090-8

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I desire to make a few observations on Second Reading of this Bill, which deals with the issue of £3,118 million. I desire, in particular, to make an observation about the Vote of £264 million for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I have a personal grievance about this week's business, but I do not intend to say a word about it now because of the seriousness of another issue which I want to raise, although I think that I would be carrying out my duty as a Member of Parliament and in accordance with the procedure if I did. I will subordinate my individual opinions, however, in order to raise an issue upon which I think that I shall carry every Member of the House with me.

Although we are organised in political parties, Conservative on that side and Labour on this—and one Liberal, now—I find that the nearer we get together as individual Members the more sympathetic we are with one another. I have found that hon. and right hon. Members who, politically, are fundamentally opposed to me are very sympathetic when dealing with domestic questions involving loss of life. Taking advantage of my Parliamentary rights, I therefore raise this matter.

In June, we in the City of Stoke-on-Trent lost by drowning five children under 12 years of age. In an industrial area of that kind there are people living in poor and humble homes, with no gardens and no playing fields. In that environment children feel caged up, and so, in the spring, when the better weather comes, the children venture farther afield.

It was during that time that two children were drowned. They came from the poorest possible homes, but their parents and relatives were as good as any other people in the country. When the children were drowned some of my friends asked me to visit the parents. It is because of that experience that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) and I were determined to raise this issue on the first possible occasion. It is because of the unsatisfactory arrangements which have been made this week for dealing with matters of this kind that we have taken advantage of the fact that we are in order in raising the issue on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

We represent a city which, relatively, turns out more wealth per head of the population than almost any other city in the country. We represent a city where, for generations, men and women have toiled night and day pouring out wealth which has enabled the country to become as great as it is. Therefore, in 1960 one would expect that these people who have served their country so well would be entitled to have their children better protected from the effects of industrial development than has been the case up to now.

As a result of this experience I wrote letter after letter to the Minister of Health, and in most cases the Parliamentary Secretary replied. The replies could not have been couched in more courteous language, but while I appreciate courtesy it is not enough on this occasion. While I also appreciate the Home Secretary's sympathy, that, too, is not enough, because in that city now there are thousands of mothers who, every time their children go out to school or go out to play, wonder what may happen to them. They are rightly using their democratic right to bring pressure to bear on the Stoke-on-Trent City Council and on my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and myself, so that we may have this problem dealt with. We are trying to be worthy of these women and to obtain an undertaking from the Minister of Housing and Local Government that this matter will be treated as one of extreme urgency.

Our city is more undermined by mining subsidence than any other city. Thanks to the action recently taken in the House of Commons we have been able to obtain relative justice after generations of mining, but we suffer not only from mining subsidence but from the existence of more marlholes in the area than in any other area of the country. There are 47 marlholes in the city, many of them much bigger and deeper than this Chamber. I understand that at least two of them, including one in the constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, Central, are at least 70 to 80 ft. deep.

The City Council has taken this matter so seriously that it has instructed its reconstruction committee to conduct a survey into the position. Within one week, thanks to the conscientious officials who serve the City Council, a map was produced showing the 47 marl-holes which are situated within a relatively short distance between the northern and southern boundaries of the city. I have further particulars showing that many of these marlholes are privately owned and that many of them are unfenced.

The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary was good enough to inform me in a letter, which I very much appreciated, that the marlholes owners were compelled, under an Act of Parliament, to put a good fence round each hole. Many children have been drowned during the past twenty years and it is because five children were drowned in June that my hon. Friend and I are now taking advantage of our legitimate Parliamentary right to try to obtain an undertaking that the responsible Ministers will be consulted and that immediate action will be taken.

I am sure that up to now I have carried with me in my argument almost every hon. and right hon. Member present, but so that the House may know that I am not merely speaking for my hon. Friend and myself I should like to read extracts from a newspaper which does not support this side of the House politically. I hope that this will emphasise the case which I am trying to make. The Evening Sentinel, which is a subsidiary of the Northcliffe Press, in a leading article on 21st July, said: Several children have been drowned this summer in disused marlholes in North Staffordshire. These tragedies have stirred public opinion and the need for new legislation to protect the lives of children from such hazards has been publicly expressed both by Stoke-on-Trent, and Newcastle councils and by other responsible bodies in the area. To put myself right with Mr. Speaker, and to be on my guard, I must say that I am not asking for further legislation. I am asking that the Minister should give an undertaking that he will consult immediately with other Ministers to decide, first, the immediate short-term steps to be taken, secondly, the long-term steps, and, thirdly, whether an immediate public inquiry should not be held into this matter.

