§ Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question (21st February), "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ Question again proposed.
§ Sir BASIL PETO
This is a very short Bill by which it is sought to make provision to prevent damage by rabbits. I propose to show that the method of procedure proposed under the Bill cannot possibly achieve the object mentioned. When I was speaking on the former occasion and the Eleven o'Clock Rule intervened I said that, as far as my constituency and the county in which it was situated were concerned, I had not had any complaints from the occupiers of land or representations by them in favour of this Bill. Two and a half months have elapsed since I talked the Bill out, and I have had no such representation since. I am as conscious as any Member of the damage done by rabbits, but the vast proportion of the damage done to crops is not done by rabbits from a neighbour's territory, but from rabbits actually on the farm concerned. I remember that harrowing pictures were drawn by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Buxton) of damage done to mangel crops, but 90 per cent. of the damage is done by the rabbits which dwell and are born and bred in situ on the farm itself. This Bill, of course, does not touch the major part of the damage.
This Bill does not seek, as the Minister of Agriculture said in his speech, to charge—as was done under the Defence of the Realm Regulations and in the Rabbits and Rooks Bill—the Ministry with the duties of dealing with this nuisance, but the Ministry propose, what the House is constantly passing Bills to do—to hand something over to the local authorities, and to put a fresh burden on the county councils, involving fresh appointments and fresh expenditure, which must ultimately be borne by the ratepayers. I know that local authorities feel this very strongly, I might almost say bitterly. Ratepayers are always complaining of the multifarious duties put upon local authorities involving expenditure through the rates, but this House is always giving them fresh 102 duties to perform. In this case, I believe, they are putting upon them a duty which no authority could possibly perform effectively, if the purpose be to abate the nuisance of damage done by rabbits.
§ Sir B. PETO
I will repeat what I said. I said that county councils and other local authorities feel very bitterly about the legislation constantly passed by this House imposing fresh duties upon them, involving them in further expenditure, and requiring the appointment of so many sub-committees that it is almost impossible for the members of those bodies to find time to attend to their multifarious duties.
§ Sir R. SANDERS
The question I asked the hon. Baronet was whether the county councils object to having this specific duty put upon them?
§ Sir B. PETO
I have not heard that they do. The second reason why I object to the Bill is this. As the Minister for Agriculture has pointed out, the Rooks and Rabbits Bill was examined by a Select Committee of the House of Lords, who threw, it out on the ground that they did not agree with the provisions regarding rooks—rooks have been left out of this Bill—and also said that, while they considered that some means of protection or compensation should be given for damage done by a neighbour's rabbits, they favoured compensation. This Bill, which is supposed to be based upon the findings of that Select Committee, is based entirely on the principle of trying to afford protection against damage rather than of providing compensation. I believe the protection proposed by this Bill is absolutely illusory, and that the best form of protection is compensation for the damage which is done at this time of year, when the abating of the nuisance is quite impracticable. Liability to pay such compensation would make quite sure that the person who was injuring his neighbour in this respect would abate the nuisance at the only time when it can be dealt with, and that is in the winter months. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Lamb), speaking in support of this Bill, said: 103If you are to have damage done and then to go to the Court for compensation, it is not nearly so likely that you will retain the good feeling between the two parties interested in agriculture as if you have a process under which you can prevent the damage being done.I should absolutely agree with that if there were any such process feasible or possible, but I would call attention to the next sentence in the hon. Member's speech:I do not think there is a single Member here who realises the great amount of loss of food there is through the damage done by rabbits. A man may spend any amount of money and time in the proper cultivation of his land and in sowing a crop, and almost in one night, if there are rabbits in excess, they will spoil the whole of that useful labour."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1928; cal. 1566, Vol. 213.]If, as is quite true a great amount of damage can be done in a short time—I will not say one night—in the months of May, June and July to growing corn crops, how does the hon. Member reconcile that with his previous statement that what is required is something which will prevent the damage being done, damage which he says can be done in a single night? In my view those appeals are contradictory. What happens is this. In the winter no excessive number of rabbits may appear to have been left, but about this time of year, when they have already multiplied, one may find quite a number of rabbits of various sizes, down to the very small ones, coming through fences along their regular runs into the cornfields. At this time of year and later, when the herbage has grown, it is my experience that there is only one way of dealing with rabbits at all, and no way of dealing with them really effectively. The most effectual method is to set wires or traps, which are prohibited under this Bill, in the runs which the rabbits use. That can be done best on the complainant's land—far better than it can be attempted by invading the place from which the rabbits are supposed to come and trying to get rid of them in the summer. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) put that point as succinctly and as clearly as it could possibly be put, and as it is two and a half months since the Second Reading discussion was begun, perhaps 104 the House will excuse me for quoting a sentence from his speech. He said:There is no gamekeeper or anybody who has any knowledge at all of dealing with these pests who will say that you can deal with rabbits at the time when they are doing the damage, that is, in May or June, or later in the season. The only time to keep them down is in the winter, when you can trap and shoot them."—[OFFCIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1928; col. 1561, Vol 213.]That is the whole case from the zoological point of view. Any gamekeeper or anyone with practical experience of these things will tell you at once that the whole basis of the two operative clauses of this Bill is absolutely illusory. It must have been constructed by people who have a limited knowledge of country affairs and none whatever of the art of rabbit trapping and keeping rabbits down. Clause 1 of the Bill assumes that the damage is actually being done, and that being so, in my view the proper way of dealing with the substantial damage contemplated is to give compensation by a simple process of law, if it be refused, and in my experience it very rarely is refused, after proper representations between person and person. I would like, in passing, to make one reference to a statement by the Minister in his opening speech that this was a Bill as between occupier and owner. He said:In the ordinary way, no doubt, as soon as representations are made to an owner he will abate the nuisance."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1928; cols. 1549–50, Vol. 213.]The House will bear in mind that this is not a Bill based upon the alleged damage done by a landowner to an occupier. It is a Bill based upon a procedure which is to take place between occupier and occupier. The complainant is an occupier of land who complains of damage done to his crops, and he complains to the occupier of the adjoining land. In the definition Clause of the Bill an occupier may even include the person in whom is vested the right to kill rabbits on the land, that means, an occupier of the land or a rabbit trapper or other person of that type to whom he has entrusted the duty of keeping down the rabbits. The only effective procedure in my view is compensation for the damage done at the time, and for steps to be taken to abate the nuisance at the proper season of the year.
