HL Deb 05 March 1947 vol 146 cc104-39

2.40 p.m.

LORD SALTOUN rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the persistent pollution of our streams and rivers by local authorities and others; to ask whether they will consider legislation to reinforce existing laws before it is too late; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, no other country—at least no other country with which I am acquainted—possesses such a wealth and variety of pleasant streams as does Britain, and I think that the quickest way in which I can expose to your Lordships the condition of affairs to which I desire to draw your attention to-day is by reminding you of the famous panorama of England in Spenser's Faerie Queene, where he depicts all the rivers of England, each with its own character, and over all an air of enchantment which really exists and which has won for our country from all strangers the title of "a Garden." That was in the time of Queen Elizabeth. Less than a hundred years ago, in a book that I think is probably known to many of your Lordships—a classic on fishing, by Mr. Francis Francis—the author showed that although the pollution of streams had made some progress, the situation was at that time not beyond remedy. I do not believe it is beyond remedy to-day, but yet if another Milton were seeking for undrinkable waters to embellish his Hell he could do no better than choose the rivers of England, which are stolen at their birth, from the cradle, to afford a scanty urban supply lest a thirsty people should stoop to drink from their feet and perish. That is not an exaggerated picture of the present state of affairs. It is a fair picture of large and important parts of England. I expect that many of your Lordships share my view.

I should hesitate to drink readily of a stream to which I was a stranger, unless it was in very high country. In some districts, English rivers have practically disappeared and have become little more than seasonal ditches. Your Lordships will find a very moving account of one such in the January issue of Blackwood's Magazine. Not long ago, your Lordships ordered me to serve on a Committee to examine the Leicester Water Bill, and I will give you a picture of Derbyshire, North Staffordshire and Leicestershire as it was brought before us in evidence. In Leicestershire all the rivers but one—I will not name them—were too polluted to be considered. The one exception is only moderately polluted at present, but there exists upon its banks a thriving and populous town which is expecting shortly to complete the task; and when that time arrives, none of the rivers of Leicestershire will be fit for human use but only the springs at their sources—and that in a county which is famous for dairying.

The people in that part of the country are hoping to get a share of the supply that it is expected will be brought to the City of Leicester. Although these rivers run through all their land they know they cannot use them. To the north we have Derbyshire and the Peak District whose waters, for the most part, are already laid under contribution for the supply to Derbyshire, Nottingham, Leicestershire, Sheffield and the other great towns. The only source that remains untapped is the Manifold, which all the neighbouring water authorities, including North Staffordshire in whose areas it lies, regard with longing eyes. Through the centre of this district runs the River Trent, in which, above the Harrington Bridge, only a few diseased fish can manage to live. We are told there is a population of 2,500,000, all busily engaged in polluting the River Trent, and that there is no possible means by which the resulting fluid can be made available for any human purpose.

The need for fresh supplies of pure water for these towns is so great that every authority has its eyes on the Manifold source. Leicester happened to be the first in the field with a Bill, and the other authorities, although not ready with a Bill, have been proceeding in accordance with the recent Water Act and making water surveys. The other day I said something with regard to that matter, and I hope the noble Lords who are to reply to this debate will give us some information on that point this afternoon. It seems to me a strange thing that a Committee of your Lordships' House should be asked to accept an assertion that an Act, passed by Parliament on the motion of the Government, and on the lines suggested by the Ministry of Health, is unworkable and a dead letter.

It may be of some assistance to your Lordships if I say a word or two on the nature of the problem and the demand we have to meet. The condition that I have described, although perhaps more pronounced in the case of the Trent, obtains, as I know very well, through a very large part of the country. In fact, I do not know a single river which I could say was not polluted in a greater or lesser degree. The water we receive from rainfall is either absorbed by the surface, or runs off the surface, or percolates through the surface to form underground reservoirs. I have not been able to get any figures of any kind to guide me on this question of absorption. As your Lordships know, it depends very largely on the vegetation and on 1he seasons of the year, and I can find no expert who is able to give me any idea of the proportion of the rainfall that is likely to be absorbed. The proportion which penetrates to the underground sources varies, of course, with the nature of the subsoil, and must also depend upon the efficiency of the surface draining.

We had evidence that in North Staffordshire the needs of the district for notable water were lowering the water table there. The water table is the level of the underground supplies. That, of course, may be due to exceptionally dry seasons, but I do not think we have had exceptionally dry seasons. It may also be due, in some respects, to a lessened rainfall caused by the denudation of forest areas, but the general opinion seems to be that it is chiefly due to the increased demands of the populations for water. This is borne out by the fact that the other day your Lordships had evidence in the discussion on the Tendring Hundred Water and Gas Bill that the water table there was being lowered. If your Lordships will consult Blackwood's Magazine for January—the reference to which I have given you—you will see clearly that the underground water supply in what is obviously quite a different district of England is also being reduced.

I would like to say a word or two about the demand. We had a mass of expert evidence given to us about the increasing demand for water in the future by the population of this country. In fact, a very large proportion of the evidence was devoted to that point. We all know that even in large towns a very considerable proportion of the houses are without big baths, and, in some cases, even without a water closet. The provision 'of these things is going to lead in the future to a very greatly increased demand for pure water by our population. I could not get any reliable figures as to the order of this demand, but at the same time figures were given from which it was possible to make some tentative deductions. In the case of one large town there were periodic figures, ranging over a period of years, of the proportion of the houses in the town with water closets and with baths. From those figures I was able to obtain results which seem to me to indicate that for every water closet installed in a house the demand for water increases by fourteen gallons per head of the people who use it, and for every bath thirty-six gallons a head. That is a very large increase, and at first sight one is tempted to think that the figure is too high, but observations I have been able to make rather convince me that it is about the right figure.

While I am on this matter I would like to make the point that as a large bath for a twenty-gallon man takes about twenty-five gallons, the installation of this convenience leads to a considerable amount of waste of water which it must be very difficult to check. These figures, and the knowledge we all have, are sufficient to indicate that, in the near future, provision must be made for a great increase in the consumption of water in both town and country. Where that water is to come from, when in a great district like the Trent Valley, where the only clean water available on the south side of the Peak district—which, as your Lordships know, is the most prolific water-bearing district in the country—is the poor little Manifold, I leave your Lordships to guess.

I have long been impressed by this problem of the consumption and the supply of pure water. Many years ago in my own home I took out a big bath which I had and installed a shower, in the hope that my own example might induce other people to do the same, and lead to an economy in the use of water. But I have not the smallest illusion on the point: I am perfectly certain that the example of the whole of the United States of America and myself is not going to change present fashions. Therefore, we have this problem in front of us: that we must provide water. The great proportion of the water which is available on the surface for the population of this country is made quite useless by pollution. Nearly nine-tenths of the water is destroyed by pollution. If it were not for that, there would be ample for all our requirements.

