HC Deb 13 July 1995 vol 263 cc1151-88

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Agriculture Committee of Session 1993–94, Health Controls on the Importation of Live Animals (House of Commons Paper No. 347–1), the Government's reply thereto, Cm. 2735 and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Intervention Board Departmental Report 1995: The Government's Expenditure Plans 1995–96 to 1997–98, (Cm. 2803).]

Motion made, and Question proposed. That a further sum, not exceeding £263,921,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1996 for cash limited and demand led operational expenditure by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to: promote food safety, take action against diseases with implications for human health, safeguard essential supplies in an emergency, and promote action to alleviate flooding and coastal erosion; to encourage action to reduce water and other pollution and by other measures to safeguard the aquatic environment including its fauna and flora, to improve the attractiveness and bio-diversity of the rural environment and protect the rural economy; implement MAFF's CAP obligations efficiently and seek a more economically rational CAP while avoiding discrimination against UK businesses (including expenditure on existing CAP measures and schemes), to create the conditions in which efficient and sustainable agriculture, fishing and food industries can flourish, take action against animal and plant diseases and pests, encourage high animal welfare standards; provide specialist support services and allocate resources where they are most needed; provide for some inter-agency payments and undertake research and development.—[Mrs. Browning.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss vote 4. I should inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democratic party.

7.19 pm
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate issues raised by the Agriculture Committee's inquiry into health controls on the importation of live animals. I note that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Liberal Democrats, and I understand that the subject that they wish to raise is about the health of animals within the United Kingdom. I shall not, therefore, go down that road but shall simply deal with our report. I do not wish to minimise the importance of the other subject, which relates to tuberculosis in badgers. As my Committee will investigate the whole of the dairy industry, I have no doubt that we shall receive evidence from the west country on that emotive but important subject during the autumn when we take evidence.

When we set out to do this inquiry, we decided to concentrate on two separate subjects: first, the movement of live animals, particularly farm livestock, into the UK under the new single European market rules; and, secondly—the importance of this area became apparent to us—the rules concerning rabies, quarantine and the importation of pets, particularly dogs and cats. We were fortunate to be advised by Mr. Howard Rees, formerly chief veterinary officer with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the late Mr. Tony Crowley, formerly head of the MAFF rabies section, who had advised the channel tunnel company on rabies prevention. We were shocked to learn that, sadly, he had died shortly after our report was published.

Those who simply believe everything that they read in newspapers may think that our report was only about rabies. It was not. However, the interest in that matter is fully understandable so I shall deal with our findings on rabies and quarantine first. Before doing so, I quote the Government's response to our report as it relates to farm livestock. It says: The Committee's investigation of this subject, including those incidents in 1993 linked to imported animals, is a valuable service to the public as it puts the disease threat firmly into perspective and refutes the more extreme and alarming predictions about imported disease made by some in the agriculture industry and the veterinary profession. We approached the question of rabies in a similar fashion. We were open-minded, sought perspective and appropriate solutions, listened and made recommendations. I may not speak for the whole Committee, but it would not be unfair if I said that at the outset the majority of us felt that quarantine was absolutely necessary. The fact that we then unanimously agreed to move away from quarantine shows that we took evidence with great care. The result is perhaps all the more remarkable for the fact that our initial prejudices were moved.

The deep-seated concern—indeed, hatred, worry and fear—about rabies is well merited. Rabies is an extremely unpleasant disease. If no treatment is given, it results in a lengthy, horrible and painful death. Furthermore, the antidote to a dog bite in a country where dog rabies is endemic consisted of a series—more than 30—of extremely unpleasant injections straight into the intestine. So not only was it a frightening disease but the treatment was none too good, either.

MAFF has been spending some £750,000 a year on advertising the horrors of rabies in all ports, airports and some railway stations. It has been issuing leaflets about the dangers of rabies and a great culture of fear of the disease has been generated.

Let us examine the position as regards human beings. There are two sorts of rabies: fox rabies, which is endemic in Europe; and dog rabies, which is endemic in Africa, India, South America and elsewhere in the world. I have never met a Frenchman or German who worries about getting rabies. Our European neighbours do not regard the fact that some wildlife has rabies as a particularly frightening factor.

Moreover, science for human beings as well as for animals has moved on. I understand that, if one is bitten by a rabid dog in India today, provided that one receives the antidote within two to three days, one would have no problem in surviving. The antidote is now a series of injections—five or six—rather like tetanus, so it is not as frightening as it was. The official advice from doctors if one is travelling in those countries is that, unless one expects to be more than a week away from medical attention, there is no need to be vaccinated against rabies. So we must put the whole matter in context. The world has moved on, and medical science has changed.

Nothing that the Select Committee has recommended or would want to do would increase the chance of rabies entering the United Kingdom. We emphasise that point at the beginning of our report and say that our recommendations would not endanger the desirable rabies-free status of these islands. I remind the House, however, that the Rabies (Importation of Dogs, Cats and Other Mammals) Order was passed in 1974 and is therefore more than 20 years old. As I said, science has moved on in the human and animal worlds and the current rules are now outdated and expensive. I shall say a word about animal welfare in a moment.

Our recommendations should provide protection at least equal to, and arguably better than, the present quarantine arrangements. We have recommended a belt-and-braces system whereby a pet cat or dog would be permanently identified by tattoo or implanted chip. It would be vaccinated and then tested to ensure that the vaccination had taken. In any event, we have recommended importation of cats and dogs only from Europe and countries where rabies is not endemic.

The present system has two great weaknesses. The first is cost. Various figures have been given to us, but it seems unlikely that six months' quarantine for a dog would cost less than £1,200 and it could be as much as £1,800 or £2,000. For a cat it would be less—£800 or £900. None the less, it means six months' confinement. We all know that smuggling goes on and I have some figures on that. However, the inducement now is to get over those expenses and there is a very positive financial advantage if one can smuggle an animal into the UK.

I shall now discuss animal welfare. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) is sitting behind me. He takes a strong interest in animal welfare matters. I would say to him and to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that to lock up a domestic pet in strange surroundings for six months, if not cruel, is highly stressful. The figures show that a proportion of cats and dogs do die in quarantine, and it is probably accepted that that is frequently a result of the stress induced by being parted from their owners.

We recommended that animals would be allowed into the United Kingdom without quarantine only in certain circumstances. The animals must enter from another European Union state or a country that is recognised as being rabies-free and which carries out appropriate policies to maintain its rabies-free status. They should be permanently identified by a unique number, which should be marked as a tattoo or contained in an electronic microchip. They should have spent at least six months continuously in the approved country before becoming eligible to enter the United Kingdom. Thus, a dog that had come from India would have to pause elsewhere in the European Union for at least six months if it were to be eligible for the scheme, and there are very few cases of dogs carrying rabies for six months.

The animals would have to have been vaccinated with an approved inactivated rabies vaccine at the age of three months or older. About four months after vaccination, a blood test would have to be carried out by an approved laboratory to determine whether the animal is immune from rabies. The four months between vaccination and blood testing would act as a pseudo-quarantine period.

After being blood tested, animals can enter the UK within 12 months of the initial vaccination. If they travel frequently between the United Kingdom and approved countries, they must receive annual booster vaccinations and travel within one month of such vaccinations being administered, and then only subject to a satisfactory blood test.

The pet owner would have to obtain an import licence from MAFF, specifying the port and time of entry into the UK, and the divisional veterinary officer responsible for the point of destination would have to be informed. Finally, the animal would have to be accompanied by a passport giving a record of its vaccinations and its health certification. That is a pretty demanding and onerous requirement—certainly more than we require of any human being that I know. If there was any failure to comply with such requirements, the animal would have to go into quarantine or be re-exported. We recommended that, at this stage, quarantine should be required in all other circumstances.

What are the risks? What are the real risks of a rabid dog entering the country? They are very slight. Since 1972, 100,000 dogs and 50,000 cats have been through the UK quarantine system, of which only two developed rabies—one dog from the United States and one dog from Zambia, countries which, under our proposals, would continue to be subject to quarantine.

It is worth bearing in mind the fact that, as I said earlier, the rabies in Europe—the strain adapted to foxes—is not nearly as threatening to human beings as dog-adapted "street" rabies in other parts of the world. Dogs and cats can contract fox-mediated rabies, but it would seem that they are unable to pass it on.

We have recommended a system similar to that introduced in Sweden. Sweden has been rabies-free since 1886. It has two borders, one with Norway and one with Finland, which are open borders. It has a high reputation for animal health. It wishes to remain rabies-free, yet it has adopted that system. Even more remarkable, when we went on our visit to Denmark, we found there a country with a 50 km open border with Germany, where there is endemic rabies, and not far away—and from time to time a rabid fox will cross into Denmark and cause trouble.

The Danes have gone much further than the Swedes; they have allowed importation of dogs from any country in the world, with a passport, a certificate of vaccinations but no double test. I doubt whether any country in the world relies more for its living on a clean health chit than the Danes do. Their main livelihood lies in dairy and pig products, and without a high reputation for health standards, Denmark would find it extremely difficult to make its living exporting, as it does, worldwide.

In addition, the prevalence of rabies in Europe is decreasing rapidly. The World Health Organisation report shows that, between 1989 and 1994, the annual number of cases of rabies in European Union member states fell from a peak of 8,509 to 1,582, and it continues to fall. That is entirely due to the European Union's oral vaccination programme, using inoculated baits for foxes. We were privileged to have a briefing on that matter. The original bait was chicken heads. The foxes thought that that was quite clever and used to collect them up, 15 or 20 at a time, so it was not the most economical method of vaccination. A new and more luscious bait was therefore devised which apparently produces in excess of 80 per cent. successfully vaccinated foxes. Once the amount of rabies in a fox population has dropped below a certain level, there are not enough host animals to sustain it, so that programme is proving extremely successful. I should say that it was never our intention that we should import foxes or, for that matter, any other wildlife from the European Union.

The Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels calculated that, if 1,000 unvaccinated dogs per year were picked randomly from the population and imported into the United Kingdom, it might be expected that a dog incubating rabies would be imported once every 1,250 years. If 5,000 dogs were imported randomly each year from Germany, which is the European Union country with the greatest incidence of rabies, only one animal every 31 years would be expected to be incubating rabies. With vaccination and blood testing, that already remote risk would be reduced even further.

We should consider what motive might drive someone to seek to bring in a rabid dog. Every pet owner wants their pet to be healthy. They spend money on inoculations; they will take it to the vet; they want it as their companion. If some malicious person wishes to introduce rabies into the country, they could have done so a long time ago illegally anyhow, so what are we defending against? The answer must be the cost and welfare considerations.

I have explained that the vaccine technology has changed since the Waterhouse report. The Waterhouse committee was set up after a case about 20 years ago. The modern vaccines were available in the late 60s and early 70s and even then quarantine was recommended, but nowadays there is a substantial smuggling problem. Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, who earlier said how difficult it was to find or quantify cases of social security fraud, I fear that we have no way of quantifying smuggling, but it is worth bearing in mind that, between 1985 and 1993, HM Customs and Excise dealt with 492 cases of illegal entry involving dogs and 273 involving cats—and I suggest that that is very much the tip of the iceberg. One does not have to go very far to find examples. Among our forces in Germany, one can hear a good deal of talk about how they might get over some of the little problems, such as the six months of quarantine and the cost involved.

