HC Deb 10 November 1954 vol 532 cc1308-17

A person shall be guilty of an offence if he knowingly uses or permits the use of a rabbit infected with myxomatosis to spread the disease among uninfected rabbits and shall be liable on summary conviction to the penalties laid down in subsection (2) of section eight of this Act.—[Dr. King.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.0 p.m.

Dr. King

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

This new Clause would make an offence the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis and would subject any one who was found guilty of that offence to the penalties which we have imposed in this Bill on any one who uses the gin trap after the date on which this Bill makes its use illegal.

I regret that a back bencher is moving this new Clause, and sincerely regret that it is not the Minister himself. I hope that during the debate it will receive more distinguished support than I can give it in my own speech. But, if the Clause is inadequately presented, what it seeks to achieve has the support of the outraged conscience of the majority of British people. I mention as an example only the petition from over 100,000 British citizens which my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) presented to the House last week. I also refer hon. Members to the list of names to a Motion which stands on the Order Paper urging the Minister to take some such action as is asked for in this Clause.

If there is anything the matter with the wording of the Clause, obviously we would accept any alteration which the Minister and the Parliamentary draftsmen would seek to make, if they would concede to us what the Clause aims to do. In commending this Clause to the House, I would say that the noble Lady the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir), whose name appears as one of the sponsors to this Clause, unfortunately cannot be here to speak, because she is doing a very important job in another part of the world on behalf of the Government. Hon. Members on both sides know her judgment in these things as one that would commend a Measure which she supports to the House.

I am pleased that this new Clause has the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch), who can claim to speak as much as anybody in the country for the country's organised agricultural workers. I would say that I am a strong party man and am known as such in my constituency. But, I have received letters of support for this Clause and what it seeks to do from people of all political parties, including members of one of the Conservative associations in my town.

I am glad that issues like this, one of monstrous cruelty to rabbits, should lower party barriers and that people of all political parties, in the House and outside, should speak with one voice. I think that voice says "We are ashamed of what has happened in Britain during these last 12 months and we ask Parliament to do what it can to end the evil which so far it has condoned."

Let me quote a letter from a Kentish Conservative lady. She said: As a Conservative I write on behalf of the Conservatives. In our opinion the Government has no idea of the opposition throughout the country (but especially in country districts) first because of the continued use of gin traps, but far more because of the introduction of myxomatosis. I make no apology tonight for my speech being emotional. It is not a crime to be emotional. What does matter is what one is emotional about and whether one's emotion is allowed to warp one's judgment.

Last Sunday I motored through Sussex to address a Socialist meeting, and for me the beauty of Belloc's county was marred and disfigured by swollen and dying rabbits on the road and by the roadside. One wondered what Hilaire Belloc of the "Four Men" would have said had he been alive today to witness the desecration of his favourite county. I wonder why our modern poets have not written something about this. Anyone who knew Bernard Shaw knows how he would have denounced the horror of the English countryside during the last 12 months.

Let me give the Committee some examples of what it is all about by reading extracts from some letters I have received. Lanes almost unusable because of the stench of the putrid bodies of dead and dying rabbits in the surrounding woods and fields. Small schoolchildren crying because they are continually confronted with the sight of blinded rabbits covered with bleeding sores. I wonder what mother or teacher can explain to the little children what we have been doing to rabbits this year. House windows have to be closed before food can be prepared or eaten because of the swarms of blowflies. Cats and dogs bringing dead or dying rabbits into the house. A housewife asks: If myxomatosis is harmless to humans, why is it that we are told not to eat the rabbits? A veterinary surgeon spent his summer holiday this year shooting rabbits. He wrote: Although my work is dealing with diseased or wounded animals, I can't stand the sight of myxomatosis. It's a wicked business. A farm worker, after a day's hard work in the field, joins nightly the R.S.P.C.A. mercy squads which go out shooting dying rabbits. He says: It's a terrible sight. You'd never believe it unless you'd seen it and if you'd seen it you'd never forget it. Another man writes to say that he went into a wood after a diseased and limping rabbit, but he could not kill it. He said: I had to leave it. The wood was full of dead and dying rabbits. I had to come out. The smell was so awful…and the flies… In a broadcast on 12th October, Mr. Maxwell Knight grimly prophesied that farmers who were now paying £10 or £20 for a pair of infected rabbits will, in four or five years, be paying the same for a couple of healthy rabbits. I think that Mr. Maxwell Knight is wrong about the prospect of exterminating rabbits, and I shall have something to say about it in a moment. The Kent County Council has warned hop pickers this autumn not to touch dead or dying rabbits.

During the Second Reading debate I said that although the gin trap is cruel, by law already we prevent the death agony of the trapped rabbit from lasting for more than 24 hours. This Bill, ultimately, will mean the end of the gin trap. I was encouraged by the previous debate today, in which the whole Committee agreed and concentrated its attention upon the need to get rid of the gin trap as quickly as possible, simply because we all object to this cruel method of killing rabbits. But if we are going to eliminate the gin trap, we are straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel if we allow myxomatosis to continue to exist, or refuse to take any action to minimise its spread.