Pollution normally occurs in two ways. It occurs by the discharge of untreated domestic sewage into streams and rivers, and it also occurs by the failure of industrial undertakings to render their effluent harmless. When the two are combined the worst kind of pollution and the worst conditions arise, because each type of effluent has a very bad effect upon the other. It is true that a river has some power of rendering domestic sewage innocuous, but, as your Lordships know, that depends to a great extent on the fall of the river, or, rather, on its power of aeration—how speedily it can aerate its water. But no river can deal with the enormous quantities which it receives from a large town. On the Continent, before the war, as we know, great steps had been taken in regard to this matter, and domestic sewage from large towns was treated and used in cultivation near those towns. As many of your Lordships also know, almost the whole of the enormous crops of pre-war Poland were grown by practically the same means on a soil that was little more than sand.

But where a population depends to any extent upon underground water supplies, those methods cannot be used too intensively, because there is always the danger of contaminating the underground water supplies. Therefore there must be a very careful examination of the means used, and possibly some elaborate method of previous treatment must be adopted. None the less, it is a fact that even to-day, with our present knowledge, a great deal can be done in this way which is not being done. There is a very great waste of what, after all, is a valuable fertilizing material, and I suggest to your Lordships that steps ought to be taken to check that waste so far as possible and to relieve our rivers of as great a part as possible of their rather unpleasant task. I suggest, too, that the scientific resources of the country should be employed to discover improved methods of treating domestic sewage, to make it profitable to be used as nature intended it to be used. Many of us know of such instances and I myself certainly have known a Borough Surveyor who was so proud of his plant that he would take a glass of water at the discharge of his plant, when he was showing it to you, and offer you one, too, to show the purity of that discharge.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that that kind of pride is a great asset to the country, when a man does a job like that. Industrial pollution is a much more serious matter, and tin even greater crime against humanity. After all, when a manufacturer, in order to save trouble or expense, fails to sterilize the effluent from his factory, he is making part of his profit by inflicting a wrong upon the public. The injury is doubled if he uses the ordinary drainage system to convey it, as this makes the treatment of domestic sewage extremely difficult and perhaps impossible. For example, if you have industrial effluent discharging into the same river as you have domestic sewage discharging, you cannot purify the domestic sewage or assist the processes by chlorination, because the industrial effluents very often have cyanides in them. Cyanides themselves are poisons, but the poisons are re-doubled in their effect if they are brought into contact with chlorine. Therefore a small amount of industrial effluent discharging into a river makes the task of purifying that river very much more difficult.

I do not want, and I am sure your Lordships would not want me—and I am not able—to discuss this very wide subject of industrial effluent, but I am perfectly certain that a great deal of the noxious character of such effluent is very often due to parsimony. I will give your Lordships an example which must have been under all our eyes. Whenever I pass a sugar factory, I always look, and look with great care, to the area that: is devoted to the settling tanks, because having at one time studied the sugar industry, I know very well that the effluent from a sugar factory can tic discharged into streams perfectly harmlessly, provided there is a sufficient area and a sufficient number of settling tanks. So far as I can observe, in this country the amount of land devoted to settling tanks from a sugar factory is about one-third of what I have always seen devoted to that purpose under the usual practice in Holland. That suggests to me that parsimony is at the root of a great deal of our trouble.

One thing is perfectly clear—namely, that there is great need for research. But in this case no effective research is really possible unless it is enjoined by authority, because there is an obvious advantage to the manufacturer in not having any research and not troubling about it. He has no direct incentive to spend time or money on purifying the effluent of his factory. Therefore, research will have to be instituted from above. The same question arises, of course, with regard to domestic sewage, but there is more incentive in that case. Even in research on manufacturing effluents, there is always a possibility of great profit from by-products, as we know from the story of the chlorine industry.

But there is another side to this question—the lenity with which all these offences are regarded and treated, I think the lenity is due to the Acts. The Act of 1876 makes it an offence to discharge sewage into a stream unless it has been subjected to the best known means of rendering it harmless. It makes a similar provision against the discharge of industrial effluent, but it adds, oddly enough, that "the Board"—which I suppose to-day means the Department of Health— shall not permit proceedings by the local authority unless it is satisfied the proceedings will not injure the industry.

I imagine it could always be argued that any process that involved trouble and expense would be an injury to the industry concerned. I do not know what the effect of that is, but I should imagine that the Act was very largely a dead letter. The Act of 1936 went a great deal further, and it provides for separate sewers for industrial effluent. If both discharge into the same river, as I have already pointed out, that might not make much difference, but it is a great advantage if any treatment is to be introduced.

The main thing, it seems to me, is that these two powers are in the wrong hands. The local authority are paid for taking industrial effluent. The success of the local factories is part of the prosperity of the town, and the injury caused by neglect is not an injury to the town but an injury to those who live lower down the stream and who may even be trade rivals. The powers are in hands which, of all others, have the biggest incentive not to use them. No town wants to put its rates up to benefit a town lower down the stream. Experience shows, as many of your Lordships know, that actions taken against those who pollute streams are often unsuccessful, and even when they are successful they are ineffective. For those reasons it seems to me that the state of the law should be examined, aod it should be very carefully considered into whose hands the powers should be put.

I submit that I have shown to your Lordships (I have gone as quickly as I could through the case) that the increased demand for water is likely to be great; that our water resources are likely to prove inadequate; that there is great waste; that the pollution of our streams everywhere is dangerous and a disgrace to our title of civilization; that the question is urgent; that more knowledge is required; and that the existing laws are inefficient and insufficient. As I have said, I think the law on the subject needs examination, and it is a matter for careful consideration into whose hands these powers should be put. And this should be accompanied by close and continuing scientific examination and research into the whole problem as a guide for the future. I have only one word to add, and it is this. The present Government are very busily engaged on a great scheme for planning all the land of Britain. That may or may not be a good thing; it certainly is very difficult. But it; is quite futile and foolish to have a plan for all the land of Britain unless you have a plan for its water supplies and unless you are determined to make those water supplies pure. That is a task which is not difficult. It is a task which requires only firmness and knowledge, and I very humbly submit to His Majesty's Government that it is at least as urgent and at least as important as the planning of land. I beg to move for Papers.

3.14 p.m.


had given notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the continued pollution of certain rivers; whether they have under consideration the granting of powers to prevent pollution to the appropriate Minister during the preparation of the forthcoming Water Boards Bill; and would move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have a Motion on the Paper dealing with the same subject which I put down for this day in collusion with the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun. I do not think it will be necessary for me to move my Motion, but I can bring out its points, of which I have given due warning to the Government through my noble friend, the Earl of Huntingdon, in speaking on the Motion so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun. My task is made easier, because the noble Lord has covered the ground so admirably and brought out all the salient facts of a very serious situation indeed.

The main point I want to make is this. On May 29, 1945, during the short-lived career of the Caretaker Government, as we call it, a Bill called the Water Bill, which had been prepared by the Coalition Government of the war, was brought before your Lordships' House. My noble friend, Viscount Addison, then leading the Opposition, made these comments on Second Reading, on the question of pollution: In some areas the extent of pollution that has been allowed to arise during the war period is very excessive, and although the authorities here have certain powers against pollution I certainly think the adequacy of those powers requires investigation. On the Committee stage, encouraged and supported by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, I put down an Amendment. The Bill, now an Act, lays it down that: It shall be the duty of the Minister of Health … to promote the conservation and proper use of water resources, and the provision of water supplies in England and Wales and to secure the effective execution by water undertakers, under his control … and so on. I proposed and moved, after the word "Wales," to put in "to prevent the pollution of water supplies."

