THOUSANDS of people are set to see the return of Basingstoke and Deane's free rat-catcher - thanks to pensioner power.

Officers are recommending that Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council reinstates a free rat-control service for the over-65s, and leaders are unlikely to oppose the move.

The proposed U-turn follows pressure from nearly 500 senior citizens - some of whom had resorted to using air guns and dogs to deal with rats - who raised a petition in February calling for the return of the service, which had been free for everyone until April 2007.

Since last year's changes, only people receiving pension credit, housing benefit and low-income support have been able to access the free service.

After hearing about the recommendation, petition organiser Pat Lambourne, 76, of Whitedown Road, Tadley, said: "It would be absolutely wonderful if it happened.

"Our problem started in January and we are still putting down poison. We will be one of the first to be calling on the services of the rat-catcher."

A report prepared for Thursday's meeting of the environment overview committee by Emma Broom, the council's head of environmental care, states there is no evidence that the rat population is increasing.

But it recognises that some pensioners in need have no access to the free service because about 40 per cent do not claim pension credit.

Means-testing is not a cost-effective solution, it states.

The report adds: "In light of this, it is recommended that a free rat-treatment service should be provided to older people over the age of 65, while the national campaign to raise the take-up of pension credit takes place."

According to the report, the situation should be reviewed in 18 months after the completion of the Department for Work and Pensions campaign.

Councillor Elaine Still, outgoing Cabinet member for the environment, told The Gazette in February that she would be "the first one to hold my hand up" if the administration had made a mistake.

However, on Friday, Cllr Still said she would not do that because the Cabinet had made the right decision with the evidence it had, but a subsequent review had proved that not all pensioners claimed the pension credit they were entitled to.

"Therefore, we are proposing to offer a free rat-control service to anyone over the age of 65," she said.

Her successor as environment portfolio holder, Cllr Anne Court, said she was too new to her post to comment.

Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Paula Baker said: "It was wrong to take the service away."

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