105 I oppose the Bill, because I think that from first to last it is wrongly drafted, the whole operative part of it being based upon the principle of prevention rather than compensation, and that makes it quite impossible to amend it in Committee. The Bill ought to provide for a simple and summary procedure for recovering civil damages in a Court of Law. A Court would then order an inspection of the land. There is no necessity to set up any new inspectors. In the neighbourhood of every Magisterial Bench or County Court there are plenty of land surveyors, valuers and people of that kind perfectly competent to assess the value of the damage, and the whole thing could be done simply without the necessity for making any appointments of fresh officials. I also oppose the Bill because it cannot possibly achieve its object. It shows a complete absence of knowledge of the habits of rabbits and, I think, of the habits of men. It is difficult or impossible to carry it out, and in any case the duty of abating the nuisance will be imposed upon a man at a time when it is quite impossible to achieve it. I believe that the Bill, if it is ever passed, will be a dead letter. Seeing that it provides for proceedings being started between occupier and occupier it will create friction, and I think that in many cases the provisions of the Bill if they are ever put into operation at all may possibly be put into operation merely as a means of using its cumbrous procedure to help a man "get back upon" his neighbour in regard to some previous grievance. Far from being a Bill to promote peace and amity between neighbouring occupiers of land, as the hon. Member for Stone said, the Bill may have absolutely the opposite effect. If this Bill would prevent even 10 per cent. of the damage done to crops by a neighbour's rabbits, I should not dream of opposing it, but I oppose it because it is based upon a complete negation of the findings of the Select Committee. I believe the Committee were perfectly right in saying that compensation was the proper method of dealing with this difficulty.
§ Sir EDMUND TURTON
The hon. Baronet is no doubt perfectly accurate in saying that complaint has been made from time to time of the increasing obligations put upon local authorities, but 106 a county council happens to be an extremely loyal body, and is always ready to take upon itself such duties as Parliament in its wisdom may think it necessary for it to carry out. The County Councils' Association have had before them this Bill, and I would like to mention, in passing, that the different Government Departments are always good enough to send to them an outline of proposed legislation as far as it affects county councils. The County Councils' Association considered this Bill in all its bearings, and came to the conclusion that it was a Bill which could be worked by county councils. The Association do not as a rule express any view one way or the other in regard to any Measure which is put before them, but they came to the conclusion that in this particular case they were justified in passing a resolution to say that in their judgment the matter ought to be dealt with in the way proposed by this legislation. Accordingly, they deputed Lord Cottesloe and myself to give evidence before the Select Committee in another place in support of the Bill, in the form in which it then was.
I gather that there may be some little doubt in the mind of the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) as to there being any trouble at all regarding an excess of rabbits. I prefer to take the view of the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley), who admitted that there is a wrong which ought to be righted by Parliament. I gather from the remarks of the two hon. Baronets that the issue before the House is not that this matter is to be left alone, but whether it could be met by legal process and compensation given to the occupier who suffers damage; or whether the process under the Bill is the best method. I do not want to repeat the evidence which I gave before the Select Committee. I know the Minister referred to it on Second Reading, but I say it is an extremely unfortunate thing to have litigation between neighbours, because it will lead to unpleasantness and difficulties. We must not overlook the fact that a very great cost would be involved in an action between an occupier and his neighbour who might sue for compensation. Hon. Members know that the County Courts in country districts generally sit about once every two 107 months. In these cases an enormous bill of costs might be incurred out of all proportion to the issues involved. What is more, litigation would not prevent the evil with which we seek to deal. What we want is to prevent damage being done by the ravages of rabbits. A farmer does not farm in order to make rabbit food, but to produce food for the people, who ought to receive the benefit of that production, and nothing will compensate a farmer for having his crops trampled down. There is nothing to be said in favour of allowing compensation to be paid year after year, because you will only have the same trouble in the future.