We see the present system as a ludicrous and unnecessary waste of money. We believe that it is bad for animal welfare and distressing for the owners, and that it restricts freedom of movement. I read in an evening paper today that the Battersea dogs home spends £40,000 on advertisements about the problems associated with people turning their pets out at the beginning of their holidays, leaving them on the streets and abandoning them. Pets could go with their owners to Spain, Italy, France or wherever these people go. Much more importantly, the French, the Italians and the Spanish could bring their dogs here. I understand, although it is not mentioned in our report, that the barrier to bringing pets here is a serious inhibition to tourism. If we had the arrangements that we have in mind, people could bring their pets with them and it would be good for business.

The Government's response was that they were quite happy about our recommendations on farm livestock, presumably because they suited the Government's purposes. We remain extremely surprised, however, at the negative response to our recommendations on rabies. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in her place and I am sure that she will wind up with encouraging words.

She will recall that on many occasions we have argued strongly that Ministers, when taking advice on technical matters from their scientists, should do what their scientists tell them. We do not understand why the scientific advice that Ministers are being given on this subject is so at variance with the experience of countries such as Sweden and Denmark. I shall therefore press my hon. Friend to make her case clearly.

This week, the British Medical Association sounded off on the subject of rabies. There followed a series of statements in the association's report, mostly restricted to the basic principle that if we have not had rabies we should not change anything because the system has worked. Of course it has worked. We are simply saying that there is a better way to achieve the same objective. There is quite a piece in the BMA recommendations about foxes—I was a bit mystified by the BMA's apparent expertise on foxes—and the British Veterinary Association took a similar view. It just so happens that Mr. De Vile, who is president of the BVA, served on the BMA committee as well. Presumably his prejudices have been carried from one organisation to the other.

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)

I think that I heard my hon. Friend say a moment ago that he recommended that the Government should accept scientific advice. Does my hon. Friend not cast the BMA and the British Veterinary Association as sources of good scientific advice? Why does he reject their advice?

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I certainly do not. However, if my hon. Friend studied the BMA report, he would find that there is nothing at all scientific about it. It is simply a statement of prejudicial facts, written on BMA paper. It is very irresponsible of such an organisation to produce statements based on prejudice and not on fact.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not the case that, if the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) had been on the Committee six months previously, he would agree with the hon. Gentleman today? He would have changed his mind too.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) has to say in a few moments.

When the Community passed the Balai directive, the United Kingdom found itself in a difficult position. Here was a directive which said that, if people complied with a series of precautions not dissimilar to those that we have suggested—although somewhat more stringent, I admit— so-called traded dogs and cats could come in and out of the United Kingdom without quarantine. In theory at least, that system has been working for a few months.

The conditions are so stringent that, I understand, the few dogs and cats to have tried it have mostly failed the tests. However, the fact is that the Government, advised by their scientists, are prepared to allow traded dogs and cats to come in and out, but are not prepared to allow this to be the case with pets. What is the difference? What is the difference in risk? Surely the Government are right to agree to the principle. In that case, it is quite illogical not to agree to its extension.

The international panel of experts on animal diseases— the Office Internationale des Epizooties—sees a system of vaccination and blood testing as a perfectly viable alternative to quarantine for rabies. Even the BMA, about which I was not very polite just now, suggests only that quarantine should remain until additional requirements can be fulfilled. My Committee feels most strongly that the UK should move towards a more rational and appropriate means of protecting our rabies-free status.

I am delighted to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the Front Bench, and I welcome him to his new position. We look forward to having him in front of our Committee in due course. I hope that he has been listening with an open mind to this debate and that he will, in due course, study our report with care.

We are having to wait until other countries, such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, have satisfied us that all their precautions work perfectly well. For a country of our size, that is a great pity. In a debate in the other place on 15 March, Earl Howe—then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—hinted that with effective enforcement, alternative systems could provide the same level of assurance as quarantine. That would be a welcome step forward in Government policy since the reply to our report was published. Incidentally, during that debate, of the nine Lords and Ladies who spoke, all except the Minister were in favour of our report and against quarantine.

To deal briefly with the subject of farm livestock, we found that there was considerable feeling about various problems which had arisen, especially in relation to warble fly. Imported animals had clearly been given fraudulent certificates or had simply not been properly inspected before being imported. We had a look to see whether the new arrangements, under the single market, were satisfactory. We considered foot and mouth disease, brucellosis, Newcastle disease, Aujeszky's disease and many others which cause farmers a great deal of concern.

Diseases in animals are detrimental to the animals themselves, to good husbandry and to the wealth of farmers. Disease threatens livelihoods and the survival of businesses. Some diseases are transmissible to humans, putting the health of farmers, farm workers and their families at risk. We in the United Kingdom have never taken lightly the diseases of farm animals, and nor should we. Our island status has allowed eradication of the worst livestock diseases and has prevented others from becoming established.

Our high animal health status has been achieved at great cost and we should not allow the Community's rules, or anybody else's, to reduce that status. Between 1983 and 1990, £38 million was spent on eradicating Aujeszky's disease, of which pig producers contributed £27 million. Indeed, I remember replying to an Adjournment debate on that subject and reminding farmers that, although we were happy for Aujeszky's disease to be eliminated, we did not see the Government contributing too much to that effort. As I have said, the farmers contributed most of the money and there has been a very successful campaign which must not be damaged.

We fully understand that the single market caused the farming community some concern. The new system of veterinary checks is very different, and there was considerable concern, especially in the case of cattle, that it might have been at fault. The Committee did not find that to have been the case, but we recognised that things had changed.

Under the previous system, importers applied for an import licence from MAFF and the animals were then certified by the vet in the country of origin. The certificate was then checked on arrival at the point of entry in the United Kingdom and the animals were held for a further 21 days as a precaution, particularly against foot and mouth disease.

Both those procedures have now changed. The European Union adopted an eradication scheme for foot and mouth and it is now free of that disease. The United Kingdom could no longer justify the 21-day holding period, and it was removed in 1992. As of January 1993, point of entry checks were abandoned in favour of spot checks and checking at the point of destination.

Under the new system, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is notified of animals to be imported, the points of entry and journey plans via a Europewide ANIMO computer network. It was not working particularly well when we went to see it in operation, but the officers were managing very well with faxes and they seemed to know when and where the animals were coming from, so we were satisfied that all was in order.

The removal of the point-of-entry holding period for foot and mouth disease eliminated an economic barrier to the import of lower value cattle as dairy replacements. Livestock has been bought recently from countries such as Holland and France because it is cheaper than the rather higher class stock that is available in the United Kingdom. Between 1990 and 1993, the number of cattle imported from France and the Netherlands increased from 90 and 150 to about 6,200 and 5,500 respectively. With that increase in numbers came a heightened disease risk, which we accepted.

The Committee considered that the majority of problems were caused by the increased volume of imports and by the type of animals imported—particularly those originating from behind the former iron curtain. Some of the disease scares may not have been detected under the old system. That is particularly true of imported cattle infected with warble fly larvae and those vaccinated against foot and mouth disease, which contravenes the principles and rules of our scheme. We decided that there was no disease time bomb and we gave a general endorsement to the system, which was borne out by subsequent events.

The Committee was concerned that some aspects of the system needed fine-tuning. We urged the Government to ensure that the European Union devoted sufficient funds to the Community veterinary fund to allow the disease control and eradication programmes to operate effectively. There is a substantial problem with swine fever in Germany, and the Germans are very keen to give up their slaughter policy and return to inoculation and vaccination. That would be completely wrong, and it would undermine the purpose of the central programme.

We urged the Government to make clear representations to the European Commission about the need to consider and rapidly approve the additional trade guarantees which allow member states to impose conditions on imports where special circumstances apply. Perhaps more importantly, we suggested that there should be a one-week compulsory holding period for imported animals at the point of destination to allow the state veterinary service to conduct appropriate checks on health certificates. That point of destination could well be the farm of ultimate destination, but the animals should be kept separate and examined. That is a common-sense precaution.

We also suggested that the European Union should instigate measures to assure itself that the standards of veterinary training and of the state veterinary services in all member states are of a uniformly high standard; that adequate penalties are applied to any veterinary surgeon who is found to have falsely certified an animal; and that certification procedures throughout the European Union are harmonised, with documentation in the languages of both the importing and the exporting countries.

It was very difficult to get the vets and Ministry officials to admit to the Committee that the training schemes for vets in Greece were not adequate, but I can tell the House that they are not. The European Union was wrong not to take a more open approach to the issue. It investigated the veterinary services in all member states and reported its conclusions to the state concerned, but it did not make the report available elsewhere. It is crucial to the operation of a health scheme that those who certify animals are trained to an adequate standard. We have the highest standards of qualifications and experience in this country and we should insist upon the same standards in our EU partner countries.

The Committee was grateful that the Government were in broad agreement with its main recommendations, but it would be helpful if the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), could indicate what progress has been made in implementing the recommendations.

We suggested that stock imported into the United Kingdom should be marked with specially coloured tags and we found it difficult to understand why the Government failed to accept our recommendation. Their view was that the new animal identification system, which was introduced under directive 92/102/EEC and came into effect in the United Kingdom on 1 April 1995, would ensure that an animal's country of origin could be established. However, I am afraid that the Government have missed the point of the proposal. We wanted to ensure that an animal in a pen with a special coloured tag could be identified immediately as an imported animal. It should stand out as such, as occurs in other countries in the European Union. That was virtually the only recommendation in that part of the report with which the Government did not agree.

We welcome the fact that MAFF has relaunched the "Don't import disease" campaign. We hope that we set out the principle that those who buy stock abroad should ensure—if necessary at their own expense—that the stock is healthy before bringing it into the country. We would like to know more about the progress of Government efforts to persuade the EU to publish the full Bendixen/Dexter report on the quality and structure of veterinary services in member states, to which I have referred.

The Committee also dealt with problems with horses, birds and fish. Hon. Members will be interested to learn that yesterday MAFF appointed a new inspector of imported fish. While we welcome that move, there are many other problems to consider also. Caged birds continue to be smuggled into the country and the prices at which they are advertised for sale clearly show that the birds have not come through the normal importation procedures. We are worried that bird smuggling will lead to the introduction of Newcastle disease, which could have a disastrous effect on our poultry industry.

I will not go into the details of spring viraemia of carp or viral haemorrhagic septicaemia and other such matters, as they are set out in the report. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will mention them in her winding-up speech.

We believe that the recommendations in our report, whether relating to the importation of farm animals or to protecting the United Kingdom from rabies, were based on a thorough assessment of the risks and that they constitute appropriate responses to the threat that is posed to the United Kingdom's high health status. We are disappointed at the Government's seemingly blinkered defence of the status quo with respect to rabies and quarantine and we hope that the new team will rethink the matter. The Government do not appear to dispute the facts on which our proposals are based, and we have detected a growing hint of acceptance in recent Government statements. Let us hope that that acceptance will grow a great deal more this evening.

