§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I should like to express my thanks to the Opposition for the manner in which, when I made my statement on the dumping of toxic wastes in Nuneaton, their representative kindly volunteered that the Opposition would co-operate in every way in ensuring that a Bill of this nature was passed increasing the penalties on, and bringing under the law the practices of, people disposing of dangerous wastes. I should like to give the background of the situation prior to the Opposition agreeing to enabling this legislation to be passed because there has recently been a certain amount of comment in the Press following the second Report of the Royal Commission on Pollution to the effect that there has been some lethargy about introducing such legislation.
In August, 1970, and April, 1971, we published the reports of the working parties which investigated the problems raised by toxic wastes, and the Government stated that it was their intention to introduce legislation to ensure that the new local authorities resulting from local government reform benefited from legislation along the lines suggested. I believe that there is general agreement between both sides of the House that it is important to ensure that refuse disposal and the disposal of poisonous wastes is carried out by the major local authorities and that this needs considerable capital investment and technical skills.
It was the Government's view that this should be the responsibility of the new counties set up as a result of local government reform. We felt that as the old districts were about to end their period of operating these functions it 188 might be a difficult time to put new duties on them. We therefore announced last April that, in our view, the changes in legislation should take place to coincide with the new functions of the new counties resulting from local government reform. No newspaper or political party was critical of that view.
Following that announcement, the Royal Commission contacted us in July, saying that it felt that to wait until April, 1974, might be too long to wait to deal with this problem and that it would welcome the possibility of tackling it sooner. Immediately on receiving that information, I pointed out the considerations of the Government and suggested to the Royal Commission that it should meet officials of my Department and a Minister from my Department to discuss the possibility of taking action before April, 1974, or the advantages and disadvantages of leaving it until that date. A meeting took place in November, and the Royal Commission expressed the view that, in spite of the difficulties of the old districts operating these functions, it was desirable to take action prior to that date.
We considered the Royal Commission's views, and a letter was sent to it in January, before all the major publicity on toxic wastes, saying that, having had the discussion with it, we agreed with its view and that, as a result, we would prepare legislation for incorporation in the Local Government Bill to enable these functions to be handed immediately to the existing districts. My Department then prepared the appropriate new Clauses which would have to be added to the Bill.
When I made my statement on the Nuneaton affair the Opposition kindly suggested that they would help a special Bill. I was anxious to take advantage of this because it would mean that the Bill would reach the Statute Book before the local government proposals. I therefore welcome the basic unity of the House. A Measure such as this completely cuts across party boundaries, and I express my appreciation that the Opposition should have made available the opportunity of bringing this legislation into force in virtually a matter of days or weeks.
Dumping is a problem which has confronted us for a considerable time. Much 189 of the recent Press publicity has been concerned with cyanide and other chemicals which have been dumped over the years. I hope the public will realise that the stiffer penalties which we are introducing will apply from the time the Bill becomes an Act. Anyone who knows of dangerous products having been dumped in past years should immediately inform either the local authority or the police so that the dumping can be properly investigated and appropriate action taken. In that event we cannot enforce the penalties contained in the Bill, but we shall be able to take action to treat the chemicals if they are a threat to the welfare of the public or animals or to the water supplies.
I will not attempt to deal with all the provisions of the Bill, but I will draw attention to some of the more important ones. I will deal first with the nature of the new offences and the penalties. The offences outlined in the first three subsections of Clause 1 relate to depositing on land, or causing or permitting to be deposited on land, poisonous, noxious or polluting wastes in such circumstances as to cause material risk of death, injury or impairment of health to persons or animals, or so as to threaten the pollution of any surface or underground water supply. I cannot, of course, guarantee that these provisions will prove to be beyond argument, but their intention is clear.
About the penalties set out in Clause 1(5) there is no doubt—on summary conviction a fine of up to £400 and up to six months' imprisonment, or both; and on conviction on indictment up to five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both. One of the criticisms of legislation on which public authorities have had to rely in this field in the past has been the inadequacy of the maximum penalties, and the Bill puts this matter right.
In creating the offences which I have mentioned the Bill provides in Clause 1(4) that in assessing the degree of risk caused by an alleged offence regard shall be had to any measures taken to minimise the risk and the likelihood of waste being tampered with by children. Subsection (6) introduces statutory defences for those who dump wastes on instructions from employers or relying in good faith on information given to them by 190 others and for anyone who has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that no offence would be committed.
I hope that these provisions will reassure hon. Members who fear that we are introducing measures which are out of keeping with the needs of the situation. I hope also that those who fear that the Bill may let real culprits through its net will be reassured when I tell them that employers who "cause or permit" wastes to be deposited in contravention of the Bill will be liable to the penalties I have mentioned.
§ Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)
One of the problems in bringing prosecutions against illegal tipping is that witnesses can often identify a vehicle, its number and the firm owning it, but they cannot identify the driver, because the illegal tipping usually takes place at night. Does the Bill cover that difficulty?
§ Mr. Walker
In such circumstances the firm would be identified, and the directors and secretary of the company would be very much involved. They would know the person driving the vehicle and would also know whether he was aware of the nature of the load. I want to avoid the situation where a driver who is unaware of the dangers of his load is prosecuted; the people who should be prosecuted are his employers who gave him the instructions.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that most of the difficulty is caused by fly tippers, who operate without road tax, vehicle registration, or anything else. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about the public informing the police. I have informed the police on many occasions about things of this sort, and the police have told me they cannot do anything about it because it is so prevalent. What happens if the police refuse to take action?
§ Mr. Walker
I shall be dealing with this matter on later provisions, but I can say that it will be illegal to move loads of a dangerous type and without having previously informed the appropriate authorities three days previously. Vehicles carrying such loads, even if not caught tipping, will be taken as committing a serious offence under the provisions of the Bill. I am anxious that there should 191 be the maximum number of apprehensions of criminals under the Bill, and I hope that this will come about by means of these much more severe penalties. It may be that because in the past the penalties were only at a maximum of £100, the police have not brought prosecutions against fly tippers. The police may have felt that the penalty was hardly equivalent to the earnings of such an operator. However, it is to be hoped that in future the penalties will be of such proportions as to make this offence a very important crime indeed.
Clause 5 states specifically that where an offence committed by a body corporate is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance, or through any neglect, of a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer, he as well as the body corporate shall be liable to be proceeded against. Similarly, where the affairs of a body corporate are managed by its members, they will be liable.
Subsection (7) of Clause 1 is important in that it exempts from prosecution under the Clause any act of depositing wastes which is in accordance with any consent given under any enactment except these relating to town and country planning. An example of an exemption would be a disposal made in accordance with an authorisation issued under the Radioactive Substances Act, 1960, which already imposes a complete control over the disposal of radioactive waste. Another exemption is tipping operations permitted under some local Acts, which normally provide for withdrawal of consent by the authorities concerned where there is reason. On the other hand, the control exercisable under the Town and Country Planning Acts has proved inadequate to deal with the problem of industrial wastes. This inadequacy was commented on in the departmental report dealing with wastes and underlies its recommendations for a new comprehensive control.
In an interim measure of this kind where it has been necessary to take across-the-board powers, Clauses 2 and 3 set out the notification procedures which constitute the other main provision of the Bill. These procedures do not of themselves give local authorities or river authorities any new powers of control, and do not otherwise affect fundamentally 192 the operations of those concerned in waste disposal. They merely ensure that the authorities have full information about the nature and quantities of particular categories of waste being generated or disposed of in their areas, and the location of the premises and disposal sites in question, so that they can better carry out their proper functions of safeguarding public health and the purity of rivers and water supplies.
The provisions in the Bill concerning notification are necessarily complicated, but that does not mean that the procedure to be followed from day to day by those concerned is equally complicated. I hope that, following discussions with interested parties, it will be possible to issue a circular after the Bill becomes law setting out the obligations of each of the parties concerned and perhaps suggesting in simple terms the sort of procedure which might be followed.
The effects of the provisions of Clauses 2 and 3, which must be read as a whole, are briefly these. Anyone removing any poisonous, noxious or polluting waste, whether solid or liquid, must give notice, or ensure that someone else gives notice, at least three clear days beforehand to the authorities; that is to say, to the borough or district council and the river authority, and in Scotland the river purification board, both in the area from which the waste is to be removed and in the area in which it is to be deposited. He must also give a copy of the notice to the contractor or haulier, if he is engaging one, before the waste is removed.
In the majority of cases, this procedure should not prove as onerous as it may seem. Firms disposing of similar consignments regularly will be able to comply with the Bill by sending notices covering a number of weeks, provided that they are sent three clear days before the first load is dispatched. I envisage some sort of season ticket operation for the person who disposes day after day, without the necessity of a separate notice for each day.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the sending of a notice three days before a load is dispatched. Is it realistic to expect a meaningful assessment of what may be a complicated analysis in three days, three weeks, or even three months?
§ Mr. Walker
I believe that this is the correct way to proceed. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I put the opposite case. If we provided for three months' notice instead of three days', dangerous toxic wastes might be held at factory premises for three months, which could be equally dangerous to various people there. I want to create a procedure whereby in the interim period, with district authorities operating this, any authority which is in doubt can contact my Department immediately for expert advice. I shall make this clear to authorities in a circular. If it is of a size where it is not in doubt, there is no difficulty. After local government reform there will be no problem, because we shall be dealing with counties and metropolitan districts which will have the necessary staffs to deal with every type of case. But, in the interim, authorities which are in doubt about waste can contact my Department, which will give the best professional advice available.
Clause 7 (2) provides that the requirements concerning notification shall come into effect on a day appointed by order. My intention is that the provisions of Clause 1 concerning dumping of noxious substances in dangerous circumstances shall come into force as soon as the Bill becomes law, but that the notification procedures shall not be brought into effect until regulations are made under Clause 2(4).
These are regulations under which I may exempt from the notification procedure certain routine and harmless tipping operations by prescribing for this purpose wastes of certain descriptions deposited in a prescribed manner or by persons of a prescribed class, and so on. It will be my intention to exempt from this procedure as many activities as I can with safety.
The criterion must always be: is there a risk that the poisonous, noxious or polluting wastes in question could in the circumstances obtaining do any harm to persons or animals, or pollute or contaminate water? Each must be considered in the light of the technical advice available to me. I have in mind especially refuse from houses and other residential premises and from commercial or trade premises. In this connection, I shall have regard to the recommendations on the classification of refuse in the 194 Report of the Working Party on Refuse Collection which was published in 1967.
With regard to industrial wastes, I shall want to have regard to the wastes referred to on page 92 of the Report of the Technical Committee on the Disposal of Toxic Wastes as being suitable for exclusion from the authorisation procedure which it recommends. Wastes from the paper and board manufacturing and food processing industries may be suitable for exemption from the notification procedure, and I hope that discussions will take place with industry and others on how best these exemptions can be defined.
Perhaps I might give some assurances now to the farming community. Certain powers to exempt the disposal of wastes from the notification procedure have been proposed with agriculture, horticulture and forestry specifically in mind. Some farm wastes can quite safely, often with benefit, be applied to farm land even though they can create environmental hazards if disposed of elsewhere without proper precautions. Examples are slurry from livestock units and the liquors resulting from the preparation of silage.
Surplus quantities of agricultural chemicals used for the protection of crops and livestock are another problem with which a farmer has to deal. These pesticides are sold only for agricultural and forestry use after the Government are satisfied that they should give rise to no danger when used in the recommended manner. A farmer or a forester often has some of a chemical left over after his spraying operations are completed. Even though some of those chemical wastes are potentially dangerous in the concentrated form, they can quite safely be applied to farm land at the recommended concentrations. Indeed, this is one of the safe methods of disposal already recommended by my right hon. and hon. Friends the Agricultural Ministers.
I intend to use the powers under Clause 2(4)(a) to exempt these practices from the notification procedure. A requirement that they should be notified would not further the objectives of this Bill, and it could deter farmers, growers and foresters from getting rid of their surplus chemicals by such appropriate routes, possibly with the result that more partly-filled containers of pesticides that the farmer no longer requires would be retained indefinitely on the farm. This 195 would create unnecessary risks. I should add, and make it clear, that if a farmer wishes to dispose of surplus chemicals to a contractor or on a rubbish tip or elsewhere than on agricultural or forestry land the notification requirements would apply to him just as to anyone else.
The notices to be given under Clauses 2 and 3 must contain the information which is obviously required: the address of the premises from which the waste is to be removed and the land on which it is to be deposited and the name of the person who is to remove it. In addition, information must be given about the quantity of the waste and its nature and chemical composition.
Clause 2(7) makes provision for a relatively stiff fine for failing to give the required notices or for giving a false statement. This provision is qualified by the statutory defences available under subsection (8) to those who have acted in good faith but have nevertheless committed an offence relating to notices. I make no apology for the stiff penalties available where the notification requirements are defied. If local authorities and river authorities are to play an effective part in achieving improvements in the disposal of toxic wastes on land they must have the full and reliable information which the Bill aims to give them.
With regard to the penalties for an offence involving deliberate falsehood, it will be possible, where necessary, to take proceedings in serious cases on indictment under Section 5 of the Perjury Act, 1911, which relates to the making of false statements, even if not under oath, in any notice required by an Act of Parliament. The penalties provided under Section 5 of the 1911 Act are imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine, or both.
Local authorities are themselves required under Clause 4(3) to give notices to river authorities providing full information about wastes deposited on their own tips except where the materials or operations are exempted from this procedure under the regulations which I have mentioned. Local authorities are also required under Clause 4(4) to keep records of the description and quantities of wastes which are deposited in their areas and the places where the wastes are deposited. All this is essential if authorities 196 are to be able to exercise an effective vigilance over the deposit of toxic wastes in the areas for which they are responsible.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves this point, may I call his attention to paragraph 31 (a) of the Royal Commission's Report which asks the Government to prescribe thatwaste disposal contractors and manufacturing organisations who transport and dispose of their own toxic wastesshould be registered by county councils? Does he think that it will assist local authorities if they keep a register, as recommended by the Royal Commission, in addition to the powers which are being provided in the Bill?