Your Lordships will observe that under the Water Act the Minister of Health is responsible for the conservation and proper use of water supplies, and for the provision of water supplies; but there is not one word about the purity of water supplies. That I hoped to remedy. I discussed it with the proper authorities, and was supported by my noble friend the Leader of the House, who was then the Leader of the Opposition. The Water Bill was in charge of the noble Earl, Lord Munster, and he made a very satisfactory and sympathetic reply. He said: I do not disagree with the views he has expressed."— referring to myself— As the noble Lord pointed out, the purpose of the Amendment is to add to the Minister's functions under this Bill the general duty of preventing the pollution of water supplies. The noble Earl went on to describe the various Acts, some of which have been referred to this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun. Then he said: There is also a projected Bill,"— this was in June, 1945,— as my noble friend is probably aware, to set up river boards. I think that Bill will be the place at which to raise the Minister's position as regards the pollution of water supplies. The occasion for such a thing to be done will be when the general question of pollution is before Parliament. …

The noble Earl went on to say: It would in fact be proper that these words, or words to a similar effect, should be inserted in the River Boards Bill, which I hope will come along in the new Session. For these reasons I hope my noble friend will see his way to withdraw his Amendment. After thanking the noble Earl, I did withdraw my Amendment. Now I understand the Water Bill has been drafted; it is on the stocks, but is awaiting a place in our legislative programme.

The question of which I have given notice through the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, that I would ask my noble friend the Earl of Listowel, is whether in the drafting of that Bill the Minister concerned is to be made responsible for the prevention of pollution. If we can do that we shall have gone a very long way, and for this reason. At the present time there are a multitude of authorities, some efficient some inefficient, some strong, some weak, some wealthy, some poor. Take, for example, the case of the Thames Conservancy Board. That Board does an excellent job of work, because it has to provide pure water for the people of the greatest city in the world, and there would be trouble if they did not get it. The Thames Conservancy Board is strong and enforces the law against pollution or contamination of the waters of the Thames watershed. But other water authorities are not so efficient, or not so strong, and when they have to fight a pollution case they have to fight either a local authority, as cited by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, or some powerful firm of manufacturers.

Three years ago, for example, some six miles of the beautiful River Kennet was denuded of all life—fish, vegetable and insect life—through the negligence of Messrs. Vickers-Armstrong. There was the local Conservancy Board fighting Vickers-Armstrong, which has a gigantic capital, but it was such a flagrant business that actually Vickers-Armstrong had to pay. That is only one example of many disgraceful cases of pollution. You cannot always rely upon these comparatively poor local authorities, but if the Minister, the Government, or the Crown is responsible for preventing pollution, then it is a very different story. It may be Vickers-Armstrong, I.C.I., the Co-operative Wholesale Society, 01 somebody even more powerful in the country, but if the Crown are interested, and if the Crown, through the Minister, are carrying out their duty of preventing pollution, that is a very different story. If we can have the responsibility for providing pure water or for preventing pollution and contamination placed on the appropriate Minister in this Water Bill, I think we shall have gone a considerable way towards restoring the purity of the rivers of Britain. That is my main case, and I feel confident that I shall receive a sympathetic and satisfactory reply from my noble friend.

May I say one word about the interests concerned? There are a great many people interested in this Bill and I am not ashamed to speak for them. The case for agriculture has been put by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun. The farmers are concerned about having pure water for their flocks and herds. The case for the general population has also been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun. I am going to claim that there should also be some consideration for the fishermen of England. There are many of us—at least 2,000,000. That may seem a very high figure, but I think I can prove it to your Lordships. In 1945, during the war years, when a great many men were away serving, 490,000 licences were issued in England alone—nearly half a million. That left out the whole of the Thames Valley, the whole of Hampshire and the whole of Scotland, those being districts where no licences are required.

Leaving out those, there were 500,000 regular fishermen. To the regular ones we can add the casual fishermen—the men who like to fish on their holidays, and that sort of thing. They have, after all, a right to their sport. In the Trent district—which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun—a great effort was made a few years ago to stem the continual poisoning of the streams of the district, which had reached a terrible state of affairs. Out of 700 miles of streams and rivers in the Trent district, one-third had been denuded of all natural and plant life. As the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, knows, some little progress has been made in checking and retarding the pollution of the Trent watershed. Some of the rivers in that immense district have been purified, and that was done largely because the Trent Fishery Board were entitled to levy a small fee of a shilling a year on fishermen.

One in every ten of the insured population of the whole district took out a licence. Those people acted as unofficial bailiffs, they created a body of public opinion, and something useful has been done in that district. In 1938, 87,000 licences were issued in the Trent district, mostly to working men. In the war years the figure was of the order of 73,000. That shows the immense number of people who are interested in angling, and I think they have a right to have their interests safeguarded. The idea that angling is the sport only of a wealthy few is just nonsense; the majority of these fishermen are working men. As a matter of fact, the few wealthy anglers can go away to the North of Scotland, to the West of Ireland, or somewhere else where there is no contamination and get their sport, but the ordinary working man who looks forward to his week-end angling must do his fishing somewhere near his home. If the rivers are contaminated and polluted, then he suffers, and the food supplies of the country also suffer. In our rivers we have a great potential source of food supply. If the British housewife could be taught, as I am sure she could be, to dress coarse fish, as we call them, as the Continental housewife does, we should then have a very great and useful source of supply to help out our food in the difficult times which are ahead.

It is really not a matter for joking any more, and I am sure my noble friend the Postmaster-General understands that. By the way, I have not heard that his Department has offended at all in the matter. The old cry of "Trade versus Trout" is really nonsense to-day. Under modern engineering practice, as the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, has already remarked, it is possible, by the installation of suitable purification plant, to prevent any effluent of an obnoxious character entering the drainage system or nearby water supplies. Under modern engineering practice in nearly all cases, it is quite unnecessary to allow the harmful poisons to go into the waters of our country and to affect the happiness and health of people miles downstream. I think this is a matter which is worthy of the attention of your Lordships, and I am sure the Government will be sympathetic to it. I look forward with interest and hope to the reply of my noble friend.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know whether you will allow me to say a word or two on this subject. My right to speak is that I am a resident in one of those parts of England which suffer from the mischiefs to which the two noble Lords who have addressed us this afternoon have called attention. May I say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lord Saltoun for having introduced this subject? Believe me, the water supply of this country is far more important than a good many of the vast subjects which engage the attention of His Majesty's Government. It is quite true, as my noble friend says, that the water supply of the country is of the greatest importance. It is also true that it has suffered very much from misuse. I take it that there is not a single member of your Lordships' House who would not agree that the more water that can be used by the people of this country, the better it will be. No doubt there can be extravagance in the matter of water, as with everything else, but, being interested in the management of land, I know the difficulties in regard to water supplies and I also know of the great demand that is being made)—it is, I am glad to say, a growing demand—by the people for improved water supplies. I am obliged to the noble Lord who has just sat down for having told us in detail of the legislative attempts which have been made up to now. They have not quite succeeded, and another Water Bill is promised. What I think my noble friend wants, and what I hope we all want, is for that Bill to be introduced and passed.