7.57 pm
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

As a member of the Agriculture Select Committee, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on our report entitled "Health Controls on the Importation of Live Animals". The inquiry took place because of the need to remove barriers in a single market, but I think that every member of the Select Committee was determined to ensure that we should not use that as an excuse for relaxing health controls when importing animals into the United Kingdom, because over the years we have achieved very high health standards, particularly with domestic pets and farm livestock.

I was particularly concerned about the vulnerability of fanners who purchase livestock from abroad, as it seems that they will receive only a warranty and an indemnity against purchasing a sick animal. I believe that such a warranty and indemnity would not be enforceable in law, and therefore not worth very much. In that context, holding periods for livestock and coloured ear tags to identify imported livestock would prove a useful protection for farmers. For example, the Danes use coloured ear tags on imported pigs, and if the Danes can do it, I see no reason why we should not do so.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), said, a great deal of the Committee's time was spent examining the rabies question. I began the investigation absolutely convinced that rabies was right, that we ought to keep it— [HON. MEMBERS: "Quarantine."] That quarantine was right. I apologise, and I thank my hon. Friends for putting me right.

I was absolutely convinced that quarantine had protected this country against rabies—a disease that all of us find utterly horrifying—and that at all costs our report should conclude with the recommendation that quarantine should stay. I make no apology for being persuaded by the evidence that I was wrong. A system of vaccination with an inactivated virus followed by blood tests would be much more satisfactory than quarantine and would serve the needs of pet owners and the general population.

In living memory there have been two cases of rabies in dogs in this country: one in 1969 in Camberley and one in 1970 in Newmarket. Both dogs had been through quarantine and developed rabies subsequently. I notice that the British Medical Association report, to which reference has been made, says that quarantine, which was introduced in 1901, has been effective since 1971. If a dog develops rabies after quarantine, we should first consider that indication of its effectiveness.

The other thing that I did not know about rabies was that there are two kinds. The kind that most of us are terrified of—the image of the dog salivating—is dog rabies, which is endemic in parts of the world such as the Indian subcontinent and, primarily, the southern hemisphere in Africa. In Europe, fox rabies occurs. In that context, the fox vaccination programme in the European Union was one of the aspects of EU policy with which I was impressed. With fox rabies, the dog which is bitten, if a dog is ever bitten by a fox—it does not happen often— is called the end host. The dog almost never passes on the rabies.

To people who are concerned, shake their heads or look puzzled, I say that there is no difference between fox rabies in a dog or a cat and fox rabies in horses, sheep and cattle, because all mammals are susceptible, but that does not stop imports of farm livestock. Nobody suggests that we should not bring in horses, sheep or cattle or that they should all be locked up for six months to see whether they develop rabies, because we think that the risk is so negligible that it is not worth considering. Yet we say that precisely such rules should apply to domestic pets. That inconsistency of treatment between domestic pets and farm livestock was one of the first reasons why I became uneasy about quarantine.

It is important to remember that the last known death of a human from rabies in Europe was in 1928 in France, and that since then excellent vaccines have been developed against fox rabies and rabies in humans.

Between 1972 and 1993, a total of 150,720 dogs and cats went through quarantine, during which time there were only two cases of rabies: one of a dog imported from the United States of America and the other of a dog from Zambia. Both had dog rabies from countries where dog rabies was prevalent. There was not a single case from areas where fox rabies was prevalent. That leads me to conclude that, although the risk is minimal, we obviously want to guard against it, but with a better system than quarantine.

I consider quarantine a blunt instrument. It costs approximately £1,200 to quarantine a dog. I note that the BMA discounts the possibility of smuggling and says that there is only anecdotal evidence of it. It is not anecdotal. The Chairman of the Select Committee gave the figures of detected cases, which amount to about 100 a year. That is probably the tip of the iceberg, because travel between the European continent and Great Britain is now much easier. The volume of traffic has increased enormously because of the channel tunnel and cross-channel ferries, and opportunities for smuggling have grown tremendously.

Sweden, a country which I admire, has been free of rabies since 1886. I think that it is right to say that the Swedish are as concerned about their health and their protection from the risk of rabies as we are. The Select Committee went to see the Swedish system in operation. It was launched on 1 May 1994, it involves vaccination and subsequent blood testing to ensure that a dog is rabies-free, and it seems to be virtually foolproof. Seeing that system in operation finally convinced me that it was the way forward for this country.

The Committee proposes a system which is better than quarantine. It involves microchipping or tattooing the dog or cat, vaccination with an inactivated vaccine, testing the blood for the effectiveness of the vaccine after four months and requiring that the animal is brought into the United Kingdom within a 12-month period with an import licence and an animal health passport.

As Select Committee members and people who are responsible for animal welfare and public health in this country, we want a better system and one that does not encourage smuggling. We have to set that, as I have said, in the context of the channel tunnel, the growth in ferry traffic and the fact that the single market provides for the free movement of workers. If people have a right to move between countries of the European Union for work, the question should then arise: what about those with domestic pets? How will those people behave in the face of Britain's quarantine system? That problem is not confined to service personnel; it affects many people's work, holidays and other situations to which I shall refer.

I congratulate the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on one achievement: it has had the most tremendous success in terrifying people about the risk of rabies. The placards showing the skull and crossbones at every port put the fear of God into everybody—they have certainly always terrified me, and were part of the reason why I thought that quarantine was a thoroughly good idea. During our inquiry, it was pointed out by a couple of experts from whom we took evidence that Britain was becoming the laughing stock in Europe on this issue, and I believe that that is true.

Although the risk might be minute and it is vital to have a safe and secure system, the issue of quarantine is important for certain groups of people. Recently, the House has been quite rightly concerned about civil rights for disabled persons. I ask hon. Members to stop and consider the case of guide-dog users. Guide-dog users cannot travel if they are British because if they leave the country with their dog they cannot bring it back until it has been quarantined for six months. That is ridiculous. There should be a system under which a dog can be protected from rabies, humans who have any contact with that dog can be protected from any risk and a blind person can enjoy foreign travel like the rest of us.

I have concluded that our policy on rabies is a little like the man who used to go round snapping his fingers all the time. Somebody finally asked him why he was doing it and he said that it was to keep elephants out of the country. When it was pointed out that there were not any elephants in the country, he said: "It just goes to show how effective it is." It seems ludicrous to suggest that a policy that keeps out dogs, the ineffectiveness of which was shown in 1969 and 1970, should not be replaced in the modern world with a system that, with the free movement of people, provides for the protection of animals and public health.

8.9 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)

The great privilege of serving on the Agriculture Select Committee was bestowed on me only a few months ago, so I carry neither blame nor credit for the report.

Throughout my political career, however that might be described, I have always been sceptical about Select Committees, but I have come to appreciate the quality and quantity of the work undertaken by the Select Committee on which I serve. I was most impressed by the commitment shown by its members of all parties and by their non-partisan approach to matters that are examined in the Committee's latest report.

I was also impressed by the professionalism of the staff in respect of matters of extreme technical difficulty and physical sensitivity. The work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) in conducting the affairs of a difficult lot with great humour, diligence and application was first-class. As with the report, a tremendous amount of high-quality work is done by the Committee and I was agreeably surprised. I hope that I may enjoy continuing to serve the Committee for some years.

The report's introduction emphasises how seriously the Committee's latest and other investigations are taken. The report is impressive, but I do not agree with its conclusions. Incidentally, although the report required a visit to Scandinavia, we also visited the quarantine station at Heathrow airport, quarantine kennels near Deal, a farm near Rugby, the Folkestone terminal and, inevitably, Brussels. I place that on record for the benefit of critics outside the House, because that is hardly a Cook's tour of exotic destinations.

One criticism I have of Select Committee reports is that their conclusions are too general, too wordy and insufficiently politically challenging. In this case, the proposal to change quarantine policy is specific, clear and challenging—and in my view, totally wrong. I agree with the Government's response and look forward to hearing the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister. I welcome the Government's determination to maintain the existing quarantine system, and I am glad that policy is strongly supported in the powerful paper from the British Medical Association that was circulated to Members of Parliament earlier this week.

I do not ignore for one moment the powerful voices in favour of change. I read the Select Committee and British Medical Association reports thoroughly, but I can claim to have read the evidence only to the extent that the Chancellor of the Exchequer read the Maastricht treaty. However, it is an impressive dossier. I read carefully the impressive evidence from pet owners, who pay the price financially and emotionally. The stress of enforced separation for six months, or for ever in many cases, is a real factor that I do not disguise.

The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) referred to the single market argument. The Conservative ex-MEP for East Kent, Christopher Jackson, presented a powerful report on the subject from the point of view of the European Parliament. I do not underestimate the dramatic progress made in Europe in controlling rabies and its elimination in many parts of the continent—a remarkable change in the life of our nation and of the continent. However, the European Union is enlarging rapidly to the east and will no doubt do so to the south, to the Mediterranean.

In a few years' time, the EU could have twice the number of member states. It would be a brave man or woman who asserted that those new frontiers will be as rabies-proof as the frontiers of the EU's present members. One welcomes the optimism that rabies might be eradicated in the EU by the turn of the century, but there are overwhelming arguments against the likelihood of that happening.

Britain can be thankful that it is free of rabies, while Europe can rejoice that the disease is being defeated on the continent. We must not, however, lose sight of the horrifying nature of the disease. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare almost struck a note of complacency with regard to the nature of the disease elsewhere in the world. He said that the world has moved on, but the good research paper produced by the Library states: Worldwide, around 6.5 million people receive treatment every year after being bitten or scratched by dogs, and 33,000 people die each year from dog rabies. As the hon. Member for Bristol, East said, most of those deaths occur in India. My point is that the world has not moved on that much.

The hon. Lady said also that she was frightened by the skull and crossbones posters at ports. That is a good thing, because—even if the Select Committee's recommendations are accepted—the threat of rabies will remain, from all the non-approved countries in other parts of the world. I hope that small and large ports throughout the country would still display skull and crossbones posters to stop the entry of rabid animals from the many countries that will not become rabies-free.

Ms Corston

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Select Committee recommended that quarantine should stay in the countries to which he referred.

Sir Roger Moate

That was my point, so posters would need to remain and we would have to maintain justified public fear of rabies returning from other parts of the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare referred to the horrifying nature of rabies. Anyone who doubts its effects will find in the Library paper a couple of pages that make gruesome reading. It is easy to understand why we are so concerned to ensure that there is not the smallest risk of rabies being reintroduced into this country.

I have often thought that our island status has given us the best of all worlds. It makes us a strong nation state and allows us to be one of the most international outward-looking nations on Earth. At the same time, our island status allows us to be insular when that happens to suit our purpose, which has proved a superbly successful bastion against rabies in particular. The quarantine system has not only worked remarkably well but has given the public crucial confidence—the belief that we are and can remain a rabies-free nation. That confidence is a priceless asset. If there were at any time a revival of the fear of rabies, which could be generated by fox rabies as much as dog rabies, there would be serious consequences.

It is proposed to remove that bastion and end the quarantine system and to replace it with a system of pet passports, chips and tattoos.

Ms Corston


Sir Roger Moate

Yes, the pet passport is a record of those. I do not want to trivialise these techniques, especially as they are being used by other nations.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

My hon. Friend is perfectly right about the fear in people's minds. He is a well travelled man. Would he say that his friends in France and Germany ever talk about this matter, or worry about it, or take any medical precautions? The fact is that they do not.

