HC Deb 14 April 1967 vol 744 cc1567-74

1.45 p.m.

Mr. More

I beg to move Amendment No. 61, in page 16, line 23, to leave out 'may if they think fit' and to insert 'shall'.

This Amendment brings us up once again to the question of the degree of financial obligation and liability that the House of Commons thinks it right to impose on local authorities. Amendment No. 8 dealt with abandoned motor cars, and Clause 19 deals with refuse in general.

The first subsection deals with refuse other than a motor vehicle, and gives the local authority discretionary power to remove it. The authority is under no obligation and, unlike the test in relation to abandoned motor cars, the test of cost is not included. By Clause 2 local authorities have certain limitations on their powers, and under subsection (5) of this Clause they have the power to recover the costs, is as provided under Clause 18 if they can identify the person responsible.

Once again, we find ourselves up against the broad issue of the extent to which we should leave a gap, as it were, in the Bill. Once again, we realise that the Bill's overriding purpose is to rid the country of the eyesores with which it is now so much cluttered up, whether they be abandoned motor vehicles or refuse of any other kind. Those of us who have at heart, and I think we all have, the main purpose of the Bill, are understandably disturbed when we find left to local authorities these wide discretions, which may result in nullifying in a wide degree what we want to achieve.

Subsection (3) refers to a number of existing statutory provisions. I do not pretend to know them all by heart, or to know precisely the powers they confer, but I understand that under the Public Health Act, 1936, which is the governing Act referred to, a local authority already has power to abate nuisances on private land, and that that would include a nuisance caused by an accumulation of litter of the kind to which the Clause relates. I believe that I am right in saying that under the Highways Act, 1959, highway authorities also have power to abate nuisances on highways, and that that, again, would include nuisances from the type of refuse with which we are here dealing.

We must, first, ask ourselves whether we think that local authorities, public health authorities or highway authorities have made use of the discretionary powers they already have. If they have not done so, I think that the reason must be that they consider that the expenditure involved is perhaps too large to justify its imposition on the ratepayers. That brings us, again, to the crux, which is the financial liability involved in tightening up these provisions.

We must face the fact that if subsection (1) of the Clause does nothing more than give a discretionary power—and that is how it appears to me—it is not, in fact, doing very much more than what the existing legislation already empowers local authorities to do. We have to ask ourselves whether the subsection will, in fact, achieve any purpose at all.

The other point to which attention should be directed is the position of the private owner. Very often in these cases the refuse with which we are concerned is deposited on privately owned land. If the local authority so exercises its discretion as not to move the refuse, what is the private owner to do? There is nothing he can do, except leave it there, or have it removed at his own expense. That is not the sort of result we seek from such a Bill as this.

Looking back at the provisions relating to abandoned motor cars, it seems odd that here we should not have equally onerous powers. The Clause might, for example, have referred to cost. I have not included this aspect in the Amendment, but we really must face the main point of principle, which is whether the local authority is to be left in a purely discretionary position or is to be put under an obligation.

As one of those who support the Bill and everything it seeks to do, I should like to see it a really effective Bill over the whole front. It is for that reason that, on this important provision, I should like to see a definite obligation imposed. If the Minister were to say that he would consider once again the question of a definition that would meet the issue of cost and liability, it would be very acceptable to me.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

We should all be quite clear about what is being asked. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) has asked us to consider the matter of principle. He says that the House of Commons should face the question of making it completely mandatory on a local authority to remove all rubbish, spoil, articles, and material irrespective of the circumstances. I do not think that he could keep to that idea, and I am glad that he added that he would withdraw his Amendment if he could have some assurance about refining some of the words and leaving the power permissive in respect of certain matters.

The hon. Gentleman referred to cost, but here this item is rather different from that involved in the argument we had about vehicles, in relation to which I join with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that it is reasonable to consider again the question of unreasonably high cost. If that argument is sound in connection with motor vehicles, it is sound in the present connection. The right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) was good enough to mention the fact that many local authorities had written to him, and that local authority associations had been in touch with him with regard to what concerned us in our recent discussion. The objections they may have had to that, I assure the hon. Member for Ludlow, are many times greater on this score than on the previous score about vehicles.

I should be loath to suggest that we could make this Clause better, because I am not quite sure in what parts we could seek to improve it. I realise that he would not wish to press this matter on principle and make it completely mandatory. Provided that he accepts that we cannot make the matter mandatory, there is no reason why we should not seek the advice of the local authorities on the points he has made. It is not easy to do this in the same way as we promised to do with reference to the last Amendment, because there would be not only the judgment on the cost but the cost vis-à-vis amenity values.

I imagine that there are certain cases where rubble is discharged into a disused quarry and that may be a laudable thing to do, but then someone might insist that, in law, the local authority must not do so. If we made a blanket provision we might end by making the whole matter absurd.

