HL Deb 18 November 1948 vol 159 cc476-96

4.9 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the responsibility for moving the Second Reading of this Bill falls upon my shoulders through the unfortunate illness of my noble friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I am sure that I am speaking on behalf of noble Lords in all quarters of the House when I wish the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, a speedy and complete recovery. On this occasion I trust that I shall prove a not too unacceptable substitute.

This Bill is an important corollary to the measures which the Government have taken and are taking to close the gap between food availability and requirement by increased home production and overseas development. I need not dwell upon the gravity of the food situation, nor do I think that your Lordships would expect any apology from me for submitting proposals primarily designed to increase food availability by the elimination of loss and damage attributable to rats, mice, insects and mites. It is a sombre thought that, according to the best scientific evidence available to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the loss in cereals, pulses and oilseeds alone, attributable to pests, amounts to not less than 10 per cent. of the production for the entire world. In a recent debate the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who always speaks so knowledgeably upon these subjects, put the matter in a different way when he referred to an estimate that every year, between harvest and consumption, there is destroyed by mites, pests, and rodents, grain equivalent to all the food passing into international trade.

Our own loss of food of all kinds caused by the species of pests coming within the ambit of this Bill, is not, on present information, capable of precise estimate, but must be thought of in terms of upwards of 2,000,000 tons annually. That is a prodigious and staggering figure. At the outbreak of the last war there were neither powers nor organisations adequate for the purpose of preventing wastage vhich had been tolerated in the past but which, under war conditions, became insupportable. It is true that there was on the Statute Book the Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act, 1919, but no authority existed for the control of destructive insects and mites in foodstuffs. The Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act was of little avail, and the local authorities in whom the powers and duties were vested, allowed it to fall into comparative disuse, without alternative provision.

For some years past, we have had to rely for the control of these several groups of pests upon powers derived from the Defence Regulations and continued under the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Acts. During that period we have acquired much knowledge and experience, and in this Bill provision is made for amending the Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act and for preventing loss by general infestation of food, on lines which, in the judgment of His Majesty's Government, are essential if the necessary material saving for the benefit of the community is to be achieved.

The first Part of the Bill is devoted to the amendment of the Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act of 1919. I recognise that your Lordships will desire to be satisfied that there is sufficient reason for varying the provisions of that Act, which, as I have already stated, has been little exercised by the local authorities empowered to execute and enforce its provisions. The local authorities have long held the view, from which it is impossible to dissent, that the provisions of the 1919 Act are not adequate for the radical solution of what is a general and indivisible problem.

The Act placed on the occupier of premises the primary duty for the destruction of rats and mice, and for preventing his premises from becoming infested with these pests. The duty on the local authority was simply to execute and enforce the provisions of the Act against individual occupiers. The actual duty upon the occupier was to take such steps as were "necessary and reasonably practicable." If it was not reasonably practicable for the occupier to do what was necessary, he was not under duty, and the local authority was powerless either to require any other party, such as the owner, to take the necessary steps, or itself to take them. It is small wonder that the local authorities were reluctant to exercise powers so limited that they made no significant contribution to the solution of the general problem.

In this Bill, control is vested in the Agricultural Ministers in England and Scotland, and under Clause 2 local authorities have the definite duty to prevent and remedy infestation in their districts. They will be specially responsible, amongst other things, for properties such as sewers and refuse dumps which are under their direct control. Under Clause 4 the owner is, for the first time, being brought into responsibility where the conditions are within his control and outside that of the occupier. The future obligation on the occupier, as set out in Clause 3, will be to notify the local authority if his premises become infested, as distinct from his present duty to destroy rats and mice on his premises. This does not prejudice his right to take steps, unless the local authority specifies otherwise. There is provision for formal exemption from the duty of notification in the case of certain trades which are recognised as being normally attractive to rats, and which would therefore be subject to regular inspections, but any such exemption would not remove the obligation to take such measures as the local authority might require under Clause 4.

