Orders of the Day — Rivers (Prevention of Pollution)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19 May 1958.

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11.9 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Bevins Mr Reginald Bevins , Liverpool Toxteth

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty under subsection (3) of section eight of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, praying that the period of seven years ending on the thirty-first day of July, nineteen hundred and fifty-eight, during which river boards are, under subsection (2) of the said section, prohibited from taking action without the consent of the Minister of Housing and Local Government in respect of certain contraventions or apprehended contraventions of section two of that Act, be extended for a further period of three years so as to expire on the thirty-first day of July nineteen hundred and sixty-one. As the House is aware, broadly speaking, it is an offence under Section 2 of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, for any person to cause the pollution of a stream and the enforcement of this provision is left in the main to the various river boards. The Act provides that proceedings for contravention of Section 2 in respect of any trade effluent or any effluent from a local authority's sewage disposal works shall not be taken by the river board during the first seven years after the passing of the 1951 Act without the consent of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It also provides that the seven-year period, which will expire in the ordinary course of events on 31st July this year, may be extended by Order in Council. The purpose of the Prayer is to extend this period for another three years.

The provision for fixing the seven-year period originally, and also allowing for the possibility of an extension, was written into the 1951 Act during the Committee proceedings on that Measure. There were two main reasons why that was done. First, there was the hope, which was widespread at the time, that general standards for rivers could be worked out in a few years' time and that the application of those standards through byelaws would be a powerful instrument in improving the state of our rivers.

It was also expected that properly treated effluents from sewage works and trade effluents would be able to comply with those byelaw standards and that the local authorities and the industries concerned discharging these effluents into the rivers would be freed from the risk of prosecution so long as they complied with those standards.

Perhaps a consideration which weighed with the House more than any other in 1951 was the need for control over capital investment. The problem there, as the House will remember, was a very pressing one in the autumn of 1951 and, as matters have developed, the position is still not without its difficulty. Unless there was some control over prosecutions, our hands might have been forced into capital investment which the country could ill afford on sewage and related matters.

In the event, however, the various river boards have been confronted with very many technical obstacles which so far have prevented them from devising byelaws laying down permissible quantity and quality standards for effluents. This is not due to any want of trying, or any want of effort on the part of the river boards. Since 1951, not a single river board throughout the country has been able to submit draft byelaws to the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

Against this background, my right hon. Friend decided some time ago to ask the Central Advisory Water Committee to advise whether the seven-year period should be extended. That Committee appointed a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Sir Frederick Armer, which included not only members of river boards and local authorities, but also industrialists and people with strong technical qualifications.

After having taken evidence from the various interests concerned, this sub-committee recommended, and this recommendation was unanimous, even though the sub-committee included members of the river boards, that the seven-year period should be extended by a further period of three years. The Central Advisory Water Committee accepted the Armer sub-committee's report and in turn my right hon. Friend decided to accept the Committee's recommendation.

The question which is before the House tonight therefore, is the simple and rather limited one of whether the seven-year period should be extended for another three years. The significance of this is that at present the river boards who wish to prosecute cannot do so without the consent of my right hon. Friend. Since the 1951 Act became law, we have had twenty-five applications for the Minister's consent to prosecute. I would like to give a break-down of this figure. Consent has been given in seven cases and fines have been imposed by the courts. In the remaining eighteen cases, the applications for consent to prosecute were withdrawn while remedial measures were being taken, and five of those are still under consideration. In only one case was consent to prosecute refused by the Minister.

It may be said that the prevention of pollution would be best encouraged by allowing the seven-year period to expire this year instead of extending it, and therefore, I think, that I ought to say what the position would be in those circumstances under the 1951 Act. Under it, the ending of this period brings into play certain legal consequences, the main one of which is that it would be then open to anyone who was alleged by a river board to be causing pollution to plead in defence that it was not reasonably practicable to dispose of the effluent other than by discharging it into the stream; and secondly, that all reasonable and practical steps had been taken to make the effluent not poisonous or noxious. If the court accepted that plea, then the person alleged to be responsible would not be liable to any penalty. This broad provision in the 1951 Act has been in suspense during the last seven years and will remain in suspense if this period is prolonged as a result of the Prayer which is before the House tonight.

The short point is that it is by no means clear that a termination of the period here and now would necessarily help. It is, of course, quite true that it might be easier for the river boards to put pressure on alleged offenders. But, on the other hand, they would find it more difficult in cases of prosecutions to sustain their argument before the court.

