HL Deb 12 May 1989 vol 507 cc905-12

1.57 p.m.

The Earl of Portsmouth

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

It is very likely that man has been afflicted by smoke pollution since the dawn of civilisation though it is first recorded in this country in 1257 when Queen Eleanor is said to have left Nottingham for Tetbury on account of the smoke nuisance. There followed in 1273 a prohibition on the use of coal in London on the grounds that it was "prejudicial to health". There are references throughout succeeding centuries to smoke pollution, which was caused mainly by coal burning, and to a range of attempts to tackle it.

The first concerted attempt to control smoke pollution came in the Public Health Act of 1875.This declared any fireplace not consuming its own smoke as far as possible or producing black smoke, except from a domestic chimney, to be a nuisance. The Act allowed a defence that the fireplace was constructed to consume its smoke as far as practicable and that it was being carefully attended.

In 1890 and 1891 smogs in London caused increased numbers of deaths and bronchitis. Sporadic action followed. That included the setting up of the National Smoke Abatement Institution in 1882, the Public Health (London) Act 1891 and the formation of the Committee for the Investigation of Atmospheric Pollution in 1912.

In 1926 the Public Health Act of 1875 was amended, extended and consolidated. The Public Health Act of 1936 provided for the abatement of industrial and domestic smoke nuisances and the making of by-laws regulating the emission of smoke. The first recorded completely smokeless housing estates were built in 1936, and in 1946 private legislation for the first time enabled local authorities to establish smokeless zones.

It was, however, the severe smog in London in December 1952 which led to the Clean Air Act of 1956. Everyone is aware of the great improvements which have resulted from that Act and the subsequent Clean Air Act of 1968. Total smoke emissions have been reduced by 85 per cent. and the sulphur dioxide content by 50 per cent., with two-thirds of all urban premises covered by smoke control orders. The 1968 Act extended the 1956 Act to remedy a number of deficiencies. For example, it gave the Secretary of State power to direct local authorities to make smoke control orders.

Similarly, since 1968 further deficiencies have emerged. The Bill seeks to remedy two of them. Clause 1 of the Bill provides that nuisance emissions of non-dark smoke from dwellings not in a smoke control area can be deemed to be a statutory nuisance for the purposes of the Public Health Act 1936 (and, in Scotland, the Public Health Act 1897). It is an offence under the clean air Acts in most circumstances to emit dark smoke from a building. It is also an offence to emit any form of smoke from the chimney of any building within a smoke control area, except by exemption or the authorisation of the Secretary of State.

Smoke is divided into two categories—dark smoke and non-dark smoke. Those categories and the gradings within them are not purely picturesque or descriptive terms. They are determined according to the Ringelmann chart. I hope that I have pronounced that correctly. That chart is to smoke pollution what the Richter scale is to earthquakes. It is part of the scientific basis for determining the pollutant factor in smoke.

The Act also provides that, when non-dark smoke is emitted other than from the chimney of a dwelling, it may be deemed to be a statutory nuisance; that is, a nuisance to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Thus, there are controls over the emission of dark smoke from buildings wherever they are located and over the emission of non-dark smoke within smoke control areas and from buildings other than dwellings outside smoke control areas.

There is no good reason why non-dark smoke from dwellings outside smoke control areas should not be subject to some sort of control. Smoke emissions of this type are not likely to be a hazard, but can cause discomfort and distress, preventing people from opening windows or enjoying their gardens. They can also deposit dirt on washing that is hanging outside. The defence already contained in Section 16 of the 1956 Act will remain that best practicable means have been used to prevent the nuisance. The use of fuel authorised for smoke control purposes would constitute best practicable means.

Clause 2 provides for additional controls over the emission of dark smoke from industrial or trade premises. Local authorities have found a number of practical difficulties in enforcing the prohibition contained in Section 1 of the Clean Air Act 1968 against emission of dark smoke from such premises. The most common difficulty is associated with illegal burning at night when the colour of the smoke cannot be assessed. Problems also arise when it is not the occupier of the premises who causes the offending emissions. An example is where vehicles or cable are burned in the open at a scrap yard to destroy paint, upholstery and plastic coatings. The residual metal is then suitable for melting in a furnace without causing air pollution problems during the melting process. The vehicles and cable should be burned indoors in a building equipped to deal with the resultant pollution which can include CFCs and dioxins.

