HC Deb 15 July 1949 vol 467 cc831-43

It shall be the duty of every occupier of land to take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable to keep the land occupied by him free from rats and mice and for the destruction of rats and mice on or in such land.—(Sir T. Dugdale.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.8 a.m.

Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Measure was considered at some length both on Second Reading and in Committee and, for the most part, we on this side consider that it does not divide the House on any great principle of policy. But in order that it should be effective for the purpose for which it is designed we feel that certain Amendments should be made.

The purpose of the Bill is to seek to remedy the very bad state of affairs which at present exists, in which such a very large quantity of our foodstuffs is being destroyed by rats, mice and other pests. Part I deals particularly with the destruction of rats and mice, and in Committee we had a considerable Debate on a series of Amendments put down to Clause 2. These were designed to make it abundantly clear that although after the Bill becomes law local authorities will be responsible for the destruction of rats and mice, it should, at the same time, be the duty of every citizen to do his utmost to destroy the rats and mice in his own premises or factory, irrespective of the provisions of the new Measure. It is because we believe that this is not amply safeguarded in the Bill at present that we have put down this Clause.

In Committee the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture said that our Amendments were put down in the wrong place, and we considered that there was force to that argument. We therefore submit this new Clause in the hope that the Government may be able to accept it. In Committee the Parliamentary Secretary said: … we will think about the question whether there is advantage in restating what I believe is obvious to everyone, that it is the duty of every occupier of premises everywhere to kill his own rats and mice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 28th April, 1949; c. 36.] The Parliamentary Secretary said he would see if there was anything to be gained by restating that general principle. Weeks have gone by, and now we are considering this Measure again we would be very interested to know the result of his deliberations. We hope the result will be to enable him to accept the Clause and include it in the Bill.

The main reason for the Clause is the real fear that we on this side of the House have that when this Bill becomes an Act people will get the impression that everything will be all right so far as the destruction of rats and mice is concerned because the Government and the local authorities will do everything necessary, and that they, as individuals, will have to do nothing other than, possibly, to notify the local authorities that they have rats and mice on their premises. We think that would be an extremely dangerous and bad point of view for the general public to take, and that it should be stated quite specifically in the Bill that it is the duty of every occupier of land to take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable we put those words in advisedly— to keep the land occupied by him or her free from rats and mice …

11.15 a.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malcon)

I beg to second the Motion.

I should like to add a word or two to what has been said by my hon. and gallant Friend. The position at present is that under the existing law the provisions of this new Clause are really the law. Section 1 of the Rats and Mice Act, 1919, laid it down as a duty that every person should take from time to time such steps as may be necessary and reasonably practicable for the destruction of rats and mice on or in any land of which he is the occupier. I have listen to all the proceedings on this Bill and I have heard no argument put forward, either by the Minister of Agriculture, who I am sorry is not here this morning, or by the Parliamentary Secretary, to show why, to that extent, the existing law should be repealed.

There has always been an obligation on the occupier to keep down rats and mice in his own premises, and I believe that one of the reasons why, in many areas, the rat population is increasing at present is because during the war there was a relaxation of that sense of responsibility. I am not so concerned as to whether some occupier of a flat, a tenement, or a cottage should have that duty or not; they are not the grave sinners in this respect. In the earlier stages of the Bill, the Parliamentary Secretary made great play about a woman who lived in a particular flat in the City of London. I do not think we want to raise that matter today; it was an unfortunate reference on the part of the Parliamentary Secretary—

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)

Even if we are not going to have it again, I would point out that I did not refer—and made it clear that I did not refer—to any woman anywhere that I knew. What was said was that, in using a particular phrase, it might be thought to refer to a particular block of flats. That was withdrawn, and I am surprised that the hon. Member should refer to the matter in that gauche way.