I do not disguise for a moment that the fundamental difficulty is the problem of money. So long as we have restrictions on capital expenditure which may prevent the extension of sewage treatment works and people are liable to be exposed to the allegation of causing pollution which could be prevented, then it is thought by the Armer Committee, and also by my right hon. Friend the Minister, that we cannot ignore the fears of those in industry who are concerned lest they are caught between the difficulties of capital restriction on the one hand and prosecution on the other.

At the same time, I do not want to give the impression that the Minister is in any way complacent about this problem; because where we think that prosecutions by the river boards are justified, we shall not hesitate to authorise them. Where we can, we are authorising capital expenditure for sewage treatment works and sewage disposal, and I might add at this point that, since the war, schemes costing more than £200 millions have been sanctioned and there has been a steady increase in the last few years.

In addition, very substantial sums are being spent by industry on the pre-treatment of trade effluents before they are discharged into sewers or rivers, and a great deal of intensive research is going on in industry on the treatment of industrial wastes. The House will recognise that all these problems have been very greatly aggravated since the end of the war by the post-war industrial expansion and the building of millions of new houses.

I end by saying that my right hon. Friend certainly intends to give the highest priority he reasonably can to expenditure on new works of this kind. I agree that if we were able to forget all about restrictions on capital investment and perhaps authorise the expenditure of £500 million or even £1,000 million, we could probably work miracles in the cleansing of our rivers, but we cannot do that because of the other demands upon our resources. But we can do our best, financially, technically and in the way of encouraging research, and in that process to hold the balance fairly between the various interests which are concerned.

11.22 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Greenwood Mr Anthony Greenwood , Rossendale

As I represent one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, in common with the hon. Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. Bidgood), I hope the House will forgive me for taking up a little time, even at this late hour, because the statement we have just heard from the Parliamentary Secretary was a depressing and disturbing one. It is one that certainly I view with a good deal of dismay and suspicion. What we are really doing is deferring for another three years the granting of adequate powers to the river boards. I believe that the public want the boards to be effective and to get on with the job of cleaning up the rivers.

Within the limitation that this House imposed upon them, the boards have done wonderful work, but there is certainly no ground for complacency. The Minister of Housing and Local Government told us on 2nd July that 16 river boards had noted some improvement last year and four had reported a worsening in the condition of the rivers in their areas. The fact that four boards had reported a deterioration in conditions over six years after the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act was passed seems to me depressing in the extreme, and in the case of the other areas the improvement is certainly not very noticeable.

Hon. Members will have seen in The Times today a picture of foam caused by detergents from sewage works on the River Trent, about which the Minister of Housing and Local Government assured the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) and myself in this House not long ago that he was reasonably happy. I forget his exact words, but from what he said at that time he seemed to be unreasonably complacent about the dangerous condition of the River Trent at many times. Hon. Members who know the condition of the River Tyne and a number of smaller rivers like the Colne, which was discussed a few weeks ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), will realise that there are certainly no grounds for complacency in these matters.

I was not very impressed by the report of the Armer Committee. I know that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in its Annual Report told us of the importance of maintaining a balance between absolutely pure rivers and the necessity for disposing of drainage sewage and trade effluents. I confess that it is not always easy to strike that balance. I happen to be vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations, which is supporting the Government on this issue, and I am also president of the Pure Rivers Society, which is opposing them, and so I regard myself as especially qualified to appreciate the difficulty of maintaining a balance in this matter. I do not believe that the Report of the Armer Committee maintains a reasonable balance. The proposals which the Government have brought before us tonight constitute an unnecessarily restrictive and grand-motherly piece of legislation. The Report seems to me to be half-hearted, making no attempt to discuss the various arguments to which it refers.

The most impressive argument it quoted against the extension of this period by three years was the argument that the river boards have shown a proper sense of responsibility. In its reference to that argument, the Committee points out that it had been emphasised that no difficulty had arisen when Ministerial consent was not required for proceedings as under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1923, or under the Act giving power to the Lea and Thames Conservancies. Certainly no one can say that the river boards have used their powers in anything but an extremely responsible way. Indeed, rather than regarding them as rash or irresponsible, the more general criticism is that they might have acted more frequently and strongly.

There is a good deal of feeling, particularly among anglers, that the river boards have too few powers and that perhaps there is too great a representation of local government and industrial interests. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the fear of those in industry, but I do not think they need be very frightened that the river boards will be too harsh. I am indebted to the Anglers' Co-operative Association for allowing me to see the evidence it has submitted to the Committee which is reviewing the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act. The Association refer to the three major cases which have been tried during the past few years in which riparian owners have sought to use their common law rights to prevent pollution.

