HC Deb 16 March 1972 vol 833 cc895-900

Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Simeons

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be interested in one thing only, the possible effect of potential hazards upon the environment, health and well-being of people and animals. The Bill is not aimed at collecting revenue or retribution; that function will be performed next week. The Committee wishes, I am sure, to prevent damage rather than to clean up the mess after the damage has been caused. The simplest way to make clear our intentions is to extend the definition of "waste" to include abandoned vehicles. This is not inconsistent with the aims of the Bill.

If a drum of cyanide is dumped, the guilty party will be liable to prosecution whether or not damage has already resulted. The same applies if a drum of petrol is dumped. This is clearly stated in Clause 1(3) at line 25.

If this extension of definition is not accepted, the potential hazard will in no way be discouraged, and petrol in a tank will not constitute a risk provided that it is attached to a framework which originally formed part of a motor vehicle. No offence will be created under the Bill unless something occurs to show that damage has resulted.

The Luton Evening Post has been mounting a campaign drawing attention to children who have suffered grevious burns and physical damage. A young boy of six, Darrell O'Dell, who lives in my constituency, was badly burned after playing around an abandoned vehicle. A vehicle in Queen Street, Luton burst into flames. The fire officers reminded me that had a child been in the car there would have been a human barbeque. As a result of the newspaper's warning, 13 cars have been removed in the last day or two, but there are still others to be seen in Luton.

The thought that we might extend the definition of waste to include abandoned vehicles will, I suspect, offend the purists. If it does, I make no apology. I would far rather do that than see more children maimed, whether in Luton or anywhere else. Nor do I think the Secretary of State will say to me "Bring out your dead before I will act, line them up nose to tail before the table". He, I know, will wish to prevent such catastrophes but, sadly, the Bill as it stands will not do so.

I had hoped to take the shortest route to this end, but even now I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will agree with what our constituents want and do something which is in his power for their protection. The Secretary of State alone can do it.

The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) pointed out that councils are hamstrung by the law. The Civic Amenities Act demands that even the most obvious wreck must be left with a notice on it for seven days. Just imagine an unsuspecting council official hammering away to pin on the notice with sparks flying in all directions only to find himself enveloped in flames. That, of course, is why one never sees such notices nailed to cars and why such cars are so rarely removed from the scene.

The other possibility is that it will be claimed that the Bill covers all these points I have made, but we shall not know this until cases have been heard in the courts. What I fear is that just as we were all summoned here to rush through a Bill to remove doubts with regard to Northern Ireland, so it could be found that there were loopholes in this Bill in respect of my fears.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will place the matter beyond all doubt and make totally clear the hazard which must be tackled. Because of my unfortunate lapse a great responsibility is now placed on him which otherwise would have been placed on the Committee, but I believe that all those here tonight who fail to take action will have an accusing finger pointed at them if further deaths, damage, burns or other injuries are sustained by children or others. The matter is entirely in our hands. Let us face it with courage and not turn our back on it.

Mr. John Silkin

You will be delighted to hear, Sir Robert, that I propose to be even more laconic than the two hon. Members who have spoken. I want simply to direct the Secretary of State's mind to a point in Clause 1(3) where one environmental hazard is defined as something which threatens the pollution or contamination … of any water supply". I cannot help feeling that these words are a little narrow and restrictive, and I would think that any reasonably ingenious lawyer could order that this applied only to pipes or something similar. Obviously I do not expect anything to be done about this at the moment, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will look at this.

Mr. Peter Walker

I will certainly look at the point. Certainly our intention is to interpret this in the widest possible sense.

If I may deal with the point made by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons), I certainly accept that the dumping of vehicles is in many ways a serious problem. It is one which, as the hon. Member for West Ham, North mentioned, is covered by existing legislation under which there are certain penalties. I know that both in his constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton there have been a number of occasions on which abandoned vehicles have caught fire with very serious injury to or the death of children and other human beings.

The objective of this Bill is primarily to deal with polluting wastes and not with the whole problem of the dangerous abandoning of materials, and I accept immediately that, for example, the penalties for many of our polluting and dangerous actions such as those covered by the Civic Amenities Act are inadequate. I have already stated in the House that it is our intention to review all these penalties, but the place to do that is not in a Bill which is primarily a Measure to deal with a particular problem. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is the intention of the Government to review such penalties.

I will of course give more satisfaction than this to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend because certainly this Bill will, on this interpretation, catch an abandoned vehicle if it has been abandoned in such a way that it can produce—not that it does produce—poisonous, noxious or polluting effects. This could happen in cases where oil or petrol have been left to leak out of a vehicle in circumstances which would create a potential environmental hazard. In course of time as corrosion sets in a tank could be expected to leak and there would arise from the vehicle what could constitute an environmental hazard within the contemplation of the Bill.

It is not a case of the penalties under the Bill being related to the harm being done. It relates to the threat of harm being done. The wording of Clause 1(3) speaks of subjecting persons or animals to material risk"— not to material damage. I believe the interpretation would be that to leave petrol in an abandoned vehicle would constitute a material risk of damage to the people concerned.

First of all, therefore, I undertake to the hon. Gentleman that, in reviewing the pollution penalties as a whole we will review the penalties under the Civic Amenities Act. Furthermore, the position is substantially improved by Clause 1 of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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