HL Deb 12 June 1951 vol 172 cc20-32

3.31 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am privileged to move the Second Reading of a Bill which is a non-Party Bill, but which is by no means a noncontroversial Bill. Like many non-Party Bills, it is among the most controversial. That is inevitable. There are so many interested parties that one could hardly expect them all to agree on what a Bill of this kind attempts to do. Most people in this country are interested in rivers. Some enjoy their beauty, and I have friends who like to take from the river its largest inhabitants and to go home boasting about it. I know of people employed in industry who are concerned with what to do with surplus water and other materials not so acceptable as water. Then I have many friends who are members of local authorities and who are concerned with obtaining sufficient water for the inhabitants of their area. In the result, it follows that a Bill of this kind is bound to be examined with the utmost care to see how these interests are affected.

I looked at the Bill prior to its introduction in another place, and I look now at the Bill before your Lordships' House, and I have only to compare the two Bills to see how hard the Members of another place struggled to introduce Amendments and make substantial changes. There is nothing new in the question of river pollution. It has troubled this country for quite a long time. For over a century now people inside and outside this House have had to deal with this problem. The first piece of legislation concerned with this problem was introduced into your Lordships' House as far back as 1876. I looked at that Bill only to-day. I also glanced at the debates on that Bill in 1876. I think it was the father—it may have been the grandfather—of the present Marquess who leads the Opposition who moved its Second Reading. He did it very briefly, but very clearly—in less than two minutes. He had the advantage that the question had been before the House earlier in the previous Session but, owing to the confusion we sometimes find at the end of a Session, it was killed and did not receive the Royal Assent. Things have changed since 1876. No one can approach a question in 1951 in the same way as it was approached in 1876. In those days, industry was a problem, as was also the disposal of surplus water and other materials. But the magnitude of the difficulty in 1951 is far greater than it was in 1876. Perhaps one of the outstanding defects of the 1876 Act was that it entrusted the work to too many authorities. That is never a good thing. Usually, what is everybody's job becomes nobody's job. It has suffered from that weakness until to-day, and it may be that that is the reason why it was thought necessary to bring forward this Bill and try to reduce the number of authorities concerned with the problem of the pollution of the rivers.

We have had the advantage of a number of Reports since 1876. There was the Milne Report of 1943 and more recently the Report known as the Hob-day Report. Those who have had the privilege of reading the Hobday Report and also this Bill will have appreciated how much the Bill owes to that Report. It has certainly been a beacon light and has made suggestions which to a large extent are now incorporated in this measure. But, as with most pieces of legislation, the value of this Bill when it becomes an Act of Parliament will be shown in its administration. Most of us who serve on local authorities find that the value of legislation depends in many cases upon its administration. I know of no Act of Parliament in which that is more clear than it will prove to be in this one. If the local authorities, the river boards and employers in industry are able to get together and co-operate in carrying out the spirit of the Bill, then I think it will be a good Act of Parliament. But its effectiveness will be largely in their hands.

Primarily, the carrying out of the objects of the Bill is entrusted to the thirty-one river boards created by the 1948 Act. Now, as we all know. rivers differ—even the same river differs in its various sections between its source and the sea. This Bill provides that those river boards shall formulate bylaws which will enable standards to be set up for different sections of each of the rivers in the respective areas. The boards will need technical advice to do their work thoroughly, and I know your Lordships will be pleased to know that technical advice will be provided. There is one other feature which I feel sure will please your Lordships. The advice given, the standard set and the work done by the various river boards will be subject to Ministerial confirmation. These river boards have no easy task. We realise that all the different interests I have mentioned will be clamouring for consideration. Each will put its respective point of view, and the river boards will have to decide between them, because that is their job.

The Bill departs from previous legislation to some degree. I noticed in reading the Bill that provision is made for criminal offences. We find that what was not a criminal offence under existing legislation will in future become a criminal offence. We also find that directors, general managers and others exercising similar authority, will now be liable to prosecution. On the matter of prosecutions, I notice that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, is present. He was good enough to write to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor regarding a particular point which troubled him. He and others, I am sure, will be pleased to know that the point that he has raised will be the subject of consultation between now and the next stage. I feel sure that, as a result of this consultation, the noble Earl will find satisfaction.