§ Mr. Walker
I should certainly like to consider registration. When emergency legislation of this type is brought in very quickly, great problems can be caused by waiting to go through the process of careful checking whether firms are appropriate for registration or not. I shall have other opportunities for legislation, and before then I should like to discuss with local authorities and industry the possibility of getting some sensible system of registration about this.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Would the right hon. Gentleman help the House by giving some clue to his attitude about whether this record ought to be kept secret? At present a person who pours gallons of cyanide into a river can be fined £100, and yet an inspector with the Alkali Inspectorate can be sent to prison for three months for breathing a word of the details of the river effluent to a member of the public. That is ridiculous.
§ Mr. Walker
That is a different question from that of records and the disclosure of information. The fact is that unless the movement of dangerous waste is recorded beforehand with the authorities concerned, as a result of the Bill an offence will be created. As regards the movement of these waste materials, whatever site is concerned, unless a record is kept in the office and is sent to the local authorities and the river authority concerned, the industry concerned will be committing an offence. We are saying not that the records should be public but that copies of them should be sent to the authorities concerned before 197 the movement of the goods takes place. That is an important, stiff move which I comprehend the necessity to undertake.
If anyone dumps cyanide from now onwards, the penalty will be not a fine of £100 but imprisonment for five years. Unless he has given notice beforehand to the local authorities and the river authority which might be involved, he will commit a further offence as a result of the Bill. Thus, we are creating a situation in which a record of the movement of any of these goods will not just have to be kept but will have to be disclosed.
§ Mr. Walker
It will be sent to the local authorities and also to the river authorities. Both those important public institutions will be informed of all movements of goods.
§ Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)
The right hon. Gentleman has laid great stress on the effect on local government and river authorities, but fears could arise from the fact that a responsible company wants to dump materials in Silksworth mine, a disused mine outside Sunderland. It may be that the fear of the local residents is that the knowledge of the local authority people and the river authority is such that they cannot be certain that what could amount to a huge poison bottle underneath an area is safe. Can the right hon. Gentleman say where in the Bill one can find safeguards to allay the fears of local people by showing that it is safe to do that?
§ Mr. Walker
From April, 1974, we are putting on the new county authorities the responsibility for the disposal of waste. They will have the task of seeing that the disposal of waste in their areas is carried out in a safe manner and in accordance with the best scientific advice which they can obtain. I do not think there can be a better situation than that of a major authority saying that in its view it is safe to dispose of goods in a certain way at a certain location. If these authorities want additional advice, or feel that on a particular question their technical advice is not appropriate, my Department will give the best technical advice available to it. On all these questions 198 of waste disposal there will in future be both a major Government Department and major local authorities available to deal with them, rather than the present district authorities.
The reason why I originally suggested that we should wait for local government reform before bringing in this type of legislation was that at present I have to give this power to district authorities, and some are small districts which do not have the necessary expertise and technical advice available to them to enable them to do this job as thoroughly as we would like it done. That is why in the circular I shall make it known to the authorities that if they have any doubts I shall be only too willing to give every possible technical advice that is available to my Department.
Apart from our seeing that major local authorities supervise this job and have a basic power over it, if they wish to seek the advice of a major central Government Department they will be able to do so. One cannot go further than that in trying to ensure that toxic and dangerous waste is disposed of in the best possible manner.
§ Mr. Bagier
My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) and I have a particular problem over the pit I mentioned. Whatever problems a local authority has, if the Bill is passed will the whole weight of the Department's scientific knowledge be placed behind any decision about the safety of the local inhabitants?
§ Mr. Walker
Any decision by a local authority is that authority's decision, and no Government Department underwrites that decision. I am willing to make available to local authorities all the technical advice available to me about pollution. If the local authorities concerned in this case would like it, it will be available.
To those who wanted a Bill which imposed a new system of control over toxic waste disposal based on applications, consents and rights of appeal, I would point out that this would have meant a substantial administrative machine supported by the technical advice of chemists and geologists. With local government reorganisation only two years away, it is not possible to call 199 upon existing local authorities to undertake the work which this would entail. The Government came to the conclusion that the situation called for an interim measure which would be both simple and effective. I think that the Bill will meet this criterion. The penalties should deter anyone from wilfully putting fellow human beings at risk.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
The enforcement authority under Clause 4(1) is to be the local authority. Will my right hon. Friend's Department invite the local authorities to ensure that there is a regular pattern of prosecutions—the powers vary so much between summary and indictable offences—so that some counties do not get a reputation as weak prosecuting authorities, as is the case in some other sectors?
§ Mr. Walker
Under the Bill any member of the public, not just a local authority, can bring a prosecution. As to whether it should be on indictment or not, I hope that local authorities will assess the seriousness of the case. Many of the cases of which we have heard publicly recently have been of an incredibly criminal nature. Children's lives have been put at risk by irresponsible dumping either by fly tippers at night or by industrialists who knew this to be the case. The maximum penalties under the Bill should be brought to bear on these people. Therefore, any local authority with a case of this nature should try to see that the maximum penalties are imposed. It is only if local authorities do that that we shall get respect for this law.
The Bill will also enable local authorities to assess the size of the problem and plan a waste disposal strategy for the future.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I appreciate and support the emergency need for an immediate measure. Is my right hon. Friend considering anticipating this problem in future? Instead of going for a post hoc solution to all the various companies which have produced toxic waste, would it not be possible to require a company which wanted to purchase cyanide, for instance, to produce a certificate showing that it knew what would be done with the toxic waste?
§ Mr. Walker
I want to attain the most comprehensive system of control of dangerous materials on land, in water or in the air. We must first create the means of disposing of dangerous materials in all their forms and of monitoring them. It appears that we do not have this system. I inherited—this is no criticism of my predecessors, because all Governments continued this system—a situation in which a multitude of small authorities dealt with the disposal of refuse in all its forms. This was perfectly adequate to the sort of problems faced at the beginning of the century, but is totally inadequate to the problems which face it today. This is why under local government reform refuse disposal must be handled by major authorities with all the investment power that this necessitates.
We also lack the basic monitoring of the nature of the disposal of waste. Some of it is done by private enterprise firms and some by local authorities, and much of it has been done without anyone knowing how it has been done. We must build up a system to tell us what is being done with the waste. It must provide for the massive storing of information about toxic waste because in future anyone moving it will have to declare the fact three days before. We shall therefore build up a considerable knowledge of the movements of dangerous materials and how they are disposed of. I would hope this would enable us in subsequent legislation to provide an effective method of disposing and controlling these wastes.
This is a useful and interim measure. It brings the penalties up to what is required. It introduces a system which will provide my Department, myself and future Secretaries of State with a welter of information on this topic never before possessed by Government and will enable governments to deal with the problem in an even more comprehensive manner. It is in this spirit that I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 11.7 p.m.
§ Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)
On this side we appreciate very much the speed with which the Bill has been produced, and we hope we shall see it through during the course of this week. Politicians, whether in Government or not, are today often accused of being complacent 201 about the possible destruction of our environment. But unless something becomes so important in our judgment as politicians that we decide that action should be taken we take the advice of scientists, and for every scientist who says "Do something" at least half a dozen will say "Do nothing".
This is not the case with this Bill, and it is a little cheering to know that the House can act speedily not only in the case of war or in the case of an emergency but also in dealing with civil dangers that beset the nation when the environment is threatened.
But the very fact that the Bill is being dealt with so speedily is itself a source of danger. I hope I am not being churlish or ungraceful if I point out, as some hon. Members have done in interventions, some of the pitfalls that we should avoid. As the Secretary of State very fairly said, this is an interim measure, and this implies that the whole basis of the final effect will be looked at again soon. Can we have a little more detail when the Under-Secretary winds up of the legislation the Government have in hand for providing more permanent, more general, wider ranging measures for dealing with the whole problem of poisonous wastes?
It is essential that such a measure shall come forward as soon as possible and shall be as comprehensive as possible. I have no doubt that as this present interim measure develops and is shown to develop we shall see its mistakes. I do not criticise the Secretary of State for that. This is caused by the speed of bringing in the Bill and the inevitable urgency of the problem. I hope we shall have a chance to return to this and deal with it as soon as possible once we have learnt from the experience.
I go all the way with my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on the question of three days' notice. He seemed to be reasonably satisfied with the Secretary of State's answer. I am not quite so satisfied. To ask an authority, which may not have all the power or information necessary to deal with the situation, to get in touch with the Department to receive advice—and, first, to have been made aware of the problem—in three days is to understate the time needed. I do not go as 202 far as three months, and the Secretary of Slate's answer on that was powerful enough, but I believe that about seven days would be much more use to a local authority in that situation.
§ Mr. Charles Simeons (Luton)
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is not something new that will suddenly descend on local authorities? They all know what is going on anyway, or should know. All that the authority will do is to make it official, because it is seeing it happening unofficially.
§ Mr. Silkin
I wish I could say that, but I do not think I can, and I see that the Secretary of State agrees with me. We are dealing with a new problem. That is why we are taking these important measures to deal with it. Cyanide is in the minds of us all at this moment, but it will be something else tomorrow. That is the danger we face. Therefore, we might consider whether three days is a sufficient period. I do not want to be dogmatic about the matter or be churlish, but maybe seven days would be a little more help to a local authority in that connection.
I turn to the question of fines on summary conviction. I assume that the reason why the sum of £400 appears is that it is today's maximum for a fine on summary conviction. I do not professionally practice in the criminal courts, so I do not know.
§ Mr. Silkin
The hon. Gentleman is an expert in his field, so I bow to his knowledge. But if that is so, while £50,000 may not necessarily be excessive, the difference between that and £400 is very large. Consideration might be given to increasing the figure of £400, particularly in Clause 3(4), and I wonder whether the earlier figure in Clause 2(7) might not be increased. It would be interesting to know why what we all regard as so devastating a crime as to require emergency provision should carry a fine which is meaningless to most commercial companies of the kind likely to be involved.
203 My next point concerns Clause 4(2). I think that in this connection my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian meant to refer to the effect of Section 287 of the Public Health Act, 1936, with its provision of a maximum of three months' imprisonment for any official who gives away what may be called trade secrets. That is re-enacted in the Bill. It seems rather curious that a local government official is liable to go to prison for three months if he happens to tell someone outside the local authority what is trade information but also information connected with the disposal of harmful products, whereas someone who makes a statement that he knows to be false is liable to a maximum of £400.
§ Mr. Silkin
I find that a little odd. Clause 3(4) says:Any person who—
- (a) contravenes subsection (2) above, or
- (b) in a notice given for the purposes of that subsection, makes any statement which he knows to be false or does not believe to be true, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine of £400."
§ Mr. Peter Walker
It would not be under this legislation but under the Perjury Act, 1911. He could be prosecuted under that Act and be subject to two years' imprisonment.
§ Mr. Silkin
The Minister for Local Government and Development and I have become old friends again and again on the Local Government Bill. He will recall the case of Benjamin Franklin and his large cat and small cat and the two holes he put in his kitchen door to let them go out. If the Perjury Act contains much more than a £400 fine and/or two years' imprisonment, what is this £400 doing in the Bill? It seems to be extraordinary. Whether we are having two holes for two cats to get in or out, it seems extraordinary that the official secrecy in connection with something as dangerous as this should be still preserved—and preserved to the extent of sending the official to prison for a three-month maximum sentence if he breaks Section 287 of the Public Health Act and gives away trade secrets connected with effluent.
204 My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) made a very good point on the general subject of official secrecy. The Second Report of the Royal Commission only this week, in paragraphs 3 to 10, criticised the amount of official secrecy that exists, and, therefore, one would hope that records kept by a local authority could be available for public inspection. I see the point about the register. The right hon. Gentleman dealt fairly with that. This is something he hinted might be included, after discussion with the local authorities, in future legislation. But I do not see why records as such should not be available to the public. There are civically-minded local residents who would be able to see the point. They might have the knowledge of the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) of this sort of subject, and be able to sound the alarm before the danger becomes too great. I would have hoped that that, too, might be looked at.
I hope I have not appeared to be too critical. My aim, as it is the aim of all of us, is to try to block up as many holes as we can in this process to ensure that we produce the best possible legislation. I appreciate that this is interim legislation and that it will not deal with everything. There are so many things that we cannot foresee now. But we can make something better of the Bill, and again I say this in no spirit of criticism but trying to be constructive. I hope the Minister will be able to satisfy me that the Government have in mind a much more definitive method of dealing with the whole problem.
§ 11.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)
I should like to join in the general welcome of the Bill. It is not all-embracing of course, as it is something of a holding operation until more detailed legislation can be brought in, but it fills an important gap in our pollution defences.
I particularly welcome the more realistic approach to penalties. As you may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have had my differences with the Government in the past on this issue, notably about the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill, when some of us succeeded in persuading the Government to lift the fine from the maximum 205 of £5,000, which they proposed, to a maximum of £50,000 on summary conviction. The Bill provides for a maximum of only £400 on summary conviction, but I think that the distinction is justifiable. With dumping from ships, it is important to nab the culprit while he is within British jurisdiction, but under the Bill that sort of problem does not arise.
Even so, I raise the query whether in charges against companies, as distinct from individuals, there should not be some provision for automatically having a trial on indictment so that the greater fine—that is, the fine without limit, which is obviously more appropriate to a company than to an individual—may operate. I suggest that £400 to an individual is a great deal of money, but to most companies it is chicken feed. The wilful polluter is as dangerous to our society as the maniac who drives down the motorway in thick fog, and it is entirely appropriate that a prison sentence should be available to the courts in such cases.
