HL Deb 15 February 1939 vol 111 cc772-84

Amendments reported (according to Order).

Clause 1:

Power of local authorities to require prevention of damage by rabbits.

1.—(1) Where the council of any county or county borough are satisfied that by reason of land within the county or borough in the occupation of any person being infested with rabbits, substantial damage is being caused or is likely to be caused to crops, trees, pasturage, fences, banks or works on land in the occupation of any other person, the council may serve on the occupier of the first mentioned land a notice in writing requiring him to take such steps as may be reasonably practicable for the destruction of the rabbits within such reasonable time, not being less than twenty-one days, as may be specified in the notice; and if an occupier upon whom such a notice is served fails to comply with the requirements thereof, he shall be liable on summary conviction t3 a fine not exceeding twenty-five pounds, and to a further fine not exceeding five pounds for each day on which the failure continues:

Provided that …

THE EARL OF RADNOR moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "the council of any county or county borough are satisfied that". The noble Earl said: My Lords, this is one of the first three Amendments that stand in my name. The two next are consequential upon this Amendment. The Bill, as it finished after the Committee stage, seemed in Clause r to imply that the court of summary jurisdiction before which a prosecution would go in the first instance would only have the power to judge whether the notice to abate an infestation of rabbits had been complied with or not, and they had not the power to judge on the question of fact as to whether the ground complained of was indeed infested with rabbits, or that the rabbits were doing damage to a neighbour's ground. That was not the intention of the Bill. It was intended that if there was a prosecution the court of summary jurisdiction before which the prosecution went should have the power to judge all the relevant facts, including whether the ground was infested with rabbits, and also whether damage was being done. In that connection also arose the question of the right of appeal, because if that court could only judge as to whether the order had been complied with or not, there seemed to be no possibility of appeal against the facts of the case other than that one.

I think that the Amendment later on in the list, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and the noble Lord, Lord Bayford, is aimed towards that question of appeal. These Amendments have been designed to clear up not only the full power of the court of summary jurisdiction to deal with all the relevant facts, but also in so doing to clear up the question of appeal, because, as your Lord- ships are well aware, there is an appeal from the court of summary jurisdiction to Quarter Sessions, and, on points of law, from Quarter Sessions to the High Court. I hope that this Amendment is in a form which will meet the objections that have been raised to me at different times.

Perhaps it might help your Lordships, in view of the rather involved nature of the Amendment if I read to you how the first part of this clause will read if your Lordships agree to this Amendment and the two consequential Amendments. It would read as follows: Where by reason of land in the occupation of any person being infested with rabbits, substantial damage is being caused or is likely to be caused to crops, trees, pasturage, fences, banks or works on land in the occupation of any other person, the council of the county or county borough in which the first-mentioned land or any part thereof is situate may serve on the occupier of that land a notice in writing requiring him and so on as the clause now reads. You will see by that, I think, that it makes it quite clear that the council of the county or the county borough must satisfy the court that the land is infested with rabbits and damage is being done. I hope with that brief explanation I may have satisfied those who have objections to that part of this Bill. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 8, leave out ("Where") to ("by") in line 9.—(The Earl of Radnor.)


My Lords, I was one of those who were responsible for putting down the Amendment that appears on the next page, and I should like to say that my noble friend and myself did not put it down in any spirit of hostility to the Bill. We realise fully the damage done by rabbits, and the object of this Bill has our very fullest sympathy. Our only object in putting down the Amendment was to smooth away difficulties, and to prevent mistakes occurring in the administration of the measure. For instance, it is not always clear who really is responsible for an excessive number of rabbits being on any particular plot of land. It is quite possible that the county council, to whom the administration of this Bill is entrusted, might make a mistake in serving notice on the wrong person. The fact that it is possible for that to occur would weigh in the minds of the committee. It would be the agricultural com- mittee, consisting mostly of farmers, to whom the administration of this Act would be confided by the county council.

I want to see this Bill work. It is no good passing an Act of Parliament of this sort, and being able to refer to it as something that is being done to stop what undoubtedly is a considerable detriment to the country side, if it is allowed to become a dead letter. If you leave the Bill as it stands at the present moment, I believe that you will find it will be almost a dead letter, because the agricultural committee of the council, consisting very largely of farmers, will not be prepared to impose these penalties on a man when in the first instance they are not quite sure whether he is the right man or not, and in the second place when they know that if there is any mistake about the matter there is practically no appeal for the man who is injured. Therefore we welcome these Amendments that have been put down by my noble friend. I am rising to support the Amendment and to say that we are very grateful to him for having met us in the way that he has, and that the Amendment standing in my name on the next page will not now be moved.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