What is the point that the noble Earl has raised?


The noble Earl says he understands that, as the Bill is at present drafted, it will be no defence to any proceedings to show that the best practicable means have been taken to render any effluent harmless. Therefore, he feels that, if that is so, serious injustice may result. That is the point with which I said my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor intends to deal between now and the next stage of the Bill. There is one other matter which I ought to mention, regarding tidal waters. This subject also is dealt with in existing legislation, but in a rather limited manner. Under the Act of 1876, any action taken had to be based on "sanitary grounds"—which means, I am advised, on grounds of public health. All of us know how difficult it is to show that discharge of polluting trade wastes and so on into tidal waters may cause danger to health, and it has, therefore, been thought advisable in this Bill to omit any such reference, to leave the matter wider, in order to enable tidal waters to be dealt with, as we think, much more effectively.

I do not think there is any need for me to refer to the Bill clause by clause: I know that noble Lords are never very interested in going through a Bill clause by clause on Second Reading. There is, however, one aspect of Clause 8 to which perhaps I ought to refer briefly. To-day, the demands of rearmament are very heavy, both on finance and on labour. The intention of Clause 8 is to give guidance to the various authorities responsible for sewerage and similar works. It may be that their activities will have to be curtailed though, in saying that, I do not want to be regarded as suggesting that works to deal with the possible avoidance of pollution will not be allowed to continue. To-day there is in progress a great expansion of sewage disposal works, but in present circumstances it was thought advisable to insert this provision in the Bill, as providing guidance for a temporary period to the appropriate authorities.

I have said that this is a Bill of compromise: it could not be otherwise. The various interests affected have all to be considered. Like all compromise Bills, it does not give the satisfaction that many would expect, but it goes a long way to meeting present requirements and to bring about some improvement. It gives the river boards full powers for dealing with wilful offenders, those who have failed to incur reasonable expenditure on works of purification or to make proper use of works that are available. I think there are good grounds for looking forward to steady improvements during the next few years. New schemes for sewerage and sewage disposal are being approved every week. Industry is taking increasing advantage of the facilities afforded for the discharge of trade wastes into the public sewers. Some local authorities are already beginning to take the action needed to improve the condition of tidal waters. Although that is proceeding rather slowly, the Bill should, in the long run, facilitate the carrying out of planned measures by the river boards for bringing about greatly improved conditions, both in tidal and in non-tidal waters. I submit this Bill to your Lordships as a genuine attempt to deal with a very difficult problem. After all, our industries must not be over-burdened. We are all anxious to keep our rivers clean, but we have to consider what it means sometimes to dispose of unnecessary things from various factories. I know that most of us like to see our rivers and the banks of our rivers kept clean. Quite frankly, I think that this is a Bill which aims at restoring to our rivers that state where they can be a pleasure and a source of amusement, rather than, as they are in many cases to-day, channels for the drainage of filthy liquids. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor.)

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord who in a delightful speech has moved the Second Reading of this Bill that it is a non-Party Bill. It is also, perhaps because of that, a useful Bill. I agree with him, too, that its value will depend largely on how it is used in practice, because it is and has to be rather in the nature of an enabling Bill. It certainly is due, if not overdue. As the noble Lord said, not since 1876 has any comprehensive attempt been made to deal with this problem, and our rivers, with a few exceptions, have not in the meantime become noticeably cleaner. The Rivers Pollution Act, 1876, was the first attempt to deal comprehensively with this problem. The House will not be surprised to learn that that Act, like so much other sound social policy, was initiated by a Tory Government.

The facts disclosed in the Reports, particularly the Hobday Report to which the noble Lord has referred, show how necessary it is to deal more effectively with this problem. Some awful revelations have been made. For example, the River Irwell, in Lancashire, is described as having no fish, no insects, no weed and no life except sewage fungus. A ban has had to be imposed upon the consumption by human beings of shellfish from the River Dee, for fear of ptomaine poisoning. Even the Cam has been polluted by scientific industry. The Isis, your Lordships will not be surprised to know, affords an agreeable contrast to the Cam, though when the Isis gets outside the beneficent influence of Oxford and becomes the Thames, I regret to say it degenerates. I was horrified to learn that Cuckoo Weir (I think it is), where such Etonians as bathe—I suppose they are the "wet bobs," as distinct from the others; I am not so familiar with Eton notions as with Winchester notions—go to bathe, has now been so contaminated by the sewage of Slough that they can no longer bathe there. I think that is an unfair deprivation, though I appreciate that it may be said that they have been voluntarily or involuntarily compelled to adopt the advice of a Wykehamist Chancellor of the Exchequer who advised us of the danger of excessive washing.