However, I wonder how enthusiastic the courts will be about imposing such sentences. Personally, I find it difficult to envisage the day when we shall see the chairman of I.C.I., the chairman of Unilever and the chairman of R.T.Z. sharing a cell in Wormwood Scrubs. If that happened, I dare say that the treasurer of the Conservative Party would have something to say. Nevertheless, to have imprisonment in reserve is correct.
However, it comes down to how effective a fine will be as a deterrent to pollution offences of the kind we are ordaining in the Bill. There is no limit to the fine in cases tried on indictment, but it is a question of at what level the courts as a matter of custom will set the fine in practice. Perhaps Parliament should provide a minimum fine to guide the courts, to show them how seriously we regard such offences. At the moment fines are worth paying because of the savings possible as a result of a breach of the law. I have had instances in Bolton.
The Bolton Institute of Technology helps out with the control of effluent discharges into rivers, for example, and the experts there tell me that although they are always advising companies to do this, that, or the other, the companies say that it is so much cheaper simply to pay 206 the fines. Failure to comply with the pollution control orders can result in useful savings to a company, and, therefore, if a fine is to be meaningful, the minimum should in some way be related to the potential saving tempting the would-be polluter.
The Bill does not cover dumping at sea, only on land, which includes land covered by water, which I assume means things like gravel pits and flashes and so on. We have a voluntary system for dumping poisonous or other wastes at sea operated now by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I have long argued that as the pollution laws on land are tightened up, as witnessed by the Bill, there will be increasing pressure on waste disposal companies to use the sea. We have signed a convention on this subject in recent months relating to the North-East Atlantic, and I hope that it will not be too long before the Government are able to bring in a Bill to ratify that convention. Ideally, it would have been better if both Bills had been run in parallel.
§ Mr. Money
Would my hon. Friend agree that there is one other possible lacuna, which is tidal rivers, to which the Prevention of Pollution Act does not automatically apply and which could, therefore, be an ideal dumping ground for those inclined to dump a vast amount of waste in tidal rivers?
§ Mr. Reed
Yes, I would accept that. The Oslo Convention deals only with dumping of waste beyond territorial waters. Within national limits we need more sophisticated legislation.
In its Second Report the Royal Commission had this to say about dumping at sea:The Technical Committee"—that is, the Technical Committee on the Disposal of Toxic Solid Wastes—considered that there was some scope for expanding the practice of safe disposal at sea of certain toxic wastes. There may be a case for this, but in our view it is essential to have adequate safeguards and, in particular, we do not share the Technical Committee's confidence in the voluntary consent system operated by the appropriate Departments. We are glad that the Government expect a Convention to control dumping in the North East Atlantic area to be concluded by the countries concerned in the very near future and we hope that legislation to implement the Convention will be introduced as a matter of priority.207 I share the view expressed by my right hon. Friend that we must all participate in trying to enforce the legislation we are enacting. It is not just a question of the public health and other officials in various local authorities doing their job effectively. In my constituency there has been an examination of waste disposal dumps, and nothing very dangerous has been found, but I have taken the precaution of writing to the chief executive of my local authority telling him that at the present time—that is, between the introduction of the Bill and the time when it becomes law and, perhaps, the time before it can be effectively implemented—there will be a tremendous temptation on companies with solid and toxic wastes in their yards to get rid of them before the law is in force, and that now is the time for maximum vigilance.
When I say that I hope that the public will play their part in enforcing the law, I do not mean the sort of tactics envisaged by Mr. Peter Hain and his young Liberals. Disruptive tactics of the kind they propose are in no way helpful. Perhaps they would consider doing what I propose to do. I propose to buy a couple of shares in companies which are handling dangerous or difficult wastes and attend their annual general meetings and ask a few careful but pertinent questions as to how the companies are to dispose of their wastes. Although shareholders may not understand the subtleties or niceties of ecology, they will quickly understand any damage done to their own pockets.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), I give a general welcome to the Bill, which must be regarded as essentially an interim measure. I am pleased by the initiative taken by the Secretary of State. My right hon. and hon. Friends, in common with many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, look forward to the early introduction of further, extending legislation in order to take much fuller control of this very difficult situation.
I address myself first to the early remarks of the Secretary of State, when he referred to the indiscriminate dumping of toxic materials and called upon the public 208 to tender any evidence they may have, difficult as that may be, to the local authority, which has the primary responsibility under the Bill to deal with such a matter. Does that mean, in effect, that the Secretary of State is prepared to apply an amnesty to those people, primarily drivers, and employers who have been the instigators of deposits of this kind in the past, prior to the Bill becoming law? In the area in which I live, and around my constituency, in common with those of the majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends representing constituencies in the North, and as applies also to many coal-mining areas throughout the country, we are highly vulnerable to this kind of indiscriminate disposal of all kinds of materials if only because there is a proliferation of pit shafts, many of them unmarked and long-since forgotten, but nevertheless in the ownership of the National Coal Board. Such large holes in the ground are a big attraction to people who want to absolve themselves of any financial responsibility by disposing of wastes through them.
I suggest that having regard to the intensification of this kind of activity it may be to the advantage of the general public if the Government consult the National Coal Board in order to ensure that a complete survey is undertaken to ascertain where these long-disused shafts are located, so that the necessary steps can be taken to seal them, preferably with a thick bed of concrete, and positively to prevent any possibility of wastes being dumped there in the future.
I mention that particularly because in the Newcastle Journalover the weekend, in addition to a great deal of public attention being focused on this serious problem—a problem that has developed quite intensively over the last few months—an article appeared, headed "Midnight Cowboy's Warning", drawing particular attention to a colliery in Northumberland where suspicions have been aroused that this kind of dumping has been going on, to such an extent that a landowner has been warned not to allow tankers on his land after acid waste had been found dumped there.
I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, in the hope that something tangible is done, that prevention is better than cure, and that remedial 209 measures should be introduced to ensure that these holes—including long-forgotten wells—are covered.
The Bill is welcome if only because it extends the penalties which can be imposed upon people who do not comply with the law. A fine of £400 may not be sufficient to deter people, even though once the Bill becomes law people may think much more seriously before engaging in this activity. The fine could be much more prohibitive if it were larger.
I crave the indulgence of the House in passing quickly on to another item of constituency interest. The Bill makes new provisions for dumping on a much more legalised basis than hitherto, and local authorities will have some difficulty in finding suitable places upon which to dump toxic material. I am sure that my local government colleagues in Sunderland—and when I say that, I refer to Sunderland as a county borough under the existing system of local government; it may be that after the local elections in a few weeks' time the present Conservative-controlled authority will become a Labour-controlled authority—
§ The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page) indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Urwin
The Minister shakes his head; he has a disappointment coming to him.
Whichever political party operates in local government the problems will be the same. The Secretary of State will recall receiving a letter from me last week expressing deep concern about the proposal to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) has already referred in his two interventions in the Minister's speech. It is a proposal by, I understand, a firm of disposal experts, Effluent Disposal Limited, which operates a scheme of disposal in a disused mine in Walsall, Staffordshire. A similar proposal has been made by this firm to dispose of between 10 and 20 million gallons of chemical waste sludge, including cyanide, in a pit in my constituency, the Silksworth colliery, which has been closed since November last year. The pit is very dry and is considered to be wholly suitable for the purpose for which this firm wishes to use it.
210 Needless to say, the thought of the disposal of such large quantities of toxic material, even though it will be 2,000 ft. underground, has aroused a considerable amount of public criticism as well as concern in a heavily built-up area. The pit comprises 7¾ miles of underground workings and runs extensively under the heavily populated town of Sunderland as well as under the surrounding area of the Silksworth colliery.
Clause 1(3) provides thatwhere waste is deposited in containers, this shall not of itself be taken to exclude any risk which might be expected to arise if the waste were not in containers".That makes very good sense. I am sure that the Secretary of State appreciates that, even though this material will be 2,000 ft. underground and, therefore apparently safe for all time, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that that would be so because there are movements in coal mines and movements involving falls of stone. Even though this colliery would be required, if only by the National Coal Board, to be maintained in a safe condition, especially after this material has been deposited, one cannot fully control the geological forces once they begin to work.
One can therefore fully understand the very deep concern which has been expressed, leading to the formation of a so-called action group in this area to wage war on the proposal. A very heavy burden of responsibility devolves upon the Secretary of State and his colleagues to ensure that before this material is deposited there is no possibility of leakage into water supplies and rivers, thus creating not only environmental pollution but a serious hazard to the 200,000 or 300,000 people in this area. There is considerable doubt about the wisdom of taking this action.
The Secretary of State has spoken about the responsibilities of the local authority. An interesting question arises. If it is deemed that planning permission is required in such cases as this, the local authority, even if it were in support of the scheme, would have to depend entirely on the good will of, in this instance, the National Coal Board or any other landowner on whose land it sought to deposit waste. The position is not clear from the Bill. I believe that 211 in this instance the National Coal Board is in agreement with the proposal.
Because a precedent has been established at Walsall in Staffordshire, and as we now have this second and presumably only other known application for the use of a colliery for this purpose, it seems to me that this is the beginning of the establishment of what could well be a national policy. I am justified in drawing attention to the consequential problems which flow from the decision, and that is why I asked the Secretary of State in my letter last week to exercise as far as possible personal supervision over this application against the background I have outlined.
Indicative of the deep concern expressed by the man-in-the-street and by experts are the television discussions, question and answer sessions and articles and letters in the correspondence columns of the local Press. I ask the indulgence of the House to quote from an interview which was conducted on 1st March on the B.B.C. Northern Region News with Dr. Hooper, who reads pharmaceutical chemistry in Sunderland Polytechnic. He was asked whether any danger would arise from the dumping of cyanide in Silksworth colliery. The expert replied:I think there must be. Unless cast-iron guarantees can be given that this could not happen, I would not be happy, and I would question the whole philosophy that if you take toxic material and put it in a large hole in the ground this is the best way of dealing with it. We have the technology, we have the scientific knowledge and ability to render this material non-toxic.He was asked whether we could do this, and he replied:Yes, I think we can. I think the only question is that of cost and then it becomes a matter of Government and social priorities. Do we value cheap economic processes more than we value the exposure of people's lives to very serious chemical hazards?There may be no risk to people's lives, there may be no chemical hazard, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look more closely into this matter. He has assured my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South that if necessary the resources of his Department can be made available to ensure complete satisfaction.
Has the Minister estimated the cost of rendering such toxic materials safe and non-toxic for all time? Has he 212 estimated the cost of conducting extensive and intensive technological research into converting the materials for re-use? In conjunction with the Bill, what research is being done?
§ Mr. Bagier
Does not my hon. Friend agree that the point he is making at length is one of scale? We should like to have from the Minister an acknowledgment that the scale of the dumping which is being suggested at Silksworth requires more than local authority examination, it requires examination at ministerial level.
§ Mr. Urwin
I accept the point made by my hon. Friend, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has noted it. Bearing in mind that the pit was closed only in November and the possibility that there may be a demand for coal to make a greater contribution to our energy requirements, will the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry ensure that nothing in the proposal will prevent the re-opening of the colliery in the circumstances to which I have referred?
§ 11.45 p.m.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)
The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) raised a matter of great importance, to which I shall refer in a moment.
However, at the outset I should like to say, as I indicated in the debate on 3rd March, that the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors warmly welcomes the Government's resolve to strengthen the law on the disposal of industrial wastes. Nevertheless, it is true to say that responsible elements in the industry do not think the Bill goes far enough. Clearly beyond this interim measure, which is designed to meet a purely emergency situation, we shall need a far-reaching and comprehensive law to deal with the whole question of the disposal of all forms of waste.
I have no complaint to make about the penalties prescribed in the Bill, but I feel that the idea of imprisonment may well be unworkable for two reasons. I say this, first, because of the difficulty of defining the responsible person in a corporation; and, secondly, because the Bill does not include a list of the materials 213 which are poisonous, noxious or polluting and the presence of which is liable to give rise to an environmental hazard. Because the Bill is not precise on those two aspects, the courts may well require much more guidance before giving prison sentences. If this guidance cannot be given now, it seems to be wrong to put this provision in the Bill, and I believe that it should be deleted. I know that my right hon. Friend has power to exempt materials, but if at a later stage he wishes to make regulations to prescribe specific dangerous wastes I am sure the House will give him full support.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
It is not possible to accept either of my hon. Friend's suggestions. On his first point about the difficulty of defining the responsible officer, I assure him that there is plenty of legislation in force at present where the same considerations would apply and where officers of corporate companies are imprisoned. Therefore, there is no difficulty on that point. As for my hon. Friend's suggestion that the Government should act only in regard to certain specified wastes, I would point out that we all know that in chemistry one has only to mix a couple of chemicals to get a new product, which product could be substituted for another. One would only have to mix in another chemical and the whole purpose of a list would be lost. We have to satisfy ourselves that a chemical product is or is not dangerous. If it is dangerous, the offenders may face imprisonment.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I am grateful for those assurances, and we shall wait to see how these provisions work out.
I am not particularly happy with the provisions relating to documentation of wastes. The National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors has told me that it considers that all manufacturing concerns and any others with wastes to dispose of should be required to file an annual return of all wastes produced, showing what has happened to those wastes. Failure to make such returns should attract penalties. We must remember that there are unscrupulous originators of waste who dump it on their own land or hire an equally unscrupulous lorry driver to dump it at some remote spot at night. Every person concerned 214 in such a process must be made accountable.
