HL Deb 24 July 1896 vol 43 cc581-7

said he had given notice to Her Majesty's Government of a question which he thought their Lordships would agree dealt with a very serious and urgent subject. The increasing pollution of all the rivers throughout the kingdom by the sewage of the towns was now reported in every district by medical officers as a sanitary matter of the most grave importance to the life of man and beast, to the health of the community, and it was largely destructive to property. He himself was the first to try the powers of the law to abate this nuisance by bringing an action for damages against the Corporation of Birmingham. He knew what the difficulty and expense were of a private individual obtaining an injunction, but he did obtain it, and it was a precedent for all subsequent proceedings on the subject. Statutory facilities had since been offered. The Rivers Pollution Prevention Act of 1876 was very complete for its purposes, apparently. It defined what pollution of rivers meant under the Act; it made it obligatory upon all sanitary authorities throughout the kingdom to facilitate in every way the drainage of their towns through sewers clear of all running streams. It also imposed upon County Courts to enforce the abatement of this nuisance by summary order with an appeal to the High Court. But the Act had turned out to be somewhat of a dead letter, for want of provisions to carry it out. No sooner was the sanitary authority called upon to fulfil its obligations under the Act than innumerable delays immediately occurred. Every sort of difficulty was found in the way of execution of works, and if they were begun they did not proceed. In the first place there were no definite powers enabling their execution; and in the second place the County Council had too small an area to deal with the whole basin of a river, and in many cases would have no command of an outfall for their works. The Local Government Board, by general acknowledgment, had a good deal too freely used its power of suspending the order of the County Court, and in that way they hung up numerous cases without any operation taking effect. Years passed away before an offender was finally brought in contact with the County Court Judge, and then a new crop of delays began to occur. That was the state of things in which the law had become; inoperative. The 14th Section of the Local Government Act of 1888 gave powers generally to County Councils to enforce the Act of 1876, but there were no provisions for carrying out the powers given, and, of all things, there was no power given to County Councils to combine so as to deal with the whole area of the river. Under these circumstances, the County Councils Association drafted a Bill which would empower the County Councils to effectually abate this nuisance. Lord Cross passed that Bill through their Lordships' House in 1893, but it dropped in the other House, simply for want of attention or time. Every year since then a private Member, Sir Francis Powell, had introduced this same Bill into the House of Commons, and it was now before that House again, with as little prospect of passing as at first. He thought he might press upon the Government that what had happened showed that private Members could not deal with this subject. The remarkable thing was that the failing enactment had been carried out by local Acts, and had worked in the most successful manner in two districts of the country. All the powers that were required were embodied in the Mersey and Irwell Act, and the West Riding of Yorkshire Act. He was told by Lord Egerton of Tatton that the Mersey and Irwell Act was in full operation and most successful. They had nothing whatever to do but to make the powers of these Acts general to gain the object they bad in view. The Government could do it; clearly private Members could not do it. He only asked the Government to take the matter up, and in a very short Act they might extend the powers given under these two local Acts to all districts throughout the kingdom. He believed such a Bill would be received with the greatest acclamation by most of the County Councils in England. He could hardly hope that the Government would introduce such a Bill now, but he hoped they would give him some encouragement to believe that they would deal with the subject if possible early next Session. He begged to ask Her Majesty's Government if they will undertake the legislation which, in a few clauses, has been prepared by the County Councils Association, in the terms of existing local Acts, but which in private hands has failed for several Sessions to obtain time for discussion. It is simply to make general the powers of procedure, already successfully given in those local Acts, for facilitating the prevention of pollution of rivers.


