HC Deb 07 July 1989 vol 156 cc618-22

Lords amendment: No. 1, in line 1, leave out "repeal" and insert "amend"

12 noon

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 2.

Mr. Hunter

As is well known, the amendments apply to the long title of the Bill. If they are accepted, the amended long title will read: A Bill to amend section 16(1)(a) of the Clean Air Act 1956 and section 1 of the Clean Air Act 1968. Some words of explanation are needed as to why there is a need for these Lords amendments to be considered at such a late stage.

I support the arguments in another place and suggest that we first consider why the Bill has the wrong long title and then to consider why the amendments will make the long title the right title. Ironically, virtually the only controversy generated by the Bill has been centred on the long title. When the Bill received Third Reading on 14 April, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) acknowledged: It is a small Bill, but it is an important amendment to existing legislation. She continued: the Bill is important in the context of air pollution."—[Official Report, 14 April 1989; Vol. 150, c. 1161.] Similar sentiments were expressed during the passage of the Bill through another place. On Second Reading, Lord Graham of Edmonton said that the intention of the Bill would receive a warm welcome from the Opposition Benches. Lord Mayhew made an interesting observation, expressing the opinion that it would be inappropriate for such a Bill to receive a Second Reading in another place without a word of support from the Democratic Benches. Throughout the proceedings in the House, there has been not one contribution from SLD and SDP Members on Third Reading or during debates on amendments. Today we note the total absence of SLD and SDP Members. In Committee in another place, Lord Tordoff, another Opposition spokesman, praised the Bill and declared total support from the Opposition. Nevertheless, there has been some controversy about the long title; hence the amendments from another place.

In moving that we accept the Lords amendments, let me first explain how and why the Bill came to have the wrong long title. The answer lies significantly in the origins of the Bill. The genesis of the Bill was a Government document entitled "Air Pollution Control in Great Britain: Review and Proposals", a consultation paper issued in December 1986 by the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Development Department and the Welsh Office. The sequel to that was "Air Pollution Control in Great Britain: follow-up to consultation paper issued in December 1986". It was issued in December 1988 by the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Development Department and the Welsh Office.

The beginnings of the controversy about the long title can be traced back to the consultation process. The introduction to the consultation paper states the following objectives: In 1982 the Government decided that a comprehensive review of air pollution legislation should be undertaken. This was in part a response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's recommendations in its Fifth Report, that there should be new, comprehensive legislation to cover all aspects of industrial air pollution. It set out conclusions from that review and invited comments on the proposals for action. One of those was: to make certain other changes to the Clean Air Acts 1956 and 1968". Clause 1 of the Bill relates to domestic smoke nuisance from private dwellings.

Paragraph 8 of the consultation paper is significant in understanding why the Bill has the wrong title. It states: Under existing legislation, the emission of 'dark smoke' from chimneys of all buildings in all areas is forbidden. In areas subject to smoke control the discharge of any smoke is generally forbidden. In addition, smoke may be a statutory nuisance for the purposes of the Public Health Act 1936, except by virtue of section 16(1)(a) of the Clean Air Act 1956 where it is emitted from a chimney of a private dwelling. There is no good reason why troublesome emissions of non-dark smoke from houses in areas not subject to smoke control should be exempt from control. There follows the key sentence: To remedy this it is proposed to repeal section 16(1)(a) of the Clean Air Act 1956". It was then believed that the repeal of section 16(1)(a) of the 1956 Act was necessary to close the loophole in that Act.

The paragraphs of the consultation paper dealing with clause 2 of the Bill—entitled "Dark Smoke from Industrial or Trade Premises"—proposed changes to the Clean Air Acts 1956 and 1968. Those paragraphs explore at length particular loopholes and weaknesses that were experienced by local authorities in bringing prosecutions. Paragraph 3 states: The following amendments to the legislation are being considered in order to ease these enforcement problems That is partly how the long title of the Bill came into being—from what was believed at the time of the consultative process to be necessary to close the loopholes in the Clean Air Acts; that was the repeal of part of the 1956 Act and the amendment of part of the 1968 Act. For reasons that I shall explain in a minute, it came to be realised that that was an incorrect analysis. It should not have been decided that it was necessary to repeal part of the 1956 Act and to amend part of the 1968 Act. On the contrary, all that was necessary was to amend both.

Why is the amendment necessary? When I introduced the Bill on 21 December, parliamentary counsel had not finished the first draft of the Bill—by no means, I am assured, an unusual state of affairs. There was a title, but there was no Bill. The Bill's long title was, as I have said, drawn from the terminology of the consultative process to repeal section 16(1)(a) of the Clean Air Act 1956 and to amend section I of the Clean Air Act 1968, but the Bill itself did not exist. After introduction, parliamentary counsel produced a first draft of the Bill duly repealing section 16(1)(a) of the Clean Air Act 1956, as the title said it would.

My objective has been and remains the implementation of the consultative process conclusion that non-dark smoke emissions in areas not subject to smoke control should come under the ambit of the statutory nuisance provisions of the public health legislation. However, parliamentary counsel realised that that objective was not best achieved by repealing section 16(1)(a) of the 1956 Act. So as not to depart from the consultation paper proposal, parliamentary counsel concluded that it would be better to retain part of section 16(1)(a). Thus, subsection (1)(a) required amendment, not repeal. The title of the Bill said the reverse. That meant that, at some stage, an amendment to the long title had to be tabled. Obviously, time would be spent in Committee, but the prospects of the Bill becoming law would be greater, so I thought, if the Bill had its Committee stage on the Floor of the House immediately after Second Reading.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way while still in full flow. I, and I am sure other hon. Members, are riveted by this exposition. May we assume that the good people of Basingstoke will be thrilled by what is happening today, and that we can expect a pollution-free statue erected to my hon. Friend's memory?