Mr. Turton

The House will judge whether I am gauche or not. According to column 29 of the Standing Committee proceedings, the Parliamentary Secretary referred to a Mrs. Jones who lived in tenement No. 25, Peabody Buildings, and also to a Mrs. Smith who lived in tenement No. 5. Whether either of these two people is a mythical being, I do not know, and, to a great extent, that is immaterial. I thought it was an unfortunate reference, and I was trying to hide the Parliamentary Secretary's gaucherie in proceedings which might have made him liable for action for libel. It was an unfortunate incident, not only because he was bringing in this particular Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones, but also because he tried to make it appear as though we were endeavouring to put this duty on to a particular housewife.

The people who should fulfil this duty are, of course, the large commercial firms and factories who, at present, employ commercial firms or employees of their own for the sole purpose of keeping down rats and mice. I am rather surprised that during these proceedings no reference has been made by either side of the House—probably we are as guilty as hon. Members opposite—to the Industrial Pest Control Association, who undertake this work as a commercial enterprise, and who, under the 1919 Act, have done a great deal to rid the country of the menace of rats and mice. At present, there are many large firms, especially in the dock areas, who employ this commercial organisation. It would be unfortunate if these business enterprises were deterred in any way from using these commercial firms. Therefore, I ask the Government to accept this new Clause, which has been very carefully drafted in order to fit in with the words to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred in his speech.

It is not nearly enough that people should think, when they see a rat, that their only obligation is to go to the telephone and report the matter to their local authority. Their obligation should be to kill the rat and to see that, so far as their own premises are concerned, they are free from rats and mice. After all, in this war—because it is a war, as the Parliamentary Secretary very eloquently said on Second Reading—time is of the essence of the contract. It is vital that there should be no delay. But there will be delay if commercial firms do not employ their own rat catchers, and think that all they have to do when they are "infested with rats"—the phrase used in the Bill—is to notify the local authority concerned.

In the earlier proceedings, reference was made to the "Rodent Mail." I should think that, if there is such a paper as the "Rat Herald," there will be headlines in it tomorrow morning—if this Clause is defeated—to the effect that an armistice has been declared by the Government in the warfare by rats on the civil poulation, and that any future warfare will be conducted only by military or para-military formations. It may go on and say that the underground war has ceased. Everybody should be actively engaged in the war against rats, and for that reason I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will accept the Clause.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

I wish to support what has been said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), but more particularly on the ground of economy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer impressed upon the House yesterday that we had no money to spare, and that the utmost economy was necessary. I believe there is a tendency today for people who wish to get rid of rats to leave the matter in the hands of the rodent officers and the officials rather than to take active steps themselves.

I came across a case the other day where a lady who, seeing a rat going into a hole in her garden, told the gardener to do something about it. In the past, the gardener would have got a ferret and a terrier or two, and in his spare time, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, would have got rid of the rat without any loss of working time or any cost to the State. What actually happened was that the gardener telephoned the rodent officer and quite quickly—they were very prompt about it—a car arrived with two strong men, a terrier, spades and ferrets, and the rat was accounted for at considerable cost to the State, which might have been avoided.

It should be impressed upon people that it is their own duty first to destroy these rats before they ask the State to help them. The addition to the Bill of these lines will be a very definite gesture towards economy, and may impress upon people that it is their duty in the first place to catch these rats, and may help in saving the expense which the employment of an official or a rodent officer is bound to incur.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

I want to add a few words because it is most important that we should have this new Clause in the Bill. It is quite impossible to argue that this Clause will do any harm to the Bill. It may well do a great deal of good; in fact, we on this side of the House are convinced that it will do a lot of good. Unless the Parliamentary Secretary can convince us that it can possibly do any harm, I hope we shall go into the Division Lobby against him. At the present time when everybody is becoming so State-minded and full of nationalisation, and believes that the State will do everything for him, we want to see people having a pride in their own establishments and getting on with the job. If rats were running all over their own beds they would probably take the necessary action, but in an industrial building or a farmyard where the rats do not intimately affect people, it is felt it may well be left to the State to do the job.