I come to the point which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring. It was a point of great substance, and I do not know whether it is covered by the Bill. I am told that there are 50,000 mine shafts in Britain, the majority of which are on private property, Some are on factory premises. An annual return of waste produced, which I have suggested should be made mandatory on all manufacturing industry, would reveal whether these were being used and where they were. I am certain that the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring is right. I am told that many chemists and geologists hold that the use of mine shafts for the disposal of toxic wastes should be prohibited because if contamination of acquifers should take place subsequently, very little could be done to remedy the matter. We do not know enough about the risks. It would be possible, I suppose, to provide some sort of seal by using certain waste materials and mixing them with cement; but what would be the cost, and how long would it take to organise such an expensive operation?
It may occasion some surprise, there fore, to hon. Members to learn that there are moves afoot to extend the use of old mine workings for the disposal of toxic materials. Indeed, there is a planning application currently being considered to use a pit in the North-East, the property of the National Coal Board, for the disposal of a wide range of toxic materials. Indeed, it may be the very case to which the hon. Gentleman referred—
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I understand that it is even suggested that highly toxic materials in drums should be stored in the galleries and passages underground. I suggest seriously to my right hon. Friend that until a great deal more is known about the effects of depositing toxic materials underground the use of mine shafts should be discouraged, if not actually prohibited.
In my view it is a great pity that the opportunity is not being taken with this Bill to provide that certain dangerous wastes should be treated in ways which 215 are safe and specific. My right hon. Friend dismissed this point quickly at the beginning of my remarks. Public opinion about the dumping of cyanide has been expressed volubly, and I suggest that we should take note of it. We all know, for example, that cyanide can be made harmless by oxidisation. However, because cyanide will decompose in the ground, it can still be buried in suitable sites and this will be lawful under the Bill. But is that what people want? Is that what this House wants? I do not think so.
People who address their minds to this subject want to see a cessation of the practice of dumping cyanide and similar dangerous materials untreated and so do responsible elements in the waste disposal industry. Let me correct one misconception which was alleged in the Press, and, I believe, on radio, that there is only one plant in Britain capable of treating cyanide. That is not true. There are several such plants, though, unhappily, they are not used to the full by industry. Moreover, despite the under-utilisation of existing facilities, there are companies which are prepared to invest in treatment plants, and these plants will ensure destruction by incineration or by chemical treatment. But there is no inducement for those methods of disposal which are complete and safe, to be used, if such materials can continue to be deposited in the ground.
I welcome the provision in Clause 2 for the notification of dangerous wastes to local authorities. But I see that in the final analysis it is the river authority which is the sole arbiter. In the absence of a plan which relates the need to protect our water resources with the need of industry to dispose of its wastes, I fear that real difficulties will arise. Whether we like it or not, industry has to dispose of its wastes, and it is creating more and sophisticated wastes all the time.
I should like to know about the manufacturer who according to my right hon. Friend is prepared to doctor his waste to change its nature. The trouble with many manufacturers is that they are not taking enough care and trouble with their wastes. Some of them, particularly the smaller firms, have been content to allow somebody to take the waste away, provided 216 that it could be got safely off the premises. The greater part of our industrial waste must go to land burial on approved sites and under controlled conditions. Yet the river authorities have no mandate to consider the needs of industry, though I commend the wise views of the chairman of the Severn River Authority which appeared in the Daily Telegrapha few days ago on the need for a national network of disposal sites for hazardous materials. Surely, there should be some quasi-governmental authority to ensure that sufficient disposal sites in the right places are provided to satisfy industry's requirements. The Bill does nothing in this regard.
There is, therefore, a dire need for more properly controlled sites. Planning authorities should take a more realistic view than they have been taking. They should take account of the fact that if more authorised sites are not provided materials will go to unauthorised sites. Inevitably this means that some planning applications for sites which have been rejected should be urgently reconsidered.
I have in mind one planning application in the Midlands which proposed the building of a waste treatment complex, including cyanide oxidation, on the site of an old brickworks which had closed down. It was rejected mainly on the ground of amenity. Yet the site concerned is located in the centre of the area of the recent cyanide controversy. Had the application been granted and the plant built, industry in that area would have had the opportunity to send its waste there for treatment instead of dumping it.
There is a real danger, therefore, that some firms will have to stop production on the day that the Bill comes into force unless more disposal sites are provided immediately or, alternatively, some moratorium is declared. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider these points, which come from those who are engaged in the day-to-day operation of waste disposal.
We all seek the same end: to steer industry towards a more responsible and safer method of disposing of dangerous and toxic materials. However, it is not sufficient to penalise. The means must be provided to enable industry to act in a responsible way.
Equally, disposal contractors who have already invested heavily in plant capable 217 of destroying dangerous waste which, is not full used by industry at the moment, should be encouraged to invest in further plant. But the Government must be more specific than they have been about how certain dangerous wastes are to be treated. I am not presuming to say what my right hon. Friend's regulations should contain but if he means to treat the problem seriously, known dangerous and toxic materials must be named and the methods of treatment must be prescribed. Having said that, if the Bill does not go far enough, at least it is a step in the right direction and I give it my full support.
§ 12 midnight.
§ Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)
I think that the Secretary of State is doing an extremely efficient job to bring forward legislation which is receiving general approval, and in leaving the political dirty work to the Local Government and Housing Ministers in Committees upstairs.
The Bill is extremely necessary, but I think there is an air of euphoria about the debate. The right hon. Gentleman said that this problem had been growing for some time, but, in fact, it has been with us ever since the Industrial Revolution began and was a great deal worse in byegone ages, when nitric acid poured out and devastated the whole countryside. It is really that we have become much more aware of it, much more conscious that something should be done, and much more aware of the insidious dangers which hitherto have been masked in society.
We welcome the Bill, but there are one or two things which seem to be unsatisfactory. There is the question of public disclosure, which was raised earlier. There seems to be no valid reason why interested members of the public, often with specialist knowledge of their local areas and environment, should not have access to public records in this respect.
Secondly, there is the question of bringing prosecutions. It is no good saying that if a local authority will not act, then an individual may do so, because if the parallel of the Trade Descriptions Act is considered one realises that if a local weights and measures inspector refuses to act in respect of an alleged infringement, it is no good saying that 218 an individual member of the public can apply to the magistrates. What chance is there that any result will come from that, even if the private individual could sustain a possible finding against him and the incurring of costs?
A number of hon. Members have said that the Bill is extremely necessary, but it is recognised that it is a short-term response to a serious situation, and I should not like to think that when we look back on this debate in years to come, and when we think about the legislation which is subsequently passed, we shall regret that a little more foresight was not given to what we were doing in this respect.
I grant that the Secretary of State has to act quickly, and I welcome the Bill as far as it goes, but it seems that the arguments put forward from both sides of the House point inexorably in one direction. It has been said by the Secretary of State himself that waste disposal is a function of major local authorities; that they must have responsibility in their own areas for disposal, using the most scientific information and means.
That seems to point towards the fact that we should be thinking in terms not simply of letting local authorities do this work but of having a public authority available specifically to dispose of noxious waste. If such an authority were established, it could do this job free of charge, because it would then become unprofitable and unproductive for the "cowboys" or the "midnight operators" to work.
The system would have to be paid for. Ideally, it could be met by a tax on toxic materials or on the products or processes which generate toxic waste. That tax would deter the use of such materials or processes. Firms already acting in a responsible manner in this respect would hardly be affected. It is true that they might make some contribution towards the new authority, but in return they would get free disposal of their waste.
People who are now acting irresponsibly would have to pay the tax, and there would be no further incentive to try to get rid of waste cheaply by using these fly-by-night contractors who we have heard are so difficult to identify. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) drew attention 219 to the great difficulties in pinning down the responsibility for this.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
I went further than that and said that even when one gives chapter and verse and names and addresses and even points them out to the police, they refuse to act. That is what happened to me.
§ Mr. Cocks
I am obliged to my hon. Friend.
There is no further place for these people on the picture if the local authorities are prepared to dispose of the waste for nothing. The more irresponsible a firm is in disposing of its waste, the greater the competitive edge that it has over its legitimately-behaving rivals. This is an abuse which we should do our best to correct.
It might be said that firms which had to pay for waste disposal had an incentive to reduce the amount of waste generated—sometimes by extracting things which can be reprocessed and sometimes by creating by-products. A public authority dealing with a large amount of waste might be encouraged to do research into the development of by-products.
I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would seriously consider such an idea. It is recognised now that the disposal of household refuse is a public service. Eventually we shall have to realise that the disposal of these highly dangerous materials in itself will be a public service. The amenity benefits of doing this will far outweigh the physical cost, so it might be financed out of general taxation. If we do not act clearly and radically and produce some legislation which can be seen to be working, I am afraid that the environmentalists will have a field day.
We can get obsessed with our worry about pollution. When I sat on a Private Bill Committee considering a reservoir scheme, we were told that water was polluted with kaolin, and we were expected to wring our hands in horror. But practically all our food is eaten off kaolin ware, and the internal application of kaolin is a cure in certain conditions. We must keep a balance. We welcome the Bill and will expedite it, but let us think in the long term of taking this matter out of the hands of private exploitation 220 and giving it to a public authority. The more efficient and honourable a firm, the greater the benefits it will get.
§ 12.8 a.m.
§ Mr. Charles Simeons (Luton)
The Bill deals with the deliberate dumping of waste. Would my right hon. Friend also consider the accidental dumping of waste, which sometimes amounts to gross negligence? At present it is not compulsory to build bund walls around tanks filled with corrosive liquids. These are allowed to rust through if the owners are negligent, and rivers become contaminated. I should like this made compulsory in the Bill.
It should also be compulsory that no hose couplings are used between tanks and permanent pipelines. These always go on a Saturday, when the fellow who looks after them is away, and on the Sunday or Monday one sees fish floating upside down in the river. I should also like those responsible for looking after these liquids nominated as responsible if any catastrophes occur. This can all be stopped: it is just that no one bothers. If one is given planning permission one has to have a bund wall, but some of these tanks were installed before planning permissions were required.
I hope that the Secretary of State will also consider cars which are dumped with full petrol tanks. A local newspaper in my constituency has shown photographs of children who have been burned. This is just as bad as cyanide. Children can be killed. This is simply criminal. This dumping should stop. But at the same time local authorities must make proper provision for these cars to be recovered. These cars also present a problem in that they are unstable. Children get under them and are hurt. If the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) is concerned about the prison sentences, let me once again state my remedy. Put the persons concerned in the stocks in Parliament Square—no trial, nothing. They will not do it again.
I ask the Secretary of State to look at Clause 1(7) and consider whether prisons, hospitals and the Ministry of Defence, which are, I believe, immune concerning discharges to sewage works and rivers, also become immune under the Bill. I do not have a bloodthirsty longing to see 221 my hon. Friends the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretary of State for Defence sitting side by side in prison, but I see no reason why they should be immune.
I also ask that the definition of "waste" be considered. Waste may be something for which one process has no further use and it is, therefore, dumped. On another occasion it may provide raw material for another process so that it is not a waste. I would hate the Bill to become a lawyers' paradise in that respect.
§ 12.7 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons) because he has touched on one of the points I wish to raise. It concerns the dumping of old vehicles.
Some of these cars, lorries and other vehicles, may be dangerous. In my constituency six schoolchildren have been blown up, maimed for life by them. Why has the Secretary of State brought in a Bill which we all support, and which some think should have stiffer penalties, which does not deal with the problem because he says that there are difficulties of definition or other difficulties in dealing with people who dump these vehicles? Every day hundreds of thousands of them are left or the roads, sometimes in a dangerous position and sometimes causing injury to children.
The Secretary of State said that he has appealed to the public to come forward to help. Hundreds of thousands of people have consistently come forward to help on this matter. When they go to the police station to ask for action they are given a number of replies. They are told that the police are undermanned; they are told that the police are overworked; or they are told that the problem is so prevalent that nothing can be done about it.
Only last week I told the police station at Hornsey that a car with an Irish registration was parked on a bend in Wight-man Road, Hornsey. I said it had been parked there for many months, was now derelict, and there was stuff in the back. I do not know whether it was cyanide or even a bomb. One would have thought that a car with an Irish registration would be worth examining. The car was still there this morning, and I assume 222 that when I go home tonight it will still be there. It is a danger on the road. Of course, toxic wastes are dangerous. But what is the good of the public taking the Minister's advice and reporting such hazards if no action is taken? It is good to have legislation, but what is the point of it if the right hon. Gentleman will not do anything to see that the law is enforced?
I agree with the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine). There are difficulties in stating by regulation the various dangerous substances covered, and the Minister is right to point out that perhaps every day of the week new ones come on the market. But that does not preclude him from stating by regulation those which are already known. From time to time he could add to the list.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
Plenty of waste disposal contractors would very much like a list of specific items. That would ease their problems considerably. I am putting a much greater onus on them. I am saying that they are responsible if they dump any waste that proves to be dangerous, which is much tougher than giving them a list of substances and saying "You are guilty if you dump this and not guilty if you dump anything else." I know that the hon. Gentleman wants tough measures, and he may be sure that those are much tougher.
§ Mr. Lewis
I appreciate that, but the right hon. Gentleman could still have a general list and then mention additional substances as they come along. I should like to see in the Bill a method of trying to prevent the problem before it arises. I cannot see why there cannot be a system of registration at the time of manufacture and sale of such substances, with a cash payment on return of some of them. If I went to a chemist in Piccadilly Circus now I could buy certain substances which would not do me much harm and would perhaps ease some pain, but I should need a prescription. Yet people can buy large quantities of cyanide without any certificate of authorisation. Why should not such substances be supplied only on a certificate of authorisation, with a duplicate going to the local authority? To use the hon. Member for Essex, South-East as an example, if he wanted to buy a ton of cyanide from 223 I.C.I, he would have to obtain a certificate, and there would automatically be notification to the local authority.