I want to put forward some reasons why you should place this duty upon the county councils. It has been argued that the Government are putting an impossible task upon county councils under this Bill, but I would like to remind hon. Members that, as a rule, the members of county councils are people who live in the country; they are often men experienced in agricultural affairs, with a knowledge of sport, and can it be contended that these people would not understand the question of getting rid of a few rabbits? At the present time county councils have to deal with small holdings and matters of that kind, and they have been given far more delicate duties to perform than that of getting rid of a few rabbits. If a farm is not being cultivated according to the rules of good husbandry, the county councils have the duty of saying whether this is or is not being carried out by the farmers, and that is not an easy thing to do. If a cottage is required on a farm, a certificate has to be given by the county council. The hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Captain Hope) said that he would defy anybody to go on land and say whether or not there were any rabbits there. You only need to look at the state of the crop. If it is a crop of barley or oats, and you find that it has been beaten down, you have a right to assume that rabbits are there.
I did not make that remark. I said when going on strange land you could not tell whether there are too many rabbits on the land or not.
§ Sir E. TURTON
I say deliberately that you can tell whether there are too many rabbits on the land. I own a large 108 estate, and I take good care that all the rabbits are cleared out of the woods, so that they shall not do any damage to my tenants' crops. Only a few weeks ago I was told that on certain farms there were rabbits and they got into the woods; but nevertheless they did damage and I at once set two game-keepers to keep them down. It is possible for anybody with any practical knowledge of the country to say whether there are too many rabbits and whether they are so numerous that they are likely to do damage to the crop. There is no intention of exterminating rabbits. As a rule farmers like the rabbits, and they are good sportsmen. The hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton spoke about ferrets. He said that it would be a very slow job to use the ferret, and people were likely to get bitten. Probably the hon. Member had in his mind the hon. Member for Central Leeds (Sir C. Wilson), and I daresay he would be clumsy enough to be bitten by a ferret. It is quite a safe thing if you know how to hold the ferret. If you place your finger under its fore paws, then I defy anybody to be bitten by a ferret. So much for the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton.
I would like to refer to a very curious and laughable speech which was made by the hon. Member for Central Leeds. I am sorry he is not present, because I propose to say one or two home truths, which, I think, will show that in his speech he has not shone in a very good light. His arguments seemed to be "never mind the farmer or the expense they have been put to in ploughing, sowing, or in the payment of rates. Never mind all that as long as I have plenty of rabbit skins and maggots." I would like to point out to my hon. Friend that this is not a Bill for the extermination of rabbits, or maggots either. If the Bill goes through, the hon. Member for Central Leeds will still be able to buy rabbit skins as much as he likes. The hon. Member told us that rabbit skins were sold at a farthing each, but I know the price paid to the scullery maid is never less than 3d. On the question of shooting syndicates, I think the Minister was right when he said that the increase of rabbits is definitely encouraged by shooting syndicates. I have no doubt that is perfectly true, but I want to point out to the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead that in all these agreements 109 for shooting, the syndicates have a clause by which they pay all the compensation with regard to this matter; this is a direct incitement to them to pay compensation, and, therefore, the rabbits are to be left alone.
Some of those who are opposing this Bill are incurring a great responsibility. We do not want the whole question of the game laws put into the melting-pot, but if this issue is raised, those of us who wish to keep our own shooting rights may regret it, because they may be taken away from us. I know many farmers, and if the shooting right is to be let at all, the occupier should have the first offer, and I do not think it would be wise to make the farmers angry. After all, if there are two horses—the farmer and the syndicate—you will be backing the wrong horse if you back the syndicate. The people who compose these syndicates are people with no shooting of their own, and people you would not invite to shoot with you. Therefore, I do not think we ought to pay much attention to them. They are all good shooters but bad hitters, and very probably a small number of rabbits will be quite sufficient for them.
May I now come back to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Central Leeds? In the first place, he criticised the county councils. It is quite certain that he has not much knowledge of county councils, and is not likely to have, because at the last March election, when he stood as a county council candidate, he received a contemptuous number of votes and was at the bottom of the poll. Therefore, I hope the House was not unduly impressed with the speech of the hon. Member for Central Leeds on that point. The hon. Member also told us about unemployment, and he thought he would throw a bait for votes, but it must have been a maggot bait. He pointed out that a large amount of unemployment would follow in the hat-making and the rabbit-skin trades as well as the maggot trade if this Bill became law. Let me point out to hon. Gentlemen opposite that unless this Bill passes, the present state of things must necessarily cause unemployment. If there is no harvest, then no men will he employed. If you do not stop this evil what unquestionably will happen will be that the farmers will lay down grass instead of arable land on 110 each side of the covert, and the proportion of men employed in arable production is three to one as compared with grass. I ask hon. Members opposite to take my nice little trout fly rather than the dirty old maggot of the hon. Member for Central Leeds. Then the hon. Member talked about the informer, but I have yet to learn that there is any question of the informer at all. There is no such thing in the Bill. The complaint must be made by an occupier who suffers damage by reason of the adjoining occupier, and there is no question of an informer or anything of the sort.
