HL Deb 23 July 1971 vol 322 cc1282-90

11.12 a.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Listowel.)


My Lords, as Chairman of the Select Committee concerned with this Bill I feel that, prior to the Bill's being read a third time, I should say a few words on behalf of the Committee. The proceedings were short, but gave rise to a difficult decision by the Committee at the end of the day. We were asked to examine Clause 24 of the Bill, against which a Petition had been lodged.

Under the Public Health Act 1936, local authorities have power to collect trade refuse from premises within their district. This refuse is distinct from the usual household refuse collection paid for by way of the rates. If they do exercise this power, they are required to make reasonable charges for this service. Clause 24 of the Bill sought to alter the general law in its application to district councils in Hertfordshire by substituting for the obligation to make charges a discretion to do this. The Secretary of State for the Environment in his report recommended that the clause should not be allowed.

The Committee heard evidence and were fully satisfied that a good case had been made out by the promoters of the Bill for this clause, in that in many cases it was not economical, for various reasons, to charge for this service. Hence the clause was reasonable and necessary for the protection of the ratepayer. The Petitioners, on the other hand, claimed that the clause would be of detriment to their business of collecting refuse under contract. The main issue of the decision of the Committee was the question as to whether it was wise for a local authority, in private legislation, to alter the law unilaterally in the circumstances of this Bill.

The proposal in Clause 24 had been advocated by a Working Party set up by what is now the Department of the Environment in a report published in 1967. We were told that the Working Party's recommendation would be considered by the Secretary of State when consulting local authority associations and others about the recently published Reports on Refuse Disposal and on the Disposal of Toxic Wastes. These two Reports were also laid in evidence before the Committee. It was never suggested that either of these was in conflict with the proposals in the Bill. From the evidence, it was clear that some local authorities had already taken the law into their hands and were exercising a discretion whether or not to charge for collecting trade refuse. The Minister's report emphasised that the collection of trade refuse should be properly dealt with, if at all, by general legislation. It was felt in the Committee that a unilateral decision of one council might lead to a flood of legislation, which would be undesirable.

In striking out the clause, the Committee felt strongly that it is vitally important that a decision should be come to forthwith and I am bound to say that the Government proposal to await yet another review looks like a never-ending process, which is highly undesirable. The Government have admitted that the proposal put forward by Hertfordshire County Council is the very one proposed by the Working Party set up in 1967. The Committee feel it is not reasonable that local authorities should have to wait for four years, only to be told that general legislation will follow"in due course ". It was therefore with reluctance that the Committee, by a majority vote, came to the conclusion that in deference to the views of the Minister, Clause 24 should be struck out of the Bill. I speak for all the Committee in urging most strongly that there should be no further delay in the consideration of this matter, and that legislation should be brought forward urgently and should not be held up until after the completion of the review of local government. There can be no doubt that the law as at present constituted is not being adhered to and I urge immediate action.


My Lords, I am glad to respond to my noble friend's remarks and grateful for the urgency which he has introduced to this subject, which is certainly needed. My noble friend raised two questions. First, he asked why the Government have so far failed to implement the recommendation the Working Party on Refuse Collection made in their Report in 1967. Many of the recommendations made by the Working Party were addressed, not to the Government, but directly to local authorities, who have been in a position to implement them without recourse to legislation. They range from matters such as the economics of salvage to the use of paper sacks in place of dustbins, and many local authorities have found the Report very useful. One or two recommendations concerning dumped cars and other bulky rubbish were dealt with in the Civic Amenities Act 1967, and the recommendation concerning research has been implemented by the Department in setting up its Standing Committee on that subject.

The remaining recommendations requiring legislation were few in number. Refuse collection is but one aspect of the whole complex business of waste disposal. At the time the Report of the Working Party on Refuse Collection was published there were two other investigations taking place, by the Technical Committee on Solid Toxic Wastes and by the Working Party on Refuse Disposal, both of which have now been received. Moreover, it is now clear that whatever is done in respect of this important local service has to fit in with the impending reorganisation of local government. Our present proposals for local government reform include the allocation of the refuse disposal function to the new county councils and refuse collection to the new district councils. We believe that in the future refuse disposal must be co-ordinated and controlled over reasonably large areas. This will call for a new relationship between the functions of collection and disposal and for a new appreciation of practice and purpose which has regard to regional as well as local circumstances.