Sir Roger Moate

I suspect that the issue would seldom be a topic of conversation because Britons travelling abroad have become so used to not taking their pets with them, as they know that they cannot be brought back here, that they have long ceased discussing it. My hon. Friend is right: only fox rabies is a problem in those countries, not dog rabies—but that is not the point. My hon. Friend himself said that the system that he is proposing is far more onerous and demanding than any that we apply to human beings, so he is not really suggesting free movement at all. The logic of his case is that there should be free movement, without controls or vaccinations.

I do not want to trivialise or minimise the value of the pet passport, even though someone suggested to me earlier that it might mean queues of black labradors waiting to have their passport photographs taken. I realise that microchips are seen as a useful form of international control, but we cannot take tattoos too seriously, although the Committee seemed to do so. The Government point out that tattoos on dogs are hard to read and are easily altered.

My worry is that all these systems are easily susceptible to fraud and error. Documents are easily forged, and information for computers and microchips can be easily tampered with when it is being put in. Such systems require scrutiny at a very limited number of ports of entry. As I understand it, we do not have the structures to allow these inspections to take place.

I ask the House to compare these proposals with the certainty that the quarantine system gives us. The only element of uncertainty comes with smuggling, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has already said, the new regime would be onerous and time-consuming—and there would still be smuggling. That possibility is not eliminated.

I suspect that most caring pet owners will not break the law and do not break it now. The fact is that six months' quarantine, although painful to some, is a system that gives the public great confidence that the disease is unlikely ever to re-enter this country. The BMA states: Although the risk of a rabid animal entering the country is small, the consequences could be disastrous … Changes to the British way of life … would be far reaching. All pets would require vaccination; everyone involved with work with animals would need to be vaccinated; and any bite or scratch from a sick animal … would have to be treated immediately. The well-known British affection for animals would have to be tempered by caution".

Ms Corston

indicated dissent.

Sir Roger Moate

One cannot deny that these would be the consequences. In the past, the spread of rabies was prevented by the muzzling of dogs. It is noteworthy that one of the contingency plans of MAFF for the outbreak of rabies would be poisoning foxes with strychnine, at serious risk to other animals. No one in his right mind wants to risk that. It is a fair point to make to distressed pet owners facing enforced separation from their pets under the quarantine system that the pain, suffering and cost of the spread of rabies would be far worse for pets and people alike.

I want to turn briefly to the question of risk, because that is what the argument is all about. How much greater would the risks be, if at all, if we abandoned the quarantine system and adopted the system of vaccination and microchips? It is here that I found the Select Committee's report and the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare least convincing.

He said that we could import a rabid animal, in certain circumstances, once every 31 years. That is the statistical consideration. I remember severe floods in the town of Sheerness in my constituency one Christmas in the 1970s. Several hundred houses were flooded, and we were told that it was a one-in-a-thousand-year flood. A week later, the same houses were flooded again, but we were told that that did not alter the statistics— it was still one-in-a-thousand-year flood. So much for statistical averages.

I was therefore not impressed with the idea that only a very low risk is involved. I believe that, when the system was changed in Finland to one similar to what is proposed by the Select Committee, 10 times as many animals were imported to the country. Given the pet-loving nature of our nation, I suspect that there would be a huge increase in the number of pets brought to this country as well. The risks must therefore be seen in the context of a tremendous increase in the numbers.

It is easy to say, as the Committee does, that these risks would be small; but I prefer the verdict of the BMA, which says that one case introduced into a susceptible population may be enough to start an animal epidemic. I do not know why we should change a system that works and which brings with it so much confidence.

When it comes to foodstuffs, pesticides, herbicides, nitrate levels and organophosphates, we are told by the scientists that we should take no risks whatever. I remember the recent carrot episode, when it was discovered that one carrot in thousands might have too high an accumulation of something unpleasant. The whole system had to be changed, and the British population was warned to top and tail its carrots before eating them raw. The margin of safety had been reduced from 100 to 93— a minuscule change, but apparently we must not take risks with carrots. On the other hand, it seems that we can with rabies—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] It is the same. If we take the scientific advice, we should have to decide that, if there is any risk at all in removing the quarantine system, we ought not to remove it. Most of us fear the rabid fox more than we do the carrot.

The Committee went wrong by failing to understand the incalculable value of the sense of security that has been achieved by current procedures: they work and they inspire confidence. Pet owners going abroad know the rules. Over the years, the British people have come to accept the system. Of course there are many who do not like it, but it is seen by the vast majority as an effective system. Preventing rabies from re-entering the country must be our paramount object. It is only when rabies has been virtually eliminated around the world—diseases are being eliminated around the world—that we can contemplate abandoning our unique advantage of the ocean barriers which have allowed us to operate a highly effective quarantine system.

8.28 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I beg to move, That Class III, Vote 3 be reduced by £1,000 in respect of subheads B2 and D2 (Talcing action against diseases with implications for human health (PP2): current costs). I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that our amendment is merely a device to underline the urgency and sense of frustration that a great many right hon. and hon. Members feel about some very difficult questions. Indeed, if the rules of the House permitted it, we would seek to increase the sum available for this purpose, not to decrease it.

I want to touch on rabies only briefly, because I want to discuss three other matters of concern to a large number of hon. Members. I also want to mention BSE, bovine TB, and sheep scab and blowfly. I do not do so as my party's spokesman on those issues, because there is a great deal of cross-party, non-partisan concern and interest. I have been fascinated to find that, on balance, I shall be on the same side as the Minister on rabies, and with the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate), although I do not take such an apocalyptic view, which he appears to take, about the Select Committee's recommendations.

On the other side, I notice that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) has the cross-party support of the Committee. There has already been an eloquent explanation from the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) on why Members have changed their minds on the subject. I am sure that we are all seeking the same objectives. We arrive at them, perhaps, by different means.

I now deal with the Select Committee's report. I have the highest regard for the Select Committee—although I am not a member of it, and perhaps that increases my respect—collectively and individually. It has done the House a considerable service, not just with this report but with much of the other work that it has done. I believe, however, that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, as Chairman, did not do justice to the arguments when he dismissed out of hand the concerns of the British Medical Association and the British Veterinary Association. I shall refer to those associations in a moment.

My approach—I am quite frank about it—is that I wanted to be persuaded by the Select Committee. I would have been delighted to feel that we could move away from the present restrictions, because I am only too conscious of the concerns and the unfortunate effects that the present arrangements have on pet owners—not just service personnel, as the hon. Member for Bristol, East said, but the large number of people who now travel for work purposes and who find that they cannot take their pets with them. We should recognise that the recommendations of the Select Committee will not solve that problem overnight.

On the BMA report, I shall quote from the guide that we have been given by the doctors, in which they say: Britain cannot tolerate any lowering in the standards of precautions for keeping rabies out of Britain, as the consequences of their being breached could be so great. Although quarantine is very expensive for those individuals who use it, the costs of eradicating rabies, if this were actually possible, once it had entered Britain, would be very much greater. I notice that the Select Committee, in its reliance on the Swedish example, is not followed by the BMA, which points out in its own report, published on Monday of this week, that the Swedes have not experienced, and did not expect to experience, a reduction or elimination in smuggling as a result of the change. The report says: A risk assessment of Sweden's then proposed vaccination system, carried out by the Swedish Board of Agriculture, concluded 'It is by no means self-evident that smuggling will be reduced if the rules are altered' (from quarantine to vaccination and certification). So let us not be fooled into thinking that even those who have the experience on which the Select Committee places such reliance really expected to stamp out smuggling or have experienced a reduction in it.

The BMA and the BVA have demonstrated to great effect the differing circumstances in different countries. They point, for example, to the prevalence and growth in the number of urban foxes in the United Kingdom, which is totally different from anything experienced in the Scandinavian countries referred to in the debate.

In the circumstances, we have to take seriously the misgivings of the professionals. It is wrong simply to sweep them aside as if they did not matter, or to say in the words, I think, of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), "Oh, well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They have a financial interest." That reduces the value of the debate, and we have to take seriously what they say.

The BMA says of a rabies epidemic that there would be massive killing of wildlife in affected areas, muzzling of dogs, keeping cats housebound and killing strays. That is not a prospect that any of us can consider with equanimity.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I did say, although not today in the House, that I was suspicious of the motives of the BVA, and I did imply that there might be some financial incentive in the quarantine system. I am convinced that that is not true and that is wrong, and I wish to withdraw it publicly. Indeed, if our system were to be adopted, I suspect that the veterinary profession would gain handsomely from the work involved in vaccination and certification.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It was actually an Opposition Member who made that suggestion this evening. It is precisely because I think that the hon. Gentleman and his Committee have taken a level-headed approach to the issue, and I sympathise with it, that I regret the fact that they were rather dismissive this evening of the misgivings of the BMA and the BVA. I am with the Minister on this issue. I hope to demonstrate to her that, on this issue at least, I take a non-partisan view.

Sir Roger Moate

It is very courteous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. He suggested that I was being apocalyptic. In fact, I was quoting from the same sources as he is and used almost exactly the same words as those that he has just used.

Mr. Tyler

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman made, but I still think that perhaps he overplayed his case. On balance, this is not the right time to make the change. I understand that to be the position of the Ministry.

I now deal with BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy—I think that I have just about got it right—or what most people call mad cow disease. I ask the Minister, as this is the first opportunity that we have had to do so, to explain precisely how the Ministry views the changes in the arrangements that have been announced in the past few days. We have all assumed that the ban on the use of potentially affected parts of animal carcases in feedstuffs was the essential element in our protective system, and that once they were out of the food chain, we could look forward to a substantial improvement in the situation. That has been the accepted wisdom of the scientists who advise the Ministry, and, indeed, Members of the House.

However, the EU Commission's decision this week to change the arrangements, apparently under pressure from the German Government, raises some difficult questions. We are told on the one hand that it raises questions about the scientific basis on which our Ministry has been operating. It suggests that perhaps there is some way in which the disease can be inherited from cow to calf— otherwise, how can the Commission possibly justify changing the date—or, alternatively, that somehow the possible sources of the disease have remained in the food chain for longer than was previously anticipated. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that.

I notice that the Meat and Livestock Commission had at least two views on that last Thursday. One veterinary officer was saying that it would make it easier to export from this country to other member states in the European Union, while another was saying that only a sea change in the attitudes of German consumers to beef would result in any change in the export situation.

The critical issue, surely, is: are the policies, to which we refer in our amendment and which we are debating tonight, still as scientifically and intellectually substantial? Can we rely on them in the same way as we have in the past, if, as seems likely, the EU has changed its stance and raised questions about the matter? We need to know whether our Government are satisfied with the integrity of the scientific thesis on which they are operating, and if they are not, is it just German protectionism in disguise?

I now deal with bovine tuberculosis. The Minister and I had a brief exchange on that at Question Time last week and she has been kind enough to write to me since. I wish to make it absolutely clear that I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject; no doubt other hon. Members are more expert than me. I look to the Select Committee—it has done a very good job on many subjects, including the import of livestock—as being the only effective mechanism that we have to get evidence from a wide range of different interests where clearly the reputation and credibility of the Ministry are in question, and they are in question.