Moreover, I believe there are methods whereby such substances can be re-used. Why should not there be a repayment for quantities returned to the manufacturer?
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the valuable support he is giving to my argument. I am sure he appreciates that the reason for asking that dangerous materials should be specified is that the next stage should also be laid down—namely, that we should prescribe the safest and best method of disposing of such materials, in the absence of which they will be disposed of on the cheapest possible sites.
§ Mr. Lewis
I was coming to the disposal issue, because I am suggesting that we could have a system of cash on return. As a boy, I used to collect bottles and get a penny or two pence on return, and it worked very well. Could there not be a system whereby cyanide barrels, for example, were returned for cash?
I am not happy about providing dumping sites. I would rather see destruction of these materials if this can be done. My objection is that all these dumping sites seem to be in working class areas; they are never in Parliament Square, for example, or in the salubrious areas of the West End. They are in areas like mine, where, as one of the worst bombed boroughs, we still have a lot of bombed sites which have not yet been cleared up and where every night of the week—it is always after dark—anything and everything is dumped. It is not only toxic waste; all sorts of other things are dumped, such as old bedsteads, bricks, and so on. It is not pleasant to have that sort of thing going on next door to one's home, with no one doing anything about it. That is why I am not happy about waste dumping sites and would rather see a system of destruction, with the material returned to the manufacturers under a licensing system.
The right hon. Gentleman said he would like the public to help, and that 224 would be a very good thing. Regularly on television we have appeals to the public to pay their television licences; we also have regular party political broadcasts. I have never seen the right hon. Gentleman going on television and appealing for public help in this matter by reporting to the authorities if they see this sort of thing going on.
§ Mr. Lewis
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has done it regularly. If he is too busy, perhaps someone else from his Department could do it. It is, after all, a matter of saving life.
A number of hon. Members on both sides would like the Bill strengthened, and I hope that in Committee the right hon. Gentleman will be generous in accepting Amendments to that end. This is, after all, a non-party issue. The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons), for example, has mentioned strengthening the description of waste and what might be dangerous. If the right hon. Gentleman were to agree to accept as many strengthening Amendments as possible in Committee, he would find that on the remaining stages there would not have to be a debate on a Bill which, despite the welcome given to it, has now taken up two hours of time on Second Reading.
§ 12.25 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones (Northants, South)
I go somewhat further than welcoming the Bill, for I think that the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on having produced the Bill and persuading his colleagues in the Government to find legislative time for it. I think that we are using that time to good purpose this evening, and I congratulate him on the prompt reaction to the serious disclosures of irresponsible dumping which we have had in recent weeks, when they have been highlighted by particular incidents.
The total extent of dumping involved is remarkable. The Sumner Committee estimated that, including demolition contractors' materials, it was about 20 million tons a year, and the Key Committee, which drew on a partial survey by the Confederation of British Industry, gave a figure of about 200,000 tons of toxic materials a year to be disposed of. 225 The two figures are material in every sense and give some idea of the magnitude of the problem.
Disposal procedures have to be organised, but I share some of the reservations already expressed. The approach is clearly prescriptive on the part of those who have to dispose of toxic wastes. The method of advising local authorities and river authorities of the dumping proposed should be considered in terms of the various facilities which local authorities must be able to offer those who require to dump materials. I can see circumstances in which non-dangerous materials of one character should be put obviously and suitably in one location and other types of material in another location, for all sorts of good reasons, including those associated with the environment. Is it proposed, by means of a circular or recommendations, that local authorities should adopt a positive rôle in this respect?
There must be considerable guidance to local authorities, and, although it is not proposed in the Bill, should they not have sanction powers to require certain materials to be dumped in certain locations, rather than using general dumps for all purposes? I am thinking not only of the dangers from toxic materials, but the dangers to water supplies and underground water supplies and strata problems.
I greatly welcome what the Secretary of State said about the high level of technical expertise required to ensure sensible procedures for dumping and disposal.
§ Mr. Jones
I do not know whether I would agree that it is the greatest possible danger, which is the superlative. However, I advocate dumping different materials in different locations, which may be a way to overcome the problem, and giving local authorities some method of sanctions.
My right hon. Friend emphasised the highly technical nature of adequate procedures 226 for disposal. Very often, local authorities will be unable to carry qualified staff to deal with problems. For that reason, I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance about the availability of that service.
Industry must dispose of its wastes of all sorts. I support the view that industry must meet the costs of disposal. I disagree with the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks), who said that it should be a general service. It is better that it should be particular to an industry. Each industry should be required to meet the cost of disposal of its residues, adding that expense to its overall production costs.
We shall require much more careful supervision of dumping sites. This will be costly. I hope that guidance will be given to local authorities that this will not be just an addition to the rate precept but that costs will be levied against industries wishing to dump.
Referring to Clause 3, the Secretary of State mentioned that we shall need streamlined procedures and general types of application of the restrictions rather than application to individual cases. Here again, there must be substantial guidance to the public, to industry and to authorities responsible for supervision.
I congratulate again my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We would all wish to give a fair wind to this Measure.
§ 12.32 a.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)
On behalf of my constituents, who, as the Secretary of State particularly knows, were grievously affected by one of these dumping incidents, I express my gratitude for the speed with which the right hon. Gentleman has acted in introducing this legislation. I noted that he said that it was intended to be an interim measure. It is because it is an interim measure that it commands the support of myself and my constituents. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin), I represent a coal mining area. My constituency is still pock-marked with old quarries and mine shafts. Such areas become particularly vulnerable to the activities of fly-by-night operators. Those of us who represent such areas perceive that this kind of thing could increase unless the fines are raised.
227 In the debate on environmental pollution initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Walter Johnson) I said that I was concerned lest the whole emphasis of any legislation might be put solely on the tipper operators. As a rather generalised criticism of the Bill, I believe that it places too much emphasis on those who dispose and not enough on those who supply and manufacture. I accept that the tipper operators particularly play a very important rôle in the disposal of toxic wastes. The findings of the Key Committee lay great stress on the fact that 96 per cent. of toxic wastes are disposed of by some kind of tipper operator. In other words, it is most important that we concentrate a great deal of attention on the activities of those who dispose of toxic wastes. But it is also important to note that the Key Committee stressed that it appears that local authorities do no play a particularly significant rôle in the disposal of toxic wastes. It is because local authorities have not been especially avant guardein playing a rôle of greater foresight in the disposal of these wastes that companies such as the one represented by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine)—I mean no disrespect to him personally—have come to the fore, simply because the public sector has not expanded significantly in the disposal of these kinds of wastes.
Therefore, although I find it appropriate that the Bill should concentrate attention on the disposal of toxic wastes, I only hope that in the legislation which must ultimately come from the Secretary of State we shall spread the net back along the productive process so as more successfully to enmesh the user of dangerous chemicals, together with the producers and suppliers.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) said, with any kind of Bill like this we are left with the difficult problem of enforcement. I recognise that there has been some mention of dispute about the interpretation of the penalties and fines Clauses, but it still seems to me that, although we may dispute the size of fine that will be most appropriate to these activities, we shall still have some tremendous enforcement problems because 228 we are dealing with people who operate mainly by night—people who often do not have the appropriate licences for their lorries, or may tip a load because they are unemployed or can get hold of a lorry. They are the category of operator—the fly-by-night minority—which has unfortunately characterised the road haulage industry. I recognise that it is appropriate at this stage to concentrate on disposal, but there remains the problem of enforcement.
I have been in consultation with the town clerk of the Borough of Nuneaton and many people in my constituency who are concerned with the incident that happened there. I make no bones about the fact that many of my comments this evening—short though I hope they will be—will be influenced by some of the local knowledge that I have gathered. I wonder particularly about the most appropriate definition to give poisonous wastes. It seems to me that, although in Clause 1 (3) we have gone a long way to making the definition as comprehensive as possible, we might have gone even further and been more general by specifying that anything which can be conducive to a public health nuisance, or can ultimately cause a public health nuisance, should be included in the category referred to in Clause 1.
Although the Secretary of State has done his best to make the definition as comprehensive as possible, I am still afraid that in trying to be specific and comprehensive he will allow some substances and some dumpings to get through the net. I should have liked to see an all-embracing definition of harmful wastes, but I recognise that that is a Committee point.
The main burden of my remarks has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes), and is contained in the recent report of the Royal Commission. I would have thought that one of the most appropriate ways to deal with this problem—if not in this Bill, certainly in the long term—would be to enable local authorities to register these activities. At the moment if a person stores ice cream the local authority must be told about it; if a person stores sausages the local authority must be told about it; if he handles poisonous substances the local authority or the inspectorate must be told about it 229 —but it seems that there is still no provision for a continuous system of registration over these chemicals to be exercised by local authorities. I should like to see within the terms of the Bill a system whereby the public health inspectorate must be notified before the process starts. The health departments of the new county councils, or whoever it may be, can exercise a continuous surveillance and a monitoring of the activities of people who are manufacturing or using these dangerous chemicals.
If we have to notify the local authority if we are dealing in scrap metal or ice cream we should at least have a system of continuous registration and monitoring by local authorities in relation to toxic wastes. By this means we would enable local authorities to be in at the start instead of finding out when it is too late. I should like local authorities to be able to keep records from the outset. Local councillors should have easy access to the records, together with members of the public and civic amenity societies, which, fortunately, are increasing in number.
The other serious omission from the Bill is that there is no provision for compensating local authorities. I do not think it is generally known, but the disposal of 36 cwt. of cyanide cost the ratepayers of Nuneaton £664. There is no provision in the Bill for the ratepayers or Borough of Nuneaton to be compensated. It was only because the borough acted so speedily that the cost did not escalate. The borough was involved in a cost of about £100 for hauling the material away and more than £500 for treating it. There should be some system of compensating local authorities for bearing the burdens which they will increasingly have to bear under the legislation.
§ Mr. Laurance Reed
Would it not be possible for the hon. Gentleman's local authority to charge for the disposal of the material—particularly as the Bill will put a duty on the people disposing of material to take special care?
§ Mr. Leslie Huckfield
I am grateful for that intervention. What the hon. Gentleman suggests would be considerably easier if the people responsible could be found.
Though we seem to have devised a fairly comprehensive system for the notification 230 to river authorities and local authorities of the transport of these materials, there is still no clear provision about drivers having to carry weigh bills. Speaking as a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union and a former lorry driver, one of the things that I always had to be careful about was that I had my "tickets" with me. Since other people will have to carry a sheaf of records and people who did not formerly employ secretaries will have to employ them in future, I should have thought that in the Statutory Instruments made under the Bill there should be a clear specification of what the weigh bill carried by the driver should contain.
Furthermore, I wish the Secretary of State to define more clearly in Committee what powers will be given to stop and inspect loads once they are on the move. I accept that an inspection can be carried out, once the wagon has reached the tip and the driver has tipped the load, because we are presumably talking about tipping at a local authority site or at a local authority monitored site. But what powers will be afforded to the police and the Ministry of Transport vehicle examiners to stop loads en route? Surely, at a time when the Department is taking unto itself power almost to arrest drivers of foreign heavy vehicles on sight, we could do something about stopping and examining vehicles driven by our own drivers which contain highly dangerous chemical waste?
When potentially dangerous chemicals are used three days are hardly adequate for notification. If the public health department is fully involved and has to consult the Department of the Environment, it may take longer than three days just to obtain the necessary information on which to decide how to deal with certain materials. There should be longer than three days' notice.
My constituents and I recognise that the Bill is a good start, a good interim piece of legislation, which I hope will be improved upon in Committee. But it is the seedling from which I hope much more comprehensive measures will grow, measures which provide for compulsory and continuous registration, which compensate local authorities for undue financial burdens which they have to suffer and which make sure that we have a comprehensive monitoring process all the way 231 through, particularly when these materials are on the move.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Brierley Hill)
I join in the general welcome that has been given to the Bill. There has been a great deal of public concern about the indiscriminate dumping of poisonous waste. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), like myself, represents a Midlands constituency, and the Midlands has had more than its fair share of reports of indiscriminate dumping in recent months.
I am surprised that it has taken so long to introduce legislation on these lines. The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) referred to the report a year ago of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which asked for legislation, but the problem has been with us for a great deal longer than that. The Government hitherto have had no specific or direct control over the tipping of poisonous wastes which present dangers to public health from physical contact and risks of explosion and poisonous fumes. I am glad that the Government in this legislation recognise the seriousness of the situation by the imposition of heavy fines and imprisonment on those who are found guilty of illegally dumping poisonous waste.
Whilst welcoming the Bill, I support many hon. Members on both sides of the House who feel that it does not go far enough. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) that we want to know where the stuff will be dumped, and that we need an adequate number of disposal sites, perhaps on a regional basis, so that people will know exactly where to dump poisonous waste. I hope that such disposal sites will be under the control and supervision of the local authority responsible for refuse disposal. It is also essential that there should be available to anyone who requires it a public register of all the sites.
In his opening speech my hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he hoped the public would report anyone seen dumping illegally, but the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) pointed out the difficulty of recognising these people. Would my hon. Friend in his reply comment on the suggestion 232 that vehicles which are used to transport toxic wastes should be required to carry some distinguishing marks to make them readily identifiable so as to assist the public in reporting any illegal tipping.
One point that has not been mentioned in this debate is the question of penalties for hoaxers. Recently a driver alleged that toxic waste had been dumped in Wombourne in my constituency, and this information caused considerable anxiety to many of my constituents who were worried about the effects of any such waste. The local authority immediately investigated the matter, and, after spending a great deal of time and no doubt a fair amount of money on the matter, discovered nothing. Furthermore, the man who had given the information had disappeared. I am told that, if the man were found, he could be charged with committing a public mischief, but there is some doubt whether such a charge would have any standing in a court of law. I am therefore wondering whether there could be some provision in the Bill to meet this point. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some guidance on this matter.
