§ Any person who shall fail to take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable for the destruction of rats 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.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I beg to move to leave out the word "steps," and to insert instead thereof the word "measures."
This is purely a drafting Amendment, and when I put it down I did so for the purpose of making the word used the same as in Clause 5.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
May I point out that we have used the phrase "take such steps" usually throughout the Bill, but in Clause 5 we have used the phrase "adopt such measures"? I agree that we ought to use the same term throughout and I will put the matter right when we reach Clause 5.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I beg to move, to leave out the words "from time to time he necessary and reasonably," and to insert instead thereof the words "be 1056 prescribed in a notice in writing duly served on him by a local authority having power to enforce this Act."
I would like to say at the outset that I have no desire to weaken this Bill, and I am firmly convinced that the Amendment I propose will make the Bill more workable and strengthen it, and will reconcile it to the people amongst whom it is going to be put into operation. I think it is a proposal which is more likely to obtain their assent and agreement, and is consistent with the general law of the country. I ask the House not to be led away with the extraordinary figures which the Parliamentary Secretary gave when he told us that a certain wiseacre has estimated the damage done by rats at about £40,000,000 a year. I do not believe there is any foundation of any sort or kind for such a figure, but I am quite content to accept the statement that the damage done by rats is very considerable.
I rather protest against the way in which this measure is being rushed through the House. It was introduced and read a second time on Monday, the Committee stage was taken on Tuesday, and the last stages are being taken to-day. I do not think there is anybody in the country who knows what a drastic Clause is being provided in this Bill for the people who live in the country districts. It is a specimen of Prussian legislation which I, for my part, protest very strongly against. It does not exist in any other branch of the law that a man is to be hauled up and prosecuted for an offence for which he is not responsible without any notice on his part. The first point I make on the Clause as it stands is that it constitutes an offence in a way which possesses every vice known to the law. It is absolutely uncertain in its language and in its effect, and nobody can be certain that he is not committing an offence, and is liable to be brought up and subjected to a penalty of £20. This appeal to the criminal law is a relic of the worst form of D.O.R.A., and as the first legislative performance of the new President of the Board of Agriculture I extremely regret it, because we had looked to him to protect the interests of the agriculturists committed to his charge. May I call the attention of the House to the form of the language used. The Clause reads,Any person who shall fail to take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable for the destruction of' rats and mice—1057 In the first place, I think I ought to mention a word or two about the habits of rats, in case hon. Members are not aware of them.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
We have passed the Second Reading of this Bill and the Committee stage; we are now on the Report stage, and the hon. Gentleman must confine himself strictly to the Amendment.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I am really doing that, Mr. Speaker, because I am laying this as a foundation for showing that my Amendment ought to be accepted in preference to the proposal in the Bill. I was only going to show the hardship of the Bill as it stands, and the better procedure which my Amendment suggests.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
That will be all right, but we really do not want a discourse on the habits of rats. We are well acquainted with that.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
Then I will accept the view that we are well acquainted with the habits of rats. The proposal is that every occupier of land, which is to include buildings in England and Scotland, shall from time to time take such steps as are necessary for the destruction of rats and mice. is it to be said that the mere fact that rats are seen on the land of an occupier is evidence that the steps that are necessary have not been taken because the rats could have been killed by some means 1 It seems to me, as the Clause is drawn, that the mere existence of rats renders the occupier liable to the criminal law and to this penalty. It is quite true that the requirement is not only that the steps are to be necessary but that they arc to be reasonably practicable. Suppose, however, a man does keep cats and does set traps, and rats are still seen on his land, is he to be responsible to the criminal law? As the words stand, he will be. I protest, as a magistrate, as a lawyer, and as an occupier of land, against the loose way in which this Clause is drawn, against the absolute uncertainty in which a man is going to be placed, and against the impossibility of the magistrates being able to administer this law. Suppose an occupier keeps cats, has he done what is necessary 7 He cannot have done what is necessary because the rats are there. Is he to have poison and rat traps as well to avoid being convicted?
