§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR AIR (LORD THOMSON)
My Lords, this is a 889 Bill to strengthen the law for the protection of the public against disasters due to the bursting of reservoirs for the storage of water. The occasion of the Bill, if I may so put it, was a disaster in Carnarvonshire in 1925, which involved the death of sixteen persons and might easily have involved the death of a great many more. Shortly after there was another disaster on a smaller scale, in Scotland, and the late Government, in view of these facts, decided to review the whole of the circumstances and to enquire into the matter. The result of that review was to reveal certain disquieting circumstances in regard to the general construction, maintenance and inspection of reservoirs, and it became quite obvious that the law did need strengthening in regard to that matter.
Some of the disquieting features to which I have referred may be mentioned. It appeared that private persons and industrial concerns can, or could, construct reservoirs on private property without any special statutory authority or safeguards, and that, while it no doubt is the usual practice to appoint a qualified engineer in the construction of these reservoirs, that was not always the case. Further, it became apparent that there was no proper provision for the regular inspection of these reservoirs once they had been constructed. It is not pretended for a moment that all reservoirs were conducted under these somewhat ill-regulated conditions, but it appeared undoubtedly that some were. Another feature in regard to reservoirs was that the people in the neighbourhood, local authorities and private persons, were not able to obtain information in regard to these reservoirs. This ignorance was apt to cause a certain amount of panic and alarm, more especially as these two disasters had taken place with the results that I have described. And there was another feature. It became apparent also that it was difficult in some cases for proper compensation to be obtained by those who had suffered from these disasters, more especially in the case of reservoirs conducted by authorities with statutory authority behind them; they were not liable to pay compensation unless negligence had been proved. That often is a very difficult thing to do.
890 In these circumstances the late Government decided that a Bill should be prepared, and communications and conferences took place with various members of the engineering profession and representatives of large water supply undertakings. These conferences included the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Water Engineers, the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers, the British Waterworks Association, the Water Companies Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Association of Consulting Engineers, the Convention of Royal Burghs, and the Association of County Councils in Scotland. In addition, though the English county councils were not specially consulted, it appears from page 308 of the County Councils Association Gazette for December 29 that the Parliamentary and General Purposes Committee of the Association resolved at a meeting on November 13, 1929, with Lord Strachie in the chair, that the Committee did not desire to raise any objection in principle to the provisions of this Bill. There are undoubtedly in this Bill certain points of difference which will require discussion, but all those I have come across up to date are mainly Committee points.
Now I will explain the scheme of the Bill. First of all, it is designed to secure the services of expert civil engineers during the construction of all new reservoirs. That is provided for in Clause 1. In Clause 2 regular inspection is provided for at ten-year intervals, and special provision is made for reservoirs already constructed. Clause 3 provides for the keeping of proper records as to water levels. Clause 4 provides for putting interested parties in a position to get information about reservoirs in existence or to be constructed. Clause 5 authorises such parties, if they allege that precautions have not been taken, to bring the matter before a, Court of Quarter Sessions. Clause 6 deals with the case of alterations to a reservoir. Clause 7 is intended to apply to new reservoirs generally the provisions which already apply to a number of statutory water undertakings as to the obtaining of damages in the Courts where damage or injury is caused by the escape of water. Clause 8 is a clause which may give rise to a certain amount of discussion. It defines what is a qualified engineer. In a 891 previous clause of the Bill it is provided that a qualified engineer expert shall be called in by the undertakers with a view of getting an outside opinion on the subject of the reservoir and its safety. I am given to understand that a certain number of undertakers object to this on the score of expense. The general principle, however, is that this precaution should be taken, and I think that principle would be generally accepted, though details as regards the inspection may present points of difference, which can be discussed in Committee.
Generally speaking, the underlying principle of the proposals in this Bill is to emphasise and in some respects increase the responsibility of the undertakers for the safety of their reservoirs, giving them certain specific duties, and giving local authorities and others concerned an opportunity to verify that these specific duties have been performed. It is not proposed to transfer any of their responsibility to a Government Department. It would not only impose on the Department a very difficult task, but would tend to lessen the sense of responsibility of the undertakers, and to that extent would be inconsistent with the objects of the Bill. The present Government decided that this Bill should be reintroduced and now recommend that it should be passed into law. The storage of water is on the increase. A recent drought has directed attention to the need for ample conservation of the water supply. It is to be hoped that no future disaster will occur; but there can, of course, be no certainty as to how long we may remain immune. It seems desirable to anticipate such an event by strengthening the law on the lines laid down in this Bill. In conclusion, I should like to point out to your Lordships that this Bill differs from the Bill laid by the last Government in 1928 in a few points of detail, those points of detail having been introduced as the result of criticisms that were passed upon the Bill in its original form in 1928. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Thomson.)
