HC Deb 15 July 1949 vol 467 cc867-80

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Turton

I beg to move, in page 1, line 14, to leave out "and."

The purpose of this Amendment will be seen from the Amendment in page 1, line 18, which proposes to insert: and (c) the council of each county district in each county may delegate to the county agricultural executive committee for that county its functions under this Act excepting in relation to such parts of the county as are comprised in an urban district having a population exceeding twenty thousand. Here we provide power for the selected local authority, the council of a county district, to delegate its authority to the Minister's own county agricultural executive committee, if they so wish. I take the view that this is the most important Amendment that we have to put forward today, because I cannot see how the setup in this Bill is going to work easily, smoothly and with proper co-operation between the local authorities and the Minister's county committees without this new subsection. Before we come to the details of the Amendment, it is wise to remind the House of what was said on this matter on Second Reading by the Parliamentary Secretary, who was then introducing this Measure. The hon. Gentleman then told us: The provisions of Part I have been worked out in consultation with the various national associations of local authorities, with the result that we have on this Bill … been able to get agreement on the broad design. I suppose the Parliamentary Secretary would agree that that broad design must clearly involve the question of who are the operating authorities, and whether they should have power to delegate. A little later in the same Debate, the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) asked the Parliamentary Secretary: Can he tell the House whether the County Councils' Association, which is deeply interested in this question, was also consulted? The Parliamentary Secretary replied: The consultations included all the appropriate national associations of the local authorities, of which the association mentioned by my hon. Friend is one."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1949; Vol. 461, c. 1906–7.] I should have thought that what the Parliamentary Secretary was trying to tell the House was that the County Councils' Association had been consulted and had approved the broad design of this Measure, but, in fact, that is not so. It is quite true that the County Councils' Association was consulted, but they did not approve this design. They said that, in their view, the correct authority for carrying out this Act was the Minister's own county agricultural executive committee, and that is one of the reasons why I regard these Amendments as of importance. It is true that the Rural District Councils' Association was consulted and did approve the design which handed over the power of administration to them, but I think the Minister will agree that the Association itself would like this power so as to be able to delegate their responsibilities to the county agricultural executive committees.

I therefore put the case in this way. The county councils of this country wish to have a mandatory power of delegation to the county agricultural executive committees. The rural district councils on their side, would prefer a discretionary power to delegate in suitable cases, and therefore this Amendment has the backing of both the County Councils' Association and the Rural District Councils' Association. I hope that the Minister will not treat this Amendment in quite the same way as his Parliamentary Secre- tary has treated the new Clauses today and the other Amendments which we put forward on earlier stages of the Bill.

What is the set-up in the Bill at the moment? It will mean that the Part I powers will be carried out by about 1,000 different authorities, that there will be power of enforcement in the hands of those authorities, and that there will also be a power of providing services in the bands of 61 county agricultural executive committees. I believe that that is the inherent weakness in the Bill as at present drafted. We have a dualism in many places which is quite unnecessary. We also have the further difficulty that exists now and will exist when the Bill becomes law, that we shall have the cottage property which will be entirely under the power of the rodent officer of the rural district council, and the farm property next door which will be looked after by the county agricultural executive committee. I think that is a waste of manpower, as well as a waste of public money. It will also entail, as the Government have recognised, an increase in the rates.

Mr. T. Williams

I have not said anything of the kind.

Mr. Turton

I think the Minister's asides were not directed to me, perhaps, but to the hon. Gentleman sitting behind him. I understand that to be his point. If it is necessary to increase the rates to destroy rats and mice, I admit that, high as the rates are at present, I should have to agree to it, but if this dualism is unnecessary, Parliament should try to find some way out of it. I should have thought that the right way was to give the rural and urban district councils of the smaller areas the power to delegate to the Minister's pests control committees, who are acknowledged to be skilful in the killing of rats and mice. Curiously enough, that power does not occur in the whole of this Bill.

