HL Deb 16 February 1960 vol 221 cc49-58

4.55 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Viscount Hailsham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 4 agreed to.

LORD TAYLOR moved, after Clause 4, to insert the following new clause:

Amendment of 9 & 10 Geo. 6, c. 81, s. 17 . Section seventeen of the National Health Service Act, 1946, shall be amended by leaving out the word 'bacteriological', and by inserting the words 'or other' after the word 'infectious'. The noble Lord said: I beg to move the new clause standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Amulree, and myself. I hope that it will be for the convenience of your Lordships if Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 8 are considered together, so far as discussion is concerned, because they are all making precisely the same points.

The description of the Public Health Laboratory Service and its functions stems from the National Health Service Act, 1946, Section 17, which says: The Minister may provide a bacteriological service, which may include the provision of laboratories, for the control of the spread of infectious diseases, and the Minister may allow persons to make use of services provided at such laboratories on such terms, including terms as to the payment of charges, as the Minister thinks fit. Now the effect of these Amendments is to strike out the word "bacteriological" in the parent clause and to add the words "or other" after "infectious diseases". This would result in the Public Health Laboratory Service being free to tackle any kind of public health problem. One thinks that "public health" means the health of the public, of groups of people as contrasted with the health of the individual. I tried to show (and I hope that I did show) on Second Reading that in fact the Service does a great deal more than bacteriology. There is some dispute as to how the word "bacteriology" should be defined. The common definition is that it is the study of bacteria, but its use is sometimes extended to cover also the viruses. But the public health bacteriological service is concerned with more than this. It is concerned with the study of protozoa, with the helminthes, which are larger creatures still, and the study of fungi, none of which is, strictly speaking, bacteriology. The service is concerned also with the study of physical agents, such as dust, and on occasion has been concerned with chemical agents.

The effect of the second alteration to the section is to remove the limitation under which the Service works. At present it is limited to infectious diseases. In the early days, public health was primarily concerned with infectious diseases. In the 1860s, there was a great cholera epidemic, and since then notification and isolation of infectious people, the study of carriers and so on, has played a great part in public health. But public health has gone on extending, and is now concerned with general disease prevention, especially in expectant mothers and infants, and in school children. When we turn to the work of the Public Health Laboratory Service, we find it is concerned, for example, with the study of congenital defects. Now admittedly it has been discovered in recent years that congenital defects are often due to infections in the mother; but it is spreading the sense of infectious disease very wide if it is to include infectious diseases in one generation producing what are certainly congenital changes in the next generation.

The Public Health Laboratory Service is concerned with the study of food poisoning, and while food may be poisoned by bacteria it may also be poisoned by chemicals; and the Public Health Laboratory Service has studied, for example, poisoning due to zinc. It is concerned with the study of soap and detergents, and some of its publications have appeared in the Journal of Applied Chemistry. It has also been concerned in the study of the causes of sudden death in infancy and with the study of development of equipment for measuring ventilation. The basis of this study is, of course, spread of infection by droplet spray, but this leads on, very properly and rightly, to the study of the speed of air flow through rooms and so on.

The Service is also concerned with the effect of organisms on fertility. It cannot, in fact, do its work without overstepping this limitation of the word "infectious", and it is only by broadening the use of the word "infectious" so as to render it meaningless that in fact the Service is able to operate. The same thing has happened with the word "epidemic": epidemiology has now come to mean the study of the statistics of disease, rather than the study of epidemics of disease in the conventional old-fashioned sense. So one would suggest that the word, or, rather, the provision—the limitation to epidemic disease—is much better left out in the originating section of the Act.

One urges these Amendments on three grounds, any one of which, I think, is sufficient to justify their adoption. The first is that the law ought to be precise and exact. When your Lordships are dealing with the law in relation to marriage or divorce or sexual offences, such as we have just been hearing about, every word is carefully, and rightly, weighed. In future, the law will be more and more concerned with scientific matters, and I should like to make a plea for equal precision here. I do not think it is good enough to say "bacteriology" and then leave it, so that it can mean anything somebody wants it to mean later on. I think the Bill gains nothing by including the word "bacteriology".

I have tried to devise a list of words to cover the actual work which these laboratories do; and however one works out this list, inevitably one finds faults and weaknesses in it. For that reason the approach which I have adopted is to try to leave out the word "bacteriology" with the limitation that it implies rather than to lay down a series of categories in which these laboratories have to work. In the future it may well be that these laboratories will be concerned with molecular chemistry and molecular physics, as they get down to studying the details of bacteria in ways which cannot be done now. So my first proposition is that words used in law should be precise; they should mean what they appear to mean, and should not require elastic stretching by Ministers and civil servants who have to operate the law.