The Association points out that in the case of Myddleton and Others against John Summers and Sons Limited it transpired that the chairman and managing director of the polluters was the chairman of the river board in the district where the pollution occurred. The Association also tells me that in the case of Martell and Others against the Consett Iron Company Limited the president and managing director of the defendant company was the chairman of the river board. In the third case, a rather outstanding case, the Pride of Derby and Derbyshire Angling Association and Another against British Celanese and Others, the Derby Corporation, the second defendant, was represented strongly on the Trent River Board. I do not think that anybody can feel that either the local authorities or industrialists will be unfairly treated by the river boards upon which they have such strong and powerful representation.

My reaction to the report of the Armer Committee appears to be shared by some sections of the Press, the Field, for example, on 24th April of this year described the report as a disturbing concession on river pollution. The Engineer on 11th April referred to it being "pusillanimous." I should like to read one passage from the article on the Engineer. It seems to me to go to the very heart of the problem upon which we are asked to pronounce tonight. The Engineer wrote: It seems plain to us, now that many river boards are over ten years old and no longer inexperienced, that either they should be trusted to act temperately and moderately and thus be assigned the full powers which Parliament wished them to have, or that it should be accepted that the Minister should indefinitely have overriding powers. Of these two courses, it also seems to us that the former is much the more desirable. For, at least in the opinions of those to whom it is a matter of great interest that the rivers of this country should become less rather than more polluted, the effect of the ban upon river boards taking independent action has been bad. Under the present set-up, which the sub-committee wishes to continue, it is a troublesome and time-consuming matter to prepare a case, not for submission to a court of law, but to the Minister; and there is no certainty, even if the case is a 'cast iron' one in law, that the Minister will not withhold his consent. Thus, a board is unable to exert effective and immediate pressure upon an offender polluting the river and more particularly it is denied any effective ability to deal immediately with occasional and careless offenders. Knowing how troublesome it is to get the Minister's consent, boards are likely to continue to accept any evasive promise of action that may alleviate pollution rather than stand out to get something really firm. The consequence is that those whose interests are likely to be damaged by pollution lack faith in the powers of the boards to protect them. What are the arguments for extending the period by another three years? First, we are told that one of the arguments is the economic one of the expense involved and we are told about the views of the House when we discussed the Bill seven years ago. Since then, however, industry has been prospering and profits have been high, and if these firms have not been able to put aside some part of their profits during the last few years to make necessary improvements to their works, it is not easy to see when it will be possible to effect these improvements. It looks as if the longer the delay the greater the expense will be.

There is, however, an even more remarkable argument which is used in the Report of the Armer Committee and to which the Parliamentary Secretary did not refer tonight. I refer to the argument in paragraph 13 (d), which states: Research work, we were informed, was now being carried out, with encouraging prospects, on the purification of certain classes of trade effluents. An extension of the period was required for the results so far achieved to be completed and translated into works practice. It would be better for all that such a course should be followed than that industry should be forced, as a result of undue pressure or court action, into spending money on remedial measures before the best methods of effluent treatment and disposal had been worked out. It was upon that that the Field, a paper with which I often disagree, but with which on this occasion I am in complete agreement, commented: This is akin to a doctor telling a patient he must put up with his illness because the best possible cure has yet to be found. Nobody can say that any method of tackling anything is the best possible, since there is always a chance that a better will be found. The Parliamentary Secretary tonight referred to the fact that no byelaws had been made as one of the reasons why the Government were asking the House to extend the period by a further three years. He referred to a number of obstacles that the river boards had encountered. Unfortunately, he did not tell the House that one of the main obstacles that the river boards had encountered has been the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. In the memorandum which it sent to the Armer Committee, the River Boards Association said: The main reason why no byelaws have yet been confirmed is that at an early stage the Ministry intimated that confirmation of byelaws must await official guidance on the chemical analysis of sewage effluent. The publication giving this guidance was not issued by the Minister until December, 1956. Moreover, the Ministry have recently intimated that they have increasing doubts as to the effectiveness of comprehensive byelaws prescribing standards in relation to river pollution. In these circumstances the Association fear that substantial progress in the confirmation of byelaws is unlikely in the near future. In spite of the arguments which were put to it, I am disturbed to find the Minister took the advice of the subcommittee and seems determined to keep the river beds in swaddling clothes. I am still more disturbed—I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will make a note of this—that the Armer Committee has also been asked to investigate the common law position about the pollution of rivers. If the Ministry should ever be tempted once again to deprive riparian owners of their common law rights, it would be a move which would meet with most serious opposition from large sections of the people. The question of pollution gets graver, and I should have thought this was a time to give the river boards more powers rather than to seek to put further restrictions on them.