The leading article from which I have just quoted continues: In the face of this mass of local opinion the reaction of Government departments is, to the least, unhelpful. Over the years manholes and other artificially-created stretches of accessible water have taken a dreadful harvest of young lives. The powers of local authorities to prevent these tragedies are limited. They can require that disused workings should be fenced off. They cannot compel owners to fill them in. The Government's attitude is that the local authority powers are adequate… The newspaper adds that a junior Minister replied in the House to a request for further legislation and that his reply showed. …a complacency almost amounting to callousness. The newspaper remarked that, Contrary to what the Government spokesman says, the existing preventive measures are manifestly inadequate. I could give further quotations which, I think, would assist me in my case, but I think that I nave quoted enough.

I want, first, to appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who has been good enough to listen to the reasoned case that I have presented, to consider what has been said and to consider consulting with the Home Secretary in particular and with other responsible Ministers. I hope that before we part with this Bill I shall have support from both sides of the House so that we may, keep this matter on a, level of discussion that will do justice to the question that I have raised.

4.10 p.m.

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

It is most reassuring that on a day like this my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) has been able to raise a matter which is of such urgency and importance to us in the locality we represent. We are particularly grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who has come here at short notice to listen to what we have to say and to give us, perhaps, some words of comfort and reassurance as to his intentions.

My hon. Friend has raised a problem which affects many hon. Members on both sides of the House. In the area that I represent we suffer very grievously from the activities of industries which have dug great pits in large numbers in places within the city boundaries in order to find the clay to make pottery, roofing tiles and bricks. Within the boundaries of a city of 270,000 people, there are 47 of these great pits, of which 30 are flooded to different depths but all of which are dangerous to any one who cannot swim. Of the 30 that are flooded, three are completely unfenced at the moment, and of the remaining 27 which have been investigated it is reported that the fencing is either "poor", or "very poor". Those are the words of the people who investigated them.

Some owners of these pits have spent a great deal of money, I understand, to try to prevent children hurting themselves and running the risk of losing their lives through drowning. These owners, however, complain that it is difficult to fence the pits with any guarantee of success. We all know what children are like when we remember what we used to do ourselves when youngsters. I have a vivid recollection of risking my life as a child of five—and I often wonder how I avoided being drowned—by launching myself on a single plank of wood on a deep marlhole. This makes us all the more anxious because children may stumble and fall and not be as fortunate as I was.

The Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend will, naturally, be tempted to answer us by saying, "This is a matter for the local authority. It is for you to take action within the powers that are available to you ". I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to bear in mind that 30 of these 47 pits are privately owned. How are we to get our hands upon them? We are so affected in Stoke-on-Trent that if areas sterilised by pits are added to those sterilised by these great holes, 10 per cent. of the available land in the whole of the City is lost.

We are asking for two remedies. The first is a short-term solution that will have children's lives. That means fencing the pits in such a way that a child cannot get through. I have seen this kind of fencing in many places where security is needed. I have seen great posts of concrete with interlinked strands of barbed wire through which, I think, no child—not even I, when I was a child—would dare to attempt to break through or break down. That is not the type of fencing that we see around the marlholes in Stoke-on-Trent. Cost should not be allowed to stand in the way, whoever provides the money, whether the local authority through the rates, or the individual owner, of preventing children from drowning.

The long-term solution is, of course, to fill in the pits. That will take a very long time. We are, therefore, anxious to get powers to be able to fill them in. I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary that we must own the pits before we can fill them in, and also any tips nearby, so that the tips can be thrown into the holes. I recognise the kindness of the House in allowing us to put forward this matter, about which we feel very deeply in North Staffordshire. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend to give attention to this matter now because we shall be away for a long time during the Recess. Will he say that at least he will look at the whole problem not only on behalf of my hon. Friend and myself, but on behalf of all hon. Members?

It has been suggested that there might he a public inquiry into whether existing legislation is sufficient. That was mooted in the Evening Sentinel by the editor himself. I do not know whether that is desirable or not. It is, however, desirable to say to the mothers of these children that we intend to take action. We cannot always guarantee that a child will never be in danger, but we must try to see that children do not drown like this just because they are adventurous. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say that this matter will not be dealt with merely by saying, "It is up to the local authority".