It may be that the Minister can point to Clause 12 (2) and say that if he received a complaint that some district council was not carrying out the powers, he could issue the necessary order and empower the county agricultural executive committee to take over those powers, but that is not really a satisfactory alternative. It means that, first of all, there would have to be a failure to carry out the powers, and then there would be supercession of the local authority by a Parliamentary order, and I want to avoid that.

Not all these rural district councils have had persons carrying out the orders and dealing with the killing of rats and mice. This Bill puts into statutory form a number of Defence Regulations and Statutory Rules and Orders at present in force, and there are, am credibly informed, more than 100 of these local authorities who have not got the staff and are not carrying out their powers. Many of these rural district councils would prefer the powers under the Bill to be handed over to the county agricultural executive committees, but I believe they would be indignant if that were done after they had been superseded by the Minister under Clause 12. Therefore, I hope the Minister will accept this Amendment which I believe will secure greater efficiency in the working of the Bill.

The real trouble, of course, is that the rat may be in the cottage or the farm, or it may go a hundred yards into the area of another local authority, but it is still the same rat, and, therefore, the way to deal with it is to have as wide an area of control as possible. That was the design of the county agricultural executive committees. It may be that I shall have occasion at times to complain of the extravagance of these committees, but that does not weaken my argument that when we have this very large number of officers, employing, I think I am right in saying, 135,000 operators, they should be used to the full, and we should not prevent a local authority handing over powers to the county agricultural executive committees.

Mr. C. Williams

I wish to ask my hon. Friend one question. He has given us a series of very interesting, and, I am sure, very correct details as far as local authorities are concerned. But this Bill includes Scotland. I am sure it would not be right—and I am equally sure that the Minister would not consider it right—if he did not tell us also the position as far as Scotland is concerned because, without those figures before us, it would be very wrong to consider England and Wales only and not the whole British Isles.

Mr. Turton

I think my hon. Friend is quite right. I omitted Scotland because I did not want to complicate the matter further. It is, of course, an incongruous position that under Clause 1 (2) the local authorities in Scotland will not be the county districts; they will be the county councils. In Scotland, we are going back to the 1919 Act and having this matter administered in the rural areas by the county councils. Therefore, my Amendment does not deal with Scotland. In Scotland there is another difference. There we have not got the county agricultural committees operating these pest destruction services; they are only, I believe—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—dealing with foxes and deer. In Scotland, they have always left rats and mice to the larger urban authorities and to the county councils. Therefore, there is not in Scotland the dualism which we have here at the moment, and which we shall continue to have under the Bill.

That being the position, I hope that the House will accept this Amendment. It deals with the rural district councils and also with the urban districts which have a population of less than 20,000. We inserted that definition in order to secure that those urban districts which are rural in character should not be treated differently from the rural districts.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Williams

I beg to second the Amendment.

It has been very fully and ably explained by my hon. Friend, but I wish to add a few words about the importance of the agricultural executive committees carrying out this task. The whole problem of rats and mice becomes more and more agricultural almost yearly, because we are now growing much more corn in this country than we were before the war, and, therefore, the chief damage is being done on the farms. Rats live in quantities mainly in the farming areas. The county agricultural executive committees are obviously very interested in this task. Their job is to help people to produce food and also to preserve food. They know what the fields should produce, and they spend their time in giving advice and making recommendations; in fact, they are responsible in this way to a very large degree.

It is no use the agricultural executive committees advising the use of certain fertilisers or certain methods of producing more if the eventual crops are going to be eaten by rats and mice. The point I am trying to make is that the agricultural executive committees not only know the land, but have an interest in it, and where there is an interest there is an incentive. As hon. Members opposite know well, we Conservatives believe in incentives. The agricultural executive committees have a direct incentive to keep the property in which they are interested free from rats, and, therefore, they are the most likely people to do it.

