HC Deb 15 July 1949 vol 467 cc855-67

It shall not be lawful for any person other than an officer employed by a local authority or other authority for the purpose of exercising the powers of the local authority under this Act to place on or in any land any poisons other than virus poisons for the purpose of the destruction of rats and mice.—[Mr. Turton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Speaker

This new Clause and the following new Clause (Notice to be given of use of poisons) appear to relate to each other.

Mr. Turton

They deal with separate points, Sir. Could we refer to them both and, if necessary, have separate Divisions on them?

Mr. Speaker

We might have a discussion on the first new Clause and then have a Division, if necessary, on the second.

Mr. Turton

I am much obliged, Mr. Speaker. I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause lays down that no person other than an officer employed by a local authority or other authority for the purpose of exercising the powers of the local authority under this Act shall place on or in any land any poisons other than virus poisons for the purpose of the destruction of rats and mice. The House may well ask what are "poisons other than virus poisons"? The poisons I am talking of are zinc phosphide, strychnine and arsenic, which are used for killing rats and which are extremely dangerous. I owe an apology to hon. Members who were on the Standing Committee because, quite by inadvertence, I misled them on this point. When in Committee, I moved a new Clause very similar to the second new Clause on the Paper. I said it had the support of the Rodent Operators' Association. I said so believing it to be true, but I have now been informed that the views I put forward were the views of an ex-chairman, and that the present chairman does not hold those views. It had to be done in this personal way because the Association had not met for three years. After our meeting, the Association met and agreed with their present chairman but disagreed with their former chairman, who considered that these poisons had done the harm in the country, which I argued they were doing

While that is the view of the rodent operators who lay the poisons, I have had voluminous correspondence from owners of animals and pets which have been destroyed by these poisons, asking me to secure Parliamentary approval for a provision that only an official shall put down the poisons and that when they have been put down, precautions such as I have set out in the second proposed new Clause shall be taken; in other words, that the occupier of the land and adjacent land shall be notified and, wherever possible, a notice should be erected. Although this Clause has not the backing of the Rodent Operators' Association, it has the co-operation and assistance of the R.S.P.C.A., who believe that this, or something like this, is a necessary provision.

I will quote from a letter from a man who recently lost a very valuable young dog through the use of one of these poisons. He says: I suppose it will not be until a child is picked up dead in a field that you will ever be able to persuade the House of Commons to act in this matter. I wish to stress the danger of laying down zinc phosphide, strychnine, or arsenic, for rats and mice. It may well be that every precaution is taken by the unskilled person in laying the poison in a hole, but, when the rat gets the poison, a dog or cat may touch the rat and, in its turn, be poisoned. That is how these catastrophes occur. I do not believe my correspondent was exaggerating when he said that it might happen that a child in a field or tenement where these very dangerous poisons are used, might be liable to be killed. I hope the Government will treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves.

12.30 p.m.

I am told that there has been heavy mortality among pigs and poultry on farms since the policy followed for killing rats changed from the use of "Liverpool Virus" and "Rodine" and that type of poison to the use of these arsenic and strychnine poisons. There have been many cases of large numbers of pigs and poultry having been killed. I do not wish to insert into the Bill a Clause which will weaken the efforts of the local authorities to destroy rats and mice, but I think Parliament should count the cost in that matter, and that those who own pets of which they are very fond should receive protection from Parliament in this very important matter.

If the Parliamentary Secretary thinks that the drafting of these Clauses is not absolutely watertight I can assure him that I and those whom I represent will be willing to change our draft in any way so as to achieve the effect we desire. I remember that the hon. Gentleman was rather sarcastic in the Committee about my phrase "adjacent or contiguous premises." He asked how that was practicable when large areas were involved. I can tell him of one sheep farmer who informed me that he had lost all his sheepdogs through the laying of these poisons on the moor around his farm. This is a great and growing danger, and I hope these new Clauses will receive from all parts of the House the support which they deserve.

Mrs. Middleton (Plymouth, Sutton)

I have a good deal of sympathy with the case which the hon. Member has put, but can he tell me how it becomes safer if these poisons are laid by a rodent officer and members of the farming community are not allowed to lay them? How does the rodent officer make the use of these poisons safe if the farmer cannot do so?

Mr. Turton

That is why the two Clauses require to be considered together. In the first new Clause it is stated that no one but a rodent officer shall lay these poisons. In the second it is stated that when he does so, he must notify the occupier of adjacent or contiguous premises within a reasonable distance of the place where it is intended to lay such poison, which is not always done now, and also affix a notice on the highway or in a prominent position saying that the poison is there. I believe that by these two precautions the mortality to which I have referred will be decreased.

Colonel Clarke

I beg to second the Motion.