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen North)

I support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross). They have spoken of what apparently are technically called marlholes. The particular hole concerning which I wish to say a few words is not a marlhole, but a mine, or quarry hole, We have a quarry hole on the borders of the City of Aberdeen and the County of Aberdeen, and because it is within the jurisdiction of two local authorities, neither, apparently has the right to deal with it. There is the further reason that it is private property.

This mine, or quarry hole, has the rather paradoxical name of Dancing Cairns Quarry. It has been the scene of many tragedies. Like the marlholes of which my hon. Friends have spoken, it is an attractive danger to children. People on both sides of the border, both in the County of Aberdeen and in the City of Aberdeen, are in a state of trepidation and anxiety lest their children, when they go out to play, or when they are on their way to and from school, or are sent out with a message by their parents, should never return and their bodies be found in the deep waters of the hole.

I have put Questions to Ministers on this subject. I have written to the Minister responsible for mines and I have written to the Secretary of State for Scotland. But I have never been able to get anything done about removing this danger. This is not merely a constituency matter. There are mine holes, marlholes and quarry holes all over Britain. They are a waste of good land. Most of them are accompanied by tips and a practical way of overcoming the problem is to throw the tips into the holes. In that way, land could be reclaimed. Although the area in each case might be small, in total it would be considerable. That land could be put to a profitable use for the benefit of the people.

By two strokes, two things could be done—the land could be changed from being waste land into land of utility for the community, and a source of many tragedies could be changed into something profitable. Danger would be removed and the lives of children and even of adults would be saved.

The owners of the hole which I have mentioned have made their profits from it for generations. Having dug the hole, they went away, leaving a danger to the community. Some way must be found of filling in these holes and changing them from dangers into profitable land. It ought not to be beyond the wit of the Government to find a way of doing those two things, uno ictu.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) has said. The demand which we from north Staffordshire are making is simple and direct. It is that urgent action should be taken, in the light of a series of tragedies in the last few months in north Staffordshire, to get these dangerous manholes either filled in or covered over.

Personally, I and the members of the local authority which I represent are much more sceptical than my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) about the efficacy of fencing. We know that the power to provide fencing is available, but the trouble about fencing is that it is often inadequate, because of the ingenuity and vigour of modern children, or so elaborate, like that which surrounds top secret establishments like Aldermaston, that one might as well go to the trouble and expense of getting a hole filled in.

As I recently informed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council is in favour of making it compulsory to fill in marlholes after the extraction of the marl. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South mentioned the leading article in our local newspaper, the Evening Sentinel which described the Parliamentary Secretary's Written Answer of 19th July as "complacent". I have to agree with that view in the light of the tragedies which have afflicted the area and which have made mothers throughout Staffordshire anxious in recent months. In that Written Answer, the Parliamentary Secretary said: Local authorities have powers under Sec ion 151 of the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954, to require the fencing of disused workings of this kind which are in places accessible to the public; and also have powers under Section 144 of the Highways Act, 1959, to deal with sources of danger adjoining a street."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th July, 1960; Vol. 627, c. 30.] The point is, as my hon. Friends have said, that many of these dangerous holes, filled with rainwater, do not adjoin streets and, therefore, cannot be dealt with under the Highways Act. Even where action has been taken by private owners to establish some kind of fencing, the fencing is frequently penetrated by children and many of these dangerous pits are in areas close to council housing estates and where many children play.

That is why we would like the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to investigate this matter, perhaps to send its own officials to study the position in north Staffordshire and to investigate the problem on the ground, especially in areas which are densely populated and where it is so easy for children to get to these places, totally ignorant of the terrible dangers which lurk there.

We are glad that the Parliamentary Secretary is in his place and we hope that he will be able to say that the Ministry will urgently investigate the problem and the powers available to deal with it and that he will instigate, through his own machinery or through that of the local authorities, or in conjunction with private owners, the sort of urgent action needed to forestall further accidents.

4.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) for his courtesy in giving me 20 minutes' notice of his intention to raise this matter.

My right hon. Friend is aware of this whole problem and I can assure the House that, in the light of what has been said, he will study the matter urgently and write to the hon. Members concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee Tomorrow.