I appreciate what the Parliamentary Secretary said about increased expenditure on sewerage schemes, but nevertheless there is no rapid improvement. The reason is really quite simple. Towns are more and more taking water out of rivers above the town and putting back water into the river in the form of inadequately treated sewage below the town. The flow of many of our rivers has been seriously reduced by what I think is the misguided policy of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Until we get a national water plan this sort of situation will continue. It is the Ministry of Housing and Local Government which is responsible for curbing development of sewerage schemes and at the same time allowing water authorities to deplete our streams.

The right hon. Gentleman is forced to come to the House to ask for an extra three years to protect local authorities against the consequences of his own dereliction of duty. This will be three years of grace during which our streams will continue to be polluted and during which there will be serious possibility of some epidemic of a grave character.

In spite of what I have said, I would personally advise the House to adopt the attitude of the River Boards Association and allow the Minister to have this Motion tonight but to determine that there shall be no further extension and that the Ministry must really get down to the job of seeing that the river boards can discharge the task which has been entrusted to them.

11.38 p.m.

Photo of Sir Lionel Heald Sir Lionel Heald , Chertsey

I do not want to detain the House for more than a few minutes at this time of night, but I should like to say a word or two to make it clear that this is in no way a party issue. I have very good reason for having an interest in this matter because it was in fact, I think, the very first matter with which I ventured to concern myself when I became a Member of this House.

I well remember the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) making an important contribution to the debate on the Bill when it was brought in. Indeed, I had the distinction in that very early stage of my career of hearing it being remarked that I had found myself in the company of the right hon. Member in the attitude we adopted in this matter when he said, if I remember rightly—at any rate it was to this effect—that this was a matter of trout having as much importance as trade or even trade unions.

I was rather disturbed by the fact that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary when opening this debate tonight did not even mention anglers and fishermen. There are some of us, on this side of the House and opposite, who are rather disturbed about that. He appeared to have no appreciation of the serious concern which exists amongst those who engage in that harmless and, as I believe, very good occupation.

When the Bill passed through the House a definite provision was laid down that the river boards and the Attorney-General in the end should be the chief authorities to decide whether prosecution should be undertaken, and it was only as a result of much discussion in Committee that this period was fixed. I think the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) will agree that it was fixed, following discussions, on the basis that if that period were given it would be pretty well as long as would be required to do the job. It was stated—I looked up the Reports of the Committee stage this afternoon—that there was every reason to suppose that if that length of time were given the necessary work would be done.

In view of what has been said on behalf of the Government, I entirely agree that it would be wrong not to give this extension, but I very strongly support what the hon. Member for Rossendale said, to the effect that this should be the last time, because it is necessary that something should be done about the matter. I could not properly delay the House tonight with the story of pollution, but there have been several recent publications which are dreadful in their revelations of what is going on. Of course, one has to be reasonable about these things, but to say, "We must give up these rivers. It is hopeless and it is no good doing anything about it," is a counsel of despair which the House ought not to be prepared to accept, nor do I believe that it is necessary.

Those engaged in piscatorial matters are, I know, apt to stretch things out in all directions, including their speeches, but at this time of night I cannot quote some of the recent articles which have been published and which are very illuminating on this subject. We all want to be practical over these matters, and I want to ask my hon. Friend whether he can give us some assurance that this matter is being taken seriously. Reference has been made to angling, and there is no need to apologise for that, because it is a sport in which millions of people indulge, and they write to us frequently and ask what is being done about river pollution. We should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us, if he can, a little more about what is being done. When the Act was being discussed, it was pointed out that it was unfortunate that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not seem to be very much concerned with it, and as far as we can see that Ministry certainly is not concerned with it tonight.

We should like to know whether the problem is being taken seriously. My hon. Friends will agree with me that we do not want to make matters worse for the Parliamentary Secretary's Department, because that Department has great difficulties, but we should like to be able to tell our friends in our constituencies and all over the country who are interested in these matters that there is an appreciation of the problem, that a real effort is being made to deal with it and that some progress is being made.

If that is so, I think we are prepared to allow this further period, but we should like to know that a little more optimism is being adopted towards it and that a little more energy is being applied to it.

11.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Short Mr Edward Short , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I shall not detain the House long, but this is a topic in which I have a very strong constituency interest. As I understand the position, for the seven years that end on 31st July this year local authorities and industries have been able to pour new sewage into the rivers without any fear of prosecution by the river boards for contravening the 1951 Act. The object of the Motion, as I understand it, is to extend that immunity for a further three years. My constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) stretch along the banks of what is probably the worst polluted river in the country, the River Tyne. We raised this matter in the House some months ago, and I described the river at that time as nothing more than an open sewer. The Minister denied that description, but he will be interested to know that, since then, those very words have been used by one of the medical officers of health on Tyneside in his annual report.

