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Poisons (Amendment) Rules

Volume 446: debated on Wednesday 28 January 1948

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11.4 p.m.

I beg to move,

"That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Rules, dated 28th November, 1947, entitled the Poisons (Amendment) Rules, 1947 (S.R. & O., 1947, No. 2555), a copy of which was presented on 4th December, be annulled."
This order is to amend the Poisons Rules which the Secretary of State for the Home Department is entitled to make under the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, 1933, the object of which is to regulate the circumstances in which deadly poisons can be made available to the public. The difficulty which the House is confronted with in dealing with this order is one which arises somewhat regularly from the difficulties the House is faced with in its job of controlling—or attempting to control—delegated legislation. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, in his usual courteous manner, has informed me that this Order has been under consideration by the Select Committee on Statutory Rules and Orders. No report has yet been made to the House, but if the House is to discuss this matter at all it has to do so now owing to the fact that under the Act under which the order is made, there is a period of 30 days during which it can be discussed and that has all but expired. I venture to stress that point as showing the difficulty in which the House is placed by reason of its wholly inadequate powers to control delegated legislation.

The order has a number of paragraphs, but I only desire to trouble the House by reference to one, the third, under the second part of which the right hon. Gentleman is given power to authorise other persons to authorise still other persons to obtain up to four ounces of strychnine for the purpose of poisoning seals. [Laughter.] I am sorry to think that hon. Gentlemen opposite should regard as particularly humorous a subject which, so far as I know, owing to the fact that seals have not so far expressed their political views, does not raise any party issue. The quantity of strychnine involved, four ounces, is, in fact, a somewhat formidable amount, which hon. Members will better appreciate when they realise that it means 750 grains, and the fatal human dose is somewhat under half a grain. The amount is enough to kill 3,500 people, say, roughly a brigade, and it is a substantial amount, of this extremely deadly and dangerous poison which is involved.

Under this order the persons authorised by the right hon. Gentleman have power to issue this poison for the purpose of killing seals without any geographical limitation as to where it should be used, but simply provides that these seals may be killed in any place authorised by the persons with the authorising power, and so far as the House is concerned, anywhere in the world. It is fair to say that a similar power was given during the late war, in 1941, under a provisional order, but I would ask the House in considering this matter to bear in mind that what may or may not be justifiable at the height of a great war, and at a time when ordinary fishery precautions were less practicable and far more dangerous than usual, is not necessarily justifiable in times of peace. This order takes substantially, and with slight variations, the powers in that wartime emergency measure, and it makes it a permanent part of our peacetime law on the control of poisons.

I would submit that what the House is considering now is whether that is to be part of our permanent law on this subject. It does involve a change in the peace-time policy of this House. It was only a few years, before the late war, that this House was engaged on legislation not for the purpose of killing seals, but for protecting them. No longer ago than 1932, by the Grey Seals Protection Act, a provision was made to protect this breed of animal which is now to be exposed to such an amount of destruction as the right hon. Gentleman may, from time to time, consider appropriate.

As I mentioned, the right hon. Gentleman has been good enough to correspond with me on this matter, and he points out, as may be pointed out on behalf of the Government this evening, that if the order is annulled the effect will simply be to revive the war-time order. That, of course, is technically accurate, but I do not think it is material to the consideration of this issue. If the House does resolve that the practice of the use of strychnine for the poisoning of seals ought to be deprecated, and this Motion is carried, I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman, as a believer in constitutional democracy, will take the necessary steps to implement the expressed wish of the House. So I hope we can discuss this matter on its merits, without being troubled too much by the innumerable technicalities which appear always to surround questions of delegated legislation.

I would put this point to the right hon. Gentleman. Accepting, if one must, that the seal is on occasion a nuisance to fishermen and fisheries, the question still remains whether it is the right method of dealing with the nuisance to inflict a painful death on the seals through the use of strychnine. I submit that the use of strychnine for poisoning what is a very high grade mammal—the seal is an animal of considerable sensitivity to pain, and not what we regard as a low type—is a method cruel in itself and extraordinarily inefficient. As I understand it, as a result of inquiries, the method adopted is to insert a large dose of strychnine into some fish—often, I believe a herring—and then to anchor the herring off the coast in some place where, it is hoped, the seal will eat it. The inefficiency of that method is apparent, seeing there is no guarantee that the seal will eat it. It may be some other fish, even a fish used for human consumption. Alternatively, the herring may remain some time and the strychnine be largely washed out of it because of the action of the sea water, with the result that the seal may not eat a fatal dose. It is a clumsy method and I would ask the House to appreciate the difference between this and the simpler method of putting poisoned cheese in a mouse trap. It is an altogether different medium, used in a different way.

