HC Deb 27 March 1998 vol 309 cc849-53

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. Order for Third Reading read.

1.12 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Pesticides Bill was described as a mouse of a Bill, but this Bill is protozoan in its modesty. It will, however, significantly improve animal welfare. It is a one-clause Bill intended to perform two functions.

The first function is to give more security and certainty to laws that stipulate that premises where animals are held in quarantine are secure. That ensures that animals do not escape and that any case of rabies does not spread from animal to animal or from animal to human.

The second function is to fill a gap in the law. At the moment, inspectors have no right to enter kennels where there might be misuse of animals. Unfortunately, I have heard of 100 distressing cases of animals being neglected or misused, or where symptoms of ill health have not been spotted. I shall not burden the House with the details.

The quarantine industry is well run. Of the 81 existing kennels, all but five have a good record of abiding by the voluntary code of practice laid down by the Ministry. Three have refused to take part, and two, when examined, did not come up to the necessary standards. Those are improving their standards. I do not wish to name the offending kennels that are not covered by the Bill, because I hope that they will be persuaded by the example set by the Bill and come in and adopt the necessary standards of welfare.

The Bill will help us to reduce the anxiety and distress that owners of companion animals suffer when their animals go into quarantine—not only because of the length of time that they are to be parted from the animals, but because of the awful uncertainty about conditions in the kennels. It will also go some way towards reducing man's inhumanity to defenceless animals.

1.15 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I welcome the Bill for several reasons, not least because it strikes me as being almost the ideal candidate for private Members' legislation. I say to its promoter, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), that it is modest but important in its aspirations, and relatively non-controversial. It also has another quality that to me is as important as anything: it carries no direct public expenditure implications, and therefore does not require a money resolution or a Ways and Means resolution.

I also welcome the Bill because it seeks to strengthen and reinforce the excellent and long-standing system of quarantine that we enjoy in this country, which I strongly support.

I wonder in passing how possible it is that the intentions and effects of the Bill may give rise to an increase in costs at kennels, and therefore in charges made for quarantine purposes. To the extent to which that may happen, could the Bill risk deterring people from going through the proper quarantine procedures, and encourage them to seek to evade the rules?

There is a balance to be struck—I accept what the hon. Member for Newport, West said about that—between making quarantine secure and attractive, and causing any danger of costs escalating to the point where we could move in the opposite direction and find that we were deterring people from using quarantine properly. I mention that possibility simply to put down a marker.

There is another reason why I welcome the Bill. My eye was caught by an article in the New Scientist on 17 January, entitled, "Price of Pet Freedom". It pointed out that, apart from safeguarding us against rabies, which is the element of the system usually mentioned, quarantine also guards Britain from other dangerous diseases. The article continues: quarantine kennels regularly detect and treat other animal diseases that are prevalent on the Continent". It goes on to list some of those. I shall not attempt to do so myself, mainly because I could not pronounce them—but they sound pretty frightening to me.

That important element of our quarantine system is sometimes overlooked, and people tend, understandably, to discuss it more narrowly in terms of rabies alone. The fact that they then construct an argument for doing away with our quarantine provisions is wrong, based on that narrow view, and regrettable. One of the valuable aspects of the Bill is that, to the extent to which it strengthens our quarantine provisions and makes them more secure, it helps to perform a useful public service, in trying to ensure that those other diseases do not come into this country.

The Bill is appropriate on a variety of levels. It is timely and it does something that is both modest and sensible. For those reasons, I give it my whole-hearted support.

1.18 pm
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I, too, support the Bill, but wish to raise just one issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on, as he said, filling a little gap in the legislation. However, one aspect of the impact of the Bill to which he did not refer is that it would allow the Minister to make regulations on animal welfare in quarantine kennels. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), has already said that although the minimum standards are acceptable, the code of practice requires higher standards, which should be legislated for.

If the Government use the Bill as a basis for improving welfare standards in quarantine kennels, the owners of those premises will incur costs. I do not wish to debate whether it is right or wrong to improve welfare standards; I am concerned only about the cost that would be incurred as a result.

The Government are also reviewing quarantine regulations, and have published a discussion document containing five options for reforming the quarantine regulations. I understand why my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) wants no change in the status quo, but others take a different view. I challenge the Government on the timing of the outcome of their deliberations on the future of quarantine. If they decide that quarantine as we know it should stop, and that it should be replaced by vaccinations or pet passports—I refer to quarantine within the European Union, rather than animals coming from countries where rabies is endemic—that will dramatically reduce the demand for quarantine facilities. The Government must not load significant costs on kennel owners by forcing them to improve their facilities if, within a year or two, they might have no business from which to recover those costs.

I hope that the Minister can allay my concerns by saying that he will either not produce regulations on the welfare of animals in quarantine until we know the outcome of the Government's deliberations on quarantine, or ensure that any change in the system will be made on such a time scale that anyone who invests in facilities as a result of the Bill will have time to recover the costs.

1.21 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I welcome this modest proposal, which the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) modestly presented to the House. He is a constituent of mine, and I often support him. I hope that the House will support the Bill and not be distracted by arguments about quarantine changes, which can be dealt with at a later date.

1.22 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn).

I appreciate the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth): it is a myth that quarantine is all about rabies. The pressure mounted by lobby groups to abolish the quarantine laws ignores all the other issues raised in the New Scientist article to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. We should therefore not rush judgment on that issue. It is not a question of not wanting to be the Government who let rabies into the country. This matter goes well beyond rabies, to issues such as climatic change and bugs discovered in quarantine cells.

All those matters are being thoroughly examined by a group of experts headed by Professor Kennedy, and we expect to receive its report in May or June. If it decides that one or more of the five options are as good as, or better than, the status quo, we shall go to full public consultation. I cannot forecast when or whether the usual quarantine regulations will be changed.

The Bill has another good quality—it started life as a ten-minute Bill. I always think that it is a real plus when an hon. Member manages to put something on the statute book by using that process.

We currently have no powers to enforce the welfare code. Thousands of pet owners assume that because the quarantine kennels are registered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, they have a seal of approval—that is not the case. We may need to establish a star rating for the quality of welfare.

To avoid doubt about the numbers involved, I refer hon. Members to columns 270–73 of yesterday's Hansard, which contain the written answer that I gave to the question tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on quarantine establishments. I said that, in 1997, the total throughput of all the quarantine premises in England included 3,351 cats, 4,028 dogs, 29 rabbits, 11 ferrets, five guinea pigs, one rat, two gerbils and four chinchilla. All those animals deserved to be looked after properly. The cost to owners is substantial—owners must be able to put their pets in quarantine kennels secure in the knowledge that they will be well looked after. The Government support the Bill, and I hope that the House will give it its Third Reading.

1.25 pm
Mr. Flynn

I am very grateful for the comments that have been made. It is not anticipated that there will be any additional costs on the great mass of owners of premises, as they accepted the previous Government's sensible policy of operating the code of conduct and conditions with the co-operation of the industry. The only purposes of the Bill in that respect are to eliminate rogue operators who may not comply with the regulations, and to deal with changes of ownership. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.