said the evil of which the noble Lord had spoken could not be exaggerated. It was perfectly true, as the noble Lord said, that both in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire private Acts had been passed, at very great expense and after very great difficulty, which were perfectly effectual. The real truth was that the difficulty of dealing with the evil was to be found in the Act of 1876 rather than in the other Acts. The Act of 1876 declared that, in a manufacturing town or district, the effluents of the manufactories could not be removed and the pollution dealt with unless it could be done at a reasonable cost and without injuring the manufacturing interests of the place. But it was almost impossible, where a large number of manufactories existed, to attempt to deal with the evil without in some way injuring, or interfering with, the manufacturing interests. ["Hear, hear!"] The Act, most unfortunately, contrary to the common law, and in opposition to the remonstrances made on the point when the Act was passed, declared that the certificate of the Local Government Board should be conclusive, he thought, as to the reasonableness of the cost and the practicability of the needs. But the Act of 1876 was practically unworkable. Time after time another Bill had been introduced into Parliament, and efforts repeatedly made to pass it into law; but those efforts had never succeeded, because the Government would not take the trouble of undertaking to pass it. ["Hear, hear!"] The fact that such a Bill could be passed if the Government took it up, and ought to be passed, could not be denied. In Lancashire, where, perhaps, the evil existed to a greater extent than in any other part of the country, and where, unless some remedy was applied, even the Manchester Ship Canal would be seriously injured, the authorities had done much, even under the existing law and their local Acts, though at great expense to mitigate the nuisance; and the action which had been taken in Lancashire and Yorkshire should be enforced throughout the country.


said he agreed with all the noble Lord had said as to the seriousness of the evil, and the necessity for an effective remedy being applied. But he differed from him on one point. The noble Lord seemed to desire an Act framed on the lines of the two local Acts in the West Riding and Lancashire; yet the noble Lord who had just spoken had said that, notwithstanding those Acts, the contamination of the rivers in Lancashire was very great.


No. I said that, as far as I know, the Acts had worked completely in Lancashire and Yorkshire.


said he thought the condition of the Manchester Ship Canal showed a state of things that was not at all satisfactory. On the Committee last year, a member of the West Riding County Council—he thought the chairman—stated in evidence, in answer to a question from him, that every river in the West Riding was nothing but an open sewer. If that was the case in spite of the local Acts, he hoped the Rill brought in next year would be far more stringent than those Acts appeared to be.


said it was from no lack of recognition of the importance of the subject—for obviously there could be no subject of greater importance than the public health—that he was unable to promise that the Government would undertake what the noble Lord had asked them to do. It might be taken, he imagined, that the Act of 1876 had not been successful from the fact that it had been to a great extent inoperative. But under that Act, and also under the Act of 1888, considerable powers could be conferred upon urban and rural district councils to deal with the evils referred to. The authorities concerned had only to apply to the Local Government Board for those powers, and the Board could make a Provisional Order for the constitution of a Joint Committee representing the counties or county boroughs, or one or other of them, through which the polluted river ran. It was therefore possible under the existing Acts for the local authorities to come to the Local Government Board for powers to combine, and thus to work over a larger area of the river-bed than a single authority could do. The noble Lord had suggested that legislation upon the lines they would like to see adopted was a very simple matter for the Government to undertake. But what were the facts? The Rivers Pollution Prevention Bill had been introduced several years in succession in the House of Commons. It had been again introduced this year, and as a matter of fact it was at that moment blocked by no fewer than five Members, and those Members were not confined to one Party. It was, therefore, scarcely possible to describe the Measure as a non-contentious one, or one that could be passed easily through Parliament. There was a number of people, he thought, who did not through their representatives look at this matter from the same point of view that the authorities representing the counties did, and he imagined that the Measure was blocked by the representatives of very large cities. It was therefore extremely probable that whoever undertook to legislate on the matter would be met with strong opposition of that character, and consequently he could not admit that such legislation would be a simple matter or that it could be easily passed through Parliament because the Government took it up. As had been stated, three Joint Committees had been constituted for Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire under the Acts referred to. In two of those cases the authorities had, by means of local Acts, obtained additional powers. He wished he could make a more satisfactory reply to the noble Lord than he was able to give, but the noble Lord would recognise that it was impossible for the Government at this moment to pledge themselves as to the legislative Measures they would introduce and undertake to carry through next Session. All that he could assure him of was that the suggestions he had made would not be lightly passed over by the Local Government Board, as, indeed, from the importance of the matter, they ought not to be. ["Hear, hear!"]


believed that those who blocked the Bill in the House of Commons were the representatives of the boroughs which were the nuisance-makers in this matter. The question was whether the boroughs should be allowed to use the country as their wash-pot? [Laughter.] If they had to wait until the boroughs abated their own nuisances they would have to wait a long time.