Farmers are more likely to co-operate with people who know their job. Where the district councils are carrying out the job—maybe in the villages or small towns—they may well become complacent if they find that the farmers are doing the job well. But the farmer, even though he is keeping down the number of rats on his farm, may well find that there are rats just over the boundary in another district council. It is far more difficult for him to get the assistance of another district council to which he does not belong, than it is to ask the agricultural executive committee, which is covering the whole area, to do it.

I know that during this Debate some hon. Members may say that the agricultural executive committee is not a democratically appointed body, and, therefore, is not the right body to do the job. But our Amendment simply authorises the district council to delegate its powers to the agricultural executive committee. Even if they delegate their function they are still responsible for those functions, so that if there is any come-back it will be on a council which is democratically appointed. That being so, I do not think there is anything detrimental in the fact that the agricultural executive committees are not actually representative of the people. I believe that this Amendment would be very helpful. It does not make it compulsory for the council to delegate its powers, but it gives it the chance to do so. I believe that the councils will do it in nearly every case, and that the Minister is aware of that. I hope, therefore, that he will treat this Amendment with great respect.

Mr. T. Williams

I always treat Amendments with courtesy, and also in- deed—despite the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams)—those who move them, although there are occasions on which it is extremely difficult to retain a moral sense of courtesy. Perhaps I shall have an opportunity later on to reply to the hon. Member for Torquay should it be necessary, but I prefer not to do so now.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) made great play with the county councils and their views. The hon. Member knows that the County Councils Association have no functions under the terms of this Bill at all. The Association of Municipal Corporations and the Urban District Councils Association do not approve this Amendment, and originally the Rural District Councils Association were in support of the Bill as it now stands. If there has been any weakening on their part it has not been notified to the Ministry of Agriculture. Therefore, all the authorities concerned prefer the Bill as it now stands, to this Amendment.

I am bound to confess that while I always listen carefully to the interventions of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, I scarcely know where he really stands in this matter. In the first place he said on Second Reading: I believe the Bill is right in transferring the powers of rat destruction from the county councils to the distriot councils, because the district councils or the borough councils are the health authorities for the area and they should properly have this power."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 23rd February. 1949; Vol. 461, c. 1940.] Now he proposes an Amendment enabling these authorities, who he says ought to have the power, to delegate that power to somebody else.

Why should the health authorities be associated with these duties? As the hon. Member knows, it was explained very carefully upstairs in Committee. These functions are intimately interlocked with those of the public health service. The county agricultural committees are not a public health service. Secondly, the public health officers are familiar with the conditions throughout their districts, not always the purely rural portions but the built-up portions in county towns, villages and so forth. Thirdly, the cost of maintaining the appropriate organisation, in so far as it is not recovered, should be borne out of local rate funds. Clearly that was the point of view of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton when he spoke on Second Reading. Now he proposes an Amendment to allow the county district committees to delegate their powers to county agricultural executive committees.

What are the duties of a local authority under the terms of this Bill? Clause 2 states that they must from time to time … carry out such inspections as may be necessary for the purpose aforesaid. —not only inspections of agricultural land and agricultural buildings but apparently inspections within the parish area where houses and shops and so forth are erected. What the hon. Gentleman is asking is that we should turn our voluntary county agricultural executive committee members into inspectors of all kinds of property to determine whether or not there is any infestation. That only needs to be stated for its absurdity to be seen.

This Amendment allows the county district council to delegate its functions to county agricultural executive committees, but not in an urban district where the population is 20,000 or more. So that all urban districts with a population of 20,000 or more must fulfil their functions under Clause 2 of the Bill. The hon. Member made great play with what he called uniformity, and he said that instead of having a whole series of bodies, we ought to have one body doing this important job. This Amendment would create the chaotic conditions which the hon. Member suggests we ought to avoid. One rural district council would be able to delegate to the county agricultural executive committee, and the next rural district council might not be able to do so. Therefore, in two adjoining rural district council areas, one rural district council would have to carry out its functions under Clause 2, and in the other rural district council area the county agricultural executive committee would carry out the functions.