I recall a briefing by the Minister's predecessor, which I have no doubt other hon. Members recall, on the subject of TB—it must have been two or two and a half years ago—when we were given to understand that there was real confidence that a change in the Ministry's policy in terms of live testing would not eradicate—we would not expect that—but would dramatically change the situation. We were all given real confidence that that would be the case.

We have to look at the figures. We can dispute the exact scale of increase. The Minister has been kind enough to point out that the extrapolation of the figures that I gave the House last week would imply a steady rise over the year, and that may not be true. I accept that. But the Minister has also been good enough to say: I am very worried about the incidence of bovine tuberculosis … the cause of that is badgers."—[Official Report, 6 July 1995; Vol. 263, c. 505.] If that is true, I have to tell the Minister that an increasing number of fanners no longer believe it. I have had examples in my constituency, which I have brought to the Minister's attention, where the testing of badgers produced no results, where there is no obvious badger activity in the immediate surrounding area, where the animals have not had contact with other neighbouring farms, where there are few visitors to the farm and where it would seem that there is no obvious connection between a contaminated badger sett and an outbreak of TB. There are several examples of that, and farmers are as worried about it as anybody else. Yet the system relies entirely on the assumption that the circle of infection is due to badgers, as the Minister said again last week.

The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) may be equally positive that badgers are not to blame, but I am more sceptical. [Interruption.] No doubt in due course the hon. Gentleman will put his view. I am an agnostic. All I do know is that dairy farmers and the animal welfare groups do not believe that the Ministry can continue with the present policy without independent objective analysis from outside the Ministry. It cannot remain judge of its own case for any longer.

It is for that reason that I have urged the Ministry to accept the need for such a study. If it can be included in the Select Committee's currently projected studies into the dairy industry, so be it, but if it has to be a separate study, I hope that the Chairman and the Minister will co-operate in some such independent objective inquiry. Otherwise, I cannot see how the two sides in the argument will stop their dialogue of the deaf.

In the meantime, I hope that no one is under any illusion about the substantial cost to the industry. I have here an example of a farm in Gloucestershire that was extensively analysed in a recent edition of Farmers' Weekly, where the estimated cost of the testing, direct movement restriction, changing farm policy, insurance costs and so on is £111,000. That is a net cost after compensation has been received. It is a huge sum.

The farmer, Mr. Rowe, says: MAFF is so behind with badger trapping that, in some cases, there is a six to 10-month gap between a breakdown and trapping … We shall have to turn our stock out on to pasture which is riddled with badgers that we know have TB. A badger vaccine, with food used as a vector, is the main answer. Otherwise TB in cattle will continue. MAFF knows the problem but it needs more funding from the Treasury. There are other examples.

I am sure that hon. Members from dairy areas will be able to confirm that there is real concern about the lack of resources. Even if one accepts the MAFF thesis, the lack of resources means that there is a long delay before action is taken. I had another example at my advice surgery last weekend, of a farmer who was crying out for live testing. Apparently, the veterinary service is prepared to provide it, but the lack of resources means that there is a long delay.

It is the responsibility of Members of Parliament to monitor, scrutinise and call the Government to account. That is the precise purpose of today's debate. I do not pretend that I have a solution to every complicated aspect of the problem. I certainly have not. A great many much wiser heads than mine have been applied to it. But what I do believe is that, just as the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare could claim that his Select Committee had approached in an open-minded and thorough way the problem of the import of livestock, it should be asked to look at this problem with exactly the same approach.

Finally, I come to the problems of sheep scab and blowfly and the products that are used to treat and prevent those diseases in sheep. The Minister has been kind enough to meet a small all-party group on a number of occasions, as did previous Ministers of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Members for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard) and for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I think that the Minister acknowledges that there is all-party concern.

Here we have a problem where the animal disease that we are seeking to cure is not going away, but at the same time the apparently most effective way of dealing with it has the most horrendous side effects in terms of human health. The products to which I am referring are the organophosphorous compounds that are most often used in sheep dip to try to deal with those problems.

For many years, sheep scab was a notifiable disease. For many years, the Ministry effectively enforced twice yearly and then, for a few years, annually, the compulsory dipping of sheep. Suddenly, in 1992, without much warning, that was removed, either, according to one version, because sheep scab had been eradicated or was in the process of being eradicated, or because, according to another version, it did not seem to be doing much good as there was still a lot of sheep scab about. They were curiously conflicting arguments.

Whatever may have been the rationale then, the rationale now is surely inadequate. Since 1992—the Ministry has just issued some more information—sheep scab has been on the increase. The Ministry has been monitoring carefully what has been happening in markets. It cannot give exact and detailed figures but, as a result, it is increasing sheep scab surveillance. The Minister has announced in my part of the world in the south-west that fines of up to £5,000 are possible for sheep scab—not, it should be said, under the notifiable disease legislation, as I understand it, but under some environmental health or animal cruelty legislation. That is fair enough. Sheep scab is a serious disease.

But hon. Members surely cannot be satisfied when the Government are spending quite a lot of money, as is the industry, without achieving any improvement. All we are doing is causing a great many people the discomfort, cost and, potentially, the damage to their health, from a product that clearly is not the answer.

At the meeting with the Minister on 28 June, she undertook to examine urgently a number of specific issues affecting human health with her opposite number at the Department of Health. I hope that this evening she will briefly—I understand the difficulties of time—refer to the outcome of those discussions.

One of the issues that we specifically asked the Ministers to address was the apparent correlation of high suicide rates in some parts of the country, which appeared to follow closely on some of the areas where dipping with organophosphates was most prevalent.

I have a letter here from one of the consultant psychiatrists who has particularly studied the problem, Dr. Davies, of the Avalon NHS trust based in Taunton. He not only draws attention to the weight of evidence, from his own experience and that of his colleagues, of a connection between sheep dip exposure and high suicide rates, but offers his services to try to improve the amount of information that could be available to the Department of Health on this specific issue.

In that letter, Dr. Davies says: I am sure that if dealing with a pharmaceutical agent, such a weight of evidence would result in its withdrawal from the market and I find it difficult to understand why the same criteria are not applied to environmental toxins. Every organophosphate exposed fanner that I have interviewed, whether as a NHS referral or part of my research activities, has admitted to intense episodes of suicidal ideation well beyond the 'life is not worth living' stage. I hope that the Department of Health will take that evidence as seriously as I know the Minister does. I also hope that the offer to undertake additional research into the effects of organophosphates in terms of neuro-psychiatric toxicity will be taken up.

There are ways in which the Minister can respond proactively. For instance, we must return to some form of notifiable disease arrangement if the industry is to take sheep scab seriously. A return to the old compulsory dipping scheme will not be sufficient, however. I hope that a compulsory treatment scheme using the new products—the non-OP dips that are now available, and the injectables—will deal with the problem more effectively. Ironically, there is now a blowfly that is immune to OPs, while some humans at least seem to be sensitive to them.

We must recognise that manufacturers of new products will not be able to reduce the unit cost, allowing take-up to be effective in the industry, until some help is given with the transition. I hope that, now that it is recognised that the use of OP dips imposes considerable costs on the industry, the Ministry and, indeed, the health service, the Government will find a way of subsidising the transition to allow the withdrawal of those products and the introduction of new products that are safer for all concerned.

I am sorry to have had to cover so much territory at such speed, but this is an unusual opportunity. I am grateful to the House for listening so patiently, and I hope that in due course the Minister will respond to all four of the points that I have made.

8.52 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I wish to return to the general question of the Supply estimates, which relate largely—although not exclusively—to animal welfare and animal health issues. Let me again thank my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the diligence with which she has promoted animal welfare issues throughout the European Union, and welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister to his new job.

On behalf of the all-party animal welfare group, which I chair, I applaud the sentiments that my right hon. and learned Friend expressed at the opening of the new offices of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons last week. I was delighted to learn that he intends to target the banning of veal crates as the Government's next objective. I hope that scientific evidence will enable real progress to be made by the end of the year.

We have dealt largely with matters relating to the single market and open frontiers. It has been said—correctly— that free trade in animals sometimes means free trade in diseases. In recent months, there have been outbreaks of equine viral arteritis. Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary laid an order relating to the control of EVA in the United Kingdom. I hope that, when she winds up the debate, she will be able to give us some idea of the measures that Ministers are taking to control the movement of shedding stallions, not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the European Union.

Contagious diseases have also been imported in culled sheep from Poland and Spain. In a number of instances, animal diseases that we had thought to be either under control or eradicated in this country have been imported. That demonstrates the need for rigid controls in the country of origin, and strict on-farm quarantine when animals arrive in the United Kingdom.

Outbreaks of that kind underline the importance of veterinary education and the maintaining of veterinary standards throughout the European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) mentioned that in connection with the Select Committee report. Is my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary able to make a further announcement about the availability of European Commission funds for veterinary education? We had the impression that the Commission would look favourably on that, but there seems to have been a hiatus. A settlement is overdue.

Clearly, in the minds of the media, this is "the rabies debate". I mentioned free trade in diseases. I have no wish to see rabies spread throughout the United Kingdom, but I believe that, if there is a free trade in diseases, there is also a free trade in hysteria and prejudice, particularly about rabies. I am persuaded by the scientific arguments—as, clearly, are many other hon. Members— that the time has come to make real progress.

I listened with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, and I studied his Committee's excellent report with great care. Like earlier speakers, I started from the premise that the controls that we have, we hold; they work, and we should not mend things that are not broken.

Let us examine a couple of the myths. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) said that quarantine worked. Does it? That must be the first myth. We know that animals are smuggled into this country on ferries, possibly—now—through the channel tunnel, and on sailing yachts entering the many ports along the south and other coasts. I am told—much of the evidence is anecdotal—that it is relatively easy to obtain an anaesthetic for a dog in northern France. One can knock out the dog, chuck it into the boot and put a blanket over it and it wakes up after half an hour through the tunnel, 45 minutes on the hovercraft or one hour on the ferry, somewhere in the United Kingdom. The risk of detection is minimal. If one weighs that risk against a bill of £1,000 or £1,200 for six months' quarantine—we have heard various figures—and the real distress that one feels at having to quarantine one's animals, it must seem worth taking. Yes, the penalties for detection are severe, but the chances of detection are fairly remote.

The stories are anecdotal, so let me put my own anecdote on the record. As chairman of the all-party animal welfare group and a Kent Member of Parliament, I received a third-party approach from an American, apparently resident in Switzerland, who wanted to bring a dalmatian into the UK and, peculiarly, sought my advice as to how that could be done by bending the rules. I had to say that he had come to the wrong person, but the approach was made.

The second myth is the huge number of cases. It is a half-myth; it is a misrepresentation of fact. I took part in a radio discussion on Saturday morning with an "expert" on this subject who said that there were 15,000 cases of rabies worldwide every year, but I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham that, based on a House of Commons Library report, there are 30,000 or more such cases in India alone. I am not sure where these figures come from, but the implication is that they affect us throughout northern Europe and the UK. Perhaps someone in the House can tell me when the last case of human rabies was detected in northern Europe. I do not think that the British Medical Association referred to that in its report and I have no reference anywhere else.

