HL Deb 24 July 1922 vol 51 cc685-96

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill which I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to-day is the outcome of the Report of the Smoke Abatement Committee, which was presided over by my noble friend, Lord Newton. That Committee sat for about two years, examined a very large number of witnesses, visited the chief industrial towns, and produced a most voluminous Report, at, I understand, very small cost to the public—a fact upon which I think your Lordships will congratulate my noble friend.

The object which we had in mind in drafting this Bill was to produce a measure of a non-controversial character, and I hope we have succeeded in that task. It is true that my noble friend's Committee made certain recommendations which are not included in the Bill. We were bound to regard these as being of a somewhat controversial nature, and we therefore left them out. If your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading, I would suggest that its further consideration should stand over until the autumn, when Amendments can, no doubt, be moved to allow the more controversial portions of the Report to be considered. Some time will thus elapse before the Committee, stage, and opportunity will be afforded for consideration by all the parties concerned, so that possibly an agreed measure may be the result.

Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to deal very briefly with the recommendations of the Committee, and to explain how far they are contained in the Bill. In the first place, as regards recommendations (a), dealing within dustrial smoke, the Bill extends the Public Health Act, 1875, so that all smoke, and not only black smoke, is included in the smoke nuisance. It also includes gritty particles, soot and ash in the term "smoke." I think this provision meets one of the most important recommendations of the Committee. In subsection (3) of Clause 1, we provide that the person charged with the nuisance may show that he, in fact, used the best practical means of preventing it. Thus we place the onus probandi on the person charged, whereas the recommendation of my noble friend's Committee, if he will allow me to say so, seems to imply that it should rest on the local authorities. We also include the Committee's recommendation that larger fines be imposed.

Another recommendation with regard to industrial smoke was that the Ministry of Health should be given powers to compel defaulting authorities to administer the law with regard to smoke. We do not quite adopt that recommendation. We adopt the plan followed in other cases, notably one recently before your Lordships—namely, the Milk Bill. We adopt the procedure authorising the county councils to undertake the duties of any authorities who fail to carry out their duties under the Public Health Act. I think your Lordships will agree that only in the last resort should the Government undertake the functions of a local authority where the local authority fails to carry them out satisfactorily or at all. The county councils, of course, represent the whole body of the inhabitants of a district, and they are empowered to apply the remedy in cases of default. If the county council does not take action, presumably it is because public opinion in the area does not wish it to do so, and if the electors do not wish their own county council to take action, still less would they approve of a sanitary inspector coming down from London to do what the county council is empowered to do. So we meet the views of the Committee in allowing two or more authorities to combine under Clause 4. We do not suggest that the Ministry of Health should take the initiative, but we give the authorities power to combine.

The Committee recommended that the Ministry should assign one or more competent officers to advise with regard to the smoke problem. That is not included in the Bill because it is of an administrative nature, and arrangements are in force by which officials of the Ministry are already performing this duty. So far, we have not been able to devise means of adopting the recommendation that the Ministry should fix standards with regard to smoke. There, is great difficulty in carrying this recommendation into effect, and we do not at present see any practical method of doing so. It is not only confined to black smoke, such as the law in force defines as a nuisance. It may be practicable, and of course it is done with regard to noxious gases under the Alkali, &c., Works Regulation Act, but when you include all smoke in a Bill you find it difficult to carry the recommendation into practical effect. When we come to the Committee stage my noble friend will very likely have suggestions to offer, and if he has, of course we will give them the most careful consideration.

I come then to the second part of the recommendations, which deals with domestic smoke. I think that the recommendation upon which the Committee laid the greatest stress was that of empowering the local authorities to make by-laws requiring the provision of smokeless heating arrangements in new buildings other than private dwelling-houses, and Clause 3 of the Bill gives this power to local authorities. With regard to the recommendation of the Committee as to the central housing authority, I fear we could not embody this recommendation in a Bill. It really is a matter of administration, and not one for legal enactment, and this provision, if it were possible to put it into a Bill, might increase the cost of houses to be built by local authorities or public utility societies. But the recommendation will be borne in mind, and given every consideration by the central housing authority in sanctioning any new housing scheme. The, next recommendation is that the Government should encourage research. This is already being carried out by the Industrial Research Council, and it is not a matter for legislation.

