HL Deb 24 July 1919 vol 35 cc1037-45

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill may seem a trivial matter compared with the momentous questions with which the House has just dealt, but if an authority is required for its introduction it is that it is part of that very important movement for sanitation and for the reconstruction of our country and our social life which is now occupying the attention of the public, and which I believe the Government are thoroughly in earnest in assisting.

There is no doubt that the plague of rats is a matter that must be dealt with by legislation. The circumstances of the war have, I am afraid, unfortunately helped to develop the numbers of these vermin, and the time seems to me more than opportune for dealing with the whole matter from a national point of view. The amount of damage that is done to property by rats is notorious and known to everybody. No doubt noble Lords will remember that a few years ago it was clearly established that the rat was a carrier of the plague bacillus, and that when there was an outbreak of plague in this country a very strong effort was made by municipal and other public bodies to exterminate as far as possible these plague-carriers in their own localities, when very huge numbers of rats were destroyed at the public expense. The rat, however, cannot be wholly exterminated, and I venture to suggest that their numbers to-day are probably greater than they were at the period to which I refer. At that time a Committee was formed of very eminent scientists, bacteriologists, and other men interested in the question. They suggested to me that a Bill might be brought into the House of Commons. I prepared a Bill and introduced it in the House of Commons; but, of course, as a private member's Bill it stood no chance of passing into law, The Bill excited the greatest interest in the country. I received letters from all kinds of agricultural societies, farmers, and scientific persons giving me information and urging that something. Ought to be done to carry that Bill into law.

As your Lordships are interested in agriculture perhaps even more than the House of Commons, you will realise how important this matter is to the agricultural interest. Even since this Bill was introduced numerous letters have reached me from persons interested in the matter. This Bill has really been prepared by a new association which has been formed of eminent scientific persons and men of public note for the purpose of carrying into legislative effect the Orders in Council which were issued under the Defence of the Realm Act during the last two or three years but which have not been very vigorously acted upon. It is hoped that this Bill, will interest public opinion and help the Government. I see Lord Ernle is present to-day. I understand he intends to introduce a Bill on behalf of the Board of Agriculture, and I. hope the interest this Bill has aroused will assist him not only in carrying it through both Houses of Parliament but in inducing public bodies cordially to co-operate in carrying out its provisions. Though I ask the House to read this Bill a second time, I should not proceed with the further stages if I had the assurance that the Government are prepared to deal with the matter themselves.

The public imagine that rats are creatures which infest granaries, hay-lofts, rubbish-heaps, and so forth; but they little know the amount of damage the rat does to growing crops and to agriculture generally. It is not merely in stack-yards and in barns that the farmer suffers from their depredations. If you take counties where there is a light soil, such as Norfolk, Suffolk, and Hampshire, you will find the rat there in countless millions. If you go there in December or January when the winter wheat has been put in, in a big field of 100 acres you see straight roads, hard beaten tracks, terminating in central stations—roads that remind one of Roman roads with a castrum in the middle, and all round the field you see the ground torn up in innumerable little heaps of soil. That means that the rat has been digging up and eating the seed corn. You do not see rats in the daytime, but if you go along the hedgerows you hear them squealing at every step. That is the conversation of the rat. It feeds at night. In those counties the rats burrow very easily. There is plenty of cover in the hedgerows, and they never get drowned out. The population is so scanty comparatively that you do not even get the odd rat-hunt with terriers, ferrets, and boys with sticks that you get in more populous regions.

Where you have large towns you have a constant feeder for the rat population. You may clear out a particular farm-yard, but a rat will travel a very long distance, and one farm cleared of rats will probably be re-stocked in a very short time by rats coming from other infested districts. I think farmers are often very much to blame. They leave stacks of unthreshed corn on the ground far too long; they do not put the stacks on proper protective supports. If you had stringent regulations which could be enforced by the local authority you would not only stimulate the farmer to do his best to stop the rat plague, but you would be conferring a favour on him, which I am sure he would appreciate. He would be quite willing, I am sure, to pay his small quota towards the expense of local rates if he knew that there was a scientific organisation to help him to clear his stack-yard.

It is not my province here to say how rats should be killed. I believe there are all kinds of expedients. I have received letters from all kinds of persons advocating particular poisons or particular sorts of traps, and I have no doubt whatever that the county councils or the district councils will be able to settle the right course of dealing with them. The Bill that I have introduced contains powers for the local authority to appoint special officers technically qualified to deal with the matter, something like health officers. They will have the right to go about and inspect all premises where they have reason to suspect rats are too abundant, and to call upon the owner of those premises to abate the nuisance. If he fails to do so, then the County Authority or the District Council will have power themselves to deal with the matter at the expense of the delinquent, charging him with the cost of destruction.

