HL Deb 18 November 1953 vol 184 cc364-93

2.46 p.m.

LORD AMULREE rose to draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the danger caused by fog to the health of the people of London, and to ask what progress has been made in making available an adequate supply of smokeless fuel for domestic use; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put down the Motion upon the Order Paper for a definite reason. There has been a number of articles recently in the newspapers about the effects of fog and a good deal of entirely uninformed discussion of the subject amongst the general public. I thought that the right place to get something sensible said and some sensible ideas put forward about the matter was upon the Floor of your Lordships' House. I do not want to make a long statement because I do not expect to get anything alarming in reply. The public are interested because in December, 1952, as your Lordships will remember, there was one of the most unpleasant fogs that had occurred in London for quite a long time. I will not say that it was one of the thickest or the worst, but in a way it had more unpleasant effects than fogs in recent years. It lasted, as your Lordships may remember, for four days, from December 5 to December 8.

In the Thames valley one expects foggy conditions each winter, but I gather that this particular fog was due to some rather abnormal meteorological conditions. There was no wind, no movement of the air at all, and mild air at the top, with a layer of warm air rising from below to the top and cold air coming down. The effect was rather like putting a lid upon London, as upon a saucepan: sulphur fumes and exhaust fumes accumulated under that warm layer and could not get away. A similar outbreak, if I may call it that, occurred in the month of November, 1948, but it was much milder, and I think there were only about 250 deaths which could be attributed more or less directly to it. During the fog of 1952, it is estimated—I cannot say more than estimated—that between 4,000 and 5,000 people died from the effects of the fog. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to quote one or two figures which I think will show that the fog must have had a lot to do with it. During the week ended December 6, the weekly death figures for London were running at about the normal winter average, about 945. The next week, when the fog occurred, they went up to 2,484, and the week after that the figure was still much above normal, 1,523. Why the increase is said to be due to fog is that there was no trace of any kind of epidemic of influenza. An epidemic did come that winter, but not until January, 1953.

The people affected were the extremely young babies and the elderly people, though I think people over forty-five years of age were more susceptible to it than those under forty-five; and in fact most of the deaths occurred amongst elderly people. As your Lordships might expect, they occurred mainly from respiratory affections, and perhaps I may give some figures. Deaths from bronchitis were ten times what they were over the previous four weeks; from pneumonia about eight times; from tuberculosis from four to five times, and from the other respiratory affections about six times. There have been fog conditions in London for a very long time—in fact ever since the town was started—and when there have been fogs or other conditions of a similar kind deaths have gone up. For example, the last outbreak of cholera was in 1866. According to figures I have, the deaths then numbered 426 above the normal for one week. A big fog occurred in 1873, and the deaths attributable to fog were about 240 above the normal. A really bad outbreak of influenza which many of your Lordships will remember occurred at the end of the First World War, in 1918. The increase then in the death rate over normal for the week was 705. And in the fog of 1952, according to my figures, there was an increase of 445 over the normal average for the week. Therefore one can attribute it to fog, or at any rate to the particular form of fog which is now called smog, a word which I do not like, but it goes back to the early days of the twentieth century, which gives it a little more respectability.

Your Lordships will remember that there was a very bad fog round about a year ago. At that time a big agricultural show was being held at Smithfield, and a great many animals there were badly affected. So far as I can remember, five cattle died, nine had to be slaughtered because they were so sick, and 161 had to be treated for the effects of the fog. The numbers may have been even higher than that, but those are the figures that I have of animals which had to be treated. That fog, I may remind your Lordships, affected not only animals it affected flowers and plants, because there were fine displays of winter-flowering plants in the gardens at Kew which were completely destroyed. I mention that to show that that fog had a universal killing effect not confined to mankind. Many other people, of course, were taken sick, though they did not die. Those, in a sense, are the people in whom one is particularly interested, because, though they recovered, they were made unnecessarily ill.

Figures for these people are difficult to ascertain, but I have heard one or two significant facts. If you take the new sickness claims for the County of London and the County of Middlesex, taken together, they went up from 15,000 to 29,000 a week, which is practically a 100 per cent. increase. Another very sensitive illustration of acute sickness in London is the number of calls received by the emergency beds service, a voluntary body working with the Ministry, which often finds beds in hospitals when doctors themselves cannot find them. I have some figures of what the daily calls were. During the big influenza epidemic of 1951 the calls numbered 293; during the fog of 1952 they were 492. That is a big increase; it provides a sensitive index, and it does show something of the effects of fog. We have similar figures for the ambulance service in London. If you take December 4 and 5,1952, compared with the similar dates of 1951 you find that there were 216 calls in 1951 and 370 calls in 1952—a 71 per cent. increase. There is another way of showing the rates of sickness. The number of prescriptions under the National Health Service went up by 12.5 per cent. during the month I have mentioned, December, 1952. All this goes to show that there was not only a big increase in deaths but a very big increase in the sickness rate at the same time.

If I may now come down to a more personal aspect, I should like to mention the hospital in which I work—my own beds, which are principally for people over 65. We received about 100 per cent. more calls for admission to those beds during that week of fog. All this goes to show that there was a big increase in sickness, as well as the increase in deaths to which I have already referred.

I began my speech by saying that I did not want to be alarmist about this particular fog. Perhaps I may now take your Lordships' minds back to four other bad fogs which have occurred in London in past years. There was a bad one in 1873, when the death rate went up to 37.5 per cent., and many prize beasts at Smithfield had to be slaughtered. There was another big fog in 1880, when the death rate in January and February rose from 27.1 per cent. to 48.1 per cent. I believe that the excess of deaths at that time over the normal number was 2,994. I do not want to stress exact figures, but there was certainly a big increase. At the same time, in an area such as Croydon, which is outside the London fog area, the death rate went up from 35 to 36 per cent. That shows how fog was responsible even there. In 1892 there was another big fog, and the number of deaths in the week rose to about 1,484 above the average. In 1934 there was a three weeks' fog in London and the deaths from respiratory diseases rose from 49 to 121 in a week. In 1939 the same thing occurred again: deaths from respiratory affections rose from 8 to 76 in a week. So, although we talk a great deal about the great fog of 1952, we must not take too panicky a view, for it is obvious that that sort of thing has been going on for some time before 1952.

