HL Deb 01 April 1954 vol 186 cc933-9

4.9 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved. That the Bill be now read 3. —(Lord Carrington.)


My Lords, before the Bill leaves us, I should like to say that I very much hope that it will be a success: but this Bill to do away with rabbits cannot be a success unless it leads to a policy of extermination. If it fails in that, it is merely going to add a new body of administrators with all their powers of interference and patronage, who will be with us for ever and whose salaries will be an additional burden on industry. We want to get rid of the rabbits and keep them out. In addition, Lord Elton, by mere effluxion of time will gain his way, in which case we shall still have the rabbits, and we shall have to fight them with our hands tied behind us. It is therefore most important that the Bill should be a success.

In order to promote this, I have a suggestion to make to Her Majesty's Government which could be carried out much more appropriately in another place than in your Lordships House. I have told your Lordships before that in Scotland rabbits were imposed upon proprietors by the Government. I will show that clearly to your Lordships by quoting a Statute of 1503, in the reign of James IV, which says: Item it is statute and ordained anent policie to be halden in the cuntrie. that everilk Lorde and Laird … make them cunningares and dowcattes. I have told your Lordships already that I think they wished to provide some sort of meat diet for the poorer people in the winter, when the laird had his powdered beef. About a century and a half later, Sir George Mackenzie, in his notes on that Statute, said that he deduced from it that it was necessary by this Act to enable men to plant coney burrows—he has already said that there was no necessity really to put in dowcattes (that is, pigeon cotes) because there were already pigeons in the country; but he implies that there were not rabbits in the country to any great extent before that time—and I think he is right. Professor Fraser Darling, I believe, is the best living naturalist in Scotland. He indicates that there were not many rabbits before, I think, about 1565. Those of your Lordships who are historians will know very well that in the thirteenth century in England a rabbit cost more than a sheep, so there could not have been many rabbits in England at that time.

Therefore, we arrive at this position: that rabbits were imposed upon the country by the Government for the sake of the people. Of course when this Bill comes into operation in the great majority of cases it will benefit the landed proprietor. It will be to the benefit of the landed proprietor that the rabbit should be done away with. I agree with that. But there are places in the country where rabbits can be kept with perfect propriety without any damage being caused to neighbouring land. Their preservation, however, involves this difficulty. So long as you have rabbits in large numbers in any particular favoured place you will never get rid of rabbits in the country. Having got to that position, I suggest: to the Government that you cannot make the Act effective without everybody's good will; and where in the country you find people who have rabbits in proper rabbit warrens (I do not necessarily mean places used only for rabbits but proper places where rabbits can be kept without doing any damage to surrounding agricultural land) those who own these places should be compensated, and properly compensated, for the destruction of their rabbits. If a man is making a considerable sum of money annually out of his rabbits and he can do very little else with the land, you ought properly to compensate him if his rabbits are destroyed.

I put it this way. If the Government have imposed rabbits on the proprietors of land, therefore when the Government wish to do away with the rabbits it is only proper that they should pay compensation. It may be said that it was a long time ago that the imposition of the rabbits took place, but that is precisely why there are so many rabbits to deal with to-day. Having said that, I think I have made my point, and I hope the Government will consider this matter. I am sure that unless you have the good will of everyone in the country for the destruction of rabbits you will never succeed in achieving it. If this Bill fails I think it is very doubtful that any other Bill will succeed at a later date.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to add to what we on this side of the House said during the early stages of this Bill, but I should just like to say how delighted we are to see Lord Carrington back in his place after his illness, and how much we thank him for the eloquent speech which he omitted on Third Reading.


My Lords, may I say one word. I should not like to follow Lord Saltoun in his historical references, but to me at any rate it is some compensation to know that rabbits were imposed on Scotland. It is some compensation, I think, for the way in which Scotland has imposed on Englishmen all down the centuries.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I have not thought it right to move any further Amendments during the later stages of this Bill, because, under whatever guise I moved them, I should only have been raising the issue which, for the time being, at any rate, was settled when the Amendment I moved to Clause 8 in Committee was defeated. I should like, however, to offer my respectful congratulations to Her Majesty's Government on having so appropriately selected this, of all Bills, to receive its Third Reading on All Fools' Day. For this, after all, is nominally an anti-Pests Bill; in spite of which, by according an indefinite further extension of life to the gin-trap, it inevitably legalises for a further indefinite period the practice of commercial trapping, which can incontrovertibly be shown to result in the multiplication and diffusion of the rabbit pest. Moreover beneath the licensed buffoonery of All Fools' Day in the Middle Ages there was always apt to be an undertone of melancholy—as the melancholy of most of Shakespeare's fools is sufficient to remind us. And that note, too, is eminently appropriate to a measure which unnecessarily legalises for a further indefinite period the excruciating torture every year of several millions of living creatures of a great variety of kinds; and which, further. unnecessarily affronts the conscience of a large and rapidly growing number of citizens and voters.

