HC Deb 27 October 1919 vol 120 cc427-31

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

In the early part of this Session I gave notice of this Bill. That notice was greeted with considerable laughter, though I really do not know why, because the destruction done by rats and mice is no laughing matter. Perhaps it is due to the title, which perhaps is rather on-fortunate for the Board I represent, because I have shortly to ask the House to pass another Bill with a rather curious title—the Seeds and Weeds Bill. I have said that although the title of the Bill may be laughable, the matter under discussion is not laughable. A dozen years ago Sir James Crichton Browne estimated the amount of foodstuffs destroyed in a year by rats at £15,000,000.

During the War, however, the rat population has largely increased in this country, and there can be no doubt about it that in the last year the amount of foodstuffs destroyed probably amounted to £40,000,000, which is very nearly as large as the amount of the bread subsidy paid by the Government at the present time. It is not only the destruction of foodstuffs. These vermin are dangerous to health and property. Rats have created fires in premises by nibbling matches. They have blocked and diverted drains. I heard of a case the other day where the whole business of a public-house in the West of England was held up because the rats had cut the pipe supplying the beer from the neighbouring brewery. In fact, on this occasion the rats were, in the most extraordinary manner, acting as tae agents of Pussyfoot Johnson. Not only so, but no substance seems to be too hard to prevent an attack by rats. Yesterday I was shown photographs of a rat nibbling a billiard ball. I do not know what happened to the rat, but the billiard ball disappeared. From these facts it will be clear that the duty of the House and the country is to take as energetic measures as possible, to prevent anything of the kind occurring in the future.

The Board of Agriculture has already attacked the question seriously. We have done a great deal of leaflets, pamphlets, and other propaganda, by utilising the cinema, and in other ways to create what I may call an anti-rat atmosphere. We have utilised the rather weak powers we have got by the Rats Order under the Defence of the Realm Regulations. Last week we instituted a great campaign against the rats, which I am glad to tell the House has been signally successful, although we are not yet in a position to publish the total casualty list. Quite seriously, this really is a matter that does require the attention of the House and the country. This destruction of foodstuffs is a most serious matter, and has got to be dealt with. We propose that the present measure which a ill take the place of the temporary Rats Order under the Defence of the Realm Regulations shall compel the systematic destruction of these vermin. There is nothing new in a Bill to destroy vermin, and it is a very old plan. As far back as the reign of Henry VIII. an Act was passed for the destruction of vermin, and the duty was placed upon the churchwardens and six parishioners of each parish. That Act has lapsed, and we do not propose to renew it, but we do propose to place a very drastic measure on the Statute Book, and I will describe it to the House.

First of all, we lay down that it is the duty of every man to be responsible for keeping down vermin on his own premises. The occupier of land and premises is bound to take all necessary and reasonable steps to exterminate vermin, and if he does not do so he will be liable to a fine not exceeding £20. Secondly, it will be the duty of the local authority to enforce the Act. In the City it will be the duty of the Common Council, in London the Metropolitan borough councils, in the counties the county councils, and they may delegate their duties to district councils. In the county boroughs it will be the duty of the county borough councils. Another Clause enacts that if any individual fails adequately to destroy the vermin on his premises the local authority may enter the premises, destroy the vermin for him, and charge him with the whole expense. The next Clause deals with a local authority which may be in default and may not carry out these Orders, or even worse, which is in the possession and occupation of premises or land and may fail to exterminate the vermin on the land or premises occupied. In that case, the Board of Agriculture comes into play, and it can send an officer to carry out those duties of which the local authority is in default, and at the expense of the local authority.

Clause 5 deals with ships, a very fruitful source of the introduction of vermin. It puts the skipper in the same position as the occupier and under the same penalties, and if adequate measures are not taken by the skipper to prevent vermin escaping from the ship on to the land he will be subject to penalties under the Bill. These are the main proposals. This is really a serious measure for the prevention of a quite unnecessary waste and destruction. For these reasons I commend it to the House, and I hope, it will be carried with the utmost expedition.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

The destruction done by rats is a very serious matter. There has been a good deal of humour introduced about this measure, but I do not hesitate to criticise it in a serious manner. Clause 1 seems rather extraordinary, and this is legislation which is essentially bureaucratic. Here you have another case in which a person, if lie fails to take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable, etc., shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £20. It may be necessary to coordinate action against rats and mice and to give the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, as it were, unity of front and power to compel negligent local authorities, and so on, to take action; but is it necessary to put these pains and penalties upon individuals? Really, we are being overlegislated for at the present time, and, if anyone can be accused of not taking reasonable and necessary steps for the destruction of rats and mice and can then be had up and fined, it is no laughing matter, and some modification of the Bill is needed. May I also make some protest against the master of a vessel being subjected to yet one more authority who has the power to inspect and persecute him? Apparently, every Bill that comes up now has some Clause affecting the masters of ships. At present the Board of Trade have very drastic and efficient powers for dealing with this problem as regards shipping. Why should the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries also have power to inspect and interfere with vessels? I myself, when I had the honour of commanding a ship, was ordered by the Board of Trade authorities to take steps to prevent the ingress and egress of rats and 'nice. There are, therefore, existing powers, arid the Board of Trade have dealt with the matter. Why should the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries now tackle shipmasters in this matter? Speaking as a seaman, I must make some protest on this ground. In all these things masters of merchant ships conic more and snore under Government officials. I suppose there will be a floating section of the Anti-Rat Department of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries with their own particular staff for inspecting ships. It is unnecessary; it might be left to the Board of Trade. I hope on the Committee stage that the hon. Gentleman will be able to meet our views and remove our objections. First, that the private citizen, apart from the local authority, is too much interfered with in this matter, arid the Clause might be softened; and, secondly, that it is unnecessary to apply the Bill to ships at all, there being already by-laws and powers under the Board of Trade.

Lieut.-Colonel RAW

I should like most earnestly to support the hon. Gentleman in this important Bill. I think Members in all quarters of the House will appreciate the enormous importance of this measure, because, in addition to the great amount of destruction of very valuable food products which is caused by rats and mice, estimated, I believe, at between £30,000,000 and £50,000,000 a year, there is another important aspect of the question, which is the amount of disease which is conveyed by rats to the human family. I especially refer to the very ready way in which that dreadful disease, the plague, is scattered about and conveyed by rats. On these two grounds, there is a very good case for the douse of Commons passing very energetic measures indeed and for seeing that rats as far as possible are exterminated. I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow.—[Sir A. Boscawen.]