These several provisions would be of limited value unless clear guidance on practical measures to implement the requirements was made available. Modern scientific methods have been worked out and tested in wide-scale practice during recent years, and research continues. Clause 4 makes provision for the specification of appropriate treatments, and Clause 5 gives local authorities power themselves to take steps which have been neglected by the owners or occupiers in spite of notices served on them. Clause 5 also provides that failure to comply with the requirements of notices served under Clause 4 carries liability to penalties not exceeding £50 for a first, and £100 for a subsequent, offence. This provision replaces that prescribing a penalty not exceeding £20 for failure to comply with a notice under Section 1 of the Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act, 1919, and serves to recognise altered money values and the gravity of the offence.

Your Lordships will appreciate that if this problem is to be overcome, the good work of conforming authorities must not be prejudiced by the lower standards of neighbouring authorities, and that some degree of central guidance and direction is essential. The Bill provides for this, by Clause 13, and also strengthens the default powers of the Ministers, subject to a right to the particular local authority to be heard before a default order is made. Clause 8 extends the provisions of the first Part of the Act to shipping and aircraft, and Clause 9 provides powers for requiring the destruction of rats and mice where threshing is being carried out. Although the whole of the Bill applies to Scotland, Clause 8 is the only part which applies to Northern Ireland.

The second Part of the Bill, to which I would now invite your Lordships' attention, makes provision for the mitigation of damage by insects and mites to foodstuffs in the course of storage, processing, transport and distribution, and lays duties on the traders concerned in those activities. It is unfortunately the case that large insect and mite populations can, and do, maintain themselves in structures and transport equipment in this country, and that much of the food reaching our shores brings with it a constant stream of destructive insects and mites. In the course of trade, many of the species are transferred from infested to clean commodities, thus extending the range of damage. The multiplication rates are extremely high and, unless adequate control is exercised, the deterioration and loss of food may be of considerable magnitude.

Our present powers for dealing with this serious problem derive from Defence Regulations, and are now continued under the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Acts. It is urgently necessary that permanent provision be made for the effective control of this problem, and that is the purpose of Part II of this Bill. Clause 14, in fact, in subsections (1) and (2), continues the present obligation on food traders to give notice to the Ministers of this type of infestation in commodities, structures and equipment. Subsection (4), which is new, provides some easement which is not provided for in the Infestation Order, by empowering the Minister to make regulations relaxing or excluding the requirements of this section of the Bill. It is the intention that the regulations under this subsection shall be drafted in consultation with all the interests affected.

Subsection (3) is also a new provision, designed to ensure that those operators who know that food in their possession or control is infested do not hasten to pass the infestation on to some other party. I am aware that the particular wording of this provision is viewed with considerable misgivings by several trade interests, but I feel sure that the objective is one that will not be disputed. I agree that as the clause is drafted it might appear to be unnecessarily rigid, requiring the consent of the Minister to every movement of infested food. We are, however, in consultation with the representatives of the various food trades, and we are by no means wedded to the precise wording of subsection (3). These discussions will be continued, and the Government will be prepared to move appropriate Amendments in order to allow as free a flow as possible of food through the normal channels of trade, while at the same time maintaining such control as is necessary over infected parcels of food and preventing the free transmission of infestation which might accompany unregulated movement.

Under Clause 15, the Ministers may prescribe conditions for the storage and movement of infested food, or food likely to become infested, and they may specify treatments for the destruction of insects and mites. Clause 16 provides the right of appeal against directions under the preceding clause. Power to the Ministers to act on default of the traders concerned is provided in Clause 17. The penalties for failure by food undertakers to comply with the directions of the Minister are provided for in Clause 18—that is to say, not exceeding £100 for a first, and £200 for a subsequent offence. It is proper, as I think your Lordships will agree, that as failure to comply with directions under Clause 15 might put considerable stocks of food in jeopardy, the penalty should be severe. Power to delegate to local authorities certain functions under this part of the Act is provided for in Clause 20.