With these inconveniences all over the country, there is certainly ample scope for this Bill. In its structure it is sensible. There have been masses of small authorities concerned, no doubt some of whom have themselves been not inconsiderable offenders. I do not know what procedure exists—perhaps the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, can tell me—to force a local authority to prosecute itself, because it is the drainage authority which contaminates the waters that it is supposed to protect. In those circumstances, it is not altogether surprising that prosecutions have been few and far between. But now the powers are to be vested in the river boards which we set up a year or two ago, and which are large representative local bodies. Under the Bill they will be given wide powers of survey and power to make bylaws. These bodies, while being wide enough, I trust, not to be unduly affected by sectional interests, will be local enough to apply their local knowledge, because, as the noble Lord very wisely said, not only does one river differ from another, but one reach of a river differs from another and may require a different treatment. At any rate, for once—and this is the only and most agreeable exception—we all seem to be agreed that the "gentleman in Whitehall" in this case does not know best.

I hope the Bill will not reduce the high standard set by the best riparian owners. When a control is imposed, whether it is a control on the price of rabbits or whatever it may be, there is always a danger that the people who have been doing best may tend to come down to the rather lower standard to which the inferior people are compelled to rise. I am glad that one reform in this connection has been made in the Bill. I believe the original Bill took away the Common Law rights of riparian owners. That seemed to be a very retrograde step, and I think I am right in saying that that has now been remedied and the Common Law rights have been entirely restored. But the need that we should not reduce standards applies equally, perhaps even more so, to the areas collectively. I am glad to say that, at any rate in recent years, the West Riding of Yorkshire has been a model in this respect—a great contrast to Lancashire. That is the more praiseworthy because, of course, it is a great industrial area. But Yorkshiremen will not be surprised that that high standard has been attained. We in Yorkshire believe that cleanliness comes next to godliness, and we are very good practitioners of both. I think the success of the West Riding is accounted for entirely by the fact that we practise what I may call a good neighbour policy. That is what our river policy should be. Of course, industry must be served. I quite understand the importance that my noble friend, Lord Selborne, attaches to that point, and I think we want to watch it carefully. I believe that somewhere in the Bill industry is given a right of appeal to the Minister. As a rule, I do not much like Ministers as judges, arid certainly not in their own cause; but here it is probably right.

As the noble Lord said, the Bill was greatly amended and improved in Committee in another place, and not at all amended on Party lines. The issue does not seem to have been one of Socialist versus Tory, but rather one of trade versus trout. However, I think we have still some revision to do here, and though these are Committee points I should like to mention a few to give the Government notice of them. The annual reports of the river boards ought, I consider, to be laid before Parliament. I believe an undertaking was given in another place that that would be done, but there was a slip up in the Parliamentary process. Then there is our old friend the liability of the director. I see that the peccant clause has found its way into this Bill, that every director, manager and officer must be treated as guilty unless he proves himself innocent. In a recent Bill, also of an aquatic nature—the Sea Fish Industry Bill—this House accepted an Amendment moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Simon, rejecting that proposition and restoring the normal position under the law: that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty. That Amendment was readily accepted in another place. I think it must obviously be an oversight that in the very next Bill with which we have to deal the onus of proof is put back on the director. I am sure the House will readily accept an Amendment to put that matter right.

Then there are some rather odd discrepancies between this Bill and the Scottish Bill which I think is now in another place and which will shortly reach your Lordships' House. There is a provision in the Scottish Bill which follows the recommendation of the Hobday Report, that river boards can prohibit new outlets and discharges. There is nothing about that in this Bill. Then, under the Scottish Bill, a statutory obligation is imposed on the river boards to make surveys before they make bylaws. Obviously that is intended because the first power given to them in this Bill is a power to make surveys, and then they have a power to make bylaws. Presumably it is intended that they shall not make a bylaw until they make a survey. If that is so, and if that is in the Scottish Bill, it had better be in the English Bill, too.