Now I come to (c), the general recommendation. This again could not be included in the Bill, because it is of an administrative rather than legislative nature, and it is a recommendation which should be addressed to municipal authorities rather than to the central Government. Recommendations (d) deal with noxious vapours. Your Lordships will see that in Clause 2 of the Bill we take power to extend the list of noxious or offensive gases mentioned in Section 27 of the Alkali, etc. Works Regulation Act, 1906, and the list of works mentioned in the First Schedule of the Act. Of course, as I have said, the fixation of a standard regarding noxious vapours is different from the fixation of a standard with regard to smoke, and this question is already dealt with in the Act of 1906, Part II, Sections 6 and 7. With regard to the recommendation that a general obligation should lie on every manufacturer to use the best practicable means of preventing the escape of noxious or offensive vapours, it is doubtful whether it would be practicable to enforce such an obligation, and we therefore think that the better plan is the one that we have adopted in the Bill, by extending the list of works and gases to which the Alkali Act can apply. In all works of this kind inspectors of the Ministry help the manufacturers to provide moans of minimising the trouble resulting from noxious vapours.

I hope your Lordships will agree that we have gone a very considerable way to meet my noble friend's recommendations, and the Report of the Committee. So far as they are non-controversial, I think we have met them entirely, and we have also done as much as we can to deal with the other recommendations administratively. I venture to suggest that any further consideration on the other stages of the Bill should be postponed until the autumn, when the considered opinion of all those interested in the matter can be reached by private consultation. Your Lordships will notice that the Bill, as drafted, does not apply to Scotland, but I understand it is the wish of the Scottish authorities that it should be made to apply to Scotland, and no doubt, an Amendment to that effect can be moved at a later stage.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, while I gratefully welcome this Bill as an indication of the intention of the Government to deal with a question which is long overdue, I confess that I cannot go so far as to say that it is a genuine fulfilment of the promise made to the people interested in this question. Sir Alfred Mond, when requested by a very influential deputation to do so, undertook to bring in a Bill founded upon the recommendations of the Committee to which the noble Earl has referred. What this Bill actually does is not to carry out the recommendations of the Committee but slightly to amend the Act of 1875, which has been proved to be thoroughly unsatisfactory in its working. I feel that the most important recommendations that were made have been practically ignored. Personally, I feel rather in the position of a man who has been promised a passage, say, to America, and has been given only enough money to take him to Southampton or Liverpool.

The somewhat unheroic course has been adopted of bringing in what is called a non-contentious measure and leaving all the contentious part to be dealt with by myself or by other noble Lords who are interested in the question. As some of our most important recommendations have not been adopted I am afraid that the Bill is not likely to effect very much change.

I do not wish to appear ungrateful, and I am ready to admit that up to a certain point the Bill may do good. But if, for instance, the recommendation with regard to fixing standards is ignored, I am unable to sec how Clause 1 of the Bill can do very much good. And, however estimable may be the Government's intentions, it ! is not a very practical proceeding to pass a Bill unless there is some provision for actually carrying it out.

The defects of the Act to which I have referred are known to everyone interested in this question, and the weakness of the Act is shown by the fact that most of the important municipalities in this country, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Glasgow, Nottingham, and Liverpool, have found it necessary to bring in Acts of their own because the general Act has proved unworkable. One of the defects of this Act to which my noble friend did not allude is that certain industries, such as coal-mining and all works concerned with iron and steel, are exempted, and it is somewhat of an absurdity to exempt those particular industries, which produce more smoke than almost any others. I do not see any provision, either, for dealing with nuisances—and they are often very serious nuisances—caused by motor-cars and mechanically propelled vehicles generally. There is another point to which I would draw attention. The Bill contains no mention whatever of Government establishments. These are frequently the biggest offenders of all. I believe there have been constant complaints with regard to places like Woolwich; yet, apparently, they are to be completely exempted.

The two really important recommendations which we made are ignored altogether. The main recommendation, and the one that was likely to do most good, was that the duty of enforcing the law should be transferred from the small local authorities to county councils and county boroughs. At present, the law is administered by 1,800 small local authorities. If the recommendation which we made were adopted the law would be administered by only 140, which, in itself, would be a very considerable improvement. But in my experience I have found that it is the larger authorities, more particularly the county boroughs and the great cities, which are really anxious to do something. I have found in towns like Manchester and Glasgow, for instance, the utmost desire to carry out the law, but they have never received the smallest encouragement from London, and they are completely at the mercy of their neighbours. Smoke is not a thing which is confined to the people who create it. You are liable to suffer from the smoke of your neighbours, and there is no inducement for a city like Manchester or Glasgow to carry out the law if the law is consistently neglected and defied by their neighbours. I might instance the case of London. The London County Council has always been most anxious to do what it could in this direction, but its action has been constantly thwarted by the neighbouring authorities, who never would put the law into force.

An equally, and perhaps even more, important recommendation is one alluded to by my noble friend, which the Government have found themselves unable to adopt, the recommendation, namely, that in the case of a recalcitrant authority the central authority—that is to say, the Ministry of Health—should step in and insist upon the law being carried out. Smoke is not a local or a petty question, it is really a national question, and unless you have some sort of Government stimulus it will be very difficult to get anything done. I think it is fair to say that for the last forty-seven years the Government, as represented by the Local Government Board, have done absolutely nothing in the way of enforcing the law. We have now a Ministry of Health, and a very expensive Ministry of Health. What is the sense, and where is the logic, of spending millions on so-called social reform if this particular Ministry is not going to pay attention to a nuisance which concerns millions of people in this country?