Finally, I come to Part III, which includes, in Clause 21, provision enabling the Ministers to control the methods used by persons engaged in the business of preventing or treating infestation. This is a very necessary provision to ensure effective action and avoidance of food contamination. The remaining provisions of Part III of the Bill are of consequential and routine character. I trust that the brevity with which I have placed this Bill before your Lordships will not be taken as a measure of the seriousness with which His Majesty's Government view the matter. It is very serious, and I hope that the case I have presented for your Lordships' consideration satisfies you that this Bill should be given a Second Reading to-day, and be passed into law at the earliest opportunity. I beg to move that it be read a second time.

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

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to associate noble Lords on this side of the House with the first remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—namely, of regret that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture is laid low and of our wishes for his speedy and complete recovery.

There can be no question from any side of this House as to the value of the main purpose of this Bill, which is to reduce the wastage of food at a very critical time through infestation by pests. But if we do support fully the broad principles of the Bill, it does not deprive noble Lords (and particularly those in Opposition) of the right, or indeed absolve them from the duty, of making a critical examination into the method of fulfilment of the broad objective with which we are in agreement. In my few remarks I shall confine myself to a critical examination of some of the methods of execution, and I can assure the Government that during the various stages through which this Bill will pass we will look carefully at the Amendments which are put forward by the Government for the improvement of the measure, and we shall in due course put forward Amendments ourselves.

My first criticism is that this Bill gives wide powers to the authorities to whom power is delegated by the Government, but there is no specific definition of the evil with which the Bill is intended to deal. There is no definition anywhere of what is infestation capable of causing damage to food. Contained in the Bill are penalties for non-notification of infestation, and there are penalties for failure to give the appropriate treatment for infestation, but there is no definition of, as it were, the offence of infestation itself. For instance, under Clause 14 ships can he held up and businesses virtually frozen if this infestation takes place. But, I repeat, there is no definition of what makes infestation capable of causing damage, and I would ask the Government and the Minister to give some information if possible.

Is the measure a quantitative or a qualitative one? What degree of infestation so as to cause damage to food is sufficient to bring the "misdemeanour" of these animals within the ambit of the Bill? There are very great importers of foreign cheeses into this country; there must be a moment when the mite—and mites are referred to in the definition clause of the Bill—in these cheeses ceases to be an attractive and delectable morsel for your Lordships and becomes a menace to the welfare of the country. There must be a crossing over, as it were, from one stage to another. Before we pass such a measure as this the House, I think, is entitled to know exactly what that stage is, and when it occurs. After all, we all want tidy and good legislation, and that is the only purpose of my drawing these comparisons.

Under Clause 3, subsection (1), of the Bill, the occupier must give notice to the local authority in writing: … if it comes to his knowledge that the premises are infested with rats or mice. Again, I ask: What is "infestation"? We all remember the old nursery rhyme: Dickory, dickory, dock, The mouse ran up the clock. That, presumably, was not infestation. But if six mice ran up six clocks, would that be infestation? Or would it be infestation if the number were 100 or 500? We must have some further information as to what is the definition of "infestation." I do not, however, wish to be merely destructive, and I am going to put forward a suggestion that the Government should look at this need for definition and perhaps consider tabling an Amendment which would say, for instance, "infestation which brings about substantial or serious damage to food"; or something of that kind. That would clarify the position and narrow down the almost limitless proposal put forward at the present time.

I should like now to pass to my next point, and say how glad I was to hear the Minister state that the Government were willing to consult with the various trade interests concerned. From information I have received from various trade interests it seems that they have some complaint that the Government have not hitherto consulted them. Certain of the corn and shipping interests were first told of the contents of this Bill at a meeting on the day on which the Bill was read a first time in your Lordships' House. If that is so, I think that the trade interests have a legitimate grievance, and it is for the Government to remedy that error by now taking all interests closely into consultation. The trade interests—who, after all, have intimate knowledge of this particular evil—feel that the Government built the Bill round S.R. & O. No. 680 of 1943, of which the Minister will be aware. But that Order was made under war conditions, and no one had examined the position with the trade in relation to peace-time circumstances until after this Bill was introduced.

