HL Deb 15 February 1989 vol 504 cc171-3

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are concerned about the increasing rat population throughout Great Britain, and the risk of diseases spread by rodents.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, there is anecdotal evidence to support the view that rat populations are higher than average following two relatively mild winters. The main communicable disease associated with rats in this country is Weil's disease, which can be contracted by contact with water contaminated with their urine.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that rather vague Answer. Does he agree that there is great concern about rats among the public which has been handed down through history from the time of the plagues which swept through Asia and Europe? Can he give an assurance to the House that there are enough rat control officers throughout the country? If he cannot give that assurance can he get it from the Department of the Environment? It is not only Weil's disease which is carried by rats, but also hepatitis and salmonella, among many other diseases.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have sympathy with the points made by my noble friend. Rats are extremely unattractive rodents. As regards their control, water authorities have responsibility for raw water control, and local authorities are responsible for public health and pest control. Expenditure specifically on the control of rats will vary from one local authority to another according to local conditions.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the increase in the number of rats is due mainly to the very poor condition of sewers, particularly in London? Will the Minister say whether any money will be found for repairs to those sewers and to kill those bloody rats?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can inform the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, that water authorities spent about £308 million in 1987–88 on building new sewers and rehabilitating the existing system. That is an increase of 30 per cent. in real terms over 1981–82. However, that is unlikely to have much direct effect on the rat population or the risks from leptospirosis.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his answers give the impression that one department is passing the buck to another as to the responsibility for doing something about keeping rats out of the sewers? Is there no way of coordinating action so that responsibility is truly recognised?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I do not accept that this is a matter of co-ordination. It is for each local authority to be aware of an increase in rats in its area, if that is the case, and to take the necessary action.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, can the Government either permit or encourage the manufacturers of rat poison to pep up their product? I have spent pounds and pounds on it and the Orkney rats simply love it. It is full of bran and what it needs is more poison.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, regarding the point of the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, about rat poison, and in particular with regard to Warfarin, rats do not become immune in the medical sense of the word, but they inherit resistance. For the control of rats in sewers both fluoracetamide and brodifacoum are available for use. Where Warfarin resistance occurs, rats can be controlled by the second generation anticoagulant rodenticides: difenacoum, bromadiolone, brodifacoum and flocoumafen.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that rats can pollute water in fish farm ponds and so could cause Weil's disease and possibly salmonella to be passed on via the fish to the unfortunate British eater?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, there is no evidence that rats are a threat to the quality of the drinking water supply. As regards salmonella, the information that we have from this country, Australia, the Far East, the Middle East and the United States of America suggests that in general 5 per cent. of rodents are infected with salmonella. But it is the faeces rather than the urine which has been examined. There is little evidence that rats are a source of salmonella.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should bear in mind the mild winter, and that there are now far fewer predators to eat the rats, especially country rats? However, the really dangerous rat is the black rat which started the plague and is prevalent in sewers.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I think that I can only agree with my noble friend who is presumably a greater expert than I, particularly on the black rat.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, will the Minister elaborate on the reply that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls? Will the risk of rats spreading salmonella and the lethal Weil's disease be tackled by the recently-announced inquiry under the Prime Minister's chairmanship into the whole question of food hygiene and public health? How quickly will that inquiry report? I have another question for the Minister: if it becomes necessary to find a pied piper to catch rats in order to protect public health, are the Government prepared to pay his bill or will they insist that it be paid by the consumer, by industry or by anybody other than Mrs. Thatcher's Government?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I think that that question is somewhat wide of the subject. We shall have to wait until the inquiry has been completed.

Baroness David

My Lords, will the Minister say whether the Water Bill (which is being debated in Committee in another place) will address the matter of responsibility for rodent control? Will the water companies that are to be set up have that responsibility?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, regarding the privatisation of water, any outside pollution will be very much taken into consideration.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House how the increase in the rat population relates to the proliferation of plastic rubbish bags which have replaced the relatively rat-proof old-fashioned rubbish bins?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, local authorities have the necessary powers to deal with rats: but prevention is better than cure. The Government cannot emphasise strongly enough the need for secure waste management practices by all sectors of society. Poor waste management, especially of food waste, attracts rats. Waste should be put into the proper, appropriate waste stream—refuse bags should be properly tied up, and litter bins made available, and so on—and not discarded indiscriminately, irresponsibly and illegally as litter/or dumping.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is it possible to make the tenant or owner responsible for killing rats on his premises? Far too many people just ignore them. Surely we should make people legally responsible for killing rats on their own premises.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I was not quite sure whether the noble Lord said "legally responsible" or "illegally responsible".

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I said "legally responsible".

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is obviously the duty of the person whose premises are affected by rats to get in touch with his or her local authority.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, does the noble Earl recollect that in the years immediately before the war there was an annual event in the calendar known as national rat week? Will the noble Earl look into the history of that event and see whether it is time that it was revived?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I shall certainly have a look at that event; but I cannot promise that it will be revived.