HL Deb 05 May 1960 vol 223 cc431-6

3.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I think it is my duty to explain to your Lordships, first, the purpose of the Bill; secondly, what the Bill does, and thirdly how it does it; and to reply to some points of comment and criticism that have been made. The Bill is a step forward towards purer waters, which is an objective common to all Parties in your Lordships' House and, I think, to the vast majority of citizens. On December 3 of last year your Lordships debated at some length the horrible conditions that exist in our rivers at the present time. It is clear from that debate that there is no easy, quick or cheap way of solving this problem of polluted waters, but that the Government, local authorities, ratepayers and taxpayers have all to play their part. There is no need this afternoon for me to repeat the details of the disgusting state of many of our rivers, such as the Tyne, the Tees, the Humber and the Ribble, all of which were quoted specifically and at length during our debate last December. I trust that your Lordships will accept the general proposition of that disgusting state without further elaboration, and refer in your minds to the facts exposed in the debate in December.

In the best circumstances, the cleaning of rivers and estuaries is going to be a long and expensive job. This Bill is a contribution towards the accepted ultimate objective. The purpose of the Bill is to see that the situation in regard to pollution does not further deteriorate. It is really a standstill Bill, for its purpose is to stop new sources of pollution and to prevent aggravation of existing sources of pollution by not allowing these latter to worsen. This standstill Bill will enable river boards to control new outlets and new discharges of effluent throughout the entire length of a river from source to mouth. Hitherto, river boards in general possessed powers confined to non-tidal waters. Now, under this Bill, the river boards will have control over tidal estuary waters, referred to in the Bill as "controlled waters". Though angling is a truly democratic sport and occupation enjoyed by 2 million of our fellow citizens, and is important, not only from the point of view of relaxation but from the economic point of view of the wellbeing of the country, as, indeed, was cited by Mr. Bevan when he moved the 1951 Bill in another place, this is not an anglers' charter. This is what I would call a public health preservation Bill. The Bill has been through the other place, and I understand it has the blessing of Her Majesty's Government.

I now come to what the Bill does. The machinery of the Bill extends to river boards the same control over tidal waters as they at present possess in respect of non-tidal waters under Section 7 of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, Section 7 of that Act imposes restrictions on new outlets and altered outlets for discharge of trade and sewage effluent. The river board's consent has to be obtained for any new discharge. The Bill the Second Reading of which I am now moving extends this Section 7 control over non-tidal waters to tidal waters. But I would remind your Lordships that all the safeguards against harsh and unreasonable conduct by the river boards are contained in this Bill, which, indeed, has some additional safeguards to which I will refer in a moment.

The first safeguard against unreasonable conduct lies in the constitution of the river boards themselves. Local authorities in the areas concerned where river boards operate have between three-fifths and two-thirds representation on those boards. The second safeguard in the 1951 Act says that a river board may not unreasonably withhold consent to a new discharge, and the Minister has the final say as to what is or is not reasonable or unreasonable. The third safeguard in that Act is that the Minister may direct river boards to vary or revoke any condition imposed by them. The fourth safeguard in the Act is that any local authority who has received loan sanction from the Ministry for sewerage works is excluded from conditions of outlet control imposed by a river board. The sixth safeguard is that there shall be no prosecution by a river board of an offender without ministerial consent, and even then no prosecution can succeed if the local authority can show that it was not practical for that authority to dispose of its effluent in any other way.

I come now to how the Bill fulfils its purpose. In Clause 1 the Bill extends Section 7 of the main Act of 1951 to tidal waters, but, as I say, it also includes those six safeguards which I have just enumerated. In addition, the Bill adds a seventh safeguard—namely, a safeguard to local authorities and to industrial enterprises, by Clause 1 (3), which was introduced in another place to meet the wishes of industry to be assured that river boards take the peculiar conditions of tidal waters into consideration and do not, as it were, judge a position by their experience and knowledge of tidal waters.

It is necessary for a moment to explain Clause 1 (5) of the Bill and to refer to Section 6 of the 1951 Act, because that section enabled river boards to apply for their powers to extend to tidal waters. Some of your Lordships may ask why the Bill is necessary at all if river boards under the 1951 Act could in certain conditions apply for what we are trying to legislate for in this Bill. The answer is the Section 6 procedure. Under that procedure the preliminaries are so costly, so lengthy and cumbersome and involve so many consultations and ministerial and public inquiries that it just does not work; and, in fact, since 1951 only four such orders have been made.