I hope, therefore, that before the measure reaches another place the Minister of Agriculture will find it possible to consider the case against the gin-trap more carefully than, I must confess, it appeared to have been considered by the noble Earl, who, through no fault of his own, found himself in charge of the Bill in Committee. For the noble Earl certainly seemed to be still labouring under the delusion that the case against the gin is solely an affair of the heart. I hope, therefore, that the Minister, before it is too late, will realise that our case, on the contrary, is very much an affair of the head, emanating, as it does, from a group of hard-headed scientists, and supported, as it is, by large and growing numbers of hard-headed landowners and farmers, who have convinced themselves by experience that it is quite pointless to wait to abolish the gin until a humane substitute is 100 per cent. perfected, for the simple reason that neither the gin- trap nor the humane trap has any necessary place in a genuine rabbit clearance scheme—as distinct from that unashamed rabbit-farming about which my noble friend, Lord Saltoun, has just been speaking.

I hope, also, that before this measure is introduced in another place the Minister may think fit to investigate the mysterious cross-currents of opinion which seem to diversify the otherwise placid surface of his own Ministry. It certainly would seem that a spirit not wholly alien to All Fools Day must be abroad in a Ministry some of whose officials, it must be presumed, are advising the Minister that it is not safe to abolish the gin until there is a perfectly efficient humane substitute, while others are spending public money on printing, reprinting and distributing an article which roundly assures the public — of what is undoubtedly the truth— that neither the gin nor the humane trap has any necessary place in a genuine rabbit clearance scheme.

Finally, I would say that as this measure is about to leave your Lordships' House I find some encouragement in the fact that both the official Labour Party and the official Liberal Party supported our Amendment to Clause 8, and I would warmly thank the noble Lords on both Benches opposite. As for the big battalions of the Conservative Party who came in and voted us down at the sound of the Division Bell, I would say that if they will only study the case against the gin impartially and carefully I have little doubt that before long they too will see the light, and they too will be helping us to abolish a practice which is a disgrace to a Christian country.

4.20 p.m


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed just to thank my noble friend Lord De La Warr for taking both the Committee and Report stages of this Bill at very short notice, owing to the fact that I was ill. I am particularly grateful to him, for he had all the difficult stages whilst I have had all the easy ones. In spite of that, however, I cannot help thinking that he was glad, after a lapse of about two and a half years, to have the opportunity of once again speaking. in your Lordships' House on an agricultural matter. I should also like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for what he said about me. I am afraid that I must say a few words in reply to the two speeches which the noble Lords behind me made.

With reference to what my noble friend Lord Saltoun said, I am sure that we on listened with interest: to his remarks and his suggestion. As a race we are traditionalists and as a Government we are. Conservatives but I assure the noble Lord that since 1503 the policy of the Government has changed and we no longer wish to encourage people to keep rabbits. The whole object of the Bill is to try to eliminate the rabbit, as a pest, and although the Bill does not state in so many worth that we should exterminate the rabbit, we shall do all we can to get rid of as many as possible; and if we manage to exterminate them in some areas, so much the better. But it is not going to be quite so easy as my noble friend expects.

As regards the compensation for landowners and farmers which he suggested. before the Government brought forward the Bill, and before ever it was printed, we consulted farmers' and landowners' organisations and we have their full support in the action we propose to take in this Bill. We were quite certain, before we introduced the Bill, of their co-operation in helping us to get rid of the rabbit. As any noble friend has said, if landowners. farmers and occupiers do their work and get rid of the rabbits, they will be amply compensated for the trouble they have taken by the increased yield of their crops and the decrease in the damage to fields and trees. I do not think it can be said too often that in this country rabbits are a pest, and that it is the duty of every landowner and occupier to get rid of as many of them on his farm and estate as he can.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, has fired a last salvo at the Bill as it leaves this House. I think the salvo was directed more at those who sit in another place than at noble Lords present this afternoon. We all respect and sympathise with the noble Lord's views— indeed. I sometimes think that we sympathise with, and respect, his views rather more than he respects ours; and on this occasion there was no difference. We respected and sympathised with his views, in spite perhaps of the day on which he chose to make his speech. We are all agreed that the gin- trap is cruel and we all want to abolish it: all that divides us is a matter of timing. As the Department responsible for food production and for this Bill, we feel that we could not agree to ban the use of the gin- trap until an equally efficient humane substitute has been found. I assure the noble Lord that when it has been found, and if at that time we are still responsible for the affairs of the Departments of Agriculture, we shall take the first opportunity of bringing into force the appropriate provisions of this Bill. But as we have not yet found such a substitute, I am certain that your Lordships are wise to send this Bill to another place in its present form.

On Question, Bill read 3.

Clause 2 [Extension of power to require or assist in preventive measures]:


My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment standing on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lord Home. It is purely a drafting Amendment.

Amendment moved—

Page 5. line 1. leave out the second ("the") and insert ("any ").—(Lord Carrington.)


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord's Amendment, and in doing so to express the hope that the noble Lord will read the two speeches made this afternoon. I do not think the noble Lord really answered the point I made.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Amendments (privilege) made: Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.