My Lords, the next Amendment is consequential on the Amendment which has just been passed.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 9, leave out ("within the county or borough").—(The Earl of Radnor.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

LORD ELTISLEY moved, in subsection (1), after "trees," to insert "shrubs." The noble Lord said: My Lords, I also am one of those who desire to see this Bill, when it does become an Act, work, although the painful history of all former Bills is that they never got to the stage of becoming Acts. I beg to move the Amendment that stands in my name. I think it will provide another nail to the coffin of the rabbits, and it will prevent the rabbits from passing from a wood into a great place full of shrubs where, apparently, they will be outside the Act and no longer subject to the penalties under the Act. The point is simply this. Does the word "tree" include the word "shrub"? If so, I have nothing more to say. From a diligent research I find that a tree is a plant having a single trunk, woody, branched and of large size. On the other hand, I find a shrub is a woody plant with several stems coming from the same root; a bush, or dwarf tree. Therefore there does appear to be some possibility of a shrub not being classed as a tree. As we do not want any loophole in this Bill when it becomes an Act, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 12, after ("trees") insert ("shrubs").—(Lord Eltisley.)


I have no objection to this Amendment. I do not think it unduly overburdens the Bill.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

THE EARL OF RADNOR moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "may serve on the occupier of the first mentioned land" and insert "of the county or county borough in which the first mentioned land or any part thereof is situate may serve on the occupier of that land." The noble Earl said: My Lords, this is consequential on the first Amendment, and I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page line 14, leave out from ("council") to ("a") in line 15, and insert the said new words.—(The Earl of Radnor.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

THE EARL OF RADNOR moved, in subsection (1), after "continues," to insert "after conviction." The noble Earl said: My Lords, this Amendment bears to some extent on the points raised by Lord Bayford just now, as to the difficulty of defining an occupier, of whom there may be three of any particular land concerned. It also bears on the possibility of a man being served with a notice who feels that he has got a perfectly good defence, because if you read the clause as it stands it seems apparent that if he is convicted the penalty, which is a maximum penalty of five pounds for each day on which the offence continues, will go on accruing for every day on which the offence continues, and not merely for every day after the conviction. Therefore a man who feels that he has got a perfectly good defence against the order may be incurring a very dangerous burden of penalty if he waits for the only remedy he has, which is that of defending himself before the court of summary jurisdiction. I think your Lordships will agree that one does not want to put any such obstacle in the way of a man, who feels that he has a perfectly good case, waiting to argue that case.

Amendment moved— Page 2, line 2, at end, insert ("after conviction").—(The Earl of Radnor.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

THE EARL OF RADNOR moved, after subsection (1), to insert: (2) Where a person incurs any expense necessary for the purpose of compliance with the requirements of a notice served on him under the preceding subsection, then, if he alleges that the expense ought to be borne wholly or in part by some other person having an interest in the land to which the notice relates, he may apply to the County Court in accordance with Rules of Court, and the Court, after hearing the parties and any witnesses whom they desire to call, may make such order for securing that the applicant is wholly or in part indemnified by that other person in respect of the said expense as the Court considers just and equitable in the circumstances of the case.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this again bears directly on that rather difficult question of the possibility of there being three occupiers of any piece of land concerned with an order, the three occupiers being the landowner, the farming tenant, and the shooting tenant. They all have an interest in the rabbits, and it is quite possible that in a case in which an order is made the responsible authority may select the wrong person on whom to serve the notice. The real objection to that is, I think, largely a financial one—namely, that the individual may be put to an expense which should properly be carried, either wholly or in part, by someone else who is responsible for keeping the rabbits down. As your Lordships see, that is remedied by going to the County Court and getting back such proportion of the expense as that Court may decide. It is rather a difficult questino, but I think that this Amendment and the previous one together and the Bill will go as far as possible towards avoiding the difficulties which might arise over that question of the divided ownership of rabbits which exists in this country.

Amendment moved— Page 2, line 8, insert the said new subsection.—(The Earl of Radnor.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 6:

Prohibition of night shooting and use of spring traps above ground.

6.—(1) If any person—

  1. (a) between the expiration of the first hour after sunset and the commencement of the last hour before sunrise, uses a firearm for the purpose of killing hares or rabbits; or
  2. (b) uses or knowingly permits the use of a spring trap for that purpose, except in a rabbit hole;
he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds or, in the case of a person convicted of a second or subsequent offence under this section to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds.