By law we say that a rabbit in a gin trap shall not suffer pain for more than 24 hours, but it takes 10 days for a rabbit to die of myxomatosis. We cannot allow the Bill which humanises rabbit-killing to go through without attempting to treat people who deliberately spread myxomatosis as we propose to treat those who use the gin trap after it is made illegal. Our simple case for the new Clause is that needless cruelty is a wicked thing. Blake thought that heaven grew angry when it saw a bird imprisoned in a cage, and Jesus said that not a sparrow falls to the ground but our Heavenly Father knows about it. What would Blake have written about myxomatosis in our green and pleasant land, and what must God think of what we have allowed to happen to our animals this year?

The Minister has declared that he is against the wilful spreading of myxomatosis. It is no use dwelling upon the past and saying that he should have taken action 12 months ago. The past is past. I ask the Committee to accept the new Clause, so that we may show that we acknowledge an evil thing to be an evil thing and are seeking to stop the wilful spreading of this disease.

The Minister's advisory committee says—I paraphrase simply what the Minister told us on Second Reading"— Leave the disease alone; let anybody who will take a diseased and tortured animal into an uninfected area; do not try to stop him." What are the advisory's committee's reasons for this attitude, as given to us by the Minister? First, that the disease is so widespread that it is too late to do anything about it, and that anything we did to stop anyone from spreading it would not stop the disease from spreading.

I suggest that this argument is as falsely and attractively specious as that put forward by those who say that Civil Defence is no good because the hydrogen bomb is so terrifically potent, who say we should not provide first-aid treatment for casualties or attempt protection from fire and the rest because of the overwhelming, earthquakelike nature of the hydrogen bomb.

Despite the wide ravages of myxomatosis it is not yet universal. I know it exists in every county; but it does not exist in every corner of every county; and if we can prevent it from reaching an uncontaminated corner of Britain we should do so. I hear that it has reached this week a Scottish island, and I am certain it could not have reached that Scottish island unless it had been taken there.

We care for the hopelessly sick; we rescue from a burning building one solitary family treasure out of the holocaust. It is in that spirit that I ask the Committee to accept a new Clause which cannot prevent myxomatosis, which cannot do anything about the catastrophe we have had in the country in the last 12 months, but which can do something to protect odd corners of the country. Perhaps the Levite who walked by on the other side justified his walking by by saying, "Poor wounded fellow, he was too far gone to help anyway."

The second Ministerial argument, the second argument of the advisory committee is that anyhow we cannot catch the culprits, and let us not legislate against the wilful spreading of myxomatosis unless we can enforce the law. As a layman I find that does not much appeal to me. How about murder? Some people may remember the intelligence test which professed to give the table showing the decline in the number of undetected murders. Poisoning is one of the hardest kinds of murder to discover, and because of that is regarded as about the worst kind of murder.

We may not find the men who buy diseased rabbits to infect others. We can at least make the attempt, and we may find some. We can at least discourage the evil by labelling it as a crime. We can use the great moral sanction of the law. In addition to its physical punishments, the law has a great moral sanction, and some people will not do a thing because they know the law says it should not be done.

At any rate, we should divorce ourselves from the present position in which the wilful spreading of myxomatosis is in no way an offence, in which, indeed, one can almost say it is connived at. Parliament can fairly and firmly say, "This is where we stand on the wilful spreading of myxomatosis. We think it is morally wrong. We think it is beastly, and for our part we enlist the law in an attempt to prevent this disease from being wilfully spread."

9.15 p.m.

I believe that there are very few people in the House, and possibly in the country, today who approve of the wilful spreading of myxomotasis. Many who calmly accepted it in the days before its effects were known now realise how wicked it is. Some of my hon. Friends have said, "A year ago I should not have supported such a Clause, but I shall vote for it today because I have seen myxomatosis in action."

What is most bitter and most ironical of all is that it now seems to be clear that myxomatosis will not exterminate the rabbits. Speaker after speaker on Second Reading, including the Minister, admitted this. Already in Australia they have admitted that it will not exterminate the rabbits. Indeed, earlier this evening we heard suggestions that in parts of the country myxomatosis is increasing the number of rabbits because trappers are not trapping rabbits, as people are afraid of eating diseased rabbits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) has told us that he has heard that there are discoveries which suggest that myxomatosis increases the fertility of rabbits and that the rabbits which survive attacks of myxomatosis may produce bigger and better rabbits in the future. So that all this cruelty, all this beastliness, has not even the justification that it will wipe out the rabbits.

I am glad that the Dean of Winchester has set out what he believes and what I believe is the Christian view on this matter—and we are a Christian country. In war we seek to destroy our enemies just as surely as this Bill seeks to make scientific war on the rabbits, but we have laws of war. It is true that they are cruel laws; it is true that they are not always observed. But what is it that we hold against the Nazis? Not that the Germans fought us in the last war on the battlefield, but that at Belsen little children were tortured to death, at Auschwitz old men and women were tortured to death, and just because the Nazis regarded the Jews as inferior creatures, as we regard the rabbit.

