HL Deb 28 June 1875 vol 225 cc637-46

(The Lord President.)


Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, that at the outset he wished to divest the minds of their Lordships of a misapprehension with respect to the extent and purpose of the measure. In many quarters the Bill was supposed to be designed as a settlement of the great sanitary questions which had of late been so much discussed; and that it was intended to be a complete and conclnsive measure. Had it been so intended, no doubt the Government would have been fairly open to the criticism that they had not redeemed the pledges they had given at the commencement of the Session that they would devote a large portion of their energy to legislation in respect of sanitary matters. But both of these statements were based on erroneous assumptions. The Bill was neither a complete nor a conclusive measure. What it purported to be was neither more nor less than a measure to amend and consolidate the existing sanitary law. The Bill certainly was a large one, for it contained 340 clauses; but, startling as that number of sections might appear at first sight, he thought that a printed Paper which had been circulated among their Lordships must have shown them that the Bill was not as formidable as its bulk might seem to imply. In order to explain what was proposed to be done by the Bill, he must bring under their Lordships' notice the various Acts at present in force on the subject; but he did not think he need go back farther than the year 1848. In that year there was considerable alarm in this country in consequence of the threatened approach of cholera. Mainly actuated by that fear, the Parliament of that day passed the Public Health Act. That Act was chiefly applicable to towns; but it did not come into operation unless a certain number of the ratepayers called for it, and the central authority, the General Board of Health, was of opinion that it ought to be applied. There was no alteration in that state of things till the year 1858, when the powers of the General Board of Health expired, and they were transferred to the Home Secretary. After 1858 there were two other Acts—one in 1861 and the other in 1863. They were amending Acts, into the details of which it was not necessary for him to enter. In 1865 an Act passed entitled the Sewage Utilization Act, the object of which was to enable the local authorities of any district to dispose of sewage so as that it might not become a nuisance, and also apply it to agricultural purposes. It also extended the Health of Towns Act to rural districts. In 1867 there was another Utilization of Sewage Act, which gave further powers to local bodies and enabled them to combine. He might mention that, in 1855, a Sanitary Act dealing with noxious trades was passed, and was amended by the Acts of 1860 and 1863, which were merely amending Acts. He now came to the Act passed in 1866—the Sanitary Act—which was an important one, and deserved rather more attention. It amended the Utilization of Sewage Act of 1865, and gave power to sewage authorities and vestries to form themselves into drainage districts and to enter into undertakings for the better supply of water; it amended the Nuisance Removal Act of 1,855, and conferred additional powers in respect of disinfection. A very important provision was that contained in the 49th clause, which gave power to the Home Secretary to execute certain works in default of their being executed by the local authority, and to charge the local authority with the cost. In 1869 and 1870 further Acts were passed relating to sanitary subjects; and at this moment there were not fewer than 15 Acts embodying the provisions to which he had alluded. "With the progress of sanitary legislation and the enlargement of the powers of the authorities to whom the carrying out of that legislation had been entrusted, a certain amount of confusion arose in the reading and the enforcing of the several Acts of Parliament. There were several distinct authorities—namely, the urban authority, the rural authority, and the authority represented by the Boards of Guardians—for dealing with the same matters and sometimes with different powers. In some districts the Boards of Guardians were the authority for the removal of nuisances, and the vestries for sewers and the supply of water. With a view to bringing about a better system his right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister, when before in office, advised the Queen to issue a Royal Commission, and the members of that Commission—a very strong one—were subsequently named by the Government of the Party opposite. At the end of three years the Commission made its Report, in which it stated— That it is desirable to make laws concerning public health as simple and uniform as possible, and with a view thereto to repeal as far as may be practicable the existing General Acts, and to mate amended and more extensive provision in respect of the subject-matter by one comprehensive statute. In 1872 an amending Act was passed which divided the authorities into two classes—the urban authority and the rural authority. In 1874 another amending Act was passed; but the law being still in an unsatisfactory state. Her Majesty's Government thought it their duty to bring in this Bill for the purpose of consolidating the various Acts in one Bill. The difficulty of consolidating several Acts was shown by the course pursued in reference to the Navy Discipline Act. The way that was accomplished was this—In 1860 an Act was passed repealing the whole or part of eight Acts, and embodying in one statute the law relating to discipline in the Navy. Then that was repealed and re-enacted with Amendments in 1861. In 1864 the Act of 1861 was repealed and re-enacted with Amendments. In 1866 the process was repeated, and the Act passed in that year formed the code of settled law relating to the discipline in the Navy, and which he believed was found to be satisfactory. The Bill now before their Lordships' House was divided into eleven Parts, but there were only about six of these to which he need call particular attention. Commencing with the third Part, its subject was SANITARY PROVISIONS, and related to the subjects of Sewerage and Drainage, and contained clauses relating to scavenging and cleansing, water supply, cellar-dwellings and lodging-houses, nuisances, offensive trades, unsound meat, infectious diseases and hospitals, the prevention of epidemic diseases, and mortuaries. Part IV., LOCAL GOVERNMENT PROVISIONS, related to the subjects of Highways and Streets, and the clauses dealt with the regulation and lighting of streets, new buildings, public pleasure gardens, markets, slaughter-houses, public halls, &c., and police regulations. Part V. contained GENERAL PROVISIONS as to contracts, purchase of land, by-laws, officers, and mode of conducting business by local authorities. Part VI., EATING and BORROWING POWERS, related to expenses of Urban Authority and Urban Bates, expenses of Rural Authority, borrowing powers and audit. Part VII. to LEGAL PROCEEDINGS; and Part VIII. to ALTERATION of AREAS and UNION of DISTRICTS for constituting the sanitary authority. These were the salient points of the Bill. What he wished more particularly to call attention to, however, were the new provisions which had been introduced and which had hitherto not formed part of the legislation of the country. Under these provisions the local authority had the control of sewers as well without as within their district, and were empowered to carry water mains beyond their district underground. This power did exist at present in regard to sewage, and it seemed only reasonable that it should exist in regard to water, which was equally necessary to the health of the community. Further, the waterworks clauses were incorporated in the Bill in accordance with the recommendations of the Select Committee. Another clause increased the limit of the cost of the water supply to 2d. per week on houses where it could not be provided at a cheaper rate. Then power was granted to local authorities to suppress trade nuisances; to urban authorities to purchase or provide gasworks by agreement; to sanitary authorities generally to proceed against joint contributors to a nuisance; and to the Local Government Board to unite districts and appoint medical officers of health. The provision as to joint contributors to nuisances was framed because it was sometimes difficult to distinguish who the offending party really was, as his noble Friend (the Marquess of Salisbury) had found in regard to the pollution of rivers. As for the Amendments made in the other House, they did not call for special notice. They were important, no doubt, but it would be better to consider them in Committee. As to the Bill generally, he ventured to suggest to their Lordships the advisability of confining discussion, as far as possible, to the new provisions; because if they travelled over the whole 341 clauses, re-considering the merits of Acts of Parliament which had been passed during the last 30 years, they would be occupied—he would not say uselessly, but certainly for a much longer period than he could hope would be given to the Bill. If the Bill passed into law in its present state it would present no bar to future improvements in sanitary legislation—on the contrary, it would smooth the way. As for the new provisions introduced, they had been found absolutely necessary in order to reconcile the conflicting provisions of the various Acts dealt with. For instance, under the Public Health Act of 1848, in the case of the junction of a drain with the sewer of the local authority, the written consent of the urban authority was necessary; whereas under the Sanitary Act of 1866, which was equally in force, it was not required. In these observa- tions he believed he had indicated the full scope of the Bill. He might again say, in conclusion, that he did not bring it forward as a great measure of sanitary reform, but as a measure which, by consolidating, with some not unimportant amendments, the Sanitary Acts of the last 30 years, laid a good foundation for such enactments as might in future be deemed necessary for the promotion and maintenance of public health.