The Secretary of State said, in a circular published at the end of April with the Report of the Department's Working Party on Refuse Disposal, that in his consultations on that Report and on the Toxic Wastes Report he will also want to discuss with the various bodies concerned this question of the obligation or the discretion of local authorities in relation to trade and industrial refuse. With these consultations in view, and having regard to local government reorganisation, it would seem undesirable for the matter to be settled in a particular area by virtue of a clause in the Hertfordshire Bill.

My noble friend raised a second point on the merits of this particular issue. The Report of the Working Party on Refuse Collection set out the arguments for and against a discretion to charge for removing trade refuse. On the one hand, it would be in keeping with modern attitudes to local government for local authorities to have discretion; but against this is the important argument that the cost of removing trade refuse is a proper business expense, and there should be no risk at all of any part of it falling on the general body of ratepayers. Again, some local authorities find that charges made to small shopkeepers for single bins are just not worth the trouble of collection, and the enforcement of such charges can lead—and sometimes does lead—to undesirable practices, such as the illicit dumping of refuse on vacant sites or burning it in back yards.

Issues like these can most conveniently be considered in the forthcoming consultations to which I have referred. Local circumstances can, of course, influence events. In Inner London, for example, by virtue of the London Government Act 1963, there is an obligation on the Inner London Boroughs to collect trade refuse on request and an obligation to charge. But this was achieved by general legislation, and I suggest that in the light of all these considerations the matter which we are discussing today—which is by no means peculiar to Hertfordshire—is, on balance, not one which should be dealt with in local legislation applying to just one area.

My Lords, I hope that what I have said demonstrates that we are not satisfied with the status quo. We are anxious to get on, but we wish to take advantage of the availability of the three Reports that I have mentioned—the last of which was published only three months ago—and of the impending new organisation of local government in order to achieve a waste disposal service in this country which will be really effective. We believe that this will best come about by legislating comprehensively on a national basis which is, so far as practicable, acceptable to all concerned—local authorities, trade, commerce and industry. Meanwhile, there is much that local authorities and others concerned can do to ensure that the present practices are carried out to the highest possible standards.

11.23 a.m.


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, is satisfied with that reply. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, would agree that there is considerable concern throughout the country on the danger to our environment of refuse and garbage, whether it be of a private character or industrial. There is no disagreement between the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and his Committee and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that this should be done not by private legislation but by national legislation introduced by the Government. It seemed to me that the noble Lord was unable to give any indication as to what sort of time scale the Government have in mind for the introduction of such legislation. Can the noble Lord give us any indication whether we may expect legislation in the next Session, or whether we shall have to wait until the comprehensive legislation for local government is introduced?


My Lords, too, should like to add a word of dissatisfaction at the Minister's reply. Here was an instance of a highly progressive local authority being opposed by organised commercial interests: they found themselves faced by one opposition, and by no one else. It was most unfortunate that in this instance the organised commercial interests were able to triumph—in my view against the public interest—and I would urge upon the Government that it is not enough merely to say that they are considering the Reports of the Working Parties involved there has already been a delay of four years in an attempt to eliminate what is a recognisable public nuisance on a large scale. I strongly urge the Minister to give a definite date by which the anxieties of these progressive local authorities can be to some extent relieved.


My Lords, as one who has spent some time in local government, I should like to add my comment to the Report and the statement by the Chairman of the Committee which investigated and arrived at a decision against the Government's proposal. I think the Committee did a very good job in deleting this clause. The Minister, in the course of his reply, overlooked one thing. Local authorities in various parts of the country, even where one may not have all grades of local authority, have what are termed direct labour schemes operating within their authority for the collection of refuse and other services, and shopkeepers and business people and business premises are covered by the rate poundage which comes into their particular funds of operation. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shepherd in asking the question so pointedly as to how long we shall have to wait before we get a lead from the Government, with regard to the proposals for the reorganisation of local government, that will bring this operation within its ambit.