§ Sir E. TURTON
I am surprised that a learned King's Counsel cannot read the first Clause of this Bill. I will give him a lay opinion for nothing—I will not charge him £2 4s. 6d. It is the occupier who has got into trouble by reason of damage done by an adjoining occupier. I am sorry to have taken up so much of the time of the House, but I want just to say this in conclusion. The county councils have passed these resolutions perfectly genuinely, and they have no politics at all—
§ Sir E. TURTON
The county councils will carry out these duties loyally. They are very difficult and very delicate duties, but I believe that, if this legislation is passed, it will more than anything else serve as a "big stick." Once the county councils have this power, and once the people who have too many rabbits in their woods recognise that there is a body which is able to deal with them, I believe it will go a long way to do away with this evil. The County Councils' Association have not asked or invited the Government to give this power, but, if it is given, we promise to carry it out loyally to the best of our ability, and I am quite certain that, if it is given, it will do away with a great deal of friction and a great deal of trouble, and will certainly obviate the waste of food and of farmers' crops which is going on at the present time.
§ Rear-Admiral BEAMISH
I rise to support this Bill most cordially, and I agree with almost everything that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir E. Turton). Certain of the points which were put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) require an answer. He suggested that the enforcement of this Bill, and the making of the appointments necessary for the purpose, will place a further burden on the county councils, but I do not hesitate to say, from personal knowledge, that the county councils not only have no objection to this Bill, but welcome it, and will willingly and skilfully enforce it. The cost of doing so will be very small, and they are thoroughly conversant with all the circumstances which arise in cases where there is an extreme number of rabbits. After all, this Bill is not intended to exterminate all the rabbits in the Kingdom. I should be the last person to agree to anything of that kind; but there is no getting away from the fact that rabbits are, at the present time, an intolerable burden on agriculture, horticulture and forestry, and it is not too much to say that, if every rabbit in the United Kingdom were exterminated during the next six months—an impossibility, I agree—we should be a very much richer and more prosperous nation than we are to-day. It seems to me that there is only one compensating advantage—an advantage, which being fond of shooting, I fully appreciate—and that is the sport which the rabbit provides. Everyone who goes in for shooting likes shooting rabbits, but that is the only compensation that can be put forward.
Personally, I am inclined to the opinion that the opposition to this Bill arises largely because of the name of the Bill. It is very unfortunate that rabbits should be called rabbits, that being a term of contempt for various types of people, and it naturally encourages the humorists, alleged and otherwise, to put forth their best efforts in opposing the Bill. That, however, does not in the slightest degree weaken my support for the Bill. I was immensely amused by several of the speeches that have been made against the Bill, but it does not seem to me that any argument has been adduced which would really justify keep- 112 ing back this very long overdue legislation. Another point that has been put forward against the Bill is that it would lead to the making of frivolous complaints, or, rather, to an army of informers making trouble for their neighbours simply in order, so to speak, to get their own back. That point was put forward particularly by the hon. Member for Central Leeds (Sir C. Wilson), who suggested that there would be scores of common informers. After all, however, the Bill does not contain anything that would in the slightest degree support the common informer. It says that a complaint must be lodged by a person who suffers or expects to suffer damage to his crops, trees, fences and so forth; but he is not a common informer, and he has every right to try to get some compensation for his damaged crop.
There is a further safeguard, which to my mind is a very good one, and which might, perhaps, to meet the opponents of the Bill, be altered in Committee by making the sum a little bigger. I think that the county councils are fully justified in asking the complainant to put up a sum of £2 for the necessary expenses of making an investigation to see whether what he says is or is not a fact. That is certainly a very proper safeguard. Then it has been suggested that the county councils will engage numbers of people to run about loose all over the land; but the Bill gives almost unlimited opportunities of abating the nuisance without the necessity for people running about to see whether it is there. All that is necessary is that a complaint should be made, when the man who has the excessive quantity of rabbits will very quickly take steps to abate the nuisance. I maintain strongly that, if a man goes on allowing food to be spoilt, crops to be utterly ruined, and so forth, he deserves, after being thoroughly well warned, any fate that the county council or the law would be likely to put upon him.
It has been said, and I think there is something in favour of the argument, that great difficulty would be met with in getting this nuisance abated, but what, after all, has been the experience in regard to the eradication of noxious weeds? I think I am quoting the exact figures when I say that over 90 per cent. of the cases in which complaints have been made in regard to noxious weeds 113 have been met without any further action on the part of the county councils or the authorities concerned. What happens is, of course, that the man complained of says, "I cannot go on like this; I will remove the weeds." I have seen that happen myself again and again, and the result is that only in very few cases is it necessary to take the drastic action which many hon. Members seem to fear.
With regard to the vexed question as to whether there should be compensation or actual abatement of the nuisance, I am whole-heartedly in favour of abatement of the nuisance, as against anything in the nature of civil action or very doubtful compensation. Nothing is more difficult to prove than damage, unless it is very serious. Slight damage is very difficult indeed to prove, and, after all—and I should like to press this point—every self-respecting farmer in this country would far sooner harvest a good crop than be paid any amount of compensation for a spoilt one. I have no hesitation in saying that, and really, to my mind, it is the crux of the whole matter. What the farmer wants at the present time is not compensation, but freedom to get on and grow his own crops and to produce good ones. I cannot think of anything more unpleasant to look at than a crop which has been spoilt by rabbits. One or two Members have spoken of the difficulty of knowing whether there are too many rabbits about. I am sure they will agree with me that it is a perfectly well-known fact, and is observable every day in any country where there are rabbits, that no stock will feed on grass which has been contaminated by rabbits. We talk of laying down to grass the land outside covers, and that is one precaution that the farmer can take, but, even then, in the first place, he does not get his hay, and secondly, his stock will not feed on the grass where rabbits have fouled it.