This is not a recent difficulty, although no doubt the mischief has been greatly increased by the exigencies of the war. One ought to be perfectly fair and candid about that. Nevertheless, as far back as the early 1930's, the trouble was felt very much in the part of the country in which I live—the Valley of the Lea. That river has suffered from increasing pollution. I am not going to say anything to your Lordships about who is responsible for the pollution, for that is a matter which must be considered elsewhere; the fact is the important thing. By the middle of the war the condition of the valley of the Lea was deplorable. In the part of the river with which I am most acquainted all the coarse fish, or a very large number of them, died. They lay in heaps upon the banks. That water was being used for the supply of a swimming bath—a swimming bath which, I am glad to say, it was thought would be desirable for the troops quartered in my part at that time. The water was examined, and the analysis was absolutely conclusive. As a result, my swimming bath had to be put out of bounds.

That is the kind of individual case—not the very interesting, admirable and wide survey which two other noble Lords have suggested to your Lordships—which comes to each of us who are interested in the land. I need hardly say that in such a case you cannot have drinking water; you cannot even have bathing. All those amenities for the people, and indeed their health, have to be sacrificed. I am sure noble Lords have said enough already to show the Government how much this is felt. We earnestly hope that something may be done. Representations are made, and representations are repeated. We get civil answers—very civil answers—but nothing else. I hope the noble Earl who is going to reply for the Government will not think that I wish to find fault with his fellow Ministers—I am not quite sure which Minister is concerned but I think it is the Minister of Health. No doubt he has had great difficulties in consequence of the war; but the war has been over many months, and we want to be assured to-night that something effective will be done.

I trust I have said nothing in the least political, but I hope that what may perhaps be called, without offence, the dilatoriness of public Departments will not be allowed to interfere. I noticed that the noble Lord who has just sat down put great stress and reliance upon the fact that we might have to deal, not only with the local authorities, but with the Crown, and he thought that if you had the Crown on your side all was well. Well, "the Crown" is a very fine phrase, but it means a public Department; and although public Departments have the best intentions they are very slow, and one's heart gets broken. I notice that there is an answering feeling about that observation of mine. My heart gets broken as letter after letter is written and nothing happens. I hope I have said enough. I earnestly trust that the excellent example which my noble friend has set this afternoon may bear fruit, and that the Bill which we believe is more or less in draft will be finished, introduced and passed.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I would like for a few moments to add my support to the plea which has been made by the noble Lord who moved this Motion, and the other two noble Lords who have just spoken. This is entirely a non-political subject, and I believe we are all at one, on all sides of the House, in our wish to see an adequate and pure water supply in this country. It seams to me that the tremendous changes of population which are now taking place from one district to another, coupled with the growth of industrialism, have outstripped all the measures which have hitherto been taken to offset pollution in our rivers. The noble Marquess mentioned the Lea Valley. There are many noble Lords on all sides of the House who could quote specific instances of lovely rivers being polluted, of fish life being killed, of rateable value being lost to local authorities, of taxable value being lost to the Exchequer, and of many tens of thousands of men in all walks of life who go to seek their pleasure, amusement and sport in fishing, being denied those opportunities. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, mentioned the Kennet. Indeed there was a works at Thatcham, as he will know, which some years ago denuded the Kennet of all fish life for some miles below Thatcham. It took a good many years to recover, and in fact it has never fully recovered.

This week-end, knowing that this debate was going to take place, I went to the Wye valley, that lovely spot which is probably known to many noble Lords. The tragedy is that from Hereford and for some miles below, that river has been virtually ruined for freshwater salmon fishing. As the noble Lord said, fishing is not a rich man's sport, and probably the best fisherman on the Wye is a man who has been employed on the railway there for many years. All anglers go to him when they want to gain knowledge on how to catch fish in that river. The population of Hereford has very nearly doubled. Military camps, and two factories were built. As a result, the Hereford local authority allowed practically open sewage to go straight into the river. One cannot blame the local authority, because their sewage plant was quite incapable of coping with the great increase of population. Dr. Rushton, however, who is probably well-known to noble Lords, has reported on that river, and states that for something like three to four miles below Hereford the river bed is covered with a deep scum and is quite hopeless for fish life. Indeed, so bad is it that Dr. Rushton actually doubted whether cattle would be safe in drinking the water at the worst point of pollution. Factories in Hereford have contributed to that bad position.

I hope that we are going to see this Bill which has been promised, and that the Government will make sure that a reasonable degree of priority is given to the authorities responsible for installing sewage plants. It is no good passing Acts of Parliament and giving a local authority powers unless the responsible Government Departments ensure that the necessary engineering plant priorities are given to local authorities, or to whatever other authority may be given the task. The only other point I would like to j make is this. I believe that in the I majority of cases, industrialists are men of good will, who do not wish to see the rivers polluted when they are putting up factories. I believe that local authorities do not want to see pollution, but at the present time, when industrialists and the local authority consult together and decide on certain measures, I do not believe they have the benefit of the experience of experts on the scene who nave Studied this particular problem for years, such as the Salmon and Trout Association and the authorities at Fishmonger Hall.

There are more ways of killing fish than by catching them. It can be done by funiculus, and starvation and killing the fly and vegetable life in the river. It is not enough for the Government to say that the effluent is not going to kill the fish; we want them to say that it is not going to do harm to the natural life and weed life of the river. I hope that when we have the new measure we shall see that the machinery of administration ensures that the expert knowledge at the centre is placed at the disposal of those who are responsible for the prevention of pollution. I do not want to delay your Lordships any longer, except to say that this is a subject of intense importance and one on which the Government will have support on all sides of the House.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I think we are indebted to the noble Lord who raised this subject to-day. It is one that is regarded as of great importance throughout the country. I believe that the noble Lord who has just resumed his seat has put his finger on the spot. One or two Acts have already been passed on the subject, the last in 1937, for the purpose of remedying the shortcomings of previous Acts, but still the nuisance persists; and, indeed, it has increased. I remember the beautiful little streams of the Trent where we used to bathe when I was a boy. One of them was six feet deep and had a red sand bottom, and I thought I would still be able to swim there to-day. I went to one stream which used to operate a water mill; in I dived—and there I stuck until someone fetched me out! It contained six feet of raw sewage, and as I dived in my arms went into it. Whose duty was it to prevent pollution of that stream? It was the duty of the local authority. Heaven knows, I was a member of that local authority, and I would be the last man in this House to suggest that we should have an addition of officials to see that the present officials enforce the Act that it is their duty to carry out.

The fact is that, so far as the Local Authorities are concerned, to be honest and frank, they have failed to carry out their duties under the existing Acts. What is the position as regards the great grazing lands? In some cases these streams afford the only water at which the cattle can drink, and often the water there is polluted. They are without a pure water supply, and though huge sums of money have been spent in cleaning up these streams, many of them are still polluted and there is only poisoned water from which the animals can drink. In rural England matters are going to get worse instead of better if we do not insist, that, in addition to water supplies being taken to the villages, preparations are at the same time made to carry out sewage schemes. In my own village on the River Trent raw sewage is going into the river and the Government have no preparations for dealing with it.

