HC Deb 28 October 1919 vol 120 cc528-35

Any person who shall fail to take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable for the destruction of rata and mice on or in any land of which he is the occupier, or for preventing such land from becoming infested with rats or mice shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Lleut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I draw attention to this Clause, which pro- vides that any person who fails to take necessary and reasonably practicable steps for the destruction of rates and mice shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £20. While having every sympathy with the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir A. Boscawen) who desires to rid the country of these pests, I think that this Clause is too loosely worded. It reminds me very much of the wording of the Profiteering Act. What are "necessary and reasonably practicable steps" for the destruction of rats and mice? Who is to say that Farmer Jones or old Mrs. Brown, or any occupiers of land or premises, have not taken reasonable steps for the destruction of rats? Apparently some young gentleman bearing the wand, the sign-manual, of the Board of Agriculture, having examined premises, can summon the occupier before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction. Before the Committee accepts this Clause we should have some hint as to what is involved here, as to whether it is necessary to give such power over the occupier of land, and, if the hon. and gallant Gentleman thinks it is necessary, whether the words are sufficiently precise. If legislation of this kind is going to be carried out in anything of a Prussian or autocratic spirit it will really destroy the end in view. These things are done most efficiently by the arousing of public enthusiasm. At the present moment great enthusiasm is being shown in the destruction of rats. Directly compulsion is introduced, enthusiasm goes. I ask for some assurance that the proposals of this Bill are not going to be carried out in any sort of officious or bureaucratic way. Let me call attention to the way in which pigeons are periodically attacked in an entirely voluntary way by farmers, who organise pigeon drives. They do that without regulations or rules or any Act of Parliament, and without the aid of officials of the Board of Agriculture or anyone else. I think that is the way in which we should attack rats. We ought to watch a little over the liberty of the individual, and prosecute our campaign against rats with the goodwill of all the two-footed inhabitants of the country.


I have not read the Bill carefully, but I am rather sorry that the hon. Member opposite did not move an Amendment to reduce the penalty to £5. Twenty pounds seems to me an enormous penalty to inflict on any person for not getting rid of rats and mice. The vast majority of people are only two anxious to get rid of the pests, and they do not want any compulsion from the Government to do it. It is, however, not an easy thing to get rid of rats. On my property in the country I have a good many rats, and I have been trying for a long time to get rid of them, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. They are down in holes; you have to get them out of the holes. You can put in ferrets, but they are not always successful. I think it will be agreed that farmers are very much harassed just now by Government Regulations. No one is more anxious than farmers to get rid of rats. When there are too many rats in the stack it means loss of revenue. What is to be the procedure under the Bill? Is an official to come down—probably he does not know a rat when he sees one—and he will say, "Why have you not got rid of your rats?" The farmer will say he is very sorry but he cannot do it. Is the farmer then to be summoned for not getting rid of the rats? Do let us be a little careful in all this legislation. Why is there this insane desire to inflict penalties on everybody? Leave it to the common sense of people, and they will naturally get rid of their rats. My hon. and gallant Friend (Sir A. Boscawen) is a most reasonable person. Let him say that if there is a Report stage he will reduce the penalty to £5, or that in another place the penalty will be reduced to some reasonable sum.


I want to know whether I shall be in order in moving an Amendment to insert in the Clause the words "required by the local authority" in lieu of "necessary and reasonably practicable."


The Question is already that Clause 1 stand part of the Bill. There cannot be an Amendment of the Clause.


Then I am afraid I have no alternative but to speak against this Clause.


Perhaps I can shorten proceedings by pointing out that if my hon. Friend looks at Clause 4 he will find that it does precisely what he suggests. That is to say, that a local authority cannot take action unless it is of opinion that the occupier of any land has failed, etc. etc.

5.0 P.M.


There is, however, a great deal of difference. The objection that I have to this Bill is that it puts a penalty on a farmer although he may have tried, and that he may be summoned before any magistrate by any person who has a grudge against him. The real gist of the offence is, and should be, that he has refused to take such steps as he is called upon to take by the local authority, which is the body to enforce the Act. It is quite true that under Clause 4 of the Act the local authority may, if they are satisfied that rats exist in undue quantity, step in and do the work themselves, charge the occupier of the land with the costs, and, if necessary, recover it as a civil debt. That is quite a common form in the suppression of all nuisances in our Public Health Act, but in that Act the local authority cannot prosecute until it has given written notice requiring the occupier to abate the nuisance. The real offence here is that the occupier is committing a nuisance on his land by allowing the rats to multiply and to become a nuisance. I beg of the Parliamentary Secretary to consider this matter very carefully, and to see if he cannot obtain the result he desires by creating much less friction, and this he will achieve by following the course which has been suggested. The local authority ought to find out that the rats are becoming a nuisance, and then should require the occupier to get rid of them by ferrets or by poisoning. If he has not done so, then the local authority or the Board of Agriculture should prosecute or step in and do the work themselves and charge the occupier the expense, or do both. Unless some provision of this kind is inserted I feel that I shall have to oppose this Clause.


I wish to say a word in support of what has been said by the last speaker. Anybody who lives in the country and has had any experience of dealing with rats knows that the real difficulty is that one person may destroy the rats while his neighbours will not do so. Very often a small slaughter-house will provide a stock of rats to supply the whole country, and it is no use one occupier destroying them if his neighbour does not take the same course. It has been said that we have to choose to some extent between a plague of rats and a plague if officials. It might be that some official who has to carry out these duties may know very little about rats. To me it seems a mistake to impose such a heavy penalty because a man has not destroyed the rats on his premises, and that is going too far. When it is reported to the local authority that certain premises are infested, that authority should give notice to the occupier that those rats should be killed, and then if he does not carry out his duty he should be prosecuted. I do not think that anybody should be prosecuted for an offence of this kind unless he has received a proper warning. This could easily be done, because the killing of rats is not of such vital urgency that there is not time to give notice.


