HL Deb 27 March 1876 vol 228 cc600-9

My Lords, before I proceed with the Motion of which I have given Notice, I have a Petition to present to your Lordships on the subject to which it relates: it is signed by a number of the most influential persons in the commerce, agriculture, and. manufactories of the towns on both banks of the Tyne; they complain that they suffer great injury and annoyance arising from the fumes of chemical, lead, gas, and other works, and that the existing Acts are inadequate to afford a remedy against these evils; and they beg that further legislation may be brought to bear upon them, or that, if necessary, a Royal Commission may be appointed to take the matter into consideration, and to suggest remedies. It will be in your Lordships' recollection, that a few days since my noble Friend on my right (Lord Winmarleigh) presented a Petition of the same character from the West of England, so that you will be aware that the evil complained of is widely spread, and whether on the East or the West side of the island, its effects are found intolerable by all classes. I am glad to think that the clear and convincing statement made by my noble Friend on that occasion will render it unnecessary for me to trespass long on your Lordships' patience. Now to proceed with the Motion on the Paper. It may not have escaped your Lordships' observation that it was originally directed to the prevention of noxious vapours arising from mineral works, these works being excepted from the operation of the Alkali and Local Board of Health Acts. I have, however received so many complaints, from different quarters, of nuisances arising from other sources, against which it was alleged that in practice there was no remedy, that I have altered the terms of the Notice, so as to include all such emanations, from whatever trade or works arising. I will not weary your Lordships with a long list of these diverse gases and vapours, suffice it to say, that some of them are in a concentrated condition absolutely fatal to animal and vegetable life; and even when in a diluted form, most injurious; others act not so directly and immediately on life, but lower the vital force, thus predisposing to disease and death, more especially in the early stages of infantile existence: all acting most injuriously, by their effects on clothing and food, and by the impediment they offer to domestic and public cleanliness, so important in the crowded state of the population exposed to their effects, imposing a heavy burden on their resources by enhancing the price of the necessaries and the comforts of life. These evils increase daily, and some idea may be formed of the growth of the number of the sufferers from the fact that, according to the last Census, the number of those who are employed in the mineral and alkali works alone have increased by 84 per cent in the former, and by 35 per cent in the latter trade. Now, my Lords, as to the remedies afforded by the law, I do not pretend to be very well versed in the legal aspect of the question, but as far as I know, they are practically almost inoperative—there is the ordinary action, with all its uncertainties, the difficulty of defining the nuisance, the difficulty of fixing upon the offender, the uncertainty of the decision of a jury, subject to local influences and local prejudices, and even if the suitor succeed, in obtaining a verdict in his favour, the probability of the speedy recurrence of the wrong. I know a case where a verdict was returned against a firm, for a nuisance caused by its works, and damages given; but on the sufferer threatening to recur again to the law, when the offence had been repeated, he was informed that the firm was quite indifferent to it, as it could well afford to pay, and kept a fund in reserve to meet such expenses. As to the remedies by statute—the Local Board of Health and Alkali Acts—it is affirmed that it is exceedingly difficult to get the official, whose duty it is under the provisions of the former Act, to move; that local prejudices and partialities too often interfere with his action; whilst as to the Alkali Acts, which deal with only one source of mischief the allegation is made of undue lenity and unwillingness to proceed against offenders, as well as of carelessness and indifference. I do not myself attach much weight to these accusations, whatever may be the case under the first-mentioned head; as far as I can make out, the Alkali Acts Inspectors have discharged their duty very fairly on the whole; they are greatly overworked, and yet have greatly diminished the cause of complaint; and the supposed remissness and reluctance to prosecute are really owing to a desire to give time for experiment and for necssary alterations—in short, they wish to lead rather than to drive men, which I believe, where such great interests are involved, to be the best and wisest way of proceeding. Now, my Lords, I have heard these objections suggested to the issue of the Royal Commission. I propose, first, that it will suspend all legislation for the extension of the powers of the Acts now in existence; the other, that it will cause additional difficulty in dealing hereafter with the subject, owing to the increase of the numbers of the works and manufactories producing the vapours complained of, pending the conclusion of the labours of the Commission, which must necessarily occupy some considerable time. I can only say, as regards the first of these objections, I can see no reason why there should be any difficulty in extending and improving the provisions of Acts which, though not fully successful in the attainment of the objects to which they were directed, have nevertheless been proved by experience to be of the greatest benefit. As to the other point, it must be remembered that the issue of the Commission is in itself a notification to all who may hereafter embark in a business, or trade, or manufactory productive of injury that they do so at their own risk, and cannot claim the consideration which manufacturers of a previous date may be reasonably thought entitled to in the event of future legislation. In questions of such great interest and advantage to the national prosperity, it is of the very greatest possible importance that those who are concerned in them should not imagine that they are to be treated in a hostile spirit; many of them, I know, are men of great acquirement, deep sense of responsibility, and philanthropic disposition, and will prove, if assured that their interests will be treated with proper fairness, the best auxiliaries to the labours of the Commission. I will only express, in conclusion, my Lords, my conviction that any Administration, whether formed from this, or from the opposite side of this House, will, if they succeed in the task of preserving the two elements necessary to our existence, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, from pollution, confer the greatest benefit on the country and deserve the general gratitude of the whole nation.