The effects of fog are not confined to London—although you might think so. There was a big one in Glasgow in 1909, when the death rate from respiratory diseases went up from 35 to 233 in the week ending November 27. In seven other large towns in Scotland, where there was no fog, the figures rose from 31 to 93. Another place which suffers a great deal from fog is the Manchester and Salford district. There, in December, 1930, there was no fog, and 137 people died from respiratory diseases. In January, 1931, there was a nine-days' fog, and the number of deaths from respiratory diseases increased to 592. So, although London is particularly attacked, the rest of the country is not entirely free from fog. The reason why the fog in 1952 was a rather more dangerous fog than those we had suffered before is that there was a much greater concentration, so far as we could make out, of sulphur dioxide in the air at the time. There again, we cannot be too dogmatic about it, because records of sulphur dioxide content in the air have not been kept for a very long time. Perhaps the noble Earl who is to reply knows more about it than I do, but I think those figures were not kept before the war. It is hard to find figures going back to before the war, but it seems as if sulphur dioxide is one of the causes of the trouble.

Experiments have been carried out in America on animals and they have shown that, normally speaking, if you have people breathing an atmosphere with a normal content of sulphur dioxide, it is absorbed into the nasal passages and no particular harm is done. It was found with these animals that the sulphur dioxide gets into the lungs and they may die from acute poisoning in a matter of four seconds. That has not been entirely confirmed, but I think there is a good deal of evidence to show that that is true. What I think that one can say, therefore, is that, if you have impure air containing a lot of sulphur dioxide, more of the sulphur dioxide will be carried into the lungs of the population than if the concentration is kept down to what I may call a normal quantity, when it is not particularly foggy outside. During the time of the fog, the machines that we had recording in London showed that the concentration of sulphur dioxide was five times the normal of the three previous days before the fog came on. May I quote a few more figures? The daily deaths in the County of London in the first few days of December numbered 250. The fog began on December 5 and by December 8 the trouble was growing really serious; the daily deaths had gone up to 510. The smoke concentration had gone up, too, and people were suffering from its effects. By December 10 the daily deaths had increased to 543. It seems that there is some kind of correlation between the sulphur dioxide content of the air and deaths from fog.

I have gone into that aspect of the subject at rather great length, but what is much more important is to see what one can do to stop the occurrence of fogs in the future. I do not expect that the noble Earl who is going to reply can give any clue as to what is going to take place in this regard in the next twelve months or two years. Obviously, to achieve our objective is going to take a long time, but what one would like to know is that the Government, and with the Government the local authorities, are aware of the problem and are doing something to meet it. The fact that it has been present in London for the last couple of thousand years is no reason why we should tolerate it any longer than we need to do. I read a paper the other day by Mr. Regan, who is the chief chemist to the London County Council. He said: Man requires food, water and air. The first two are rigidly controlled, but not so air. That is quite true. We are most careful about our water, we are careful about our food—and we should be more careful in future—but we do not care much about the air we breathe, which is one of the most important foods we take in. It seems to me rather strange that fish in a river tend to be rather more protected than are people walking about the streets of London. If there is pollution of a river, all sorts of legal proceedings can be instituted to stop that pollution continuing, whereas, so far as I know, little is done for the people of London who are walking about on their normal activities.

There are all sorts of ways in which this question can be approached but there is only one about which I know much—I know little about the others. I should like to ask the Government what is being done to increase the use of the various kinds of smokeless fuels, because, so far as one can tell, if they could be brought into use they would go far towards solving the fog question in general—not merely the sulphur dioxide problem but the whole of the fog question. The second way of dealing with the matter is by the formation of what are called smokeless zones. These can be formed under the Public Health Act, 1936, by local authorities. However, that Act is not entirely effective, because at the time of its passing a large range of industries were told that they need not come into the scheme if they did not want to because under Section 109 of the Act exemption for a number of trades and industrial concerns is given. Though that may have been necessary in 1936, I should have thought one could take a firmer line in 1953, and that is a point I should like the noble Earl to deal with in his reply. There are one or two places where smoke-free zones have been declared. I know of one in particular in Manchester, and the formation of this smokeless zone has done a great deal of good. It is not entirely effective, because the fog still blows across the borders of the area from the built-up district outside.

We need to adopt this method on a big scale. We contemplate making one or two smokeless zones in the City of London—the Common Council have talked about it. I am glad to see that the Borough of St. Pancras, with which I am closely associated and which is a progressive Borough, is contemplating taking the same kind of action. If we are going to create these zones, we must provide some kind of fuel that the people can burn: we cannot say that there shall be no fires at all in our smokeless zone. There are various kinds of fuels which can be obtained and which do not give very much smoke but burn with practically full combustion. I do not want to go into that matter in great detail. Some are natural fuels and some can be manufactured, and they can be used for practically any purposes for which solid fuel is required—for domestic use, steam raising, drying, furnace heating and purposes of that kind. Then, too, a certain type of grate is in use which can burn all fuel completely. It is not like the grate that one normally finds in the older type of house. The old type of coal-burning grate, does not consume the whole of the fuel, or anything like it. However, one can now obtain grates or stoves which will do that to a much greater degree. Apparently the numbers of such grates in the country are increasing. People are installing them more and more, particularly in new housing estates. It is a very good thing and I trust it will be encouraged.

A new factor has arisen in London during the past years: I refer to the power stations that have been erected. I cannot remember the exact numbers for the whole of the County of London, but there are nine of these power stations on the banks of the Thames; in other words, they are in a valley, and that is where the worst smoke concentration and misty conditions making for fog will occur. I am not quite sure what kind of treatment is now given to the fumes from power stations. I think I am right in saying that before the war it was not compulsory but it was customary for the fumes coming up to be washed; and supposing that that washing was done properly and effectively, I am told—I am not an engineer—that a 97 per cent. efficiency could be obtained, which, I think, is as good as can be obtained anywhere. I should like to know whether that is being done now. I believe that the practice was stopped during the war because there was some kind of luminosity at night which one could not permit, but I wonder whether it has now been adopted again. Perhaps the noble Earl can tell us that when he comes to reply.