For instance, this is the first time that the Ministry of Agriculture enter the dock area and the shipping world. These powers are a transfer of powers which the Ministry of Food had in the war. But during the war the position of shipping was protected by a Memorandum agreed between the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Food. It was agreed that no action in these ships should be taken without the knowledge and agreement of the latter Ministry. I have searched this Bill and I cannot find any single mention of the Ministry of Transport—which has now superseded the Ministry of Shipping in these matters. We would propose that shipping, which is a vital and a technical business, should be protected by an Amendment which would ensure that before the Minister of Agriculture exercised his powers in the shipping world there should be an obligation upon the Minister to secure agreement with the Minister of Transport. We should also like to see the Bill improved by an Amendment to ensure that the Minister of Agriculture shall have an obligation to consult the trade interests prior to issuing any orders under the powers which this Bill gives him. Those are two further ways in which this Bill could be improved.

We also have grave misgivings about the principle contained in Part II of the Bill, which, broadly, deals on a national basis with this pest menace from ships flying all flags entering British ports. The Minister is no doubt aware that rodent infestation has been dealt with by international convention, and we feel that insect infestation should be agreed internationally before permanent legislation is put upon the Statute Book. We suggest that the Government should reconsider the question dealt with in Part II to see whether it should not be excluded from the Bill, and the question of food damage dealt with by continuation of the 1943 Emergency Order until international agreement has been reached. We feel that there is a danger that if we have a national basis for dealing with ships of all flags coming into our ports, it will inevitably bear more harshly upon the British ships than upon the foreign ships. If that exclusion—which I hope the Government will consider—is found to be unacceptable, we put the alternative suggestion that Part II of the Bill should be drastically amended in the way of including those safeguards for consultation between Ministers and trade interests—I do not say agreement with trade interests, for that would not be constitutional.

Another point which disturbs us is that we cannot understand why the "owner or occupier" (those are the words of the Bill) should have notices served upon him, requiring him to take such steps as may be specified in the notice for the destruction of rats or mice, or otherwise for remedying … the infestation. It does not seem to me appropriate that a notice should be served upon an owner who has let on a 999 years' lease land on which a factory has been erected. There might sometimes be difficulty in finding him. We shall require further examination of that particular clause, and some convincing that the proposed procedure is the right one. Again, the members who are particularly interested in agriculture are worried about the powers given to local authorities at threshing time. If possible, we want an assurance, in the form of an Amendment to the Bill, that the Minister of Agriculture will ensure that local authorities shall deal reasonably and fairly. As we see it, the danger is that an essentially urban authority which has agricultural land around it may not have the agricultural knowledge—the agricultural "know-how," as it were—and might use those powers in a way that would impede the food production of this country.

Perhaps the Minister could give us some information on this point. We cannot understand what is the hurry about this legislation. The trade interests concerned consider that this Bill, conceived in a Government Department, is unworkable, if the wording of the Bill is to be taken as the true intention. There is the danger of hold-ups in ports, because I am informed that very few ports have the necessary facilities for dealing with infestation. When I began studying this subject, I was appalled when authoritative trade organisations told me that a large proportion of the grain and feeding-stuffs imported into this country arrived in an infested condition. I am informed that methods of treating the infestation exist only where special facilities are available, and that, consequently, at the present time only a small proportion can be treated. This Bill seems to envisage the war-time practice of grain being held in ports. To-day the grain is unloaded and passes right through the port, through the warehouses to the mills. The Minister of Food is the sole importer of grain at the present time, and is likely to be so for some time in the future—perhaps not for years; that depends. Therefore, it is already in the Minister's power to control imports and distribution, and it does not seem necessary that the Government should hurry through this legislation to deal with something for which the Minister already possesses the powers. That is an additional argument why we hope that the Government will reconsider Part II of the Bill.