Moved, that an humble Address tie presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the working and management of works and manufactories from which sulphurous acid, sulphuretted hydrogen, and ammoniacal or other vapours and gases are given off, to ascertain the effect produced thereby on animal and vegetable life, and to report on the means to be adopted for the prevention of injury thereto arising from the exhalations of such acids, vapours, and gases, and upon the legislative measures required for this purpose.—


said, he had heard with great satisfaction that it was not proposed to confine the inquiry to what was done on the banks of the Tyne; for he thought their Lordships would agree with him that the banks of the Thames were even more important, considering the number of persons interested in the salubrity of the Thames Valley. He interposed in this discussion, not from the personal considerations which might be supposed to influence him from the fact that he resided in Lambeth, but because he regarded this as a most important social question. If the circumstances under which manufactories were conducted were such as to drive away from the neighbourhoods in which those manufactories were situated all rich people who could afford to dwell elsewhere, the result must be that enormous towns would grow up inhabited solely by the poor and thus the distinction between the wealthy and the poor, which at present was but too distinctly marked—and which was one of the great social evils of the day—would be still further increased—persons of the lowest grade would crowd into the large suburbs or towns where none of the influences of wealth or superior education could be brought to bear upon them, and thus great evils could not not but be created or augmented. It had no doubt struck the noble Duke—indeed, it must strike everybody who had known the metropolis for many years—that the gardens which used to be the glory of the neighbourhood of London were fast disappearing; and that those beautiful cedars which were seen in the neighbourhood of London in greater number than in any other part of the Kingdom were fast wasting away. It was equally true that the richer people who used to live in the suburbs of London were gradually drawing further away. He held in his hand an official Report which described the state of things which existed within a few minutes walk of their Lordships' House. It stated that along the Albert Embankment, between Vauxhall and Lambeth Bridges, there were works which were highly injurious to the health of the inhabitants of a poor and very crowded neighbourhood. The works evolved noxious gases injurious to animal and vegetable life; in the midst of July the leaves were seen to wither on the trees—many of the trees died, and he was informed that the Local Board had determined not to plant any more trees there, considering it simply a waste of money. In another Report—one drawn up by a gentleman who held an important station—it appeared that the powers given by existing statutes for the suppression of nuisances could scarcely be applied to certain premises in the neighbourhood of Lambeth; because, in cases in which the offensive substance was not kept longer than was necessary for the particular business or manufacture there was no right of interference, and yet in Lambeth some of those substances were ordure. There were manure heaps within a short distance of a flour mill, the flour manufactured within which must be contaminated by the effluvium from these heaps; and thus disease was spread in the manner they had heard of in the spread of disease by diseased milk or polluted water. He trusted, therefore, that from any inquiry by a Royal Commission the metropolis would not be excepted. Their Lordships, who were able to live in large and healthy houses, enjoyed the satisfaction of feeling that they might have comparative immunity from noxious vapours and gases: and he himself, though dwelling in Lambeth, had the advantage of a spacious house, with a large garden, and had the further advantage of being able to go to the country when he desired to enjoy the pure breezes of the fields; but let their Lordships think of the thousands of poor who, living in such a neighbourhood, were shut up in their narrow lanes and crowded houses from morning to evening and from evening to morning throughout the whole 12 months of the year—always breathing the atmosphere created by those neglected manufactories and heaps of manure. It must not be supposed that the noble Duke or himself did not enter into the feelings of those who were the proprietors of these works. No one could have visited the Potteries over the river, and seen the wonderful works of art recently sent to Philadelphia, without fully recognizing how much good was done by these works. No one could say that because they suffered from the vicinity of a candle manufactory, they did not appreciate the advantage of having bright lights and beautiful wax candles. Nor did they object to manure in its right place; but that place was not within a few minutes' walk of that House or his own residence. What they complained of was, not that these things were done, but that proper care was not taken in the doing of them. Were they to believe that modern science could not find some remedy for these evils—that some of those gentlemen who it was proposed should receive in our Universities liberal salaries for carrying on their researches, could not find some way of at once preserving our health and causing the civilizing arts to flourish among us? Manufacturers had no vested right to destroy our health in order that they might minister to the progress of the arts which they had introduced into this country. He hoped the inquiry would be granted, that it would be extended to the metropolis, and that, as soon as possible, legislation would rescue a large portion of the community from the evils under which so many at present laboured.