What I do know, because the figures are given in the report produced by the Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, is that 150,000 dogs and cats have been imported into the UK since 1972 and that, as was mentioned earlier, out of those 150,000 animals, two from third countries developed rabies; none from the European Union developed the disease. No one I know is suggesting that there should be any relaxation of the rules from third countries. We are considering the European Union specifically at present.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

Rabies-free countries.

Mr. Gale

I am coming to that.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, not to give an answer tonight, because if I receive one tonight, it will be no, but to consider two proposals. First, will she consider that we should allow the importing of animals owned by members of the armed forces and by members of the diplomatic corps, and the importing of guide dogs owned by anyone, provided that they are vaccinated, have proper documentation, have had blood tests and are identifiable?

In the case of forces personnel coming from rabies-free countries such as Cyprus, I see no difficulty with that. It would be possible to vaccinate a dog or cat six months before return, because the date of return is always known, to have that animal examined by an officer of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and certified as okay. At present, soldiers and airmen coming from Cyprus having done a two-year tour of duty have two choices: they either bring the family pet home and kennel it at a cost of some £1,200 for six months, or they use the services of the excellent British Army Rescue Centre to have the animal rehomed in Cyprus.

There is—I was going to say a trade, but it is not a commercial business—an enterprise that recycles family pets so that outgoing services families are able to take on, not unwanted, but unimportable animals left behind by their return home. That is daft, unnecessary and inhumane and there is no reason for maintaining it. If we cannot trust the members of our own diplomatic corps to have their animals vaccinated and properly documented, and allow them to move around the world without having to quarantine their animals every time they are brought home at the end of a tour of duty, we should be able to.

The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) mentioned guide dogs. Clearly, certainly in the European Union, we should be able to make immediate provision for people travelling abroad or returning with guide dogs, provided that they are properly documented.

My second proposal to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is this. In her letter to me of 30 June, in response to a constituent's inquiry, she said: It is possible to regulate commercial imports through a system of vaccination, blood testing, controlled transportation, advanced notification and checks at destination. It is difficult to see how checks of this kind could be applied to pet animals travelling with their owners. At the very least, to ensure the same degree of certainty about the health status and identity of the animal would require a considerable increase in administrative action and administrative costs. I am dreadfully sorry, but I do not accept that. We usually agree, but on this issue my hon. Friend is right in the first half of the paragraph but absolutely wrong in the second.

I want to make a proposal. I want my hon. Friend to introduce a pilot scheme through the ports of Ramsgate in Thanet and Dover, two of the most widely used Kent channel ports. Initially, my proposal would not allow the importing of animals from the European Union, but would allow the reimporting of animals taken out from the United Kingdom by United Kingdom citizens going on holiday. That should be done provided that those animals have been vaccinated six months in advance of travel, have been blood tested after six months, have a canine or feline passport certified by the vet who carried out the test and that they are microchipped to what I hope will become the FECAVA—the Federation of European Companion Animals Veterinary Association—common European standard of identification.

Given all that information, I can see no reason why it should not be perfectly feasible to allow a family to take a dog or a cat on holiday. They would book on to a given ferry—which they do anyway—and have the animal placed in a holding kennel at the port upon entry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham referred to black labradors. I happen to have a black labrador and I would love to take it on holiday with me. We do not want a long queue of cars at ports, so I would be happy to leave my animal in a holding kennel. I would be happy to allow that animal to be collected with others on the same day and taken to a quarantine kennel where it would be blood tested again and identified. I would then collect my animal from the quarantine kennel. There would be no massive bureaucracy at the port and no massive cost except to me, the owner. If I am prepared to pay the entire cost, I cannot see why it is not possible to do it.

There is an added advantage. We have had representations from members of the Quarantine Kennels Owners Association who have justifiably expressed concern about the future of their considerable investment in their facilities. I believe that, with the system that I have outlined, they would benefit from the trade in animals coming in from third countries where quarantine would continue and from the additional business generated by those who would use the kennels on their return from holiday.

I am fortunate in that I never leave my home unattended so my animals stay at home. Not everybody is that lucky. Some people have to put their cats or dogs into kennels or catteries for a fortnight when they go on holiday. I cannot believe that those people would prefer to put their animals in a kennel for a fortnight rather than for two or three days. Equally, I can see no reason why the quarantine kennel should not have the business that would be generated by such a scheme.

I can see no risk to animal health in the United Kingdom from that process. I believe that if we can establish that that works on a pilot basis, it should be possible to extend the process of vaccination, blood testing and microchip identification to the whole of Europe so as to allow European Union citizens to bring their animals into the United Kingdom on the same basis.

I believe that we have a choice, but to do nothing is not part of that choice. There will be more, not fewer, animals smuggled into the United Kingdom. As has been said already, the risk is not from the responsible, law-abiding animal owner but from the smuggler—the person who is most likely to bring in an animal that may not have been vaccinated. A responsible pet owner—from any country in Europe, including the United Kingdom— will want to look after his or her animal. The risk is from the smuggled animal.

We must forget the mythology about rabid foxes wandering through the channel tunnel. If we are to eradicate the risk caused by smuggled animals, we must remove the incentive to smuggle. Provided that it is cheaper—what I am proposing would be a great deal cheaper than the average £1,200 quarantine fees—and that it is relatively simple to go through the necessary processes, people will not take the risk of a fine or imprisonment for smuggling.

There is a way forward. If we are to prevent the growing illegal trade and accept that in a wider Europe people will want to travel with their companion animals, we must do something positive. I believe that what I have suggested, which is based on scientific evidence taken by the Select Committee—details of which are contained in the report—is a way forward.

The estimates make provision for the funding of European negotiation and for matters relating to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. My hon. Friend the Minister may feel that what I am about to say is a matter for either the Home Office or the Department of Trade and Industry, but she would not expect me to miss this opportunity to place on record, again, the case for funding the work of the European centre for the validation of alternative methods to the use of animals in experimentation. There is a great deal of work to do and every penny of the money in the estimates, and much more, will be needed to support that work.

9.11 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West)

I want to speak briefly in support of my colleagues the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) in what they have said this evening. I also support much of what was said by the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), especially his comment that doing nothing is not a choice.

I confess that I entered into the investigation on health controls on the importation of live animals with a strong prejudice in favour of the retention of quarantine. It appeared to me that one of the great benefits of this country being an island was the possibility of keeping such diseases as rabies at bay. Quarantine had appeared to work for most of the century and I was predisposed to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

In addition, the advent of the channel tunnel had agitated many of the rural population in my constituency to the point where they had calculated that as a fox could travel at about 25 miles a day, rabid animals would be through the tunnel and biting people in west Lancashire in less than a fortnight.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Faster than a train.

Mr. Pickthall

It is certainly faster than a train on the west coast main line.

Rabies is such a horrible disease that we must take such fears seriously. It was my belief that any relaxation of quarantine would seriously affect public confidence. That view was echoed by the then Minister when she gave evidence to the Committee. She said: Our scientific advice and our veterinary advice is that quarantine continues to be the most practical, most effective way of keeping rabies out. I must add to my predisposition in favour of the retention of quarantine the fact that my withers are not at all wrung by the laments of pet owners at being separated from their dogs or cats. I am not a pet owner and I am not especially a pet lover. In the context of rabies, such emotion from pet owners is, to put it bluntly, irrelevant.

My change of mind during the course of the Committee's investigation was based strictly on the practical evidence that we heard and examined. First, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, the cost of quarantine is somewhere in excess of £1,000—indeed, we heard estimates of up to £1,500. Therefore, on at least a financial level, quarantine is a relatively easy option for the well-heeled, but a considerable burden for people of average means, such as many of the service personnel who gave us written evidence.

Secondly, as has been said, the cost of quarantine provides a positive incentive for the smuggling of animals. On our visit to the Heathrow quarantine station, we were given evidence of animals that had been abandoned in panic on the airport tarmac; we were shown a bush-baby with its hind legs broken, which had been smuggled in in someone's top pocket.

I might say, by the way, that when we were being entertained by the entire security staff of that quarantine station—we were in the reptile section—we suddenly found in front of us a splendid looking snake wriggling about on the floor, much to the alarm of the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). That incident was, I recall, rather spectacularly recorded by the BBC.

On the issue of smuggling, I have not had a chance to read the British Medical Association document that came out a few days ago but, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East, I have had a chance to read the covering letter. In two consecutive sentences, the letter states: Anecdotal evidence suggests few obstacles face those attempting to avoid quarantine by smuggling animals, particularly by car, from France to Britain. The present quarantine system has had a 100 per cent. success rate since 1971. What sort of success rate is that? Of course, for the animals that are trapped by quarantine, there is a 100 per cent. success rate, but what about the others to which hon. Members have referred?

Mr. Wykeham of the Quarantine Kennel Owners Association pointed out to us in his evidence: Instances have occurred when the carrying agent for the quarantine kennel has failed for one reason or another to make the rendezvous with the ferry and the car carrying the animal has driven off the vessel and out of the port without check or hindrance. We are talking not only about smuggling but, in some cases, about incompetence and lack of security.

Those incidents alerted me and, I am sure, other Committee members to the vastness and intricacy of the British coastline and the increase in the use of boats for pleasure and business. Ironically, the one link that seems secure from rabies is the channel tunnel, which has, as we saw for ourselves, very comprehensive defences against rabies. Virtually everywhere else seems to be vulnerable.

We also heard of—I will not go into this because my colleagues have discussed it—the experience of other countries such Sweden and Denmark. We also dealt with—this seems to me important—the arrangements for trading dogs and cats under the Balai directive and the exemptions for farm animal imports. Both point to an absurd discrepancy which is, not surprisingly, leapt upon by pet owners abroad who see that commercial advantage can remove quarantine like magic in some cases but that they remain trapped by quarantine. That is an injustice and illogicality which the Committee's recommendations properly address.

The Committee's recommendations on rabies control— in the end, unanimously and without reluctance—is, in my view, a stricter control than that offered by quarantine. They make no change to the importation of animals from non-approved countries—that is, countries where rabies is widespread—but introduce vaccination, microchipping and blood-testing regimes, retain import licensing and introduce animal passports.

As our report said, if we have erred, it is very much on the side of caution. The fact that the Government do not approve those recommendations emanates from their understandable desire to address what they perceive as a strong emotional desire on the part of much of the population to retain quarantine—the sort of feeling that I had about the matter when we started the investigation— and also the public perception that quarantine is the only answer.

It must be the Government's task occasionally to challenge emotional perceptions, and this is one such case. If the Government retain the status quo, they must say precisely why our recommendations would not strengthen the UK's defences against rabies and correct an illogical injustice.

The Committee's report covered a wide range of concerns. I shall raise just one, which particularly interested me. We were made very much aware—it was the main purpose of the investigation—of the increased problems in farm animal health created by the single market, the relaxation of borders in the EU, and the increased speed of the transit of animals. Despite our reservations, and those of our witnesses, about some areas of the European Union, on the whole the EU seems to take the problem seriously. However, we continually returned to the vexed question of movements of animals across the borders between eastern Europe and the EU.

