HL Deb 11 November 1919 vol 37 cc192-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill, which is in a sense a minor Bill, is one to which the Board of Agriculture attaches the very greatest importance. I trust, therefore, that it will commend itself to your Lordships' House, and that you will give it a Second Reading this afternoon. It is a Bill which is supported by nearly all responsible authorities, and which has met with comparatively little criticism in its passage through the House of Commons.

The Bill may be a small one, but the damage which is done by rats and mice is certainly not a small matter, and, whilst I am not prepared to commit the Board of Agriculture to any of the estimates which have been made and publicly stated of the monetary value of the damage which has been done, there is no question whatsoever that it is enormous, and has considerably increased during the war. There was a Bill introduced in your Lordships' House last summer by Lord Aberconway which was withdrawn in favour of the Government Bill. I only mention this in order to remind you that the matter has been before your Lordships already in the present year, and that some noble Lords—Lord Chaplin and Lord Lambonrne—issued a joint appeal with regard to this matter about a year ago. They expressed the opinion—and I am sure their opinion is entitled to special weight—that the damage done by rats and mice annually in this country amounted to as much as £40,000,000, that the number of rats was at least equal to one per head of the population of these Islands, and that ten rats between them consumed as much bread stuffs as a man and his wife under the bread ration. I do not vouch for those statements, but they give some indication on authority of the extent of the evil.

There is no question whatever that the combination of human enterprise with human negligence has disturbed the balance of nature in favour of the rat, and has given an artificial protection to its natural enemies. In consequence rats and mice are absorbing far more than a desirable share of the world's supply of food stuffs, and in many ways man is providing even travelling facilities for this exceedingly dangerous pest. As a result the rat has invaded and colonised distant countries where it is not indigenous, and it has become in many parts of the world one of the most serious pests that can possibly afflict humanity. It not only takes a serious toll of human property, but it is a deadly menace also to the public health.

I think it is generally accepted that rats and mice are specially injurious to agriculture and food production. They take an enormous toll every year, not only on farmers, but on millers and grain merchants. In the case of the farmer it has been estimated that the money toll that they take of him frequently exceeds his rent and taxes combined, and they thrive on every food that is valuable both to man and beast. Mice, which are also dealt with under the Bill, are almost equally serious pests. In Australia they have done untold damage to the stores of grain which had been purchased for the British Government during the war, and it is only right that they should be included in the Bill. With regard to disease I would only say that it has been scientifically established that rats and mice, particularly rats, have been responsible for the spread of plague, dysentery, trichinosis, influenza amongst horses, and foot-and-mouth disease. On these grounds alone I think it is necessary to introduce legislation to deal more effectively with rats.

Speaking briefly, the object of the Bill is to hold every individual occupier responsible for dealing with rats and mice on his own premises. It provides penalties for neglect of that duty, arid there is a further provision that in the event of the individual occupier failing to act upon notice given, the State may step in and do the work for him and charge him with the expenses. But the primary duty rests upon the occupier, and included in the term "occupier" are local authorities with reference to premises for which they themselves are responsible. It is obvious to your Lordships that it is not only unfair but useless to rely upon individual, isolated effort in dealing with a pest of this character. If neighbours do not co-operate in getting rid of this pest, the man who does his duty merely creates a vacuum into which the surplus rat population quickly flows. There is a large surplus population, and unless a sustained and universal effort is made to deal with this evil there will be very little real relief. At any rate, in the view of the Government a universal and continuous campaign against this pest is needed, and it is with that object that this Bill has been introduced.

I will not detain your Lordships by explaining in detail the provisions of the Bill. I hope they are sufficiently plain, and they will, of course, be dealt with in detail in Committee. We regard the Bill as urgent because our powers to deal effectively with the matter under the Defence of the Realm Regulations will shortly run out. I trust, therefore, that your Lordships will be willing to give the Bill a Second Reading this afternoon, and that it may be speedily passed into law.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lee of Fareham.)


My Lords. I am sure that the House will desire to give this Bill a Second Reading. The noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture has given us very good reasons for passing speedily into law a Bill which is intended to enable local authorities to deal drastically with the rat pest. My only doubt with regard to the Bill is whether it is drastic, enough and whether sufficient provision is made to enable the Bill to be put into effective operation. Those of your Lordships who have perused the Bill will see that there is no special provision made for any particular person to take the initiative in the putting of the Bill into operation. I can hardly conceive the ordinary county councillor, after having visited certain farms in his district where the corn stacks are known to be infested with rats, coming before his council and advocating drastic measures against one individual farmer. Such a state of affairs can hardly be pictured. On the other hand, in Lord Aberconway's Bill, provision was made for the initiative to be taken either by a War Agricultural Committee—which seems to me to be the most desirable body to be brought into the scheme because it is part of their business to visit farms from time to time in order to see that efficient cultivation is carried out—or for a sanitary inspector, under the special powers given to him by that Bill to visit premises which were suspected of being infested by rats. If it is possible in the Committee stage to strengthen the Bill in this respect to make sure that it will do something effective—which we all desire—I hope the President of the Board will not resist Amendments to that effect.

The Bill contemplates in certain circumstances a notice being served by the local authority—so far as the farmer is concerned it would be the county council—upon an individual where he is supposed not to have taken what are described as "necessary and reasonable steps" to destroy the rats (what may be deemed to be "reasonable and necessary steps" I do not know; it might be a matter which would require judicial interpretation, or, on the other hand, where he is supposed not to have taken measures to prevent his land becoming infested with rats. I should like to ask at what stage his land would be held to be infested with rats. In any case I should like to suggest that it is desirable—the President has laid stress on the fact that the rat is a migratory animal—that the Bill should give the necessary powers to local authorities to serve notices not upon one individual who is deemed to have infested premises but upon the whole of the individuals in a certain area where rats are known to be prevalent and to be destroying food, so that whether they have been remiss or not in the destruction of rats there will be concerted action over a special area to enable the rats to be effectually exterminated. I notice that in the interpretation of the word "land" certain underground premises are referred to and certain buildings upon land, but for some reason a cellar is omitted. Cellars are places apt to be infested with rats, and I should like to suggest as a matter of draftsmanship that the word "cellar" be added to the definition of "land." With these few words I hope your Lordships will accept the principle of this Bill.


My Lords, this question, of course, has been dealt with under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, but certainly a Bill of this character is very much overdue; in fact, it has been wanted for many years past. I agree with my noble friend who has just sat down that there is a danger that the Bill may be applied too much to individuals. There is no doubt, as Lord Lee said, that rats are migratory. The two greatest curses of agriculture undoubtedly are rabbits and rats, and as far as my experience goes you will always have a great deal of difficulty in dealing with rats if there are a large number of rabbit holes. If the rabbits are destroyed and their holes stopped up it will be very much easier to deal with the rats. I presume there will be ample powers for various local authorities to combine. In England the area is the county, and in Scotland it is only a district which in most cases compises a very much smaller area. I certainly think that every one interested in agriculture will welcome the introduction of this Bill, apart from the great loss sustained by the nation as a whole owing to the depredations of rats; but I hope that the Bill will not be carried out in such a way as to be oppressive or onerous on the individual. If that is made certain, I think the Bill will do a great deal of good not only in the interests of agriculture, but of the country as a whole.

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