The object of this Clause is that if poisons have to be used, they shall be used only by responsible people who know their dangers and will be responsible in using them. I should like the use of poisons to be dispensed with completely. There are many complaints about the cruelty of steel traps but it is nothing like the cruelty of poisons, even when they are being used on vermin. I agree that, there, it is probably necessary to use poison to destroy rats and mice in cases in which communities of those rodents seem to acquire some immunity from viruses, and to deal with which some alternatives have to be found. Those cases are not very common. To permit rodent operators to have the power in such cases to use poison would be ample.

The danger to herd and sheep dogs and other domestic animals from poison is great. I do not refer so much to the direct danger of eating the poison, but to the risk of eating the animals that have already been poisoned. A great many animals, including dogs, are unfortunately carrion feeders, and a dead animal, particularly if it is rather "high," has an irresistible attraction for them. Not only-dogs but cats, which are some of the best killers of rats and mice, have suffered heavily through eating rats and mice which have been poisoned. That is also true of wild animals and birds, and so the process goes on; rooks and crows eat those dead animals, they are killed and another creature eats them: it is like throwing a stone into a pond—the circles go on widening, with increasing death.

I was not a Member of the Standing Committee but I noticed that one argument against our proposal was that people should look after their own domestic animals on their own land. That would be the answer to our case if every poisoned animal would conveniently die on the property of the man who had put down the poison, but that is not the case, particularly with arsenic, which is a slow poison. They may travel some way, and are likely to do so if there is water in the neighbourhood, because poisoned animals make for water. They may even fall into the water and their dead bodies may drift a considerable distance.

It would be prudent to limit these powers. There is a tendency nowadays to try to widen the power to use poison, instead of trying to narrow it as should be done in modern days, when we have alternatives like viruses. I remember that when the Agriculture Act, 1947, was being discussed the Ministry tried to extend the provisions of Section 8 of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, to animals other than deer or hare, including rabbits, moles, badgers, and certain birds. There was some dispute about that, and as a result, when the Measure became law, that provision was very much restricted. The only provision for allowing poison at all was confined, as will be seen from Section 98 (3) to the placing in rabbit holes of poison gas and substances generating poison gas. Those provisions were limited, but here is a case in which I feel no attempt is being made to limit them. For those reasons I hope these two new Clauses will be seriously considered and accepted by the Minister, either in their present form or in a modified form.

Mr. G. Brown

It is difficult to see how the arguments on which these new Clauses are based have been conceived. When my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) asked the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) why it was safe for a rodent officer employed by a local authority to lay these poisons and why it could not be made safe for a private person to do so on his own land, the hon. Member fell below his usual standard in his reply. He said that it was because of that point that the second new Clause had been put down, because when the poison is laid by the rodent officer he would say, "I will stick up a notice for the dog to read."

The second new Clause is intended to cover the position even were there no first new Clause. The argument relating to the second new Clause is that a notice shall be put up by any person after the placing on any land of any of these poisons. The hon. Member has not met the point, that if there is anything in the argument that the laying of these poisons is wicked and that the wickedness is not offset by the advantages gained, it is no less wicked for one person to lay the poison than another.

Mr. Turton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House by representing me as having said something which I did not say. I said that there were two safeguards. The one in the first Clause is that only an officer of a local authority can lay such poisons. The second, which is provided in the second new Clause, is not only the affixing of a notice but the notification of the occupiers of the adjacent land. I agree that the dog cannot read the notice and this accumulation of safeguards would not make poisons safe—they never will be safe—but would diminish the risk of the poisons.

Mr. Brown

That is the whole point. The point I was making, if the hon. Member will listen, is that he has not given the answer. He clearly envisages that poisons which are dangerous will have to be laid. In his first Clause he says, "We will limit the laying of them to the rodent operator employed by the local authority. We will not permit any occupier of land, any farmer, to lay these poisons on his own land." We had a long argument, earlier, about the wickedness of relying on the State, and not allowing a private person to do his own job.

Now we have the hon. Member saying that we must not allow a man to do his own job, and that there must be a duty laid upon the rodent operator. My hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth asked why it was safer for one person to use a poison than another, and the hon. Member in his interjection made it quite clear that it is not; but for some reason or other he wishes to impose this limitation. I say that it is intolerable that a farmer should not be permitted, indeed, should be prohibited from proceeding to carry out the duty, clearly laid upon him, of getting rid of these pests when they are on his land.

There is a whole variety of other reasons why these proposed Clauses are wholly misconceived. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has obviously conducted a good deal of research into the efficacy of various poisons and the comparative dangers of virus and poison. I have been too busy to follow him in that particular line of country, and I must rely on medical, veterinary and scientific evidence compiled by other people. I am sure that the views of the hon. Gentleman about virus and non-virus poisons are misconceived. On the one side the danger of poison is being overstated and, equally, I am certain from the evidence before me, he has completely underestimated the danger from picking up and passing on of those poisons which he would permit to be put down without any safeguard at all. I do not think that we can accept the one as being very much more dangerous than the other.