One thing which is certainly done is to have very efficient extractors which catch the solid part of the effluent, although that, I think, is not what does the main harm. It gives a great deal of satisfaction to the housewives to know that that is done, but it does not keep their houses much cleaner. What is really evil from the health point of view are the fumes. Something one sees regularly, if one performs a post-mortem examination upon a patient who has died in London, is that the lungs are completely black with carbon; but if you perform a post-mortem on a person who has died in the country the lungs are very much pinker. One cannot say that the average Londoner suffers from an excessive degree of bronchitis or chest trouble, so much of the dirt that one takes in does not appear to do any harm. Therefore, though it is attractive to stop this particular stuff coming out of the power stations, it is not very dangerous, whereas fumes are.

One thing that has been considered is fuel washing. Fuel washing is extremely expensive, but one has got to weigh up that expense with the cost of fog to London. One sees stones corroded and people becoming sick and ill. That is all due to something connected with domestic or industrial fumes, so, although fuel washing is a costly matter, in the long run one has to weigh it up against the cost to the community in coping with the effects of fog and of smoke. It is possible, of course, to put new boilers and fires into existing premises; but there again it is an expensive business. I think you can put in an ordinary fire for about £5, but a boiler, or a kitchen range with a fire, costs between £30 and £40, which is quite a large amount of money. As I say, fog is an expensive thing and I do not know which is going to be the more expensive in the long run. It is believed that the fog of1952 cost London about £10 million. It is difficult to be accurate, but that is the figure given. It is possible to do quite a lot of good with £10 million, and the fact is that it is going to cost somebody some money. Eventually, it must all come out of the taxpayer's pocket, so I do not think one need be too particular as to which pocket it comes out of in the first place.

My Lords, there are one or two other things with which I should like to deal. In the past, there have been Reports on fuel consumption. There are Reports of Committees presided over by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, both of which worked out that to get the whole country to burn smokeless fuel in domestic grates would need about 25 million tons a year. It might not need quite so much as that, because there would be a certain amount of drifting towards electricity and gas. At the present time, however, the output is about 5,220,000 tons. One of the reports I read the other day was that of the Smoke Abatement Congress in Glasgow, at which were read a number of good Papers containing some suggestions that I should like to put before your Lordships. I am not quite sure how they could be implemented, or whether they are sound in practice. Perhaps we could have some information upon them from the noble Earl, because these suggestions received a great deal of publicity at the time, and if people thought that a particular thing could be done I believe they would expect it to be done.

One of the suggestions made was that one should not try to take small areas in towns and make them into smokeless areas, but that one should make five or six big areas in the country smokeless areas—for example, London, the Black Country, South Lancashire, the West Riding, the Tyne, the Tees, and the Clyde. That was to be the first step. It was reckoned that for domestic purposes alone that would need 13 million tons of smokeless fuel per annum—or perhaps less, because modern appliances, with such fuel, require less. It was claimed at this conference in Glasgow that it would be possible, by real efforts, to make 10 million tons of smokeless fuel available per year for the domestic market by the end of 1957, and 15 million tons by the end of 1962. One would like to know whether all this is practicable, and, if it is practicable, whether it could be done in the time mentioned; because, quite obviously, if these areas could be turned into smokeless areas, it would save a great deal of money and trouble, and the people there would be very much fitter and healthier than they are at present. But, as I say, one does not expect anything to be done in a short time. This ought to be a long-term policy. I was rather startled to read that it could be done by 1957. That seemed to be a great improvement, and I should like to know whether it is possible. One thing that has occurred recently has been the appointment by the Government of the Beaver Committee to inquire into the fog question in London. They were appointed, I think, in July of this year, and obviously they have not had time to get out a full Report. I wonder whether it would be possible to have some Interim Report, to show that they are working, so that people will not forget that they exist and think that nothing is being done.

Another step which is being taken already is the production of masks. I purchased one this morning for a shilling from John Bell & Croyden, but the masks can be prescribed under the National Health Service. I am not sure, however, whether, as many people seem to think, the real cause of the danger of fog lies in the fumes of sulphur dioxide rather than the ordinary smoke. I do not think this kind of mask is going to be of much value. If a surgeon operates in a theatre and is dealing with a raw wound, that surgeon will wear a mask; but, contrary to what people think, the wearing of that mask is not to keep out minute germs and bacteria but to keep out much bigger things. It is to prevent (to use a rather vulgar thought) the surgeon from being forced to spit into the wound when he is talking, or something like that. Masks are perfectly all right for that kind of thing, but I doubt whether they will be of any value in dealing with these tiny particles, which are the really dangerous things and which can get round the corners of the mask, and penetrate the mesh of the gauze. So I do not think that this idea of masks will be a great success. But this has been taken up by the Press on a large scale. It was stated this morning in The Times, which is generally sensible and calm about things, that it is a surprising thing that yesterday, when there was a little fog, people were not going to the chemists to buy smog-masks. Why on earth should they? I think the mask is a rather feeble form of protection.

There are two other points that I should like to raise before I sit down. One concerns something which is increasing the amount of smoke. There are now fires which can be banked up at night: they do not go out; they burn up soft domestic coal, and they go on smoking away all night, which is a time when fog is most induced. No doubt they are very convenient, but I think they are rather dangerous things, and I believe that their use is increasing. The other matter which I should like to mention to your Lordships is this. I read in The Times the other day—I believe it was on Friday of last week—that one of the sub-committees of the London County Council proposed to bring before the, Council some rather big scheme for dealing with fog in London. According to The Times, it was stated that some kind of amending legislation would be needed if the Council approved the scheme. I trust that if the Council do approve the scheme—and I certainly hope they will—it will be possible to get that amending legislation easily and quickly. The project in question seems to me to be quite good and sound.