The river is nothing more than a rather disgusting open sewer. I do not know what connection it has with health locally, but it is interesting to note that the tuberculosis rate on Tyneside is more than twice the national average. I do not know what connection there may be, but it surely cannot be very healthy to have this great sewer running through the middle of a densely populated industrial area.

Photo of Mr Reginald Bevins Mr Reginald Bevins , Liverpool Toxteth

It may be true, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the River Tyne has been so described, but really it is not fair to the House to imply that that is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. That is the responsibility of the local authorities on Tyneside.

Photo of Mr Edward Short Mr Edward Short , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I am coming to that point in a minute. The Minister was inclined to boast on the last occasion that four salmon had been caught in the Tyne last year. Forty years ago, the number was not four but four thousand.

We now learn that the vast increase in pollution of the Tyne which has taken place during the past year has been going on with the Minister's consent. This really shocks me. As I understand it, the local authorities are under no obligation at all, so long as the immunity exists, to find alternative methods of disposal, and they are under no obligation to render the effluent innocuous. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) spoke about detergent in the River Trent. We should be very glad to have a little detergent in the Tyne; it might clean the place up a little. The sort of pollution we have is a great deal more serious than that caused by detergent.

Tyneside Members of Parliament have complained in the House for years and years about the pollution of the Tyne. The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) said that two of her great hopes were to see the Tyne tunnel built and the River Tyne cleaned up before she died.

Money, of course, has always been the trouble. In 1951, when the Act was put on the Statute Book, it was estimated that the cost of taking the sewage to the sea would be £10 millions. I am told by the city engineer of Newcastle-upon-Tyne that the cost now, seven years later, would be £20 million. I am sure that Tyneside as a whole will be shocked to find from this debate that all that has been done in the way of new sewers pouring into the River Tyne during those seven years, in which time the cost has been doubled, has been done with the approval of the Minister.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) that it is quite shocking that any river in this country should be polluted in this way. No part of the country is very far from the sea. It is simply a question of money to take the industrial waste or sewage to the sea. It is simply a matter of money—nothing else. There is no engineering difficulty at all, and no great distance is involved. We are surrounded by hundreds of miles of sea; the waste and effluent could be taken right away and disposed of. We cannot go on as we have been doing.

Every year, great new housing estates arise, and every year new industries develop, with new and more deadly kinds of waste. Who knows? In the future we may have nuclear waste discharged into our rivers. At any rate, we cannot go on in this way. I support what my hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Gentleman have said. If we agree to the extra three years tonight, I hope that the Minister will use that extension of immunity for local authorities and industry to make a real effort to clean up what should be healthy arteries in our countryside, not open sewers.

11.50 p.m.

Photo of Major Sir Robert Conant Major Sir Robert Conant , Rutland and Stamford

I make no apology for intervening at any hour of the night in debate on this very important matter, but happily most of what I intended to say has already been said, and so I shall not take up very much time. In spite of the persuasive argument of my hon. Friend on this Motion, I am still wholly against it. I think it is based on an entire misconception of the whole problem, that the bodies charged by Parliament with the task of keeping our rivers clean should be restricted in this way from taking any action against polluters for another three years without going through all the long drawn our process of getting the permission of my right hon. Friend. I am informed that it involves a good deal of duplication and unnecessary delay.

My hon. Friend referred to the reasons for which this restriction on the right to prosecute was originally imposed. As far as I can recall, the real reason was not so much the provisions of standards for dirtiness of water to be made out by the river boards, but to give them a reasonable period of time to find their feet and show themselves responsible. That is what most people anticipated was the reason for the seven years' delay. River boards are now, I think, responsible bodies, and the Armer Committee went out of its way to mention the fact that they had acted so far with considerable forbearance. Were it shown that river boards had in some way acted irresponsibly, or if some action of their own had brought the industrial life of the country to a standstill without the overriding authority of my right hon. Friend, that would be the only case for extending this restriction.

As the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) pointed out, the argument which affected the Armer Committee was the further cost involved to industry. As was pointed out in the Field last month, there has never been a time when industry could better have afforded to undertake this cost. There is the even less sound argument that some time is needed for experiment.

I really cannot see any justification for the continuance of this restriction. I only hope my hon. Friend can say categorically that at the end of three years this restriction will be withdrawn. That will be for the benefit not only of river boards but, I am sure, of industry as a whole.

11.53 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Harriet Slater Mrs Harriet Slater , Stoke-on-Trent North

On 1st June the Minister of Housing and Local Government is to launch the Clean Air Act with a vengeance and with jubilation. I should like to think we were able to launch in the same way and with the same excitement a sound scheme for cleaning our rivers. Like the hon. and gallant Member for Rutland and Stamford (Sir R. Conant), I make no apology for speaking in this debate, because this is a matter of great importance not only to the anglers—and I have very great respect for them—but also for the good health of our people and the beauty of our countryside and our towns.