Mr. Hunter

That is an attractive proposition, but my serious reply is that the provisions of the Bill will be immensely beneficial to many people. There are loopholes in existing legislation. This Bill closes them, and it will be greatly appreciated by many people throughout the country, not least my constituents.

The problem was amending the defective long title. Two options that were left were to do so in the Lords or by means of verbal amendment on Third Reading. It was originally put to me that the disadvantage of making the amendment in the House of Lords was the risk of delay. The Bill would have been lost if it had not returned to the House by today. Therefore, I took the unusual but entirely legitimate step of introducing the amendments by the verbal amendment procedure. The Bill is not controversial. The amendments simply ensure that the long title accurately reflects the contents of the Bill.

12.15 pm

On 14 April, Opposition Members spent more than four hours debating the verbal amendment procedure. To ensure that progress could be made, I was obliged to withdraw the amendments, and they were made in due course in another place on 8 June by the Earl of Portsmouth. I have made the point that the Bill has been welcomed by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North and by the Government and the Opposition in another place. It was not substantially criticised on Third Reading. The only controversy has centred on the long title. The amendments merely reconcile the long title with the body of the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

All hon. Members will congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on clearly and authoritatively explaining the amendments. It is a Herculean task to introduce a private Member's Bill that will redress many grievances. Many citizens in this country, not only in Basingstoke, have every reason to appreciate my hon. Friend's efforts and persistence. Many of us are now rather the wiser about the detail of parliamentary drafting and the procedures of the House.

In so far as responsibility for the error in the original drafting lies within advice that was given by my own Department, I offer my hon. Friend a fulsome apology. It has meant that this excellent, sensible, and practical measure, which will close some loopholes in the existing legislation, has been deprived of the full and thorough debate that many hon. Members would have liked it to have, because we have become deeply enmeshed in intricate drafting details. In so far as it affects the long title, it would have been disastrous if there had been any flaw in a Bill, which will play a thoroughly useful part in the campaign against air pollution.

On Third Reading, during a four-hour debate which ranged over several matters, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) was able to fill much of his time with reminiscences, details and knowledge of a great many subjects. He recollected bicycling across London 40 years ago. To protect himself from smoke and pollution, he put gauze over his mouth. By the time he got to the end of his journey, the gauze was sooty and dirty, giving a clear sign of the pollution that then existed. We have made remarkable progress in the battle against pollution. The smogs that sent even the likes of me home from school early are now a thing of the past.

The amount of sunshine at Kew in the winter, which used to be double that for the centre of London, is now roughly the same as that in the centre at London. That is a clear sign of the way things have improved. Smoke emission have reduced by 85 per cent., and sulphur dioxide emissions have reduced by 50 per cent. It is not only visible forms of pollution that are being tackled, but many invisible forms, such as chlorofluorocarbons, in our battle to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases and climate change, the campaign to introduce tighter emission standards for cars, and the introduction of unleaded petrol. Many of those issues are global. My hon. Friend's Bill addresses some immediate and local grievances.

There have been long-standing complaints by the neighbours of emitters of non-dark smoke in non-smoke-controlled areas that they have no redress. Some years ago, one of my constituents had precisely that grievance. As a result of clause 1, together with the amendments that were introduced in the Lords, it will now be possible to take action against the emitters of non-dark smoke from dwellings in non-smoke-controlled areas. That is an important contribution. Like clause 2, that was supported by many hon. Members, especially Opposition Members.

There have been complaints from people throughout the country. One example given was bus burning in Barnsley. Complaints were made because there were no powers to take action against those burning buses on open ground of which they were not the owners. Furthermore, if that happened at night, it could not necessarily be proved that dark smoke was being produced. On the strength of the amendments made in the Lords, and together with clause 2, it will be possible at last to take the necessary action to redress that grievance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke is a distinguished and long-serving member of the Select Committee on the Environment. He has particular expertise and knowledge about air pollution. He, more than many other hon. Members, is concerned to tackle questions of air pollution, on a global, regional, national or more immediate and local basis. Many people will have every reason to be grateful to him for closing these loopholes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and thank him for his persistence in seeing his Bill through the necessary stages. I hope that it will not be long before those who have been afflicted by this unpleasant problem will be able to take the necessary action on the strength of his endeavours.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

First, I must pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) who is unable to be here today. However, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) will recall, my hon. Friend has expressed her personal support for the Bill.

On behalf of the Opposition I should add that we support the amendment. We are delighted to support any measure that will give us better air to breathe and will mean that our atmosphere is better protected, not only for human life, but for all other life on our planet, which we all now appreciate is so endangered by the emissions that we human beings produce.

I am happy to lend our support to the Bill. I shall take up no more of the time of the House, except once again to congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke and to say that we are delighted to support the reconciliation of his measure with its long title.

Mr. Hunter

I suspect that all hon. Members who secure a place in the ballot for private Members' Bills experience a mixture of relief and satisfaction when their Bill has finished its passage through Parliament. I assure the House that I am no exception.

I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) for her comments, which I have received gratefully. I am delighted to have her support and that of her party for my Bill.

I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and her officials for the advice and guidance that they have given me during the past few months. I have greatly appreciated it. I feel a special debt of gratitude to the Clerks for their remarkable tolerance and patience in trying to help me and in explaining what I should be doing next.

The Earl of Portsmouth spent a great deal of time preparing and piloting through the Bill in the House of Lords. I understand that it was the first occasion on which he had done so, and I put on the record my sincere thanks to him.

This is a small but important Bill. It seeks to close two loopholes that have emerged in the Clean Air Acts over the years. The Government have responded responsibly to the need for action to combat air pollution. I am glad to have played a small part by introducing the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 agreed to.