I think we all agree that co-operation with the trade interests is better than compulsion. We do feel, however—I do not want to put it too high—that in this measure the Government have come forward with something regarded by the trade interests as largely impracticable. They are trade interests who want to co-operate, and who like this pest infestation no more than anyone else does. It would have been better had there been more co-operation, and I believe that in that event this Bill would not have come forward in its present form. We ask the Government to consult now with the trade interests. We ourselves will consult with the trade interests. We will gladly co-operate with the Government on reaching agreement on as many Amendments as possible, but we must insist that the Government give us ample time between now and the later stages of the Bill. In his final words, the Minister said that he hoped that this Bill would be passed through all its stages in the shortest possible time. By all means let us pass it through all its stages in the shortest possible time, consistent with the Opposition having adequate time to consider the necessary Amendments, and consistent with the Government having time to make good the error which we feel they have hitherto committed in connection with this Bill—that of not consulting adequately those who are to be intimately connected with its operation. We give general support to the Second Reading, but we do not give general support to the detailed proposals in the Bill until they have been examined, and to a large extent modified.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am going to take up only a small amount of your Lordships' time with the comments I have to make upon this Bill. First, I should like to join in the regrets which have been expressed concerning the unfortunate illness of the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon. One point in connection with this Bill which has already been mentioned in the debate is that there is a very important public health aspect of the question of the preservation of food in a condition free from pests. From that point of view, the Bill has come at a most timely moment, when people are becoming more acutely conscious of the importance of the storing and the sale of food in as clean a condition as possible. One of the points about which we have not been very clear is the part which some of these pests have played in the contamination of food. For example, there are rats that carry the plague and cause a form of infective jaundice. Fortunately, that is a fairly rare condition and is not a source of great anxiety in this country. One recent discovery is that a number of the outbreaks of food poisoning which occur rather frequently are the result of infestation by mice. In one particular case which came to my knowledge some time ago, seventy-four people in a residential club or hostel were all taken ill with a somewhat violent form of food poisoning. It was not fatal, but they were taken sick. The infection in that case was traced to mice. It is important that we should take all the steps we can to keep down these pests. I do not want to attempt a definition of "infestation"—that is a difficult point—but we should try to see that infestation is kept down and that our food is kept free from it.

On the question of the destruction of rats and mice, I would point out that one of the particular methods widely used for such destruction is the use of the virus remedy called the "salmonella" group, which group itself causes most of the food poisoning. I am not sure that it is sensible that rats and mice should be killed by giving them a large dose of the germs with which they infect human-beings. I do not suggest that the sale of such remedies should be prohibited, but I think that efforts could be made to find a more satisfactory form of virus to kill these creatures—one which will not be so unpleasant, lethal and poisonous to people who may come in contact with it. I have nothing more to say on this Bill, except that I think it is, broadly speaking, one which we can warmly welcome.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I crave the opportunity of intervening thus early in the debate because I have a speaking engagement in the City at 5.30 o'clock. As most of my criticism can be dealt with on the Committee stage, I promise not to detain your Lordships unduly. First let me join with others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, most sincerely for his able, exhaustive and authoritative exposition of this Bill. He took it at short notice in the absence of a colleague. We all regret the cause of his colleague's absence, but we thank Lord Lucas for the way in which he has presented the Bill for our consideration. I do not propose to wander over all the ground covered by the Bill, because I am limited in time. If I were to deal with it more fully, I confess I should be tempted to draw attention to the fact that the War Office, through its camps, is one of the big culprits in this matter. However, I want to confine my remarks to the shipping and dock interests.

As a member of the Port of London Authority, there are two points I want especially to emphasise. The first is that it is crucial that directions given by the Minister shall not interfere with the unloading of cargoes from ships, the free passage of cargoes through post-transit sheds, and the uninterrupted use of essential post-warehouse accommodation. Secondly, in the case of dispute as to the party responsible for the cost of carrying out any directions of the Minister, responsibility, I submit, should be determined by a suitable appeal committee, appointed, I concede, by the Minister. May I suggest to the noble Lord in charge of the Bill that if he cannot persuade the Minister to incorporate such Amendments in the Bill, it may be that comparable safeguards could be provided in regulations, relaxing or excluding the requirements of Clause 14 of the Bill? Powers for the making of such Regulations are given to the Minister in Clause 14, subsection (4). I would also seek an assurance that the measures to be taken and the procedure to be adopted in relation to ships shall be settled only after consultation with the shipping industry.