Mr. Anthony, the retiring president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, identified three major disease corridors: first, Russia-Poland-Germany; secondly, Turkey and Iran through Greece to Austria; and thirdly and potentially, north Africa to Spain and Italy. He specified that veterinary training and standards of certification were unsatisfactory in some areas and that the checks at the borders of the EU are not as high as we would wish. For example, he told us of the importation of loads of Polish sheep early in 1994, on which there were many documentary deficiencies. One load had animals that were unfit for human consumption and some dead on arrival. In Poland, those sheep are sold for £2 a head and the transporter gets £5 a head. They are sold in the UK for £27 a head—approximately £6,000 profit per lorry load. That is a considerable incentive for at least cutting corners in crossing the Polish-German border, an area that Mr. Anthony said was "very difficult to administer". Once such loads of animals are in the European Union, their movements are relatively unhindered.

Mr. Neal King, vice-president of the RCVS, told us: Over the years we have kept disease out by quality … we have done this by our own certification. He said that we now depend on others and went on: We depend on their attitude to the animals coming in over their third country frontier rather than our attitude when they come in from the Channel to us". Mr. Kershaw-Dalby, secretary to the National Cattle Breeders' Association, told us of animals going from Poland to France, where they tested positive for foot and mouth disease. He said: Some of those animals were never traced. The monitoring of ports is non-existent". He said that some of the documentation was "obscure" and that, for example, the instruction that all cattle imported from Europe must be treated for warble fly appears on page 37 in minute print". The NCBA also gave evidence of eastern European cattle being "laundered" in Austria, which at that time was a useful staging post because of its favoured status.

We therefore have four problems to face up to. The first is the leaky nature of the border between the European Union and the east and the clear deficiencies of the border inspection posts. Clearly, that is a task for the European Commission to tackle, and part of that job must be some hard education work in the eastern European countries, which is all the more necessary because of the likely closer relationship with Poland, former Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the not too distant future. The second is the need for much tighter monitoring and inspection of animals coming from Europe to the UK. The third is the need for clearer and tougher guidelines for dealers, importers and farmers, and the fourth is a much tougher pan-European regime for veterinarians.

I welcome the Government's response on holding periods, but the enthusiasm with which they embrace the notion in paragraph 7 of Command 2735 that the primary responsibility for preventing the introduction of disease now rests with importers is bothering. That is the only weak part of the Committee's report. Of course, most importers and farmers take their responsibilities seriously. They do not want to damage their herds; they do not want to introduce disease. However, in the case of the diseases that we have discussed, it takes few people—perhaps only one renegade—to create a catastrophe. The importer's responsibilities must be backed by the Government sanctions, which the Committee recommends. It is ultimately a communal priority and a communal responsibility, not only a responsibility of the importers.

Although our report rejected the alarmist "disease time bomb" theory outlined for us by some witnesses, there can be little doubt that, as movement of animals from eastern Europe and possibly also from north Africa and the near east increases, there is a clear potential danger of disease spread, accelerated by ease of movement in the EU. The specific recommendations made by the Committee in paragraph 47 of its report are a serious attempt to minimise risk. Naturally, there are financial implications, but the potential cost of a breakdown of fail-safe mechanisms is astronomical.

In a sense, the problems of combating rabies importation and of combating the importation of farm animal diseases are similar. In each case, success depends on accurate information, especially identification, on rigorous monitoring, on punitive sanctions against transgressors, on cost-effectiveness so as not to push people into transgression and on partnership between Government and the importers and farmers to ensure that risks are minimised, in all our interests.

I find it hard to reconcile the Government's deep suspicion of the European Union's progress on rabies control with their sanguine opinion of the disease importation problems of farm animals and the exemptions under the Balai directive. I can only conclude that the Government are responding with emotion in the first case and with some practical logic in the second case.

In my opinion, as a member of the Select Committee, who is not easily convinced of anything, the Committee members tackled both those main issues with scrupulous practicality. I urge the Government to make it a priority to reconsider the recommendations on replacing quarantine as soon as, in their own terms, the Swedish and Danish experiences can be reliably examined—I would hope, in 12 months.

9.26 pm
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

I shall be brief, so that others might have an opportunity to speak.

Probably no aspect of man's contact with the animal world creates more fear and anxiety than possible contact with rabies. It is an understandable fear, which the House must recognise, and which was articulated earlier, yet the Select Committee is telling the House, "Perhaps time has moved on; perhaps we should consider the issue again".

The popular reaction in the country is, "We have not had rabies in Britain for many years; let's not take risks now," or, "The channel tunnel is creating greater opportunities for rabies to come in; let's not take risks now." That was the gist of some of the evidence that the Select Committee received, but it also received evidence, which was new to many of us, of the unintentional stress and distress caused to animals—as well as that experienced by the owner—as a result of quarantine.

The animal must, as we know, be kept in quarantine for six months, which is a significant part of its life. It does not know that it is there for the good of the public; all it knows is that its owner and its friend has put it away for six months. The Association of RAF Wives described quarantine as "an extremely cruel procedure", involving unnecessary expense, when there are obvious other ways in which to establish that there is no risk.

I shall not discuss cost in detail, but I shall emphasise the arguments that have been made about quarantine being expensive. It is expensive for the expatriate and for the diplomat and his family, and the cost increases the possibility of smuggling, which other colleagues have mentioned. The paradox is that, by imposing stringent controls and making the process expensive, the less responsible pet owner is tempted to smuggle and the decent, responsible pet owner has to pay the cost.

The British Medical Association has submitted a memorandum to many of us. We must recognise the concern of the people who would give medical care to anyone who was affected by rabies, which is an appalling prospect for the medical profession. In the memorandum, there is little scientific evidence to back up what the association says. In addition, the BMA, unlike the learned bodies that gave evidence to us, gives no evidence for the concern that it is now raising with hon. Members. It would have been helpful if the association had come to the Select Committee and told us its views.

We await the comments of the Parliamentary Secretary with interest. The Government's response to the Select Committee report was in three parts. The then Minister of Agriculture, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), said that the problem was "onerous for some people." That is precisely the point that the Committee made. The Committee would say that the problem is not merely onerous, but intolerable for thousands of decent British people who want to travel with their pets.

The Minister also accepted that microchips were reliable and that the blood test was effective one month after vaccination, yet the Ministry does not draw the obvious conclusion that a pet passport would be a safe method of taking a pet out of the United Kingdom into certain other countries and bringing it back. I suggest that Customs and Excise could easily control that method with the red channel at ports and airports—anywhere where there is a possibility of a pet coming in.

The report is far-sighted. The issue obviously raises emotions, but fortunately—and rarely in the House—it is a non-party political issue. The arguments have been set out and they have been adduced here tonight. It is up to the public and to their representatives to take the discussion further. I am sure that the House waits with great interest for the response from both the Government and the Opposition to what has been said today.

9.31 pm
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

This has been an interesting and lively debate; it has also been instructive. All the members of the Select Committee who have spoken, other than the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin)—I am privileged to be a member of the Select Committee—came to the inquiry utterly convinced that the quarantine regulations had to stay as they were. It was the conduct of the inquiry and the evidence we heard, especially the overwhelming scientific evidence, that convinced us that the rules had to be changed and that quarantine eventually had to come to an end in a limited way in the United Kingdom. In our report, we have described the way in which the rules can now be changed.

Although I listened with great care to what the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) said, I am pretty convinced, knowing his attitude to the Committee's work, that if he had been a member of our Committee at the time, he would have started from the same position as us, but would have been persuaded, as we were, by the evidence we heard. It was a tall task to expect us to change our minds, but we did and it is right that those of us who are members of the Select Committee place that fact on the record.

There were four reasons for my changing my mind. First, I was convinced, in view of developments since the Waterhouse report in 1970, of the effectiveness of vaccine, of the use of microchips and of developments in medicine and technology. Secondly, I was convinced because of the success of the oral vaccine programme in the European Community. We had a briefing that it was likely that rabies would be eradicated, to take the most optimistic approach, in two or three years. Even the pessimists said that it would be eradicated by the end of the century. We are making excellent progress, from 8,500 cases of animal rabies in 1989 to 1,200 in 1993.

Since 1994, we have allowed in commercially traded dogs and cats, subject to certain conditions. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend—if I can call her that—the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston). The overwhelming evidence presented when the Committee visited Sweden and Denmark was the clincher for me. Those countries have traditions and problems that are similar to ours and Sweden has been rabies free since 1886. They examined all the evidence—including the fact that Sweden and Germany share a border—and they were utterly convinced that they should change the rules.

Finally, if we had thought for a moment that our recommendation would increase the risk of rabies, we would never have suggested it. The tests that we propose are as safe as the quarantine regulations, but they are far more efficient, less costly and much less distressing for the animals. We have put forward a proposal for the new century that is compatible with advances in medicine and in technology.

9.35 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the fifth report of the Agriculture Select Committee. It is up to the Committee's usual high standard, and we congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), and the other Committee members on the way in which they have presented the report. I am a former member of the Committee and I enjoyed serving on it. I am familiar with the detailed work involved in preparing a report.

Controls on the importation of live animals are a key issue in terms of animal welfare and the economic impact on the country. We must ensure that we maintain our very high standards and our disease-free status. With the advent of the single market, concerns were expressed about the relaxation of checks at points of entry, so it was important to examine the issues in some detail.

I believe that we should continue to examine those controls and, in some cases, to tighten them. The suggestion of using coloured ear tags to identify the country of origin of animal imports is a good idea that is worth further examination. The reintroduction of a holding period at points of distribution also has many advantages, not least in the context of the controversy surrounding live animal exports and imports. The holding period would provide an opportunity to examine the condition of the animals, to check for disease and ton ensure that they were being treated properly. In their response, the Government accepted the argument for a period of three working days and, while I welcome that concession, I prefer the Committee's original recommendation.

The Government have made it clear that importers must act responsibly. The campaign involving the distribution of "Don't Import Disease" leaflets has proved helpful. However, to be fair, some sectors of the industry—such as the pig sector—have introduced their own quality control measures and they deserve credit for that. The National Farmers Union also deserves commendation for its attempts to introduce a warranty and indemnity scheme.

However, guidance has not prevented outbreaks of disease such as warble fly in 1994. While I am aware that inspections have been increased at ports of entry, the Government must address a number of remaining problems. The first is accurate and consistent veterinary certification, as mentioned by the Committee. The second is a common standard of veterinary competence. That problem was recognised in the Bendixen-Dexter report, which I agree should be made public.

Thirdly, there is the problem of the absence of the system for information inspections at frontiers—SHIFT— computer system, which monitors animal movement. Even when computer systems are in place and working properly, there may be an accuracy problem. The Minister might recall the problem with the ANIMO system, which I identified in written questions that I tabled to him. I drew the Minister's attention to fraudulent certification— which is outside his control—and the fact that mistakes were being made when details were being entered into the database.

Fourthly, we must have adequate inspection procedures at points of entry. I do not believe that the single market precludes that and I note that the French are considering reintroducing spot checks at their borders. The state veterinary service has a major role to play in that process. I believe that the Government risk undermining the high standards of animal health in this Britain by cutting the state veterinary service. There has already been a staff cut of 31 per cent.—their number has decreased from 580 in 1979 to 403 in 1994. In 1979, there were 25 veterinary inspection centres; now, there are only 13.