I think that covers really all that I wish to say. I have put one or two questions to the noble Earl, and I hope that he will be able to give replies to them. I trust that I have not said anything which will cause alarm in the country about fogs or smogs, or whatever one calls them. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I rise for a very short lime for three purposes. First, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord who has just spoken upon his speech, to the preparation of which he has obviously devoted a great deal of thought and care. I think this is a subject which needs thought and care. It is certainly a subject about which Lord Amulree can speak with authority, for he has medical knowledge, and I hope there will be other Members of your Lordships' House who also have that kind of knowledge who will take part in this debate. I hope that the fact that the noble Lord has taken this question up shows that the House as a whole is going to take a real interest in the matter. That is my first reason for rising to speak. My second reason is that this is the first chance I have had to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who sits opposite, upon the promotion which has recently so worthily fallen upon him. For some time past the noble Earl has been answering all sorts of questions on all sorts of topics, and he always answers with the utmost courtesy and care. The Opposition are grateful to him for the part which he has played in the conduct of our debates in this House. As a member of the "Ranks of Tuscany" far this purpose, I cannot forbear to cheer at the promotion which has now come his way.

My third reason for rising is just to say this—and when I have said it I shall sit down. I believe that this question of fog is a very serious matter indeed, and I hope that the Government are not going to be complacent about it. They are face to face with a really big problem here, and I am not in the least satisfied that they have taken adequate steps to deal with it or have any appreciation whatever of its gravity. The noble Lord who has just spoken said that the Beaver Committee was appointed in July. What were the Government doing between the first week in December and July? Why on earth, after the experience which they had had in the first week of December, did they wait until July to appoint a Committee, if they realised how grave this matter was? I am assuming that July is the right datex2014;I have borrowed it from the noble Lord; I did not know of it before. In the present month in this House Lord Woolton stated in the debate on the Address that he hoped shortly to receive a Report about fog. It would have been much more useful if we had received a Report, even though it was an Interim Report only, in the summer months.

This is clearly a big problem, and, that being so, I believe it may well take a long time to implement measures to deal with it. But that is all the more reason why the Government should get busy on this matter at once. They have to think out new legislation, methods of compensation, and means of providing the sorts of fuel which are called for and which will have to be provided quickly to the people who are now choking up our atmosphere. Like the noble Lord, I am not by any means certain that some electricity generating stations are not among the offenders in this respect. You must get ready to deal with this problem. I was glad to note that Lord Woolton, on the occasion which I have mentioned, said that the Government were much alarmed about the problem. That is exactly the attitude which I should desire the Government to have. If they really are alarmed, it means to say that they are going to treat it seriously as being of the first moment.

I am afraid, however, that the City of London and the City of Manchester have got ahead of the Government on this matter, and are busy preparing their plans while the Government, after taking seven or eight months to appoint a Committee, are now waiting for an Interim Report That is not good enough. I am not qualified, as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, is, to say what the consequences to the health of the people are. I have no statistics that are comparable with the noble Lord's statistics showing the number who died. I know that there are large numbers of people—of whom, if I may humbly say so, I am one—who suffered severely from the incidents of last December, and that there are large numbers of people in this country who are fearful lest the same thing is going to happen again. I am sure there is nothing the Government can do which will appeal more to many citizens in this great city than to show that they are determined to tackle the problem with the utmost vigour. If this had been a war-time problem, which arose when we were fighting our enemies, I do not think under the leadership which we then had we should have waited for eight months to appoint a Committee and now be waiting for an Interim Report. We should have taken action at once, and I beg the Government to treat this matter as being just as urgent as if it were a war matter. We are fighting against a great peril and a great menace, and I ask the Government to lose no time in propounding proposals and schemes for remedying this evil. I realise that the actual implementation of such schemes must be a lengthy matter, but if something could be done before twelve months have elapsed it would be a great consolation to many people in this city.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, as Lord Amulree has said, this is a very old problem which has long been with us. The worst fog in London which I was ever in was one which occurred some time before the 1914–18 War—I believe in 1911. No other fog that I have experienced has been comparable with that one. After that war, smokeless fuel came first into the market, and it occurred to me to consider what steps would be necessary to purify the air of London. It appeared to me that the Government would require great powers, very wisely chosen, and the space of at least three years to accomplish anything definite in that respect. I think that is borne out by what Lord Amulree has said with a great deal more force.

That being the case, there is only one thing that I wish to say in this present debate. Matters being as Lord Amulree has described them, I deplore the action of a group of doctors who addressed a joint letter to the Press attacking this Government specifically for apathy in this matter. They made it appear that in their view it was neglect by this Government which was at the root of our difficulties and dangers in regard to fog. I deplore that, not because it is unfair to the Government—I expect that most Governments are accustomed to being treated unfairly—but because doctors in this country, by reason of the great respect which is paid to them socially, have it in their power by means of ill-judged and ill-phrased pronouncements to start something very like panic; and if, in doing that, they attack the Government of the day, they are attacking the people whose duty it is to allay a panic if it should start. I do not think this is consistent with the high respect in which we all hold the medical profession. I look on medicine as an art, although I am told by many people it is a science; but I submit, that this is neither artistic nor scientific.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I would join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, on having raised this matter, which is one of the greatest importance. I believe that now we shall be able to deal with this problem sufficiently drastically to bring it under control. That is not impossible. It is simply that we have always lived in a smoky world, with many fogs during winter; and we have taken them for granted—whether we are doctors or not. The particularly serious fog in the British Isles between December 5 and 9 last year brought the matter to a head. It was very carefully considered by the Royal Sanitary Institute, which has published a little pamphlet entitled Air Pollution and the London Fog of December. I mention the pamphlet to give it an advertisement, so that it may be read by as many people as possible. It is a valuable survey of the subject. It is a factual document and is extremist neither in its politics nor in its statements. It is not the kind of report which ordinarily comes to the notice of Members of this House and I hope noble Lords will take the opportunity of getting copies and reading it.

In December last year an area of upwards of 1,000 square miles of the Thames Valley, including London, was covered with fog. Many people died of respiratory troubles and, as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, mentioned, prize cattle died in Smithfield. The Ministry of Health took the initiative and investigated the matter with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The results of their examination are most interesting. It is calculated that 5,000,000 tons of domestic coal are consumed in Greater London during the six winter months. That sends into the atmosphere from 800 to 1,000 tons of smoke a day, and of sulphur dioxide, which is a poisonous gas, from 2,000 to 3,000 tons a day; and of carbon monoxide, which is a concentrated and deadly poison, up to 2,000 tons a day. And this is the kind of thing we are taking for granted! We should take the steps suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, to bring this smoke nuisance under control. Details of how it can be done can be seen in the pamphlet which I have mentioned.