The local authorities, however, are not infallible. In the case which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) quoted, the local authorities cleared the rats, but sometimes they may not be so effective. If people get the impression that the State will keep the rats away, we shall be going backwards instead of forwards. It is true, as the Parliamentary Secretary will, no doubt, point out, that if people do not take steps to get rid of their rats a notice can be served on them, but that notice may well be served much too late, so that nothing will have been done about the rats. Therefore, it is much better to place the responsibility fairly and squarely on their shoulders now.

The most important point about this new Clause is that which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) mentioned, namely, that we want to get some headlines in the Press about this matter. We want the agricultural Press and the industrial Press to come out tomorrow with headlines saying that people who own firms or industrial works are responsible for keeping rats down. That will be a very salutary reminder that the responsibility rests, in the first place, on the occupier. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will take notice of what we have said.

Mr. G. Brown

I only hope that the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) gets his headlines in the Press. I cannot help thinking that, despite all the discussions we have had, there must be a considerable misunderstanding on the other side of the House of what the Bill is intended to do, and what happens when action is taken under the Bill when it becomes law. There seemed to be a suggestion that we are relying upon notification because we want the State to have the whole responsibilty. That indicates that hon. Members opposite have not read Clause 4 in particular.

I propose to continue to resist this new Clause, despite the blandishments of the acting Leader of the Opposition this morning, not because I am wedded to some particular course of action, but because I am as certain now as I was in Committee upstairs, that to insert this Clause can add nothing at all to the purpose of the Bill and might easily cause the very delay which everybody says we are anxious to avoid. It is the duty of every citizen—and tucking away three lines at the back of the Bill to provide for new arrangements to deal with pests will not add to it—to get rid of the pests that afflict his property, whether he is the owner or the occupier. It is clearly his duty. It remains his duty, and nothing we insert here will make it any clearer.

Mr. Turton

In the 1919 Act Section I lays down this duty. The hon. Gentleman is repealing the 1919 Act. When he talks about a Clause being put at the back of a Bill, I am sure he knows, with his Parliamentary knowledge, that the place where this new Clause would go in the Bill would not be determined by the fact that it was added on the Report stage.

Mr. Brown

If the hon. Gentleman will try to follow my argument I think he will see the point I am trying to make. We are repealing the 1919 Act, which included this provision, for the very good reason that, despite the statement of this, principle at the beginning of that Act, the Act has done very little to help to deal with the problem. The re-statement of this principle in this Bill would do no more to help to deal with the problem. It has become quite clear over the passage of years to everybody interested in this matter that we want something more than a statement that it is the duty of the occupier to deal with the nuisance.

What we want is early notification to the responsible authority that rats and mice are about, and the notification is wanted sufficiently early, so as to give us a chance to find where the rats are coming from. It is not good enough to say that the occupier of a tenement, farm or factory has a duty to kill the rats, because they may be coming from somewhere else. We want the notification, and we want it immediately if possible so that we can find the place where the rats are coming from, because that is the source of the infestation.

If we say in this Bill what we all agree is so, and what I have stated very bluntly and deliberately in the hope that it may get that publicity of which the hon. Gentleman spoke—if we say that it is the duty of the occupier to deal with the nuisance as we did in the 1919 Act, and then go on to provide sanctions and penalties, there is a risk that we shall then be inviting people to notify us of what they will tend to regard as their own failure. We shall then have people delaying immediate notification while they themselves try to deal with the matter. We think it is much better that in the Bill itself it shall be made the clear duty of people to notify, relying upon the ordinary common sense of folk, which is as least as great outside this House as it is within it, because they will not want to continue having rats and mice in their homes merely because they have told the local council about it.

That brings me to Clause 4. The fact that people notify the council does not mean that the council will necessarily take over the duty of getting rid of the rats. Under Clause 4 the council may serve a notice on them requiring them to do something about it. If they do not do enough about it, under succeeding Clauses the council may do it and then charge them for it, and indeed they may prosecute them for not having carried out their obligations. I gathered from the speech of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton that he was afraid that the Bill would shut out the anti-pest organisations.

11.30 a.m.