I appreciate that his Bill is an interim measure and that the Government have acted quickly with the co-operation of the Opposition to try to get it on the Statute Book as soon as possible. I should like the legislation to be drawn as tightly as possible because such provisions are vital for public safety. Although I welcome the legislation, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to allay some of my anxieties about the Bill in its present form.
§ 12.47 a.m.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery) about the lateness of the Bill—from two points of view.
First, the Government and the Opposition have quite genuinely under-estimated the interest among hon. Members in this legislation and it is ridiculous that the House should be discussing such an important Bill at one o'clock in the morning. I feel that it was an error of judgment to bring it forward at so late an hour.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was also right to criticise the lateness in the timing of the legislation. This matter does not go back only to the Report of the 233 Royal Commission a year ago. It goes right back to the summer of 1964 when the then Government appointed an interdepartmental committee to inquire into the disposal of solid toxic wastes. The committee had a comprehensive remit. It was appointed in July, 1964:To consider present methods of disposal of solid and semi-solid toxic wastes…in order to ensure that such wastes are disposed of safely and without risk of polluting water supplies and rivers.It is astonishing that that committee took six years to produce its report, a report which did not appear until 1970, and that it then took another two years before the Government did anything about it.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)
The hon. Gentleman says that after the report was received the Government did nothing about it. Does he not realise that very rapidly after that report was received it was sent to every local authority?
§ Mr. Steel
Let me go on to be more precise. I quote from recommendation 10 of that committee's report, on page 103:We do not think the present legislation on toxic solid wastes is adequate".Two years after that recommendation, this Bill is the first attempt to make sure that legislation is adequate. I welcome this Bill, but I am making the point that it has taken a good number of years for it to come to fruition. In other words, we have been slow to wake up to the dangers.
The hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr Laurance Reed) made some irrelevant remark about the Young Liberals. I would remind him that the Young Liberals and other young people have done a great deal to alert public opinion on dangers to the environment.
When hon. Members refer to this legislation as being interim, that is a polite word, because it is piecemeal, and the House is never keen to welcome piecemeal legislation. I think that by now we should have had comprehensive legislation dealing with the subject as a whole.
It is perfectly true that when we close one door about the dumping of toxic 234 material on land we leave an open invitation for people to use alternative methods, especially dumping at sea. In 1971, Mr. Beeby, then President of the Society of Chemical Industry, wrote in Chemicals and Conservation:The ultimate dumping ground will be the ocean.In recent months, we have had many complaints, varying from the effect of pollution in the Bristol Channel on life in the channel to a report published over the weekend of a complaint from crab fishermen in the North-East about dumping in the sea by the National Coal Board. As the Bill is drawn, its Long Title makes it impossible to produce Amendments in Committee to deal with anything other than dumping on land specifically.
The hon. Member for Bolton, East was right to refer to the fact that only last month we signed the convention in Oslo to control dumping in the North-East Atlantic. I remember my constituent, Chay Blyth, telling me that when he was rowing across the Atlantic, out of the middle of nowhere he and his companion encountered the most appalling rubbish floating in the sea. This is an important matter. We signed the convention last month, and I would like to have seen us going ahead and dealing with the matter in the same piece of legislation, rather than leaving it for a later date.
Within territorial waters, as distinct from extra-territorial waters, the present system of voluntary consent operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food also requires tightening up, and it may be that compulsory measures are needed.
My second point is to support the pleas made by a number of hon. Members about the confidentiality of information and the views of the Royal Commission itself. The Royal Commission made it clear that it had taken evidence from a number of witnesses, who expressed concern about this. It said:It is a practice which hinders the flow of information needed by responsible people concerned with the abatement of pollution and it leads to risks of mis-understanding on the part of the public which may be harmful to industry and Government alike. That is why we want some public discussion about it.…It is in the public interest that information about wastes should be available not only to the statutory bodies which have a right to 235 demand it but to research workers and others who can make use of it to improve the environment.Later, the Royal Commission mentions Members of Parliament.
In an article in New Scientiston 9th March, Mr. Jon Tinker made the point that dealing with all these matters secretly between industry and the local authorities gave rise to a good deal of public misgiving. He pointed out that all these decisionsare essentially political, a balance between what is technically feasible and what is economically possible with public safety and amenity depending on the answer.I am sorry that this piecemeal legislation does not deal with this matter.
I end with three short constructive points which might be considered within the ambit of the Bill. I recommend the scheme outlined by Sir Frederick Warner, chairman of a committee of the Council of Scientific and Technical Institutes, to make all plants issue an annual pollution report detailing the precise levels of emissions to both air and water, as well as describing what happened to all their wastes. This would require only a fairly simple legislative provision, which might be considered for inclusion in the Bill.
Secondly, I am not certain whether enough care has been taken to establish joint responsibility on both the company producing the waste and the undertaking which is disposing of it. There ought to be an obligation on both the contractor and the person who is giving the contractor the waste to dispose of.
Lastly, it is important that the appeals to the public to come forward and give information about material which has already been dumped should be continued. I wonder whether it would be worth including an amnesty clause in the legislation to encourage more people to come forward.
I wish the Bill success in Committee, on which I hope I shall not have the honour to serve, although a great deal of improvement can be made to it.
§ 1.1 a.m.
§ Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)
The whole House will welcome the purpose of the legislation and the vigour and speed with which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has brought it forward. The House has also been 236 impressed with the obvious care and concern which the ministerial team has taken over this Measure.
I do not intend to detain the House for more than a few minutes in commenting briefly on certain matters which arise from the Bill.
Concern has been expressed about the penalties contained in Clause 1(5). I suggest that that concern probably is aimed not really at the penalties envisaged, because five years' imprisonment is a healthy sanction in anybody's terms, but at the way in which similar types of legislation, particularly some planning and health legislation, have varied in the numbers of prosecutions which have been brought and the sentences which have been passed in different parts of the country. I believe that the sanctions are there. I very much hope that what was said by my right hon. Friend will make a strong impression on those who have to bring the prosecutions and on those who have to try them.
I share the concern expressed by both my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) and the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) about the tom tiddler's ground which will arise regarding what does not fall into land pollution and does not necessarily fall into sea pollution.
I should like to mention to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, since this matter is already before the Department and is an area of the country well known to him, the special concern of those of us who live in Suffolk regarding the present position of the River Orwell, to which the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Acts do not automatically apply, to which could, unless something is done to bring the full effects of the Act into force, be one of the danger areas for possible dumping.
I should like to mention two matters which are not, and could not be expected to be, contained within the Bill. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum makes clear that the Bill is intended to relate to dangerous waste as a whole. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to go on from what he has said is only an interim measure to deal with two issues regarding dangerous chemicals which concern many of our constituents. 237 One concerns dumping of a different kind. It is not just waste dumping, but irresponsible dumping which takes place in different parts of the country, particularly on docks.
In this respect I should like to quote a recent report of Mr. Howard Griffiths, the Chief Fire Officer of Ipswich and Suffolk, who, on that issue, said:There is also a lot of irresponsible dumping on docks. You are getting an incredible variety of chemicals being unloaded and we have to keep constantly alert to this. The stuff could mix on the quayside and it is often warehoused together. I could show you places where hundreds of chemicals, are stored touching each other. The storekeepers are humble people with no chemical knowledge and one shudders to think what could happen. The risk is there.I pass from that to the second matter of particular concern to my constituents; namely, the carriage of toxic and corrosive chemicals through the middle of some of our most built-up cities and boroughs. To quote again from the report by Mr. Griffiths, he referred in terms to my constituency in this way:Ipswich is sitting on a time bomb.and he went on to repeat some of the risks involved. He then said:The only answer is to keep these loads away from people. It is a crying scandal that these loads are carried through occupied streets. It is absolutely appalling.That statement followed a paragraph which said:Take for example a tank of liquid oxygen—a common thing on the roads. But put it in collision with a petrol tanker and you could wipe out three streets in the explosion. That is the real danger.He had earlier given a specific example of what happened when there was a small spillage on the road between Felixstowe, which is now one of the biggest container ports in Europe, and Ipswich:We had a tiny spillage of chemicals on the Felixstowe road—not much more than a pint. It vapourised in a cloud, and two seagulls near it were killed.That is a frightening thought of how quickly this reaction can happen, and how much more quickly it could affect human life.
I end by referring to the general picture of this matter, which was summed up very well in the leader in the East Anglian Daily Times of Saturday, 4th March, when it said: 238Illegal dumping, escaping poisons, dead birds, warehouses stacked with hundreds of chemicals under watchful but unknowing eyes, dangerous cargoes thrusting and jostling through narrow and crowded streets; this is the picture being laid before us, and it is a frightful and alarming one.We welcome and commend the legislation which my right hon. Friend has brought in, but we hope very much—and I think that I speak for many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who have anxieties on this score—that this is the start of what will be a full package deal on this subject.
§ 1.7 a.m.
§ Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)
The fact that at this time of the morning so many hon. Members are still waiting to speak to a Bill which was introduced as late in the day as it was shows the importance of this Measure. I welcome the Bill and the fact that the Secretary of State is here to launch it on its way.
My remarks will be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) has dealt with some of our local issues.
Why do we have poisonous waste at all? I wonder how much research has been done by industry, and how much pressure has been put on industry, to ensure that there is no need to have poisonous toxic waste to get rid of at all? Having asked that question, I assume the answer is that there is some left which had to be got rid of. There might be quite a considerable amount which can be made harmless, and I hope that what we are talking about tonight is the sort of stuff which cannot be dumped on an open tip.
The reason for this debate and this emergency legislation is that on open tips "midnight cowboys" have dumped poisonous toxic waste which can be dangerous to children. All of a sudden Parliament, with all its power, has had to be jolted into action to try to deal with that situation.
The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) talked about the number of pits open, the number of dumping spots left open, the number of easily accessible places at which stuff can be got rid of by anybody who has no conscience. What the House is trying to do is to close the loopholes. What 239 we have to do, and what I hope the Secretary of State is trying to do by the Bill, is to allay public fears about what has been going on. It is a great pity that the situation which is arising in a constituency adjoining mine—indeed, it will become my constituency after the boundary changes—should be occurring against the background of a Bill of this nature and the fears which exist.
Negotiations have been going on for a considerable time about getting rid of toxic wastes by using natural resources—like ex-pits. There must be Government-approved central deposit spots, and there should be control at source and en route; and there should be a licensing system. Is it no good lurking around the tips trying to catch a lorry driver. He must be caught en route, and if he does not have a licence he must be prosecuted as if he were going to tip illegally.
Could these central tips be properly policed? At Silksworth colliery adjoining my constituency there is a seam 2,000 feet deep in which a reputable firm wants to put liquid toxic waste, which it claims can do no harm to water supplies or environment. It says that even higher seams can be used to store material in drums. Also, in an area with tragic unemployment figures, the firm says that it can employ 100 people regularly at the dump.
But too often regions like mine are looked on as the dumping spots for industrial waste. The Bill puts the responsibility on local authorities, which vary in size and in the quality of officials employed at this level. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the local authority should be the be-all and end-all? I hope he is prepared to take much more responsibility than that.
The firm which wants to do the dumping in my constituency has had a lot of experience of this. It claims:The mine is not a sump, allowing liquids to leak away into surounding strata and water tables. Because it is so safe, we have been given the only general consent to underground waste disposal yet granted under the 1963 Act. Such an asset is too valuable to waste on unselective dumping. We reserve it for acids, toxic liquids and difficult sludges. Already it swallows millions of gallons a month of prepared effluent. The capacity will last for 50 years, even at an accelerated rate of usage.240 These are extremely rosy claims, and in saying that I do not seek to be sarcastic. But the claims must be underlined by facts, or thousands of people who live around these potential dumping spots will live in fear that the toxic material will rise and contaminate the water supply or have disastrous effects on the rivers. I can envisage that central dumping of this kind could be a definite asset. If it is controlled and policed there will not be any dumping of the kind that led to the emergency presentation of the Bill.
I am asking only that I and the people I represent shall be convinced that if dumping is to be handled in this way it is done safely and with no danger to my area.
§ 1.16 a.m.
§ Mrs. Peggy Fenner (Rochester and Chatham)
Most hon. Members are concerned about the deposit of toxic wastes such as cyanide. While I welcome the Bill, I understand that it is an interim Measure that has been introduced with commendable alacrity to deal with a very difficult situation which has been highlighted over recent months by the discovery of cyanide waste deposits.
I wish to deal with what may be a much smaller hazard. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will recollect the urgent communication that I had with his Department about the dumping of drugs in my area. There were about 3,500 of them. Half were iron tablets and the remainder were sleeping tablets. They hardly fell into the category of "poisonous, noxious or polluting" waste but any 10 of them taken by children could have proved fatal. I therefore considered the matter to be one of public concern. I take heart from Clause 1(4)(b), which says that the likelihood of containers in which the waste is deposited being tampered with by children will be a relevant consideration for the prosecution, but I wish to be reassured that the term "waste" is used in its widest sense and that it includes drugs, whether defective or surplus to requirements.
My right hon. Friend has referred specifically to wastes from the paper and board industry, from the food processing industry, and from the farming industry. I recognise that he cannot refer to all the different industries, but he did not mention wastes from the pharmaceutical 241 industry. I shall be very happy to receive an assurance on this or, if the Bill does not cover them, that at least the point may be considered in Committee and in any further and more comprehensive legislation on the subject.
§ 1.20 a.m.
§ Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)
I shall follow the example of the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) and be brief.