My Lords, I would suggest to the Government that they should consider bringing in a short measure to deal with this particular matter. It could be passed through fairly quickly and later incorporated in the major legislation. This has been done on a number of occasions in the past. I am thinking particularly of company law, in which short Bills have first been introduced, to bring into law the proposals of important Committees on company law, and very shortly afterwards—indeed, within a few months— a major Companies Bill has been introduced. This happened in 1947 and 1948, in Bills with which I, as a junior Minister at that time, was concerned. The 1947 Act was incorporated within a very few months in the great Companies Act of 1948. I should have thought there was a possibility of dealing with this situation in that way.


My Lords, your Lordships may think it strange that I should rise to take part in this brief debate. You may think it even stranger when I tell you the reason why. Fifty-two years ago, I was head of the costing department of the refuse disposal department of the Birmingham Corporation, and this question of trade refuse was constantly a thorn in our side. We compulsorily collected trade refuse and we compulsorily imposed a charge. But the question of trade refuse, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack will understand, is hedged around with all kinds of complicated legal decisions. I remember that on one occasion there was a High Court case concerning the collection of trade refuse from hotels. The local authority had collected the refuse from the hotel, and regarding this as one of the legitimate business expenses of the hotel, had imposed a charge. The case went to the High Court. I believe the decision was that whereas when collecting refuse from an ordinary domestic residence there was no charge, a hotel could be interpreted as being a conglomeration of domestic residences and, consequently, was entitled to have its trade refuse collected free of charge. That is all by way of reminiscence.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has suggested to us that when the local government reorganisation comes about, the collection of refuse will be entrusted to the lesser authority and the disposal of refuse to the major authority. I would just mention to him that in the refuse disposal world, if I may so call it, there is a very severe difference of opinion. The preponderance seems to be that the local authority which collects the refuse should also be responsible for disposing of it. There are many economic arguments which I could lay before your Lordships to show that there is a lot of sense in that view. In the meantime, I hope that something will be done, because the uncertainty is disturbing to local authorities. The sooner this question is seriously tackled, the better it will be.


My Lords, just before my noble friend answers, I should like, with the leave of the House, to say just a word. It never entered my head, as the noble Lord, Lord Segal has said, that anyone triumphed in this matter. There was no real question that the matter before the Committee was whether unilateral legislation should be used. I hope that my noble friend will be able to think of a date. The discussion that we have had has certainly cleared the air on what the Government's thoughts are on this situation, and I do not think there is anything to prevent this Bill from going forward.


My Lords, I should like to raise one point which I think is of general interest in this matter, and is an example of why it is desirable to have national legislation. Generally, I am opposed to national legislation being required in order to get something through a local Act, because local Acts usually lead to national legislation. In this particular case, there is possibly a legal problem in that if a local authority have once collected trade waste free, it is very difficult for them to impose a charge subsequently. I think there are certain cases where this has not proved to be possible. Therefore, if the question is going to be a wide one it is highly desirable that there should be national legislation and that it should come very soon. May I take the opportunity to say that I quite agree with my noble friend Lord Leatherland that the major authority should be the refuse disposal authority.


My Lords, if the House would give me permission to speak again, I should be happy to reply. A universal sense of urgency about the matter emerges clearly from the debate, which is extremely welcome to Her Majesty's Government. The eight speeches we have listened to also demonstrate that the matter is not quite so simple as it may appear. We already have two or three sets of disagreements before us, but Her Majesty's Government nevertheless are anxious to address themselves to this matter with as much expedition as is possible. Without notice, I cannot answer the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, directly, except to say that the first instalment of legislation that will be helpful in this field is local government reform.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would it help if we were to arrange for a Question, and then perhaps he might be able to provoke his Department to action and satisfy some of my noble friends?


Yes, indeed, my Lords.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.