The hon. Member for Central Leeds, who made so humorous a speech, was in great trouble on the subject of his hats and the fur that goes to make them, but, after all, hats are not by any manner of means always made out of rabbit fur. I would, however, submit to him as a business man that, if he likes, he can put his money into a most profitable enterprise, namely, the actual farming of rabbits. A rabbit farm can easily be created and 114 run on commercial lines so as to give a really good yield. Details are obtainable by anyone who wants them. It only needs poor land properly fenced, and, if it is run properly, it yields a very good profit, so that the hon. Member for Central Leeds could in that way get plenty of fur for his hats.
It has been suggested that this Bill has no real support from the local authorities, but I maintain that it has their very strong support. I know that 12 or 14 county councils have very strongly expressed their approval of the Bill quite recently, although I cannot speak, like my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, for the County Councils' Association, beyond saying that they very cordially support the idea of the Bill and would like to see it brought in as a step towards doing away with what is, I submit, an intolerable nuisance and burden upon agriculture and upon horticulture also. There is just one other point. It is suggested that the Ground Game Act is sufficient, but that is not the case. I have had personal experience of it, and have seen case after case where people are not able to keep down the rabbits that are spoiling their crops, because they are not allowed access to the covers that surround their land, and they are, therefore, placed in a very difficult and, indeed, intolerable position. Farmers, in the difficult position in which so many of them are to-day, should not be asked to go to all the trouble of bringing a civil action, with the attendant expenditure of time and money, and the improbability of getting proper compensation, when they would sooner have had a good crop than a spoilt one.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. JOHNSTON
I can assure the hon. Member opposite, who expressed wonder whether the Members of the Opposition had taken the maggot-baited hook of the hon. Member for Central Leeds (Sir C. Wilson), that we propose, if a Division takes place on this Motion, to support the Bill. We believe that the first business of the land is to produce food. We know that land all over the country is ruined by rabbits. We believe that that nuisance should be abated, mid we propose to support this Bill in the interests of the food supply of the country. But, as far as we can see, there are loopholes even in this Bill. There is nothing 115 in it to prevent contracting-out, to prevent the sporting landlord from compelling or inducing his tenants to sign forms contracting-out of any appeal to the county council against their neighbours having a surplus of rabbits. In these cases we think that the Bill should be strengthened. We know, from experience in the case of deer forests, that the method of compensation does not suffice. Farmers are afraid in some cases and unable in others to put forward proper claims for compensation. I believe the experience of the farmers in Scotland is, as far as it is voiced by the National Farmers' Union, that regulations based on the idea of compensation do not suffice to protect their crops from the depredations of deer, and the same thing applies to rabbits. We would like to see some wider provisions which would enable proper methods to be taken for dealing with this nuisance, and some additional regulations included in the Bill making it easier for poachers.
§ Mr. JOHNSTON
I have, as I am sure many other hon. Members have, engaged in poaching rabbits. There are unemployed colliers in my neighbourhood, for the most part in a state of destitution, who would be willing to travel long distances to abate any nuisance caused by a surplus of rabbits. I hope the promoters of this Bill will not object if Members on this side of the House attempt to strengthen the provisions of this Bill, and to make it easier for poachers to abate the nuisance.
§ Sir NEWTON MOORE
As to what has been said about rabbits and poor land, I do not know whether in the interests of the food supply of this country the rabbits would not be more profitable than some of the food got off the land. I have been responsible for the building perhaps of thousands more rabbit-proof fencing than anybody in the world. We built some miles to keep the rabbits from Eastern Australia entering West Australia. In Eastern Australia they subsequently found rabbits were a very profitable source of revenue, and some of the best chicken eaten in this country is really Victorian rabbit. From the point of view of the food supply, I do not know which 116 is better. This Bill seems to me to be going to set up a new bureaucracy, with more inspectors to be appointed, and all the rest of the paraphernalia, for all of which the poor farmer has to pay. I would impress upon the Minister of Agriculture that, in regard to rabbits, he should give consideration to a new industry which is springing up in this country. Only two weeks ago I inspected an estate owned by an Australian devoted to pedigree rabbits, and they were growing better Angora wool than I have ever seen. If you want to encourage the production of these pedigree rabbits that are going to produce good wool, you should do it by every means in your power. In most countries, where the rabbit has been a nuisance, it is the person who owns the land who puts the rabbit-proof fence to keep them out. In Australia we put up 4,000 miles of fence originally, but unfortunately the rabbits got through, and we had to put up additional miles of fence. The point is that we saved the agricultural areas from the rabbits. In the more closely congested areas, however, they have been a source of revenue to a very large number of farmers. I hope the Minister will, in Committee, give consideration to the question whether exemption should not be given in cases where the breeding of high-class rabbits for wool is being carried on.