It is for the House to consider whether it is right to inflict considerable pain on these animals merely for the purpose of stopping the depredations of seals upon fisheries. This was a wartime order, and until the war intervened we had got on without resort to this method. It is the tradition of the people of this country to abominate and prevent unnecessary cruelty. I would ask the House, if it be urged that this is a convenient method of dealing with seals, to observe, by way of comparison, that there are other animals which inflict some injury on human economic interests which it has never been suggested should be dealt with by poisoning with strychnine. I understand that in the New Forest the ponies inflict a certain amount of damage. It would, I am sure, be considered an outrage if it were suggested that strychnine should be laid to poison those animals to prevent the damage they do. I would ask the House to apply this principle, which all opinion in this country would apply to that case, to the seal, which this House has on occasions, in 1914 and 1932, taken legislative steps to protect.

Therefore, I urge upon whoever is to reply for the Government tonight to consider whether the infliction of serious pain on these animals by this clumsy and inefficient method is really justified by whatever convenience this method may afford to those responsible. I do hope that the Government will appreciate that there is a good deal of feeling in this country against the adoption of this method, and that whatever may be our difficulties in the major matters which assail us in these days, the very sound tradition of our people is to resent intensely the infliction of unnecessary cruelty. It is in the hope that by the raising of this matter unnecessary cruelty may be prevented that I beg to move this Prayer.

11.16 p.m.

I beg to second the Motion.

Do not let it be thought that in moving the annulment of this order we are against the control of poisons. We are not. We believe, as the right hon. Gentleman believes, that injurious poisons should be controlled. I should like to ask what we can do, as Members of this House, when a Select Committee, whose duty it is to study these rules and orders, has not yet had an opportunity of reporting upon this order that we have to pray against within a limited time and before the Report of the Select Committee has been made apparent to the House.

Would the hon. Gentleman allow me to interrupt him in the interests of accuracy? I can inform the House that the Select Committee considered this matter at its last meeting on Tuesday, and decided that there was no need to report it to the House.

I am glad to hear that, because I think the House at the moment has no knowledge of what happened in the Select Committee or of its Report upon this order.

On a point of Order. If the Select Committee have not reported to the House, is it not out of order to refer to what has happened?

Yes. We have no knowledge of what the Select Committee is to report unless it has reported. However, I am informed that the Committee did report yesterday, although I am afraid the report has not reached us.

I apologise, if the report was made yesterday. However, I still humbly submit that no Member of the House, except those who are also members of the Select Committee, has any knowledge yet of the report of the Select Committee, because it has not yet been published. It is rather a curious constitutional point that, although we have a Select Committee whose duty it is to examine these statutory rules and orders, we have to debate this order which has not yet been reported upon by the Committee.

The point of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) about cruelty, and the use of strychnine to kill seals must be obvious to all Members. If the order started off with, "First catch your seal and then give him an overdose of strychnine," then I think there might be some sense in it, but, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, that is not the case. The order provides that sufficient strychnine is to be issued to kill a large number of human beings, and all sorts of indefinite and bad methods are to be used to kill these seals. We abominate cruelty to animals in this country, and I feel that we should have some very satisfactory explanation of the reason for this order or the order should be withdrawn and another submitted to replace an order which was made law simply during the war.

11.21 p.m.

I rise to put a further argument which I think may be worth putting in favour of the annulment of this order. Presumably a poisoned seal has to be washed up somewhere eventually; therefore, it is clear that, let alone the danger to domestic animals, there may well be danger to human beings if, as my hon. Friend says, there is enough strychnine in one seal to kill hundreds of human beings, because human beings may be only too glad to find a fresh seal washed up on the beach.

11.22 p.m.