LORD MERTHYR moved to insert after subsection (1): (2) A police officer, if in uniform, may enter on land at any time for the purpose of ascertaining whether the provisions of this section are being complied with. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this Amendment. I also am a humble enthusiast for trying to see that this Bill shall be a workable measure, although possibly in some cases by slightly different methods. I should like to explain that I have no great desire to apply this Amendment to subsection (1) (a) of this clause. For the sake of brevity and convenience I have made it read that it applies to both (a) and (b), but it is to paragraph (b) that I particularly desire it to apply. I do not mind in the least whether it applies to (a) or not. A great deal will depend, in considering the value of this Bill, whether trapping in the open is stopped or not, and I suggest it will very materially assist in stopping what I believe to be a highly undesirable practice, and one which I am glad is now going to be made illegal, if a properly appointed police officer has the power to enter on land at any time in order to stop it.

I may be wrong, but I take it that the case now is that he can only do so if he has a warrant specially applied for and issued for the purpose, and I think it will be agreed that it is hardly to be expected of him that he will obtain a warrant in each case when he wants to enter upon land on suspicion that the clause is being violated. There is now a great deal of trapping in the open, both legally and illegally, and I am one of those who think that if this new legislation can be sternly enforced then the rabbit position will be made somewhat better. As I have said before in this House, I do not think the Bill goes as far as it ought to go, but as far as it does go it is an improvement, and my only object in moving this Amendment is to make it better still. One thing which I have learned from the debates on rabbits in this House is that the conditions vary enormously in different parts of this country. I confess I did not appreciate that at the outset, but I have found out that there is all the difference in the world between the conditions in Cambridgeshire, where the noble Lord's rabbits gambol around the countryside, and the conditions in West Wales, where I happen to come from, and in Devon and Cornwall. Those areas may not be in themselves very important, but they are, I venture to say, the special areas in this particular line. They are infested with rabbits, and it has become a very serious problem indeed. Many minds have been brought to bear upon that problem in those areas, to such an extent that there is now a demand for local legislation on the subject—a course which I myself should not favour if it could possibly be avoided. But people are actually demanding a sort of local option to deal with the particular problem, realising that our legislators, coming from all parts of the country, do not, as they say, appreciate the seriousness of the position in these so-called special areas.

I know that many do not agree with me when I say that the practice of commercial rabbit trapping as carried on today in these areas, so far from diminishing rabbits, actually increases the number. I am not going into that controversy, but I must again mention it because otherwise my argument would not be justified to-day. But this area which is now infested with rabbits is spreading. It is increasing in size, and it is moving in an easterly direction. I think any local evidence would point to that effect, and it is a very serious matter. I would like to ask the noble Earl who represents the Government what the intentions of the Ministry of Agriculture are with regard to this position, because there has recently grown up a new element in it. We now have rabbit factories being established in these areas which I call the rabbit farming areas. Now these rabbit factories must have a great supply of rabbits if they are to exist, and it follows that the interests of these factories are in direct conflict with the interests of true farming. I am going to ask, if I may, if we can be told which of these two interests is going to be encouraged. Because I do suggest in all seriousness that they are so conflicting that they cannot both survive indefinitely.

That is a new factor in the situation which has recently sprung up and which I think requires to be dealt with. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, will tell me, as he has told me before, that I confuse the cause and the effect. Be that as it may, I would very much like to get an authoritative opinion on this serious matter, and I suggest that if trapping in the open could really be stopped it would be a big step forward. I do not honestly believe that it can really be stopped unless some such action is taken as is embodied in my Amendment; because I respectfully agree with those who say that it is no good passing Acts of Parliament unless they are going to be enforced. If this Amendment is included in the Bill, then I think there is a real chance of the Act being enforced. It is rather too much to expect neighbours to report their own friends when breaking this law. The only sensible way to do it is to give the powers to the police and to render it easy and efficacious for them to use them.

Amendment moved— Page 3, line 22, insert he said new subsection.—(Lord Merthyr.)


My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will not accept this Amendment, and I hope so for a reason that has not been mentioned by the noble Lord. I happen to be the Chairman of a Standing Joint Committee and I, like others of your Lordships, know the immense number of new duties that have been put on the police lately. They have hardly a minute of their time available. They have a great deal of writing and inspection in consequence of these new duties, and a vast quantity of work in connection with wardens and air-raid precautions, and in most counties, my own among them, the police force is being increased at great expense. I must protest against the idea that in addition to these duties the policeman should now be turned into an under-keeper.