I wish to raise one other point in reference to ships. It is one to which the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, referred. Clause 15, subsection 2 (c), gives power to the Minister of Agriculture to issue directions requiring the carrying out of structural works on ships. I submit that that is plainly a function quite outside his sphere and knowledge. Although I earned my living in the carrying trade, I confess that, after considering this Bill, I am thankful indeed that I am not a public warehouse-keeper. It is easy enough to make new provisions relating to the destruction of rats and mice in warehouses—and very essential, too, I agree. But, in my submission, it is beyond the wit of man to ensure that any one warehouse is preserved entirely free from this form of infestation. If you sealed up the whole waterside of the Port of London (which obviously would be impossible) there would be no sort of guarantee that within a few days—nay, within a few hours—of the clearance, infiltration and infestation would not take place by further inroads from the hinterland.

I am sorry, but, like the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, I am really very critical of this Bill from the dock and shipping interest standpoint. I cannot help feeling that this measure has not been given that careful thought and consideration that some of us expect from the Government. The problem with which the Bill deals does not seem to me to have been sufficiently thought through—for want of a better term. I would go further and say that, in my humble judgment, this Bill, at least so far as docks and riverside warehouses are concerned, is so astonishingly vague in the provisions for its operation, and so severe in its penalties, as to make it in practice, if not unworkable, as the noble Lord opposite suggested, at least exceedingly difficult even to attempt to operate.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to intervene for only a very few minutes indeed, in order to give support to my noble friend, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in the criticisms he has made of this Bill. I do not propose to allude to the particular topic with which the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, has dealt. There I think the case has been clearly made out for a drastic amendment of this measure. But I think there will be a number of points from the agricultural aspect also, to which attention should be most carefully directed when we reach the Committee stage. The noble Lord expressed the willingness of the Government to go into consultation with the industries concerned, and I trust that in drawing up the Regulations that apply to this Bill, for instance, with regard to threshing and taking down ricks, no Regulations will be passed without consultation with those who are best able to give advice—namely, the National Farmers' Union and the Central Landowners' Association. In that way, perhaps we shall be able to avoid some of those arbitrary mistakes made in some of the Regulations put forward by His Majesty's Ministers, and so not do the harm that might otherwise ensue.

On the general principle of the Bill I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that those of us who are concerned with the production of foodstuffs in this country, realising the appalling wastage that is brought about through the destruction of the available food by these pests, do welcome machinery which will increase the power for dealing with infestation—whatever may be the proper definition of that term, on which point I hope we shall also receive some enlightenment when the noble Lord comes to reply to this debate. All I wish to say, in conclusion, is that the agricultural interest is one of such importance and can be so easily adversely affected by the imposition of faulty Regulations, that I trust every consideration will be given to that point among many others which may be brought up in the course of the debate on the Committee stage.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, in the course of this debate, notice has been taken of the obligation imposed by Clause 4 upon owners of land, and it may interest your Lordships to be reminded of the definition of "owner." In the Interpretation clause of this Bill we find that Owner" has the same meaning as in the Public Health Act, 1936, or, in Scotland, the Public Health (Scotland) Act, 1897. I see, by referring to the Act of 1897—I have not had an opportunity of seeing the English Act, but I take it that the Scottish definition is similar to the English—that The word 'owner' means the person for the time entitled to receive, or who would, if the same were let, be entitled to receive, the rents of the premises, and includes a trustee, factor, tutor, or curator, and in case of public of municipal property applies to the persons to whom the management thereof is entrusted: This causes me to shake with anxiety, because I happen to be a trustee of a great number of charitable trusts, including colleges, schools, hostels for the poor and so on. If I am to be charged with the duty of getting rid of mice and rats on all those premises, my responsibility is clearly going to be of an alarming character.