Then the Scottish Bill and the English Bill differ about mine water, which has been a very bad contaminator. I know the difficulties. It may be impossible to purify mine water. The bother is that very often that water enters the river quite high up, and may pollute it throughout its course. I am sure we shall agree that everything which can be done ought to be done. Under the Scottish Bill, collieries are not exempt, but for some reason they are exempt from the provisions of the English Bill. I do not think English or Welsh collieries are any less peccant than the Scottish. I suggest that the reasonable thing to do is to leave collieries within the ambit of the Bill, and if it is desired to afford them special treatment in special cases, power should be given to the Ministers to exempt them. That would be entirely in accordance with the proposal made by my noble friend Lord Selborne in another connection—that if every reasonable precaution is taken and still the water cannot be made absolutely clear, and it has to be got rid of somewhere, then there ought to be an exemption. But I certainly do not think that the collieries generally should be exempt. Then there is the question of storm overflows. The Scottish Bill provides that the river boards can make bylaws. The English Bill does not so provide. These are Committee points, of course; there may be others. I draw attention to them only in order to give the Government notice of them.

I was glad to see that in another place the Bill was amended to give the Minister of Agriculture his proper status under the Bill: obviously, he ought to be one of the two Ministers who should be the guardians and the licensing power under this Bill. We certainly welcome this Bill. We will try to make it even better. It can only give the machinery. Its success must depend upon the men who work the machine. They will have to work it with keenness and with practical common sense. They will have to work it as a team, not as advocates of any sectional interest—in fact they will have to be "good neighbours." It is not an easy problem in this country. We shall always be a great industrial nation, and our rivers will have to serve our industries, as well as provide amenities for all of us. But I hope most sincerely—indeed I think I may be sure of it—that if the river boards and their constituents follow the "good neighbour" rule, we shall all get the best out of our rivers, whether in utility or in enjoyment. And without any sacrifice of industrial efficiency we shall build Jerusalem. In England's green and pleasant land.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords I rise in support of the Bill, and I should like to endorse what my noble friend Lord Swinton has just said. But my principal object is to thank the noble Lord in charge of the Bill for the assurance which he was good enough to give me in his introductory speech. I am glad the Government are carrying out the promise that was made by the Minister of Local Government and Planning in another place, that an endeavour would be made to deal with the particular point on which I ventured to write to the Lord Chancellor. The point is a simple one, but it is important—particularly to industry. It is this. No one, of course, wishes to pollute a river; we all want to keep our rivers as clean and as pure as possible. But in years gone by many industries have been allowed to build their factories in such a position that the effluent might contaminate the river. When an industry has been established in such a locality it is sometimes very difficult to bring pollution entirely to an end. In fact, there are cases, so I am told, where the best scientists cannot say that any particular step will ensure that no pollution whatsoever reaches the river.

The point I am anxious to see made clear in this Bill is that if a company has taken every step which it has been asked to take in order to avoid pollution of a river, and if it has done everything that is reasonably practicable to that end, it should be able, if necessary, to plead that fact successfully in its defence to any prosecution for pollution. Unless that is done, one of two things would seem to be possible; either the industry would have to move to another locality altogether, which might inflict great hardship on the local population, or the company might be heavily fined, and the directors sent to prison for six months. Therefore, it is clear that something that might be very unjust and unfortunate might occur. I do not say that it would necessarily take place: after all, thank heaven! most people have common sense. But when we are drafting an Act of Parliament, we ought always to assume a minimum of common sense, because sometimes one finds a minimum of common sense, and when that is the case trouble ensues. Unless the wording in connection with this matter is altered, we might have injustice. The Minister of Local Government and Planning did give an assurance in another place that this matter would be reconsidered here. I was very glad to hear the noble Lord repeat that assurance, and I hope that your Lordships will be able to improve the Bill in that respect.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, the Bill, as might be expected in view of experience in the other House, has had a favourable and friendly reception here. I have no doubt that we shall proceed to make some improvements, and to pass this Bill as speedily as possible. One of the most marked features of the progress of the Bill through another place was that, while there were, in the early stages, some very considerable divisions of opinion, these were not at all on Party lines; as Colonel Walter Elliot said, they were: "up and down, and not across from one side to the other." The differences of opinion on Second Reading were very acute, but after the Bill had been through Standing Committee, when it came back and was considered on Report—as anyone who reads the Report of those proceedings will see—an extraordinarily harmonious position was reached. It was more like a friendly meeting than an ordinary political meeting. The accord was quite unusual. I was very much struck by it on reading the Parliamentary Report, and I thought it a very good augury for the future.