The noble Earl has suggested that what he calls controversial points should be raised at a subsequent stage, and has practically invited me to bring them up then. I am ready to accede to his suggestion, and I sincerely hope that I shall find some colleagues who will assist me, because it seems to me that the task of overcoming resistance to reforms which are absolutely necessary will be beyond the capacity of a private member of this or the other House. It is obvious that very important Amendments will be necessary in the Bill. They will have to be carefully considered, and I should like, if possible, to meet the views of the Ministry of Health. For that reason I agree entirely with the suggestion of my noble friend that the Committee stage of the Bill should be taken at a later period; that is to say, in the autumn session.

I do not wish to say anything more on the Bill itself, but perhaps, as I have devoted a certain amount of time and attention to this question, I might be allowed to give my views—and they are the views of people with whom I have been associated—as to why further and more drastic legislation is required. I think everybody, or, at all events, all sensible people, will be agreed upon two points. The first point is that, however anxious we may be to abolish smoke and to purify the atmosphere of this country, the trade and industry of the country must not be prejudiced more than is absolutely necessary; in fact, I will go so far as to say that they ought not to be prejudiced at all. I think we shall all be agreed upon that.

The second point upon which I think everybody will be agreed is that, although we are, in the habit of priding ourselves upon our personal cleanliness, England and Scotland are, unfortunately, on the whole the dirtiest countries in Europe. Everybody knows what the condition of things really is. But let me point to the nearest example. Let me take the case of London. In the London area there falls every month in the form of soot no less than 25 tons per square mile. I forget how many square miles London covers, but I think it is a very large number. A simple calculation will show that if 300 tons of soot fall to every square mile within a year you could accumulate enough soot to construct a pyramid four or five times the size of Westminster clock-tower. That gives you an idea of the amount of pollution to which London is subjected.

In 1905 the damage to London by smoke was estimated, at pre-war prices, at £4,170,000. Let me take as an example the very building in which we are sitting. The Palace of Westminster was built, I think, eighty or ninety years ago. Its exterior, at all events, is in a perfectly deplorable condition at the present time. A large number of men are perpetually occupied in preventing the ornamental stonework from falling down and perhaps killing the persons who frequent this building, though some of them would not be much missed if they were killed. And a mischievously-disposed person could, if he liked, go round this building, and with nothing but his own hands pull off much of the ornamental work, without any outside assistance at all.

I have instanced the case of London as showing that there is, at all events, considerable room for improvement. But whereas the fall of soot in London is only 25 tons per square mile per month, the fall of soot in Birmingham is 54 tons per square mile per month, and, although that may sound a good deal, there are very much worse places in England than Birmingham. I should be sorry to say what the amount of soot and other impurities is, at the present time, in some of the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns, but I am under the impression that the fall in a place like Wigan, or Rochdale, or Sheffield would be infinitely greater than that in Birmingham. We do not know the actual figures in the case of these towns because they are so ashamed of their condition that they have long ago refrained from publishing statistics. Birmingham is honest enough to show us what actually does occur there.

Let me take another case of what I might call a straightforward town—Manchester. Manchester, as we all of us know, is a very dirty town; at all events, the authorities there do not make any attempt to conceal the condition of the place, and elaborate calculations have been made showing that in Manchester alone, as compared with a clean town, no less than £50,000 a year is spent in the extra washing of collars, and the entire damage done by smoke to Manchester is valued at something like £1,000,000 in a year. Manchester is a town, as I have already pointed out, which really attempts to do its duty.

It is no exaggeration to state that there are millions and millions of people in this country—I am speaking, of coarse, of people who live in the industrial regions of the north—who, unless they leave their homes, have never realised what real sunshine is because they have never seen the sun except obscured by smoke. They have never seen the real colour of a tree trunk, and a good many of them are probably under the impression, which may last all their lives, that all sheep in this country are born black. The condition in certain parts of the north of England, and of Scotland, are so bad—I have had experience of this myself—that the in-habitants of certain towns literally cannot open their windows except at certain times when the works are closed, such as a Bank Holiday. The great coal strike had, at all events, one solitary advantage—namely, that it enabled people to realise what the country really was like and what it could be made like if proper steps were taken. The coal strike must have had the effect of converting many people to the necessity of legislation.