§ Major Sir ARCHIBALD SINCLAIR
The hon. Member for Richmond (Sir N. Moore) would naturally prefer some other method than that indicated in this Bill for dealing with the rabbit pest, but when he suggests that people breeding high-class rabbits and Angora wool should be exempted from this Measure he need have no fear on that score. After all, these rabbits, which are bred for their fur in that way, have to be very carefully looked after. They are kept in hutches, and it is very nearly a full day's work to look after any quantity of them. There is no question of turning them out into coverts, or of their ruining crops, or anything of that kind. They are not dealt with at all by this Bill and are absolutely safe from it. I only rose to express my approval of the Bill. It is a humble Measure and small in its scope. It has been reduced in its scope since we last saw it. The rooks have been 117 taken out, but still, such as it is, it is a useful Measure, and one which is capable of improvement. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman in charge of it, with his usual courtesy and breadth of mind, will be open to suggestions which will be made to him in the course of the calm Committee stage. With those few remarks and reservations, I wish to express my approval and support.
We have three pests in the Highlands, the bracken, the rabbits and the steamboat transport, which break the calm of the Highlands. Some of the people who breed rabbits find it cheaper to skin the rabbits and throw away the carcases to save transport charges. Rabbits are not like rooks. I am sorry the rooks have flown out of this Bill. Rooks, if not too numerous, are the farmer's friend and destroy a great deal of vermin, but rabbits serve no useful purpose whatever on the land. I am surprised that an hon. Member says you cannot tell whether there are too many rabbits on the land or not. You can see at once when you look at the land whether there are rabbits or not. I do not know where his eyesight is, or where his nostrils are, for if he stoops down to the ground he will know. There ought not to be any at all. I know on one Scottish estate belonging to an Earl, whose son is in this House, the owner makes it an absolute rule that, if he sees a rabbit a second time, the people get notice. He makes it an absolute rule, because they destroy so much, and he is one of those beneficent landlords who lets the shooting with the land to the farmers. I have shot with some of the farmers on the estate, and it is a very pleasant shoot to have, because they act as keepers and board you on reasonable terms, and do not expect £5 notes at the conclusion of the shoot, which is a consideration to a person of economical mind. The keeper is really the vermin destroyer. The hon. Member for Springburn (Mr. Hardie) spoke about poachers. There are only two people interested in game preserving, the game-preserver, or landlord, and the poacher. If there was nothing preserved there would be nothing to poach. The consequence is that the game-preserver is the best friend of the poacher. The more keepers there are, the more friends the poacher has. Where rabbits are 118 prevalent they are one of the principal causes of spreading tuberculosis among cattle. We have exterminated them from time to time, but they come back again very quickly. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that rabbits could be kept as a suitable stock for poor land, but will they keep to the poor land? They are the most determined trespassers we know. They pay no attention to notices. This is a good Bill in that it prevents the starting of the evil. The hon. Member said that, if you have the big stick, as he calls it, you can soon put an end to it. To suggest to a man, who goes out brokenhearted and sees all his crop nibbled away by rabbits from a plantation into which he cannot go, that he should take the owner of the plantation into the Small Debts Court or the County Court and get damages is to suggest an impossible thing. The real thing is for him to be able to go to his landlord and say, "You have a good deal more interest in rabbits than in farming. You are what is called a gentleman farmer. That is to say, you lose money gradually. You have got to stop this or I will put the county council on you." It is like the case of a man with an insanitary drain. The inspector is sent, and he gets it put right. That is all that will happen. I do not believe that this power will ever be exercised.
As to rabbits being bred for fur, we know that all the valuable furs, sealskins and others, worn by the fair sex are nearly all made of rabbits and come from Australia. Rabbits are the universal provider. I have seen tons of rabbit skins beautifully dyed, all from Australia. You are encouraging people to buy Empire goods if you put down these vermin that are doing so much damage and breaking the hearts of the farmers of this country. I recollect the old land campaign of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and his reference to the pheasants that eat mangel-wurzels. If he had really addressed himself to the coneys, who are a Bible folk with their habitations among the rocks, he would have been dealing with the vermin that do the real damage to the farmer. A good landlord, apart from questions of shooting, ought to see that there are no rabbits on his land. Have as many 119 hares as you like. They do not do anything like the damage; they are never as numerous. I have a good knowledge of both rabbits and hares. I have carried ferrets in my pockets and had them running up and down my sleeves. I have ferreted in all parts, and am thoroughly acquainted with both rabbits and hares. The hare has nothing like the same power to add to its numbers as the rabbit. The descendants of a rabbit after four years come to something like 4,000,000. The consequence is that the landowner should wage ceaseless war against them.
No, that is quite a different thing. It is only in some parts that you find hares in anything like numbers, but they never do the damage that rabbits do, and they are capable of being kept within reasonable numbers. It is almost impossible to keep down rabbits. That is one of the difficulties I see here. Unless charges and freights are lower, Sub-section (2) of Clause I will not come much into operation. This is on the whole a Bill beneficial to agriculture. I am sure the farmer will like it, and if the landowner realises his duty, he will be only too glad to have this power put into the hands of the county councils and will take care that the powers are put into operation.