I take issue with the hon. Lady when she commends her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the speed with which he introduced the Bill. I want to be constructive. This has been a very constructive debate, in which hon. Members on both sides have suggested how the Bill could be made more effective. But we should not exaggerate the speed with which the Bill has been introduced. I feel that the Secretary of State has been guilty of delay. After all, he had the Key Committee Report on his desk 18 months ago, and on page 7of the Second Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution we read that the Royal Commission warned the right hon. Gentleman last July of the emergency situation.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
The Chairman of the Royal Commission says that he has no criticism of the speed with which my Department has dealt with the problem. Last April I published the Government's attitude to it and no hon. Member, none of the local authority associations, or anyone on the Royal Commission then criticised my view that the matter should come under the reform of local government in 1974. When we had discussions with the Royal Commission we agreed to take earlier action, which, whether or not the Opposition gave us facilities, we should have done.
§ Mr. Clark
The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to his views, but there has been concern about the delay. On page 7 of the Royal Commission Report we read:We recommended in July 1971, and again more recently, the urgent introduction of a measure of control in advance of comprehensive legislation.That was nine months ago. Certain hon. Members consider that the Bill has been introduced in response to a crisis situation, and that it should have been introduced before.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
I disclosed earlier this evening that in January I wrote to the Chairman of the Royal Commission agreeing that we would introduce legislation to come into immediate effect under local government provisions. He welcomed this and considered that it was adequate.
§ Mr. Clark
I accept the right hon. Gentleman's contention that the matter is better dealt with when we have the new reformed system of local government, but I still contend that the legislation is urgent. I do not want to become involved in an argument with the right hon. Gentleman, because by and large I agree with his Bill, but there are doubts that must be expressed.
The Bill rightly sets out to allay a certain amount of public disquiet, but it would be wrong to exaggerate its importance. As the Secretary of State has said, it is only an interim Measure. Other hon. Members have called it a piecemeal Measure. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's use of the word "interim", and support the Bill as the first in a series of Measures on these lines.
As I understand it, the result of the Bill will be that we shall know where most of the toxic waste is dumped, though not very much else. That is a step forward, but let us not exaggerate the improvement. The toxic waste will still be there. It can still damage our environment if it can escape from the tips, or if the tips are not constructed to deal with it. By locating the danger we have not necessarily tackled it. In that sense I would describe the Bill as perhaps a negative Measure. I do not deny the need for it, but much more positive steps will have to be taken. For example, the Key Committee suggests that a non-statutory technical advisory committee should be set up to examine the problems. The Key Report is one of the most comprehensive, detailed and sensible reports that I have seen on the environment and pollution, and that is one of its recommendations that should have been accepted.
As I understand it, the local authority and the river authority will have three days' notification of the proposed move of toxic waste. What happens if the river 243 authority is not happy about the movement? The waste may be going to a registered and recognised tip, but there may be in it some form of chemical which the river authority feels could endanger some of the watershed in the area, not immediately but perhaps in the slightly longer term. Is there to be any power in the river authority or the local authority to apply for an injunction to stop that waste being dumped? On my reading, all that the Bill says is that the river authority must have three days' notice, but surely the worth of such notification is reduced without the power that I suggest.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
If the river authority or local authority were to telephone or send a post card to the firm in question, advising it that there was likely to bean environmental hazard as described in the Bill and that its directors might find themselves in gaol or subject to an unlimited fine, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that that is not a powerful disincentive to tip?
§ Mr. Clark
Obviously it is, but we are talking of statutory control over toxic waste, and I suggest that there is a case for empowering the river authority to take out an injunction in such cases. I am putting this suggestion forward as a means of strengthening the Bill.
I accept the right hon. Gentleman's premise that this matter will be easier to deal with under the reformed local government, but I am disturbed about the responsibilities of county district councils. I know some of these small urban district councils intimately; some have populations of 5,000 or less, although others have very much more. I doubt whether they have the qualified staff to be responsible for the efficient enforcement of the Bill. I accept that they can apply to the Department, whose technical officers will speedily come to their aid, but with only three days' notice of disposal I am not sure that there is time enough for that.
I do not believe that the vast majority of urban district councils have the staff to tackle this aspect of the Bill. In some of the urban districts in my constituency, a penny rate yields only just over £1,000, and so one can appreciate some of the financial difficulties involved. 244 Would it be possible to strengthen the regional teams of the Department, especially on the technical side, so that the advisers could deal more speedily with local problems?
We are all seeking a better organised and coherent system of toxic waste disposal, which will inevitably mean much more transportation of toxic waste. This in itself could create difficulties. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider the possibility of following the American procedure in the transportation of toxic waste. On their lorries they have what are called "chem-cards" when crossing State lines. These cards state the type of load being carried, the type of action to take if there is spillage and the action that the fire brigade should take if there is a fire. We could be creating another problem in our attempts to solve this one. It is the duty of any Government to try to keep up with developments and to allay the fears of the general public.
I stress that in spite of my rather hostile beginning I am trying to be helpful and to strengthen the Bill, which I welcome as the first of a series of Measures to make our whole system much more coherent.
§ 1.30 a.m.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
After all this, I feel rather like the bad fairy who makes a rather sour appearance at the banquet, for I am less than impressed by several aspects of the Bill. Before we parade the virtues of the Secretary of State for bringing the Bill forward it ought to be said that it would have been something approaching dereliction of duty if he had not done so. I am always for giving credit where credit is due, but I find it astonishing that some of my colleagues should go on congratulating the Secretary of State on doing something failure to do which would have been approaching a scandal.
Before we enter any chorus of welcome for the Bill we have to sort out the whole subject of secrecy, raised by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) and others. I had the impression that this matter would be dealt with when the Secretary of State made his announcement during the debate, when the subject was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Walter Johnson).
245 The truth that we have to face is that too often prevention of pollution Acts have functioned as Acts for the protection of polluters. No one has willed it, but that is how it has worked out. It is not that officials are corrupt or incompetent. On the contrary, it is simply that the data of individual emissions are guarded more closely than military secrets, and we know why that has arisen. It has come about because of industrial competition, and that is a subject to which we should turn our attention.
Publication of consent conditions or the results of tests of samples of trade effluent do not appear to be specifically forbidden by the Public Health Acts. However, the details are clearly kept secret and the justification appears to be in Section 287 of the 1936 Act. It is this that threatens three months' imprisonment if a local officialdiscloses to any person any information obtained by him in the factory, workshop or workplace with regard to any manufacturing process or trade secret".It was Kenneth Tyler of the Association of Public Health Inspectors who said:An inspector would be a very unwise man if he started releasing details of individual discharges to sewers".The C.B.I, has on record research stating that it would be possible for a competitor to gain useful information from effluent.
It is just conceivable that analysis of works effluent could give a competitor a clue to a vital catalyst in a new process. It has to be admitted that this is true, as the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) will know from his work in this respect, but most chemists regard as ludicrous the notion of industrial secrets leaking down some kind of plug hole. A major competitor who is really interested in a rival's wastes is more likely to row stealthily up river on a dark night than to rely on the meagre information that might be held in a local authority's books. If one firm is really interested in the trade secrets of another, the last thing that it will do is to examine the books of the local authority, because they will be far too vague for that purpose. Therefore, if the worry is about industrial competition, whatever was the position 50 years ago, in the light of modern technological advance that is no serious worry today.
246 Pollution officers have the power to take samples of industrial discharges to make sure that they are complying with secret limits, but any analysis of the samples remains strictly confidential. Nothing that I have heard in the last four hours suggests that the Bill will create any differences in the confidential requirements imposed by law. The regulating agency may require the factory to monitor air or water quality downwind or downstream of the discharge, but the measurements are hidden away in Government files. The House has a duty to ask why. As yet there has been no convincing explanation as to why there should be this degree of confidentiality.
Flexibility and co-operation are the watchwords of the Alkali Inspectorate, but do flexible officials sometimes place public health and safety at risk rather than jeopardise their co-operative relationship with the polluters? We are unable to judge, because the facts are withheld from us. Therefore, I can give only an impression. It is an impression shared by a number of my colleagues on the New Scientistand a number of others in the field, namely, that conditions vary from one part of the country to another; that in some parts of the country the Alkali Inspectorate is excellent but in other instances there is a degree of cosiness between inspectors and the industry that is rather alarming.
If it is thought that I am exaggerating, let us consider what happened at Avon mouth, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) will know very well. If there is a lesson to be learned from Avon mouth, it is in the incredible story of how three sets of organisations have merged into one when they should have been adopting a critical posture towards each other. Therefore, what I am saying is not just theory; it is the reality that has come to light at Avonmouth. In the Second Reading debate it behoves us to ask certain questions about the Alkali Inspectorate.
From time to time over the last 10 years in the House I have heard hon. Members on both sides pay tribute to the great work of the Alkali Inspectorate. I have always taken it in one sense that this was a marvellous body because it could go unchallenged, and undoubtedly many alkali inspectors do a marvellous job. But, following the R.T.Z. fiasco, 247 we do not know. The Chief Alkali Inspector says:I am a great believer in informing the public, but not alarming them.I suppose that that is a fair enough point of view, but the situation in industry is that although shop stewards and convenors know that the alkali inspector has been in the plant they never see him.
I refer to the report of the Committee under the chairmanship of our late colleague, Arthur Skeffington, formerly the Member for Hayes and Harlington, asking for more public participation in matters such as these. Graham Searle, of "Friends of the Earth"—I do not agree with everything that organisation suggests—saysEveryone says that the Alkali Inspectorate are very good, but how can we tell if they don't publish any figures?Therefore, the time has come, if we are introducing emergency of long term legislation, to reconsider the whole framework within which the Alkali Inspectorate is working.
The defenders of the status quo claim that pollution judgments are best made in a spirit of cool, scientific detachment and the absence of emotional public clamour. It is true that such decisions are essentially political, and that a balance must be struck between the technically feasible and the economically possible, but the notion that the Government alone are clever enough to evaluate pollution problems and the general public is too ignorant and too stupid to understand them is both paternalistic and, in my view, rather offensive.
I now come to the case of the Trent river authority, which recently issued a special memorandum to its staff reminding it that the only people who were entitled to see the register were those with a property interest at the point of discharge. The polluter or his landlord is entitled to know the level of discharge that the river authority considers satisfactory, but the farmer whose cows drink out of the river, the man who owns the fishing rights downstream, or the group of scientists from the local university cannot look at the register because they are not what the lawyers call "interested parties".
Here I want to refer to the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn 248 and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) which stated that three-quarters of our sewage outfall fails to conform with river authority consent conditions. Therefore there is an overwhelming case for a great deal more of what the Prime Minister calls "open government". I can understand that in the military field there are difficulties, but in pollution I do not see what we have to lose by being frank with each other.
It is true that river authorities could install their own recording equipment, but they would have to pay for it, and there is no way in which, at the moment, costs could be recovered from the polluter. Since river authorities are scandalously short of scientific equipment they are unlikely to let the opportunity go by of getting industry to pay instead. As the Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office, knows this problem becomes greater in those areas such as our own, which are desperate to attract industry and do not want to ask too many pollution questions of either existing industry or incoming industry. We know how desperate we are to attract employment to our areas. Some local authorities and Members of Parliament—and I confess to being one—are not likely to start asking questions that may be considered offensive to industry which they are trying to attract to their areas. This is a national problem, and it is a delicate issue for local authorities. River quality could only benefit if boards were able to operate somewhat less furtively.
Something must be said about trade effluents in sewers. Under the Public Health Acts of 1936 and 1937 local authorities are obliged to accept trade effluents, but they may impose conditions as to chemical and physical quality. Since some pollutants—heavy metals, for example—can poison the microflora which degrade sewage in treatment plants, unexpected contamination can cause the sewage works to discharge virtually raw sewage, through its outfall into the river.
Here we come to the issue of clandestine pollution, when control benefits nobody but the polluter. The company says that itdoes not believe that the disclosure of the nature of our effluent would give any information to our competitors".I go along with that view, because I feel that it is an enlightened one. In spite of 249 the Royal Commissions report, which urges an end to unnecessary secrecy, the Secretary of State in his Bill has rolled out some new legal gags to prevent the public knowing what pollution is occurring.
That is fair comment; at least it is a case that must be answered. I realise that this Measure will be replaced by more permanent legislation, but in many ways it represents an eating of ministerial words. Only six weeks ago the Undersecretary of State for the Environment was insisting that there was neither the need nor the parliamentary time for emergency action. Let us face it; recent events have brought forward this legislation.
The question arises of the most blatant dumping of indisputable poisons like sodium cyanide. Moreover, the unscrupulous industrialist has no doubt already spotted that he can avoid the penalty of five years' imprisonment by throwing his waste in the nearest river, which risks a fine of only £200. Here I come to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed), because even under the Bill a number of industrialists will go on making the calculation that it pays them to take the risk of incurring fines. It is no good the Under-Secretary's screwing up his eyebrows and saying "No" under his breath. This is the fact as I understand it, and it is the fact as other people understand it, and we had better get it straight.
The guts of the Bill are in the requirement on companies to give district councils and river authorities three days' notice of what they propose to deposit and where it is to go. This information must go to the authority whose area it leaves and to those into whose area it is sent. Similarly, tip operators must file details of any toxic wastes within three days of their receipt. These powers do not impose any control. That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark). The question is how many rural district councils, when they receive a statutory notice that someone proposes to abandon 10 gallons of mercury, for example, in an old chalk pit, will be able to assess the danger in the time given? I agree with my hon. Friend.
250 It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say that all the resources of the Department will be at the disposal of the local authority, but I understand that the resources of the Department are somewhat limited in this regard. A number of local authorities might all at the same time ask for help from the Department. Is the Department sure that it can carry out the Secretary of State's promise? Perhaps I can be convinced that it can, but that question needs answering.