The next question some noble Lord may ask is: Why did the original Act not give powers to cover these tidal waters except by this clumsy procedure? The reply to that is twofold. The river boards were constituted only in 1948, and they were something of an experiment. Secondly, at that time there were heavy restrictions on capital expenditure, and it was not thought right by the Government of the day to encourage embarkation on large capital projects. Since that time the river boards have proved their worth. Their work is widely acknowledged and their power and influence has not been exercised by the legal sanctions which they possess, but rather by goodwill and co-operation with local authorities and industry. Also, the position—until, at any rate, about a week ago—as regards capital expenditure was a much more healthy one (and I trust it is still broadly so) than it was in 1948.

Clause 2 of the Bill is the Short Title. The Schedule in the Bill defines the estuary areas. It is a fascinating piece of work which the experts have done, because they have defined 95 points round our coast to an accuracy, I am informed, of within ten metres. It was considered better to specify the specific areas to which this Bill would apply than to try to get a definition of what is an "estuary". In Committee there may be some Amendments to the Schedule on points such as the fact that a bandstand or a bathing pool has been built in a particular place since the Schedules were prepared. I have already put in the Library complete maps of our coast which cover the 95 areas, and they are available for your Lordships to examine.

Finally, I must reply to some points which may be raised. First, the Bill does not apply to Scotland. The reason for that is that in another place certain local authorities and certain industrial interests took objection to the Bill's provisions. Also, the situation in Scotland is different from that in England. There are no river boards as such, but in Scotland, under the 1951 Act, There are nine river purification boards set up by the Secretary of State. Their functions are broadly similar to those of our river boards, but they omit land drainage and fishing. Industry is in fact represented on those purification boards. Some noble Lords may wish the Bill to apply to Scotland, and others may not. My personal regret is that it does not apply to Scotland, and I hope that at some future date a short Bill with parallel provisions to these may be prepared and introduced, and may get an unopposed passage through both Houses of Parliament.

My next point is that the Federation of British Industries had some misgivings on the extension of river boards' powers to tidal waters. My reply is that there is a wide measure of support for the proposals in this Bill, and that the river boards will use their powers in future reasonably, as they have done in the past. If they did not do so, the safeguards I have deployed to your Lordships against oppressive conduct remain in the Bill. The next point is with regard to the dock and harbour authorities, who want the river boards to require their consent before issuing a decision. That is a reasonable view, based on the understandable plea that the dock and harbour boards have functions in tidal waters in the interests of navigation, which include the control of new outlets. They feel that river boards may thwart the interests of navigation. They also want the Minister of Housing to be compelled to consult the Minister of Transport on any appeal. My reply to that is that they are misplaced fears, because there is nothing in this Bill that touches existing powers of harbour authorities to refuse consent, to impose conditions or grant consents for new discharges. They remain as free as they are now to prevent or control anything likely to be a danger or a nuisance to navigation.

The Bill means, in fact, that two consents would be necessary for any new effluent discharge, which is indeed the same position as exists under the present town planning legislation. The harbour authorities' rights remain unaffected. Obviously, the Minister of Housing would consult the Minister of Transport on any appeal, and there is no need to put that in the Bill. My right honourable friend the Minister of Housing has written to the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, who raised this point, to give an assurance that he would make those consultations in any such eventuality.

The next point is the sea fishery committees' misgivings. Those are also misplaced, because anyone getting a river board consent for a new discharge in tidal waters must still comply with the by-laws of the sea fishery committees in waters where those by-laws operate. The next point is that the Bill has no effect at all on the present position of Section 5 of the 1951 Act, which deals with regulation of sanitary appliances in ships in non-tidal waters. The Bill has nothing to do with that. At present, the river boards have power to control the discharge of sanitary appliances in non-tidal waters. If they want to extend it to tidal waters it has nothing to do with this Bill, and they will have to go through the procedure of Section 6 of the 1951 Act. My last point is with regard to the River Thames. The Port of London Authority, in respect of the tidal water of the Thames, have power already and are the pollution authorities themselves. I hope I have described the reasons for this Bill, its provisions and its working, and I trust I have laid any misgivings which any of your Lordships may have with regard to the drafting and working of the Bill. I beg to move.

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