Moved, "That the Bill be now road 2a."—(The Lord President.)


said, that this Bill, like a great many others, was a Bill to increase the public burdens on the ratepayers. He thought it was high time the ratepayers should have greater control over the local expenditure of the country, but the effect of the present Bill would be to render such control more difficult to exercise than ever. That was not his own opinion alone; it was the opinion of the Officers of Public Health and of the Poor Law Board also. An indispensable condition of good administration was that they should have administrative areas. Now, the present Bill tended to strengthen the unions by making them great borrowing corporations, and therefore much more difficult to arrange in administrative areas; and, as the counties and the unions were not conterminous, how could a system of county administration be introduced? Until the boundaries of counties and unions were made to harmonize, it was impossible that any effective system of local administration could exist. His own union extended into three counties, and it was obvious that in such a case the ratepayers of the several counties would have great difficulty in controlling local expenditure. If once, he maintained, the union were made the unit, it would be impossible to get back to the county without great difficulty. When, he might add, the noble Duke who had just spoken (the Duke of Richmond) was down at Brighton the other day he made a very eloquent speech, in which he pointed out, with a good deal of truth, that the predecessors of the present Government in office had passed several measures which had the effect of harassing the country considerably. He was afraid, however, that the noble Duke himself and his Colleagues were following in the same path. They had, for instance, introduced an Artizans Dwellings Bill, which would interfere with the poor very much, unless it was carried out with great caution. There was besides the Agricultural Holdings Bill, with its "letting value," which seemed to have harassed the country so much that there were representations with regard to it from all quarters—although he had been told that he knew nothing about the matter when he warned the Government that they would hear more on the subject. The Pollution of Rivers Bill was another measure which appeared to have so discomposed the various interests which would be effected by it, that the noble Marquess who had charge of it had ever since the second reading been beset with deputations complaining of its provisions. The Bill under discussion was somewhat of a similar character, and was so full of details that it was impossible to enter into them at any length on that occasion. Inspectors and surveyors were to be appointed under its provisions, who would in all probability be frequently very ignorant people, and yet it would be in the power of one of those inspectors to go to a poor man and say—"You must not have this pigsty," and cause a great deal of trouble by insisting on its removal. It would be necessary to examine these inspectors and surveyors before they were appointed, because the authority with which they would be invested was very great; and it seemed to be forgotten that, in passing Provisional Orders, very important measures were often agreed to—not always with due consideration. For these reasons he was of opinion that whenever the Bill went into Committee, it would be necessary to look very carefully into its provisions.