Although new legislation is obviously required, what is, perhaps, even more important is the necessity that the law should be actually enforced. During the course of our Inquiry I persuaded the Minister of Health to allow the Lord Mayor of Manchester and myself to go to Germany and investigate the conditions there, and, as my noble friend has given me a testimonial with regard to economy, I should like to mention that this tour of the Lord Mayor and myself, winch extended over ten days, cost the country very little over £40. I consider that on the whole the country got very much better value out of this particular Mission than it has done out of many of the more ambitious Missions with which we are familiar. I might mention, incidentally, that we received every civility both from the German Foreign Office and German officials generally. The result of our investigation was somewhat of a surprise to me and to my companion. We were under the mistaken impression that Germany was a law-ridden country and that the regulations there were infinitely more drastic than they are here. To our surprise we found that the opposite was the cast. There was much less of what I might call paper legislation in Germany then there is here, but in spite of that fact the conditions were immeasurably superior.

The favourable conditions of industrial Germany as compared with industrial England may be attributed, roughly speaking, to three or four reasons—to the almost complete absence of anything in the nature of domestic smoke; to the more general use of gas for power and so forth; to the much greater efficiency in the use of fuel, and, lastly, to the greater foresight shown with reference to the expansion of towns and their industries. I must confess that the contrast between great German industrial towns, such as Cologne and Dusseldorf, and similar towns, such as Manchester and Leeds, in this country, struck me as extremely painful to an Englishman; and the comparison is equally painful when you go lower down in the scale. If you compare, for instance, a town like Essen, which I suppose is the most smoky town in Germany, with Sheffield, which is the analogous town over here, the comparison is very greatly in favour of Essen. One simple fact will illustrate better than anything I can say the superiority of the conditions in Germany, and that is that whereas in this country, in a town like Manchester or Sheffield, a manufacturer, as soon as he can get sufficient money, hastens to get as far as he can away from his place of business, in Germany, in a town like Dusseldorf or Cologne, the manufacturer remains and lives in the town because it is an agreeable place of residence.

There cannot be any doubt that the reason we are dirtier than any other European country is to be found in the indiscriminate use of raw coal for all purposes whether domestic or industrial, and if you regard it simply from the point of cleanliness cheap coal has been little short of a great disadvantage to this country. Cheap coal is a phenomenon which we are not likely to experience much in the future; the miners, no doubt, will see to that, and the increasing price of coal will, in all probability, force the householder to alter his arrangements and adopt a system which will be infinitely superior to the present one. Unfortunately, many of the residents in the industrial districts of which I have spoken have become so accustomed to the state of things in which they were born and have grown up, that they are accepting that state of things without making any effort to remedy it. They find their local authorities apathetic; the local authorities find the central authority in London apathetic. Therefore, a large number of persons have come to the unfortunate conclusion that there is nothing to be done and that nothing will be done.

Unfortunately, the belief is also general, especially amongst uninstructed people—and I might add that it is largely encouraged by a certain class of manufacturers—that dirt means wealth and that the dirtier a country is the more prosperous it is and the happier is the community. I have found this extraordinary delusion to prevail in very high quarters. I remember an incident which made a most vivid impression upon me many years ago. About thirty or forty years ago a new railway was opened from a town called St. Helens in Lancashire to some other town, and the Lord Derby of the day, uncle of the present Lord Derby, was invited to perform the ceremony of cutting the sod. The local joke was that it would be impossible to find a sod in St. Helens because, as anybody who knows that town is aware, owing to the industries which were being carried on there with great success, all vegetation had been killed.

The day arrived, and Lord Derby came to take his part in the ceremony. All the principal persons were present, and an imported sod was produced which probably had been removed from somebody's lawn tennis ground. Lord Derby divested himself of his coat, was presented with a silver-gilt spade, or whatever the proper implement was, and proceeded to cut the imported sod. Then, turning to his audience, consisting of all the representative persons in the town, he said: "Before I came here I was told that my work would be useless, because there would be no sod in St. Helens to cut." My reply was: "All honour to St. Helens." This sentiment was received with perfect rapture by his audience, and though I was a young man at the time I could not help feeling that it was a most deplorable utterance. As a matter of fact, it was the utterance of the typical Philistine of the Victorian period.

We have, fortunately, progressed since those days. I cannot believe that any Minister of this Government, or any future Government, will be found who will go down and congratulate a municipality upon having successfully destroyed the natural amenity of their neighbourhood. My impression is that their course will be the exact opposite, and, so far from congratulating neighbourhoods on performances of that kind, they will do their best to remedy such a state of things. It is for that reason I warmly welcome this Bill. I think it is much weaker than it ought to be, but it is at all events a step—a weak and faltering step it may be—towards the end. It shows that the Government, as represented by the Ministry of Health, have at last realised that they have a duty in this matter, and that that duty consists in removing a nuisance which affects the lives of many millions of our fellow citizens.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.