How sad it is for those of us who have hiked in our mountains and dales and valleys and have known the joy, after a great day of walking and tramping, to stop by a river and wash and listen to the river run by, and to be refreshed by it, to realise that when that little stream has gone only a little further on its way it will become, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) said, a dirty, dangerous river. That happens because local authorities and industry allow masses of what in some places is crude sewage and in others industrial waste to be poured into our rivers.

I recall that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) told me that twenty years ago he was told by the then Minister of Housing that he would make him a promise that within a very short time the River Trent would be free from pollution. But now, twenty years later, we have very much more pollution in the Trent.

We have already spoken about fishing and angling in the rivers. I live quite near the Dovedale, and I shudder to think what Isaac Walton would say if he could see some of our rivers and the conditions in which anglers have to pursue their hobby today. Personally, I am not interested in fishing, but to many working men it means complete relaxation from the stress and noise of the towns and factories in which they have to spend long hours during the week. They enjoy a sense of achievement when they have had a good day's fishing. Salmon fishing is protected to a large extent, and we would ask that the Minister of Housing and Local Government—who cannot pass on his responsibility to the local authorities—should give some protection to the ordinary fishers, who go not far from our towns and who are unable to go to the highlands and mountains, where salmon fishing is protected.

On the health aspect, one has only to consider the statement by my hon. Friend, or go through Salford and see the dirty, inky Irwell. Before I came to this House, I often had to stay in Manchester, and I always feared that something might happen to the hotel and I might have to jump out of the back windows. I dreaded the consequences of landing in the dirty River Irwell. Some years ago the Irwell flooded many of the houses along its banks, and today those houses still bear the tide marks and smell of the floods.

Large quantities of industrial effluent are also turned into the rivers. Many factories take from the sewage disposal works treated industrial effluent; they use that treated effluent, and then it is again poured into the rivers, to cause much more pollution than we had before. Sewerage engineers in every local authority are deeply concerned about the large amount of industrial effluent with which they are unable to deal and which is consequently poured into the rivers. In Stoke-on-Trent we have a particular problem of gas liquor. We have a large gas works and our local sewerage works engineer has been asked repeatedly to increase the amount of gas liquor which he can take to be treated through the works. A dangerous point is now coming, at which, if more gas liquor is taken into the sewerage works to be treated it is possible that the works may be put out of action. We have to ask ourselves this: if the local authority takes so much of this gas liquor, where does the rest go? Obviously it has to go into the River Trent. Will further research be undertaken to inquire into the breakdown of the chemical compounds in gas liquor, or to see whether it could be sprayed on to some burned-out spoil heaps to help to break them down?

The other problem about which I wish to speak is that of detergents. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central would not like large quantities of detergent to be poured into the River Tyne, because not only would he have a problem with sewers, but he would have the problem of foam blowing into homes and creating a great problem in the sewage works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Those of us who know anything about sewage works know that our engineers have tried all kinds of things to break down the foaming agent in detergents. In some cases, if it blows over the paths by sewage tanks, it is a positive danger to the men who have to work there. It is also a nuisance in blowing about villages and towns and it chokes fish in the rivers.

Could not more energy be spent in research into questions of the foaming agent in detergents, and could not pressure be brought to bear on that industry to investigate whether more oxidisation and less foaming agent would not produce the same cleansing effect now possessed by detergents? After all, the firms which produce detergents try to persuade housewives to buy detergents by using very expensive methods of coupons and samples and that kind of thing.

They could spend a little of that money on trying to do away with, or to break down or to use different sulphonates in their commodities, and in that way I am sure that we could go a long way towards solving the problem of the foaming of detergents. This is a relic of the days when the woman at the wash-tub thought that she was doing very well if she had a great heap of soap suds around the tub. Those who attempt to persuade housewives to buy detergents suggest that it is the foam instead of the other ingredients and the oxidisation which do the cleansing.

I disagree with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central that sewage should be taken out to sea. I hope that we will not use our rivers for that purpose. I hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will use a little more energy to try to get authorities to undertake composting of household refuse and sewage in order that it may be used for fertiliser, thus reducing the necessity of pouring crude sewage into our rivers or into the sea.

12.4 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Jennings Mr John Jennings , Burton

At this witching hour of midnight I intend to be very brief. River pollution is a national problem and I fully recognise and appreciate the great problems facing the river boards. That is why I deplore the extension of the immunity. Like the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), I am prepared to acquiesce in the Motion tonight on condition that the Ministries concerned will take this matter very seriously and give us some practical results within the next three years.