The second ground for this group of Amendments is that the law is the primary method by which Parliament controls administration. In modern times we accept the necessity for statutory instruments. We just cannot avoid them, because of the complexities of the situations with which the law has to deal. But we quite rightly define in our Acts the fields in which statutory instruments may be made. If we accept the power of the administrators to make words mean what they want them to mean, Parliament is in fact handing over its right and duty to control administration. It is as though we said, "We do not mind if the word 'railway' in an Act of Parliament is expanded to include tramway-cars because they too run on rails, and trolley buses because their course is circumscribed by the existence of fixed wires." I think it is wrong that the Government and the Civil Service should be given a duty of this kind, of elastic stretching of phraseology, if Acts of Parliament are to be made to work; and I think it is particularly important that we should have precision of definition and wording when setting up a public board to carry out an essential public service. Boards must have the right terms of reference if they are to do their job properly.

This is no hypothetical or theoretical objection. In every large organisation—and in many small ones, too—there is an unpleasant group of people who always want to say, "No"—abominable "No-men"; fellows who delight in thinking up reasons why things which are desirable and good should not be done. As it stands, the Bill is a standing invitation to one such official to stop useful and, indeed, vital work, when all he has to say is, "The Board must stop doing mycology because it is not part of bacteriology. They must stop examining 'beat disease' of miners because that is not a part of bacteriology, or it is not an epidemic." And there is nothing that the Public Health Laboratory Service Board can do. In fact, one man in the wrong place can frustrate the entire intention of Parliament. That then is the second ground.

The third ground is one which I mentioned on Second Reading: that we want to leave the door open for the development of the Public Health Laboratory Service to cover other aspects of risk to the public health, including risks in industry. Note that we are not trying to force the door open; we are merely saying that if at some future date the Minister of Health and the Minister of Labour should decide to extend the field of operation of the Public Health Laboratory Service they should be able to experiment a little to start with, without having to come back to Parliament. It may be argued that it is wrong to leave a door open. To that I would reply that in fact the door is already ajar, and it was opened when the Public Health Laboratory Service started to study anthrax, and "beat disease" of miners, and respiratory infections in office workers, and zinc poisoning, and dust, and so on. These are all matters of public health—and public health does not end in the home, the canteen or the sewage works; it embraces the whole environment of man, including his working environment.

If we believe that the law should be precise and accurate in its wording, that administrators should obey the law and not interpret it as they think fit, and that this Public Health Laboratory Service should serve the public health of the country outside the narrow confines of bacteriology, as it is already doing, then these Amendments should fall on open ears and a willing heart on the part of the Lord Privy Seal; and I am sure that in accepting them he will have the support of the whole Committee. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— After Clause 4 insert the said new clause.—(Lord Taylor.)


I should like very briefly to support what my noble friend Lord Taylor has just said. Two reasons of his were, I think, most important. One was that the law should be precise. On one occasion in this House a Bill which I myself was introducing was turned down because it was not precise enough and would be impossible to enforce properly, and so I feel rather strongly about that point. The other point that is extremely important is the fact that it is possible for someone to say, "No, it cannot be done". Here I can talk from experience. It is so simple to say that there is nothing in the Act to say that something can be done. Therefore, I should like to see the word "bacteriological" go and some better phrase used. I think that the other phrase which is suggested is better. Apart from the present, one can never be sure that in the future some narrow-minded person, with a rigid, inflexible mind, may not come along and stop a large amount of good work and prevent the Laboratory from doing what it is now doing so very well. Therefore, I should like to support the Amendment which has been put down in the name of my noble friend Lord Taylor.

5.10 p.m.


When the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, first put forward this point on Second Reading, he put it forward on a relatively narrow ground, and, as I understood it, he made two broad propositions about it. The first was that, in the course of time, a service which bad started with the study of bacteria had gone on to the study of viruses and other small bodies, and the term "bacteriological" was really no longer apposite to deal with the actual scope of the service. Secondly, he said that he hoped we should not be too narrow in our definition, should we accept a new definition for the Service, because it would need to cover quite a large range of activities. At the time, although I was advised very strongly that the point was not a good one technically, I was at any rate very favourably impressed by it. But, to be honest, I am less impressed with these Amendments. I do not think that they do the things which the noble Lord said on Second Reading he wanted done, and I think they do a number of things which he definitely says now he does not want. I would therefore say that, although I do not want to close the door, it seems to me at the moment that the difficulties in the way of accepting these Amendments are really insuperable.

In the first place, I was originally of the opinion that there was something in this argument that "bacteriology" was no longer a suitable term because the scope of the Service now includes virology and the study of other small bodies. But I am advised that this is not so. Legally speaking, the term "bacteriology" is, I am advised, wide enough to cover all these disciplines, and would be interpreted by reference to the use of the term in 1946, when the substantive Act was passed. I am advised by those who know these things better than I that, although of course a virus is not a bacterium, and it is still less a small fungus or a protozoa, the word "bacteriological" is used generically to cover all these things, and is used both popularly, if such a word can be said to have a popular use, and in the medical profession. For instance, I am advised that if there was a room full of doctors and you said, "Hands up all those here who are bacteriologists," the virologists would all put up their hands, too, because this term is still in common use as a generic term. It therefore is not wanting in precision, and it is not narrow in its application.