Let me call attention to another objection. As the Clause now stands, it is open to any individual to prosecute another. 1058 Anybody who has a grudge against an occupier of land can set the criminal law in motion and summon either his neighbour or fellow inhabitant before the magistrate and render him liable to this penalty. The only reason why I wished to call attention to the habits of rats was that they are migratory; they are here to-day and on somebody else's land to-morrow. In the winter they conic to the buildings and in the summer they go out to the fields. As the Clause stands, an occupier is liable if rats are found in his ditches, although he may have no knowledge that they are there. I venture to suggest that this provision will cause a great outcry in the country when it becomes known. What is the usual way of dealing with a nuisance? Let me impress upon the House once again that the occupier of the land is not responsible for the rats being there, though he may be responsible for allowing them to come in large numbers. The Board may rightly say, if anybody allows rats to accumulate in large quantities, that they ought to be declared guilty of allowing a nuisance. Our law, however, knows how to deal with a nuisance. There are something like thirty or forty different kinds of nuisances dealt with under the Public Health Acts, but in no case is there such a provision as the President of the Board of Agriculture is seeking here to have inflicted upon the public. 1 will only take one illustration, but the procedure is the same in the case of all nuisances. If a man has an insanitary dwelling or a smelling ash pit the Act declares it to be a nuisance, and says that it must be remedied, and the owner becomes subject to the penalties provided by the Act.
What are those penalties? They are these. The local authority can serve upon him a notice classifying the nuisance complained of, requiring him to take the necessary steps to abate that nuisance within a limited time, and specifying what he has to do. If it is not done and the nuisance continues, he becomes liable to the penalties provided by the Act. In only one case is a private person allowed to prosecute, and that is where there is what is called a "person approved," which is a term well known to the law. He is a person who has himself suffered some special damage by reason of the nuisance. That provision is hardly ever availed of because the local authorities act. It may be that neighbours call the attention of the local authority to the matter, but the local 1059 authority act. The point is that the local authority has. to give notice to the person responsible for the nuisance telling him what it is, calling upon him to abate it, and letting him know that if he does not abate it he becomes subject to the criminal law. Alternatively, the local authority has the right to give notice and do the work and charge the defaulter with the cost. The second alternative is provided by this Bill, and on that I have nothing to say and no objection to raise. The proper course is for the person responsible for the administration of this Bill to take such steps—in the terms of my Amendment—"as may be prescribed in a notice in writing duly served on him by a local authority having power to enforce this Act.'' That power would be amply sufficient for the purpose, and it would obviate the risk, the most undesirable risk, of private persons prosecuting. It would leave it to the sole enforcement of the local authority, and the Act would work without friction and do a great deal of good. It would not weaken the Act, but would strengthen it by the general assent that it would receive.
§ Mr. ROYCE
I beg to second the Amendment. I would like to draw attention to the very great difficulty, even with the adoption of this Amendment, which will arise in the administration of the Bill. In the Fen country the boundary of ownership between the different properties is often in the centre of the drain, and it will be very hard for any authority to decide to which side of the drain the rats belong. The same remark applies to boundary hedges. I therefore think, whilst supporting the principle of the Bill, that the attempt to deal with the subject has been too hasty and that too little consideration has been given to local circumstances. I can well imagine the difficulties of aged women, single and widows, and the occupiers of small properties which are bounded by drains who would be rendered liable to a penalty of £20 under this Bill. It has been said that the discretion of the magistrate is sufficient to ensure protection for these people, but my experience of magistrates is largely in the direction of a conviction where a charge has been made. I am quite sure, even with this Amendment, that the difficulties of administration will be very great, and the penalties to be imposed upon a class of 1060 people who do not deserve to be troubled are very great. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture will see his way to accept this Amendment. It lessens the probability of suffering on the part of people who, by no act of their own, have done this thing. Generally speaking, they have no means of dealing with vermin of this description. Even domestic cats may be beyond the means of some of them, and how shall it be said that they have taken reasonable means to remove vermin from their premises?