All I can say is that if the authorities allow that kind of thing to be perpetuated they are not doing their duty, and in some cases they seem to have no intention of doing it. How can it be enforced? They could not enforce it at some of the great works in my district, where nothing whatever was done. I hope that in the new Bill we shall do something, and that we shall be able to see to the bottom of the little streams in which the fish live; and that those little streams will be purified, cleansed and rehabilitated. I trust that the necessary provisions will be made in the new Act. A promise was given to get a sewage scheme working in the village where we are building new houses. No houses have any water supplies and there will not be any unless and until we also provide for proper sewage disposal and for dealing with effluent.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I delight to follow my noble friend, the Marquess of Salisbury, as I followed him in the representation of the City of Rochester in another place. He has put his finger on the spot, and his words need emphasis. We get civility from Government Departments, but precious little else, when we take our grievances to them. I want also to support the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in his statement that the matter is primarily one of priorities. I want to call attention to a very serious aspect of this question, with especial reference to a particular instance of which I have given notice to my noble friend, the Earl of Listowel, who is going to reply for the Government in this debate. In the former of the two Motions on the Order Paper to-day, the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun frankly states who the offenders are, for he calls attention "to the persistent pollution of our streams and rivers by local authorities." But it does not necessarily follow that responsibility is thus placed on the right shoulders.

In the other Motion, Lord Strabolgi, asks for powers to be given to the appropriate Minister. In my submission it is not more powers that are needed but that existing powers should be implemented. It is not much use giving additional powers without provision being made to enable the nuisance to be abated. Again, it is of little avail to give powers to local authorities if they themselves are the culprits. I cannot divest myself, for purposes of this debate, from my connexion with the Port of London Authority, of which I have been a member for the past fifteen years, and I confess to I feeling of grave anxiety about the position in which we find ourselves here in London. I have no desire to be an alarmist, but, speaking with a full sense of responsibility, I would not disguise from your Lordships that in my judgment there is an element of very real danger to the health of the people of London, especially to those who work on or about the river, by the pollution of the tidal waters that flow past your Lordships' House right through the very heart of the capital. Worse than that, it is a continuing and a cumulative menace. This is a tidal river as far up as Teddington, and it is common knowledge that much flotsam and jetsam does in fact, for some considerable time, flow to and fro with the tide. That is also equally true of any effluent which is discharged into the river.

Since the Act of 1908, which inaugurated the Port of London Authority, with which I had some little part in another place, we have had a number of Acts culminating in the Port of London (Consolidation) Act of 1920. As I was in the House of Commons before I was thirty, and I am now over seventy, I am in a position to bear my testimony that in those days of forty years ago the time of Parliament was not needlessly wasted, but jealously guarded for essential and pressing legislation. The point I wish to make is that in the Port of London Authority Act, under which we are at present operating, no fewer than seventeen sections—some of them quite long ones—are devoted to the avoidance of pollution of the river, and the statutory duty is laid upon the Port of London Authority "to preserve and maintain at all times as far as may be the flow and purity, of the water of the Thames." Either Parliament must have considered this a serious matter of real import, or the time of Parliament was needlessly wasted. For myself, I am convinced that the former is the correct explanation. That being so, it behoves us to take note of the seriousness of the present state of affairs and of the potential danger to public health in its continuance.

When the present statutory duty to preserve and maintain the purity of the water of the River Thames was laid on the Port of London Authority, by a saving section in the Act the London County Council were exempted from the Authority's jurisdiction. My noble friend, the Marquess of Salisbury, said that he was not going to apportion blame for the condition of the Lea. I want to be quite frank as regards the Thames, and to point out that the London County Council, as successors to the Metropolitan Board of Works, are responsible "for preventing as far as may be practicable, the sewage of the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames within the Metropolis." For years past, however, sewage effluent, insufficiently treated, has been poured into the Thames from London County Council's sewers.

I have no desire to be unduly critical of another public authority, the more so because the relations between the London County Council and the Port of London Authority are most cordial, and no one has done more to cement that feeling of cordiality than the present Chairman, Mr. John Cliff. Nor must I be thought to be criticizing, even by inference, in what I am about to say, the new Clerk of the Council, Mr. Howard Roberts from Hull, or the present Chief Engineer, Mr. Rawlinson, for in both cases they have only recently been appointed—in fact, I think that Mr. Roberts is actually taking office at the end of this month—nor Sir Allen Daley, the County Medical Officer of Health, who was appointed only on the outbreak of the war. Their records are such as to make us hopeful of better things in the future than we have experienced in the past, always provided that they are supported by the Ministry of Health. In fact, if I may, and if it will not be thought presumptuous on my part to do so, I would congratulate the Council upon securing the services of three men of such eminence and such outstanding ability in their respective professions, and I hope that with such a team we shall see an improvement in the immediate future.

My criticism of the Council is rather of omissions in the past, when both labour and material were in abundant supply for all necessary work. There is, of necessity, much sewage and injurious matter falling into the Thames from the immense amount of shipping carried upon its waters. If, however, in addition, effluent insufficiently treated, and in vast quantities, is suffered to pass into the Thames from the great sewers, a state of affairs may arise not only prejudicial but positively dangerous to public health, a menace which Parliament has recognized and sought by legislation most carefully to prevent. The position is the more serious because the Port of London Authority's powers are, in fact, complete over only one-fifth of the discharges into the Thames, while the remaining four-fifths of the total discharges are from the London County Council outfalls, and over such four-fifths the Port of London Authority have no powers at all. And I would add that, when the outfalls were constructed, it was understood that the effluent would be discharged only on the ebb tide, but that is not the case now.

The flow of fresh water from the upper reaches of the river over Teddington Weir into the tidal Thames is subject to statutory regulation, and the statutory minimum is 170,000,000 gallons daily, and even that is inadequate. And yet it is now suggested to reduce that minimum by nearly one half to 90,000,000 gallons a day—I agree, only as a temporary ex- pedient. Think what that will mean in lack of cleansing of the lower tidal reaches, where such vast quantities of sewage and sewage effluent are poured into the river. The Ministry of Health are vitally concerned in the health aspect of this matter, and certainly cannot be exonerated from their meed of responsibility. In fact, the Port of London Authority's contact with the Ministry of Health, I think I am correct in saying, is solely on this account; OUT other dealings are with the Ministry of Transport. But I submit that the way the Ministry of Health have exercised their jurisdiction in this matter, to put it mildly, leaves a. great deal to be desired. The Metropolitan Water Board proposed, long ago, to ease the position by constructing four new storage reservoirs, and now only one is contemplated—another case of powers obtained from Parliament but not fully implemented. We may toe devoutly thankful for the melting snow and the earlier heavy rainfall, for in periods of drought the position would be greatly aggravated.

From the economic standpoint, too, the heavy discharges of untreated sewage has a. serious effect on the siltation of the river, involving immense expenditure for dredging. We are spending now over £500,000 a year in the Port of London for dredging, and so heavy has been this expenditure that the Port of London Authority have had to embark upon a comprehensive survey of the river channel, as it seems likely that the solid matter carried into the fairway from the London County Council's outfalls largely contributes to this siltation. The effluent from the London County Council's outfalls at Barking and Crossness, on average, has been for a long time, and continues to be, far below the standard of purity which] the Port of London Authority, after consultation with the Ministry of Health, have adopted for that section of the river, and that is caused by inadequate treatment.