In fact, the opposite would be the case. The council may require the owner or occupier to deal with the pests, and the only way that duty can be carried out is by the owner or the occupier going to the anti-pest contractors and asking them to do the job and paying them for doing it. It will, in fact, assist the commercial work of these contractors. I repeat that we are much more certain if we follow this course that the local authority will be notified, and that is, not to keep one small habitation clear of vermin, but to keep the whole area free. It means that it is possible for them to know that there is infestation and at the same time for the contractor to be getting on with the job.

Mr. Turton

I was dealing with the case where a factory employs a pest contractor every day in the year. The Parliamentary Secretary is now dealing with the point where a contractor may be called in if there is an emergency, which is quite a different point.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member seems to fear that because we do it this way round, the pest contractors may not be used so extensively. I believe that they will. The fact that people have to notify that pests have been seen and are liable to be proceeded against if they do not, is likely to lead them to make much greater use of these private contractors.

The argument has been put forward on two grounds. The second ground is that of economy. It is said that we had much better put the duty on occupiers, because they will then not use the State. If that is the attitude, then we ought not to be having this Bill, because the whole point of the Bill is that if we are to succeed in this war on pests, we have to deal with the matter as a much wider operation than merely that of an individual farmer, house owner or occupier. We must proceed on a community basis and area by area. If we cannot get the source of infestation traced, the local authority cannot proceed to see that the area concerned is cleared.

It is amply provided in the Bill that local authorities may charge the costs to those who are responsibile for individual habitations or industrial hereditaments, but in the case of small tenenements and houses it may be there will be no charge, because the infestation will probably not be very considerable and notification will avoid building up greater infestation in the area. By this Clause we are risking confusing the citizen as to the first thing he must do. We want him to notify so that we know where the infestation is, and we want him not to regard notification as being in some way an indication of his failure to deal with infestation. He may then be told to do certain things, and we shall know where the rats and mice are manifesting themselves.

For these reasons, I cannot accept this Clause. It has no sanction attached to it, although the word "duty" is used, which is really a general statement of the position. I do not think we need divide on this point, which is purely a matter of mechanics and efficiency. We have all stated it is a duty, and we think it is better to leave the Bill as it is rather than put in two duties and have confusion in an individual's mind as to what we want him to do.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

We are most grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for supporting our Clause. He has supported it in every way, except in the sense that he does not want to see certain words printed on a piece of paper. It is a great thing that we should be unanimous on this point, and I hope that he will get over his coyness in seeing his wishes interpreted in print, a coyness which is common to other Ministers. But I cannot agree with the argument he used in one respect, and that is on the question of economy. Quite clearly, it is an economy if an individual can do something for himself without employing someone else to do it for him, because the local authority will not be paying money out of the ratepayer's pockets except in an extreme case. That is the point we wish to drive home.

The whole tendency of modern legislation is to encourage people to think that they are merely sheep and that they have to make use all the time of some remote organisation which comes under the control of the Government. It is this sheep-like attitude which we detest. I know the Parliamentary Secretary has said that the words used in the 1919 Act, which he is repealing, have not brought about the desired effect. He went on to say, and I agree with him to a certain extent, that the words in the 1919 Act have not proved satisfactory, but that we are now replacing them. That is rather significant. Surely, we should not attempt to replace them, but should add other words giving additional powers and duties so that the individual's activities can be assisted. That is our whole argument.

If this new Clause were accepted, it would make the point completely clear. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider some analogous points which should make him think again before refusing this Clause. What is the position of the householder? He does not ring up the police every night to ask whether it is right to open or shut his window. He does not ask the police every night whether it is really essential that his lights should be turned off at the appropriate time, or whether he should take measures of security to ensure that his house is not burgled. Householders do not ring up the local authority to ask whether it is time they should have a bath to keep themselves free of vermin,

although I know baths are rather a sore point in some quarters.

Then what is the position of the occupier of land in regard to the control of weeds? He does not, immediately weeds appear, ring up the local authority or his local executive committee and ask them to come round to clear them away. The duty is laid upon the occupier, and he is liable to a penalty if he does not take action. Weeds spread just as rapidly, if not more rapidly, than rats and mice.

Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)

Sometimes his neighbour has to do it.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

The responsibility is laid upon the individual, which is our point.

If this Clause were accepted, the Parliamentary Secretary thinks we should be cutting across this great campaign. Of course, we should not be doing anything of the sort. We should be introducing an element of voluntary recruitment to carry out the campaign, assisted by the powers of Government, both local and national. Is the Minister really inclined to conscript every individual to deal with the rats and mice while denying the right of the volunteer to come forward and do his own job without being told to do it? That is the implication of the Parliamentary Secretary's speech if he persists in his refusal to accept this new Clause. I ask him even now to think again about this. Nothing in this new Clause would delay notification for one moment where it was necessary. I cannot see that any argument used by the Parliamentary Secretary has been against this new Clause, and as he has argued in favour of it, I hope that he will withdraw his opposition to it.

Question put, "That the Clause be read' a Second time."

The House divided: Ayes, 29; Noes, 60.

Division No. 214.] AYES [11.43 a.m.
Agnew, Cmdr. P. G. Duthie, W. S. Orr-Ewing, I. L.
Aitken, Hon. Max. Hare, Hon J. H. (Woodbridge) Robertson, Sir D. (Streatham)
Amory, D. Heathcoal Haughton, Colonel S. G. (Antrim) Ross, Sir R. D. (Londonderry)
Baldwin, A. E. Head, Brig. A. H. Thorp, Brigadier, R. A. F.
Buchan-Hepburn, P. G. T. Headlam, Lieut.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir C. Turton, R. H.
Bullock, Capt. M. Keeling, E. H. Williams, C. (Torquay)
Clarke, Col. R. S. Lucas-Tooth, Sir H. Williams, Gerald (Tonbridge)
Conant, Maj. R. J. E. Macpherson, N. (Dumfries) Willoughby de Eresby, Lord
Cooper-Key, E. M. Manningham-Buller, R. E.
Dodds-Parker, A. D. Morris-Jones, Sir H. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Dugdale, Maj. Sir T. (Richmond) Morrison, Maj. J. G. (Salisbury) Mr. Drewe and Col. Wheatley.
Albu, A. H. Evans, E. (Lowestoft) Peter, G. (Leeds)
Allan, A. C. (Bosworth) Evans, John (Ogmore) Pursey, Cmdr. H.
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Evans, S. N. (Wednesbury) Ranger, J.
Awbery, S. S. Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. (Wakefield) Ridealgh, Mrs. M.
Ayles, W. H. Guest, Dr. L. Haden Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)
Balfour, A. Haire, John E. (Wycombe) Ross, William (Kilmarnock)
Battley, J. R. Hastings, Dr. Somerville Skeffington, A. M.
Benson, G. Hudson, J. H. (Ealing, W.) Skeffington-Lodge, T. C.
Beswick, F. Hughes, H. D. (Wolverhampton, W.) Skinnard, F. W.
Bing, G. H. C. Irvine, A. J. (Liverpool, Edge Hill) Smith, H. N. (Nottingham, S.)
Binns, J. Jeger, G. (Winchester) Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Bowden, H. W. Kenyon, C. Viant, S. P.
Brown, George (Belper) Lipton, Lt.-Col. M. Wallace, G. D. (Chislehurst)
Brown, T. J. (Ince) McAdam, W. Wells, P. L. (Faversham)
Castle, Mrs. B. A. McEntee, V. La T. White, H. (Derbyshire, N. E.)
Champion, A. J. Manning, Mrs. L. (Epping) Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W.
Chetwynd, G. R. Morley, R. Willey, F. T. (Sunderland)
Cooper, G. Parkin, B. T. Yates, V. F.
Daines, P. Pearson, A.
Davies, Edward (Bruslem) Peart, Thomas F. TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Driberg, T. E. N. Popplewell, E. Mr. Joseph Henderson and
Mr. Richard Adams.

Question put, and agreed to.