It is interesting to note that there is a local application of this problem. The maximum concentration of fog was in Westminster, immediately around this House, so that we suffer from the worst irritations produced by these aerial poisons. Measurements have been made since 1873 in order to produce evidence of the smoke nuisance, but I need not dally on the history of this problem, except to say that the figures show that we are dealing with a serious problem, which has persisted for so long only because we have got used to it. We must certainly plan to do away altogether with the fog menace. It can be done, although there may be one or two difficulties. One of the difficulties in the way is a simple administrative one. In London, the authorities who would have to deal with controlling smoke pollution are the borough councils, not the London County Council. There is no central authority dealing with London as a whole, and perhaps in some of the larger provincial cities the same state of affairs is to be found. We need a central authority for dealing with this problem in Greater London. Westminster, Battersea and Fulham, and the other boroughs, cannot be expected to call a special conference of representatives whenever there is a fog on the Thames. How such an authority should be constituted is one of the important points that has to be considered. The London County Council are already trying to take preliminiary steps to facilitate the formation of such an organisation.

Evidence has been given to the Beaver Committee and we should soon be in possession of a great many facts about the smoke nuisance. As my noble and learned friend Lord Jowitt has already said, it is unfortunate that this was not done earlier, but a great many of us are to blame for that, because we have become used to this nuisance and have not worried about it. Now we must be prepared to take action. We must concentrate the necessary authority, and we must apply the remedies decided on by the scientific authorities. I think we shall have to forbid altogether the use of fuel that emits smoke in the London area. Heating, lighting and cooking can be done conveniently by the use of smokeless fuel. That may seem drastic, but it is a question of balancing this against the possible loss of valuable lives. Smoke pollution takes no account of the individuals who may suffer; they may be the most important workers in the country; they may be the most important political people in the country, but the smoke gets at them and they may get pneumonia or other troubles. It is a gross waste of valuable human material to allow this terrible condition to continue.

We should consider this problem on a national basis. We should see to it that we save the lives of people who can be saved, by the application of knowledge which we have at the moment and the application of means which will have to be determined. It can be done, and it should be done. I hope the House will agree; and I trust that the noble Earl, in his reply, will indicate that this problem is to be tackled at once, and that some definite means will be taken to control smoke and fog in London and all the great cities of the British Isles at the earliest possible moment. Undoubtedly this is one of the causes of the loss of valuable lives. And it is not only a trouble in the family: it causes great disorganisation of work through people dying prematurely from disease.

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, the facts about this great evil, and the proposed remedies, have been so fully and clearly stated by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, in his opening remarks, and by my noble friend Lord Haden-Guest, that it is difficult to add to what they have said, and I believe even more difficult to disagree with them. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, asked one question which I should like to try to answer. He asked whether the Government and the local authorities are aware of this problem. I cannot answer for the Government—the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, will do that in a moment—but I can speak for the largest of the local authorities which have responsibilities in relation to the pollution of the air in the London area—that is, the London County Council. I thought it might be of interest to your Lordships to know the view which they take.

The London County Council decided yesterday afternoon to submit evidence to the Beaver Committee, the Committee which the Government have set up, which would also include some suggestions about remedial measures. I should like to draw the attention of your Lordships to two of those suggestions of what might be done, because I feel they are of paramount importance. The first suggestion is directed at providing the public with information about the damage done by fog: how it is produced, and how its injurious effects to life and property can be avoided. I do not think anyone wants to poison his neighbours, yet how many people, I wonder, know that smokeless fuels give off as much sulphur as coke or coal, or that fuel oil gives off half as much sulphur again as an equal weight of coal or coke? I did not know these facts until a short time ago when I made it my business to study this problem.

The consequences of the first fact is that, even if you have smokeless zones, the main evil of sulphur is still without a remedy; and the second, surely, must give some people who are contemplating the construction of new power stations pause for thought. But the essential thing is this matter of making the evil known. After all, if all the users of fuel, ordinary householders as well as big industrial users and public utilities, knew how much damage they were doing at this moment, and how this damage could be lessened, surely there would be mach more voluntary effort to exercise care in the choice and use of fuel. The London County Council believe that a publicity campaign to educate and inform public opinion is one of the essentials in any cure of this evil. For this purpose, we have suggested in our recommendations that local authorities should be given power—a power which they have not at the moment—to spend money on publicity of this kind.

The second suggestion—and this matter has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree—relates to the most important of all the problems connected with atmospheric pollution, namely, the prevention of pollution by sulphur dioxide. I am sure your Lordships will agree that smoke is a nuisance, whereas sulphur is a killer; and the essence of the problem is to lessen the amount of sulphur that gets into the air. Central and South-West London are peculiarly vulnerable in this respect, for this reason. There are three large power stations, Battersea, Fulham and Lotts Road, which are situated within an area of twenty square miles. It has been calculated that 60 per cent. of all the coal burned within this area is burned by the furnaces of those three power stations, and only one of them, I believe, Battersea, has a washing-plant for washing the gases. What the Council have proposed, as a remedy for sulphur pollution, is that the two main preventive methods which have already been tried out—the washing of gases, and their dispersal from high chimneys—should be accurately tested, in order to ascertain which is the more effective. The great difficulty is that we have not got the information that we need; we are short of basic data which is required before any firm conclusions can be drawn. A serious difficulty about the washing of gas is its expense. I believe that at Battersea they say it costs 8s. to 10s. for every ton of coal burned.