The London County Council have, I know, taken steps to improve this effluent, but the plant is at present working at only one-fifth of its capacity and has never functioned fully. At best, however, the plant now available could only deal with about one-sixth of the total effluent, even when working to full capacity. Provision, therefore, should be made, as an urgent matter of public health, for the installation of the necessary additional plant at the earliest possible date. Is it necessary to have an epidemic in London before the trouble is remedied? If so, it will not be through lack of public attention being drawn to the matter in your Lordships' House.

Now I want to deal with the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, made reference. At the present time the priority for labour and materials for the purpose of improvement or working of sewage disposal works is apparently very low, and thus even in cases where the authorities concerned are prepared to take steps to improve their disposal works, in order the better to treat their effluent before discharge into the river, they are unable to do so. The Port Authority, by the exercise of their powers, have enforced a not unreasonably high standard of purity for sewage discharge into the tidal reaches, of the Thames, other than from the London County Council outfalls, over which they have no control. I can give your Lordships the respective standards, if you so desire. It does not make it any easier to insist on satisfactory industrial effluents when the London County Council effluents are not being dealt with. Speaking generally, effluents which do not at present conform to the Authority's standards are those from sewage disposal plants which are recognized to be inefficient and in respect of which plans for improvements have been prepared, although they have not been put in hand owing to the lack of money, labour or materials, as the case may be.

The London County Council are by no means the only offenders; other authorities are also involved from time to time, including the Barnes Borough Council, Dagenham Borough Council, West Kent Main Sewerage Board, the Wandle Valley Joint Sewerage 'Board, and others. Let me take this opportunity, at tire same time, to pay tribute to one Authority for their good work. The Middlesex County Council are, in this matter, as in education, exemplary. Their Mogden Sewage Disposal Works at Isleworth are exceptionally satisfactory. And if they can do it, why not others? The Government. I believe, have accepted in principle the recommendation of the Central Advisory Water Committee as to the establishment of river boards, and they intend to introduce legislation for this purpose when opportunity offers. In fact, the Ministry of Health have advised the interested authorities that, with this in mind, a subcommittee of the Central Advisory Water Committee has been set up "to investigate measures for strengthening the law regarding the prevention of the pollution of rivers and streams."

It is not the law that wants strengthening, nor is it full powers that are wanted; it is the implementation of the present powers for which we ask. The Central Advisory Water Committee, however, have excluded the River Thames from their recommendation for the setting up of river boards, on the grounds that the matters proposed to be placed under the jurisdiction of the boards are already adequately provided for so far as the Thames is concerned. It is unlikely, therefore, that the proposed legislation will affect the position of the Port of London Authority. Reference was made by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi to the j Thames Conservancy. They, of course, are responsible, under their Acts, for the prevention of pollution of the non-tidal reaches of the Thames.

As the labour supply position will probably remain extremely difficult for some considerable time, it is of paramount importance that something very much more should be done than simply to give particular authorities, such as the pro- j posed river boards, certain statutory i powers for the prevention of pollution, j If such powers are to be exercised effectively, the physical work involved in dealing with sewage must be given high priority, and not relegated for ever to the low position which it appears to occupy at the present time. In the case of the River Thames, in particular, the statutory powers for the prevention of pollution are in general sufficient; the trouble is the inability of the various authorities concerned with the disposal of sewage to improve their plant, or, in some cases, even to maintain the existing plant. It is this which causes such grave concern at the present time to those responsible for keeping the river free from pollution.

The gravity of the problem cannot be over-estimated. To continue in the old way of low priority, and to adhere to the methods and policy of the past, is to be out of touch with reality and, if persisted in, will be as ineffective as the use of weapons of the Boer War in this atomic age. It is not difficult, in favourable circumstances, to produce for a time the appearance of effectiveness, but that can only be superficial. I am convinced, however, that if the problem be adequately and fearlessly faced, it can be effectively dealt with. A policy of drift is bad in anything, but worst of all in a matter of this gravity. In view of its urgency, and the fact that it brooks no delay, I appeal to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to give us some assurance that the Government are seized of the importance of this matter, and that they will take all requisite steps to ensure, first, that the London County Council are enabled to carry out their statutory obligations as regards the River Thames and, second, that all others concerned will also be given the necessary priorities, so that the present serious position may be speedily remedied and the public health of London safeguarded without further delay.

I would add only this. What is the good of town and country planning if no effort is made in this regard? It is strange that neither in the London County Council County of London Plan, nor in the Greater London Plan, is any direct reference made to the avoidance of pollution. What will be the avail of the riverside amenities under these town planning schemes if we are going to have the waters of the rivers fouled with the effluent as they flow up and down? I know one of the replies of the County Council is that the danger may be exaggerated. It is said that the London County Council men who work on the outfall work are the healthiest of their employees. If that is so, I can only say they chose the strongest and the sturdiest. This subject is so serious that I urge the Government to give it the priority that it undoubtedly deserves.

3–57 P.m.


My Lords, I am sure you would wish me first of all to express our mutual gratitude to the two noble Lords who started this debate for raising a subject of considerable importance, touching as it does so closely the interests of the fishermen and the farmers, and for their forbearance in repeatedly postponing their Motion in order to suit the convenience of the House. There is only one feature of this debate which has surprised and disappointed me—namely, that there has been no speaker from the Liberal Benches, although we often see sitting on those Benches a "Mersey," a "Derwent" and a "Trent."

My reply to the first question of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, whether we are conscious of the problem, is that the Government are acutely and, indeed, painfully aware that many of our rivers are badly polluted at the present time. We are just as anxious as the noble Lord, and other noble Lords who have spoken, to improve the purity of all these waters as quickly and as effectively as we can. Indeed, this is not the first Government to be alive to the seriousness of this problem or to desire to take appropriate action. The Milne Committee reported to the war-time Coalition Government as far back as 1943, and the recommendations in their Report, which are also accepted by the present Government and have been taken as the basis for future legislation, were accepted at that time. This bears out what the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, said about the matter not being in any sense a Party matter, and I was particularly grateful to the noble Lord opposite for saying that his Party would support the action that we might take to remedy this problem, because it means that the Bill which we hope to introduce will be uncontroversial, and, as noble Lords know, an uncontroversial Bill takes a shorter time to pass through Parliament than a controversial Bill, and has therefore a much better chance of being introduced at an early stage.

The Report of the Milne Committee—which is the classic on this subject, and so I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I refer to it—said that the worst consequence of the present inadequate administrative machinery for dealing with our rivers is that it makes it impossible to take effective action against the growing evil of pollution. We also agree with what several noble Lords have said about the marked and rapid increase of deterioration which has taken place during the war. It was, of course, quite inevitable. There were new war industries springing up in many places where industry had never been before. There were other industries which had to be dispersed, to present a smaller target to air attack. To make matters even worse, the Services planted their camps, their gun sites and other establishments all over the country. Naturally, this would not have made nearly as much difference to the rivers in normal times, but during the war there was neither the labour nor the materials to spare from work immediately connected with national defence, which otherwise would have been used, to extend or improve existing methods for disposing of domestic or industrial effluent.