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM, who had given Notice that he would move, That the Bill be read 2a this day six months, said: My Lords, the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading said that 892 this Bill differs from that introduced by the late Government in 1928 slightly and in small matters of detail. I think I am not misrepresenting him when I say that. I hope to show your Lordships that it differs in very important matters which will appeal to your Lordships to prevent the Bill, if possible, going any further, or at any rate to have it amended in Committee. A short time ago we heard a good deal from noble Lords opposite about the Privilege of the Commons and how utterly wrong it was for your Lordships to do anything which interfered with that Privilege in any kind of way. I am not sure that the noble and learned Lord who leads the House did not say that he was so much impressed with this that he really could not argue the point at all. At any rate, he sat there and made no comment when my noble friend Lord Salisbury, I think it was, asked him what he had to say.
What does this Bill do? It infringes the Privilege of the Commons because it imposes a charge. If noble Lords will look at Section 2 (8) they will see that the Bill provides that the Secretary of State may make rules, etc., as to the costs of proceedings before and investigation by a referee—
…so, however, that the said cost (including the said remuneration) shall be paid by the undertakers.
As far as my small knowledge goes, the Privilege of the Commons or the Privilege which the Commons claimed some 150 or 200 years ago was that any charge should be put on by the Lower House and not by this House. Here is a charge put upon the ratepayer and, if my information is correct, probably a large charge. Yet the noble Lord has said nothing whatever about it and appears to think that it is the proper thing to do. It appears to me that when it suits noble Lords opposite to impose a charge they forget all about the Privilege of the Commons. When, on the other hand, noble Lords on this side do not impose a charge but merely say that a certain Bill shall be deferred for a year, that is a gross breach of the Privilege of the Commons and cannot be carried out in this House.
§ Let me point out to your Lordships how this Bill differs from that brought in by the late Government in 1928, which I have before me. First of all, that 893 Bill did not allow the Minister to make regulations and, secondly, it provided an appeal—an appeal to the Railway and Canal Commission. This Bill allows an appeal—but to whom? Not to a Court of Law, but to the Minister who appoints the judge who has to decide whether the official appointed by the Minister has done right or wrong. That seems to me to be a flagrant departure from the principles of English justice. The Minister is to make regulations. Under those regulations he can appoint an official. That official can go to the waterworks and reservoirs of the great corporations of the country like Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow, or to the Metropolitan Water Board, and can order those bodies to do all sorts of things entailing great expense upon the ratepayers in the case of the corporations and the Metropolitan Water Board. Then, if the corporation or the Metropolitan Water Board reply: "We do not think this is necessary. Our Engineers are very qualified men. We have never had an accident. None of our reservoirs has ever burst. We are going to appeal"—to whom can they appeal? To a referee appointed by the Minister who also appointed the man whose action is called into question. Yet the noble Lord says that the Bill only differs in a slight degree from that brought in by the late Government. I venture to think it differs in a very considerable and important degree.
Then there is this qualification in Clause 8 (1)—
There shall be constituted a panel of civil engineers for the purposes of this Act, or if the Secretary of State so determine after consultation with the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers… a committee for the purpose …
The engineers so appointed are to have the power of going down to any of the large corporations or large water undertakings and ordering them to spend money which it may be quite unnecessary to spend.
§ The noble Lord said that the reason for the introduction of this Bill was that five years ago in Wales, from which a great many bad things come, a reservoir had burst. That I believe is perfectly correct; but my information is that it was not a reservoir in the sense that the reservoirs of the big corporations or the Metropolitan Water Board are reservoirs. It was merely a dam put 894 across a river between two hills and, in consequence, it was not properly constructed. I do not mean that the dam was not properly constructed, but being a dam across a river between two hills, when there was a heavy rainfall the water increased in such a manner as to burst the dam. I do not know about the Scottish case and I will not say anything about it. It is news to me that there was another case. The noble Lord says that there was and, as I know nothing about it, I will not question it. But why, because some small and badly-constructed reservoir in Wales burst five years ago, should a Bill be brought in which will affect all the large corporations and, consequently, the ratepayers of the country and of a great City like London?