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I am sorry my hon. and learned Friend seeks to weaken this Bill which is really designed to assist farmers to remove what has become a great pest from the point of view of food destruction, and a great danger in respect of the introduction of bubonic plague and other diseases. This Bill has been brought in to deal with an evil which has assumed lately very large dimensions. My hon. Friend has cast out on the figures I gave the other day. When you are dealing with such a question as the number of rats in the country, or the amount of food actually destroyed by them, you cannot of course obtain actual figures, but those which I have given are as nearly accurate as we can get, and it is common ground that an immense amount of harm is done by these rodents. The difficulty we are up against is this, that unless the measure is thoroughly drastic, unless we make it the absolute duty of every occupier of premises to destroy the rats, and unless we make it a criminal offence if he does not we cannot get the destruction of rats properly carried out. My hon. Friend has referred to the local authorities. It is not for me to say a word against those bodies. Most of them are very efficient, but some are very slack. If, however, the whole initiative is to be left to the local authorities, and if a local authority does not do its work there is nothing left but for the Board of Agriculture to do it, and that might result in a further multiplication of officials, which I know the House would not like, nor do many of us care for it. After all the real business of keeping vermin down lies, I venture to think, on the individual. It is in his own interest and in the interests of the rest of the community, for the very reason given by my hon. and learned Friend, namely, that they are migratory, and because a man who does not destroy his own vermin may 1061 cause a very great loss to his neighbour. I think that argument is a very strong one for maintaining the Clause.
My hon. and learned Friend did less than justice to the Board of Agriculture in this matter. He spoke about this being the first act of the new President. But this Bill was introduced as long ago as last July, before the new President was appointed, and therefore to hold him personally responsible is obviously out of the question. I mention the fact that it was introduced last July in order to disprove the suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend that we are springing this on the country without due notice. This Bill was introduced long ago. It has been discussed in its present form by Chambers of Agriculture and by branches of Farmers' Unions all over the country, and I have in my office a perfect sheaf of resolutions in favour of it. Therefore it is nonsense to say that the Bill has been sprung on the country. So far from' that being the case another Bill was brought in in another place by Lord Aberconway which did not contain this drastic Clause. The then President of the Board of Agriculture authorised me to bring this Bill into the House of Commons, and, thereupon Lord Aberconway withdrew his milder measure in the House of Lords in favour of the present Bill. That is really a complete answer to what my hon. and learned Friend has said with regard to the -circumstances under which the Bill has been brought in. But we do not want to take an unreasonable line, and if it is thought that this Clause as it stands goes a little too far, I am quite prepared to modify it. But I want to modify it in such a way that it will not weaken the Bill, the object of which is to put the responsibility on the owner of the premises. I have put an Amendment down which I think meets the case. The objection which was raised When we discussed this matter in Committee was that a fine of £20 for the first offence without notice was excessive. There may be something to be said for that view, and if hon. Members will look at the Amendment which I have put on the Paper later on, they will find that I have modified the proposal to this extent, that the maximum fine shall only be £5 unless notice has been given, but if notice has been given by the local authority then the fine may be as much as £20, which was the original figure. That I hope will meet 1062 the objections of hon. Members. It makes the fine very much smaller unless notice has been given.
We hold, however, that if we leave it merely as a matter of action after notice we shall weaken the main principle of the Bill and destroy that personal responsibility which we think ought to lie on the owner of the premises. I will go further even than that. If my hon. Friend is willing to withdraw his Amendment, I will move another Amendment at the proper time to meet what I understand to be the principal objection of my hon. Friends, which is that private individuals with malicious intent may bring unnecessary prosecutions. I do not think it is probable that unnecessary prosecutions will be attempted. Still there is the chance. For my part, I believe there are likely to be no prosecutions except at the instance of the local authority or the Board. If it is possible by any form of words to meet the objection, I am quite prepared to consider them, and I will move them in another place with a view to some further modification on these lines. As regards the objection of my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Royce), I quite see the difficulty in the Fen country. But if there is a real plague of rats likely to do an enormous amount of harm, and if they are discovered in a drain or dyke, I think that probably the occupier on each side will have to be prosecuted. After all, the chances are that the majority of these rats live in the banks of one side or the other, and probably there would be no difficulty whatever in ascertaining who was the owner of the side. If there is a plague, I do not think the occupier of either bank of the dyke or drain ought to escape the penalties for allowing the offence to take place. This is a very serious matter. It has been absolutely proved that here we are as a country with a. bread subsidy of about £50,000,000 a year, and that probably we could have saved;£30,000,000 or £40,000,000 of that if we had protected our stocks of grain, and so on, from the depredations of these rats. I hope the House will support the Government in not unduly weakening the Bill by taking from the private individual a responsibility that properly lies upon him.