All the local authority can do is prosecute after the event, and it will then have to prove that the substance dumped didsubject persons or animals to material risk of death, injury or impairment of health…The cost in time and lawyers' and expert witnesses' fees is likely to be more than most local authorities would risk. This is a subject which has not been properly tackled. In a few years the Department plans more comprehensive dumping laws requiring that advance permission has to be sought before hazardous wastes are tipped and enabling local authorities to refuse consent if they feel that waste should be treated chemically first. Therefore, the present Bill may be no more than a useful stopgap whose main advantage is to provide data on what is dumped and where.
Although unfortunately Clause 4(4) instructs local authorities to keep such records, it does not state that they must be open for public inspection. Worse, Clause 4(2) invokes the stringent power of Section 287 of the Public Health Act, 1936, which threatens local officials with three months' imprisonment for disclosing "trade secrets." In practice, this means that the secrets will be kept. Once again, legal sanctions are being wheeled out to prevent scientists and conservation groups from making an independent evaluation of a pollution hazard. Once again a paternalistic Government are gagging public servants to make sure that we do not learn facts that might alarm us. Once again Whitehall has bowed to C.B.I. pressure and agreed that polluters should be spared public embarrassment.
Our main concern is with Clause 4. Paragraphs 3 to 10 of the Second Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution criticises unnecessary secrecy with pollution data, mentioning in particular the way in which Section 12 of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) 251 Act, 1961, prohibited river authorities from disclosing details of individual discharges to waters. Exactly the same situation is now to be created for poisonous wastes. Clause 4 makes Section 287 of the Public Health Act, 1936, form part of the new Bill. This Section allows local authority inspectors to enter premises, if necessary under warrant, to find out whether an offence is being committed or regulations are being complied with. Subsection (5) makes it an offence for an inspector to disclose to the public any manufacturing process or trade secret that he may acquire under that Section, which has been used to force local authorities to keep confidential details of individual discharges of trade effluents into public sewers.
Clause 4 requires local authorities to keep records of what waste has been deposited in their area, but it does not say that the records must be open to public inspection. In practice, therefore, the absence of a public inspection Clause will mean that Clauses 4(2) and 4(4) of the Bill will be read together as prohibiting public disclosure of the records. Local authorities will know what waste is being deposited but will be prohibited from letting such information be known.
Since the local authorities concerned until 1974 will be county district councils—and we have to deal with the interim period—they will in practice be totally incompetent to determine whether or not wastes which have been deposited are dangerous. The only way of ensuring that a dangerous situation has at least a fighting chance of coming to public notice is to have the records open to inspection. Then at least a local university team or conservation group will be able to raise the alarm. In his statement on the Royal Commission report the Secretary of State hedged as to whether he accepted the Ashby recommendation that there should be less secrecy. The way in which the Bill appears and what the Secretary of State has said make it clear that he rejects this point.
I do not apologise for keeping the House even at this hour for some length of time, because this is a matter of considerable consequence If it is not dealt with tonight it will be too late. Like the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and my hon. Friends the 252 Members for Colne Valley, Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) and Bristol, South, I feel there is an issue here on which the Secretary of State should come clean and come clean now.
§ 1.53 a.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)
This has been a wide-ranging debate in which 18 or 19 hon. Members have spoken after 10 o'clock. There has been a central agreement among all hon. Members and between the two Front Benches that the Bill is necessary, tough, and needs to be passed quickly. In so far as there have been criticisms or dissent they have been mainly in the direction of seeking to make the Bill more comprehensive or tougher or to give greater powers. There has been no suggestion that the Bill is an over-reaction to the present situation.
There is one phrase which, surprisingly, has not caught the attention of hon. Members, and that is the phrase "environmental hazard". This is a new phrase in the English language and it is a new legal conception. In bringing it forward my right hon. Friend has created a precedent in that he is saying that Parliament will not accept that no longer shall there be in this country a freedom for industry or anyone else to create hazards to the environment of the public. The Bill goes on to demonstrate that those who create environmental hazards shall, if found guilty, be subject to severe penalties.
I want to deal with one idea that has affected some speeches, namely, that the Bill does not require local authorities to stop people tipping toxic wastes. What it does is to provide local authorities with a means of finding out what toxic waste, or waste of any kind, is being deposited. The penalties arise simply because private persons or, indeed, local authorities, cause or permit such tipping to take place. The mere fact that an industrialist or contractor knows that he is liable to unlimited fines, or up to five years' imprisonment, for causing an environmental hazard is of itself a real deterrent to these practices which we all want to stop.
The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), in his helpful speech, said that he was glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had acted with speed, and hoped in the near 253 future to see more comprehensive legislation. The right hon. Gentleman's criticism was that he wanted us to go more quickly. I am sure that he recognises that the problem of pollution and of poisonous wastes of every kind is a never-ending problem. My right hon. Friend intends to make all the effiorts he can to bring forward improvements in the powers and regulations which are appropriate to deal with the situation. There will be opportunities in the Bill on the reorganisation of the water services which will have to be brought forward before long. I know that my right hon. Friend intends to make use of that opportunity to improve pollution control. Similarly, in the case of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which no doubt will be necessary, the right hon. Gentleman will, I hope, find himself locked in friendly debate with my right hon. Friend. There again, there may be additional opportunities. In respect of noise abatement, too, additional improvements will be brought forward where necessary. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that it is the Government's intention to help wherever it is possible to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific points. I can deal directly only with penalties and his remark about confidentiality. The House has been a little less than appreciative, of how tough these penalties are. The substantive offence in the Bill, namely, the creation of an environmental hazard by the deposit of poisonous waste, will on summary conviction in the magistrates' court, attract the maximum possible penalty that such a court can impose, namely £400—which some hon. Members think inadequate—or imprisonment up to six months. A more serious matter would be dealt with on indictment in a Crown Court, in which case there can be an unlimited fine—and that word "unlimited" must convey a great deal—or five years' imprisonment. I suggest that those fines, or threats of imprisonment, are very serious matters.
§ Mr. David Steel
Does the Bill as drafted cover the situation involving a person who tips toxic waste in the lower reaches of a river, not on land? Would that attract not the higher penalty but the lower one already provided for in existing legislation?
§ Mr. Griffiths
The short answer is that the Bill includes land and land which is covered with water. But on the specific point about the estuary, the hon. Gentleman will know of my right hon. Friend's comments on the Jeger Report and the clear intention of my Department to bring in the necessary additional controls in respect of discharges into estuaries.
On the confidentiality point raised by the right hon. Member for Deptford and others, I can say little other than that it is a complex matter but one in respect of which my right hon. Friend is at present in consultation with industry and local authorities in order to meet all the difficult matters that need action. I am sure that when these consultations are complete my right hon. Friend will want to make a statement in the House.
§ Mr. Griffiths
As soon as possible.
The hon. Members for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) and Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) referred to the problem at Silksworth pit. I shall read in the morning what they have said, and I shall see whether there is any matter affecting my Department about which we can help. This is a problem with which I am familiar, and I undertake to see whether there is anything that we can do to help.
§ Mr. Bagier
It is most important to allay public fears if there is no danger from putting this waste into the pit. Bearing in mind that it is costing £2,000 a week to keep the pit open, if the hon. Gentleman can help in allaying those public fears will he please do so?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I am not in a position to allay public fears without first finding out a great deal more about the situation. This is a matter partly for the National Coal Board and partly for the local authority. In so far as my Department is concerned, I will look into the position and will let the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring know if there is anything helpful that we can do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) said that the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors welcomed the Bill. I am very glad to hear that. My hon. 255 Friend made one or two criticisms of it. He referred especially to the fact that the Bill does not include a list of the materials which are poisonous, noxious or polluting. However, the basis of the Bill is that all wastes shall be regarded as notifiable save where they are exempted by the orders of my right hon. Friend. It is that way round which applies here rather than the way round to which my hon. Friend referred.
My hon. Friend spoke of the need to provide sites for toxic wastes, and that is sensible.
But the new county councils in England after local government reform will have the Statutory responsibility for waste disposal and will be able to consider the use of sites to deal with this problem.
§ Mr. Urwin
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the representations made by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine), will he bear in mind that there is a real difficulty imposed upon local authorities in the Bill about the designation of sites for waste disposal? Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind also the point made by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East about the disadvantages which may flow to the community at large from the use of disused collieries for the storage of this waste?
§ Mr. Griffiths
Yes. I can only repeat that I will look into this matter. I am well aware that if waste is put into a colliery there is a danger that some of the aquifers will become polluted. Equally, sometimes local authorities find it difficult to select a satisfactory site. This is a matter of geology, and of many other factors. The fact is that the new local authorities, with greater powers, resources and wider areas, will have the statutory obligation to accept responsibility for the disposal of wastes in their areas, and I have every reason to suppose that they will discharge that obligation very effectively.
§ Sir Bernard Braine rose—
§ Mr. Griffiths
I was about to deal with my hon. Friend's point. His concern was to see a better documentation of wastes—
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because 256 I want to press him on the point with which he has just dealt. Does he appreciate that there is no shortage of sites; there is only a shortage of the will, on the part of local authorities, to approve such sites? Unless this nettle is grasped then, between the Bill becoming law and the new authorities coming into existence there will be a problem which will make this new Measure very difficult to operate.
§ Mr. Griffiths
That is my hon. Friend's view, and he is perfectly entitled to it. I recognise that some local authorities are reluctant to give planning permissions, for reasons which he will know just as well as I do. I think that my hon. Friend does not help his cause by suggesting that somehow, as a result of the passing of the Bill, of which he approves, there will suddenly be created a situation in which industry will no longer be able to get rid of its wastes.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
There is a problem now, and I am asking the Government to recognise that it exists.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I recognise that more sites are required. However, it is not just a matter of sites; it is a matter of incinerators, pulverisers and all the many techniques which can be applied to the disposal of waste.
Unlike my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) wanted the local authorities to put in public facilities at no cost to industry to dispose of waste on a large scale. I can understand his purpose. However, one result of doing that would be that the industrialist would no longer have an incentive to do what we all want him to do; namely, reduce the pollution of the waste on his own site before getting rid of it. If free processing were to be provided by the local authorities, no polluter would pay to do it on his own site; he would remove it to the local authority site and expect to have it done for him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons) asked whether the Bill covered accidental pollutions. Indeed it does. Nothing in the language of the Bill requires the act of polluting to be wilful. If it takes place, it is within the scope of the Bill.
The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) suggested that the public should be invited to assist. 257 This is a matter which my right hon. Friend and I would always wish to see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) gave some of the figures. He pointed out, quite accurately, that 20 million tons of waste has to be disposed of each year, of which about 200,000 tons is toxic. My hon. Friend made two points, with both of which I agreed: first, that there is a positive role for local authorities to play in this matter—I am sure that that is right—but, secondly, that they must have guidance. They have already had the circular which my right hon. Friend sent out in April 1971. Indeed, if all of them had exercised the advice given therein, some of the problems which have arisen recently would not have occurred. However, there is no doubt that, following the Bill, a further circular will be necessary, and I know that my right hon. Friend intends to provide it.
The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), who has spoken on this subject many times, was worried that there was no provision for local authorities to be compensated for getting rid of industrial wastes. He also raised the point that some local authorities, as he judged, were not sufficiently equipped to monitor river, air and noise pollution. The Department of the Environment is actively involved in monitoring these matters. The River Pollution Survey is part of it, the Alkali Inspectorate is constantly concerned with air conditions, and more and more we are measuring noise.
§ Mr. Leslie Huckfield
My point about local authorities is not that they are inadequately equipped but that it would be better if local authorities could be notified from the very start that one of these dangerous processes was about to commence so that they could monitor it and watch it right the way through.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I take the hon. Gentleman's point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Montgomery) was concerned about the possibility of vehicles which are used to transport toxic wastes being specially marked. One of the problems here is that very often the vehicles in question pick up a certain type of material on one day and different types of 258 materials on another. Indeed, sometimes they go from one place to another and collect a whole series of different types of commodity during one trip. However, I think my hon. Friend has something of a point, and I should like to consider it.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) said that we were a little late with the Bill. I think my right hon. Friend dealt with that in his earlier submissions. On a more serious point, the hon. Gentleman said that he would like all industrialists to issue an annual pollution report. That is an attractive idea, but wherever an industry is putting effluent into a river, effectively it is being monitored and is making a report anyway.
As regards the Alkali Inspectorate, there is regular monitoring to ensure that the "best practicable means" are being used by industry in its emissions to air.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner) raised with great vigour an issue which she raised some weeks ago with my right hon. Friend. She referred to some drugs that were dumped in her constituency and asked for an assurance that the Bill would catch an incident of that kind. I assure her that it would. It would in so far as the dumping wouldsubject persons or animals to material risk of death, injury or impairment of health".The Clause which contains that phrase would catch the kind of incident to which my hon. Friend referred and which she has pressed so vigorously on behalf of her constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) raised the question of docks and transport. I can tell him that the Home Office Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances will, as soon as possible, be giving consideration to further regulations covering the carriage of other classes of dangerous goods, such as gases, oxidising agents and organic peroxides. Moreover, it is contemplating a code of practice for the whole range of toxic substances carried on vehicles.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
While the hon. Gentleman is considering that, will he consider having on vehicles some device for dealing with the dangers that can arise, such as fire?
§ Mr. Griffiths
Yes, and I believe that that is being discussed in a European context in connection with the incident at Felixstowe, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich referred. I think that there is much to be said for looking at that very carefully, indeed.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. The hour is late, but the agreement is, I think, warm and firm. No doubt in Committee we shall want to look carefully at many of the points which have been raised, but I think the House will agree that my right hon. Friend faced with a national need to take action, has brought before the House a Bill which is strong and tough and one which the House as a whole, without regard to political differences between the two sides, will wish to see through its various stages as quickly as it can.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Jopling.]
§ Committee this day.