§ The noble Lord, as I understood, said that there were in the country a certain number of small undertakings which had power to construct reservoirs and that those reservoirs were not always properly constructed. Might I ask the noble Lord why he should not bring in a Bill confined to those particular cases? Why bring in a Bill which deals with people whose reservoirs have never been called into question? In these days when it is very difficult to find any money in your pocket and when expenses are increasing on every side, why should the ratepayers of large towns whose reservoirs have been efficiently and properly constructed be put to the expense which they will be put to if this Bill becomes law? I say the expense they will be put to, and I say it for this reason. When you appoint an official he has to justify his existence, and the worst of officials is that they can never sit still and be quiet, they must always do something to show they are active and that their appointment is justified. Therefore, if these officials are appointed, and their remuneration is to be paid by somebody else, you may be certain they will suggest and enforce regulations which will entail the expenditure of a considerable sum of money that will be perfectly unnecessary.
§ I may add that it does not at all follow that because the Bill was originally brought in by a Conservative Government it is a good one. I have never hesitated to say that in my opinion the Conservative Government, like everybody else, sometimes makes mistakes, but if 895 noble Lords opposite are going to change their policy, and if in the future they are going to say "What the late Government did we will do," and apply it to everything, then I am not at all sure I would not withdraw my opposition to this Bill. But I must say I cannot countenance a statement that noble Lords are to pick out one or two bad things which the late Government did and bring them in again, while leaving out all the good things which the late Government did. I hope I have made the House understand what this Bill actually does, because, while on the face of it the Bill seems to be a very innocent little thing, yet like many innocent little things, when you come to investigate it a little closer you find something very bad in it. I beg to move.
Leave out ('now') and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months"). —(Lord Banbury of Southam.)
§ LORD THOMSON
My Lords, I think I will begin by answering the last question of the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, first. He asks why should the law in this respect be strengthened because a disaster occurred owing to the breakdown of a dam between two mountains in Wales. In view of the fact that sixteen people were drowned, and that the disaster might have assumed much greater dimensions, I think there is some cause for investigating the circumstances under which such large and potentially dangerous structures are to be put up. The noble Lord also asked: "Why, because that happened, should perfectly well conducted reservoirs, about which nothing has been said, be inspected by outside people entailing great expense to the ratepayers?" I think it is probably true to say that nothing had been said about that particular dam before the disaster occurred, yet the disaster did occur, and, shortly before it, another one had occurred, equally probably in connection with a construction about which nothing had been heard before. This Bill merely provides that what are elementary precautions should be taken in regard to such constructions in the interest of the public. As to the large expense that is thrown upon the ratepayers, I think the noble Lord is indulging in some slight exaggeration. I doubt if the expense involved in this Bill upon ratepayers is going to raise the rates by a farthing in any city.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
We are always told that on every Bill. I remember we were told when the Old Age Pension Bill was brought in that it would not cost more than £6,000,000.
§ LORD THOMSON
I think this is a matter susceptible of easy calculation. The fee to be paid to the expert is not going to cost a city like Manchester or Glasgow any additional sum on the rates. I should have thought that that was obvious. As regards putting these extra charges upon the ratepayers in the course of construction, after all this Bill applies not only to local authorities—it is not a local Bill in any sense of the term—it is a Bill which applies to all future reservoirs so far as the work of construction is concerned, and it will apply to all past as well as future constructions so far as inspection is concerned. These are perfectly reasonable precautions, and though this Government cannot be accused of slavish imitation of its predecessor, we are not too proud to follow a good example.