Under the Bill, it will become an offence to burn any material on industrial or trade premises unless it is a fuel exempted for the purposes of use in a smoke control area where combustion would be likely to give rise to the emission of dark smoke. It will therefore no longer be necessary to prove that dark smoke was emitted. The current clean air defences will remain; namely, that contravention was inadvertent or that all practicable steps were taken to prevent or minimise the emissions. As an additional safeguard, Clause 2 gives the defendant the chance to prove that no dark smoke was emitted.

The other problem tackled under the clause allows for the prosecution of any person who causes or permits dark smoke to be emitted from industrial or trade premises in addition to the person occupying the premises. At present, only the occupier of the premises is liable for conviction.

There has been wide consultation on the drafting of the Bill. A consultation paper was issued by the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Development Department and the Welsh Office in December of 1986. Sixty out of the 64 respondents commenting on the proposal which is now in Clause 1 were in favour. The objections from the coal industry that authorised fuels could be held to create a statutory nuisance are met by the defence that all practicable steps had been taken to prevent or minimise the emission of dark smoke. Fifty-four out of 58 respondents favoured the second proposal. Those objecting claimed that existing controls were sufficient. However, the evidence is that that is not the case.

As noble Lords who followed the progress of the Bill in another place will recognise, it will be necessary to table two minor amendments to the Long Title of the Bill after Second Reading. Those are merely to secure consistency between the Long Title of the Bill and Clause 1. It was realised after First Reading in another place that only part of Section 16(1)(A) of the 1956 Act should be repealed and hence the Long Title should refer to the amendment of that section and not its repeal. For procedural reasons, it was not possible to amend the Long Title in another place. The two amendments to the Long Title will make no change whatever to the substance of the Bill.

The Bill comes at a time of increasing public awareness and concern about pollution and has been drafted in response to the realisation that the existing legislation is deficient. I feel that its proposals will receive overwhelming support in the country at large and I have no hesitation in commending it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Portsmouth.)

2.8 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, from these Benches we certainly give a warm welcome to the intention of the Bill. I am absolutely certain that the Bill will not suffer the fate that overtook it in another place on Third Reading. The noble Earl spoke in terms of the progress of the Bill at Third Reading. I know that Mr. Andrew Hunter stood up at 9.35 and sat down at 1.53. That may be progress but I believe that some delaying tactics were employed. Unfortunately the Bill was set down in the agenda at a place where it was used for quite legitimate parliamentary purposes and we have an extraordinary debate in the parliamentary record on the very modest Bill before us.

It is remarkable to see the pleasure of visitors to London or elsewhere in the country who have not been here for some time at the cleanliness of the air and the buildings. Noble Lords will know just how detrimental was the polluted air that we breathed many years ago. On the face of our buildings one could see the dirt and grime. One could reflect that some of it must have found its way into our lungs. The clean air movement is something for which we should be very grateful indeed.

The noble Earl introduced the Bill very fully and lucidly. His speech will make good reading on the record. We are very grateful to him. There is, however, a point which needs to be tackled and I should like either the noble Earl or the Minister to deal with it. Under "Financial and Manpower Effects of the Bill" it states: The Bill has no financial effects or effects on public service manpower". I should like to hear a little more about that statement. My honourable friends in another place raised, quite legitimately and forcefully, the nonsense of such a phrase. Any measure of this kind will be a nonsense unless the public can see, first, that it is needed and, secondly, that it will be enforced, whether by the inspectorate of pollution or by local authority environmental health officers.