There are other grounds on which these Clauses should fail. They are purely practical grounds. The hon. Gentleman may say that we might get together and think of another Clause, but it is a late stage in the Bill for that, and on grounds of principle we could not do anything about it. If the occupier is not allowed to lay these poisons, then a notice under Clause 4 could not specify the use of the poisons. If the occupier failed to take the steps prescribed in the notice, the local authority could enter, but could not lay poisons which might be held by the best medical and scientific evidence to be right in the circumstances of that case, because the notice had not prescribed those poisons for the occupier. The notice would not have prescribed them because the Clause which it is proposed to put in the Bill would have barred them. Consequently, nonsense is made of the whole thing.

The hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) put his finger on a very important point. It is true that in some extraordinary way these small mammals apparently build up a resistance to one particular kind of poison, and that the only chance of success in this field is to be able to "ring the changes." The effect of this Clause would be to prevent that being done; to continue the use of one poison would almost have the effect of building resistance to it.

12.45 p.m.

Colonel Clarke

There is more than one form of virus, and it would be possible to "ring the changes" on them before coming to the ultimate solution of using poison.

Mr. Brown

There is more than one form of virus but, nevertheless, one would be employing one broad agency and the resistance is to the broad agency and not an individual proprietary brand.

Another practical difficulty is that under Part II of the Bill no local authorities are involved. If the Clause is carried I am advised that it allows the right to lay poisons, only to officers of the local authorities; neither the owner of a food store nor officers of the Department would have a right to lay poison to kill rats and mice in a food store. The argument we had from the other side of the House on Second Reading about the vital needs to protect food would completely fall to the ground, because this proposed Clause would stop that being done. Further, the Clause would prohibit, except by an expert, the fumigation of ships against rats and mice. It would be possible to fumigate with a very higher concentration against insects and mites; if there happened to be rats and mice we could take them in our stride. But for rats and mice only, it would not be possible to proceed against them in a manner which is regarded as the right method to adopt.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, with all his researches, can set himself up as a final authority upon the scientific and practical considerations involved in the war against vermin and other pests. There is a whole wealth of research and investigation and practical experiment going on all the time. Why should we lay down in the Bill that what occurs to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton on the 14th day of July, 1949, is the end of all research and the end of all knowledge on this matter? We cannot concentrate on one type of poison as against another.

With regard to the purely humanitarian side, I have always been a dog-lover myself, and have almost always had a dog in my home. I am very angry when somebody does some foolish thing which causes agony to pets, but it is necessary to remind the House that here we are dealing with a Bill to bring about the more efficient extermination of pests. We are not for the moment passing a Bill for the protection of dogs. If we want to do more than is already provided under the 1911 Act—which lays down penalties for people who lay poison and allow it to get into contact with pets and other animals and cause cruelty to them—then we must amend the 1911 Act. But for the moment we are engaged upon a Bill to promote the quicker and more efficient extermination of pests; and those who have pets must take care to keep them off the land of other people. So long as we do that, the chances of their picking up poisons laid by somebody else in the pursuance of a very wise campaign to get rid of pests will be a great deal less than would otherwise be the case.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

It is always difficult to speak in these Debates, when arguments are put forward by Ministers who have had no practical experience of the matters under discussion. I only wish that some day I may have the pleasure of seeing the Minister of Agriculture and his Parliamentary Secretary farming land, because I should like to see the results. I am sure that if they did so, their opinions would be very different from those which they hold today. I do not wish ill to them; I think too much of them to suggest that they should get their living by farming. I merely suggest that they should farm some land as a hobby. It would prove a most expensive hobby for them. During our consideration of the Bill, practical suggestions have been advanced by practical men on both sides, but, generally speaking, the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary were adamant.

I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman himself would have dealt with these new Clauses, because we heard the argument of the Parliamentary Secretary in Standing Committee. In reference to the first of the Clauses, I should like to say I loathe the use of poisons. I think most hon. Members share my feelings. We should limit as far as possible the number of people entitled to lay poisons. There would be fewer rats and mice if people kept more cats. Cats are the best means of keeping down rats and mice that it is possible to have on a farm. By the Bill we shall restrict and reduce the number of cats available for that purpose. It is essential that we should have a Clause to limit the number of persons allowed to lay poisons. It should be left entirely to responsible people such as rodent officers. The power should not be given to occupiers of land, who may be responsible or irresponsible, to lay poisons just when and where they think fit.