As to the point raised by the noble Lord in regard to the differences between this Bill and the last one, I did not endeavour to shirk that question. There are some minor differences. The noble Lord has laid his finger on one—namely, the question of a referee being appointed instead of a reference being made to the Railway and Canal Commission. I understand that that was a matter of general agreement. It was thought that the opinion of an expert engineer would be more valuable than that of the Commission, and I am not at all sure that the Railway and Canal Commission is the sort of body to which a question of that kind can properly be referred. However, as I said in my opening remarks, I have no desire to shirk any question which is germane to a Second Reading debate. I think that all the points raised by the noble Lord are essentially Committee points, and I shall be only too glad to meet him on any Amendments he likes to put down on Committee; but, for the moment, what I am concerned with is the general principle of the Bill, and that is to strengthen the law for the protection of private persons and those who live in the neighbourhood of reservoirs, to ensure that these reservoirs shall be constructed properly and inspected regularly, and to 897 give some rights to the public in regard to compensation should they be the victims of any future disaster. It is on these grounds I present the Bill for Second Reading. In regard to its details, no doubt in Committee many interesting and useful points may be raised.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill has relied for its defence upon the responsibility of his predecessor. That is a very excellent principle, which my noble friend Lord Banbury has himself welcomed. Personally I have no accurate information about this Bill, as the Department to which it belongs was not one under my own personal supervision. Therefore I approach this Bill from a more or less independent point of view, with a slight prejudice in favour of what was agreed to by my colleagues in the last Government. I think the noble Lord has stated what is perfectly true, that these great water undertakings do potentially involve a certain amount of danger, and, if that danger is a real one, it is only reasonable that precautions should be taken against it. I cannot say that I think the evidence which the noble Lord has brought forward is very conclusive by itself. He has quoted two cases, I understand—he will correct me if I am wrong—neither actually of very recent occurrence.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
On those two cases he relied. I think it is very likely there is a great deal more evidence, in the Ministry of Health I presume it is.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I presume there is a greet deal more evidence than that. I do not think that two cases five years ago are very conclusive. But another element in the noble Lord's argument made a considerable impression on me. That was his statement—and I am quite sure he told us accurately—of the feeling of anxiety which exists in a certain number of people living in the neighbourhood of reservoirs as to the possibility of danger. That may be a very real anxiety—I mean really existing—and I think those persons are certainly 898 entitled to consideration. For these reasons I personally should not like to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. On the contrary, I think the Bill should be read a second time. But I think my noble friend Lord Banbury is fully entitled upon the future stages of the Bill to dwell upon those points to which he has called our attention to-day—in particular, as to the special methods of appeal in cases of difference of opinion. I heard what the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Air said in his second speech, that a referee who is an expert might be more relied upon than the Railway and Canal Commissioners. Well, I would not like to pronounce a competent opinion upon that. I have no very great love for experts in these things. An impartial person is the person one wants in a court of appeal rather than an expert. The noble Lord may be able to convince your Lordships in Committee that his view is right and my view is wrong. Certainly that point does require very careful consideration, and there are no doubt other points. But if the Government upon their responsibility come before us and say there have been accidents and that there is anxiety amongst a certain number of interested members of the public, then I think your Lordships would do well to have regard to those anxieties and to that evidence to the extent of reading the Bill a second time. Therefore I hope your Lordships will do so.
§ LORD LAMINGTON
My Lords, may I say one word? My noble friend on my right in his remarks did not refer to Clause 7 of the Bill which introduces a new principle. Under the existing law, if works are carried out under statutory authority, unless there is negligence in their maintenance there is no liability for any damage by reason of the escape of water; but Clause 7 proposes to alter that, which means that although these works have been carried out under capable authority, statutory authority, there shall be liability in the case of damage resulting. That seems an unnecessary innovation and a hardship. There would be no limit, I fancy, to the amount of compensation to be paid and if these works have been carried out under adequate supervision, there should not be this liability.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (LORD PARMOOR)
My Lords, I should like to assure the noble Lord on one point. It is not in any sense a new principle. It has been applied in railway cases, and it has been applied under the Electricity Act, 1899, which at the present time applies to a considerable number of cases. There is no new principle of law.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, after what the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, has said I shall not, of course, put the House to the trouble of a Division, but I hope that in Committee—and I thank the noble Lord for saying he would favourably consider any Amendment that might be moved—we shall be able, to introduce such Amendments (and they will be very many and very drastic) as will render this Bill useful and at the same time innocuous. I am not quite certain whether I mentioned this point, that under the Bill the Minister may make regulations. There has been a very strong feeling—especially expressed by noble Lords below the gangway on this side of the House—that Parliament ought to make regulations and not Ministers. I shall certainly move an Amendment to delete that portion of the Bill, and I hope I shall have the support of the noble Lord in charge of it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.