The hon. Member referred to the mobility of rats, and said that they do not stay in one given area. That is perfectly true. It is because of that that we want to see rural district councils carrying out their duties faithfully and in co-operation with their neighbours and the public health authorities, for that is the only possible means whereby we shall rid ourselves of the infestation of rats and mice. I noticed that while the Amendment allows a rural district council to delegate its authority to a county agricultural executive committee, by implication the agricultural executive committee must accept those delegated powers without so much as by your leave. In other words, apparently a body which has been set up exclusively to help, advise and guide in the production of food, is to be shouldered with the responsibility of the rural district council, without the agricultural executive committee having even so much as an appeal.

What is more, without having a say in the matter, the agricultural executive committees would have no means of obtaining reimbursement for any expense to which they were put in carrying out the duties of the rural district council, since they could not apply to the rates. Therefore, they would have the functions imposed upon them, they would have to spend money in carrying out the duties of the rural district council, and they would have no means whereby to reimburse themselves for the expense of the operation.

As the hon. Member said on Second Reading, the rural district councils are obviously the public health authorities and, therefore, they are the right bodies to carry out these duties. I am not being political about this at all. I think it is most logical to place responsibility exactly where it ought to be. As the hon. Member is aware, before the introduction of this Bill, 1,212 authorities were charged with the duty of carrying out these functions, and in only 145 cases were the functions not delegated by the county councils. It seems to me that we should complicate the matter enormously if we were to accept this Amendment. I suggest, therefore, to the hon. Member in all good faith that if we really want to rid ourselves of this menace of rats and mice we must leave the responsibility with the right and appropriate bodies, the rural and urban district councils.

I suggest that the county agricultural executive committees should be left with the job of food production. Let their pest operators service farms where the farmers invite them in, so that to that extent they can be as helpful to the rural district councils as possible. I think this is a proper sub-division of functions, and for this and other reasons which I have stated, I hope this Amendment will not be pressed to a Division.

Sir T. Dugdale

We have had a very interesting discussion on this Amendment, and although I agree with the Minister that there is no obligation imposed in the Amendment and that it is mere machinery, it is by far the most important part of the machinery that we have to consider if we are to get effective action under this Bill. In answering my hon. Friend's Amendment, it seemed to me that the Minister was more engaged in arguing against the details of the Amendment than thinking of the possibilities of its advantages. What we still want to do is to destroy rats and mice.

Mr. T. Williams

That is exactly what the Opposition do not want to do.

1.30 p.m.

Sir T. Dugdale

That is the object of the Bill, as we understood it, and that is what we hope to see. We are not at all sure that the machinery provided by the Government is the best for this object. It would appear that what my hon. Friends have been doing is what the Government ought to have done, and that is to have conversations with the different local authorities, since our discussions in Committee, to see if the Bill can be improved. On the other hand, the Minister comes to the House with exactly the same arguments he used in Committee, having done nothing since then. If the right hon. Gentleman will pay particular attention to this Amendment, he will see that during the last two days it has been altered, following the further consideration which has been given to the point. The original Amendment used the word "shall" and referred to "each county."

I and my hon. Friends had Amendments down in Committee, which were not selected by the Chair, to widen the authority to the county. I accept at once that this Amendment is a great deal better than those we originally intended to move, to which I made reference on Second Reading, as did the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) who spoke from his considerable experience. I think we have learned, since the Bill was printed, that we were probably mistaken in that view, and that, by and large, the right body should be the district council, which means that we have moved towards the Government so far as that is concerned. My hon. Friends, in order to make it more flexible and to avoid duplication, have put down a further Amendment, whereby they make it permissive for the county district council to delegate its functions to the county agricultural executive committee.

The idea of that is to use the services of these committees, and the pest officers attached to them, to the best possible advantage and without duplication, and, by so doing to get the maximum number of rats and mice destroyed in the interests of the nation. I can see that we shall not be successful in persuading the Minister to accept this Amendment, as he does not appear to be in a very receptive mood today. Nevertheless, I will prophesy that as time goes on, and he has to administer this Measure, he will find these suggestions very helpful. He should try and make the administration of this Measure as flexible as possible and avoid all duplication, so that we may get the maximum possible results.