Another suggestion put forward is that the Fuel Research Council should examine the possibility of finding a cheaper process for the washing of gas. If such a process could be discovered, it would clearly have a revolutionary effect, because it could be used not only in power stations but in industry generally, without adding unreasonably to industrial costs or, alternatively, putting an unfair burden on the consumer. These inquiries would be of great general importance to the country. One important question which the London County Council would like considered, and then decided when when we know the outcome of these inquiries, is whether the washing of gases should be made compulsory in all power stations in densely populated areas. Those are views which have been submitted by the London County Council for consideration, and I believe they show that the Council are keenly alive to this problem and regard it as a grave matter. In conclusion, I should like to endorse the plea made by my noble and learned Leader a few moments ago for a sense of urgency. It is clear that many of these inquiries will take a long time. My noble and learned friend suggested that the Committee which has been set up might be asked to issue an Interim Report. I am sure we should be glad to hear that the Government are willing to suggest to the Committee that an Interim Report might be made, with recommendations for legislation to amend the existing law and giving additional power to local authorities. That would, at any rate, be some improvement in the present state of affairs, pending the Final Report of the Committee.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join noble Lords who have already spoken in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, on initiating this debate. I should like specifically to support some of the suggestions just made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. Power stations and factories burning large quantities of coal in a few combustion units comprise the class most able to bring about a significant cleansing of the atmosphere. I suggest that if all undertakings of that nature, power stations and large factories which burn substantial quantities of coal, were compelled to clean their gases, the present pollution would be greatly reduced. The annual bill, of course, for capital charges and operating expenses would be large, but surely many times this amount would be saved in the damage averted. Take the power station situation in London: those power stations which at the moment cleanse their flue gases are Battersea (in part) and Bankside. Fulham did something, but is now doing nothing at all, and the plant has been stopped. The majority of London power stations have no equipment for the cleansing of these gases. If something could be done in that direction, the views of all noble Lords speaking in this debate would at once be given great purpose and importance.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, for what he was good enough to say in regard to myself. I often think that the reason why we like our dogs is because they never talk. If we knew what they would say if they could speak, perhaps they would not be quite so popular. I feel, therefore, that I am even more grateful for the generous words which he was good enough to say to-day. I, too, should like most warmly to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, upon the remarks he made. His speech was full of much detailed fact, some of which I must confess I found it a little difficult to follow from the information I had. I agree that this is a subject of outstanding importance which it is right that we should discuss in this House, and one which is giving rise to public concern at the present time. I do not think this matter has ever previously been discussed in the form of a full debate in this House.

I should like to make two points in regard to the Motion itself. The noble Lord speaks of fog in London. Of course, strictly speaking there is little danger to health from pure fog as such; the danger arises only from polluted fog. In the second place, we are dealing here specifically with the London area, but the noble Lord is quite right in drawing attention to the fact that there are a great many other parts of the country where this problem is very serious indeed. Without seeking to make comparisons, I can recall fogs in Glasgow which I would describe as very severe indeed. I should like to recall to your Lordships what Sir John Simon, the Chief Medical Officer of the Local Government Board, said in 1890: Many endure without revolt the general smoke nuisance and have come to accept that their common life in a great part shall be excluded from the pure light of day by the ignoble pall of unconsumed soot. That is the point which the noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest, quite properly made.

The Motion places emphasis upon the provision of smokeless fuel. That is only part of what is a big and intractable problem, and one which has been with us for a long time. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, brought out some of the economic and scientific problems which are necessarily involved in this question. It is now something like seven centuries since the burning of sea coal was first forbidden in London. Shortly after that the Commissioners of Oyer and Terminer were charged to inquire into cases and to impose heavy fines and destroy furnaces. Later still, Queen Elizabeth forbade the burning of coal when Parliament was sitting. It was not entirely an empty threat, because I find at least one brewer and one dyer were thrown into prison. Many of your Lordships know the works of Evelyn written a hundred years later, in which he describes the hellish and dismal cloud of sea coal which hangs perpetually over this opulent city of London. But if anyone wants to read a really disagreeable account of what London was like a hundred years ago, may I commend to him the opening pages of Bleak House. I think many of us would be glad to think that it is the twentieth century and not the nineteenth century in which we are destined to be living. He will there read of Fog everywhere.…Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes.…Fog in the eyes and throat of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards. Moreover, as the noble Lord said, the very word "smog" originated in this country nearly fifty years ago, and not in America.

What I should like to emphasise is the size of the problem we are facing. Again, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who, I may say, answered the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, who suggested that this is a simple matter. It is an exceedingly complex matter. The figures have been given, but I will repeat them. It is estimated that our chimneys throughout the whole country give out annually something of the order of 2 million tons of smoke, 500,000 tons of grit, and 5 million tons of sulphur dioxide. That presents a fantastic problem in itself. When you add to that the very special meteorological conditions to which the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, referred, you are really up against an exceedingly difficult problem. The meteorological position depends upon the accepted principle that hot air rises. If you get a layer of cold air near the ground with warmer air above it, the lower air cannot get away at all; it is just as if a blanket were laid over the town, and all the smoke fumes, industrial and commercial, the grit and all the exhaust gases of motor cars are pushed into this relatively restricted space. Obviously, in these conditions the health-giving and, indeed, the life-giving forces of sunshine and oxygen to a great extent lose their quality.

We should all agree that it is desirable to get the atmosphere cleared of smoke, but I must add the warning which has already been given, that even if we did so we should not necessarily be at the end of the problem, because there are the colourless gases, of which sulphur dioxide is one and possibly carbon monoxide another, which would still be exuded. I say this with hesitation, because frankly we are not yet in a position to make an authoritative pronouncement. That was the difficulty with which those responsible in the medical profession were faced after last December's fog. They did not know exactly what was the cause of death. When something happens the Government do not appoint a Committee straight away but only when it becomes clear that there is a problem which cannot be solved by ordinary administrative means. It was only when it was realised that there was a problem to which the medical profession had not an absolute answer—and which they have not to this day—that they appointed the Beaver Committee. That is a fair and proper way of looking at it.

I should like to turn particularly to the fog which took place in 1952. I do not want to overestimate it, and I do not want to underestimate it, but I agree that it is a serious matter which we have to look at as fairly and objectively as we can. The Meteorological Office are reluctant to say that the visibility, as such, was any worse than in previous years. They do say that the fog persisted probably rather longer and endured rather more heavily than on previous occasions. But it may be that the level of the blanket—the level at which inversion was taking place—was rather lower, and may some of the time have been as low as 150 ft., which is, of course, extremely low in a city such as this. Records do not go back very far, but, as has been said, the smoke concentration was about five times the normal, and the sulphur dioxide about six times. If we take the fog of November, 1948, which the noble Lord mentioned, we find that the smoke concentration then was about 50 per cent. of what it was in 1952 and the sulphur dioxide about 70 per cent. The concentration was obviously much greater in 1952 though not of an entirely different order, as the noble Lord has suggested. I cannot go back any farther in regard to figures for earlier fogs.