I should like to call attention to one case. Suppose the occupier is an aged widow and she owns land which is infested by rats. She has no possible means of dealing with them, and surely it is rather hard that this woman might become liable to a penalty of £20. I think a proposal of that kind would impose very great hardship upon a large section of the rural population. I do hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will adopt the suggestion that notice should be given before action is taken.


I very much hope that this Bill will not be weakened in its passage through the House. Everybody must recognise the enormous damage done by rats. As I stated last night, it is estimated that £40,000,000 of food was destroyed last year by vermin of this kind, which is very nearly the amount of the bread subsidy. I was surprised at what the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Cautley) stated, because nobody knows better than he does how the farmers suffer from this cause in regard to the corn in stacks and so forth. The object of the Bill is to prevent this terrible loss of food. I could not agree to the omission of this Clause, which is the Motion now before the House, because it is the essence of the whole Bill, and all the rest of the measure hangs upon the fact that we require the individual occupier of premises or land to destroy his own rats. It would be absolutely wrong that the occupier should think somebody else is going to do that for him. The result would be that nobody would do it, and it would be left to the local authority. It is absolutely necessary that this duty should be placed on the individual, and the local authority should do it, if he is in default, at the occupier's expense. Therefore the responsibility must be placed in the individual occupier in the first instance, and anything which tends to weaken that responsibility would make the Bill largely nugatory. I suggest, therefore, that the first Clause is absolutely necessary.

May I point out that there is no question of the employment of a horde of Government officials, because the body to deal with this matter is the local authority and then the Board of Agriculture, and the latter only in case the local authority fails to do its duty? After all, we must consider the vast amount of damage which is done, and in face of the fact that the rat population has greatly increased, I think we should take drastic powers to put an end to it. It is all very well to tell us to rely upon propaganda, and creating what has been called an anti-rat atmosphere, and to say that the individual will do this for his own protection and preservation. We have relied upon that all this time, with the result that £40,000,009 worth of food was destroyed last year; and besides this there is a grave danger of the spread of disease by rats. I am quite prepared to consider any improvement in the actual wording, and if we can introduce words which will not seriously weaken the Bill I have no objection. At this stage, however, I must ask the Committee to adhere to this Clause, which is the essence of the whole measure.


I think the hon. Gentleman in charge of this Bill should realise that nobody wants to preserve the rats or the mice, but with the best desire in the world to assist my hon. Friend in getting rid of his rats, I do not think his proposal will do that. Under this measure the individual may be fined £20, and I think the Bill should be altered to allow a person to protect himself, and he should be given proper notice that there would be a penalty if he failed to do his duty.


I think that the Parliamentary Secretary will find by experience that ho will attain his end, perhaps by a slower method, if he requires notice to be given by the local authorities. I have had considerable experience in connection with this class of legislation as regards rabbits in Australia, and the circumstances are very similar. It has been found in all the Australian States that the most effective legislation to secure the destruction of vermin was to require the local bodies to give specific notice to the occupiers or owners of land, and by this: method it is very much easier to prove the. offence. As a result of very considerable experience in Australia, I may say that I think the Committee would be well advised to adopt the suggestions which have been made to improve this measure.


I think the Parliamentary Secretary should consider the case which has been put before him It has already been pointed out that it is exceedingly objectionable to inflict such a heavy penalty for an ill-defined offence. The hon. Gentleman representing the Government states that the principle of the Bill is to throw the obligation on the individual occupier. That may be the principle of the Bill, but it sounds to me a very inequitable principle, because the rats and the mice are not created or encouraged by the occupier. If the local authority or any other people desire the rats to be killed in the public interests, it seems to me that the local authority should kill them, and the occupier should give them every facility to come in and kill them. It might be that it is necessary that the local authority should be required to give notice and require the occupier to exert himself, but even that partakes of the character of conscription. If notice is given to the occupier as to the offence, he would know what his obligation was. It ought also to be provided that if the occupier is a person who really has not the power or capacity to deal with a situation of that kind, and. can no more set about a campaign against rats than against the Germans, that ought to be a sufficient defence. The Government have got into the habit of planting on penalties here, there, and everywhere, and disregarding the ordinary principles of maintaining the liberties of the subject.


It seems to have been generally assumed that the magistrate in these cases will not use any discretion, and almost every speaker has spoken as if the magistrate would be compelled to convict. The obligation on the occupier would he to kill the rats in the best way he possibly can. In regard to the penalty of £20, I would point out that the farmers feed their pheasants in the woods during June and July, when there is no food about the farms. The rats gather there and get under the kilns, and so they multiply and feed on the food given to the game, and as soon as the harvest comes on they spread all over the land. Farmers have for years been paying to have these rats killed, while the occupiers of buildings have not paid anything like what the farmers have for this purpose. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture will stick to his Clause, but in my opinion it would be well that the farmer or occupier should be given notice. That would improve the Clause.


I welcome the introduction of this Bill, and I think it should be clearly understood that there is an obligation resting upon every occupier of land to keep it free from vermin. At the same time, I think it is only right, and it is all in the direction of securing the smooth working of the Bill, that timely notice should be given to every occupier, so that he would know what to do before he was liable to be convicted under the Bill. I do not think any farmer wants to be in the position of committing an offence and will only be too glad to carry out his duties under this Bill, but I hope the Government will put in a provision so that all occupiers of land and buildings will have reasonable notice.

Question put, and agreed to.