Let us have a Geneva convention in our rabbit war. If we excel all other animals in our scientific might, let us use that giant strength decently and cleanly. We remember how shocked we were when the Communists charged us with having used bacteriological warfare in Korea. I suggest that we should accept this new Clause and end bacteriological warfare against the rabbits. Let us kill them by all means, but let us do the job decently and cleanly.

Mr. Amory

It might be as well if I made an observation or two at this point. I think we are all at one in agreeing that myxomatosis is a horrible disease; I do not think there is anything between us on that point. As the Committee knows, from the start the Government did their best to contain this disease, and we have made it very clear that we are strongly opposed to the deliberate spreading of it.

The limited question which we are considering this evening is whether it is wise to make the deliberate spreading of the disease a criminal offence. There are two considerations. First, the disease has already spread far and wide and is not likely now to be stamped out. It will remain with us. There is no doubt that from now onwards deliberate action is unlikely to have any significant effect on the future course of the disease. The second consideration is that if it is made an offence, it will not be an easy matter to enforce. The action required deliberately to transmit infection is very easy. In general, I believe that legislation where it is unlikely that enforcement will be effective is bad legislation.

The advice which the Myxomatosis Advisory Committee gave us on the two occasions when it considered this matter was to the effect that no good purpose would be served by making it an offence. Certainly, from the administrative point of view, that seemed to me to be sensible at that time, and it still does. On the other hand, I am impressed by the strength of feeling shown by hon. Members of the Committee and by others that something more should be done to discourage the deliberate spreading of the disease than by a statement of the Government's disapprobation.

I have been trying to find a suitable way, short of making it an offence, with the difficulties of enforcement, of setting the formal seal of disapproval on the practice, and if possible finding some practical deterrent. I admit that I have not been successful. But so that there shall be no doubt whatever about our attitude to this practice, and to meet the sincerely held views of many hon. Members who, I realise, are reflecting the views of a wide section of public opinion, I am glad to tell the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) that I am asking the Committee to agree to this new Clause, which the Government are willing to accept.

I am not quite sure how effective the exact words which the hon. Member has chosen will prove to be on close examination. It may be that we shall find that there is something wrong with the wording. If that is so, he will, I am sure, have no objection to my introducing some drafting Amendments on the Report stage.

I hope, as I am sure, the mover and supporters of this new Clause hope, that the moral effect of the very definite provision which we are making in the Bill will be such that there will be no transgressions, and, therefore, that any fears which I may have had on the administrative side as to the difficulties of enforcement will not arise.

Mr. Champion

We on this side of the Committee thank the right hon. Gentleman for his action in this matter. He has been forthcoming and has accepted the point of view put by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King). This is a considerable victory for those who look at this matter from the humanitarian point of view. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test asked for the most distinguished support, and he has had the most affective support of the Minister himself. We should thank those hon. Members who supported the new Clause and brought it before the Committee.

Sir T. Moore

I am sure that I am speaking for every one of my colleagues on this side of the Committee in expressing our sincere and warm gratitude to the Minister for so readily sensing the feelings of hon. Members here and of many people outside. I had no doubt whatever that the Minister would accept the new Clause, because I was quite convinced that he and his colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, were just as much in favour of it as anyone else in the Committee.

Of course, we have heard about administrative difficulties. Well, all difficulties can be overcome, especially when there is the will to do so, and we have seen the will in the Minister tonight. I had prepared a most impassioned and shattering speech which I thought would sway any lingering doubts which the Minister might have, and it is with the greatest possible pleasure that I can now tear it up.

Mr. Hayman

As one who put his name to the new Clause, I should like to say how grateful I am to the Minister for accepting it, as are all the 126,000 people who signed the Petition which I presented to the House last week. There has been a tremendous feeling throughout the country at the spread of this disease, and I can say quote honestly that if I had been asked to support this new Clause in July I would not have done it. But the terrible experiences in Cornwall during recent weeks has moved me to take the line I did, and I am quite sure that the Committee and the country generally will wish to thank the Minister for his humane understanding of the problem.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

I had very grave doubts about this new Clause being accepted when I put my name to it, but I have been associated with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) in other humane causes. I am now able to tear up the speech I was going to make and I should like to add my thanks to the Minister for accepting this Clause. Even though he says he believes it might be too late and may not do much good, nevertheless I hope a little good will be done that will arouse the conscience of those concerned about this disease.

Dr. King

I waited before I attempted to address the Committee for the second time in order that hon. Members on both sides who were to support the Clause in what we thought would be a long debate, might have an opportunity of expressing their thanks to the Minister, thanks which I share and which, I hope, will be shared by everybody in the country. This is by no means a party issue, and the Minister has done what we expected him to do after the humane way he has met us and again when he was Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. I have only one regret, and that is that had I known that the Minister was to join in this debate so early in the terms in which he did, I would have torn up my speech and the Committee would have been saved that much. The Minister's speech is what matters.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.