In Standing Committee we made a reasonable suggestion that it should be the duty of the rodent officer, when he had laid poisons, to notify not only the owner and occupier of the land on which it had been laid but also to the occupiers of neighbouring land and private houses. I was impressed by the powerful practical suggestions which were made. The Parliamentary Secretary said: If our officers lay poisons we must certainly notify the occupier. If it is the duty of the rodent officer to notify the occupier of a farm, why should it not be his duty to notify the occupier of private premises which may be only a few yards away? The danger to the owners of land and private houses near to the land where the poison has been laid is extreme. I speak with some experience. The Parliamentary Secretary also said that it was a constant instruction to give notice in writing to the occupier. He added: If that were not done we ourselves might be liable if there were danger to a farmer's animals. If it is now necessary to notify the owner, why not notify people who occupy adjacent property? The Parliamentary Secretary also said: If, however, folk fence their animals in, the risk of contact and the danger are much reduced. How practical is that? Is it suggested that the owners of private houses or cottages should fence in their cats? How can they do that unless they are notified? If they are notified, they can take reasonable precautions to keep their animals out of danger. If they are not notified they might lose all their cats. I have suffered in that way. We took all the precautions we thought necessary, but the cats got away and were killed. Again, it was suggested that owners should keep their dogs on the lead. I do not know what the R.S.P.C.A. would think of that suggestion. I hate to see people with dogs on the lead. I should like to make it impossible for dogs to be kept on the lead or to be kept at all in towns. I do not believe that country people would consider it practicable to keep their dogs on the lead.

If it was compulsory on the rodent officer to put up a notice showing where the poison was laid, then the owners of dogs or other pets could keep their animals under control, and so ensure that they did not take poison. The Parliamentary Secretary said we could not possibly have notices put up to show that poison had been laid. He said that a man would be proclaimed to be … a sort of pariah, to be marked out as a feper."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, Standing Committee D, c. 137–8.] What nonsense. Why should not this notice be put up so that anyone passing by can be informed that poison has been laid?

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Mahon (Mr. Turton) mentioned the danger to children, and that was pooh-poohed. I say that it is a practical risk. It is well known that the rodent officers often carry out a certain amount of pre-baiting. Children playing in the vicinity might find the pre-bait and, in these days of hunger, might eat some. The next day they might tell their companions that they have found something very tasty, and they might also have a bite. By then the pre-bait may have been poisoned, and the children will suffer. That could happen. I hope that the Minister will realise the risk of laying poison without taking every precaution. I do not consider that the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton are impracticable. I maintain that the rodent officer should be the only man to lay the poison and that he should not only notify the owner and occupier of the land, but the owners and occupiers of adjacent land. Also notices should be posted stating that the poison has been laid.

Mr. Turton

With the leave of the House, I should like to answer the attack made upon me by the Parliamentary Secretary.

Mr. T. Williams

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be given the leave of the House, since there has been no attack at all.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Bowles)

The hon. Gentleman has the right to make a second speech.

Mr. Turton

The Parliamentary Secretary made it appear that I claimed to have all knowledge of the science of this business. Indeed, I have not. I have put down this new Clause on one ground only. My constituents have suffered grievously from the indiscriminate use of poison. People living in other constituencies have written to me to the same effect. I am very sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary, with all his debating skill, to which we are accustomed, has not really grasped the humane aspect of this Clause. This is not a question of scientific knowledge. In his Ministry he has got scientists and administrators who know how to kill rats and mice in the quickest possible way. I grant that, but at the same time by these provisions he will kill a great number of pets and agricultural animals. I had hoped that he would have said that though he could not accept the Clause in its present form, his Ministry would take more care in future to see that pets and other animals would not be destroyed. I agree that he has destroyed these new Clauses very cleverly by saying that we ought to have put in the words, "Government Department" or, "Government officers." He said that they ought to be allowed the use of all toxic poisons. I am distressed that he adopted this attitude, but, because I agree that the Clause would require amendment before I could ask my hon. Friends to vote on it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Mr. C. Williams

I should not have intervened but for the fact that just now I heard the Minister of Agriculture endeavouring, as I thought, to prevent my hon. Friend from speaking. These courtesies of the House are always given to Ministers. We have gone out of our way again and again to grant this facility to the right hon. Gentleman. I never imagined that he would do a mean thing like that. All I can say is that I am deeply grieved that my judgment of him has been so mistaken. I thought that he would not do anything like that, and it makes me very sad when I think of the courtesy shown to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not think that he really meant it.

As I am on my feet, I will say that it is monstrous that no further and better attempt was made by the Government to accept the suggestion of my hon. Friend. These are perfectly good Clauses, though they may be worthy of amendment, and it may be possible to deal with the matter in another place. If the Members of my party wish to divide, they will have my support, although I cannot agree with every detail in the two new Clauses.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.