Noble Lords will be surprised to hear how many rats are being killed under the present ineffective system. I had a letter from a gentleman in Hampshire who told me that over 10,000 rats had been killed to his knowledge on his own estate in two years, in addition to large numbers which were poisoned and not counted. In Leicestershire this year we have killed 65,000 rats In Anglesey I believe 19,000 have been killed, and in one small area in Suffolk no less than 12,000 were killed. I am also informed on credible authority that in Sussex on one estate a few years ago 27,000 rats were killed in one season. We know that in India there are enormous attacks on rats. I believe in the Deccan 12,000,000 rats were killed in one Government campaign. These numbers show the value of the foodstuffs that must be consumed in this country to enable those creatures to live at all.

These are only a few isolated instances, representative probably of thousands of similar cases, where the rats are allowed to breed with impunity. They not only eat the seed corn and the roots lying out in the field in the winter, but they will attack newly-farrowed pigs, and young chickens. They are also very fond of ducklings, squab pigeons, and newly-born kids; in fact, there is hardly anything they will not attack. Young game birds are killed by them; eggs of all kinds are eaten, and silk, leather, grain, and woodwork are destroyed. They even cut lead pipes. There are many cases were gas explosions have taken place by lead pipes being cut through by rats.

In these circumstances I think that the time has come when the thing must be taken up as a whole and not merely left to be dealt with by amateur efforts. The expenses, whatever they may be under the provisions of this Bill, would be quite trifling compared to the money that has been spent in other directions in view of the sanitary requirements. When we are told that the foodstuffs polluted by rats every year amounts to something between £15,000,000 and £40,000,000 it is quite obvious that a very considerable expenditure in destroying them would be more than justified by the result.

Rats are extraordinarily prolific. The female will litter when four months old and she breeds two or three litters every year. Therefore, it is pretty clear that you must make a thorough and drastic attack; otherwise, you really leave the matter very much as it was before. I do not think there is any justification for delay. I am quite sure the public is prepared for action and the public would welcome strong measures instead of leaving the matter to be dealt with as it is at present. Money is offered by public authorities for so many rats' tail. Many people think that is a great mistake. It encourages boys to breed rats for the purpose of bringing their tails and getting one penny or twopence each for them. I have a clause in the Bill which prohibits that.

The authorities in this country which have the carrying out of this war upon rats are, in the first place, the county councils, the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council of the City of London, the councils of county boroughs and port sanitary authorities, and in Scotland county councils, town councils and port local authorities. They are enjoined in Clause 3 to have regard to any recommendation that may be made to them in England and Wales by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries or the War Agricultural Executive Committee acting in the area of the local authority, with similar provisions as to Scotland. They have powers to prosecute and, if the local authority neglects its duty, power is given for the Ministry of Health to take measures to call attention to its neglect and to compel it to carry out the provisions of the Bill. I submit that this is a matter which can easily be carried into law during the present session, and I ask your Lordships to express your sense of the importance of the mater by giving this Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now react 2a.—(Lord Aberconway.)


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the noble Lord who has brought forward this Bill. It is a subject in which I have always been interested and I have taken a humble part in trying to arrive at some conclusions on the matter. I understand from the noble Lord who brought in the Bill that should the Government bring in a measure of their own dealing conclusively with the matter, he will not press his. In conjunction with the noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin, I wrote a letter some time ago to the public Press drawing attention to the damage done by rats and asking for co-operation on the part of the public in dealing with them. I received a great many answers, as also did Viscount Chaplin, but the whole crux of the matter is that, though we succeeded in securing individual co-operation, we did not get very much further.

At the present moment, although there are some counties which are taking a considerable interest and doing a good deal in the matter, there are other counties—very much like my own county of Essex I am afraid—which have done little or nothing in the matter. In the same way, in a parish you often get an individual farmer who will make every effort to keep down these destructive rodents while his neighbours take no trouble at-all, so that all his work is thrown away. As regards the damage done by the animal there can be no doubt at all, and I often think when farmers grumble—and very fairly grumble—about the harm done by rabbits, that that is a small item compared with the damage down to crops, both growing and otherwise, by the rats, to destroy which they really do not take any trouble.