Now as regards mortality, I agree that the incidence of death primarily affected the old people. Indeed, the death rate among young people in their twenties hardly varied at all during that period. The deaths from heart disease increased three times, from pneumonia about five times and from bronchitis about ten times. The weekly mortality in the London County area before the fog was about 850 and it went up about three times in the week in which the fog ended. Indeed, in December 4,000 people died whose deaths may be regarded as attributable to the fog. In the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, any higher figure taken of deaths over a longer period must remain essentially a matter of conjecture. If comparison is made with earlier fogs—I take particularly the one of 1880—one notices that the rise in the weekly death rate was very much sharper last year than in the earlier fog. On the other hand, the general mortality rate in 1880 was much higher. Therefore, although the actual rise of deaths in the fog period was somewhat similar in 1880 to what it was last year, the absolute death rate of the highest week in 1880 was considerably higher than in the highest week in December last year. I put it in this way to show that we are to-day accustomed, and rightly so, to a cleaner way of living; and this high death rate came as a bigger shock to us than it would have done at a time when living conditions were less clean than they are to-day.

The noble Lord made reference to the cholera deaths in 1866. My figures are rather different: I make it 14,000 people who died in the course of one summer. I am not quite sure on what the noble Lord bases his figure. I think that with certain reservations it is permissible to compare the two: I think there is a broad comparison to be made between that problem and the problem which we are discussing to-day. Of course, there are differences in many respects. At that time the Thames was virtually an open sewer. Perhaps I may describe the attitude to the sewage problem in those days in the words of a sturdy independent who in July, 1854, wrote, I think in The Times, We prefer to take our chance of cholera than be bullied into health. At that time sewage treatment had hardly begun; and it was one of Disraeli's great achievements to set in motion his so-called Sanitary Policy, and particularly the Act of 1875. This process has not yet come to an end; we are still carrying it forward; and enormous sums of public money are still being expended on sanitation in one form or another such as the Colne Valley scheme, a huge scheme costing millions of pounds. Anyone who knows of that scheme realises the magnitude of the work which is going on. I suggest that in this other problem we are facing something which demands very much the same resources. That is the attitude of the Government towards this problem at the present moment.

With regard to personal protection from fog, perhaps I might remind your Lordships that a statement was made by my right honourable friend, the Minister of Health, on November 13. If I might summarise the position, I would do so as follows. In the first place, there is not much danger to persons in good health. In the second place, a person suffering from weakness of the heart or chest should seek individually his doctor's advice. It is neither desirable nor possible to give any general guidance on this point. The wearing of a suitable mask will offer some measure of protection against solid particles in smog, but it will not protect the wearer from the gaseous contents, and so has only a limited value. There are two forms of mask available under the National Health Service for those suffering from cardiac or respiratory afflictions.

I turn now to methods which have been used to resolve this problem, to the progress made and to some idea of what we are going to do in the future. But first let me take this opportunity of thanking noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, for it is a most difficult subject. I should also like to acknowledge with gratitude the contributions which have been made to resolve the difficulties of a matter which is of great public importance. Legislation goes back nearly a century—certainly to the Smoke Nuisance (Scotland) Act, 1857. The main Acts of to-day are the Public Health Act, 1936, and the Scottish Acts of 1897 and 1936. Although these Acts have not achieved all that we should like, if we can believe the stories we hear of some of our towns and cities in the nineteenth century it is idle to pretend that they did not achieve something: they must have done. I think we should pay tribute, too, to the National Smoke Abatement Society for the work they have done in propaganda on this very important subject. The weaknesses in these Acts are that they do not apply to domestic consumers at all; and, in the second place, so far as industry is concerned, that it is possible to make a complete answer that the "best possible means" are employed of preventing a smoke nuisance. More recently, local authorities have taken powers to bring into existence smokeless zones which will apply equally to domestic and to commercial users. Seventeen authorities have taken this power and two such zones exist, one in Manchester and one in Coventry.

With very few exceptions, industrial plant properly operated produces practically no smoke. This links closely smoke abatement with fuel efficiency; and we are moving towards a time when the old Lancashire proverb Where there's muck, there's brass is no longer true; the opposite, indeed is, true: Where there's smoke, there's waste. The Ministry of Fuel and Power advisory services have done a lot of work in assisting industry, and their work will now be carried on and extended by the National Industrial Fuel Efficiency Service, set up under the auspices of the British Productivity Council.

Although a great deal of progress has been made, there remains a big field in which old equipment is still being employed. Roughly half the smoke comes from industrial plant and the other half from domestic grates. Of the 16,000,000 grates which exist in this country, only about one quarter can use the only smokeless fuel which is available in any quantity. That is the centre of the problem. The Minister of Fuel and Power has recently increased the allocation of coke from 30 cwt. to two tons as the winter ration. This should be adequate to meet the requirements of all who want it.

But the position is more difficult since the only fuels that can be burnt satisfactorily and smokelessly in most of these old-fashioned domestic grates are those fuels which are made by carbonising coal at a temperature lower than that used in the ordinary gasworks and coke oven processes. These are the well known makes "Coalite," "Phurnacite" and "Rexco." These fuels cost more than coke—about half as much again. Unless their cost can be brought within the reach of the average householder, they hold no prospect of making more than a small, though valuable, contribution to smoke abatement. The total quantity on the market is much lass than 1 million tons a year and though there is at present an unsatisfied demand for those high-grade fuels, the maximum potential demand at present prices cannot but be small in relation to the 35 million tons of coal and 3 million tons of coke now going into the domestic market. It would be unrealistic to base a nation-wide smoke abatement policy on the replacement of domestic bituminous coal by these high-grade and expensive fuels. The displacement of bituminous coal by coke holds better prospect of making a significant impact upon the smoke pollution problem, but here we are up against the difficulty that coke cannot be burned in most of the old-fashioned grates, of which there are still many millions in regular use. The plain answer is that as long as coal is burned in domestic grates, smoke w ill continue to be emitted.