§ Captain C. CRAIG
I trust my hon. Friend who moved this Amendment will stick to it. The offer made by the Parliamentary Secretary is a most ridiculous one. The hon. Gentleman has not dealt 1063 with the case made for the Amendment at all. Until five minutes ago I had not seen either the Bill or the Clause. Therefore I am an unprejudiced critic. The Clause which my hon. Friend seeks to amend is most absurd. It goes a long way to interfere with the liberty of the subject in this country. The Parliamentary Secretary told us that we are in the midst of a plague of rats. There may be a plague of rats in some cases, but the Clause does not say that it is only where the plague exists that the Bill is to have effect. The Clause is a most pernicious one, because of its extraordinary want of limitation. It is apparently open to anybody who thinks a person is not dealing with the rats on his premises to bring an action against him. The Parliamentary Secretary says that is not likely to happen, but there is nothing in the Bill to prevent it. One of two results will follow: either the Clause will be a dead letter, which is very likely to happen after the first flush of proceedings taken under it, or there will be a great many injustices done. Who is to decide what for the time being is necessary and reasonably practicable?
§ Captain CRAIG
If there were one set of magistrates in the Kingdom that would be all right, but benches of magistrates are as thick as blackberries. Who is to guarantee that any two sets of magistrates will take the same view of what is necessary and reasonably practicable? One bench will consider that the possession and setting of a rat trap is all that is necessary and reasonably practicable. Another set of magistrates will decide that you must have some poison lying about. A third will think that the possession of a domestic cat referred to by the hon. Member opposite is all that is necessary, while a fourth may think the possession of all three engines of destruction necessary. You will have interminable differences of opinion on this subject. If the Board of Agriculture cannot think of a more reasonable way of dealing with this question which will inflict less injustice on the unfortunate inhabitants of this country, we ought to leave the plague of rats to be dealt wit) by the good sense of the people who are affected by it. I shall certainly support the Mover of the Amendment if he chooses to go to a Division.
§ Mr. HOGGE
May I put this point to the Parliamentary Secretary? He is doing the critics of the Bill an injustice. None of those critics want to preserve rats. What they want to preserve are certain rights which ought to appertain to the individual even within the operation of the laws as we know them now. My hon. Friend talked about a plague of rats. I suppose that means an excess of rats over what you may ordinarily find on any farm. If rats develop in such numbers anywhere to the extent that they are a plague, surely it is the duty of the State to protect the whole State from that plague. It is not merely the fault of the individual person on whose property the rats are. The Amendment suggests that before a man can be brought before a magistrate he ought to have notice of the fault that lies against him. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture whether he thinks it fair, say, to someone in his own constituency to whom lie is going to appeal for the suffrage, to place him under the indignity of being brought before the magistrates? Many people have a great objection to going to a Police Court. Why should a respectable member, say of his own executive in his own constituency, who may have the best intentions in the world in assisting the Board of Agriculture to keep down the plague of rats, be hauled before a magistrate simply because he has not had the opportunity of doing what my hon. Friend asked him to do? Although the Amendment he suggests goes a long way, if he can go as far as he goes with these words, then he should go the whole way and allow the notice first to he served before there is a prosecution. I should like to hear the hon. Gentleman's reasons why that would not be sufficient in the ordinary cases.
