HC Deb 04 February 1965 vol 705 cc1325-31
Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 2, to leave out lines 39 to 43.

Perhaps it would be convenient to consider at the same time Amendments Nos. 3, 5 and 17.

They are all drafting Amendments. Those hon. Members who had the honour of serving in Committee on this Bill and those who have read the proceedings will recollect that we had an important and involved debate about the recasting of Clause 9.

By the deletion of subsection (7) of Clause 1 and subsection (1) of Clause 7 on penalties—in view of Clause 9 which deals with penalties—we are removing the reference to a person guilty of an offence punishable under Section 22 of the 1951 Act because offences are now dealt with comprehensively in Clause 9, which penalises a person guilty of a contravention of Clause 1. The other two Amendments are both drafting Amendments to deal with the recasting of Clause 9.

The Government invited the Committee to give an idea of whether we should look at the penalties in relation to their level and to the comprehensive nature of those penalties. The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) initiated the discussion. The Government decided not to take a rigid attitude but rather to be guided by the Committee. As a consequence, we have had no criticisms of our decisions in this case. We are certainly unaware of any interest regarding the increase in penalties as taking them to an unfair level, having regard to the English legislation. Nor have we heard a contrary view.

I think that the House will agree that we have done a good job with Clause 9 and will accept the Amendments consequential on the change.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

I must point out to the House that the grouping of Amendments is a matter for the Chair, but as these are drafting Amendments I have no objection to the grouping suggested by the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. Hendry

I welcome this grouping, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because we have to regard these Amendments as a group, otherwise they are unintelligible. I initiated the discussion about penalties in the first instance but the hon. Gentleman is being unduly modest in saying that these are drafting Amendments because, although that may be strictly true, they improve the Bill enormously, for their effect is to produce suitable penalties for continuing offences, which was an omission from the Bill as originally drafted. I have the greatest confidence in recommending the Amendment to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 3, line 2, leave out from "conditions," to the end of line 3.

Mr. G. Campbell

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 16, to leave out "fourteen" and to insert "twenty".

We have put down this Amendment to give the Government an opportunity for second thoughts about the question discussed at some length in Committee. We thought it reasonable that the Government should have time to look again at this because, as I recognise, this Bill came up quickly after the beginning of the Session and we went into Committee on it commendably soon after that. Thus, when we raised this matter in Committee, the Government had not had all the time they might have had to consider the repercussions.

We pointed out that it was possible to study the experience under the equivalent measure for England and Wales, the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1961. Although at the time I was able to supply the Under-Secretary of State with relevant dates, I recognised that we would have to consider the matter within the space of an hour or two in Committee and that more time should be devoted to it. We have now given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to think again.

Under the 1961 Act, applying to England and Wales, the interval between the passing of the Act and the appointed day was written in as 14 months, the wording being … not less than fourteen months … But in the execution of the Act the appointed day was fixed by the Minister at 23 months after the Act received the Royal Assent. Although the figure in the English legislation was 14 months, the actual interval was 23 months.

We quite understand that in following the lines of the English legislation, whose principles were good and which we supported and which we therefore support in this Bill, the same interval has been written in, but we could benefit from the experience of three years of the English equivalent legislation and appreciate that 14 months in rather a short time and that 20 months would be a better period.

All those bodies and persons likely to be affected by the Bill who have been in touch with hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House appear to have had one feeling in common about the Bill, which was an anxiety that they would not be allowed enough time to study some of the technical problems connected with the prevention of pollution and to take the necessary action. Notable among these have been representatives of Scottish industry, some of the particular industries affected, and the farmers. It is because of this anxiety that we think that the time of 20 months should be written into the Bill. In the light of the experience in England and Wales, this is clearly not a great deal to ask, for it is less than the time in fact taken in England and Wales. This change would help to allay the fears of those who are to be affected and it would harness the good will towards the principles of the Bill and keeping our rivers clean.