But my principal object in rising is to call attention to the effect of Clause 3 of the Bill on the ordinary householder—I nearly said the ordinary "mouseholder," and I do not know that there is very much difference between the two terms. Which of your Lordships can lay your hand upon your heart and declare, upon your honour, that there are no mice in your house? The ordinary country householder, whose premises may not be on agricultural land—if they were he would be exempt—is placed in a most jeopardous position by Clause 3. My own premises are not on agricultural land, but they are surrounded by agricultural land, and the mice, with their terrible and lamentable ignorance of statutory definitions, infest my garden and my house just as if they were situated on agricultural land. When I say "infest" I must be very careful, because I do not know for certain what "infest" means. While I have tremendous confidence in the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and great admiration for his talents, I must say that I do not believe that even he is capable of giving a satisfactory definition.

It would be all very well if the position were as it used to be. Under the old Act the obligation on the householder was to make up his own mind as to whether his premises were or were not infested. He was bound to take steps to reduce what he, personally, might consider infestation. No one else's definition of the word came into the question. Now the householder must consider not what he would deem to be infestation but what the local pests officer might regard as infestation, or what the magistrate before whom he might appear for failure to notify might consider to be statutory infestation. I see that one of the dictionary definitions includes a reference to fear. That particular definition is, I think: the presence of pests in such quantities as to give rise to fear. I do not quite know how you would apply that in the case of mice; they can of course be very alarming little animals when they are present in great numbers. But I foresee that the pests officers of the district councils, to whom responsibility is transferred under this Bill, will have an exceedingly busy time every autumn.

I have noticed—and my neighbours can confirm this—that we always have much trouble, really serious trouble, after the harvest is over. The little creatures, deprived of their normal source of food, invade our houses—with results that are very alarming. Even this year I was seriously considering ringing up some local authority or other to give them the information that there were an alarming number of mice in my house. I am glad to say, however, that in a week or two my house, and the houses of my neighbours, if not clear of the menace, were at least reduced to their normal condition, in which the presence of mice is not very apparent. But if the consequences of this measure are generally realised, I believe there is a real danger that at the time of harvest a great number of householders will ring up their district councils. What effect will that have on the staffing problem as it affects those councils? I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, whether any estimate has been made as to the increase of staffs which this provision of the law will necessitate, especially as responsibility is being transferred from the county authorities to county boroughs and county districts. I presume that every county district will in future have to employ at least one pests officer; I am not at all sure that they will not have to employ more.

I have adopted a jocular tone in what I have said, but I would not like it to be thought for a moment that I am ignoring the very grave and serious peril with which this Bill is intended to deal. I know that strong legislation is required to deal with what is undoubtedly a most serious menace. But I am directing my attention to-day to these two points—the definition of "owner," who is referred to in Clause 4, and the inclusion of a reference to mice, in Clause 3. I ask His Majesty's Government to consider very carefully, in the first place, whether a more satisfactory definition of ownership cannot be arrived at for the purposes of Clause 4 and, secondly, whether they will not omit the word "mice" from Clause 3.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, may I first thank noble Lords for their very kind references to my noble friend Lord Huntingdon? I feel sure they will hearten him greatly when they are conveyed to him. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, for a most constructive and helpful speech. I can assure him that most careful attention will be paid to everything he has said. He began by asking me a question which I was afraid he would ask—that was, how I would define "infestation." As he went on, however, I gained courage, because eventually he found himself in the same difficulty as that in which I find myself. I do not know what definition to put on "infestation." Of course, I could say that infestation could be a given number of rats, at a given place, at a given time and under given conditions; and that what might be infestation in one case might not be infestation in another.

But surely, as the obligation is to notify, would it not appear to noble Lords that the best and safest course to pursue is to notify? That, I suggest, would be the best thing to do, because what might appear to the inexperienced layman to be a very simple matter might, on inspection by a competent officer, turn out to be the nucleus of a serious infestation.


Does a competent officer know what an infestation is?


I suggest that a competent officer, using a scientific knowledge, would know whether or not it was serious enough to tackle in a serious way.