What is really clear (and I say this because of something that fell from the lips of the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, when he referred to Whitehall in a somewhat derogatory way) is that this Bill owes a great deal to the training of civil servants in Whitehall. It was from Mr. Hobday, who was trained in this work over a period of many years, and who really had pioneered this business, and did it extremely well, that we got the valuable Report of the Committee which sat under his Chairmanship. I think when one criticises Whitehall, as is sometimes done, one ought also to bear in mind that it produces men of such calibre as the one I have just mentioned, a man who has given outstanding public service, both as Chairman of the Committee and in. bringing to a successful conclusion the pioneer work of the Committee. I think we should agree that in this case the Civil Service deserves a tribute, as well as criticism. After saying that, I should like to pay my tribute to the Hobday Report itself. It is a very fine piece of work and well worth rending.

The Bill sets out to cure the very serious condition of our rivers and it is based on the River Boards Act of 1948, which laid the foundation that made it possible for the work to be done. What was wrong with regard to the 1876 Act, as my right honourable friend has said, was that the necessary powers to enforce its provisions simply did not exist. Now, when we have river boards set up for the whole of the country, as they have already been set up for the Lee and the Thames areas, where they have been working well for a period of years, we have the necessary machinery to do the work. The river Irwell has been mentioned, and I have vivid memories from my early days of what happened when I walked there from Manchester, where I then lived. When one came to the Irwell, and especially crossing over it, one naturally screwed up one's countenance and even caught hold of one's nose, because of the absolutely abominable stink—there is really no other word for it.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has spoken of factories discharging their effluent into rivers. There used to be—and for all I know there may still be—factories right on the banks of the Irwell, discharging their (I presume) unexpurgated effluent, whatever it was, straight into the river, with consequences which Lord Swinton has already described. They really were appalling. The provisions of this Bill give power of control through the river boards and give powers for the practical accomplishment of the task facing us—it is not an ideal project but it is a very realistic project. A series of standards of purity of matter—not ideal standards but ones which can be realised—are laid down. I think it is plain from the wording of the Bill that anyone who could show that he was really trying to get rid of the damaging qualities from any effluent from industrial works, and was doing his best to achieve the standard laid down, would have a very good defence. That is the way I read the Report and the Bill. I think that would be an explanation.

The Bill sets up standards, or gives power to set up standards, to carry out work within a period of years which I hope will be shorter than was envisaged by the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading. I think it may be shorter, for I believe that nowadays we have a higher temperature of sanitary conscience with regard to these matters. We are not prepared to submit to the foulness of the smells of rivers as in the past, and we realise more than in the past what a harmful effect they have on public health. I think that that applies to criticism which has been made about the administration of the Bill. Its administration will fall largely into the hands of those who, in one capacity or another, are concerned with local authorities. It will also have the effect of greatly improving the amenities of the local authorities, and the amenities of life and of the streams which we all cherish so much. One remark which fell from the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, was about Eton. I will not go into that point, except to say that it struck me as rather curious that Etonians have nowhere to wash. My noble friend on my left, who was at one time at that school, indicated that even in his day the boys had at least two baths a week. But that is a matter into which I will not go in great detail. I do not understand why the boy could not wash because the river was too dirty to bathe in it.

This Bill is a very good Bill. It will carry out a most necessary reform, one which has been desirable for a long period of years. It will provide the opportunity for our rivers—though not, of course, at once—to attain the highest standard of cleanliness possible. And there is no reason why, with our present scientific knowledge, in a period of years—I will not say what that period will be—we should not have all our rivers made clean. I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

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