It is fair to say that we are making a good deal of progress. For instance, London is consuming no more coal as a whole but is consuming to-day more smokeless fuel than it was ten years ago—more anthracite, coke and other smokeless fuels. The consumption of gas has gone up by 50 per cent., and the domestic consumption of electricity by nearly 100 per cent. in those ten years. May I add this, though it has not been mentioned this afternoon: the much maligned nutty slack was not on sale in London until December 1, 1952. Accordingly, it is not really possible that any appreciable quantity was being used during the period of that fog, and indeed there is really very little in use in London at the present time.

The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has asked about legislation. I do not think there will be any difficulty. One does not know the nature of the legislation, but the ordinary procedure is available, and I shall be surprised if every facility is not made available for private legislation in the ordinary way. There was mention of the banking up of coal fires. We should deprecate the banking up of tires at night-time, particularly during foggy periods, and we should certainly like it to be known that, so far as possible, the public should be discouraged from banking up their fires at that time. The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, mentioned the question of the cleaning of the flue gases at our power stations. It is a difficult subject. It is quite true, as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, said, that it was done at Battersea before the war, and that it was stopped during the war; but there was never a statutory obligation to carry it out. We are not entirely satisfied that we yet know how to do it. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said, there is at the present time a method of washing-out at Battersea. It is expensive and we have to say that it is not entirely satisfactory—indeed, there are certain disadvantages in it.

I would just mention one point. The noble and learned Earl said how ridiculous it was to have to wait twelve months for an answer to this question. I should like to refer him to the Domestic Fuel Policy Committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Wythenshawe, was Chairman and which made its Report in 1946. Their recommendation was quite specific. It was that expansion of research and development is urgently necessary in the next few years if our programme for adequate, efficient, economical and smokeless domestic heating is to be successfully carried out. The noble and learned Earl had the opportunity, during six years or so, to put that recommendation into operation, yet practically nothing was done during that period. I know that it is difficult to do anything quickly but, so far as I know, very little notice was taken of this recommendation.

I should now like to sum up shortly—I am afraid that I have taken rather too long already. In the first place, we are faced with a meteorological phenomenon of comparatively rare occurrence. We are asked: "Why not meet the meteorological phenomenon and change it?" I would recall to your Lordships the experiments made with F.I.D.O. at the end of the war. There, we used intensive thermal power to drive away fog from the quite small area of a runway. It is quite impracticable to consider doing that for London as a whole: if it were done, it would probably burn up all the inhabitants at the same time. Therefore that particular remedy is quite impossible, and we have to accept the meteorological phenomenon, when it takes place, as something which cannot alter. We are making steady progress in using smokeless fuel, particularly through electricity and gas, and oil is being used more extensively. It does not give off any smoke as such. I will say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, with regard to sulphur, that we think that possibly with the removal of smoke the sulphur problem may be diminished. I do not put it higher than that; it is no more than speculation, but the matter is one in which we must be careful. A number of public, buildings, including Parliament, burn oil at the present time.

We are installing more and more grates which are capable of using coke, and there is plenty of coke available at present. The National Industrial Fuel Efficiency Service will shortly be getting into its stride. I am glad to be able to say that the Beaver Committee will be making an Interim Report which will be available in a few days' time. I would also mention the important work of the National Coal Board in seeking to find a means of producing a smokeless briquette. I am not going to pretend that it is easy, but if we could find a briquette usable in ordinary fireplaces, it would be an immense step forward. It is encouraging to learn that Manchester and Coventry have smokeless zones of, respectively, one hundred acres and thirty acres, but this must be regarded only as a beginning, for an isolated site like this is not much use unless its neighbouring sites are equally smokeless. For instance, it has been suggested that Westminster, which I agree is probably among the worst areas in the country in this respect, might be made a smokeless zone; but that would not be enough unless zones were established also to windward, in places such as Fulham, Chelsea and Kensington. Necessarily, this would entail the replacement on a large scale of unsuitable domestic grates and other fuel-burning equipment, and this would take both time and money. Provision will have to be made by the fuel industries to match the development of smokeless zones with adequate supplies of coke and other smokeless fuels.

At present, the supplies of coke, as I have said, are plentiful, and the provision of further supplies as and when they are required should not present insurmountable difficulties. Of course, it is easy in these debates to call for an immense expenditure of public money, and a good number of debates in this House end in that way—except, of course, debates on the Finance Bill. This is a problem of great difficulty, one in which a large number of people will have to play their part. I suggest that it is a problem, both in extent and in importance, comparable with that of supplying London with pure water to drink and the proper disposal of sewage, which has been such an immeasurable boon to the people of this country. That is the attitude in which we are approaching this problem.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for the extremely long and courteous reply which I have received from him. What makes it more important is that I believe this is the first time he has replied in his new capacity in Her Majesty's Government, and I should like to extend to him my warmest congratulations. My Lords, one of the things that I certainly should not dream of suggesting is that we should try an expensive experiment to change the meteorological phenomena round about London. I believe that to be more than one can expect, even though large sums of money are from time to lime asked for in your Lordships' House. However, there are one or two things about which I can take comfort from what the noble Earl has said. The main thing is that efforts are being made to find some kind of briquette of smokeless fuel which can be produced at a cost within the reach of the pockets of most people, and that proper fireplaces are now being supplied to consume this coal.

One must not be too cheeseparing over this question of money, because the effects of fog are very expensive. One day I should like to work out a balance sheet, comparing the cost of the last fog, which was said to be £10 million, with what could be done with the £10 million in the way of eliminating the cause of fog. That is something into which I do not propose to go now. The noble Earl said that nutty slack was not on the market until December 1. The big fog began on December 4, and I should have thought there might be some connection between the two, but perhaps I am wrong. I do not know whether that is so or not. I have spoken quite enough in your Lordships' House to-day, and I do not propose to continue. Before I withdraw my Motion, however. I should like to thank noble Lords who have come here to-day and supported me in what I have said, and particularly the noble Earl who replied. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion far Papers, by leave, withdrawn.