The evidence brought to the attention of Parliament in another place, again largely produced by my honourable friends, shows that some questions need to be asked. There is a current shortfall in the number of environmental health officers required to carry out their existing functions, which do not just entail policing or monitoring measures such as those contained in this Bill but also encompass a whole range of other matters. I am not competent to fix the number of additional hours that will be needed but it must amount to a number of additional hours. Only this morning I noticed in the newspapers some comments on this matter. I also picked up a document which has just been published—namely, the Review of the Crown Prosecution Service. I remember sitting in this House in 1984 and listening to the debates on the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service. I was told then that it was estimated to require 2,500 staff and that it would release some 600 police officers for other duties. The House accepted that advice.

Now this review issued by the National Audit Office states that: in April 1985 … staff requirements would be 3,750 and the Treasury subsequently approved a total complement of 3,755 … the complement was subsequently increased to 4,497". Noble Lords who were present in the Chamber last night, as I was, will recall the debate on the staff requirements of the Director General of Electricity Supply. The argument then was that the Government anticipated that 115 staff would be required. Every one laughed at that point. Perhaps someone can tell me where to find the evidence to support the statement in the present Bill that there will be no financial effects on public service manpower. Does it mean that there will be an additional burden placed on a depleted staff? Will it simply mean that the work which is not being done now will continue to remain untouched and that an additional duty will be laid upon the officers, who will of course be unable to carry it out? The House is entitled to an explanation of those words.

I hope that my comments will not detract in any way from my belief, which I want the Minister and the noble Earl to understand, that this is a first-class piece of additional tidying-up legislation which is much needed. I very much hope that we shall see it implemented and carried into effect as quickly as possible.

2.14 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, it would surely not be appropriate for a Bill of this kind to receive its Second Reading without a word of support from the Democrat Benches. Of all the political parties the old Liberal Party was the greenest the earliest, although others are now trying to follow its lead and to catch up with its record.

The Clean Air Act 1956 has been a massive success. The government at the time—it was the time of Suez—were one of the most incompetent governments that we have had for many a decade. However, this Act was in my view wholly positive and successful. I always recall it as an example of the work of democracy in action. The first borough to institute itself as a clean air zone was the borough of Woolwich as it then was, which was my constituency. I recall a public meeting there which was called to explain the requirements of the Clean Air Act to my constituents. The people tasked to do that were the chairman of the relevant borough council committee and the leader of the council. The Member of Parliament was in the safe position of chairman of the meeting.

The hall was packed with infuriated constituents who had all come to complain about the government pushing their fingers into their own private hearths, telling them not to burn their own traditional favourite fuel, even in the kitchens and bedrooms. The hall could not contain the mass of people. For vigour, passion and relevance I have never heard better questions. However, the answers were calm, well informed, patient and polite. The questioning and answering went on for two or perhaps three hours until gradually one saw the audience acknowledging defeat. Finally, in a good humoured way it accepted the lead of the borough council. It was a small thing perhaps but a remarkable instance of what free speech and democratic practices can do. As a result, Woolwich is totally transformed, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and the noble Earl have said. The appearance of London, for instance, is quite changed. The health of Londoners has improved.

We look forward to a reply to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. We give our warm support to the Bill of the noble Earl and to his all important amendment.

2.16 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing this Bill, which offers two useful amendments to the Clean Air Acts 1956 and 1968.

The Clean Air Acts have served us very well over the years. Since 1956, 6,000 smoke control orders have been made, covering about 9 million premises. That is two-thirds of all urban premises. Total national smoke emissions have declined by 85 per cent. and sulphur dioxide by 50 per cent. in London, 95 per cent. of which is covered by smoke control orders, and visibility has increased from 1.5 miles to 4 miles. Whereas 40 years ago central London enjoyed only half as much winter sunshine as Kew, levels in central London have now increased so that they match those at Kew. That is not bad for an incompetent government, to use the description of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, on the introduction of the 1956 Act.

Nor has improvement been confined to London. Other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield are now completely covered by smoke control areas. Improvements in visibility and winter sunshine levels have been just as notable as in London.

The smogs which used to engulf our towns and cities are now, thankfully, a thing of the past. The nation's health has accordingly improved. Smoke and sulphur dioxide, especially in combination, aggravated bronchitis. Today death and discomfort during high pollution incidents have been all but eradicated.