said, that already a great deal had been done in dealing with deleterious vapours discharged in the process of manufactures. At Swansea, for instance, the neighbourhood of which at one time had suffered severly from the evil effects of these vapours, they had been utilized, and the bad effects had gradually disappeared. He doubted whether it was a proper employment of public funds to pay Inspectors whose chief function would be the preservation or improvement of private property; but he certainly did not think that the law at present gave sufficient protection either to individuals or the public. He hoped that between the power given to local officers and the power vested in the general law there might be found some middle course which, when adopted, would protect the public against a great evil. He thought that a case had been made out for inquiry; and if it should be granted, he hoped that the matter would be entrusted to persons who would be competent to deal with it, so that means might be devised to prevent the spread of noxious vapours without any improper interference with property or with trade.


said, he agreed that the inquiry should be on an extensive basis. It was as much for the benefit of the poor as the rich; and al- though it was stated that the movement originated in a desire to protect property, it would soon be found that the persons who suffered most from these vapours were not the rich, but the poor. He could mention instances where whole villages and towns were covered by these noxious vapours; but the wealthier portion of the inhabitants, who profited by the labour of the work people, were able to build villas in healthy localities, and so escape the danger to which the humbler classes were exposed. He thought a part of the inquiry should be directed towards some mode by which districts might combine to repress the evils complained of; for so powerful and wealthy were the manufacturers who were responsible for these evils, that it was almost impossible for a private individual to cope with them. The mischief was one of such pressing necessity and rapid growth that he entreated the Government to let their action in the matter be speedy. His experience of Royal Commissions was certainly not favourable as regarded despatch, but he believed that if the Commission now sought for were properly constituted and set to work at once, a basis for legislation would soon be laid.


assured his noble Friends that the Government were perfectly alive to the importance of the subject. With regard to the remarks that had fallen from the most rev. Prelate, he could assure him that he did not yield, on the part of the Government, to his most rev. Friend himself in the desire to protect the poorer classes from the evils and discomforts which had been so eloquently described. Animated by this feeling, it was their intention to agree to the Motion for the appointment of a Royal Commission—with a slight modification which he would presently explain. The propriety of appointing Inspectors to carry out the provisions of existing Acts had been discussed; but if such a step were taken, they would incur the serious danger of shifting responsibility from the shoulders of the authorities who were now charged with that duty. As for the complaints which had been made of nuisances prejudicial to health or life, he could not understand how the local authorities of the districts referred to did not take action to carry out the powers with which they were already armed. His impression was that the local and sanitary authorities throughout the country were in a position to deal with such cases as the noble Duke (the Duke of Northumberland) had spoken of, and that on complaint being made from any particular locality it would be the duty of the Local Government Board to order an inspection to be made, and to put the law in force. In most places he fancied the great difficulty was to find out what were the noxious gases that were producing disease or death, and then to ascertain who were really the parties who produced them. But in the case referred to by the most rev. Prelate, the sanitary Inspector must have been neglecting his duty. He ventured to think that if the most rev. Prelate complained to the Local Government Board that a nuisance existed, and that the local authorities concerned were not exercising their powers, some action would at once be taken. But although the Local Government Board and local authorities possessed certain powers for dealing with the evils in question, there was no doubt that the subject required to be further dealt with, and he should not be doing justice to his right hon. Friend at the head of the Local Government Board (Mr. Sclater-Booth) if he did not state what he had done in that way since coming into office. As their Lordships were aware, Mr. Sclater-Booth in 1874 amended the law so as to diminish the amount of muriatic acid which it was allowable to emit from manufactories, thereby considerably contracting the evils which the emission of that acid had previously produced. Much good had, no doubt, resulted from that step; but his right hon. Friend felt that further information on the subject was necessary, and he had accordingly desired one of the officers of his Department—Dr. Ballard, a most competent gentleman—to inquire into the nuisances arising from manufactures and other industries with special regard to health, and to ascertain in what way they could be abated. In order to show the scope of the inquiry he would just mention what Dr. Ballard had done at different places throughout the country. In London, Dr. Ballard's investigations had had reference to nitric and sulphuric acid, dip-candle, alkali, and salt cake making, soap and bone boiling, chemi- cal manures and nackeries; at Plymouth, to soap boiling and candlemaking, &c.; at Devonport, to the preparation of fish oils, &c.; at Bristol, to glue making, soap boiling, and candlemaking; at Wolverhampton, to bone boiling, varnish making, and galvanizing works; at Birmingham, to chemical manures, &c.; at Manchester, to chemical manures, soap boiling, alkali making, and dust sifting; at Warrington, to galvanizing works, glass works, and candlemaking; and at St. Helen's, to alkali and salt cake making and copper works. Dr. Ballard's report was not yet completed. When it was it would of course be laid before the Royal Commission, which, as he had already stated, Her Majesty would be advised to issue. He did not, however, think it was the province of the Royal Commission to recommend what legislative measures were required, and therefore he would suggest that the concluding words of the Motion—namely, "and upon the legislative measures required for this purpose"—be omitted.


was understood to say that he thought the Commission should direct some of its attention to the defects of the present law.


said, the Commission would naturally extend its inquiry into the causes which rendered the law as it now stood ineffectual for the object for which it was intended.

Words "and upon the legislative measures required for this purpose" withdrawn.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.