The main difficulties that we are up against at the moment are twofold. The first of these is not, as I think some noble Lords have suggested, that the Minister or anyone else lacks the necessary powers to deal with pollution, but that these powers have been conferred on too many different authorities—and authorities that are not really of the right type. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, at the beginning of his speech. I think it is the reply to the first point that was raised by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. What we want is not an in crease in existing powers, but the right use of these powers by the authorities in whom they are vested. I hope that your Lordships will allow—


May I point out to my noble friend that it is not only a matter of the powers or the responsibility of the Minister, and that what we want is not only the responsibility to see that there is water but to see that the water is pure.


The immediate responsibility falls on the people who have been given powers by Statute, but the Minister naturally exercises a general responsibility in the interests of public health. I hope that your Lordships will allow me to describe briefly, giving a very short historical background, how this system has grown up; because it will show the haphazard and piecemeal growth of those authorities which accounts for the present confusion. The original public bodies to be made responsible for enforcing the law against pollution were the sanitary authorities. Under the Act of 1876 the borough councils and the urban and rural district councils were given power to start proceedings against anyone discharging untreated sewage or poisonous effluents into streams and rivers flowing through their areas. That is how it all began. Then under the Local Government Act of 1888, the same powers were given to county councils, and the Minister of Health was allowed to set up joint committees representing all the county authorities through whose area a particular river might run. So here we have the county councils and the joint committees added to the borough councils and the urban and rural district councils who came in under the first of these Acts. Finally, in 1923 another Act of Parliament gave the same powers to fishery boards for the purpose of protecting fish at all stages of their lives.

The net result of this haphazard, piecemeal growth over a period that has lasted about seventy, years is that we have for dealing with pollution a whole multitude of separate agencies whose responsibility it is to prevent and arrest pollution. There are now in England and Wales as many as 1,600 local authorities who are collectively responsible for seeing that the law is carried out. It is obvious that such a mosaic, such a system—or rather lack of system—cannot work satisfactorily. I will not weary your Lordships with further illustrations of the difficulties that this administrative machinery encounters. If ever there was an instance of too many cooks spoiling a liquid, I think it can be seen in the treatment of our native streams and rivers by those responsible for their cleanliness. Since the First World War, Committee after Committee have reported in favour of placing local control of pollution in the hands of new bodies with a much larger administrative area. The most recent of these Reports is the one to which I have already referred—namely, the Report of the Milne Committee.

Noble Lords will remember that this Report recommended the appointment of twenty-nine river boards—an enormous reduction in the number 'of authorities at present exercising these powers—for England and Wales, each of which would be responsible for an area covering the watershed of one or more rivers. These boards, a development along the lines of the Thames and Lea Conservancy Boards, which are nothing new or experimental, would take over the duties of the local authorities for the prevention of pollution and those of the catchment and fishery boards for land drainage and fisheries respectively. The Government agree entirely and unreservedly with the Milne Committee that this simple and logical administrative structure, which would make one authority responsible for the maximum number of functions in relation to the whole area drained by a river and its tributaries, would give us the sort of public body that we need to replace the present patchwork of controls. A Bill giving effect to this and other recommendations—perhaps of less importance—made by the Milne Committee has now been drafted and will be introduced into Parliament at the earliest practical moment.


Will it be introduced this Session?


No; it will not be introduced this Session.

There is a second difficulty in dealing with pollution, and I think this throws a light on the time factor. The second difficulty is entirely different. It has nothing whatever to do with the inadequacy of the administrative machinery for keeping our rivers in a reasonably good condition; it is the difficulty, which is widely and commonly experienced at the present time, of obtaining the labour and materials which are required for fresh plant and constructional work. I should like to emphasize, here, that in this competition for priorities the authorities who want labour and material for sewage works, or for the treatment of effluent, are not necessarily competing with people who ought to have a lower degree of priority than they. It should not be forgotten that with the best will in the world many local authorities and factory owners—and I am sure your Lordships would not wish to under-estimate the fact that most of these people want to behave in a decent and public spirited way—find it impossible at the present time to proceed with their plans for neutralizing industrial effluence, or for building fresh sewage works. These bodies often find themselves competing with the building industry for labour and materials. I am sure your Lordships will agree that there can be no doubt that for the time being, at any rate, the first call upon unskilled building labour, and upon cement, bricks, and other things that are required for putting up or putting into houses and flats, must be given to those responsible for carrying out the building programme.


May I interrupt the noble Earl to ask him this question? Are we to understand that the construction of sewage works for public health reasons, and the purity of rivers, must take a lower priority than materials or labour required for building? It is not much good building the houses unless you think also of things like sewages. Should not they have a section of such available resources?


Of course, every case will have to be dealt with on its merits. What I was thinking of was the achieving of a much higher general degree of purity, after what has happened during the war. I am not talking about the pollution of a water supply that may be needed for a new town, or a new building development in connexion with an existing town. That, of course, would come in a top category.

I am sure your Lordships wall not consider that I am unduly protracting my speech if I deal for a few moments with the question of fishing. A special difficulty concerning the fishery boards, whose responsibility it is to protect the life of fish, is that so few of them have the necessary funds to provide the expert help they need in technical matters. This makes it hard for them to obtain the evidence required for undertaking a prosecution when an offence has been committed, when it is obvious that fish are dying, or fish have been killed. For example, it may be impossible to prove, in cases where there are several potential sources from which it might come, that an effluent which is killing fish comes from a particular source. Some of the larger boards, like the Trent Fishery Board, have been able to use their powers, and have used them, most successfully. But it must be admitted that most boards are smaller and have insufficient funds to do their job effectively. This difficulty, like the other difficulty in connexion with water for humans, would be overcome if the river boards recommended in the Milne Report were set up, because they would be in a position to raise money by precept on the rates of the larger local authorities, and this would give them the necessary funds to provide for adequate administrative staff.

The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, asked a question about research, and suggested that another Committee should be set up to sit on this subject permanently. I would assure the noble Lord that research is going on at the present time, under the auspices of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Its work has already resulted in marked improvements in existing methods for the treatment of domestic and industrial waste, and there is reason to expect that further improvements will be found as time goes on. When the scientific advances are applied by local authorities and by industry, the effect, of course, will be to reduce very considerably the present degree of pollution. I should like to impress on the noble Lord that the work that is being done under the auspices of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is not confined to laboratory experiment for application in the long term. Field work is also being done, and I understand that teams of chemists and engineers arc being sent to factories that are discharging poisonous effluent, and are treating the effluent in order to neutralize it on the spot. Thus, the evil is being combated actively from day to day. I would have dealt with Scotland, 'but I do not think I will, because no noble Lord has mentioned Scotland in the course of the discussion, and I might be lengthening my speech without giving your Lordships information which you might require.


If the noble Earl will excuse me for interrupting, I should like to tell him that my pocket is full of letters from people in Scotland.