While these massive improvements are laudable, I am not suggesting that they have engendered any complacency on the part of the Government. Many new air pollution problems have emerged during the past 30 years, with changing technology, a greater understanding of our environment and the considerable advances that have been made in our ability to detect and analyse potentially hazardous emissions.

We have done much in response to these new problems. We have, for example, agreed to major action to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from existing large combustion plant operated by the Central Electricity Generating Board, at an estimated cost of £2 billion. We have signed the NOx Protocol to the UN/ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

There are now over 7,600 outlets selling unleaded petrol and unleaded pumps are being opened at the rate of about 250 a week. More than 14 per cent. of all petrol sales now of unleaded petrol. The last two Budgets created a substantial tax differential in favour of unleaded petrol.

We have been in the forefront of moves to achieve worldwide reductions in the use of CFCs. In the UK the British aerosol industry will phase out non-essential use of CFCs as propellants by the end of 1989, thereby allowing the UK to achieve the Montreal Protocol target of a 50 per cent. cut in CFC consumption 10 years ahead of schedule.

We have also undertaken a thorough review of air pollution legislation and in December 1986 we published a major consultation paper. We have implemented some of the consultation paper proposals in regulations made earlier this year. We intend to take forward the bulk of the remaining proposals and to legislate for a system of integrated pollution control during the course of this Parliament.

But, while we in government are concentrating on tackling the many serious global and national questions, it is right that my noble friend should remind us of the distress that can be caused by pollution at the local level. Local smoke pollution can cause severe individual hardship. I am grateful to my noble friend for providing this opportunity to alleviate two such problems through this Bill.

As with much legislation that has been on the statute books for a good many years, practical experience of using the powers throws up areas where the original legislation is either being abused or is capable of improvement. The Bill looks to extend the two Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 in two minor, yet important, ways.

Clause 1 is concerned with the control of non-dark smoke from chimneys of private dwellings outside smoke control areas. Over the last few years my department has received a considerable number of complaints from members of the public who have suffered from such nuisance. At present they have only the option of taking out a private prosecution. This Bill will enable local authorities to act on their behalf to require abatement; I therefore welcome it.

I welcome also Clause 2, which is designed to close loopholes that have arisen in the enforcement by local authorities of the control over dark smoke emissions. It will allow them to prosecute for illegal night-time burning where the colour of the smoke cannot be assessed and to take action against anyone—not just the occupier of the land—who causes or permits dark smoke to be emitted.

The Clean Air Acts continue to provide the basis for effective control over air pollution from smoke, grit and dust. But they have their weaknesses. The two amendments proposed in this Bill will serve to overcome some of them and so to enhance the effectiveness of the Acts in two important areas. They tackle both domestic and industrial smoke pollution and will provide significant local remedies for parts of the country that the existing provisions have not been able to reach. As such, they will provide significant relief.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, referred to the evidence of financial imposition. When the consultation paper was issued, all the local authorities which responded believed that the proposals would ease the enforcement and not be an imposition.

I congratulate my noble friend upon introducing the Bill and I commend it to the House.

The Earl of Portsmouth

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for his kind words about the Bill. He raised a point concerning the manpower and financial implications. When I took on this task I was of the view, and I still am, that the existing resources available for implementing the Clean Air Acts would be sufficient to deal with the implementing of the provisions of this Bill. However, I shall look into that matter again.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down I wish to say that I acknowledge and appreciate without question his belief that no further manpower will be required. However, I gave two illustrations; they were the estimate of the numbers required for the Crown Prosecution Service and the numbers given last night for the requirement of the Director General of Electricity Supply. I am well aware of what needs to be said in respect of a Private Member's Bill in order that it be accepted as such without financial consequences. I heard what the Minister said, but I hope that local authorities believe that the provisions can be accommodated. However, the evidence clearly shows that environmental health officers are at present under enormous stress and strain and are in short supply.

The Earl of Portsmouth

My Lords, perhaps I may come back to the point at a later stage in the Bill. I ask that this Bill be given a Second Reading.

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

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past two o'clock.