There is concern that, after seven years, there are still quite a large number of outbreaks of BSE, but we welcome the overall sharp reduction in the number of cases. As has been said, sheep scab raises all-party concern. I note that, after many representations, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has admitted that there has been an increase in sheep scab outbreaks since compulsory dipping ended in 1992. On MAFF's own figures in its recent report, private vets have reported an increase from 254 outbreaks in 1994 to 595 so far this year—more than double, only half-way through the year.

I also refer the Government to the recent report by the Farm Animal Welfare Council on the welfare of sheep. It calls firmly for sheep scab to be reinstated as a notifiable disease. The Government's response to that report was inadequate. The FAWC also recognises concern about the use of organophosphate sheep dips and the need for tight control as well as the development of alternatives. In effect, the Government said that the sheep industry should play a role in financing the development of alternatives. That is just not a realistic response because sheep farmers are among the poorest in the agriculture sector. They often have small farms, run by small self-employed families who are tough and self-reliant but not really in a position to provide a major contribution to such research.

I recently met a Mrs. Brenda Sutcliffe of Sheepbank farm, Littleborough and Saddleworth, with whom I had the privilege of discussing sheep dips and the problems of organophosphate dips. Incidentally, she probably knows more about the chemical composition and effects of OP sheep dips than anyone I have met. The Government owe people like Mrs. Sutcliffe and her family an open and detailed examination of claims about OP dips, and they should give some thought to how to help such people, who might not be able to work for their full working life if the claims about the detrimental effect prove to be correct.

I have a particular interest in bovine tuberculosis and badger control. It is a major area which deserves a debate on its own. I know that it has been proposed to refer the issue to the Select Committee, which would be a welcome step forward. At this stage, the Opposition remain unconvinced that the badger culling policy is either acceptable or, indeed, effective. I know and sympathise with farmers who are facing the problem and the financial impact of the outbreak of bovine TB. Nevertheless, there are a great many anomalies in the approach to the problem. The science is really shaky, because it has not been scientifically proved that badgers cannot be infected by cattle. That needs to be considered very carefully and, at the moment, too many people have set their faces against examining it.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, there would be an opportunity to look into that matter if the dairy industry were considered. I know that, given the hon. Gentleman's affection for badgers, he will look into the matter very sympathetically.

The part of the Select Committee report that deals with rabies has obviously attracted a great deal of attention. That is understandable, because rabies is a very emotional issue. It is a terrible disease, people are very concerned about it, and we have to ensure that we maintain our rabies-free status. On behalf of the Opposition, I have to say that the Select Committee's representations on the issue were well researched and well argued. It put forward a very convincing case, but we do not differ from the Government in that we want to ensure that the controls on rabies are effective. Before we move away from them, we must be convinced that any changes are workable.

Having said that, I believe that the Government's response has been somewhat negative. I have been impressed by representations made by people who have pets abroad and by those who believe that there are alternatives. The Government could be more open-minded, bearing in mind the changes in the directive. I wrote to the Minister suggesting that she consider a trial scheme in Cyprus, which is a rabies-free island, on the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). The system could be put in place and its effectiveness, or otherwise, examined. There would be no risk, because the animals would be travelling to and from rabies-free islands. The Minister gave me a courteous written reply, but her point that other countries have a stronger claim was not convincing. Perhaps she will give that suggestion further thought.

We must not compromise Britain's rabies-free status, but there should be wide consultation, careful consideration and proper research into rabies and animal health control in general.

9.45 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

I have a sense of déjà vu, because one forfeit of becoming a junior Agriculture Minister was losing my place on the Select Committee so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin). I am grateful to the Select Committee for prompting this debate, and I will attempt to reply to many of the questions that have been put, particularly by Select Committee members.

Last year's report was an invaluable investigation into the problems associated with the import of live animals. The members of the Committee must be congratulated on their clear and detailed analysis of the risks that our current arrangements present to our high animal health status. I pay tribute to the veterinary and medical professions for their contribution to the debate. It is clear that the two professions share the Government's cautious attitude to this important issue.

The Government welcome the Committee's endorsement of the health controls that have been put in place following completion of the single market in 1993. That vindicates the Government's approach in dealing with the threat of imported animal disease, although we are by no means complacent. We welcome the Committee's conclusion that the risk of disease entering the United Kingdom through imported livestock has not increased to any appreciable extent.

We are pleased at the support given by the Committee to the introduction in 1993 of strengthened measures designed to maintain the United Kingdom's high animal health status. We agree with the Committee that primary responsibility for protecting the United Kingdom's high animal health status under the new single market arrangements rests with the importers of animals.

In November 1993, my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, now Secretary of State for Education and Employment, announced newly strengthened measures to maintain Britain's high animal health status. Those measures, which remain in force, include 24-hour periods of blanket surveillance at all south and east coast ports, and targeting consignments where there is a particular animal health disease risk—with up to 100 per cent. checks and increased checks at points of destination so that, on average, between 50 and 60 per cent. of consignments are checked.

Where there is specific cause for concern, additional steps have been taken. They include 100 per cent. checks for warble fly on all cattle imported from France, serological testing of all cattle imported from eastern Europe for FMD antibodies, and increased checks at the point of destination of cattle from France and the Netherlands for brucellosis. All those measures have played, and continue to play, a vital part in preventing the importation of disease.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) mentioned the Bendixen-Dexter report. We agree that it should be made available in full to all member states by the Commission. We shall continue to press for that, together with an indication of the action taken where inadequacies have been found. We consider that to be most important.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for his kind comments. We agree on most things, but we may not agree on everything tonight. My hon. Friend mentioned the new rules for protection against equine viral arteritis. Anyone interested in equine health will welcome that measure. When I have met interested parties in the past, I have had to say, "That measure is coming shortly." I am pleased that it is now in place. In addition, stallions imported from third countries to the Community must have originated from a country that has been free of EVA for at least six months, or the stallion's blood or semen must have been tested, with negative results for EVA, before export. That, I think, will be welcomed.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned several issues, one or two of which were picked up by others. He talked about BSE. When we receive scientific information, we put it in the public domain as quickly as is practically possible. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the attitude of the Germans, who at times have been less than fair in the way in which they have assessed the stringent measures on BSE that we have taken.

We have made changes recently because, as new evidence has come to light, we have felt it important to act. We have changed the rules in feed mills, where we thought that there could have been cross-contamination for quite some time after the ban. Feed was being processed for the pig and poultry industries on the same lines, and that may have created some cross-contamination. We have tried to put that right, and the industry has responded well.

As for the case of the post-92 birth, the Germans and our partners in the Commission have renegotiated the two-and-a-half-year rule. I do not think that that will press the industry hard or cause it problems. It was important to act as the evidence emerged.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall also discussed maternal transmission. All the evidence shows that, if BSE had been caused by maternal transmission, it would not have resulted in the numbers affected. Those numbers are now falling, but we have never ruled out the vertical—

Mr. Morley


Mrs. Browning

That is precisely the sort of irresponsible remark that brings the red meat trade of this country into disrepute. We have never ruled out categorically either vertical or horizontal transmission. That is why we have some pretty strong regulations. I know that the farming community finds them inconvenient, but we felt it necessary to ensure people's continued confidence in our red meat industry.

The hon. Members for North Cornwall and for Glanford and Scunthorpe also mentioned bovine TB. They know that I am concerned about that, and the hon. Member for North Cornwall asked the Select Committee to look into it. I can assure him that the Government would welcome giving evidence to the Committee if it proceeds to do so.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are also examining OP dips, a subject that I take seriously. We are giving sheep scab and the problems of OP dips our fullest attention. I shall continue to work with the hon. Gentleman and with his committee to share any information that is available. I hope that he appreciates that.

Rabies took up the major part of tonight's debate. The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) said that the last death from rabies in Europe occurred in France in 1928. In fact, the last recorded death was in 1990, in Leipzig, which at the time was in East Germany but which is now in the Community. In Europe, there have been 198 cases of human rabies since 1977.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare talked of the advantages for tourism and said that in France the subject is rarely spoken of. Furthermore, the hon. Member for Bristol, East said that this country is a laughing stock in Europe. I must tell them both that 10,000 people a year in France get rabies treatment as a precaution after bites and scratches. So this is not a trivial matter, and it is discussed in France. Those 10,000 people are concerned about their personal health. That helps to put the issue in perspective—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady should listen to the facts, instead of calling this country a laughing stock. We are not a laughing stock. We have taken careful and proper action to protect the health of our animals and the health of the human beings in this country.

Quarantine for rabies is, as tonight's debate has shown, a sensitive issue. It is also technical and scientific. I know that there are arguments from both sides of the House, and we heard many of them tonight, but we believe that one must recognise that rabies remains a serious health risk in many parts of the world, including mainland Europe, where, for example, there have been four deaths—in Hungary—in recent years. It is not just a matter for the Indian subcontinent, as it affects all of us on mainland Europe. Although both wild and pet animals can be vaccinated against the disease, and humans can be treated if the disease is caught in the early stages, it is an extremely unpleasant disease and once the symptoms emerge in man, the disease is invariably fatal.

When rabies was eradicated from the United Kingdom in the early part of the century, we believed that the consequences of the disease re-entering the United Kingdom would be severe and that there would be considerable public concern about it. An outbreak would lead to the destruction of wildlife over a wide area, and onerous controls would be put on pet owners until the disease was wiped out. We would have the same situation as that in France: anyone who was scratched or bitten would immediately feel the necessity to go and seek medical help. Whether or not a diseased animal was involved, the fear would be there in the population.

The Government therefore endorse the view expressed by the Select Committee in its report that it would never support a change in our rules that increased the likelihood of rabies entering the United Kingdom. We consider that that central principle must be borne in mind when considering any change. We believe that the quarantine rules have been effective since 1922.

It has been suggested that quarantine encourages smuggling and that an alternative system would reduce the risk of smuggling. Animals under three months cannot be vaccinated. They would then have a six-month period before they were free to travel, so we are looking at all animals under the age of nine months not being able to travel. It is often those sweet little kittens under nine months that people smuggle back into this country in their pockets. I am not convinced that the argument made tonight would in any way contribute to solving the problem of animals, particularly kittens, being smuggled into this country.

Sir Roger Moate

Can my hon. Friend therefore put at rest my fears about a story that was reported in the Sunday Express a few weeks ago, in which it was said that she was going to have a trial period for relaxing quarantine regulations between here and Cyprus and Malta?

Mrs. Browning

Indeed. I can confirm that to my hon. Friend. I wrote to the editor of the Sunday Express. He has not yet published my letter, in which I explain that that was not true. I hope that he will find the space to do so and put it on the record this Sunday.

This has been a detailed and, sometimes, quite emotional debate. It does bring out emotions, because people feel very strongly about their pets. Although hon. Members who take the opposite view from that of the Government may find it hard to believe, I am a cat owner and I would find separation very difficult. When it is safe to make changes, the Government will do so, guided by the principle that I mentioned at the outset. We will not support changes that increase the likelihood of rabies entering the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tyler

I very much appreciate the positive response from the Minister to the points that I raised this evening.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. I am satisfied that we have won the argument this evening. I hope that the Government will allow common sense to overcome emotion, and that they will keep the matter constantly under review, observe our European partners, who have made these substantial changes, and after a short time, look at the whole matter again to relieve suffering, cost and danger to our community.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates).

It being Ten o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions which he was directed by paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates), to put at that hour.