HL Deb 29 May 1923 vol 54 cc267-72

VISCOUNT ASTOR had the following Notice on the Paper—To ask the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Health whether he can now state when it is proposed to introduce legislation with regard to Smoke Abatement. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I put down this Question because there is a great volume of feeling outside Parliament in favour of legislation on this subject. I do not think I need take up your Lordships' time in making out a case for such legislation. There is a general concensus of opinion that sunshine and clean air are conducive to good health and general contentment and welfare; and that darkness and impure air are not only prejudicial to the public health, but the cause of great and unnecessary expenditure of public money, and that a considerable improvement is possible—how great an improvement was shown during the strike of a couple of years ago. Your Lordships are also aware of the fact that a Committee, presided over by my noble friend Lord Newton, made certain definite and clear recommendations. A year ago a Bill dealing with smoke abatement was introduced and passed, apparently without opposition, but was not further proceeded with. Those of us who are interested in this question have been awaiting the re-introduction of the measure this Session.

I have put down this Question in order, if possible, to elicit from the noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Health what are the intentions of the Government. If the Government do not introduce this Bill at an early date it will be impossible to pass it this Session. I therefore sincerely trust that the noble Earl will be able to announce that he proposes to introduce a Bill in the near future, and that it will be a comprehensive Bill, including the recommendations of the Committee which reported on this subject.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Newton asked me a similar Question just before the Recess, and the answer I gave was that we do propose to introduce a Smoke Abatement Bill this Session. I added that it was not proposed to introduce into it any clause likely to hinder the revival of industry. A Bill is in process of being drafted at the present time, and as soon as it is ready I hope to introduce it in your Lordships' House. I am afraid I cannot give a precise date at the present moment, but I can tell the noble Viscount that the delay will not be long. As to the exact contents of the measure, I should prefer not to say anything till it has been drafted, and I am able to lay it before your Lordships. I should like to correct an observation which my noble friend made about the Bill of last year, which I also introduced. That Bill did not proceed beyond the Second Reading stage. It was read a second time with a view to its being criticised and examined by those who are interested in the matter. The Bill, which I hope to introduce shortly, will embody such criticisms as we have heard, for we have met many of those who are interested, and discussed the matter with them.


My Lords, I am glad to find that there is, at all events, one other member of this House who is interested in this subject. Speaking for myself, I confess I am by no means satisfied with the answer which the noble Viscount has just elicited. This Bill was promised by the unfortunate late Minister of Health as far back as last December, and at intervals I have been continually asking the noble Earl who represents that Department when he is going to bring in the Bill. On every occasion I have received vague and what I must call procrastinating replies. Even now we have not got anything out of the noble Earl. I should like to call attention to the somewhat ominous statement that the forthcoming Bill is one which is not likely to hinder the revival of industry. Does anybody in this House or anywhere else, suppose that a Government would bring in a Bill which would hinder the revival of industry? Neither I nor the noble Viscount opposite is anxious to impede industry in any way. What we do ask, and legitimately ask, is that this question, which has been inquired into to such an extent that there is nothing left to inquire about, should now lead to some legislation. I have waited for five months this year. I waited the whole of last year, and I personally inquired about this question for two years myself. Really, it cannot be necessary for a Government Department to take all this time to consider when they should bring in a Bill.

The noble Earl, no doubt with excellent intentions, is literally wasting his time and the time of everybody else by trying to bring in what is termed an agreed Bill. He is innocently under the impression that he can bring in a Bill of this character which will satisfy everybody. I do not mind telling him that it is a perfectly impossible thing to do. However moderate your Bill may be, you will always find some interest which will take violent objection to it and obstruct, either here or in another place. I hope that my noble friend opposite will not lose sight or this question, and that, if possible, he will induce some of his friends to take it up. I want to get a categorical reply from the Ministry or Health as to when this Bill is going to be brought in.

I would earnestly impress it upon my noble friend once more, though I do not suppose it is of the slightest use, that he is simply wasting his time in trying to obtain the consent of the chambers of commerce and heaven knows what. If he is going to continue that line of conduct we shall never get any legislation on this subject at all, and I should like to take this opportunity of adding that I think these bodies of which he stands so much in awe—for instance, the Federation of British Industries—are extremely shortsighted in the attitude they adopt. I am quite convinced that when this country is endowed with a Labour Government, which may be the case sooner than people think, the objections of these bodies will meet with a very short shrift, and they might do better by making terms with a Government that is likely to deal with them in a reasonable and amicable manner.


My Lords, I may perhaps be permitted to intervene in this debate because the subject we are discussing seems to me to point the moral in regard to certain questions which affect the people of this country at the moment and the difficulties with which Parliament is faced in dealing with them. The noble Viscount has done good service in calling your Lord ships' attention to this evil, which is a very real one. Speeches have been delivered and discussions have taken place in your Lordships' House and in another place upon housing, and the necessity of dealing with slum quarters and so on. Yet notwithstanding all the Acts of Parliament that have been passed and all that has been done during more than the forty years I have spent in Parliament, there has been very little real improvement in the dwellings of the working classes of this country in our large cities. One of the difficulties that has to be contended with is that it is impossible to give within the purlieus of a city anything like a proper supply of clean and fresh air owing to the discharge of the filthy contents of chimneys into the atmosphere, a thing which makes our towns what they are.

The subject to which I am now going to refer for a moment is by no means popular in your Lordships' House, but that will not prevent me from advocating it here and elsewhere so long as I have power to do so. Smoke abatement is not the only matter which needs attention. There have been I do not know how many measures this Session which have either been received benevolently by the Government or have drawn the statement that a benevolent attitude could not be shown and they could not be taken up. Those measures dealt with questions of the utmost importance to the community—such as, for example, rating. There is a substantial difficulty in dealing with rating, owing, among other things, to the fact that there are different laws and customs in regard to it in England and Wales as compared with Scotland, and that complicates legislation. There are also crying difficulties in connection with roads. Roads, like smoke abatement, are of importance to the well-being of the people and ought to be dealt with.

But it is no use my noble friend Lord Newton criticising the Government for what they have or have not done. It has been announced in to-day's paper, apparently with authority, that there is to be an Autumn Session. We know from the examination of the Order Paper in the House of Commons that there is a tremendous congestion of work there. We know that it is absolutely impossible to talk of driving three omnibuses abreast through Temple Bar. But this is not a question of trying to pass three omnibuses abreast through Temple Bar, but of trying to pass thirty or forty abreast through a place which is much smaller than Temple Bar ever was. When will it be recognised in your Lordships' House and in another place that we are confronted by a wall of difficulty which must be removed before this kind of domestic legislation which really means more for the well-being of the people than anything else, can be passed?

It is true that smoke abatement is a matter of first class importance, but is it not ridiculous to suggest that it should be dealt with by a great Imperial Parliament charged with all the burden of work which now falls upon its shoulders? The question of smoke abatement, the question of the roads, the question of rating and a dozen other questions of a domestic character, varying in their application to the different parts of the United Kingdom, will never be dealt with until you do what has been done in every other country in the world—namely, divide the functions of Parliament into those which are of a local and those which are of an Imperial description. It is all very well for my noble friend Lord Newton to blame the Government for what they are trying to do. They are trying to pass legislation, but they have more than they can possibly carry on their shoulders; they are overburdened already; and until this problem is faced in its reality and the functions of Parliament are divided as I have suggested, there will remain the old, old cry: "We cannot get the legislation we want and we cannot remove these evils."

[From Minutes of May 17.]




Brought from the Commons; read 1ª; to be printed; and referred to the Examiners.