HC Deb 18 April 1975 vol 890 cc867-71
Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)

I beg to move Amendment No. 32, in page 7, line 30, at end insert: '(aa) no poison or poisonous substance other than cyanide gas was used; and '. This brings us to Clause 16, in some ways a more controversial clause than those we have discussed so far. The amendment would amend the Badgers Act and permit the killing of badgers within the restrictions laid down.

I at once declare my constituency interest. The small area specified by the Minister in Committee, between the M4 and the M5 and the rivers Severn and Little Avon, is in my constituency. Incidentally, it is also where I live. My badger constituents, if I may put it that way, and my badger neighbours will be the first to be poisoned if the clause is passed unamended. I am sure that I speak for all my human constituents when I say that we hate the necessity for the clause but clearly recognise that it is necessary.

The reason why we are first on the list is the high incidence of bovine tuberculosis, which Ministers have satisfied themselves and me is carried by the badgers. The badgers themselves suffer from it as much as cattle do.

Nevertheless, my constituents are concerned that the minimum damage should be done to badgers and other wild life as a result of actions under the clause. We should like not only the smallest number of badgers but the smallest number of other creatures to die. That aim requires two things to follow.

The first is that the clause should take effect as soon as possible and that the work should begin as soon as possible so as to minimise the area over which it is necessary, and the Bill should be amended to enable it to take effect rather more quickly than was suggested in Committee. Secondly, we want to be sure that as far as possible no other wild life suffers by reason of the type of poison used. In Committee the Minister said that cyanide gas was the best and most humane method and that it was the only method that the Ministry intended to use. We therefore suggest that the powers under the Bill should be limited to this substance and that the Ministry should be permitted to license only killing by means of cyanide gas. It is important that the clause should be as limited as possible.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

I can appreciate the feelings of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) and his interest in the clause. I am pleased to note that he accepts the principle behind the clause, namely, that action should be taken. I can identify myself with his concern that any method of killing should be as humane as possible. I therefore have some sympathy with the amendment. Its purpose is to place beyond doubt the principle that unsuitable or cruel poisons could not be used against the badger even under cover of a licence issued by the Minister of Agriculture or the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Acceptance of the amendment would not prevent my right hon. Friend from giving the authorisation he intends to give in suitable circumstances, where the destruction of badger colonies is essential to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Gassing with cyanide is widely held by experts to be the poison of choice. The experts also believe that force pumping into the set is generally the best method of application. There are some responsible persons who believe that other gases, for instance carbon monoxide, might be equally or more suitable.

Poisons other than cyanide may in future become available and prove to be more efficient, merciful or humane than cyanide gas or carbon monoxide. Clause 16 would allow my right hon. Friend to license the use of such substances. May I remind the House of an assurance given in Committee by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary who noted that the clause had been provided so as to allow the use of poisons other than cyanide. He said: it would be our intention to use these powers only to permit gassing—at any rate unless and until some unquestionably even more humane and effective method of control became available."—[Official Report. Standing Committee C, 5th February 1975; c. 27.] To rely on that assurance and allow the clause to go forward as it is would give the best of all possible worlds. Only cyanide would be used until we were sure that something more merciful and equally effective or more effective and equally merciful, was available. This would leave us free to change over quickly to the better technique without having to obtain legislative authority.

There is a technical difficulty with the amendment in that it would prevent the use of any poison other than cyanide gas. I am advised that what happens when cyanide is pumped into a set is that, by means of a current of air, a fine powder is forced through the underground chambers. This, in contact with the moisture in the air or in the soil, promptly gives rise to the cyanide gas. As drafted, the amendment might prevent this efficient and humane technique from being used because it would forbid the employment of the powder by means of which cyanide gas would be conveyed into the underground sets.

Although we sympathise with the hon. Member's intention, I urge him to agree to leave the Ministry free, with all the safeguards involved, with the licences and the assurances we have given, to use other means if such means become available in future and if they are even more humane than cyanide gas.

Mr. Hardy

I endorse the comments of the Minister of State. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) and his hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) and Devizes (Mr. Morrison) for tabling this amendment. The hon. Member will be aware that we have tabled a Third Reading motion because we believe that this is one of the principal items which the House should consider in a brief debate on Third Reading.

On the narrow point, I commend what has been said by my hon. Friend. It would be highly desirable for the Ministry to have flexibility. We are aware that the use of cyanide gas will dominate the approach in the near future. However, if science produces a substance which provides effective destruction but is more humane and may be preferable to the use of cyanide—which in certain sets might not be entirely humane—the Ministry should have the ability to use that substance. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will accept that point.

12.15 p.m.

This is a matter for regret although I believe that the Ministry policy is wise, despite the fact that it has come in for a good deal of criticism. I do not think that the Ministry has come in for as much criticism as I have, which is why I hope that the House will allow me to say a few words on Third Reading. I hope that the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South, whose constituency I visited last year, will agree that the approach of the Ministry has been responsible and that that degree of responsibility coupled with humanity should be allowed to continue in the months ahead.

Mr. Cope

In view of the assurances which have been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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