I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I do not think we can let this go, because silence on this side of the House may be taken to mean assent with the noble Lord. Is he suggesting that directly anybody sees a rat or a mouse he should notify, and that then he will be on the right side of the law? Then someone will come along and either say, "All right, you need not worry; it is only a small family" or, alternatively, tell him, "There is a lot of breeding going on here; it is a menace." Or is the noble Lord suggesting that if there is no notification somebody is running the risk of offending against the law? I do not think his solution will work and I hope he will think again about the broad sugges tion I made—namely, that a definition of "infestation" should be included to make it clear that there is infestation if substantial damage to food is caused.


I was coming to that point; I had not finished by a long way. Surely common sense must play a part in this. Even people who see rats at times when they should not, have a certain amount of common sense. The noble Lord himself drew the analogy of mites in cheese. Where is the crossing-over point? When do mites in cheese cease to be a delectable morsel and become a pest? That depends on the palate. What might be a delectable morsel to the noble Lord, might be an infestation to my palate. How will the noble Lord get over that? It is a very difficult problem, but I think the noble Lord put forward something which could be, a working basis. The majority of the noble Lord's criticisms centre on Part II of the Bill. They raise such fundamental issues that I know the noble Lord will not expect me, on the spur of the moment, to give authoritative answers. I assure him that there were long and anxious consultations. Fifty food organisations were consulted—almost an infestation of food organisations—but evidently there are some which were left out. To those organisations I extend my regrets; and I would say that we are willing and, indeed, anxious to go into the whole of Part II, especially the clauses with which the noble Lord has dealt so ably, with him and any other noble Lords sitting opposite who will lend us their aid, and also with all the organisations who think they can make a useful contribution.

The noble Lord mentioned the question of the owner-occupier, which was also taken up by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh. I think the noble Lord has perhaps failed to see that under the Bill the owner is brought: into responsibility where the conditions are within his control. I do not suggest for one moment that the noble Earl could be held responsible for rats and mice in all the charitable institutions—and they are legion—of which he is a trustee. Regarding agricultural interests, it is provided in the Bill that there will be consultation with the county agricultural committees. Here, perhaps, I may also answer the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan. The Departments concerned with this Bill are the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, and from what I know of them, I cannot think that they would make regulations which might in any way affect adversely operations on any farm in this country without first consulting not only the National Farmers' Unions, but also the county agricultural committees and other agricultural organisations. I think noble Lords may rest assured that agricultural interests will be adequately safeguarded. In regard to threshing, which the noble Lord also mentioned, it will again be the Agricultural Ministers and not the local authorities who make these regulations, and I think that is sufficient safeguard.

In regard to the noble Lord's point about the further stages of the Bill, he may rest assured that due notice will be taken of what he has said and I have no doubt that he and I can leave the matter in safe hands. The noble Lord asked me: "Why the hurry?" It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the main purpose of this Bill is to make a real attempt to safeguard the nation's food. In my opening remarks, I emphasised that through infestation we are losing upwards of 2,000,000 tons of food a year. Surely that is the overriding consideration, and commercial interests on the other side of the scale cannot play an equal part. That is a point which I think noble Lords would do well to take into consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, spoke of the experience of the public health authorities in this work. Public health and this problem are indivisible and I am sure his observations will be studied in the appropriate quarter.

The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, raised the question of ships and docks, and we will consider the suggestions he made. I should add, in reply to the noble Lord, that the Ministry of Transport were consulted at all stages in the preparation of this Bill. I was very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, joined in this debate, if he will allow me to say so. I have never heard him speak except in a serious vein, and I thought his humorous contribution relieved the monotony of our debate about a very sordid subject. I think I have answered his point about owner or occupier. In regard to staff, I hope the noble Lord will not think I am trying to ride off his question, but let us find out how many rats there are before we say how many staff we require. I know he would be the first critic if the local authorities engaged a lot of pests officers, and that if the Civil Service was increased his condemnation would be even greater than it is on rats. I have tried, I hope not unsuccessfully, to answer all the questions which were raised. Once again, I thank noble Lords, and especially, if I may be allowed to say so, the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, for his very helpful contribution. I trust that your Lordships will now give this Bill a Second Reading.

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