This order has been attacked on a rather narrow front. I understand the criticisms are limited to the third rule and to the second part of that rule, which affects seals. I fully appreciate the motives which actuated the hon. Gentleman in raising this matter. I think he was very wise to say in his opening remarks that he was not going to emphasise too strongly the procedure of delegated legislation in this case, because, of course, the Act which authorises rules to be made in this way was passed in 1933.

He also said that, so far as he was aware, we had got on quite well without this in the past. I should like to correct, or, at any rate, modify this, because I am informed that up to the time when the 1935 rules came into force at the beginning of 1936–the first rules under the 1933 Act—it had been the common practice to use this method of poisoning by strychnine against seals, and it was only after the rules came into force that some other method had to be found. In the comparatively brief period after 1936, when it was no longer permissible to use strychnine, various attempts were made to find other methods. An attempt was made to use arsenic, but it was found unsuccessful. An attempt was made to reduce the seal population by rifle fire, but that was found to be extremely difficult. It required a very high standard of marksmanship. Most Members would agree that there would be a great deal of useless suffering caused by insufficiently good marksmanship.

There is a further point. Any new methods such as those suggested are rendered inappropriate in comparison with the method proposed to be employed under these rules, because I am informed that what causes the damage to the fisheries is not necessarily the large number of seals. Attacks made on salmon in nets are not made by the majority of seals. It is a comparatively rare thing for a seal to go for salmon in a net. That is the reason why, under the provisional rules—made in 1941 in this instance—it has been necessary in only very rare cases—34 in all, I am told—to use this method. But it does happen that what I will call a "pirate" seal discovers that there is easy hunting if he gets into one of these fixed salmon nets, and he thereupon acquires that particular habit. The damage which he causes may be very serious. It is not merely a question of killing the salmon, though that is a loss to the fishermen; but the seal gets inside the net, and is powerful enough, having had his feed, to break out. In doing so, he destroys the net. Incidentally, at the same time he releases the other salmon which he has not devoured. It is the damage to the net which is the important feature.

I am informed that the manner in which the strychnine is used is, as the hon. Gentleman said, for it to be inserted into a fish, normally, I believe, a salmon. That fish is then inserted inside the fixed net, so that there is no question of any seal which does not attack the fixed nets being poisoned by the strychnine. By this method the seals are got rid of—that is the small proportion which are causing the damage—and no danger is caused to the life of seals outside the fixed nets. It was suggested that poisoned seals might be washed up. I would not say that such a thing might not happen, but I am informed that what usually happens is that the seal eats the poisoned fish inside the net, and dies rapidly inside the net. The common thing is, indeed, to find the dead seal when the net is brought in. If hon. Members have followed my explanation they will see that poisoning by this method does not menace the population of seals as a whole. It is difficult to conceive any other way in which these few troublesome pests can be tackled without damage being done to others.

In conclusion, I would emphasise that damage to these fisheries is not at all an unimportant matter. I am told that about boo tons of salmon a year are caught by this type of fishing, that there are serious losses and that, in particular cases, this trouble can cause a notable diminution in fish supplies. Authorisation to grant these permits has been allowed by my right hon. Friend to only a few senior officials of the Scottish Home Department. I am told that only four individuals have exercised this power to grant permits, so there is a very close control over the use of strychnine for this purpose. The danger of any animal, let alone any person, other than the offending seals, suffering from this procedure is almost negligible. It is a method which has been proved effective. No other method proved effective between 1936 and 1940 when request was made that the rule should be amended. Although the request was made during wartime I do not think it would be fair to say that it was made particularly on account of war conditions. It was done because after a trial period of about three years or so no efficient alternative had been found, the food situation was serious and the need to conserve fish was great. I do not think the House would suggest that this is less necessary now.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down would he answer one point? He has put up a very good defence, but he has also suggested a limitation in practice both as to the number of persons authorised to use the poison, and as to the circumstances in which the poison may be used. No such limitation appears in the order, and I would ask if it is not possible to devise an order of somewhat less wide scope than this so that the safeguards may be clearly stated and not left merely dependent on the discretion of a Minister.

I think that that is an argument which might well have been adduced in 1933, but when a procedure of this kind is adopted, it might well be left to the discretion of a Minister. I would assure the hon. Gentleman that no Minister would grant these things in an irresponsible way. I think the record of both my right hon. Friend's predecessors, and my right hon. Friend himself, bears out that contention. I do not think any concern need be felt on that score.

Question put, and negatived.