§ Mr. GROTRIAN
We have had a most amusing speech from the hon. Baronet the Member for Thirsk (Sir E. Turton) and we all enjoyed it, but I think he has a little misapprehended the reason some of us are opposing the Bill. We think it is quite unworkable, so much so that it must have been drawn by someone who has never seen a rabbit except in a pie. However that may be, that is our objection to it. My experience as a landowner and a shooting tenant for 40 years is that in the winter months the rabbits are fit to shoot, and it the landlord or the tenant shoots them down, or traps them down, too close, he has complaints from the farmer that he is not leaving him any rabbits. On the other hand, when you come to the summer months, 120 when the rabbits are of no value to anyone, he immediately says: "Look at the damage your rabbits are doing to my land." If that is so, you will get these complaints in the summer months, and what we want to know is how the county council or anyone else is going to keep down the rabbits in May, June, or July. It cannot be done. It would be very inhumane to trap down the mother rabbits with young ones. You cannot ferret them, and there is no method of which I know whereby you can kill down rabbits in the summer months. Yet the person who is complained of has to do it within 21 days. I agree that if you can do an impossible thing you can do it in 21 days, but otherwise you cannot do it at all, and we believe the Bill is illusory and unworkable. While we all admit that the evil exists, I believe this is not the way to get rid of it. I agree with the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) that compensation is a much safer and better way, but this will jeopardise a man's right to compensation, because when he comes for compensation they will say: "Why did you not report it to the county council and get them to kill the rabbits?" For these, amongst other reasons, I oppose the Bill.
§ Mr. HARDIE
The hon. Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) seems to have assumed from my remark that I was out for the extermination of rabbits altogether. This Bill does not seek to do that. Even if it is true that the gamekeeper was the forerunner of the poacher, the poacher was the forerunner of the gamekeeper, because if you did not have the poacher you would have no gamekeeper. It is a strange thing that the British Parliament, the hub of the universe and all things intelligible, should be discussing a Bill for the suppression of rabbits while it has on its Statute Book the natural means for the reduction of rabbits. When the hon. Baronet the Member for Thirsk (Sir E. Turton) was speaking in that most interesting way, I wondered what he would do if the poacher was brought before him. I should like to know the logic of his mind.
§ Mr. HARDIE
The hon. Baronet is prepared to take something that is called the law and to become illogical and unjust. He is fighting for the Bill and for the right of reducing the number of rabbits, because they do damage, and yet he is prepared as a magistrate to send a man to gaol for doing the very same thing. It is strange that in the British Parliament we should be wasting time in this way. If we just made the law a little easier there would be no need for a Bill of this kind. The poacher is not a man who goes out to exterminate game. He wants to be able to go back and get more. If you leave him alone he is naturally intelligent, and he will see that you get the right number left at all seasons. His interest as a poacher will make him do that. It seems to me absurd that the House of Commons should be trying to pass legislation while they have the natural organisation to hand. [Interruption.] I am talking about the human poacher. The poacher who knows his business does not need to wait for night or to know where the gamekeeper is. He can do it while he is talking to the gamekeeper if he knows his business. I want to make a challenge to anyone who wants to get rid of rabbits. I was in Scotland at an open-air meeting, and I saw a hundred men, whom I should be able to get by wire, who would reduce up to 75 per cent. in a fortnight. There is no need for a Bill at all if you leave the poacher alone.
§ The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Guinness)
It is very remarkable that throughout the Debate there has been no denial of the damage done to agriculture by rabbits. I do not think we should have had the necessity for a second day of discussion if it had not been that this subject always tempts the House to a rather hilarious mood. The hon. Baronet the Member for Central Leeds (Sir C. Wilson) made a speech in which he claimed the right of the hat industry to override the interests of every other industry in the country and to pasture the rabbits it needed on other people's lands and crops. He treated the matter as a joke. It is by no means a joke to the farmers in many parts of the country. I have a constituent who suffers very much from the rabbit pest, and he wrote to the hon. Baronet and told him the damage it was doing to his crops, and said rabbits were very much like Mem- 122 bers of Parliament—they ought to be kept in their proper place. I do not deny that the industry of hat-making is important, but it is nothing like so important as the production of food. The hon. Member for Richmond (Sir N. Moore) seemed to think the passage of the Bill would imperil the young and valuable industry of Angora and Chinchilla and other fancy rabbits. Of course they would be in no way affected. They are not bred in the open air. They are carefully tended under cover. Anyhow, if people want to have them, there is no reason why they should not pay for their keep, and there is no justification for quartering them upon their neighbours. There is no obstacle to people keeping rabbits on their own land. They have only to put up wire netting so that the rabbits do not become a nuisance to their neighbours.
The only criticism of the Bill has been on the ground of the procedure that is proposed. Even the hon. Baronet the Member for Central Leeds admitted that there was a case for some machinery to be set up. He suggested that the County Court would be better than the County Agricultural Committee. Surely, if that is so, he ought to be satisfied with our proposal in regard to appeals, because if anyone is aggrieved by an Order under the Bill, it is open to him on the widest grounds to appeal. But I think in practice it will be found that the occasion will rarely arise. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) seems to think it is a new departure that these powers should be conferred on County Councils. It is true that under D.O.R.A. the Ministry of Agriculture was responsible, but they immediately delegated their powers to the County Agricultural Executive Committees, and they were carried out without any friction for several years. The County Agricultural Committees are reasonable bodies. There is no case for the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Lewes (Read-Admiral Beamish) that they would order people to kill their rabbits at short notice during a period of the year when there is a great deal of undergrowth and when it would be impossible to carry out the order. [An HON. MEMBER: "They can do it!"] They can do all kinds of absurdities.