If the noble Lord requires it, I will refer to Scotland, but his is the responsibility for inflicting an addition which might not be so interesting to other members of the House. The position in Scotland is less bad than it is here, because county councils and town councils in large burghs—of which there are only fifty-five in all, compared with the very large number of authorities in England and Wales—-are charged with this duty of preventing pollution. This has eliminated all the smaller authorities in Scotland. Nevertheless, the Scottish Advisory Committee on the Pollution of Rivers, perceiving the advantage of concentrating in one body responsibility for the purity of a particular river, recommended in 1936 the establishment of river boards in Scotland. Separate legislation would, of course, be required for Scotland because the system of river administration differs in many respects from the system in England and Wales. But the Government are anxious that a Bill should be introduced at the I earliest practicable moment to give Scot- land all the advantages that will accrue to England and Wales under the English Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, said something about the amending of the law and he wanted it strengthened and reinforced. The Government also recognize that it may be necessary to alter and tighten up the law. They therefore decided that a Committee should be appointed to go into this question. During last Summer a sub-Committee of the Central Advisory Water Committee was, therefore appointed to consider—and this is a brief extract from its terms of reference— whether it is necessary, and, if so, what measures are required, to strengthen the existing law in regard to the prevention of pollution of rivers and streams. This Committee will consult the views of the interests concerned, and will report to the Minister as soon as their inquiry has been completed. The sub-Committee held its first meeting on July 16, and they are still engaged in taking evidence from the interests likely to be affected by legislation, which are, of course, extremely numerous.

The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, also referred to the Water Act. I should like to reassure him immediately on this point. The Water Act has been working quite satisfactorily, and is still working quite satisfactorily at the present moment. The Ministry of Health are now considering some ninety orders from applicants for powers of various kinds ranging from the formation of joint boards, the amalgamation of water undertakings, and the construction of the reservoirs, and a number of rather less important matters. There is, of course, nothing in the Act that takes away the rights of undertakers to promote Bills—Local Authorities and private companies—and when an authority are asking for a fresh power not covered by the Act, this is the proper and only procedure they can take. For example, in the case of the Tendring Hundred Water and Gas Bill, which came before the House only a week or two ago, the powers for new works could be obtained under the Act. But the Company also wish to raise joint capital for water and gas, which is not possible under an Act which deals solely with water. It is the practice of the Ministry of Health, when reporting on Water Bills to Committees of either Houses of Parliament, to draw their attention to any cases where the powers asked for by the undertaker are easily obtainable under the provisions of the Act. But surely it is for the Committee to decide whether or not Bills should proceed in such circumstances. It would undoubtedly be high-handed and wrong for a Government Department to attempt to override the discretion of the water undertaker as to which procedure he should adopt, whether by an order under the Act or by the promotion of a Private Bill. I am sure your Lordships would be the first to complain if the executive tried to interfere in this way with the rights of the subject.

In conclusion, let me say one word about the Thames, as that was a subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester. If I may say so, I do not think he quite did justice to the difficulties that face the London County Council. Just before the war the London County Council completed, at a cost of £600,000, a sewage treatment plant designed to give full treatment to 40,000,000 gallons of sewage a day, which would have accounted for about one-quarter of the average dry weather flow. Most unfortunately—and this point has not emerged in the course of the discussion—this plant was severely damaged by enemy action during the air attacks on London, and it has not yet been fully repaired or put into effective use. The damage is being repaired and the work is proceeding, but, even so, lack of fuel has made it impossible to put the repaired plant into full employment. The London County Council are acutely conscious of this problem. I should like to make it abundantly plain that neither the authorities in the London area—the London County Council, or any other authorities—nor the Government Departments concerned are at all satisfied with the present position, and that they will do their utmost to remedy it as speedily as possible. I can also tell your Lordships that discussions are in progress at this moment between the Port of London Authority, the London County Council and the Government.


Will the noble Lord forgive me? That conference took place on Monday of last week, but I regret to say that, in my judgment, it was abortive.


I hope the noble Lord's judgment is incorrect. In our view it is only the beginning of a series of conferences or talks which we hope will result in an agreement leading to a marked improvement in the position.

We have had an extremely interesting and instructive debate, in which a number of proposals have been put forward by noble Lords which will be of the utmost assistance to the Government in deciding what should be done to remedy this evil. On behalf of His Majesty's Government, 1 should like to say how grateful we are to noble Lords for the views they have expressed, and to assure them that everything that has been said will receive immediate consideration.

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl began his speech by regretting that there was no speaker from these Benches. May I now repair that omission very shortly? There happens to be one question which I should like to put to him. I am very glad to hear that it is the intention of the Government to produce—I hope at an early date—a River Boards Bill, because it is a very important Bill. I think the noble Earl said that it was founded on the work done by the Thames Conservancy Board. Under the Bill—I think we all know what it contains—the river boards are given certain powers to deal with pollution, but those powers really are not sufficient. I would ask the noble Earl to see whether the same powers cannot be given to the river board as are given to the Thames Conservancy Board itself. If the river board had those powers, then I feel sure that they could do almost as good work, if not quite as good work, as the Thames Conservancy Board has done for the upper and non-tidal reaches of the Thames. The point is one of considerable importance.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and myself, I should like very sincerely to thank all your Lordships for the support which you have given us this afternoon. I should like particularly to thank those noble Lords who have spoken, and especially my noble friend the Postmaster-General for his extremely sympathetic and complete reply. There are just one or two points arising out of the debate upon which I will touch very briefly. There is one point on which I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. He said that under modern engineering conditions one can always prevent industrial effluent from getting into rivers, but I think that is possibly not quite true. One has to consider the enormous number of quite small industrial plants hidden away in the great cities, and one also has to consider modern chemical industries, the possible effects of radio-active radiation and so on. For that reason I am particularly grateful to His Majesty's Government for the promise that they will promote more research. My own opinion, after hearing a good deal of expert opinion on this, is that at the moment research is possibly more important even than the new Bill which we have been promised.

With regard to tire new Bill, there are one or two points arising from the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to which I would like to call attention. In the first place, he said it is very difficult to bring home pollution to people because it is necessary to prove that a particular fish was killed by a particular source of contamination. I submit that in the new Bill it should be sufficient to show that there is a source of contamination, and that it should not be necessary to wait until it is possible to prove that a particular fish was killed by that source. I think that is the point which could be dealt with in the Bill.

In his reply, the noble Earl said that now we were going to get river boards armed with authority, "hat was sufficient. I humbly suggest that from his own speech it appears that that may not be sufficient, and I think the question should be carefully and sympathetically examined anew. The example he quoted of Scotland, where we do have larger authorities, shows quite conclusively that larger authorities are not in themselves the answer to this. If the noble Earl doubts me, let him go and cast a fly, not with a new line, but with an old line that does no: matter, in some of the pools at the mouth of the Don. The dressing will come off the line, and after a few casts he will find it looks like the tail of a kite, with every sort and kind of contamination hanging on to it. There is one other point. I suggest that when we are nominating Committees to sit on Water Bills and other similar Bills, we should instruct them to pay particular attention to the possible effects of private legislation on river pollution With those few words, I should like to thank the noble Earl, the Postmaster-General for his sym- pathetic reply, and wish him success. With your Lordships' leave, I will withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.