My Lords, I also feel that this Amendment must be resisted, for perhaps different reasons. I am not the Chairman of a Standing Joint Committee. I wonder if the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, fully realises all that is implied by this Amendment. At the present time the police have no right of access unless they are asked to come on to your land, and, though an Englishman's home is no longer his castle, he still has a few shreds of right, and I do like to stick to what is left as long as possible. It would mean that any policeman in uniform could wander over your land, and if you accosted him he could excuse himself by saying he was seeing whether you put traps in the open. He might be there for many other purposes, but that would be sufficient excuse. I think probably on general grounds also it is a most undesirable precedent to create.

I entirely differ from the noble Lord in his views as regards the use of the spring trap being the real reason why there has been a great increase of rabbits in certain areas. I do not believe it is the use of the spring trap. I believe that the difficulty lies in the mentality of the people who use these traps, who prefer to make money out of rabbits rather than out of other, shall we say more legitimate methods of agriculture? I cannot speak for the Government Department concerned. I have indicated that in many cases the Amendment would create a most undesirable precedent, and I believe that if the noble Lord were to inquire, he would find that the representatives of the various Government Departments concerned would resist this Amendment most strenuously.


My Lords, I have a certain sympathy with the mover of the Amendment and also with what was said by the noble Earl who has just sat down. There was before the Select Committee a good deal of evidence to show how different conditions were in different parts of the country. In some parts of the country the conditions that Lord Merthyr described are really constant. Of course the subsection as drafted is rather wide. Would it not be possible to amend it by the insertion of some such words as "in cases where the local authority have reason to believe that the instructions of this section are not being complied with"? I do not know whether the noble Earl who will reply for the Government would consider this Amendment if it were in a somewhat modified form. But if there really were reason to believe that the intention of the Bill was not being complied with I think something might be said for allowing the local authority to instruct the police to enter, at reasonable times, to see whether that was so.


My Lords, I have not had an opportunity, naturally, of considering the suggestion that has just emanated from my noble friend Lord Mersey, who, as your Lordships know, was Chairman of the Select Committee on whose recommendations this Bill was drafted, but I should say at once that the noble Viscount's suggestion would be fraught with difficulties. As the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, has intimated to your Lordships, the principle which Lord Merthyr has brought before the House in his Amendment is one far wider than that embraced by the question of rabbits alone, or indeed by the question of the single industry of agriculture.

As Lord Radnor has said, this Amendment, if incorporated in the Bill, would give a general right to a constable to go on to any private land at any time, day or night. There is no such provision in the general Statute save in very exceptional circumstances, and these exceptional circumstances, I understand, apply only when a police constable has a specific function to perform in a particular space. Your Lordships will appreciate that if such a power were granted under this Bill a police constable could go on to any private land or into any premises with the excuse that he was entitled to investigate whether a gin trap were set in the open or not. That power might be used for ascertaining other information for which at present no provision is made in the case of a police constable in the performance of his duty. Therefore, on general grounds, I sincerely hope my noble friend Lord Merthyr will not press his Amendment, and at the same time I hope I have sufficiently indicated to my noble friend Lord Mersey that his suggestion would have many difficulties if it were to be applied only at the discretion of local authorities.


My Lords, I should like to say, first of all, a word about Lord Mersey's suggestion, for which I am very grateful. It would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible, for it to assist materially in this matter because normally local authorities—county councils at any rate—only meet every quarter. It illustrates the difficulty which I am up against because I want the police officer to be able to do this and act quickly and not have to go through a lot of formalities. If he had to get it formally put before the county council or the agricultural committee, and wait until their next quarterly meeting, it would be a great deal too late before he could do anything at all. Therefore, while I am very grateful for the noble Viscount's suggestion, I do not think it would assist. With regard to Lord Radnor's defence against this Amendment, I can only say I really expected something rather better than the old argument about an Englishman's home being his castle. As a matter of fact, I told several people that that probably might be said, but it is getting rather worn.


It is not quite worn-out.


There seems to be a theory that because this sort of thing has never been done before it cannot be done now. I cannot subscribe to that argument. We are dealing with changed conditions in the rabbit business which are, in some areas of the country, rapidly getting the better of us, and we are not coping with them. Some action a little more revolutionary than the noble Earl would allow, will be necessary before long. Appreciating that the sense of the House is hostile to this Amendment I do not ask your Lordships to divide upon it. I therefore beg leave to withdraw it, although I must say I am not convinced by the arguments which have been adduced against it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Short title, interpretation and extent]:


My Lords, my first Amendment is a drafting Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 3, line 31, after ("interest") insert ("which he has").—(The Earl of Radnor.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


My Lords, the next is also a drafting Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 3, line 31, leave out ("has the right") and insert ("is entitled").—(The Earl of Radnor.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

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