§ Mr. GUINNESS
They will make an order for the destruction of the rabbits or for the adoption of measures, in the words of the Bill, "to abate or prevent the damage" by a certain time—not less than 21 days. There is no possibility of these local authorities making an unreasonable order and calling on the occupier to destroy the rabbits at a period when he could not carry it out. No doubt in cases where the crops are suffering they will begin by making representations. If these representations fail in the last resort, they will make an order. There is no reason to expect that they will make an order to destroy the rabbits or abate the nuisance in unreasonable time.
§ Major PRICE
Will my right hon. Friend point out in what respect the Bill asks for representations to be made?
§ Mr. GUINNESS
The Bill does not ask for representations to be made, but the universal procedure is, as it is with regard to noxious weeds under the Corn Production Acts (Repeal) Act, which is administered by the same authority, that when a man becomes a nuisance to his neighbours friendly representations are made. He is first asked to abate the nuisance, and it is only in the last resort that the local authority puts into operation the machinery for making the order. After all, when an order is made, it will only be on a recalcitrant owner, and if that owner chooses to go to the County Court, he will have exactly that right of a legal hearing for which the opponents of this Bill have been asking.
§ Mr. GUINNESS
After all, if the nuisance exists and hon. Members agree that it should be abated it surely is not unreasonable that the local authority, with its other agricultural responsibilities, should be made responsible for administering the order for the abatement of this nuisance.
§ Major PRICE
My point really was this, that there is no opportunity for the 124 man complained against to put his case before the county council. We know perfectly well that in many cases where the county council have a right to do something they hear an ex parte application, draw up their case and give their verdict upon that ex parte statement. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] It is often done. It is especially done in the case of tied cottages.
§ Mr. GUINNESS
In the case of weeds, the experience is that the County Councils make representations before they make an order, and that is the stage at which the County Council will hear the case of the men with whom they are dealing. If the rabbit owner is not satisfied with the reasonableness of the order, he may go to the County Court, and the County Court will hear him just as well as the County Agricultural Committee. Really, I think the House has been asked for a great deal of misplaced sympathy in this case. We need not worry about those people who quarter their rabbits on to their neighbours' crops, and we ought to prefer the claims of those upon whose crops they are quartered.
In view of the extra burden now proposed to be cast upon the already scandalously underpaid County Court Judges, will my right hon. Friend represent to his colleagues in the Cabinet that this is the appropriate moment to deal with an increase of their salaries?
§ Major PRICE
I do not wish to delay the House, especially at this time. I think we ought to turn our minds to the Clauses of the Bill and see what they say. We have had a good many speeches which were quite irrelevant to the Clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 says not only that if damage is being caused hut that if damage is likely to be caused, the occupier of one farm can complain against the occupiers of all the adjoining farms and bring the matter before the county council. In fairness to all parties we should insist that where a man is likely to have an order made against him by the county council he is entitled to be represented at the hearing, and bring such evidence as is necessary to prevent the order being made. Hon. Members have suggested that litigation must be avoided. This Bill is asking for litigation, because 125 every time a man has an order made against him, and has not had a chance of putting his ease before the county council, he has immediately the right to plunge into litigation. Unfortunately, his litigation will be against the public authority of which he is one of the ratepayers. Thus, he will be finding the money on both sides, and is bound to lose. I think that where you are dealing with the complaints that can so easily be made, we ought to provide that those complaints should be thoroughly investigated by the body which is going to have something in the nature of judicial authority over the matter. Clause 1, Sub-section (3), says:Where a county council have been requested by a complainant to exercise their powers under this Section with respect to any land in their area they may authorise any person to enter on and inspect the land on their behalf.What we want to do, is to inspect the land where the rabbits come from as well as the land where the damage is done. The whole trouble here is to find out from where the rabbits are coming. One does not deny that damage is done. The hon. Member who moved the rejection of this Bill said that damage is done on farms, but what this Bill seeks to do is to say that the damage is done by somebody else's rabbits and not by those bred on the farm itself. How can you tell that unless you have the right of inspection of the adjoining land? If the Bill is to be effective we should take every step we can to prevent the county council from being involved in litigation. If they are going to do their duty, and carry it out in the way they should, everything you can do to get the matter settled in an amicable way should be done. I think the Bill is badly conceived, and I hope the House will seriously consider whether the remedy they seek cannot be very much better carried out in another way.
§ Mr. CONNOLLY
I should like to ask the Minister of Agriculture what he has in mind regarding the provisions of Subsection (5) of Clause 1, which says:The powers conferred by this Act on n county council may he exercised by any committee of the council to which the exercise of those powers may be delegated.Has the Minister in mind any special or ultimate powers to be conferred upon any committee under this Sub-section?
§ Mr. GUINNESS
The Committee which, obviously, will be invested with these powers is the County Agricultural Committee, which is a statutory committee set up in every county.
§ Mr. CONNOLLY
And their decision also would, of course, be subject to the endorsement of the whole of the council?
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.