Why have we such a plague of rats at the present moment in the United Kingdom? Why has the question become acute? It has become acute because, as we were reminded yesterday, there has been a great war, and farmers and employers all over the country have had neither the time nor the opportunity nor the means to keep down the plague of rats in the way they had been accustomed to do before. The rats have had the time of their lives, because they have not been harped. This is an emergency measure, which is being put upon the Statute-Book of the country as a permanent measure. 1065 It is drawn in emergency terms. I respectfully submit to the Government that if they honestly believe that in any part of the country there is what we describe as a plague of rats, it will pay the State and the Government to deal with it themselves. The ordinary cases of the incubation of vermin on a farm or in a village can be dealt with in other ways. There is one other argument which may appeal to my hon. Friend. There are other kinds of vermin than rats and mice. There are personal vermin, and everybody who is interested in public health knows that the personal vermin in many of our badly-housed populations in our great cities form one of the greatest means of spreading infection. Yet the public health authority would never venture to bring before a magistrate a man or a woman whose children were verminous without their first having an opportunity of making them clean. If that is the law of the land with regard to equally dangerous vermin, why should an innocent man be marked out for this kind of prosecution? It is not British. It is not fair. It is harassing a great part of the public, and it is exposing them to the indignity of being brought before a Police Court when perfectly innocent, when if they had given him notice to abate the nuisance every reasonable measure would have been taken. Why should not the hon. Gentleman have confidence in the farming community Does he believe that any farmer in the country cultivates rats? Does he believe that anyone keeps them on his premises as pets? No one wants to see a rat or a mouse or vermin of that sort within reach of him if he can get rid of it. If he will bear in mind that behind him lies the War and an accumulation of vermin and in front of him the whole period of time—for this is a permanent Bill—he will agree that this infringement on the individual liberty of the people of the country in exposing them to the indignity of a prosecution is a quite unfair thing and ought not to be done by anyone.
§ Mr. JOHNSTONE
I have some considerable sympathy with the Amendment, but we must not disguise the facts of what will follow if notice has to be served upon every person before action is taken. It will mean the setting up of inspectors and the inspection of premises. I am quite satisfied that if notice is required to be served on every person before any action can be taken you will defeat the 1066 whole object of the Bill. In my own county efforts have been made from time to time with the adjoining authorities to combine in stamping out the plague of rats, and the difficulty is that if one authority holds back the efforts of the others are quite ineffective. It is not the ordinary farmer or the owner of tenanted premises who is at fault. It is that one man is careless and indifferent and will not exercise ordinary precautions to keep down the plague of rats. While I have some sympathy with the idea that no person should be taken into Court without due notice being served upon him, so that he may have an opportunity of putting matters right, I feel that in this case of the plague of rats there ought to be some departure from the ordinary procedure, and people ought to be called upon to take reasonable precautions to subdue the prevalence of rats and mice on their premises. I think the hon. Gentleman (Sir A. Boscawen) is quite justified in pressing for these words in the Bill, more especially as he has modified the penalty. I should have liked to see the penalty limited to a recurrence of the offence, but it is some satisfaction that the penalty of £20 is not being insisted upon. If we are to serve notice and there is to be an army of inspectors to go round all the farms and inspect them, that would perhaps make the Bill a dead letter.