Mr. C. Williams

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister seemed to be rather annoyed about something I said, and seemed to depart from his usual courtesy.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Bowles)

I do not think that arises on this Amendment.

Mr. Williams

I was referring to what the Minister said about my remarks during our earlier discussion. I was going to say that I had no intention of causing any offence, and that I am sorry he felt offended. I now wish to turn to what the right hon. Gentleman has said about this Amendment. Whenever I have any dealings with local authorities, they always complain of having too much work to do, and say that they do not want any more work put upon their shoulders. Under this Bill, we are tightening up the amount of work they have to do.

The point of this Amendment is whether, in certain cases, the local authority might not get its work done better if it could hand over to the agri- cultural executive committee. I do not want to overburden the agricultural executive committees, but there are many areas which cannot be dealt with by the local authorities but are very suitable for some central authority. An illustration that comes to my mind is the great area of Dartmoor. Several local authorities on the north and south impinge on that area. The only possible way to deal with that area is to have one central body, and the only central body I can think of is the agricultural executive committee, particularly in view of the number of Government Departments involved, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, the War Office, and so on.

Another illustration which comes to my mind is the case where a local authority has part of its area stretching out into a country district for about 10 miles. In that case it might be convenient for the local authority to delegate the whole of the area to the country agricultural executive committee. Let us now turn to Scotland.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It was made quite clear that this Amendment cannot apply to Scotland.

Mr. Williams

I am not at all sure about that, because some authority must deal with the position in Scotland.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not mentioned in the Amendment.

Mr. Williams

There are agricultural executive committees in Scotland, and I understood the object was to give them more powers, although, as my hon. Friend said, it is a case of dealing with foxes or some other animals in Scotland.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member cannot pursue this line, because local authorities in Scotland are quite different from those in England. He can refer to England, but not to Scotland.

Mr. Williams

I accept that, and I will simply comment on how very bad the situation is under this Clause, when apparently Scotland is left out.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We are not now discussing the Clause. We are discussing an Amendment.

Mr. Williams

I should like to see the proposed Amendment amended, if necessary.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman, who has had a great deal more experience in the Chair than I have, must know that he has been out of Order almost the whole of the time he has been speaking.

Mr. Williams

I must accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. If I was out of Order in what I was saying about the application of this Bill to Scotland, I equally accept your correction. Nevertheless, after what the Minister has said I am sure I should be in Order in mentioning local authorities in England and Wales, so let me now illustrate my point by referring to Wales.

In Wales there are vast mountain areas, and I am of opinion that in areas impinged upon by two or three local authorities it would be far better to have the assistance of the agricultural executive committees, so as to have what might be called a combined operation in dealing with the rats and mice, rather than leaving it to local authorities who, in all probability, would not really attend to the problem except in their own immediate neighbourhood.

The Minister seemed to think that some of us were not very keen about dealing with this problem. My reason for supporting the Amendment is because I believe that the Government and local authorities should not be tied down too tightly. This Amendment is permissive and would give wider powers of co-operation between more widely spread districts and, areas. For that reason it would be much better if the Government, instead of being obstinate, were to come forward openly and say, "We cannot accept the Amendment as drafted, but we will have the Clause amended in some other way," and thus co-operate with us. No party question is involved here. None of us wishes to hold up the Bill, or to lengthen the proceedings. The lengthening of our proceedings today has been due only to needless interruptions on behalf of the Minister, and because the Minister has done nothing whatever, particularly on this Amendment, to ensure what we all want to see—the killing of rats and mice. He is rather looking after his own interests, and saying that he is right and no one else possibly could be. If there is a Division on this Amendment I shall support my hon. Friend. In the event of there being no Division, or of my hon. Friend withdrawing the Amendment, I can only say that I hope that the opportunity will be taken to introduce the Amendment on another occasion.

Amendment negatived.