At Burton we have had tremendous experience of the problem of river pollution. There are two problems with which we have to deal. There is the problem of detergent foam and that of filthy effluent. Some people try to tell me that detergent foam is not river pollution, but anything that destroys the amenities of a beautiful river is pollution and should be remedied. In Burton-on-Trent we are accustomed to dealing with a froth which is most salubrious; but, unfortunately, we have now come into contact with another kind of froth which is not so salubrious. Detergent foam is a long-term scientific problem and the solution to it is primarily with the manufacturers; but it is also very much the concern of the Minister and then of the river boards.

On the Trent itself, which is strategically sited for the erection of power stations, one finds this problem in its most aggravated form. There are three of them within twenty miles of my home—Drakelow, Willingdon, and Tupton—which take cold water from the river and then send it back as warm water to act as an activator for the foaming agent in the detergent. Saturday's regatta at Burton examplifies this very serious problem, which can be seen from the photograph which I have here and which I pass to the Parliamentary Secretary as exhibit "A".

Secondly, we are concerned with filthy effluent. Time and time again I have raised this subject together with some of my hon. Friends, but all we have been told is that, so far as the Black Country and the Trent area are concerned, there is a long-term programme of work to deal with sewage. I want to ask tonight what progress has been made with regard to the treatment of sewage. The Trent is a classic example of a national problem. In the olden days it was called the "Silvery Trent" but now it is nothing but a dead and stinking river with no living organism in its water for miles above Burton. The last annual report from the Trent River Board states: Above Nottingham for about 20 miles the Trent is habitable by coarse fish, but no fish can subsist in the next 20 miles due to the accession of the heavily polluted River Tame (45 miles long)". That is because it is bringing down effluent from the Birmingham area. Then the report states: Above the River Tame, the Trent again holds a good stock of coarse fish for about 10 miles but is once more depopulated over the next 30 miles by pollution from the Potteries". This river is virtually an open sewer and I have seen flowing and floating islands of putrefaction going down the Trent. On Saturday, during the regatta to which I have already referred, one of the oarsmen in the singles sculls went through one of these floating islands and, by the time he got through its diameter of six feet, he was five lengths behind. Now we have to think in terms of moving the regatta—an event of great interest and enjoyment to the people, which has been held for 103 years.

The Minister must consult with his right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Minister of Power to try to get something done to get rid of this infernal nuisance. What progress is being made in the reaches above Burton? I am told it was practicable to dredge the river before the war but that it is now completely impracticable to do so. Why is this? We in the area want to see some positive action and I am perfectly prepared to make a nuisance of myself on behalf of these people while I am in this House.

12.10 a.m.

Photo of Commander Sir Peter Agnew Commander Sir Peter Agnew , Worcestershire South

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had a comparatively smooth passage in propelling the ship of State through the polluted waterways and rivers of our country tonight, but if he finds himself in the same position three years' hence he will not find it such a good passage; it might be much more stormy.

I do not think that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend fully appreciate the depth of feeling which exists in this matter—and not only amongst hon. Members whose constituencies are directly affected. There are two rivers in my constituency—the Severn and the Avon—but it is not only on behalf of my constituents that I join in supporting those who deplore the extension for which my hon. Friend is asking; it is very largely on behalf of those people who come down to the rivers, chiefly at the weekends and at holiday times, either for the purpose of fishing or pleasure boating. In the summer weather they very often also like to bathe in the rivers, and if these rivers continue to be dangerously polluted the risk of disease will be increased for them.

The hour is late, and so I shall only say that just as we now have legislation which sets apart great areas of land as National Parks, and regulates strictly what goes on inside their boundaries, so we should have similar legislation for our rivers. It is nothing less than a scandal that we should continue to neglect the condition of our waterways—much smaller in area than the national parks, but equally important—which flow through our countryside. They are the natural recreation grounds of the people, and they also discharge their vital task of draining the land for proper agricultural use.

Only on the understanding that my right hon. Friend will bend his energies to giving real power to river boards and local authorities to take this matter in hand, do I assent most reluctantly to the extension of the period.

12.13 a.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Bevins Mr Reginald Bevins , Liverpool Toxteth

If I may speak again, with your consent and that of the House, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I should like to say a few words in reply to some of the points that have been raised. First, my right hon. Friend certainly appreciates the feelings which are entertained on both sides of the House about the condition of some of our rivers, but I do not think that we help ourselves—and we certainly do not help to solve the problem—by exaggerating some of the less happy features.

The hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) said, quite rightly, that in certain areas there had been some deterioration in the state of our rivers. But the question that the House is considering tonight is whether the removal of Ministerial consent would help to lessen the existing measure of pollution, and whether this would be the right time to remove that consent. I respect the hon. Member's point of view, and certainly understand it, but it was certainly not taken up by the Armer Committee, which put forward a unanimous recommendation and which, as I have said, had on it several prominent members of river boards throughout the country.

On the hon. Member's point that we were not justified in extending the period, I would submit to the House that it would be rather unreasonable, at this stage, to expose people to the risk of prosecution when control over capital investment may be holding back the construction of modern sewage works through which most industrial effluents should pass. Were there no brake on capital investment, the case of the hon. Gentleman would have been a strong one, but regard must be paid to the fact that there is such a brake at present.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a feeling that there had been a dereliction of duty by the Government. The figures for capital investment in sewerage works since the war do not lend support to the view that this Government have been neglecting their duty. In 1948 the figure was £9 million, and since then it has risen to an average of £25 million over the last three years. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the danger of an epidemic, but I would remind him that there is no evidence of a single scheme put up by a local authority which has been turned down, if it was essential in the interests of health. If any hon. Member has evidence of any such scheme, we shall be prepared to give it immediate and sympathetic consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) asked about the long-term efforts to lessen pollution in certain reaches of the River Trent above Burton. A good deal has been done since the end of the war. There have been six or seven substantial schemes where work is in progress or has been completed. My hon. Friend will recognise that the Birmingham Tame and Rea District Drainage Board has proposals for considerable reconstruction work which it is estimated will cost about £9 million to £12 million. It will be necessary to hold a public inquiry, but I have every reason to think that the scheme will be approved in the comparatively near future. That will be a big job which no doubt will take years to complete, but it will make a substantial improvement to the River Trent.

The hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) spoke of the treatment of gas liquor and I can assure her that investigations are being carried out by the Gas Council. I will not add to that or I shall be anticipating the reply to a Question which the hon. Lady has on the Order Paper for tomorrow. Several hon. Members asked about the progress of efforts to deal with detergents. Certain constituents in synthetic detergents make less efficient the processes in certain treatment. Some constituents are only partly broken down, with the result that they produce foam and scum at the disposal works and in the rivers. These problems have been studied by a standing technical committee on detergents which was set up last year, and they are also being examined by the larger manufacturers who have been most co-operative with the committee. We are hopeful that in the not too distant future a detergent will be produced in this country from which these constituents which cannot be broken down will be eliminated. A real advance has been made in this direction and we should not have to wait an inordinately long time before we are able to offer some remedy for what undoubtedly is a serious nuisance.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) referred in rather pained tones to the position of the anglers and he was right to do so. The only reason why I did not refer to it earlier was because I doubted whether it was within the bounds of order within the context of the Motion. I assure my right hon. and learned Friend, however, that we are very conscious of the desires of and the difficulties which face the angling community as a whole in many parts of the country. An admirable piece of evidence was put to the Armer Committee by the National Federation of Anglers, which, in spite of all these difficulties, now speaks for a considerably larger number of anglers than it has ever spoken for before. The House will, I am sure, realise that the position of the anglers is of necessity bound up with the general problem of pollution.

I should like to disabuse the idea that may have crept into my right hon. and learned Friend's mind that there is any complacency in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. There is not. We are certainly determined to do all that we can within the financial limits which are set. It has been recognised by both parties in this House that this is a problem which is bound in the nature of the case to take time. We are faced with a legacy which derives from the last 150 years and it will not be solved in a day.

Indeed, I have a quotation from the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) when he introduced the Bill in 1950, when he said: I should like to remind hon. Members that this matter of protecting our rivers and streams is a continuing process. It is not one that can be accomplished overnight. It is one which will have to be done gradually over the years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1950; Vol. 481, c. 807.] That, perhaps, was a bit complacent. I do not feel as complacent as that, nor does my right hon. Friend. We shall certainly do our best as far as possible, by expanding these new sewage treatment works, by co-operation with the river boards, by encouraging further research on the industrial side and in any other way possible.

In reply to the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Sir R. Conant), which was raised also by several other hon. Members, I cannot see the future with precision but I should certainly hope that this would be the only extension of its kind.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty under subsection (3) of section eight of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, praying that the period of seven years ending on the thirty-first day of July, nineteen hundred and fifty eight, during which river boards are, under subsection (2) of the said section, prohibited from taking action without the consent of the Minister of Housing and Local Government in respect of certain contraventions or apprehended contraventions of section two of that Act, be extended for a further period of three years so as to expire on the thirty-first day of July, nineteen hundred and sixty one.

Address to be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.