Mr. More

I suggest that all the cases which come under subsection (5) could be made mandatory, that is to say, where the local authority is in a position to recover the expense.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I wish we were debating that as an Amendment, because then we could consult the various parties. I would be willing to discuss this with the local authority associations in the light of what the hon. Member said, and specifically this suggestion and any others which arise in the debate or subsequently by correspondence.

I join with the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) in recognising that we have to carry the local authorities with us. We must not impose on them unreasonable duties. We have to see the value of what they are trying to do and try to get a synthesis of view. I hope that the hon. Member for Ludlow will not press the Amendment. We should have discussions with the sponsors and then consult the local authorities about the suggestions which have been made, or may be made in the near future. That must be done in the near future, however, if we are to get the Bill on to the Statute Book.

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

There are two classes covered by this provision. One is on any land in the open air The objection that has been raised by the Amendment applies very much to this first part. The provision any land in the open air is very wide. We could not expect it to be mandatory on a local authority to remove rubbish on any land in the open air, but there is a different point in on any other land forming part of a highway". A highway, by its nature, is defined as something for which local authorities have responsibilities.

This is a unique Bill which is uniquely valuable. In the 12 years I have sat in this House I have never seen anything in the amenity field reaching so near the Statute Book. It is clear that we shall not be able to return to this subject at a later date with ease. It will not be a popular choice for selection in the Private Members' Ballot and I do not think that the Government would give time for a Bill of their own on this subject. It is, therefore, all the more important that the Bill, which is a sort of Magna Carta, should go on to the Statute Book in the best form that we can make it.

The Minister is to have discussions with the local authorities on this point. He should seriously consider whether they should have a statutory obligation in respect of highways irrespective of what they might feel proper in dealing with other places in the open air, which, I agree, is asking for a great deal. The Minister has told us that he hopes to have consultations with the local authorities before the Bill goes to another place. I hope that he can tell us that he will differentiate between highways which are already the responsibility of local authorities and any land in the open air", which I agree could perfectly well be left to the discretion of local authorities.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The reason—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind the hon. Member that he must ask the leave of the House to speak again. I apologise for not having reminded the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) that he should have done so before speaking a second time on an Amendment. Neither of these two Ministers is in charge of the Bill. It is in the charge of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys).

Dr. Mabon

With the leave of the House, I speak again on this subject.

The reason why the Bill has gone so far and is of this magnitude is the statesmanship of the sponsors in recognising the facts of the situation and the willingness of the Government to co-operate at every opportunity. The Government, on the other hand, must carry the local authorities with them in this respect. This is the essence of good government. We must genuinely consult local authorities and respect the arguments they put forward.

Local authorities are resolutely against the idea of making this provision mandatory. We shall reopen this matter with them and certainly make the point which was made by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir Henry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid). I welcome and support his remarks about any land in the open air I think that local authorities will stress that to us and I shall draw the other points to their attention. If we cannot carry them with us, I do not think the hon. Member would want to impede the progress of the Bill. We want to get as much as we can and this is the exercise this afternoon.

Mr. More

I hope that what the Minister has said means that the Government will be willing to discuss with the sponsors the possibility of in some way altering the Clause similar to the way in which we discussed the matter of abandoned motor cars. If that is so, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

2.0 p.m.

Mr. Cordle

I beg to move Amendment No. 44, in page 17, line 5, at the end to insert: 'but any sum received in pursuance of this subsection by a local authority in Greater London in respect of the cost to the Greater London Council of disposing of any thing shall be paid over by the authority to the Council'. This Amendment was drafted by the Government. Subsection (4), to which the words in the Amendment are intended to be added, empowers a local authority to recover the costs of removing and disposing of abandoned rubbish other than motor vehicles, from the person responsible for dumping it. Outside London, the same authority is responsible both for removal and disposal, but in London the boroughs are responsible for removal, and the Greater London Council is responsible for disposal. The Amendment accordingly provides that in London a borough which receives sums in respect of the costs of disposal by the Greater London Council must pay them over to that Council.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 45, in page 17, line 8, after 'if', insert: 'it had come into force at the commencement of this Act and as if'.—[Mr. Cordle.]

Mr. Cordle

I beg to move Amendment No. 46, in page 17, line 18, at the end to insert: 'and in subsection (2) of that section for the word "site" there shall be substituted the word "land"'. This is merely a drafting Amendment. Subsection (6) amends Section 34(1) of the Public Health Act, 1961, in such a way that the words any vacant site in a built-up area are altered to any land in the open area in their that is, the local authority's— area". Section 34(2) refers to the owner and occupier of the site". It is therefore necessary, as a consequence of the Amendment of subsection (1), to alter "site" to "land" as in the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.