Help] Call in the rat-catcher

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The Independent Online
UNTIL two weeks ago my experience of rats was restricted to Samuel Whiskers and his greedy efforts to turn a frightened Tom Kitten into a roly-poly pudding. Then, just as reports of India's rat-borne plague were taking over the front pages, I went downstairs to make breakfast, only to find large splinters of wood by the larder door.

Something very aggressive appeared to have been chewing the door frame. But because life in Victorian houses is never smooth, I collected the bits of wood in a saucer and shrugged it off. Next morning I found that half a large loaf, left on the bread bin to defrost overnight, had been devoured. So had two large apples in the fruit bowl. The evidence was inescapable and, frankly, horrifying: we had rats.

In near panic we called the local council, only to find that Southwark no longer operates a free vermin-control service for owner-occupiers. Shocked, I rang the council 's press office to find out whether this could be true at a time when it is acknowledged that Britain has a rat problem caused by the milder climate and drain systems left unbaited. A survey being compiled by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health suggests a sharp rise in rat infestation: up 39 per cent since 1979. All the concerned bodies are calling for decisive, nationally co-ordinated government action.

The press office told me that it was true: they had scrapped the free service last year as an economy measure - with all the pressures on council resources, they couldn't afford it. The press officer said she had just discovered her own house had rats as well. We swapped notes and discovered we had both responded in the same way, by planning to call in private-sector rat-catchers who lay bait for a fee. But supposing we were broke?

Yet the council was within its rights: under the 1949 Control of Damage by Pests Act, local authorities do not have a duty to provide a pest-control service to property owners, only to inspect the area periodically, and serve notices on owner-occupiers to rid their homes or land of vermin. So I rang the adjoining council, Lambeth, to see if they had a free rat-control service. The answer was yes.

I then tried to find out whether Southwark was unique. And here I ran into an alarming wall of ignorance. No one appears to know how many councils have stopped providing vermin control services. But here are some clues.

Only two-thirds have apparently responded to the Environmental Health Institute's survey. The government scientist collating the rat report at the Central Science Laboratory, Adrian Meyer, guessed that 'a dozen or two' had withdrawn the service: my council was not unique. Cipfa (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy), which gathers statistics on local authority services and finances, has no breakdown, neither do the various local authority associations.

Bob Saunders, head of borough environmental services for Wigan Metropolitan Council, which does offer free destruction of rats, says authorities including his own have been taking a hard look at whether to cut services in the past four years. His personal view is that rat-catching is one of the basic things councils should do, along with collecting the rubbish. We don't have plague in Britain, but rats do carry disease and are associated with outbreaks of food poisoning, salmonella, and Weil's disease (leptospirosis), which attacks the kidneys and can cause death.

And Mr Saunders made an astute point. While most people are happy to deal with mice in the house, they never accept that rats are 'their' problem. Rats come in from gardens, or the drains, and are by nature free-ranging. This makes them a community problem. If not dealt with they will probably spread along a street and, since rats certainly don't acknowledge council boundaries, they can spread from the haven of one borough, which doesn't crack down, to another which does.

Between 3 and 4 per cent of properties are currently infested, spread equally between large towns and the countryside, so there is time to take sensible action. Councils should destroy rats as a basic service. Here is one very important public health reform requiring urgent parliamentary attention.

ALL women are brought up on a diet of magazine articles that feature apparently ordinary readers who are given a professional make-over. You see the before and after pictures, compare the new hairstyle with the old, the softer pink lipstick and admire the new wardrobe colour. The appeal of such articles is simple: they hold the Cinderella message that if only you had the time, access to professionals and the budget, you too could be transformed. This is why Cherie Booth's new image strikes such a chord: we would all love to be in her shoes. Having seen her in the flesh, I know she can look haunted and gaunt - as tired as any other working mother. If she can emerge as a glowing, having-it- all, fulfilled mother of three, career woman and wife of a furiously busy politician, then perhaps all those magazine articles were true. And it can happen to me and you, too?