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Lord Kennet: My Lords, do I understand from that Answer that there is the same degree of compulsion on all local authorities to take action? Are the Government aware, for instance, that if there is a street-long infestation of mice in Westminster, involving a number of houses, one cannot get the council to do anything about it? However, if such a problem occurs in Brent, one can. Is it not paradoxical that one of the richest boroughs should be unwilling or unable to help while one of the poorest is willing and able? Can the Government use their powers to even things out?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, all local authorities are under the same requirements. If householders singularly or collectively have a problem, the local authority should investigate it under the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act. If it is a public health problem, there are other provisions under the Environmental Protection Act. However, all local authorities should deal with the issue with the same degree of urgency. It is fully the responsibility of the local authority. I therefore concur with the noble Lord.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the City of Westminster the council provides a free service? I must declare an interest, having found a rat resident in my garden on my return from Australia. Westminster Council not only sent a person to deal with the problem; he came back to check several times afterwards. I was informed that the service was provided free to residents but not

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to businesses. Perhaps a full street should have acted through individual households applying to the council.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the responsibilities are the same under the statutes but the charging regime will differ from authority to authority. it is certainly the case that had those householders individually or collectively applied, the local authority was bound to respond. As I understand the noble Baroness, that would have been a free service in the case of Westminster and many other local authorities. However, the charging aspect is a matter for each local authority.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should be cautious about imposing additional duties on local authorities, particularly a duty of mouse hunting? Should not more thought be given to whether we should be creating a power for local authorities better to promote the well-being of their areas?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Nothing I have said suggests that we should impose any further duties on local authorities; they have those responsibilities already. As with other issues, it may be that local authorities, under the legislation we envisage, will find better ways of fulfilling their responsibilities. That may be business for your Lordships to consider during the next Session.

The Earl of Limerick: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware--I am sure he is not--that recently I lost my telephone in central London for a week, that being the time it took engineers to discover that the guilty parties were rats which had eaten the cable under the pavement? Does the Minister share my surprise at the recent estimate that the rat population of Notting Hill may exceed the human population? Does he have any comparative statistics on the population of rats in other London boroughs, including Westminster?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I was neither aware of the specific incident nor the population count in the area the noble Earl described. I assume there was no overlap between the two counts. There remains a large rodent population in the city and elsewhere. However, the last detailed survey on this matter did not suggest that in total there was a general increase in rats and mice. Another survey is being carried out, the results of which will be complete by the end of this year.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the responsibility on councils in relation to rats extends to "tree rats", which do so much damage? They are perhaps otherwise known as grey squirrels.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this House spent some hours debating grey squirrels, certainly in regard to their being vermin. Other measures are available to local authorities and landowners to try and limit the incursion of the grey squirrel. However, it is a slightly different topic to that raised by this Question.

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Lord Lucas: My Lords, am I right in thinking that the Government still permit the use of mouse papers? For those noble Lords who do not know, they are sticky pads put out to catch mice. When a mouse puts its foot on it, it gets stuck. Frequently the mouse will tear itself free leaving a limb or some other body part behind or, if it remains stuck, will take many hours to die. Do not the Government feel that that is an unreasonable level of cruelty to impose on a pest species?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, all I can tell the House is that the normal method of tackling infestations of mice and rats nowadays is not as described by the noble Lord, nor indeed through traps. It is through the laying of bait and poison. Such practices therefore, would be extremely limited if they were still permitted. I shall need to write to the noble Lord on the precise point.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is there not a method whereby householders could deal with their own rats and mice?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am sure there is.

National Insurance Contributions

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What proposals they have for capping national insurance contributions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, no national insurance contributions are paid by employees above the level of the upper earnings limit which will be set at £535 in 2000-01 and £575 in 2001-02. The upper profits limit which sets the point at which the self-employed cease to pay contributions will be comparable. From 2000 to 2001, there will be no national insurance contributions payable on earnings less than £76 a week, although deemed contributions will be credited for earnings over £67.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Is it not a fact that yesterday the Chancellor told us that the national insurance contribution of employers is to be cut by 0.3 per cent in order to placate the business community for the climate change levy? That will deplete the fund to the tune of £1.7 billion. Does not that compare unhappily with the £300 million, which is all the Government are prepared to pay to pensioners for the free TV licence, which we all welcome? Why should pensioners see their fund depleted in order to satisfy the Government's relationship with the business community? Is it not hypocritical for the Government to tell us, as they have done over the past few weeks, that they cannot afford to restore the earnings link--the one thing that pensioners want more than anything as of right in the

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uprating of their pensions--and at the same time to deplete the National Insurance Fund to the tune of £1.7 billion?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Chancellor made a number of announcements yesterday, one of which certainly was that in order to maintain and improve the effectiveness of the climate change levy there would be a small reduction in employers' national insurance contributions. But he also announced the total amount of benefits for pensioners over the period of this Parliament, which is a figure of £4 billion. That is a significant improvement in the standard of living of pensioners in this country. My noble friend is not right to say that it is simply the pensioners' money which goes into the National Insurance Fund. Retirement pensions account for 78 per cent of the benefits from the National Insurance Fund, but incapacity benefit accounts for 17 per cent; widows' pensions account for 2 per cent; JSA accounts for 1 per cent; and there are other smaller amounts.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, will the Minister accept that many people take precisely the opposite view to that of the noble Baroness, Lady Castle? They support a shift of taxation away from employment and on to non-renewable energy. We object to the announcement yesterday by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there would be a lower level of reduction in NICs than that originally proposed at 0.5 per cent and a lower level of energy tax.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, so far as it goes, I am grateful for what the noble Lord says. It has been agreed in all parts of the political spectrum that we must honour our legal obligations under the Kyoto agreements for the climate change levy. As to how that is achieved, the Chancellor announced yesterday that the reduction in employers' national insurance contributions was sufficient not only to maintain the targets previously set, but also to improve on them, together with taking the other measures that he announced.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not there are plans to introduce means testing in respect of other contributory benefits in addition to those already covered by the recently debated Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords my noble friend is asking me to speculate about future announcements. If announcements were to be made about benefits or taxes, they would be made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not from this Dispatch Box.

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