Now in his quest for precision, the first move by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is to take out the word "bacteriological" altogether, with the result that any kind of precision in Section 17 of the Act of 1946 disappears altogether. Therefore, although he comes wearing the garb of the legal purist demanding precision, the only effect of his Amendment is to take it away. He then goes on to remove the other words in Section 17 which give some precision to the definition of the Service. Perhaps I had better read the section: The Minister may provide a bacteriological service, which may include the provision of laboratories, for the control of the spread of infectious diseases …". I do not read the rest of the section, because it is immaterial. The noble Lord then proceeds to take out the only other words which give precision—that is to say, "for the control … of infectious diseases", and says that they are not to be in the clause, either. The result is that in this magnificent quest for precision he has taken out any kind of precision in the clause which he is seeking to amend.

He would then further parade his legislative virtue, and proceeds to say, "We believe in the Government obeying the law and not interpreting it themselves". Then, in his third proposition, he proceeds to announce, "The whole object of what I am about to do is to enable the Minister and the Secretary of State to experiment to see whether there are some things which they want to do which Parliament has not actually thought of yet". How this philosophy is reduced to one of precision and Parliamentary control, I do not understand. There may be much to be said for fluidity and a broad view, and in not hampering the Executive in highly scientific matters, but how that can be brought forward under the banner of precision and of making the Ministers obey the law is something which I confess, as I listened to the noble Lord, I utterly failed to understand.

However, there is to my mind another objection to doing this. I will tell the noble Lord straight away that I should be very much attracted to this series of Amendments if I could think of a generic term which did better than "bacteriological" and covered the whole range of disciplines without confining itself to any and without limiting the future growth of the Service but I should not be prepared to advise my right honourable friend to accept Amendments which simply enabled him to provide laboratories for some kind of a service not more precisely defined, because they would be "South Sea Bubble" laboratories, and it is not the purpose of this Bill to provide laboratories for some sort of a service hereafter to be defined by the Minister when he wants to experiment. I submit that it is I who am the apostle of legislative precision in this respect, and the noble Lord who is the heretic.

There is another point which I would draw to your Lordships' attention. We really must have some regard to the scope and limitations of this Bill. This is a Bill for the transference of an existing Service which has never yet found itself hampered either by Parliament or by the Courts, or by that mysterious body of "abominable 'No'-men" who seem to me to be as mythical in this particular connection as the creature in the Himalayas after which the noble Lord evidently named them. The purpose of this Bill is to transfer this existing Service, which is quite happy in its work and unfettered in its discretion within the realm laid down for it by Parliament in the Act of 1946, from one body—namely, the Medical Research Council—to another, a new Board to be appointed by the Minister of Health. If you look at the Long Title of the Bill—we are not always bound by the Long Title, but we are bound by the general scope of the Bill—we see it described as: An Act to establish a Public Health Laboratory Service Board for the exercise of functions with respect to the administration of the bacteriological service provided by the Minister of Health under section seventeen of the National Health Service Act, 1946. I must say that I have the greatest possible doubt as to whether it really is within the function of rather a modest little measure of this kind, which is designed to transfer an existing Service from body A to body B, to redefine the scope and purpose of the Service so as to include a large number of functions which, at any rate on the face of it, are not already included within it. I myself would say that the House would not be wise to accept an Amendment in this sense.

I am sorry to have deluged the noble Lord, whose views on this subject I treat with very great respect, with such a bucketful of cold water, and perhaps I may be allowed, in conclusion, to offer him some solace. I am bound to say that I resist these Amendments in this form, but I still think that if I could think of a better name for the Service, and if I could be persuaded that it would be within the bounds of propriety to put it in this Bill, it would be quite a convenient thing to do. I will ask my right honourable friend to think of that between now and the Report stage, and to see whether he cannot, with the aid of the Parliamentary draftsmen, put something into the Bill in that sense. With that limited assurance, I hope that the noble Lord, who I trust has taken my remarks in the spirit of friendly badinage in which they are meant, will be content and, in those circumstances, will not press his Amendment.


If the Amendments which I am moving were adopted, there still would be a real measure of precision, because the words "Public Health", which I think are the best possible definition of the functions of this particular laboratory service, would remain. The Service is concerned with public health, whatever the cause of the mishap to public health. But if the noble Viscount wants a portmanteau word, and I must say that I share his feeling on this subject, there is one which is coming rapidly into use—"microbiology", which covers bacteriology, virology, mycology and all the rest. I recommend "microbiology" in all sincerity, not in levity, because it is a seriously used word, which I think would meet the object and allow the Service to perform its proper functions, as it is performing them now. In view of the noble Viscount's assurance that he has not closed the door—and I hope that he will look most sympathetically on this suggestion—I ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 agreed to.