I hope that the Government will be able to accept the Amendment, but that, even if they are not, for some reason which I cannot now imagine, in the event they will not unnecessarily hustle those concerned and that it will still be within their discretion to appoint a day. We hope that the Government of the time will make sure that the interval is chosen with discretion and good judgment consistent with the anxieties and the need to go ahead with these purification measures and the importance of obtaining the co-operation of those whose co-operation is necessary to make the Bill work. Nothing will be gained as a net result if by trying to make the date too early the Government lose the support of some of the bodies and firms and others whose task it will be to carry out the provisions of the Bill. For that reason, we hope that the Government will accept the Amendment.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

In Committee we discussed this matter at length and perhaps in a somewhat heated atmosphere owing to some extraneous matter which was introduced by some hon. Members, but I hope that we have now all had time to reflect. I have had time to reflect and to meet a number of the people alleged to be concerned. I can only tell the House that it has not been our experience that those said to be anxious about this time and wanting to change the period from 14 to 20 months were so concerned. They accepted our assurances.

5.45 p.m.

The argument is marginal and I seem to have great difficulty—it is no doubt entirely my fault—explaining what the position is. If the Government are in error in suggesting 14 months and we have exactly the experience of England and Wales, no harm will be done, because we shall have power to take as long as we like. The hon. Gentleman was perfectly right to say that no Government would proceed to appoint a day without having tied up all the regulations and being confident that the discharges could be controlled and that all the purification boards were aware of what kind of information about discharges should be required. No Government would proceed hastily and sacrifice the good will of those concerned.

However, if the Government are wrong in trying to do this in 14 months, all we will have said is that we should make the appointed day in not less than 14 months, so that it follows that we can take as long as is necessary. However, if the Opposition are wrong—and I am reminded of the words of Oliver Cromwell: … in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. in assuming that it will take the Scottish Office as long as it took in England, we may find ourselves twiddling our thumbs for six months or more. I have no doubt that there are those in another place who might try to make the time 23 or 24 months, so that we might be wasting more than six months, but even under this Amendment it would be six months.

The English had the difficulty of not having any model set of rules to follow. We have; we have the English rules. We have the experience of having seen those rules in action and knowing what difficulties have arisen in operating them. Hon. Members know from their own experience that officials would not tell Ministers that they could do a job if we were over-estimating their capacity to do it speedily. Officials are by nature anxious to do a job well and efficiently and always to allow themselves a margin of time in which to do it.

Therefore, if the advice of our admirable officials is that they will be able to persuade the interests concerned within the time of 14 months, there is no reason why the Government should accept the Amendment, which would then mean sitting for six months doing nothing. If the Government are wrong in this marginal argument, then they can extend the time to 20 or 23 months or even to three or four years if we take the argument to absurdity. If the Opposition are wrong, we would only delay the operation of the Bill unnecessarily for six months.

While I do not want to go over the ground too harshly, we believe that a great deal of time has been wasted by not putting through the effective provisions of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act, 1951. We do not wish to be impeded by that. I remind the House that the Government intend to follow this legislation, as quickly as possible within the pledge which I gave in Committee on behalf of my right hon. Friend, with legislation implementing the Hill Watson Report and the sewerage code. We are most anxious to press ahead with this and hon. Members opposite are embarrassing us unduly by pressing this Amendment on us. Even if they are right, it does no good to accept the Amendment, and in all modety we submit that the Government have been better advised than they.

Mr. Michael Noble (Argyle)

We certainly do not want to embarrass the Under-Secretary of State by pressing something on which he has given assurances in talking to the various interests concerned. We are satisfied with the assurances which he was able to give them.

I could not help agreeing with the hon. Gentleman when he spoke about the good sense of the Department's officers, who are generally cautious in deciding the speed at which things should be done. I wonder whether some officials in other Departments share that view at this moment. But that is a side issue. I am prepared to accept the hon. Gentleman's assurance that this matter will be dealt with carefully and that the people concerned accept the assurances which he gave them.

Mr. G. Campbell

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.