said, it was not unusual to designate some measures which were brought before Parliament—especially at the end of the Session, and which dealt with a great many matters—"omnibus" Bills. Now, that epithet might, he thought, very well be applied to the speech to which the House had just listened;—or perhaps it might, taking into account the nature of the Bill under discussion, be more appropriately termed a consolidated Opposition speech. The noble Duke had referred to a great number of questions—and had mentioned several Bills which were connected together in. no other way except by the fact that they were not in the Bill now before their Lordships. The noble Duke had condemned very seriously too the power of borrowing, and the effect which such a power was likely to have on the re-distribution of administrative power; but, then, there was no power of borrowing contained in the Bill. The same remark applied to several other observations of the noble Duke. He was, however, perfectly willing to concede to him that inspectors were not always infallible, and that it was possible they might sometimes take an undue antipathy to an innocent pigsty; but then it should be borne in mind that inspectors were the genuine outcome of our democratic form of Government; and if, as the noble Duke had recommended, there were to be an examination in discretion in their case, he was afraid that if they were to be intrusted with the larger task of governing our counties a still more strict examination would be required. But if, as the noble Duke argued, inspectors were sometimes careless in the exercise of their power, they could at least, it seemed, plead as an excuse the want of attention on the part of Members of Parliament themselves in dealing with that very important class of legislation known as Provisional Orders. He was, however, afraid he should take up too much of the time of the House if he were to defend the various positions which the noble Duke had selected for attack—he thought they would be best met when the Bills to which they referred were brought under the consideration of their Lordships. He ventured, however, to tender a respectful protest against one particular criticism of the noble Duke. He understood his argument to be that this Bill ought not to pass because the Government had not elaborated some grander scheme with which when produced the smaller provisions of the measure might be found to conflict. Now such a course as that, if adopted, would put a stop to any ameliorative legislation; but in the case of such legislation as that under discussion, hampered as it was in the other House of Parliament and oppressed by the weight of public business constantly increasing, while at the same time the opportunities of carrying it out did not increase, to set our face against minute improvements would be practically to refuse to make any change for the better at all.


pointed out that the question to be determined was at what period consolidation should take place. It was true the late Government were willing to undertake the task of consolidating the various Acts relating to the public health, but they were of opinion that very important amendments of the law should first be made. The difficulties connected with the matter were found to be immense. It was thought by both sides that it would be better to refer it to a Select Committee; but their Report did not much facilitate the action of the Government. There were parts of the existing law which required amendment in order to strengthen the hands of the Local Government Board in the event of the local authorities failing to do their duty. He intended to place on the Paper an Amendment for that purpose, so that the noble Duke opposite might have an opportunity of considering it.


said, that nobody could be more conversant than he was with the mischief which had arisen from the multitude of Acts which had been passed on this subject, and from the difficulty of understanding what the law was in relation to it. He would only say a word of caution—they ought not to be content with looking to those parts of the Bill which merely restored the old Acts. There ought to be some control over the execution of works by local bodies. For example, if a reservoir for supplying water were not properly made, there was a danger of its bursting and doing great injury. In cases of that kind there ought to be some control exercised for the sake of the public safety. The powers given by the Bill to take over waterworks and gasworks from companies also required guarding, in order that the shareholders might have sufficient notice of so important a matter as a proposal to part with their interest in such undertakings. On that and other points some amendments might be made in certain provisions of the existing law with great advantage while they were dealing with that subject. As to making unions conterminous with counties it was impracticable, except at an enormous amount of expense and trouble, which would be attended with no commensurate benefit to the public. He regarded that Bill as a very im- portant step in the right direction. The repeal of nearly the whole of some 25 Acts was in itself a matter of very great importance, and he trusted that the measure, when amended in some particulars, would be of great advantage to local government throughout the country.


said, that having frequently complained of the multitude of statutory enactments on that subject, he felt bound in consistency to thank the Government for the very useful measure they had brought in. No one who had not been practically engaged in the work of endeavouring to effect sanitary improvements under the existing law could adequately appreciate the enormous amount of labour, difficulty, and doubt, together with consequent expense, arising from the multiplicity of enactments—sometimes varying and sometimes actually conflicting with each other—which now encumbered the Statute Book in reference to such subjects. Another difficulty of the existing state of things arose from the perplexing manner in which jurisdictions and areas intersected one another.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday the 6th of July next.