We know that in Germany, Denmark, and other countries the whole country has combined to carry out a crusade against the rat and the consequence has been extremely good, especially in Denmark. In Germany considerable strides have been made, and what I hope the noble Lord below me (Lord Ernle) will inform us is that he is going to use compulsory methods on the county councils, and generally throughout the country, to carry out laws which will not only be destructive of the rat but will assist the sanitary authorities, because this undermining of building and eating into drains is undoing the work which has often been carried out at great expense. I do not wish to detain your Lordships upon a comparatively trivial subject, but it is one which affects us in rural districts very much indeed. Rats are very migratory. They travel many miles; and if one county does its work while the next county does not, the work of the county that does it at considerable expense is undone and has to be done all over again. I am very glad that the noble Lord has brought the matter forward.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, who has introduced this subject, has conferred a great service not only upon agriculturists but also upon the general public. This is a serious matter and it has become a very become a very urgent one also. Although I find it a little difficult to believe that the somewhat mild procedure by which my noble friend hopes to exterminate the large rat population of this country will be really successful in effecting his object, I feel that some legislation is urgently necessary, and I hope that the President of the Board of Agriculture will put in hand at once a measure of a more drastic character, and, if possible, pass it through the two Houses of Parliament during the current session. I was surprised to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, that the damage which he estimates is done to food by rats can be put, so high as £30,000,000 or£40,000,000. I know that before the war the official estimate of damage done by rats to firm products was in. the region of £2.000,000 and I was going to venture to suggest, but for the much larger figure he has put to the House, that possibly the damage to-day might be in the region of £9,000,000 or £10,000,000. In any case, it is very large and it is increasing in proportion with the increase in the rat population.

My noble friend who has just spoken has reminded us that the rat is not only a predatory animal but also a migratory-animal and, because he is a migratory animal, it is quite impossible for the individual, however active he may be, to exterminate the rats in the area in which he lives. There is no doubt whatever that this nomadic animal, when he reaches the numbers that he has reached to-day, can only be effectively dealt with as the result of county or other organisations under not merely recommendations, as my noble friend suggests in this Bill, but under explicit and drastic directions from a Government Department. It is suggested that, there are various methods now in use for the extermination of the rat. Personally, I view with some doubt the efficiency of a good many of these so-called rat poisons, although during the last few weeks, as Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Sugar Supply, I have been asked to give up a considerable quantity of sugar for the manufacture of rat poison as I was told that no rat poison is effective unless it contains sugar. Personally, I should have thought that a good cat was better than any poison. It is necessary not only to kill rats but to persuade people to adopt certain methods, particularly in the matter of feeding their stock, which will prevent an increase of the rat population. I was interested to hear when I was in Belgium before the war that they were teaching in all the schools that if you want to avoid an increase of rats, pigs and poultry should be fed not on the ground but on a hard surface; if the food gets trodden into the ground it is a great encouragement to the rats to develop and increase.

I hope that the President of the Board of Agriculture is about to tell us that he is prepared at once to introduce a Bill more drastic in its character, and that he will also give us an assurance it will be carried through during the present Session On that footing I suggest to the noble Lord he should give place to the Government Bill so as to enable it to be carried into law with the full authority of the Government in the shortest possible time.


My Lords, I agree with all the three noble Lords who have spoken as to the importance of this -particular measure and also as to the impossibility of adequately coping with the rat plague unless it is done simultaneously over a considerable area at once. The three Departments who are interested in agriculture in England, Scotland and Ireland, are fully aware of the importance of dealing with this question. Up to the time when the Order, which in largely incorporated in the noble Lord's Bill, was passed in 1918 the Board of Agriculture had no powers of dealing with rats, and their powers under the Order are certainly not sufficiently effective to carry out a very strong campaign. Meanwhile, however, a very great deal has been done, as the noble Lord admitted, to deal with the plague of rats.

I am very much obliged to him for bringing forward his Bill. It assists us very largely in creating a proper public atmosphere which will enable the Government to pass its own Bill rapidly through Parliament. I certainly hope that the House will read this Bill a Second time on the understanding that as soon as the Government Bill is brought forward it shall take precedence over the present measure. Our own Bill, which is in draft and which I had hoped to have laid before the House before now, is held up by the difficulty of getting the other Boards of Agriculture to give their opinion upon it. That is the only reason which up to the present moment has prevented us from placing the Bill before you. I can assure Lord Bledisloe that it is more drastic in character than the Bill now brought forward. I suggest that this Bill should be read a second time and then suspended for the consideration of the Government measure.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.