§ Lieut.-Colonel RAW
I sincerely hope this very important Bill will not be in the slightest danger through any technicality, and 1 hope the Mover of the Amendment and the Secretary to the Board of Agriculture will be able to adjust any difficulty that may arise. This question of rats has become an extremely dangerous arid serious one, and the danger has accumulated and increased during the last five years of war. From the medical point of view, it is a very serious matter for the public health, not only from the enormous amount of destruction of foods which are urgently required but from the way it spreads, and the only way that deadly disease, bubonic plague, is spread is from rats to human beings. Upon that ground alone I am sure the House will not hesitate for a moment to pass any Bill which will remove this great danger of plague, which may at any moment attack the community here. I am not in a position to discuss the technicalities of the Bill. I agree that the reduction of the penalty may perhaps be very useful, but I hope 1067 the great principle of the Bill, which the scientific body of this country has discussed during the last ten or fifteen years, will not be in danger.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I hold very strongly that if anyone chooses to keep vermin on his premises to such an extent as to endanger the food supply in the neighbourhood or to introduce disease he ought to be prosecuted. As to the argument that farmers do not keep rats from choice, the fact is that in a great many places the farmers have not destroyed their rats and mice in the way they ought to have done, and in the case of the farmer, as of any other individual, we hold it to be necessary that the duty of destroying these things must be put upon him. I have made what I believe is a perfectly fair offer. I have offered to reduce the penalty, that is to say, that it shall only be £5, unless notice is first served. I further said, although no hon. Member up to date has taken notice of the fact, that if it is held that there is a real danger, which I do not think there is, that there may be malicious prosecution by private individuals, we will endeavour to put words in in another place to meet that point. I think that is a perfectly fair and reasonable proposal, but we must not do anything which would weaken the main principles of the Bill. Under the circumstances I hope my hon. and learned Friend will allow us to proceed and will not press his Amendment.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I feel that the provision that a private person shall not take action to bring others to a Police Court is a very substantial concession, and I should be only too glad to fall in with my hon. Friend's suggestion if the offence had been for keeping an undue quantity of rats. But the offence is simply that he does not take steps for the destruction of rats. There is nothing about an excess quantity at all. I do not see what trouble there is in first serving notice before the local authorities take proceedings. My Amendment was really meant to assist the Bill so that it would work without friction. If my hon. Friend will not meet me the whole way, perhaps he could put in words making it clear that there is no offence because a man has two or three rats in his place.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I really cannot haggle over this matter, I do not know what 1068 my hon. and learned Friend wants. Does he want us to say that each man shall be allowed to keep a certain number of rats? If so, I should really like to know what number.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Sir W. RAEBURN
I beg to move, after the word "land" ["or in any land of which he"], to insert the words, "or wharf or quay."
Under Clause 5 the Act is made to apply to ships. It may be that "land" does include a wharf or quay. It is, however, rather debatable. All I want to do is to protect the master of a ship against incursions of rats from a dock or quay or wharf alongside which the ship is lying. He can, by devices, keep the rats from getting ashore, but he is not always able to keep them from getting on board by gangways or ladders. I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman in charge of the Bill will meet me in the matter. He will, perhaps, say if the words are redundant.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I think it is only repetition. If you insert the words "wharf or quay" you will have to insert "house and shop" and every other sort of building.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
The Amendment really is unnecessary. If the hon. Member will look at Clause 6 he will find that the expression "land" includes "any building and any other erection on land, and any sewer, drain or culvert in land." A quay, if there are no buildings on it, will be land. If there were a warehouse on it of course the warehouse is a building which is included in land. I entirely agree with the object that the hon. Member has in view, but I think the Amendment is quite redundant.
§ Sir F. BLAKE
I beg to move, after the word "shall" ["with rats or mice shall be liable"], to insert the words "where he has been served with notice under this Act."
The object is to restrict the penalty of a fine to those cases only where notice has been duly served.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
On a point of Order. I beg to submit that this is the same question that we discussed on the Amendment of the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Cautley).
§ Sir F. BLAKE
With great respect, I submit that the object is to restrict the penalty of a fine to those cases only where notice has been served.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
That was the object of the hon. Member for East Grinstead, who said it must be prescribed in the notice in writing duly served by the local authority before any action could be taken.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I beg to move, after the word "exceeding" ["a fine not exceeding twenty pounds"], to insert the words "five pounds, or where he has been served with a notice under this Act requiring him to take such steps, not exceeding."
As the Clause originally stood there was to be a fine not exceeding £20. Under this Amendment the fine could not be more than £5 unless notice had been served. When, however, notice had been served and the occupier still does not abate the nuisance, the original fine of £20 will stand.
§ Amendment agreed to.